The Daedalian is the multimedia literary and arts journal published yearly at Texas Womans University featuring creative works by TWU students in various mediums from poetry and short stories to photography and original artwork. Check out the latest 2014-15 Daedalian at twudaedalian.wordpress.com. Here is a sneak peek at the work of one Daedalian author, Nadiyah Suleiman .
She stared at the painting, contemplating its dancing images in silence. To me, she seemed sad, almost depressed. She was a statuesque woman with long black hair and big brown eyes that darkened under thick eyelashes. Eyes that seemed to convey every emotion at once, yet none at all. It was as if she looked past the painting, intent on something only she could see. She stood tall and proud, but an aura of suffering surrounded her. I followed her gaze, puzzled by her grim fascination. The painting depicted intermingled devils and demons parading wildly as they circled a raging conflagration burning with white-hot intensity. They brandished copper-gold sticks crowned with large fiery orbs that crackled with a fierce energy. Humans were scattered across the canvas; a few were drawn to the fire mesmerized by its enticing flames, while others ran in terror, fleeing to the outskirts of the painting. However, most of them had sunk to their knees, faces contorted in agony praying for mercy. In the distance, devils were ushering a long line of humans into the painting through a wide, rusty gate. Devils and demons could be distinguished by their different horns. The devils had long, menacingly sharp horns covered in dried blood, while the demons’ horns lacked height and were kept clean. They both shared the same vicious smile.
What was so spectacular about this painting? What was it that had captured her attention? There were other exhibits in the gallery that were more vibrant, more horrific, more enticing. But I couldn’t avert my eyes. The images seemed to leap out at me causing everything around me to become muffled and distant; the only definitive thing that seemed to exist was the painting. The feeling wasn’t peaceful; the hair on the nape of my neck stood up as if someone was watching me. As I spun around, the noisy crowd pulled me back into reality. I turned back to the painting, and upon further contemplation I decided. The source of my discomfort stemmed from the array and depth of emotions expressed on the demons’ faces. At first I presumed their emotions reflected that of the devils’ faces, stone-faced and unforgiving. However, the demons’ eyes were brimming with emotions that threatened to overpower the painting. Some had pained expressions on their faces as if remembering an unpleasant memory while others had mischievous grins and were dancing faster than any of the demons and devils alike. But all demons guarding the humans shared a sympathetic, almost fearful look that confused me. The longer I studied the painting, the more incongruous they became. The painting seemed to focus on the demons, and yet I couldn’t place their significance. The humans had obviously come to answer for their evil deeds, and the devils were their guards or possibly their tormentors. But what was the demons’ role?
I gathered my courage to approach the one other person who appeared as captivated by this scene as I. I hoped the dark-haired beauty would be open to conversation and be kind enough to provide insight on her own interpretation of the artwork. After all, she had been looking at it much longer than I had. She didn’t look at me at first, but once I asked for her thoughts pertaining to the painting she glanced sideways at me. She let a small, polite smile spread across her flawless complexion, but her eyes stayed distant and sad.
“My thoughts? I am puzzled as to why you have sought my opinion. I am hardly qualified as an art critic.”
“I don’t want the technical opinion of an art critic,” I said frowning. “I want yours.”
“Why?” she replied bluntly.
“Curiosity, I suppose. Out of all the beautiful, peaceful paintings here tonight,” I said gesturing to the full art gallery, “you seem fixated on this one, why?”
“It has meaning,” she said, still not looking at me. “Any pretty picture can be pleasing to the eye, but that doesn’t mean it holds a special meaning or shows us something extraordinary.”
“Every painting has meaning,” I said stiffly.
“True,” she said calmly, “but different art speaks to different people. People of all walks of life find different truths in what they perceive as good art. This is the only painting in this gallery that I personally have found to be truthful. It may be dark and difficult to understand, but I admire its honesty.”
“How can you say that? This isn’t truthful. It shows a scene of fiction! How can you say something is true when it doesn’t depict reality?” I felt she was talking in code, and it bothered me that I couldn’t quite decipher her message.
“How do you know it doesn’t depict reality?” she asked sharply. For the first time in our conversation she looked me fully in the face, and I found it uncomfortable. Her eyes were narrowed, and her mouth was set in a firm line that gave me the painful impression that I had said something incredibly stupid.
