The Art of Nyctophobia
The young man in the painting with the snow looks feline, like if the frame had been caught even
just a moment later in time, his lips would be pulled back in a sly grin or a snarl. His nose crinkles across the bridge in three lines, darker than the rest of the skin on his face to give the illusion of depth in such narrow, shallow folds. Similar lines crease around eyes, which are slightly squinted around his shiny, chestnut-colored irises, and framed by vibrant, red eyelashes. One hand hangs at his side, empty. The other, looking proportionally much larger than it should actually be, with its palm just off center and flat in front of the average viewer’s face, seems to be reaching beyond the canvas, trying to stretch down and touch them. His fingers are curled just the slightest bit at the tips, as if he’s about to let them fall.
The sharp fall of leather shoes snapped Nathanael’s eyes back into time again, and he turned to
look over his shoulder, recalling that he was in a museum, a museum of art, and had fled his third grade class field trip. The sun was setting outside the floor-to-ceiling length windows of the gallery, and a large clock ticked away silently on the wall beside it. It was four fifty; the museum would be closing in ten minutes. Had the class left?
The footsteps faded away dully, smacking on the floor, echoing from ear to ear almost like a
Doppler effect down the hall. He turned around fully to find himself still in a room of nothing but walking space and artwork, which was all hung up on the walls with tiny, low display lights above each frame. Nathanael supposed he should be concerned that he might be stuck overnight in an art museum if he didn’t try to find his way out. He wasn’t, not until the lights began to go out.
As they blinked away, the halls around him began to stretch farther and turn into dark, narrow
voids that led to bad things and bad places. Nathanael circled around the room quickly as the sun took the lights down with it, trying to find a well-lit path out. The soft jazz music that played over the speaker system seemed to grow louder as the rest of the air grew the opposite. His tongue was heavy in his mouth, and his eyes heaved forward, racing without the rest of his body and leaving him in sudden, brief, and intense dizziness. He backed up to a wall, bumping into a frame twice his size. He turned around quickly when his back met the canvas, staring up at the painting to make sure it wasn’t going to harm him as it swayed back and forth for a moment before settling back down. It was just an oil painting, abstract and intensely bright, even beneath nothing but the tiny picture light that was secured just above it.
The abstract paintings on the opposite wall were never still. Globs of thick oil paint grasped each
other like the hands of lovers, but swollen and melting, some more like feet made of wax.
All of the picture lights remained lit; only the large ones on the ceiling had shut off, but they still
took enough away from his vision that Nathanael felt about ready to curl up in a corner, shaking and crying, for hours.
Had the security guard come by and thought he was just another painting? The museum wasn’t
supposed to close before every exhibit had been given a once-over to ensure that they would avoid a case like this. How could they have missed him? How could he have missed them?
The gallery was a large square, with four wide pillars spaced parallel to each corner, closer to the
center of the room. There were only hallways on three of the four sides, but they were all pitch black and growling. On the far most side, where a fourth would be attached to complete the symmetry, was only the painting of the colorful young man in an empty field of snow, which Nathanael had been staring at for, apparently, longer than he had thought earlier.
Nathanael’s breath, which had fled to the back of his mind, resurfaced as he stared straight down
the blank nothingness—surely filled with somethingness, not that he would be finding out any time soon—of where the wall opposite him bent inwards and fell into a portal.
He made his way slowly toward the painting of the man in the snow, the only piece in the room
surrounded on all sides by velvety red guidance stanchions, which were hung on brass poles that nearly matched Nathanael’s chest in height. Gripping the rope tightly with both hands, he faced the expanse of the room as his initial panic settled into a more permanent and potent anxiety. His fingers shook as the worries that raced each other through his mind accelerated too fast to catch clearly for even a moment as he stared ahead, eyes once again boring into a not-so-empty hallway; an expanse filled with blackness.
Only a bit slower than Nathanael’s pupils dilated to adjust to the lessened amount of light, his
mind slowly began to develop the idea that, in the worst possible case, he would probably only be stuck in the gallery for a night, just until the museum reopened at sunrise. The other—and, notably, far less-safe—option was to try and find his way back out, but the halls were far too dim, making him far too afraid.
Nathanael settled himself down carefully beside the painting of the young man in the snow, his
back pressed up next to the frame. The stanchions he had crawled under surrounded him with a comforting reassurance of protection; a barrier between himself and the darkness that leaked from the halls.
