Friday, August 13, 2021

Bérénice, part 3

 Nobody came to the door when she knocked for her third session, but she thought that she heard someone call her name from inside. She tried the handle and, finding it unlatched, let herself in, calling out a greeting as she did so.

Inside the studio, she found that Else was kneeling to hold an earthenware cup of water to Jean-Claude’s lips, and murmuring something to him. Bérénice stopped at the threshold, embarrassed. She cleared her throat.

Else did not pause; she waited until Jean-Claude had drunk the whole cup, still speaking to him, before she rose, touched his shoulder, and moved to depart. Jean-Claude tipped his head to one side to wipe his mouth on the shoulder of his shirt.

Else nodded in welcome to Bérénice as she passed, giving her a weary smile. Bérénice was struck that Else had grown even more haggard over the course of less than a week. Though she still walked with a measured pace and straight back, her skin looked translucent, her eyes sunken, her lips dry. Bérénice felt a surge of emotion: she wanted to embrace the other woman, or tuck her into bed and spoon broth for her. But she already heard the front door closing: Else must have gone out to go to the market.

Jean-Claude must have read Bérénice’s face when she moved into the studio, because he said, “She hasn’t been sleeping well.”

“I’m sorry.”

He shook his head. He looked tired, too, his pale eyes heavy and shadowed. “Even when she’s sick, it’s hard for her to rest, because…” He hesitated, looking at Bérénice, before going on: “She thinks that I might need her.” He was drumming the toes of one foot against the ground; she took it as a sign of nerves.

“I see,” Bérénice said softly.

After another moment, he arrested his nervous tapping, shaking his head again. “Shall we begin? Today, we paint.” He cocked his head to indicate the supplies he had laid out to begin the oil sketch, the looser rendering that would precede the final painting. Fresh paint was laid out on his palette in an arc of colors, and, she realized now, the air smelled of linseed oil.

Bérénice smiled, feeling a prickle of excitement. She flung her arms overhead, stretching from head to toe, then quickly executed a series of exaggerated poses for him, ending with a few dance steps. “I’m ready!” she declared, arms outspread.

He smiled crookedly. “Then why are you still dressed?” And he gestured her over toward the dressing screen with his chin. It was the closest he had come to teasing her.

Bérénice had been excited not only for the first paint stroke to go down—a moment that always filled her with anticipation—but to see him paint, of course. But the fascination of watching him grip and angle the long paintbrushes with his toes was soon diluted by the fact that his fatigue clearly put him at odds with his own body. His head kept twisting to his left shoulder, obliging him to look from the corners of his eyes, and he might spend half a minute considering where to place the next brushstroke, only for his leg to jerk and fall to the side when he tried to execute it.

His mouth was tight with unhappiness and he was breathing in short, hard spurts by the time that Bérénice tactfully suggested that she take her first break. Jean-Claude gave her a brief “Yes,” then pushed out a loud exhalation and flung his legs out in a gesture of frustration, the soles of his feet smacking down against the floorboards.

Bérénice could see him staring resentfully at the paintbrush that he still held between the toes of his right foot, its tuft loaded with yellow ochre. She guessed that he was considering throwing it; only then that would oblige her to go and retrieve it for him, and the paint might spoil something in the room.

She twisted her mouth to one side, wishing she could do something, but held her tongue. She re-wrapped the overcoat around herself, feeling cold air steal up against her bare skin as she shifted it, then turned her back to him in order to begin the little dance of warming herself up.

When she turned around again, Jean-Claude had clearly worked to compose himself. His mouth was set into a determined line; he nodded for her to resume her pose. While she rearranged her hair and the folds of her coat, he rubbed his left foot against the ankle of the other and stared hard at her in the artist’s way, where the whole picture is seen, not the person. Again, she felt a prickle of excitement.

He began painting again. This time, his gestures seemed a little looser, a little more fluid. He paused often to rest and think, but each time he lifted the brush with his foot again, she could feel the unity of the motion and his intent, the brush following his fiercely directed gaze.

During one pause, when he was mixing a new color, he said to her, “I wish I could paint faster.”

Bérénice blinked and tried to conceal her surprise at hearing him actually voice a complaint. Then she smiled. “You’re far from the only artist I’ve heard bemoan this.”

