I’d been in Auvers with my great-aunt Jojo for almost eight months. When we said goodbye at the station, my mother asked me to keep alive the memory of what happened to me so I could tell her later on. It seemed things had been too much recently and that is why she’d decided to send me to my great-aunt’s for a time while she searched for a better job that would allow us to live together, without difficulties.
‘You’re a man now. You’re sixteen. You can easily be a few days without me.’
‘What am I going to do in that lost village, living in the house of a crazy old woman?’ I protested.
‘It’s only an hour by train from Paris! It’ll only be for a few days!’ she shouted from the platform as the train pulled out, leaving behind a thick, ashen cloud of smoke that quickly swallowed up her figure.
The months went by and I heard nothing from her. The odd letter to start with, assuring me she’d soon come for me, or a package with a present. Nothing else.
Autumn gave way to winter. The days slowly lengthened, spring arrived, and her silence continued. My great-aunt didn’t say anything, she was already ashamed enough that her favourite niece had got pregnant while still single and had to leave Auvers and enter the world on her own, doing God knows what to earn her daily bread.
I wasn’t planning to stay long so didn’t befriend the boys in town. They were a bunch of dim-witted brutes, anyway, led by Jules, the grocer’s son, who was the most savage. I imagined they’d taken me for an upstart from the city and when, with the passing of the weeks, I tried to approach them, I got a deserved response: insults, jokes and stones. So I did my best to keep a distance and avoid them. Suddenly I was alone, with only a bitter, pious old lady for company who saw in me the incarnation of my mother’s failure, something she showed me with every word and gesture.
I whiled away the hours re-reading again and again the pile of books I’d brought from Paris, since the only volume my great-aunt Jojo had in her house was a yellowed Bible she kept in her room. I wandered aimlessly around the town and surrounding countryside, but my footsteps always took me to the railway station or the halt at Chaponval, on the way to Pontoise. I cherished the hope – unlikely, my conscience told me – of seeing my mother alight from one of those wooden carriages. I took up position on a nearby hill and scrutinized the arrival of smoking locomotives that postponed the enigma of their occupants for one whole minute, snorting on the rails, before wearily continuing their journey.
I saw him for the first time at the station. The train was rattling between golden wheat fields in the distance. The travellers who had got out of the carriages were already making their way home when I glimpsed his figure next to the rails. The outsider was wearing a white jacket and trousers and a straw hat. He was carrying a knapsack on his back and placed some equipment on the ground I couldn’t quite make out. He remained quiet, his pointed chin raised, directing his head with calm movements. He seemed to be sniffing the air of the afternoon, trying to apprehend all of its aromas. He then took off his hat and, with closed eyes, turned towards the horizon, allowing the rays to warm his face. His hair, eyebrows and beard were blond, his skin was pale and he had a prominent nose.
He stayed like this for quite some time, to the surprise of Pierre, the lame pointsman also watching him from his hut while tucking into a snack. A gust of wind brought a cloud which hid the sun. The stranger put his hat on and picked up his belongings. He started walking in the direction of Méry and crossed the new iron bridge over the river, where I had spent weeks in rapt admiration of what can be achieved by workers and engineers.
I followed him in the distance, not letting him out of my sight. He came alongside the factory and observed how the tall, brick chimney pierced the overcast sky. He then continued and started climbing a small hill. Occasionally he would stop, leave the path and plunge into a wheat field or meadow to collect flowers. On one of these occasions, to my amazement, he lay down on the grass. I approached to see what he was doing and all I could hear were his guffaws as he plucked poppies and mallows and threw them in the afternoon air. When he reached the summit, he gazed down at Auvers in the valley below. Then he descended and took the road back to the station.
By the time we got back to town, it was already getting dark. The outsider had decorated his hat with mallows. With this appearance, he made his triumphal entry into Auvers high street, before the astonished gaze of the locals coming home after a hard day’s work in the fields.
At the inn, Gustave Ravoux, the owner, came out to greet him in the company of his daughter Adeline, whom I already knew by sight, since she sometimes hung out with Jules, but had never spoken to. She was pretty, but had the cold, distant beauty of a porcelain doll. I thought so much perfection could only ever conceal a miserable soul and she’d shown this by making fun of me when the boys chased me to my great-aunt’s house with stones.
The stranger stopped in front of the inn, shook hands with Gustave and bowed to Adeline, removing his floral hat. She smiled, revealing a row of white teeth like cherry blossom. I hid behind a tree next to the Town Hall and pricked up my ears.
‘It is an honour for me to welcome you into my humble abode, monsieur le peintre,’ stammered Gustave with affected manners from beneath his thick moustache.
‘Thank you,’ replied the stranger, a little embarrassed. I now knew his occupation.
‘Dr Gachet told me you would be coming. Your room is ready, monsieur.’
‘Could I go up to my atelier? I’m a little tired from the journey.’
‘Of course, monsieur, please accompany me to the attic.’
The stranger followed the pot-bellied Gustave and the two of them disappeared into the inn. I’d been listening to their conversation so attentively I didn’t realize I was out in the open, in the middle of the solitary street. When I came to, Adeline was next to me and made me jump.
‘Anyone would think you’d seen a witch!’ she laughed mockingly.
I didn’t give her the chance to say anything else and vanished like a ghost into the night.
When I arrived, panting, at my great-aunt Jojo’s house, I went to bed without dinner. I had butterflies in my stomach. In the quietness of the sheets, I took a firm decision: I would go back to the inn the next day to find out what such a colourful character was doing in Auvers and to contemplate again the pretty face of that porcelain doll called Adeline.
Translated from Galician by Jonathan Dunne