Speculative Fiction Fantasy

The Portrait 


Mehreen Ahmed

On the crossing of Victoria and Harriet Street, stood a building of a massive block of grey apartments. Up in the front of each flat, balconies jutted out like open matchboxes, creating a blind spot for the incoming traffic. It posed an undeniable threat to the traffic on the road. Notwithstanding, the building had much to offer in the way of charm. 

It would have looked quite stark, had it not been for the indoor plants. Some balconies had synthetic black chairs placed around a white table of six. Commonly, all the flats had plants of many shapes and colours. Bunches of scarlet geraniums, white and yellow chrysanthemums hung over the balcony rails. Rows of vines reaching out to the sky. Such motley colours found in the early blooms.

An artist spotted the building. She took up her brush and painted it in nuanced detail. The building looked surreal on the canvas. She brushed a uniformly cold structure first. Then vastly varied human stories as they percolated within its walls. On a rainy day, when the clouds descended heavily, the building had an awfully dull perspective, which gave the building a grey, surreal look. Particularly, with an untrodden path running by it, vanishing midway out of vision. What little remained to see of the path was a few wet bamboo trees aligned on the edge of half a path, drooping tender shoots, and emerald green leaves. Either way, through rain and fall, cold and heat, the artist’s rendition made it pale or bright, as wild as mood swings. However, the structure remained solidly rooted to the ground.

When her painting was just halfway through, the artist sat down cleaning her brush. And then something struck her incognito. She put the brush away and picked up cans of paint one after another of pastel green, rhubarb red, “alentejo blue,” and lavender purple and splashed them vigorously on the canvas, nearly suffocating the building in a sea of callous colours. She panted as she did so. Sitting down afterward, she reflected upon this idiosyncratic behavior on the canvas. It was complete devastation. She painted a child’s look of horror penetrating through the riotous colours. A mother holding the child’s hand and desperately trying to make a quick getaway in utter panic. The artist conjured up an image. She took up her brush and moved on to the next canvas. The hilltop of Harriet Street, where she stood, gave her a vantage point to look through the workings of the minds of the residents. Freakish thoughts of mad desires were being reshaped on the canvas. These appeared in the coloured waves of fuchsia pink, blood orange, and translucent lemon. As though she was painting the essential gases: nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, and the silken aurora borealis in a full spectrum of celestial colours to represent human love, rage, and sorrow.

Her eyes opened up to each apartment in a unique way. Mothers cooking at the stove; girls watering potted plants on the balconies; lovers’ entwined bodies kissing at dawn break; readers engrossed in the pursuit of philosophy; couples arguing followed by break-ups; children crazy with computer games; musicians playing pianos at evensong. Events happening all at once, every day, each on its own orbit. There was no dearth of colour as she indulged herself in colour on colour. An inner reality of abstraction superimposed unhindered. And then the artist thought of the figurines on the Parthenon of the great antiquity. Possibly, she could paint real people and bring them to life. And she did. She painted little figurines, residents of the apartments and brushed them with heavy strokes of colours, infusing life into them. They took their places now on the pantheon of life’s theatre. Within the cold marble of each insignificant apartment wall, human tales played out their own significant dramas. Stories of happiness and misery, one too many, each told earnestly in various ways.

The artist now heard passionate outbursts. Life’s veritable tales unfolded in casual conversations. “Why was she called that, ‘Mowgli’s mother,’ a male figure, demanding to know why a certain person would be called so all through her life some four hundred years ago on this very soil? Who was Mowgli after all? Has anyone seen him say that she should be called so? He addressed some people, whose muteness suggested that even they did not know, who Mowgli was? Maybe Mowgli was an illegitimate child of this mother, whose identity was to remain a mystery forever; yet, Mowgli would be the one to have survived the test of time in a bizarre irony, even after four hundred years had passed. He would be remembered through a mother known only by that, ‘Mowgli’s Mother’ nothing more. No one ever saw this boy. What was this mother’s story after all? Mother of an unwanted child. In a four-hundred-year-old figurine, the artist was drawing a dancer, performing a dance for the Lord of a clan on a moonlit night. With flimsy cotton wrapped around her barely covered body, she was taken by the young Lord as his paramour. A baby boy was born over a period of time. She was now seen breast-feeding it. The next depiction was of the Lord’s men marching into her hut and snatching the baby away. The helpless mother cried out in pain; the seductive dancer of the young Lord was sent to exile. Here in the new land, she called herself, “Mowgli’s Mother.” To this day, she was known as “Mowgli’s Mother.”

What was the portrait all about? Tall tales told about every man and every woman, since the inception of human history. Old replaced by a new wave of life on this resolute earth. Within these walls of one’s own apartment, plants grew in a profusion of colours. The artist painted changes. A change had occurred indeed! Flowers from one of the pots died; in the same soil, a resident decided to plant tomato seed to foster different life, in a different moment.

March 13, 2021 03:13

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.


Laura Rebecca
18:54 Mar 26, 2021

I love the vivid detail! Your writing made it so easy to feel as thought we were there with the main character and her colors.


Show 0 replies
Stevie B
12:00 Mar 20, 2021

Very insightful and well written.


Show 0 replies
15:42 Mar 27, 2021

Loved your use of metaphors and allusions giving this story an added layer of subtext.


Show 0 replies
RBE | Illustration — We made a writing app for you | 2023-02

We made a writing app for you

Yes, you! Write. Format. Export for ebook and print. 100% free, always.