Wrapped in Color and Light – Part 3 – Emma


Emma Frost snapped out of a daydream when the taste of blood hit her tongue. “Damn it.” She reached into her purse, searched its contents, and pulled out a wrinkled tissue crusted with snot.

Pressing it against her ragged cuticle, she winced. Shit, I hope this doesn’t ruin my chances. After shoving the tissue back into her purse, she breathed deeply, filling her diaphragm, and calmed her nerves.

One after another, visitors entered the museum’s Great Hall, gawking at the immensity of the room with the white limestone, the pillars, and so many arches that some might complain of vertigo.

Emma smiled, recalling her first visit. She’d been enthralled, too, thinking she’d walked into a palace, a building of unearthly capabilities, its massive collection magical.

She couldn’t understand how artists used simple tools to create scenes and images that could electrify the brain, making one contemplate light and color or consider emotion in history. Those exhibited in The Met were sorcerers, time travelers, and gypsies wielding powers in the form of brush and paint.

She’d come back to the museum again and again, memorizing its halls and declaring favorite benches, depending on which pieces they faced. Then, two months after completing her master’s at Columbia, the position for Assistant Curator of American Art had been posted, and she’d nearly fainted.

If she didn’t get this job, any other would be a disappointment.

Emma shifted on the marble bench when Craig Wolff emerged between two limestone pillars on the far side of the room. Shorter than she remembered and his beard longer, he navigated his way over the mosaic floor, steering through dozens of people without giving them a single glance.

She closed her eyes, breathed again, and imagined the sun setting over a white sandy beach, a coping mechanism she’d practiced since high school. Looking again at Craig, she stood, smoothed out the front of her navy suit, and waited.

“Emma Frost?” His voice was raspy, as though he might be getting over a cold.

“Mr. Wolff, nice to see you again.” She shook his hand, matching the firm grip.


“We met once when you gave a guest lecture at Columbia last year. I came up afterward and asked about The Hudson River School.”

“Yes, of course.” His eyes narrowed, and he scratched his neck, as though trying to remember.

By the way he continued to look into the distance, Emma doubted that he did.

“Please, call me Craig.” He stretched his arms out in front of him, accentuating his round belly, which resembled an inflated beach ball. “Welcome to The Metropolitan Museum of Art.”

Emma had the urge to tell him everything she thought was amazing about the museum, but before she had a chance to formulate the words, he coughed.

“Well, are you ready then?”

She hadn’t finished nodding before he turned and walked back from where he’d come.

Wait, was on the tip of her tongue, though she dared not say it. Instead, she grabbed her purse and caught up with him.

They walked through the Greek and Roman Art Hall to an elevator tucked behind a sculpture of three naked female bodies, arms draped over shoulders. Like so many of the other sculptures, they were white and headless, their stillness converting the museum to a mausoleum. She’d never been fond of this type of art, and as she stepped onto the elevator, she tried to rub the goose bumps from her skin.

“Do you come to the museum often?” Craig asked after the elevator doors slid shut.

In the tight confines, she smelled an unsettling combination of pickles and cologne. She took a small step away and prayed he hadn’t noticed. “Uh, yes. Many times. This was my favorite place to study. I find it…” She paused. “Inspirational.”

“Inspirational? Well, I guess that’s the right word for it, isn’t it? So much talent in one space. It’s enough to make your head spin. Never enough time to experience it all, is there?”

Emma noted Craig’s use of experience, not see. It was perfectly accurate. Art was so much more than paint and canvas, its journey into the imagination endless.

The door opened, and Craig stepped out, nodding in the direction of a long hallway, before taking off again, his quick strides inconsistent with his portly shape.

Emma lagged behind, imagining what lay behind each door she passed—walls crowded with paintings, cabinets full of sculptures, and shelves piled high with prints. She’d never gone beyond the museum’s public halls, and she believed this was where most of its collection was stored.

Craig stopped to wait. “You okay?”

“Perfect,” she whispered, still looking around. “I’m just wondering what’s in all these rooms.”


Emma sidled up to him. “Paper?”

“Yes.” Craig sighed. “Behind most of these doors are books, catalogues, and magazines—information. I wouldn’t get too excited about it all. You’ll only walk away disappointed.”

“Where are the collections then?”

“All over. This is a big building. This hall just has offices.” He took a set of keys out from his pocket. “Well, here we are.” He pointed at a door and opened it.

Emma practically bumped into him. She was about to apologize but froze at the sight of Craig’s office. It was the size of a classroom and overflowing with framed artwork, furniture one could only find in an antique shop, and bronze, marble, and glass sculptures.

“Oh, Craig, this is so much more than paper.”

“I’m sorry about the clutter.” He pointed at a chair in front of a large desk. “Shall we begin?” He sat in a plush leather seat on the other side and grabbed a notebook and pen.

Emma nodded, lowering herself into the chair.




The auction room at Christie’s hummed with curious whispers. People filled the upholstered black seats while others stood shoulder to shoulder, crowding the aisle on the right and the wider space in back. The left aisle, however, remained clear. Nobody dared to stand too close to Captives, the painting about to go on the block.

