Strange Occurrences at the Old House

After violet lightning struck the tree by our house, oddities started in our family. Levitating coffee cups. Sis would snap her fingers and random objects burst aflame. An entity named Virkiv sometimes spoke through me. Word spread through the nearby town, around the county, farther away from us. Then armed men broke down our door, dragged our family into vans, drove us to a laboratory.

The scientists who study my family tell us that our house is still being examined. As are we. The scientists claim a new house will be given to us after the examinations are finished. But they don’t say when that will be.

Certainly we miss the old house, all the familiar rooms and the memories that happened within them. As well as the land around the house, the field and slice of forest. Now our home is this lab, which has a sad, blank character.


copyright © 2021 Dave Williams

Learning a Little About the Students

An aardvark walking, with small bushes behind it.
by Louise Joubert/Wikimedia Commons

On the first day of school, the teacher asked the elementary school students to say one thing about themselves.

Starting in the front row, each student spoke. Some spoke energetically, some softly. Olivia Murrell’s favorite color: purple, Noah Hillman’s favorite food: pizza, Sofia Valdez’s favorite movie: The Wizard of Oz, Makayla Weber’s favorite food: cake, Dominic Rowley’s favorite color: red, Xavier Carrasco’s favorite baseball team: Los Angeles Dodgers, Ellie Ishida’s favorite holiday: Christmas, Anthony Arborghast’s favorite animal: zebra.

The teacher help up her hand and said, “Let’s take a little break there, please. I have a question. Anthony Aardvark Arborghast, could you tell the class why your parents picked your middle name? I’m very curious.”

Anthony Aardvark Arborghast was a shy boy and his voice was low, but he managed the explanation. “My mom and dad wanted my middle name to be an animal. But they couldn’t agree on which animal. My mom’s favorite animal is the aardvark, and my dad’s favorite is the albatross. They had a contest for who could pick my middle name. They played one round of miniature golf and one round of gin rummy. They worked on the crossword puzzle in a Wednesday edition of the New York Times to see who could get the most answers. They jumped to see who could jump the farthest. They wrote essays about the possible dangers of technology. Three of their friends served as judges to pick the winner of that one. They took a test of real-world math, which included household finances, sales tax, and statistics in news stories. And finally, they made funny faces and funny voices to a friend to see who could make the friend laugh louder. They agreed on a complicated scoring system for all those contests to see who won the whole thing. My mom won.”

Silence in the classroom as the teacher and students took in all of what Anthony Aardvark Arborghast had said. The kids looked around at each other. The kids looked at Anthony Aardvark Arborghast.

The teacher said, “Well, Anthony, I think you have interesting parents.”

“Weird is more like it,” Anthony Aardvark Arborghast said.


copyright © 2021 Dave Williams

Rocky Road

Wine gave the illusion of courage, yet Alex’s heart thudded a rapid drumbeat, beads of sweat on his forehead and lower back from the heat of the imagined bonfire around which several dancers frolicked to the rhythm of that rapid drumbeat.

In reality, Alex maneuvered around the other patrons in the bar. He arrived at the lady’s side, then he murmured, “Hi.”

“Hi there,” she replied, louder than him.

“Rocky road.”

A frown on her lovely face, and she said, “Do you mean the ice cream flavor, or that you’ve gone down a difficult path?”

“The former. No, the ladder. No, I don’t mean a tool you can use to climb to second-floor bedroom windows. That’s creepy. I mean the latter. With t’s, not d’s. The second one.”

Thankfully, the lady’s frown eased away. “Do you mean your life in general has been rocky, or that recent events have been rocky?”

“Recent,” Alex said. “Very recent. The path to get to you. I’m not saying the bar’s floor is strewn with rocks. I’m speaking metaphorically.”

One of her eyebrows raised, a gesture that communicated some of the lady’s opinions and ideas. If only Alex could’ve translated the gesture, he would’ve understood her better. However, that was part of the mystery. Which was maddening and enticing at the same time.

She said, “Now that you’ve achieved your destination, do you expect a reward?”

“I already have it.”

“Oh? What’s that?”

“You’re talking to me.”

This time she let out a little laugh, and the sound was sweet to his ears. “And what an unusual conversation it is.”

