HE is, with the aid of an extremely fine-grade horsehair brush and an extremely high-powered desk lamp, applying almost infinitesimal daubs of watercolour to the luminous surface of the painting which lies before him on the desk’s inclined surface. Years of obsessive application to his artistic labour have transformed Dorian Salva’s body into an extremely literal interpretation of that old turn of speech according to which one is ‘bent to’ a task. He exhibits the posture usually seen in people whose professions require them to spend hours of every day hunched over a desk, and in the chronically anxiety-ridden.
The lamp, with the insubstantial aid of a doppelganger of diminished lustre which glows faintly from behind a thick layer of dust in the mirror beside the door, provides the sole illumination in the small room. The weaker luminary has an appearance of mingled longing and envy, like a lost soul consigned to its dim and dust-hidden hinterland, and to have always before its eyes the glorious image of a twin in whose place it might now stand, if only the strange laws governing the relations between appearance, perspective and substantiality were reversed.
His face’s angles and contours, arranged into the usual mask of grim concentration, look as hard as if sculpted into stone by centuries of wind and rain. Tonight, however, something in the inexpressive visage is subtly, almost imperceptibly, out of place. A closer inspection might trace this adventitious element to the small space between his eyebrows. Here, three small wrinkles, like the cryptical dashes of an alien language, bely the trace presence of a frown.
The root cause of this perturbation is a combination of experiences, feelings and perceptions which have been accumulating for some weeks – perhaps months – in the topsoil of Salva’s subconscious. There they have slowly been transmuted into a compound of dark minerals and nutrients, in turn feeding this shoot of unease that has just broken through the soil into the thin air and dim light of the lower regions of Salva’s consciousness.
It was today, as he returned to his flat in the dim twilight, laden with several full bags of shopping, that this ominous weed put forth its first definite leaf. It was the strange looks – looks of suspicion, if not outright hostility – that he received from strangers whom he happened to pass on the street.
Arriving back at his flat, he went to the mirror beside the door and, with his coat-sleeve, wiped a swathe from its coating of dust. He scrutinised his own face for any sign of what could have been eliciting these peculiar reactions from strangers. There was the familiar closely cropped scalp accentuating the delicate aquilinity of the features. There were the familiar eyebrows, thick and well-formed yet lent a slightly crazy, owlish appearance by the long tufts which broke away from the general line in the centre of the forehead and at the temples. All of this, however, he barely registered, for the most prominent feature was immediately apparent.
It was his eyes. Not only did they appear wider, as if the lids were pinned open in a fixed, almost rapacious stare – but the irises themselves appeared to have grown and expanded into some of the territory that should, by rights, have been occupied by the sclera. The pupil, too, had become a beady black ball perceptibly too big for a normal human pupil, even allowing for the dilation which the dusky and partial illumination of his room would naturally occasion. For a while he simply stood there, staring into his own eyes. His face registered no perceptible response to what he saw; but, presumably, dark wheels were turning in the lower regions of his soul, regions as obscure and unfrequented as the ocean’s deepest trenches.
An ornithological illustrator and occasional illuminator of children’s books, Dorian Salva is one of those rare people who, by sheer force of attrition, manage to carve their own peculiar niche out of this world’s hard, granite façade. In his peculiar, quiet, aloof way, he is almost monomaniacally single-minded. His obsession is, and always has been, birds. If asked to explain the nature or causes of this obsession, he would be at a loss to put into words what is, to him, the single driving factor, not only of his individual existence, but of existence per se. To try to explain it would be like trying to explain the necessity of eating or respiration, and just as nonsensical. Besides, he is not of a philosophical disposition. If he had been it is possible that he would, instead of devoting himself to his eccentric artistic pursuits, have produced some esoteric work of philosophy deriving all phenomena in the universe in some convoluted manner from a Divine Bird or some race of angelic avians.
But this is idle speculation. Suffice it to say that, with a fanatical fervour, he has devoted his life to the artistic representation of those winged and feathered beings which have captured the imaginations and souls of poets, artists and mystical dreamers since time immemorial – not an ignoble enterprise, all things considered.
As for his work, its peculiar qualities are perhaps best evoked by reference to two significant, and seemingly incongruous, precursors: John James Audubon and William Blake. He works in watercolours, using brushes of the finest possible grade. He mixes his colours with a precision and a methodically experimental spirit that are positively scientific, while the effects he produces are better described as a species of alchemy. His technique is to apply layer upon layer of paint, painstakingly building an image at once minutely detailed and possessing a luminous transparency, as of a stained-glass window suffused not by the light of our sun but by the mysterious radiance of some other world. And not only the colours, but the birds themselves seem, not occupants of the real world, but visitants from this other realm, their plumage still steeped in its numinous and nacreous light.
