I. THE VALLEY OF THE CREUSE
May 9, 1889
The painter offered fifty francs. All I had to do was strip leaves from an oak tree. The landowner had never wanted the painter in his meadow. Now there was the scandal about the leaves, and the priest in the village sided with the painter. Then as now a priest had only to say, “Go south,” and I’d run north, but I needed the money.
We left the village at 4:30. The poet Geffroy and Monsieur Rollinat carried five canvases. They showed the old oak bare as winter — gray, white, red, and purple. I’d never seen a purple tree.
The painter was thick of chest in his white woolen sweater. He wore heavy-soled hunting boots because of the damp, and a glycerine-lined glove on his painting hand. His fingers were raw and bleeding from the winds of March and April. A cigarette flared in the thickness of his large dark beard. He’d dented the crown of his brown felt hat and turned down the brim to protect his eyes. My elder brother and I carried the ladders up hills, down ravines, through hedgerows beginning to leaf, and around ponds awake with the sound of frogs. The painter hurried us along like a locomotive pushing cars — all steam and fury.
The oak he’d been painting for almost two months was at the bottom of a ravine. Silver flashed in the nearby stream as if a thousand minnows schooled at the surface. For three weeks the weather had kept the painter from what he called his “work.” Now the oak had changed. On each twig, as high as I could see, small leaves danced.
The painter shouted, “Up, fellows. To work, to work.”
In the village it was said that he was always shouting. In the village it was said he yelled at the weather. Day after day he painted weather and the light on it. Hour by hour, minute by minute, the weather and the light changed. Through rain and sun and fog, through snows that melted before he was done with them, in winds that screamed at him, the painter stamped and shouted and reached out with his brush to catch the light before it was gone.
Now, as men and women from the village worked in the fields about us, he cried out as I have never known a man to cry. “No one knows the disappointments I suffer,” and then, “Start at the top.”
There was mud at the base of the oak. The ladders slipped. My brother’s smile said, “You’ll never make it.” He knew I was no good at heights. Kicking off my wooden shoes and closing my eyes, I started to climb.
The painter and his two friends cheered. Higher and higher I went, eyes still closed, the sound of my brother’s breathing close, my vision set on the britches I’d buy. The village girl Yvonne would smile when she knew I had money. I had to open my eyes at the top of the ladder. The tree swayed. The fields below me moved. Clouds churned over my head. The horizon moved to a country dance. My stomach did a dance of its own.
For two days my brother and I pulled leaves. One leaf at a time. By noon of the second day the mad painter was pacing below us amid falling leaves. He uncovered his canvases, took out his brushes and paints, then put them back. His friends spread a cloth and ate a loaf with pâté and wine and strawberries. The painter kept pacing and shouting, “Make haste, my fellows. Spring is coming.”
To the devil with him, I thought, feeling the new warmth on my head, reaching always reaching, lost in this madman’s “work,” lost in the glimmer of light as the sun spread across the sky. My eyes were half-blind with it. My chest grew hot each time he shouted. It was not right that this man could give me orders.
At last we were done, my brother and I. The painter straightened his easel. He drew on his cigarette and, forgetting us, touched a brush to the red on his palette. He looked up and once more began to shout.
“Jeanot, a leaf.”
“There. High. To the left.” He pointed with his brush and splattered my blouse with paint.
I stood dumb, squinting into the sun that would soon be too bright for his paintings, the sun that had already worn my eyes dim.
“Forget it, old friend,” said Geffroy.
“I paint what I see,” the painter said. “I do not want to see that leaf.”
“Close one eye a little,” Rollinat said.
“I am the eye.” His hands were on my shoulders. “Get it, Jeanot.”
My legs shook as if I’d climbed a mountain. My hands opened and closed. The painter read the anger in my eyes. He lit a cigarette from the one in his beard and handed it to me. He said, “You need the money, eh?”
His will against mine. So it has always been — the others against us; they have the money and the power. I balked. He kicked. I dodged. “Up,” he said, and held out a coin.
I pulled out my slingshot. Stones flew, first against the sun, then with the sun at my back. Still the leaf jigged in the wind. It seemed to grow as we watched.
The painter swore, lit another cigarette, then tossed it aside. He pulled a canvas from the easel and stamped on the purple tree. It ripped.
“Ruined,” he cried. “Lost, lost.”
Then in a change I would soon come to know, he cuffed my head, comrade to comrade. “Do not abandon me,” he said. “Please, Jeanot.”
I picked up the ladder and turned back to my adversary, the oak tree. The ladder had grown heavier. The wind was stronger. Fear plunged into my belly. The backs of my hands prickled. Again I reached, then reached again, one more inch and then another. I would rather reach for my first woman than for a leaf. Still I strained, far out, toward the farthest twig. The ladder moved beneath me. My brother cried out. Slowly I moved to the topmost limb and pulled myself across it on hands and knees. The leaf mocked me. An ant walked across my nose. The sun on the stream was more than eyes could bear. The bough bent. I moved to my belly. I reached again. The last leaf was mine.
