It was the last week of summer in post-war Berlin, and people were crowded around a corner table in a dark and hazy nightclub. The place was abuzz with whispers and sharp stares, because sat on the velvet couch, fingers around fat cigars and glasses of free alcohol, were the great Stig and Taras.
Stig was a young Danish man with an obsession for war. He once stole a medal from a decorated, but feeble, soldier from the Great War. He had even explored the black market to get a genuine bow from the Mongol conquest and a pound of raw cotton picked by the slaves of pre-Civil War America. So in the famed Berlin, he wanted nothing less than the head of Adolf Hitler.
Taras, a Ukrainian gambler and art collector, made a bet that he could get Heinrich Himmler’s personal SS armband. Of course, there was a high chance they had removed it before his burial, but that didn’t stop him from scouring all the unmarked graveyards in Lüneburg with a bottle of whiskey.
The first time they met, Taras was on his knees, digging with one hand when he felt a sudden refuge from the sun. He looked up to see a tall blond man, the gold in his hair sparkling in the light. Without question, Stig knelt with him and helped him dig. He thought the sight of a well-dressed man elbow-deep in dirt was too interesting to miss.
“It’ll be faster if you put that bottle down and use both hands,” said Stig in German.
Taras only knew how to say ich verstehe kein Deutsch, but at that moment, he couldn’t recall the phrase. Taras replied in English, and luckily, Stig knew more than enough of the language to hold a decent conversation with the Ukrainian. After digging and talking for hours, they discovered that both had a passion for art and an even deeper passion for Berlin. With Stig’s personal (and illegal) memorabilia, and with Taras’ rare art collection, they could bring to the city an impressive potpourri of history’s finest antiques.
It wasn’t long before they became the city’s most famous art dealers, with a small but ostentatious gallery in the borough of Neukölln, aptly named Stig & Taras. The men were fearless in finding rare artwork. They even found the pipe René Magritte had based his painting on. And that, well, that made them the most talked about people in Berlin.
At the club, a young woman managed to eel through the bodies of sweaty men and glamorous women fawning over Stig and Taras. She slid closer towards them.
“I have a painting that you will love,” she said, raising her voice to steal their attention.
Stig, drunk on expensive vodka, rested his hand on her bare thigh. “And if I hate it, what will you do to me?”
The woman batted her fake eyelashes, thick and long like the dismembered legs of beetles. “Oh,” she whispered, letting her lips graze Stig’s earlobe, “I bet my clothes that you will love it.”
Stig was intrigued and a little aroused. Taras, who was always interested in a wager, took a swig of whiskey and banged the glass on the table, interrupting their moment. “All right, then. Let us see it.”
The woman brought the men into a warehouse near Treptower Park. She unlocked the door and let in the two drunk strangers. With a flick of a switch, the warehouse was brought to life. In front of them were mountains of paintings, haphazardly wrapped in plastic and stacked like a half-finished game of Jenga. Through it, they saw the famous signatures of Goya, Kandinsky, and Vermeer.
Taras snapped out of his drunken stupor and settled into deep anger, his face twisted by the taste of shock. “This—this is not how you treat art! Курва!” He grabbed a painting no bigger than his arm. “Look! This is a Vincent van Gogh!”
The woman ignored the drunken fool, now muttering in slurry Ukrainian, and walked towards the corner of the warehouse. On a dusty table sat an oil painting, frameless, facing upwards. She blew on it to remove the thin layer of dust and dead insects that had made a home on the canvas.
“I brought you here to talk about this painting, not about my collection.”
Stig, who had been far too inebriated to notice the millions of Euros worth of art in front of him, finally spoke up. “Yes, your painting, the one I would love!”
The woman carried the artwork with both hands; it was big enough to hide her body from the breast down. Her heels clicked-clacked on the floor. When she reached Stig, she rested the painting against the wall. “There it is.”
Taras, who was in the middle of cleaning up one of Dali’s work, stood motionless with his eyes towards the canvas.
The painting was of a woman in a cream-coloured dress, standing proudly in her bedroom, her hand resting on her daughter’s blonde head. The child, cherubic and reminiscent of Perronneau’s portrait of a young girl, wore a white nightgown and carried a small oil lamp. Both figures held a gaze that followed you. It was a stare that was almost human; as if they were trapped by the borders of the bare canvas and pleading for a way out.
Taras opened his mouth. “My god!” he cried. “Where did you get that?”
He approached the painting with apprehension, afraid that if he got too close, he would be sucked into it.
“Did you paint this?” asked Stig. He was beside Taras now, kneeling inches away from the painting, his fingers softly grazing the edge of the canvas.
