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The days flew by in a blur for Edith and Dan. The old stone farmhouse in St. Remy du Provence was exactly what they had dreamed it would be. Centuries old on the outside, but cool and modern inside. There was a swimming pool, a shaded patio for meals outdoors and an up to date, well stocked kitchen with everything a cook could want. The television had a satellite hookup which pulled in news and movies in English which suited the American couple just fine. The house even had wi-fi. It was so welcoming, the couple felt immediately at home and comfortable.
It was so like home, in fact, that Dan sometimes wondered if they had ever left Sandusky. But any notion of Ohio was quickly dispelled when they stepped outside. there was nothing in Ohio like the Provencal scenery. The view from the patio stood in breathtaking contrast to what they saw from their tiny backyard at home.
The house, rented sight unseen on the internet, was older than anything in the United States. It was, in fact, older than the United States having been inhabited since Roman times. The grounds even had bits of walls and arches dating back to the time of the Caesars. Everything was so old world it made their lives back home seem positively adolescent.
A month in Provence was just what their marriage needed. Life had become difficult recently. Dan, a writer, was under pressure to produce. He’d accepted an advance for a mystery novel from his publisher, Thornton Press, but it was way behind schedule. His agent, Gloria Swan, was beginning to loose patience, alternately calling, cajoling and pleading for a chapter or two. The problem was that Dan’s muse had seemingly picked up and left for parts unknown. When he sat down to write, nothing came. He grew testy and snapped at Edith who was sympathetic but whose own work was unaffected. She was in a period of high productivity, painting and illustrating away.
Edith was a successful artist in her own right. A talented water colorist sought after by authors and agents to illustrate their books. Her works were sought after by collectors and galleries. While she was productive and successful in a commercial way, she also felt overworked and exploited. She hoped this time in Provence would allow her the opportunity to paint for herself. The magical light of Provence, the inspiration of so many artists, would do the same for her. She packed her easel and paints in hopes of doing independent work instead of selling her talent for money. It was her money that had paid for this vacation. One of the big sources of friction in their marriage was the contrast in Edith’s income compared to Dan’s.
Dan’s response to his artistic frustrations was to be testy and snappy with Edith who withdrew into a shell of smoldering resentment. This trip to France was a desperate attempt to keep their marriage together. Now, after only three days in the South of France it seemed to be working, Dan could feel his dormant energy flowing and Edith was smiling again.
On the fourth day, Edith and Dan explored the little town of St. Remy. The town’s claim to fame was that it was home to the mental hospital where Vincent Van Gogh spent a year recovering from his mental collapse. It was where the great artist painted many of his most enduring works and seemed to have become a destination for tourists. The old hospital was still in use and portions of its old buildings including Van Gogh’s old room open to the public. It was St. Remy’s most famous attraction and busloads of tourists came daily to tour the grounds. By chance, the vacation rental adjoined the asylum. In fact the very house they rented appeared in more than one of the great artist’s landscapes.
Edith and Dan toured the place that afternoon looking out the same windows as the poor mad artist looked out of a century before. The walls were adorned with reproductions and the sad biography of the tormented artist’s life—his spare room, his self portrait. Edith could feel the despair and hopelessness embedded in the very walls. It touched her deeply. The whole experience left her saddened. Dan, generally bored by the tour, perked up as they were leaving and said he had gotten a great idea for a story.
Later that day, Edith set up her easel in a shady spot on the grounds of their rented home. It was her intention to paint the beautiful landscape in front of her. The bit of ruined arch in the foreground and the fields and vineyards receding to the mountains beyond. She tried to channel Van Gogh as she sat with her brush poised above her pallet, but, instead of feeling her usual rush of energy, she felt fearful, drained, paralyzed with indecision. From inside the house she could hear Dan pounding on his portable typewriter and humming to himself.
That evening they ate at one of the dozens of restaurants in town. It was a lovely place recommended in all the guide books. The food was good but Edith didn’t have much of an appetite, she picked at her meal and drank too much wine. She was feeling weepy and tired, a tap on her shoulder startled her. It was a Gypsy woman selling violets and offering to read palms. She was a beautiful young woman with dark hair and a brilliant smile. Edith waved her away but Dan seemed interested and offered her his palm. She took his hand in hers and stroked it seductively. The Gypsy closed her eyes and began rattling off a string of predictions in French far too fast for either American to understand more than a word or two. They picked up a few words like “joy” and “good” and “happiness”, but generally they didn’t understand a thing. It should have been one of the more comical moments of their trip but for some reason Edith was annoyed by the whole incident and refused to show the Gypsy her palm.
