The Painting Beyond the Image — Lillie Franks
Once upon a time, in a land beyond knowledge but not belief, there was a young king who feared time.
When it was announced that his brother had died of a sudden sickness and the throne would be his, he said only “Yes, but for how long?”
When he turned the tide of the armies who had laid waste to his kingdom and killed his father, he merely nodded and declared “The wheel of history lifts us up before it runs us under.”
Even when he conquered their land and rejoined the sister nations that had been sundered so long ago, all he would say was “This too will be forgotten.”
The ministers of the king whispered among each other. “It’s because of his mother. Dying when he was so young and the old king marrying just a month after. He thinks he’ll be forgotten like she was.” “No, I think it was the tutor his father got for him. One of those somber men always talking about remembering you will die and whatnot.” “I heard his nurse say he was just born that way. You could see in his eyes he knew death.”
Their explanation for the king’s strange manner changed with each day as did all things in the court. The ministers could not understand the king’s preoccupation with the eternal for the simple reason that their lives rose and fell on the slightest news, or when there was no news, chance. They were people of the moment, because without the protection of a crown on their head, only people of the moment survive in a court.
There was one thing the king cared about and did not fear the death of. That was his portrait.
“A portrait,” he explained, “is the window into eternity. A person’s deeds may outlast them in books and sagas, but the person survives only one way: in painting.”
When not engaged in ruling, the king would often sit for hours in a room in the East wing of the castle, where all the portraits of the kings before him were kept. His father’s portrait, unfinished at the time of his death, sat along with the others.
Here, the young king would sit, silently, contemplating. One servant told a story that she walked by the door while he was there and, without meaning to, heard the king muttering to himself.
“Why can’t they hear me like I hear them?”
The ministers took one thing from this. Whoever could find a painter good enough to attract the king’s notice could gain his favor. But it was a favor of the moment, for every painter who had been brought to the castle so far had been chased out of it in disgrace within a month.
“It is not me!” The king screamed at one artist who had lasted nearly two weeks longer than any before. “It is only an image!”
This was what the king demanded of the artist who would be allowed to paint him. They must paint beyond images. And yet, though the court had run through nearly every painter in both countries, there was no portrait.
It happened at this time that there was a lady in the court, a baroness, by title. She had come during the time of the king’s father from the Southern edge of the kingdom, the only piece that bordered on the sea. This sea border was, at that time, used only for trade, but it was the opinion of the baroness that, with the proper investment, it could form the basis of a mighty naval and merchant power for the kingdom. This would, more importantly, also enrich her. And so, it became her mission to find a painter who could satisfy the king long enough for a navy to be established.
To this end, she took what gold she had and split it among three servants, telling them to search the kingdom long and hard.
“Go to every town you find,” she said. “Listen to their conversation, and if you can, raise the subject of artists. Find me an artist who can paint beyond the image and you will be richly rewarded.”
The three servants rode out into the kingdom, each determined to be the one who would please the baroness. One rode East, one West, and one North. The baroness, meanwhile, waited. Her reputation and wealth were staked on the voyage. If they failed her, within months, she would not be able to remain at court.
“It is strange,” she reflected to the one servant who remained with her. “My three servants now are richer than I am. They have gold, and a horse besides. And yet, when they return, it will assure my victory, not theirs.”
The servant said nothing. The baroness knew she wouldn’t, as there was nothing it would be proper to say.
On the tenth day, the three servants returned.
“M’lady,” said the first, “I have ridden to the East, and there I have seen an artist who can draw a tree so perfectly that birds will come to nest in it.”
“That’s no good,” said the baroness. “That is only an image.”
“My lady,” said the second, “I have ridden to the West, and there I have seen an artist who can draw a lake so finely that the sun will ripple on it.”
“That is still only the surface of the thing,” the baroness answered. “What about you?”
The last servant bowed and said, “My lady, I have ridden North and though I have seen an artist who paints steel that rusts and one who paints landscapes whose grass waves in the wind, I have seen none who paint beyond the image. In fact, the best painters I have seen are obsessed with image, and say there is nothing behind it.”
“Then I am ruined,” the baroness despaired. “I must return to the port with no navy.”
“That may be,” the third servant said. “However, though I have not seen it, and so cannot say beyond doubt it is so, I have heard one rumor that I dare to pass to you. It is about a convent, in the mountains that are on our border, where lives a nun who paints upon the walls of her cell.”
“And what do they say about this nun?” the baroness asked, despairing.
“That she spends every day painting and every night going among the things she has painted.”
