“Anything you need?” asked the clerk.
“These any good?” asked Henry, holding up a package of brushes. I hope he doesn’t think I’m stupid.
“Oh yeah,” said the clerk. “That’s the 24-Piece Jon Ross Artist Paint Brush Set. Remember him? He was that guy on TV. This set has got your professional all-purpose synthetic brushes. Ain’t nothing you can’t paint with these babies.”
“You’re in luck. Everything here at Beale’s Bargain Art Supplies is fifty percent off.”
“How much?” Just answer the freakin’ question.
The clerk picked up a calculator and punched in some numbers. “Ten bucks.”
“Deal. You take plastic?”
Henry fished his card out and tapped it on the card machine. While he waited for the authorization, he said, “Say, I’ve been looking for a small studio to rent. You know of any available?”
“Nah. Hit print or email for your receipt.”
The fewer who have my email, the better. Henry selected ‘print.’ A small slip of paper glided out of the machine.
“Need a bag?” asked the clerk.
“No thanks. Save a tree and all that crap.” Henry picked up his brushes. He turned, nearly running into a small man dressed in a gray, wrinkled suit. Unruly white hair peeked out from under his fedora. “Sorry,” blurted Henry. Where the hell did you come from? Why do idiots have to stand so close?
“Perhaps I can be of help, Mr. Faylen.” said the man with a mild eastern European accent. “My name is Josip Vouk.”
I didn’t ask who you are. Henry smiled, holding up his brushes. “I’m fine. Didn’t see you come up behind me. You okay?” He furrowed his brow. Wait, a minute. “Say, how’d you know my name? Have we met?”
“I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but I heard you ask about a studio. Perhaps I can help.” Vouk pulled a business card from his coat pocket and held it out to Henry. It read: Josip Vouk, Art. Underneath, a handwritten note was scrawled: Anything you need.
Henry wrinkled his brow. What kind of crap is this? “I’m not sure I understand.” He looked at the clerk. “You know this guy?” The clerk shrugged, raising his hands palm up.
Vouk continued. “I maintain a small art gallery in the old Nally factory building on Poydras Street. I also deal in special paints, brushes and canvases—anything you need to create the exceptional,” said Vouk.
“I have no doubt your stuff is exceptional,” said Henry. What the hell is your angle? “However, I can barely afford supplies on sale—starving artist, etcetera, etcetera.”
“I understand,” Vouk said. “I also have a studio which I would be willing to rent at a very reasonable rate. It has nice large windows with a northern exposure. And I will promise not to try to sell you anything.”
Yeah, I bet. Henry shrugged and took Vouk’s card. Time to blow this guy off. “Maybe I’ll come take a look, but mind you, I’m not agreeing to anything.”
Three weeks later, Henry was sitting in his studio above Vouk’s art gallery, staring at a canvas. How the hell did I let him rope me into renting this dump? A few dabs of paint stared back. I’m kidding myself. I’m no artist. Outside, the sun had fallen below the rooftops. The door buzzer rang. He swirled his brush in a jar of water and gently squeezed the excess out on a paper towel. The doorbell rang again. “Hold your horses,” he grumbled. Don’t people understand the principle of privacy? Trudging over to the door, he looked through the peephole. Crap. It was Vouk, looking like a cartoon character with a large head perched on a tiny body. The old man was wearing the same fedora and crumpled gray suit he always wore. He held what appeared to be a large canvas tucked under his arm. Leaning forward, Vouk stared back through the lens with a single, waggling eye. Henry winced. You’re the last person I want to see. He cracked open the door.
“Hello, Henry. I see you are working late this afternoon. I thought I would pay you a visit.”
Henry rubbed his forehead, drawing a deep breath. No, no, no. “I’m kinda busy right now.”
“Yes, of course, but I will only stay a minute. And no attempt to sell you anything as I promised.”
Henry sighed. You’re not going away, are you? “Okay.”
Vouk waited patiently for a few moments before saying, “May I come in?”
“Oh, of course,” said Henry, stepping aside.
Vouk walked over to the canvas, studying it for a moment. “I brought you something.” He leaned the blank canvas against Henry’s easel. Then he swung a large leather satchel from his shoulder and set it on a card table cluttered with painting supplies. A package, wrapped in craft paper and tied with twine, protruded from its side pouch.
Here it comes. Lowering his brows, Henry asked, “What’s all this? You said you wouldn’t try to sell me anything.”
