Wednesday, January 19, 2011

An Art-Show

A handful of onlookers were engaged in studying Helen's newest painting displayed -- a dark image of the dim red sun, covered by cloud-wrack, staring down upon an ice-locked landscape of the entrance to a city flanked by a scattering of ruined and rather leprous-looking buildings, clearly damaged by violence as well as neglect and the elements, and surrounded by gibbets upholding twisted skeletons -- while she sat by, attempting to restrain a cough. One man, young and with a drawn yet overeager expression, began to compliment Helen lavishly on how her work "showed the dark face of true reality" and served as "an authentic artistic interpretation of Lord Kelvin's just-proposed principle of the universal exhaustion of energy". When she vainly attempted to explain that it was hardly her image -- was derived from an inspiration, in the most literal sense of an idea introduced from outside -- her interlocutor simply became effusive in his accolades for her obvious humility.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

"Down the Barren Years"

She limned strange shapes upon the canvas, and she did not wholly realize what she made until it was done; the picture diverged from her earlier studies for it even as it was being painted (as nearly all hers had done since the dreams began). The landscape seemed colder somehow, darker or perhaps merely more stark; what was intended as the homely smoke of chimneys became instead the smudge of a town burning as riot ravaged it. The hills were no longer soft green curves but mined-open sores; and their natural forms were replaced by buildings, which were abandoned and, encrusted by vegetation, then by the soil into which that vegetation rotted, became themselves hills... Helen snapped herself back to her work with a vigorous shake of her head.

The strange reveries of the dying world had grown more and more persistent, more and more intrusive upon her 'ordinary' life (as much as one like her could have an 'ordinary' life, that is); and in the last week or so the half-sensed feeling that the dreams and the reveries were pointing towards something - that there was an intent behind them and not merely the idle sight of her own mind's eye - had grown to be inescapable.

Perhaps she should ask the doctor if anything of the sort was known to occur in other cases of consumption? She had heard, and given little credence to, the superstition that consumption increased one's artistic, and even spiritual, powers; but perhaps something of the sort was occurring here. On the other hand, the man might think her mad; but she was an artist -- such things were acceptable, to a degree.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

A Dirge for Tellus

Looking northward from the sea-baths, the setting sun in the southwest behind her lighting the land to beauty, Helen wept that it was a beauty that must perish. And she chided herself inwardly, for after all she herself must leave this world much sooner; so what business of hers was the far-distant fate of the world?

And as she stood thus in doubt and dark thought her eyes lighted on the smoke of London on the horizon. And, as they had never done so directly before, her dreams irrupted into her waking mind; and she saw not a smoky patch in the sky, but a great shadow that expanded, to fill the sky and darken the earth. She saw great machines of gleaming metals take shape where Brighton and London stood, tearing the earth open, and from the wound that was now Britain raising eerie towers and spires like strange corals and fungi, things whose lineaments no human mind ever designed. The darkness grew deep, as if the very Sun was mined for light; and as the world grew cold she saw the sea sink behind her, drawing back from the coast and exposing the dry bones of the continental shelf. Heavy snows fell, and flowers that had sprouted were buried, now never to bloom, in the last spring of the world.

She saw the last cities exploding in riots of madness, crazed from hunger and plague and cold; saw the sick turning in desperate anger on those who could have saved them; saw the roads outside the dying cities lined with gibbets hung with skeletons; saw the cold cover all, and the final snows fall.

Friday, September 10, 2010

"Tyrannous Secrets of Time"

It seemed that the dark dreams weighed upon everything now. The images of the dead world crept into every one of her landscapes in some way, and whatever else she might paint she could not entirely eliminate a pallor, a strange tint, some deathly hint. And Helen did not even know why she had such vivid, or so consistent, dreams of the dying future -- her thoughts before had certainly not been more morbid than others. Perhaps it was her own failing health that lent her such images of the age when the world's life should itself fail; or perhaps the legend that tuberculosis granted its sufferers strange artistic vision was not entirely false. She doubted this last, however; people spoke of consoling or uplifting visions, not things of darkness and despair.

Even the news, when she troubled herself to read news, was tainted; she could not suppress a shudder of strange remembrance when she read certain things. Most recently, when the news of the fatal fire at the London house of Charles and Emma Darwin -- arson, apparently -- was in the paper; that odd feeling of remembrance displaced in time troubled her greatly. And more disturbing yet, when she slept that night her dreams touched on the event with a disturbing sense of satisfaction -- or perhaps accomplishment.

At times she felt as if the dreams were building towards something, as if some revelation, half-realized in the dreams, was straining to break through into her waking consciousness.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Afternoon Tea (pt. 2)

The doctor looked gravely at Helen across the table. "I would suggest a change of climate. The Mediterranean sun and air are well-known to combat the symptoms, they often help dramatically. Indeed many cases of consumption have been known to reverse themselves wholly..."

"Cases of this severity?" Helen asked sharply.

