Aphelion Issue 245, Volume 23
November 2019
 
Editorial    
Long Fiction and Serials
Short Stories
Flash Fiction
Poetry
Features
Series
Archives
Submission Guidelines
Contact Us
Forum
Flash Writing Challenge
Forum
Dan's Promo Page
   

They Draw You In

by Jim Mountfield




The ground was covered in muddy water. From it rose a dense screen of reeds. The roof and topmost storey of a distant house were visible above the reeds, flanked by a conifer that was so denuded of branches it looked little more than a pole and a leafless deciduous tree that grasped upwards like a claw. There was nothing else to see, except…

Dominic leaned forward, trying to identify the pale oval thing that interrupted the straight vertical lines made by the reeds.

It was a face, featureless save for two green flecks forming its eyes. The flecks stared back at him –

“They draw you in, don’t they?” said a voice beside him.

Dominic was so absorbed in studying the face that he’d forgotten he wasn’t looking at a mass of real reeds in the middle of a real marsh. He jumped at the voice and even raised his arms, wanting to maintain his balance in case his feet slipped in the mud he imagined he was standing in. Then he remembered where he was. His feet rested on a chevron-patterned wooden floor. The marsh was the subject of a painting on a wall before him.

The voice belonged to a gallery attendant, a stout woman with greying hair scrunched into a bun, glasses hanging on a cord round her neck, and a uniform of white shirt and black jacket, tie and trousers that made her look like a police constable. A congealed glob of something clung to one of her shirt-lapels. “Sorry,” she said. “Didn’t mean to startle you.”

“Well,” said Dominic, feeling foolish. “This one obviously drew me in.”

“That’s what people say – people who actually stop and look at his pictures. Technically, he was no big deal. A gifted amateur with lots of money. I daresay if he’d depended on painting to make a living, he’d have starved. But his work possesses a quality, a strangeness. When you sense that strangeness, it’s hard to look away.”

Dominic asked: “He?”

The attendant directed her gaze past him. Dominic turned around and saw a sign on another wall saying:

PERMANENT EXHIBITION: THE WORKS OF MILES GRIMWOOD (1857-1919)
DONATED TO THE LANGSTON GALLERY BY THE ARTIST’S ESTATE


Realising he’d wandered into the exhibition from the main gallery without noticing, Dominic felt more foolish still. “I’m sorry. Haven’t heard of him.”

“Oh, few people have, and they tend to be local historians. But Mr Grimwood was a local celebrity in his day. A keen if not expert painter and man with some other interesting… pastimes too. As I said, stinking rich. A fund he set up a century ago still gifts this gallery with a generous sum of money every year. It means we have to always have a corner of the building showing his not-terribly-good artwork, but it’s a small price to pay. Especially when other galleries and museums are crying out for funding nowadays.”

Then the woman glanced downwards and said more sharply, “His paintings draw you in, but don’t get too drawn in.”

Dominic looked down too and realised his shoes were most of the way across a line painted on the floor, a half-metre out from the wall.

When he’d retreated to the correct side of the line and the attendant had prowled off again, Dominic took a pen and notebook from his knapsack and opened the notebook at a page already mostly covered in writing. There were titles, questions and answers, for example:

‘The Stag. What season is it? Autumn.’

‘The Knight’s Dream. Which of these things is NOT on the table – a sword, a mask, a skull, a bottle, a book, coins, flowers? A bottle.’

‘A Pagoda by Moonlight. How many storeys does the pagoda have? Five.’

Dominic saw from a panel on the wall beside the painting that, unimaginatively, it was called The House in the Marsh. Then he added to the page:

‘The House in the Marsh. What can you see in the middle of the reeds? A face.’

Dominic was about to close the notebook when he looked at the painting again and noticed something. No, he didn’t notice something. He leaned forward, this time keeping his feet outside the line on the floor. The screen of reeds was undisturbed. Nothing stuck out of them, no pale, oval, green-eyed face. He must have imagined it earlier.

Dominic scored out the title, question and answer he’d just written. He hadn’t just been drawn in, he thought. He’d been taken in for a minute.

Which troubled him. How could a painting do that?


