Clark sat at the breakfast table, drinking his milk, annoyed with the world. “I never understood what people meant when they talked about Death and Taxes. Now, that is all I dream about.” From the kitchen, Nan, his wife called out. “Clark! You had best not be telling me you don’t have the tax money for the Tax-Master.” “I’m an artist, I should not worry about things so mundane like taxes.” He tasted it in his wife’s voice she was getting frustrated with him.
“Clark Lution you are NOT an artist. You are a dairy farmer.” Nan walked into the room, her arms spread wide. “Take a peek around. This is a dairy farm. Your parents? Dairy Farmers. My parents? Dairy Farmer. You fooled yourself you were anything but a dairy farmer. Maybe? I should say? You are a dairy farmer with delusions of grandeur.”
Clark did not stay at the breakfast table. A sniff later and walking into the warmth of his studio. To him it this building became a refuge for his Long and Suffering Art. To everyone else on the dairy farm, the shed held old and broken tools. Now it held paints, canvas, brushes, and when the milking finished, Clark.
“I am an artist, I’m a painter, I paint. Milking well it pays the bills for right now. Soon though, painting will make me… it will make us rich.” Turning towards the house he didn’t say this next part too loud, he wasn’t ready to be accountable for his words. “Nan, I will be a talented, rich, and famous painter. Everyone will desire a painting I painted.”
That was not now, though, and he might be in trouble. Taxes were due, they were due tomorrow, and he didn’t have the money. “All milked Mr. Lution.” Clark looked at Tack, his hired man, as he walked towards Clark wiping his hands on an almost clean cloth. “I wiped the cows all down too, important to keep clean cows.” Clean cows, that order pummeled into Clark’s head since he had been a toddler. Clean cows happy cows, happy cows made happy milk and happy milk made happy children. Circle of Milk and all of that.
Tack nodded his head. “Mr. Clark, if you wait to pay me? That’s OK! Taxes are due tomorrow, I paid my taxes, you need an extra day, a week? Tack good with that. Mr. Clark? You good man, you take time to pay Tack.” Clark did not understand what to do with this generosity. He would not accept it. You paid your employees before you paid yourself. The worrisome fear? Tack found out that money is missing? Did others hear this? His creditors listen to gossip? Did Nan? “Thanks, Tack, I appreciate that. You will get paid tomorrow, like normal.”
The huge problem, like the elephant in the room? Lucinda. Lucinda, the woman he painted whenever he got the chance. The first time he painted her? Simple. Magical. The exact thing painting a portrait defined for an artist. The Muse was right there at the end of his fingertips. He painted a whirlwind of color. It didn’t come out right.
People would gossip it happened this way with his guilty conscience. He didn’t have one. “I am cheating on my wife.” He would tell himself that every day. He said it with a smile. “It’s true, I am cheating on my wife. I am not cheating on her with a woman, I am cheating on her with my Art.”
No one would say Lucinda’s beauty is in the eye of the beholder. No, her beauty showed on her perfect unblemished skin, green eyes, long and flowing black hair. Tall, long legs, a sculptured and timeless beauty. Lucinda created a perfect artist’s dream by breathing.
He had painted Lucinda on three separate occasions. The expense of the canvas time away from his cows, and the money he paid Lucinda, no small amount. There was no way to pay for the experience without dipping into the money saved for the dairy farm’s taxes. “I will recoup my losses the moment I sell the first painting.” He repeated that to himself often. Right after he terrorized himself about what would happen if the painting didn’t sell. Then disaster struck.
The first time the disaster struck, Clark put it down to his own failed skill as a painter. “I am doing something wrong. It must be me. There is no other explanation.” The second time it occurred, the problem? The canvas and the paints. Defective. Get a new canvas, get new paints, get new brushes. There were all purchased with tax money.
“Third time is the charm!” His mother had always said so, it must be true. Taking his time, he poured his heart into the portrait of Lucinda. Lighting was perfect, he paid a little extra to pick out the exact thing he wanted her to wear. The paint was new and free of defects, he made sure he trimmed the brushes to perfection. This portrait would make him rich!
The results were the same as were the over two. Disappointing, not right, if he were honest with himself. “It is a portrait of an ugly woman.”
The truth of the matter, it was a lie. The woman was beautiful. Each time he looked at her, smiling to him, he nods his head and paints. The result? A copy, a reflection on the canvas of what had to be her soul. An ugly thing. Avaricious, malcontent, ugly all the things you would never want your new wife or the mother of your child to be. Clark stared at the painting he wondered how this happened to him?
