This short fiction is based on the life of Celine Martin (1869-1959), whose younger sister became Saint Therese of Lisieux (1873-1897). Celine was an artist and photographer. Her own conflicted religious vocation came late, but she brought her photographic equipment and artist’s eye into the convent, and was responsible for capturing much-treasured photographs, and later painted images, of her short-lived sister.
Therese and I pose for the camera at Madame Besnier’s studio. We are both dressed the same, in the patterns sewed up for us by one of Mama’s workers. I saw the designs in le Conseiller Universale, and liked them, as did Marie, who took the magazine from me before I had finished with it. Our dresses are not pink as in the published illustration, but a modest blue, with deep, dark V shapes plunging down from our necks to partway down our thighs.
Therese, being only eight years old, has no hips to speak of. But I will shortly turn thirteen, and my body has filled itself out with secrets, unknown even to myself. I stand alarmingly tall, my legs like trunks in their high black boots. My long hair is tied back. I hold my head up, proudly: a big sister, at last. I don’t see Therese’s expression at the time, as she stands close by my side, holding the skipping rope at the photographer’s suggestion. I place my arm around her and put my hand on her shoulder. She feels warm and small, a child-version of myself. We hold the pose. We have, alas, no mother to protect her; or to prevent me from growing up.
From this strange brown box, an image will come. I cannot help myself; I am fascinated by the process. Madame Besnier’s camera is like a toy confessional, too tiny for its veil, and into which are sucked and absolved our hidden sins. After its processing, we will emerge on shining paper, colorless, but immortalized. I think, I should like to do this one day: create art from light and flesh; listen without words and negotiate with time.
A few months later I start to bleed. I am astonished at the redness, the thickness of the blood. It is a watercolor scarlet mixed with clots of dark paste. I attempt to rinse the blood from my knee length cotton knickers, but Louise must have noticed and told Marie. She comes to see me in our bedroom, when Therese is out with Papa. I put down my sketchbook but stay seated on my bed. ‘Celine, I bring you the rags: you will need to use them at certain times of the month.’ She issues me with a parcel wrapped in tissue paper. In it are rectangular cotton napkins. ‘It is something all women must deal with,’ she shrugs. I realize that I have been ignorant of an important bodily function for thirteen whole years. Women everywhere, bleeding! And yet to wear red is bad; it is vulgar: all women, vulgar in their bright painterly parts.
‘Are you in pain, Celine? Does your stomach hurt?’ I nod, it is true, the cramping is unpleasant. ‘Louise will make you a tisane,’ says Marie. ‘Tell Papa you have a headache, if he sees you are unwell.’ She embraces me and leaves.
We visit the Louvre. Two days in Paris and my head spins. I am looking at genius and I think my own girlish efforts so much firewood; poor straw barely fit for a blaze.
A Renoir, newly mounted. For a moment I think, arrogantly, nonsensically, it is a portrait of me. But how could that be? The head of a woman, perhaps just twenty years old; but how weary and dream-laden she seems. This is how I feel, but never how I would publicly pose. Yet here is the posture, with her left hand propping up her heavy head. Such rich colors, and such brushstrokes. Therese and Papa are engaged in conversation; I do not think it is about art. I turn back to the mounted canvass and feel myself diminish in stature before something so compelling, so utterly modern. The rich blue of her dress is echoed in the blue – deep and heavy – above her head, and in the blue shadow at the line of her palm. This woman’s skin is the most beautiful translucent tone. It shines, almost, though I know it to be technique. I lean in, discerning ghostly blue tones under the pink of her complexion. She is a breath away from living. Ah! Perhaps she is me after all. She is sad – and she wears a slim wedding ring; the cause of her pain. But these pearlescent shades, the fullness of her flesh – how can the critics miss its power, mis-read it to the extent of taking dapples of light as putrefaction?
Perhaps it takes someone who is both natural subject of such art, and a painter herself, to so merge with this creation as to be touched by its life in her own living core. Mother of God, Guardian Angel. See how very proud I am! See how much I still have to learn, to fashion myself in the shadows of humility. I am cross with myself. Yet pleased, obscurely, with my private thoughts.
