The Oil Painting
A thick layer of dust and damp residue covered the mantel, spreading and inching towards the oil painting. The painting sat perfectly centered on the mantel for the ghosts to see. The house was empty save the dust mites. Mice and roaches scouring for scraps came and went with the times and seasons. Never having their fill. Always a need to move on. The oil painting remained. Untouched. Unblemished.
Besides the untainted painting, nothing special existed about the house. Built in the mid-1800s in the Hudson River Valley, it was the typical mansard roof-style house popularized during the time by the French Second Empire of Louis Napoleon. The house looked haunted from the drive. The siding had black mold and green slime from years of abandonment. The ivy and grass that grew along the base of the house and up made the look more sinister. Across the porch, beams rested several cracks and warped wood. The floors creaked more than a typical house of this age. Silence was impossible, inside or out.
The chimney was crooked like the Tower of Pisa. Bricks protruded from the sides in a staggering array of tumbling-tower blocks. The mansard roof was losing shingles with each passing season and the slightest breeze. Everything about the house invited unrest. Everything about the house was representative of the family who owned it. The Zukal family.
Born of Czech descent, they inhabited their home on the outskirts of Middletown, NY, for the better part of the mid-nineteenth century down to the late-twentieth century. The family preferred their isolation away from the town. Only making trips for necessities; many of the towns’ people didn’t associate or know the Zukals well, if at all. According to the best accounts, they arrived shortly after the incorporation of the town. They didn’t bring much for a rich family, but they had the painting. It arrived with them on the steamship from the Hudson. It never left their sight.
Old man Zukal ruled with a steel fist. Pliable yet sturdy. Cold yet mendable. His moods would sway with the time and the day. Old lady Zukal was a slight creature. Her dainty figure passed through the house in whispers. Neither commanded respect but received it, nonetheless. They were the elders of the family. The first to arrive with the painting. For the old man and old lady, the painting represented the last remnants of their lives in Europe. It was their family heirloom.
As generations grew, the painting began to lose its meaning. Each successive child born paid less and less attention to their inheritance. No matter how many times parents, grandparents, and sometimes great-grandparents attempted to tell them how valuable the painting was to the family. The youngest Zukal commented that the painting looked old and dead. Flowers drooped a little bit more as time passed and age took hold. The other Zukals moved on from the estate to other lives, coming to visit fewer and fewer times as the years passed.
The last Zukals to inhabit the house were a sickly bunch. A group made up of a mother and father along with three children. The children were the oldest to ever keep the house their home. Their weak dispositions prevented them from lives outside the home. No one knew why this particular branch became the way they were.
The father was a lame man. He tried to hold down work in any way that he could, but his physical calamities prevented him from holding jobs for long. His brownish-gray hair held wisps of white and gray. He walked with a stuttered limp from his malformed left leg. This, in turn, caused a curvature of his spin that would make him the envy of circus performers. He was no good in that arena either. He was a soft-spoken man who didn’t command the tiniest bit of respect. Very few in the home listened to him speak. They mainly waited for a rattle in the chest or a wheeze to signify his impending end.
The mother was the force. Her presence made the dust mites shudder. Any time the children heard her heavy steps anywhere in the house, a different sort of hush fell over them. It wasn’t the hush when listening for the old man to die or show an inkling of unhealthiness. It was the hush of genuine fear. Stalin’s iron boots stalking the grounds to haunt their nightmares and their waking dreams.
The mother married the old man for money. Something in her mind and her parents’ minds made them believe the enigmatic family must have had a fortune. To be in town for so long, seeming to prosper despite the mystery of what they exactly did, lured many families to make matches and arrangements into the Zukal family. The mother was the last. Arranged marriages hadn’t happened in the Hudson River Valley for at least 40 years, so it was up to her to make the man fall in love with her.
Their relationship started off with some familiarity. Her personality overpowered him. He didn’t stand a chance. She got what she wanted. They were married in the spring of 1962. A small ceremony with her parents and no one else. No one from the Zukal family came to see their former home and relative.
A few years passed, and three children were born. First, a girl. She was unhealthy, pale, and fragile from the beginning. Now 20 years old, her conditions hadn’t improved. No suitors, no dates, nothing. Second born, a boy, he seemed strong and fair. When he turned six, he began to show signs of deformity matching his father’s. The mother decided to try one last time. The third and final child, a girl, was perfect. As a baby, she didn’t cry or get sick. She made it through her toddler years perfectly healthy. On the eve of her fourteenth birthday, tragedy struck. Playing with her older siblings, a game of Ghost in the Graveyard, nearly ended her life when she fell in the family cemetery and hit her head on a gravestone.
