by Eric J Guignard
ODILE THIBODEAU had once shown in the finest galleries in Montmartre and beyond, throughout the fringes of grand Paris, immersed among the Post Impressionists at the Galerie Durand—Ruel, or amid the demi monde depictions in the Musée des Artistes Vivants, and even the erotic grotesquerie hid beautifully within those thin shadows latticing Goupil et Cie…
But no longer.
His art, his masterpieces, they now received little more than a glare of menacing acknowledgement from one exclusive patron, Monsieur Bourguignon—the loathsome Monsieur Bourguignon—who stood before him that very moment. The scrutiny of Monsieur Bourguignon was, as always, unnerving, while he waited, twisting at the curled ends of a heavily oiled moustache inside the sooty, soiled second floor loft Odile called both home and studio.
‘It is time,’ Monsieur Bourguignon finally said. His eyes seemed lifeless, his nose sharp as a shark’s fin. ‘To see.’
Odile breathed deep for this moment, the grand reveal: he whipped the protective white sheet off his newest painting. The act itself was a remarkable display of showmanship—the sheet billowed out with a flourish! It emitted a satisfying whoosh! Lighting from the overhead gabled windows shone down at just the right angle to illuminate his newest work, a stunning composition flawlessly blending impressionist ideals with the resonance of melancholy pointillism, that had taken Odile a month with little sleep to complete.
Monsieur Bourguignon shrugged, then wiped at his sharp nose. ‘It is fine.’
‘But… only ‘fine’? See how I darkened the hues, added depth! The texture—’
‘Must we? Every time?’ Monsieur Bourguignon’s exhalation of disdain was like the sudden gust of foul wind that rose often along the Seine, where the factory bulwarks discharged their steaming offal. At exhalation’s end, he tossed over his shoulder a black satin lined cape.
It was true, Monsieur Bourguignon was a notorious criminal, head of a gang of dagger wielding brutes. The bakeries, the cafés, the clubs along Boulevard de Clichy, many of them were in debt to, or otherwise in dread of, the petite man. It was true, too, that Odile was counted among that maltreated number. He’d long since exhausted weeping over the matter, had tired even of muttering liberally imaginative slews of denunciations and maledictions. The mutters were whispers of course, nothing ever so audible that Monsieur Bourguignon might actually hear.
He’d sunk instead into a deepening stupor of acquiescence.
‘For you.’ Monsieur Bourguignon handed him a small velvet bag, the gold coins within a seeming lifeforce of their own, heavy, jangling, imbibed with conspiratorial deceit. ‘With other men, I would toss payment at their feet, the likes of a street beggar. But consider it a token of my regard, I present to you as a confrere. Hold my gratitude tight, mon petit artiste.’
Odile took the money, looking down to the bare wood floor in shame. A glance back then at his painting, showing a figure—vaguely that of a man—filling a cobblestone road while nighttime stars the size of francs shimmered overhead. The painting’s perspective narrowed, twisted behind an alley, from which could be seen the remnants of a shadow, perhaps a speeding carriage having just passed by, perhaps something else. If one should look at the painting upside down, it might appear the man was being dragged upward, his arms extended into the night. Otherwise, the figure was a smear of brushstrokes, crimson over umber, highlights jaundiced orange while the contours became muted, pushed into the cracks separating each stone of the road. It was evocative to look at, a whirl of fleeting shapes, an impression of despair, a gilding of release. A hope, tugging, like fog dissipating to reveal a great truth.
Monsieur Bourguignon whipped his hand at it twice. Odile thought a fly must have gotten into the studio, until Monsieur Bourguignon said the words Odile knew would come:
‘Now destroy it.’
ODILE’S MOTHER HAD been a nun. Once. Before she died. Before she was excommunicated. His father had been a priest as well. Odile never knew his father, but that had been no one’s fault but for the divine vagary of the god both his parents had given their lives to serve. Odile’s father had died young, early, as punishment, some denounced. For what he’d done, the corruption, the seducement. As far as Odile knew, there had not been as such claimed, at least from the secular sense. His mother had not been raped, there had been no abuse of power, as was often said to occur in the sacristies of the church. His parents had simply fallen in love. As man and woman. As nature designed. They’d left the church surreptitiously, eloped down to the lake shores of Aix les Bains to wed, where his father promptly drowned in the icy clutches of Lac du Bourge, the night before they were to take their solemn vows, but not before a certain premarital coupling had already occurred, leaving Odile’s mother alone, penniless, and swelling visibly from her weakness in sin. A bleak future had foretold the poorhouse for her, a brutish orphanage for infant Odile…
Yet instead she’d bravely returned to Paris, no longer a sister of any Consecrated Order, but rather as Mademoiselle Cécile Thibodeau, reborn in certainty to persevere, to provide for her child. To leave her mark. In art, in work, in life, until la vie became la fin.
IN THE MORNING, Odile went out for a café crème and buttered croissant. It was a beautiful day with warming skies and pigeons and martins snuggled along the shop eaves, cooing, warbling. He almost whistled in reply.
