I will always remember the view of Paris from his window. Snow, pure and untouched, softens the outline of the buildings and covers the grime of the streets. White, the color of beginnings. His canvas is primed and ready to be painted, and stark winter sunlight glows bright on his undead skin.
The studio is cramped, drafty despite the heat radiating from the stove. One corner is clean and lavishly decorated, the rest a cluttered chaos of painting supplies and personal effects. He studies me intently as I take in the room, evaluating me much as he did at the Café Guerbois when I’d first caught his eye.
I wait for him to ask how I came to be in Paris. Artists are so very predictable that way—no trouble at all accepting this pale immortal creature as one of their own, but a woman of my mixed ancestry? Utterly implausible.
“You should hear the stories they tell of you at the café,” he says. “If Émile is to be believed, you arrived here as an ukiyo-e courtesan, nothing more than paper wrapped around a porcelain bowl. A painter—he will not say which of us it was, of course—bought the bowl and the print along with it.”
“And the painter pulled me from the print with the sheer force of his imagination, I’m sure,” I reply, laughing. “Émile is a novelist and can hardly be trusted to give an accurate account. The reality of my conception is vastly more mundane, I assure you…though it does involve a courtesan.”
“A grain of truth makes for the best fiction.” He waves his hand at a worn-looking dressing screen. “Nude, but leave the jewelry and the shoes. I’ll paint you on the chaise. We’ll have three hours in the proper light, and I will pay you four francs.”
“Victorine gets five!” I protest from behind the screen as I get undressed.
“Victorine is a redhead.”
I step out from behind the screen and go to the chaise, running my fingers along the elegant curves of the walnut frame. The cushions are firm and covered in soft green velvet. I arrange myself carefully. Hopefully he will like what he sees. Often what the artists demand is a relaxed-looking pose that is hideously uncomfortable. Like novelists, they require only a grain of truth. The rest is purely of their own creation.
“My name is Mariko, by the way, but everyone calls me Mari.” As if I could pass for a French girl simply by changing my name. Though, particularly with the artists, there is a fascination with all things Japanese. Several of Hokusai’s views of Mount Fuji decorate the wall behind me, the ukiyo-e prints crammed together with neoclassical portraits and a few realist landscapes of the Barbizon School.
He remains facing the window, his attention fixed on the snowy landscape.
“I’m on the chaise,” I tell him, and finally he turns.
“Bring your left hip forward. No, not that far. Bend the leg a bit more, yes.” He paces back and forth, frowning. “Turn your head to face the canvas.”
I smile knowingly. “Like a Manet.”
His frown deepens into a scowl.
“Don’t like a model that talks while you work, huh?” I’ve posed for that type before, honestly not my favorite sort of job, there to be seen and not heard. If the artist is talented enough I can still pick up a technique or two watching them work, but—
“I don’t like being compared to other artists.”
I laugh. More of an ego than usual, this one. Though perhaps he’s earned it. If Victorine was to be believed, he’s been painting since the Renaissance. “Then you must paint me so well that I forget about the others.”
“Tilt your head into the light.” His voice is softer now, and he steps forward to cup my chin, shifting the angle of my head ever so slightly to refine the pose. “And look at me intently. Intensely. As though I were the one naked on the chaise.”
His touch sends shivers down my spine. It feels as if he is reaching into me, beyond the surface of my skin. Intimate. I’m not above a dalliance with an artist if he pleases my eye, or if I need the money or a place to stay…but this one is different.
His eyes are as dark as the Seine at night, darker even than my own. I’m laid bare before him in more ways than my mere lack of clothing. The canvas is reflected in the window behind him, and he is painting me in deft strokes of vivid color—as other artists have done before him—but this time the image holds the promise of an understanding. His skill with the paint is breathtaking; his movements simultaneously wild and precise.
It is exhilarating to watch him work.
My back aches and one leg is going numb, but I’m disappointed when he sets down his brush.
“You did better than I would have expected.”
“Oh?” I stretch and, still nude, go to take a closer look at the canvas. Even with the work unfinished, I can see that he is more talented than any of the other artists I’ve known, and his intensity sparks my interest, draws me almost inevitably closer. “There are other poses I could show you, if you like?”
“Hmmm…?” His gaze is fixed on the canvas, studying a streak of bright winter sunlight that cuts across the upper corner.
I’m about to give him up as hopeless when he turns to look at me. I’m lost in the darkness of his eyes, drowning in the intensity of his attention. I can barely breathe, but I repeat my invitation, “I could show you other poses.”
“Yes.” He sweeps me into an embrace that is strong and cold. White. He is snow and I am determined to melt it.
The sex builds slowly, deliberately, like paint layered on a canvas in broad strokes—tentative at first as we find our way to a shared vision, then faster with a furious intensity and passion.
After, when other artists might hold me and drift off to sleep, he dissipates into a white mist that swirls in restless circles around the room, chilling me down to the bones when it touches my skin. His mist seeps into me and pulses through my veins for several heartbeats. I feel energized, an exhilaration more intense than watching him work, a connection closer even than our sex.
He withdraws, and I am diminished. I hadn’t known until this moment what I was lacking, but now I am filled with a keen sense of my incompleteness. I long for him, for the sensation of vastness I felt when we were one.
He does not return to the bed.
I sleep alone and wake to windows white with frost.
The park is vibrant green with budding leaves and delicate spring grass. Birds are singing, the sun is shining, and my lover sets up his canvas on an easel in the shade.
“Must we really have those other girls?” I ask.
“You on your own isn’t enough for a picnic,” he answers.
“I used to be enough, all on my own.” I sound like a sullen child. I’m tempted to tell him that for composition’s sake he should have more models, some of whom should stand to balance out the towering height of the trees, or that the setting he’s chosen bears too strong a resemblance to Monet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, which was in turn inspired by Manet’s notorious painting of the same title…but instead I bite my lower lip.
“I’ll let you sit in front,” he says. “And I’ll take you to the Louvre afterwards.”
I sit at the edge of the white picnic blanket, taking great care to crease my skirt at an awkward angle. I open the book that I have brought—Orgueil et Prévention—and I cannot help but marvel at the degree to which Mr. Darcy resembles my immortal artist. I shall have to ask sometime if he’s ever made Austen’s acquaintance, though if I recall correctly from his occasional ramblings on history he’d spent most of the relevant time period in Verona, trying to hide both himself and his paintings from Napoleon’s army. Or was it Venice? I have such difficulty keeping it all straight, I truly do not know how he is able to recall several lifetimes worth of memories.
The three models he’s hired are chattering incessantly about the latest fashions—tassels and bustles, hemlines and hats. The three of them have no opinions of their own and are simply parroting some column from Harper’s Bazar, as if Americans knew anything about fashion beyond having the good sense to look to Paris for guidance. They mock my choice of reading material and attribute the poor taste in literature to my being Portuguese, and I do not bother to correct them. They will shun me as an outsider regardless, and I have no desire to make friends with such insipid tarts.
“Suzette, lean in towards Claire, yes, better.” He paints a few strokes and then strides over to where I am sitting to fix the hem of my dress so it drapes more gracefully. He gives me a pointed look. I return his silent rebuke with a look that is halfway between ‘apologetic’ and ‘fuck you for inviting these other girls’. That might seem like a big range, but as a model I’ve learned to do a lot with my expression.
