The Pen of Plenty (or A Portrait of an Artist as the Entire Universe)
"Take this Boris, may it serve you well!", a booming voice commanded, as a hand, holding a shining writing implement, extended towards me.
I was all of thirteen years old when the Hand from Above bestowed the Pen of Plenty upon me.
" You shall be my voice! I shall speak through you with this pen. You shall be a conduit to that Other Reality, the one inhabited by Eternal Truths, Infinite Beauty and Ineffable Questions. From this pen will spring forth an inexhaustible flow of Magic, you will not be able to help begetting works of perfection, each one more perfect than the one before it.
There is a price to pay. You will not be able to feel, smile, laugh, love, pursue ordinary human activities. You will only be able to write, writing alone shall be your existence.
You shall move solely in the Infinite, Eternal, Universal sphere. You will capture and portray through your writings every permutation, manifestation and aspect of life, yet you shall remain cut off from mankind.
This pen shall be the bathyscaphe with which you will descend to the lowest abysses, and it shall be the alpenstock with which you will ascend to the highest heights not yet scaled by mankind. The world will ostracize, scorn, misunderstand, persecute, laugh at you and it will cherish, adore, worship, celebrate you. But you will stay numb, unmoved by both love and loathing.
You will not know how to be young, yet you will not grow old and will stay a man-child, for, by not partaking in the outer world, you shall be free of its deleterious effects.
You will give life to an infinity of uniquely bizarre, wondrous realities, yet you yourself will be a mere metaphor, an empty shell of a shadow, never being able to feel real, concrete. The worlds you engender will be suffused with sensation and meaning, while your own outer reality will be bare, senseless and pedestrian by comparison.
This pen shall be the flame that will illuminate truths as yet invisible, you will help others find their identity, will bring clarity and enlightenment to humanity, will reveal the underlying, inner structure of existence, yet you will be forever lost, confused, at odds with yourself and the world, drifting aimlessly through existence, a jellyfish in the ocean of life.
This pen shall speak with a thousand voices, educing hysterical laughter, uncontrollable tears, twisting minds into Moebius strips, creating transcendental beauty that will stop others dead in their tracks, dumbfounded with awe, even if they have had just a fleeting contact with it, but you will be blind and deaf to its powers and will stay frozen inside. You will feel no pride or pleasure in your creations, for you will know that you are merely a conduit.
But even though this is a Pen of Creative Cornucopia, one day it shall run out and will write no more. Consequently, writing will be the hardest and most terrifying task of your existence, for you will be forever insecure, not knowing when you no longer will be able to create any more. Yet, before that time comes, you shall be flooded with a ceaseless deluge that will demand every instant of your life and your very sanity.
Once you take this pen, it can never be un-taken, you can never disown it or rid yourself of it."
The voice stopped. I waited a while for it to resume, but it remained silent. Then, with childish, reckless eagerness, I extended my hand upwards, to meet the hand reaching down from above, caring not at all about the consequences.
The Writer sits in his room, writing at his desk. He has access to the deepest secrets and mysteries of the Universe, but the question that the whole world, from the tiniest and simplest organism upwards, seems to know the answer to, he can not solve: " Why live?"
The Writer is torn apart by two contradictory thoughts that occupy his mind simultaneously and seem equally valid. He is certain that he is blind to a fundamental truth that the rest of the world is in possession of, for how else can one explain the whole world choosing life over death and existing with a purpose, something that he is not capable of. Yet he also knows that he is in possession of a fundamental truth that the rest of the world is blind to, for if it was privy to this truth, it would not be able to live in certainty.
The Writer is triply trapped by his room, his mind and his pen. Occasionally, overcome by curiosity and longing, he steals a brief, wistful glimpse, through the window, of the world outside that is teeming and pulsating with life in all of its infinite variations, life that he can never be a part of and whose simple pleasures he could never enjoy or grasp the meaning of. Other times he catches sight of a sliver of the sky that is visible to him from his sitting position. But he immediately feels guilty for neglecting his sacred task and hurriedly resumes scribbling, letter after letter, word after word, sentence after sentence, in his notebooks of madness.
Life passes him by, and then death passes him by too. He has no time for life and he has no time for death either. Neither life nor death can arouse his interest or get their hands on him, and just as he has forgotten all about time, so time has forgotten all about him. In any case, the Writer can not die, for the pen is still working and so he must keep on writing, for his commitment to his pen is greater than his commitment to life and death.
Years, centuries, millennia, billions of years elapse. The Sun expands into a red giant and then collapses into a white dwarf. The stars are torn apart by the forces of the Universe's expansion, and the protons themselves rot into pieces. Cosmos begins to wind down, all of its energy having dissipated and turned into useless forms. Then the fabric of space-time dissolves.
Still, the Writer remains writing at his desk, which is now floating in vacuum, separate from time and space. Now and then he sneaks looks at the outside world, even though nothing remains there but pure nothingness.
And then, for the very first time, something leads the Writer to take a close look at the pen he was gifted with. He examines it carefully and notices the faded blue letters forming the words MADE IN CHINA etched on its side. Distant memories come flooding back to him, memories of his mother buying pens at the local supermarket, for the start of the new school year; memories of the bare walls of the bathroom that distorted the acoustics, and how he liked to speak to himself there and listen to his boy voice transforming into the stentorian voice of a man. He remembers standing in the bathroom and hearing a million voices calling out his name, then turning around and seeing all of humanity in the mirror looking back at him, as his left hand passed the pen to his right hand.
The Writer now realizes that he is the Creator. Having had encompassed the Universe with his mind, the Writer expands to encompass the Universe with his body, so that the Universe and the Writer become one and the same, identical entities, coinciding precisely with one another.
With quiet satisfaction the Writer slowly puts the pen down and that is how the Universe (and this story) ends, not with a bang or a whimper, but with a .
Editor's Note: This story was inspired by the painting The Gift, by Alex Grey. We have substituted the Escher image because we were not able to procure permission to use the original image. We would appreciate it if you would click here to view the inspiration piece.
Boris Glikman is a writer, poet and philosopher from Melbourne, Australia. The biggest influences on his writing are dreams, Kafka and Borges. His stories, poems and non-fiction articles have been published in various online and print publications, as well as being featured on national radio and other radio programs.
The Giant Egg
Where exactly the giant egg was found is no longer remembered clearly.
What is certain is that an egg of such a size had never been observed before and it dwarfed the sightseers who gathered to gawk at it. The immediate instinctive reaction was to attempt to crack it open right where it lay to see what was within, but a voice screamed out above the din of the excited crowd that something rotten, perhaps even a half-decayed gigantic monstrosity, could be inside.
It was therefore decided to drag the giant egg to a nearby beach so the sand could absorb any putrid liquids that might leak out once the shell was broken, and the ocean could then be used as a trash can to dispose of every trace of this aberration’s existence.
Engineers arrived on the scene to draw plans for the most effective way of breaking the shell. Environmentalists gathered to ensure the surrounding land would not become too contaminated, should the egg release any foulness. Scaffolding was erected all around the egg, upon which an army of labourers hammered relentlessly at the egg's thick, concrete-like shell.
No one can recall how much time it took for the workers to make even the slightest dent in the shell or how long it was before the first visible cracks appeared on the surface of the mysterious egg. The spectacle of the egg unveiling its secret was just so overwhelming that all other details faded into obscurity.
An awed hush swept over the crowded beach as the inner contents slowly came into view. Some could not bear the stress of the suspense and turned their backs; others even ran away. But those who stayed to watch are unanimous in their recollections of the wonder of the moment when a golden star, bathing the surroundings in soft light, drifted calmly out of the broken shell and settled cozily upon the horizon, as though it had always belonged there.
Boris Glikman is a writer, poet and philosopher from Melbourne, Australia. The biggest influences on his writing are dreams, Kafka and Borges. His stories, poems and non-fiction articles have been published in various online and print publications, as well as being featured on national radio and other radio programs.
The Glass Painter
It was the Friday after Carnival Day, 1521, when I first met with Albrecht Durer, the most honoured guest of our guild. It was also the day they found the woman's body in the wharf.
My master, and Dean of St. Luke's, Dirick Jacobsz Vellert, had travelled to Dilbeek on business. He was not due to return to Antwerp until the week after the Festival of Judiz. I was at my bench, poring over sketches for a rondel pane of St Alena when I felt a hand gently shake my shoulder. I should have sensed whose hand it was by the depth of silence that had befallen the other glass painters and apprentices. I'd no idea that Durer had been standing behind me, studying my work.
"Come with me,” Durer said.
I wiped the charcoal from my fingers and flung on my cape.
Durer did not speak again until we were outside a print works, where he stopped to poke at the pavement with his stick. Around the gutter, where the apprentices tipped their buckets of ink-wash, ice crystals of many frozen hues built and grew as if vitrified.
"Sir, is this what you wanted to show me?” I asked.
He peered in though my eyes and it was as if my innermost thoughts and secrets were rendered clear and comprehensible to him,” You're skilled but your work is mimicry. How did you manage to conceal yourself in the guild for so long?”
"How do you hide your breasts?”
Despite the fierce cold my face burned and I shook. It was as if God Himself had called me out.
I stared at the frozen ground between his boots.
When he led me down the wharf steps and across the ice I prayed a chasm might rent and the merciful waters engulf me. But his intention was not to expose me.
A crowd of skaters and gawkers gathered in a semi-circle around the side of a merchant's fluyt. We pushed our way to the front.
A market trader, with a brace of four chickens tied to her belt, knelt and wept.
An old man, with a once-wise face, clothed in ragged finery, stared with a terrifying vacancy.
The fool from the inn clasped his marotte; a heartbeat's echo, he tapped it softly against his chest, and for once he uttered not a word.
The dead woman was frozen into the underside of the ice, her face in profile, a bloated arm hooked around the ship's anchor rope, her skin mottled and pale as white glass and grisaille. A frond of golden hair flowed from under her white bonnet and swayed in the current.
Some murmured she'd been the mindless old man's wife.
Durer took hold of my arm and spoke in whisper, ”I have a merchant from Cambridge, England, his client demands fidelity to the eye and alchemy of imagination. You will work in my studio, at night, under my instruction until your master returns. Are you willing to take the risk to know yourself, girl?”
author's note: "No one can agree who the artist was, although some speculate it could have originated from the studios of Dirick Vellert; he was the Master of the Guild of St Luke, Antwerp. If it had been painted in 1521, that was the year Durer visited and stayed in Antwerp, often as guest of Vellert. I found it fascinating to speculate, given Durer’s exposure to some of the more radical arguments of humanism in that year, if the artist who painted this image could have been a woman. There’s no historical evidence to suggest this might be the case but the idea of a 16th century female artist at the centre of the Lowlands Renaissance was too compelling not to explore as a fictional narrative."
