Ismael’s Galerias

Ismael’s Galerias

By Martin A. Bojan

oil lamp


Every Sunday, here in Chapala, one can expect a festive holiday. It’s not always what’s expected, but rather, the unexpected that most often moves a person from one point to another. And so it was that Sunday afternoon. Crowds everywhere. People, dressed in their finest.

And so a friend and I searched for a quiet restaurant, somewhere aside from the hustle and bustle, and soon found Marie Adonna’s Restaurante y Bararosa. We sat outdoors and enjoyed the sights and sounds. Although a relatively quiet place, it wasn’t until the crowds dispersed that I noticed, across from where we sat, an unadorned shop. An old wooden door and a somewhat foreboding sign, “Ismael Galerias, Pinturas, Scultures, y Libros.”

Everywhere, music playing, people singing, and children laughing, and all the while this old shop silently beckoned, and so I was sure I would visit, after we dined. There was something, something . . . I felt this draw, this inexplicable need.

After we dined, we bid each other goodbye and I alone entered the curio. I rummaged through its darkened corridors filled with artifacts. A plate covered with teeth, a bone from some animal, or maybe a human femur? A skull, with two holes bored in it, and another, once split like a melon, glued together. A five-foot-tall, hand-carved wooden statue of the Archangel San Miguel slaying the devil and a life-sized Montezuma in full battle array. Looking for some kind of payback? And so I enveloped myself fully in this place of shadow and light. Where brightness should have reigned, darkness ruled. There on a shelf, almost completely hidden behind some old soda bottles, a vintage Polaroid camera, and some figurines, a dusty dull, earthen oil lamp caught my eye and piqued my curiosity. 

I asked the old Mexican, tending shop,” Are you Ismael?” He laughed and so I laughed with him. Rome. “No, no, he’s not here, Wednesdays only.”  “Cuanta cuesta este lampa?” It was a very modest price. I remembered seeing a lamp just like it a week or so ago on a visit to Guadalajara. It was in a picture of The Last Supper. I took a picture of it. I searched my phone, and there it was, prominently displayed, sitting in front of Jesus. As best as I could see, in that darkened corridor, they appeared to be the same.

I paid the price. In terribly broken Spanish, I attempted to learn something of the lamp. The best he could tell me, it had been in the shop for as long as he had been working there. That was twenty-plus years. He had no idea of any details regarding its acquisition but, rather, was somewhat surprised at my curiosity. He told me that in all the years, no one had ever showed any interest whatsoever in it, and for that reason, it was relegated to the very back of the shop. I thanked him and left.

Back home, in the comfort and privacy of my study, I began to inspect it. What, on a lark, did I purchase? Because of the darkness in Ismael’s Galerias, I could hardly see it, much less make out anything more than its apparent shape and size.

Who knows what lurks in the depths of grandma’s cellar, or what has managed to survive the extreme heat and cold in her attic? I began to gently peel away the newspaper it was wrapped in. Then, with magnifier in hand, and a bright reading lamp, I saw a name, or maybe an admonition in Arabic, or maybe Hebraic letters, scrolled across its base. Although totally indecipherable to me, I thought, with enough research, its decipher would be available. As I rotated it, I clearly saw what appeared, numerals I/III. One of three? Were only three made, a trilogy? Steps on a ladder, stages of life? Questions only begot more questions. What was I thinking?

Determined to light it, but unable to find any oil, I set it aside till the next evening. Then I thought I would continue to play twenty questions and enjoy a new bottle of brandy I had acquired. I had yet to taste it, but thought it had distinct possibilities of being something special.

I returned home, after work, eager to continue my detection and speculation. It had occurred that I might put some oil from my old lamp into the new one. When I attempted to siphon it, to my dismay, I only had a thimble’s amount left, but it was enough. Slowly sipping brandy, while working on one of my more challenging poems, I eventually fell asleep, the lamp still burning, would burn itself out. 

The next morning, while dressing, I glanced over, and to my utter amazement, the lamp was still lit! Was there some oil in it at the time I purchased it? I was sure it was empty. So strange, I decided to allow it to burn itself out while I would be away.

The day found me out and about on my usual come and go. Thoughts of the lamp continued to surface. Even if there was some oil in it, how could it have burned throughout the night? And so becoming more and more preoccupied as the day progressed, I left work early and raced home to find it . . . still lit!

The Jewish people celebrate the festival of lights. In ancient times, a lamp, with oil enough for one day, magically burnt for an entire week. A story? A miracle? And yet, sitting before me, strange, beyond anything science could ever account for, and not knowing what to do or say, I did nothing. I joked to myself, wouldn’t it be better if I had filled my car with gasoline, and it never required another fill-up? That would surely be a miracle!

Days passed into weeks, and to my utter amazement, it continued to burn! One morning I found myself at the open-air tianguis, a street market in Ajijic. There, once a week, vendors sell local food, ware, and jewelry. I’ve walked through it many times, and have noticed one or two old curio shops. There, they sold old tools, pictures, statues, and coins. They offered old rusted sewing machines and typewriters from bygone eras. Even though in Spanish, the old books were probably my favorites.

Scanning all the diverse offerings, my eyes were drawn to a statue, a bust of what appeared to be a Spanish explorer from the 15th or 16th century. Sharing his marble base, a globe of the world. I would have loved that statue sitting upon my desk, but its price was well over and above my meager budget. Continuing to browse, I noticed hidden between some books, heavy-looking brass bells, and pictures of Frida Kahlo, well camouflaged, an old earthen oil lamp. I asked the vendor, if I could see it. After fumfering about, “Not there,” I said. Pointing vigorously, “There, behind the . . . !”   Finally, he saw it. “You want to see this?” He reached down, picked it up, and without any enthusiasm, offered it to me. There in my hand, I quickly perused it. I was astonished! I was holding the same lamp that was burning in my apartment, the second of three.

