illustration by Richard Sala
Taylor Reed sat in a café looking at a fountain across the street. Behind the fountain stood a dilapidated, derelict, and yet, at one time, elegant hotel. Matisse was reported to have had stayed and worked there during one of his sojourns. “One day,” Taylor thought, “I’ll give the watchman ten dirham for a look inside.”
Taylor ruminated over his last three years of living in Morocco. He spent the first year mostly drinking endless coffees and mint teas in the cafés. And smoking hashish and kif—a tobacco and marijuana mixture—in cafés of a different sort. He would drift back and forth between the expat crowd of writers, painters, musicians, and assorted eccentrics, and his Moroccan friends. Sometimes, the two crowds converged, but they usually remained separate. During the first year, he hadn’t been certain whether he had any real talent as a painter. His work proved exciting but was sporadic. Now he could look back on most of the pieces he had done then with more affection than disdain. He remembered being happy just looking out his window at the garden across from him, and over the rooftops at the cobalt blue strait of Gibraltar that filled him with ideas of mythology and adventure.
The second year, he traveled: Agadir, Marrakech, Essaouira, Fez, Meknes, and, closer to home, he spent time in Asilah, Ksar es-Seghir, and the little blue town in the Rif mountains, Chefchaouen. He had covered countless canvasses, and felt himself coming into his own. Color broke free for him. And the colors of Morocco were like no others: The reds were redder, the yellows were a yellow you could taste, and they all filled his palette. The light of Morocco seemed from another world entirely. He had painted the veiled women, the date palms at the edge of the Sahara, the valleys of wildflowers, the heady, medieval souks. The intricacies of the carpet designs and tapestries had spun his mind into a pleasant delirium as he worked away in kif-induced trances.
During the third year, he felt he had discovered the city of Tangier in a way that was not open to everyone—especially not to a foreigner. He also discovered magic, witnessed it, experienced it. He decided then that this was where he’d stay.
Lately, he was just enjoying the simple life, the easy pace. Even with Morocco moving gradually, steadfastly into the modern world, it remained ancient, and this pleased him and others of a like mind. Of course, the days of Paul Bowles—hell, even the days of Rolling Stone Brian Jones savoring Jajouka music—were long gone, but still, something of those times stubbornly remained. Something else too: something older and indefinable would always be there, no matter what. Staring at the mosaic floor in the café and the curlicues of design over the arched doorway, he experienced again that ecstatic feeling of being outside of time in this whitewashed city, on hills that overlooked a bay that could’ve been filled with blue ink.
Taylor realized that someone was observing him. The observer, a young Westerner, seemed put out when Taylor caught his eye, as though he had just been caught stealing, and, once spotted, dashed off. Taylor decided to pursue him. He followed him across the Grand Socco in the hot midday sun, knowing he’d lose him in the Medina. But Taylor knew he’d see him again, too. Tangier was like that. When he did, he’d strike up a conversation with him and see what his story was.
That very evening, he saw him again. The boy was at Club Zewa, sitting with some other young tourists and they all looked a little drunk. He spied Taylor and smiled with what Taylor considered an insolent expression. Taylor went to the bar and ordered a cold Heineken “from the back of the fridge.” A Moroccan he knew was sitting there eating peanuts and drinking a tall glass of whiskey. He, too, was inebriated but cheerfully greeted Taylor with good will and a toast that Taylor couldn’t comprehend. Taylor smiled and tipped his beer at him. Taylor looked at the reflection of the group in a large brass vase behind the bar and saw that the boy was gone. He turned around and scanned the room. The boy was nowhere in sight. Taylor moved off with his beer and went outside into the garden area. The boy was sitting alone at a table, with his own Heineken, grinning. He gestured for Taylor to join him and he did.
“My name is Kyle Davis and I wish to tell you a story,” he began. Taylor smiled and said okay.
“Last year, while on a short visit here, I was walking along Boulevard Pasteur early one evening. A beautiful sunset was just dying and I stopped for a minute to observe the palms and the bay below. Suddenly, I was accosted and knocked to the ground by a young Moroccan. The strap to my shoulder bag broke and he kicked me as I lay on the ground stunned. He took my bag, which contained my camera, keys, floppy disks, and other small items, then ran off quickly.
