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He swam one hundred and fifty strokes out to sea and the same number back, as he did each morning, until he felt the round pebbles of the shore beneath his feet. He dried himself, using the towel he’d hung on a tree trunk that had been swept in by the sea, put on his shirt and sneakers, and went up the narrow path leading from the cove to the watchtower. There he made coffee and began, mixing blues and grays that would lend his work the proper atmosphere. During the night—each night he slept less and less, and that only a restless dozing—he had decided that cold tones would be needed to delineate the melancholy line of the horizon, where a veiled light outlined the silhouettes of warriors walking beside the sea. Those tones would envelop them in reflections from the waves washing onto the beach that he had spent four days creating with light touches of Titian white, applied pure. So in a glass jar he mixed white, blue, and a minimal amount of natural sienna, until they were transformed into a luminous blue. Then he daubed some of the paint on the oven tray he used as a palette, dirtied the mixture with a little yellow, and worked without stopping the rest of the morning. Finally he clamped the handle of the brush between his teeth and stepped back to judge the effect. Sky and sea were now harmoniously combined in the mural that circled the interior of the tower, and although there was still a lot to be done, the horizon was now a smooth, slightly hazy line that accentuated the loneliness of the men—dark strokes splashed with metallic sparks—dispersed and moving away beneath the rain.
He rinsed the brushes with soap and water and set them to dry. From the foot of the cliff below came the sound of the motors and music of the tourist boat that ran along the coast every day at the same hour. With no need to look, Andrés Faulques knew that it was one o’clock. He heard the usual woman’s voice, amplified by the loudspeaker system, and it seemed even stronger and clearer when the boat drew even with the inlet, for then the sound reached the tower with no obstacle other than the few pines and bushes that despite erosion and slides were still clinging to the cliff face.
This place is known as Cala del Arráez. It was once the refuge of Berber pirates. Up there on the top of the cliff you can see an old watchtower that was constructed at the beginning of the eighteenth century as a part of the coastal defense, with the specific purpose of warning nearby villages of Saracen incursions . . .
It was the same voice every day: educated, with good diction. Faulques imagined the woman to be young; no doubt a local guide who accompanied the tourists on the three-hour tour the boat—a sixty-five-foot tender painted blue and white that docked in Puerto Umbría—made between Ahorcados Island and Cabo Malo. In the last two months, from atop the cliff, Faulques had watched it pass, its deck filled with people armed with film and video cameras as summertime music thundered over the loudspeakers, so loud that the interruptions of the woman’s voice came as a relief.
A well-known painter lives in that tower, which stood abandoned for a long time, and he is embellishing the entire interior wall with a large mural. Unfortunately, it is private property and no visitors are allowed . . .
This time the woman was speaking Spanish, but on other occasions it might be English, Italian, or German. Only when the tickets were bought with francs—four or five times that summer—did a masculine voice relieve her, in French. At any rate, Faulques thought, the season was almost over; with every trip there were fewer tourists on board the tender, and soon those daily visits would become weekly, until they were interrupted by the harsh gray mistrals that blew in the winter, funneling in through the straits called Bocas de Poniente, darkening sea and sky.
He turned his attention back to the painting, where new cracks had appeared. The large circular panorama was not as yet continuous; some zones were blank except for strokes of charcoal, simple black lines sketched on the white primer of the wall. The whole formed an immense and disquieting landscape, no title, no specific time, where the shield half buried in the sand, the medieval helmet splashed with blood, the shadow of an assault rifle falling over a forest of wood crosses, the ancient walled city and modern concrete-and-glass towers coexisted less as anachronisms than as evidence.
Faulques went back to his painting, laboriously, patiently. Although the technical execution was correct, it was not an outstanding work, and he knew it. He had a good hand for drawing, but he was a mediocre painter. He knew that as well. In truth, he had always known it; however, the mural was not destined to be seen by anyone but him. That had little to do with artistic ability and much to do with his memory. With an eye guided by thirty years of hearing the sound of a camera shutter. Hence the framing—that was as good a name to give it as any other—of all those straight lines and angles traced with a singular, vaguely Cubist severity that lent beings and objects contours as impossible to breach as barbed wire or moats. The mural took up the wall of the ground floor of the watchtower in a continuous panorama twenty-five meters in circumference and almost three meters in height, interrupted only by the openings of two narrow, facing windows, the door that led outside, and the spiral staircase that led to the upper floor that Faulques had arranged as his living quarters: a gas ring, a small refrigerator, a canvas cot, a table and chairs, a rug, and a trunk. He had lived there for seven months, and had spent the first two making it habitable: a temporary waterproof wood roof for the tower, concrete beams to reinforce the walls, shutters at the windows, and the drain that emptied out over the cliff from the small lower-level latrine carved out of the rock. He also had an outdoor water tank installed atop a board-and-tile shed that served both as a shower and as a garage for the motorcycle he rode down to the village each week to buy food.
