Vermeer’s Last Painting
A Doomed Friendship
There are no such things as dreams and coincidences. I learned this fact too late, at least, to save Paul Mason’s life. Of the many dreams that have defined my life, three have largely determined its course. The last significant one came to me when returning to London from Cambridge on the 3:07 Express. It was a dreary day and, in counterpoint to it, I dreamt of lush beaches filled with children whose chests were covered in intricately detailed tattoos. It was more of a nightmare, actually, as I was trying to decipher what the tattoos meant, while racing against a tide in which I was about to drown. I woke just before the water reached my mouth. Outside, rain lashed fiercely against the windows.
I picked a magazine off the floor and scribbled, as best I could remember, the symbols on those children’s torsos. Perhaps, one of my linguist friends would be able to make sense of them. Bored, I flipped through its pages, until I saw some photos of beaches eerily reminiscent to those in which I had nearly drowned. The photos accompanied an article about a rare Amazonian spider whose poison had shown remarkable efficacy against various cancers in laboratory mice. It was all very nice, but the article struck me as poor reportage, a puff-piece that played to our prejudiced sense of progress’s inevitability. Only in the last paragraph was it conceded, almost as an afterthought, that this poison wasn’t all it was cracked up to be; that, in fact, at certain doses it was irreversibly lethal, but – and this is what arrested my attention – metabolized completely by the body. As far any post-mortem could or would tell, cause of death would be by natural means. I slipped the magazine discreetly into my valise. All sense of sound faded from my mind, as I watched trance-like the rain dribbling down the window, while my thoughts drifted, as irresistibility, toward the tantalizing prospect of acquiring this toxin.
Perhaps, I should have started this story more conventionally with some brief sketch of myself and Paul Mason, or the manner in which we met, but that wouldn’t have made its beginning any less arbitrary, nor, of course, altered its outcome. In point of fact, Paul and I owed our friendship to an act of capriciousness, a clerical typing error to be exact, committed by some dotard who mistook the first letter of my last name for an “M” and assigned me to the same undergraduate supervisor as Paul. It seemed a happy accident at the time, as Paul and I were both outsiders and shared a common interest in the arts. I guess we had what is called “a certain chemistry” and soon became inseparable, browsing the book shops off Kings Parade, chiming the bells at midnight, pledging fealty to Bacchus, and exchanging scratchy records heralding our brave new world dominated by love and peace.
Ever since I met Paul, I’ve occasionally wondered why nature is often accused of cruelty, because he got more from her than any one has a right to expect or to receive. Physically, he projected a pleasing enough aspect – tall, wide-mouthed, with lambent eyes and thick hair – but it was his smile, irreverence and spontaneity that really drew you to him. And though he would occasionally brood and shut himself away in his room – only to reemerge all sunshine and affability, a beamish boy, greeting each passerby with “top of the morning to you” no matter the hour – these mood swings just augmented his allure and mystique. In his presence you felt at home and safe, that reassuring sense of this is where I belong. Yet, apart from personal magnetism or charm, Paul could run, swim or bowl with the best of them, split more argumentative hairs than an order of Jesuits, or draw or paint anything to which he set his hand. And this particular talent – his artistic bent or precocity – soon caught the eye of the College Master, who purchased several of his watercolors of the Main Court for the Senior Combination Room. I am told they still hang there today. The souvenir shops in Cambridge couldn’t get enough of his landscapes.
To my credit, I never felt Paul’s abilities – in glaring contrast to mine – diminished me in any way; in fact, quite the opposite, as I was certain with proper guidance Paul could have been a great artist. Not just because of his obvious talent, but because he had the emotional complexity and self-critical temperament that was incapable of producing anything unoriginal, hackneyed, or derivative. And I saw myself (yes, I know, too naively caught up in the Classics and the heady draughts of friendship), as some Patroclus to his Achilles, Hephaestion to his Alexander, where, through my constant companionship and candid counseling, Paul would set the art world ablaze – since I knew then clearly the direction in which my future career pointed.
But Paul shared neither my enthusiasm for his gifts, nor my plans for his future. And I suppose our friendship could have weathered my disappointment, if it were not for his pursuit of the college money set. At the time, it was convenient to scapegoat them for our break-up, but even then I gathered our rupture had less to do with them than with Paul’s inability to put his past life behind him. He had gone to a grammar or one of the state comprehensives, then up to Cambridge on scholarship. His parents ran a fish-and-chips in Brighton. Perhaps, I should have been more sensitive to this stage of his life, since my background could not have been more different from his: I had moved to England from India while in my early teens. My father had a respectable profession, my mother her own money. I attended one of the better schools.
