Angelica’s Day Off
I decided to take a day off and go to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Well to be honest; I was told to take the day off by Doctor Smith, the Attending Physician in the Emergency Room that morning. All because of a small meltdown. But that’s a quibbling matter of subjectivity that I’m not willing to get into. Thus, I went to the museum thinking that some culture might do me some good. Hopefully pleasing, intentionally soothing; at least not sucking as much as work.
Once inside the museum I went up the Great Stairway and past the statue of Diana the Huntress with her drawn bow and meandered into the cool darkness of the reconstructed Medieval Cloister on the upper floor. I paced the arcade’s stoa walk surrounding a central plaza with shuffling feet, eyes wandering through the marbled shadows at the carved filigree and fluted columns, slowing my heart in the somber false twilight in tune to the massive fountain in the middle of the room, whose falling waters trickled quietly. Suddenly a light tapping sound fell against the skylight above the plaza as hail began to fall outside, slowly at first with a discrete staccato and then in a splintering spasm and a thunderous crash as the clouds opened and gravel size pieces of the sky fell like a frozen mountain collapsing in the ether and fell precipitously onto the stained glass of the Cloister’s rotunda.
I wandered out the far end of the Cloister and into the fifteenth century gallery to look at the Florentine and Milanese portraits from a century later; the Renaissance century. There was a gaunt and aged Duke in a red skull cap with pronounced and bony cheekbones staring back at me from his portrait, a somber and embittered expression seemingly gazing into the distance over my shoulder. Amused at his feigned gravity, I turned to another portrait of a fat Ealdorman’s wife on the far wall. Her face was squeezed into a stiff white wimple that framed her face like a crenellated cookie, rolls of fat descending from her tight collar, lips attempting to smile yet curved downward at the edges in perhaps the disdain of a parvenu; the nouveau riche of the newly appointed mercantile class reveling in the recently acquired wealth that was paying for that ostentatious painting. Beside her on a lacquered wooden frame was a portrait of an Archbishop in a long crimson flowing gown; behind him the painted room opened into a celestial apotheosis of circling saints in bright golden halos and angels floating on gossamer clouds in the Mysterium. Some posed in oblique with puzzled visages as if confused by their apotheosis, others stared right at me as if they could discern my puzzled face peering back at them in their tiny canvas world, centuries apart but not too distant in our merged modern expressions.
One miniature beside it held the visage of a beautiful blonde woman painted by Sandro Botticelli. It was no larger than a postage stamp yet the backdrop opened into a tumbling landscape behind her posing head; a Tuscan countryside extending across golden fields where harvesters scythed and drovers whipped their oxen across muddy brown roads that meandered towards a distant village, its rounded church spire and smoking chimneys reaching into the azure sky; the landscape no larger than my fingernail. Refocusing my eyes, I stared into the sloe-eyed gaze of this Renaissance woman, now dead some five-hundred years and wondered at her vulpine look so mysterious yet direct, her hair draped with pearls and her full, rouged lips, pursed into a slight smile of pensive solitude. I admire her expression, so infinite and yet frozen in a few dabs of paint; the joyous epiphany of her face suffused with the patina of the sun through reflected clouds overhead so cleverly depicted by the artist in a few strokes of his brush.
But as I wandered away, I thought about Sandro Botticelli’s subsequent folly, his decision to burn all his paintings on a pyre of decadent art, the Bonfire of the Vanities, as the mad monk Savonarola called it in his war on the Medici who controlled Florence. What use religion if it stifles this beauty, I thought. Destructive ecclesiastical jealousy of the merely human urge to absorb the human infinite into a few dabs of paint, without alms, without mortification of the flesh, without false piety.
I sighed, walking away from the Botticelli, my Sunday in the Philadelphia Museum of Art at least elevating my senses from suicidal to a begrudging admiration for life’s beauties. God knows, I’ve seen enough mortification of the flesh to scorch the soul in the Covid deaths that have inundated our emergency room these past few months. People dying of this new coronavirus plague out of Wuhan, China that none of us have immunity to or the medicines to stop. The most we can do it wrestle the patients in and intubate those who cannot breathe, isolate, medicate the body’s collapse with palliatives, hoping the hand of God will spiral them forwards and not backwards in time; hoping their lungs don’t clog or their hearts stop.
