Book I: Green in December
Dove Ji, New Orleans, 2003
My hands trembled with frustration. I paused momentarily to sigh and shake my head as a gaggle of whooping revelers passed by outside. Through the slit-like window above my head I could see their shoes--some dirty and scuffed, some polished to a high sheen. The faint rattle of strands of souvenir beads punctuated each step like exotic instruments or Jacob Marley's chains. Only in New Orleans can you hear such merriment at ten o'clock on a workday morning. After their laughter subsided, I brandished my brush again, waiting for my hand to stop twitching before I attacked the canvas once more.
"Come on, phthalo," I tried to soothe the color. But, the thick oil paint simply ran off in a deep blue trickle--stubbornly denying its chemical makeup and acting more like watercolor than oil. I took a deep breath to steady myself as I watched the marbled, azure rivulet streak from the crown of the Madonna's mantle across the luminous shell of her cheek. Her eyes glinted with a combination of pride and sorrow-one of them veiled behind that tiny lapis river.
I quickly dabbed at the Virgin's radiant face--making sure to leave no traces of blue behind to mar her complexion--and blinked rapidly as I felt a bead of perspiration run across my eye and down my own cheek.
Wiping my sweaty brow with the back of my hand, I couldn't help but feel that the Virgin's five hundred-year-old fabric was purposely rejecting the pigment. Was it too many coats of varnish too thickly applied over centuries? Perhaps. Or was it that the Mother of God didn't condone my deception?
Not being predisposed to capricious mending, I wouldn't normally have taken it upon myself to repair a painting without Amadeo's consent, particularly not one as important as that Assumption of the Virgin--one of the finest of our Baroque Spanish treasures. However, the damage, in this case, was my fault--the result of too much friction in the cleaning process.
I thought that certainly I could have blended in some blue over the thin beige rub-mark and no one would have been the wiser. I was beginning to fear that my intended cover-up was only making the matter worse.
I gave it one more try, this time loading the tip of my palette knife with the paint instead of using a brush. All I had to do was dab the pigment onto that small streak--a quick dab and a gentle wipe. That was all. However, my tremulous hand pressed too firmly on the canvas. The result was a tiny rip where the threads of the fragile material gave way--too old and tired to resist even the slightest pressure.
"Goddamn!" I growled, "Damn me for being so spastic!"
I had been jittery all that morning--so much so, that I was having trouble keeping my eyes focused and caught myself staring off into space more than once since I had arrived at work that day. I usually enjoyed the intimacy of my little room in the museum's basement--the day-long journey of the stripe of sunshine from my little window, the smell of turpentine and linseed oil, the rattle of the heater, the rhythmic hum of the patrons above me.
However, on that particular day, I found the room stiflingly hot and I couldn't stop perspiring--a feeling I do not enjoy. I asked the building manager to turn down the heat, but he told me it was set at the usual winter temperature. I guessed it was just me. I was preoccupied and agitated, but unsure as to why or with what.
Everything seemed to irritate me--even those aspects of my life which I normally embrace. In fact, even before I arrived at the museum that day, I found myself cursing the tourists from the French Quarter that crowded the banquettes. Usually, I enjoy eavesdropping on their sometimes drunken (but always effusive) conversations as they propel their velour-swathed hulks along the wet streets in their quest to taste the richness of the Vieux Carré. But, that morning, their bodies were a nuisance--a roadblock..
On any other day, the approach to the museum would make me smile. But, my foul mood made my mind heavy with wishes for a less cluttered part of the city in which to work. "Why couldn't I work at the big museum near City Park? Why is everything so dirty? Why do they have to wash the damn streets every morning?" I had to pause before I went inside. I tried to dismiss the feeling. It would not be dismissed.
As I settled into my studio, all of those agitations melted into an almost painful, gray cloudiness of mind--a mental sfumatto which resulted in the damaged Madonna.