The woman shook her head impatiently. “I don’t make art, I collect it. This was given to me by a friend by some artist. Look, they didn’t even sign the painting.”
Taras swung his head to meet the eyes of the woman. “How much?”
She paused and thought of a number. 10 million Euros seemed reasonable, but might be too high for a painting by a nobody. She was settling on 5 million when Stig stood up and faced her.
“25 million,” he said.
Taras looked up at Stig, then at the woman, then back at Stig. “Are you mad?”
The woman crunched the numbers. 25 million Euros; surely this was a better offer than she could ever dream of making. “25 it is,” she said, extending her hand for a shake.
Stig grabbed her dainty hands and gave it a wet, loud kiss. Taras, who believed Stig to be too drunk to make a financial decision as big as this, walked over to his partner and asked if he could have a word in private. The woman nodded and began wrapping the painting with plastic.
“25 million Euros for some painting?” Taras whispered loudly. Even he wouldn’t fork that much money on a painting by an unknown, and he had once bet his house on a game of poker.
“Trust me,” Stig replied. He put his hand on Taras’ shoulder. “This will be our gallery’s biggest attraction for years to come.”
And he was right. At first, there was a buzz in Berlin’s art scene, and it quickly extended to the whole of Germany. Months later, nearly all of Western Europe had heard about the painting in Stig and Taras’ humble little gallery.
Even Queen Elizabeth herself had come to visit. She came in the empty gallery, which was cordoned off by her royal guards, and went to the second floor. The painting was still frameless (Stig thought that suffocating the girls with a golden frame was inhumane) and was the only artwork that hung on the wall. The Queen tilted her head left, then right, before walking away. The exchange took less than thirty seconds.
Stig and Taras, who had waited downstairs, bowed and asked Her Majesty what she thought of the painting. “Odd,” she replied. “Frighteningly so.”
The men were relieved and satisfied with her answer. The painting seemed to arouse a state of fear in people. It was the diabolus in musica of the art world. Even Stig and Taras never went up to the second floor alone during night time. They felt like they were being watched. They had only looked at the painting a handful of times, only to adjust the canvas if it became crooked. Even then, they wouldn’t look the ladies in the eye.
But there was an old man, homeless in presentation that always showed up earlier than everyone else. First, he came as a guest; just a face in the crowd. He came a second time the very next day and stayed until closing. Then he started coming daily and was always the last to leave. Stig and Taras never asked for his name, but they nicknamed him Watcher. He would stand in front of the painting, eerily upright and unmoving; feet planted firmly on the hardwood floor for hours on end. Stig and Taras would offer him food, and sometimes he would take it. But even as his bit into freshly baked bread, he wouldn’t take his eyes off the painting. Watcher became a familiar face in Stig & Taras, almost as famous as the painting itself. People would poke him and wave their hands in front of his face.
“Is this some sort of performance art?” one guest asked Taras.
“No, he’s just enamored by the artwork,” Taras replied.
The months went by, and the painting’s fame rose steadily. Soon, American tourists began flooding in Stig & Taras. They would storm past the sword of Christopher Columbus, the red headpiece worn by Lorenzo de Medici, and the lost sketches of Diego Velázquez straight to the painting upstairs. They filled the gallery with their booming voices, annoying many Europeans who were used to browsing in relative silence.
But the more people came, the more they stayed. Soon, Watcher wasn’t the only one mesmerized by the painting. Every morning, Watcher and dozens of strangers would walk up to it and stay there until nightfall. They wouldn’t say a single word. Their faces expressionless, dead, bewitched by the painting. Stig and Taras offered them bread at first, but after a few days, they stopped the hospitality, hoping that the visitors would leave out of hunger. They never did.
They became thinner and thinner until Stig and Taras could barely recognize them. They never ate, and the gallery closed too late for them to go out and buy food at a restaurant once they left. Their cheeks became hollow; their eyes buried deep in their sockets. Each day, Stig and Taras would open the door to welcome this army of skeletons into the gallery.
Then, one morning, Stig noticed that Watcher was missing.
“Maybe he decided he had enough of staring at that damn painting,” Taras said.
But Stig wasn’t entirely convinced. Watcher had become a part of the gallery, sort of like an unwelcomed rat they could never get rid of. So Stig took his hat and coat and braved the winter cold in search for Watcher, leaving Taras in charge of the living corpses standing in front of the painting.
After realizing that he had no idea where Watcher lived and how dumb he was to search for a man who meant almost nothing to him, he went to the police station nearby. When he arrived, Stig took off his hat and shook the snow off his coat.