He laughs, and goes back to his canvas without taking away my book—though my reading it will render my pose too similar to a painting of Morisot’s depicting her sister—and these wretched girls make it hard to focus on the text. One of them complains that there are ants in the grass, and another that being in direct sunlight will burn her glorious fair skin. I try not to grit my teeth. I’m supposed to have a serene smile, as if this was a delightful picnic with friends. Self-absorbed shallow friends that I have never met before and who will not leave off of talking so that I might read my book in peace.
Now the third has joined the first two in their complaining. He is quite clearly not painting their faces right now or he would tell them not to move their mouths, which would be dearly welcome.
“And honestly why wouldn’t you try,” the least irritating of the three is saying. “After all, youth is fleeting if you’re mortal, but if you can get someone like him to turn you—” She waves her hand in the general direction of the canvas.
“Keep your hand on the blanket,” he says, not responding to her words.
“He doesn’t turn models,” one of the other women says. “That one’s been at it for over a year now and if he won’t even turn her—”
“I’m right here, and I have a name,” I say. I turn the slightest fraction in the direction of the irritating woman before I catch myself.
“Don’t move your head,” he tells me.
“Wouldn’t it be glorious to be young forever?” asks the woman who had declared her own fair skin glorious and I wonder if she even knows any other words.
She’s wrong, anyway. Contrary to what everyone assumes, I have never asked him to turn me. Not yet, not yet. I do not want to die into being forever young. If he turns me now, it will be so that I remain a beautiful object to adorn his canvas, and I have grander goals.
“Keep your expression soft,” he says.
Only then do I realize that I am scowling down at my book.
“Wonderful, Suzette,” he adds.
Suzette is younger than I am and has a classic Western beauty. Wonderful, Suzette. Wonderful Suzette. What will happen when I am too old to be his model? He remains forever fascinated with youth, and rarely paints women beyond a certain age.
I do not want to be the art, I want to be the artist. There are women who manage to do both, yet I hear them so often described as models who paint—and this despite the fact that their talent far outstrips the men…who sometimes do appear in each other’s paintings, but never once do you hear them categorized as models. No. They are painters who did each other tribute and documented each other’s lives in masterful works of art.
Think of the time I would have to develop my art if he makes me immortal. So many of my hours are lost holding perfectly still to be immortalized as an object in someone else’s paintings. I want it desperately, the gift of so much time. But when to do it, that is the trick. Eventually he will lose interest and cast me aside, but if I die into immortality now I will be horridly young. Not to mention the question of children, which I do not believe I want, but I am reluctant to give up the option.
Suzette laughs, but I have lost the thread of their conversation so I do not know why.
What if I have missed my moment? If his fancy turns to this woman with her glorious fair skin glowing like a diamond against her emerald green dress, where will that leave me?
By mid-afternoon I am hot and hungry and his attention is fixed only on his work, on capturing the grass and the grapes and the girls. I can smell the fruit practically baking in the afternoon sun, but I am determined not to move or even complain. I do not even turn the pages of my book, reading the same ballroom dance on an endless loop, angrier each time that the Bennet sisters are having a lovely time dancing while I am sitting. in. the. sun. not. moving.
“Take me to dinner when we’re done?” Suzette asks him boldly out of nowhere.
I hold my breath.
“Oh, I’m done with your part now, you can go,” he answers, not looking up from the canvas. “All of you can go, I have what I need from you.”
Suzette flounces off, the other two models following her at a distance, giggling.
I let out a soft sigh of relief when they are gone.
“I’m doing the trees now, and then after that the bowl of fruit, so you can go with them if you like,” he says.
“But what about the Louvre?” I demand.
“Another time,” he says. “I have to finish this before I lose the light.”
His promises are a perpetual first day of spring—like daffodils that remain forever buds.
I have no trouble convincing Louis to take me to the Salon. He is both a painter and a critic, and unlike a certain other artist with whom I have parted ways, he showers me with attention and treats me as a person rather than merely an exotic object to be painted. We are quickly separated in the jostling crowd, for as usual half of Paris has turned out to gawk at the paintings which hang from floor to ceiling.
The immortal artist—and yes, I am sufficiently petty not to name him even now, for his artistic legacy does not need more help from me than I have already given—is here at the Salon, of course, though I am pleased to note that despite him having taken part in perhaps a hundred Salons, the hanging committee has placed his work poorly. Not at the ceiling, quite, but high enough to strain the neck should anyone wish an extended viewing.
“I was quite fond of Naples yellow,” he says, speaking loudly to some potential patron over the general buzz of the crowd. “The paints now are so exuberant, which has its place of course, but there’s a subtlety to the older pigment, and I do sometimes miss the ritual of mixing it myself.”
His words trail off as I approach. Perhaps it is only my imagination, but for a moment his edges blur, as though he is fading into mist. Even the merest suggestion of it makes me ache with longing. He was stealing away my life, but in those moments, in that process of the taking, I felt so complete. And who hasn’t chosen, at one time or another, to do what feels good in the moment, even knowing that they might live longer if they were more virtuous?
“Mari,” he says. Only the name, nothing more.
The painting that hangs behind him is titled Woman, Reclining (Mari). Being familiar with his other works, I know that the reason my name appears in the title (shortened and in parentheses) is not because he believes my name is in any way important to the piece, but merely that he has many other works that bear the title Woman, Reclining.
I study the woman on the chaise, illuminated by the bright winter light streaming in through the window. The painting captures things about me that other artists have missed. There is a wry expression on my face and a bold invitation in my eyes.
He has changed the decor of the room. Gone are the eclectic mix of ukiyo-e prints and neoclassical portraits that would have been the perfect background for a woman of my parentage. Instead he’s created miniature renditions of his own paintings from the past several decades. The entire composition is a collection of his work, and my form is but a piece in this collection.
“What do you think of it?” he asks.
I shrug, knowing full well that his question is a bid for my approval and my indifference will infuriate him.
“I’ve captured you so beautifully, and your response is to shrug?” He knows that I am baiting him, and his voice is light, but he cannot keep his face from falling.
“Yes, I should be so very honored, to appear here in the Salon,” I say, unable to match his lightness. “Naked, no less.”
“Ah, so that is it then,” he says. “You had another painting refused. This is the third time?”
“The fourth.” I’d thought to hide that unpleasant fact from him, but he was, as ever, a keen observer. “My style is not so rigidly traditional as to please the jury. And I—”
“—have a great deal of company.” At some point during our conversation Louis has jostled his way through the crowd to join us. He catches my dismayed expression and hastily adds, “But your work is far better than that of the others who have been refused, of course—”
“This is Louis.” I interrupt him to make the introduction before he can start ranting about the failings of other painters. “He writes for Le Charivari and, as you have heard, he appreciates me for my art and not only for my looks.”
With that one word it is now his indifference that infuriates me.
“My latest attempt at pleasing the jury was a harvest scene of two women working in a field, deep in conversation—”
“Which against my advice you signed only as Mari,” Louis interjects. “You should sign with your surname if you want the jury to take you seriously.”