As a critical care nurse at the Veterans Administration Hospital, I’ve learned to wipe a man’s ass who’s incontinent; to help a Parkinson’s patient eat porridge dribbling down his cheek as his limbs twitch and his fingers shake; to stay up till midnight with an old black orderly name Dennis debating Genesis and Revelations eating his Southern fried chicken, ham hocks, and pig’s knuckles after handing out midnight pain meds to the crumpled veterans of a dozen American wars.
I’ve learned to stomach anything, I guess. But this Covid epidemic has me stymied with impotence. Usually, I can be as still as a wall, or bland as a bit of white pudding in the face of a man with a broken back who looks at me upside down in his cylindrical inverted bed, as I rotate him slowly like a pullet on a spit to speed the flow of blood to his paralyzed limbs, which were last sentient when his attack helicopter crashed into Iraq a few months ago. That’s when I learned to shut my mouth and just watch; hear and see what the damaged warriors need as time creaks along on palsied knees; the difference between who I am versus who I need to be; a nurse, a pair of hands for those who can’t reach, a set of shoes for those who can’t walk, a range of vision for the blind and halt; my personality devoid of judgment so that I don’t encroach upon those whose don’t wish to be seen, touched, heard, nursed or pitied. Sometimes I wish I was a novelist or a playwright so I could tell their stories, somehow justify the sacrifice.
I walk up to a painting in the museum by Hieronymus Bosch entitled “The Mockery of Jesus,’ an off-kilter world of claustrophobic architecture in a confined space; Christ, frail and tortured is displayed on the Temple balcony as the citizens of Jerusalem seethe below; only the mob’s upper torsos visible above the lower demarcation of the canvas. Monstrous faces jeer from beneath the Savior, some wearing pointed absurd hats; one man seems to have a cashew nut for a head. A few hold banners with the black figures of insects and spiders emblazoned on them. Theirs a grotesquerie of faces, half animal, some demented, all bearing witness to human depravity and the triumph of sin.
Bosch was alive when bubonic plague devastated Europe, I think. What kind of man was he? What would it be like to look through his eyes at this twenty-first century world filled with another plague and the same ignorance, religious wars and starvation, all driven by a fanatical faith in an apparently indifferent Supreme Being? What is different today? What themes would I chose if I was an artist instead of a military nurse? What madness in my gaze? Would I see what Hieronymus did in the dungeons of his skull, a flat two-dimensional world filled with claustrophobic dread? Or would I perhaps be more ferocious, show courage over indifference. Who knows?
I wander down the hallway of the museum thinking about nothing and everything, the tall ceilings in the museum like a church nave, the hushed voices about me like communicants making their way to the altar rail to receive the bread of life, the sunlight streaming through the high windows splashing color onto the whorled canvases like sunlight filtered through a church’s stained-glass windows. My mind is seized sequentially as I walk, each painting pulling something new from me, midwife to my emotional birthings, sliding daydreams into the folded images from the hospital ward until I turn a darkened corner and abruptly realize that I’m in the Medieval Armory.
Above me on a rampant black stallion, its forefeet raised in salute, is the figure of a helmeted knight in brightly polished armor. He wears a decorative steel cuirass over his chest and on his legs are bright greaves. He holds a black enameled shield in one hand with a tapered lance thrusting forward from beneath it, which points on into the tapestried hall that’s decorated like a castle’s keep filled with archaic weapons. This was my son, Eric’s, favorite room. The one he’d race to whenever we’d come; anxious in his four-year old body to get out from under all the disproving gazes of the Madonnas and Christs in the Renaissance Hall; or wearied by the black and white Mark Rothkos or the blue Pablo Picassos that hung with smug condescension in the Modern Art exhibit. It was always to the Armory that he’d run with open arms and stare in wonder at its terrible beauty; death raised to a religious chivalric certainty as if God in another age had anointed the ‘Knights Errant’ as progenitors of good death in ages archaic yet surprisingly familiar; the armor reminding me of modern Kevlar body armor and its inability to stop the gaping bullet wounds I treat back at the hospital.
