S H O R T S T O R Y
LUPE VARGA, DECEASED
b y b r i a n e v e n s o n ~ p r o v i d e n c e, r h o d e i s l a n d
WHEN THEY found the artist Georges Pont-du-Lyon Traba's body on the main street of the capital, it had been penetrated by hundreds of miniature arrows. The fletching of each arrow consisted of a small white piece of paper with writing on it, similar to the piece of paper found in a Chinese fortune cookie. His back was covered by a mass of paper. When they removed the arrows the barbed tips tore through his flesh, leaving sharp red slits. They removed all 2,761 arrows and examined the notes attached to them. All were identical, reading:
You shall take a trip to the Orient
It was a false fortune, however, for Traba was dead. The closest he came to a trip to the Orient was the trip he took 200 kilometers east to Labaise, after his funeral, to be buried.
The President of the Republic attended the funeral, surrounded by national police. He drove his Mercedes through the double doors of the cathedral after the service had begun, stopping the bumper only inches from the coffin. He leapt out of the car as the national police trained their rifles on the old white curé Jean Sois, until the curé decided it was wise to conclude his discourse. The President reached as if tenderly out to the coffin, touching it, stroking it, looking heavenward as if somehow he could trick God into bringing Traba to life again. As the police shot bullets into the cathedral ceiling, bringing down a rain of stone powder, the President of the Republic took the pulpit, discoursed on Traba and the man that he had been, the great man, on the size of his hands, on the morbid beauty of his art, an art inspired by the randomness of nature, an art which imitated bodily injury.
"The precision of that man!" said the President. "His precision!"--citing as an example of his artistic prowess the sculpted piece, "Lupe Varga: an accident in bed."
As the President described the look on the sculpted Lupe's face, the way her hips were thrown wide, the lines on her face and body, the minute detail of her female character, the crowd could see behind him the curé Sois clenching his hands, the veins standing out nearly to bursting on his forehead.
The President read quotes from Traba's unpublished memoirs ("I will see that they are published," he declared, striking the pulpit with his fist, "they shall be published!"). He read, "God provides all the materials, I only arrange them."
He read, "Man is the most intelligent creature in existence. He is also the most destructive. This is no coincidence. There is a direct relationship between genius and malice. Thus have I lived."
He read, "A work of art should be constantly changing, slowly decaying." And then, as suddenly as it had come, the Mercedes with the President inside once again was screeching through the doors and moving, guns blazing, down the street and away.
Traba's burial in Labaise took place at night in secrecy, under the direction of the national police. Two hours after the burial, the people of Labaise were forced to lie face down on their kitchen floors while the police, under the direction of the state investigator, searched through their houses for notes which said You shall take a trip to the Orient or hidden stacks of broken fortune cookies with their notes removed. They found nothing close to fortune cookies except for, in old Alquilar's house, a tin of biscuits. They beat old Alquilar and his boy, told them both that they would be watched.
Who had killed Traba? There were no clues, no motivations that the state investigator could discover. Yet he continued looking, digging holes all about Labaise, following threads through the capital and around the countryside, crossing the eastern border late one night and returning without clues but with two castrated bodies.
When the state investigator broke down the door of Traba's home in Labaise, of the house Traba had lived in many years ago before he had come to the capital, he found the floor covered evenly with dust. The rooms were empty except that in the back room there was, glued face up on the floor, a picture of a man's face, his eyes scratched out by a pen. On the photograph was written the words, "Is this man blind?" In trying to get the photograph off the floor, the police tore it to bits. The fragments were sent to the scientists in the capital who in turn sent them to the University of Ifé. When the photograph was returned, it was completely reassembled, the phrase written at the bottom of the picture having become "This man is blind!"