“My father’s name has no place on the art he so thoroughly disapproves of. Besides, it would be too similar to Camille’s signature, and you’ve seen how everyone confuses Manet and Monet.”
Louis opens his mouth to argue, then thinks better of it. Instead he starts ranting about Monet, and neither he nor my immortal artist notices when I leave. Half the reason I had asked Louis here to begin with was to make my immortal artist jealous, and he does not seem to care.
I am invisible, even as my naked form hangs upon the wall. As a model I am a footnote in the story of the artist, and as a painter I cannot win over the Salon jury. What I want most of all is to be remembered, but I cannot even manage to be seen.
“Surely he will change his mind and paint you again?” I’m sitting with Victorine at the Café Guerbois, nursing my coffee as she sips absinthe. It is Thursday, and Manet is here, presiding over his Batignolles group—this is no coincidence, of course, for I am familiar with their usual schedule…and having parted ways with Louis, I could use the work. The smoke-filled air inside the café still holds the day’s heat, and by all appearances the discussion at Manet’s table is similarly heated.
Victorine gives a bit of a shrug. “Perhaps. And what of your vampire friend?”
My eyes widen. “Victorine! You must not call him that. People will think he drinks blood.”
“As you like,” Victorine replies, “but that doesn’t answer my question.”
“I want to be the artist, not the art. Surely you of all people understand.” I take a sip of coffee and try to hold back my jealousy that she is taking art classes at the Académie Julian.
“You and I,” she says, “do not have the advantages afforded to women of means and social standing. Morisot and Cassatt need not give music lessons or pose nude to pay for paint. Surely you of all people understand that.”
I bristle at her tone but the observation is true enough. Worse, a young woman with fine features and a striking green hat has entered the café and captured the attention of the Batignolles group. Renoir in particular seems quite taken with the girl, who looks not a day over fifteen.
“What you need,” Victorine continues, paying little mind to the new arrival, “is to make a connection with an art dealer. You’ve had no success at the Salon, but Paul Durand-Ruel has had some success selling paintings in America, where the tastes are less refined.”
“What a horrid thing to say!”
Unrefined. My paintings? I should stay in hopes of getting work but I cannot bring myself to spend a moment more in her company. I storm out of the café, my mind churning with accumulated insults. Victorine’s barbs, the indifference of the painters I had hoped to charm, the deplorable youth of the woman in the green hat.
The heat rising from the cobblestones makes the world shimmer, as though the air itself is melting. It reminds me of all the times my immortal artist turned to mist and everything around us melted away. I crave the cold white snow of that first winter, the thrill of his embrace.
I am on his street before I have even truly decided to see him, and I knock upon his door quickly, before I lose my courage.
He is there, and Suzette is not, thank God.
“I wanted…” I trail off into silence because I am not entirely sure what I want, and I am even less sure that he is the one who can bestow it. Recognition? Respect? A way to be seen as more than an exotic courtesan who graces the canvas of painters.
“Time,” he says.
He is staring at me, dissecting me not into shapes and angles or light and shadow but deconstructing my ambitions and my dreams, seeing a pattern that I cannot because once, centuries ago, he was not entirely unlike me. A mortal artist, striving for something greater, grasping without knowing what it was he sought.
“Time?” I echo weakly.
“Where were you, before you came here?”
“At the Café Guerbois,” I admit.
“Trying to secure work from Manet and his lackeys, no doubt.” He scowls at the mere thought of Manet, which I find rather heartening, that even he, my immortal artist, is jealous of his rivals.
“I need money for paint,” I tell him.
“Ah, and now we are back to time again,” he says. “Immortality is, obviously, all about time. When you come right down to it, time is the thing that everyone most values, even you mortals who have so little of it. You simply shift it around instead of trading it directly. Three hours of work for five francs, which then can be used to buy paint.
“An art collector is hoarding time. Time spent by the artist applying paint to the canvas, yes. But there is more to it than that. Each successive painting contains something of the time that went into all the previous canvases, not to mention the time spent studying, practicing. And the art holds other time as well—the model that sits for the painting, holding a pose for hours on end. Time that she has devoted, perhaps, to keeping a certain figure, or creating an appealing hairstyle.”
I scowl. “Time spent building the resentment that burns in the model’s eyes as she glares at the painter.”
He tilts his head, thoughtful. “Perhaps.”
“The other girls say you have never turned anyone.” The words slip out before I can stop them, my heart racing, knowing the conversation is in dangerous territory now, territory that I have always scrupulously avoided. “They say that you drain away your models’ lives and leave them with nothing. That all you care about is light and paint.”
“Light and paint. Legacy and time.” He leans in so close that I can feel his breath against my ear as he speaks. “You have a good eye for light, and with time you could master the rest.”
“No one tells Jean that he has not mastered the rest, or Jules. People praise them for work that is nowhere near what I do.” I gesture at his wall, largely covered with the works of his fellow Frenchmen, paintings ranging from brilliant to mediocre. There is a sunspot on the back of my hand, a single dark freckle that I had never noticed before.
“Time,” I whisper.
“I cannot give you everything you want,” he admits. “But I can give you time.”
This. This is why I have always been so careful to avoid this conversation. I have always known that he would offer. And that I would accept.
He dissolves into mist and seeps through my skin. It is different than it always was before. His impressions of the world are mine to take, not mere glimmers at the edge of my perception but a clear vision of his entire being, like slipping into a photograph that holds his centuries of experience, living through a lifetime in an instant. Everything I have thirsted for since our first meeting—knowingly and not—all of it is here in this moment of connection. I am complete as I can only be when he is with me, and I absorb all that I can, drinking from him as deeply as I dare, taking him into myself and pulsing with the sheer power of it.
There are but wisps of white mist remaining when I realize that I must let him go. When he withdraws he does not steal a part of me, as he always has before. Instead he leaves behind what I have taken.
He has given me the gift of time.
Energy courses through me like a vermillion flame. I am no longer a mere model from whom he draws inspiration, but an artist, immortal. Time stretches out before me and I long to take him to bed that both of us might burn hot with passion.
But he has vanished, just as he did that first night, winter white and cold. As he always does when I most crave his presence.
I wait the entire night, but he does not return.
I paint the English Channel at Étretat, shortly after sunrise. The sun is a fiery vermillion and the water shimmers cobalt blue. It is roughly my hundredth impression of a sunrise, spread across the year on whatever days I can gather up the energy to greet the dawn with my easel at the shore.
I have painted skies both cloudy and clear, water in a variety of hues. When the tide permits I paint from the beach and include the white cliffs, and when the tide is high—as it is today—I paint the vast expanse of the channel from atop them. Sometimes the dark silhouettes of ships break the line of the horizon, and sometimes there is fog, a thin white mist that gives me shivers not entirely accounted for by the crisp morning air. Monet set off a movement with his Impression, Sunrise, painted not far south of here. Monet, and before that Manet, changing the world of art forever. Or so the historians like to spin the tale, imposing order onto the chaotic jumble of the past, pulling a single narrative thread from the fabric of time. Providing a focal point, like the bright orange sun that hovers above the water. And their focal point, of course, must always be a man.
