A Deja-Vue experience in a museum turns into a trip into the unknown.
May 15, 2007
The Painting .2007 Michael Raymond
Jack stepped through the museum doors. He had no idea why he had chosen to come inside this morning. He had never been in an art museum in his life. He had walked past it many times before. He didn’t even have any wall hangings in his apartment, just a wall clock that his aunt had given him. Something had pulled him this day.
He bought his ticket and began slowly looking around. Nothing really appealed to him. He made a turn around a corner and saw the picture. His jaw dropped in surprise!
He knew that he had been there before; not in the museum, but in that scene depicted in the painting! It was impossible, yet he knew he’d seen that leafless old dead tree hanging over the water.
The scrub bush area behind the tree just ahead of the tall stand of pines was familiar too. He could not figure it out. He had never been to any lake in his life, yet the cold dark lake on the right of the scene was just as he remembered it.
There was the same dark loom of the gray storm clouds sweeping across the sky, their shadow making the distant blue hills seem farther away than they really were. Why would he know that? How did he know that when the sun shone you could pick out the cottages and the dirt road snaking up into the cut and disappearing beyond?
He knew those head-sized boulders strewn on the shore and those peeking out from the waters edge like he’d seen them yesterday. He turned to the left to watch the flight of geese that he knew would be heading south and the spell was broken.
There were no geese. He was in the museum and he was cold, as cold as if he had stood there on that windy autumn day at the lakeside. It scared him. The hair on his arms and back of his neck stood on end.
He made for the exit and didn’t breathe again until on the street. The scene haunted him on the bus ride home. Where had he seen that picture before? When had he stood on that rocky shore?
Maybe the scene had been in a magazine spread or in the advertisements lining the bus at the window tops. Perhaps it had been on a billboard and made an impression on his mind without his knowledge.
There was one thing Jack was sure of. He had never stood on the banks of any lake or river, ever. He was a city boy and had never ventured beyond the concrete, ever. His parents had also been city born and city bred.
Nothing, he vowed, would make him enter that museum again. This was something like an Alfred Hitchcock movie or an episode from the Twilight Zone. It scared him. As the evening wore on, he knew also that if he ever did stand on that shore, something terrible would happen.
Despite his vow, the next morning found him walking into the place again. He was drawn as if a magnet pulled him. His feet retraced his path of the day before exactly.
At the same corner he turned right again and expected to see the painting on the wall opposite. Instead, he found a horrible image of a little girl staring at a clock. His picture was nowhere to be found!
After searching the entire museum, Jack stopped one of the staff and described the painting that he was searching for. The woman, the assistant curator according to her nametag, just shook her head.
“I’m sorry, sir. We’ve nothing matching that description at all. None of our exhibits have been changed in over a year. You must have been in a different building.”
Jack looked around. Impossible! It was here. He had been in this museum, passed through those same heavy glass doors. Paid the same girl behind the ticket counter.
As he walked out onto the sidewalk, confused and frightened, a flight of geese passed overhead. The echo of the honking drew his attention and he looked up. A perfect ‘V’ of perhaps a hundred birds was passing overhead.
A shiver ran up his spine. The chill didn’t leave him as he caught the bus home. Jack swore to himself that nothing was going to get him to leave the city, ever.
That night it was in a dream that Jack found himself, once again, on that windblown shore. He was not alone this time, but he couldn’t see who was his companion. It was a girl, for sure, or maybe a woman. Her face was hidden in a gray pullover hood. She was looking at the woods behind them.
“So you came,” she said, her voice sweet and almost too quiet to be heard over the wind and water sound.
“I couldn’t not come.”
“I knew you would. Let’s go.” She sprinted off into the trees and he lost sight of her.
“Wait!” He cried and ran after her. She was nowhere to be found. Jack jogged along a slim path, looking left and right, but not seeing her at all.
The dream ended and he awoke in a sweat. Shaking his head to clear it, he then rubbed his cheeks vigorously. It was still dark, 3 AM according to the bedside clock. That girl! He knew her but didn’t. At least he knew that he should know who she is, or did in that dream.
Several coffees later Jack was pacing the living room floor, still disturbed by the events of the weekend and the dream. He had to go to work soon. What did it all mean?
Despite the early rise he was late for work, but only by a few minutes. For some reason, perhaps lack of sleep, he had taken the wrong bus. It had taken him two changes to get back on the correct one.
“Mr. Kluge wants to see you, Jack,” Sally announced as soon as he entered the office.
Jack rolled his eyes at her, “Oh crap! I’m late one time and he has to make a big deal out of it.”