I emerge from my trance and soon we leave the Museum. It rains, and this is the one thing we are inadequately prepared for. Yes, we will dress for the Pope, but for the weeping heavens – no. Papa suggests we buy new raincoats in the neighboring Galleries, so in we go, huddling with Parisians and other tourists who entertain the same thoughts. I look at their faces; their worn, wet complexions; the pink, peach, gray, blue, making up the dermis of the human body. The smells of damp materials, weary shoppers, mingle like a swirling landscape of paint. Inside them all is a woman resting her head on her elbow.
Papa generously ushers us to the ground floor, where he orders two raincoats and they are fitted and purchased. And then, with time to spare before dinner at the hotel, we ride the new, steam-powered elevators to the top floor of the Galleries, for no reason but novelty and pleasure. I look at Therese and find her entranced. In this enclosed space, removed from the bustling floors, we move upwards and the swirling in my stomach reminds me of my involuntary physical response to Uncle’s interest in my drawings. Therese must feel this swirling too though; of what does she think?
She has her look; her lips pressed together, sweetly suppressing a secret.
She turns fifteen, and all she wants to do is fly to her convent cell. She has been told that as she is still so young, she must wait until the Lenten fast is over. Despite herself, she crumples with impatience. I soothe her, after my own fashion. ‘Live a little,’ I suggest. ‘Come to the town with me. There is a new patisserie on the Rue de la Couture. We can have hot chocolate; bring some cakes home for Papa.’ She is not persuaded.
I go to the town myself, meeting Jeanne and Aunt Celine. We visit haberdashers, stationers, milliners, and yes, the patisserie. Jeanne is immediately at ease and selects sweetmeats for us all. ‘We’ll get something for Therese,’ she says, concerned to show she cares for her quixotic cousin. ‘And Celine, you will visit us this Saturday, with or without your sister! Come – wear your new jacket and hat. Albert will be visiting us, he wants to meet you; he knows you paint and would hear your opinions on the Paris exhibitions.’ She smiles; it is a fait accompli. I will come.
Albert Quesnel sits in the corner of the sitting room like a large black spider. When I arrive, he does not make a sound, but when I have given my coat and new hat to Honoree and patted down my hair and skirts, I enter the room; he folds himself upwards, then forwards into an almost indiscernible bow.
‘My very great pleasure, Mademoiselle Celine,’ he says. I offer him my hand. He takes it in his own and there is a moment of hesitation before he raises it slightly and bows further towards it. But does not kiss it. I feel myself to be a rare drink; a glass raised and lowered in ritual salutation. Before long Jeanne and Marie both come in and settle down for the semi-polite sisterly exchange of the Guerins. Albert discourses surprisingly well, after our awkward opening. He is an informed gentleman and I find myself genuinely interested in his reports from the art world of Paris. ‘The next exposition, Celine (if I may), promises to be of particular interest to those following the new light-centered portraiture set in the natural world,’ he says. ‘Indeed,’ I say. ‘And will young Monsieur Monet continue to surprise us with his unusual brush strokes, and monomania of subject?’ I am more than able to keep the conversation going; more than that, I am enjoying the experience of exchanging views about advancements in the creative discipline I have followed for so long. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Marie interested too; and Jeanne choosing rather to watch my reactions. She hopes to play matchmaker with this new caller.
‘You are of a family truly blessed with religious vocations,’ Albert says. ‘Two sisters in the Carmelite Convent of Lisieux. What a great honor for your father.’ This I can’t deny. ‘Yet his other daughters remaining at home to care for him – what an even greater comfort.’
‘Not three for long, Monsieur Quesnel,’ Cousin Marie can’t help herself from joining in.
‘Surely you are not also called to the sanctified life?’ he says, turning to me, like a magnetized flag.
‘We are all called to live a sanctified life, whatever our circumstances,’ I say to him, reflecting on many conversations I have had with Therese, and indeed myself. ‘But it is my youngest sister, Therese, who has heard and responded to the call to Carmel. She enters there this year.’ Saying it to him, I am stirred into a new sense of abandonment mixed with pride. A flicker of my frequent daydream crosses my senses: that of painting Therese on the eve of her departure, a seated Therese, looking into the fading sky from the belvedere; a finely-dressed girl giving her life to God. How would Albert receive this confidence? As a symptom of pride? But in fact, he is pleased with my response.
‘I am deeply moved by her commitment,’ he manages. ‘And by the spiritual and artistic gifts of your whole family.’ He hesitates. ‘Mademoiselle Celine, would you permit me to call on you for a further extension of our conversation? My soul benefits from your vision. Please do not deny me this pleasure.’
