Copper, Ink, Ghost: A Series of Etchings

by M.E. Bronstein

1/3 Copper

Maybe the Printmaker has spent too much time etching the forest into copper plate. All the bright brown leaves around her look like flakes of copper, and it’s become so easy to confuse the two: the real forest and its flattened imitation. As the Printmaker paces between the trees, she tries to remember where she really is. She hopes that the Witch will not die this time.

And then, there she is—the Witch—curled up atop a bed of pine needles and blue flowers. The Printmaker does not awaken her; instead, she crouches, studies her from a distance, and imagines the contours of a sketch. It would be wrong to unsettle any part of the forming picture.

But then the picture changes, heedless of the Printmaker’s wishes:

Ferns and weeds unfurl, blossom through the Witch’s skin and then wither, grow brittle with rime. One eye rolls wide open and stares unseeing at the canopy, while the other socket hollows out into a cavern, fills up with the melted gel of vitreous humor, then burgeoning nobs of fungus, then frost—

For a moment, the Printmaker remains transfixed by the shifting scene—“scene” is the word for it, as the Witch is no longer herself but part of the background, the earth, and the Printmaker realizes that yes, she has lost the difference between forest and artwork, and she is looking at the Witch like she is a portrait of decay. Like the old paintings and engravings of silver platters overladen with ripe plums and jewel-like lemons set in ribbons of cut peel, and then a putrid grape, a moldering crust in the corner. A memento mori. A reminder of death amid so much abundance.

That does the trick—the Printmaker remembers everything about the Witch that she would rather forget.

And she staggers away into a run. Back to the workshop, to fix that.

The image lingers. Both images: the sleeping Witch curled up atop a bed of springtime flowers, and the dead thing that was once the Witch, frozen over by winter.

The Printmaker bevels the edges of a new copper plate, polishes it until it shines like a mirror, her own chin, nose, and brow ambered upon its surface. She opens a jar of wax ground, coats the plate once, twice, until her reflected chin, nose, and brow disappear beneath a layer of opaque yellow-gray.

And then she starts with the bad image. The rotting Witch, the winter Witch.

The Printmaker’s burin skitters across the surface of the wax. She picks out the outline of the dead leaves, the maggots, the Witch’s bones. The trees that lean around the Witch, weighed down by a burden of snow, echo the arc of her ribs.

The Printmaker drops the plate into a basin where corrosive acid simmers against the hatch-marks she has cut through the wax, and the acid eats, it burns into the plate.

When the Printmaker fishes the plate out and rubs the wax away, they mingle: the Witch’s features, etched into the metal, and the Printmaker’s broken reflection where the plate has become smooth and mirror-like again. The hatch-marks look a little like stitches holding their images together. Pieces of the Witch’s outline woven into the Printmaker’s.

The Printmaker wishes she could show the picture to someone who might understand, but everyone is gone. The Witch, the nearest town, the prospect of an apprentice or two. Depicting her has become a way of feeling a little less alone, at the very least. Even when the Witch’s image seems to taunt her.

When the Printmaker ventures into the forest the next morning, she stumbles across the sleeping Witch yet again.

And the Witch rots—her bones glow as snow gathers across the earth—

The Printmaker runs—

And then a memory of the Witch bites into copper.

The Printmaker is striving after something. Another kind of image. The woman she would prefer to remember, as she first found her in the spring…

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Image by Bruno /Germany from Pixabay