“I had never been mugged or robbed before. ‘Voleur! Voleur!’ I yelled at several passing petit taxi drivers and the men working at a building nearby. In less than a minute, a butagas cart came speeding past to chase the mugger. Two or three minutes later, the robber was caught, and the butagas cart driver came back to retrieve me. He took me to the Merkala police station where a line of Securitié Nationalé vans were parked in front. Inside, I saw the thief in a corner in handcuffs. A policeman asked me to identify him. I did, and then I got all my belongings back. I spent an hour at the station answering questions and the policeman in charge occasionally would step into another room to hit the thief with a stick. With my mobile phone, which was also in the bag, I called my friends and told them what had happened. Finally, I was driven back to the hotel but the next morning, I was so sore, I stayed in bed all day resting. Why am I telling you this story?”
“Since this same man now works for you, I’m worried about your safety. I know your work, Mister Reed. I also want to paint, and regardless of that unfortunate experience, I’ve decided to live here, too, at least part of the year. I have a small business in New York I must attend to a few months of the year.”
“He works for me?” Taylor asked. “Nobody except Fatima, my maid, works for me. I believe you’re mistaken.”
“But I saw him on various occasions delivering material to your house, and to a café a few times.”
“You’re talking about Drissi,” Taylor said wondering why this boy had him under surveillance. Conveniently, Drissi was away for the summer. But Taylor played it off and laughed. “Well, come to think of it, Drissi was once a thief, but that was when he was very young. In fact, he spent a time in jail. But he’s long reformed and has since become a poet. I think you’ve confused him with someone else.”
The boy didn’t look convinced.
“But Kyle,” Taylor asked, “why have you been watching me so closely?”
Kyle looked uncomfortable for only a second. Then he said quickly, “I’m one of your creations. I’ve escaped from one of your paintings.”
Taylor was laughing now and thinking the boy was an interesting character even for Tangier. Taylor studied his impish eyes and bread white complexion, the tight mouth that revealed little. Taylor lit a cigarette.
“Is that so? Which one, pray tell?”
Kyle allowed a slight smile. “Well, it’s untitled but was used for the cover of Jesse Higgin’s Danger USA.”
The piece that Kyle referred to was taken from a dream and had always made Taylor a little uneasy though he didn’t know why. It was based on a rough sketch he had made after waking from a dream. All he had been able to recall was two hands in a frame. That constituted the sketch and the minimal painting that followed. One hand was clenched in a fist and the other was emulating a gun. Jesse had wanted it right away for his short story collection and, although Taylor was reluctant, he went ahead and let him use it.
Taylor forced a laugh. “But that was only hands.”
“Yes, but they’re my hands,” Kyle imitated the piece there with his hands in the air, giving Taylor an eerie feeling.
“You dreamt them right?” Kyle asked.
“I did,” Taylor said.
Kyle continued, “I had a similar dream. In my dream, they were my hands and I made a rough sketch when I awoke. Then I saw the Higgins book and I began researching you. I made my first trip here, although it was cut short by the mugging and the illness of two people in the party I was traveling with. But now I’m back and on my own.”
“Well, I’ve got to say that’s interesting and original. You wouldn’t happen to have that sketch with you?”
“Of course, Mister Reed,” Kyle pulled a bound notebook out of his backpack. The book was filled with strange drawings, cutouts from magazines and newspapers, and notes or diary entries. Kyle located the drawing and handed it over. It could have been the same initial sketch Taylor had made over a year ago. No one had ever seen that sketch. A slight prickly feeling went up Taylor’s back and circled his head, and he felt dizzy for a moment. He thought maybe his drink had been spiked but then the feeling passed. He looked at this young man whose expression revealed nothing.
“So what can I do for you?” Taylor asked evenly.
The boy smiled ever so slightly. “I would like to pose for you, Mister Reed. I would like to commission you to paint my portrait. I’ll pay the price you ask.”
Taylor lit another cigarette. He hadn’t done any work lately and was even thinking of traveling again to get the juices going. But here was a unique opportunity: a strange proposition from a peculiar character. And why not? He could paint him in the garden and work only the days Fatima was there, since there was an oddly uncomfortable element to the whole deal. The young man may very well be mad, but that wasn’t exactly new territory for Taylor. He felt challenged and curious about painting the mysterious young man’s portrait. Taylor named a fair price and stated which days and hours he would work on it, and Kyle readily agreed. They closed the deal with another drink and talked a little shop. Taylor was impressed that Kyle knew his subject and sounded a lot like Taylor himself when he had first dreamed of becoming a painter. Kyle wrote out a Bank of America check with a New York address. Taylor would take it to the bank the next day, and wait to see if it indeed was good. He set their first date for a week later to make sure.
