Hieronymus Bosch dabs paintbrush to palette and confers with the small round convex mirror floating alone in an ocean of bonewhite wall on the far side of his studio. Sharpness of eye, thinness of lip, satirical rage, he thinks: his whole family of attributes, God willing, will be out of this mess soon enough. Rotating back to his work at hand, he touches color flecks to the insectile legs rooted in the dwarf’s shoulder. Appraises.
Travel is sport for those who lack imagination. Bosch is sure of it. Take, by way of illustration, that huge hideous Groot. That huge hideous Groot does not possess a nose. He possesses a greasy vein-webbed tumor partitioning two purple puckered assholes. A homuncular likeness of him hunches in the dark sky above the rendered Bosch’s raised left hand. Groot appears piggish as a gluttonous priest, ears donkey-large with gossip. The heavens churn with hell smoke. Below, the hilly countryside blazes with the firewind of belief. Yet, despite his mass, the emissary from the Brotherhood of Our Lady cannot stop moving. ‘S-Hertogenbosch to Tilburg, Tilburg to Eindhoven, Eindhoven to Brussels, and back again, busying himself with business. What his sort does not know, cannot fathom, is that movement is nothing more than a forgetting, foreign landscapes forms of amnesia, journeying a process of unstudying. One must learn to stay put in order to see. Become a place. A precise address. Lot’s wife, that salty pillar.
Groot dropped by this morning unannounced. Bosch is still trying to figure out why. Prattle over coffee before heading to Helmond. A shared prayer for the Virgin through a cheek squirreled with sugar cubes and ginger snaps. Scuttlebutt about Brinkerhoff, the Brotherhood’s banker, between slurps. Groot’s sticky mouth sounded like a sea-creature oozing in a fishmonger’s bucket. Bosch knew the boob would not recognize himself in the painting. No one ever does. Every man believes it is the next who is worthy of scorn. So Bosch left his easel unveiled as the two sat opposite each other like chess players on the two chairs stiff-backed as Groot’s character that comprise the better part of Bosch’s cramped workroom.
Because behind the heavy green curtains (he has had them manufactured especially for this severity of space) hovers a window out of which Bosch is proud to say he has not peered for almost sixty-six years. His days are nights lit by eleven lamps. Beyond the window hovers the reeking market square through which he cannot at this minute remember ever having ambled, although he has done so to bring his humors into balance every day since he was thirty at precisely two o’clock with his wife, skeletal Aleyt, and every day at precisely five o’clock, alone, in preparation for the evening meal. He cannot remember the neat rows of slender two-story whitewashed and redbrick houses adorned with stepped gables, tiled roofs, glossy black highlights. He cannot remember the cobblestone lanes shiny with horseshit, wet hay, rotting vegetables, foamy piss, shabby beggars, and ballooned rats under the autumnal mizzle, or, as must be the case on this warm summer afternoon, were he to allow himself the luxury of a glance, the fly-hazed heifers dumbly raising their heads not to reflect a little longer throughout the pastures beyond that slide toward infinity beneath a sky sewn from Siberian irises.
Bosch consults the mirror again. He specks ochre along the dwarf’s beak sparkly with slobber. His grandfather was a painter. His father, too. His big brother Goosen. Three of his four uncles. Yet for the life of him he cannot comprehend whence his own style arose. It resembles that of the other members of his clan not in the least. Unlike them, unlike his peers, from the instant Bosch kissed brush to canvas he took the greatest pleasure in leaving a faintly rough surface behind him in order to announce this is a picture of my mind’s picture, which is, he believes, as it should be: the world alla prima, a single sketchless application, underpainting the technique of genius gimping.
The skin of any one of his paintings is more Bosch, more fully himself, than the graying disgrace presently stretched across his bones. This is why he has signed only seven in his career, and then only under duress, only because that is what it took to cache coins to pay bills to paint further paintings. Aleyt sometimes asks why he does not want additional wealth, a larger house, a more elegant wardrobe, although she already knows she already knows the answer. She is the one, after all, who taught it to him. It is the same reason he writes no letters, keeps no journals. Such things are paper children, and why produce paper children when one refuses to produce the screechy, selfish, stinking variety?
