River House Home - Refrigerator
an excerpt from "White Iris " by Carol O'Dell
White Iris (an excerpt from a work-in-progress)
Vincent searches for and finds the Langlois Bridge just as it was, black iron sagging on two shores. There are no buggies or women doing their wash as Vincent painted, but here it is, as Japanese as ever. He flips the sketchpad and begins with a nub.
I have my own search, the tree carved with:
SOUVENIR DE MAUVE
A cane fence no longer borders the adjacent almond orchard. I figure-eight my way around the maze of perfectly planted trees in order to inspect every side. Graying, fraying bark, as exquisite as an old woman’s wrinkles, draws the tree trunks down to the center of the earth. My fingers throb to run over the words, carved so long ago. Where are they? Would they be higher now? Did blue and gold become France’s dominant colors before or after Vincent? French blue sky and yellow gold sunflowers—France defined.
Am I looking high enough? Do the trunks get taller after a certain time or only the limbs?
He isn’t helping. He’s reading Zola. If he’s not painting, he’s reading. The sketch is complete, the bridge has come to life. I’m on a scavenger hunt and he might as well be yelling, you’re cold, getting colder, so cold, keep searching, keep searching.
He pauses, remembers that day, the pocketknife in his hand, digging in deep, the bark falling to the ground in chunks. He lifts his elbow, gets in deep. I am here, he says with each jab.
Only one word remains:
I lean my cheek against his name. I found it. Carve me. Take your knife. Do it.
The memory leaves him. He’s back on the page.
How willing I am to live his life.
After endless months of museum walls and museum air, my lungs gulp this sweet, icy drink. I rub the gnarled bark, throw my head back, absorb the tangle of limbs. His first painting in Arles was an almond branch, a simple branch in a glass, the stem notched like knuckles.
The longer I’m here and the more we walk the orchards, the fields, the more I see what a temporary fix this was. An excuse to leave. I thought that was what I was after—to see his paintings. It was simply to see.
I choose a branch for us to paint.
No, he nods, walks around the trees. Almond blossoms bloom while the snow still clings to the moss.
Earlier, I lifted a small vase from the breakfast table at the café and shoved it in my coat pocket, water and all. We need a vase now; that’s why I did it.
The branch breaks, reveals its pale green stalk. I slide the still-damp branch into my pocket. We’ll paint the bridges the orchards and their riotous show-off blooms, more bodacious than a Vegas stripper.
The turquoise—not blue, not green—of the sky bleeds into the earth, a watercolor world. Are there any wild horses and flamingos left? I need some flamingos, the most surreal of birds, obnoxious pink, awkward and skinny. I need them to be here.
This February sky is a shade of soft, turquoise blue. China blue? Mediterranean blue? Who can claim it? He didn’t borrow it from the Japanese, it was here, is still here—in this place, that has its way with light. He snaps another branch. He wants this one, the one we’ll paint all afternoon. This one will make us forget hunger and exhaustion.
“Didn’t you know?” I ask, pulling on a cypress branch until it splits and offers its clean scent. The sinuous branch separates into long strands break free, its pungency flooding the air. He takes it from me, holds it to his nose, dares me to say it. “That you were always a painter? That you loved nature more than God?” I breathe again. “Not that there’s a difference. I mean, what was all that shit about preaching?”
He whips me with the branch on the side of the leg. It stings.
He smiles with those nasty teeth, whips again.
“Stop!” I reach for the branch. He pulls back, takes another swipe across the calf. I grab it. His eyebrow lifts. He’s quick. It slides through my fingers. He stuffs it deep in his back pocket then pulls out the reed pens. He’s serious again.
We plunk ourselves down on a rock with dueling reeds, sharpen them with my pocketknife, and sketch the bridge on thick watercolor paper. The reed pen is as supple as a brush. It gives on the paper, releasing its amber stain, and makes everything appear important. The water gurgles by, and something of its strength captures on the page.
Vincent pauses, thinks of Holland, and the air grows cool. He remembers his father and his mouth draws in. I know that look, it’s the I’ll-never-be-good-enough look. Fathers do that to their children without meaning to. Dad was always the serious one. Do your homework, do your chores. Do you have a plan? Do you know how lucky you are?
No, Dad, how lucky am I?
Vincent takes the cypress branch out of his back pants pocket, crushes the leaves, and sniffs his ink-stained fingers. We finish our drawings and walk some more. Engorged with memories, some sweet, some poignant, he misses Theo.
If anything is missing from this equation, it’s his brother, and that’s a void I can’t fill. Their childhood spent in the fields behind their house, Theo’s pockets stuffed with Vincent’s leaves and moths, rocks and fossils. He saw what others could not look beyond.
Vincent—intense, irritating, demanding.
Yes, but as I stand here, knowing him now, here in Arles, knowing him more than I know me, it is his tenderness, his reverence for all things beautiful, his yearning to create substance and meaning that is beyond endearing. I am Theo’s pockets today stuffed with whatever Vincent hands me—Queen Anne’s Lace, pebbles, and a snail shell.
The moth forever in search of his star.
Gypsies heaped on barges float by, their mutts of mutts barking and growling at us, their heads too big for their bodies and short legs. Vincent growls back. I try not to laugh, I don’t want for them to take my laughter the wrong way. I want them to steer their floating homes and histories over to shore and let their dogs teach me what’s funny.
These are strange people. Black hair and piercing eyes, mounds of clothes and jewels both real and costume. Shifty. Strange on purpose—to keep all others at a disadvantage. Why? To live their own way.
I wonder if they adopt adult orphans, if I could grow dark with the sun, collect old jewels, find my own mutt, and float down stream?
The gypsies trail out of sight, tugging down time. We pull bread and cheese and wine halfway out of my bag and eat like their ravenous dogs, afraid we might never get more. My easel, tethered to the earth like Vincent taught me, sits beside us. Tethered the way I yearn to be. The mistral picks up and the trees sing, then howl with the distant dogs, but my easel doesn’t move.
for more information about Carol O'Dell
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Photograph of "Olive Tree" by Vincent, 1889 provided by Ms. O'Dell