‘I plan to kill myself.’
‘You’re far beyond planning,’ the creature wheezes through its nostrils.
The artist, squat on his rock, was at first astonished by the tiny pup calling for him at the cliff’s base, but the feeling waned as the tide receded. It is not at all odd to experience delirium when on the edge of death. It is a much more comforting companion than that cold embrace, a greater well of conversation compared to its sister, mute and absolute.
Each drag is difficult, but the creature is able to move on four flimsy flippers, its blubbery hide reflecting what little light shines through the cloud cover; the lapidary droplets of water carried on its back bring a diamond like sheen to an otherwise unremarkable hide.
‘You must have been planning for some time though. You do not intend to take your life or end it all, you intend to kill yourself. That being said, I pray you are far better at your portraits than you are at making plans.’
‘Not a very sympathetic thing, are you?’ the artist mumbles, head down.
‘There may be a common feeling between us, but it is not one of sorrow,’ the creature looks up; the cragged and crumbling bluff above must have a terrific view of the horizon, and all that it wraps around. ‘Did you think the drop would kill you?’
‘I hoped it would.’
‘But you didn’t know.’
The artist shakes his head.
‘I don’t think it would have killed you,’ the creature continues. ‘We were fated to meet today.’
It is an absurd thought to the artist, that there was anything left for him in this world. Even more so that any deity, be it the haloed spectres in the misty light or the touch of Passion that demanded for his youth on canvas, would have any interest in him. They might, in their immortal curiosity, find humour in a mortal taking their own life but he had failed even at that and lost their advocacy, like a child learned to stand.
He does not think the creature one of these deities. Its eyes are too kind. No, not kind. Simply lacking in confidence.
‘I am serious, artist. Look at me,’ it rises a little bit, balancing on its tail. ‘You think I am fit for travel on land? I would have more luck finding a single grain of sand on this pathetic excuse for a beach and yet today, of all days, I made the trek inland only to come across you and take you from your perch. Do you not think that is some… divine intervention?’
‘That’s very optimistic.’
‘It is not optimism. I am merely celebrating your life because in your dour immobility you refuse to do so.’
‘There are people who have known me far longer who send me nothing other than spit and ill wishes. If you know enough about my life to celebrate then you only give me more reason to take it.’
‘Ah, see? Progress. You are far less sure of your phrasing now,’ the creature yaps. Its pleasant disposition is always unnerving, its face unable to communicate the correct emotion for what the creature implies.
The artist cannot help but laugh. With the aid of the tiny creature, he has lost the battle to keep his grudge against the world and may smile again, at least for the moment
When he had come down the cliffside initially, the fear of what awaited him forced a chaotic hand to flail amongst the stones until it settled on one large enough to be a rock, heavy enough to bash a skull in. It tumbles from his grasp and the creature notices it for the first time, notices that it was required.
‘What do you want?’ he asks.
‘Nothing,’ it says, before continuing. ‘At the moment, nothing.’
‘So you did come ashore for a reason?’
‘Potentially, but it’s not to be discussed right now,’ it pauses, considering the most fitting transition. ‘Are you not well liked then?’
The artist laughs. ‘No! Not at all.’
‘But to have enemies is a special thing! Not necessarily good, but special, nonetheless. It is a privilege reserved only for purposeful men and it is only natural that purpose is begrudged, as much as it is admired.’
‘You speak well for a seal,’ the artist says, and as he does so a twinge of resentment prods the creature, but it is muddled in the lack of understanding common to all of its expressions. ‘It was not I that was admired but my talent. My being there was a necessary accompaniment, the strings that allowed the guitar to strum. And I am complicit, I know that much, and that is what drives me to death the most. I revelled in their adoration of me, but worse I desired it. I have painted kings and their usurpers alike, watched empires rise and fall and yet, as beauty leaves me, I cannot find the strength to call that success my own. Yes, maybe the fact I can even have these thoughts is special, but I would never call it a privilege. I would never.’
The creature listens to what the artist has to say, his voice dull as if just awoken from a dream. He spoke on such tragic matters as if they were nothing, all the passion of life wrung for the masses until his tales were out of fashion.
‘We are both cursed then,’ it mutters.
‘Do you really think that?’
The artist shakes his head. ‘I don’t intend to be crass but your life, little seal, can be no more complicated than you make it, your worries no greater than where to feed and sleep. In that sense, you have far more freedom than I.’
If such a creature could look solemn, this one certainly made an attempt. ‘I am not a seal-‘
‘What is it then? Sea-lion?’
‘I wear the guise of such creatures. Rather convincingly, judging by your reaction.’
The artist was yet to declare his mind loss, but his levels of tolerance were beginning to falter. The possibility that he had taken that final step and was bleeding out on the stones is the reality he is learning to accept at this point. There is nothing to do but humour his decaying brain.
