Many years ago, in 2004, I got annoyed with a spelling bee. It was what the bee used when a contestant asked for the word to be used in a sentence: “the autochthonal fauna of Australia includes the kangaroo.” I know the spelling bee isn’t a creative writing competition, but I felt you could do better than that. I exhorted authors to use the spelling-bee winning words in a better way, to make an interesting piece of fiction that was centered on an unusual or difficult word. (Many of you know that this idea was sold as an anthology to Bantam called Logorrhea, but initially I was looking for stories for the magazine) I got in a handful of stories, mostly from a Glasgow-based writing group.
I must admit that I did not know any of these writers at the time. There was a story that came in from Hal Duncan, who had published only a story or two at that time. I’m not even sure that he had sold his first novel, Vellum, yet. I did not know what I was getting into. Typically I liked stories between 3,000 and 5,000 words for Electric Velocipede. This let me get a good number of pieces in each issue and provided the readers with some variety. Duncan’s story clocked in around 10,000 words. I was hesitant to even begin reading the piece, but I had upped my word limit in an effort to get some stories I was missing. (I would later learn that this was one of the shorter things Hal has ever written that wasn’t poetry) So I started reading it, already my mean editor side looking for reasons to pass on the story, but the story was well-written and compelling.
And it kept getting better. About halfway through I knew I was going to publish the story. As luck would have it, Hal had come to New York for a vacation, and we were able to meet for lunch and I could tell him that I was buying his story. By the time the issue came out (at the 2005 Worldcon in Glasgow) Vellum was booking high praise and its slick ARCs were commanding high prices on eBay. I had caught fire in a bottle. These days I snap up anything that has Hal in it. Read on, and see what the fuss is about.
Waukesha, July 2011
by Hal Duncan
The First Day Of Creation
In the nook of the tavern, the old man’s face—or part of it—catches the fireglow slanting through the frame of oak door left ajar as he leans forward across the table, elbows on the wood, a glinting silver mechanism in one hand going clunk, chik with the flicking of a thumb, while, with his other hand, he holds a cigarette up to his mouth to draw a breath in—foosh. He holds it for a perfect moment of satiation, head raised now so that his bliss-closed eyes come out from under the shadow of his hat’s wide brim, as if basking in the warmth of sunlight blood-red through their lids; and even beneath the bush of drooping grey moustache that his fingers seem half-buried in, there is a hint of smile on the lips pursed round the roll-up. Let there be light, I think, and then he leans back, disappearing into the leather shadow of the nook to blow out billows of blue-grey that curl and unfurl in the air like offerings of incense rising. An invocation in volutions, the breath of smoke immediately conjures up, in my mind’s eye, an image that I seize—that old man’s face half-lit as now in sharp chiaroscuro, shrouded in the swirling nebulae of chaos, of the first day of creation.
I must have him for my God.
—Maester, your stout.
The barkeep blocks my vision for a second as he lays the tumbler of black liquid on the table, and it brings me sharp out of the reverie.
—Grazzis, I say out of habit. Thank you. How much?
He waves a hand as I reach into my longcoat’s inner pocket.
—Full board and beer, he says. It’s all on the Monadery . . . Fader Pitro’s orders. He hopes—we hope—to make your stay here as pleasant as possible.
With a tilt of my glass to him I take a sip and smile at the busy tavern of sandminers and craftsmen, quarriers and traders, farmers in for a few quick jars before Evenfall; it’s not the sort of place you’d find in the Merchant Quarters of Vrienze or Nephale where I so often have to smooth my way from one commission to the next with smiles as painted as the courtesans . . . but it’s not so different from the harbour inns or carter’s lodges that I spent much of my apprenticeship in with my own Maester. Fewer knife-fights, I suspect.
—I’m sorry that we didn’t have your room ready, he says.
—No problem, I say. A well-poured stout is all it takes to keep me happy.
—I’ve sent word to the Monadery that you’ve arrived.
—Maya grazzis. Thank you. Thank you.
The bells of the Monadery di Sanze Manitae toll Evenfall, audible even over the tavern din of lewd jokes and earnest discussions, which changes tone in response to the knell as arguments find quick, laughing resolutions; chairs scrape back, friends say goodbyes, off home down the cobble-street slopes before darkness descends. The door opens and closes, opens and closes, until there are only a dozen or so customers left, drinkers more devoted or, perhaps, who live in the safety of the lamplit squares and strazzas of the market area, close enough to scorn superstition for the short walk home. The atmosphere becomes more intimate with just these groups of three or four here and there, without the escalating racket of voices raised over voices raised.
Relaxing with a second pint, I watch the swirling settle of foamy stout, the silken eddies of shades of brown separating gradually into tar-black body and a white head thick enough to sculpt; and my mind drifts back to my commission, the vague images and ideas for it that rise into momentary resolution only to sink back into the darkness. There are only so many scenes to choose from, of course, the conventional tableaux of Invocations and Pronunciations, the Exile From The Garden, Orphean’s Journey, and so on—and I have hardly even discussed with my patrons the layout of the antesanctum to be painted, let alone laid eyes on it—but if I have one fault it is my enthusiasm over grand schemes. This will be my first work on such a scale—not just one little frescoed wall or altarpiece, but a full antesanctum—and I feel . . . the anticipation of a young lad sitting in a brothel for the first time as his Maester, hand on his shoulder, says, Tomorrow you will be a man, eh?
