Pieterlub shifts uncomfortably in the cold air of his cell, drawing his robes closer. His breath mists, lit flickering by the few candles that dot the shelves and bureau.
“Don’t delay!” squawks the pale yellow bird perched on Pieterlub’s left shoulder. “Nightmares sense fear!”
“Hush, Huginn,” he replies. He fishes a seed from the recesses of his robe and passes it up to the parrot. He passes another to the green parrot on his right shoulder, which ululates softly in his ear.
Pieterlub’s fingers tighten around the journal he clasps to his chest. The focus of his gaze remains, has always been, the watercolour before him. It has been painted onto a simple two by three foot canvas. It makes good use of colour and light; the techniques used are fashionable but executed with confidence.
“This is a most dangerous work,” says the green parrot. It nips at Pieterlub’s earlobe, but keeps an inscrutable eye on the watercolour.
“I’m inclined to agree, Muginn,” says Pieterlub. “But there remains a problem of interpretation.”
“Not for some!” squawks Huginn. Pieterlub ignores it.
“The Abbot has entrusted us with this particular work, and I will not permit us to commit a lazy or incomplete understanding to parchment.”
Huginn hops off his shoulder, flutters down to the bureau, disturbing papers and scrolls. A candle flickers and is extinguished in the flurry, and Muginn clacks its beak in irritation.
“Be sedentary, stupid bird!”
Huginn ignores its featherfellow and uses a foot to push papers about as it searches. Pieterlub finally tears his attention away from the painting and toward his suddenly industrious parrot.
“What are you looking for?” he asks.
“Inspiration” comes the reply. Muginn squawks dismissively. Pieterlub looks back at the painting.
“I say,” he says. A few moments pass. Papers rustle and, somewhere outside Pieterlub’s cell, he hears the sound of a sibling kritikmönch going about his or her duties.
“Is it just me, or has the… focal point shifted here?”
Huginn stops scrabbling about and pivots its head to stare back at the painting. Muginn stretches out its wings and caws in distress.
“This is an extremely sophisticated work,” says Pieterlub, slowly. “I think we need to look at the source.”
He stoops, cursing as his knee joints click and protest, and slides a wooden box out from beneath the bureau. From the box he produces a smaller box, ornate where the larger is utilitarian, as well as an artist’s palette, a set of brushes, and a sheaf of loose canvas scraps. He places each of them on the bureau. Huginn obligingly hops onto a shelf above the desk and watches. Muginn glides down from Pieterlub’s shoulder and hops toward the painting, turning its head this way and that as it scrutinises the artist’s creation.
Pieterlub begins with the canvas scraps. Each of them bears at least one pencil sketch: a great auk with wings spread, a gap-toothed deep sea monstrosity, a feminine silhouette, a pear with a bite taken out, the awning over a market trader’s stall, a moon shrouded in cloud. He studies each for a few moments then carefully sets them aside.
“These early forays are suggestive,” he tells the parrots, “but may mislead. The creative mind can be labyrinthine.”
Next he picks up the artist’s palette and brushes, which he begins by sniffing. The brushes smell of the spirits use to cleanse them and he quickly loses interest. The palette is another story. He dabs a finger into various swatches of colour, which retain a tackiness, and puts that finger to his nose and lips.
“Hmm. I’m not the finest geschmackritik, I will happily admit, but even so — these flavours are striking. A lot of power has been concentrated here. The artist’s process of refinement and reduction is most impressive.”
Huginn clacks its beak a few times, watching intently as Pieterlub works. Finally, he turns his attention to the small box.
“And of course,” says Pieterlub. “We come at last to the most important piece of the pre-puzzle, the artist’s-”
He is interrupted by a violent commotion and a series of squawks. He whirls back toward the painting and drops the box in shock.
The canvas has warped, its surface no longer flat with the illusion of depth but deep with the illusion of flatness. Something has reached out and coiled itself around one of Muginn’s wings, and is attempting to withdraw itself back into the canvas.
“Fool bird!” cries Pieterlub. “Never approach the works so closely!”
He takes a step toward the easel but halts as talons dig into his shoulder.
“No!” hisses Huginn, close in his ear. “Too late!”
Pieterlub takes another step forward regardless, but Huginn is right. The tendrils are relentlessly drawing Muginn in, the parrot’s talons unable to find purchase on the polished stone slabs of the cell floor. Worse, the canvas has begun to distend itself in new ways, and the gaping face of a great flatfish, eyes darting this way and that, is bulging into view.
Muginn screeches one long, last desperate cry before its head is submerged beneath the canvas’ surface. Pieterlub mouths a silent apology to the unfortunate bird before he sweeps up as many papers as he can from the bureau and flees the cell. He pushes its heavy wooden door closed behind him, retrieves a key from his robes and turns it in the lock. It is only as he hears the heavy mechanism click into place that he breathes a sigh of relief.
“Poor foolish Muginn,” he says. Huginn bobs its head, staring at the keyhole.
“We’d better tell the Abbot that this work is not for the archives,” he tells the bird, feeding it another seed. “And we’ll need the Grand Inquisitor to… have his people do what they do.”
“And the interpretation?” asks the parrot.
“That will remain with us and us alone, my friend. We will not commit to parchment. It will perish with us.”
This was written in 2016 for a writing exercise drawn from the Wonderbook. You can read the exercise and see the illustration that inspired the story.
Apologies to German speakers for my probably-terrible compound words, and thanks to my friend Dylan for the silly compound name “Pieterlub”, which popped into my head whilst thinking up this short tale.