Artists Hill

By Djelloul Marbrook

If there is anything of Salome in a woman, Bo believes something hapless in him will call it out. He’s the ideal witness to a woman’s bad behavior. And that’s why chagrin rises like vomit to his mouth when he stands on the ridge overlooking the south plat of the cemetery one September dawn and sees Wraithe, her bronze hair on fire, dancing naked among the stones. He kneels in a triad of arbor vitae. Too fast to be a pavane, too romantic to be modern, her choreography is perfect. She has done it often. When she’s finished she sits cross-legged before the lichened stone cross of Flossie Wattrous de Graaf, 1899 to 1928, pours something from a homely decanter into a glass, sips and enters upon a conversation, speaking animatedly, nodding when addressed, gesticulating. Then she rises, picks up a towel, drapes it over her right shoulder and knots it loosely above her opposite hip, and departs, talking to her companion. A priest elevating the sacred host at mass might as well be a porter compared to the sacred and feral scene he has witnessed. His left leg feels reinforced by a rod when he tries to rise. He shivers and is unamused. Wraithe has the kind of body his mother, Ulrike, paints. Capable like a dolphin’s, not lithe. He can’t even begin to address the companionability of what he saw, not until his unwitting blood sets. Then he gets up and draws closer, taking cover behind more arbor vitae. If the girl were beautiful, would it be trite? If she were not, would it be compelling? Wraithe doesn’t wish to be beautiful, but she can’t banish her looks.

When he was young his doodling consisted of catenaries resembling comet tails, scimitars, contrails

He has studied the gravestones here. He’s noticed the cross marking where Flossie Wattrous de Graaf lies. He goes to it now and is unable to shake the odd sense that Flossie isn’t there, has left with Wraithe. The two Dutch women have gone hand-in-hand for a walk in the dripping wood. A sense of emptiness envelops him. He walks over to Peter Hammer’s stone next to Flossie. Here there’s no emptiness. Peter Hammer lies there at his feet. He walks back to Flossie’s stone and once again he feels bereft.

He makes inquiries about Wraithe. She appeared six years ago. The town board discussed her. The county human services department was consulted. The police declared her harmless, but pressure for her removal built until Police Chief Evan Sanders stood up before the town board and said, “If you’re going to get rid of her, why not the junkies?” She at least was sober, if mad. But she continues to have her detractors — cluckers, Sanders calls them — because she’s indigent. So are the longhairs on the village green, and near to indigence most of the artists, writers and musicians. The young cops are offended by her enemies. Why pick on her in a town of authorized loonies? These pony-tailed cops are a far cry from the high-school bullies he remembers. He takes to leaving food in the crook of her oak. He wraps it in plastic bags stowed in a big nickel-plated kettle from the hotel. He leaves her some silverware in deference to her obvious education. He watches from his evergreen blind as she sits at various stones, eating ceremoniously, chatting, feeding cats, squirrels and birds. This gives him more pleasure than anything since he at age eight filched food from the boarding school pantry and took it to eat in his bullbriar hideout, talking earnestly with his invisible companion and advisor, Amir. This girl reminds him of that nameless bullbriar boy and his friend Amir. God knows he needed a friend in that genteel hell. Yes, and God gave him a stepfather, Sandro, and now Sandro is gone like everyone else on this hill, except for Wraithe and maybe himself — and Flossie.

The autistic need to control their environment, to touch the world only on their terms, these matters he understands. There’s little difference between him and Wraithe. They have broken down on their own terms and must mend in the same way. He touches the jagged scars in his head. The only touch he ever trusted was that of Navy doctors and nurses. How can you yearn for touch and yet not wish to be touched? Bo knows.

