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Isle of the Dead

Derived from "Isle of the Dead" by Arnold Böcklin

By Steve HansonPublished 12 months ago 14 min read
Runner-Up in Painted Prose Challenge
"Isle of the Dead" (Die Toteninsel) by Arnold Böcklin


Ada’s voice broke through a shallow and dreamless sleep. Mattias opened his eyes to a room no less dark than the space behind his eyelids. He reached for either the bedside lamp or for Miriam, before remembering he was sleeping on the couch.

“Papa?” his daughter asked again.

“Yes, Liebling?” he choked out in a dry throat.

A pause cut through the living room of their flat, sharper than Mattias would have thought possible. He heard only his eight-year-old daughter, already so bold for her age, breathing haltingly as her soft footsteps approached his couch.

“I saw something in the painting again.”

Mattias’s lips clenched, and the unkempt hair on his mustache tickled his nose. He sat up. Ada’s small frame was barely visible as a silhouette set in dark obsidian by the few lights streaming in from the Berlin streets outside their third-story window. Going by shape alone, Mattias could see that she still wore her nightgown, and clutched in both hands the raggedy stuffed rabbit she had christened with the Hebrew letter Aleph for reasons that neither Mattias nor his wife was certain of.

“Ah, my love,” Mattias attempted. In the dark of both the room and his mind, he needed to fumble around for a tone that was paternal and reassuring. “A bad dream then? Such an imagination my girl was cursed with. But still a sign of a strong mind.”

“I wasn’t dreaming,” Ada said. Her voice conveyed the same matter-of-fact certainty as a mathematician reciting a proof, or a Rabbi speaking the Torah.

“This is the same painting of which you told me your story the other day?” he asked. And the same painting—and story—of which I was just dreaming. But he swallowed this thought and went on smiling at his daughter.

Ada nodded.

“If I recall correctly, there was a cabin, in the woods on the island. And someone had lit a candle there…”

“I saw the cabin there a few days ago. But there’s something else there too.”

“Oh?” Matthias asked. “A cozy book to go with the candle, perhaps?”

“It was a face.”

Matthias swallowed a dry wad of spittle. “You are certain, my love?” He knew this question was useless, but was not far enough removed from sleep—however restless and troubled—to come up with something better.

In the darkness, the silhouette of his daughter shook her head. “I had to get up,” she said. “I needed to make water.”

“Ah,” Mattias attempted. He pulled his creaky limbs and stiff torso out of bed, grunting in his ever-increasing age. “Well then,” he said. “Let us take a look.” He reached for his glasses and portable lamp on the table opposite the couch, more out of reflex than the hope of them doing anything in the dark. “Fortunately, God made few faces homelier than your father’s, so one glare from me should frighten away this interloper.”

That, at least, elicited a brief giggle.

And is that why you came to me instead of your mother? he thought. God knows she’s comfortable enough in her warm bed, best not disturb her. He extended his right hand into the darkness and waited until he felt Ada’s soft fingertips.

“Onward then, my brave girl,” he said in a pantomime of happier days. “Show your father where this face dared disturb his daughter’s peace.”

Of course, he already knew which painting it was. But Ada gave an ephemeral pull on his hand, so light and graceful that Mattias felt he may have been drawn forth by something more elemental in the air itself. Dutifully he followed and, as he had predicted, was led to the small corridor in the far back corner of their flat, lying between the storage closet, the washroom, and Ada’s room. There, hung just behind a small flower vase, and flanked on either side by fading daguerreotypes of Ada’s grandparents, was the painting, a medium-sized print of Arnold Böcklin’s Isle of the Dead, captured in a simple wooden frame and contrasted with the fading and peeling wallpaper behind.

“This one again, eh?” he said. Though he couldn’t see by the meager light from his small lamp, he could tell that Ada nodded. “You’ve seen this…face here. Just now?”

“I thought I saw it before,” she said. “I wasn’t sure the first time I saw it. So I didn’t say anything. But now I’m sure. When I saw the cabin, and the candle, deep in the woods there, I didn’t know who lit it. But the face…” Ada trailed off. Matthias sensed her attempt to suppress a cry.