The cost of the tools was no small fee. Paying for the canvas cost more. Paying Lucinda to have an ugly soul? A fee too large to shoulder with no complaint. Clark, dreams dashed. Sitting in his studio with three unsellable paintings. A large tax burden due. No help with his now non-existent future. Standing inside of his studio, all three paintings covered in white paint. Hiding the soul underneath. Now, what was he supposed to do?
A step out of the shed/studio, the three whitewashed paintings drying in the afternoon sun. “Nan? I’m going to town.” Nan seated at the kitchen table shucking peas. “Make sure you bring me salt. Last time you said you would remember, do I write it down now?” Having larger things to listen to then Nan laundry list his faults. “No, I have it, salt.” “Make sure you pay for the salt now, I hate getting things on credit.” He wondered how she would feel if she found out he had used the tax money for something that wasn’t taxes? He picked up the satchel with the tax payment and headed to town.
On the long walk to town, he had time to consider. He did his best thinking walking. The decision to paint Lucinda came about on a walk. Another good idea would not be that far behind. “Ask the Tax Master for more time? It is one gold piece. That was not a large amount. All the years he had paid on time. Time would not be out of the question. No, that sounded reasonable to him. More time.
Thoughts ran through his head. The Tax Master would gossip. “Did you hear? Clark Lution did not pay his taxes on time.” His wife would die of shame. For a split second, he speculated “Would that be so bad?” “Then marry Lucinda and not pay her to sit for me.” The memory of the finished portraits flashed into his mind. The sheer ugliness transfixed him. “I would have my beautiful wife and not a woman that had an imperiled soul.”
“What else can I do? I can’t sell a cow.” Right away that people would talk. It would be impossible to find a person wanted to buy a cow this time of year. No one had the extra coin at tax time. No one would pay hard coin, promises he could not give to the Tax Master. Even if he a willing buyer presented himself, someone, that wanted a cow had coin, they would not be willing to keep silent on the matter. They would talk that would be bad. Not as bad as the Tax Master speaking out, spreading gossip, still bad.
The outcome decided before it happened. People would gossip why he sold a cow. His creditors would think he was in trouble, want their money. His customers would think they might force him to take less money for his milk. The farmers that sold him feed, would want more, to get their money before he went into bankruptcy. This downward spiral would continue, and he would have less money next year for taxes. He would have no money and no time for painting.
“I will ask the Tax Master!” It was not as hard as he thought it would be to do. Finding an answer to his dilemma. “This was as simple as the time I came up the thought to paint Lucinda!” The next thought almost drove him to his knees. The thought of painting Lucinda had turned his stomach to acid. “I won’t ask the Tax Master for more time, I need to get my money back from Lucinda. It’s impossible to sell my paintings, I have painted over them. Since I can’t sell them? I did not use her time for the sitting, she will have to give me my money back. She is a reasonable woman, everyone says so.”
“I will go to Lucinda’s house and get my money back! When I get the money, I will then go to the Tax Master and pay my taxes. I am sure that Nan will understand that I did not get the salt today, I will explain that the Tax Master, and I talked about dairy farms and painting. The salt can wait till tomorrow. This is a good plan, I always get a good plan when I’m walking.
The door was in front of him and for a moment he hesitated in knocking on the door. “I have a plan, don’t be worrisome. Nothing can go wrong.” Clark knocked. Robair opened the door and looked down his rather long nose and height at Clark. Robair, in his youth, as “Don’t hit your head on the ceiling Robair" and he still carried himself as if he might scrape the top of his head on the ceiling.
“I’d like to speak to Lucinda please.” “Is she expecting you?” “No, she will talk me. I want to talk about a payment.” He did not add that he wanted payment back. “Sir, let me check if she receives payment making guests.” The door closed in Clark’s face. “I have a plan,” Clark said to the closed door. He did not take the door being closed in his face as a bad omen.
Ten minutes later, a long time to Clark who had been standing out on the street with people passing by. His presence a ripe tomato for gossip. The door opened again and Robair stepped aside so Clark would enter. They exchanged no words until Robair said “I told Mistress Lucinda you were here, that you had your tax pouch with you. She will receive you on the porch.” Robair escorted Clark through Lucinda’s house. The walk showed Clark updates within the home. New furniture, a hired servant. The servant was wiping down gold trimmed plates in the dining room. “A lot of new stuff Robair.” An air of disdain fell off of Robair like chaff from the wheat. “Yes, sir.” Robair did not sound like he meant to be polite, that he had to. Sliding open the doors to the solarium “Your guest Mum.” Robair made it sound like he had taken out the foul-smelling garbage. Stepping aside to let Clark enter, Robair left the solarium doors open.
