If you look at me now you will struggle to realize that I was once the esteemed Curator of the Old Museum in Blackpool Bay. I was dignified, respected and well-funded amongst my peers. My current circumstances in this institution seem as pitiful as my constitution but I feel I should emphasize that I did not always look this depreciated.
The Old Blackpool Bay Museum lies on the outskirts of Main Street. The old, heavy building is just below the smokey, deal-ridden Gypsy Market bustling with its menagerie of characters. Indeed, we occasionally used these people to acquire our more challenging and legally-flexible articles for display.
One such article was an old painting known only as ‘Painting of a Lady’. This painting had a long and mysterious history that many of our more macabre patrons found intoxicating. After all, a central duty of a Curator was to research, locate and then procure such items that we could then do private viewings of to our larger donors and, thus, ensure their continued and generous support.
This particular procurement had been two or three years in the planning as I had first discovered mention of the painting in an old Nazi record when they had annexed Belgium in the 1940s and seized it from a private estate. Here is where its named as ‘Gemälde einer Dame‘ or ‘Painting of a Lady’ comes from and it is the only time I have found a direct and officially-written record of this painting.
While noted in the original stocklist of a Nazi bunker after the collapse of the Nazi regime at the end of World War II, the painting vanished for nearly a half-century before our network located a private and anonymous seller who, to be honest, appeared more interested in getting rid of the painting than in realizing any monetary reward.
We used our Gypsy bootleggers to orchestrate the purchase and bring the painting back to us. Given the relatively small sum we had paid the seller, we were generous in remunerating the Gypsies. It never hurt buying forward a bit of loyalty for their future procurement services.
I remember the actual night: it was late and dark with no moon in the sky and an angry ocean roaring in the background when the Gypsy rapped on the Museum’s backdoor. I had immediately noticed his tense disposition but dismissed it as merely a by-product of the circumstances. Once I had opened and examined the exquisite piece, the Gypsy had begun to vocally protest against me taking the painting. I had initially dismissed his concerns and then, when he had started insisting that I destroy the “cursed object”, I had thanked him, dropped cash in his hands and pushed him back out of the door.
The Old Museum now owned the ‘Painting of a Lady’.
The old Belgium family had brought the painting back with them from the Congo where they had run a large plantation with many slaves. After a series of personal tragedies, the family had packed what they could carry and crated the rest home with them to return back to their homeland.
Where the family had gotten this painting from in the Congo is harder to tell? Who the original painter was is even more mysterious? And who the lady in the painting was is certainly lost to time?
What is certain is the long trail of blood and bodies that seemed to follow the paintings. One body, in particular, attracted our darker patrons’ curiosity but I will reveal this detail later on.
Partially-complete Congolese records taken back to Belgium show that the merchant ship transporting this painting back to Belgium saw a raft of deaths amongst its crew on that voyage. One deckhand even went mad–per the Captain’s log, he was ranting about old Congolese jungle fairytales–and attacked and killed another crew member before being restrained and, ultimately, dying of injuries sustained in the process. A number of other men died of an unidentified sickness and a final seaman simply jumped–or was pushed–off the ship into the shark-infested waters near the southern tip of the Dark Continent.
Even before then, the Belgium family’s plantation records–or what is left of them–reveal a series of unfortunate events that took the lives of various family members and key staff. From sickness to accidents and even a bloody, unsolved murder in the family member’s own bed.
Once back in Belgium, the family had barely unpacked when the Nazi’s had swarmed across the border and executed the bunch of them before seizing their estate.
The German General in charge had liked the painting–apparently it had been displayed in the foyer of the old estate building–and ordered his men to take it down and load it into his military transport for his ride back to Berlin. It was a fateful ride as an unknown assassin–probably a Belgium escaping soldier or British spy–had sent a sniper’s bullet through his skull before he had even reached the border.
With German efficiency, the General’s remains and the items in the convoy–including the painting–were sent back to Berlin to be processed. In this process, a high-up in the Third Reich had noticed the painting and taken it back to be displayed in some central building where the Führer, himself, had walked passed it and ordered its movement into his personal gallery in his private bunker.
You see, the German bunker from which this painting was recovered was none other than Adolf Hitler’s Führerbunker where he and his wife committed cowardly suicide. It is even said that the Painting of a Lady hung in the very room where their corpses were found lying crumpled below it.
And then the Painting of a Lady disappeared from history for more than half a century.
I had begun carefully inspecting the old painting. Not just to check for any damage–sometimes non-traditional channels of procurement are not overly careful of their cargo–but also to check for any sign that is might be a fraud.
As far as I could tell, it appeared very real. Just enough cracking in the oils to indicate age, scratches on the frame showing its long journeys and, even, the various indicative colours that would have been most available in the Belgium Congo at the time.
