Authors: Lee Carroll
“No. This was the first medallion I made . . . from this ring.” I held out my hand so he could see the signet ring. “I’ve never reproduced it again.”
The jeweler took my hand in his and held it up to his loupe to see the ring better. His fingers were cold and powdery and he held my hand for what seemed like longer than was necessary. Maybe he was having trouble reading the quote.
“The words are backwards. It says, ‘A rare bird—’ ”
“I know the quote quite well,” he said, dropping my hand abruptly and looking up. “In fact, I’ve seen this insignia before . . . wait . . . I’ll show you.”
Before I could object, the jeweler rose from his stool. He was taller than I’d thought—and more robust. The long loose cardigan he was wearing had disguised his bulk while sitting, but when he stood he had quite a presence. He must have been close to my father’s age—mideighties—but where my father had recently begun to look frail, this man looked powerful. Almost disconcertingly so, as if the cardigan and white hair were a disguise.
He excused himself and disappeared behind the maroon brocade curtain. I took another turn around the shop but there really wasn’t much space to turn around in and wherever I stood those disembodied eyes seemed to follow me. I stared out the fogged window at the rain-slicked street instead. Why was I even waiting? I certainly had no intention of buying anything. Not after the news I’d received this morning.
My father’s lawyer, Charles Chennery, had laid it all out for me in his blunt, Connecticut lockjaw. Five months ago my father had taken out a $2.5 million home equity line of credit from a Wall Street firm against the $4 million value of the Jane Street town house. He’d used it to buy several paintings—
, he’d assured Charles—which had been appraised at $5 million value for resale. But that was before the world financial and art markets had collapsed this autumn. Much of the artwork hadn’t
even sold at auction, and what had, sold for much less than what my father had anticipated. Now even well-collateralized loans were being called in prematurely. (“No one ever reads the fine print,” Chennery had somberly told me when I expressed surprise that investment banks could do that), and with the true value of the town house dropping every day, no creditor was likely to take chances. Indeed, the Wall Street firm was threatening to repossess the house and gallery in thirty days (
by January 11,
I mentally reminded myself) if we couldn’t repay the loan. Chuck Chennery had outlined various ways of restructuring the loan, but none of the options had sounded even remotely feasible. If we restructured the debt, we’d have more time to repay it but at a significantly higher interest rate. We’d owe $50,000 each month. Where would we get that kind of money in this market? And if we sold the gallery to repay the loan, what would we live on? And
would we live? The town house was our home as well as place of business. Just thinking about it made me feel seasick. No wonder I had gotten lost walking here.
“Yes, I was correct, the crest on this is nearly identical to the one on your ring and medallion.” The shop owner’s voice broke into the ever-widening gyre of financial ruin spinning inside my head. “In fact, I believe it might be the
I turned and looked at the object the jeweler had laid atop a blue velvet cloth on the glass counter. It was a shallow silver box about the length and width of my thirteen-inch MacBook, and so tarnished it was hard to make out the etched designs even when I moved closer to it. I was surprised the proprietor of such a fastidiously clean shop would allow the object to remain so tarnished. I peered at the design on the top of the box, looking for the crest he had spoken of, but the decoration on the lid was an abstract pattern of concentric ovals.
“The crest is here,” he said, pointing to the front of the box along its seam, to the place where there should have been a clasp. Instead of a clasp—or perhaps
the clasp—was a round lozenge of silver sealing the lid of the box to its base. Its edges were irregular and bulged around the perimeter, exactly like a pool of wax that has been stamped by a seal. It looked, in fact, a great deal like the medallions I made from wax seals.
it looked exactly like the seal on my ring: the same swan flexing its wings, the same Latin motto, even . . .
could it be?
I leaned closer to the box and the jeweler wordlessly handed me his magnifying loupe. I raised it to my right eye, startled by a tingle of electrical energy that ran along my eyebrow and cheekbone, as if the metal had picked up a charge from the jeweler. I bent down until the seal came into focus through the thick lens. Fine lines were impressed into the metal. I knew from experience that they came from cracks in the seal that made the image. I looked back at the ring on my finger and then back to the box. The lines were identical.
