Jahara ran across the field, her skirt billowing out behind her. Her heart was aching and the tears were spilling down her cheeks. The sun beat on her head. It was another hot day. Perspiration glistened on her smooth dark forehead. She ran up to the signpost and collapsed at its foot. She leaned against the pole, her chest heaving as she tried to catch her breath.
How was it possible to love and hate a person? Yet, at that very moment, the two emotions were warring inside her. If Juan were there right now, she had no idea whether she would slap him or let him kiss her. How could he paint another woman? And a naked one at that. Jealousy raged inside her as she remembered the scene which greeted when she walked into his studio. There he was, standing at the easel, his white shirt unbuttoned up to his waist, the paintbrush in his hand and his eyes on the olive skinned figure reclined on the chaise lounge.
She must have made a threatening move toward her for she heard Juan mutter something in Spanish before his arms about her waist restrained her. The woman looked startled at first and then her brown eyes flashed in indignation. She looked at Juan and said, “Envía a esa chica loca lejos.”
At her request, Juan proceeded to scoop Jahara up and carry her out of the room. He dragged her behind him and once they were some distance from the villa, he stopped and turned to face her. He glowered at her. “What is the matter with you?” he demanded. “Estas loco?”
Jahara pushed him away. “Nothing is the matter with me,” she retorted. “Go back and finish your painting.” And with that, she stormed off. She had hoped that he would go after her but he didn’t. Distraught, she broke into a run, wanting to put as much distance between them as possible.
How she wished she had never set eyes on Juan de Vasquez. She wished he had stayed in Spain. Then, she remembered that while he was there, he was a slave. It was by the grace of God and Sabastian Sorje, a renown painter and abolitionist, he was freed. He was residing in Sorje’s villa which he shared with his mistress.
Jahara met Juan when she was at the market buying produce. He approached her and after introducing himself, asked her if he could paint her. Flattered, she agreed to go to his studio in the afternoons when she was free. He smiled and after raising her hand to his lips, he disappeared into the crowd. For the rest of the day, she thought about him. He was a handsome man of Afro-Spanish descent. He had thick black hair and an unusual complexion. He was what people would call a “quadroon”.
The following afternoon, Jahara went to his studio and he eagerly invited her in and after showing her where he wanted her to sit, he got to work. For weeks she sat for him and during that time, feelings for him developed. She watched him work, wondering if her feelings were reciprocated. She had her doubts. After all, she was dark. Most men, even those who had African blood in them, weren’t partial to dark skinned women. Perhaps Juan would prefer to be with a woman of mixed race like him or a European woman. Discouraged and disheartened, she made the decision to never see him again once the painting was finished.
On the day when it was finished, she stood there nervously waiting for him to unveil it. When he did, she stared at it in disbelief. It was absolutely beautiful. She couldn’t believe that it was her. Was that how he saw her? She was at a loss for words. Tears sprang to her eyes but she blinked them back.
He looked at her intently. “Well, what do you think?” he asked.
He smiled. “I’m glad you think so. I think it’s my best work.”
She glanced at him. “It is?” she exclaimed.
“Yes. Thank you for letting me paint you.”
“No one has painted me before.”
“Well, I’m glad that I’m the first.”
“What are you going to do with it?”
“Are you going to show it to anyone? To Mr. Sorje?”
“I don’t know.” He put the veil back over it and then he walked to the door. “Let’s go for a walk,” he suggested. “It’s a beautiful afternoon. We can go to the field where that old signpost is.”
“Okay.” They had never gone anywhere together. Usually, after sitting for hours, she would leave the studio and head straight home. This was a nice change.
They made their way across the courtyard which flanked the villa and across the immaculate grounds in the direction of the deep green fields surrounded with nettles. When they reached the signpost, she picked a few nettles. “Mama suffers from gout,” she explained. She put the nettles in to pocket of her skirt. He was right. It was a beautiful day. She raised her face toward the sun, smiling as she felt its warmth.
Juan was suddenly standing in front of her, blocking the sun. He gazed down at her for several minutes. The expression on his face made her heart pound and her breath quicken. Then, his face was getting closer to hers and she felt his lips on hers. Instinctively, she responded and the kiss deepened. She closed her eyes and raised her arms to grip his broad shoulders, her fingers digging into the material of his shirt. Her head was spinning and her knees felt weak. She had no idea of how long they kissed but when he drew back, she felt as if she were going to pass out. When he released her, she leaned heavily against the signpost.
“I’d better take you home,” he said quietly. He waited for her to compose herself and then they headed slowly back the way they came. They didn’t say much and when they got to her house, he bade her farewell and left. She wondered if she would see him again now that the portrait was finished.
A week passed since they last saw each other and she found herself thinking about him constantly and longing to see him again. Then, that afternoon, she decided to go to his studio. She expected him to be alone and was shocked when she didn’t. Never in her life had she ever lost her temper like that. Overcome with jealousy, she had acted like a shrew. Now she felt ashamed—ashamed that she had allowed her feelings for Juan to cause her to fly off the handle.
“I knew I’d find you here.” His voice jolted her back to the present.
He was towering above her, hands on hips, staring down at her. She hadn’t heard him at all. She had been so deep in thought. Raising her chin defiantly, she snapped, “Go away and leave me alone.”
“What is the matter with you?”
“Nothing!” She made to get up. He held out his hand to help her up but ignoring it, she scrambled to her feet.
“Does this have anything to do with Rosa?”
Jahara’s mouth tightened. “Is that her name? Rosa?”
Juan’s lips twitched. “Yes. Her name means rose, flower.”
“Why don’t you go back to your flower and leave me alone?”
“If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were jealous of her.”
“I’m not jealous,” she denied.
His expression became serious. “You have no reason to be, Jahara. She’s just someone whom I was commissioned to paint.”
“Why do you have to paint her in the nude?”
“It is what her husband wants.”
“Husband? She’s married?”
“Oh,” was all she could say.
He moved closer. “You have no reason to be jealous of Rosa or any other woman.”
Her eyes were wide as they met his and her breath caught in her throat when he raised his hand and rubbed his knuckles gently against her cheek. Was he going to kiss her again? With all her heart she hoped so.
Juan lowered his head and kissed her. She clung to him as his strong arms encircled her waist. The kiss lasted for several minutes and when he raised his head to gaze down into her face, she opened her eyes. “Promise me that you won’t paint any more women in the nude.”
He smiled. “I promise.”
Satisfied, she pulled his head down to hers.
I was inspired by the story of Juan de Pareja, Diego Velázquez’s enslaved assistant whom the Spanish painter freed in 1654. de Pareja’s 1661 work The Calling of Saint Matthew is on display at the Museo del Prado in Madrid, Spain (Metropolitan Museum of Art).
This story was written for the #writephoto Prompt – Decisions at Sue Vincent’s Daily Echo.