Sunday, August 15, 2021

Bérénice, part 1

Driven by restlessness, Bérénice moved from Bruxelles to Paris and quickly established herself as a model in Montparnasse. She had been raised on a small dairy farm in the Belgian countryside, but would never be mistaken for a country maid. Striking and gregarious, she had cultivated a cosmopolitan ease well before she was eighteen. She was twenty-three now, and cobblestoned Bruxelles had grown too small for her, too placid. Like a fish into a stream, she slipped instead into the famed artists’ district of Paris.

Tall, athletic, and full-figured, she was often compared to an Amazon. Her skin was creamy and her hair dark brown and curling, lustrous. Classical-minded painters liked her to pose as Judith or the Queen of Sheba; illustrators liked her for advertisements for cigarettes, travel, clothing with dramatic silhouettes: anything that called for a sense of confidence and sophistication.

By the end of two weeks in Montparnasse, she had acquired a full set of new friends, new clients. Her days were busy with posing and her nights with conversation and dancing in restaurants and bars. She was happy to sleep five or six hours and then awake at dawn to stretch like a cat, wash her face, arrange her hair, and hurry off to her first appointment with a painter or sculptor.

Montparnasse was peopled by eccentrics, intellectuals, foreigners, and curiosities: artists who were almost beggars, beggars who were poets; Communists, exiles, opium addicts, escaped heiresses, seekers after enlightenment, Jews, blacks, Americans, lesbians, and so on. This was, of course, exactly what Bérénice had been looking forward to. And so her interest was sparked when she heard of a particular curiosity among the artists: a man who was crippled and had to use his feet to paint.

“And he’s actually good?” she said with instinctive skepticism to one of her roommates, who was also a model.

“Yes; I’ve seen his paintings myself,” Isidore replied lazily.

Hm,” said Bérénice. And by the end of the week, she had discovered that this artist was looking for a model for a new painting, and arranged to be seen by him the following week.


The next Monday, she was admitted by the artist’s mother, Else, into the studio. Bérénice looked over the other woman with interest: she was about forty, tall and broad-shouldered, with straight blonde hair pulled back cleanly from her face, but she looked hollow and exhausted. She moved slowly and wincingly. Bérénice had learned that the artist worked to support both himself and his mother, who had been in ill health for a long time. His mother kept the house and helped the artist with things that physically, he could not do himself. Bérénice wondered about their frail alliance: what would happen to him if Else were to grow really ill, so ill that she could no longer help her son? But she kept her expression friendly and polite, and thanked Else once she had been escorted in. The other woman nodded and withdrew silently.

The studio, like all others, was cold and damp, but tidier than most. The space was at street level. The lighting would have been better in an attic-level room, but, Bérénice supposed, stairs would have been difficult for both the artist and his mother. Large drawings pinned to cardboard and few finished canvases were arrayed around the edge of the room, resting on the floor against the wall.

Facing her, sitting in a wheelchair, was the artist. He had not yet spoken to greet her, but he was, of course, already watching her closely.

Like his mother, he was surprisingly long-limbed, with wide shoulders—bony, not muscular. Because he sat in a wheelchair, she found it difficult to think of him as “tall.” His eyes were pale blue-grey, his hair sandy in color, his face cleanly shaped, with long cheekbones and a high forehead. Both of his arms were tightly clenched to his chest, seemingly immobile, the hands fisted inwards. He was leaning back somewhat in his wheelchair, with one long leg outstretched so that the bare foot hung over the edge of the footrest, the knuckles resting lightly against the floor. Bérénice found something about this posture strangely touching: it was how another man might hang one arm over the edge of an armrest in repose, she thought.

She looked upward before she might be caught staring, and smiled at him. He nodded absently, murmured something that was probably a greeting, and continued to look her over carefully.

“Will you remove your coat and take a few poses, please?” His voice was baritone, and somewhat blurred, indistinct, as if he were speaking to her while holding something in his mouth. He shifted in his seat, drawing his leg back up onto the footrest; she tried not to regret the loss of the pose that had first caught her attention.