Hearing this, the baroness paused. “You may go,” she said to the first two servants. “I must prepare my own voyage.”
By borrowing against her name, the baroness gathered the funds to make her own trip North. She traveled alone; her eyes had to confirm this miracle before she could present it to the king. Her servant’s directions led her to a town three days journey from the castle. That led her to another village at the feet of the mountains where the story was told not as a rumor but a fact. At first, the villagers seemed hesitant to tell her more about the mysterious nun, or where to find her. All they would tell her willingly was a name: Sister Seeming.
“She keeps to herself,” the innkeeper muttered when she asked. “She must have good reason to.”
But persistence and money will eat away at any barrier. Finally, a young man, barely older than a child, accepted a gold coin in exchange for the directions. The next day, she began the climb up the mountain’s treacherous paths.
As evening was falling, she saw a stone building emerging from the mountain. It was half built out on the ledge and half carved directly into the stone face, so that at first sight it seemed as if the mountain had grown around the building. The door was heavy wood and the windows were shut fast. No light emerged from the simple yet solemn building, but smoke rose from its chimneys.
The baroness knocked at the door. An old woman dressed in a simple, brown robe opened the door and automatically beckoned the baroness to enter and warm herself.
“I’ve come to speak to Sister Seeming,” the baroness said, as she leaned against the stone wall. There was no place to sit in the large, stone chamber she had entered. Just a fire and a few open doors.
“I will see if she is willing to speak to you,” the woman answered, simply, and disappeared through one of the doors.
The bareness of the room disturbed the baroness. Why would an artist with the talent of Sister Seeming live surrounded by blank stone? For that matter, why would anybody live in such a cheerless empty space?
Good things come in humble packages, she reminded herself, and waited.
After a short period, a new woman appeared at the door, dressed in the same brown robe. She stood very straight and had a curious smile, as if she saw something worth smiling over that others didn’t. Meeting her eyes, the baroness shivered. Her gaze was much older than her face.
“You have asked to see me?” Sister Seeming said. The curious smile remained on her face.
“I have heard that you are a painter who can paint beyond images,” the baroness answered. “Is it true?”
Sister Seeming lifted her hand. “Follow me.”
The sister led her down a thin passageway lined with closed doors to individual cells. At the very end of the hall, she paused in front of one of them.
“You may listen,” she said. “but I cannot allow you to see.”
She put her ear to the door and immediately heard the sounds of warm tropical forest, with a stream babbling through it. She could hear the birds calling to each other from the trees, the branches whistling in the wind, even the worms turning the ground itself and the flowers growing. The smells of flowers and the warm breeze came through the keyhole to her.
And just as soon as she heard all this, she realized she was hearing nothing at all. There were no noises and no smell and no air. The idea alone of the scene that Sister Seeming had painted on her walls came out of the door and she had imagined all the sounds and scents that should have come with it.
She stared in awe at the sister. This was what the king had sought for all his life. She imagined him drawn as those trees and stream must have been in the room, so that you could hear and smell him.
He would live forever, then. And she would be the one to thank for it.
“I come on the behalf of the king,” she said, rising to her full, stately height. “He asks a painter to make his portrait. On his authority, which is granted him by the power you worship here, I charge you to return with me to the court to fill this function.”
Sister Seeming laughed, sharp and piercing. “And what power do you have to compel me?”
The baroness maintained her posture. “If you refuse me, I will tell the king of what you have shown me, and he will come for you himself.”
“Then let him come,” she answered. “I will answer to power, but not its illusion.”
The baroness stayed in the convent that night, in an unoccupied cell as blank as all the others. In the morning, she headed down the mountain and made her return to the court and the king.
Just as the baroness promised, upon hearing her testimony, the king sent a squadron of soldiers, armor and weapons polished and shining, to seize the painter and bring her to the court. Even before they arrived, the baroness was the center of the court’s life, and trees were being cut down to build her navy.
Sister Seeming followed the soldiers without resistance. Her cell, where they found her, had been painted entirely white that same day, a blank canvas that filled any soldier who stood in it with strange feelings.
At the end of the fourth day, she was brought into the throne room. The king was not there, but he had left the baroness, with whom he had been discussing, to meet the new artist.
“The king asks that she be brought to him in the East gallery without delay,” she said. “And that any accommodation she asks be provided to her without delay.”
“Any accommodation,” the baroness stressed, meeting the sister’s eyes as if to say “See the power you shunned.”
Sister Seeming shook her head. “There is nothing I need here.”