A boy in felt cap, with buck teeth much too large for his crooked mouth, paced on the street corner, calling out to passing shoppers, strollers: ‘Nouvelles! Nouvelles! News, read all about it!’
‘Here,’ Odile said. He recognized the boy, one of several who circulated the boulevards twice a day with their newspaper-filled slings.
‘Un franc,’ the boy said flatly.
‘Oui, as always.’ Odile took the paper, unfolding it as he walked along the street. He enjoyed to walk and read in the same motion. He found he enjoyed things less and less these days, ever since meeting Monsieur Bourguignon. But this was nice, at least, to get outside, feel the sun after so much past rain. Perhaps it was a good omen.
He browsed the headlines, that the level of the Seine was rising, imminent flooding if spring rainfall should renew. The next page, announcing premier opening of the Vélodrome d’hiver cycling stadium. The page after that read DES MORTS, and showed a photograph, a slightly out of focus image in blobs of black and white.
Odile gasped, a horrible oily burn racing through his chest. He balanced himself against a streetlamp, staring, sweating suddenly. The event of this death was not unexpected, not by this point, but to see it in print, this—this was the horror: the photograph was a copy, perhaps not exact, but rather a ‘reimagining’ of his painting, if not more concise, more realistic, grainier. The actualization of a dream. The cobblestoned road twisting away, narrowing in perspective, crossed by an alley. A body, crushed most obviously, lay in its centre. The only difference in newspaper print was a policeman’s cloak draped over the carnage, leaving in wonder at only how those lumps underneath could be so misshapen, so… distanced apart.
‘Gods,’ he cried out. ‘Gods.’
The death was of Aloysius Jeanneret Gris. A banker, age 46. Run over by a speeding carriage weighed down by produce. The driver had not seen Aloysius in the dark hours of night, when Aloysius had apparently emerged from a reputed den of vice. An accident, all agreed, a dreadful accident.
But Odile knew better. For this was his great secret, his blame: Odile Thibodeau painted deaths before they occurred. He created the deaths.
At first he’d believed he only foresaw them… the images simply seemed to come to him, coalescing as he wandered the streets of Montmartre from Rue Championnet to Rue de Châteaudun: performers bright with rouge, shopkeepers smiling, calling out their wares, children in short pants rolling hoops along the streets. Inspiration was rich, then, tendrils clutching for his senses, heady with tangs of perfume and fresh baguettes, vigorous in sound, clanking gears and whinnying steeds. The sights, the feelings, c’est la bonne vie!
And so he painted them, macabre portrayals of men electrocuted, women decapitated, children frozen in icicle shrouds. It was avantgarde, shocking. Brutally honest in depictions of peoples’ frail mortality. And from his artwork, he prospered. Received stipends, adoration. And his conscience was clear all the while, for everyone died. What did it matter if the spirit of premonition should make itself known through his art, the prophecy of strangers’ deaths that he simply put to the brush…
But all that changed. Such ‘la bonne vie’ darkened to the grave, when he learned he was, instead, the actual agent of such fatalities.
His instructor of this knowledge was none other than Monsieur Bourguignon—the loathsome Monsieur Bourguignon. If only Odile had deciphered the horror on his own merit beforehand, it would have brought immediate abstinence. He would have fled for the coast and hurled his paints and bristles into the icy depths of the English Channel! Instead, it was arrogance that had proved his undoing, the conceit that foreshadowed its own sort of demise, the annihilation of all that was good in his life. Too much vin, perhaps, had blinded him. The absinthe, cold as sleet on his feverish brain. The accolades, the money. The charm of his favour; who could see past such things, who would think to search past them while in the throes of joy, scrutinizing for some invisible disease festering underneath it all?
And the grand revelation by Monsieur Bourguignon… beyond all else, who could have surmised such a criminal overlord should have a love of art, a refinement toward the radical painters displaying, late at night, works of progressive thought, of response and reform through abstraction? And that Odile’s work had caught his eye…
THE NIGHT AFTER Aloysius Jeanneret Gris’s grisly death, Monsieur Bourguignon returned to Odile’s loft studio. ‘Bon travail,’ he applauded Odile. ‘Well done, well done.’
The rainfall the newspaper feared had returned. Lightning split the sky outside the gabled windows while tempestuous wind buffeted the building.
Odile never knew how to reply to Monsieur Bourguignon’s praise. To say nothing was discourteous at the least… but to acknowledge the act repudiated any hope Odile had of convincing himself it had all been hapless coincidence. Tonight Monsieur Bourguignon was not alone, so Odile finally settled on a whispered, ‘Merci.’
The other two men who had come inside the studio with Monsieur Bourguignon said nothing, but stared at Odile intently.
