Monday, February 28, 2011

The most incredible thing


Whosoever could do the most incredible thing was to have the King's daughter and half of his kingdom.

The young men, yes, and the old ones too, bent their heads, their muscles, and their hearts upon winning. To do what they thought was the most incredible thing, two ate themselves to death, and one died of overdrinking. Even the boys in the street practiced spitting on their own backs, which they supposed was the most incredible thing anyone could do.

On a certain day there was to be an exhibition of things most incredible and everyone showed his best work. Judges were appointed, ranging from children of three to old men of ninety. It was a grand exposition of things out of the ordinary, but everybody promptly agreed that most incredible of all was a great hall clock - an extraordinary contraption, outside and in.

When the clock struck, out came lifelike figures to tell the hour. There were twelve separate performances of these moving figures, with speaking and singing. People said that nothing so incredible had ever before been seen.

The clock struck one, and there stood Moses on the mountain, writing in the tablets of the law the first great commandment: "There is only one true God." The clock struck two, and there were Adam and Eve, just as they first met in the Garden of Eden. Were ever two people so lucky! They didn't own so much as a clothes-closet, and they didn't need one. At the stroke of three the three Holy Kings appeared. One was as black as a coal, but he couldn't help that. The sun had blackened him. These kings brought incense and precious gifts. When the stroke of four sounded, the seasons advanced in their order. Spring carried a budding bough of beech, on which a cuckoo sang. Summer had for her sign a grasshopper on a ripening ear of wheat. Autumn had only an empty stork's nest, for the birds had flown away. Winter's tame crow perched on the corner of the stove, and told old tales of bygone days. At five o'clock there was a procession of the five senses. Sight was represented by a man who made spectacles. Hearing was a noisy coppersmith. Smell was a flower girl with violets for sale. Taste came dressed as a cook. Feeling was a mourner, with crape down to his heels. As the clock struck six, there sat a gambler, throwing dice for the highest cast of all, and they fell with the sixes up. Then came the seven days of the week, or they might be the seven deadly sins. People could not be sure which they were, for they were not easy to distinguish. Next came a choir of monks, to sing the eight o'clock evensong. At the stroke of nine, the nine muses appeared. One was an astronomer, one kept the books of history, and the others were connected with the theater. Ten o'clock struck, and Moses came forth again, this time with the tables in which were written all ten of God's commandments. When the clock struck again, boys and girls danced out. They played and sang this song:

"All the way to heaven
The clock struck eleven."

And eleven it struck. Then came the stroke of twelve. Out marched the night watchman, wearing his cap and carrying his morning star - which is a truncheon tipped with spikes. He sang the old watch song:

"'Twas at the midnight hour
Our Savior He was born-"

and as he sang the roses about him unfolded into the heads of angels, with rainbow-tinted wings.

It was good to hear. It was charming to see. The whole thing was a work of extraordinary craftsmanship, and everyone agreed that it was the most incredible thing. The artist who had made it was young, generous, and sincere, a true friend, and a great help to his poor father and mother. He was altogether worthy of the Princess and of half the kingdom.

On the day that they were to proclaim who had won, the whole town was bedecked and be-draped. The Princess sat on her throne. It had been newly stuffed with horsehair for the occasion, but it was still far from comfortable or pleasant. The judges winked knowingly at the man they had chosen, who stood there so happy and proud. His fortune was made, for had he not done the most incredible thing!

"No!" a tall, bony, powerful fellow bawled out. "Leave it to me, I am the man to do the most incredible thing," and then he swung his ax at the craftsman's clock. Crack, crash, smash! There lay the whole thing. Here rolled the wheels, and there flew the hairsprings. It was wrecked and ruined. "I did that," said the lout. "My work beat his, and bowled you over, all in one stroke. I have done the most incredible thing."

"To destroy such a work of art!" said the judges. "Why it's the most incredible thing we've ever seen." And the people said so too. So he was awarded the Princess and half the kingdom, because a law is a law, even if it happens to be a most incredible one.

They blew trumpets from the ramparts and the city towers, and they announced, "The wedding will now take place." The Princess was not especially happy about it, but she looked pretty and she wore her most expensive clothes. The church was at its best by candle-light, late in the evening. The ladies of the court sang in processions, and escorted the bride. The lords sung, and accompanied the groom. From the way he strutted and swaggered along, you'd think that nothing could ever bowl him over.

Then the singing stopped. It was so still that you could have heard a pin fall in the street. But it was not quiet for long. Crash! crash! the great church doors flew open, and boom! boom! all the works of the clock came marching down the church aisle and halted between the bride and the groom.

Dead men cannot walk the earth. That's true, but a work of art does not die. Its shape may be shattered, but the spirit of art cannot be broken. The spirit of art jested, and that was no joke.

