As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.
A wood looms in her kitchen. Tree clumps cast their checkered shade on her floor. And in her canvas there could be a winding path, a cottage door, a tower, if she’d let them in. Maybe mold them from clay before shaking them from her broom-handled brush.
Swish, the ex-painter, talks to Gutt as she goes. There are days that begin so well, she tells him, the only pressure comes when she considers there is no course for her joy. Yet she would be the first to festoon the place. Already she has opened the trunk with the clothes, the palette, the brushes. The black pants with red and yellow ruffles tumbled down, smeared with paint! A letter blew across the attic. Another time, a no-longer self.
Under the black pants she wears blue jeans, his heavy brown boots. A yellow scarf ties down the grey beret. Her shirt is round and white.
Gutt, she says, I shall stroll in this to the parti-colored races, I shall grab them by the eyes!
There is a beginning. Something to say and something to see. So thought plunges, leaving the foamy traces upon which Swish floats and watches herself float. Islands bobble in the wind and float by.
Beads of color.
Her eyes flit from the canvas to the broccoli she has set on a table in the kitchen. She shall force herself to see the trees that Gutt did!
He sails past her on a flowered float. From the corner of her eye, the one she loves.
The bar is across the street. It seems that there are two places, that this is the other place. It is the other place because it is the bar. It is the other place because Mandy works there.
Swish has seen her in the market place, plunged in the shadow of the church. Mandy.Américaine like her. Mandy. See how her hair falls to the middle of her back. Black hair. A back to admire (fingers climbing vertebra, like a ladder). Her elbows, Swish imagines, are smooth. Mandy!
Gutt tugs the chipped oar; to Swish, the strokes say, “You will love her too.”
If she was good, though, wouldn’t she love them all?
Swish blew pepper from her eggs—Take that!—to see Gutt sneeze! “On the truth,” he said. What truth? She was wicked, watching his old body sneeze, shake, tumble—it almost seemed—apart, like sections of fruit. She trembled too.
Now she wants to replace the floating self with another. She wants to call Mandy and unloose her surprise: l am here.
Swish doesn’t know if she will love her. She doesn’t know about love.
Let us go.
The women go into the trees. In woods hate crumbles as they crunch the leaves.
Revealed, then, in raw sunlight. Swish walked up to her in the market place, but did not speak. What if she could save them both?
But her fantasy, so pure as this, in which Swish saves her, in which—who knows?—she saves all those in need of being saved, would press the laughter right from Mandy’s sides. How Mandy would laugh to see Swish traipse in, smelling of the antique trunk she’d stepped from. Precious.
The feeling of Mandy’s laugh rose and fell in Swish (though she hadn’t heard it before, though Mandy didn’t know she was here) when she walked past the bar. She couldn’t see through the smoky glass—full of longing she was! Gutt’s desire, it seemed, had crawled into her. Swish didn’t know when it had come, or how long it had been inside of her. Engrafted to this store.She thought it was green. She thought it was a small rain down inside of her. To Swish, his desire felt like this.
In the bar, Swish imagines Mandy. Her back to the bottles. Her mouth a little tired, a little puffed and purple at the edges. She is tough, this one. Dipped in strength. It is this that Gutt has told her. Her child gone, and still she stood there.
Perhaps she wouldn’t have to think! The bar would wrap itself, an endless smoky gauze, around her, containing her. Men on stools would contain her in their thirsty gazes. She merely had to water the faces, didn’t she?
Swish hopes that this is true. That, if she could walk in, Swish would see: single-handed, how she killed her pain.
When Mandy knew Gutt, he hadn’t aged yet. He was not the old man Swish had also known. Would she tell them? Mandy and other people in the village would want to know what had happened to Gutt. They would want to know if he was traveling around the world. Already they imagined the many-colored coat he’d wear, the buttons from different countries, different times. With a scallop shell, with a staff, they pictured him! Where had he gone, after leaving them? (And why had he come when he did?) Some probably thought, even expected that he’d come back. They waited for the something he’d bring them, showing his impressions of the village, of themselves.
