Fiction

The Artist At Work: A Short Story by Philip Oyok

Sometime in the early month of May, in this present year of our Lord, the brilliant reclusive artist who resided at #27 Dan Wilson Street completed his long awaited masterpiece.

It had taken him more than two and a half years to finish it. That was two and a half years of blood, sweat, loneliness and absolute solitude. For two and a half years he had locked himself up in his little studio behind his house staring at his wide plain canvas all night and day, neither going out to see his numerous friends nor wishing to be seen or heard from by them or by well wishers or even his family … except for his Cheshire cat, Thom.

He never came out much during this time – except for crossing the street during the evenings towards the roadside sellers to buy cooked food, oranges and kola-nuts. During this time he seldom went out to the market either but stayed indoors swallowing cups of coffee and eating large amounts of junk food, which he prepared for himself. He lost a few pounds because of this but still he wasn’t bothered. His recent girlfriend after much fuss, fits and complaints had walked out on him into the hungry waiting arms of his neighbour next-door, but even that never bothered him. Not one bit.

Though his eccentricity wasn’t a new thing. Even when he wasn’t working he still kept to himself, never getting involved with people’s arguments, quarrels or thoughts, even if they invited him to, though he never refrained from buying them palm wine drinks whenever they asked. Yes, he did smile and laughed at their crude jokes even when they were directed at him but he seldom involved himself with them; and when he spoke, his words were soft and few. Time and time again they tried to indulge themselves unto him without much result. He would at times become unusually quiet and distant. Still they loved and worshiped him for whom he was, but deep inside, they feared him. No one around ever thought about picking a quarrel with him – for what reason would they?

Indeed, everyone in the village knew of his persistent seclusion whenever he sat down to begin a new painting, which was quite often … but this time it had been too much for them to bear.

On the street corners, in the marketplace and roadside eating/drinking spots, all the villagers talked about was him. They whispered of him, argued about him, recalled past tales and chance encounters with him and in the end laughed about him. It wasn’t long before one could barely separate what was truth and what was rumour. And why should they – after all, he was their favourite neighbour, their number one icon; the one person they wished their wayward sons would emulate and become and whom their supple daughters would hopefully one day marry, that’s if the good Lord so wished it.

“I hear that he has gone mad … utterly and completely!”

“My God, will you please keep quiet! You’re always over hearing nonsense.”

“You who’s talking, what do you know besides drowning your mouth in a beer bottle.”

Uproarious laughter.

“What I heard was his painting got the best of him so he locked himself up the other night and slit both his wrist.”

“That what you heard? I heard he opened his throat – ear to ear…”

“Well, that wasn’t what I heard. I hear he’s working on something much bigger and greater than his previous works …”

And on and on the rumours travelled like an ageless nursery rhyme, sweeping all over the village, infecting all whom had an ear or two to listen.

Day and night they stood watching from across the street, balconies and opened windows; drinking beer, cracking dry jokes, swapping stale gossips and reading old newspapers, watching and waiting anxiously to be among the first to see his studio doors creak open. Their doubts had slowly begun to evolve into fear till one of them – though till today nobody could actually recall whom – stood up and approached his back gate, followed by several others.

Silently they crept across his littered backyard like thieves and pressed their nose against his studio’s dirt-stained windows. A heavy sigh of relief came off their breaths as they were once more happy again when they recognised the artist, naked from the waist up, standing with his back towards them, a palette in his left hand while his other swished a paintbrush across a wide canvas in front of him while Thom, his cat, purred by his feet. They stood there for a long time, talking and whispering excitedly amongst themselves till finally the artist came out and rudely told them to leave. Distraught though they were, never the less they left with a much warmer heart and mind.

The next day had brought a new sunshine into the village. Everybody, from the newspaper vendors, to the bar tenders, to the Reverend Father who presided over the Catholic church in the village, to the roadside food sellers, to the ragged winos and drunks sitting by the gutters, to the ever grumbling postman, to the little kids going to school and the young lads playing football by the sand field all day. They were all very nice, polite and bright to each other and it could be said that throughout that week, nobody exchanged so much as an angry word, threat, or malicious glance at each other. The artist was alive and kicking behind his work and that was all that mattered to them.

