Ed Taylor

Rumplestiltskin

 
Someone here to see you, an intern had said, rais­ing his eye­brows and lift­ing his arms to make a shark mouth, bit­ing.  Now that they’re “interns,” instead of appren­tices, they do what they want—like chil­dren, Giorgio thought, shrug­ging and mov­ing from the bench toward the door sud­den­ly filled with a shad­ow.  Il grande squa­lo bian­co.

A green and white ambu­lance filled the Venetian alley behind the shad­ow, two oth­er thick men stand­ing beside it in dark suits with­out ties.  No siren but the lights still flashed; an odd thing, the mixed sig­nals.  The vehi­cle squat­ted heav­i­ly on its tires:  armored, Giorgio not­ed, his heart beat­ing hard­er for a few sec­onds.  This big man intro­duced him­self, and asked if there was a place to talk.  Giorgio raised his hands and looked around at the big space, shrugged, made a face.  A place more pri­vate, the man said.  Others kept doing what they were doing but fol­lowed the two with their eyes as Giorgio and the big man moved toward the tiny room with a desk, a couch, and a door, Giorgio with his sailor’s wob­ble and the oth­er as if on rails.

 

That meet­ing is why Giorgio now stares out over Abu Dhabi from the wall of win­dows, watch­ing, the night and the lights in it equal­ly vague, unset­tled.  Maybe the tall prick­ing spikes of build­ings made the night rest­less, he thinks, as if talk­ing to one of his grand­chil­dren.  He sighs.

 

In response to Giorgio’s first ques­tion, the big man had said:   I often trav­el by ambu­lance.  It saves time.  The big man had laughed:  I also can lie down when I need to.

The big man con­tin­ued with a slight shrug, his black silk suit shiny and wet look­ing.

I am here in search of true blue.

True blue, Giorgio repeat­ed, frown­ing.

I want a sta­ble, con­sis­tent, indis­putably blue, blue fire­work.  More specif­i­cal­ly, a blue fire­work in the shape of a rose.  A group of acquain­tances and I have made a wager con­cern­ing who will pro­duce one first.  It is a race.  I would like to bet on you.  Are you inter­est­ed in par­tic­i­pat­ing.

Giorgio laughed.  He ges­tured at his office, his apron, using his dirty hands, and shrugged again.

The man smiled.

I will pay you what­ev­er you like.  I will pay it twice.  Once for the work lead­ing up to it, and an equiv­a­lent amount if we win.  This is your chance to—here the man also ges­tured, smil­ing, with one hand—buy new fur­ni­ture.

Giorgio kept his face as still as he could, but:  blue.  It always evad­ed him, and every­one else.  Everyone.

If you agree, there is a con­di­tion.

Which is.

Solitary con­fine­ment, the big man said laugh­ing, and shrugged.  I want your undi­vid­ed atten­tion, and so, no fam­i­ly or friends, no con­tact with the rest of the world, and noth­ing but work until the game is over, one way or anoth­er.

Giorgio frowned, and stood behind the desk.

You are seri­ous.

As the Americans say, seri­ous as a heart attack.  No joke.  True that.  Feel me.  I want total devo­tion for the length of the project, remem­ber­ing, of course, that you’ll be—well, well paid sounds insult­ing­ly unspe­cif­ic.

Giorgio raised his eyebrows—a blue rose.

Yes.

Giorgio watched the big man not mov­ing, the big face smooth, well cared for, healthy, his teeth white, tongue in glimpses pearles­cent like the best veal, the whole pack­age the best of genes and mon­ey.  The eter­nal kinds of pow­er.

You will be com­fort­able, and have every­thing you need, but you will spend your time sole­ly devot­ed to this project.  That’s my require­ment.  In return, I pay you for the incon­ve­nience.  I must regret­ful­ly also say that I will need your answer now and if you say yes, you will leave straight from here to the facil­i­ty I have set up for you.