But you had to understand the time we were living in to grasp how perverse his behavior appeared. For the decade in which we had come of age had not only put the aristocracy out of business, but also upended the social and class order. In short, Paul had no social pressure or reason to escape his past. That, ironically, was my burden. Since unlike those of us with posh accents and private school pedigrees, whose spots at Cambridge had been basically bought, Paul had “earned” or won his seat. This feat, along with his gritty inflections and trade-like patronymic, imbued him with the ultimate street credibility in that pre-Brixton riot, guilt-ridden era. So it was with a certain head shaking that I and many others engaged in, as we watched Paul alienate himself from everything he could have had by angling so furiously to join the most despised sect of the college.
I won’t deny I wasn’t envious that he valued their company more than mine. But mainly I was troubled that he chose to go after a bunch of people whose soulless aspirations and mindless braying I knew so well from my school days. Yet since we are condemned to live life forward and review it backward – as a certain Danish philosopher astutely observed – I see now the why of it wasn’t that significant. I mean if Paul wished to piss on his talent and crawl down a hole that was his business. Rather, it was the way he went about it, the methods he employed, and how degraded himself just to please them that turned my stomach and ruined our friendship.
Perhaps, again, you had to be there, because you cannot imagine what it was like to watch him trying to be some one he wasn’t. I still flush at the memory of those mothballed tweed jackets, the tatty collection of public school ties (of institutions that he never attended), the pipe dangling from the corner of his mouth, the deer stalker caps, and the droning echo of those records he played over and over instructing in the proper pronunciation of the Queen’s English: “The rains in Spain fall on the plain…” And amazingly, that inscrutable and tribal coterie took him in, not just for his charm, but because he was useful, someone who got things done. They called him “The Operator.”
In any event, when the world does not work the way we think it ought to – we all know this feeling – I finally snapped and made some unkind and stupid remarks to him. The actual words are not important: something about “squandering a gift” and “grubbing for money.” I may have said more, but when I was through, he just looked at me with an enigmatic smile, turned around and walked away. I remember watching his back as he strode out the college gates and vanished into the blur of cyclists and flapping gowns. I stood there for a long time reeling, as if falling down some bottomless well, resisting the realization that he despised me – and, when I had accepted it, wondering for how long he had.
We did not speak to each other again for almost fifteen years.
In that time, I got married, divorced, continued my studies in art history and burnished my professional credentials by exposing some Vermeer forgeries. This noteworthy coup got me featured in several newspapers. After that I rose fast and secured a professorship at the Courtauld Institute. But Paul must not have forgotten about me, because I received a call from him not long after my name had cropped up in the news.
He skipped the usual pleasantries and asked directly whether I “would mind coming over to have a peek” at a painting he had picked up in Antwerp. I must have hesitated, blinked (my mind still registering his identity), so without missing a beat he thrust his baited hook straight into my mouth: “I think it’s a Vermeer” he half-whispered; then, granting me a moment to absorb that thunderbolt followed it with a series of vacillating qualifications: “Most likely a fake,” however, he hadn’t “paid much,” (lest I think him some idiot) “but still,” he “just had a feeling about it” and so on and so on. It was disconcerting to hear that voice again, yet I was even more jarred when I finally set eyes on him. We forget that time flows, while our memories stagnate. Instead of old boy tie and tweed jacket, I got leather pants, premature grey hair, diamond earring and gold necklace. But other than that, it was the same gregarious, infectious, compelling Paul.
“Don’t stand there like some imbecile donkey, you’re letting all the bloody cold air in,” he bellowed right after opening the door. Then he dragged me into his flat, steered me to a sumptuous couch, curled my fingers around a tumbler filled with Caledonia’s finest, and initiated, without the least bit of awkwardness, a game of “catch-up.” The seductive warmth of his personality soon washed over me, as soothingly as those Highland spirits basked in my belly. He congratulated me on my recent success, barking out, “Not surprised, always knew you had a damned fine eye”, while clinking the ice in his glass. That expression, “damned fine eye,” trilled so sweetly in my ears I could have heard it all night. No words, of course, had to be spoken about his exploits. With the slightest of gestures, a barely cocked eyebrow, I was invited to survey their extent. His spacious abode, done up with priceless art and furniture, not only signified their substantial breadth, but rang out the most eloquent rebuke to my drab insult and callow advice all those years ago. However, I did not feel that Paul had called me over to have a gloat or rub it in. Rather I sensed that, while he was after some expert advice, he was really using the opportunity to extend a peace pipe - which I was more than happy to share with him. Finally, by way of explanation for all his largesse, he offhandedly mentioned he had done well “in property” and was now taking time off to hunt for treasures, “as Europe was teeming with bargains.”
