Verena Mahlow

Good-bye, Shoes

Walking to Paradise by Antonio Muñiz

In spring, I was an intern at the museum. My work consisted mostly of dusting and setting up pest traps to protect the collections. It was strange being around them, these statues, objects and paintings from all around the world and from all times. Some pretended to be dead, or they were, but others, I swear, were alive. They watched me through motionless eyes, or not even eyes but forms that might be five thousand years old or a hundred, or right from the here and now. They seemed to be talking to me, in a wordless, secret language, full of meaning. A language I yearned to understand.

So I asked around: What do they say, what does it mean? The black-clad crowd insinuated the mystical, the elusive, or called it divine inspiration. In their eyes I saw impatience with me, the intern, asking such naive questions. Others — the copycat group who had always cried out against fraud — took my questions as affirmations. Only to be appalled when I wouldn’t tag along with them. The professor jumped in to remind me of the classes I had to attend, the papers I still had to write. When I insisted on wanting to know, he laced up his footwear of sturdy old doctrine, sketched a hopscotch on the street and began to jump the well-known pattern. I knew he’d also be offended when I refused to hop along, but as much as I tried: I only saw straight chalk lines and his shoes that looked brittle and much too comfortable. While I sensed longing, seduction, and pebbles between the toes.

I wanted to know. I needed to.

Still, I hesitated. I imagined how rough it would be, and how lonely. I figured the curves would make me skid, and that the rabbit´s hole would be too narrow to crawl in. I worried about getting stuck. And be caught, without breath. And then, there was the well: I saw myself fall in; I feared my head would smash against the walls and loose its function. I might drown. Or digress and build up an appetite for the pre-cooked stuff. I might even drink from the cups of others, unreal milk or artificially sweetened nectar. And then, this tiny key! I was sure I would never find it. Even if I did, I would lose it in a heartbeat.

But Desire lured me. “Get up, get up,“ she chanted so irresistibly that the books fell off me like heavy clothes. “Curiosity killed the cat,“ the professor tried to warn me one more time, but when I still didn’t obey, he shrugged and turned away to unsubscribe my name. I knew it would be irrevocably gone now, forever extinct in his world. Extinguished. My last glimpse caught the professor´s nonchalant shrug: After all, why should he give a damn, when there were plenty of others at his disposal. The type, truth be told, he had always preferred, those endearing, fearfully fair women, grouping around him, hopping along, in his rhythm.

While I breathed the whiff of freedom.

Now the question was: How should I do it? How get started?

Help came from an unexpected side: a pandemic in the name of a heart. From one moment to the other, the world shut down, the museum was empty, all doors closed. No more chatting and shuffling feed, no more opinions thrown around, no more “ohs” and “ahs.” Only a few scattered chairs, looking lonely and bored. Somewhere upstairs in the offices, I knew, the staff worked hard to develop new plans, put the show online or whatever. While the interns kept doing what they were assigned to do, help protect and preserve the collections.

One day, I happened to be alone on the floor with the canvases that talked the loudest, wooing me. How could I not follow their siren song? Without thinking twice, I dropped my dust mop and sat down. Routinely, I still ohmed some resistance, but unconvincingly, not meant to be heard. I gathered courage. And all of the sudden it happened; it wasn’t even hard.

I merely took a deep breath in the icy air, got up from my chair, lost sight of my shoes — “Good-bye,“ Alice scanted, “good-bye, you poor dears“ — and focused on the canvas in front of me. A little jump was all it took, just one step, and here I was: in the otherworld, a universe of colors and forms.

I walked — or rather: I moved, I floated with zero gravity, on sound waves, under orange clouds, in concentric circles, right into the epicenter of wonder. A maelstrom swam ahead of me like a shark that can never rest. A star writhed his tentacles. My head brushed ripples of blue, Prussian blue, cerulean, ultramarine. My fingertips bumped into cadmium yellow, chromium oxide, and next to me chuckled a juicy red.

I crossed geometrical landscapes, where green-eyed owls watched me from the tops of vital glass trees. Night shadows sleepwalked by me and got lost in nostalgia, while a wide-eyed guitarist serenaded me. And then, on the horizon mountains appeared, sweet, pasty masses of cobalt that tried to block my view. But I wasn’t concerned, I was hungry. So I just picked the fattest chunk and ate my way through the Alps with a healthy appetite. On the other side, Joie de vivre welcomed me, lifting two fingers for peace, and showed me the walk into the wild. The jungle of dreams. From one green spot to the next I jumped, shouting happy greetings when someone jostled me who was also on the road and full of passion.

Occasionally, a sense showed up, stiff and stubborn up to his ruff, and requested references from me. In response, I spit raisins at his explicit head and watched, smiling, as a whirl of colors dragged him down. The same went for the interpretations, those tight-lipped, anorexic ones that tried to stand in my way. Down into the well with them, no matter how elegant their suits were! When one of them still clung to the edge and screeched something latent, I slapped her fingers until she let go. Next, I chopped off the finish flag and marched on beyond the wind.

Only a couple of times, when all dimensions faded and the silence became overwhelming, I leaned back to check what I had left: There they lined up, the obedient words, and chiseled on things, decorous as ever, with dogged determination. Like ants, they didn’t mind if their heads were bitten off; their only ambition being Mimesis, the supervisor, to give them an extra bonus for the most faithful copy of life.

