On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.
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The Portrait Gallery
Ailith was getting bored, but she was determined not to show it.
She’d taken the morning off from her work at the university to finally visit the Dutch Masters exhibit at the portrait gallery, and had deliberately chosen a time when the gallery would be fairly quiet. She’d never been particularly interested in art, but she saw adverts for the exhibit everywhere, and she’d started to feel a kind of class-aspirational shame about her own disinterest. So, in spite of herself, she’d made the decision that she’d walk around a stuffy building for a couple of hours, stand behind little velvet rope barriers, and stare at smears of paint upon canvases until her stomach absolutely insisted on lunch.
She grudgingly admitted that it wasn’t as bad as she’d expected, and there were a handful of paintings that had actually made her pause and stare in amazement. An uncanny impression of light, or a deep and textured shadow, or eyes so lifelike and haunting that they made her uneasy; she could at least begin to understand why these dead painters were thought of as some of the best in their profession.
Ailith wasn’t going to be buying any poster prints from the gift shop or anything, but she wasn’t having a bad time, and she could casually drop it into conversation the next time her mother called.
Oh, and I saw a wonderful portraits exhibit at the gallery the other day, she would say. Her mother would probably laugh at her, or choke on her own tea.
All the same, though, she was starting to get bored. There were only so many portraits you could look at before they started to blur into one. Maybe it would have been wiser to start with a more varied set of subject matter, but she’d have had to go somewhere other than the portrait gallery for that, and it was so conveniently close to the university.
Ailith glanced around her before surreptitiously taking her phone from her jacket pocket, as if the device was contraband here, and she tapped the screen to wake it. There were no notifications of an urgent nature, which both pleased and disappointed her, so she quickly put the phone back in her pocket. It was rather noticeable, in the pink and plush novelty case bearing the imprint of a kitten’s paw sewn through it in black thread. It was a tongue-in-cheek gift from a friend, and she’d had to put up with some teasing from the men at work regarding it, but she had kept it anyway, purely in defiance. Women had enough obstacles to deal with in physics without having to choose a different phone case to placate the male scientists. To hell with that.
The next room in the gallery was long and narrow, and L-shaped at the far end. There was only one other person here, and it was just one of the attendants wandering around and keeping an eye on everything. He walked straight past Ailith, nodding courteously, before going into the room she’d just left.
She moved to the left side of the chamber, glancing disinterestedly at the scowling and long-dead man who stared back at her, dressed in drab clothes and sitting in the gloom of some forgotten house in a time before electricity. Ailith sighed, reminding herself of the reasons she was here. She wanted to enjoy the exhibition, and it was simply a matter of allowing herself to do so. She looked at the painting again, with fresh eyes, trying to admire the brushwork or the sense of presence or the attention to proportions and light, but the man’s facial expression was distracting, and she found herself mirroring his scowl. Ailith shook her head, moving onward to the next canvas. When she caught sight of it, she froze.
Her own face was looking back at her.
It was unmistakeable. The face she saw in the mirror every day, and exactly as it was, rather than the subtly distorted version from selfies and her friends’ photos; perfectly in proportion, and accurate in every way. It wasn’t just someone who looked like her: it was her.
She glanced back in the direction she’d come, but the attendant hadn’t returned yet, and no other visitors had joined her. She was alone for the moment, but she also wasn’t, as she stood with her mouth agape, staring up at the artwork.
Ailith considered the possibility that it was a sophisticated prank, but she couldn’t imagine how anyone would pull it off. It was clearly a painting, not a computer screen or a projection, and she hadn’t booked her ticket ahead of time, nor could anyone know in advance which path she’d take through the exhibit. She looked at the eyes of the young woman brought to life by brushwork, and she saw a very familiar sadness there, but also a sense of urgency. She had the impression that this strange vision of herself was speaking to her alone. The day had taken on a malleable quality, like a vivid dream, or a nightmare.
She moved closer, turning her attention to the information card attached to the wall just below the artwork. It had been painted by a highly talented man who had achieved some measure of fame in his own lifetime, with this particular work falling into his middle period. As she read on, she learned that the circumstances of its creation had been unusual, and of sufficient note to survive the passing of several centuries.
