The Tennebris Matrem

The door to the chapel opened, and a tall man-child stepped out. He looked as if he had been dipped in gold dust. His skin, his eyes, his hair all a dusky auric hue. Slim-fitting turquoise slacks clung to long, skinny legs. A plaid vest, white shirt, and turquoise bow-tie completed the ensemble. Lori pounced.

“Ah. Do you work here?”

Oui, Madame. My name is Joseph.” He gave a curt bow. “This is my gallery. Would you like to take a look inside?”

“Sure would. Come on, Chaz.” She brushed past the young man, and Chaz followed her reluctantly into the odd little gallery.

It had none of the charm of the other shops that he and his new bride had visited. A haphazard jumble of portraits of differing sizes and mediums were spread out on long folding tables. Painted canvases set in elaborate frames juxtaposed with prints and lithographs in simple, painted, plastic borders with daguerreotypes stuffed in the corners. Smaller photographs both in black and white and in color were spread along the ledge of the fireplace mantel.

Chaz felt as if he had entered a lunatic’s den rather than an art gallery, and Lori looked crestfallen. He strolled among the tables and absently browsed the images, stirring the piles with his fingertips. From the corner of his eye he watched his wife ready a polite excuse for them to make their exit.

Chaz picked up one of the photos. He glanced at it and threw it back on the pile. Oddly, his breathing grew shallow, and a niggling and fizzy sensation spread at the base of his skull as he snatched up the photo again. It was a black and white, obviously taken several decades ago. Yet the woman in it – the curve of her smile – seemed familiar to Chaz. He dropped the picture and picked up another. He stared at it, trying to rationalize the presence of the woman in each of the photos, whose eyes twinkled on the page, calling to mind laughter like a song that deeply provoked nostalgia and longing. Chaz cast one down to pick up another image of the same alluring dark-skinned woman, effigies set in various eras and places. He moved from table to table, becoming more disoriented as his realized that he and Lori had stumbled into a shrine to the woman he had loved and left to marry the girl at his side.

Against the far wall of the gallery, a golden easel cradled a brazen display of a single, over-sized portrait. Chaz faltered toward it and look upon the dark and ferine woman who stood topless. Her hair, wild and bushy and dark as night, tumbled down past bronze-hued shoulders in coarse ringlets. Sable eyes shimmered like pitch dusted with glitter, looked askance at him with a carnivorous gleam. Her full, dark lips parted in a half smile. Chaz saw there an element of a predator half hidden.

He knew this body. He remembered the softness of her skin and the musky scent of it, laced with vanilla and clove. He had been intimate with every curve and every sinew of the long legs and high round ass, now hidden by a white sarong. His fingertips tingled at the memory of fondling her jutting breasts, their peaks had grown taut breasts, their peaks had grown taut at his touch. He had felt her slickness and her heat. He had tasted the sweet saltiness of her.

Enthralled, Chaz licked his lips involuntarily. It was Zen. But not as he knew her. There was an innocence about his Zen. She nurtured. He felt safe with her. Yet that version of her in that shop, on that easel, was alluring – yes – but that version had the look of a predator.

***

The startling beauty of the portrait haunted Chaz as he sat at the table in the hotel’s cafe. He twisted his wedding band as his mind called on every detail of the woman in the painting. He felt the dull, deep ache of his heart breaking.

Hotel guests trickled into the dining room, and the aroma of bacon and potato gallettes and sweet and savory crepes wafted, enticing. His stomach growled.

Chaz lifted the business card that lay on the table next to his coffee. It was a plain white card.

Just like the tiled sign above the chapel’s door, a single word engraved in small neat letters: Nikaule. He flipped the card and on the back was a Paris phone number. Joseph, the young gallery owner, had slipped it to him while Chaz gaped at the extraordinary portrait. Subtly touching Chaz’s back, the curator commiserated with him about the uncommon beauty of the woman in the portrait.

Chaz had been startled by him, startled by his youth, his gilded skin and something about his eyes. He struggled to remember what about the gallery owner’s eyes that disquieted him so. But what Chaz did recall clearly was the floodgates receding; at some point in that gallery, something broke loose inside him. As if everything he had felt for Zen, every time he had ever touched her came over him like a deluge of sensation. Overwhelmed, dizzy, weak, he stumbled into one of the gallery’s Queen Anne chairs.

The memory made Chaz squirm in his seat. He checked his watch and looked out of the window again for the boy. The rain had begun to come down in sheets outside of the Hôtel Columbe D’Or. At last, the young owner of the gallery walked past the window where Chaz sat. He carried an umbrella but was otherwise unharried by the storm that poured down around him. Chaz watched him disappear into the revolving doors and his heart quickened. He did not know what he was doing or why, but he had to know more about the painting. If he could, he wanted to possess it though he had no earthly idea about where he would put it.

The young man walked into the dining room. His skin, still golden hued, dismissed any thoughts Chaz might have had about the boy’s color being a trick of the light. He wore a white buttoned-down shirt beneath a dark, deep-V cardigan. His jeans were slim fitting, the legs darkened by the rain. Today, he wore a beard. It seemed a scraggly attempt to mask the baby face, which was now creased with concern.

Monsieur, I am sorry to have kept you waiting.” His French accent was thick but intelligible.

Chaz glanced at his watch involuntarily. A fucking hour.

“It’s perfectly okay. I was enjoying the solitude.” Chaz prayed that Lori would not come down and find him here.

“Impossible.” The young man smiled – a half smile. “Not with that angel – she is your wife, no? You are newlyweds?” His rather large Adam’s apple bobbed as spoke.

“Yes,” Chaz said. “I want to thank you for taking the time to come and see me.”

“Indeed. It is my pleasure.”

