Flash Fiction Fruesday: Death in Provence
Crow made the rule this week, and Caiti, Gabe, and I followed suit, some later than others. Can you guess the shared theme? The following is the result of a conglomeration of things: reading Thomas Bernhard (Corrections, my fellow CNF scholars?), rereading Milan Kundera, and a weekend jaunt in Arles with the other Brown-in-France students. A photo post will soon follow but for now, fiction. Read it after the jump:
My father was a doctor. Often he took me with him on his country visits in the hope that I might decide to bear the responsibility inherent in my intellect and study medicine like he had. I was indeed bright, but I was only interested in the shapes of people, in the curves of the inner parts of their ears and the cliffs of their protruding clavicles. I liked old people best and so one Sunday in May I agreed to see an old woman with him.
We drove to an olive grove within sight of the Alpilles. The trees were gnarled hands reaching to the sky, larger models of the proprietor’s own extremities. Her name was Claude-Anne Jeanet and it was clear that our presence was unwelcome. Her dress was poppy red, the only vibrant thing in the room. She made us bland tea and submitted herself to my father’s questioning and probing. Her eyes were deepset and very little white was visible. I thought this gave her a distinctly animalistic appearance but said nothing on the matter.
After the regular checkup, my father asked if she had had any visitors lately, perhaps on a regular basis. Only you, she said, as though she suspected he had asked a trick question. Nobody else? he said. Not your daughters? A priest, a neighbor? She shook her head. You know perfectly well that I don’t take visitors, doctor, she told him. I am very happy alone. Since my husband died two years ago I have let my olive grove grow wild and I have stayed on my land. I don’t need any money or groceries: my vegetable garden and chicken coop keep me well fed and content. So you see I have no need for any visitors.
My father frowned, irritated. What about company? he enquired. We have talked of this before. It is healthy to entertain company. You don’t feel lonely here?
Lonely? she said, astonished. Society is for the young. I am 67, monsieur. My husband is dead, and so are my parents and sisters, and my daughters have married and moved to Paris. So you see, since I am alone, I am slowly dissolving.
My father placed his chin in his hand and sighed. Madame Jeanet saw that I was still interested however and so she continued.
My family was a mass that has now been lifted, she explained. When I was with them, they were like the pressure of the air, keeping all of me together, dense. And now I am nearly weightless. When I walk outside to pick my vegetables, I can see atoms floating off my skin, I can see them in the sun, rising brightly. I carry on living as usual, of course, and though I am losing much weight I am still eating regularly. But for every morsel I eat, two are wrested from my body into the air. Right now, doctor, you and your son are weighing me in, keeping my body compressed. Yet when you leave I will begin to disintegrate again. One day soon my mass will be so insignificant that I will burst apart into tiny pieces and float up into heaven, fast and bright.
My father pursed his lips and snapped his black bag shut. It has been a pleasure as always, Madame, he said cordially. She nodded and gestured toward the door. He led me by the shoulder to our car and complained as we walked that she had been telling him the same story for two years, since Monsieur Jeanet had died of a brain aneurism. She was inappropriately joyful at the funeral, he said darkly. People thought she must have been insane with grief. Her daughters pay me to visit her every three months, not to look after her but rather to tell them when she dies. Hers is obviously a harmless insanity and as she is so isolated she bothers no one. Still, he sighed, it is frustrating to see her work so hard to delude herself. She has weighed 70 kilograms for two years straight, no more, no less.
He started the car and we rolled slowly down the dirt road through the savage olive trees. I turned around in my seat and saw Madame Jeanet in the doorway. Suddenly her face lit up as though from within, her mouth made a small O, and the next second her red dress was floating in the air as though at the peak of a parabolic trajectory, and a thousand tiny glimmers, like blown dandelion seeds, were rising gracefully to the sky.
I let out a small cry, and my father clapped his hand on my knee. I don’t mean these visits to upset you, he said, but all of humanity is an infinitely dying, infinitely grotesque thing. From the moment we are conceived we begin to die. We are pathetically ephemeral, destined each to a sorry expiry. Medicine is therefore the noblest profession: we tend to the dying all our lives, determined to prevent a thing unpreventable. Art is base. It celebrates permanence and celebrity in the belief that one’s self-expression is a lasting extension of a quickly fading mind. Son, you are blind to worship art. Will you not even consider studying medicine?
I said nothing and he removed his hand from my leg with a sigh. I imagined how in three months he would return to Madame Jeanet’s and find the house empty, shutters flapping in the breeze and teacups still on the table, the only clue to her death a red dress grasped in the branches of an olive tree.