The next item on everybody’s mind was about his upcoming work: was he through with it or not? And if not, when? What was on it? How beautiful was it? Did he intend on selling it, or sending it to one of those profitable Art houses in the city, or was he keeping it for himself? Or if indeed he was going to sell it, then how much would it cost … and could either of them afford it?
Abstract guesses and rough estimates were made but before that, the final question was asked: had anybody actually seen the painting? Few stood up and bragged that they had but neither one’s description tallied with the other, thus it was hard to know whom to believe. But still at night, they all secretly dreamed of possessing it.

The fishermen down by the harbour all day thought about how much quantity of fish they would have to catch for it. At night the market women dreamed about how many yards of wrappers, clothes, or quantities of food stuffs they could sell for the upcoming weeks to afford it; others began cajoling their husbands with sweet words and sultry promises about purchasing it while the young ladies desperately pleaded with their boyfriends and older lovers about wanting it as a special gift for their upcoming birthday present. Some of the men began cutting down on their late afternoon drinks and other regular frivolities just to save money for it with the silly excuse that they were trying to cut down for their children’s sake. House rents suddenly doubled; debtors began hiding themselves away. Relationships, which were once ripe, all of sudden grew sour and fights and quarrels occurred almost every week.

It was sometime in the early evening on the second week of May that the artist finally dropped his brushes, palette and paints, changed his clothes and walked out his gate. A heavy rain had fallen the night before and the streets still bore much evidence of it. People walking along the street immediately stopped and stared at him with awe. He looked just as young and handsome and vibrant as the last time they saw him – like he had all the while sneaked off to a lush Caribbean island for a little fun and sun. He said a few hellos and waved at them before heading for his destination; some of them who weren’t busy doing anything decided to follow him.

He walked over past the small fishing harbour to Aliwu’s bar/restaurant, which overlooked the sand field area. Everyone, including the proprietor, Aliwu, was just as happy and surprised to see him, and he and his workmen welcomed him as if he were a crowned prince. He immediately set up a table for him at the end of the room and served him himself. The artist ate his meal in silence after which he relaxed himself and ordered for some palm-wine while several of the people whom were in the restaurant and others standing outside by the windows watched him. After paying for his meal, the painter shook hands with Aliwu and walked past the large crowd and headed for the park where he boarded a taxi heading for the city.

The rest of the day was ripe with talk and gossip. First off much of the people were upset and angry at how the artist had treated them. They had yelled his name, slapped his shoulders and smiled at him, but rather than acknowledge them he had simply shrugged off their embrace and stared at them as if they weren’t there while he walked away, leaving them standing there on the road like lonesome beggars.

Even Aliwu had added his own share into the brewing pot. He spoke with a grumpy look on his face (and a glowing touch of hidden pride and self-esteem in his heart since he was for the moment being the main focus of attention in the midst of a growing gossip mob) about how the artist had refused to tip his bill as he often did on numerous occasions but had instead complained to him that his fish hadn’t been well prepared.

This was all a total lie but neither of the village folks knew and they eagerly accepted it. Though some of them did have their doubts about everything but they were too few and weak-mouthed to speak out. By sundown the news had spread to the other end of the village and the old folks all folded their arms, shook their heads and wondered.

By the time he came back from his journey, much of the village was dead quiet already asleep, or just about to fall asleep so nobody saw him return … but I did.

I was walking my little Shepard dog, Whiskey, around the back of our grass-filled compound for him to defecate. I was still feeling sleepy standing with my arm on his collar belt when suddenly he raised his head up and gave a loud bark that roused me completely. I blinked my eyes and turned to look at the direction his barking was aimed at.

It was the artist’s Cheshire cat, Thom, staring lazily at us from the top of our over-filled garbage bin. She hissed at him, jumped down in a flash and sprinted off into the night. Before I knew it, Whiskey jerked off my hand and gave chase, barking out furiously. Slightly dazed, I ran after him, cursing and yelling his name to stop but he didn’t.

By the time I got to the artist’s compound I was already out of breath as I stood next to an orange tree, watching Whiskey growl and bark up at Thom who stood looking down from an opened window in the artist’s kitchen. It hissed down at Whiskey, which further infuriated him to bark more. I was trying to quell his anger and drag him away when I felt a bright light on my face that made me flinch. Behind the light, a gruff voice asked: “Who goes there?”

I was deeply afraid, knowing fully well I had just trespassed into someone’s compound in the middle of the night. In my mind I thought of a hundred punishments I planned on meting out to Whiskey – whom had suddenly become calm and meek – when I got out of this while I thought out a reply.