Now, sitting at his desk, his face bathed in the reflected radiance of the image before him, he is working on what, in our sublunary taxonomy, is called a long-eared owl. But the creature on the page, despite its anatomical accuracy and exquisitely detailed markings, bears as little real resemblance to our familiar understanding of this species as does an immortal spirit to the body in which it temporarily alights.
Now he is working up the face, layer upon layer of detail. His constant practise – the present instance being no exception – is to paint the faces after completing the rest of the image, bird and background: these providing the context without which he cannot visualise the volucrine physiognomies correctly. Today, however, something seems to have gone subtly awry. The three frown-marks deepen and are joined by the faintest corrugation of his forehead.
He starts slightly in his seat. His hand quivers a little, holding the brush above the surface of the paper. His eyes widen with a far-away yet intensely focused look. He has heard the low call of the owl come floating towards him from the mysterious throat of the night which lies outside, beyond the walls of his small room, beyond the plot of waste ground which lies at the back of the block of flats, filled with the detritus of decades of human lives which has slowly formed into something stratified, almost geological.
He stands up slowly, appearing distracted, his head cocked towards the blinded window through which the sound came. He moves over to the window and pulls the cord to draw up the blind revealing, not the night outside, but a replica of the room in which he stands, slightly darkened as though seen in a perspective box. Pressing his forehead to the glass, however, he sees the rust-red remnants of the western sunset cutting the saw-toothed silhouette of the stand of conifers which lies across the waste ground.
From these trees, he knows, the owls’ calls come. He also knows that they are long-eared owls, like the one he is painting, and he vaguely and superstitiously hopes that something of the spirits of the creatures will infuse itself with his painting, perhaps carried there by the haunting calls. That is why he draws up the blind: to reduce, as far as possible, all intervening material which might otherwise impede this spiritual transmission whose possible reality he, at a barely conscious level, entertains. The window itself cannot be opened.
Again the call comes, hooo… hooo… It has a throaty timbre, as if hoarse from overuse. The sound reverberates strangely in his skull, seems to tug, gently but insistently, at some cord buried or lodged in the centre of his belly. Now it does not, as usual, reassure him. Instead it stirs into motion the dark, thick mist of unease that has been brooding in the bottom of his stomach.
He returns to his desk and painting, seeking there the familiar anchor of his work. He begins again to work at the face. Yes, something in the proportions of the avian countenance has gone definitely, indefinably yet unmistakeably, awry.
He pauses awhile, scrutinising the work, his tiny brush poised above the surface of the image. Broodingly he rests his cheekbone on the knuckles of the other hand and his elbow on the desk. The quality of wrongness seems to inhere in, or, rather, to linger about the regions of the eyes and beak, and yet nothing in the proportions of these features is calculably wrong. Perhaps the problem is in the shading or colours.
Suddenly, with a slight shock, he realises that he is able to name the problem. It inheres in the expression of the animal’s face. It is an expression that does not belong on the features of a bird – an expression, almost, of sorrow – almost… human. As he stares before him, an appearance of sightlessness in his eyes, dazed and unnerved by the uncanny distinctness of this bizarre and unexpected perception, there comes again the call of the long-eared owl through his window: hoo… hoo… This time it seems, somehow, about to pose a question. A doleful, hopeless, long-drawn-out whooo… whooo…
He notices that his hand in which he holds the brush is trembling slightly. Carefully he sets the brush down, next to and precisely parallel with the edge of the painting.
This disturbs him at the deepest level, this unprecedented invasion of human qualities into that avian world which has always been his refuge from the human, from his own humanness and the overwhelming humanness of humanity itself. With a vague feeling of giddiness and dread, as one who gazes into the opening of a tunnel that plunges into dark and unfathomed subterranean regions, and knows that he has to enter, his mind begins to track through the memories of the previous days, weeks, years. There he searches for some aetiology to explain this unnerving and strange twist of events. In what dark, unnatural soil has it grown? Where are its roots?
As the images begin to pass before his mental vision like pictures beamed onto a wall by an ancient cinema projector, he begins, involuntarily, to draw dark connections of a kind that have never before occurred to him. He is like one who suddenly perceives the presence of a motif which, recurring, binds together the design of an ornamental rug which has been so long and so much a part of the familiar furnishings of his life as to pass almost unnoticed. The cyclical recurrence of these episodes of nocturnality, he now sees, is just such an omnipresent motif in the fabric of his strange life. They have come in phases that have waxed, almost imperceptibly and yet ineluctably, greater as time has elapsed. It is as though he had periodically come under the influence of some darker, underlying world – a double of the one he has always inhabited; a world where all familiar things seem strangely inverted, as in a photographic negative. And it is as though that other world has all this time been drawing him ever more powerfully into itself.
