PodCastle 735: The Artists’ Colony
The Artists’ Colony
I think you would love it here. It’s so peaceful and you were always saying, back in the city, that we needed to get away.
So let me describe what I can see from my writing desk. Outside my window I can see a silver lake which is very still. Behind the lake there is a hill that is partly covered with coniferous trees. Above the hill there is a mottled grey sky. The trees on the hill look like they’ve been painted against that sky with vertical dashes of paint and their reflections in the lake look like inverted impressionist renderings of the same scene.
There is no sound. No engines. No construction. No destruction. No children. No birds.
Before the lake there is a lawn with a forking path. The lawn is very green. At the fork in the path there is a bare leafless tree that makes me think of death. One of the forks leads off into the dark woods to the left. The other leads to a boathouse that was damaged by a recent storm.
Okay, today, there’s some noise. Today, over by the boathouse, Mr Conway is trying to drown himself. He is striding into the water trying to get out of his depth before the People can grab him. The People, as always, have emerged holding long poles with hooks on them and they are right behind Mr Conway. While he struggles terribly against the weight of the lake, they move swiftly and gracefully and seem completely unhindered by the water. He is trying to submerge his head before they can reach him but the water is only up to his waist and it just looks funny to be honest with you. Poor Mr Conway. It’s hard not to laugh at him.
The People are wonderful. Salt of the earth. They never speak. They clean our rooms and turn up with food and ensure that everything works like clockwork. It makes me think about life in books where aristocrats had servants. That’s what the People are like. They’re like our servants and it makes me feel very posh and grand to find that my bed has been made or a fire has been set in my room. I am very productive here. Today already I have written two poems and the People have already taken them away to be appreciated by the Host. It’s lovely.
Oh, they have Mr Conway now and he’s struggling and shouting. He’ll be quiet soon. I’m going down to get a cup of coffee from the kitchen while things calm down. I’ll resume this letter tonight.
At dinner Mr Conway was completely silent. The People had dressed him up and he looked quite fine in his dark suit with the yellow pocket square, if just a little diminished. His lips were pulsing as though he was trying to say something but he never quite managed to part them. For the whole dinner he sat with his eyes darting and his hands shaking and his pores sweating. And he didn’t eat a thing. More fool him! The food here is wonderful, compared to what we’re used to. I felt quite annoyed with him actually. If he didn’t feel up to it, he really should have stayed in bed.
But it was okay. Ms Chissom, in particular, has enough talk for everyone. She’s a prolific if not very good writer. She is an undeniably good talker. Today, she started off by talking about arts funding in times of strife. “I really feel,” she said, “that the arts should be seen as being as important to national well-being as healthcare or agriculture or the military.”
“I wonder how the war is going,” said Mr Peterson, vaguely. Mr Peterson looks a bit like Lenin with a pointy beard and round glasses. This is not an accident. Mr Peterson is a fervent communist and all of his paintings celebrate the indomitable spirit of the working man. The Host appreciates these paintings a lot.
“Don’t mention the war!” said Ms Chissom and I was glad she said that. Because when I thought about the war, I felt guilty and confused about being in such a wonderful place while the rest of you are reckoning with starvation and disease and terror.
Douglas Kelly, a writer of comic essays, changed the subject. He asked Ms Chissom about the most recent head of the Arts Council, a man that many of the guests knew vaguely. Douglas Kelly has writer’s block and has not produced anything for the Host to appreciate in several days, so we all turned to look at him with embarrassment.
But Ms Chissom took the bait. She talked for a while about how this particular Arts Council Director had no vision and was a bureaucratic stooge of that Minister, you know the one, the fellow with the ears. She was really quite funny when she got going. She imitated his Midlands accent and his obsequious manner. But then she looked sad and added, “Of course, he’s dead now,” and everyone ended up looking down at their plates, because a lot of the people we knew, when we thought about it, were dead now.
So the Host spoke. He rarely speaks and he rarely eats and I sometimes forget that he’s there. He looked pale and white and huge. His naked knees were crouched to his chest against the table and he was rammed into the western end of the room with his neck bent so that his head didn’t go through the roof. He has staring, interested eyes, and a wide, slightly goofy smile and brown teeth and a voice that sounds like old pages fluttering.
“Perhaps Mr Dempsey would like to play something on the piano,” he said. Well, he didn’t say it in words, exactly, but it’s what we understood.
