To the reader of this manuscript, whoever you may be:
A good evening to you, gentle reader. I am not a writer by trade, but I have written these words in the hopes that someone else will find them, and perhaps learn from them. I have had one of those rare experiences that one will only see once, perhaps, in a lifetime.
I should try to introduce myself. I am an artist, or perhaps was an artist, for I do not know when this story will finally be found. I do not intend to send it out into the world; it will remain in my studio, until that day when someone chooses again to come and see.
I deliberately chose a hidden place for my studio. Would you have cared to find me? It wasn't truly difficult - past the village of the Angels, past the monsters of the cavern, through a secret door. It may seem odd for an artist to stay in such a place. But, I assure you, there was no better place for it. Not everyone should be able to find their way here - only the truly determined.
Do you think me a proud man? Perhaps, but that was not the reason for hiding my talent from the world. I had much, much better reasons.
Do you still seek my name, gentle reader? You are indeed an insistent one. Are names so important? Ah, very well - you may call me Ishtar.
I do not know what day it was, or what time of day; I have been in this cave for so long that I can remember little about the outside world. Perhaps it was the dead of night when the gentleman from Watermia came. I knew he was from that place, you see; I recognized the accent. I lived there too once, long ago.
He was an unremarkable man, neither young nor old. His limbs shook as he stood, little more than skin and bones - while it was clear that he'd once been quite strong, and perhaps still had a bit of that left, he had obviously seen hardship and pain. His hair was shadowed by a wide-brimmed straw hat, and his eyes were silvery-gray, with a harsh and desperate cast to them. At one time, perhaps, he had been quite a handsome man. No longer, however; it was quite obvious to my practiced eye that something was horribly wrong.
I did not greet him; I merely allowed him to speak. "I've heard about your paintings." That was a rather common line of greeting when one is addressing me. It seems that sometimes, my skill with the brush is on every man's tongue. There was little to answer in such a statement; I merely nodded my head and allowed him to continue.
"Let me get right to the point." He removed his wide straw hat, rubbing the back of his head with one grimy arm. I could see a cut on one leg, where the monsters had managed to strike him. His clothes were wrinkled and stained with dirt and sweat; once, it seemed, he had lived only by the strength that he had then lost. "I've been sick for years now, and I don't have much longer to live. My wife doesn't know how bad it is - I don't have the heart to tell her. But I know that she might never forgive me if I just leave her alone."
"And you would like a portrait done for her?"
"Yes." He sighed. "I want something for her to remember me by, when I'm... when it finally happens."
I smiled. It had been some time since I'd had a subject, and I was glad for it; ennui had begun to set in, and that is no life for me. "Then sit," I said, gesturing towards the stool across the room. "We can begin now, if you wish."
His eyes were very nearly haunted by his need. "Please."
Have you ever thought about how powerful memory is?
Think on that for a few moments, gentle reader, if you will. Memories may seem fleeting, malleable trifles, but I hold that they are much more than that. Much more powerful - capable of elevating scum into gods and casting heroes into infamy. Memories lie more shamelessly than any man is capable of. They do not mean to lie, but they do nonetheless, for they are by their very nature incomplete and flawed. Humans - or any other race - don't remember what they don't wish to remember; they recall just what they will.
Perhaps I'm becoming too poetic. Ah, well. The blood of an artist is not much different from the blood of a poet. I suppose that we are two facets of the same gem. But there is a point in these words, if you care to search deeply enough. Memories are a kind of immortality. Change one's memories of an event, and the event is forever altered. I am sure that any mortal would pay dearly to leave a memory of themselves behind - and especially a memory that fits the way they see themselves.
I have created many of these memories; there is only one man that I have turned away, a child-slaver and businessman who wished to be as noble as the rest of the human race. There are some lies, you see, that even I cannot tell. But most of them I have accepted, and after some time at it they all seemed to be the same. And at first this man seemed no different from the rest.
This was a man who wished to leave a memory for his wife, the one he loves the most. As such, I painted the image of him as he should be - as she has always seen him, perhaps? It was not for me to know, but I know that it is how he may wish that she sees him. And so that is what I chose to paint.
I am not in the business of painting exact portraits of my subjects, you see. I am in the business of painting what they wish to be. You have seen my portraits of the Angels, and perhaps you have seen the Angels themselves; how can you then say that I have any duty to the literal artistic truth?
