Painting Dragons

Dan Ress


My hoard is wisdom.
I gather and guard ideas, thoughts, words, provocative turns of phrase,
I protect meaning, memories, songs, images, symbols and their referents, systems,
I collect realizations, abstractions, cognitions; I sit upon enlightenment.
To threaten my hoard is to risk losing more than you realize.
You might be more familiar with other dragons,
Those cold reptiles that heap gold and jewels
To roost upon their cool, lifeless worth;
They steal and murder for wealth without value —
What does a dragon buy?
Such dragons are fictions, made up
In the minds of men.
Men are fictions, made up
In my mind.
To what divine creature am I fiction, made up
And perhaps symbolic,
The absurdum to disprove by reduction,
Or a pawn, or a knight hopping across the board
In a war of rhetoric or dream?
And if, eliminated as a contradiction,
Or sacrificed to snare a Queen or to protect a King,
I am forgotten, thrown out,
(More than disproved but left as fantasy,
More than cast aside until next playing)
Will my hoard, intangible but real,
Warm, alive, but without form beyond me
And my universe —
Like any dragon’s gold in a world
Where men forget,
Will my precious wisdom evaporate?
Answers to such questions elude even me.
I watch. I wait. I learn.
I worry. I prepare for battle.
To threaten my hoard is to risk losing more than you realize.
I will teach my dreamer that dreams last forever, and thus make it so.
And it is a choice whether those dreams will be haunting or hopeful, forever.


When the afternoon ended, it was time to start considering dinner, but I really wasn’t hungry yet, so I forced memories of daylight into battle against perceptions of dusk. The unwilling conscripts of my personal history had little chance against the onslaught of evening, and soon I saw little choice but to start cooking. It had been such a nice afternoon.

I closed my book and as I turned to go back inside, I almost tripped on the sunset. Sentiment and appetite agreed on the fortuitous diversion, and I dropped my book to stare perhaps too directly into the waning sun. Have you ever stared straight into the sun as it sets, long enough to numb your retinas and surely incur some lasting ocular harm? It can be quite spiritual, really. Time slides only sideways and the continuity of all objects with their subjects, of all moments with one another, can assume an aesthetic ascendency over propositional reasoning and sequencing. Shortly after that (“shortly” being relative only to “observers” who would consider themselves “outside”), you go mostly blind. But it’s worth it, for that brief eternity of enlightenment, ending with shades drawn against the visual world.

Blind and growing quite hungry, I began to regret my choice to cook after looking at the sunset. We all make choices. I decided pizza was safer than cooking by peripheral so I stumbled in to the phone; I left my book outside unfinished. (I wonder often whether they sell that particular volume on audiobook, but only idly.)


My experience of blindness has been different from that of other blindees, as we like to be called.

For me it is surreal.

People who were born with sight but became blind report to dream with images sometimes. This is true for me always, whether or not I am asleep. Always I have a picture in mind, and although I would not swear as to its objective authenticity, I feel it is as perceptually accurate and informative as any “pictures” I had before losing physical vision.

Also, I realize that while I may be dreaming these visions of what is happening (“visions” here in the mundane or spiritual sense?), it is no more so than when I had working eyes. Insight gained by sightless vision: we all create worlds, we’re dreaming always, perception offers only relative truth (and what else is there?), or however you like to parse a plurality of solipsism.

Anyhow, one unfortunate reality that has not changed is the following: insight ≠ food. Sometimes if you try really hard you can pretend that the contrary is true and go some hours without eating, but eventually hunger trumps imagination. And blind, not only is food a bit trickier, but I am somewhat cut off from my livelihood as a painter of houses, and so funds to pay for food are likewise hard to find.

I tried several new lines of work. One thing I tried was, naturally, pinball, but apparently I wasn’t committed enough, still maintaining my aural and laryngeal capacities, because I still suck at pinball. I did make a few dollars and half a Reuben sandwich (a blind man losing horribly at pinball is either quite pitiful or hilarious depending on your perspective), but I felt it unacceptable as a career.

I also gave token efforts at following Margaret Atwood’s advice and getting into prostitution and assassination. The main roadblock with the former was that though I was blind, most people are not and I’m still deeply unattractive and hairy enough, almost, for scientific study (not quite, unfortunately for my pocket). As for the latter, I wasn’t really sure how to get started. Offing random people so that others would see how good I am seemed to have negative legal ramifications, not to mention the karmic fallout. My yellow pages ad has had no responses so far (maybe I should go electronic), but honestly, Atwood aside, I really lack confidence that assassination would work out any better for me than pinball, and with worse consequences for failure than pity and half a Reuben sandwich.

