The days when things could remain hidden from me were long gone, and the secret door to my father’s gallery yielded to my strength. Unbidden memories and cold air rushed at me as the door swung open, revealing a darkness only slightly younger then myself. As I descended the crudely chiseled stone stairs, the shadows embraced me, welcoming me back. The marble floor was no longer glittering, as time and the advance of the earth had long since laid a thick tarnish across the meticulous stonework. However, the great archway was no less impressive for the passage of time, even if it no longer bellowed with the glow of candlelight. Even now, its great jaws appeared ready to devour the world—my world, at least.
I lingered at the threshold, wary of the things that might lay beyond. The iteration of my father in the form of the axe continued to burn me and my sisters still called upon me to play—yet finally, I walked into the gallery.
With my first steps into antechamber, I was but a shivering boy of five years old, cold and shaking, in awe of the unknown. With my next steps, memories became my master, and the darkness tumbled beyond time.
Small cages hung from the ceiling, each containing the tiny bones of children. Thankfully, the little skeletons had been deprived of their staring eyes—eyes that had once clawed and pinched at my tender flesh. This was the room where my father kept a good deal of his most vital art supplies. He insisted that his paint be mixed with the blood of children, as it was “the protean stuff of dreams, worthy of only the finest artists.”
My hands glided across the cages, at one point grazing a slender white finger bone. It came away at the touch, and like a last breath, it was light and delicate, yet heavy with finality. To my father, the child was nothing—just an empty tube of paint. I cannot deny my father’s methods, but I’ve always held children to be closer to dreams than any other creature. I have never felt impelled to use them in my own work.
All the days I’d spent in this room, the subject of many a hateful and panicked stare, started to overfill me. After all, it was I who delivered them here, into the hands of my father.
He would lead me to such beautiful places, filled with love and laughter. I’d fly to them, to play, to laugh, and to lie. He taught me how to play like a cherub, to widen my eyes so as to reflect the blazing sun. To laugh with a soul filled with sugar and to smile like innocence personified. Of all the things he taught me, the lie was most important—my promise to take them somewhere secret and wonderful, beyond the sun, beyond all eyes. But all paths lead to the inside of the same black canvas bag. Then they’d just hang from the ceiling, encaged and gagged, staring at me. So many eyes, all of them screaming, “Betrayer, betrayer, betrayer!”
I just wanted to play with them. I always hoped it would end differently. It never did, except for the last time, of course—when the two little girls came to me, smiles like crescent moons. I dropped the little bone to the floor and continued into the next room.
The walls of the galley were like curving glass, the frozen contour of a sea wave sweeping over and above the room, framing the art of Hell in cleanest relief. As I looked out across the gallery of dead things, I realized that my own works had yet to outnumber those of my father’s. His life was spent almost entirely upon his art, and the vast grey streaks that swam through his hair remarked on the length of his time upon the earth.
My eyes landed upon the centermost piece, showcased like a diamond upon a bed of silver. It was my father himself, just as I had left him. The recollection fell upon me like a ravenous beast, ripping through layers of forced forgetting, sinking stained teeth into the flesh of my hidden, tender memory. And then I remembered—my father was my very first piece of art. The realization drew me into a red memory . . .
When I entered the gallery, my father had already placed the bag he had filled with the two smiling twins upon the floor. He stood at his work area, a place covered in the stains of countless works, then still in their incipiency. As he sorted through a variety of his wicked-looking “artist’s tools,” I immediately noticed something was wrong—the occupants of the bag weren’t crying out. In fact, they actually might have been giggling. Suddenly, I saw the gleam of a knife as it pierced the big bag. I chose to say nothing—they say curiosity is the muse of any good artist.
The girls slipped silently from the bag, twin shadows brandishing bladed smiles. Within seconds the candlelight was gone, replaced with dancing, glittering laughter. A voice from somewhere behind me spoke, filling me with unexpected glee. It whispered, “Hello again, Donald. We can’t wait to play some more. Our time together has only just begun.”
My father called out to me, but the tiny voice advised me to remain silent, hissing, “Shhh.” I didn’t make a sound, only covered my mouth with my hands, concealing my growing smile. I felt the smallest breeze and knew immediately the little girl was gone. My father continued to call for me, his voice growing louder and somewhat doubtful. The whispered slash of a knife transformed my father’s words into screams. He pleaded with me to come to him, to help him. I did nothing.
From the sound of things, he had started searching clumsily through one of his cupboards. After a moment or two there came the small click of a flashlight. The beam of light shot frantically about the room, searching, occasionally broken by the flitting shapes of the knife-wielding girls. After some additional probing, my father’s light discovered me—squatting in a corner with my hands covering a grin that had likely slipped past the edges of my fingers. My father frowned as he put his free hand to the bleeding wound in his left leg.
“The time has come, boy, for you to take your place within the gallery. There is too much of me in you, now. Those eyes of yours, son—cast of the perfect darkness. I’ve always known what you are, what you would become. This will be my one true sin, to take you from the world. You should have succeeded me, but this life is too much with me now. I can’t leave before I’ve finished. I only hope that I can do you justice. You may be beyond even my skills.”
As my father’s words faded, there came a sound like wet thunder trudging through gravel. “You are correct about one thing, little man—he is beyond you, now.” My father’s light rose from me, ascending well over my head until it fell upon the face of a monster. The beam of light raced around the room chaotically, describing my father’s frantic attempts at escape. Despite his best efforts, I heard my father’s breath rush from his mouth and I knew his neck had come into the hands of the monstrous thing. The flashlight fell to the ground and a gigantic booted foot crushed it into darkness.
There was an enduring silence, and I began to wonder if I wasn’t dreaming. Suddenly the smell of burning flowers filled the room, and I could hear the sound of light footsteps as they slowly descended the stairs. For whatever reason, I decided to stand up within the pitch. I had known the burning aroma from a dream, and so my confusion at recent events continued to swell, causing me to doubt the firmness of my mind and that of the surrounding world. Someone now stood directly in front of me. They knelt down, their soft breath murmuring at my cheeks. I could feel a gaze, even in the dark, falling across my face. I knew it was a woman, with eyes that could pluck out a child’s worst fears, turn their pain into colorful laughter. It could have only been my mother, back from the dead, waiting to embrace me. Tears rushed from my eyes as thin arms embraced me, cool lips pressed at my forehead, and the softest hair played at my cheeks. Between my sobs of elation, only a single word escaped my lips. “Mother.”
In a voice I didn’t recognize, a woman spoke to me. “Indeed, my wonderful, glorious child. I am your mother.”
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