It was as a child, he now remembers, that he first felt that haunting fascination for the mysteries of the dark, and for that liminal period, dusk, which transmutes, as by some subtle alchemy, this world’s faded façade into a living stained-glass window swimming with luminously opalescent colours and mystic shadows. He remembers how, a student at university, he felt such a strange compulsion to walk the streets at night; how he loved to bathe himself in the lambent dusk of streetlights; how their half-light seemed to evoke such enchanting images, views strangely distant as though glimpsed at the end of long, ancient corridors of time; and how these affected him with such an untraceable, strange homesickness. Perhaps it was then that the aversion to sunlight began: the way it seemed to pummel down with such brute force, to rudely strip the world of that unutterable beauty and mystery in which it steeped itself at night, when it communed with the memories contained in its own timeless soul. For the night seemed to withhold the living, spiritual essences of ancient and ineffably beautiful things; seemed to harbour, within the enfolded mysteries of its being, a marvellous world of light. And this light, in contrast to the brute physicality of the sun which hangs in the sky of the world we know, was of an entirely spiritual kind.
And this strange intolerance to sunlight has, of late, increased. What happened the last time certain exigencies of an unavoidable nature had forced him to venture from the gloomy refuge of his flat in the middle of the day brought vividly home to him the necessity of avoiding the full daylight at all times, at least for the duration of these hot summer months. It was at the height of the luminary’s midday tyranny, and, to Salva’s bewilderment, the world around him began to resemble a painting, if such a chimaera can be imagined, conceived by Escher and executed by Turner. Everything was swathed and veiled in a hazy luminousness in which streets seemed treacherously to materialise and disappear at random like gauzy fata morgana.
At dusk and night, by contrast, his senses seem to have become preternaturally sharp. He can see, in the brick facades of buildings across the street, tiny insects navigating the mazes of cracks, and crawling in the fissures in the bark of plane trees. He can see, in perfect detail, the growth of moss that clings to the carven beard of the sad-eyed, somnolent dignitary who sits in his chair of stone on the roof of the old Meeting House. In his ears there constantly sounds a strange, intricate cacophony or symphony, seemingly composed of a potpourri of noises which lie outside of the normal range of human hearing. The conversation of insects in their intricate, microscopic languages. The stars singing like querulous tuning forks in the far obsidian voids of space. The sound of the universe breathing, a creaking, rustling, ticking static. There were other sounds still, sounds too strange to be identified or even described.
It is this newly developed sensitivity of hearing, then, which seems to be expanding his auricular perceptions into regions far beyond ordinary human capabilities – it is this which must explain the strange effect on him of the owl’s cries.
There are least two owls living there, he knows: a male and a female. They were one of the main reasons that he chose to live here – the owls, and the stand of conifers that is there home. It rises against the sky like an arboreal cathedral with its rugged, dark green spires and pinnacles. Often from its unseen sequestered glooms have floated hauntingly the owls’ soft calls, like the reedy notes of spectral flutes. And often he has seen, or fancied he has seen, their dim forms flitting like pale phantoms among the gloom-ridden rafters of that faery and funereal isle, until at length he would fall asleep and, in that world of sleep, seem to find himself among them, nestled in their hides in the boles of trees, and in their high perches from which they scanned the ground far below for the minute movements of their prey.
And, it is true, there has returned to him of late the old longing to be among them, a longing, as old as childhood, as old as time and the oldest, leaf-hidden, earth-buried regions of his being, to shed this freight of earthbound flesh which has weighed upon him so, more and more as he has grown older. And, perhaps, by slow and imperceptible stages, his art has ceased to bring him the solace it once did, when it had alleviated the burden of living and seemed a surety and a token of better worlds to come.
At some time while these reminiscences have been passing through his mind he has, in a trance-like state, once more picked up his brush and begun again to work at the face, the movements of his hand harmonising almost unconsciously his unfolding train of thought.
Now something rouses him. He finds himself suddenly back in his room, in the present moment. The face on the page stares up at him. His hands tremble. He has a momentary impulse to tear the thing to shreds. It meets his gaze with a horrible definiteness and clarity, as though defying him to deny the transformation that has taken place. His mind rushes to explain, to rationalise what has happened. Is it, somehow, the strangely delayed and misplaced effect of having looked at his own face in the mirror earlier that evening? Perhaps his own lineaments, having imprinted themselves on his retina, had sunk into the background of his awareness, and there begun to exert some subliminal, occult influence over the movements of his hand, over the very perceptions of his eyes and mind.
