Black Water Lilies

Black Water Lilies

Cover page

In memory of Jacky Lucas

With Monet, we don’t see the real world,

but we grasp its appearances.

—F. Robert-Kempf, L’Aurore, 1908

No! No! No black for Monet!

Black is not a color!

—Georges Clemenceau, at the foot of Claude Monet’s coffin (Michel de Decker, Claude Monet, 2009)

Author’s Note

In the following pages, the descriptions of Giverny are as exact as possible. The places exist, whether it’s the Hôtel Baudy, the Ru and the Epte, the Chennevières mill, the school in Giverny, the church of Sainte-Radegonde and its cemetery, Rue Claude Monet, the Chemin du Roy, Nettles Island, or, of course, Monet’s house and the water-lily pond. The same can be said of locations in the neighboring area, such as the museum in Vernon, the art museum in Rouen, the hamlet of Cocherel.

The information about Claude Monet’s life, his works, and his heirs is authentic. That is also the case for the other Impressionist painters mentioned, notably Theodore Robinson and Eugène Murer—however, the Robinson Foundation and the International Young Painters Challenge are my own invention.

The cited thefts of artworks come from real news stories.

All the rest, I have imagined.

Prologue

Three women lived in a village.

The first was mean, the second a liar, and the third an egotist.

Their village bore the pretty name of a garden. Giverny.

The first lived in a big mill on the banks of a stream, on the Chemin du Roy; the second occupied an attic flat above the school, on Rue Blanche Hoschedé-Monet; the third lived with her mother, in a little house with the paint flaking off the walls on Rue du Château d’Eau.

They weren’t the same age. Not at all. The first was over eighty, and a widow. Almost. The second was thirty-six and had never deceived her husband. Yet. The third was nearly eleven and all the boys in her school wanted her to be their girlfriend. The first dressed always in black, the second put on makeup for her lover, the third plaited her hair so that her tresses flew out behind her in the wind.

All three were quite different. But they had something in common, a secret. All three dreamed of leaving. Yes, of leaving Giverny, the famous village that compels swarms of people to travel across the entire world just to stroll in its gardens for a few hours. Because of the Impressionists.

The first woman, the oldest, owned a pretty painting; the second was interested in artists; the third, the youngest, was good at painting. Very good, in fact.

Many would find it strange, wanting to leave Giverny. But these three women viewed the village as a prison—a big, beautiful garden, but surrounded by a fence. Like the grounds of an asylum. A trompe-l’oeil. A painting from which you could not escape. The third woman, the youngest, was looking for a father. The second was looking for love. The first, the oldest one, knew certain things about the other two.

But once, for thirteen days, thirteen days only, the gates of the park were opened. The dates were very precise: from May 13 to May 25, 2010. But the rules were cruel—only one of them could escape. The other two would have to die. That was how it was.

Those thirteen days passed like a parenthesis in their lives. Too short. Cruel too. The parenthesis opened with a murder, on the first day, and finished with another, on the last day. Strangely, the police were only interested in the second woman, the most beautiful; the third, the most innocent, had to carry out her own investigation. The first, the most discreet, was left in peace to keep an eye on everyone. And to kill.

It lasted thirteen days. Long enough for an escape.

Three women lived in a village.

The third was the most intelligent, the second the most cunning, the first the most determined.

In your opinion, which one managed to escape?

The third, the youngest, was called Fanette Morelle; the second was called Stéphanie Dupain; the first, the oldest, that was me.

PICTURE ONE Impressions

DAY ONE May 13, 2010 (Giverny)

Assembly

1

The clear water of the stream is tinted pink, in small threads, like the fleeting pastel shades of water in which a paintbrush is being rinsed.

“Neptune, no!”

Farther down the stream the color is diluted and clings to the green of the weeds that hang from the banks, the ochre of the roots of the poplars, the willows. A subtle, faded shade…

I quite like it.

