Portraits
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I have always hated the word mad. So vulgar, so reductive— indiscriminately used against those who stray from the norm, against those who venture beyond the boundaries of what society considers acceptable. It reeks of conformity, of stagnation, of ignorance. Born from an unworthy creed of Phillistines, snobs and simpletons, it soils the good name of artists, writers, poets and craftsmen, of all who strive to create wonders, to crystalize beauty through their works. To the souless makers of values and virtues, creativity is nothing short of insanity, innovation equals deviance, and all who dare to make true art must be ostracized, purged from the festering veins of their putrid culture.

That is why I find myself here, writing these words from behind iron bars, entombed in stone and shadow to await my execution. When it will be, I know not. The passing of time is nebulous down here, where all I have is humble candlelight to dream of the rise and fall of the sun. Still I can tell that the pyre awaits me, its flames voracious. What a morbid spectacle I will be as the blaze devours me, as my flesh bubbles and peels away, the sizzling of my skin and hair joining the choir of my screams. Fire shall purify my wickedness; ashes shall whisper my name.

But until that moment comes, until I am cast into the flames, I shall write of my life and work, of the beauty I have crafted… and of the deliverance I have found.

From my earliest youth I was drawn towards the arts, towards the virgin canvases where my fertile imagination could take root. There, on the blinding nothingness of infinite white, my paintbrush cast its strokes, waves of creation rippling to make the barren emptiness into sights of beauty and wonder. Paint swirled and took shape at my direction, freezing in time moments as brief and sublime as the moment of first light at daybreak, as overwhelming as the starry nights where the moon reigns supreme. I loved it all — every speck of dust, every drop of rain, every wisp of wind — and sought to paint it all, to transform all that was blank and waste into an Eden, into a reflection of the world's beauty. My beauty…

Thus was my will made visible — almost tangible — for all to admire, for every witness to know the way the world looked through my eyes. Valleys at sunset, forests under the duress of the storm, castles and market squares filled with laughter and chattering… all were born from my brush, from my restless mind, from my aching soul. It was said that my works were so lifelike and enrapturing that one could swear they were in truth windows into a world much like ours, a world shaped by a maker into something that was almost perfect, almost divine.

Almost.

This, I thought as I painted, must be how God felt as He made the world, as His divine hands shaped every mountain, as His tears filled the oceans and His very breath filled the muddy lungs of man to make him live and worship.

So deluded was I, foolish and vain, that I thought myself equal to the Creator, equal to the Divine force that created the beauty that poured over us like anointing oil, a blessing upon the world. My arrogance precluded me from seeing the Truth, from understanding the true meaning of "unparalleled." For God had made the world to breathe and live, and my work was but an imitation, a facsimile that only seemed to have life of its own but was in reality as sterile as before I applied my talents to the empty canvases. My lakes and rivers, my skies and fields— they were doors to nowhere, dead ends where the eye fooled itself into believing there was something beyond, something true. This lie I crafted and sold, paraded and proclaimed to the four winds so that equally blind fools would grovel at my feet.

Until one night, when She came. The One in Moonlight came and whispered into my ear as I slept. Her words bit into my soul like a serpent digging its fangs into helpless prey. What a fool you are to believe yourself a maker when all you create is but a shadow of a shadow, dust and ash to be swept away in a flood of tears and oblivion. For what is your art to the Maker's work, to the glory of Creation? Fraud! She laughed and laughed, cold and merciless. See now the Truth, the faults in your skill. For you may paint a shadow, but you may never cast one.

I woke up mortified, devastated. My craft, close to perfection, was nonetheless a shallow effigy of divine workings. Like Arachne in her defiance of Athena, I had committed the unforgivable mistake of thinking myself an equal to the gods. I feared that the horrors of my dream might hunt me down to the waking world. Would my punishment be — like poor Arachne's — to be transformed into a lowly spider, to forever weave my threads in both praise and penitence for my blasphemy?