Vouk smiled. “Of course not. These are a few small gifts.”
Gifts always come with strings. I hate strings. Henry shook his head. “Oh, I can’t accept this. It’s way too much.”
“Don’t worry, no strings attached. May I?” Vouk asked. Not waiting for an answer, he took the canvas from the easel and replaced it with the one he brought. “This linen,” he said, caressing its surface, “is the finest quality Belgian flax, made specially for me by an old craftsman in Holland. Such canvases will last hundreds of years. Already primed, it awaits only your imagination.”
Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. “Really, Mr. Vouk, I can’t accept…”
Vouk bowed his head while holding up a hand to halt Henry mid-sentence. “Certainly you can. Please, humor an old man.” He withdrew the packet from the satchel’s side pouch.
“Now, these are cat’s tongue brushes. Not real cat tongues,” Vouk chortled, unwrapping the package carefully. “No, these are made of pure kolinsky red sable from the Tobol River region in Eastern Siberia. And, last but perhaps most important,” he whispered, reaching deep into his satchel, “are the oils, pigments ground by hand in stone and mixed with cold-pressed linseed oil.”
“I mostly do acrylic,” said Henry. I hate oils. They’re too hard to work with.
Vouk stepped back, looking at the canvas he had set aside. “I see you do. Perhaps it is time to try something new. Oh, I almost forgot, I have something else.” Reaching into his satchel, Vouk produced a bottle of liquor and two hobnail tumblers. “Come, let us have a drink. Shall we?” He walked across the room to a futon and sat down. He pushed a layer of magazines on the coffee table aside to make room for the bottle and glasses.
Henry eyed the green bottle. Finally, something I can use. He couldn’t read the foreign language on the faded label, but did detect the faint image of a dragon lurking under the lettering. But, I’m not too keen to drink anything I don’t have a clue about. “I got a couple of cold brews in the fridge,” he offered.
“That is very kind of you, but I would like you to try some of this,” Vouk said, uncorking the bottle and pouring the pale amber liquid. “This is Salamander Brandy. You will not find it on the shelves of local liquor stores in this country. It is privately distilled in parts of Slovenia. This comes from my hometown of Bevoc, located in the Julian Alps. He held out a tumbler.
The scent of lime flowers and anise filled Henry’s nostrils. “Well, maybe one,” he said, joining Vouk on the futon.
Vouk raised his glass. “Za novo življenje—it means: For a new life.”
“Okay then. For a new life.” Or death. Henry took a tenuous sip. The sweet, earthy fluid tingled his mouth and throat. “What’s in this stuff?” he asked, downing the rest.
“Oh many things,” said Vouk. “There is a basic recipe. However, each distiller will add his own special ingredients.”
“I think I’ll have another, if that’s all right.”
“Of course,” said Vouk, pouring another glass. “In my country, we say the best way to get the full experience is to sip it slowly with good conversation.”
They spent the evening with Vouk speaking of his youth in Slovenia, his emigration to America, and painting. Henry listened as he sipped. He barely finished his third glass before falling asleep.
…he found himself in a wooded glen, sitting by a meandering creek, among the sedges, cattails and occasional flowers that lined its shore. Beyond those on either side grew thickets of trees. An iridescent aura enveloped everything—every flower—every leaf—every blade of grass. It even enveloped the ripples of syrupy water flowing over the creek stones. Vibrant globs of yellow sunlight seeped through the treetops, coating each leaf before drooling off to find the next. Everything he saw—the grass, the insects, the birds hovering in an iridescent sky—absolutely everything seemed new and strange. Yet, deep inside, his ever present state of apprehension lurked. For what seemed an eternity, he stayed at the water’s edge, watching the flora and fauna.
Finally, far upstream, a sailboat appeared from the rushes. It was manned by two black salamanders, dappled with yellow spots, as if the globs of sunlight had finally found their destination. Henry watched them tack back and forth, catching the breeze and avoiding the rocks as they sailed toward him. They were singing sea shanties. As they sang, misty green swirls flowed from their mouths and drifted up, evaporating in the sunlight. Soon, the amphibian sailors were close enough for Henry to see tiny iridescent blue orbs emerge from the green mist. They flitted about the glen, finally swarming around his head before bursting like soap bubbles. The salamanders watched Henry with interest for some time before calling out, “And what manner of being are you, for you are surely no salamander…”
Morning light poured in the studio windows, waking Henry from his dreams. He stared at the bottle which Vouk had left, while the remnants of his dream meandered through his mind. Looking up, he saw the white rectangle of canvas Vouk had placed on the easel. He tore across the room and grabbed his palette, brushes, and oils.
