Short: The Night Sky

This is a true story, but you can take from it whatever you choose to…

Once upon a time, in a village not far from here, there lived a young artist. He loved to paint and to sculpt and to fashion grand images and illusions and everyone who knew him agreed, he had a tremendous gift. He could sculpt something extraordinary from just about anything; fashion with fabric and timber and fine metals and jewels and paint… the things he could do with a paintbrush!

As a child, he quite unexpectedly painted his school hall, so the walls ascended snow-capped mountains and the ceiling became a crisp, azure sky. The timber floorboards lost their creak and became a meadow beneath his classmates’ feet with a stream that babbled off into the distance. He was expelled of course, but by then he didn’t need to go to school anymore.

A wealthy businessman hired him to paint his shops, so the entrance was a sunrise and the exit, a sunset. The light of a star came to life in his establishments so that it almost seemed to echo off the glass countertops and the shops were so lovely that no one wanted to buy anything, they just came to bask in the glow of the sun.

Though his first commercial project had not worked out as planned, the deserted sun shops became famous amongst the locals and soon the artist had so many offers of work in the village that he didn’t know where to start. You see, his personal vision had always exceeded his grasp. Imagery and wonder filled his head. Day and night, he would stop in his tracks, caught off guard by some splendorous thing. They came together for him like pieces in a tantalising puzzle that all unexpectedly complimented each other in so many special ways. Naturally, this complicated everything.

The answer to his problems was a surprise to everyone. The real world around him of the village, its shops and farms, school halls, columns, arches and steeples, so set in its ways, so not of the world of his vision, would yield. It would have to, just as he always had somehow suspected it would. It took him years just to plan what he would do, so long that people began to wonder if he had lost his talents.

The sun-dappled shops still shone and the brook in the school hall still babbled no matter how many muddy school children’s feet passed through it. Patience wore thin, then finally, the artist set to work.

He set up scaffolds. He tore up the cobbles of the road. He broke through walls, turned people out of their homes and rent friends and families asunder. But my goodness me, what he had made when it was finally over. The village had become a living masterpiece. From the stone bridge that crossed the river into town, to the houses, the tiles on the roof, the city square, the highest steeple and the very last lamp post, everything he touched was breathtaking. He had sculpted and painted and bent iron and earth to his vision. It was a thing of such unerring loveliness that everyone who saw it agreed: this was a masterwork.

Even as he had worked, the artists village became quite famous. People travelled from all over the countryside to watch him work and to see the streets that grew up into the walls like a stone forest carpeted in flowers and vines. Spires ascended to statuesque peaks capped with cupolas that glowed like moonstones while from the hills around and about the rooftops flowed endlessly one into the other like the canopy of some splendid forest and the walls themselves danced with colour and life.

If the artist had a failing in his work, it was vanity. He loved working with beautiful things. Even as the village grew to life around him, a joyous thing, fulfilling a dream of his minds eye and he thrilled at every touch, his thoughts began to wander. Wouldn’t that light be sharpened if the stones were more precious? Wouldn’t that line be softened and strengthened if the timber were ash and not pine? He longed to work with crystal and not glass, with ivory and not clay. He wanted to expand his reach and transform the world around him into something that would truly last forever and take everyone’s breath away.

While he had been at work, the world had been at war. Though the village had been spared from the worst, a great battle nearby saw their small state tumble before a powerful kingdom and soon, soldiers’ boots marched upon their lovely streets. Even these rough men softened their steps and kept their horses on the edge of town. Such beauty and care humbled even their King, who came to see how such an insignificant place could inspire so much attention. His generals had demanded the artist build a hanging tree and even that was a thing of such elegance that death itself softened the blow of the poor villagers who met their fate there.

The King had the artist brought before him, who fell to his knees and begged that his end come quickly. But the King laughed, told him to stand and forgave him his lovely treason.

“I have a ballroom,” said the King, “in a palace so grand that everyone who sees it says it is the most perfect place on earth. I have always dreamed that the ballrooms vast ceiling should reflect the night sky with a million gold stars and a crystal chandelier that follows the light of the moon itself. Can you make this for me?”

The artist knew he could and said so. He was made, then and there, Master Builder to the court of his new King and blueprints for the palace were sent for to meet them on the road, for the King commanded they leave at dawn tomorrow.

The villagers grabbed the artist that night and urged him not to go.

“If you leave, you will be a traitor and we will have to hate you. All the sacrifices we made for this masterwork will have been for nothing and this joyful thing will be spoiled forever. Let us kill you where you stand and frustrate the King and we will forever remember what you have done and keep your artwork perfect and alive.”

But the artist had dreamed of the majesty of a palace, and even now the glory of this nightscape beckoned him onwards. The next day he rode away in the coterie of the King as the smoke from the village billowed behind them.

“Your art is mine now,” said the King. “I will let nothing outshine the glory of your works for me.”

*****

The palace was everything the King had promised and more. The artist moved freely throughout every perfect and glittering room and breathed in each fanciful new craft and artwork he beheld. The ballroom itself was all he had ever dreamed of, like a giant canvas that implored him to unleash his potential upon it. Up vaulted the ceilings into endless heights above the marbled floors while the sun shone, soft and carefree through stained glass windows that curved so gracefully, you could only wonder what lifetimes had been spent to achieve the effect.

