My 2006 NaNoWriMo novel. Woo! Note: since I am posting as I go along, the storyline is backwards. To read this, start from the oldest post and read to the newest.

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Location: Los Angeles, United States

I am an awkward, stubborn, slightly insane woman who would rather talk Plato than Prada, rather watch Frank Capra than Carrie Bradshaw, and rather listen to Norse myths sung in Icelandic than anything currently on the radio. Yeah. Told you I was weird.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Chapter 10

To: Stephan Anastasios
From: Jason Slocum
Subject: money for painting?
Hey Stephan, when's a good time for me to bring the money for the painting to your studio? I don't want to just leave it there if you're not going to be there.
"Home is behind, the world ahead, and there are many paths to tread; through shadow, to the edge of night until the stars are all alight."

To: Jason Slocum
From: Stephan Anastasios
Subject: re: Money for painting?
I'll be in my studio Tuesday night, probably between 6pm and midnight. The door's usually unlocked, but even if it's closed, just knock and someone will come to the door. I'll be around off and on throughout the rest of the week, but Tuesday's the only remotely certain time.
"He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose."
I stepped through the door of the painting barn, the smell of oils, turpentine, and many years of dust teasing my senses. Some random artsy band was playing on the stereo, but not so loudly that they interfered with the use of headphones and walkmans, for those uninterested in the particular album playing on the stereo.
I looked around, but didn't see Ryan anywhere in the barn; however, I did notice that the smallest of the studios was draped in black fabric, and I couldn't see who was inside. A parchment sign hung above the doorway, emblazoned with a heraldic phoenix. Taking a chance, I knocked on the doorframe. Sure enough, Stephan poked his head out of the curtains, and, seeing me, motioned for me to step inside.
As he pried his earphones out of his ears, he said, "che entratte."
He laughed, pointing to a sign that hung at the back of his studio, directly opposite the door. The Italian phrase was written there, along with the English translation: Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.
I smiled at the jest, and noticed that the walls of the studio, while swathed in black drapery, was covered with painted parchments with phrases in Latin and English, and various prints of medieval and renaissance paintings. I recognized several of Fra Angelico's angels, as well as a Caravaggio of Matthew, receiving heavenly dictation. Another artist's work was prominent, but I wasn't familiar with the paintings; most of them were lit only by candlelight, creating deep shadows and warm highlights.
"You like those? Georges de la Tour, one of my favorite artists. This one," he pointed to one on the wall right above his work table, "this is my favorite. See, it's the Christ Child bringing a candle to St. Joseph. See how the brightest light illumines His face, so it looks like it's the source of the light? And notice the look on Joseph's face, he seems worried, or frightened. Well, see what he's making? It's the beam of a cross...And I'm rambling again, and you didn't come to get an art appreciation lecture, I'm sure." He stuck his hands in his pockets, and grinned.
"No, actually, that's pretty interesting. I like this one, is this one of his, too?"
"Oh, yeah, that's one version of the Penitent Magdalen, he did several. But that one is my favorite, with her just sitting there, so still. When was the last time you think she got to be that calm, that quiet? And here her life's just been in danger, and saved by a teacher of the Law that condemned her, and He did not condemn her. The candlelight is small, and there are still lots of shadows; in fact, most of the area around her is dark, but the light has begun."
"I like that."
"Yeah, me too. He's one of my favorite artists."
"So what do these phrases say? I know a little Latin, but not enough to figure them out."
"Oh, let's see....this one. Domine, istud quod facio, non facio nisi ut inveniam te. Inveniam te postquam id perfecero. That means: Lord, that which I do, I do only to find you. May I find You after I have completed it." He looked a little bashful. "It's kind of a motto of mine. This one over here, this says, 'And I greatly desired to see the least little bit of Christ's flesh that was nailed to the tree.' This one is...well, I can never remember it exactly, but it's something like, 'He showed her His heart, and it was pierced with many small holes like a lantern. And from them shone the rays of the sun; no, brighter than the sun's rays.' They're from a soundtrack that was made for a film called The Passion of Joan of Arc, and they've stuck with me ever since I first heard the songs. I really relate to St. Joan, somehow, the visions she saw and the voices she heard, and the way she died. Something about the fire really speaks to me. Not that I have any great desire to be burned at the stake, but I feel like that burning is a part of my spirituality. Like a phoenix, that can only be reborn through its own funeral pyre."