“Please sir. I am very sorry, my dog was chasing your cat and I was trying to stop him … I didn’t mean to trespass your property.”

The artist came towards me and switched off his torch; his other arm supported two heavy grocery bags. He stared at me for a moment before handing me one of the bags to carry and told me to follow. He brought out a bunch of keys from his pocket and selected a key that fitted into the lock of his back door. He told me to leave my dog outside before entering. I was too overwhelmed to argue with him.

His kitchen was neat and well kept, as was the rest of the house. Thom, ever happy to see him jumped down from the window and curled her tail around his legs and meowed; the artist bent down and stroked her chin. He took the other bag from me, dropped them on a cabinet and told me to wait for him in the sitting room while he went into his bedroom.

The sitting room was big and spacious and smelt of lemon and incense. The walls were entirely decorated with colourful motifs, paintings, and wall statues. Two famous Yoruba ebony heads stood on opposite sides of the television stand. The sofas were covered with the skin of a wild animal’s, perhaps a tiger or a leopard – I couldn’t recall which. Hanging on the left wall was a large beautiful oriental hand-fan. Everything in the room spoke of ancient beauty.

The artist came from behind and handed me a soft drink and motioned me to sit. He sat across from me on a wicket chair. Thom appeared from nowhere and jumped onto his lap. He stroked her back softly, all the time staring at me.

“You’re Bayo, aren’t you?” he asked. I slowly nodded my head while my toes nervously scratched each other. My hands held tight to my soft drink, which sat between my knees.

“I’ve seen you around – you and those noisy little friends of yours who like climbing my orange tree.”

True, my friends and I often climbed his orange tree, sometimes to play Hide-and-Seek games – sometimes we even sneaked around the back of his studio looking for discarded wood and planks, which we often fashioned into makeshift toy guns – but I was surprised to hear him say this.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’m not angry. Though I’m sorry to say it’s not yet the season and much of the fruits are still unripe.”

He became silent while Thom purred on his lap. I kept turning my head around, looking at the various portraits and art works on the wall. I couldn’t help asking him: “Did you do all of this?”

“Some of them, yes, the rest I bought in the city. I never enjoy keeping much of my works around – they make me feel depressed.” He lowered his eyes and rubbed his beard. I was about asking him why when he looked up and asked me to tell what most of the folks around have been talking about him.

“They are all angry about you. They say you’re very arrogant and cruel and that you don’t care much about them.” I was embarrassed the moment I said this and I thought he would get angry and ask me to leave, but he didn’t. He took everything with a calm face and simply shrugged.

“Well,” he said, “I guess that shows you can’t always please everybody.”

Trying to undo the damage I thought I had caused, I said: “No, it’s not really like that. They’re just very worried about you – they thought you were ill or something.”

“Well that sounds very noble of them, especially hearing it from you.”

“You can’t help it, everybody around likes you … and respect you, too.”

“What about you, were you worried just like them?”

I nodded. After I had finished my drink he got up and asked me to come with him. We went through his kitchen where he once again carried the grocery bags, though this time he didn’t ask me to help but instead told me to carry Thom for him. Whiskey still sat outside and on seeing Thom in my arms stood up and started growling but I told him to hush up, which he did.

On getting to his studio, the artist brought out once more his bunch of keys and selected the right one for the door. I was so excited that for a moment I believe I stopped breathing. I was about to enter his studio – the most hidden lair in his home. I was about to see the most kept secret in the entire village!

The door creaked open into darkness and for a second I was once more afraid until the artist turned around and switched on the lights.

The room was the exact opposite of how his home was. It was dirty, scattered and complicated. There were splashes of dried paint of different colours on the walls and on the floor. An ancient worn-out couch sat on a corner of the room next to a messy table filled with already opened paint cans, brushes, little lumps of charcoal and various measuring equipments and stuff I couldn’t identify. At the far corner of the room, leaning by the wall stood several previously finished paintings; some of them were partly covered with dust. Graffiti and arcane symbols were scrawled recklessly on most parts of the walls but they were too complex and bizarre for me to recognise or understand. The entire floor was partly littered with soiled papers, torn-out pages and clippings from various magazines and articles, discarded pieces of canvas wood, and wrappings of various junk food items. Everything about the room was chaos – it wasn’t what I expected. The artist immediately saw it on my face and smiled.

