The Painter

Wednesday, August 20, 2014 K.Z. Freeman 0 Comments





1

In the deep forests of my hometown in southern Slovenia, in a clearing where no road leads to and animals avoid, there sits a tranquil lake. The area around it is boggy even in the warmest of summer days, yet no frogs have I ever found there and not a sound can be heard in that part of muddy earth. You can’t see the lake from above or any of the nearby hills. The trees leading to the place are many and a fog always hangs there, obscuring view and drifting aimlessly governed by no wind from any point of the compass.
To find this body of water you have to follow the slow thinning of trees and stumble between the rotting bark and leaves and winding roots, until you reach a point where, step by step, the murky water rises up to your knees. The dead moss and lichen become sand as you wade through the cold and motionless transparency, to a place where nothing grows and hasn’t done so for who knows how long.
Mud froths outs between your toes with every step, spreading in all directions as the water becomes clear enough for the small lake to be both beautiful and profoundly frightening. For when you reach its bank, you see just how steeply it drops into the black depths no eye can peer into. A prevailing sense of the place being old beyond man and memory awaits there, even though there is nothing to confirm this to be the case.
The lake is full of contradictions like this. It sounds calm and welcoming, yet beckons you gone once you reach that edge and hear a subterranean rumble of grinding stone and see the minute shaking of the otherwise deceptively calm surface. You see the sky above it contrasted by the dark below as you stand on the precipice. The only smell is that of the woodland.
The lake is all I can think about of late. Its influence is evident in all my works. It remains all I can paint and all I can dream about. I wish to go back there and, at the same time, dread to see it again. The memory of it fills me with horror I cannot describe save on canvass. That I cannot recall why I fear it makes the sense of terror all the more singular.

I think about it even now as I paint in my studio. Or rather, I think about the dream I had of it last night, when a voice refocuses my attention.
I hold the brush lazily in my hand, ready for the final stroke on my painting. It’s not a masterpiece by any means, but it will do.
The lighting in my studio is sepulchral, the sickly bulb above me so faint I can barely distinguish one shade of colour from the other upon the canvass before me.
“Is it done?” she asks from the dark where I can just make out the lines of her shape.
“Nearly, my dear,” I smile back.
She is an impatient sort and knows what “nearly” means. She rises from her chair and hits the switch, then walks over to examine the painting. The wooden tiles creak beneath her feet. Her perfume is wonderfully subtle. 
Light reveals a spacious room. It is a disorganized mess of half-finished works and empty canvases propped against walls with cans on the floor. Over all there hangs a smell as though someone had been painting the walls.
I crack a smile while her face twists into a sneer as she sees what I had made of what was supposed to be her portrait.

I had painted it on a dare.
“Do you still love me?” she had asked me earlier in the day.
“Of course I do,” I said. “I dream of you. I could paint your face in the dark,” I boasted.

