Brutal Helga
    Terri Brown-Davidson and Judi Justin
How did it start? Even now I can't quite remember, whether it was the braids or her full-breasted body, her belly a shadow-basin filling with light, or the sight of her cheekbones, wet-looking, mysterious, under the floating, pale moon.

We're both old now, me a bone-bag, Helga a sow, but the point is that she's still here, and Betsy's given up trying to make her go away.

"Cigarette?" Helga asks, and smiles as if I were a naughty child. And she's fat now, an obese old woman in a housedress, but when she stoops beside my wheelchair, runs the unlit cigarette up and down the arm of my flannel shirt, I know that nothing will ever change: she's still the high-breasted blonde with the braids, striding in her green loden coat, or reclining, naked, with those long legs spread out before her, the knees slightly arced, quiet as a corpse in a flurry of red-gold leaves that--trembling--I have to pick, one by one, off her neck. Breasts. Thighs.

I take the unlit cigarette. Grinning, I lift her housedress, pull the hem up to her waist. Am disappointed by the boxer-style accouterments.

"You filthy old man," she says. "Jesus, what would Betsy think?"

We can't stop smiling.

1968. '69? Through the moon-washed stand of trees, birches shining white as winter skin, I see her. She's rinsing out rags in a bucket of dirty water, crouching on her knees, wringing out rags by the pallor of a Pennsylvania moon. Her hair, dull dark-blonde but silvery in the light, is ribbon-tied, pigtailed, as if she were a thirty-year-old child. I gaze at her, assessing that buxom figure on its knees, removing her clothes--a nubbled navy sweatjacket, hole-ripped jeans--one by one, sequestering the gauzy lace panties.

Then--submerged again, the stench of tempera already wafting toward my nostrils--I flinch then remove them, too, tug them down with both hands, smile when they puddle up around her ankles and she steps, awkwardly, out of them.

On her knees, she'd seem to gaze at me but would actually be scrutinizing a moon so enormous its light would bleach us both and we'd go floating against its surface, stroke its big, rough craters, incline our cheeks against them, brush them with our mouths. Now she glances up, glimpses me through the trees. What's she thinking? That my posture's poor? That I'm developing a gut? That I'm decrepit? Her pale eyes green? Light green? Or colorless?--shine suddenly luminous.

"Mr. Wyeth?" she shouts, and I nod, safe in my position on the road; I hunch into the plush fur lining, turn up the collar of my parka. "Did you want something?" she calls.

Oh, yes, I think, I do; I want something very much; then I wave, hurry off down the road, leaf-spines snapping beneath my boots.

There's a portrait I did called "Marriage"--people love to argue about what it means, whether the old couple tucked into bed are just a long-married pair, comfortable in the warm wrap of blankets I've provided, or are dead and ready to set sail in their four-poster out the window, everything about that bed ominous, including the bedpost that looms as fervent and raging as a featureless Jesus, chastising all his sick little acolytes.

And when people argue about it, I let them argue, though secretly I'm thinking, You poor, sick fucks.

Of course the couple's dead. People can be so literal, you know--I hate that about them. Shriveled imaginations.

1969. I gaze down into my coffee cup (the over-boiled black sampled, digested), and one of her pink nipples erects toward me, the pale, delicious aureole and the darker nipple (though pink as a baby's thumb) stiffening up.

I smile, and the image pops.

Betsy doesn't feel well this morning. She's wearing a pilly blue housecoat that zips from neck to ankles; her dark hair's frowsy, her lipstick chewed off.

She sees that I've drained my coffee, picks up the cup, returns to the stove.

"Andy," she calls, her voice genteel, subdued, as if she were ministering to the sick. "What're your plans today?"

The subtext: Jesus, man. Can't you find anything to paint?

I dip my finger into the blistering coffee she sets down, wince and lick the scalded tip. "Thought I'd wander up to Kuerner's. See what's what."

She pulls the neck of her housecoat closed--an old-woman gesture—then sits down across from me.

How many mornings will we be staring at each other across this table before one of us never arrives? Rigor-mortises in bed?

