Authors: Hillary Kanter
Tags: #Romance: Fantasy - Historical - Time Travel - Humor
Gauguin arrived two days ago, just as you left for God knows where. I hope you get this letter. We will be at the Night Café, one block east of the Yellow House, at eight o’clock tonight. Please, I beg of you, please meet us there.
I felt badly that I had not sent word. I cared for him deeply. I could not have made love to him otherwise. But his emotional fragility worried me. He reminded me of a rare piece of porcelain left on a narrow ledge, so close to being knocked over and broken into a million pieces. Perhaps seeing him again would help me sort out my feelings.
I decided to go meet Vincent and Gauguin. As I descended the inn’s front steps, something white caught my eye. It was an envelope on the ground, addressed to Theo Van Gogh, Vincent’s brother. Vincent must have dropped it accidentally when he came by to deliver his letter to me.
I picked it up. It was not sealed. Why not take a peek?
Lately I have been in a cage of self-doubt and failure. This you know. I have no idea why we have unable to sell even one of my paintings. However, I have been painting nonstop and have a few new ones I will be sending soon. One I am calling “Starry Night,” as it is of a cypress tree seen against many stars in the night sky. I think it is a good painting, and hope you will agree.
Thank you for the extra fifty francs. My greatest hope and desire is that one day my paintings will sell, making all your sacrifices for my sake worthwhile. I try to remain optimistic, though as we know, my health—which is fine right now—could turn at any moment. I have not had any recent attacks, and hope that will be the end of them. But I am far from believing I’m cured, as we all thought the last time I was in the asylum. Fortunately, with my art, I do not hanker after personal victory anymore. All I ask from my painting is a way of escaping life.
Paul finally arrived, and I am glad you were able to sell a few of his canvases. I am happy he decided to visit.
By the way, I met a woman. She is visiting from New York, and is very beautiful and kind. I will tell you more about her later.
These words presented a more complex picture of Vincent, and although I had an inkling all was not well with his health, I did not know he had recently been in an asylum. Historically, yes, I knew of his mental issues, but he was currently more unbalanced than I had surmised.
What a pity that his world did not acknowledge a talent of such great magnitude. The world was ignorant.
As I made my way through the town, I stuffed the letter into my coat pocket, deciding to return it to him. It was a warm pleasant evening, with a slight breeze, and many townspeople were out as I neared the Night Café. Bordering the cobblestone street, small tables sat on wood floors, and patrons conversed in the glow of a lantern.
I did not see Vincent outside, so I stuck my head through the doorway. Drunken men slumped over their beers. Other played at a billiards table. Several women from the local brothel tried to drum up business at the bar, and I received a few interested stares myself.
I still saw no sign of Vincent and was turning to leave, when a voice spoke to me from a corner table tucked in shadows far from the lamplight.
“Ariel, Ariel … over here.”
Imagine my relief.
Vincent rushed to me. “I’m so glad you came. I was worried about you.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, Vincent. I just needed some time alone to think about things. And I decided I wanted to see you again. I didn’t mean to worry you.”
“All that matters is that you’re here now. Let me introduce you to one of the world’s greatest painters—even if the world does not know it yet. This is Paul Gauguin.”
Gauguin swayed to his feet, and I noted the two almost-empty wine carafes on the table. “I’m pleased to meet you, Ariel,” he slurred. “I hear you are from New York.”
“Supposed to be a wonderful place.”
Gauguin then commenced to tell me about himself as he poured me a glass of wine. He had been a successful stockbroker in Paris, living with his wife and five children. Like Vincent, who started painting at age twenty-seven, he had started late in life. Some of his artwork had been exhibited and admired, and this had convinced him he could maintain his standard of living by painting alone. Three years later, in 1883, he lost everything, and his wife and children left him. Though well-thought-of by other artists, he and Vincent barely made money to eat.
