First time I met Ishmael was during a gathering at a painter’s house, but one can’t be too sure, for in those early days following the pandemic, everyone lived, or strived to, at least, their best bohemian life. People gathered at this mansion of immaculate marble floors and walls, but no one really knew, and by that, I mean myself, who the owner of the house was. Someone had told me it belonged to a famous painter once and I wasn’t one to argue.
People had been urged to stay home during the pandemic for almost half a year, the biggest crisis a generation of smartphones and social media had to endure in the modern ages. This was in fact a generation of privileges, but not for Ishmael. He had arrived here on a boat, some had said, others claimed they had heard stories of him being renounced by his country as a whistle-blower and being disposed of due to his confronting opinions as an artist. In those days, no one really knew much about him, but at the same time everyone who was anyone in our small world knew Ishmael. He carried himself with such confidence that his writing would undoubtedly one day come to be considered up there with the very best. I sure as hell wasn’t familiar with his work when I first met him that summer night, but I knew from his aura as soon as he greeted me that there was something peculiar about this intriguing fellow.
These were in fact some very blurry, warm summer nights that easily turned into days, the setting being the big house that would later be known as one of the biggest pleasure dungeons in the southern hemisphere. Any artist who liked discussing their craft could be found there: the cocktails would be held in the huge backyard of the mansion where hundreds of people would chatter away with sophisticated drinks in their hands. Soon, after the drugs had kicked in and a few bottles had been spilled, people would overflow the mansion to indulge in broken dialogue inside the comforts of the house. Ishmael would sometimes read out his latest work to be discussed amongst his drunken peers. Some would bring their latest paintings and display it for everyone to see. In many occasions, the painting would be sold right there and then, astronomical figures and late-night promises thrown around in the spur of the drunken, artistical moment.
Ishmael started capitalising on the full artistic potential of his guests and organized various creative, inebriated workshops such as poetry readings or drawing classes. These were some of the most cultivated artists society had to offer, all drunken in a trance of ecstatic human progress never seen before in our time. Not by me, at least.
In hindsight, I believe the fact everyone had been locked in their places for over half a year made the guests extra sociable. The several trays of champagne, pills and white powder also added to the mix. Soon and before you knew it, the drawing sessions were turning into nude sessions, and soon after that the orgies ensued. It seemed the whole world had gone back to its old, simpler ways, and I wasn’t one to complain. The best and brightest drank to exhaustion since they felt a fulfilment towards life the only way an artist can. No one even knew exactly whose mansion we were gathering in, since we rarely saw Ishmael at first, but a few writers seemed to be more in the mix when pulling out expensive bottles out of cellars and drugs out of hidden compartments all around the house.
It was during one of these drunken nights that I first met Ishmael, as he asked me what I did for a living. I told him I was a journalist, to which he replied:
“A writer, huh?” he asked with an amused smile on his face.
“More of a journalist, but yes, a writer of sorts.”
“We’re all writers of sorts, my brother, and we’re all journalists trying to make sense of all the dust the media companies throw in front of our eyes.”
“It’s a dirty business.” I agreed in reply.
“Do you drink cognac, young brother? I did not catch your name.”
“Well Dave, come with me.”
He brought me upstairs to one of the many rooms of the mansion I’d never ventured to. We found a library where a couple of people were passed out. He paid them no matter. The cherry-wooden shelves were contrasted by a myriad of multicoloured book spines which seemed too perfectly arranged to have ever been removed off the shelves. I followed him to the far end of the massive room where he opened an antique-looking globe, to reveal several fine, amber-coloured bottles.
“Do you enjoy cognac, Mr. Dave?”
“I guess I’m about to find out. And just Dave is fine.” I said, trying my best not to show my lack of practice in public intoxication.
“Well Mr. Dave, a fine cognac is like a fine woman. Or a fine man. Nothing wrong with either. Do you like men, Mr. Dave?”
“Just Dave is fine. I can’t say I’ve ever tried, but I’m hoping that’s not what you’ve brought me up here to find out.”
I let out an awkward laugh I was quick to regret.