“That’s amazing.” I straightened up, the loupe still in my right eye, to look at the jeweler. The old man wavered in my vision, the edges around him blurring and streaking like sunflares. A cloud of shimmering lights, like a swarm of fireflies let loose in the shop, hovered above his head. I put down the loupe and closed my eyes to clear my vision.
“Sorry,” I said, “I get—”
“Scintillations? Metamorphopsia?” the jeweler asked, naming two of the symptoms of an ocular migraine, a condition I had suffered from since my teens.
“Exactly. You must be a fellow sufferer.”
“Many of us are,” he said enigmatically.
What did he mean by
? The man was definitely a bit
strange. I should ask for directions and get out of here. I certainly had no intention of buying the box. Not that I didn’t want to. I felt, in fact, as if the box
belong to me. What were the chances of coming across an object that had been made with the very same ring my mother had given me? And on this day of all days when everything else in my life seemed so bleak? But that was exactly the reason why I couldn’t even think of buying such an inessential item—it would be frivolous and foolish in such dire economic circumstances. Still . . . I could imagine polishing the silver until it shone. . . . I placed the tip of my finger on the surface of the box, imagining the whirling pattern released from its carapace of tarnish . . . and was startled to see the finely etched lines glow blue. I leaned closer and watched in amazement as the incandescent lines rippled, swayed, and spread out from my fingertip, as if the box were made of water instead of silver and my touch had been the cast stone that disturbed its surface.
I moved my finger away and the lines stilled and turned dull again. I looked up and saw that the jeweler was staring at the box. Slowly he lifted his eyes up. They seemed to be glowing with the same incandescent light that I had seen in the box a moment ago. His look was so intense I was afraid I had done something wrong. Damaged the box, perhaps. But instead of taking the box away he pushed it toward me. “I have a proposition for you,” he said.
“What?” I asked, alarmed at the wording of his request.
“I’d like to make a trade.” He fluttered his hands between the seal on the box and my ring. They were trembling. When I’d entered the shop his hands had held the delicate tools of the watchmaker without a tremor, but now his hands quivered midair like butterfly wings.
“I’m sorry,” I said, afraid of agitating the man further. “I don’t understand. I don’t really have anything to trade—”
“A trade for your services.” He clasped his hands together and forced his lips into a polite smile.
“What services?” I was suddenly aware of how isolated we were, alone in this little shop on a deserted street, the front door locked, the heavy rain like a curtain of silver chain mail separating us from the rest of the world. Was the man crazy? A hectic gleam was in his eyes and he was wringing his hands as if he were afraid they would fly away of their own volition.
“Your soldering services. I’ve seen what fine work you do with Cygnet Designs . . . and you do metal sculpture as well, don’t you? I believe you had a show last year in Chelsea. . . . I’ve been looking for someone just like you for this job. It’s quite delicate, you see . . .” He released his hands and gestured toward the seam of the box. I noticed two things. He didn’t touch the box and his fingernails were the same shade of yellow as his eyes. “The box has been sealed all the way around.”
I looked down at the box and saw what he meant. Along the seam between the lid and the base was a thin line of metal, which, unlike the silver of the box, was untarnished. It gleamed like molten mercury. Someone had welded the box shut, then stamped the seal on it as if the box were a letter that should only be opened by the intended recipient. And
was the one with the matching seal.
“Yes, and rather inconvenient. I can’t very well sell a box that’s been sealed. If you open the box, I’ll let you have the seal and pay you a thousand dollars.”
“That seems an awful lot . . .”
“Not for such a delicate job. It’s worth it to me to have someone with your skill do the job . . . and besides, I believe it was fate that brought you in here today, and who are we to disregard the chances fate puts in our way?”