Andy Barnett is a student at the University of Cambridge in the Uk. Andy comes from a former mining village on the Nottinghamshire-Derbyshire border, which during the Ice Age, was the most northerly point our ancestors settled in Europe. He prefers manual jobs and working outdoors. He hasn’t set foot in an office for the last thirty years. He likes visiting Cambridge University because it is quiet and the buildings are surrounded by fields and trees. Next year, hopefully, he is going to step up to the MSt in Creative Writing and he would eventually like to study for a PhD.
So far, Andy’s writing has been published in the Prague Revue and Zetetic: A Record of Unusual Inquiry. His visual interpretation of the work of the Romantic Poets was sold in greeting card format through the Tate Gallery in London. In-between his university coursework and writing flash fiction and short stories, he’s working on a gritty northern novel which is set in a former mining village on the Nottinghamshire-Derbyshire border.
Dischord of Analogy
One fine, sunny day, they realized it was futile to go on pretending things would work out between them. Separation became an urgent necessity, yet neither he nor she had anywhere else to stay.
After considering a number of options, it was decided she would move to living on the ceiling.
Half the furniture, including the double bed and the piano (her most treasured possession), were moved up there as well. A light globe was inserted into the floor to provide illumination for the ceiling dweller.
After an inevitable period of awkwardness and inconvenience, things returned to normal. He led his life and she hers.
Although it would not have been very difficult for them to communicate, they each carried on as if the other didn't exist, just so they could maintain the illusion of privacy. This way, they could deny the fact that they were hanging above each other's heads and observing and judging one another's every action.
The piano became the sole link between him and her. Its sound, refusing to respect the artificial boundaries, permeated the silence and spread equally to every point of the room…connecting, in spite of themselves, their senses and their souls. Thus, by a slender aural thread, their love did hang on. Separation eventually turned to reconciliation and an even stronger love prevailed.
The piano became their conjugal bed.
Boris Glikman is a writer, poet and philosopher from Melbourne, Australia. The biggest influences on his writing are dreams, Kafka and Borges. His stories, poems and non-fiction articles have been published in various online and print publications, as well as being featured on national radio and other radio programs.
Nancy Drew Anthology from Silver Birch Press
I am most excited to announce that one of my paintings is featured in the new Nancy Drew Anthology from Silver Birch Press.
How amazing it is to see the names of quite a number of Ekphrastic's contributors listed as authors and artists. I can't wait to get my copy! Get yours here.
A blur of purple and red flashed through Roger Johnson's mind as he stood by his easel. He saw it quickly, a long, purple streak, headed in a ball of blood red that reminded him of a flower petal. He thought suddenly that he might paint a flower, or a bloom of some kind. He caught on this word, bloom, and repeated it to himself. Bloom, he thought. A bloom. He pictured a flower bursting open but did not see the petals, only their motion. He could not focus on them though he tried. He asked himself why he should paint a bloom. He hit on no answer and felt that he might have to paint some type of bloom to learn why he wished it. As an artist, he believed the question one worth considering. He wanted perspective on the matter. He decided he could find some more readily if he went for a walk in the city.
On the morning he made to go out, Roger surveyed the scene outside his window. Among the old buildings across the street was a square-fronted one with a checkerboard of windows. Beside it stood a warehouse building of bluish stone, worn and old. Two limestone office towers flanked its right. The young artist imagined the buildings across the street as large, hard blocks belonging to a long wall. This wall he thought might hide something he should see. He pictured not having the blocks of the buildings so that he could see past them. By the last building at the street corner, the light of the new day shone. It edged the side of the building, the sky a solid yellow beyond it. He would go toward that light and walk into the town he thought. Roger dressed in an old blue shirt, khakis, and worn sneakers. He went from his apartment down the stairs and emerged at the street. On the sidewalk, a man in a suit and a fedora walked, his briefcase in hand. Next came a woman in a dark outfit, the new morning light before her. Roger knew the people were walking for the bus stop down the street where they would get taken downtown to work. They walked and Roger went with them. He went with the warm, bright light in his thin beard and large, brown eyes. When the people reached the bus stop, Roger continued past it further east.
He turned onto a new street. He saw the cement walk beneath him had broken into large, jagged plates along several cracks. Within the cracks grew very short grass and weeds. The weeds in many cracks were bent, their stalks coiled against the cement. The weeds’ green and yellow heads showed strong against the sidewalk’s gray as they pushed the cement upward in small bulges. Roger thought of the force pent inside the cracks and believed the weeds would come through despite the cement. He imagined without knowing the reason that the half-hidden weeds would be tall and strong and grow large.
Roger continued along the walk and saw one of his friends ahead. Fred was another young artist as he was. Fred had a dark wavy bush of hair on his head and a wide pale forehead. His eyes were set, dark and wide. He walked as if tired. When he approached, he failed to see Roger because of the bend in the street. As he took the bend, however, he recognized Roger and his face changed. His eyes softened. The grey in his face left and a light pink entered it. His lips lost their hard line and rose at the corners in a knowing smile as he came toward Roger. Fred had come to life when it seemed he would not, Roger thought.
“Hey, Roger, good to see you,” Fred said, arriving before him. “Nice day to be out, isn’t it? Just look at this sky we’ve got.”
Roger peered toward the sky to confirm it was. The open blue above him had a few white clouds passing. The tallest and thickest of these had white, fat billows emerging from its side. The sunlight in the clear sky gave the cloud a bright sheen. Roger remembered his idea for the bloom. “Yes, it is a good sky. Should be a beautiful day. So how have you been? Painting?”
“Trying anyway. I always can try if I don’t succeed.”
“I don’t think you should say that. Not when you go at it like you do.”
“Hope that I can keep it up.”
“How is it you’re out?”
“I’m going to the store for paints. I’m dong a panorama and it’ll need a full palette. I’m trying to make something of the picture this time. And why are you out?”
“I had to get outside, away from my studio. So I’m taking a walk.”
“To anywhere special?”
“I don’t know yet. Just out.”
“It can be fun avoiding the easel. The canvas needs to relax its charm sometime.”
“No, I really do have to get today. For my own reasons.” Roger disliked to say he had thought of a painting. He had spoken early about other ideas for paintings and been embarrassed at his words. “Well, I don't want to hold you any longer from your painting. I promise I’ll stop by your place soon.”
The friends parted and Roger continued down the cracked sidewalk. He took a new street and arrived at the city park. The park was many small green hills on the side of a larger. Its dark green maples and oaks stood in fours and fives separated by wide stretches of grass. The grass was spring green and grew fine. Throughout the park were asphalt paths that cut between the many hills and clustered trees. Roger walked one from the street and went until he spotted a purple aster in the grass by his way. Since the flower seemed like the one he hoped to paint, he thought he might glean something by observing it. He sat on the nearby bench and studied the aster. The purple aster was short, standing hardly an inch taller than the grass. Its head was larger than that of most asters he had seen and this bowed its stalk. The flower’s many, close petals made a neat ring around its centre.
As he watched, the breeze came and shook the flower, so that it bobbed, swishing side to side. The flower bent, twirled and again bent showing its lighter underside in rolls. As the small aster shifted, Roger considered drawing it. He felt it would be hard to decide on a starting point after he mulled the different views he had of it. Any flex and bend of the flower might have made a good angle for it. He thought it might help him if he had another flower to compare to the first. He surveyed the grass near him and discovered none. However, he saw a garbage can up the path that held an uncoiled, candy wrapper. The wrapper was peeled back in strands, white and red on the outside, silver inside. The sunlight shone on it as on true silver. When the wind blew, the wrapper strands rustled, twisted and curled. The light on them rose and fell. The wrapper and its motion were very much like the aster, Roger thought.
As he observed it, he heard a louder rustle from somewhere else and raised his head. Further down the path, a grey-haired man in a business suit was reading the newspaper on a bench. The man held the paper before him so the folds showed where the newspaper had bent. The folds bulged and the light reflected white along them. The man bent the newspaper to read some item on the bottom half of the sheet. He read it quickly, straightened the paper, and turned to the next page opening the paper wide. He skimmed, bending the page up then down. The paper rose and fell. The man folded and bent the newspaper much as the aster and the wrapper bent with the wind. Roger left his bench and walked down the path, now curious in the park scene. He rounded the corner and stopped by an ice cream someone had dropped on the asphalt. The vanilla was melting in the midday sun, the wafer cone atop it tilted and sinking. The melted cream lay thick and white in a puddle that oozed outwards. He watched the cream spread in streams rolling outward. The cream puddle expanded and whitened the asphalt path. Roger liked seeing the cream expand like the cloud in the sky earlier. Somehow it made him think of painting the bloom. He did not know why.
Roger took the park path to the street and followed it to a diner. It was near the end of lunchtime, and Roger took a table near the window and had a sandwich and grape juice brought him. He let the food sit as he took some paper napkins from the dispenser and a black pen from his pocket. He sketched the bloom he planned to paint. He drew first a small, round button for the centre of the flower, exactly as he had imagined in his vision of the bloom. The button appeared on the page too small when done, even while it matched his idea of the thing. He embellished the button by ringing it in petals close together like on the park aster. He drew the petals thin. Beneath the flower head, he added a toothpick stalk. He found the petals in the sketch too difficult to see due to the picture’s perspective. The drawing appeared more like a T than a flower because of it.
Setting aside this sketch, Roger seized a new napkin and drew a water lily. He drew it with wide fat petals upturned in a half circle. He drew the back petals raised in a wall, the two largest petals furrowed. He believed the furrows were too dark for the lily once he set them. In the lily’s middle, he set a dark, patch-like blotch. He left the blotch ragged, unsure whether to round it. Then he drew a pair of antenna-like pistols to the flower. They were dark, straight, and knob-ended; he thought they did not belong in the picture.
On a new napkin, Roger drew a second aster. He tilted the flower head, so that its face turned part way to him. He made the petals very thin and fine, but rounded their ends. The petals appeared very regular, any difference in them hard to find. He set a rounded button in the flower face, raised like a small mound. Taking his next napkin, Roger sketched a daisy’s head from the side. He showed the left side of the flower raised in a half cup, blocking the view of the flower centre. He drew the petals on the daisy’s right side peeking above these. He studied the picture when he had done and dwelled on the flower’s hidden centre. He felt he should have shown it. The centre had to be seen, open and developed, he told himself.
On another napkin, Roger drew a new aster. He set its petals flat in a circle seen from above and marked them off by clear, thin lines. He left the inside of the petals unadorned. He drew the flower centre as an O and bordered it in heavy black. He considered the neat, blank O but saw no good way to develop it. He set aside the sketch with the others. He found he was hungry now. He picked up the sandwich that had sat untouched on his plate and raised it to his mouth. The sandwich had a lettuce leaf, a wedge of red pepper, and a long, accordioned cold cut between two pieces of wheat bread. He liked the coloured layers of the sandwich. Sort like a sunset at the beach, he thought. After taking a large bite from the sandwich, Roger drank some grape juice. The juice was purple and went down cool. As he finished the sandwich and his drink, he studied the napkins sketches on the table. They sat in a disheveled pile. He felt the overlapped napkins had something to do with his idea of the bloom, if not more. He studied them hoping to grasp how but could not. He rolled up the sketches, put them in his breast pocket, and left the diner.
