Here I am, in the half-light, with the lowlifes and the dregs and the bravi—the dirty, the worst—the real part of humanity. I sit here, with my wine, with my brush, with my colours, with my light and my shade. I sit here, shamelessly looking at a young man that, somehow, makes me think of John the Baptist. I want him, but I do not speak to him. And I long to paint him, but I do not—not yet.
It is all a bit theatrical, to tell truth. It bores me sometimes. But it is what I do. And I have been doing this for as long as I can remember. Quick, quick, a strong darkness, a brilliant light, and there it is! Another moment in time, into canvas, into forever.
At least, that is what I hope for.
I am here, with all the shades of the night, fading into red and black and darker, darker blue. My fingers are sharp, in chiaroscuro, in light. Itching for a brawl. I look around. Over there, the master's eyes are sharp too—he fascinates me, this study of the tenebroso, with his darkness, his gritty humanity, his quick, dirty hands like magpies, his black feather, his black heart. I see him. So I paint him.
In this dark and dirty Roman tavern, he sits with a young man—a young man who wears a pink-feathered hat and a frown and a dagger by his side. And, because I cannot save him, I paint him too.
The dark magpie man gestures, almost invisibly, towards a young gentleman approaching the both of them. I see what they see—the looks, the signals, the cards and the possibilities. And I get ready. I get out my colours, the blue and the black and the red and the grey, and all the darker, unnamed shades of lost innocence. I know how this will go.
A game of Primero? the gentleman says. He looks at the cards upon the table with an eagerness that almost makes me feel pity. He is young, yes, and elegant, and his face is open, fresh, unwordly. He has the mouth of an angel, and oh, it is always the same with me—I want to paint him, even though he should not be here.
But he is. And he sits down, and he plays cards with the young man with the feathered hat. And his hands look trusting and soft, as if they wanted to reach out and touch that feather, light and pink in the firelight. They tremble slightly, and the light catches the tender lace at his wrists. My brush catches it too, straight into the canvas, into the dark. I paint him—there is nothing else I can do.
The cards flutter in his hands. At his side, his gold shines, unseen, like a path into ruin, into temptation. And oh, yes—I know how this will go. I know how to tell this story. So I paint.
I paint. The waiting is over. While this moment lasts, my sight is fixed. Here. Nothing I do will show more or less of anything. And nothing I do will change anything. I cannot save him, so I paint. I overhear—I paint. And my brush is sharp. And my eyes are bright in the darkness, always bright, and this is what I see.
Once again, they play the deception tableau. Everyone knows, no one says anything. No one turns away from this, the worst part of life—here, disguised in silk and lace and velvet and feathers and Persian rugs, all here, before our eyes. No one looks away, and neither do I. From my seat at this table, I see the crime. I see everything with my brush, but I do not speak. I paint the scene, I paint them, red-handed—I am an accomplice in this ugly realism, painted into this scene.
Yes, everyone knows—but only I paint it. Only I leave my fingerprints there.
I paint. And the young gentleman lowers his head, almost sweetly, as he prudently guards his hand. He forgets about everything else, because he trusts his cards—he trusts his heart. He thinks that both are invisible. His heart is on tenterhooks, but he thinks that they cannot see.
Oh, poor soul—they see him. I see him—I paint him.
The man with the black feather holds up his fingers, quickly, quickly. And the young man reacts, with a mechanical turn of his wrist, with his hand on his belt—looks and signals and hidden cards, things happening behind backs, and yet another man going to his ruin.
I know how this will go. I paint them. I cannot save them.
But perhaps, they can save themselves.
The pink feather catches the light—and I catch the light too, the colour, the shade. Yes, my fingers are sharp, itching for a brawl. I catch the secret with my brush, I catch it in mid-air. But the boy with the feather does not give away the trick.
No, not until later.
And the money changes hands, and their eyes meet, always in chiaroscuro. The young man with the pink feather closes his hand over the cards, but his hand is empty. And his heart is empty. It is empty, and this is when he says no more. And I paint him—his mouth, parted, quite bewitched, his eyes wide open—ready to move on, to lose his heart over a game of cards. Even if he does not know it yet.
But I know. I work with darkness—and sometimes, I work with light.
Look. Here is something the dark man never saw, his right magpie eye obscured and blocked out, after years and years of this life. Strange and almost sinful and alone, wide-open but blinded by the darkness that holds it in its grip. He never saw it, beneath the young gentleman's black hat, the soft flutter of lashes, the little pink feather, suddenly plucked from the wings of hope, like a gift. No, he never saw it.
But I did. I do. And this is the story I mean to tell—and the one I do not paint.
When they are done for the night, and the master is well into his cups, the young man goes outside. There is a soft rain falling, and he sees the gentleman sitting by the door. He sees the tears drying in his eyes, the rage of lost innocence, the ugliness of life that they have both been a part of, this night.
Yes, he sees the rain and the tears, the broken heart in the gutter. He sees the black hat, faded, defeated. His own has also seen better days, and perhaps that is what turns his heart—his hand. Or perhaps it is the mouth of the angel, lonely, fallen, sad.
Yes, it is. I know—I painted it.
He feels a bit faint, ashamed of himself. He takes off his hat, and he sits next to the young gentleman. And he gives him back his gold, but their hands remain together, lace kissing fingers that are no longer empty. The black hat, the pink feather, the unspoken secret and the pact, the kiss, the whisper under the cover of the night. The quick, feathered hands, the angel mouth, the newborn tenderness, the love, defiant and brave, that is almost too beautiful to paint.
I do not turn away. I see him. He does not pretend to be good. He is not. I would not have painted him otherwise. But he is tired. He is a man who needs no master, not anymore. So he leaves him there, with his drink, his magpie emptiness, his cards. He leaves the trickery and the cheats behind him. Yes, I see him. I know him. He has been holding cards in his hands for as long as he can remember, but never before has he seen his true fortune in them. So he takes only one thing with him—the card that was in his belt. The one with the heart. The one that reminds him that he lost his heart, but he found something else.
The one that I paint.
Yes, I paint. All these images sit before me. I could reach out and pluck them like fruit, and set them down in chiaroscuro. I see them. I see tenderness, but I will not paint it—I will not paint them. No, I paint them as they were, in a moment in time, in light, in colour, in shade. I paint the kiss shared between knowledge and ignorance, between trust and deceit, between sinners and angels. Yes, it is what I do. I catch the secret in mid-air—my fingers are sharp. And my fingers, as I have said before, are itching for a brawl. So I do not paint them now, pink feathers and angel mouths and tender hands brushing, touching. I do not paint a scene of love—not yet. I go back to my wine, my brush, my half-light and my colours. I go back to my young John the Baptist, my light, my shade. Yes, I know how to tell this story. I do not paint them, walking away from the darkness and into the brilliant light. I do not paint them, but there they are—there they are.