My father was curator for an art gallery and museum in Paris. No, not the famous one; this was a small establishment off Rue de ***.
He often told me tales of the weird exhibits stored in the basement that, for one reason or another, were not on display. My interest was piqued when he described a painting in oils that they considered too disturbing for exhibition. So gruesome was his description that I had to see it. At last, after much badgering, but not till after my twentieth birthday, he took me down into the underground vault. The experience remained with me for life and may have influenced my choice of writing genre.
The title of the picture, written in a Gothic style of lettering was “Finale de la Danse Macabre”, but there was no signature of the artist. Style of clothing gave no indication, but I guessed from hairstyles that the setting was late 19th century. Shades of lurid red light bathed the scene detracting much of the detail. A group of figures, probably male, dressed in hooded, crimson gowns of the type often shown as being worn by practitioners of occult beliefs were depicted in various dancing poses, each with a female partner. That the partners were female was easy to see as each, apart from a mask resembling a bird’s head was completely naked. From the voluptuous female charms they showed no sign of shame in displaying, I would guess that none were older than their mid twenties. The male dancers I would not be sure, as the majority had their face hidden in the shadows of the cowl attached to the robe.
The couples gyrated in a dance similar to a waltz around a stone altar on which reposed the naked form of a young man. His arms and legs outstretched were fastened to beams of wood in the shape of an “X”. On closer inspection, I could see him held in place by large metal spikes through his limbs. From the minute detail, his torture seemed to be the focus of interest for the artist.
Symbolic shapes of strange design, cut into his skin, bled profusely. He had been castrated, the genitalia having been cut so deeply, I at first assumed the figure to be female. A deep gash, almost from lower sternum to pelvis, had opened up his stomach from where entrails spilled like writhing snakes. Blood dripped and pooled on the altar and floor around him.
His injuries were horrendous, and yet, from contortions of his face and wildly staring eyes, he was obviously still very much alive. Even in such agony, his face was beautiful, the flesh smooth, almost effeminate.
At his head stood a woman, a long, stiletto bladed knife in her hand. She too was naked, wearing only the bird-like mask, but adorned with a golden headdress similar to those worn by the Inca priests of South America. The metal blade of the knife gleamed in the red, glowing light as blood dripped from its tip..
I took the picture from the wall for closer inspection. Turning the frame, I noticed writing on the back. Although in French, the English translation would read, “Dance Macabre performed at Theatre of Dreams, Rue de ***.”
“The theatre was on the same street as the museum then?” I asked my father.
“I have no idea,” he replied, “but now you mention it, I heard once that the museum was converted from an old theatre.”
“You know?” I let my gaze pan around the vault, “I think it could have been painted in this very room.” Carrying the painting I made my way between the displays noting how the pillars and columns supporting the roof matched those in the picture. Until I came to a brick wall where no wall should have existed. “Hey! This shouldn’t be here. Can you bring a flash-light?”
It was immediately obvious that the wall was not part of the original structure, and erected in some haste. The mortar between the bricks had crumbled making the blocks easy to dislodge.
“We can’t do this!” My father had never been one to push the limits of authority.
I ignored him and continued removing bricks until I had a hole large enough for me to squeeze through. Shining the flash-light around showed me this was definitely where the scene was painted. The roof columns and floor although now covered with a layer of dust and cobwebs were exactly as the painting depicted.
The beam of light picked up a shadowy object in the centre of the room: the altar. I approached, casting the beam over the stone plinth, the grotesque carving of the block. The beam of light flickered over the top of the altar. I froze in mid-stride. A human figure sprawled across the top, stretched out and pinned to two wooden beams in the form of an “X”.
Blood dripped from strange symbols cut into the pale flesh. Entrails spewed like writhing snakes from the split belly. How could this be? According to the undisturbed dust and cobwebs, no one had been here for years. Perhaps, even, a whole century. Yet the figure appeared to be as fresh as the day the painting was made. I approached more slowly, playing the light over the horrendous injuries. Of course. This could only be a very lifelike manikin. A dummy. I shone the light on the pale, effeminate face, stooping to gaze at the beautiful, lifelike features. The beam glanced over the closed lids of the eyes. It all looked so real, like real flesh.
And then the eyes flicked open. A deep moan escaped from his mouth. The wild, staring eyes locked on to mine and I realized I was staring into the tortured depths of hell.
© 2012 Robert A. Read