Saturday, March 26, 2011

Flash Fiction Challenge: The Portrait

Another crazy flash fiction challenge brought to you by Chuck Wendig. The mission: write a story in 1000 words or less based on the strange picture of the beastly looking boy in the portrait. Visit Chuck's blog for more awesome stories:


To say Morty was an odd child would be a vast understatement. We knew right from the moment he twisted himself free from the birth canal and the midwife took a step backward, falling hard on her ass and crossing herself, that Morty was all together different.

“The devil’s child!” Mother scoffed, delirious from a long and difficult labour. And father with terrified eyes, wrapped the baby hastily in a towel and handed him to me. I was thirteen, the eldest of now nine children.

We hid Morty away in the barn that summer and I tended to him completely, afraid that if I left him for longer than five minutes, he’d surely die. But somehow in spite of my father’s predictions that he wouldn’t survive, and my mother’s hostility--her late night rants of how we must drown him in the well--Morty thrived.

I brought him into the house in the fall when it began to turn cold. I kept him locked in the attic, the key safe on a string around my neck. This was late in the 1800s, and while the Salem witch trials had been over for more than two hundred years, there were plenty of ignorant people living in our small Massachusetts town.

None of the family, least of all my mother, gave Morty any attention. But I could see there was something special about him. It was in the way he lay in his cradle watching me as I sang to him late at night when the house was still. His black eyes staring at me, glittering in the dark like twin stars. I wasn’t at all afraid of his unusual cat-like appearance; the whiskers that protruded randomly from his face and the sides of his head, the odd slope where his chin should have been, his misshapen skull, the webbed hands and feet, and the small tail at the base of his spine.

“Suppose he could join the circus,” Father said one day when Morty had started to totter around the attic. His appearance didn’t show any signs of becoming less beastly.

Things took a drastic turn one afternoon when Mother was suppose to be away, and I brought Morty outside for some sunshine. Mother returned unexpectedly. She laid eyes on Morty for the first time since his birth and a look came over her that I’d never seen before. She reached for a pitchfork leaning against the barn and came after him. My screaming alerted Father who managed to wrestle the pitch fork from her grip before she could do any damage.

There was no other choice at that point. For Morty’s safety we had to go away. We were sent to live on a vineyard with an uncle; an old deaf man who spent his days reading or going on long walks and didn’t seem to mind Morty’s appearance; at least he didn’t express it if he did. And it was here in this peaceful environment that things changed for Morty.

I remember precisely the very day things took a turn. Morty was five years old. A sparrow hit the window on the house and died in the garden outside. As I was preparing to burry the bird, Morty held out his hands for it. He brought it’s lifeless body up to his face, and rubbed it against his cheek. Although he still wasn’t talking, he hummed inside his throat. Immediately the bird began to stir. It flapped its wing and then took to the sky. Morty smiled his lopsided little grin, his teeth jutting out. The next incident was when I’d eaten something that made me sick. I had brutal stomach pains. Morty came to me and placed his hands on my stomach. He hummed, that strange little humming I’d seen him do with the bird, and the pain stopped. Pretty soon Morty was curing the old man’s headaches, and eventually, just from Morty placing his little webbed hands over the old man’s ears and humming his little tune, his hearing was miraculously restored.

Within a few years we had regular visitors at the vineyard as word of Morty’s ability to heal had spread. There were cripples, the mentally insane, the blind and people with terminal illnesses who were cured by Morty’s touch. People called him an angel, a deity, and a celestial being from another world who’d come to cure the sick.

But by the time Morty was ten, he began to tire. He’d sleep longer and longer, and he seemed lethargic. This was usually after he’d had a day of healings. It appeared to be sucking his energy. We began to limit the number of people he saw.

Within a year it was painfully obvious that Morty was weakening. I began to worry about him. I stopped the healings all together. I wouldn’t even let him lay hands on me if I had the slightest ailment.

One day in late summer, we got a disturbing letter from Father. Our mother was gravely ill. The doctors had done all they could. They gave her three months. Of course they’d heard about Morty’s miracles. They wanted to come and see if he could help Mother. Two days later they showed up at the vineyard. Mother was little more than a skeleton, her skin the colour of death. We brought her in to see Morty. She stared at him stone-faced for a long time and then her lips made the slightest upward curl and her eyes softened. Morty reached out a gentle hand to touch her cheek. Then he collapsed into her embrace and they held each other. We left them alone. Hours later I was startled to see Mother come down that stairs, her health obviously restored. But it would be the last healing my brother would ever do. It would be the last of anything he would do.

I think I’d always known that it would be like this. That my brother’s mysterious existence, as wondrous and curious as it was, would end all too soon. We buried him in the churchyard and people came from all over the country. Thousands of them. And my mother, weeping for the son she’d rejected. Her saviour.


  1. What a beautiful short story. I was surprised by the direction you took, but at the end I was both glad and angry because of it. Thanks for sharing!

  2. A complete 180 turn from the rest of the stories! I likes it very much! :)

  3. What a wonderful story. I absolutely loved it. The very boy that might be considered a curse was actually a miracle. I'm so glad you went this route with the story, because it had such depth in so few words. Thank you so much for sharing this.

  4. Lovely. Unexpected and uplifting. Sad, but purposeful. Thank you very much for sharing it.

  5. Completely agree with the others, this is a very stirring bit of flash, and I love that you took this in a different direction from the rest of us. You made the ghastly figure in the portrait into someone you can't help but love and appreciate (it doesn't hurt that I'm a cat person to boot!).