Immortal Muse - the deleted Jeanne Hébuterne/Amedeo Modigliani section
NOTE: During revision of the initial draft of the book, it became obvious that this section wasn’t going to work. I was doing far too much “hand-waving” to explain why this incarnation of Perenelle was able to become pregnant when the others hadn’t, and it just didn’t make sense. So despite the fact that this was the artist/muse duo that had sparked the entire book, I had to sadly cut it out. This section isn’t sufficiently proofed, it’s missing the several additional polishing passes the rest of manuscript received so it’s still pretty drafty, and it also contains spoilers that might affect your reading of the “real” book. Worse, the ‘spoilers’ in the section are wrong -- they don’t match events in the final revision...
Jeanne Hébuterne: 1916 - 1920
She had been in lust with Bernini. She’d loved Artemisia, but that forbidden love had lasted only briefly. She had truly loved Antonio Vivaldi, her Lucio, and she had loved him as no one else. She still regretted leaving him, though they had managed to snatch stolen and wonderful time together now and again even after she’d left him to ensure he would be safe from Nicolas.
In all the time since, no one else had nourished her as completely as Lucio had. No one else had a green heart that fit her so well and made her feel as if she and her lover were one. Not even Nathaniel, with whom she’d lived the longest, though he had come close.
Then she met Amedeo Modigliani.
By 1915, she was back in the City of Light, living with a family in the Montparnasse district. These were the beginning of les Années Folles, the “Crazy Years” when Montparnasse—like Montmartre on Paris’ Right Bank—was a center of the art world, when the mood somehow defied the overhanging specter of the Great War and the constant parade of death notices from the blood-drenched trenches of the front.
André Hébuterne was a young man who’d decided to be an artist even though his parents heartily disapproved. Jeanne knew that his green heart was weak and thin. She and André became friends, though not lovers, and it was André who introduced Jeanne to his parents, a struggling bourgeois couple: Monsieur Hébuterne was employed in the perfume department of the Bon Marché while his wife kept the house. After a few visits, Jeanne had proposed an arrangement with them that she’d offered a few times before in her life. They agreed to take her in and call her their ‘daughter’, while she paid them well for their lie. The family relationship helped to establish her identity, allowed her to move easily in Paris, to have a home, to deflect any snooping that Nicolas might attempt.
Like her ‘brother’ André, Jeanne studied art at the Académie Colarossi. For her, it was a way to indulge her passion for the arts and to enhance the talent she had. More importantly, it was also a way for her to come into contact with the true artists in the area, who often came to the Académie Colarossi to take advantage of the life drawing classes and the models the Academy employed.
One of Jeanne’s lovers at the time was Tsuguharu Foujita, a Japanese-born painter whom everyone called Leonard. He wore round, horn-rimmed glasses that made his eyes look like chipped black saucers, and he had already sold several of his paintings. His green heart was strange and odd to Jeanne, but that may have been because he was so foreign, speaking French with an odd accent. One day, in the Café de la Rotonde, he told Jeanne that he had a wife back in Japan, though he claimed that he no longer loved her. They would sit in the cafe for hours, drinking and talking with friends and others artists: Maurice Utrillo, Chaïm Soutine, Juan Gris, once even the already famous Picasso. Some of them, too, were her lovers—as with her time in London as Emily Pauls, she was gathering around herself a cadre of those with green hearts she could use.
And it was in the Rotonde that she first glimpsed Modigliani, though she had heard his name before in conversations. He was a strange figure, one who stood out with his red scarf and brown corduroy suit, moving among the tables as he offered the patrons a quick portrait for “only five francs. A bare little bit.” She’d glimpsed him a few times at a distance on the streets, but this was the first time she’d been close to him. As he passed near their table—nodding to Foujita, who called out a greeting—Jeanne could sense his green heart.
The first touch of it made her gasp aloud. She’d felt nothing like this in almost two centuries. First, the potential of the energy she felt was vast—far more potential than she’d felt in a long time. And as with Vivaldi, and perhaps even more so, there was a rich attendant hue to the emerald, one that soothed her and made her long to meld herself into its fabric. Modigliani was staring at her as she took in the aura around him, a long, intense, and appraising gaze, and he seemed no less startled than she, so much so that she wondered whether he felt the energy himself. His mouth was slightly open, as if he longed to say something to her, but he remained silent. Their eyes held each for long seconds; in those moments, the noise and clamor of the café fell away unnoticed, as if only the two of them existed in the universe. Then he shook his head, breaking the gaze asa he walked past her, his green heart fading with distance as he quickly made his way toward the Rotonde’s exit.
She watched him go, turned in her seat.
“You know him?” she asked Foujita when Modigliani vanished into the crowds on the street outside. Leonard pushed his eyeglasses back up the rim of his nose, one finger circling his glass of absinthe. She thought he wasn’t going to answer; he seemed to have noticed the interaction between the two of them.
“Who? Modi?” he asked finally.
Owlish eyes blinked behind glass. “Modigliani. We all call him Modi. Yes, I know him. He might be a decent painter one day, if he can get his life together. He’s a half-mad Italian Jew and he drinks more than is good for him. He’s also in the grip of Beatrice Hastings; do you know her?”
Jeanne shook her head., and Leonard sniffed. “Better for you not to,” he said. “She’s a dangerous and jealous lover. She’d come after you with a knife if she saw you as much as look at poor Modi. She’s not like you at all—and she’s the kind of woman he likes: as unpredictable as he is.”
“Still,” Jeanne persisted, “this Modi’s interesting. I think I’d like to meet him. Despite the formidable Madame Hastings.”
Leonard stared. He picked up the absinthe and took a long swallow. “Perhaps I’ll introduce you,” he said.
He would not, in the time they were together. It was not until late February of 1917 that she finally was introduced to Modigliani: at the Promenade du Boeuf Gras, the procession of the Fat Ox, during the Carnaval de Paris. She’d gone to watch the procession with Chana Orloff, a Russian sculptor, and her fiancée Ary Justman, a writer and poet. They were standing in the crowd along the boulevard des Capucines, shivering in their coats, their breaths of the crowd seeming to form a white fog that lingered over the street. Many of the revelers had colorful, fancy masks, though Jeanne and her companions did not; many of them also had cheap tin horns on which they blew incessantly, the cacophony echoing frantically from the buildings around the street.
