Authors: Scott Nicholson
Tags: #Science fiction, #General, #Fiction, #Horror, #Horror - General, #Fiction - Horror
Mason Jackson stared at the large oil painting that hung on the wall above the fireplace. It stared right back, as severe as any of Mason's former art instructors. The scowling face of the portrait dominated the room, ten times life-size. The flesh tones of the oils were so re-alistic that Mason could imagine the figure bursting free of the ornate wooden frame. A brass plate beneath the painting was etched with the name ephram korban. Mason studied the black eyes. They were the only features that lacked the realism of the rest of the paint-ing. The eyes were dead, dul, completely unanimated. But Mason wasn't a painter himself, so he had no grounds for criticism. Critics be damned, and he was actually more interested in the frame than the painting. It ap-peared to be hand-carved.
Mason glanced behind him at the people miling in the foyer. Through the open door, he could see two men in overals unloading the wagon. A busty, fortyish woman wearing a long black dress seemed to be everywhere at once, giving orders, distributing drinks in long sweaty glasses, shaking hands. Mason moved closer to the fire-place. Though the day was warm for late October, a fire blazed in the hearth, all yellow and orange and other bright autumn colors. The fireplace mantel was also hand-carved. Bas-relief cherubim and seraphim, plump Raphaelite forms wing-ing among the thick curls of clouds. Mason checked his fingers to make sure they were clean, then felt among the smooth shapes. As his hands explored, he noticed someone had left a half-filed glass of red wine on the mantel. He thought of the rings the glass might leave on the white paint, like blood on virgin snow. No re-spect for the work of a craftsman.
He again looked at the eyes in the painting. Now Ephram Korban seemed to be gazing out across the room, brooding over these people who had dared to cross his threshold. The face was alternately compeling and repulsive. Mason touched the frame—
"Lovely, isn't it?" came a woman's high voice.
Mason spun, his satchel nearly knocking over the wineglass. Before him stood the buxom woman in the black dress, her dark hair tied in a tight bun. Her smile was fixed on her face as if chiseled.
"Yes," Mason said. "Whoever carved this must have spent a few weeks on it." She giggled, a thin, artificial sound. "I was talking about the
silly," she said. She toyed with the strand of pearls around her neck, the pearls unfashionably interrupted by a small brass locket. Her dark eyes sparkled with all the life that Korban's painted ones lacked. Mason wondered if that was something you could practice. He could picture the woman before the mirror, fastening her pearls, checking her teeth, adjusting the sparkle in her eyes.
The woman held out her hand. Mason took it, won-dering if he was supposed to bow and kiss it like some French dandy in a period film. Her skin was cool. She turned his hand over and looked at his fingers, nod-ding. "Ah, so you're the sculptor."
"Calluses. We don't get many calluses here at the manor." She leaned forward, like a conspirator. "At least among the guests. The hired help stil has to work."
Mason nodded. He looked down at his tennis shoes with the scuffed toes, the hole in his blue jeans. The other people who rode up with him in the van wore leather pumps, Kenneth Coles, open-backed sandals, clothes out of catalogues that bore New Hampshire names. He didn't belong here. He was dirt-poor southern mil-town trash, no matter what sort of artistic airs he put on.
"You're our first sculptor in a while," she said, her cold hand still clinging to his. "Let's see if I have the copy memorized: 'Mason Beaufort Jackson, honors graduate from the Adderly School of the Arts, currently employed at Rayford Hosiery in Sawyer Creek, North Carolina. Winner of the 2002 Grassroots Consortium Award. Com-missioned by Westridge University to create a piece for their Alumni Hal.' Now, what
the title of that piece?" She finaly let go of his hand and pressed her hand against her forehead as if reading a page in her mind, then snapped her fingers.
Of course. How terribly lovely."
Mason groaned inwardly. He hadn't realized exactly how pretentious the title sounded until hearing it pass those well-bred lips. "Wel, it was the crowd I was in at the time. Avant-garde, but still meeting for lunch at McDonald's."
The woman emitted her bone-rattling laugh, then pointed to the canvas satchel slung over his shoulder.
"Are those your tools?"
"I'm looking forward to seeing you use them," she said. "I'm Mamie Goldfeld. I insist that you call me Miss Mamie."
He glanced at Korban's portrait, then back to Miss Mamie.
"Ah, you noticed," she said.
"I'm the last living relative of Ephram Korban. I run the manor, keeping it as an artists' retreat just the way he wanted. Master Korban always appreciated the cre-ative spirit."
"Was he an artist himself?"
"A frustrated one. A dilettante. He was mostly a col-lector."
Mason took in more of the architectural details of the foyer. The arch over the front entrance was ten feet high, with leaded squares of glass set in a transom overhead. The foyer had a high ceiling, the white wals and trim accentuated with an oak-paneled wainscoting as high as Mason's chest. Two Ionic columns in the center of the room held a huge ceiling beam aloft.
"This is a pretty place," Mason said, because Miss Mamie clearly expected him to say something. He'd nearly said "lovely," an adjective he'd never used be-fore. Five minutes at an expensive artists' retreat and he was already putting on airs, developing a persona. God forbid he should ever actually accomplish any-thing. He'd be insufferable.
"I'm pleased you like it," she said. "Colonial re-vivalist. Master Korban was proud of his heritage, which is why his wil stipulated that the manor be pre-served intact."
"Korban. That's Jewish, isn't it?"
"In name only. Not in spirit. He borrowed his her-itage, bought what he couldn't borrow, and stole what he couldn't afford. He ended up with everything, you see."
Mason looked at the portrait again, measured the tenacity and arrogance of the features. "Looks like your ancestor was the kind of man who didn't take no for an answer."
"Yes, but he was also highly generous. As you know."
