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Dreaming of Boticelli
They had known each other for three days when she vanished. Desperately seeking her, Michael wandered labyrinthian medieval-style streets and in and out of museums, shops, and churches. Descending into a psychic whirlpool of blood and darkness, he hungered for a glimpse, a sign of this angelic woman who provided the transcendence he had previously known only in late medieval and early renaissance art. Finally, he found her and she claimed him, eternally, as her own.
This is his story.
A humanities professor in a small liberal arts college in the Pacific Northwest, Michael Estes had lost his wife and children in the early 70s to a mysterious food-related illness. In televised interviews, Michael publicly proclaimed his innocence, even offering proof that on the fatal night he had been in Boise visiting his parents.
But people are people, and rumors that Michael Estes had had his family poisoned buzzed like malaria-carrying mosquitoes in the small community just south of Portland. Black-balled in both the town and the college, severely depressed, Michael fought his dread of isolation, taking trips to places he and his wife had loved to visit, visiting art displays in major Western cities, finding refuge and even a kind of friendship in a striptease bar, and finally (because he could not bear being alone) immersing himself in the world of adult erotica. In his spare time, under an assumed name, he wrote for several pornographic magazines that were popular with his colleagues. But Pentecostal by birth, Michael loathed his decadence, and judging that he had committed a transgression, he decided in January of 1979 to spend his summer touring the great museums of Europe.
So, late in July, a thin and slightly graying Michael Estes found himself in Florence, Italy, the city that gave birth to the European Renaissance and (as he had told his students many times) definition to Western culture. Being in Florence was like stepping into paradise and, for days, DaVinci, Michaelangelo, Calvaggio, and Boticelli sustained him. But gradually his fear of being alone possessed him, and so he decided to dine at Ben's Place near the central train station. His tour book highly recommended the restaurant, popular with younger adults.
It was a small, noisy family-run place, the walls covered with photos, drawings, and posters from customers from all over the world. Italian folk music blended with the low hum of conversation, and a cloud of blue cigarette smoke hung just over the heads of the customers. After being seated in the middle of the restaurant, he looked up, adjusted his wire-rim glasses, and saw the woman watching him from a table in the back, her eyes riveting him like a spear.
Attraction was immediate, mutual, and powerful. For several minutes, they stared at each other, Michael’s heart in his throat. And as she rose from her table and gracefully approached him through soft semi-darkness, he stood, his eyes locked on hers. The young woman was ethereal, darkly radiant, her very light reddish-brown hair cascading sensually over her shoulders, her lips soft and delicate. She smiled coyly, bringing to mind artistic depictions of the Virgin Mary. He noted that she was wearing a short, black dress with a plunging neckline.
"Good evening," he breathed.
"Good evening," she responded softly.
"I'm Michael. Michael Estes," he said, extending his hand.
"I'm Jennifer.” She took his right hand in her left.
Her hand was warm, soft, and strong, and Michael felt aroused. "Would you care to join me?" he asked.
"I would be delighted, Michael," she said, gliding forward and kissing him lightly on the cheek, then slowly backing away and easing into the chair across from his. She acted, Michael thought, as if she knew him.
Michael could not remember what he or Jennifer ordered. But they did order, and they did eat. Bewitched, Michael briefly told about himself: growing up in southern Idaho, attending Berkeley, where he had received all of his degrees, and teaching in a college just south of Portland; he neglected to mention the deaths of his wife and children.
And then, against the hum of conversation in the background, he listened to Jennifer’s story: raised outside the church, she had traveled the globe, attending various art schools and getting to know several artists and writers; she lived with her uncle, an incredibly wealthy and powerful old man, and, most recently and over the objections of her uncle, had worked several years as a stripper in Vegas and even performed in a couple of adult films before heeding the call to come to Florence. Jennifer’s story perplexed Michael, and it occurred to him that the woman sitting across from him was playing a game. He was, nonetheless, hopelessly attracted to her.
