Bird in the lower left hand corner
No one saw us as we crossed the street. The green iron gate of the house opposite was tall with a bronze lock and bolt but it wasn’t heavy and opened without a sound. The lights in the first floor windows were off; it was night-time. I cupped my hands so my brother could use them as steps to reach the balcony. Once he was safely there he leaned down to help me up too. The window to the study had been left open, as usual. We crept inside: him first then me. The room was dark. We groped around for the light switch so that we wouldn’t knock against any of the chairs. Then we snuck into the corridor and turned right. This time it was me who went first. Right at the other end of the corridor, coming out of the kitchen, there was a woman walking towards us. She wore a full skirt and her hair up, or was it a wig? The kind aristocrats used to wear. My brother turned around and lithely slipped back out through the study but I couldn’t move. The woman came right up to me. With a maternal smile she invited me into the drawing room. We sat down on a feather sofa. I felt at ease; calm, almost as though I had just woken up from a weekend nap. I smiled a little. The lamplight shone weakly through thick fabric shades. The parquet floor was dark, the furniture well-worn, the grand piano discreet. Everything was in harmony, like similar-looking siblings. The woman looked as though she had been born again.
‘Why do you come back?’
I turned towards the paintings and told her that I came to look. My brother came for the honey biscuits that she kept in a tin in the kitchen. I didn’t tell her that. She didn’t ask. I liked honey as much as the next girl and I wasn’t ashamed to say so but more than anything I loved the paintings that hung in three long rows, one next to the other, all along the cream wall.
‘Which?’ she asked
‘The little one in the middle,’ I answered quickly, finally waking up from the stupor her sudden appearance had brought on in me. ‘The one with the bright colours.’
‘Ah,’ she said, ‘yours.’
From where I sat, I looked more closely at the lower left hand corner of the canvas. It was signed with my name, the letters running vertically. The painting was of a bird in profile, very primitive. The silhouette took up more space than the colours it contained. It reminded me of one of Picasso’s periods and of a Greek painter whose house is built in the shape of an oven-bird’s nest. But I don’t remember having painted it.
There are no books, photos or mirrors, no satin dressing gowns or slippers at the foot of the bed. No crumpled sheets on the ironing board. Just the hazy morning light beaming across the wooden floorboards, which no longer creak when she walks across them. The ceilings seem higher and the mouldings more French. The dust multiplies in the sunlight and the previously hidden cobwebs now appear. Capulina puts on her sunglasses: night is better.
Just like in the old days, the writer sneaks through the house on tiptoe. Like when he was travelling and she preferred not to open his letters until he returned. Why read them if all he wrote was lies? He wasn’t like her. She didn’t invent things, she remained inside herself and peered at everything through a tube. An inverted telescope with a fang hanging at the end, the tooth from the wolf who swallowed her upon hearing the first story, when she was a child. Now, he was gone and had forgotten the hole he’d crawled out through, or maybe he had always been outside, like the stars. But she didn’t know how to miss him. How had she managed to love him more than her red fish, her cat or the charcoal drawings she hung up, the ones she threw away, the ones of him? How could she love him more than her oldest fears?
Someone turned a key in the front door. Capulina wasn’t expecting visitors. It was a young woman. She seemed nervous: she hurried along the hallway switching on all the lights as she went. There was only one sofa in the study, but she didn’t sit down. She put down a notebook with a marbled cover and a book to read on a table. Capulina smiled when she saw her name on the spine. The young woman, who was fidgety as well as nervous, picked up a torch and shone it along the highest bookshelves. Nothing there. Then she went into the bedroom to search the cupboards. No good: the false heirs had taken everything, even the dust from under the carpets. But the intruder wasn’t looking for alms. She wanted a clue, something to help her begin her story.
After making sure that she was alone, the young girl sat down on the sofa in the study and flicked through the book she had brought with her until she felt a pinch at her waist. She stood up immediately. A spider with robust feet snuck underneath a green velvet cushion. Instinctively, she lifted up the back part of her shirt and rubbed the swollen area hard but only succeeded in dispersing the venom. She innocently recited the lines she had just read: ‘araignée du soir, espoir’. But it was still early. Capulina was pleased that she hadn’t got to the rest of the proverb*. The intruder would rest in peace, like everyone who wanted to tell her story in the light of day.