Perdition followed me. My hands itched with the impulse to paint, to create, but I knew they would make nothing of worth, nothing that could stare into the eyes of Creation and hold its gaze. I would rather have them amputated than again defile a canvas, my bloodied stumps used to write a manifesto decrying the artist's greatest sin: hubris. In time, however, hunger prevailed, and I was forced to renew my work, devoid of joy or true purpose.

I stopped painting the works of the Maker. In their stead I created portraits in the image of man, in the image of we who were soiled and sinful. In making these works, I hoped to leave behind the dread that had possessed me, the Truth I was doomed to know. My kin would provide the inspiration I sought, the life I hoped to imbue my works with. I would paint every emotion, every display of life the human face could convey: their tears and smiles, their anguishes and joys— even the wrath of righteous men, so rarely seen, would not elude me. All would be portrayed, all would be shown the precious imperfections of their being. Thus I would become a master anew, my works mirrors of truth for all who lent me their faces.

I was wrong. In the textures of hair and cloth I drowned my sorrows, frozen visages of arrogant brow my daily bread, but I found no relief, no escape. Face after face passed me by in a blur, my whole being poised to capture their coldness and imperfections into a balm that would soothe my wounded pride. Chins strong and weak I chiseled for my facsimiles; their serene mouths would never draw breath, and for it they mocked me from their two-dimensional prisons. Mine was a craft of sterile beauty, of lifeless ostentations; my own creation shunned me.

In my shame I averted my sight as I painted pitiless eyes full of vice, full of the same sin that had summoned the One in Moonlight into my dream. How could I hold their gazes when my reflection writhed in those orbs? Such was my fate, to be a pathetic worm squirming and twisting in the agony of its lowliness.

Day and night I painted, feeling myself no closer to creating something that could rival the craft of God. Mine was a Sisyphean struggle. The faces trapped in my portraits scorned me, their gaze following me in accusing silence even in my slumber, where nightmares bred and writhed: a black forest of ashen hopes gleaming under a sickly moon full of despair, a reflection of my futility, of my doom.

One night, as my pained slumber neared, I implored salvation, begging to whatever high wills could hear me that my soul be delivered from its torment. Only One answered my prayer.

Oh, dim dreamer, the One in Moonlight cackled from the bottom of my dream. You try to be as the gods, desiring to create something alive and breathing, yet your craft is barren, the canvases unfertile under your strokes. Are you so foolish that you would spend your entire life in this vain pursuit — your godhood forever denied — when the answer lies before your very eyes? The gate is the key, the key is the gate.

From my dream I awoke in panicked enlightenment — in ecstasy — my hands trembling as I reached for my paintbush. Now I knew what I must do, what my quest required, for indeed the answer had been gazing at me even as I averted my sight: their flesh had inspired me, but their tears must now water my withered crops.

I painted anew, trying again and again, honing my technique to perfection before tempting fate with the knowledge vested upon me. With every paintstroke, the vessel took shape and substance. With ever caress of my brush, I elevated the effigy from the mud. And with every gaze I took into my models' eyes, my will grew more and more tangible. There, beneath the layers of hubris, lost amidst the chaos of their lowly psyches, the spark burned white-hot.

Oh, such beauty, such warmth. I took it, captured it from the unworthy posturers who had lent themselves to me in hopes of satiating their vanity, thinking my work nothing but an instrument for their own aggrandizing. I did not heed their screams, their supplications, for my being was basked in light as I tore the spark from their bodies and drove it deep into the paint, my brush a sword with which I carved my Adam out of inert matter. Flesh and bone and blood were born onto the nothingness, onto the barren white that had once refused me, and into them I breathed the spark. And there was life.

The eyes were as windows into their nascent souls, into the inner flame that gave them warmth, grown from a single spark into a raging inferno— they looked at me with devotion and fear. I could almost touch them, almost feel their tender forms, almost clutch their beating hearts. They were alive, as alive as I was, as alive as the ones whose spark I had taken had once been. I had ceased to attempt to craft lifelike images out of sterile paint. Now I painted life itself— I had created miracles.

