The truth is that I’m moving into this old colonial manor to kill myself. I imagine the shock with which Esan will take the news once it reaches her, the guilt that will eat at her until she can no longer be happy with her new husband. I imagine how the art world will explode with renewed interest in my pieces, having been largely forgotten these past ten years. A painful truth: living artists are seldom appreciated. It is better to be dead, better still if your death is tragic, so you can ascend to the hallowed pedestals of tragically dead, wildly talented artists.
Palm House welcomes me like an old lover. Crawling with green ivy, the lands itself peppered with rusted iron sculptures of gargoyles in flight; several old, bent palm trees, it reminds me of myself: we are both things well past their prime, looking for a flash of old glory, even if for a moment.
Better still is the view from my room. When I look through those French windows at the rolling mountains of the rainforest, set up against a dark cloudy sky, I feel something I haven’t felt in years. Inspiration. I know, in that instant, I am going to produce my best work yet, something the world will sing about long after my death.
I spend the next few days in a trance. I paint compulsively, tearing through bucket after bucket of oil paints. I drive to town and buy several primed canvases and paints, cramming them into my small yellow Beetle before driving manically back to the house in a frantic bid to keep the inspiration alive. I make it clear to the caretaker that I don’t want to be disturbed and my food is left outside my door for me to attend to at my convenience. I forget about them. I attack the canvases like a choir conductor in the throes of a musical crescendo.
It is a bright morning when I finally break out of the trance. When I step back to inspect my work, I find it . . . mediocre. The colours which had seemed so bright while I painted now look subdued and lackluster, my brush strokes chaotic.
I rip the canvas off the easel and fling it across the room in a fit of blind rage.
I turn at the sound of a startled gasp to see a young woman standing in the doorway, pushing a breakfast trolley.
“Didn’t I tell you not to—” I begin, then stop when I see the punctured canvas dangling from the top of the door just above her head. It had missed her narrowly.
“I—I’m sorry,” she stammers. “The door was open. I was just going to leave your breakfast outside . . . ”
I frown, struggling to remember if I had forgotten to close the doors. I decide I must have. So much of the past few days has been a blur.
“No, it’s fine,” I say as my rage leaves me like air from a rapidly deflating balloon. I really see the room, then, noting the barely slept-in bed, the half-painted canvases strewn all over the floor, the upturned buckets of paint. I realize with a jolt that I am sweaty and shirtless, my coarse chest hairs caked in drying paint.
“Sir . . . ?” she asks, unsure.
I look at her, and feel my breath catch in my throat.
Her hair frames her face in a soft, sliver halo. Her skin is the warm brown of fresh nut, as is the colour of her eyes. Although her nose is a little too large for her petite face, and her lips are a little too small, the combination serves to make her beautiful. And it is beauty which has to be captured.
My eyes rove over her, drinking her in. She shrinks under my intense gaze.
An idea lights up in my head. “Have you ever posed as a model?” My voice is raw with excitement. In my prime I had been a portraitist, the very best in the country.
“A . . . a model, sir?”
“Yes, an artist’s model,’ I say, hastily wiping the sweat from my forehead and smearing paint all over it in the process.
“No,” she says, shaking her head.
Good heavens, I have struck gold! “I would like to paint you.”
“No,” she says immediately, backing up. “I will not take off my clothes.”
It takes me a moment to register what she is saying, and when I do, I burst out laughing. “No—no!” I gasp, wiping tears from my eyes. “You misunderstand me—I don’t want to paint you nude. Its just your face I want, a portrait bust at the very most. You have the most unusual, yet beautiful face.”
I can hear the blood coursing through my vessels as I wait for her to decide. I need her to agree.
“Oh . . . ok.” She smiles and it is a light which fills my dark, dark world.
I can hardly sleep that night, jittery as I am with excitement. When Lara—for that is her name—knocks on my door at the crack of dawn, I fly off the bed and answer it.
“I have changed my mind,” she says and I feel disappointment curl around my neck like a noose before she adds: “I want a full-length painting, not just a portrait bust.”
“Oh.” Sweet, sweet relief. “That’s no problem at all.”
“Also, father does not want me alone with you in this room.”
I frown. “I assure you, my intentions—”
“He suggests the drawing room on the west wing of the third floor.”
