Amateurs: The Ones Who Love
The unedited version of "The Secret of the Unicorn Tapestries"
Three years ago, my essay about the Unicorn Tapestries was published! Since then, I have received dozens of emails from people who fell in love with Howie, including many of his former students who have wondered for years about the enigmatic Latin teacher who opened their eyes to beauty.
Originally, I wrote this piece for The New Yorker, but it was delayed indefinitely by Covid coverage until the editor told me I could take it elsewhere. It found a home on The Paris Review’s blog but was understandably cut for length.
Because a trip to Italy first opened Howie’s eyes to art, and because he was the one who first gave me affection for the phrase tante belle cose, I decided to publish the original uncut essay here. And the most exciting piece from the cut material reveals that the mysterious unicorn may symbolize a defeated Italian war general at the Battle of Agnadello.
I hope you enjoy it. Happy Thanksgiving!
“This puzzling quest is almost at its end.” James Rorimer, 1942
Nobody knows who made the Unicorn Tapestries, a set of seven weavings depicting a unicorn hunt described as “the greatest inheritance of the Middle Ages.”
Without evidence, the La Rochefoucauld family in France asserted that they originated with the marriage of their ancestor in the fifteenth century. The Tapestries did belong to the La Rochefoucauld in 1793 when they were stolen by rioters who set fire to their chateau at Verteuil. The family resumed possession of them sixty years later when the Tapestries were recovered in a barn. The precious weavings of wool, silk, gold, and silver were in tatters at their edges and punched full of holes, as they had been used to wrap barren fruit trees during the winter.
In late 1922, French newspapers raged about the disappearance of the Unicorn Tapestries. Their whereabouts were unknown after being sent to New York for an exhibition that never opened because a rich American bought them and transferred them to his bank vault before anyone else could see them. In February 1923, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. confirmed from his vacation home in Florida that he was the American who had acquired the Tapestries for $1,100,000. The Tapestries were transferred to Rockefeller’s private residence in midtown Manhattan. Fourteen years later, he donated them to the Cloisters, a new medieval art museum he had funded as a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
James Rorimer, the Cloisters’ first curator, had the intimidating task of interpreting this most mysterious work of art that would be on regular public display for the first time in their 500-year history.
On July 26, 1942, The New York Times reported that Rorimer had identified symbols that proved the key to the mystery: a knotted cord, a pair of striped tights, and a squirrel. He identified these as symbols in a system that identified Anne of Brittany as their owner and decided they were made to celebrate her marriage to Louis XII in 1499. No one who read Sunday's news could see the Unicorn Tapestries for another two years. The weavings were moved to a secret location following the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Rorimer was drafted into World War II, where he served with the Monuments Men to recover works of art stolen by the Nazis. An assistant curator named Margaret Freeman took over and eventually wrote the definitive book on the Tapestries, published in 1976, that undid Rorimer’s cord, tights, squirrel theory. She said that while it’s possible the Tapestries were woven to celebrate a marriage, Rorimer had wrongly interpreted the symbols. She wrote:
The squirrel of the tapestry may be intended to be symbolic, or it may be present merely to call attention to the tree in which it sits.
The next edition of the museum guidebook scrubbed Rorimer’s interpretation. Since then, the Met’s most eminent scholars have debated the finer points of the Tapestries, each time removing more and more from the guidebooks and wall labels. At the Cloisters today, each wall label for the most famous work in the museum and one of the most famous in the world contains one or two sentences.
I first saw the Unicorn Tapestries in a popular children’s movie that my first-grade classmates chose to watch instead of Grease. The opening credits of The Last Unicorn animate the first scene in a cycle of seven tapestries that, twenty years later, I would explain to surly high school students, Brazilian tourists, Franciscan friars from the Bronx, and anyone who attended the afternoon tour of the Met Cloisters.
Constructed during the Great Depression, the museum is a feudal fantasy composed of fragments from five medieval French cloisters built around a steel-framed tower. It’s a secular sanctuary of flowers and stained glass, a peaceful oasis for stressed-out New Yorkers, though few people in the neighborhood go. Generations of Washington Heights residents believe it’s an abandoned church.
The architecture imposed a monastic culture upon the staff. The Board Room was at the top of the tower and peeked out from Fort Tryon Park’s dense foliage. Built over a rock on one of Manhattan’s highest points, the office had 365-degree views that are singular on an island where good views sell for millions. Its bathroom only had a urinal.