The artist knew what he wanted to do the moment he saw it. The King approved his plans and at once assembled a team of artisans and master craftsmen to follow the artists commands and bring his glittering evening sky to life. The artist showed them all his designs and his workers were immediately enraptured. At that moment the giant doors at the fours corners of the room flung open and slaves hauled in giant timber sleds weighed down with the materials of their work.

It was everything the artist had ever wanted. There was lapis and ebony and obsidian for the darkness of the night. Mother of pearl, ivory, onyx and palladium for the clouds. There were ingots of platinum, white gold, sacks of diamonds, sapphires and giant crystal shards to fashion into the chandelier. There were bars of electrum, blocks of marble and granite, trunks full of silks and the most expensive dyes for draperies and tapestries. Then the king beckoned, and the final vast sled was hauled in, carrying nothing but trunks filled with a million gold stars.

It was overwhelming.

The artist bowed low before the King, for surely no artist in all the world had every been shown such generosity, such grace. But the King laughed.

“This is the wealth of your fallen state, and your people dug deep to bring it to me. Many were killed in its plundering and more still of those assembled about you will die to make this world match my majesty. I wish to be sure that your state will never rise against me again, so here is the wealth of their ages. You are now my slave and you will cast this into the sky and enrichen my nights.”

The vast ballroom was silent the rest of that day and for many that followed for the artist was struck motionless by what the King had said. For the first time in his life, his vision faltered, and he regretted that inspiration had ever been granted to him at all. His gift had cast a nightmare about him, and he sent his team of master craftsmen from his sight and silently painted his body the colour of the marble floor and lay their waiting to die.

The King had returned to the battlefields of his war and many of the rooms of his perfect palace were closed up and all its magnificence cast into shadows under thick and dusty sheets. But a few rooms stayed open so the King’s young son could visit and have lessons so that one day he could go to war too. Whenever he could though, the Prince would escape, and this way, he came across the ballroom and tripped over something on the marble that turned out to be another young man.

The artist was still young and strong, but now he was sad in a way the Prince just could not understand. He had seen pictures of the artists village in books and was delighted by them, so he asked the artist to create him something splendid of his very own. The artist bowed and explained that he couldn’t, for his vision had left him and he didn’t know anymore what a thing of beauty was.

The young Prince was astounded.

“But here you are, in the most perfect place in the world, surrounded by all the riches of a nation state. You could create anything you could ever possibly dream of!”

He cast his eyes about the magic endlessness of the ballroom and longed to dance. The young Prince loved to dance, but the artist didn’t know how. So, he promised to return every day after his lessons and teach the artist to dance. He bade him remove the painted effect of marble from his skin, to comb out his hair and to dress, and, each day from then on, for a year, he came in the afternoons and they would dance.

The Prince was beautiful and graceful. He had been shaped this way from birth and studied hard at it since his education had begun. In the long shadows of the afternoon, in the still glimmer of the evening, he swirled and dipped, and the young artist was enraptured as they moved together. Slowly, as the days were spent and the young Prince laughed and smiled and talked to him as they danced, the young artist could look about him again and see beautiful princes in their hundreds, dancing joyously about his ballroom, lit by the brilliance of his crystal chandelier that followed the moon, and a million golden stars.

His designs came back to life but changed now. This ballroom was a place of great pain, but also great love. For he loved the Prince and the Prince loved him and the world in his minds eye grew once again, a reality reflected in a million stars. The Prince cried with delight when he saw it and they danced one more time in the naked ballroom.

“When it is finished,” said the Prince, “I will throw the greatest ball the world has ever seen, and we will be the first to dance together here in the world’s most perfect place.”

The artist summoned his team of craftsmen to him and they were agog that anyone could have improved on what they had already seen. The artist swore before the Prince and before them all that this would be his life’s work. They set to it with the fervour of the inspired and with enrapturing slowness, they set about unpacking the trunks and creating their master’s designs. The artist worked harder than them all. He was in love, and all he could think of was finishing his ballroom so he could dance once again with the Prince.

*****

The outside world went on, as it always did. The kingdoms wars did not go well, and though none in the palace knew it, they had all but been forgotten. The palace was long abandoned, a relic of the days when young men did not go off to war, a preposterous notion of when their violent kingdom could have held the most perfect place on earth. They fought hard and the cost was high.

One day, a platoon of troops came to the palace, for the King’s treasurer had remembered the wealth within. They entered the ballroom in the still of the night and began to gather the trunks of a million gold stars, the ingots of platinum and the sacks of diamonds. The craftsmen watched quietly from their scaffolding above where they had worked day and night. This was the greatest achievement of their lives. It was their life.

While the troops were occupied, the craftsmen dropped the vast off-cuts of the silk sheets for the draperies upon them and smashed in their skulls with bars of electrum. The few soldiers who escaped could not see what attacked them. To them it seemed the night sky itself had fallen and swallowed their fellows alive. The story spread amongst the kingdom and so the palace became a cursed place, the wealth within protected by the ghosts of the men who had died when it was plundered from their fallen nation.