The first Angel that I painted was a skeptic - quite understandable, I suppose. He had stared at his mostly-finished portrait for some time before breaking the silence. "I do not smile," he said softly. "I have never smiled."
"I know," I replied. And I did know. The Angels were not entirely unpleasant neighbors, but sometimes their solemn manner could be unnerving, and even quite wearing. They were reclusive beings, and although they claimed to have evolved past their human ancestors who fled from the once-great palace of Mu, it was clear that they did not feel fortunate for such a gift. They never said it outright - but I could feel it, could see it in their very lack of emotion. Plus, I have seen them dance, in that intense, wistful manner that can only come from a longing, forever kept unfulfilled and buried so deeply that they were not even aware of it anymore.
"So why did you paint me with a smile?" He studied it for another second before adding a second question: "Why is there such compassion in the portrait? I have lived my entire life in this cave, hiding from sunlight, seeking only to survive in a world that was never meant for me and my kind. I cannot recall the last time that I have seen a human before I met you, or even helped one of my own kind out of anything other than obligation. What kindness have I ever shown?"
I do not know what answer he was expecting; it does not matter, as I have always been bound to answer all the same. "This is how you wish to be remembered, is it not?"
He looked back at me. I could see nothing of interest or confusion in his eyes, but his voice was quite low and intense. "Explain."
"It is quite simple, Sir. You have come to me for a portrait because you are unhappy with the way that you are, correct? Or, rather, with the way that you are to be remembered by those who knew you. Do you truly wish to be known as cold and logical, or did you ever long to know what human kindness was, or what it meant to smile?" His face remained fixed in stone; nothing changed to tell him what affect my explanation was having on him. "This is a memory, my stock in trade. This is the thing that I have been trying to perfect all of my life."
"But it is a false memory."
"So it is. And yet, it still has some value, as it is what you have wished that you could be. You have told me as much yourself." He had indeed; he had confided, one day during a moment of what could only be weakness, that he had indeed danced his entire life to remember what it was like to be human. And so I had painted him thusly: an Angel, but with a human soul and human kindness.
"You must make your choice," I continued as he turned back to study the painting. "What will you leave behind? Will you choose the truth, and live as you are? Or will you allow me to leave this painting as your legacy, and be remembered as you would have liked to be?"
He knew the price of his decision. I was sure of that; he knew that he could not live on as the cold, solemn Angel he was and still be remembered as kind and generous. I watched him stare at the portrait for a moment, watched him murmur silently to himself - I can never be sure, for my ears are no longer as strong as they were once, but I believe that these were the words that he spoke: "A great weight... lifted, by a simple smile..."
Yes, he knew - and yet he made his decision almost at once. "Complete the painting, artist."
"Of course, Sir."
So I completed the portrait, the first I had ever completed - I had never dared to do so before. And soon, his brothers and sisters came to the studio in great numbers, and the village was filled with portraits. And my reputation grew, and more men and women came to my studio, until even in my dangerous tunnels I had no privacy at all.
But what use has an artist for privacy? One can only paint so much when one is isolated from the world; the walls of my room would quickly have become a dull study indeed.
I have painted more than just the Angels. Many others have come here, and I have seen their pain, their dissatisfaction, and acted to eliminate it, if only to future generations. And as I have already said, at first this man seemed no different from the others. I had no reason to expect him to be so as I pulled out my brush and palette, marking lines on the canvas in charcoal as he posed in front of me.
In five days of constant painting, with only the barest amount of food or water passing my lips, the portrait was complete. As always, the art was flawless, although I hope that I do not unduly brag about my talents. The lines that had marked the man's face and told of his difficult life were gone, smoothed into a clear complexion. His hair was still tinged with gray, but it was a silvery gray that shone against black, not the dirty-white of the real man's hair. His clothes were clean and unrumpled, free of the dirt and care of a laborer's life. And the expression - always the most important facet of the work - was one of caring and warmth. That is how most men would like their lovers to remember them, as compassionate men who had done their best to love them, and only them, as they had deserved to be loved.
The man stared at it for a long moment, much as my first subject had done. I could not see the usual satisfaction on his face, and it worried me; had I done something that was not to his liking? Had I chosen the wrong memory to leave behind?
