When the mountains grow cold and dark around my Mexican city, when night pours into this urban canyon and the wind begins to shake the tall small-paned windows of my house, deep down I feel there is something wrong, and I cannot sleep. This happened a few nights ago, and so I edged away from my sweet wife, bundled up in my warmest coat, and shuffled into my studio to paint.
I had been working for several sessions with a young model, slender and lovely, with urraca – black hair, and mouth tissue – a kind of pout – which stood away from her upper teeth and mandible.
I sat for some time sipping a hot coffee substitute of ground and roasted European grains, grown on Polish fields just downwind from Chernobyl, staring at the painting on the canvas, and pondering the difficulty of catching the essence of Mariana in Venetian Red, Raw Sienna, Cobalt Blue, and Flake White Replacement. Catch her youthful contours, her intelligence, the dark eyes, the downward twists in the corners of her mouth, the lower lip.
The windows rattled, and I was barely able to hear Dawn Upshaw singing Schubert lieder – the words of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Something stirred in the corner where Mariana usually sat. It was Lilus our black cat, I assumed, who ghosts around and irritates me with silent messages that I should restore the nocturnal order of snuggle and endless sleep and return to my place under the goose down, beside my softly breathing spouse.
I glanced again at the corner, at Mariana’s stool. There was a form, but it was larger than a cat and seemed to grow as I squinted through my sheepdog eyebrows. I turned down Mr. Schubert and looked again.
Apparently, someone had entered the room without me noticing.
“I didn’t see you enter,” I said, to my love.
“Guten Morgen,” said my visitor, in a voice of undetermined gender and, I suspect, from a hemisphere further east. “Noto que no puedethh dormir,” he said, in lisped Castilian, perhaps something older, less distinct or known. “Waz wirret dir?” he continued , mocking me with Wolfram’s medieval lingo, suggesting nether things, the prostate, the cusp of matters septuagenarian.
I cleared my throat. “Well, which will it be? German or Spanish? What century shall we settle on? What, modern languages out and doggerel in? Plus, uninvited? Whatever happened to introductions? Speak now or has the cat got your tongue?”
“I am your neighbor,” he exclaimed. “Dein Nachbar, vecino, fellow painter – pintor, Mahler, specializing, like you, in the faces of women too young for you. Pretty damsels.” He sneered a grin.
The wind howled, the windows rattled. I took a sip of my un-coffeed drink, now grown cold. I thought a bit and assessed my foe. “Insolent as well as trapped in babble,” I said, “I did not ask for your advice, you know. And it’s not my way to consort with rabble.”
He waved a dandy’s hand across my canvas. “There’s something missing, a je ne thais quoi. Like playing Mozart out of tune. The clarinet pure, the strings verstimmt, a quintet wrecked upon both sharps and flats, the smell of fish, the howl of cats.”
“An artist finds his way, solang’ er strebt,” I rebutted, in Knittelvers, a clever reference to Faust, “Prologue in Heaven,” the translation a little free, from the tip of my tongue: Eric Trunz, Hamburg edition, sixth printing, page twenty-three.
“But it takes so long, “ he said, with garlic breath. “There’s no guarantee. Arbeit macht den Brei. Qué sopa amarga! What scat and mess! I can show you a trick, if – behold the model – you lightly press.” And then, with a carny’s wink and a jab of his elbow, he said, “Pay a little attention, and I’ll do the rest.”
Immediately, I saw what he meant. Mariana’s right eyebrow had risen in a question, her lower lip trembled. The eyes followed me when I walked. My mouth hung agoggle, my face agawk.
“You’re not really young anymore,” he said. “Not much time to come at these things. Unlikely you’ll be known, visited by acolytes, let alone shown.”
He wagged his head at the painted cloth. Again I looked. It was better than Corbet, Manet, Morisot, Van Gogh. My head spun. Then Mariana gave a half-sneezed gentle tubercular cough.