Not all of them, however, proved to be convinced conformists. In the evening, when everyone was told to put the chisel down, go home and relax, so production would match up the next day, there were always a few mutinous ones. Well aware of abstraction and the limitations of work-to-rule, they gathered in hidden valleys to play with their minds like children play with toy blocks. They rode tubes of paint like witches ride broomsticks, in wild rhythms, dripping, throwing around fragments of speech. To those I turned, and I recognized them: They were the ones that had called out to me, from between the frames. Now I understood how they wooed me! How self-assured they promised “from Green to Blue“, assuming an Atlantic attitude, a Mediterranean flair. The most rollicking ones even conjured the sparkling bees that had been dancing for a hundred million years. These rebels didn’t mind being hungover the next morning, when all designations would be tossed and turned. They led off steam till the bottles were empty, and how they mocked bel canto and the significant!

For a while I kept up with their pace and drank with them, but when darkness dawned, I was swept into the deeper spheres. Promptly, this guy showed up, a dopey grin on his face, his trench coat unbuttoned, his shoes polished brightly. He sure didn’t like that I wasn´t impressed, just yawned and thrusted my heartburn by him as quickly as I could.

“Where ya going?“, he sulked, “Hey? What´s that supposed to mean?“

“Progressive realization of freedom,“ I mumbled, knowing that dudes like him can only be silenced by the large calibers. And sure enough, he lifted both hands in resignation and hobbled off across the plaines. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him slip on a patch of umbra and sprawl, which made me scoff with schadenfreude. “Duck your head, man, there´s a bad equilibrium on the rise.“

Marvelous, however, were the snapshots that dripped from the tassels. Galantis Nivalis, snowdrops I tasted on my way. Or the startled furniture, dipped over night in vermilion, and the seven-league-boots, custom tailored for me. Even the Cheshire cat appeared, and a lot of black and white, the running on the spot, and much that I keep to myself. Much sense of reality and potentiality together on the palette, an alchemy of colors and daring constructs. Sometimes not beautiful at all, when I hit gaps and hard silver, but exciting, exuberant, alive. Soma, the drug of bliss, had to be smoked to the end.

I only got nervous when nerves reared their heads and made me see murder scenes and sorrows. But just when I reflected on the saying that no-one finds a chair trying to sit outside language, I discovered the thread: It grew rampant, in sepia, across a field, and had them all gathered in a circle. Close to the edge were those stuck in Entropy, howling that they wanted to play along. Next to them Gravity, rubbing her butt. On the edge, as well, was the Stray Impulse, the Semiotic beast, yapping like mad. And to his side the Sense of time that tried to calm him down, even though her hands were racing, too.

On a picnic blanket in the middle sat the others, their faces deep red, their fists clenched. The eternal conflict had erupted.

“Non-semantic minimalist,“ I heard someone scream.

“The beautiful! The true,“ one other.

“Show-off. Con man.“

“Poly-semantic clutterer.“


“Hippie tripper. ´Shroomer.“

The solemn choir summed in shock, the dragnet investigator vowed bloody vengeance, but most scandalized acted Arbitrariness. As she had nothing to contribute, she moved into the middle and vaguely invoked the professor while polishing her irrelevantly long fingernails. No-one paid attention to her but Affirmation, who comforted her, wrapping her in a cloak of ideology while searching for an appropriate comment. But, as she could not even find a fitting footnote, she only nodded oafishly and changed the subject.

And Polyvalence triumphed — she knew she had won. She sprawled out in thousand shades of rosé and said provokingly, „Sure, guys, you can ignore me — and choke from boredom. Or the esoteric.“ Her voice turned seductive, „But come to me, y´all, to my transit camp, and unlimited options I´ll let you taste.“

That was the moment I recognized her: No-one else but Phryne was talking, the famous hetaera who swam naked in Eleusis, Aphrodite Knidia who lured the gods down from the skies to make them men and offer them aurora, the gift of dawn. Through her robe of twentyfold encaustic I saw her shimmering limbs, an artwork of spirit and energy and warm blood.

Oh, well. I knew it´d be only a matter of time.

The first to queue up were the alternative thinkers, followed by the expert art critique. Then the lecherous principle collapsed. The choir singers still grumbled, in stubborn refusal, until, accompanied by claqueurs, they also began to applaud. Reluctantly at first, but with growing passion.

The artist, the matchmaker, winked at Phryne, „a rose“ — later they would share.

I partied along, intoxicated, exuberantly happy, all through the night. And when it was time to say goodbye, I wasn’t too sad. I knew the star mark would stay on me. Through a complicated net of similarities I found the way out into arcanum. A little disheveled, for sure, a bit shaken up, all boxes displaced, I landed back in my shoes and sat down next to the chair.


About the writer:
Verena Mahlow has worked as a journalist, translator and interpreter and has an MA and PhD in German, American and Italian Studies. Her published thesis is about female identity in the arts. She has written scripts for German TV-movies and has had short stories, non-fiction and one (award-winning) novel published.

Image: Walking to Paradise by Antonio Muñiz (1969-). Oil on canvas. 60 x 48 inches. By 2011. By free license.