He knocked lightly on the door jamb of the office.
“You wanted to see me, sir?”
Kluge looked up from a document that he had been reading. “Yes, Jack. I have an assignment for you.”
“Uh huh,” Kluge said. “Here’s an expense chit. Get a train up to this place, a town called Hartwood. Talk to a man called Kotsin about people disappearing. It’s all in this letter.” He handed jack the document he had been reading, with the expense slip.
“Yes, sir,” Jack said, taking the papers. He was confused.
“Don’t just stand there!” Kluge said, smiling. “You’ve wanted a story of your own since you started here. This is it. Now get out of here. “
Jack nodded, turned, and shaking his head in disbelief, left the office. He had been the junior on the magazine staff for the past eight months. Kluge had let him tag along with the other reporters, proof some copy, but never given him an assignment before.
At his desk he quickly looked up the number for the train station. His hand shook as he dialed the number. He learned that a train was leaving in 3 hours, which meant there was just enough time to get home and pack a small valise.
Sally patted his shoulder as he passed. “Congratulations!” She called as he hurried past.
In a little less than 3 hours, the taxi deposited him at the station and, after buying the ticket; Jack had just enough time to find his seat before the slow forward motion, almost undetectable, meant the trip had begun.
Breathlessly, he watched the city glide quickly past and vanish behind as the train left town and entered the rolling countryside. The distant hills became more and more evident as the train moved relentless along the track.
Then the realization hit Jack. He was leaving the city! He had a moment of panic as he remembered the promise made to himself just yesterday. The painting, the museum, the face of the curator, the geese all came back to him in a swirl of thoughts and images. The chill returned and the dread of that picture.
Two hours later Jack stood on the landing at Hartwood. In a daze he stood transfixed before a regional map on the station wall. It showed the town nestled on the Southern shore of Lake Migoumi. He knew it was the lake in the painting.
“Mr. Shortland?” a voice asked.
He looked to his right and saw a portly gentleman addressing him.
“You must be Mr. Shortland, from the magazine?” he repeated. He held out his hand.
Jack took it and there followed a limp handshake.
“How did you know? How did you know my name?”
The gentleman smiled. “I’ve been waiting for you. You are the only one who got off the train.”
“I see. Yes. Of course.”
The old gentleman introduced himself as Mr. Manfred Kotsin, mayor of the town, and conducted Jack to a beat up old Buick. In a minute they were parking next to a grand old house, built in the last century. Jack wondered why the ride when the house was so close to the station.
Mr. Kotsin brought him into the parlour and urged him to be seated on an old couch such as Jack had only seen in photographs. It was burgundy with dark rosewood trim. The material seemed very rough – like corduroy, with a pattern of swirls making a maze that invited fingers to trace.
Kotsin had been talking non-stop since they began the short journey from the station. Jack had been half following the monologue, only able to make a few acknowledgements that hardly seemed necessary.
It seemed that young people were leaving town just as soon as they could. The city jobs, university, and college were drawing them away and there were none coming back. No new families were moving to Hartwood. The town was becoming a stagnant backwater, filled with seniors.
As mayor, Kotsin was determined to find a way to stop the exodus. He had asked the magazine to do an article on the town and all its amenities. He proceeded to expound on these like a real estate salesman.
As he went on, Jack found he could hardly focus on what the old fellow was telling him. He was fascinated by the décor of the room. There were portraits on the heavily papered walls, family members long since gone he imagined. The mantle displayed yet more family members in photographs, all stern of face and stature.
The old piano in the corner was the gathering place of yet more ancient black and white images of yet more old relatives. Above it all was an enormous crystal chandelier, which gave only dim light. It was heavy with burgundy coloured crystal teardrop shapes that blocked rather than reflected light. There was an enormous old grandfather clock in the corner behind him whose chime echoed loudly and startled Jack.
Jack became aware that the mayor had stopped speaking and seemed to be waiting for him to respond.
“Well, sir,” he began. “I’ll certainly do what I can to help you out.”
“Excellent!” cried Kotsin, clapping his hands together lightly.
Just then a young lady came into the room, through a curtain of thick burgundy bead strings, carrying a tray on which there were cups and an ancient teapot. Their eyes met and the girl smiled in a friendly way. Jack knew her instantly as the girl from the dream. She was wearing that same gray, hooded pullover and when she spoke, it was the same voice that he heard.
“I thought the gentleman might like some tea.”
“Ah, wonderful, my dear,” the mayor said. “Mr. Shortland, this is my granddaughter.
