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chiar·oscu·ro \ k¯e-'är-e-'skyur-(')¯o, z'skur- \ noun
1: pictorial representation in terms of light and shade without regard to color
2 a: the arrangement or treatment of light and dark parts in a pictorial work of art
2 b: the interplay or contrast of dissimilar qualities (as of mood or character)
3: a 16th century woodcut technique involving the use of several blocks to print different tones of the same color; also: a print made by this technique
4: the interplay of light and shadow on or as if on a surface
5: the quality of being veiled or partly in shadow
The First Day Of Creation
In the nook of the tavern, the old man’s face—or part of it—catches the fireglow slanting through the frame of oak door left ajar as he leans forward across the table, elbows on the wood, a glinting silver mechanism in one hand going clunk, chik with the flicking of a thumb, while, with his other hand, he holds a cigarette up to his mouth to draw in a breath—foosh. He holds it for a perfect moment of satiation, head raised now so that his bliss-closed eyes come out from under the shadow of his hat’s wide brim, as if basking in the warmth of sunlight blood red through their lids; and even beneath the bush of drooping grey moustache that his fingers seem half-buried in, there is a hint of smile on the lips pursed round the roll-up. Let there be light, I think, and then he leans back, disappearing into the leather shadow of the nook to blow out billows of blue-grey that curl and unfurl in the air like offerings of incense rising. An invocation in volutions, the breath of smoke immediately conjures up, in my mind’s eye, an image that I seize—that old man’s face half-lit as now in sharp chiaroscuro, shrouded in the swirling nebulae of chaos, of the first day of creation.
I must have him for my God.
—Maester, your stout.
The barkeep blocks my vision for a second as he lays the tumbler of black liquid on the table, and it brings me sharp out of the reverie.
—Grazzis, I say out of habit. Thank you. How much?
He waves a hand as I reach into my longcoat’s inner pocket.
—Full board and beer, he says. It’s all on the Monadery. . . . Fader Pitro’s orders. He hopes—we hope—to make your stay here as pleasant as possible.
With a tilt of my glass to him I take a sip and smile at the busy tavern of sandminers and craftsmen, quarriers and traders, farmers in for a few quick jars before Evenfall; it’s not the sort of place you’d find in the Merchant Quarters of Vrienze or Nephale where I so often have to smooth my way from one commission to the next with smiles as painted as the courtesans . . . but it’s not so different from the harbour inns or carter’s lodges that I spent much of my apprenticeship in with my own Maester. Fewer knife fights, I suspect, though.
—I’m sorry that we didn’t have your room ready, he says.
—No problem, I say. A well-poured stout is all it takes to keep me happy.
—I’ve sent word to the Monadery that you’ve arrived.
—Maya grazzis. Thank you. Thank you.
The bells of the Monadery di Sanze Manitae toll Evenfall, audible even over the tavern din of lewd jokes and earnest discussions, which changes tone in response to the knell as arguments find quick, laughing resolutions; chairs scrape back, friends say good-byes, off home down the cobble-street slopes before darkness descends. The door opens and closes, opens and closes, until there are only a dozen or so customers left, drinkers more devoted, or perhaps who live in the safety of the lamplit squares and strazzas of the market area, close enough to scorn superstition for the short walk home. The atmosphere becomes more homey with just these groups of three or four here and there, without the escalating racket of voices raised over voices raised.
Relaxing with a second pint, I watch the swirling settle of foamy stout, the silken eddies of shades of brown separating gradually into tar-black body and a white head thick enough to sculpt; and my mind drifts back to my commission, the vague images and ideas for it that rise into momentary resolution only to sink back into the darkness. There are only so many scenes to choose from, of course—the conventional tableaux of Invocations and Pronunciations, the Exile From The Garden, Orphean’s Jour- ney, and so on—and I have hardly even discussed with my patrons the layout of the antesanctum to be painted, let alone laid eyes on it—but if I have one fault it is my enthusiasm over grand schemes. This will be my first work on such a scale—not just one little frescoed wall- or altarpiece, but a full antesanctum—and I feel . . . the anticipation of a young lad sitting in a brothel for the first time as his Maester, hand on his shoulder, says, Tomorrow you will be a man, eh?
A tump from the nook—feet dropping onto floor—turns my head and I see that the old man’s face is visible again. Is he still sitting down? Then the door opens fully as he comes out into the tavern proper and I realize his height. He’s gnomish, or hobben, as they call them in these parts, and I find myself caught in a fleeting sense of shock and shame, staring at him as if he has no business to be here and then looking away quickly because I have no business even thinking such thoughts; it’s not so much disgust as it’s the fear of disgust, the knee-jerk reaction of a tolerant and open-minded man, suddenly panicking at the challenge of reality. Are you? Are you sure? Did the word grotesque not whisper through your head for a fraction of a second when you saw the stump of him?
He asks the barkeep for another and the man pours him a draft of what looks like a wheat beer, golden but cloudy. I only realize I am staring when he notices and raises his glass to me. I salute him with my own, my momentary angst dissolved in the return of that aesthetic impulse. His stunted body is of as little interest now as when it was hidden in the shadows of the nook. His deep-lined face, as robust as it is wrecked, is all I see. The face of God.
