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Escher Dines Alone

by Howard Zaharoff

A waiter brought Maurits Escher a cup of steaming coffee.

“Ah,” Escher said out loud. “Coffee. Great for starting a meal. Also great for ending a meal.”

“And what will your meal be today, sir?”

Escher watched the cloud forming over the coffee. Just steam, he repeated to himself. But it looked like whirlpools, swirls of grey and orange, white and black, drifting above the mug. What in Heaven’s name? he found himself thinking.

Shaking his head to clear it, he opened the menu. There was Goose. There was also Fish. Indeed, it somehow appeared that the goose turned into fish — first bland white fish, then increasingly specific species of fish — a strange effect on a menu.

I’d love to capture that image, he thought. He stared at it, trance-like; found himself wondering how a goosefish would taste on the plate, indeed, how would one cook it.

Perhaps I’d better order something to eat. He ran his finger down the page. It stopped at an odd entry: Flatworms. He suddenly had an image of pointy triangular heads and two huge eyes. He gave his head another shake to expel the image. Odd appetizer, flatworms, he thought. He continued reading.

Yet another entry gave him pause: Swan. He couldn’t recall having ever eaten a swan, or seen one on a menu, and realized he had no idea why swan was so completely overlooked as a food group. Too tough? Too costly? Lèse-majesté? Again his mind formed a picture, this time of white swans and black swans meeting, merging, overlapping. Where was this imagery coming from? Perhaps when he returned to his studio he could try to recapture several of these novel visions in a woodcut or lithograph.

His mind wandered. Swanburgers? Barbecued Swanribs? Stuffed Swancakes? After a few more minutes of study, he finally looked up at the waiter, who stared back. Escher opened his mouth, prepared to order — though not quite sure what, curious to see what his mouth would utter — then stopped with a quick intake of breath. Reflected in the eyes of that waiter he saw a Skull. He gasped softly, watching this skeletal image slowly change to... himself. Well, my imagination is active today, he thought, as he stared, calmly now, at his own reflection in the eyes of the quiet waiter.

“I’ll have the Stilleven met Bolspeigel,” he said, not sure what he’d just ordered. But it sounded fine, even appetizing; at least, it didn’t sound like it contained swans or flatworms.

He sat back as the waiter left to put in his order and watched the hustle and bustle around him. Of the two dozen tables, only half had patrons. Yet dozens of hostesses and waiters in black-and-white attire scampered around, seating new guests, carrying trays, taking orders, pouring water. It was a chaotic stew.

Yet, as he watched, a kind of order emerged: The servers and guests on his left seemed, well, vague, almost cloudy, not quite human but not quite animal, nor vegetable, either. But as they moved across his field of vision to the right, they appeared to emerge from a fog, shape-shifting into more distinct figures, morphing without fully changing. It was as if their essential being remained the same while their temporal form underwent a shift in outward appearance or perspective. Was this a form of transubstantiation? Was he seeing being precede essence, or perhaps essence overwhelmed by appearance?

He had barely begun contemplating these conundrums of perception when his waiter returned with his order. At least, he thought it was his waiter and order. The server seemed more bestial, Neanderthal, not quite the timid human from moments earlier. The food was also different from what he’d expected: a wooden pigeon with a human head on a plate, accompanied by a shiny tipped decanter in which he could see his reflection: a suited man, bearded, looking askance at a dinner that was wholly non-comestible.

He grabbed the shiny ball and looked, first at his hand with reflecting globe — met speigelende bol, he thought — and next at his austere image. He did not appear to be a happy man; but perhaps he was happy nonetheless, a joyous being preceding a dour appearance. Still, he was not sure of his next step. But was sure he couldn’t dine, not here, not now, not ever on a Bolspiegel.

“Please, take this back. I do not know what to do with it.”

The waiter looked puzzled. “But, sir, this is your order.” He paused, grasping for words. “Of course you know what to do with it.” Another pause. “Sir, it is your order,” he pleaded.

Escher stared at the strange items on his plate, while reflecting on the fact that the waiter sounded as if he were speaking in italics, as Escher imagined his own thoughts to be. Is the waiter reading my mind? Or have I been his voice all along? No matter, I cannot deal with this.

Indeed, it didn’t matter whether this was his order and the waiter correct. He couldn’t eat anything this waiter or restaurant had to offer, nor put it on a fork, nor even simply move it around his plate. No, he had to get back to his rooms and reflect on what he’d learned, reflect on what he’d reflected. Himself? His essence? His waiter’s perception of his essence? Draw conclusions — possibly in italics — then draw his conclusions on wood, or paper, or copperplate, or even stone.

“Please,” he addressed the apish server, “just get me the bill.” He paused. “And a cup of coffee.” He let his expression go stone cold. The waiter, seeing the uselessness of further argument, surrendered and removed the food.

Escher sat in stony silence, not sure if he was observing the activity around him in the restaurant or sitting with his eyes closed experiencing his own imaginings: triangular-headed flatworms squirming about; fishes with huge eyes and symmetric scales, expanding and contracting, butterflies breaking away from a vlinder scrum and escaping into individual magnificence.

Just as he was concluding this must be his imagination — These images are all in black and white. Don’t we supposedly all dream in black and white, thereby making it more likely these are my imaginings? The images burst into color: from subtle orange and brown to more vibrant pastels of blue, green and purple.

He was gawking at these strange but compelling achromatic and chromatic forms and humming a simple tune when he heard the waiter return. The images faded as the server, again of purely human appearance, spoke softly. “Your coffee, sir.” He placed the steaming cup in front of Escher. “And your check, as you requested.” A thoughtful pause. “Please take your time.” He placed the bill on the side of the table.

Escher smiled at the waiter as he lifted the steaming mug gently. “Ah,” Escher said out loud. “Coffee. Great for starting a meal. Also great for ending a meal.”

Copyright © 2020 by Howard Zaharoff

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