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I pen this final missive with no expectations – neither exoneration of my crimes, nor even belief on the reader’s part. Such simple prospects are luxuries beyond my means, and time – that most precious of all treasures – soon will be. The hangman prepares his gallows even now.
In my years as a painter, I sought to depict the truth. I work in a lesser medium these last moments, but my aims remain unchanged. If the truths my words carry should see the coming sunrise that I never will, I shall be content with that hope.
That hope, and one other.
I met the widow Viscountess Belmont long before she wore either title. Despite our societal disparities, our families had some acquaintance, and we shared many triumphs and tragedies in youth. From my earliest years, I adored her. As time shaped her into a lady of esteem and myself into an impoverished artist, I learned we were not to be; her family’s fallen fortunes demanded any romance consider coin as dearly as love. Though wealthy beyond measure with the one, I had precious little of the other.
She consequently married the Viscount, whose station soared above mine as the stars above the firmament. I passed most nights thereafter in delirium, drunk on sorrow or spirits. I ached to see her, to bask in the glow of her smile again. I thought myself destined for the madhouse; only my work brought me any comfort.
But one evening, as lightning lanced the sky and a deluge pelted my tiny garret window, I heard a knock. As if in dream, the lady Marian Belmont stood upon my threshold; pale loveliness and raven hair as I remembered, but a peculiar light burning in her eyes.
“Jonathan,” she whispered, clutching a cloth sack to her breast. “Will you see me? I have no right to ask, but I must.”
“V-Viscountess.” I bowed her into my humble chamber.
“Burden me not with titles! We were friends, Jonathan.” Thrill and despair cleft my heart at her words. “I have a favor to beg, and precious little time.”
I blinked. “How might I serve you, milady?”
“A commission – a portrait!” Marian hefted her pack. “With these materials, this very night.”
I objected – such a feat was impossible! – but she overrode me.
“This night, Jonathan.” Her liquid eyes held mine. “If ever you cared for me, please hear me now.”
I did. She bore paints, brushes, and canvas, which I must employ for a portrait of the late Viscount. Both materials and time were crucial – the work demanded completion before the howling storm could break. As the sole painter of her acquaintance, no other could grant her this. When I questioned her, she would reply only that her eternal happiness depended upon it – upon me.
How was I to refuse? As a child, I could deny her nothing; I fared no better now.
The paints were far thicker than I preferred, and the brushes ancient relics. Rough, discolored fibers wove through the canvas, making fine work onerous. Yet I agreed to her terms – for I wished so to see her smile again!
Per Marian’s pleading directives, I was to depict her husband where he had asked for her marriage-hand, overlooking the Thames at sunset. His clothing must be the finest, his expression joyful, his arm extended as if to embrace her. And yet, she was not to appear with him.
These and a thousand other details she insisted upon, and vetoed a dozen sketches as I failed to match her fierce vision. Despite my joy at seeing her, I grew irritated at her insistence on both speed and perfection; even more so at her refusal to answer any question I posed about her purpose or the need for such urgency.
“I cannot say,” Marian rebuffed me each time. “Do not ask me, I beseech you!”
When the floor was carpeted with rejected drafts, when resentment soured my affection and my last dregs of patience fled, she pronounced my design acceptable. I began work on the canvas, blocking in the scene as she wished. The thick, curdling pigments fought me, but I forced them through their labors.
For her part, Marian monitored my progress on a continual pacing circuit of the room. This further frayed my nerves; at last, I suggested she might either peruse a volume from my shelves for distraction, or (I could scarce believe my temerity) claim an hour or two of rest upon my cot while I worked.
I expected a blush or a tongue-lashing. Neither came.
“I cannot rest, Jonathan,” Marian’s voice was bleak, sick with despair I knew well. “I have not known true slumber since my husband’s death. I fear I never will again.”
“You loved him.” It was agony to admit. “But he would never want grief to carry you after!”
Her blue gaze was glassy. “I can no longer know his wishes. But my fondest wish is to be with him again.”
I flinched at this latest stab, but laid in the contours of the land, the water, the slinking shadows. As I brought forth the scarlet sunset, an equally-red haze crept over my vision. Why could she not have loved me with such fervor? My hands trembled, and Marian’s gasps of dismay at each ill brush-stroke only fueled my gathering bitterness.
Yet I persevered, keeping the feverish pace she demanded. Long past midnight, I paused to wipe the sweat from my brow and evaluate my work. Marian wrung her hands ceaselessly, her worried gaze returning always to the window as her ears sought the next thunderclap. Limbs aching with fatigue, my temper flared.
“Marian, I shall rip the canvas apart!” I swore. “I am only human, not God to grant your impossible desires!”
“No, you must not!” Seizing me, her fingers dug into my flesh with the strength of near-madness. “This is my last chance, Jonathan!”
Confusion fanned my anger, and I did the unforgivable – I struck her. The crack was deafening, and she recoiled as if shot. Blood dripped from her lip, and the silence and guilt threatened to smother me. But her eyes held no recrimination; only the painting and the storm. That obsession, from which even my sinful violence could not distract her, pulled me from my stupor.
“Marian, I…” My voice was desperate. And weary, as was my body. “Only the final tints remain – the rest is done. I… I must clear my head, but I will return.”
Her gaze darted to the painting, then to me. “It… it is finished?”
“Yes.” Yes, my love. All for you.
Eyes welling with joyful tears, she flung her arms about me. “Thank you, Jonathan! I can never repay you for this kindness!”
I choked. “I… ask only your forgiveness.”
“You have it. And my eternal gratitude.” Still embracing me, she turned and regarded the painting as she might a saint’s relic. “For this… and for being my truest friend.”
Her final word was the final wound. With a cry, I tore free and fled into the night.
