[From time to time, I write a short story based on a strange image and share them. Sometimes, I’ll post a classic one from long ago, too.]
As the Alzheimer’s disease took hold, Nannah’s art got stranger and stranger. Not that it was ever normal — she was what her instructors in the extension classes liked to call an “enthusiastic” artist.
She had a curious way of making ordinary artistic mistakes that somehow turned out creepy. Her stained glass frieze of the Last Supper looked like a pack of tyrannosaurs besetting their feeble young. Her lopsided bowls seemed ergonomically designed for pounding brains with a pestle. Her portrait of Grandpa in oils had slightly crossed eyes that always seemed to focus right over your shoulder, as though to warn you something was sneaking up on you.
But she was sweet and well-meaning, and it was always a frantic race to hang and position her work when she came to visit because, as my father put it, “Who wants a hunchbacked clown cookie jar leering at you every night when you go for a brew?” They all were gifts made with love if not care and we didn’t want to hurt her feelings.
Though, as her mental capacity dwindled, that got harder and harder to do. It wasn’t so much that the artwork got worse but that it got…more cheerful? Sentimental? No, no: cloying. Like you’d imagine the smell of roses in a coffin, or the taste of your fifteenth white chocolate cupcake in a row.
What was scary was that she got better at drawing and painting and sculpting as her mind pulled away from her body, and that the things she produced were utterly alien in their innocence. The less creepy they were, the more creepy they were — because she made them. They grew more childlike, regressing, reverting, curling backward in the womb.
Her last work was what we’ve come to call “The Cat Painting,” and it was a gift for my sister Melanie with whom she’d always shared a love for cats. Nannah had come to visit for what we all knew would be our last Thanksgiving together — the talk had gotten more serious about places that could better care for her — and we were all forcing ourselves to be as cheerful as her scary paintings.
When Melanie peeled away the paper wrapping of the frame, though, she screamed. Poor Nannah only closed her eyes and nodded, soaking in what she thought was approbation, and my dad had to catch the painting before it hit the floor and shattered.
Nobody quite knew what Melanie had seen. It was a painting of a cat clutching a branch in a tree or bush, examining a butterfly with a certain scientific disinterest. It could be an illustration in a children’s book, or something stitched onto a baby blanket, or maybe even a little girl’s stationery. Weird like Nannah’s other recent work, yes, but nothing startling.
Except to Melanie. “It was like I saw two paintings at once,” she told me years later. “One right, one wrong.”
She recovered then as best she could, choking out a thank you to Nannah and taking the painting with the very tips of her fingers.
“Where should we hang it?” Nannah asked. “Oh, I know the perfect place!” She clasped her hands together and padded off to my sister’s room.
We all followed like condemned men because this time we were stuck. When Nannah only visited for the day, we could stow her work in a closet or the attic after she left. But as her health had gotten worse, Grandpa worried what he’d do if something happened to her on the highway, and this one night, this last night, they decided to stay over.
So there was nothing to do but hang the painting with Nannah’s swaying help, right across from the window above her bed.
“What am I going to do?” he muttered to Mom. “She’s here for one night. We hang it, we take it down, everything’s fine. She’s dying, for Christ’s sake.”
Which is how Melanie found herself awake all night, staring at that cat bathed in the moonlight.
When I got up the next morning, the door to the bathroom was locked and she was crying on the other side. I bent down and peered underneath to see her clutching her knees with the nightgown pulled over her entire body like a shield.
“What’s the matter?” I whispered.
She wouldn’t tell me at first, but I pressed my ear against the door for when she did.
“There’s a second cat,” she finally said.
When Melanie had gotten back from the center that time, Mom and Dad made me swear to tell them if she ever did anything weird or scary again. Being a bigger sister, everything she did was weird and scary, but this time, I knew it was important. So I pressed even closer to the linoleum floor and whispered under the door, “I’ll be right back.”
But of course I wasn’t. When I ran downstairs, my parents were already awake, already upset, Mom crying into tissues while my father held her close. Nannah lay still in the guest bed, peaceful and utterly quiet. I watched a long time and she didn’t move. Mom pulled me against her nightgown and I told her through the fabric that Melanie was in trouble, that something was wrong, but nobody could hear me. They only found her an hour later, still crying in the bathroom, knowing already that Nannah was gone.
Melanie went back to the center for a few months after that, and she comes and goes even today. Opinion in our family is strongly divided between whether there were one or two cats in Nannah’s painting when she first brought it; my parents say two while Melanie and I say one. I’m less sure than she is, but I figure somebody ought to agree with her.
Melanie’s an artist now, and she keeps Nannah’s painting above her bed. She’s had boyfriends leave in the middle of the night, saying they heard it whispering to them, saying that the cats switched places, saying that the butterfly touched down upon my sister in her sleep. I think it’s a kind of Rorschach test she puts them through, and I don’t think anyone has ever passed.
She paints things like that herself now, and she says she understands. She tells me that an artist gives away a little of herself in every work if she’s any good, and all that happened with Nannah’s painting is that she gave away the last.
Once, drunk at a long distant Thanksgiving, she said, “When there’s three cats, you can have it.”