We all remember how cruel and unrelenting the Campano regime was. Such a topic has been covered on a regular basis in our public schools and universities. Months of research and polish have been devoted to condensing the tragedy and fire of that time to the space of a textbook chapter. I have sometimes, in the line of my occupation, been asked to supervise these efforts, when I am not busy with my instruction at the university, owing to my research into the stories of the heroes of that time.
There is one hero’s name I never see, however: Armin. His name is already in other textbooks and histories, but as an artist who fell victim to the Campanos during their crackdown on “renegade” art. He is a mere footnote in the study of history.
This is a grievous error. His story is widely known, in a sense; in the tale of his life and imprisonment, he is treated as an important symbol of the forces that eventually toppled the Campanos. Even so, he is treated as folklore, a man blown up into a mythic hero by a public desirous for one. I, however, wish to reintroduce Armin as a man whose achievements were in fact real, moreso than anyone could have realized.
He had a full name, like all men born in civilized society, but he chose to go by simply Armin. No one dared contradict him for fear that he would stop with his creations. His oil paintings, the ones that survived the Conflagration, have been sought after by bored, wealthy men and museums for decades now. His brushwork was magnificent enough, but his truest characteristic is his use of space. So many artists feel compelled, even obligated, to fill the whole canvas with color and texture; Armin entertained no obligations to any tradition, creating his own instead.
It only used black and blue paint. Aside from some concentric semicircles, fractal patterns, and rows of parallel lines that sometimes become perpendicular, it was threadbare, random scrawls on a yellowed canvas. When I saw it from a distance, standing in front of a sculpture of a horse with water pouring from its mouth, I dismissed it after a second’s examination. Something made me look back, though. I slowly crossed the busy floor of that museum and approached the painting. Shapes converged with closeness, and my mind, grasping a mental image, connected his brushstrokes. I saw a circular ruin encircled by leafless trees, with a wild dog bowing over its front legs in front of a crumbling, moonlit altar. I fell spellbound. When I came out of my trance, I grabbed the nearest stranger at the shoulders and, forgetting the day-to-day demands of human manner, told her what I saw. She smiled and confessed that she had seen a harbor in twilight, the water full with fishing boats, a lone seagull perched on a post next to a tired sailor.
In the days of Armin’s living prime, exhibitions for his creations were serious cultural events. So few working artists remained in practice, left in poverty by the Campano regime and its edicts. They rarely ever risked the disfavor of the government, and of the Campanos, since they were one and the same, despite their claims to the contrary. Armin held no fear, though; he welcomed all citizens to his exhibitions. At a given event, one hundred people could be there, with one hundred different visions of the same painting. All the while, Armin stood by, listening, smiling, nodding with affirmation whenever a patron told him what they saw but mischievously silent about explaining what it meant.
The story goes that on Armin’s last day as a free man, the Last Campano, Raoul The Lesser, visited Armin’s gallery. In the midst of an exhibition, a horde of royal guards came marching through the front door unannounced, turning everyone stiff with fear. Six or seven men in black uniform, a severe slash of red bisecting their torsos diagonally from shoulder to waist, bearing their rifles with rigged bayonets, their faces composed of stone. And, in the middle of them, the center of this miniature universe, Raoul Campano, a small man with deep-set eyes and a stiff back.
No one saw any fear in Armin, however. He welcomed the tyrant with a flashing smile and a bow and directed him to his newest painting, sidestepping him as he approached it. For the next minute, Raoul stared into the painting with intense focus. Not a sound echoed through that gallery as everyone awaited his response, aside from what would have been the occasional nervous cough or the sound of shuffling feet. Armin stood to the side, his arms folded, his eyes half-open and keen.
After a minute, Raoul turned to him. “I don’t understand. What is it?”
Armin said with a smirk, “It’s what you make of it.”
“I don’t see anything,” Raoul said, turning back to the painting. “I can see your brushstrokes and the texture of the canvas, and I can see the colors you used, but it’s not becoming anything.”
“Everyone sees something.” Armin moved to stand beside him, looking at the painting.
“What am I supposed to see?”
“Your imagination must determine that for you.” After a pause, he said, “Unless you have no imagination.”
Perhaps that statement wouldn’t have been as damaging had they been two men standing in a gallery speaking to one another privately. Then, Armin’s statement likely would have sounded like a friendly joke meant to elicit a nervous smile, or simply something offhand, like an afterthought. There were other people there, however, and these people snickered uncontrollably, and they hid their laughter by stifling it. But stifling laughter can be worse than giving way to it; it can give someone the impression that not only are they laughing at you, but they know it’s wrong to do it and can’t help it.
Raoul became red-faced and glared at Armin for a good ten seconds. “Beware what you say to me,” he said in a gruff voice, then turned on his heels and stomped out of the gallery, his men in tow behind him like a row of ducklings. When the royal guard arrested Armin the next morning, the reason given was treason by inciting subordination.