He ended his account with a dismissive wave, a bitter grin, and another gulp from his wine glass. He was a piece of work, a real character. Of French and Spanish-Peruvian stock, he wore a beret pushed low over his eyes, and carried a walking stick carved with bizarre designs, which he said he had made himself.
Vincent hung on his every word. It was hero worship, and Vincent insisted that this man, five years his senior, was the superior artist.
As the hours passed, they got drunker and drunker. I, too, consumed a large amount while the men argued playfully over who was the better painter: Toulouse-Lautrec, Monet, Cezanne, or Renoir. Seated between them, I felt Gauguin’s arm keep snaking around my back as he leaned in closer.
That is when their talk turned to the subject of women.
“I think Rachel is the most beautiful girl at the brothel,” Gauguin slurred.
“I know why you think that,” Vincent said. “You’ve visited her the last two nights in a row.”
“Ah, well … With a woman like Ariel, you don’t need a Rachel now, do you?” He moved closer and stroked my hand on the table.
Vincent’s body stiffened. He leapt from his chair, knocking it over, and grabbed his friend by the throat. “Why, you son of a bitch! I should tear your beady eyes from your head.”
“Hey, calm down, Vincent,” Gauguin said, still too tipsy to be concerned. People had turned at their tables to watch the spectacle. “What’s the matter with you? Are you crazy?”
“I’ll show you crazy, you insolent bastard.” Vincent pulled a razor from his coat pocket and held it to the man’s throat.
Terrified, I grabbed Vincent’s sleeve. “No, Vincent! Stop,” I cried. “Let him go. Please.”
He backed off, just enough for his friend to pull away.
“Why, you crazy lunatic.” Gauguin readjusted his beret. “You show me the nude painting you made of her, then expect me not to react to the woman when I meet her? Look. She’s beautiful. Even if you do love her, she’d be far better off with me, you lunatic.” He spat. “Someone should put you back in that asylum.”
Vincent moved toward him again.
My disappointment wiped away any fear I felt. I had trusted Vincent. “What did you do?” I screamed at him “You swore you would never show that to anyone. And not three days later, you show it to
“It was an accident, Ariel. I swear it.”
“He was rummaging through my canvases and came upon it. He asked who it was, and … Well, what was I supposed to say?”
“You should have hidden it where no one could find it.”
“And you,” Vincent said, swinging a hateful gaze at his friend, “swore to me you would never tell her you saw it.” He slashed the razor again, aiming for his friend’s face.
Gauguin jumped back. “You’re a madman, a
. I won’t be coming back to your house again, Vincent. Not ever.”
“And I don’t ever want to see either one of you again,” I shouted. I darted from the table, my feet pounding on the street.
Gauguin followed, with Vincent following after both of us.
“Hey, come back here,” the waiter called, waving a piece of paper and chasing our unlikely trio. “Somebody has to pay the bill.”
Gauguin and I veered different directions, outrunning Vincent.
pay the bill, I thought. I reached the inn and was grabbing my key from the night clerk’s desk, when Gauguin appeared in the lobby. With this being the only inn in town, this was no surprise. He followed me up the stairs to the door of my room.
“Ariel, can’t you see? Vincent … he’s out of his mind.”
“I don’t want to talk about this with you. Enough’s been said already, and I’m disgusted with the both of you.” I fumbled my key in the lock.
Gauguin spun me around and pinned me to the wall, kissing me, slithering a hand up my skirt.
I slapped him hard across the face. “How dare you? What makes you think you have the right to touch me? If you don’t leave right this minute, I’m going to scream.”
“Very well, very well. No offence meant. I will take my leave now.” He bowed deeply, then walked off with his signature rolling gait, muttering drunken words under his breath.
I was so angry with him, but even angrier with Vincent. He had betrayed me by letting another person see the painting. In addition, I had witnessed his dangerous side when he went after his friend with the razor. Considering this evening’s debacle, I gave the innkeeper orders to tell anyone who called on me that I was not here.
A pair of old women were talking by the front desk, when I ventured out for a morning walk after sleeping all of about two winks.
