Flash Fiction: Magnum Opus

“Through a painting we can see the whole world.”
— Hans Hofmann

You don’t want to be here.

And yet, you do.

You don’t think you’ll ever get used to the smell of antiseptic or the nondescript, beige walls or the harsh fluorescent light.

But you have gotten used to seeing him in the hospital bed, reclined back in such a way that he can just look out the window, even though there’s nothing much to see except the side of the next building and a bit of the sky. You suppose that that must be enough.

He smiles when you come in. The tubes in his nose are gone. He must see your eyes widen (and maybe of a flicker of something in them? hope?), and he shakes his head.

“They said I don’t need it anymore.” And the way he says this makes the core of your stomach cold.

“Oh,” is all you can say.

He waves you over with a tilt of his head, and you obey, pulling the heavy, uncomfortable chair closer to the bed.

“I have something for you.” His voice is soft — it always has been, but with age and now disease, it is almost like a whisper.

The lines around his face crinkle. “My magnum opus.”

You let him see you roll your eyes. “You say that about all your paintings.”

His eyes dance merrily, the one thing about him that doesn’t seem grey and frail.

“Ah, but this is the real one, the greatest of my masterpieces,” he says. He gestures with a hand that shakes so badly, it is nearly a blur. “It’s there, in the corner. Mabel brought it for you. She’s with the doctors now but will be back soon, if you can stay. She’ll be happy to see you.”

Another sweep of cold in the stomach as you rise to retrieve the wrapped package. His wife is usually always here, at his bedside, and if she has been called away . . . and he now has no need for the tubes . . .

You loosen your jaw and relax your brow before returning to your chair. He probably knows what you’re thinking, anyway, but you want to maintain the illusion.

“Go ahead, open it,” he says when you’re seated again.

So you do.

The painting isn’t very large, perhaps the size of a throw pillow. And it’s beautiful.

You’re no artist, though not for lack of trying. He tried to teach you when you were young, but you were too impatient, too eager to be like him, and you couldn’t understand that that wasn’t the point, that you had find your own style. You gave up the teachings but kept the appreciation.

The lighting, brushstrokes, composition, liminal space — all those technical requirements are more than fulfilled, and you can just imagine the accolades this particular “magnum opus” has probably received. But you know it’s more than that:

It’s him. There, in the colors and the lines. Everything that makes him the man you know, the man you love, is somehow contained in the swirls and whorls of the paint and presented on the canvas.

You hear him shift in the bedclothes, and you know he’s been watching you. A trembling hand, thin and veiny, brushes against your arm. You look up, trying to prevent the tears from falling.

“So it’s good?” he asks.

And you laugh, and he laughs (a wheezy series of gasps that nonetheless makes you laugh harder), and you wipe your eyes, and you try to say all the wonderful things that the painting is, and he waves these away, and you hold it up in the air to catch the small amount of light from the window, and then he says —

“It’s the last thing I ever painted.”

You stare.

He nods at your expression. “I know, even I’m impressed with myself. It was, of course, before all this . . . ”

He gestures at the hospital room, but the weak, shaky way he does so says a lot more.

You set the painting carefully on your lap and begin to wrap it up again. “I can’t keep this,” you say.

Now it is his turn to stare.

“It’s too much. Too precious. Mabel should — you should keep it.” You try to smile but it falters.

His face softens. He shakes his head, a slight movement that makes your heart hurt.

“But I made it for you.”

* * * *

The funeral was two days ago, and you still feel like you’ll never recover. Deep down, you know you will — life must go on — but for now, everything is just in a haze of loss.

Everything except the painting.

You have quite of a few of his works, some that are worthy to truly be deemed “magnum opuses” but also others that are scarcely more than scribbles and dash of acrylic. The new one — his last one — has a place of honor above your fireplace.

And though it hurts to look at, you like seeing it every day. You like the reminder of him, of what he did and of who he was.

You don’t want to forget.

And so, you don’t.



This was actually going to have an entirely different ending, something more surreal and magical, but the story just didn’t want to turn that way, so I let it go. Funny how writing works, huh? As for the second person usage, well, I just finished reading The Obelisk Gate (IT’S SO GOOD), and the majority of it is done in second person, so I kinda have it on the brain and it also gave me an interesting challenge. Like a lot of things, it’s easier to do than it seems!

This prompt was inspired by one found in this book: 400 Story Seeds to Crush Writer’s Block.

“Paint” by Windslash is licensed under CC BY 4.0.

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