“S. D. Watkins, Painter of Portraits”—A Short Story by Steve Rasnic Tem, 2010

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S.D. Watkins, Painter of Portraits

Steve Rasnic Tem, 2010

*************

THE OLD PRIEST WAS DRUNK, but Watkins did not think he would pass out soon. The priest was pouring himself his sixth, or seventh glass of wine. The portrait painter had been so engrossed in his sketches of too many lines, too many choices, that he had lost count. But he had carefully watered the wine down beforehand so that the priest would get drunk, yet still remain conscious through this, the first portrait sitting.

Watkins himself did not drink at all, but after hours of intense drawing he would not have called himself sober. He watched as his wounded hand made lines that leapt away from the body, rose from the shoulders as if the old priest’s arthritic joints and twisted bones were reforming themselves into something that might launch the failing body toward Heaven. Here and there his blood spotted the page.

“So many lines, why do you make so many lines? Did they teach you that in art school?” The priest’s boozy breath against the side of his face made him feel ill.

Watkins twisted in his chair. “I told you this is all preparation. I begin the painting tomorrow. This is nothing for you to see. You should be in your chair—this is a portrait sitting, remember? You should be sitting, posing.”

The priest staggered back to his chair in front of the fire, his voluminous black cassock casting broad shadows over Watkin’s front room, alternating with the warm, sudden flushes of firelight. It brought an otherworldly illumination to the paintings covering every inch of the walls: all of them of angels in various poses, all of them gorgeous, and none of them by Watkins himself. They had all been painted by his father Martin, who had been a genius.

The priest had his hand affectionately around the wine bottle, gazing at this patchwork hallucination of angelic obsession. “When I came here looking for a painter, I thought it would be your father.”

“The fact that no one at St. Anthony’s knew my father has been dead more than ten years speaks volumes.”

The priest nodded sadly, tipping dangerously forward. “He painted most of the murals in the church, and the fine details in the transepts. Admirers come from thousands of miles.”

“And for which he was seriously underpaid.” Watkins raised his hand against the possible response. “I did not say the church cheated him. St. Anthony’s gave him what he asked for. But it was far too little pay for an artist of his genius, as his children and widow would be happy to tell you. I am not my father. Myself, I can only paint what I can see. I have come to be satisfied with that. I’m certainly good enough to paint a portrait for the church hall, which I will do for a modest fee, but one appropriate to my level of talent.”

“Is this why you do not attend Mass, my son?”

Watkins bridled at the term, but said nothing immediately. Instead he focused on the lines framing the priest’s nose, his ill-proportioned ears, the deceptively simple crack of a mouth. He made ten lines where only one was required. His father used to admonish him, It betrays a lack of faith, Son. Make the single line with confidence, then go on to the next. In time they will be the right lines, if you persist.

“I enjoy the searching for a final image,” he said now, to the priest. “That is why I make so many lines.”

“And yet you say you draw only what you can see.”

“I do. But in the face there is every person you used to be, and every person you will become. The lines, the planes, are all there. I draw what I see, but sometimes I think I see too much.”

“And this was your father’s method as well?”

Watkins kept his face calm, composed, even as the evolving shape on his sketch pad erupted, lines spinning off cheekbones, lines twirling off that nasty, no-lipped mouth that spat out the priest’s portion of their conversation, hair lines and skin lines and ley lines transversing the page, transmuting, leaving mysterious pockets where eyes might take seed and grow. “My father needed no framework—he was like God’s camera. His lines, his proportions, all perfection. Michelangelo, Da Vinci, they might have learned a thing or two from my father. He painted angels with flesh the texture of air, captured their flight on the end of his brush and suffused his colors with their yearning spirits.

“Pardon me, Father, but if there is a God you will find him walking through my father’s work.” He gestured to the painting high on the wall behind him. “Look at that one with the clouds, the angel’s form just slipping out of the mist. You see such clouds and the fact that an angel hides among them shouldn’t surprise you. No one since Turner has painted skies more magnificent than my father’s, and that is simply one particular sample of his powers.”