The throngs of Parisians were packed densely along the boulevard: as the mounted ranks of soldiers passed; as the floats creaked by, most of them laden with hordes of mythological gods and masked revelers. The crowd gave a ragged cheer and the street horns blared ever more loudly as the cart bearing the ox named Leviathan approached, a massive beast who. it was reputed, weighed nearly 2,800 pounds. Behind Leviathan and his handlers was a float made to look like a sailing ship, on the prow of which was a throne on which sat a child dressed as Cupid, waving to the crowds and pretending to shoot arrows from his gilded bow.
“It’s too late for you, Chana,” Jeanne said, leaning against her. “You’ve already been struck.”
Chana laughed. She was brown-haired and rather plain, but she was animated with a vivacity that made her more attractive than many who were more classically beautiful. Her right arm was laced into Ary’s, but her left held Jeanne nearly as tightly. Her green heart had attracted Jeanne to her; for a time, the two of them had been occasional lovers, but Chana’s sapphic tendencies were minor and Jeanne knew that she was no more than a passing experiment for Chana. They’d remained friends, though, and Jeanne had watched Chana and Ary’s months-long dance of flirtation with an indulgent smile, rejoicing with Chana when their attraction had blossomed into love.
They watched the rest of the parade, then—with the rest of the crowd—began to drift away toward the cafés and restaurants lining the boulevard. “Oh look,” Chana said, her breath white. “There’s Modi.”
She pointed toward a statue set before a hotel just up the street, where a man in a tattered overcoat was haranguing the crowds. The overcoat flapped open enough to reveal a red scarf and a butterscotch-brown corduroy suit. Modi’s hair appeared to have been slept on and combed with a single pass of his hand. Yet... As they walked toward him, Jeanne could feel the tug of that green heart and its strange radiance. She could see the intensity and passion in his eyes. “I should introduce you two,” Chana said. “He’d like you. He’ll ask you to model: you watch.”
Jeanne laughed. “I hear he has a mistress already, a fearsome one, if Leonard can be believed.”
“Beatrice? Oh no, he’s not with her anymore. Modi!” Chana called out, and the man stopped yelling—he was shouting something about Carnaval and the corruption of true art—and peered in their direction.
“Chana!” he said, and came loping toward them. Four strides away, he stopped suddenly. He was staring at Jeanne, his sloe-eyed gaze piercing. He blinked and seemed to almost scowl. “I know you,” he said. “You’re the one who wants to destroy me and make me over again.”
And that was her introduction to him.
“Sit there as you would naturally, Jeanne,” Modi told her. “Just look toward me as if you’re gazing at someone you desire.” She almost laughed, but she heard neither irony nor a jest in his voice. “Oui, that’s it. Perfect. Keep that look...”
Modi’s hand moved over the canvas, a carbon pencil clutched in his hand. He slashed at the canvas with it as if it were a weapon, marking lines and shapes, his manic gaze sliding from her to the canvas and back again, eternally restless. He pursed his lips, frowning, erasing something and re-drawing, finally tossing the pencil aside and picking up a brush. He dabbed at the palette he’d already prepared, swirling colors on the board before sweeping the brush across the canvas. She heard the pop of the brush against the stretched canvas and the breathy hush that followed. He cursed in Italian; he raged, furious either with himself or the painting for not cooperating with the vision in his head. He was drinking as well, a bottle of red wine on the floor near him. She had heard from other models that sitting for Modi was often a terrifying experience; Jeanne could well understand that feeling.
But through the violence and anger, she felt the radiance of his green heart swelling and curling around both of them, like a great protective arm. She pulled that arm tightly around her, breathing in the radiance, tasting its sweetness, and exhaling her own presence into it. She closed her mind to the rest.
She had never tasted another like this. Not even, she had to admit, Vivaldi’s. She could stay here forever. She wanted to stay here forever.
Forever. But for that to happen, she would have to reproduce the elixir. Without that, her time with him must be far shorter.
They had not yet made love; it wasn’t her reluctance, but his. Over the last few weeks, they’d spent hours and entire days together, and it was obvious to Jeanne that the intense attraction between them was mutual. He sketched her incessantly, when they were with their friends, it was always Modi who sat next to her, manic and talkative. Today, he’s asked her to come to a hotel room he’d rented, saying he wanted her to model for him. She’d agreed, thinking that it was most likely an excuse to tumble her into bed—she’d also heard from the models that Modi would make love to them, sometimes before the modeling, sometimes afterward, but always. When Jeanne arrived, she saw the chair set carefully in front of the light from the window, the easel with the canvas, the stool before it and the folding table with tubes of paints and brushes, and the smell of turpentine from a glass jar. “Jeanne, I’m glad you came,” he greeted her, immediately taking her coat and throwing it carelessly on the bed. “Excellent. I need you to sit there...”
He worked frantically for a time; she wasn’t certain how much time had passed. It didn’t matter to her: she was caught in the spell of his energy and it sustained her. His gaze on her was so intense and deep that it felt as if he were inside her mind, that he was able to sense what she was thinking, that he was dragging out from her all the secrets that she held inside. She heard the nearby church bells ring sext, and Modi shook his head as if emerging from a trance. He thrust the brush into the jar of turpentine, and she watched the clear liquid turn ruddy from the paint, the hues coiling up and out from the hairs.
“May I see?” Jeanne asked.
Modi shrugged. He pushed his hair back with a hand, streaking his forehead with umber. “It’s not finished yet,” he said, “but...” He stood up, gesturing at the canvas. Jeanne went around to the front of the easel, taking a few steps back from it before she allowed herself to look. She saw herself staring back: her round face stretched, her nose and her neck elongated, her bright red lips almost tiny at the bottom of her face. Her expression was caught somewhere between severe and seductive, her eyebrows arching dark and high over piercing eyes.
