The Stranger's Portrait

The Stranger's Portrait


He drew portraits - up to five or six an hour sometimes. Quick, fluid sketches in smudged charcoals, they were no masterpieces, but rather snapshots, capturing his subjects in time with both truthfulness and compassion. The Artist took pride in the fact that he never forgot a face once he had committed it to paper, and after thirty years on the job this was some feat. Now he was an old man, his fingers slower and his eyes less sharp than they had been, but the portraits were as lucid as ever.

Each morning he would set up shop on the corner, rain or shine, and wait for the customers to come. Most often they were tourists and passers-by, but every now and then someone would surprise him - the shopgirl from the store across the road, who had passed him every day for the past three years with barely a second glance, would suddenly front up one dreary February lunchbreak and take her turn on the well-worn stool. These portraits, of the people who lived and worked around him, were often the most enjoyable.

Then there were the strangers - sometimes, just sometimes, a face would be so special that he would furiously memorise it as he drew so that afterwards, in the dim apartment light, he could draw them again, but this time for himself alone.

He had a collection of these, his favourite faces. Sometimes he would slowly leaf through the thick portfolio, smiling at the memories. A war veteran, stiff with rheumatism and wrinkled with age, remembering some distant battle with tears in his eyes. A Japanese child-woman, as lovely and distant as a porcelain doll or a geisha girl. A young man, pierced and tatooed and scarred, but with a child's mischievous grin and air of innocence. There were just over one hundred faces he had kept for himself, and each one was dear to him.

At the very end was him - the Stranger, as he thought of him. The Artist never smiled when he reached this one; but nor did he flinch. Usually he would hold it up to the light for long minutes, frowning slightly in puzzlement, before shaking his head and solemnly putting it away again.

It had been over ten years since the Stranger's visit, but he had never shown anyone this last portrait, nor told anyone of his encounter. No wonder, for if he hardly believed his own story, he could hardly expect anyone else to.

* * *

The eyes were always the hardest. These had been harder than most - the charcoal's limitations were never clearer to the Artist than now, looking at his sketch with the memory of the real thing in his mind.

Blue. A wintry, pale blue. Like chips of ice, contrasting sharply with the darkness of the partly dilated pupils at the centre. And the gaze - he could never forget the gaze. That intense unblinking stare, never letting up for a second, unnerving him as he drew.

The Stranger came just after sunset, as the Artist was beginning to pack away his pencils and paper. Leaning casually against the wall, arms folded, his expression half-thoughtful and half-amused. "How much for a picture?" he'd asked abruptly, his British accents distinctive to the Artist's ears after a day of generic American voices. It had been a slow week, so the weary Artist, rather than turning him away, simply named his price. The Stranger shrugged and paid with a grimy ten-dollar bill. "You can keep the change."

The Stranger was tall and lean, his cheekbones sharply delineated by the street lights. At the time, the Artist had estimated him to be in his late twenties; but now he was not so sure. Quickly he sketched the Stranger's face, his hands swift and sure as he outlined the clean spare lines of jaw and brow and cheek, the mouth with the sardonic twist, the cropped white hair. Last the eyes; it was like staring full-on into headlights, for whenever he looked down at the paper all he could see was the afterglow for some moments after.

Ten minutes, fifteen maybe, and it was done. By then the sun was well down and night had fallen. Glad the task was over and rubbing his tired eyes, the Artist handed over the flimsy portrait and began to pack away his things. But the Stranger made no move to go - he stood there, gazing at the portrait, so stonily silent and expressionless that the Artist began to feel slightly alarmed. He ventured a tentative query.

"Anything wrong?" the Stranger echoed, looking up. He started to chuckle. "Nah, mate. It's fine. Itís more than fine, it's me! Fan-bloody-tastic." He laughed out loud, as though he had cracked a hilarious joke. The Artist smiled weakly and turned to go, but the Stranger caught his sleeve with one hand, while cramming the portrait into a pocket with the other. "Hey, wait a second here."

Reluctantly he stopped, regretting ever taking up this client. As if sensing his discomfort, the Stranger grinned at him gleefully, exposing gleaming white teeth. "I need another picture. What's more, I need it now."

It's dark and it's getting late, he protested. I want to go home.

"Not a problem, mate," the Stranger said, putting an arm around his shoulders and steering him away. "We can go to your place." Before he could protest, the Stranger reached into the pocket of his black leather duster and pulled out a fistful of notes. "For a hundred bucks, how about that?" Struck dumb, he hesitated and the Stranger gave an exaggerated sigh. "Alright. Two hundred, then."

Stupefied, the Artist could only nod. The Stranger laughed and gave him a friendly shove. "Lead on, man."

When they reached the tiny apartment, the Stranger paused in the shabby doorway, seemingly reluctant to enter. Already inside, the Artist looked back in surprise. Well, come on in, he said impatiently, eager to get his hands on the two hundred dollars.

The Stranger shrugged and stepped through the door. "Just checking out the paintwork. You know, I think this place needs a makeover."

The Artist shrugged and turned away to set up his easel and materials. As he turned his back to the Stranger, he felt an odd chill run down his spine. Glancing back, he nearly shrieked to find himself face to face with a monster.

