The Potato Eaters
The one word I'd use to describe him was gentle and quiet, so when he arrived late for his evening meal, his shirt soaked with his own blood, he told me he had shot himself. His brother Theo was notified and he spent the last few hours with Vincent until the early evening July 28.
When he was discharged from Saint-Remy in May, the psychiatric staff decided that living on his own in a peaceful, rustic setting would be best for him. So they chose my inn, The Auberge Revoux at Auvers-sur-Oise, 27.7 kilometers from the center of Paris. My place was a family run business at the time
Monsieur van Gogh arrived at our front door
"Marcel." My wife called out to me when the carriage pulled up in front of our inn, "Our new lodger is here."
I was in our garden snipping the rose bush.
"Coming my dear." I put the sheets in my apron pocket.
"His hair is so red." She watched him exit the carriage.
It wasn't his hair that drew my attention, it was those haunted blue eyes that could pierce metal and bone with A single glance.
"Monsieur." I greeted him on the sidewalk, "Let me help you with your bag."
"I have it." He said sternly, grabbing the handle of his valice, "I am not an invalid."
"As you wish." I smiled, but in one glance, I felt like a bug under a looking glass, "I am Monsieur Ravoux."
Yes, yes, that's what they told me at the hospital." He shook his head, "They said it was peaceful at your inn."
"We take pride in our reputation." I bowed my head slightly.
"We shall see." He followed me in the front door.
Both of my daughters were peering at our new boarder from the safety of the staircase. Seeing them, he actually smiled and nodded toward them.
"Who is he?" I heard Claudia, my youngest, bravely inquire.
"Girls, please mind your manners." My wife, Janelle, attempted to shush them.
"Fair maiden, my name is Vincent van Gogh." He did a full waist bow. This grand gesture made Claudia giggle.
"Apparently you are not bothered by young children." Janelle could not conceal her smile.
"Children are the reason I wished to escape from that dreadful hospital." He told her as he passed.
"Which one of you silly girls would like to show our guest to his room?" I asked.
"Me, me, me papa." Angeline cried out.
"Me, too." Claudia added her say in the matter.
"Both of you, then." I clapped my hands.
"Follow me, Monsieur." Angeline took him by the hand.
"Do you think this is A good idea?" Janelle whispered into my ear. "He has just been discharged from an asylum."
"It will be fine." I said as I followed the parade upstairs.
It was fine. Vincent would set up his easel near the garden where I would tend my plants as the girls drew chalk drawings on the cobblestones around the atrium. To someone looking from the outside in, it was as idyllic as a domicile photograph could be. Claudia had questions about the absence of Vincent's ear, but I let her know that it was the result of an accident and it would hurt his feelings if someone mentioned it. Careful not to offend, she never broached the subject with him.
His fondness for the girls came from A strange place.
"Here, I made this for you from your father's clippings." He put a crown of flowers he had woven upon Claudia's head.
"It's beautiful." She beamed.
"Glad you like it." He laughed. Angelline was not impressed with the talents of our guest. Vincent was aware of the cool reception.
Sitting at the dinner table, Vincent declared, "When I paint, it is only a pale comparison to the true art of those who bend and shape nature to their will."
The other guests looked at him, flummoxed at the meaning of his words. It was shortly after that, Vincent began walking into the country with his art supplies in his rucksack. He would settle himself in a scenic locale and let his brushes speak a language only he knew. With his old straw hat perched atop his fiery red hair, he would capture the charm of the old ways so often lost in the shuffle of progress.
"I call it the Potato Eaters." He was showing Angelline some of his paintings packed in his steamer. She sat next to him on the couch listening to what he had to say. Angelline was a bright child who had the uncanny ability to know what people were feeling just by looking at their facial expression and her empathy was as deep as any river.
"Why do you call it that, Monsieur van Gogh? Is it because that is all they have to eat?" Her question struck a chord with him and he gave her a warm smile.
"You are so clever. Man, thou are dust and to dust thou shall return." He closed his eyes for a moment, "We take from the soil the rich bounty and give thanks for the sustenance."
I stood there frozen in the moment that his words were feeding her imagination, leaving me with this twinge of envy.
Monsieur Darmonge came to the inn early one morning as we were still clearing the breakfast plates from the table. He entered the front room during the usual morning ruckus and presented me with his card, "Monsieur Ravoux, I am here to check on one of your tenants."
"Which one, we have a few?" I put the bucket on the counter.
"Vincent van Gogh." He nodded.
"He's fine. I'm kind of busy right now, so if you could come back-"
"I'll wait. Do you have a sitting room?" His head swindled around hoping to find it on his own.