“Not exactly like the Roman cathedral, is it?” he said while he dropped the grocery bags on the floor. Thom jumped out of my arms and strolled over to a bunch of dirty rags lying on a corner. My eyes went everywhere, trying to absorb everything but the problem was there was just too much to look at and my eyes were once more starting to get heavy with sleep.

“Do you really enjoy painting your work here?” I asked him.

“You obviously mean to ask whether the rumours you’ve been hearing about me losing my sanity and going mad is true, right?”

Once again I was embarrassed and simply nodded my head. He understood what I meant.

“Whenever I want to create something, I first of all search for an idea … a muse. That is what all these are for.” He swept his hands across the room, but I was still confused.

“What is a muse?”

“It’s a Greek word. It means something or rather anything that inspires you to do whatever artistic work you want to do.”

“But you are an artist – that shouldn’t be so difficult for you.”

“I never said it was. It’s not often that I just pick up a brush and starting painting away – no, I never have. You have to be inspired … moved for it … open your third eye … let the beauty come to you … then when it comes, you try as much as you can to seize it and capture it on canvas.”

“Wow, that’s nice,” I said, thoroughly impressed. “How long does it take for you to get inspired?”

He shrugged. “A day, a week, a month or two … sometimes even a year – it depends. You just have to be patient enough to wait for it.”

“That sounds like hard work.”

“Yes, it is,” he said. “More than you could ever imagine.”

I finally did understand. It’s no wonder he spent so much time with himself in here.

“Now,” he looked sharply at me, “would you like to see my recent work?”

I gasped. “Could I?”

He smiled while he touched my shoulders and turned me around. The canvas sat on a wooden tripod stand in the middle of the room with a light brown tarpaulin cloth covering it; I barely noticed it when I came in. A warm halo of light from nowhere shimmered around it. I was too nervous to approach it till he took my hand and led me towards it. My eyes never left it, even when he walked over and pulled off the tarpaulin cloth like a magician performing a trick.

My heart stopped … my brow furrowed.

There was no painting – the canvas was entirely plain and bare, like it had never been touched. I went closer to it and slowly brought out my hand to touch it. All I felt was paper. My lips fell open with confusion. I turned to look at the artist whom was sitting on the couch looking past me with sad-filled eyes.

“A lot has happened since I finished and sold my last pieces of work. For some reason I can’t recall, I had stopped seeing the worth of it all and begun questioning everything, beginning with why: why do I paint, why must I paint, and also for what reason should I. Is it for money, is it for fame … or is it for glory. A long time I searched for answers, and in the end do you want to know what I found?”

I shook my head. “Please tell me, what did you find?”

He gave me a sad smile. “Existence. That was what I found, though it wasn’t what I was looking for.” He wiped falling tears from his eyes. “In the end it’s all that matters. You wake up every morning, have a little breakfast, walk out the door to do whatever it is you’ve been doing much of your life, never wondering or caring if you’re going to see the next morning or eat your next birthday cake. After a while, the beauty starts to fade from your eyes and you begin to lose sight of everything … sight of your muse. And after its gone, all that’s left of you is an empty soul, or in my case, an empty canvas. All for a little piece of silly existence.”

“I am sorry.” I spoke softly, “does it hurt you so much?”

His eyes met mine. “Yes, it does – very much. I’ve just painted my last work … my last masterpiece. And no one will ever see it, or have it.”

I was confused. “But there’s nothing on it!”

“That’s because you haven’t opened your Third eye – look again.”

I turned to stare at the canvas again … that was when I saw the actual painting, faintly at first then suddenly it began to assume shape. The vivid colours dazzled my eyes and I smiled. “It is very beautiful.”

“You do see it. Is it really lovely?”

“Yes!” I turned back at him; my face was all smiles. “Its far prettier than your previous ones. You must keep it.”

“You’re right,” he stood up and walked over to the grocery bags on the table. “That’s exactly what I intend to.”

He tore open the grocery bags and brought out two white plastic cans. He unscrewed the caps and I caught the foul smell of gasoline. He held them wide across on his hands and began splashing them all over the table, the walls, and all over the floor. I stood there like a statue watching him go round the room, too scared to do anything. Thom meowed and scampered around haphazardly trying to get out of his way; I quickly ran over to her rescue and picked her up. His face was devoid of emotion while he did his work. He saved some remaining drops for last, which he splashed all over the canvas. The entire room now reeked of gasoline.

When the cans finally became empty he flung them across the room, dipped his hand into his jean pocket and brought out a pack of matches.