“You could have painted a hundred portraits of me, and instead you paint the sunrise.” Victorine has come up the trail behind me, carrying her own easel which she sets up next to mine. Her hair is like the sunrise reflected on the water, vermillion streaked with silver. She arrived here last week, at my invitation.
“Manet painted the definitive portrait of you years ago,” I say, teasing.
“And Monet painted the definitive impressionist sunrise,” Victorine replies, “Yet you seem to have no issue painting those. Besides, I painted the definitive picture of me. They showed it at the Salon. Honestly it is unfair that you should be immortal and I am not. Clearly I am the one with all the talent.”
Her voice takes on an edge of bitterness as she says it, cobalt blue tinged green, like the underside of a wave in the bright light of a midday sun.
“I would turn you if I could.” I hadn’t known how precious the gift was that my immortal artist gave me, or how rare—he had gathered time for all the centuries of his existence, and even so had only barely enough to share his gift with me. The process had nearly destroyed him, leaving him unable to take any form but mist for over a year.
“Then paint me,” she says. “Give me that at least.”
I cannot paint her without stealing precious moments of her time, and I cannot bear to lose my oldest friend. She is already slipping away so fast.
“Please,” she says. “Just this once.”
I let her convince me because in my heart of hearts I long to paint her. I direct her to an outcropping of rock and have her look out over the water, her face glowing in the morning light. Her dress is a pale blue, the perfect contrast for the orange-streaked sky, and, of course, her hair.
The wind has freed a lock of it and when I go to pin it back in place the edges of my hands thin into mist and I can feel her energy, the wildness only barely contained beneath her skin. Where my immortal artist was cold and white, she is a fiery vermillion, and this neatly composed painting is entirely wrong.
“Let your hair loose in the wind, and take off your hat.” I tell her, my fingers still brushing against her face, the tiniest sliver of my hands still within her, our energies pulsing together, her passions tempting me to drink deeper, to take more of what she unknowingly offers. So sweet and heady, this sensation of pulling her out of herself.
I force myself to withdraw and she gasps.
She stares off into the distance and for a moment I am not sure if she heard my request.
“Is that always what it’s like?” she asks. “The thrill and then the loss.”
Victorine removes her hat and takes down her hair, then tousles it—carefully but with a result that looks careless. The hat she lets dangle from her hand. Everything about it is exquisite, and I paint in frantic dabs of color to capture it before we lose the light. Victorine holds her pose flawlessly, and I know from experience how difficult it is to stand so long, especially in the sun. I highlight the graceful curve of her shoulder, the determined set of her jaw.
I have always signed my paintings Mari, but this painting of Victorine captures her with such honesty that on impulse I sign this one with a name I have not used since my mother died—Mariko. In red as a nod to tradition, but spelled out in the French alphabet for I do not trust my ability to write the kanji even for my own name. That, too, is honest—an admission that I am of neither world and of both.
“This is your best work so far,” Victorine says, admiring the painting. “We can go in turns—you shall paint me and I shall paint you. It will be a series of a hundred portraits and historians will speculate about—”
“No, I cannot. Never again.” I know the longing she feels. It was cruel of me to paint her. Cruel of me to invite her here, to ease the loneliness of being fixed in time as the world keeps passing on. And in truth, I hunger for her as much as she does for me, for the taste of her humanity. I can feel my fingertips thinning into mist, reaching out for her…but no. Already her life flits away far too fast, and I will not speed her to her grave for the sake of my art. I will find another way.
“I cannot stay, knowing what I will not have.”
“Take the portrait, if you like.” I turn away from her and look out over the English Channel, pretending that I don’t care what she chooses.
She leaves without another word. She doesn’t take the painting. The water stretches out before me, an endless chasm of blue.
My work is on display at the Art Institute of Chicago, thrilling for the venue but disappointing for the exhibit—Cassatt merits an exhibition composed entirely of her own work, but I am tucked away in European and Oriental Art. Still, they have invited me to the opening, and I have done my best to look fashionable though I cannot pull off the yellows that are quite popular this season and the angular lines of flapper dresses are better suited to women who are straight where I am rounded. Never have I paid so much for so very little fabric, though I must admit the beadwork is lovely and the freedom of movement compared to the dresses of my youth is divine.
The exhibit is laid out so that I must walk through the European artists in order to reach my own work, and I am startled to encounter a painting with which I am intimately familiar—Woman, Reclining (Mari). It is, to my surprise, exactly as I remember it from the Salon. By now the varnish should have darkened and the yellows should have shifted brown, for he had favored the cheaper chrome yellow during that period.
“I had them restore it.” He has appeared from nowhere. Like the painting, he is exactly as I remember from our last meeting—only his clothing has changed. “It seemed fitting, given the subject. An unchanging painting of an unchanging model.”
He means it as a compliment, but I am half a human lifetime away from being the woman that graces his canvas, and no longer mortal. To imply that I am static and unchanging simply because I do not physically age…I had thought him more insightful than that.
“I’m surprised to see you here,” he says.
“And I you.” I’m flooded with emotions. Surprise, yes, and also a longing that I thought I’d put behind me, that old familiar yearning to connect with him, to let our energies flow together and feel the pulse of time itself. But I pity him, too, because for all his success as a painter, he is not keeping up with the world, and his popularity is fading. If he cannot come up with something new, he will be swept into the past as a historical footnote, or perhaps be forgotten entirely. “What are the odds that we would finally be in the same exhibit, after all these decades?”
He shakes his head. “What I meant was why Chicago? Why not San Francisco or Seattle? You could blend in there.”
“The handful of Japanese living in Chicago are a curiosity, like kimonos displayed in a department store. People aren’t as hostile to me here as they might be on the West Coast because they do not see me as a threat. I’ve taken up correspondence with a young artist there—Chiura Obata, who is doing some promising work—and he says resentment for the Japanese community there is building. Besides, it isn’t my intention to blend in. I want to be remembered.”
There are three of his paintings in the exhibit, and the other two both feature Suzette. Time has not been kind to these. The thick strokes of paint are cracking, darkened in places with grime, faded in others from light.
“Yes, but you want to be remembered for your art. Being so out of place will only distract people from your paintings—”
“And yet you are also here, some 300 years older than everyone else.” I tire of looking at Suzette, indeed I tire of looking at his paintings at all. I drift deeper into the exhibit as we continue our conversation, searching for my own work. It is quieter here, away from the growing crowd of patrons who have not yet made their way this far in. “Why must I blend in when you do not? Why is your story so much easier for them to accept than mine?
“They can see themselves in me. Envision themselves as immortal. I am what they wish to become. You are the foreigner they fear. The outsider.”
“And a woman besides,” I mutter. “If I don’t carve out space for myself, they will steal whatever inspiration they like from my culture and my art and erase me from the conversation entirely.”
There is only one of my paintings on display, which I had been excited about before I’d known that they had three of his. My sole piece in the exhibition is the painting of Victorine, standing on the rocky shore, surrounded by the cobalt blue of sky and ocean, and seeing it I am filled with sadness.
“Have you seen her lately?” he asks. “Victorine, I mean.”
“Not for many years, though she writes me letters occasionally.”
