People from another time come out at night.
|I realized the paintings were alive when one night, I went back to the gallery to get the ring. It was the night I proposed to Miranda. I still have the ring, but the one to keep it safe for me ever since is Martin. And tonight I need it back.
I hesitate on the door's threshold and tune in. The gallery, all its six rooms, is submerged in darkness, but stillness is not what I hear. Laughter, the clinking of glasses, and a cacophony of rugged, drunken voices echo from somewhere in the back. Swirls of cigarette smoke stream toward me, and as the stench of spilled beer tickles my nose I wonder how come the smoke alarm didn't go off.
I flip the switch, and a fluorescent glow fills the large, empty front room of my gallery. To my left, it's the rococo wall with paintings from Watteau, Boucher and Goya. The paintings represent hills and wheat fields, buildings, and a horse. The people in them, however, are missing. On the right, hanging on a false wall is Millet's composition from 1857, titled THE GLEANERS. But just like the others, the canvas that should display three peasant women gleaning a field of stray stalks of wheat is now empty. The women are nowhere in sight.
From the back, I hear music, someone playing an instrument. I glance at the place where Pablo Picasso's guitar should stand, and a shiver runs across my chest. The guitar is missing. Close to the empty stand is a bronze sculpture belonging to a Chinese artist named Luo Li Rong. It's a woman standing. Rushing, I pass by, but I have to stop for a moment when she turns her metallic head toward me and says, "Could you please turn up the heat? It's so cold in here." She's right. It is cold for a night at the beginning of September. I ask her about Martin, and she directs me to the rooms in the back, but not before congratulating me.
On the long hallway, from which a handful of brick-walled rooms sprout off in all directions like the branches of a Japanese maple tree, I meet Van Gogh. This version of him has both ears. I had to sell the one with the cut-off ear, as the two were arguing all the time. Tonight he's not alone, but with Lilith, who John Collier had painted in 1889.
When I tell them why I'm here, Van Gogh winks at me complicit. He knows about Valentina. Lilith knows about her too, and she tells me, whispering, that Martin had a fight with Mona Lisa and she broke with him again.
I see no point in searching for Martin anymore. He could hide anywhere, as hurt as he is now, but more than ever, my time is running out. His painting is my only hope. I turn left and enter the third room, where the French Classicists await.
Martin is not his real name. Nobody knows his real name. He was painted in 1854 by Ernest Meissonier in a tableau called A MAN IN BLACK SMOKING A PIPE, a canvas showing a young man sitting at a table with a glass of cider in front of him and smoking a pipe.
The painting is there, the glass of cider too, but not Martin. Like every one of my tenants tonight, he escaped the limitations of his world, and against any common sense, he joined mine. But something glitters from behind the half-empty translucent glass. I get closer and recognize the shape, the stone. The ring that Miranda didn't want is there, frozen in time, waiting. I stretch my hand; inside the painting, my skin takes on the buttery glow of a 19th-century drawn character, and fetch the ring. When I retrieve my hand, I knock down the glass, and the cider spills out on the table. A spicy flavor of apple and cinnamon surrounds me.
Holding the ring, I rush out of the room, but before leaving the gallery, I stop again on the front door's threshold. Behind the veil of darkness that has seized the place again, the music, the voices, all fade away.
It's an early September morning, the streets are cold and empty, and somehow, I feel empty too.