by Ben Segal
Arnold was the childpainter. He could do other things—furniture, sunsets—but ultimately he was the childpainter. Sometimes you just are what you are.
Now, childpainter meant a few things. First it was only portraiture. Just as some people make whole careers painting thoroughbred horses or pet memorials, Arnold was only sought out for his paintings of youths. He had a way of pulling out the perfection of children that faded in his pictures teenagers and was gone entirely for any subjects beyond their early 20s. The adult portraits didn't lack for competence, but they lacked for something else, something that was more important and less easy to define.
In his early years, Arnold fancied himself a landscape painter. He loved hills and dunes, any kind of mound. He loved things rounded off and worn out, things in slow decay. Even early on, Arnold preferred not to be overwhelmed.
How he came to childpainting was a commission. A family friend in need of portraiture approached Arnold with a modest (but to Arnold generous) offer and Arnold, still a student at the time, completed the painting while on summer break from Cranbrook. One recommendation led to another and soon Arnold was painting the children of the upper crust through a whole swath of the Mid-Atlantic. He was not unhappy in this work and in little time he had abandoned his precious landscapes entirely in favor of the lucrative business of rendering wealthy children as they ought to be.
By his thirties, Arnold had moved beyond simple representation. He began to paint on the children directly, right along with their portraits, so that the real children did not seem unworthy imitations of their images.
That was what had been happening. The children were beginning to disappoint. Parent after parent called Arnold to say that they loved the portrait but that, now, they had noticed something off about their child, a lack of spark, some new ungainliness.
Arnold realized that childpainting could not go only in one direction. He had first to paint the picture of the child in order to capture a perfect image-version. Then he must go on to transpose the perfection of the portrait onto the actual child. Upon completion of a work, Arnold could then send the child out, portrait in hand, beauty matching beauty, twin poles of an aesthetic whole.
The parents, of course, loved such retouched progeny, at least at first. The children were radiant until the paint wore off or (once Arnold addressed that problem with more resilient paint) stretched apart into patches across the growing skin of their young bodies. That is, in time the children became a series of blotched and ruined paint jobs. The parents would send their children back to Arnold for revision, but he could only do so much for them as they aged out of his range. Each new painted child became the scene of inevitable dissatisfaction, of the future uncanny, of the visible deterioration of youth into young adulthood.
When his clientele realized what lay in store, Arnold's commissions began to dry up. He had become accustomed to a level of financial success, and so, to supplement his income, Arnold tried painting their lost childhoods back onto adults. The results were unsettling, borderline garish. His subjects could barely stand to look at themselves and Arnold, at the brink of despair, very nearly gave up painting altogether.
It was during this lowest period of his professional life that Arnold hit upon the final iteration of his practice.
He thus began a series of death portraits, sitting with the bodies of children, painting them, fixing up their faces for the funerals. He worked quickly, painting only in the time between the embalming and the viewing, often working through the night, molding and painting the faces of the children, perfecting each to a high angelic beauty.
Once a child was finished, Arnold would pull out his easel and his canvasses and hurry to capture his subject's now-permanent grace. This was the most difficult part, as Arnold would, by this point, be exhausted. Still, he always painted two identical portraits of each child. The first he painted for free, a gift for the grieving family. The second portraits were sold to collectors. They are considered highly desirable.
Childpainter is my attempt to write a 19th century supernatural story—something highly mannered and vaguely gothic. I wanted the narrative voice to take the reader by the hand and lead a walking tour. To accommodate such a guide, the story's composed not so much of scenes but of exhibits. That is, Childpainter is less a story than a museum.
Another, perhaps better, reading would be to figure the text as an automaton, as neatly fitting mechanical pieces that whir about to produce the semblance of life. Hoffman's great automaton story The Sandman was part of the inspiration for both the tone of my story and the invocation of the uncanny. And maybe this makes Childpainter an unsettlingly bad text—similar enough to resemble a classic but at its core a lifeless imitation. At least in that case the goal of creepiness will have been achieved. Have I accidentally stumbled upon a new kind of metafiction? Do I mean a word of this note.
Maybe this is just a small curiosity that's finally found its way to a suitable cabinet.
In any case a true thing is that I thought of the word Childpainter one day and decided to figure out what it might mean. Whatever this is is the result.
Ben Segal is the author of 78 Stories (No Record Press) and co-editor of the anthology The Official Catalog of the Library of Potential Literature (Lit Pub Books). His chapbooks Science Fiction Pornography and Weather Days were published by Publishing Genius and Mud Luscious Press, respectively, and his short fiction has been published by or is forthcoming from Tin House, Tarpaulin Sky, Gigantic, and Puerto del Sol, among others.