(by Jörn Meyer, April 28th 2017)
I had a bouquet of flowers in one hand, a half-smoked cigarette in the other, and tried with all my might to not let the intimidating appearance of the ancient barn deter me.
Summer still had France in the full force of its grip, my hastily ironed dress shirt clung to my skin, already damp and sticky, and made me shiver despite the heat.
I was here because I had a date. Her name was Minnie, and I met her some days back in the Château d’eau, a cozy café snuggling up to its namesake water tower and acting like a sort of nexus for everyone in our little town who was an artist — or fancied calling themselves one. The Château is usually filled to the brim with painters, sculptors, photographers, writers, poets, actors, and other artists, all making light and content-less conversation while trying to subtly suss out if anyone had any kind of work for them.
It was the first time I saw Minnie there, but she immediately caught my eye, a slender apparition drinking the one black coffee in a sea of Almond Milk Chai Lattes and Skim Frappuccinos, smoking a filterless cigarette while lazily flipping through a leather-bound sketchbook. Where I found the courage to ask if I could introduce myself I will never know, but after a second of looking me up and down, she motioned to the chair opposite her and we spent the best part of the afternoon talking.
Well, when I say “we”, I mean “I”. Minnie made it very clear that she liked to be in control of the flow of conversation at all times. Far from being impolite or giving me any indication she disliked my presence, her answers were short and monosyllabic at best; a tight-lipped, coy smile at worst. Asking her name was a feat of wonder I only accomplished after babbling about myself for a good half hour. She seemed to have an enigmatic, cryptic side to her that complemented her alabaster skin and her unruly mess of thick, raven hair perfectly, and which kept me firmly under her spell for the entirety of our impromptu date.
So you could color me pretty surprised when she suggested that I visit her to “get to know each other a bit, y’know?” My surprise only grew when I recognized the address as that of the old farm of the Montgomiers, because I could have sworn that the farmhouse as well as the derelict barn attached to it where uninhabited and would fall in on themselves any day now. The family of the Montgomiers consisted of a cranky old farmer and his equally crochety wife, who had kept to themselves for their whole life, only showing their face to reluctantly sell some apples or a jar of marmalade to the other townsfolk, after which they would shroud themselves in isolation again.
Before the couple moved into a retirement home, they were the protagonists of more than a few whispered stories and local legends, and I’m pretty sure I even heard a children’s rhyme about them once.
But apparently — that much I could learn from Minnie — the Montgomiers sold their estate for a song, so that’s why my date used the farm as an apartment slash atelier. I put out my cigarette beneath my shoe, took a couple of deep breaths and knocked on the colossal wooden barn door.
I had to exert myself to get the portal open, and immediately broke out in a sweat again while I stepped into the barn and engulfed myself in the air within. It smelled of eternity, of an ancient life in wood and stone. There was also a hint of caustic smell, oil paints or turpentine, no doubt, and also a breath of something else...something sweet? Overripe fruit, maybe?
If the barn gave a ramshackle impression from the outside, the inside seemed like it could cave in on its owner’s whim, burying any unwanted visitor under unrelenting stone and wood. The beams were rotten, the stonework chipped and covered in pungent moss, the amber light of the setting sun broke through numerous holes in the thatch.
“Didn’t think you’d come.”
Minnie stepped out of a small alcove that apparently served as her kitchen. She had switched her dress for blue jeans, a tank-top and an apron, a paint-stained brush tucked behind her ear. She looked mesmerizing.
“Wasn’t sure you’d be here.” The first words out of my mouth and I already wanted to kick myself.
“Well, y’know, I kind of live here. Hello, first of all.” She took a step in my direction, and I almost reached out my hand to shake hers, when she pulled me in a hug. I felt my body tensing, and hesitantly reciprocated. She didn’t wear any perfume, but the fragrance of her skin reminded me of warm summer rain. I had to swallow before I could resume the conversation.
“Am I interrupting something?”
I gestured vaguely towards the brush. “You seem to be busy painting.”
“I was. Light’s starting to get bad anyway. I was just about to pack up.” She shot a glance at the small watch she wore on the inside of her wrist. “You’re early.”
I swear, I almost blushed.
“I brought flowers.”
“That’s not really a reply, but thank you anyways.” She didn’t give any indication on whether she actually liked the flowers I thrust into her hands or not. “Let me put them in some water.”
As she busied herself in the kitchen, I looked around the barn again. It almost had something haunting about it: You could still see it was once used for farming, bales of hay in some nooks, rusty farm equipment in others. But between it all stood — scattered — numerous easels and canvases, like pale cenotaphs of long forgotten times.
Every one of the pictures was covered with rude linen, as if the painting underneath contained something forbidden — every one that is, safe for the one nearest the kitchen.
“Mind if I take a look?”
“I actually do. There’s nothing I hate more than unfinished work.”
Begrudgingly, I peeled my eyes away from the back of the canvas. A voice in my head tried to tell me something about the canvas, but it seemed to speak in a language I didn’t understand.
