Another story for your Halloween mood, this one a bit more intense. Its part Twilight Zone, and part pure unadulterated ugly. The closest I’ve come to writing a character that is unambiguously evil. Yes, it was terribly fun to write.
On a dark morning many years ago, I had a visitor, a supplicant. He was ushered into my audience room by one of my servants. I watched him fidget nervously in the chair through a peep-hole I had installed for just such an occasion. He kept looking around the room, staring at the rich furnishings, the mystic symbols of gods and goddesses, the statues, the elegant drapes – everything carefully illuminated by candlelight. Everything perfectly designed, using the heavy club of mystery and the unknown, to crush all intelligent thought, all reason. As I watched, my servants prepared my person with makeup, elegant robes and the finest of perfumes. Every part of my skin was cleaned and well oiled, my hair was lacquered into a strange and terrible coif, every ring and trinket was shined to an opulent glow.
All the while I observed the supplicant carefully, noting the subtle signs of his mood. Waiting for the moment when he stopped thinking about the room and started to think about himself. His mood subtly changing from fear and confusion to concern and indignation. At that exact moment, I swept out of my personal chambers and into the room from the door opposite his chair. Before he could stand or react, I bowed deeply before him as if to apologize.
He sputtered and gasped, not knowing what to do. The surprise perplexed him, as it does even the quickest of men.
I gently settled him into his seat before he became overwrought and poured him some tea, the set being brought in by my servant Beautiful. The tea was a prop to help him collect his thoughts, and for my many servants to gather more intelligence about the man. As his eyes followed my servant over the rim of his cup, the right eye of Shiva, the small statue of the goddess in the alcove behind the man, turned bright. The was good. It meant he had not been followed.
Once the appropriate pleasantries were over, I set down my cup and pushed it aside formally. Now we could talk.
Seeing my action, he set his cup down as well, and looked around the room, gathering his thoughts. I steepled my fingers and made my face a blank, waiting patiently for him to speak. I passed the time reminding myself he was paying me a ridiculous amount of gold for an hour’s worth of my time. Something like a week’s wages for every passing second. I could be patient all day at that rate. Thinking this, I found it hard not to smile.
The supplicant was young, lean. His eyes were beady, darkly recessed under a prominent brow – his nose pointed, protruding. A hint of blue could be seen on his chin, evidence of the dark thick beard that would grow there when he stopped shaving. He had a man’s years about him but they fit him awkwardly like a poorly made cloak. He had a single small ring on his right hand – brass from the look of it – and a small hoop in his left ear. Both were ornaments of little value, or my servants would have charged him more. There were no marks upon him, no indication of the twin comforts of marriage or children. That was good.
“I have come,” he said in the broken syntax of a speech too well rehearsed, “to ask… to beg you for your help.” He spoke the word ‘beg’ as if it were distasteful but then he gamely continued. “You see, I am an artist of some worth. Indeed I can paint quite well – better than most, or so I am told – but for some reason I cannot find favor with my work. Daily I see men and women sell their works, most of whom – like Sluggart and Montroval – having far less skill than myself and none of which are nearly as deserving. This perplexes me to no end. By all rights, the market should be clamoring outside my studio, begging to purchase my portraits, yet I cannot sell a single piece.”
He paused, to gather his thoughts. “I have been reduced,” he continued, “to the basest kinds of depravity – selling myself in horrible cruelty, the likes of which would chill your heart – all to afford the simplest of paints and canvas.”
This he confessed with the tone of a ravaged man, a broken man. A man who had seen great deprivation. A man to which the world had beaten most cruelly and viciously. It was heartening to see such pain at such a young age. Then his tone changed. I could see a fire slowly growing in his eyes. I knew he was getting to the point.
“This,” he declared, “this is not enough. This is not the life I wanted. I must have more. Tell me – please, please tell me, if you can – how I can become a painter. A painter of great renown? How can I become a master; the greatest painter of my age?”
He stopped, poised on the edge of his chair, almost panting from the effort of his speech. I flexed my steepled fingers the barest minimum necessary to indicate I had been listening. With great show, I closed my eyes as if in deep thought, forcing myself to an unnatural stillness.
Even with my eyes closed I could feel his discomfort growing. He needed me to react, needed me to tell him something, to let him know if his request was even possible. If he had any idea how many times I had heard this speech before, he would have run from the room, shocked to his very core. But that is the nice thing about the young: they are the first to assume exclusive ownership of an emotion and the last to read any history. It is, as my long life has shown, a profitable loophole to exploit.