She could feel him standing directly behind her as she stared at the portrait. She felt weight and warmth on her shoulder, his hand. “You see, you’re beautiful,” he said. “Beautiful and frightening, all at once.”
She leaned her head to that side to trap his fingers. The other models hadn't told her of this: his sensitivity, his reluctance. In their tales, Modi was aggressive and forceful, but with her... “Are you afraid of me, Modi?” she asked without looking at him. “You shouldn’t be.”
His other hand came up and brushed her red-brown tresses away from her neck. She felt his breath as he kissed here there, inhaling sharply at the feel of his lips against her skin. She turned in his grasp, pressing herself against him and kissing him hard, her mouth opening and yielding under his. He tasted of wine and salt. His hands fumbled at the buttons of her dress, threatening to tear the fabric. “Let me,” she told him, and opened the front enough to let the dress slip to the floor. She could feel the sardonyx pendant chill between her breasts as the air touched it.
She wasn’t sure which one of them moved first toward the bed. It didn’t matter.
Their lovemaking was so frantic as to be nearly rough. He tore her underwear removing it from her, but she didn’t care. Afterward, they opened a bottle of wine and drank, then made love again, more slowly and more gently this time.
It was late nearly midnight when he escorted her back to the Hébuterne apartment, seeing her to the door of the apartment building. She felt drunk, even though she’d only had a few glasses of wine. It was his green heart; the wild colors of it filled her, made her giddy. She kissed him, defiantly, in the hall despite knowing that the neighbors would be watching. “Tomorrow,” she said. “Tomorrow I’ll model for you again, however you’d like.”
He laughed at that. “Tomorrow,” he told her. He kissed her again and left her, starting to sing as he reached the street, his voice echoing loudly in the night air: a Legion marching song, “Tiens voilé du boudin pour les Belges...”
She heard someone curse at the noise, and his mocking laughter in reply.
She climbed the four flights of stairs to her apartment with the lingering intoxication of Modi’s presence, remembering the feel of him, and smiling.
In late March of 1918, artillery shells began to rain down on Paris. The heralded French aviator Didier Daurat discovered the source of the bombardment within a few days: an immensely long-barreled German rail gun, firing upon Paris from 120 kilometers away. Unfortunately, Daurat could do nothing about the weapon, which was well-protected. The siege gun already had nicknames: the Kaiser Wilhelm Gun, or more simply, the Paris Gun. Each day, fifteen to twenty shells from the weapon pounded the city. One struck the roof of St. Gervaid et St. Protais Church on Good Friday in the midst of the service, the structure collapsing on the congregation. Over eighty Parisians were killed, and many more injured in that single incident.
The Tarot, when Jeanne laid out the cards, spoke of strife and danger and death, though they promised a happier time beyond the Great War. She hoped they were right. The papers were all screaming about the new German offensive, about the deaths in the trenches, about the faint hope that the Americans might soon join with the Allies.
From the studio at 8 rue de la Grande Chaumière where Jeanne now lived with Modi, or from the Hébuterne apartment when she visited there (though the Hébuternes seemed to think that their ‘daughter’ had been a bad influence on André and preferred that her visits were both brief and rare), Jeanne could hear many of the shells’ explosions. She shuddered each time, glad that she was still alive, praying that it hadn’t fallen on those she knew. She had experienced war many times and in many forms through the centuries, but this... This was something new and terrible, a weapon raining random destruction and death on the city she loved most of all, and doing so without warning from over the horizon, from an impossible distance and impossible heights. This wasn’t warfare, to her mind. This wasn’t a soldier fighting toe-to-toe with his enemy, their eyes locked on each other in the midst of a personal battle. This was cowardice, and it killed innocent citizens, not soldiers.
She imagined poor André, who had been conscripted into the French army and was now fighting in the trenches on the front. She worried each day that the Hébuternes would receive one of the ominous black-bordered telegrams, announcing André’s death.
This war was a horror. This war was insanity.
Each time a shell burst, she clutched her abdomen protectively. That too, was frightening.
Worse, she hadn’t seen Modi since yesterday. That in itself wasn’t entirely unusual; he would go off drinking with his friends and not return, and she worried then if he would return on his own, or if someone would carry him back to the studio drunken and delirious, or if she might hear that he was in a hospital, injured or even dying. She knew, too, what transpired between Modi and his models, how sex with them appeared to be a necessary component of his process. She accepted that, reluctantly, because she loved the man and loved his art, because she knew that while he could promise fidelity, he could also never fulfill that promise—therefore, she never asked him for the promise in the first place. When he was with her, it was obvious how much he loved her, how shallow the relationships with his models were. It was just sex with them, a release. He never painted her nude, though his models often were. To Jeanne, it was a sign that he regarded her differently, that he didn’t want others seeing her naked body.
But she worried.
She heard the the shrill, quickening whine of another shell from the Paris Gun. Before she could react to the sound, there came the deafening k-rump of the explosion, the shock wave shaking the studio, rattling the glass containers of chemicals from her experiments and Modi’s jars of turpentine, causing plaster dust to fall from the ceiling. The mice in their cages shrilled terror. She could hear the terrible sound of wood splintering and bricks falling, and somewhere too close, a woman was screaming.
Modi pushed the door open a few minutes later, out of breath from the climb of the stairs. She went to him, clutching him. “Dedo!” She called him ‘Dedo’ now, the name his family and closest confidants used, but she could only say his name, all the other thoughts driven from her. She didn’t ask him where he’d been; it was enough that he was here with her again.
“I’m fine,” he told her. “It hit a block over, near the Rotonde. I saw the smoke and the flames.”
“I can’t stand this,” she told him. “I worry so much...”
His hand brushed her stomach. “I know,” he said, his voice low. “I understand.”
Their child, growing inside her...
She’d thought that it was a gift from God and a result of Nicolas’ disappearance, but the evidence was there: this was no coincidence. Her menses hadn’t come; she’d performed a uroscopy, and the color of her urine mixed with the chemicals in the flask showed the changes within her body. If that wasn’t enough evidence, there was the nausea she felt every morning in the last few weeks,, the barely perceptible swelling of her waist, the change of her moods. And the cards told her as well.