And then, as though to prove the point, he pulled out the painting. First impressions count for much, but rarely more so than when authenticating an artwork. I cannot say I recognized the face of a long lost friend or glimpsed Vermeer’s inimitable signature in the brushwork, iconography and composition. But neither did I get that queasiness or slight nausea I customarily experienced upon seeing an obvious fake. The piece was patently Dutch, seventeenth-century, a still life dominated by an oblong table covered with an intricately patterned Ottoman. A copper bowl stacked with fruit and ringed with butterflies perched on top of the rug. A young man stood by the table clutching an opened letter; his other hand grasped the back of a chair, as he stared pensively out a window. A doorway behind him opened onto an alley where dogs slept and children played with hoops. Above them, a robin’s egg sky fleeced with clouds escorted the eye to the vanishing point. On the far side of the room, shadows quivered like taut springs, suggesting a secret about to be imparted or some mystery underlying a prosaic moment… And my first judgment was: if this painting is a forgery, it’s by the hand of fucking pro.
Taking a deep breath, I advised Paul “it would be a “mother” to authenticate.” The “mother” consisted in the time and money involved to research the provenance and perform all the necessary chemical tests. He wrote me a check on the spot and said, “Not to worry if I needed more.” I cashed his check, packed my bags and boarded the next ferry to Antwerp. There, amidst the cobbled streets, harbor cranes and shrieking gulls, I got the runaround. After considerable effort, I caught wind of the dealer’s spoor in some dive deep in the fens of the Scheldt estuary. He wasn’t eager to talk, but I extracted from him (at some cost) the name and address of the painting’s former owners. Fortunately, they didn’t mind recounting the history of their precious heirloom. Apparently, it had been acquired directly from Vermeer and passed down through the generations. Then I got some sob story about how a recent misfortune had forced them to sell it and, since they lacked a well-documented provenance, the most generous classification it could attain was “In the Style” of Vermeer. Even so, they chimed almost proudly, “Many, if not all, of the museums, galleries, and important dealers had come around and given it a good sniff, a real pawing over, but unfortunately none of them bit.” Finally, Paul’s dealer had agreed to take it on.
In the interests of thoroughness, I hired an archivist to research their family tree. His report confirmed their forebears had lived within reasonable proximity to Vermeer. The chemical tests all returned positive. These variables eliminated, I focused on the work directly. The iconography, composition and brush-strokes checked out against Vermeer’s other works as well as my own intuition. But something was queer, off, about the combination of certain colors, or rather lack of them. Moreover, the piece troubled me. I had the unsettling sense I had seen its subject’s face before and had also read the letter he held, but could not recall what it said. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t confirm the painting one-way or the other until I had settled the color issue. To complicate matters, Paul was calling every day, beside himself, exhorting me “to get on with it.”
Then, after an exasperating afternoon, I ran a bath, dozed off and dreamt I was watching an artist put the finishing touches on the same painting Paul had brought back from Antwerp. He was about to dab some red paint to the upper right quadrant of the canvas, but suddenly paused and placed his brush down on the palette. A window separated us and I banged on the glass and shouted at him to finish it up. I couldn’t bear to see the picture so naked and incomplete. But the bastard just sat there, in his absurd seventeenth century getup, back turned to me, inscrutable as a Sphinx. Then he swiveled his head and smiled. That amused, “oh-so-knowing” expression shattered more than the spell, because I shot out of the tub burning from my revelation, filled with a momentary urge to run through the streets and share it with the world. And this “revelation” rested not so much in having glimpsed Vermeer’s face, or that he had even condescended to acknowledge me, but rather in having seen, or having been forced to see, that the painting was missing a touch of crimson or maroon hue. I stood for ages in the water stupefied that I could have overlooked something so elementary.
That was all the proof I needed – I confirmed the picture as genuine and wrote up my conclusion in a fancy art journal, vouching for its authenticity on technical grounds, without mentioning, of course, my Damascene moment. Given the piece’s subject matter and color tones, it was certainly a very late work and I entitled my article “Vermeer’s Last Painting.” Some of the cognoscenti, nevertheless, demurred at my finding, especially when the dealer and former owners could not be located to corroborate the provenance. But most of the big names stood by me and the painting soon became part of the accepted Vermeer canon.