A tump from the nook—feet dropping onto floor—turns my head and I see that the old man’s face is visible again—is he still sitting down?—and then the door opens fully as he comes out into the tavern proper and I realise his height. He’s gnomish, or hobben, as they call them in these parts, and I find myself caught in a fleeting sense of shock and shame, staring at him as if he has no business to be here and then looking away quickly because I have no business even thinking such thoughts; it’s not so much disgust as it’s the fear of disgust, the knee-jerk reaction of a tolerant and open-minded man, suddenly panicking at the challenge of reality. Are you? Are you sure? Did the word grotesque not whisper through your head for a fraction of a second when you saw the stump of him?
He asks the barkeep for another and the man pours him a draft of what looks like a wheat beer, golden but cloudy. I only realise I am staring when he notices and raises his glass to me. I salute him with my own, my momentary angst dissolved in the return of that aesthetic impulse. His stunted body is of as little interest now as when it was hidden in the shadows of the nook. His deep-lined face, as robust as it is wrecked, is all I see. The face of God.
He turns to go back to the nook and I wonder if it is his exile or simply his privacy; there are many taverns that would not serve his kind at all and I imagine that even if the hospitaliter himself is friend to all, some of his customers may be less inclusive.
—Sir, I say. A moment. A word.
—Yes? he says.
—I have a . . . request, I say.
—It is the perfect blank page, is it not? says Fader Pitro.
In a way he is right; the antesanctum of the Monadery de Sanze Manitae, skinned in its fleshtone of plaster, with its floor of mottled concrete, is an almost empty space, only the unvarnished oak intricacies of the dais with its pulpit, altar and chorum pews creating any sort of complexity—that and the ribbing of columns and windows that break up the side walls into architectured rhythm. Then there are the doors of the entranceway behind me and the two doors at the back, to either side of the dais, leading into the forbidden sanctum. On the whole it is, to the layman, a plain and perfect ground waiting humbly for its frescos, murals or mosaics. But I am a chiaroscurist. Even the simplest of spaces may contain the subtlest tricks of light latent in the slant of sunbeams through windows sidling round from dusk till dawn.
—There’s no such thing as a blank page, Fader, I say.
I work by eye and foot at first; before the measurements and calculations begin, I scout the vacant hall in an intuitive way, pacing its length and breadth, circling and crouching. I note the south-westerly aspect that will send a shaft of late-afternoon light through the circular window high above the entrance to the wall over the altar—slightly right of centre and down. I observe the rhomboid slices of long morning produced by the windows in the south-east wall, geometric projections on the facing plaster, the shadow of the Monadery Tower outside that will rupture this pattern between dawn and noon. As much as I appreciate the work of the masons who have built this spare but sublime little chapel for the brooders of the Manitaen Order, it is the architecture of light that I revere, as mutable as it is stable, cycling with the days and seasons, changing its very substance from granite grey to marble white with the gathering and scattering of cumuli and stratocirrus across the sky. The antesanctum—any building—is only a shell in which the light builds its own structures, not a blank page but a blueprint which a chiaroscurist like myself seeks to give form.
When I’m finally satisfied that I have the key points and the general flux of light fleshed out in my mind into a rough terrain of potential drama—highlights and low points—I turn back to the doorway and notice Fader Pitro still standing there, picking at a loose thread on the hem of his cassock’s drooping sleeve.
—You don’t have to stay, I say to the Fader. I’ll be here for a while and I’m afraid it won’t be very interesting to an observer.
He gathers his long hair into a ponytail and brings it over one shoulder, twirls a finger round a curly white lock; the Manitaens wear unusual tonsures I have noticed, shaved at the sides like a horse’s mane. The Fader plays with his when he’s thinking.
—I do have business to attend to, he says. Dukes and books, he sighs. But I’ll send Brooder Matheus to keep you company, in case you need anything.
I tell him there’s no need to bore the poor brooder with such duties, but he shushes me with a waggling finger.
—Brooder Matheus will find it a relief, I’m sure, he says. And it will stop him ruining any more vellum with his godless scrawl. A hand too used to the hawk’s hood, he mutters, and none too delicate with its feather. Honestly . . .
He wanders off, muttering to himself about spoiled second sons and the quality of tutoring amongst nobility these days.
I pick my carpetbag up from the doorway where I left it on entering the antesanctum and open it on the altar to take out my instruments, the sextantine and the compass, chalks and slates, coalsticks and notepads, measuring tape and, most important of all, my photometer. It is the most expensive item I possess, a delicate precision instrument that I keep in its own wooden case, padded with cotton wool and fretted over on each trundling cart journey from town to town, from commission to commission. When my Maester first gave it to me, indeed, I often irritated the poor carters with constant guidance over how to take the bumps in the road less jarringly or sat with the case in my lap for the whole journey, unsnicking the latch every ten miles or so to check that it was still intact.
I lay all these instruments on the altar like a surgeon’s tools, and am unlatching the photometer’s case when voice and footsteps echo behind me.
—How does it look?
Brooder Matheus, I assume—the same elven lad who came to fetch me from the tavern this morning to meet with Fader Pitro—gestures to encompass the antesanctum. He nods at the photometer in my hand.
—Is that for measuring the light?
