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Forest Dark
Author:Nicole Krauss

In the living room Epstein touched a switch, and the lights, wired to an automatic dimmer, came to life, illuminating the burnished gold of two halos on a small panel that hung alone on the east wall. Though he had seen it happen countless times before, he could not watch this effect without feeling a tingle in his scalp. It was the only masterpiece he’d kept, a panel of an altarpiece painted nearly six hundred years ago in Florence. He had not been able to bring himself to give it away. He wished to live with it a little more.

Epstein moved toward them: Mary bent and nearly bodiless in the pale pink folds that fell from her dress, and the angel Gabriel, who might himself be taken for a woman were it not for his colored wings. From the little wooden stool wedged beneath Mary one gathered that she was kneeling, or would be kneeling, if under the dress there were still anything physical left of her—if what was Mary had not already been erased so that she could be filled up with the son of God. Her curved shape was an exact echo of the white arches overhead: already she was something no longer herself. Her long-fingered hands were folded over her flat breast, and on her face was the grave expression of a mature child meeting her difficult, exalted destiny. A few feet away, the angel Gabriel looked lovingly down on her, hand over his heart, as if he, too, felt there the pain of her necessary future. The paint was shot through with cracks, but that only added to the sense of breathlessness, of a great and violent force that strained below the still surface. Only the flat golden discs around their heads were strangely static. Why did they insist on painting halos like that? Why, when they had already discovered how to create the illusion of depth, did they always revert, in this instance alone, to a stubborn flatness? And not just any instance, but the very symbol of what, drawn close to God, becomes suffused with the infinite?

Epstein took the frame down off the wall and carried it under his arm to his bedroom. Last month, a nude by Bonnard had been carried out on her back, and since then the wall opposite his bed had been empty. Now he had the sudden desire to see the small annunciation hang there: to wake to it in the morning, and to look on it last as he drifted off to sleep. But before he could manage to catch the wire on the hook, the phone rang, disturbing the silence. Epstein strode toward the bed, propped the frame against the pillows, and picked up the receiver.

“Jules? It’s Sharon. I’m sorry, but apparently the guy with your coat was feeling ill and went back to his hotel.”

Outside, across the expansive dark, the lights of the West Side glimmered. Epstein sank down on the bed next to the Virgin. He pictured the Palestinian in his coat, kneeling over a toilet.

“I left a message but haven’t gotten through yet,” Sharon continued. “Would it be all right if I waited until tomorrow to go over? Your flight isn’t until nine at night, which leaves plenty of time for me to go first thing in the morning. It’s my sister’s birthday tonight, and there’s a party.”

“Go.” Epstein sighed. “Never mind about this. It can wait.”

“Are you sure? I’ll keep trying by phone.”

But Epstein was not sure; such had been the slow unfurling of self-knowledge these last months, but only now, when his assistant posed the question, did he feel the wing beat of clarity pass overhead. He did not wish to be sure. Had lost his trust in it.

Out in the Blue

The idea of being in two places at once goes back a long way with me. Goes back for as long as I can remember, I should say, since one of my earliest memories is of watching a children’s show on TV, and suddenly spotting myself in the small studio audience. Even now I can call up the sensation of the brown carpet in my parents’ bedroom under my legs, and of craning my neck to see the TV, which seemed to be mounted very high above me, and then the sickening feeling that spread through my stomach as the excitement of seeing myself in that other world gave way to the certain knowledge that I’d never been there. One could say that the sense of self is still porous in young children. That the oceanic feeling persists for some time until the scaffolding is at last removed from the walls we labor to build around ourselves under the command of an innate instinct, however touched by the sadness that comes of knowing we’ll spend the rest of our lives searching for an escape. And yet even today, I have absolutely no doubt about what I saw then. The little girl on the TV had my face exactly, and she wore my red sneakers and striped shirt, but even those could be chalked up to coincidence. What could not is that in her eyes, for the few seconds that the camera came to rest on them, I recognized the feeling of what it was to be me.

It may have been one of the earliest things my brain preserved, but as the years passed, I didn’t think much about it. There was no reason to; I never encountered myself anywhere again. And yet the surprise of what I’d seen must have settled down through me, and as my sense of the world was built up on top of it, it must have alchemized into belief: not that there were two of me, which is the stuff of nightmares, but that I, in my uniqueness, might possibly be inhabiting two separate planes of existence. Or maybe it would be more accurate to look at it from the opposite angle, and call what began to crystalize in me then a sense of doubt—a skepticism toward the reality foisted on me, as it is foisted onto all children, which slowly displaces the other, more supple realities that naturally occur to them. In either case, the possibility of being both here and there was stored substrata along with all my other childish notions, until one autumn afternoon when I came through the door of the house I shared with my husband and our two children, and sensed that I was already there.

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