The next most important curator had the entire floor below him, then the third-ranking curator, followed by the library, the education, and administrative offices in descending order.
Uniformed security guards paced across the museum, hands stuffed in their polyester pockets or clasped behind their backs. CB radios hooked on their belts burped out instructions from supervisors.
Guards could direct visitors to the gardens or the bathroom but were forbidden to speak about the art itself. If a visitor ensorcelled by the Unicorn Tapestries approached a guard to ask why the hunters wanted to kill the unicorn, the protocol was to send them to the Main Hall, where they had purchased their ticket. Phone calls would ascend the tower in search of someone willing to come down and answer the question. The visitor was reminded that they could purchase the audio guide if no one were available.
My first job at the Cloisters was behind the oak desk in the octagonal Main Hall, where I processed admissions tickets. These untangled audio guides' lanyards reeked of sweaty necks, and listened to the chants of Hildegard von Bingen’s “11,000 Virgins,” which played on repeat from the gift shop for at least ten years. I wanted to ascend to Lecturer, an opportunity available after finishing my Master of Arts in Art History.
I spent my free time reading several dozen books and articles assigned to prospective lecturers in the museum's library. The task was to digest the scholarly material written about the collection, then condense and transform it into a one-hour “highlights of the collection” tour that I auditioned for the Education department. My lecture had to explain the collection in a way that was accessible to the general public while maintaining the highest levels of academic integrity.
I became fixated on the Unicorn Tapestries, the artwork that made visitors gasp when they suddenly recognized it in the dark gallery. I wanted so much to satisfy their wide-eyed questions, but organizing acres of speculative scholarship felt like trying to pull a duvet over a quilt, except the duvet is twelve feet high, ten feet wide, made of wool, gold, and silk, and has a unicorn sitting on top of it.
My palms were damp before every tour I gave, and I worried my boss was hovering near the doorway, ready to reprimand me for my pronunciation of Rochefoucauld as she had done during my audition tour. The sheer size of the Unicorn Tapestries required me to use my entire five-foot, three-inch body to draw a narrative line through them.
First, the unicorn is discovered before a fountain, dipping his horn into a stream that flows from a fountain. I swooped my left arm in an arc to reveal the twelve hunters surrounding it.
“What does the number twelve remind you of…yes, twelve apostles because the hunt for the unicorn is also an allegory of Christ’s Passion.”
I pointed to the next scene, making everyone suddenly turn their heads to see the hunters grab their weapons and chase the unicorn across a stream. To see the third scene, I took visitors on a slow walk across the gallery, a strategic pause before the violence started. I jabbed my pointer finger at the hunter about to stab the unicorn in the rear end, then to the bloody almond-shaped gash; the unicorn tore into the side of the dog with his horn. I pointed to the rose forming from the dog’s bloody wound, a detail that I had never even noticed until an 8th-grade boy asked me about it. Stunned that I hadn’t seen what was right there at eye level, I asked my boss, a 25-year museum veteran. She, too, had never noticed it but told me it wasn’t worth considering as it had never been mentioned in any official scholarship on the Tapestries.
The fourth scene was above the door, leading to a gallery of much older tapestries. In two small fragments, it was possible to see how a maiden trapped the unicorn in an enclosed garden. I looked at the visitors and enjoyed seeing them nod when their gaze fell on the unicorn’s supplicant face.
“He’s smiling so much you can see his gums,” I said to elicit smiles, then pushed their gazes toward the regal hand of the woman stroking the unicorn’s mane.
The fifth tapestry had two scenes in one weaving.
“Look at the unicorn being murdered,” I said ferociously. Faces winced as they observed the hunter's spear jammed into the unicorn's side, his tongue falling out the side of his mouth and his eyes rolling backward. Then I’d lift my arm, bringing their gaze softly downward, where I hovered my palm over a cute squirrel who seemed to watch the dead unicorn presented to a group of royals. In this scene, fairy tales seem real as men and women in royal garb are shown standing in front of a castle. Swans swim in the surrounding water, guardsmen look out from the crenellations, and a proverbial lady is locked in the tower.