During desert and coffee, after removing her shoes, she placed her right foot between Michael's legs. It was as if he had asked her to do so, and as he pretended to concentrate upon eating, she massaged him to climax, smiling almost mischievously. After he paid the bill, they walked hand-in-hand and explored some of the still-open shops near the restaurant.
Well past midnight, while walking along a street that curved behind the majestic nineteenth century hotel where this bewitching woman stayed, Michael pulled Jennifer into a crooked alley snaking into thick darkness. Obscured from tourists, Michael braced Jennifer against the alley wall, and with her legs wrapped around him, they made furious love. He noted that Jennifer wore nothing underneath her dress. As Jennifer panted and moaned, Michael experienced a rapture divine and bestial.
The invitation was unnecessary, and Jennifer took Michael to her room on the third floor of the old twelve-story hotel. It was a small place with a wooden floor, a green rug bordered with red floral designs, a high ceiling, a balcony, a double bed, the scent of blood, and a small TV. Slowly, they undressed each other, and when they stood naked, Jennifer knelt, caressed Michael's manhood, and took him into her mouth. Throughout the night and into the early morning, never quite satisfied, Michael penetrated Jennifer again and again, each time finding more energy and feeling himself grow larger.
"I love you to fuck me," this splendid, ethereal woman cooed time and again.
"I love to fuck you, too," Michael responded.
Just before noon they breakfasted in the room. At three in the afternoon, they left hotel to explore some sites. Soul-bound, they spent the next three days walking through the rooms of the city's grandest and most famous art museums, marveling at the wealth of paintings. To Michael's delight, Jennifer was as knowledgeable as he.
It was in the Uffizi Museum, one of the best in Europe, that Michael experienced a revelation. Up to this moment he had found medieval and early Renaissance art fascinating, even empowering as artists used solid colors to recreate a divinely ordered cosmos. Yet, since the death of his wife and children, he had spiritually and emotionally remained locked within a dark and fragmented world.
It was upon entering the high, blue the room devoted to Sandro Botticelli, a painter of the Early Renaissance, that Michael sensed an urgency to study each of the old Italian master's paintings carefully, and he did so, slowly moving picture to picture and bursting with anticipation.
And, suddenly, as if struck by a meteor, he found himself gazing upon the gorgeous nude woman in Botticelli's "The Birth of Venus," a painting of greens, blues, and golds that subtly glorified the pagan goddess. Cradled by the ocean, she stood in a giant seashell, long lightly reddish-brown hair blowing in the wind and wrapping around her body and concealing her femininity. Her sensuous eyes beckoned the viewer, and she smiled coyly as her right arm delicately crossed one of her breasts; her left hand was gently placed over her pubic area. The painting took Michael’s breath away as he realized that Jennifer bore an unmistakable and uncanny resemblance to the goddess.
He took his eyes off Venus and looked at Jennifer, wearing a short black dress, and she turned toward him. Smiling, she asked, almost knowingly, "What do you see, Michael?"
"I see you," was the only response that Michael could manage.
“Yes,” she said.
They left the museum around four in the afternoon. Stepping outside, expecting warmth and sunshine, Michael saw black clouds looming just over the city, lightning shattering the sky. It was the first bad weather he had experienced in Florence. Bracing himself, fearing his rapture would deflate like a balloon, he looked at Jennifer, whose hair blew wildly in the wind.
They stood on the corner waiting for a taxi. When the rain came, Michael instructed Jennifer to wait just inside the museum. She smiled and nodded.
"I'll be just inside the doors. Don't be long," she said as she hurried away through the whish of sudden rain to the museum's entrance. Once, she turned and blew him a kiss.
Ten minutes later, a taxi stopped. In English, Michael told the driver, a thin aging man with a tooth missing in front, to wait while he ran through the deluge and back into the museum. Once inside the doors, he could not find Jennifer. Puzzled, he searched the restaurant and then stood outside the woman’s restroom. After a half an hour he concluded that Jennifer had vanished.
When he described Jennifer to one of the guards, using a postcard of Botticelli's painting, Michael received a pained blank look.
"You haven’t seen her?" Michael asked.