Mon dieu, do they never blink? Odile thought of them in alarm. He nervously stepped backward, turned away, glanced at the plaster wall upon which their shadows loomed twice larger than their physical bodies. Odile knew each of them both: Cearbhall, whose closed fists were the size of anvils and as powerful as such. Anatomic impossibility be damned, Cearbhall had once pulled a rival’s spine out through the man’s jaw. The second of Monsieur Bourguignon’s henchmen was even worse: Vlak’ Mikel, towering though stoop shouldered, immaculately dressed in a suit of pin striped periwinkle and white, a gay violet kerchief around his neck. Upon his head was a straw boater’s hat, pulled low, crowning the black hood that covered all his face but for those staring eyes. It was said Vlak’ Mikel had no tongue, although Odile could not attest one way or the other—he’d never heard either man speak, even when Vlak’ Mikel had once sliced off the top of Odile’s ear with a knife.
‘People will liken you to Van Gogh!’ Monsieur Bourguignon had merrily said then, over a year ago. What he said now to Odile was even worse. ‘A new commission is arranged.’
Monsieur Bourguignon then lifted his hands, palms upward, a small reckoning of regret as he continued. ‘For the problems this man has caused cannot be undone.’
‘Please, no more,’ Odile begged. Cearbhall and Vlak’ Mikel made no movement, yet the vigour of their stares was a physical force of its own, a fiery optical backhand striking him along the cheek. Odile tried again: ‘I mean, just… not so soon. I beg, I must rest.’
‘I am not asking some favour of charity to remove this man,’ Monsieur Bourguignon said, twisting at the ends of his curled moustache. He spoke gently, reasonably. ‘This is a duty, and I pay you for it. Considerably. My job is to make sure our business runs without interruption. This man I give you is an interruption. Like him, if you become an interruption, you will be removed—’
Odile knew what would come next.
‘—as will others.’
Cearbhall then held out a photograph, and Odile took it, a sepia toned carte de visite mounted on cardboard, showing an elderly man in a waistcoat standing in front of a luxurious chaise lounge. The man in the photo was smiling, a sweet, genuine bearing. He could have been anyone’s handsome grandfather.
‘One month to complete?’ Monsieur Bourguignon asked.
The three visitors turned all at once and exited to the outside stairwell, opening frilly parasols to shelter from the stinging rain.
Odile stared at the photograph for hours, as the candles waned under shallowing wax, the storm outside swelled, as memories surged, and hopes mourned, and failed wishes taunted him from the edges of despair, over a gift only gods should possess. He stared at the photograph until weariness took him to slumber, and even then he kept the photograph with him, staring until his eyes collapsed, and the photograph stared back in dreams.
MADEMOISELLE CÉCILE THIBODEAU had raised Odile in the artist clubs where she herself found work and developed a remarkable talent for expressionist visions of the Holy hereafter. She was promoted in employ from venue to venue, first a type of slop and scullery maid, then a waitress of hors d’oeuvres, and then bottle service, then assistant to the flesh baring girls of burlesque, and onto hostess of the house, and then, finally, a contract in entertainment as set designer for the bawdiest of nightclubs, and then muralist for the snootier ilk, until finally—truly finally—gaining grant as artist in residence at Montmartre’s celebrated Cabaret du Ciel.
Should one’s life be summed up by a single occupation, such would be this culmination of profession for nun turned artist Mademoiselle Thibodeau (as well as being the initial and strongest impression upon young Odile, at his first visit, which set him on an immutable course of art, death, and the inscrutable, celestial hand that issues judgment upon us all). For the Cabaret of Heaven was this: Garish bells chiming, robed men thundering, cherub actors flinging toy arrows about the room. Cracked plywood clouds, lacquered shining white, hung above dining tables. Globed lights mimicked stars. Harps and organs abounded, as did revealing women pirouetting throughout the club; gold slips curtained off their hips, and cascades of bright and fragrant flowers fell from their hair. Gothic façades tapered to points at every corner, and a pulpit stood on one side, adorned with a great sacrificed pig; blood and sliced apples hung off its chin. And the crosses! The crosses were everywhere, on every surface, on every chair. Gold, silver, great, small. The bar was engraved with them, where patrons would spill cognac and le Soixante Quinze onto the Holy marks. And never was Cabaret du Ciel empty! People clanking glasses, confessing sins, dancing, eating, shrieking with bellows of laughter.
All glory and false fronts and fresh beef à la roti.
Never had Mademoiselle Thibodeau imagined she would end up in such circumstance; but she did it all—sacrificed modesty and divine enlightenment—for her son. For both their sakes, she did not try to shield him from the nightclub’s depravities, but explained them for his own prudence.
‘Expressions,’ she said. Her voice was soft, always so placid, like wind upon a dreaming sea. ‘We express ourselves in what we believe. God and good. Or lust. Envy. Pleasures. Of the mind, the body, the spirit. We express through deed, through song, through art, to share visions and ideas. I paint to give meaning. To this and us.’ She embraced Odile then. Her warmth, her scent of parfum and safflower oil, filled him. ‘Art transforms us, both the creator and the audience. Our inner state, existence, and the hint of beyond.’