Gazing at the painting the priest drunkenly attempted to cross himself, and failed. “And that is why you no longer attend Mass, my son? Because our sacraments pale before your father’s great talent?”

“I understand that Father Gavin administers the sacrament, and has for years. He is the one who counsels the ill and the downtrodden. Your duties are strictly administrative, are they not? And yet you are the one whose portrait will be hung in the church hall.”

“Admittedly, I have no talent for people. I never have. Frankly I find the general populace annoying—all their petty concerns, when there are things of such spiritual beauty to contemplate, such as your father’s fine paintings. But I am the older priest—it is our bishop’s wish that I have my painting done first. I would not claim that I am deserving of the honor.”

“And yet you have not turned it down.”

“I have not turned it down.” The elderly priest looked into his empty glass, then filled it slowly, shakily, struggling to spill as little of the precious wine as possible. “You admire your father’s work so much, and you belittle your own. Is it possible you resent your father’s talent, and that is why you no longer attend Mass at St. Anthony’s, because you would be forced to encounter his finest work there—the ‘Three Angels and the One,’ The Thousand Eyes of the Seraphim’ or his magnificent ‘Sancte Deus’? Or perhaps you fancy yourself some condemned child, fallen from grace after disappointing his father? Or a rebel, is that the way you think of yourself, Mr. S.D. Watkins, Painter of Portraits?”

“But, old man, who could be more of a rebel than the priest who hates his parishioners?”

The priest paused, then gulped down most of his glass. The wine seemed to have hoarsened his voice. “Your initials, S.D.? I do not believe I have ever encountered your first name. Surely he did not name you after his greatest painting?”

“My father was an intense, at times obsessive, artist. But he was not insane. My first name is Samuel, middle name Daniel,” the younger Watkins lied.

The priest shone his munificent smile and unfocused gaze on the portrait painter. “I believe your wound is bleeding again, a bit more copiously, I fear.”

Watkins held up his right hand, gazing at it as if he’d never seen it before. The bandage wrapping his palm was soiled and fraying, and so thin it appeared painted on, the texture reminding him, in fact, of a shroud his father had once painted over a contorted Jesus. The heart of the bandage was stained with a starburst black and maroon. “This is no problem. I hold the brush at the tips of my fingers, using my whole arm to move it across the canvas. As my father always told me, When you hold it too tightly, you disconnect yourself from the thing you’ve embraced.’”

“But you’re ruining the page, my son.”

“I’ve changed my mind—we will dispense with further sketching. I will go attend to this, fetch a fresh bottle of wine, and when I return we will begin the painting proper. And I will tell you why I no longer attend Mass.”

Watkins went down into the cellar, grabbed a bottle of wine he had not watered down, and turned to the ramshackle cabinet mounted at a slant to the dirty cement wall. He peeled the bandage off his hand and dropped it. He pulled out fresh gauze from the cabinet, aware of all his paintings staring at his back, but he did not turn around. He groped about the table beneath the cabinet, found a dirty paintbrush, and jammed it into the open wound. He ground the brush into the raw tissues, tried to keep his eyes clear to watch, but they involuntarily clamped shut. He wrapped the clean gauze around his hand with his eyes closed. Overhead he could hear the priest singing to himself.

He painted the background in tones taken from the priest’s flesh illuminated by the flicker of firelight, then gradually darkened the lines so that the edge of a bookcase appeared, then a hot patch of fireplace. The priest stared with eyes wide open, wine glass tilted almost to the point of a nasty spill. Watkins thought he might actually be napping. He began to carve the form out of the bruised tones swimming behind the nodding priest. He looked carefully at the air surrounding the withered head atop the shivering shoulders, and painted what he saw there, the colors vibrating until the features became indistinct. But there was something there, if he could only see well enough to capture it.

“Is it the church’s recent troubles with—indiscretion. Is that what keeps you away, my son? Perhaps some unfortunate incident when you were a boy?”