"What's at Kuerner's?" she asks. "You've already painted him to death. Plus, he's so sick--can't possibly interest you."

"Thought I'd give it a try."

"C'mon, Andy. You know illness revolts you." She cracks her egg top with her spoon.

"Not since I'm older. I find it--kind of interesting."

"Well," and here Betsy lovingly spoons some yolk into her mouth, "he's got a new housekeeper there. So you'd better stay out of her way. Some German woman--meek, I've heard, but she doesn't like to be messed with."

"I want to capture his disease," I say, "I mean, with paint," then, "I don't have the stomach for coffee anymore," rising, pouring the swill down the drain.

I could arrive via the road but want to cross the field instead, sneak up on her from behind, slide my hands over her eyes while she's bent over a laundry tub, stirring Kuerners' soup of boxers and shirts with a stick, her back muscles contracting in the thin wet fabric that stretches gauzed across her skin.

And--after I scare her--I'll yank each of her pigtails in turn, as if we were both in sixth grade, which will give each of us a charge because we won't feel like adults anymore, won't feel responsible for sick old men and bitter, controlling wives.

She'll be furious with me at first, as Betsy was, Siri, but then she'll forgive me because she'll recognize who I am: the man who'll provide her with a second life, the shot at immortality she could never achieve through squeezing kids out.

But I'll play it cool this time. Take it slow. Because I don't want it to end like it did with Siri--Betsy happening upon us at the beach, Siri topless, face-down in the sand while I rubbed palmfuls of lotion between her shoulderblades. Betsy shouting at us, "What's going on, what the fuck are you doing to her, did he make love to you, Siri--did he?" while Siri sat up blank-faced, her breasts as erect as if I'd pinched them--it was sick, all of it, but sicker still was Betsy's last dictum that day: "If you do this again, Andy, I never want to know."

Which I'm honoring, right? Above board. Above blame. I tramp on Through the field, my big sketchpad under my arm, two sharpened pencils in my pocket, the stiff gold stubble crunching to shards beneath my boots. The blue sky gleams perfectly cloudless, pale gusts of my breath wafting away from my mouth; a lone doe picks her way across the field, and I thank God Karl can't roll out of bed with his rifle anymore.

She's a real beauty, this one, flanks smooth and brown as deep chocolate, the whites of her ears quivering toward me.

I stoop suddenly, scrounge, balance an acorn on my palm, walk slowly, steadily, with my hand held out.

She eyes me, something entering her scrutiny that I can't possibly read: I imagine twin Andrews mirrored back.

Then, with dreamlike bounds, she escapes, leaping across the field, and I track her white flag till it disappears in a welter of mist and sun.

When I find her, she's not bent over a laundry tub but sitting out in the Kuerners' barn, lounging in faded denim shorts and a peasant-style halter top on a moldy bale of hay, a notebook spread open on her lap, scribbling frantically in a hand that wavers as she writes, doodles, all over the margins. She doesn't see me approach because I'm as quiet as death. Unfortunately, there's no way to surprise her, either, since she's face-forward, her long legs swinging away From the bale, and I'm watching from the doorway. A shadow from my figure falls suddenly across her face; she glances up, smiles, motions me closer.

"What're you working on?"

"Nothing," she says, placing her palms over the writing. "Private thoughts."

"Wouldn't you feel better, sharing them?"

"Don't think so," Helga says, and bows her head once more, resumes writing.

I can't stop staring. Can't believe she's ignoring me. Not even defying me--which Siri did, examining me with those cold, pale eyes in the sauna--but acting as if I didn't exist.

As if her private ramblings were as significant as anything that might transpire between us.

"Look at you," I say. Then: "Look at you," I repeat, willing her to glance up, which she does, shifting her legs across the bale. I thought her eyes were green, but they're not: they're an odd shade of blue, not periwinkle, cerulean, but a ghost-shade so pale, so rich, that I can't break our eye-lock.

"What d'you want to say?" she asks. Then, scratching her ear: "You wanted to tell me something, right?"

