January 31st, 2016 Comments Off on F

A painter in a creative slump finds unexpected inspiration when he buys a rare work that holds a ghostly secret.

It was just a painting, after all.

Henry Edgewater purchased it because he enjoyed the crisp lines of the barren room it depicted, the jagged edges of the uneven wood used for the makeshift table and chairs, and the detail in the shadows and grain of the walls.

Just the walls, that’s all it showed. Two rough wood walls, coarse enough to create a handful of splinters, if you tripped on the uneven floor and put out a hand to stop from falling. Two walls, one on the left and the other behind a table—possibly a kitchen table, with two ramshackle chairs. Or, quite viably, this was the single abandoned room in a shack off in the woods somewhere.

Two walls, one table, two chairs, and a window. One window in the back wall, behind the table. Through the nine-paned glass you could see leafless trees, a section of lifeless lawn, a wedge of blue autumnal sky, and the careful brick side of a chimney.

That’s why Henry had bought the painting, because of the evident life outside the apparently dead room that served as subject. He liked the juxtaposition. He liked that the placement of the chimney bespoke another room beyond an unseen door in the left wall.

Henry was thrilled with the possibilities the work left to the imagination, so he bought it and he put it on his bedroom wall across from his own window, and he smiled every time he looked at it, like a schoolboy first witnessing something beautiful before he understands that magic is not real.

Henry would smile, and a subtle change in the angle of the shadows would lead him to believe that the painting had smiled back.

* * *

Henry Edgewater felt a certain debt to the artist who had produced his new joy and attempted to delve into the history of his acquisition. The signature said, plainly enough, “Reginald Arburton,” but Henry knew nothing of art history and went to the library to thank the man by reading up on his biography.

Marginalized, it turned out, had been the career of Reginald Arburton, who had operated out of his mountaintop cabin in Virginia in the late nineteenth century. Not only had he been American, but it was also pointed out that he had effected his only known work with the help of a camera obscura projected onto the back wall of his shack.

With no family to vouch for him, his biography was little more than a blurb in book of art history, a blurb that pit his brief career as somewhere between a fraud of art and the shadowy beginnings of modern photography.

Marginalized. One of a kind. It only made Henry love his painting even more.

* * *

After Henry first glimpsed the girl dash past the window in his painting, he took to eating dinner in his bed so as to watch the action on the canvas as most people watch a TV. Henry would methodically cut his steak and potatoes and carrots into manageable cubes such that he could, without taking his eyes from the image of the room, eat by simply stabbing at the plate with his fork, then chewing up whatever the utensil delivered. While the preparation made his meals more efficient, it actually began to take him longer and longer to eat.

Staring at the image, his mind naturally began to wander, and his eyes would follow. Invariably, it was at these moments, when his gaze was not fully on the image’s window, that he glimpsed between the trees a splash of color that had not been there previously.

Sometimes, when he snapped his attention back to the autumnal, wooded lawn, Henry would catch the foot of a girl—white sock and black sandals—frozen for a second at the bottom left corner of the window frame, dodging behind the chimney, as if Reginald Arburton had painted it there to begin with.

Or rather, his camera obscura had captured the light of an image of fleeting life and had burned it onto the canvas, and the artist had painted over it. But upon closer inspection—Henry’s knife and fork abandoned on a plate of half-eaten dinner—the sandaled foot would be gone, the yard beyond the window empty, and the trees not even swaying under the forceful push of an October wind.

Sometimes, as he returned to his meal, Henry would glimpse movement again just as he brought his head back up to concentrate. Sometimes he even caught the foot again, and would put his knife and fork back down and rise, only to discover he had been right the first time, and that no such foot existed in the yard glimpsed through the painted glass. Sometimes Henry Edgewater would yo-yo up and down like this five, six, seven times in a row.

Finally, he caught sight of her leg from the knee down and saw that the foot was not clad in a white sock, but in the white, knee-high hose of a young girl dressed up for church. Yet when he would examine the painting more closely, his nose millimeters from the surface of the canvas, he would find no appendage and no evidence of a girl having dashed past the window.

Once, he was sure, as he pressed his nose against the oil-made window to find her leg, he saw a slight blurring of the image as if his hot breath had condensed ever so slightly on a cool pane of glass.