I feel myself blush. Stupidly so, as my attraction for this man is negligible, compared with the pull of my soul towards tableaux vivantes and painters’ palettes. Yet it has been a pleasure, of a diversionary sort, to converse with him, and so I agree with a forced but gracious smile to his request.
At night in our bedroom, Therese is so quiet that I know not whether she wakes or sleeps. Perhaps she does neither but is wrapped up in the jealous God who can’t wait to take her. I imagine a man’s breathing – Albert’s – accompanying my thoughts as they dissolve into dream.
Therese has entered the Carmel.
It is evening, and the light fades as though never to return.
By my side is my sketch book. I will not go to Madame Duclair this week, but I am compelled to mark the day with my art, somehow. In the sketch book I have been drawing lines and curves. The lines resemble pear drops, tear drops, diamonds; shattered gems. Cross-hatchings of gray and black. Darker and darker my strokes, like a black veil falling over what had once been bright. I press harder than usual with my pencils. One I break.
Tom patters in to the room and places himself desultorily at my feet with a noisy, impolite, doggy sigh. Papa’s prized clock ticks away, obstinately, on the mantelpiece.
There is a noise at the front door. Elise must still be here, as I hear steps and then the door opening. A man’s voice. Monsieur Ruffle, for Papa? But Papa retired immediately to his study after dinner. It is his way of shutting out the loss.
Suddenly there is a gentle knock against the open sitting room door. ‘Monsieur Quesnel for Mademoiselle Celine,’ says Elise, her face its usual mix of deference and curiosity. And in walks Albert; tall, dark, and gaunt-looking in the April evening light.
‘Monsieur Quesnel! This is an unexpected pleasure. Please, sit down.’ And he does, in the chair beside the settee on which I sit with my open sketch book. He seems nervous, but perhaps he is just slightly breathless from his after-dinner walk. ‘Papa is in his study. I should –.’
‘Please, do not trouble him,’ says Albert. ‘Monsieur Martin is a contemplative man; I would wish to respect his nature.’ He risks lifting his dark eyes to mine, and offers a lopsided smile, which I return in kind. ‘You have been working on your art.’ He gestures at the open page with its mismatched lines. ‘You are dedicated to it. This is a wonderful thing, Celine.’ And he smiles at me again, as though I am his great hope for the future of the cultured world.
I cannot help it. I shut the book and clasp my hands together primly in my lap.
‘May I offer you some refreshment, Albert?’
‘Very kind of you, Mademoiselle Martin.’
I ring the bell and Elise appears with Papa’s brandy bottle and glass on a silver tray. Albert pours himself a very modest measure. He smiles still, but his hands shake a little.
He settles back into his chair and asks me about my day. I tell him that Therese entered Carmel this morning. He nods, as though this is a known event, a fixed date in the cycle of the liturgical year. And, it turns out, a good day to make a proposal of marriage. ‘This is a year of great changes and brave decisions for your family. Won’t you join me in making your own great decision and do me the honor of becoming Madame Celine Quesnel?’ And he gives his half-smile again, draining the small brandy glass and setting it back on its tray. Tom raises his head and breathes with a rhythmical heaviness before lowering it back between his paws.
For a moment, the grays of the evening swirl through the room, and gather together on my sketch book before pouring themselves into my heart. My throat is scratchy and my eyes sting. I imagine pronouncing my marriage vows to Monsieur Quesnel in a gray gown, unpinning my long gray hair on our wedding night so that it falls about me, becomes me, my body vanishing and the hair collapsing like a dry nest to the floor.
I know that I cannot marry him. But where have I gone?
‘Monsieur, such a kind, kind offer!’ I must let him down gently, I know. ‘I am so very touched and honored – if you knew what your words meant to me!’ And the gray seeps into my mind and I am stumbling in a fog. ‘But I am afraid I must disappoint you, and I am so very sorry. Only this morning, I had determined upon a – a vow of celibacy! I have just written to my confessor who has been urging me to stake this step; a small step, I know, compared to my darling sister, but one I feel I must take in her honor and in hope of one day securing my own certain calling, whatever that may be.’ Even to me this sounds prolix, long-winded. But Albert has the grace to hear me out. Presently he nods, as if to himself, and rises.
