“A man may dwell so long upon a thought that it may take him prisoner.”
Having a picture prompt for a short story is always better than a word or a quote. There are so many variables of the picture you can use to turn on your creative process. Not to mention the added benefit of knowing the artist, not personally, of course, but having a name does help in your quest to find out more about the man or woman behind the painting.
The picture prompt for this contest is a painting called Egg-centric (2012) by Mario van Miert.
Enter the artist’s name into the browser and check out his social media, Facebook, Instagram—the usual drill. Apparently, he is a talented artist! However, by the number of likes on Fb, and the followers on Insta, it’s clear he is just starting out.
So it doesn’t surprise you that there is no mention of the fact that one of his paintings is being used as a prompt in a writing competition, on any of his web pages.
A scoff of disbelief escapes your lips. Had it been your work, you would have been thrilled at the exposure!
Maybe he is a very reserved person, who doesn’t like to toot his own horn. That, or maybe it’s the language difference. He can barely write in English; most of his posts are in German. Or is it Dutch? You can’t be sure.
Hold up. Oh, darn it.
You are meandering.
Follow him on Insta, and DM him to say hello and let him know Penmancy is using his painting as a writing prompt. Mention how inspiring his art is—very postmodern and abstract. It would be a great help if he can enlighten you about the inspiration for his painting.
At first, when he doesn’t respond, you think he must be one of those people who just ignores the DMs from strangers. You do that too.
Send him another message, and then another. Try to get his attention by commenting on some of his posts.
No response? What an arse!
An entire week goes by without hearing from him, and now you are worried. What if he never responds? You won’t be able to write your story in time!
Another week goes by and you are really nervous.
Try messaging him on Fb.
I just want a little background info on the painting!
It isn’t as if you are asking for his password or anything. Why must he spurn you so? Aren’t artists supposed to be courteous and kind to their admirers?
He responds at the end of the 3rd week. In broken English, he tells you he sold the painting to a client long ago. He is flattered his art is being used as a prompt for the writing contest, but there is nothing much he can say about the painting itself.
It is an abstract piece, and I leave its interpretation to the viewer.
But there must be something, you persist. Some wave of inspiration, some intention behind the myriad components of his painting! A hidden clue, or meaning that only the artist knows.
Like, why eggs? What is so fucking special about eggs? What is it supposed to mean? Does he like eggs? Or is it because he hates them?
The conversation turns from bad to worse. He repeats that the painting is gone, and it is none of your business why or how he painted it. He tells you, abruptly and rudely, that he doesn’t want to talk about it. And then he is gone.
He stops replying. He disappears.
What the hell are you going to do now?
You have exhausted all the sources of information you could avail. Now, sit and stare at the painting and try to figure out all the answers.
It seems very dubious how he said he didn’t want to talk about the painting. Why not? It is his painting. He should wax eloquent about it. Why this morose silence? There is definitely something fishy there. And you have to figure out what it is!
Keep tabs on the artist. His Fb posts, check-ins, and Insta stories. A few days later, as you refresh your feed, observe how he has removed every single post, from every single one of his social media accounts, that had anything to do with the painting!
How foolish! You always looked for new updates and never bothered with the old ones.
Now, this is extreme. It is as if the painting never existed. All traces of it have vanished!
Why would he go to such lengths to destroy any evidence of the existence of the painting? Unless there is something he wishes to hide!
Yes! That’s it! He is trying to hide something about the painting or inside it, and your questions must have triggered him to be cautious, lest you discover it!
Well, you will not give in so easily. You already took and saved multiple close-up screenshots of every inch of the painting.
Now, pour over them day and night to figure it out before the deadline. It’s a race against time!
It starts with eggs.
It’s Sunday. Wake up, turn on the podcast you listen to every morning, and do your business—bowel drainage and bathing.
Sundays are omelette days. The rest of the week is just oatmeal, coffee, and toast. But Sunday is ‘Breakfast of the Kings’ day. Grind fresh coffee beans for the upcoming week and make fresh orange juice—with pulp. Butter and toast bread, and make a sunny-side-up omelette.
Stand at the kitchen counter and crack the usual two eggs into the nicely buttered pan.
Check if the eggs are done, and now you can’t look away.
The butter bubbles beneath the egg white, which gradually turns opaque. The egg yolk glows a summery yellow, like a flower in full bloom, or a young girl stepping into adolescence.
Transfixed at the sight of the omelette cooking in the pan, you are overwhelmed at how this tiny detail, of a sunny-side-up omelette for breakfast, has such a profound miracle packed into it.
It’s like the thing with words. You look at a word for a long time—and it looks funny. Different. And you cannot, for the life of you, imagine how anyone could take it to mean what it does and to sound as it does.
