A nail that had been in an empty wall for years now held a painting. The painting faced a window, and each morning the blind went up to reveal trees and leaves and weather, and at night the blind went down and a lamp was turned on for a while, then turned off, leaving the painting in darkness.
This was fine as far as the painting was concerned. For the last few years it had been stored on a shelf like a book, leaning against the painting behind it and being leaned on by the painting in front of it, with only one of its narrow sides exposed to the openness of the basement. It hadn’t been handled in years because it was in storage and this is what storage means. But the other day it had been pulled off the shelf and moved onto the floor and lined up with other paintings the same size, one in front of the other, tilted backward against each other like a collection of vinyl records. And it was from this position on the floor that it had been lifted free from its companions and carried out of the basement and up into natural light to be discussed with its creator then wrapped, transported, and unwrapped to be placed where it now hung with a nail at its back facing the window.
One night the painting became aware of a number of animals on the floor before it, looking upward and tilting their heads this way and that, moving closer then backing away, standing in different corners of the room to gain a better viewing angle, and it became apparent to the painting that none of them had seen anything like it before. “It’s…..different”, said Penguin. “It’s lumpy”, said Puffin. “At least it doesn’t smell”, said Doggie. Each night for many nights the animals came into the room to scrutinize the new painting, and since all the animals were prone to politeness, they either used very generic adjectives when discussing it, or they didn’t say anything at all. Only the Witch doctor thought it looked like a flamingo had been put through a blender, which he apparently said to the pots and pans in the kitchen, well away from the painting.
After a few nights of this, the novelty of viewing the painting wore off, and since the animals no longer left their own room to come look at it, they forgot all about it, high on the wall as it was, and nighttime for the painting once again became peaceful. It would hang in the dark facing the blind, and since the slats of the blind weren’t a perfect fit, on some nights thin strips of moonlight would make their way past the tree in the garden and enter the room to shine on the floor. The painting would watch the moonlight cross the floor as the night wore on and be entertained by the patterns of shadow made by its pale light as it moved across the room.
One night the winds were particularly fierce and all the leaves were blown from the branches of the tree in the garden, so when the moon shone down on the blind its angle was true and unobstructed when it entered the room. As with so many nights in the past, the painting watched the moonlight shine on the floor but on this particular night the moonlight was also able to reach the wall and shine on the painting itself. The painting was startled to find itself so illuminated, but also rather pleased, and as the moonlight crept across its canvas, feelings of joy spread with it and the painting was overcome with excitement. It wanted to reach out to the moonbeams, and that very thought of reaching out was enough to free small droplets of paint from the panel, tiny droplets of colour that floated out into the room and began to swirl and mix in the moonlight. As wonderfully unexpected and a little unnerving as this was, it wasn’t long before the entire painting had emptied itself into the room as a million tiny droplets of paint, separating and coming together again to cast its own shadows on the floor and wall as the night wore on, no pattern repeated in its joyful dance. And as dawn approached and the moonlight faded, the painting drew itself back to its wooden panel so when the blind went up in the morning it looked as it always had.
And this is how the painting began to spend its nights. The winter moon and the cloudless skies and the absence of leaves on the tree in the garden created optimal conditions for the moonlight to shine through the blind and onto the painting. Then the entire panel would lift joyously from the wooden backing and transform into a million colourful beads of paint and float out into the room to revel in its freedom. On some nights it would drift through the house on the warm currents of air, seeing the penguin and puffin and doggie asleep in one child’s bed, the snake, the wolf and Winnie the Pooh asleep with the other child, even the Witch doctor standing guard in the living room, hands on his hips as he stared out the big picture window. And when bad dreams entered the heads of the children, the happy painting would place little beads of red and yellow and gold on their eyelids and in the morning the children would tell their mother they had dreamed of beautiful sunsets over the lake at the cottage.