I smile. "You're a regular Swiss Miss," I reply. "Pure cornpone. Blonde braids, blue eyes, big breasts, the works. Put you in a peasant dress, drop you on a mountain."

"I'm German," Helga says, leaning back on the bale. "Like Karl. And I don't appreciate the things you're saying."

"You know who I am, don't you?"

"Yes," Helga says. "You're the crazy man who lives down the road...whose fingers smell like garbage."

"Oh. So you do know me," I say, and Helga smiles.

"It's o.k. I'm done anyway," she says, sliding off the bale. "Time to take care of the old man now."

"The angel of the house?" I press.

"Fuck you, Andrew Wyeth," she says; "Fuck me, too," and my knees fairly buckle when I follow her out the door, watch her climb to the house on those elongated Prussian legs, disappear inside.

I donned an old flannel shirt to visit her today--another poor choice, because now my armpits stink.

I trail her into the house. We'll have to enact the drama in here, I figure, before we take it out into the wild. Fortunately, Karl's wife--demented, twitching Anna--is long since dead, and Karl has the place to himself, all the rambling wooden rooms, corners gritty with dust, filthy coffee pot, stained love seat covered with dead dogs' hair, the memories of bayonets and killed men and skinned animals floating up and down the stairs.

Whispering, I ascend the stairs.

He's on his deathbed now. The massive face, profile tilted ceiling-ward, glistening with sweat. Why does it take so much effort to die? For Christina, it seemed easy; she winked at me and vanished. I mopped the last of her cooling urine off the floor with towels, crying at this ridiculous last rite. And for Pa, it must've been horrible: his face turning train-ward as he struggled with his grandson's seatbelt and--in that single, pure instant of feeling his bones pulverized, his spirit fly out across the field--realized, This is what I've been waiting my whole life to experience.

I loved this man, though, Karl Kuerner. Now, there's not much left to love. Loose teeth falling away from gums. Caved-in mouth; rheumy, half-blind eyes. I kneel beside his bed, gaze up at Helga, who's applying a cold compress to Karl's forehead, who's wiping her big, undainty hands on her halter-top and then (when that doesn't dry them), shaking the water off her fingers.

She comes around to the side of the bed where I'm kneeling, where I'm clutching Karl's hand. Dismissive as a child kicking a dog away from bread, she lifts her sneakered foot, pushes it against my ribs, and I fall back, recover, scurry backwards on my knees.

"Andy," Karl says, and gazes down at me with those distant, watering eyes. "Watch out for her, now. She's a Prussian, you know. Another Karl, in a skirt."

Helga reaches down, pinches his lips closed.

"Is it true?" I whisper to her kneecaps, her pale skin fantastically imperfect: stain. Blemish. Crease. I touch her knee with one finger and she flinches then reaches down, smoothes my hair away from my forehead. "Have a little respect for the dying," she says. "Plus," she murmurs, "I'm married, Artist Man."

"I have to paint you," I say. "Meet me in the barn after you're done," and she just keeps stroking my hair; Karl closes his eyes.

I want her to be chaste. Innocent until I summon her. Bu Helga doesn't know that this barn's thronging with ghosts, ghosts that Karl created. Out here, he'd beat his children senseless, purple them up with bruises. His symbol the meat hook I painted over his blue-jawed face, his eyes stagnant as a pool filled with fish skeletons. I'd gaze into those eyes and feel myself submerged into those rancid waters, entering a secret cave. Everything dark, there, and moist, a worm-stench permeating the depths, mud you couldn't scrub off your hands: rotting opossums, raccoons, yellowed bones pronging up from mud. I walk into the barn and the warm smell of rotting hay assails my nostrils and I massage my mouth tenderly, thinking about it, how that hay gone bad smells like depths I haven't sampled for years since Betsy--a proper New England woman--wouldn't let me, and since, with Siri, I didn't dare: she was too fucking young, and touching her where I most wanted to would've left a permanent stain on my soul.

