If you would walk up on a sunny day to the pathway that leads towards the high stairs that villagers here still call the ‘Sky’s Stairs’, and if you then look to your right, you might see, if there are no grey clouds that day, the roof of my house and you might wonder who could live there in such a wealthy manner. You might notice the very straight roof tiles, the polished windows with the red curtains behind it, the smoke rising from the black chimney and the russet bricks surrounding the large, wooden front door. I am aware of its grandeur and it is true that once there lived a very rich man. But if I were to inform you that its occupants these days are merely the descendants of a simple goat farmer and that these descendants praise themselves lucky that they were able to purchase this house in a time of recession you might be surprised. If I were to tell you instead that the previous owner of this majestic house was none other than Theodore Van De Moor, you would understand its magnitude.
It is possible that you are new to this town, that used to be a large city, and have never heard of him, although he’s well known by the villagers in town and by the people in the surrounding areas. I could tell you that he was a painter and a very great one too. In his time, he created many paintings which were desired and very often asked for by those who could afford them. Naturally, those paintings no longer adorn the walls in this house; they were auctioned off after the previous owner passed away. But I do remember that I’ve heard that those paintings were something out of this world, extra-terrestrial and that the people, those who have seen them and others who haven’t but had heard of their brilliance from others, whisper only praise about them. You might wonder what kind of painting could be of such splendour that it seems extra-terrestrial. I’ll explain. If you were to walk a bit further down the street and if the sun would shine on the left corner of the pointy roof, you might see a statue. It is not a large statue and it is not in the same size as the well-known painter when he was alive, but you might be able to distinguish some of its features.
I have to confess that when I first laid eyes on the house, I didn’t notice the statue. It is hidden from the main entrance of the house, and I was taken aback by the magnificent copper-coloured bricks and chestnut front door, and I imagined then what the windows would look like if my family were to hang red curtains behind them. The property was for sale for only a trifling price, probably not even worth half its value that it would have been before the recession. You might think me foolish, and, with the knowledge I now have, I would too, but the only excuse I can find now is that I was ignorant. I had never heard of Van de Moor and in my innocence, I merely saw a beautifully preserved house in which my family could grow old. Besides, the bakery in this town is known to have the best croissants in the province and I have a terrible weakness for buttery pastries.
If you were to have a better look and you might need to squint your eyes, you would see that the statue doesn’t depict a grand painter, but instead, a more distorted figure that I fancy resembles a gargoyle, with its sharp wings and dark, weathered stone and malicious claws, and the face that is deformed into an unnatural looking kind. I am aware that it is an unpleasant statue to behold and to be quite frank with you, it makes me uneasy that it is attached to my splendorous house. But I can’t take it down. That I know for certain because I once attempted to do so. I had bought all the equipment: ropes, a pickaxe, and a hammer paid for with the funds we saved so we could hire a professional to repair the leakage in the third bathroom. My dear wife could no longer stand the sight of it. I admit that at first, I didn’t see the harm of it since it was on the roof and not visible from the entrance of the house, so I didn’t set about the matter very quickly. But my wife grew more uneasy every time she heard it mentioned in the market where she buys fish and lavender soap, I so went out to buy the tools.
I remember that it was a clear day, mercurial hot, I was sweltering on top of the roof, and I could think of many other things I would have preferred to do that moment. The ladder I had used to climb up was firmly planted against the wall with the ceramic pots as support. I imagined that I first would secure the ends of the ropes around the legs, body and the arms so I could give the statue a good pull after I had struck the base with my pickaxe, a tool that wasn’t of very high quality but seemed sharp enough to cleave the weathered stone. I gave it a few test swings. But as you would have it, after I had made sure I had a good grip on the roof ridge and that my left foot was secure in the gutter, and I then heaved my first strike, the tip of the pickaxe bounced back after it touched the stone as if it were made of rubber. Can you believe it? I made another attempt, this time confirming that I was making for the statue – maybe I had accidentally hit something else than the statue. But even when I had put all my weight and force into the swing, the pickaxe bounced back and the counterforce made me lose my balance. Only a bit further down the roof was I able to grab the roof vent and pull myself up. Was this wretched statue indestructible? After I crawled back and laid my hands on the statue so I could inspect it, I noticed the dark clouds on the horizon making fast towards the house. The sun had disappeared, and I was overcome by a feeling that someone was watching me. I hurried back, down the ladder and into the house.
After I had told the story to my wife she laughed. ‘There could be no such thing as an indestructible statue,’ she said. I knew that it sounded ridiculous, after all, it didn’t even look stable, but very frail. But I couldn’t deny what had happened there on the roof. ‘I know my dear, and it sounds unbelievable, but what if it’s made of some sort of strong material from before the recession? Maybe it was even made of a type of rubber.’ I immediately regretted the last suggestion, because I saw her face change and regard me oddly, maybe wondering why she married this fool. ‘No, you’re going back up there as soon as the clouds have disappeared. I will not stand those people on the market making fun of it – of us!’ I tried to think of other things we could try, maybe hiring someone to take it down or hoping that lightning would strike it someday, but I saw the tremor in my wife’s chin and I knew that it would be even more foolish if I’d go against her. ‘Yes, my dear, I’ll go back up as soon as I’m able.’
