The Complete Story

The Complete Story

by Abha Iyengar

“It’s incomplete,” Paula says to me. I am looking at the painting of the face of a woman done by her. There are two other paintings of the same size, 1 foot by 1 foot, of two other women, similar to the one I am looking at. These three paintings are on one wall, in line with each other. These are only portraits, so the faces are quite clear. But the colours are dark and the women have no lightness in them, in fact, the paintings are dull, brown being the general colour. Even the eyes and the lips are brown—it’s a play of shades, darker and lighter.

Yet there is a pull to the faces. I feel drawn to them. Maybe I am just feeling female bonding. This is the work of the woman standing next to me. I am at her home, a bed and breakfast place I found at a travel site, and I am staying here for a night before I move on.

It is the evening of the day of my arrival, but in a matter of a few hours I have got to know her well. She is about my age, but slimmer, more fluid in her movements, and her skin is lighter than mine, because I am Indian. But we could be sisters in a way, because we are both emotional, sentimental people and also we are creative people. I am a writer and she is a painter.  I feel quite at home, complete here, standing with her, looking at her work. I hold a glass of wine in my hand, and she holds nothing, not even a glass of water. I notice now she holds her reading glasses in her right hand. She peers at her painting without them.

“Incomplete,” she repeats. “The painting is incomplete.”

I look at her, astonished. The question leaves me before I can stop it, “It has been framed and put on display on the wall. One does that only with complete work, is it not?” I bite my tongue, but it is too late.

She reacts in quite a matter-of-fact way. I am even more astounded by her answer. I notice how her fingers tighten over her spectacles, just enough not to crush them, for she is careful, I can see that.  She says, straightening up a bit as though to offset an attack of some kind, “My boyfriend told me the paintings were incomplete. Something is missing, he said. He saw them after I had put them up.”

“Oh!” I say, softly, my brain unable to process this new information quickly.

“He walked away from me, a day before we were to leave for a Christmas holiday. It has been 5 years. I have not heard from him. The painting is incomplete, will always be. He knew before I did, that’s all.”

Paula sinks to the ground, and I stand there, turned to stone, the wine in my hand spilling uncertainly onto her bowed head.

“Sorry,” I say, “ I am sorry!” as the glass falls from my hand and I fall on my knees next to her.

I glance up, and the three women in their photo frames mock me.

“We know you,” they say, “you are one of us.”

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Abha Iyengar

Abha Iyengar is an internationally published author, poet and British Council certified Creative writing facilitator. Her work has appeared in The Four Quarters Magazine, Muse India, The Asian Writer, Pure Slush, and others.  Her story, “The High Stool”, was nominated for the Story South Million Writers Award. Her poem-film “Parwaaz” won a special jury prize at Patras, Greece. She won the Lavanya Sankaran fellowship 2009-10.  She was a finalist in the FlashMob 2013 Flash Fiction contest. Her published works are Yearnings, Flash Bites, Shrayan, Many Fish to Fry, and The Gourd Seller and Other Stories.

3 thoughts on “The Complete Story

  1. I liked the surreal feel of this tale. There were a few oddities of phrasing that distracted me. More unsettling was the uncertainty when plural paintings become one, and then many again (one of us). Perhaps adds to the dream-like quality.

  2. If so, Alvin & Abha, who is the third woman in the paintings then? what is incomplete about them? just a boyfriend’s instinct? and the metaphor of pouring wine on a kneeling girl – where does that lead to? tell me, tell me, tell me.

  3. Dear Alvin and Mitra,
    Thank you for reading. Oddities of phrasing, Alvin? Perhaps its my Indian background, we often use a different turn of language?
    Mitra, third woman in the paintings can be any woman. What is incomplete is not there in the painting, it’s the painter’s assessment of herself, its superimposed on her by her boyfriend’s comment.
    Pouring wine on the kneeling girl, well, that has to be figured, even I don’t know where that comes from. Let me know what it made you think of. I am open to all kinds of thoughts, something may work. Tell me, tell me, dear reader.

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