The window is half open. Pleasant Fruge can taste rain. His tongue is a tuning fork for weather. Footsteps send a flowery signal. Their echo bounces against monastery walls, but the old monk doesn’t hear. Dreams grow thick in him.
Harriet Sibley pokes her head through the doorway. Her sketchpad is under her left arm, and a bag with an orange handle holds a menagerie of pencils. Pleasant Fruge sits in a chair by the window, sleeping. When she steps into the room, rain drops fat from the sky.
Harriet knocks on the opened door. She steps across the threshold and flusters a mothball that rolls under the door’s rusted hinge. Pleasant Fruge raises eyelids that contain him, looks at Harriet and sees earth. He thinks: The woman is a fertile field.
A light blossom sprouts from the center of Harriet Sibley’s chest. She reaches to greet Pleasant Fruge, opens her hand to touch his own, and the light tumbles, tatting patterns like lace into his palm. The blossom spills over Pleasant Fruge and weaves itself between the threads of his flesh.
He takes a deep breath. Brittle bronchial trees illuminate. He thinks he hears someone murmur a secret and turns his head.
“Light,” Pleasant Fruge echoes. Harriet walks to the front of his desk and clicks the knob on the lamp.
Harriet says, “Rainy out,” pointing to the opened window, and waves her sketchpad in front of her face to create an artificial breeze.
The surge of rain-flavored air runs brisk. Goose bumps rise up on Pleasant Fruge’s forearm. A graying doodlebug curls, topples off the window ledge into the folds of the monk’s sacred vestments. It unhinges, swings open, crawls away.
Pleasant Fruge’s glossy eyes watch Harriet. Her legs narrow, grow roots, dig deep through gray-tweeded, commercial grade carpet, down down through three stories of offices, a cafeteria, reaching, twirling down down through the sacristy, into a still chalice, filling it, down deeper through concrete foundations, the leggy roots wrap around two buxom hills with paths mowed inside of knee-deep-blue-swaying grasses, move through the vernacular bones of Merton, past archbishops, farther down into musky, seminal soil, then bedrock. They extend deeper still into molten core. They reach there, twist, tangle, turn.
The leggy roots rise. They open, wind around Pleasant Fruge and Harriet, wrap them up like one gift. Pleasant Fruge fingers the intersecting plan that dangles across their chest. The breasts of their heart-body bulge.
The old monk’s gurgly drone soothes two crows flapping on an alligator-bark limb of the monastery’s only pecan tree. The limb knock, knock, knocks on the half-opened window, says: Let me in. I want to grow there. Sometimes, when the window is open wide and the tree is heavy with pecans, the nuts fall onto the windowsill and Pleasant Fruge gathers them. He cracks them with the heel of his shoe, collects the pieces of sweet meat, and eats.
Harriet’s step snaps, crumbles remnants of nutty wooden armor.
Pleasant Fruge rouses, clears his throat. “Pardon me. I fall off sometimes, you understand, at my age.” He smiles. “How can I help you, chere?”
Harriet says, “Father Fruge, I am here to draw you, to draw your portrait. The Abbot sent me.”
Pleasant Fruge’s face is striped with slanted rays that peek into etched gullies marking the path of his years; there, river bellies ride eroded banks of absolution. Harriett marvels at the weathered surface of her subject.
She opens her black-and-white-speckled sketchbook. Turns past the scribbling of her young son, turns past the coffee stains left by her hurried husband and stops. She pulls a tissue from her pocket. She smudges the diluted stain with spit, discovers there a color that calls her.
Harriet sketches impressions: iridescent eyes, burning tongues, charred smiles. She draws snippets and links them together in pencil-point collages. Harriet’s pictures remind her: It’s not up to me. Her pictures remember this. If she catches a charred smile, the sketch releases the face from carrying the burn. The face is free then, she thinks. If she breathes iridescent eyes, the portrait carries the glow.
Harriet studies the sculpted map of monk. Thinks: this old man is an atlas. This is what Harriet sees: a sleeping priest, eighty-two years behind him, inside a pile of crumpled white cloth trimmed in silver and gold with broad strips of indigo splitting him in half. Fingers, dilated at the joint, tugging at an insistent white collar fastened around his throat. Mottled, papershell skin dotted with age.
Behind Pleasant Fruge there is something else. Harriet’s hand hold the pencil that circles round twice, two moons appear. The lunar orbs hover over Pleasant Fruge. They wait there.
Harriet wonders: Why? Why these omniscient orbs? Harriet doesn’t know it but they are Antoine Gaston’s eyes. Antoine concentrates from celestial realms, tries hard to send his image.
Antoine’s eyes burn through.