It took about a few hours for the clouds to dissolve and to greet back the insatiable heat that characterises countryside France in the peak of summer, and I smelled the drying ivy and lavender that grew outside our house, and frankly, populated the whole town, where the speckled leaves and purple merged into the crème coloured sand-brick houses. The notion of lightning striking the statue seemed to grow more believable with every step I took up the ladder. But the chances of the clouds returning were slim.
Now, I’d like to have a little intermission before I tell you what is about to happen on top of the roof, as I climbed up for the second time. At that moment, I had no idea why the famous painter was so poorly represented in the statue. Of course, some suggestions had crossed my mind like, maybe he once painted a gargoyle and it had become something of a tribute to his admirers, or he identified himself with a metaphorical, distorted-looking creature. But I didn’t know the truth, while I later learned that so many in our village did. They knew that he was known as authentic, unbalanced, sometimes erratic even. That Van de Moor often didn’t leave his house for weeks. That he was referred to as the Cursed Painter. And even the villagers didn’t know exactly why he was cursed, because I suppose that even if someone is acting strange, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re cursed. All of this, I learned a few weeks later after the incident, from an elderly man who could’ve well been of the painter’s age if he were still alive. What I’m about to tell you has never crossed my lips before and I intended to have it stay that way, but the urge to share my sorrows with someone, a stranger like you who I’m sure will not pass this tale on to others, is too great. I suppose it’s only human to feel the need to be understood or at least to be listened to. Why would you ask? Well, revealing the truth and consequently laying this burden on my family would be too harmful, for they are so content living in this house and I’m quite certain that I could never afford a better, larger house than the current one. And if that means that I have to live with this dark secret to keep my family save, so be it.
I learned the story from a stranger much as yourself. I happened to meet the elderly man while I was sitting in front of my house. There was a raw, waning sun that shone yellow upon the wicker bench and with my eyes closed, my thoughts had wandered off to a peaceful memory I like to think back to on these occasions. I had heard his footsteps approaching but didn’t think much of it. It could also have been my wife shuffling around in the garden, tending to the purple rain and the Fragonard roses. But when he spoke, the voice was unmistakably not my wife’s. ‘I see you’re enjoying the splendour of this mansion, as you well should.’ I opened my eyes, disheartened that someone had come to tear me from my daydreaming. The man stood with an arched back and a long neck, white whiskers and thin hair but surprisingly voluminous. Friendly eyes, green, I think, but they also could’ve been hazel. I couldn’t recall then whether I had seen the man before, although it was likely – the town wasn’t that large anymore, and he seemed to have read my mind. ‘I live in a town nearby,’ he explained pointing to the south with his thick thumb, ‘but I’ve come to look at the house that used to be owned by the magnificent Van de Moor. I’m a great admirer, you see. His paintings are extraordinary, the colours seem to jump off the canvas, the strikes of his brush hit every accent so beautifully as if he was simply tracing the actual scene.’ The old man’s face had become flushed with excitement. I didn’t know what to respond. I couldn’t bring up the courage to say that the owner of the great painter’s house had never seen anything of Van de Moor’s work. ‘That sounds nice,’ I mumbled. It appeared to be enough; the old man smiled proudly. ‘Amazing, his paintings are. I’m a collector too, although I flatter myself in saying so; his paintings are quite expensive nowadays. That wasn’t the case when he was alive, unfortunately.’ Creases emerged between his white eyebrows as if the thought of the painter not earning enough money during his active years was of a personal matter. I asked him why. ‘It had nothing to do with his art, I’m sure of that. But over the years he became quite mad. Although you often see some type of eccentricity in great artists, Van de Moor crossed the line between a little quirky to absolutely bananas. He thought that he was cursed by a witch, you see, and not just some witch!’ He leaned closer and I smelled his eggy breath. ‘The witch from the legends.’ I had heard of this legend before but not in detail, for it normally didn’t interest me. But the old man had such a knack for storytelling that I suddenly wanted to hear all about it. ‘What legend?’
