“One of the most difficult things to do is to paint darkness,
which nonetheless has light in it.”
–Vincent van Gogh
Three days before her father delivered Lucette to Madame Macard’s, the Dutch man arrived in Arles. This meant everything unfolded exactly as destiny would have it, or so said the little-yellow-house-girls, who believed the number three held extraordinary significance. The Madame’s girls spent hours behind its yellow walls, forecasting futures and deciphering dreams–Lucette’s more than anyone’s. Blindness, they thought, gave her second sight. By now she knew nothing turned out as anyone could think it.
The morning of her departure, for example, she remembered pressing her cheek against Mama’s and then the baby’s cry. A close sweet odor of breast milk clung to her mother, damp like earth. When there was nothing left to do but leave, she kissed the baby’s toes and slid her hand along the table where she’d sliced onions for their soup.
Boots––these were new. She remembered the clack of their wooden heels against the dry floor, an unfamiliar sound that tainted the morning. Their terrible leather dug into her ankles as she stepped into the yard and Daddy guided her onto the wagon. The boots, a gift from the church, were much admired by the sisters in their last hours together. Lucette also had a clear recollection of the horses stamping their hooves in the cold and turning to look for Mama as Papa pressed her into the seat. Indistinct figures appeared bright against the barn’s dark wall, but Mama’s not among them. The wagon rolled forward. One of the sisters wailed, but they were all so young, she couldn’t imagine they knew why. Town was 12 miles away, no distance at all as she grew older, but that morning it was as if she were being taken to the moon.
One Sunday, Monsieur D’Aubigne drove past her father’s fields and a place she thought was her childhood home. She touched D’Aubigne’s sleeve and put her lips directly to his ear.
Do you think this is it? She asked. Does it look as I described?
By then she was old, but Monsieur D’Aubigne was even older––a stooped man whose dark suits smelled of age and cologne. He loved to drive, and Lucette liked to sit right up against him and feel the wind slapping her cheeks. Some afternoons contained the heavy odor of hay, and everything was as she remembered, as if no time at all had passed. She could walk to the fields as she had in childhood, mud tugging her sabots. Sometimes she thought she could see it––the way the hills rolled into a hazy gold horizon, abruptly ending at a sky so rock hard, vast, and blue it hurt her eyes to remember.
Other things were almost impossible to recall, the Dutch man’s height, the names of some of the girls, or exactly when there were no longer horses hitched to posts in the yard. Still Madame Macard’s loomed large. The afternoon of her arrival, for example, Daddy’s hand at the small of her back guiding her over the small stair. She remembered fear and church bells, the singsong of market vendors, and the sharp scent of horse manure on cobblestones––an entire village of scent and sound. But in the Madame’s parlor it was as quiet as a grave. Daylight, a single shaft, fell across Lucette’s back and shoulders. A strange embracing warmth. In those first hours all the girls remained asleep in their rooms upstairs. From where she stood in the parlor, the carpet soft as soil underfoot, Lucette could smell their perfume––a garden of false blossoms. She felt Madame take her hand, lift it, and then pinch a bit of flesh from her upper arm.
She’s plump enough, said Madame. The voice was swift, sewing words together stiffly. Daddy shifted from one foot to the other. A floorboard creaked. A single slender hand brushed warm air over Lucette’s face. Above, crystals knocked. Ting. Ting.
Still I suppose she’s no good on a farm. Poor thing. You have others?
Yes, said Daddy. But she’s the only one like this.
Lucette remembered something from before, when she could see as sharp and clear as anyone else––games they played at night in the woods. Sisters calling from the pines where they stood giggling hidden inside a darkness so complete no one could see her own hand in front of her own face. Night so black it hid the body from itself. Town wasn’t like that. Here everything was in motion and lit. In daylight, Madame Macard moved about her silent parlor that, come evening, would be bright with candles and song. Her rose-water scent and blue hovering shadow contained inquisitions, soft but pressing. Within it Lucette was aware of her own body entirely––its exact shape and possible effect.
Does she know how to sing? No dancing I suppose. Madame spoke directly into Lucette’s ear. There’s plenty to eat here. And wine. Do you know how to sing? The Madame’s voice resonated through Lucette’s ear and down to her toes gone numb inside the narrow boots.
She hears well, said Daddy. It’s only the eyes and even that–-she can see shadows.
You see shadows, Madame whispered and Lucette felt a hand brushing a wrinkle from her skirt.
Every afternoon but Sundays, Lucette brought Monsieur D’Aubigne his tea in the garden where things were damp and solid. Bee bodies knocked against lilac branches, an ear height buzzing when Lucette swept near the back wall. Neither she nor D’Aubigne liked it there. Two old people and the stones were uneven and cracked. Even at noon, the air was dense and cold under the linden tree. From here, his grandchildren gathered dirt clods they liked to throw at the cat. D’Aubigne hated his sons and wanted to marry Lucette to keep them from getting his money. Maybe she would marry D’Aubigne.
You will need money when you are old, he told her.
I am old, she said in return.
She never told D’Aubigne how she had once kissed the Dutch man. She had kissed him but without hunger. Lucette never pretended a hunger she did not hold, and, in the end, it was Rachel he took to the rooms.