I can’t do the work in my own stu­dio.

No.  The big man’s flat impas­sive face became even stonier, but in an odd, neu­tral way, sim­ply an effect, chosen—he half smiled:  in order to ensure focus and to con­trol at least most of the pos­si­ble vari­ables, I will require you to work in my space, cer­tain­ly with your input for mod­i­fi­ca­tions, should you agree to the dis­com­fi­ture.

Big word.  Giorgio half-smiled.

The big man laughed, moved each gim­baled shoul­der in an athlete’s absent-mind­ed test­ing and stretch­ing of parts, abstract and auto­mat­ic.  The man wasn’t a shark, but a cat.

Giorgio’s eyes wan­dered from the man to the room and to the win­dow through which his cav­ernous stu­dio was vis­i­ble, those in it lazi­ly mov­ing from sta­tion to sta­tion, work­ing on stan­dard munic­i­pal pro­grams for feast days, hol­i­days, the biggest wed­dings, cor­po­rate par­ties, foot­ball match­es.

I’m afraid I must say no.  Con respet­to, Giorgio added.

The big man slipped a phone from his pock­et, looked down and tapped it, held it out for Giorgio to see.  It was a shot from the foot of Giorgio’s bed, with moon through the win­dow on the two hills of him­self and Giulia.

Scratching his nose and purs­ing his lips, the man aimed his eyes and smiled.  I am not dan­ger­ous.  But—here he raised his chin and pursed his lips—I am per­sis­tent.  And I hate to lose.

 

Giorgio had thought, look­ing back at the big man, that sin might be not some­thing you did, but some­thing that hap­pened to you.

Now Giorgio leans his fore­head against the high cool glass, clos­ing his eyes on the spikes of weird city around and below, stretch­ing to the pewter of the night sea.  Whatever ocean it is.  He’s for­got­ten.  He is old.

He strains to look back into the new dark stu­dio pro­vid­ed by the big man; he might final­ly need to get glass­es.  He’d refused for twen­ty years, see­ing dou­ble unless he squint­ed, rely­ing on mem­o­ry, habit, and cues from oth­ers.  But blur­ry is just blur­ry, no longer tired­ness or bad light or small print.  Smears of col­or are what he sees in his work.  But no blue.

 

Since leav­ing Venice, Giorgio is unsure of the day.    It has been pos­si­bly a week.

The big man’s voice on the phone Giorgio’d been giv­en.  A blue phone.  Giorgio laughed when the han­dler gave him the phone.  The work­space itself was blue in every shade.

Do you know the French artist Yves Klein.  That’s the blue.  I want a Klein blue rose.  That is your quest.  The man’s laugh strained out of the small thing in Giorgio’s palm.  Giorgio thought the man might be drunk.

Yes, I am drunk.  Yves Klein blue. Ciao.

 

Light.  Blue light.  The emit­ters are cop­per com­pounds, plus a chlo­rine pro­duc­er; cop­per ace­toarsen­ite; cop­per chlo­ride.   There’s light pro­duced by heat, and cold light.  Materials and skill, mon­ey, intu­ition, a feel for the finicky, tem­pera­men­tal cop­per, which becomes a gas, which burns too hot or too cold, pale, gone, anoth­er col­or, unsta­ble at high­er tem­per­a­tures.

Weak blue, lilac, pur­ple, pale blue and turned to green.  Purity and purity—any traces of salts or oth­er con­t­a­m­i­nants ruined col­ors.  The purest cop­pers.

