Narrated by Bob Eccles
First published in Jabberwocky #8, September 2011
At any given moment, there are almost five thousand paintings in the House of Unrighteous Images. They hang on the rough-plastered walls, or stand in uneven stacks on the water-stained floor. Some canvases are broken from their frames, rolled tightly and stuffed into dented filing cabinets. The air smells of damp and cold metal, of flaking paint and cheap canvas, of staples and broken wood.
A few of the paintings are great criminals; satires of the Eternal Empress, her fine eyes narrowed and silted like a snake’s, or folk paintings of shepherds and veiled girls and women dying cloth—glorifications of the past, the backward, and the Enemy. A great majority, however, are guilty of minor crimes. They are not enthusiastic enough in their portrayal of life in the shadow of the Empress, steel-bright and singing like engines, or they bear an unfortunate resemblance to a man or woman or aesthetic that has fallen out of favor. Some simply hung in the wrong place, over the wrong table or the wrong bed.
All of them are slated for execution. The furnace in the courtyard burns white-hot, fed by picture frames and the bones of canvases, flinging sparks onto the tile roof like fallen stars. But the wheels of justice turn slowly, even in the shadow of the Eternal Empress. Some paintings hang here for years, fading in the rain-soaked sunlight, molding in the damp, haunting the prison guards who day and night pace the cold and winding halls beneath the curious faces of the damned.
Amelia Valen wanted to become an artist. She begged her aunts for oils and brushes, pastels and exotic papers, and she set a little easel on the staircase landing behind their apartment, where the light was clear and the air was dry. When she grew older, she took to sketching the people she met on the streets; dye-women with their brightly-colored hands, and fish-women in their smocks, and women from the tall red-curtained buildings at the edge of town that her aunts forbade her to visit. One day, a man in one of the red-curtained houses saw Amelia painting. He told her that she showed talent, that her work was very good, and gave her the name of a school where she could become even better—and attract the wealthiest patrons.
Then the Eternal Empress arose, and the school was burned with everyone who taught there, and Amelia Valen became a guard in the House of Unrighteous Images, because she claimed to know something about paintings.
But the more she paces these cold and winding halls, day and night, while the furnace flings white sparks into the sky and the rain enfolds the windows like a blue curtain, the less certain she becomes. There are paintings here that even she does not understand; jagged yellow things with too many eyes, landscapes that look like dreaming monsters, blots of light and color that fall together differently if you stand too close. These are kept in their own room, separate from the satires and the folk art and the pictures whose crime was belonging to the wrong man.
The room is at the top floor of the House of Unrighteous Images, overlooking the courtyard and its furnace, locked behind thick doors, covered in paper and cloth. It is as though the paintings are poisonous, Amelia thinks; as though they could infect the other paintings, the guards, the very air with their curious unfathomable sins. As though they know a terrible secret, and must be put away and gagged lest they reveal it to the world.
Officially, there is no connection between an artist and his work. A man may be hung at the Pillars, or drowned in the river, or stood against a wall on the outskirts of the city and shot while his paintings remain safe in his studio, or museum exhibits, or hanging on a wire above his lover’s bed. A painting may be burned while its artist reads a newspaper at a table in the back of a café, sipping absinthe or cold coffee or vodka from the bottle. But the guards are observant in the House of Unrighteous Images, and they know that a painting and an artist can die for each other’s sins as easily as a woman and her lover, a tree and its poisonous fruit.
Take for example the painting in Amelia Valen’s hands. She is sure there is nothing objectionable about it; a small thing, one foot square, of an apple in a man’s calloused hand. The apple is smooth, gleaming, relentlessly red, so polished that the man’s jagged fingernails bite into their own reflection. The woman who painted it was shot this morning, shot past recognition, shot until the brick wall behind her crumbled away into flakes of clay and blood. They say she sold information to the Enemy in exchange for bread. Amelia does not doubt this, not exactly; but no one can tell her the reason for the burning of the apple in its rough and desperate caress.
Then there is the painting in the locked room at the top of the House of Unrighteous Images, and the boy named Icharus Heclo—but Amelia does not like to think about him.
At this moment, Icharus Heclo is standing in front of a wall. He is pale, slender and not particularly tall, and his dark hair is rather desperately in need of a trim. He wears thick oval glasses with silver frames; one of the lenses is cracked, and his brown eye is multiplied spider-like in its depths. The other eye is swollen shut. He licks his dry lips, wincing as his tongue brushes a deep vertical split.
Icharus has been in prison for thirteen months. This is a long time as far as prison sentences go; the Eternal Empress prefers to put her criminals to work, breaking stone, building railroads, draining swamps. The only men in prison are those who are too dangerous to put in chains, or those awaiting execution, or those with whom no one knows what to do—and it is an open secret among the guards that these are one and the same.
So there it is, the thought Amelia Valen does not want to think—Icharus Heclo is awaiting his execution. For what, he isn’t quite sure. Neither are the men lined up before him, down on one knee, testing the heft of their rifles. He has spent thirteen months in a damp prison cell so that his judges could formulate a plausible excuse, and perhaps they have succeeded—enough to soothe their consciences, at any rate. They feel no need or duty to share this excuse with anyone else, not even the executioners, much less the condemned.
Amelia Valen, who has spent far too many nights pacing a certain locked room at the top of the House of Unrighteous Images, believes she knows why Icharus Heclo is going to die. It is all because of a painting he did over a year ago, a painting of a red-haired subject in a room full of paintings, looking at what is either a window or a picture of a flame—a painting, Amelia Valen believes, of herself.