Encouraged, Alex said, “Do you have a taste for rocky road ice cream right now? Or is it just me?”

“I’m not sure.”

“We could try to find an ice cream shop and see if you’re up for it,” he said. “Or we could put it to the side for later. Down the road.”

The same eyebrow raised, along with the corner of her mouth directly underneath it. “You’re original. How about we have a drink, then we’ll go from there.”


copyright © 2021 Dave Williams

3 Detectives

Mr. Poe
(Edgar Allan)

is deeply suspicious of Ms. Odom’s intentions, with that guarded look on her face and the occasional gleam in her eye that’s quickly covered up to return to dull disinterest, as if the dead fly on the windowsill has actually captured all of her attention.

Ms. Christie
(Agatha)

is on the case, questioning neighbors to find out whether they’ve seen anything suspicious happening around the Ballard house in the past few weeks (or so). Included in the questioning is the kindly older lady who lives across the street and who has seen many comings and goings at the Ballard household: morning rushes to get into their two cars and drive to day care and office jobs, evening arrivals and rushing to get inside and start dinner preparation, Saturday departures to soccer games and gymnastics classes, and Sunday playing at home, of throwing laughter from the backyard and riding a tricycle and bicycle (with training wheels) on the sidewalk out front.

Sir Doyle
(Arthur Conan)

is searching high and low for clues, trying to spot something that doesn’t quite fit in this suburban house occupied by two busy parents and two children, which results in a house holding a certain amount of clutter and by this, he wonders if the claimed crime has not really been committed, but instead the blue diamond necklace was simply misplaced: put down and then covered up by stuff, the flotsam and jetsam of a hectic life. But Mrs. Ballard has replied, “No, no. My living room and kitchen may be strewn with toys, but I always put my jewelry away in the same place. And my kids are too short to reach my jewelry box and try to play dress up or pirate.”

Mr. Poe
(Edgar Allan)

has noticed that her answers at the beginning of his interrogation were short and to the point, but as the questioning commenced past a half hour, her answers are growing, expanding, as if she is weaving a web that entangles threads of truth and lies–and he steels himself behind the curls of steam rising from his mug of chai tea, noting that Ms. Odom is on her second cup of coffee (with sugar), and he attempts to commit her answers to memory, so as to capture any inconsistencies that may escape her lips.

Ms. Christie
(Agatha)

sits across the kitchen table from the kindly older lady who lives across the street, with both of them wrapping their fingers around warm mugs of Earl Grey tea, and the kindly lady saying that, while weeding her garden, she has seen an old chocolate brown 4-door sedan (something that stands out a bit in this neighborhood chock full of minivans and SUVs) pull up to the house often, and a young lady would exit the car and approach the house, Mrs. Ballard opening the front door with an excited look and an enthusiastic “Come in, come in!” And, now that she thinks about it, an odd thing happened: the kindly lady saw that very same brown sedan a few weeks ago (or so) pull up one night while the Ballard’s silver minivan was gone and their house was dark (save for a light in their living room). The young lady exited the brown sedan, walked through the side gate toward the backyard, and then more lights were switched on in the house, particularly some on the second floor–where the bedrooms are. But the kindly lady didn’t think much of it, since the young lady in the brown sedan was so enthusiastically received before–therefore, she must be a good friend of the Ballards–and she was probably stopping by to check on the house while the family was away for the evening.

Sir Doyle
(Arthur Conan)

has found no sign of forced entry–no broken windows or broken locks–and if a burglar (or burglars) stole the necklace, then why didn’t they take all the other jewelry or the 40-inch, flat-screen TV or the iPad on the kitchen counter that was next to the stack of letters and catalogs? Perhaps the thief picked the lock, but the question still arose of why a skilled lockpicker would take the time to pick the lock of this suburban house among all the houses on this suburban street and only lift a blue diamond necklace and not more–even though Mrs. Ballard’s other jewelry probably pales in comparison by value to the missing piece. Sir Doyle notices something askew with a flower pot containing a light purple flowering chrysanthemum that sits on the patio’s two-foot high brick wall–but sitting such that one side of it is very slightly raised. By investigating the cause of this one-side-higher oddity, Sir Doyle discovers a key. This key, feeling electrically important to the case in his white-gloved hand, slips easily into the deadbolt lock on the back door and turns easily to the left, thus enabling the detective to turn the door knob (coated in fingerprinting dust) and open the door.