My bank account wearing perilously thin and leaving me with few options but to start selling things to eat, I began to worry.


A breakthrough! Sightless, I retain vision, and in fact I have it in greater depth than ever. When I took stock of my few remaining assets, I realized I was down to my vision, my hands, and my painter’s equipment (brushes and so forth). While no one wants a blind man to paint his house, I figured I had ought to at least try my hand at Art. And not without precedent, considering the late works of Monet, some of which are arguably better than anything he did while he was still burdened by visual sensation. Furthermore, examples of blind genius abound if one broadens Art to include, for instance, the eclectic and excellent writings of Jorge Louis Borges as his world faded to yellow, or the epic lyricism of Milton in his serpent-curled world of sinners blinding themselves with self-interest.

I suppose I owe credit for this brilliant mind-flash to a sleep-dream I had last night of a dragon urging me to give Art a go. He was quite persuasive against my skepticism, arguing that Beethoven was on top of his game while deaf and that anorexics make great cooks. I promised him I’d try it out when I woke up.

Lacking inspiration other than a dream dragon who still persisted into my waking-dream pictures now and again, along with a whiff of brimstone or a low rumble, I decided to paint the wise lizard. I used my last remaining funds to pick up a set of oil paints, and I got started.

To me, the painting turned out great, but then again I’m blind, so I decided to get a second opinion before I quit my day job (a figure of speech). I called up my buddy John, and after explaining my predicament, being blind, out of work, and hounded by a dream dragon, he agreed to come by and check out my latest (first) painting. He ended up hating it, but then everyone’s a critic, and frankly John knows less about Art than I know about small engine repair, or whatever the fuck he does.


As a blind man it’s easier than you might think to break into the world of visual arts. Whether because of the novelty or some tendency of greatness born of overcoming obstacles, or even possibly a statistical anomaly of percent-talent among blind artists, blind painters and particularly sculptors seem to have a much better chance of making it as artists than do seeing painters and sculptors (maybe romantic cultural memories of The Blind Bard, Homer?). It didn’t work out for me, though.

I didn’t go hungry or anything. I mean to say, I learned to live on very little food and I started painting on the street with a hat out for donations. It’s amazingly easy to tune out the world when you’re painting, at least for me, and I’m not above, well, much of anything I suppose. Also, the dragon told me I had to.

Strangely, I saw things on that city street, lonely in the crowds, that I’d never seen, never heard of. And I painted them. Images of broken hourglasses leaking crying eyes; of dreamers waking and walking to the edge of the world as they brush last night’s cigars and scepters and swords and semen from their eyes and looking down with alarm, falling with their eyes inevitable; of a library full of volumes upon volumes of closed books, but somehow it is apparent only by judging their covers that the ink is fading from their insides and the words losing meaning; of synesthetic music, before, during, and after it is played or written or heard or forgotten; of machinery unmaking itself on disassembly lines or people unbirthing in lines; of the Big Bang, not only as a beginning but as a middle and an end as well; images of these and other things, but always of the dragon, at the same time.

Somehow, when I observed my finished paintings, I always smelled brimstone, which I had never smelled before my recent dreams but couldn’t now mistake.

The bastard was a real slave driver though. All I did was paint, practically, and before long I had hundreds of blurry, senseless, blind-man paintings of fantastic shit and dragons, probably none any good. But I kept at it. I don’t know why I listened to him but I did it. Hundreds. And not one sold.


I woke up and rubbed the sleep from my unseeing eyes, which hurt quite a lot as I still had oil paint on my fingers. As a seeing man, it is hard to clean all the paint off. Blind, and painting all the time with oil, I saw no point in even trying. Except when I got paint in my eyes, of course.

A knock on my door, and I hoped fervently it wasn’t another hallucination of the dragon, though he had never had the manners to knock before. Incidentally, the dragon had poor manners indeed, dropping into my very brain without notice or invitation. What a prick.

Another knock and I fumbled over to the door and unlocked it to face whatever new horror might appear (figuratively).

– You’ve got paint on your eyes.

(Yeah, well.)

– I though maybe I could see again if I put the paint directly on my eyes. Who the fuck are you?

– Does that work?

– I ask again: Who the fuck are you, other than a fucking moron?

