Below is a ten page sample from Visions of Anna by Richard Engling. For a thirty-six page sample, click here. To read a sample of She Plays in Darkness by Fern Chertkow, click here. To purchase the book on Amazon, click here.
Matthew looked out at the mountains and the desert as he drove north toward Salt Lake, the former home of his dear lost friend, Anna Toyevsky. The harsh scenery reminded him of the magic she had written about so much in her later work. She believed she’d come to know the spirits that inhabited these arid, tortured lands. Was it delusion? Mental illness? Or had she actually known something about what awaited her on the other side of death? With Matthew’s own death now breathing down his neck, that was the most important question of all.
But Anna was a champion of life, too. He smiled as he remembered what she’d done to Natalie and him. It’d been seven years ago, the first time he and Natalie met. It was at Anna’s, of course: An intimate dinner for three, with Anna at her vicarious best. She could not possibly have been more manipulative.
“I’m cooking, you’re paying,” Anna had told him. She drove him around town, gathering the ingredients she’d specialordered a week in advance: two pounds of tiny clams, no bigger around than fifty-cent pieces, and two dozen fresh oysters, all flown in by a specialty seafood distributor that served the best restaurants in landlocked Salt Lake. Then on to other shops for enoki mushrooms with long pale stems and tiny caps, imported triple cream Camembert, and fresh pasta, bread, horseradish, herbs, and other ingredients. And then to a liquor store for three bottles of vintage champagne, white Bordeaux, and a fine cognac.
“This is the first time a dinner at a friend’s ever cost me five hundred bucks,” Matthew said as they brought back the groceries.
“You’ll be kissing my feet by the time it’s over,” Anna said. “Anyway, what’s the point of all that big Hollywood money you make if I can’t spend it?”
“Hard to argue with that,” Matthew muttered.
She spread a large platter with crushed ice and handed Matthew the new oyster knife. “Besides, you’re going to be so grateful that I made you buy the right tools.”
“I thought the deal was: I pay, you cook.”
“Well, there’s one other part of that,” Anna admitted, handing him the first bottle of champagne and one of the oysters. “You pay, you open, I cook.”
When Natalie arrived, the kitchen was already transformed. Anna’s well-worn table was adorned with cut flowers, flickering candles, and the first treats of the evening: A dozen oysters lay glistening on the half shell atop the ice chips on the platter. There was a basket of thin-sliced, crusty bread, a dish of tart salty olives from Italy, and the triple cream Camembert. Steam from Anna’s pasta pot warmed the air. Matthew turned from the sink with an oyster in one hand and the knife in the other as Anna ushered Natalie into the room. A smug little smile curled the corners of Anna’s lips.
He’d heard Anna’s descriptions, of course, but Matthew was still surprised at her loveliness. Natalie’s black hair swept back from her face, accentuating deep brown eyes and high cheekbones.
Natalie was descended from Spanish gypsies. She had their exotic beauty and grace, but the gypsy flamboyance was subdued, except in her wit, which could be caustic. She expressed her art in painting rather than flamenco dance. Her voice was rich in emotion and, occasionally, in sarcasm. But her movements were all about grace. Her whole life had taken on the deliberate slowness of the brushstrokes she used to apply oil to canvas. Her very walk, her gestures, had that elegance. She was like an El Greco figure. Everything about her was long and graceful: her arms, her legs, and especially her neck.
Anna began plying them with champagne at once, pouring the wine and proposing toast after preposterous toast. The three were laughing and talking like old friends in short order. And it took no time at all for Matthew and Natalie to realize that Anna had assembled foods based on their qualities as aphrodisiacs.
With each firm, salty, sea-fresh oyster, they willingly swallowed her spell. It coated their insides with the rich creamy Camembert on the tiny slices of aromatic bread. It flowed down their throats with the cold, dizzying wine from Champagne. Anna moved from one to the other of them, petting them, praising them to one another, laughing, talking, drinking, and weaving her witchcraft ever more tightly.
By the time they’d finished the hors d’oeuvres, two bottles of champagne were gone. Anna was at the stove, simmering the wine, butter, garlic, and herb sauce for the pasta. She threw a pound of angel-hair capellini into the boiling pasta pot.
“Come, come,” she called to the two of them, “this is cuisine as an acte de théâtre. This side, this side,” she said as she herded them together into the tight space between the wall and herself. Forced into their first physical contact, Matthew and Natalie smiled at one another and watched Anna at work, glancing back at one another almost shyly now that they were so close together. But then the champagne and the oysters and the wonderful aroma rising from Anna’s skillet overwhelmed their shyness. Matthew put his arm around Natalie, and she leaned into him happily.
