The Portrait (295 words)

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The Urban Spaceman

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Hello all.

I'd appreciate any feedback on this little story, which will be appearing on my blog for a contest next week.


The Portrait

Her gnarled knuckles ache with the pain of age and cold as she directs the brush this way and that across the upright canvas. Darkness is her comfort, her old friend, her nightly blanket. Darkness, because eyes clouded by cataracts require no light by which to see.

Swish.

The hog-hair brush runs dry. Methodically, she dips it down into the red on her palette. Blood-red. Virgin heart red, to be specific. It will make a lovely rosy colour on the portrait's cheeks. The flush of youth. Yes, she will be young again.

Brown the hair, brown harvested fresh just last night. The woodcutter's daughter, her lovely skin, her oak-coloured tresses. Pigtails, she wore. Pigtails no more. The body will be found soon enough.

The boiled-up bones of the baker's newborn babe give ample glue. The long brown locks lie beautiful along the portrait's hairline. How well they frame those flawless cheeks pinked by virgin blood.

Swish.

The finishing touches, now. Blue eyes, cornflower blue, to match the blue sky. The dress of the goat-herder's daughter, ripped to tatters. A wolf, they say. A wolf is fine for the woman. Let the wolf take the blame.

The eyes in place, sightless she stares at the vision of youthful beauty. A face to break a thousand hearts. Much better than the wrinkled, saggy flesh her real face has become. Wartless, hairless, free from liver-spots... yes, this face will do nicely.

She puts down the paintbrush and picks up the spell-book. A whimper draws her blind eyes to the corner of the cottage, where the blacksmith's daughter, fairest of the lot, lies bound and gagged.

Should she?

Yes. Why not? A new body to go with her new face. Smiling toothlessly, she picks up the wickedly curved knife.
 

sockycat

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Okay, I love this.

The "Yes, she will be young again." part is what made alarm bells go off in my head as I realized I may not be reading an entirely happy story. You capture the voice of your main character very well in that line, as if the narration itself is trying to reassure itself that everything that's happening here will be worth it.

The lines "Pigtails, she wore. Pigtails no more." have a melody to them that is inherently creepy, and fits into the rest of the piece quite well. Further down the mage you recapture that kind of singsong-y, fable-y creepy rhythm when you write "A wolf, they say. A wolf is fine for the woman. Let the wolf take the blame."

Because this is such a short piece I understand that there's not a whole lot of room for you to develop your main character beyond her being the creepy old hag witch lady thing that we see in so many fairy tales. But I would also live if you could give us a line or two, something short and punchy, that tells us a little bit about your main character beyond her fitting into that role. We've read stories about creepy old witch hag lady things before, so what makes her special? Why this character? Your story answers the "why right now" question, but I don't get a sense that anything is at risk for your main character. I think just a tidbit about who she is, or why she is the way she is, would help readers latch onto her more.

That being said, you do a lot of work in a very short space. I'm definitely a fan of this flash piece.
 

The Urban Spaceman

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Thanks, sockycat! The prompts I'm writing for are "Selfie" as a theme and "Fantasy" as the genre. I technically have 1000 words as a limit so could almost certainly work in a little tidbit or two about the crone and why she's doing what she's doing (the stakes are basically she's old and dying and doesn't want to be, which I think may have been too subtly implied in my story).

I'll take some time to revise and probably post an update over the weekend if you're happy to take another look! :)
 

dpaterso

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Not bad at all, creepy little ditty, reads very well. I hope the spell is successful after all the work (and people) she's put into it.

For just a moment there I thought it was a shame the blacksmith's daughter would lose her "fairest of the lot" face, replaced by the portrait face one presumes. I hope the spell tidies the portrait up a bit first...

-Derek
 

The Urban Spaceman

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Thank you, Derek! I am certain the spell will succeed; when I wrote this, I knew in my head that it wasn't the first time she'd done it.
 

Phantasmagoria

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I love this!! Very polished, has a good flow, and wonderfully creepy. My only quibble is that she is said to be sightless and yet she... seems to be seeing, both the painting she's working on, and the girl she's captured...? I could guess that she sees through magic, but not having an explanation did throw me a little when I was reading. It would be an easy addition, I feel, to sneak in that she can still "see" via magic... but it's up to you; this might be a subjective thing, since we do get a clear sense that this is a typical old hag-witch-lady-thing (like sockycat said).
 

The Urban Spaceman

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I love this!! Very polished, has a good flow, and wonderfully creepy. My only quibble is that she is said to be sightless and yet she... seems to be seeing, both the painting she's working on, and the girl she's captured...? I could guess that she sees through magic, but not having an explanation did throw me a little when I was reading. It would be an easy addition, I feel, to sneak in that she can still "see" via magic... but it's up to you; this might be a subjective thing, since we do get a clear sense that this is a typical old hag-witch-lady-thing (like sockycat said).

Thanks, I'll be reworking a little of the story shortly so I'll consider this for my update! :)
 

The Urban Spaceman

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Slightly updated version, now 333 words:



Her gnarled knuckles ache with the pain of age and cold as she directs the brush this way and that across the upright canvas. Darkness is her comfort, her old friend, her nightly blanket. Darkness, because eyes clouded by cataracts require no light by which to see.