“I know, but…”

After he had been silent a while, Bérénice decided to probe a little. “Are you thinking about process? Or… your body?”

He considered. “Both, I suppose. I trust the process I’ve been taught. I understand how it serves me. But sometimes I think about money—how much many more paintings I could make and sell if I could cut steps, find a new way. And sometimes I wonder whether I might simply discover new things—new ways of seeing, new ways of making—if I tried something different.”

Bérénice was perplexed. “Why don’t you?”

“I’m afraid of losing even more time if I stray. I’m sure you’ve heard about ‘shortcuts’ that waste materials, produce bad results. I feel I don’t have space to experiment. I’m always tired, Bérénice. There are only so many hours in the day, and only so many hours when I can paint, physically. There are always more things I should be planning, learning, things I could be doing to try to better manage our affairs, but I can’t, because I have to paint, and painting makes me tired, because of my stupid body.”

With the last phrase, he stamped his free foot against the ground, and then leaned back against his chair, biting his lower lip in agitation. His head was beginning to twitch, jerking through space randomly, and a tremor seized his left leg, lifting it up into the air, the foot extended, before it trembled back down to the ground.

“I’m sorry,” Bérénice said. “I’ve distracted you, and upset you.” She was frozen into her pose with dismay; she didn’t dare to turn her head to look at him more directly. Even from what she could see, distress clutched at her stomach: it was hard, hard to see him lose him control over himself, to look so infirm, helpless.

He shook his head jerkily. “I started it, and I’m not upset at you. It’s better for me to stop today, anyway. I could already tell I was going to get worse again.”

She couldn’t tell if he was only trying to make her feel better. Seeing her hesitate, he flexed the toes of his right foot to tap the butt of his paintbrush against the floor and said, “I mean it. You can stop for today.”

She hesitated one moment more, then said, “If you’re sure…” and rose from the chair.

He tapped the paintbrush against the floor again, then added, “I don’t suppose… you would like to stay and share another cigarette with me?” His voice was once again as shy as it had been on the first day.

“Only if you start adding the cost of cigarettes to my fee,” she said, and felt rewarded when he snorted. “But really—of course,” she said, smiling. “Wait just a moment.”

While she dressed, he called out, still sounding diffident, “There are blankets in the covered basket behind the screen. Will you bring me one? You should take some, too.”

She emerged with several piled in her arms and an unlit cigarette between her lips. One blanket she laid on the floor by him, for her to sit on; as she did so, she stole a glance at his oil sketch, and exclaimed, “Oh!”

“You like it?” he said, sounding skeptical.

“Very much,” she said. The loose strokes, the ghostly, glowing indications of light and shadow, filled her with a hushed pleasure and expectancy. “I often like the sketch better than the finished painting,” she added.

“Me, too,” he said, with a wry twist of his mouth.

“It’s like seeing a spirit… The final work sometimes seems to have too much cleverness in it. But where did you want this blanket?” she said, almost interrupting herself.

“Can you just… put it on me?” he said, seeming embarrassed.

“Like this?” She draped it around his shoulders, tucking it in gently so it wouldn’t slip, conscious of the stillness of his clenched, withered arms under the fabric, conscious that this was the closest she had gotten to touching his body.

He had let out a small sigh, and a shiver ran through his body; he must have been cold. “Yes, thanks.”

“It’s nothing.” She folded herself down cross-legged onto her blanket at the same time that she pulled out a book of matches. Striking one, she lifted it and said, “Santé,” before she touched it to the tip of the cigarette. She inhaled, let the heat and aroma scorch her throat and fill her lungs.

He inclined his head when she reached the cigarette up to him and echoed, “Santé.” His head was still twitching; she followed his motions carefully until she was sure he could take the cigarette.

They smoked in silence for some time before Bérénice asked, “How did you learn to paint?”

When his face went stiff, she said teasingly, “I warned you last time that I wanted to know more about you.”

He gave her a look, then scuffed his feet against the floor.

Then he began, in his slow voice: “When I was little, when my mother had to work, she left me with a neighbor and her children to look after me. They found they could keep me happy for hours if they left me in a chair with a lump of charcoal—or chalk, if they could find any—to draw with. I drew everything I saw around me.” The tremors in his legs had calmed; he traced one toe across the floor and added, “I learned to draw before I learned to talk.”