Apparently, a young woman had one day burst into the artist’s studio, speaking in halting Dutch, and clutching a letter of introduction from a distant acquaintance, identifying her as the niece of a minor foreign dignitary. The letter went on to insist that she be the subject of a portrait, and that the resulting work should be donated upon completion to the museum favoured by the artist’s patron. There was also money included with the letter, to compensate the artist for his time and trouble. The composition was to be entirely of the subject’s choosing.
The card went on to say that the work was completed at a feverish pace, at the subject’s insistence, and that once it was finished, she had departed and never been heard from again. The artist had written about her later in his life, wondering what had become of the mysterious woman. The work was titled in Dutch, and the translation was A Traveller Longs For Home. It showed its subject sitting on a stone step beside a well which had been in the rear courtyard behind the studio, hands clasped together in her lap, as she regarded the viewer with an expression of such intensity that it was no wonder the work had survived all these many years, and been chosen for display.
Ailith was intrigued by the details of its genesis, and all the more uneasy. Her phone vibrated in her pocket and she absent-mindedly took the device out and tapped the screen, taking several seconds to tear her gaze away from the painting and actually look down at the display. It was a calendar reminder, for the latest test cycle this afternoon; perhaps the twentieth attempt, and there surely would be hundreds more. Artificial gravity was at least a generation away, in her personal opinion, but her colleagues were doggedly optimistic. She didn’t yet have tenure, and so she would dutifully assist with the setup and data-gathering, as she always did.
She lowered the device, lifting her gaze once more to the canvas, and then she saw another visual echo. It was umistakable. Clasped in the hands of her painted doppelganger, only just visible between her fingers lying atop the plain and demurely long skirt. The pink plush, and even the edge of the sewn black thread. And beside her on the step, at the edge of the canvas and unnoticed until now, an incongruous apple, lying on its side, and with an ugly gash in its rosy flesh. In a flash of inspiration, Ailith knew at once that the woman had dashed the piece of fruit deliberately against the edge of the step before setting it in place to be painted.
She slowly raised her phone again, looking back and forth between it and its obscured counterpart on the canvas. Her own eyes, perfectly rendered, burned into her. She tapped the screen several times from muscle memory, then focused on the device to type a brief message.
Not feeling well. Sorry, but I’ll miss this afternoon’s attempt. Back tomorrow.
She sent it, and a wave of nausea and dizziness surged over her, causing her to stumble backwards. A hand caught hold of her upper arm to steady her, and as Ailith’s vision cleared she saw the gallery attendant, who must have returned to the room without her noticing.
“You alright, miss?” the young man asked, looking like he very much hoped he wouldn’t have to do anything, and she forced a smile onto her face and nodded.
“Yes. Sorry,” she said. “Thank you. I skipped breakfast and it’s quite warm in here. I think I’ll go outside and get some air.” She had been upset about something a few moments ago, but she couldn’t recall what it was. The young man’s expression was doubtful, but after a moment he released her arm.
“Well, if you’re sure,” he said, and she nodded once again.
“Thank you,” she repeated, and the attendant gave a tight smile before half-turning to leave.
“Wouldn’t be surprised if it was that painting that put you off,” he said, nodding towards the canvas on the wall in front of her. “I’ve been avoiding it all morning. No accounting for taste, I suppose.”
Ailith gave a brief laugh because it seemed to be required, but without understanding what he meant. She looked up at the canvas now, as she must have been going to when she began to feel faint. It was striking in an unsettling way, of a remarkably ugly peasant woman crouched by a shabby doorway, toothless and with one pudgy hand outstretched in a gesture of begging. It was entitled A Crone Demands Alms.
The attendant had gone now, and Ailith decided it really would be a good idea to get some fresh air. She couldn’t clearly recall even walking into this particular room of the exhibit, which wasn’t a good sign, nor of looking at any of the works on its walls, but the dizziness and nausea were entirely gone now. She probably just needed a fresh breeze, something to eat, and some coffee. Maybe she would even make it into the lab today after all.
She sighed as she picked up her pace, following the signs for the exit. She had tried; she really had. She had wanted to like the exhibit, and not to prejudge the whole thing. But sometimes your first instinct is right.
Art just wasn’t her thing.
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