She knew. She was carrying her and Modi’s child, as she’d once carried Nicolas’.
She hadn’t forgotten how pregnancy changed everything for a woman.
The screaming outside had stopped but she could smell the acrid smoke in the air. Sirens were howling in the street as emergency workers responded. “I talked to Leopold,” he said. Leopold Zborovski was both Modi’s friend and his chief art dealer, though he’d sold far too few of Modi’s canvases in Jeanne’s opinion. However, Leopold and his wife Hanka had given Modi and Jeanne money for canvases and supplies many times, and they seemed to consider Jeanne a good influence on Modi. “He thinks we should go south to Nice. Foujita is going there, so are a few others. He says we’d be able to sell our paintings to the rich tourists there.” He cradled her, and she felt his head turn toward the window, where a dark gray pall was smeared over the blue sky. “And it would take us far away from the war,” he finished. “What do you think?
She nodded into his corduroy jacket, holding him. “Oui,” she said. “Let’s do it.”
Modi kissed the top of her head. “I’ll tell Leopold and Foujita. We can start packing up what we want to take today. It’ll be another new adventure for us,” he told her. His hands touched her abdomen again. “Like this.”
“We’ll be happy there?” she asked. She hated that she’d asked the question, as soon as the words were out of her mouth. You’re happy here, mostly. You love this city, you love Modi. It’s just that you’re afraid of this war... and afraid of being a mother again, because you know the cost of that.
Modi was smiling indulgently at her. His dark eyes held her. “I promise,” he told her. “You’ll see.”
On the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, Germany and the Allies signed the Armistice, and the horrible war ended. Two weeks later, in Nice, Jeanne gave birth to a daughter, whom Modi insisted be named for Jeanne herself. And in June of 1919, they returned to Paris and the studio on the rue de la Grande Chaumière.
Modi’s promise hadn’t been kept, though Jeanne didn’t blame him for that.
It was a motley group who had gone to the villas that Leopold had rented on the hills north of Nice: Chaïm Soutine had come with them on the train from Paris, as well as Foujita and his new lover Fernande Barrey, who called herself an actress and whom Jeanne thought lazy and self-indulgent, with a green heart so faint as to be imperceptible. Zborowski and his wife Hanka had brought along their maid, who also served as an occasional model for Modi.
Regardless of Leopold’s optimism about rich tourists wanting to buy paintings, Modi fared no differently than the other two painters in that he sold very few canvases, and those brought in fewer francs than they hoped. Modi, in desperation, even abandoned his usual portraits and painted a few landscapes, telling Jeanne that he thought perhaps they’d be more interesting to the tourists who came to the resort city.
They weren’t. They all lived in desperate poverty: Still, both Jeanne and Modi found their time in Nice productive, with Modi especially producing a substantial body of work.
Jeanne’s ‘mother,’ Madame Eudoxie Anaïs Hébuterne, had insisted on accompanying them to care for Jeanne, and her distaste for Modi was both obvious and disruptive. “André would want me to be here,” she said when Jeanne asked her why she went with them. Madame Hébuterne also made it obvious that she thought that this trip to the south of France would be a temporary and short sojourn, and she couldn’t understand why Jeanne would even consider keeping the baby once it was born, since Modi said he didn’t believe in the bourgeois convention of marriage—Jeanne herself didn’t care; she’d been in loveless marriages and been in love without them. The rite itself meant little to her. Within a few weeks of the baby’s birth, Madame Hébuterne gave up the struggle and returned to Paris.
Six months later, she and Modi had returned themselves. Jeanne was glad to be in Paris once more, which was both mourning the dead of the war and celebrating the new peace. She and Modi mourned and celebrated their new life as well. Modi’s green heart was stronger than ever, and it seemed to affect Jeanne as well. They painted each other and others, and Jeanne found herself liking the art she produced. Jeanne began her alchemical quest once again, and seemed to be making progress. Already, a few of the experimental mice subjects were showing a reversal of aging, though there was still always that inevitable quick collapse.
There were good days, but there were also many bad ones.
“She changes every week,” Modi said, laying on the floor with little Jeanne on the blanket near the window. She pushed herself up on hands and knees, wobbling, then half-lunging forward to fall. Modi dangled a small stuffed bear in front of her, catching her attention; she rolled on her back and reached for it. “She’ll be crawling any day now.”
“Yes,” Jeanne answered, “and picking up tubes of paint and knocking over jars of turpentine right afterward. We’ll need to start moving things to where she can’t reach them, Dedo. The studio stinks of oils.”
“Maybe she’ll be an artist herself,” Modi declared. He picked up the baby, rolling on his back and dangling her over him. “Won’t you?” he asked little Jeanne, making a face at the same time. But the child was upset at being hauled into the air, and she cried. Modi scowled, and put her back on down on the blanket, where she waved her arms and legs and howled even louder. He stood up, and began coughing, nearly doubling over from the exertion. He dabbed at his mouth with a handkerchief. Jeanne felt his mood darken abruptly, felt it surging in the aura of his green heart.
“I’m going out,” he announced.
She tasted the sourness of the radiance around him, taking it in and trying to change it, but that was becoming more and more difficult for her. She was exhausted herself: from the pregnancy and from caring for little Jeanne; with caring for Modi, whose own health was becoming more precarious; with the fact that she was pregnant again, though it wasn’t yet showing. The daily trek down the long, narrow staircase down from the studio to the courtyard tap to fetch water was nearly too much for her; their neighbor below, Manuel Ortiz de Zárate—also a painter—brought the buckets of water up for her most days. Modi would often vanish for a day or more, and was working only erratically. He muttered about meeting “a stranger on the stairs,” about someone following him. Jeanne worried about his mental health.
“Where are you going?” she asked him.
He shook his head. “Lunia’s offered to sit for me at Leonard’s house. I’m going there.”