Oh I knew the solution to his problem. People will buy almost any art, even if it is the poorest of craft, but they will never part with large stacks of their well-earned coin for a man whom they do not admire. For all of his complaints, this man had sold some of his art, at least enough of it to earn his way through my door. But his pride would always keep him from attaining his desires, just as surely as a rat can never eat his way out of a silo full of grain. Telling him the easiest way to solve his problem would only fall upon deaf ears and garner me no profit. And I never do anything that doesn’t show a profit.
Instead I opened my eyes in a flash, as if I just had a valuable idea, and then I conspired with him, demanding an oath of secrecy before I would continue. When his oath was freely given, I told him a shadowy legend from the depths of antiquity. Within the the weaving of this story, I laid out a simple formula, one my servants had discovered for me many years ago. Social popularity cannot only be learned but it can be tracked and even predicted, if given enough data and enough desire. It would take this man years to understand what I patiently described to him – the simplest of concepts being the most difficult to grasp – and even more years to put that knowledge into practice, but it would most certainly bring him great wealth. By the time my formula brought him his well-earned desires, he will have forgotten about me; believing that the ideas for it had come solely from his own head. I didn’t mind. I had a deeper game.
Even while I was giving him the secret to great wealth, the young man’s eyes kept darting over my head, his attention drawn again and again to a painting done of myself which hung over the doorway to my private chambers. It was a piece I had commissioned some years back for exactly this purpose. Indeed, with the exception of the Shiva statue and the tea set, it was the only thing I valued in the room. The likeness was more than good, it was uncanny. In it I was the embodiment of Wisdom; Wisdom personified. My face was serene and calm, looking down upon the seat of the supplicant, making them feel a spark, a secret thrill of the supernatural. One could almost see the portrait breathe, watch its eyes slightly track the movement in the room. It had a very definite sense of being alive.
When the hour was up, I had Duty and Faithfulness usher the young painter from the audience room. As soon as he was gone, I cursed the fool painting, as I walked back to my chambers and had my servants strip me of all my bold costumery.
Some years later, the painter returned. This time, rather than making him wait, I strolled right in and greeted him warmly like a brother; clasping his arms and sitting across from him on a less formal settee. My dress and mien were far less imposing, forgoing the fancy robes and perfumes for a simple yet elegant shift.
The man opposite me was far different from the boy who had come previously. His hair was now full and dark with just the hint of grey. His thick beard flattered his face but did not hide the girth of his soft cheeks. His eye was firm, yet kind, a man used to getting his way but not always by force. He wore many fine rings on his thick fingers, and both his shift and his jacket I noted were stitched with gold thread which was shone off to good effect by his ample middle. All this display of wealth came after paying me ten times the cost of the previous visit. He had greatly profited from my strange tale indeed.
This time, instead of Beauty, I had Duty serve us tea. The painter noticed her presence but not unduly so. Unlike before, he sipped his tea with a calm air and took what appeared to be much joy in sharing the pleasantries. As we chatted, the small Shiva behind him held first one, then two glowing eyes. This was even better. I now knew that the money he had paid for this visit was unencumbered by any bank or person. He had paid in cash without a loan.
This time when I placed my teacup down, pushing it away from me, he was ready to commence business. Without much of a preamble, he launched into the reason for his visit.
He was not happy, you see. Not happy at all. He was now a famous painter and was in high demand for his portraiture work. People came from all over the world to have him paint their likenesses, for it was said that he was able to catch the likeness of any subject and hold it most expertly. Indeed his craft had improved, or so he told me, but it was not as good as the credit which was afforded him. He found himself feeling more and more a sham, an adequate painter, somehow saddled with an excellent reputation. Worst still, the more people praised him, the more unworthy he felt inside, until he was at the point of stopping painting altogether.
This last part was said with his arm crossing his face in the most dramatic of poses. Of course he didn’t want to stop painting, he only needed to play the part. What he did want was something more. Something deeper.
“Your portrait,” he stated. “The one hanging above the doorway to your chambers. It has haunted me from the first I saw it. It is too right, too real. I swear to you, from over here it even looks to be alive. Yet it does not contain a normal life, for it is more than that. It looks to be moral, virtuous, pure. Almost as if someone had taken the very essence of wisdom and painted it upon the canvas – painted it perfectly.
