Did you know that on the Right Bank, in the Marais, just a few blocks behind the Hotel de Ville, there squats a concrete building called the Cite de Arts Paris. It welcomes artists of all kinds from all over the world to its ateliers and performance spaces. I fell in love with the place years ago although I have never stayed there.
Once again this short story is fiction and all characters are figments of my imagination…however, I did see a woman with an eye of Horus tattoo on her face at an art show at the Grand Palais once and she seared herself on my brain, obviously. She did look fierce.
The lady with the eye of Horus tattooed on her face was rich, like ridiculously rich. You had to be rich, Mandy’s mother had said, if you’re going to have anything tattooed on your face. ‘Hard to get a job’, Mum said with that lilt in her voice she used when warning Mandy away from something. The sing-song inflection of ‘if you go in the water too soon after lunch, you’ll drown’ or ‘nice girls don’t go to dances’ or ‘boys are dangerous’. That kind of thing. Aren’t those the things every mother says?
If Mandy was a writer, she could write a book called The Lady with the Eye of Horus Tattoo, but she felt she would need to go to Sweden or Denmark to write that kind of thing. It would be dark and dangerous and while growing up in South Africa could be dangerous, she’d never known any danger personally. It would be disingenuous, she decided, as though it had been seriously up for consideration.
Besides, Mandy was afraid of her, the lady with the eye of Horus tattoo on her face. Everything about her was fierce. The painted-on wet-look leather pants, the stiff white shirt, her jewellery looked like the stuff in the display cases at the Louvre. The other students seemed to approach the woman with something like reverence. Mandy resisted the urge to doff her non-existent cap when she saw the woman in the corridor that first morning.
She didn’t smile, the woman with the eye of Horus tattoo. Mandy dreamed of scenarios where she would make the woman laugh while she was painting. They’d be at a show, Mandy’s show, of course, and Mandy would say something devastatingly funny, and intelligent, because Mandy knew the woman would be really smart, and the tattoo would shift and wriggle upwards as the woman smiled and then laughed. The daydreams made Mandy laugh as she painted.
Sometimes the daydreams went to darker places. The woman would offer Mandy a place at her secret academy for artists, like Hogwarts but with better light, but Mandy would have to get the tattoo. It found its way into her dreams at night too, becoming a red-hot brand held by a hooded but bare-chested man. These dreams were her first nightmares.
Mandy held up the slide of the piece that had won her the scholarship to study in Paris. She squinted at it out of habit. The soft light coming through it, the muted light that Paris did so well, gave the work an otherworldly feel. The bright light of South Africa had informed her work but perhaps the softer European light would transform it. No, Mandy thought, grabbing a pencil and scribbling down her thoughts; the light would transmute her work.
The painting that had won the prize was too big to bring to Paris, but it was a fine line anyway, to do more of the same but different enough to show growth. Being an artist was far more complex and stressful than most people thought.
Mum said she was worried. ‘Are you safe?’ the text said. Mandy knew this was mum-speak for ‘Are you out partying and doing drugs in a gutter’? Mandy didn’t have time for partying let alone sitting around in a gutter. The other artists-in-residence set the tone for her and she was grateful. There was part of her that thought she had needed Mum to come with her, to keep her focussed.
Her morning walk along the river was the only time she had away from the studio and even that was getting more difficult to squeeze in unless she combined it with running errands. The morning walks were crucial. She walked past the book sellers, crossing the river in front of Notre Dame and back over the Pont des Arts, through the Louvre, breakfast in the Marais. Crucial, critical. Something she would not be able to do once she returned home to wide plains and blinding sunlight. They gave her ideas for her work and that was when she always saw the woman with the eye of Horus Tattoo.
The third and final month of her residency was drawing to a close. It was late August. Mum had been complaining of the cold at home, but Mandy was warm in Paris. The morning Mandy had resolved to approach the woman with the eye of Horus tattoo was the first morning she wasn’t at the campus. It was Summer, Mandy figured, so the woman would be on her yacht in the Mediterranean or lying by a pool in Greece. No, Mandy decided, she would be trekking in the Himalaya or writing her memoir while staying with Amal Clooney in Italy. That she hadn’t seen the woman with the eye of Horus tattoo for a couple of weeks took her a little by surprise because she saw that woman many times each day in her thoughts and daydreams. The motif had found its way into her work, and other symbols too, relating to protection and light. There was the portrait of mum as Ra, the omniscient being. All-knowing, sagacious, and wearing her favourite sun hat.
Mandy was surprised when the woman with the tattoo turned up at her show and even more surprised when the woman approached and asked a couple of questions about the works. Mandy felt later that she had been eloquent and even funny at times but terrified the entire time that the woman would ask her about the repeated reference to the tattoo. Mandy couldn’t recall anything she’d said but she knew the woman hadn’t laughed. She had bought a piece, the portrait of mum as Ra, and then left. No invitation to Hogwarts and no winters in Morocco but Mandy did leave Paris with a tiny eye of Horus tattoo on her thigh. Mum isn’t really all-seeing, all-knowing.
feature image Svetlana Pochatun