The shadows have elongated, seeped into the yellow straw like spoiled spots layering fruit. I stand inside the barn, inhaling the scents of cows that have calved and died, a sour, horse-mash stench, ghosts sows with sucklings attached to their spotted teats, when I spot the hook just inside the door, dangling motionless from the ceiling.

I step right under it, stare straight up, imagining blood like a teardrop on the hook, the slow seep from the open throat, the animal's head tilted back.

The first time I saw a deer Karl'd hung up, I was so shocked that I couldn't see past the red dots floating against my eyes.

Of course I knew that hunters did this, especially strong, cold men like Karl Kuerner, who'd committed God knows what atrocities during WWI and had confessed to killing many men.

Jesus, I told myself, staring up. The man has to eat. And who're you, Andrew, but an animal yourself, eating and shitting and fucking.

But I didn't believe it. Couldn't.

Pictured myself before barnacled rocks, tumultuous waves, a boar-bristled brush in my hand.

Life was holier, I thought--it had to be-- than men like Karl Kuerner would allow.

Striking his kids. Their lips splitting open. Blood on his little girl's shirt.

I gazed up beneath the deer. Only that one time--never since. Karl was bleeding it out. The black lips parched, yellow teeth distended. The glazed eyes with a hint of bulge. The legs pulling in their sockets, all weight now.

And the hook. The hook holding the whole mess up. It wasn't beautiful; it wasn't ugly; it wasn't horrifying.

It was a thing.

That deer stayed in my head. It's in my head now as I look at the hook, only rusted on the end--Karl took good care of it, washed it down with an acid that got the rust off, scraps of old flesh. I stare up as if I can still see the faint rotation of the carcass. Then, my gaze drifts away, alights on the small, purple notebook at the foot of the bale of straw.

I want her to be chaste.

I approach.

I pick up the notebook, settle down in the straw, flip over the pages. Oh, that Helga, I think. Oh, that open, sprawling, rampantly sexual bitch.

She writes about her days in a nunnery. I tug one page as I read, rub the paper grain between my index finger, thumb, her writing a mix of low Deutsch, pidgin English. I enter the text, keep reading until shadows touch the pages then spread.

How she walked down the long halls of the convent, touched with shadows, the windows smudged higher up, where the nuns had to crawl up onto ladders to reach them. How the black habit, rough as a farmer's hands, brushed her bare ankles while she walked, raising red bumps she'd chalomine at night in her narrow bed. How she prayed upon arising, her knee skin getting worn on the floorboards. How her body ached when she climbed into bed at night, still in her habit because the nuns discouraged her from believing she had a body though Helga's hands, always insistent, kept finding ways to remind her, her tiny cries blending with the sleep-sibilance of nuns slumbering alone in other rooms, the collective sound of an immense, exhausted sleep, the collective sound of a passing into death.

And she'd been a sickly child.

When I look up, she's staring. Night's coming on fast; white flecks which might be snow blow behind her in the open doorway, the sky blackening, the first few stars hazy, pallid. She's changed her clothes, wears a motheaten crimson sweater because it's much colder now, tight black jeans, work-boots up to her calves.

I know she'll be furious. Might even strike me. Instead, she walks forward uncertainly, as if drunk. I reach up for her and she half-collapses onto my lap--maybe she is drunk. Her lips nuzzle my ear. I let my hands wander the outside of her sweater, touch the stretched band of her bra back. Her mouth breathes against my neck, the lips sticky, a child's blowing spit bubbles.

"You," she say. "What're you offering?"

I bend my face against her shoulder. The wool of her sweater redolent, wet: before the snow, there must've been rain.

"I don't know," I say.

A lie.

"Tell me, please. I've got nothing else. Germany, maybe. If I go back."

"Karl," I say.

"He's dying."

"Your husband," I say.

"He might just as well be dead."

Her eyes against mine. Then, her mouth moving down my forehead. The grit in her pores, rubbed-raw patches on her skin. A eyelash on her cheek. I pluck it off, extend it on the tip of my finger.

"This," I say. "Make a wish."

Only half-joking.