*****



“If you don’t mind me asking,” said a voice and although Dominic knew it was the attendant’s voice, he couldn’t stop jumping again. “Are you an art student?”

He was studying a Miles Grimwood painting called A Night Journey by Carriage. As with The House in the Marsh, it was unambiguously titled. It indeed showed a carriage travelling at night-time – an open-topped one with two horses, a driver and three passengers on a country lane. Again, the painting had some mysterious quality that compelled Dominic to keep looking at it.

Maybe it was the eerie effect of Grimwood’s colours, especially the fierce yellows radiating from the lamps on the carriage’s front corners. Maybe it was the bleakness of the scene, which had gaunt, bare trees on either side of the lane mired in snow. Or maybe it was the sense of drama created by the galloping horses and the lashing whip in the driver’s hand behind them. These features seemed so vivid that Dominic almost felt the lamp-light sear into his eyes, felt the coldness on his face and felt the carriage’s velocity as it hurtled forward.

But he suspected that the painting’s real spell came from the passenger seated on the nearer side of the carriage. The passenger’s face was almost impossible to make out in the dark but the light from the lamps was reflected in its eyes. Accordingly, the face projected a chilling yellow stare.

He turned towards the attendant, who went on: “I’m asking because I see you write things down while you look at the pictures. Most visitors aren’t so keen. They just walk through. Run through if they’re members of a school party. I’ve seen kids enter this building, rush past everything and leave again in five minutes.”

“Funny you should say that,” said Dominic. “I’m from a school myself. You know the Riddell International Academy on the other side of the river?”

“The private school?”

“The language school. Our summer programme begins next week. We bring in groups of teenagers from all over Europe – France, Italy, Spain, Russia. They get English language classes in the mornings and cultural excursions in the afternoons. Visits to the castle, abbey, medieval village, local museums, local galleries.”

“You’re a teacher?”

“Yes. But I’m also this summer’s deputy coordinator for the excursions. And the school management is adamant that this year the kids won’t rush through the cultural sites in five minutes. So they’ve sent me to do reconnaissance. I’m making a series of questionnaires. When the kids come here, for instance, they’ll have to complete a questionnaire about the paintings. They’ll need to take their time and look at everything properly.”

The attendant contemplated him. “A teacher,” she repeated, sounding slightly bemused.

Dominic sensed she was wondering how someone who looked as young and slight and timorous as he did could control a classroom of teenagers. But he ignored the patronising vibe he was getting and continued: “So for example, with A Night Journey by Carriage, the question is: How many passengers are in the carriage? The kids find the painting and check and write ‘three’ as an answer.”

The woman smiled. “Except,” she said, “there’s only two.”

Dominic replied, “There’s three.”

“No. Two.”

Dominic glanced sideways at the canvas, then swung around and examined the carriage again. Two passengers. Only two. The one at the side that’d commanded his attention with its weird yellow stare wasn’t there any longer.

“Well,” said the attendant smugly, “that saved you some bother, didn’t it? Imagine if those poor kids did the questionnaire and you’d got your answers wrong.”


*****



The Miles Grimwood painting entitled Late Morning on Laurel Avenue showed a three-storey townhouse on a cobbled street. It had walls of red brick, windows comprised of small square panes and window-shutters with faded paint. A woman in a maid’s apron and bonnet swept a flag-stoned pavement in front of the house while another servant-woman washed clothes in a wooden tub in an alleyway along its side. Dominic inspected the windows. There were nine altogether and behind each one he saw only darkness –

Except in the uppermost window, snuggling within the inverted V of the house’s roof, where he made out a pale smudge behind the panes in its bottom-right corner. Within that smudge were two particles of… Not green or yellow this time, but red.

Dominic gazed at the painting for so long that he almost began to hear the swish of the servant’s broom on the flagstones and smell the woodsmoke issuing from the house’s chimneys. Finally he came to his senses. “Right,” he said, rummaging in his knapsack. “Let’s get this recorded.”

He fished out a smartphone, pointed it towards the painting and took a photograph. The room was reasonably well-lit and he didn’t expect it to flash, but for a split-second a bright white light filled the canvas and haloed the picture-frame.

