Winter was ending, and my Master’s canvases were blossoming again with flowers in Mary Magdalene’s hair and bruises on the ribs of Christ. In those days the dancing plague still ravaged our soggy lowlands. Every morning we corralled the afflicted into the town square, where they danced themselves into trances and stupors, even unto death.
“Let there be music,” the bishop said.
The minstrels arrived in autumn, wetting their flutes, fingering lutes, and cranking their hurdy-gurdies. On the first day of song, the bishop presided over the town square, smiling. With music, the dancers looked almost natural. On the second day, the bishop’s seat was carried inside the rectory, and he was only rarely seen in public thereafter. Scarcely a decade had passed since the Purge claimed most of our town’s women and children—possessed, as we were, by dark forces. And now this, another plague. No one knew why we were so regularly visited by such great suffering, not until my Master had his Revelation.
“We are in Hell already,” he told Ingmar, the journeyman painter. “No theologian can refute it.”
Stunned, Ingmar made no reply. I remember the day, the hour. I was laboring with mortar and pestle, crushing the boiled beetle husks into red pigment.
“More crimson, fool!” the Master shouted, turning to me. “We’re going to need more crimson!”
I quickened my feverish pounding, trembling with feeling for the great man, my Master. I powdered the last of the crimson that very day. His Revelation whipped us all into a frenzy, and as his new body of work spread throughout the lowlands, he urged us all to wallow, as all good citizens of Hell must. This wallowing took many forms, but the favorite form of the Master was inventing new tortures for Christ. And for these tortures I conducted field research.
I found my first success in the town square, of course, surveying the frothing knot of human bodies and the many families weeping over them. By midwinter their suffering hung in Antwerp (Trampled Savior I) and Köln (Trampled Savior II). But I should have foreseen that the Master, being a man of great vision, would grow quickly bored of all the petty trampling and heartbreak. He instructed me to fetch him only when something new and exciting occurred, something which, ideally, would make sparing use of red, for our supply of crimson was dwindling. It became difficult to restrain myself beneath the square’s bell tower, for many compelling moments passed there.
My patience was rewarded near the end of winter when one of the boys skating around the moat fell through the ice. News came to the tavern for Manfredillo to fetch his ice ladder, and I ran to rouse Ingmar. We arrived as they were fishing the body from the water, and Ingmar sketched with his trembling hand. From this study my Master painted Christ drowning under the frozen surface, Manfredillo’s hairy arm prodding the Savior with a pole from the lower right third. Best of all, the scene required very little red pigment!
By spring, the Master’s name was known from Amsterdam to Zurich. Upon beholding Drowned Savior, our bishop said, “A flail may be a tool of mortification for the body, but Anselmo von Boschtonburg’s work is a mortification for the mind.”
But even as his name spread beyond the lowlands, all the way to Italy where great artists were revered, the Master despaired. Despite his cunning symbology, none who beheld his Early Revelatory Period work saw that these were hopeless wallowings befitting we wretched creatures of Hell. In the Master’s paintings they found some other strange pleasure, as if by viewing these windows back to life on Earth they might somehow better themselves.
It was the first day of the year that we could smell the tang of the thawing marsh, and the Master’s mood was bogwater-dark. We had long since exhausted our supply of crimson, and were desperate for a visit from my friend Gaunelius, who came every other springtime to sell his wares.
The previous night I had found a stray cat mewling at our door. I took it by the scruff of the neck, drowned it in our barrel of azurite blue, and set it in the yard to dry, but in the morning it was gone. As we broke our fast, the Master accused Ingmar of wasting the blue paint on his own trivial endeavors and said he therefore would not recommend him to the Guild this year. Ingmar threw his bowl of gruel on the floor and glared murderously at me, but the cowardly man said not a word.
The Master could not be stopped. He labored over his drafting table, inventing new trials for the Savior. What if He had to look on as His earthly father was humiliated, beaten, and disemboweled? Or what if He had to eat His own child out of starvation? What if He had been forced to wear terrible shoes, which through ingenious mechanical action plunged iron spikes into His calves with every step? Or what if He spent years of His life smiling and laughing, when in His heart of hearts, He felt not joy but intense pain and struggle? Or what if He were a woman, subject to whatever things women are subjected to? With this last item, the Master sent me out into the world in search of womanly suffering.
