RULES FOR ENTERING UNSECURED SPACES
I am Ilie Popescu, the third-in-line curator for the museum’s Northern Renaissance collection. This means that if the curator were to die of natural causes, the associate curator to fall terminally ill, and the assistant curator to disappear while on vacation in the Crimea, I would be called upon to guard the East Wing until suitable replacements could be found. This also means that I have plenty of time to imagine ways I might acquire such power—a carpooling accident, a new plague to which I am the only known case of immunity.
I do a great deal of reading in the lower level record room, where I spend most of my time. “Ilie Popescu,” the associate curator is always saying, “you are most useful when not seen.” The assistant curator, forever at his side, concurs. Apparently, none of the museum visitors wants to contemplate the perfection of Van Eyck in the company of a three-foot-tall amputee. Public popularity is largely coincidental. I think that, had I fallen in love with Velazquez instead of Vermeer, I would this very instant be on display with the Spaniard’s many paintings of dwarves. (I lost my left arm—almost everyone who happens to see me is too bashful to ask, but wants to know—on booby-trap duty for Romanian special ops.)
Whenever I am told to go to the record room, I am hot under the collar, but the truth is it suits me well. Lined in slate and lit by simple bulbs rather than chandeliers, it is the one place in the museum that has escaped the grandiose renovations of the last two decades. Everything else has been rebuilt to impress. The artwork hangs sometimes as high as ten or fifteen feet from the floor, so that even tall guests must tilt their heads far backward to view it, a trick that can only be done for a minute or two before the loss of blood from the brain causes dizziness. Such placement, it has occurred to me, may be intended to create this effect. Because much of our collection comes from apses and altarpieces, my superiors feel that we too are in the business of the revelatory experience.
Beneath the adoring feet of our guests, I sit among filing cabinets that house the notes, certificates of purchase, and other paraphernalia that have accumulated around our works over the course of centuries. About half the time, I hunch over tracts from these files, translating and logging such non-essential but interesting sidebar information as the romantic accounts of one of the Dukes of Burgundy smuggled into the commission for this or that painting. The other half the time I do with what I please. The ceiling in the record room is only six feet high, so almost no one beside myself ever goes there.
Until recently, “what I pleased” was to write and recite my poetry. I strive to strike my listeners quickly with lines like bursting flashbulbs, leaving them a bit mystified, but I hope also a bit changed. “You cling like papaya beneath my fingernails,” reads one. I’ve never felt papaya in my nails; I’ve never actually had papaya at all, but I live my life among works by artists who seldom experienced their subjects. The attempt to conjure the residue of fruit seems modest in comparison to the attempt to evoke Christ.
I have had exactly one listener, critic, and fan for the last ten years. Eugen, our wing’s afternoon security guard, looks like Alfred Hitchcock. He makes a point of stationing himself directly above a floor vent for most of his shift so he can hear me. We have worked out a system of foot taps and shuffles he can use to let me know what he thinks. One tap means “good”; two means “excellent”; three means “for God’s sake don’t stop; this is your masterpiece.” On the other hand, if he scrapes his foot once, it means “reconsider that”; if he scrapes it back and forth, it means “set it aside and come back to it later”; if he scrapes back and forth repeatedly, it means “burn immediately.”
Eugen was out sick yesterday. That’s why it happened. Had Eugen been there, he would have told her in his nasally voice, “No no. It’s only Ilie working on his poetry,” and so nipped this whole thing in the bud. But he wasn’t there.
I don’t often do “religious” poetry. That is, I don’t normally include the usual cast of sinner, saint, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Like I said, I’m a Vermeer man. I try to look for Heaven in the details of a single daily moment, the equivalent of light streaming into a window across the work of a cartographer, for example. Just light—no angel or dove riding its crest. Yesterday I was feeling experimental.
“I am God, Yahweh, the Father,” I said loudly, letting the words echo before continuing. “I have more names than all the objects of the earth in all languages, some unspoken for thousands of years, some never yet spoken. Let me teach you how to call me.” As the last few words died down, I began to feel silly and determined to scrap the experiment. And then words echoed that weren’t mine.
