I will admit I have hesitated to send you this message. I may simply be involving you in the final tragic hours of a young man’s psychotic episode. I speak not of myself, of course—I have not adopted the third person or anything so coy. No, I assure you you’ll find me in the stone house I have always prided myself on possessing.
Rather, I have received an alarming letter from a former student of mine. I would have disregarded it but for a few key details that brought you to my mind after so many years. Specifically, it recalled to me one of your stranger stories from your days of curation. I won’t say which one, so as not to bias your mind, but I will leave you with a few questions at the end. (As a note, if you could review this as soon as possible, your comments may well help us find the boy. His family worries greatly for his well-being in light of his writings.)
I include here the letter in its entirety as it was passed on to me a few days prior.
“Dear Professor Baier,
I just wanted to go for a hike. It’s important to me that you understand that. You know as well as any that I’m not one to seek trouble. I just wanted to walk in a forested gully near my house. It was a peaceful afternoon with no indication of disaster. The sky above the gully was framed by a cedar canopy and the floor was carpeted in curling ferns. It was a veritable Yeats poem. And I can say I enjoyed my walk for as long as it was just a walk. I guess none of this matters to you, but it is important to me that you understand I was only enjoying a pleasant walk in a gully and making no trouble.
It was my curiosity that betrayed me. It was the vines on the building with their flush pink colour. It was the building they encapsulated—a building that I cannot explain being there to this day. It was all so peculiar that I could not ignore it. Understand, this was a deep gully between roads and suburbs. A wide creek ran in a well-worn rut and the trees were broad with age. There was no remnant of a path to the building, nor was it clear how there ever could have been. It was a neoclassical, two-storey cube with marble pillars in an old-growth forest. As I said, my curiosity betrayed me, but then, with such bait, whose wouldn’t?
The closer I got to it, the more apparent was its disrepair. A caretaker had not pulled the weeds from its marble pillars in years. The strange vines had wrapped the structure entirely—save for some breaks at the front pavilion and a few broken windows. In my reflections now, I wonder if curiosity was the point. I wonder if it wanted me to go in and look.
What am I saying “it”? My paranoia is something you’ll have to excuse. I still know nothing that explains any of it. I think I am recounting this to you to lay the pieces out for another’s consideration. I hope to understand, but as my time left is uncertain, I at least hope others can make sense of it should they find themselves in my circumstances. I am too consumed by my memories now. Too close to make out more than the wrinkles of the surface and no sense whatsoever of the shape of it.
I guess I am writing down what I can before more slips away from me. As I said, I was out for a hike in a gully near my house. I found the building enrobed in pink vines—an arts centre of some sort. In truth, I am not sure of the building’s original purpose. There were the remains of a stone fence about it and the stains of rusted razor wire upon the stone. As I got closer, I found that the vines themselves were ivory-coloured while the leaves were a flesh pink cut through with ruby veins. Every surface of the strange plant was sprung with thin glassy spines that burned my skin where I touched them. The front door had avoided the worst of the thicket, though there were dangling tendrils to press through. This should have been warning enough.
Inside I found a lobby surprisingly well-preserved. There were stains of water damage and a smell of must, but otherwise it was a luxurious interior. It had more of that neo-classical architecture marked out by fluted pillars and a translucent marble floor. It was a small palace of white walls and high ceilings.
Upon entry, a painting faced me from the opposite wall. Its frame contained a pale figure—fully nude (though nothing untoward was visible). The figure was seated with its knees drawn up and its head hung between its knees. Its sullen posture left strands of matted hair dangling over its knees. I could not see its face, but it was obviously exhausted—the posture alone told you that. The wretched form and foul hygiene of the figure were deeply unsettling for a painting. I took a photograph of the painting and have attached it here. I have since determined it’s a painting of some repute in the world. I have no idea if it was the original. I leave that mystery to you to unwind, Professor. You always did enjoy a mystery.
The next clear memory I have is lying in the creek outside. Its waters stung wounds about my body. The moon was out by that time, which was a shock as I had ventured into the building during the midday. I could not account for the hours in between—at least not fully or clearly. The details of what occurred before my arrival in the creek are a smear in my mind, but I will now attempt to recount those smears in what textures I can muster.
After I took the picture, the figure in the painting began to breathe and—with it—the vines outside the door began to shift like a heartbeat. I thought it might have been a breeze, but with my peripheral vision—rather than observing them directly—I noticed the vines moving closer to me with each blink. I turned to watch them, but they held themselves stubbornly still under direct observation. I didn’t want to turn away. I think I intended to leave at that moment, but a shifting shadow of something brushed past my ear and curiosity had its say once again. Looking about for the cause, I saw the vines had spread over the doorway and choked the light from the room, leaving only a cloak of gloom.
I’ll remind you, Professor, that much of my memory about this time is shattered, so you must forgive the hysterical tone and absurd dimensions of my tale. The only absolute I can offer is that these are my honest recollections. I am repeating this caveat because what comes next may be the least believable piece of it.
A shadow of something slipped across my body—numbing every inch of me it touched—and then grasped my throat and threw me towards the web of white vines that had grown about the painting. The many spines of those tendrils grated into my flesh and burned me. The cone of vines undulated to feed me into the painting—image not unlike a snake’s gullet tensing about a rat.