Many of the women were dancing, or attending to dancers, and in no condition to exhibit suffering worthy of representation. But I thought immediately of Regina, a loose woman of our town who had served us before as the Whore of Babylon.
“Absolutely not, Lubbert,” she said, “the man you serve is twisted and depraved.”
She was pregnant again, and very suitable for modeling the suffering of childbirth, which the Master had always considered one of the Creator’s finest inventions.
“If I return empty-handed, I’ll be flogged again,” I said.
I peeled off my shirt and showed her my back, bruises still blooming from my recent insolence. I took her by the hand and led her to the Master’s tall stone workshop on the town square.
She had always taken a liking to me—we had survived the Purge together—and I knew many of her secrets. When she was young, for instance, she was abandoned at the nuptial altar. Only hours beforehand, her beloved had realized that he was called, not to become a husband, but to become a hermit in the deserts of Egypt. Six months later she miscarried. “I was relieved,” she had said. But you could almost see a tear in her eye, a tear worth recommending to the Master.
The flight of her fiancé aroused suspicion, and during the Purge it was whispered that she had eaten her half-formed child and aligned herself with the dark forces. But in the trial by fire she blistered nicely. In the trial by water she sank like a stone. And in the trial by weight her mass was in perfect accordance with the natural proportion of her body. The men in red returned her clothes to her, panting from their diligence and wide-eyed—some would later say bewitched—remarking how holy it was to look upon her fair figure. On the day of her acquittal, the Inquisition moved on to the next town. In their wake, it was Regina who kept me fed and found a place for me in the Master’s workshop.
But now that she reclined on the Master’s dais—not in her usual role as Mystery, Babylon the Great, the Mother of Prostitutes and Abominations of the Earth, but as She-Christ in birth pangs—I was puzzled over how someone who knew suffering so well should look so absurd in its representation. The scene was perfect, Regina holding a burning candle representing lost purity, but her pain was clearly contrived, almost to the point of parody.
“It would be better to work from real, live suffering,” the Master said, correcting her eyebrows with his cane, “far better if she were in labor, or indeed in the throes of miscarriage. The models cannot grasp it. Something is lost in their artifice.”
“Tell us, did your miscarried child bear any resemblance to your beloved, or did it more closely resemble a creature of the sea?” I asked, thinking I might coax a true tear from her eye. But all her tears—like all of mine—had long since frozen up in their source, wherever tears came from. She was about to speak, but the Master pulled her off the dais and chased me around the yard until Ingmar brought out old studies of the plague-ridden dancers, which appeased the great man until we gathered again for supper. I sat at the Master’s feet, waiting for wisdom to fall from his lips like golden flower petals.
“Let us not forget we are in Hell. This food,” he said, raising his biscuit, “might please the palate, and laughter might still be heard, but these fleeting moments of happiness only exist to give contrast to our present lot, to remind us of how good things were back on Earth.”
Regina chewed her biscuit in awe, staring through the studio wall, past it all, and then she asked Ingmar to pass the clotted cream. We listened to the sounds of her eating, waiting for another aphorism from the Master.
“Looking back to remember the great follies of our forefathers is one of the few pleasures remaining to us,” he said. “We were so stupid back then.”
“Beautiful words, my dear Master,” I said, and he struck me mightily on the neck with his cane.
“Begone with you!”
I scampered off to my quarters, cowering in the afterglory of the man. That was the moment I first resolved to write a treatise on his life and works, even though I was expressly forbidden from handling quill, ink, brush, chisel, or anything that might make decipherable marks upon the world. But before me stood a logistical quagmire: to learn how to write I would need to become a man of God, which, as a creature of Hell, I could not do out of principle.
“This one requires constant violence,” the Master told Ingmar when I returned, defeated, to the studio. “If ever again you see him smile, whip him with the flail.”
But Ingmar didn’t have the nerve. He would always raise the flail, but never did he strike. Mostly he subjected me to his sad Ingmarian questions, like if I ever dreamed of starting my own workshop, or of becoming the Master. One must feel great pity for the man.