Late in the afternoon, Henry collapsed on the futon. Having worked nonstop through the day, he rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands, then assessed the painting. A sylvan setting had materialized on the canvas. A brook bracketed by lush vegetation flowed through the foreground. Dense woods crawled up either side of the canvas and a brilliant blue sky floated overhead. He focused on the composition. Stunned, he realized it was the setting of his dream—down to the last detail except for the salamanders and their boat.
An annoying bzzzz broke Henry’s concentration. Dragging himself off the futon, he trudged to the door and peered through the peephole. Vouk. Not you again. Can’t you leave me in peace? Henry swung the door open.
“I see you have finished painting for the day,” said Vouk. “Perhaps you would let an old man see what you have accomplished?”
A knot grew in Henry’s stomach. Why? Like everyone else, you’ll only criticize me. “I don’t usually let folks see my works in progress.”
“I understand, I just thought…” Vouk let the words trail off with a heavy sigh.
Henry’s stomach remained tight. You won’t give up, will you? “Sure. Come in.” Stepping back, he motioned for Vouk to enter.
Henry’s neck stiffened as Volk made a beeline for the canvas. Now it starts.
Vouk studied it for a long time before saying, “You have made a good start. Tell me, did you leave the salamanders out intentionally?”
“What did you say?”
“It’s just that salamanders like wet or damp environments. It seems reasonable to expect one or two to be found around a creek. But I’m sure you have much more work to do before this work is complete.”
Henry glared at Vouk. I knew it. Nothing I do is ever good enough. “What do you mean by that? I think it’s pretty good as it is.”
“I meant no criticism. What is here is done well, but it is in no way complete. What is it but some rocks and trees? You might as well have gone to the park and snapped a photo. What is here that captures your soul?” Vouk paused. “I will tell you. Nothing… yet. To complete the painting, you must put yourself into it. Not until then will you be finished.”
How dare you say that, you old bastard, even if it is true? I ought to kick your ass out of here. “I’ll admit there may be a few finishing touches needed before it’s done,” Henry growled. “But, I also want it made clear I poured a lot into that painting, and I think it’s pretty damn good as it stands,”
“Ah, I apologize,” Vouk said. “I have upset you. Let me make it up. There is a nice restaurant around the corner. You’ll feel better after eating something. My treat.”
After what you said, do you really think I want to eat with you? “No, I don’t want anything to eat. I’m tired.”
“As you wish. But please, I would like to come back once you complete those finishing touches.”
You’ll come no matter what I say. “Yeah sure. Look, no hard feelings. You prying old bastard. I’m just worn out.”
“Of course, I will…see myself out.” With that, Vouk left.
Henry studied the canvas for a few moments, then grabbed the Salamander Brandy.
…he found himself once again sitting in the glen, everything aglow, listening to the pleasant commotion of the insects and birds. His eyes searched the wooded glen. So intense was his search that he failed to notice the same two salamanders, wearing backpacks and carrying walking sticks, had climbed up on a stone next to him. They were sharing an ornately appointed hookah shisha. One spoke. “I am Bor and my companion is Blaz.” Pale cyan-tinted smoke curlicued from his mouth as he spoke.
Bor’s voice startled Henry. Regaining his composure, he took a calming breath before he asked, “Weren’t you in the sailboat yesterday?”
“Indeed,” said Blaz.
Henry scanned the shore. “Where’s your ship?”
“Yesterday was sailing day,” said Bor, holding out a silver clad flask. “Today we are hiking. Care for a drink?”
“What is it?” asked Henry.
“What else? Salamander Brandy,” said Blaz.
“I don’t know,” said Henry. “I think drinking that stuff is how I got here.”
“Is that a bad thing?” asked Bor.
Henry shrugged and took a sip. A warm sensation swirled around inside his head. It lingered a bit, then passed. “Not bad, but no more. I want to keep my wits about me.”
“Why is that?” asked Blaz.
“Waiting for what?” asked Bor.
“I don’t know for sure, but I know something is coming—something beautiful, yet terrifying. I yearn for it and fear it in the same instant. I have no idea what I’ll do if—no—when it comes, but…” The ground shivered beneath him, interrupting his train of thought. All activity in the glen froze. On the opposite bank, a curtain of fog drifted out from trees. It stopped a few feet from the water’s edge.
