The story begins in the hands and mouths of children. Chubby fingers gripping tightly, small mouths nervously biting, the pencil moved across a page in endless trembling waves, lines, scribbles, this first initiation into the adult world, this first introduction to the superiority of the race, away from the primeval grunts and murmurs, into the world of letters, to be rewarded or punished as the lead breaks yet again, as the curved wooden end splinters between young gummy teeth in frustration. It is the first true removal from the mother’s breast. First removal from the inner mind as it seeks to record is ordered to record and halt recalling.
But even more so, it is an introduction to power. An unsolicited one, but one which will soon fire the young imagination. For it marks. And in marking it can be turned to many uses.
In the discovery of the manifold possibilities, the young one may even be disappointed that this thought has preceded him, that the mysterious range of numbered and lettered pencils in their colorful boxes on the stationer’s shelf are not his invention alone. But their potential is endless, and the classification makes it easy. Or not so, for often too many choices make for mistakes. But it is simple now, only an equation. 2B for the outlines, 5B, 6B for the simple shadows, 8B for a simulation of utter black, for it is too soon to unleash the true nature of black onto the sapling. It is not time yet. Charcoal abides.
The young artist likewise, will come into the position, like or not, to maneuver through this all-encompassing range. Learn to select instinctively this or that grade of softness or hardness for the curve of a cheek, the iris, the lashes and the hair, this or that grade of hardness for the soft soft barely there shades of the curve of a thigh, the sunlight on the leaves, the white of the lily in that ugly vase.
Pencil as instrument, implement, ruler, the humble and unassuming pencil can be bent to the will most easily, it would seem, and if it refuses, there are always others to choose from. Useful for sketching – no, vital we may say, error easily remedied, little connection with the subject, and indeed object is required, for the presence of an offending line or section can be erased in the blink of an eye… therefore though, the nature of the error is never known, never cared for. A safe place for beginnings.
A great invention, the pencil. An invention to unleash the imagination. An invention for creation. Not indelible perhaps, ephemeral certainly, subject to light in the manner of its brighter, colored relatives, but nonetheless a great invention.
And so the dance of tones begins yet again, the variations on greys, hinting at black, the whisper of its touch and no more. Boxed rows not even necessary, the classification of the grades have skirted the issue.
So wherein lies its power, where its significance in the canon, where its secret and mystery? For it cannot hold none, no instrument of creation is so cursed.
Its power is the power of beginnings. The power of the first step, the testing of waters, the answer to the Fool, who may hold all the secrets of clay and charcoal in his soul, but never ponders the secret of the pencil, and rightly so, for that is not his nature. The power of cobwebs spun on a sunny day, so fine as to be invisible, the power to risk and err fearlessly. Fear and error will follow soon enough, but at least the pencil will warn of the risk of building castles on sand. The power of beginnings presupposes an ending, a completion, the power of beginnings holds such promise also, such tempting promise. This is the mystery and power of the modest pencil, the dispensable and disposable. For when the first gate has been opened, the first line clumsily pulled across a page, with the protective rubber always near, (though a licked finger will smudgingly work almost as well), there is no going back. An ‘A’ may become a gate, a tower, a turret, the arch of a bridge. And when the bridge is breached, then the dance has already begun, the spiral commences to build. The will of the pencil can be easily bent as its tip is easily broken. But its whisper grows louder and louder, causes an itch, a compulsion to ask for more. The almost of its black is tantalizing, promises. The iridescence of its grays even more so. Its outline safe, reassuring, just begging for swathes of color to embrace. And this whisper is sibilant, barely noticeable,
… play dear child, hold me move me bend me to your will. I will draw castles for you, princesses and warriors, the dragonflies of your dreams and dragons of your nightmares. With me as your sword you can do anything. See that space your line has created? Does it not desire color there, and there, and there? You made that space, not I. I? Why, I am your instrument, your playtime toy…but do you not seek now to fill that empty desert of white? Shade with me? Why of course. No, no, black, not quite. That is possible too you know? Sunlight? Why, sunlight is golden, not grey. Stormclouds already dear child? Is it not too soon? I see you are learning fast…
… forgotten by those who would first teach the childish fingers to grasp, the infantile tongue not to lick, the milk teeth not to bite… all of which they will unfailingly do in their search for the why of it, the how of it, the wherefore. The clay is out of the ground now, locked into wood now, the wood varnished and glossed and pleasantly enough colored – non-toxic paint only, naturally. But their secrets remain, however boxed into conformity.
Graphite and charcoal, charcoal and graphite. The secrets of charcoal, and its dangers, well-known by those who have gone before, hence the safe boxing. There are many boxes in this story, instruments of creation are not to be let loose in the hands and mouths of babes, nor the uninitiated either. This at least has been remembered. Let those who would follow the Fool be warned. Either way we will all follow him in the end. The measurements of the recipes for the grading all perfectly sound. So easy to define and number, defying charcoal’s sooty grumble, graphite’s lofty tension. For they are moulded together, these two unlikely lovers, as is an archway. In dependence on each other. Neither can fall in blissful release, neither can refuse to speak and dance. Ever falling, ever gripping each other as two gladiators in a fight to the death, they will nonetheless both speak in unison no matter how childish the scribble, or how skillful the shading.
Speaks graphite: I remember the shifting and seething of the ground. I remember the volcano that spawned me. I remember the hearts that trembled with fear and the howls of despair that echoed as they ran. The spewing lava and the blackened sky. But I, I was born into nobility, hardness, unbending and aloof. I who am harder than steel, I who can crush men’s skulls for sport, am I reduced to this? Flakes of my body knit together with this child of dead fires, my soul split and spilt out on paper by an ingrate infant? But take care, tread softly, for my spirit still speaks in this false body, my side of the arch is still my side, my whisper and shadow still tempt and still hold open the gate. Enter as you will, but it will lead to unknown pathways and memories of fire and ice. Be warned…
Speaks charcoal: I remember the water, the air, the birds nesting in my arms, the nymphs at play. I remember the rains and the burgeoning of rivers, my boughs always billowing and waving. I remember the axe, I remember the fall. And then there was fire, slow, almost gentle as a lover, licking at my body, encircling, spiraling. I grew hard, I grew brittle, I grew black, my water taken from me, my sap, my life as it was then. My spirit knit in new patterns, waterless, air only, earth gone from me as I became but earthen air. Do not trust my blackness. Step watchfully onto my bridge for it no longer sways, it cracks, will not rumble before it crumbles. That is the task of my unwilling mate, over whom I may slip and slide, darkening always the heart of graphite, slender, flaking, aloof, knifing through me as I, I speak in shadow tongues only. My gate is always open, but the pathway changes on the other side. Enter as you will, but be warned. The path of shadow is not an easy one. Be warned I say…
Speaks wood: Despised by those I am fated to enclose. Consumed by those that are fated to hold me. I remember the axe, I remember selection. Would death by fire have been a better fate? Others in matchboxes, I varnished and gilded, boxed also, graded and numbered – quality controlled? Who may speak of quality, who may talk of price? Who better than I who filtered the air they breathe, fertilized the ground they walk on? And inside me, a perfect circle, an endless struggle on a treacherous bridge. I am the bridge, they the arches that without me cannot hold, would splinter, flake, and crumble in rebellion to this form… yet hope springs eternal they say. Is this new life we have unwillingly been given so despicable? We are the beginning, but we are nothing. We are the grey, the bridge that connects beginnings to endings. We are the grey, we are the grey, we are the grey…