Lucinda on a divan chair; her silk robe left opened at the center of her chest. It showed nothing, the purpose to allow the imagination to run rampant if she would move in any direction. Her long legs exposed to give a view of her thighs and a hint of things higher up. The woman exuded physical beauty. Her deep and luxurious hair framed her face, all while making it appear this was a natural effect. Green eyes took in Clark, his tax satchel, and noted he is noticing her and how she arranged herself. Her appearance, not left to chance, Clark was sure of that.
In the past, Clark might have wanted to stop everything he had been doing to sketch her. To take a moment and turn it into a memorial of beauty. Now knowing from the three times he had painted her, he visualized what he would paint. Not a demon, a woman that had no beauty in her soul. He could see in his mind's eye what his paintbrush told him. It was odd to see what his painter’s eye saw and not what everyone else did.
A predatory glare, not a look, that he had not seen. It was there, focused, on his tax money satchel. A small gasp of what he had taken for excitement. It was the bag of coins that held her attention. There was an aura of quiet disgust that permeated the scent in the room. There was no buying her with money. Money was a tool, a scorecard, his money was welcome in the room he was not. The final thing he noticed? She turned in her seat, the robe exposing her cleavage, which he paid no mind too. She did not notice, unaware that someone might choose to not see. Her body was her tool, she mocked him with her sensuality while not liking him in the least.
“Clark, Clark, my favorite painter. Come to pain me again? Is that why you brought money with you? You didn’t think you could purchase my affections, did you?” Saying in such an overt way that her attentions were always for sale, her heat was not. “Did you decide that you would not live without your Muse? I am here.” A small smile came to her features that did not reach her eyes. That animal cunning smile played across her features. Now all that Clark saw was a spider that divan chair her web. How had he ever saw her as pretty?
Looking innocent, his voice though not quivering in fear. He would not form words if she had shown cleavage, a thigh, a smile. It brought only disgust now. “No, my Muse.” His face took on a wide-eyed expression. “It is over a matter of money.” The smile on her features retreated like snow on a sunny day.
Since she had not stopped him he pushed on with his request. “I need a coin I paid you for sitting for your portrait. The cost, I hate to sound like this, the cost is more than I can afford. The portraits became damaged, now worthless.” He stopped speaking. As a dairy farmer, not speaking had more weight than pleading your case. This was the case between desperation and persuasive. His need to pay his taxes stronger than his pride.
A moment of silence, Lucinda stared at Clark. A sound that Clark had never heard before. It bubbled up out of the woman’s mouth. Not sure what the sound was, realizing it was a giggle then laughter. Lucinda laughed. Clark, looking confused, did not understand. The woman’s face was alive as she laughed. The thing Clark noticed right away, the laughter never reached her eyes.
“Dearest, sweetest of painters, my sweet man. I cannot give you what I do not have? Your coins? I have spent them all. I have needs. Must I not keep myself well stocked? Servants? Would you see me doing my laundry? Would you want to see my hands red and cracked? Cooking? Cleaning? You must understand.”
A moment of awkward silence elapsed. Lucinda then added “I can do another sitting? How would that be? I will not charge you. A percentage of the profits, would be fair, would it not? Twenty-Five percent of the sale. Reasonable. The entire town mentions what a skilled painter you are. It must be true if all say it. I doubt they talk about your cows. I would not guess they speak about milk, cheese, or butter in the same way they speak about your painting. You are an artist! Do you need coins when you have your art?”
Another moment of awkward silence later Lucinda added “You see how much better my plan is? You would not want me to give you something I do not have?” Nodding, getting a feel for her words. “I might talk about your paintings with my friends? A lot of my friends know rich men. Men like to purchase gifts. Give me fifty percent of those painting you sell. A mere pittance with your skill. All will want your great paintings. You know they will.”
Clark shook his head. This had been his shot at getting his coins back to pay the taxes. She had spent his money on worthless things. Plates? Who needed new plates? Servants? She could have done her own work the same way Nan did. He now knew the reason the painting looked the way it did. Selfishness was never pretty.
He did not understand what he would do now. The money spent on worthless plates? What would happen to him? What would happen to the dairy farm? The cows? There was even something worse, Nan. She had told him not to let people speculate, now everyone would know. Over his shoulder, “No, I won’t be painting for a while, I…” The words would not come. He walked to the door of the townhouse, Robair was nowhere in sight to let him out. It didn’t matter.
A thought struck him. “The gold plates. No one is looking. Take them, sell them, use that money to pay the Tax Master. Would people care? Suspect? I doubt the police would question me why would I take the plates?” Stopped again, the deed so unlike him. Clark might be a tax cheat, he was not a thief. This act not added to his list of wrong deeds.