Mr. Poe
(Edgar Allan)

listens as Ms. Odom keeps going on and on, fueled by caffeine and adrenaline, in her energetic explanations of how she’d never do such a thing to her friend. But he’s grown weary of her repetition–passionate though it is and not riddled with the inconsistencies he had hoped for–and so he is thankful for the sudden arrival of music, of Mozart’s “Requiem Lacrimosa” softly rising from his smartphone previously sleeping on the cheap table that separates Mr. Poe from Ms. Odom, as if they were playing a card game (but no cards are visible). Mr. Poe holds the phone up to his ear, murmuring, “Yes?” then “Still here” then “I see” and “I see” then finally, “Well done.” The phone is returned to the table. Mr. Poe’s expression has not changed as he says, “Your fingerprints were found on the knob of the Ballard’s back door.” Ms. Odom protests, “Of course! I’ve been there tons of times, so I’m sure my fingerprints are all over the place!” Mr. Poe nods, “Naturally, they would be. But why would they be on the spare key that’s hidden under a flower pot in the backyard patio?” Ms. Odom is momentarily struck, then shifts to anger: “I’ve watched their house while they were away! When they, they were at her parent’s for a week, I watched the house! So, sure, I touched the key. That’s how I got in!” Mr. Poe leans forward, his voice lowering, “Were you watching the house a few weeks ago when the neighbor across the street saw your chocolate brown Toyota sedan pull up to the house and saw you slip into the backyard? The Ballards were away only for the evening, not for over night.” Again, Ms. Odom is struck, but this time she shifts into a bitter smirk instead of deep-frowned anger: “Look. Jessica doesn’t exactly live in a dream world, but she’s got it a lot better than me. Great husband, wonderful kids, lovely house. The necklace she got for her anniversary was too much. I mean, how can Greg afford a necklace like that? It’s just not right. And when Francisco asked me to the opera, I thought of the necklace right away. I’d never been to the opera before, so I wanted to make the right impression. And, I’ve go to say, that necklace looked damn good with my dress.”


copyright © 2021 Dave Williams

A Chilly Conversation

Photo of a circular thermostat on an orange wall.
by Moja Msanii/Unsplash

I went to my buddy Soka’s place, as he and I like playing card games and board games — seems like most other guys our age (twenties) prefer video games. I like them too, but it’s nice to get away from screens.

We were playing The Castles of Burgundy and munching on chips when Soka went to the bathroom. I was chilly, so I checked the thermostat on the wall.

When Soka came back to the kitchen table, I said, “It’s awfully cold in here.”

“That’s the way I like it,” Soka said.

“But it would be better for the environment if you put the thermostat a little higher. The air conditioning wouldn’t have to work as hard.”

Soka shrugged. “Eh. It wouldn’t make much of a difference.”

“But it would make some difference. You have it at 74 degrees, and putting it to 76 degrees wouldn’t be all that different to you. You probably wouldn’t feel the difference.”

“I guess it’s not that much,” Soka said.

“It’s really not. And if you can handle 76 degrees, surely you could handle 77 degrees. And if you can handle 77 degrees, surely you could handle 78 degrees. And if you can handle 78 degrees, surely you could handle 79 degrees. And if you can handle 79 degrees—”

Soka held up a hand as stop symbol. His eyes were aflame with anger. He said, “Get out of my apartment.”

Too bad, since Soka was losing the game.


copyright © 2021 Dave Williams

Tree on the Hill

The tree on the hill had a swing hung by a thick branch that was better than any swing in a playground. Out here, away from suburban streets, the expanse of green grass and blue sky opened up. Squeals and giggles of other kids were fun on playgrounds, but sometimes there was a wish for more solitude.

That wish was true for Ellie, likely due to being in a family of four children. Noise seemed constant at home. Except for nights, when she got out of bed to go to the bathroom and the stillness of the house was startling.