Hanging on either side of the gallery’s windows were two additional tapestries that looked wildly different than the rest but shared the same cipher of an A and backward E tied together with a cord. They should be initials but haven’t been found duplicated in any other painting or manuscript. The most beloved Tapestry that features the unicorn surrounded by a golden fence is the happy ending the tour needs. The unicorn has somehow transcended the hunt. Chained to a tree ripe with pomegranates, scholars hypothesized that it was a fertility symbol made to hang behind the bed of a noble couple on their wedding night.
In 1992, Howard Comeau circled an advertisement in The New York Times for security guards at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. After losing his job teaching Latin at a local high school, he needed a steady paycheck. He was happy to be assigned to the Cloisters, so close to his apartment he could walk there. His first day on the job was Bastille Day.
As most people called him, Howie never took a course on medieval art but fell in love with Giotto and Fillipo Lippi while hitchhiking around Italy in the late 1960s. The collection was easy for Howie to learn with his mastery of Latin and a rigorous Catholic education. He skipped first grade after absorbing everything his older brother had been taught and attended the prestigious Fordham Preparatory School.
Howie was younger and smaller than his classmates. His parents were divorced, and his mother worked full-time, which meant he was what people then called a latchkey kid. While other kids heard their parents discussing the Bay of Pigs over dinner, Howie had little knowledge of contemporary events. Still, he could memorize and recite anything richly rewarded by the nuns at school.
On his first day at Fordham University, Howie discovered the word “aesthetics,” defined as the science of the beautiful. It was the first concept he ever grasped and one that shaped the rest of his life.
Howie was halfway through a Ph.D. in Classical Philology when he felt too overwhelmed to write his dissertation. He was tired of working so hard, and his time in Italy, where strangers invited him into their homes to share meals, opened him up to how beautiful human beings could be. He abandoned his doctorate and taught Latin in Westchester and Connecticut high schools for the next twenty-five years.
Security guards were stationed in different galleries throughout the day on assigned rotations. Howie enjoyed being posted near the Unicorn Tapestries to listen to the Lecturers explain them. He was supposed to stand in the doorway to watch the Boppard Gallery, where red and blue light from the stained glass overhead dappled the stone floor, but he couldn’t resist moving deeper into the dark Tapestry gallery to hear the Lecturer.
He was amused that the Lecturers frequently contradicted each other, and it bothered him that few ever seemed to look at the Tapestries, that they took no joy in them. The explanation to an enraptured audience was just an academic exercise enforcing the museum’s sanctioned scholarship. He began to look deeper, especially at the symbols related to the allegory of the unicorn as Christ, and grew more curious about them.
On his days off, Howie visited the Rose Main Reading Room at the New York Public Library to learn more about the time associated with the Tapestries. When he requested three books about Charles VIII, he found a piece of information that electrified him. When the French king made his ceremonial entry into Reims, along the carriage route were tableaux vivants, allegorical and historical “living pictures” performed by actors and designed and choreographed by court artists. Howie had the idea that maybe the designers of the Unicorn Tapestries had used imagery from performances, which is why no one had been able to locate similar scenes in manuscripts or paintings.
He became obsessed with studying the Tapestries. He read through everything the French court would have been reading: the Bible, chansons, and the Grand Chroniques of French history, and tried to understand how the artist’s mind worked. Still loathe to write, he made a mental matrix of symbols relevant to the French court around 1500, then used every opportunity he had during the workday to stare at the Tapestries like the night sky, searching for constellations.
Guards were forbidden to talk to visitors about the artwork, which Howie found irresistible being so deeply engaged. When he overheard two women giggling in front of the Unicorn Tapestries, he walked up behind them and said, “Please don’t ridicule the art,” with an exaggerated British accent.
The women spun around, relieved to see the bearded security guard grinning. They fell into a discussion about the Tapestries.
His boss filed complaints from the staff and told Howie his job was to protect the art, not explain it. A rumor spread that the Lecturers had been forbidden to talk to him.
In the break room, he’d pepper other guards with his ideas while they stared into the vending machine, trying to decide how long the chicken salad sandwich had been spinning around in there. Servers from the diner on Dyckman Street asked for Howie in the Main Hall. He had told them all about the Tapestries while eating breakfast and invited them to come up to the museum so he could show them.
