Oct/Nov 2006  •   Fiction

The Terrible Virtue of the Cartilaginous Fishes

by J.R. Salling

Photo by Jim Gourley

Photo by Jim Gourley

For an artist to take on an apprentice was not unusual, except Athanasius had always worked alone. His brooding personality did not mix well with others, and he needed the solitude to work out his compositions. So it surprised him one day to realize he had taken on Tomatillo.

He had made the mistake of feeding the boy, something you should never do for strays unless you want them to return to your doorstep. But the artist could not help himself. He immediately sympathized with the scrawny figure's sunken eyes, his pinched face with an already broken nose, the large patch of scar tissue, likely from a burn, that started just below his left ear and continued who knew how far below the collar of his soiled tunic, the map of a short life with vast areas of pain already explored.

"So you want to work for Bologna's most talented artist?" Athanasius finally asked several days after the fact.

Tomatillo nodded. He proved to have two important qualities. He rarely talked, and he cleaned brushes with greater efficiency than the painter ever managed himself, Athanasius being more inclined to replace an expensive sable than to remove all of the oil from its fibers. He also proved helpful in the construction of the elaborate still-life models dominating the studio.

These models arose from spilled cabinets of curiosity in fantastic arrangements nature never intended. Most no longer existed, but they could still be viewed from the charcoal studies or the finished canvases by the master's skilled hand. Others could only be intuitively recreated from the menagerie of creatures and objects occupying every niche and nook, the floor littered with rows of skeletons, fossilized materials, stuffed and mounted creatures, with similar items suspended from the ceiling and the shelves in between loaded with assorted glassware containing fleshy parts—plant, animal, and human.

The boy soon learned the studio routine. Each project progressed like a summer storm, violent outbursts sandwiched between periods of relative calm. Athanasius first selected a sketch from his working portfolio. For a small canvas, no more than half a dozen objects were involved. In the first execution Tomatillo witnessed, a large scorpion armed with a wine bottle fought with a candelabra-shaped gourd over a wedge of cheese. In another a flask of milk was perched atop a small tower of playing cards. After a few subtle changes in his composition and perhaps additional sketches to reassure himself, the master mixed his oils and began to work them into the material. He completed an outline of the central figures and the background first. This took a few days, prolonged by many excursions to his favorite neighborhood haunts. Sometimes Tomatillo was allowed to tag along, but more often not. Once the details began to emerge, however, Athanasius would become more absorbed in his work and wasted few minutes of the sunshine streaming through the skylights. Then, just when it appeared a painting was near completion, Athanasius would become enraged one morning, scream obscenities at his canvas, then take off and not reappear until late in the evening, smelling of wine and women. The following day, although in a sorry state, he would leap back to his work with a murderous intensity, almost as if he loathed his subject and could not inflict enough stinging wounds with his tiny weapon to satisfy himself. Tomatillo wisely risked no interruptions during this final, manic phase and, in fact, hid cowering behind a stuffed, gray she-wolf.

"Now I'll seal it in varnish and ship it to the king of Sardinia," Athanasius joked for his own amusement once he had made the final rapier thrust, the cloud over his personality lifted in a moment of exhilaration. Tomatillo did not reappear at once, and even then he kept his distance until it was clear Athanasius had returned to his solemn self, which seldom took very long.

Between paintings the artist welcomed a few individuals into the studio: Isabella, his mistress; Salvatore Lugatti, the dealer who handled his paintings; and Donato, a stout little man with the large hands of a sculptor (or perhaps a butcher), who provided the artist with a steady supply of curiosities.

"Wherever do you find these things?" Athanasius inquired, delighted with a giant, severed head.

Donato wagged his finger. "You always ask this, but I think you don't really want to know."

Athanasius returned the specimen to its burlap sack and handed it to Tomatillo. "I have just the place for him. The usual price?"

While the transaction was concluded, the boy took the sack to a large dias in one corner of the studio, where the larger models were assembled. He reached inside and slowly pulled the contents out by a handful of hair.

"Just set it down for now," Athanasius requested once he caught up, his attention focused on the dias. Here he had mounted the jaws of an enormous shark, out of which the upper half of an adult human skeleton reached out, the skull twisted and mandible open as if screaming. A set of fins from another shark had been wired into appropriate positions. He gazed at the arrangement for several minutes, picked up the new head and positioned it among a compact assortment of bones where the stomach of the creature would have been, and then stood back to judge this final touch.

I will call it "The Dream of Empedocles," he announced.

Tomatillo ran his hand along the dorsal fin.

Noticing the boy's interest, Athanasius explained the shark skeleton is composed almost completely of cartilage and connective tissue instead of bone. "We have cartilage, too," he added, pinching his nose and wiggling it back and forth. "It will rot away first, leaving the bone behind."

"So, your nose disappears after you die?" Tomatillo asked, the first question he had ever uttered.

"Yes." Athanasius affirmed. Impressed by his own knowledge, he picked up one of several skulls on the ground. "Look at this old fellow here. You see how it is missing. The ears too. Bone lasts. Cartilage doesn't."

"How long does it take?"

He shrugged, already tired of the boy's sudden inquisitiveness. He placed the skull in Tomatillo's hands and took up one of his sketches. "Not long, I guess, if you put it in vinegar."

The next day he began to prepare a large canvas. "You have to paint big to be big," he believed, although his smaller pieces had always been more successful.

"Tomatillo?" he called. He cut a slice of bread and stuffed it in his mouth, then circled the studio while he chewed, expecting to find the boy curled up in some odd place as usual. He found no sign of him.

He spat out a few remaining crumbs in irritation. "Just when he might have been most useful, the little beggar."

It had never occurred to Athanasius to ask any questions about Tomatillo's background. Therefore, he had no clue where to begin looking for him, not that he would have done so anyway. He had always managed on his own before and, once he began to work, he forgot about the boy.

A couple of days later, Donato knocked on his door. He knew from experience it would take several minutes before he got a response.

As soon as Athanasius saw who had disturbed his progress, he opened the door wider and stepped aside, permitting Donato to enter. He snorted with irritation once he saw what his supplier carried, turned, and headed back toward his work space. "What is this? You want to sell me a jar of piss?"

Donato followed. "Not piss, and not to sell. That boy who worked for you gave it to me at the market."

"Ah, yes. That boy. You've seen him?" Athanasius said.

"It was just before he was arrested. He said it belonged to you, and he wanted to return it."

"Arrested? What else did he steal? I didn't report him."

"It is far worse than theft, my friend. The boy is accused of killing his own father, stabbing him to death."

"Dios meo," Athanasius muttered. "You are right. They'll hang him for that."

"Perhaps. But there's no evidence against him, except the father was a drunkard, they say, who did terrible things to the boy. The police are still looking for the weapon."

Athanasius placed the jar on a shelf. "And if they never find it?"

"They'll try to get him to confess. If he can keep quiet, eventually they'll have to let him go, but I doubt that will happen. Their interrogators can be very persuasive. Even if he is innocent."

The artist heaved a forceful sigh as if to demonstrate his sadness and disappointment in Tomatillo's dire situation. He picked up a paintbrush and dabbed it on his palette. "I would offer you a glass of wine, but I really must get back to work."

"Of course. Sorry. But I thought you would be interested."

After Donato saw himself out, Athanasius dropped the pretense of working and went to inspect the jar. From the odor he knew it was full of vinegar. At the bottom, as he had anticipated, was a sharpened slice of shark fin almost the same color as the liquid and thus difficult to see if one were not looking for it.

"What a clever boy," he said to himself, refocusing on his project. "I must give him more responsibilities when he returns.