The Most Famous Portrait

Written in response to: Write about two characters who meet and/or fall in love in a museum.... view prompt

2 comments

Horror Speculative Fiction

This story contains themes or mentions of physical violence, gore, or abuse.

Note: This story is connected to "Burn The Future" for anyone interested in more.

I stared at the painting, wondering why someone would allow such a grotesque piece to be exhibited in a museum. Vomit-yellow colored snakes curled around a naked woman. Was it some sort of biblical reference? The details of her body suggested the artist had never actually seen a naked woman, or perhaps she was a human-adjacent alien form. Hideous colors clashed together poorly. The look of sheer horror on her face sent shivers down my spine. 

“She was once a lover of mine.” 

I turned towards the man’s voice and saw a gray paper mache rabbit’s head with long down-turned ears that nearly reached to his waist. He wore a tweed suit of a swampy green color that matched the painting’s vomit color scheme well. 

“Her body really looked like that?” I laughed. 

“Of course. I knew every detail as well as the back of my paw. One never forgets such beauty.” 

I glanced down and noticed a fuzzy gray paw holding a champagne flute. I felt my eyebrows rising and turned back to the portrait to conceal the judgment in my eyes. 

The woman in the portrait had cone shaped breasts that came to such a sharp point, I imagined them able to chop carrots. Both pointed off in different directions. One of her arms was noticeably thinner and longer than the other. In fact, if it weren’t for the flesh color, I’d assume the long arm to be another snake. Between her legs was a gaping hole. Just a dark, perfectly circular hole, like someone had used a hole puncher. Every detail, huh? What was this thick orange mess of swirls across her stomach? 

“Someone needs to stop that madman!” A man’s voice cried behind me. I glanced back, relieved to see a human face. Red irritation and tears clouded his icy blue eyes. 

The man charged towards the rabbit, but two security guards grabbed him and pulled him back. 

“That … rabbit is a criminal! He’s the one you should grab!” 

“Oh, dear. Not this again.” The rabbit-man tsked. “I really need to be more careful of ex-boyfriends.” 

I watched security pull the man away. The man was sobbing and speaking so rapidly I couldn’t comprehend the words. My heart ached at the sight of so much agony. 

“What did you do?” I whispered. 

The rabbit-man chuckled. “Oh, dear. That man is a raving lunatic. Ursula does that to men, though.”  

I pointed at the painting. “Is that Ursula?” 

He nodded. “One day, this’ll be the most famous portrait in the world.” 

“I don’t know. The world is quite fond of the portrait of Emilia. She’ll be hard to beat.” Emilia was stunning. 

“Emilia,” the rabbit-man scoffed. “You clearly have no taste.” 

I crossed my arms and noticed a weight on my eyelids. My thoughts drifted to sitting by my bedroom window with a warm cup of tea and a book. 

“If you’re unimpressed with Ursula, I could show you another that–” 

“Actually, I think I’ve lost interest in art.” 

If he said anything in response, I didn’t pay attention. My feet moved as quickly as they could to the exit. 

The warmth of the sun lightened the weight on my eyelids as I stepped out of the museum. I noticed the man who screamed at the rabbit sitting on a bench. 

“Are you okay?” I asked, sitting next to him and pulling a tissue from my purse. 

He shook his head. 

“I saw what happened,” I said. “Whatever you say that dreadful rabbit-man did to you, I’d believe you. What a creep.” 

The man’s eyes met mine. “My wife Ursula came home one day and told me a rabbit offered to make her famous with the most alluring portrait the world has ever seen.” 

“Alluring? Yikes.” 

“I told her I thought it was a scam, and she got upset. Said I didn’t believe the world could find her attractive.” 

“Well, if she looks like–”

“That portrait is hideous!” 

I nodded. 

“She is beautiful.” For a moment, he sat silently. Lost in his memories, perhaps. “That’s not the point, though. I’ve never seen her since that day. She’s vanished. No one has seen her.” 

“Huh?” 

“I’ve called the cops and everything. I don’t think they really believe me. Everyone seems to think I’m just a bad husband. That I probably murdered her and hid her body.” 

“They say that’s usually the case, but I believe you. Something is off about that rabbit-man.” 

“Well, thank you. It’s nice that someone does. I just want to find her.” 

“Don’t give up.” I gently patted his back, hoping he’d find it reassuring. There is definitely something peculiar about that rabbit. 

My heart ached for the poor man and his foolish wife. There was a time in my youth when the fantasies of fame and everlasting beauty through a portrait by a whimsical artist might have enticed me as well. Relief at being over that warmed my chest like the sun did my face. I eagerly wished to put all thoughts of this situation behind me as I hurried home, but then I saw the rabbit-man again. 

He glanced side to side, like scanning for anyone who might be watching, and then stepped through the trees into the forest. In my head, the thought, bad idea, played on repeat, but I felt pulled by an invisible lasso and followed. 

