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The Penitent

This week Flash Fiction Friday challenged us to choose one of three images and use it as the inspiration for a nightmare. 


First, there was the Twilight Zone, and then came The Night Gallery. It is that gallery of the macabre that we will be visiting this week. To quote the talented developer and host of both of these fear fests:

‘Welcome to a private showing of three paintings. Each is a collector’s item in its own way — not because of any special artistic quality, but because each captures on a canvas and suspends in time, a frozen moment of a nightmare.’




This week, we are asking you to take us by the hand and pull us into that nightmare.

Prompt: Select one of the three paintings displayed here and base your story on the image

Genre: Supernatural horror

Word Count: 1,500 or less


I was intrigued by the second image, the woman's face. After some digging I found, via Youtube, that it was the image of a woman haunted perhaps by her past - Mary Magdalene. And the nightmare? I found it, of course. Just over 1000 words.


The Penitent

My name is Mary and I'm a whore. Or at least I was. Now I hope I'm some kind of a role model for people. Originally, before being a whore, I was just a serving girl in my dad's tavern, the one by the crossroads. I was a real hit back then, flirting with the customers as I brought their beer and food, singing little ditties with the musicians by the fire. My dad said I had more bosoms than brains, but my looks did get me lots of tips from the customers. Mind you, I had to be fast to avoid all their hands. That is, until I realized I could meet some of those grabbers out behind the stable for a bit of snogging. Or more than that, for some coin. Until my dad found out that is.

"Get out," he said. "You're nothing but a cheap whore, just like your mother. Whoring, then drugs and thieving. You'll end up hanging for it all, mark my words."

I never did meet my mom, but I did find lifting up my skirts was easy, and fun, so maybe it was just in my blood. I thought about heading into London, but that was almost 10 miles away, so I decided to just get a place in the town. Of course my dad made sure nobody would hire me for a proper job, but I could make more than enough just by lying on my back a few times a day. The money was good at first, enough for three meals a day, with wine, and some fancy clothes. Yes, a few of the guys did get rough at times, but I healed up okay. No permanent damage, that is, until I got the pox from one of them. My face was still good, but things were pretty bad elsewhere. Word spread to my customers, so it was downhill from there, doing whatever I had to do, just to stay alive. I don't like to think of those days. I never was very religious, but I was pretty sure I'd not be heading to heaven when I died. 

I was sitting on the bridge railing one day in early winter, looking up at the pale sun and thinking about just falling back into the river, when a fancy carriage stopped and some gent hopped out.

"Beautiful," he said. He had a funny foreign accent. "Don't move. I'll pay you five pence to sit there for fifteen minutes while I draw you. Look up like before.”

Five pence! Just to sit! I was so surprised I almost did fall backwards. I nodded, pulled my shawl around my shoulders and sat quietly , gazing up, while he scribbled on his drawing pad. When he showed it to me, I had to admit that it looked pretty good.

"Please miss, I must paint you. I have to capture the essence of that look. Come to my studio, up at Eltham. Once a week and I'll pay you a shilling each day you visit. What do you say?"

I hopped down off the railing and gave a little curtsy and my best smile. "For a shilling, you can have me the whole night." At that he got very embarrassed and assured me he was an artist and that the female form was sacred to him. You meet all kinds in that line of work.

But, true to his word, he was a real gentleman. He would sit me by the window, in just a plain gown, bosom covered and all, and work away with his paints. I laughed when he told me it was to be a religious painting but he assured me he was quite serious. It was to be about another Mary, sort of like me he said. He told me more about her, to help me get into it he said. She'd been a prostitute too, but gave it all up and followed Jesus and even was like the leader of his women followers. I told him that I liked that idea, that for all she had done, she could still be forgiven and start over. Maybe some people would see my painting and think of her and how they could change too. 

As the weeks went on the days got colder and the light seemed paler - as did I apparently. But my artist, Mister Van Dyke, he liked that light, said it gave me a softer look, almost angelic. I felt more at peace those days, humming to myself as I daydreamed about this other Mary and the life she must have led. My own life seemed to centre on my days at the studio, as that's when I felt myself come to life. Back in town I was no longer reviled and tormented, as people just ignored me. I was always cold, though, even when there was a roaring fire in the studio.

I remember the last day well. It was getting late, near dusk, but still he kept working.

"I almost have it," he said. "It's fading fast, I just need to capture this last bit. There - that's it."

As he stepped back from the canvas, I closed my eyes and relaxed.  

And then was suddenly face to face with my artist, my eyes wide open, staring toward the ceiling. I couldn't move, couldn't breath, couldn't speak, couldn't scream.

He quickly picked up a cloth and draped it over the painting, draped it over me!

"Shh," he said. "Relax my dear. We'll talk later. Sleep."

I did sleep, but for how long I did not know. When he next took off the cloth, I was not much calmer, but was at least able to listen.

"I have sensed a trouble in you," he said, "ever since I met you, balanced on that railing, wondering at your choices. Think of this as a new beginning, free from all that pain and sickness, a chance to inspire others as the Penitent Mary Magdalene."

I realized he was right, and felt that calm returning to me. Since that day, centuries ago, I have hung in various homes and galleries around Europe, fulfilling, in a way, my poor father's prediction. I listen to the visitors and their interpretation of what a penitent is and who Mary Magdalene was.  I'm pleased when someone not only admires me but says they feel inspired - sometimes so pleased I catch myself humming. I even try to catch a glimpse of them as they are leaving. Carefully though, so that no one will notice.  



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Joyce Juzwik

This really gave me a chill, but in a good way. Her expression couldn't be 'scripted' by the artist. It represents a genuine inner struggle and a desperate plea for forgiveness. Your story explains it all. Superbly done, Mike.

Rose Green

Oooh - I have goosebumps! Loved the ending, Mike. Thanks for sharing.

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