“And then,” said one woman, “the police went to his room at the Yellow House, and found him soaked in his own blood, barely breathing.”
“He had really cut off his own ear?” the other exclaimed.
“It’s true. Van Gogh did, indeed. And then he took it down to the brothel and gave it to that prostitute—I think her name is Rachel—and told her to give it to his good friend, that other painter who was staying with him. What is his name? I cannot recall. He left after a terrible row, saying Van Gogh tried to kill him with a razor.”
“A razor? Good heavens.”
“The very same razor Van Gogh used to cut off his ear. They say he set fire to one of his own paintings, as well—one of a
—and threw it from his second-story window. Is it any wonder they took him to the asylum at St. Remy?”
I would have asked the innkeeper if all this was true, but my own history books could verify most of the story. It was a mess. Gauguin had left Arles, destination unknown; Vincent had been committed to an insane asylum; and I wished I could will myself away from this place. I wanted to go “home.”
Instead, I walked for miles, passing fields of sunflowers and wheat and ravens that picked at stalks of corn. By the time I returned, a courier had delivered a large package for me. I ripped open the note taped to the brown paper wrapping. It read:
I thought you might like to have this. I have loved you like no other, and I am sorry for the incident with Paul. I never meant to hurt you. Now nobody ever need see this. It is yours to do with as you please.
Alone in my room, I unwrapped his painting of me, the one I had assumed was burned and thrown from his window. In my possession, it would be the Van Gogh no one else would ever see. I traced my fingers along his telltale signature, caught a whiff of the oils and turpentine. A fog descended over my thoughts, and I became dizzy. The room began to spin …
New York City. The Museum of Modern Art. I was back on the same bench, facing Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” painting. I was in my regular clothes, and my watch told me it was 4:10 p.m.
Only ten minutes since I had entered the museum.
Disoriented, I got up slowly, as if pulling myself from a badly wrecked car. I was still lost in Van Gogh, surrounded by a room of his paintings. I lingered in front of a landscape, drawn to its windblown wheat field.
Was there something moving in there? If so, I had to question my own sanity. Squinting, I fished for my glasses in my purse. I slipped them on, gazed into that picture of waving golden grain, and saw
figures moving. I blinked hard, buffed my lenses on the sleeve of my shirt, and zoomed in for a closer look.
This cannot be!
But yes, there were two people on display.
The man wore a painter’s smock and held a painter’s palette, as he stood close to a dark-haired woman, talking, laughing, and pointing at a lark in the brilliant blue sky.
PRINCE OF DARKNESS
I hate blood. I can’t stand the sight of it. If I suffer a paper cut, I‘m ready to tie a tourniquet and rush to the nearest emergency room.
This morning, I was scheduled for a 10:00 a.m. checkup. A blood test would be routine and, being needle-phobic, I was terrified. All I could think about was that red stuff and whatever else might be in there with it. The mere thought had me wishing for a Valium the size of a Volkswagen—a phrase coined by Woody Allen.
I checked in at the clinic. Staring at the magazines on the waiting room table, I tried not to think of the germs colonizing on them. What sort of diseases might have taken up residence in my veins?
I dashed to the restroom, careful not to touch anything, and washed my hands. I used a tissue to turn the doorknob on my way out.
Moments later, a way-too-cheery nurse poked her head into the waiting room. “Ariel Richards?”
This was no time for levity, and I did not appreciate her smile. Following her into an examination room, I knew what was coming. “So, how much blood will you need to take?”
“Oh, about five milliliters,” she answered, holding up two vials.
When I told her I had a tendency to feel faint at the sight of blood, she had me lie down. I took a deep breath, then bolted upright. “Oh, and by the way, I can’t even
the needle, or I’ll pass out.”
“Close your eyes then, if that helps.”
I screwed my eyelids shut, then bolted up again. “Oh, and another thing … it’ll be best if you move those vials out of my sight as soon as you’re done.”