I couldn’t help but smile, thinking of how weak and pitiable Ingmar was. And seeing me smiling so brazenly, the Master again wrinkled into one of his dark rages. He glared at Ingmar and pointed wordlessly to the flail on its hook by the door. But as Ingmar walked me out to the yard, he dropped the flail down the well, like an idiot. Until a new flail was purchased, the Master commanded that I instead eat the bristles of an old brush, but the sense of justice was diluted somewhat, for I had already acquired a taste for hair. I had thinned the hair upon my own head considerably, plucking strands from the roots, sliding them through my teeth until they balled up like cobwebs, which can then be easily swallowed. Hog bristles only required some extra chewing, and rather than punishment I counted it as a special pleasure. The others averted their eyes. They did not shiver with reverence for the great man, as I did. Instead, they would scowl and complain and curse his name. My Master said I have much to learn from them. “They have spines!” he would say, “and you do not!”
By the time I finished the brush, Regina had fled the workshop. Ingmar called me over, put his trembling hand on my shoulder, and I prepared for another one of his speeches.
“Are you alright, lad?”
“I’m troubled, Ingmar. What do you think the Master was like, back on Earth? Was he truly born of a woman, and not self-begotten?”
He shook his head and released me. In his hubris, he cared nothing for the Master’s origin story.
“Find me a drink, and see if there’s any news from Manfredillo,” he said.
The night had been bitter cold, and Manfredillo had brought the dancers inside his tavern. The people were still dancing, and the night’s dead were piled up near the entrance.
“Ingmar requires his ale,” I announced, stepping carefully through the dancing throng.
“Too many today,” Manfredillo said, “I lost my brother-in-law.”
“That one?” I said, pointing to a body. “Or that one? Underneath?”
“They—ah—they took him out already,” Manfredillo huffed. You could always tell when he was about to weep. His nose went red, and his voice became thick and heavy, as if he’d just quaffed a mug of paint. But before I could feel much embarrassment for the man, the door opened with an icy gust. In walked my friend Gaunelius, trailed by his trusty manservant Gerber.
“Gaunelius!” I cried, “Gerber! At last!”
I gesticulated wildly, locking eyes with Gaunelius for several seconds, but he pretended not to see me, took a flagon of ale, and seated himself at the far end of the tavern. He was a practical joker, that Gaunelius.
“It is I, Lubbert!” I said, approaching them.
“We’ve been expecting you for some time. With our supply of crimson exhausted, my Master grows ever restless!”
“Tell me, lad,” he said, waving his flagon at the dancers, “has anyone considered silencing the goddamn minstrels as a cure for this affliction?”
“Oh, they’ve tried everything, Gaunelius. Last season they tried cooling poultices of fish and mandrake, then holy water strained through the bones of St. Anthony, all to naught,” I said, laughing.
Gaunelius took a deep swig from his mug. I smiled at him, waiting.
“Are you alright, lad?”
“Are you an idiot, I mean to say. Or sick?”
“Ah. Long ago my Master promised that he would remove the stone of folly lodged within my skull, and that afterward everyone would finally know peace and quiet. Eagerly I await the day!”
Gaunelius stared. You could never tell when he was going to crack a wide grin or break into roaring laughter. That was the amusing thing about Gaunelius.
We bore flagons of ale back to the workshop, and the reunion with the Master was joyous. They were back to their familiar selves, with Gaunelius’ laughter and Gerber’s cunning card tricks, and in the course of the merriment, Ingmar’s quivering hand was fortified. I stood with my ear to the locked door.
“The people,” I heard the Master say, “the idiots willingly misinterpret my work, as if there were still hope for them.”
“Ah, Anselmo. People misread great works of art all the time,” Gaunelius said, “especially the greatest works.”
“The mayor of Brandenburg asked for a commission of his rival, one of the town bakers, baking the face of Christ into a pie. As if the aim of my work were to insult mere mortals such as we!”
“You feel misunderstood.”
“Yes, misunderstood entirely. Must I . . . must I . . .”
The conversation fell into the silent despair that so often accompanies great genius.
“My friend,” Gaunelius said, “I’ve brought goods that will surely cheer you. Gerber?”
Gerber grunted, and I heard the wooden squeal of a barrel being wrenched open.
“First, your apprentice tells me you’ve exhausted your red pigment. Behold! A new, more vibrant red from the New World.”
