There comes a time in every man’s life when he must make something that will forever define what he is. Simpler men make their peace, accepting life as it is and nothing more. Lucky men find a good wife and make a child, losing part of themselves to both, and gaining that meaning in all that they surrender. Brutish men make chaos, their fists and knives carving their dark definition onto the bloody pages of newspapers and history books. Samuel made a painting.
He had painted before, but never a creation that exemplified what it was to be himself, never a work so representative of his soul that it was like a letter to the world, detailing all he meant by living. But only a week before, he had been talking with Smith about the meaning of life, and a it felt like a fire had begun to burn in his heart, and he knew he needed to paint.
Smith was the sort of man that, to hear most people speak when they weren’t asked, should have been a pastor. He was a businessman, and an often painfully honest man, and most people say such a combination rarely works out in anyone’s favor and such a man as Smith should just give it up and join the Church. But Smith did well enough for himself, and on days when his honesty hurt his business, he would shrug at his detractors and tell them, “Like as not I’d hurt the Church, too. I’ll leave doing that to better men than me.”
It was Smith’s candid tongue that began Samuel’s drive to paint his soul.
“My friend,” he had said one day while they sat with their feet by the three-legged brazier that was the only source of heat in Samuel’s home, “You do well enough with your art. I heard the Governor had framed one of your newer pieces in the Capital itself. And I saw it, too. A fine bit of work, surely. But what are you doing with your life? You certainly aren’t happy. I can see it in your eyes.”
“Well, I’m not sure,” murmured Samuel, swirling the half-empty cup of wine between his two hands. “I don’t think I’ve looked at a single one of my paintings since I’ve finished them. If I died tonight, would I look back and think, Ah! There, I’ve something to be proud of! You? You’re a lucky man. You’ve a wife and a child who is growing up to be near as good of a man as you. Me? I’ve a scattered bunch of slivers of my imagination working their way through art galleries and into homes to be dusted by a maid once a week.”
Smith laughed as only honest men can laugh, his belly beating against his shirt like gusting wind against a sail. “Well, that is easily fixed!”
Of course, if most people said this, Samuel would roll his eyes and pretend to listen. But when a man too honest to be a pastor says it, your ears tend to perk up a bit more. “How so?”
“Well,” he began, “if I do wrong by my wife, at some point everyone will know it. She can scream like the devil and can argue like a crooked-lawyer, and if I don’t watch myself, that combination will end with me in the streets with everyone in town giving me a pale-imitation of her witch glare. Don’t tell her I said that, though. If I don’t raise my son well, he is like as not to end up brawling in the streets with a bottle of whiskey in one hand and some anarcho-newspaper tract in the other, and then I’d have my wife demon-howling too, and everyone in the country would know I’d gone off wrong somehow.”
Samuel grinned, but shook his head. “I’ve never heard your wife be louder than a happy yelp, and your kid has already organized a food collection for the orphanage. But I still am not sure where you are going with this.”
“Part of that is because I’m a lucky man. And part of that is because I’ve done right by them. You see, if I weren’t a good man, I wouldn’t be able to hide it for all too long. I’m written in their lives, and while one man can hide his meanness for as long as he can keep up the mummer’s act, when you got three in the mix… Well, someone would figure it out soon enough. You see, I make my wife and my kid, just like they make me. When they act, part of me is acting right along with them. But you… You paint, and you show the canvas what it is supposed to look like. But your canvases don’t show what you look like, not even what you are supposed to look like. I’m proud of my wife. I’m proud of my son. But they could break me as easily as they make me. If you want to be proud of something, it has to be as much a part of you as you are a part of it. It has to be able to ruin you. Paint your soul, Samuel. See what it looks like. Mine looks like my boy.”