Neither beautiful nor ugly, the painting was nonetheless captivating. Indeed, the colours were haunting with dark, rich blacks swirling with reds and offering sickening beiges and bone whites as contrasts. The lady in the painting was obviously some local Congolese tribal lady, or maybe even one of those witchdoctors of the Dark Continent? She had strange, primal features and odd decorations across her face and down her neck, while she held a hard and angry look–perhaps even proud–as she stared defiantly at the painter.
The more I looked, the more curious I became. The more I looked, the more I also saw and, slowly, it dawned on me that the tribal designs across the lady’s face and neck and some of the bone and ivory jewelry she wore was probably indicative of some rank or royalty. If my understanding of how the Belgium Congo was run was correct, then my sense is that she was likely treated particularly poorly due to this. The bones also were small and fragile, almost shaped like human fingerbones and I was sure that I saw one or two teeth in the design.
It was hard to tell as the brushwork–although talented–was raw and vigorous. While obviously an emotive and impassioned work, the finer detail was frustratingly lacking. It was almost as if the painter had known that his time was limited and wanted to get as much down on the canvas before the end.
Suddenly, I realized how late it had become. The time had slipped by while I studied that painting and the lady in it. It was now the small hours of the morning with true dark outside and the single light on in my office in the Old Museum. I had to open the Museum up in a matter of hours, so I decided to not even bother going home. I hung the painting up in my office, took my shoes off and decided to try and get a few hours rest before morning.
I fell soundly asleep the moment my head hit the cushion on my couch but my sleep was wracked with a vivid dream that still haunts me till today.
I cannot recall how the dream began but I found myself standing before the Painting of a Lady, only I saw it all and more clearly than before. I saw the blood dripping from the whiplashes on her back and ache between her legs from the Master’s forceful, unwanted visit the night before. I saw the tears from when she had buried her younger brother next to her father and mother out behind the plantation. I saw the dark, swirling storm and felt the wet, sticky jungle air as her anger became rage and her rage became something else. Something darker. I now knew of the bargain between her and the demon that lived in the centre of the Ituri Jungle that also hated white man and all his fire and axes, his rape and guns, machines and pollution. I knew of–I felt!–this deal struck of hatred deep in the dark depths of the sacred jungle…
I stood before the painting of a lady and saw all of this, and then she moved.
She leant forward in the painting, grasped its frame with his wicked hands and began to step out of it. She began to smile wickedly, her features contorting beyond human design and towards demonic proportions as her teeth grew longer and sharper.
I screamed and jumped back! I looked around me and saw my desk with my old service revolver in its drawer.
Her contorted, vile face was completely outside of the painting now, dripping bubbling poison onto my office floor. I could smell the rancid jungle and hear her softly hissing like a serpent. Her arm and its vicious nails were scratching my wall as her one leg swung out of the painting and reached down to touch the ground–
I screamed again, my hands shaking and pointed the revolver–which had suddenly appeared in my hand–at her before pulling the trigger! The first bullet hit her squarely in her naked chest, rattling the children’s bone necklace, but it hardly slowed her down.
She howled–a visceral, blood-curdling sound–and lunged at me!
“Give me the gun!” she was screaming, “Stop! Stop! Give me the gun!“
The revolver went off in my hands. Again and again and again. I was screaming and frozen at the same time while I felt the spray of blood across my face and a vast weight weighing me down…
I came around and realized that I was pinned to the ground in the entrance hall of the Old Museum. The large, oak front door was ajar with soft rays of morning sun piercing the large room. The bulky security guard we had hired to man the door was sitting on me, sweating and pale as a sheet while trying to pry my revolver from my crazed-hands. I smelt gunpowder in the air and felt a warm sticky substance splattered across my face and hand. Twisting my head around I saw, off to the side, saw two crumpled bodies of what I now know were a morning visitor to the Museum and the old cleaning lady.
Naturally, I was stripped of my title and carted off in chains to a mental institute in the interior. My family and colleagues have all but disowned me. Honestly, though, I think that my conscience and its torture of me is the worst punishment of all. I can barely eat nor sleep while the unfriendly staff of this institute tell me in no uncertain terms that if I continue at this rate that I will not make the summer.
That might actually be a sweet release and, far from worrying me, I look forward to it. Though, sometimes, I do wonder if whatever horrors we callously inflicted on the poor lady in the painting, whether this is exactly the revenge she sought in her own twisted way to lay on our doorsteps. I wonder about that demon deep in the fetid Ituri Jungle and all the bodies that have followed their painting on its journey to the west…
In reality, though, in an event that the local papers came to call the ‘Museum Rampage‘ and the judge referred to as ‘temporary and disturbing insanity‘, I had destroyed my life and the lives of two other innocents in a matter of minutes. And for what? Why? To make matters worse, I cannot recall nor remember so much as a single detail of the whole wicked affair, other than that single, terrible, vivid and haunting dream of the lady in the painting.