Her subjects for painting were of Christ, crucified, eternally suffering eyes cast Heavenward. And spirits ascending, angels bringing forth the revenant of man. Christians tormented for their beliefs, tortured, fed to lions, speared, beheaded. Their souls glorified. Martyred.
Always the sacrifice first, then always the rebirth.
She taught Odile to paint in such ways. She sang hymns, and quoted psalms, while they painted. Spoke of the resurrection of man, of forgiveness, of all God giveth and what He taketh away.
Mademoiselle Thibodeau and Odile lived in the rooms behind Cabaret du Ciel, and even when she was not working, and young Odile scampering underfoot, he would still sneak into the club, to mimic his mother’s art there. He copied her styles, her beliefs, and his subjects were of the afterlife, or on the throes of reaching such. He painted their portraits while scripture filled his head, and angels on guy lines swung overhead, playing lutes in the high, arched theatre ceilings and smoking cigarettes there too when on break. Ash dropped on him, and girls with no shirts, less even brassieres, blew him kisses from gold gilt cages. Always the life, the love, the essence! Expressions, indeed, he practiced on all he saw.
He watched a man die, a heart attack from gluttony. He watched a performer fall from a balcony and break her neck. He watched revellers turn to violence, and knives flashed, a pistol. Two more dead. Then a waiter, murdered in a lover’s feud. Then a diner, choking on chicken bones. And more; he painted them all.
By age twenty, Odile called himself—without any uncertainty—an ‘artiste,’ and his mother approved. By twenty one, he showed in exhibits, and she turned ill. By twenty two, galleries made bids for him, and she went to a private hospital. Odile paid for her room. By twenty three and twenty four and twenty five, his fortunes improved, while hers declined. And then she died. Her face, at the last, had shown acceptance, grace, and something else… ascent. Fate—he saw her die in his mind, saw her death, and others, so many more, as he held her hand, and watched her eyes as the event came to pass. His paintings, they became more macabre, grim. And the deaths came to him then, like a divining rod of doom. And his patrons loved them, they cried, ‘Et plus!’ Skulls, gore, morbid aberrancies, Odile painted them without pause. Drownings, burnings, disease; swordplay, strangling, suicide—Odile was exhilarated by almighty annihilation.
And all the while thinking they were but shadows of foresight… until Monsieur Bourguignon appeared.
OVER THE NEXT month that current spring, Odile painted the death of the handsome grandfatherly man that Monsieur Bourguignon had ordered.
Odile had thrown himself into his work, for he had little else; his self-care was faltering, though by painting he clung to some vestiges of normalcy. He no longer scraped the residue of pigment from beneath his nails, but he bathed. Sometimes. He did not bother to launder or even straighten his clothes. When he shaved, his reflection showed eyes seeming incurably red rimmed and sunken. But painting! At least engaging in his craft was escapism from this dreadful plight—by art, he managed to rediscover some withered pride in improving technique, in expressing vision.
When the latest painting was complete—the exquisiteness in the gradation of value, the transcendental gaze of the subject being impaled on an iron lattice after slipping off an icy step—Monsieur Bourguignon visited, inspected the work, and paid Odile his wage in gold coins before directing he ‘now destroy it.’ Destroying the artwork was not necessary to the process, but Monsieur Bourguignon wanted no evidence to remain, took no chance that a rival loathsome criminal overlord with an eye to the arts might happen upon his prized painter.
‘Of course,’ Odile allowed. It was another dagger thrust into his soul, but he dared not disobey. The painting went into a small furnace and burned.
The following morning, Odile crossed the street to the newsboy, and read about the death in the paper. Denis Gaston LaFromboise. A judicial clerk in the Council of Ministers, age 63, instrumental in the fight against organized crime in Paris. Husband, father, grandfather. An accident, his falling off the slippery steps, a dreadful accident.
And that night Monsieur Bourguignon reappeared at Odile’s loft, new photograph in hand. ‘Another commission for you, mon petit artiste… mon petit assassin…’
And so the cycle went.
Odile painted a police sergeant exploding into a hundred chunks by an errant stick of dynamite. He painted a rouge cheeked strumpet with her stockings tied off around her neck. He painted a vexing witness to robbery choking on his own written testimony. He painted a card shark being eaten by actual sharks while bathing at home. An accident, such terrible, terrible accidents, all! Monsieur Bourguignon had the news publishers in his pocket.
And with each painting, the gold coins flowed in. Monsieur Bourguignon paid well and promptly—for that he was irreproachable. But the more riches Odile obtained, the less he felt any care for them; the guilt, the damned, crushing self-condemnation, allowed no pleasures but to drink himself into a stupor at home each night, enslaved there as a captive, as a murderer…
How could he escape such a fate? The answer was obvious, that if Odile could paint people into death, he should take up the next canvas and depict Monsieur Bourguignon suffering the most horrific, agonizing annihilation imaginable: pierced through in the Iron Maiden, or quartered over the Wheel, or sat upon the slowly impaling Judas Cradle…
But, non. That answer, unfortunately, was too obvious, at least to one who had risen to such heights in the criminal underworld. It was the first precaution Monsieur Bourguignon had taken: If he should die, whether by accident, tragedy, his own hand, then Odile would be next, as would others. Such was the problem of many headed monsters; once one falls, another takes its place. Someone would accede into Monsieur Bourguignon’s role and reap revenge… and if that someone should fall, someone else would move into position. The world was filled with Cearbhalls and Vlak’ Mikels and their lot. Odile could paint them all into fiery death, but he had to see them first; he’d be helpless against unknown assailants.
