This is a remarkable painting; who did you say the artist was again? asked Thomas as he looked at the framed picture that hung slightly askew in the antique shop.
A musty scent pervaded the store, reminding him of the old attic he used to hide in during his youth. There was very little room to walk. Thomas shuffled by the antiquated items strewn over the floor and rooms of this old shop. Nothing he had seen had captured his attention more then this picture that clung upon the wall like a spider frozen in patience for its prey. There was something disturbing about the portrait, yet haunting and capturing to the eye. For one thing, it seemed very out of place in this den of antiquities, and for another, it seemed as if someone were trying to hide it.
"Heinrich Von Stoeffler. Please pay no mind to it, sir. It's not for sale."
Von Stoeffler...hmmm...never heard of him."
No. Very few people in the art world know of his work, unfortunately."
Yeah, I'll say. I mean, I'm not much of an art connoisseur, but there is something about this picture that's ... well...."
Yeah ... kinda.."
It is, and actually more, said the shopkeeper as he ran long, skeletal fingers through his thick black hair. His right eyebrow rose slightly as he played with his goatee, winding the hair until it sharpened to a point.
So, are there any other places that carry his work? Like museums, art dealers, or other antique shops that you know of?"
Alas, none that I know of. You're looking at quite possible the only remaining piece of his work."
Are you serious?"
Wow ... so, is he still alive?"
Unfortunately, no. He died in Auschwitz. You see, he was a German Jew during Adolph Hitler's tyrannical reign. This picture was painted during his internment and subsequent death at the camp."
Oh really? What else can you tell me about this picture? Thomas inquired as he moved closer toward the portrait, drawn into its invisible web.
Well, legend has it that Hitler was quite fascinated with Heinrich's art, so that he secretly commissioned the artist to paint this special portrait for him. Actually, more to the truth, he threatened poor Heinrich with the life of his wife and children to paint for him the Glory of the Nazi regime. Hence this masterpiece that hangs before you."
It's beautiful in an ugly kind of way... Thomas whispered as he drew within an arm's length of the portrait. Suddenly nausea gripped him as a strong, unmistakable stench filled his nostrils.
Oh, you don't want to get to close to it. The smell is quite strong."
Uhhhhh ... it smells like something dead."
That's because it is. You see, Hitler demanded that poor Heinrich create his masterpiece using no paint, canvas, or brush. His art supplies consisted only of what he could retrieve off dead corpses, which were mainly human bone, skin, and blood."
Oh my God ... you can't be serious! Thomas said, his throat constricting as he struggled to keep his lunch down.
I'm very serious, sir. You see, Mr. Von Stoeffler was a very resourceful man. As legend tells it, he used human skin as the canvas, bone and scalp as the brush, and ... well ... blood as his paint. You can see on the picture the many different hues of red. Also, green and brown were created by fecal matter along with other bodily parts ground and combined to create these lovely colors."
How did you...."
A long story, sir. Suffice to say this one of the last things Hitler viewed before his death. I was told by a friend that a member of the allied army who entered the secret bunker and found the mad leader dead from his self-inflicted gunshot wound said this portrait was hanging across from him. From there the history of this painting and its travels are lost. I can only tell you that the portrait eventually fell into the hands of an English tycoon who was later found mysteriously murdered. His body was torn open and his entrails used to paint the name of the portrait on the walls beneath its picture frame. Well ... actually, all over the room itself."
The name? You mean this painting has a name?"
Why of course. All works of art do."
What is it? inquired Thomas as the portrait in front of him once again mesmerized him. Its colors swirled before him, moving slowly in a spiral as if the blood that had been used to create it were coming back to life. As he focused on the middle of the picture he could see the outline of figures drawing forward, out from the void of red darkness. His heart beat faster, rhythmically, as he heard it pump his blood through his body.
What does that mean?"
Loosely translated it means ... The Harrow."
That's a strange name for a bizarre painting."
Hitler had another name for it. I think it was ... Die Vormacht aufsteigen. Which means in English: The Supreme Power. But Von Stoeffler, before his death, painted with his own blood the name with which he christened it, which, as you can imagine, infuriated the tyrant. Fortunately for the artist it was too late for the Fuhrer to enact his revenge."
So Von Stoeffler killed himself?"
Yes, I believe that is what had happened. Unfortunately there was something more to his death, or so I was told, but we will never know the truth of what led him to commit suicide."