The soldiers guided their prisoner to the East wing. There, the king stood in the very center of the room, silently contemplating a portrait of his great-grand-uncle, a beloved usurper to the throne. At a gesture from the king, the soldiers disappeared, leaving the two of them standing alone amidst the walls crowded with dead faces.
The king looked at her, then back at the portrait. “The kingdom has never been as large as under him, or as wealthy. I am the first since him not to see the kingdom decline further.”
Sister Seeming said nothing. Her eyes stayed on the king, not the portrait.
“His deeds are remembered. He is remembered. But not him. I often wonder what he would do faced with the situation I am. How he would lead the troops. What he would demand from them.”
The king locked eyes with the sister. “What do you see looking at this?”
She ran her eyes over the portrait. “I see nothing,” she answered. “It is only a painting. A few colors on a flat surface.”
The king stared at her for a moment longer, then turned back to the portrait. “Of course, barely a few weeks after he died, his empire began to collapse. If his liver had been stronger, maybe he would have lived long enough to be forgotten as well.”
“Why do you call for me?” she asked, finally.
“I want to be remembered,” the king said. “Not like him, as some mythic hero. I want to be truly remembered. As I am.”
“Are you sure you want that?”
“It is the one thing I have fought for all my life.”
“You have fought to be a king.”
“That was the price to being remembered.”
Sister Seeming smiled her implacable smile. “If you are happy to have paid it, I will paint you.”
The king smiled back, a rare and charming occurrence. “Do it and I will reward you beyond your dreams.”
“We will see.” The two of them met eyes again. “There is only one thing you have that interests me.”
“What is that?”
“The power to have me killed.”
With that, Sister Seeming began her days at the king’s court.
Sister Seeming made three requests of the king. The first was for the space to paint.
“I have always painted on stone walls,” she said. “And it is on stone walls that I will paint you. But there is only one set of walls here fit to paint a king.”
“It’s a large request,” the king said.
“A throne is only a chair.”
“Exactly. It’s image. I hired you to paint beyond image.”
“Without image, there is no reality.” Sister Seeming answered.
“Is it necessary?”
The king nodded. His court was moved to his quarters. Sister Seeming took over the throne room, and nobody was allowed to enter. There, she began to work.
As she did, it became common practice first for the servants, but in time for the nobility as well to put themselves against the edge of the doors and feel what she was painting that day. Before long, no minute of the day passed without someone pressed against those doors, knowing some small piece of what it was to be king.
“It’s nothing like you’d think it would be,” said a kitchen worker the day she first tried it. “But damn, what a rush!”
Sister Seeming stayed in the throne room, briefly leaving just once per day to get food and water. She was careful that during that time, no one saw the work she was doing. In the night, the servants whispered, you could hear her walking among what she had painted.
Only the king and the baroness avoided the temptation to lean against the door. The baroness had developed a strange kind of respect, or perhaps fear, for the mysterious artist on the other side. The other nobles spoke of her as a brilliant painter, or occasionally as a brilliant liar, but the baroness had a totally different idea of her. Those eyes haunted her. They seemed to peer into her, deeper than she wanted them to.
“She will be a judgment upon this kingdom,” she said, in the middle of a salon, and could not quite explain what she meant by it.
As for the king, he feared disappointment and above all he feared seeing himself in pieces. There were pieces of him that were unsavory. He knew that better than anyone, and he knew the painter could see it. It was the whole that justified him, and it was the whole that would be remembered.
After six days, Sister Seeming made her second request. “I would like to speak to the nobility and servants of the castle.”
“And why do you need that?” the king asked.
“The court you have created is a piece of who you are. If I am to paint you in your whole, I must include it.”
The king hesitated. “I don’t see how anyone else has to do with me.”
“They have to do with you when you change them. Would you have me leave out your military exploits? Your rule?”
“Then you understand.”
The king still paused. “Perhaps the nobles. But the servants?”
“Would your court be here without them? Would you?”
Finally, he nodded. “Very well. Do as you will.”
One by one, Sister Seeming went to every person in the castle. Some she spoke to, and others she merely examined. When she was done, she returned to her throne room and painted feverishly.
Only the baroness did not encounter the sister during this time. The sister already knew her well enough, and the baroness was afraid to meet again.
The various people of the castle came away with very different ideas of her. The nobility mostly thought little of her, calling her odd, eccentric, or uncouth. Meanwhile the servants mostly liked her. Words like wise, deep, or strangest of all, ran among them. One thing both of them agreed on was this: she saw them as they were. No one questioned that.
When she had finished the interviews, she made her third request.
“I wish to be taken on a tour of the kingdom.”
