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Obscurity, The Thirty-Fourth Chapter
In which the widow's retinue prepares for her return.
In that town, there was painter who rented out a portion of a more prominent man’s home. The painter was a yet unaccomplished man though there were hints of his genius. He took commissions to pay for his sparse way of life and spent the remainder of his days in pursuit of the masterpiece that had yet to be painted, the view of the world that had yet to be seen.
He searched ruefully for a model who would capture his fancy, and whose fancy could be captured in his art, but she was most difficult to find. On one afternoon, as the sun fell through the well-lit space, a young woman posed in the nude, draping herself upon a most elegant settee with what she presumed was desired aplomb. The painter posed her gently, attempting to find the angle most natural to the eye. The one that brought forward the woman’s charm and youth and hid away the harsh realities of her life.
The nature of nude models at that time was that they were either old and uncaring for their bodies, or they were young and adherent to their morals. The painter grew tired of painting minds that were unencumbered by their nudity and despaired that he might never find a model both chaste and willing, whose modesty would still present itself in the portrait of a nude, and whose figure would look at home in even the most pious salon.
The painter did not find morality in this woman, but he did find, as she looked up into his eyes, a certain sadness. As though perhaps, only a few years prior, she had been one of those young maidens he so wished to paint, with all the promise of a suitable marriage and all the godliness of a noble upbringing, and yet whose wasted dowry could not save her from her most forlorn fate—whom circumstance had forgotten, but perhaps art could find.
A man rapped upon the door, losing the painter of his fantasy. Startled, the woman clutched her chemise to her chest. In that action the painter saw the woman he wished to paint, and he stopped her from moving further. “Hold still,” he whispered to his muse, for he found her most beautiful in that moment—her hair falling into her face, her body sold but her mind still modest. There she was, he thought, the woman he wanted to paint.
The mercenary greeted the painter and paid him handsomely, thanking him both for the portrait he made of the widow, and then, when counseled about it, for electing that it had been of a certain age. The painter bowed graciously, happy to be of service to such a well-paying customer. Indeed, it had been a most enjoyable commission, for the portrait of the widow was redolent of mystery, with wine-dashed lips unsure whether they were smiling.
The two men spoke of art and shared some eau de vie, and in the end the mercenary took his leave, and the artist returned to his work, eager to capture the maiden who fortune unfavored.
That evening, a gentleman and his wife took in the opera. At first, they were alone in the privacy of their box. He brandished a pair of opera glasses, looking through them in turns, and his wife held a pair of white gloves in one hand, a red ruby ring glistening from her left hand as she fanned herself elegantly with the right.
Then, at the second act, another couple joined them, amusing themselves with flutes of champagne and spoonfuls of caviar and creme. They laughed at those patrons whose lot lay in the tiers above, whose superstitions covered them with the dust of the dead, who had not the wherewithal to appreciate art and poetry, nor the intelligence to boast of politics or philosophy.
They pitied the lowly, all wit and grandeur erasing the pain of malnourishment and poverty that so lamented the lower classes. They sipped their bubbles with a certain superiority. It was no matter that they knew not what opera they attended, their mere presence was enough to ensure their regality—their minds educated against the irrationality of their peers.
They clapped politely when monsieur was overcome by his love and yelled “brava!” when madame’s voice trilled up into the rafters. They fanned themselves when madame’s bosom heaved with passion, and tsked to themselves when the villain was afoot. But then they returned to their banter, uncaring of the story or its drama, their minds lost only in the frivolities of the rich.
The maestro gestured maniacally, hands flitted across piano keys, the sound of cellos wept softy in their ears. A crescendo reached its very apex and then a kiss fell upon the two stars, dooming them to some fate or another, poison upon their very lips. The music told them what to feel, how to react, and yet their box insulated them from the emotion that settled among the rest of the audience, providing a backdrop to their grandiosity. Velvet curtains hung from gold banisters, masking their faces from those whose eyes wettened with sadness and whose lips smiled with joy.
The gentleman kissed the hand of his wife as they trained their eyes on another couple across the nave. There the philanthropist sat with his young fiancé, their eyes lost of laughter and bereft of emotion. They sat with all the solemnities of a church service and took no pleasure in the theater. And yet there was a certain smugness to the philanthropist’s face, as if the sitting in his box was all that was required to secure his place among the cosmos.
There was no ghost to haunt that opera house, no chandelier that would fall from the rafters. And yet, when the last curtain was called, and the last curtsy taken, a janitor discovered in that box the most beautiful handkerchief, woven of a fine white muslin, and stitched upon it the most marvelously plumed parrot, with a beak threaded with gold, and wings embroidered with the most vibrant jungle greens and ocean blues one had ever seen.
It must have come from some sailor, he thought idly, one who traveled very far and wide.
Swallowed by the swamp was an estate once gilded and grand, pulled into the earth by the vines and collapsing softly into the wetlands that would one day forget the fine family that once lived there. The jungle creeping in around it as it returned to its former life. From ashes to ashes, it whispered, and dust to dust.
Inside it retained a certain regality. Though the windows were covered with vines and the birds of paradise grew indoors, there was a beauty to living among the ruins—between indoors and out, between civilization and savagery. Brick steps led to cast iron balconies, wooden shutters fell from erstwhile hinges and doors no longer closed in their frames.
Walls wallpapered with a menagerie of monkeys met the wild parakeets who now nested amidst its peeling panels. Persimmon trees grew through the floors and into the ceilings sprouting yellow tourmaline fruit from its branches. Strings of pearled vines clutched to railings and fell from unlit chandeliers, and all of it was darkened by the shadows of the ceiling, protecting that indoor jungle from the light of the coming moon.
It was there, in that dilapidated kingdom, disinherited of its splendor, that the couturière met with the healer who had once cured the child. An idling humidity clung to their bodies as they stepped over wild snakes and spoke in hushed tones. Sweat settled upon their skin like a dew until at last the sky broke and a deep rain pattered upon the plantation, leaking down the walls and into the terrarium in which they stood, a subtle winter storm to break the fever of the day.
The couturière had come to the healer for a potion and the healer handed it to her. Here was an elixir so sweet, so savory, so potent of life and death, of love and hate, that it filled the vial with a smoky pseudocide, a thick molasses syrup that laced the interior of the glass with a suspicious sanctity. The contents sidled about as the couturière held it in her hand, her eyes betraying her hunger.
Water fell to the floor, filling it with the sea, as the healer warned against misuse and reminded that it was meant to be used wisely. Bowing graciously, the couturière set back out into the swamp, sidling up to her knees in the water and the reeds as the sky poured uncertainty upon her, the clouds crackling above with an abstract ire.
All the way, she clung to her growing belly and sang to that vial an unearthly incantation—a haunting request that her ancestors might use it toward its most salient end.
We next read The Thirty-Fifth Chapter, in which the widow is reunited with her retinue.