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August 12— The Full Moon
THE JAINS WERE a sect of Buddhists who claimed they could fly. They could walk on water. They could understand all languages. It’s said they could turn junk metal into gold. They could heal cripples and cure the blind.
Her eyes shut, Misty listens while the doctor tells her all this. She listens and paints. Before dawn, she gets up so Grace can tape her face. The tape comes off after sunset.
“Supposedly,” the doctor’s voice says, “the Jains could raise the dead.”
They could do all this because they tortured themselves. They starved and lived without sex. This life of hardship and pain is what gave them their magic power.
“People call this idea ‘asceticism,’ ” the doctor says.
Him talking, Misty just draws. Misty works while he holds the paint she needs, the brushes and pencils. When she’s done he changes the page. He does what Tabbi used to.
The Jain Buddhists were famous throughout the kingdoms of the Middle East. In the courts of Syria and Egypt, Epirus and Macedonia, as early as four hundred years before the birth of Christ, they worked their miracles. These miracles inspired the Essene Jews and early Christians. They astonished Alexander the Great.
Doctor Touchet talking on and on, he says Christian martyrs were offshoots of the Jains. Every day, Saint Catherine of Siena would whip herself three times. The first whipping was for her own sins. Her second whipping was for the sins of the living. The third was for the sins of all dead people.
Saint Simeon was canonized after he stood on a pillar, exposed to the elements, until he rotted alive.
Misty says, “This is done.” And she waits for a new sheet of paper, a new canvas.
You can hear the doctor lift the new picture. He says, “Marvelous. Absolutely inspired,” his voice fading as he carries it across the room. There’s a scratching sound as he pencils a number on the back. The ocean outside, the waves hiss and burst. He sets the picture beside the door, then his doctor’s voice comes back, close and loud, and he says, “Do you want paper again or a canvas?”
It doesn’t matter. “Canvas,” Misty says.
Misty hasn’t seen one of her pictures since Tabbi died. She says, “Where do you take them?”
“Someplace safe,” he says.
Her period is almost a week late. From starvation. She doesn’t need to pee on any pregnancy test sticks. Peter’s done his job, getting her here.
And the doctor says, “You can start.” His hand closes around hers, and pulls it forward to touch the rough, tight cloth already prepped with a coat of rabbit-skin glue.
The Jewish Essenes, he says, were originally a band of Persian anchorites that worshiped the sun.
Anchorites. This is what they called the women sealed alive in the basements of cathedrals. Sealed in to give the building a soul. The crazy history of building contractors. Sealing whiskey and women and cats inside walls. Her husband included.
Misty, trapped in her attic room, her heavy cast keeping her here. The door kept locked from the outside. The doctor always ready with a syringe of something if she gets uppity. Oh, Misty could write a book about anchorites.
The Essenes, Dr. Touchet says, lived away from the regular world. They trained themselves by enduring sickness and torture. They abandoned their families and property. They suffered in the belief that immortal souls from heaven were baited to come down and take a physical form in order to have sex, drink, take drugs, overeat.
Essenes taught the young Jesus Christ. They taught John the Baptist.
They called themselves healers and performed all of Christ’s miracles—curing the sick, reviving the dead, casting out demons—for centuries before Lazarus. The Jains turned water into wine centuries before the Essenes, who did it centuries before Jesus.
“You can repeat the same miracles over and over as long as no one remembers the last time,” the doctor says. “You remember that.”
The same way Christ called himself a stone rejected by masons, the Jain hermits had called themselves logs rejected by all carpenters.
“Their idea,” the doctor says, “is that the visionary must live apart from the normal world, and reject pleasure and comfort and conformity in order to connect with the divine.”
Paulette brings lunch on a tray, but Misty doesn’t want food. Behind her closed eyelids, she hears the doctor eating. The scrape of the knife and fork on the china plate. The ice rattling in the glass of water.
He says, “Paulette?” His voice full of food, he says, “Can you take those pictures there, by the door, and put them in the dining room with the others?”
