Ben stared more closely at the painting. It had been over fifteen years since he had last seen it. There was no way it was the same one. Artists often paint the same picture over and over again, he told himself, thinking of Sara in her paint-splattered apartment. Even the idea that it might be theirs was just a momentary deception, like the people on the street or at the cocktail hour, dead ringers for his parents only because he wanted them to be.
Ben breathed out slowly and took one last look before turning again to leave, this time for good. But then he noticed, in the painting's lower right-hand corner, a tiny glossy area that gleamed white under the gallery lightsthe same place where Sara, at the age of seven, had once tried to coat the painting with clear nail polish until their parents caught her. And then Ben's entire body started shaking with rage.
He read the label again, still stunned. On loan, it read, from a Russian museum. He stretched his arms toward the painting without even noticing that he was doing so, reaching for it, ready to grip the bottom of the frame like the rung of a ladder. In his mind he saw his feet walking up the wall until he could step into it, sliding through the frame and out and up and away. Instead he caught a glimpse of his own hands out of the corner of his eye and stopped himself, lowering his arms and turning his head to see if anyone was still around.
No one was there, not even a lingering guard.
Strange things happen to paintings that no one looks at. They start to sing. In the absence of people, the empty room reverberated with the colors humming on its walls. Ben stood alone and listened as each wide flash of color vibrated at a different pitch: wistful wavering high notes for the airborne woman, deep resonating low tones for the Lovers in Blue. The dark little picture rattled the air with the banging of piano keys like the ones that once lay below it in his parents' living room, a minor chord struck by accident in the middle of a song.
He stepped closer.
With all his strength, he grabbed the painting's thin frame and yanked the whole thing off the wall. It was so light that he nearly flew backward. And then he left.
Reprinted from The World To Come by Dara Horn (the full text of chapter 1). Copyright (c) 2006 by Dara Horn. Reproduced with the permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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