2018-02-25 20:45 fiction short-story Benjamin Brood

Midnight Blue

Henri lived on one end of the garret, Victor on the other. They were both painters and they hated one another.

They moved in on the same day. Henri watched as Victor clumsily walked his canvases and easel up the stairs. Victor watched as Henri struggled with his frames and brushes, buckets and sketch pads. Victor gave Henri a nod, Henri gave Victor a nod. Despite the courtesy they were both disappointed that there was another painter in the garret — and, unbelievably, right next door. When they'd been shown the place each had asked "Are there any other painters in the building?" Both were, independently, told no, no other painters were in the building. This may have been true at the time, but they felt betrayed. Surely they should've been informed that another painter was inquiring.

On the first night in the apartment Henri could hear Victor hammering up sketches and drawings. Victor could hear the "clink clink" of Henri washing his brushes. The image of the neighboring painter was irrefutable, as if they could see through the walls using the newly discovered x-rays. Henri could imagine, with perfect accuracy, Victor pacing in front of his canvas — Victor could predict when, precisely, he would hear the taut snap of an expressive brush stroke from Henri.

Quickly, it became intolerable. How could one live this way, on the opposite side of a mirror. But the reflection was a monstrosity. Henri moved everything as far from the opposite wall as he could. So did Victor. This provided a couple weeks of relief. The presence of the other however was tangible, like a low siren, a warning call so constant that sometimes you might, almost, forget it.

One day on the stairs Henri met an old patron, with two well dressed guests, clearly affluent, who were walking up to the garret.

"Oh Jacques… I wasn't expecting you, it's nice of you to come see me in my new studio…"

"Henry! Good to see you! I had no idea you were in the same building as Victor — how pleasant! I'll be sure to stop by for a moment after I'm done with my visit there."

The blood drained from Henri's face. He felt queasy, the world spinning in yellows and dark reds, he was barely able to remain standing.

"Henri? Are you alright? You really must get out more, locking yourself up and working so much is making you pale."

It was intolerable. Something must be done, Henri resolved. That night Henri barely slept, he rolled around in a fit, unable to purge the image of his own patron in Victor's studio. Something must be done.

Henri decided he would paint away Victor. Completely away, totally gone. This wouldn't be easy, he would have to fully conceive of Victor's gestures, capture it without error, not merely some representation, but an actual copy of Victor on the canvas. Then it occurred to him that Victor was thinking, and was planning, the exact same thing. There was no time to waste, Henri would have to succeed first.

The next day when Victor came home from the cafe, where he would usually have a late dinner, he was overcome with a disquieting sense of misplacement. What had he lost? He walked through the apartment carefully, inspecting everything. He turned over cups, examining the bottoms. He opened the trash bin and rummaged through the contents. He rubbed his finger along the top edge of wooden molding of the apartment, satisfied with the thick layer of dust he extracted. But what was it? He settled on his hair brush. Was there hair attached to it? He wasn't getting any younger. He believed there had been. However, there was nothing there now. Victor ruminated over this as he took Henri's cigarette stubs from an envelope he'd hidden under the sink. The painting of Henri, it was very good so far, very accurate. The saliva and ash from the cigarettes would be ground down in the mortar and pestle, perhaps into a nice sienna, or maybe a midnight blue.