:: Article

Orange

By Lucie Bonvalet.

Equinox

Wednesday, September 5th 2018

The garden is beautiful: full of orange and green light. I must remember to water all the plants. The cat is always nearby. Nowadays we sleep side by side. I write now on the wooden table in the garden and she meditates, hidden within the spirea’s lowest branches. I reheat cold coffee. I listen closely to this September morning light: how shadows fall blue on the page of my orange notebook. Today I want it to be 5 a.m. all day. Will I succeed? I want to preserve and prolong this moment suspended out of time as well as this moment of arrival of sunlight. With the coming of fall, with its longer nights, I want to practice listening to morning light. What is dawn? Why did I avoid it for so long?

Wednesday, September 26th 2018, 10:20 a.m.

A puddle of sunshine in my writing room, just underneath my desk. The shadows of witchhazel leaves dance inside the pool of light and on the fur of the cat. The cat, always with me. Because she sleeps and meditates inside the pool of raw autumnal light, I cannot access my desk. I write on the floor. Today I had given myself three whole hours to write, but I started late. Again, because of the cat. She bewitched me. She jumped into bed just before dawn and hypnotized me with her intense fur and purring vibrating tenderness. She wrapped her tail around my wrist. She stared into my eyes with luminous green irises. They glow in the dark. And when she closed her eyes, I closed mine.

I had all sorts of dreams at dawn while I was breathing in her fur and the first lights were coming through the eastern window. But I forgot most of them. Last night was a full moon. I did not make a wish. In my dream, I walked on a beach at night. The tide was so high, the black waters had erased the shore, and there was nowhere to go. Yet we had to keep going. How? I do not remember who was with me. I did not fear, but I measured the possibility of being swallowed by black waters. The cat left. The pool of sunshine receeded. I can sit at my desk. I want to do research this morning on: oranges, winter solstice rituals, witchcraft (perhaps).

 

Santa Lucia

Syracuse, Sicily, December 2014

Always more kittens, always more orange trees. Beautiful wintery light on pink marble and ocher façades. Everywhere cats in pools of sunshine. A tiny black kitten, asleep in the hollow of an old kapok tree. Oranges. Oranges in my mouth in the morning. Oranges and black coffee and almonds. Oranges on orange trees. Oranges on the heavy garlands of the Saint Lucy’s procession. The saint carries her eyes on a golden plate that she keeps near her chest (the legend says that she gouged out her eyes to offer them to an unwanted suitor). A silver statue, a dagger through her neck. On the day of the winter solstice, people of the city of Syracuse transport her statue from the place where she was martyred back to the church where she remains for the rest of the year. They place her on a golden carriage with fresh oranges everywhere. Oranges in lieu of suns, at a time of year when suns are so rare. People follow her, carrying wooden crosses hidden under large garlands of oranges. The chanting of her name spreads in waves throughout the procession. Lu…ci…aSan…ta…Lu….ci…a. The night comes so fast.

 

The Art of Peeling an Orange

 Eating an orange is like eating a sun. It is hard to do it right and there is no adequate technique or system you can rely on. You have to trust your instincts and be guided by your craving to eat it, to be at one with it. At first, you select your longest nail. Usually the nail of your left thumb. You use it as a delicate scalpel to cut through the thick orange skin near the top of the fruit. The idea is to cut through the skin and not reach the pulp but too often, especially if the orange is perfectly ripe, it fails. Juice gushes out and you feel it run on the palms of your hands, down your wrists. For a while you do nothing because you love the wet sticky touch on your skin and the strong fresh scent of orange in the blue winter air. When orange juice soaks the blue wool cuffs of your favorite sweater, you decide to intervene. You do not let go of the orange, but you use the point of an elbow to roll up the woolen sleeve on your forearm. Once the sweater is protected, you lick your wrists, the inside of your wrists where the juice has become warmer and salty. You always hesitate when it comes to the most fragile delicate white inner skin that protects the pulp. Sometimes you want to take the time to peel it too and stare at the brightness of the orange underneath before you swallow it. Then, during a moment that is not measurable in human time, you dissolve and become a color.

 

Taches de soleil sur la terrasse, Maurice Denis (1890), oil on cardboard (24 x 20.5 cm)

 No sky. Only the dark-green of trees. No depth. Only a pale piercing through the trees where the eye can go to rest from the flames. Everything else burns in two different hues of orange: persimmon and tangerine. The persimmon shadow possesses the texture of oil, refuses gravity, and grows both horizontally and vertically up towards the foliage. The tangerine soil breathes like moss. Its existence is not threatened by the orange shadow. A figure, as if made of melting wax, stands motionless in the center of the darker sun-stain. The eye invents a bonnet, a light summer dress with a large white collar made of thick cotton, perhaps even silent joy on the featureless face. Within instants the silhouette of the girl will turn into liquid orange light, and drip and completely melt. Only time does not pass. A nocturnal noon.