And in any case, it was becoming harder and harder to wish to see anyone at all. He began to shield his view from faces, he kept himself locked within his loft as much as possible, going out only to procure food, drink, and paints. Until even that became too much to bear… for the weight of malaise, after all, is a crushing load. Odile soon found himself stricken with immobility by the mere task of trying to take the knob of his door to exit. How his heart would race! How sweat would bead upon his brow… outside, he would see faces, imagine horrible disasters! His hands trembled at the thought of death visions shrouding every visage he chanced upon.
While, all the time, his back room filled with those little black bags of gold. He thought often of his mother, her words, her own rebirth to art from the Church. Sacrifice and judgement. And forgiveness…? Bah, he spat at himself for even imagining such a thought.
Finally he went to his window and saw the newsboy passing below. ‘Boy!’ he cried out. ‘Garçon! Come here, please!’
The boy came up the iron steps, and Odile left the door wide open before retreating into the farthest corner, eyes cast away.
‘Oui?’ the boy asked hesitantly.
‘What is your name?’
‘Louis…’ Odile repeated it, letting the sound of the name hang between them. ‘I wish to hire you.’
‘Yes. I am much too busy to leave this studio, for my work is found necessary. You must shop for me, groceries, supplies. I will give you a list each week.’
‘I will pay well. Anything you need.’
The boy’s eyes grew wide at this. Odile waved into the back room, where through the doorway could be seen Monsieur Bourguignon’s payments of gold. Odile thought so little, he’d thrown them to the floor, having no place, need, nor care to hide any of it. The gold helped not with his sleep, his conscience. Many of the coins had even fallen free, lying there like glistening, molten puddles.
‘I would be very happy to help you,’ the boy announced with an immense smile of those buck teeth.
With that stroke of accordance, Odile no longer had to step outside. He slept fitfully, drank more. His face grew pale, haggard. But he painted.
WHEN MONSIEUR BOURGUIGNON had first approached him a year and a half before, Odile was in the centre of a great and depraved gala of drunken ceremony and hysterical boasts. Odile’s face was ruddy, flush with vigour, his speech slurred from champagne. He laughed with friends: ‘…and the fellow said, ‘To be frank, I’d have to change my name!’’
Cackles burst throughout the hall.
Then Monsieur Bourguignon was there, introducing himself, neatly steering Odile away from the others. Odile thought the man effeminate, some sycophant fan looking to curry favour with a rising célébrité.
‘That painting there,’ Monsieur Bourguignon had said, pointing to a framed work on the gallery wall; in it, a top hatted man held his own severed legs, while a great sawblade sprayed blood upon onlookers. ‘When did you make it?’
Odile shrugged. ‘Two months ago, or so.’
‘And that one?’ Monsieur Bourguignon asked, pointing to the next work; in it, a woman’s pelvis split apart as a two headed child emerged.
Odile was bored with the hanger on. ‘I don’t know, the month prior, I suppose.’
Monsieur Bourguignon tilted back his head, stroked a cleft chin, calculating something with a twiddling of fingers. ‘Yes, yes, I thought as much.’ He smiled. The expression was ghastly. ‘I have a request, a custom portrait, done in your style.’
‘No requests. I am too busy, monsieur.’
‘Please, it is for a friend. A prank on them. I always pay well, very handsomely.’
Odile tried not to scoff, but his dainty lip curled up. ‘How so?’
Odile now was attentive. Monsieur Bourguignon handed him an image of a druggist in medical apron. ‘Do you think you could have it done in a month?’
‘Hardly. Exhibit deadlines are barbarous.’
‘One month,’ Monsieur Bourguignon repeated. ‘And I will pay double.’
‘All for a prank? A caprice?’
‘Quite. He is rather… important.’
‘Très bien.’ That was the moment Odile sold his soul, and he never even knew. He painted the druggist, ensnared by a loose tether and dragged on his back by an elephant escaped from the zoo.
Two days later, Odile was visited at his loft by Monsieur Bourguignon and his two ‘associates’—how they’d found his address Odile never learned. The associates, of course, were terrifying: Cearbhall and Vlak’ Mikel.
Monsieur Bourguignon explained that the druggist was recently found dead, killed exactly as Odile had painted it. Odile would have thrown out Monsieur Bourguignon for such a notion, but with the others there, his choice of response was much limited. He settled with, ‘Absurd!’
Monsieur Bourguignon shrugged. ‘Absurd, yes. Also true.’
‘A coincidence then. I had nothing to do with it.’
‘What are you accusing me of, monsieur?’
