Most fairy tales and folk tales introduce a reader to an assortment of magical creatures and beings, from fairies and nymphs and unicorns to dragons and queer beasts and mermaids. However, of all places, Eastern Europe often ignores fantasy in pursuit of a closer enemy: the Devil and his consorts. Throughout almost all of these stories, demons and devils disguise themselves as ordinary humans in order to create mischief among mortals. But more often than not, a paradoxical question arises. In some tales, the Devil is almost sympathetic about his “job,” punishing sinful humans with a sense of righteousness and wicked pleasure in achieving justice.
Who is this figure, then? Personified evil? A symbol of evil? A fallen angel? An instrument of God? An immortal “hired” to keep humans in check? Or just supernatural trouble?
Once upon a time, there was a king or a czar or a president. And he was the most evil, tyrannical ruler to ever have been born. In fact, there were some subjects in his kingdom who secretly speculated that their “king” was never born. Was he human at all? Maybe he was an incarnation of evil. The Anti-Christ. Or just the worst thing to ever have happened to this miserable, wretched land.
The king was so evil that he ordered innocent civilians to be executed for petty crimes. He laughed when children were accidentally run over in the streets by passing wagons. He smiled when he was read the obituaries from the royal newspaper. He reveled in death, took pleasure in cruelty, and was absolutely delighted by pain. That is, everyone’s suffering but his own. Unfortunately for 95% of the country’s population, the king was surrounded by 5% of pure evil — soldiers, councilors, and advisers who shared the king’s views on torture, murder, and extortion. They were all firm believers in the phrase “the ends justify the means.” Simply put, they copied his nasty behavior with relish. Imagine all the worst bullies, criminals, corrupt policemen, and devious politicians and you will have a general image of the king’s posse. No one could stand up to them, because these villains held power and lives in their hands, not to mention the addition of an impressively large army on their side. They were, more or less, invincible. The numerous positions they held, and their military forces, made it impossible for anyone to overthrow them or start a revolution. Fifty failed assassination attempts on the king as well as at least eighty on his gang spoke for themselves.
Somehow, the king was exactly like the Emperor Nero, having some twisted respect for art. Not real art, but still, he had a court artist. This poor man, Alek, usually acted in front of his liege like the remainder of the citizens — cowering in fright until he was dismissed to his chambers. Although the pay was decent and the king frequently called upon him, Alek was as enraged as the rest of the nation at this man’s inhumanity and his sheer pomposity. Why, the man had boasted more than once that he has cheated both death and God because they seem to have forgotten all about him! But it wasn’t just the king’s icy words that chilled the artist in his room. Seeing everyday innocent people dragged kicking and screaming into the palace, taken away deep underneath in torture chambers and caverns of death to never be seen again by living eyes…Alek went to sleep at night with visible shudders.
One gloomy morning, the king went against principle by summoning the artist to the royal throne room in front of his minions. He had a special…assignment for Alek.
“I want the Devil’s portrait,” the king rasped. Alek said nothing but looked completely confused. The king continued, “I want you to paint the Devil for me. Not as you imagine him, but as he really, truly looks like. I want his portrait to hang on my bedroom wall. This task must be completed within the week.”
Alek remained silent. He bowed in front of the king and hurried out of the throne room, the king’s wicked voice echoing after him in a laugh, “Remember, he must look as he does in real life!”
Only until Alek had reached his chambers and slammed the door behind him did he unleash all the anger and fear he had struggled to mask in the king’s presence.
“Damn him!” growled Alek. “How dare he order me to paint the Devil! No one has ever seen him, let alone knows what his true appearance is! The cruel beast must want me dead. Otherwise, why would he give me an impossible commission?” Until that moment, Alek had not realized the implications surrounding this to-be-portrait. There was no logical reason why the king would desire such a painting, unless it was merely a game, a whim to push Alek to madness and guarantee his execution when he would obviously be unable to get the pre-selected model for a sitting.
Alek sat down and covered his face with his hands, sorrowing over how long he had to live until he would be sentenced to the same fate of hundreds of others.
Suddenly, he heard a noise in the room. Like the scuffling of booted feet. Someone coughed politely. Alek looked up. A man. A man in his locked room? A stranger dressed unlike anyone he had ever seen, in fine apparel? A stranger looking intently at him and acting rather…impatient?
“Well,” said a smooth, eloquent voice, “are you just going to stare or are you going to say something? I’m here, am I not?”
Alek once again looked perplexed. “Who are you?” he timidly replied. “How did you get into my room, what are you doing here, and what do you want with me?”
The stranger gave an amused smile. His teeth, perfect and white, glinted in the semi-dark room. “You cursed the old king, remember? And thanks to your choice of words, here I am, right on schedule. I must say, hell looks cozier than this kingdom of yours. Your king…he deserves to see my portrait.”
Alek blinked. “So you’re…you’re the Devil? What do you want with me?”
The Devil smirked ever so slightly, “You’re very attentive, aren’t you? Well, I want to strike a deal with you. The king is long overdue a little…back payment, don’t you agree? So, here’s my proposal: one soul in exchange for my portrait. What do you think?”
Alek thought it would certainly be better to be in warm hell than this apocalyptic hell-hole of a kingdom, especially if he was going to be killed soon anyway. However…
“You would let me paint your portrait?”
