With Love, Vincent – by Momina Masood

by TBLM

(A reimagining of a day in the life of Vincent van Gogh)

*

My dear Theo…

The moon shines with a vengeance tonight, dear brother, but no I must not worry you. Yes, it sounds lovely, and I have always loved words. The sound they make. Like wind chimes, the rustle of wheat fields, the ripple of… ripples, words, the moon looks curiously on at me as if I knew her secrets, do you remember as boys you once tore off the kitchen linen, the screeching noise it made, no not that sound no anything but that oh what have I said?

My dear Theo, I think I have gone mad.

His vacant stare fixed on the trembling of his veins as a thin stream of blood, blue he always imagined, blue and sickly, rushed through driven by what exactly? Life? The abundance of it, its horror, its magic! Its simple magic. No I must live, he’d remind himself daily as a morning ritual, today and tomorrow, yes I must go on for there is so much, so very much to do.

If I had nothing to do anymore, dear brother, I should positively die. Do not weep for me. I should be very happy once this is over.

The sky covers me with its pallid simplicity; I feel I could burst into a symphony on the banks of the Seine. A woman looks at me as if through me; I could very well be invisible but these clothes stick to my skin and I am rendered a being, an amorphous being; I could pass as a nebula drawn in the sky and nurse the rising sun in my arms if only… I asked the woman, Dear woman, Can I paint you, as you sit looking through me. Why, she asked, she seemed not to understand, a simple peasant woman, what could you expect? Because, because, I must! Something moves within and it must be let out! I must, don’t you see? She fidgeted under my stare, but said nothing. So I sketched her profile. A simple peasant woman, she left without even asking to see it, but that didn’t matter. I had her now, I had her fixed in time and…

Dear Theo, at times I feel that I myself am the palette I hold shakily between my hands, for I die with every face I paint, a little of me shrinks till there will be nothing left. You’ll come to bury the remains one day, dear brother, drops of color spilt on the floor.

*

“Vincent, Vincent,” a voice called from nowhere. “Come sit with us for a minute, will you?”

His eyes failed to adjust to the brightness of the eating-room. Blinded, he walked with uncertain steps on the hard-paneled floor of the tavern.

“Here you are, come sit down.”

The sound a whale would make, thought Vincent. I am in the bottom of an ocean but why is it so bright?

“Where have you been, are we such an awful company that you never see us anymore?”

“I… didn’t realize… has it been long?”

“It has been ages, my boy,” exclaimed the man to Vincent’s left, a wizened face with deep blue eyes. “The last time we met, you showed us a drawing of, what was it exactly…” his face wizened even more. “What was it, Harry? Carrots? Potatoes? Potatoes, yes, potatoes! A marvelous drawing of potatoes!”

Laughter broke through the silence of the eating-room. Vincent flinched somewhere within his oversized raincoat. Darkness. Light. Innumerable faces. Phlegmatic. Cacophony. Colors.

“Don’t take it too hard, my boy, I’m sure you’ll get lucky one of these days. The thing with you artist types is that you have your head stuck way up in the clouds where no one can follow,” continued the wizened face.

An eternity was passing.
“I must go,” he suddenly heard himself say. “I must go now, I have… business to attend to.”

*

In the darkness of my solitude a silhouette beckons me, inviting, endearing, spread-eagle with desire. Every step I take echoes in the vaults of my heart, resounding as breaking thunder through the very skin which binds my being. I sit and push my fingers deep in the hearts of cold, shriveling cherries which our landlady was ever so kind to bring me. I scoop out their hearts—cherries have stones for hearts—and throw them away, playing, fondling with the flesh. Blood spills over my hands, and the silhouette disappears. How do you paint darkness; how do you talk to it? I have but myself, alone in this attic, this nightmare of a city. But where am I? What does it matter. I wait for the portrait to dry. That simple peasant woman with gold speckled over her face. The Seine ripples through the very heart of our existence. I sit enamored. Or insane.