            In the milky night out­side the glass, from his high nest, Giorgio watch­es the bright blink­ing reds in the air, all around the city—aircraft warn­ing lights.  He remem­bered the night Giulia and he, still dat­ing, climbed the thick brick vil­la wall of a Venetian busi­ness­man away in Russia or America, accord­ing to the friend who had dis­cov­ered the place.  Giorgio fell in love when he watched the way Giulia took her shoes off and aligned them next to the gar­den wall as if in a clos­et, then lift­ed her sum­mer dress up to climb, to pull and cling to the vines you had to use to scale the stuc­co.  Once in the oth­er side’s dark, they bent under trees and pressed through hedges toward an old pool, a tiled rec­tan­gle with grass at its edge, a place for bathing only in the old way.  They stripped, and Giorgio remem­bered the red flares of her nip­ples in the black and white night, sig­nals to the world.  And he under­stood lip­stick for the first time.

Red was easy, orange and red, yel­low; flame col­ors, chem­i­cal­ly sim­ple.

Giorgio notices the new space smells like com­bat and lunch.  Olive oil and accel­er­ants, emit­ters.  Meat.  He walks from the long glass walls and wan­ders among the work tables, the lit­tle cities of glass and tub­ing, the pots and heat shields, and thinks about what mon­ey can do, and can­not do.  When do they fade, the explo­sions of mon­ey, the pat­terns they burn in walls, faces, names.

Giorgio stands now in front of the black tablet com­put­er with which he’s been pro­vid­ed, but which he has not used since he arrived.  He knows what he needs already, and he can’t do any­thing else on the thing—it is mon­i­tored, and the rules require no dis­trac­tions.  He fig­ures a younger per­son might find a way to send and receive mes­sages, but pos­si­bly not.  Giorgio imag­ines the daunt­ing­ly tal­ent­ed fill every lev­el of the big man’s oper­a­tion or busi­ness or what­ev­er the word was.

Giorgio doesn’t need much sleep any­more, and since he’s been in this place he cat­naps, sleep­ing an hour or two and get­ting up as if sim­ply inter­rupt­ed, con­tin­u­ing a con­ver­sa­tion or a thought.  Controlling the burn is the prob­lem and has been for the mil­len­nia that the Chinese and every­one have wres­tled with blue.

Sapphire, blue­ber­ry, mold, cadav­er.  Blue in the world.  The col­or of water, seren­i­ty, death.  Giorgio has been burn­ing and burn­ing, using things he’d only heard of, dreamed of, and couldn’t before afford.  But noth­ing:  noth­ing.

Pale blue, like ghosts:  a few feet away the shade dis­si­pates into the air.  Giorgio has an assis­tant avail­able, on the floor below this one.  Assistants if nec­es­sary.  Everything he could want:  equip­ment banned for export, reg­u­lat­ed, rare, for mil­i­tary use only.  He has access to com­put­ing pow­er so mas­sive, so hun­gry and hot, the servers are above the Arctic Circle to remain fea­si­bly cool, accord­ing to the big man, who calls once a day.  And it is almost time.

Do you like art, the big man says when Giorgio picks up the phone and says pron­to, as he does each time, an offer­ing of for­mal­i­ty, the main­te­nance of a diplo­mat­ic dis­tance: one thing he can con­trol, although he nev­er thinks this, just does it.

Do you ever think of your work that way, the man asks.

Giorgio clears his throat:  no.

What do you think art is.

Art is pic­tures.

You mean paint­ings.

Yes.

The big man’s large laugh forces itself through the tiny holes of the speak­er, pin­pricks in plas­tic.  Force the world through a sieve because you can.  That’s what we do now.  Bully things. Like chil­dren.

Giorgio feels sunken, pressed down.  Why, he says, are you ask­ing me these ques­tions.  Con respet­to, I need to get back to work.

I am fas­ci­nat­ed by exper­tise.

Giorgio snorts.  It’s just work.  You do it until you get good.  Whatever, play­ing the vio­lin, paint­ing, mak­ing a busi­ness.  Making shoes.

Giorgio shrugs in the dark.  I go to a work place every day, and I work.  I have lunch.  I work.  I go home and have din­ner.  I have a glass of wine.  I go to sleep.  If you are a writer, you sit at a desk and write.