Then he heard a thud of heavy shoes crossing the floor and a familiar voice barking, “Hey! What’s the idea? Didn’t you see the sign? No flash photography!” The woman reached him. “I thought you’d be smart enough to know how the photoelectric effect from camera flashes damages surface pigments – ”

Dominic ignored her and checked the photo on the phone-screen. Then he looked back at the painting. In both photo and painting, the highest window was now as dark and blank as the other windows. Nothing lurking at its corner. No face.

He suddenly felt light-headed.

“Plus,” continued the attendant, “other visitors find it rude and annoying…” She stopped scolding Dominic and stared at him uneasily. “Are you okay?”

The smartphone dropped from Dominic’s hand and clattered onto the floor. With a soft thump his knapsack landed beside it. Then Dominic tottered and keeled forward into the attendant’s arms.


*****



“You poor boy,” said the woman as she struggled across the room with Dominic at her side and one of Dominic’s arms hooked around her neck. “I bet they work you too hard at that school. Come on. There’s a chair I sit on when the exhibition is quiet. You can use it till you feel better.”

Dominic managed to untangle himself from the woman and stand apart. “I’m okay,” he said angrily, though he felt angrier at himself than at the woman. Then he demanded, “Where’s my bag and phone?”

“Back there on the floor.” The woman looked disappointed. Dominic fainting had possibly been the most excitement she’d had in years of gallery work. “Are you sure you can stand by yourself?”

“Yes.”

“Wait here. I’ll go and pick them up.”

While the woman went to retrieve his belongings, Dominic reflected that they did work him too hard at the school. When they’d given him this responsibility for the excursions, they hadn’t even cut his number of classes. The way they exploited him had reduced him to tears at times, though – thank God! – he’d always managed to be alone when those tears came.

Was the stress of his job to blame? Had it made him see the same illusion three times?

Just then Dominic seemed to hear distant sounds resembling a slap of waves and cawing of gulls and he turned towards their source. Nearby on a wall hung a picture showing a wharf whose surface glistened with frost. Men and women in hats, scarves and long coats crowded around crates of just-landed fish in the middle of the wharf, while three small fishing boats with furled sails were moored at its edge. Wintry, pallid seawater stretched beyond them.

Then on one of the boats’ decks a figure materialised – so distant and blurry that it scarcely looked human in form. Somehow, though, its eyes were bright and piercing. They shone with icy blueness.

Panicking, Dominic tried to run from the painting, though in his current physical state all he could do was trip and stumble forwards. Then he felt a warmth on his face. He was near another painting, which again he couldn’t help looking at. This depicted the summit of a hill bathed in summer sunshine. In the background, a track descended the hillside and passed between fields and trees. Two young women in Victorian or Edwardian dress were picnicking on the hilltop while a flock of sheep grazed behind them, halfway down the slope.

Then he saw a figure coming up the track, past the flock of sheep. It was too distant to make out properly, but its eyes glowed – amber this time, inhumanly amber.

It’s stalking me, he thought in horror and stumbled on.

He collided with a wall. For a few moments he stayed slumped against it because more paintings hung on either side of him and he was too scared to step back, fearing what he might glimpse on their canvases. The figure might be in them too, probing him with its nightmarish and ever-changing eyes.

He heard the attendant exclaim, “Goodness, what are you doing? You can’t be well. You need to sit down.”

A meaty hand grabbed his wrist and steered him away from the wall. Dominic closed his eyes so that he saw no more paintings and only opened them again when he felt the woman lower him onto a chair. It was parked in a corner. On the floor next to the chair-legs stood a blunt-topped silvery flask, not unlike a miniature space-rocket in an old sci-fi movie.

The woman dropped Dominic’s smartphone into his knapsack. Then she removed the flask from beside the chair and set the knapsack there instead. “It’s lentil soup,” she said, holding up the flask. “Often my shifts run from the morning into the afternoon and I don’t get a break. So I bring this along and sup from it to make up for missing lunch.”

Dazed though he was, Dominic observed how the dried glob on the woman’s shirt-lapel was the same colour as lentil soup.

Then he blurted, “Who was he?”

“Who was who?”

“Miles Grimwood.”

