The Painter's Story: Prologue – Playing Sides

 

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I had just arrived at the market when I felt a hand reach into my pocket.

“Get out of there!” I shouted, slapping it away. I turned to see a man holding up his empty hands.

“I was just leaving a gift," he explained.

“A gift!” I scoffed. “You’re a thief—and a liar.”

“Surely, a thief would have run away," he replied.

“Then run,” I said. “Or I’ll call the police.”

He pointed to my jacket. “You have been given a charm for protection—”

Just go—"

“—In your pocket. You will see.”

And in my pocket, there was in fact something to see: a tiny bricolage of burlap and string, its occult pretensions emphasized by the runes and signs with which it had been inscribed.

“What’s this?” I demanded.

“A charm for your protection,” he repeated. “The devil himself has marked you.”

I shook my head at this nonsense. I considered tossing the thing at his feet, but when I raised my hand I was struck by the sudden look of apprehension on his face.

He turned his head cautiously from side to side and warned: “Nothing else stands between you and the unrequited!”

I followed his gaze and saw that we were attracting attention; one of the onlookers had clambered up a lamppost for a better view; others were pointing from a rooftop nearby.

“Why are you doing this?” I demanded.

He seemed surprised by the question. “Shall a man turn his back when another is being swept to sea?” He leaned towards me. “The devil is seductive. But let him wrest this gift from you, and all is lost!”

There was a sudden cry from the crowd, and I saw that one of the onlookers had fallen into a fit while her neighbors—many of them disfigured and covered in filth—focused their attention on me.

“The devil is indeed seductive!” came a voice. “He dispenses poison and calls it a cure!”

I turned to the voice. “I don’t know what’s going on,” I confessed.

The man stepped into view. “You are spellbound,” he explained. “Your friend has bestowed an evil charm.” He nodded to the cultists bobbing and whirling ecstatically on the other side of the street. “He wants for you to join them.”

I held up the totem, and his eyes narrowed. “You must repudiate that cursed gift without delay—”

The other was aghast. “For the love of God,” he pleaded, “plug your ears to this deceit—”

"—The moment will be on us!”

I could feel my stomach rising as I turned from one to the other. The restless crowd seemed to be chanting and swaying in anticipation. A buzzing began to fill my ears.

Then a voice from behind me whispered, “Open your eyes, man! Can’t you see it's the devil playing both sides?”

I looked again, but I couldn't make sense of what I saw: the antagonists had the same face, the same clothes, the same mannerisms.

I turned to the voice behind me. “How is this possible?” I asked.

“Come,” he said, taking me by the shoulder. “We should leave before he dreams up another scheme.”

“And what about this?” I asked, holding out the totem.

He shrugged. “Keep it for a souvenir, if you like.”

“I don’t understand,” I said.

“Acknowledging the need for protection would have been to affirm the devil’s power over you. Repudiating his gift would have been to affirm his power to fashion such a contrivance. It is better that you laugh at his parlor tricks!"

He gestured to the others. "You see?”

The antagonists wore the same sheepish grins at having been exposed. The crowd was silent.

“I still don’t understand,” I confessed.

The other laughed. “Follow me,” he replied, “and you will see!”

And so, not knowing any better, I let the stranger lead me away, while the crowd swayed and the devil, still grinning to himself, danced with his own likeness.

 

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continue to episode 1