In response to his request, she nodded and shed her coat, moving into the studio where the light would fall on her best. Behind her, she could hear the scuff of his feet on the floorboards as he turned his wheelchair around. At his direction, she paced slowly back and forth, bent, squatted, and then sat on a simple wooden chair, twisting her torso first in one direction, then in the other.

His expression had not changed at all, but she thought that she could tell from a certain relaxation of his posture that he was pleased with her.

Indeed, after another minute, he said, “Yes, this will be good, thank you. If you have no other appointments, it would be good to begin the work today.”

She smiled in agreement, and began to ask him more about the painting: what pose, what did he want her to wear. The pose would be an easy one, a sitting one; she promised him that she could hold it for an hour at a time, with breaks to warm up. He wanted three sessions this week, to establish the preliminary drawings and oil sketch, and then he might call her back a few more times in subsequent weeks to continue the real painting.

While they established these details, he had called his mother back to help him: he wanted to move into a different chair. Bérénice had moved behind a screen to change into the required costume, but shamelessly watched from the seam of the screen as the artist rose slowly from his wheelchair, leaning heavily into his mother’s hands as she supported him beneath his shoulders. It took only three steps for him to move and pivot into the other chair, but his steps were hesitant and shuffling, his legs deeply bent. Several times he paused before daring to shift one of his legs again, seemingly mistrustful of his own motions. And yet his legs seemed strong; she wondered if his hesitancy came more from a fear of falling, for his mother clearly struggled to counterbalance his weight. If he were to slip, with his immobile arms, he would have no way of catching himself. Thoughtful, Bérénice sucked in her lower lip and nibbled on it. Then she recollected herself and moved out from behind the screen.

The studio was quiet; Else had withdrawn once more. Bérénice could hear a series of angry shouts from the street outside, and an automobile horn some distance off, and then the sounds dwindled away. She inhaled and settled into her pose; the artist briefly gave her direction, then nodded when he was satisfied. Between the first and second toes of his right foot, he took up his charcoal.

He sat now in a low chair with a deeply reclined back, padded with a thick sheepskin; the sheepskin was the one touch of luxury in this otherwise spare, somber place, Bérénice thought. Arrayed in front of him were all of his tools: the sticks of charcoal and clean rags, the low easel that held his paper and board.

In Bérénice’s profession, observing the artist was always one of the chief means of staving off boredom, of course. Did he suck his lips or pick his nose as he drew? Did he smirk arrogantly upon completing a passage, or did he mutter and frown?

Observing the artist, in this case, was an unavoidable attraction. He was unique: Bérénice had met plenty of crippled men and women in the streets who were clever and enterprising by necessity, but none who made their way in quite this manner. Who had taught him to draw and paint? What had first given him—or his mother—the idea?

His habitual expression was solemn, almost fierce, his pale brows often drawn together with concentration. His head sometimes seemed to move of its own volition, with small twitches from side to side. With his severe expression, she thought that it made him look like a bird of prey. He wore a clean but worn white shirt and loose brown trousers.

His arms were always clenched to his chest; she had not seen him move them even once. The tension that ran through his arms and hands seemed immense: she could see the tendons standing out in the backs of his hands, and his shrunken fists bent inwards at unnatural angles. She wondered if it hurt for the joints to be fixed that way, or if perhaps his body were accustomed because he had been born that way.

His feet were long and astonishingly nimble. It was strange to watch him using them as if they were hands, moving tools from side to side, repositioning the drawing board. His motions as he drew were so familiar that they seemed expected, natural: of course he would do that. But then occasionally her eyes would take in the whole of his frame, and the pieces would come together: his tensely immobilized upper body, and the determined yet constrained motions of his lower body, which, however adept, were still clearly afflicted by the same muscular tension. Not infrequently he would have to wait and rest before he was able to complete a gesture successfully, letting a series of jerks and twitches run through his frame. Bérénice tried not to be caught watching when this happened.

Between watching him askance and speculating about his past, it was an absorbing session; rarely did she drift away into the formless daydreams that typically took over her longer sessions.

A few hours in, she finally dared to ask: “When did you become an artist?”