‘You do me no dishonor, Mademoiselle, and I am forever grateful for your honesty in this and all our intercourse. In fact, I had spent many hours in prayer this week before coming to you with my humble request this evening. It may be that the good God has spoken to me through you. I too have been meditating on the possibility of a vocation.’ He moves towards the still-open door and gestures with his hand for me to remain seated. ‘Do not be surprised, Celine, if you next hear from me from the Grand Seminary of Bayeux. And rest assured of my continued intercession for your happiness at all times.’ And with this, he bows slightly, and is gone to his future without the prospect of a wife. Tom sleeps on, having satisfied himself that there is no need for him to accompany Albert into the hallway.
I sit in the encroaching darkness, with a dreaming dog, and wonder why everyone is called but me. It is true that Father Pichon supported my idea of a yearly vow of celibacy, but this is a mere
marker, signifying an absence. In agitation my hands find my sketchbook and open it again, on a blank page.
A fresh page, I tell myself. I will see what might emerge in the empty light of morning.
La Musse: A Country House owned by The Guerins.
Sometimes art can be a salvation from distress. Not for Papa: he is beyond creative expression now. He can only offer himself, his near-completed life, in all its colors and tones. But for us, the remaining younger ones, a project has been set into motion. Marie and I have not always been the closest of cousins. But she is talented. She sings like an angel as well as throwing herself into the new art of the photograph.
Jeanne and her husband Francis will join us. Francis is so good-humored, his moustaches positively twirled of their own accord at the prospect. And Father Joseph! The good Doctor Corneille has let his priested son come out to play. Father Joseph is the experienced one, having visited the New World. But I am the artist; I set the scenes; I conjure the tableaux. We are going to the Andes. In the clear eye of the Darlot, the many acres of La Musse are exoticized, as, in a way, are we.
As far away from Carmel as it is possible to imagine.
Farewell! Isidore joins in the first photograph, shaking Francis’ hand as we depart La Musse, travel cases in hand. In the cases are cloaks and provisions, as though we were off on a real holiday. Marie and I wear similar dresses as we so often do. Full-length and tasteful ivory, with deep blue cross-body sashes minimizing our busts but accentuating our waists, all small. Jeanne’s dress is similar but of slightly duller material; the dress of a married woman. Altogether we are in the monied, secular habits of leisure. Aunt cannot keep still, despite my telling her more than once about the importance of holding the post. She stands at the top of the steps to the house and keeps turning her head to survey us all with a vacant smile. She will come out as a whitened blur, a woman without a face.
Off we go to explore one hundred acres of castle ground; ground transformed through our fancy and through the artificiality of the glass plate into the Cordillera Mountains! There is laughter. Francis leads the way, shooting gun held aloft. Jeanne and Marie follow him with little rivulets of laughter and song. I stroll, for a while, with awkward Fr. Joseph.
‘A glorious day,’ he observes.
‘A beautiful day indeed,’ I say. ‘But you must have experienced true heat in Chile; far greater than this.’
He nods as he walks. ‘Ah yes. God’s earth is not always so pleasant for us missionaries. Our adventures must be for Him, or we risk a scorching!’ I am not surprised his talk turns pious so quickly. He is little at ease with the ladies, despite his travels and his learning. A scorching? It’s hard to imagine him succumbing to sinful temptations. He must be a very literal man.
‘Ah – how are your dear sisters?’ he cannot help himself enquiring, though I had hoped for a day away from talk of them.
‘They are well, Father,’ I am obliged to reply. ‘Although we all think ceaselessly of dear Papa as he comes to his journey’s end.’
Fr. Joseph is comfortable with talk of impending family death. He offers me a selection of pious platitudes. I suppose that he has experience of such situations. They are common of course, and everyone needs a priest at such a time.
I make a mental note to avoid his ministrations when Papa’s exile ends.
Bridges. Rivers. ‘Let’s start here,’ says Marie. ‘Let’s get on the bridge and make up a story. I know! Let’s fish. Celine, borrow Francis’ gun. You can shoot!’
So we do. I set the camera, pushing the tripod legs down into the rich earth. Francis helps me with the equipment, needlessly, but he is a man and likes to oversee our endeavors. ‘Careful Celine,’ he advises, cheerily. ‘Keep your beautiful dress as spotless as your soul!’ He beams at his own clumsy compliment. I smile back at him, having wiped my hands on my handkerchief and stowed it away in the little hip pocket under my sash. ‘I’ll set the mechanism,’ I say. ‘Let’s pose on the bridge as Marie suggests.’ I feel shy asking Francis for his shooting gun, but he presses the long, cool weapon into my hand and guides me by my elbow to where the others stand over the sluggish water.