He tries to retrace the steps by which the uncanny semblance has developed, but finds that he can remember only fragments, that the vividness of his internal recollections and train of thought had almost entirely occluded the outer world from his awareness. And yet some part of him had continued to work and to think, with uncanny purpose and skill – must have done, for here is the proof, staring up at him from the page, looking like the very agent and executor of this horrible adventitious fact.
A strange voice in his head, not resembling his own, remarks with wry irony, I might have made a good portraitist. It is immediately displaced by a renewal of the horror of what lies before him, regarding him so steadily and cryptically – his own face, mingled strangely with the features of a bird, and seamlessly set in the body of a bird. The semblance is at once uncannily accurate and yet, in some way, caricatured, as though painted by somebody possessing both a maliciously satirical intent and an unnervingly intimate knowledge of Salva’s soul. Its expression is haunted, humourless, unspeakably melancholy.
It is, perhaps, a purely superstitious impulse which causes him to raise his hands to his face, as if to reassure himself that the familiar features are still anchored there and have not traded places with those of the painted owl. Yet what he has experienced has so disturbed him as to insidiously undermine his trust in the logic of the ordinary, familiar, sane world. A terrifying host of much older ways of thinking and being seems to hover above him like a great black storm cloud poised on the brink of breaking and pouring down in a terrible flood which would dissolve all familiar laws and distinctions.
In his horror he tries to retreat back into his mind, seeking there some safe refuge of familiarity, some part of himself which remains secure and untouched by this influx of chaos. He realises (and the thought drops like a heavy stone into a well, clanging horribly and hollowly on the metal sides in its descent) that it is his art that has always provided this refuge, and that this new horror has invaded and infected the very temple of his innermost self – his work.
And still the face on the page gazes steadily up at him, seeming, by some occult power, to be drawing more and more of Dorian’s semblance into itself.
But, he thinks, there might still be time to salvage the situation, to reverse the process that seems even now to be working steadily towards its horrific conclusion. It might still be possible to restore things to their proper identities and places before the scales tip irrevocably away from sanity and he finds himself stranded forever in some nightmare mirror-world.
He sits back down at his desk. A look of rapt intensity in his wide-irised eyes, he takes up his paintbrush once more. Trying to still his hand’s trembling, he begins to apply little dabs of paint. Slowly at first, he works away at the shading, attempting to restore the contours of the painted face to their proper volucrine forms. Yet, and it becomes more and more manifest as he goes on, the very marks that he so carefully calculates to efface the resemblance somehow only contribute to the effect. And still he cannot identify where in the process this uncanny perversion of his intentions is taking place. The very logic of proportion, of cause and effect, of relation of shapes, seems to have gone awry, as in a nightmare or hallucination. In his panic and desperation his usual patient focus begins to slip away from him. He begins to paint more recklessly. Now every stroke of the brush only increases the face’s horrible resemblance to his own.
The strange distortions which pass across his face as he works may only be the effect of his disturbed state of mind playing on his facial musculature like a storm-wind on the strings of an Aeolian harp. Yet those lineaments have been, for so long, so fixed and immobile, so unused to performing the usual office of communicating his emotions to his fellow beings.
Again, from across the dark spaces beyond the window comes the owl’s low, throaty call. Dorian reflexively glances towards the window.
What he sees there makes his blood freeze. All the details of the room’s illuminated interior, reproduced on the glass as in a mirror of polished obsidian, register on his retinas in a single, instantaneous exposure: the desk, the painting upon it, his chair, the door and mirror at the other side of the room, all limned in pale gold, in clear and exquisite detail, but dimmed, as if seen through a layer of tinted glass. But what he sees where his own face should be cannot, must not have its origin in this room where he sits at his desk. Surely it is the face of an owl pressed against the window, an owl that has flown, stealthily silent on its soft-downed wings, from the stand of conifers to alight soundlessly on his windowpane.
For some moments he is frozen in the gaze of the avian face in the window, frozen like a deer in a car’s headlights.
Then, quite suddenly – and with a strange, harsh noise that can only be attributed to the fact that that his vocal organs are long unaccustomed to such use – he laughs out loud. The sound is more akin to the cry of a wild animal than to any ordinary expression of human mirth, but his relief is for the present too great for him to notice this quality. For the very explanation for which he had reached so desperately to still the giddy reeling of his brain, he now sees is, by some blessed intervention of fortuity, the true one. Yes, his windowsill has really been graced by a cherished visitant from that mysterious coniferous isle the sight of whose green-clad rafters and ragged peaks has often stirred such strange longings in his soul.