“How would that look to your friends in their studios? Their knees would quake. You’d be compared to masterpieces pilfered by King George and Goering. You’d be in the Hermitage, the Louvre, the Frick, and on TV. And the ladies in pearls and tight dresses, you’ll have them stirring. You’d be the rake.”
The wind blew from the sierra. The doors clattered. “Alright, you ass, I admit I’m hooked. Let’s hear your price, your terms. But everyone knows, you consort with the devil and your goose is stewed, your knight gets rooked.”
I saw him smile, I’m not sure why.
“I like your rhyming, the suggestion of purse, not at all like a fly wrapped tight by his own Knittelvers. And as for the price, ” he said. “I give you perfect likeness, something essentially living, except to the touch. That too, if you think you’re a man, as much as such. But being successful and famous I think is what you want. Life is short, die Kunst ist lang. Just sign here.” He pointed to the bottom of the canvas. “You can’t go wrong.”
“I think I would feel better, if we switched back to prose,” I said. “A mistake could be costly, heaven knows. What’s the gimmick? I assume it’s my soul you’re after.”
“Well, right to the point,” he said. “I give you this, you give me laughter.”
“What?” I said. “Say that again. “
“I repeat,” he said. “I make you Rembrandt, then – no laughing thereafter.”
I thought about that, as quick as I could. It was what it was. A laughing matter.
“I don’t think I like it,” I said. “I couldn’t live without being funny.”
“Alright,” he said. “We’ll settle for something more like money.”
“You could take my soul,” I suggested, planning my pin. I had him here, perhaps even bested. For the simple truth is, though I’m in Mexico, I’m not theological. If I don’t have a soul, he really can’t take it. So when he gives me fame, I just fake it.
“Okay,” he said, and began receding again. “The interview’s over. We’ll talk more later. A little less Knittelvers eases the strain. The truth be known, a four-foot rhythm goes against my grain.”
I put down the brush that I’d held all along. I rubbed my eyes. And all that was left in the corner was a furry lump that swished her tail. It was Lilus our Mexican cat, on top of the stool, eyeing me rudely, staring too long.
“Go to bed,” she said, with mental telepathy. “The night grows pale. Forget what he said, and leave it at that. The Devil is nothing compared to a cat. Your place is in bed when everything blows. There are no short cuts to anywhere, as everyone knows. We do what we do, we snuggle together. Better we sleep the long sleep and stick to small things. By that I mean petting, then painting, then aging, love, purring and prose.”
[In the name of pedantry]
Mephistopheles is making an appearance in Mexico. As Goethe’s creation, he remains German, but of course can speak other languages: here, phrases occur in German, Middle High German, Spanish, and once in French.
Guten Morgen – German for Good Morning!
Noto que no puedeth dormir – Phoneticized Castilian Spanish (for puedes), or does the Devil simply lisp? I notice you can’t sleep.
Waz wirret dir? Medieval German: What is your distress? The ethical question Parzival does not put to the ailing Grail King in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s epic “Parzival,” It is unlikely here that the Devil’s concern is one of ethics.
Dein Nachbar, vecino: German, your neighbor; followed by Spanish, (your) neighbor.
pintor, Mahler: The first word is Spanish for painter; the second, German for painter.
Je ne thais quoi – A phrase that has to be said in French, in this case with a lisp (thais for sais): A certain something.
verstimmt: German for out of tune.
solang’ er strebt: a famous line out of Goethe’s Faust: Der Mensch irrt solang’ er strebt: A person errs as long as (s)he strives.”
Knittelvers: German for a type of four-beat line used in Goethe’s Faust.
Arbeit macht den Brei: A cynical echo of “Arbeit macht frei,” the slogan written over the entrance to Auschwitz? Here the final word is Brei, the German word for hot cereal, or simply a mess – suggesting that what this painter is producing isn’t very good.
Qué sopa amarga! Spanish: What a bitter soup!
Sierra: Spanish for mountains.
Die Kunst ist lang: Part of a famous phrase. Das Leben ist kurz, die Kunst ist lang, used by Mephistopheles in Goethe’s Faust: Life is short, art is long. More babble to confuse and ensnare the neophyte.