I am very happy with this short story. Very happy indeed. I hope you all find it as enjoyably macabre as I do, as I really enjoyed writing this for the sole reason it is nothing like anything I have written before. Please take a bit of time out to read it! This story is for Jonny Perfect, in exchange for a song. Keep your fingers, kids. Benjiva xx
The Zenith, By Benjamin Jiva Dasa Norris
He’d spent almost a whole year on the painting, and had finished it several times. However; each time he thought he’d finished, he would spend perhaps an hour basking in the glow of his success before noticing that mustard yellow streak clashed unpleasantly with that green in the corner of the canvas, or that the texture wasn’t sickening enough, or that the whole thing was subtly, unfairly, quietly wrong. It was an almost impossible thing to put his finger on, this wrongness, this sense of incompletion and imperfection. One of the main reasons for this was that recently his fingers had started falling off. Every time he laid down his brushes and palette knives with a sense of finality, or kicked aside the wax coated wine bottles and shards of willow charcoal from around his feet, or picked the hardened paint from his greasy, matted beard, he’d move too quickly, and he would hear a noise – ‘click’ – coming from his hands. Each time this happened, he would look closely at the source of the noise, always a finger, and watch it wrinkle like salted mollusc, turn grey, or brown, or black, and fall to the floor. The process was painless and fast, leaving a dry, flaky, self-cauterised stump behind, as if it was the result of an injury received as a child; an accident with a hammer, a birth defect, a mauling from the family dog.
It was late September, and the leaves were starting to dry and curl on the branches that tapped on the window of the studio. Summer was already starting to seem like a memory of a half-dream, held for a few seconds on awakening, and seen with perfect clarity before quickly being lost to garbled, mossy symbolisms and abstract word association. He sat on his stool, flecked white with paint and looked at his old hands. Only three fingers remained; his first finger on his left hand, pressed hard against his thumb, and the middle and smallest fingers on his right hand, looping around a palette knife encrusted with black, glutinous mulch. Every seven minutes or so, he would raise his right hand up to his painting – now several inches thick from the months of pigment plastered upon the frame, a physical, swollen calendar of frustrations – and scratch the edge of the knife through the top layer of paint to expose a sliver of April, a scar of spring.
For the briefest moment not so long ago, for one golden second, he could see the piece as finished. As he pulled his arm away from the canvas, trembling with elation, he was sure that this was it; that the one cut he had just made through the heavy globules of arterial red had completed his year’s work. It just required one tiny extension, another inch of dragged marbling through the layers and… and… it was gone. That extra inch wasn’t repairable; he had reached a zenith and then toppled clumsily, having completely changed the dynamic between the washes in the bottom-right corner and the sharpness of the veins stretching around the side. Tears of frustration ran into his beard and the artist stomped around studio like a chastised toddler, throwing his portfolio against the filthy windows, scattering praise and high reviews from many years ago, shouting at the papers and glossy uselessness that floated down over dead candles and a year of scratchings. His feet crashed through mirrors and kicked all in sight; the skeletal remains of a mummified aspidistra scattered into dust-motes and moth wings, and the acrid cloud produced a wracking, dry, rasping cough from the cracked old lips of the giant, wrinkled child. The artist fell into a wretched heap on the oily rug that covered most of the floor, and lay still, bare chest heaving, his liver spots rising and falling on pigeon bones, their erratic rhythms moving cog-like on his heartbeat.
His head banged against the thin fabric with a hollow thud as he brought his hand to his face to watch the little finger twist and curl inwards like a dying spider, like a sleeping fern, atrophying quickly like a sped-up film of pestilence. It twitched twice spasmodically before turning the colour of London loam and hanging for a moment on a thread of papyrus-skin before dropping onto his stomach. His gut wrenched with as the appendage rolled onto the ground near his chin, the droplets of hope and impetus drying up inside him like so many grains of sand slipping through a distorted hourglass. Only two fingers now remained on his ravaged hands, ashen stumps forming involuntary fists hung on the end of his arms like chicken gristle. Soon, he thought, soon he would be useless, sterile, impotent and surely unemployed. He did not find the idea of mouth or foot painting at all attractive, and so what would happen if this wasting disease spread to whatever part of his body he used for his art? Would his lips suffer the same fate? His feet? His head? The idea wasn’t so unbelievable.
He had not stepped out of his studio for so, so long. His windows let in the occasional polymer of daylight, hanging limp and sticky, photons like dead spermatozoa coughed out over his cluttered desk with its smashed glass veneer. Nobody had seen any of the work he had produced for almost fifteen years now; the exhibition he was planning on putting together was going to be crowned by this final painting, this unfinished, unfinishable virus that would complete the retrospective. He did not know what had happened to his family, his critics, his customers and investors. It had been too long.
The artist walked over snapped pencils and crushed cans, stood next to his window and scraped at the mildew, scraped again at the months and years that had gathered on the glass. Outside looked different to how he remembered it; the trees, which before were all he could see through the filth, now stood in front of tall buildings which seemed to stretch away into the distance. A thousand identical houses rolled down the hill to the left of his parched garden, and enormous cars were pulled in and out of a thousand tarmac driveways, like flotsam on a Perspex tide. A look of determination crossed the artist’s face, and he sat at the desk and scrabbled for some paper, a pen, his inkpot and an envelope. A letter would be written to his old agent (or the agent’s successor), the address was one he had never forgotten, burned into his memory when he was young, a darling of the town at the initial abstract expressionist renaissance, an ancient, forgotten movement remembered only by himself and the dustsheets behind gallery walls. A letter announcing the completion of the retrospective, the apex of all of his work to date was written slowly and clumsily, in green ink on the old, stained paper. His remaining two fingers held the pen pincer-like, and the process was arduous, but determination drove it to completion. The old man was almost panting with excitement, a year of tears and struggles, a year with hardly any food or water and with nothing to stare at but the same canvas, a mocking year: almost completed! Unwilling to step outside at this crucial time, the artist forced open the window and flung the envelope out onto the pavement, several feet away, to wait for a neighbour to pick it up, to deliver it for him. They would. He was sure of it.
The artist stepped into the centre of his studio and looked hard at the canvas. He picked up the pots of paint, held them close to his chest in the crook of his wrist, and poured their entire contents over his naked body. When he was completely doused in every pigment he owned (even the tiny pot of silver metallic paint he bought for a futurist project that never materialised), he took a deep breath, bent his old legs and laughing, leapt at the canvas, knocking it off the easel and smearing it with the deep brown, sickly, heady concoction that covered and clung to every grey, wiry hair. He floundered around on the floor, feeling months of dried paint scratching and cutting his neck, his chest, his leathery thighs, plastering his beard to his clavicle. He caressed and attacked it, made love to and murdered it, prussian blues ejaculating over burnt siennas. He lay still, spent, panting in the knowledge that his work was complete. A smile crept to his dark blue lips that were flecked with paler cyan when he heard the sound: ‘Click’. The noise echoed once around the room, inside his head and off glass domes filled with old skin and moss. ‘Click’.
Then another. And another, until his entire body was crackling and popping and spitting with clicks like an untuned television set. The artist’s eyes closed as his body shrunk like an autumn leaf, dried and discoloured beneath the mess of wet paint. His body contorted once, twice, and then broke into tiny pieces, which settled like dust on the canvas, and waited for the curators to collect him.