“Watch now. Watch,” Anna said. She took a cup of chicken broth and poured it into the sauce, turning up the fire to bring it back to a simmer. Once the liquid was bubbling, she picked up a handful of chopped parsley and sprinkled it over. Then she poured in the bowl of tiny clams and settled them into the hot liquid. “Watch how they open,” Anna breathed. And as the clams slowly opened their shells, revealing their pearly, fleshy, most feminine insides, Natalie caught her breath and laughed and leaned harder against Matthew, mesmerized by the sight of the opening shells. Matthew, too, was aroused by the sight of these opening clams in Anna’s bubbling pot. But when Anna poured in the bowl of enoki mushrooms, with their long white stems and compact caps, they were so preposterously like long, slender penises, they all three began to laugh.
Anna grabbed a good handful of freshly grated Parmesan and sprinkled it over the top.
“Sit, sit,” she called, and she began to ladle pasta onto plates and scoop over the sauce.
Anna set plates before them and poured them each a glass of the white Bordeaux. She set everything on the table with a flourish, enjoying the sensual spectacle she’d created. She moved from one to the other, grinding pepper and grating cheese to enhance their dishes, and then she sat.
Anna had positioned Matthew and Natalie across the table from one another so they could look into one another’s eyes, and she put herself at the head of the table, between them, to enjoy them both.
“I’ve been trying to get Matthew back to the true art of novel-writing,” Anna said to Natalie. “But he’s working on yet another screenplay.”
“I’m not sure I care if I ever write another novel,” he said.
“Jesus Christ of the Hollywood whores!” Anna exclaimed. “You’re ruined. Ruined by money and attention.”
“Jesus Christ of the Hollywood whores?” Matthew said. “You know, Christian blasphemy doesn’t really count coming from a Jewess.”
“Jewess! Nobody says Jewess anymore.”
“And I like doing movies,” Matthew continued. “I was never going to change the shape of the novel. That’s for you and Joyce and Robbe-Grillet. Movies are a wonderful way to tell stories.”
“Where do you get them?” Natalie asked. “Your stories?”
“You have to see Natalie’s work,” Anna interrupted. “Her paintings are like little stories in themselves. Interrupted scenes. There’s something amazingly voyeuristic in her work.”
Natalie laughed. “Especially since there are often voyeurs pictured in my work.”
“A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Voyeur?” Matthew suggested.
“Oh, yes,” Natalie said, with a crafty edge to her voice. “And should I assume, then that autobiography is your modus operandi?”
“Everyone in a Matthew Harken story is an alter ego,” Anna teased. “His characters are all variations on him.”
“That’s right. It’s an exercise in multiple personality disorder,” he said. He dipped a piece of the crusty bread into the aromatic sauce and popped it in his mouth.
Anna laughed. “The Three Faces of Matthew.” “I’ve seen Better Strangers,” Natalie said. “You could not possibly be both Jillian and Dennis.”
“Thank you.” Matthew raised his glass to her. “I’m intrigued by what Anna said about your work. Scenes from life interrupted.”
“People assume, since I’m a painter, that I get my ideas from what I see. But that’s not true.”
“Where do you get them then?” he asked her.
“Through physical sensation,” she said. She looked up at the ceiling with her wineglass held between her palms, rolling it between them like a piece of clay. “While working on a figure in a painting I might feel a tingling in my legs. That could cause me to envision the stance of the subject in a way that had not occurred to me. I don’t think about how I want the subject’s legs to look. I feel it in my legs and then paint it—almost without it coming to the conscious level. I just do it. From physical sensation to movement of the brush.”
“Wow,” Matthew said. “When I’m lost in a story I’m writing, I lose my body altogether. Sometimes I’ll finish and discover my foot is painfully twisted. I won’t even recognize that my foot has been cramping up until I stop. Then I have to get up and start hobbling around.” He laughed. “Once I put an egg on to boil, started working on a scene, and by the time I remembered it again, the water had boiled out of the pan and this incredibly bad-smelling smoke was billowing out of the kitchen!”
“Really, I’m not always aware of the world, either. I zoom in and out,” Natalie said. As she talked, she used the tip of her knife to slide clams and mushrooms onto her fork in patterns like hieroglyphics, then slid them in her mouth to eat them between sentences. She winked at Anna to let her know how wonderful it all tasted. “I love to paint outdoors because of that—even when I’m not painting an outdoor scene. I can look at a rock formation or some desert brush and see something in it that tells me how to paint a vase on a table. When I’m working well, anything can talk to me.”
“Ah, the voices,” Matthew said.
“The voices?” Natalie said.
“Remember Kolelo?” he asked Anna.