Dan insisted saying it was all in fun but Edith had a bad feeling about the whole business. She tried to make light of it but Edith wouldn’t let herself be persuaded. Even the gypsy tried to beguile her. Finally Edith gave in and allowed the woman to take her hand. The Gypsy stroked Edith’s palm and Edith felt a current of energy being drawn out of her body. She gasped and pulled her hand away quickly. The Gypsy looked offended but tried to make the most of what was turning out to be an awkward situation. She smiled and offered her hand again but Edith would have none of it. The Gypsy woman glared at Edith and muttered something in Roma, then shrugged and walked away. “I wonder what she said,” asked Dan, trying to laugh the whole thing off. But Edith was frightened and felt their evening had been ruined.
That night, Edith was awakened by a noise outside the farmhouse window. The moon was bright and she looked out over the olive trees to the mountains in the distance. There was nothing there. The howl sounded again, a wolf’s call, wild and feral. Edith felt a chill and closed the window. She wanted to wake Dan but he was sleeping soundly for the first time in months. Edith couldn’t get back to sleep, so she read the night away.
The next day, Dan was on fire with inspiration and besides himself with happiness. “I knew this place would be just the tonic I needed, “ he crowed. He immediately began pounding away at his typewriter. Edith knew better than to disturb him. After all, this was one of the main reasons they had come all this way. Having nothing better to do, Edith set out for a walk. Upon leaving the front gate, she had a choice of heading right and going into town or left and heading into the hills. She chose left. The day was perfect, the sky that indescribable blue, the sunlight clear and golden, hot in the light, cool in the shade. She walked along nameless country roads empty of any traffic, past olive groves and small family vineyards; there was a scent of lavender in the air. It was so peaceful and serene that she felt calm and rested despite her lack of sleep. She saw no one. The houses along the road were shuttered and still, their owners away. Perhaps, she thought, they were vacation rentals like her’s waiting for their adopted families, for high season to come alive.
The road wound its way into the hills getting smaller and more rustic with each step finally ending at an ancient quarry. A house was built into the cliff face like a facade on a cave. A large white dog was chained outside the house sleeping in the sun. It stood up when it heard her and began barking and pulling at its chain. A woman came out of the house and motioned to the dog to be quiet. Edith began to back away muttering excuses in her high school French. The woman glared at her, rattling off a string of epithets with accompanying gestures. Judging from her tone, they didn’t sound welcoming. It was the same woman; the fortune teller from the restaurant.
Edith backed away. The French woman stood in her yard glaring. She was young and pretty with olive skin, her dark hair covered with a scarf. The word witch came into Edith’s mind. Edith turned toward home. As soon as her back was turned, the dog let out the wolf-like howl she heard in the night. She felt the goose flesh on her arms and hurried down the long hill home.
She returned breathless. Dan was where she left him happily banging away on his keyboard. He barely acknowledged her return. She hadn’t seen him so caught up in his writing in years, It made her happy to see him so engrossed and went into the kitchen to make them both some lunch. She left him a sandwich and went outside to lounge by the pool. Edith read the afternoon away. When she finally went back in, she checked on Dan. He was still pounding away at a feverish pace, the sandwich untouched. It was only with great effort that she managed to persuade him to quit working and come to bed.
That night Edith felt restless and troubled. Unable to sleep she went downstairs to make a cup of tea. The house, she noticed, was filled with moonlight. Outside everything was aglow with a silver light. For a second her heart was lifted by the beauty of it all but a glimpse of a figure on the lawn startled her and sent a wave of fear down her spine. The rental house was surrounded by high walls and Edith herself had locked the gate. The figure stood in the moonlight looking at the house. A cloud passed before the moon, obscuring the view. When the cloud passed, the figure was gone. Again she heard the howl of the wolf she had heard earlier that day.
Alarmed, Edith ran upstairs and tried to rouse Dan from his slumber. She shook him for a full minute but could not wake him. She finally gave up and crawled back into bed herself. In the morning, she tried to tell Dan about the night apparition but he didn’t seem concerned. He shrugged and said, “Maybe it was a neighbor out for a stroll or someone who couldn’t sleep like you.”
“But the gate was closed,” Edith protested, “and what about that wolf of hers?”
But Dan had already lost interest in Edith’s complaints and was back at his desk typing away.
The days wore on and Dan’s productivity was truly impressive. The written pages piled up at his side and he had renewed energy and appetite. Dan’s good feeling stood in stark contrast to Edith’s sickly pallor. Days of not sleeping and worry had transformed Edith into a pale, nervous mess who struggled to control her emotions. She felt like crying, she was afraid to leave the house. Her weeping and moodiness finally managed to penetrate Dan’s consciousness. He paused long enough in his typing to put Edith into the car and take her for a ride in the country.