That sort of mistake was beneath me. Amadeo considered me one of the best conservators in the museum. And despite the fact that I was only twenty-three years old, he usually gave me the more important pieces upon which to work. His respect and trust had taken on the utmost importance to me and I felt ashamed that I would be disappointing him.
I had initially taken the job as a means of paying my bills while I worked on my own paintings. Talent or no, breaking into the art world as a new painter was near to impossible and I've always had a fear of starvation. I knew Rosa would support me no matter what, but I didn't want to continue to take money from her.
She would always insist that she was worth a fortune and that my meager expenses would hardly bankrupt her. Rosa would have preferred that I focus entirely on my own painting, but I insisted on being able to pay my own way--mostly. Still, despite my best efforts, I needed Rosa to work her magic.
To ease Rosa's mind, I promised to give the bulk of my energy to my own artwork. And, I vowed before I started at the Musée D'Orleans, that I wouldn't let my day job interfere with my art. But, that was before I met Amadeo.
I had worked for Amadeo Iantosca for over two years and yet, I had never really seen him. He was a creature of darkness--accustomed to the cool, dim recesses of the museum. Those shadowy corners were as much his place in the world as they were the perfect temporary haven for the crated sculptures and paintings that yearned to be displayed, to be given life in the eyes of others. I wondered if a bright light might damage Amadeo as if he too were a delicate creature of canvas, oil and pigment.
He could have been. Amadeo was certainly beautiful enough. His features rivaled any stone god of Gianlorenzo Bernini. His skin--smooth and white, his nose and jaw chiseled as if from the finest marble.
Even in his shadow world, Amadeo's green eyes sparkled with a fire that belied his quiet nature. In flashes of emerald, they were a strange life force of their own beneath well-shaped dark brows. His body--long and lean, but muscular--a creation of Donatello's hand. Crowned by chestnut waves, his features were an anomaly in twenty-first-century New Orleans--a perfect man of wax lost amidst the clutter. He simply didn't belong there.
His place was on display in the museum itself, not wandering in the basement. And even though his trips down to my tiny studio were extremely rare; when he did visit, I always wished to take his hand and lead him back to the more attractive parts of the building--and to the more attractive people. But, Amadeo wasn't much for people no matter what they looked like.
Usually, he seemed content to stay in his dim office on the third floor and made few appearances when the museum was open to patrons. At night, when the last tourist filed out and the doors were shut and locked, he would release himself from his paneled cage and wander the building making sure that everything remained as he planned. He had no time for fools or foolishness. And, while always the epitome of polite charm, he infrequently engaged in personal conversation with any of the staff. That's why his arrival that morning was such a surprise.
I wiped my hands on my pale yellow smock when he knocked. I remember shivering at the eight green streaks my fingers left behind as the pigment ground into the fabric's fibers. I hurried to angle my easel away from the door so he wouldn't see the rip in the canvas. Perhaps I could still repair it. Perhaps he wouldn't notice.
"Dove," He said in his deep whisper.
"Yes, sir," I nodded. I suddenly wished I hadn't said that. He hated to be called sir. At thirty-two, Amadeo was the youngest curator that the Musée D'Orleans had ever employed. Brilliant in his field, he was certainly due the respect of "sir." However, he was too shy to hear it.
He raised an eyebrow, but continued, "I've just received a call." He said it slowly; the thickness of his voice was at once soothing and urgent. I smelled the light cinnamon of his cologne and felt weak.
"A woman named Shelby Halifax asked me if you still worked here." He said.
I cringed at the name--cringed out of longing and cringed out of the revulsion of memory. I had not spoken to Shelby in eight years--beautiful, petulant, generous Shelby.
He looked away for a second, and walked a few feet into my studio--careful not to step into the path of my work-light.
"I'm sorry to tell you this," he said quietly. "But, Miss Halifax tells me..."
I drew in a sharp breath. I knew what he was going to say.
"...That your...that Rosa Frobischer is dead."
My eyes clenched shut and I sat back onto my stool.
