Open Window by Pierre Bonnard
The painting that inspired the story is the property of The Phillips Collection.
Story published by Grain Magazine, Winter 2018
Sonia Bonnefoi didn’t dream anymore. She slept too lightly to dream in that house. Wood floors gave way to creaking and scraping from the slightest motion in rooms she never entered. At daybreak, the sound of feet scuffling along the hallway and downstairs to the kitchen would gently rouse her from sleep. When neighbors said she’d lost her marbles for claiming to hear the spirits of her dead parents and husband, a clear sign she should move into assisted living and out of this house in perpetual need of repair, Sonia Bonnefoi told them no, they would fall apart together. They were the crazy ones, thinking she could afford such a thing, though she would not speak of money publicly. All that waiting on her hand and foot would surely kill her, she told them instead.
Upstairs she napped on a chaise lounge. Sunlight shimmered beneath her eyelids. When Sonia Bonnefoi woke, the black cat whirled, stopping abruptly to lick its paw.
“In my eighty some years, I have never seen a creature as full of life as you,” Sonia pondered aloud. “Ma bébé’s comin’ home today. Home to see her maman. She needs to see her maman.”
The cat spun counterclockwise again, chasing its tail in an unwinnable game. The woman laughed, and her chest heaved to catch her breath, labored breathing like rushing water.
“You’re bewitched, ma chatte, spinning the way you do. Everyone says I ought to get rid of you, spinning ‘round as you do, chasing that demon tail. Now don’t you do that when my bébé’s here. You know my daughter, Widdershins.”
The cat turned toward the sound of its name and blinked.
“I know you know my Helen. She’s married to Mister-thinks-he’s-something-more-special-than-everythin’-on-God’s-good-earth. She’s got to bring him with her from that big, fancy place of theirs on the gulf. He’s like her child. Her big child. Don’t you worry. I will stay out of her way. People go their own way. Nobody can say it’s right or wrong.
"Widdershins, I should take you away, down by the green river, away from the swamps and the cocodri, and turn you loose.
"Helen would take a fright if I did. She’d say, Ah, no, Maman, the cocodri will eat her! No, you’d be fine, just fine. You're mostly wild anyhow, hein, ma bête? Always have been. You caught and ate a field mouse and a baby mole right before my eyes just the other day. Woulda ate a baby chipmunk, too, if I didn’t roust that poor animal from its shock. You woulda kept on battin’ at it the way Helen’s daddy swatted at flies, like not really paying any mind, or swat at me when I was young and dumb and didn’t know I was free. That is a cruelty I’ve seen in no other animal but man. I saved that one, the chipmunk. She come to her senses and run off. Are you hungry?”
She pulled the windows shut and in the hallway, grasped the handrail on her way downstairs to the kitchen. The cat tiptoed at her side.
“I have two arms, two legs, two eyes, just like everybody else, and I can climb down these stairs,” she said.
In the pantry, she tore open a bag and emptied it into the cat bowl.
“I ought to let you go, as unpredictable as you are, but you're one of the best friends I got. You’ll never hurt me. I reckon you’re my protector in my old age. You got eyes as light and green as those small, wild apples out back, same as Helen’s eyes—wild and hid away. My adventurous baby girl.
"You smile now ‘cause you know I speak nothing but the truth about her.
"She was a good girl, my Helen. Wild but good. When she wasn’t doing dishes or batting rugs or hanging sheets that took all day to dry with the wet we got around here, she ran free around the lake. I can still recollect her straw hat with a red ribbon ‘round the crown and skinny rope of leather to hold it in place when a gust of wind come up. Wonder what ever come of that hat? You couldn’t hardly see her hair ‘cause it was hidden underneath except for a long braid down her back, the color of honey in the sun. It bounced when she jumped. I tol’ her a hundred times to take off that hat so the world could see her pretty hair, but she just smiled, and her cheeks were pink and basané, speckled like a pink lady apple picked ripe.
"Helen never had to argue over who licked the spoon, who sat next to me in the front seat. I was the oldest in my family and the only girl. At times this was a burden. I’ll give you a for instance. After Thanksgiving dinner, I had to help clear the table and wash the dishes with the women while my daddy and brothers prepared to go out. ‘Get your guns,’ he’d say, and out they’d go, leaving me to set up tables for Canasta. It’s a sin, I know, but I was envious! I wanted to be outdoors—just like my Helen did when she was a girl, and I let her go, too.
"All that was wasted because I was wrong about them tramping through the woods without a care in the world. My maman told me they went house to house giving dead rabbits to our hungriest neighbors—the Boisseau people, the Vilattes, those beloved river people, and I don’t recall who else. They went all around Avoyelles Parish.
Daddy and the boys waited in the car until someone opened the front door, indicating they were allowed to approach, you see. Widdershins, you didn’t march up to someone’s house in the country! You showed respect. They knew you were there. They heard you coming up the road.
"Those poor, dumb kids today, wasting time playing with themselves and taking pictures of themselves for no reason at all. No respect now. No feeling for people. All that’s gone. God Almighty, they can’t even count change! They look at it like it’s a little broken-winged bird in the palm of their hand.