I heard the sound of greedy hands dredging up handfuls of desiccated insects, followed by a long inhale.
“It smells of blood,” the Master said. “Good. I’ll have it all.”
“The New World offers many such boons to us. Gerber, help me with the crate.”
After sounds of splintered wood and screeching nails, I heard gasps.
“A skull?” the Master asked, “The skull of some great leviathan?”
“Aye. Exposed in a riverbank after a terrible storm,” Gaunelius said. “Perhaps an ancient race of lizards and serpents lived before us, before the Flood, even. Gerber and I thought you, in your wisdom, might make sense of it.”
The Master and I were undoubtedly of the same mind, our imaginative faculties sent racing through fields of possibility. What would it mean that those who came before were lizards? Were we all once lizard-people, back on Earth, and only now, in Hell, did we take the form of these soft fleshy bodies? But while I was still struggling to square the ancient skull with the Master’s cosmology, the Master had his Second Revelation.
“This Hell we currently occupy was built upon the Hell of the Creator’s previous wayward people, and that previous Hell was built upon the Hells before it. This ground we stand upon is but a pile of bones, an infinity of failed creation!”
Silence swept over us. I hoped the Master would turn inward to his dark seat of genius, mustering the wrath that would drive his next body of work. But a sharp peal of laughter tore the silence asunder. It was the Master, shrieking like the hyena from the traveling bestiary. Gaunelius followed, roaring like an elephant, and then came Gerber, tittering like a songbird. Before I knew it, I was laughing too. I was wheezing like a cat. A new kind of plague had befallen us, and in its throes I had my very first Revelation: the Master and the Creator, with their infinities of failed creation, are one and the same.
The laughter inside ended as suddenly as it had begun, but I was still wheezing at the door, laughing for joy at the truth I had found hidden at the foundations of the world.
“Lubbert!” the Master screamed. “Curse you, you runty bastard!”
The door burst open, and he caught me crouching under a bush in the yard. He made me drink a flagon of lead-tin yellow, which quickly laid waste to my digestive powers. That evening Gerber found me shivering in the woodshed, brooding over my Revelation among the planks of aging oak. I could not understand his words, and though he said them gently, I had important work to do, and my patience was at its end.
“Begone,” I said, throwing fistfuls of sawdust at him. “Away with you.”
But he came inside carrying a small bundle, presenting it in giftlike fashion. It was the blue cat, swaddled like a newborn. I took it by the scruff of its neck and began swinging it around, launching it yowling up to the rafters. What were animals in Hell for, if not to absorb our excess cruelty in idle hours?
I handed Gerber the cat, intending that he try giving it a few tosses, but instead he bolted from the shed. Before I could catch him, he set it loose out in the marshes.
The next day, the Master drew up plans for portraying the Savior being devoured by Lizard Adam, which would surely shock the people into Revelation. At long last, it would be his magnum opus. Plans were set in motion for a grand exhibition, a spectacle unlike anything the lowlands had ever seen.
I must admit that in my heart of hearts I knew the magnum opus was doomed to fail, just like the infinity of failed creation before it, and I found my thoughts drifting to the unfinished Miscarriage of Christ leaning paint-first upon the studio wall, and to Regina, who sat idly on her dais. Never before had we abandoned a half-finished project in so sorry a state.
But my unbelief melted away when the Master commanded me to pose in the lizard’s maw. Me! Manfredillo had refused, he said, even when offered three month’s wages, and the rest of the models suitable for representing Christ’s body were dancing. What would this mean, that the Master would send me to suffer and die within his newest creation? I was stripped naked, and the Master told me to hold my head just so. He put his hands on my face, moved my cheeks and lips. His fingers were warm with the frenzy of genius. When I announced that the teeth of the lizard were causing me considerable discomfort, he struck me with his cane, and I uttered a yelp very unlike any sound the Savior would ever make! We all laughed, all of us but Ingmar and Regina. Those two were always slow to the joke. Afterward, with the underpainting finished, and the day’s work concluded, Regina took me aside to bandage my wounds.
“Oh Lubbert,” she said. “Can’t you stand up to him?”
She was always telling me to stand this way or that.
“It’s not right,” she continued, “not funny either. You don’t have to suffer like this.”
“I’m not suffering,” I said, “that’s my problem.”