Gasping, he stumbled as he backed away, overturning chairs and a table in his haste. The Stranger advanced slowly, nonchalantly, smiling through a mouth full of fangs, his brow ridged and heavy over the yellow eyes. Suddenly, he lunged forward and slammed the Artist up against the wall, one icy hand choking his windpipe.

Grinning, he leant close to the Artistís pale sweating face. "Two hundred bucks, mate. I'm paying you not to die. Do you have any idea how odd that is?" He laughed. "Usually they're paying me. Of course," speaking into his ear, voice dropping to a confidential whisper, "I kill them anyway."

Abruptly the Stranger let go and the Artist slid to the floor, his heart racing and sweat pouring from his brow. Casually the Stranger straddled a chair, leaning on the back and watching the Artist as intently as a wolf eyes its prey. "Come on, get on with it. I haven't got all night, you know. I might start to get a bit peckish if you don't start doing something useful."

Trembling, he stood in slow jerky movements, gathered his tools and got to work. It was the hardest thing he'd ever done, sitting at the easel with the charcoal shaking in his fingers, and the Stranger staring at him the whole time, no longer smiling.

This one took longer than the first, for often he stopped to wipe the perspiration from his hands, or to rub out a line that went awry from nerves. Slow, uncertain work, too, to draw the unfamiliar contours of a demonís face, not knowing what hungry thoughts might be behind it.

The Stranger spoke only once during the sitting. "Be careful, old man," he said softly, threateningly. "Make it accurate. Draw exactly what you see." The Artist nodded, swallowed painfully, and bent over his work once more.

* * *

Finally the portrait was done. He hesitated before handing it over, considering it with a critical eye. It was good, he decided with a trace of pride, one of his best - and in spite of, or because of, the enormous pressure that had been on his shoulders.

At first he had found the demonic face frightening and grotesque, especially in comparison with the Strangerís human guise; but after being forced to consider the face artistically, to contemplate every feature and shade and curve, he was oddly fascinated. It was a predator's face, primal and ruthless; he saw self-assured arrogance in the jaw and cruel humour in the lips, the light of cunning and intelligence in the yellow eyes. No longer simply frightening - but also compelling and magnetic. The Artist knew he would never forget it; he could have drawn it again blindfolded.

Silently he gave it to the Stranger, feeling somewhat light-headed. Now was the moment of truth, but the nervousness seemed to have been sweated out of him; all that was left was a sense of fatalistic calm.

Not looking away from the portrait, the Stranger stood and walked away a few steps, his back to the Artist. After long moments he spoke. "So this is what I am," he said softly, glancing over his shoulder, to which the Artist nodded. Something dangerous sparked in the Stranger's eyes and he let the paper drop from his hand. "I see," he said evenly, terribly. "I understand."

With shocking abruptness, the Stranger seized a chair and hurled it with crashing force into the thin plaster wall. Growling deep in his throat, he snatched up a lamp and sent it crashing in the same direction. The stool made contact with a table top at high velocity and came splintering apart; the tiny televisionís screen was smashed with one black boot; a bookcase toppled onto the worn carpet and spilt its contents like so much sour milk. And with each destructive act, the Artist flinched and said nothing.

As suddenly as it had begun, the outburst of violence ended. The Stranger was inert and silent, head down and eyes wide, the profile of a human face silhouetted by the light from the window. Slowly he crouched down and retrieved the portrait from the debris.

The Stranger looked upon his own image one more time; it was impossible to tell what he was thinking. Then with deliberate movements he produced a cigarette lighter from inside his duster and set the portrait alight. The Artist watched with a pang of regret as the Stranger turned the fruits of his labours to ash.

Then the Stranger turned to him, eyes piercing and expression unreadable, and the Artist stepped back in alarm. But there was no need to fear. "You drew well, old man," the Stranger said simply.

Reaching into a pocket, he pulled out a thick untidy wad of bills and tossed it in the Artistís direction - they flew apart in midair and scattered every which way, floating down to rest amidst the wreckage. Of their own accord the Artistís hands reached out to grab a handful of notes. They were of every denomination, from ones to hundreds, and to his shock the Artist realised that the total must add up to far more than two hundreds. Unconsciously he licked his lips - there were thousands of dollars, the most money heíd touched at a single time in years.

When he looked up, the Stranger was gone.

* * *

The next morning he found the first portrait on the floor, crumpled but otherwise unharmed. It must have fallen out when he was getting the money, the Artist thought.

For a few anxious weeks he waited for the Stranger to come back for the portrait, but the dreaded visit never eventuated. So the Artist added the sketch to his collection, quietly pocketed his payment, and never spoke of the incident to any living soul.

Turning the pages of the thick portfolio, he would always come to rest on this last page and the icy blue stare. He would think back to that unsettling visit, and remember the Stranger's other face.

The memory of that second portrait had not faded. Flexing his arthritic fingers, he knew he could draw it again. Once he went so far as to sit down with a fresh sheet and a pencil, ready to do just that. After a few minutes he put them away, the paper still untouched.

The Artist looked at the face of the Stranger and remembered. Yes, he thought as he closed the portfolio, the eyes are always the hardest.


Rowan ( April 2000

Feature Story December 2000 at In Dreams
Noir Award from Addictive Stigmata.

This story is not to be archived without permission.

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