The mother was crushed. Her hopes and dreams now hinged on the old man dying. The fear of losing out on a possible fortune kept her invested in their marriage. She refused to be the laughingstock of town if she left the man only to find there was a hidden fortune. She gave too much to her plans. She suffered too much for her plans. Her biggest issue now: how would the family move on with no matches for her children?
One day, in a rare occurrence that the mother and father spoke at length, she asked him about his brothers and sisters. The answer she received shouldn’t have shocked her, but it did. They were all gone. Every member save for the ones in the house was dead. She tried to ask him how they died, but the father simply looked sad and wouldn’t say. She tried to find information anywhere she could. She asked people in town; they didn’t know. She looked through old newspapers, but she didn’t know exactly where to look or where some of them went after leaving the house.
After months of searching, the mother came to a decision. She would go to Europe and find out as much as she could about the Zukal family. The father attempted to get her to leave the situation alone, but she wouldn’t hear of it. The children said nothing. The thought of their mother being gone for a few weeks was the best news they had in some time. She borrowed some money from her parents and departed in a couple of days.
When she arrived in Czechoslovakia, she thought the best place to begin would be the library. She spent days looking through old newspapers for the Zukal name. She finally found a mention of the name in an old newspaper from 1789 in a small town called Cesky Krumlov. The town had significant historical relevance. Built around a castle of the same name, the town was inhabited since the Middle Ages up until the Nazis annexed it as part of Sudetenland in World War II. She was amazed at the beauty of the town and how old it was. She thought for sure the family that came from her must have been prosperous.
She went to the town library to find more information on the Zukal family. Her spirits renewed; she found that the Zukal family were the gardeners of the Rozmberk family when they settled in Cesky Krumlov. The Rozmberks became known as the Lords of Rosenberg, one of the most prominent families in the town’s history and Bohemia. She marveled at the famed history of the Rosenberg family throughout the early history of the town. She began to wonder what would make the family leave. She thought they must have fallen out of favor with the lords of the town, knowing that they moved to America in the 1850s.
Back home, the children enjoyed their mother’s absence. Their father seemed to walk a bit lighter as well. Spending an afternoon playing, the children dismissed their father’s warning to stay away from the garden behind the house. They stayed away from the family cemetery only out of respect for their youngest sister. While playing, they disheveled everything in sight, kicking up flowers and disturbing the dirt. After kicking at a lump in the garden, the oldest daughter screamed.
The mother renewed her search with increasing vigor. She needed the answers. Was she staying with her family and awaiting the demise of her husband, or was she going home to leave her life behind? She skimmed through the papers and books quicker and quicker. Each source gave her new information about the family she married into. “Beloved Gardeners Fall Out of Favor” caught her attention last. The article was dated August 12, 1851.
The father ran the best he could outside to see what happened. He turned the corner of the house and fell to his knees gasping for air. For the first time ever, the children didn’t pause to listen for their father’s death knell. They paused in the same horror that the old man felt. Protruding from the lump in the ground was one lone finger.
The children asked about the finger for days. The father didn’t know what to say. Finally, he tried explaining that no one in the family left the house. The mother came home during this last conversation. She walked into the house without her typical sound. She looked defeated. The old man continued to explain so his wife would know what she already surmised.
The members of the family merely died and were buried in the gardens. The cemetery was for show. The true graveyard was amongst the flowers. He tried to explain the privacy the family sought and why they alienated themselves from the town they lived. No one would understand. They were all that was left of the Zukal family. When they parted, they would be buried in the garden too. He attempted to explain the oil painting. He never quite understood it himself, but he knew that somehow, someway, the painting was tied to their family. As the family line descended into obscurity and death, the painting changed. It had a life of its own that prevented its decay, but the painting and flowers changed. When they left this world and entered the garden, the last decay of the flowers in the painting would be complete even if the painting lasted long after.
The creaks and whispers of the house now tell of the family long gone. While the wood rots, the dust crawls, and the world moves on, the painting stands on the mantel. They were gardeners. Their blood was their trade, and their trade stayed with the mantle.