* * *

At one point, Henry’s eyes managed to capture the girl’s back as she disappeared behind the chimney. Mid-run, her leg stuck out behind her, bent at the knee, beneath a fine white dress with blue frills. Her left elbow, too, was caught for a second as she brought it back to keep her balance, the skin of her arm pale and radiant in the autumn sun. At the top of the back of her dress, above the powder-blue frill of a collar, Henry saw the very back of her head where her blond hair was tied in a ponytail held with a shiny blue ribbon. The blond hair floated above the blue-frill collar without so much as a wedge of neck connecting the two, though surely the young girl had such a natural alignment of anatomy—but that’s just how thin a sliver of her body had appeared in the empty yard beyond the glass.

Pleased with himself, despite the frustration of not having seen her in full as more than a blur through the window, Henry would sit back down and return to stabbing the food on his plate with his fork.

Soon, he didn’t even bother to get up, letting the sight of her leg and elbow and her back and her disembodied hair disappear back into the canvas in its own time, like the slow fade of an after image burned temporarily onto the retina. He just smiled—fork poised and frozen midway to his mouth—and blessed his good fortune for even a passing glimpse at the life beyond the barren room.

And, as usual, he was sure Reginald Arburton smiled back with a subtle shift of the shadows in the painting that didn’t last long enough for Henry to even consider whether or not he had seen it.

* * *

It was two weeks later, to the day, when Henry managed to watch the entire event of the girl’s progress across the yard. He watched as just one white dot that was the tip of her nose first broke past the right window frame, then sat in gape-mouthed joy as the girl dashed past the window, her foot disappearing behind the chimney after her bobbing blond ponytail with the blue ribbon and the bent left elbow with the powder-blue trim.

At first, Henry couldn’t elucidate what he had seen. He set his knife and fork down slowly without taking his eyes off the painting, hoping it would play through the scene again, because what he had witnessed made no sense.

Little girls with ponytails and blue-trimmed dresses ran past windows giggling, after all, not grimacing intently and carrying a shotgun.

In fact, little girls didn’t carry guns at all. The joy of finally seeing the blond-haired girl had been in the belief that she would be smiling and free and dewy eyed—the perfect juxtaposition to the resolute lifelessness of the subject room, which had first drawn Henry to the painting and the window. In his imagination, her elbow disappearing behind the chimney had been pert and soft and alive, not weighted at the wrist by the shank of a longarm. The black sandal had been clean, not the footwear of a gun wielder.

It made no sense and Henry sat and stared in stunned disbelief at the solitary work of Reginald Arburton, crafted in 1883 on a mountaintop in Virginia with the aid of a camera obscura. It made little sense that the virginal life glimpsed outside the nine-pained window would have appeared so dire and intent.

He did finally see the girl’s brief passage played out again, several hours later, his meat and vegetables stone cold and his knees cramped: The slight backward curl of lips in profile beneath an open, staring eye, not looking for the next frolic across the way, but concentrating on some purpose that, for the time being, only played out in her mind, beneath a bobbing blond ponytail tied back with a blue ribbon.

Only this time, the girl hadn’t been carrying a shotgun at all. A glint of light or a certain stretch of shadow had surely created the illusion before of a young girl running with a cargo she certainly could not heft, and this time Henry concentrated and felt certain her load had been a stout walking stick instead.

Rubbing his tired eyes, Henry finally stood and cleaned away his uneaten dinner, all the while replaying the image in his mind.

Definitely not a gun. Girls don’t run with shotguns. So it had to have been a stout walking stick with which she had been entrusted until it was properly delivered, causing her the consternated look. By the time he had finished the dishes, Henry was quite pleased with this assessment. A young girl on some Sunday afternoon chore, delivering a new walking stick, carved by her father, to her neighbor, after church.

It wasn’t quite the freedom and whimsy Henry had envisioned beyond the window when he had first purchased Reginald Arburton’s only work, but it made much more sense than the deception his eyes had perceived when he first saw the little girl dash past that window.

It made sense in a realistic way that said the world had no time for the whimsy of little girls.

And with that, Henry was able to get some sleep.

* * *

Henry awoke with a start at first light and looked straight at the painting. The little girl with the blond hair and the problematic expression was there now, in the room, blocking Henry’s view of the window. She stood in the foreground, her form cut off by the picture frame at the hemline of her dress. Her blue eyes were steely and cold, the stare causing eerie shadows to have formed above her cheeks and around her curled lips. She was not at all happy. In her young, frail arms she cradled a shotgun, the double barrels pointed to the ceiling, her small right forefinger resting neatly on the trigger.