As though from a great distance, the sweetest voice I’ve ever heard sang out, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord.” It was coming through the vent in front of me. The wall above this vent, I knew, held an Annunciation panel from a fifteenth-century altarpiece by an anonymous hand. How could I have been so reckless? Without Eugen to keep bystanders a respectable distance from “the artwork,” anyone could hear me.
I was mentally preparing an apology, but first I had to see this “handmaid” so I’d know whom to apologize to when I went upstairs. I could already imagine the associate curator’s face turning bright red upon learning of my time-wasting poetry. If I added an apology via floor grate, he’d probably turn purple.
I climbed atop the table and walked to the end underneath the grate, trying not to step on any of the records I was supposed to be translating. When I peered through, at first all I could see was light blue cubed by tiny metal squares. Then it—the cloth of a dress—shifted to reveal a kneecap. I have never been a fan of kneecaps. My own strike me as too large, and they were a constant hindrance to navigating tunnels and tripwires when I was in the service. But this kneecap, just inches from my nose, was beautiful. It was rounded rather than knobby, bent in a perfectly fluid arc of alabaster flesh. For the first time in my life, I regretted that my sculpting career ended at age six with a candy dish shaped like a spleen. The knee and its swaddling cloth slid back a bit, disappearing from the edge of the grate, and I just narrowly avoided falling off the side of the table.
I was looking directly into a round face framed in fiery red curls. The young woman’s lips were pursed purple in concentration, and there was a Chicken Pox scar in the shape of a star beside her right nostril. She would have seen me as well, but her eyes were squinched tightly shut in prayer. Otherwise, I’m sure I’d now be the ex-third-in-line curator. I can just hear the associate curator, his voice getting higher with every offense added to the list: “Slacking off, speaking to visitors through the grates, and peeking up their skirts!” He would have hit Mickey Mouse pitch by the time he got to, “Ilie Popescu, you are fired!”
Fearing to draw her attention to the noise, I didn’t move for ten minutes. Eventually she lifted her chin toward the ceiling. I could see the shadows cast by her small earlobes upon her neck, the faint impress where the skin stretched over the underside edges of her jawbone. “I, Sofia, am your servant, Lord. I will do as you command.”
Something eager in her voice dissolved my half-formed apology. She was so pretty. And she was offering herself to me and me only. Well, sort of. I crept quietly out of sight. “Return this time tomorrow, Sofia,” I called in what I hoped my most godly voice, “and you will know my love.”
Today Eugen is still out sick. Were he here and knew what I was up to, he’d scrape his foot back and forth until it bled or dug a hole through the floor. Translation: “This is the worst idea you’ve ever had.”
I’m half terrified of what will happen if she does return, half paralyzed by the thought that she may not, that I may never hear her voice again, kiss her scar, feel the warmth of her hair against my face as we make love. It would take time to get there, of course, but I can be patient so long as she comes back. Right now, I can’t do the little bit of work that I would normally attempt, but keep peering toward the grate. Even poetry cannot hold my attention for more than a few half-hearted seconds at a time.
My insides are doing acrobatics. If I don’t calm down, I’ll vomit roast beef and beans all over the records from a fourteenth-century Dutch hospice.
I need Sofia. And then there she is.
“Lord, I have returned to learn your wishes.”
I control my voice as best I can. “Welcome, my love. I am with you.”
“Teach me, God,” she prays. “Help me so I can do your miracles. What is your command?”
One of her curls dangles through the grate. It appears darker in the lesser light of the record room, but still shines dully. I climb softly onto the table to get a closer look at it. Sofia has prostrated herself on the floor. Peering up, I see her hands clasped together. Her forehead rests atop her thumbs.
The strand of her hair twists a little just above my face. I reach for it.
We were in the forest outside of —— investigating a weapons cache recently abandoned by a local terrorist group. The initial space was dug into the side of a hill and covered with planks and branches. I went through it quickly and gave the all-clear. We made a catalog of what we found and started packing up the few munitions that were left when someone uncovered an opening about two feet in diameter beneath one of the empty crates at the back.
“Popescu,” my Captain said. “You know what to do. Dalca, Ungur, help him down.”
