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death portrait

By Erin SheaPublished 12 days ago Updated 10 days ago 7 min read
Top Story - June 2024
Photo by Katelyn Greer on Unsplash

Casey Tollis knew the woman on the other side of the lowering coffin. He knew the slant of her eyes. The café au lait birthmark on her neck.

Some 10 years prior, he had found her nude portrait - "Sadie at Dawn in Montréal" - in his father's portfolio travel bag after his return from an extended 'work trip' to the Great White North.

Of course, Casey didn't tell his mother about his father's infidelity. He was, then, at a groggy 14, too self-absorbed, too full of teenage discomfiture to bring to light this delicate secret of desire and rupture his home life beyond repair in the process.

He tried, in vain, to sideline the immediate, charged attraction he felt toward his father's mistress and her messy braid - pale, poised limbs set against billowing brushstrokes of blue that translated as both tangled bedsheets and churning water.

She (Sadie) inevitably donned a mythic status in the back of his mind, steeped in callow eroticism. Sadie the Siren. He couldn't look his father squarely in the eye until his high school graduation and, even then, his palms got sweaty as if he was still holding the very painting in his hands. The evidence.

Even after he hopped coasts to get his MFA in Screenwriting, he would sometimes be convinced of passing her on the street in Manhattan: a girl with a braid, a birthmark, and a French red lip. The city made his head spin. It kept him perpetually paranoid, wan, and red-eyed.

In a state of agitation shortly after graduation, Casey finally got his Mom on the phone. She, being ever the diagnoser, the fixer, deemed him hypervigilant and sleep-deprived, perhaps suffering from a mild case of scopophobia.

"Oh, Case, you know I hate to sound like your father but maybe you should start painting again. Just for yourself, you know, for catharsis. I know the canvas isn't your preferred place of creativity but it might help...on a therapeutic level."

Sue Tollis was a proud 'bleeding heart' academic turned political science professor who, after marrying such a famous portrait artist, prattled interminably about being a devout patron of the arts. "I love art. I love how it sinks into my pores. That said, as much as I can absorb it, I cannot produce it. Stubbornly uncreative, I am."

As for the Tollis' wiry, freckled son, any and all interest in following in the footsteps of his father abruptly ended upon the discovery of Sadie. Still, when Sue Tollis nudged her son by overnighting supplies straight from the cluttered art studio he once tiptoed around as a teenager, Casey had no choice but to entertain the canvas, if only on the ever-inviting, innocent grounds of nostalgia.


He started with the eyes (his father's method). The impenetrable dark. Two planet-like pupils.

"If you get the eyes right, the rest will come naturally. The rest is just ornament," his father had declared at the first exhibition Casey attended in his youth.

As a brazen 8-year-old, he pressed his father about a potential loophole in his portrait methodology: "But what if the person's eyes are closed? What if they fall asleep?"

There were polite chuckles meant to dismiss his question as adorably trivial and childish. With the eyes and ears of his faithful brigade of art snobs waiting for his word, his ruling, the great Marshall Tollis spoke resolutely, precisely from his gut: "Sleeping is too close to death for me. I don't paint dead people. I paint life. All paintings should breathe."

If there was any part of his father's artistic process that Casey never questioned, it was that the art of painting, as an act of surrender, transcended time. Both father and son could unknowingly pass a whole night consumed by shadow and color. Fine-tuning texture and movement. Canvases were portals by which one could dream with eyes open.

Behind the blackout curtains of Casey's studio apartment on a particularly humid night in June, this old habit remained true, despite his not touching a paintbrush for well-nigh 10 years. Unaware of the clock, he studied and squinted and smudged and stared and stared until something stared back at him.

A sentient, freewheeling face emerged, transforming every time he blinked (perhaps it blinked with him). Like a mirror at first, his own startled expression emerged. Then, a stranger, with fierce inquiry on his brow. Desperation. Then, his father, with terror-ringed eyes. The portrait's mouth was garish and agape, bright red like Sadie's lipstick.

Casey retreated, his back flush with the bedframe, kicking a crushed Dr.Pepper can to the side with his foot. Lit a cigarette. He was unwittingly biting the corner of his cheek so hard that his mouth tasted warm and metallic. Below, the hum of traffic told him of his exhaustion but did not offer any clue into the hour of day or night. The city that never sleeps, as he was wont to say, is bound to cause hallucinations.

As the paint dried on his flustered first step back into portraiture, his father would find himself along the Golden Gate Bridge in the early hours of the morning - succumbing to a watery grave that would complete the mythology of the magnetic Bay Area artist in a manner not unlike Virginia Woolf and the River Ouse.

Meanwhile, 24-year-old Casey, eyes glazed over, slipped unknowingly from the canvas into dream space, only to be awoken 14 hours later by a frantic call from his uncle Myron, who surely thought, for just a moment, that his unreachable nephew had, too, decided upon an early exit.


Casey slept only in bursts after taking the red-eye flight back to California, always returning to the same dream: wading waist-deep in water, unable to feel his legs (as if his bones had not just broken but vanished entirely), nondescript faces swirling around beneath the surface.

Eventually, a sloping shore would leave him on his hands and knees, by which he'd trace the shape of a portrait canvas in the murky water. But every time he tried to lift it up, to see the likeness unsubmerged, the water would wipe the canvas clean. The swirls of color would slide off in sludge, like mud, and return to the surrounding sea of droplets. Indeterminate and unfixed, seeping into the creases of his hands.

