14-3 fiction

The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.


A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

14.3 (Summer 2014)


short story


The Apprentice

David Z. Crookes

Arthur remembered one wet summer afternoon that he had spent in the mountains near Beijing, when the whole natural world had simplified itself into a redless, yellowless kaleidoscope of blue sky, white cloud, grey-black rock, and green vegetation.  There were bits of inlay among the larger blocks of colour: tiny black patches of cloud among the white, blue pools and streams among the green.  How might he record the memory of that day in paint?  Whatever he did would have to be a very wet affair.

He spread out a newspaper on the kitchen table.  Then he fetched four plastic bottles of poster paint—blue, white, green, and black.  From an A3 pad he tore off two sheets of lightweight paper.  From a cupboard above the sink he took a four-compartment plastic dish.  After filling the sink with cold water, he dipped one sheet of paper for ten seconds, and set it on one of the work-tops.  The other sheet he set on the outspread newspaper.

Arthur half-filled one compartment of his dish with white, added a squeeze of dark blue, and mixed the two colours so as to produce the pale but vibrant azure of his memory, an outdoor colour, lighter than the ceiling of an apse.  Using a one-inch brush without care or restraint, Arthur coated the top third of an A3 sheet.  His sky, so far from being the neat rectangle of the three-strip Sky-Sea-and-Shore School, was a wild and jagged notatallagon.

After half-filling a second compartment with white, he added a squeeze of green, and mixed the two colours so as to produce the vigorous vernal viridescence that he had never forgotten—a bold chaste colour, lighter and more emeraldine than the leaf of the lime-tree in May.  Having rinsed out his brush, he coated the bottom third of the sheet in the same reckless manner as before.

Now he half-filled a third compartment with white, added a squeeze of black, and stirred the two colours briefly together.  After rinsing out his brush, he covered most of the space between the blue and green areas with barely mixed paint that was generally grey, but black in places.

Finally he filled a fourth compartment with white, rinsed out his brush, and threw four enormous unshaped clouds on to the blue.  For a moment he thought of the calligrapher Chang Hsü, who on wilder days soaked his hair in ink and wrote characters on a blank wall, using his neck and head as a brush.

Arthur set down his brush, lifted the sheet by its top corners, took it over to the sink, and allowed it to slide into the water.  After three seconds of agitated total immersion he lifted the sheet out quickly.  Holding the left corner about three inches higher than the right one, he allowed the water to stream obliquely downwards.  The paint was still quite thick.  Carefully, starting at the bottom, Arthur set the sheet with its painted face down on top of the sheet which he had already baptized.  Once he was sure that there were no folds or bubbles, he ran his hands all over the back of the painted sheet for twenty seconds.  Then, using his forefinger nails to give him a start, he pulled away the painted sheet, and regarded its partner.  Excellent!  It was evenly painted all over, with no gaps.

Action time again.  Arthur dipped the sheet which he was still holding one, two, three, four, five, six, seven times in the sink.  After the seventh dip he held the left corner about three inches higher than the right one, as before, and allowed the paper to drain.  Yes!  That would do.  He set the finished painting down on the kitchen table, and prepared to baptize its partner.  Arthur was a symmetrician in his own way.  When he was allowing number two to drain, he decided, he would hold the right corner about three inches higher than the left one.

It was miraculous.  By letting water first wash off paint, and then run down the surface of the painting, by using gravity and a sinkful of water, he had recreated a particular afternoon that he had spent in the Chinese mountains.  Everything was there: clean sky, wind-driven clouds, mountains laughing in the rain, vegetation drinking in water.  Before their Naamanic baptisms the two pictures had been mirror-images of one another.  Washing and draining had turned them into very different entities.

In number one the mountainsides had given birth to a group of dark storm-clouds, but the white from above had run downwards so as to form what looked like a great three-dimensional area in the middle of the painting.  A patch of green shone like a jewel in the centre of this white area.  From out of the rightmost storm-cloud, unaccountable but undeniable, there protruded the head of a jovial noctule bat.  The drainage lines, which ran approximately from north-north-west to south-south-east, created an effect of life, energy, and spontaneity.  There’s a storm going on at the moment, the painting promised, but it’s going to clear soon.

Number two was the fulfilment of its partner’s promise.  Three small areas of grey-black, at roughly twelve o’clock, three o’clock, and six o’clock, plus a scattering of tiny patches in the centre of the painting, were all that remained of the storm and the rocky mountain-sides.  An explosive blue-and-white sky shone over gentle slopes of green, and wraiths of white steam rose from the left.  The drainage, having run approximately from north-north-east to south-south-west, had transported water rather than paint, and helped to create an overall effect of clarescence.

Both pictures were characterized by freshness and life.  They took Arthur back, as no photograph or film might have done, to a real time and place.  And they took him forward, incompetent as he was, to a use of resources that was ultimately economical.

* * * * * * *

Eight small paintings grew from a single large failure.  Five shops down from the bakery was a smart emporium called Interiors, all Lipofsky glass, Rietveld chairs, Schrörschnauz ashtrays, and prints of a dining-room chair by Dale Tudor Swann.  On Saturday morning Arthur noticed in the window a picture of a yellow violin on a slate roof, and felt inspired to recreate it in his own terms.  That afternoon he started.  On a 20” x 16” sheet of 140 lb paper he drew the outline of a violin, and tingled with the excitement of certain success.