You can smell ham and garlic. There’s something chocolate, too, pudding or cake. You can hear the doctor chew, and the wet sound of each swallow.
“The interesting part,” the doctor says, “is when you look at pain as a spiritual tool.”
Pain and deprivation. The Buddhist monks sit on roofs, fasting and sleepless until they reach enlightenment. Isolated and exposed to the wind and sun. Compare them to Saint Simeon, who rotted on his pillar. Or the centuries of standing yogis. Or Native Americans who wandered on vision quests. Or the starving girls in nineteenth-century America who fasted to death out of piety. Or Saint Veronica, whose only food was five orange seeds, chewed in memory of the five wounds of Christ. Or Lord Byron, who fasted and purged and made his heroic swim of the Hellespont. A romantic anorexic. Moses and Elijah, who fasted to receive visions in the Old Testament. English witches of the seventeenth century who fasted to cast their spells. Or whirling dervishes, exhausting themselves for enlightenment.
The doctor just goes on and on and on.
All these mystics, throughout history, all over the world, they all found their way to enlightenment by physical suffering.
And Misty just keeps on painting.
“Here’s where it gets interesting,” the doctor’s voice says. “According to split-brain physiology, your brain is divided like a walnut into two halves.”
The left half of your brain deals with logic, language, calculation, and reason, he says. This is the half people perceive as their personal identity. This is the conscious, rational, everyday basis of our reality.
The right side of your brain, the doctor tells her, is the center of your intuition, emotion, insight, and pattern recognition skills. Your subconscious.
“Your left brain is a scientist,” the doctor says. “Your right brain is an artist.”
He says people live their lives out of the left half of their brains. It’s only when someone is in extreme pain, or upset or sick, that their subconscious can slip into their conscious. When someone’s injured or sick or mourning or depressed, the right brain can take over for a flash, just an instant, and give them access to divine inspiration.
A flash of inspiration. A moment of insight.
The French psychologist Pierre Janet called this condition “the lowering of the mental threshold.”
Dr. Touchet says, “Abaissement du niveau mental.”
When we’re tired or depressed or hungry or hurting.
According to the German philosopher Carl Jung, this lets us connect to a universal body of knowledge. The wisdom of all people over all time.
Carl Jung, what Peter told Misty about herself. Gold. Pigeons. The St. Lawrence Seaway.
Frida Kahlo and her bleeding sores. All great artists are invalids.
According to Plato, we don’t learn anything. Our soul has lived so many lives that we know everything. Teachers and education can only remind us of what we already know.
Our misery. This suppression of our rational mind is the source of inspiration. The muse. Our guardian angel. Suffering takes us out of our rational self-control and lets the divine channel through us.
“Enough of any stress,” the doctor says, “good or bad, love or pain, can cripple our reason and bring us ideas and talents we can achieve in no other way.”
All this could be Angel Delaporte talking. Stanislavski’s method of physical actions. A reliable formula for creating on-demand miracles.
As he hovers close to her, the doctor’s breath is warm against the side of Misty’s face. The smell of ham and garlic.
Her paintbrush stops, and Misty says, “This is done.”
Someone knocks at the door. The lock clicks. Then Grace, her voice says, “How is she, Doctor?”
“She’s working,” he says. “Here, number this one—eighty-four. Then, put it with the others.”
And Grace says, “Misty dear, we thought you might like to know, but we’ve been trying to reach your family. About Tabbi.”
You can hear someone lift the canvas off the easel. Footsteps carry it across the room. How it looks, Misty doesn’t know.
They can’t bring Tabbi back. Maybe Jesus could or the Jain Buddhists, but nobody else could. Misty’s leg crippled, her daughter dead, her husband in a coma, Misty herself trapped and wasting away, poisoned with headaches, if the doctor is right she could be walking on water. She could raise the dead.
A soft hand closes over her shoulder and Grace’s voice comes in close to her ear. “We’ll be dispersing Tabbi’s ashes this afternoon,” she says. “At four o’clock, out on the point.”