There was a creak from beside him suddenly, and the frame beside him shifted slightly. From the
angle he was sitting at, he couldn’t see the entirety of the painting, but he watched from below as it shivered once before him, from top to bottom, diagonally. Nathanael scooted to the side on the ground until he hit the stanchion to his left, and froze on a breath when a flutter of bright snow fell from the bottom of the frame. When it met the floor, only white splotches of paint remained, staining the gray marble tiles bright white. The snow was followed by a polished black shoe, but unlike the snow, it maintained its shape upon contact with the ground, and stepped forward. It was followed by a leg, and then another shoe, which tapped lightly on the floor before helping the other in taking a couple steps forward. Where the shoes landed, the sank in on themselves a bit, paint oozing from their sides like melting ice cream. Nathanael shook, eyes wide and not blinking, and didn’t dare to look up. The loafers left prints behind them in black, and dripped paint to the floor heavily as their owner climbed over the stanchions. Nathanael’s mouth dropped open when the figure turned around to reveal himself as the man in the painting. Questions beyond questions swam through his head as he sat there, shaking stiffly, speechless.
The man jumped when he spotted Nathanael. “Oh, my,” he muttered. “What are you doing
here?” He pulled the stanchions to the side and knelt in front of Nathanael, who briefly wondered if the man knew that he was leaving globs of paint all over everything he touched. Orange streaked in uneven clumps over the red of the stanchions, black tracks following behind him like footprints pressed into the tile.
His eyelashes were a darker shade of red than they had been in the picture, but his eyes were still
the same deep, marble-y chestnut. There was snow in his hair, which seemed to glow in its rich purple color. His whole body was shiny. Slick and glistening like fresh, wet paint about to be rolled onto a wall. “Who are you?” Nathanael asked, pretending that his voice wasn’t shaking.
The man pointed to the plaque next to the empty frame, just above Nathanael’s head. A drop of
sandy-apricot paint dripped off the tip of his finger and onto the ground.
Duende, the plaque said. Nathanael craned his neck to see better, and read out loud slowly,
carefully sounding out the syllables. “Doo… en-day?”
“That’s me,” the painting man said. His voice sounded enormous in the quiet gallery.
“Weird name,” Nathanael mumbled thoughtlessly.
“What’s yours, then?” The man before him crossed his arms at the elbow.
“That’s a weird name.”
Nathanael pouted and wrapped his arms around his knees, hugging them closer to his chest. He
bit his lip to keep his eyes from watering, mouth quivering. “You’re mean.”
The man—Duende—shifted his weight back to rest on his left foot, tapping the other a few times
and sending hollow clucks echoing off the walls of the room. Drops of black paint splattered from his shoes. He released a displeased-sounding huff of air. “How rude.”
“You aren’t very—um, what’s the word?” Nathanael frowned, tapping his chin. “When you grow
up and get smarter…” he trailed off.
“Yes! You’re not acting very mature. And you’re older than me!”
Duende cocked his head to the side. “How old are you?”
“Huh. I guess I am older than you.”
“How old are you?”
“I’m not quite sure, actually,” Duende said. He looked down at himself. “Maybe nineteen or
Nathanael hummed, still wary. “Where’s the night guard?” he asked suddenly, having nearly
forgotten about the entire situation at this man’s appearance.
“Night guard?” Duende laughed, his voice hearty and obnoxious, exactly how Nathanael would
have thought a loaf of thick, whole grain nut bread with sunflower seeds on top would sound if it could speak. “I’m the night guard.”
“Then where’s your flashlight?” Nathanael challenged.
He paused. “I don’t need one.”
Nathanael narrowed his eyes. “Sure.”
“This place has never had a night guard, actually. I lied.”
“Why should it?”
“Because—” Nathanael stammered dumbly for a moment. “It’s… the art is expensive! What if
someone came and took it?”
“Why would anybody steal art?”
“For money!” Nathanael waved his arms around, as if it would make Duende understand his
“Do you think anyone would try to steal me? Am I pretty enough to be worth stealing?” He used
his hands to frame his face and batted his bright red eyelashes at Nathanael, who leaned away from him.
“I don’t know.”
Duende raises one of his richly frosted brown eyebrows. “Don’t you? Your uncertainty hurts my
heart.” He drapes the back of his hand over his forehead and leans back, feigning fainting. “I am a painting. If not beautiful, then what am I?”
“A painting still.”
Duende straightened and his mouth twisted sourly. “Well, isn’t that tragic.”
