By Zach James
The painting hung on the north wall of the Renaissance wing at the Louvre, waiting for the day that the man with the yellow umbrella would set his eyes upon it once again.
Martin had seen the painting nine years earlier, with his wife and daughter beside him. He stood before it, contemplating the painting’s illimitable, polished beauty. The colors twisted and twined and harmonized like a baroque choir, while the shading created mysteries that only angels or prophets could know. It reminded Martin of the complex beauty that is family. It reminded him that the three of them, that trinity—his wife, his daughter, and he—were one, but at the same time separate, and that there was shading between them that allowed contrast and harmony all at once.
A few moments later, when a muggy tour group crowded around the painting, Martin felt a pull on his pant leg. His daughter was becoming claustrophobic and impatient, and his wife gently shuffled her into a clearing few steps away. Martin, always a man of prideful demeanor, remained ten seconds longer before the masterpiece. He whispered to no one in particular, and smiled, reverently contemplating the many joys of his life, his family, and that moment. His eyes met his wife’s, and then his daughter’s, who was by then cross-legged on the ground. Rain began to tap against the windows. It was time to go.
They set out early the next morning to drive the six hundred kilometers from Paris to Camaret-sur-Mer. They crossed a stone bridge, and underneath, a ravine raged with the previous night’s downpour. A heavy fog had formed over the road. Somewhere, a sleepy lorry driver swerved into the opposite lane. Martin turned the steering wheel sharply. The guardrail gave way to the little car. His wife gasped and his daughter screamed. The colors outside spun violently in every direction. A cacophonous splash cracked against the windshield. Martin saw the bonnet of the car submerged in the blue-green water. Then there was only a calm blackness.
Waking two days later, Martin was alone. The surgeon found the courage to give him a terrible report—his wife, and his sweet daughter—and Martin cried.
Martin rarely saw Camaret-sur-Mer after that. He occasionally ascended into town, to the boulangerie on Rue de Liège, or the boucherie on Rue de la Marne, but never spoke a word more than needed. He no longer spent Saturday’s fishing off of Pointe du Grand Gouin. He no longer spent Sunday mornings attending mass at Notre-Dame de Rocamadour. He no longer walked through the gardens to see the newly blossoming flowers. Food was tasteless. The ocean no longer smelled of its nostalgic salt. The flowers in the gardens were covered with an opaque film. The homily at Sunday Mass was utterly unintelligible.
Nine miserable years passed. Martin could no longer bear the weight of that town or of those memories. He was nine years older, but ninety years more sallow and shaky. Unsure of where he would go, he began to board up his windows and bundle his belongings into boxes. He packed in as much darkness as he could create. He did not want to see the things of his past as he placed them into their boxes.
That evening, he grabbed onto something in the dark coat closet. The room spun and Martin began to shiver. Feeling for the bench against the wall, he sat and held the object in both hands, as a father holds a newborn. Clutched against his chest, he held a yellow umbrella. His wife and daughter gave it to him for his thirtieth birthday, a silly gift among the usual tie and socks. Martin, a man of prideful demeanor, would have never covered his head with such a vibrant accessory, but he loved that umbrella and had used it on every rainy day.
As he stood in the terrible darkness, holding the old umbrella, the floodgates of his soul opened. All that was, both right and wrong, light and dark, rushed upon him. The sautéed savoriness of supper, the orangish-yellowish-pink of the gardens, the salty ocean air, and the ministerial Sunday homily, caused him to sob and laugh all at once. The weight of those contradictions curled him onto the floor. The umbrella lay beside him. He could hear his wife whisper in his ear, and he could see his children smiling. Rain tiptoed across the roof and Martin drifted to sleep.
That night, and every night after, amid boxes that would never be unpacked, in a home that Martin would never again leave, he dreamt. In his sleep, Martin would go to Paris. He would walk past the Sorbonne, over Le Pont Royal, to the Louvre. Once more, he would stand in awe under the painting, and remember what he whispered to himself, and why he had smiled.