“Well – I mean – isn’t it trying to show Hell? How does any living person know what Hell is like?” I asked desperately, trying to redeem myself in her eyes.
“I don’t suppose anyone knows,” she said, relaxing her face, restoring my dignity in the process. “But the artist can show it to us from their own point of view. Everyone has their own Hell. Someone else’s depiction could be something totally different, but I feel we can learn something from each one.”
“So is that what you think this artist is trying to do, show us their own personal Hell?”
“No. It has a much deeper meaning than that. This artwork has a broader view. A more worldly view if you will. It encompasses everyone’s Hell.”
I waited, hoping she would continue speaking, and after a moment I was rewarded for my patience.
“Hell is just the background, like the setting of a story,” she continued. “It means to show you more than just Satan’s abode; you have to look past the flames.”
“At what?” I asked, searching the painting for a hidden meaning. A desire to understand what this woman saw in the fiery pit of anguish burned through me causing me to glance frequently at her face, hoping for a glimpse of emotion. She remained expressionless giving nothing away and showed no interest in making eye contact.
“Look at the demons,” she continued. “What do you see?”
“I see them dancing.”
“Yes, but look harder. What are they feeling?”
“They appear to feel different things, and some seem to feel everything at once,” I said frustrated.
“What specific emotions do they have?” she asked, making me even more exasperated.
“Fear, sympathy, hate, pain, anger, confusion, heartbreak…” I looked at her “Do you see the same?”
“Oh yes, but I also see liberation, joy, pity, shame, and envy.”
“That’s interesting, but…I’m afraid I don’t see your point. Why are their feelings so important?” I asked befuddled.
“The demons have human emotions,” she explained. “Look at the devils, they have no emotions. They have no love, no fear, no shame and especially no sympathy.”
“So?” I prompted.
“How can you not see?” she said with a hint of annoyance. “This painting is showing how Hell can change a person. At first you start out human. You pay for your deeds by living in the fire–look at the agony and suffering of the humans. The pain is unimaginable. They struggle through it for years until they can’t endure it anymore and then…part of them habituates to the fire. Oh it still hurts them, but they aren’t aware of it. They’ve become numb to it; they no longer feel their flesh burning off or the flames scorching their organs. They just stop feeling the physical pain.”
It was the most she had spoken to me, and I felt overwhelmed with her words. We stood for a moment in silence, but eventually I felt compelled to continue.
“What happens after that?”
“The humans begin a metamorphosis,” she said letting her eyes stare unseeingly at my face. “They take the form of a demon. Demons feel no physical pain. You could stab them in the eye with a three-inch sword, and they wouldn’t even flinch. However, they do feel emotional pain, but not as humans feel it. The demons perceive emotions tenfold stronger than the average human. They live in a sense of ever-changing emotions. Guilt for all they’ve done or haven’t done, regret for their past transgressions, commiseration for the other humans still feeling the physical pain, love and longing for the people they’ve left behind, loathing for their situations, the world, and themselves. They live like this until they go mad with the constant conflicting emotions… and then what do you think they turn into next?” she asked.
“Devils,” I said quietly.
“Yes,” she breathed. “They turn into devils. And why do you think devils make people suffer?”
I got the distinct feeling that she didn’t expect an answer; I waited awkwardly for her to gather her thoughts.
“It’s because they can’t feel,” she sighed, and I hoped she wasn’t exasperated by my idiotic silence. “They lack emotions. They have lost all physical and emotional feeling. Have you ever met anyone who can’t feel?”
“I can’t say that I have,” I said uncomfortably.
“I have,” her tone unreadable, a mixture of remorse and irritation. “At first you don’t notice it. You assume they show their emotions like everyone else, if not to you then to their confidants, but then you notice nothing touches them. Nothing makes them sad, angry, happy, or scared. You might think it would be nice not to feel anything. But imagine it. You wouldn’t feel love, you wouldn’t feel excitement, you wouldn’t feel surprise. What is life without feelings, the spark that makes life meaningful?” She continued speaking as if she hadn’t asked a question. “Devils relish in suffering because, while they may no longer be able to experience it, it is the one emotion they can understand. They’ve suffered so much that the only way they can begin to feel alive is by inflicting agony on those who can feel.”