“Lunia.” She tried to say the name without any accusation in her voice, but she felt his green heart darken even further as she repeated the name. Lunia had been a model—and lover—of Modi for longer than Jeanne had known him. Sometimes, Jeanne thought that Lunia considered herself Modi’s true muse, and Jeanne only an interloper.
As Jeanne picked up the baby, cuddling her and rocking from side to side to quiet her, she watched Modi leave the studio, banging the door loudly. She went to the tall windows, watching for him. He came out on the street and turned left. She watched until he was out of sight, wondering when she would see him again.
The baby was still crying, and she crooned comforting noises to her as she rocked her in her arms. “Shh... Shush, la petite. Everything’s fine. I tell you what. Let’s go for a walk ourselves, eh? It’s a beautiful day, and we should enjoy it...”
She changed the child’s diaper, then gathered up a few things in her handbag. She walked carefully down the stairs with her daughter bundled in one arm. Ortiz opened his door as she passed his floor. “You are good?” he asked in his gruff accent, and Jeanne smiled at him.
“Going to take the air,” she said. “It’s so stuffy in the studio.”
He nodded, smiled once toward little Jeanne, and closed the door again.
Outside, she turned right. She wouldn’t follow Modi— he might walk all day, or spend it drinking at the Rotonde, or carousing with friends, or painting Lunia. She didn’t know which, but she knew him well enough to understand that she had to make adjustments for his quirks, for they were also bound up in his genius, in his green heart. She shared that with him; she’d made it swell and grow and blossom in her time with him.
Even when she was most angry with him, she still loved him. That never changed. There was no one else with a green heart that connected with her as his had. There was no one else who had changed her so completely. There was no one else who had brought her own talent to the surface so well. Surely this time she was meant to be with him—and for longer than just the short lifetime of mortals.
Surely this time she’d find the ingredient that Nicolas had said was missing, and she would give the gift of life to Modi. The thought made her anxious to get back to the studio, to begin experimenting with her chemicals.
She found herself at the open air market just down the street. She walked the stalls with the baby on her shoulder, sleeping now. She thought of buying something for dinner; Zborovski had sold two of Modi’s paintings recently, and she had a few francs left in her pocket. She was examining the early vegetables at a stall when she felt someone pass close behind her.
“That’s a beautiful baby,” a man’s voice said, his voice in her left ear. “She looks like her father.” In her right ear now. The voice was tinged with an old and familiar accent. She felt her stomach lurch.
“Nicolas...” She breathed the name, that she had begun to think she might never need to utter again. It had been nearly a century since she’d last seen him.
She turned, but the man was already walking away; she saw only his back as he sliced through the crowd. The hair, his stature the way he moved: she was certain it was Nicolas, but he would not let her see his face. She started to pursue him, but the baby stirred in her arms and she stopped: she couldn’t go after him, not burdened as she was.
Nicolas. She would read accounts now and then of mysterious deaths and murders in other cities, and she would wonder if perhaps Nicolas was to blame. She hoped that he had forgotten her and his hatred. She had prayed, she had to admit, that he had somehow found true death For him to find her now, when she had found Modi whose green heart fit her like no other, when she had found the person with whom she might willingly spend eternity if only she could reproduce the elixir, when she’d been given the miracle of pregnancy again...
It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t right.
But it was. She could feel it.
She clutched Jeanne to herself and hurried back to the studio, hoping that Modi would somehow have returned. He hadn’t, but there was an envelope thrust through the door of the building with her name on it. She opened it, trembling.
It will be over soon, the handwritten note inside said. First him, just to see you suffer. Then you. You’ve lived too long already.
It was unsigned, but it needed no signature.
She woke to Modi coughing and a pillow spotted with blood. Outside, she could see snow blowing in the cold December air, and little Jeanne stirring in her crib, hungry.
“Dedo, are you all right? Let me get you some tea...”
He nodded, hunched over and hacking into a handkerchief. Jeanne rolled to her side in the bed, letting her feet and legs dangle over the edge before pushing herself up: it was the only way she could get out of bed now, with her belly so large and cumbersome. The effort nearly exhausted her; she had so little strength — it seemed she could only concentrate on her work for a few hours a day.
She managed to get the teapot set on the small stove, but before she could get the coals underneath back into flame, little Jeanne started crying and calling out for her—“Mama!” was one of her few words—and her voice suddenly made Jeanne aware of the heaviness and ache in her breasts, as well as the fullness of her bladder with the child inside pressing on it. She went back to the bedroom area, closed off by curtains hung from ropes in the studio.
Modi had stopped coughing and was laying back on the bed, his eyes closed. His cheeks were hollowed and stubbled. A spot of red dappled his lips. She went to Jeanne, who was standing up in her crib, and patted her head. “Shush,” she whispered to the baby. “Give Mommy a minute and I’ll feed you.”
She reached under the bed to find the chamberpot; squatting, she lifted her nightdress and relieved herself. She took Jeanne from her crib, groaning with the girl’s weight, and took her back to the hearth. She set little Jeanne down as she blew the coals back into life to heat the water for tea. The studio was frigid, the windows rimed with frost that gleamed in the dawn.
Finally, with the stove coaxed back into life and the water in the teakettle beginning to burble, she picked up Jeanne again, sitting on a rocking chair as she unbuttoned her nightdress until her left breast was exposed. She settled Jeanne on her lap and put her mouth to the nipple. She sighed as she felt the milk begin to flow. Their cat sidled into the room, purring as it rubbed against her legs. Jeanne sat rocking quietly, cradling her daughter and glancing around the studio: at the canvases stacked along the walls, at the tables and easels splattered with paint and littered with old tubes of pigment and jars of dirty turpentine, at the far corner where her alchemical work are was set up, with two small cages of mice.
Since June, Jeanne had redoubled her work on the elixir while Modi cycled in and out of his moods, sometimes painting frantically, sometimes doing nothing at all for days. His absences became more frequent, and he talked often about being followed or raved about the strange man who kept appearing—tales which terrified Jeanne, though Modi refused to stay in the studio where she might be able to protect him. His cough had worsened; despite all of Jeanne’s ministrations, he was becoming gaunt and haggard in appearance, and had begun spitting up blood.