Dan could speak of nothing but his new book. “I don’t know where the time has gone. The book is writing itself. Did I tell you I sent the first five chapters to Gloria and she thought they were the best things I’ve written. I’m so glad we came here, aren’t you?”
Edith gritted her teeth. For reasons she couldn’t explain, the two weeks in the rental house had left her drained and on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
Sitting at her easel, Edith poked at the canvass without any plan, dabbing paint more with anger than design; she slashed at the paper with knife and brush. She’d never painted like that before. It felt cathartic and the result was dark and disturbing. She tore the painting up and started another, forcing herself to be calm. Her paintings had always been precise and detailed but this new painting was different. It was as if her hand was controlled by an outside force, like the experience she once felt with a ouija board. When the spell passed Edith was spent. The painting was other worldly and like nothing she’d ever done before. It was highly stylized but she could make out the face of a tortured screaming woman.
“Well that’s different.” It was Dan standing behind her. She hadn’t heard him approach. “Poor woman. Much moodier than your usual work. I like it. It’s deep.” She wanted to tell him it wasn’t hers but that sounded crazy. If it wasn’t hers, whose was it?
That night she cried herself to sleep. She was afraid. She convinced herself that the gypsy woman was a witch and she was under some kind of spell. Her heart was beating wildly, she could never sleep even though she was quite exhausted. When would this interminable vacation be over and she could get back to her old routine?
Edith was afraid to paint. She was so nervous, she startled at the smallest thing. Unable to relax or work she lived through the last few days of vacation like a zombie. The constant drumming of Dan’s typewriter was driving her mad. So was his jolly mood. How had they come to this? A total reversal of roles and temperaments. It seemed to Edith that she’d been trapped in this house half her life.
Finally the last day arrived. Edith was upstairs packing the bags while Dan worked the typewriter, wanting to work on the last chapter. The clacking of the keys hit her like physical blows. She was tired beyond belief. She hoped she would sleep on the flight home. A cry of exaltation from downstairs snapped her from her revelry. Dan had finished his book and came running up the stairs to tell her.
He burst into the room and Edith gave him a brave smile. He carried a thick stack of typewritten sheets and handed them to her beaming with the pride of accomplishment. He planted a kiss on her cheek and said, “Don’t forget to pack this. This little baby is going to make us rich. I can’t believe how easily it came. It was a gift. I feel great. Let’s celebrate.” And he ran downstairs looking for champagne or wine but of course there was none. Edith slipped the manuscript into a fabric envelope they had purchased at the market in town. It was a brightly colored floral print affair that fit the manuscript perfectly. She tied the string and placed it in the suitcase.
The taxi’s horn woke her from a troubled sleep. She hadn’t even realized she had dozed but she awoke with a start to find herself head down at the kitchen table. Dan was there and they tossed their bags in the trunk and said goodbye to the rental. It had been a mixed blessing.
When they arrived back home in Ohio, Dan was anxious to take the manuscript to the copy center. He needed to send the remainder of the book to Gloria. Edith was horrified to realize that the floral envelope was not there. Dan was speechless, incredulous, beside himself with anger. “How could it not be there? I trusted you to pack it. Only the single most important thing in my life. Well, call the rental agent. Ask him to run over to the house and find it. Offer to pay him whatever it takes.”
Outwardly Edith was contrite and apologized profusely. “I can’t understand it, Dan. I know I packed it. I can’t explain what happened.” Inwardly she didn’t care. She hated the manuscript and didn’t care if she never saw the thing again.
The rental agent insisted the manuscript was not there. He said he asked the cleaning woman to keep her eyes peeled for the floral case but it never surfaced. Dan and Edith badgered the airline to no avail. Eventually Dan went back to his typewriter and tried to reconstruct the missing chapters from memory. But the magic was gone. Dan insisted that the music of the inspired first draft was lost and Gloria Swan agreed.
Edith began sketching again and gradually her nerves improved to the point where she could paint again. Their lives drifted back to where they had been before the vacation only now there was an ocean of blame and guilt to try and bridge.
In St. Remy du Provence, the vacationing tourists come and go, They rent the old farmhouses for a week or two and move on with their lives. They visit the mad house where Van Gogh struggled with his demons. They patronize the local restaurants and flood the markets on market day. They marvel at the charming quaintness of it all. Sometimes, a young gypsy woman asks to read their palms. Sometimes they agree and slip her a few Euros. She gives them a big smile and slips the bills into her floral case before moving on.
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