“She must be very old now, yes?” he says. “She and Monet are the last of your mortal cohort. It is easier to bear after that, the fleeting nature of the lives around us.”
His expression is sad and I wonder about his mortal cohort, the people he had known when he was still alive. He never speaks of them, which I thought was for lack of memory but perhaps he is trying to avoid the pain of his loss. I put a hand on his shoulder, cold against cold. When he does not speak further on the subject, I turn my attention back to the exhibit.
The curators have opted to hang my painting at the transition point, the very edge of the European artists, for though I am French—or was, at the time of the painting—they clearly do not see me as having been truly European. Worse, they have placed my painting alongside two others, not a trio of my own work but with a pair of paintings that share the same model—Victorine’s self-portrait…and Manet’s Olympia, which bears more resemblance to Woman, Reclining (Mari) than it does to Victorine.
“Of the three of you,” my immortal artist says, “Manet has captured her the most realistically.”
Of course he would think so, for he sees the world through the same male gaze that Édouard once did, antiquated and narrow, dismissive of women. To him, Victorine was a model and a prostitute, elevated only by her inclusion in Manet’s painting. And I was similarly unchanging in his view, an object to be painted.
“All three paintings have elements of truth and falsehood,” I argue, “for each artist comes to the canvas with our own artistic vision and personal biases. How we wish for the audience to view the subject, the context in which we are working, the details we choose to include. And what is truth, anyway? We cannot capture the entirety of a person’s life on a flat piece of canvas. No matter how skilled the painter there are only hints—suggestions which the viewer of the painting will fill in with whatever it is that they believe…”
I cannot quite articulate what I want to say, perhaps that there is no underlying truth at all, only a myriad of perceptions, each slightly different from the rest.
“Yes,” he agrees, “that is exactly what you are missing, the ability to draw upon the perspective of the viewer, to give them an experience that is both familiar and new, to evoke in them a shared experience. That is the thing you must learn—to depict the universal truths.”
“Your truths are universal but mine are not.” I say, and he nods as though I am agreeing with him. “I’ve lived in two countries that do not consider me one of their own, and the lesson I’ve learned is that I must adapt, that I must learn to act as other people do. I did it as a young girl in the French countryside, and again when I came here. They will not make allowances for me as they have done for you—I am not permitted your eccentricities. I must behave as they expect, always, flawlessly.”
“You say the right words, but you don’t believe them,” he says. “You are fighting the inevitable, the world is what it is, and you are who you are. It cannot be helped.”
“But the world can change. It has changed. And so have I. You’re the one fighting the inevitable, not me.”
“There’s no audience for what you do, this blend of styles and inspirations and…perspectives,” he says, convinced that he can sway me to his way of thinking if only he can find the right words, the proper argument. “It’s too complicated, muddled—like mixing too many colors, overworking the paint.”
“When other impressionists were influenced by Japanese art there was an audience for that. Monet, even now, is painting a grand mural of his beloved water lilies, in a garden inspired by Japan.”
“Monet’s paintings are relatable.”
Relatable. Monet filters the world through a background that these art patrons understand. European. Male. He is relatable in ways that I will never be. My mere existence requires an explanation—how is it a woman like me came to be in France, why am I in Chicago and not San Francisco? If the story of my life focuses on the art it will be rejected as implausible, but if I pause to explain the truths of my existence the story is no longer universal.
Patrons and donors file past, many of them stopping to stare at Manet’s painting, which is here on loan from the Louvre. It remains provocative even now, though there is less scorn and more admiration in the bits of conversation I catch. They barely glance at Victorine’s self-portrait, or at my own painting.
None of these mortals has ever met Victorine, so the truth of the depiction matters to them very little. They only experience the art, whatever it might convey, and their attention is drawn to a naked form, a confrontational stare, a famous artist’s name.
I don’t need to capture the truth of my subject, I need to capture the attention of a broader audience, convey a deeper underlying truth…and I do not know how.
It’s a cold March afternoon in 1927 when a Western Union courier hands me the small yellow envelope of a telegram. It comes from a woman I’ve never met, though Victorine often mentioned her in letters. It bears sad news that I have known for quite some time was coming.
I had planned to paint the sunset from the shore of Lake Michigan today, so I force myself to go out with my easel, but the colors are wrong. Rosy pastels streak the sky above the water. Some other night I might have found it beautiful, but tonight I cannot think of anything but vermillion, and I let the light fade to the deepest blue without so much as opening a tube of paint.
The world has been a week without her in it, but her death did not become a truth for me until the telegram arrived. She is the last. Even Monet has ceased his endless paintings of water lilies, having passed in December. I’ve not seen either of them for decades, but tonight I feel the loss as keenly as if I’d sat with them yesterday, all of us gathered at the Café Guerbois, Victorine and I engaging the men in passionate discussions on the purpose of art, the role of the model, and whether critical outrage was an attack on the honor of the painter, this last being a topic that always irritated Manet.
They were my cohort—Édouard, Émile, Claude, Paul and Camille, and of course Victorine. I met them not knowing that I would outlive them, and without having the distance that knowledge brings. My immortal artist was right—I don’t get quite so close to mortals now, I no longer see myself as one of them. But I’m accustomed to navigating a world I do not feel a part of, a place where I am unlike all the others. This has always been my truth.
I sit all night beside my canvas, a lonely vigil for the last of my cohort. The sunrise is reflected on the square windows of the city skyline. It’s a fitting tribute. My memories of her life are fragmented as if by steel and concrete, everything but the fiery window-glass moments are lost to the passage of time.
I cannot paint the sunrise. Vermillion is her color and she is gone.
If my immortal artist is to be believed, I will grow accustomed to this. The pain that burns sharp within my chest will fade to a dull ache, not just for Victorine but for all mortals. Their passing will be easier when their lifetimes are but the merest fraction of my own. I will never share the length of history with them that I do with my immortal artist, and by comparison the loss of such shallow relationships will seem trivial. Or so he says. He is an ass, of course, and making excuses for his own inability to connect with those around him.
But the fact that he is an ass doesn’t mean that he is always wrong. Those things he’d said at the Art Institute, what if all of it is true? Maybe my perspective is muddled with too many influences, perhaps I have failed to synthesize such disparate parts into a cohesive whole. Maybe the failing is in my execution.
I have outlived my friends, my colleagues, and for what? All my paintings combined have not garnered the renown of Olympia or Impression, Sunrise. I am best known as the model from Woman, Reclining (Mari), and maybe my lack of success is not—as I have always told myself—because I am a woman and an outsider, but because I am lacking in talent.
Even being immortal, which should be simple enough, is a task that I am failing for I cannot bear the thought of stealing time from mortals whose lives are already so fleeting. I take just enough here and there from models—always with their consent—to maintain a human form, but if I cannot create beauty, cannot leave my mark on the world of art, their time is wasted, and nothing is so precious as time.
I’ve never done a self-portrait, but I am determined to purge these wretched truths. I paint the portrait and quite literally put myself into the work, thinning my fingertips into mist and leaving a sliver of my very being in the darkest shadows of ultramarine. I create the portrait in shades of blue, abstract and dark, shadows overpowering the light. I call the painting Futility, and I do not sign my name because despair is never done, it is unending and can never be complete. Critics will no doubt call it a feeble imitation of Picasso, but I cannot bring myself to care.