“How could I forget Kolelo? I was the one who said we should get jobs and support him.”
“We knew Kolelo in Paris,” Matthew said to Natalie. “A wonderful African novelist and poet. He taught me about listening to the voices.”
“And these voices can come from anything?” Natalie said.
“Yes, but for me they often speak through dreams.”
“Yes!” Natalie said. “Some of my favorite paintings have come from dreams. I keep a drawing pad next to my bed.”
“The central plot idea for Better Strangers came from a dream,” Matthew said.
“Natalie and I talked about collaborating,” Anna said. “I found her dream sketches really enchanting.”
“They’re very rough,” Natalie interjected. “As you can imagine. I do them half-asleep.”
“And that’s what makes them so enchanting,” Anna insisted. “They’re not manipulated. They come straight from the subconscious.” She lifted her glass. “To Kolelo, eh?”
The three clicked their glasses together and drank. Matthew refilled their glasses from the white Bordeaux. He was getting drunk, and he loved it. Drunk on the champagne and Bordeaux. Drunk on Anna’s seductive dinner. Drunk on the beauty and fascination of Natalie. Drunk on his long-time friendship with Anna. And on the conversation.
“I was over at Natalie’s one afternoon, drinking tea, and Natalie showed me the sketches,” Anna continued. “We went through them, and she told me about the dreams that had originated them. And I thought what a fantastic book this would make: I would write text, inspired by Natalie’s original dreams to go with the images.”
As he listened, Matthew watched Natalie with the luxurious hunger that Anna’s foods incited in him. All those sensual delights made his lips feel warm and swollen in longing to brush against Natalie’s lips. The feel of the tiny succulent clams on his tongue made him long to lick her flesh, her nipples, her sex. And when he looked into her eyes, he saw her shift in her seat as though she could feel an intimation of his tongue on her.
“So what do you think?” Anna said. They each looked down in momentary confusion at their plates, having no idea what Anna had been saying.
“Great,” Matthew offered, looking back at Anna, hoping his response somehow answered her question.
“Yes, great,” Natalie said, looking uncertainly from Anna to Matthew and nodding her head.
Anna watched the two of them with a slight smirk as she licked and sucked the juice and meat from one of her clams. She made a sound somewhere between a moan and a hum as she sucked it in and swallowed it.
“This really is delicious,” she said, still looking back and forth between the two of them.
After the meal, they moved into the living room to enjoy coffee and chocolates and the wonderfully smooth cognac. “You know I read something,” Natalie said. “It was a psychological profile on artists. It offered a happiness/misery quotient depending on the artist’s media. Visual artists are supposed to be the happiest. And it said writers have the greatest capacity for misery. Do you agree with that?”
“I believe it,” Anna said. “What could be more miserable that having to make your art out of nothing? You visual artists can sit in front of a model or a landscape and away you go. You’ve got something there to paint.”
“Oh, right,” Natalie laughed. “As though writers make everything up. You never use a story from your life, or somebody else’s life, or adapt something you read.”
“Well . . .” Anna said.
“And being a writer is cheap!” Natalie exclaimed. “All you need is a pencil and paper. Do you know how much we spend on brushes and paints and canvases? And frames and mattes? And then you have a show and people walk by saying, ‘Oh, I could have done that.’”
“Well, everybody thinks they can write,” Anna countered. “They think since they can talk, they can write. I don’t know how many times I’ve been at a party that some idiot who admits he doesn’t even read has told me he’s got a great idea for a novel.”
“I’d think it would be fun working with materials,” Matthew said. “The brushes and paints.”
“It is fun, actually,” Natalie said. “I just bought a wonderful new set of brushes yesterday. Lovely instruments made with Chinese hog bristle.”
“What’s wrong with good old-fashioned American hog bristle?” Anna demanded.
Natalie shook her head with distaste. “American hogs live too posh a life. They eat scientific diets and are protected from the weather. Chinese hogs still live the old peasant life. They eat slops and live outside in the cold. So their bristle grows in thick and tough.”
“What is bristle?” Matthew asked. “Is that the pig’s whiskers?”
“No,” Natalie laughed. “It’s the hair on the hog’s back.”
“So that’s what makes a great brush? Good bristle?” Anna asked.
“A great brush.” Natalie leaned back in her chair and looked up at the ceiling, picturing her brushes in her mind’s eye. She smiled. “A great brush is a work of art in itself,” she said. She leaned in toward them with intensity. “Imagine the hair on the back of a hog,” she said. Matthew and Anna leaned in with her, drawn in by her passion for the subject.
“The hairs sprout from the hide and have a natural curve back toward the skin. Like our own hair.” She took Matthew’s hand. “May I?” she said.