The big man laughs:  that is like a con­cert vio­lin­ist say­ing, to play, you pick up the vio­lin and place it under your chin, then move the bow across the strings.  Is that real­ly the sto­ry.

Giorgio paus­es.   In a way, yes.  It is in the doing.  Everything else is just talk­ing.

The call ends.

 

How does any­one ever do any­thing, Giorgio thinks.  Colorants, Giorgio says in his head, try­ing to think of this as just work.  A job.  Color pro­duc­er, oxy­gen pro­duc­er, binder, fuel.

 

Giorgio wakes:  the phone.  Giorgio’s heart stops, then starts.  Stops, then starts.

Sorry for the sur­prise.  How are things going.

Giorgio can­not decide: lie still and talk, or sit up, which is less humil­i­at­ing.  He decides to not move.

I have no news for you.

Ah.  Do you know the Latin name for cop­per.

No.

Cuprum.  Shortened from Cyprium, which means met­al of Cyprus.  During the Roman era it was prin­ci­pal­ly mined there, and the Roman name is what stuck.  But it has been mined around the world for thou­sands of years.  In most European lan­guages the name is a cog­nate of cop­per.  In Italy you call it rame.  Do you know where that comes from.

No.

It also comes from Latin, from the root aes.  Which meant mon­ey.

Money.

The call ends.

 

Giorgio thinks of alche­my, art from char­coal and mud­dy oxides.  Marble, a dull rock.  But split, there is, maybe, fire.  And fairy tales.  Maybe mag­ic.    Tremotino, save me.  He makes a face.

Where is the fire.  Giorgio’s hands shake as he holds a mea­sur­ing spoon; he uses kitchen tools, which made the big man laugh.  Just don’t tell me you’re super­sti­tious, too, the man said.

Giorgio touch­es wood, makes offer­ings rou­tine­ly and absent­mind­ed­ly:  you nev­er know.  Giorgio remem­bers see­ing tele­vi­sion about Africans who went to mass, then left to make sac­ri­fices and dance in masks, just to make sure.  Giulia watched pro­grams like that.  She liked read­ing about trav­el­ing, liked meet­ing peo­ple, liked par­ties.  He didn’t.  She called him her snail, slow mov­ing and hap­py in his shell.

Something spills.  Giorgio curs­es, soft­ly, pow­der scat­tered over the work­table.  It’s hard­er and hard­er to keep his hands from betray­ing him.  The phone.

Pronto.

In Egypt, there have been two weeks of riot­ing.

I would not know. Why.

Protests, unhap­pi­ness, sec­tar­i­an vio­lence.  Some say out­side agi­ta­tors.  Some even say a mys­te­ri­ous sin­gle per­son is behind it, a for­eign­er.   And today, a coup.  So tonight there is a big cel­e­bra­tion.  The streets are packed.  And there are fires.  The world is watch­ing, cam­eras are every­where.  And over the square, high­er than every­thing, there was a blue rose.  A deep true blue.  A rose.  A rose.  A rose.

 

Giorgio remem­bers trees after rain, dust washed away, blink­ing and glit­ter­ing in sun, slow­ly, the earth speak­ing, every day.

Now, at the edge of his hear­ing he hears, puls­ing like a heart, a siren.  Slowly swelling, the sound, loud­er and loud­er, waves that keep com­ing as they do in the sea, they just keep com­ing.  And nine­ty sto­ries below on the street, as he stands now at the win­dows, he sees an ambu­lance.

I lost.  The big man stares at him, in the ambu­lance, with doors like wings.

Giorgio said, I’m sor­ry.  Inside hol­lowed, then words came.

Where am I going, Giorgio asked.

To meet your wife, the big man said, final­ly.

~

Ed Taylor is the author of the nov­el Theo, the poet­ry col­lec­tion Idiogest, and the chap­book The Rubaiyat of Hazmat. His work is forth­com­ing in St Petersburg Review, Stone Canoe, The Literary Review, and Southern Poetry Review.