Copyright is held by the author.
“REMEMBER MARCO, it’s all about eyes,” he says, wiping his stained hands on a rag.
I nod dutifully, gazing at the freshly painted canvas. The glorious portrait of the Grand Duke is finished. Today is the first time my master, the greatest painter ever, allowed me to witness the magic of final touches. But I’m still excluded from the divine mystery of conjuring the eyes.
Nobody can paint eyes as vividly as my master: he doesn’t paint them — he creates them. They come to life. You must see my master’s painting to understand what I mean. One glance at the canvas, and you feel the eyes watching you.
I tear my stare from the magical eyes and observe my contribution to the portrait — the hooves of Grand Duke’s horse. The master is so kind to me: he said I did a good job and promised to entrust me with the tail of the Duchess’s mare in the next portrait. But will I ever be able to conjure the eyes?
The master is examining his magical hands, his long, passionate fingers. My fingers are short stubs protruding from coarse palms. I take a deep breath.
“Master,” I manage to say before my voice wobbles. “When will I be allowed to witness the conjuring of the eyes?”
He studies my face.
“Tomorrow,” he says after what seems like an eternity.
“Thank you, Master!”
The work for the day is over. I glance back in the doorway, meeting Grand Duke’s eyes for the last time. I freeze, struck by an odd resemblance: the shiny black eyes of Grand Duke remind me of Giovanni, the young house servant. I used to think Giovanni and I were friends, but a week ago he vanished without saying a word. His few belongings disappeared with him. He might have at least said farewell to me before leaving.
“Master, do you know what happened to Giovanni?” I ask, while my mentor locks the workshop.
“Why, he just went back to his village, that’s all.”
I want to tell him that Giovanni is an orphan, like me, but think better of it — the master has more important things on his mind. He has such a kind heart, my master does. I would have died from hunger if he hadn’t taken me in. And now he’s teaching me his art, his magic. I can’t wait for tomorrow.
“We’re going down into the cellar,” the master tells me the next morning.
I’ve never been in the cellar before. The steps are steep and slippery, the air is dank, and the walls are covered with mildew. The master leads the way, a candle in his hand. He unlocks the door into a vast room. It’s chilly inside. He puts the candle on the edge of a wooden table, pulls a flask out of his pocket and pours the dark ruby liquid into a small goblet.
“Drink this, Marco. You deserve it.”
“Thank you, Master.”
The wine is amazing, like nothing I’ve ever tasted before. I’m surprised the master doesn’t drink it. He opens a drawer filled with a strange mix of carpenter’s and barber’s tools and peruses the contents thoughtfully. Though the light is scarce, something on the floor blinks at me, catching the weak flame of the candle. I pick it up.
“What is it, Marco?”
“It’s . . . nothing,” I say, staring at my trophy.
He turns sharply, a candle in his hand: Giovanni’s bronze cross, with a piece of a worn out leather string still attached to it, glows on my open palm.
I see a flash in the master’s eyes. His other hand ducks into the drawer and returns with a hammer.
Giovanni’s eyes stare at me from the Grand Duke’s portrait. I wish I’d never known the magic of conjuring the eyes. I wish I’d never drunk this delicious wine.
I want to run, but my legs don’t move, and the cellar is spinning around me.
As the hammer descends on my head, I plunge forward and thrust Giovanni’s cross into the master’s eye.