the phantom painter (surreal flash fic)

Dearest Theo,

It has been far too long! What is it, almost two months since last correspondence? Anyhow I Hope all is well with Ellen and the twins, and that business over at the publishers continues to run in all its usual proficiency. Apologies but preliminaries must be cut unusually short– i have the most astonishing story to tell you of the events of these past few days.. contain it any longer and I fear I shall be sent quite mad! So Recently I’ve been working at night rather than by day.. trying to find some spark in the dark.. spice things up a bit. Thus the studio is black, adumbral, the objects and oil coated canvases lit by only the faintest, chalky flame.. like Rembrandt, I find these objects to be so much more beautiful when draped in shadow. Consequently Ive spent many of these past days in an abyssal, positively ursine sleep.. waking only in the nocturnal hours, and feeling somewhat as if Im still teetering on the brink of a dream. Every thought seems to echo, to send ripples out into my personal cosmos, and those dim unconscious wanderings that are usually so easily silenced, are now raucous, even threatening to take sway.

Although more than a little discomfiting this delirious state has done wonders for my art, a seismic change, and no doubt i shall continue to drift in this stupor so long as my painterly endeavours continue to exude such inveterate vivacity. But there is something else more pressing — before this metamorphosis of art and mind I had been content enough with painting still life, but after turning nocturnal I quite suddenly became dead set on testing my newfound aesthetic gall on figures, and so sought out a muse. initially, I struggled beyond mannered expression to find someone willing to come down to the studio at so exclusive and unconventional an hour, and most the stragglers who found willingness demanded such extraordinary monetary recompense that I had no choice but turn them down. Fortuitously enough however, I was aided by a similarly manic-minded artist friend who pointed me towards a very singular fellow who was agreeable to lending his presence at such hours for a reasonable sum.

My friend had informed me beforehand that the man was mute, which I found rather endearing, but had revealed little else of him. Having now met the man and spent some time with him these past few nights i can tell you he is without doubt the most enigmatic of personages I have ever encountered. Not only is he mute of voice but in expression of any kind, and yet there is an invisible, silent intensity there.. like that which one feels when observing a truly great portrait of a figure who bears no expression.. but who is nevertheless radiant with some unseen aesthetic, some .. atomic energy. He is strikingly handsome, as a Michaelangelo, certainly on a par with cousin Jane –which as is well known, is no mean feat. And that stare.. by God! it is like lingering in those slowed down seconds just before the lethal pounce of a great beast..

Anyway Last night curiosity got the better of me, and after having drawn a few charcoals, like shaping smoke with the tip of a finger, I told the man that he could leave a little earlier than usual – but for the same fee of course. So he took up his coat and left, then I was struck by an irresistible urge to follow, to find out more of this enigma, and so found myself stalking the city streets in the pitch night. the streets of Amsterdam were so staggeringly beautiful I almost wept — the stars pranced and pirouetted on the canal, the cobbled streets shimmered with lunar hue, the cathedral spires pierced the sky like ethereal stalacmites.. it was divine. But i digress.. I pursued the mute some way through the silent city streets, a small few other phantasmal wanderers adrift in my periphery, and he moves towards the gates of the cemetery.. understandably hesitant, I followed into the dark, and thought Id lost him amongst the clustered silhouettes of trees and elaborate headstones.. but then caught sight of his fleeting form and resumed pursuit.

i couldn’t help but think of the gravestones as being like withering teeth, that I was moving deeper and deeper into the gullet of some slumbering titan.. lost in such dreamy thoughts I again almost lost sight of him, when I glimpsed him clambering over the cemetery wall. he climbed over the seven foot stonewall with a grace and ease that seemingly verged on the superhuman.. I followed, with the grace of a wounded seal and fell over the other side a minute or so later. small wonder i landed in time to see him enter one of the buildings a little way up the street lit by a flickering streetlantern. Apartments. I approached the dilapidated looking place, and the main door was unlocked. I entered, and moved towards the dim light upstairs and saw he had left a door slightly ajar.. I should have turned away then, but was somehow unable to suffocate my curiosity.. I knocked lightly, like a whisper of a knock, and when there was no answer I pushed open the door and entered. Well I was astounded. His room was filled, crammed, with glorious works of art… hundreds of sketches, less but still a great many paintings.. some larger and more intricate, others more like studies of shape and form, they were all strewn about haphazardly. the paintings were mostly shadowy figures, though some were of buildings, castle ramparts, manses, and one  striking work of a ship in the midst of a great biblical storm.. then one particular work caught my eye, clearly a more recent addition, still resting on the easel.. as I gazed on it i felt a terrible upsurge of nausea take hold of me … like that moment when one realises theyre still asleep even when theyre most certain they had woken up…. 

The painting was of me. sat in this very room, face half masked in shadow… and the likeness was so exquisite, so perfectly rendered.. why such a work could only be the creation of innumerable hours, and whats more it could only be a painting by an artist looking directly upon a model.. but how?! I had never before set foot here! Had i at some point sleepwalked to this place and sat for this man to paint my like? Madness! Id have had to come down for hours, days, for such an image of greatness to emerge… what a wonder it was! what a wonder I was! I could not but think that looking upon this image brought about the very same feeling as that conjured in the breast of Narcissus at the edge of the pond.. then, Just as I was overcome with this paranoiac blitz of thoughts I heard the door close behind me and there stood the phantom himself. “Ah, my muse arrives” he says.. “please, do resume position. Ive to make some final touches” — he points to a chair in the corner of the room, lit by pale candlelight from one side.. all was configured exactly as in the painting……………. words escaped me……. I couldn’t speak…. I wouldnt. and so I wordlessly sat in the chair as he delicately dipped his brush, and began paint…

Dear Theo, it occurs to me to ask– have you ever heard your own voice whilst in the midst of a dream?? Do try to keep up writing me, i so often lose all sense of time without your words to keep me aground.

Ever your loving brother,

Anthony v B, september 5th 1633

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