I look at the halo of silver hair framing her face, that disproportional yet beautiful face, then sigh. “Ok, let me see this room, if it has good lighting . . . ”
The drawing room has an aura of neglect about it, with several frayed tapestries bundled up in sporadic heaps across the vast room. There is a small mountain of what I suspect to be broken furniture pushed up to the west wall and covered in dusty tarp. An old piano stands lopsided near the centre of the room, a rusty candelabra dangling near the lip of the lid. The sunlight streaming in through the high windows light up the brooding baroque décor of the room.
“It is a little unkept,” says Lara apologetically. “Where do you want me to pose? I can clean that area—”
“No,” I say. “It’s perfect.”
Indeed, it is the perfect setting. There is something . . . magical about the room’s general state of abandon. Lara stands by the piano, just out of the reach of the streaming sunlight; the indirect rays lighting her up brightly so that she stands out against the baroque backdrop of the room. It is the perfect scene.
In that moment the title of the painting comes to me: The Muse of Palm House.
We fall into a routine.
We meet every morning at 8:00am in the drawing room, Lara posing next to the piano while I set up shop behind my easel some ten feet from her. But for some short breaks (which, quite frankly, are for me to stretch my limbs; Lara can remain perfectly still and unmoving for several hours) we remain in the drawing room until around noon, when the sun begins to sink to the west and the lighting becomes less than optimal.
Lara gets more comfortable with each passing day. She laughs more, and sometimes hums while she holds her pose. It is a beautiful, chilling tune. She insists on seeing my progress but I refuse her, telling her to wait for the finished product. No self-respecting artist shows an unfinished work to the public eye. The artist, of course, will see the finished product, his eyes filling in the gaps; the casual observer, on the other hand, will see only a mess of lines and paint and start to wonder. No, I don’t want Lara to see it just yet, and as such I take my canvas with me to my room after each day’s session.
“How old are you?” I ask her one day as I apply the finishing touches to the background.
Lara gives me a coy smile. “Old.”
“Well, that’s not vague at all,” I say.
“Well, never ask a lady her age, Mr. Sesan.”
“Touché.” I say, shaking my head. I throw a brush into a can of lint oil and pick up another. “Well, can I ask you a question?”
“My hair,” she says. “You want to know why it’s white.”
My eyebrows shoot up. “How did you—?”
“It’s a question I get a lot,” she says. “I am something of an . . . anomaly in these parts. Have you ever seen a young lady with white hair?”
“No, I can’t say that I have.”
She nods and I have the feeling that this is a conversation she has had a few times, down to the exact word phrasings. “I have a medical condition. Alopecia areata.”
“What is that?”
“An autoimmune condition that causes hair loss. When I was younger, all my hair fell out. But when it grew back, it grew white like this. Lack of pigmentation or something.”
“Well, I think it is absolutely beautiful.”
“Thank you.” She smiles. “To tell you the truth, I don’t remember what I looked like with dark hair.”
I find that odd. “Don’t you have photos, paintings?”
“No.” She gives me a look which chills me to my bones. “And not for lack of trying.”
Some habits are hard to get rid of. Having spent five years married to Esan, having gone to bed everyday with her sleeping on the left side of the bed while I sleep on the right, I’ve found it hard to break the habit even one month after our divorce. The four-poster bed in Palm House is huge and every night I curl up on the right side, my unconscious mind expecting my wife to slip into bed next to me.
When I toss that night, and find someone lying next to me, it takes my sleepy mind a moment to register the wrongness of it.
Lara puts a finger to her lips, giving me a coy smile.
“Lara,” I say, when my brain finally catches up to what my eyes are seeing. “What are you doing—you shouldn’t be here!”
“I’m right where I’m meant to be,” she says in a voice which sends all the blood in my body rushing down south.
I lick my dry lips. “This is . . . wrong.”
“Is it? I see the way you look at me.” She rises slowly to her knees, and begins to unbutton her dress.
“I have to look at you when I paint you!”
Lara gives me a sultry look, and I fall into those brown eyes. She owns me then, her eyes pinning me to the bed as she climbs over me and begins to dance a slow, sinuous dance. Lara hums as we dance, never breaking eye contact with me. It is a disturbing, haunting song which strangely drives me to the edge of ecstasy. When I explode, I discover with a mixture of shame and disappointment that it is only a dream.
I curse softly at the wetness in my thighs, curse my traitorous mind for conjuring the dream. I stand up to go clean myself, then freeze.
My door is ajar.