"I tell you the truth, sir," the small, bearded man had replied in broken English. "I would notice such a beautiful woman."
Stunned, Michael wondered for a crazy instant if he were the victim of a diabolical game. She had been with him, and then, poof!, she'd vanished. He wondered if she had left with some relatives or friends, and he recalled that Jennifer had mentioned no one else apart from her uncle.
His mind spinning in dark circles, Michael walked back to the hotel. In the drizzle, he wondered if he should alert the authorities. Notifying the authorities would be ridiculous, he realized, for he had no proof, beyond a conviction in his heart, that something had gone terribly wrong. For three days and three nights, slowly spiraling into the dark delirium that often preceded crippling depression, he stayed in the lobby, waiting for Jennifer to step from an elevator or descend the winding stairs. Finally, he was asked to leave.
For the next three days, returning to his own hotel only late at night, he wandered ghost-like through the streets of the city, in and out of churches, museums, and restaurants, unable to erase from his mind the memory of this woman who had surely given herself to him completely. One morning, finding himself alone before the altar of a small twelfth century cathedral, he dropped to his knees before the cross and, kneeling on the cold stone floor, cried out to God, asking for a sign, anything that would lead him to Jennifer.
That night, in the bed, he briefly dreamt of Jennifer. In the dream, as he stood before the Botticelli, desiring Venus, Jennifer stepped out of the painting and approached him. Naked, her eyes sensuous, beckoning, she bore dark wings.
He awoke the next morning, surprisingly refreshed but still determined to search for the young mysterious woman. That day, in each of seven consecutive shops, each located two or three doors down from the last, he found hanging on the wall to the right of the door a print of Botticelli's "Primavera," the form and beauty of the woman who stood just right of center beckoning him, almost as if to communicate some message that would solidify an existence whose sense of order was darkly fragmenting.
"Can I help you sir?" clerk after clerk asked.
"I’m seeking a woman who looks like Botticelli’s Venus," Michael muttered.
"I beg your pardon, sir?" was the common response.
That night, he again dreamt of Jennifer. Clothed in a long black and green gown, she stood on a bluish-green lake, and as Michael watched he saw her transformed first into the Virgin, her black gown taking on the white, red, and blue traditionally associated with Mary, then into Christ bloodily hanging from the cross and outlined against a blackened sky, and finally into an angel. The angel again had dark wings, and as Michael called to her, she looked at him and wept. In the dream, Michael felt that his heart was fit to break.
The next day, feeling worn, he wandered into a dark, candle-lit shop. The shop, he noticed, specialized in dark, gothic art and contained items frequently associated with medieval torture. Several prints caught his attention, all depicting a beautiful naked woman subjected to various forms of torture. In one, her face contorted in pain, her mouth locked in a silent scream, and her ribs bulging horribly, she was stretched upon a rack, dark, cloaked figures hovering around her like vampire bats; in another, her face etched in terror, her body pale, she lay spread-eagle on a wooden table, a creature with the head of a crow and the body of a wolf preparing to disembowel her; and in another, bloodied and bound to a stake, her hands tied behind her, her neck circled by rope, she was being whipped by a tall old woman dressed in white. Mentally, in print after print, he pictured Jennifer in the tortured woman’s place. What particularly unnerved him, as he stood in the dirty little shop, was the actually pleasant sensation of something dark and sensuous wrapping around him like a snake.
And that night, unable to rid his mind of the horrid images, he dreamt a third time of Jennifer. Naked, she was walking through darkly illuminated caverns whose dirt floor was strewn with the human bones and whose walls were covered with the blood of the damned. It was as if he were standing in a corner, calling out to her. The cavern was filled with high and hollow songs and smelled of death. And then, as he sensed the dream fading, Jennifer turned to him, smiled, and held out her hand. She seemed to be saying something in an occult tongue, and as he strained to listen he knew he would soon find her.