That was definitely the longest speech I'd ever heard from him. He was usually so uncomfortable with words, but I guess he found it easier to explain how he felt about the words of others, which would explain the dozens of quotations pinned to the walls.
"That's amazing. I haven't really thought about relating a spiritual journey to mythology...well, not a Christian journey, anyway."
"Yeah, I guess not too many people do." He suddenly noticed that his hands were covered in paint, and grabbed a rag. Rubbing his hands vigorously, he nodded towards a stool in the corner of the studio. "Can you stay awhile? I'd be happy to keep talking, but I need to paint, too."
I checked my watch. "Sure, I've got some time. I'm done with my classes for the day, and I don't have much homework." I manuevered myself down onto te somewhat wobbly stool. Stephan stood in front of a black metal easel, meditatively swabbing paint onto a stretched canvas. I couldn't really see what he was painting; it just looked like gobs and gobs In the center of the painting I could make out something, ringed in bright orange flames.
"So, what's the painting about?"
"Um...hard to say right now, they tend to change as I'm working on them. But at the, it'll be an inter-working of mummy images, the phoenix, and the idea of rebirth." He scooped up a gob of what appeared to be a deep green and rubbed it into the canvas, followed closely by a red so dark it looked almost black. "So why did you choose to identify with the phoenix? If you don't mind me asking, that is...."
"No, not at all. Um, I identify with it, because it seems like changes in my life never happen easily, or smoothly. I have to make the choice myself to step into a death to self, one that consumes everything. Only then, when everything in me is ashes, does something new come. For me, the goal of life is to continually step into that fire, and be born from it."
I watched his hands guiding the brush, almost unconscious of its movement, yet completely immersed in the act of creation. Just when I thought that he'd forgotten I was there, he asked, "So, how do you see your own journey? Something mythic, or iconic, or maybe musical?"
"Yeah, some people are more auditory, and see their journey like a song. Like this." He shuffled through several stacked canvases and pulled out a small wood panel. "I don't think Angie would mind you seeing this, she posed for a portrait, and told me about how she saw her journey. It was a series I was doing at the time. Ah, here." He handed the panel to me; as I took it, I noticed that it was three panels hinged to form a diptych. On the side panels, golden notes floated amongst musical staffs, weaving through colors and forms. In the central panel, Angie stood, reaching her arms up, caught up in th movement of a dance. In the tips of her fingers, she clutched a silk scarf that flowed outwards from her. As I studied the painting, I noticed that the scarf moved in unusual ways, creating a dynamic space between itself and Angie's body.
"She said that her life was more like a counterpoint, like a bar of music contrasting and joining wih others, both heavenly and terrestrial."
"That's...really interestng." With some reluctance, I handed the diptych back, and settled myself onto the stool again. "I don't know what my journey is like, I'd never thought of it before."
" do you see it? Is it a process, a quest, a being in and of itself?"
I didn't respond right away, taking a moment to think about it. "I don't know...It doesn't seem like a separate being, that doesn't even really make sense to me, I haven't really noticed a repetitive process...maybe a search?"
Stephan nodded, eyes seeming to be focused beyond the four lines of the canvas' edge. I craned my neck around slightly, trying to see what was taking shape under Stephan's moving brush. I could see what appeared to be flames curling upward from the center, and a dark shadowy form surrounding it, but I was at the wrong angle to see any more.
"Have you read anything about the Grail legend? That might be helpful, I dunno."
"No, I don't know much about it. Can you fill me in on the basics? I don't think I'll be able to get to the library tonight."
