“A man may dwell so long upon a thought that it may take him prisoner.”
I saw the credits for the painting and checked out his social media, Facebook, Instagram, the usual drill. Apparently he was a darn good artist! However, by the number of likes on Fb, the followers on Insta, I gathered that he was just starting out.
Which is why, it didn’t surprise me, that there was no mention of the fact that one of his paintings was being used as a prompt in a writing competition, on any of his web pages.
I mean, if it was me, I would have been thrilled about the exposure!
Maybe he was just a very reserved and modest person, who doesn’t like to toot his own horn. That, or maybe it’s the language difference. He could barely write in English; most of his posts were in German. Or was it Dutch? I can’t be sure.
Anyway, that’s not the point. What I am trying to say is that, I followed him on Insta, and naturally DM’d him; saying hello, and letting him know that we were using his painting as a prompt. I also mentioned how inspiring I found his art; very postmodern and abstract. And it would be a great help, if he could enlighten me about the inspiration for his painting.
At first, when he didn’t respond, I thought he must be one of those people who just ignore the DMs from unknown people. I mean, I do that too. So I sent him another message, and then another. I tried getting his attention by commenting on some of his posts, but he ignored that too. An entire week went by without hearing back from him, and I started getting worried.
What if he never responded? I might not be able to write my story in time!
Another week went by and I was starting to get really nervous. I messaged him on Fb. I just wanted a little background about the painting! It wasn’t as if I was asking for his password, or anything. Why must he spurn me so? Weren’t artists supposed to be courteous and kind to their admirers?
Well, one week later he finally responded. In broken English, he told me that the painting had been sold to a client long ago. He was flattered that his art was being used as a prompt for a writing contest, but there was nothing much he could say about the painting itself. It was an abstract piece, its interpretation left to the viewer.
But there must be something he must have thought about, at the time, I persisted. Some wave of inspiration that must have hit him, some intention behind the myriad components in his painting!
A hidden clue, or meaning that only the artist knew. Like, why eggs? What was so fucking special about eggs? What was it supposed to mean? Did he like eggs? Or was it because he hated them?
Needless to say, the conversation turned from bad to worse. He repeated that the painting was gone, and it was none of my business, why or how he had painted it. He told me, very abruptly and rudely I might add, that he didn’t want to talk about it. And then, he was gone. He stopped replying. He disappeared. Poof!
Now what was I supposed to do?
I had exhausted all sources of information I could avail. I was left to stare at the painting and figure out all the answers myself! It seemed very dubious to me how he had said he didn’t want to talk about the painting.
Why not? I wondered. It was his painting. He should be waxing eloquent about it. Why this morose silence? There was something fishy there. I just had to figure out what it was!
I started keeping tabs on the artist. His Fb posts, check ins, Insta stories. A few days later, as I refreshed my feed, I realized that he had removed every single post, from every single one of his social media accounts, that had anything to do with the painting! It took some time for me to figure this out, because I was always looking for new updates and never bothered with the old ones.
Now, this was extreme. It was as if the painting had never existed. All traces of it had vanished!
I couldn’t fathom why he would go to such lengths to destroy any evidence of the painting existing… unless, there was something he wished to hide! Yes! That was it! He was trying to hide something that was there in the painting, and my questions must have triggered him to be cautious, lest I discover it!
Well, I wasn’t going to give in so easily. I had already taken and saved multiple close up screenshots of every inch of that painting. I poured over them day and night. I had to figure it out before the deadline. I had to!.
It started with eggs.
It was Sunday. I woke up, turned on the podcast I listen to every morning, and did my business – you know, bowel drainage and bathing.
The reason I remember it was a Sunday, is because I have omelette on Sundays. The rest of the week is just oatmeal, coffee and toast. But Sunday is ‘Breakfast of the Kings’ day. I grind fresh coffee beans for the upcoming week, I make fresh orange juice – with pulp. I butter and toast bread, and I make sunny side up omelette.
So I was standing at the kitchen counter, and I had cracked my usual two eggs into the nicely buttered pan, when I.. I guess I froze. I was checking to see if the eggs were done, and I just couldn’t look away. I kept staring.