I waited expecting her to say more, but she seemed lost in thought. This strange woman had such strong views about this painting; I wondered what had brought her to these conclusions. I let my eyes wander over the painting, contemplating all she had said, trying to piece together her explanation. It seemed different now, every dancing image held a secret meaning. I fantasized I was catching a glimpse into their past lives as I looked into each face in turn. As I romanticized theories as to why the figures were in Hell, my eyes stopped at a peculiar figure walking through the gate. I was astonished to see it was a girl demon walking into Hell amidst all the newly arrived humans. This could shatter the woman’s ideas about the hierarchy of the images. I felt excited that she might be wrong, for her story made me nervous and frightened. I pointed it out to her, trying to contain my enthusiasm.
“What do you suppose that means?”
“It’s quite simple,” she said smiling, crushing my hopeful pride. “That is a human that has already suffered the equivalency of Hell on Earth.”
“If she’s suffered on Earth, then wouldn’t she go to Heaven?” I asked, still trying to find a loop-hole in her story.
“You think just because someone suffers that automatically makes them a saint?” she laughed. It was the most emotion she’d shown, and my surprise overshadowed my embarrassment at her mockery.
“You shouldn’t believe everyone’s story,” she said suddenly. “People who appear miserable may very well be happy, and people who appear happy could very well be miserable. The wealthy may be poor, and the poor may be wealthy. But above all, the people who suffer the most in this world, whether they are aware of it or not, will almost always meet a tragic end.”
“So anyone who suffers will go to Hell?” I asked incredulously.
“I didn’t say that,” she said calmly. “I said they would meet a tragic end. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll end up in Hell. There are places more tragic than Hell.” Her eyes grew dark, and I had the childish impression that they were retreating into her head. At that moment, we were interrupted by a young man with a boyish grin. He smiled politely at me, and then turned to the woman.
“Sorry to bother you Madam, but someone has bought your artwork, and they wish to meet the artist.” He was practically beaming at her, but she remained poised and didn’t return his smile.
“Hmm… You’d better have someone take it down then,” she said nodding towards the painting she had been staring at. It took me a moment to realize what she was saying, but when I did my eyes widened.
“Wait a minute…this painting? You painted this?” I pointed at the painting as if to make my question clearer. She turned to me, a small smile playing on her perfect lips.
“Yes,” she said staring at me with placid eyes.
“Madam, please.” The young man took her arm and led her away from me. I stared after them with my mouth slightly open. How long I stood there I wasn’t sure, but I could feel a few people staring at me so I tried to regain my composure. I looked back at the painting. A man was putting a “sold” sign next to it, and another one was speaking to a delivery man. I found myself looking at the girl-demon entering Hell, when something suddenly struck me. I looked harder at the tiny figure and felt I was looking straight at an answer to an unknown question. The girl-demon had long, black hair and large, brown eyes that unmistakably darkened under thick eyelashes. I felt the resemblance to the woman must be coincidental, but I reminded myself that she had painted it.
Other people began to crowd around the painting. I edged away, suddenly averse to any conversation. As I walked across the room, I saw the woman standing at a distance talking to an old couple. She looked over at me, and I nearly cried out. Her eyes flashed red, and I distinctly saw a pair of grey horns glinting in her hair. I blinked, and they were gone, her face returning to normal. The woman turned and disappeared through a doorway, the couple following her. I stood dumbfounded. What had I just seen? Was it a trick of the light or my imagination? Deep down I knew neither of those explanations was correct. I felt strange. I didn’t feel terrified and disoriented as one would expect for someone in my position. Instead, I felt the most wretched I’d ever felt. It threatened to rip me in half. My heart ached with sorrow for this woman I hardly knew. What had she done to deserve this sadness and suffering? I told myself I was being silly. I didn’t even know if this woman had lived through suffering or sadness. But the memory of those deep, dark-brown eyes told me otherwise. Much to my surprise I found myself crying. I stood in the middle of the room and let myself cry openly. As the hot tears fell down my cheeks, I felt oblivious to the crowded room.
“I’m so sorry. I wish you the best of luck,” I whispered. I wasn’t sure if I was whispering to her or myself. But as I walked out of the building and into the cool crisp night, I felt sure that somehow she would know.