Richard Wright

author of strange, dark fictions

Journal

Observations Made In A Small Gallery (The 52)

May 7, 2014 by Richard Wright in Journal, The 52, Writing
Every week I’ll post a new short story here, based on an image somebody out there has sent me. Welcome to the 52 This week I’m collaborating with Meghan Arcuri, who may be the loveliest person I’ve ever met. A bold statement, but I challenge you to find anybody who’s met her who disagrees. However, as well as being lovely she is also quite, quite evil. She sent me the following, which left me baffled for months.

Observations Made In A Small Gallery

by Meghan Arcuri and Richard Wright

Observations

Matthew Hopkins didn’t get it.

Whichever way he looked it was always the same mundane thing. Self-conscious though he felt, he had even tried tilting his head to the side in order to see if it was somehow different upside down.

It was not.

Since the opening reviews there had been a steady stream of visitors to the gallery, and Matthew had kept his promise to attend each day of the first week’s showing. While he had a singular inability to appreciate the power of the picture hanging at the rear of the otherwise empty room, he could not deny that the power somehow existed.

The walls were white and harshly lit, and he could appreciate the aesthetic engineering. The white strained the eyes, and made visitors funnel their attention to the exhibit. It was clever, unlike the actual picture. That was just baffling. He objected to being baffled. That was not the natural order of things. Still, a deal was a deal.

He sneaked a look at the others in the room. The artist stood by her picture as always, eating fruit and eyeing the crowd. There was a challenge in her glare that he did not yet wish to meet, so he moved straight to the stern matron who stared at the painting with horror as she rubbed the fingers of her left hand. Her rake of a body was rigid. She was going to faint in a moment or two. Matthew took a small step towards the wall, and checked that both of the security guards were in their usual positions. The woman would require their attention soon.

*

“Abomination…” The words left her as a gasp instead of a shriek, and so Ethel tried harder. “Abomination! Filth! Perversity!” She couldn’t take her eyes off the cavity hanging there on the wall for all the world to see. Its allure was strange and sickening, drawing forth her need to understand its soft pulsing patterns, but she was not inclined to succumb. She was strong. Stronger than Robert. Spittle flew from her lips. “God will strike them down! God must strike them down! Don’t look! Don’t look!” She turned to the couple on her left, who were sidling away from her. The girl was frightened. “You! Miss! Don’t let him see! Don’t let him look into it! They’ll take him and defile him and you’ll be all alone!

Black flies swarmed across her vision, and the pressure in her head dissipated in a rush that invited her to go limp and fall over.

So she did.

*

The guards had been readying to escort her from the room as soon as she started shouting, for she was not the first to have spat fury or outrage at the picture. When she hit the floor they rushed instead to help, and in the confusion managed to knock each other aside.

Matthew smiled. It was a swoon and nothing more. Possibilities rolled around in his head. At first he wanted to cast her as some manner of Christian extremist, but experience told him no. There had been none of the underlying glee he associated with their denunciations. Her reaction had been instinctual and laden with grief, something personal that she had no control over. The way she had rubbed her fingers was the key. There was an absence that she searched for without knowing it. A missing ring.

Yes. Her husband of many years had left her for a man. She had failed to note his new interests despite what must have been a parade of clues, and been taken entirely by surprise when he recently (not days, but within the last month) made the announcement that upturned her life. Not a stupid woman, just a complacent one who was now lashing out when she should instead be resolving her own grief.

Matthew turned back to the picture in surprise. How it had triggered her response was utterly beyond him. The subject was hardly something he associated with homosexuality, although he had to admit that since going on the run he had fallen out of touch with some cultural evolutions. If her husband had run off with a Tory peer then perhaps he could see how such an item might enter into things…

He made himself stare at the wall, letting the white walls wash away the images that had popped into his brain. The artist sometimes chided his lack of imagination, but in doing so demonstrated how little she understood of his own gifts. Seeing exactly what was there sometimes took a greater imaginative leap than her wildest acts of creation.

The artist looked at him, one slender and expectant eyebrow cocked, but he shook his head. The swooning woman was no problem to anybody other than herself.

Closer to the picture was a younger woman in her twenties who was also transfixed. Her reaction to the piece was almost the opposite of Lady Swoon. Where the unfortunate older woman, who was now being helped from the room by the guards, had exploded outwards, this one drew herself in. Hopkins shuffled to the side for a better view.

*

The pustulating void at the picture’s heart turned Elaine back into Lainey, a girl she thought she had left far behind in the town of Hannah’s Bell. Yet there she was again, striding over the sucking sands of the beach at night, stealing into the rotting hut. It was hard to breathe in there because the darkness had stolen the air.

That was how she had spent her eighteenth birthday, with the storm outside and the monster bearing down.

When the moment arrived she refused to play sacrifice. She struggled, and fought, and won. She doomed every woman in town to a new lifetime of uncertainty. That was the price of defiance, and she hated them for making her be the one to revolt. Her mother wondered why she had run afterwards. Elaine didn’t understand how she could have done anything else.