The next day, possessed by the woman's image, imagining at times that she was encouraging him in his search, he walked on, occasionally muttering to himself. Around three in the afternoon, he stood at the entrance of an old church whose name he did not recognize from any of the tourist guides. Built in the fourteenth century, the church was an astounding example of Gothic architecture, its towering spires crowded with saints and angels. Perched on a ledge over the high, pointed door were two stone angels, both looking sadly down upon him, one weeping tears of blood. He knew he must enter.
He stepped through the small entrance built next to door and waited in the back of the church for his eyes to adjust. It was like watching the slow birth of light, and after several minutes, the sun outside positioning itself perfectly, he saw the stained glass windows, original to the church, exploding in reds, blues, and greens, all depicting Biblical narratives. According to the tourist pamphlet that he had picked up along a side wall, the church had a vast crypt, now closed to visitors, and as Michael read of the burial of saints and well-known statesmen, he knew that he was very near Jennifer. Moving to the middle of the church, eyeing behind the altar a wooden cross holding a statue of the Savior, he slid into a pew and silently prayed to be allowed entrance into the crypts.
That night, sucked into dark slumber, he had a final and frighteningly real dream. He found himself in a large cold room adjoining the crypts that honeycombed the earth below the old gothic style church. In the half light, Michael could see Jennifer suspended naked and diagonally, her bloodied wrists bound tightly into an X-shaped cross by thick ropes that were, in turn, tied to iron loops protruding from the ceiling and the floor. Aroused, he slowly approached Jennifer, her once beautiful blond hair streaked with dirt and blood, her eyes dark slits. Blood was caked to the area just between her nose and mouth, and her lower lip was cut and swollen.
She seemed barely conscious as he ran his hand down her body, brushing her nipples, which grew hard under his touch. He continued to move his hand down her body to the area between his legs. As he felt her, wondering how many times she had been penetrated since he last saw her, Jennifer drew a long breath, coughed, and, as he looked at her face, opened her eyes and her mouth.
"Jennifer?" he asked.
"Where the fuck've you been?" she asked. Her voice, though weak, was abrupt, focused.
"Looking for you," he responded.
"It's been a year, Michael. Where have you been?" Her voice was melodic.
"It's been six or seven days," he assured her.
"It's felt like a year."
"Did they fuck you?" Michael finally asked. It was a crazy question.
"Oh, yes. Again and again and again."
"Men can be such beasts, you know," she added, laughing.
"Well, yes, I suppose so," he said.
"But I love beasts," she purred, "and I love to fuck, and I do love you."
Kneeling and struggling to untie the rope that bound one leg, Michael realized that, somehow, Jennifer had changed. The almost transcendent glow had been replaced by sensual darkness, tangible as lead.
"Gonna fuck me, Michael?" she asked, her voice stronger.
"Only if you promise to spend the rest of your life with me," he said.
Jennifer smiled. "Of course," she whispered.
Michael stood and looked at her, suspended, beautiful, and naked. Blood didn't bother him. This is a new kind of beauty, he thought, moving between her legs and unzipping his pants. Images of Botticelli flooding his mind, he gracefully entered her and, once again, felt himself to be whole.
The next morning, spent from the dream, Michael knew it was time to return home. After one more day in Florence, he would take a train to the international airport north of Milan and head back to the states.
Over breakfast, offered in a humid little room on the first floor of the hotel, he decided to spend this final day strolling through the Uffizi. While the thought of losing Jennifer pained him greatly, he attempted to console himself with the thought that this museum had the finest collection of late medieval and early Renaissance paintings he had ever seen. Spending his final day walking through the museum would inspire him.
And so, around three o'clock in the afternoon, he faced Botticelli's "The Birth of Venus." As he studied the array of colors and thought about the artist's rendering of the pagan goddess, he forced himself to consider that perhaps Jennifer had been no more than a creation of his imagination, inspired long before he came on the trip by paintings he had seen in books. Yes, he decided, that must have been it, for people don't just disappear off the face of the earth.
Later, as he stood outside the museum, he heard thunder and, looking up, saw that the sky quickly darkening. An explosion, he felt, was immanent, and he feared black dread would enter his heart. After walking half a block, hoping to beat the storm, the rain began to fall in sheets. Without an umbrella or a jacket, he knew his wisest option was to call a cab. Fighting depression caused by loss, he would have to return to the Uffizi.