The hill wasn’t as still as that. Wind made the grass sway. Birds flew about. Floating clouds decorated the sky. On the tree’s swing, Ellie felt as if she fit into all that. Completely natural to be here. Nobody questioning why she was lost in daydreaming again or didn’t talk much. A powerful and pleasing feeling to be accepted as she was.


copyright © 2021 Dave Williams

Ampersandy Beach

Photo of a wave tumbling on to a beach.
by Lance Asper/Unsplash

Quoby the question mark hopped off his bike and locked it to the bike rack. (Please don’t ask me how the question mark rode the bike, as I don’t know.) Then Quoby, with a large towel hanging from his shoulder, walked the short path over a grass-pocked dune to the beach.

The beach opened wide. The ocean stretched to the far horizon. The waves sang their rumbling song. The salt air smelled delicious.

As Quoby walked on the beach, heading toward the ocean, a group of ampersands met him. The ampersands formed a wall blocking Quoby’s way.

“Hey, bud,” an ampersand said, “I don’t know what you’re thinkin’, comin’ here. You got to know this beach is only for us ampersands.”

“Yeah, mac,” another ampersand said. “Ain’t there a beach just for you guys?”

“There is,” Quoby said. “I’ve been there lots of times. But I wanted to try something different today. What’s the harm in me sitting on your beach?”

“What’s the harm? Ha.” An ampersand flexed his downward slope. “We can’t go mixing ampersands and question marks. That ain’t right.”

“What’s not right about it?” Quoby asked.

“Because it ain’t, that’s why,” the ampersand said.

“Yeah, it’s been this way for years, and it’s working just fine,” another ampersand said.

“But what if we mix it up?” Quoby asked. “What if some of you guys come to our beach, and some of us go to your beach? Wouldn’t that be neat to try something different?”

“Ain’t nothing neat about that.” The ampersand flexed his slope again, this time with a sneer on his face.

“I’ve never seen a question mark this close!”

The grownups looked down at the owner of the new voice. A small ampersand with a light-blue floaty encircling her middle. Water dripped from her, making dark spots on the sand.

“Go back to your family,” an adult ampersand said to the little ampersand.

“But I want to see the question mark!” the young ampersand said. “It’s so funny looking! Hey mister, aren’t you uncomfortable with that big curve on top and that little dot at the bottom?”

“Not at all,” Quoby said. “It’s who I am. I can’t control that, and I like it.”

“I like being an ampersand!” she said.

“Good,” Quoby said. “You should be proud of that. And there’s nothing wrong with being a question mark either.”

“That’s not what Mom and Dad say. They say you people are weird. But not as weird as the dollar signs.”

“You might think we’re weird because we’re different than you,” Quoby said. “There’s nothing wrong with looking different and having different purposes than other people.”

“That’s enough out of you,” an adult ampersand said. “Get back where you came from. You’re causin’ trouble, and we don’t need no trouble in front of the children.”

Quoby scanned the faces of the adult ampersands lined up before him. Also, he noticed the many other ampersands were looking from their places on beach towels and chairs. As if he and the nearby ampersands were on a stage, and an audience watched with keen interest. Quoby figured nothing good would’ve come from him pressing his wish to spend the day on this beach. The nearby ampersands probably would’ve beaten him up. He would’ve limped back to his bike. He would’ve struggled home. The bruises would’ve taken a while to heal.

“I don’t want to trouble you on this fine day,” Quoby said. Then he looked at the young ampersand and said, “You had courage to come over here. I hope you have the courage to ask questions. It’s very good to ask questions about the things around you.”

The young ampersand nodded her head.

As Quoby walked back over the grass-pocked dune, he worried that the ampersands would jump him and beat him up. Thankfully, they didn’t. He unlocked his bike, got on, and pedaled toward the beach populated by question marks. Quoby was disappointed, but he was glad for going to Ampersandy Beach today.


copyright © 2021 Dave Williams

Free Ebook: ‘Red Tree’

Cover of The Red Tree. The background is white. An image of a leaf-less tree is in black, with red tips of the branches.

The next ebook that can be scooped up for free is much shorter than the previous novellas. The Red Tree is free today through Friday (July 23). If you’d like to scoop up the book, click here.

A description of this story…

While rain falls for weeks, the Engler family invites friends over for an evening of dealing with cabin fever together. And when the spring sun arrives, the Englers celebrate by walking in a wooded park, where they encounter a red tree away from the trail. Guesses abound as to why the tree is red when none of the other trees are.