The whole island, everybody will be there. The way they were for Harrow Wilmot’s funeral. Dr. Touchet embalming the body in his green-tiled examining room, with his steel accountant’s desk and the flyspecked diplomas on the wall.
Ashes to ashes. Her baby in an urn.
Leonardo’s Mona Lisa is just a thousand thousand smears of paint. Michelangelo’s David is just a million hits with a hammer. We’re all of us a million bits put together the right way.
The tape tight over each eye, keeping her face relaxed, a mask, Misty says, “Has anyone gone to tell Peter?”
Someone sighs, one long breath in, then out. And Grace says, “What would that accomplish?”
He’s her father.
You’re her father.
The gray cloud of Tabbi will drift off on the wind. Drifting back down the coastline toward the town, the hotel, the houses and church. The neon signs and billboards and corporate logos and trademarked names.
Dear sweet Peter, consider yourself told.
JUST FOR THE RECORD, one problem with art school is it makes you so much less of a romantic. All that garbage about painters and garrets, it disappears under the load you have to learn about chemistry, about geometry and anatomy. What they teach you explains the world. Your education leaves everything so neat and tidy.
So resolved and sensible.
Her whole time dating Peter Wilmot, Misty knew it wasn’t him she loved. Women just look for the best physical specimen to father their children. A healthy woman is wired to seek out the triangle of smooth muscle inside Peter’s open collar because humans evolved hairless in order to sweat and stay cool while outrunning some hot and exhausted form of furry animal protein.
Men with less body hair are also less likely to harbor lice, fleas, and mites.
Before their dates, Peter would take a painting of hers. It would be framed and matted. And Peter would press two long strips of extrastrong double-sided mounting tape onto the back of the frame. Careful of the sticky tape, he’d tuck the painting up inside the hem of his baggy sweater.
Any woman would love how Peter ran his hands through her hair. It’s simple science. Physical touch mimics early parent-child grooming practices. It stimulates your release of growth hormone and ornithine decarboxylase enzymes. Inversely, Peter’s fingers rubbing the back of her neck would naturally lower her levels of stress hormones. This has been proved in a laboratory, rubbing baby rats with a paintbrush.
After you know about biology, you don’t have to be used by it.
On their dates, Peter and Misty, they’d go to art museums and galleries. Just the two of them, walking and talking, Peter looking a little square in front, a little pregnant with her painting.
There is nothing special in the world. Nothing magic. Just physics.
Idiot people like Angel Delaporte who look for a supernatural reason for ordinary events, those people drive Misty nuts.
Walking the galleries looking for a blank wall space, Peter was a living example of the golden section, the formula used by ancient Greek sculptors for perfect proportion. His legs were 1.6 times longer than his torso. His torso is 1.6 times longer than his head.
Look at your fingers, how the first joint is longer than the second, then the second is longer than the end joint. The ratio is called Phi, after the sculptor Phidias.
The architecture of you.
Walking, Misty told Peter about the chemistry of painting. How physical beauty turns out to be chemistry and geometry and anatomy. Art is really science. Discovering why people like something is so you can replicate it. Copy it. It’s a paradox, “creating” a real smile. Rehearsing again and again a spontaneous moment of horror. All the sweat and boring effort that goes into creating what looks easy and instant.
When people look at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, they need to know that carbon black paint is the soot from natural gas. The color rose madder is the ground root of the madder plant. Emerald green is copper acetoarsenite, also called Paris green and used as an insecticide. A poison. Tyrian purple is made from clams.
And Peter, he slid the painting out from under his sweater. Alone in the gallery with no one around to see, the painting of a stone house behind a picket fence, he pressed it to the wall. And there it was, the signature of Misty Marie Kleinman. And Peter said, “I told you someday your work would hang in a museum.”
His eyes are deep Egyptian brown, the paint made from ground-up mummies, bone ash and asphalt, and used until the nineteenth century, when artists discovered that icky reality. After twisting years of brushes between their lips.
