Home Fiction The Kiss

The Kiss

by Roberta
1.8k views

This short story was co-authored with Roxanne Meilak from awordifimay.com. The prompt was my doing, after my eyes, in search of inspiration, landed on a small illustration I have of Klimt’s masterpiece. Parts are divided per author and enclosed in separate accordions. We hope you enjoy it.

The sunlight claps the earth, and the moonbeams kiss the sea: what are all these kissings worth, if thou kiss not me?


~ Percy Bysshe Shelley

They sit next to each other, without touching, and study the painting: the two figures entwined, fading into a yellow haze dripped in gold, rising from a bed of purple flowers and lost in their embrace.

“It’s one of my favourites,” he says, after a moment of silence. He has to speak loudly, over the buzz of chatter surrounding them: the art gallery is relatively busy for a Saturday afternoon in spring. “Klimt painted this during his Golden Period.”

Why do you like it, she wants to ask, to learn more about him. “What’s their story?” she asks instead.

He frowns. “It’s not really about that,” he begins, giving her a sideway glance, but stops quickly at the brief look of embarrassment on her face. “But their story can be anything you want it to be,” he continues, kindly. “You tell me.”

She meets his eyes briefly, gives him a half-smile, and turns to re-consider the painting, cocking her head sideways. Fresh eyes, she thinks to herself, and suddenly, the figures in the painting tug at her heart and she longs to be held, kissed, in that way.

Suddenly, she knows their story.

“Like the most beautiful of love stories, this one starts with a stranger who smiled.”

 

She turns back to the painting, lets her eyes settle on the wildflowers in the woman’s hair, the leaves in his. She can feel Augustus’ gaze still fixed on her, and she knows without looking, that he is doing it with the same intensity he did everything else. His forehead slightly puckered, his eyes never restless but steady, like a lifeline you’d cling to when everything else failed. Can he read my thoughts?

 

“They meet at the most inconspicuous of places,” she says, her mind travelling back to the eternal kiss. “At a funeral.”

 

“A funeral?”

 

“Yes. Her husband’s funeral.” Her eyes momentarily lose focus as she imagines the scene, but she blinks and the woman’s smooth, pale face becomes sharper again. Rosy cheeks, rosy lips. “He sees her sitting in the first row. She is wearing a veil but beneath it he glimpses a startling beauty. A face etched like marble. He falls in love with her the moment she opens her eyes.”

 

“Just like that?” Augustus leans forward now, curious. She nods, half smiles and half whispers.

 

“Just like that. You see, there is something in her eyes only he can see, and we cannot.” She turns to him. “They’re intense, and the most beautiful he had ever seen.” Just like yours. She looks away. “And so, just as one love ended, another begun.”

 

Augustus realises he’s been hanging on to her every word. He composes himself, looks away. Rosy cheeks, rosy lips. “Does the story continue?”

 

She smiles inwardly. “If they are to kiss, I suppose it must.”

That night, Emery relives it as she sits in front of her bedroom mirror and braids her hair: how, after she’d said that, he’d happened to glance at the clock on the wall opposite them; how he’d suddenly grown serious at seeing the time, and straightened, moving away from her. He’d almost looked uncomfortable.

Years later, when it’s long over, she will think of it differently: she will remember it, too, as an encounter, a beginning of sorts, at an inconspicuous place. But now, as she studies herself in the mirror – now, as she watches as a strand of stray hair escape her braid and fall like snow on her cheek, she wonders: had she imagined the way he’d leaned in towards her, the way he’d looked at her, the way his eyes had lingered on her lips?


Perhaps she had confused it with the emotion of the painting.

“I’m sorry,” he’d said, next, in a rush, “But my time is almost up: we should discuss the assignment.”

In a flash, his demeanour changed, and he’d reverted to the familiar – if somewhat aloof – art professor with an extraordinary first name.


“I’d rather your classmates were here too,” he’d continued, frowning, referring to the other two students in her tutorial group. Emery, who was of course secretly grateful that they had both bailed at the last minute, didn’t reply, and Augustus had promptly launched into an in-depth explanation of the theory behind Klimt’s works.

She’d barely had time to whip out her notebook. She took brief notes, writing furiously as he spoke. Meanwhile, the light in his eyes returned, but he carefully kept his distance from her.

“You should relay that to your friends,” he’d said, finally. “And I expect a presentation on Klimt by the end of the month.”

