In the Meadow (Dans la Prairie)

By Nicola Hodges

He chose the spot with enough light where he wanted me, a sunlit piece of flower-strewn meadow, awash with light and colour in the open air. I was used to this, all the waiting and him deciding how he wanted me, so that he could capture me time and again, his ‘fallen woman’ picked up from the streets of Paris, with the long dark hair. I have the sense of déjà vu when I feel the earth with the rough grass, the hard little sticks and pebbles beneath me, as I take my place on the ground. My back aches but I am used to removing my clothes, lying on cold wooden floors and being told what to do, the uncomfortable positions I am forced into. I insisted that he bring a rug this time. Yesterday my dress was ruined.

Earlier I had walked in the garden in the shade of the house, waiting. Always waiting for him or for the sun to come out. He was finishing his cup of coffee as usual, not rushing.

“The rug!” I reminded him.

“Oh, yes.” he said absent-mindedly.

“Or I’ll look a sorry state when we get home. This is a new dress.”

He gave a cursory glance at my dress and gathered up his bag and his things, clanking and clattering awkwardly about him as he walked.

* * * * *

We take the path by the river, where the water-cooled air slips between the sun-blanched willow trees. This is the place where we walked yesterday, and the day before, under the wind-stretched skies, with the fresh misty mornings, the light spilling everywhere. It rains a silver breeze as the leaves oscillate in the trees and we follow the gentle purring of the wood pigeon.

We enter the meadow as if it were an ocean, bright and open, gently swaying in the wind. Our legs make sweeping brushstrokes, wading through the long grass to reach the place. He walks fervently ahead, eager to be outdoors, the materials cumbersome, dangling from straps, creaking leather and wood. Bright little voices of birds fly on the wind and a constant chorus of the cri, cri, cri of crickets can be heard scratching unseen in the ground. We find the mise en scène where the grasses lie flattened in an afterimage from my figure the day before.

Today has the same intensity of light, the flotilla of yellow flowers scented faintly like honey. How ironic, I think, that I should lie surrounded by lady’s bedstraw and the white flowers of Queen Anne’s lace. How often had I chewed on her oily seeds, the bitter tinctures I poured down my throat in futile attempts to lessen the burden from all those unborn moments of passion. I spread the rug on the grassy hollow and sink deep into the crushed grass, knuckled down into the ground. My parasol takes its position behind me, a model of green silk and carved, knotted wood. I arise in a froth of white, queen of the meadow, propped up on one elbow, waiting to be consumed by the brush. Like a flower, I lift my pale face to the sun.

It is almost too bright to read but I pretend to be reading my book. It doesn’t matter because nothing is painted, only suggested. This meadow in which I lie, it is not a landscape, merely the impression of one. How can you convey an entire meadow onto a canvas? The bristled heat rising sweet and chestnutty, like the sweat from the back of a bridled horse; the broken tremble of voices that shine from lusty spring-feathered necks in the woods and the sea of meadow grass, plumed with sprays of colour, in constant flux. I could almost eat the earth it smells so wholesome.

By the time those tangible things are conveyed to the canvas, they no longer exist because they have already changed. A painter can only capture the aura that defined something at that particular moment in time. I hang in a haze, which is neither the field nor the picture. I am merely an essence touched briefly by the light, lifted by the hair flaring from his brush and smeared into the pigment.

“I wish you could feel the landscape like I do,” he breaks the silence, as the rapid brush ends smite the clusters of flower heads upon his canvas.

“How can I fail not to?” I snap back at him. “I’ve spent nearly all week lying in it!”

I am all at sea in this grass-scape, lost in the rhythmic brush strokes of colour. I imagine that the colours roar up at him and pull him under.

“I know how much you love the water, that you want to be buried in it one day!” I mumble under my breath, mindful of the time he stupidly threw himself into the Seine, in some half-hearted suicide attempt.

I wonder if my emotions ever show on my expression or are absorbed into the oils upon the canvas, but he controls my face. My countenance can easily be smudged into a blank stare as cold as stone, but think this when you look upon me: unlike the stone walls of a cathedral that rise up many times out of the early morning mist, only to vanish under a rose-hazed sunset or a symphony in grey, I feel what you can see. My senses are alive within the paintings, I think and feel and I breathe. I give them life.

Unbeknown to him I can spread any amount of emotional drama into those paints. All that anger and frustration, all those words that lay unspoken came to his canvas more of their own volition than mine.

He said to me once, “Art should be appreciated with all the senses.”

To which I replied: “Surely there is only one sense, that of feeling, for without this we are no longer alive.”