When I returned, only my furnishings, my easel, and the portrait remained. I cried out for Marian, and searched my rooms in vain.
Thinking she had abandoned me once more, I snatched up the wretched work to cast it into the fire.
And there – in the painting – I found her.
Marian stood with the Viscount, watching the sunset. Nestled into his embrace, the happiest smile upon her lips.
Her torn lips. With a crimson smear along her jaw.
Numb, I tried to paint over the wound. But it would not be concealed. The blood rouged her cheek as a testament to my love and my shame.
I stared at her image – at her – until dawn.
Few had known of her journey to me, as discretion and decorum demanded. But at length I was questioned, for none had seen her since that storm-stricken night. With the evidence found in my studio – blood thickening the paints, skin woven into the canvas – there was no room for doubt. I would hang, they said.
Perhaps I should. For what is murder, if not removal from this world? It appears I am a murderer. Even if I know not how.
As I await the rope, questions still haunt me. Was our interlude real? Or did my years of alcohol-soaked longing curdle somehow into madness? Could I have plucked her from this life and wiped away my own memory of the deed?
I cannot answer.
When I began this testament, I spoke of hope. Though I hear the hangman’s heavy-booted tread even now, though I shall never again lay eyes upon she whom I loved and who could not love me… perhaps hope is not yet beyond my grasp. Hope that these truths, however alien, will survive me. And hope that, whether by simple slaughter or unfathomable mystery, I have rendered my darling one final service.
For I have granted her fondest wish. How many – save, perhaps, the Devil himself – can truly claim the same?
Interview with Jared Baker, Author of “Her Fondest Wish”
What inspired your story?
The initial inspiration came from the Love Letters to Poe submission-call itself. I tend to write longer stories that need paring-down for specific calls, so I found the challenge of writing “a full story with a complete character arc in 1500 words” daunting but irresistible. Every word had to be chosen carefully, and there was no room for anything that wasn’t exactly what I wanted to say. Cheers (and a virtual cognac) to writers out there who can do drabbles and flash-fiction stories well – I don’t know how you manage it!
Once I’d committed to the challenge, I found myself thinking about passion and the creative impulse. Everything we create is the result of our unique emotions, experiences, and dreams threaded together. It has a power all its own, whether the medium we use is a keyboard, a canvas, a musical instrument, or our own bodies (dance, body art/tattoos, and so on).
But what if that power got away from us? What if it could grant our innermost desires? Are we “good” enough to survive the experience, or would our flaws sweep us away to our doom? “Her Fondest Wish” came out of those questions, and I had a lot of fun writing it.
What’s your favorite gothic story or poem and why?
I’ve been a fan of gothic literature from the time I learned to read; my shelves were always crammed with kid-friendly translations of the Brontës, Mary Shelley, Robert Louis Stevenson, Bram Stoker, and (of course) Edgar Allan Poe. I swapped them out for the full versions as I got older, but I never lost my love for them.
My favorite gothic story is probably Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” – its elements of retribution, mental instability, and the question of whether such extreme actions are ever justified (what exactly were “the thousand injuries of Fortunato” anyway?) are aspects I find particularly enjoyable to explore in my own fiction. Plus, every time I read it, I can all too easily imagine myself in Fortunato’s place… and I wonder if I would have held on to my sanity even as briefly as he did.
How long have you been writing?
I wrote my first short story when I was five or six years old – a one-pager about a courageous brontosaurus named Fred who stages a daring rescue mission to save his girlfriend from a tyrannosaurus rex. Not a ton of character development, but plenty of action!
I haven’t stopped writing since, though I’ve only become truly focused and disciplined about getting my work “out there” in the past couple of years. Most of what I write now is contemporary suspense or horror fiction, with the occasional side-quest into sci-fi or sword-and-sorcery.
Do you have a theme you return to time and again?
I like writing about obsession and the ways our desires and impulses can get us into trouble if we indulge (or deny) them too much. Whether it’s passion for a person, art, money, power, or even something that seems quite noble on the surface, it’s a very slippery slope. “Her Fondest Wish” explores this idea for both the main characters. It’s a concept so central to human nature that I doubt I’ll ever run out of ways to use it.
Another favorite theme – since I’ve become a father, at least – is the power of childhood belief and faith. I’ve always felt that for all the benefits we gain in becoming adults, we lose something magical in the bargain. There are so many legends about monsters that prey on children because they’re uniquely vulnerable in a way that adults aren’t… but I like the idea that children have the power to make the monsters afraid, too.
Do you have a favorite quote that inspires you?
Definitely. It goes along with one of the themes I described earlier.
“Fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”
― G.K. Chesterton
I think this quote not only sums up an important lesson we need to teach our children, but one we often forget as adults. There will always be things to fear – death, pain, sickness, rejection, unrequited love. We all face these dragons, and we have to overcome them. We can’t let those fears dictate the boundaries and limits of our lives.
What are you working on now?
I have two or three stories currently in circulation for which I’m trying to find a home. At the moment, I’m working on a new short-fiction piece about a predatory doctor with psychic abilities whose latest patient may be much more than she seems. I’m also helping a friend through the initial round of edits on his first horror novel. I think I’m learning almost as much from being a first-time editor as from the actual writing.
What else would you like people to know? Where can people find you online?
When I’m not creating my own imaginary worlds or working as a computer programmer, I enjoy reading a variety of authors and genres, playing sports or video games with my three children, and (all-too-rarely) having a date-night with my wife, Lindsey.
My previous fiction has been published by Hellbound Books, LLC (in a quirky anthology called The Toilet Zone, with horror stories meant to be read in one “sitting”) and Critical Blast Publishing (in another anthology called The Devil You Know, about people’s experiences meeting the Father of Lies himself).