Only one Lecturer willingly listened to Howie’s ideas. Martha Easton recalled that he sometimes seemed obsessed and frustrated when he couldn’t find all the symbols in a system he wanted to prove was in the Tapestries. He’d stop by her little office near the library vaults on a break. She listened and suggested a book he should read about George of Tours. She thought many of his ideas were as legitimate as the formal scholarship but understood why scholars felt proprietary about their credentials. Howie was an amateur, a disparaging word in academia derived from the Latin root amare; to love.
On the first day of summer 1997, Howie transferred to the evening shift. By twilight, the Unicorn Tapestries gallery was completely dark. Whenever he had a new idea about the Tapestries, he stole an extra two minutes to look closer while passing through on his inspection tours. Five hundred-year-old gold threads, too tarnished to be seen during the day, sparkled under Howie’s flashlight.
On a Monday when the museum was closed to visitors, the medieval atmosphere was unstitched as light bulbs were replaced in the Main Hall, floors mopped, and instead of Hildegard’s “11,000 Virgins,” the soundtrack of the day was the incessant growl of weed wackers along the museum’s cobblestone driveways.
I wandered up to the Unicorn Tapestries gallery and saw that folding tables had been set up across the oak floors, and on top were maps of the Tapestries. Every plant, flower, and figure was drawn in black pen, delineating all their shapes. I leaned over and looked at one leaf among thousands divided into segments with numbers corresponding to the shades of green wool required to weave it. It was like staring at the motherboard of a computer.
Between 2001 and 2014, the West Dean Weavers from England were contracted by Historic Scotland to weave a replica of the Unicorn Tapestries for Stirling Castle. The project was inspired by an old inventory of the castle of a hundred tapestries that belonged to James V, including a set described as “Unicorn Tapestries.” The weavers made periodic visits to the Cloisters to study the originals.
I offered a polite hello to the weavers, who returned my greeting but stayed focused on their work. I watched as one of the weavers stood only a few inches from the scene of the unicorn in front of the fountain, staring at just one small section on the far right side. I left the gallery, careful not to let my heels click too loudly against the oak floorboards, and returned ten minutes later to find her standing in the same place. I couldn’t resist asking her what she had been doing.
“Counting knots,” she replied, smiling and opening her eyes wide. She understood an entirely different language of the Tapestries, one spoken only by a small group of artists.
It inspired me to stop looking at the Tapestries through the lens of what I had read about them.
“This unicorn appears to be pregnant,” said Dr. Kevin King in a flat voice. He was a radiology intern at Mount Sinai Hospital and the new boyfriend of a close friend who agreed to help me with my new, quasi-secret project to see the Tapestries with fresh eyes. I gave him a small voice recorder so I wouldn’t miss anything he said in the din of the Sunday afternoon crowds.
“There’s a bisection formed in the composition,” said Kevin, standing in front of the scene where the unicorn attacks the dog. “The place where the spear is about to enter the unicorn’s body is in the center of the composition and forming a right angle with the tree.”
I nodded silently and continued letting the doctor make his diagnosis.
“There are other very interesting bisections throughout the set.” He moved to the center of the gallery, looking back and forth between the tapestry where the unicorn dips its horn in the stream and the scene where it is killed and presented to the royals. “Were these made from patterns? It seems they were designed in quadrants so that the artist could isolate or highlight narrative pieces.”
Tapestries were designed as cartoons or patterns often created to scale from smaller paintings. The cartoons could be valuable as multiple tapestries could be woven from them. They were mixed, matched, and sold multiple times. Specialists could then add details such as heraldry or initials to customize tapestries for their patrons.
“In three of these tapestries, only one duplicative figure, a dark-haired man without a hat, is always viewed in profile. Is he the narrator of the story?” he asked.
“Kevin, I wish I had an answer.”
He continued looking around the gallery, conducting what he called a “fly-through,” looking for obvious irregularities or patterns. Then, he systematically checked all the major pieces he observed in the same order several times.
“Yeah. I can see why you’re obsessed with these,” he said, dropping his arms to the side and grinning. “They’re pretty friggin’ cool.”
Potted daffodils were set on the pink and white marble parapets of the Cuxa cloister, where Howie’s supervisor told him to kill time for the first forty-five minutes of his shift. Howie loved this time just before the museum closed for the day when he could meet new people. A visitor walked toward him, held a finger up in the air, poised to ask him where he could find the bathroom.
Howie looked straight into his eyes and said, “Hi!”