“Sir,” my voice shook with fright. “Please sir, what are you doing?”

He turned to look at me. “Tell me my young friend, what’s the use leaving it to exist when no one, not even I, deserves to own it.”

I stared back at him, too dumb to reply.

“Exactly,” he said and fished out two sticks of matches and scratched them alight.

“But how would you live without it?” I pleaded with him, “I mean what’s the use painting something and not having anyone to see it?”

He looked at me with his sad smile, his hand with the burning matches held high above his head.

“For immortality,” he said and dropped the matches on the floor. There was a whoosh-like sound and suddenly bright yellow flame erupted all around the floor and began to spread.

I yelled and jumped and took several steps back till my back touched the door as fire slithered with speed all over the floor, unto the table, the couch, and upon the walls as well. I stood there with fear in my heart, my body shaking all over, watching unbelievably as the flames climb up the tripod and began eating up the canvas. The room was getting very hot and filled with smoke – Thom frantically cried out and struggled all over my arm – when I grabbed the door handle and pushed it open.

Smoke and little bits of flame jumped out behind me as I fell on the ground gasping for air and coughing at the same. Whiskey jumped around me excitedly and barked endlessly. All around me I could hear approaching footsteps along with screaming voices and suddenly I felt large strong hands grab my shoulder and drag me away.

It wasn’t long before the entire village woke up and saw the burning spectacle from their window. At once they knew whose house it was and they quickly wore on back their day clothes and rushed over. Throughout the rest of the night they threw endless buckets of water at it to no avail. Finally during the early hours of dawn they woefully sat down across the street by the gutter and watched it burn down. Nobody said anything – at that moment they were too shaken and dumbfounded to know what to say to each other.

By noon, wisps of smoke still curled off the ravaged remains of the house. It was a matter of luck and wonder that the fire never touched the main house. They quickly set up a cleaning team to sift through the remains but it wasn’t until late in the evening that they made an important discovery: the artist’s body was nowhere amongst the rubble. They repeated their quest the following day and the day after but still nothing turned up.

A tremor of fear quickly ran over the village and it wasn’t long before the rumours began flying again: could it be he was still alive? … Was he hiding somewhere and simply playing a practical joke on them? … Perhaps someone or something – maybe a witch! – snatched his body while it was still burning …

I spent a few weeks in the local hospital recuperating from some minor burns and bruises with Thom lying most of the time on my chest. It wasn’t until I was well enough to return home that the most important question started floating around: what had happened to the painting he had earlier been working on?

They all visited me at home one morning, badgering me with never-ending questions: how did we meet … what had happened … how did it all happen, and why. I answered the few ones I could though I carefully altered much, knowing fully well they would never have understood. They never looked at him the way they looked at themselves. To them he was just an artist, an entity whose life they so much wished to possess. Now that he was gone, all that’s left of their lives is an empty vessel: a midnight without daylight. A husk without existence.

“How about the painting, son,” my father asked me while the entire village loomed over me around my bed. “Tell us, did you see it?”

I nodded my head. “Yes father, I saw it.”

Impatiently: “Well then tell us, how was it … what was on it?” They all loomed closer, breathing into my face to catch what I was about to say.

“I can’t say I knew what it was … but in the end, it was beautiful.”

 

 

Several months have gone by since I spoke those words.

A few weeks after the incident, the artist’s family came by to claim what was left. They kept much of his stuff except for several of his survived paintings, which they hurriedly sold. His mother had fainted in the sitting room and had quickly been rushed to the nearby clinic. A month later they had given him a decent burial though with an empty coffin, which the Reverend Father presided over; almost everyone in the village cried that day.

Few weeks later, on a Saturday afternoon, I had returned home from a friends’ house to receive a letter from the postman. It had no return address on it, except for a little note that said

Please look after Them for me.

Thanks.

 

My heart fluttered for a brief moment after I read it. I quickly looked around to see if anyone was about before rolling it into a ball and swallowed it.

Though folks here still talk about the artist, but most especially about the painting they never saw. They still pry me with questions about it but I always shake them off easily.

But almost every night whenever I go to sleep, I could still make out the plain canvas sitting on the tripod stand, waiting for my hand to touch it. I could even make out the beautiful artwork with the dazzling colours and shadows floating off it. Indeed, it is what dreams are made up of: those shimmering lights of immortality.

 

The End

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