On maps of the House of Unrighteous Images—which are, as a rule, kept hidden in a filing cabinet in one of the dank sub-cellars—the locked room on the top floor has a name. It is called the Hall of Misdirected Visions. Almost as though it were a bench at the train station for passengers who have boarded the wrong car, and the black-uniformed guards who sweep through it quickly on their nightly rounds are the unhelpful ticket-sellers with their vague and incomplete maps, powerless to direct the lost to their proper destination. In theory, the paintings in this room represent the meandering and misaimed aspirations of unsanitary minds, all of which will shortly be scoured away by the steely brightness of the Empress’s shadow. In practice, this is where the officials lock away the paintings that scare them.
Amelia is afraid of Icharus Heclo’s painting.
It is not particularly abstract, nor particularly skilled; the brushwork is broad and thick, the oil paint slapped on too quickly, so that in places it has already begun to crack. It came to the House thirteen months ago in a crate of other paintings, guilty of hanging in a traitor’s gallery, and lay for weeks on top of a stack in a front room. The androgynous subject’s hair was what caught Amelia’s attention; nearly black at first, it seemed to brighten before her eyes, becoming auburn, becoming carrot-red, becoming the deep burning crimson of her own hair in the sunlight. What seemed at first to be an artist’s studio now looked like something else entirely, something hung with strange colors and odd angles and dizzying slashes of light. The subject’s smock, once flowing and white, became black, became high-collared, became a coat with steel buttons.
Amelia moved the painting to the bottom of the stack. She broke its frame and threw the little brass plaque that said “Study by Icharus Heclo” into the courtyard furnace.
The next day, the painting was hanging over the stairs.
She tried rolling it tightly and stuffing it into a cabinet, and placing it between the wall and the back of another painting, and digging a hole in the sub-cellar’s dirt floor and burying it in the damp. It always came back, always appeared at her favorite places on her rounds: the Hall of Forgotten Faces, by the portraits of criminals, or the Hall of Backward Thinking, by the pictures of dye-women and whores. It appeared on a third-floor landing where the light was clear and the air was dry. It was Amelia herself who moved it to the Hall of Misdirected Visions, hoping to trap it there—and it is true that, once it hung in the locked upstairs room, Icharus Heclo’s study stopped following her through the House.
But more and more, Amelia found herself drawn to the upstairs room, to its gagged and poisonous images, their unfathomable progresses halted by the furnace’s relentless light.
This morning, a guard cleaned out the furnace in the House of Unrighteous Images, preparing it for today’s executions. There will not be many: the apple in the man’s hand, and a portrait of a peasant girl weaving a cloak of sheep’s wool. Perhaps—this has by no means been announced officially—a study of a red-haired woman watching something burn. The cleaning is not necessary, but the guard felt a strange compulsion to do it, to turn the ash of frames and canvases loose on the autumn wind. In the very back of the furnace, he found a thin brass plate, apparently undamaged by the fire. In deep smooth-lined letters it said “Study by Amelia Valen.”
Icharus Heclo was arrested thirteen months ago in the apartment he shared with his aunts. The ladies were old and practically-minded, and they did not particularly approve of their nephew’s ambition to become an artist, but he was so persistent in his begging that they bought him oils and canvases, pastels and expensive papers, a little easel he could set up on the landing, where the light was good. In time they became quite fond of Icharus and his curious pictures, and they wept and screamed most piteously when both were taken away.
Now, as he stands in front of the clay-brick wall and watches his executioners test the heft of their rifles, Icharus remembers the best painting he has ever done. He called it a study at the time, as though there was more work to be done on it, but in truth, he had been pleased with every brushstroke. It showed himself, or a version of himself, in the spacious studio of a great house, like the ones on the edge of the city that the Eternal Empress now uses to store what her soldiers confiscate. He thought it was a painting of the future, of the life that would one day be his—but now he knows that the future in his painting is unattainable, that the world has, as it were, boarded the wrong train, and he will never be more than what he is: a poor artist, awaiting his execution.
One by one, the strands of his too-long hair are turning red.
Amelia Valen is holding the picture of an apple in a man’s calloused hand, but she is thinking of Icharus Heclo. She does not want to think about him. She does not want to think of the black mouths of rifles or the white-hot flames of the furnace, or the painting that hangs in the Hall of Misdirected Visions, a painting that is not particularly skilled but that is more than she, at this moment, after so many years on the wrong side of brushes and canvas, could create. She does not want to think about the future in which she once believed, the future where she lived in a house like this one and painted pictures like these; she does not want to think about the fact that she is, more than anything, jealous of the woman who painted the apple in the man’s hand and of the boy named Icharus Heclo, jealous of the girl she could have been, once, if the school hadn’t burned, if she hadn’t claimed to know so much about paintings when the soldiers came to her door, if she hadn’t been afraid. She does not want to think about the regret that has hung for so long on the wall of her heart, the regret that she has tried for so long to silence, and to lock away.
Icharus Heclo is holding a picture of an apple in a man’s calloused hand, and in the courtyard below the window, the furnace burns white-hot.
Amelia Valen is standing in front of a wall, watching her executioners test the heft of their rifles, and she is an artist.
And at this moment, almost five thousand paintings hang in the House of Unrighteous Images, fading in the rain-soaked sunlight, molding in the damp, making their curious and unfathomable progresses by the furnace’s relentless light.
AUTHOR BIO: Megan Arkenberg is a student in Wisconsin who, after next semester, will hopefully be able to call herself a teacher. Her short stories have recently appeared in Asimov’s, Lightspeed, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and her poetry has been published in Strange Horizons, Ideomancer, and dozens of other places. She procrastinates by editing the fantasy e-zine Mirror Dance and the historical fiction e-zine Lacuna.