‘It was luck, serendipity I believe, that I discovered your work some time ago. I recognized a man you had painted, the circumstance in which he succumbed. I think, perhaps, you did not know. He was a schoolmaster, you painted him stuck in a chimney as flames licked at his feet.’
‘I too thought it a coincidence, surely. But since then, I have watched you presage accidents. And now this,’ Monsieur Bourguignon held up the photo of the druggist. ‘Whatever power you have been gifted can be controlled. Directed.’
Odile denied, he repudiated, he waved it all aside. Monsieur Bourguignon then informed him of the unsavoury business he was in, his iniquitous dealings. Odile’s scoffs faltered. Monsieur Bourguignon next informed him that, effective immediately, Odile would be in his employ.
‘An exclusive arrangement, I’m afraid. No more galleries, exhibits, shows. Just moi. But I pay well.’
The first time Odile rejected the offer, Monsieur Bourguignon simply repeated it. The second time Odile rejected it, Vlak’ Mikel sliced off the top of Odile’s ear. Such an act brought about a sort of immediate and implicit agreement. Details were worked out, rules. Promises. Threats. Besides Odile’s own life at stake, there were others. A cousin in Montreuil. An old friend in Sarcelles. A lover in Créteil… they could all be made to suffer at Monsieur Bourguignon’s whim.
NOW, ODILE KEPT painting. Insipidly, self-abhorrently, drunkenly, perhaps. But he painted.
He painted a deceitful jeweller disembowelled while riding a horse.
He painted a baker, starved to death while surrounded by mountains of bread.
He painted men of a rival gang engulfed by a volcano inexplicably erupting from the Louvre Museum.
Each an accident! the newspapers declared. Such terrible, terrible accidents, all!
Scene after scene of mortal carnage issued from Odile’s hand, while depression left him bare and stripped of any cares. Even his lingering fastidiousness toward the perfection of craft, of expression as an outlet for his stupor, fell to the flames of ennui. Somewhere between painting a laundress drowned in a vat of bubbling toxin, and a sailor succumbing to skull faced sirens, Odile found his brush strokes becoming no more than drags of the wrist. Once—exquisite faces turned now to infantile blobs punctuated by dots for eyes, a wavering line for a smile—or frown—as was usually most fitting the circumstances of their composition.
By the time he painted a man coming from the sky to crash into the Sahara Desert, he did not even mix colours any longer, but slopped on a layer of umber one direction for the sand, then a layer of blue going the other way for the sky.
Monsieur Bourguignon arrived for inspection. Odile opened the door then flung himself back into the farthest corner of the room with as much haste as his lethargy allowed. Cearbhall and Vlak’ Mikel followed behind, breathing hard. They carried a steel safe, a five hundred pound deadweight they’d had to lug up the flight of stairs that ran from outside the building.
‘A gift,’ Monsieur Bourguignon told him. ‘Your gold, it is everywhere, a mess. They say this term in America for a slob, he is called a ‘soup sandwich.’ That is you, mon petit artiste… mon petit mess… It would not do for the wrong person to get a whiff of your prosperity, your well-deserved revenue being so exposed. The wrong dagger in the back is, after all, our business, not our wish.’
The two brutes set the safe into the back room, gathered up Odile’s gold, and began to neatly stack it within, tallying numbers into a ledger.
‘And now the latest work?’ said Monsieur Bourguignon. ‘Dazzle me with your brilliance.’
‘I… I’ve not been so inspired of late,’ Odile admitted. He dragged away the protective white sheet off his newest painting. The canvas was warped, saturated with linseed oil on one side, dry and parched on the other. Black swaths ran across it haphazardly, with a generous speckling of spilled rum. Purple curves in the sky may have meant birds in flight… a stick figure lay on some sort of overlapping scribble, impaled with a spear through his neck. Each eye was a simple X.
Monsieur Bourguignon squinted, pointing to a series of blobs. ‘What are those?’
Odile coughed. ‘Flowers. See how they beautify the hillside?’
‘And the line, here. A river, then?’
‘A long snake.’
‘And this, the red… heart?’
‘A devil. Le diable. Watching.’
‘I see.’ Monsieur Bourguignon twisted at his moustache. ‘And how long did you spend on this masterstroke?’
Odile’s mouth began to feel parched, the certain dryness that only a fine Chartreuse or Armagnac can slate. ‘Twenty minutes. At least.’
‘Your effort of late, it seems… lacking.’
‘Since when do you care for refinement, or for method, for éclat?’ Odile snapped. His retort visibly stunned them both, though each for different reasons.
Monsieur Bourguignon’s lifeless eyes had even flared, but he nodded his acquiesce. ‘You are right. The technique matters not, as long as the vision is effective. And it still is, may I presume? Even in such an… uneven state?’
‘Yes. Oui, I feel it now. And faster too. The death, I can tell, it has already occurred. The more I make, the faster they respond.
Monsieur Bourguignon’s smile could not have been more elated. ‘I see.’
