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Swimming in the Rhone

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An exploration of the taut relationship between Van Gogh and the figures in his paintings

5.0 2 reviews
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Chapter 1

Van Gogh stepped back from his canvas, eyeing the three figures he’d etched into the corner thoughtfully. “I suppose we’ll be getting rather well acquainted over the next few weeks,” he told them formally, and one smiled softly, while the other frowned. The third remained silent, eyeing him with a wary curiosity reminiscent of Van Gogh himself. “Don’t look at me like that,” he snapped at the frowner, his mind already racing ahead, giving him colours, brushstrokes, shapes and details and patterns, all burning into his eyes until he couldn’t even see the sketch anymore, only the finished product. It would be a masterpiece. It would be perfect. What else was there, but perfection? How could he settle for less? None of the trash that cluttered his soul would dare leave even a fingerprint on this slate; no, this one would stay exactly the way he wanted it. He brushed a finger over his lips, the waters of the Rhone rushing through him, and he steadfastly ignored the third figure, the one with the frown, staring at him in distaste with cold, unyielding eyes.

The next few days he spent with a brush often stuck between his teeth, his green eyes squinting at the few colour patches he’d managed to pin down. Right now, the water was bright blue, the way it would be in the daytime, and the edges fizzled out, unfinished, and the few blobs of buildings he’d put on the horizon were orange. Already, the painting wasn’t going the way he wanted it to, and the three figures were still only sketched in, not a stroke taken to them, just lurking there in the back of his mind, at the edge of his canvas. Some days they wouldn’t shut up, and some days they refused to speak, and while the smiling woman and the curious stranger tended to be more sensitive to the needs of their creator, the man with the frown would always look at him angrily, and Van Gogh could see curse words staining his lips. He was foul, and ugly, and the more Van Gogh looked at him, the less pleasure he took in the prospect of painting him.

There was something intrinsically, unnaturally unhappy about him, that third figure. He lurked to the right of the woman, whose smile, Van Gogh realised after putting a few more lines in, wasn’t just soft, but also sad. And the curious stranger had a touch of humour to him, looking at his painter slyly under a wide brimmed hat. The third, though? There was nothing to him but blackness and the pain in his blurred eyes, and Van Gogh couldn’t understand that. What right had he to be unhappy, living in a perfectly painted world? “You bastard,” the man seethed, “You loathsome, arrogant, bastard.” That was all he ever did, yell and swear and call names, and when questioned, he would refuse to answer. He had no backstory, had no motivation, he was simply angry. He was that dark portion of the soul that is impossible to deny, that discontent that Van Gogh could feel growing in his stomach night after night, when he dreamt of a perfectly painted world and woke to find a perfectly ordinary one.

Finally, one morning, he walked into the studio, his bare feet on the ice cold floor and his ratty robe barely hanging onto his shoulders. There was still sleep in his eyes that he hadn’t bothered to rub out before stumbling from his bed, and this time, when he squinted at the painting, he realised the angry man had grown too tall. He was casting a shadow that didn’t belong there, skewing the painting, drawing far too much focus to a corner that would otherwise have remained hidden. So he shrank him. First, it was one inch. There, now he was only slightly taller than the curious stranger. But why should he be taller? So he shrank another few inches, and now he was slightly shorter. He couldn’t be on height with the woman, though, and so he went smaller, with Van Gogh making tiny strikes with his brush without really even thinking about them. It was early, he wasn’t quite awake yet, but the truth, the truth that the dark man had grown too tall, couldn’t be delayed. It had to be fixed, immediately. He stood there, in his bare feet and ratty robe, for hours, just adding minuscule dashes of paint here and there, and it wasn’t until after the sun had fully risen and peaked and his stomach was rumbling from the meals he’d ignored that he realised the dark man had vanished completely. Where he once stood, there was only the same blue-grey colour that made up most of the scene.

The woman’s eyes suddenly started to look sadder, and there was something flinty, something hard about the stranger’s face, but at least the monster was gone. Everything felt more balanced, and if the water was a little murkier, so be it. The sky was a little darker, but that was okay. At least he had balance.

“Balance,” he said aloud, like a question for the air. The word rolled around in his mouth and stuck to his lips, like a bit of glue that clung to the end of his finger and refused to be shaken off. It was such a curious concept.

He went back to his room, and never mind eating, he could do that later. Right now, he needed sleep, and it obliged him. He dreamt in blurs that only he could decipher, strange tastes and smells flavouring the scene, and somewhere there was a hole, a hole that he poured gallons of paint into but never managed to fill. He could see the colours glinting down there, like coins in the bottom of a wishing well, but the level never rose. There were more swirls, more hues and where the colours had mixed the edges had turned sick, but no matter how much he poured in, the volume stayed the same. Only the quality ever really seemed to change.