Enchanting scents of pine welcomed me. Bright mushrooms speckled the moss and pine needle carpet of the forest floor. Birds chirped charming melodies. I couldn’t help but smile as I wandered after the rabbit-man. Soon the woods seemed to get thicker and darker. Tangles of prickly twigs and branches clung to my clothing as if the woods were trying to hold me back. My feet kept falling into mud holes concealed by leaves. We weren’t on a trail and I wondered how the rabbit-man could walk so surely when everything looked the same. I wondered if I’d be able to find my way back. 

The air felt sticky and thick. Something rotten and decaying overpowered the pine scent. I jumped back just before stepping on the bloody corpse of a small bunny. It appeared as though something bit into the poor thing. I pictured a coyote shaking its brown body with its sharp fangs until life drained from its panicked heart.

I stepped away from the body, but quickly found another. Hundreds of small bloody brown furred bodies scattered across the muddy, mossy earth. The smell raised burning bile up my throat. The woods darkened abruptly as if someone had switched off a light. It didn’t seem natural. Puffy white steam rose from all the bunny bodies and formed into white, translucent ghost bunnies. I bent down and stretched out a hand to pet one. It rubbed its head into my hand affectionately. I felt like I touched a warm pool of water. I examined my hand and a red substance that looked very much like blood covered it. I gasped, hopped to my feet and backed away from the small ghost bunnies. 

My eyes searched frantically for the rabbit-man. Finally I saw him, and continued to follow, carefully avoiding ghost bunnies with each step. The rabbit-man looked around and I ducked behind a tree. I felt warm liquid against my legs as the ghost bunnies rubbed their bodies on me. As disgusting as I felt, I also couldn’t help but feel a sense of love for their lost souls. Did the rabbit-man do this to them? 

When I peeked around the tree, I watched him disappear. I ran over to where he stood and saw a large hole in the ground. Oh, great! Am I literally going to follow him down the rabbit hole now? 

A groan escaped my lips. A sea of white ghostly bunnies perked their ears and stared at me with vacant eyes. 

“Wish me luck,” I said before stepping into the darkness. The hole was more of a tunnel. I ran my hands along the dirt walls wondering if I’d run right into the rabbit-man. I couldn’t see anything. The rabbit-man might have turned at any point, and I’d never know. After filling my mind with doubts, I noticed a dim light. I crept towards it. There was an open doorway. 

I peeked in cautiously. Inside the room was a large dining table. People like the rabbit-man sat around the table. There was an otter, a fox, an octopus, a deer, a cat, and a weasel. At the head of the table sat a little girl in a dark purple dress. She looked to be around eight years old. She reached towards the middle of the table. The table was filled with what looked like bloody organs and intestines. She grabbed a stringy intestine soaked in blood, pulled it towards her face, and tore into it. Blood splattered around her and her entire head pulled as she ripped it with her teeth. As she chewed, a cheerful smile spread across her face. 

“You’ve really outdone yourself this time, Red Fox. Such an excellent hunter.” 

The rabbit-man appeared from another room, walked over to the little girl, and wrapped his arms around her. She kissed his nose and welcomed him to their dinner party. I felt a sickness so deep within me I worried I might spew forth my own intestines. I swallowed the bile flooding up my throat and pushed away from the room. The darkness soothed me at first, but then the image froze in my mind. I couldn’t shake it. 

My head felt woozy and suddenly the tunnel seemed fire hot. I spun around seeing nothing but darkness. What direction did I come in? My breath caught in my throat and I struggled not to cough. I ran as far from the room as I could, so they wouldn’t hear the inevitable coughing fit. A glowing light caught my eye. A ghostly bunny hopped down the tunnel and I followed. Were we going deeper or returning to the surface? I kept my hands on the cool dirt wall. Every now and then I felt the slimy body of a worm writhing underneath my fingertips. Each time a tingly jolt shot through my body and I wanted to scream. 

A dim orange light floated ahead. Nervously, I headed towards it. The light flickered over a glass cage. Inside the cage sat a familiar looking woman. 

“Ursula?” I asked, stepping closer. 

A wide grin lit up her face. “You know my name! It must be working.” 

Ursula wore a white linen nightgown and sat on a white bed. Yellow snakes hung from her arms by their fangs. They appeared to be draining her blood. Excess red drips delicately rolled down her pale skin. 

“Those snakes … “ I pointed, but couldn’t figure out the words to finish my sentence. 

“All greatness requires sacrifice. That’s what the rabbit says. Please, tell me everything you know about me. How did you learn my name? Does the world know it?” 

“Not quite. I saw your painting in a museum. The rabbit told me about you.” 

She pouted. “Have you heard of Emilia?” 

I nodded. “Everyone has.” 

She rolled her eyes. “Well luckily for Emilia she was pregnant and offered them her daughter. I guess you do get what you paid for. Apparently feeding snakes doesn’t get you much.” 

