A Versace Fable by Ottessa Moshfegh
Ottessa Moshfegh’s story “A Humble Home,” commissioned for GARAGE No. 14, takes cues from the catalogue for Sotheby’s 2001 auction of the designer’s opulent Miami mansion.
Four years after Gianni Versace’s assassination in 1997, the contents of his Miami mansion were auctioned off by Sotheby’s in a grand single-owner sale (accompanied by an equally grand auction catalogue). Twenty years after his passing, Moshfegh, author of My Year of Rest and Relaxation and the 2016 Man Booker Prize-nominated novel Eileen, presents a fable inspired by the eerily sumptuous photographs of the designer's gilded palace: “A Humble Home.”
A farmer engaged a dozen laborers to come to his humble home in the woods for a round-table meeting. He lured them with the promise of great money to be made. Seeing the farmer’s shabby cloak and missing teeth, the laborers thought the old man was crazy. But they went anyway. At least they would leave with a story to tell about an old man’s madness.
The farmer served bread in thin slices to the laborers on a bare wooden table. He set a drop of honey on each man’s fingertip. A tin cup of water that tasted of the earth, bitter and salty, was passed around. That was all. The farmer had barely harvested enough cabbage and corn to feed himself through the winter. The night before, a starving sheep had wandered up to the cracked door of the cottage, eyeing the glow from the hearth inside. The farmer thought he ought to kill it and eat it, but sadness kept him from lifting the ax. Anyway, he had no appetite.
The farmer’s son had dropped dead in the spring. There had been rages between them, a widower and his bachelor son battling over any slight matter: who would fetch the morning water, whose turn it was to plow. Nonsense. The day his son died, the farmer had said to him, “You plow the field today. Go be grateful I’m still alive to boss you around.” That afternoon, the farmer found the body in the brambles.
There were a few copper coins in the dead boy’s pocket, money he had made selling bitter herbs that made a person’s head go empty. The farmer buried his son under an herb bush. He was bereft and self-sorry.
After some weeks of mourning had passed, he visited the grave and picked the new-grown herbs and ate them, but that only made him feel worse. He should have eaten more, in fact. He felt his son’s spirit was taunting him, blaming him for every fallen fence and bad apple. Regret began to haunt him.
When the autumn leaves began to fall, the farmer finally prayed for forgiveness. God told him to build a beautiful palace of gold and silk to entice his son’s spirit to stay on Earth and enjoy his afterlife in luxury. The farmer liked the idea because he wouldn’t have to live alone with his remorse. He used the boy’s copper coins to buy the bread and a thimbleful of honey for the laborers.
“You’re a poor farmer,” one of the laborers said, flicking at crumbs. “How will you pay us to build this palace you’ve been talking about?”
“I’ll get all the money you’ll need,” the farmer told the laborers. “Now listen to what I want.” He tried to describe the sconces, the settees, the patios and pools, the ornate tiles, the brocade drapes. He didn’t have the proper words to say it all. “You know better than I do.” He hoped they’d regard him merely as a humble servant and an innocent man.
“We’ll need to travel far and wide for the materials,” one laborer said, still thinking the farmer was just spinning a dream. “We’ll need to bring in people from the cities.
“Wherever you go, buy the finest materials,” the farmer replied. “Every dish, every doorknob, each speck of dust, never mind the cost. The next time you come, this room will be filled with gold enough to pay you twice whatever you say.”
The laborers laughed but agreed to come back the next day.
A devil lived in the woods. Holding a scrap of paper on which he’d written the fee the laborers had demanded, the farmer went off with an empty sack on his back in search of the beast. He found it up in a tree, chewing on the stinking carcass of a fox.
“Hello, you devil,” the farmer said, wiping the sweat from his brow.
“Yes, poor farmer, what do you want? A bite of meat?” The devil threw down the fox’s hindquarter.
“I need money,” the farmer said. “This much of it.” He held up the paper so that the devil could see the numbers. Blood dripped from the devil’s tongue and fell in the farmer’s eyes. From then on, the farmer saw everything as though he were looking through the petals of a rose.
“We can make a deal,” the devil said, and leapt down to the ground. “I’ll take one inch of your soul today, and another inch tomorrow, and so on. In return, you can have all the gold you can carry.”
The farmer promised he would meet the devil there every morning.
With that, the devil extracted one inch of the farmer’s soul, then pointed its bloody talon at an herb bush, lighting it on fire. When it burned out, all that was left were shiny gold coins. The devil laughed, flew back into the tree, and quickly fell asleep.
It took all evening and all night for the farmer to lug all the money home.
The laborers arrived at noon the next day and rejoiced at their good fortune. Much work had to be done: leveling the farmer’s land, pulling out his crops and weeds to lay bare the place where the palace would stand. They drew plans in black ink on long scrolls. The day grew late and they ate roast mutton and drank wine, which the farmer had bought with gold.
When they left, the farmer prayed again. He tried to feel his son’s spirit near him, and mistaking the smell of spilt wine for camphor, believed he did indeed.
Every morning the farmer met the devil by the burning herb bush, sold an inch more of his soul, and brought back more gold to pay the laborers. His appetite returned. Day by day he watched the palace go up, puffing on his new pipe and getting fat on the rich foods he could now afford.
By late summer, the palace was finished. The farmer, depleted of his soul almost entirely, hired gardeners and a full staff of cooks and maids for the day his son’s spirit came to rest in the palace. Soon his son would come, he thought. Any day now. But the son didn’t come. The farmer couldn’t feel him in any of the grand rooms. The smell of blooming narcissus made him sick. He looked in every mirror in the palace. His face had become full, smooth, yet there was less of him to see, nothing to give his face its character. He had become unrecognizable to himself. He worried: how would his son recognize him?
Of course, the son would never come.
Every day, still, the fat and blank-faced farmer met with the devil. All joy had vanished from the exchange. The farmer threw the gold on the road, where beggars snatched it up, calling him a saint, saying what a great man he must be to give away his riches and live in a humble cottage when he had such a fine palace for his delight alone. This was all nonsense to the farmer. He could barely look at the palace now. The pristine façades of rose-colored marble gleamed so brightly in the sun, he thought he would go blind.
What the farmer didn’t know, or what he refused to believe, was that his son’s spirit had left the Earth a few minutes before his body dropped dead. He’d flown up to a palace in the sky, one with a great balcony from which dead beggars and dead kings alike look down at the stupid people on Earth and spit and curse them and rest their heads on God’s soft and vengeful shoulders.
A version of this story first appeared in GARAGE No. 14, available to buy here.