The Painter's Story: Prologue – Playing Sides

 

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

“Get out of there!” I shouted, slapping it away. 

I turned to see a man raise his empty palms.

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

“A gift!" I scoffed.

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 indeed something to see: a tiny bricolage of burlap and twine, 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.

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.

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

“Why are you doing this?” I demanded.

He seemed surprised by the question. “Shall a man turn his back as 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 commotion as one of the onlookers fell into a fit, and her neighbors—many of them disfigured and covered in filth—pointed accusing fingers in my direction.

Then came a voice: “The devil is indeed seductive! 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 who were 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 accursed thing 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 crowd chanted and swayed in giddy 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 cooks 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.

He explained: “To accept the need for protection is to affirm the devil’s power over you. To repudiate his charm is to affirm his power to undermine you. It is better that you laugh at his machinations."

He gestured to the others. "You see?”

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

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

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

And so, having learned nothing from my encounter, 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