“Self-Portrait with Windmill”

When the windmill’s blades slice the air, the rotors in my joints chuff and work out the rusted exhaustion in my wrist gears. My steel phalanges pincer my reed-slender brush. Its stem is stiff in my grip, its application to the canvas, faltering. When the bristles touch, they fan paint in strokes feathered and soft as dandelion seeds. In impressionistic daubs the image manifests itself: another rendition of the windmill, but this time the sun hovers behind a vanishing point where the sweeping grasses converge. I paint what I witness: a blood-orange corona haloed around the sturdy windmill’s tower, beams of light lashing in wheat-golden stalks.

Silhouettes dash hand-in-hand. They could be children or lovers: distance renders all playful things the same stature. I paint them as black streaks emboldened with silver, their movements adzing across the frame.

The wind slows. My gears stagger, as if breathless; the brush trembles between my plying fingers; the bristles hover and aim for the final stroke of the joyful silhouettes: they are lovers, caressing each other’s faces.

The windmill’s blades stutter. A seizure wracks my delicate clockwork innards, convulses the tubing and gears in my arms. The force of a vise constricts my body, chokes me into stillness. The final dash must wait, but it cannot wait: the lovers have gone, uncaptured.

*

A system of elaborate, subterranean cranks joins the windmill’s wheels to a revolving rod in my spine. This rod, in turn, rotates the clockworks in my thorax, which compel my sinuous pulleys and geared joints into activity. A series of pistons pump various colors of paint through my fingers, into the stem of the brush, and through the bristles. I have not yet divined how the bristles cleanse themselves, but I am assured the process must be automatic: my brush has never muddied two colors, except when design necessitates the mixing of a pigment unknown to my palette.

When the wind is dead, I slumber without dreams.

When I am at rest, a hawk perches on my skull and surveys the fields for vermin. He is a successful hunter: often, I have awoken to him eviscerating a squirrel, blood trickling scarlet over my left lens. A mother wren nests in the hollow of my bowels, which she accesses by delicately threading herself under the pauldrons of my shoulders, into the narrow, underarm orifices leading into my cuirass. “Pauldrons, cuirass”: the armorial terms that the men in coveralls have given to my shoulders, my breast and back. The mother wren sees only an awning over the entry to her haven. I know this, because she once slipped into my frame while I was painting a workman leaving the windmill, a sack of flour hoisted on his shoulder.

I wonder how the mother wren and her many broods have survived, for they are delicate things. Fragile things, not unlike my clockwork innards. The wrens make me sing: some days my guts chime like tin bells, birdsong resounding against the walls of my abdomen.

*

A bluster buffets the windmill, and I chatter into operation, limbs and fingers a frenetic clatter of gears and screws and shafts and pulleys guiding thread-thin cables. In my vision’s periphery, I detect a strange scarlet effusion, perhaps the patina of a distant bonfire. The brush titters even in the plier-strength of my mechanical fingers: the wind jerks the brush away from the controlled symmetry of my mechanized movement.

With hands dirty from clay and garments brown from play, children flock about me. They jab their thumbnails into the screwheads securing my body. A child cracks a fingernail in an attempt to loosen my parts and then cries. They cannot separate me so easily. A man in coveralls swats at the youngsters until they step back. He then applies a gauzy cloth to my left lens: he spits on the glass, rubs again. My vision clears: no distant bonfire, but evidence of the hawk again rending its prey atop my head, my visage a testament to its gory appetites.

The man in coveralls applies a screwdriver to my temples, my elbows, my wrists. He reprimands the children for their meddling. “This,” he declares, wagging the screwdriver at them, “is one of the last painting automata, designed to prove the superior beauty of Monsieur Monet’s en plein air technique. Quit that meddling—it’s a rather delicate mechanism.”

The children continue prodding at my frame, until the man chases them. He is brandishing tools like little swords, little axes. They scamper off to the periphery, where moments before I had perceived an unquenchable blaze.

*

Today the winds languish; the windmill’s blades plod, reticent as the draft horses hauling plows on the distant fields. It is planting season, again, and women with satchels of seed follow the horses. The beasts’ sinuous necks are dappled iridescent with sweat. The women scatter sprays of seeds with the passion of tears. The seeds settle like ash in the earth’s furrowed rows. As ever, a sun-bleached and blank canvas is on the easel before me. The replacement of my finished canvases: this too must be automatic.

Blankness awaits me. I transpose onto this frame the shuffling of horses, the stoop-shouldered women, the seeds sieved through their palms. My lenses engage with a slow snarl, focus on the details of their clawed hands, the chalky dust on their palms. The lenses groan again, panning out from the bodies. But too far: the stoic grey of my brush-wielding hand has entered the frame. Faithfully, I record my interference on the canvas.

*

When the windmill’s blades slice the air, the rotors in my joints grate and catch on the hooked head of a crowbar. A raven is sitting on my knee, its beak prizing a polished screw. A man in coveralls has a screwdriver to my temple and his hot breath leaves mottles of condensation on my skin.

The brush snaps in the vise grip of my phalanges. Sinews of wood spray at the raven. Runnels of paint surge from the shattered shaft, a muddy wetness splattering my lap. The bird caws, hoarse, buffets my flank with its wing. It takes flight and soars toward the windmill.

The man in coveralls says, “You bird bastard.” The severed paint tubes in my arm and the brush’s shaft have already coagulated into a severe scab, plated with black and navy and burnt orange and copper. Then my forehead snaps off, clatters against my bicep and onto my lap. There is a cold moment of black—did the wind halt?—but in moments the clockworks in my torso ratchet again. My hand, arrested, jitters with a snapped brush at a slashed canvas.

The man in coveralls pries off my chin; the snap of cold again, then rotors engaging. The windmill’s blades still cut through the air. Rusted parts are shedding into a silent heap.

About Patrick Thomas Henry

Patrick Thomas Henry is the Associate Editor for Fiction and Poetry at Modern Language Studies, and he teaches creative writing at the University of North Dakota. His work has recently appeared in or is forthcoming from Duende, Souvenir Lit, Massachusetts Review, and Passages North, amongst other publications, and he has recently contributed book reviews to Necessary Fiction and Entropy. He lives in Grand Forks, ND, with his wife and their cat. You can find him on Twitter: @Patrick_T_Henry.