Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Drawing on the Walls

I'm glad I decided to stay in Chelissera. I was sitting on one of the thread bridges over the water,* sketching a tussock with sheep on top, when a spider climbed down beside me. This was fairly unremarkable until he spoke to me.

"Good moorning," he said. "You are an ahrtist, yes?"

His name was KeChorlitrix. He had a magnificent bass voice with a slight Truvidon accent. I have no idea which of his jointed mouthparts it came from. He was the owner of a restaurant, he told me - he pronounced it "rhoostaurant" - and had just moved into a new building. He was looking for an artist to decorate it. "I would like a myooral," he said. "One with insechts on it, fat ones, to make the coostomers hoongry."

I asked why he wanted me to do it, rather than some artist already in the town. Apparently, art by people with only two eyes is considered exotic in Chelissera. There are very few binocular artists in the town. There are plenty of vertebrates living here - perhaps a tenth or so of the population - but all of them have at least a trace of arachnid in their ancestry. Even the least spidery have four or five eyes each.** The only things with two are the sheep.

I've seen some of the multi-eyed artists' work. I can certainly see the difference. Cubist painters with two eyes have to imagine what their subjects would look like from several directions at the same time; ones with more than two eyes actually see them that way. There's a fragmented, fractal beauty to their work that I can't really describe.

I agreed, of course. I try never to turn down a job, especially one this interesting.

I got a book from the town library for reference; I'm not familiar with the insects in this part of the Shwamp, and most of the ones I could do off the top of my head would have been foreign or imaginary. It was the first time I'd been in the library. Nothing in this town seems to be made out of wood if there's a way to weave it instead. Rather than shelves, the library keeps books in tall lattices of silk. They hang from the rope-beams of the ceiling. The vertical strands are close together, the horizontal ones farther apart, so that each book stands in its own narrow pocket in the grid. They have to stretch some of the pockets to fit in the thicker books. Most of the lattices are sixteen books high or more; you have to climb them like rope ladders to reach the books on the higher shelves. No one seems worried about people falling off. Spiders just don't do that. Even if those of us with four limbs and no claws fell off, though, we wouldn't be hurt. The floor is cloth too.

There were several encyclopedias of insects in the naturalist section, but they were short on pictures. I eventually went and found the librarian. She was busy rearranging books on four shelves at the same time. She was wearing the most spectacular spectacles I've ever seen - not so much a pair as a crown, with more lenses than a microscope. Fortunately, we both knew and could pronounce at least a bit of Sikelak, so I was able to tell her that I was looking for pictures of insects.

She nodded, apparently used to vertebrates making the same mistake, and led me instead to the cooking section.

Interestingly, most of the books printed in Chelissera are made in the accordion style. Instead of being bound on one edge, the pages are segments of a single strip of paper folded in a zigzag. The entire thing can be unfolded and seen all at once. For people with eyes on every side of their head, I suppose this makes sense.

I got lost on my way to the restaurant, wandering through webs of ladders and bridges, but I met a few people who spoke Sikelak and could give me directions. The restaurant was made of silk too. There were a few lightweight tables tilted at odd angles on the cloth floor; most of the seats, though, were on the ceiling. When the restaurant opens, the spider customers will hang in comfortable padded hammocks and drink bottles of half-soup hung from the chandeliers. KeChorlitrix wanted the mural painted in dyes straight onto the cloth walls. (Embroidery would be more permanent, but embroidering a building costs a fortune.) I asked if he had a list of insects he particularly wanted. He handed me a menu.

Being somewhat unfamiliar with this medium - plant and insect dye on architectural spider silk - I started work in an unobtrusive corner, where any mistakes I made would be hard to notice. It was a good thing I did. Painting with cloth dye was a bit like painting with watercolors... on water. The strands took the dye and spread it out in every direction. I would touch the wall with the tip of a brush and get a blotch the size of an orange. I quickly gave up on painting the insects anywhere even close to actual size. Most of one wall is taken up by a gigantic dragonfly, blue with green trim. A beetle the colors of eggplant and blueberry fills another. KeChorlitrix would come in occasionally, roundly extoll the magnificence of my work, and then ask me to make changes to it. "Moore colors!" he kept saying. "Make it brighter!" I was happy to oblige.

There is very little red, orange, or yellow; poisonous insects tend to use these colors to warn predators away. They're about as appetizing to spiders as mold is to vertebrates.

The painting took most of the afternoon, but the canvas I was using was smaller than I had estimated - at least in comparison to the brush strokes - and I finished it before dark. At KeChorlitrix's request, I even managed to climb up and paint a few elaborate butterflies on the ceiling. He thanked me profusely. He offered me dinner. He paid me with a handful of beetles preserved in glass marbles - Sixels, he called them. Apparently, they're the main currency in this part of the Great Shwamp. I'll probably spend most of them soon (customers and stores have been rather scarce on the boardwalk, and I'm rather low on food), but I think I'll keep at least one. I always keep one of everything. If I gave up my collection of coins,*** my luggage would probably be six or seven pounds lighter.

Later that night, I went to the restaurant, which is called the Chuckelgrack.**** KeChorlitrix insisted I order as much I could possibly eat. (It was crunchy, delicious and - thanks to his versatile chef - solid.) I realized when I got there why he had wanted the colors so bright. Most of the buildings in Chelissera are the plain white of undyed silk; a few are dyed in one color, maybe two. Many have only their names written on the outside in tangled spider script. They're lit from inside by lamps and candles at night, white and multicolored, as if the stars had come down from the sky and moved into tents.

Among all of them, the Chuckelgrack stands out like a sunflower among daisies. It has more colors than the rest of the town put together. The paintings on the inside walls shine through, flies and beetles and bolster moths, every detail as clear and incandescent as the pattern on a paper lantern. It was breathtaking.

I may have painted the walls, but KeChorlitrix chose the colors and the setting; this is as much his creation as mine. I've rarely seen any of my work used so beautifully. The money and food are much appreciated, but this is the best payment I could have asked for.

*You can't really call them rope bridges when the individual strands are too fine to see. They look like gauze and are slightly stronger than steel wire.

**I had been wondering about this, but couldn't think of a polite way to ask.

***Most of them are coins, anyway. Not everyone has the same idea of what constitutes currency. I also have a scattering of Toli beads, a few of the little colored stones called Lint, an engraved pleach pit, and seven Train tickets.

****This is a pun in Sikelak combining the words "chuckel" - which means something like "sated" or maybe "bloated" - and "tuckelgrack," a popular variety of half-soup made from beetles.

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Blogger Steve Emery said...

This post is an artist's dream... I keep thinking about this post days after the first reading.

3:50 PM  

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