But she was close. The mice to whom she fed the elixir responded now, regaining their youth for days and even weeks, before the ultimate collapse and death. “I knew that there was a missing ingredient...” Nicolas had said. The secret was nearly within her grasp, even if the final answer still eluded her. “And it was so simple, when I think back on it. So simple...” She wrote copious notes, so she would remember all the formulas, all the changes, all the dead ends.
The previous month, she’d forced Modi to see a doctor, who declared Modi was suffering from nephritis and prescribed medicine which had done nothing to relieve the symptoms. Jeanne remembered the note Nicolas had left: First him, just to see you suffer... For the last several weeks, she had begun wondering whether Modi’s paranoia might be right, that Nicolas might be responsible, following Modi and poisoning him whenever he had the opportunity. That sent her back to her alchemical studies: if she knew the cause for his illness, then she could find something to counteract it.
Little Jeanne released her nipple, asleep, and Jeanne returned the child to her crib. Modi was sleeping, his breath coming in long, slow snores. She smiled, seeing him. She left them, going back out to check on the tea kettle, which was just beginning to steam. She poured herself a cup and went to the window.
She stared down at the courtyard, to the tree she’d painted just a few months ago. A man stood there in the snow, one hand on the trunk. He was staring up toward the windows of their studio on the top floor.
Nicolas. She saw his face this time: it was Nicolas, unmistakably. He saw her as well. He waved, once, and he smiled. Then he shrugged his coat more closely around him in the swirls of snow, and walked out through the archway toward the street. She stared at his footprints, dark in the snow.
She nearly dropped the mug of tea.
Jeanne rushed back into their bedchamber. She brought out a satchel from the closet, threw into it all the clothing she had for little Jeanne, then finally bundled up the child. She went to Modi, touching his forehead: his skin felt far too hot. “Dedo,” she said. She was nearly breathless from the exertion. “I’m taking Jeanne out. I’ll be back soon. Don’t let anyone in. Promise me. Promise me, Dedo.”
He nodded, his eyes closing again.
She left, closing the door behind her and locking it, switching Jeanne from one arm to another to do so. The steps were a nightmare to negotiate with the valise in one hand and Jeanne in her other arm. She nearly stumbled more than once, pausing on each landing to catch her breath again. She was terrified that Nicolas would be waiting for her in the courtyard; she didn’t know what she would do if he were. She didn’t dare confront him with the baby, and she was so tired that she didn’t know if she could dredge half-forgotten spells from her mind. But the courtyard was empty, hushed with the eerie silence of a snowfall. She jogged toward the street, the valise banging against her leg.
She walked the streets of Montparnasse toward her brother’s apartment, climbing the stairs slowly in his building and knocking on the door. His wife Georgette—André had married since his return from the war—answered the door. Her face softened as soon as she saw little Jeanne, and she opened the door wide. “Come in,” Georgette said, though her eyes widened slightly at the sight of the valise. “You look half-frozen. Let me get you something...”
“Is André here,” Jeanne asked, somewhat frantically. The baby was wriggling in her arms and beginning to fuss.
“I’m here,” André said, coming in from the bedroom. He took in Jeanne and the valise. “What’s wrong?” he asked.
“Can you two keep Jeanne for awhile? A few days, maybe a week? It’s Modi—he’s sick, and I need to take care of him, and I don’t want Jeanne to get sick herself, and I can’t take care of both of them and myself too, it’s just so much-”
She realized she was half-ranting and stopped. The part she couldn’t say burned in her throat. André and Georgette looked at each other, then Georgette held out her arms. “Here,” she said. “Let me have the poor little dear.” Jeanne was nearly crying as she handed Georgette the baby.
“Thank you,” she said. “You shouldn’t need a wet nurse; she’s started eating solid food. And she’s started to take a few steps...” She was crying now, and André hugged her.
“We’ll keep her,” he said. “You go get Modi better. And Jeanne, take care of yourself. I worry about you.”
She nodded. She stayed only a few minutes longer, showing the two of them what she’d brought in the valise and kissing little Jeanne once more. Then she took her leave and trudged back to the studio through deepening drifts. The trudge up the steep, curving stairs seemed endless. When she finally reached the top floor landing, she was out of breath again.
The door to the studio hung open slightly. Jeanne felt her heart leap. She remembered closing the door and locking it. She pushed it fully open. “Dedo?” she called out. There was no answer.
Cautiously, she entered the studio, half-expecting Nicolas to jump out at her. She desperately clawed at her exhausted mind for a spell. Her breath clouded before her. She could hear the hiss of snow falling on the ledge outside the huge windows and the ping of the metal stove contracting as it cooled. Nothing else—no, wait: she could hear the rattle of a breath from around the corner of the L-shaped room. She went into the bedroom. “Dedo?”
Modi’s face was a terrifying gray-blue, his breath shallow. There was a liquid sound deep in his throat. He looked half-dead.
On the battered stand alongside their bed, a folded piece of paper had been set—a paper that hadn’t been there when she’d left. She plucked it up and opened it to see a simple, crude drawing: a sword. She dropped the note as if were burning coal.
“Dedo!” She went to Modi, trying to rouse him, but he remained unconscious. His breathing was shallowing even further; she could barely see his chest rising and falling.
Dying. She’d seen death too often not to recognize its landmarks.
She shook him again, and it was like shaking a sack of flour. There was no response from him. He took another sip of air, his lungs rattling wetly. She waited for his exhalation, but it came far too slowly.
Dying. Nearly dead.
Jeanne was frantic. She swept through the studio, looking for anything that might help. She thought going downstairs to Ortiz, but what could he do? She went back to the bed, patting Dedo’s fevered forehead with a towel. He was barely breathing; she was watching him die.
She heard a noise from the other room, a rustling. She got to her feet again, her prominent belly forcing her waddle rather than walk into the other room. Her mice were rooting in the wood shavings at the bottom of their cage, looking for food.