“Women, much like a fine cognac, are one of the greatest pleasures one can find on the surface of this reality we call Earth. I can say with all my enthusiasm that I would’ve never been able to find the muse within me without the great women surrounding me. Are you married, Mr. Dave?”
“I can’t say I am. Are you?”
“Marriage seems to me like one of mankind’s most preposterous inventions. Sure, one can be lost in the wonders of a woman for a few days, months, maybe even years, but to stick to one flower in the most fascinating of gardens seems almost criminal.”
He poured each of us a short glass of the amber-like liquor and stared deep into my eyes. His green-gaze seemed to stare right through my soul, a soul a young man like me was still trying to figure out back then. I still am, these days, but I found (and might have left behind) a big piece of me in that mansion.
“I’d like you to meet my partner. You seem like an inspiring and upcoming artist. She’ll love you.”
“I thought you just said you hated marriage.”
“I said I found it preposterous, but never that I didn’t have a better half. Come meet Eva.”
I followed him out of the library-like room and headed downstairs into the backyard. Laughter echoed against the marble walls. The swimming pool illuminated the faces of the many drunken guests who chattered away around the garden.
Many paid their respects and acknowledged Ishmael by simply nodding their heads amid conversations, or so I remember. In a writer’s head, blurry nights like this draw a fine line between real life and drug-fuelled, imaginary fiction. Maybe that’s what he saw in me: the fascination with which my eyes wondered at all the life around me.
“Having a good time?” he asked amusedly.
“Is this your house?” I asked as I followed him around.
“This is Eva’s house. My muse. Come.”
We somehow managed to make it to the end of the garden where a huge firepit warmed several people around it. Ishmael motioned towards a tall, short-haired woman who was indulging in a conversation with a fat man. He simply put his hand on her shoulder and greeted the man, who shook his hand in return with a smile, followed by something about a painting he would like Ishmael to see. He seemed to agree to whatever it was the fat man proposed and brought the short-haired woman’s attention towards me. Her eyes were sequestered by her pupils as she introduced herself by kissing my lips. They both sensed my discomfort and were amused by this. I inquired upon Ishmael’s eyes to ensure he wasn’t going to hang me.
“Relax, young friend, you’re home now.”
He watched me as Eva caressed my back.
“Dave here is a writer hon, and he wanted to meet the owner of the house.”
“Well, my husband isn’t here right now, but I can take you for a tour if you’d like.”
The puzzled look I must’ve had on my face seemed to fuel her as I waved Ishmael goodbye whilst being dragged away by the lovely host. She put her arm around mine and for a moment I saw the world through her eyes. Everyone glanced at us mid-conversation, their attention momentarily stolen to acknowledge the short-haired woman being accompanied by a promising young chap like myself, for I too received a couple of admiring glances just for being in her orbit. We moved through the crowd and into the house of marble façades and tall windows.
“So, tell me, Mr. Dave, what is your poison?”
“I’ve some cognac right here, thank you.”
She stopped us, held me by the shoulders and stared into my soul, much like Ishmael had done before.
“I don’t mean that. We all have a poison. Drugs, women, money, fame… You name it! What’s yours? I want you to tell me.”
“I dunno. Women, I suppose?”
She let my answer linger in the air as her focus was directed somewhere else for a second. She turned back and asked:
“You suppose? Hm. I suppose we’ll have to find out! You’ve come to the right place. Come with.”
Eva held me by the arm once more as she took me for a tour of the mansion.
In the basement we found a darker tone to what could be considered an underground party, where smoke filled the room and people relaxed on bean-bags laid all around the large, red-bricked room. A smell of what I can describe only as death hung in the air, mixed with the sweet scent of marijuana smoke.
“Here is where you come to unwind.” She said, as a pull in the arm dragged me back to the corridors through which we made our way about. A tour through the many indulgences in life where I was merely a passenger, watching from the outside.
Next, she took me up the stairs into a carpeted room with a huge wooden bed central to the symmetrical display of fine furniture. Several people laid by the carpets smoking, and many indulged in the pleasures of the flesh. I could merely watch the scene as if in a movie. Several oriental veils hung around the room. This gave the space a dreamlike atmosphere, the fabrics fluttering as the summer breeze joined the party through the open balcony.