So compulsive is his doodling, as he calls it, he’d hardly miss a notebook and he doesn’t miss one of the sketchbooks he leaves in his blind on the hill. When he was young his doodling consisted of catenaries resembling comet tails, scimitars, contrails. Not surprising in a merchant marine navigator familiar with great circles, but he’d probably agree if it were pointed out to him that these early doodads were redolent of the Russian constructivists. He might even have agreed they derived of his need to stand clear of people. But his many visits to the Netherlands — he knows every buoy and bell and light in the Nieuwe Maas — drew him inevitably to traditional draftsmanship. He spent many hours sketching in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. He has no idea to this day his work has been admired by talented peers looking over his shoulder in museums around the world. He’s devoid of aspiration. He merely wishes he could draw. He can’t think of a more enviable skill. He wonders from time to time if he’d have nerve enough to enroll in art classes, but these reveries are always burgled by remembering the day he showed Ulrike some drawings when he was fourteen. “Oh dear, I’m afraid you’re a klutz. But it’s all right, maybe God has given you other skills.”

With no particular thought in his head, except perhaps for a New Jersey lawyer who seems to be diddling Ulrike out of some of her late husband’s Hart’s stock, he carries egg salad up the hill one morning to find Wraithe bejeweled with six or seven rectangular plaques that catch the sun as they turn in a light breeze. They’re clear plastic sandwiches with holes drilled at one end so they can be worn as pendants. He’s seen art on paper sandwiched this way. Wraithe turns slowly like a dervish in a trance. Then a piece of paper falls from one of the plaques. She doesn’t see it. Her eyes are closed. He picks it up. Others have seen his drawings, but no one honored him with an exhibition, especially not on a crystalline morning in a cemetery. Wraithe moves away, down a gentle slope towards the della Robbia, wearing the contents of his lost notebook. He sets his plastic bowl of egg salad and rolls in the crook of her tree and grins broadly with an inspiration. He takes out a little note pad and writes:

I’m quite enamored of your drawings. Please call me.

Clement Greenberg.

He adds Ulrike’s number. Not that he can imagine the famous critic being enamored of anything that doesn’t affirm his presuppositions. He puts his note and the fallen sketch under the bowl and leaves.

That night, as he sets out on his rpatrol, Wraithe breaks off her conversation with some shamanic drummers to shake her tambourine at him from across the street. He’s already passed her when he realizes she’s given him a smile certain artists would foreshorten their lives to paint — a girl he’s never seen smile.

They intrude on each other’s privacy, spy each other out, and yet hardly speak.

Two days later she introduces him to Theodora Wattrous de Graaf, 1884 to 1926. Will-o’-the-wisps wink around Brathwaite’s shrine as they sit at Theodora’s stone.

“She killed her husband because he was molesting Flossie, their daughter. Then they found Theodora guilty and killed her. She would like you to draw her and Flossie.”

“How did Flossie die?”

“You’ll see.”

“You talk to the others, Wraithe?”

“Some of them.” She adds, “You can. Kurt Meissner over there-he was famous, you know — says you’re wonderful. He’ll help you if you let him.”

Wonderful? He shivers in the critical acclaim. He knows the sculptor Meissner’s work and admires it.

“I have very strong feelings about bending children out of shape. My feelings might get in the way.”

“Flossie knows that. She told me she’d like to be your lover. She’s very pretty. She made a bad marriage. She was very unhappy. She died of sorrow.”

“Any marriage would’ve been tough, don’t you think.”

Wraithe looks solemnly at him until he sees she apprehended before he did that they are, all of them, children of abuse. Then she turns towards Flossie and says, “She says that’s true.”

He follows her gaze, hoping to see Flossie. “Flossie can’t be my lover now, can she?”

“I’ll show you how.”

“That would be a menage a trois,” he says and smiles.

Wraithe’s eyes, not her mouth, smiles. “Oh no, I’m like a concierge.”

If your life has been in the hands of an unwilling parent, you probably either babble to fill the void, which you fear is disapproval, or you emulate the parent. Early on he babbled, but when his stepfather Sandro, appreciating that Ulrike had nothing to say, and pursuing his own mythology about the demeanor appropriate to a Saracen — Bo being Arab on his father’s side — began to muffle the boy’s mouth with a huge hand and a wry expression, Bo launched upon his lifelong compulsion towards silence. More than any other gesture, he remembers Sandro’s and even now feels the love in it.