The king already knew how he would answer her, but still looked upon her sadly. “Must the kingdom be part of my portrait to?”
“Has it not been part of your life?”
The king could not argue, but he did not relish seeing the kingdom in her paints. The castle was beautiful, and so was the army it commanded, but the land they ruled had to provide for those things. It did not always do so easily.
“You may go. But if you run, my soldiers will strike you dead.”
And so she left. The throne room was still locked, and those who knelt at its door felt a sense of unease, as of something not quite as it should be. The painting, they said, was begging for someone to finish it.
Other than that, life continued much as it had. The baroness was no longer the king’s favorite, as all things in a court give way quickly, but the navy already sailed the seas and would only expand. She tried to take joy in this, but the almost-thing that waited behind the locked throne room doors filled her with dread.
And then finally, just when the fear of her had been almost forgotten, she returned. She went directly from the carriage into the throne room.
It was said that although she was alone, one could hear the sounds of many people working in the mysterious room.
“Where did she want to go?” the king asked the head of the soldiers who had accompanied her. “What did she want to see?”
“Everything,” the lieutenant answered.
“Yes, those. But also the villages and the farms. Even the forests and the dams. She wanted to see everything.”
It was just the answer the king had expected, but it did not please him.
As night came on, the servants, who were the only ones who listened at the door, were more and more certain there were more people than one behind it. They described strange, various sounds: feet marching on earth, children weeping for someone who would not return, the rolling of carriage wheels, a sail flapping in the wind, tired animals walking, and even some sounds the servants could not describe. If they had had the words, they might have called them the sounds of things that might have happened but did not.
The next day, Sister Seeming stood in front of the throne room doors. No one had seen her exit.
“The portrait is done.”
Immediately, the king was summoned, with the various nobles behind him, in order of their current favor. The baroness was among them, because she knew she couldn’t be elsewhere. Carefully, the king approached Sister Seeming and the closed door. The servants craned to see over and past each other.
She stepped aside and the king hesitated.
“It is beyond the image?”
“There is nothing beyond the image,” she answered. “There are only complete and incomplete images. This image is complete.”
The king stood frozen. Finally, she had dared to say it. “If it is only image and not reality, I will have you executed.”
“We will see.”
With that, she threw open the door.
The first thing the king saw was that he was a smaller part of his portrait than he had thought. It included the kingdom in all its entirety, all the places that his rule had touched. And he was no larger in it than any other person.
He walked, awed into the room, followed by the rest of the court. Paint covered every inch of every wall, but it was not paint. It was the country. All of them were there, and so were the peasants who cut food for them, the soldiers who protected them, the workers who provided for them, and the land they all stood on. All of it was here, and it was so large and they were so small.
The next thing the king saw was that it was truthful. It was all perfectly truthful.
And he hated it.
There was no secret to it, no beyond. All the things that he had done, good and bad and neither were simply laid out, strewn like leaves under a tree. Where was the answer to it all? Where was the meaning?
And why was he so small?
“This is nothing but image!” he cried. “This is nothing! Seize her!”
But they did not listen to him. She had painted the image of a king, and as people of the moment, they listened to that.
“Give her a generous reward,” the image of the king said, or so it seemed to those who saw it painted. “She has painted truthfully.”
The nobles clapped and servants ran to fetch treasures to give to the strange sister.
“What are you doing?” the king cried. “Listen to me! Seize her!”
But he was only a man. It was as easy to see that as it was to see that the image of the king who sat on his throne was calling for a banquet.
Sister Seeming was no longer among them. Some say she returned to her convent in the mountains. Others say she went to the convent inside her painting of the country. Still others say there is no difference at all.
Her painting still holds court in that castle even today, and the kingdom fares no better and no worse than any country with a king. It rises and falls, celebrates its triumphs and hides its failings. It continues, in one form or another. And just as the king once feared, many of its doings are forgotten.
The king himself disappeared. He must be among his people somewhere, but without his image, he is only a man. Even if he were found, he could not be known. Perhaps he is that man by the plow, or that one standing by the tree. Perhaps he is still somewhere inside his own castle.
As for the baroness, she left the court. She had been right. Sister Seeming had brought judgment on the court. She had shown it to itself. The other nobles were content with what they saw, or knew how to ignore it. She was not.
And if you want to know where she walks and what she became, that is a new and different story.
Lillie Franks is a trans author and teacher who lives in Chicago, Illinois with the best cat. You can read her work at places like Sword and Kettle Press, Poemeleon, and NonBinary Review. She loves anything that is not the way it should be.