I’m still fighting the ultramarine depths of despair some fifteen years later, when I meet Joshua at the Club DeLisa. We get to talking, a fragmented conversation to fill the space between sets. He’s a singer and he used to play trumpet in a swing band, up until he got caught in Chicago by wartime travel restrictions. Little Brother Montgomery and The Red Saunders Band are playing tonight, along with a comedian and some dancers.
“I love the music, but what really brings me here is the energy. It reminds me of the Café Guerbois—in Paris. I used to go there with some artist friends of mine, painters who wanted to push boundaries and create something new.” There’s something about him or the music or the energy of the club tonight that compels me to keep talking. “The way the musicians build on each other, changing the nature of music, it fills me with nostalgia. They have a passion that I’ve been missing for a long time.”
He gives me a strange look. “You’re one of those immortals, like Pops.”
“Yes.” I’d heard him play once, back in the 20s before he moved to New York. I hadn’t realized he was immortal, but that did make sense of all the tall tales and inconsistencies when he talked about his childhood. I can’t help but wonder who turned him.
“You must really be something special then,” Joshua says. “Show me your paintings?”
“Only if you’ll sing for me.” I’m flirting without meaning to, leaning in close as we try to talk over the noise of the club. He has the same vibrancy the performers here have, and I long to taste him, to connect at a deeper level.
We stay late, almost until dawn, drinking beer and discussing everything from the gorgeous poems in Georgia Douglas Johnson’s An Autumn Love Cycle to Archibald Motley’s vibrant paintings of nightlife—both in Paris and here in Bronzeville. Our conversation turns to the war, and he talks about the delicate dance of supporting the war efforts while simultaneously pushing for civil rights for Black folks here at home; the Pittsburgh Courier was calling it “the Double V Campaign.” At some point he mentions the Japanese internment camps, and we both go quiet for a moment.
“Must be hard,” he says, “having family on both sides of the war.”
“Honestly I’ve always felt more French than anything else. But I’m defined by what other people see, not by who I am. I have so little connection to Japan—to me it is courtesans in a ukiyo-e, brightly colored kimonos in Paris shops, faint memories of warabe uta my mother sang for me a long long time ago. And yet I’m still the enemy.”
“Tell me about it,” he says, and both of us drink.
Joshua walks me home, and I invite him to come in. I haven’t had anyone over in ages and there is clutter everywhere. I scoop up fabric scraps from the assorted seamstress jobs I’ve been doing on top of waitressing to make enough money to pay the outlandish rent—so high it’s illegal under rent control but who am I to challenge the landlord? And he knows it, knows just how far he can push and get away with it. Boarding at the Eleanor Club had been cheaper and the shared bathrooms there were cleaner…but I couldn’t bring men home with me. I sigh. There are always tradeoffs. “Sorry about the mess.”
He laughs. “You don’t have to—”
“I do.” Not so much for the mess but because I need to shift my focus away from his delicious energy. He is too much temptation, but I can’t bring myself to ask him to leave.
While I try to tidy up, he studies the art on my wall. The oldest piece is a woodblock print, Night Scene in the Yoshiwara, by Katsushika Ōi, one of the few tangible items I have that belonged to my mother. I wait for him to guess, incorrectly, that it is my work, but he turns his attention to a far more recent piece.
“Is this?” he asks, leaving the question unfinished.
“The Tanforan Assembly Center.” I set down a handful of empty paint tubes. “Chiura Obata sent it with his last letter. Sumi on paper. I’m not sure how he managed to get it past the censors, maybe smuggled it out with one of the couriers that brings him art supplies. He’s starting an art school. I don’t know how he can make art in a place like that.”
“Maybe the art is what saves him, the thing that keeps him from breaking. Besides, if you wait for the world to be perfect, you’ll be waiting forever.”
He’s right, of course. There is always something—a war or a plague, a widespread catastrophe like the Great Depression or the more personal tragedy of a friend’s passing. Being immortal, it is so easy to put off the work, to drift aimlessly because there is no urgency without the ultimate deadline of death. “The frustrating thing is that Chiura can make art when I cannot. That he’s stronger than me even though I’m the immortal one. I’m angry about the camps but I’m not forced to live in one. I have only the most tenuous ties to Japan. My mother died more than a lifetime ago when I was young.”
“After Ma died, back in ‘37, I couldn’t…” Joshua waved his hands as he searched for the right words, “I just couldn’t anything. I’d open my mouth to sing and nothing came. There was too much joy in a cheerful song and too much sorrow in a sad one. Ma sang the blues like nobody’s business, taught me everything I know. She was 43 when she died and I was so angry with the world for taking her.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“Yeah. Well it’s not about strength. Music is the thing that saves me, usually, the thing I escape to. But when Ma died, everything I tried to do reminded me of her, and the pain was still too raw.”
“So what did you do?”
He laughs. “Enlisted in the National Guard. Powered through basic combat training. That’s probably not going to work for you, Mariko. But mostly what I needed was time. I found my way back to music again, and you’ll get back to the painting. That’s where your heart is.”
“How do you know, you haven’t even seen my paintings—”
Then I notice what he’s looking at.
I never even tried to sell it, and I haven’t finished a single painting in the decade and a half since I’d poured my depression onto the canvas in blue paint. It’s a painting of my heart, and my heart is broken. The canvas isn’t hung or even framed, it simply leans against the wall in the darkest corner of my apartment.
“This is amazing,” he says. “Powerful.”
As he studies the painting—intensely, intently—I can feel the barest shimmer of a connection, a faint suggestion of how it might feel to take a fragment of his life, and like a shark frenzied by a drop of blood in the water I am suddenly overwhelmed with need.
I draw him close and we kiss, deeply, bodies pressed together. I tremble with desire and with anguish, for I am determined that I will not consume him. “No, this is wrong, I have to stay away from mortals. You burn so bright, so briefly.”
“Are you protecting us, or are you protecting yourself from the pain of losing something so fleeting? How can you paint if you refuse to live?”
“I can’t,” I admit.
“It’s okay,” he whispers, his breath hot as fire against my skin. “I want to know how it feels, how you feel. Live with me. Everything in this one moment.”
I slide out of my dress. “We can have the one without the other. I’ve heard what people say about immortals, about stealing away people’s lives with sex. That’s not how it works.”
“Never?” He unbuttons his shirt.
We have sex in broad strokes of fiery vermillion shading into crimson, building to a deep connection, something beyond the raw intensity of our physical passion. I transform into mist at the moment of his climax and bask in his passion, his energy, his health, his life. When I withdraw, I try not to take anything with me, though I’m not sure I entirely succeed.
Unlike my immortal artist, I do not disappear into the night. I return to human form and sleep in Joshua’s arms.
In the morning, I start a new painting. A Black man, talking to a woman who has her back to the viewer, both of them standing under a streetlight in front of the Club DeLisa. The streets are empty save the couple, and I paint the center of the canvas in a realist style reminiscent of Edward Hopper, but as I move out from the light into the shadows, surrealism creeps into the painting–the buildings in the background morph into barbed wire and the full moon hangs crimson in the sky.