“My name is Maria,” she announced with an amused grin. She poured tea for each of them. Her hand didn’t relinquish Jack’s until he looked up at her pleasant face. She gave him a wide friendly smile and stood up.
“I’ve made scones. I’ll be right back.”
Jack was hardly aware that the mayor was speaking again. He nodded acknowledgement but his eyes followed Maria out of the room. She had a most pleasant way of moving.
Kotsin was rambling on again about the young people not wanting to stay in town. He wanted Jack to tour the town and see for himself how beautiful it was. The magazine article should have two purposes, to attract families to come here and to instill pride in the current residents. Hopefully it would have a positive effect.
Maria had returned with wonderfully aromatic baked scones. The scent of them made the mouth water. Jack was sure it was the scent. He found himself enchanted once again by the young woman. She placed a small plate of pastries in front of each man and, taking one for herself, she sat next to Jack on the settee.
She smiled at him nicely and then honoured her grandfather with her full attention. He had continued his monologue.
Jack was only vaguely aware of his voice droning on. She was there and he was totally captivated. He was sure that he felt her body heat even though she was separated from him by at least an inch. Her hip was next to his, and his eyes followed the line of her jeans down to her dainty feet.
Embarrassed less the mayor notice, Jack quickly squirmed himself upright and was about to respond when Maria beat him to it.
“I’d love to show Mr. Shortland around town!”
The mayor thought this was a wonderful idea and before Jack knew it they were on the street beginning the walking tour. She was beside him moving in such a graceful way that he found himself watching her and completely missing the landmarks, the gardens, and the picket fences.
She guided him through the dozen or so blocks, which made up the town. He dutifully made a few notes and made some silly comments. Maria didn’t seem to mind his stammering. Her amused smile throughout the tour seemed to say that she was aware of his discomfort.
Before he knew it, Jack found himself standing back in front of the Kotsin house. He was sad that the tour was over and that she might leave him. She looked up at him and met his gaze.
“I’m glad you came.” Looking away, then at her hands, then back at him. She shielded her eyes from the sun. “Where are you staying?”
Jack realized that he hadn’t even had time to consider that point. “I don’t know. Is there a good motel or hotel? I forgot to make a reservation. I left town right away…”
She just nodded, turned toward the house and said, “I’ll make up the guest room for you.”
Stay here? His heart leapt and he thanked her almost too profusely. Once again she granted him that amused, knowing smile. She left him with the mayor and went up the old stairway.
“So!” began the mayor. “Do you have any questions, young man?”
Jack came back to the realization that he was here for a purpose and was expected to have some professional things to say. He managed to consult his notes very seriously and say some intelligent things, all the while thinking that if the mayor could see how little the notebook actually contained, he might smell a rat.
After dinner, a mouth-watering country stew, Maria asked him to walk with her. He needed no prompting. She asked about his work, his life, and the city. He thought how boring his responses must seem.
Before long they passed out of the town itself and Jack found himself walking along the shores of the lake. It didn’t seem as frightful in the company of this delightful young lady.
In minutes, Jack found himself standing in the exact spot that had been in the painting. The same rocks, the old tree. The realization didn’t cause alarm. It was as if he had returned, rather than was the stranger.
The sun was low on the horizon behind the distant hills, which were silhouetted darkly. Not a cloud was in sight. He realized that it was late spring and the painting had had that foreboding darkness of late fall. Things were good here.
Maria sat down on one of the larger rocks by the shore. There was room beside her and he felt it was the most natural thing in the world to sit there. She even moved a little closer so that their hips met.
Very little was said that evening. It was as natural as he sitting beside her on the rock when they later kissed.
She told him of her parents, long since dead, and of her life in the small town. He heard about her dream of leaving to see the world, which would have broken her grandfather’s heart. He listened to a young girl’s fancies, and then a young woman’s hopes for more out of life.
She asked about his world and seemed interested in his answers. They laughed at little things and skipped stones on the lake. He didn’t tell her of his encounter at the museum or of the dream. It was a time for happy thoughts. It seemed they had known each other forever.
On the walk back to the house, they held hands and strolled without words. He was the happiest that he had ever been. Before entering the building, she took his face in both hands and looked him in the eye.
“I don’t want you to leave, ever.”
Jack looked down at the lovely face and knew what destiny was all about. Whatever happened, they had until the fall. He knew that he would be happy from now on only when he was here with Maria.
“I don’t want to go. But I will come back, again and again.”
“Promise?” A tear came into her eye and she moved closer.
“I promise. Nothing can keep me away, ever!”
They entered the old house just as darkness descended.
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