I quickly paid the small price he required. I didn’t walk, I ran home with my prize. There, once again, in the privacy of my study, and with quite a bit more respect this time than last, I took to examine it. I confirmed that I wasn’t dreaming. It did have the markings, ll/lll! There was something else I noticed while examining it: it was incongruously heavy for its size and shape. I hadn’t noticed it about the first lamp, once it was lit, I hadn’t moved or touched it since. To my even greater surprise, as I further examined it, when held it in a certain way, felt weightless!

The second in the trilogy? A coincidence? It couldn’t be purely by chance . . . I quipped, was somebody trying to tell me something? By this time, I had purchased a bottle of lamp oil and so proceeded to fire it up. Once again, I added a small thimbleful of oil and watched it burn. I could have sat in front of it, but thinking about the proverbial pot, I decided to leave and attend to some still unperformed errands. I would return in a few hours, and surely this lamp will have burnt itself out.

Several hours later, I returned, and there it was, burning as bright as can be! This lamp, surely as great a miracle as the first, nevertheless, immediately became problematic. Not only did it shine bright, but caused the first lamp to shine even brighter. Now, I have to admit, when I explained that I lived in an apartment and that it had a study, I unwittingly might have given the wrong impression. My apartment was a very small studio. That means without fanfare, one minuscule room. My “study” was the kitchen table and a chair, on one side of my bed, and a one-burner stove on the other. The one sink was in the bathroom. Shaving each morning was a logistic nightmare of biblical proportions. Although I tried several times, the first few days, the lamps could not be shut off.

I was never able to sleep with as much as a night light on. Two bright lights was next to impossible. I had to rig a dark blanket across the room, and, well, actually that and an industrial strength night mask was the only way I could sleep. My one window in the apartment faced the street, and the lamps shone brightly all night. That in and of itself caused some minor distractions. Friends became curious, and wanted to know what I was doing up all night. One convinced himself that I was mixing drugs, something he was fond of calling Christal meth.  

Months passed and still I held on to my secret. By this time, it was far from a novelty. Didn’t everyone have two ancient oil lamps that burned without fuel? And of course, there were the perks. Make that perk. My electric bill virtually evaporated to naught. And so I held my secret. After all, I convinced myself, charity begins at home. Eventually, I was able to sleep, and everything fell into place.

And so, life went on. All was good, except for the fact I couldn’t help but notice some inexplicable changes in me. At first, they were imperceptible. I have always been a creature of habit. When I’d walk to market, I’d always take the same route, and now I began to take others. When I realized the change, I became determined to go back to the old. But try as I may, I felt compelled to stay on the new ones.

My appreciation for music was also changing. My favorites were jazz, hip-hop and rap. If some other genre was playing, I’d immediately switch the channel. Now, I found, I no longer had that need. In fact, now I’d sit and listen, and even felt compelled to listen to classical, baroque, and even chamber music.

Another thing so markedly changed with the coming of the lamps, I am almost loathe, if not shamed, to mention my clothes closet, small as it was, was always full of items I had not worn most in years, and yet I kept them. I wore the same few year after year on a regular basis. Now, I found myself wearing only those I hadn’t.

But of all these changes, undoubtedly, the one most profound was the way I was being treated by others. For absolutely no apparent reason, people seemed to be drawn to me. The usual perfunctory hellos and goodbyes, even by strangers, became noticeably warmer. People seemed to want to stop and chat with me. There was, inexplicitly, a closeness formed by me, and virtually everyone who I came into contact with. My social calendar, which was parched dry prior to my coming into possession of the lamps, began to overflow.

One day, several months later, I was walking home from a new friend’s house. I was on a totally unfamiliar street, walking toward the new route I had felt compelled of late to take. I was about to pass what appeared to be an abandoned house behind a tumbled-down fence. The windows were broken and the door, what was left of it, hung by a hinge to what once passed for a door frame. I felt an undeniable compulsion to enter. I had no reason to, and yet there I stood. Gazing lovingly, I was beckoned to, and so I did. “Hello, anyone home?” If there was someone there, I don’t know how I would have answered, had I been asked, “Who are you, and what do you want?”

I entered, treading lightly. The dirt floor was overgrown with foliage and so I was mindful of spiders and possible scorpions who might have made this place their home. I proceeded from one room to the next. I entered the last room, and to my absolute amazement, there, sitting upon a broken-down dilapidated stool, was an earthen oil lamp! There it was, what appeared to be the third lamp! I stood transfixed, frozen in place. When, finally able to move, I simply walked forward, picked it up, and put it in the shoulder-bag I was carrying. I turned around and quickly walked out. I rushed back home.

What was unfolding from that first afternoon at Ismael Galerias? A full year had passed, and here I was, about to place the third lamp with its brethren. But, for what reason, to what end? I was led to these lamps, and now, whatever was or was not going to happen, I was merely a courier.

I placed the third lamp beside the first two. The trilogy, complete.

To my absolute astonishment, the lamp lit by itself! My apartment, now bright beyond bright, began to shake and vibrate! I felt myself violently tossed and turned. I lost all sense of direction, and then consciousness. When I came to, I found myself in an earthen room with a number of bearded men sitting about a long table. There, ancient and yet strangely new, an empty chair, and there He stood! He beckoned me to sit. In front of Him, the table sparsely adorned with the simplest of offerings, and my three lamps! I sat, and He smiled!

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