He seems genuinely interested, the look on his face of a child who wants so much to play with an adult’s toy but knows it would be wrong to ask; so I show him the way the hood widens and tightens to set the aperture, the glass bulb inside with its incredibly fragile vanes and tiny metal sails to catch the light as a windmill catches air, how one holds it up and looks through the eyepiece at the back to see the flickering rhythm, the earpiece for listening to the tone of whirr.
—Is there no needle, no gauge, he says.
I shake my head.
—It takes a while but you learn to . . . hear the speed, to see the force of light, I say. Now. I’ll have to ask you to be quiet for a bit, if you don’t mind. I want to start my measurements.
—Of course, he says. Of course.
The Separation of Light and Dark
I close the shutters on the window a little more and come down from the stepladders to check the effect, step back up to adjust the mirrors and, satisfied finally, take my place at the easels. The tavern’s attic is one of the most effective studio spaces I have ever had, with its four small windows—embedded two on either side of the sloping roof—solid fits for my rigging of adjustable-angled reflectors and screens clamped into place on the window-frame and swivelled, tilted, until the daylight that pierces the room does so exactly where and how I want it to. My Maester would have been horrified at this, working as he did in sun-drenched spaces of whitewashed walls and floors, seeking to suffuse his work with that airy quality so bold and innovative in his day, the thin washes of colour in his tempera frescoes painting religious mystery in pastel tones lit up by the white of plaster glowing like moonlight underneath. Gauche and opalescent, his works still shimmer like the air on a hot summer day. God is light, he used to say. And that is what we paint, what we are paid to paint. A traditionalist, he did not approve of the chiaroscurists’ innovations.
—I am not sure I approve of this, grumps Iosef.
The old hobben sits on a child’s schoolchair, elbow on the desk-arm, fist under his chin, brows furrowed in a glower that’s more uncertain than unhappy. As a hobben, I know, his religion stands against the graven images that are my livelihood. Idolatry, he calls it, and if it were just the money involved—no matter what others might say about “gold-grubbing gnomes”—I do not think he would sit for me at all; but over these last few weeks of nights of drunken blather in the tavern’s candle-lit warmth, we have come to respect each other’s utterly opposed opinions, enjoying the sheer intransigence of each other’s attitude. He was a rephai—before the pogrom that burnt him from his home and drove him through fields of horror to eventual sanctuary here under Fader Pitro’s sackcloth wings—and the tradition of argument runs in his blood. For the hobben, God is not reached through images but through words, through the text and the exegesis of the text, debate, discussion. So he sits for me as a favour to a new friend, I like to think—but probably also as a favour to an old friend, Fader Pitro. And then also, there may be just a little of that secret thrill so many humble men have when you ask them to sit for you.
—Admit it, I say. You’re flattered by the thought of being the face of God.
—I am not, he says. It’s a blasphemy. Pride and arrogance, that’s what it is, he says, to think that you can give a face to God.
He digs into a pocket for his tobacco and cigarette papers, starts to roll a cigarette. I study the changed position for a second then lay down the coalstick with which I have been sketching on the right-hand easel, shuffle over to my left and pick up the chalk sitting on the left-hand easel’s lower clamp. I have worked this way ever since I struck out on my own, leaving my Maester to his dreamy pastel tones; I use two easels, one with white paper clipped to it to sketch in charcoal-black, the other with the blue-black paper of a draughtsman, on which I sketch in chalk. If God is light, as my Maester insisted, well, the world we live in is filled with the shadows cast by His material creation, by these forms of flesh absorbing so much on the side that faces Him that on the other He is utterly absent. I find that to capture this effectively, to grasp the form of the subject, I have to sketch my studies in dual media, layering charcoal shadows on a ground of light, chalk highlights over midnight blue. In the actual work, of course, these dual perspectives should be fused.
—But what is so blasphemous, I say innocently, about letting our imagination give a human face to that which we don’t understand?
He lights up his cigarette, puffs on it and coughs, then points at me with it as he lectures. If I were one of those artists who must have their subjects sit like silent statues while I sketch, I think Iosef would drive me mad. He cannot sit without talking, cannot talk without gesticulating—though he tried, bless him, stiff as a board the very first time he sat for me, like a youth being interviewed for membership in the highest merchant’s guild, until I told him that he wasn’t a king sitting for his portrait, that I wanted to see the varied attitudes and angles of his self, to just relax. So now he leans forward to make a point, sits back in satisfaction afterwards, crosses his arms or waves them in the air. He jabs the air with his rollup.
—The Absolute doesn’t have a face, he is saying now. God is infinite, transcendent, and you limit him when you try to define that which cannot be defined.
I trace the jut of solemnity in his jaw, the old man’s outrage in his bottom lip, almost petted as he blows smoke out and up.
—But I only try to define his face, I say. Where the presters and the rephais and the imams, why, you try to define his mind. Wisdom, justice and mercy, no?
I switch back to the easel of white paper, carving a curve of black upon it with the coalstick, the furrow of a knitted brow.
—Is it not pride and arrogance, I say, to think that you can give a mind to God?
—You . . . he says, shaking his head. Heresy like that will get you into trouble.
His voice goes quieter, softer.
—You should be careful, Maester.
The Protection of the Innocents
—Iosef, I think you should go inside.
