The Origin of the World (excerpt from my forthcoming novel, Even the Breath)

The line in front of the Musée d’Orsay was long, but fast-moving. The Senegalese guard at the door paddled people through, whistling “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” Prune grinned as he waved her through, and he grinned back. In an accent-less French he cried, “Ah ben voilà, enfin quelqu’un d’aussi heureux que moi!” meaning, Ah, finally someone as happy as me! “Elle est pas belle, la vie, mademoiselle?”

Magnifique!” chirped Prune. She was elated: Her father had to be alive. How else would his three-hundred-and-seventy-two-page monograph be sitting on the main display table of J. Vrin?

At dinner, Marc had loved to make Rosa and the girls place bets on how many pages he’d written that day. Whoever came closest won a foot rub, so they were pretty serious about trying to figure it out. Prune knew for a fact that he barely had two-hundred pages written when they took Rosa, his mind went into shut-down, and then one night he just didn’t come home, not even after Prune had fixed Nutella toasts and hot cocoa for supper, and Carla crashed on the sofa with her face smashed into Rosa’s orphaned crochet.

The lady at the museum coat-check didn’t say a word, but she took the behemoth backpack, the five-books-heavy plastic bag from Vrin, and the frayed coat without a blink. In exchange she handed Prune a tiny ticket with the number thirteen printed on it.

The main hall was narrower than Prune remembered. Harrowed faces shuffled among the naked bodies of bronze ghosts. A lustful Sappho. A “Young Aristotle” of about ten who held a ball in his hand but was not playing—absorbed in his reading instead. David, his delicate foot casual on Goliath’s severed head. A carefree “Pan with Bear Cubs,” young boy on his stomach with his goat-legs playfully beating the air. Everywhere, reminders that goddesses, heroes, and sages too had once been children.

Orsay was Rosa’s favorite museum, not so much for its famed Impressionists as for the lesser-known surrealist pastels of Odilon Redon and the hilarious caricatures of nineteenth-century bourgeois by Daumier. “Social satire from the antediluvian times before political correctness—priceless!” she’d say.

Prune set out to find Redon.

For her daughter’s fourteenth birthday, Rosa had insisted on taking her alone to the museum. The view from the café’s balcony, with the fast clouds, the Tuileries gardens’ splashes of tulips, the Ferris wheel, the Grand Palais skylight, and all the tiny people going about their important lives, was Prune’s favorite. So was the lemon-meringue pie. But before Prune was allowed to squeeze in the elevator to the fifth floor, Rosa set them on the trail through oversized hunting and war scenes.

Prune’s excitement had started to falter when, out of breath, her mother asked a bulbous-nosed guard where they’d been hiding The Origin of the World. He pretended to think, then winked, pointing beyond the striking Turkish painting of an old man gazing at children’s tombs.

Ils l’ont planqué là-bas derrière,” he whispered, conspiratorial. “Pour pas choquer les gens” —meaning, They hid it back there not to shock people. “Though if you ask me, kids see worse everyday on the computer, and not quite as pretty.”

Rosa said merci and took her daughter’s hand. They turned the corner, crossed two rooms in a row, and there it was, right smack in the center of a big white wall: the meticulous, Victorian-era close up of a pussy. Gustave Courbet’s The Origin of the World.

Rosa planted herself in front of it. She planted Prune, as tall as her already, right between herself and the folds, hair, vulva on the wall.

One white breast glows in the corner, invites you in closer to the smooth belly. The milk of the thighs draws you toward the mess of hair in the center, parted by a slit of the richest pinks, shiny clitoris peaking through.

Rosa declared, “Whatever anyone tries to say to you about your cunt, your woman’s genitals. Whatever they whisper, shout, mutter, draw, paint, sing, photograph, grab, caress, bite, evoke, advise, or regiment about your vagina—and believe me, daughter, they will. Do not ever forget. Do. Not. Ever. Forget. You are a work of art. Your entire body, each and every cell, cartilage, and pore is a work of art.”

A few visitors ghosted by, none daring to stop and look squarely, like they did at the eviscerated deer next door. From the corner of her eye, Prune caught the same chubby boy orbiting about a few times, but hurrying away as soon as he came within the painting’s gravitational pull. Rosa felt Prune’s evasion and weighed on her shoulders to anchor her down. “And I, I made you. You know what that makes me?”

“My mother?”

“It makes me a great artist. The greatest. And you, a woman, are the greatest artist, too. You are making and remaking yourself, constantly. With each thought, each choice, and each non-choice. You are making and remaking the world with your words, your touch, your gaze. Maybe, one day, you’ll give birth to another human, if you so choose. Maybe you won’t. But each one of us, each little human”—Rosa fanned her arm out to include every straggler in the “Realism and Nudes” aisle of the Orsay museum—“is a universe!” This, she cried just as a German senior-tour group was clustering in front of a series of washed out nudie photographs from the nineteen hundreds. “Each an entire cosmos, and comets, and black holes, and birthing stars, and dying cells. But you, mi hija, are a woman. Look!”

Prune was looking. She was staring into that vulva, the vertiginous layers, the pleasures and the hurts, the claims of the artist and the man over it, the reclaiming by the model of her own nudity, and by the viewer, by her, Prune, by her mother.

“You are a woman!” Rosa was shouting now. The Germans tried to avert their eyes, except for two blue-haired ladies, who broke out of the herd and pointedly came to stand right next to Rosa and her daughter. Rosa ignored them. “And that makes you God-seed. That makes you, mi hija, the Origin of the World. With that comes great power, great potential, great responsibility. Don’t screw it up. Love yourself. Love all of you. Love the ugliest and the sweetest, the frailest and the mightiest, just as I love you. Love your failures, your wounds, your doubts, your hopes, your lovers, your friends, your work, your pussy, your breasts, and even your thighs—yes, even your thighs, mujer!” The German ladies clapped a polite little clap. Prune tried to protest. Her mother’s fingers burrowed deeper into her shoulders. It hurt but the girl said nothing. There were times when Rosa could not be moved and they were rare, but this was one of them.

Rosa continued, her voice low inside Prune’s ear. “Hell is the absence of love. That’s all. That’s all it is, Prune. Hell is the absence of love. Don’t make a hell for yourself; not even for your enemies. Make heaven. Bring heaven on Earth. You can. You must. Love. Even if I’m not here—especially if I’m not here. Love yourself just as I love you. Love yourself better than I love you. Love yourself like you are God. Because you are, Prune. You. Are. The. Origin. Of. The. World.”

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