She didn’t move. She didn’t dash back out of the room or hand the gun over or turn to the window. She stood motionless and stared, the trim collar of her dress now seeming neat and blue in a military fashion.

Henry rose nervously from his bed and moved over to the picture, glancing away to see if the image would change, if the walking stick would reappear in her clutches, or if the girl would vanish as before and leave the peaceful yard beyond the window untouched. But this time she held her ground. No fading afterglow image. No rubbing the eyes and making it go away.

The girl stayed and stared out at Henry, cradling her shotgun, until Henry was forced by a greater will to leave his own bedroom. And though he could feel her eyes following him as he turned his back and walked through the door, Henry did not glance over his shoulder to see if it was true; to watch her eyes actually moving.

When he did glance in again, some hours later, on his way out of the bathroom, the girl was still there. She hadn’t moved an inch.

But her eyes had met and held his own.

* * *

Henry found the art history book again and looked up the plate of Reginald Arburton’s untitled defacto masterpiece. There was the rough-hewn furniture in the ramshackle cabin, and there was the nine-paned window and the quiet, autumnal yard beyond. There was no little girl with a shotgun to break the scene. Henry stared at the black and white plate for a good hour and caught no glimpse of anything beyond the window—no foot, no stocking, no blue-ribboned ponytail. All he surmised was that a black and white reproduction did no justice to the delicate balance of color and shadow and light in the original. The plate was not alive. It just didn’t have the same vivid consequence as the original, which had captured the light of that moment in some combination of oils and photographic reality.

Henry finally looked away from the image on plate F, closed the book, and went home.

The little girl, of course, had been anticipating his return and looked over when he poked his head into his bedroom.

Henry retreated and spent the night on the couch.

* * *

Henry stayed away from his bedroom with the same vigilance he had first displayed upon catching a glimpse of the girl’s movement. He no longer cut his food neatly into cubes, nor did he stare longingly at one spot on the wall waiting for something to happen. Instead, he sat quietly at the kitchen table and ate slowly, with great precision, hoping above all that nothing would happen. His ears were tensed to not hear the soft shimmer of a dress ruffling as a little girl stepped over a picture frame and entered Henry’s bedroom.

There were lots of things Henry didn’t want to hear, and for this reason he took to completely silent meals, with plastic utensils on plastic plates to help deaden the noise, all the while listening to make sure he couldn’t hear the sounds he did not want to hear.

Then, one night, he heard voices. The high tinkling lilt of a young girl, answered by the large rolling thunder of a grown man. The sounds were too indistinct for him to make out words, and since they weren’t the sounds he hadn’t wanted to hear, Henry put down his plastic knife and plastic fork and crept over to the door of his bedroom.

The voices stopped. Henry slumped down and sat with his back against the wall, his head tilted to capture the slightest vibration of air that could be deciphered as language.

Surely, if the girl was speaking, she meant him no harm? Henry sat wide-eyed and listened, his ears almost aching from the lack of noise, just as his eyes in the encroaching darkness began to ache at the lack of light. He listened for one word to rise above the dark folds of air in his home and give his thoughts some direction. He needed only to hear a brief salutation—or even a threat.

Finally, frustrated at the lack of sound from within, Henry reached up and slowly turned the cold metal knob, pushing the door open far enough for him to stick his head in. He could see his bed, bathed in moonlight, left as unkempt as when he had last set foot in the room. Dirty socks still littered the carpet and a stray pair of pants decorated the bed’s footboard.

Henry poked his head in and held his breath, allowing his eyes to adjust to the pale blue light from the moon. His bed took on more shape, less form; he could pick out pillows over cushions, bedspread over sheets.

With only half a thought, he glanced up at the painting of the coarse room, fully expecting the scene to be back to the way he had bought it. But, of course, she was there. At first, she didn’t seem to notice he was spying on her, then suddenly her eyes flicked down and met his—still the only part of her brushed-in body Henry had seen move for days.

He withdrew his head evenly and shut the door firmly behind it.

* * *

Henry’s couch became his bed, so much so that he almost wondered why he had bought a bed in the first place. Sometimes, when he was outside watering the flowers, he would glance in through his bedroom windows, not so much to check on her—for he knew she would be there, shotgun in immovable arms, below the same immovable expression that should never have been on the face of a pretty, young girl—but to remind himself what a bed looked like. The pillows began to look alien, the sheets unreal, and the mattress a waste of space.