Life returns to normal for most of the Englers. The father, Calvin, decides the red tree was a sign for him to make changes in his life and property. Changes the family and neighbors don’t quite understand. But some family members can be eccentric, and others learn to roll with it. 

A short story about family, experiencing the mysterious, and letting your imagination loose.

Even shorter than the story is its excerpt, which can be found here.

‘Claude,’ Part 7 – Conclusion

Two arches are covered in roses, and they are in the top half of the painting. A pond is in the bottom half, and it shows the reflection of the arbors and many trees.
“Flowering Arches, Giverny” 1913

Here’s the conclusion to my historical-fiction story about Claude Monet in his later years. To read from the beginning:

Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6


Part 7

Back in Giverny, Claude’s depression was intensified by the house without Alice. He ached to tell her about his trip to Les Collettes. Despite the emptiness of the room’s owner, Claude went to Alice’s bedroom and closed the door and sat on a chair and softly talked of the trip. As if she was sitting up in bed and smiling while she listened. He felt a little better.

Occasionally before Alice passed away, Claude’s doubts had been so heavy, he stayed in his bedroom all day. Meals were brought to him. Those episodes were short-lived, then he would leave his room and return to his family and painting. 

Even though this current depression was heavier than any of those times, Claude saw that he could find a path back to art. Auguste had been correct about surrender as a horrible choice.

Claude was fearful of his vision quickly becoming worse and his sight robbed from him. He would’ve hated to lose the visual joys of his life. His children growing older. Gatherings around the dining table. Reading letters from loved ones, writing back. A cat lounging in a sun-spotted area of the garden, the feline yawning and baring fangs, the cat’s eyes drowsy with such contentment it could not imagine how the moment could be improved upon. 

Japanese arched bridge and the pond at Giverny. Water lillies are in the pond. Behind the bridge, in the background are weeping willows and other trees.
“Water Lilies and Japanese Bridge” 1899

Seeing roses climbing the arches along the Grand Allée roses covering the arch at the boat dock clematis climbing trellises bearded iris Japanese crab apple trees Japanese cherry trees Japanese maples water lilies water iris wisteria azaleas ferns weeping willows rhododendrons bamboo sunflowers wallflowers morning glories African marigolds forget-me-nots agapanthus Spanish blue bells nasturtiums geraniums delphiniums pelargoniums dahlias gladioli pansies Oriental poppies red corn poppies Chinese peonies tree peonies Asiatic lilies cosmos lilacs ox-eye daisies snapdragons sweet peas hollyhocks hydrangea asters orchids in the greenhouse giant hogweed English lavender tulips daffodils foxgloves.

And of course seeing life begin on a blank canvas. Strokes of color forming the shapes of things, becoming what he created. His wives had accused Claude of pouring more of his heart and time into art and gardening than nearly everything else, and he knew that to be true. They were the loves that would not die. Flowers did, but they came back.

He had time. He wouldn’t be struck blind tomorrow. Hopefully not.

After breakfast the next day, Claude walked to the pond, to the peak of the arched bridge. Canopy of wisteria overhead. He wondered if the pond really seemed blurrier than the last time he looked at it, or if his mind was playing a trick. Below the bridge was a rippling mirrored image of himself. The water painted a portrait of Claude in his own style and set it in motion, a painting better than anything he could’ve accomplished. You could interpret nature, but you could never best her. That realization put you in your place as merely human. Claude focused only on the pond, blocking out the land and sky from his vision. Water lilies, ripples, reflections of clouds. He pretended those formed the entire world. Everything else was the void. To be able to paint that world on a large scale. To share that world with others. Show them the ceaseless surface of water in a way they hadn’t seen before.

End

Blue circles dot the pond for water lillies, and there is the reflection of a tree on the water's surface.
“Water Lillies” 1915

copyright © 2020 Dave Williams. All images are from Wikimedia Commons

Sources

Thanks to the authors of the following books and webpages, for the research they did in the lives of Monet and Renoir. The materials were helpful for me to write about the events of 1908 and 1911 in the “Claude” story. I took creative liberties with dialogue, as well as the thoughts and some activities of the characters. Renoir and Gabrielle’s trip to visit Monet in Giverny during the summer of 1911 was included in the source material, but I made up the trip Monet took to Les Collettes.