Odile realized his mistake, but he had collapsed already back into detached lassitude. Nothing could be done. Cearbhall and Vlak’ Mikel joined them in the main room where their glance lingered with surprise on Odile’s painting before moving to Monsieur Bourguignon for instruction.
‘Your next commission,’ Monsieur Bourguignon told Odile. ‘A bit delicate perhaps, but nothing you cannot manage. Business as always, I say. Another interruption that must be removed.’
Odile nodded once.
Cearbhall held out a cardboard photograph, and Odile took it. For a second, the subject did not make sense. It was too small, out of scale. Then the crash of realization struck, and his listlessness turned to frenzy.
The picture was of Louis the newsboy.
‘N-no… but why?’ Odile cried. ‘He is only a child!’
‘A nosy one, yes.’
‘Surely there must be someone else, a policeman or politician. What could the boy have done to deserve murder?’
Monsieur Bourguignon took a step nearer, and Odile fell back. ‘We see the boy watching us, talking. Coming here.’
‘He is a paperboy! He must do all those things. He brings my groceries, so I may paint uninterrupted.’
‘Yes, the steadfastness needed for your pieces de resistance.’
Odile began to reply, but Monsieur Bourguignon cut him off. ‘And has the boy seen you paint?’
Odile sucked in a breath. Perhaps not the act, but surely his works had been on display on their easels when the boy made deliveries.
Monsieur Bourguignon nodded. ‘And by the state of this space, I assume he knows you are burdened with so much wealth you cannot store it properly and must resort to leaving it strewn for the cockroaches to make their home?’
Odile sucked in another breath. He couldn’t form words to speak.
‘And do you think,’ Monsieur Bourguignon continued, ‘the boy from his street corner, aware of your eccentricities, particularly now notes the individuals who come here to visit? Myself for example? Cearbhall, Vlak’ Mikel? Do you wish to endanger Vlak’ Mikel?’
Odile could not face that black hooded monster. He only shook his head.
‘We will now bring your supplies, your foods,’ Monsieur Bourguignon said. ‘For your protection. Your service.’
‘The boy, he is a danger. You may, at the least, make his death gentle.’
‘One month?’ Monsieur Bourguignon asked.
Monsieur Bourguignon tilted back his head, stroked a clefted chin. ‘Non, that is too long. Considering your condition, the waning of quality… all that is needed now is one day.’
‘One day to complete,’ Monsieur Bourguignon repeated, and he and his thugs departed.
THAT NIGHT, ODILE could not sleep. He drank. He prayed. Begged for divine intervention, for answers. Drank more. Hurled a bottle of Chateau Latour to explode against the wall. The horrors he had induced, but never to someone he’d known, and never would he to this child! In a deepening stupor of vin, and the dolour of desperation, he found the bible his mother had given him when a boy at Cabaret du Ciel. Opening to random passages, he read verses, exaltations of God’s glory, His will, His retribution. Acts 24:15, …there shall be a resurrection of the dead. Isaiah 26:19, …dead shall live. 1 Corinthians 15:52, …the dead will be raised imperishable.
If only it was that easy.
If only his mother was still here. Her love to strengthen him, her wisdom to guide him. He poured another bottle, mixed brandy and bénédictine. Thought then, too, of what rebirth might mean. And of God and such mysterious ways: He giveth and He taketh away…
If Odile had been granted the power to paint death, what else could he do, had he not thought to try…? His mother’s sacrifices, and God’s, that He had given his only begotten Son.
Odile polished off one drink, then another, and then he painted as he had never painted before.
THE FOLLOWING NIGHT, Monsieur Bourguignon arrived at Odile’s loft. He found the door locked. Two hard, pounding knocks later, and the door was still locked.
‘Odile, c’est moi. Open!’
Cearbhall put his weight against it, shook his head. They stood on the outside stairwell, and from there pushed together, but the door held fast. Something blocked it from the other side.
‘The fool,’ Monsieur Bourguignon hissed. ‘He has thought to barricade himself within.’
Behind them, Vlak’ Mikel cracked his knuckles.
‘I know you are within, mon petit artiste,’ Monsieur Bourguignon called out. ‘You never leave.’
‘Cearbhall, the narrow ledge here,’ Monsieur Bourguignon pointed to an eight inch wide brick extrusion. ‘It runs around the building. On the other side is a great window. Can you break through, come let us in?’
Cearbhall nodded. He placed one foot onto the brick ledge, testing its weight. On his toes and gripping the rain gutter, he eased along the wall until turning out of sight around the corner.
Monsieur Bourguignon twisted at his moustache, sharp teeth showing under a ghastly smile. He said to Vlak’ Mikel, ‘I only wish I were inside to see the look upon that fool’s face when Cearbhall smashes in.’
A distant creak sounded and a shattering of glass. Monsieur Bourguignon’s smile turned greater. Ghastlier. ‘Quick, let us in!’
They heard next from inside the loft a thud, and something toppling over. Then footsteps—too many. Another thud, louder, and then a scream—shrill and shocked and horrible, the prying of rusty nails from a wood crate after rain has set in.