. To all appearances it stood there as if it were whole, and had never been wrecked. The clock struck one hour right after another, from one to twelve, and all the figures poured forth. First Moses came, shining as if bright flames issued from his forehead. He cast the heavy stone tablets of the law at the bridegroom's feet, and tied them to the church floor. "I cannot lift them again," said Moses, "for you have broken my arms. Stand where you are!"

Then came Adam and Eve, the three Wise Men of the East, and the four Seasons. Each told him the disagreeable truth. "Shame on you!" But he was not ashamed.

All the figures of all the hours marched out of the clock, and they grew wondrous big. There was scarcely room for the living people. And at the stroke of twelve out strode the watchman, with his cap and his many-spiked morning star. There was a strange commotion. The watchman went straight to the bridegroom, and smote him on the forehead with his morning star.

"Lie where you are," said the watchman. "A blow for a blow. We have taken out vengeance and the master's too, so now we will vanish."

And vanish they did, every cogwheel and figure. But the candles of the church flared up like flowers of fire, and the gilded stars under the roof cast down long clear shafts of light, and the organ sounded though no man had touched it. The people all said that they had lived to see the most incredible thing.

"Now," the Princess commanded, "summon the right man, the craftsman who made the work of art. He shall be my husband and my lord."

He stood beside her in the church. All the people were in his train. Everyone was happy for him, everyone blessed him, and there was no one who was envious. And that was the most incredible thing.

25 comments: said...

Hip Hip Hooray! A happy ending!...for almost everyone.

Sean said...

Great allegory given the last few posts... "all in one stroke" indeed.

Unknown said...

I don't know where you come up with these things. A lovely story to follow yesterday's grievous one.

JonInFrance said...

yep, yep

Jo-Ann Sanborn said...

The most incredible thing is this blogs ability to delight and surprise. Loved it!

billspaintingmn said...

Stape! Very, very enjoyable! The spirit of art connot be broken!

Claire Bull said...

Reading my beloved HCA in the morning was wonderful and the story so appropriate - made me smile - your blog is also an incredible thing!!

stapeliad said...

Thank you for posting a happy ending art story after all the piss and crap. :/

Durinda Cheek, Fine Artist said...

Loved the story, thanks for posting, Stape. Art speaks a universal language, doesn't it?

Could you repost your Mississippi workshop info please?

Kevin Mizner said...

Stape, is that Bouguereau, Gerome, Sargent and Metcalf I hear pounding on the church doors?

Lucy said...

Yesterday I shouted the loudest about being open minded about contemporary art no matter how terrible or ugly. Now I feel humbled by the truth of the fairy tale.

MCG said...

"I imagine that yes is the only living thing." -E.E.Cummings

Stapleton Kearns said...

See......... all's well that ends well!

Stapleton Kearns said...

It did seem to fit there.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I don't know either, but every day I put something up.

Stapleton Kearns said...


Stapleton Kearns said...


Stapleton Kearns said...

It cannot!

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thank you also.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Where did you get that moniker?

Stapleton Kearns said...

I posted on that tonight.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Yes I believe it is and they are soon to enter,

Stapleton Kearns said...

It is a good fairy tale though.

Stapleton Kearns said...

You are a philosopher I think!

T Arthur Smith said...

Stapleton, thank you for the story. Let me offer another. This one's non-fiction.

I live in Slovakia, a former socialist republic, now free. Jan Polom was an artist here, in my town. His watercolors are similar in spirit to your own work, Stape, albeit a little more expressionist.

Jan Polom couldn't make ends meet as an artist, so he taught math at a local high school - he was smart and educated. Jobs were hard to come by, and teachers were much respected in those days, so many people were jealous of his job.

In order to get it, someone spread a rumor to the local secret police that Jan Polom was a capitalist sympathizer, and anti-Stalinist...

They came to his house in the middle of the night, took him away to jail, and interrogated him three days. By the end, they came to an agreement. If he could paint a portrait of Stalin that was satisfactory, he could walk away free and keep his job. If the work wasn't satisfactory, they'd ship him off to Siberia. They gave him one week, under house arrest.

In that week, Jan Polom painted five portraits of Stalin. He wanted to use only the absolute best. Here's the thing, though. He painted each version of Stalin as a cannibal, with blood pouring out his mouth. Then he carefully painted over each one, hiding the act.

In the end, the police liked his work, they picked one, and let him stay with his family, and keep his job. I have no idea what happened to the portraits, I'd love to see them.

Do you get the message here? I think a little homo-erotica and fecal matter is a small price to pay for getting to make the art that you like, and that I like. The same people that want to censor it would also like to censor most everything you ever posted on this blog.