The butter bubbled beneath the egg white, which turned slowly from transparent to opaque white. The egg yolk glowed a summery yellow, like a flower in full bloom, or a young girl stepping into adolescence.
I was transfixed at the sight of the omelette cooking in the pan, and I was overwhelmed at how this tiny detail, of a sunny side up omelette for breakfast, had such profound miracle packed into it.
It was like that thing with words, you know? You look at a word for a long time – and it starts looking funny. Different. And you cannot, for the life of you, imagine how anyone could possibly take it to mean what it does, and to sound as it does.
When I came to, the omelette had burnt to a crisp and my fire alarm was going haywire and it was just plain pandemonium. I waved the incident aside, attributing it to overwork or exhaustion and made myself another omelette and went on with my day.
But then, other things started happening, which I could not ignore.
I would phase out mid-conversation with a colleague. Their voice would just cut off and I would watch their lips moving, and hands gesturing and it would be like watching a silent movie. I would be present but not really.
One day, I woke up bone-weary, and found my apartment full of eggs! They were everywhere. Tray upon tray of white, dirty ovals, staring at me from every surface in my apartment.
The eggs weren’t the weird part though. The weird part was, that I couldn’t remember getting those eggs, driving them all the way from the grocery store to my building, and then carrying them up into my apartment.
The elevator in my building has been broken down for ages, and even though I live on the second floor, it must have taken me several trips up and down the stairs to bring them all up here!
Was that why I felt so awfully exhausted?
I got rid of the eggs, of course; gave them away to neighbours, to the building watchman and even sent off a few dozen back to the grocery store. I mean there’s only so much egg you can eat! But before I got rid of them, I clicked a picture of all the eggs and sent it to the artist on Fb messenger.
Eggspress post! I wrote in the caption, smirking to myself.
You can’t eggnore me forever. Omlettin‘ this lot go. You want some?
Hah! That’ll teach him.
My vindication was short lived though. I soon found out that he had blocked me from all his social media accounts. The bastard!
I was returning home from work the next day, when it happened again.
I completely blacked out in the middle of the road, while waiting for the traffic lights to turn green. I don’t know how long I sat there, staring 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.
I remember this, because it was like an out of body experience. I was floating, high up in the air, looking down on myself through the roof of the car. I just sat there as the other cars moved around me, swerving and honking, their drivers yelling obscenities at me, waving their hands menacingly.
And I just sat there.
Time seemed to have broken down completely. I looked at the strangely translucent wrist watch I wore, and was shocked to see that the numbers were 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 were of no help either. They looked twisted, bent completely out of shape, wonky and wobbly. Like the pictographs you see in corporate presentations on Annual meetings, representing a dangerously downward spiral of the data, depicting economic decline or death.
I had no frame of reference to judge how long I sat there. Time was meaningless. It was like I was waiting for something. Like nothing mattered anymore, except those lights, and if I looked away or even blinked, I might miss out on the big secret.
What secret, you ask? Why of course, THE SECRET! The secret of our existence, of life and the universe and everything!* I knew the answer was in those lights, or was it in the painting? I don’t know. But, if I sat there long enough, I would find it!
But alas! It was not to be. I was shaken out of my reverie as another car, an SUV, came out of nowhere and rammed into my car. I don’t remember much after that. Just that I woke up in the hospital with several cuts and several broken bones.
It is one of life’s greatest paradoxes, that the moment when you first see death up close, is also the moment when you feel more alive in your skin than ever before.
The electricity that hums in your being, when you return to your mortal body, after having almost stepped beyond the veil; that electricity makes your heart pump extra hard within your chest, as if trying to establish, without a doubt, that you are alive.
Have you felt it? It is the best feeling ever.
That’s how I felt, as I lay in my bed and recovered from the accident. The world rushed in on me with renewed vitality, the colours were brighter and the shadows deeper. Microscopic details about myself and my surroundings became clearer and more urgent, more real.
The trees outside the strange pothole-like window of my ward, were greener. The sky, pregnant with the dour grey storm clouds, was a vivid charcoal black. The sun, peeking through the wisps of clouds, was a burnt, brick red.
I became aware of the flaring of my nostrils as I breathed in, the rising and falling of my chest as I breathed out.
