I never thought I would end up like this – like a tabloid horror story. Someday I bet I’ll be discovered dead, here in my tiny, piss-scented apartment, being devoured by my seventy cats.
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There was an old painting in my grandparents’ attic. Neither beautiful nor ugly, it simply depicted an empty room with no figures, an old living room with an armchair, library, and fireplace. Everything was very finely detailed, to the point that if you stood at the right distance, you might believe the room was real. In my childhood, my reasoning was that its lack of originality had caused it to lose its place hanging in the house, and this was why it now collected dust in the attic.
As I got bigger, I went up there to play less and less. But I always enjoyed rediscovering my grandfather’s old things. On several occasions, I had noticed that the painting had new details: a splendid tea set, a new dresser, even a painting within the painting, exceptionally well detailed. One day I decided to ask: "You never told me about your talent as a painter, Grandpa. Are you the one touching up the old painting in the attic?"
He answered with a smile: "You don’t know all my little secrets. Do you want me to teach you to paint? It’s easy, you know." I gently declined, claiming that I would surely be bad at it, and he didn’t insist.
More years passed, and I discovered adult life. I worked, I traveled; life was in full swing, and I was not able to see my family as much as I liked. When the occasion came up, it was for a big family meal. I was delighted to see my grandparents again, always smiling, with a few more wrinkles, of course, but still with energy to spare.
Time passed, and life kept going but ended up tragically claiming its due. I was devastated by my grandfather’s death. The good times we spent together replayed on a loop in my mind. At the reception at their house, my grandmother announced that she didn’t want to live there alone, and thus she was getting rid of a lot of things in the house. She offered to let all her children and grandchildren take what was dear to them. Without hesitating for a moment, or even asking my wife’s opinion, I decided to take my grandfather’s painting, which remained my most significant memory of him. Memories rattled me as I climbed up to the attic after so many years. I was surprised to discover that there was not just one but many paintings. Each one was more beautiful than the next, but always furnished rooms, without figures. I took the collection with me, wrapping them up and leaving them at my house to sort through later.
When I had finished grieving, I undertook one Sunday to look more closely at these various paintings, smiling as I admired Grandpa’s meticulous work. But when I found the painting of the big living room, I was surprised to see that small items had changed places. Attributing this to my unreliable childhood memory, I supposed that he had decided to change some details he didn’t like. I hung this painting in my office, setting the others aside.
One morning, half asleep, I sat down at my computer when I thought I saw movement on one of the paintings lying on the floor. Coming closer to this painting, which depicted a bathroom, I noticed an astonishing artistic effect that made the water move. Truly his talent as a painter was exceptional! By analyzing the perspectives a bit more, I glimpsed for the first time the shadow of a figure. Grandpa had thus ended up adding life to his paintings—perhaps the others also had hidden figures?
I decided to start seeking details that had escaped me. I chose a painting of a bedroom, and then I was speechless: my grandfather was painted there, searching for clothing in a wardrobe. He had illustrated himself in his paintings! But now he was turning toward me and smiling. Dumbfounded, I put the painting down and stepped back. It was impossible—I didn’t remember having drunk so much the day before that I would be hallucinating right now. But the painted image moved again, turning toward me and waving. In slippers and pajamas, the figure moved toward one side of the frame and disappeared. Still not understanding but overcome by curiosity, I quickly examined the other paintings, trying to find out where he had gone. I found him on the painting of the living room hanging on the wall. Coming closer, I observed that he had sat down in his armchair, writing in a notebook. By some method or other, he stuck various sheets of paper onto the other side of the painting, where I could barely make out delicate lines of writing.
Searching through my messy drawers, I finally found an old magnifying glass that hadn’t been used in ages. With my face close to the painting, I deciphered with great difficulty my grandfather’s writings: he had succeeded. After a humble life in his little house in the country, he had projected himself into the house of his dreams. He had thought out every room, every detail. He couldn’t dream of anything better, and hoped that my grandmother could join him when the time came. He had thoroughly enjoyed seeing me discover his world, and hoped he hadn’t scared me too much. He also explained that, if the urge ever came over me, he had kept blank canvases and his paints in the attic. In this way it was still possible to offer him other rooms, decorated to my liking.
The very next week I went to get what remained of Grandpa’s painting studio. Not wanting to scare my wife, I kept the secret to myself. Hearing her cry out in surprise one evening, I realized that it was time to explain it to her. Since then, I’ve taken up painting. I’ve painted various landscapes that are fairly successful. Grandpa seems to like them. In this way, even today he can continue to travel.
Translated by Kate Deimling