Glass jar covered in specs of paint and filled with paint brushes

The Artist’s Wish

Once upon a time, in a faraway land, there lived a young boy born into slavery. His future was in construction where his father, uncles and many cousins worked, but until he was six he was allowed to stay with his mother, glued to her while she cleaned floors, dusted furniture and did anything else demanded of her. His two sisters also worked in the palace, each assigned as a handmaid to one of the King’s wives. 

At the time, Henley was oblivious to the poverty and the inconsequence of their lives. When his mother washed the floors on her hands and knees, he would scoop up the soap suds and draw the shapes and symbols that adorned the walls of the palace. Before she dusted a dark wood surface, he would lick a finger and draw there too. Sitting on the kitchen doorstep eating his lunch of dry bread and goat’s milk, he would use a stick to scratch into the dry earth.

“Henley!” his mother would hiss sharply at him every time she caught him, “Stop that right now, someone will see you.” Then she’d smear out the drawing followed by a slap to the back of his head, quickly returning to her work before anyone noticed. 

Despite the warnings of severe punishment, and having witnessed the beating of a cousin for falling asleep when she was meant to be polishing the silver, Henley would quickly forget and doodle again. All he cared about was drawing. He would inspect every piece of art in the palace until he was sure they were telling a story, each shape or symbol meant something. Even at that age, he knew in his heart that drawing made him happy.

Henley would never attend school like the sons of the merchants and noblemen, or have a tutor like the princes. He wasn’t even sure if drawing all day was a real job. When he turned six he joined his father and quickly understood where he fit in. First, he would carry small rocks, and sweep dust and rubble away after a new section was complete. As he gained strength enough to carry large stones, he also pulled trolleys piled high and laid entire floors in the new homes being built for the growing city. 

He had once used a piece of charcoal to make lines where the new stones should be placed, thinking it would make the job easier. Instead, the men working near him cowered in fear, even while carrying large stones. They lowered themselves to the floor and waited. Henley didn’t know what to do. Then the foreman shouted behind him, “What’s going on? Why has the work stopped?” cracking his whip on the stones to make his point.

Henley timidly pointed to the charcoal line he had drawn, not understanding the men’s fear. The foreman inspected the line, nodded almost imperceptibly and then shouted again at the men, “Get back to work! Use the line to place the stones!” He was impressed by the cleverness of the boy but he had still broken a rule. He slapped Henley against the back of the head and pushed him towards his own tent. 

Henley didn’t look back, not wanting to see the fear and shame on his father’s face. He took the hard shoves without complaint. Inside the tent, he kneeled as they were taught when in the company of all other classes.

The foreman was stern but not unkind. He demanded to know who taught the boy to write. Henley explained that he could not write, only draw. The foreman then gave him a piece of parchment and some charcoal and ordered him to draw.

Without hesitation, Henley drew some of the shapes and symbols from his early childhood. He remembered each one exactly how it was meant to be drawn. The foreman said nothing for several minutes.

Finally, he dismissed Henley back to work, with the warning, “Keep the charcoal to make those lines. If any house is built wrong, it will be your head.”

Henley made his lines every day, and never made a mistake. When no one was looking he would draw a symbol on the back of a stone as it was being placed down, its existence his secret. But that only sparked in him the need to draw again. For many weeks he dreamed of being back in the palace to spend his days drawing. He needed to look at the symbols again and refresh his memory.

Then one night, he pretended to be asleep while he waited for his mother and father to lie on their mats in the one-room mud hut he still shared with them. His sisters long ago took to sleeping only a few hours each night on the ground outside the palace. Once he was sure they were asleep, he quietly crept out of the hut and kept to the shadows.

Careful to not wake any of the servants sleeping, Henley entered the palace through the kitchen doorway. Thievery in the city was met with the death penalty, regardless of which class the thief was from, so doors were never closed if they were even added to the building. The constant warm climate inherent in the region also meant that having air flow through a home kept it comfortable. 

