A colorful mask covered the upper half of the queen’s face. Diamond-shaped patches extended from left to right, arching into an inverted widow’s peak at the center of her forehead. Swirled gold filigree swept diagonally along her cheeks beneath lushly made-up eyes, black agates capping a cruel chin and thin mouth. Ideal androgyne, mythical image, composite of imagination and dream, I thought, the words coming to me from some mysterious source. Sprawled on the bleachers, the queen arranged the folds of a cloth about her, an ambiguous compromise between mantle and poncho. “Sugar or sweetener?,” she asked, extending a tray with tiny coffee cups.
But let me backtrack, because this is moving a little fast even for me. While walking over, L and I finally caught up. We talked about the book I was meant to be writing (“Of course you can’t put down the truth, but we’ll cook up something amusing”) as well as his first week here. It’s true he staged a few gallery shows in the city, but after only a few days they began to bore him. A certain monotony reigned despite the extravagance, artists trying to give external experiences subjective importance rather than the other way round.
Mock Fabergé eggs were smashed after three and half painstaking hours of creation. Elaborate dinner parties were staged with randomly-drawn cards dictating the order courses were consumed. Firecrackers (most duds, not all) were exploded at sites dangerously proximate to viewers. In under a week L had attended the gamut of the city’s parties, which, despite lasting for hours, left him with a strange sense of emptiness. Unhappily he wandered past naked paint-covered bodies, aquariums in which mandarinfish and sea horses swam, playpits filled with colored balls.
Sleepy and unsatisfied, one night he came back from yet another gallery event. His return had taken him on a long slow journey through the city, moving ghostlike past 24-hour restaurants and kiosks, gas stations and government buildings. Back at his hotel he fell asleep to the sound of rain, a slow steady downpour beginning just after he reached his room and growing steadily in intensity. His dream state began shortly after, vivid images flashing through his mind so immediate he could almost reach out and touch them.
Of the many nocturnal pictures to appear, the one recurring most persistently and clearly was an anorak. Semi-lucid or no, L was immediately sure this was what he wanted most in the world — not any coat but this particular one, made from warm synthetic fiber, its delicate beige color like that of blanched almonds. A strange longing, because he’d never been too concerned with other people’s opinions. His suitcase when he arrived was nearly empty, containing solely three button-downs in differing shades (Cerulean, cobalt, Prussian) of blue. The Alvear’s concierge gave him the up-and-down twice over — his travel clothes were identical to his gym outfit — before handing him the key.
Lack of fashion savvy aside, it’s no surprise coats were on his mind. Jackets were beginning to appear with increasingly frequency. A cold snap had set in and threatening rainclouds were massing. Parkas, blousons, trenches, motorcycle jackets were appearing on every block. But L’s fixation on this coat was unusually specific, and it was this that set him apart.
The night following his dream, his penultimate day in the city, he took himself to a place near his hotel. It was one of those ramshackle shops selling secondhand everything: cameras, ratty armchairs, pulp novels, teak frames with pre-inserted pictures of puppies or couples. A vendor hovered around the items like another browsing customer, and when he finally let out the usual “What I can do for you” L nearly jumped out of his skin.
“I’m in search of a coat,” he stammered, recuperating. The vendor listened to his specifications, gauging him with a professional’s eye. Then he whipped a retractable tape measure from his pocket. With the click of a button a yellow ruler sprang out, rapid as a lizard’s tongue. In a flash chest and shoulder sizes were being taken: “One-hundred-thirty centimeters,” the vendor announced. He dashed to the back and returned with several bundles, which he smoothed with long fingers onto the counter.
Several items vaguely fitting L’s description were in stock. But he saw the one he’d been searching for immediately. A beautiful piece of work, hooded with deep pockets, its color a slightly toasted beige — a replica of his dream anorak. A thinnish stack of peso notes on the counter and it was his.
Exiting he felt a rare sense of peace, multiplied when the woman working a neighboring chipá stand pointed at the coat now sheltering him snugly. The smile with which she accompanied this gesture seemed an acknowledgement — confirmation he was a new and different man and this, his life here, a new and different life. An immense contentment pervaded him, and with a bounce in his step he continued down the Avenida Libertad.
“And then I was kidnapped, just like you,” he said, laughing. An out-of-service school bus pulled up and a double set of doors slammed open. The driver ordered him to board. L looked up, unsure of the source of the voice. Before he knew what was happening, two short men — “Familiar to you now too, I suppose” — were guiding him up the stairs. Such a great degree of subtlety was exercised, however, that a bystander might think the trio a group of friends. The bus roared to life, its orange and white mass barreling down the avenue, all activity behind its large windows hidden by tightly-drawn blue velvet curtains. Slammed into fifth gear, it flew over relatively empty roads, veering off its usual route toward the provinces.
Thrown back into the front row of seats, L watched the urban landscape fly by in a process of continuous dissolve. Buildings spaced out at increasingly wider intervals. “Believe me, I was as bewildered as you, even terrified,” he said. “At the same time, since I was still wearing the anorak, I also felt protected, as if no matter what happened around me within it I could remain quiet and safe.”
Standing beside me now he appeared tranquil enough. So did the queen, whose black eyes examined me with immense intelligence and curiosity, through the cut-away oblong slits of the mask:
“Enjoy your coffee, dear,” she said. “And now let me be frank, since you too are here for a reason. I see no value in beating round the bush. A few years ago a rich uncle died and I came into some money. What would you do if you suddenly had two million pounds at your disposal? I was a graduate student of philosophy studying speculative realism, but for a long time I’d felt unsatisfied. After dropping out I set up this institute with the aim of creating a mythology. In a world in which religion and revolution, nostalgia and utopia are empty of promise, it is necessary to create a locus of belief in the present. The myth would be based on me, the queen, and the artistic and scientific elements we would create. Artificial, yes, but so what? The idea was to model a myth from fragments of my life, giving these grander dimensions.
The way I found people to help was rather clever. I scattered objects once important to me throughout the city, to attract like-minded spirits. Somehow the objects themselves seemed to select those with similar consciousnesses. The people so drawn to elements of my past as to purchase them were worth collecting. During the kidnappings the first reaction was inevitably fear, but without exception they all ultimately preferred to remain here, rather than return to their old lives.
In this way the ingenious minds at our complex began accumulating, and the initial project of a mythical encyclopedia containing a symbolic zodiac got its start. The minds worked so well and so brilliantly, in fact, that it seemed a shame to limit our work. At some point our operations naturally expanded into crime. And that, my love, is where you come in.”
Jessica Sequeira is a writer and translator living in Buenos Aires.
(Jacket sketch by: Moollylooloo; eye sketch by Lea Kierkegaard; rainy street by Mark Moore)