“What about your finished works?”
“Well, well, aren’t you the inquisitive type.” Minnie came out of the kitchen again, the bouquet of flowers replaced by a bottle of wine and two thin-rimmed glasses. She indicated a small, rickety wooden table. “You hardly even arrived yet. Sit. Have a glass of a wine!”
I looked around for a chair, and, not finding one, sat cross-legged on the floor in front of the table. She joined me and filled two glasses with a rich, crimson wine. I tried to catch a glimpse of the label, but the bottle was bare of any tag.
“So! I take it you’re also an artist.”
“What gave me away?”
“Well, the fact you mingle in the Château was a good indicator. Top that off with your fastidious appearance and that droll shirt you’re wearing...it was either that or desk clerk, and I don’t think a desk clerk would look at me the way you do.”
I could feel the blood rushing to my face. I hadn’t thought my interest in her to be that obvious.
“You’re not a painter, right? Let me guess…writer?”
“Poet, actually. Of sorts.”
“Is that so? Well then.” She raised her glass and gave a smile. “To the arts, I say.”
“To the arts.”
A short while later, Minnie poured the last drops of wine into my glass, and I was wondering if I should stop her. The hefty baritone of the red had gone to my head, and hard — maybe it was the sultriness of the air that still hung in the barn despite the sun having set already. My eyelids felt heavy and tardy, and the barn began to lose its distinct lines, as if the stone was melting around me.
Her presence was almost overwhelming to my intoxicated senses, her slender limbs, her soft skin, the effortlessness of her every motion — I could feel myself falling for her with every minute I sat here. I closed my eyes for a second and tried to breath through the bone-dry air. I could feel my pulse beating in my temples, a dull and forceful echo, a relentless scraping. Pulse, pulse, pulse…
Minnie said something, but it didn’t reach me. With incredible effort, I opened my eyes again and opened my parched mouth to speak. A cigarette, I thought. I needed to smoke.
“I’m sorry, come again?”
My voice was reflected by the barn and came back sounding weird and alien. Surely, it was someone else who spoke. My voice sounded different. I patted my pockets. Where in hell did I put my fucking smokes?
“I asked what the content of your poems might be.” She read my mind, produced a pack of filterless cigarettes and offered me one. I took the time to light it and take a couple of voracious drags before I answered.
“Well you know, well, most of them, most of the poems…”
I slurred and babbled before I even said anything of notice. Heavens, how drunk was I after half a bottle of wine? Did she even touch her glass? I started over.
“Are you familiar with the philosophical concept the Hindus call brahman?”
“Well, in short, the hindus believe that at the very core of our existence, we...we are incarnations of a central, divine soul, existing without beginning or end or a concept of time. Hinduism is a polytheistic religion, but brahman is believed to be even above the…above the Gods. Not in a hierarchy, but...well, you get the idea. So, in my poems, I explore the idea that after our death, we transcend our earthly selves and merge with this tremendous, divine consciousness in a realm of being that would be called Heaven in Christianity.”
Minnie said nothing, took a sip of her wine and fixed me with her emerald eyes. I didn’t know what else to do, so I kept talking.
“I guess you can call this new ‘being’ that we become after death an angel, but obviously not the cute guys with the wings and the...things. Halos. I believe angels to be beings of pure consciousness, without any physical form or body. Unfettered by our bodily desires and emotions, we merge into one all-encompassing, ever-loving being, into God itself.”
I listened to the echoes of my drunken flood of words die off in the cavernous corners of the barn. I drained my glass. I should go home. I’m not making sense. My head...
Minnie sat, her chin propped up in her hands, balancing her glass on one knee, and seemed to ponder what I just said.
Stupid? Silly? Insane?
“…not half bad actually. The idea that our current form is but a precursor to our real existence...certainly interesting.”
“I’d love for you to read my work sometime.” The sentence plummeted from my drunken lips like one long word.
Her eyes held my gaze transfixed as she spoke again, to make sure I was following. “My paintings explore a similar idea. Similar, but different. Human life is negligible, we are on the same page about that. Our true purposes comes after we shed this dull form, consisting of little more than desires and longings and animalistic lust. Even if we accomplish something in this lifetime, even if we make great art, say, write some poems about the angels that live inside of us...it crumbles to dust as soon as we exhale our dying breath. All our toiling, all efforts pale in comparison to the existence we will lead as soon as our mortal coil lies rotting in the ground.”
“So you share my idea after all!”
“No. I do not. You speak of a Heaven of pure consciousness, of interconnectedness between all life, of our destiny to form the true face of God with our divine spark. You see human life as necessary to prepare us for the life beyond, to be tossed aside as soon as we can, but I’m telling you, the exact opposite is true. We should cherish each passing moment of this fleeting existence, because as soon as we pass into the next life, we leave behind the last thing of value - our humanity. As soon as we shed this existence and enter the next, we are left with nothing. And I’ll tell you another thing.”
