Mary Cassatt lifted two shallow crates of assorted brushes, pigments, palettes, and scraping knives, and set them atop the paint-smeared table shoved under the arched, north-facing windows of her untidy studio. Someone less stubborn than she might have packed up years ago, but she liked to have her tools out and ready, as if at any moment she might turn and begin again, though she had not painted today and would not paint tomorrow and had not painted in some years, the scourge of the continuing betrayal of her eyesight, which she feared had become nearly as bad as his at the end. And then there was the pesky matter of confidence, which she'd discovered, to her disappointment, had not solidified over the years as her younger self had expected and instead had revealed itself to be an emotion that was more ruse than intention. The truth was that there was very little she could control anymore, except this one last thing, which made her feel very old.
She turned in a circle, suppressing the unfamiliar swell of panic rising in her throat, an emotion to her so exotic that she wondered how other people—those who yielded daily to weakness or fear—coped.
Oh, where was the damn thing?
She was certain she'd hidden the box among the blank canvasses and tin water cans, where no one, not even a sly model bent on discovery, would have guessed she'd secreted the prize. But she was not as keen as she had once been and now feared that both her eyesight and her memory may have double-crossed her. Had she, in a fit of sentiment, concealed it somewhere upstairs in her bedroom in order to keep it close? She dismissed the thought. She could not imagine herself committing such a romantic act.
Daily, light flooded the stone-floored glassed studio at the back of the Château de Beaufresne, but now the winter afternoon was fading and her eyes were succumbing to fatigue. Time evaporating. The doctors said she was to prepare herself, meaning, she supposed, that they wanted her to sell her remaining canvasses, attend to museum requests, visit relatives one last time—what people imagined had been her life. It mystified her that that was what they all thought was important to her. Of course she valued her work, and she had kept careful track as the prices for her paintings rose—prudence required such attention—but did they suppose that in touching brush to canvas she still tallied only coin and admiration?
The world blazes along with its critical tongue and shallow impatience, not understanding the moment, the breath, the seeing.
She adjusted her thick-lensed glasses. What a necessary bother they were. Such goggles, but it was true that if she had been a more careful housekeeper of her studio, she could find what she wanted in an instant. What detritus a life leaves. She would have to call Mathilde soon to help her if she couldn't find it. Look for shape, she scolded herself. The thing is not the thing. It is instead form and light. After all, what are faces but hollows and swells, spheres and lines? She had learned that very young. And now? She removed her glasses and wiped her watering eyes. Oh, to see as she once had. Some mornings upon waking, she indulges herself: Today I will paint the lace on the dress, finish the flowers in the background, and then concentrate on the way the sun plays on the girl's hair. And then she opens her eyes, and a milky scrim obscures even the bedposts.
Mary replaced her glasses and willed her blurring eyes to focus on the stockpile, scanning the jumble of brushes and palette knives and dismantled easels. Under this purposeful gaze, their forms sharpened and fell away and became the contour and outline she needed them to be. For half a century, she had shifted sight like this at will, though when she was young, when she was first beginning to paint, the effort had pained her. It is a way of thinking, her instructors had said. It is a way of being in the world.
And with that shift, the half-moon shape of the box revealed itself, protruding from under the edge of the tarpaulin. Kneeling, she felt its rounded edge and exhaled. Tucking it under her arm, she shuffled to the far end of the room where Mathilde had left the tea tray for her on the table by the hearth, as well as the magnifying glass she required.
Mary sank into the chair and opened the lid. It was the kind of box that harbors forgotten photographs or mismatched buttons, so ordinary that after her death they might have tossed it without checking the contents, but she couldn't take that chance. And besides, their curiosity had dogged her all her life and she would not let it dog her death. She was not sentimental, though people believed she was, seduced by the expressions she had rendered in her paintings. But she didn't know, really, what people thought of her. And she didn't care. Her work, like his, was all the legacy she cared to bequeath the world.
But she had kept these letters, as he had kept hers, though what they had been thinking, she couldn't imagine. Such recklessness. Private conversations should always remain private. Why should anyone know what they themselves had barely known? And even if something had once been committed to paper, did it mean that it was still true? Always true? Unlike the relative permanence of paint, words were temporal. You uttered them and they evanesced, but if you wrote them, they remained, though whether the written word was any more truthful than the spoken was a mystery to her. Only paint was honest. But even a painting could be wiped clean and refined. He was forever revising, stealing his paintings back to rework them, everything always unfinished with him.