"As I was saying, when Helen was growing up, we weren’t rich, Widdershins. This was before your time. I reckon we weren’t poor, either. We weren’t what you’d call middle class, either. We were all of them together. When it came to eating, we were rich. I grew every manner of vegetable and put them up for winter eating. I swapped them for meat and fruit and whatever else we needed I bought and cooked. Ça c’était bon, ça! And the storms…Glory! How we get storms ‘round here. Nothing ever dries out. Don’t bother putting sheets out on the line. Anyhow, we were somewhere in the middle.
"Back in the day, we had this house and Helen’s father had a good job with the U.S. Post before the river job, his fine idea he said would make us rich as kings. All it did was make him drink. I worked as a housekeeper from time to time for ladies down at Thiebault Square. Sometimes I was even a midwife, though I would take no pay for that, especially the poor women. When Helen was eight, I sent her to dance lessons in town with Mademoiselle Larue. This lady had danced on the stages of Paris, London and New York City before moving back to their town to look after her ailing twin sister, Ada. Their parents, Lucille and Frank Larue, passed on and left them the old Cassidy place, just as elegant as it could be.
"When Mademoiselle Larue saw Helen dance, her eyes lit up like fireflies. My Helen was that good. I knew then she’d be going off to Atlanta or Chicago or maybe New York City one day. She did go to New York and met that man, and I knew he wasn’t goin’ to be good enough for her. But she married him anyhow and now there’s trouble.
"She said to me, ‘It’s his sight, Maman. The doctor says it’s fatigue, but I don’t think so. It took him nine months to tell me about it and go to the doctor. Nine months, Maman!’
"I tol’ her, ‘He’s a man, honey. Everything’s got to be just so ‘fore a man’s ready to speak of his health. It’s in his nature. Why, don’t you remember when your daddy worked the river twelve hours a day and nearly died of pneumonia?’
"She said to me, ‘It’s as if Gerald’s hallucinating, except he sees what’s in the room in a different way. It’s especially bad in bright light.’
"That got me to thinkin’. When he comes here with her today, we shall see what is ailing him. I will get to the bottom of this. Sounds like a malediction he’s under. He may require some old remedy, though I don’t know if he’s ready for that. You just wait and see if I don’t get to the bottom of this. He’s got to be bad off to be willing to enter my house.”
In the pantry, Sonia Bonnefoi rearranged jars of peaches and plums on the shelves and stopped in the middle of her task. She went further into the back and reached up to pull a chain. A light bulb clicked on. She took down a jar of leaves, nutmeg seeds, dried berries, broken seashells, and dark, clumped resin and carefully placed handfuls from the jars into the steaming pot on the stove, stirring once.
“He’s gonna hate the taste of this!” she said and laughed. “Bien. We gonna let the truth come out into the light of day. Inside, it can rot like a potato. He won’t want to do it, but he will, oh, he will. When he does, ma bébé will stand tall like all Bonnefoi women.”
She snapped her fingers. “Lord, I must be losing my mind. It’s all right, Sonia. You can do it,” she said to herself and went into the hallway to make the climb up the stairs, resting midway to breathe.
In the bathroom, Sonia Bonnefoi ran the bath water cool. Standing in a few inches of water, she quickly soaped the important parts and sponged off. It revived her. After drying off and dressing, she combed her hair and plumped the curls with wet fingers, carefully. She didn’t do it too hard because a new hairdo cost ten dollars and she hadn’t gotten her Social Security check from the government, yet.
She examined her face in the mirror. It was round and damp. Her exhaustion was there, around her neck. She placed her hand against her cheek. It was there on the back of her hand, too—the cooking of countless meals, the scrubbings, the baby deliveries, the heavy lifting and pulling and stroking, all her life in strong, veined hands. She brushed her hair and applied circles of rouge to her cheeks and lipstick to her lips. She smiled at her reflection. That was better. Wouldn’t Helen be pleased?
After making her way downstairs to the kitchen, she removed the lid and stirred the pot. Sonia Bonnefoi sat at the table, waiting for her daughter and son-in-law to arrive. She smoothed the tablecloth and stared absentmindedly at splashes of light on the wall. The cat jumped onto an empty chair and looked at her.
She turned to the cat and said, “Helen don’t know the truth about me. Even now, she’s grown, but she still sees me as a woman who found her satisfaction in sneaking pieces of life from the strangest places. She thinks I sniff some good life here and there and she tries to give me money with me sayin’ no, bébé, and she thinks I don’t want nothing better. Thinks I know nothing. Yes, I can see she thinks she’s special with her money and books and fine things and that is natural. I have tol’ her and tol’ her a wild soul will never be content to sip and sniff at life as she is doing with that man.
"By and by, likely after I am dead and gone, she will look back and see me as I am. For now, I will let her find her wild way. When she looks back—and one day when I am in the ground, she will—she gonna see me laughing. You believe me? Hein, mon tigre?”