The Man Who Paints in the Garden
Alice Hathaway is a writer from Massachusetts currently studying for an undergraduate degree at Royal Holloway University of London. She loves to write historical fiction, fantasy, and speculative stories about incredible women and the women they love. When she's not writing, she spends her time napping with her dogs, playing the piano, or trying to bake something that might get the "Paul Hollywood handshake".
There is a man who paints in the garden. I watch him from my window, through the rough linen they hang before the glass, past the latch they padlock closed so we cannot jump. He is made of color: his pumpkin-orange hair reflecting the sunlight, his feather-blue eyes flicking back and forth, the wood-brown of his worn coat hanging from his shoulders like he barely knows it’s there. The palette knife glints the hollow rays of sun, flashing like a signal to me.
I think I will go speak to him.
The walled gardens are full of blooms this time of year. The roses are open wide like little mouths, singing out a glorious smell. The trees curl and sway in the sweet breeze, white petals floating down like snow.
I don’t want to think about where I was when it snowed. Those memories make me cold, and I want to be warm now.
“You are a watcher, like me,” he says. He does not turn around—he could be talking to anyone, but I know he’s talking to me.
I’m still standing in the doorway, the wind tugging at my ill-fitting dress, too tight on my arms and too short. The matron told me if I was to act like a child, I must dress like one.
“Your voice sounds like a windmill in the water,” I say back to him. It is true. The words slosh down his throat as grass clogged currents in the woodwork, stones clattering through the paddles, the axle-joint groaning like an old man who cannot get out of bed.
“I do not work with sound,” he says. “What do you see?”
“Your hair is the color of pumpkins,” I say.
“The color of carrots.”
“You like to eat."
“Yes, who doesn't?"
“What about the color of the rye fields as the sun is setting?”
“That is many colors.”
“So is the carrot.”
I don't understand him. “Why are you here?” I ask.
He turns to face me. “My colors were becoming muddied,” he answers.
The side of his head is a misshapen scar.
“You've cut off your ear,” I say.
“I see you haven’t.”
I step away from the building, into the chill air of the new season. My bare feet tingle at the sensation of the rough gravel. It’s been so long since I’ve felt real ground. I haven’t left the hospital in four years, since they planted the new cherry tree.
“I’ve been here a long time,” I say.
“I like it here,” he says. “I can see my colors again.”
“You are strange,” I say. “But what else is there to expect from a painter?”
“Yes.” He looks me over quickly. “Will you stand for me?”
“You want to paint me?”
“None will model for me.”
“They do not trust me.”
“And why should I?”
“Who am I to say why you should or should not?”
I regard him a moment longer. He blinks slowly in the sunlight, like a cat.
“Alright. You can paint me,” I say. I go and stand before the almond tree, my limp, dirty robe tightening around me. “I don’t like to be looked at.”
“I will try not to,” he says and begins rifling about his box of paints, pulling out creased, tin tubes and crusted brushes. “What color are you?”
I think of the dusty walls of my room, the square of pure white where they took my mirror away. “Gray.”
“Yes,” he agrees. “Tell me some things that are gray.”
“Rocks,” I say. “Overcast skies.”
“Pearls,” he says.
“Metal,” I say.
“Eyes?” I ask.
“Your eyes are gray.”
“Then I think I shall gouge them out.” I cross my arms. “I hate the color gray.”
“Then you won’t be able to see,” he said. “And you are a watcher like me.”
He begins slathering paint onto the canvas with thoughtful fervor.
“Will you paint me gray?”
“I will paint what I see.”
I dig my fingers into the tearing seam of my sleeve.
“I came to Saint Remy’s when I was eleven.” I look around the garden, noticing the emerald moss creeping up the stone walls, the seedy yellow of the tree branches healing. “I am one and twenty now.”
“I have not been here so long,” he says. “You did not cut off your ear. Why did they send you?”
“The blood came from between my legs. They say I shouldn’t mention it to men, but—” My laugh is strangled and tired. "We’re all mad here.”
“Yes," he said. He blinks slowly again, waiting for me to go on.
“It was so long ago… My uncle, he said I was a woman. He was going to teach me what it meant to be a woman. I remember thinking that I’d rather be a man." I gaze at my hands. The guilt has long since washed from the lines of my skin. "The doctor tells me I flew into hysterics, into a violent rage, and stabbed him in the left lung with my potato knife.”
“The doctor tells me I may leave soon,” he says.
“I will never leave,” I say.
“I am getting better. Why aren’t you?”
“Because I am broken,” I say.