The day arrived for the first session. It was a pleasant day and the garden was arranged with umbrellas and a refreshment table with tea, Sidi Harazem water bottles in a bucket of ice, fruit, and croissants. Caesar, Taylor’s old tomcat, sat in the chair designated for the subject and surveyed his domain skeptically. Taylor had decided that he would not show Kyle the daily progress but rather cover it at the end of each session and show him only the final work. As he was double-checking his implements, he overheard voices and looked up to see a smirking Kyle Davis wearing a striped djellaba and a red fez with tassel cocked at the side of his head. Fatima, standing behind him, gave Taylor a troubled look, then disappeared back into the kitchen.
“Oh Mister Reed. I still can’t believe it. A dream come true,” Kyle said, extending his hand.
Taylor shook it and said, “Well, you look very ‘Maroc.’ Folkloric.”
“Yes, isn’t it splendid? It’s as close as I’ll get to Lawrence of Arabia.”
“All you need is a horse and a rusty rifle,” Taylor said and moved Caesar to another seat. The old cat begrudgingly accepted the unexpected transport.
“Kyle, I’d like you to call me Taylor.” He gestured to the refreshments and Kyle smiled, took his assigned seat, and produced a sebsi, or kif pipe, in two parts from his big pocket. He attached them and expertly nuzzled a small clay bowl onto the end. He filled the bowl from a pouch and offered it. Taylor, however, had already produced his own pipe and said, “Go ahead. Is that with or without spice?” He noticed Kyle’s pipe was identical to his own.
“No tobacco, but a touch of hashish,” Kyle acknowledged with a wink. Taylor accepted the leather pouch, which also was like his own. It was especially good kif. And he could smell the pungent hashish. Taylor wondered how the boy had gotten hooked up so quickly but decided not to pry. They sat and puffed on their sebsis; Fatima appeared through a cloud of smoke, delivering short glasses of piping hot mint tea, essential for the kif smoker’s throat.
After tea, the work began. The previous day, Taylor had spread linseed oil over the first layer of eggshell white. He began now with pencil and then switched to paint. The red ochre perfectly matched the wide stripe of the djellaba.
Over the next several weeks, the sessions passed and Kyle was a perfect subject, keeping the pose that Taylor preferred and speaking only when questioned. The only other sounds were occasional Arabic music from a neighbor’s radio, the chirping of birds, and the distant horn blast of a ferry arriving from Spain. When they heard the afternoon prayer call, it was their cue to stop for the day. Kyle had no problem with not seeing the work and didn’t peek or complain.
As for the portrait, it was coming along, but Taylor was having trouble with the eyes, which as the hours passed began to resemble those of a lizard or wild bird. Then, they would resume their odd, sedate yet impish, stare. Sometimes they would glow or reflect light in an odd way. Other times, the iris looked as though it was opening like some exotic flower right in front of him. Kyle seemed to sense Taylor’s difficulty and would look away, forcing Taylor to scold him. There were moments when the face in the painting would go black, and the faces of other people Taylor knew would flash before him.
Taylor wiped a bead of sweat off his brow. He tried to concentrate but the tone, the color, the light and dark would change course from minute to minute.
One day, Taylor asked if he could take a few photographs and, for the first time, Kyle was visibly upset.
“No photographs please. I have a real aversion to having my picture taken. I realize it would help you but I must insist.”
“As you wish,” Taylor said, repeating the common Moroccan expression.
He studied his work and was pleased except for the eyes. He had not captured them yet and he now tried to photograph them with his mind. Kyle seemed to sense this as he said his good-byes for the day.
Once alone, Taylor quickly did some sketches. One he particularly liked almost caught the odd juxtaposition of mischievous and calmness that the boy’s eye’s possessed. He went to his canvas and tacked up the drawing. He smoked a bowl of kif and looked until he was seeing both the drawing and the canvas at the same time. He fell into a trance and began to work.
Taylor awoke on the bench, covered with Moroccan blankets, and on his cushions made by a tribe in the high Alas mountains. It was twilight and he felt invigorated as he sat up and looked over at the portrait. He walked toward it as moonlight spilled into his small garden. The portrait of Kyle Davis was finished and the eyes were something to behold. They persistently drew the viewer toward them and then into their sphere, triggering a feeling of recognition that could not be explained. Taylor got lost in them, standing there in the moonlight, and wondered what the real story was with the mysterious young man. He delicately printed his initials and the date in the lower right corner. He would give Kyle his portrait the following day.
