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Rated: 13+ · Short Story · Contest Entry · #2227103
Be careful what you read about.
A Self Portrait

It was an old book that first gave Emmet Daniels the idea. A search in the attic had brought the book to his attention, a surprising find since he had no idea that the house was old enough to have harboured such a treasure for so many centuries. An old, old book it was, from before the days of the printing press, with colourful paintings illustrating the gothic script that covered the thick, crackling vellum of its pages.

He treated it with due respect, buying an old lectern from a church to hold it and never allowing sunlight to touch its pages. In the attic he stored it and, on days when his sisters were out at market, he would go up there and turn the pages reverently, slowly and with difficulty deciphering the ancient script to discover the book’s message.

In the golden glow from an old lantern, the only light he let caress the pages, he learned gradually that it was a book of spells. Emmet was not uncomfortable with this discovery; it was to be expected that a medieval book should be concerned with things from long ago. But, as he read deeper and deeper into the pages, he began to find spells that attracted him, that whispered in his ear about the possibilities opening to him.

This increasing fascination with the book did not leave Emmet unmarked. The need to peer closely at the pages in the dim light made him squint with the effort and time was etching fine lines around his eyes as a result. The lack of sleep caused by his nights lying awake as he thought about what he was reading left dark rings that made his eyes seem to recede beneath his brows. He was not unaware of these changes, seeing them every morning in his shaving mirror and this may have been influential in the first spell he decided to try.

It was a charm to prevent aging and required that he first paint a picture of himself. He had dabbled with a paintbrush and canvas in his youth, so he was not deterred by such a necessity. A brief search in the attic revealed his paint-stained equipment in a box covered by several drapes in a corner. His old easel was actually in full view, standing next to the box amongst several piles of books.

His paints were dried up and useless so he was forced to buy new tubes of oils in the town, together with solvents and drawing materials that he knew he would need. Quite quickly he was able to begin, setting up in front of an old wardrobe that had a full length mirror in its central door. His first effort was poor but he could feel the old skills returning. He wiped the canvas clean and started again.

In time, Emmet produced a very good likeness of himself, a head and shoulders self portrait that showed him gazing at the mirror with suitable aplomb. He moved closer to the lantern, surveyed his work in detail and pronounced himself satisfied.

What followed next was considerably more complicated and took several days to complete. Checking each stage carefully with the instructions in the book, Emmet weaved an arcane spell with words of unknown meaning, drawings of symbols that he copied meticulously from the page, and geometric shapes chalked into the floorboards. At one point, his sisters came to the attic hatch and called up at him, wanting to know what he was doing, but Emmet sent them away with the information that he was reviving his long neglected artistic skills. Both of them had long mourned his abandonment of what they considered a fine talent, so they went away, whispering their approval and excitement as they left.

There came a day when Emmet completed the spell. Exhausted by the effort, he collapsed into a chair and dozed off for a few hours. When he awoke, it was night and only the faint moonlight filtering through the dusty skylight allowed him to see his surroundings. He relit the lantern and went to look at the portrait.

As he expected, there was no change. It would take time, he told himself; these things did not happen overnight. He climbed down the ladder and went to sleep in his bed.

It was over a month before Emmet noted any change at all. In fact, he had almost given up hope of the spell working and was ready to laugh at his gullibility in being taken in by the thing at all. But then, one fine morning, when the light was particularly bright in the bathroom, Emmet noticed the number of grey hairs in his comb. He was pretty sure that it had been clean when he started combing his hair so where had all this grey hair come from?

He dragged the comb through his hair again and had another look. There were more of them, he was sure, long, faded strands so different from the fine, dark locks he was used to. Was he going grey and bald so early? He was barely out of his thirties and that seemed hard to take. Still, he had known people who had gone bald while very young and one fellow whose hair was completely white by the age of twenty-five. He shrugged and forgot the matter in the business of his day.

Two days later, while shaving, Emmet realised that his eyes had sunk so deeply into their sockets that they were like two animals peering from their resident caves. He saw now that the wrinkles carved into his face by his constant squinting were spreading and taking over his whole face. Rubbing his head in astonishment, he found that his hair had thinned even more; there was very little left on top. A terrible thought seized him and he turned and left the room, going immediately to the stairs to the attic.

Once there he lit the lantern and brought it close to the painting. There was no discernible change. Emmet started back in horror. It could not be true, surely. But, even as he recoiled from the idea, he realised that the attic itself was somehow different. The cobwebs had disappeared and somehow all the surfaces seemed to be dust-free. Had one of his sisters been cleaning up here?

But that was impossible. He would have heard their clumsy attempts to climb the stairs and the noise of sweeping and cleaning would have echoed through the old house to alert him. There was only one possible explanation for what was happening.

In the depths of his despair, Emmet realised that he had a last hope of redemption. The book must know how to reverse this process. Somewhere in its pages there must be an antidote to the spell, a way to negate its effects and return things to normal. He grabbed the lantern and went to his lectern. His trembling hand turned the pages and he began to read.

Two weeks later, Justin, a boyhood friend of Emmet’s visited and was shocked at how he had aged. There was no hiding how Emmet had degenerated since the spell and he decided to take Justin into his confidence.

“It’s that book I found in the attic,” he said. “There’s this spell that promises to halt aging and I couldn’t resist. It required me to paint a self portrait and you know how I used to wield a fair paintbrush. Well, I tried it but…” Emmet’s voice tailed off as he felt the full weight of his desperation. “You’d best come and have a look.”

He led Justin to the attic, showed him the book and the painting, then explained that the image in the portrait was supposed to age instead of himself. But somehow things had gone wrong somewhere and now he was aging at a greatly increased speed while the portrait stayed stubbornly the same.

“I’m searching the book for a remedy,” Emmet went on. “But it’s a slow business, the script being so hard to decipher. And in the meantime, I’m getting older by the day.”

“I can see that,” sympathised Justin. “Man, you look awful, I have to admit.”

Emmet regarded him with despair in his eyes. “That’s not the worst of it,” he admitted, spreading his arms to demonstrate the extent of his problem. “The really terrible thing is that every day my sisters get younger and younger.”

Word Count: 1,413
For SCREAMS!!!, July 18 2020
Prompt: Painting a painting.
Note: Or admission, really. This is a story lifted from a poem that I wrote a while back. The poem never made much of a splash, probably because it was not overt about what was going on (okay, I mean it was, perhaps, a little too subtle). When I saw the SCREAMS!!! prompt, I thought of my poem immediately and decided to be cheeky and give the story line another chance. So it’s new but the idea has been around for a few months. If that disqualifies the story, well, so be it!

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