Roger followed the street down to the one with the cracked sidewalk. The sun had come more overhead, its light a strong white on the cement. The cracks had lost their morning shadow and their innards showed. They glared with mica and small, pale pebbles. The grass in the cracks had become a vivid green and the largest blades showed bent like bows against the cement. The weeds’ heads around the grass had turned into blotches of yolk yellow. The whole scene had a gaudy look and he disliked it. He sped for the shade of a building up ahead, glad to go.
Roger made the avenue he had taken east that morning and returned to his apartment. He walked past his living room and kitchen space straight to his studio. The room was the quietest in the apartment so he did his art there. The studio had a bare wood floor and white walls; a few canvases sat in a corner of it. A steel framed easel stood in the middle of the room; by this on the floor were a palette and paint tubes. Amber light came through the Venetian blinds from the long bay window to the street. Roger set a blank canvas on the easel and placed his palette beside it. He smeared different colour paints from his tubes onto the palette and mixed a few with a brush. He had done deliberating on flowers, the park, and the sun and meant to paint a bloom. He seized his paint brush then and mulled his first stroke. He dabbed his brush in some black and brought it to the canvas bottom. He thought to create the flower centre as a long blotch. He made a blot with his paint and spread it some on the canvas.
However, he stopped and withdrew his brush quickly. The blotch did not seem right for a centre, he felt; it was too dark and solid, the black too thick for the petals of a flower. He cleansed the brush of black and dabbed it in some purple and grey that he thinned with water. He brought his brush just above the black blotch he had done and made a careful, first stroke. He drew the brush upward and put a short, grey-purple streak on the canvas. He hesitated as he studied it. Suddenly, the white canvas and the purple on it seemed to go fluid and relax. He extended the purple stroke rightwards in a short, low arc before bending it downward. He made the stroke level near the canvas bottom and ended it by the corner. He studied this line and rendered another above it. He began this right over the starting point of his first. He brought the new stroke toward the right, leaving a wide gap above the first. He arched this line long while letting it bulge upward. He then had it drop and flatten as the first line had done.
He returned his brush above his starting point and began a next stroke. He watched the lines unroll and take shape. He considered how to paint each. He saw the long arc that started the third line he set and decided to bulge it in the middle to contrast the two flatter lines beneath it. He had a sense of freedom in adding this line; he did not hesitate and set it feeling it was rightly done. He made the arches that began his new lines lengthen and flatten and the curves that descended from them drop more sharply and shortly the higher he moved on the canvas. After he had added several of the thinner lines, he saw how they had mounted. He felt the lily, for this was the flower he was creating, should stay low and close to the canvas bottom so made the next lines of purple grey closer together than the earlier. He finished the top of the lily petal with them. He filled the gaps between the lines in broad strokes of mauve. The mauve gave a somber, still mood to the petal’s image.
Roger brought his brush to the canvas bottom to start the lily’s left petal. He did not mean for the petal to be a copy of the right side, which would make the picture too symmetrical. He would not believe in the flower if it were. He decided therefore to paint the petals of the left differently than the right. He made the first line for it arch low and long, its tail flat, nearly straight. This line hugged the canvas bottom closely unlike the one across it on the right. He had the next line rise shallow and hook downward in the middle before going to the canvas’s edge. He made the line’s descent quicker than and not as deep as he had in the second line on the right of the flower. As he painted, he considered the petal colour that he had kept a uniform grey-purple. He dabbed his brush in grey and produced a greyer stroke than earlier. He added purple to his brush and created a thick, vivid line of that colour. He added blue and violet. He finished the petal lines and painted mauve in the gaps between them. He had the mauve dark in the bottom strips but graded the rest darker to lighter toward the left. He found the effect like a change of light across the flower, making it more realistic.
The two petals that made the close-up of the lily sat in the bottom two thirds of the canvas. Above them, Roger added light, graded tones to the canvas. He set strips of yellow, orange, and red among the grey bands. He made the strips thin and uneven, sometimes bent, sometimes rippled. He painted the strips fainter and thinner as they rose above the lily.
When he had done, Roger looked at his painting as he thought of his day. He remembered his first idea of the flower bursting open. How wonderful that had been, he considered. He dropped his eye and saw the black blotch in the bottom of his picture. How he had disliked painting that, he told himself. He admired the purple stroke on the right side of the flower, the first that he set down. He believed it a very neat mark. He remembered the ugly buildings outside his window that he had hoped to see past. All of them should go, he felt for the second time. He noted next the many long strokes that went into the flower on the canvas. He remembered the grass and weeds in the sidewalk that he imagined unfolding when they grew. He revelled in the painted flower's many different shades of colour. He thought of the aster in the park that bent and straightened in the wind. He saw the soft, undulating look he had given the picture’s petals in the centre left. He remembered the neat folds the man gave his newspaper. He pictured the ice cream melting and flowing away on the park path. He remembered folding the piled napkin sketches at the diner.
Roger looked at the lines in the space above the painted flower. He loved all the things he saw and remembered. He sensed a great energy in their number. They all had their beauty and wonder. He could not separate them, excited as he was reflecting on them. He felt then the day with its variety and brilliance had to have fed his painting. Fred’s change of mood, his own new vision of the painting. All of it. Roger felt both glad and proud he had painted the bloom. The bloom had become in its way, he thought, a vision of his life that day, its labour, its bright insightful bursts.
Norbert Kovacs is a short story and flash fiction writer who lives in Hartford, Connecticut. He has been published in Squawk Back and Darkrun Review and has a story forthcoming in Scarlet Leaf Review.
The Love Letter
My name is Pieter van Eyken and I put pen to paper to let you know of the great injustice done to me. The year is 1667 and I live in Delft, Netherlands, where both men and women know of me as an excellent swordsman. Women wish to experience my prowess with the sword I keep in my elegant codpiece, whilst men rarely want to experience how I use the sword I keep in my scabbard.
My friend, Johannes Vermeer, or Jan, has landed me in a pile of manure that reaches my neck and threatens to engulf me.
Jan and I met in ‘56 when we were both twenty-four. He had recently completed a painting named The Procuress that showed himself and a friend in the company of a woman of easy virtue. One day, I was drinking in the Yellow Partridge Inn when an oaf started to berate a gentleman at the table next to me. The lout claimed to be an agent of the Roman church and wanted to punish the artist who dared to depict such a licentious scene. Did I tell you? The times were indeed licentious and the church was doing its utmost to stop people like me from living a life of revelry and lechery. You will therefore understand how I quickly grew tired of the belligerent boor. When some of his spittle landed in my tankard, I leapt to my feet, drew my sword, and threatened to disembowel the man if he did not leave the inn immediately. You must have guessed by now that Johannes Vermeer was the man at the next table. That day saw the start of our friendship.
The incident served to bring about a change in Jan and his style of painting. He turned his eye to peaceful domesticity. Perhaps the move by decent society away from characters like me pushed him in that direction.
His wife of three years, Catharina, was a kind, clean, domesticated woman. She looked up to her Gods whenever I appeared at their door. “Are you yet a libertine?” she always asked before giving me a welcoming embrace.
The city fathers appointed Jan to head one of the town’s guilds, but the honour of the position was less than equalled by the annual stipend that went with it. Catharina’s parents had money, but they gave little, if any, to their daughter. She was, after all, married to an artist. Being a clever (and not entirely honest) gambler, I was able to give a little cash to Jan now and then.
I often hire myself out as a debt collector and take a percentage of whatever I recover as my fee. The debtor, be he a bumpkin, occasionally pays me the same fee. There are times when I offer my services as a protector to escort merchants and their families on their travels. Some say I am mercenary in that I might, on occasion, be one of the bandits from whom they need protection.
Wealthy ladies are often generous to me after I have impaled them on my sword. There is a certain lady (I am sure you understand her name must remain unwritten) who regularly gives me fifty guilders. Not on every visit but on a regular enough basis to keep me interested. As I write these words, I sense you asking why I need money to keep me interested. I shall give you the reasons. One; she demands my undying love, which I tell her she has. (I feel I can tell you that she does not have it, as my heart belongs to another.) Two; the woman is married. (Actually, one would not normally need money for this reason. However, if I am to perpetuate my regret at her status, I must allow her to assuage my angst in the only way she can – with her husband’s money.) Three; she is considerably older than I am. Four; her overweight body is not kept as clean as it could be. Five; and this is a direct result of reasons three and four; the games she likes to play turn my stomach. I would be happier if she played these games with her husband so that she and I might perform manoeuvres that are more conventional. But when all is said and done – and, believe me, this lady has been done every which way - fifty guilders is a considerable sum of money, thus I constantly return and put my nose to the grindstone, so to speak.
The woman does have a delicious sense of humour. She likes to undress me – well, the lower half of me. She often orders me to slowly remove my collar, cuffs, shirt and undershirt while she watches me and sips her wine. Once I stand half-naked before her, she puts down her goblet and reaches for my codpiece. We have developed a game in which she allows me to twist my hips to prevent her from attaining her goal. I must not move my feet, bend at the waist, or employ my hands and arms to defend my personal jewellery. The wheezy woman loves the game so much, she sometimes disables herself with her raucous laughter. Once she gets the last lace sufficiently slackened, she shouts with joy, “Once more into the breeches!”
She-of-fifty-guilders once daringly asked to visit my favourite tavern and so I took her to the Yellow Partridge Inn where we joined a friend and his mistress for supper. The four of us drank litres of beer and dined on salted cod, potatoes, and cabbage. My benefactor caused gales of laughter when, with her mouth full, she cried out; “This is the tastiest cod that has ever been in my mouth.”
I do maintain a genuine interest; one might even say ‘love’, for an unmarried female. Myn Boogan and I met several months ago when I called at her father’s bakery to purchase a cake for she-of-fifty-gilders. A kite hung on the wall at the back of the shop and I asked the girl behind the counter if she enjoyed getting it up.
“I would, if I knew how,” she told me.
“This is your lucky day!” I replied. “I am famous for getting it up. Allow me to take you and your kite to the fields by the river on Sunday and we’ll soar to great heights.”
“And show me some fish on the river bank, no doubt,” she said impishly.
“I’m sure I will find a piece of cod for you,” I replied.
Kites and cod filled our happy Sundays until a few weeks ago.
Myn’s father had a regular order to supply bread to a rich merchant’s family. Unfortunately, the merchant’s wife was unhappy to discover a dead rat in a loaf the family ate one Sunday after returning from church. The hysterical woman told everybody she knew about the incident and the bakery suffered a severe downturn in business, forcing Myn to find work as a maid.
Jan’s paintings were taking on an importance that socially elevated his subjects. Consequently, he knew many rich and influential women in Delft and I asked him if he knew one to whom Myn might apply for work. I was not pleased to hear him tell Myn that she-of-fifty-guilders was looking for a live-in maid. What could I do? Jan was unaware of my visits to the house. I could hardly tell Myn not to seek work in a house that Jan recommended, so I remained silent. As I have already told you, fifty gilders is a lot of money. I wracked my brain but could not think an acceptable reason why Myn should refuse the job.
