Craig Wolff’s basement was damp and smelled of mold. It wasn’t an ideal environment for artwork, but he had no other choice. Shepherd was safe here, protected from prying eyes. He’d added some dehumidifiers, and he kept the temperature at sixty-five, but still, he worried.
He sat in a corduroy armchair, thumbing through Christie’s auction catalogue. After unbuttoning the top of his shirt, he poured some bourbon and took a shot. It burned.
Wincing, he put the catalogue down and stared at the painting. Its title echoed in his ears—Shepherd, Shepherd—stirring a sadness so big that it seeped from his pores.
The painting’s pastoral landscape was composed of one hundred different shades of green, each handcrafted on his palette, the wood board becoming its own spring forest. Though painting the shepherd had been a challenge, his cherub face and red tunic pleased Craig. The flute in the shepherd’s hands, however, had been easy. Its shape and color had formed organically, and Craig hadn’t slept until it was done. In the background stood a princess with long chestnut hair. She cradled a swaddled baby, and when Craig leaned closer, he would swear he’d heard quiet cooing.
Though he’d painted it nearly twenty years ago, before his beard had speckled with gray and his stomach had become round, he could still feel the brush in his hand.
Craig poured another shot, wishing life were written in pencil so that he could return to the day he’d lost everything, erase it, and write it over.
He put the bourbon down and picked up a small book bound in soft leather. The spine had a thick discolored crease, opening naturally to “The Singing Bone.” The story, about a brother’s deceit and a shepherd who carved a magic flute out of bone, had always been one of Craig’s favorites, a story he’d read from the worn anthology dozens of times in his youth. Many years ago, as a young artist, he had felt compelled to paint it, thinking he needed a little magic himself.
Craig read aloud while willing those who lived in the painting to hear, wanting the people of Suntaria to know he was still alive. He didn’t need to look at the book, but he cradled it for ritual.
He lingered on the final lines, staring at the princess.
The wicked brother could not deny the deed. He was sewn into a sack and drowned alive. The murdered man’s bones were laid to rest in a beautiful grave in the churchyard, and the shepherd was rewarded with the princess’s hand.
Craig put the book down and took a swig from the bottle. His head was light, like a balloon, and he floated over to the painting. Despite his hands feeling like dead weight, he placed them upon the painting’s wooden frame and closed his eyes. He imagined the walls around him crumbling, leaving him in a grass landscape that shone in red, blue, and orange. Wind chilled his cheek, and as it did, the ground brightened, as though the world laughed in color. In that vision, with Suntaria’s rich soil under his feet, he was a shepherd again with his wife—the princess—in one hand and the magic flute in the other.
If only he could go back and tell her that he hadn’t chosen to leave, that it was the painting that had stolen him back to New York and held him captive.
His eyes opened, and he was still in his basement, standing on concrete, dampness hanging heavy in the air. Light shone, not from the sun but from a sixty-watt bulb dangling from the ceiling.
Nothing could be heard but his heavy breathing as he stepped away, pretending he’d taken the flute with him. He could feel the instrument in his hands—the polished surface, the tiny misshapen holes—and he took a deep breath, inhaling the smell of buried bone.
There were carvings in the flute, which he could see anytime he closed his eyes. When pointed toward the ground, the flute’s smooth surface would display mountains, rivers, and forests, a map if anyone were to ask. When held high, so its beautiful sound echoed into the sky, the carvings would change to the sun, the moon, and the stars.
Dizziness came, and he sat with an exhaustive huff. He stared at the painting until his eyes hurt, all the while pleading for it to take him back. When it didn’t, Craig buried his face in his hands. He wanted to sob but couldn’t. His heart had no more tears to give.
He was about to pick the Christie’s catalogue back up when something in the far corner caught his eye. It was small and made of wood, a door imprinted in stone. He ran to it, and when he reached to touch it, it was gone. Craig slammed a fist into the wall, scraping his knuckles. Three thin lines of blood rose to the surface of his skin.
“Why must you taunt me like this?” he pleaded to Shepherd.
Craig collapsed back into the chair, grabbed the bottle, and took a big gulp. The bourbon tingled on his upper lip, and he wiped it away with his sleeve. Then, he opened the catalogue to a page he’d marked by folding the corner down and focused on Captives, a painting by Celio Cross, the only other man Craig knew who had also leaped into Suntaria.
The edge of Captives was painted with a blue glow, and within that light, a young tailor shielded his eyes from a raven-haired maiden kissing a man wearing a light shift. Vestiges of fur shed from the man’s skin, piling upon a pair of sturdy hooves, which he had in place of feet. Behind the couple, scattered shards of glass littered the ground like seeds.
Sitting on a throne at the top of the painting was a thin old man who glared at Craig. The man’s wrinkled glower spread dark shadows across his face, his teeth encrusted with plaque. A crown sat crooked on the man’s head, and in his hands was Craig’s flute, off-white, the color of dry bone. The man held it as if he were about to press it to his lips and play, causing Craig to wonder what shape the flute’s magic would take.
He laid a finger upon Captives and caressed it, feeling hopeful for the first time in years. Life at last was dark enough for him to see the stars. Thanks to Celio, Craig’s flute still existed, and if Craig could leap through Captives, maybe he’d have a chance at getting it back, seeing his family, and bringing joy to Suntaria again.
He pointed at Shepherd. “Things are about to change. You’ll see! I’m getting Captives. Can you stop me there, too?”
Craig lowered his hand, fearing defeat. Tomorrow, Captives would be up for auction, and though a museum board member—Edward Forrest—had offered to bid on it, someone unwilling to share could want it more. Edward, on the other hand, had agreed to try to win the painting if Craig would develop an exhibit about fairy tales, make Captives the headliner, and put Edward’s name in big letters underneath. He was a narcissist after all. As a curator dependent on the board’s deep pockets, Craig had no choice but to agree to the arrangement
He glanced at Shepherd one last time, detesting and loving it in one strange emotion. Exhaustion crept up, and his eyelids grew heavy. Not wanting to fall asleep in the chair again, he covered the painting back up and turned off the light.
Walking up the stairs with the half-empty bottle of bourbon under his arm, he thought of the gun hidden in the back of his desk drawer and stammered, “If this doesn’t work, I’m done.”
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