“The Academy must be closed,” the Hierarch said, “There’s a war going on.” He lifted the curtain briefly. Fires burned as far as the eye could see.
“That is precisely why the Academy must remain open,” Madam Oort replied.
“And why is that?” the Hierarch asked, returning to his desk to call up the latest reports on the screen.
“Because if we do not keep creating, everything will collapse.”
The Hierarch’s secretary scowled over the semi-circles of his spectacles. “Hmnph!” he snorted. “The Academy! Nothing but a collection of loonies.”
“I beg your pardon!” Madam Oort drew herself up, her feathered hat quivering.
“Well, that artist Begin, for example. Getting off on undressing his models.”
Why must they always pick on M. Begin when the Academy had so many other great talents? “M. Begin is a master of erotic portraiture,” Madam Oort said, as though explaining to a not very bright student. “He creates a progressive canvas depicting his subject in states of undress culminating in the ultimate revelation of intimate invitation.”
“And usually shoots his wad in the process,” the secretary snickered. The Hierarch suppressed a grin.
“M. Begin is passionate about his work! That he becomes aroused in the process is only natural. Consider the results! His work is stunning! Vividly alive! An evocative marvel of light and color!”
“It’s pornographic,” Patro Wouk said. “Why can’t he paint them with their clothes on?”
“At least his relationship with his models is chaste,” Patro Gaus said, fastidiously arranging the folds of his black robe. “Unlike some over there who conduct themselves like shameless satyrs.”
“Does he spill his seed upon the ground?” Patro Wouk shot back severely. “If so, then it is still sin!”
Miss Rumphael came in with the tea tray, little crustless sandwiches arranged around the pot. “I understand that M. Begin folds his effluence up neatly into a kerchief and disposes of it in a sanitary manner,” she said, and set down the tray with an air of certainty. “I had a cousin who posed for him.”
Madam Oort coughed. “The point is that M. Begin, like so many at the Academy, is creating beauty, providing something rich and exciting—“
“Exciting!” the secretary echoed with a giggle.
“If you please! With all the destruction and ugliness the war is causing, we are desperately in need of beauty and creation! It is a celebration of the joys of life, an antidote to this riot of death!”
The Hierarch shrugged. “Our physicists say that the universe is going to collapse anyway.”
“That is because there isn’t enough in it that matters,” Madam Oort said. “If we were to create enough that matters, instead of indulging in these hideous wars, we might be able to prevent the collapse. That is why the Academy must remain open.”
“Are you saying that Art can prevent the collapse of the universe?”
“It can at least prevent the collapse of society. Then we shall go to work on the universe,” Madam Oort said.
Miss Rumphael leaned over and spoke confidentially to Madam Oort on her way out of the room. “They never listen!”
Passing Miss Rumphael in the open door was a tall man with broad shoulders. One leg was shorter than the other, causing his forward progress to be stilted and labored. The sole of one shoe was built up in an attempt to compensate for the inequity.
“Ah!” Madam Oort cried, “Dr. Sisyphus! At last, a man of science!”
The Hierarch scowled over his screen. “What would a man of reason have to say to a left-brained hysteric of the artistic mob?”
Dr. Sisyphus cleared his throat. “Actually, it is the left hemisphere of the brain which governs the more rational and calculating functions of the mind. It is the right which is the source of creative thought.”
“That makes no sense!” the Hierarch complained. “It is the left which is sinister!”
“Precisely!” Madam Oort said triumphantly.
One of the ministers came in with a folder. “Papers for you to sign, Hierarch.”
“Fine, fine,” the Hierarch said, still scowling. He gestured to a vacant spot. “Leave them there on the desk. I’ll go over them when I’m finished with this.”
“Very good, sir,” the minister said, “The war is going very well.”
“Too well!” said Madam Oort. “One might wish that it would go poorly. Then perhaps it might be given up on!”
“Oh, no, Madam!” the minister cried. “We can’t give up now! We still have enemies to fight.”
“No doubt the other side thinks much the same,” Dr. Sisyphus sighed. “An equal and opposite reaction.”
“We’ll never give up!” the Hierarch said, raising his chin. “Not so long as we have a man left!”
“Yes sir!” the minister agreed with gusto, and he left again, humming something. Bizet, Madam Oort thought. L’Arlesienne? No one writes music like that anymore. That is why the world is growing smaller. Minds are not expanding as they once did.
She rose and went to the window. There had once been great mountains on the horizon. Now there was only distant smoke. A steady contraction.
“Not enough that matters,” she murmured aloud. “However, contractions are a prelude to birth. There may be hope yet.”
“Birth?” the Hierarch exclaimed, overhearing her. “I hope not! Messy business, fraught with uncertainty! Not to mention a drain on the economy. The last thing we need is another mouth to feed!” He took up the folder the minister had brought in and clucked with disapproval. “Not enough supplies as it is to support the troops. That is our number one priority! Support the troops!” He took up a large and heavy stamp and brought it down on the paper with a resounding thump. “The Academy is closed!”
“I protest!” cried Madam Oort.
“Not allowed,” the Hierarch replied. “Guard, escort Madam Oort out of the building!”
“What about the Church?” asked Patro Gaus, leaning forward ominously.
“Well, of course,” the Hierarch said, “The Church must continue. In times of great stress the people need the consolation and discipline of religion.”
Patro Gaus and Patro Wouk smiled and nodded to each other.
Out in the street, intense knots of people hurried by, anxiety-driven. Entropy gnawed at every smooth surface and right angle; maintenance had been reassigned to munitions.
“Singularly ugly!” Madam Oort picked her way with furious disgust through the garbage. “Pulls everything that matters into its hungry orbit and warps it into oblivion!” She turned a corner and the vindictive wind caught her feathered hat. With an unbecoming curse she reached up to grab it, and retreated to the shelter of a side street.
There in the debris sat a dirty little man. He had smoothed the dust in front of him, and was using a shard of metal to mark it. He used bits of broken glass and scraps of wire to augment the design. Madam Oort examined his work.
“How marvelous!” she exclaimed, and some of the people rushing by paused to look.
The dirty little man turned his soot-streaked face upwards. “You think so?”
“Oh, yes! Yes, I do. How cleverly you have used your materials; how the pattern catches the eye. Do continue.”
“What’s the use?” a woman sighed. “The next storm will blow it away.”
“What of it?’ Madam Oort replied. “It is here now! Look at it! Appreciate it!”
The woman came closer. With minute care, the ragged artist inscribed a curve into the dust and placed a sharp triangle of shiny blue metal at its tip.
Madam Oort nodded with satisfaction. Never mind the Academy! Creation would continue without it. She said to the little man, “It may not seem so, but it is very important that you do this.”
The crowd slowed, curious, and gathered to watch him work.
The world breathed it in, expanding outwards ever so slightly.