When she-of-fifty-guilders had not seen me for three weeks, she sent a letter asking me why I had not called on her. I wrote back and told her of an injury from a duel. The woman wished me a speedy recovery and sent me one hundred guilders. I concluded my secret was still safe.
I missed Myn more than I liked to admit. On her one day of freedom each week, she visited her home to give her earnings to her father. She allowed me but an hour of her time under the proviso, “there will be no silliness”. We have been unable to meet for the last two Sundays, as a protracted visit by some of his lordship’s relatives has caused the cancellation of ‘days-off’ for all staff.
I started calculating how much I would need to earn if I became the sort of man Myn would agree to marry. What pastimes would I have to abandon? Perhaps I could buy a horse and cart and start a bakery delivery service. Then I had a brilliant idea – sliced bread! How much further would a loaf stretch if people ate slices instead of chunks? No more dirty hands tearing odd-shaped chunks from a loaf. I would get Jan to help me design a machine to carve a loaf of bread into even slices. I might suggest changing the bakery’s name to Boogan Villa and calling my sliced bread Flour Power.
Then, on a night when I visited my artistic friend, he told me, “Pieter, my friend, you’ll be interested to learn that my latest commission is to paint the woman who is your love’s employer.” He believed that she-of-fifty-guilders had convinced her husband that Jan should paint her portrait to demonstrate her social standing to her husband’s relatives. She did not want a formal painting of her head and shoulders, but preferred a style of painting for which Jan was acquiring an enviable reputation. A scene wherein domesticity is preponderant and the characters exude silence.
It was my opportunity to get a message to Myn. I wanted to tell her to quit her job and marry me. I spent hours choosing the right words. I told her how much I loved her, nay, worshipped her. I told her of my hopes and dreams and how she was an integral part of them. I told her how much I missed her and longed to hold her again. I asked her to give up her position. She should leave everything and start a new life with me. Once the letter was completed, I gave it to Jan to pass to Myn the following day when he went to the house of she-of-fifty-guilders.
I arrived at Jan’s house at sundown the next day. He had not yet returned, and so Catharina gave me a glass of wine and asked if it was true I intended to retire from my life of lechery. Before I could answer, Jan strode noisily into the house, kissed his wife and children, cast his eyes on me, and burst out laughing.
I was not pleased. “What’s so amusing?” I asked.
“You didn’t tell me you service her ladyship,” he accused me.
“It’s none of your business,” I said bluntly.
“It is now, Pieter, it is now.” He started laughing anew. He laughed so hard, he had to hold his ribcage.
Catharina gave him a cup of water. “Tell me, Jan. What gives you so much joy?”
“Not joy; sorrow. The sorrow of seeing such a libertine as Pieter brought so easily down.”
I grasped the hilt of my sword with a threatening manner. “Damn you, Jan. Tell me what has happened.”
My artistic friend held up his hand, took another sip of water, then put down the cup. He opened his leather carry-case and extracted sketches made that day. “Her ladyship wants to use this scene for the painting.” He held out a charcoal sketch showing she-of-fifty-gilders sitting with a mandolin on her lap and holding a letter in her right hand. Myn stood in the background, looking as if she had just delivered the missive.
I let go of my sword. “Please tell me that is not my letter.”
“I’m afraid it is, Pieter. Did you not know Myn cannot read? She handed your letter to her ladyship and asked her to read it aloud. I was there, in the room with them. It took all my self-control not to laugh as her ladyship’s reaction to your letter made me realise that you are in the habit of poking both women. The words left her ladyship’s lips with increasing reluctance as she realised they came from your hand. Poor Myn; she had no idea that you were diddling her mistress. Of course, her ladyship did not tell her servant the truth of the matter. Instead, she related that she knew of you, that you are a libertine and a bandit, and that Myn should never again acknowledge your existence. Furthermore, if she should ever hear that Myn continued her association with you, she would be dismissed without a reference.” Jan wiped a tear from beneath his eye. “Oh, this is so wonderful. I can hardly control myself. I shall call my painting The Love Letter and be amused for the rest of my life at the varied explanations romantics will attach to it.”
And so, here I stand in my pile of manure. I have lost Myn, the occasional fifty guilders and civilization will never know of sliced bread.
This story won second prize in The Best of Times (2009); it was also published in Contemporary World Literature and Alfie Dog.
When a youngster, Peter Lingard told his mother many fantastic tales of intrepid adventures enjoyed by him and his friends. She always said, ‘Go tell it to the Marines’. When he asked why, she said, ‘They’ve been everywhere and done everything, so they’ll want to hear about what you’ve been up to’. Of course, Peter joined the Royal Marines as soon as he was old enough and now has a seemingly inexhaustible supply of tales to tell. He has had 300+ stories and poems published, as well as having many pieces aired on Radio NAG, Queensland and 4RPH, Brisbane. Professional actors have performed some of his poetry and he has appeared as a guest on Southern FM’s program ‘Write Now’ to read and discuss his work. He recited and chatted about some of his poems on 3CR’s ‘Spoken Word’ and had a monthly spot on 3WBC (94.1FM) to read his tales.
Pygmalion stepped back, dizzy. He wondered whether it was his senses or his common sense deceiving him. He had not felt warmth under his lips, had he? Of course not. He stood shaking his head to rattle out the nonsense. He didn’t see a tint of flesh-pink blushing her lips, did he? Of course not.
There. The hallucination passed, and her features were white marble again under his cool glance. He poked at her flawless lips with his coarse finger: cold as stone should be. The doubt—or was it belief?—flickered and went out.
Once faith had flared inside him. Once he had almost believed in miracles. But he had rallied his manhood and snuffed all that. His fingers were singed from pinching out the sacred flame of faith—but he had not been fooled. Had not Aphrodite tricked him with one woman’s body after another, always promising perfect beauty? Hadn’t she always laughed at him when he stumbled, hopeful, past the veil of vestments only to discover ugly flesh, time after time?
But now he had subdued even Aphrodite with the skill of his sinewy arms. He had bested her. Not even she could steal this Ideal from him. There it stood, solid stone, with curves so graceful they gave back the dusty light as if illuminated from within. He had, in spite of deity, created the perfect woman. Hadn’t he?
Down the corridor of his mind, past the columns of tradition that held its roof, past the chambers in which he kept his separate lives—father, sister, teacher, friends, food, prayer—past the closets in which he packed his stone-carver’s skills, he had worked his way along his mental hallways in the preceding year, and faced up to the fog. At the end of the hall, the cool white lines and sharp angles of his internal architecture were always obscured by a mist floating in his mind. He could not see through it, but he knew his masterpiece waited there. If only he could break through that fog! Then he would see it—see her—and then he would be the greatest artist this side of Olympus.
He had done it. At least, he had done something so difficult, and so apparently wonderful, that it felt just as good as if he had, and he did not stop to question whether he had really broken through.
Dedication to sleepless nights of sweating, mind-cracking, body-bruising labor had brought his creation to the point of birth. Single-minded concentration on the sketches and the sandstone model had paid off at last. He had seen her.
Past the mist in his mind, there she was. Solid (maybe a bit hazy around the edges), perceptible. There stood the woman he dreamed about most nights, the one with the beautiful body. This was the one he had imagined under every woman’s clothes. Here, at last, was his object.
Then he set to work in earnest, switching from sketch and model to the final block of stone. By forcing his body over the edge of endurance (taking nothing but water, standing until his knees shook violently, scowling while perspiration stung his eyes) he nearly ruined his physical sight, but he matured his spiritual vision.
With his sight blighted, he worked the marble nose-to-chisel, feeling his way across the surface with his fingertips, testing proportion and dimension by instinct and touch. He often kept his eyes closed for hours at a time to ward off the fatal marble dust, working with the image before his imagination and pressing it onto its three-dimensional copy.
Once he was assured of her shape, he slept long nights, on a cot near the sculpture. Every night he dreamed about her over and over, but calmly now. The mad passion of the early sketches cooled into professional judgment that appraised and analyzed. No attraction or affection drew him. He drew her. He analyzed her lines and angles like those of an architectural structure; he critiqued her form and color as he would a tile mosaic or frescoed wall. She became his field of study in his sleep.
Morning woke him late, full of calculations and barren plans. He did not complete her in the fruitful dawning of his mind, but in his twilights and nightmares. He felt aged past his thirty-three earthly years, dragging a sack of disappointments on his hunched shoulders. He carved her savagely. She was an act of revenge, not regeneration.
But when she stood before him, she had another plan. Cold, flawless, and unresponsive, the sculpture’s uncaring eyes fell on her creator, and turned him inside out. All the soft faith of his youth churned again restlessly in his bowels; all his contained and entombed desire stirred like something unsettled, undigested.
“Galatea,” he whispered, “Galatea.” He reached out and pinched along the ridge of her collarbone. “Galatea.”
For the rest of that still afternoon, while the air hung motionless over an unstirred floor of autumn leaves and the sky stayed in one place, while the heat faded out of the sand and the sun-touched waves, Pygmalion sat still in front of his marble idol. He was utterly exhausted. And yet, for the last several months, since he had first seen her shape beginning to emerge from the marble, he had slept long and deeply, eaten when his body hungered, rested his hands when the tools became too heavy. But his eyes were damaged, and a new brutal longing shook him. He sat heavily while some new animal tore inside of him.
Something bothered him about his statue. Something was not quite right. He wondered if Aphrodite was having the last laugh after all. Because although this statue was certainly the most beautiful he had ever seen, and although it captured the vision he had seen in his mind, he had a nagging suspicion that it was not, after all, perfect. Something was wrong or incomplete. There was something odd and unsettling about the face.
Or perhaps he himself was incomplete and longed for a comforter. He had completed the work, yet had no sense of consummation. He stared at the figure, adoring and despising it. This stone woman sapped him of strength and took from him his frantic purpose. She was altogether vengeful, altogether desirable, and he must possess her. His creation must not be allowed to stand in cold serenity, or indifferent senility, while writhing burned his insides. He had made beauty, and he must absorb it into his own being. He must—devour it.
Suddenly, he snapped. He jumped up and began wildly, senselessly caressing his statue. He put his arms around it and massaged its shoulder blades as he pressed his chest against its beautiful breasts. He stroked its waist and hips, he licked its lips and kissed it crazily. Over and over, desperately, he mashed his mouth against its unyielding stone lips until his own were cold and bruised. He threw his body against it, moaning, until he felt it totter on its stand.
Its rocking startled him back to some sense, as his hand automatically steadied the statue against danger. But he was frightened, for he did not know what beast gnawed inside him, nor what was wrong with his art. With a wild noise, he staggered back and stumbled into the streets. He must get to the temple, he must pray. Perhaps Aphrodite was real after all; perhaps this was her revenge.
He blundered through the streets, walking firmly to control his raging hunger to possess and assimilate beauty. But the thought nagged: something funny lurked in the pretty face of his marble girl.
