The Burden of Choice
Few professions can boast of promising grandiosity, naivety, transcendence and mental torture, all woven within an unparalleled commitment which, all too often, considers itself too seriously. "There are three types of artists," my father once told me, "the exceptional, the mediocre, and the monsters."
I paced through the gutted nave of St. Dominik's Chapel, considering his words while my late father's work watched me through the myriad eyes of demons, angels, gods and goddesses alike. Nearly a decade of labor was painted upon the pillars, the arches and ribbed vaulting, on every stone from floor to ceiling. The immortalized masterpiece loomed over the countless pieces on display for Prospero's Virtuoso Festival, one of them being my own. Portraits, paintings, sculptures of stone, glass and wood surrounded me, all of them standing stolid within the safety of their respective genres.
Now that the chapel’s candles had smoldered, darkness deteriorated the details while shadows wreathed my creation in merciful ambiguity. Moonlight was cutting through the numerous stained glass windows to reach the seventy-eight, rectangular silhouettes hanging from the gilded chandelier. Intermittently, the turning tarot deck bloomed in pale turquoise, its pigments and painstaking details discernible before fading again. You could almost hear the strands of thread twisting with each rotation. I massaged the shredded tips of my fingers while I stared at the piece, resenting the stereotypes that my peers had sheltered themselves in, allowing them to suffer far less than I had. I had endeavored to create something compelling. They had sacrificed soulful expression for a hollow representation of mastery in hackneyed mediums. Yet here I was, competing amongst them, damned only to the glory of the black sheep's bottomless anguish.
I felt Clarissa's hands press my shoulders. "It's late," she whispered, "you should rest for tomorrow."
"You can go," I said. It was difficult not to spit my bitterness. This would be the fifth year in which I displayed a piece in the festival. In my experience, each attempt was only another unpalatable failure to fold back upon the others.
“Your works are experimental, Sage. It’s typical for artists to be unappreciated in their time. Not that you aren’t appreciated. There are more than a few Prosperians looking forward to when the doors open tomorrow, specifically to see what you’ve been working on all year.”
“Tell that to my father,” I muttered, needing only to look around to find the rebuke he would have given if he was still alive. Every stone of the chapel glorified his talent while shedding light on my inadequacy. I was competing for menial success within a structure that represented the quintessence of his. “He was appreciated in his time, wasn’t he?” I exclaimed and slammed my foot into a pedestal that displayed a bust of St. Dominik. Ashamed at my outburst, I turned around immediately, aiming to walk out of the chapel and sleep away the night’s frustration. Instead, Clarissa rushed past me with outstretched arms. She grunted as the marble bust toppled over and drove her knees to the ground.
“Help me, for mercy’s sake,” she wheezed. Both St. Dominik and Clarissa glared at me while I stared at the disaster I nearly caused. When I bent to help her, I was amazed she had stopped it from falling at all. After we uprighted the bust, she tucked a lock of pale hair behind her ear, shook her head, and left the chapel with an emphasis on the back of her heels.
“Clarissa, I didn’t mean to—” I began before the oak slabs clanged behind her. But what was the difference? Indulging in her pity, forcing her to understand. She hadn't tangled with inspiration's spiteful hands, hadn't felt the sting of passion's double-edged blade. She could stand alongside me for a lifetime and still not comprehend the bittersweet of art's reluctant offerings.
At the very least, all the preparations had been completed, the last of the deck's cards tied to the chandelier's arms. Amidst the other contesting pieces, I felt I could stand in that chapel until dawn, awaiting the judges' scrutiny, kept awake only from anxiety and expectation.
Sleep did little to dissipate the tension, the faltering of Clarissa's patience, made evident in her unwillingness to meet my eyes the following morning. I watched her examine herself in the mirror of our bedroom, fiddling with the folds of her vest, the ruffles of her skirt, the knot of the laces that tightened her collar. The burgundy of our front garments and underlaying black layers matched, down to the silver embellishments on our cuffs. They were the same outfits we had worn last year, and the four years before then. As was tradition, my belt hung with a rapier, the same polished heirloom my father wore to events such as this.
The streets and marketplaces were no longer avenues for the city, instead, they became rivers for tourists and citizens. From the carved stone of mansions to the ramshackle homes, tapestries and banners hung beneath every window, fluttering in the temperate winds over the throngs. Performers lined the streets with their hats set upon the ground, quarreling for the pithy tips of passersby while Clarissa and I found ourselves holding hands for the first time in weeks, just to stay linked while we shoved through the sweaty bodies and ale-muddled laughter towards St. Dominik's Chapel.
Another year, another show of enthusiasm and feigned delight at small talk with bland contemporaries reflecting little besides the cycling motifs already depicted to death. I pretended to be interested as I let a few peers describe to me the delicate process behind their work. Their skin was often flush with health, their voices plodding and eyes calm. Where was the struggle? Where was their dedication? Their anguish? Where were the rings beneath their eyes? Every year, it seemed, I had less in common with them.