Sail nowhere save among the continents of your own soul, and, when your body at long last gives up its war upon you, sloughs away, returning you to infancy, the final hinged panel of the polyptych called yourself having been reached and rushed beyond, leave the useless remainder behind on the wicked midden heap it is.
Let your stunned spirit lift. Drift. Bolt. Soar. Because—
Because, in a phrase: Doeskin brown. Watermelon red. Sandy summer soil the tone of sandkage.; These are the only exotic municipalities a man need visit during his delay on earth, so long as he pays attention, keeps his inner eyes open, learns to listen to himself, which is to say to the noise light makes within the head. Life’s foe is distraction. This is why Bosch has never stepped beyond the lush pastures embracing ‘s-Hertogenbosch. He does not see the advantage. Journey is attempted breakout, yet down behind the liver, the spleen, every human knows no one leaves this town, any town, alive.
Bosch mentioned as much to Groot. He could not help taking note as he did so of the pink speckles constellating the emissary’s bald pate, the bad hide beneath his patchy fog of beard. Their peculiar meeting lasted less than half an hour. A rap arrived upon the front door as the town clock tolled ten. From his studio, where Bosch had been orbiting his easel, endeavoring to see his self-portrait from the vantage point of another solar system, he could hear clatter and commotion in the foyer, his wife’s artificial trill, Groot’s bass outshout caving into that chronic gluey cough of his. Hope cringed in Bosch. He could hear Aleyt usher in the intruder and offer him a cup of coffee. He could hear Groot accept. Hope bit its own cheek. Aleyt called brightly to her husband that his companion was here. Bosch watched hope hobble away.
Aleyt showed Groot into Bosch’s studio, where Bosch set down his brush, dabbed his fingers with a nearby rag, revolved stiffly on stiff knees, reached out, and wobbled Groot’s chubby hand. Aleyt disappeared, reappeared with a hectic silver serving tray, then vanished for good, leaving the painter to fend for himself. He felt like the last soldier on a battlefield, the enemy of thousands descending.
Without delay, Groot half-cleared his gluey throat and began boring Bosch with details concerning his imminent departure to Helmond. From what Bosch could tell, it had something to do with finance and dry goods. Bosch loathed finance and dry goods. He slipped into his mask of feigned interest while privately calculating this afternoon’s labor on his piece-in-progress. Groot worried aloud about having to travel so soon after a resurgence of the plague in the region. Quarantine had been declared in Breda and Oss. The burghers had taken it upon themselves to aid the Lord’s wrath upon the peasants by islanding their neighborhoods. The idea was to let the buggers cull themselves, thereby hastening their atonement. It was the least decent people could do.
Bosch stared stonily over Groot’s right shoulder at his canvas in the fidgety lamplight. He would, he determined, fork a cinnabar serpent’s tongue between the homunculus’s lips. Alter the ears from donkey to rabbit to signify the unholy Catholic exuberance for bottomless proliferation.
A miniature nun, unclothed but for her headdress, breasts girlishly pert, rode a large mouse with a horse’s skull bareback and upside down across the shadowy ceiling. Bosch raised his chin slightly and studied her with interest. Such waking visions did not especially surprise him. They had visited him since that night when, more than five decades ago, he was awakened by his mother’s screams down in the street. Never had he heard raw terror tear through a voice like that.
Lord save us! he came to consciousness hearing his mother crying out. The End Times are here! The End Times are here!
He lurched up in the bed, his muscles thinking for him, and—
And it occurred to Bosch that Groot had just asked him a question.
Bosch’s thoughts had been wandering down their own paths and now they were lost. His attention flicked back to the halfwit’s face. Ginger snaps crumbed whiskers at the corners of Groot’s groupermouth. His dewlap toaded him. Silence unfolded through the studio. Bosch attempted to follow the thread from Groot’s slack expression back to what his question might have been, but came up short. Apologizing, he asked the lummox to repeat himself.
I don’t suppose, Groot began. That is, I wonder if I might, you know, entreat. If you would be so kind, that is, as to consider. Well, not to put too fine a point on it, Mr. Bosch, if you would contemplate giving up, you know…all that.
Bosch shut his eyes and watched a small wooden ship packed with fools flirting, eating, drinking, gaming, cheating, begging, singing, carousing, puking as it wafted through bluegreen time, aimless, never nearing harbor.
