The Portrait in Burnt Sienna
By Nikki Little
One of the problems with moving to a new place is that you are completely unfamiliar with your surroundings. I had just moved to a new small town to teach English at the public high school. I needed a place to live, and, by sheer luck, it seemed, a small house on the corner of the street right next to the high school was vacant. A small dusty sign in the window down in the corner read simply "For Rent" and had a phone number. I didn't know then that the house had been vacant for nearly a decade. I didn't know the reason why the house had been vacant so long, either. It was located on one side of an overgrown access lane to a farm that appeared abandoned.
The owner seemed most anxious to rent the house and did not put up any fuss when I made a deliberately absurd low offer. I cited the obvious lack of upkeep and general dustiness of the place when I made my offer. I felt an unease when the owner immediately accepted my offer. However, I needed a place to stay, and I had only a few days before the school year started, so I moved in immediately, dust and all. I required in the rental contract that the owner would complete all necessary repairs to essential equipment in the house in two weeks, but, to my surprise, everything functioned.
I did some quick dusting in the upstairs area to make the house livable, and then concentrated all my efforts on preparing for the new school year. Once a school year has started, school teachers' lives are not their own. The first weekend after school had started, I ventured back into the unfinished and cobweb-enshrouded basement to do some cleaning and make the laundry area usable. The washer and dryer looked ancient, but I already knew that both of them worked as I had started them when I did my initial inspection of the house. The owner had kept the electricity connected all those years that the house was unoccupied. The neighbors told me that on the rare occasions that he was in the house, he had every light in the house on. They said that he was afraid to stay in the house for longer than a few minutes -- and never after dark. They thought that he was looking for something. Every two or three weeks after the school year started, the owner of the house would stop by and ask me if I had found any unusual drawings in the house. I had not.
I slowly and methodically cleaned out the cobwebs in the basement, and then went back and began dusting surfaces. I thought no more of it at that point. Each weekend, thereafter, I performed a quick dusting to prevent the cobwebs from returning and pretty much ignored the build-up of dust on everything else. Teachers don't really have time to dust during the school year. The job consumes us. After a month or so, I realized that the only cobweb I was finding each weekend was always in the same place. At first I was merely irritated, then I started feeling a little spooked. During Thanksgiving Vacation, I went downstairs to give the basement a thorough dusting -- it really needed it by then. At the place of the persistently reappearing cobweb, at the left side of an old gun-rack next to a battered workbench with a vise, I finally spotted what had escaped my notice all those earlier times that I had picked down the cobweb. Behind the workbench backplate was a plastic bag covering what appeared to be a picture frame. It could only be seen while standing very close to the wall just to the left of the gun-rack. I pulled out the plastic bag and removed its contents. It was indeed a painting, of sorts. It was a most unusual painting, and it sent a chill down my spine as I inspected it. It reminded me of a charcoal drawing, except it was entirely in a dark brown, plaster-like paint instead of gray sketching. The color reminded me of a crayon from childhood: "Burnt Sienna."
It is difficult to give an accurate portrayal of the painting from a description. The painting, in spite of its lack of colors, was vivid, intense, and even a bit frightening. It showed a terrified man falling through the air toward a space located right next to a vacant farm house. There was an abandoned farm right next to the school that looked suspiciously like what I saw in the painting. I had stacks of finished compositions that needed to be graded -- I had students submit a first draft and second draft of every composition for my comments before I had them turn in a finished paper -- and gave the painting no further thought other than to hang it in my study which was where my big, antique teacher's desk with all its pigeonholes and slots was located. My placement of the painting in that room turned out to be fortuitous. A cobweb began appearing attached to precisely the same spot on the painting. Every time I pulled the cobweb down, it reappeared within a few days. When the owner appeared, as was his habit, to ask if I had found any unusual drawings in the house, I gave him my usual answer. I did not mention the painting.