One night when the moon was hidden from the garden by a thick layer of cloud and the painting remained in the dark on the wall, an evil spirit entered the house through the basement and began to move up the stairs to the main floor. It kept itself low to the carpeted steps and when it came to the landing at the top of the stairs it transformed itself into a shapeless black cloud so it could seep through the crack at the bottom of the door and crawl into the kitchen. Immediately the pots and pans were terrified and began to tremble in the cupboard. The rattling of their lids woke the Witch doctor in the living room and as quick as a whip he appeared in the kitchen and cast a spell that entangled the evil spirit and threw it out the window. But even as the spirit was being twisted and knotted and tied up by the Witch doctor’s powerful spell, it saw the crayon drawings stuck to the refrigerator and the toy trucks under the breakfast table and it realized that children lived in this house. And the most perfect source of fear that fed the evil spirit and kept it alive was the fear that came from little children when it terrified them with nightmares as they slept in their beds. So even as the wretched spirit was being expelled from the house, it vowed to return.
The next night the Witch doctor called a meeting to tell all the animals about the attack. “It will likely come back”, he said. “Be vigilant.” Some of the animals thought that the only one who needed to be vigilant was the Witch doctor since he was the one who got rid of the bad spirit in the first place, and other animals didn’t know what vigilant meant so they weren’t sure what to think. Anyway, in the end they all got the gist of his order so that night the animals sat up in bed to keep watch over the sleeping children rather than lying down under the blankets as they usually did.
Many nights passed and all was calm and peaceful. More nights went by and still nothing happened. The Witch doctor stayed alert in the living room and the nights turned into weeks and still all was calm. The animals began to think they could stand watch by lying down and shortly after that they thought they might was well get under the blankets since they were lying down anyway, and it wasn’t long after that that they were once again snuggled in close to the children sleeping the long winter nights away. Each night the snow fell silently in the garden, the ice built up inside the bedroom window, the furnace clicked on – clicked off and the tick-talk of the clock in the kitchen counted the hours to dawn.
During this whole time the painting had remained steadfastly fixed to its wooden panel. It had heard the terrifying battle in the kitchen between the Witch doctor and the evil spirit and had been paralysed with fear during the whole ordeal. And when it overheard from the meeting that the horrible thing may actually return, it was so overcome with fear that it decided right then and there that the safest place for it was to remain by day, by night, a painting on the wall, out of the way and forgotten. All the joy it had experienced when it had floated uninhibited through the house, free as it wished to dance in the moonbeams or create beautiful mosaics in all sorts of colours, shapes and sizes as it floated above the children, the exhilaration and peace it had felt when it drifted with the warm currents through the house during those nights past, all those feelings had completely disappeared, thrown out – as it were – when the Witch doctor had hurtled the evil spirit through the kitchen window. Joy and Wonder had been replaced by Fear and Anxiety, so even on crisp, clear nights when the winter moon shone through the blind and crept across the wall, the painting clung anxiously to its wooden backing. It began to wish desperately that it was back in storage in its old basement, hidden on a shelf with the other paintings far away from this place, and it longed for the mundane silence and boredom it once knew. So as the long winter nights went by, the animals returned to sleeping under the covers with the children, the Witch doctor stood watch in the living room and the painting hung nervous and afraid on the wall.
And it was precisely on one of these quiet, peaceful, dark and tranquil nights that the evil spirit chose to return to the house. This time it came in through the roof, far away from the living room and the watchful eyes of the Witch doctor. It crept through the attic and down through the seams in the insulation until it found the wires that powered the light fixture in the hallway. It followed the wires to the electrical box where its black, shapeless form could drip drip drip ever so silently past the bulb in the fixture and down onto the floor where it formed a pool of evil, well away from the noisy pots and pans in the kitchen. In the darkness of the hallway the menacing spirit collected itself and, keeping close to the wall, began to creep along the floorboards toward the sleeping children in the bedroom at the end of the hall.
The entire house was asleep. In the pitch black silence of the night, no one had the slightest hint of the danger that had returned. No one, that is, except the painting. Too nervous to sleep, the painting had formed the habit of staring at the blind while waiting anxiously for dawn to return. But on this particular night, a very faint draught came into the room from the hallway and drifted up the wall and across the surface of the pallet, and the painting, tense and alert already, realized with horror what lurked in the hallway. Petrified, the painting waited desperately for the sound of the Witch doctor to come flying to the rescue but only silence filled the house. Seconds passed into minutes and still no help came. The fearful painting began to tremble and its trembling was so severe that small bits of paint became dislodged from its surface and floated out into the room. Horrified, the painting tried to retrieve itself back onto the safety of the pallet but each time it stretched forward to collect its droplets, more became dislodged until, disbelieving, the painting found itself floating in its entirety in the darkness of the room, a large cloud of trembling droplets. And down there, passing the doorway, it could see the pitch black mass of the evil spirit as it slunk and slithered on the floor toward the children’s bedroom.
