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Late summer, year unknown. We were on a walk through the countryside, a leisurely trek under the luminous twilight after sundown. The road was flanked by dense trees of a dark emerald, homes nesting between them with increasing frequency as we got closer to town. At times, glimpses of grassy hills beyond the forest led up to great purple mountains in the distance.
Striding confidently beside me was a longtime friend. He was a delight to be with as always; cultured, intelligent and congenial, a dashing presence not of our time. His fine, formal attire (pin-striped trousers, tail coat, top hat, immaculate white gloves) was as naturally becoming to his graceful, athletic frame as was his handsome face.1 We were talking about our plans for the rest of summer when I stopped, in utter disbelief, before the house on our left.
“This is impossible… I lived in this house when I was a child!” The shock had turned my voice into a whisper.
Before us was an abandoned adobe building, a single-story row of doors and windows spanning half a block before turning the corner. The very first unit—one door, one window—had been my home, a place my mother rented for about a year when I was little. It was still the only part of the building painted a sickly pink, the color an incongruous touch on a facade of an otherwise uniform, dirty white.
I walked up to the door and pushed it. It was unlocked, yielding open without effort or sound. I stepped inside, surprised by how small the space seemed now. The two rooms, connected by a doorway, were empty. It was evident from the dust and debris accumulated on the floor that no one had been here for many, many years. The door to the back patio was missing, and through that opening I could see what was once an outdoor kitchen, the adobe forms long eroded by rain and neglect into shapes barely recognizable as a wood stove and bread oven.
My 18th century companion leaned on the doorway, observing me gravely. He had taken his hat off and was slowly turning it in his gloved hands, strands of wavy blond hair now framing his face. He looked uneasy. I was too. It felt as if we were carrying out a desecration the moment I opened that door.
“These rooms are still haunted by that memory” He said.
I nodded. They were. The setting was home to my earliest memories of terror: my mother fell seriously ill for the first time while we lived here. I was six years old, and the place was said to be haunted then. It certainly was now. There was a strong, nauseating energy latent in it. The atmosphere felt dense, laden with something old and ill, something of death, an enduring, sad and immovable presence indifferent to our trespass but powerful as a curse. I feared this unctuous malaise would permeate my clothes, my skin, my body… that it would cling to me like an invisible madness and pollute the rest of my life. We had to leave.
Then, as if they had suddenly materialized, I saw the paintings.
Three framed oils on canvas, painted in the French realist style, hung on the walls of the first room. I had no conscious recollection of them until now. It all came flooding in, faster than I could process. The paintings had been there when we moved in, and were obviously far older than my memory of them. Whoever hung them placed one by the entry, one on the wall that separated the two rooms, and one by the door leading to the backyard. We never touched them, and evidently, no one else had.
“I can’t believe this… hanging, unseen, for decades…” I spoke quietly, absorbed. I turned to him. He held my gaze. We both knew, in that moment, that I would be taking the paintings with me.
The pigments had faded a great deal, but overall the images were well preserved. The frames were nailed directly to the stucco. A strange way of hanging paintings, I thought, as if the intent had been to crucify them.2
I carefully began to pull the first one from the wall. It was a bust portrait decorated with an oval mat. The sitter was a pale woman in a white blouse, her red hair pulled up about her head. Her gentle expression barely managed to balance the otherwise somber tone of the painting. She must have been in her late twenties when the portrait was made. Who was she? I wondered. The frame felt flexible, soft almost. The nails gave up easily, shedding bits of rust as they came out. I leaned it against the wall.
The next work was a small view of an old city, a patchwork of roofs, walls and cobblestone pathways. The town looked deserted. The picture seemed to have been painted from life, and the composition was strict: were it not for its painterly atmospheric depth and the rich detailing of its surfaces, it would have come close to geometric abstraction. It came off the wall easily as well.