Colin Dempsey took to the piano stool and performed, and the Host appreciated him. It was terrible music — modernist, atonal rubbish. Like a lot of young composers Dempsey thinks music begins and ends with Stockhausen. But he is very attractive. He has dark eyes and dark hair and wears v-neck jumpers and is a little sickly looking. He looks like he could take a fainting fit and fall into your arms at any moment. Yes, he’s completely your type. Though he’s probably not the right sort of man to have about in a war. And there I go mentioning the war again. I’ll resume this letter tomorrow.
Today was very productive. I fulfilled my word count early and delivered the sheaves to the People so that the Host could appreciate them. Three poems! Not bad at all.
I rewarded myself with a walk in the woods around the estate. It’s very beautiful here but it can also be very confusing. Some paths come to an abrupt stop and some slowly become overgrown with briars until you find you can continue no further. When this happens one of the People will step out of the darkness of the forest — these coniferous forests are very dark — and they will direct you back to the house.
One day, out of stubbornness, I thought I would see what was on the other side of the wood and vowed to just keep going in a straight line through the trees, paths or no paths. I walked, beating the undergrowth away with my hands, until I was exhausted and dizzy and badly scratched and in desperate need of a drink of water. When I eventually emerged into the light I saw the boathouse and the lake and the big house, yellow and quaint, on the hill.
Now, to keep things simple, I stick to the paths I know. I have a little routine where I make myself a ham and egg sandwich in the kitchen, wrap it in cellophane and then eat it sitting on a felled tree in a clearing that I like. I sit there listening for birds even though there are no birds.
Today, while sitting in this clearing, I met Douglas Kelly. He was running, which doesn’t suit him. Not to be cruel, but he doesn’t really have the build to be running. (I’m no one to judge. We are very well fed here.) He was wearing a heavy patterned jumper and dirt-flecked jeans. His brogues were caked in mud and his face was red, except for the bits that were white and wet-looking. He was surprised to see me. He slowed down momentarily and I thought he was going to say something. But all I heard was his rapid wheezing breath as he lurched by me into the trees. Moments later, I thought I saw something white and huge moving in the forest.
At dinner, Ms Chissom launched into a tirade about how social media was affecting the attention spans of young artists.
Mr Peterson countered that, on the contrary, social media was a wonderful way for artists to engage with diverse opinions.
Colin Dempsey said he thought that on social media everything was like collage and, even though I thought this was pretentious and ridiculous, I said that I agreed. I had decided to have sex with Colin Dempsey.
Soon everyone was chipping in with their opinion of social media. You could see that even Mr Conway would have liked to contribute, if only he could find some way to open his lips. Douglas Kelly, it turns out, has returned home to the city but I’m pretty sure he would have strong views on this subject, too.
It was kind of funny really. None of us had seen a computer or phone in a long time. Nonetheless the Host was very appreciative of our discussion and at one point, his eyes widened and he clapped his massive hand things.
Today I met a man in the woods. He wasn’t an artist. He was just a man. I was sitting in the clearing eating my sandwich and listening to no birds, when I heard the sound of someone beating their way through the undergrowth and emerging into my clearing.
He was a filthy rotting man with a long beard and wild untamed hair and stubs for teeth. I could see all the bones in his chest, and his arms and legs were covered in cuts and scratches. He was so dirty and burned I couldn’t be sure which bits were dirt and which bits were skin. His clothes were just rags, like they hadn’t been really clothes for a very long time, and he was holding a club that he had cut from a tree.
I was frightened but he looked absolutely terrified. Then he saw the sandwich in my hand and his eyes widened and he knocked me off my perch with a belt of his club. I lay on my back, my nose broken and bleeding. I was looking up at the grey-blue sky, thinking I was dying, when he spoke.
“Where did you get this?” His voice sounded like a cough.
I sat up so that I could look at him. My face hurt. I felt dizzy. The man was standing next to me staring down at what was left of the sandwich with something like wonder.
“Where did you get this?”
“From the kitchen,” I said.
“The kitchen,” he repeated.
“I can get you more,” I said.
He looked around the clearing and then he looked at me. He looked like he was about to cry and he spoke like he wasn’t used to speaking.
“Who are you?” he said.
“I’m a poet. I’m staying in the house.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s been a long time since I met anyone. I think I’m having problems understanding.”
“Were you in the war?” I said gently.
This confused him. “The war?” he said. “There’s no war.”
And then he seemed to remember something. He went into himself for a moment. “There was a war when I was a child,” he said. “Do you mean that war?”