She fingered the scalloped tendril of faded pink ribbon that bound the letters. She had chosen ribbon instead of string because it reminded her of his danseuse's bright sashes, their pink and green bows, lush and extravagant in their fullness. Somehow, he had made even the sashes seem to dance, though it was the dancers themselves he'd imbued with the verve that now enchanted all of Paris. Motion, captured. Later, after he had painted every position, rehearsal, ensemble, and pose, he began to paint women in the most unflattering way, as if to negate any vestige of the romance his ballet pictures had cultivated. He had been an uncompromising man, stubborn and ironic; hence ribbons, to goad as much as to honor.
At his funeral, she had wept (how could she not?), and even that reasonable grief—had they not been friends above all?—had fanned the old rumors. The whispers about their friendship—their romance, their affair, ask anyone in Paris, they all had an opinion—had not dampened after his death. Nine years now. She had helped to arrange the sale of all his paintings afterward. His studio had been crammed with work, though it seemed impossible since his blindness should have eliminated any further possibility of his working, as it had her. And yet, they had had to snake through stacks of canvasses and unfinished sculptures and wax castings, his collection of paintings by Ingres and Renoir crawling up his walls. He had died in those crowded rooms. Happy, Mary supposed now, even though in the end he couldn't see any of his art anymore. She knew–no, believed–that its mere proximity had soothed him, as these letters had soothed her all these years since.
They were all gone now: Pissarro, Manet, Morisot, Renoir. And him. Only Monet was still alive, wheezing with illness in his house in Giverny.
She would have arranged the sale of his work anyway, would have been as thorough and competent had not the search for these letters been her main priority. Half their correspondence. Her letters, which he, too, had kept in a box of old paints tucked into a corner, where no one could reach them, not even his niece, charged with caring for him when he could no longer stumble through the streets of Paris half-blind, searching for scenes to immortalize. Ever the flaneur, the boulevardier. They nestled now beside his in this box, his also tied with ribbon, though black, as if he had mourned her.
How unkind you have been to me these last months... .
She was ashamed now of all her terrible moods, though he should have been just as ashamed of his. He was equally to blame, though what she still didn't understand was whether there was room for love in two lives already consumed by passion of another sort. You would think she would know the answer by now. She had lived a long time, and yet wisdom, the wisdom everyone believed she possessed, flickered like the elusive flame of confidence, just out of reach. People intuit so much that is wrong. She would like to say, yes, we chose. Absolument. Just as we made decisions about the color of light or the tint of a pigment, we made a decision about our lives.
Would he have untied these ribbons now? Read the letters one after the other? Revive what they had let die?
Live the life again, and, in memory, alter it?
How brave was she?
The doctors said it was a certainty. As if her mortality had ever been in question, but perhaps they, too, had been seduced by her paintings: if she could create something so exquisite then perhaps she would live forever.
Unready, she turned away, lifted the teacup, discovered that the tea had gone cold, the day become night. She could hear Mathilde in the kitchen with the cook, preparing the dinner she would refuse and which refusal they would then report to the doctors and which the doctors would then lament, all of them assigning meaning to trifles.
The candle flared when she lit it with a match. She would not call Mathilde. No electricity for her—unnecessary when light, so long her friend, had turned its back on her. The night stretched before her, an old woman's night filled with memories to sift and a life to mediate. Tonight, she would paint once again, though only in her mind, would indulge imagination, though only once. Would believe what she'd scarcely been able to believe then.
Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt. All of Paris had whispered it, as they had whispered too about Édouard Manet and Berthe Morisot.
All of us keepers of secrets and yearnings and renunciations as impenetrable and ungovernable as the enduring desire to paint.
The ribbon refused to untie, knotted as it had been for a decade. She tore at it with her nails and then the first stack of letters spilled onto her lap and fanned across her dark skirt, great numbers of them, their edges crisp with age, years of quarrel and tenderness and recrimination bleeding into the vellum.
So many pages, you would think they had been in love.