Listen below to our latest podcast: Sandra Völker shares her writing experiences along with her brilliant short story: “The Story of a Smile”.
Sandra Völker was interviewed by Paul Malone from Sunday Writers’ Club at Dirtwater NGO Cafe in Vienna’s 7th District.
The Story of a Smile
You can download The Story of a Smile interview and story here
The story of a Smile
by Sandra Voelker
(For Anke – who helped me smile in difficult times)
Monna Lisa really did not want to sit for the old painter anymore. He was such a conceited man, insufferable and arrogant. If it wasn’t for her husband who wanted the portrait of his wife to join the extensive family gallery, she would chase this Signor Leonardo, notwithstanding his fame and indisputable talent, out of the house once and for all.
Instead, Lisa Gherardini, wife of successful silk merchant Francesco del Giocondo, settled down on the wooden stool as she had done for the past seven days. She folded her hands in her lap and turned her attention to the old man who sat opposite her, in front of the large windows that went out into their family’s extensive and well-kept garden.
Today Signor Leonardo did not stand behind the easel but had several pieces of paper lined up on a small working table beside him. He sat on a chair, his right hand balancing a wooden pad with paper on it, his left holding a charcoal pen. Lisa had seen him using both hands for sketching and drawing during their sessions and marveled at his ambidextrous skillfulness. This was the only talent of his she admitted to admire, however. His intense, piercing eyes seemed to bore into Lisa’s innermost core with an intelligence and curiosity she had seldom seen in other people. She hated how he always made her feel like he could sense all her thoughts and secrets, even those she had successfully hidden from herself.
“Signor Leonardo,” she said, pushing her chin towards him defiantly, “why no big easel today? Have you decided I am not worth the big canvas but only a small piece of paper?”
“Monna Lisa,” the artist answered, putting the piece of charcoal down for a moment, “the size of a piece of art stands in no relation to its quality. But no – today I want to study your face and make a number of sketches that will serve as basis for the final painting which WILL be oil on canvas. I would not create a piece of art without proper study and preparation – you surely would expect no less from me.”
He gave her his infuriating, crooked smile that made his face with the aquiline nose and deep lines on the brow look ten years younger than his long grey hair and long waving beard would otherwise suggest.
Lisa felt herself blush which seemed to be a new habit she had developed over the past week. Only during her sessions with Signor Leonardo did she feel like a silly young girl again. How dare he treat me like I am a maid and not the respected lady of this house, she thought. She had come to dread these sessions and the endless questions and search for her secrets. Somehow the old painter managed to put his fingers where it hurt most and push all her buttons.
“Today esteemed Monna Lisa,” Leonardo said, “today I want to use our time together to complete some emotion studies. Please understand, Signora, that I – as an artist and human being – am only interested in the truth. In the layers underneath the surface that show the reality of objects and the truth of people.”
Lisa definitely did not want that. She detested Signor Leonardo’s attempts to find her secrets. She had her life under control, liked it the way it was and did not want to delve into her past.
“Signor Leonardo,” she replied and did not try to keep the annoyance out of her voice, “this is a fine and noble intention. However, all my husband pays you to do is put my likeness on a piece of canvas, do so in a respectable way and make me and thus him look good. There is no need to delve deeper, no need to know more about me, in fact, there is no deeper me. This is just a painting of the dutiful wife of a successful Florentine merchant that will end up in a room with other dusty paintings and soon be forgotten.”
Lisa corrected her position on the stool and arranged her features into what she hoped was a content and unapproachable face.
“I am ready. Let’s start! I need to go back to my duties soon.”
The old man chuckled while he kept moving his charcoal pen over the paper.
“Monna Lisa, I understand your resistance. I have been there myself. But believe me, we live fuller lives by embracing all that we are. I am interested in the truth. It is the reason we are here, why God has put us on earth, to find the truth – and beauty – of his creations. ”
He put aside the current piece of paper and took up another one. His expression turned more serious again and his eyes focused on her.
“Tell me about a moment where you experienced true happiness – it can be anything, a childhood memory or something more recent.”
“What do you mean, Signor Leonardo?” Lisa replied. “I live a content and successful life every day, here….”
“I don’t mean content, Monna Lisa,” Signor Leonardo interrupted her. “Don’t think about it for too long. When was the last time you were truly happy?”
Who did he think he was? What stupid questions were these? Lisa thought.
“Don’t be impertinent, Signor Leonardo. It is none of your business how I feel and has nothing at all to do with this assignment.”
During their previous sessions he had prodded her until she told him about one of the saddest times in her life, when she had mourned her mother who had died too young. It was a loss she could still feel until this day. She had almost started to cry! She never cried – Signora Lisa Gherardini, faithful wife of Francesco del Giocondo, mother of four children and respected member of Florentine society did not cry.
“Is it so hard to think about a moment where you experienced happiness?”
The old painter did not want to let go. Lisa felt an urge to lose her respectable demeanor and crush something over the old man’s head.
“Signora – just tell me!”
“Why, for God’s sake, do you want to know these things? What difference does it make?” Lisa snapped. She felt unsettled. “Does it make you happy to bother me with these stupid questions?”