But there were days, among the last days, when he did not know if she should tell them. She held his hand, a bird resting its bones in her own. His empty sleeves!
She said, “I will go. I will go and see.”
Now, living in the house, which she has done for six days and six nights, she doesn’t know what she will tell the people. They will have to wait for words to rise in her throat. In the house, what Gutt had known of this life, a deep and bottomless knowing, was gradually filling her; invisible hands with invisible glasses, feeding her. What were these words?
She did not climb the stairs in the cottage at the top of which, in her first memory of him, Gutt stood. Before the hand came down.
From the house flow memories.
They were children. It surprised Swish to see him there, as if he’d stepped out of the grandfather clock (this she later thought) that framed and swallowed his silhouette. With deference, the clock continued to sound—outbound circles of absence, surrounding them.
There may be words to say she can’t say.
Words Swish had said as if they were one word, not under her breath, but instead of it.
It was not written in the dusty books they together read or the cards in elegant hands she alone received—saying she was not alone—or the leaf he plucked from sunlight, shaking as he plucked it—though her arms surrounded him—into which, on a day last winter, they buried their noses (you can read, anything) how knowledge would fill her. It had a mind of its own. Knowledge started at one end of the bar and did not stop until her gullet had every bottle’s taste to bud or branch within.
Now, without the world she knows to speak for her, Swish will have to think. It hurt her that she could not save them. Mandy. People in the village who wanted to know. Not to ride past in the suit of armor that was, depending on the eye that saw it, visible or invisible. Not in any suit at all.
People, though, made people disappear. Mandy, from the table where she stood, in light, weighing onions that flaked in her hands, was soon hidden by other people in the market square.
The bar across the street is far away.
Hot on his trail.
At least, in the morning, Swish thinks she is waking up in his hammock—ready to follow him! If she needed rubber boots, if she needed candle stubs or lead, she would drum them up. She would search the house for rope. Anything to ease the strain. After all, she has been here a week. Does the house know she’s here? She wonders if it knows, if her living in the house has started yet. Swish wonders what she’ll find in the house.
He may be waiting right now! She has only just woken up ! She will look, she thinks. Ready.
Under her, the hard mattress. Packed with sleep. She may as well have woken up on the wooden floor, tipped from a giant cup as she slept, made of wooden limbs. Sleep, perhaps, has fooled her. Only sleep could lay her in a string cocoon and swing her gently, so her sense of where she was, of everything perhaps, also wavered, then came back to the same place; so, when she woke up, discovering the warm, the weightless bundle of herself, she thinks she knows where she is.
But instead of the table swimming with fish, across which their hands reached for rolls and a pitcher, for sustenance—through the light that fell—the table where she had eaten with Gutt, the hard white porcelain of the tub stands in the middle of the room. It is violent, for the minute she recognizes it, having dragged itself on pointed claws to this spot. With a laugh, Swish thinks, I suppose that it will die here.
As for the room, it is more attic than room. Swish, as she looks into the angle of the roof, feels the whole house, more solid than the sea, underneath her! The stones around her are like decisions that have been made without her. Before she came. Along time ago. The hammock disappears. She remembers where she is.
Already, her memory of Gutt, in the hammock, swinging like a moon near her hand, has edges that curl back if she’s not careful. She does not know how to tend this memory. The floorboards underneath the hammock were worn, the soft color of flames, but perhaps it is time—specifically, the time since she’s left the boat—that has worn them down, with patience making of her memory something soft, like beams of light. Swish hopes that the houseboat is still pulling gently at its mooring; still there.
With the child at her side, she saw the boat for the first time. Her sister’s child, Ellie, tugged Swish’s hand (in case it had been sleeping) drawing her attention to—the man on the boat (they had to wait while he went inside, and came back). He might have been reading. He was always reading.
Look, Ellie said.