“That portrait,” he continued, “that likeness has robbed me my sleep since the day I first came here. It has mocked every piece I have painted, its memory laughs every time I hold the brush. I have searched far and wide, spending more than one fortune seeking its author, seeking any other painting near its quality, and I must confess to you, I have found none, no one. I can find neither a painting of that intensity, nor one containing that much truth. I have to know. I need to know. I must meet the master of that work, the man whose work so surpasses mine. I must find out how it was painted. You see, I need to know how to paint like that. I will accept no other alternative.”
The intensity of the painter’s desire was palpable. He sat again on the edge of his seat, his fat cheeks flushed with emotion, his dark eyes penetrating, expecting. I must confess I sank into his terrible need for far longer then was strictly necessary. To be around raw greed of such intensity was simply thrilling.
When I was finally through enjoying his passion, I softly spoke. “The human eye,” I said calmly to him, “has a single spot in which can focus to any great degree. It is called the fovea and though it is but a small dot comprising less than a percent of the surface of the retina, all of our great focusing power comes though it. One cannot read the text of a letter or the flush of a young lover, without it. The rest of the eye is taken over with distinguishing the difference between light and dark or noting any type of motion but that is all. None of the rest can focus, can read, can bring clarity of vision.”
What I did not mention was that the fovea, while significant in its own right, was often eclipsed by another feature of the eye – the blind spot.
I paused, waiting until he showed he was following, if not completely understanding. “The trick,” I then told him, “is not to paint like the greater part of the eye, for that is what you have been doing, but to paint with the focus and intensity of the fovea.”
“But how,” he asked? “How can I paint with such intensity? How is that even possible?”
“It is a simple matter, more simple than you would believe possible,” I said. “To begin with, you must learn to paint with greater focus. Start by locking yourself in a dark room. Paint only with just the faintest of lights. Allow no other distractions. No models, no food, no conversation, no wine, family, friends, nothing. It will take many years, and a very great attention to discipline, but you will eventually sense a new intensity to your brushwork, a new focus.”
“Yes,” he said practically salivating, “go on.”
“It is at this point that things start to get interesting.”
I gathered up paper and pen encouraging him to take careful notes. I then went on to explain the techniques of focusing his energy into one thought, one emotion. “One must pick a single human trait,” I told him, “and hold it in one’s mind for days on end until it has shown for you all of its secrets. Only then will the properly focused brushwork come into play. It is at this point, at the apex of emotional focus, and intense brushwork, that the canvas will seem to take on a life of its own and so will the portrait.”
Entranced by the simple idea, the rich painter took his scrap of paper with all its careful notes and made his way from my audience room, this time escorted only by Thrift. The irony, of course, being lost on him. I could see he was thrilled at the idea of painting with such an intensity. Never once, in explaining this technique to him, did I mention the cost. He would find that out soon enough.
Leaving careful instructions to my servants, I slipped back into my chambers and busied myself about my day.
It was but a few years, perhaps six or maybe ten, before the painter came to visit me for a third and final time. The transformation from his previous visit could not have been more complete. He entered my audience room bent over, his feet walking in the slow shuffle of the infirm. His eyes were sunken into his head, his beard sparse and uncombed, his hair filthy and matted, all of its dark color overcome by a dingy white. His skin carried a grey pallor of one who does not see enough light or frequent washings. His fingernails were grey with dirt, thick black bands of neglect evident under each nail. He wore no rings or adornments of any kind. His cloak was ten years out of style and so encrusted with dirt that my first thought was he had picked it up from the bottom of an alley and put it on just before stumbling into my house.
I greeted him behind a desk, telling him curtly to sit down on the only available piece of furniture; an uncomfortably bare wooden chair. I did not speak to him for a full 25 minutes, instead I busied myself with paperwork. So great was his pitiful condition that the man did not think to complain about such obviously poor treatment to his person. And this after paying ten times the amount of his last visit, one hundred times the cost of the original!
But for all that his dress and wardrobe were rundown, neither of these transformations were nearly as terrible as the look his eye gave when I finally called him to attention. Gone was the youthful vanity of his first visit, and gone was the overweening pride of his second. In its stead was a husk of a man; a person so devoid of feeling, or any type of emotion, that he gave the very appearance of one of the many imbeciles that line the streets, begging for alms as they leave filthy trails of drool upon their dirty robes. Only by the slimmest of measures did his eye contain the spark of keen intellect like it once had. All else about the man, all the things that made him powerful, made him great, were stripped from him.
As I completed my paperwork, I kept glancing up at the small statue of Shiva positioned in the alcove behind the man. Right after he arrived, first one eye and then the other were lit. Finally, after a healthy portion of his hour was up, the third and final eye on the Shiva did glow. That meant there was no one left in this man’s life to know or care that he was here.