"Sure. There are lots of different versions, but here's the basics of the one I know best. It's towards the end of King Arthur's reign, and he has no son. Guinivere and Lancelot have been lovers for years. The knights are all sitting at their places around the Round Table. Galahad, purest of the knights and the only one who can sit in the Seige Perilous, has joined the company. As they sit, feasting, a miracle happens. A vision of the Grail, carried by a woman dressed all in white, appears to them, and each finds himself eating the food he loves best. When the vision passes, a moment of silence falls, then King Arthur stands to his feet. He declares that a great doom has fallen upon the knights, since they can now do naught but seek the Grail, and few return from such a Quest."
I sat quietly, mesmerized. I'd never heard Stephan talk so freely, or thought that he would use rather archaic language with such skill. He continued to paint while telling the story, the whole of his existence consisting of the performance of word and image.
"The knights went their separate ways, in search of the Grail. I don't remember most of the stories, but only two are particularly relevant. The first is the tale of Sir Lancelot, father of Galahad, and once the strongest of the knights. Though Lancelot was physically strong, he was a traitor, for he loved Guinivere, the Queen, and was her lover. Once, when he was away from the castle, he fell in love with-some say he was enchanted by-the Lady of Shallott, Elaine. She bore him Galahad, but he left her, seeking Guinivere again. Elaine died of sorrow, and Galahad eventually came to King Arthur's court. When Lancelot went to seek the Grail, he went mad, for he was not pure enough for it. Only when he found a small chapel in the woods and repented, did he regain his mind. Even then, he was granted only a vision of the Grail, and not the Grail itself."
As he came to the next portion of the story, Stephan's face began to shine, echoing the flames shooting from the center of his canvas.
"The second part of the story is the tale of Sir Galahad. Galahad, Bors, and Bans kept company during the Quest, and after many trials, finally came to the Ship of Solomon, which carried them over many seas to the Grail-though some say the Grail was on board the ship itself. Galahad asked one favor of the Lord, to whom he had dedicated himself. He asked that he might be allowed to be taken up to Heaven with the Grail. When the three companions came, at last, to the Grail, which was the Cup from the Last Supper, which Joseph of Arimethea used to catch Christ's blood at the Crucifixion, and the Spear of Destiny, the lance used to pierce the side of Christ. The three approached the Grail, and all were permitted to see it, but only Galahad was allowed to touch it, by virtue of his great purity. He reached out to the Cup, and as he touched it, he gave thanks to God, and his soul was withdrawn to heaven. The Cup and Spear were taken up to Heaven, and no mortal man has seen them since."
For a few moments, all the could be heard was the soft swishing of Stephan's brush over the canvas. It seemed odd that an artist who loved a city like Los Angeles so much could be so obsessed with purity.
"Stephan...That kind of purity is impossible, isn't it? I mean, even assuming you know what you're supposed to do, it's impossible to do it every time, all the time. And you live in LA, for crying out loud! Like you're ever going to find it here!"
Stephan just smiled, eyes bright and black. "That's where the fire comes in. I can't keep pure by myself, and I never know what to dol. But fire burns it all away; it's one of the most purifying forces in the world. It's one of the reasons I love St. Joan so much. She had enough purity in her to be able to hear the saints and angels, but after she went through the fire..." He paused, almost reverently. "After the fire, she saw God Himself."
He took the rag in his left hand, and dabbed at the painting a few times, then picked up the canvas gingerly, and held it up against his chest so I could see what he'd painted. The background was deep and dark, richer than any plain black could be. In the center of the canvas stood the figure of a mummy, dessicated and rotten, swathed the bandages. His arms were crossed over his chest, but instead of clenched fists, his hands opened into a gesture of prayer. Between his palms, a fiery globe was suspended, almost pulsing with its own light. Inside the globe was the image of an unborn child, its blood shining through the translucent skin. From the child, and sweeping out behind the mummy, were wing of fire, reaching upwards into a shower of sparks.
Stephan gave a small smile, eyes blazing with the fires of of joy. "See? Purity is not some cold impossibility, but a blazing, consuming necessity."
As I walked out of the warm studio much later that night, the stars burned overhead, throwing down spears of light, and singing of joy beyond the flames.


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