Sarah doubted that. The painting was huge -- life sized, in fact. And downright unpleasant. Sarah had once heard picture frames poetically described as 'windows to other worlds'. She didn't want to visit this one: three young women in long, pastel gowns rowed an oddly carved and impossibly angled boat across a muddy blue lake. Deep woods shrouded the right side of the canvas in forbidding gloom, while to the left, three columns of a Greek temple glimmered against vaguely hinted underbrush. The lake slanted up like a waterfall, so the whole prospect seemed about to splash downwards into the room. The 'Ladies of the Lake' (as Mark had dubbed them) clutched baskets of multicolored flowers and fed a swan. It was worse than awful.
Mark gave a hopeful little cough and produced his most winning smile. "All right," Sarah sighed, "we'll keep it -- but on one condition. You've got to tell me exactly what part of Nebraska that represents!"
They hung the painting in the bedroom. Not because they wanted it there, but because it would fit on no other wall. The frame proved surprisingly lightweight, so Mark simply drove a row of decorative nails halfway in across the wall and set the picture across them. Sarah held it while he put two nails in the wall on either side, tapping their heads gently against the frame to secure it. Although she had cleaned the frame carefully, pressing her EndGrime-laden cloth into every swirl and curlicue, it still felt almost slimy beneath her hands, and she was glad when she no longer had to touch it.
There was another painting, Mark told her. It was even larger, featured a forest fire and, "You know Jimmy's a fire buff, so we decided he should get that one.". Sarah closed her eyes, saw visions of flames. Violent red, orange, yellow slashes sprouted randomly against blackened tree shapes and swirling, dirty-gray mist. Wide-eyed, fantastically-drawn creatures - with maybe a lion or a tiger tossed in for effect -- fled madly in all directions .... Poor Angie!
Sarah's cleaning skills did not extend to oil paintings. She feared damaging the thing, making it look even worse, but 'Granny Holt's masterpiece' wasn't worth the sixty bucks an hour an expert would charge. And, the expert might laugh at it.
She tried Mark's disc cleaning cloth, which soon became remarkably dirty without changing the painting's overall griminess one bit. She took an art gum eraser to the swan's bowed neck with good results. But, thinking of Michelangelo, the Sistine Chapel, and how utterly ludicrous was her own enterprise in comparison, she decided she wasn't going to spend the next six months going over that damned canvas inch by inch.
Finally, she went to the broom closet and got out a bottle of Windex. Unscrewing the pump cap, she poured a little onto a paper towel and dabbed tentatively at a particularly dingy cloud formation in the upper left corner. A glaring white streak appeared, much too harsh; her cleanser had cut straight through to the canvas. It seemed to recoil from her hand. The white streak stood out like bare bone.
"But that's only because I know it's there," she reassured herself doubtfully. "Mark will never notice." She thought it most important that Mark not notice. He would be disappointed, and she did not want Mark to be disappointed. They hadn't been married long enough for that.
Soap and water: the only way to really clean anything, her Momma always said. She taped a plastic drop cloth to the wall beneath the painting, let it hang to the floor, and spread it over the carpet. She put bath towels over this, got a bucket of soapy water and a sponge, and set to work.
Momma was right. Water trickled down the canvas in a dirty brown stream, falling with soggy plops onto the towels below. Granny Holt's color scheme proved brighter than Sarah had realized; the yellows, pinks and greens of the Ladies' dresses glowed as if lit from within. And the canvas felt strangely warm to her touch. Perhaps that came from sunlight shining through the bedroom window, though it barely reached this far into the room. She'd heard sunlight was good for oil paintings.
With a start, she noticed that the water dripping onto the towels was now a rusty red. If she had ruined Granny Holt's painting ... but oils don't wash off, she remembered. And the stain was not coming from the center figure's pink dress , or from the vermilion canopy which draped in top-heavy splendor above the boat. It seemed to originate in the area of the Greek temple. Odd -- there was no red in that part of the painting; only musty blues, greens and grays. But time took strange liberties with oil pigments. She remembered that from a college class in art appreciation (she had flunked it.) Why, according to the teacher, Rembrandt's Night Watch had started out as a day scene!
