by: Rekha Valliappan
A window into the mind’s eye of an artist as she crafts, where a blusterous mountain painting ripens amid slithering engines of instantaneous death…
‘There are times when the wolves are silent and only the moon howls. – George Carlin
First I could see nothing. Then I was hypnotized by the old sandstone quarry merging with the flaming sky. This was my third attempt, carrying with it ghosts from my last visit. I had reached my breaking point. Five days had passed, and my primed medium-size canvas was as dry as a bone. The entire situation was uncanny. I had come to these grassy meadows in search of a vision. But it had eluded me.
Guided by instinct, I picked up my easel and brushes and moved to the hillock, by the green foliage and purple heather. The air had surprisingly gotten cooler, although golden sunlight gashed the skies, parting the fluffy cloud cover. I hugged my light cardigan tighter as I made my way, the breeze whipping across my pale cheeks.
Perfect! The angle of the rocky outcrop serving as my shelter lent me an interesting view of the stone cottages that lay in artful ruin in the valley below. The desolation was appealing. Soon I was absorbed in my work, sucked into my mindscape, dabbing at the lighter blues and grays of the background, before half-formed darker shapes, in patches of quick brushwork, unwittingly emerged. The windy mountain painting was developing, growing outside of me. The sun lent the motley strokes a luminous glow.
Into this heavy silence, an unfamiliar sound of loud whistles and hisses smote my ears with its suddenness. In an instant, its noisy clamor shattered my concentration. It lacked tonal quality, was my uncharitable impression, as I turned, my gaze alighting on two casually dressed young men, and a gunny sack, behaving furtively near the line of trees. I felt a tad disgruntled, not so much for their interruption, but for their trespass. It felt like an impromptu performance being thrust upon me, which I was unable to surmount.
They had not yet noticed me hidden behind the rocks. At first I decided to ignore them and carry on with my task, pressed with urgency, but then they turned into a distraction, relentless in their whistle-and-hiss speech, to someone or something concealed in the field beyond, it seemed. Their actions appeared perfidious, like they were up to a no good, a shameful act.
Whatever could it be? Should I make my presence known? Or do I stay strategically silent? Perhaps I should inquire after all. I craved my space and peace — this jeweled milieu, in the tints I had carved for myself. I knew I could not work this way.
Once my mind was made up I fell into their routine, neighing as loudly as a hormonal fuelled stallion, about to mate, to match their zoo monologues, expecting to draw a response with a corresponding flourish. On the contrary, the authoritative whistling grew louder, in a complicated un-tuneful way, Chopin competitively meshing with Bollywood jingles, in un-succulent melody. That did it. I strode over.
“Yoo-hoo! Hello there!” I called as shrilly as I could, hoping to sound friendly, and flapping my arms vigorously to gain attention. I very much doubt they heard my call, much less noticed my antics, engrossed as they seemed in stealthy activity. Besides, the blowing wind was against me.
When they did spot me, through the pelting sunbeams, I was almost upon them in full sight — a largish woman in tweeds, with eyes that shone dull white in reflex, my pale angst-ridden face framed by long red hair on end, streaking in several directions. I gathered, from the duos’ joint reaction that I was an apparition that they had not expected to see. Diana rising out of the rich pasturelands, on the mythical island of Delos.
The tension became unmasked, cracked. The whistler froze in mid-scream, his eyes opening wide, his jaws yawning wide. My ear drums relaxed. The other hastily dropped the gunny sack he had been holding in a most peculiar manner.
“Look!” the whistler hissed, pointing.
I looked. I screamed. I wish I hadn’t. From within the folds of the gunny sack there emerged dark slithering shapes, their orange tongues flicking. They twisted and uncoiled, writhing into the grass, and were in a few seconds, lost to view.
My full-throated howl ricocheted around, bouncing off the rocks and logs. It sounded utterly discordant even to my own ears, far worse than the out-of-tune whistle. Stamping my feet, I made every effort to narrow my focus. An awkward silence prevailed, as we eyeballed each other, assertively. Life gets in the way, putting you in the rabbit hole, most inopportunely.
When we had all our bearings restored, a conversation began in dead earnest. The progress, though, was foggy. With my keen relish for affability, within five minutes of pronounced manners, I had assumed they had picked their poison, from my narrative, which was to introduce an art aficionado exclusive to Tate — myself, all of five feet nine inches. I expected to see an answering transformation in them. I was disappointed. They did not seem to know or care. It left me somewhat deflated.
It was their turn. I gathered they were snake-charmers, or snake-hunter junkies, and that it was I who was trespassing on their holy grail preserve. This bucolic hillock expanse, my island of Delos, and this particular alcove, of wild brush land, purple meadows and tree s— the very sanctuary, in which my Seger’s otherworldly mysterious landscape, of mountain valley with plateau vision — had started to unfurl. I was ready to come apart. I had to stand and deliver the bottom line, incrementally.
“Do you see what I am now doing? Putting my finger to the wind. What are you doing throwing poison snakes at me? Fang murderers! Pitiless hissing cobras! Are you trying to kill me?”
“Madam if you will calm down, we shall give you some facts.”
“Please do. I am nothing short of all ears.”
“You may google our names, if you wish. We have nine thousand followers.”