“Morning,” he said in German to the receptionist at the front desk.
“Morning,” she replied without looking up from her magazine.
“Can I speak to one of the officers here?”
“They’re busy,” she said, flipping a page.
“Please, this may be important.”
“Is someone dead?” she asked.
“Well, they’re dealing with someone who is. So unless you’re here to report another dead body, come back in an hour.”
The receptionist surely wasn’t going to let him in, so Stig put his hat back on and stepped into the snow. He walked along the perimeter of the police station and found a translucent glass door that read Polizei printed in block letters. He rattled the doorknob to see if it was locked, and it was. Stig cupped his hands around his face and pressed against the door, trying to make shapes out of the moving blurs. Suddenly, the door swung open and an officer was looking down at Stig, whose hands were still comically around his cheeks.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
Stig quickly composed himself. “Well, I… you see…”
“Spit it out, sir, we don’t have time.”
“There’s a man that’s missing. Well, not really, but he’s always the first one to come into my art gallery, but he’s not in today, and I was wondering if something happened to him.”
The noise in the station halted immediately, each person arrested in what he was doing. The officer’s eyes squinted. “What is your name?”
“Stig. I own Stig & Taras down the street. It’s an art gallery.”
The officer ushered Stig inside and sat him down. The other officers crowded around him.
“Are you from Germany?” one asked.
“I moved here from Denmark a little over year ago to set up the gallery with my partner.”
“This man of yours, what does he look like?” asked one of the officers.
“Old. He used to look pretty good for his age; now he looks horrifyingly emaciated.”
The officers exchanged glances. “And,” one chimed in, “what does he do in your gallery?”
“Nothing. He comes in and goes straight up to look at one of my paintings.”
“Just the one. It’s quite famous. We don’t have a name for it, but people know it’s the painting in our gallery.”
The officers shuffled their feet. There was a chorus of ahs and ums. The officer who had opened the door asked the others what they were all mumbling about.
“Surely you’ve heard of the painting, sir,” said a younger officer.
The officer looked at him quizzically.
“It’s the most famous painting in all of Germany, maybe even Europe,” another added.
The officer shrugged. “I don’t know anything about art.”
Stig, still confused as to why he was being treated like a suspect in a murder case, stood up. “I don’t know what this is all about. I’m here to tell you that I’m worried about one of my guests. That is all. It’s a strange feeling I have.”
The officer picked up an envelope from a desk and pulled out a photograph. He took a quick look before showing it to Stig.
“Is this him?” he asked.
It certainly was. The picture was of Watcher, lying on the ground in a pool of red, half of his face a pulpy mass of flesh and blood. His eyes were open and lifeless, staring up at the sky.
Stig felt his stomach turn. “Yes, it’s him. What happened?”
“He jumped out of a building,” the officer said.
“From the twentieth floor,” said another.
“Do you know why?” asked the officer.
Stig shook his head. “We never spoke. He wasn’t much of a talker.”
The officers looked at one another and politely asked Stig to leave. On his way back to the gallery, Stig felt a chill, and it wasn’t because of the weather.
When Taras saw Stig at the door, he gave him a warm smile but was met with Stig’s deadpan face. Stig explained to him what had happened, and Taras, who was slightly superstitious, immediately asked him to cover up the painting with a cloth, which he did once the gallery closed.
Word spread that the painting was no longer on display, and the dozens of languid and malnourished regulars stopped coming. It was believed that they sold the painting to a private collector. Stig & Taras became just a gallery once more, with people that came by to see only fractions of history, and not the unmarked painting.
And one by one, like human dominoes, the patrons who had frequently visited the painting began to disappear from their homes. It would take the police days to find them, some hanging by their necks in the forest or floating in the Spree River. One death particularly shook Berlin. A woman who was a quasi-famous local news reporter shot herself in the mouth while on the air.
No one had pointed fingers at Stig & Taras because other than the dead’s love for that painting, there was nothing that tied any of them together. There was a teacher, an orthodontist, a student, a Moldovian backpacker, an advertising executive, a bank teller, the list went on. They were separate entities that were somehow only connected in the afterlife.
But in the dark basement of a small gallery in Neukölln, nestled between pipes and wooden slabs, was a painting, a little over half the size of a human body, with a piece of cloth draped over it. And every night, when no one else was around, an increasingly thin Danish man would descend upon the staircase, careful not to make noise. He’d lift up the cloth and stare deeply into artwork, basking in its beauty until the sun rose from the horizon and familiar footsteps thumped above him.