Fader Pitro worries a rosary between his fingers as he gazes out over the Monadery’s low dry stone wall, over the red-tiled roofs of the town, the jumble of houses that slope down the hill and scatter out into the patchwork farms of the surrounding countryside. He stands, unsteady in the middle of the rockery in the western corner of the gardens, screwing his eyes to watch the road from the north, from Nixemburg and Murchen. I know what he is looking at. A cloud of dust. The flash of armour. The flutter of a banner. There are peregrins coming.
I hold the door of the antesanctum open for the carter who brought the news along with my latest supply of paints and primers, feeling helpless as he carries each barrel past me, lays it down carefully in the centre of the concrete floor. Brooder Matheus, my unofficial apprentice these days, helps him, humping the crates of coalsticks and chalk that I will need before I even pick up palette and brush; I have the preliminary design now for the interior, but it will take me months just to transfer the sketches from paper to plaster; the scaffolding has not even been erected yet.
The carter lays another barrel on the ground, a blond rock of a man, unconcerned by our atmosphere of agitation. Brooder Matheus keeps glancing at Iosef and the Fader. Iosef has a look set on his face.
—The Fader is right, Iosef, I say. Now’s not the time for stubbornness.
Iosef crouches down to clip a twig off a shrub with his secateurs. Ignoring me completely, he stomps over to a bench sat against the wall, puts the secateurs down and picks up a fork and trowel. He puts them down again and turns to me.
—Am I to spend my life cowering in the shadows? he says angrily. Is that what I am? A half-thing of the darkness? Half the height so half the man? Hide in the shadows, Iosef?
He points past me.
—Maybe I can crawl under the altar and hide there, eh?
I think of the stories he has told me of his old town, of hobben boarded up inside their burning homes, the elders of his little community dragged out into the streets to have their beards hacked off with razors as trophies for the mob, gnomes who had harmed no-one moaning out of broken, skinned jaws. Choking in a smoke-filled hiding-hole.
He strides past me, past the carter and into the antesanctum.
—Perhaps you should spend the night here as well, Maester, says Fader Pitro.
—No, I say. I’ll be alright.
—And how she squealed for her mother!
I gaze at the flame of the candle, the flicker so vibrant, so alive, and without pattern. How can something so chaotic be so beautiful? The candle is low, most of its wax now dribbled and solidified as white trails layering the dark-green glass of the bottle that serves as candlestick. A molten lump like some limestone grotto’s creation, slick and glistening in the dark. A drip of wax splashes on the table and I dip a finger into it before it cools, smooth it over the fingertip with my thumb.
—Some more of this fine cat’s piss here, man.
The peregrin officers fill the tavern though there’s only half a dozen of them; they fill it with their boorish brags, their swaggering contempt that shoves its way through crowds with elbows in the side or hands flat in the face, and with the ugly stares of men hungry for violence. Brooder Matheus and I sit at a corner table, safe with the carter sat across from us, as calm, he is, as if the peregrins were simply nuisance children running wild in the absence of authority. Everyone knows the reputation of the carter’s guild, men who are trained to see a cargo safely through the wildest regions of the hinter, whatever bandits or demons might lie in their path. Everyone knows the legends.
—I hear . . . says one of the peregrins, I hear there’s a filthy hobben in this town.
The carter slugs his beer back and stands up. His voice when he speaks is quiet, loaded.
—Brooder. Maester, he says. Do you have a message for the Fader?
He has no reason to return to the Monadery, of course, but . . . .
—If you’re going that way, I say, I think we both might join you, eh Brooder?
Brooder Matheus nods and downs the last of his beer for courage, coughs.
—You are mistaken, m’sire, says Fader Pitro.
His voice, outside, is loud and clear but there’s a waver in it, audible fear. The peregrins are gathered outside the very doors of the antesanctum, the officers and their whole band. They announced themselves on the staggering march up from the tavern with a pounding drum of swords on shields, a chorus of ape-calls. There are curses and laughter now.
—Bring him out and we’ll cut him down to size! shouts someone.
Brooder Matheus sits on a crate, looking nervous, and I wonder if there’s anyone out there he would recognise, some second cousin twice removed perhaps. Elven nobility, I think. Iosef stands on the dais itself, a hand touching the altar. They would not kill him in a house of God, would they? I stand at the door, listening.
—There are no hobben here, says Fader Pitro and I hear the sound of someone spitting in reply.
The carter moves me aside with one hand. The other holds his spike, the seven foot steel bladed lance that can be used as sword or staff or spear. There is one story that the guild was formed from an order of knights sworn to protect the early peregrins on their way to the Holy Lands, before these sons of the grey erles twisted the pilgrimages into a crusade. Even if there is no truth to it, I have seen for myself the brutal skill with which a carter wields his spike. He takes the brass handle of one of the doors and swings it full open, suddenly, smoothly.
The hellish orange of torchlight pierces the antesanctum, picking out Brooder Matheus as he stands up from the crate, a palette knife in his hand of all things. Iosef at the altar. The peregrins cannot fail to see him there, surely. But they cannot fail to see the carter either, the way his eyes and spike capture the flame of their torches and reflect it back at them, so bright that the antesanctum behind must be darkness in comparison.
He simply stands there, silent, until they leave.
The Temptation of the Faithful
—I have to go, I say. Brooder Matheus will be waiting for me eager as a pup. I lay the first stroke today.
—Brooder Matheus can wait till you’ve had breakfast, says Rosah.