The palace was quiet that night, and Henley felt a sense of returning home that he could not explain. Sheer curtains fluttered in the breeze as he walked through the dark passageways. Moonlight streamed through the wide windows in the great room, illuminating the drawings. Walking around the familiar room, reminding him of a carefree time in his life, he was further pleased to discover he could see the drawings better. Taller now they were at eye level, and he no longer needed to crane his neck back to see. Minutes passed and all the while he took in the shapes and symbols that had been haunting him. 

Suddenly someone approached, their footsteps were only heard because the wind was silent for a moment. Frightened, Henley stumbled back, bumping a table displaying gold and silver ornaments. The impact jolted their arrangement and each piece rocked. He was able to steady them except one awkwardly shaped piece that toppled over. Hearing the steps come closer, he panicked grabbing the ornament before it could hit the ground and ran back the way he came in.

Several minutes later, panting to catch his breath but safely away from the palace, Henley realised he still had the ornament. Without meaning to, he committed a major crime. Knowing someone was awake in the palace he couldn’t go back. He had to hide the ornament until he figured out what to do. Shoving it under his flimsy tunic, he returned to the cluster of huts on the outskirts of the city. 

Walking by memory in the dark he found the pile of discarded rocks some distance beyond the huts. Dislodging a few stones to make a hole, he removed the ornament from under his tunic and looked it over, wondering if it would get damaged if the rocks shifted. The ornament resembled a canister like the ones his mother used to store tea, except it had many holes on each side, three haphazardly placed round balls to serve as feet, and a lid resembling the cupulas at the palace. Brought back to the moment and the problem at hand, he considered using his tunic to wrap the ornament but he would have no way of explaining to his mother that he lost it in his sleep. 

With a small stone, he tested the surface by scratching one of the symbols still running through his mind on the matt gold surface. Then he rubbed it out with the palm of his hand. Relieved that the gold wasn’t damaged but wanting to be sure, he scratched a few more symbols onto the ornament. Again he rubbed it out with his hand. 

As he lowered the ornament into the hole, the moonlight glinted for a moment on something near the base. Looking closer, Henley saw shapes and symbols engraved on it, but these were like nothing he had seen before. Straining to get a better look, he again rubbed the ornament, his hand warming up steadily until it became hot to the touch forcing him to drop it. The strange ornament clattered on the stones, the sound echoing off the mud huts. He quickly ducked behind the pile of stones, sure that someone would be roused by the noise. 

Minutes passed before he felt safe to come out. He cautiously picked up the ornament and was relieved to find it had cooled off. Curious, Henley slowly began rubbing it again, aware of the increasing heat at his palm. He quickened the pace, rubbing more vigorously, hypnotised by the whisper of smoke escaping from the many holes. Soon the smoke billowed around him, drawing his attention that he was frightened when a loud voice demanded, “Who dares wake me?”

Henley held tightly onto the ornament, not wanting to drop it again, and looked towards the huts, but no one was there. 

“Stupid boy,” the voice shouted in agitation, “It is I, Armundo. I am the spirit of the lamp. I was released from my duties many years ago, free to live my life in peace. How dare you wake me now?” 

Henley looked at the ornament in his hands, unable to reason how it could be a lamp, never mind how it could speak. The smoke swirled around him, a sweet musky smell that reminded him of his father’s pipe. 

“Well?” the voice demanded, “What do you want?”

The boy was trembling. He didn’t know what to make of a voice that seemed to come from thin air. He also couldn’t understand how smoke came from a lamp without a match. 

“Boy!” the voice bellowed, “I would like to return to my lamp. I can only do that if you make a wish,” Then with a hint of mischief he chuckled and said, “So make your wish and leave me in peace.”

Suddenly the boy understood, and a sense of calm pulsed through him. “I want to be… an artist,” he said, amazed by this new word and not sure where he learned it. “I want to spend my days drawing and making people happy with my work,” he added to explain in case the voice didn’t know the word either. 

The smoke turned green, and thick,so much so that the boy couldn’t see the ornament in his hands anymore. Soon a pungent odour suffocated him until he fell to the ground, coughing and spluttering, eyes shut tightly. 

After some time the boy came to registering a new smell – fresh bread – and he knew he wasn’t lying on his mat on the dirt floor of his hut. Afraid to open his eyes, he listened to the unfamiliar sounds around him – voices he didn’t recognise, birds chirping, fabric fluttering. 