He'd wake up, as he did the day of the funeral, itching his palm, shivering slightly, and entertaining a slightly off-putting floating sensation. Waking and sleeping had begun to blend together. So much so that when he first caught sight of Sadie in the flesh, he thought it was a figment of his imagination. Sleep-deprived grief wreaking havoc in a graveyard. But then he watched other onlookers recognize her presence as she coyly brushed past them toward the open earth.

She fit in well with the conglomeration of bohemian artists gathered to bid farewell to his father. His many disciples and colleagues. Her face was stoic, framed by a halo braid, but her body shook uneasily in her black satin dress and leather jacket. When she finally acknowledged Casey's unreserved inquiry with a friendly passing glance, he took note of her white eyeliner, which rendered her gaze eerie and doll-like.

He waited for a somewhat opportune moment to corner her after his father was properly interred. His mother and older sister, Cassandra, were glued to one another. Gazes were all cast low out of respect. In other words, no curious eyes hovered over him.

When the mass of mourners began to disperse chaotically among the lines of cars, he became quite frantic, betraying his internally rehearsed script.

"Hi, excuse me, do you need a ride, miss? To the reception."

"Oh, no thank you. I'm not going to the reception. I'm," she continued unfazed, teetering through the wet grass.

"Wait. I, uh...Can I show you something real quick? I just...I painted something and - "

"Listen, peddling your art to me at a funeral is somewhat indecent don't you think? Besides, I don't curate anymore so the best I can do for you is give you some former contacts," she said tactfully, swinging open her car door, which smelled like a rental.

"Just stay right here, please. I'll be right back. Please. My dad just died and I feel like I'm owed a favor. At least for today. Just for one little second."

Suddenly moved, she surveyed him in earnest and sighed, bringing her hand to her neck - letting unease transform into pity. There was a ring on her left hand.

At last, she nodded, shaking dirt out of her shoe until Casey returned out of breath with his luggage, still unpacked. He'd tucked the unsettling portrait into his carry-on, between a musty NYU sweatshirt.

Awkwardly kneeling at her feet to unzip his suitcase and unsheathe the canvas, Casey felt nothing short of foolish desperation in presenting it to her. Like a kid in art class searching for praise.

Her face dropped, as if accursed, as he transferred it into her hands. For a minute, he thought she'd drop it.

"When did you paint this?" Sadie finally asked.

"The night he died."

"A death portrait is a rare thing," she turned her head solemnly. "It's a frightening thing. A remarkable thing," her voice cracked. "It's as if Marshall painted it himself."

Sadie looked up and their eyes met for the first time since he found her portrait as a boy.

"I know he painted you," he blurted.

She looked away, shifting from one foot to another uncomfortably. "Listen, I can't keep this. Even though I sense you want me to. But I can't unburden you from...all of it. I'm sorry."

With stinging eyes, Casey watched Sadie's purple fingernails release their grip from the canvas as she handed it back to him gingerly. Her cold hand rested momentarily on his elbow as he caught a fragment of a parting whisper: "Tout mon amour pour toi."


The task of unburdening himself from the death portrait, now tucked under his childhood bed, took another week of dreaming. Looking back, it seemed so obvious to Casey that the dream and the painting were connected. His response, so delayed. The painting had opened a portal and the dream was telling him how to close it.

On the 24th of June, he awoke for the tenth and final time from said dream - a painting stubbornly submerged underwater - exasperated and ready to follow its command: return the portrait to the waves. Then, perhaps, he could reenter his father's studio and paint life.

familyYoung AdultShort StoryPsychological

About the Creator

Erin Shea

New Englander

Grad Student

Living with Lupus and POTS

Instagram: @somebookishrambles

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Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

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Comments (17)

  • Sweileh 8883 days ago

    hank you, I am happy with your exciting stories. Follow my stories now

  • Andrea Corwin 5 days ago

    A very poignant story, well told. It drew me in. The paint dried on his canvas right as his father went into the water. A death portrait...and the woman saying she could not unburden him. Well done! Congrats on TS🥳

  • Enjoyed this intricate story! Just can't wrap my head around starting with the eyes... I'm definitely not an expert but it doesn't sound like legit painting advice, lol!

  • Jane Katt8 days ago

    The layers of emotion and the vivid imagery truly pulled me in. Thanks for sharing such a poignant story!

  • Caroline Jane9 days ago

    Really enjoyed this. Its got the hallmark of a tale that could be longer. The characters are thoroughly believable. Great 3 am entry!

  • Lisa Dominik9 days ago

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  • The writing was beautiful! The story captivated me completely.

  • john ogboso9 days ago

    Good keep it up

  • TahimaAni9 days ago

    excellent ♥️

  • Muhammad Safdar9 days ago

    Excellent story.

  • Congratulations on your top story.

  • Very good

  • Jenifer Nim10 days ago

    This was beautifully written! I was completely engrossed in the story.

  • Margaret Brennan10 days ago

    Congratulations on TS. This is magnificent. So true to life. Brilliant.

  • And congrats for Top Story! Well deserved!

  • This was very deep and full of symbols.. life and death, circularity of the existence. My fave: "Sleeping is too close to death for me. I don't paint dead people. I paint life. All paintings should breathe." Amazing work!

  • Kendall Defoe 10 days ago

    I am getting very strong Dorian Gray feelings from this. Very well done!

Erin SheaWritten by Erin Shea

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