A Brush with Darkness

This novella was published by Carina Press on 19 March 2012. Order Here

Five star review by Jessewave’s reviews

Four stars from M/M Good Book Reviews

An artist is given his greatest commission and perhaps a chance to pay off his family’s debt to his Patron


Florence, 1875

Now I think back on it all, it’s ironic and yet so very apposite how I always associate him with light. It seems impossible to think of him in any other way but surrounded by a bright halo of iridescence—the bright yellow glare of candles, or the greener glow of the gas lamps. Light shrouds him, an impossibility he manages to achieve. Perhaps the light is jealous of him, or perhaps it misses him and clings to him where it can. Like a lover, or a second skin. A never-ceasing wonder to someone like me, who lives his life through every hint of light and shade. Even in the dark he is never entirely obscured, but seems to shimmer for me with a phosphorescence all his own. Even his very name means light.

There was no wonder, and little enough light in the alley at the back of the Pitti Palace. This story probably began there, although it is always hard to decide that kind of thing when one is in the eye of the storm.

I had been prowling the streets of Florence late at night. Even a newcomer to the city such as myself knew it was not a sensible thing to do in some areas, even in daylight, but my muse had deserted me and I was driven to by desperation. If I didn’t paint, my patron—the unctuous and two-faced Signor Bettano—would soon think twice about supporting me and my family.

The shadows on the walls of my bedroom, so often an inspiration in their shrouded and nebulous beauty were nothing but the flickerings of the candle flame and the promise of little else. They failed me when I needed them—they gave me neither inspiration nor joy. So I dressed in the dark and slipped down the creaking staircase in stockinged feet, shoes in hand. Past Bettano’s rooms and out in the musty cool of the Florentine night, charcoal in pockets, a sketch pad optimistically tucked beneath my arm.

I knew little of my surroundings. The city was unfamiliar to me, but as I slid into the stream of the night—joining a small drift of others who, for their own reasons, also found solace in the shadows—I felt a peace I had not, shut away in the top of my patron’s house.

I moved aimlessly by the Arno. The river poured by, black and swift. The moss-dank stones of the river’s path were cool, slippery and slick to my touch, like drowned flesh beneath my hands. For an hour or more, I sat on the muddy edge of the empty riverbank, getting myself chilled in the process, watching the yellow moon rise above the black edges of city. Pregnant and gibbous, she cast her sickly reflection in the water beneath.

But nothing moved me to take my charcoal in hand, and even under the bright light of the moon, I did not feel I wished to commit anything to paper. I saw nothing to inspire me. For all the glamour of my relocation from Fiesole to Florence, for all the excitement I’d felt—and yes, some trepidation too—at leaving my family behind to restore our fortunes in the city, I saw only water, light and stone. And that was nothing I could not have seen at home, despite the buildings that towered over the river and me.

The moon had moved above the buildings and was perched overhead, hanging like a huge yellow apple on a tree I could not see. I was considering walking back to my rooms and drinking the remainder of my wine in an attempt to sleep when I heard a scream and voices raised in consternation. The human reaction is to run towards these cries of distress, it seems—however unwise—and without a thought I found myself running along the bank, up the narrow cobbled streets, towards the inhuman cries.

I was not the only prowler in the night who’d heard them, and from alleys and side streets, men appeared—all looking disturbed in their activities whatever they might have been. I doubted any other person but myself had been walking the streets looking for mere inspiration, but were searching for things more physical and immediate. Warmth, companionship and “borrowed” wealth. It was no matter to me. I wished for and sought the same, but I did it under the glare of the day.

A small group of men ran before me, and I followed. The screams had subsided by the time we reached the back of the Pitti, but around the dank high walls the echoing ululation of a ghastly sobbing remained. It was impossible to tell from whence it came, and had I not been following others, I’m sure I would have gone in the wrong direction. The harrowing noise ricocheted around our heads—as if the buildings themselves were crying a carillon peal.

In a silent second as I ran, a shadow went overhead, like a cloud over the moon. The man beside me crossed himself, looked into the street where we had come and stopped in his tracks.

“I’ll not go further, friends,” he said, backing away. “I’ve seen some things…I want to see no more of them.” He spun around and fled back down the streets, making me wonder why he’d followed the noise to begin with.

Left alone on the main street, I had two choices: to follow my cowardly acquaintance or to walk into the darkened alley where a couple of other men were standing. To offer what assistance I could give. Surely, I thought, I would be of more substantial use than a cutpurse or pimp. Perhaps those men had only come to see what further inconvenience they could offer.

That decided me. I walked into the narrow space and pushed through the two men there before me. They were not, as I’d imagined, ransacking a body, or planning to take advantage of a female in distress, but they seemed frozen in place. One leaned against the crumbling brick wall beside him, retching violently onto the floor, taking no heed that he spattered his sleeves and his shoes with his own vileness. The other stood slack-jawed in shock, tears running down his flabby cheeks as he held a torch before him, letting the flickering flame give light to whatever horrified him so.

I pushed past him, took the lantern from his unresisting hand and moved forward into the alley. Up ahead I could see a glimmer of white. It was stirring, and before I could focus on what it was, it had moved up further, in the yet darker shadows of the alleyway. Whatever poor soul was crying, their voice now muted to a terrible gasping, was definitely alive, and there was now no doubt of direction. The sounds came from whatever hid in the overshadowed street.

More convinced than ever that my assistance was needed, I hurried forward, thrust the lantern into the darkness before me–for it had never really scared me until that night—and stopped dead, my heart having leapt into my mouth.

On the ground, in that filthy, muddy alley, lay two young men. Not children, for they were clearly of an age to have shape where children would not. One lay clutching the other in his arms in a grotesque parody of how they’d perhaps met their end, clinging together in fear. Both were, as far as the light revealed, poorly dressed. Not quite rags, but in clothes that had seen better days and perhaps many previous owners.

The young man who was still alive, and whose voice we had so obviously heard, grasped his companion to him, his head buried against his companion’s shoulder, as if shielding himself from whatever it was that had attacked them.

Now we were close, his screams had subsided to a bubbling murmur, as sorrowful and helpless as a wolf caught in a trap. A muffled ululation of distress and, no matter how we spoke to him and tried to rouse him from his terrible position, he made no sense. It was clear he had lost his wits.

And no wonder.