Craig sat in the middle of the room, trapped and sweating like a man waiting for a subway in summer. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his brow.

So many people in the room wore black, the unofficial uniform of New York City. It was as though he were at a damn funeral.

He looked again at the painting and thought, If only…
Those were the two saddest words he knew. No one had ever considered giving Celio a memorial. Missing men didn’t get them, Craig figured, and he never pressed the issue.

A woman with white hair pulled into a tight bun leaned over, whispering, “Cross reinterpreted the story, made the brother and sister incestuous.” She drew out the last word and grimaced.

“I know,” Craig answered.

“No one knows what happened to him. Such a shame.” She shook her head and pulled her shoulders back, straightening her posture.

I know what happened to him. Craig bit his lip, remaining silent.

He glanced over at Captives as envy wrapped around him like a snake. He gripped the edge of his chair and looked at the ground, clenching his jaw. Craig wanted more than anything to be in Celio’s place, to be back in Suntaria with everyone and everything he loved.
If only I still had the flute. If only I hadn’t left the castle. If only I’d kept my family close. If only…

Thinking of it all made his breath come in inadequate short gasps. He inhaled through his nose for three long seconds and exhaled from his mouth, his lips puckered like a fish. The action calmed his beating heart. He wiped his face again and eyed Edward, a tall man with perfect posture sitting in the front row.
The auctioneer stepped up to the block, and the room fell silent. Craig shifted eagerly in his seat.

The auctioneer’s voice echoed through the speakers. “Up next is lot six, Celio Cross’s Captives, oil on canvas, painted in two thousand four. It’s being shown on my right and on the screen, and it’s also described in the catalogue.”

Every head in the room turned toward the painting. Voices rose. Craig watched the crowd, feeling like he existed in a bubble, separated from everyone around him.

“Five million dollars to start.” The auctioneer placed his hands on the podium, waiting.

For a few seconds, no one moved. In the quiet of the room, Craig’s blood rushed like a raging river. An employee with a phone to his ear raised his paddle, bidding on someone’s behalf.

The auctioneer pointed in his direction. “Six million?” He turned his attention to the back of the room. “Seven million?”

Then, they came, bid after bid, a flood of hands and paddles. Craig’s head spun, following each one, until he became dizzy, little specks of light clouding his vision. Despite the frenzy, he kept an eye on Edward, the perfectly postured man up front, who remained motionless.

Two minutes later, the madness slowed, each bid being thought out more carefully than the last.
The auctioneer took in a large breath, wind echoing in the mic. “We’re at sixteen million.”

Craig stared ahead at Edward, silent and detached.
“Liar,” Craig muttered, wringing his hands so tight they turned red.

He wanted to storm over to Edward and shake him, but Craig was wedged in a sea of useless onlookers, unable to escape. When vomit began to make its way up the back of his throat, he leaned forward, closed his eyes, and put his head in his hands.

In that darkness, he finally heard the shout, “Sixteen million!”

Defeated, Craig looked up to see the auctioneer pointing at Edward, his paddle still in the air.
Craig swallowed hard, the nausea passing, and he breathed again.

“Seventeen million?” the auctioneer asked the crowd.
Everyone looked around the room, wondering who’d be next.

When no one bid, he waved his hands over the podium. “Okay, I’m selling it now. Sixteen million. Going once, going twice…” He banged his gavel on the rostrum. “Sixteen million to number twenty-one in the front row.”

Craig collapsed into the back of his seat. His shoulders and legs melted toward the floor as the tension they’d held evaporated like steam.

Edward turned and nodded. The subtle, You’re welcome, made Craig want to throw his arms around him and rejoice like a man whose noose had just been cut.

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ebook.jpg.opt379x604o0,0s379x604Craig Wolff’s basement was damp and smelled of mold. It wasn’t an ideal environment for artwork, but he had no other choice. Shepherd was safe here, protected from prying eyes. He’d added some dehumidifiers, and he kept the temperature at sixty-five, but still, he worried.

He sat in a corduroy armchair, thumbing through Christie’s auction catalogue. After unbuttoning the top of his shirt, he poured some bourbon and took a shot. It burned.

Wincing, he put the catalogue down and stared at the painting. Its title echoed in his ears—Shepherd, Shepherd—stirring a sadness so big that it seeped from his pores.

The painting’s pastoral landscape was composed of one hundred different shades of green, each handcrafted on his palette, the wood board becoming its own spring forest. Though painting the shepherd had been a challenge, his cherub face and red tunic pleased Craig. The flute in the shepherd’s hands, however, had been easy. Its shape and color had formed organically, and Craig hadn’t slept until it was done. In the background stood a princess with long chestnut hair. She cradled a swaddled baby, and when Craig leaned closer, he would swear he’d heard quiet cooing.

Though he’d painted it nearly twenty years ago, before his beard had speckled with gray and his stomach had become round, he could still feel the brush in his hand.

Craig poured another shot, wishing life were written in pencil so that he could return to the day he’d lost everything, erase it, and write it over.