‘Why did you come ashore?’
‘If you could give your life to another, taking theirs in exchange, would you do it?’ the creature asks.
It is an odd question, for sure, and the artist hesitates for some time. Even if only hypothetical, he cannot shake the growing feeling that there is far more to the creature and its attempts at comfort than is apparent, like a jewel that appears perfect at first glance but terribly flawed when the light shines through.
The cloud cover is yet to part. The heavens watch through misty palms.
‘Really?’ the creature is shocked at the lack of ambiguity, or as shocked as it can appear.
‘Even if their life was worse than your own?’
The artist snorts. ‘It can’t be worse than mine. Even if it is, I’ll enter with the same enthusiasm that people enter everything and will die before that enthusiasm has time to curdle. There is no lustre to this life as things stand.’
‘I think I could find something of yours to value.’
‘I’m sure you could, seeing as you have an answer for everything apparently.’
The pair laugh but the creature is quick to end it. More pressing matters require its attention; it can sense he is close, and only requires a final push.
‘I thought you would have come to know by now, artist, that I am no mere creature of the sea. I am a master of metamorphosis,’ it is almost smug, its thick skin cracking with what must have been joyful wrinkles.
‘You shall take my skin and, upon throwing it over your shoulders, our lives will be exchanged,’ the creature finishes. ‘You need only reciprocate the will to do so.’
‘Why would you agree to that?’ the artist asks, his opinion of the creature rising enough to plant seeds of suspicion.
‘There are so many things I have seen and heard around the coasts of the world, but that is all I have done. To have your body, to live as you do and paint as you paint, it would be more than a dream. It would be more than a miracle.’
‘Alright then,’ the artist stands, half expecting the creature to follow him home. He does not quite believe what he hears, but humours it all the same. ‘What is our next course of action then?’
‘You must strike me down.’
‘What?’ the artist frowns.
‘How else can you expect to take my hide? Simply do as I have instructed and, come morning, all will be well. Should you wait here after the fact, I’ll come down to meet you in a fitting test for my new form.’
‘I don’t know how to feel about this. You’re just a pup!’
‘I have lived a far longer life than you, artist, and will live longer still. Should you be false in your belief, then we are both free from our uncomfortable burdens. Should I be false in mine, you can off yourself without worry knowing that you were doing me a mercy. Or, perhaps we are back to kill?’
There is little need to convince a dead man to do anything, but even on that front the creature is persuasive. For a moment, he thinks better of himself. He is sure that, in another life, he rediscovers sanity in the madness and marches to his bed. He can see the easel beneath it, pulled out from amongst the garbage and placed in the centre of the room as he paints with a newfound passion.
It is a shame those lives are never the type to tell stories about.
In the mound of grey his rock stands out, a weapon plunged deep into the grip of the land. Nature itself battles against him. The sea becomes wild, breaking from its shackles as the pestered Mother seeks to reclaim control and stop this afront to her domain. All that aids him is the wind and the Banshee’s wail that rides upon it. It is swirling around him now, battling away the incoming sea spray like a shield of stone and bone as he wraps a frail hand around the weapon.
With a wicked crack, the deed is done.
The artist does what he can with the corpse. From his shack, he procures a woodcutting axe that is more than serviceable for the task at hand. The same cannot be said for him.
By the end of the ordeal, he has fashioned a shawl from what little material he had to work with, the remains of the creature lying in a heap on the shore to be pecked at by the gulls, liver ripped from between the ribs as it lies pinned to the stones. It is little comfort in the dead of night. (The shawl, that is. He spares few thoughts for the queer creature.) No more than a rudimentary blanket, far more so than his current one.
If anything of value is to be gained from the experience, he fails to think of it. He may have lived yet another day but, should he prove to be sane, then it was yet another day lost to the whims of others.
‘Are you satisfied?’ asks the body of the artist, as it sits upright on its rock.
‘I have lost far more than I have gained, you know,’ says the body of the creature. ‘I can’t grab anything. Even if I wanted to paint I’d be unable to, unless I found a way to balance the brush on my tongue. And if I wanted to… off myself,’ it gives a cheeky nod. ‘I’d find it difficult. My skin is so slimy that the noose would struggle to hold my neck, unless it got trapped between these bunches of fat-’
‘I am far shorter than before. It wouldn’t be a problem if it didn’t mean I was closer to the ground. Despicable things lay upon the earth, truly despicable. You will come to learn this as time goes on,’ the dynamism with which the creature’s body emotes is night and day, its new soul aware of emotions that the former has never experienced.
‘So you intend to continue?’
‘Well, I could hardly call myself an artist should I not indulge in this opportunity for discovery, even if only for a short period of time.’