Opening his eyes again, he reached up, scratched a wild white brow, responded, deadpan:
I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re talking about.
Please, Mr. Bosch. You receive my meaning perfectly clearly. You know as well as I do what your neighbors and friends are, you know. What they have. Begun, that is. Whispering about you behind your back.
Bosch raised his china cup, sipped, set it down in its saucer.
If they are whispering anything about me behind my back, they are whispering rumors. Rumors are bad air in words’ clothing. Bad air is malice in gaseous form. It disappoints me greatly that you pay heed to such bodily functions gone public.
A member of the Cathars, for Christ’s sake, Mr. Bosch. Affiliate of a cult
Clothesline comments. I should be interested to hear what tangible evidence your blatherskites and quidnuncs might have provided you in support of their accusations.
You call charges of heresy rumor
Bosch, I’m afraid, replied Bosch, is Bosch. People trust and respect him, or they do not. Regrettably, there is nothing Hieronymus can do about it.
I am sorry to hear it.
I am sorry to hear you are sorry to hear it. But there it is. Now, if you’d be so kind, Groot, you must excuse me. I ought to be returning to my toddler.
Bosch made to hoist himself out of his chair.
Groot’s stubby arms became upturned porcine legs erect beside his head.
But why? Tell me that, at least. Why in the world…
Bosch paused. Settled again. Sighed.
He took in the brownblotched back of his hands starfished on his trouser legs, then lifted his head to meet Groot’s anal eyes and answered, as if answering an imbecilic child:
Because, Groot. Because—
Because when he was thirteen his mother’s panicvoice shredded his sleep like a whirlwind of scythes. He was a cat curled on the hay mattress beside his big brother, so far submerged in unconsciousness he had left even his dreams behind. Next he was a finch flitting around his small hazy window, straining on tiptoes to peer over the sill at a nightworld swallowed by flames. Buildings burned all the way to the horizon. Houses. Shops. The guildhall. Barns. Schools. Stables. Depots. The globe itself was ablaze. A dense umber cloud roiled above the bedlam like an inverted sea, its behemoth belly glowing orange. Ash snowed down through air thick and acrid with brimstone, charred horsehide, clamor, clangor, cackle, whinny, bleat, bay, bellow. Chickens on fire flapped along the street below, hugging house fronts, trying to gain altitude, cackling torches.
Bosch’s mother, still in her nightgown and bare feet, white hair witch mad, standing among a gathering crowd of burghers, was right. This was what she had always warned Bosch about, what he could never bring himself to believe. But now, watching existence explode around him, he saw how Doomsday came calling on those who refused to take heed of its inevitability. His father, a goosenecked man with fierce eyes and flared nostrils, threw on his trousers, shirt, shoes, and plunged into the throngs trying to hold back the conflagration with picks and axes and sloshy water buckets. His mother stood in the doorway, back to Bosch and his brother. She refused to retire, refused to shed her nightgown for a dress, refused even to slip into her clogs. She seemed to forget the presence of her own sons looping around her. Her thin lips thinned a little more every minute with the recognition that what she had assumed was life, wished was life, was not, it turned out, life at all. This was life.
The boys clambered back up the ladder into their attic room and spent what felt like weeks at that window, watching, talking about how they always supposed hell’s upsurge on the final day would somehow be fast as a cannonball, a lightning strike, an epiphanic burst, and over. On the contrary, its advent had come to pass as a protracted, fiery, smoke-swamped confusion. The black angel with the blue eyes, it turned out, came at you, came at you, came at you. She was everywhere at once, forever.
That night they beheld the steeple of their church collapse into itself in a billowing rush of sparks. The next afternoon they craned to catch sight of three large hogs gnawing at the arms of a dead man lying facedown half a block up the lane. On the third, Goossen shook Bosch awake from an exhausted doze to show him a group of men hurrying along with a naked girl carried between them in a quilt employed as a stretcher. She was eight or nine. Agony rocked her head. Her blond hair was firefrazzled and most of the tissue down the right side of her body had blackened and slipped away. To Bosch, she appeared nothing save glisten and blister and skinned hare.
She happened to look up briefly. Their eyes locked, broke. She was, it occurred to him as he tiptoed there beside his big brother, the first unclothed girl he had ever seen.