The man lowered his arm, smiled, then returned his friendly greeting. This was Howie’s method to get visitors to engage with him as a human being instead of a semi-autonomous fixture of the museum.
I met Howie in the late afternoon while working at the admissions desk. The “11,000 Virgins” halted when the gift shop manager shut off the stereo. I was left waiting for the last visitor still in the galleries to return the audio guide they had rented. Head in hand, I rested my elbows on the desk, a handmade masterpiece of polished oak built by a master carpenter back when the museum still employed one. In 2016, when the museum implemented a re-branding campaign, the old desk was replaced with a plastic one, and rumor was that the oak beauty was dragged to the trash compactor and chopped up into pieces.
“I found you in your past life.”
I saw a security guard smiling beneath a shaggy beard that looked at odds with his guard's uniform.
He slid a postcard across the time-softened wood, landing it beneath my gaze. I recognized the postcard image as a painting of Jusepe de Ribera’s The Holy Family with a Virgin Mary with pale skin and dark hair tied back, much like mine. His eyes flickered with anticipation, but he snatched the postcard away before I reacted. He winked and then danced off into the galleries.
The shift supervisor looked up from a leather-bound log book, as medieval looking as the manuscripts on display, and told me I had just met the infamous Howie. Be warned, he said; Howie has many theories about the Unicorn Tapestries he’s always going on about.
Five years later, inspired by the observations of the radiologist, I decided I was long overdue to chat with Howie. He was pleased with the casual invitation I offered when I passed him on the stairs leading to the library.
“You know I have a mark on my head,” he said, tapping his mop of straight hair and then pointing upstairs to the tower. “It will be career suicide for you if your bosses know that you’re talking to me.”
No one ever knew because my little office was in the basement, next to the public bathrooms where only the cleaning staff treads.
I momentarily didn’t recognize Howie when I opened my office door. Instead of his guard uniform, he wore jeans, a white button-down shirt, and a black three-ring binder tucked under his arm. In his clothes, the beard made him look like a groovy college professor.
“The Unicorn Tapestries are a repository of symbols made for the education of the young members of the French royal court,” he declared after settling himself into a chair I had pulled up next to my desk. He smiled and held his palms apart like he welcomed me into his church for the first time. “Oh, I’ve got so much to tell you!”
Twenty minutes at a time over several months, we discussed all of his ideas about the Tapestries. In addition to all the reading we had both done, Howie had been regularly traveling to France for more research. He pulled index cards from his pockets, prompting the ideas he kept in his mind, but encouraged me to write it all down for him.
I scratched out notes for the ideas I thought sounded plausible.
“Each flower, gesture, or accessory was like a prop from a play, all meaningless unless you know what these people were thinking and reading, and I do.” Howie leaned forward in his seat. “Think of the Tapestries as a stage that has been pushed flat against the wall, like bleachers in a gymnasium.”
As he talked, I grew curious about him and wanted to know more about his career as a Latin teacher. He answered politely but always returned to the subject that seemed to ignite another life force inside him.
I also feared he was using the Tapestries like a giant Rorschach test, seeing symbols in ways that could never be proven or disproven. I tried to swat away the ideas I thought strayed too far.
“You read the article by James Rorimer that proclaimed he had solved the mystery of the Tapestries, right? Remember that squirrel he said was a symbol related to Anne of Brittany?” Howie said while his eyes flickered. “The squirrel is a hidden portrait of Jean Fouquet, one of the artists.”
I frowned and swiveled toward my computer keyboard to look up Jean Fouquet while Howie explained that Fouquet meant squirrel in the old regional language around Tours.
“Fouquet died in 1480, way too early to have worked on the Tapestries,” I barked at him.
Howie smiled, tilted his head, and then opened his binder. He leafed through the laminated pages, then turned the binder around. “How do you explain that?”
I looked at a color photocopy of a manuscript illumination by Jean Fouquet of a castle encircled by swans, similar to the castle behind the group of royals, the Tapestries. Guardsmen peeked out from the crenellations, and a lady was locked in the tower.
“Several artists worked on the Tapestries, borrowed designs for other works, and recycled them.”
Howie squinted his eyes to see the time in the corner of my computer screen, then stood up to leave and change into his uniform.
“God bless you,” he always said before leaving, and then “tante belle cose” as he gently closed the door.
