Behind the Chinese screen.
In this business I just take my time, when I find the right thing I check it out, I research and then I pounce and buy and ship out quickly. That was why I was in this rather seedy antique market today. The air was heavy with dust, pollution and cooking smells. I felt a little sick and a little uneasy but I was hunting for a bargain and I thought I'd found the bargain of the trip. “There!” On the wooden and silk screen a delicate design was portrayed, the three faces of Winter. A formal but disturbing piece. The faces were gaunt and marked, grey and washed out, split with a naked aggression turned towards each face. Warriors or war lords sneering at each other across a frozen wasteland. Winter arguments, cold and unending seemed to prevail. There was a little light and shade in their woven expressions, as if the silk worm had tickled each white countenance just a little to humanise by a degree or two but not enough to force a thaw. There were scripts, hidden messages and far away storks, the hope of spring while the ice warriors strutted and argued and waved their swords and bamboo sticks. There was a huge narrative somewhere to explain and inform but right now I didn't need to know anymore. I'd had a chance to look over the exhibit, to take it in. I'm not an expert but I could see age, craft, history, rarity and most important value. This was a piece worth getting hold off. I could make some money, good money.
I looked around the rest of the market. There were other pieces, interesting, glittering, catching the eye before the screen did. There were vases and dragons, great hangings and rolled up scrolls and inked paintings but I was going with my instincts. The screen was there, part of the landscape of the shop, hidden in plain sight. It was the best thing by far. I just wasn't sure how the proprietor regarded it and how, in the event that I showed interest, he'd try to inflate or push the price. There was nobody around so I quickly took a few photographs. It was as if I was under scrutiny. No sooner had I flipped my camera into my pocket when a head popped out from behind the screen itself. A girl, grinning, peeking and looking me up and down. She was an artful mix of Chinese and European bloods, dark haired but no quite olive enough, western eyes but an Asian mouth and nose. She smiled, ventured out a little further and asked me if I liked. I nodded and pointed to the stock and offered a few compliments. All very interesting, well displayed and of good quality. Business must be good I offered. She shook her head, all was not well, business was down, the air pollution kept the customers away, the smog affected the stocks, there was trouble here and there. No, business was not so good, not right now.
Whatever strategy I was going to employ was abandoned. I engaged in small talk around some other items to deflect from the screen and she played along. There were a few hints and stories of these objects, ownership and how they came to be here. Their various virtues and potted histories were trotted out.I smiled and nodded. I soaked it up but my eye kept returning to the screen. She noticed. “You like?” I stuttered and pointed to a print that was hanging near by. “You get this screen at a very good price, very good, not like anything anywhere else.” I thought what the hell and we started on the money matters, American Dollars, cash, now. I carried cash always, that was how I worked. We talked figures, she screwed up her face and rolled her eyes. I returned the compliment and upped the tone of my body language.
I was right up against the screen, studying the details, the form, the working. She was beside me, pointing to the figures, jabbering about the tales it told. Three faces of Winter...but there is a curse.
I looked her straight in the eye. “Curse?” “The three faces of Winter is one side of the screen, have you not seen the other side?” I'd thought that the screen was the same on both sides, it hadn't occurred to me that the other side might be different.
I struggled past various awkward artifacts and managed to crane myself around to see the rear of the object. It was pretty much the reverse of the displayed side though the design had faded a bit and there were black or dark brown stains and splattered across part of it. “And the stains are?” “Blood of course, blood from the various attacks, murders, that sort of thing”. She was grinning at little, confident in my ignorance and delighted that I was now intrigued. I leaned over a little further and clambered over the bric-a-brac until I was finally behind the screen. Once there I could clearly see the marks and the fine work that had gone into the manufacture of the screen. I stood for some time taking in the newly revealed detail. There were a lot of stains it seemed, not all the same colour, in different places and all looking like they'd occurred over time. A long time. I crouched down and took a closer look. This was authentic and I was sure and there was more of a story to it. I love history and the chance to cash in on it.
The next few seconds were a blur. I was aware of the girl getting closer to me, smiling. I also sensed another figure behind me or around me, had something emerged from the screen? That made no sense. Then a sudden pain, sharp and intense. I wanted to shout out but I was choking. A sharp object had pierced my neck. I entered some other world. There was pain and a grinning face. There was a spurt of red and I was falling. Then a black cloud passed across my eyes circling like some swirling passing storm and I was gone.
I awoke in the hospital. In a white bed with a bandage tightly wrapped around my neck. The slow shock of the truth was painful and sobering. I was in a city a hundred miles away and I was without explanations. I'd been found in an alley, drugged and stabbed but alive. No money, passport or valuables. No connections with the market I guessed, the police wanted a word apparently. I was angry and confused...and cursed. I looked across the ward. There on the wall there was an old print, a Chinese piece. I recognised it immediately now. The three faces of winter but without faces, just the bare background. In life there are no clear rules, people do what they do, there are no rules apart from those you choose to adopt for yourself and you must stay wary of the rules that others may make for themselves.