The omelette burns to a crisp and the fire alarm goes haywire and everything is pandemonium. Dismiss the incident, attribute it to overwork or exhaustion and make yourself another omelette and go on with your day.
But then, other things happen that you cannot dismiss.
In the office, you phase out mid-conversation with colleagues. Their voice cuts off and you watch their lips moving, and hands gesturing, and it’s like watching a silent movie. You are present, but not entirely.
A few days later, you wake up bone-weary, and find your apartment full of eggs! They are everywhere. Tray upon tray of white, dirty ovals, staring at you from every surface.
Funnily enough, the eggs aren’t the weird part. You can’t remember getting those eggs, driving them all the way from the grocery store to the building, and then carrying them up into the apartment.
The elevator in your building has been broken down for ages, and even though you live on the second floor, it must have taken several trips up and down the stairs to bring them all up here!
Is that why you are exhausted?
Get rid of the eggs. Give them away to neighbours, to the building watchman, and send off a few dozen back to the grocery store. There’s only so much egg you can eat after all!
Click a picture of all the eggs and send it to the artist on Fb messenger.
Eggspress post! Type in the caption. You can’t eggnore me forever. Omlettin‘ this lot go. Do you want some?
Hah! That’ll teach him.
Your vindication is short-lived. The artist blocks you from all his social media accounts. The bastard!
The next day, you are driving home from work when it happens again.
As you wait for the traffic lights to turn green, you black out. You don’t know how long you sit and stare at the lights go Red. Yellow. Green. Red. Yellow. Green. Red. Yellow. Green. Red. Yellow. Green. Red. Yellow. Green. Red. Yellow. Green. Red. Yellow. Green. Red. Yellow. Green. Red. Yellow. Green. Red. Yellow. Green.
It is like an out-of-body experience—you are floating, high in the air, looking down on yourself through the roof of the car. Sit, unmoving, as the other cars swerve around you and honk, their drivers yell obscenities at you and wave their hands menacingly.
And you just sit there.
Time has broken down completely. Look at your strangely translucent wrist-watch. The numbers are dancing—wriggling out of their conventional positions inside the watch and just moving randomly all around, like weird number-shaped ants.
The hands of the watch are of no help either—they look twisted, bent completely out of shape, wonky and wobbly. Like the pictographs you see in corporate presentations at Annual meetings, representing a dangerous downward spiral of the data, depicting economic decline or death.
How long have you been sitting here?
What are you waiting for?
Time is meaningless. Nothing matters anymore, except the lights.
Don’t look away or even blink! You will miss out on the big secret.
Why, of course, THE SECRET!
The secret of our existence, of life and the universe and everything!*
The answer is in the lights or is it in the painting?
The neurons in your brain signal you to move.
Blink. Shake your head. Snap out of it!
But you don’t. If you sit here long enough, you will find the answer!
It is not to be. Another car, an SUV, comes out of nowhere and rams into your car. An indeterminate time later, you wake up in the hospital with several cuts and broken bones.
It is one of life’s greatest paradoxes that the moment you first encounter death up close is also when you feel more alive in your skin than ever before.
Electricity hums in your being when you return to your mortal body. Having almost stepped beyond the veil, the current makes your heart pump extra hard, as if trying to establish, without a doubt, that you are alive.
Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump.
It’s the best feeling ever!
As you lie in the hospital bed recovering from the accident, the world rushes in on you with renewed vitality. The colours are brighter and the shadows deeper. Microscopic details about yourself and your surroundings become clearer and more urgent, more real.
Outside the window of the ward, the trees are greener. The sky, pregnant with the dour grey storm clouds, is a vivid charcoal black. The Sun, peeking through the wisps of clouds, is a burnt, brick red.
Inhale deeply and then exhale—watch the rise and fall of your chest.
Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump.
What do you know about near-death experiences? Not much—mostly whatever you have seen in movies. People are changed by it. Some come back hopeful, some wiser, having gained some stroke of genius or understanding about the workings of the universe.
But what you feel is so much more than that! It is transcendant. Like the extreme high of a very potent drug—whatever this is, you want more. You need more!
Two weeks later
“So, now is your chance to tell me.”
You stare out of the first-floor window at the plush countryside of Zandaam, Netherlands—a quaint little province in Northern Holland. The artist lives a solitary, isolated life on the outskirts of civilization.
It suits you just fine.
His failure to recognise you when you knocked on his door is a great disappointment. All the time back home, you thought about him, tried to do justice to his art by approaching him to reveal the true story behind the painting, and here he is, unable to even recognise you!
Typical. Celebrities are just so self-involved, it’s unbelievable.
