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"Illumine, Serpent", excerpt

Tuesday 12/24/19

Fitz Henry Lane was a Gloucester maritime painter who died a few months after the end of the Civil War. When he died, people started thinking his name was really Fitz Hugh Lane, which was how he was commemorated, as if even his friends forgot what he should be called.

He was a Luminist, meaning he painted light, how it reflected, danced, dilated, spread, especially in how that light played off of ships, the sea. His granite house still stands, atop a hillock overlooking the Gloucester harbor. It’s a municipal building now. Shovels are kept there, lawnmowers, with a public bathroom in which a lot of heroin is traded. Flesh, too. For the heroin. And money. Every morning, when it was still really evening—earlier than the fishing people of Gloucester set about their work—Fitz Henry Lane left his house, positioned himself on his side, mere feet from his front door. He legs didn’t fully work, he couldn’t sit upright, but he would lean on the ground and paint, his elbow a fulcrum for the motions of his brush.

He’d add the light later, so even the canvases that looked like were from the middle of an August afternoon were midnight canvases. And Fitz Henry Lane painted a sea serpent, which was just down the hill from his house, in the harbor below. He didn’t drink. In fact, when his brother moved into the house with his family, Lane objected to how much his sibling imbibed. People trusted the clarity of his vision and the force of his words. He was said to observe the world as a recordist, a being upon whom events were stamped, and sometimes recreated. He wasn’t fanciful, which is why no one smirked when he talked about the sea serpent.

Its head, he said, was like that of a caterpillar. The creature was thick. Bulbous. An elongated leach, ostensibly inflexible. When any portion of its back was above water, cresting the surface, the rest of it was as well. Most serpents, as anyone in Gloucester knew, had coils, upside-down U’s. For each visible upside-down U, there was a right-side-up U below the surface, but not this serpent. Its terror was tubular.

Lane, though, was a fearless painter. You have to be if you deal in light. Clarity is always a risk. The serpent made no noises, it was smooth, subtle in the water for all of its physical unwieldiness, and Lane painted it. Every time the serpent appeared. He’d show the paintings to his friends, to his wife. He showed the paintings to friends of his friends and people he hardly knew at all in taverns along the waterfront, where he’d also keep an eye on his brother.

But no one could see the serpent in any of the canvases. Lane would point with a blackened thumb, the same gradations of black, gray, he used to depict the creature, which was neither green, nor red, the common color attributes of sea serpents.

He maintained that the creature was in-between the beams of light, or rays of darkness, on the occasions when he let the night be the night, and infused no light later. The serpent was rendered so faithfully, as Lane saw the world, as a recordist, that no one else could see it at all. Some townsfolk arose early, or stayed up late, and sat out behind Lane’s house, having asked his permission, but the serpent seemed to have departed.

The paintings became a burden. Others beheld great works of art, but Lane saw a serpent no one else could see. And that serpent, he knew, time and again, was greater, truer—that clarity—than anything he had ever painted. It was so clear, so true, that no one could could see it save the Luminist.


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