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The Frown

Floris M. Kleijne writes fiction to retain his sanity, or at least channel his insanity into productive form. A 1st-place winner of the Writers of the Future and SF Comet contests, his short stories have appeared in the Writers of the Future anthologies, Andromeda Spaceways, Leading Edge, Space & Time, and other venues, and have been translated into over half a dozen languages, including his native Dutch. He keeps meticulous track of his publications, and blogs about writing, Real LifeTM, things that strike him as cool and funny, and infuriating customer service, on floriskleijne.nl. This is his second appearance in Daily Science Fiction.

A good crowd today. Not the suffocating masses of a holiday, nor the unnerving quiet of a Tuesday morning in February. An art student is earnestly sketching. A group of Japanese tourists take turns posing with me, fingers forked in an incomprehensible gesture that sometimes even hides me from the lens. An elderly couple stands quietly, arms entwined, contemplating me with identical mournful gazes. Behind them, the south hallway of the Denon wing stretches. As always, I am pleased to note that no one walks by without making the turn into my room. Perhaps as many as three dozen pairs of eyes stare at me, mesmerized.
And none of them know who I am.
I shouldn't look so smug.
But I can't help myself.
"I will make you famous," he had said, all those centuries ago. "I will immortalize you, cara. Never to age, never to lose that heart-wrenching beauty." He was a smooth talker, but aren't all artists? They will say anything to convince you to pose. And he knew me too well, knew how I treasured my youth, knew how I feared losing my treasure. "You will never fade. People will never cease to marvel at your mystery, never stop pondering the magic of your smile."
He didn't love me, I know that now. His offer was self-serving: my living spirit poured into my portrait irrevocably cemented his renown. But he offered a union, my countenance immortalized by him, his fame entwined with mine, joined for eternity. Perhaps that is another kind of love, a choice made at the intersection of desires: his immortal fame, and my immortal beauty.
So I let him paint me, and accepted his price.
"Hold that smile, Monna." The admonishment was a spell, a litany, the choir behind the first tenor of his sketching, the mezzosoprano of his brushes. "Hold that smile."
And I understood. I knew he did not mean just for the endless sittings. My unwavering smile was the price: my smile, and my identity. I swore to uphold my beatific expression for eternity; he swore to take to his grave the secret of who I was.
Of course, Salai knew, but he in turn died with the knowledge. And when Giorgio wrote his book, and pointed to that cow Lisa, I knew I was safe forever.
Young forever.
A sudden commotion in the entrance to my room, as dozens more rush towards me. This has never happened before, not even after the attacks in '56 or '74. The group of tourists turns towards the crowd of newcomers, cameras snapping. The elderly couple start, and retreat to the side of the room. The student packs her pencils and withdraws. I see copies of Le Monde under many arms, my forehead just visible above the fold. There is a bold headline above the photograph, but I can't make out the words.
A susurrus of whispers rolls through the room as the crowd thickens, fills the floor. I cannot make out anything but fragments in the noise and confusion. Pas Lisa, I hear, and Journal secret. A secret diary? He can't have. He wouldn't. I see the old man inquire from one of the newcomers, who waves Le Monde in his face. He takes the newspaper and strains to read.
From somewhere near the back, I hear a collision of sounds that I pray wasn't my real name.
He can't have. He swore.
Holding the paper at arm's length, the old man begins to turn away from me, using the scattered light from my spots to read the article by. He moves excruciatingly slowly, the headline above my face sliding into view inch by tortuous inch.
Another raised voice, and this time my name is unmistakable.
Almost, the corner of my mouth twitches.
And the old man has completed his turn. In the unforgiving light of my spots, I read the headline as craquele creeps across my cheeks and pulls my face into wrinkles.
"Identite de La Joconde confirme!"
And under the glare of hundreds of eager eyes, to the accompaniment of gasps, cries of grief and hysterical screams, as dozens of camera flashes blind me, and the old man clasps his left arm and collapses, I feel my face sag, and my hair thin, and the hands in my lap crinkle with age and distort with arthritis.
And my smile... falters.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, June 20th, 2016

Author Comments

It has always been obvious to me that Mona Lisa's world-renowned smile is not so much enigmatic, as most sources would have it, but smug: clearly, she is privvy to a secret we can only guess at. So when the Weekend Warrior 2016 flash ficton contest at my online writers group Codex prompted me to write a story about a sentient work of art, very little additional thought was needed to come up with the story you've just read. (The story placed 16th in the contest, but then went on to appear here, proving... erm... nothing, really, except that Jonathan and Michele probably weren't among the contest judges.)

Leonardo Da Vinci never documented who sat for the famous painting. The model was identified as Lisa del Giocondo by Da Vinci biographer Giorgio Vasari, but that was over thirty years after the death of the artist. That Da Vinci painted a portrait of this lady was scrawled by a contemporary into the margin of a book by Cicero, and his assistant Salai mentions a painting titled La Gioconda in his papers, but to this day there is no direct evidence that the famous portrait in the Denon wing of the Paris Louvre is really of Monna Lisa del Giocondo.

- Floris M. Kleijne
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