I helped myself to another one of her cigarettes, clutching it like a drowning person would a lifeline. For some reason, I suddenly felt fear, a gnawing, deeply ingrained terror that was sawing through my thoughts with a rusty blade. As she spoke again, her voice was barely more than a whisper, but yet so deep and all-encompassing that I wasn’t sure if it entered my mind through my ears or through a deeper, much more sensible organ.
“I know more than you. I have more than a fleeting glimpse into the existence that awaits us in the afterlife. Stop writing your poems now, because they explore a fantasy that is not meant for us. Our consciousness won’t ascend into anything even closely resembling Heaven. There is a life after this one, this much is true, but we are nothing more than slaves, subject to suffer and bow to our new sovereign, as soon as we leave our lives behind.”
She was standing now, but I can’t seem to remember seeing her get up. I rubbed my eyelids, trying to come up with something intelligent to say to that.
“Okay, that’s…that’s…certainly another way to, uh, look at it. Okay. So, what do you suggest we do, then?”
With a sudden, violent motion, she ripped the linen from one of her canvases and I stared at the painting with wide eyes.
Her art was a chaotic explosion of sickening, screaming colors, a cacophony of swirling hues, the feeling of vertigo bound to a canvas. It had no discernible contours or forms, every color seemed to be melting and merging into the next, and interspersed between this orgy was a blackness of a depth I never beheld, and I felt this blackness calling me, tearing on the seams of my consciousness. All colors but the ones on the canvas lost intensity and faded, until my field of vision was blurring to nothing more than a riptide of revolting swirls, and I felt my body fall. I fell and fell, down into this abyss of color that seemed to wrench the life from out of my veins, into a maelstrom between this life and the next, and I still fell, for eternity, until I could feel time itself dying and decaying around me.
While still staring at the painting at some plane of existence, I lost all sense of my body, all sense of self, my memories pouring out of my brain and being gusted away by the hurricane of colors, until I was no longer sitting in the barn, but in a vast, barren wasteland. The claustrophobic walls of a gigantic canyon enclosed me on all sides, the top of the walls obscured by a suffocating mist. The dull, sickly light of two suns barely illuminated the landscape, and I felt a sense of all-encompassing desperation permeate every fiber of my being. Wherever I was, whatever this place might be, it was not made for humans to walk.
Was this really happening? Was I really transported into another world by looking at a painting? I couldn’t even remember a time where I didn’t wander this wasteland. I tried to look at my body, to give me something concrete to focus on, to stop the feeling of losing substance, but, curiously, I was unable to do so. All of a sudden, I felt a looming presence, and my heart was shattered into a million shards of jagged fear when I beheld one of Them.
Towering larger than the canyon walls, he stood over me, his body a blasphemy of limbs, hair, teeth and absurd orifices secreting thick, black mucous, but moving — no, dancing — with an impossible grace of divine beauty. His face was an ever-changing, shifting, sickeningly twisting disarrangement of features and forms that filled me with a sense of dread that must have existed before human life formed the first conscious thought.
My face was warped in a soundless scream when he extended a hand, reached through my head and placed a bony, contorted appendage right into my mind, and then he spoke a single word in an alien and hostile language.
I did not understand the word, but as soon as I heard it, I could feel my lifeforce draining from me, as if just hearing it hollowed me out, scraped away my will to live and my humanity, as if the word was enough to make me realize how grossly negligible my existence was, a single gust of wind enough to undo me.
I was disappearing, losing substance, as if my body melted into a world I did not understand, and then He showed me what the word meant, and I awoke.
Violently, my consciousness was forced back into my body, which lay on the ground of the barn, shaken by violent spasms. Giving in to instinct, I contracted my body in a fetal position. I believe I spoke words, but I couldn’t make out the sense in them. My mouth was encrusted in dried vomit and tears were still leaving hot trails on my face when Minnie knelt down next to me.
Her face marred by insanity, a mask of manic ecstasy, her gaze twitching around like an injured bird. She extended a hesitant hand to my face, and I recoiled from her at first, before I surrendered to her touch. The softness of her skin was the only reassuring thing left in this world.
“What did he say to you?”
I started crying again, bawling, without shame. The details of the vision began fading from my mind already, but this one word stood out from my memories like a broken bone. I didn’t want to say it, but I did, or did try to — the word wasn’t meant to be spoken by human tongues, and as I tried to replicate it, I felt like I was not speaking, but shaping it with a part of my mind that I didn’t know existed. I repeated the word to the best of my abilities, and immense shame washed over me. I didn’t want to say it ever again.
Upon hearing the word, Minnie’s face contorted in a display of utter and profound joy. She gave a small, delighted giggle, then bowed down and kissed me on my vomit-encrusted lips.
“Then you know it all.”
She placed my head on her lap and began stroking my hair like you would an injured child, and my shivering slowly started to abate. I found myself falling into her green eyes, the only things that still seemed real to me, like portals to another world.
And I knew she was right.
“Yes. I know it all.”