He carried his bewilderment into the temple. He paid for a minor sacrifice and offered it up in the usual manner. Then he began to pray. His prayer circled around and around the periphery of his real intention. He thanked the goddess for blessing him with some talent; he confessed his arrogance in trying to surpass her power of creation; he begged for forgiveness; he groveled in self-abasement; and he prayed for something.
That was the fuzzy part. What he was praying for was not even clear to himself, for he would not let it come into focus. It seemed to have something to do with being content now that his work was complete. Perhaps it was related to appreciating real, fleshly female beauty. He even tried to pray about finding a real woman as beautiful as his petrified Galatea, but he had to give that up. That was pure hypocrisy. He had spent almost two decades looking for that woman; why should he even pretend to hope to find her now? Wasn’t that the whole reason he had made a stone goddess in the first place? Then he heard that he had called her a “goddess,” and had to begin the confession and forgiveness bit of his prayer all over again. This was getting ridiculous.
He left the temple and barely remembered not to slam the door. He sighed, slamming doors in his mind instead. He refused to look at his own craving, just as he refused to look at the sordid playback of afternoons spent objectifying female models, nights bribing harlots to pose for portraits, and that most recent scene of shame: kissing a chunk of rock. He was a mess.
So he went home. He thought he would make a meal, then walk in the garden and clear his head out among the flowers. But after eating, he found he had to see his statue again. This was reasonable, he thought. He often needed to look at works over and over when they were completed, sort of memorizing them before they were taken to the market. But he usually felt an objective distance from his sculptures. Once they were finished, they were no longer his. They belonged to whomever would buy them, to whomever would gaze on them with joy. He had never had troubled letting a work go; especially since they always fell short, always wore something of the fog they carried with them from the inside of his head.
Galatea was different. For one thing, he had never come up with a name for his sculptures out of his head like that. They were always named after mythological, religious, or historical characters. He had no idea where Galatea’s name originated. It was simply her name, the same way that he was her—her what? What was he thinking? His thoughts hinted that he belonged to her instead of the other way around; as if he had to walk into her presence so that she could gaze on him, or require some service from him, instead of the other way around. Terror took him. Perhaps he was losing his mind. He glanced at her: she was getting decidedly creepy, with that flicker of something not quite right on her otherwise adorable features.
Tiptoeing across the studio, he began to circle Galatea, pacing warily. The time had come to critically assess her symmetries and find the design flaw or errors in execution. He gazed at her back, her buttocks, her legs. He didn’t see any mistakes. But something was still wrong, as if the lady were tired, or weak, or ill. He walked around to the side, and felt a strange heaving in his stomach as the rich, plump tip of her nipple peaked over her curved arm. He just had to touch that curved shoulder, that gentle elbow, to see if it were right….
And a moment later, he was kissing her again, madly, with a sick feeling at his heart something like what he had felt when starting to make love-talk so many years ago to his sister before he knew she was his sister, to the only kindred of his heart he had ever met and the one he could never see again—and what in the world made him think of her now? And what on earth could it have to do with this stupid statue? What was wrong it?
Well, for one thing, he must have chosen a poor piece of stone. This one didn’t have nearly the pure coldness of most marble, nor did it have the impermeable solidity of the really good pieces. It almost felt soft—no, that wasn’t quite the word—pliable or something. Certainly, he thought with professional precision, this piece of marble is far too tainted with veins of an inferior mineral. He was even able to step away mentally and notice how weird it was that he could process these technical details in his consciousness while simultaneous rubbing his palms over her stomach and thighs.
Stop, just stop! he thought, but did not stop. He cupped his right hand over her right breast, and it fitted exactly. Terrible. He thought he might vomit as his left hand gripped the round of her left buttock. Beautiful, and forbidden. But why did he feel the tension of a muscle under the bones of his left hand? And why did he feel the soft yielding of flesh under his right? And why were his lips no longer bruised against her tomb-stone lips?
Her mouth most distinctly moved; he gagged. Her breast conformed to his hand, her buttock tightened and relaxed. He moved his arms around her waist and back, embracing her as if to hold himself steady. She stirred, and he felt the pink warm life bloom all over her skin.
Twelve years earlier Pygmalion’s concentration on some minor work had been shattered by shouts in the marketplace.
“Aphrodite has fallen from the sky! Aphrodite has cast her image down from Olympus! Come and see, come and see! Come and gaze upon the beautiful image of Aphrodite herself! Praise be to our great goddess!”
He had watched his hands begin to tremble. He followed the track of the thrill, the shudder from his clenched fingers up the ropes of muscle on his arms, into his brain, down his spine, through his loins, out along the dust smudging his feet, the floor, the road, everything. And he was with them, one of the uplifted thousands, his voice was up in the single-hued sky somewhere with theirs, his footsteps flapped against the stone streets with the dozens of hundreds of pairs of theirs, his sight darted down along rows of columns to the pillared vanishing point with the sight of so many other worshipers, his cloak streamed its faded colour with the many faded colours of theirs—they were a river of lust and a fountain of devotion, thousands of men going to devour the goddess through their foul sight, thousands of women going to degrade themselves with their poor bodies set up against hers in the small chambers of their minds.
“O great Aphrodite,” he had prayed in a murmur beneath the many-murmured throng, “are you the one who feeds weak men’s passion? Do you teach us to direct our desires into the pure river of worship? May even my body praise you? Goddess, have mercy!”
He had felt again, as always, tranquility sinking through him. Some vast smooth surface (heavy as basalt, but smooth and sunlit as marble, the queen of stones) pressed the voices inside of him into calm silence. The whispers that gnawed at truth, the shrieks that slashed assurance into shreds, the madness mumbling about failure, the insane gibberish of blasphemy: these were slowly silenced the way olives are quieted into oil, the way grapes are stilled into wine.
His youth leapt up, and there she was. A cloth veiled her, a cloth that shone with light from the surface of an unbroken waterfall. Her figure was set upon a rough-hewn pedestal in the center of the courtyard. Pygmalion’s habit of critique appraised the shrouded shape inch by inch. The cloth followed, even expressed, every curve. Something seemed wrong, but he suppressed the feeling. Tilt of the head, perfect. Shoulders, superb. Line of the arms, magnificent. But the torso, stomach, legs—well, he would wait until the cover came off. For a time, he was scarcely aware of the bodies of women pressing around him in the crowd. He saw them, as always, as if they were before him each in her own unveiled glory, but they filled only the corners of his thought. Even they could not distract him from a single conception: She, the one great Female, Aphrodite herself, stood before him imaged beneath that shining cloth. Perhaps.
The foolish ceremonies unwound in complex tedium. He laughed inside, because he knew that she loved simplicity. She loved the sweet gesture when the sheet was pulled aside and the bride lay revealed. She reveled in ease of love, in limbs that came together without questions, in consummations as innocent as children plunging into the Pedieos river to cool their bodies under the open sun.
But what do I know? he had thought suddenly, savagely, I who have never known a woman! Though I see them all, know them all, I am always turned aside at the last moment by the lie.
But the moment of the unveiling was near. One of Aphrodite’s disciples, a slender priest, glided forward reached out his graceful fingers, and Flourish! There she stood.
There was a silvery-gray figure of a woman. It was clumsy and poorly executed. Its breasts were far too large, far too round, and set too far apart. Its belly was oversized and rounded. The legs were spindly—any real woman with that bust and tummy would fall over on those sticks, or snap them at the shins.
For all that, though, he knew the flaws were just subtle enough to deceive most. He had one moment of adoring desire before he had saw the flaws. Indeed, he only saw the errors of proportion because of his training in visual critique. Always finding fault, always aggravating his own restless mind with dissatisfaction. Perhaps he was the only person there who felt his stomach go hollow, tasted something watery and green on his tongue, felt bruises somewhere where his heart should be.
“Another sham,” he growled, turning away.
In the moment that Galatea’s marble lips breathed warm sweet breath, Pygmalion remembered his dream. When he was a youth he had dreamed it every night, sometimes many times in a night. Throughout the last hideous decade, the dream had come more and more rarely. Then, finally, it had come again on that glorious night, bringing with it the inspiration that led to Galatea’s creation.
It always happened the same way. Aphrodite herself came to him. All she did was walk by. She came into his vision from the left side and walked slowly across. He was somehow fixed in place and could not turn to follow her. She moved very slowly, deliberately, with stately motions. She stopped directly in front of him and looked straight into his eyes. And, as always happened with women in his waking hours, he saw her through her robe. He saw every curve, line, and contour of her form. He saw every color and shade of her skin. He saw every inch of her body, and her flesh was seared on his memory. Each morning when he awoke from that dream he could recall every detail, as plainly as if he had sculpted her himself and was turning the work in his hands. But no, not cold marble: living, tinted, pulsing, flushed flesh, warm over moving bones, soft under stretched skin. And the colors and the folds of her!
He had tried time and again to sketch her, to paint her, to fashion her in clay. But he did not have the skill.
Yet that was not the entire dream. There was more, a little more. Aphrodite walked past him, slowly. When she got to the edge of his vision, she reached out her hand beyond his sight—as if she were plucking fruit from a tree just beyond. But it was not a fruit. She was taking someone’s hand: the hand of a maiden, a mortal girl, and leading her into his sight. Then Aphrodite began walking backwards, leading this unseen woman into his view.
And there it had always ended. He had never seen that mysterious woman from beyond the dream’s frame. He had always believed that this woman was the one whose body he always imagined through other women’s clothes: his one true soul-mate, his beloved, his wife, and one night she would finally step into his dream-frame, and he would awaken to find her the following day. But the dream always ended there, and he had found no wife.
Finally he had given up hope, and given up faith. He had blasphemed Aphrodite with coarse words and coarser doubts, had violently jettisoned all that part of him that had worshiped and adored. He had rejected all women and all thought of love in one gesture, tossing earthly passion out with its divine patroness. He emptied his mind of every loveliness connected with that imposter, as he now called her. The height of his sacrilege came when he decided that in the dream, that had not been Aphrodite after all. It was just some chick. And he would have her: have her down in marble, degrade her with heatless, heartless material existence. And he would also cast her perfection in the face of all other worthless mortal women whose bodies had fooled him. No one looked like that. Not even the non-existent goddess. Only his lump of stone looked that good. And even that had something wrong. He wondered what it was that was wrong, even as her lips pulled away from his.
Her mouth most distinctly moved; he gagged. He clutched at her to hold himself steady. She stirred, and he felt the pink warm life bloom all over her skin. Something exploded into his brain. Alive!? ALIVE?!? He grasped at her again, this time to embrace, to shatter into ecstasy. Prayer and passion surged through his gut. He moved to hold her out at arm’s length, to admire and adore—and lurched to catch her as she sagged.
Her whole full-grown woman’s weight fell against his chest and on his arms, and she wailed. She just opened her beautiful lips with unconscious abandon and let out a cry. He staggered to support her, for she could not stand. She went on wailing high-pitched, loud, eerie cries—the squalling of a newborn. He struggled to hold her up, because she could not stand. There was no expression in her gorgeous eyes. They were completely devoid of any scrap of knowledge. She seemed an animal. A blank. A baby.