Before he was The Met’s Director, Thomas Campbell was known among colleagues as Tapestry Tom.
Campbell’s 2002 entry in the “Tapestries and the Renaissance” catalog summarized the scholarship concerning the one unicorn as an allegory of Christ's Passion. Now Director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, I asked Campbell for his take on Howie’s proposal that the Unicorn Tapestries were a repository of symbols used to teach young members of the royal court. He hesitated then said no — not because it would be out of the realm of possibility, but because the Unicorn Tapestries are among the finest sets of tapestries of their time.
“It is among the greatest visual poems that I know. It is alluring and elusive like the unicorn itself,” said Campbell. “I have no doubt that people will be spinning stories and interpretations for generations to come.”
Could Howie be right that the Tapestries captured imagery designed for historical and allegorical performances? Scott Miller, doctoral candidate and COSI-Mellon Research Fellow at the Art Institute of Chicago’s Department of Decorative Arts says yes because court artists in fifteenth-century France were multi-media artists. Mystery plays, and court spectacles were part of the common visual culture and “developed mutually-informing visual tropes.” A court painter would work on everything from panel paintings, sculpture, interior decorations, pennants for processions, theater sets, tableaux vivant, and tapestry designs.
Miller, who recently spent two years doing archival research in Dijon, describes how the extremely expensive Unicorn Tapestries owners would have seen them infrequently. They would have been wrapped in canvas and stored in padlocked boxes where greedy fingers couldn’t reach the silk, gold, and silver threads. There are records of shipments of tapestries from stockpiles kept at major castles that track with the constantly moving locations of the dukes and barons who owned them. Tapestries would be on display during grand events and public spectacles where tapestries were mixed and matched to communicate whatever propaganda needed to be told.
The Unicorn Tapestries would have appealed to the tastes of France's late medieval ruling class for things marvelous and strange. The story of a mysterious creature from a faraway land could also “privilege playfulness and ambiguity in the visual arts, aspects that flatter the wits of viewers by presenting visual puzzles that are difficult to unravel.”
If the Tapestries were displayed in a betrothal ceremony, they would be seen far differently than if they were seen on Easter. Court poets would have understood the literary references, and a group of pious nuns could adore the Passion. At the same time, ordinary citizens in the cheap seats would revel in a violent unicorn hunt.
Miller believes the way forward to better understanding the Tapestries is to stop looking only at the weavings but the environments in which they existed, from the locked boxes where they mostly dwelled to the political and social spectacles where Tapestries would have been used strategically.
Frederica Law Turner is the first scholar since 1942 to make a bold claim about the origins of the Unicorn Tapestries. Formerly a Cloisters Lecturer, now at the National Gallery of London, Turner looked more closely at the symbolic languages of the late Middle Ages that used animals and myths to express identities and current events. Turner believes the Unicorn Tapestries were made for Charles de Chaumont d’Amboise, who commanded the French army in the War of Cambrai. Turner doesn’t see visual poetry but an allegory of the military events of the first two decades of the sixteenth century, particularly the crushing defeat of the Venetian armies at the Battle of Agnadello. The Venetian commander was Bartolomeo D’Alviano, whose heraldic device was a unicorn. Law-Turner continues to develop her research.
Hank Martinez shared the night shift with Howie for fifteen years.
“We were like monks — unmarried men, going around in circles in the dark,” said Hank while dissolving into laughter. “ The only thing is there was no silence vow. We talked a lot and listened to music.”
Before supervisors watched everyone’s activity on cameras, night guards carried small radios or reading lamps. Howie had a boom box, which he stored in his overflowing locker.
He waited until seven, when everyone in the tower was surely gone for the day, then carried the boom box upstairs into the gallery where a twelfth-century Romanesque apse from Spain had been transplanted to the Cloisters. He had already placed a CD inside, Polish composer Henryk Gorecki’s The Symphony of Sorrowful Songs.
Hank was at his assigned post in the Main Hall when he heard music from the gallery.
He sighed, tucked a piece of paper into his book, and then walked halfway from the oak desk to where he could see Howie dancing in the light stretching toward the apse from the adjacent gallery.
Howie raised his arms straight out from the sides.
Hank lifted his flashlight to the crucifix hanging overhead, a spotlight on Christ’s face suspended in darkness.
Howie dropped to his knees like a priest bowing down before the Holy Sacrament. He sat down on his heels, rolled gently to the ground, and lay flat on his back.