The creature laughs, the look unflattering on its new form. ‘That’s very good! I hope you’re able to find some enjoyment in it.’
The artist returns the laugh. ‘I hope for your sake that I do, otherwise I’ll tear the shack down with these terrifying fins of mine until you give me my life back,’ he stops, a look of realisation shaping the snout. ‘We should meet again. I mean, we should part ways for a period – let’s say five years – and when we reconvene, we can decide how to continue. Just in case either of us find the arrangement… dissatisfying.’
The creature thinks on this, but not for any length of time as to cause worry that it may reject the proposal.
‘I find these terms agreeable, artist,’ says the creature. ‘On one condition.’
‘You’re wringing me out, pup!’
‘You must pose for me, on the rocks over there! I’ll start now and finish in five years’ time to mark the end of our relationship and leave you with a pleasant reminder of it. I can’t think of anything more fitting than for you to be the first thing I paint.’
‘That’s an excellent idea.’
The body of the artist sits alone on the beach of stones, painting its soul swimming out from shore.
‘It is wonderful,’ the creature paints as it has come to learn, allowing his hands to work as they always had for their previous owner. The work before him is beautiful, but what else could it be? ‘I’ve thought about it when I can find the time and I still can’t figure out why you would willingly give this up. Can you sit still, please?’
The artist sits upon the same rock as the first session, the waves crash against his stomach and send a chill from his tail. He was scarcely on the other side of the canvas and, even after the five years of adjustment, has not grown any more comfortable with his new proportions. The two in tandem made for a rather sour muse, writhing in search of something to hold his attention, head and body on opposing swivels.
He does not think he should have to stay still. Capturing the natural inconsistencies that come between sessions is one of the greatest wells of inspiration.
‘Please, continue to tell me how I got things horribly wrong. You shouldn’t hold yourself back on my account.’
‘Well, if you insist,’ the creature chuckles. ‘There’s just so much more to do on the land, and with every new experience I am overcome with the longing to create. I think that is down to your influence. Even those unfinished pieces that you hide away irritate that consuming itch, and I find myself combating the urge to finish them for you.’
‘You’re very confident to do that,’ as the artist speaks, he knows the description is insufficient. There was nothing worse than criticism of an unfinished piece, particularly from someone so green. It was much like trust in that sense, something that was easily abandoned and exposed to ruin by those trying to pick it up again.
‘I never did complete them,’ the creature clarifies. ‘I started to, a test of skill to see if I could match yours. When I had done enough to gain my confidence, I stopped out of respect for you. It took great restraint on my part.’
‘Yes, well, I’d appreciate you if you continued to exhibit that.’
The creature nods. ‘I swear, my works will be as perfect as yours someday. I’ll obtain renown all on my own. As long as everything’s perfect, this village will never forget me.’
There is an inherent silence that comes with creating art, a sickness that mutes the mouth as a solemn vow inviting the Muses’ blessings. In that sense, to speak so openly about the process, to invite the critic’s gaze before its time, was blasphemy beyond belief.
With every passing day, he finds it more difficult to separate his aspects of self from the residual id of the creature’s remains. He imagines his contemporary suffered from the same problems but can spare little attention from his own. There were so many cruel things he has wanted to say– demanding his body back before the deal was done and relegating the entire arrangement to nothing more than a fit of hysteria – and he wonders how such an unassuming pup was able to carry this burden for so long. It is a great beast of darkness, with a growl so visceral it can be mistaken for a heartbeat, made manifest by an unwanted life of malice and hatred. It threatens to break free, but the artist is able to keep it chained for the moment.
‘This is my only chance, you see. You were the first to accept and I fear you may be the last, so I must grasp it tight with both hands,’ the creature acts out the gesture with wild eyes staring straight forward, his piece demanding his full attention.
‘So you’ve asked this of others?’ the artist is simply trying to prompt further conversation, something to occupy the wandering mind, but it elicits a strange reaction from the creature.
‘Why do you ask that?’
‘You just said so.’
‘Right. Yes, I have, but they were less kind than you. Oh! I wanted to ask; do you have a son? Or any children for that matter.’
The artist frowns. He places a flipper on the rock for balance but slips on the algae. After recovering, he looks at the green stain and the mismatched soul beneath the skin. His disgust pierces through the pair, like a spear launched at a pregnant deer. ‘That’s a strange question.’
‘It’s just, there are so many things I’d like to do but I want to make sure I am marking new ground; there is no point in re-treading the experiences that I see in my dreams.’
There is a long, contemplative beat. ‘No. I do not.’
‘I may have a son then,’ it nods.