Those were my halcyon days. My shadow stretched to a boundless horizon. The future, like an enchanted sea, beckoned. The spate of congratulatory letters, my colleagues’ envious and furtive glances, the radio and television interviews, whisperings of a knighthood, and a very generous book advance slaked for once my prodigious vanity. Yet what thrilled me then most was the prospect of reconciling with Paul and resuming our friendship. I had never gotten over him.
But Paul evidently had gotten over me, because he never appeared at our celebratory luncheon, nor or at any of the others we scheduled. His excuses became successively more pathetic. Eventually, he stopped returning my messages. I drove myself to distraction trying to figure out what I might have done or said that prompted this inexplicable banishment. It made no sense, especially, when given that night I called to tell him I was going to authenticate the piece, he couldn’t stop thanking me and making all sorts of promises: “I’m eternally indebted to you, you’re a genius, we must get together, it’ll be just like old times, absolutely brilliant, always knew you could do it, when are you free…?”
Perhaps, early on, a suitable apology could have patched up the relationship. Or maybe I should have gone over to his flat, pounded on his door, and demanded an explanation. It’s not that we didn’t have our chances, but Paul’s cold-shouldering left me depressed and embittered. I couldn’t believe our personal history was repeating itself. As upset as I was though, I wasn’t thinking about terminating things permanently. A dream took care of that omission. Because, not long after Paul had tossed me aside, I found myself stranded on a slender rock in the middle of a vast lake. The water’s hue suggested its terrifying depths and I backed away from the edge in dread. Still, its pull was too strong. For a while, I wavered at the precipice, but when I looked down and saw Paul’s face instead of mine, it was then, I knew I would have to kill him.
Voyage to Murder
Maybe it was because I couldn’t get his jeering face out of my mind, or bear the thought that his reflection had usurped mine, or that I had been used and jilted so indifferently. In any event, something vital inside of me broke and I knew the only way it could be fixed was to take Paul’s life by my own hand. But I struggled against myself, because I am not the avenging or blood lusting type. In the end, as a compromise, I determined to kill Paul only if the act itself somehow justified our lives and served a higher esthetic purpose. In other words, driving an axe into the back of his skull or chucking him off a bridge or under a car wasn’t going to cut it. His death had to rise to a work of art or be intimately connected to one. But everything I thought of, all my plots and schemes came to naught or failed to make the grade. And that may have been the end of the story, if those tattooed children hadn’t visited me on the Cambridge-London 3:07 express. They changed everything, because, after had I copied their symbols on the magazine I picked off the floor, I saw not only a suitable way to resolve my dilemma, but do so free of any unwanted complications.
My plan called for acquiring a new identity, a cover story, and an alibi for when I would be traveling under an assumed name. As a first step, I contacted my late mother’s banker in Switzerland. After mentioning to him obliquely what I needed, he gave me the address in Zurich of someone who “knew about these things and didn’t ask too many questions.” I flew to Zurich, got set up in a hotel, checked the address against a map and walked there the next day. A hidden camera near or within that locale’s entrance must have alerted my presence, because the door swung open before I could even knock on it. An elderly man stood in the shadows. He didn’t seem surprised to see me. When I gave him the name of my banker, he instructed me to come back the following day with twenty thousand dollars in cash.
I retrieved the funds and returned the next morning. A teenage girl led me into a dark room and took about ten photographs. Eventually, my “contact” shuffled in and asked directly if I had the money. I handed over the cash: two hundred crisp one hundred dollar bills. He checked each note with a special pen. A concentration camp number stuck out on his forearm and he must have sensed I was staring at it, because without looking up he rasped: “Dachau. I forged for the Germans: identity cards, ration books, currency, and passports, what have you. When your life depends on your work, you gain a certain proficiency, but this is just an old man’s opinion, so I cannot guarantee your satisfaction with my efforts.”
But the passport came out beautifully, so he needn’t have been so hard on himself. I went home and fabricated a life for its bearer, a Mr. James from Ontario. He had read philosophy at Oxford and never went back to Canada. He enjoyed films, golf and crosswords. He consulted for the pharmaceutical industry. His business cards bore an address I appropriated at random from the phone directory. Of course, the most rudimentary check on him would have penetrated the façade, but I wasn’t counting on any one to do any snooping.
Next I immersed myself in the study of toxins and surveyed the top arachnid specialist’s works, especially those from Brazil. When I thought I had sufficient mastery of the subject, I rented a house in some desolate corner of Scotland, explaining to the agent I needed a peaceful spot in order to finish research for a story I was writing – not a complete lie. She found me a crofter so remote even a ghost would have shunned it.