The scientists in the capital spent weeks analysing the picture, waiting to announce their conclusions until they could see what would happen, until they knew who would be accused of the murder of Traba and could form their opinions to support the accusation. Someone would have to be accused and executed after the investigation had gone on for one year, for that was the law. Some speculated that Traba had committed suicide, developing a machine which would fire several thousand tiny arrows at once and then destroy itself. Others believed that a group of pygmies who had inbred to such a degree that now they were only 8 inches high were responsible. Most refused to take a stand. No explanation accounted for the notes found on the arrows.
The state investigator searched the stock of the two companies in the capital which imported fortune cookies. They broke open thousands of cookies without finding notes similar to the notes on the arrows. They searched for a man whose eyes were scratched out, showing the reconstructed photograph from one end of the country to the other. "We're not going to do anything to him," the police would say, "We just want to talk with him."
Eleven months after the murder of Traba, no new evidence had been collected.
But, five days later, in the national museum, near closing time on a Friday, came a significant breakthrough. Traba's perfectly formed and highly acclaimed sculpture "Lupe Varga: an accident in bed" split down the middle. Out of the split came dust and a horde of thick cockroaches which fled across the floor, causing the visitors to stampede. The guards, hearing the screams, flooded the room with tear gas and shot everyone exiting. When the smoke had dispersed and the bodies had been disposed, they found that Lupe Varga, the near perfect sculpture, was not a sculpture after all but rather a human corpse, gutted and carefully preserved.
Inside the hollow body was a folded piece of paper, half eaten with worms, covered with the tar of roaches. The writing on the paper was black and extreme, spider-like in its proportions. At the top, typed, was the phrase "There is a positive relationship." Beneath that was "Lupe Varga: an accident in bed," and the following handwritten text:
When the state investigator read aloud to the President in his bulletproof, bombproof, soundproof, bugproof office the sheet of paper found within the belly of Lupe Varga, the President smiled.The idea for this work came when I was working on a previous piece, a photographic work entitled "The Road." A bus had run off the road, killing everyone inside. I examined the accident. As I was the only one there, I rearranged things as I wanted, moving limbs about until I had developed a work of art. As I did this, I considered that my habitual artistic expression depended on factors outside of my control. Nature decided which accidents to give me; dependence on Nature was severely limiting my artistic success. I knew it was time for my art to change, to metamorphose. And this led eventually to Lupe Varga.
Why did it have to be a woman? When the idea first came into my head it was a woman. I would not have enjoyed using a man.
The drive to accomplish the project came when in walking from Cascan to Labaise, I passed two women walking the other direction. One of them called the other Lupe Varga. "Lupe Varga, I do say!" she said, whereupon Lupe Varga responded "You do not say!" I saw her face for a moment and in that same instant imagined her face as you see it preserved here before you. I imagined her face and the words "Lupe Varga: an accident in bed." Quickly, I followed her. When she and her friend separated I caught up with her and killed her. A year later, I released my masterwork.
"You mean, you did not know it was a corpse?"
For the President himself had always known: that was the reason he had admired Traba. That was the reason he had allowed Traba to shake his hand once while American reporters took pictures.
"Did you know?" said the state investigator.
"I am President," he said.
"What do we do?"
"Do?" said the President. "Why, we punish him."
In a public ceremony the body of Traba was exhumed. The body was embalmed and the 2,761 arrows were replaced one after one in their original wounds. The President, supported by the people, had the cathedral in which Traba's funeral had been held destroyed and the curé Sois executed by the national police. People came forward claiming to have killed Traba, looking for a reward. The President read an official declaration condemning Traba, exiling him forever from the country. As the crowd cheered, the President nailed Traba into a crate with a golden hammer. The nation police carried the crate off and put it on a ship bound for China. The people watched the ship sail until the sun was gone and then returned to their homes.
Perhaps someday out of the East a ship will arrive and a crate shall be unloaded and carried to the national museum. The crate shall be opened and "Georges Pont-du-Lyon Traba: an unexplained accident" will be displayed next to the artist Traba's greatest work, "Lupe Varga: a martyr in bed," which has been sewn together with fishing line and remains to this day the most popular exhibit at the national museum.
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