His head twitched, and his mouth compressed. It was another moment before he said, "Be still, please." His voice was stern, but not ill-tempered.

She blew out a breath. Some artists welcomed her natural garrulousness, and their working sessions became warm and companionable, but from the start, here, she had suppressed the impulse to chat. Clearly, she had been right to do so.

For the next while, she occupied herself in thinking about the sound of his voice, as little of it as she had heard. From the blurred sound of his words, she had thought at first that he had been eating something. But now, she thought that his tongue, and perhaps his jaw, must be affected by his condition, as well. His tongue seemed stiff; he struggled to shift between consonants and vowels, his tongue needing time to reshape itself between sounds.

She wondered, then, about what the household might be like without any strangers there: would he and his mother always be so terse, so stoic? Or was it shyness that held them back in the presence of others; was it possible that, left to themselves, there would be free-flowing conversation, laughter?

She wondered, watching his spare, fierce face.

During her last break, she asked, “Do you mind if I smoke?” When he shook his head, she added, “In here?” He nodded, and she went behind the screen to retrieve a cigarette and a match from her coat pocket. She moved to the window, looking at the slot of grey sky above the narrow street outside, and breathed the smoke in deeply. With the cigarette held between her lips, she hopped from foot to foot, rubbing and shaking her arms to get the blood back into them, conscious of his stillness behind her.

When she turned around again, it only seemed natural to hold out the cigarette to him and say, “Do you want any?”

He hesitated for a long moment, and then nodded his head briefly. She approached him, inhaled one more time herself, and then held out the cigarette to his lips.

He took it, and made a gesture of unexpected sensuality: he closed his grey eyes and swiftly arched his long neck backwards to inhale. In the same moment, she exhaled, so that the smoke dimmed her vision.

Looking at his pale throat, she felt that somehow, her breath had passed from her to him; she felt the complementarity of their motions as intimately as if they had kissed. She was stirred.

When he opened his eyes again and nodded for her to take the cigarette, she had to blink hard. She was aware that she was flushing, but hoped that it would be mistaken for the results of her efforts to warm herself.

She passed the cigarette back and forth to him several more times, but he did not repeat the gesture of tilting his head back. Nonetheless, the last time she took it, she was aware of the lingering warmth of his lips on the cigarette.

Perhaps half an hour later, they finished the session; he nodded as curtly as ever to indicate when he was done, then murmured that she could ask his mother for the first day’s fee. He rolled a stick of charcoal back and forth gently under one toe; he seemed to be studying his drawings more than he was looking at her.

But when she had finished dressing, and was about to exit, he caught her attention with a sort of stamp of one foot against the ground. She looked back at him inquiringly.

“It was a pleasure to work with you,” he said, a little stiffly.

She nodded and gave a cordial smile. “I’m glad you think so. Good-bye, monsieur.”

He said, rushing, so that his words were even more slurred, “You can call me Jean-Claude.” And then, to her astonishment, he smiled. His pale eyes warmed. Smiling, he looked as shy as a schoolboy who has received unexpected praise.

When she left the building, she had to stand outside for a moment to compose herself, pushing one thumb against her lower lip. Then she straightened herself, shook back her curls, and hurried off along the street to her next appointment.


  1. Loved this first chapter. Can't wait to read more.

  2. What a pleasant surprise! Thank you for this wonderful chapter!

    1. You're welcome, and thanks for the comment! I had originally planned to wait a little longer to post, but the blog was so quiet that I thought it might be nice to show up.

  3. Love it so far! Excited to see where the story goes. Thanks for posting.

    1. Glad you're having fun, Missa. I already have way more story than I ever planned for these characters, so I'm curious to see if any more ideas or twists show up, too. :)

  4. A new story from Rowan!! What a wonderful surprise!! Holy shit, and such a hot start. I really needed this right now :) Thank you so much. Can't wait for the next chapter. Also, I noticed the labels... Can't wait for the next chapter!

    1. I wasn't suppoooosed to be writing a new story, but y'know, sometimes you just have to manage stress by disappearing into dev romances... ;P So glad you enjoyed it so much, Lovis. And yes, whatever could be going on with the labels...?