The door has no lock, but I closed it before going to bed, I am sure of that. And the door is made of heavy mahogany, one which won’t be easily blown open by the wind. That leaves only one other option.
Someone has been in my room.
Then I hear the sounds. Thump . . . drag . . . thump . . . drag. It sounds like someone is moving something particularly heavy across the floor. Heart in my mouth, I cross the room to the door and peer out.
There, at the end of the hallway, is a figure dragging something shrouded in white . . . and is that blood?
“Who’s there?” I croak.
The figure pauses only slightly before disappearing around corner. I stand there frozen with fright, tracing the sounds up the stairs and to the third floor overhead where they stop abruptly.
My first instinct is to fetch the caretaker, to alert him that there is somebody dragging what I hope to God is not a dead body around the house, but then I realize I have no idea where he sleeps. Lara. I can fetch her. She will know where to find her father.
The only problem is that her room is on the third floor.
After some deliberation I fetch my spatula—it is sharp enough to puncture an artery should it come down to it—and make my way, slowly—deliberately to the third floor.
At the top of the landing I find the white blood-stained cloth—only it isn’t blood but oil paint, and the cloth is what I used to cover my works-in-progress to keep dust off the surface. The pieces fall into place in my mind as I fly down the hallway and into the drawing room where I find Lara standing in front of the easel, looking at the half-finished painting of herself.
I curse, angry. “Lara what is the meaning of this? Didn’t I tell you to wait until it’s done?”
I feel cheated, angry. I hate when people seek to spy on my work when it isn’t done. I hated when Esan did it. And here is Lara, stealing into my room in the dead of the night to look at the painting. But why drag it up here?
“Lara? Did you hear me?”
She doesn’t turn, doesn’t even acknowledge me. She just stands staring at the painting. I stride across the room and yank her around.
Her eyes are glazed and unseeing, her breathing deep and measured. “Oh,” I breathe softly. “Oh, a sleepwalker.”
A fine sheen of sweat coats her skin from the effort of dragging the canvas all the way up here. I wonder vaguely how she managed to mount it on the easel.
I carry her out of the drawing room and down the hallway to her room, where I place her gingerly on the bed and tuck her beneath the covers. She mutters, turns over, and continues her sleep.
I begin to laugh hysterically, ramming a fist in my mouth to quiet the sound. What a bizarre night! While I had been dreaming about making love to Lara, she had been dreaming of the painting. Well at least she hadn’t seen it.
That’s all that matters.
The next morning, I drive into town for some more paint. This is the last batch I will buy, as I am almost done with the painting. What’s more, I am immensely pleased with my progress. Palm House is located far out in the mountains, so it takes me some forty-five minutes to drive down the single dirt road to town.
“Good morning, Kelechi,” I say brightly as I slip into the shop. “I’m here for some more paint. The painting is coming along just—”
A wiry old man is sitting behind the counter, frowning into a newspaper while an old transistor radio sputters out juju music behind him. He doesn’t look up as I come in.
“Ah, sorry, I thought you were Kelechi,” I say. “You must be his uncle. He’s mentioned you quite a few times.”
The old man turns a page, content to ignore me.
I purse my lips and slip into the aisles. I am not about to let anyone sour my good mood. A few minutes later, laden with two buckets of red and white paints, I walk up to the counter. The old man casts his newspaper aside—if a little irritably—to attend to me.
“What do you have?” he asks, then starts violently when he looks at me.
“What?” I snap, starting to get annoyed. He gapes at me, his milky eyes wide. It’s like he’s seen a ghost.
“It’s just . . . ” he clears his throat. “So, you’re an artist, eh?”
I start to smile. Back in the day I had been a fairly famous painter. I hadn’t expected anyone to recognize me this far out from civilization; Kelechi certainly hadn’t. But apparently this man does. “Yes,” I say, a radiant smile on my face. “My name is Sesan Williams, you may have heard of me . . . ”
He nods slowly, watching me cautiously. “And are you painting a portrait right now, that of a young lady?” He swallows. “Lara.”
“As a matter of fact, I am! Did Kelechi—”
“Chineke,” he curses, sliding off his stool so forcefully that I jump. He limps around the counter and grabs me in a terrifyingly strong grip. “Run.” He growls. “Get into your car and drive back to where you came from. Anywhere but that damned house.”
I struggle to pry myself out of his grip. “What are you talking about?”
“Her!” Something in his voice makes me pause. “You must not complete that painting.”
