MASTERWORKS: Christ Stilleth the Tempest
Simon Jacobs had an idea for a recurring series: flash fiction pieces in which the characters reenact famous works of art. Being a home for art and lit to meet and clash and mix, Paper Darts couldn't say no. And thus MASTERWORKS began.
But all epic tales must come to an end. Below you'll find the beginning of the end of the final scenes to MASTERWORKS. Dark as it may seem, light is just around the corner.
Our feeble protective spells go haywire. The rain comes. And comes. Dogs and cats slap down into the streets below and bury them to the first-story windows. We move to the upper floors. It’s strange to be back in the old building where so much happened, where so much ended, like returning to a childhood home still stocked with your old possessions, each of them charged with emotional memory, unexpected resonance. I rescue what I can—I carry up the stairs the remains of the plants, boxes of books and supplies, an old ice chest, the smaller canvases—but there’s too much of it, there’s not enough room for the stuff and the three of us.
Our first fabrication when we arrived was a sparse cradle for Morning: I rigged a little mobile of things—wax fruit, gaudy fake brooches—and hung it above him. It whirled and whipped in the rain; it was always in motion. I thought that this child would know nothing but rain.
As the days pass and the water rises, you begin to build a raft. You revisit your old room and come back with the battered-down skeleton of the couch. You line the base with empty plastic bottles and plastic bags, things that would theoretically float. You wag a pair of massive foam tentacles in my face, the delicately-applied paint already flaking off. “What were you doing with these? You’ve savaged my couch.”
I crane my head out the window. The water has risen to the seventh floor, just below us; the surface churns and shifts, riotously loud, like a witch’s cauldron—every so often I discern an object beneath it, washed out of another building or picked up off the street to join the liquid mass of the world underwater, briefly suspending itself before sinking. With each level the water rises, it feels like another layer of our past in this place is erased and buried; we become fresher than before, one step closer to being completely new. I err to ask what you think happened to Peter, and you make a bubbling sound with your mouth that seems to please the baby. I pretend you did it for him.
“You know what this reminds me of?” I ask. The sky, a bruised gray underlit by flashes of lightning, throws down rain in sheets like the steadily-moving sprays of a carwash. Thunder rolls up and rattles the windowpanes.
You’re lashing the largest tentacle around one corner of the raft, to use as a bumper. There are ways that you have been good. There are spaces I wouldn’t have filled on my own. “What?”
“Pollock’s Full Fathom Five.”
You join me at the window and look down. There’s a glimmer of pink in the roiling waters; an eye-shape surfaces and then disappears—my octobaby. “Not blue enough,” you say. “This is more of a Turner seascape, a hundred years after he painted it. You know, from the decay of the pigments.”
“I got it.”
A silence falls, and I hear you inhale, and I imagine finally a weight has occurred to you. I wait diligently for an apology, for something significant. Instead, your voice booms out:
“Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell: Ding-dong.
Hark! now I hear them—ding-dong, bell.”
I leave you at the window. I nurse Morning on the other end of the room, the mobile spinning madly beyond us. Water licks at the penultimate step in the stairwell. I notice that you’ve ridged the long sides of the raft with a line of your twig sculptures, like a sinister decorative guardrail. I wonder why we came back here when all was said and done, why we couldn’t abandon this place as we’d done so many others. We had paused on the curb outside the hospital for a moment, in the sun, and our future had been unclear. I’d stood up from my wheelchair, Morning in my arms. I had the thought that it was only his little hospital-provided hat and onesie that were shielding him from the outside world, that somehow kept him from totally being my responsibility, and that the moment this outfit was gone or sullied, he would be open to everything, intensely vulnerable. I resolved to keep it perfectly clean. In any case, a cloud had slipped, and a light rain started to fall, and impulsively we had walked right, towards shelter, towards the train station again, because that path was familiar to us and there was some saying about magic being rooted to location, because we—I, you had paid—we had summoned someone into the world and didn’t know what to do with him, so we did the same thing we had always done, we returned to a place that had seemed a proving ground for something and tried to prove it. But the rain fell harder than we’d expected; it came from beyond to flush us out.