From this room she then dragged me onto the same library Ishmael had brought me to before.
“I’ve been here tonight.” I said, gazing around the room.
“Have you really?”
She dragged me towards the far end of the library where one of the cherry-wooden bookshelves gave in to reveal another room. I saw people wearing leather from head to toe, many of them completely immobilised by dark straps and polished metal chains. Eva watched my reaction with interest. Before I knew it, she was once more dragging me out, this time onto a grey-stoned balcony where people enjoyed chatting around white, small tables, with candles central to them. Eva sat us down in one of the empty tables at the far end.
“I’m exhausted.” She said as she finished her drink.
We sat for what felt like a while, observing the party from above. I was still mulling over everything I had just seen, and she seemed to enjoy the silence for a few moments, until she asked:
“So, what do you think?”
“I think you throw a helluva party, that’s for sure.”
“You’re a writer, I’m sure you can make sense out of all this.”
“I am not really a writer yet, I just write for the newspaper for now.”
“Look around, Mr. Dave. None of us here are anything yet. We are but little human embryos trying to live our lives to their full potential.”
“I understand the carpe diem you’re implying here; I just don’t know if this is how you should put potential to use.”
“Why not?” she asked, observing my features for a reaction. “Surely by now you’d understand that it’s all meaningless. I mean look around; all it took was a small virus to throw our whole world upside down.”
“Yes, I agree, but things are starting to go back to normal now, aren’t they?”
“And what exactly is normal, Mr. Dave? Who defines normal? Who decides what’s righter or less wrong?”
The tone in her voice implied she was very passionate about this, and I let the question linger for a few seconds as if out of respect. She powered onwards:
“The way I see it, our duty to ourselves, fuck mankind, is to express our creativity and to make the most of this frail illusion we call existence. Life is too short to try and prolong it. I mean look around, here it is, the crème de la crème of society here tonight, the creative kind at least, which is all that matters. Art is the ultimate form of expression, whether you talk love, life or death, only art will subsist in the end. That’s where you, the writer, comes in.”
“Is that the way your husband sees it? I mean, Ishmael?”
“Ish? Oh, he’s but a darling. His writing hasn’t reached half its potential yet. But this is it.” She pointed her empty glass around the party. “This is where we forward mankind by edging one step closer to extinction. This is how the new dawn shall be written. The future of the constant existential crisis we call reality.”
I can’t seem to remember much past this point, and all of these lines are the best effort I can come up with to make justice to the insightful speech that fine woman gave me that day.
It was with a heavy heart then, that a few months later I had to write the news report which would set in motion the chain of events that would bring light to the mystery behind that mansion. It turns out the house belonged to Eva’s late husband, a wealthy scholar by the name of Strickland, who passed away shortly after contracting the virus.
The interesting thing behind that death was the fact that everything went on in that house as if nothing had happened, apart from the fact Eva had chosen Ishmael as the new, for all intents and purposes, man of the house. But the true revelation, the light to shine out of those tragic events, was that Eva was the one behind the two bestselling novels Ishmael was supposed to have released during the pandemic.
This information only came to light after I had to write about the mysterious circumstances surrounding Ishmael’s death by asphyxiation in the newspaper. This upset a lot of people who were avid followers of the up-and-coming artist. Everyone assumed this was just another tragic death of a too-promising an artist. But when a new novel came out a year later under the same name of the late Ishmael, questions were asked about the true identity of the genius behind the works. Eva came out in a press conference which raised a few eyebrows, and many refuted the possibility of her being the genius behind Ishmael.
I was lucky to meet Eva one last time, amid the polemic, after she stated she would only give out a full interview if I was the one doing the questioning.
“I shall keep on using Ish’s name, for people are not ready to hear the truth from someone named Eva. Hiding behind a male pseudonym empowers me. You lose almost half your readership as soon as they read the original name of sin, Eva.”
This was the one of the main quotes I would go on to use in my next newspaper’s report when Eva took the ultimate step in the artistic path drawn as her destiny, by committing the ultimate act of love: hanging herself like her late and beloved Ishmael.