He Reminds Us
By Jennifer Linnaea
12 November 2012
The premier landscape artist of the century tells me that the light is wrong. He tells me we'll have to come back tomorrow.
"The light is always like this," I say. And it is. We are standing at the edge of the Sacred Tundra on Yarres, where the sun never sets, only moves a few degrees across the sky from winter to summer. I don't tell Venturo, the artist, that we could come back in half a year if he wants to see the winter conditions. At his age, half a year is not guaranteed.
Venturo frowns, then sighs, then shades his eyes with his hand and looks out toward the horizon. Slabs of crystal strewn everywhere across the plain refract the harsh blue light of Yarres's star into purple and white and green brilliance. Shadows are nearly nonexistent; the sky is cloudless lavender.
"Can we go in?" he asks. "Not far, just a tiny bit—no one will know."
But as much as I want to please him, I shake my head. "The damage done by our footsteps would last a thousand years. We stay here."
"But surely nothing's alive out there."
Defeated, Venturo motions his apprentice to set up his easel. The apprentice, a middle-aged man with a turban and a limp and eyes that take in everything, first brings Venturo his stool, which he sits heavily upon.
"It is beautiful, is it not?" I say to the artist gently. I've lived on Yarres most of my life, in the twilight belt where native culture flourishes. Here, in the eternal daylight, miles of unbroken nature preserve are guarded from human prospectors and curiosity-seekers by native rangers and also by human transplants, such as myself. To meet Maestro Venturo, revered on Earth and also in half a dozen other star systems, is so outside the realm of my experience that I feel I've stumbled into some kind of waking dream. I want Venturo to love Yarres, I realize. To see in it the loveliness, the purity that I see.
But Venturo is mixing paints ferociously and does not answer my question.
He puts his first few attempts through the recycler. He says they are crude, clumsy, and worse. He cuffs his apprentice upside the head when the man suggests that he is making progress. Day after day we return to the edge of the Sacred Tundra; at night we camp on the nearby land rise where the soil is spongy and the sessile life forms are resilient to our stamping feet.
"It's lovely," says Venturo's apprentice, snatching the stretched canvas on its wooden frame away from Venturo before he can decide to put his fist through it. "I'll have it sent to the ship."
Venturo scowls but does not argue. He takes another canvas off the stack at his side and begins laying on strokes of pale orange with the force of a brawler's hook. While he works, his apprentice and I take ourselves off a short distance, sip the water we've brought from civilization, and talk.
"Is he always that way?" I ask.
"Yes," the apprentice says. "He is a great man, but never satisfied." His mouth crooks into a sad little smile.
I've never seen any of Venturo's other work, the paintings of Earth, in person; the traveling exhibits don't come this far. But almost every human I know owns replicas—the crisscrossed darkness of jungles, the vast airy steppes, the lines of purple and white mountains marching away into the distance. The scenes remind us, living away out here as we do, what home means.
"I always imagined," I say, "that he knew. What he's doing."
The apprentice only shrugs.
"And what about you," I say. "Do you paint, as well?"
A real smile blooms and he looks at the crusty ground to hide it.
"You do!" I say. "Will you paint something, here, to take home with you?"
"You there!" Venturo's voice rings out, bounced around by the crystal slabs, amplified. "I need another number four brush!"
"Perhaps," he says before he hurries off. "If there is time."
The apprentice salvages half a dozen other paintings from Venturo's wrath before the great artist's health declines suddenly. It is the ceaseless sun, I think as I call for the medical lift, but I know in my heart it is just age. Age which eclipses any other excuses we try to give. We get him back to civilization; he lies in a state of twilight for three or four weeks; then he dies.
The funeral is on Earth. The body is shipped back at great expense but of course he had money, plenty of money to do whatever he wished with. After he is gone I wander about the cities for a while, putting off travelers who need a guide's authority. I don't want to return to the Sacred Tundra yet. There is a sort of emptiness in shadowless brightness that cannot be avoided.
I get a call from Venturo's former apprentice. Could I, he wonders, lead him on a trip to Dark Canyons? It is on the other side of the world from the Tundra, shadowed in perpetual night. It would just be him—he will carry his own easel and stool and stretch his own canvases.
"Difficult subject matter to paint," I say. "On dangerous terrain." But I agree, on the condition that we bring along a couple of native sentinels for safety.
He shows up six months later and we depart.
Harkiran straps lenses over his eyes that capture and amplify the starlight. He mixes paints in gray and maroon but also in brilliant white, which surprises me. On breaks in his work, he talks about his old master.
"There's to be an exhibition here on Yarres," he tells me. "Of everything he painted while he was here. Critics are saying it's the best work he ever did, that it captures otherness and homesickness and longing in its purest visual form."
We sip our hot water.
It's lonely out here in the Canyons, especially when the beasts howl and the wind screams above our heads in the constant darkness. But we are happy here, I think, for now. We both need our hearts shaded. We both need time to adjust to our losses; his the master who inspired him, mine something much harder to grasp. I have seen my chosen world through the master's eyes and his vision has changed me. It made the light wrong. It will never be right again.