By lamplight and memory, Mattias could decipher the contents of the painting well enough. A dark, ominous sea against a gray, cloud-addled sky. Skeletal rocks jutting forth from the water, piercing into the air around them. Dark cypress trees, indicative of funeral laments, stuck as drying bones between the rocks of the small island. Below, a single boat approached, its oarsman guiding the vessel towards the small dock awaiting between two white columns. Its single passenger obscured from the viewer, with their back turned, facing the island they approached, head bowed before it, dressed in a ghostly white cloak that hung from their head to its feet. Below the figure, at the bow of the boat, lay a coffin-shaped box, adorned in the same white cloak as was borne on the figure, and festooned in a simple but striking funeral wreath of crimson flowers.

Facing the single figure was the painting’s epicenter, a vanishing point between the columns and cypress trees, where the already-darkened colors descended into a bleak and dense cluster of malignant blackness, its contents unseen but omnipresent in the atmosphere.

“It was right there,” Ada said. Mattias didn’t need to look down to know where she pointed.

“What did it look like?” he asked.

Ada said nothing, but he could hear her breath draw inside her body in a waxing terror. She squeezed his hand tighter, and he could feel her pulse picking up even in her fingertips.

“Was it a man? Woman?” he asked. “Did it have hair? Was it making a funny face?”

“It wasn’t made by God,” Ada said. The straightforward nature of this assertion was so abrupt that Mattias was rendered silent for a few seconds, his still-sleepy brain needing a brief interlude to analyze what it had just heard for any better meaning.

“What’s that you say?” he managed.

“Mama told me how God created man and woman, there in the Garden of Eden, right?”

“Yes…well…” Mattias crinkled his lips once again. Despite reflexive appearances at the temple, theirs had always been a more or less secular household. Even before outward devotion as a Jew had grown as dangerous as it had. “That is what the Torah says. Of course, many of our wisest Rabbis would have us regard these writings not as literal histories, but rather more like fables that can teach us a greater…”

“I know, I know,” Ada said impatiently. Mattias found himself both annoyed and somewhat proud at the same time. If nothing else, his daughter had never suffered from a lack of self-assertion. For good or ill. “What I meant was, it was like if something that wasn’t God, something from a dark, scary place that God didn’t make or never went, came here and tried to make a human face like God did. But couldn’t get it right.”

Mattias swallowed more dry air than saliva. “Like the story of the blind men and the elephant?”

In the lamplight his daughter nodded.

Mattias stared into the black hole at the center of the painting. He watched the phantasmagoria behind his eyes twist and mold the darkness in and around it. Watched the patterns form and evolve. Almost into twisted bodies.

Or faces.

He gave Ada’s hand a squeeze. “So, Satan then?”

Ada shook her head. “Satan was created by God.” Mattias never heard a Rabbi speak so confidently on theological matters.

The black water around the boat began to dance, and in the otherwise silence Mattias thought he could hear the caustic lapping of the waves against Böcklin’s island of the dead. Feel its coldness pierce his flesh, stab into his bones. Twist the air from his lungs.

Suddenly, his sense of balance seemed to be undone. He felt his stomach drop and ascend, as if their small tenement building had been lifted from its foundation and cast adrift on a merciless, infinite black sea, in whose depths one could sink impossible distances before reaching the bottom, and where lurked gargantuan beasts, outcasts of the Creation of God, the Leviathan born of the blackness but ascending, ever-ascending, to his tiny, helpless boat with open maw and bared fangs…

He shook his head. “Well then,” he said. In one determined motion, he ripped the painting from the wall with his one free hand. “This problem has an easy enough solution.” Really, he had bought the print only the previous year, at an exhibition at Baumgartner’s gallery in Nollendorfplatz, which he hadn’t even wanted to go to. Böcklin’s works had become quite popular on the walls of the more sophisticated flats all around Germany beginning a few years back, and Mattias had thought that the Schwartzberg family could perhaps blend in a bit with their gentile peers by joining the fun.

