The painting captivated Frieda. It hung in the library of her grandparents’ castle, which had been in the family for generations. The painting was an allusion to her family’s tradesman past and depicted her 17th century ancestors, though her family line extended a hundred years before it. Instead of portraying her forebears in stiff poses and ostentatious clothing, it depicted them in a marketplace, selling their wares at various stalls. Much like Rembrandt’s The Night Watch, which led to the suspicion Rembrandt himself might have been the artist.
“There is no evidence of that,” Opa said, giving her a conspiratorial wink, “but legend has it, it was our predecessor Johannes, an accomplished artist, who painted it.”
“So how come no one knows?” Frieda asked as she and Opa gazed at the painting.
“Because he had already vanished. No one knows who painted it.”
Frieda gave Opa a suspicious glance. He had a penchant for tall tales and unlikely yarns; he once told her their ancestors had slain a dragon and kept the treasure it had been guarding. Frieda knew he was repeating the gist of the Nibelungenlied.
“Sure, Opa,” Frieda said and suppressed an exasperated eye-roll.
“No, look,” Opa said, “you see him there in the middle, the baker dressed in black handing out the bread roll? That’s him; and beside him, in the meat stall, is his brother Benno. The woman is Hilde, his sister, who is counting out the money. The man in the smithy is their cousin, Klaus.”
Frieda raised a dubious eyebrow and Opa sighed, “I know this because someone wrote their names beside the portraits. The letters have faded, but I’ve gazed at this portrait more decades than you.”
“Was Johannes a baker?”
“No, the family was already wealthy and respected by then. In the Renaissance, three brothers, one a baker, one a butcher and the third a blacksmith, working together, amassed the wealth passed down to us. We descend from the baker, like Johannes, but he was an artist.”
“Hmm,” Frieda still doubted Opa’s veracity, “how did he vanish?”
“No one knows, he just disappeared. People gossiped that he ran off with a woman of a lower class. Others said someone murdered him and hid his remains somewhere.”
“Who would murder him?” Frieda asked.
“Most people thought his sister and her husband, Lorenz, that man in the background who looks like he wants to vomit.”
Opa shrugged, “Jealousy? No one even knows it happened. There’s no evidence.”
Frieda shrugged and said good night. Opa sat down in his armchair and opened his book as she left the room.
Hours later, Frieda woke up from a strange dream she could not recall. Moonlight peeped through the slit in the middle of the closed curtains. Frieda had an odd feeling she needed to gaze at the painting one more time. That sliver of a dream which had vanished like a will-o’-the-wisp nagged at her, and she guessed it had been about the painting. Frieda got out of bed and shoved her feet into her slippers. She opened the bedroom door and tiptoed down the hall towards the library.
The fireplace glowed with red-hot embers, and Frieda noticed Opa’s sleeping figure in the armchair. His snores mingled with the tick-tock of the cuckoo clock hanging on the wall.
Frieda crept up to the painting, careful not to wake Opa, but he gave a loud snort and opened his eyes to find her gazing at the picture.
“Frieda? What is it?” He whispered.
“Nothing, I just, I needed to see it again,” she replied.
Opa rubbed the sleep from his eyes and stretched, “I guess it’s time for bed now.”
The cuckoo clock struck the hour, and the little bird sprang out and cuckooed three times. A cold draft blew and revived the dying embers in the hearth; they cast an eerie red glow over the room.
Frieda gasped, “Opa, look!”
But Opa was already aware of what was happening in the painting.
The butcher, Benno, moved and struck Johannes in the head with a cleaver. Johannes toppled forward as blood oozed from the frame. As he fell, his body breached the barrier between the two-dimensional painting and landed with a hollow thud on the three-dimensional floor.
Frieda gripped Opa’s hand, who squeezed hers back; neither moved.
The murderer returned to his position in the meat stall, but their gazes were intent on Johannes’s body on the floor.
The moonlight entered the tall windows and shone on the specter. One hand moved, then the other, and little by little Johannes stirred. With the cleaver still lodged in his head, he stood. His ghostly eyes fixed on the two observers. He floated toward the tall bookshelf in the corner and pulled a volume from the shelf. A phantom door slid open, and he disappeared inside it.
Another cold draft blew from the bookcase, and both Frieda and Opa sensed the spell had broken.
“It wasn’t vomit-face,” Frieda murmured.
Opa walked to the bookcase. He pulled all the books from the shelf until he found the one that triggered the hidden door. It creaked open. Frieda peeked around Opa’s hunching shoulders. There, in a nook too narrow for anyone to sit, slumped a pile of rags and bones, the skull split down the middle.