“He wasn’t anything. But he was many things too. What I mean is, he came from an incredibly rich family and never had to work in a proper job. But at the same time he was a polymath. He didn’t just paint but he wrote poetry, composed music, became fluent in half-a-dozen languages… And he was a scholar. His research included ancient Egypt and arcane religions in the Far East and various topics best described as ‘esoteric’. Indeed, because of those interests, he gained a reputation for being an occultist, a magician… There’ve been books and pamphlets written about him over the years. You can find some of them in the town library if you’re interested.”

Then the woman said, “Just a minute. I’ll fetch you a drink of water.”

The woman disappeared through a doorway a few yards away and Dominic noticed an exit sign positioned above it. He decided not to wait for the woman to come back. He resolved to leave the exhibition and gallery immediately – he’d leave faster than any of those disinterested schoolkids that the attendant had complained about.

And to hell with his own school’s questionnaire.


*****



He struggled up from the chair, lifted his knapsack and headed for the doorway. But he halted before he reached it. Hanging beside the doorway was a final painting whose title, according to the panel, was Self-Portrait of the Artist.

He found himself peering into a room cluttered with easels, canvases, ornate lamps, oriental-patterned rugs and a timber worktable. The table was covered in brushes, pencils, knives, bowls, paint-tubes and pigment-vials. But all this artistic and bohemian paraphernalia failed to hide the room’s austereness. Flat stone slabs were visible between the rugs. The far wall was made of rough stone blocks and contained a claustrophobic-looking arched alcove that resembled a cleft at the bottom of a rock-face.

At the most central and prominent easel stood a white-haired man who was reaching towards the canvas on it with a paintbrush. Before him, a couch had been placed in the alcove. A naked figure lay stretched across it, one elbow propped on the armrest, head balanced on a hand.

Too late, Dominic realised that the model wasn’t looking at the artist but looking out of the picture at him. The eyes flashed: green, yellow, red, blue, amber… With each flash, it seemed that Dominic was standing a little closer to Miles Grimwood’s dungeon-like studio. After the last flash of colour, he smelt an acrid tang of paint and felt the flag-stoned floor under his feet, its hardness barely muffled by the rugs strewn over it.

Beside him, without looking around from the canvas or lowering his paintbrush, Miles Grimwood commented: “Immortality. That’s what I was after, immortality. Who isn’t? Though as you can see, after I’d made the bargain, what I received wasn’t what I’d expected.”

Dominic looked at his canvas. It didn’t bear an image of the figure on the couch, but a jumble of strange geometrical patterns painted in the same colours he’d seen in the figure’s eyes.

Then he looked to the alcove and realised that the couch was empty. “Where is she?” he asked – and then wondered, she? Or he?

Grimwood didn’t move. “Oh, it’s up and about now. It’s good. Indeed, since the moment it spotted you, it’s been ready to go.”

Dominic surveyed the rest of the room. He’d assumed it was underground but the wall behind him and Grimwood contained a line of windows. This windowed wall stretched to a distant corner, around which the studio twisted and disappeared from view. He noticed how small the windows were. Indeed, their sizes and their positions on the wall reminded him of the paintings in the exhibition.

Then he studied the window immediately behind him. It seemed to be made of stained glass and was full of muted, almost transparent-seeming colours. The objects and figures formed by the colours were identical to those in Self-Portrait of the Artist, but the scene was back-to-front like a reflection.

“I’m inside the painting!”

“Inside all of them,” said the motionless Grimwood. “Don’t worry, my boy. You’ll become accustomed to it.”

Then he added, “Here it comes now.”

A figure approached along the studio, sometimes pausing and glancing out through the window-paintings. There were moments when it seemed human in form but, mostly, it was a hallucinogenic nightmare. Disparate colours wriggled and struggled and rioted within it. Tendrils of colour spilled over its edges into the surrounding air and back. It made Dominic think of a person’s shadow – not a shadow formed by the absence of light, but one filled with a chaotically pulsating rainbow.

The thing passed Grimwood, arrived before him and grasped his wrists. It had no face, just an oval void in which colours writhed. He heard a voice, cold, neither masculine nor feminine. “You’re the one I’ve waited for. You’ll be perfect. Ideal.”

