I hate Magritte. I never understood why until I was an old man, felt like an old man at least. Then I figured out just what a smug son of a bitch he really was.
When the outbreak hit I ran, like everyone else. I ended up deep in the mountains. I found a cabin. Taught myself to survive, to hunt, to fish, to trap. Then I grew a beard to go along with it.
I had a radio. I turned it on for a few minutes each day, to keep the hope alive. There are only so many days of static a man can take. I found a stray cat. Coaxed it in with scraps and named him Marlow. I went on with my life.
Weeks, months, a year later, in the fall, I went rummaging through the previous tenant’s attic. From out of an old and battered trunk I pulled out a crumpled pinup calender. October 1961.
And there she was, Miss October.
She was fire. She was beautiful. She was real. The airbrush hadn’t touched her. It hadn’t spoiled it. It hadn’t ironed her flat into the page.
I hung it on the wall and never turned that damn radio on again.
She looked down at me from that wall through her scarlet hair everyday, and everyday she was saying something different. Her eyes would follow me around the room and for a spell I didn’t feel so…
And when that first winter came, you wouldn’t believe it, but she looked like she was cold. I could almost see the hairs stand up on her pale skin.
In the spring I made a still and planted potatoes.
The next year was hard. I couldn’t find any game and my garden withered in the sun. My skin pulled tight over my face and my stomach bulged obscenely even as I starved. My hair grew thin and I grew weaker by the day. I stole scraps from Marlow. The tattered bits of bird and vermin kept me alive.
And all the time she smiled down at me.
The next fall the deer came back. I got a couple lucky kills. My luck looked like it was turning around when a ridge on the nearby mountainside collapsed beneath me. I fell damn near fifty feet and broke my leg.
I had to crawl back to the cabin. My leg was bent and bloodied. The nails ripped off my fingers. It took me days and when I finally heaved my battered body through the door she was there…smiling.
I set the leg as best I could and lay in a fever for days.
And she smiled.
The fall left the leg stiff and numb. I had to walk with a crutch for months and with a dragging limp ever since.
I was out chopping wood. It was the summer. The flies were horrible and my arms were an oozing mess from the bites. The sound of my axe clapped against the tall trees and rattled around the forest. I was setting up another log when I heard it.
A deep sustained note and the sound of snapping branches.
I limped inside and barred the door. I threw the shutters closed and barricaded the windows with any furniture I could toss against them. I waited. The noise grew and grew and surrounded the little house.
I gripped the axe and whispered to her, “Stay quiet. We’ll get through this.”
It was midnight when I went into the attic and dragged myself out of the only window onto the roof. They were all around me. They filed by and disappeared into the trees and flowed around my cabin like the tide around a rock. The moon was low overhead. In its dim light I could see them cover the land and sway glisteningly in the dark. They marched by and were gone in the predawn gloom.
I climbed back down and wandered outside.
I stumbled back in and fell in heap on the rough wood floor and she looked at me with pity in her eyes as I said, “The bastards got Marlow.”
I drowned in the moonshine. I drank up the garden and felt that familiar ache deep down inside, but didn’t care. I almost died from it and I almost welcomed it.
I drank until it burned and when the room began to melt around me, spin cruelly and throw me to the ground she would leer down and hiss, “The black water is rising and, baby, it ain’t gonna stop.”
When it was over my left eye filmed over, milky white, and it went blind.
The years went by. One by one. The seasons went out of focus and one fall bled into another. My hair began to grey, I lost a couple teeth, and my leg ached. It sent hot pains up my spine and didn’t even tell the weather.
And she still smiled. She was still young and beautiful and on fire.
But the picture faded and I realized why I hated Magritte all those years ago.
Ceci n’est pas une femme.