The Museum of Art was unusually busy for this time of night. Admission was free on the first Tuesday of the month. They kept this space open until midnight in the hopes of enticing attendees who otherwise tended to busy themselves with television sitcoms or sitting on their favorite barstool. They welcomed a motley lineup of tweed jacketed intellectuals, college hipsters, romantic couples in ties and pearl necklaces and tourists with backpacks and cameras slug over their shoulder. Everyone was welcome.
An unusual pairing entered at just after 11 pm. The playful mood in the lobby chilled ever so slightly as a man in an old-fashioned dark suit and his young boy, perhaps eight years old, went to obtain their stamps and tickets.
The pair looked sickly pale, like they were both dealing with some wasting illness, though they moved without any tiredness in their step; the enthusiastic smiles they sported seemed entirely out of place, as though they really ought to have been more aware of their own misery. This place was crowded, yet those closest to them inched away as they could to give them a wider berth.
In this gallery, the small child displayed the same enthusiasm other boys his age might show for a monster truck rally or a major-league baseball game. His eyes skipped around the room, taking in the massive classical stone and marble, Graeco-Roman statues, floor-to-ceiling tapestries and most of all, the great sea of humanity in the room. Whatever their sickness, they had clearly forgotten it in this room. The young boy’s smile only widened as they moved on through the lineup and into the exhibits.
“I don’t remember you being this excited before, son,” said the father.
The boy’s smile damped down just a little. “When were we here?”
“Forget about it,” the man said. “You’ll like this place.”
The boy’s contagious grin came back. “Yes, I like it here,” he said, staring around as the crowd. He caught a glimpse of a family with a young girl with blonde hair, about the same age as himself. They were the only other family in there at this late hour.
The little girl yawned without cupping her mouth. She was sitting on her father’s shoulders overlooking the crowd. Her mother was a rosy-cheeked lady in a bright yellow T-shirt, possibly with another baby on the way. The boy’s gaze met hers for a moment, where the lady gave one of those sympathetic, sorrowful smiles that the boy was used to getting. She turned away just as quickly, looking as though she’d got a sudden headache.
“Look, father! Can we play with them?”
“Maybe later,” the father said, without making any promises. “Don’t you want to go in? You’re not hungry already?”
“Not yet,” the boy confessed.
“Let’s have a look and see what we can find,” the father said.
They went through the galleries. The post-modern stuff left the father stone cold, but the boy was impressed by the colors, usually trying to figure out what it was they were looking at. “It’s a blue airplane! It’s a lion! It’s a train!” He’d point at them and his father would wonder at his child’s ability to conjure something out of nothing.
21st-century abstract paintings were about as meaningful to the man as a blank canvas – and sometimes, that was almost precisely what they were looking at. The boy still came up with off-the-wall theories about what they were viewing. “It’s a giant spider! It’s a lady with a horse mouth!”
At least he had an imagination. That was something. Perhaps it could still grow into something else.
They came to the Expressionist gallery. The father perked up again, holding his boy’s hand and leading him forward. Here, in the midst of these impressive swirls and swathes of color and European backdrops, the father could feel something akin to inspiration, or at least nostalgia. They passed Van Gogh’s sunflowers without comment. He searched his young son’s face for an impression, but couldn’t interpret anything meaningful.
The Edvard Munch exhibit was next. They passed by Love and Pain – Munch’s painting of a man in a tortured embrace with a red-haired woman who kisses his neck; it was at first blush a subject so mundane, yet which the Nazis had condemned as degenerate. The man could only observe that it would take one to know one. The dark and richly-layered artwork had been hidden away for decades until very recently lent to the museum by a private collector. Today, the patrons of the arts had no collective memory of this painting’s significance – which was just as well for the pale man and his son.
The Scream was next – that Expressionist masterpiece that the world adored with a mix of admiration and horror. The pale man in the painting cupped his naked head as he rent the silence with a primal scream of agony amid the orange night sky.
Munch’s own public interpretation survived on the egg-white card to the right of the frame: ‘I stopped and looked out over the fjord—the sun was setting, and the clouds turning blood red. I sensed a scream passing through nature; it seemed to me that I heard the scream. I painted this picture, painted the clouds as actual blood. The color shrieked. This became The Scream…’
The sign of recognition came as before in precisely the same way. The boy paused. His eyes widened.
“Who does that remind you of, son?”
The boy’s impossible grin grew even wider. “It’s Uncle Oskar!”
The man nodded, taking the boy aside as the perplexed onlookers nearby laughed off the youngster’s outburst. The boy couldn’t stop giggling.
“What is Uncle Oskar doing in the painting, father?” the boy asked in between laughing fits. The boy paused again and frowned for the first time that night. “Father, do people know about us? If they know about Uncle Oskar…”
“You don’t need to worry about that,” the man said, playfully messing up the boy’s jet-black hair with his pale white hands. “Even the special ones who can see what’s in the shadows know better than to reveal their secrets.”
They rested there a little longer, enjoying their time together. Just before they got up to leave, the man’s smile dropped and he became serious. “Son, do you remember any of this from before? Do you remember this place at all?”
The boy shrugged. He copied his father’s serious look as he held his hand. “Maybe. Have we been here before?”
“Yes,” the man said, betraying a slight frown. “I hoped this time would be different. All these years…”
“Father, when is my birthday?” the boy asked. “I forget how old I am.”
“You are my eight year old son and you always will be. Always. How do you like that?”
The boy smiled again. “I’m hungry.”
The man stood up and led his boy out of the exhibit. “Do you see them?” he asked.
The boy shook his head. “They’re not here now. But the nice lady in the yellow shirt told me where they lived. 336 Oakshire Road.”
“She told you?” the man asked.
The boy shrugged. “Well, I know it. It’s in my head, from when we saw them. Do you know where that is, father? Where’s Oakshire?”
The man nodded. “Oakshire is not far from here. You’ll get your snack soon. Just remember that when we get there, it’s not good to play with your food.”
The boy squirmed. “Maybe just a little?”
The man knelt down to look his son in the face. He broke his serious look and smiled broadly at his boy, showing off his outsized fangs. “OK, but just a little. You’ve been a good boy.”
The boy’s own fangs glinted in the reflected moonlight coming down from the glass skylight.
The man and the boy walked out of the Museum of Art, into the night. Soon after, two bats gave high-pitched shrieks in unison as they flapped their great wings under the light of the moon.
Theme: forbidden knowledge
Object: a painting
Ray Bradbury’s The October Country blew my mind. It was the first time I ever got a sense of monsters as people I might like to get to know, who were nonetheless freaky and potentially deadly. I wrote this as an homage to one of my favourite writers.