‘You speak like the body is yours-‘
‘It is! Until I give it back, it is,’ the creature chuckles, but the joke does not land. The artist feels it whizz past him, thrown in his direction and just as likely to make its way around the globe as it was to come back and strike him from behind.
The creature is comfortable, far too comfortable. It does not understand the care with which it should treat the body. The artist watches as, every so often without much regard to the habit, the creature chews on his fingernails until they are raw and bleed from the root.
Those are his hands, when all is said and done. The intention to do more with the body than what the artist has is a violation of the gravest sort.
As silence falls, unparalleled determination absorbs the creature. In a manic state, it looks over the horizon and sees the falling Sun casting its wide orange net across the sky, wrangling the clouds for use another time. The moon rises from the other side of the world, the fisherman keen to poach the dreams of the day.
‘Oh, goodness! The time, I completely forgot!’ the creatures exclaims, rushing around its station and packing its supplies into the artist’s tool bag without much care. As it reaches for a brush, fallen amongst the uneven rocks, the creature’s hand freezes unable to close, simply hanging there like the first dead branch on an elderly tree. It is not a matter the creature chooses to dwell on, although the fear of it will haunt the night.
‘You are leaving so soon?’ the artist asks. ‘You haven’t finished.’
‘I can only apologise, artist, but it is out of my control. The townsfolk, they have installed a curfew by which I must abide.’
‘You’ve been to town?’
‘You could hardly expect me to live here for five years and not visit my neighbours,’ the creature speaks as it gathers its things. It throws a tattered cloak over its shoulders and the artist sees that it has no intention of stopping. ‘At first it was nerve wracking, and some of my fears were confirmed on the first visit. The adults can be cruel, don’t you think?’
The artist nods. ‘I never had much meaningful conversation with them.’
‘The children, I find, are far more approachable. Some have even offered to pose for me, and I accept, but those sessions are too lax to be called art. They are worse models than you.’
‘What is the curfew for?’
‘One of the children perished. It was here, against the rocks.’
‘That’s terrible. Are you not concerned of what the town may think? It’s an odd thing not to bring up considering where we work.’
‘I never met him,’ the creature says, unsympathetic as it always was. ‘They have nothing to suspect.’
The artist, sat squat on the Caucasus, watches the creature shamble across the shore. By all measures, it is him. It moves with his limps and his burdens and even collates his items as he would, cradling the easel with its unfinished work on its back as if it were a burden all its own, but there is something at its heart that makes him uncomfortable, something beyond the simple fact that he is watching his skin shamble away.
He ponders, for a moment, the ramifications of the deal and the stranger to whom he left his body. Had he thought for longer, he may have changed his mind.
‘Pup!’ the artist calls, across the brief ocean between them.
The creature does not speak but raises its head in acknowledgment, as if it were still without hands.
‘Your painting will be complete the next time we meet.’
The creature’s eyes grow wide. ‘Dear artist, I am sorry! I simply got caught up-’
‘It isn’t a problem. But, please, take care.’
‘Thank you! I shall!’
The artist watches as his body trudges up the sheer wall and gives as much as a wave as he can muster to the leased life. To take it away at the first sign of trouble would be no better than to throw the poor creature from the cliff edge and watch the town fish his flesh from the stones.
‘Welcome, pup!’ the artist shouts, having already taken his position on the rocks. ‘Had I a stronger back I would offer to help.’
The creature does not reply. Once it reaches the bottom of the path and sets up the station as usual, it finds itself unable to think of anything but the phrasing of the artist. Had he a stronger back… it was almost mocking. Such was its state of mind, had the body opened its dry lips, all that would have emerged would have been words of unearned disdain.
So, it does as it knows. It paints. And when it paints, its vices are accepted.
The years have passed with a heavy touch for the creature’s borrowed body, Nature taking her time to poke and prod at every exposed swatch of skin as if it were a plaything. In what was once untouched land she saw fit to carve vast valleys for the rain to gather, tall grass turning a dull grey as her hand brushes it from the eyes, fingers a deep purple as the cold snaps at their tips, and the very foundation of its earth creaks and groans with the tectonic shift of a lifetime.
The artist appears untouched, his gem of a vessel spared her insatiable eye.
‘Are you alright? You look poorly.’
The creature says nothing. Every brush with its creaking wrist is crooked and it looks at what it creates without any joy. Its lines are not as straight as the other paintings, the ones he made before.
‘I did not come to pull teeth,’ the artist says, stern in a scowl.
‘I am tired,’ the creature replies. ‘Things have been difficult recently.’
‘Is that so?’
Its breath produces a rancid sigh, but its nose cannot acknowledge the smell. ‘The situation in town has not bettered since the last time we spoke. It is accepted that there is a killer stalking the streets, taking lives infrequently but enough to ruin the soul of the place. Not even the children find that youthful courage to leave the warmth of their homes.’