One by one, the master craftsmen woke from their dream of the night sky. The kitchen gardens, stables and sties of the palace were becoming exhausted and overgrown while the animals ran away or died. No one from any of the nearby towns would bring them food and the water in the wells ran dry. The artist didn’t notice, he was too busy at work. Finally, one day he asked for another golden star to add to the night and when no one handed it to him, he looked about to discover that he was alone. He fetched the star himself and kept going with his design. The outside world could carry on with its devices, he knew the final vision was worth the work.

Slowly, as the years went by and the tiles fell off the roof over his head, the timber panels of the vast, vaulted ceiling began to grow damp and parts of the sky began to warp and fall. The artist tried to find the right wood about the ruins of the palace to replace the damage, but it would mean too long a delay in his work. No one ever came near the violent old tomb of the decaying palace and the artist would not leave in case someone came to try and steal the treasures of his world.

He cut down some trees that had grown wild in the old rose gardens outside the ballroom and took his own hands and arms as his study. Using ropes and pulleys and the strong beams he fashioned from the wild saplings, he built giant, graceful arms that stretched up through the room and gently stopped the night sky from falling. At first, he only needed three. But he would just get one panel perfect, then another would begin to slip, and the golden stars would dislodge, or his lunar chandelier would be shaken, and another arm would have to ascend into the heavens.

The incredible arms grew like an awesome colonnade through the vastness of the room, a forest of sinews and muscles with a series of ropes draping and curling through the ballroom to a special toolbelt the artist built about himself so that all it took was a gentle tug on just the right line and a muscle somewhere in the room would tighten or relax and the ceiling change exactly as he wished. Slowly they worked into the design until the room became alive with arms that grew as if out of the very marble itself and touched the sky above. It was like a mystifying bridge between the farthest reaches of the night and the darkest depths of the earth.

*****

One day, the King returned with a small coterie. They walked gravely through the ruins of the palace, about the rooms now scavenged and decaying; places once so perfect, overgrown now with vines and weeds and home only to wasps and bees. The King was sad, and, for the first time in his life, he cried that something so terrible had happened from such beautiful designs. Then, as they walked, one of his servants shouted for the King to guarded, for there were signs of life.

They entered the ballroom and the King gasped in astonishment at the incredible sight he beheld. Above and about him was a glittering nights sky. Lapis, obsidian and ebony mingled seamlessly with clouds of onyx, platinum, and mother of pearl. A chandelier tracked about the room and through the gracious tapestries and silk draperies it caught the light through the beautiful stained-glass windows and glowed like the moon itself. Here hung a flock of night larks crafted delicately in platinum, their stood a class of dignified owls staring out watchfully over the world of endless night. But most remarkable of all, there was a forest of gracious arms that rose so effortlessly into the heights and seemed to keep the sky itself aloft beneath the glitter of a million golden stars.

The artist descended from his scaffolds, overjoyed that the King had returned at last, and he bowed low before him. The work had taken longer than expected but if only the King would grant him a steeplejack for the roof outside and a few simple materials yet, it soon could be. But please, could he keep the arms as part of his design. To the King’s astonishment, the artist then tugged gently on the cords of his belt and above them the clouds in the night sky shifted at his command and the stars danced while the chandelier swam across the heavens as the arms gently shifted and cradled and made the incredible room alive.

The King bade the artist rise and he cried gently for he realised the artist no longer recognised him. You see, he had once been the young Prince who had danced in this place; but his father had died, and he had long been King and had himself gone to war. In this instant he realised how much he had lost and how much he had changed.

“The war is lost, my lovely friend, and I am through this place only as I run from my enemies, your countrymen to be banished far from this heaven you have made. But I will send a herald to the powers that follow me and ask them to come and look at what you have done. If they have human hearts, I know they will esteem it as I do. If you want anything for your service to me, only ask it. If my decrepit state allows, down to my boots, it will be yours.”

The artist had only one request and he knew it without any need for thought. He wanted to stay in the world of the night. Truthfully, he had finished it to his original intentions some time ago, but he couldn’t bare to leave it and see it decay. So, he had stayed and carefully each day he adjusted it so that no matter the weather or the state of the heavens, the room inside matched the sky without. His hands held up the sky. It was all that mattered to him now. His request made, he ascended the scaffolding and got back to work, while beneath him the King danced slowly, alone, one last time, about the magical room.

When the descendants of the artists’ village and its nation arrived and saw the remarkable ballroom, they recalled the young craftsmen and the village he had fashioned and then burned. His betrayal vanished before them when they saw what his life had become. The ruined palace was dismantled, except the ballroom, and the artist was granted whatever materials he wished to keep his night sky alive. People visited day after day, year after year to watch the sky shift and the golden stars dance and to see the incredible arms at work above. It became a wonder of the world and it’s still there to this day. And for all I know, so is the artist, dreaming of dancing with the young prince, his hands holding up the night sky above.

Thank you for reading ❤