Outside the townhouse, the satchel of coins in his right hand. “This is homelessness” Clark had no one to ask, friends, business associates. This was Nan’s fear. People would talk, gossip, they on the street. People laughing, pointing, mocking. Clark doubted that Nan would recover from this act of betrayal. “I need to expand my circle of friends. They can’t all be business friends or friends with Nan.” A roll of his shoulders, releasing stress. “It is lucky I’m not a gambler. Could have lost all the money on some quick rich scheme. I could have given it all to Lucinda in exchange for her company. I paint instead, my addiction.”
The walk down the street to City Hall took too long. The town shrouded in greys, shadows, darkness. There was no joy. No brightness, nothing that reminded him how happy he had been the day before. How could it be? Painting had turned to a curse. He would not paint now, he had his doubts if could paint again.
A small line had formed outside the Tax-Master’s door at City Hall. At this time of day, this was not surprising. Merchants and farmers wanted to get here early, then back to their shops and fields. Clark himself had always arrived early, not hearing his wife scold him about late taxes a high priority. The people that came late to the office were those that didn’t want to pay or trying to get out of paying their taxes.
The Tax-Master today held proceedings in the main chamber. This was the room of law, they read verdicts on judgments. It was the seat of authority for the town and the surrounding area. It showed in the heavy drapes on the windows, how polished the floor was, even the chair that the Tax-Master sat. Right away Clark noticed something different about the room. It was more quiet than usual. Scanning the crowd to find out why? Clark found the reason in the chair next to the Tax-Master. The man had brought his wife with him.
The talk of last season, the marriage of the Tax-Master, kept the washerwomen busy for months down at the wells. No one knew what the woman looked like only that the Tax-Master had married her. Now, here was the proof of that marriage and gossip.
The young woman, not beautiful, her look was one of her interesting features. Her forehead was a little too long, her nose wide. Her blue-grey eyes were seated a little too far apart and her mouth was very generous. On other women? Any of these features would ruin another woman. All of them together on his wife? They gave her a different appearance than most other women and Clark found them to be pretty.
When it was Clark’s turn to present his taxes the Tax-Master stopped to talk to him, instead of accepting payment and moving the proceedings along. “Ah, Master Lution. On time with your taxes.” The Tax-Master looked out at the others standing in line, giving them a glance. Maybe it pleased the Tax-Master that someone used this time of day to pay their taxes with no squabbling. Clark felt like a small animal caught in a snare. “I have Tax-Master” Lifting the satchel of money he placed it on the table in front of the man. Clark sensed the sweat dripping down his back, eyes on him, his disgrace gossiped at the well, Nan would leave him.
The Tax-Master smiled “You have not met my wife, have you Master Lution? This is Wren Brightmist.” The Tax-Master reached, clasped the woman’s hand squeezing it. “This my dearest wife is Master Lution, he claims the vocation of a dairy farmer. He might in the early morning hours deal with cows. His true vocation though is a painter. I have heard he does the most amazing portraits.”
Wren’s eyes bored into Clark, for that moment he felt they had laid his soul bare at the feet of the woman. Clark knew in that instant she knew his tax money was short. She looked, weighed him and found him wanting. Would she tell her husband? Embarrass him in front of this townspeople. The sweat intensified on his back.
“Master Lution, do you paint for the joy of it? I find I have so little time for outside interests. A new wife never has a free moment.” There was a murmur of agreement from those in the audience waiting to pay their taxes. Clark surprised at the sound of her voice, a soft contralto, he expected something higher for reasons that escaped him. Continuing “I find myself so interested in the Arts. I have no skill at all, I dabble at writing unbelievable bad poetry.” Wren giggled, waving a hand in front of her face. “I find it so bad.”
Clark tripped over his words. Wren was an important person, the Tax-Master’s wife. They were treating him well, not like a tax chat. Perhaps she did not know? Perhaps he could get away with being a gold piece short. Would he be able to walk out? If, when Nan found out? He did not want to think about it.
The Tax-Master, his lips almost creating a smile. “Good Master Lution, my wife, saying not well, is asking to have you paint her portrait. We can make it a small commission, I would not think of having you paint her for free, I will not hear of it. What say you, two gold? Is that enough for your time and materials?”
The entire world exploded behind Clark’s left eye. The ground had opened and swallowed him whole. Then he was back in the chamber listening to the man offer him a commission. It would pay off his tax debt, it would start it on next years, or the money to pay for painting supplies for a year!