He sits and waits.

“Flossie never wanted any man to touch her. That’s why she wants you to draw her naked.”

Does this make sense? He shakes off the question. What does make sense? It’s not his ignorance of how to draw Flossie — perhaps like a forensic artist he can draw her from Wraithe’s mind — it’s her use of the word naked that possesses him. Or is it Flossie’s?

“I’ve never sketched a nude.”

“Just sit and wait. You’ll see her.”

He fetches chalk, charcoals and pencils and sets them out on the grass. He opens a sketchbook and shuts his eyes. He feels the sun climb his back, breathe on his neck and overflow onto Flossie’s cross. At first he’s conscious of Wraithe’s presence, but by the time his hand moves he’s unaware of her. Within the hour he has drawn a tall, angular woman in her early thirties. Her long face is unutterably sad. She wears a transparent calf-length dress. Her neck rises like a lily stem from ruffled lace. He has used chalk and charcoal, not opening his eyes to tell their colors. She reminds him of someone, but he can’t remember. He finds he’s drawn her with blue chalk and charcoal. The line delineating her lips from adjacent flesh is as sensual as a Mongol bow. He knows from experience this delineation is telling, one of those details on which a drawing, but not necessarily a painting, depends. Her eyes stare straight at him, an effect he doesn’t believe he could have gotten if his own had been open. They disturb him. They belong to someone else he knows, but who? She is blonde. He can tell that as clearly as you can in some old black and white movies, and wisps of her hair stand in the air. She has the prominent nose of that memorable Dutch girl at the church fair, and he imagines her skating on the Rondout, hands in a beaver muff, easily taken for haughty if you did not savor the honesty of her face.

He’s drowning in nostalgia for this face. He must come home to this face; he has been at home with it. He tries to lift the page, but his hand trembles too much. Flossie Wattrous de Graaf looks straight at him. He shifts the sketchbook one way and then another. Impossibly she keeps on looking at him. Hungry. Wisps of her hair curl at her temples. Her pubic hair is long and silvery. He knows. Her exquisite fingers cover her right nipple, and her other arm extends downward in an elegant curve. But this isn’t what he’s drawn, it’s what he’ll go on drawing. He’s barely breathing.

I’d give anything to have her. He must say this to Wraithe. But he knows her answer. You have. Have her? Given anything? He turns and finds Wraithe sitting cross-legged behind about five yards off, her eyes closed and nodding. He’s concerned for her: isn’t this like finding your sister in bed with your lover? He gets up and shows her the drawing.

“Flossie is my dearest friend. I would do anything for her.”

He nods gratefully. He can’t think of a thing for which he’s been more grateful.

“Now you’re not entirely among the dead,” she says.

He furrows his brow.

“This is death — what you think is life. They’ve gone on to live, to reflect, to be everything they couldn’t be here. If you draw them, the ones Flossie tells you to draw, they will be your real friends for the rest of your life. Your death, I mean.”

“Will Flossie speak to me?”

“When she’s ready.”

“Do you want this, Wraithe, for Flossie, I mean?”

“Oh no, she’s your lover.”

A collector of clutter who discards people profligately, Ulrike is unnerved by the stowed and battened ways of her stranger son. She lurches from room to room pursued by death, seizing the humblest item he leaves about, and one morning it’s Flossie Wattrous de Graaf. Bo comes upon her in his room. She trembles violently as she holds Flossie’s sketch to the sunlight. He’s seen men do that when they’ve picked up hot wires. He turns and leaves.

All that day, under pretense of errand, he searches the pictorial archives of the Quarry County Historical Society. In two hours he’s found de Graafs and Wattrouses. Indeed their patronymic connections look like a road map of the county. He leaves off to amuse himself by leafing through the foxed pages of the defunct Quarry Telegraph. Please! he says aloud when he spots Flossie de Graaf, her left arm above her head, holding the lintel of an arbor:

Miss Flossie Wattrous de Graaf, valedictorian of the class
of 1909, Clearwater Women’s College.