She’d nodded briefly at that, and he’d looked at her – really looked at her – again.

“I have to go now,” he’d said, quietly; knowing, perhaps, that he was digging his own grave, “But I would also like to know – some other time – how the story continues.”

Augustus. The name rolled off the tongue like a whisper. The same one that revisited her for nights after that meeting in front of The Kiss, to make up for his absence during the day.

 

Augustus, a name that declared itself even before the person owning it turned up. Regal, confident, a conqueror – and he was all these things. To Emery at least, who looked for him in the weeks that followed but did not find him. Not at the academy, from which, it transpired, he had taken a few weeks off. Not at the gallery, which Emery visited more often than was strictly necessary for her assignment.

She wondered uncomfortably, whether she had said or done something that crossed an invisible line between them. She didn’t know. So she sat and watched the painting with a laden heart as the weeks rolled by and Augustus stayed away.

 

Today it rains. Outside, people caught in the sudden Spring downpour rush from one building of the gallery to the next, perhaps rethinking their decision to visit today, of all days. Emery sits on the familiar bench in front of The Kiss, her eyes darting from one detail to the other. The flowers wrapping around her ankles, the little swirls on his cloak that sucked you right in. She feels like she knows them intimately now, but also, like she’s intruding on something she shouldn’t.

 

 “I trust the assignment is going well?”

 

His voice drops like honey. She turns slowly. Augustus stands a few feet away, dripping wet. His hair is plastered against his forehead, his long raincoat a darker beige than it should be. Emery nods.

 

“Good,” he says. What was he doing here again? He shakes his head and turns to her, smiling. “I was not planning on coming here but now that I am, now that you are, perhaps you could let me know how the story continues?”

Emery is livid: at him for being gone and for coming back; at herself for being angry at him; at the relief that flooded her at the sound of his voice, and at the way her insides unfurled at his smile: especially at the way her insides unfurled at his smile. 

 

She turns back to the painting, pretending to study it.

 

“One love ended, another began,” Augustus coaxes, as she battles with herself: “The funeral.”

 

“Her husband’s funeral,” she corrects, absently, because her thoughts are on the painting. The flowers wrapping around her ankles, she thinks, again; the woman is on her knees. Perhaps it was too much for her; perhaps it was all beyond her. Emery is stronger than that.

 

She turns determinedly back to her professor, who meets her gaze expectantly.

 

“After the memorial, refreshments are served at their country home. Her husband was a rich man, an influential one in their society, so all sorts of people attend to offer their condolences,” she begins.

 

“And he does too,” Augustus continues, motioning towards the man in the painting.

 

“Yes, he does too,” Emery confirms, with a half-smile. The story – and recounting it – has made her feel better. “He studies her all afternoon: watching her greet guest after guest politely, noting the heaviness in her manner, and, when he is occasionally close enough, glimpsing the sadness in her eyes.”

 

“Did she love her husband?” Augustus asks, quietly. Something about his tone makes Emily think that he’s not asking about her story anymore. “Is that why she’s sad?”

 

Emery considers his question thoughtfully. “Her husband had not looked at her in years,” she says, finally. “It was not a marriage of love; it never became one.”

 

Augustus nods, seemingly satisfied, and motions towards the painting again. “And do they speak to each other, on this day?”

“Of course,” says Emery, eyes twinkling now. “How else are they to eventually kiss?” 

Augustus says nothing but takes his place to her left, a few spaces away, flipping the tail end of his raincoat over the bench.

 

His movements are slow and deliberate, as if he is giving himself time to leave before – before what? Emery watches him, noticing everything. How little flecks of rain arch with the flick of his coat, how he uses his little finger to sweep the wet hair away from his eyes. How he looks the same as she has always remembered him, and yet feels different. When he turns to her, his skin glistening from the rain, she feels her rib cage would not be able to contain the mad beating of her heart. He waits.

 

“When it’s his turn to offer condolences,” Emery says looking back at the man in the portrait. “He kisses her hand and whispers something that wakes her up from her numb state.” Emery pauses, gives Augustus, professor Augustus, a sidelong glance. He waits. “Life is but a dream Lady Isabella. You blink and it’s gone. Don’t let it waste away.” Augustus turns and looks away, at the portrait, perhaps, or beyond it.

 

“And then?”

 

“He leaves the house and she does not see him for days, though she cannot stop thinking about what he said. About him.” Emery blushes. “I’m sorry. This must be boring you. Silly love stories.”