Fell, Derek. The Magic of Monet’s Garden. Buffalo, NY: Firefly Books, 2007.

Fell, Derek. Renoir’s Garden. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1991.

Michels, Heide. Monet’s House: An Impressionist Interior. New York, NY: Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., 1997.

The Phillips Collection. “The Pain Passes but the Beauty Remains.” Experiment Station blog. July 27, 2012.

Seitz, William C. Claude Monet article. Encyclopedia Britannica online.

Stuckey, Charles F. (editor). Monet: A Retrospective. New York, NY: Park Lane, 1986.

Todd, Pamela. The Impressionists at Home. New York, NY: Thames & Hudson, Inc., 2005.

White, Barbara Erhlich. Renoir: An Intimate Biography. New York, NY: Thames & Hudson, Inc., 2017.

‘Claude,’ Part 6

Trees are in the foreground of the painting, with a farmhouse behind the trees.
“Farm at Les Collettes” by Renoir, 1908-1914

This continues my historical-fiction story about Claude Monet and Auguste Renoir in their later years. To read from the beginning:

Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5


Part 6

Two decades ago, Auguste had moved away from Impressionism after viewing works by Raphael during a trip to Italy, and he began to paint his subjects with a clearer line. Auguste had written of this shift to Claude, and Claude had sent a letter back that he understood, was eager to see what came out of Auguste’s changed method. Claude never communicated his disappointment, but he supported his close friend. 

Auguste’s path had been difficult in tuning the voice of his fingers. Out of that difficulty, he had developed a personal style blending qualities from Impressionism and classical art, resulting in art akin to Peter Paul Rubens with looser brushstrokes.

In the garden, Claude noted the differences between here and Giverny: the types of plants thriving in this climate, the hillside, the areas left to grow wild. He had become accustomed to his careful strategy of plantings and he needed to bite his lip to avoid recommending alterations. This was Auguste and Aline’s garden, not his. Aline had arranged a formal garden in an area, but Auguste’s wish was to not overly design and manicure nature. So the poppies and iris were allowed to proliferate to their desires underneath the trees.

Those flowers were not blooming now, in summer. The roses, which seemed to be everywhere, were in bloom and they perfumed the air, along with lavender, angel’s trumpet, eucalyptus.

Some garden paths were sloped for Auguste’s wheelchair to be pushed. Other paths were stepped, and Auguste was carried in a sedan chair. Claude joked that he looked like a sultan.

A woman stands in the middle of the painting, surrounded by flowers and trees. This is on hillside, and part of a farmhouse can be seen on the top of the hill.
“Young Woman in a Garden, Cagnes” by Renoir, 1903-1905

“Please paint,” Claude said. “Don’t refrain from it on my behalf.”

“You don’t mind?” Auguste asked.

“Not at all. Just because I’m not painting doesn’t mean you shouldn’t paint either.”

Auguste accepted. He sat in the shade, a brush slid into his grip, and worked on a canvas of the old farmhouse of plaster walls, chunks missing to show stones, and a terra cotta-tiled roof.

Meanwhile, Claude roamed the garden, admiring it. Masses of red pelargoniums softened the tops of retaining walls. The Venus Victrix statue, the goddess holding an apple. Cacti, yucca, agave, wild oat grass, bamboo. Trees: palm to linden to pine to orange to peach to cypress. Claude saw Coco climbing a tree, and saluted. He enjoyed the garden’s progress since he had last visited here.

Also while Auguste painted, Claude visited Cagnes with Aline, Jean, Coco, and Gabrielle. The buildings in town were of similar architecture of the farmhouse, the streets of cobblestone. Then the docks for the fishermen, the Mediterranean opening up in her dazzling blue, the salt air more pungent.

During the visit, Claude feasted on the freshest seafood he had eaten in a long time—fish, oysters, mussels, octopus, scallops. Cooked with garlic, lemon, butter. Or cooked with wine, tomatoes, herbs. All washed down with Sancerre and other white wines. 

Claude’s grief from the passing of his beloved Alice made space within him for peacefulness brought by being with the Renoir family. He fit effortlessly in their embrace, strengthened by the years they had known each other. Auguste’s history, Aline’s compassion, Coco’s laugh, Gabrielle’s delightfulness.