The painting had little time to act. Pressing itself up against the ceiling it found the warm currents of air generated by the furnace and hurried out into the hallway where it passed unnoticed over the evil spirit and into the bedroom where the children slept. Once in their room the painting spread itself thinly over both sleeping forms, blending its colours over their heads and hands so perfectly to match the pillow cases and sheets that both sleeping forms were completely camouflaged and the beds looked no more than a jumble of blankets. No sooner had the painting hidden the children than the evil spirit crept through the door and into the room, slinking under the dresser and across the rug, searching searching searching for the tender, innocent hearts that must surely be asleep in these beds. Closer it crept, checking the bed of first one child then the other. The painting was terrified but it knew that if it trembled even a little bit, a few droplets of paint would surely float up into the air and the children that it had so perfectly hidden would be revealed. Waves of terror at being so close to the wretched spirit washed over the painting and threatened to destroy it completely but even though all it wanted to do was rush from the room and get as far away from the horror as possible, still the painting clung to the children and kept them safely hidden.
The spirit searched the entire room. Children should be in these beds but none could be found. Perhaps under the beds, or in the closet, but even though it looked high and low it could find no young hearts and no innocent minds to torment with nightmares. Enraged when it realized that children didn’t live here after all, the spirit rose up in an angry cloud that whirled through the bedroom with a force that knocked over books and tumbled clothes off the dresser and woke the sleeping animals. “AAAAAHHH!!!” screamed Puffin. “AAAAAHHH!” screamed Penguin. “WITCH DOCTOR!!” screamed Doggie, and in a flash the Witch doctor was there in the bedroom, his tiny form in the centre of the rug, his Witch doctor eyes fixated on the massive black cloud as he entangled it in one of his powerful spells that shrunk the spirit to no more than a speck and flung it out the window.
By now all the animals were awake. They stood in a paralysed silence looking at the Witch doctor. “It won’t be back”, he said. “We’re in the clear”, and a collective sigh of relief passed through the group. Everyone began to busy themselves getting resettled for the rest of the night when a new panic spread through the room – where were the children? They frantically began to rustle through the blankets when one of the children snored softly and turned onto their side. “What the heck is THAT?” asked Tiger, pointing to the child’s face, and they all crowded around to look at the jagged border with paint on one side and tender skin on the other. “Hmm,” said the Witch doctor, “Clean it off and meet me in the next room.” All of them set to work carefully removing the paint from the children’s faces and hands, then carried it into the next room where the Witch doctor stood looking up at the empty pallet on the wall. “Oh bother,” said Pooh, “It would seem that someone has taken the paint from the painting.” All the animals looked down at their paws holding the droplets they had removed from the children and suddenly they all knew what had happened. The brave painting had tricked the evil spirit and saved the children from certain torment. “Let’s put it back,” said the Witch doctor, and with the flick of his hand he cast a spell that brought the pallet floating gently to the floor and the animals set to work reconstructing the painting that they had studied so carefully when it first arrived. When they were finished the Witch doctor cast the same spell in reverse and the pallet floated upward to return to the wall, though there was some difficulty in placing it correctly and the painting slid back and forth a number of times before settling in its proper position. All the animals stepped back to admire the beauty and character of the painting that was now so evident in its bumps and swirls. “It looks like a flamingo– .” “HEY!” said the animals, and the Witch doctor held his tongue.
Everyone returned to the children’s bedroom, the Witch doctor returned to the living room and a peaceful silence fell over the house. “What did you scratch on my back when the Witch doctor was putting me up?” asked the painting. “Strength of Heart,” said the nail. And the painting stared at the blind to wait for dawn, happy and content.