Barney Matthews was the head orderly at the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, and he and Hannibal Lecter had an understanding based on mutual respect and courtesy. Inside of that framework, they developed something of a friendship during Lecter’s incarceration.
Late at night, when the screaming had died down, Lecter would talk to Barney. Barney appreciated Lecter’s worldly and unusual POV. Eventually they talked art. Lecter was a known culture vulture in Baltimore; he could talk art all night. He turned Barney on to Vermeer.
After Lecter’s bloodbath of an escape in Memphis, Barney worried (as anyone would) that the cannibal might come after him. Perhaps they had known one another too well. Lecter might worry that Barney might give the police information that would put him back behind bars.
Despite this worry, Barney lives his life. He is forever changed by this association, and his obsession with Vermeer has only grown. Barney makes a little money in the illicit trade of Lecter memorabilia; letters written in crayon, charcoal sketches from his cell. He travels.
Nurse Barney is on a quest to see every Vermeer in the world. This isn’t hard; there are only 35 known with the vast majority kept in Europe and most of the rest in NY or DC. He’s in Buenos Aires at the millennium to see the one that was there, Study of a Young Girl.
At the opera house in Buenos Aires, Barney asks his girlfriend Lillian Hersh to leave with him after the house lights go down, no questions asked. She does. Barney believes he has spotted Hannibal Lecter and his companion, former FBI agent Clarice Starling, in the crowd.
The novel tells us that the Vermeer in Buenos Aires was the only one Barney never saw.
But paintings don’t stay put any more than people do. Study of a Young Girl has been moved since then, residing now at the Met in New York City. Would Barney have made his way to it, once the fear had died down in him? I think so.
And this year, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has pulled off a real feat. Twenty eight of the known 34 (one was stolen in Boston in 1990, nobody knows where it is) will be in one place for the first time ever. The show sold out in minutes.
There’s no way Barney didn’t snag tickets.
Maybe Barney is still with Lillian, maybe they got married. Marriage is long and full of stories; maybe she knows now why they left Buenos Aires that night. Maybe she told him he was being silly to worry about a former patient coming after him. Maybe she read one night, late and unable to sleep, about what sort of patient Hannibal Lecter was.
When Barney tells her he got tickets to this Vermeer show in Amsterdam, to this once-in-a-lifetime chance to see these paintings that changed his self-concept so completely in one place, she acts thrilled. But she quails internally. The truth is Barney is scared, too. They’re both doing the math. None of them is young anymore. Lecter was fiftyish when he escaped more than twenty years ago. He might be dead already. Starling was younger, but Barney has come to think of her as the more dangerous of the two. He hopes fervently to never see either of them again in this life.
But the appeal of the Vermeer show is just too much. They’re going.
Lillian believes the same thing.
The shock of seeing the marvelous intimacy of the paintings builds up their sense of safety. Rapture takes them as they remember where they’ve seen each before, how special it is to see the one from Tokyo right beside the one from the Hague. Their fingers interlace.
They find their way to Study of a Young Woman, the one they missed in Buenos Aires all those years ago. They don’t speak, and their sense of danger is so dulled that they don’t know he’s there until he breaks the silence. “It’s the way she looks right into you.”
Barney would know that voice anywhere. Lillian has never heard it before, but the tiny vellus hairs stand up on the back of her neck. There is a way that we protect ourselves not by screaming for help but by pretending that we are not afraid. We feign ease, knowing the predator is excited by our fear. Neither of them moves or makes a sound, but their joined hands grip tight.
Lillian hears the woman’s voice over her shoulder and knows without looking that it’s her. It’s Starling. “It’s like she knows something that you don’t.”
Barney has never been a coward. He turns and there’s the monster, not softened by age but sharpened by it. His white teeth are in good shape. His skin looks like he lives somewhere warm. His maroon eyes are clear. Lillian cannot help herself. She turns to see a striking woman, her hair iron grey streaked with white, her blue eyes amused and her lips pursed. The four of them stand locked like that for just a moment, an electrical circuit joined by a jolt of high voltage that renders them hot and rigid before it subsides. And then Barney and Lillian step aside politely, smoothly, as we do when we know it is time to let someone else take their turn at the shrine of immortality, when our seconds with the Other have elapsed.
Barney hears it, clear as it was in the dungeon where he helped keep Lecter for years, a voice steeped in old-world courtesy coming from the mouth the whole world learned to fear: “Thank you, Barney.”