When Smith had left, and the fire had burned so low in the brazier that even the ash was beginning to forget what it was like to be warm, Samuel still sat, unsure. He was by no means a bad man, though he certainly liked his wine a tad too much, and often swore, even on holidays and on the steps of the church. He even had a tendency to disappear when he saw a friend in need walking down the narrow road to his cul-de-sac. But he was generally a good friend, a respectable member of the community, and not prone to any wanton vices some men in his neighborhood were. But the very thought of doing something so permanent as painting his soul and showing it to anyone who wished to see…
But, as I’ve said, when a man too honest to be a pastor speaks, it is hard to ever act the same again. So Samuel began to paint, and his heart turned to that fire that only the purest of happiness can bring. After only a few hours, it seemed as if every painting he had ever done not only paled in quality to this one, but should be gathered up and burned as a monument to his crowning achievement. Samuel had never felt so alive.
It was a week later when Smith came to visit, and with a hearty knock on the door he called out in his bellowing voice worthy of any pulpit to let him in. But Samuel cracked open the door, squeezed through, and shooed him back onto the deck.
“You cannot see it.”
“My soul, of course.”
Smith’s laugh sounded like thunder bouncing about a cathedral, but he didn’t mind the snub, and left shortly after, for the artist seemed to be in no mood for talk, even shunning the nice bottle of red he had brought along. When he was gone, Samuel returned inside and sat, staring at his canvas. But today, he had painted nothing.
After three weeks, and thrice Samuel turning Smith away at the door, the frank businessman broke his silence. “What on earth are you painting in there? Is your soul some three-headed demon devouring children and two-legged dogs? Because, I must be honest, I think your artistic eye may be failing if that is what you’ve come up with.”
“No, no, nothing like that. I’m just…”
Smith didn’t laugh, and the silence sounded like a storm. “Then you are close to finishing.”
“How do you know that?”
“The day I proposed to my wife, I did so with a grin. The day I married my wife, I nearly crawled out the window and hopped a train. The day I conceived my child, well… The day my wife went into labor, I lost my lunch on the rosebush behind my house. If you aren’t afraid, then that isn’t your soul.”
“What if people laugh?”
“I hope they do!”
“I meant with derision.”
“Well, then either you are a petty soul, or you have petty friends.”
“What if it doesn’t make any sense to anyone?”
“My wife is absolute nonsense to me nearly all the time. People seem to enjoy her well enough.”
“What if no one wants it?”
At that, Smith paused, then a wide grin broke across his face. “Alright, I’ll buy it.”
“It isn’t done.”
“Well, you have until tomorrow. Tomorrow you either let me in, or I break your door down. I would say I wouldn’t pay you back for it, but you know I would.”
So Samuel spent one last night staring at the painting. The brazier burned like a torch to heaven, but it warmed not Samuel one bit. He sat and saw himself: his lies were mistaken strokes covered with a second layer of paint; his faults were cracks in the oil rippling from end to end, uncontrollable and nearly unfixable; all his failures shone through where he had changed the picture when he couldn’t get the color right or the curvature perfect. “No one would want this.” He closed his eyes, and maybe he prayed, or maybe he slept, or maybe he contemplated suicide, or maybe he considered throwing up on the rosebush behind his house, I’m not sure. But before any daft decision could be made, his door crashed inwards in a cloud of splinters. As flakes floated through his house like wooden rain, Smith stood laughing so hard the house shook with peals of rolling thunder.
“I’ve come for you soul!” he wheezed, lumbering over to where poor Samuel sat, still in shock. “Ah, let me see here! Yes. That, my friend, is you. A couple of lies scattered about, yes; a few faults, though I’ve always said a good fault makes a man all the better, and I think that works right about as well here; yet I can’t see a failure in there, so you must have recovered from them pretty well. Yes, yes, this is you. I think I’ll take it, and I’ll likely hang it up right above my cash register. Not the most fitting place for you soul, I know, but I’m nothing if not honest, and this will certainly bring in a few interested people.”
Smith clapped his shoulder and gave a wide, honest smile. Samuel felt the fear melt away from his bones and looked back at his painting. And for the first time in his life, he was truly proud.
Cross posted at The Culture Crisis