For the rest of his life, Armin lived in a solitary tower in the Campano military compound. Almost a perfect circle in shape, Armin’s room held one high window, too high to reach standing up in a tower too high to fall from without dying. The only other object in the room besides Armin was a small yellow rug, a cruel joke of a bed, too thin to give much cushion against the rough stone floor, but too thick to be rolled up and used as a noose; even in that latter regard, there was nothing to hang from. The room itself acted as an instrument used to break men’s spirits, the same way a torturer might use a rack, barren as it was of anything that might help someone bear their imprisonment or gain easy release.
What surprised Raoul and his men the most was how agreeable a prisoner Armin was. For the first few weeks, every morning when they unlocked the door to his dungeon and stepped in with his pathetic breakfast, he greeted them with a warm smile and then continued sitting on his rug in silence, presumably lost in the inner space of his mind.
One morning, a guard walked in to find Armin meditating on his rug, as usual, and laid a bowl of gruel on the floor next to him. As he rose to exit the room, he saw a design on the wall, across from where Armin sat. He glanced back at Armin, who stared into an unknown point in the distance beyond the walls of the tower. The guard approached the wall, watching the details of the design come into focus. He saw a man’s face, square-jawed and gallant, with thorny patterns painted on his cheeks. Beside the face by a few inches sat a hand, clasped around the handle of a spear.
The guard promptly held a conference with Raoul the Lesser in the latter’s main chambers, decadent as could be expected for a Campano. Raoul decided to let the situation play out, baffling as it was: Where did the brush come from? What served as the paint? Raoul did not know; he could not imagine it for himself.
The painting continued, despite the establishment of a regular watch to maintain near-constant surveillance. The face, hand, and spear transformed into a warrior over the course of a day, standing still on a grassy knoll. Another day brought two more warriors, decorated like their brother and standing at attention, rising to battle. The day after brought ten more warriors, now assembling into a regiment and bearing bows and catapults. The day after that brought revolutionary guerillas, dressed in their spartan attire and holding rifles in mid-aim. Uniforms in the pattern of the royal guard lay on the ground in front of them, torn by bullet holes. All of this rounded the walls, painted in a creamy gray color with minute brushstrokes. It overwhelmed the guards when they visited Armin every morning. They always tried to catch Armin in mid-process, but every time they observed him they found him sitting on the floor, his legs crossed under him, smiling and staring into the distance.
Raoul could only take this for so long; not only did Armin persist in perfect health, he also displayed seemingly limitless resources in continuing his passion. He first had his guards search the dungeon itself, and then Armin’s physical person, for his paintbrush, or whatever it was he used. They found nothing, no paintbrush, no stains on Armin’s fingers.
Raoul’s next experiment started with having a guard break the fingers on Armin’s right hand. When the guard came in the next morning, he found Zeus’s thunderbolt and Ares’ bloody battle-axe on the wall. That night, Raoul had a guard break the fingers on Armin’s other hand. The next morning brought a panorama of the Hindu gods: Hanuman the monkey with his golden tunic and his neverending staff, Kali and the severed heads that lay at her feet as she danced. All the guards refused to enter the room at that point. This left Raoul with no other choice but to take the next step of his experiment himself: taking one of his ceremonial swords with him into the dungeon and, without any prior warning, blinding Armin.
For the next two days after this act, no new paintings covered the walls. Armin himself lost his cheer, and he began to thin out a bit as well, according to the guards who supervised him. No more painting, and no more Armin; Raoul probably thought this was one of his better strategic decisions.
On the third day, a guard entered Armin’s dungeon to find Armin paler and thinner than the day before, stooping over slightly in his sitting position. A gleam of red caught the guard’s eye and he glanced at the walls of the dungeon. The mural had grown overnight to cover the walls completely, all in red paint. Surrounding the guard were the host of gods: the Greek and Hindu from before, but also the Norse with great Thor and his hammer Mjolnir and the valkyries, the Egyptian gods led by the falcon-headed Horus and the beast that devoured the hearts of the evil at judgment, and the gods and heroes of the Celts, led by Cuchulain in the midst of berserker fury, eyes bulging out of his sockets and muscular limbs contorted.
They circled the guard within the dungeon, climbing their way up to the ceiling, touching it and snaking back down to the floor. They mingled with the images of the revolutionary guerillas that threatened the Campanos’ rule. In the background of the mural, the Campano military compound lay in rubble, tendrils of smoke and dust floating into an imaginary sky. The guard is reported to have fainted on the spot, and every guard who tried to enter the room after him befell a variety of ills, including severe nausea and paralysis of the limbs. Those that survived venturing into the room told Raoul, who locked himself in his bedroom and refused to come out for the rest of the day.
Later that night, when the moon hung like a lantern above the Campano compound, the ground shook horribly, causing parts of the outer wall to collapse in a massive din. Those guards and soldiers that weren’t crushed under the cascade of rock and slate were startled into action. Sorting their way through the rubble of their compound, Campano’s men heard something like a great stampede roaring closer. They struggled into the open air, only to face an unbelievable sight: the divine army painted on Armin’s dungeon walls wrecking the compound and bearing down on them.