But the time came for Kyle to arrive and he did not appear. After an hour, Taylor took the painting inside. He realized he didn’t even know where the young man was staying. And he didn’t know anyone else who knew him, which was strange for Tangier. He would just have to wait until he heard from him.
After a few days had passed, Taylor began to ask around but no one else seemed to have ever noticed the lad at all. Taylor began to wonder if the boy was a djinn—some genie or a ghost. Taylor had had profound life-changing experiences with djinns and the magic of Morocco the previous year, although others might consider it a psycopathology at best.
He decided to visit an old friend named Omar who had come back to Tangier from Fez for the summer. They sat in Omar’s sister’s front room, sipping tea and smoking kif, and Taylor told him the story. As Omar poured more tea from his old, darkened samovar, he said, “If he does not come back he is a djinn. If he returns, he was possessed.”
Three years ago, Taylor would’ve thought this a quaint idea, but now, after his own experiences in this realm, he believed Omar.
Weeks passed and Taylor moved on to other things. He worked on a series of pieces using drawings of Caesar’s eyes and some abstract experiments that, together, took on the appearance of alien, mythological landscapes. As he was putting the finishing touches to one of these, he heard his bell. Fatima was off, so he went down to see who it was. A small Moroccan beggar boy stood on his step, holding a large blue envelope. He handed it to Taylor who used some friendly Arabic to stop him from running off. The boy smiled but continued to stare at the ground. Taylor opened the envelope and extracted a neatly-typed missive that he noticed right away was signed by Kyle Davis.
Please forgive my disappearance, but there was no other way. Come to the Rembrandt Hotel immediately and I’ll explain everything. I look forward to seeing you and finally having my portrait, which I know must be done.
Taylor gave the boy a couple of dirham and watched him run off. He took a shower, dressed, and sat smoking a cigarette, examining the portrait before he would wrap it and deliver it. It was definitely finished and it was a smashing piece of work. He felt almost like he had not painted it at all; he wondered if perhaps a djinn had entered his mind and guided his hand during that entire period.
Taylor leaned closer to the portrait, getting a whiff of something alien and foul. Lightning seemed to flash in his head and he stared at the painting for a long while. A chill came over him, and a gloom seemed to drift all around him. Finally, Caesar came into the room, breaking the trance. Taylor looked at the clock on the wall and saw that it was time to wrap the painting and leave.
On the walk to the hotel, Taylor fought off a nagging sense that he’d forgotten something. He felt a sourness in his stomach and wondered if he was going to be sick. He sat at an outdoor café and waved the waiter away. He wiped the sweat from his brow. The waiter delivered a glass of water anyhow and Taylor drank it. Slowly, he began to feel better. He left the café and continued on his way, the portrait now heavy in his hands.
At the Rembrandt Hotel, the front desk clerk told him which room Monsieur Davis was in. Taylor saw waves of colors pour through the foyer and a lightening flash in his head knocked him against the desk. The clerk and Taylor glanced at each other knowing something unexplainable, unknowable had just occurred. The clerk looked for his prayer beads and Taylor picked up his painting and headed up the stairway.
Kyle’s room was at the end of a hallway. As Taylor approached, he saw that the door was slightly ajar. The room looked to be swirling in lights like a damn discotheque and Taylor edged the door open with his toe.
Before him, Kyle was levitating as colors splattered the room and escaped in every direction. There was a high-pitched yowl and Taylor saw in a mirror behind Kyle a creature covered in clear slime. It looked like a hideous hybrid of human and eel, its eyes demon red. The djinn’s hands mimicked the original sketch that Kyle claimed to be his own. Taylor turned away, tore the wrapping off the portrait and positioned it toward the mirror. At first, the djinn only gloated, but when Kyle gasped and fell to the floor, it shrieked and then screamed.
Taylor turned and faced it with the portrait. He approached the djinn despite the shrieking and hissing. Finally, it leapt toward the open window, leaving behind the same foul smell Taylor had detected before he had wrapped the painting.
Kyle, mostly recovered, gazed at his portrait and said, “I—I can never thank you enough, Taylor. I knew only you could possibly get me out of this. After all, you drew my hands. But I couldn’t tell you anything about what was happening.”
Kyle took the cigarette that Taylor offered. They smoked silently and listened to the traffic noises from the busy Boulevard Pasteur below them.
“Welcome to Tangier,” Taylor finally said.
the FREEZINE of
the FREEZINE of