A baby. That was it. That was what had seemed funny in her face and in her posture. His arms gave way, and she fell on the floor, screaming and screaming the cry of a newborn babe from the lungs of an adult woman. He had carved her to possess the strength and beauty of young maturity, but she was an infant. Of course: this was the moment of her birth. She came into the world as a blank and had all to learn. This was what he had fathered: a child, not a bride. So this was his miracle; this was what he had to love. He looked He looked on her sprawled, flailing limbs with disdain. All the fog and pain and desire died.
Pygmalion shrugged. She was probably hungry.
Sørina Higgins is an English teacher, writer, and editor with two volumes of poetry: Caduceus (David Roberts Books, 2012) and The Significance of Swans (Finishing Line Press, 2008). Her website is http://sorinahiggins.wordpress.com/, and you can follow her on twitter, @SorinaHiggins.
India 1853. As Buddhist monks chanted very quietly outside, a bearded, disheveled, dirty, paint covering his face and clothes, Preston Morrison slept on a carved nook in the rear wall of a cave, a blanket covering him. There was a large sketchbook beside him, on the wall hung his army uniform, and leaning up against the wall was a gun. The entrance to the cave was directly opposite to him, and beyond the entrance a cliff. It was daylight, but Preston had worked all night at his copying and forgot to snuff out the small fires across the front of the cave entrance to scare off wild animals.
The light from the fires revealed that all of the walls of the cave were painted, though they were too dark and distant for anyone but Preston to see them clearly without a lantern. In the centre of the cave was a massive sculpture of Buddha, whose head almost reached the cave ceiling, and around which there was sufficient room to walk.
The tour guide entered the cave, stepped around the fires, stopped and spoke to the tourists in a styled, arrogant, insincere and professional voice.
“Now please stop here and huddle together so that you can see this fresco behind me. Watch out for the fires which the natives use to frighten off tigers when they are working or, if monks, when they are sleeping.
“This particular work, only partially restored for reasons I shall explain presently, was painted by local artists and wandering Buddhist priests while taking respite from the monsoon and inclement weather. No one knows the names of these artists, but we do know that many of them were ascetics who lived off the local villagers and traveling tradespeople. To these and other caves they would come for meditation and community with other monks.
“You will note that most of the symbols of the work have been damaged or obliterated. Various religious zealots from different sects attacked the work and in some cases would slice it off the wall. What remains is a bodhisattva—a being that foregoes nirvana in order to save others—garbed in the fashions of the princes of those days, holding a lotus flower. Note how well the artist has captured the real-life posture and expression of the body, and how transcendent is the look on the bodhisattva's face.”
“Please follow me quickly,” the tour guide said, “and we will examine a different kind of Buddhist cave next door.”
Preston was having a nightmare, one of many. For a minute he moved around restlessly in his bed, groaning and talking incoherently, then he jumped out suddenly, grabbed the gun, pointed it forward, walked around the statue as if searching for something, mumbling to himself without sense. His eyes were very large and scared. He then returned to his bed and laid down. A minute later he was startled by what he thought were the growls of a tiger beyond the entrance to the cave. He anxiously grabbed a thick stick, ignited the end of it, and walked to the entrance waving the lit end. The tiger, he thought, snarled and continued to growl. Preston walked back and forth across the entrance waving the stick at the tiger. He leaned down and threw a few sticks on one of the fires that seemed to be going out, yawned, returned to his bed, and laid down, exhausted.
Then the tiger growled again, much louder, and only stopped after Preston sat up, shook his head, then picked up his sketchbook and the burning stick, walked over to a section of the cave, shoved the stick in the wall for light, opened up his sketchbook to a particular page, yawned, and began to copy the paintings sitting in the same lotus position as the statue. He painted for a while, then his head dropped and he fell asleep. The fires went out and the cave became dark for a brief period, then a dim light returned.
The tour guide returned with another smaller group of people and stood in front of the Buddha. The tourists stood to the right of the Buddha.
“Please watch your step,” the tour guide said. “Sir! Please do not wander off. Thank you. The lights as you can see are very dim in this cave because the paintings on the walls are very sensitive and are slowly deteriorating even without light. You’ve been told not to take any flash photographs and I would hope that you’ll abide by the rules. These caves were usually either living quarters or places for religious ceremony and meditation, and were carved out of solid rock. Around the edges you would see paintings of the various reincarnated lives of Buddha, known as The Jataka Tales. In the center of the room would be an enormous statue and/or a bell-shaped structure. Let us walk around it and exit.”
They slowly walk around the sculpture of Buddha as the tour guide continued.
“This path we are taking is the exact path that the Buddhist would take in meditation. People did not live in this sort of cave. You will not notice any of the little stone ledges or rock-cut compartments that we have seen in other caves. This cave was only for meditation and ceremony. Imagine if you can what it must have been like for these people of old, in a time when there were still many Buddhists in India, and how these monks chipped away at this cave rock to hollow out these caves for revelation. Imagine also how they expected no recognition and yet they created these wonderful works of art. My assistant will now briefly flash some light on each of the paintings around the hall. Please do not touch them or come too near them.”
A spotlight moved across several paintings as the tour guide and tourists left the cave.
Preston was in the lotus position with his head hung, the sketchbook on his lap. However, at every wall and at the sculpture there stood monks in long orange hooded robes painting. sculpting and repairing.
The monks disappeared when Parvati, a young local woman, Sanchi, her father, Commander White and Lieutenant Fisk, two British army officers, entered, all out of breath after climbing the cliff to reach the cave. White and Fisk violently swatted at bees as they entered. Parvati carried a sack and Fisk two large bags.
They saw Preston asleep. White, Fisk and Sanchi walked around and looked at the frescoes while Parvati shook Preston gently.
Preston awoke and saw Parvati.
“Parvati!” he said joyfully.
Preston reached out to hug her but she shyly pointed to the others with her.
“What bliss! To see your face first as I open my eyes.”
Parvati took his hand and brought Preston to Sanchi, Fisk and White, and they greeted each other.
“And my friend returns,” Preston said to Fisk, “looking weary from the journey, even dragging up the mountain the Commander. Welcome!”
Preston shook heartily the hands of Fisk and White.
Preston extended his hand to Sanchi.
“And you, father of Parvati, will always find a friend in me. Thank you for coming. You may now see how brilliantly your daughter has copied some of these works. But all of your eyes tell me that you all bring some sad message.”
Sanchi shook Preston’s hand.
Parvati excitedly ran over, picked up the sketchbook, returned, and showed proudly Preston’s work to Sanchi, White, and Fisk. They all examined the book.
Preston went to a corner of the cave, returned with a bag of coins and offered them to Sanchi.
Sanchi took the bag and looked inside it.
“A small reward for your people helping to unearth this artistic miracle,” Preston said.
“I thank you for your gift,” Sanchi said with a heavy accent but clearly. “And I thank you for your most kind affection and admiration for Parvati. Still I must speak to you openly and sadly. I and the others of the village have become fearful of this place. Many think we should have left the caves untouched. Our villagers have had many misfortunes since we cleared the caves out with you. The tigers have multiplied. None of the villagers want to continue the work, and I urge you too to abandon this place too. We fear for you. Here the tigers now rule. Here many men have died. What does this mean? It means that Allah does not want us here. Indra has cursed us all. I hope and pray that you will leave for your safety.
“I have also forbidden my daughter from returning, since there will be no one to accompany her. If you want to see her, you must come to the village. And I believe that the people of the village will not accept her if she comes here anymore. They will call her sorceress.”
Sanchi waved his arms around the walls.
“All of this is against the prophet and should remain in darkness.”
“Sanchi,” Preston pleaded, “we have trod this path before. There is nothing to fear...”
Sanchi shook his head, waved his hand to interrupt him, extended his hand to Preston, shook it again and quickly exited, beckoning also Parvati.
Parvati and Preston approached each other closely and looked into each other's eyes for a moment, then she departed with Sanchi.
“Parvati,” Preston said tenderly and quietly.
He followed after her to the cave entrance and stared as she descended the gorge.
Fisk and White meanwhile observed this scene and exchanged glances as Preston continued to watch Parvati and Sanchi walk down the mountain.
Fisk put his arm around Preston’s shoulders.
“How are you, my old friend?” Fisk asked.
“How am I? My condition? Tired. Often sick,” Preston says, still looking in Parvati’s direction, his tone of voice without its prior enthusiasm. “The bees and tigers won’t let me sleep. But what matter? My work continues. Now I fear I shall be alone, abandoned by the villagers and Parvati.”
During the following conversation, Preston gathered some of his paints and brushes, walked over to the spot on the wall that he was copying, picked up his sketchbook and began to paint the area of the wall he had worked on the previous night. White and Fisk follow him.
“We were attacked by the Bhils,” Fisk said. “They only scattered when we showed our weapons.”
Preston laughed heartily.
“They are a harmless tribe if you have weapons,” Preston said. “They haven’t come near me for months…Parvati says that they think I’m mad. They call me Tiger Man because they think I’ve killed one hundred and fifty tigers.”
He laughed again.
Fisk gave White a worried look.
“What will you do now about Parvati?” Fisk asked
“What any man does who misses his inspiration,” Preston replied. “He moans and grumbles and mourns. Such beauty, kindness and talent. But she is a daughter, and has a duty to her father who overwhelms her with fear of abandonment.
“Fisk, her talent is greater than mine and equal to any of the cave artists! If I could keep her here, working, painting, I would, but you heard Sanchi.”
“Is Sanchi right?” Fisk asked. “How many people have the tigers killed? Sanchi tells us the white rags hung on the bushes indicate another killing.”
“But there are white rags waving everywhere!” Fisk said. “The bushes look as if snow has fallen.”
“Many have died because they don’t understand the tiger,” Preston said. “I don't know how many!”
White and Fisk glanced at each other again with faces of alarm.
“My God, Preston!” Fisk said. “Tigers, crazy tribes, angry villagers. This is madness! In light of that, perhaps our news isn’t as bad as it might appear. And please, listen to me, as a friend, before you judge. Will you listen?”
Preston nodded, but continued to paint.
“At headquarters they want you to drop this project—but only for a short period—and return to duty. The war against Russia has started!”
“Wars spring up and die like dandelions,” Preston said, “while this work is a sacred duty. What good is a painter in a battle?”
“This project too can wait,” Fisk said. “The caves will be here.”
“Wait? Wait?” Preston shouted. Then his anger ended. “Have you informed them that they march for tokens and trample on beauty?”
Then Preston added with a tone of sarcasm, “Perhaps your war can wait.”
“You must listen,” Fisk said. “They are no longer interested in a soldier copying ancient wall paintings. Your responsibility is elsewhere, your talents are needed elsewhere.”
“Images endure but paint decays and disappears from time and the hand of man.”
“You’ve been here nine years!” Fisk said. “Look at you! You've aged twenty years! I left you a young man, but now, now your hair is turning gray. You should stop for your health if for nothing else!”
Fisk saw a scar on Preston’s arm.