When Bosch’s father finally bobbed to the surface of reality again four days later, his mother pitched forward to shawl herself around his spindly neck, and two thirds of ‘s-Hertogenbosch had subsided into smoldering charcoal knolls of wreckage, more than four thousand homes had been destroyed, three hundred townspeople perished, and Bosch had become himself. He applied brush to canvas a week later in an effort to comprehend what it was he had witnessed and realized with a jolt that he had learned how to paint. That the purpose of the act was to capture and convey the details of the soul’s geography, not the world’s. That the world’s was worthless, was wind, because the soul was where the only bona fide cosmos breathed.
And what in God’s name do you call all this, Bosch wonders, back with himself in front of his easel, if not travel?
A journey that is no journey at all, yet one that undoes you as you race along on your way nowhere. Everything webbed with everything else, cause to cause, hurt to hurt, and, in the midst of this thought, Bosch becomes aware of himself again because something in his chest slips. The surprising sensation arrives between inhalation and inhalation, a bluewhite spasm sluicing through his left arm, billowing down his back. He is perfectly well. He is anything but.
His hands become anvils.
His legs become lather.
This is not, he is certain, as it should be. Somewhere below him he hears his paintbrush clitter across the wooden planks. Stunned, he tries to locate equilibrium, rotate fussily, take a step toward the heavy oak door that will lead him directly to Aleyt. He can hear her footfalls in the hall. She will know what to do.
Only something is sitting on his shoulders. Something is sinking him. At the edges of his flustered vision, he glimpses talons.
A hairless tail rubs his neck.
No dreams, Hieronymus Bosch thinks. These are not dreams, not at all, not for one—
With his next breath, a strut of his easel rises beside him huge as an elm. The mirror on the far wall shrinks into a silver fly. His paintbrush becomes a broom chafing the tip of his nose.
It occurs to the painter that he is no longer on his feet. No. He must be on his elbows and knees, froggy rump raised in the air, dizzy as a blizzard, crawling, endeavoring to crawl, and making very little headway. If he could only revolve slightly in a counterclockwise direction, he would place himself in a propitious position to push off toward that door which seems to reside, all at once, in another country.
Yes. That’s it. He shores up his resources, takes a crack at it. The effect is not at all what he had in mind. Bosch’s right cheek is caressing cool floorboard, the dreadful possibility welling up within the painter that he has just commenced drooling. He is almost sure of it. He can feel wet strands dangling off his chin, watery mites slipping down his neck. The situation troubles him, shames his prim northern European sensibilities, but not as much as does the next instant when he soils himself in a hot murky rush.
A dike fails without warning and, unexpectedly, his soggy trousers are steaming.
Of course, he tells himself in an effort to buoy his spirits, circumstances could always be less satisfactory than they are at present. One should never fail to keep that in mind. There are, all said and done, no more than two and a half meters between him and hall. It is a fairly straight shot. On a middling day, he could traverse the expanse in three strides, four seconds. He merely needs to signal Aleyt and help will reveal itself.
Bosch pictures his wife going about her everyday industry on the other side, wiping off a lamina of dust along the mantel, perhaps, or, perhaps, settling back in her sitting-room rocker to read a line or two of scriptures before lunch, oblivious of what is happening just a few steps away.
Bosch channels the sum of his psychic fuel toward burrowing himself into her awareness. If ever there were a time in his life for the telepathy of love to prove itself, pull hope out of its hat, this would be it.
And nothing happens.
Nothing happens some more.
He wants to inch forward.
He wants to reach the door.
He wants to see Aleyt.
His present plan, Bosch comes to grasp, is to stay married to her for another thousand years. This is all he wants. What, he wonders, could possibly, possibly be simpler?
Lance Olsen will be reading with R.M. Berry and Yuriy Tarnawsky on 10/ 10 at KGB from 7 till 9 pm.
This excerpt from Calendar of Regrets is the “Eric Hoffer Award Winner” for fiction. For more information about the award and the brand new anthology go to www.HofferAward.com
LANCE OLSEN is author of more than 20 books of and about innovative writing, including the novels Theories of Forgetting, from which this passage is an excerpt), Calendar of Regrets, and Nietzsches Kisses. He teaches experimental narrative theory and practice at the University of Utah.