She kicks down the bedsheet and pulls herself up onto her elbow. I admire her as I pull on my linen trousers and shirt, all crisp and freshly laundered, perfumed by the petals left in the bottom of the basket by Maria, Hier Nerjea’s wife, who rules the tavern’s lodging rooms with the same ironclad sense of hospitality as her husband rules the public house below. Rosah is beautiful and she lies there on the bed, my angel whore, knowing it. Her skin is pale as porcelain, paler than it should be with such amber hair and eyes of flashing green; when I undressed her that first night I expected freckles, copper skin, the feel of powder on my fingers as I caressed her face, but there was only the silk of skin, as soft and clean as if it was just out of the bath and towelled dry. It is I who am usually masked in powder, charcoal and chalkdust griming my face and fingers when I come back to the tavern late to take my supper and drink with her, and later as the night goes on, slip my arm around her waist and pull her, laughing with lust the both of us, up to my room. Rosah’s beauty is unsoiled by rouge or eyeshadow, her only concession to vanity the vermilion lipstick with which she paints my chest with a kiss each night over my heart. I feel my cock stirring as I look at her coquettish contrapposto pose, the locket that hangs between her breasts, the trim of her fuzz; I am remembering her salty taste. I leave the shirt untucked as cover, shaking my head.
—You will spoil me for other women, I say.
—Then you must marry me, she says. Take me away from all this and make an honest woman of me.
I sit on the bed to kiss her. It is a little joke that has developed between us these last few months but like all such jokes it has just the tiniest sting of truth behind it and we are both sometimes, I think, a little sad, thinking it might be nice and knowing it will never happen.
—Me? I say. I am as much a whore as you. More so, mi caria, since I have slutted myself in more cities than you could probably imagine.
—Ah, but if you took me with you when you go, I could give you some competition, I am sure.
I laugh. I love Rosah, as a friend and as a sensual delight, as a favourite whore and as a trusted confidante; and her fondness for me runs deep enough for her to declare now and then, on some night when perhaps she feels a little lonely, tonight there is no money and no clock, mister painter, no limits, only you and I, and we will explore each other’s body as if we had never even touched before. We are both whores, yes, but I think we are both whores by vocation, willing to give more of ourselves in our work than most.
But neither of us will ever lose ourselves in the other, I know. Even in the nights when we make love rather than merely fuck, we are never truly lovers.
—I have to go, I say.
—Artists, she says. You’re no whore. You’re more married than the Nerjeas.
—Tonight? I say and kiss her on the forehead.
—Eat something, she calls out the door after me as I go down the stairs. Maria! Make him have some breakfast.
—Breakfast? I say.
I throw the apple across the antesanctum to Brooder Matheus, who catches it in one hand. I polish another on my shirt and take a crunching bite.
—Fader Pitro was asking how things were going again, he says. I told him you’re two months behind and that yesterday you completely wiped the first four panels of the south-east wall.
He takes a bite out of the apple, a mischievous gleam in his eye.
—I am a bad influence on you, I say.
—It’s the truth.
I am behind schedule admittedly, but what the brooder didn’t tell the old monk is that the cleaning of the panels is the next stage of the process. I look around at the surfaces of the antesanctum—what you can see behind the scaffolding—ceiling and walls all but covered in the chalk and charcoal sketches copied from the papers that now carpet the concrete floor. The panels above the door and behind the altar are the only that have still to be filled; I have not made my final decision on the latter yet and the former, well, the idea I have in mind I would rather keep from the Fader’s prying eyes right now.
As for the four panels that I ‘wiped’ yesterday, though, the ones around the far-left window—Brooder Matheus may be amused at the thought of the Fader in a flap but yesterday it was himself looking on in horror as I went at them with my rags and fluids. I gave him a few minutes of panic before explaining that charcoal and chalk make a less than effective surface for my technique and, you see, I have the images that belong there imprinted in my mind now so I only have to close my eyes to visualise them. The cleaning was only preparation for the real work to begin.
The outlines of the four panels bordering the window are the only charcoal marks left from the previous months of work on this area. Offset and defined by one line running out from each corner of the window, the panels should produce a sort of elliptical structure on the whole, moving the eye around from this one to the next. I decide to start with the panel on the lower-left.
The brooder has already prepared the buckets of water and the basins we will need, so I crack open the barrel of plaster mix and set him to work while I wind the clockwork pick then start to vandalise the smooth pink skin of the first panel. The little steel point of it whirrs as it hammers, chipping away at the surface, roughing it up so that the plaster I apply will bond. There should be no danger of my work crumbling off the wall three years after completion in the middle of some funeral . . . as happened with di Vineggio’s Nocturna d’il Houri.
I finish preparing the first panel and take the first two basins of plaster from Brooder Matheus, handing him the pick to wind. It is the same sculpting plaster in each bowl—thicker than normal plaster, softer than clay—but where one basin is white the other is tinted dark with the same black ink the monks use in their Vellumary. The two will mix a little as I apply them, but that is to be expected. I will be painting over them anyway; all I am doing now is building up the undercoat of light and shadow, the white that will shine through from beneath a cerulean sky, the darkness that will lurk behind a devil’s eyes, building it up gradually, with a finger and thumb of slick plaster here or there, a thick wet lump smoothed into shape with a knife, another lump on top of it.
Slowly the form of a face starts to take solid shape, as if emerging from the very wall. After a while, I stand back to uncrick my shoulders.
