She thought of the sea as her beating heart and so its violence on certain wild nights frightened her. On other days it seemed to have shrugged on a green cloak that rippled with shifting mysterious shadows. Despite this she was glad to leave the provincial town and join her brother in London. Later she’d gone to Toulouse with Dorelia McNeill and painted her standing by a table with a book in her hand, her lips the colour of coral, her hair like the black sea on a moonless night. They had meant to walk to Rome, but Gwen ended up in Paris, alone.
Auguste Rodin hired her as a model and to celebrate took her to the café for absinthe. ‘L‘heure verte, Marie,’ he said. He could not quite manage the, to him, alien name of Gwen so this is what she became. She watched as he let the water trickle, drop by slow drop through the cube of sugar and into the green spirit where a pale swirling cloud began to appear like a wraith.
She could not tell him that she’d had nothing to eat and nothing since breakfast the day before. The drink warmed her and then seemed to flood her body with energy. She had a second glass and stared intently at the brilliant green thinking first of emeralds and jade, then cat’s eyes.
He reminded her of her father. Except that her father’s gaze came with a disapproving silence. When she was a girl it seemed that only the sea washing beyond the windows had broken the silence of the house in Tenby. That and the loud tick, tick, tick of the grandfather clock. She would escape to the sea and draw the wild urchin children; some, in the heat of summer, quite naked into the shallow lapping waves.
‘The green hour,’ she said in English, then smiled at his puzzled expression.
A third glass of absinthe. As the water entered the clear green liquid she thought about an old cat she’d once seen, its blind eyes clouded over, their colour muted.
‘You have an athlete’s body,’ he said later when she stepped from behind the screen in the studio and slipped the robe from her shoulders. He approved of her slim hips, her slender legs, her small breasts; she would do very well for the sculpture he had in mind. He also had a seduction planned… But then so did she.
He was 64. His beard was a great wiry nest, nearly white. She was reminded of the stuffed doves under the glass dome in the drawing room in Tenby. Gentle plump birds made still and silent by death.
She posed for him, taking up attitudes that exposed to him the most intimate parts of her body. This she gave for art first and secondly for love.
For love and against silence.
No, it was not his beard that reminded her of the stuffed doves, not really. It was his manhood. They had made love on the floor of the studio and he had rolled off her and lay back exhausted, spent, his eyes closed and an arm flung over his face. She let her gaze fall on his member where it seemed to nestle in a pale curve against his thigh and it was that which reminded her of the doves under the glass dome.
Time dripped by, water dissolving a sugar cube, sweetening the bitter wormwood and distorting the senses. He tired of her and abandoned her for another woman. Then further abandoned her by dying. She had a sense of belonging nowhere and to no one.
Except to God.
A sharp pain rippled through her belly. Was it the spot where a sword had been thrust into the body of Christ? She painted wet daubs of Rouge Phoenician on the palms of each hand. Stigmata. No saint, she. Then wiped them away on a turpentine-soaked rag.
What she lacked was the religion of ritual and confession. How bare and without passion was the church of her youth; the puritan sparsity, the chill incantations, the Sunday best clothes, the eyes of the congregation slipping sideways to see what coins a neighbour had placed on the collection plate.
She mixed ground barley with milk and drank it slowly over the course of half an hour. She was not sure if it worsened the pain, which seemed a constant, but it was all she could manage.
Often she thought of the sea. Once she had watched a child being lifted from the waves at Tenby’s North Beach. Half drowned he’d been, the son of a blind piano tuner on holiday from Bristol, and when he recovered she saw him leading his father up the steps and towards the town. Her brother Augustus had nearly destroyed himself diving into the sea and dashing his head on the rocks when he was 18 or 19. People said he was different after that, especially with women.
One day in the Louvre she was crossing a gallery in search of paintings of Christ’s wounds, when someone caught her eye. He was reflected in a glass cabinet. She stopped walking immediately, mesmerized. It was him, her master, Rodin, standing quite still and gazing over his shoulder as if he were as arrested by the sight of her as she was by him. For a moment she forgot the pain in her stomach, she forgot the painting she was trying to complete, everything in the world melted away. There he was again, her lover back from the dead after 22 years, come to claim her.
Then her senses caught up with her and she saw that this was no living, breathing man, but a statue. A sharp cramping pain ripped through her like a lightning bolt, almost taking her breath away, but she bore it bravely and made her way towards the cruelly deceptive sculpture.
Neptune, god of the sea. An ache sprang up in her heart, worse by far than the physical one in her stomach and it was followed by an impulse; she must go now, go back to the sea.
She caught the train to Dieppe. All the way in the cramped railway carriage, pain like the arrows that pierced the flesh of St. Sebastian. Nothing to eat – only a cup of tepid water to wet her lips. Pain like a lance thrust into Christ. This is my blood, this, my body… Exquisite pain, as if to herald another world war.
In a quiet street not far from the station her knees buckled and she had to rest, clinging to a railing for support. A black Tomcat came strutting out of the dusty undergrowth, its tail raised high, quivering with pleasure. One her own it must have been, come back to her as a ghost. Eyes so sharp, so green, so pure she could never replicate them; though her mind from habit seemed to trace a paintbrush over her palette from Cobalt to Terre Verte to Viridian; so many greens… and the sea now so near she could almost smell it.
Jo Mazelis is a novelist, short story writer, poet and essayist. Her collection of stories Diving Girls (Parthian, 2002) was short-listed for The Commonwealth Best First Book and Welsh Book of the Year. Her second book, Circle Games (Parthian, 2005) was long-listed for Welsh Book of the Year. Trained at Art School, she worked for many years as a freelance photographer, designer and illustrator. She has won prizes for her short stories in The Rhys Davies, Allen Raine and PenFro competitions. Her stories have appeared in many publications and broadcast on Radio Four. Her novel Significance (Seren, 2014) was long-listed for The Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Award, 2015.
Words and images © Jo Mazelis, 2015.