“Ahh…, that would be for you,” said Blaz. He and Bor slipped off the rock and disappeared in the rushes taking their hookah shisha with them.
“Cowards,” Henry whispered, taking a raspy breath. His chest tightened.
Everything remained silent and still until a small rift materialized in the fog. Within the rift, glowing tendrils began to coalesce. A face, dazzling and unnerving, took shape. The sight of it made Henry tremble. Struggling to his feet, he tried to move his legs—to run into the safe darkness of the forest—to flee until he was hopelessly lost, completely hidden. However, he remained rooted to the earth. Then, fog welled up around him in a black, suffocating oubliette…
Late in the afternoon, Henry awoke, head reeling. He looked at the canvas, cursing under his breath. Globs of paint smeared on a bit of cloth stared back at him. Damn your smug ass, Vouk! No passion, nothing to touch the soul. That describes me to a tee. Images from his dream crawled through his thoughts. A face in the rift came into focus. Forcing himself over to the canvas, he picked up his pallet and a brush. Please, please let me get this one thing right.
The sun was fading as Henry lay down his palette. Exhausted, he stepped back and eyed the canvas.
“She is quite beautiful.”
Henry’s knees buckled at the sound of Vouk’s voice. Goddamn. He turned around to find Volk behind him. “How the hell did you get in here?”
“I apologize. I came up to check on you and found the door open. You were standing here, so I came in.”
Prying jerk wad. “You could’ve knocked. It’s only polite.”
“Yes, of course, you are correct. But as long as I am here, may I see?”
Don’t play dumb. You’ve already looked. “Yeah, go ahead,” said Henry, stepping aside.
Vouk studied the canvas. “You have made progress, indeed. Her face stirs something within me. Does she do the same for you? No need to answer. The answer is in your painting. Yet, I believe you have more to discover.”
“Everyone’s got an opinion.” Henry rubbed the back of his neck. Jerk. You have no idea what I’m doing.
“Perhaps. None-the-less Henry, you look tired… and lost. Get some rest.”
The last residue of Henry’s angst melted away. It’s no use. “As much as I hate to admit it, maybe you’re right. I am…” His voice trailed off as he picked up the Salamander Brandy. He studied it for a moment. “You know, the salamanders had some of this in a silver flask. I know this ain’t polite, but…” He snickered, then drained the bottle with a single swig.
Vouk smiled. “Those two are indeed tricky fellows.”
How’d he know about them? Forget it. The old bastard is pulling my chain. “You got that right,” said Henry, sagging to the futon. The bottle fell to the floor, rolling to Vouk’s feet. He picked it up and set it on the card table.
“Well, shall I leave you to it?” asked Vouk. Henry, already asleep, didn’t answer.
…he found himself standing at the edge of the creek. Waiting. The gray fogbank loomed at the treeline. The rift cracked open. His pulse raced. A woman stepped out. The sight of her scorched his soul. There was an aura of malevolence about her, yet he was inexorably drawn to her beauty. Long flaxen hair flowed to her waist in a cascade of soft curls. Smoky quartz eyes called to him. Smiling persimmon lips stoked his desire. She remained motionless for the longest time. Then she held her arms out, beckoning him.
Henry, abandoning all his fear, ran headlong into her embrace…
The cop looked at the ripped canvas on the easel. “What would make Faylen punch a hole in his painting?’ He reached out and touched its surface. Drawing his hand back, he studied his finger tips. “You know, he was covered head to toe with this stuff. How could that happen?” He picked up the empty bottle from the card table, examining the label. “Do you know what this is?”
“Oh, that is Salamander Brandy,” said Vouk. “I think Mr. Faylen was fond of it. Perhaps too fond for his own good.”
The cop walked over to the smashed window and looked down at the body sprawled on the sidewalk, surrounded by shards of glass. “Looks like he ran right through it. Why you think he did that?”
“He did seem like a troubled man.”
“Well, I guess I’ve seen all I want. We may ask you to make a formal statement, Mr. Vouk.” “Oh, certainly, officer. Anything you need.”
Paul Stansbury is a lifelong native of Kentucky. He is the author of the four volume Inversion Anthology Series; and Down By the Creek – Ripples and Reflections. His speculative fiction stories have appeared in a number of print anthologies as well as a variety of online publications. Website: http://www.paulstansbury.com
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