The old man smirked. ‘The Witch of Dauphiné. It is said that when she was born the first plague in France began; crops turned black, inedible, and it didn’t take long for the country to go hungry. No one knew that people were starving because of the birth of a child who seemed normal. But normal she was certainly not. You see, she was given the Mark of the Devil, a long scratch on her left thigh that was always burning hot red as if the Devil’s flames itself furnaced the scar. No one knows why she was chosen to do the Devil’s work though she accepted her role completely. Antoine Lilly was her name. It is said that she feasted on human flesh, bend minds and bones to her will, change into the shape of a werewolf and that she particularly relished in strangling little children. The world is lucky that her malicious work didn’t last long; she was captured before her 25th birthday in Dauphiné and tortured until she confessed. Then she was burned alive on the stake. They say that it took four days for the flames to take her and that the witnesses can still hear her wicked laugh in their sleep. And it happened right here, on this spot, where this mansion is now built.’ I blinked. He made a point of adding: ‘of course that happened a long time ago and it probably doesn’t affect you in any way’.
Here I have to apologise to you, for I am sure that these gruesome details were not enjoyable to hear. You have to forgive me; I’m only telling you what the old man told me. After he had finished telling his terrible tale I have to admit I sensed an electric shock going through my body, but I kept my face straight.
‘How could the burning of a witch affect the life of a painter? There should be a lot of places around France where many innocent women and men have met their agonising ending; there is no evidence that this Antione was any different.’ I regretted asking after further about the legend. It showed to have been a plain ghost story, told by a demented man who I now hoped would leave very soon. But he didn’t. ‘Antoine Lilly wasn’t just an ordinary witch. She was a direct descendent of the Devil, marked in the womb. After she was burned, her skeletal remains disappeared, and they say that worshippers tried to revive her.’ He nodded his head towards the roof. ‘That statue wasn’t sculpted to resemble the likeness of a gargoyle. It became this way after Theodore Van de Moor converted into a zealous devotee himself. Over the years, the painter’s madness trickled into the statue and now it exposes the blackness of his true nature; deformed, contorted, a madness caused by the wicked whispers of the Devil’s descendent.’ I could hardly believe the nonsense the man was saying. ‘Well, I’m sure this is a great, scary story, but –.’ ‘Have you not truly looked at the statue? Seen its ugliness?’ he interrupted. ‘Did you not think it was odd that this majestic house was for sale for such a nominal fee?’ I tried to get inside, but the old man followed me to the door. His face seemed to be burning as if he had a high fever. I yanked at the handle of the door. ‘I only came to warn you, to tell you the truth!’ he exclaimed as I tried to get rid of his hands on my arm. It seemed now impossible to end this conversation politely, and only after I had closed the door and found myself safely on the other side did I shout some sort of goodbye.
I wish that I had had this knowledge before I climbed up the roof, for it could’ve saved me from my current predicament. But my dear wife had told me to go back onto the roof and so that’s what I did.
I peered over the ridge of the roof and climbed up, hesitantly, so I could sit next to the statue. In the magnetic afternoon light, the pastures were blank and receptive, and I visualised myself running through the rough, tall, emerald grassland breathless, like a young child. For some reason, I couldn’t muster the courage to look at the statue, and I recall now that something stopped me from touching it too. It was as if I didn’t want to acknowledge its existence. I played with the rope, pulling strands of twine, folding and unfolding it, and weighing it in my hands. I might have sat there for a full hour because I remember the gold-crusted sun sinking so that it almost touched the earth. Something had to be done though, so I turned around. The coarse stone was gritty, and I wiped some of the fragments off of the wings, and then I felt that the statue was strangely warm, toasty even, which alarmed me at first but then I remembered that it had been a hot day. I wasn’t sure what type of stone this was – not that I knew much about minerals and rocks, but when I came closer, it seemed as if it was radiating, indeed, with my face so close to the stone I swear I could see veins; not black ones that one might see in marble, but crimson veins; oozing, smouldering, flaring veins as if lava was pushed through the stone with amazing force. And the statue felt hot, radiantly hot, scalding hot, so hot that I pulled my hands away for fear of burning them and as I leaned back, the blood sank into my feet. Its head had turned around and was looking at me. Blazing red eyes, smoking, fuming, and the jaws exposed a horrid, beastly set of teeth; my whole body shuddered, and I froze, and then the bloodcurdling creature moved forward, biting rhythmically, and then I was sliding down the roof on my back, waving my arms frantically, trying to grab something that would stop me from falling, but I was too late and my body smacked on the sandstone pathway, near the Fragonard roses.
There you have it. I went up the roof to take a statue down, but instead, I believe to have seen a Devilish creature coming towards me and then I fell off the roof. I’m sure this must be the most preposterous story you’ve ever heard, but it’s true. I count myself blessed that I didn’t perish; another wrong turn or any odd obstacle in the way could’ve caused my neck to break. Instead, I live, though both my legs are broken, the fractures so complicated that I now have metal pins to strengthen them. I won’t ever be able to walk fast or run again. But at least I can be with my family and see them grow. The only thing that still bothers me, and I’m sure it is only a minor issue, is the red scar on my upper leg that doesn’t seem to heal as fast as the other wounds.
The intro is inspired by the book ‘An Artist of the Floating World’ by Kazuo Ishiguro
Word count: 3,428