 

Augustus smiles and looks down. He should leave, he should never have come here. But hadn’t he tried to stay away, to put everything he could between them? There was something about her, call it curiosity, the way her eyes questioned everything, call it destiny, that always veered him in her direction. “These silly love stories are what makes the world bearable.” He half turns and she is watching him now, her eyebrows raised and forming a little triangle over the bridge of her nose. Dear God but she looks just like-,

 

Emery stands suddenly. “I must go now, while the rain has stopped.” She gulps, turns to Isabella, her face tilted in submission. Emotions, like strong currents, pull her this way and that. “I hope you have a good day.” She walks out, leaving Augustus sitting, rain dripping into small puddles at his feet.

Augustus sits and stares at the painting until the early evening, mentally revisiting all his knowledge about Gustav Klimt, and Gustav Klimt’s work, and especially, The Kiss.

 

He’d written his postgraduate dissertation on this painting, spent hours upon hours researching it, but he’d never quite seen it in this way. It had taken a student to make him see.

 

A student, Augustus thinks to himself, sternly; and then, more softly: Not any student. Emery.

 

Emery, with her captivating words, her easy manner, her shining eyes; Emery, who looks just like the woman in the painting, the woman whose identity is still, to this day, unknown. Perhaps this is what Klimt intended, Augustus thinks: for the lady in the painting to be universal, so that every man may attribute her to someone he knows, or loves.

 

Augustus’ phone beeps, and he glances at his watch. It’s late. The gallery will close soon, and he needs to stop with this trail of thought anyway, he needs to get going. He thinks of his wife, of . In this, it is he who is like Lady Isabella.

 

He stands, and remembering his phone, whips it out. He frowns at the screen: it’s a new email. These blasted emails never end, he thinks, but still, takes a closer look. His breath catches momentarily. It begins with a one liner, and it’s from Emery.

 

I thought perhaps you might want to know how their story continues.   

He walks briskly to the appointed place, his hands deep into his pocket. Emery had been elusive for an entire week. During class, she had kept her head down, her nose deep into her papers, making a conscious effort not to meet his gaze. She had never replied to his answer, a two letter “I do”, an ill choice of words if there ever was one. But he couldn’t take them back and as he looked at her bent head in class, her soft brown curls that looked red in the right light, he wondered where it was all heading. He was feeling the edge of a cliff with his bare feet, excited about the jump. It confused him. It thrilled him.

 

“Don’t forget, presentations, next week,” he said as they filed out of class, Emery among them. He did not call out for her. Maybe the jump was never meant to be.

 

He has almost reached the address in the email she had sent the night before. Just a place and a time. Nothing else. He is still not wholly familiar with the area. He had moved here with his wife a year before, hoping the air of a country town would heal their rift. He is wondering whether he read the directions wrong. He stands close to a willow, his phone marking the right location, but for the gentle hum of a stream, he has no other company. A leaf crunches underfoot.

 

“Hello.” Emery steps from around the willow where he can see a small stone bench, veined with roots and moss. He looks at her, standing with her hands behind her back, meeting and then tearing away from his gaze, her uncertainty matching his.

 

“Hello.” She turns and sits on the bench. Augustus follows. It is not wide and their knees brush.

 

“She meets him again you know. Isabella.” Her eyes have a faraway look, like she is reading from a book he cannot not see. Her skin turns golden in the setting sun and Augustus yearns to touch it, just to make sure she is real. Of course, he does not. “She starts seeing him everywhere now. On the streets, at the theatre, at the park. She cannot escape, and perhaps she doesn’t want to.” She turns around suddenly, resolutely. “But she needs to know who he really is, and what he really wants. Because life truly is a dream, but you need to live it with eyes wide open.”

 

Augustus shrugs non-committedly, and Emery, somewhat disheartened, continues.

 

“Lady Isabella has many suitors. It’s not surprising: not only is her beauty unmatched in her society, but she is also the rightful heir of her late husband’s estate. “You should remarry,” her mother advises during her weekly visits, “You are still young enough to bear children.”

 

But Isabella, who has just regained a semblance of control over her life, and who longs desperately for freedom from the constraints of her society and freedom from herself always striving to meet its standards, wants neither.

 

Perhaps it was this longing that made her approach him, on one not-so-special day in the park: perhaps this longing finally got the better of her; made her unafraid.