Peter kissing the back of her neck, Misty said how when you look at the Mona Lisa, you need to remember that burnt sienna is just clay colored with iron and manganese and cooked in an oven. Sepia brown is the ink sacs from cuttlefish. Dutch pink is crushed buckhorn berries.
Peter’s perfect tongue licked the back of her ear. Something, but not a painting, felt stiff inside his clothes.
And Misty whispered, “Indian yellow is the urine of cattle fed mango leaves.”
Peter wrapped one arm around her shoulders. With his other arm, he pressed the back of her knee so it buckled. He lowered her to the gallery’s marble floor, and Peter said, “ Te amo,Misty.”
Just for the record, this came as a little surprise.
His weight on top of her, Peter said, “You think you know so much,” and he kissed her.
Art, inspiration, love, they’re all so easy to dissect. To explain away.
The paint colors iris green and sap green are the juice of flowers. The color of Cappagh brown is Irish dirt, Misty whispered. Cinnabar is vermilion ore shot from high Spanish cliffs with arrows. Bistre is the yellowy brown soot of burnt beech wood. Every masterpiece is just dirt and ash put together in some perfect way.
Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.
Even while they kissed, you closed your eyes.
And Misty kept hers open, not watching you, but the earring in your ear. Silver tarnished almost brown, holding a knot of square-cut glass diamonds, twinkling and buried in the black hair falling over your shoulders—that’s what Misty loved.
That first time, Misty kept telling you, “The paint color Davy’s gray is powdered slate. Bremen blue is copper hydroxide and copper carbonate—a deadly poison.” Misty said, “Brilliant scarlet is iodine and mercury. The color bone black is charred bones ...”
THE COLOR BONE BLACK is charred bones.
Shellac is the shit aphids leave on leaves and twigs. Drop black is burnt grapevines. Oil paints use the oil of crushed walnuts or poppy seeds. The more you know about art, the more it sounds like witchcraft. Everything crushed and mixed and baked, the more it could be cooking.
Misty was still talking, talking, talking, but this was days later, in gallery after gallery. This was in a museum, with her painting of a tall stone church pasted to the wall between a Monet and a Renoir. With Misty sitting on the cold floor straddling Peter between her legs. It was late afternoon, and the museum was deserted. Peter’s perfect head of black hair pressed hard on the floor, he was reaching up, both his hands inside her sweater, thumbing her nipples.
Both your hands.
Behavioral psychologists say that humans copulate face-to-face because of breasts. Females with larger breasts attracted more partners, who insisted on breast play during intercourse. More sex bred more females, who inherited the larger breasts. That begat more face-to-face sex.
Now, here on the floor, Peter’s hands, his breast play, his erection sliding around inside his pants, Misty’s thighs spread above him, she said how when William Turner painted his masterpiece of Hannibal crossing the Alps to slaughter the Salassian army, Turner based it on a hike he took in the Yorkshire countryside.
Another example of everything being a self-portrait.
Misty told Peter what you learn in art history. That Rembrandt slopped his paint on so thick that people joked you could lift each portrait by its nose.
Her hair hung heavy with sweat down over her face. Her chubby legs trembled, exhausted but still holding her up. Dry-humping the lump in his pants.
Peter’s fingers clutched her breasts tighter. His hips pushed up, and his face, his orbicularis oculi, squeezed his eyes shut. His triangularis pulled the corners of his mouth down so his bottom teeth showed. His coffee-yellowed teeth bit at the air.
A hot wetness pulsed out of Misty, and Peter’s erection was pulsing inside his pants, and everything else stopped. They both stopped breathing for one, two, three, four, five, six, seven long moments.
Then they both wilted. Withering. Peter’s body relaxed onto the wet floor. Misty’s flattened onto him. Both of them, their clothes were pasted together with sweat.
The painting of the tall church looked down from the wall.
And right then, a museum guard walked up.
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