With my alibi seemingly ensconced amongst the heather and lochs, I traveled to Brazil courtesy of Mr. James and called on several of the experts whom I had investigated. I informed them that a company I represented had sent me out to obtain some samples of the venom. They obviously saw through me, because they all declined to help, but one pulled me aside (perhaps as a lark) and confided he knew of “an antiques dealer in Manaus who boasted a world-class collection of spiders. Some of the pharmaceutical companies bought from him directly. He was my best bet.”
I followed the lead and spent a day mucking about the main tourist attraction - the gaudy opera house that some rubber or robber barons had bankrolled when Manaus was making money. The heat was unbearable and I was beginning to think I had made a mistake, when I eventually pushed aside a heavily beaded curtain and stepped into an Aladdin’s den of rubbish. A creaking overhead fan did little to disperse its musty pall. Sweat trailed down the proprietor’s cheeks and waxed into small balls in the folds of his neck. A faint pong of sour milk spiked his breath. At this point I was sure I was the butt of some joke, but he told me, to my surprise, that he “specialized” in what I was seeking. We haggled for a while over the price and I thought he overdid it a bit, as though he had a reputation to protect, but maybe he just saw me for the easy mark I was.
As we struck our bargain, he snorted triumphantly, “Now that we have a deal, you must join me for dinner before you can claim your prize.” So I spent the evening at his house picking the mud out of some fish (reputedly a local delicacy (the fish, not the sod)), seated at an enormous bronze table surrounded by finely meshed cages of spiders. My host suffered from an oral incontinence and subjected me to a monologue regarding the reproductive habits of Amazonian Formicidae. But I only heard, or perhaps imagined, the hum of abdominal industry surrounding us. Through that primeval din, like a creeping shadow, I sensed those eyes, thousands of them, feasting away on me.
After dinner, he bonged a gong and a surly adolescent came out to take away the dishes. The table denuded, he leaned back, pulled out a packet of cigarettes, shoved one into a rhino horn holder, struck a lighter and drew it down slowly. He sensed correctly that I didn’t like him, so he just stared at me with his vacant eyes, sucking away at his fag in silence. Perhaps, he enjoyed keeping me at his leisure, but I’m sure he was fantasizing about putting me in a cage. Finally, he rousted himself and showed me what I traveled so far to claim. An inert, hairy mass, the size of a child’s fist with glittering, golden eyes, aptly dubbed Aureas Horrendus.
“Isn’t she beautiful?” he cooed rhetorically. I didn’t want to lie, so I held my peace. With a sigh, he tut-tutted “I hate to kill her,” but perhaps for five thousand dollars he didn’t mind that much. He waddled over to a fridge, removed an ice bucket and a syringe encased in a steel drum. With a practiced stroke, he plunged the needle into the grotesque’s abdomen and transferred from it an opaque liquid into several vials. These he placed carefully in the ice and wrote down the details of some paper shuffler I had to contact in order to remove them from Brazil. I was admonished to “keep the vials refrigerated at all times or wrapped in ice packs while traveling.” I got the sense he was sorry to see me go.
Applying for permits to remove the poison was out of the question, much too risky, even if I would be signing all the forms under a false name. There was nothing to it. They were going to have to be smuggled out of Brazil and into England. My quandary, though, was that I required a very special object to do this: one that would not just conceal the poison sufficiently, but provide total peace of mind – something talismanic or totemic, something the moment I saw it I would know no customs agent or officer was going to bother inspecting. I spent several days rummaging through all sorts of shops and ruminating on the problem without success, all while those vials lingered in the mini-bar fridge of my hotel room.
One morning though, while riffling through a tourist brochure, I came across the words “Porte Alegre.” Those words referred to the name of a port in southern Brazil and jogged a memory of those children I had dreamt about on the train. My linguist friend had written back to tell me that their tattoos corresponded to a runic script that translated to “Happy Gate” or “Portal of Joy.” Or, in Portuguese, “Porto Alegre.” I packed my bags and took the next plane there.
The taxi dropped me off by harbor and the first hotel I walked into I didn’t walk out of, because it flouted all the old world charm to which I am partial. The concierge recorded Mr. James’s passport details in a leather ledger with an antique fountain pen. I got a real key for my room. Best yet was the lift, a gilded receptacle, a floating carriage reeking of grease, beeswax, and teak. My longing to play with it must have been palpable and the attendant, an aboriginal from northern Brazil, chivalrously showed me how all the gears and levers worked. He was either a poor instructor or made it look easy (or a combination of both), because it took me several days to get the hang of it. His forearms were illustrated with those same tattoos of which I had dreamt, so when he asked me what I was doing in Porte Alegre, I didn’t hesitate to tell him. He told me a flea market would open up just a few blocks away the next day and I would find there what I was seeking.