“How did you acquire that scar?”
“I was trying to help a wounded tiger and it accidentally scratched me.”
“How many caves have you finished?” Fisk asked.
“Art is never finished,” Preston said.
“This is the last cave, isn’t it?”
Preston did not answer.
“Preston, you’re still in the army. It’s time to leave India. When the war is over, you can return.”
White had been walking and staring at the paintings on the opposite wall.
“These are not Christian images, are they, Lieutenant?” White asked Fisk.
“No sir,” Fisk replied. “They reflect the Buddhist faith.”
“Then why are we so concerned about them?” White said. “Why has the department allowed Preston to remain here at all?”
“Commander Wylie,” Fisk explained, “your predecessor, was here when the discoveries were made, and Lt. Preston convinced him that they were of great cultural and artistic worth, created by artisans and monks over many centuries with what he believes are the finest creative talent. The artists actually lived in some of these caves as sanctuaries and retreats. According to Preston, nothing in their time is comparable in the West or East. If they are not copied, they may disappear forever.”
“Do I understand you?” White asked. “Preston is an army draftsman, trained and employed by the armed services to serve its needs. Are you saying that we are supporting him in...?”
“The army hasn’t financially supported Preston for several years, sir. Commander Wylie simply refused to recall him.”
“So we are allowing one of our staff to wallow away here in the midst of the jungle infested by bees, tigers, a wild tribe called the Bhils, villagers who fear the caves, copying a bunch of pagan images of foreign gods or whatever these images are? Is that what we’re doing?”
“Yes,” Fisk said, “that is what we’re doing.”
“And Wylie believed he could claim this as some form of ....what? I now understand why you didn’t want to explain our visit until we had talked to Preston.”
“Wylie, sir, felt some responsibility for the decay of the art,” Fisk said. “He felt guilty he did not speak up sooner. Pirates and souvenir hunters have already attacked it. I wanted you to see the images and his work. I had hoped that if you saw them....”
“Where is your reasoning, Fisk? You didn’t realize that I would find this business ludicrous! You believed that this so-called work would affect me, that we all don’t have better things to do than think about some old caves in the midst of India? Art, my friend, will not win battles.
“I'm tired, Fisk. I've made this trip up here for God knows why! I'm sick of India, I'll probably get malaria, I've already got diarrhea, tigers await me in the valley below, I've been stung by I don't know how many bees and other insects, the Bhils probably await again, we had to dodge outlaws and thieves everywhere on the roads, and I'm confronted not with a soldier sworn to duty, but an artist concerned with the work of some dead atheistic monks!”
“No journey for vision is wasted, Commander,” Preston said.
“As you wish,” White said in an official tone. “But sir, I must advise you, I’m a strategic adviser, and I’m here to evaluate what our role is in all of this. Obviously I know little of art and I’m flabbergasted how the service got involved in this. Now that I have been here, I must say I’m astounded. What strategic advantage could these caves have?”
“They’re artistically strategic,” Preston said, “like other ancient cultures could have been, if they were not destroyed by ignorant invaders. We don’t want to be one of those, do we, Commander? Knowledge is advantage.”
“What?” White replied, somewhat confused. “Who?”
“Preston too feels a certain responsibility,” Fisk intercedes. “He and the villagers cleared away the debris, and he’s trying to preserve the art for posterity.”
“So now it is our responsibility to preserve the ancient culture of India, a land that isn't even Christian?” White asked.
“Preston is convinced that this work is his destiny,” Fisk said in support, “that he alone has been given the sacred duty of copying the caves, and that he must, well, be part of them in some sense.”
“You look like a pathetic sick creature to me,” White responded, “and I'm not sure you're mentally all present. It's damp and dark in here even in daytime. And you’re living like a wild animal. Have you forgotten civilization? And I must agree with the old fellow Sanchi: There’s something eerie about this place!”
“Your youth is wasting away, Lieutenant!” White said to Preston. “Come back to us.”
“And become important!” Preston scoffed to himself. “And fight wars!”
“Commander,” Fisk added, “I don't think he’s in any condition, in any case, to join the forces immediately. He’ll need a couple of months of rehab.”
White motioned to Fisk. They moved to an area away from Preston to converse confidentially while Preston continued to paint.
“Is this the man you knew?” White asked.
“Yes sir,” Fisk answered.
“Perhaps he’s mad or going mad,” White said. “This all could make any of us a bit strange.”
“Not mad, sir,” Fisk clarified. “Obsessed.”
“How long will it be before he finishes the draft of this cave?” White asked.
“Two or three weeks perhaps.”
“Fine, I will give him a little time, but after that, if he does not return, I’m giving the order to drag him out of here. I will not be responsible for this insanity!”
White and Fisk returned to Preston.
“Lt. Preston, I order you to report to Madras in eight weeks,” White said, “no more. Good luck and good bye.”
White and Preston shook hands. White began to walk out of the cave.
“I would like to say a few words to Preston, sir, before I leave,” Fisk said.
White acknowledged Fisk and left the cave.
“My old friend,” Fisk said, “I know what you’re thinking, but you must finish and return in eight weeks. I don't want to lose you to this tropical madness.”
Preston did not respond but continued to paint.
“Something stronger than what drew me here must draw me away,” Preston finally said.
“How can you stand it, Fisk? What shallowness the fighting machine of civilization creates: Does White see the wonder here, the greatness that lies before his eyes, what these artists endured to create this magnificence?”
“White is a soldier,” Fisk said, “groomed for war, as am I. He has his own duty and work. As do I and as do you. We took an oath.”
“That is truly your concern?” Preston asked.
“Right now, I am concerned about my friend,” Fisk said. “You know that I admire what you are doing, but there comes a time for an end. May I speak personally?”
Preston stopped his painting, still holding his brush, and faced Fisk.
“Your father and mother asked me to tell you they want you to return,” Fisk said.
Preston put down his brush and stared ahead, shaking his head.
“Your father said,” Fisk continued, “well, you can imagine what he said. ‘This work is not worthy of a Preston.’ And your mother is just worried. A copy of Robinson Crusoe in the bag is from her, a weird choice, is it not? I’ve tried to assure her, but she’s not stupid.”
Fisk gently laid his hand on the Preston’s shoulder.
“I'm sorry. I struggled whether I should tell you, but they made me promise. You need to remember that there are others beyond the cave who care about you. We all want you to return after you finish this work here.”
Preston nodded and started painting again.
“Return? Don't you see, I have returned. I have meaning here.”
Again Preston laid his brush on the easel and stood beside Fisk.
“Think. What is there for me? That society. Parents whose idea of growth is conformity and achieving what everyone thinks is achievement, who want others to brag about their son, who want guns in the cellar more than paintings in the hall or music in the parlour…”
Then he shouted, “I know why they want me back there!
“…and teachers who love knowledge more than wisdom, and everywhere, everywhere, a lust for the little bags of shiny coins and stones and power. We all scream: See me, see me, see me, see me.
“You know I went to that godforsaken school for my father. I know I did. I went into the army because of my father. Oh, he didn't force me to go, but I went because of him. I didn't marry the woman I wanted because of my father. My mother stood by quietly saying: Oh my, oh my, oh my.
“Compare all that to this. Look at this work, Fisk! What did the parents of these artists think? Where were the parents of these artists when they were painting these walls? Do you not think they were proud? Even if they weren’t!”
“You'll be more alone than ever now,” Fisk said sadly, “if Sanchi and the villagers live by their word.”
“Sculpture breathes life in me, thanks to Sid.”
Preston pointed to the giant statue of Siddhartha, the Buddha.
“Sid! Trust me, the stone moves, the arms use gestures, the face communicates.”
“Part of me wants to stay. If I could, I would share this adventure with you. You know that.”
Preston acknowledged him.
Fisk indicated the two bags he had brought with him.
“Some more books and other items I thought you might like. I brought as big a selection as I could carry. There are also the paints and materials you wanted.”
Fisk pulled out a musical instrument.
“And your recorder.”
Preston suddenly dropped everything and began to rummage through the bag, excitedly looking at the items one by one.
“Thank you so much,” Preston said.
Fisk approached Preston, Preston stood up and Fisk hugged him.
“Good-bye for now,” Fisk said. “I will see you in eight weeks. Remember. Eight weeks.”
Preston went back to the bags, his head hidden by the bag.
Fisk stared at him and shook his head in concern.
Fisk waved and left the cave.
Preston picked up the bags and brought them to his area in the back in the cave.
The tour guide entered, a small entourage following, the guide talking as she walked.
“Now I assume that you have noticed how the styles and techniques of the artists have changed in our tour of different caves. In the early era they paint and sculpt quite simply, with little ornament, almost no symbolism and when there is symbolism, it is the most simple type and with no figures. Indeed in the beginning the Buddha himself never appeared in Buddhist art, and when he did appear, often we see no more than the figure in various gestures, each gesture significant. This accords with the early philosophy of Buddhism, for, we must remember, Buddhism was a reaction or reform movement to Brahmanism, which had elaborate ceremonies and mythology, in which the divine figures were made into dolls. In this sense, in its iconoclastic primitive beginnings, Buddhist art is quite similar--is it not?--to early Christian art, to Muslim art and to Judaic art. However, as the religion grows older, extraordinary complexity also appears, and with it, intricate carvings and paintings of people, Bodhisatvas, animals, plants, and so on, plus, of course, the most complex symbolism. So we see in these caves literally a history of the Buddhist faith from one stage to another.”
The tour guide and tourists walked once around the Buddha sculpture and left.
Preston was once again alone and returned to his painting for several hours.
As the sky darkened, he placed the fires across the cave entrance and set up the lit stick in the wall. Along the walls have appeared monks in orange robes painting the wall and working on the sculpture of Buddha. Preston waved his hands in the air swatting bees and other insects attacking him. He covered his head with a hat Fisk had brought. Suddenly he jutted forward and ran about the cave, brush in hand, trying to avoid a swarm of bees attacking his head. When it subsided, he returned to his lotus position and spoke to himself, in a grumbling manner, while painting.
“With its razor sharp sword of convention lunging at me with the force of centuries, history is the great foe of growth.
“Don't you see me working?” Preston spoke to an invisible presence. “Is my cave less a womb than an office or field? Come at me! Strike me, oh friends, family, traditions and customs! The bright lights of me and them descend into the night clay of ignorance and arrogance. Let them mire in the mud of their own thick insecurities, loving their arms and legs and mouths and the tiny things they do with them, locking their potential growth in the traps of recognition and approval.”
Preston waited, then shouted: “I hear you!”
In a normal volume, he said, “Who can ignore the blaring colours of those hopes and dreams in the forest of opportunity when it is the most trodden trail?
“Why am I doing this, you ask, why am I doing this, why am I doing this?”
He shouted: “You ask: Why am I alive?”
In a normal volume, he spoke: “The stuff of my being stinks from rotting too long in the sun of limited vision.”
Preston laughed and looked over at the statue.