It was still dark when he woke up, the stale taste of night coating his tongue and the fine hairs around his ears and neck plastered to his head with sweat. His eyes were wide in the darkness, wider than a child’s. “Balance,” he breathed again, this time a revelation. “Balance,” he murmured, and rolled over to bury himself against the pillow, his eyelashes fluttering shut and settling against his pale cheeks.

A few days of shading and colouring later, he sat down with the stranger and the woman for a long conversation, determined that they should all be on the same page if his vision was to succeed.

“Vincent,” he said to the stranger, “why wouldn’t you put your arm around her?”

The voice that came back to him was rough and hoarse, grinding against the vocal chords before crumbling into the air. “She walks behind me,” the stranger told him. “How can I hold her if she’s walking behind me?”

And unfortunately that made sense, so Van Gogh massaged the bridge of his nose before turning to the woman, hoping she would be more helpful and less opinionated.

“Give him your arm,” he instructed, placing her where he wanted her. She only nodded, slipping her arm through the stranger’s, their dark frocks overlapping and mingling.

“You can’t fade too much, though,” he muttered, and they both had the sense not to speak. His brow furrowed in concentration, the brush shaking in his hands, but a few moments later the woman had a cloak.

“There.” He was satisfied, for now. She would walk behind him, but she had her own place. She didn’t need to be a shadow. There were more than enough shadows everywhere else.

The boats were docked, and the water moved. The houses were dark, but the lanterns were lit, and the sky shined. He was content for a few days, adding only small bites of paint here and there, determined that the details should be perfect. Nothing less than perfect.

He started to despair, though, that his perfection would fail to be expressed truly uninhibited when he woke up one morning to find the stranger sick. He’d pulled away from the woman, crossed in front of her in fact, and he was leaning heavily against one side of his frame, his hat hanging by his side and his forehead covered with a sheen of exertion. The woman stood by quietly, hands distractingly empty, when they should have held something out to him, or rested on his shoulder, or at least folded together, if she hadn’t the consideration to do anything else.

Needless to say, Van Gogh was not pleased. “Vincent,” he thundered, “why have you deserted your post? We discussed this. We talked about this. And yet you stand hunched in the corner like a coward. Explain.”

He couldn’t explain, though, or wouldn’t, he just shook his head, breathing too hard, with one hand pressed tight against his gut. He was absolutely infuriating. And the woman watched, helpless to assist, eyes wild and beseeching, wide in a silent prayer.

"Are you a man?" Van Gogh snarled at the stranger, and the painted figure's eyes stretched open, bloodshot and red-rimmed.

"Of course I'm a man," he told Van Gogh in his rusty, underused voice. "The trick is that so are you."

The painter had been about to sneer again, but he stopped short, disconcerted by this last comment. He rocked back on his heels, one finger tracing the soft curve of his lips in thought, his eyes glassy and unfocused. The man and the woman waited, the only sound in the room the man's ragged breathing. Finally, Van Gogh spoke again, and his tone left no room for questioning. This was his painting, and it would be as he decreed.

"Stand back up," he commanded, and the stranger glared at him from under his wide-brimmed hat, but silently complied. He didn't look the same as he had before, though, and Van Gogh gave a shout of frustration. Everything was lopsided now. The stranger was slouching where before he’d stood strong, and the woman was holding him up instead of leaning against him. They wouldn’t move anymore, though, no matter how much he shouted at them, and eventually he threw down his brush in disgust and walked away.

He stayed away for days before he would deign to even look at the canvas again, and every day that he walked by without so much as a glance, the stranger and the woman shivered a little from the strength of the ice in his eyes. Finally, though, he returned, having tumbled into the house at witching hour, weaving wherever he walked and mumbling nonsense under his breath. His hands shook when he held a match to the candles scattered about the room, but when he picked up his brush they were still, not a tremor touching his fingers.

Fog and light competed in his eyes, the haze of vision matched by the crazed glimmer of desperation, and the scent of the Rhone clung to his shabby coat and worn shoes. He spoke to the woman and the stranger as he worked, no longer demanding, no longer questioning, just sharing whatever came to mind and laughing at their bemused expressions. The water started to fall behind them, and he put out the candles so that the starlight could shine, the strokes coming faster and faster and the stranger and the woman shifting uncomfortably from foot to foot at this change in circumstance. They exchanged wary glances, nodding when Van Gogh spoke to them, moving in a way they hoped would please him, and glancing behind them now and then at the scene that had finally washed up from the shore.

Van Gogh fell asleep with his brush still in hand, unaware of the finished painting sitting within arm’s reach. He slumped over in his chair, still mumbling, reeking of drink and the river he’d poured into his art. The sun hit the window, showering through the glass and brushing over the room and its occupant, and when it touched the woman and the stranger they stirred, having fallen asleep hours before, waiting for Van Gogh to finish.

“Vincent,” the woman whispered, holding him tightly, “are you ready?”

“Yes,” he said hoarsely. “I think we’re ready.”

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