Watching her stare at it, I cannot tell if she likes the painting or not.
“It’s there again,” she remarks. “But at least you’ve painted something else than the lake.”
“You don’t like it?” I ask.
“I didn’t say that,” she says. “But it’s there again.”
“You’re an inspiration to me, you know,” I tell her. But she doesn’t believe me. How could she, when all I paint is the damn body of water in the woods?
I can easily say my work is not the finest. However the paintings seemed to have struck enough of a cord of peculiarity for people to buy them. The buyers are mostly strange men who fill me with a sense that my works mean more to them than they do to me. Which is just as well, now if only my dear wife could see it that way. She hates the paintings. She of course won’t tell me as much, but I can hardly blame her. I never use pleasant colours or depict images of gladness. Instead there’s always a suggestive composition of some distant and unnameable horror which cannot be painted, yet is always related to the viewer through some inner alchemy upon beholding the canvass.
There is a peculiarity in all my works. It has managed to show itself again, even while I drew a portrait of my wife's exquisite face. It is an entity of unknown purpose. I can never remember painting the figure into my images, making it feel almost as though it happens between the strokes of my brush. It’s not really a figure, but an outline of one, a shadowy silhouette of a hunched or bowed... someone. And it scares the living shit out of me.
“I bet if I could see your face while you paint,” she says, “I could tell when you’re painting that thing.”
“We can try again, if you want,” I tell her. “This time in the light.”
She agrees and we take an empty canvass to replace the one already on the rack. I leave the main light on, and soon feel my mind struggling to relate all of its contents over the white empty space before me. I find my wanderings in the light estranged to me and notice myself becoming focused more on the sights and less on the feel of the scene. Each stroke seems more clinical and real, depicting with increased detail what I see. I notice an abandon of my usual style of a somewhat undimensioned reality, and my ethereal abstractions get replaced by a meticulous attention to detail.
I paint every strand of Maya’s hair, depict every dimple and all the subtleties of her loveliness, while her eyes are painted with a more tangible nature to them. I look into those blue orbs for a while and suddenly notice they have shifted and are now standing before me. She is shaking me by the shoulders. I’m still holding the brush – it leaves behind dark red strokes over the unfinished piece, it runs down like blood.
I blink. I swallow. She’s saying something but I can’t hear her. The first thing I notice is the look of worry on her face. Then I smell the paint. Her voice breaks through and she says, “Martin! Stop! Snap out of it!” I look closer to see her expression of utter fright. “You should have seen your face! What happened?”
“What do you mean? I was painting,” I tell her.
It is difficult for me to describe the sheer horror in her voice, and I suppose it is only because I must have seen the sight of the thing on the painting before, that I am spared the shock of what waits for her on the canvass.
And it’s not until she turns to see what my brush strokes have created, that she falls down in a screaming faint and doesn’t get up.


2

I burn the unfinished canvas over a pyre behind the house and watch the black smoke curl into the fiery goldness of late summer. The western slant of the sun illuminates the forest’s edge with bright greens and brows. There’s a crackle of burning wood as I listen to the chirping of birds.
I think of what has happened to me all those years ago, as I have done countless times before. Perhaps I had indeed fainted – just like she had today – and fallen into the lake? But how did I get out?
The wind shifts and blows some of the ash into my face, making what happened next all the more questionable. I cannot say if what I saw was real, for it could just as easily have been something caused by the sudden scraping of residue in my eyes. It stood there for a moment, behind the trees – a figure draped in black – before it moved away without sound.
I have seen the figure before. My every nerve urges me to follow it. Goose bumps creep down my neck. The pull is a calling, like a need to escape into the sun after a week indoors hiding from the rain. But I don’t follow. I go back to check on my wife instead.
I leave the smell of burning wood behind and find Maya still unconscious and in the bed where I had carried her to. I dip the tip of my fingers in the glass of water and splash tiny droplets onto her face. She wakes with a start and yells out something incoherent.
“Are you okay?” I ask her. She is clearly not, panting and sweating, her eyes darting about as though searching for some hidden foe. I don’t know what else to ask.
“Tell me you’ve burned it!” she demands. “Tell me it’s gone!”
“I did.”
“Did you watch it burn? Did you see it burn out?”
“No, I came back here to–“
She gets up and hurries out in a rush I can barely follow. Down the steps and into the brightly illuminated kitchen she runs, then out the back door and onto the backyard bordered by the oak and beech forest. She looks down the cindering flame circled by burned grass and collapses on her knees before it. I have never seen her like this.
“What is it?” I ask.
She doesn’t respond as I look over the fire. The canvass is missing and there’s evidence that water had been poured over the flames. The blackened wood is water-slick.
She gets up and looks me in the eye, “Promise me you’ll never paint the lake again,” she says. “Please promise me, Martin!”
“I suppose I…” I stammer my first words then nod, “I promise.” I feel like like a child. Of course I will paint it again, it's not as if I can help it.

We spend the rest of the day in silence, watching movies and trying to take our minds off what has happened. We fall asleep sometime in the evening curled up on the couch.