The way he said it, she wondered how long it had taken him to learn to talk.

“When I was older—there are some schools for children who are crippled, or blind, but they can only take so many children, and my mother could never find the right time or the right way to find a place for me.

“Instead, she found me a place in the studio of an Austrian painter. I was about twelve; he might have been almost fifty. He was half-mad… but very talented. My mother paid him a fee to let me sit in a corner of the studio every day and watch everything, listen to everything, do what I could with the materials she could afford for me.

“Sometimes he would forget who I was and why I was there, and he would lunge at me in a rage and rail at me, accuse me of trying to steal his secrets. It was terrifying; sometimes I hated him. I knew if he wanted to beat me, or throw me out, there was nothing I could do about it. But he never laid a finger on me… To be honest, I think he might have been afraid of my body, or repulsed by it.

“Thinking about him raging just makes me sad, now. He was so confused. I didn’t understand how he could be so angry.”

Bérénice was shaking her head in disbelief.

“Anyway—when he wasn’t having a spell, I loved being there. He rarely spoke to me, but I drank in every moment of watching him work. It was as good as… as being fed when you are hungry. Watching him answered questions that I wouldn’t even have known how to ask.

“Of course the best moments were the ones when he would actually come over to see what I had been working on, in my corner. Sometimes he would walk away again without saying anything, but sometimes he would stay and point out where I had gone wrong, and what I should do in the future. I would imprint every word he said into my memory, every gesture he made, and revisit them for weeks.”

Here he stopped speaking. He was staring at the floor, tracing one foot back and forth again.

“And then?” Bérénice prompted gently.

“And then it all ended, after almost two years. He hadn’t shouted at me in a long while; I had the sense that he was finally accustomed to my being there. But one day he stormed into the studio, and I got ready for it to start all over again—but I realized he was crying. When he saw me, he rushed to me and flung his arms around me and babbled and cried. I was terrified—as I said, he’d never touched me before. I kept trying to pull away from him, but he only held me tighter, until he was crying silently.

“Then he rushed away again, and started bringing me—things. His palette, brushes, tin plates, I don’t know what. He piled them in my lap until they started falling on the floor. All I could do was say, ‘What’s going on? What’s going on?’ But he never really answered.

“Eventually he ran to me and kissed my cheeks and… tried to hold my hands, then my feet. Then he rushed out the door.

“That was the last time I ever saw him. Neighbors said he was taken away by men later, but they didn’t know who—police, or doctors, or something else. I think most everything in his studio was auctioned off—oh, god, are you crying?”

“I’m sorry,” Bérénice said, scrubbing at her cheeks. “I cry easily. It’s stupid. Please ignore me.”

“Please don’t cry,” he said.

“It always helps when people say that,” Bérénice replied, and succeeded in making him smile.

“Well, maybe it will make you feel better to know that I do still have his palette.” And he reached a foot out to gently touch the edge of the worn wooden oval. “And a few of his brushes, too.”

She echoed the gesture, reaching out to touch the other side of the palette. “It does help. Thank you… No matter how many stories you hear of people in trouble, the world always seems to find a new way to open a wound in your heart.”

“Maybe you shouldn’t leave your heart so bare,” he said, with a half-smile.

She shook back her hair, searching his face. “Well, you must admit that your role in the story is unique.”


“If you hadn’t been there, would anyone have known how much feeling there was in his heart? Whatever that feeling was. What could have happened to him?”

“Ah, now you’re really romanticizing…” But he said it with a note of melancholy, looking away from her.

“A different question, then. Why does your mother call you ‘Jisse’?”

He gave a start, his legs jerking upwards and briefly trembling again, then clicked his tongue with exasperation. “You heard that?”

“One or two times,” she admitted.

“Hm.” He pursed his mouth, then said, “J. C.—Jisse. Just short for Jean-Claude.”

Bérénice smiled. “Funny. I like it—but I won’t presume.”

Now he was giving her a strange look, with his pale eyes. She thought that he might say something, but he didn’t.

She wiped her cheeks and sniffed once more, then began to stand up. “Jean-Claude, I need to leave soon—for this sculptor who will want me to reassure him the whole time that no, I can’t tell he’s losing his hair… do you want me to come back? Since we didn’t finish today—”

Before she had even finished the phrase, he had said, “Yes, please.”