“Why did you, um, come out of the painting?” Nathanael asked slowly.
“First of all, I did not ‘come out’ of the painting,” Duende corrected him, “I am the painting.
Second of all, I wanted to go for a walk.”
Nathanael blinked. A walk? “What?” he asked.
“You know, when you stand on your feet and put one leg in front of the other so that you move
“I know what walking is! I meant what like that’s so weirdly normal, because you’re…” he
“Am I not normal?” Duende looked down at his body, which was swirling in a thick variety of
hues, and frowned. “Does normal here mean not made out of paint?”
Nathanael nodded affirmatively. “Yes.”
“Hm.” Duende hummed and tugged at the clean white, silk vermillion blouse he was wearing.
Streaks of color followed every movement of his fingers, staining the shirt.
“Stop that, you’re getting it all dirty,” Nathanael told him.
Nathanael stared at Duende’s eyes for a long moment while he frowned down at the blouse.
When he blinked he could see that tiny specks of silver decorated his eyelids, which were impossible to see when they weren’t closed because there of the creases between his eyelids and brow bone.
“Anyway.” Duende stood up and offered a hand to Nathanael, who, after a moment of hesitation,
took it and let Duende pull him to his feet. The hand was surprisingly solid, but cold, and left Nathanael’s palm tacky and orange. He wiped it on his pants.
“What are you doing in here, anyway? Don’t look like art to me,” Duende said. “No offense.”
Nathanael stared up at him. “I… got split up from my class. I didn’t know when the museum was
gonna close, and I guess I just kept looking at the paintings, because they’re all so cool, and then the lights started turning off and I got scared so I just,” he trailed off, not sure how to finish his explanation.
“You wanna get out of here?” Duende asked with a grin.
“I want to go home,” Nathanael said, tears suddenly springing forth as he recalled just how far
away he was from his mother’s apartment downtown. Was she looking for him?
Duende’s smile fell away, swiping into a frown like somebody had taken a paintbrush and
dragged it across his mouth. “And where’s that?” he asked.
Nathanael sniffled and rubbed at his eyes. He didn’t want to cry, not in front of this stranger. Not
at all. “Frondent Street,” he said.
“Frondent. Okay, let’s go!” Duende spun around once, drops of color flying errantly from his
body, pointer finger held to the sky before lowering down and pointing at the painting from which he had emerged. Nathanael looked back and forth between him and the empty frame. “Come here.” Duende grabbed his shoulder and pulled him away from the wall to stand next to him, before reaching for the frame, his dark green fingernails sticky against the gold finish. He pulled it away from the wall, and Nathanael gasped loudly at what he saw. Instead of a flat expanse of solid white, the wall fell into a passageway, lit inside by… something. “What—” he cut himself off, running to the windows to look outside. There was nothing protruding from the outside. They were on the third floor. “Where’d it come from? Where does it go? Is it magic? Can you—wait, are you a wizard?” He stared at Duende in awe.
“It comes from nowhere, it is magic, I’m not a wizard, and it goes to Frondent Street.” He
beckoned Nathanael back over. “Come on, then. Just follow me.”
Nathanael bit his lip. “Is it safe?”
Duende stepped inside. “Does it look safe?”
“Not really.” Nathanael bit his lip, and Duende shrugged.
“It’s as safe as a passage summoned from nothing and leading off the side of the third floor of a
building could be.”
Nathanael creased his eyebrows, trying to figure out what that meant. “It’ll take me home?”
Duende nodded. “To the nearest Frondent Street.”
Nathanael looked back into the gallery. Dark and cold. Empty save for the shadowed artwork. He
followed Duende into the passage.
After only a few minutes of walking, which were filled with mindless chatter from Duende and
mostly silence from Nathanael, Duende stopped suddenly in front of a rather large wooden door. Duende pushed it open easily, leaving his signature behind on it in a smear of orange, and stepped outside, onto the sidewalk in front of a convenience store. He held it open for Nathanael to follow.
“But we were just on the third floor!” Nathanael exclaimed, hesitantly making to step out onto
the sidewalk, scared as if it might crumble beneath him. He poked the cement with the toe of his sneaker carefully.
“Come on. I haven’t got all night,” Duende said. “You’re not gonna burst into flames or
anything. It’s just combustible magic.”
“Com-bus-bull––what?” Nathanael tilted his head, trying to remember the rest of the word as he
spoke loudly over the noise coming from the city streets.