I wake up to the sound of hushed speech. Looking around I cannot see Maya anywhere, until on the edge of my hearing, I pick up the sound of her whispering voice. I freeze at first. The menacing quality and the tonality if it sends beads of sweat down my armpit.
“Maya?”
No answer.
“Maya!” I yell out and the whispering stops. I hear the song of crickets and somewhere in the distance, there’s an owl hooting.
I would have been content to stand up and search about in silence for her, but what happens next set my mind on edge more than the silence could. The whispering resumes. It is not something I’ve ever heard my wife do in such a manner. Why doesn’t she answer my summons?
I rise from the couch and fumble in the dark.
It amazes me how I can still forget where precisely the light-switch is. 
Illumination should bring some order and sense into the world, I think, and turn on the lights. The room is empty with the backdoor swung open, a cool breeze wafts over my sweat-covered forehead. I shiver in the evening’s cold and follow the sound. I walk for a bit, the soft grass swishing between my toes.
I meet the loss of my resolve at the wood’s edge. I am shaking now, for the tonality of the voice has changed, or perhaps I have simply picked up on the subtle wrongness of it. The whispering isn’t hushed at all. There’s something out there. I can see it moving in the moonlight like a dark curtain. I take a step forth when the inexplicable madness drawing me to follow it becomes physical. A need. My feet follow the shape to some pull my mind is all too eager to accommodate. I will myself to stop, but am powerless to resist my stronger desire to follow. The voice is as the lake: at once known to me, yet freighting with its undertones of total strangeness and peculiarity.
After an indeterminable passage of time, I sense I am no longer following the voice, but He who walks behind the trees. I go between the thinning Oaks, past the shoulder-high pines and closer to the luminous fog. I don’t recall it being like this, but then I again, I don’t think I had ever seen it at night. The veil of moisture moves in the Moon’s rays and I work up the courage to call out again.
“Maya?” I still hope she might answer, but there is nothing and the black shape disappears into the fog. I take another step when something grabs me from behind and rounds me about.
“Martin! What the hell!” she shouts at me. “What are you doing, I’ve been calling out and you didn’t stop!” She explains all this between pants, bereft of breath. “I didn’t know you could run so fast!”
“I was running?” I think this to be most strange of all, for I don’t feel the least bit tired.
“What are you doing?” she asks again.
“There it is,” I tell her and turn.
“There is what?” Worry hangs over her face.
“It’s the...” my words are caught in my throat. The fog is gone and the trees stand thick around me. There’s a distant sound of an electric coil spinning and a smell of moist woodland. At first I simply look at her, wondering what to say. Should I even explain anything? I dare not mention the sound to her or she’ll think I’ve gone completely nuts.
She doesn’t speak, and I spend the next month trying to convince her I’m not crazy.


3

She told me later she had gone to town to get some food and had just come back when she saw me blundering into the woods.
I had no idea what to say to that, and after I told her what had happened, disconcert found its way into her face and stayed there for the remaining month. She later became content I was back to my old self, whatever that was, and said we should go and look for this lake I keep going on about.
“At least this way I can see it too,” she said.

Instead of the lake, however, we find a house. We first see it some distance ahead in what looks like a small clearing. The trees rise up above it, making its roof almost impossible to distinguish in the shade.
“Have you seen this before?” she asks me.
“If I have I don’t remember it,” I tell her.
She doesn’t like my answer, she never seems to when I imply I don’t remember something that by all rights is strange enough one should remember. We creep nearer.
“I know this place!” she says in a hushed tone. “You’ve painted this once too, remember? You sold it to... what was his name?”
“The guy from Sweden, you mean?” I ask.
“Yeah. What was his name?”
“Something Swedish, I presume.”
She snorts as we pass the last tree, coming before the edifice. Its walls are of piled stone and I can almost feel the age of it pulsing from every piece of masonry. It is a simple house, so simple I’m surprised it's still standing. Each grey stone of its construction is in varying stages of ruin and I’m certain a strong breeze might collapse the whole thing at some point. We dare not touch anything. The sides of it are overgrown by moss and vines. A tree protrudes from its centre through the grey stone roof.
“You see this, don’t you?” I ask her and her look reminds of the ones she used to give me years ago, when the two of met at university. We both studied anthropology then, until I later decided to focus on my painting instead. We had been inseparable since, yet as of late I find myself weary of her. Something had been off since the day she saw the face in the painting. “You do see the house, yes?” I ask again.
She arches an eyebrow.
“Of course I see it,” she says circling around the stonework. “What are you saying?”
“Nevermind.”
We locate the entrance and step inside. It takes me a while to get used to the dark as only small bits of light pierce through the chinks and apertures of the stone. The oddness of it strikes me immediately, but to put my mind on what is so spatially off about it proves difficult until a moment after. The house stretches from a small, somewhat lit area, into a dark hallway that cannot possibly exist. I cannot see the end of it. 
To say I am surprised by what we find within would be understatement. I watch Maya as she becomes stuck in place, struggling to process what is standing before her. I know what goes on in her mind, because I feel it also. The scene is nothing special in its composition, it is rather what it implies which frightens us enough to turn back and run from the house as fast as we can.