Of course, he had never even liked the painting that much anyway.

“What will you do with it?” Ada asked.

“We’ll store it in the closet for tonight,” Mattias said. “Then, after work tomorrow, I’ll see if I can sell it to some art-loving Goyim. Let them worry about this face for a change.”

He could feel Ada smile, and his anxiety eased somewhat. Still, the cold of Berlin’s winter night seeped into his flesh, and the darkness still sat in front of his eyes. At that undead hour he could not read a difference between those two and the icy clutches of a black sea under a stormy sky, or the darkening abyss waiting with a primordial hunger between dark cypress trees on a small, stony island.

He awoke the next morning from a still-dreamless sleep filled with no fewer troubles. Rising from the couch, he saw Miriam already sitting, gargoyle-like, at the kitchen table. She sipped a cup of coffee and read a newspaper, not looking up as her nominal husband stumbled in.

“Von Schleicher’s resigning,” she said. Mattias collapsed his weary bones into the chair opposite her.

“Good morning to you too,” he said.

“Do you know what that means?” Her tone conveyed neither warmth nor terror, but rather a dim and unsurprised resignation.

“Good morning?”

She finally looked up from the paper with the most tired of eyes.

“It means Hitler’s going to be Chancellor,” she said.

Mattias rubbed his mustache. “Have they announced that yet? We ought not worry too much until something official…”

“Who else would it be?” This was more of a statement than a question. Mattias tried to relax his back into the chair, but only found its hardwood cutting into his spine.

“Well,” he managed. “What’s he going to do? We have rights.”

“Did you read this?” Miriam said.

“We have rights…wait, a minute…” Mattias just then noticed the name emblazoned above the front-page headline of Miriam’s newspaper. “Are you reading Der Stürmer?”

“It was free on the train last night.”

“Miriam, what in God’s name…”

“Listen to this: ‘The Jewish menace does not end in our banks, in our armies, or in our great cultural centers. Rather, the Jew has turned his insidious gaze to the most precious and innocent of our Aryan lifeblood: our school children. Jewish indoctrination…’”


“…Jewish indoctrination, brother to communist indoctrination, is slithering into the classrooms of even the youngest of our children, infecting their minds, infesting their…”


Mattias grabbed the paper and pulled it from his wife’s hands, tearing it in two in the process. Miriam merely turned her blunt and fatigued eyes towards the man sharing with her a kitchen table.

“Do you know what your daughter asked me the other day?” she said.

“I don’t want to hear it…”

“She asked me if she’s a bad person because she’s a Jew. Now where do you think she got that from?”

“I don’t…”

“How many parents of her precious school friends enjoy reading that very same paper you just ripped from my hands, and are well past eager to share such views with their children…”

“Gah!” Mattias shouted. He launched himself from the table as best as his aging frame would allow. “Should we change our name then to something more Aryan? Is Schwartzberg not working for you?”

Miriam lit a cigarette instead of replying. Mattias stormed towards the washroom to empty the bladder that he just then noticed was full to the point of aching. But as he turned the corner, he stopped, his eyes suddenly fuzzy, and his brain suddenly thrown into a chaos of confusion and dim recollection.

On the wall leading to the bathroom, above the flowers, between the daguerreotypes, where it had been since last year, was the family’s print of Isle of the Dead. Mattias stared, rendered mute. He had, he thought he remembered, torn it from the wall and buried it in the closet the previous night. But here it was, its darkened sea as tempestuous and threatening as ever. Its cypress trees looming with their quiet intensity. Its epicenter still a bottomless pool of violent darkness, which now seemed to sap the light from the room and, despite the morning, once again render it the darkest hour of the night.

Mattias shook his head. Miriam must have dug it out and placed it back there, he thought. Probably for no reason other than to spite me.

His bladder sent a wave of pain through his groin, which tore him from his reverie and sent him waddling once more to the toilet at the end of the hall. But before he tore his eyes away he caught sight of something that would have registered greater significance if he was in a better mood or a clearer state of mind. As it happened, he dismissed it as a child’s carelessness, something for Miriam to deal with when Ada got home from school.