—It catches the light, says Brooder Matheus. Where you’ve put the white plaster, it catches the light coming in the window. Just so, just . . .
—Just right? I say. That’s the general idea.
The Seeding of the Earth
—And, generally speaking, do you have an idea of when it will be finished?
It has taken me two years just to do the ceiling and the Fader manages to sound casual in his enquiry, but I can hear the note of worry in his voice. The costs are escalating now that the paint is flowing and the wagon rolling constantly between here and Murchen, bringing the pigments and media I require from the great Artist’s Market of the Strazza d’il Tintorum, powders made from rock and plant, sulphuric yellow from the Salt Sea or green-gold sapphiron from the distant Aurient, porphyr made from mollusc’s shells in the Phonaesthian city-states or the iridescent verdan of Aegys’s crushed scarab wings. Elysse, north and south, is full of natural hues, nut-browns and ochres, umbers and siennas, and I make full use of these, but the pigments most saturated with yellow, red and blue must be imported from their more exotic origins, so these materials are expensive; and although the brooders’ benefactor, the Duke Irae, is rich with the plunder of the Holy Lands even he may balk at paying such a ransom for escape from Hell.
So the Fader sees the antesanctum only a fraction complete and, thinking of how much money it has cost already and how far it has to go, has visions of catastrophe.
—It will probably be finished, I say, the day after you give yourself a heart attack, Fader . . . at this rate. Or if you want I could paint the rest all white and you could tell the Duke it symbolises God’s eternal radiance. That way it would be finished within the week.
He twirls a lock of hair between his fingers, brushes his lips with the end of it.
—It’s not my heart giving out that I’m worried about, he says. The Duke has expressed his desire to have . . . given all the honour that he can to God while still on this earth.
I grab a bar of scaffolding, swing from my crouch up on the plank down to the platform beneath. Holding onto a ladder that rises up past me, I lean out into the fifteen foot of air that separates me from the Fader and Brooder Matheus standing behind him.
—Tell him he could die tomorrow, I say, so he should swear his sons to carry on his patronage. Or tell him that the Butcher of Instantinople shouldn’t be such an old maid.
I wrap paint-rags round my hands and slide down the ladder.
—Tell him, I say, that God will not let him die until his purpose is fulfilled and he stands here, where you and I are standing, looking up into His face; that if he dies before the antesanctum is complete it will be the greatest sin he’s ever committed.
Brooder Matheus points at my forehead and I touch the wetness, wipe the paint off with the back of my hand. Alizarin crimson. Fader Pitro looks unusually stern, but he seems a little distracted, as if there’s something less tangible than money and time worrying him. Brooder Matheus puts a hand on the Fader’s arm.
—Tell him it will be worth it when the chapel is finished, he says. Look. Is it not true?
A mix of indigo and porphyr, the night sky painted on the ceiling of the antesanctum is not black but blue, the purplish hue so deep that, in contrast with the crescent moon of Iosef’s raptured face and the plumes and strands of clouds he breathes into existence, it recedes as into an eternal darkness; but it is a poor chiaroscurist who does not understand that there is colour even in the deepest shadows so, although I work in light and dark, there is no black upon my palette, no black in the night sky. I keep a watch on the Fader’s tilted, swivelling chin of pointed beard as his eyes follow the path mapped out for them. On the barrel ceiling, the low relief of Iosef’s face sits off-centre and down so as to catch the eye first by catching the diffuse sun coming in the windows of the south-east wall. The subtler forms of streams of smoke modelled around the image of the Creator lead Fader Pitro round and out; smoke becomes scatterling clouds in a night sky, spatterings of stars. At the edges of the ceiling, as if the viewer is looking up from the middle of a forest clearing, thick plaster foliage of branches and leaves is painted in the olive drab of night and edged in bone-white. An owl rises from a branch but otherwise it is a quiet sky, the first few days of Creation. Mankind is yet to appear; the unborn animals are only suggestions in the insubstantial swirls, seeds waiting to be sung and sprung into existence under Orphean’s feet.
—We can’t all create a world in six days, I say.
Fader Pitro’s eye travels the scene, his body turning, stepping back and round to the side every so often to accommodate his angle. I watch with pleasure as he is brought back to the face of Iosef, the beginning and the end.
—I’m just hoping that it’s not six years, he says.
But he nods. He looks around at the sculptures pressing out from the walls all round, shapes emerging from the plaster as if they too are part of the moment above, emerging into existence from the clay of the earth beneath the sky, and he nods, mutters some vague encouragement and leaves.
—Iosef is ill, says Brooder Matheus after he has gone.
—Schitze! says Iosef. I’ll be tending their garden and their graveyard long after the Fader is fertilising my plants. Pitro’s a worrier.
—I’ve noticed, I say. I sometimes think he only took his vows to give his fingers rosaries to play with.
But twice tonight Iosef has been racked by coughing fits that halted conversation as he creased with the effort of containing them, the table shuddering under the weight of his hand. He will not see a doctor and he will not give up his rituals of tobacco, however much his lungs and throat protest with rasping hacks and muffled judders; that much became obvious when I joined him in his nook, taking the chair diagonally across from his customary cushion-raised booth seat, and tried to broach the subject—and the air turned blue with curses and with smoke blown in my face. I’m not sure which of them made my eyes sting more, the invective or the noxious weed, but I thought better of continuing the role of nag. It doesn’t suit me anyway.