I had painted so many pieces of the lake over the period of seven years that I scarcely remember all of them. But I do recall that I could not locate some of them. I painted over quite a few, so at the time I figured most of those I couldn’t find lay somewhere between the stacks of canvases, or had been worked over by my own hand. But in that house, against all of the walls and with small candles burning in a half-circle around each in a way that seemed almost ritualistic, were all my missing paintings. And worse, they were all worked over. The figure I had painted upon them was added to, with every small detail improved upon to the point where it looked frighteningly realistic. Whoever had done it was a master, a painter of increased calibre – certainly a better one than myself.
The shapes looked like they might come out of the frames, and it is that notion that kept me running without looking back.

When we reach our home, it takes a while for us to catch our breath. I try to convince Maya it is not I who had done it, since she becomes adamant in her belief that I’m playing some sick joke on her. She says she won’t speak to me until I admit and apologize.
But what she doesn’t, or perhaps cannot understand, is that I am just as confused as she is.
She packs her bags the next morning and leaves. She doesn’t make it far, however. I watch her go beyond the edge of town from atop the hill where our house stands. She comes back in tears. We talk for a long while and, sometime in the morning hours, decide to revisit the house together and confront whoever had made those paintings.
“I suggest we bring a gun with us just to be safe,” I tell her. We don’t have one, so we pack a knife instead, one for each of us.
We trod the woods and to our dismay and further confusion, never find the house again.