After the dire financial revelations of the morning why not accept the one gift fate seemed willing to give me today? A thousand dollars wasn’t going to solve my financial problems, but could I really afford to turn down any extra income at all?
“Okay,” I said, holding out my hands for the box. “You’ve got a deal. I’ll open the box this evening and return it to you tomorrow morning.”
The jeweler picked up the box cradled in the blue velvet cloth, which I saw now was a jewelry sack. As he held it out to me, I heard something move inside, a rustling sound like leaves in autumn stirred by the wind.
“Oh, and I’d like to have the papers that are inside it, as well,” he said as I took the box. It was heavier than I expected. I looked down at it and saw the lines move once again.
It must be a trick of the design—a trompe l’oeil
. But instead of spreading outward, this time the lines coiled, crested and rolled like the waves of the ocean pulled by the force of the moon. For a moment the room was full of the brackish breath of low tide. I shook myself to shed the illusion and then, before he could change his mind about giving me the commission—or I could change my mind about taking it—I slipped the box into the velvet sack and then into my capacious messenger bag—my Mary Poppins bag, my friend Becky always called it—thanked the jeweler, and went out into the rain.
The moment my foot hit the sidewalk a taxi appeared, its vacancy light gleaming through the mist and rain like a lighthouse
beacon. Forgetting my vows to economize, I hailed the cab and sank gratefully into the backseat. I gave the driver my home address and closed my eyes to ward off any more of the ocular phenomena that came with my migraines. It was only when the taxi pulled up in front of the town house that I realized I hadn’t gotten the name or address of the jeweler—or even noticed what street the shop was on. I had no idea how I would return the box after I opened it.
Although the gallery was closed Maia, the receptionist, was still there. Oddly, she seemed to be working longer and more energetic hours now that we could only afford to directly pay her three days a week. The “consultant” status she’d been offered—with a small percentage of each sale in lieu of two days’ salary—seemed to be much more to her liking even though we’d made no secret of the recession’s risk to the gallery’s survival.
“I wanted you to know that the Pissarros came back from Sotheby’s,” she said as she slipped into a dove-gray brocade coat that looked as though it could have been worn by a Restoration courtier—only presumably not with a paisley velvet miniskirt and UGG boots. “Mr. James took them into the back office, but I’m not sure he’s had a chance to put them into the safe . . . Mr. Reese came by around the same time.”
“With a bottle of Stolichnaya, no doubt,” I replied. Zach Reese was one of my father’s oldest and best friends, an abstract artist whose paintings had sold well in the early eighties. They still sold well, only Zach didn’t actually get around to painting any these days. He preferred to sit in the back room
of his friend’s gallery and relive the glory days of Basquiat and David Hockney. “What was the occasion this time?” I asked.
“A welcome-home party for the Pissarros,” Maia said, rolling her eyes. “It’s too bad they didn’t sell,” she added. “But you know what they say about snow scenes . . .”
“They don’t sell in a recession. Speaking of which, any traffic?”
“Just a couple of Long Island matrons killing time after the Marc Jacobs sale. They spent the whole time comparing their new economies: bribing their colorist to come to their house at a fraction of the salon cost and limiting their daughters to one Marc Jacobs bag apiece.”
“Wow, things really
tough all over!” I forced myself to laugh even though the idea of Long Island matrons cutting back made me slightly ill. I did a brisk business in monogrammed pendants during the holidays and for sweet sixteens, confirmations, and bat mitzvahs yearlong. “I’ll make sure the Pissarros get locked up. Thanks for waiting for me.”
“No problem. I’m going to a show at the Knitting Factory anyway and I had some time to kill. Have a good weekend.”
I followed Maia to the front door and double-locked it behind her. Next I dimmed the lights and set the security system on “Night,” activating the motion detectors. Then I let myself into the narrow corridor that opened onto the town-house stairwell and led to the back office. As I locked the door to the gallery behind me, I could hear Zach Reese’s raucous laughter.