He put the bourbon down and picked up a small book bound in soft leather. The spine had a thick discolored crease, opening naturally to “The Singing Bone.” The story, about a brother’s deceit and a shepherd who carved a magic flute out of bone, had always been one of Craig’s favorites, a story he’d read from the worn anthology dozens of times in his youth. Many years ago, as a young artist, he had felt compelled to paint it, thinking he needed a little magic himself.

Craig read aloud while willing those who lived in the painting to hear, wanting the people of Suntaria to know he was still alive. He didn’t need to look at the book, but he cradled it for ritual.

He lingered on the final lines, staring at the princess.

The wicked brother could not deny the deed. He was sewn into a sack and drowned alive. The murdered man’s bones were laid to rest in a beautiful grave in the churchyard, and the shepherd was rewarded with the princess’s hand.

Craig put the book down and took a swig from the bottle. His head was light, like a balloon, and he floated over to the painting. Despite his hands feeling like dead weight, he placed them upon the painting’s wooden frame and closed his eyes. He imagined the walls around him crumbling, leaving him in a grass landscape that shone in red, blue, and orange. Wind chilled his cheek, and as it did, the ground brightened, as though the world laughed in color. In that vision, with Suntaria’s rich soil under his feet, he was a shepherd again with his wife—the princess—in one hand and the magic flute in the other.

If only he could go back and tell her that he hadn’t chosen to leave, that it was the painting that had stolen him back to New York and held him captive.

His eyes opened, and he was still in his basement, standing on concrete, dampness hanging heavy in the air. Light shone, not from the sun but from a sixty-watt bulb dangling from the ceiling.

Nothing could be heard but his heavy breathing as he stepped away, pretending he’d taken the flute with him. He could feel the instrument in his hands—the polished surface, the tiny misshapen holes—and he took a deep breath, inhaling the smell of buried bone.

There were carvings in the flute, which he could see anytime he closed his eyes. When pointed toward the ground, the flute’s smooth surface would display mountains, rivers, and forests, a map if anyone were to ask. When held high, so its beautiful sound echoed into the sky, the carvings would change to the sun, the moon, and the stars.

Dizziness came, and he sat with an exhaustive huff. He stared at the painting until his eyes hurt, all the while pleading for it to take him back. When it didn’t, Craig buried his face in his hands. He wanted to sob but couldn’t. His heart had no more tears to give.

He was about to pick the Christie’s catalogue back up when something in the far corner caught his eye. It was small and made of wood, a door imprinted in stone. He ran to it, and when he reached to touch it, it was gone. Craig slammed a fist into the wall, scraping his knuckles. Three thin lines of blood rose to the surface of his skin.

“Why must you taunt me like this?” he pleaded to Shepherd.

Craig collapsed back into the chair, grabbed the bottle, and took a big gulp. The bourbon tingled on his upper lip, and he wiped it away with his sleeve. Then, he opened the catalogue to a page he’d marked by folding the corner down and focused on Captives, a painting by Celio Cross, the only other man Craig knew who had also leaped into Suntaria.

The edge of Captives was painted with a blue glow, and within that light, a young tailor shielded his eyes from a raven-haired maiden kissing a man wearing a light shift. Vestiges of fur shed from the man’s skin, piling upon a pair of sturdy hooves, which he had in place of feet. Behind the couple, scattered shards of glass littered the ground like seeds.

Sitting on a throne at the top of the painting was a thin old man who glared at Craig. The man’s wrinkled glower spread dark shadows across his face, his teeth encrusted with plaque. A crown sat crooked on the man’s head, and in his hands was Craig’s flute, off-white, the color of dry bone. The man held it as if he were about to press it to his lips and play, causing Craig to wonder what shape the flute’s magic would take.

He laid a finger upon Captives and caressed it, feeling hopeful for the first time in years. Life at last was dark enough for him to see the stars. Thanks to Celio, Craig’s flute still existed, and if Craig could leap through Captives, maybe he’d have a chance at getting it back, seeing his family, and bringing joy to Suntaria again.

He pointed at Shepherd. “Things are about to change. You’ll see! I’m getting Captives. Can you stop me there, too?”

Craig lowered his hand, fearing defeat. Tomorrow, Captives would be up for auction, and though a museum board member—Edward Forrest—had offered to bid on it, someone unwilling to share could want it more. Edward, on the other hand, had agreed to try to win the painting if Craig would develop an exhibit about fairy tales, make Captives the headliner, and put Edward’s name in big letters underneath. He was a narcissist after all. As a curator dependent on the board’s deep pockets, Craig had no choice but to agree to the arrangement

He glanced at Shepherd one last time, detesting and loving it in one strange emotion. Exhaustion crept up, and his eyelids grew heavy. Not wanting to fall asleep in the chair again, he covered the painting back up and turned off the light.

Walking up the stairs with the half-empty bottle of bourbon under his arm, he thought of the gun hidden in the back of his desk drawer and stammered, “If this doesn’t work, I’m done.”

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