Swish stopped talking to the fisherman. The fisherman, and particularly two fishermen, who were there, always, when Swish and Ellie came down to the wharf, sitting in cars with sandwiches and newspapers, as if they were waiting too. Swish stopped talking, stopped listening to them. Then she squeezed El’s hand. How could she forget? She would listen to the child.
Lookie—yes. Look—look. Happily, Swish echoed her. With Ellie beside her, she had felt so happy that at first she did not see. With a newspaper, with what looked like a magnifying glass hovering over it, there was Gutt.
Now the smell of low tide stirs her from a sleep. It is the tide to which, after that day, Swish felt she belonged. Each day she is here, it is less strong.
The smell of stone takes its place, no memory. It is August, but cool in the house, as if the other months were kicking around inside of it, mingling together, unable to free themselves. Into the attic where she sleeps, to be near the wood beams, light falls sluggishly, if at all. The sky is grey, like something that would absorb her, if she didn’t move.
Her days, since her arrival, are simple. She gets up from the mattress (two, maybe three mattresses on top of one another) and she descends the long stair, past the second floor, to the kitchen. In the kitchen, she drinks. One drink, two drinks. It doesn’t matter what. She drinks tea, sometimes. Something hot; or she cracks open a slender green bottle fished from the basement. It’s a kind of treasure. Why not? She is celebrating.
When she is ready, she paints.
But she doesn’t know yet where her painting will lead. If she could, she would spring from underneath the thin sheet that holds her down—she would try this. Instead, she stands slowly, making herself in the light there is, because, really, she does not want to lie here, in a hammock, on a mattress, or on any other thing.
Cinq minutes to la place. Cinq minutes to la poste, and to the épicerie, where, she happened to know, a crate of peaches harbored des pêches pas terribles. Yesterday, she had walked five minutes to return a peach! Yesterday, that she could not speak, could not say, in another language, that the sunset was gone, rubbed out of the peach, was, no doubt, a blessing.
Now Swish is thinking that yesterday, not any of the ones she’s had, does not matter. There may be something about the past to which she clung—of course she had clung to it—which she no longer needs.
The trunk is by the door. Swish walks past it, down the stairs. She hasn’t been in all the rooms yet. She does not know what the house holds for her.
In the bibliothèque, a parallelogram of light had traversed the floor; it touched her feet. Swish turned her head. The door of the bibliothèque was solid, made of wood. Light did not come towards her, streaming through an open door, as she would have liked. She would have liked to feel the warm sun move across her face. Her sister’s house, before she left, had given her warm days, even as she grieved! Now, though it was August, the house in the morning was cold.
Ed did not open the door. He was Gutt’s friend, the librarian, and Swish waited for him.
She had had a choice. From the houseboat deck—as Gutt, inside, was sleeping—she considered it. To continue the life she was living before she found Gutt. Or follow him.
Of course death, even the idea of it, had discouraged her. Usually Gutt tried to comfort her—lifting the chin that fell, tidying the brow. If his affection wandered, she supposed it was because she was the last one to have found him, to have insisted, perhaps, on knowing him. He had moved to the boat to die! He called it a seaworthy tomb, a bed for last dreams, his own.
He was fatherly too, knowing she’d lost hers, and how hard it was for her to care. For her part, she did not take for granted the time they spent together. It was like the treasure—the speckledfeather, the bird’s egg, the empty shells of bullets—which, they lay down on tree stumps; she wished to circle this time. After all, Swish and Gutt had lived apart for most of their lives.
In the town where she lived, before she found him again, Swish walked down the main street as if it was hers! If she had a dog and no umbrella, an umbrella and no dog, a cane (with her craving, some days, to be old) still Swish could not fool the people in the town. They knew she’d left her family behind, and that the art school in the town was a colorless goal. People whispered that her head was in the clouds. Like Swish, though, they figured the anchor she’d lobbed would stick here.
Her eyes, perhaps had been closed! Had her fingers dragged the air, looking for light switches, as she walked down the street?
He had traveled, being everywhere.
Maybe she would tell this to Ed. Maybe she would say—as the truth stayed coiled inside her—she was looking for Gutt too.