When I finally saw it, something clicked in my throat, stifled between my larynx and glottis, as I swore it couldn’t be true. This object, which set my hairs on edge and filled me with such an unfamiliar ache, was nothing more than a toy yacht that my father had given to me as a child after one of his business trips. How it had ended up in this filthy souk, beached between several banged-up pots and pans, seemed beyond the realm of possibility. But the truth was I wasn’t really looking at the yacht. I was gazing instead on the months my father and I spent putting it together, since it contained thousands of pieces of wood, all of which required individual assembling. Then, when it was completed, on holiday in Goa, I put it into the sea under some perverse compulsion and watched it float away. I immediately regretted my decision and did my best to retrieve it, but the current was too strong. My father told me not to worry about it. We could always get another. But I could tell he was lying, because he knew I was so devastated. Some hole then opened in our relationship that never closed.
I bought the boat and, as though in a dream, carried it tenderly back to my room. I closed the curtains, took a shower and sprawled out on the bed. A Puccini opera wafted out of some radio and my mind floated with it up into the clouds and through the yeast of the sun – straight to the point where everything that rises must converge. I magnified that point and reconstructed within its compass my yacht’s course, as it left my hands in Goa and swept towards the African littoral, to Zanzibar and Dar es Salaam, Mozambique and Lourenço Marques. I do not remember having any sense of will, but at some stage I joined the frail bark, maneuvering it through the surge and swells of the South Atlantic and around the Cape of Good Hope. At night, fireflies and starlight guided us through the reefs and shoals.
Perhaps I had passed some test, because, near Benin, butterflies swarmed over the deck and covered my arms, head and chest until they formed a second skin. Their wings carried the scent of the ocean’s dew or “rosemary” (as it is vulgarly called), cracked thyme and lavender. Together, we tracked north on the Benguela to the Canary Islands, where those lepidopterans taught me their language and songs, how the winds and currents flow, of the affinity between fish scales and corals, conches and brachiopods, and of the many uncharted caverns that lead to a secret sea. But I recall only the sensation of that knowledge, not the specifics. For weeks, we languished in the Sargasso, until they beguiled a trade wind to push us south past the Netherlands Antilles, where we made land and a tattooed child plucked my yacht from the sand and took it home. I don’t know how long I lay there, but I do know that the ancient dictum that says we cannot step into the same river twice was suspended. In its stead I reclaimed some of the misplaced joy of childhood and closed the emotional hole with my father.
When I came to, I turned the yacht over in my hands, straightened some of the frayed cordage, thought a recovered memory beats like a broken wing through the mind, while I removed the center mast and took out the paper curled up inside it with a tweezers. The script was faded, but still legible. On it, I had written mine and my father’s name and the date we had completed the yacht. My father and I were not emotional or demonstrative types. This note was the closest I had come to telling him I loved him. The next day, I went to a hobby shop, bought a similar toy yacht and repacked mine in its box.
By now, I was beginning to sense the hand of something greater than myself accompanying me, and not just because my yacht’s hull was the perfect shape to hold three vials surrounded by an ice pack; or because the customs officer didn’t even look at me as I headed through the gate; or even because, when I got home, lying on top of the post was an invitation from Paul to attend his birthday party the following week. Perhaps, it was because, on the bottom of the invite, Paul had made a special plea for me to come, saying he would like to speak to me alone after the guests had left.
The Birthday Gift
The sensation that some unseen force or agent was conspiring with me, clearing the obstacles, wanting Paul dead as badly as I did, was like some terrible itch I couldn’t stop scratching. Even though less than a week remained to prepare for Paul’s party, something suggested that this “force” or “thing” was tied to the objects I had picked up since my dream on the train. So I wiped my desk off and laid them out:
a) “Revenir” (the name of my toy yacht) b) Mr. James’s passport and business cards c) Copy of a rental agreement for cottage in Scotland d) Ticket to Manaus’s opera house e) Article on Aureas Horrendus super-inscribed with runic script taken from dream of tattooed children f) Tourist brochure of Porte Alegre g) Three vials of poison h) Map indicating Revenir’s journey
Then I jotted down some of the intangibles: memories from my dreams, the lift attendant’s tattoos, the variegated flecks of paint on Vermeer’s fingers, the concentration camp number on the Swiss forger’s forearm, bits of conversation, anything that could expose the hidden logic that bound these thoughts and objects not just to themselves but to me as well. Only when I got to the last item, the map that traced Revenir’s journey from India to Brazil, did I make a connection.