Mason smiled, though he felt as if a lizard were crawling in his throat. He was here on the dole. He could never have afforded such a retreat on his factory pay. When you got right down to it, he was a token, in-vited so the Korban estate and the arts council could revel in their magnanimous support of the underclass. Miss Mamie looked past him to where a smal group of guests stood talking. "There's dear Mr. and Mrs. Abra-mov. The classical composers, you know."
Mason didn't know, but he kept smiling just the same. The token grin of gratitude.
"Excuse me, I must say helo. Lilith wil be along to show you to your room, and I do hope you enjoy your stay." She glanced at Korban's portrait with an expression approaching wistfulness, then was gone with a bustle of fabric. Mason gazed at the portrait again. The fire popped, sending a thick red ember up the chimney. Korban's eyes still looked dead. Mason was about to turn away to find his luggage when the fire snapped again. For the briefest of moments, the face in the por-trait was superimposed over the flames like a sunset's reflection on a lake.
Mason shrugged and rubbed his eyes. He was tired, that was al. A five-hour Greyhound ride from Sawyer Creek to Black Rock, then a half hour in a van winding up mountain roads. He got dizzy all over again think-ing about the views from the van window, how the rocky slopes dropped hundreds of feet on either side. They'd disembarked at a narrow wooden bridge that seemed to be the only connection between the civilized world and Korban Manor. The suitcases and bags were loaded onto a horse-drawn wagon and the guests had to walk the rest of the way to the manor.
His first step on the bridge was like a leap of mis-placed faith. He'd almost lost the sausage biscuit he'd had for breakfast, even though he'd kept his eyes fixed straight ahead and a sweaty palm on the bridge rail. The great gap of space surrounding him, the soft wind rising from the valey, and the lost weight of the world hundreds of feet below al pressed against his skin. His chest clenched the breath out of his lungs and he tried to tell himself that acrophobia was an irrational fear. But only one thought kept his legs moving: this was one of those paths to success, a strait gate and narrow way that al true artists had to navigate, this scared-sick stagger was leading him closer to recognition.
Before he knew it, he was on solid ground again, though he had to lean against a tree for a moment to let the blood return to his brain. Then he joined the others on the dirt road, following in the wake of the wagon, passing through a dark forest that could have harbored any number of endangered species. The other guests chattered and laughed, as smug as tourists, and Mason wondered whether they'd even noticed the isolation of their new milieu. Then the forest ended and Korban Manor stood be-fore them like something out of an antique postcard. The open fields fell away to a soft swell of orchard, a patchwork of meadows, and two barns stitched together with fencing. The manor itself was three outsized sto-ries high, tal the way they were built in the late 1800s, six Colonial columns supporting the portico ceiling at the entrance. Black shutters framed the windows against the white siding. Four chimneys puffed away, the smoke swirling through the giant red oaks and poplar that sur-rounded the house. Atop the roof was a widow's walk, a flattened area with a lonely railing. He wondered if any widows had ever walked those boards. Probably. One thing about an old house, you could be sure that somebody had died there, probably a whole lot of somebodies.
A painter or photographer would probably kill for the view the widow's walk afforded. Mason might even commit a lesser crime for the privilege, except he knew he'd grow dizzy with all that open air around him and that deadly depth stretching below. At least he'd have an opportunity to study Korban Manor's intricate scrollwork from the safety of ground level.
He fought a sudden urge to pull a hatchet from his satchel and swipe it across Ephram Korban's disquiet-ing smirk.
"You look like you could use an eye-opener," came a voice beside him. It was Roth, the photographer who had shared a seat with him on the van. The man spoke with a clipped and not entirely authentic British accent, alcohol on his breath. A martini was poised in one wrinkled hand.
"No, thanks," Mason said.
"It's afternoon, and we're all grown-ups here." Roth's eyes crinkled beneath white eyebrows. His face was sharp, thin, and full of angles. Mason saw it as a natural sculpture, the weathered topography of skin, a crag of a jawbone, the eroded plain of forehead. He had a bad habit of reducing people to essential shapes and forgeting that some sort of soul might exist within the raw clay of creation.
"I don't drink."
"Oh, you a religious nut?"
"I'm not any kind of nut, as far as I know. Except for that part about hearing God's voice in a burning bush." Roth laughed and drained some of the martini. "Don't get your knickers in a twist. You're terribly young to throw in with this lot," he said, nodding toward the people that Miss Mamie was greeting. "What's a pip like you doing on a getaway like this?"
"I'm here on a grant. North Carolina Arts Council and Korban Manor." Mason looked at the fire again. No faces swirled among the bright colors. No voices arose, either. He forced himself to relax.
"A real artist, eh? Not like these," Roth said, rolling his eyes toward Miss Mamie's well-dressed guests.
"Most of them need an artists' retreat like they need another mutual fund. A bunch of tweeds whose highest endeavor is gluing dried beans to a scrap of gunny-sack."
Another critic. Passing judgment on the unrevealed talents of others. At least they'd paid their own way, un-like Mason.
"What part of England are you from?"
"Not a pint of Brit in me," he said. "Was over there in the military for a while and picked up a little of the accent. Comes in handy with the birds." He winked one of his smoky gray eyes.
"You came here to shoot, I suppose." Mason had dated a girl at Adderly who'd had a book of Roth's work. Roth did nature, wildlife, architecture, and the occasional por-trait. He couldn't touch the grity glamour of Leibovitz or the visceral sensibility of Mapplethorpe, but his photo-graphs possessed their own brand of blunt honesty.
"I got bankrolled by a few magazines," Roth said. "I'm to do some house-and-garden stuff, scenic moun-tain shots, that sort of tripe. I do want to shoot that bridge, though. Highest wooden bridge in the southern Appalachians, they say."