Every time I enter the painting, I ignore the trees, I do not mourn the sky, I hover towards the figure and she lets me in. The persimmon pool expands towards the tree roots. The trees and the figure share roots in secret. I imagine a painting with the dimensions of a forest. I imagine how easy it must be to enter the forest, lose your way, accept that the trees and the orange sun stains will engulf you. One day I see the painting in real life at the D’Orsay, by accident. So small: the dimensions of the cover of a bizarre square paperback. I conjure the object now in my memory and it comes plunged in semi-darkness, near a door, placed on a pale green wall in a room (did I invent this?) dominated by Henri Regnault’s gigantic Summary Execution Under the Moorish Kings of Granada. As if the potency of Denis’ colors had been feared and needed to remain hidden, in the shadow of an enormous solar beheading.

But when I focus only on the larger tache de soleil, the persimmon sun-stain, the entire museum melts and only the orange remains.

 

Echoes

The word “orange” radiates with words from my native language, French, that are all connected with childhood. Or (gold) and ange (angel) together speak of legends, folktales and the old churches of the roman period that crisscrossed the countryside where I grew up. Orage (storm) is a word pregnant with fear and joy, ancient memories of summer evenings heavy with the promise of thunder, lightning and the destruction of trees around our house, the first time I learned that you could be struck by lightning. And the eeriest part is that you do not necessarily die of it. Ogre brings me back to an earlier time, before the alphabet, where stories were only contained within images and the voice of my father, when I did not know what the shape of an O on the page was, when I only knew it sounded like a hungry opened mouth that could contain awe, desire, and the bodies of little children.

The letter O is my favorite letter. The word for water in French is spelled eau and is prononced [o]. A vowel that gives shape to oceans. A circle that opens as it closes. An expression of devotion.

When I was a child, my mother told me the story of a girl who was born blind and deaf and of the young woman who taught her to speak. The first sound she taught her was [o]. The teacher poured water into the palm of the hand of the girl and she drew circles with the tip of her finger onto the skin, so that the tracing of the circle, through touch, became associated with the presence of water, the presence of eau and the presence of [o]. Then the teacher gently shaped the mouth of her student into a [o], so that the presence of water and the shape of the vowel became associated with a specific articulation of the mouth, and a vibration.

When my mother taught me the story, she took my hand and traced an [o] inside my palm and I remember how magically healing it felt. I still believe today in the magic properties of that particular vowel to heal and protect against darkness and isolation.

 

Watercolor

I want to practice telepathy, premonitions and watercolor. I use too much water in my watercolors. Once I studied a watercolor by Gustave Doré, of a northern sea: its stark shores and sea spray that change the texture of light. I discovered that it is particularly challenging to portray water with water. The dangers are numerous: the light gets drained from the sky, the boundaries dissolve between wave, sand and cloud, the world turns to mud.

By contrast, I like to paint fire with water. Meditations on red and yellow. I experiment with the different ways in which the two colors blend and fuse together and what it does to my brain, my body when that takes place. Within the color orange, particularly if it’s a color I have fabricated through patient back and forth between yellows and reds, my breathing slows down, my heartbeats slow down, time expands, I stop thinking with words, a new warmth expands from solar plexus to fingertips.

I paint suns, or I paint faces that remind me of suns. My northern sea study was an anomaly in my practice. When I can and it’s not too cold, I paint in my backyard. I have no easel. I use stones and paper tape to secure a thick sheet of watercolor paper on my old garden table. Sometimes if it’s too windy, it’s not enough. My paper flies into the spirea or the flowering quince or the fig tree. If I paint a face, often I choose the face of a stranger, found in a photography book or in another painting of another century. If I paint a sun, it is always at night, in winter. I must recreate one from memory or imagination. I must recreate its warmth too.

 

Sonata

If orange were a music, it would be the second movement of the piano sonata number 16 in C major by Mozart. In Jean-Luc Godard’s Forever Mozart, I heard for the first time the saying that Mozart is too easy for a child to play and too difficult for a virtuoso. I think it’s because of the light. Mozart’s music has a fluid architecture aimed to contain and radiate inner light. With other composers, the pianist and the listener both navigate pools of darkness. You cross those pools and resurface into light on the other side. But it is not my experience with Mozart. Each time you are given an entire raw sun to swallow. An orange light all of us bathe in as children and then lose.

The easiest of all the sonatas, number 16 is the one children practice at a time when a piano remains a formidable and enigmatic animal, so much larger than your body. You are first taught how to braid your two legs together so they don’t dangle in the void between your feet and the ground (how you will ever be able to reach the pedals remains a mystery). The first sounds you produce radiate from somewhere within the wood and envelop you, all of you. They resonate within your skeleton long after you have finished your daily practice. It is more accurate to say that your body is the instrument. The piano conjures up the ghosts of trees, of the whale or the elephant killed to provide the ivory for the keys. And all ghosts resonate in you.