He’ll always wonder why he said that word. Please stop this? Please let me wake up?

It’s the young woman he’s drawn, beyond any possible doubt. Younger, fragrant: the scent of lilac rises from the browning page. His breath comes hard. He feels sweat quit his temples and run down the back of his jaw. Her pose is wrong for its time. It’s not demure, it’s bravura. What is she looking forward to? She has already suffered grievous wrong. Is this a pose? Her thin, hooked nose is so poignant to him that tears start from his eyes. He drifts in a night sea of intimacy and loss. He’s swamped by his urgent need to give everything that has ever caused him to wonder to this girl. His desire for that and for her chokes him.

It takes all the charm he can muster to persuade the tidy archivist to let him copy the crumbling page.

His bones hurt when he compares the newsprint image to his sketch: the suppleness, the fey disorder of her hair, the ghostliness of her eyes all match impeccably. Eyes are often shadowed in old photographs, especially in newsprint reproductions, but Flossie’s are just as he drew them. Few men would be themselves in that gaze. Right on, Flossie, he thinks. She was — is — a towhead. The hair of her forearms and thighs — and her buttocks — must have to the eyes of a lover looked like winter wheat in Canadian light. He imagines himself the sun drowning in her navel. If she weren’t so alive to him, he’d give up to desperate mourning.

Dream by dream, Flossie comes to him. By day he pits his confusion against a growing sense of fulfillment. He has three sketchbooks filled with her images. The first book is conventional. He’s studying her face and torso. The next two books are different. They startle him when he’s finished. He’s pictured her riding her bike, parking it, undressing at the brook, sleeping, preparing vegetables, gardening in front of a big stone house. That’s it, the house. He goes into Bluestone and digs out old real estate books, the kind in which they used to put drawings of famous properties in bound editions. After two days searching in the basement of the county library, he finds it: De Graaf House, Holly Hill, overlooking the Hudson. It shocks him to touch his own hair, he’s so electrified by this find.

On his way to the library to find a picture of a bike of her period a compulsion to speak to her seizes him.

“I want to tell you the meaning of the twenty-six parts of my bicycle brake, Flossie. I had them all laid out on the floor of the garage so I’d remember how to reassemble them. I was oiling them, trying to see how they worked together. It was a wonderful game. I was lost in it. I was eleven years old. Ulrike came in and got hysterical. She was so mad she started to throw tools around. I had a pretty logical mind, so I started to worry that if she mixed up the way I laid out the brake disks and other parts I wouldn’t know how to put the bike back together. Then she started hitting me with a grass whip. I had the kind of mind that wondered why the grass whip, why not a broom or the bike’s fender. So while I fended her off I chuckled inside me because I knew how blunt the damn thing was. But do you know why she was pissed? No, not pissed. Panicked. It was because she saw her whole summer going down the tube. Jesus, it’s taken me forty-one years to figure it out. It wasn’t a metaphysical problem. It wasn’t psychological. It was practical. It wouldn’t have occurred to me that gods worry about logistics. Only little jerk-offs like me did. See, everything depended on me, this eleven-year-old kid. I did all the shopping, everything. On that used bike. The whole operation depended on me all summer long, and I didn’t get it. The only exception was the booze. Sandro brought that on the bus every Saturday morning, because it was so important. She kept hitting me with that grass whip until she realized it wasn’t doing much good. Then she snatched the bike chain and lashed it around my head and pulled. It was like a chain wrench. It nearly tore my face off. I had to kick her. She hurt me so bad I could hardly think straight to put the bike together again. Blood kept getting in my eyes and I was shivering. When I finally got the bike together and working I had three brake disks left. I still don’t know why, but I put them in Ulrike’s jewelry box. They’re probably still there. She keeps everything she buys, even food.”

Snot and bitterness explode from him. He weeps until he retches and has to stop and hide under some willows near the library. He throws up and is so startled by it that he starts to run. When he stops he looks at Flossie’s picture again and says, “Nothing’s as lonely as vomiting and eyes are never bluer than when rendered in black and white.”