The largest of the three paintings—and oddly for my taste, the one that fascinated me most—was a countryside view painted in thick impasto. Its execution set it apart from the other two: a hint of expressionism had made its way into the brushwork, with paint volumes accentuating forms and adding a contained dynamism to the stillness. In it, the dark brown planks of a wooden fence contrasted with the faded olive green of a grassy field behind, leading to a dark tree line beyond. Part of the horizon was visible, and in it, the faintest suggestion of a town under cloud cover seemed to tremble with the murmur of distant events. The frame was broken in places, I feared it would fall apart in my hands, but it held together as I pulled it from the wall.3
In the awe of the discovery, numbed by the unsettling atmosphere of the space, and fighting off the rising pain of memories unvisited for ages, I sought to understand the origin of these images; I felt it was my duty to do so before taking them—I felt the trespass warranted it. Someone before me had understood and kept them together. It was my turn to do the same.
What did these pictures have in common? They were obviously contemporaries and related to each other: depictions of a town, its countryside, and perhaps one of its residents. Although varying in approach, the brushwork and color palette suggested the same hand. Who painted them? When? Where? No signatures. No dates. Beautiful paintings marred by a lugubrious heaviness, the silence of loss.
Loss… The realization swept my mind like a tidal wave: The paintings were made after the plague. The portrait of the woman was posthumous.
Narratives began weaving in my head. I could only imagine the countless stories of pain and horror behind these images. They made sense. Perfect sense. I couldn’t bear to think about it any longer, not there, not in that place that was now more than ever a tomb in my mind. I stacked the paintings on each other and put them all under my arm.
“The plague…” He said as I turned to him. “I think so.” I whispered back.
On the walls, white rectangles of emptiness punctuated by stigmata screamed of undead nightmares.
It felt good to get back on the street, out the ill atmosphere of the abandoned house. We walked briskly, our steps in sync. Interrupted by the archaeological find, our carefree dynamic could not be resumed. Its place had been usurped by the silence of complicity and a nameless, insistent concern. I couldn’t wait to get to my car, to put the paintings in the trunk, to shut them in the dark. I feared them. I feared that it was they who created the horror I felt back in those rooms, rather than being mere witnesses to it. They were alive with that sick energy and I had begun to realize it was a force that could not be contained or escaped from. I didn’t know what I would do with them.
I wanted to thank him for being my accomplice in the theft, but then I thought: Is this really a theft? I wondered if anyone had seen us. I wondered, strangely, if there were cameras monitoring the area, if the removal of the paintings had been recorded from a distance. Stranger still, I wondered if my handsome friend would even show up in such a recording.
We walked on, past the gates, into the city.
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1. I often wonder who these characters are who visit me in my dreams. The man in this sequence was not dressed in costume; those were his usual clothes. He made me think of the high society of early America. In the dream’s internal logic, I remembered him; we talked as if we had known each another well for a very long time. Perhaps he has been a recurring character for a while and my memory of him is crossing into daylight for the first time. Who knows? I do not recall a name.
2. Hanging is also an execution. Like the limp body of a dead criminal hanging at the square, paintings on display are captures and examples at once.
3. The first thing I did after documenting this dream was to call my sister in Mexico. I asked her if she remembered that house, if there had been paintings in it. She remembers the place but can’t say whether there were any paintings. She was four years old when we lived there, her memory of the place is much dimmer than mine. She does, however, remember the stories about the haunting.
What is haunting to my mind is how vividly I remember the pictures. They have the distinct quality of an unearthed memory; it’s hard for me to think of them as an elaborate invention of the subconscious. I could reproduce them easily. Fear of awakening something I may not be ready—or able—to deal with, and perhaps remaining figments of superstition in my otherwise empirical mind, prevent me from even trying.
It was at that house that I created a painting for the first time. I received a set of watercolors as a birthday present from my mother when I turned seven. It would make sense, if these paintings existed, that I would have been inspired by them somehow.
The building was demolished many years ago. My mother, the only person that would have been able to instantly demystify this dream, has not been with us for a long time.
Thank you for reading.