TWO PAINTINGS

A YOUNG MAN. Alone. Poverty-stricken. What shall he do to survive? He has only one talent, much unused: he can draw and paint. He had done it all his short life, since that moment when he first saw the paintings of that legendary artist who killed herself as a young woman, long ago in the old Nigeria, before the war. Her paintings seemed to have torn open wounds within his heart from which, ceaselessly, it gushed forth.

Growing up in the mad heady dash to afro-modernity that was Lagos, he had forgotten to back himself up with an alternative education while following with audacious self-will his crazy passion and living his dream. Now he stood on the brink of starvation and understood her. But he also knew that if he had armed himself with an alternative, he would today in hungry desperation betray everything he believed in, and he was glad he had not. For this one thing he knew: he would never give up. One day, the tables would turn. So the struggle continued. And then one day arrived in which he had absolutely nothing left and knew not what to do.

Finally he mixed his last paints and, full of anguish, loneliness and a something else not easy to define, wrought two paintings upon two round, flat surfaces, and stood with them beside a mechanic workshop on one of the busy roadsides in Lagos, to peddle them, and eat.

A woman passing in a car beheld the two paintings and the hawker. In Nigeria, people hawk any and all things which they can lay their hands on. Therefore, the woman never even gave thought to the notion that that ragged bony pauper might have actually painted those works himself. All she knew, straightaway, was that they were masterpieces. So she stopped and bargained them down to a cruelly small price and bought them off him, believing in her mind that he must have stolen them from somewhere, thus whatever amount he sold them for would still mean a profit. She bought them for the price of a day’s meal.

But as she was driving away she chanced to glance into the rear-view mirror and noticed the hawker still standing there, gazing after her with a strange, intense, burning look on his face. Suddenly she just knew that he was the artist, the painter who executed these works personally.

She began to do a u-turn but before she was done a sportscar had gone out of control and hit the dreaming painter and sped off. He was on the brink of no return by the time she got to him, and then, after exchanging a look of unwordable intimacy with her, he died, in her arms, his two eyes open, still looking at her.

And suddenly she wondered why he looked so strongly familiar.

She hung his two paintings in her home, for she felt an irresistible connection to these her only connections to that unknown pauper. There was something about the paintings…

One was about women bathing in a stream…

The other was about women lying dead in the woods…

In both paintings, outside the woods, was a single gravestone, with an old woman standing beside it, looking towards the woods with a worried expression on her wise old face.

The paintings held her like a spell.

One day, another woman, one with whom she was bound by quarrels and disagreements and tensions, came calling on her for the purpose of continuing an old line of altercation and settling an old debt. She was one of her bitterest foes.

But then her eyes fell upon, she saw and fell in love with the two paintings, this other woman too. Her heart fell upon them. When the first woman still proved unable to pay back the huge financial debt she owed her, she asked for one of the paintings instead. With anguished heart, the first lady surrendered one, the one where the women lay dead in the woods.

Her foe took it away and hung it up in her home. A few days later she called to ask after the painter of this work, for it seemed to her so familiar. Together they visited his grave, and, for some reason, bitterly wept.

With time they began to call on each other more often, each wanting to see the other painting and to discuss the effect they had on them. So did their bond become mystic, the two women. Each feels an intense connection to the paintings and, through them, to the unknown artist who wrought them, he who seemed so familiar. Their feud came to an end, replaced by a sense of kinship older and deeper than words could explain.

Two paintings. One artist, dead and buried; but his works live on.

And both women still cannot understand what the two paintings mean, nor why they move them both. They only know that the artist had deposited more than just two masterpieces on earth. Verily, he seemed indeed to have also deposited two mistresses and peace on earth, and then departed. –

– Che Chidi Chukwumerije.

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