She looks at me, says, "I want to be alive."

I touch the back of her neck, ease her face down against my shoulder. My eyes are wet. I can't see anything. Black sky, stars.

"Purpose," I say, finally. "If your husband allows it."

"I was in a convent," she say. "You read about it, I know."

"That makes you holy."

"I want to be savage," she says, then kisses me suddenly, her pale lips cold, rough-skinned, dry. "I want to be brutal. I want to fucking-- Paint me," she says. "Use me," she says. "It's what you're good at, what you know. Plus, I like secrets," she says. "Learned to love them in the convent." She pulls back, stares at my mouth. Her eyes red-rimmed, with chameleon irises: bright blue, gold-blue...cerulean.

"In the woods?" she says. "Tomorrow."

"Tonight," I say. "Now."

"There isn't enough light, is there?"

"Moonlight. I can do a drawing."

"Can you."


"I suppose you can do many things."

"Not really," I say. "I'm limited, like a child."

"Sickly," she says then. "Sickly."

She takes me out into the woods. I let her guide me, her fingers Wrapping loosely around my flexing right fist. The wind's burgeoning, gaining force and power; hills in the distance, glimpsed between the deer-stripped birches, breathe like my dead father's chest. She carries the sketchbook. Her hair—shaken out, it's as red-gold as the leaves, lighter on the tips, Arctic blonde—flutters with each gust; snow blows against her eyes. She leads me to a place where the woods drop off, become sheer embankment, a frozen river below gleaming opaquely up, and then she takes off her clothes, drops them onto the dampening leaf cover, sits down on a smooth black rock, pulls her legs up and I can see her, no secrets now, I can peer into her depths, my pencil blackening the page: shapes, circles, ovals, a woman with spread legs shivering atop a rock, her face wet with snow, her white breasts: I draw and sketch while the brightening moon floats overhead, until I think she'll freeze to death, and there she stays until sometime--around ten p.m.--I feel a shift, feel some part of her step out of herself, cross, barefoot, the soaking leaf cover, enter my body, though--when I look at her--she hasn't moved: only my hand is flying.

I don't like to smoke, though I enjoy the cigarette in my mouth; it tastes like earth, dark-brown and rich, like soil you'd run through your fingers when you're out alone in the woods, listening to whippoorwills, digging a small hole to shit in, tasting a leaf gone sour with wind because you're there and you want to live in that place forever, and only through dying is that possible.

She's lying on the bed beside me. We're both old now so keep our clothes on. The window's unblinded. If Betsy pulls up in the car, I'll hear her. Helga laughs, touches the cigarette in my mouth. I place my hand over her breast, leave it there, thinking about how she helped me out of the wheelchair, lifted me onto the mattress.

"Look," she says suddenly, "snow," and her fingers rise in a fluttering arc, the window stained white; I study it as if I've never seen it before, though it's snow, only snow--funny, isn't it, how time never passes, how living and dying, each day, stay the same.

Terri Brown-Davidson , in collaboration with art historian Judi Justin, has written a a short-story collection, ON HER KNEES: ANDREW WYETH AND HIS WOMEN--"Brutal Helga" is part of this collection. Terri Brown-Davidson is on the fiction faculty at Gotham Writer's Workshop and is an assistant editor at ZOETROPE: ALL STORY and the Managing Editor for LITERARY POTPOURRI. Her first book is THE CARRINGTON MONOLOGUES (Lit Pot Press, 2002). Terri's received six nominations for the Pushcart Prize and more than forty national writing awards, including an AWP Intro Award and a Yaddo fellowship; her chapbook RAG MEN won THE LEDGE Competition, and her fiction and poetry have appeared in more than 700 journals, including NEW YORK STORIES, VIRGINIA QUARTERLY REVIEW, HAYDEN'S FERRY REVIEW, TRIQUARTERLY, and DENVER QUARTERLY. Her poetry was featured in the anthology TRIQUARTERLY NEW WRITERS (Northwestern University Press, 1996) and in a THE LITERARY REVIEW chapbook online at Web del Sol.


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