At least the painting didn't look to have suffered from its informal scrubbing. She patted it carefully dry with a fresh towel, stepped back to admire what she had done - and realized that the figure in the pink gown was glaring out at her with pure malevolence.
Mark was puzzled. Puzzled and distressed. Sarah slunk around the house like a nervous cat, and had taken to dressing and undressing strictly in the bathroom. Not on account of him - no, not his Sarah. She claimed the painting bothered her; that the figures in the boat seemed to watch her; that their eyes followed her around the room. A trick of perspective, she acknowledged. Her cleaning had brought out more detail in the faces. But it bothered her. It bothered her in bed, too, and that bothered Mark. He resolved that if Sarah didn't soon become her old self, he would throw out the damned painting. Hang what the rest of the family thought!
Sarah walked quickly across the bedroom, forcing herself not to look at the painting. It was ridiculous, this obsession. She would ignore it. Yes, she was going to draw the drapes, lie down and take an afternoon nap. She would awake refreshed. And she would laugh at the silly notions she'd been having. That was the way to deal with fear; face up to it. Thumb your nose at it. That's what Dad always said - and Dad had been a Marine. She pulled the drapery cord. Turning, she glanced at the painting. And froze. The boat was empty.
Something stirred across the room, just inside the bath. The girl in the green dress stepped forward, walking slowly toward Sarah. The others followed, ranging across the room like predators circling their prey. Sarah's horrified gaze fixed on one object. And her scream died away in a gurgling moan as she realized what she was seeing. Never before - outside paint and canvas - had she encountered anyone whose chin came to a perfect, sharp little point.
Mark felt a mild stab of apprehension as his secretary put the call through. Jimmy almost never called him at work; almost never called him, in fact.
"Hey, big brother, how's it going?
. What? Jimmy, slow down; I can't catch what you're saying
. A fire? My God! Was there much damage?
. Everything except the what? Jimmy, that's ridiculous! No, no, of course I do
never mind that now. Just thank God that you and Angie
. What? .
Oh no. God, Jimmy, no .
"No. Please. No." Sarah huddled in the corner of the bedroom against the drapes, arms around her knees like a scared child. They approached her slowly, figures from a Surrealist's nightmare. The girl in the pink dress stared blindly with pale green, pupil-less eyes. Her right forearm was cruelly foreshortened; Granny Holt's inept handling of lines and planes carried over into the third dimension. The girl in green -- she of the perfectly pointed little chin - had a problem with her right arm, too. The elbow joint was backward. But worst of all was the figure in the yellow gown ....
They bound Sarah with drapery cords, and carried her, with hands which felt like old rubber gloves on the verge of disintegrating, to the boat, stepping into it with the ease of a cat bounding through an opened window. The girl in yellow rowed. She did this quite well, though the boat had no oarlocks, and though her left shoulder merged with her jaw, and her hands were as tiny as an infant's.
The boat glided smoothly and in utter silence across the lake toward the Greek temple. Sarah, heaped in the bottom like so much laundry, twisted frantically until the girl in pink yanked her up by the hair, and she could see over the sides. The bedroom lay so far away now it seemed the painting, and the temple loomed so close she could make out what lay within. The drapery cords cut into her flesh until it bled, but she could find no breath to scream.
Sarah wasn't home when Mark rushed in with his terrible news, which didn't surprise him. Lately she had been spending long afternoons at her parents', at the health club or - God help us - at the library. Though she ought to be home by now (it was after 4:00), and they had a long drive ahead of them.
As he hurriedly packed a bag, spreading everything on the bed and rearranging it all several times (for Sarah usually did this for him), he noticed that she had been at the painting again, this time without troubling to protect the carpet. A steady stream of reddish, gooey-looking water dripped quietly into the thick shag. Even in his distracted state, Mark found that odd. There were no reds in the upper left section of the canvas.