She smiled. “Two days? Morning again?”

“Yes, please.” He was still watching her strangely, and this time she saw him start to open his mouth, then close it again and look away, exhaling audibly.

She stepped into her shoes carefully. “Do you need anything before I leave? If your mother came back, I didn’t hear it.”

“No, thank you.”

Nonetheless, she went to him, knelt by his side, and kissed his mouth.

They parted. She held his face in both hands and watched his eyes, seeing for the first time the particular striations of pale grey and darker blue. The sound of her heartbeat filled her ears. “Yes?” she said softly.

“Yes,” he said, and they kissed again, longer this time.

When they parted again, she stroked her thumbs over his cheeks, felt his breath moving warm over her face, watched his pale eyelashes flicker. He leaned in to place gentle kisses on all the parts of her face. She reached out and touched his hair, his long neck. She dared to reach one hand down and slide her fingertips down his leg—it trembled under her touch—pausing at the rise of his anklebone.

“You have to go, I suppose,” he said, barely whispering.

“I do, and I can’t imagine anything more stupid.” Her body ached to feel him, all of him.

“You have a spotless reputation for timeliness, as a model,” he said regretfully.

“I do—and that’s even more stupid.”

He laughed.

Smiling, she curled her fingers around his ankle and whispered urgently, “I’ve cried enough tears for this morning. No more tragedy. We’ll see each other again in two days—or sooner than that, if you could see me tonight. Won’t you come out with me tonight, dear Jean-Claude?”

At that, he pulled back, and she saw his eyes move to the doorway, as if his mother might be waiting there.

“Are you afraid to leave her alone?” Bérénice said, when he was still silent.


“I understand… Two days, then?”

“I think it’s better that way. I’m sorry.”

She kissed him again, his mouth and each of his eyes. “Don’t worry. I’m already thinking about how to clear my obligations for the rest of that day. I’ll scatter them behind me like beads.” And she made an illustrative gesture. “That is, if you can spare the time… Ah, look at you! Your smile makes me wild. Good-bye, Jean-Claude.”

Again, they kissed. Then she rose and hurried away, leaving him in his chair, smiling to himself in disbelief.


  1. So sweet and melancholy, I love it! That last line just killed me. Looking forward to more :)

    1. Thank you so much, DG! I love putting together these little suggestions about how much Jean-Claude has experienced and what’s going on behind his stoicism.

  2. Thank you for the new chapter! An interesting setting and intriguing characters!

    1. I’m glad you’re enjoying it! It’s been fun collecting tons of period photo to get a sense of the street views and night life.

  3. Oh they kissed, they kissed! <3 Yay!

  4. Oh my god! What a lovely story! I feel like you're the painter, making those pictures so vivid in my mind. It's fantastique! I love Bérénice and Jean Claude, the way you describe his body makes me wanna touch him. I'm so glad I found this story. I love the setting, too!
    And thank you so much for sharing. Can't wait till next chapter.

    1. This is such a heartwarming comment, Anon, thank you!!

  5. I love Berenice!! Her attitude is endearing. It's like she's character perfectly translated into the era, her personality just shines through! How she isn't afraid—just everything about her in general. And I love Jessé too, obviously. How it's clear he's a recluse and "sheltered" man not entirely because of his disability, even though it comes with plenty of struggles (that were perfectly put into the dialogue of him wishing he could "produce more art"), but because of other issues (his mom's sickness). He's a perfectly dimensional disabled character, and I'm in love with it.
    Thanks for posting! Speaking of one writer to another, sometimes it's good to refresh your mind with different characters and scenarios, even if it does feel like betrayal to the one you're mainly committed to, haha! Enjoy it, so that we can enjoy it too. I absolutely love your writing.

    1. Ahhh, thank you for this so sweet comment! I actually had to do a light round of revision at one point when I realized I was writing Bérénice too timidly - I needed to go back and make her more dauntless and less reticent. I’m glad it’s shining through! And yes, with J-C, I’ve been trying to hit a relatively realistic portrayal of how constrained his situation would be, but without (let’s be honest) getting /too/ depressing.
      Thank you so much for the vote of confidence! I hope your writing is going well too.