‘Closer together!’ says Marie, eyes bright with her own vision of how the tableau should be. Fr. Joseph, lean over the bridge and imagine you see flying fish. Jeanne, here – take the net, ready to scoop.’ Jeanne takes the proffered net but stands rather stiffly, a residual, default resistance against her younger sister. Marie doesn’t care; she gestures me in to the center of the group and pushes me against Francis, who seems suddenly huge and warm in comparison to his travelling entourage. Marie poses, pointing with the whole of her left arm to the water. Pressed between Francis and the bridge rails, I clutch the shooter against my body, then tip it away so it points to the water, in parallel with Marie’s extended arm. But I keep my face turned towards Francis, mutely aware of his physical proximity. He beams at me. His left hand touches my body. Our eyes lock and we smile. Suddenly, I am suffused with a warmth like an electric current rippling up and down my sash and spreading over my breasts and hips.
We hold the pose.
Afterwards I work hard to disguise my dazed emotions, as if I had looked directly, and unwisely, at the July sun. I sense that, if I hope to save my soul, I should not do so again.
When Papa dies, I sense a shower of gold dust sighing its way up to heaven.
I take his photograph. He is utterly still: it is an excellent portrait. His hooded eyes closed. His face all white and light. On his chest, the heavy crucifix from the bedroom at Les Buissonets. Stopping him from rising from his coffin, before the judgment day.
But now I am spinning like a top free from its leash. I visit the Carmel and walking alone to the parlor, feel a huge mesh of pain in my heart. Therese, uncharacteristically, grasps the grille and implores me with her stare, her veil flung back, her face naive with hope. It kindles the same naive hope in me. She says little but bids me fit my white hands over hers.
Later I speak with Pauline. She is the expert. ‘I do not want to presume,’ I say to her. ‘I cannot expect miracles.’ Yet of course this is exactly what I expect. After all these years, it is practically my birthright. Should I wish to claim it: and suddenly, I do.
Pauline’s look is studied; her face has its sharp look. Does she doubt my vocation, when Therese never has? Is she embarrassed by the stream of blood sisters to follow her into this sanctuary? She reads my mind: ‘a fourth Martin sister is not, for all of the community, a welcome event, Celine. After Therese...’
‘Who has been exemplary, or so you tell me.’
‘She is an angel,’ replies Pauline, firmly. ‘But nevertheless, there was friction at the start. And now once more we push at the rules, we seek to bend them for family members.’ Her lips are set firmly, a bar to her heart just as the parlor grille is a bar to the community beyond it.
‘Pauline, I know you are right. I’m a tagalong and I can’t be given full rights. But, Oh! Pauline, if you knew how I felt...’ here I stifle a tear, a hot streak of self-pity and frustration. ‘I am sick of the world. I am so tired. I would accept any position. Pauline! I would be a postulant forever, wearing those hideous blue bonnets until I am an old woman!’
Pauline smiles; she can’t help herself. But neither do I help myself with such remarks. So, I try again. ‘Surely you need another sister at the Turn? With my knowledge of the world, I could interact with it to your benefit; I could shop, clean...’
‘Oh, you will do your share of cleaning Celine, never fear. But I hope for something a little better for you. I am proud of you, and prouder still now you look to give yourself in Carmel. You have suffered and loved for us all, little sister. I will speak to Mother Marie and find a way forward. If nothing else, we need your art. I wonder even if you would be allowed to bring in your photographic materials.’ At this my heart leaps. ‘In this modern world, your skills could supplement our portrait work and would bring great pleasure to the sisters. Well,’ she corrects herself, ‘some of them.’
‘I would do whatever I could to serve the community,’ I assure her, formal again.
‘Humbly said,’ concedes Pauline. Though she continues to look at me as a puzzle to resolve.
I go back to Uncle Isidore’s and capture my oldest sister’s features in a deft sketch. Prioress Pauline the merciful, I write underneath. Then I go downstairs for some strong wine. I take a gulp, and another, and sense myself infused with new blood. I close my eyes, then open them. I breathe for ten seconds and imagine religious life’s slow exposure on my soul. I close my eyes again and, aware of my own loud heartbeat, pray to become God’s lens.