The young woman was found dead that afternoon and after a little bureaucratic commotion the house was quiet again. In the darkness, Capulina took off her sunglasses: the study was back the way it was supposed to be. She picked up a fountain pen and let her furious script loose over the pages of the widowed notebook. The following morning, the spider that had been playing in her hands through the night hid itself in the last splash of ink. Capulina covered her eyes again and disappeared, leaving the apartment vacant. On the other side of the front door a notary turned the key in the lock to close the case. In the study, two marbled covers enclosed an autobiography in verse with a small red signature in the shape of an hourglass. By the window was a spider’s cobweb, its throne now deserted.
* “Araignée du soir, espoir. Araignée du matin, chagrin.” A spider at night, hope; a spider in the morning, despair.
The False Collector
A Senegalese man in a blue, double-breasted suit offered us an audio tour of the permanent exhibition. We had come for the temporary exhibition but accepted it anyway. He went on ahead. I turned on the machine and let myself drift away with the older male voice as it told me the story of the house’s owners, a rich couple from the nineteenth century. A couple I would have liked to have been part of: cultured, frivolous. Money is always an issue. How can you be modest when you own a house packed with frescoes, tapestries and Venetian sculptures from the Age of Enlightenment? Imagine it, the narrator whispers. As if I could do anything else. On special occasions the three salons were joined together. Carriages parked outside and there was room for everybody in the large courtyard. The ostentatious reception room is decked out with gold, the ballroom in blue velvet. Musicians in period costumes play on the first floor. The winter garden feels cool because of the marble. Behind it a pair of staircases twist around like twins standing back to back. Upstairs, everything feels more intimate: her bedroom, and his. Her atelier, his study. The thick curtains muffle the noise from the street. The light fades. I look at her portrait and imagine my own. Her hair drawn up, a generous neck line, her cheeks lightly powdered. I gave up painting for a man, just like her. I also had a studio that isn’t a studio any more. He, however, isn’t like Nelly’s husband except for the trips that he takes in the summer to get away from the tourists. He doesn’t travel to buy paintings, he paints them on all fours. He prefers Africa to Venice. Like Nelly, I don’t go with him. I wait for his paintings at home. The paintings I like best. Layers upon layers of oil paint. Little shadows with their heads weighed down by baskets. The nudes never look like me. The portraits don’t either. I’m more like Nelly. Nelly, who preferred to buy what she wanted. Why paint when you already own the things you like to see best? When they can look back at you? Like me, Nelly used to hide loose pages in her clothing: charcoals, sanguines, chalks, crayons. Quick sketches she made on trips. I have more time to do mine, while he’s away. Nelly thinks they’re flawed. For my part I’m sure they are but I keep them anyway. Better not to sign them. Nelly didn’t sign hers either. Better to sign them in his name. Like Nelly did with Rubens.
‘The exhibition begins on the second floor,’ declares a woman in uniform standing in the only threshold on the first floor. We know she’s not lying: they told us the same thing downstairs.
The hall is narrow, framed illustrations of period clothing hang from the ceiling. In the centre, there are two large glass cases containing letters, drawings and manuscripts. Le Roi s’amuse, I’ve never read it. The first room is larger and less cluttered, the paintings likewise. A première followed by two more: ladies and gentlemen dressed like piano keys in the stalls fade into each other underneath the dried oil chandelier that shields the theatre’s dome. In the middle of the room there are glass cases containing handwritten texts and cards signed by the author. Chairs rest against the wall but nobody is sitting, not even the museum attendant. The second room is dark and suffocating. Walls lined with wine-coloured fabric and filled with plates. I’m not sure what to look at, like when you’re forced to flick through other people’s photo albums out of politeness. The third room exhibits the front pages of newspapers from the time. I get a little depressed thinking about the current front pages; so insipid by comparison. There’s not enough air; I move into the next room. Again, there are illustrations of theatre costumes. This time the play is named for a woman. To my left, a man is making a dry ‘p’ sound every six seconds; a tic. I hurry on to the next room, hoping to lose him. Everything is dark. The attendant, standing there hour after hour, must have cat’s eyes. Above is a candelabra with two electric lights mimicking candles. The bed is made. A small four-poster double. A writer is less eminent when asleep.