She flung the snakes from her arms. They hit the glass walls and hissed at her. She glared back at them. “Red Fox offered to get me pregnant. He seems skeevy, but at this rate I’ve given up everything. Why not more?” 

Ursula did look much more beautiful than the portrait, other than the dark pouches beneath her eyes and dull skin tone. 

“Why do you stay here?” I asked.

She glanced around, widened her dark eyes at me, and then rolled them. “Please tell me what other choice it looks like I have.” 

“I can help you, I think.” 

The door needed a key. I searched the area and the dull lighting was enough for me to find a skeleton key hanging from a hook. I put the key in the door and turned it. The door clicked open. Ursula’s eyes widened. 

“Thank you. Thank you so much.” Ursula covered her mouth with her hands and moisture pooled in her dark eyes. She didn’t move though. “There’s one thing. My foot is a bit stuck. I need you to come in here and help me.” 

I couldn’t see her foot or what it was stuck on, but I stepped closer to the door and my foot rose to step through the threshold. Before I could, I felt the warm, liquid feeling of a ghost bunny on my leg. I glanced down at the glowing white fluff. It looked up at me with vacant eyes. A voice that might have been in my head or might have been from the darkness said, “She’s trying to trick you.” 

I backed away. Ursula reached out her arms towards me. 

“I’ve unlocked the door. This is all I can do. It’s up to you now,” I told her. 

“What are you talking about? I told you I’m stuck. Come here.” 

“I can’t.” I glanced down at the ghost rabbit and its nose twitched. 

“Don’t listen to the rabbits! They’re hideous things,” Ursula demanded.

All greatness requires sacrifice. She feeds the snakes her blood. Emilia gave up her daughter. Were these rabbits also a sacrifice of some sort? 

The whispery voice, that might have been in my head, warned me someone must always be in that cage. I stepped away. 

“Darling, please! If you want to help me, actually help me. I can’t get out of here. This is torture.” 

I fled the room and continued down the tunnel. I didn’t know if I was going the right way. I finally saw an exit to open air and trees. Then I saw a man with a paper mache fox head leaning by the doorway. There was a large hole in his mask, but I didn’t see a face beneath it. Only darkness. I froze. 

“You can trust me. I’ll let you go.” 

I shook my head. “Children’s stories taught me never to trust tricky foxes.” 

He laughed. 

I ran helpless in the other direction, feeling almost certain I’d trip over something. 

“How will I ever get out of this place?” I groaned. 

“Come back, you stupid girl!” I heard Ursula shout, but she sounded so far away now. I could still hear the fox laughing, but was that in my head? I glanced down and saw a small ghostly bunny. They hadn’t let me down yet. 

It hopped slowly and calmly. My skin itched to sprint ahead, but I followed behind the bunny. Could I really trust this little one? We took a couple turns. I put my hand against the wall, but it didn’t feel like dirt anymore. It was warm, moist and pulsating like a giant heart. My head felt light again and the air was too thick to swallow. I felt sure I’d die here. The little bunny was leading me towards Hades. 

The bunny hopped faster and I picked up my pace until I was jogging. My heart pounded and sweat soaked my clothing. The walls seemed to pound in sync with my heart. The noise hurt my ears. Thumping, screaming, and laughter surrounded me. 

Then the air chilled and a fresh scent of pine filled my nostrils. I gasped full, quick breaths. I didn’t stop moving. The walls fell back to open air. Between dark twisting branches I saw a sky speckled with brilliant white stars overhead. As many white glowing balls of fluff covered the ground. Thousands of little ghost bunnies. It all looked so beautiful. The bunnies parted to reveal a path. Despite the ripping at my lungs and heaviness in my legs, I continued forward and put as much distance between myself and the tunnel system as possible. 

The longer I walked, the fewer bunnies I saw. Finally I broke through the threshold of trees and saw a line of houses. I recognized a gas station and breathed a sigh of relief. 

I wondered if Ursula would even try to escape. I didn’t believe her leg was stuck. They wouldn’t need to chain her. They didn’t even really need that cage. It seemed like her need for fame had constructed a much more efficient trap. I shook my head. All that and she doesn’t even know how hideous it is. 

“Ma’am are you okay?” A man asked while pumping gas into his truck. 

I didn’t acknowledge him. No more talk. No more interruptions. No more mysteries. This time I was really going home to my hot cup of tea, warm blanket, and book.

March 22, 2024 22:33

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2 comments

Eric D.
00:58 Mar 26, 2024

Wow that was an incredible story! I'm glad you picked it up from the fox man story, it was fun diving into the lore more. Super well rounded, with the comedy of the main character describing the ugly paintings to the discomfort of meeting rabbit man and then it just spiraled into this creepy dream like story sort of like macabre/whimsical nightmare smorgasbord thing. I liked that this story just feels like something so much bigger that could be expanded. I'm really in awe with the creativity.

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Annalisa D.
01:24 Mar 26, 2024

Thank you so much! It's really nice to hear that. Maybe it will expand into more. I think it could.

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