I title the painting Night Club and sign it Mariko. It is both bleak and beautiful. Chiura would be proud. At Joshua’s encouragement, I sell it to the Art Institute of Chicago, along with Futility.
Full of life and finally painting again, for three months I am the happiest I can remember being since I became immortal. Then Joshua is called to service with the 370th Infantry Regiment. He goes to a training camp in Arizona. In his last letter before he ships off to Italy, he proposes.
When Joshua returns from Italy, he brings me a gift. An enemy parachute, salvaged by a fellow soldier. He’d traded some cigarettes and a pair of wool socks from one of my care packages to get it. There are twenty panels of useable silk in the canopy once I’ve discarded the burnt bits. The material is thin and slippery and difficult to sew, but I manage to make myself a wedding gown. The color is a delicate cream, a beautifully warm tone—zinc white mixed with cadmium yellow and the barest hint of alizarin crimson.
It is a warm August afternoon, and raining, which they say is good luck for weddings. Ours is a quiet Sunday afternoon affair. A few of our musician and artist friends attend, and three soldiers from his company. No family because all of mine passed away before Joshua was born and none of his relatives that live near Chicago approve of our relationship. He wears his uniform and I wear my gorgeous parachute gown. Looking at us, no one would guess that I’m three times the age of my groom.
The cake is a cardboard cutout, but Joshua surprises us all by opening it up to reveal a stash of Hershey’s Tropical Chocolate Bars he’d saved from his rations, enough for each of our guests to have one.
They are not at all what I expected, difficult to chew and far less sweet than what I remembered of the chocolate I’d tasted before the war. I must have made a face because Joshua laughed. “Why do you think I had so many left?” He lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “And these are the new and improved variety.”
We can’t afford a honeymoon but we both manage to get Monday off work and we spend the entire day holed up in our apartment, newlyweds basking in the joy of being together after spending so much time apart.
It isn’t until I leave for work Tuesday morning that I see what has happened, sprawled across the top of the Chicago Tribune at a corner newsstand: ATOMIC BOMB STORY! The news is a stark and chilling white—the flash of the weapon itself, the coldness of a headline that speaks not of the people killed but of the power the American country now wields.
I let the white consume me. I transform into mist and careen through the streets of Chicago, then out over the vast ultramarine depths of Lake Michigan. Yet even here I cannot escape the war, for I find myself sharing the sky with warplanes from the naval air station, pilots training to fly in formation and land on aircraft carriers. Pilots not unlike the one who flew the plane that dropped the bomb.
What right do I have to feel this pain, I, so distantly removed? I feel guilt for being free instead of interred, for being American instead of Japanese, for failing to connect with my mother’s country. Her country, never mine.
And then, Nagasaki. The city where my mother was born.
There are no words to describe the horror. I am only at peace when I transform into mist, mingling with the clouds above the city. It would be so easy to remain this way, to disperse in the atmosphere, to thin into nothingness. I am immortal, yes, but only so long as I choose to endure.
If not for Joshua, I might never have returned to human life. He is my anchor in the endless sea of time, my shelter from the nightmare storm of mushroom clouds. And I, in turn, am his calm harbor when the flashbacks hit, his comfort from the pain. We fight together against our demons from the war, stronger for being able to lean upon each other.
I paint Nagasaki in abstract, a monstrosity of crimson and white. It is passion and anger without form, in a style I have not mastered, and the result is garbage. I destroy canvas after canvas, unable to paint but determined nonetheless to try.
“Would it help to talk about it?” Joshua asks.
I’m painting over a ruined canvas, making it ready for my next attempt. I stop partway through, leaving streaks of color in between the broad stripes of white. “They’re the only ones who start with a blank white page. Their story is the default, invisible, a crisp new canvas. Our stories, our history, our pain—that’s color already on the page and we have to work around that, we have to explain why there’s a burst of crimson seeping through where our people bled, why there’s a vermillion rage underneath the calm surface of white.”
“And then they’ll tell you that they don’t want your explanations because it complicates the story, sullies the art. They’re always erasing the past—that’s how they get that fresh white page they like to start with.”
“Like snow covering the filthy streets of Paris,” I say, remembering the time so long ago when I looked out the window of my immortal artist’s studio. I wonder where he is right now, where he’s hiding from the war, for that has always been his way, to withdraw when the world of mortals was too intense or dangerous. “The memories are harder to visualize now, there are so many of them and they blur together. I suppose I wasn’t meant to remember more than one lifetime.”
“You should write it down,” Joshua says. “Tell your story.”
“I thought they didn’t want my explanations.” I study the canvas, partially repainted.
“Since when do you care what they want?” he replies.
“Never. And always.” I leave the canvas to dry, my previous failed attempt still showing in the gaps. It is better this way, somehow, with white to cover the things too horrible to bear. Pain avoided and erased. There is truth to that, in the things we hide, the things we omit, the things we do not even think to include. Words unwritten.
I title the painting History and sign it white on white, nearly invisible, erasing myself before anyone else can.
For thirty years I live an almost human life. I can’t bear children, but after the war there are so many orphans, and particularly unwanted are the mixed-race children, the children most like me. We adopt Midori when she is four years old and Joshua is forty and I am one hundred and six.
They grow and change and age and I—well, I don’t age but having them as a family alters me forever. I learn more about Japan, my interest spurred not by my past but by Midori’s future. She looks like I did when I was young, and I want her to have the connection to her birth mother’s country that I have always lacked. I try to give her a sense of belonging to both places instead of neither—and it strengthens my own connections as well. Maybe what I needed, all this time, was an excuse to explore a culture that never felt like my own. But it seems fitting, somehow. As a tree grows, so too do its roots.
It trickles into my paintings, as everything always does. Art has a way of absorbing all that I am—in its content and technique, but also more literally, for ever since that ultramarine night of losing Victorine I always leave a fragment of myself in the paint. In one color of each painting, as the emphasis, a focal point. When I paint my family, I am in the crimson, the color of love and passion.
The mortals around me begin to see the truth in my paintings. It is the most miraculous of things, for as I pour myself into the paintings they begin to sustain me, stealing brief moments from the audiences that study them, only the tiniest sliver of time from each but adding up to eternity as my popularity grows.
Three precious decades, vibrant like springtime, warm as summer, beautiful and fiery even in the autumn, when I know that Joshua’s eternal winter is near.
He is laid to rest in Graceland Cemetery. Whatever my immortal artist might say, Joshua is no less for being one lover of many, our marriage no less meaningful to me for being a smaller fraction of my existence than it was of his.
On a sunny spring afternoon, I go to visit Joshua’s grave. I’m sitting in the shade of a cherry tree, reading the latest John le Carré novel—Joshua had developed a fondness for spy stories in his later years and sharing a book seems more fitting than leaving behind a bouquet of wilting flowers—when my immortal artist finds me.
“I tire of the endless cycles,” he says without preamble, “the constant turmoil of the world.”
We’ve exchanged the odd letter here and there over the years, but I haven’t heard his voice since we’d shared an exhibit at the Art Institute, for he travels widely and hides from mortal society for years at a time. He can’t stand such newfangled technology as the telephone or the ever-present cars, never mind flying from one place to another in planes. No, he travels by shifting into mist, he communicates only by post, and hearing him again for the first time in so long I am struck by how thin he sounds, almost hollow. Like an echo of the immortal artist I once knew.
