I was walking down a crooked cobblestone alley in Antwerp, Belgium. The stones were shiny and wet from the rain that came down thirty minutes ago. Every so often I stumbled on a hole where a brick had gone missing. I nearly broke my ankle twice. It was definitely the wrong day to where my thigh-high, four-inch platform snakeskin boots.
I have been in the shopping mood all day. I’ve bought all the usual treat-myself gifts that I resort to when I’m feeling blue. I was carrying an indigo velvet bag filled with three hundred rainbow hair ties, beeswax candles, and color changing fountain pens. At last, I rounded a corner and was brought to my destination: a hole-in-the-wall antique shop called Mr. Salazar’s Cabinet of Curiosities.
The Cabinet was surely a sight to behold. Its black paint was peeling, green vines were crawling up the sides of the front window, and a hand-painted sign hung above the front door. Yellow letters, the color of old parchment, proudly announced that the store has been open since 1833. I pushed the door inward and heard the bell above me chime, signaling my entrance and catching the attention of the clerk behind the front desk.
The clerk was a funny man with a funny name. He had a jet black goatee that ended in a perfect curl and wore a shabby, moth-eaten plaid suit. He was weighing a clunky watch on a set of brass scales and gave me a small nod as I passed him, going further into the maze of books, trinkets, and bones. The outside of the shop was misleading. It seemed square and small, but the moment you step in the store, you realize that vastness of the store. Staircases lead you up two more floors and down one, small side-rooms make you sidetracked, and little alleys will leave you questioning how much time you’ve actually spent here.
As I wandered around, the only people I saw were an ancient looking old lady in a plum-colored traveling cloak and a young boy who was extremely pale and had what looked like a saber tooth for an earring. I watched the young boy as he looked through a chest of skulls and other bones with concerning urgency. The other lady was in the next room over and just seemed to be staring into space.
I started to take in what was around me. A chandelier decorated with antlers illuminated the room, which was full of statues and head busts on granite tables. I saw a statue of a Shakespearean man in deep thought, a Greek-style head bust of a man in agony, and the head and shoulders of an old nun with her nose cut off and the paint on her face nearly all gone. Stacks of leather bound books teetered dangerously along the sides of the corridor in which I was no walking.
I was admiring the mesmerizing patterns and softness of the carpet below my feet. But when I looked up, I was startled to see dozens of my own visages looking back at me. Mirrors of all shapes, sizes, and colors lined the pale blue walls and seemed to lead me down the staircase and into the next section of the Cabinet. There were six stairs, and like all extra space here, they were lined with an assortment of trinkets and curious. I tapped a glass case containing a large brown mushroom and it wiggled a bit. The black, rusty helmet from an old knight creaked and watched me walk past. A small copper birdcage at the bottom of the stairs did not house a live bird, yet was home to a bird’s skeleton, frozen in time on the little swing in the middle.
I took a left and then the second right and went down to more steps of stairs. Alas, I was in the room I had dreamt of returning to for months. I was anxious to enter, unsure if the item I sought would still be there. I gathered myself and scanned the room. Every inch of the wall was covered with hundreds of pictures and paintings in gold frames. Thick velvet carpet cushioned my steps and an ivory candle was burning low on a stack of small black books in the furthest corner of the room. Then my heart skipped a beat as I saw what my heart desperately desired.
There, not hung up like the other frames, instead of sitting on the floor and leaning against the wall, was the picture. It was about five feet by three, with an ornate yet dusty frame. It was a large picture of two young boys, aged nine and seven. It was a faded black and white, so it looked more like tan and brown. The photo was taken in 1896 by a mister Florent Grégoire. I had done my fair share of research before committing to this photo. The two boys each held a scroll in their left hand, wore old-school uniforms with high socks and had two straw boater hats.
I stared into the faces of these young boys, waiting. The shop around me was completely quiet. I stared and stared, hoping to see it again. Then there it was the wink. The taller boy, the nine-year-old, winked at me. Just as he did the last time I was here. The painting was alive. I leaned down to pick up the frame. It was surprisingly light. I was filled with adrenaline as I carried it back upstairs and over to the clerk’s desk.
“How much is this?” I asked the bespectacled man. He looked down at me. He shrugged his shoulders and said, “Twenty euros.”
“Twenty euros? Really? Why so cheap?” I was shocked. I had been expecting to pay at least two hundred, especially considering how expensive everything else in the store is.
“This painting has been here and back since the store opened. People buy it and then bring it back a few days later. Happens every time. Twenty euros, no returns.”
“Yes, absolutely. No problem.” I shuffled through my purse to find a crumpled blue note and handed it to the funny man with a funny name. I thanked him graciously and picked up the frame again. The excitement was coursing through my body. Right before I walked through the door into the rain, the clerk called out behind me, “Be careful.”
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