How can you tell?

*

“What business have you, my boy, this late in the evening,” asked the man who must be Harry. “Come, now, don’t be testy. Have a drop to drink. You look pale as death.” Harry pointed his enormously large hands to the barmaid asking for a beer.

Suddenly, the tavern grew dark, and the sound of an out-of-tune piano breezed past Vincent. If I could paint music, wouldn’t it be swell, he thought within his heart. A soft number filled the air, endowing the bare interiors of the tavern with warmth, and as he sipped on the liquid gold of his beer, Vincent felt a strange new life pulsating within him. The man with the wizened face looked at his watch while taking a final swig from his mug.

“Well, my dears, I must be getting back home. If you still wish to leave, Vincent, you can walk with me.” A hand extended in the darkness. The warmth clung close to Vincent’s fragile body, serpentine, plastic, with claws of gold and honey and sunflowers. He stood up, nevertheless, grasping the wizened hand in his own.

“Au revoir!”

The setting sun had left its footprints across the expansive blue stretching over the two men as they walked through alleys, crossing boulevards. Men and women drifted through space, all around them, an indistinguishable mass of overcoats and hats. Vincent felt suffocated within the confines of the metropolis, and looked up at the evening sky in silent benediction. Stopping on a solitary bridge, the man with the wizened face looked deep into the water and heaved a long sigh.

“You must know, dear Vincent, how arduous it is to live in the city without the means to support oneself. I have tried long enough and yet,” he stared long into the green-blue of the Rhone as if searching for words in its depth, “and yet nothing changes. Nothing changes at all.”

His face darkened, and lost its contours. In the silence between them, Vincent looked deep in the Rhone himself, overcome by the susurration of the passing water. His companion stayed for a moment and then walked on, leaving without a word of goodbye, silently dissolving into the thin evening air. Vincent had lost himself in the seams of the river, its mirroring of the world above, his own face which danced on the rippling surface. The world, it seemed, was lit up from beneath the water; the virginal stars having found a second home in the womb of the Rhone. Vincent would look to the sky and then down to the river in awe, having forgotten his very existence or of the world around him. His was the nature of silent contemplation or frenzied worship; seldom did his heart throb with steady, even beats. His mind raced back and forth, a cornucopia of colors, mixing the blue of the water with the gold of the evening stars. Men and women continued drifting around him, a picture of forlorn bourgeois existence, having been robbed of their faces through continual walking, living, being together. Vincent, oblivious to it all, fought the sudden whim to jump off the bridge.

My dear Theo, tomorrow as your train leaves for Amsterdam, come visit me, dear brother, for I have been painfully lonely. I have painted a few insignificant but exciting portraits for you, and I shall like very much to know what you think. Yours are the only thoughts I care to know, for my friends are simpletons, our world indifferent. We are hardly warm when together, and how utterly it breaks my heart. I wrote to you of Paul, do you remember? I am afraid for him, he hasn’t the will to go on, and he has five little young ones to care for on a meager wage. It would not have been so awful if it wasn’t that nothing inspires these men, nothing flames and fires the dwelling of their hearts. But what does it matter. I have loved life, unlike many, and yet…

Firewood crackled and burst into an array of sparks. A tiny pile of cherry stones lined the desk littered with paintbrushes and crumpled pieces of paper. Vincent looked on the canvas, possibly his last, and wondered if the sky really gyrated and danced or if it was his feverish mind playing tricks on him. He let out a sigh and wrote on:

… and yet I could have done more. I have been happy, dear brother, remember this always. I have been happy and I have loved you like I have loved myself. I leave you my self painted in a thousand different ways, in a thousand different colors, and I hope it would be enough. For I have never known what else I could have done.

He fingered the paint streaking the revolver, while the sky danced on the hanging canvas, the profile of the peasant woman smiled near the fireplace. With an effort, he finished the letter:

With love, Vincent.

***