“Please,” he said.
She held Matthew’s hand in her left hand and pointed to the hairs on his wrist with her right. “See how the hairs curve back toward your skin?” They nodded. “Bristle is a thousand times stiffer and the curve more regular. A master brush maker arranges it so each individual bristle curves in toward the center so that the brush comes to a natural point for a round brush or a natural knife’s edge for a flat brush. He has to arrange it this way without trimming away the flagging—that’s like the splitends at the end of the bristle. You don’t want to lose that.”
“And you can tell a great brush just by looking at it?” Matthew said.
“I look at it. I feel it. I test the balance of the handle, and then I run the tip of the bristle over this very sensitive skin,” she said, rubbing her finger over the skin above her upper lip and beneath her nose. Matthew’s eyes followed the slow movement of her finger over this pretty flesh. She paused in her story, her finger at the corner of her lovely lips. A silence settled over the room, and then they were all suddenly back to the pervasiveness of desire.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sleepy all of a sudden,” Anna said mercifully. “Matthew, would you mind giving Natalie a ride home?”
And so they did their huggings and good nights, and Matthew drove Natalie home.
When they stood at her door, Matthew saw the mixture of desire and apprehension in her eyes. His own heart was racing.
“Come in?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said.
In her living room they spoke not a word. They were already so aroused; they came into one another’s arms pulled by the magnetism of their over-sensitized flesh. Their first kiss they approached with caution, like two sunburned people who long to embrace in spite of the pain. Their every nerve ending sang out as they pressed their bodies together as their lips sought one another out.
After the kissing, Natalie led him into her bedroom. She began lighting candles. Matthew felt as though he’d entered a luxurious, private harem. Soft fabrics, scarves, hats, discarded clothes lay in heaps and hung from drawers and from hooks and rings on the walls. Natalie’s bed, a soft futon, lay on the floor covered in a tangle of blankets and scattered pillows. Wonderful scents came to his nose: Incense and perfume and body creams and the irresistible pheromones of this wonderful young woman. The walls were hung with Natalie’s most erotic paintings.
When Natalie had finished lighting the candles and incense, she knelt on the futon in front of Matthew, and he, in turn, knelt in front of her. They looked into one another’s eyes, hearing the sounds of their uneven breathing, revealing their longing.
Natalie raised her long, slender fingers to the button at the neck of her blouse and slowly undid it. For Matthew, it was like the grace of God descending upon him. He felt as though his whole body were shining with the great white light of hope, and he raised his own fingers to the topmost of his shirt buttons and slowly undid it as well.
And so they continued, slowly undressing themselves before one another’s eyes, offering each other this great gift, this opening of their bodies to one another.
How beautiful they were! Matthew remembered that night like a holy revelation. He could have wept at the thought of their glorious healthy bodies that night. How they made love for hours, licking, tasting, caressing, teasing the delicious curves and nubs and expanses of each other’s bodies. The first slippery penetrations. The long, wracking orgasms. How Natalie wept onto his chest after the first time, and then he, too, wept, so overwrought the two of them had become by the long evening of it. And then, after the weeping, how they began once again, charged with desire. They could have eaten one another alive and gladly given themselves up to be devoured.
What a time that was. He would have given his fortune to experience that night again—or even just to sit and talk with Anna, the two of them over a bottle of wine or coffee: one of their old, all-night talks.
Matthew looked in the rearview mirror and saw the dark highway stretch behind him. No other cars followed. It was just he on this road, driving through the night toward Salt Lake, the scene of Anna’s death.
Tomorrow Matthew would meet with Colin, Anna’s lover. On the phone, Colin had told Matthew about the final entry in Anna’s journal. She’d written it while waiting to die. In it, she regretted not writing a book about the nightmare that had occupied her last months. She’d hoped that the journals might stand as that work. Was there something there that ought to be published?
Matthew cared so little about that now. What did writing matter, really, when you were facing death?
Mostly he just wanted to look into Anna's face. To share their stories. But since he couldn’t do that, he wanted to submerge himself in her journals. To see her life in her own handwriting. Anna knew the secret of death. She’d always shared her secrets with him in life. He wanted to her to share this last one, too.
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"Matthew Harken's urgent questions about his friend Anna's suicide and his own critical illness compel him to risk a perilous, spiritual quest. His heartrending, heart-opening journey through the interwoven worlds of memory, dream, and shamanic magic lead him not only to visions of Anna but to visions of grace. This passionate, poignant novel stands alone strongly and invites us deeper into the mystery of The Afterlife Trilogy."
-Elizabeth Cunningham, author of The Maeve Chronicles.