‘God,’ the artist mutters.
‘I find it difficult to do much of anything now, without the influence of the village in my life. I don’t even have any canvas left.’
‘When I would visit, they were never too keen,’ the artist says, intending for it to be an interjection had the creature not finished its thought too soon. ‘Once you told me you had made their acquaintance I did think to warn you that it would not last long, but the joy it brought was not mine to take.’
‘I thought you had never spoken to them.’
‘Where did you get that idea?’
‘You told me so.’
The artist shakes his head. ‘You must be misremembering. They were kind, but I would not say I ever enjoyed their company, per se. I find this life far more pleasant without their influence.’
‘How did you know they would not like me?’
He shrugs. ‘I suppose, as much as we try to convince ourselves otherwise, the simple fact of the matter is that you and I are different, in every way, shape and especially form.’
‘You think they know of our deal?’ the creature raises its bushy eyebrows, wisps of white hair reaching over the eye sockets like feelers of an insect sensing the rot.
‘Of course not!’ the artist cries, ‘If you’re searching for a definitive answer, pup, I’m afraid you’ve been burdened with humanity’s true curse. I don’t know the reason they reject you. I doubt they even know. The body is nothing more than a lump of flesh, given life by a golden soul which has been absent for almost a decade. They probably just sense some disturbance.’
The world exhales, letting a bitter breeze loose across the cape, and there is calm. The creature, hunched over its work, eases up a little. It straightens its back and, letting the crows dance across its cheeks, smiles.
‘Do you still paint?’ the artist asks, reclined on the rock as it awaits the rough finishing touches. He knows art is never really completed – merely abandoned – but he humours the idea regardless.
‘That is an odd question.’
‘I mean recreationally, not here. Do you still have a love for it?’
‘It has become harder since…’ The creature rocks back and forth, unsure of where to put its footing. ‘When I choose to take up the brush, I feel like I have lost my touch. I hesitate at every point. Nothing ever feels finished and I think that is why the process is so irritating; I am laying siege to an ever-growing city. I prefer to tinker. It melts some of the frustration and requires little investment, almost mindless. All I need to do is scratch away at the oils.’
‘You have been editing my works?’ the artist asks.
‘Not your works, never yours. Only my own.’
The artist does not speak in response, only in continuance of his thought from before. ‘I think I will paint again.’
On old bones, the creature’s hand moves across the canvas. It unleashes a series of three stabs with its finely pronged brush against the grey blob and it watches as the colours soak, the shape becoming more and more abstract with every dab as if it were crushing the creature. And then, it is done.
There was no celebration in the completion of the work. It would be like finding joy in the coming of spring, or the ending of famine.
‘Is something the matter?’ the artist asks, as the hand falls still.
‘Let me see.’
The artist swims to shore and steps on land for the first time since the deal was struck. Upon the canvas is an image, beautiful but haunting, painted with mudded oils too dark to come naturally. Had the assignment been granted to the Masters of the past, Michaelangelo dragged away from the Sistine to work beside Goya in his madness, with all the tools they required for their artistry, none would have created anything close in quality. It is technically brilliant, reaching an inconceivable level of precision that God himself would think pedantic. Between the subject and the interpretation there is no contest in terms of beauty: nature herself bends to peer over the pair’s shoulder, seeing where she could improve. The figure in the centre, a striking man not at all like the soul but all the better for it, is perfectly posed with its back to those voyeurs that try and keep him pinned beneath their longing gaze. He is handsome to the length that he is a far more apt description of the sight: the Huldrekall on the rocks.
And yet, the artist cannot find any love for the work. It is no more than a feeling at first, suffocated by the conscious appreciation of craftsmanship, but the venom spreads, cycling around its body with every thump of the heart until it is all he feels. In the figure it finds no meaning. There is no hint of emotion to interpret or reason for being; he sits as he does because that was where he should be, just off centre of frame to capture the promontory in the background.
The longer he stares, the stronger the artist’s passion grows. He is not merely disgusted, but repulsed. It is not merely repulsive, but revolting.
‘I think it’s my masterpiece,’ the creature sighs.
The artist nods.
‘What do you think?’
‘It’s good, yes. Fine.’
‘So which is it?’
‘Which is it? Good or fine?’ its tone is sharp, a stabbing pallet knife against the soul’s oily skin.
‘Which would you prefer?’ the artist shrugs.
‘I’d prefer it was perfect.
‘You and the rest of the enlightened world! I feel indifferent to the piece, pup, and I am not sorry for it. I’ll never praise my own art.’
‘I said, I’ll never pr-‘ the creature cuts him off. It snaps but splutters, the exhale of air snatched from the sky by swollen lungs.
