Prompt: An old deaf Italian man spends all his time painting; they are his interpretations of sound.
There was no getting my father to leave. Visitors thought his paintings were his life. He refused to sell any of them or give them as gifts. He just let the house eat them, the same way it ate him alive. I mean the first part quite literally. The house had a terrible pest problem, and not just one species. It was like a diplomatic summit of everything you didn’t want to be diplomatic with.
There were rats in the walls, moths in the cupboards, roaches in the garage, and squirrels in the attic. The noise was constant. I grew up thinking everybody had scratching in the ceiling. My older sister told me it was a colony of tooth fairies. Dad couldn’t hear any of it.
He lost his hearing in the war, but not because he served. Our little house was so far out that the government never even really registered us as citizens. The closest we came to being on public record was in a few paintings hanging in the capitol building. Somebody famous, who painted real things unlike the conflicting rainbow currents Dad put to canvas, had once stopped on the hill next to ours and painted us with of our fine enviable Italian sunsets.
That painting was the greatest violation of our privacy, until the shell hit that is. It obliterated our well, leaving a wet brown crater Dad tumbled into. God only knows what they were actually aiming for. Mom got us out of there that night, screaming at Dad until he was out of sight. She didn’t even realize he’d gone deaf, just that he still wasn’t leaving.
We fled to America, but then the country put itself back together. When I got back as an adult it was better than ever before. I hoped the same fate had found my father, that our little house full of strange paintings and rats had turned into something for the magazines. I didn’t honestly expect that, but I expected better than I found.
He was still sitting in his favorite place in the middle of the drawing room. His feet were bare on the wood floor. There was a canvas before him. He didn’t splash the color or blot it. His strokes turned into a web of overlapping colors. Sometimes he would stop, shift his feet, tilt his head, and then chance the path of one color. It was like he was comparing it to something, making sure it was an accurate portrait.
Whatever he was trying to create, he hadn’t succeeded yet. There were still canvases all around him, filling the furniture, and getting chewed on by the house. Many of them were half-gone, reduced to strings by gnawing rats.
I tried to argue with him. I had a girlfriend in college who was deaf, so I knew how to sign, but apparently my father had never learned. Had he spoken to anybody in a decade? He recognized me, gave me a hug, tried to share some stale bread with me, but that was about it. He was happy to see me, but he didn’t want anything from me. No answers about my mom or sister. No talk of what America was like.
After the visit I was more confused than ever. The only people who could give me answers were some locals at the bar outside my hotel, more than a mile from Dad’s house. They had one of his paintings, the only one to ever leave as far as they knew. They brought it out from the backroom and showed it to me, but only after giving me a few free drinks.
It was disturbing. His usual currents of color were there, but they wound around, behind, and over a central dark shape. It looked like a man curled up on his side. They shared the story with me. I had always assumed the shell was the only bit of the war to hit Dad. If any actual human came by they would likely kill him or arrest him for being a lunatic.
There were soldiers that raided, with one scout who walked more than a mile around the village’s periphery. This was three days after we left. Nobody knew the exact details except for the scout and my father. The man never returned to his post, but was written off as a loss in the next day’s battle.
The bartender, holding my father’s painting, pointed at the dark shape. He said that was the scout. After the war my father had been visited by a social worker. The worker noticed a horrific smell and returned with help. They pushed my father aside, but he just kept painting. They tore up his floorboards and found the soldier’s body directly under him.
They wanted to arrest him, but the cause of death was labeled a natural heart attack. The only external marks were the nibbled-away earlobes and fingertips. I asked them if they thought my father killed the man. They just looked at each other, two of them going for more drinks at the same time, fighting over who could be courteous and who had to be crazy.
It was the bartender himself who told me. Dad gave away that painting because he didn’t like the dark shape in the middle. His colors went back to normal when the body was gone. This was the only time anyone could remember Dad trying to communicate after the war. He kept pointing to his ears and then the paintings. The bartender shared his theory that my Dad was trying to paint the sounds he could no longer hear.
By the fifth drink it really dawned on me, when I couldn’t stop staring at the shadow of the corpse’s posture. My Dad wasn’t a murderer; he was an observer. The man in the painting was balled up, pulled under the floor, cowering from the things surrounding him.
My dad was painting what he heard, or rather what he felt with his bare feet. The rats scurrying about under the floor. The squirrels in the attic. It finally clicked. Each path of color was a tunnel above or below him. He painted the sounds of pest colonies as he imagined them.
They liked his paintings, taking then piece by piece, pulling the canvas between the floorboards. Hanging them up in their dirt-walled halls. He was allowed to stay because of his contribution, but the scout was not. Dad painted what he felt and heard, little bodies crawling over a larger one just under him.
I wish they had been tooth fairies. They were smart. They didn’t speak our language, but Dad and his art got to them. They were his patrons, always telling him that he remembered sound right, always so pleased with the way he captured the life in their burrows.
I left him to his work. I can only imagine what he thinks he hears, but the house agrees with him.
Author’s Note: This flash fiction story was written based on a prompt provided by BDconrad during a livestream. I hereby transfer all story rights to them, with the caveat that it remain posted on this blog. If you would like your own story, stop by twitch.tv/blainearcade during one of my streams and I’ll write it for you live!