As he approached the area in front of the museum marked for taxis, he saw through steady rain one other person waiting at the stop. From forty feet, he could tell it was a young woman, and closer he noted that she had long, lightly reddish-brown hair and wore short dark dress. As he stood behind the woman, fighting what must be delusion, she turned, and as she did the pieces of Michael's rapidly fragmenting universe began to coalesce into a darkly glowing glass ball.
"Michael," she said, "where have you been?"
Rain coming down in buckets, Michael waited for the vision to fade. It didn’t.
“Michael?” she asked, nudging him gently.
"What?" answered Michael, certain that he had been sucked into a delusion.
"I said, where have you been?"
It took him a minute to answer.
"Where've you been?" he finally sighed, heart bursting with joy.
"I've been here the whole time, getting drenched to the bone," Jennifer said, coughing. “What did you think?”
He felt like weeping. "I've been looking for you."
"Looking for me? Michael, I've been waiting for a year, it seems. Anyway, let’s go, " she said, moving closer, brushing against him, her hair and dress soaked through.
Breathless, he responded: "It's only been eight days."
"What?" she laughed, a curious edge to her voice. Again, he got the impression that she was playing a game. "What do you mean 'eight days'?"
"God, I've missed you," he muttered, ignoring the question and the impression.
"I know," she answered, but before he could ask her how she knew, he heard another voice shouting at him.
"Mister," it said, "you want the cab, get in!" Michael looked over the roof of the cab and at the driver, an older man. Even through the rain, Michael could see the man was missing a tooth in front.
"Open the fucking door, Michael," Jennifer said, playful. "We're gonna get pneumonia as it is."
Certain that he had stepped into another dimension, Michael opened the door, helped Jennifer into the cab, and then climbed in next to her. The doors closed and the driver inside, Michael gave directions to the old majestic hotel where, years ago, it seemed, he had spent three incredible nights with this woman.
As the cab drove through the unrelenting rain, Michael put his arm around Jennifer. What if this is another dream? he asked himself. Or what if this is some deity's idea of a joke? Ultimately, he realized, it didn’t matter: If this was madness, he would take it. He would take Jennifer at any price.
"Gonna fuck me when we get to my place, Michael?" she softly cooed.
Michael smiled. He longed to spend an eternity with this woman. "Only if you promise to spend the rest of your life with me," he said.
"It's a deal," Jennifer whispered, leaning her head against his shoulders and closing her eyes.
Late that night, Jennifer’s head on his shoulder, he slept without dreaming.
He awoke suddenly in darkness, the scent of blood thick about him.Floating in a bed that had the softness of a dark, warm liquid, Michael wondered if he had somehow passed into a chilly underworld. Anymore, he told himself, anything is possible, anything at all.
He felt drugged, an effect of the sleeping medication he took at night. Forcing his eyes to stay open, he gradually realized that he was in semi-darkness, and glancing up, he saw the stone ceiling, dim light flickering against the gray stone. He sat up slightly; candles encircled his bed.
"This is another damned dream," he said aloud, his voice echoing off the ceiling and walls. “This has to be a dream.”
Finding himself weak, he lay back down, and it was then that he heard the voice, soft and melodic.
"It's no dream, Michael," the voice said, and as he studied the semi-darkness at the foot of his bed, he saw her, dressed in a long black gown. Her dress was cut to expose her beautiful, pointed breasts, and as he watched, it slid from her body to the floor. Before him, as beautiful as an angel, stood Jennifer.
"Where am I?" he asked, not impatiently or even angrily. Wherever he was, he was with Jennifer.
"In my chamber," she said.
"This doesn't exactly look like the hotel, love," he said.
"It’s not the hotel room, silly."
"Well, then?" he asked.
She hesitated. "Well, then. What do you think?"
"What do I think?" Michael asked. “Maybe it’s heaven; maybe hell.”