After all, she had left the town to look for him! Umbrellas and dogs and streets she had left behind. The room in a house with Mrs. Cobb, with Malice and Envy buried in the backyard. She had dug the holes herself.
Chains around her ankles she had cut.
She didn’t know where the light came from.
Gutt’s ax, Swish remembered, hung on the end of the houseboat. They took the dinghy to the island and there Swish watched him chopping wood, craving to grab the smooth ax handle herself, which she did. He chased her. It was like being children again, except he was old and she was careful.
With an ax (this Swish briefly imagined) she’d peel away the walls of the bibliothèque, like covers from books. Then foreign walls, like words, would flutter away. She would not sit here, waiting, though she knew the choice was hers, that she could leave when she wanted to. What would the dust motes—lounging abundantly wherever she looked—reveal then?
A meeting of the motes, of the dust, dusty, and dustier that paved the city streets, the city walls, that guarded their hands in bars—the old dust club!—she imagined. Light—before it can speak for itself (they hadn’t thought of that)—they turn down like an ugly child.
Light must be locked in the belly of this petite ville.
He had been here, hadn’t he?
For a moment, Swish anticipates the feel of two arms around her, to hold down her breath, to keep her here. After all, this is what Gutt had done. When she found him on a houseboat, he took her past out from under her. She never knew where he’d be! Trailing her fingers from the rowboat, the strokes were quiet; she was like the water, unafraid. In such a dark, such a sleeping place as the bibliothèque, thought Swish, now he could find her.
The bibliothèque is quiet, listening. Thousands of ears from thousands of books poised. Thousands of lips are sealed.
She had found the village. She had followed him here. Only, in the bibliothèque, she doesn’t know what she wants to know. She would like a drink to clear her mind.
A word flutters from the shelves—dehors—a word she knows. She shall open the heavy door; she shall step outside!
She had almost forgotten Ed. She says the name of Gutt’s friend quietly, not to disturb him, if he was there; if he wasn’t, not to make him return, like a tadpole, to the mud of hisbibliothèque. Later, she may need to speak to him. Now, her voice floats out alone, among the words on pages on books on shelves. The old and quiet here. Swish is alone. Though she has been sitting in the bibliothèque for only five minutes, though the closed door would open again. For now, in the bibliothèque, there was no Ed.
In the bibliothèque, Swish was almost sure, no Gutt.
In the end, light freed itself. The parallelogram, was gone.
So Swish picked up her basket in her arms. Not to wait! Not now, not today. For Swish, it wasdehors. Outside. Look.
She passed the desk where Ed wasn’t. She tossed a book, lying there, to the bottom of her bag.
In the morning, on her way from the bibliothèque, Swish picked through thinning streets. When she first arrived, the streets discouraged her. To look for the house, she’d walked in nearly every one. (His absence greeted her.) Now they contained her. She loved a street! Cobblestones pushed her forward as if she had wheels or wings, she could fly over them, stone houses fed one into another, people were colored blinks. Her street hugged the old wall. Like water Swish skimmed the banks; she was led.
She couldn’t not go to the market square! If she moved quickly, perhaps she could step on its back—the market square—la place—floating down, ahead of her. Quick! A turtle’s shell on which a pyramid of camels, dressed in red, nimbly balanced—how often did one see that? The whole surface thought of spilling. Then, onto a corner of it all, she lightly stepped.
Tomatoes, sliced like open wounds, looked still alive. Open pink grapefruit, like the back of a throat. Eggplant slept.
Green dipped in blue.
Broccoli caught her eye. Étienne’s table backed into the shade of the church was the densest of all. “Voilà,” he said.
There was his grin, as he wrapped the broccoli in cream paper, the star inside the stalk. He lifted a bottle from the world beneath the table. How could she resist?
Around her this happened, and happened again. Mademoiselle! You must try this! Orange! Never an orange like (now that she tasted it she nodded)—oui—like celle-ci.
She opened her mouth.
Down lanes of color, lanes of light, she went.