“The real question is, Signora, what makes you happy?” the painter replied, managing to look like a benevolent Greek God when he said it.
“Monna Lisa, truly, I do not want to upset you. I deeply believe that to look truthfully into our past and into our true emotions makes our lives richer and more connected to the universe.”
Lisa glared at him. Francesco never asked her questions like these, in fact, he never asked her how she felt or what she thought about unless it concerned their children, his business or their household. They talked about their dogs or how to improve their garden. Their conversations were rooted in the physical world, in reality. For her that was just fine. Her husband cherished and honored her and she respected him. She had worked hard to be where she was. Theirs was a successful partnership and she was grateful for all she had. And yet…
“You say it like this is true for everybody. Maybe not everybody wants to carry around their past. Maybe I don’t want to carry around my past. And my emotions are mine, Signor Leonardo!”
“What is it you fear, Signora?”
“Why do you think it’s fear Signor Leonardo? Perhaps it is my choice.”
“What did you choose to leave in the past, Monna Lisa?”
“Nothing! Nothing. I was a foolish girl…”
Lisa’s thoughts travelled back to a golden day in the fall. She did not want to revisit that day but the images started to resurface nonetheless. She had been a young woman of almost fifteen …
… She sees a young Lisa strolling across the Piazza. It is early fall, her favorite time of the year because the heat of the summer is gone and the golden light of the season casts everything into a special glow. The hills around Florence are blazing red and gold and the irresistible smell of truffles permeates the city. Life is bittersweet because the beauty of the season will soon be extinguished by the arrival of winter. Lisa enjoys a few moments of freedom. She does not think about her family, does not think about her duties and responsibilities but has given her full attention to the young man walking next to her. Michele is a tall and slender young man, two years older than Lisa and the son of one of her father’s associates. They met during last year’s Christmas festivities and they are deeply in love with each other. When he looks at her Lisa feels seen as she is and not as she should be. In his melodious voice he tells her stories about a world as it should be and not as it is. Together they imagine a world where they could be together. Sometimes Michele starts a sentence and Lisa finishes it. There is no awkwardness as with other boys or men she was introduced to. Michele touches her soul like nobody else and with him she is at ease with herself and the world.
They know it would not last. Lisa is promised to Francesco, a rich silk merchant who will save her impoverished family and in return she will bring him and his descendants her name and the prestige of old Florentine nobility. There is nothing they can do about it. This is the way of the world.
Young Lisa takes Michele’s hand who grasps hers and holds it like a drowning sailor holds on to a wooden plank. She looks up into Michele’s face, sees his dark brown eyes with golden specks, his sensual lips and unruly curls that fall over his forehead. He promises her that there will never be another woman for him, that he will leave Florence because he will not be able to bear the sight of her being married to another man.
Lisa Gherardini let out a deep sigh. That golden afternoon Michele told her that he would join his uncle’s household in Venice, maybe pursue a career as a military officer. She did not know it then but this was the last time they saw each other. It was such a cherished memory. How could she have buried it and Michele so deeply? He was lost to her but Lisa realized her life was richer for his love.
“… Monna Lisa, this is it! This is what I was looking for!” Leonardo’s cry startled Lisa out of her reverie and pulled her back into the room with the old painter.
“Monna Lisa, this smile of yours is worth a thousand Florins, this is a true smile,” Leonardo continued excitedly, his fingers flying over the sketch, his piercing eyes jumping from her and back to the paper.
His eyes! There was something in his eyes that reminded her of Michele’s.
Lisa could feel her aggression and anger toward the old artist dissipate, go up like white smoke. Maybe the old fool knew a thing or two. He seemed to be a dreamer, even at his age, just like her Michele.
She felt herself relax and the tension leave her shoulders.
“This is perfect!” Leonardo exclaimed. “Monna Lisa, I believe you have visited a true moment.”
“Yes, Signor Leonardo, I remembered a day in my youth, I remembered a day when…” Lisa said.
The painter held up his hand and interrupted her gently.
“Don’t tell me what you were thinking about, Monna Lisa. Your secret is yours and I do not need to know. I merely wanted you to remember and see you when you did. I can assure you, it was a moment of true beauty.”
Lisa stopped herself and looked at him curiously.
“Signora, I will put this moment of truth and beauty in your portrait. It was commissioned by your husband but I shall paint it for you.”
Leonardo smiled at her kindly.
“I will put your secret in the painting and only you will know the meaning. Whenever you look at it, you shall be reminded of these memories. This will be my thank you for suffering an old fool who puts way too much value on dreams and truth and beauty. I hope you will accept my gift.”
Author and Sunday Writers' Club Member
Sandra was born and raised in Austria. She studied and worked in the US for a number of years and writes in English and German.
She mostly writes short stories and other fictional texts and has taken various writing courses over the years, f.ex. at the Faber Academy in London. Sandra currently attends a 5-months creative writing programme and participates in some writing competitions. Her declared goal is to publish some texts until the new year. In her other life she has worked for an number of international organizations and presently works for an environmental NGO in Vienna.