“Hello, old friend.” He hates when I call him old, and I love to tease him. As usual, he doesn’t take the bait.
“There’s an impatience in the mortals now, as they rush through their fleeting little lives, and all I desire is a peaceful time to paint. To retire to a garden, perhaps, as Monet did in his final years.”
“Then find a garden, or make one.” I remember something Joshua once told me. “If you wait for the perfect moment, you will wait forever. Even we immortals paint in stolen bits of time, for the demands of the world expand to fill whatever time there is, no matter how vast. We must fight for it. For art. For time. Even when our lives are endless.”
“I am weary of the fight.”
I realize that I can’t remember the last time he’s exhibited a new painting, and his more recent letters have not mentioned models or even lovers, only his travels. “You’ve stopped painting.”
“You’ve finally won them over to your way of seeing things, your muddled mix of influences, that complex stream of new ideas and techniques.” He stares at a mausoleum in the distance, and I wonder if the pillars remind him of ancient Greek ruins.
“I’m persistent,” I tell him.
“Yes. And I’ve learned to care less what others think.” I run my fingers over Joshua’s headstone, letters and numbers cut deep into the granite, shadowed in ultramarine.
“Is that the man you married?”
“Joshua,” I say. “He died a few years ago. I miss him dearly. But I’m glad he’s here and not in one of those crowded city cemeteries like the ones in Paris with graves practically stacked one atop the next. He loved plants. Trees. Gardening was one of his many attempts to escape from the horrors of war. We had a beautiful garden out behind the house. It looks a mess now because I’ve never been able to create plants from anything but paint.”
“He was also a painter?”
I shake my head. “No. A musician, a composer, a civil rights activist, and, for a time, a soldier. He was the one who suggested I take control of my narrative, preserve my memories in writing. I haven’t quite the knack for prose that Émile did, of course, but I want to have a record of my past.”
“You’ve kept your connection to the mortals,” he says, his voice wistful. “Yours was the last generation that really moved me. The last to draw me in.”
He speaks of my entire generation, but I’m better at seeing the negative spaces now, hearing the words that aren’t said. No one since me has moved him, there is no one but me in his heart after all these years…and I have well and truly moved on.
I can’t help but think how far we’ve diverged. He is tradition, isolation, stagnation—all things I see within myself but which I fight so hard against. It leads me to think about duality, the way we often divide ideas so neatly into opposing pairs. Artist and subject. West and East. Life and death.
When I return to my studio, I paint a canvas on both sides: one a lively picnic in Burnham Park and the other a funeral at Graceland Cemetery. The grass of both is a vibrant green, and instead of placing opposing elements on opposite sides of the canvas I jumble everything together. There are hints of death at the park, and life in the cemetery. Even the style of the painting is a chaotic mix of impressionism and realism, ukiyo-e and abstract expressionism.
I call it Two Worlds, and it is what some consider my greatest masterpiece.
The latest fashion in Paris is voluminous and flowing, with hidden pockets and hooded capes. A decade ago it was sleek minimalist cuts in patterns reminiscent of Rothko. It’s fascinating to watch the way trends disappear and return, the throwbacks and the updates, the new combinations and perspectives.
The city itself follows a similar cycle, though far more slowly since a building is less easily changed than a frock. The arrondissement of my mortal youth is recognizable again, recreated as a historical preserve. They’ve managed to keep something of its underlying character, though the streets are far too clean, and the towering mid-millennium arcologies block the morning sun and make the light all wrong.
The Café Guerbois is a museum—a static recreation of the buzzing artistic scene it once was—but there’s a dive bar around the corner called le Salon des Refusés where artists gather in their various groups and have heated discussions on the nature of art.
I sometimes go on Thursdays.
The new generation isn’t weighed down by centuries of history, the experience of how far we’ve come. Their basis of reference is the time of their childhood, not of mine. They are at once refreshing and infuriating, and they inspire me to push forward—in my paintings and in my life. My once-immortal artist would have liked this bar, for the nostalgia of it if not for the modern conversations. It is strange to think of a world that doesn’t have him in it.
The Musée de l’Orangerie houses the last remaining trace of his existence—Woman, Reclining (Mari). The museum has continued to restore it for centuries, using the best technology and the most skilled conservators.
On the surface, the painting is much as I remember it, faint though the memory is. But he is gone from it, the paint that he himself applied replaced bit by bit like a colorful Ship of Theseus until little of the original remains. His other paintings are lost, and have probably long since crumbled into dust. Poor Suzette. She’d thought herself immortal at least in paint, but that tribute is fleeting. History has forgotten her, even as a footnote. It’s hard to imagine that once upon a time I’d been jealous of the attention he’d paid her, so many lifetimes ago. And jealous of him for being an artist when I was a model. Now his painting is preserved, not because it was painted by him, but because it is the earliest known depiction of me.
Time eats all things in the end. Entropy brings everything back to white—a chaotic jumble of all the colors mixed together, if you paint with light. Now even my once-immortal artist has succumbed to the unending white. An artist must struggle to find meaning, to put order to chaos—and he no longer wished to fight.
He is a mist too thin to ever recohere; the strongest notion of him that remains is the splinter of his being that lives on in me. His model and his student, shining so brightly that I can never again be placed in his shadow.
In honor of his passing I paint Entropy in a palette of colors I mix myself, using formulas from both ancient times and modern, carefully applying the colors so the painting will change as it ages—chrome yellow that darkens to brown, red lake pigments that quickly fade, an ordivant green that will darken through emerald and into a deep blue over the course of several hundred years. I put myself into the titanium white, mist into paint, adding nuance to the crisp bright hue.
It is a self-portrait, though my physical likeness is not in it. It is a historical painting, though it does not depict any recognizable moment in time. Even the signature will shift, as mine has over the centuries—briefly it will read Mari before the rest of my name emerges. Mariko means truth, so this appeals to me conceptually: over time, the truth will be revealed. Then eventually the letters will fade until only the M remains. The details of history, given enough time, are mostly forgotten.
I have the Musée de l’Orangerie display the painting in carefully specified values of light, with strict orders never to move it, repair it, or alter anything about the painting or the room. Its true glory cannot be appreciated within a single human lifetime, but mortals flock to see it nonetheless.
And even now the doubt remains, the lingering fear that I will be forgotten. Perhaps the time has finally come to share my story. I’ve been writing it in dribs and drabs ever since Joshua suggested it, the words accumulating like dabs of color on a canvas. There are moments I choose to describe and moments that I omit, deliberately or otherwise. When you outlive everyone you’ve ever known, there’s no one to remind you of the things you’ve forgotten, and no one to contradict your version of events. I find myself always returning to white. Beginning, again and again.
This is not the end. I’ll leave my mark on the blank page of history, and I’ll paint the world in colors so bold and bright they cannot be ignored.
There is beauty in my truth, and I have so much to share.
(Editors’ Note: Caroline M. Yoachim is interviewed by Tina Connolly in this issue.)
© 2021 Caroline M. Yoachim