Below me the painter gave a sigh that seemed to come from his heavy boots. “Ah, Rollinat,” he said, “look, just look. If only I could be blind a while and then see the light pure and raw again. Like this.”
Back on the ground, the leaf in my hand, I almost spat on the ruined painting. I wanted to curse the painter’s dark and smiling face, but I hadn’t been paid. I flicked the tiny leaf at his face. It fluttered, caught a breeze, tilted, twisted, and slowly fell. He caught it as it drifted. Holding it as if it were a golden prize, he reached up and put it in the band of my hat.
From that moment I dented the crown of my felt as he did. From that moment I called him “master.”
II. THE RIVER EPTE
I’d been with my master ever since I fulfilled my military service. He was painting trees again: poplars.
By now he owned a pink house with shutters. He planted gardens so he’d have flowers to paint when it rained. He talked about buying more land and digging a pool for lilies. He had a staff. The children no longer watered the flowers. Alice, his woman, no longer cooked and cleaned — all this because he had sold some paintings of squatty haystacks; he thought they looked like native huts in Africa. Even the villagers had come to respect his ways. I got him to stop calling them “filthy workers.”
At 3:30 in the morning, smoking as always, he opened the gate and we went down the steps, following the middle path through the garden. We crossed the road and, in the pink light of dawn, passed the tracks of the Gisors railroad. Morning fog misted the River Ru. Below the willows at the water’s edge was his boat.
I loaded the small boat and rowed downstream. Silent still in the rising sun, he watched the water slide by. His hands clenched as if he already held his brush. He still wore the crumpled felt hat, white sweater, and heavy boots. His beard was longer.
We neared his floating studio where the Ru meets the Seine. The studio was a tidy boat, black-hulled with a pale green body and a top like a box. The afterdeck was screened to protect his materials and his eyes. The poplars stood in a single file a few kilometers downstream in a marsh along the Epte. Where the bank curved like a lazy snake, I dropped anchor and unwrapped the canvases. He worked on one, then another, a stroke of the brush, then swiftly, as the light changed, a slash of paint on a third. He painted purple poplars, yellow ones, pink ones, not only the trees but their reflections in the water. They were cheerful pictures, pretty, I suppose. One showed just the trunks, seven of them in a row like a fence. Another showed whole trees. His colors seemed to quiver in the light.
I used to go to the stern where he could not see me and fish, but that day he wanted me close. I lay on the deck, my hat over my eyes, thinking of my village woman and counting my lucky days now that my master was content. He hadn’t stormed off to the village in months. Suddenly I heard the old angry shout. “That man? What is that man doing to my trees?”
A woodsman who was measuring the poplars came to the bank. He did not remove his hat. He did not bow. There was an edge of triumph in his voice. “The trees are ripe,” he called. “They are to be sold at auction.”
“They cannot be sold.”
“They belong to the commune of Limetz. It is time, monsieur, to replace them with young trees.”
“But I am painting them.” This was more a growl than a shout, a change in my master’s voice I knew well. “I will speak to the mayor,” he said, raising a fist.
The woodsman flipped the rim of his hat and went back to his measuring. My master groaned. “I have no luck, no luck.”
“There’s a way.” I remembered my woman telling me about the auction. “If the mayor can’t put off the auction, buy them.”
“It will cost me dear. Everyone will bid against me.”
“Monsieur Lelong wants to harvest them. Get him to buy them for you. For a little while.”
My master was richer than Monsieur Lelong, but he still remembered hawking oils from door to door in Paris as his first wife died for lack of food and care. He still felt poor whenever the weather did not march to his command. “Tell Monsieur Lelong you’ll pay whatever he has to pay.”
So it was done. Lelong bought the trees at the auction and for a small fee let them stand as long as my master needed them.
My master told everyone how he decided to buy the poplars “for a while.” He’d come to depend on me.
He’d stopped painting the waterlilies in the new ponds and was working on the willow by the water garden. Each day after lunch I set the paints in the pattern we’d devised. White lead was at 12 o’clock, then light yellow, dark yellow, and lemon. Vermillion was at 12:30, ultramarine at 8, and a color called veridian at 10. I squeezed the paints on blotting paper to rid them of oil.
He’d grown worse about wanting me near. When I went to the village to my woman he growled, “Abandoned, abandoned.” When I came back he giggled and asked, “What did you do?”
His white beard spread over his chest. His hat looked as if it had landed by chance on a haystack. He had a new way of dressing that the Americans from Chicago in their high stiff collars found quaint: cowhide boots, trousers with horn buttons at the ankle, lavender silk shirts with frills down the front and pleats at the wrists that seemed to thin as his body thickened. He grew shorter with the years. When he pushed his head out like a turtle I knew he’d soon be telling me he was going to burn all his paintings with the leaves from the garden.
