In the Arms of the Childless Sister

The day I started to walk with a limp was the day I decided that I might as well just act the part. I knew that it suited my appearance; my right shoulder was positioned lower than the other and consequently, my head hung to the right-side in a cramped, agonising angle. I tried to squeeze my muscles to relieve the pain a little. As I was hauling the lifeless leg behind me over the pavement, I suppressed a muscle spasm. My foot is carrying a small residue of gravel on the top of my shoe. 

I pulled my olive coloured button-up down when I saw that I was approaching his house.

As I regarded the old naked man in the front window of his small middle- suburban two-story house, I watched how a few kids ran over the street without looking. How careless. A car could’ve hit them. Or a van could’ve intercepted them, captured them, and taken them to a far-off location in the woodlands and killed them. Or worse. 

They didn’t know the danger; the eminent luring presence of an accident that might cause your leg to fall off or your ears to explode. I consider myself lucky that my leg is still attached. It could’ve ended differently altogether. It was just a limp now. 

The naked man in the window waved and I smiled a half-smile and tried to maintain eye contact as I was waving back, but my peripheral vision couldn’t deny the dangling worm bouncing up and down. There was a rumour that I didn’t fully believe in, although it had some credibility since I had heard it from my mother. And there was the indisputable fact to the story that the naked man was indeed frequently seen naked, so that added to the story. 

People love good stories anyway although they might not be true. Stories are like this; the truth is the trunk and the branches of a tree and the leaves are the lies that cover the branches so you can’t see that the branches are actually rotten. Just like my limp.

Anyway, the story is in fact pretty sad; the naked man is a man who was born in a large household of an absurd number of children, sixteen or something. Clearly birth control was not a known aspect in that family. 

The parents did come to realise that they had an abundance of offspring when their savings began to suffer so badly that they had to give up colour TV and chocolate biscuits. When they heard the news that the sister of the mother of the family was infertile, I imagine they scratched their heads as to how to solve this enigma. 

Enigma is a tough word that I learned once from my high school teacher when I met her on the train to Winchester. I had graduated high school only two years. While she was sobbing, she told me that her husband had left her and that it was an enigma why he had done so. I tried to imagine the pain she was going through. I had no experience in partner dramas, although my life has been clouded by many other sad matters. 

But then I noticed how erratic she was behaving, and only now did I notice how aged she looked, with straw-like grey hairs in her black, short hair and yellow teeth. She was clearly not what he thought he was marrying at that time. How can she expect a man to stay with her looking like this? I felt disgusted at this pathetic person in front of me, so much so that I couldn’t stand her wailing any longer and I got up and left without a word. 

The story of the naked man starts after the parents of the absurdly large family and the soon-to-be parents decide that the next baby that is born into the nineteen-sized family, is to be placed into the arms of the childless sister. This promised baby was sprouted within a year and a fortnight and after labour, handed over in not so much as a blanket.

The child grew up loved by his adopted parents but shunned by his biological siblings and parents. Because he had no one to play with, he never learned to socialise. As a 6-year old he would walk over to the house where his siblings lived and wait outside in the bushes until they came out; and he’d ask if he could play along, but they’d say: ‘you’re not one of us. We’re not supposed to play with you.’ At first, this made him very sad. But then frustration took the better of him. One day, he waited in the bushes, seeing how his brothers and sisters played inside, ate nice bread-rolls with meat, and got hugs from their mother. He felt the anger rise in him; it overtook him, like acid in the stomach when you’re nauseous. When they left the front door, he sprang out, ran towards them, and then tried to set his youngest brother on fire with matches he’d saved in the small pocket in his jacket. 

The children dispersed in a flurry of frenzy when they saw the cotton shirt of their youngest brother flare up. 

If the mother hadn’t been looking out the window, the child would’ve sustained serious burn wounds – although I’m sure the shrieks alarmed the whole neighbourhood. I was never to see his siblings or mother again.

When his adopted parents died, he inherited the house and lived a lonely life as a pizza delivery man with three cats. Maybe it would’ve been better if he moved since everyone knew what he’d done, but I can imagine that he felt that his only possession was the house. He had nowhere else to go. 

Moreover, no one wanted to live next to him and so he became the lonely naked man from around the corner who waved at anyone crossing the street. 

I grew a beard to accompany my limp to look more dishevelled. 

# 4 / The Painter

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. 

The Painter
The painter

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

Pages: 6

Word count: 3,428

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Bird in the Tree

There’s this bird in our garden that picks berries from the tree. The tree is not big and has large leaves and bony stems and shudders when the wind travels through it. Not always are there berries in this tree, that looks more like an outgrown shrub, but when there are berries, the bird will find them. Magnetised by the scent, the bird appears. It could be a purple-crowned lorikeet or a musk lorikeet, a sulphur-crested cockatoo or a glossy black-cockatoo, but a gang-gang cockatoo or a western corella it can not be. Nor can it be a cox’s sandpiper. Now that I come to think of it, it is most likely a little lorikeet. The lorikeet sits on the bony branch of the shrub, its belly empty. The cicadas thrum and the newt that rests in the shade of the ornamental rock licks its lips. The grass has turned into hay. There’s a husky eucalyptus scent that lingers like a mist above it. [Skilfully], the bird picks one magenta berry from the twigs, but then it drops on the floor, rolling besides the rock and the empty spot where the newt had slept. The lorikeet cocks its head.