Wow, he did himself in. I wonder if it had to do with this picture somehow? The thoughts ran through Thomas' mind as he continued to scan the portrait before him.
I really want this picture...."
I'm sorry, sir. It is not for sale. I can not put a price on such a remarkable piece of......"
Sebastian, darling? Where are you? cooed a female's voice as a teenage girl suddenly appeared at the base of the stairs across the room. Oh, there you are, honey. I'm lonely. Are you almost done? An exposed leg appeared out from the bathrobe she wore as she teased the two men across the room. She tilted her head slightly to the side in apparent shyness, but Thomas knew better.
Uhhhh ... Jessica, dear. I shall be up in a minute, said the shop owner with embarrassment.
OK, baby. But don't take too long. I'm starting to get cold up in the there, and I hate being all alone. She gave them a salacious smile as she turned and made her way back up the steps.
Daughter? asked Thomas as he cast a sharp look at the shop owner.
Uhhhh ... well ... she's ... ummmm...."
I didn't think so. Well, I say five hundred dollars should be sufficient for the painting. Don't ya think?"
It is not for sale, sir."
Hmmm ... lets see. She looked to be about thirteen, but no older than sixteen. And you look to be about thirty-eight, maybe forty. Last I heard about statutory rape...."
Five hundred shall be sufficient, sir."
Good, we have a deal. Oh and by the way ... would you wrap that up for me, please?"
It whispers ... its dark voice calling.
Thomas sat at the edge of his bed, staring at the picture that hung upon his wall. Time had ceased, as he was enamoured with the portrait. Again the blood moved as if alive, swirling out toward him as if trying to reach to touch his soul. Shadows moved along its edges, ghost shades in calling. Then the whispers. His hands gripped the bedspread tightly as his eyes continued to focus forward, into the dark art, while his body trembled.
What lovely colors.... he thought.
Silence filled the room, with only an occasional drip from the bathroom sink echoing in the air, then subsiding once again into quiet. Thomas broke out of his trance as he scanned the wall and room around him.
There's something not right. Too many things around the picture."
He walked toward the wall and moved the small end table underneath the portrait out into the hallway, then walked back into the room and sat back on the edge of the bed. Thomas looked around the room once more as his forehead furrowed in thought.
Something's still not right. Let me move more stuff out."
Three hours passed as he finished disassembling the bed and hauling its parts one by one out into the living room. He returned to the bedroom and slowly sat down onto the cold floor. It was completely empty except for the picture, his bedspread, and a couple of pillows. Once again he cast his gaze at the portrait hanging upon the wall and sighed.
Now that's a lot better!"
He allowed his mind to once again drift into the portrait and be captured by its haunting vision and hues. And slowly the smile upon his face melted into a leer.
It lures its prey into its dark web.
Drip ... drip ... drip ... drip ... drip.
Days passed, then weeks. A month had gone by since Thomas purchased the picture he now stared at each night. The visions called out to him as moonlight from the window shined upon it. The whispers still came from a distance, but they were becoming more defined with each passing day.
Drip ... drip ... drip ... drip ... drip.
He looked at the open door of the restroom, then moaned with annoyance as he stood and walked over to it, slamming the door shut. He sighed with relief and once more deposited himself onto the bedspread laid out upon the cold floor.
Once again shadows lumbered forward from within the picture around the edges of the swirling blood. A stench of decay hung heavy in the air, and Thomas had no doubt where its odor came from.
Drip ... drip ... drip ... drip ... drip.
Damn it! he cursed again, but slowly dreams took hold of him and he felt himself slowly fade into darkness.
Gray. The vision before him was colored in grays subtle tones. No sound; only forward movement. A cold dark room. The back of a man covered in the clothing of a prisoner. Bodies littered throughout the room. Piled on each other in heaps of decay. Splashes of red breaking into the vision of gray, as blood dripped along the carcass-littered floor. Red, sprayed along the walls. The sound of breathing coming now, but from whom? The sitting figure before him rocked back and forth as Thomas continued his forward movement. Looking over the shoulders of the distressed person he could see a canvas of skin half-painted in blood. Weeping. The sounds of anguish coming from the figure as Thomas spied over its shoulders to see the head of a child in his arms as he rocked it back and forth.
Oh my God!"