Of course, I can remind him of how others worry for his health. Absurdly, I say. But they do worry.
—Let’s talk of something else, he says. Have you decided on the designs for the end walls yet?
He takes a drag on his roll-up and I wince as he explodes into another fit, spluttering into a white-knuckled fist. He thumps the table in frustration and I ignore it. The hobben have a phrase—ch’yem—which roughly translates as may it be. The will of God is inevitable, they mean, as I understand it. I think it is a phrase very close to Iosef’s heart these days.
—The end walls? I say. I do have some ideas.
The Exile From The Garden
—And whatever will they say at the sight of a whore painted as blessed Queen Titania?
Rosah looks over her shoulder at me with an arched eyebrow; she finds the whole idea both wicked and delicious, but rather than being in conflict over what I’ve asked of her she has thrown herself into it with delight. It is strange, but having heard her say her prayers at night—more open and relaxed with me as she has been in this last year or so—I have discovered a quite pious side to my Rosah, with the little saint statues on the shelf in her room, the single candle that always has a flower at its side, and her tiny bowl of honey and coins. I think now if I’d asked her to be my Titania two years ago she would have refused, saying it was sacrilege, and I would have . . . laughed probably, in shock. Now I’m not sure why she agreed at all; perhaps the deeper the belief in sin, the greater the thrill of courting it.
—They’ll say you are the very image of her, says Brooder Matheus.
She blows a kiss at him and he mimes a catch, grinning, but blushing at his own boldness. At least it brings some colour to his cheeks; the two of us got roaring drunk in the tavern last night, after visiting Iosef up at the grounds house, and if I woke up with a hangover, the poor brooder, by the look of him, was at death’s door. The original grey erle.
Matheus and myself now pace about the studio, setting up the easels and the paper, arranging the mirrors and shades on the windows. Rosah sits on a bench before us, leaning over an open chest of props, holding necklaces of coloured glass jewels up to her throat, throwing feathered boas and fur stoles over her shoulders, trying on a stuffed snake, a tiara—and all the while glancing at herself in the mirror like a child playing dress-up. Every so often, these last few months in particular, I find myself glancing at her when she is not looking and I feel this joy I can hardly explain. It is in moments like this. I try to put my finger on it. She is not performing—no—she is not performing for me, or for the brooder, not seeking our attention, but simply, happily, lavishing it upon herself.
I think that is it. She is no longer my Rosah. Now she is simply Rosah.
When Brooder Matheus and I have everything set up to my satisfaction, she drops the centaurian’s helmet that she’s holding back into the box and stands, walks into the centre of the room.
—You’re ready, yes? Where do you want me? How do you want me?
—In white silk, I say. Just a moment.
I dig the dress I want out of the box, not so much a dress as a drapery of veils and ribbons, and while I untangle it, tease out the folds and complexities, she slips off her shoes, hikes up her skirt to peel down her stockings.
—Brooder Matheus, she says, will you help me with this?
Her hands reaching behind, she turns her back to him and the brooder looks hesitant and shy for a second before taking those steps across the room. His fingers fumble with her buttons but after the first couple, the rest come loose easily. I notice the delicate confidence with which he slips the straps off her shoulders, the way he can’t help but smooth the palms of his hands over her skin. Last night, in drunken camaraderie, he confessed to me how unsuited he feels to his vows. He had little choice in the matter; as a second son, the law of primogeniture leaves him no estate, no path to follow but war or religion. And while he has no great urge to go and slaughter, with his noble elven brethren, the demon races that now rule the Holy Lands, he said, chastity was never his strong point.
It’s funny, I suppose; in all the years we’ve known each other now, watching him grow from adolescent to adult, I had always pegged him as, at heart, an innocent naïf. As it turns out our naive brooder lost his virginity two years before I did and spent most of his youth from that point on tupping any girl who batted her eyelashes at him.
Rosah’s dress slips off her shoulders and crumples on the ground at her feet. She steps out of it and takes the white silk costume from my hands, begins to wrap herself in it. It adorns without hiding, veils without disguising. Every curve of her, every sacred secret place of her is somehow more revealed with it on than in her nakedness, and I’m more sure than ever that this is the Titania of the Exile from the Garden that will go on the wall above the antesanctum’s entrance. This is the faery queen, the virgin whore, the spirit of lush forests, of morning dew like the sweat on a lover’s body, of oceans salty as blood and semen, who runs her fingers over the vine-grown trunks of trees, the green-veined cocks of men, through grass and hair, as the ruler of them all, the mother of all living things, mother of Orphean who died for our sins.
I dip into the box again and pull out the velvet robe, dark purple, long and soft as fur. Brooder Matheus reaches out a hand for it but his eyes are on Rosah, transfixed; it takes him a few seconds of grasping in the air to realise there’s no point in me giving him the robe quite yet, and then he turns to me with a wry, sheepish smile on his face, red with a blush or with the flush of sexual tension. Finally he pulls the cassock over his head and stands there, cockish and puffed with an uncertain audacity. He runs his fingers through the dark-red hair that silks over his shoulders, brushing it back, half nervousness, half pride. I hand him the robe and he pulls it on, leaves it hanging open. Slender and straight beside her curves, he is the dark to her light, the auburn to her titanium white. The Oberon to her Titania.
