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Forest Dark
Author:Nicole Krauss

He was known at Sotheby’s. Known by the heads of old master paintings, of master drawings, of modern art, of rugs. Known by the curator of primitive sculpture and Roman glass. Ordering his cappuccino on the tenth floor, Epstein would be intercepted by the tapestry specialist who had a piece from the Brussels workshop he really must see. At previews, he did not fall under the purview of the DO NOT TOUCH signs, and was allowed to finger what he wished; when he arrived at an auction, his paddle was always waiting. But however known he was, and however eager they might have been to offer his extraordinary Annunciation—which they also knew well, having sold the fifteenth-century altar panel to him ten years earlier—they could not pick the painting up themselves, for reasons of liability. Neither was there time to organize third-party transport, if he wanted it included in the upcoming auction: the catalogue was closing in two days.

Schloss was out of the question. So were all three of Epstein’s children, since each would have sounded a different kind of alarm. And Sharon’s concern for him was such that he couldn’t risk the possibility of her calling Lianne or Maya when she discovered that he had decided to sell off the Annunciation to fund a film about the biblical David. Epstein settled on phoning the lobby on Fifth Avenue. The first time Haaroon wasn’t on duty, only the small Sri Lankan whose name he forgot a moment after he’d been reminded of it. Had Jimmy answered, the slender, remote Japanese who rode the elevator enveloped in a distant privacy and never said a word, Epstein might have gone ahead and explained what he’d wanted. But the Sri Lankan had always exhibited too much curiosity to be trusted. When he called back a few hours later, Haaroon had arrived for his shift and answered after the first ring. He asked Epstein to hold while he procured the yellow legal pad and pen that he kept in the drawer of the lobby console.

“Yes, sir,” he said, balancing the pad on his arm while clamping the phone between ear and shoulder, and set to copying down his instructions. Oh no, it would be no trouble at all, he could pack it tonight—yes, he would be exceedingly careful—nearly six hundred years old—how extraordinary, yes, truly, sir—first thing tomorrow morning to Sotheby’s, Seventy-Second and York—oh, he would carry it like a newborn—yes, the Virgin, sir, hah-hah, very funny—oh really, a Madonna!—certainly, Mr. Epstein, no trouble at all.

It was five in the morning when Haaroon’s shift came to an end and he hung his uniform in the basement office, took the spare key to the Epstein apartment, rode up in the elevator, and fingered the prayer rug from Isfahan in front of the door, loomed for bowing prostrate rather than wiping dirty feet. He removed his shoes and lined them up under the brass-footed bench. Letting himself in with the key, he searched in the dark for the light switch but, catching sight of the glittering view, he stopped. Overwhelmed all over again, he crossed the empty living room, large enough to have fit the houses of both his brothers in Punjab. He looked out over the park. The hawk would still be asleep in his nest now. His new mate would be getting ready to lay her eggs, and soon Haaroon would have to watch the sky for flocks of ravenous crows. Last year a fledgling had fallen out of a tree right in front of the building, and he had run to its rescue, stopping traffic, but after a stunned moment the bird had righted itself and taken flight again. The faithful doorman pressed his nose to the cold glass, but could see nothing in the still-black sky.

He found the painting in the master bedroom, just as Epstein had described it. It was smaller than he’d expected, and yet its radiance was such that he could not bring himself to touch it right away. Standing nearly upon it, he had the feeling of intruding on something intensely private. And yet he couldn’t take his eyes away from the girl Mary and the angel. Only after some time did he notice that in the corner, half outside the frame, was a third figure, a man who was also looking, long fingers pressed together in devotion. The man’s lurking presence bothered him. Who was he meant to be? Joseph? Useless Joseph, who had to insinuate himself there into the scene? But, no, he didn’t look like Joseph at all; a man with a face like that surely could have nothing to do with the illuminated girl kneeling before the angel.

The sky was already beginning to lighten when Haaroon stepped out through the building’s service entrance with the package tucked under his arm. Spring was not far off, but it was still cold enough that his breath froze under the streetlamps. There were three hours until Sotheby’s would open, and so he entered the park, gazing up toward the barren treetops. The bench where he liked to spend his lunch break was taken by a homeless man in filthy boots, sprawled across the length of it under a ratty blanket the color and texture of loam. Practicing to be buried, Haaroon thought, and sank down two benches away, laying the precious parcel on his lap. From there, the great swath of sky was partially obscured by the branches of a giant tree, but he could still see enough of it to keep watch. His eyes followed the darting sparrows for a while. When he looked down, he saw with wonder how the light falling from the streetlamp through the clear wrapping still glinted on the Virgin’s halo. That he, a man born in Punjab Province to a farmer, should be sitting in New York City holding a masterpiece painted in fifteenth-century Italy—he felt a sudden urge to break the little painting in two and shivered. To his brothers, such a thing would hold no value at all, and he felt a wave of sadness at a distance he could no longer cross.

As if deliberately out to disturb him, a crow came angling down, strutted across the grass, and began to shriek at him. Such aggressive and conspiratorial birds, so maliciously intelligent—they seemed to remember him from the time he had pelted some of their kind with acorns to protect one of the fledgling hawks, and now they cawed angrily whenever they came across him. Haaroon took hold of his parcel and stood, waving his free arm and shouting back at the crow: Go back to where you come from! The bird flapped off, its black wing feathers reflecting the blue of the sky, and the homeless man stirred under the brown surface. After a moment, a matted head of hair popped out, followed by his weathered face.

“Asshole!”

“Sorry,” Haaroon muttered, and grimly took his seat again.

The homeless man eyed him from his horizontal position.

“What are you looking for, drones?”

“Not really.”

“Yesterday I saw one fly right by that window”—the homeless man pointed a steady finger at a high floor of a building across the street—“and hover there for two minutes, looking in.”

“Really?”

“Spy mission,” he said, propping himself up on one elbow.

The park had begun to fill with early-morning joggers, and the homeless man watched them go by on the path.

“If you’re not looking for drones, then what?”

“A hawk, actually.”

“You missed him. Wind-fucker. Already caught a pigeon this morning. Ripped its head off in one bite.”

“Really!”

But the homeless man had pulled the blanket back up to his nose.