"Here." I pointed to a couch.
"Very well." He sat down with aplomb and an odd sense of manly grace.
"What do you want?" I heard Vincent scowl when he came down the staircase with his rucksack.
"I am here to check on your progress." Monsieur Darmonge answered.
"I am not a patient. I am a painter." He stated with immense pride.
"A painter is it? From the reports I've read, you ate some of the paint provided to you by the staff until they decided to stop giving you the paint." His smile, evil and devious, cut Vincent to the quick, leaving him with no recourse, but to escape. "We will talk again." He added as Vincent slammed the door.
"What do I need to sign?" I asked, wiping my hands on my apron.
"Is there somewhere we can talk? Privately?" Monsieur Darmonge stood up. It was at that moment I caught a strong aroma of his expensive cologne.
"It will do."
What I did not know is Angelline had seen Vincent walk down the road still fuming about his conversation with Monsieur Darmonge.
"Are you alright, Monsieur van Gogh?" She asked.
He stopped and then turned and faced her, "Please call me Vincent."
"What's wrong, Vincent?" She asked.
"I am madman according to my records. Everything I do and everyone I talk to will tell you...there goes crazy old Vincent. Do you have any idea how much I want people to know me as a painter...not a madman?"
"I like your paintings." She said, smiling at him.
"Would you like to come with me? There is this farm with hay and crows that gather in the field. It's my latest piece." He smiled back at her.
"Sure." She answered and together walked off down the road.
I had no idea what was taking place, because Monsieur Darmonge had me detained in my own office.
"Vincent has had a history of mental instability so bad his brother Theo was appointed conservator of his brother's financial affairs. He self amputated his own ear and sent it to a prostitute vowing eternal love and devotion. In tests administered by doctors at Saint-Remy that all reached the same conclusion." His face had turned red in exasperation.
"What conclusion?" I asked.
"The man has the mind of A child. His maturity was stunted. Look at his paintings. My God, my five year old can do better representations."
"Perhaps he is speaking to you, but you can't hear him." I shrugged.
"Here you are, Marcel." Janelle seemed frantic.
"What is the problem?"
"Angelline is missing." She was on the verge of tears.
"I've looked everywhere."
"You stay here. I will find her." I said as I put on my jacket.
"But what about our dealings?" Darmonge stood up.
"What about them?"
"He is not fit to leave psychiatric care." Darmonge declared.
"He's been at the Auberge Ravoux for almost two months and he has not caused one single problem for me or my family." I nodded, "Now if you'll excuse me, I have to find my daughter."
There was no mystery on what had happened, but the gut wrenching reality was what he would do to her in a mentally unstable state of mind. He had always been good to both my daughters, but in an agitated state of mind, anything was possible.
I heard him talk about this farm outside of Auvers. I would start there and hope for the best. As I came over the crest of the hill, I saw them, Vincent at his easel and Angelline chasing some of the crows in the field. The scene was timeless and eternal at the same time.
"Yo-ho!" Vincent smiled when he saw me coming over the hill.
"Papa." Angelline ran to me and gave me a hug.
"Beautiful day, no?" He added a few more strokes to his canvas.
"As beautiful as it can be." I acknowledged.
"Stay, papa." Angelline pleaded.
"Sweetheart, I have to take care of the inn."
"One day you will be old like me and you will regret not taking time for yourself or her." Vincent nearly sang. I had never seen him so happy. His spirits were high and he danced a bit as he applied paint to his latex work "Wheatfield with Crows."
"Isn't Vincent's painting beautiful, papa?" Angelline asked.
"Yes, it certainly is." I agreed.
From my own perspective, I could see how misunderstood mental illness was. How could a man with such flair for life be considered human wreckage by those who were supposed to help him. As a properly raised Parisian, it was my birthright to understand the difference between good and bad art. But standing in that sun drenched field listening to my daughter sing and Vincent applying broad brush strokes to a once blank canvas, what better art could there be? None I could see, that's for sure. The three of us walked back to the inn singing and dancing.
"Where on earth have you been?" Janelle was angry when I walked in the door.
"Finding your daughter." I answered as Angelline appeared, removing some of Janelle's anger.
"Dinner is going to be late." She said hugging her daughter.
"We are here to help." Having said that, the three of us went into the kitchen to get dinner ready. There were a few complaints, but seeing Vincent actively engaged in conversation was enough for me.
"Vincent is almost done with another painting." Angelline informed everyone at the table. He sat like the guest of honor soaking in the praise until one of the guests asked to see it. Full of pride over his recent work, he removed "Wheat field With Crows" from his rucksack.
