Jules Bastien-Lepage, Poor Fauvette, 1881
Late winter, and the little girl stares off, her gaze
reaching down into your soul. She’s wrapped
herself in a makeshift shawl of brown cloth
to ward off the cold this very morning, as she stands
there in some wintry field out in Damvillers,
minding the family cow as it feeds on straw and thistle.
“There are some glorious pictures,” D.H. Lawrence
wrote a friend, after viewing the canvas at a winter
exhibition some thirty years after Bastien-Lepage
painted the scene, the artist himself long since gone.
But nothing caught his eye like this scene, as he watched
the lovely woman in her smart, dark velvet suit
and hat, its feathers flowing down over her shoulders,
a woman so unlike that poor Fauvette. “Too sad,”
the woman whispered, as she confided to the man
beside her there. “But then that is what the country
does to one.” And now, the moment over, the two
moved on to yet another landscape, and then another.
And here’s the thing: it’s the gaze of that little girl,
isn’t it, that embeds itself upon your heart, before you too
find yourself likewise turn away. How many times
have you been stopped when you least expected
by someone asking you to look at them and listen?
Like the daughter of an old friend, himself long gone,
catching you in the frozen parking lot of the old brick
church just after Mass this morning, when all you
wanted was to climb inside your car for warmth,
her face and yours masked by this pandemic,
though her teary eyes spoke volumes as she began
to speak of the deep rifts between her brother and herself.
And what was there for you to do but listen in that
freezing morning. Pain is pain. Pain is personal. Still,
you’ve learned to listen, which somehow seems to help.
To help the other, as it helps your sorry self just to know
you care. Something that seems to repeat itself more
and more now, giving back something of yourself.
Like that bread just offered you, which you consumed
before you left the parking lot to head back home for
coffee, eggs and toast. Which is more than what poor
Fauvette will feast on when she returns this evening
back home, cold and weary, to sup on her daily bread,
if that, both those gazes etched now on your heart.
From All That Will Be New (Slant Books, 2022) by Paul Mariani. Copyright © 2022 by Paul Mariani. Used with the permission of the author.