* * * * *

There is no shadow today but I am always in his shadow, the shadow of the master. He liked the glimpse of my dark hair, elaborately piled high under my hat, escaping down the back of my neck. That hat, that gorgeous new hat was in danger of upstaging the colour of the meadow, a plume of brilliant white, adorned with flowers and lace. There is the faintest smear of hatred pinched tight across my face. I cannot contain it, nor do I seek to hide it.

There were so many times I have been obscured, veiled, or turned away, my face hidden beneath the thick deposits of paint, eyes lowered in the shade of the parasol or swallowed up by the landscape. I was his Parisian Queen once, the lady in the green dress. ‘La Monette’ they used to call me, like I was some kind of black cat that wore a bell and came when he called me, a grateful child, happy to lie in his lap. My life held in a frame, as in a mirror, watching myself being looked at. I played the cameo role for all of his women once, trailing my long dresses across his canvas.

Now I am just a figure in the landscape, akin to a tree or a hut, the ephemeral ghost who lightly tramples the canvas with the serene look. Though I do have doubts I have been the only one.

In my mind I begin to compose a letter, still unsure who I shall send it to: ‘When we arrived the garden was chockfull of weeds. You should see it now, crammed full of roses, dahlias and carnations. When the roses are out in full force the aroma is heavenly. We have the green beans to pick later and the geraniums will need watering with the metal can. We have dined in the garden all week, the table laid outdoors, a scene that shall be recreated again and again. The silver kettle and coffee cups now cold, the linen napkin hastily thrown down, abandoned glasses with remnants of red wine. It’s only a short train ride to Paris where I can visit my dressmaker and indulge in all the latest fashions.’

I can still feel the sediment from the Bordeaux, rough and dry as the bark of an oak tree. The woody flavour left an impression of a deep violet smoke long after I had sipped my wine, to blend into a rich aftertaste with the cigarettes and coffee that hung in the air like a painting waiting to dry. I paint an idyllic home life, but like him, I control what others see. As long as I am not shut outside the house again, made to stand all that time in the snow, growing cold, my stomach growling with hunger. As long as the creditors are happy…

“Money troubles,” I remember he said. His words struck me deep inside like a sharp instrument gouging the very life out of me, an all too familiar feeling. Now he was yelling: “I am without a single sou!”

I knew what this meant. Save a sudden apparition of rich collectors, we shall be thrown out of this nice little house. No bread, no wine, nor fire in the grate…

“Oh God, not again, sans un sou! …. without so much as a loaf of bread or a bloody shoe!” And with that I had taken off my double button strap shoe and hurled it at him across the room. It must have hurt because it was new. The leather hard as a washboard struck him on the side of the face. He stood there speechless, holding his red cheek as if he had toothache.

* * * * *

Meanwhile, he is slaving away in the warm sun, perspiration shining on his forehead, eyes creased as he strains to look through the bright air at me. I look up at him dominating the view, in his loose trousers and creased white shirt, his handsome face under the yellow straw hat. But his shirt is not white, it is grey-blue. My summer hat has become a luminous bloom so white it is silver, violet and blue. Funny how I began to notice these things since being with him, how my senses have sharpened, changed. I see everything differently now, as he does, with the art of looking using all the senses.

“When you go out to paint try to forget what object you have before you,” he says, “a tree, a house, a field or whatever…….” I wondered if I should be included in that list. “So that you paint what you really can sense and see.”

Even a shadow like his moods, he said, has colour. He had his moods, quite terrible, the outbursts that came without warning. “We all have a shadow side,” he once said, after one of his episodes, which was coloured the darkest shade of black, but I have my moods too.

“Yes, mine is tinged with green and purple, like a bruise,” I replied, an edge of spite on my tongue, in memory of all the times that he neglected me to fend for myself. I have been sackcloth and ashes in my suffering. ‘Humble origins’ his family had said. ‘Cette femme’, who climbed into his bed. I had to laugh when he said this, having borne out his long years of hardship, his melancholy moods, the begging letters to friends for money.

The cold winters in Paris became white as a blank canvas, starved of all colour, impoverished of warmth. Not eating for days, living on butter beans and stale bread. When his work failed to sell, food became less precious than paint.

Poverty is a form of blindness. We still sense the same world but it is clouded with a distinct lack of feeling, like the numb death of sleep.

I asked him outright: “Since when could you ever pay for any other woman to pose for you, with my gorgeous dresses and the elegance to wear them?”

I had grown up gazing into fashion plates, at the ladies stood motionless, poising grace and refinement there, trying on one dress after another, practising the way they posed, in their bourgeois finery.

* * * * *

He digs into his bag to find something. When he looks up he has yellow paint on his beard. I try not to laugh and return to composing my letter. ‘The weather is marvellous. I wish I could send you a little of the sunshine we are having. Claude is slaving away. I have a new dress. It is a froth of white and a lovely hat to match. You should see how it shines in the light and cascades at the back. I could turn and walk out of the picture. I really am quite the bourgeois aristocrat!’