After pulling down the cobweb from the painting for what was surely the tenth time, I began to think about the fact that the farm in the painting reminded me of the abandoned farm right next to me. I decided that I would do some investigating during Christmas Vacation. In the middle of a Saturday night, the first Saturday after school had let out for two weeks of Christmas Vacation, I went up to the farm to look for the space which corresponded to the location on the painting. With the help of faint moonlight, I easily found the place: it was a heap of rocks that looked out of place in the old, grown-up, abandoned cornfield. Everywhere else was foxtail grass with stray stalks of corn. Wooden poles lay beside the pile of rocks, and I picked one up and pushed some of the rocks aside. Underneath the pile of rocks were some wooden planks lying across an opening that turned out to be an abandoned well. I was a bit worried about the stability of the ground surrounding the well, but if it was going to collapse inwardly, it would have already done so. Moonlight illuminated one side of the well to expose old brickwork. I wondered how old the bricks were. Cold started to soak through my coat and blue jeans, and I decided to go home. I wondered how my students would have reacted if they had seen me wearing blue jeans. I wore only dresses to school.
The next morning, I went into my study to look out the bedroom window to see if the newspaper were in the driveway, and the cobweb on the painting was back. I had just pulled it off the previous day, and it was back again. I began to wonder if the cobweb were "nagging" me to do something. The reappearing cobweb that had tormented me in the basement had not shown up since I had removed the painting from its plastic-enshrouded hiding place behind the workbench backplate. "You win," I said to the cobweb as I pulled it down. I went back to the abandoned well that night with a flashlight and a small pocket telescope.
What was I looking for? I think by this point it should be obvious. That night I switched into blue jeans and put on a heavy winter jacket for my foray to the well. My flashlight was a heavy, steel, 4-cell type that was used by fire departments. I had no respect for cheap flashlights and refused to have them in the house as they never worked when you needed them. My telescope was one of those small, hand-held 30X types. I had quite a time trying to hold the telescope steady while at the same time aiming the heavy, steel flashlight directly at the bottom of the well. I didn't get to see a lot, but I saw enough to know that the bottom of the well was dry and that there was mostly rock, gravel, and rotted tree branches at the bottom. I also saw what I was looking for poking up through the gravel. Something dirty, off-white. A bone? I was looking for a body. That dirty, off-white object was enough to make me want to see more. But how? I decided to return home to give the matter some thought.
After getting dressed for bed, I went into my study to look at the painting wondering if the cobweb would be back. It was not. In fact, from that point on, I never saw the cobweb again. Later that same day, I got the idea of using the time-delay on an old camera to take photos of the bottom of the well. The maximum delay was 60 seconds, and I wondered if that would be enough time to get the camera to the bottom. I got the idea of using a fishing rod to lower the camera, and attached a weight to the line to make the camera less likely to swing wildly and smash into the brick sides of the well.
That night at around two o'clock in the morning, I put my plan into action. I decided to shoot a dozen pictures to use up an entire roll of film. I lost the first two photos from not being able to lower the camera quickly enough, but after that I was successful. By the time I got to the last three shots, I was quite ready to grab my stuff and leave. I was most impatient to see the film developed, and took it to an independent camera shop to have it developed.
When I received the film back, the owner of the camera shop eyed me curiously as he handed the developed photos in an envelope to me, but he said nothing. I examined the photos in the car, and it was clear that I had exactly what I was wanting.
I went home, grabbed the painting, stuffed several of the photos into an envelope, and headed for the police department. The police officer listened to my story, smiled as if he were wasting his time with a loon, lectured me for trespassing on private property, and then shut up immediately when I shoved the photographs in front of him. I then produced the painting, and the police officer took both it and the photographs over to another officer. An hour later a crime scene unit was at the well.
A few days later, I learned that the abandoned farm was owned by none other than my landlord, who had been the subject of an investigation over his disappeared business partner over a decade ago. A police investigation found nothing, and the disappearance of the business partner went into the unsolved cases file. The skeleton at the bottom of the well proved to be the missing business partner with identification made by dental records. The decomposition of the body had been speeded by the use of chemicals -- first sulfuric acid when there were a few feet of water in the well, and then lime, repeated applications of lime, when the well went dry. Analysis of the skull found a fatal blow to the head. A watch with my landlord's initials engraved on the back was found at the bottom of the well pretty much sealing his fate. It must have been dropped long after the body was dumped as it showed no signs of corrosion. The crime lab also reported that the painting had the name of my landlord scratched into the canvas just above the image of the falling man. The painting was signed by the missing business partner. As I sat in the office of the crime lab after giving a formal deposition, a technician informed me with a sense of amazement that the substance on the canvas was not paint at all. "It's mud."