All was in order.
I set down my papers. “Why are you here,” I suddenly demanded of the man? My tone was brutal, uncluttered by the least bit of civility.
“I… I…” was all he could manage in response to my abuse.
“Did not my suggestions work? Did you not learn to paint truly amazing art? Did not your art live as it had never done before?”
I was mocking him. I knew the answer to this. In fact I owned several of his pieces already. His painting of Beauty was of a young girl, just on the cusp of womanhood, her brow untouched by the concerns of adulthood. She was perfect, unblemished, uncynical, not a mark of debauchery upon her. No matter how hard I had tried, no matter how grotesque and depraved my nightly ministrations were to her, I could not get her to change. She was a task well suited to my need.
“Come sir,” I shouted. “Do you have some complaint? Did you not employ my most special of suggestions? Did you not receive your money’s worth from each of your visits?”
Throughout this harangue he merely sat, head bent over, passively staring at me through his foul and besmirched hair like some poorly treated bovine or a dog beaten to the point as to not even whimper.
Then by chance his eye happen to fall upon the portrait over the door. That glance brought about in him the most surprising of transformations. In an instant he was up and moving, all trace of the prior passivity poured from him like a glass of wine over a white cloth. In a matter but two heart-beats he had crossed the small room, pulled out a nasty looking dagger from within his cloak and had thrust the dagger fiercely into the heart of the image. The portrait turned its body, the face never changing its expression, and glanced its eyes downward at the foiled dagger which had been obstructed by the fine mesh of metal wire that completely covered the front of the painting. Many times the man rammed the dagger unsuccessfully at the portrait – loosening with each thrust a cry of outrage so extreme, so acute, so filled with animal rage, as to shame even the wildest of the mountain cats. No lion claiming its territory, no shout from the mouth of a grizzled bear, could produce the level of rage as expressed by the poor man’s throat. It was if the man had been compressed, all of his thoughts, all of his feelings, all of his desires, had to be forced though the narrowest of lenses of a single solitary human emotion; that of rage. Like a piano with only one key working, all of his emotions, all the things that made him human, had been stripped away, save for the single key of rage. He was rage. All rage. Nothing but rage. It was all that was left to him, and he held onto it with a savage ferocity, a feral barbarity.
For some minutes he ferociously attacked the portrait with his blade. Each time the fine almost invisible metal wires thwarting his attempt, until finally frustrated and exhausted, he dropped the dagger to the floor and slumped against the wall in defeat. Wisdom continued to gaze down upon him, its face unperturbed. This was not the first time the wires had protected its painted form from physical attack, although that was not the primary reason for their existence.
When the painter was spent of emotion, Forbearance and Clemency gently gathered him up and softly lead him back to his chair. A second chair was produced and a small table was brought before him. My servants conveyed to us some tea and few snacks which they placed upon the table, along with a few lit candles even though the room was bright at this time of day. Before they left, one of them picked up the man’s dagger and set it near him on the table. After they quietly left, the painter and myself enjoyed the sweet aroma of our small repast in peace.
Barely able to hold himself upright, the painter sipped his tea slowly, holding the cup with both hands and savoring the flavor. As it was intended, the tea slowly removed the last part of tension from the man’s shoulders and neck. He grew more alert, more relaxed then when he had entered. It was as if the terrible attack had loosened some internal blockage, some terrible obstruction, allowing him to finally think and reason again like a man.
The painter placed his empty cup gently down into its saucer. I offered him more tea. He gave his head the subtlest of shakes, so I set the pot down again. Then he slid his cup and saucer to one side and looked into my eyes.
“I figured out what you were up to,” he said flatly, with no emotion. “Oh it took me a while. The technique you showed me worked as you said it would.” He gave a slight chuckle, as dry as Autumn grass. “When I showed my first attempts to a gallery some three years after we met, the effect was astounding. So great was the outcry from the public that the gallery had to hire extra security and after a few days the paintings themselves had to be removed for their own protection. At any other time in my life I would have gloried in all the attention, but as you know, I was busy working on still another portrait. Thus fame and the fortune passed me without any concern on my part.”
He stared off into the distance for so long I feared he had fallen asleep with his eyes opened. Then rousting himself he continued. “I knew the portraits were special, different, I just did not fully understand how much so at the time. They don’t age do they?”
I nodded my head in agreement.