He picks up a new color. I squint, trying to see what it is.
“No.” He dabs onto the canvas. “You cannot leave because they are trying to fix what is not broken.”
We are called in for supper. He says I must meet him tomorrow, in the same place. To finish the painting. I do not sit by him in the dining hall but watch him over sagging shoulders and shaking heads as he drinks, deeply, like a man who may never drink again. The air is filled with moans and mutters. Sometimes the nurses joke that Saint Remy’s is not an asylum, but a graveyard.
It is filled with ghosts.
I tell the doctor in the morning what the painter told me. I sit on the bleach white linens, my nails curled into the close-knit threads.
“I am not broken,” I say. “You cannot fix me.”
The doctor, he is a young man, young and foolish and filled with dead ideas. He adjusts his round spectacles.
“Why would you say such a thing?” he asks. “Of course you are.”
“The man in the garden told me so.”
“The man in the garden?” The doctor laughs. “That man is unstable. He cut off his own ear and mailed it to a working girl he had a liking for. You’d best stay away from him.”
I shake my head. “No. He is kind to me.”
The doctor comes closer. He smells like milk. “Think harder on that. Why would a man like him be kind to a girl like you?”
I begin to shake. “No. No!”
He calls for the matron. She holds me down as he gives me a dose of laudanum, black poison down my throat. I choke.
“I am not broken. You cannot fix me.”
He laughs, muted behind the haze creeping into my ears, my body whole. “You are a yellow wretch who has lost her mind.”
I do not go to the painter that day. I watch him from my window, as he paints the almond tree. The darkness feels like blood in my eyes. I beat at the window like a trapped bird.
But I would not fly. I would fall.
I would not be gray for the painter anymore if I fell. I would be red from shattered bones.
I go to him the next day when the blood has cleared from my eyes.
“The doctor says you sent your ear to your doxy.”
“No,” he says. “I did not.”
“What did you do with it?”
“I sent it to her maid.”
He pauses, uncertain, a cloud on the brink of rain. “I do not remember,” he says.
“I remember everything,” I say.
“I lived on a farm with sheep. I would sleep on top of the mothers with the lambs in spring. This time of year.”
“You come from the country. Will you go back there?”
“The doctors say that I am still broken. I cannot leave.”
“It is strange,” he says. “What they choose to see.”
“It is because I am a woman,” I say. “I am forever unwhole.”
“But we are all just colors,” he says.
“I am the wrong color.”
He says nothing.
“I am glad that they help you,” I say.
“You are not jealous.” He speaks the question as a statement.
“I have been here too long to be jealous.” I stare at my feet, brown, white where I had been scratching them. “Lost too many friends to good health.”
“I think you must lose me too. I am getting better.”
“That is good. You only have one ear left.”
This makes him laugh, and I smile. The sunlight on my skin finally seeps in, flooding my veins.
“What color are you today?” he asks.
I hold my hand before my face. “I shall try reality. Today, I am brown.”
“Like trees,” he says.
“Like mud,” I say.
“Like a hawk.”
“Like a bear,” I say. “A ferocious bear.”
“You are not the color of decay,” he says. “Tell me something beautiful.”
He laughs again and it is the sound of rainwater hitting a still pond. “You are back to food.”
“What else is there to do here but eat and watch?”
He holds up his brush by way of answer.
“I don’t think I have to be beautiful,” I say.
“No,” he says. “You do not. But you are.”
I don’t see it.”
“It takes time to see,” he says. His voice lowers. “Sometimes, I still do not see.”
“None of us see when we close our eyes.”
“We dream,” he says.
I hang the painting in the parlor. My child laughs that I call it by that name.
“It is the sitting room and the kitchen and the stairwell,” she says.
“Why can’t it be them all at once?” I say.
She goes quiet at that. My daughter of many colors likes to think. I see the sunflower-yellow pass over her eyelids when she stops and stares, the green of oceans trickle down her arms when she dances. I found her in a puddle the day they let me leave St. Remy’s, with mud in her eyes. Crying and crying. I cleared the mud away first, so she could see. She is a watcher like me.
Then I brought her back home with me.
Now, she goes out into the day.
I sit and gaze at my painting. He was right—I was not broken.
It is a painting of my face, my gray eyes turned up in wonder and brown skin awash in light. My blush is pink and yellow, my teeth blue, my lips red.
He was right—I am many colors.
I heard he died, that he killed himself. Shot himself with a pistol. Sometimes, he could not see.
When we close our eyes, we dream.
He was right—we are all made of colors.