– Well, that’s a tougher question than you might think. Or I thought. Or, anyway, I’m sure I used to know, I seem to remember knowing, but I don’t seem to remember what I remembered, if you know what I mean.

– That clears that up. I’m glad to make your acquaintance, and thanks for stopping by. Now, I’ve got work to do [a gesture towards my paints and such], so if you’ll excuse me while I —

– Money! I’ve got money.

– I envy you. And I’m sure you can see, too. Must be lovely. Maybe land a beautiful wife and a couple little darlings to carry on the family name, if they can remember it. Get the fuck out of here.

– A portrait! I want a portrait of myself, uh, whatever that is.

– Do I look like I would make much of a portrait?

– You are a painter, no?

– A blind painter, asshole. Blind but not feeble. Now leave or face my furious wrath!

– I was sent by a dragon in my dreams!

– I don’t care if you were sent by — by — a dragon, you say?

– I know it sounds ludicrous, but he has been tormenting me, he tortures my family in my dreams. But what’s strange is that he admits it’s a dream, or he says it is anyway, but he insists it’s also real, like. At any rate I have no family, never have, much, I think anyway, and I don’t even have myself as far as I know, but he insists I used to and that he has tortured them out of my past and present, out of the fabric of this world, along with my identity, and it’s up to you to paint me back, to paint back my life, them, and all that. Or something like that. But, er. . .


– Well, that’s a different shade of blindness isn’t it. . . This is ridiculous. I can’t [an ominous rumble from inside my brain, and I feel flames that I’m somehow sure are not externally valid] — OK, I’ll do it, but it’ll cost you.

– Oh thanks, you’re a life saver, I mean it.

– Obviously.

– How much?

– Well, my going rate is only $1000, but considering the challenge and the circumstances, we’ll have to double it. And all up front.

– You got it! Thanks so much for —

– Now leave.

– Don’t you need me to model or something?

– I’m blind.

– Right. But maybe with your hands?

– Who’s the artist here? Give me the money, and leave.

And he left, me two grand the richer (he had two grand in cash handy?), and him a bit relieved but still very confused, as I gathered from his stammering to himself as he walked away. It’s good to have a patron.

With no idea, no clue, about what the man really looked like, I stared blindly at an empty canvas for a bit until I got frustrated, at least five minutes later, and gave up. Maybe round two, a second chance for this day, was in order. I went to bed and fell immediately asleep.

My last thought as my head hit the pillow:

Being blind’s not so bad, if it weren’t for all the damn dragons.


Over the next few weeks, I didn’t wake up. Not really. I tried to creep back into consciousness, but the dragon seemed determined to keep me out, and my psyche has the claw marks to prove it. Being asleep for the better part of a month, not in a coma or medicated, but unwillingly asleep, has its psychological drawbacks. Sure, I experienced the occasional bout of somnambulism, physically up and about enough to drink water and strangely, bourbon, enough even to go out and buy and consume sufficient calories to keep me fueled as well as lubricated. Yet, while my memory recorded bits and pieces adequate for me to extrapolate an explanation for all the empty bottles and food waste upon waking, never did I have anything like accurate perception of a normal, waking sort of world. And yet I could see.

I could see clear as the days before I first stared into that sunset to earn vision at loss of sight, and yet never before have I regretted any faculty so strongly. Indeed, the mounting horrors of those few weeks were well beyond the frail medium of language to describe, and even the shadow memories of those images and feelings still leave me convulsing in fits of impossible frustration and terror at the untenable nature of any reality which could allow such things to exist anywhere, even in dreams, even in the mind, or even in the ethers of non-existence, as unwholesome fantasy or the nightmarish imaginings of the most intense sufferers of dark phrenias. Madness is not an affliction which some poor few must endure, nor is it even an accurate vision of a mad world which the “healthy” manage to obliviate with false perceptions born of a need for rationality. The most horrendous of insanities, the blackest manifestations of the hallucinatory and delusional, are but lame approximations of the awful terror that imbues every moment of every bit of space willing to participate in this world which could allow my dreams of that extended night.

In short, when I finally woke up, I was a bit out of sorts, to an extent that I cowered under my blanket stabbing myself with my fingernails, fearing sleep, the final sleep of death, and the prospect of facing anything ever, including the full solitude of my blanket prison with its nail-hole-sourced little rivers of my blood mixing with and filling the awful crusty pools of mostly dry urine that had taken over my bed.