How Eric loved to roll the names of the French weapons off his tongue; basilard, halberd, glaive, and arbales; the elisions of the Romance language as liquidly deceiving as the beauty of the pointed spears and polished lances that line the walls in hermetically sealed cases, ostensibly to keep the humidity from reducing the death's agents to so much useless slag. I feel the tears coming unbidden as I look across the room, the memory of Eric running from case-to-case so vivid and so vital that I almost feel the need to run myself, chase after his ghost before the guards catch him up and threaten removal.
The salted tears trickle down my cheeks as my breath takes and the soft sobbing comes. Nothing can stop it now, I fear. The winds of time spiraling backwards, and there across the hall I see Eric at twenty-one in his dress Marine uniform, his immaculate white pants and sea-blue blouse, his shoulder epaulets flashing with gold and ivory. Lieutenant Eric Broussard, Annapolis Graduate, shortly headed for Iraq after one last visitation with family and friends in Philadelphia to his favourite haunt.
I walk over to the window and look down upon the broad back of the Schuylkill River, a long granite impoundment stoppers the water, the dam an absurd impediment to the insistent cataract that falls in white foam and flume. The summer hail has stopped and a light rain is falling as two geese balance incongruously upon the lip of the spillway and the thin film of water that roars downwards. The white geese are oblivious to the rushing water astride their feet as they peck and bicker, suspended in a motionless eddy of water and sky. Helplessly I smile at their silly disrespect for the power of the river and look past them to see a ten-man skull pulling upstream, its rowers and their long oars stroking like centipedes against the spilling current. Along the banks and up in the cliffs are trees with green crowns like broad-leafed hats hanging from the rocky overlooks and groves of red and orange azalea bushes that march along the cliff-face like flocks of drowsing sheep. The Schuylkill River bends to the right about a mile above the dam and then disappears, pulling my gaze across the river and up towards the towers of the Veterans Hospital in the heights.
I can see the windows of my ward, my mind’s eyes speeding outward and into the wing where I tend my own flock, the poor disembodied ones, the soldiers who left their limbs on the golden sands of the fertile crescent; some blind, some gouged or whipped senseless by the vicious anger of men they'd never seen before; only to come home to Philadelphia and my shift of nurses, who quietly put them back together again, holding them at night when they cry, slipping them candy like little children to make them smile, suturing their amputated stumps with black cat gut stitches, and covering the ragged remains with red iodine-stained bandages.
The tears turn my eyes to mist as I gaze further along the river, see the military cemetery atop the farthest hill, the spirits of boys who’s not come back, lingering there, out of sight and behind the distance. Eric is there in his blue uniform as he wished. I wipe my face with my sleeve and leave the room in a rush, angry for letting this happen. I thought I’d steeled my heart, no more backward glances, always to the future and never back. The corridors flame about me as I rush through the cool shadows then halt as I feel people staring at my haste. What do you do when the hole in you gets so big, the edges sharper, the vortex spinning deeper, and yet the video outside of you spins by unconcerned with your loss, passers-by no more than two-dimensional strips of flesh skating past like Gumby characters staring at you with his wide-eyed Play-Doh incomprehension as if you’re the Claymation character and not him?
I slow and turn down a random corridor and stop beside a tall carved altar purchased by some American Philanthropist depicting the passion of Christ and his Stations of the Cross in decorative woodwork. I stare transfixed at the tiny ancient figures, carved in such minute detail that each biblical personage is singular, down to the cuirasses and plumed helmets of the Roman soldiers and their grimacing expressions, as they pound black nails into the soft flesh of Jesus’ unflinching palms. The Madonna's long shawl covers her body with a slow graceful arc that seems to anchor her flowing body to the side of the altar like a blossoming flower. Her expression draws me closer, numb with grief, but the eyes, the eyes seem to flicker with anger.
