Verna Austen

Dear Theo

Do you remember, brother—
the little green shingled roof of the
presbytery in Zundert?
And our room that overlooked the square
in front of the flagpole?

Do you remember how at night on our bureau, our
glasses half-full of water would freeze yet
we’d warm them between our hands and hold them
to our swollen lips for a small drink?

I dream of those times often and of
the cold graves of our dead brother and
our parents. Father and his Godly words and Mother
with her face cracked and white like the worn leather
of an old Bible or the moon

the gardens of Saint-Remy, the fields of blue irises that
took my breath away, the relentless open sky
and the sun; the yellow mornings when her
bright light seeped into the walls of our room
and would not be shut out.

But endless dark places were never far away
and I bid good bye to the colors of the pale North
and followed the sun like a pitiful lover
to the South where she is born new
every day as radiant as in the land of her birth

and I came to the little yellow house
to live among like minded fellows and have grand
adventures. She eluded me still and Arles
was deep in winter. I was not deterred and imagined instead
white capped Mount Fuji and the quiet layers of snow that draped the almond trees and cherry blossoms like a Hokusai print.

At last she returned and I found happiness for a short while; painting when she emerged in her first luminous hours
and wandering the streets all night when she slept
but the darkness came again like a great stone upon my chest and my soul began to slip away.

Our friend Dr. Rey cared for me and soon
I returned to my paints and brushes that spoke what
my lips could not. At night I felt peace among my wooden
shelves full of Dickens and Zola.

Your last letters and the news of your engagement brought me
great happiness for you and my new dear sister.
I was so glad for you Theo.
I am one who was meant to be alone.

I read of your illness
and was desperate for light and my colors
but there was only the hollow sky and fields
of purple irises like dried blood.

I wanted to become the Cobalt heaven lit with tiny stars and
spirals of light like the sky of Arles and the grain fields of
Sienna and Burnt Umber and grow with my face pointing
upwards to God like a sunflower
and so I ate my paints, Theo.
My chest was heavy with the darkness
so unbearable I could scarcely breathe.

Death is not the worst thing;
but what if, on that last morning
as I stopped to pet the little lost dog

I had exchanged a few pleasant words with the lovely girl
who worked in the sweets shop? Her hair was the color of Naples Yellow, Theo, and her eyes were Cerulean Blue. Perhaps we may have walked along the river that night?
What if I had painted that whole last day and then returned to
my small room to prepare dinner with the Ravoux?

But it was not to be.
There were no kind words that day and the
pained and world-weary look in the eyes of the small dog
was more than I could bear
and my soul slipped away at last.

You are always in my thoughts, Theo. Surely
you are in heaven with our dear parents and brother and Wil.
But where am I?
I do not know.

Often I find myself walking along a wet and dusty street
in London and begin to imagine Dickens
in this pub or that one and then a little farther down
will be the Café du Bois where Dr. Gachet had bid me to dine.
Across the avenue again I find myself
in front of 2 Place Lamartine
I know it cannot be
but it is.

And there is music, Theo.
                                        Music playing all the time