Dominic had lost all volition now. He let the creature push him back towards the alcove, force him down on the couch, raise his feet onto one end of it, and arrange his head and arm at the other end until his elbow was propped on the armrest and his chin rested on his hand. It manipulated him so easily that his limbs might have been made of pipe-cleaners.

Suddenly, the hideous, multi-coloured thing no longer stood over him. He was left with an unobstructed view of Grimwood at his easel and, behind him, the window-painting that showed Self-Portrait of the Artist.

He realised he was in the same position on the couch as the model had been. Also, on the window-painting’s far side, he saw the outline of a face peering in at them.


*****



The attendant returned with a glass of water and found the young man on his feet with his knapsack slung over his shoulder again. He stood studying the exhibition’s final painting.

“After what happened a minute ago,” said the attendant, “I think you’d better sit a little longer.”

The man didn’t reply. “Did you hear me?” asked the attendant and reached for his arm. “You’d better sit – ”

The man spun around and seized the attendant’s hand. “Do not touch me!” he spat, his eyes blazing. For a moment, those eyes seemed almost kaleidoscopic with colour.

Several points of pain burned on the attendant’s hand. The glass dropped from her other hand and smashed on the floor.

“Pathetic old bitch!” sneered the man. Then he released the attendant, sidestepped her and stalked out through the exit doorway.

The attendant sobbed, “Oh God!” She raised her hand and saw four fingertip-sized patches of yellow on its back and a fifth, from a thumb, on its palm. She collapsed onto the chair, inspected her hand again and repeated, “Oh God!” The five bruises glowed like splash-marks of phosphorescent yellow paint.

She managed to loosen her tie and undo her soup-stained collar so that she could breathe more easily. Then, while she wondered if she should phone for an ambulance, or phone for the police, or phone for both, she realised that she no longer felt any pain. She lifted her hand again and discovered that the yellow marks had vanished. The skin was pink and normal looking.

After that, the gallery employed the attendant for only two more weeks. On the final day of the two weeks, a visitor upset her by ignoring her protestations that he shouldn’t use his camera-flash with the paintings. She didn’t just lose her temper. An insane rage possessed her and she flung her flask at him. Heavy with soup, the flask struck the visitor in his right eye and partially blinded him.

Indeed, following that incident, she wasn’t employed anywhere.


*****



Time slowed and became glacial. So too did Grimwood’s words. Dominic heard only long droning syllables separated by periods of immeasurable silence. But somehow, he was able to piece those syllables together into words and, eventually, the words together into sentences.

For example: “I’m not an artist. I don’t create. I’m more like a midwife. I’m responsible for moving beings from the womb into the outside world. Or in their case, from their universe into ours. It takes a long time. In the century I’ve been here, the most recent one’s only the third that I’ve birthed.”

Or: “I don’t know why they want to come among us. All they do is spread pain, misery, despondency, death. That’s no sort of existence, is it? Yet, somehow, they thrive on it. It’s their raison d’Ítre, as the French say.”

After what seemed like years, Grimwood managed to touch the canvas with his brush and simultaneously Dominic felt an excruciating pain in one of his arms. He saw a streak of green glowing along the arm’s skin. The streak, he felt, wasn’t part of his flesh but belonged to something else. It was like a green alien vein that’d been transplanted into him.

“You won’t believe me but you’re lucky. One day, it’ll end for you. The previous one took your body. The next one, which I’m birthing now, will absorb your soul. Once that happens, you’ll be no more. Which will be a mercy.” His voice filled with self-pity. “While I’m trapped here forever, doing this...”

An eternity later, he touched the canvas again and Dominic felt a yellow streak materialise along one of his legs.

The attendant had been right. Miles Grimwood’s artistry did draw you in.



THE END


© 2019 Jim Mountfield

Bio: Jim Mountfield was born in Northern Ireland, was educated in Scotland and currently lives in Sri Lanka. His work has appeared, sometimes under pseudonyms, in Blood Moon Rising, Death's Head Grin, the Dream Zone, Flashes in the Dark, Hellfire Crossroads, the Horror Zine, Hungur, Legend, Roadworks and Sorcerous Signals. He blogs at www.bloodandporridge.co.uk.

Comment on this story in the Aphelion Forum

Return to Aphelion's Index page.