“You find me repellent, don't you, Sid, you of the full spectrum of colours? I denounce black and white and I am black and white from head to foot. I can fool only fools because the sage cannot know foolishness without being foolish.”
There was a loud growl of a tiger. The growl startled Preston, but he returned to his painting.
“I have seen the tigers' eyes glistening in the darkness and they have seen mine in the fires of fear, and we discern the same thing: an animal hungry for his food. What gourmets we are, seeing others as no more than a meal, tasting the delightful stupidity in human flesh and drooling for more. Oh, tigers, after you have taken me, romp over and become sated on the battlefields of yonder war, where we, like you, are protecting territory and pride, and are gluttons of property!”
Parvati rushed into the cave out of breath. When she did, all of the monks disappeared. She hugged Preston.
“Parvati!” Preston said in surprise.
“Preston, I had to come,” she said. “I'm really worried. Despite the protests of my father, the villagers are planning to come and seal the entrance to all of the caves! There is even talk of destroying the paintings and sculptures.”
“History again,” Preston said to himself.
“I cannot stay away from you or the work,” Parvati said. “Like you, I am bewitched by these images and I must disobey my father and the tradition. I too yearn to paint them.”
Preston hugged her tightly.
“The tigers will not care about your sacrifice, you know that,” Preston said.
He held her face gently in his hands.
“Danger begins in darkness, sweet Parvati. Our love cannot trick the night.”
“I do not care about the tigers,” she said. “I have lived with them my whole life. If that is the will of Allah, then so be it. My dream is to paint like you and become one with these images. Like you, I want to sleep little and paint more.”
They heard the sound of voices outside the cave. Parvati ran over to the entrance to the cave and looked out.
“They’re here. The villagers are here! What should we do?”
Preston shood his head.
“I am afraid for you,” Parvati said.
Preston walked to her, gently hugged her again, then gave her a brush and sketchbook, pointed to a particular section opposite to the wall on which he is working.
Parvati confusedly walked over to the area and began to sketch.
The growling of tigers was growing louder and the voices of the villagers diminished until they could no longer be heard.
The tour guide said outside the cave,
“Structure is everything. When we examine these works, we must look for form and structure and how colours and lines are used to make the most sensitive expression. These artists had models. They knew what they were doing. Notice the juxtapositions, the intermingling of lights, avoidance of three dimensional thinking and depth perception. See how sculptural the figures are.”
The tour guide left.
There was silence until they retired from their work and went to sleep.
During the night Preston, laying in the darkness, screamed an incoherent word and then went back to sleep.
The sunrise appeared and a bright light shone on the entrance to the cave. Buddhist chanting sounded very quietly in the background.
Preston, in the midst of a nightmare, screamed out again in his sleep. Parvati was asleep on another stone ledge near him.
Preston turned restlessly and talked to himself, the mumbling grows louder, finally he jumped up, still asleep, and grabbed his gun and faced the entrance.
“Stay there! Come no closer!”
He swung around, pointed the gun, and shot. The bullet struck one of the paintings.
Parvati had now awakened from the gunshot.
“I am warning you!” Preston yelled.
Preston swung around again in another direction and shot again. Another section of the paintings was damaged.
Parvati ran to him and struggled to grab the gun but she failed to stop him, falling backward. She stood up and hit him, trying to wake him up.
“Preston, wake up! Wake up! You're dreaming! You're hurting the paintings!”
Preston shot again in another direction and again it chipped away at the painting. He reloaded.
Parvati tried once more to grab the gun but without success
“You will not make war here!” Preston yells. “We are artists! We will not bow to you.”
He fired again and pieces of the fresco fell to the floor.
Parvati was crying and becoming hysterical.
“Stop it, Preston! Stop!” she pleaded with him.
Preston fired again and the sculpture was damaged.
Finally she succeeded in getting the gun from him and threw it down the cliff.
Preston collapsed to the floor. Parvati, still sobbing, dragged him to his bed in a dazed state.
“Parvati!” Sanchi shouted from outside the entrance, “you and Preston come down the mountain!”
Parvati, startled, jumped up and walked nervously about the cave, not knowing what to do.
“Please, Preston, please wake up!” she said, shaking him.
Preston slowly awakened.
“The villagers,” Parvati said. “They have returned. They are here, with my father.”
“Did you hear us?” Sanchi spoke. “We have sealed the other caves and we are going to seal yours. Come out now!”
The villagers were beginning to pile rocks and boulders. Parvati and Preston could hear the sound of their work and the rocks smashing up to each other.
Preston rose up quickly.
“Where's my gun?” he asked
“I threw it down the mountain.”
She pointed to the paintings.
“Look!” she said in tears.
Preston saw the damage to the paintings and the sculpture, and rushed from one painting to the other and felt them.
“The paintings! What happened? Those devils!”
Preston ran to the entrance to the cave.
“Never! Never! I’ll never come out,” he screamed to them.
“No, Preston,” Parvati said, pulling him near her, “they did not do it. They were not here. There was only the two of us. You had a nightmare and you, with your gun...”
“What? I?” he said, shocked by her words.
“No! No!” he hollered, hitting his head several times with his hands.
He picked up his sketchbook and threw it to the floor.
“You were dreaming,” Parvati said gently, holding his hands.
Preston started to walk about the cave in great agitation at what he had done.
“What kind of beast shoots beauty in his dream, tell me that?” he said. “What dream would kill your dream! What madness brings this madness! Could I not see? Did the colours not enter my eyes? Did my joy not overwhelm my fear?”
He brushed his hand gently where the bullets damaged one of the paintings.
“How can I repair and overcome what my unconscious will not allow?”
Sanchi rushed in and grabbed Parvati’s arm, pulling her from the cave.
“Come now!” he said. “They are blocking up the entrance. Only a rat will be able to come and go in a few minutes!”
Sanchi looked at Preston.
“Will you come or will you die here? Escape Preston, while you can.”
Preston did not move and was oblivious to Sanchi and his words. He was transfixed by the damage to the paintings.
“Preston!” Parvati cried out. “No, father. I want to stay with Preston. Preston!”
Preston, with his back to Sanchi and Parvati, continued to gaze at the sculpture and the damage done to it, running his palm over the damaged area, shaking his head in despair, tears flowing down his cheeks. He began to sob heavily.
As Sanchi succeeded in dragging Parvati from the cave and Preston was left alone, the shadow of a tiger appeared on the wall on the other side of the cave, unnoticed by anyone.
The sound of large rocks and boulders being piled on top of each other and sealing up the entrance grew softer and softer until it ceased and then too the amount of light slowly leaking through ended.
“Preston! Preston!” Parvati’s muffled and desperate words were heard for a time but soon there was only the art sitting in silence and darkness.
Preston built a fire and sat in the lotus position reflecting and playing his recorder.
The monks reappeared and returned to their work on the statue and paintings.
The tiger growled. Its shadow indicated that it moved around the statue and began to come near the fire. It saw Preston, and turned away, but changed its mind, came closer to him, smelled him. Then he laid down next to him by the fire, listening as Preston continued to play the recorder.
D.D. Renforth: "Cave Man is about the aftermath of the rediscovery of the Ajanta Caves in India. It is a fictional account of the artist who copied the Buddhist frescoes and sculptures and his struggles.. The actual artist is today buried a few miles from the caves. The story is a result of a personal visit to the caves."
D. D. Renforth, a graduate of Syracuse University, Duke University, and the University of Toronto (Ph.D.) has three short stories forthcoming in the next months and has published in commercial presses two non-fiction books and several articles, including two articles on art. Renforth taught a course on the interrelationship of the world arts, including the Avant-garde at the University of Toronto.
It was the noise at her back that confused her. Not the heat. For some reason, she had expected heat. But not sound. She listened more closely. It reminded her of the market, if the market had been full of grief – if all the goats and chickens and sheep had known their fate and had cried out unto the Lord.
Her husband's back was rosy and he wore an old garment. She wished briefly that he had worn his newer one, and then shook herself. They were fleeing, after all. Her two daughters carried the oil and a few pots, led the goats. Such good girls. She wondered that their fiancés hadn't come along, but young men had lives of their own, and girls didn't count for much. She sighed. Her husband hadn’t told her why they were fleeing. Of course, her family was hated there. Men came pounding on the door in the middle of the night. Maybe after this flight, they would find neighbours like themselves.
She had never seen such strange light - it might be sheets of falling stars that made the animals prance and shake. The cries simmered behind her, and she turned slightly to listen as her shadow ran forward. Underneath she could hear a deep rolling note like a distant sea. She must be wrong; grief did not sound like that. Maybe angels were singing in the city. Something great and entrancing that they were leaving behind.
She imagined behind her, in the light, the beauty of wings and singing, and her hated family cast out, never to see the glory. It was a trick of the Lord. They would always be despised. Flight would change nothing - every day she would milk the goats and try to make her husband happy; the girls would never find husbands and would be barren unto the earth. Behind her the angels flew and sang. Radiant, feathered. She could hear them and feel the heat from their wings. Gloria, gloria!
Suddenly, she turned. Fire, brimstone. She had time to weep one salt tear. Her family hurried on.
She spoke no French but heard the people of Paris pushing through the streets singing an excited, urgent song. No need to understand. She had come only to frequent the sainted chapel.
Its beauty was legendary. The walls, if walls they were, lifted coloured glass entire. Burnished red, deep sleepy green, blue the colour of the sky behind a rising moon, joyous gold. Brilliant colours set in black, forming pictures of ancient holy stories, of long-dead nobles and their wives, of kneeling animals. She visited daily, pondering the lives of the men who now lived only in glass. She understood the artists’ visions as gifts to the Lord.
Every day it rained.
On the last day, the chapel was empty. Yearning to see colour riding on streams of sun down through the nave, she sat on the stone floor and steadfastly prayed for light. So deep was her meditation, she heard nothing: the horns and planes, the frantic cries in the street, the sirens were dead to her. She felt no panic. She simply stared into the ancient space. Finally, an absolute light and for an infinitesimal moment she saw the tremendous gathering of splendour, the brilliance of all the old stories, the hope and the faith of the men who had created this masterwork. Glory. Glory! Then everything and everyone was gone. Exploded and shattered and lost.
Terri Lewis: I studied writing at the University of Denver and the Writers Center in Maryland. Two of my short stories received awards from the New Jersey State Council for the Arts, I was the winner of a Bethesda Literary Festival Writer's contest and was recently chosen to participate in the Jenny McKean Moore workshop at George Washington University. I have completed a novel and am looking for an agent.
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M. N. O'Brien
Pravat Kumar Padhy
Daniel J. Pizappi
Melissa Reeser Poulin
Rhonda C. Poynter
Marcia J. Pradzinski
Anita S. Pulier
Ralph La Rosa
Mary Kay Rummell
Janet St. John
Lisa St. John
Christy Sheffield Sanford
Janice D. Soderling
Mary Ellen Talley
Liza Nash Taylor
Janine Pommy Vega
Sue Brannan Walker
Martin Willitts Jr
William Carlos Williams
Morgan Grayce Willow
Shannon Connor Winward
William Butler Yeats
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