“I didn’t think so. I had modeled my wife for a portrait of Love and the likeness was like nothing I had ever seen. At first I thought my growing coldness to her was brought on by her jealousy of the portrait. It was only later I realized I could not love anyone else – my wife, my son, my friends, no one. It took me some time but I finally puzzled together what was happening; that each portrait became true because it took away from me whatever emotion or sentiment that it was expressing. With each painting I was cutting out a part of my soul and painting it onto the canvas as if it was my own blood. Worst still, I could not stop plumbing my emotions, could not stop irreversibly transferring them into paint. As the process continued, the time between paintings increased. What would take me a few days, now became weeks and weeks, as the few emotions I had remaining grew more and more difficult to focus upon. I grew intolerant of anything interrupting my work, ignoring my family and friends, my duties, anything but the canvas and each single emotion. Nothing else mattered. Nothing else matters still.
“Finally,” he continued, “I found myself in an empty home; all family and friends having long ago deserted me, at my behest. I have no Regret, I painted him years ago. I have no Pity, that left the canvas almost the same night it was finished. Fame, Love, Success, all of them gone. Sold for paints and for more canvas. If my wife had not concealed from me a large pile of money, left-over from those crazy days when the crowds closed down the gallery, I could not afford to be here now.”
He stopped to gather his thoughts. Everything he spoke had been true and was said without the least bit of emotion. He spoke casually of his own destruction, as if it belonged to someone else; a man to whom he did not know, nor had ever met.
“All I have left is Rage,” he added, “and I find him too elusive to paint right now. Everything is too much, too distracting. But that is not why I came here. What I came here for is to ask if there is a way to undo any of my paintings. To have part of my old life back – to somehow end their constant pull on my soul.”
He looked at me. His eyes flat, holding neither longing or emotion. Were it not possible, I would say he was not a human but some freakish automaton; a machine taking on the appearance of flesh, but having no more emotion than a chair or a table.
As he stared at me, his eyes suddenly grew large, the spark once missing now surprisingly bright. There was yet another emotion which he had not eviscerated from his soul: Surprise.
“Wait a minute,” he said. “Its been two score years or more since I met you but your appearance hasn’t changed in the slightest. That can’t be. You’re one of them, aren’t you?”
I nodded my head, enjoying his discovery even more than he did. His sense of Wonder having been painted out of him several years ago. He worked for me in one of my labs, along with many of my other servants, if I recalled correctly.
“I knew it,” he said! “I knew there was something special about you. Someone long ago painted you, didn’t they? You’re a portrait! You’re Wisdom!”
I shook my head slightly to let him know he was wrong, then I showed him my own special smile; the smile I am most careful not to show – not even in my own home – not unless all three eyes of the Shiva are glowing. It is the smile I was painted with many years ago.
They say the artist’s eye is quicker than the mind, that an eye can understand concepts faster than a mind can grasp. In his case, this was certainly true. I could see by his eyes that he had figured me out just by the smile.
“No, not Wisdom… “I told him still smiling that terrible smile, “Cunning.” As I spoke, I picked up his dagger from the table and quickly thrust it into his heart. His eyes grew huge as understanding suddenly plunged to his mind. I slipped my free hand around his neck and held him close to me, like a lover. His body pinned against his dagger, my face inches from his own. Still wearing that same cold contemptible smile, I clung to him with a grip of iron until the life slowly drained from his eyes. Then I carefully set his corpse down upon his seat and fell heavily into my own, the smile so hard on my face that it hurt.
This is a short dark fantasy piece based loosely upon an idea Trevor gave me from one of his video games. In the game a character had the gift that everything they painted came to life. I wrote a note about this idea in my little “book of ideas” on May 3rd (2011), but didn’t think I would have time to work on it for a while. Then next day was amazingly productive as I finished up a longer (17.5k word) short calledIn The Root (which has yet to be edited). I had been working on that story for several months, and it was a relief to finally get it off my desk.
That night, this story (wisdom) kept spinning around in my brain, and the next day I had an epiphany about it while in the shower (shut up. Its where I do my best thinking). I whipped out an outline, and most of the ending in probably 30 minutes, and then finished the rest in two furious days of typing, cackling all the way. It would have been done sooner, but the voice is older than I usually attempt, and I found myself constantly glancing at my thesaurus for inspiration. Can you say subjunctive clause?
And yes, the protagonist is one smooth, oily, evil son of a bitch.
This story was such a joy to write. Partially because the character was really fun to attempt (for those of you who don’t know me, he really is nothing like me), and because the previous story, In The Root, took a lot of slogging to get though. I started that darn story three different times until I finally got it going right. After all that work, it was nice to do something light and easy.