And yet… there is something unnerving in the way the creature stares at him; a look of – recognition? No. It is, somehow, a challenge – a summons. And something still beyond all this resides in those amber, wide-irised eyes, a quality incommensurable to human understanding or expression – something wild, cold and alien.
The creature’s gaze seems to wield an uncanny sorcery over him. Perhaps in a feeble attempt to release himself from the spell of its wild magic, he forces himself to take a step towards the window. Then a second. And a third. Each faltering step he feels, somehow, to be a transgression, a tempting of the wrath of an inscrutable and ancient god.
Not until he is only a few feet from the window, from the sphynx-like face with its cryptic eyes like Neolithic amber beads, does the creature, without warning, vanish in a pale blur of wings and feathers. Yet – he feels with an unexplainably vivid certainty – this is not the fearful flight of a wild animal from a human but the abrupt and purposeful departure of one who has done precisely what he came to do and has no use for the formality of farewell.
The unexpected incursion from that mysterious outer world now over, the reflected tableaux of Dorian’s flat restores itself to its hermetically sealed tranquillity, like the water in a pool resuming its tranquil and featureless face as the ripples from a dropped stone are smoothed into tracelessness.
Then, with a chill of mounting horror, he realises. Something from the outside has come in – something that has invaded the very features of his reflected face. Surely, it be a trick of the light, a sleight of perspective: the lengthened eyebrow-tufts, the accentuated aquilinity of the nose, the unnaturally enlarged eyes dominated by the irises, the strange texture of the skin. Yet everything else in the room is reflected with such crystalline accuracy. Surely, then, he is hallucinating.
Now the texture of the skin is shifting… rippling, somehow… yes, rippling, as though something underneath were moving towards the surface. And what are these soft white tufts now sprouting in little patches? He stares at his reflected image. Some dark wave from unknown, deep-lying reservoirs of his being rises in a flood, slowly drowning his fear, replacing it with a dark exultation.
He lifts a hand to his face. Sure enough, he feels a soft down which moves, thickens under his hand. Out of the corner of his eye, he catches sight of the painting on the desk, the one luminously coloured object in the almost monochrome chiaroscuro of the reflected room. From the far coniferous isle the owls call again, whoo… whoo…, tugging, pulling, calling out something within him, like a question or a summons.
Like a somnambule, dazed, still cradling his face with his hand, he moves back to the desk. As he does this, his eyes remain fixed upon the painting. Without moving his eyes from this uncanny anchor, he reaches behind him to grip the arms of the chair. He remains like this, in medias res, frozen in the transition between sitting and standing. The transformation of the painted image is complete, has completed itself in the time (how long, he does not know) it took him to go to the window and back again.
From the painted surface his own eyes – his own human eyes – gaze back at him. There is the long-familiar countenance, the only countenance that ever has been familiar to him since the long-lost days of his childhood, whose semblance has not faded beyond recognition or vanished without a trace from the mouldering galleries of his memory. Every detail of it is perfectly reproduced: preserved for perpetuity, and for all time lost to him, its original owner.
Whoo… whooo… cry the owls from the green island, stirring into uncanny motion in his soul flowering green vistas, like reels of video footage from some other world, played backwards or at double speed, projected in gorgeous colour in the theatre of his mind. And he feels himself, his own most essential consciousness, being reeled into that footage.
His beaked face opens in a cry, an animal cry of exultation, relief, laughter. If such a vocalisation could be translated, perhaps it would run something like this: At last I am liberated from this prison of flesh. At last, I have shed this mask, this semblance of humanity. No more must I gaze out at the world from behind the bony bars of a human body. No longer must I perpetuate this soul-crushing charade. At last my soul can wander free with the winds, among the trees, and be with its kin. Such are the thoughts, or rather sensations, which run through what is left of Dorian’s mind. They are among the last of his human thoughts.
For now the owls are calling again, calling and summoning him, and in response that dark wave inside him swells and lurches forwards like a moon-tugged tide. And now he can see their phantom forms, whirling, pale blurs against the outside darkness. In the darkness that is no longer outside but within him, which flows through him and is him. In the darkness where such exotic, gorgeous shapes move, foliating and interleaving…
And the last thing he does as the white and grey feathers begin to spread and cover the backs of his hands and fingers is to open the window wide onto the night whose darkness will soon be no longer a darkness, but a luminous, unfurling canvas composed of an entirely different kind of light.
Now he has departed our human shores forever.