I ignore the suggested route and head towards the stairs. The main room is filled with schoolchildren hugging their knees in a throng on the floor. A young woman, only a little older than the students, stands in front of them forcing a smile. The guide. With a decidedly theatrical gesture, she begins the story in a loud voice. I listen from behind, pretending to read one of the manuscripts in the glass box. Other people, less reticent, close in on her and listen more attentively than those for whom the entertainment is meant. The life of the writer before he arrived at the house in question is summed up in a few lines. A first play with too many characters for it to be performed. A second one censored. A third timidly performed for a private audience. The enthusiasm of close friends. The friend who organizes a première in one of the only two national theatres. The curtain rises. The theatre official urging the public to boycott the show. The defence from those in the front row. In the painting Théophile Gautier is wearing a red scarf.
Enthralled by the soap opera, I follow them into a room I’ve already been in. Adèle finds me amidst the tumult and tells me that she’s leaving. An attendant chides the band of less discreet interlopers:
‘Only paying customers can listen.’
I keep a prudent distance, my gaze lost in the shadowy interior of a chest. My eyes are fixed on what least interests me – it’s not difficult – so as to concentrate better on the guide’s story. She explains that the room has been decorated in the same style as one the writer had done up in Belgium for his beloved. The plates are in the bad Orientalist taste of the period. The lover was an awful actress. The theatre companies made a pact to keep her out of their casts. The life of a great writer reduced to a caption for a paparazzi photo, filler for a general interest magazine. And now the tragic part: his daughter dies while he and his girlfriend are on holiday in France. The artist suffers because he can’t attend the funeral. The poem I learnt in school now seems less painful. I take off my jacket. It’s hot. The guide takes the trouble to recount all five acts of a play in detail. The drama is made so banal that it’s a mystery how the genre might have originated at all. I take refuge in the next room. The guide arrives a little later and goes through another five acts of a second play. Then she asks some stupid questions. The children answer them shyly. After explaining at length that the writer was very democratic and that his plays criticized the monarchy, she asks, for example, if the protagonist of the play ‘Napoléon’ is a nice character. Someone answers not. She agrees with another forced smile and continues the story as quickly as possible. Excellent memory. It sounds as though she’s reciting it to herself in another language, her eyelids tucked behind her mad bulging eyes. Then she describes exile as though it were like entering the monkey house. I imagine the author peeling bananas. Then she laments his monumental ego. I grow less and less keen to read one of his books. The guide ends the tour:
‘You can see the ground floor on your own.’
I feel dizzy as I leave. The leaflet they gave us tells me that the exhibition is named ‘See the Stars’. Adèle is waiting for me at the foot of the stairs with a thick volume of the author’s illustrations. Except for the cross-hatching, the drawings are monstrously beautiful. When we get out on to the street, I have the hiccups.
A Winter Figure
She never had a dressing room. She got changed behind a screen. Sometimes she arrived late, but never more than five or ten minutes. We waited for her in silence. We couldn’t begin without her.
Helena had white skin and wore her reddish hair tied up behind her neck. Her languid movements did not arouse pity. The long neck, the diminutive feet: if she didn’t have freckles she’d be a swan. She would have been a good dancer, I sometimes thought, but it was hard to imagine her as a chaste ballerina.
Helena wasn’t shy but never looked at us. Her gaze went beyond us, like in the theatre. Her compulsive stillness didn’t seem tense at all.
I always felt an urge to run the side of my hand down her body, starting at the head, at the back of the skull and descending down the spine in little hops to straighten her up. Modest breasts, wide calves, a lithe stomach. Her arms and legs dangled like tassels.
Helena never complained when the teacher forced her to bend at the waist or twisted her neck right around. Or when he asked her to uncross her legs or forgot to move the gas heater closer to her. Her obedience was mechanical, almost as blind as those dolls that close their eyes when they’re put to bed.