Flossie’s look heals him.

“If I ever had a boy I’d tell him what depended on him.”

He sees agreement take shape in Flossie’s eyes and he begins to grope for the shape of a thought — it’s more like trying to shape water. Every time he urges his bone-aching desire for Flossie toward regret, contentment settles in his bones. To wish her alive, he begins to think, would be less than this, whatever this is. To suffer, to be battered and betrayed by those you love, those who should have loved you, and then, by main strength, to break the cycle, to refuse to repeat the crime, is not to free yourself of ghosts but to be one, to live among them, and then at last to see that many whom you’d supposed to live are neither dead nor alive. The dead are not lost. Can the lost die?

“Is this true, Flossie?”

His hand skips and races until Flossie’s eyes light and she smiles.

“Do only the discontented haunt, Flossie? No, I think not.”

The most difficult thing he’s ever learned to do is wait until the truth of something catches up with his gut. No truth given or earned is of any use till then.

So now his childhood knowledge of the cemetery as a resting place mends the broken circuit of his life: he can be, he is what that observant boy was, and this he owes to a mad girl who lives in a tree.

“No, this I owe to me, dear, dearest Flossie Wattrous de Graaf.”

His desires clamor. He can’t stop drawing her. He can’t see, it’s veiled to him, that he’s used color, not much, blue at first, then a few others. He wants to desecrate this place with his doubts, but deference prevails. It’s a done deal. He must go on drawing her until something happens. This man who has never been afflicted by the impendingness of things waits breathlessly.

Flossie Wattrous de Graaf sleeps beside Theodora, her protecting mother. Where will he sleep? Not at Woodlawn. No, he wouldn’t rest well there. He and Sandro did not come to a good parting. Artists Hill? With Hart and Ulrike? That Flossie is there too troubles him, and he walks faster to get away from his thought.

He now knows that Evert de Graaf, Flossie’s father, was a highly respected judge. Theodora Wattrous graduated from Vassar with a degree in biology. Why were they buried on Artists Hill in Echo Tarn and not in Bluestone overlooking the Hudson? He’d found the Honorable Evert de Graaf’s resting place. It was a family mausoleum in Bluestone.

The microfilmed records of The Bluestone Patriot reveal little. Flossie is married to Jonathan Ross Waverley when Theodora shoots Evert. Had she just discovered the molestations? Could they possibly have continued after the marriage? Flossie has no children, and she’s buried eight miles away under her maiden name. She died only two years after her mother was executed for a murder the reporter calls cold-blooded.

He searches the records of the Dutch Reformed Church. Evert is accorded the usual enrollment. Theodora and Flossie are banished.

He stuffs a small sketchbook into his jacket pocket and takes up his usual midnight watch in front of the hotel. The moon unrolls a silver carpet across Quarry Road to Artists Hill. He gets up and follows it like a dowser, not knowing where it will lead. It leads him to the half buried bluestone memorial to Kurt Meissner. Wraithe says you think I have work to do up here, he tells Meissner. Lead the way. He takes out his sketchbook and a pencil.

Captain Martin Shellenbarger, killed in the Ardennes in The Great War, materializes as he draws. He’s a thin-faced young man, not unlike the poet Arthur Rimbaud when he arrived in Paris to ruin Paul Verlaine. Martin Shellenbarger is somewhat walleyed, but his one steady eye is clear and penetrating.

He turns a page and begins to draw Elaine Witte, who died while he was a boy hereabouts. She’s oval-faced, eyes long and wary, buxom and lovely.

The moon offers enough light to sketch seven more faces.

He can’t find photographs of all of them in the Echo Tarn library or in Bluestone, but when he finds Martin Shellenbarger and Elaine Witte his fingers tremble so violently that he can’t turn pages. Martin stands beside a racing scull with three other young men at Yale University. They’ve just won a race. His hair falls down over his bad eye and he looks straight into the lens just as Bo drew him. Elaine is running after a badminton shuttlecock. The camera has caught the sunlight in her eyes. She is the woman she becomes in Bo’s sketch. Four other photographs match his grave-side drawings. His heart hurts. His mouth is parched.