4

It’s another month after that before something extraordinary happens. After a discussion about selling our home to move someplace else, we contact a real-estate agent to come and assess the property. 
The lady is pleasant enough and offers a shabby, although fair price for the 50 parcels of land, most of which lies overgrown by forest or low-standing shrubs.
It’s late evening when Sabrine, our real-estate agent, leaves with Maya and me watching her car speeding down the dirt road pluming smoke, when on the edge of my hearing, I notice the sound of an electric coil. I am instantly aware of a subtle shift in my mental state. A fear creeps in me.
It’s when I look about to behold the slow beauty of a turning season that I notice the thing. In the dark-blue sky of the coming night, I see a white brilliance - an elliptical shape. It hangs above the trees. Motionless.
They say that the third eye, when opened, doesn’t differentiate illusion from reality, but recognizes the two as one inseparable motion. I am at this point willing to accept that to be my condition, and that my third eye has drawn its gaze. I have to believe it, because the alternative is that I have gone insane.
But belief itself implies a lie. Those three letters are in the very word. Lie. And you believe that lie until it is proven as true and you no longer have to believe, but know.
At this moment, no matter how hard I try to think of something else, something reasonable, I know there is something above those threes. I can bloody see it! Something not from here but from some other place altogether. It’s not long until Maya sees me staring and looks in the same direction as well.
“Do you hear it?” I ask.
“I’ve heard it before. What the heck is it?”
“Why didn’t you say something?”
“Why didn’t you?” she responds.
I am suddenly shaken by a revelation, looking at the thing. I grasp the truth – I had always painted it too. Painted it above the lake; a black elliptical shape barely noticeable from the pigments around it.
The sound it emits transmutes into a throbbing and then an even louder and more disturbing set of sense-impacts. A tracer appears behind the shape as it moves deeper into the forest.
The two of us hesitate for a moment. Then share a look. I rush into the house to get some coats and follow Maya into the forest. The light remains up ahead, imbuing the tops of the canopies with light.
“It’s all coming true, isn’t it?” she asks me.
“I’m not sure I know what you mean,” I tell her, watching my step and crushing small branches underfoot.
“You’ve always told me that, what we think, we become. You’ve thought of this for nearly ten years now and it’s finally becoming true.”
“I don’t think I can manifest something like this,” I tell her.
“But what if you did?”
I say nothing. There is something in the air. Something new yet familiar, as though I am treading upon the first layers of untouched and freshly fallen snow.
The nights have gotten cold and our breath mists before us.
“You’ll stay by me, wont’ you?” I finally ask her, scared out of my mind yet walking and following the travelling light.
Her voice makes me wish I could see her face in the dark. “I want to wake up next to you,” she says, “that will never change, and I wish to smell and feel you in the morning. I won’t let you drift away, Martin. Ever.”
All at once I am struck with an intense need to confess all my love for her, and to wave her goodbye at the same instant. As though I know this to be our last trail to find the illusive witch that is my sanity. A part of me tells me not to panic, while the other says she will die today. My knees are shaking.
“You remain all I think about even when all I paint is something else,” I begin, allowing my words to escape me. “When the moon sets, you’re all I wish to have and I will love you now and until the day that I die. And when we shall die no more, I will find you behind the clouds.”
I no longer care how ridiculous I sound because the truth of my words feels as real as anything else.
She finds my hand in the moonlit dark. Her grip is firm, bordering on painful, and she leads me onward.
“Ever since you painted him in my portrait,” she says, “he has walked in my dreams, and I don’t know why.”
We say nothing more, stumbling between the grey trees until our minds are struck by something moving ahead.
I think to truly describe the horror of its appearance I would be forced to discover new words quite outside of the human vocabulary. The impossibility of it makes me realize the full extent of what we are doing. The fog grows thicker ahead, seemingly luminescent only as much as the moon allows it, yet strangely more so. I feel a cold wetness between my toes seeping through the fabric of my shoes and our every step is a wet squelch.
“Sodding hell!” I hiss.
“Ssshh!” Maya silences me, as the sound above begins to slow down to a steady, oscillating hum and I realize I have no concept of how long the two of us have been walking hand in hand.
A thing forms on the precipice of my vision, a bending of shadow that doesn’t know what shape to take. It is heavy like my memories, my thoughts and my love for her. Sensations rush by me.
Days where I feel everything at once and moments when I feel nothing at all converge into a single instant where I am paralyzed by fear.
She pulls me deeper into the muck. Water slowly rises to our knees and the light above us trails every movement. I see how my mind has been unfolding inside itself but has now reached out beyond. I hesitate to move as the sheer impossibility of it bids me to stay in place.
“Don’t. I’m afraid,” I admit to her.
“Me too,” she says and we stop. “Let’s go back, I can’t take the sound anymore.”
It’s me who walks ahead this time, beyond the still water turning into black before me and over to the edge of an infinite drop. On that edge, where a sound of something remarkable below dances with something above, I see the oscillating ellipse descend down into the water, blinding me and turning it into steam, choking the area with mist and leaving behind a hole darker than space. There is silence. Then an outpouring of everything all at once in a great crested wave that crashes against the trees and the rocks and washes away the dirt and the muck and the haze of confusion. The sound of doom envelops me, tosses me about – her hand in mine remaining the one singular centre – as I lose myself in a place where all dimensions dissolve in the absolute.

I wake to the sound of her breathing and the chirping of birds. There’s a headache scraping its way along my cranium, but I regret nothing. A red dawn unfolds wetly from the east. We are soaked.
This day I know something has happened both illuminating and inconceivable in its reality. I know one day my mind will comprehend it, or it may not. One day her mind will understand too. But it is not this day. One day we shall speak of this again, when the stars are right. But it too is not this day. One day she will see me and I will see her. But it is not this day. This day I only wish all of these things. This day I only hope. Yet one day that hope will blossom, and that might as well begin today. For it is a beautiful day.


We never found that lake again, nor did we ever search again.

[image by Jarek Kubicki]

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