Many men scrambled out of the ruins and into the surrounding forest, babbling incoherently, their minds broken. Those who remained and stood guard saw untold levels of casualties. Some were eaten whole by Cerebus and Fenrir, victims to a contest the two held with one another. Others were scorched into ashes by Shiva or pillaged of their souls by Hades and the armies of the dead, their bodies dropping to the earth like abandoned puppets.
In this chaos, one god, Hanuman, ventured up Armin’s tower alone, climbing a spiral staircase lit by flickering torches. The shadow of Hanuman’s pole stretched ahead of him, racing him up the stairs. At last he reached the wooden door to Armin’s dungeon. He placed a hand upon it and willed it open, revealing Armin sitting on his rug, unshaken by the terrible clamor surrounding him. With his sightless eyes he looked up at Hanuman and smiled. “I knew you would come,” he said, his voice weak. Without a word, Hanuman plucked Armin up into his arms and cradled him, warming him with his fur, and he went down the stairs and out of the chaos, into the forest with the rest of the army that accompanied him, leaving the survivors to compose themselves and pray that a second surge wouldn’t strike them.
This is not an uncommon story. I first heard it when I was just a child, and I’ve heard it many times since. Historically speaking, it originated in the aftermath of the great tremors that shook the capital city, which manifested most severely at the Campano compound. Rumors of divine punishment and stirrings of wish-fulfillment gave way to the unexplainable madness of the men that escaped the destruction. These mingled with the sudden disappearance of no other prisoner but Armin in the aftermath. A singular story arose out of these ingredients, the story of Armin’s imprisonment and escape via the gods, let loose by his own imagination. Eventually, this story became a rallying cry for those tired of being abused by a ruthless dictator who murdered thousands of innocent civilians and imprisoned thousands more. They wished to be like Armin, to take up weapons of their own choosing and strike back at Raoul The Lesser, reclaiming their lives and their country. No single greater manifestation of this desire exists than what took place only seven days after the tremors: the Great Rebellion, where ten thousand men and women stormed the ruins of Raoul the Lesser’s compound and snuffed out the Campano regime.
I’ll leave the rest of the details regarding the Great Rebellion to other historians, who have documented that story with far better research and writing than my own. However, I seem to be the only one committing that same level of attention to Armin’s role in events. Part of the reasoning behind this, I assume, is that so much of this story operates on a level of hearsay and social construction. It does not help that the timeline of Armin’s life seems to abruptly stop after his imprisonment and suspected escape, which strains most attempts to objectively appraise his influence.
That said, I do not appreciate the denial of Armin and the true extent of his influence. There is too much resonance between this supposedly fabulist story and the very real conditions and hopes experienced by very real people, who will swear by it the same way we now swear by the supposedly objective re-tellings of “true” events that comprise the majority of textbooks. What is there to say the events of hundreds of years ago were true, aside from enough people coming together to say they’re true? History itself is suspension of disbelief, and the kinds of things we’re willing to suspend disbelief for. It is the stuff of people’s lives, and those lives are not lived from a distance, or at least the distance that historians often claim to possess. They are lived up close, utterly subjective, and often unbelievable. What I propose, ultimately, is a change of distance. It is much like one of Armin’s paintings: a change in perspective and approach can mean the difference between confusion and enlightenment. This may be our true purpose, embracing and commemorating lives that might otherwise be unbelievable.
Adam Mills is a writer, editor, and teacher currently living in the Missouri Ozarks. He is a recent graduate of the Stonecoast MFA Program, based at the University of Southern Maine. He currently works as Managing Editor at Weird Fiction Review and as an editorial assistant for Cheeky Frawg Books. His work can be found in publications such as The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities. You can find him online at his blog adamwmills.wordpress.com. He says:
One of my favorite possessions is a copy of this anthology, The Book of Fantasy, edited in part by Jorge Luis Borges. In that anthology, there’s this little story called “The Tale and the Poet,” which reads: “Tulsi Das, the Hindu poet, created the tale of Hanuman and his army of monkeys. Years afterwards, a despot imprisoned him in a stone tower. Alone in his cell, he fell to meditating, and from his meditation came Hanuman and his monkey army, who laid low the city, broke open the tower, and freed Tulsi Das.” It’s attributed to Sir Richard Burton, but there’s no citation or acknowledgement of that being the real authorship. In all likelihood, it is a forgery written by Borges for the collection. I read it as a writing prompt from Borges himself, to see if I could “explode” that little story into something bigger. If anyone encounters Borges in their dreams any time soon, tell him I owe him my thanks.
Photograph of the library in the Kirby Hall of Civil Rights building at Lafayette College in Easton, PA, US by Benjamin D. Esham is provided by Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 United States.