Duende ignored Nathanael and grabbed him by the wrist to pull him over the threshold. He
pushed it closed behind him, and Nathanael watched as it rippled away, into the air; into nothing. When Duende let go of his wrist, a dull, powerful throb massaged its way up his arm, over his shoulder, and into his chest, where it dispersed into tiny tremors that rode his veins through his body before fizzling out just as soon as they had appeared.
“Whoops,” Duende said, giggling lightly with a sheepish grin. “Didn’t mean to do that. Sorry.”
“What was that?” Nathanael asked, looking up slowly, a bit frightened. “It felt like I got shocked,
but on the inside.”
“Oh, I just took a little bit of your creative energy, that’s all.” Duende reached out and patted his
head, surely leaving streaks of paint in his hair. “Don’t worry. Put it right back,” he assured him with a smile.
Nathanael just blinked and nodded, then frowned. For the first time that evening, the thought
occurred to him: could he be in a dream? Maybe, but… Duende had said things about magic, and Nathanael really had been terrified when he was trapped in the gallery by darkness. If it was all just a dream, then Nathanael didn’t want to wake up yet. He wanted to know more about this magic man from the painting. And he still hadn’t said thank you.
“Oh, I always give back what I take!” Duende said, beginning to walk ahead of him. “It wouldn’t
be fair if I only took from someone to give to another person, would it?”
“Do you take stuff from people a lot, then?” Nathanael asked, hurrying after him, as all thoughts
of getting home were, somehow, pushed to the back of his mind. There was a fairly large amount of people around them, but nobody seemed to notice when Duende touched them airily on the shoulder, back, or arm, nor did they see the streaks of color left behind on their jackets.
“It’s part of my job,” Duende answered when Nathanael caught up to him.
“What’s your job?”
“I help people.”
“Like the police do?”
“That means you can’t tell me, right?”
“That is what it means, but I lied. I can tell you.”
Nathanael’s brow creased in bewilderment, and his mouth pulled into a pouty-frown to match.
Duende slowed to a stop and nudged him with his elbow. “Watch this,” he said. They had reached the entrance to a small park, which was very sparsely populated, except for the plethora of scattered trees and street lamps, and a woman on a bench with a book. Nathanael recognized the park; they were surprisingly close to his home. The strange passageway had actually worked, and he knew how to get back from there. But he still kept his eyes on Duende.
The woman didn’t look up even once as he approached her. Nathanael watched from where he
stood, still on the sidewalk, as Duende sat down next to her, leaning over her shoulder as if he was trying to read from the pages in her lap. Duende scrunched his nose up distastefully, and reached out with two fingers. The woman didn’t seem to notice him as he dragged them over the pages, like he was writing something. She only continued to read as he worked, and just as she made to turn the page, Duende’s hand darted away, and he made his way back to Nathanael, skating over the cement like it was ice and his shiny black loafers were skates. A trail of dark paint, reflecting light from the street lamps, was left behind him. Nathanael wondered if Duende could run out of paint. What if he walked himself out of existence?
Only a few moments later, the woman looked up from her book suddenly, with an expression in
her eyes of something that Nathanael couldn’t find in his vocabulary to name. It was when she pulled a notebook and pen out of her bag, and began writing with a delighted smile, that he realized it was inspiration.
“You gave her an idea!” Nathanael bounced up and down on the balls of his feet.
“But why can’t she see you?”
“Because people can’t see me,” he answered simply, smiling down at him.
“I can see you.”
“Are you a people?”
Nathanael opened his mouth, but he found himself suddenly speechless, unable to come up with
an answer. “I’m––I am a people! I mean, person.”
Duende just shrugged in response. “Do you know how to get home from here?” he asked.
Nathanael nodded. “Yes.” He frowned. “I hope they won’t be angry at me.”
Duende patted his back. “Go on. Lead the way.”
They walked together for about ten minutes before Nathanael stopped at the front entrance of his
mother’s apartment complex.
“Ah, here already?” Duende asked.
“Yeah.” But Nathanael hesitated to go inside. “Is––was this all a dream? Am I gonna wake up
and forget it?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Well, it’s not a dream for me, so how could it be for you?”
Nathanael squinted up at him. “I don’t get it.”
Duende laughed and kneeled down to meet his eye level. “You should go inside. Your family is
probably worried about you, right?”
Duende patted his head. “Come see me again sometime, okay? You have to promise me you
won’t tell anybody about this.”
“Why not?” Nathanael asked, pouting.
Duende smiled and said, “because I’m a secret.”