Thirty minutes later he had achieved very little: a mutant daffodil and a patchy grey universe were engaging in two-way osmosis.  In disgust Arthur took the failed picture over to the sink, held it under the water, and crumpled it vigorously.  After a minute of frustration therapy he took the paper out, and opened it up.  Only faint traces of grey remained, and none at all of yellow, but the sheet was more interesting than before, for it was now crossed with hundreds of little fold-lines that suggested to Arthur—what was it?  The branchiation of a birch-tree under which he had once slept, one March night in Hungary.  He thought for a moment, set the wet sheet on the table, and slapped on a coat of black with his one-inch brush.  Then he rubbed the sheet all over with the flat of both hands so as to force the black into the fold-lines, returned to the sink, and performed the crumpling process as before.  After a minute he took out the sheet, opened it up, and allowed it to drain.  Hey!  That looked better!  Definite twiggy branchiation, very lively and natural-looking.  Wonderful business, crumpling.  It was a bit like naturalizing daffodils: you went for the opposite of total control, throwing the daffodils all over the place, and planting them wherever they landed.

What now?  The sheet was too big to go into the oven, so he would have to iron it.  And something else.  Such was the delicacy of the branchiation that the sheet was now too big for a single painting.  He would have to cut it in four—no, in eight.  Tee, hee!  That would give him a ‘stairway set’.  He plugged in the iron, and poured himself a glass of apple-juice.  Black frames, maybe, and charcoal grey mounts.  Right!  He folded the sheet in half and cut it in two, wallpaper-wise, with the bread-knife.  Four more cuts gave him an octet of betuline traceries.

Three minutes later Arthur began to iron the little pictures dry.  It was amazing.  Ironing darkened and emphasized the lines of branches and twigs.  But once they were dry, the pictures displayed a lack of something—colour.  Hoooohhh!  All blacks and greys?  It was time to conscribe the tubes of seriously strong gouache colours.  Arthur squeezed out an inch of scarlet, dipped a piece of rolled-up kitchen roll in the undiluted colour, and dabbed each picture at random in five places.  Then he squeezed out an inch of brilliant violet, and gave each picture four dabs.  After that he squeezed out an inch of cadmium yellow, and gave each picture five dabs.

Happily he set all eight pictures face down, and ironed them vigorously.

When he had finished, they looked really awful.

Arthur carried one of them across to the sink, crumpled it under the water for twenty seconds, took it out of the water, opened it up, and examined it.  Still awful.  Baptize and crumple once again.  Take out, open up, and examine.  No.  Baptize and crumple once again.  Take out, open up, and examine.  Maybe.  Iron dry and see what it turns out like.


The picture was subtly beautiful.  The branchiation was still there, but not as brash as it had been before.  It had started off as part of a birch forest: now it was a birch forest at sunset, and there were robust hints of florescent plant life.

At once Arthur thought of a title for his first ‘stairway set’: The Flowers of the Forest.  In the course of the next forty minutes he treated the other seven pictures to the same process of baptism and crumpling.

Every apprentice creator needs to develop a critical faculty.  On Saturday night Arthur was well pleased with his eight pictures.  On Sunday afternoon, deciding that their florality was overstated, he subjected them to a further bout of immersion, crumpling, and ironing.  On Sunday night he looked at them with perfect content.  After dinner on Monday he decided that they were still too brash, so once again he dipped, crumpled, and ironed them.  Whatever he had done to the paper, it was starting to smell like a laundry now when he ironed it.

At length he was done.  With delight Arthur admitted that his crude, cruel, crazy combination of crumpling and wetting had worked.

On Tuesday night he noticed to his disgust that one of the pictures had somehow acquired a perfectly straight vertical fold which ran more or less from twelve o’clock to six o’clock.

On Wednesday night he noticed that another one had acquired a similar vertical fold which ran from one o’clock to seven o’clock.

Should he dump the two folded pictures, and go for a stairway set of six?

He would give each picture a deliberate vertical fold—not down the centre-line, and not even parallel to the north-south axis, but deliberate none the less.  Then he would cross each vertical fold with a horizontal fold—not across the centre-line, and not even parallel to the west-east axis, but deliberate as the vertical fold.  Finally he would sand the folds with flour paper, and paint them pale green.

These things therefore, as Thucydides said of the Paeonians, Arthur did.

On the following day he found that the crossing of two folds had come to constitute a minor theme in each picture.  Before long their creator felt that in each case the point of intersection was demanding to be highlighted in some way.  From thirty-three years before there came into his memory the candle-flame which he had painted on a Christmas card.  (Seven-year-old Arthur had roughened the paper in the area of the flame to such an extent with a so-called ‘ink rubber’ that when he applied yellow paint, it had suffused itself delicately over the roughened area.)  Today he applied a half-inch square of masking tape to the centre of each cross, and confirmed its adhesion by pressing it briefly with the point of the hot iron.  Then he peeled off the tape square, in each case removing the surface of the paper to which it had adhered.  He sanded the exposed areas with flour paper, and painted them with fairly dilute cadmium yellow.  Yes!  A suffused auroral brightness at the centre of each cross.  That was it.  What had the Bellman said?  “Silence!  Not even a shriek!”

Not a shriek, not a word, not a brush-mark more.  Thank God!  The pictures were finished.  They were the products of experiment, but they worked.  If someone liked them, that was all that mattered.  How they had been created was worse than trivial.  The result was everything, and the process was nothing.  If some genteel lady liked the eight pictures enough to buy them, and then turned against them after hearing how they had been fashioned, she would prove herself unworthy to be their owner.

Laughing at his own arrogance, Arthur went off to pick up Janet.


David Z. Crookes, the complete Renaissance man, resides in Northern Ireland, where he combines a mastery of several languages ancient and modern with numerous other sporting and artistic interests and endeavors.