Curious fans would camp for days in his front yard hoping for an audience, but the painter never opened his door, nor poked his head out the window, nor accepted visitors into his dark home. Some stayed for weeks, knocking on his door ceaselessly, but to no avail. The old painter would no longer share himself, nor his paintings, with the world.
Which was why Paul was so surprised when it happened. Late at night, all alone and curled up in a sleeping bag on the edge of the painter’s front yard, the young art student heard the sound of a door unlocking. Glancing towards the porch of the painter’s house, Paul saw a shape emerging. It gestured at him. Heart racing and unsure what to do, Paul rose from his sleeping bag. The shape gestured again. He gingerly made his way across the yard and up the steps, then followed the shape into the house.
The house was dark. A lone candle lit the porch into which they’d entered, and Paul recognized the shape he’d been following as that of the old master. The man no longer had the strong carriage or clear skin of the photos Paul had studied in art school text books and guides, but was stooped and arthritic. In his hand he held a brush, and he signaled for Paul to follow him into an adjacent room.
“Sit sit, please,” said the painter, pointing at a stool. Not sure what to say, Paul sat down. The painter scuttled over to the other side of the room. “Now, young man, let me paint you,” he said, licking his lips.
“You want to paint me?”
The artist, rooting in a box next to his easel for brushes, didn’t hear Paul’s question. He pulled out an assortment of brushes and paints, and placed these on a table next to him.
“You see, I haven’t painted a soul in twenty five years. Tonight I feel this tremendous urge to paint someone again, an urge I can’t resist. Yes, hold that pose.”
He propped a canvas on his easel and started to paint. His eyes widened, a bright smile lit his face. After several minutes Paul started to feel weak.
“Don’t move young man, don’t move,” the artist warned, noticing Paul falter.
“But I’m feeling strange.”
“Yes that always happens,” said the artist absently-mindedly, focusing on his palette. As the sitting continued, Paul felt fainter, and though he couldn’t quite put a finger on things, it seemed as if a part of him was leaving. His face grew white, his eyes swam.
“What are you doing to me?” he suddenly gasped, unable to hold back. The artist stopped, and looked Paul straight in the eye.
“What I’ve always done when I paint someone, young man. I’m taking your soul.” His smile was sad. “Why do you think everyone loved my art so much, all those years ago? What riveted them? What captured their attention? What set my work apart from the others? I put real life into my paintings. Real, genuine life.”
The artist turned the unfinished canvas towards Paul. The beginnings of a young man stared back at him. Paul saw it was himself, vibrant and fresh. “This is you, young man. The part of you that I’ve taken up till now.” The artist returned the canvas to the easel and continued to paint. Paul was too weak to stop him.
“I crave to paint. I need it. And the world craved my paintings. It was such a small price to pay at the time, the few people here and there that I painted. Eventually I grew sick of it all, it tortured my conscience. I retreated to this house here and stopped painting. But I need one more. Just one more painting.” The old painter stopped suddenly. “Water, water for my brush.” He scuttled out the room.
Paul made a fist, then slowly unclenched it. Next he rose his elbow from its place on his lap, and rotated his shoulder. He felt his strength start to return to his joints. Off in the distance he heard a water tap being turned on. Paul stepped off the stool and fell to the floor. Mustering all his energy he slowly crawled towards the easel, pulled himself up, and grabbed the canvas. Paul saw his painted face up close, and it made him gasp. It seemed to glow with an ethereal energy, leaping off the page at him.
“What are you doing!” screamed the painter. He stood at the doorway, aghast. Paul, drawing some sort of strength from the canvas, managed to stand himself up, the unfinished painting pulled tight to his breast.
“I’m leaving old man,” he said, and staggered out the door.
The old painter watched from the window as the young man stumbled into the yard and down the dark street. His hands rose to his face in sorrow, and a tear fell on to the sill. Later, the painter turned back to his easel where he balanced a fresh canvas. From under his coat he took out a mirror. The old man looked intently at the mirror, then painted the first line on the canvas. A wisp of spirit left him, and he gasped. He painted another line, and another, his breathing growing more troubled. The old man painted till there was nothing left to paint.