Onto the back half of the raft I load a wooden tray of mason jars half-filled with dirt, my seedlings, a stack of hardbound books, a backpack of clothes tailored to appear Victorian. I wrap a layer of plastic tightly over it. Across the room, leaning against the wall, there’s a framed reproduction of Thomas Eakins’s Arcadia that we’ve carted from place to place since we started moving. I painted it before we knew each other, in the same way that Eakins did with his magic lantern in 1883—I took a photo of the painting and projected that photo onto another canvas, from which I traced it. The layers of filtration from the original—my imperfect photograph, the dilution of the magnifying light from the projector, my skill at tracing, at color matching—pulls it a step further from mimesis, blurs the sharpness of Eakins’s oils, the reality the painting depicts. I don’t remember why I chose to copy it originally. I’ve always found something sinister in the painting, a kind of voyeurism in his naked adolescent models in their would-be paradise—there comes a very real moment when you’re shading a little boy’s crotch. I’ve never believed in the innocence of children as old as the ones in Arcadia are supposed to be, or I don’t trust the forty-year-old artist’s motives in representing it (one of the models became, eventually, his wife). And of course I know why we came back. I look at the raft overburdened with our accumulated junk, its every supplemental feature like something we were trying sheepishly to save, to trick ourselves into saving: It couldn’t float in a hundred years. It was never enough for us.
I go to the window again; I reach down and skim my fingers over the surface of the water. The sky turns in on itself—there are spirals of distant sunlight through swirling clouds, and further out, the remaining elevated patches of the city rise like beleaguered islands, touched by the light, shining wetly in the storm, already ruins. The waves seem to move in every direction, bashing against each other, bearing up higher than we are, cresting and falling constantly. The glassy, vacant eyes of our building peek out just barely above the surface, on the verge of going under.
And then, on the horizon, I see a distant craft approaching, a point of clarity in the swarming grays that slowly takes definite form, riding the waves in long arcs forward, navigating the sea haphazardly like a windblown piece of origami: a ship.
It rocks terribly back and forth. The golden prow dips and sprays a plume of water forward; the sail bulges out and ripples, sways treacherously in the wind. Even through the storm, or enhanced by the storm, the ship asserts its magnificence—the complicated-looking riggings, the dark figures mounted on either side, all designed to be seen—it’s absurd, unearthly. Morning rotates himself in my arms, ashamed by the opulence; he turns to my chest from the picture window, from the embattled sea. In the distance, a titanic wave draws up as if pulled by a hand, revealing a tiered, streaming city beneath, like a vision from another plane.
“John fucking Martin.”
It takes a moment for the reference to click, but when it does, the image of Martin’s famous version of Jesus on the Sea of Galilee freezes in my head juxtaposed over this one, the shining ship in the lap of a terrible storm, the sun breaking through, the visionary city. There’s a pulse of inscrutable emotion—a moment of beauty and certainty, of rightness—along with a physical sensation that I imagine as parallel to having leapt over a chasm and feeling both feet land solidly on the other side, a breathtaking second of bodily safety, relief. In the blink of an eye it’s gone—the experience takes some spiritual element from what I observe before me and files it away with its historical antecedent, compartmentalizes it into the memory of the painting, such that I’m already winding down and catching my breath even as the boat continues to rock its way towards us, rising and diving as if each second will be its last above water, the significance of the moment has already occurred, and then passed. We stand at the window and watch, vaguely apart. The gigantic wave slams back over the distant city, swallowing it up again. The sky makes a sound like fabric being ripped.
At the last moment before colliding with the top level of our tower, the boat veers wildly to the right, swerving one of its broad sides to greet our window. An anchor falls; a massive wave spills over the sill, washing over our feet. The raft beside us shifts, the plastic crackles.
Up close, it’s clear that the boat, like ours, is a composite of other materials: each slat of the hull is varnished a slightly different shade of brown, and the billowing sail is a patchwork of cloth. Still, the prow and decks are decorated with sculptures painted in burnished gold, mermaids and serpents that share a hand, a certain gothic tackiness, like the builder couldn’t help showing off, even on this haphazard, functional thing. The captain steps down from his promontory, which includes a throne, and comes to stand on the deck across from us, the boat drifting beneath his feet. He wears a sopping blue robe, his long wet hair is pulled back, and a white beard explodes over the lower half of his face. The rains seem to dwindle in his honor.
I look from his narrowed eyes beneath the wild eyebrows—staring at us as if disappointed in the lack of others, as if he’d expected a screaming throng to greet his vessel and fall at his feet—to you, standing motionless beside me, your knuckles gone white on the windowsill. For a second, the baby is the only person who moves; he yawns and stretches his arms. As I draw the connection between the two of you, between this man and the shabby wealth of this ship, you and your history, I realize the stuff that you’ve always been made of, that you’ve been fighting and denying and drowning in since we met: it was fear, and it was money.
“Dad,” you say.
“Father,” he replies.