He turns to go back to the nook and I wonder if it is his exile or simply his privacy; there are many taverns that would not serve his kind at all and I imagine that even if the hospitaliter himself is friend to all, some of his customers may be less inclusive.
—Sir, I say. A moment. A word.
—Yes? he says.
—I have a . . . request, I say.
—It is the perfect blank page, is it not? says Fader Pitro.
In a way he is right; the antesanctum of the Monadery di Sanze Manitae, skinned in its fleshtone of plaster, with its floor of mottled concrete, is an almost empty space; only the unvarnished oak intricacies of the dais with its pulpit, altar, and chorum pews create any sort of complexity—that and the ribbing of columns and windows that break up the side walls into architectured rhythm. Then there are the doors of the entranceway behind me and the two doors at the back, to either side of the dais, leading into the forbidden sanctum. On the whole it is, to the layman, a plain and perfect ground waiting humbly for its frescoes, murals, or mosaics. But I am a chiaroscurist. Even the simplest of spaces may contain the subtlest tricks of light latent in the slant of sunbeams through windows sidling round from dusk till dawn.
—There’s no such thing as a blank page, Fader, I say.
I work by eye and foot at first; before the measurements and calculations begin, I scout the vacant hall in an intuitive way, pacing its length and breadth, circling and crouching. I note the southwesterly aspect that will send a shaft of late-afternoon light through the circular window high above the entrance to the wall over the altar—slightly right of centre and down. I observe the rhomboid slices of long morning produced by the windows in the southeast wall, geometric projections on the facing plaster, the shadow of the Monadery Tower outside that will rupture this pattern between dawn and noon. As much as I appreciate the work of the masons who have built this spare but sublime little chapel for the brooders of the Manitaen Order, it is the architecture of light that I revere, as mutable as it is stable, cycling with the days and seasons, changing its very substance from granite grey to marble white with the gathering and scattering of cumuli and stratocirrus across the sky. The antesanctum—any building—is only a shell in which the light builds its own structures, not a blank page but a blueprint which a chiaroscurist like myself seeks to give form.
When I’m finally satisfied that I have the key points and the general flux of light fleshed out in my mind into a rough terrain of potential drama—highlights and low points—I turn back to the doorway and notice Fader Pitro still standing there, picking at a loose thread on the hem of his cassock’s drooping sleeve.
—You don’t have to stay, I say to the Fader. I’ll be here for a while and I’m afraid it won’t be very interesting to an observer.
He gathers his long hair into a ponytail and brings it over one shoulder, twirls a finger round a curly white lock; the Manitaens wear unusual tonsures I have noticed, shaved at the sides like a horse’s mane. The Fader plays with his when he’s thinking.
—I do have business to attend to, he says. Dukes and books, he sighs. But I’ll send Brooder Matheus to keep you company, in case you need anything.
I tell him there’s no need to bore the poor brooder with such duties, but he shushes me with a waggling finger.
—Brooder Matheus will find it a relief, I’m sure, he says. And it will stop him ruining any more vellum with his godless scrawl. A hand too used to the hawk’s hood, he mutters, and none too delicate with its feather. Honestly . . .
He wanders off, muttering to himself about spoiled second sons and the quality of tutoring amongst nobility these days.
I pick my carpetbag up from the doorway where I left it on entering the antesanctum and open it on the altar to take out my instruments, the sextantine and the compass, chalks and slates, coalsticks and notepads, measuring tape and—most important of all—my photometer. It is the most expensive item I possess, a delicate precision instrument that I keep in its own wooden case, padded with cotton wool and fretted over on each trundling-cart journey from town to town, from commission to commission. When my Maester first gave it to me, indeed, I often irritated the poor carters with constant guidance over how to take the bumps in the road less jarringly or sat with the case in my lap for the whole journey, unsnicking the latch every ten miles or so to check that it was still intact.
I lay all these instruments on the altar like a surgeon’s tools, and am unlatching the photometer’s case when voice and footsteps echo behind me.
—How does it look?
Brooder Matheus, I assume; the same elven lad who came to fetch me from the tavern this morning to meet with Fader Pitro. He gestures to encompass the antesanctum, and nods at the photometer in my hand.
—Is that for measuring the light?
He seems genuinely interested, the look on his face that of a child who longs to play with an adult’s toy but knows it would be wrong to ask; so I show him the way the hood widens and tightens to set the aperture, the glass bulb inside with its incredibly fragile vanes and tiny metal sails to catch the light as a windmill catches air, how one holds it up and looks through the eyepiece at the back to see the flickering rhythm, the earpiece for listening to the tone of whirr.
—Is there no needle, no gauge?
I shake my head.
—It takes a while but you learn to . . . hear the speed, to see the force of light, I say. Now. I’ll have to ask you to be quiet for a bit, if you don’t mind. I want to start my measurements.
—Of course, he says. Of course.