Swish.

Time, her old nemesis, claws at the few days she has left, scraping them away hour by hour. Each minute slips through her fingers like minnows in the stream, each lost moment dragging her closer to oblivion.

Swish.

The hog-hair brush runs dry. Methodically, she dips it down into the red on her palette. Blood-red. Virgin heart red, to be specific. It will make a lovely rosy colour on the portrait's cheeks. The flush of youth. Yes, she will be young again.

Brown the hair, brown harvested fresh just last night. The woodcutter's daughter, her lovely skin, her oak-coloured tresses. Pigtails, she wore. Pigtails no more. The body will be found soon enough.

The boiled-up bones of the baker's newborn babe give ample glue. The long brown locks lie beautiful along the portrait's hairline. How well they frame those flawless cheeks pinked by virgin blood.

Swish.

The finishing touches, now. Blue eyes, cornflower blue, to match the blue sky. The dress of the goat-herder's daughter, ripped to tatters. A wolf, they say. A wolf is fine for the woman. Let the wolf take the blame.

The eyes in place, sightless she stares at the vision of youthful beauty. A face to break a thousand hearts. Much better than the wrinkled, saggy flesh her real face has become. Wartless, hairless, free from liver-spots... yes, this face will do nicely.

She puts down the paintbrush and picks up the spell-book. A whimper draws her blind eyes to the corner of the cottage, where the blacksmith's daughter, fairest of the lot, lies bound and gagged.

Should she?

Yes. Why not? A new body to go with her new face. Smiling toothlessly, she picks up the wickedly curved knife.
 

The Urban Spaceman

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I'll be submitting this in a few hours, so any last minute thoughts would be much appreciated. It's only one paragraph that I added to raise a little tension. I know I left the revision late, but AW was down for me for most of yesterday. ;__;
 

RJDrake

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I know this is about two months late, but I stumbled upon this story and really love it so I just wanted to let you know.
I think that the second version is really great, there is a fluency (nearly poetry) in the swish of the painting brush that gives structure to the whole stoy.

I really hope you won the competition.
 

RJDrake

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Oh, no. That's a real pity.
Keep it up, I'm sure other chances will come.
I saw your website and you are really productive and you have some really good stuff there!
 

Geoffrey Fowler

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Nice story, it meets the most basic requirement of flash fiction — good flow. It also has a nice cadence, which gives it an almost poetic quality. The only problem I had was with the most tricky element of flash fiction, the ending. Readers can intuit that the blind witch behind the easel is going to revert to a youthful state once the picture is completed and this creates anticipation-based tension. Of course, it must be released in the denouement if the story is to succeed. Until the second-to-last last sentence, the story was about the portrait, but then the blacksmith’s daughter is suddenly sneaked into the picture as the witch contemplates taking the child’s body to go along with her new face. Unfortunately, this seems more like a diversion than an ending and it raises two questions: First, is there any possible reason why the witch would want to keep her own decrepit body when she can replace it with a nice fresh one and be ready to rock and roll again, and second, if she takes the child’s body what was the point of the portrait in the first place. It might have been better if the blacksmith’s daughter had been introduced early on and the portrait justified as necessary as a way of hiding the evidence, so to speak.
 

The Urban Spaceman

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Thanks for the feedback, Geoffrey! You're right on point about the reasoning behind the blacksmith's daughter etc. I realised on my first re-read during editing that it didn't gel particularly well—I'm just very lazy and couldn't be bothered to change it at that stage. ;)

ETA: if I thought about it long enough, I could come up with some reason for deciding at the last minute to go with a new body as well as a new face, and if I was going to work this piece into a longer work, I'd definitely do that to ensure logic and continuity. However, this story was submitted ages ago for the friendly competition in question, so no further editing or expansion is being done.
 
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MadAlice

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I remember reading this way back when and I guess I didn't comment at the time since it was after you'd already submitted it. I really enjoyed the story so I thought I'd tell you now. I assumed she was going to use part of the young woman's body to make into paint and add to the portrait, thereby transforming her own body into a young one with face to go with it (that is how the spell works yes?). I mean, she couldn't use the woman's whole face because people would recognize her. I assume that's the reason for different parts from different people.
 

The Urban Spaceman

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I mean, she couldn't use the woman's whole face because people would recognize her. I assume that's the reason for different parts from different people.

Part of the reason she wanted to use multiple faces was anonymity, but the greater reason was because she wanted the best/most beautiful aspects of different women to be her own. I'd mentally followed it through that once she cast her spell, the portrait's features would shift to her, whilst her current hag appearance would be superimposed onto the portrait. After doing this several times over the years, she'd leave behind a trail of twisted, old crone portraits and a grim legacy.

I hadn't thought much about the body, beyond knowing there was one last girl she hadn't yet killed, and that she would somehow add to the final product.

Thanks for your feedback! :)
 

Gunpowder Nash

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I enjoyed the story and like the way you write.

The only thing I would change (maybe because I don't paint). is that she used a dark red virgin blood, yet the cheeks are only 'pinked'.