His mood seemed to go into flux again. His eyes roamed around the clearing and when they came back to rest on me, he was angry and shouting. “Why are you asking me about a war? Where did you get that food? Where did you get those clothes? Where are your bones? Why can’t I see your bones?”
He beat me with his club and I didn’t even try to fight back. I wasn’t sure how, to be honest, though I seem to remember we had to fight a lot back in the city. The man’s face was contorted with pain all his own and as I lost consciousness, I started to have flashes of things, things I would later turn into poetry and paintings. I felt I should thank him. I saw children and families and towns and planets and suns and stars and supernovae and colliding galaxies. And I saw the Host enter my clearing with his big wide smile. I saw him appreciate the ragged man’s confusion and anger and I saw him appreciate my pain. And then I saw him expand his jaws and appreciate the flesh of the ragged man’s head.
And now I am in my lovely clean bed with a cup of cocoa and a book beside me.
Ms Chissom’s last few pages were not appreciated so she was not at dinner tonight. Indeed, I had been working on a very long poem all day and was feeling quite inspired when I saw her run past my window towards the woods, followed by the Host. It knocked me off my stride a bit.
The absence of Ms Chissom made for a quieter meal than usual. Mr Conway, despite his shaking and lip-locked condition, has been, in contrast, very productive. He has written a novel’s worth of material in the past week alone, pages and pages of stuff. Although, I had a peek before the People took it for appreciation and really it’s quite manic. I’m not sure it’s very good at all.
I guess that’s the way it goes. There are fourteen places around this table, so there must have been fourteen of us at the start. Now, there’s just me and mad old Mr Conway and nice old Mr Peterson and beautiful talentless Colin Dempsey. And the Host, of course, who smiled fondly at us throughout, appreciating the silence.
Mr Conway drowned today. He ran for the lake and waded in, gazing nervously over his shoulder the whole time. The People emerged from the house and the woods but this time they didn’t try to stop him at all. They just stared. He ran further in than he ever got before and he started to struggle. The People still did nothing. He waded further and started to sink. He came up a few times. The last time he came up he looked at the People with something in his eyes like betrayal.
He’s out there now, floating face down in the lake. He will be gone tomorrow. I’m sure of it. At dinner, the Host suggested that we all tell stories to entertain ourselves. Mr Peterson told a story about some cruel invaders. In his story, all of the real people were forced to hide beneath a mountain where they prepared for one last, great battle.
“Has the battle happened or is it yet to come?” asked Colin Dempsey.
“I can’t remember,” said Mr Peterson, and he looked distressed and the Host’s smile curled upwards at the edges so much I thought it might reach into his ears.
“What if it’s futile?” I asked.
“It doesn’t matter,” said Mr Peterson. “Sometimes it’s about the principle of a thing.”
Colin Dempsey snorted at this and Mr Peterson looked hurt. I glared at Colin Dempsey.
The Host said it was my turn.
Don’t laugh, but I told them about a little girl and her sister living in the ruins of a burning city hoarding all the books they could find. I told the story of us surviving on old tins of food and whatever vermin we could catch. And I told the story of the day we found the dog.
“Why is the city in this story continuously burning?” asked Colin Dempsey when I had finished.
“It just is,” I said, because I didn’t know the answer.
“What happens to the little girls in the story?” asked Colin Dempsey.
“Nothing,” I lied. “They’re in the city still.”
“There’s not much narrative tension there,” said Colin Dempsey. “Is the pay-off just that they get to eat a dog?”
“Yes,” I said.
“I like it,” said Mr Peterson and he smiled at me. “It’s sort of . . . literary realism?”
The Host certainly seemed to appreciate it. He rolled his big black eyes around in his head and his grinning teeth chattered gleefully. When it was Colin Dempsey’s turn, he said that he had no stories to tell. He said that, as a composer, storytelling was outside of his discipline and I saw the Host lose his smile.
I knew then that Colin Dempsey would be gone tomorrow and that if I were to sleep with him I should do so that night. So I did. The sex was okay. It reminded me a little of his music.
Mr Conway’s body was not gone in the morning. In fact, there was a second body floating nearby. This was not the only surprise. There was also no fire in my fireplace when I woke and when I went downstairs nobody had cleared the previous night’s dishes from the dining table. Mr Peterson was standing in the dining room looking out at the grounds.
“I think everything is about to change,” he said.
