The Subtle Light by Hetty Mosforth

Word of mouth gets him the job and gets him past the gatehouse. He tramps towards the house like a stray dog, turrets and crenelations coming into focus. When he reaches the entrance, he is assigned a minder, a girl whose cloth cap barely reaches his chin. She leads him into a warren of halls and passages. They go up staircases with finely carved balustrades, across tiled floors, and under ceilings stuccoed from corner to corner. She almost trots, needed in other places, for other things, and seems unmoved by the way every inch of the place has been attended to by artisans and craftsmen. He sinks his shoulders, shrinks in on himself a little. It is the same as how he displays canvases in his studio, how he arranges his apprentices filling in foliage, whenever patrons visit. He gives these visitors too much to look at, overwhelms them, seduces them.

The woman he is here for will be a woman like any other. Upon seeing her, he will turn to the pictures he holds in his mind’s eye, the same way he did as a journeyman painter, moving across Europe and leaving chapel ceilings in his wake. Her features will become a base on which he can build. He will make her face white and round like the moon, whether she has freckles or a birthmark or is pink cheeked from hunting and horse riding. He will tell her to smile slightly, with her lips pressed together, demure expression concealing uneven teeth. He will tell her to tilt her head towards the window, to catch the best light on her face, while disguising a jutting chin or crooked nose. Somewhere he will add a touch of lapis lazuli – he folded the pigment carefully in paper the night before – to align her with the Virgin. He will put a light in her eyes that could be mistaken for grace. Or divinity.

Afterwards, he lingers like a hopeful pup in a corner of one of the kitchens. Once all the dishes of pottage and game have been rushed to the dining table, and the thunder of feet subsides, he is given a mug of beer and a bowl of his own. The girl who first guided him waits for her portion, leaning against a wall. Exhaustion purples under her eyes and her eyelids tremor, as she half sinks into sleep. He looks at the firelight illuminating her skin and the curls escaping her cap to aureole her head. Time will tell if she is for a portrait or church fresco.

Hetty Mosforth lives in Scotland and works in publishing. Her writing has been published by Writers’ HQ and Northern Gravy. When not reading or writing, she likes swimming in lakes and exploring new places.

a fresco painting in the church
Photo by Eva Bronzini on
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