What he saw was Aleph, the stuffed rabbit so beloved by his daughter, lying on its back, in a corpse-like pose, on the floor just below the painting.

Working late, out of as much preference as necessity, Mattias left for home just as the sun was setting. Outside, threats of violence had poisoned the air of the streets of Berlin. On every corner, it seemed, brown-shirted Nazis had gathered to shout their slogans and make their salutes in some frenzy of victory at the ascent of their Führer, sneering at their enemies and making threatening shouts of Juden! or Kommunistiche! at passersby. Mattias pulled his hat down his head as he passed them, hoping they wouldn’t notice the size of his nose, shape of his lips, or whatever idiot phrenology they had taken as gospel.

As it so happened, the Nazis had also congregated on the already-crowded U-Bahn train that would have taken Mattias home. One look at the clusters of brown shirts and short, blonde hair packed into the train convinced Mattias that it would perhaps be a better idea to walk home. It was, after all, only about a dozen blocks. In the German winter.

Thus, Mattias did not get home until well after dark, when the streets had grown quiet and the stars were blinded by the nighttime lights of the city. Tired as he was, and rattled by everything, Mattias needed a few moments after entering his flat to realize that it was just as dark inside as it was outside.

“Hello?” he spoke to the empty room. The silence that responded was louder, somehow, than any human voice. He lit the nearest lamp, but, though he could see the light, it seemed to have no effect on the darkness of their flat. Indeed, if anything the darkness seemed to grow, conjuring itself into something thicker and more threatening in response to sudden provocation by the light. The simple furniture of their flat maintained their shadowed silhouette, morphing in the darkness into strange, deformed figures of what seemed to be an unearthly (ungodly) geometry.

Then, across the room, he saw something else. A light? No, a spark. The small, red glow of a barely-burning ember. He walked towards it, and as he approached, he smelled the lingering odor of cigarette smoke.

“…Miriam?” he called out. The ember, he eventually saw, was from a half-smoked cigarette lying crumpled on the floor just by the wall. Its fire was fading, but it still burned enough to suggest it had been lit (and dropped) a short while ago. Next to it was a larger, softer shape, almost a human figure.


A rabbit. A stuffed rabbit.

“Aleph…” Mattias gasped.

Even as he turned his eyes up the wall, he already knew what he would see there. Miriam’s cigarette and Ada’s stuffed rabbit lay—no, were placed—just below the Isle of the Dead painting that still hung, inexplicably, in its place on the wall.

But the picture had changed. In a sudden, horrified moment, Mattias saw something else in the scene depicted. Something new. The boat was still there, its grim ferryman manning the oars, its figure cloaked in white approaching the central blackness with its offering. But now, at the bow of the boat, the coffin that once lay there had been replaced by two human bodies. An adult and a child. Both female. Both lying bound and prostrate, lashed to the front of the boat. Their faces were turned upward, staring into the blackness. Though he couldn’t see their faces, he knew they were screaming.

The walkway leading up from the sea now lead into a deep, dark woods. And in that woods now lay a cabin. And in the window of that cabin a single candle burned.

Something waiting behind it.

It wasn’t created by God.

Two hands, impossibly cold, fell upon his shoulders. He didn’t need to look to know they were cloaked in white cloth. The floor shuddered as it was lifted on a black tide. The cold winter air turned into the frigid winds of a dead, black, infinite sea.

“…we have rights,” he sputtered. The figure pushed him forward. In the blackness of the isle of the dead, a face began to form. The barest of human features. And, behind it, Mattias could see its true inhuman nature. Chaos personified. Malevolence incarnate. Something wholly alien, born out of space and time, brushed into his world through the random pulses of cosmic tides too immeasurably vast for him to comprehend.

Not created by God.

The face opened its mouth. Mattias’s scream was drowned by the hollow roar of the black waves as his boat reached the dock.


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Comments (2)

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  • KB11 months ago

    Well done, congrats!

  • Babs Iverson11 months ago

    Congratulations on runner up!!!❤️❤️💕

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