Pleasant Fruge’s symphonic snores chug, chug, alto. They genuflect, invite crows to harmonize. Harriet draws a rectangular frame around the sketch of Pleasant Fruge’s face. She frames Antoine’s yearning. Moon eyes glow. Harriet circles them in identical hues of creamy brown.
The old priest snaps his tongue against the roof of his mouth. Slowly, languidly, his purple lips stir. Harriet listens as she shades.
“The fineness of Kentucky whiskey, the speed and strength of Kentucky horses, and the bluegrass are all connected. The secret,” the monk mutters, “is the limestone.”
He continues, and Harriet learns of dark wise corners at the Seelbach bar. Pleasant Fruge hums: “Jazz there sings ancient hymns.” He drifts back, back past Kentucky, back before he became a priest, and back further still. His eyes flitter, almost close, and he falls open like a book.
Pleasant Fruge separates the curtain of his skin and enters his meanderings. He climbs the live oak that hovers over The Home Cottage, his boyhood home. He jumps from a poised limb into Bayou Lafourche.
“The cypress trees grow up from out of water,” he whispers in a bare liquid way. “They heave with moss.”
Pleasant Fruge’s chest heaves with breath. His mouth salivates, revels in salty oysters split open, sipped off the half shell. His tongue sweeps over the levee of his lips easing the sting from cayenne crawfish singed in lemon juice and boiled garlic heads. “The rare heat of it,” Pleasant Fruge murmurs, “heals like a benediction.”
Harriet leans in closer, reaching for sense inside the monk’s mumblings. When she does, her breath fills with the scent of cayenne pepper and heat and lemon and the pungency of boiled garlic. Harriet’s stomach growls. She has an inkling of oysters, salty, salty oysters. Oysters? Harriet thinks. Yes. Harriet wants them, craves them, salty, on the half shell, succulent. Harriet is hungry.
Pleasant Fruge slips into fields of erect sugar cane nourished brawny by slow brackish bayou. He slices a stalk of sugar cane with a machete blade, feels his biceps ripple in the motion. He peels the rugged husk back, chews on fibery strands, his broad, leaden jaw defining each bite with the release of sweetness. Pleasant Fruge lies down, close to earth, inside the sugar cane fields. He burrows his face in the moist soil, catches the scent of his own virility. Pleasant Fruge hides there in it, in the fecundity, with earthworms. He drifts along peat moss paths to New Orleans, to the calliope’s waltz, to cobbled backbeats, to a café by the river.
When Pleasant Fruge bites into the tender beignet, his breath quickens.
The crows notice.
Hot café au lait slips over Pleasant Fruge’s slumbering tongue, glides down the tunnel of his throat. A man with moon-brown eyes swings strolling arms across the neutral ground. Springing improvisation jumps from his hands and fingers; scat still sings in his head, spouts from his kinky chocolate curls, slows into his sleepy coronet. Light hits the horn’s pouting tuliped bell, rises and finds Pleasant Fruge.
The-Man-With-Moon-Brown-Eyes arouses the rhythm of his step. Pigeons pick up on the beat; peck it out on the pocked brick sidewalk. A street vendor meets the motion, sings out:
I got watermelon red to the rind.
I got tomatoes big and fine.
I got watermelon red to the rind.
Pleasant Fruge blows powdered sugar off the crown of a beignet onto a pale heavy china plate. The Man-With-Moon-Brown-Eyes walks up behind him, sweeps the sweetness with a fingertip swoosh. He dips the tips of his forefinger into the tabernacle of Pleasant Fruge’s mouth. Sugar melts in Pleasant Fruge.
“C’est si bon, Antoine,” Pleasant Fruge purls.
Antoine Gaston leans in, gently dabs Pleasant Fruge’s chin with his embroidered handkerchief. A rush of unearthed tenderness, and excavated aching travels time. It revisits the monk, floods his limestone banks.
The way of the cross stabs at Pleasant Fruge’s sacred heart.
His closed eyes bleed tears.
Harriet maneuvers the crumpled handkerchief from the grip of Pleasant Fruge’s right hand and absorbs his tears. He is overflowing, she thinks. She folds the worn cloth and runs her fingers over the remnants of a frayed monogram: A.G.? She tucks the handkerchief back inside the cradle of the priest’s still palm.
Harriet picks up her pencil again. The twin moons gaze at her, they wax and wane. She shades their edges, finds their focus. She leans over the weathered volume of monk, hears these words fall from her lips: “Let me read you.”
Pleasant Fruge snores.
Moon eyes glow.
Crows balance on alligator limbs.
Harriet Sibley needs a brown pencil in a hue. Her mind caresses the color. She thinks of sweet tea, then smells strong coffee, an undercurrent of chicory, scalded milk. Coffee, coffee tainted with milk: that is the color, the exact color she desires.
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