As I sat by his side he told me about his life. The stories changed day by day. He was trying out different lives before he decided which one to claim. I must have sat too long and thought too much; his anger seeped into my bones. Long ago, as I stripped the oak for him, his hands had bled from the cold. Now his bowels bled. I was the only one who knew, but it was not the bleeding that fed my anger. It was his eyes.
Usually he sat on a high stool under a big umbrella that protected his eyes. Sometimes he forgot and stood all afternoon. His legs and feet hurt. He would not let me rub them.
His hands were still strong. His large brush thumped and swished as he painted the trunk of the willow pink. An unpleasant scraping sound meant he was making circular strokes for sky. He pulled deeply on a cigarette, then choked. I’d learned not to touch him. When he stopped coughing he looked up at a cloud as if to say, “Don’t interrupt me,” and called, “Next.”
“Shit,” I said as I set up another willow canvas. “No time. The wind’s in the clouds.” He giggled. Giggling was new for him. He studied the new painting for a long and ominous moment. There was paint on his beard; he couldn’t see it.
“What am I seeing, Jeanot?”
I couldn’t answer. I walked away. On the path I met my brother.
He said, “You look like a sick cow.”
“He’s going blind.”
“Happens to everyone.”
“He can’t paint blind.”
“Just something he does,” my brother said.
I’ve never been a fighter. I’ve always feared my elder brother; yet this time, both of us growing older, I hit him as hard as I could. His leg twisted and he fell into the lily pond. He swore I had broken his leg and didn’t speak to me for three months and four days.
I didn’t sleep; I didn’t eat. In the garden the sun beat down in such heat as I’d never known. Then rains came, Noah’s own flood. I served my master like a man blinded by tears. He understood. He cured me.
He led me down the garden paths, pointing to a small creeping plant. The lettuce green leaves were almond shaped. The flower was feathered, like a star with a green center. The cigar between his lips flared. “Pull them all,” he said.
“I’m not a gardener.”
“You have the eyes for it.”
More and more he enjoyed these contests of will. Usually now I gave way to please him; this time I had to give way. My brother’s leg was not broken, only badly sprained. But something in me had broken. I had no will left; and so, as six gardeners in blue blouses and wooden shoes — I’d worn proper boots for years — weeded the lily ponds, I knelt, all day every day, alone in the sun, moving slowly from plant to plant, easing out the small enemy. I crumbled the dirt in my fingers and pulled each tendril. “Leave one strand,” my master said, “and it will grow back.” He didn’t tell me the weed would come back no matter what I did.
I hated this mess of colors, this “color garden,” as one of his friends called it. I hated the vanilla smell from the wisteria on the Japanese bridge. I hated my master and I hated myself for being almost forty-six and his servant still. I threw a clod across the garden. My master laughed. I pulled another weed. The earth on its roots was warm between my fingers. I freed the last tendril and spread the dirt on the flower bed.
Three days later I was well. My master knew. He smiled through that ragged white beard and sang a mock version of a song he’d learned from the Americans. “I work in the garden alone. . . .”
The Rose Trees
He’s painting the rose trees that have been trained over the trellis on the long path. His strokes grow larger every day. He’s not happy unless he paints, yet his oils make him angry. He says they change color on the canvas.
His rose trees are purple, not the purple of the old oak tree, but darker. The reds might well have been mixed with mud from the path. The greens are angry and dark. I think of his poplars, the cathedrals, the sun-flecked waters. They move up to meet the sun.
No sun touches the rose trees. A yellow path plunges into darkness. The trees writhe down to earth and beyond. The colors stop my breath. Blood beats in my head. I’m moving in darkness down that dread and ragged tunnel into a greater darkness the color of dried blood. All light is lost at the very mouth of hell.
My master puts his name to it and adds the date. He moves back. He cannot see. His moan frees me from the rose tunnel’s violent shade. Before he can touch the canvas I say, “Not this one.” He comes at me with the palette knife. His eyes flame like the inner reaches of his painting.
“None of them are good,” he says. “I will burn them all.”
I take the knife from his hand and lead him back to the stool. “Rest,” I say. He is too weak to rise again. Perhaps I shocked him with my touch or pushed harder than I knew. One thing I truly know: I will win this contest. He cannot see clearly enough to know what I am doing.
I take the canvas from the easel. I do not run. I walk the path toward the house as if the gardens were mine. I hold the painting as if it were truly mine. I will cut through the house and double back to a special hiding place. Someday someone will find it. Or I will tell his son.
In the garden my master still howls. I answer with a whisper. “This one is for me. It is what you see, little master.”