‘I heard you but it’s not yours! Why would you act like it is?’
‘You’re taking this terribly, pup,’ he laughs, trying to alleviate some of the building pressure.
‘Because you’re trying to take my achievements-’
‘That were earned in my body,’ there was no nonsense in his phrasing. The chain around the beast’s neck had been loosened ever so slightly, allowing it to take a step forward and pull the restraints taut. ‘Any friends you made, any enemies, are more mine than they are yours, and any accomplishments even more so. No one knows who you are, not even I. Anything you do is seen as mine and to think of it in any other way is just blissful ignorance.’
‘That’s not how it works. If you think that- if you think this less than perfection, then you know nothing about art.’
‘I think there are kings that would disagree-‘
‘What kings?’ the creature cries. ‘No one remembers you now and in years to come, even less will. I know because I have lived it. You have nothing but a shack and an easel and even they are failing.’
In its anger, the creature kicks out at its station. There is no rigidity in its movement, so the lash is more of a flail, a limp flick towards something in vague disapproval.
‘You may be right,’ the artist starts, dragging itself into the tide. ‘I have no way to make the art I once did. Even if I could, which I can’t, I’d have no renown to stand them on, no exhibits to parade them around or shows to stroke my ego. They would be for me and me alone. But where we differ, pup, is that I know that has always been the case. The paintings I enjoyed were always for me, always, and those that weren’t were the ones I would never call mine. So don’t sit there and tell me that I know nothing of art without remembering whose hands you paint with, because I cultivated my talent and wrought success from it, finite as it is. You traded for it. You practically begged for it. That body may be transferable to you, but it most certainly is not to me.’
Grief overcomes the creature, but it cannot show it. The face writhes, twisting into a wicked crook that was unnatural to look at. It was the type of emotion never to be shown, the type of thing never to be seen, like a shadow in the dark.
‘No,’ it says, through the side of its mouth. ‘You don’t mean that. You can’t mean that…’
The artist shrugs, ‘It is a harsh truth, but a truth nonetheless.’
Under the devastating weight of the words, the creature’s knees buckle, and the rest follows until it falls, hard, onto the beach of stone.
‘I understand,’ the artist pats its back. ‘I know this is a harsh lesson to take, which is why I prayed you’d never need to learn it. You cannot cheat at life, my friend. To take a body that has known so much of the world, but has been unable to express it, and to give the hands reason to dance – that is the masterpiece. I hate to say, I suppose in some regard, I took advantage of you in making the deal. You would have been better off learning yourself, but you gave me a second chance at life no man could deny.’
‘Then give it back,’ the creature mumbles, as its hands lower from its face. They remain resting on the neck as if prepped to strangle.
‘Give what back?’
‘My body. Look at me,’ the creature moves like it is melting, the dripping paint on a soiled canvas. ‘When I reach inwards, I feel the ulcers on the tip of my tongue. When I scratch my scalp, more hair comes out beneath my fingers than I even knew I had left. It is an ailing frame, this body of ours. I am unable to work with it. Unable to live. It’ll pass soon and it is only right that you pass with it.’
If he were tasked with recounting the experience later to another, he would find describing the effect of the creature’s gaze impossible. But, as he lived in the moment, that uncanny aura of the Huldrekall on the shore entered his heart.
‘You know I can’t do that,’ he says. ‘No man would.’
‘I did it for you,’ it snaps, without passion. In it there is resignation, the final bite of a wounded dog.
‘You think yourself a man?’ the artist laughs. ‘Don’t act like you came ashore purely out of some sense of altruism, pup.’
‘You are even less of man then. It is no wonder the village fears you. You come to them, play with their children in little more than a suit of skin and-‘
The mind is slow to realise what the heart already believes, only barely catching the words as they fly from the mouth. In place of his stomach, the artist feels a deep pit form and cannot suppress the urge to retreat. Did the creature know what he suspected? It was impossible to tell. The creature carries the same confusing reaction it did to everything.
‘Finish your thoughts,’ it says.
‘I think we are done here.’
It is a far greater task for the creature to pack away its belongings than it has been the previous times. Every minor mission is exaggerated, every attempt to lift the heavier objects a struggle at first instance but quickly forgotten as soon as they are added to the ever-growing mass on the body’s back.
It is a pathetic display. It could only have been more pitiful had it been raining. The creature would have desired that, very much.
With each step, he watches the creature try to evoke some pathos and with each step, he finds his ability to control the muzzled beast waning. He should say nothing, let it leave in peace. Then, the creature stumbles and the chains snap as the seed of suspicion finally bears fruit, forcing the soul to speak with an inherited od.
‘I know what you’ve done.’
The creature turns, possibly just trying to get up. No, it is certainly listening.