In the approximate spot where I had joined my yacht – near Cape point – I marked an “X.” I noted that the journey from Goa to the X resembled the letter “S” and that its mirror image appeared in the voyage from the X to the coast of Brazil. Superimposed, these shapes suggested an elongated figure eight. Or, to my bias-confirming eye, the body of a butterfly with its wings formed by the flight my mind took – before I physically joined Revenir – as I lay on that hotel bed in Porte Alegre. Fanciful, yes, but at the time it reinforced the special nature of my quest, even if I did not grasp yet fully who or what was behind it.
Given there was more pressing work to be done, I put the inquiry aside, trusting the solution would be revealed in an unguarded moment, through a dream, or within the flickering depths of some stranger’s eyes. In the meantime, from Paul’s height and approximate weight, I determined the dose that would kill him as painlessly as possible. I practiced my aim and stroke by repeatedly sticking a syringe into the neck of a manikin. Lastly, to make sure I hadn’t been sold snake oil or some other substitute, I impregnated some pieces of cheese with a few drops from one of the vials and scattered them in an alley near my flat. Several stricken rodents lying there the next morning demonstrated conclusively the spider enthusiast’s bona fides.
Paul had never married and his party was well attended by that same crowd he had labored so hard to break into at university, as I recognized plenty of familiar, if aged, faces. None of them remembered me, which was just as well, since I wasn’t there to socialize. Early on, I slipped into the kitchen and secreted the syringe behind the butter dish in the fridge. To pass the time, I looked over Paul’s art collection and glimpsed the Vermeer through the open door of his study. It was reassuring to know it was in situ, but I had never really doubted it wouldn’t be. Around eleven, the lights were dimmed and the birthday cake trundled into the living room. As Paul blew out the candles, I thought with little satisfaction that whatever he was wishing for wasn’t likely to come true. Then the caterers started to pack up and I went back to the kitchen to retrieve my syringe. When the last guest straggled out, Paul conveniently invited me to the study for a cognac and cigar. He was fidgeting and snapped, “Here’s the thing. I wrote you a letter, but thought twice about it. Decided better to tell you in person. What I mean is, fuck, where’s my whisky?”
Perhaps, I should have listened to him, given him more time, but I’m not sure it would have made any difference. My attention was too riveted to the painting, searching for the spot that Vermeer had neglected. When I located it, I removed the syringe and jammed it into Paul’s neck. My sangfroid was exquisite. My courage needed no screwing to its sticking place. The universe trod with me. Outside, the bells tolled or knelled twelve. The moon dropped its foam on the plants below. I felt the carapace of my old life crack open; the wings of my new one stir.
After several seconds, I withdrew the needle and caught the blood on its tip with a teaspoon. It was arterial, rich and dark, like a plum’s skin. Perfect. Paul was gasping and gripping the desk for support. The poison induced an almost immediate paralysis of the central nervous system, so I wasn’t worried about him doing anything to disrupt my plans. I had coated the teaspoon with a coagulant and set it down on a side table to give the blood a moment to thicken. When I judged the viscosity right, I took out a thin paintbrush, dipped it into the spoon and dabbed the solution onto the painting. Then I glissaded around Paul’s study, all over his antique Persians, Venetians and Samarkands, admiring my handiwork from various angles and distances. And to not leave Paul in the dark about what was going on (even if he was half-dead), I apprised him that his painting “For reasons not well understood, had been rendered incomplete and unfinished by Vermeer.”
“The funny thing is” I continued, “You may have spent the rest of your life blissfully unaware of this flaw, if you hadn’t thrown me into a netherworld or limbo from which now only your death, perhaps, better said, the negation of your existence, will allow me to escape.” I tiptoed up to him, cupped his face in between my hands, and lamented, “How sorry I was about that” but I was not to blame, because “I didn’t make the rules.” He recoiled in disgust, as though I were trying to kiss him, but maybe it was just from terror or sheer antipathy. I tightened my grip and pleaded in his ear: “Understand what I have done has nothing to do with vengeance or hatred. It’s very important to me, in fact to both of us, that you know that.” But I doubt he believed me, because my tone must have betrayed some resentment for those times he shut me out of his life, for ruining my sanity, and for what he was forcing me to do. It was my only mistake in an otherwise perfect performance. So I strained the bitterness out of my voice and, with all the gravitas and theatrical prose I could muster (to befit the occasion), related the efforts I had undertaken to ensure his painting would not “just survive his passing, but immortalize him as well.”