She went to the cages, looking at the ones to whom she’d fed the latest version of the elixir. Their fur was shiny and healthy, their bodies youthful, their eyes bright. They hadn’t yet gone undergone the quick transformation, the sudden aging as if all their years and illnesses returned on them tenfold, killing them in a few short hours.
She’d taken the elixir. It hadn’t killed her, not in centuries. Nicolas said there was a missing ingredient, but what if he were wrong, or what if he were simply lying to her? What if it worked for humans differently than it worked for mice.
Her Dedo was going to die if she did nothing. She snatched up the small vial of elixir and went back into the bedroom. “Dedo, here. Take this,” she said, lifting up his head. He didn’t respond, and she forced his mouth open, tipping the vial into his mouth so that the thick liquid trickled slowly down his throat. She gave him all of it, then lowered his head gently to the pillow.
She waited, holding her own breath.
His body shuddered, he took in a long, gasping inhale that she thought was his death rictus. He trembled, he coughed.
His eyes fluttered open. “Jeanne?” he said. “I was lost in darkness, a terrible nightmare.”
She smiled at him. “I’m here,” she told him, leaning down to kiss his forehead. His skin was cool and dry. “It’s morning now. No more nightmares.”
For more than a month, he did seem to have largely recovered. His illness passed, and he was the old Modi again: painting frantically, being with her during the day, though he often left her at night, carousing and drinking in the Rotonde and other bars with his friends. It seemed he didn’t want her to share that part of him, as if he reserved that for more private, artistic purposes, when he unleashed his green heart.
Jeanne was content with that. She’d saved him; she’d pulled him back from the precipice on which Nicolas had placed him. She was certain of that last part. Yes, Modi was tubercular, but he’d been that way his whole life. She was convinced that Nicolas had done something to make his condition far worse, to turn it deadly. His recovery, to her, proved it. The elixir had done for Modi what it did for her: it brought back his youth and his energy. It healed him.
The mice that had received the elixir shriveled, turned old in a day, and died, a few days after the New Year. She buried them in the courtyard, panting as she dug with a hand spade in the frozen ground around the tree, and she looked hard at Modi when she managed to climb the steps again to the studio. He appeared no different. By the time another week had passed, she’d begun to think that maybe Nicolas had been wrong, that there was no ‘missing ingredient,’ that Modi would be fine, that he was as immortal as she, that Dedo and his incomparable green heart would be companion to her through the centuries. Mice and people simply reacted differently to the elixir.
In that last point, at least, she was right. The collapse, when it came, wasn’t as sudden as it had been for the mice.
It was much slower, and therefore harder to witness.
On a mid-January night, Modi went out, though she tried to talk him into staying home. The evening was frigid, with an icy rain sluicing down from ashen skies, but Modi didn’t care. He’d spent the day painting a portrait, and said he wanted to go for a walk. He left her, though she knew he would go to the Rotonde to drink. She waited for him, and when he didn’t return by two in the morning, she managed to negotiate the horrible stairs and the awful weather, walking to the Rotonde to bring him home. “Modi isn’t here,” she was told. “He and his friends have gone off to see someone in rue d’Alésia.”
Jeanne sighed, cupping the heavy swell of her belly with her hands, where she could feel the baby moving, an elbow or knee pressing against her taut skin. The rue d’Alésia was a terribly long walk, too far for her, and there was no guarantee that her Dedo would be there when she arrived. She returned to the studio through the cold rain, stolidly ascending the five flights once more and collapsing into the empty bed.
It was morning before Modi was brought back to her, limp and nearly unconscious in the arms of two men she didn’t know. She had them take him into the bed, thanked them for bringing him home, and began to do what she could.
She knew. She knew when she saw him that the elixir had failed. His bloody cough was back; his skin was waxen, his neck stiff. He shivered, he raved, he glared at her as if he didn’t recognize her. He looked as if he were some ancient, his cheeks hollowed under the stubble, the skin of his arms lax and laced with an old man’s wrinkles.
Dying. Again. And this time it was her fault. She had done this to him, not Nicolas. She wept, looking at him, feeling their child moving and stirring inside her. A few more weeks and it would be her time again. And unless she could create the elixir that had changed her, he would not be there to witness the birth.
She went down to the Ortiz apartment to see if they had soup or something she could feed Modi, to see if Ortiz might contact the Zborovskis and let them know how desperate Modi’s condition was, but he was gone. A note on his door said he would be back in a week. Jeanne walked back up, feeling abandoned and alone. The cat greeted her, and she stared at the alchemical bench in its corner.
She went there. She pored over her notes. She began purifying and mixing the chemicals once again.
“Dedo? Here, darling. Try this. It’s medicine...” Over the next several days, she gave him a half-dozen variants on the elixir. None of them had any effect at all; it was as if his body were a broken vessel: no matter what she gave him, there was no response at the potions. She thought back to her days as Perenelle, trying desperately to conjure up from her memories everything she’d done, anything she could have possibly added to the elixir that she’d somehow missed, poring over the notes she’d made in the last several years. The mice were all dead now, victims of her experimentations. Modi’s cat, perhaps sensing the atmosphere, had vanished.
Jeanne was no longer sure what day it was or how long it had been since she’d slept. The child in her belly tormented her, shifting and moving and making it difficult for her to move, making her bladder feel full every hour or so. She hovered over Modi went she wasn’t working, feeding him sardines from tins and giving him the alcohol he asked for when he was coherent.
She saw sunrises and sunsets; they meant nothing to her. There was only the work, and making certain that Modi kept breathing.
Someone was standing behind her as she worked frantically at her workbench, hunched over her alembic; she turned, startled, fingers curled to slash at Nicolas. But the man behind her was stepping backward, hand up as if in surrender, and she belatedly recognized Ortiz. “Jeanne,” he said in his thick Peruvian accent. “The stink downstairs... I thought I should check...”
He glanced into the bedroom and saw Modi. He looked at her strangely, and went to the bed, returning a moment later looking concerned. “I’m calling for an ambulance,” he said. “Modi must go to hospital.”
