I have never believed in angels. I never used to believe in devils, but when they visit you, it’s hard to maintain your skepticism. I painted demons once, leering and drooling, eager to devour a dying impenitent, despite a saint’s prayers. I would rather be attended by such amiable creatures than the one who has selected me.
I jerked awake one night, heart pounding, to a crashing sound in my ears. The sweat poured from me. Above me loomed a figure.
Others might say she had a peasant’s features, but I know full well that blue blood doesn’t guarantee beauty, and a hero may hide behind a brutish, unwashed face. My canvases have shown that; my brush hates to lie. Her vicious owl eyes bored into me, lips twisted in a vulgar smirk. It was the face of a wizened bawd, a Celestina.
What revolting things she told me, whispering, whispering, like one who’d sell me the flesh of some young luscious girl. Her whispers uglier than her face.
“Look,” she said. “See,” she said. “Paint that.”
You call me Celestina. I like the irony—heavenly I’m not. And if I’m a procuress, it’s your art I pander to. I crook my gnarled finger; soon you’ll follow. Abandon your pretty girls with parasols, Cisco. You may be a gilder’s son, but gold fancywork doesn’t suit you. Here’s what suits.
My bat wings buzz about your head. I gnaw. I claw.
You stumble. Fall.
I strip to show you my beauty, ancient Celestina’s shriveled dugs and dragging cunt.
From my ass, I birth fanged, two-headed infants. Wriggle, wriggle, little serpents.
Hear them scream? No. You hear nothing. Have you noticed yet? Not a sound penetrates. Sweet dreams, Francisco, may flights of demons sing you to your rest—not that you’ll hear them. Deaf as a stone. Except, of course, to my nightly lullabies inside your head. But your sight? Oh, that I’ll leave; what would I do without your art? I suck the sound from your world and leave you dry. Only way to moisten—dip your brush in paint.
Shipwrecks and bullfights. Bandits and lunatics. Terror and violence entice my brush.
If I could hear! A bird. The wind in the trees. The cat jumping on my table, palette and brushes crashing to the floor, the wineglass shattering. A voice, dear God! A human voice. I hear only her voice.
I am trapped. Imprisoned inside this cell of self, like any of the asylum’s lunatics.
Only my work frees me. Line. Color. Shadow. The sheen on a satin waistcoat. The black web of a lace mantilla. Intent on the portraits my patrons commission, I feel whole.
But I’m driven to paint other canvases, the hellish visions Celestina foists on me.
Forsake paint a while, Cisco. Those lakes of color—you float too freely there. You will etch my whisperings, construct sueños as I construct you. How black the world is! Just like the soot you’ll spread on your copper plates.
I am the needle that pricks you, scratching away to reveal your design. See? Your soul shines like gold.
I am the acid. Every night I bite, burning away your illusions.
I am the press that crushes your chest till you fear your heart will explode.
This is how I etch an artist. You don’t hear the plates complain, do you?
I check my proof: You are not dark enough, dear Cisco. I must prick and bite and press some more.
My Caprichos abound with quacks, whores, profligate priests, professorial asses, destruction-mad inquisitors, monsters of greed and cruelty. I will sell them on the Calle del Desengano, for where else do they belong but on the Street of Disillusions? The book will open with my self-portrait, head cradled on my desk, brushes abandoned, the bats and owls and glaring cats of Celestina’s visions pressing around me. I turn her nightmares into art, subvert her perversions. The world, teeming with human follies, seems black as soot. But Truth will shine like etched lines on grounded copper.
My claws rake your thigh. I snap at your cojones. Send innumerable nasties to scuttle across your face. Fevers blight you, hell’s breath licking at your skin, tasting, tasting.
You think you’re some torero who can feint me with a cape? Your horses are gored, Cisco, their intestines streaming behind them. Think you can wipe me out with pictures of wars and bullfights?
Reason lies crushed beneath the wheels of vice. War, famine, a contemptible king who abandons Spain to the wolves. What made me think art could save us? Save me?
Old man, you once thought Truth would gleam like the copper of an etched plate. Night reigns.
My silent house, soon my tomb, becomes my canvas. Every background black. Celestina’s nightmares enlarge monstrously upon my walls, like engorged ticks. There can be no more niceties of line; that was for the old, rational world. I slop the paint in crude splatters, wield brush like it’s a knife. Celestina’s horrors swallow up my innocent picnics and parades. The devils triumph. Witches swell their ranks. Titanic cannibals. Mindless mobs.
Once I painted myself as a dog. Wearing “Goya” on my collar, I fawned upon my king, old Carlos IV (a cuckold and a fool but not so very wicked; no, I have known worse rulers since).
Before I lay my brushes by, I finish my last work: I paint myself a dog again. Staring at the void, masterless, awaiting the final darkness.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Sandi Leibowitz is a school librarian, classical singer, insomniac and writer of speculative fiction and poetry. Her work appears in Liminality, Stone Telling, Inkscrawl, Mythic Delirium, Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year 5 and other magazines and anthologies. A native New Yorker, she has ridden in a hot-air balloon over the Rio Grande, traveled in the footsteps of medieval pilgrims to Santiago de la Compostella and visited with Arthur in Avalon.