The Marriage of Opposites

Page 104


In the back room of the store, he thought he might explode from all of those meaningless hours seeing to the ledgers. Math was difficult and pointless, and he cared nothing for finance. Money was a ruination, in his opinion, needed only to survive. Those who had it considered themselves blessed; those who did not were cursed for reasons that made no sense to him, mere circumstance and luck. He sketched in the margins of the ledgers, images of the workers who delivered molasses and rum to the back door, with cloths tied around their foreheads so that sweat wouldn’t run into their eyes as they labored. Then for a week he sketched seabirds, seeing the creatures in parts, as he used to when he was first beginning to draw: wings, feet, talons, beak. He spent hours drawing the sawlike fronds of palm trees, the ridges in each leaf distinct and individually lined. This was his release, until his father found him out and had him painstakingly rewrite the ledger pages he had ruined with his sketches.
After that Frédéric moved Camille to the front of the store to see if he would fare any better in that position. He did not. Being polite to customers who spoke to him rudely and dealing with their petty orders and concerns maddened him. He pouted and was silent. He lost his appetite and became even lankier than before. His older brothers made sure to tease him and let him know he was inept; he needed to be broken and understand he was beneath them and must do as he was told.
Taking orders did not come naturally to Camille. He burned, but kept quiet. Monsieur Savary had told him to take the opinions of only those he respected and ignore the rest. “Do not react to all the world may throw on you,” his teacher had advised. Camille had realized the truth of this advice in the many hours he had spent at the Louvre, studying the great masters. Each artist had to find his own path, regardless of the current mode and criticisms. He stood before da Vinci’s great works, every painting a world unto itself, but each clearly seen through the eyes of a singular master. It was through this single vision that the work had risen to the heights of art and artistry. This was why da Vinci had understood the true artist as no other man did.
Unfortunately, Camille himself was trapped from such flight, unable to lead an artist’s life, a victim of the bourgeois fate he’d been born into. He would have liked to open the storerooms and call for local people to come and take what they needed, free of charge, until at last the store was emptied and he was freed from its prison. Since this was impossible, he walked at night to ease his rage, stalking the streets he remembered, but remembered in a mist of thought, as if he’d walked them in a dream.
He longed for Paris and for the route he used to take to school through the pleasant streets of Passy, for the tall, ivy-covered house he’d found when he followed Jestine’s daughter to her home. He thought of the snow under his boots, the chestnut trees in leaf in April, each leaf so pale it was nearly white, the moss-green benches in the Tuileries, the sky filled with clouds, the gray rain that glowed green with light, the fields outside Passy where mustard seed and poppies grew in a riot of color. Here in St. Thomas daylight was so bright a man had to shut his eyes against the sun until colors and objects shifted into points of light. Red, green, yellow, and a thousand shades of blue.
He again came to know the narrow streets of Charlotte Amalie, taking the curved, sheer alleys made entirely of steps, where it was said werewolves used to roam. Most often he found himself heading into the countryside, for it was there he felt most comfortable. He remembered that as a boy he’d had the ability, as most islanders did, to switch to a sort of night vision; as soon as dusk fell the horizon was engulfed in the glimmering dark, an all-consuming shadow within a shadow. He made his way on the sandy roads, avoiding ditches that swelled with puddles when there had been rain. The night world was blue and black; a hot velvet curtain dropped down from the branches of the trees. He walked through it and felt the dampness on his skin, the pinpricks of insect bites, the wind when it wound through the trees and passed him by as if it were a creature with a mind of its own. Here on the hillsides there were the old stands of mahogany, and so many birds that he could hear them nesting, fluttering above him as they rested. Leaves fell down on his head, and he remembered some old story about how the spirits of the dead walked about in the trees. He was used to dark nights, he had known such nights from the start of his existence, but when he thought of his years in Paris what he yearned for most was the light, the yellow glow of morning, the green shadows of the afternoon, the silver radiance of winter splintering like ice on a windowpane.
He became silent and grudging as days and months went on, a tall, dark figure moping through the dusk on an empty road. When he saw groups of children in their yards he raised his hand to wave hello, but he was a ragged stranger and they shrieked and scattered, racing inside their houses. He began to spend nights in the herb man’s house, where he had gone to paint as a boy. It had been a secret place then, and it was now, abandoned for so long even the few people who had known of it had forgotten it was ever there. He always blundered upon it in his ramblings out of sheer luck. Or perhaps he’d been led there in the way a dreamer comes upon a dream he’d had years earlier. Everything was the same now that he’d returned, and yet it was different, as a painting with layer upon layer of paint splattered upon the canvas. There was an old cotton mattress left on the floor, which he stuffed with newly dried grass. The hut smelled of his childhood, when his mother used to take him everywhere and he’d hear bits of conversation he knew he shouldn’t and he was given hard molasses candies to keep him silent and happy. He used mud and straw to caulk the holes in the walls to keep out the mongooses that found shelter from storms. He took branches to sweep out the curled, desiccated bodies of beetles littering the corners of the room. It was the season when nighthawks migrated, and he heard them crying as they lit in the trees, exhausted from their flight. In the dark, there was a world of insects hitting against the roof and walls, with moths and mosquitoes doing their best to get through the shutters when he illuminated the room. He burned a candle anyway, though it drew thousands of insects to beat their wings against the wire and there was a constant whirring sound. He needed at least some faint light so that he might paint.