Henley’s eyes flew open as he took in his surroundings. He was in a stone room on a bed with a straw mattress and pillows. Curtains fluttered in the wind and a woven rug lay on the floor. Wooden toys painted in every colour adorned the shelves along with stacks of parchment and charcoals. Pots of paint sat on a small table with brushes. 

“Good morning, master,” said a soft voice from the door. He saw a beautiful young girl wearing a tunic like his sisters’, kneeling in the doorway with her head bowed.

His eyes widened as his head dropped to steal a glimpse of his own body. Fear consumed his mind expecting to see his torn and faded tunic, but he was wearing a gold embroidered one instead, with pants to match. He looked at his hands, stained with charcoals and paints but no sign of carrying stones and the harsh work of construction. He felt his face and hair to make sure he was still himself but he didn’t recognise the bulbous nose, bristly cheeks, or the short neatly cropped hair on his head. 

Understanding he was in the palace, and not knowing how to address the servant girl, he charged past her into the great room. There on the table, he had bumped the night before, was the ornament as if it had never left. 

Henley replayed what he told the voice and wondered if he was still dreaming after the green smoke smothered him. His thoughts were interrupted by a boy calling to him saying a word he had never heard before, “Samuel!” the older boy shouted after the third time and Henley realised it must be his name. “Father commands us to the court.”

Henley could only nod and followed who he assumed to be his brother. Through an unfamiliar maze of passageways that led to a room grander than the great room at the palace. It had tall windows all around, with a raised platform where he saw the King seated on an ornate bench with some of the princes standing behind him. His first reaction was to drop to the floor to kneel and bow his head, but his brother grabbed his arm and whispered, “Stop playing around!” dragging him to stand with the others behind their father. The King nodded to each of his sons as they took their places, and Henley was relieved that even the King thought he was Samuel. 

Soon the courtroom filled with noblemen and one stepped forward, bowing deeply to the King before saying, “Thank you, your Royal Highness, for gracing us with your presence for this unfortunate matter.” The man bowed deeply again. 

“A slave boy was found roaming the city streets with one of the King’s valuable lamps in his possession.” Shocked gasps resounded throughout the room, “Do not worry, the lamp was polished and returned to its rightful place immediately,” the man paused, waiting for the crowd to quiet again. Henley felt himself sweat with fear that he was indeed caught out.

“There is, of course, the matter of his execution for thievery, however, the boy has committed a more serious crime.” The room went even more quiet as if all the air was sucked out of it. “The boy has been making claims that he is Prince Samuel in another boy’s body and has been possessed by a demon that came out of the lamp.”

Henley collapsed to the floor in shock. His brothers surrounded him as if to protect him but the King waved a hand and soon Henley found himself being ushered to stand in front of the King. 

“Samuel, are you my son?” the King asked him affectionately, a smile in his eyes that let Henley feel safe, so he nodded. “Here is my son, the real Samuel, where is this other boy?”

A commotion came from a doorway with guards holding onto a boy, desperate to escape, wriggling and kicking with each step. Henley’s heart sank, his mouth went dry and he found himself shaking, recognising his own face on the boy wearing his tunic, with the long hair of a slave, and hands worn rough from work. The King put an arm around his son as reassurance. 

“That is not Samuel!” the slave boy cried out. “I am Samuel! Father, you must believe me! This is a trick! A demon in green smoke came out of that lamp and possessed me! That boy is not your son!”

The King considered the slave boy for a moment, with a shake of the head he dismissed him, condemning his own son to be executed.

This story was written as part of my YOU ChooseDay series. Every week I use the DIYMFA prompt randomiser to select two sets of prompts, then I share the options on my Instagram stories for votes on what I will be writing about that week. On Wednesday I write the first draft using the winning prompts, with editing on Thursday. I publish here on Friday and share with my IG followers. This process helps spark my creativity – forced to write a story about random topics, different point of view or genre, and within a deadline – and I try to achieve a minimum of 2000 words. As always, your feedback is welcome!

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