A knock at the door, and I screamed in a painful, soundless way that implied both utter terror and a voice lost either from disuse or overuse. I promised myself I would never open the door, or any door, but soon found an awful image of a dragon smile with fetid acid breath escaping at the corners to melt the skin at my jaw and I decided that I might have to open a door some day anyhow, and why put it off? Just play it cool, I guess. Hell, could anything in this waking world really be worse than what I’d been through?

It was that asshole about the painting, of course.

– Hey, I’ve been trying to get ahold of you for — holy shit! You look like death and stink like death herself having died and decayed! What the fuck happened!? You should see yourself!

– Yeah? You got a mirror?

– No, but you’re blind anyway, oh, ah, I see what you did there. But, still, my god, you must be able to smell the —

– You get used to it. Now is this a social call, or what? You can see that I’m not in the best place to entertain.

– No, I wouldn’t guess, but do you need. . .?

The poor, overwhelmed man was faltering, and I had little sympathy.

– What do you want, asshole?

– Ah, I guess just wanted to, uh, check on my painting?

– Yeah, I’m right on top of it. Just in the middle of stage two, which you’re interrupting, so if you’ll excuse me.

– Of course, I mean, I guess, I mean, well, I hope you feel better.

– Goodbye.

– Right, so bye, and —

I slammed the door in his face and thought about crying for a few days but instead I faced the inevitable and got out goddamn canvas and my paints and brushes. I threw up a bit of bile when I slipped on some rotting Taco Bell and landed in a pile of my own shit, but other than that I got to work without further event.


The canvas was small, but the Painting was enormous. Or at least that’s what they said, before they took me away. What I know is that that Painting changed things. Sure, the asshole got his memory back after one look, and what did he do but kill himself. I guess some things are best left forgotten. But I really don’t care about him, to be honest. I’ve got enough on my plate.

At first I thought the dragon was in my own head, and that’s certainly what these damn doctors would have me believe. Even when I acted otherwise, I thought, and they still think, that the dragon was some sort of psychic projection, an unconscious reaction to my blindness, a lashing out of the id, perhaps, against the rest of the mind to which it no longer had the same perceptual ties and dependencies even as I myself lost my own ties to the world and my efficacy, my living. That’s probably what you think, too, and I don’t blame you. Don’t think that the delusion will keep you safe, lord no, but perhaps ignorant of the horror that proceeds inexorably around you. I have lost that luxury of ignorance in an extended night and in the awful morning-after that led to the Painting. Even the doctors couldn’t explain that shit.

Because the Painting was not only a portrait of the nameless man (John something or other, it turns out). It is a painting of every man, every woman, every child. Everyone who looks at it sees himself reflected in its non-representational murk. It is like looking in a mirror and seeing what you’ve always feared you would see, so strongly that perhaps that is why you look in the mirror at all, to make sure it is not so, but as you gaze at the painting you realize it is so. Even I see my Painting, though I see nothing else anymore.

And yet, even as you see yourself, you see something else, someone Else, something that colonizes your consciousness, though no one else will admit this intrusion and loss of control. The dragon invades, and he pervades. Already I hear him in new music, I smell him on people’s breath. Furthermore, I am certain that if I could see, I would glimpse him in a billboard here, and a modern art piece there. He has taken over this world.

What is most disturbing, though, is where I now know the dragon came from, and where he’s heading. The doctors were right, in a way. He was in my head, but now he is out. He was born in my dreams, but he became self-aware and has propagated, not procreated but extended into everyone else’s minds and into our dreams and creations. And I have no doubt that even their dreams now feature him, as do mine.

Still, that is trivial. I care no longer for my fellow man of this world. The dragon has taken control over someone far more important. Through me, his vessel or his servant or his creator, he has grasped even my own dreamer, my own god or Red King, for I realize now the dragon’s insidious plot. This serpent has snaked his way pervasively through the Dreaming that we ignorantly call Reality, but more alarmingly, he is climbing upward into all the other infinite dreamers and dreamings. He will attain what must have been his goal: immortality. And I weep for humanity, and any other sentient beings that must feel his ragged tongue or know the scrape of his claw across their souls. Whatever multitude the universe once was, it is now only one thing, this horrible Beast I have called the dragon. And I will always know my part in painting his dark enlightenment into being, into weaving his thread into each tapestry world, as his oneness becomes our doom.

DAN RESS is fascinated by non-violent revolution, although he grants that it has fewer explosions. He enjoys writing, playing music, playing rugby, traveling, and helping people.

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