“Sir, let me finish my point…”
“The final countdown — if you will not interrupt while I speak sir — my vision from the deepest recesses of my mind, has been…”
“We are not disputing your eyesight, or your story, madam, but we have a system of methodology…”
“Good! Since we are all agreed, but from the opposite sides of the same coin, let’s all get to work, and kill those damn serpents, right now, before someone gets fatally envenomed…”
“We are conservationists, madam. We rescue snakes. We do not kill them. Besides they are holy objects. These grounds are sacred. We are for releasing these living creatures into the wild.”
The Jungian perspectives connecting with my collective archetype dictated that narcissism was a designed process, which took different forms, and was pathetic to ignore. Did this mean they would decimate these engines of instantaneous death, which they had newly unleashed, on an unsuspecting pastoral countryside? Or were they snake-worshippers of the untamed immortal kind, seeking to establish the endless infinity, of ouroboros, the elixir of life and death?
Secretly, I was relieved that I had created a sense of redoubled urgency. Because suddenly the two young men gave a startled cry, and were hurriedly on the move, descending the hill at a rapid clip. I kept pace as spritely as Blake’s lambs gamboling in a field of bluebells, in spring. Now all we had to do was stay calm, and with a couple of stout sticks, jointly hunt those slithery fiends, hiding in the deep grasses, and I could go back to wrangling with my tree spirits, profoundly influenced by my ancient mountain divinities.
“Stay clear of the quarry and the ruins madam,” was their quavering parting shot, conveyed in an agonizing groan.
It turned out the pair were leaving me to my reptilian fate, absconding, of all the hollow ignominious outcomes, to least anticipate. Their parked Land Rover sprang into view, as they nimbly hopped inside, with unprecedented haste, clutching painfully at their arm and foot. I shuddered inwardly.
“Why?” I demanded, blocking their way, while scornfully mocking at their supersonic lightness of foot, and cowardly grovel.
“Move out of our way,” they panted, stammering fitfully, ‘What have you been up to, in our little ruins?”
Their question threw me. “What do you mean?” I asked surprised.
“Only snakes inhabit those stone structures.” Their engine roared to life as they backed up urgently.
“Are you calling me a snake, sir? How many?” I yelled above the screech of the exhaust, my mind a riot of supernatural activity.
“Thousands! Depending on the phases of the moon.” After a struggle their gears disengaged, as they extricated their vehicle for flight.
Were these snake-handlers putting me on? Why the rush? Besides, I had been in these parts before, and had met no one, least of all venomous snakes. Was I letting my guard down?
“That’s impossible! They’re probably the garden variety,” I retorted sharply, jumping with supple speed and agility, out of harm’s way, as their vehicle sought to ram me, to gain the roadway.
“Oh no madam. Look at our bites! This mountain is the deadliest, with black adders and cobras.” Their voices sounded excessively slurred, and very faint, weakly fading into silence as they roared into the curve of the hillside, lost to view.
For a long while I stood motionless, staring unblinking, as if I had been a lidless snake. My frozen ice eyes grew still and took on the color of waxy parchment. A twisting horror seemed to glide across my features. My snake maiden of the Nagavanshi tongue, snaked out, tasting the grasses, and sensing the blustery winds. A loud hiss filled the density of the surrounding air, hanging with the weight of the resonance.
With incredible intervolutions, and undulating gait, I gained the hillside, my inner sanctum, hidden from view, as I crept to the edge of my obscurity. In wavelike coils I stretched, pushing out of my skin a new birth, like an accordion bellows, in constant motion, compressed and expanded, in two directions, leaving behind a long threadbare scaly trail of old snakeskin.
Freed out of my pallid constrictions I glistened. My elusive thoughts flitted to indiscernible forms. Preoccupied with melancholy refrains, I lingered, clouding my garden with snowdrops and icicles. Only the persistent eye caps remained, hardened and opaque, shedding no transparency, or luminosity, from years of incomplete molting. The cream colored convolvulus, on either side of my head, gave my new coat a strange appearance, that of the silvery moon, swallowing its own shadow in dying cadence.
The exhibits were in the main hall. The magnum opus was “Ice Eyes Of The Turquoise Passage.” It was opening reception night, of the Cintamani Exoteric One Is The All exhibition at the Tate. The foyer was a hive of activity.
The large painting was startling. It conjured the image of two stone monolithic chimaeras, shaped like earthenware pots, of the Renaissance, with human-like heads, one pursed in a whistle, the other stretched in a hiss. Around the neck of each, lay a coiled serpent.
Against the backdrop stood a breezy hillock, captured in the motion of shady grasses and trees, overfilled with multitudes of writhing shapes. Twisted into the foreground, in albino quality of scaly pigmentation, was an iridescent indigo blue serpent. It bore a flattened enlarged head, its yellow fangs protruding, with the golden glitter of liquid venom. The blue flame of its lidless eyes, round and discerning into permanence, like an eternal seeker of truth, was snuffed, dissolving in chalky ashes.
From the center of its forehead, shimmered the third eye, in frosty luminous moonstone.
The unknown artist was blind.
Rekha Valliappan was born in Bombay. She has an M.A. in English Literature from the University of Madras and an LL. B. from the University of London. Her work has appeared in Indiana Voice Journal, Scarlet Leaf Review, Friday Flash Fiction, Third Flatiron, The Ekphrastic Review and Boston Accent Lit which adjudged her the 2nd prize winner in their Annual Short Story Contest.