Then his eyes would drift again to hers, and he would move on, hoping that she would speak again soon so he could hear what she had to say.

And at the moment when Henry wondered why his bedroom was still off-limits, he heard the voice of a young girl within say very clearly, “My daddy said you needed this.” He had been on his way to the bathroom when the words were spoken, but he stopped in his tracks, half-turned to the bathroom, and concentrated for more words to follow.

But there were no more sounds. No rustle of a dress or spoken reply. No twitch of a trigger finger or the click of a cocking gun. Afraid he would miss something, Henry sat down outside the bedroom door, but after a few minutes the call of nature became too great and he quickly went about his business. Afterward, he even prepared himself a quick meal. Then, with his back against the wall between bedroom and bathroom, Henry sat cross-legged with his dinner, his plastic utensils making a dull tap his ears managed to avoid in favor of hearing a voice.

“My daddy said you needed this,” he heard again not too long after, ending all semblance of a meal. He tried to interpret the voice, the stretch of syllables and curl of vowels valuable clues to what had been intended between the twinkling of words.

“My daddy said you needed this.”

Then, before Henry could fully consider the tone, a man replied: “You’re blocking my light, Fiona. The window—you’re blocking the window.” It was the hollow sound of a man in a small room not paying any attention to the one with whom he was speaking.

Then silence. The few seconds of non-sound left Henry afraid to breathe, afraid of missing the next words.

“Fiona? Shall we do another picture of you now?”

It was a question laden with irregular sympathies.

“You never paint my picture.”

The single shotgun blast roused Henry from whatever daydream he had envisioned. The pastoral scene he’d imagined unfolding within the abandoned room was suddenly a mute and naive testament in the face of stinking reality.

The silence which followed became too much for him to bear, so Henry scurried back to his couch and tried to get some sleep.

* * *

When next Henry watered his flowers he felt his eyes drawn to his bedroom window and to the room beyond that contained a picture of a room with two walls and a nine-paned window, much like his own. At first, placing the painting opposite his bedroom window had seemed natural—somehow extending his room and turning the rest of his house into that quiet autumnal yard beyond—but now he wasn’t so sure.

It meant Henry could, if he wanted to, peek in at any moment and see what was there. He had done a fine job of continuing to ignore his bedroom and the secret world it now contained, but still his eyes were drawn to the window above his flowerbed like a moth caught in prismatic triangles of light.

Carefully, he crept closer, telling himself he was not going to look for the little girl with the white dress and powder-blue lace trim. He was not going to see if she still clutched her shotgun. He was just going to see what his bedroom looked like—remind himself of its presence.

He put down his watering can and grasped the edge of the window sill, peering surreptitiously into the room. His eyes adjusted slowly to the light and he glanced at the wall.

The little girl was gone.

Henry Edgewater shifted his weight to see better, looked away briefly, then back at the image. It was just a painting of a rough, ramshackle room, empty except for a woodsman’s table and two chairs. On the back wall he could just make out a nine-pained window that gave onto a sunny, autumnal yard beyond.

No little girl. No blue ribbons or blur of movement or black-sandaled foot disappearing behind the chimney.

The yard beyond was empty, save for a few trees, and Henry had no idea how to feel about that.

He backed thoughtfully away from the window and thought of nothing at all.

* * *

Henry assumed the thing had run its course, but soon he found himself again taking dinner in his bedroom, his meat cut into neat cubes he could easily stab without having to take his eyes from the window.

Only this time, it was not the painted window of Reginald Arburton that kept him entranced, it was his own nine-pained window, which looked out upon his own pristine garden and airy spring yard, because one afternoon, not long after reclaiming his bedroom, Henry had seen a little girl run across his property. A little girl in a white dress with powder-blue trim and black sandals, carrying something that could have been a walking stick—or a shotgun.

He hadn’t seen her clearly. He had been changing the sheets on his bed, his clothes already picked up and put away, when he noticed the lingering scent—very soft and mostly imperceptible—of spent gunpowder. When he moved to his window to open it, he had seen a blur move across the frame—a blur he had registered as a form he thought he recognized.

A quick look at the painting had revealed no such anomaly in the yard depicted there. No rush of movement or glimpse of a ponytail held fast by a blue ribbon. No stockinged leg or black-sandaled foot disappearing behind the chimney. But when Henry turned back and considered his own yard, he saw it again: A girlish blur of white with blue trim, with a bobbing blond ponytail, set face, and strange cargo.