‘I know what you are and so do they,’ the artist proclaims, and the winds join its call. The wailing of the Banshees fuel him with an echoing chorus. ‘You think I could go back after what you’ve done? You’ve ruined my reputation, absolutely obliterated it. If to be a killer is what you desire then end the life you’ve borrowed. We’d all be better off for it.’
There is an urgency with which the creature walks, and the artist watches with a pit in its stomach and an ache in its back.
It is a rotten day for a meeting, a day fit only for the burial of a corpse or the creation of one. There is a flash every so often as the sky dithers over whether to watch what is to come, peeking at the scene through forked fingers in the dull winter night. It is impossible to see through the wicked weather, flying to the side as if the globe has been knocked off its axis.
Whenever the artist’s head breaks through the surf he is quickly smothered, only barely able to survive on the tiny gasps plucked from the anticipating air. The current is fickle, equal times an ally as it is a foe, but eventually the artist is able to make it to shore, his flippers aching from the battle he’d been forced to endure. He takes some breaths, deep and causing the stomach to swell as well as the chest.
The mist is thick, impossibly so, like a cloud has come down to walk on the earth, and the familiar landmarks of the beach are heavily obscured. He has not been here in quite some time, but it remains the same from what he can gather.
There is a figure at the base of the cliff, a shadow riding the mists that is gone as quickly as it appeared. It must be them; no one else would come down here.
‘Pup?’ the artist asks the night.
The figure lumbers forward, through the veil and into full view. It is the creature, looking worse for wear, better thrown out than stitched together.
‘You came…’ it mumbles. While the artist is sure the creature continued, it cannot begin to tell what was said. It is a voice in negative resonance, spoken with inward breaths.
‘What are you doing out here? You’ll die of frost before your boots are waterlogged,’ the creature tries to crouch down, but its knees buckle so it falls as it had before. The stench of damp is impossible to ignore, weaving its way through his nostrils like a spectre riding the wind.
‘We should get you inside,’ he continues. ‘Do you think you can make it up the cliff?’
When the world was made, the great glacial shift resulted in enough of a geological shrug to form the uneven path, as if the planet itself was not quite sure of its purpose. The shack was very much the same way: a remnant left only to be utilised by those who couldn’t shirk its terrible quality.
The mist was thicker at the top, to the point that the village in the distance, usually a beacon of warmth, was darkened beyond recognition, like a candle wick swamped by oil. To try and discern any detail in the fog was a waste of time.
‘I have to tell you pup, I am glad you’re alive,’ the artist says, as they reach the top of the slope. ‘I would have never been able to forgive myself if you had died before I could see you again.’
‘You missed…’ again, the creature’s words are lost but the message is clear.
‘I know. I… I just needed time to think, that’s all. I did not know where my reaction came from and it would have been unfair to continue our meetings as if nothing had happened while I still harboured those feelings, still let them fester and tarnish my soul.’
At the top of the cliff, the artist stands where he had those decades ago. For some time they remain at that precipice, watching as the mist wraps around the jagged rocks, children of the sky sucked to the earth. In a moment of realisation, the artist cannot help but laugh (or as close to a laugh as he can muster) as he sees the sky look at him with what must be jealousy, its eyes wrestled from the land it so longs to visit.
‘I could not bear to look at what you had made, pup. Even more so, I could not bear to think that I had made such a thing. For so long, I did not know the reason, but I think I have it now. The way you paint, and it is the way you paint, is so real and I think things become so burdened with ugliness when they are real. As my life came to a close, I had the same realisation – implicit, but there all the same. You made me forget all the reasons I learned to live, and reminded me that the hatred of myself will always be there. For that, you’re not a particularly sympathetic companion, but a treasured one, all the same.’
‘Artist?’ asks the creature.
‘Yes?’ the artist answers, instinctually.
‘Do you think the drop…’
‘What was that? You’ll need to speak up.’
As the mists wrap around it, the creature’s face is indeterminable. Had it been made of metal, it would surely rust.
‘Would you like to…’ the creature gestures towards the shack.
The hinges of the small wooden door are wrecked from sea spray, barely holding together the claim that the run-down building could be a home.
The creature must duck to enter, even with his hunch. He does not remember if the body was that large when it was his. The artist has no problem being left behind and in fact welcomes it, keen to let the soak of the soil rub against its hide as he drags his pudgy stomach through the dirt and the tufts.
The interior of the shack is unknown to him beyond what he can recall, such is the darkness within. Although he can see faint shapes in the pseudo-night he feels disinclined to indulge them with his gaze, afraid they may suddenly jerk forward or shamble towards him with ill-intent. Just what it is that causes his unease is impossible to define, but the fact that he feels it is enough to put him on edge, and when a slam so violent as to have surely smashed the wooden door (had it not been for the grudge that kept its stubborn wood together) fills his ears, whatever other thoughts occupy his mind are exorcised and taken by the intruding wind.
