Oil on canvas, artist unknown
Purchased at Sotheby’s Auction House, New York City, June 20, 2012
Delivered to Rada Zakharov-Severin that same afternoon
The following epigraph, the work of an unknown author, is written in a wavering script on parchment strips glued to the back of the canvas. Two lines are missing:
Flexuous waves of fire began forming a circle in the sky above us.Within minutes, the immensity of their flames grew, eating away at the daylight’s air until their element filled its entirety and daylight was no more. For a moment, this phenomenon was seductive, hiding murderous intent behind tones of rutilant flames of orange and cinnabar.
Do not look into them. Stare, instead, into my eyes and we shall not die alone.
Pain and fear intensified the force of our embrace into a desperate lock. We opened our mouths as if to kiss, but moans of agony escaped instead.
Gods, do not let us suffer in vain.
A blazing light flashed and we were consumed. Now the terror in my heart was drowned out by a great roaring sound and I felt my secret soul leaving my body. But before I could experience this strange, new freedom a voice called out to me from whence I came, beckoning me back, back once more into the realm of time.
Severin Residence at The Sherry Netherland, New York City
A famous socialite by way of marriage to one of America’s wealthiest families, Rada was used to receiving extraordinary gifts on a nearly daily basis; some from her husband as he traveled around the world, and others from acquaintances trying to ease their way into the Severin family’s good graces. As is the case between friends and family alike, etiquette demanded that they be accompanied by a note and name in stylish cursive. So, to receive one signed ‘anonymous,’ especially for such a rare painting, was cause for concern and, truth be told, a little exciting too.
A Renaissance portrait of a young man, which had once given Rada such pleasure, was the unfortunate victim of her boredom. Without another thought she took it down and replaced it with her new gift. While preparing to hang it she found the epigraph on the back of the canvas. The words had a strong effect on her psyche. She felt it was her and her lover in a past life. Now, she hung the painting in her gallery, took a couple steps backwards, and began looking at it altogether differently. Two carbonized human figures, caught tragically in the eruption of a volcano nearly two thousand years ago, clutched one another in love and agony.
With wide blue eyes she stared at the painting with a probing, compassionate intelligence until the vertical ivory stripes of wallpaper behind it began to move. An optical illusion, the lines took on an eerie quality, like a slow moving cortege of cars towards a funeral. Chills raised the hair on her arms. She wished with all her heart that it was not from her husband, but had been carefully chosen and sent by the man she truly loved.
There wasn’t a day that went by that a thought of him didn’t somehow permeate her world. But then again, three decades of an on-again, off-again affair, taught her how to observe these thoughts and then masterfully discard them. As she slid into her fifties, with grace I might add, she learned the art of hatred, pulling on the pain from a broken heart. She kept this pain alive, growing on the outskirts of her soul, like a copse of trees that constantly needed pruning. As she refocused on the horror of the painting, an emotion of loneliness caught her off guard.
She quickly turned to the comfort of her favorite piece of furniture, a Vladimir Kagan serpentine sofa placed perfectly in the center of the room. This space in the apartment was her creation entirely, an external projection of a bizarre heaven, a self-prescribed antidote for her emotional pains and discomfort. Long and rectangular the room was almost empty except for the art hanging on the walls. Illuminated by dim light, alate creatures were caught mid-motion and strangers’ faces were suspended in agony or ecstasy. Storm struck ocean waves had been turned solid by the artist’s brush. In stark contrast, out the window, Fifth Avenue was alive. Humans walked and breathed, filled with longings and fears and hopes and destinations. Life went on. But in Rada’s gallery it was as if time stood still. And the panes of glass were careful to do nothing more than let light pass through, lest they too fall prey to one of her temper driven rages.
She luxuriated in this while listening to Rapture by Mars Lasar. The tune sounded like a haunted music box, a melancholy ballad plucked away on steel-toothed combs. Nonetheless, it soothed her nerves. The moment it stopped, her reverie was broken and her intuition pulled her from the sofa directly to the windows. It was time to fulfill her destiny.
The windows in her gallery, although indifferent to what one may see through them, proved otherwise to be worthy allies. And there, on Fifth Avenue, she had a clear view of her husband walking arm-in-arm with his latest girlfriend. They were happy and she was not.
She looked at the painting again and thought of her lover, “I would give my soul to be locked in an everlasting embrace with him.” Tears welled up in her eyes as she remembered the words in the epigraph “Do not let us suffer in vain!” They echoed through her heart with such power that a spontaneous spell ruptured her marriage vows. She prayed to the gods of love and the gods of destruction, for they are one and the same.
With new-found power the fingers of her right hand began to clench in anger. Ruby and emerald knuckle dusters curled together to create a jewel encrusted fist. Slowly, she placed it over her womb, sensing volcanic power deep within, like the birth pangs of Vesuvius. Rising in her belly, it started as an incipient hatred spiraling upward through her torso, gaining momentum and form as it passed through her heart, swirling faster and faster searching for a target. Her body had become Mother Nature’s vessel. Filled with regret and pain, a crazed, fiery tornado awaited her command. Before one saline drop could escape the rim of her eyes, she opened her fist to place five perfectly manicured fingers on the window. She took a deep breath. Her soul released its revenge with all its force, whirling forth, as she screamed aloud like a banshee, “Destroy everything!”
Moments later, David William Severin, one of the wealthiest men in America and husband of retired prima ballerina, Rada Zakharov-Severin, lay dead of a heart attack in the middle of Fifth Avenue. A crowd gathered around his body.
For the first time in thirty years a joyous thought came to Rada, “I should buy flowers – freshly cut.”
Upon her return, a member of the household staff took the armful of flowers and announced that there was a visitor awaiting her in the gallery. “He brought you this, Madame.” There was a note written on crisp parchment with the missing lines from the epigraph:
Promise me you will find a way back to me. Promise me!
Aut viam inveniam aut faciam
(I will either find a way or make one)