He slaps me. “When you went up to that house, did you feel like you were ready to die?”
My mouth is dry. “Yes.”
“Did you look out the window of your room and feel a burning desire to paint the mountains?”
“Yes . . . ”
“Did you lose track of time painting and were ultimately frustrated with the result?”
I am starting to become frightened. “Y—yes . . . ”
“The first time you saw her, did you think she was the most beautiful creature you’ve ever seen?”
“Yes, but how could you possibly know all this?”
He seems to shrink as he finally let go of me.
“Sir?” I ask, struggling to keep my voice steady. “Please, what is going on?”
“Palm House,” he says finally. “That place . . . doesn’t exist.”
“That is ridiculous.”
The old man looks up at me. “How long have you been in that house?”
I search my mind. I have been painting Lara’s portrait for . . . five days, a week? And before that I spent a few days painting the landscape, so that makes it . . .
My voice cracks. “I’m not . . . I’m not sure. I could ask the caretaker . . . ”
He gives me a pitiful look. “Son, have you ever seen this caretaker?”
“Yes, he—” I break off, trying to conjure the image of Lara’s father. I sink against the counter as realization washes over me. “No . . . no I have never seen him.”
Silence descends over the small shop, broken only by the creaky swinging of the rusty fan blades, stirring the stuffy morning air.
“I will say, judging by your appearance, that you’ve been in that house with her for no less than a month.”
“What do you mean, judging my appearance?”
He takes me gently by the arm and leads me to an inner room, past rows of dusty art supplies and to the cracked mirror next to the hunting rifle. I scream at the sight of my reflection.
I am completely emaciated, like a desiccated corpse. My eyes are sunken in, my cheeks hollowed out. My bones stick out at sharp angles, covered only by flesh. My clothes hang around me, three times oversize. I am a stick in a sack.
Worst of all, my hair is pure white.
Half an hour later, the old man—Obi—and I are seated at a low table in the backroom, poring over old newspaper clippings. Obi has turned the mirror to face the wall, for which I am immensely grateful. I can’t bear the sight of that ghost staring back at me.
“Palm House used to be a colonial manor,” says Obi, tapping an arthritic finger on the black-and-white picture. “Belonged to Lord Frederick Lugard—not the Governor-general at the time, but one of his distant cousins. You know how the Brits like to repeat names. Anyway, when they left circa 1960 it passed to a family of aristocrats, the Kalejaiyes. They had a daughter, but no one ever saw her.”
“Lara,” I breathe.
Obi nodded. “Rumour had it that she was a truly hideous child, so her parents kept her hidden. But she had the sweetest voice. Now my grandfather used to be an amateur portraitist, and he was employed by the Kalejaiyes to paint a family portrait. Lara was made to pose between her parents, wearing a long black veil over her head. It . . . bothered my grandfather that he had to paint Lara like that, but they were paying him a lot and there was little he could do about it.” Obi takes a deep, shuddering breath. “On the last day of painting, grandfather walked into the drawing room to find Mr. and Mrs. Kalejaiye seated in pose, with Lara between them. Only . . . they were dead. Strangled to death. Their eyes bulged out of their sockets and their tongues stuck out of their mouths. Lara sat between them, for the first time without a veil, singing as though it was the most natural thing in the world.”
I felt gooseflesh erupt all over my skin.
“When she saw my grandfather, she said, ‘we are ready, painter man. Look at me, aren’t I pretty?’ He fled from the house and called the police. When they arrived, they recovered the bodies of Mr. and Mrs. Kalejaiye. Lara was never found.”
“How come?” I croak.
Obi shakes his head. “No one knows what became of her. But son, seventy years has passed since that day and yet . . . ”
“She’s a ghost.”
Obi places both hands on the table. They shake ever so slightly. “She is . . . something else,” he says quietly. “And I think her parents knew it. It’s why they kept her hidden.”
“That is a possibility. I believe she is an entity. Every year, on August fifth—which is the date my grandfather started that original painting—she lures an artist up to Palm House, usually one so broken that they wish for death, trying to get them to paint her a portrait.”
“Why?” I ask. “Why does she so badly want to be painted?”
“I have come to believe that painting her will free her, cement her place in this world.”
I shudder. To think that I had spent a month alone with that . . . thing, dreamed about making love . . .
“When I asked her,” I say, “she said she had never been painted. But you say she lures artists up there every year. What happens to them?”
“Most realize, sooner rather than later, what she is and flee before completing the painting.”