As my feet slipped into the canvas, the pale hands of the painted figure pulled me deeper into the little black box. I remember shrieking. I had decided the canvas was an immaterial portal held open by the frame, and I feared the vines would crumble it in—trapping me forever. I have no evidence for this, Professor; it was merely a subjective impression of the moment.
I remember only two further things from this first visit to the strange building. First, the pale hands of the painted figure had the consistency of a gelatinous ooze, and that ooze melted from its limbs to grip me. This ooze numbed where it encircled and to this day these areas have behaved oddly. I will say more of my condition later, though.
The second thing I remember from this time is that—as the ooze encircled me—the painted figure began to dissolve away to a milky-eyed and sunken-cheeked human. They did not speak. They just pulled me with the push of the vines. They wanted to squeeze me into the box of the painting—into the place whence they stared out towards the entrance.
I don’t have any recollection of how I got away. After that, I remember lying in the creek while its cold stream ran over the burning rashes left by the vines. I hurried home. I spoke to no one about this and wore long sleeves to cover my weeping wounds. The areas imprinted by the painting’s ooze have yet to regain feeling. The skin there has grown sticky. It stretched like warm taffy when I pulled off a sock yesterday.
There is one more thing I must relay to you, Professor—though this I will accept may have been nothing but a nightmare. The night following these events I awoke—or at least it felt like I had awoken—and found the painted figure at my window. Its head still hung in that sullen way. Its hands smeared the window as it struggled to push it open. I watched it struggle for nearly an hour before it swayed off into fog of the witching hour. I don’t recall when I woke up or fell asleep. It was a night of fitful sleep for me. I found smears of paint about the lower frame in the morning—and I have included a picture of this—though I’m sure you’d say it was just a messy paint job I had not noticed prior. You are almost certainly right, but I thought it important to share this event all the same.
In re-reading my account thus far, I realize I cannot send you this. You’ll perceive me as mad if I can provide no evidence. I must return with something more concrete for you to confirm that my condition is an external and not internal situation. I will return to the oddly placed gallery tonight and either ground this experience in physical evidence or accept that madness has shrouded my perspective entirely.
Your loyal student
I suspect you are wondering, my friend, how I received this letter if it was unsent. The letter was found on his desk by his family after his disappearance. It was addressed to me but never posted.
As you can see, much of it is madness—and as with most hysteria—the most respectful thing to do is to simply pretend you had never heard them utter it. The boy himself recognizes that in the end.
But, good curator, I recalled your story about the strange painting in your gallery. I remember you mentioned disappearances of night guards around that “foul painting,” as you described it. You then sat the night with it, did you not? Said you saw mad things in it, as I recall. I don’t take you to be a fellow as easily touched—as it were—as the youth are these days. The pictures he mentions in the letter were not with the pages, unfortunately. Perhaps the police withheld them. Consequently, I cannot confirm that my student’s painting was the same as your foul painting, but his description of it as a sullen figure was reminiscent of it, at least. What became of that painting, may I ask?
In truth, the painting wasn’t my main reason for contacting you. Rather, it was his descriptions of his skin condition. There was a notebook found in the gully a few days after his disappearance that I have been permitted to see but not keep. Most of it was madness about an old painted priest breaking free from another painting in the gallery and vines trying to pull the boy into the basement—mad thoughts I have not bothered to note. However, this passage reminded me of your own skin condition:
“Since the first night, my flesh has become soft and pliable—plastic even. The flesh where I was touched can stretch so far from my calf I fear it may snap. It functions as my skin always has, but it is clearly no longer my skin—it is a spreading digestion of it.”
I remember you showed me a wound of this type. At the time, you figured a bed sore. His choice of word—”digestion”—was curious as well since you had shared in that description. This is an odd question, but how is your skin, old friend? Did it heal?
I accept that the human mind yearns for connections well beyond those that can be found in objective reality and that I may be giving myself over to that evolved paranoia found in all men. However, I do yearn sometimes also to hear that my singular subjective experience could be granted some reassurance. If the boy did see something hitherto undescribed in common society, I wonder how he could be expected to articulate it in a way that wouldn’t sound mad. I find myself, as the years go on, more concerned that the novel personal experience may be indistinguishable from madness. I find this thought isolating.
It would just help me to hear that any of this even thinly relates to your experiences, dear curator. Or to hear from you at all. I hadn’t realized how many years it’s been since we spoke until I thought to write this letter. I don’t even know if I am sending this to an address you still occupy. Frankly, I don’t even know if you’re still alive.
Ignore my ramblings. Age has crept up on me, I must say. I’ll leave you with this last passage—as it was the last legible entry in the lad’s notebook. It has haunted me. I guess I cannot shake the fear that it describes a prognosis for the boy’s skin condition or, perhaps, even yours.
“I see a figure silhouetted at the end of the hall. I can see now they aren’t wearing a gown. It’s their skin. The skin is peeling off it like the petals of an open flower. Sex unclear. They are pulling at their weeping flesh with a brush, dragging the skin back up onto their torso. Futile. The flesh is melting back away. They are fighting the dissolution of their own flesh. It’s a gel on the floor. Blood has soaked the carpet. They see me. Blood eyes. Broken pupils. Screaming. Reaching.”
I hope you are well, old friend.
Professor G. Baier
Edited by Molly Rookwood
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