As they turn to each other, their hands, their bodies, beginning that exploration of the world outside innocence, discovered in an age long before our own, I walk to my easels and look from chalk to charcoal and back again, trying to decide which to begin with.
The Last Days
I am on the last panel now. It has taken me four—no, nearly five—years to paint the antesanctum of the Monadery d’il Sanze Manitae and at last it is almost complete. I sketch directly onto the wall now, working as fast as I can and keeping a rag at hand to correct my errors and insincerities. Insincerities? In any painting such as this, in any work of a chiaroscurist such as myself, it is easy to become too bold in the drama, too theatrical, too focused on the power that light and dark have to evoke a profound sense of mystery. Subtlety is lost when the artist blusters his own ideas in forms too overblown, brushstrokes too broad. Of all the panels of the antesanctum, I cannot allow this one to lose its import in mere impact. I will not.
So I draw with chalk and coalstick onto the pink plaster and, again and again, I find myself cursing and taking the rag to the wall in bitter frustration because this structure is too crude, that contrast too bold. Too clichéd. Too unusual. Too trite. Too grandiose. It should be the simplest panel of them all, in some ways, for its subject is the most universal. It is one of the most traditional of scenes, though it is usually placed in some dark area, as a hidden mystery.
I am drawing the body of Iosef, which lies upon the altar now. I am drawing death.
I work non-stop for two days finding a form that does not really satisfy me but is, at least, not an insult to his memory, not the self-important sweeping statement of a young chiaroscurist more concerned with the glory of his work than with who and what it is meant to represent. Even as I begin the modelling work, layering on the black and white plasters, building up the relief sculpture of Iosef’s ruined body, I do not know if I can do him justice. Will this reduce his life to no more than an empty symbol, only resonating for the viewer because it is so hollow without the totality of his life to fill it? How can I show in the cracks of his knuckles and the stumps of his fingers, the way those hands worked so delicately with the flowers and herbs of the Monadery garden, or rolled his cigarettes with such unconscious ease and precision that half the time his eyes would be on something else, on myself or Matheus, as he lectured us on our many follies? How can I show in the still barrel of his chest, the wheezing up-and-down of it as he lay in his sick bed for that last year and a half, fighting to keep the last breath in his body? How can I show that the smoke that ruined him was not just the smoke of his own creation but the smoke of his destruction, of the temple with his congregation gathered in it on their holy day to sing the word of God, and the mob outside with fire?
I only knew him for four years and there is so much that I did not know.
All I can show are these last days of him, of his remains.
The decay of the body is quick in the heat of summer. Skin of Payne’s-grey blotches phthalo blue and viridian in the shadows; it dulls with the yellow ochre, burnt umber, burnt sienna of rot. Maggots wriggle, iridescent and ivory white in the slick of him. The surface of the altar is stained with the blood pooled and coagulated in the lowest areas of his body in the early stages of decay, now transformed by the process into some thicker, darker fluid. I see haematic red in it, alizarin crimson. It glistens aemberic orange in the candlelight. Every colour in my palette is mixed in the putrefaction of the corpse and I paint them on the wall in layer upon layer. I mix paint with plaster and sculpt with my fingers until my nails are filthy and broken by the scratching.
Fader Pitro sits vigil over Iosef’s body while I work, because this is the tradition of the hobben and there are no others in the town to perform the rites. I think that Iosef would have wanted the Fader at his side anyway, but this is cold comfort to the monk; he frets that he is failing, that he cannot do it properly, that it should be done properly. The brooders recite verses from the Old Book in Litan but they do not know the hobben words or the soaring wavering tunes this poetry should be sung to, so as I work their choral chants echo in the antesanctum, giving the same sentiments in the words and song they know.
We have sent word to Matheus and Rosah but I do not think they will arrive before the burial.
I am laying a stone on his grave when I feel the hand on my shoulder. Rosah. Matheus stands behind her. I embrace my Titania, kiss her on the forehead. Matheus and I shake hands, both of us two-handed, clasping each other’s grip firm and tight as if anchoring each other. We talk for a while, words that we forget as soon as they have been spoken. Sometimes there is laughter, sometimes tears. Matheus is still not sure of what he will do now he has left the Order, but the two of them seem, even in sorrow, to have found their true vocations in each other. Have I really finished now? they ask. Yes. And did I really paint the Death Of God as the very focus of the whole chapel, the work you see first as you enter through the doors? Yes. They will see how the structure of light and shadow in the antesanctum demanded it. When they see it they will understand, I hope.
After a while I leave them to have some time alone at the grave and return to the antesanctum.
The walls are filled with the townsfolk and the brooders, every character based on one local or another—the Nerjeas, Rosah and Matheus, even Fader Pitro as a saint in one high corner—but it is Iosef whose face holds you as you walk in, not in the moment of creation on the ceiling but on the wall behind the altar, on a dead body, lying on its back but with its head turned towards you so that face stares out with hollow eyes, eaten away to bone here and there, a white skull cloaked in the shadows of flesh and night. I do not know if I am satisfied with it. I could not hope to paint, in his death, the whole reality of his life; all I can show are his remains, on the painted artifice of an altar on the wall behind the real thing as if it were a dark mirror still reflecting what is no longer there.
Maybe those few precious glimpses that I had, in the years of moments that I knew him . . . maybe these are enough to know the form of someone, even if the rest is darkness.
- end -