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The Black Painting

Of course I’ll tell you everything. It’s a horrible, improbable tale, but every word is true. I first acquired that thing at an auction down the road. The entire estate was being sold off, piece by piece, as the deceased owner had left no family. He was a suicide—maybe you recall it? He hung himself, if I remember correctly, right there in the living room with the curtains drawn tight.

The day of the auction I saw it, leaning by itself against the wall. I found it odd, and thought to myself that no one in their right mind would pay a cent for it. The canvas was coated heavily with a layer of black, and nothing else; solid, unforgiving black. The frame, a dark, antique thing, seemed more valuable than the strange painting it housed, and that’s how I finally justified my impulsive bid. No one else was willing to compete with me for such an oddity, so I won my prize.

I hung the painting over the fireplace—don’t ask why, it just seemed like the place for it. I told myself I’d find another, more lively painting to occupy the frame, which I was sure held some value, and throw out the blackened canvas. This was an empty promise, though, because I’m by no means an art collector.

I found myself staring at the black painting all evening. I couldn’t help myself; my eyes were drawn inescapably to its ebony surface. The longer I stared, the less I saw. There was simply nothing in that blank, dark canvas to hold one’s attention, and yet I could not look away. It was like I was being drawn down into something deep and incomprehensible. My eyes finally saved me when, owing to the lateness of the hour, they forced themselves shut.

That night I had a peculiar and unsettling dream. I was looking on a blank, white canvas from the perspective of an artist, and as I watched he raised his bare arm and slashed it with a knife. The blood spurted out, and before long the whole canvas was covered. The artist, cackling madly, made more cuts on his other arm and let the blood flow. As the canvas became saturated, the crimson fluid deepened and darkened, and as the artist continued his maniacal laughter, the macabre paint turned utterly black.

I had that same dream, repeated verbatim, night after night. Each morning my nerves felt a little more frayed. I realized immediately that these nightmares were brought on by the presence of the black portrait I’d acquired at the auction, so one morning, I decided to move it. I stowed it away in a small storage room, hidden in a corner where I wouldn’t have to see it. I felt lighter after that. Certain that I’d no longer suffer from that horrible dream, I went to bed with a peaceful smile on my lips.

The dream did return, however, and more terrifying than ever. The artist’s blood flowed heavily. Unable to contain the unending flood, the canvas overflowed, and the darkening crimson stream bled out like smoke, filling the room until everything was black.

I awoke abruptly, but the unease from my dream still held me in its tight-fisted grip. Something wasn’t right, and it took me a moment to pinpoint what it was.

Hanging on the wall above my bed was the black painting.

A hundred horrifying thoughts crossed my mind, and I immediately tore the painting from the wall and returned it to its rightful place. I made sure the door to that little room was locked, and stowed the key safely in my pocket.

The dream didn’t return after that, and after a while I was able to forget about the black painting altogether, at least during the daylight hours. Nothing noteworthy occurred until one evening, when I had several friends over for a game of cards. We sat around the table in good spirits. I drew a card from the deck and looked at it. The face was completely black.

My furrowed brow caught the attention of my friends. I showed them the curiosity, but they seemed unaffected. I began to wonder, as they cast odd glances in my direction, if I was the victim of some joke, if one of them had planted the black card in the deck as a prank. Determined not to allow the culprit any gratification, I casually tossed the strange card aside and drew another—which was also black.

My thoughts now turned dangerously in the direction of the small room in the back and the item that haunted its concealed corner. I began furiously drawing card after card, throwing all of them aside as each and every one turned up black. My friends now wore looks of concern; in my frustration I had risen from my seat, and they too stood in their attempts to calm me, dropping their own cards on the table for me to see: black, every one of them.

I was escorted out into the living room and given a drink, and after an awkward while my friends left. Alone, I pondered the event. It was clear to me that the painting which I’d hidden away was the cause of my trouble. As long as I kept it in my home, I’d have no peace. I went to the storage room to retrieve it, fully intending to dispose of it that very night. I fished the key out of my pocket and unlocked the narrow door, and striding to the corner where I’d left that detestable painting I nearly cried out. The painting was gone!