To say the reception to my new works was dismal would be an understatement. Those who saw the portraits felt nothing but fear and revulsion, recoiling without knowing the source of their discomfort as their eyes remained glued to the sublime details of painted flesh. Dread slowly gave way to morbid fascination, however, as they realized the uncanny life that permeated every stroke, every masterfully crafted layer. Closer and closer they inspected them, almost desiring to touch the canvases and find warm skin awaiting them. But their gaze then met the paintings' own, and with horror they seemed to realize the Truth that —through my hands— had birthed those images. They tried to run, to hide from their dawning realization, but in the end they could do nothing but curse and spit and utter at me blasphemies and threats.

What did I care for them? No god deigns himself to care for what the worms opine. They were nothing but flesh, nothing but atoms hiding away the spark I so needed to continue my work, the source of life I breathed into the canvases, into the mute Adams and Eves who with their eyes begged me for release, for the mercy of oblivion. I knew their existence to be pain beyond my darkest dreams, but as long as life bent to my will — as long as I knew myself divine — I was content to let them suffer. Had the merciful God who loved us not also made Hell? I, maker of miracles, painter of souls, had achieved what mere men can only dream: apotheosis.

Little by little my collection grew, though in the later days I found myself lacking raw materials. Rumors had been spreading of the strange disappearances of those who modeled for me, and the flesh grew wary of my craft. No matter: dregs and prostitutes held the same spark than those in the higher echelons of our society, and I sought them out to continue my work. Bodies continued to feed my furnace, but this time they would not be missed. Or so I thought.

One night I awoke to find a maddened mob knocking furiously at my door, their faces twisted with hatred born of fear, their mouths preaching damnation for my soul. By torch and knife my portraits were rent and turned to ashes, my home set ablaze. As I watched the flames devour the fruits of my labor, I could almost hear the paintings screaming— with agony at first and with relief at last. I was dragged before a judge and accused of witchcraft, of perverting the natural order with my works. Fools. If only they could understand the magic I had performed, the true beauty of what I had crafted.

No matter. They would have cared little for it, incapable of comprehending the beauty of my blessing. They wished not to understand or know the Truth. To them, my work was but an exercise in blasphemy, in insanity. I was the mad painter, the spider who had ensnared and defiled countless innocents in its web, their empty husks fuel for the fire that kept me warm as I painted their souls into entrancing sights to rival the Maker's own. For this I was condemned, sentenced to the same fate that had claimed my works, to scream my repentance in the choir of smoke and burning flesh.

But that will not be the end for me, for gods do not die. The flames may devour me, my body immolated on the altar of ignorance, but through my work I shall remain. There is one last portrait to my name, one last testimony of the secrets the One in Moonlight whispered under the gangrenous light of Her aster. As I worked — as I experimented and evolved — I learned far more than just how to create still life within the confines of the canvases. What is once transfigured can also be returned to its original state, the way old men become weak and pathetic as the infants they once were. This principle I infused into my greatest creation, into my magnum opus, my true miracle.

Where my orphaned children now roam, I know not. I left them to wander into the beyond long before the blaze, made to preach my glory through their very being. They are living miracles of mine, made of paint and canvas instead of dirt and dew. In them I found my answer, the gate that is the key, once unseen but now clearly revealed.

Through my dream I have captured my own spark, my own essence— plied and shaped into that portrait, into that reflection not of my own visage, but of my metamorphosis, of my transcendence. It lies hidden, waiting for this life to end, for this flesh to be no more. I have seen the Truth, the path paved for me in the flames. Once the deed is done — once I have been cleansed and annointed — I shall emerge from my cocoon of cloth and paint in my true glory, my divine beauty revealed at last.

I am the spider, the weaver of miracles. I am the artist, the painter of life. The world will be my canvas.

All shall be made beautiful.


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