Henry dashed into his yard and scoured the ground where the girl had passed. There was no sign of her having come or gone. No careless footprint or flattened grass. No broken twigs or torn leaves. And definitely no dislodged blue ribbon.

So Henry watched the window and waited, to no avail. His cubes of meat, potato, and carrots were eaten soundlessly, his concentration on his garden and the yard beyond, but the little girl from the painting did not run past again.

When the sun finally set, Henry gave up and took his dinnerware into the kitchen. As he left his bedroom he glanced once more at the image of the rough-hewn room and spectral nine-pained window.

No blur of motion. No shoe. No ponytail. No girl.

* * *

At three in the morning, Henry Edgewater awoke to the sensation of eyes watching, though not watching him. He sat up in bed to clear the dream, but when he surfaced, the feeling was still there.

Then he saw, back-lit by silvery blue moonlight, a little girl standing sideways at the foot of his bed, staring at the painting by Reginald Arburton. Her white dress maintained a phantasmal glow in the moonlight, the powder-blue trim washed out by the silvery blue light. Her hair shone, pulled back in a ponytail held by a washed-out blue ribbon. Her gaze was firm, unaffected by Henry’s motion or voice, her neat hands clutching tightly her lethal weapon.

Gasping for breath, Henry got out of bed and stood in front of her. Her eyes neither moved nor blinked and her grimly set mouth never faltered. She didn’t seem to notice Henry’s faint, polite questions.

Henry could not bring himself to touch her round shoulder or the cold metal of the gun. He trusted that his eyes knew well enough what he was seeing, and that what he was seeing was real.

The little girl holding the shotgun didn’t care either way. She stood immobile, unblinking, staring at the painting, until finally Henry left the room and slept once more on his couch.

* * *

If Henry had not recalled the ghostly conversation of the little girl when she was still only a painted image, he never would have thought to rediscover the canvas and easel after a two-year hiatus.

“You never paint my picture,” she had said before the conclusion had rung out as a single shotgun blast.

After gathering the necessary equipment, including new oils from the art supply store, Henry piled his wares at his bedroom door and fully expected her to be gone—nothing more than the product of an overburdened mind lacking inspiration. But she was still there, standing in the same position, staring at the same spot on the wall, her face as grim as ever. Her eyes did not move to focus on Henry, so he hurriedly shuffled into the room and set up his easel beneath Reginald Arburton’s painting of a coarse, simple room looking out onto an autumnal yard.

The girl was as unfazed as ever by Henry’s movements, though when he was finally settled and looked out at his subject, he could swear there was the glimmer of a smile near the corners of her grimace.

He didn’t ponder the occurrence for too long. Henry knew he had work to do before the girl followed her words with actions and leveled her shotgun at him, the bullets undoubtedly every bit as real as the little girl in the blue-trimmed white dress looked.

Henry painted feverishly right through lunch and dinner, the brush strokes coming back to him like rainfall after a drought. His critically-acclaimed ability to mix colors had not been lost over time, and the image of his bedroom with the nine-pained window took form easily beneath his brush. The girl stood motionless and waited, not seeming the least bit interested in Henry’s choice of brush or knife or the amount of paint he daubed onto the canvas.

Called an impressionist by some and a sloppy realist by others, Henry’s new work unfolded true to form, but with a distinctly new angle not heretofore seen in his paintings. The lighting was more solid, the lines less blurry, the shadows less overpowering than his earlier periods.

And the little girl, she came out so crisp and clean that when Henry put the final dot of white at the end of her nose and looked up, only to find she had vanished from his room, he felt no sense of loss that he would never see her again.

He turned the easel toward his bedroom door and backed out into the hallway to look upon what would be called the first and last real work of Henry Edgewater’s photo-realistic period.

The sheen of the shotgun looked real enough to touch; the girl’s ribbon, seen just over the top of her head, real enough to untie; her white dress seemed almost to quiver under the strain of her arms, reflected in the grimace on her face.

And in the lower left pane of the window the girl stood in front of, Henry had painted the top of his own head, his eyes peering silently into the room where the little girl stood.

It had been the only way he could think of to ensure he was not actually in the room with her when he looked at the image. He almost named the painting after his subject, but at the last minute changed his mind, imagining it would be overkill in light of the crisply defined image itself.

But whatever it had all been, the painting, at least, made it stop.

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