 

Sufficient time has passed since the funeral. She no longer wears black, and her eyes, as sharp and intense as they were the first time he saw them, sparkle in unison with her dress. 

 

“My lady,” he says as she stops before him, bowing his head by way of greeting, and hiding any surprise he might have felt at her bold move.

 

The park is crowded: they will be the subject of the evening’s gossip.

 

“Are you following me?” Isabella asks, pointedly.

 

He winks at her, and matches her tone. “Are you?””

 

Augustus coughs. Emery starts, and turns to him with a half-laugh.

 

“You startled–,” she begins to say, but falls silent as the intensity of his gaze burns her cheeks. A gentle breeze rustles the willow tree’s leaves; a bird chirps somewhere in the distance.

 

“We shouldn’t be here, doing this,” he says, quietly, and bends over to kiss her.

He bends over to kiss her.

 

The kiss is gentle, hesitant, full of promise. It is a question, an exclamation, a pause. It contains everything – roaring chaos like a flood, and it is nothing – the silence of an open meadow. How can something that lasts mere seconds, drops in the ocean of time, contain so much within it? Augustus knows, as his mind battles itself, that he should tear himself away, get on his knees and apologise. But why then, if it is so wrong, does it feel so… right?

 

Emery is the one to break away first. Slowly, like an immediate regret. She sits on the edge of the bench, her head bent, her hands gripping the stone seat on either side. Augustus’ heart plummets as the full force of what he had done alights on his shoulders, as heavy as the world.

 

“Emery, I-,”

 

But she stands up, takes a few short steps and comes to a stop in front of him. Her hands clasp her elbow as a light wind tugs at her hair, at her dress. When she turns, her face is set, like one who has just taken a decision.

 

“No,” she says. “We should not be here, doing this.” It is Augustus’ turn to grip the bench hard, until his knuckles go white. A ripple seems to pass across Emery’s face, softening the features, doe-eyed, rosy lips parted slightly. “Though I want to, with all my heart.” Something passes between them then, an understanding of sorts. Augustus stands.

 

“I suppose,” he says, pushing his hands in his pockets, “if Isabella wants to meet him again, if they are to kiss, they must be ready. Truly ready.” Emery nods. “They cannot run away from the truth forever.”

 

“What is the truth, Emery?” Augustus steps forward. Emery comes up to his shoulders, and she must tilt her head to be able to see him. His eyes. She could wander there forever and never be lost. Her eyes. He could grow old and still watch them, fascinated, like the first time he lay eyes on her in the corridors on campus.

 

“That life has a scary, thrilling, funny way of spinning silly love stories.” She tucks a stray lock of hair behind her ear and Augusts knows what he has to do.

 

Many years later

The leaves of the willow tree fall into the river; gently, as though they only mean to caress it. The stone bench is no longer visible beneath the moss and the overgrowth, and a bird chirps in the distance, heralding the setting sun.

 

Emery stands in silence, surveying the scene, and remembers.

 

She remembers the kindness in Augustus’ eyes as he’d replied to her comment about silly love stories.

 

“They’re not silly,” he’d said, quietly. His eyes had scanned every part of her face, then, as though he were looking at her for the first – or last – time.

 

He’d touched her forehead, next, and her cheek, with his fingertips, while she’d held his gaze bravely.

 

“But the truth is, they always come at a cost,” he’d continued, “And sometimes, the stakes are too high.”

 

Emery hadn’t replied: she’d found that she couldn’t speak. They’d stood there in the silence, sometimes touching, as the sun disappeared into the night.

 

“But the story?” she’d asked, when he’d finally said they should leave.

 

He’d smiled, sadly.

 

“It doesn’t matter how it went,” he’d said. “We know how it ends: in their eternal embrace. He will always kiss her, and she will always hang on to him for dear life.”

 

Emery’s cheeks were soaked, and Augustus saw.

 

“My Isabella,” he’d said, pressing his mouth against hers for one last time. “It will always be you I see in The Kiss.” Then he’d left.

 

Time passed. Slowly, at first, and then, fast. Emery grew up, and Augustus grew old. And then Augustus passed too, and came by the willow tree to say her final goodbye.

 

The sun has almost set. Emery closes her eyes, thinks of the two figures entwined, fading into a yellow haze dripped in gold, rising from a bed of purple flowers, lost in their embrace. They are eternal: their love will live on forever. Emery opens her eyes, and smiles.

THE END

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