“And the others?”
Obi meets my eyes. “They are usually too far gone.”
“What do you mean, too far gone?”
“She mates with them, bonding them to her will.”
I swallow the lump in my throat. I can hear the creaking fan from the main room, the faint crackle of radio static between short bursts of reception.
Obi’s milky eyes bore into mine. “Did you mate with her, Sesan?”
He reaches slowly for the hunting rifle, cocks it. Trains it on me.
“No, I swear! It was only a dream!”
“No, son. That’s where you’re wrong.” He fires. A can of paint explodes next to my head as he misses. I dive across the small table, tackling him to the ground. Granted, I am little more than bones and flesh, but Obi is an old man and I easily overpower him, wrestling the rifle out of his hands. I turn it on him, breathing hard as he lay there staring up at me, tears in his eyes.
“Is this what you do, then?” I ask, rifle trembling in my hands. “Kill the artists?”
“Only those too far gone.”
“I am not too far gone!” I scream. “I can—I will get in my car and drive back to the city!”
Obi merely shakes his head, a pitiful look on his face. “She won’t let you leave, not when you’ve mated with her.”
No. I do not want to believe it. Granted, this past few weeks have felt like a dream, one I only escaped when I saw my reflection in the mirror, but now I was much more in control of my faculties than I have ever been.
“I tried to burn down that house,” Obi says. “Forty years ago. I thought it would destroy her, but there’s no getting rid of her. Every year you all keep coming.” Fat tears pour down his wrinkled cheeks. “You have . . . you have to let me kill you.”
I give a single bark of mirthless laughter. The irony is that I came to this town to die and now that death is before me, I realize I don’t want to die after all.
I am sitting alone behind the counter, my eyes tracing the old grain of the countertop. Obi has taken my Beetle to the petrol station to buy two full jerrycans of diesel. We have decided to burn down Palm House. Really burn it this time. Lost deeply in my thoughts, I don’t immediately notice the change in weather. It isn’t until the highlife music from the radio peters out into a static hiss that I look up.
It is raining. I slide off the stool and walk to the window, cupping my arm around my eyes as I peer out. The rain has turned the dirt road into a roiling river of mud. Trees sway, bending dangerously in a terrible wind.
This is no ordinary rain.
The static hiss from the radio cuts off abruptly and from the old speakers come the warbling, chilling tune of Lara’s song.
“Oh, God . . . ”
I tear out of the shop and out into the rain. Each raindrop feels like a sting on my skin. The road is a river and it tugs at me, trying to sweep me off my feet and in the direction of Palm House. I latch onto an electric pole, clinging on for dear life when I see my yellow Beetle floating by. A massive tree branch has punctured through the windscreen, piercing Obi in the neck. He never stood a chance.
A nearby tree snaps into two with a resounding crack. The last thing I see is the top half of the tree falling in my direction.
There is a splitting ache in my head when I come to.
The rain has let up, though the clouds still churn and flash with lightening. The mud has deposited me just outside Palm House. My yellow Beetle is wedged between two trees a little farther down the road. I stagger to my feet, muddy and slightly disoriented, and look upon that house of doom.
It is burnt alright. How could I have missed it before? The wood is black beneath the crawling ivy, the east wing caved in from many years of rot and neglect. Still it stands like some great eldritch monster, perched atop a world it is about to consume.
I see Lara through the floor-length windows of the drawing room. I see just her silhouette, floating, waiting.
I am no longer in control of my body. I move, making my way through the jungle of the first floor (now overgrown with vegetation as they reclaim the space), past the second floor and my room (which is a gaping hole, a haven to a bloated tree trunk) and up the stairs to the third floor.
The drawing room is as dark as a tomb. Slivers of light filter in through the windows, illuminating several floating canvases. They float in concentric circles, in varying stages of completion. Strangely I don’t see Lara in the paintings; I see different men instead, holding her pose.
I make my way to the very centre of the circle, where my portrait stands on its easel, and scream at the sight.
Mr. and Mrs. Kalejaiye are dressed impeccably, their dead eyes bulging, grey tongues stiff outside their mouths. Most horrific is the person between them. It is a face which is alien, yet familiar. Though the face is missing a mouth, the patch of unpainted canvas stark, the shock of white hair is unmistakable, as are the hollow, haunted eyes. It is—
It is me.
“Hello, painter man,” says Lara behind me. “Aren’t I pretty?”