Based on what I knew about near-death experiences from movies, I had expected some sort of thrill, some stroke of genius or understanding about the workings of the universe; but this was unbelievable.
It felt like the extreme high of a very potent drug; and I knew that whatever this was, I wanted more.
<Two weeks later>
“So, now is your chance to tell me.”
I stared out from the first floor window, at the plush countryside of Zandaam, Netherlands; a quaint little province in Northern Holland. The artist lived a solitary, isolated life at the outskirts of civilisation. It suited me just fine.
He hadn’t recognised me when I knocked on his door. It disappointed me to no end; all the time back home, I was thinking about him, trying to do justice to his art by wanting to write the true story behind the painting, and here he was, not even recognising me!
Typical. I thought. Celebrities are just so self-involved, it’s unbelievable.
I looked over to the artist, who sat huddled in a corner of his bedroom. I had bound his hands and gagged him. It wouldn’t do if we were disturbed before I had had the chance to interrogate him. He had recognised me soon enough, after I started questioning him about why he had not responded to any of my messages and then blocked me!
“What is the secret, Mario?” I asked. “I know you know it. Don’t even try to fool me.”
He shook his head pathetically and tears ran down his nose, as he took great racking sobs.
“Oh! Come on, Mario! We are not going to this again, are we? No crying!” I shouted, and he flinched away from me.
“Look,” I approached him slowly, gently, “I am not going to hurt you. I just need to know the secret in 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!”
I don’t know when it happened exactly, but it did. I came to myself after an indeterminate amount of time. What I saw in front of me, took my breath away.
Mario was dead. He lay before me, propped up against a blank section of the wall. There was a piece of a steel curtain rod sticking out from his right eye, which was a mess of crimson blood and flecked tissues. The other eye was missing. His mouth was open in a silent scream.
A piece of checked red and white tablecloth was tied to his neck and flowed over to the floor, where the white checks merged with the red, as they imbibed the river of blood that flowed from Mario’s body.
And then I noticed the eggs. Raw eggs plastered his face and body and the wall behind him. Some seemed to have congealed while others still had runny yellow yolk dripping on to the floor.
As I sat looking at the vista before me, I realized that someone had arranged his eyes and his final resting place in an exact replica of the painting; or as close to it as possible. Someone had even painted the wall behind him with some of his own blood and attempted to draw the lines of the bricks.
I smiled a little as I adjusted some of the other props someone must have used to make the likeness to the painting more believable and accurate.
I went to the kitchen and made myself a cup of tea. Then I sat on the floor looking at the handiwork. The attention to detail was remarkable, if I said so myself.
After some time, it could have been minutes, or hours, something started nagging at my subconscious. There was something wrong with this painting. I was missing a very crucial detail. What was it?
I racked my brain as I looked over at every square inch of the painting. The plants were missing of course, but that couldn’t be helped under the circumstances. What else?
And then it came to me. The broken rungs of the ladder.
Ah. Of course.
I shook my head in disappointment and relief as I finally understood what I had been looking for all along. How did that tiny part of the painting evade me for so long? How did I not see it? Understanding blossomed. Where only seconds before, there had been a jumble of conjecture and speculation; now there was crystal clear, unadulterated realisation.
Of course I was missing something; we all were.
There was no secret. We make up our own individual worlds, the best way we can, using the tools given to us. And no matter how hard we try, no matter who we are and what our reality is; the cracks are always going to be there.
The world was broken, we were broken. And that was okay. Life walks hand in hand with death, happiness with pain, preservation dances in sync with ruin; like the twin sides of a coin, opposite, but inseparable.
It was so laughably simple minded that I had a mad desire to tear my painting down and destroy it to smithereens. Marion’s one withered eye seemed to mock me from across the grave.
You poor bastard, I thought.
I placed the empty tea cup beside Marion. 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)#
My body seemed to heave a great sigh. Suddenly, I was exhausted beyond comprehension. At that moment I wanted nothing more than to let everything go and lie down to sleep. But I made my feet move towards the telephone. This would have made one hell of a story, I thought, as I dialled 112. Pity that I would 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 presence of the youthful plant alongside the dried up plant, and the ladders that seem to connect everything, and yet are broken down at places, signifying 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
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