The basement was neat and tidy, everything had a place and there was a place for everything. The only natural light streamed in through slit windows set just below the ceiling and opened onto the grass of the lawn outside, which, as always, was well kept, neatly trimmed. It was a good lawn, lush and verdant, no sign of fungus or wild flowers. If you wanted fungus or wildflowers it was but a short walk into the woods that abutted the end of the grounds. It was as he liked it; he liked to walk in the woods and collect the fungi, collect some of the wild flowers, but only the ones that came with inherent advantages.
In the basement, sunlight would stream through those small windows, dust motes would dance within the beams, cavorting and spiralling in dizzying patterns when the breeze blew through an open window. He liked to have the windows open, to let the outside in. The fresh smells of the day, the cloying dampness as the early morning mist withdrew revealing another warm Spring day. The light only illuminated a small portion of the basement at any given time and always over his workstation; the rest of the basement hung in a perpetual gloom, a pall of darkness cloaked the distant depths of the room, only to be revealed if he chose to switch on the electric bulbs that dangled freely from the beams of the floor above. He generally refrained from doing this as their harshness offended his eyes. He much preferred, even at night, to work by natural light. It made his work more tangible, imbuing it with the essence of life that he so craved.
He had moved into the old New England farmhouse five years previously and it hadn’t taken long for the local gossips to start to prattle on about the handsome, quietly spoken, yet charming, young man that had taken up residence in their little town. Many were the questions of whom he was, what manner of man was he and what profession did he follow? All questions that remained unanswered for many months, even as the gossips and passers-by would espy the activities, at a distance, through the wrought iron gates that protected the front of the dwelling, the rest encircled by a high, red bricked wall. Deliveries arriving and vans taking boxes away again. He liked the solitude of the place, tucked away on one of the seven hills that overlooked the town; a short sprint in the pickup would bring him to the centre of that town, a brisk walk was preferred, unless he was taking parcels home with him. On these occasions, when in town, he took the time to engage with the populace that presented themselves to him. He was cordial, erudite and ever charming, but even after lengthy engagements those inhabitants that had chatted amiably with him realised afterwards that he had said nothing about himself, they were forever in the dark about this newcomer to their fold. He realised all too quickly that his isolation and privacy would not remain intact for long if the gossips didn’t get to the bottom of his mystery. So, on one such morning, a few months after he had taken up residence, he let slip one or two juicy morsels that he suspected would mollify the townsfolk and help ensure his continued private solitude.
‘It’s so tragic,’ Imelda said to the ensemble of ladies she had hurriedly summoned for a coffee morning at her rather ramshackle, late 19thcentury house. ‘So young and a widower. I can only infer from what little he said that his wife and daughter passed tragically, an accident, I think. It has left him bereft of life and so he seeks solace in his drawings and paintings.’
‘He’s an artist?’ Janet Newsome declared querulously, ‘I had said as much to my husband. I’m usually right about these things.’
Imelda looked at her with disdain, knowing full well she had never said anything of the sort to her husband, nor, indeed, to anyone else. This was Imelda’s moment and she wasn’t about to let Janet Newsome steal any of her thunder. Certainly, the snippets of information he had divulged, in what she had considered a conspiratorial manner, were hers to own and she made the most of them, telling all and sundry who would stop and listen for more than a minute, about the tragic story of the artist on the hill. Whether any of it was true, never occurred to Imelda and her imagination embellished the story every time she told it, which in those early months was often. As for him, up on the hill, when he overheard a whispered conversation in the corner of the wholesale store, two young girls casting furtive glances in his direction, he allowed himself a wry smile. An imperceptible nod of satisfaction was all he gave in response to their chatter.
After this time, he was generally left in peace to pursue his activities as he preferred them. Occasionally a local would come to his gates and process up to his door to knock and enquire with him. He was always welcoming and pleasant, although only rarely did he invite anyone over the threshold. When the girls of the local school came with brownies for their fundraisers, he was always sure to buy several boxes, always the same amount of boxes too, so that it was fair between the girls. Occasional deliveries were brought direct from the post office, even though it was his wont to stroll into town every morning to pick up his post direct. Emma Spalding, the delivery girl, always found him to answer her call, no matter the time of day and she often wondered, especially on those rare occasions when he was wiping his hands upon a towel, whether the inks and dark stained paint smudges meant that he was working on yet another never to be seen artwork. She always apologised for disturbing him in his work and he always smiled that beautiful, ingratiating smile that said for her, least ways, he was happy for the break. He was always even more pleased when he realised it was her, he said. Emma never felt uncomfortable in his presence even though she could see him openly appraising her. Of course, she was used to that appraisal after so many years of living in a small country town. The local boys had been doing it since she had started to blossom in her early teens. She also knew she was a striking beauty in the country set, she had been told as much often enough, usually by the more salacious members of her society. But the way in which this artist looked at her she knew there was something deeper in his gaze; he was viewing her not just as a voluptuous young woman, with flame red hair, but as a muse for inspiration in a great work of art. She wondered many times if he would ever ask her to pose for him. But maybe he was such a professional that merely looking at her was enough to capture her inalienable vitality. One day, she hoped, he would ask; one day he would ask her to cross his threshold; one day she would gladly go through.