Woman and child rest in the shade made by trees. In the middle ground are more trees, and in the background is the Mediterranean Sea.
“Cagnes Landscape with Woman and Child” by Renoir, 1910

The day before Claude left, he and Auguste sat on a balcony to soak in the view of the garden and sea beyond. An umbrella protected Auguste’s sensitive skin from the sunlight. They discussed the news from Paul Durand-Ruel about the buzz in Paris over a Spanish painter. Rumors had swirled about one of the Spaniard’s paintings. Five nude women, their bodies formed by odd angles. Some of the women had masks for faces, and one’s face was twisted about.

“Sounds very strange,” Auguste said.

“It does,” Claude said. “But after I thought about it, I realized that’s what people used to say about us. The young artists are now shaking things up. It’s their turn.” 

“But with weird angles? Masks instead of faces?”

“I don’t understand it either,” Claude said. “But it could be the new direction. That’s no longer in our hands.”

“What’s the painting called?”

“The Spaniard calls it Mon Bordel.”

Auguste winced in distaste. “As if he made his own brothel?”

“I had a similar reaction,” Claude said. “Then I remembered a certain prostitute that sent the old hats tittering many years ago. Back when Édouard was the bad boy.”

Olympia.” Auguste’s distaste smoothed away.

Édouard Manet’s Olympia, by her direct gaze at the viewer, demanded you acknowledge her nudity and her position as a prostitute. Behind Olympia, a black maid presented a flower bouquet that could’ve been a gift sent by a client. Shocked viewers called the painting vulgar. Previously, art’s nudes were gods and goddesses.

That was the second of Manet’s paintings to cause tongues to sharpen and wag in Paris. His earlier Luncheon on the Grass had ignited controversy by showing two dressed men picnicking with a nude female, while another female in an opaque dress bathed in a stream, the group surrounded by dense forest.

Claude had been inspired to paint his own Luncheon on the Grass, women in billowy dresses, additional figures for a more complex arrangement. However, Gustave Courbet had criticized the painting as a knock-off, saying, “By chance of birth, you nearly match Édouard’s surname. People will confuse you two with only a letter of difference. Why would you encourage that confusion by creating a similar painting?” Claude didn’t finish the artwork. Later, he was always irritated when someone confused him with Édouard. “Monsieur Manet and I are distinct individuals,” he would say.

Auguste and Claude bemoaned the recent theft of La Joconde from the Louvre. Saying the act greatly disrespected art’s history. The small painting was a treasure. The way da Vinci had painted the lady’s curious eyes and mysterious smile, the ripples in her dress and sleeves, was masterful. The artwork deserved to hang in a museum for all to appreciate, not secluded in a thief’s apartment. With any luck, the authorities would soon track down the painting and slap justice on the thief. 

As Auguste cursed the burglar, he lifted an arm and shook his hand, as if the thief stood before them and could see Auguste’s outrage. Then he sat back in his wheelchair and let out a grunt.

Once again, Claude was impressed by the man’s resilience. He had been beaten down by pain and frozen muscles, but he kept pursuing his art. The man had immense courage in his heart. Claude’s eyes teared up and he wiped away the moisture.

“Look at us,” Claude said. “Me with my blurred eyesight. You with your difficulties. We’re quite a pair, aren’t we?”

That earned another grunt from Auguste. “I feel I have several more years in me, God willing. But I miss the vitality of youth.”

“As do I, mon ami.

“The alternative is giving up,” Auguste said. “What kind of choice is that? Not one for me. I will move forward. The pain passes, but the beauty remains.”

Claude looked from the trees to sea, a study in viridian and blue. “Always beautiful, yes.”

“That is the arrangement everyone is given,” Auguste said. “We get difficulties and in return, we get this.” He gestured toward the setting before them. “And a great deal more.”

story concludes on Part 7


copyright © 2020 Dave Williams. The first image is from Wikimedia Commons; the final two images are from WikiArt.

Note

I made up nearly all of the dialogue in the story. The only exception is in this part: “The pain passes, but the beauty remains.” A quote attributed to the elderly Renoir when asked by Matisse why he continued to paint while afflicted with rheumatoid arthritis (source: Experiment Station, website for the Phillips Collection). In my story, Monet asks instead of Matisse.