Watkins was somewhat startled by the priest’s coherence, when he’d been thinking the aging cleric on the verge of unconsciousness. “I would hardly call those troubles recent. And no, I was not fondled by some randy member of the clergy. Not that any of that improves the possibility of my attendance.”

The priest nodded in agreement or perhaps simply in response to some inner, alcohol-induced rhythm. “It is a sad state of affairs. In the priesthood we yearn for the beautiful, for a spiritual life which will raise us above the concerns of the everyday. But we find we must wait so very long. Some find that beautiful spirit in children, and they lose their perspective. They simply lose their way.”

“And you, are you saying you lost your way?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. I, for one, have never found any special beauty in children. They are simply loud, and unformed. But have you bought into the news propaganda—do you see all of us as monsters?”

“Many priests came into our home while my father was alive. Some seemed rather ordinary. And others, although I did not ‘buy in’ to their beliefs necessarily, are still among the most admirable, unselfish human beings I have ever met.”

The priest sighed, laughed. “I could not say so, from my experience.”

Watkins concentrated on getting the eyes right. If the eyes were not correct no other part of the portrait could compensate. “So are you saying your faith is not so strong?”

“There is nothing wrong with my faith in God, Child. It is human beings I have trouble with.”

“So you believe there is evil in the world.”

“Are you saying there is not?”

“No, but I would ask why. Your god, my father’s god, is he not omnipotent? If so, how can he allow evil?”

The priest laughed. “Perhaps your doubts of your own originality are justified, S.D. Watkins. The question of evil? Why do the wicked prosper while the righteous suffer? If I could answer that perhaps they would make me a bishop! It goes back to the fallen angels, I suppose. But such philosophical questions are not for the likes of us. You must simply have faith, my son.”

“The fallen angels. The ones who rebelled?”

“Lucifer sought to overthrow God. He had to be dealt with.”

“It sounds like an adventure story. An action movie.”

“Oh, I believe it may be the greatest adventure story of all time.”

“I suppose I don’t believe the spiritual underpinnings of our existence should sound like an adventure story.”

The priest leaned forward. “Son, are you in pain?”

Watkins became aware then that he had been supporting his wounded hand with the stronger one. His inflamed fingers barely kept their grip on the brush. Together they moved around the canvas making marks and elaborating on the hunched form of the priest in the middle of the composition. In the painting the priest’s face was still not focused. The angles of the shoulders were all wrong, or perhaps they were, at last, correct. “It is always painful to see clearly, Father.”

The priest snorted. “It is always painful to imagine more than you can be.”

“Are you referring to yourself? I only paint what I am able to see. My father the great Martin Watkins, painter of angels, he was the one with imagination.”

Watkins calmed himself, forcing his brush hand to move at a more leisurely pace around the canvas, making corrections and adjustments, redefining lines, picking up details, using his pain as a kind of compass, or diviner, to guide him.

“Perhaps we should stop. I believe I may have drunk too much wine.”

“Just stay with me a while longer, Father—I’m not yet ready to take a break. I don’t want to lose the thread that will lead me into your true portrait. Tell me some stories. Tell me about the giants.”

“You mean Fe Fi Fo Fum, that sort of thing?”

“Don’t be coy. Speak to me of the giants in the Bible. They were the offspring of the angels and human women, were they not?”

“Oh, that’s simply part of the Jewish writings. The Book of Enoch, the Dead Sea Scrolls, that sort of thing. Nothing to take very seriously. Please do not tell me you stay away from the church because of giants!”

“Why, Father, the way you said Jewish—are you a bigot?”

The priest said nothing for a time. The only sound was the vigorous scratching Watkins made against the canvas, with too much force and too little paint. Finally the priest replied, “Yes, I am, but I would like to imagine that someday I will be a better man.”

“Sorry. I don’t possess that kind of imagination. Remember, I paint what I see.”

Watkins continued to paint vigorously. Paint and blood splattered his face, dripped down his arm to pool on the canvas.