Celice was awoken from her dreaming by the muffled sound of voices, they seemed distant and undulating. Words carried on the zephyr of the breeze that sidled in through the open windows. As consciousness returned to her, clarity of thought came with it and she recognised one of the voices. It was HIM. She strained to hear the conversation. As ever everything was darkness, a total tenebrous void enshrouding her. She could see nothing, feel nothing, but she could hear the voices, subdued and distant as if she were listening to the conversation with her head underwater. In the early days this lack of feeling, lack of anything resembling a tactile experience had sent her into a spiral of panic and yet the panic had been only in her mind. She knew what anxiety was, she had had it often enough in her life and it had always centred in the depths of her stomach; a deep gnawing, churning pool of discomfort that, on occasion, would well up into her chest and make her feel faint; causing her heart to beat faster and faster until the blood flow to her brain caused a blackness behind her eyes and the sense of falling. But recently, since shortly after she had made the fateful decision to cross his threshold any sense of panic was purely confined to her head. Some of what he had said to her must have been true, then. He had said he could take away the pain she felt in her body; sadly, it seemed to her that he had merely transferred it all to her mind instead.
She could hear him more distinctly now, the last words lost to her moment of panic. Whatever he had said had amused his audience for she heard a reciprocating girlish chuckle. Oh dear. Was whatever had happened to her about to happen to some other poor, deluded and unsuspecting soul? Was he employing that dazzling charm of his to devastating effect? She heard the girl’s voice, soft, sibilant and lilting, mildly distorted by the sense of liquid obscuring the sounds. The girl was apologising again for coming to him unannounced and without any real errand to fulfil. Oh no! Unannounced? Does that mean no one knows where you are, young girl? Please say it is not so. Celice could hear the girl continue after her chuckle, she had come on a whim, she had been on her way home, but suddenly changed her mind and direction and come HERE, come to HIM, instead. Celice started to get anxious again, but not for herself this time. Her mind started to race, blood pounding on her synapses, she had to warn the girl. ‘Don’t say any more! You’re inviting him to invite you in. Don’t do it! Don’t come inside.’ But then it occurred to her, maybe if the girl comes inside, she can find me, she can rescue me. No, that’s insane, Celice, you’re being selfish. If the girl comes in, she will be like me, stuck. Trapped. Imprisoned. Helpless.
And then, there it was, the simple, ‘would you like to come in, for a moment?’ Celice strained to hear the response. But there was none, no sound, nothing. Had he struck before the girl could refuse his simple invite? No, Celice then heard the sound of two sets of footsteps crossing the threshold, the muted sound of his front door closing and the continuation of conversation, now any distinction of words lost to the hallowed walls of the entrance way. NO! Celice tried to scream, but no words were forthcoming, unlike the unseen above, she had no voice, he had taken even that from her. He had silenced her. And yet, she screamed, and screamed and screamed.
The late afternoon sun, perching upon the tips of the trees of the wood at the border of the property, poured in through the side windows of the basement, once again illuminating the workstation that he spent so much of his time at. Today it was clear of the usual working clutter. It was clean and vacant, ready for a new artwork to commence. The only thing that ever remained in situ, his first piece of work, his enduring muse. The brain in the jar.
Jack T Canis lives in South Wales, UK with his wife and three children. He started his professional career as an archaeologist, but through the years has also been a self-employed armourer; an administrator for the NHS and in recent years a qualified person-centred counsellor specialising in bereavement and loss, now retired. Currently he is a full-time carer for his youngest child who has additional physical needs and is a part time writer working on the publication of his first novel. He is published in Potato Soup Journal (March 2019), Blood Moon Rising, Datura, Teleport magazine & in an anthology published by Monnath Books, UK.