There was a painter, in times gone by, but not so many times and not so long gone that his hopes and his dreams were that different from yours or mine.
He was a quiet man, his focus always on the line and the point of contact with the surface. Although still relatively young, he no longer had a wife; the one he did have having wandered off one day when he was focussed on the line’s perfection. It did not worry him unduly. The only thing that mattered to him was the truth and his ability to paint it. He had never felt the need to paint his wife and so her departure was less consequential to him than the sun going down. He spent many hours studying sunsets and sunrises in order to better capture the truth of their light.
On this particular day he was once again trying to find the right shade of light to wrap around an angel. He had been working on the angel for sometime. Indeed, the painting was well on the way to completion, but the light he was seeking to do justice to the angel was eluding him. The dying notes of sundown were too melancholy for the hope he had painted in its eyes and he was struggling to find the right balance between the blinding purity of sunrise and the later clarity of a morning’s pure water light.
He stared yet again into the dazzling rays of the sun, searching for inspiration, when the sun, it seemed to him, stepped down from the sky and walked towards him. He blinked through watering eyes to find the face of his angel smiling at him.
What do you say to a descended angel?
“Hello to you.”
There was a deep silence that felt as if it was infinite.
“Do you want something from me?”
A further pause and then the angel spoke in a voice that sounded like bird song on an early spring morning.
“You called me.”
“The very act of creation calls us.”
“Elements of the Host.”
He didn’t, but that no longer mattered. He had his angel. He was seeing it with his own eyes. Now he could truly paint the truth of it.
“May I paint you?”
“If you wish” and he did.
The angel was patience and sat for the artist as if he was sitting for all eternity. At some stage she said,
“I do not wish to disturb your act of creation, but I am curious. If you can answer without ceasing your labours, will you respond to a question that I will put to you?”
“Surely. If I can.”
“You are poor and you hunger, not for the food you have denied yourself, but for recognition for your creations. If you had a choice, which would you rather have: acclaim and recognition only within your lifetime or the praise of ages, but only after you have died?”
“A combination of the two isn’t possible?”
“No. I think not. Fame in your lifetime will come quickly and bathe you in transient glory, but will fade like the wake of a shooting star. Recognition of your creations’ soul will take longer than you have to give, but will hang in the heavens for centuries like a burning sun.”
“So I have to choose. How hypothetical, or otherwise, is your question?”
“Yes you do and, I think, it is otherwise.”
The artist paused and thought. He was hungry, both for recognition and for the food he hadn’t eaten in days. He knew what he painted was good, but part of him yearned for the acclaim he had so far been denied and the money to buy food and life’s basic comforts that would go with it. He looked at the painting of his angel, over which he had sweated his soul. He wanted to hear its truth acknowledged, but he wanted, most of all, to spend yet more time on it, to make it perfect.
“What will happen to my work?”
“That will depend upon your choice. If you choose the fame you will know, the works you create will be bought from you by the fashionable and wealthy and will hang on their walls until after you have died. You will know happiness and success and die a reasonably wealthy man, but once you have died your paintings will fade into oblivion, just as your corruptible remains will crumble into the soil. Both will soon disappear from this world.”
“And if I do not choose to know my fame?”
“You will create nothing more after this painting. You will die just as you are now, unknown and in poverty, but as your mortal remains rot your reputation will grow and the truth of your work will finally be fully recognised. Your memory will be praised throughout the World and your paintings will last longer than the walls they first hang on.”
“But at least I will be able to look down on all of this from Heaven?”
“You will be dead and rotting in your grave.”
“But then I will be in Heaven? There is an afterlife, isn’t there?”
“I could not say.”
The artist paused thoughtfully for a very long time. The angel sat on. Eventually the artist said,
“What you say confounds me. I do not wish to understand it. What I do wish to do is reveal your eternal truth on this canvas. I know nothing beyond that.”
“Then that is what you shall do”, she said and he sat on some more while the painter continued to work the painting to such a degree that it seemed as if the birds sang within it, as on an early spring morning. When it was finished to the painter’s satisfaction he knew he had created a masterpiece and became light headed with pride and said,
“I want the world to love this painting as much as I do and to see your truth within it. I want generations yet to walk upon the Earth to know you.”
The angel said,
“Amen” and he rose with a cavernous clap of her wings into the dazzling fire of the sun. The painter watched until he could watch no more and then lay down exhausted at the foot of the painting.
They came too late the next morning and found his cold and wasted corpse still in the same position. He looked as if had not eaten for weeks rather than days.
They took his body and buried it in an unmarked pauper’s grave, but they were moved to tears by the pity in the eyes of the angel and could not bear to part with the painting. They hung it on the church wall to marvel at and, in due course, others came to marvel too and also at his other paintings. Time passed and the wall on which they first hung the painting crumbled, but the painting was rehung as often as need be and the look of pity continued to burn in the eyes of the angel upon the passing generations that came to look upon it.
First published in The Bradbury Quarterly (subsequently renamed The Beorh Quarterly at the request of the Ray Bradbury Estate) in May 2013.
J.S.Watts has published The Submerged Sea (poetry), Dempsey & Windle; Witchlight
Picture source: Sailko, Jacopo Ligozzi