He sounded resolute, like he had experienced such things before in his life. He had once been at another Colony run by the Host. I joined him at the window and looked out towards the woods. The trees had things adorning them, which when I focused my eyes more clearly, I could see were the People, all hung by the neck, all very still and very dead.
The Host was wandering around the grounds, his huge white body dwarfing everything he passed. He was randomly lashing out at things — knocking trees, smashing the boathouse with his big arms, uprooting the skeleton tree at the forking paths and chewing on it briefly before throwing it in the lake.
“I think he’s going to leave,” said Mr Peterson.
“Where would he go?” I asked.
“There are lots of places,” said Mr Peterson, which surprised me.
The Host disappeared out of sight and we could hear a chaotic smashing sound as he started to dismantle the house.
I was terrified and Mr Peterson was too. We held hands as we waited for the Host to reach the room. Bits of brick and dust and glass flew by the windows on either side of us. Plaster fell from the wall. The ceiling started to cave in. Then the Host kicked in a wall and stood in front of us.
I suddenly had a clear picture of my life. I saw my childhood in the ruins where the Host had come to me, drawn by my desire to create another world. I saw you but only the shape of you. I can’t remember your face. I tried to picture you then and I wondered if you were still out there.
The Host knocked each wall in turn. Rubble collapsed on top of me and Mr Peterson and we coughed and struggled. The Host stood over us, his huge goofy smile pouring appreciation on us. He picked up Mr Peterson and I realised that I liked this kind old man and I did not want anything bad to happen to him. So I kicked and hit The Host but that just caused me, not him, to scream with pain.
The Host lifted Mr Peterson above his head and threw him over the lake and the far-flung hill. Then he picked me up. He did so gently but even gently his touch hurt like knives.
I expected to be thrown, too. But the Host did not throw me. Instead he started to walk and then he started to run and then he started to leap, keeping me clutched under his arm like a handbag. He bounded across the grounds, across the lake, over the hill and into the world. As we moved, the green grass and trees gave way to scorched earth and burned-out stumps. The blue-grey sky gave way to a red sky featuring tendrils of smoke and the quaint gate lodges and cottages and barns were replaced by concrete bunkers and looted supermarkets and rusting military vehicles. The Host ran for miles and I felt nauseous and thought that he would never stop. But he did stop. And he continues to stop, just every now and again, to let me rest and eat and write my poems.
I’m not lonely. The Host is strangely engaging company. And, as you know, I can be pretty engaging company, too, when I want to be. We often meet members of his extended Family on the road. A very small number of the very old Family members resemble him. A bigger number are hairier and wilder and hungrier. The youngest ones, by far the most numerous, look more like me and you and they speak words and they treat him with something like reverence. I think he’s a god to them. He gives everyone we meet copies of my work.
He still appreciates my work. He does so hungrily. He’s proud of me. And he still wants me to write to you, wherever you are and whoever you are. In fact, my starting this letter was what convinced him to take me with him when he left the Artists’ Colony. He follows his whims, you see. He says that he’s taking me to the place where a big battle took place. I ask if it’s Mr Peterson’s final battle and he just smiles the wider, all the way to his ears. I hope, in my heart, that if he does get bored with me, he leaves me in that place, to die or to live. I don’t really mind.
For now, he wants me to post the letter. He can’t appreciate it fully, he says, until I’ve done that, because that’s what letters are for, for posting. This means, I think, that he wants me to abandon these pages in an old charred post box like this one. So that’s what I’m going to do.
To whoever reads this: you are my sister. We held each other in dark basements surrounded by books and we learned to breathe together through the smoke. I wrote you poems. We caught a dog. One day we imagined a house surrounded by trees by a lake and one day one of us found it.
Remember that you are special and that I love you. I will never forget you. Someday I would like to show you that beautiful lake.
About the Author
Patrick Freyne has had short stories and essays published in The Dublin Review, Banshee and Winter Papers and is a features writer at the Irish Times. His essay collection, OK, Let’s Do Your Stupid Idea, was published by Penguin Sandycove in 2020. It was nominated for two Irish Book Awards, longlisted for the Rathbones Prize and shortlisted for the Dalkey Emerging Writer Prize.
About the Narrator
Eleanor R. Wood
Eleanor R. Wood writes and eats liquorice from the south coast of England, where she lives with her husband, two marvellous dogs, and enough tropical fish tanks to charge an entry fee. Her stories have appeared in Galaxy’s Edge, Diabolical Plots, Nature: Futures, The Best of British Fantasy 2019 and Best of British Science Fiction 2020, and various anthologies, among other places.