"Attempt to look excited, Sage," Clarissa muttered to me after we'd pretended not to watch the panel of judges scrutinize every piece. Now, the four of them were discussing their findings around the altar. "This isn't a funeral you're attending."
I nodded, unable to laugh with her while my cheeks strained to keep up the smile. The air in the chapel was suffocated by fragrances and tidy conversations of artists attempting to appear more thoughtful and articulate than they were. Worse yet, Allan Demoire was approaching us with a smile that already gleamed with the amusement of tactless insults he'd deal under the guise of polite teasing.
"Just breathe," she whispered to me just before he came into earshot.
"Sage Lemange!" he greeted. "You look rather nervous, I must admit," he remarked while Clarissa allowed him the tapping of his lips against either of her cheeks. He, one of my father's closer peers, savored my dying succession, a son's inability to uphold the deteriorating pillars of fame. I folded my hands behind my back and clenched until the knuckles paled. "You're smashing in black. It suits you ... again."
I ignored the last observation. "Is it strange for an artist to be nervous during an exhibition?" I quelled the urge to throttle him by his azure ascot.
Allan checked his pocket watch, nothing less than a pathetic attempt to display his nonexistent importance. “What with your proficiency in divination, I wouldn’t think you’d be trepidatious of the future. That is, unless you knew things didn’t fair well in the end.”
“Now, now, Allan,” Clarissa hummed.
“Oh come on now, it’s all in good humor!” Allan snatched a glass of wine from a passing servant, whom lingered so he could grab two more for us. He didn’t. “Or perhaps you yourself don’t practice the craft, perhaps your, ahum, clients are the ones with a seer’s vision.”
"I have no personal claims with regards to my clients' proposed abilities, as I have stated before. Tarot decks are only my means to an end, Mr. Demoire."
"And what end might that be? Are you catching another glimmer of future prospects, perhaps?"
Just to spite him, I laughed as gaudily as I could before I risked looking as if I actually enjoyed him. “How very perceptive of you. Perhaps my nervousness is for a horror I’ve divined to befall this afternoon. I am glad you enjoyed the piece.” I inclined my head and showed my teeth.
Stunned by my lack of irritation, he stumbled for a reply, and instead settled for silence and a slight bow before taking his leave, massaging his peppered goatee all the while. He'd been too busy crawling under my skin to drag me into a discourse about his own work. I was grateful for that much, at least.
The wood for each card had been chopped from a tree by my childhood home, then dried for several years, while I had practiced woodcarving on the side of my daily job of crafting decks for Prospero's divinatory community. Children and traveling gypsies, mostly, were my customers. At the beginning of this year, I set to work on the wood, engraving the details with a knife before applying brush and paint. Carving, sanding, dusting, carving, sanding, dusting ... It was the process as much as the creation itself, conveying the unpredictable machinations of fate even with a determined hand to mark the path's footholds. Each color was applied only after hours of labor, much like the garnering of inspiration before expression.
How fitting, then, to sit beneath the failed piece that had consumed another year of my life, that had brought only squinting eyes and the tentative scratching of heads from judges and observers accustomed to the trite mediums of canvas and oil.
Clarissa had long since left with the others. This time when I had said, "You can go," she trusted that her words would provide little solace.
Five artists had walked away from this year's festival, one of them being Allan, their passions now cradled within the comfort of commissions enlisted from nobility, much like the commission my father had once received for the chapel. A promising, stable future. Respect, the right to declare proficiency and illegitimacy. Names to be made noteworthy in history's ledgers. Above all else, the state of being 'exceptional'.
Night cloaked the chapel once again, and once again, the candle stubs had diffused the acridity of burnt wicks and lost time. I played with the thick spool of twine in my pocket, the one I had retrieved from my home shortly after the victors had been announced.
Footfalls slipped in to break the chapel's silence.
I looked up at Allan Demoire as he sauntered through the nave, his arrogance elated to an almost malicious delight. Again, he examined his pocket watch. "You said you had something for me? Is there any possibility of ending this meeting shortly? There's quite the celebration, and I must be returning soon."
"Of course, I understand. You are revered, after all." The smug twitch of his mustache was revolting. "I have something my father instructed me to give you, if you were ever to be one of the festival's finalists." Allan's expression took on reverence, a disgusting transformation from complete disregard to captivation. He closed the distance between us, outstretching his hand with a childlike expectation.
I unsheathed my father's heirloom, letting the moonlight lick the rapier's blade. Allan reached out for its hilt. With a chuckle, I turned the blade towards him and ran it through before pulling back to thread it again. I cupped my hand over the screams shaking to escape his mouth, and ushered him to the ground.
There are three types of artists in this world: the exceptional, the mediocre, and the monsters. And mediocrity, I have found, is a fate colder than death. After Allan finished squirming, I gazed back at my art. I had twine, fresh inspiration, and a whole evening to revise my creation. Perhaps tomorrow, after I'd strung his pieces up with mine, someone would find it noteworthy.