The walls cried tears of blood as the picture pulsated on its stand. The figure stood, slowly turning to face Thomas, staring at him through eyes that resembled pools of dark blue. His sparse hair was white and his face was wrinkled, each crease deeply cut into his skin. The head he held slowly fell upon the floor, bouncing and rolling toward Thomas' feet. Then the words of a curse hissed from the shade and echoed along the walls of the room. The spirit stood in anguish with the pieces of its dead family strewn across the floor, mixed among the other corpses.
"Die Egge, whispered the withered figure.
The wraithlike man reached down and grabbed what appeared to be a sharpened femur bone. A half-rotted smile crossed the figure's lips as he drove the sharp object into his stomach.
The ghost of Heinrich Von Stoeffler sliced open its abdomen in a diagonal line as blood spurted forward. Its intestines began to protrude outward, slowly spilling into its hands as the weapon fell to the floor. Insanely giddy laughter burst forth from its lips. It ran a blood-covered hand across the picture, continuing to paint its masterpiece of horror in its own blood.
Die Egge! screamed the shade of the dead painter. Other words followed, but those were the only ones Thomas recognized.
I don't understand what you're telling me! Thomas cried, backing away in terror from the horrific scene before him. Again Von Stoeffler screamed at him, over and over again, until suddenly the words began to change. They were becoming recognizable as they metamorphosed from one language, melding, then shifting into another.
Paint your soul into ... the Harrow...."
Thomas stumbled backward, falling hard atop the corpses that littered the room. He cowered as the voice of the dead thing resonated around him with its dark proclamation. The creature shambled toward him, blood running in rivulets down the corners of his mouth onto the floor as his intestines dangled loosely and dragged behind.
... Harrow ... with your blood...."
Thomas screamed, shielding his eyes from the dead thing that now stood over him. Suddenly he fell again. Visions of nightmares speckled with blood cascaded before him. The screams of the damned surrounded him as he plunged into the darkness, though he could not see their faces. They called out in agony and anguish until suddenly they melded into one voice. His own.
It begins to feast.
Thomas found himself standing in his bathroom, screaming in terror. The mirror above the sink was shattered. Its shards littered the floor. His body was trembling as he felt his abdomen and hands on fire. Excruciating pain burnt its way up along his body to his brain.He began to cough as blood bubbled forth from his lips, dripping onto the porcelain sink. To his horror, Thomas could see the reason for its release. He had sliced open his stomach with a large piece of the broken mirror. His intestines were beginning to poke outward from the tear in his skin.
The piece of glass fell from his hands, shattering on the floor as he screamed once more. His throat burned with pain, constricting as the sound that issued from it changed into mad laughter.
"Die Egge.... he began to chant.
"Die Egge ... paint my soul into hell.... he shouted, running into the bedroom, smearing his blood along the walls. Thomas plunged his hands into the gaping wound in his stomach. A sickening liquid sound filled his ears as he drew out more blood.
He was numb from the pain. He stood before the picture, staring into it.
They were calling him. He could see them in the picture. Dead souls trapped forever in the Harrow, screaming to him in their damnation. No longer was there a scent of death wafting from the picture, only the smell of hell as its fires yearned for him to enter.
Thomas placed his hands into his gaping wound, grabbing the folds of torn flesh. With one violent pull he tore the wound wider and his entrails splashed onto the cold floor. As his death throes began, he thrust his blood-soaked hands into the painting before him. He was home at last.
It devours its prey.
He walked along the room, wiping the flecks of dust off the antiques that were everywhere. New customers would arrive and more money would change hands. Oh, how he loved the smiles on their faces as they discovered something new in these old objects. Each one had a life of its own and the memories of those who once owned it. He breathed a sigh of satisfaction. His preparation had been completed. Suddenly he beamed with joy.
Ah, it is so nice to have you back. I was beginning to worry. Usually it does not take you this long to return."
The shopkeeper made his way through the small maze of antiques and stood in front of the bizarre portrait that clung upon the wall like a predator in waiting. Slowly he ran the feather duster over its face, brushing its skin with loving care.
Oh, it looks like you have brought along a new friend. It is so nice to see new faces inside you. I am sure he is enjoying his stay. It was money well spent, was it not, Thomas? Besides how can one place a price ... on hell?"
The Harrow: Original Works of Fantasy and Horror. ISSN: 1528-4271
The Harrow is published by THE HARROW PRESSSM