A voice comes from the darkness, as if from the darkness itself, but the artist knows better. The creature is in there with him, and he is unsure of whether that should be comforting or cause to flee.
‘Did you mean what…’ the voice trails off.
‘S-sorry? Did I mean, what?’ the artist stutters and waits for a reply, but is met only with silence. ‘If you show me it again I might change my mind. Go on, fish it out.’
There is rustling for some time and the artist can only hazard that the creature is down, on all fours, waving frantically beneath the bed in hopes of finding the frame. That was where he had kept them anyway, when it had been his turn. Leaving pieces in the open was to leave them to the elements, as the walls found joy in letting the moisture in.
The house must have degraded further over the years, the joists and supports finally succumbing to the rot that had infected them before the artist called it a home. Every breath was difficult, as if his body rejected the act on account of the terrible smell. Is it damp? Everything is drenched, as far as he can feel, so such a thing was unlikely to stand out.
Light envelops the solitary room, but it reveals a sight more horrifying than the manifestations of the dark, for at least those are works of fiction. Clinging to the walls, smoke on the lungs, are all manner of black paintings each so grotesque that the previous is forgotten, only for the shock to return when it crawls from the corner of the vision. There is no way to describe them other than abhorrent, both in artistic integrity and in content. They are horrible in every sense, mudded blobs of oil and blood, but is in those rare instances of clarity where the images creep through that there is an impossibility to see them as anything but their depictions. In a cruel sense it is a masterpiece, a continuous world of paint unfettered by a frame.
Life is absent there, as if afraid of the perversions that it would endure, and yet the shack feels crowded to the point it is overwhelming. At every turn there is something to greet you, in every corner something reaching for you to come closer.
A fox perches from the rafters with a rabbit’s bloodied carcass between its jaws, watching an oblivious house cat torture a mouse from across the room. From the base of the wall crawls a tree of centipedes and slugs, carrying a great pomegranate marred with burrows up the trunk. Below that is the head of an emaciated man who clings to the skirting as if it is a life preserver.
The art he does recognise is more terrible. Retellings of the works of his youth can occasionally be discerned but they have been perverted into something new. A procession of Catholic revellers becomes a manic mob marching towards a strung-up priest, while his childhood home is now the domain of Charon, paddling down the main street with his oar of bones.
The humans are the worst of all. They each share the same eyes as the creature, the same absence of purpose that haunts their simple black wells, the approximation of the soul that had been observed in each of their muses. He knows some of them, he is sure he does. They have greeted him in town and helped him bring supplies home. They have entered his house as guests and left welcome. As they are depicted, he wished them dead so they could never bear witness to their supposed fetishes, creatures that crawled from the dredges of the uncanny valley on six-fingered hands and webbed toes.
As brief as the moment is, the creature’s terror is on full display. His entire body is failing it. From the mouth comes a wheeze, the sound of a wicked wail finding its way through the exposed windpipe, which causes its flayed purple lips to flutter. When its shadow hits the wall it becomes one of its creations, it eyes matching theirs.
‘I did not mean to do it…’ it manages to say. ‘If I don’t keep painting they see their world’s truth… beautiful and false…’
At first, the artist thinks the creature lost in thought but there is cause for interruption. When he had lived there, the artist had made sure to fill the attic space with whatever materials he could spare, be it wads of paper sketches or an abandoned work whose canvas would serve nicely as a sponge. It was not something the creature would think to ward against and that had let the weather in, raindrops dripping from the ceiling as if it were not even there.
Between them is the largest stream. As it pools, it is unmistakably water but indisputably muddled. It could have easily been paint, stored in the loft for want to avoid clutter, but it contains only one pigment: a deep, dirty red.
‘They wanted me to paint but would not sit still. In the end, they were such good models…’
The artist makes no attempts to flee. There is no reason in his consideration, no thought for the distance between he and the door handle or the pace of the creature. All that moves him is the feeling, deep in his gut, that having seen the work of the creature, the work he enabled, that there is no need to continue living.
In a dull flash, he sees his life and the signs he missed. There is no indication how death will come about and he can think of many ways that would be fitting. He can see the creature laughing as he falls to the ground, the rotten teeth and receding gums in its smile vanishing behind the bluff’s tide. There is an axe out back, too underused to retain its edge but dull enough to be a suitable bludgeon. A quick slash of the pallet knife would be sufficient, provided the tip is sharp.
Whatever is decided, he is sure it will bring him peace. In some ways, his death is a mercy.
To avoid having to live with the tainted meaning of art is reason enough to greet Death like an old friend.
Credit: Shaun Scott
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