"Well... there have been wonderful convalescenses..." his reassurances wilted under Helen's eye. "No, not generally."

"And I should leave everything I have ever loved, everyone I know, all my work, and go to wait for death in an unfamiliar country? I think not. Moving to Brighton was enough of a dislocation, stressful enough, and to come here I did not need to leave any of my friends, nor lose contact with my fellow artists and my clients. And the sea-bathing here -- something you recommended, you praised just as profusely as this Mediterranean nonsense -- has done me no good at all."

"Your case is severe, doubtless. But it is not without hope. Furthermore, if you have no interest in my recommendations, why do you see me at all?"

Helen's face became severe, her voice sharpened. "For the medicines. They take away the pain, moderate it at least. But I have no desire for illusions and deceits. I know I am soon to die, and all I seek is a more pleasant experience, less pain, in my last few months or years. You need not continue to hold out the false hope of a complete recovery."

The doctor was somewhat taken aback. "I admire your honesty ... I suppose. But I think you are giving up hope too quickly."

"And the medication?" Helen's voice left no doubt that she wished to end this phase of the conversation.

"Very well then," the flustered doctor responded, taking a pair of small glass bottles from his bag and handing them to Helen. "In another month, then, for our next visit?" he inquired as he rose to leave.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Afternoon Tea (pt. 1)

Helen prepared the table, bustling about the dining room busily, discarding the flowers that had wilted and nipping out to the garden to pick new ones - a sweet-pea here, a carnation there. She dusted the shelves and the curios on them almost obsessively. She knew well enough that the doctor would not care, but the actions were comforting, a reminder of happier times. She severely missed entertaining friends. While her friends tried not to reveal their discomfort, and they corresponded with her constantly, it was not the same. Some tried to console her with the legend that her sickness enhanced artistic powers, which she did not truly believe. (Or had not - now that these strange visions haunted her nights, she was forced to consider that it might not be purely myth.) Others urged her to seek consolation in faith; she had done so, and was as pious as anyone, but still she feared. (Some people had even questioned her faith; not her friends of course, but acquaintances she had previously thought highly of, and respected, if distantly. But one could never tell about such people. Some seemed quite well meaning, suggesting it was a test from Above. They meant it honestly, and kindly enough, but it was no comfort -- even if they were right.) The only exception to the general coolness that had fallen over her friendships was Marguerite, whom before she had never been very close to; she was too cheerful, too wonderful, too kind; everyone looked shabby and selfish next to Margie. She wouldn't think of breaking off a friendship (even one that had before not been very strong) due to a little thing like a deadly disease. Marguerite was a poet, though not a very good one - her verse was lively, but trite.

Perhaps had she married she would have had help in this dire time. But she had never found anyone, and now there was no longer any chance to do so. Unless the doctors could work some miracle, she would pass away with no legacy but her artwork. She was fortunate in that at least - most in her situation would be forgotten utterly, leaving nothing.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

"Hue, As of a Heaven Turned Hell"

After yet another troubled night, Helen climbed out of her four-poster bed and, as had now become her custom, reassured herself that the sky was still blue and the sun still bright. Thus calmed, she sat down at her desk and began to work, painting her next picture -- a spring scene of flowers.

When she paused, she saw a disquieting image rather than the pastoral image she had planned. The colors of the flowers were all wrong; bitter greens too fierce and acrid to be natural for the leaves, corpse-white rather than snow-white for the snowdrop blossoms, blood-color for the red roses. Everything was slightly off; the sky was not cloudy but livid, like a raw bruise; the sun shining through the clouds was too reddened. The whole scene, cast in a too-weak light, was discolored.

She paged through her previous attempts, finding once more nightmare ice-locked lands beneath a wan burned-out sun, shadow-girdled forests cast in too-yellow greens under a sky white rather than blue, oceans freezing over; the dreadful landscapes of her visionary dreams.

The Earth of her age seemed almost too lush by contrast to her future visions; the Sun intense nearly beyond bearing, the beauty of the singing streams too sweet, the forests' vivid green lovely past grasping. And yet all this wonder could not quite still her fears and despairs; ever a shadow-seed, a whisper of "You know to what end all this shall come", was awake in her heart. She strove to convince herself that what should occur in the measureless future - some hundreds of times the brief days that had passed between Christ's time and hers, after Britain that stood now glorious among all the nations had passed with all its colonies beyond even memory, to become things utterly lost to time - was of no importance; not her nor her descendants to the thousandth generation would see the doom. It was all in vain; too clear were the terrible images of that dead world and of how the end would ineluctably come, however long-delayed it might be.

The darkness had seeped into all her works; and though they were everywhere praised when her earlier works had been ignored, though she was beginning to be acclaimed as the preeminent artist of the age, still she hated the shadow that had fallen upon her art. She longed for the clean, bright dreams she had previously had and painted; though no other recognized their worth she loved them no less.