Some men avoided Lucette altogether. But others, such as D’Aubigne, felt at home in her presence, knowing they could look without being seen. In her first days, Madame Marcard had explained it, saying Lucette must feign total darkness. A man’s shadow could move about the room while Lucette herself remained still, suddenly mute, unmoving even as the weight of their bodies fell onto hers; as if a lack of sight meant a lack of feeling. Or she might run a wet cloth across her breasts and belly then between her thighs, touching herself where the man wanted to touch her and how he might want to touch her too, until she had given over even the touching of her own body to the intensity of his gaze––a seeing so icy and hard it had a tangible weight, wiping its way over her body, as if she had actually been able to watch him watch her, twisting herself toward the light while he stared, almost clinically, from under his hat, silent, measuring. His chin on a cane, rough little beard. No judgments voiced other than those she imagined he’d made, just as she’d imagined. The hat, the chin, and the cane.
Other things were like that too––a fragment returning seemingly solid and true but contained inside something larger even than it––a soft unknowing spaciousness that could not order itself. During the war, she was brought from Madame’s kitchen, where she’d been working for most of a decade, to the wards where dying soldiers were kept. She emptied bed pans and mopped floors, the thought being, she supposed, that her blindness would bring solace to men who had been so badly damaged they would not want to be seen by any woman. But the soldier’s cries were loud and unceasing, so she may as well have seen their bodies torn, open, missing the pieces that made them men, and she was not allowed to touch them so what solace was there in the sound of her swinging a mop or emptying their waste into buckets?
There had been a boy in there, the son of young man who had worked on her father’s farm. From him she learned her family was gone.
Once the Dutch man came to Madame Macard’s in a fit, calling for Rachel. Everyone knew he loved the little German. The girls ran the house, calling for the foreigner, coaxing her from her room or warning her, maybe, to flee. They liked thrilling each other with the dangerous ways the men loved. The Dutch man no different than the rest, though not well liked because sometimes he was in a fury and sometimes wretchedly depressed and at no time did he make the girls feel escape was near. So little had he to offer that sometimes they had to beg the coins from his hands.
In the quiet of the parlor where she’d been left, Lucette felt the Dutch man pace the room. He cried out in pain, called again for Rachel. Called for Madame.
Give me the lady of the house, he screamed. Bring down the girl!
Monsieur, said Lucette. Calm yourself.
Had he not noticed she was there? He crossed the room, placed a hand on Lucette’s knee where it quivered and tugged the cloth of her dress. She pushed it away. He brought it back. Suddenly the room seemed heated––the Dutch man crackling like a burning log. He loved Rachel but what was meant as a gift for the German, he ended up dropping into the folds of Lucette’s skirts.
Poor little one, he sobbed, guiding her hand. Poor little innocent one.
His fingers smelled faintly of turpentine, but the cloth he gave her felt clean, which is why she raised it to her face. What had the frenzied man brought? Some morsel? Some sweet fleshy uncooked thing she squeezed between forefinger and thumb. When she was a child running the woods with her sisters, they put things in their mouths for jokes or dares. Berries they knew to be poison, they spit out with comic force, exaggerating the bitterness and daring one another to try again. Once she almost bit into a worm, but at the last moment it fell from her hand. Before she could taste what the Dutch man brought, she knew with complete alacrity some of it to be his own blood. The odor was salty and warm as dirt. Then suddenly, Madame Marcard was there, slapping it away, pushing the Dutch man out of the room.
Disgusting man! Bodies rocked. Porcelain broke in the hall. He refused to leave. Rachel! Rachel! Then stumbled out the door.
The police came. Jeanne told Lucette there was blood on her skirt and, inexplicably, some in her hair. Had he touched her? Had he tried to slice off her ear as well as his own? Lucette said only that the Dutch man hadn’t seemed to know her, though they had been introduced one afternoon when his horrible friend––a brute all the ladies equally longed for and feared––had spun her round and round the parlor three times until the Dutch man made it stop.
D’Aubigne loved to hear this story. He told Lucettte both men, now dead, enjoyed a growing fame.
Those two? Really! But how ridiculous they’d been.
In memory, Lucette could sometimes see things from her childhood. Meadows, then woods, dark vibrating tree bark, red pointed berries against white stone. One summer thousands of pale gold flowers suddenly bloomed in the grasses, surrounding the barn, each with five needle thin petals that seemed to spin in the breeze. Lucette and her sisters ran the fields. Darkness, a small turning, at first fell slowly. At sunset things glowed––the rooftop, grasses, and stone. At twilight the creek became a glittering thread. Daylight cooled all around them. The swallows, diving for bugs the sister’s weary legs kicked up in dust and glee, sometimes grazed the girls’ shoulders with their wings. Then suddenly, night descended. The woods sank into velvet. Air was thick and liquid as honey.
Other things, she couldn’t recall. Mother’s face was no longer there. Her shape only half-remembered––part memory, part wish. Father’s mustache more sensation than image. Some of the sisters gone entirely. By now, even the yellow-house-girls were members of the old dead. Madame Macard, Jeanne, and Rachel, and the rest lived longer in Lucette’s memory than they had in her life. The Dutch man she knew mostly through imagination––rough strawberry thumb, sawdust smelling cheek.
Somewhere beyond the garden wall, a night bird screeched. She heard the raspy wings of its landing high in the linden tree branches. The cat brushed over her feet. She reached for it but felt only dusty fur rub along her naked ankles. Garden stones were cracked and cold underfoot. How had she come to be here? There is such a thing as night perfume, she thought. It is the odor of lemon and mint and night birds and dusty cats, my blood and the stone church, sparking starlight and icy sky. Lifetimes buzzed in her ears. She sensed the whole town awake and breathing, the living and the dead, bending to meet the moon.