Content Warning: This piece deals with issues of death and grief.
Years before my aunt died, years before she told my mother to spread her ashes at the foot of a charred building in Paris, she asked to paint me.
“Sit still and look at me,” she said. I stared a little to the left of her gaze, avoiding direct contact. She pushed a few wisps of hair from my eyes and pulled my pigtails over my shoulders, her thin fingers giving them a playful tug. I sat, wrapped in the sheets of her linen bedspread, awaiting directions and busying myself with a study of my portraitist.
My mother had warned me that my aunt would look different, and I had conjured up the worst possible transformation. At first, the absence of her afro and the flat formless wig that replaced it had startled me, as did the lack of hair where her eyebrows had once been. But she still retained her slender form and elevated cheekbones. Her eyes remained a beautiful auburn brown, only slightly changed by the darkening bags beneath them. Catching me in deep examination, she sent me a goofy smile and a reassuring wink, every bit as enthusiastic as when she was healthy and strong.
When she turned the canvas around to show me the painting, I was taken aback by how blurry and undefined I looked in her light brushstrokes. “It’s called impressionism,” she said. Despite the fuzzy rendering of my figure, she had somehow managed to reproduce the imperfections that I had hoped she would leave out; the dark peach fuzz above my upper lip and my hunched shoulders, both accentuated by a bright yellow background. Like most children, I did a poor job of hiding my disappointment. She let out a burst of laughter before pulling me into her embrace. She bundled me in her long, slender arms, and we looked at the painting together, giggling and chatting about what worked and what didn’t. In no time, I’d fallen in love with it.
Three years later, I was with my family in a car driving from Paris to Giverny. I had slept most of the way and awoke to my mother shaking my leg, urging me to look outside. Rubbing my eyes, I turned my head to the window and thought I might still be dreaming. We had entered a folktale. The streets, ill-equipped to handle modern vehicles, were narrow and lined with pale cobblestones. The homes, small and oddly shaped, called to mind the landscapes of J. R. R. Tolkien. Each was constructed from dusty timeworn stones, and strings of colorful flowers lined every window.
After what seemed like an eternity, we arrived at Claude Monet’s home. It had soft pink walls and windows the color of evergreens. Heaps of English ivy covered nearly every inch of the wood walls, clouding the distinction between the house and the greenery around it. Les Jardins de Monet, with its silent and humble beauty, was nothing short of majestic. There was a perfect order to the untamed and overgrown flowers; each corner was a painting brought to life. Rows of dahlias, lupines, and asters emerged from beneath the apple trees, while daisies and columbines peppered the winding cobblestone paths.
We made our way beyond the barricade of hedges and through a small hidden door. There, a river had been diverted to create a pond, where immense weeping willows towered over the shoreline. Monet’s famous water lilies, identical in color to the house, rested softly on the surface of the water. He would later build the footbridge upon which I stood, the same footbridge he would famously paint bestrewn with wisteria.
Here we came to a stop. With little fuss, my mother drew me near, my father and grandmother following close behind. Like birds, we flocked together on the edge of the pond, where my mother pulled a little white box from her purse. It had endured a long trip from the other side of the ocean. She lifted the top, and with one swift motion of her hand, released its contents. Thousands of small white particles took to the air, taking with them a part of us all. It was the perfect place to say goodbye. My aunt would rest easy among the flowers, the birds, and the endless pallets of paint.
My aunt wanted her ashes placed where her daughter had died eight months earlier. That is what she told my mother during one of the final afternoons they spent together, sipping black tea from china cups on the front lawn. The only noises came from places far away: the faint whisper of the ocean to the east and the low rumble of car engines to the west. Somewhere in between, they could hear the sound of contact between a golf club and a ball. My mother did not respond, and her companion did not repeat herself.
At first, our intention was to grant her wish. We arrived by subway in the morning and walked to that charred and dusty building. The streets bustled with the noise of early morning commuters and school children. A middle-aged black man with a Senegalese national team jersey sped past us, guiding a giggling toddler behind him toward the corner, where a school bus driver waited impatiently. The man said something indistinguishable to her with a well-meaning smile, and she laughed in response.
The world was moving quickly. No one stopped by the old building or noticed the five solemn-eyed people standing still beside it. We blended in well with the crowds of immigrants.
While the adults examined the makeshift vigil on the stone wall, I stood to the side and looked at that fifth floor window with its blackened contours and broken glass. Nearly a year had gone by, but the window had not been fixed. I recognized it from the photos and the news articles I had read and reread.
It was my aunt who ultimately explained things to me. We spoke of it in her sedan, on our way to the beach, the first and last time we would openly address Jasmine’s death. In the months after Jasmine died, we had celebrated her life, her beauty, how funny and intelligent she was. My aunt had a way of making people see beauty in what they otherwise might overlook or disregard. She was quiet and intelligent, and had a knack for attracting people. Her daughter wasn’t quiet but exuded the other qualities with 10 times the force. Confident and funny and sexy and smart all at once. The two were inseparable and intertwined, much the same way as me and my mother. Never before had we discussed the circumstances of Jasmine’s death. If it had happened peacefully, even quietly, perhaps things would have been different.
My aunt told me what she knew. A fire had climbed up the staircase and arrived at the door. It entered silently, unannounced. The first girl to rise burned to death, another nearly so. Then came the last girl, a beautiful girl with long black hair and a roman nose, eyes auburn like her mother’s. With the force she could muster, she locked arms with her friend and jumped from the window, all the way down. When her friend woke up on the hard, concrete ground, she found that dark-haired girl laying lifeless beside her.
I turned away from the building with its broken windows, shutting my eyes as hard as I could. When they opened, my mother stood beside me, the familiar white box in her hand. There would be no ash spreading here. There would be no resting among memories of death. She would not let her sister be stepped upon by oblivious passersby and sucked into vacuums by the neighborhood street sweepers. She would defy that request, made on a front lawn over cups of black tea, and she silently hoped to be forgiven.
My last impression of my aunt is of her, frail and tired, sitting at our kitchen table. In the midst of a discussion, she suddenly sprang from her seat and moved briskly toward the back window. A puff of fiery fur had caught her attention. There, beneath the thick canopy of trees, was a fox. It stood where the sunlight hits the ground and glowed.
I am not religious or superstitious, though perhaps I am something in between. I believe my aunt saw my cousin in the eyes of the fox. I felt a force rise and grab her from within, catching her breath and fastening her naked feet to the concrete ground. The fox darted back into the foliage, and she sat down again at the table; a speck of color had returned to her face.
That was the first and last fox I saw on our land, but I see my loved ones in the eyes of the wild things that come to the kitchen window, the paintings that sit on the shelves and hang on the walls. I feel my aunt and cousin in the woods that surround my home, in the cool breeze that fills my lungs on winter nights. Above all, I feel them in my mother’s garden, where she works tirelessly and lovingly, digging and picking and pruning and sweating, as if to please the sky.
The little portrait sits beside my bedroom window. It is approximately six-by-six inches, frameless, and somewhat sullied by the dust that gathers on the windowsill. I should take better care of it, but to contour it with a frame and cover it in glass seems unnatural somehow. It looks smaller than it once did, and in it I appear smaller than I am now. It has sat in my bedroom for so long that I forget it’s there. Its colors are fading slowly, just as the memories of my aunt have surrendered to the years. All that remains are small, fuzzy, happy fragments. I’ve learned to be okay with this. She is here somehow, guiding me through my own art, soothing my mother when she’s sad, and opening the windows when the sun comes out.
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