“And how was this possible?” I cried out, but was cut off when he tried to tell me something. All he could manage, though, was an agonized croak. His tongue hung slackly out his mouth. Saliva bobbed on his chin. His lips twitched. His end was nigh, so I bounded over to the painting. “Look Paul, look,” I shouted: “See how I have brought, if not the pith of your being or the marrow from your bones, then, at least, the iron from your blood to making good on what Vermeer so singularly failed to do!”
I had more to say in this vein, but his convulsions shut me up for good. I didn’t mind. I had said pretty much what I wanted to. I brought two chairs over and placed them several feet away from the Vermeer. I helped lower Paul down into one and I sat in the other. I clasped his hand while we watched his blood stiffen and unveil a true masterpiece. We were, so to speak, witnessing the final moments of the painting’s creation – of how it should have really appeared. And I thought, quite proudly, I couldn’t have come up with a more unique and original birthday present.
By now, Paul was shaking violently and sweat had drenched his clothes. But just before he died, to reached into his pocket and handed over the letter he had mentioned earlier. His expression was the same strange smile he had given me all those years ago. It was also just like the one I had seen in my dream of Vermeer.
I disposed of the syringe, spoon, and paintbrush and stared unflinchingly for a long time in the first mirror I could find. I felt immaculate, cleansed and reborn. When I read Paul’s letter the next morning my universe imploded. While his missive was an offer at reconciliation, it unwittingly concealed a scorpion’s tail whose sting was Paul’s confession that he had forged the Vermeer. As its barb pierced my consciousness, I gripped my chair to keep from falling down and stared out my living room window trying to come to terms with the wreckage of my new life. I have no idea what I saw, but I’m sure the sky was a robin’s egg blue, dotted with cream-tinctured clouds, because it was dark outside when I realized or “remembered” what the man in Paul’s painting had done and what that letter he held so tightly had told him. I watched helplessly over and over as my re-invented (not even one day old) self dissolved into nothing and howled out to Paul and to the jesting fates “Why? Why? Why?” even though I had surmised the answer.
Long story short, Paul had over-extended himself; the property market collapsed; the banks went after him. He had less than a year to find additional revenue before they started foreclosing. So when he read about my exposé of various Vermeer forgeries, he thought it would be “a really good laugh” to pull one over me (“Mr. Vermeer himself”), after which he could use the painting as collateral to borrow fresh funds. He spent six months blowing his remaining capital on third-rate seventeenth-century Flemish and Dutch pieces, leaching the paint off them, and conjuring his masterpiece. Then he went to Antwerp, dredged out of some hole the dealer and family I later interviewed, paid them off, and told them what to tell me – explaining the whole thing as a practical joke on an old friend. He had never really expected the ruse to succeed and was pleasantly shocked when it did. But he was also (as if it were any consolation) overcome soon after with shame and embarrassment, which was why he had resisted seeing me for so long.
I spent weeks trying to accept the idea that I had been chasing an illusion, not to mention that I had killed someone in service of it. My desire to be punished was so overwhelming that I confessed my crime to the authorities. They weren’t too interested. Perhaps, they were inured to the occasional nutter that copped to some imaginary felony. Or maybe they just didn’t like some one else doing their job for them. So I was fobbed-off on some barely post-pubescent, downy cheeks sprouting their first irregular tufts of manhood, who slipped me a copy of Paul’s post-mortem. It was unequivocal, left no room for doubt: Mr. Mason had died of a heart attack: an “acute myocardial infarction” in coroner-speak. Case closed.
Paul’s will left all his art to the Tate Museum. The Vermeer hangs in one of the prominent sections and always draws a crowd. I understand now that if it is a forgery, it is only one in the most literal sense of the word. Everything else about it is genuine. Regarding my dreams, I realize (belatedly, of course) they hijacked me and played me, like any run-of-the-mill parasite worming its way through and, eventually, gaining control over its host. Given what they made me do, it’s not much comfort to learn that they all along were my “shadow helpers”, not fancies or figments of my imagination. As for their motives, I can only speculate they decided that Vermeer’s last painting should not have been lost to the world and they used Paul and me to restore it.
But whether you think what I claim is absurd or fantastical, that dreams can have their own volition and act independently, is of no consequence. I know what I say is true for the most personal and simplest of reasons: ever since Paul perished, I have never had another dream. And though it almost kills me to admit it, I really miss them.
David Luntz is a new writer and published one story before in Euphony Journal. This is his second story.