“No!” she protested. “He has to stay here. I’m the only one who can help him.” But Ortiz wasn’t listening to her; he’d already left the studio. She could hear his footsteps pounding down the stairs.
The next few days were only a blur to her. The ambulance came, taking Modi away even as she fought with the men to keep him there. Ortiz’ wife came up to try to comfort her, to clean up the filth in the studio, and perhaps Lunia and the Zborovskis too and others. Jeanne wasn’t sure; they were all specters and apparitions to her. André came also, finally, and it was he who told her that Modi had died, who held her as she screamed in denial and wept and battered at him with helpless fists, who escorted her to the hospital and up to the room.
Modi lay still, his body covered to his neck. His eyes were closed; someone had brushed his hair and shaved his beard. He could be sleeping, but there was no sound in the room. His face shimmered in her gaze. He looked ancient. “Dedo?” she whispered. There was no answer. There could never be an answer. The sheet over him was too still. She gave a wailing cry, walking backwards away from the shell that had once been Modi.
She felt André’s arm around her. She let him lead her away.
André took her back to Hébuterne apartment, to her ‘parents.’ They put her in her old room, on the fifth floor with its small balcony overlooking the street. Monsieur Hébuterne made strangled, comforting noises and quickly left her; Madame Hébuterne fussed over her for a time, forced her to eat some soup, and also left her.
Night came. Somehow, despite the discomfort of her pregnancy, Jeanne found her way to sleep.
She wasn’t certain what woke her: some sound or perhaps only a sense of a presence. She opened her eyes; the room was cold, but there was a white fog near the foot of her bed: someone’s breath. Then the figure moved into a shaft of moonlight slashing through the curtains of the street window, and Jeanne saw not only a long glint of steel, but the face.
“Nicolas!” The name came out as a strangled shout. She tried to get up, her feet tangling in the sheets and her belly preventing her from bending.
“I told you,” he said. “First him. Then you.” He moved his arm; the sword blade hissed through the cold air. “Remember London, my dear?” he asked. “Remember Polidori? I know how to make death last forever, too.”
“Was it you?” she asked. “Did you do something to Modi?”
He seemed to shrug in the darkness. “Yes, I helped.” Teeth gleamed in moonlight. “And do did you, it seems. You look terrible, by the way. Haggard. I thought pregnancy was supposed to make a woman glow.”
She’d managed to stand, her legs feeling like willow stems underneath her. She closed her eyes, remembering spell-words. She spoke them, guttural and harsh, and flung her hands toward him, but she saw a flick of his wrist as he spoke a counter-spell. The dark lightning she’d cast toward him vanished. Gone. She hadn’t touched him.
“You were never much good at that,” he said. “That’s my expertise. You’ll have to do much better if you want to stop me. But you can’t. You’re too weak.” He took a step toward her, the blade whispering through air. She wondered what it was going to feel like: the razored steel slicing through tendons and muscle, her head falling from her body. Would she be aware of it? And the baby, the life that was her and Modi’s…
She placed her hand protectively over her belly, back away as he advanced, the sword whipping through the cold night, closer and closer. Her back was to the floor-length balcony doors now; she reached behind to open one of them, to gain more space to retreat from him. The cold air lashed her back, playing wildly with the plaits of her hair as she retreated onto the balcony, the concrete cold on her bare feet. She could feel the metal of the railing on her buttocks.
Nicolas stopped, just at the edge of the balcony. “You’ve nowhere to go,” he told her. “This isn’t the way, Perenelle—it’s too long a fall, even for you. Come inside. I promise you that I’ll make it quick. This-” He shook his head. “So messy. So painful.”
She shook her head. The cold stippled her arms with gooseflesh, the wind whipped her nightgown around her. She felt the child move inside her. She couldn’t think, couldn’t clear her mind. The exhaustion of the last week and caring for Modi, the grief and depression over his death: all the emotions pulled at her. He took a step out onto the balcony toward her. “No,” she told Nicolas, but she didn’t know what she was denying or refusing.
She leaned back, away from him. There was only cold emptiness behind her. “I’m sorry, Dedo,” she said. “I’m so sorry.”
She leaned back further.
They lowered her coffin into the ground. There were few people to watch: the Hébuternes, the Zborovskis, Chana, a few others. Modi’s burial, by comparison, had been a grand affair, with half of Montparnasse in attendance, most of them claiming already that they knew he’d been a genius, and how unfair life was to have taken him so early.
There were no speeches for Jeanne. The service at the graveside, at a cemetery far from where Modi was buried, was perfunctory. As soon as possible, the mourners were back in their taxis and heading away. André stayed, watching as workers shoveled the mound of half-frozen earth into the hole.
She came up behind him. “Thank you,” she said. Her voice sounded ruined and tired. When André turned to look at her, he grimaced and she knew that he was seeing a face purpled and mottled with bruises behind the thin veil she wore.
He grunted. “You’re really leaving your daughter?” he asked. “You would do that?”
“Modi’s family will take her,” she told him. He had always told her that: if something happens, my family would help you. They would honor my child. “I can’t keep her, André. It would be too dangerous.”
He sniffed. She knew he didn’t understand, that he couldn’t understand any of it. Didn’t understand how the body he’d seen twisted and dead in the street had somehow began to breathe again hours later though she’d lost the child within her; didn’t understand why she insisted that there must be a funeral so that everyone would believe she was truly dead. André had helped her, though, despite his doubts and despite his misgivings, and for that she would always be grateful. The coffin now in the ground had been weighted only with stones.
“Where are you going now, Jeanne?”
She shook her head. “I don’t know,” she answered truthfully.
“You’re not well. You need someone to help you until you recover.”
She nearly smiled at that. She could feel the expression pulling at the healing muscles in her face. “I’m going to have to manage on my own,” she said.
Another grunt. “What are you, Jeanne?” he asked. “No human could have survived what you survived. What are you?”
She didn’t have an answer for that. Instead, she hugged him tightly. Then, limping badly, leaning on a cane, she hobbled away from the cemetery and Paris.