Joseph extended his hand; Chaz stood and shook it, looking Joseph in the eyes as his father taught him to and was bewildered by what he saw. The irises of Joseph’s eyes shifted along the middle spectral colors as if some living flame within infused them and gave them motion, dancing from hazel to gold to deep russet. Extraordinary. Chaz was unnerved and enthralled at once.

They took their seats at the table. Joseph slipped his wet umbrella underneath the table and, once settled, he offered Chaz a cigarette. Chaz declined with a wave of his hand.

Joseph shrugged and lit his cigarette, “So, you have an interest in an object in my gallery?”

“Yes,” Chaz said. He was not sure how to proceed. He felt uncomfortable looking him in the eyes. He tried to focus on Joseph’s forehead instead. “Your gallery seems quite specific. Who is the woman–”

“Who do you think she is?”

“Well, I don’t know, actually,” Chaz said. “But she does seem familiar.”

“Only familiar? You seemed like you saw a ghost.”

The petite waitress returned to the table. Chaz was certain she would ask Joseph to put out his cigarette.

Instead, she said: “Cafe pour vous, monsieur?

Joseph looked up at her, and when she saw his eyes, she took a step backward and caste her gaze down toward the floor. “Pardonnez-moi, monsieur,” she whispered and turned to leave.

“Hey, hey.” Chaz snapped his fingers. The waitress stopped and turned to look at him. He was going to demand ice for his water. Joseph touched his knee. Chaz pulled away instinctively from such an intimate touch from another man. When Chaz looked at him to protest, Joseph ensnared his gaze. “

"Be nice. Give her a nice tip for her fine service.”

Oui, Monsieur?” the waitress said answering Chaz’s terse summons, eyebrows raised.

Chaz set his glass down and reached in his pocket and pull a hundred euro note from it and handed it to the waitress.

Je vous en prie.” She left the table in haste and with her went Chaz’s memory of their interaction.

Joseph cleared his throat and tried to smooth the coarse waves of his hair on the sides of his head.

“Well,” Chaz resumed. “She is almost the spitting image of a girl I know.”

“Almost?” Joseph cocked his brow to such an exaggerated angle, it would have seemed comical were it not for his eyes, which leveled upon Chaz, flickering and alive, yet devoid of humanity.

“There’s a subtle difference,” Chaz said shifting in his seat away from Joseph.

“I see.” Joseph took a long draw on his cigarette as Chaz spoke. “I think perhaps this was a mistake. I was only curious—”

“Please. You have questions. I would like to assist you. It is not every day that someone shows such interest in my Nikaule.”

“Nikaule?”

Was it the name of the woman in the painting or was it the name of the artist, Chaz wondered.

“It is the name of the woman, of course!”

That was strange, Chaz thought. Before he could put his finger on what was so weird. Joseph said, “Tell me, I am very curious, who does she remind you of?”

“A friend.”

“Someone you have fucked?”

“Hey! Wait a minute, I really—”

“I’m sorry, Monsieur. My struggle with English – it makes me too blunt. But I can tell by the way you reacted to her. Was she a . . . um . . .” Joseph tapped his chin with the long, manicured nail of his index finger, “a lover before your marriage?”

“That’s really none of your fucking business.” Chaz pushed his seat back. He pressed against the armrests as if to rise, but his body would not comply.

He could not leave, nor could he return the aggression Joseph dealt with such guile.

“I am sure this is absolutely none of my business, but we are of the same male species are we not?” Joseph regarded him once again and said, “You would like to buy it? The portrait that held your attention?”

Chaz hesitated, relaxing somewhat. “I think – yes. Yes, I would.”

“And your young bride? Would she not be um . . .” Joseph tapped the table, this time, his nail thudding against tablecloth, “put out by it?”

“Yes, she would. Though I only meant to inquire. It may not be feasible.”

“Monsieur,” Joseph leaned forward. “anything is possible – if you have the desire.”

“And what would it cost?”

The gallery owner said nothing for one interminable moment. The hairs stood up on the back of Chaz’s neck as he fell under Joseph’s raptorial gaze. “The truth is, Chaz, this painting is priceless. It is very old, and the subject is very dear to me.”

“So, it’s not for sale?”

“Honestly, I am still deciding. I’m afraid I am a little sentimental. The thought of giving it up only to be hidden away like some piece of pornography . . . This is why I ask you these questions.” He took a long drag on his cigarette as he studied Chaz. “I can make you a good price if you can make me a promise. You will not hide her. She is too precious to be stowed away someplace where you can peek at her and . . . pleasure yourself.”

“Look, man—”

“You see my dilemma?”

“I do but—”

“Perhaps I have a possible solution.”

“Really?” Chaz was intrigued. What could he possibly suggest?

“Are you on good terms with this girl – this Zenobia?”

Chaz had not told him her name. He was sure of it. Wasn’t he?

“Sure,” Chaz said.

“Forgive me for being somewhat incredulous but you left her to marry your wife, no? I am guessing—”

“We had an understanding.”

“Yet, I sense regret?”

“Yes,” Chaz surprised himself. It was a confession that, until now, he had kept to himself. “I would have stayed with her but she . . . she made me go.”

“Well, I am sure it was for the best,” Joseph said, waving his hand dismissively. “Perhaps you can give this woman, your ex-lover, our painting. I can ship it to her?”

It was a practical solution, and it was an excuse for Chaz to see Zen again outside of work – or maybe even see her from time to time. But Chaz had no address for her. She had always come to him. “There’s no need. You can ship it to my address.”

“There must be someone there to receive it.”

“There will be. But aren’t we getting ahead of ourselves? We haven’t discussed a price.”

“Chaz, because I feel a certain kinship with you, I will make you the best deal possible.”

 

Little, Mack. Progenie (Scions of Darkness Book 1) . Ellysian Press. Kindle Edition.

 

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