Imortél and his masterpiece looked deeply at one another: both were nearly complete. Hers was a virgin birth, from nothing, catalyzed by the assiduous application of Imortél’s paintbrush as well as his soul; and now only the stolidity of a master could dispel an incipient bloom of rapture threatening to mar his work with officious haste.

Chestnut tresses, issuing from a bonnet in spirals, worshipped the sublime countenance of this woman. Her splendor was such that, by any account of imagination, she was unfit for the most lavish frame; yet were she to walk among mortals, men would argue that she belonged rather among the celestial.

Sleep and nourishment were superfluous to the old artist. Over many months he sat at his easel, a spectacle for the casual observer: those half-scowls, feverish impulses of the wrist, and labored exhalations, sometimes with interludes of a trance-like meditation, were telling signs that the man was as much a work of art as his creation. Imortél had just applied paint to the landscape; but now, dipping his brush once more into a liquid rose on his palette, he would flush the woman’s cheek with sanguinity. In the woman’s right hand was an actual rose—perhaps an admirer’s gift—which she treasured in a sort of nonchalant way, as if to hint at the dalliance that preceded it. In truth it was a gift from Imortél himself—a reminder that nothing so trivial as perfection could rival her beauty. For the sake of this theme Imortél had postponed the endowment of color on the woman’s cheek until the very last stage of her creation. It was to be the final proof of her transcendence over nature, and the triumph of the painter over the supposed boundaries of his field.

Occasionally during his work, Imortél paused: not in hesitation, but in a contemplative reverie. There came presently another such pause, leaving the pregnant brush poised midair. Nothing was inherently wrong, perhaps; there was simply a bland announcement to pause; and there was a gleam in the woman’s eyes that transfixed the artist’s heart. Imortél wondered after a moment at his empty hand, and was startled to find his brush pointing to a rosy splatter on the floor. Then he wondered why he could not pick it up; and in the blink of an eternity found himself breathless. He collapsed forward onto the easel, received a farewell kiss from the woman, and died.


“Our second item,” the auctioneer continued, “is unfortunate. This is a rare Imortél, but its rarity perhaps succeeds the fact of its extensive damage. I don’t doubt you would have seen this in every art textbook had the work not sustained such injury: as you can see, most of the left side has been defaced—quite literally—so that the young woman is now only partially rendered. Still, the work may be of some interest to the collector of curiosities. Bidding starts at five thousand.”

Several paddles danced, but the general sentiment in the room was to move on to the next item. At length a gentleman in the back raised the bid. He was singular in his assertion of the price, and began to turn heads as he spoke.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, almost mockingly, “this is clearly worth more than any of these menial sums. Isn’t it obvious what Imortél has done? What you see before you is no extensive damage”—here he looked at the auctioneer—“but an intentional statement by the artist.” The man stood up to levee a swaying sea of faces. He was wearing a tuxedo and holding a glass of wine. “The masterpiece on this easel is a cross-breeding of realism and abstraction. It no doubt mirrors Imortél’s very mind as he forged such a transaction. The woman’s face is beautiful on the right side (notice the sun behind her, in the east, signifying youth), but she seems positively to melt into the landscape on the left, blatantly reminding us of life’s evanescence, the waxing and waning of the human form and the human mind, and our ultimate return to dust. And what’s more, is that the rose she’s holding tells us that humankind can never aspire to the perfection of nature. And so I say again, as I said before, that I will pay twenty thousand for this very intact work, very gladly.”

The crowd vacillated between this man and the auctioneer, and looked back and forth many times before seeking the auctioneer’s certitude regarding this credible absurdity. He only shrugged his shoulders in non-involvement, but his countenance had a sliver of conviction for such a show of perspicacity. A moment later, a brave soul offered twenty-five; the auctioneer, and frankly everybody but the man in the tuxedo, was bewildered at the ensuing one-upmanship that resulted somewhere around half a million. The work was sold to a triumphant couple in their late fifties who looked like they fell off a yacht.

“Let this be a testament to the hidden value of anything,” said the auctioneer as a man carried an antique chair onto the platform. One of its legs was missing.

“How can we sit,” he began, pacing like a professor, “when life is so short? We are fleeting shadows; we deliquesce like ice; and there is only time, in the narrow span of hours between birth and death, to stand, to walk—to fly. It was this very principle that Gustav Lieber had in mind when he constructed this chair—this statement. Bidding begins at one hundred thousand.”

The crowd was enthralled at the opportunity of such a steal, and offered up their money as if it were pieces of toilet paper. But the man in the tuxedo had gone: once a clock is wound it can run by itself for hours.

The auctioneer smiled.

Kevin Dickinson was born and raised in New Jersey, where he's attending Rutgers. He is the founding editor of
Writers' Bloc, a lit journal of the aforementioned university. He is collecting acorns for the winter. A story is
forthcoming in Bartleby Snopes.

A couple people have told me words like 'deliquesce' have no place in the story, because they can't understand them, and they subsequently detract from the reader's experience.  Learning a new word, especially 'deliquesce', should add to your experience. When I read a book, I write down every single word I don't know, then later I go online and get the definition and etymology and put it in a green composition book. It's nice now when I pass one of those words in the street, and I can say 'hi' instead of just making awkward eye contact and dodging into an alley.
I was at the Philadelphia Museum of Art one day, and there was this white canvas, about 4 feet in both directions, with just a little green square painted off-center.  I stood there thinking, "THIS is ART?" Okay, so you tell me it's a metaphor but all I see is a green square on a white canvas. I got thinking: what if something like that was NOT a real painting, just a screw-up or something, but some pompous art critic got it in his head that it was?
Only after I wrote most of the story did I think to make the auctioneer a con artist. In fact, I think that was an afterthought in a rewrite. A good afterthought. When I write something, I try to be there in the story with the characters. Sometimes I can't pull it off, but in this case I was on a wooden stool in the corner, watching Imortél paint. It was a satisfying experience.


Copyright 2009