No mother accepts this, I think. No mother will believe all is for the best when they take her son, strip him, torture and hang him on a cross for the entire world to mock. No mother would believe that has value. Why don’t you throw yourself at those bastard soldiers, I whisper at the Madonna? Why do we always stand around and watch them grind our children like meat to the slaughterhouse? But finding no response from this wooden, centuries-old representation of the mother of God, I walk on, my mind sliding sideways in helpless response to my surroundings; paintings and statuary beckoning at random for my attention at the periphery of sight.
Again, I hear the soft trickle of water and another fountain appears, this one in the atrium of the Impressionist Gallery. It’s a round golden room under a curving rotunda and against the farthest wall, as if reposing before the flowing waters of the small fountain, is Paul Cezanne’s painting The Bathers. Like the Botticelli, it’s another blue-sky painting but this one gigantic taking up an entire wall with a dozen nude women laconically lounging beside a deep flowing river, their sun-browned bodies relaxed and eternal like nymphs of the Goddess Diana. The bold impressionist strokes of colour are representationally unfinished, yielding form only from the colour swirls that elusively creep through the riverine perspective, creating the women’s shapes out of dabs of red and beige, the flesh transmogrified into something else, devoid of the lineament. Two opposing groups of women face each other in the painting, some gesturing as if deep in discussion, while others lay languid and supine gazing across the river towards a Chateau in the distance with high rounded towers. Trees arch over the naked women, framing them in a pyrimidical curve that draws the eye upwards and towards the clouds.
I look around the rotunda, its benches filled with silent viewers, their faces suffused with looks of deep harmony in meditation; perhaps the fountain a cool continuation of the river flowing past us on the canvas; the echoing falling water of the fountain under the rotunda a baptismal font for cleansing our sins; or maybe it’s just women being women, waiting in solitude without a man to disrupt their serenity.
I notice that none of the women in the painting make eye contact with one another, they are all looking in different directions away from the viewer - except one. One woman stares directly out of the frame at me in a discerning and insistent gaze. With a start, I realize she has no mouth. Cezanne left it unfinished or perhaps an intended omission. What use a woman without a mouth, I think.
Suddenly a small girl rushes out from hiding beneath her mother’s skirt and shrieks with echoing laughter into the austere hollow of the rotunda. She throws her tiny hands into the fountain and splashes her mom then runs away with her mother in hot pursuit, chasing the giggling child around the fountain as we all laugh with them.
I look up again at the mouthless woman leaning against the tree, her arms limp by her sides, breasts heavy and uneven, as if she’s recently suckled a child, her shape arching along the curve of the dark brown trunk like a drunken caterpillar. And for some reason under that placid woman’s gaze, I feel the world still and the roaring in my ears cease. Unconsciously, I place a hand over my heart and feel the pulse of it slowing under the painted woman’s gaze. The child is caught and gleefully chastised. Life moves. Life is insistent and inexorable and painfully vivid and sometimes mysteriously vague but we have no choice but to move with it or die.
I suddenly realize it’s time to go back to the hospital.
There are things that need to be done, things that I can do.
Thomas Belton is an author with extensive publications in fiction, poetry, non-fiction, magazine feature writing, science writing, and journalism. His professional memoir, Protecting New Jersey’s Environment: From Cancer Alley to the New Garden State (Rutgers University Press) won “Best Book in Science Writing for the General Public” by the New Jersey Council for the Humanities. https://www.rutgersuniversitypress.org/protecting-new-jerseys-environment/9780813548876 In addition, he has published many short stories including for the journals Fterota Logia, Mystery Weekly, Mystery Tribune, Constellations, South Shore Review, The Satirist, Adelaide, Meet Me at 19th Street, Cicada and Art News. His short story “Seneca Village Arises,” (Meet Me @ 19th Street Journal) was awarded “Best First Chapter” in the journal’s 2021 contest for a Young Adult novel opening dealing with racial inequality and his short story “Murder at the Trocadero” won the “Writers Digest Writing Contest Popular Fiction Award” for Mystery/Crime (2017).
The Ekphrastic Review
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