Mademoiselle. Call her. Where is she? She was a speck of color. She could be tasted like an orange. She could disappear. Broccoli only she tucked under her arm. She would not take more.
She tried thinking that the home she was going to was her home. But a thought in August did not seem to be a thought for long. As if to prove it, her hand couldn’t find the heavy key. The old madam next door, flanked by friends with fat hips and clicking tongues, watched her tip red geraniums, looking for the spare.
And they? Would they believe her? If she had the key, Swish thought, they would believe her then. If there were bushes, if from the bushes could pop a family, for her, around her, then they might believe Swish. Not a paintbrush but a pencil, a stack of examinations and textbooks, for her to be believed! She was not the new English teacher, here to help the children in the town? Surely, Swish could not be who she was (could not have lost as she had lost) looking comme ça, her shirt flowing and white, a red bow tying back her thick and curly brown hair.
They had known Gutt when he was a young man. She tried to picture it. The way he tipped a hat, his impeccable accent when he greeted them. Mesdames. How he would have charmed such ladies! How they, in return, would have eaten him whole.
Soon she will talk to them. Their memories she’ll add to hers. When they know who she is, they will have something to say, Swish is sure. For now, she retreats.
Only she had seen him grow older than they would ever be.
Swish works in her kitchen. Light comes through wide windows, trapped by no curtains, falling on tiles. On the floor, near her easel, Swish has thrown a blanket; she stands in the middle of it, looking at her canvas, then all around. From a corner of the blanket a radio pours out soft tunes, and Swish, caught in the wide ripples of a gentle beat, quietly sways her hips. On another corner, as if it holds the blanket down, her drink.
The brush feels stiff like a candlestick, then rubbery. I may as well be painting with a rag, Swish thinks, it has been so long.
She imagines Gutt is a child, watching her. His eyes follow hers, wondering if one eye is on the broccoli and one on the canvas, or if they move together, seeing one thing at a time. Gutt’s body is small and tanned and plump, Swish imagines, though she knows it isn’t right. She knows the cottage where he grew up, in which he barely breathed. She may know more than she wants to—she’d lived there too.
If Gutt were a child, sitting on the blanket, watching her, he would bring her things. A petal in his pocket (he’d fingered it all afternoon) would have become, by the time he dropped it on her blanket, a cat’s ear. The same petal, if he were older, would have been a garden, or a sigh. (He would stroke the petal, trying to remember whose). He had brought her a toothpick: the house where they would live.
She would not have had to explain to the child that broccoli, propped on the kitchen table, wasn’t broccoli, but trees. (Hadn’t Gainsborough, hadn’t somebody made broccoli woods?) He would have seen that the painting was inhabitable.
As children, there was nothing that hadn’t tempted them! On a stump, they lay down their treasures. So she dragged her nets. She didn’t know what she’d find.
The stalk casts a light green light. Broccoli woods make their way to her.
Memories walk across her canvas, her battleground.
Swish would like to see the trees that Gutt did, into which he ran for cover. Sapling or second growth. Trees that would have seen Gutt too. On a blank canvas, to see their steaming color, and their swooning form. They surrounded the cottage—background, into which he ran.
She ties brush to broom handle to try: loose strokes, to think in light and dark, to move below the surface, below the detail. Alternating planes to effect their recession into space. Detail, only detail, doesn’t interest her. It is shade, she thinks. She doesn’t know if he’d agree.
It is light.
But Swish has been standing on the sloped floor of her kitchen for two hours, with little done. Broccoli could be broccoli or trees. In the stone-walled kitchen everything is still. Again, Swish waits. For movement. Breezes—her joy!
She rolled him over and he didn’t move.
The broom points back at her. She is not a painter. She sees broccoli instead of trees. One self, in place of another.
—Sarah French recently moved to Sag Harbor, New York from Krakow, Poland, where she was acting in a Wednesday afternoon television series. In Sag Harbor, she divides her time between flying small, brightly colored airplanes and writing.
As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.