“Come on, Hank!” he called out from the floor.
He looked back at the book he left resting on the oak desk.
Hank sighed once more, then entered the Spanish apse. He carefully lowered himself to the ground, flopped over, and gave in to the mystical experience that Howie had engineered. A private concert for two, lying on their backs, as a soprano’s voice soared through a 12th-century apse.
Howie inspected the Board room at the top of the tower every night. He would always call Hank at his post, urging him to come upstairs and see a beautiful sunset or a blood moon. On 9/11, he told Hank he saw Mars in the sky — of course, the god of war. Howie was always looking for connections.
Over fifteen years, Hank heard all of Howie’s ideas about the Tapestries. They discussed it over dinner in the break room, looking at the pictures in the book sold in the gift shop. Whenever Howie found something new, he’d use his flashlight to illuminate that corner of the unicorn’s forest for Hank before they would each run back to their assigned posts.
Hank and Howie walked home together at the end of the shift, a safety measure as Fort Tryon Park is an urban forest where Santeria rituals take place, and teenagers hide to have sex or smoke pot. The stairs down to Dyckman Street were the quickest route, but they chose the much longer horseshoe path because it gave them more time to talk. Yellow light burned inside the lamps that lined the park paths, making it feel like they were walking through the foliage of the Tapestries.
On their walks home, they discussed religion and philosophy, but their favorite topic was the first century in Alexandria. They imagined how thrilling it would be to travel there and see the intermingling of religious beliefs and ideas, the beginning and end of things from which so much of our heritage comes, in ways we can no longer understand.
“We have a canonical version of how these things went,” Hank said, “but we can’t really ever know.”
When they left the museum at the beginning of a snowstorm, Hank left the first tracks, all very close together, as he tried not to slip and fall. Howie, more than 20 years his senior, ran straight out, yelling wahooo, then turned to his side and surfed down the powder paths.
One evening, Howie called the shift supervisor and told him he would submit his retirement papers. The other guards didn’t even have the chance to throw him a customary goodbye party just outside their locker rooms, with bottles of soda, cupcakes, and a tray of macaroni and cheese. A rumor spread that he had cancer.
Hank continued to meet Howie occasionally for dinner. He never confirmed or denied the rumor, but he could see his health declining. Hank received a confused phone call at the museum from Howie’s brother in the Midwest. Since Howie could never be bothered to own a phone, he had to knock on his apartment door to see if he was okay. No one answered.
Hank doesn’t look at the Unicorn Tapestries anymore. He had had no great interest in them before, and without his friend to light them up, the Tapestries were opaque.
“I forgot what you look like,” Howie told me on the phone. “So I put ‘Jusepe de Ribera’ into Google, and there you were!”
Hank told me that Howie had moved out of his apartment. He suspected his health was worsening, and he had moved to the Midwest to live with family. I sent Howie an email and was relieved when he replied immediately, eager to chat on the phone.
I imagined his eyes twinkling above his shaggy beard, and though he explained that a minor stroke had aged him, his baritone voice was still round with joy. He tried to push away the rest of the questions about his health and location and began swimming in the perfect picture of the Tapestries held in his mind.
“Let’s pick up where we left off,” he suggested.
Howie shared a greater intimacy with the Unicorn Tapestries than perhaps anyone in their history. Over twenty-four years, he met the Tapestries at first with no interest, thinking they were embroideries and some low form of art then fell in love with them and reveled in the mysteries now an inextricable piece of their history. In them, he found allegories and metaphors for his own life.
“Can you take one more story,” Howie asked.
He told me about a trip to Paris twenty years ago and a visit to the Louvre. It was near the end of the day, and he needed to use the bathroom, but he decided to have one last look at the late medieval galleries. He discovered the self-portrait of Jean Fouquet that he had seen in many books but didn’t realize was kept at the Louvre. He looked directly into his eyes.
“It blew my mind,” Howie explained. “I told him, Jean, nobody knows what you gave the human race, but I know, I’m on the trail, and I’m gonna finish your job. I walked away, and I started to cry.”
Howie remembered he had a flask of cognac with him. He returned to the portrait, then looked right and left to ensure no security guards were watching him.
“Here’s to us, Jean,” he said just before he took a swig. He swore that he would never rest until his name got out there.