“The angels had their way with human women, thereby corrupting humankind. It is a distasteful story.”

“But they not only corrupted them sexually—they corrupted them in other ways, did they not?”

“Things we were not intended to know.”

“Perhaps they taught us how to create art.”

“Their offspring were easily recognized. Even after the giants disguised themselves as normal they could be identified by their double rows of teeth, their distortions.”

“Congenital malformations.”

“Oh, I would never say that.”

“Of course you wouldn’t say that.” Watkins’ brush traveled over the sharp shoulders of the priest’s image. The shoulders began to transform, the flesh rising off the body. “But this story of giants, it sounds like the kind of lie you would tell yourself, like I’m a good priest, or I’m not a bigot, or I am this great, undiscovered artistic talent. A lie that makes you feel better about yourself.”

“I don’t believe I understand.”

“Humanity didn’t want to believe they were descended from this mating with angels, so they invented giants as carriers of the tainted blood.”

“Watkins, that is insanity. I will pray for you, my son.”

“Thank you. Your portrait is complete, by the way. I will send my bill directly to the bishop, if you don’t mind.”

“Perhaps that would be best.”

“Come look at it, tell me if it’s an accurate likeness, in your opinion.”

“Why, I have had so much wine. I really don’t believe I can reclaim my feet.”

“Take your time, Father. I will leave it on the easel. If you’ll excuse me I’d best go take care of my hand again.”

Watkins took a last glance at his painting. The image of the priest was still somewhat hunched, but it was rising to its feet, dragged heavenward by the translucent distortions in the shoulders and back and the warped transmutations in the flesh of the chest area, just opening up and catching the air.

“I really don’t believe I can stand,” the priest muttered.

“Have faith. Your faith may comfort you. When I was small I would watch my father paint the angels. Here, and in St. Anthony’s. I know now he painted other things during that period, a number of landscapes, some studies of workers down at the docks, but those canvases were lost among these countless images of angels, floating, sitting, standing casually or at attention, singing, dancing, doing for the most part what human beings do, except that they were larger than life, possessed of a kind of inner illumination.”

The priest stirred enough to say, “Lovely.”

“I suppose. But you know what bothered me? He’d modeled them after relatives, after neighbors, and some of the local priests. Not only their faces, but something about their postures, the general attitudes they expressed. I did not want to see it, but I could not deny my eyes. After that I could not look at any of those people the way I had before.”

~ * ~

Down in the cellar Watkins flipped on the light and gazed sadly at his heavenly host of creations staring out from their less-than-perfect, overworked canvases: their warped backs, their distorting faces, their double, sometimes triple rows of teeth. Their clouds of eyes. Their six wings. Their wings pulled from ruined flesh as if by a giant hand, leaving but a broken stalk of ethereal flesh, and still their mouths forced open, praising all that is holy, Sancte Deus, Amen.

Upstairs he could hear the old priest falling, dragging himself to his portrait, weeping.

-End-

—Painting of Angel by Emily Balivet, 2002


D6B3A37D-1B33-4300-A64E-B3651ADE325BAbout the Author

Steve Rasnic Tem’s latest book is a collection of all his collaborations with his late wife, Melanie Tem: In Concert, which has been published by Centipede Press. Tem has recent and forthcoming stories in Crimewave, Null Immortalis, The Black Book of Horror, Asimov’s and the anthology Werewolves and Shape Shifters, edited by John Skipp.

“In the early stages of thinking about a story I find that stray, rather disparate ideas may wander into the net,” reveals the author. “I’m often not sure how they’re going to fit, or if they’re nothing more than some random distraction.

“In this case I gave the protagonist my own suspicion of complex metaphor (believing it usually hides something we’re not meant to know). And I’ve often wondered about the painters of classical religious art, or anyone devoting their lives to what some would call ‘imaginary beings.’

“I suppose we could consider fantasy and horror writers as part of that category (the devotees, not the imaginary beings).”

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