Cosmin Dalca handed me a flashlight and a small shovel. Petru Ungur slapped me hard on the back. “Don’t be an asshole,” he said, which meant, “don’t go and get yourself killed.”
After a preliminary flashlight investigation revealed no traps waiting on the initial descent, I got on my stomach and let Dalca and Ungur each grab one of my legs. They lifted me so I was hanging upside down and then slowly lowered me into the hole. At its bottom, the tunnel bent into another opening off to the side, leading further under the hill. “Okay, I’ve located another passage heading northwest,” I called up to my comrades. I shone my light down this new route. “Approximately ten feet long. There appears to be a metal hatch at its end. I’m going in.”
The first rule when entering an unsecured space is move slowly. I crawled along the dirt floor of the tunnel, checking the edges all the way around with my light before advancing another little bit, digging gently around any bump I encountered before allowing myself to put pressure on it. Finally, I reached the hatch. “I’m checking the door for wiring on this side,” I called behind me, my voice wavering a bit as it got caught up in the bend. I removed layers of dirt millimeters at a time from around the edges of the door. When I had dug a trench several centimeters deep around the entire surface, I was satisfied that there were no explosives wired to blow on my side of the hatch.
“I’m opening the door.”
I pushed the hatch slowly inward, listening carefully for a click that might give me a half-second’s warning, maybe just enough time to swing the door shut. It opened silently. I turned the flashlight inside and found myself looking into a small cavern lined with piles of assault rifles and pistols.
“I’ve found a second storage area. I’ll prepare to start emptying it.”
Still leaning on the hatch handle, I examined the ground just on the other side of the entrance. Something gleamed in my light a little to the left. It was a small silver crucifix. Without thinking, I reached out my left hand and grabbed it. There was a tiny click.
I ducked my head and began to swing the hatch closed. The force of the blast shut it the rest of the way quicker than I ever could have, before I was able to pull my left arm back.
It was Ungur who crawled in to get me. I remember tears at the corners of his eyes when we reached the surface, and then I blacked out.
One minute you have a space in the world and a purpose, the next you’re not sure what you should be doing. I was once a part of something; men thanked me for saving their lives and one even cried for me. My size was a blessing to them, never a joke. And now I’ve spent more than a decade underground, with no proper place, as much an oddity as the things I translate.
I pull my hand back just as my fingers are about to brush against Sofia’s hair, which I imagine feels soft like corn silk. Her hands, above me, are clasped so tightly her fingertips are bright red. Her eyes are clenched shut, like she’s bracing for a blast.
I climb down from the table and out of sight from the grate. “Sofia.”
“Yes, Lord. Tell me. Tell me how I can be worthy of your love?”
“My dearest, you are already worthy.” The skin on the stump beneath my left shoulder begins to sting a little. “Live your life. It is a miracle. Do not forget this.”
“I promise to remember, Lord.”
“This is the last you will hear from me, but I will be with you. You are loved.”
“Amen,” she says softly. For a few minutes more, the lock of hair remains suspended above the table. Then it disappears, and I can hear Sofia walking away.
I turn my gaze back to the Dutch hospice records. The page that’s open lists the specifics of an altarpiece commissioned for the chapel. I begin to read. It was to feature Saint Sebastian, tied to a post and shot with seven arrows. The halo behind Sebastian’s head and the wounds around the arrow shafts were to be cast fiery red. His expression would be lively and serene.
A heavy rustling sound causes me to look toward the grate. I don’t know that I can take Sofia returning again. I get up to leave, but a voice stops me. It is thick, nasally, familiar.
“Ilie?” Eugen calls. “Are you there?” Something is wrong. His voice is quieter than I’ve ever heard it. “Ilie, I could really use your help.”
I’m still recovering from my fall from divinity. But I head upstairs.
One rule I always follow: when a man’s down, go in after him.
Sean Keck is a Visiting Assistant Professor of English at St. Lawrence University, where he teaches American literature and nature writing. His work has appeared in Concho River Review, Eclipse, The Journal of American Studies, The Mark Twain Annual, Post Road, The Wallace Stevens Journal, and elsewhere.