‘Cearbhall, what is it? What is going on? Let us in!’ Monsieur Bourguignon pounded on the door, and Vlak’ Mikel kicked it until the frame shuddered. ‘Cearbhall!’
They were met with silence. Dead silence, as Monsieur Bourguignon’s father used to tell him. His senses sharpened: this was wrong, a trap; Odile Thibodeau was causing problems, that rat-heart drunk snivelling painter… but he was inside; this, Monsieur Bourguignon was certain. Hiding, disobeying… painting. That was the fear, was it not? No matter the threats made, the intimidation shown, the soothing over with gold, this, this was the danger of trying to subjugate such a power, a gift of the gods to a dolt, this sac à merde.
He could not wait to let Odile finish whatever he was doing within.
‘Stay here,’ Monsieur Bourguignon told Vlak’ Mikel. ‘I will be back.’
And he was.
Twenty minutes later, Monsieur Bourguignon returned with eight more of his men, all lumbering, hard hitting, scarred brutes of his gang: Boneyard Billie. François Guignol. Matheu the Mad. And the others. They brought with them a battering ram.
Four of them took up the ram and smashed through the door in seconds. Display hutches and shelves had been stacked there, but the battering ram went through them all. One of Monsieur Bourguignon’s men laughed. Another cheered. They poured into the filthy, shadowed loft.
Then Monsieur Bourguignon froze. His emotions shook, erupted in a wild tempest of inner conflict, each vying for dominance as what to feel most: horror, shock, fear, revulsion, bewilderment, for there was too much to see all at once…
Closest was Cearbhall laying on the floor, surrounded by the glass he had broken through. He was motionless and smoking. No blood was visible, no fire, only smoke rising from his skin. Smitten, Monsieur Bourguignon thought wildly. Cearbhall had been smitten…
Behind him, the corpse of Odile the painter was stood up and splayed backward over a large wood easel, crucified. His hands were outstretched, his feet crossed at the ankles. Each was impaled by the handles of paintbrushes. The painter’s eyes had turned upcast, perhaps a final sight of the crown of gold coins he’d sewn upon his scalp. Blood dripped from his mouth, his wounds, to mix with the paints splattered over the floor. It would have been impossible for Odile to have done that to himself, and yet… yet…
Odile was also across the room, watching them.
A wood stool had been painted gold, and covered in crosses in some homage—or mockery—of a throne, and of which Odile sat upon. Silently. Fingers splayed beneath his chin, as if in contemplative judgement of those he faced.
One of Monsieur Bourguignon’s men cried out. Another gasped. Boneyard Billie whispered, ‘Zut alors!’
Smells came to him then, not just of Cearbhall’s smoking body, and of painter’s oils, but something strange, something that did not fit: heavenly fragrance, lilies and lavender. And even then, as he took in those scents, and the men around him shuffled and muttered, he realized movement forming; besides dead Cearbhall, and dead Odile, and—seemingly alive—Odile, were a group of people, vaguely ‘normal’ people, though expressionless, streaming in from the back room to stand alongside Odile on his gold throne. At glance and quick estimate, there were perhaps thirty men and women, of all ages, all clothing styles, all familiar…
A druggist in medical apron. A police sergeant. A rouge cheeked strumpet. The handsome, grandfatherly judicial clerk. All the dead Odile had killed… resurrected. Reborn. A golden glow issued from their eyes.
‘What have you done, artiste… what have you done? The dead… the dead!’ Monsieur Bourguignon roared. His hands flicked up and out, a dagger suddenly in each. ‘No matter, we will kill them again!’
His men, they drew knives, brass knuckles, revolvers, pipes.
Those beside Odile lifted their arms in supplication, and great feathered wings unfurled from behind their backs.
IT ENDED IN no time, and the final sound was of Monsieur Bourguignon shrieking, ‘Seraphim!’ before demise.
The paintings, if he’d had time to see them, surrounded him and his smoking men, his smitten men.
For there was every death Odile had painted, undone. Every murdered soul, reborn on canvas. Risen from the malfeasance that had cut short their mortal existence. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, and so too did Odile find he could return life just as he had ended it.
By his own sacrifice, he’d painted himself, crucified, in which all the human pain he had caused came back, marked as his stigmata. He’d painted all the others, quick sketches of lives spliced back together, martyred, saintly and angelic. Halos and harps, and wicked retribution, his host of seraphim angels.
Odile now took a brush and dipped it into a jar of ebony black and carefully painted onto a new canvas a thin, separating line. He must take care for his craft again, he knew, return to the mastery he’d so assiduously once held himself, the ideals of composition, the focus and tapestry of beauty comprised by hue and depth and value.
With the next stroke he released his host of reborn into the streets of Paris, his eyes—the seraphim—decreed to avenge all wrongs, to seek out all evil, and to smite it.
And he hoped—as he began to compose the first face he’d ever known, the face of his own divine mother—that there would still be persons left remaining to enjoy all of how he would repaint this grand city.