“Two gold Tax-Master? That would be generous. I have the canvas and paints all ready.” All he needed was the set time for the portrait. Nan could be nothing but pleased by these turns of events. The Tax-Master and his wife would come to their home and his studio. Even if the studio a mere shed
Clark set up the canvas in the studio before Wren came the next morning. The Tax-master had paid 1 gold in advance. Clark slipped that gold coin in with the rest of his tax payment. Moving the satchel off the table making a show of checking the fastenings, the coin joined the others and his tax payment complete. Relaxed, feeling confident, all thoughts of Lucinda behind him. A painter, he was ready for his subject. The studio decorated with landscapes and portraits, the white canvas in front of him. All the portraits were of Nan.
The Tax-Master and Wren arrived and toured the studio, no comment about it being a shed. It was a painter’s studio. “I love these, you so… captured the inner person. I want to say their soul, which sounds so silly.” Wren had stopped to appreciate one painting of Nan. The woman in the painting, Nan, had given birth to their third child Caleb the week before. The figure in the painting looked to her left, waved. Caleb had died of a coughing disease. Clark had said farewell to his son, the painting a testimony to a father and a mother’s love. Only Nan, in the painting, could see Caleb, it was a lovely portrait of his wife, her soul open to the world.
Coughing, clearing his throat. “Shall we start?” The Tax-Master kissed Wren on the forehead. “I look forward to seeing the results of your work Master Lution.” With that, he left the studio, stopping at the main house to thank Nan for her hospitality. Knowing word would spread of his visit. Nan appreciated the gesture more than the gold.
He sketched, he painted, lost in the Art that he only saw the paint, the lines, the light. What he painted, lost in being a painter, an artist. Somehow, the painting took on a life of its own. He did not see the result each day, he did not allow Wren to see it covering it with a sheet. Wren would come in, sit in a white dress under the window, light dancing off her strong features, he painted. Time stood still.
The painting finished, covered, Clark had time to breathe. He talked himself out of looking at the completed work. Afraid of what he would find. Clark knew in his heart this was not the same as Lucinda’s paintings, it was too right. The paint had flowed off the brush, his soul soared. He had painted the woman as she looked in her white dress, under the window. The painting would be better. They had paid him, not merely someone. That made all the difference he was sure.
“I will be at the house, Painter Husband.” Nan leaned up, kissing his cheek. “I am so proud of you, doing this and I’ll look at the painting after they leave.”
The Tax-Master and Wren arrived soon. “I haven’t looked at the portrait yet, this will be a first for me too.” Wren’s face showed her confusion “How is that possible, you painted me?” Clark shrugged “I do not know how to explain it. I am in the moment. I saw colors, the brush, lines, I painted.” The Tax-Master smiled “One does not argue with a Master my love, one accepts.” Wren looked down, not embarrassed, smiling “Yes my husband.”
Clark pulled back the sheet standing next to the portrait so he could see their expressions before he looked at the painting. They both gasped a little, leaning forward, then both smiled. “At least it isn’t a monster painting. They both like it.” That was his thought as he turned to gaze upon his work.
Clark’s heart stopped. He looked at the painting and wondered what had he done? That was not the portrait of a woman standing here in his studio. It looked like… a dragon had taken the place of the Tax-Master’s wife and sat for the portrait instead.
The figure in the portrait wore the white dress, the one Wren had worn during the sitting. Little things stood out for Clark. Wren’s high forehead was present, the nose, chin, and Wren’s full mouth were all there in the dragon’s features. Struck like a cow kicking him when ornery. Wren was the dragon; the dragon was Wren. Not knowing what to say, the Tax-Master saved Clark. “Master Lution, magnificent! No one has captured Wren’s likeness before.”
Clark, still staring at his work. “I did not insult you?” Not able to take his eyes off the painting, he would never be sure when the change happened. Turning to look at the Tax-Master and his wife they were no longer there. Instead, two dragons, the same size as the couple, wearing their clothes stood there, and they looked and appreciated the portrait.
The dragon in the Tax-Master’s clothing replied “How is the truth insulting? You have found our secret, you must admit, no one would make a better Tax-Master than a dragon.” Kissing his mate’s forehead “We dragons love to keep and count coins, punish any tries to steal from us, and our species is lawful. We abide by the laws.” Reaching into his coat pocket for a pair of spectacles she slipped them on his nose, he wanted a closer look at the portrait.
“I was unaware that someone could pierce our glamor, I admit, I thought for a moment of killing you.” Shrugging, “You captured her, perfectly.” Wren nodded, “Oh my husband is obnoxious. He has wanted a portrait of me for some time, his one rule, no nudes.” That brought a smile to both of their faces. He pulled a gold coin out of his waistcoat pocket. “Your fee Master Painter, you have earned it.” A glance at the portrait and Clark could only agree.