Over the next few weeks, I kept imagining I saw the black painting hanging on a wall or sitting on a shelf. Upon closer inspection, it would turn out to be the portrait of a relative cast in a bad light, but the frequent scares were too much. I fell into the habit of throwing out any picture that deceived my eyes in so frightening a manner. Before long, there wasn’t a single picture left in the house, save for the mysteriously vanished painting from the auction, which I still couldn’t locate.

That hideous thing seemed determined to manifest itself, though. One evening as I prepared for bed, I glanced in the mirror and saw not my reflection staring back at me, but a field of ebony. I jumped quite high, and it’s a wonder I didn’t hit my head on the ceiling as I bolted out of the bathroom and threw myself into bed. The next day I went through the house and smashed every mirror. At one point, in my careless vigor, I cut my hand on a piece of glass. The blood reminded me instantly of my nightmare, and with a helpless cry I ran from the house.

Shortly after that, the windows began to torment me. Just like the cards, the photographs, and the mirrors. I woke up one morning to pitch blackness. A glance at my watch told me it was after eight, well past time for the sun to have risen, so I rose and threw open the curtains of my bedroom—panes of black assaulted me. I shut the curtains quickly, not wanting to spend another second looking into the darkness that seemed to have consumed the outside world. A part of me knew it was just an illusion, and that I could, if I wanted to, step out into a sun-filled morning. But what if I were to open my front door and instead be faced by a world flooded with darkness? That paralyzing thought was enough to stay me, and I didn’t emerge from my house for several days.

My friends, concerned by my absence, came to call one morning. Their knock on my door was startling, for I’d become convinced there was nothing outside but a drowning blackness. It wasn’t until I heard their shouting voices calling for me to answer that I worked up the courage to respond.

Three…uh, things…greeted me on my front porch, but they weren’t my friends. Of course, they wore their skins, their clothes, and spoke with their voices, but their eyes gave them away; they were like deep black pits, and no light reflected off them. One of the monsters made to come inside, but I grabbed the nearest weapon I could find—an umbrella—and beat it back, slamming the door in its loathsome face.

I locked myself away, determined never to set foot outside again, but I realized I’d never be able to live like that. It was that painting! I understood then why the previous owner had hung himself. Trapped in his home and tortured by the painting’s unrelenting blackness, it had been his only way of escape.

I glanced into the living room, and—curse my eyes if they were deceiving me—there it was! The painting hung there over the fireplace, right where I’d put it on the day I purchased it.

At first I could do nothing but stand there and scream at the thing, letting loose all my frustration in one long bellow. When my voice gave out, I ran from the room, but the cursed thing seemed to follow me. There it was on the dining room wall, there again in the kitchen. Not even my bedroom was safe, for the painting hung ominously over my pillow. I couldn’t escape!

A grim thought then passed my mind: I wasn’t the first to suffer the painting’s torment, and my predecessor had managed to escape. I could think of a hundred ways to do it, but then another thought pushed that one aside. Why should I be the one to die? Should it not be the painting, that stygian canvas, that was destroyed?

My mind made up, I retrieved a box of matches and returned to the living room. I took the black painting off the wall and threw it unceremoniously into the fireplace. My hands shook as I struck the first match and dropped it in, but it seemed too easy. I wanted to be sure, so I struck match after match until the fire positively blazed.

You can guess, gentlemen, how events progressed from there. It’s a shame the fire department couldn’t make it in time to save my house, but the greater shame is that it was all for naught. Look! Here is the painting, undamaged! Even the wooden frame is untarnished by the flames that consumed my home! This is proof of my tale. You must believe me!

Once they were out of earshot, the doctor turned to his assistant. “What’s your diagnosis?”

“Based on that story,” replied the assistant, “completely off his rocker.”

The doctor nodded. “I agree. He’s demonstrated that he’s a danger to himself. Did you see the cuts on his hands and arms? And his eyes…he’s clearly an insomniac. We should keep him here for observation.”

The assistant nodded toward the large, rectangular object nestled securely under the doctor’s arm. “What’re you going to do with that?”

The doctor held the painting out and examined it’s black canvas for a short while. “The patient said he wanted it destroyed. I don’t think that’s necessary. We’ll tell him we destroyed it, of course, but I think I’ll keep it.