“Hmph. No. I will paint my self-portrait and I’ll even provide the frame for it when I’m finished. You’ll just lend me the use of your studio here, a canvas, your paints, and some old-fashioned privacy,” retorted the Devil. “No peeking from you, mind. You’ll get a few days sabbatical, hmmm? Rest and relaxation for the doomed painter?”
Alek slowly nodded. He had made his decision. The Devil stretched out his hand and shook Alek’s. The deal was struck.
The next few days went on quietly enough. The king, in a gesture of cruel consideration, ordered that the court painter have no visitors during his week-long project so that he could concentrate on the portrait. He also wanted to ensure that seeing no one would make Alek feel terribly lonely, secluded, and even more anxious about his pending fate. However, this was a mixed blessing, because no visitors meant no interruptions. The Devil whistled as he worked, while the artist slept long and hard, only waking up for meals. After three days of this, Alek woke up to someone shaking him.
“Hello? Wake up there! It’s finished!”
Alek groggily looked around to see what was going on. The easel was entirely covered with a large, thick drape. Evidently, that was where the portrait was waiting.
“You’re finished?” Alek sleepily asked.
The Devil rolled his eyes. “Didn’t I just say so? Look, the canvas is already framed, so you’re ready to present your…our work in front of the king. Remember, though, two conditions: this portrait is for the king’s eyes only. Carry it into the throne room, place it in front of the king, remove the coverlet, and then run out of there as if hell-hounds were chasing after you!”
Alek nodded. With that, the Devil disappeared.
Alek’s entrance into the throne room was unanticipated, unexpected. The king was surprised to see him so soon and with a painting in tow, but his expression didn’t show it. He smiled evilly at Alek and said aloud for the whole court to hear, “Let’s see it, then! Let’s see that dirty rascal!”
Alek quickly obeyed. Recalling the devil’s instructions, he lowered the painting right in front of the king, whipped off the drape, and ran. As he neared his rooms, he could only hear screaming, but it ended as soon as he locked the door of his chambers behind him.
Meanwhile, when Alek was making a break for it, the king stared at the uncovered portrait in delight, which immediately turned into a scream. It was an ear-splitting, gut-wrenching scream. It resonated through the walls of the palace, the villages, the entire kingdom, everyone’s ears. As the king’s expression turned into one of utter terror and disbelief, his courtiers’ faces began to mirror his.
The king was suddenly covered in reddish, blackening flames that traveled up and down his torso and his head, engorging him from top to bottom. He didn’t stop screaming, and a mysterious wind blew into the enclosed, windowless throne room, sweeping the fire onto all who were present. Although they tried hard to escape, the flames were almost like grabbing hands, pulling them back into the throne room and continuing to consume them, body and soul. The king burst into ashes and dust, followed by his devoted servants. The ashes combined into one pile, which seemed to flow into the still-standing painting. Then, in a split-second, the throne room was empty, of both people and the portrait.
Alek was terrified again. The Devil had not mentioned before when he was going to collect Alek’s soul as per their agreement. For days and days, Alek locked himself in his room, unaware of the strange silence in the palace. Now that the deed was done, he didn’t think permanent residence in hell was such a good prospect. But sure enough, Alek woke up one morning to find the Devil sitting in an armchair, admiring a golden, empty frame sitting on Alek’s easel.
“Finally. So, here’s the frame, as promised. It was…an experience doing business with a court artist. Maybe someday I’ll order a painting from you myself. Just no portraits,” laughed the Devil.
Speechless, Alek’s throat refused to make any sound. He swallowed hard and whispered, “So we’re…leaving, then?”
The Devil lifted his eyebrows. “Leaving?”
Alek’s throat was dry. “A soul…for the portrait? Right?”
The Devil looked at Alek in disbelief. “You think that I want…your soul?” Now the Devil really laughed. “And what would I do with an artist’s soul in hell? There’s no room for you dreamers and creators! No, the king’s soul in exchange for the portrait! And how he is enjoying my hospitality down there…” The Devil flashed a truly mischievous grin. “I only returned to bring you the frame. It’s made of solid gold, so you can profit from this whole transaction in some way…sell it, for example.”
Saluting, the Devil gave a trademark smirk and disappeared for the last time, leaving a bewildered and very relieved Alek to absorb these new bits of information. He also realized for the first time that the palace was…too quiet. Washing his face and unlocking his door were the first steps Alek took before he discovered the true state of affairs…
The people took back their land and their freedom, establishing a republic and making a law against monarchy. Alek was no longer the court artist but the republic’s artist. All inhabitants of the land were happy and strong, no longer weighed down by the infamy of their former ruler and the endless blood he spilled during his reign.
The mystery of the Devil’s portrait remained a mystery. No one had seen the portrait except the king, and still no one can guess what he had seen there. His soul in agony? The gateway to hell? The Devil himself? A pit full of fire? In any case, the “portrait” had made the king scream and burn up like a log of wood, so…it must have been colossal.
Nevertheless, to commemorate his story and the mystery of the golden frame, Alek got to work at once. And the first canvas he put his brushstrokes to in this new age of liberation was a portrait…of the Devil.
N.B. This is a retelling, by me, of the fairy tale with the same title found in the book “All Colour Book of Dragons, Ogres, and Witched Witches” by Milos Maly.