09/28/2021

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.