Amadeo's shoes made a soft swiping sound across the paint splattered floor as he shifted his weight uncomfortably. "I am sorry."
"I asked Miss Halifax if she wanted to speak to you herself. She answered that you would probably not be agreeable to that and requested that I pass on the information to you."
I nodded again.
"On the few occasions that I met Mrs. Frobischer, I found her to be a thoroughly lovely human being. Again, I am terribly sorry for your loss." He said softly.
All I could do was nod. But, I opened my eyes in time to see his back and watch him walk out of my studio. He turned, not all the way around, but swiveled at the waist in a graceful, masculine contrapposto. "If you need any assistance, let me know. I will do what I can to help you. And, please take all the time you need."
He stood for a moment and looked at me. I felt his green eyes bore into my skin. I turned my head slightly away. I didn't want to meet his stare. I was afraid of what he might see in my eyes.
His body still, he asked gently, "I assume you will be going to Marionneaux."
"I...I don't know," I sighed, suddenly unable to keep from crying.
His shoulders tensed and I thought for a moment that he would come back into my studio to comfort me with a thin but sturdy arm. He did not, however, and continued to remain planted in the hallway--looking at me with all-knowing eyes.
"I haven't been to Marionneaux since the autumn after my mother was killed," I said--the words caught in my throat like dry Eucharist. I hadn't spoken of my mother's murder since I left my Catholic boarding school--not with strangers at least. Only Rosa and I would occasionally discuss my feelings on the subject. During that awful period of my life, Rosa had been my greatest support.
But, Amadeo knew nothing of my bizarre past unless he had read about any of it in the newspapers. Even then, he probably wouldn't have associated quiet, efficient Dove Ji from the conservation studio with any long-forgotten headlines.
I couldn't tell by his expression if he knew of my history or not.
"Then I can see that you're rightly apprehensive about returning." Amadeo took a step into the doorframe and stood there.
"I will have to go back, though. I owe it to Rosa. She took me in when I had no one. She became my mother and my benefactress. I owe it to her memory to go back now. I owe it to my love for her to face...to face whatever is waiting for me." I gulped. Why had I told him all of that? My stomach burbled.
I wiped my eyes and sniffed, forcing my usual smile, "Still, I don't know how I'll get there." I tried to laugh.
"Ah, yes," Amadeo said in the same even tone of voice, "You don't drive."
"No," I shook my head.
"Perhaps this Shelby Halifax can send a car for you." He suggested.
"I'd rather she didn't." I coughed.
"We're not on the best of terms." I said bitterly.
Amadeo's face was blank.
"She's my sister," I explained. "Half-sister. We share a father."
"Ah," Amadeo answered simply. "You needn't tell me anything more."
"Thank you," I nodded.
"Well, then. I will take you."
I cocked my head to one side like a dog does when he's trying to understand what his master just said.
"I have wanted to go to Marionneaux for some time now," Amadeo explained. "I'm curious to see the Rittenhouse Museum. I understand that Amelia Rittenhouse assembled an impressive collection of seventeenth through nineteenth-century French portraiture-among other treasures."
"You helped in cataloging the collection after she passed away?" He asked. "If I recall correctly."
I nodded again.
"Well, then, I will drive to Marionneaux with you as my passenger. I will be perfectly content occupying myself at the Rittenhouse Museum and touring some of the restored plantation homes along the levee. I shan't intrude upon your family business. When you are ready to return, you have but to tell me."
"But, I couldn't let you do that. It could take several days. I..." I began.
"Then, I shall stay several days." He said abruptly. I could tell he wasn't going to accept an argument.
"Thank you," I said, wide-eyed.
"It is done. I will have Maura make the arrangements."
With that, he left me alone in my studio--alone with the torn canvas of a fleshy Madonna. She peered out at me from behind her blue mantle. I wept for Rosa.
Preview Book I, Chapter Two -- Columbia Navarre's Story