She bit the inside of her cheek. Lainey had not shrivelled in the face of terror then. Elaine would not shrivel now.

Staring at the teeth and throat of the vortex, she stood her ground.

 *

An odd one, that girl. Difficult to read, at least in the specifics. Trauma of some sort, certainly, but not one that had bowed her down. She was tense in the shoulders, but it was her legs that gave her away. All of her weight was forward, on the balls of her feet rather than the heels, and she rocked almost imperceptibly from one leg to the other. Whether the girl knew it or not she was weight sensing, testing the stability of the ground beneath her in case she had to run or fight. She was braced and balanced.

Matthew thought her a fighter.

Again, he looked at the picture and tried to counter his own bewilderment. Had she been beaten up by an errant band of chimpanzees as a child? What was it about this one picture that caused everybody who saw it to pin their  secret selves on their sleeves for him to read?

He shook his head at the artist one more time, then followed her nod to a smart suited man with a briefcase who stood against the opposite wall with wonder in his eyes.

Matthew made three quick observations, two subsequent deductions, and reached a conclusion that took the strength from his own limbs.

*

At first Benjamin believed the picture’s dark heart was a butterfly, but a moment later saw that he was wrong. It was a moth, the twisted night-time perversion of that most delicate of insects.

Moths were evil, like vampires. They turned to spores if you attacked them, and that was how their contagion spread.

A beat of a butterfly’s wing could stir the first currents that might one day form the heart of a typhoon on the other side of the world. Benjamin knew this from the books he read, many of which he struggled to remember the titles of, but all of which contained pieces of the secrets only he could construct.

If he crushed a moth and sent spores spiralling on the winds, how far would the infection spread? Perhaps it depended on the size of the moth. Something Diana sized had poisoned a hundred thousand hearts. A moth made of twin towers blew away the old world forever.

There was no point in being the equal to past blights. A bigger moth still was what he needed, and now he knew how limited his imaginings had once been. Seeing it laid out with such precision, just for him, made him want to cry.

*

Suited Man stepped towards the artist, shook her free hand, and smiled as a tear slid down his cheek. “Thank you,” he said. “Thank you so much.”

She pulled her hand back in alarm, and he marched out of the room. When she looked over to Matthew for confirmation, he rolled his eyes and nodded. “Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for attending,” she said. “The exhibit opens again tomorrow.” The remaining visitors groaned and shuffled, so she gave them a winning smile. “An artist cannot live on fruit alone, my friends. We also require fluids, and sometimes toilet breaks.” The audience chuckled as they shuffled out, and she joined him at the wall. “How sure are you?”

“That the man who weeps with unsettling joy at…” he jerked a thumb at the picture, “… this means a great deal of harm to somebody? Quite certain. I’m fairly sure that lesser minds would have drawn a similar conclusion.”

“How bad?”

“Worse than the rapist. Much worse than the dog poisoner.”

She pulled out her mobile phone, tapped out a quick message, and smiled. “Not any more.”

He raised his hands. “I don’t want to know. The ethics of this…”

“I realise you aren’t comfortable. Tell me this though. Do you think you have helped to prevent harm?”

“Certainly.”

“Then you will find a way to live with it.”

“This is the seventh day.”

“The price is met. I’ll give you the address you need then you can be on your way.” Matthew nodded, pulled his scruffy overcoat around himself, and made to lead the way from the room. Her hand on his shoulder halted him. “You won’t reconsider? We have another three weeks. Think of all the visitors.”

“This isn’t right. Whatever you do, you do it to people who haven’t perpetrated anything yet.”

“But they will. You sense it.”

“I read it. Have you never wondered what I read in you?”

She jerked back as though he had slapped her, then turned to her picture. “I have never asked you what you see.”

He sniffed. “A picture of a banana. A cross section, browning from exposure to the air. You’ve played with the light and contrast digitally, but it’s perfectly clear.”

“That’s what it is, but what do you see?” He stared at it for a moment, willing himself to make connections, then hid his frustration with a shrug. “I see exactly what’s there.”

“You do indeed, Matthew Hopkins. But you miss a great deal too I think.”

“Nothing that matters.” He followed her to the door, but looked over his shoulder one last time. A banana that somehow became so many other things to other people. Was he better than them, or had his long search for one lost thing somehow caused him to misplace another?

It was just a banana, but it made him shudder nonetheless.

Meghan Arcuri writes fiction and poetry from somewhere deep in New York’s Hudson Valley. She happens to be one of the best new writers I’ve read in years. You really, really need to check out her short stories. Dark, disturbing, quirky, and delightful. Her website is over here.

This story, and the whole of The 52, is yours for free. If you enjoyed it please check out my other stuff, such as my new novella The Flesh Remembers. You might also enjoy Craven Place, which also features Matthew Hopkins (though it doesn’t otherwise connect with this tale in any way).

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