No one said anything.
"The colors are bright." One of the ladies said to break the uneasy silence. Even I could see from the expression on his face that he had been humiliated and shattered from their reaction. I glanced at Angelline who was on the verge of tears. Unable to hide her emotion, she abruptly burst from the room. Without A word, Vincent put the painting back in the sack and left the dining room.
"Why didn't they like it?" She sobbed into her pillow.
"I don't know." I did not want her to see my hurting side.
"How can they not see the beauty?"
"Some people don't recognize true beauty." I sighed.
"I wish they would." I held her close as she let out her emotion.
"So do I, my Angel, so do I."
I have never spoken such prophetic words.
It was the second week in July, I noticed a change in his mood. Sometimes it was hard to tell what was going on inside his head and whether his silence was just another facet of his many hidden layers I had yet to discover.
“You are all nothing but potato eaters.” He once growled at one of the boarders at dinner.
“Excuse me.” The woman shot back, insulted.
“We sit here, night after night eating food pulled from the soil and never question a single thing about it.” He stated angrily.
“Who do you think you are? You’re nothing more than a lunatic from an insane asylum.” One of the boarders matched Vincent’s intensity. This was followed by Vincent slamming he plated on the table, fracturing it in several places. Janelle stood there with her mouth agape as she tucked Angelline behind her apron. Angelline saw instantly that this gesture broke his heart as he had broken his plate. Without nowhere to turn, he pivoted on his heel and walked out the door.
“No, let him go.” Janelle was speaking to Angelline as she tried to wiggle free of her mother’s grip.
I heard him coming through the door in the early morning hours. I could tell by his stagger, he had been drinking. I did not dare confront him even though we had a policy against drinking.
After breakfast, he left the inn without his rucksack. At the time I did not think anything of it since some of the patrons were still pretty rattled about his potato eater comment at dinner.
“Papa. Vincent is not here for dinner.” Angelline reported.
“So?” I stirred the stew on the stove.
“He never misses dinner.” She looked up at me with the saddest eyes I had ever seen. It was there I saw her concur, she was right.
“Can I go look for him?” She pleaded.
“No Angel. I will let someone know to start looking for him.” I promised.
But sometimes in the daily business of the day, promises are forgotten.
I did not call anyone or notify the authorities so when he came stumbling in again in the early morning hours of July 28, I did not think anything of it. But it wasn’t July 28, at least not yet. It was an hour before midnight. His stagger was not from alcohol, but from a gunshot wound to his belly.
I heard Janelle scream when she passed by his room. His door was open and he was laying on the bed barely conscious.
“Marcel!” Was all she could manage to say. When I got there I could see he was in bad shape. The sheets were stained with his blood and he was talking gibberish.
His brother Theo arrived once he was notified of Vincent’s deteriorating condition. Unlike his brother, Theo carried himself as a gentleman and respected man of the community, but I could tell from his manner he had great love for his brother. Until Vincent passed on July 30 nearly thirty hours after he came through the door after being shot, Theo stayed by his brother’s bedside.
“Self inflicted?” He asked as he emerged from the room.
“No idea.” I answered.
“Well, he’s at peace with his maker.” Theo bowed his head. “With his mental problems, people are going to assume it was self-inflicted, I suppose. I would like him to have a Christian burial. His mother would have wanted it that way.”
:”What about his paintings?” I asked.
“He never sold but one his entire life. I don’t think we will get much out of those things.” Theo finally managed a smile.
“They’re yours.” I nodded.
“Maybe some of his aunts will want them. Who knows?” Theo shrugged.
“What’s going on?” Angelline yawned as she walked out of her room.
“Angel-” Before I could finish my statement, she saw the open door and the strange man that resembled Vincent. She knew.
“Nooooo!” She cried out. I blocked her from entering the room.
I grabbed her and held her tight. She sobbed into my shoulder. There was so much I wanted to say, but I could not bring myself to say what was turning like a screw in my heart. I could not give into the emotion that was screaming in my veins. I had a business to run. I had to keep my head in this, but as the warm tears of my daughter baptized me, I wanted to scream out.
Theo was able to arrange a suitable service for his brother, but the question about who shot Vincent has never been satisfactorily answered. Maybe Vincent told him before he died and Theo could not accept it or maybe Vincent brought that secret to his grave. A few years later, he would follow his brother. His request to be laid to rest next to Vincent was honored.
Angelline would make each anniversary of Vincent’s passing by placing a rose at his headstone. She would live to see his fame that he would never see, blossom like the sunflowers he had once painted.