“Show yourself!” the crowd thundered, beating and clawing at the cottage door.
Jacob’s voice rose from behind the bolted door: “I have nothing to say to you. You don’t understand my work—you never did. Leave me to it! Find your own water.”
This final line broke the camel’s back. Through the windows and chimney came the mob, bursting the dam and flooding into Jacob’s home. The force of the wave pressed him against the back wall, while villagers grabbed at anything they could find. In their frenzy, they smashed bottles of paint and pitchers of water, turning the floor into a tragic watercolor. Pressed into the corner by the surge, Jacob watched in silence. They found other paintings and flung them through the broken windows or trampled them underfoot. Paintings of bounty and plenty—oases and springs or towns and countrysides, near and far—all melted into the wash.
One figure discovered a full cask of water and raised a cry. The rest of the crowd snarled and batted at the barrel, vying for a grip, and the flood of villagers followed the tide out the front door. From inside his cottage, Jacob couldn’t see the crowd, but he didn’t have to: he knew exactly what the collective howl must mean. The last cask had broken in their hands.
Some in the mob tried to cup the water with their claws; others lapped it up from the broken wood. Others stood back and watched, realizing there was nothing to be done. Further up the road, Raphael began to chant an ancient hymn, while the mob disintegrated into separate shades. Raphael’s music filled the streets as twilight arrived and the villagers plodded away in silence. They went to their homes—some to gather their belongings and leave, others to sleep and die. Finally, Raphael retired to the church, and the street was once again barren.
Hours passed before Jacob left his hut. In the road he found the remnants of several paintings, shredded and tarnished. But one painting had survived, protected by its working frame: the landscape of Abyzon.
Jacob took it and returned to his studio. His ruined paints covered the floor in jellied blotches, mixing and tinting at will. They weren’t dry yet, he realized: he could still finish.
He went to work furiously. All night he heard the last barking and crowing of stragglers leaving the village. Yet Jacob had spent his life ignoring others’ voices, all in preparation for this night. Despite hearing the distant, hasty burials of family members, and the howls guided heavenward by Raphael’s steady chanting, Jacob continued to work. There were break-ins and thefts in the buildings of Abyzon, but these quickly turned half-hearted: there was no water left to steal, and nothing else had any value. One woman trotted in to steal a painting that had been left behind. Jacob didn’t even look at her. Before dawn, the exodus was complete: no one could bear another day in dead Abyzon.
For the first time in decades, Jacob could concentrate on his work. He was sprawled on the floor, zigzagging his body around the drying paint splotches. All that remained to paint was the villagers’ faces, but these had taken longer than he’d anticipated. Their rosy cheeks looked dull. Jacob wiped his brow with a cloth and wrung that bit of moisture into the red paint pool. Too much red. He groaned: he had no more water to dilute it. He spit onto the canvas a few times, managing a small spume. Before the moisture could evaporate, he had enlivened the lips and cheeks of the terribly cheerful villagers.
Jacob’s thirst made him see spots. He had to blink and work his eyelids up and down to clear his vision. He thought of his wineskin and grabbed it out of instinct. But there was nothing left: the last of it had breathed life into the painted eyes of his cottagers. He closed his own eyes and collapsed: it was finished.
Jacob awoke to the sound of rain—an absurd torrent in August. A stream formed at his door, reviving his painted floor. He felt his clothes dampen as they licked up the liquid. Jacob lifted a palmful of water to his lips and smiled. His paintings never failed, though he almost never saw their effects firsthand. This time, he saw them—but no one else did. Abyzon had never needed his help before, and now there was no one left to thank him.
He thought of their faces, gathered in the mountains upriver, or even further away. Eventually the villagers lately of Abyzon would hear of this miracle. They would laugh at the good fortune of it, or thank Providence for His mercy. And they would laugh even harder at Jacob, the man who painted through it all, drought and flood. A fool who couldn’t stop painting to save his own life.
Nothing would change.
Jacob’s stomach lurched and his head ached. He crawled to his feet and watched the rain fall. His painting had worked: he knew the downpour wouldn’t stop until the countryside was as green as the snakes who passed for his neighbors.
Damn them all! He took hold of his latest, hardest painting and tried to tear the frame asunder. He couldn’t: the drought had weakened him.
Jacob stumbled out into the rain and hoisted the artwork above his head, grinning at the ludicrousness of it all.
He laughed from underneath this umbrella and crouched and waited. The cloudburst began to calm. Longer and longer intervals divided the raindrops, as thinning paint dripped down the sides of the frame. The canvas grew wet while the storm calmed.
Finally, Jacob dropped the canvas and stared down at it: nothing remained of the lush country it had envisioned. Shining figures had run off the canvas into the gutter. He felt the sun’s palpable hatred beat down upon the real village once again, and despaired, sinking to his knees in the sodden street.
Yet as he stared at the sun, he began to smile. He looked from house to house at the hovels that had always been stuffed with short-sighted fools and provincial bumpkins. Jacob had always believed that his neighbors intended to destroy him because his work was beautiful, powerful, and beyond them. But that wasn’t it: for the first time in years, his smile broadened, gashed into jagged laughter. He understood them—for once in his life, he understood all of them. If you were ugly, you must have found joy in destroying the beautiful. All the farmers and cottagers had supposed that he and his work were the beautiful ones, and that they and their town were the ugly creatures.
Now he was just like the others: he had ruined their perfect village. After preserving countless other people and places within his canvases, Jacob had destroyed his own world.
And, unlike the villagers, Jacob had enjoyed it.