L’artiste: Short Story
I rub the corners of my eyes to remove the rheum, and sit up in my bed. The familiar measuring cup and chloroform bottle beckon from the bedside table. Just a little more each day until the fatal dose, approximately ten millilitres, raises its head and buries itself with me, within me. After downing a minute two millilitres, I feel nothing more than drowsy, which I felt beforehand anyway. I make a mental note to take more than planned next time.
Turning over, with the aim to get out of bed, the blank canvases surrounding me catch my eye yet again. I have all my colours spread out on the palette, yet no brushes. My heart yearns to fulfill the desires within, and transfer those beautiful hues to the untouched white, but I just can’t bring myself to search for the means.
As I trudge down the stairs, a voice calls out, accompanying a loud series of knocks on the door.
“Jaques? Are you home my friend?” it asks.
“I am home, but who is asking?” I query, completely stumped as to who it may be.
“Surely you recognise this voice, old friend. It’s Rémi!” he calls out.
Realisation dawns, and I rush to open the door and embrace the man whom I have not seen in so very long. He looks a very different man now. He has let his hair grow long, grown a bushy beard, and acquired a tan. We talk of the old times, where he has been, what he has done, who he has seen. He tells me of the pure freedom he found, away from this place.
He asks me what of myself, but there is nothing to tell, I have simply been painting while he has been away. He asks to see the surely thousands of works I must have completed in the aeons since his departure, but I tell him no. He asks why he cannot see them, but I can give no answer.
“Well Jaques, if we cannot do that, what can we do? You don’t have anything to show me, tell me from this entire time?”
“There is nothing I can tell you, Rémi. Nothing that would interest you.”
“Then there is nothing left to it. Where is your absinthe?” Rémi demands.
I tell him without interest that it is the dusty green bottle, over there.
“Where? You didn’t point…”
I leave to fetch the bottle and hand it to him, he nods his thanks and moves to retrieve the little glasses and fountain.
“Now, Jaques, the only question I have for you is: a big one or a little one?” he chortles at me.
“Neither.” Is my retort.
“Whatever do you mean, didn’t you used to adore our sweet times with la fée verte?” He says softly, and with a smile.
“I no longer drink alcohol.”
“Why would you decide that?”
“I lose my inhibitions.”
“Would that not be a good thing for you?”
“No. I might do something, say something, think something… That I’ll regret.” My speech fades away into nothingness again.
“All right then Jaques, I’m going to come around tomorrow with something that might enlighten your spirits okay?” Rémi speaks softly and stands up. He pats my shoulder and leaves the house without a sound.
I pass the whole day away staring at the canvases that hang, lay, stand around my bed. Now though, it is time to make some dinner. Lamb casserole. I pull a small piece of glass from the draw, and place in the mortar. Pushing it around the mortar with the pestle, I become aware of the fact that simply this will not crush the glass. I fall back into the chair, carefully placed behind me, so that I can summon the strength needed for the task.
“I don’t think you can do it.” I say out loud, though no one will hear.
Suddenly, with all I can muster, I jump out of the chair and slam the pestle into the mortar, into the glass. Over and over again, I smash the glass. I must look rabid, insane. Sweat drips down my brow. It doesn’t matter.
Finally, it is crushed into a powder thin enough to lace through my casserole, thick enough to damage me.
Content from my meal, I return to bed. My skin still feels clammy from the efforts of breaking the glass. When it is dark, the blank canvases are less ominous. They almost look complete, rather than uninitiated. I shut my eyes tight, and all the brilliant shades, tones, pigments return, brighter and better than ever before. They dance around on the back of my eyelids, betraying the ugliness of the room beyond.
As I wake, I feel the rheum has returned, and rub it clear. The bright white reflects all outside light towards the middle of the room, my bed, awakening me every day. I sip from the increased dose, yet I still feel nothing. I’ll crush glass into my breakfast too today then.
I manage to pass the whole day away, again. I don’t even recall exactly what I was doing, but judging by the canvases, it clearly wasn’t productive. That definitely does not make me feel any better, I still feel utterly uninspired, unintelligent, and I remain unknown.
The next few days pass with no sign of Rémi returning. This makes me less faithful in the man I used to trust. I’ve never felt quite so nugatory before. I can’t bring myself to do anything except stare at the walls, the furniture, and those damned canvases! How they make me hate them so…
Finally, when I thought he would never arrive, Rémi comes bursting through the door.
“Jaques, how are you today, old friend?” He says, with a beaming smile.
“Fine, I guess. What is making you so happy?” I reply with a frown.
“Never mind, never mind. Are you hungry?” Clearly he has noted my thinness.
“I thought you’d never ask.”
Rémi begins to gather the ingredients to make some crêpes, and resumes talking to me.
“Jaques, I really would love to see your work. I know how beautiful the things you used to paint were… Absolutely stunning.”
I start to refute him, and then I reconsider. Would it harm him to see what I have done? I begin to think that maybe he should understand how I feel.
“Jaques? Jaques are you with me?” I didn’t realise how long I had been thinking, but apparently Rémi did realise.
“Yes, yes I am, you can look at what I’ve done, come, come, into my bedroom - that’s where the canvases are.”
I lead him up to my room, push open the door, and let him inside. I stay out. He asks me where they are, so I walk in, and spread my arms wide, pointing at each blank canvas, letting the nothingness of it all enter me again.
“Jaques… They’re all blank, you know this, I assume?” He asks me, with a look that closely resembles fear, but with something else mixed in.
“Oh, of course I know. I know it more than anyone could ever know it. They torture me, yet I cannot change their state, they will remain forever, blank!” I begin to sound hysterical, Rémi embraces me in an attempt to calm my nerves, and it begins working…
“You don’t understand… I just can’t do it, I don’t have the means or the capacity.” I sob into his shoulder.
Rémi spends most of the night with me, just talking. We eat the food that he cooked and talk about everything we’d ever known. He leaves just after midnight, with the promise that he had brought me a gift from his travels. He would not tell me what it was, just that I would find it in the morning. I think he left just after I fell asleep on the couch.
I wake with a start, surrounded by the sweet smells of Rémi’s savoury cooking, and for the first time in a long time, not surrounded by the blank canvases. The rheum is no longer clogging the corners of my eyes, probably washed away by the relieving weeping of last night.
I slowly walk upstairs toward my bedroom, thoughts of the chloroform and the glass disappeared.
Opening the door, I see that my bed has been perfectly made by Rémi, as it had not been done so in a long time. Lying on the middle of the pillow is a beautifully engraved wooden box. Burned into it is my name, in lovely script. I slide open the lid, and see the most beautiful brush I have ever laid eyes upon.
I sit down on the edge of the bed, pick up the palette and brush, and draw the nearest canvas close. In the most brilliant blue, I paint Rémi’s name as a thank you. Today will be a good day.