The cracks worried Faulques. Too soon, he told himself. And too many. They would not actually affect the future of his work—it was a work without a future from the minute he discovered the abandoned tower and conceived his plan—only the time he needed to execute it. With that in mind, he nervously passed the tips of his fingers over the crazing that fanned out across the part of the mural that was closest to being finished, over the black and red strokes that represented the asymmetrical, polyhedral backlighting of the walls of the ancient city burning in the distance—Bosch, Goya, and Dr. Atl, among others: the hand of man, nature, and destiny fused in the magma of a single horizon. There would be more cracks. These weren’t the first. The structural reinforcing of the tower, the plastering, the white acrylic primer, were not enough to counteract the deterioration of the three-hundred-year-old building, the damage that had been caused by harsh weather, erosion, and salt from the nearby sea while it was abandoned. It was also, in a certain way, a struggle against time; its tranquil passing could not disguise its inexorable victory. Although not even that, Faulques concluded with a familiar professional fatalism—he’d seen a few cracks in his lifetime—was of major importance.
The pain—a sharp stab in his side over his right hip—arrived every eight or ten hours with reliable punctuality, faithful to their tryst, though this time it came with no warning. Faulques held his breath and didn’t move, to allow time for the first whiplash of pain to end; then he picked up a jar from the table and swallowed two tablets with a sip of water. In recent weeks he’d had to double the dose. After a moment, calmer now—it was worse when the pain came at night, and although it was eased by the tablets, it kept him awake till dawn—he reviewed the panorama with a slow look around the entire circle: the distant, modern city and the other city, closer and in flames, the abject silhouettes fleeing from it, the somber, foreshortened, armed men in the foreground, the reddish reflection of the fire—fine brushstrokes, vermilion over yellow—sliding along the metal of their guns, with the peculiar brilliance that catches the eye of an unfortunate protagonist, uneasy the minute the door opens—cloc, cloc, cloc—the nightly sound of boots, iron, and guns, precise as a musical score, before they make him come outside, barefoot, and cut off—in the updated version, lop off—his head. Faulques’ idea was to extend the light of the burning city as far as the gray dawn of the beach, where the rainy landscape and the sea in the background were fading into an eternal twilight, a prelude to that same night, or another identical to it, an interminable helix that brought the point of the wheel, the swinging pendulum of history, to the top of the arc, again and again, and sent it back the other way.
A well-known painter, the voice had announced. She always used the same words, while Faulques, imagining the tourists aiming their cameras toward the tower, wondered where the woman—the man who spoke in French never mentioned the tower’s resident—had acquired such inexact information. Maybe, he concluded, it was merely a way of adding more interest to the tour. If Faulques was known in certain places and professional circles, it was not for his painting. After a few youthful cracks at it, and for the rest of his professional life, drawing and brushes had been set aside, far—at least so he had thought until only recently—from the situations, landscapes, and people recorded through the viewfinder of his camera: the stuff of the world of colors, sensations, and faces that constituted his search for the definitive image; the both fleeting and eternal moment that would explain all things. The hidden rule that made order out of the implacable geometry of chaos. Paradoxically, only since he had put away his cameras and taken up his brushes anew, in search of the—reassuring?—perspective he had never been able to capture through a lens, had Faulques felt closer to what he had sought for so long without finding. Maybe, he now thought, the scene had never been in front of his eyes, in the soft green of a rice field, in the motley anthill of a souk, in the tears of a child or the mud of a trench, but inside him, in the backwash of his own memory and the ghosts that lined its shores like markers. In the tracing of sketch and color, slow, meticulous, thoughtful, that is possible only when the pulse is already beating slowly. When old, mean-spirited gods, and their consequences, cease to harass man with their hatreds and their favors.
Battle painting. The concept was daunting to anyone, whether or not he was expert, and Faulques had approached the subject with all the circumspection and technical humility possible. Before he’d bought the tower and moved into it, he had spent years collecting documentation, visiting museums, studying the execution of a genre that hadn’t interested him in the least during the days of his youthful studies and tastes. Faulques had trekked through galleries of battles from the Escorial and Versailles to certain Rivera or Orozco murals, from Greek vessels to the mill of Los Frailes, from specialized books to works exhibited in museums throughout Europe and America, observing everything with the unique eye that three decades of capturing war images had given him: in all, twenty-six centuries of the iconography of war. The mural was the end result of all these sources: warriors strapping on armor in terra-cotta reds and black; legionnaires sculpted on Trajan’s column; the Bayeux tapestry; Carducho’s victory at Fleurus; Saint-Quentin, Spain’s victory over France, as seen by Luca Giordano; slaughters painted by Antonio Tempesta; Leonardo’s studies of the battle of Anghiari; Callot’s engravings; the burning of Troy interpreted by Collantes; Goya’s Second of May and Disasters of War; the Suicide of Saul by Bruegel the Elder; the sacking and conflagrations depicted by Brueghel the Younger, or by Falcone; the Burgundy wars; Fortuny’s Battle of Tetuan, the Napoleonic grenadiers and horsemen of Meissonier and Detaille; the cavalry charges of Lin, Meulen, and Roda; an assault on a convent by Pandolfo Reschi; a night conflict by Matteo Stom; Paolo Uccello’s medieval clashes; and so many other works studied for hours and days and months, searching for a key, a secret, an explanation or a useful tool. Hundreds of notes and books, thousands of images, piled everywhere, around and inside Faulques, in the tower, and in his memory.