Finally he spoke. "It's very good."
"Do you not like it?"
"It's not that I don't like it..." But his tone was almost sad. He bowed his head, lost in some private thoughts. I had seen ambivalence before - many of the Angels, who had quickly figured out the cost of my paintings, had been reluctant to escape from the world in that manner. But their dissatisfaction with the world and with themselves had always won out. I fully expected this man to do the same.
"Tell me," he finally began, turning to look at me. "Have you ever heard of Russian Glass?"
I shook my head. "I must admit that I have not."
The man nodded only once, turning to look at his image again. "It's a fairly new game of chance in Watermia, one of the most popular. I've been its champion for... months now, I think."
Ah, so this man is a gambler, I thought; perhaps he wanted a more honest face. That change was not impossible to make, although it would have taken some time to complete.
"I don't know why I've been so lucky," he continued, seeming to study that glint of life in the painting's eye. "It's like I'm charmed, like the gods have given me that luck to make up for the sickness that they gave me. That's why I keep playing - I have nothing to lose. And it pays more than any other game in the casinos. My wife is going to need that money once I'm gone."
I only nodded - I have learned not to give any sort of judgement when clients speak like this. It is as if I become their confessor when I create their likeness.
He was silent for another moment. His hand reached down to a pouch on his belt, perhaps to draw out an offer of money that I would not have accepted, but perhaps not. "It's a dangerous game," he said quietly. "They're all dangerous, but Russian Glass... it's worse than most. The player that gets the poison never survives. I'm not sure you can even guess how many men I've killed. Sure, they knew the cost when they started playing, but a lot of them were just kids, really. They all think they're invincible, up until they feel the poison taking hold."
I did not speak. What could I possibly have added to his soliloquy? I would only speak again after he had come to some conclusion; it is not my place to advise anyone.
But he gave me a reason to reply soon enough. "If you had known any of that," he continued, turning his head towards me, "would the painting be any different?"
"Not by much," I replied honestly. "I suppose there would have been a slight difference, a nuance really, but it would have amounted to very little."
He nodded. "The painting's very good," he repeated. "I don't fault your talent at all. But it's not me. It's almost perfect, and that's something I can't ever claim to be." His hand finally completed its motion, drawing a small dagger from a sheath. In one smooth motion he tore it across the canvas. "I can't accept it."
I bowed my head as he desecrated my work, knowing that it was his and that he was fully within his rights to do so - but oh, how painful it is to see something that I have worked on with such passion being so easily destroyed! I have tried so hard never to leave anything of myself in a painting, as it is only a path to heartbreak, but it is difficult - so very difficult.
He then backed away, his eyes distant and sad. "I'm very sorry," he murmured, "for wasting your time. But I can't accept it. I really can't."
"I... I understand, sir," I said, regaining my composure at last.
Perhaps it was the truth, perhaps it was not; I still do not know. But I do know that this man was braver than most, perhaps the bravest man I will ever meet. There are few who, when offered the chance to leave a better memory of themselves on this earth, would turn it away and face the world as they are. The silence, of course, was awkward. What was left to say?
Nothing - that is the answer. And I found myself shaken for some time after the man walks away - even now, the memory still haunts me occasionally. I suppose that if everyone in this world was like that man, I would have no purpose in my life. And sometimes, I wonder if that would not be for the best.
But again, that is not for me to judge. I am a mirror, of sorts; I reflect what I see, in a matter of speaking, about these men and women. And mirrors cannot pass judgement upon their images.
Ah, well. I suppose that my cynical view of humanity is not always the proper one.
I had written these words with some idea about keeping them, using them to remind me when I had forgotten some truth or another. But I have decided against it. They will do me little good; my own day of reckoning is near. I can feel it; I will soon have no further purpose in this world, with my brushes and pigments and my skill at crafting lies.
So I will seal the manuscript; I will leave it here, where someone will someday find it. Humans are inquisitive creatures; someday someone will journey here, simply to see what the place is, and find my masterpiece. That, I think, will tell them all that they truly need to know about who I was. And I will hide this bit of prose, so that only the truly determined will find it. It may well contradict my masterpiece, but I suppose that it will be of little consequence. I am cynical enough to know that not everyone will accept that as who I was, at least not in my entirety.
Until that day comes, my gentle reader, I bid you a fond adieu...