She’d leave as stealthily as she had arrived, around midday. A couple of minutes behind the screen were enough for her to cover up. Gloves on, she kissed the teacher on the forehead before nodding to us from the doorway with a pursed smile. Helena never even glanced at our charcoal drawings. She was in a hurry to get warm.
The Altar Boy
It was a sunny day so the office workers ate their lunch outside and the mothers took their babies out in three-wheeled prams. The babies observed the tourists resting next to their backpacks on public benches with their nascently wrinkled foreheads. Spring in Monceau Park.
The circuit around the perimeter was shorter than I thought. I was passed twice by a group of three men and then a couple of women with the whistling breath and clodding steps of athletes who’d rather be at the theatre.
Green apples in brown paper bags, long sandwiches with splintering crusts, vegetables laid out like surgical instruments in hermetic polystyrene boxes: it was too early for lunch but the sight of all that hidden food being unwrapped made me take out a chocolate bar I’d been saving for later. I ate slowly. In silence. Without a map. I put the metallic wrapper in my jacket pocket together with a still valid subway ticket. For a moment, everyone was still. A boy with a remote control car signalled an end to the communion. I got up gratefully. The knees of my trousers were worn out.
An Immoral Story
Clear eyes are the most frightening. Rohmer’s are almost transparent, at least that’s how they are in his cover photo. The man I passed at midday in the centre had eyes like him. Only his bronzed skin made them bulge even more, like he’d lost his eyelids trying to stay awake. For a few moments, he turned his baubles on me and I was scared. They had no depth: a shallow paddling pool where it’s dangerous to dive. I imagined his blonde hair completely covered with a swimming cap – not Rohmer, the businessman. Weirder than an alien. Clear eyes staring blankly. I prefer green, blue or brown. I prefer turquoise, or the rare violet kind. I prefer black ones – the black spaces between figures in a Renaissance painting.
I don’t need cards, a palm or coffee grains. I don’t read books, or use pendulums or crystal balls. I predict the future from a thousand hues in a single colour: impressionist lilac and the morning sky, sick days the shade of clay and the sun; a yellow disk spinning quickly around a diminutive pupil.
The man I passed a few hours ago is waiting for me in the hall. I asked the maid to say that I wasn’t here so he would go away. But he doesn’t seem to understand the language. He’s looking tenderly at a portrait of me as a girl on the wall, or so Doris tells me. Who cares? At that age, when my mother could still lift me, I hadn’t yet opened my eyes.
My grandmother was a sculptor and my mother a ballerina but they handed me over to the nuns. I liked to draw. Maybe that was why, when I started out at convent school, my father said that it was so I’d ‘learn something useful’. I didn’t think my mother would allow it. I thought she wore her hair in a ponytail because of the ballet but actually it was long to commemorate the promises she’d made. Twelve years of drudgery in English and praying in the chapel. My schoolmates were far too refined to get their hands messy with oil paints, let alone a dirty soap. Once, I think I was in the fifth year, there was an art competition. Free technique: the face of Jesus Christ, or Christ, anything so long as it’s not little Jesus, as they say nowadays. I spent all weekend locked away, perfecting each point of the crown and even the little dribbles of blood with a nib and china ink. Luckily, I knew Jesus’s features by heart from the film they showed on television at Easter because he had a nice face; gaunt but friendly. Even so, my drawing came out differently. And I didn’t win. They did give me a rolled up piece of paper, a special mention, ‘because you must have got help from your father’ said sister Eulalia. Afterwards, I studied restoration and today I have a small workshop in the cellar of what used to be my grandmother’s house. My parents live above. Over the past few years I’ve had plenty of work. I am versed in thirty three trades and possess all the tools of those thirty three trades. A little while ago I was brought a late fifteenth century Italian crucifix. A beautiful piece that had come, of course, on the recommendation of the antiques dealer around the corner. The amazing thing is that when I began to clean Christ’s face I found that it looked just like my drawing – not the actor. Once I’d finished my work, I lingered on a bit longer copying the face on to a large piece of paper. There was no doubt: it was exactly the same. I keep it safe, very safe in a wardrobe wrapped in silk paper. Who knows? Maybe one day I’ll have a daughter who’ll find it useful. I still want that first prize.