Except that the red does not come from the palette a painter has been cleaning in the river, but from the battered head of Jérôme Morval. The blood is escaping from a deep gash at the top of his skull, neat and clearly defined, washed clean by the Ru, a branch of the river Epte, in which his head is now immersed.

My German shepherd approaches, sniffs. I call him again, more firmly this time.

“Neptune, no! Come back!”

I suspect it won’t be long before the corpse is found. Even though it’s only six in the morning, someone out for a walk will pass by, or a painter, or a jogger, someone out collecting snails… they will discover the body.

I’m careful not to go any closer. I lean on my stick. The ground in front of me is muddy; there’s been a lot of rain the past few days, and the banks of the stream are soft. At eighty-four, I’m not really the right age to pretend I’m a water nymph, even in such a piffling stream less than a yard wide, and half of which used to be diverted to feed the pond in Monet’s gardens. (Apparently this is no longer the case—there is an underground pipe that feeds the lily pond these days.)

“Come on, Neptune. Let’s keep going.”

I lift my cane in his direction, as if to keep him from poking his snout into the gaping hole in Jérôme Morval’s gray jacket. The second wound. Right in the heart.

“Go on, move! We’re not going to hang about here.”

I look one last time at the washhouse just opposite where I am standing, then continue along the path. It is impeccably maintained. The most invasive trees have been sawn off at the base and the banks have been cleared of weeds. You have to remember, several thousand tourists walk along this path every day. You might pass someone with a stroller, or in a wheelchair, an old woman with a cane. Like me.

“Come on, Neptune.”

I make a turn a little farther on, at the spot where the brook divides into two branches, cut off by a dam and a waterfall. On the other side you can see Monet’s gardens, the water lilies, the Japanese bridge, the greenhouses… It’s strange, I was born here in 1926, the year of Claude Monet’s death. For a long time after Monet’s passing, almost fifty years, those gardens were closed, forgotten, abandoned. Today, the wheel has turned again and every year tens of thousands of Japanese, Americans, Russians, and Australians travel round the world just to linger here. Monet’s gardens have become a sacred temple, a mecca, a cathedral… In fact, it won’t be long before those thousands of pilgrims descend upon us.

I look at my watch: 6:02. Another few hours of respite.

I walk on.

Between the poplars and the huge butterburs, the statue of Claude Monet stares at me with the malicious expression of an angry neighbor, his chin devoured by his beard and his skull concealed by a piece of headgear that vaguely resembles a straw hat. The ivory plinth indicates that the bust was unveiled in 2007. The wooden sign hammered into the ground beside it explains that the master is watching “the meadow.” His meadow. The fields, from the Ru to the Epte, from the Epte to the Seine, the rows of poplars, the wooded slopes that undulate like soft waves. The magical places he painted. Inviolable… Varnished and on show for all eternity.

And it’s true—at six in the morning, the place can still be deceptive. I look in front of me at a pure horizon consisting of fields of wheat, of maize, of poppies. But I won’t lie to you. For most of the day, Monet’s meadow is, in fact, a giant parking lot. Four parking lots, to be precise, clustered around an asphalt stem like a water lily made of blacktop. I think I can afford to say this kind of thing, at my age. I have seen the landscape transform itself, year after year. Today Monet’s countryside is just a commercial backdrop.

Neptune follows me for a few yards, and then sets off, running straight ahead. He crosses the parking lot, pees against a wooden barrier, then lopes on into the field, toward the confluence of the Epte and the Seine. For some reason this little wedge of land between the two rivers is known as Nettles Island.

I sigh and continue on my way. At my age, I’m not going to go running after him. I watch as he scampers away, then circles back, as if he’s taunting me. I don’t want to call him back yet; it’s still early. He disappears once more into the wheat. That’s how Neptune spends his time these days—always running a hundred yards ahead of me. Everyone who lives in Giverny knows this dog, but I don’t think many ...

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