The hours pass. It is exhausting just lying there. I begin to wilt in the heat and feel like I am quietly dissolving. Illuminated in my lace dress, I am shrouded in white, as if being painted on my death bed. I shall be enveloped within these white strokes, until my dying day. I lie under his shadow, failing to speak. My eyes do the talking and my hands. My deadened bones have sunk into this itching hollow, bristling with filaments of life. I have been so still that the butterflies mistake me for a fallen tree and come to visit me. The tiny black flies, which are nameless, crowd about my head.

The pine resin of the turpentine shrifts the air with its stringent odour and momentarily stirs me. He is working quietly with the oil and wood, applying the paint, like thick pigmented butter, to the canvas. I catch him observing, most likely the sequence of changing colours, the blue, the yellow, the grey upon my face before he decides which colour to choose. He paints like a bird sings, in every harmony, absorbed in an ecstasy of colour painting the deep sensations that flood through him.

“I know I go on about colour but it has become my daylong obsession, joy and torment. And the point is to know how to use the colours,” he talks, more to himself than to me, his face darting up to capture me for a few moments before turning away.

I swear he is able to taste colour, smell light and feel the rhythm of everything that he painted. For in chasing the merest sliver of colour, his senses, like a hunting party, have joined forces so that he can grasp that which he chases, the intangible, the colour that lasts only a second, the elusive light.

To think that he once told me he wished he had been born blind to later regain his sight. I was horrified. “Don’t tempt fate!” I scolded him.“One day you may really lose your sight and imagine the nonsense you would produce then!”

He argued back. “But that way, I would be able to look at the world with completely fresh eyes, freed of the knowledge of what the objects were, to see things new and really appreciate their colour.”

I know how he strives to capture the light and colour, sometimes in despair at the paints he has used. The light is changing, fading slowly and this drives him in a fervent attempt to finish. The light terrifies him as much as the darkness terrifies me.

“Why does the damn light have to change so fast!” he shouts, frustrated when the shadows from the tall trees begin to stretch across the meadow, wiping his forehead feverishly. “It’s impossible to keep up with it!”

A few unfortunate brush strokes and his box of paints fly onto the ground in a clatter of fury. “Merde!” he curses. “My box of paints will be closed for a long time if I don’t pull myself out of this affair. Let’s pray that I have a few more good years left in me!”

“Yes, please God! Anything to keep the bailiff away,” I say in reply, too quiet so that he cannot hear me. I think of the clothes and the paintings, the piano, the velvet sofa, the maids, all ensconced in our gentille petite maison freshly painted with the green shutters and parquet floor. It could all evaporate upon the tinny tintinnabulation that strikes on the silver bell every half hour on my bronze mantel clock. One strike from the hammer and it is all gone…

“May we go now Claude?” I say, knowing full well that in this mood he’d only mess things up, rising to leave, reaching for my parasol. We are both blanched by the sun. My limbs stiff as a mannequin, feeling thirsty and exhausted, I stretch and shake the leaves from my skirt.

“Who knows, maybe I’ll be famous one day!” he says cynically as he packs away. The wood of his paint box is stained a linseed yellow and earth tumbles out as he picks it up from the ground.

“Yes, Claude,” I say, the weariness grating from my parched mouth, as we gather up his easel, the canvas, the oil bristled brushes, the tipped out paints. Our clothes are creased and faded in the sun. We walk past the tall poplar trees that line the river as I sign off the letter in my head. ‘He has created the sensation of this magical landscape yet again, en plein air. He has lifted the meadow from the earth and impressed it upon the canvas. He has captured me too, in the meadow, submerged in a flower strewn field in Argenteuil, North of Paris. The artist’s wife reading with a serene expression upon her face. Yours, Camille.’

________________________________________________________________

Nicola Hodges has a B.A. from the University of Essex where she studied Sociology and Literature and won a prize for her dissertation, which she researched in the USA. She writes short stories and poetry and is currently working on an historical novel. Her poetry has appeared in anthologies in the UK and her short story “Secrets of the Bees” has been published in the Fall 2012 issue of Grey Sparrow Journal. Born in England, she has been living in Zürich, Switzerland since 2003, seizing the time to write whenever she can whilst bringing up two young, energetic boys and grappling with German. This has meant forging the ability to write practically anywhere: on the bus, in cafes, or at the top of a mountain.

 

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Since 2000, The Copperfield Review has been a leading market for short historical fiction. Copperfield was named one of the top sites for new writers by Writer's Digest and it is the winner of the Books and Authors Award for Literary Excellence. We publish short historical fiction as well as history-based nonfiction, poetry, reviews, and interviews.
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