“Close,” she said.
"It's where I've lived for thousands of years," she finally said, crawling onto the bed, stroking and biting him playfully, and then gliding into Michael's arms.
Michael closed his eyes, wondering if the dream or vision or whatever it was would fade. But when he opened his eyes, Jennifer still lay beside him, and he remained on a bed in the dark stone chamber. He was beginning to throb with desire.
"What is going on?" said Michael. It occurred to him that he had become so incredibly delusional that he could not longer distinguish fantasy from reality and that had somehow fabricated a dimension in an effort to possess Jennifer. But he knew as well that, were he delusional, he likely would not be able to reason and question the reality of his present condition.
"It's not a fabrication, Michael," she said softly, "nor are you delusional. It is, however, close to hell.”
Michael breathed deeply and ran one hand up and down Jennifer's back.
"I'm what… well, hell, I’m what you call a fallen angel, Michael," she said, tentative.
He stared at her.
Somehow, he told himself, I’ve flipped, gone tumbling into the abyss of madness, which I’m going to share with the most beautiful woman in creation.
She rose, leaned forward, and kissed and then bit him gently on the mouth. "An honest-to-God angel, Michael. Also, the woman in Botticelli's painting."
Still struggling with the notion that he had indeed gone mad, he wondered if he were with a woman whose psychosis went far beyond anything he could ever imagine. Perhaps, he thought, I am experiencing overlapping psychoses, hers and mine. Michael liked that theory. But then he relaxed. Psychoses or not, he told himself, it really doesn’t matter; I’m with Jennifer. The thought made him hard.
He looked into her eyes, beautiful as always. Why not? he thought.
"It's all in the Bible," she began. "Thousands and thousands of years ago, along with others, I was cast out of a world, a kingdom whose beauty your Renaissance painter could only dream about."
"Where are your wings?" he asked, almost mockingly, remembering the dreams.
She smiled, then laughed.
"Fuck the wings," she said. "Ask something else."
"How about the dreams?"
"Real as molten lava. Especially the last one, which was splendid."
"What's the catch?" he finally asked.
She sighed, relieved. "Easy. You chose. If you reject me and what I’ve told you, I disappear from your life for good, and you go back to your college alone. If you want me, if you believe me, you can have me, but you bind your soul permanently to me."
“A matter of faith?” he asked.
“Close.” She gently caressed him.
"I agree with this, and you possess me?"
"I possess you. You'll be mine, heart and soul. Forever."
Michael wondered if he needed more time, and then, remembering the agonizing aloneness following the death of his wife and children, suddenly knew he didn’t need more time.
"Assuming I take you: what happens when I die?"
She paused, smiling. "You know the answer to that."
Michael smiled, leaned forward, and kissed her warmly on the mouth.
“It’s a deal,” he said, as she slid on top of him.
The flight back to Portland was uneventful, and when Michael returned to the small college town in the company of an incredibly beautiful young woman, rumors flew.
Curiously, perhaps predictably, members of the community and faculty colleagues began to speak to Michael once again, an effect (Michael thought) of Jennifer's strange power. As well, Michael's teaching assumed a richer, more dynamic dimension, and he began writing and publishing again. When he attended national conferences, he always did so in the company of Jennifer, whose beauty and intelligence won for Michael a permanent place in the country's academic community. Jennifer's striking resemblance to Botticelli's Venus was occasionally noticed, but no one assumed anything other that a fortuitous coincidence.
When he was recognized as College Educator of the Year by a congressionally appointed panel, Michael knew that in binding himself to Jennifer, and to an eternity with her, he had made the only choice that could bring happiness. The woman of Botticelli's famous painting, Jennifer remained the center of Michael's life. Every night, until he became fatally ill, Michael and Jennifer made ravenous love.
“Tie me up and fuck me to death,” was one of her favorite lines.
“You’re gonna fuck me to death,” he always responded.
And when Michael died at age seventy-two, his soul, bound to an angel forever banned from the heavenly kingdom, plummeted screaming into the eternal kingdom of darkness.
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