I batted her hands away and ran to my quarters in the woodshed, where I drifted into reverie. I saw Gerber pointing at smoke hanging low over the road to Trier. Crimson trains of men poured into the town from every road, wheeling in their devices of truth and engines of righteousness in a grand parade. They occupied the basilica, and there they interrogated us all about the lizards of the New World, and before the third mewling of the blue cat, Gaunelius betrayed the Master’s trust. They asked me, the authority on the Master’s doings, for my treatise on the Master’s life and works, and therein found all the evidence they required to condemn the Master to death. At the pyre in the town square, they named me torch-bearer, thinking it poetic justice. But they wouldn’t know what it was—no one knew the Master like I did. I would pour the mineral spirits into his mouth to speed the flames, and he would gulp it greedily, as if to say, don’t you spare me, boy, and I’d pour faster, as if to say, don’t you know, my dearest Master, I wouldn’t spare you for the world.
On the morning of the exhibition I woke to a stomping in the workshop. Gerber had fallen ill with dancing plague, and Gaunelius and Ingmar were holding his hands in theirs, silent as rabbits.
The Master was strutting this way and that. I had not seen him like this before, fretting over the position of his hat, the freshness of the honorary wreath, the shine of its pearls, and the fit of his resplendent cowl embroidered with lilies among thorns. The bishop would deliver the introduction, and all morning the Master grumbled about how deeply flawed the words would be, how this whole exhibition was a farce.
“Allow me. I will introduce you,” I said, kneeling before him.
The Master looked as if he were going to command Ingmar to flog me with the new, improved flail, but instead something broke in the great man, and he knelt and embraced me.
“Can you ever forgive me for the ruined creature I’ve made of you?” he said.
This man was not my Master, but an impostor, something weak and mortal. I pushed him and he fell away like paper.
“Perhaps not, lad,” he said, righting himself, “but things will change after this. I’ll teach you our trade, I swear it. I’ll make a painter of you.”
I spat in his face, and wearily he led me by my neck to the woodshed and barred the door. He stood there for a long while, breathing, as if to say, the Revelation is a vanity, a chasing after wind, and I’m sick unto death of it all.
He left me there, despairing. The Master must be properly introduced, properly represented, and who knew him better than I? I knew him better than he knew himself. Ingmar found me wailing at the door, and when released me, I dashed past him, out into the alley.
The basilica was already packed with bodies and sweltering hot. On whitewashed walls the paintings hung, and Christ Eaten by Lizard Adam loomed above them all, concealed behind a white curtain. Slowly the common folk filtered through the exhibition, looking lost, unsure of how to hold themselves in the presence of such nobility of spirit. Puffy-eyed, they all drank their mead silently, clutching their mugs with both hands.
Manfredillo led a grand procession of plague-ridden dancers through the hall, strung together by ropes and flanked by minstrels. If the dancers were aware of the beauty around them, they were but hazily so; their eyes swept dimly over the walls, the floors, the ceilings, the corners of rooms without making contact. They saw through it all, through the walls and out into the firmament. They knew the Master’s message already, such was its power. Even the Protestant iconoclasts from across the river, who otherwise made a sport of destroying representational work, overlooked the Master’s depictions of the godhead on account of the work’s considerable merit.
“In His suffering,” the bishop said to his flock of sycophants, “we see ourselves. We can all find a little comfort; at least the Lord knew what it was like to be us, mere mortals.”
Before such nonsense festered, I hastened to establish my own authority on the Master’s life and works, and began loudly explaining the story and symbology of every piece to anyone who would listen, my hands held measuredly behind my back. These were windows back to Earth, to the cruelty we all inflicted and received back then.
The family of the ice skater who died that winter stood below Drowned Savior, crying softly. To them I recounted my role in alerting the Master to the event, and pointed out Manfredillo’s hairy arm. They looked up, through their tears and sorrow, and flushed with awe at the purposeless death of their boy.
Regina was nowhere to be seen, but in her absence I found myself leading my group of followers toward Untitled #1 (Miscarriage of Christ). It was blasphemy for me to think so, but in this painting the Master did not go far enough. Regina’s unfinished likeness suggested laughter more than pain. Realer than any sort of laugh you’d find here in our miserable town. The kind of laughter you might have heard back on Earth.