To what purpose am I able to draw the dead? What kind of gift is it? Who owns it? Me, Wraithe, Kurt Meissner, Flossie?

He draws for several days but makes no further effort to authenticate his drawings.

He walks every which way and winds up always in the cemetery. He’s filled five sketchpads with the residents of Artists Hill. The October sun stands bolt red threatening the damp sleep of the Catskills until the darkness opens. He rises because he hears the sun thundering like sheet metal. He sits in the back of Hart’s cottage watching the sun lift out of the Hudson, sore and demanding. He draws the tree line, a doe nibbling elderberry, the gravel pile. Then one day he walks down to Gaia’s Art Supply and buys dry colors, at first chalks, then crayons. Finally he buys that most unruly of media, watercolor.

He’s painting Flossie on the hill when Ulrike Theiss dies of a massive stroke.

Bo thinks of Anders Ootwaert’s tools. Would they still be in the little shed in the woods beside the old cottage Sandro bought in 1945? If so, he wants them.

In the shed, as he pulls the old farmer’s tools out from behind broken mirrors, sashes and bedsteads. he thinks of Rudyard Kipling’s poem, If. Lottie Donovan at boarding school made him memorize it after Johnny McKewn gave him a shiner. He memorized it and then trudged down to the McKewn’s Kozy Korner tavern and asked Mr. McKewn if he could see Johnny. Johnny, yer friend from the school is here, Mr. McKewn called to his son. Johnny appeared smirking and Bo decked him. Just like that. Then he stood there waiting for the boy to get up. That’ll be enough, Mr. McKewn said, and it was. Except for If. Two lines scull in from the mist:

[If you can] watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ‘em up with worn-out tools…

What had he given his heart to? Nothing. And yet now he can see that he gave his heart to be loved by Ulrike. He stoops and picks up Ootwaert’s tools. He notices some words scorched into the haft of the hoe: Whatever you set your heart on becomes a mirage.

The wind rattles the poplars. Chipmunks scamper in and out of their stone-fence dens. The huge oak he climbed as a boy to see the town two miles away complains arthritically in the wind. What has become a mirage? A red-shouldered hawk stoops. He set his heart on Ulrike liking him, if not when he was young, then in their old age. Not love, complicated and unreliable, but liking. He takes the measure and weight of Anders Ootwaert’s hoe as if it were a weapon, and he nods.

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About Djelloul Marbrook

Djelloul Marbrook's book of poems, Far from Algiers, was selected by Prof. Toi Derricotte of the University of Pittsburgh faculty for the 2007 Stan and Tom Wick Prize and will be published by Kent State University Press in the fall of 2008. He is a retired newspaper editor, a U.S. Navy veteran, and a small-boat sailor. He lives with his wife Marilyn in the mid-Hudson Valley, 100 miles north of New York City.

4 Comments

  1. Posted November 2008 at 8:08 pm | Permalink

    Hi Djelloul-

    I enjoyed your story. Congratulations on your publication. Thanks for sending me the link.

    Gloria Mindock
    Cervena Barva Press

  2. Margaret
    Posted September 2009 at 12:57 am | Permalink

    Wonderful story. It unfolds like a dream that I might have partly known, but couldn’t or didn’t know all the parts of it, or how it continued or ended. It rings true and makes sense, even though I know it would be fantastic to most. It clothes an ethereal dream and feeling-thoughts with solidity that others would find unreal and impossible to grasp. I think if I fell asleep thinking about it, more of it would unfold, but I wouldn’t get to remember it long after awakening.

    I had to memorize “If,” too.

    Thanks.

  3. Posted January 2013 at 9:11 pm | Permalink

    Amazing. Strange. Deeply felt. Moving. Sensually precise. Memorable.

    Thank you, Djelloul,

    Kaaren

  4. Posted January 2013 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    Thank you, Kaaren. I treasure your remarks.

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