You do not distinguish music from colors. Not really. Everything radiates the same. Everything pulses. Everything emanating from the wood, the hidden furry hammers and strings, brings you inner warmth, joy, protection. Even when it does not sound at all like how it’s supposed to sound. Even the false notes, the destroyed rhythms, the silences on the music sheets you decide on a whim not to respect and then as a result the sounds become mush. All of this too, you love. And it loves you back. You form an animal bond with the wooden presence of the instrument in your house.

In my early twenties, I once had a nightmare in which I was back at my parents’ house. The piano had grown and spread against the wall, with several layers of keyframes, like a church organ made of melting chocolate. I sensed or I had been told that a person of my family was threatening my life. They needed me dead. Or perhaps it was all just a game. A game started long before I was born. With hidden players and secret rules. The only thing I understood for sure was this pervading need for persecution. I was not allowed not to play. But once I reached the piano, I climbed and stayed, wrapped up in a ball, up on the keyframe, against the wall. I knew I had entered a different territory. It would be forbidden to kill me.

 

Ashes

On Saturday January 24th 2015, I stopped sleeping. Or more precisely, between January and June of that year, I slept an average of two or three hours a night. Some nights, I did not sleep at all. Not by choice. During that period, the membrane between my nights and my days became increasingly porous. The night spilled into my days and covered them in Chinese ink. An orange glow pulsed and throbbed at night, keeping me awake. Between my night and my day, a breach, an exchange of obscurities, but also the spreading, everywhere, of a thick nocturnal light, secreted by ancient memories and inner organs. I fixed the color of that light in my memory as orange.

I inherited chronic insomnia from my mother. I do not remember a time, even as a young child, when I slept well. But that time, something was different. As if the new sleepless nights echoed with the earliest ones. Their toxic potency multiplied and spread. In the diary I kept then, I read: “At night, when I sleep, I dream I do not sleep.” Among the symptoms that clustered around the sleepless nights, I remember chest pain, vertigo, menorrhagia, a blood vessel that exploded in my left eye, a sore throat and an ear infection so severe that I thought I had ruptured my eardrum.

The first symptoms of the insomnia started roughly thirty-six hours after a person in his late twenties I had never seen before came to me to study French. He exuded a rare type of warm despair, the way plants release oxygen. He wanted to learn the words for tree, brain, gloves and squirrel. In that order. Perhaps we shared old nightmares from previous lives. He disappeared after a few lessons. But the insomnia remained.

Between June and September of that same year, I stopped teaching. Having no structure to my days somehow helped the partition to reform itself slowly between my diurnal and nocturnal territories. I named that summer “the summer of ashes” because I experienced the bright summer sun still partially covered in black ink, because prolonged insomnia affected my memories in such a way that I could not project myself into a past where I had slept normally and my world was not covered by night. In a symmetric way I could not project myself into a future where I would not be sleepwalking through life, interpreting daylife as a series of fragmented dream scenes, recurrent dreams that could at any point capsize, morph into familiar nightmares.

That summer, everything I ate tasted of ashes. The only thing that tasted good were cigarettes. Their smoke evoked the roasted chestnuts we ate at recess in my primary school in November. Within that memory was contained also the color orange: the orange hue within the furry chestnut shell, the orange leaves of the partially burned sycamores on our playground (a fire had ravaged the school decades earlier and had left the old trees half-burned, with hollow trunks into which boys pushed the girls they wanted to kiss), the orange plastic of the tiny containers of a specific brand of paper glue called Cléopâtre that we loved to sniff. The glue had the texture of butter and smelled of play-doh and honey. I think some kids liked to eat it too.

 

Solstice

In winter, I crave light and warmth. The nights are too long. When I can, I try to witness the sunrise from the window in my attic, the only window in my house that both faces east and allows the eye to travel beyond others’ roofs, beyond the blackness of the tall cedar trees in my neighbor’s yard. I do not turn on any light in the house. I sit on my yoga mat (full of cat’s hair and claw marks), drink my first cup of black tea and stare at the black outside, behind the cedar trees. I wait for the black to become blue, and then within the blue comes slowly the promise of the color orange. Some mornings, orange leaks from clouds in liquid flames, ignites dead branches, spills from the sky onto my wooden floor. Other mornings nothing happens. Everything remains grey. The sun never rises.

I teach myself not to take the coming of the sun in the morning for granted. When my nights stagnate and expand their territories, invade my days, when low grey skies suck the marrow of the inner light of objects, plants and faces, I seek orange in other ways.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lucie Bonvalet is a writer, a visual artist and a teacher. Her writing can be found or is forthcoming in Puerto del Sol, Michigan Quarterly Review, Fugue, Oregon Humanities, Catapult, Cosmonauts Avenue, Hobart, Word Riot, and Shirley Magazine. Her drawings and paintings can be found in Old Pal magazine and on instagram.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, August 7th, 2019.