“Anselmo sees Hell so clearly around us,” a dusty hermit spoke to me from behind, startling me from my heresy.
“You know of my Master’s Revelation?”
“He knows we must hate the world and all that is in it. We must hate all peace that comes from the flesh.”
Did this hermit know more of the Master’s cosmology than I?
“We must renounce this life so that we may be alive to God,” he said.
“Nay,” I said, relieved, smiling at his error and pointing to the many symbols in the half-finished work—the guttering candle, a dead baby bird fallen from its nest, the crude outline of a father-figure, walking away—“we are dead to the Creator already.”
The hermit considered my words, his eyes searching the painting. When his gaze met Regina’s laughing likeness, he recoiled, falling backward over his robes. A tear streaked down his cheek as he staggered back to his feet, and I knew my words had reached him.
“Tell me, young man, is this woman still here, in this town?”
But I had no time to waste with this recluse on minor details of the Master’s work. The acolytes were unrolling the red carpet of honor for the Master’s grand entrance. The time had finally come for the unveiling of Christ Eaten by Lizard Adam. I was glad to see that the bishop had nary a smart thing to say, breathless as he was from viewing the work around him.
“Tell me, wise sir,” I said, thinking to break the man and whatever blubber-like layer of certainty remained to him, “by what signs may the damned know themselves to be in Hell? Are plagues and scourges of various kinds set upon them with some regularity?”
But as he turned to me, the eyes I looked into were not the same as they had been just moments before. These were the eyes of a frightened man who had no words, who had lost the faculty of speech, a bovine man trying, but failing, to shout fire, fire, fire. Yes, Revelation was coming for the bishop, for all of us.
The acolytes were unfastening the veil over the Great Work. I shoved my way through the herd of common folk, reached the altar as the last of the white fabric mounded up upon it. I looked up, and there I was, screaming. Me, sent by the Master into his work. His only begotten son, in whom he is well pleased.
I smelled smoke and brimstone, and whirled around to find apocalypse unfolding before my eyes, flames leaping up tapestries, acolytes hastily rolling up the carpet of honor as the inferno spread. One of the dancers knocked Laughing Savior II off the wall, and by some animal drive the others were drawn to it, followed by the Protestants, who showed everyone how the destruction of images was truly done. We hadn’t been united like this since the Purge. The licking of fire, the dancing of the plague-ridden, and the beat of drums were all synchronized into a terrible music, a merciless rhythm of drums and gongs, the sounds of stampede punctuated only by occasional shrieks and gagging. The family took down Drowned Savior and cut their boy out of it with a fish knife, and Manfredillo excised his arm from the lower right third.
The peasantry tore down Christ Eaten by Lizard Adam, acolytes scattering like doves. They trampled upon it with their muddy galoshes, tore it into pieces, and fed it to everyone outside in the town square. On my tongue a muddy woman set a scrap of hazy red-brown background, paint still wet and pliable, and it went down easily.
We danced until the last lute string broke. And when all fell quiet, no one was dancing—not even the plague-stricken. The dancing plague had ended, and the cured rejoined what family remained to them. Gaunelius cradled the sleeping Gerber, weeping. The bishop and several Protestant ministers embraced one another, their eyes aflame with Revelation. Yes, we were in Hell together, where we all belonged.
A quarter of the town burned that day, and despite the lifting of one plague, new ones fell upon us, inspiring much weeping and gnashing of teeth. It all would have made excellent source material, but already it was clear that such days were behind us.
In all the pandemonium, no one saw my Father. Nor was he seen again afterward, though when they next unrolled the carpet of honor, the acolytes reported a pattern of footprints striding toward the stage, hesitating, and then retreating from whence they came. The people now could suffer in peace, as all good citizens of Hell must, unmolested by art and genius. Our misery was different—sweeter, even—now that we all finally knew why we deserved it.
I was sifting blindly through the ashes when Ingmar and Regina found me. The three of us sat there, dedicating ourselves wholeheartedly to wallowing in the smoldering ruins, tears streaking pink lines down our sooty faces.
“He left us,” I said as they carried me, “he traveled back to Earth.”
At dusk, some of the boys went out looking for him, chasing the dancing lights in the marsh, and none returned till morning.