Jane had to muster all her courage to keep her eyes on Peter as he lay on the hospital bed. In the end, she just told herself that she would not have to do so for long. Seven hours in the waiting room had drained her, leaving her practically numb.
Peter wasn’t a pretty sight. The doctor had told Jane that both his legs had been severed from the knee down and that he had half-drowned in the murky water. But the rest, perhaps the doctor hadn’t much time to describe properly. Or the nerve.
Peter’s right eye was closed. A large cotton bandage over the other one.
She tried not to look at the gap beneath the sheets, where his legs should be. She was not ready for that, and all she could think of was football and his bad knee, so much that at a sick moment she nearly laughed at the irony.
She took his remaining butchered hand – there were only three fingers under the bandage – and struggled inside to quiet her turmoil. But how?
His eyes opened. He didn’t smile at her, but she did. At least she tried.
“Hey babe”, she said with a shrill voice. “Looking good.”
He’s quite a mess, the doctor had said.
Peter said nothing – he just looked at her, his single eye sad and bloodshot.
Jane fought back tears. “How are you feeling? Doctor says you’ll be fine”.
He lost a lot of blood and his wounds were infected in the water, the doctor had said.
What was left of Peter’s face was pale, drained, haggard and very, very sad.
His lips moved. “I ‘m sorry”, he whispered.
Jane shook her head violently. “No, no. Don’t say that.” Tears came flooding now. “You’ll be ok, you’ll be out soon.”
He won’t last the night, the doctor had said. Sorry.
Peter squeezed her hand. “The painting…” he muttered, “… it spoke to me.”
Jane stared at him in dismay. Not only was her husband mutilated, he had gone crazy too.
Peter was still speaking, words lost and chewed and swallowed. Jane listened, and knew that she would hear that slow, wheezy, wretched voice for the rest of her life.
“It… spoke. While I drove. It said things – in my ear. I couldn’t see it, but I knew it was the painting… It said you’re really unhappy, Pete.’ It said…” he coughed here and spat some blood. “It said… look at your miserable life, Pete. You helped Piper Jack because you were afraid that one day you’d end up like him. You had dreams, Pete, and now you’re cut down. This job, this compromise, this life… you hate it all. You hate your wife, don’t you, Pete? Because you failed, and you didn’t want to face up to the cost.’ And I tried, Jane, I tried to speak to it, to tell it to shut up… but… it’s voice was in my head and I couldn’t stop it because… I’m so sorry, Jane… because I knew it was right. Because I gave up. I settled. I didn’t face up to it. And I pretended…” He began to cry then, and all Jane could do was hold his hand, afraid to feel anything anymore, because she knew that her husband had tried to kill himself.
Peter slept and died an hour later.
Jane returned to an empty house late at night, after having cried herself dry. Fortunately some of Peter’s family took the burden of funeral arrangements and a friend drove her home. The friend offered to stay the night with her, but Jane insisted that she wanted to just be alone. The friend nodded in sympathy and drove off. “If you need anything, call me, no matter what”.
Jane stood at the door, daunted by the silence that loomed over her. It was heavy, oppressing, and the house was dark, like a tomb.
She shut the door behind her and leaned on it. She was exhausted, ragged, torn to shreds. The pain had retreated now, down in one of the chambers of her heart. She felt like screaming and fainting at the same time, she felt like just dropping there on the floor and staying there until she too was dead. A feeling of complete void had spread throughout her body and her limbs felt both light and heavy. And then, in the chaos of light and dark that had seized her mind, an image appeared. It didn’t surprise her.
She was expecting it.
The Face was there, in her mind’s eye, as vivid as if she was looking at it. It came from far away, out of a dark horizon, and drew nearer and nearer. What had happened to it? Did the police take it? Did it wind up in the ravine too? Or was it destroyed when they towed Peter’s truck?
She knew, of course. The face grew in her mind. She could almost touch it. She glanced towards the stairs and saw the blue light again. But she wasn’t dreaming now, was she? She was wide awake. She pushed herself off the door and walked to the light with steady paces. She kicked off her shoes and let her coat drop on the carpet. Reaching the stairs, she stood with her back to the living room’s entrance. She glanced up where the bedroom was. The blue light engulfed her, bright with clarity, easing her mind. And in that mental pause, everything became clear.
The face was only the vessel. It was an avatar of their life, of things lost in the deep, of everyday rituals, of the masks they had worn and worn out.
She turned around. It was there, smiling at her, hanging on the wall. She was not afraid of it anymore. She walked to it, firmly, unflinching from the bright light it cast.
She stood before it and they locked their gazes for a moment, studying each other patiently, both immersed in the blazing blue light, bright, cold and true.
And then she began to laugh. She laughed, until there were tears in her eyes, she laughed like a madwoman, she laughed and laughed and turned away laughing and walked away and she disappeared into the dark house, her laughs echoing through its walls, rising and falling and cackling and echoing because she had finally seen it, seen it and could not stand to look at it anymore.
The face in the painting was hers.