Look at the artist—he sits huddled in a corner of his bedroom, bound and gagged. It’s an essential precaution. You don’t want to be disturbed before you interrogate him.
He recognised you soon enough after you questioned him as to why he never responded to your messages and then has the audacity to block you!
“What is the secret, Mario? I know you know it. Don’t even try to fool me.”
He shakes his head pathetically and tears run down his nose as he takes great racking sobs.
“Oh! Come on, Mario! We are not going to this again, are we? No crying!”
The artist flinches violently.
“Look,” try to reason with him, “I will not hurt you. I just need to know the secret of the painting. What is it with the eggs? It is very important for me to know about the painting. I have to write that story, Mario. Work with me!”
It’s difficult to know exactly what happens next. When you come to your senses, the sight in front of you takes your breath away.
Mario is dead. He lies propped up against a blank section of the wall. A chunk of the curtain rod sticks out of his right eye—a mess of crimson blood and flecked tissues. The other eye is missing. His mouth is open in a silent scream.
The checked red and white tablecloth that had previously adorned Mario’s dining table, is tied to his neck, enveloping him from the front and is spread over the floor, where the white checks merge with the red, as they imbibe the river of blood flowing from Mario’s body.
Notice the eggs.
Raw eggs are plastered over his face and body and the wall behind him. Some have congealed while others still have runny yellow yolk dripping onto the floor.
As you sit gazing at the vista before you, you realize someone has deliberately arranged his body and his last resting place in a replica of the painting; or as close to it as possible. Someone has even painted the wall behind him with his own blood and attempted to draw the bricks, as in the painting.
Smile as you move around a few other props someone must have used to make the likeness to the painting more believable and accurate.
Go to the adjoining kitchen, and make a cup of tea for yourself. Then sit on the floor, and admire your handiwork. Isn’t the attention to detail remarkable?!
After some time, perhaps minutes, or hours, something nags at your subconscious. There’s something wrong with this painting. A very crucial detail is missing. What is it?
Rack your brain and scritunize every square inch of the painting. The plants are missing, of course, but it can’t be helped under the circumstances. What else?
And then it dawns on you. The broken rungs of the ladder.
Ah… Of course!
Disappointment and relief course through your body. You know what you have been searching for all along! How did that tiny part of the painting evade you for so long? How did you not see it?
Understanding blossoms. Where only seconds before, there had been a jumble of conjecture and speculation; now there is crystal clear, unadulterated truth.
Of course, you were missing something—all of us are.
There is no secret. Everyone makes up their own individual world the best way they can, using the tools given to them. And no matter how hard you try, no matter who you are and what your reality is—the cracks are always going to be there.
The world is broken, everyone is broken. And that is okay. As in the painting, so in reality—life walks hand in hand with death, happiness with pain, and preservation dances in sync with ruin; like the twin sides of a coin, opposite, but inseparable.
It is so laughably simple-minded; a mad desire to tear your painting down and destroy it to smithereens consumes you. Mario’s one withered eye mocks you across the grave.
Place the empty tea cup beside Mario. There, now he could be having a tea party. Just like Alice in Wonderland.
Welcome to the Tea Party
Want to be my VIP?
That’s okay (That’s okay)#
The sigh that escapes your lips is heavy with exhaustion. You want nothing more than to lie down and sleep. What a blissful escape it would be! But you can’t. Not for some time yet.
Instead, force your feet to move towards the telephone.
This would have made one hell of a story, you tell yourself, as you dial 112. Pity I will never get to write it. Or would I?
*The “Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything”, is a concept that is detailed in the popular book ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ by Douglas Adams. In the book, ‘The Answer’ is 42, which is calculated by an enormous supercomputer named Deep Thought over a period of 7.5 million years. Unfortunately, no one knows what the question is.
#Welcome to my tea party is a song from the movie Alice in Wonderland, released in 2010.
I hope you enjoyed reading my take on the prompt. I have tried to portray the experiences of a person dealing with obsessive behaviour coupled with traits of dissociation.
The story is based on my interpretation of the writing prompt. The aspects that stood out to me were the youthful plant alongside the dried-up plant, and the ladders that seem to connect everything, and yet are broken down at places, signifying the co-existence of preservation and ruin. In addition, the broken-down clock implied a sort of timelessness or loss of time, which is a common symptom of dissociation.
Dissociative disorders are mental disorders that involve experiencing a disconnection and lack of continuity between thoughts, memories, surroundings, actions, and identity. People with dissociative disorders escape reality in ways that are involuntary and unhealthy and cause problems with functioning in everyday life.*
You can find more about this disorder here: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/dissociative-disorders/symptoms-causes/syc-20355215
Cover pic credit: the painting ‘Egg-Centric’ by Mario Van Miert
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