My Uncle’s Painting

I have spent years chasing the tail of my darkness, trying to catch it or at least catch up to it. Does everyone live with a shadow of fear cast over their soul?

It happened when I was a small boy – maybe six – during the war. I was asleep in my bed and my mother was asleep in hers. We lived in a house in the French countryside. My father, if you can call him that, had left before I was born so it was just the two of us.

I woke to the sound of shattering glass. I wasn’t sure at first whether I had dreamed it or whether it was real and I lay still, holding my breath, listening. The sound of glass crunching under feet confirmed my fears.

My mother had heard it, too. She tiptoed downstairs, wielding a metal pipe she kept under her bed in case of emergencies. She ran screaming at him like a banshee but he slashed at her with his knife, leaving me an orphan. All that just to steal a painting.

The painting had belonged to my uncle, my mother’s brother. Well, actually friend of the family had given it to him to take care of. My uncle had entrusted it to us before he set off on some round-the-world adventure. I don’t recall where he was going but the way he told it, it sounded exciting, like Moby Dick or Sinbad the Sailor. He never came back.

The painting hung over our fireplace. I never really paid attention to its details, but after it was gone, the place it had hung seemed empty and dark, reminding me of all that I had lost. No one bothered about me during the war and I have lived alone in that house, with the dark spot on the wall and the fear inside me, ever since.

I have chased the fear and the painting my whole life, never sure how the two are connected, never sure whether I am trying to catch up to the fear or whether it has been pulling me along in its wake, an unwitting slave to its twists and turns.

I have spent my years scouring pawn shops and auction houses looking for the painting. I was lucky to find work with the commission set up by the French Government to investigate art lost during the war – art stolen by the Nazis as well as art hidden by my countrymen. But I have yet to find the one I’m looking for.

Today, as I think about all this, I stand facing an abandoned stone cottage on a dark lane at dinner time, rain dripping from the sky. My only companions are the cows, disinterested, clustered under a few trees in a nearby field. I’m here to catalogue a cache of paintings which were hidden during the war in a tunnel under the house.

I don’t feel much hope anymore, but I’m here anyway, just in case. And because it pays the bills.

I give the door a push and it swings open crookedly. I cross the wooden floor; it is damp and slippery like a rock beneath the surface of a still lake. The trap door down into the tunnel is propped open. I turn on my torch and climb down a ladder to the dusty earthen floor below.

There must be hundreds of canvases leaning against the walls. The cloths that once covered them lie unhelpfully in drifts upon the floor. I get to work.

Three hours into my cataloguing, I’m thinking about food when I turn a painting around and my heart stops. It has been fifty years but I recognize it instantly. I slip to the floor, staring at it.

The Card Players by Paul Cézanne

I gaze at the faces and am struck by the boy in the background with the downcast, brooding eyes. It’s like looking into a mirror; it must be an illusion.

Then realization dawns. It’s my uncle. Vaguely, I remember hushed conversations. Something about the artist. Yes, he was poor and persecuted. He was fond of my uncle and asked him to be in a painting. Later, fearing for his life and his art, he fled, asking my uncle to protect his masterpiece.

I recognize another face in the painting now. It is the artist – and it is the robber. They are one and the same.

Finally, I can see the full horror of the darkness I have chased all these years.

Written for the Speakeasy at Yeah Write #145. This week’s prompt required participants to start off their story or poem with the line “I have spent years chasing the tail of my darkness” and to refer somewhere to the painting, by Cézanne. Maximum word count is 750.

Word count: 750

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29 thoughts on “My Uncle’s Painting

  1. This is a beautifully written piece and I love the back story you created. As you’ve noted, so many of us have selected the boy to be the centerpiece of the post. I also felt that the boy witnessed or was the victim of violence, leaving him motherless. I assumed the perpetrator was the dark-haired card player. Now I must research the background of the painting to understand what Cezanne had in mind. Perhaps I should have begun with that.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting. I thought about researching it first, too, but I think it’s better to write without being hemmed in by fact. It allows for greater creative licence. Now I might go look it up as well.

  2. Nice piece. I am totally in this world right now (lost art) as I am deep into reading The Goldfinch. Check it out. It’s thick and heavy, like sweet cream. Tasty, but must be enjoyed in small amounts.

  3. Wow! Didn’t see that coming. What a thing to find out after all those years, and I like you made the incident with his mother spur him into becoming involved with the French commission. Great story!

  4. I love the twist of the thief being the artist – totally unexpected! What a cool history to recognize a relative in a painting! (I like how we all look at the same painting and come up with such different stories about it.)

    • Thanks, Janna. The twist about the artist kind of surprised me too – it just came to me as I was writing about the uncle.
      These prompts are great, not just because they really get me thinking, but because I love seeing how everyone uses them – sometimes very differently, and in some cases quite similarly.

  5. This is wonderful. I really love the way you built up to the twist in the end. You know that he’s going to find it, but not what changes he will find in himself when he does so.
    Great writing!

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