I did not have a book with me the day we spent hours idling along the Seine. I did not have a proper jacket either for when the sun went behind a cloud and changed the river from the bronze, rusty color of innumerable corroded keys to the steely color they had been before they were wished upon and tossed in.
So, while my mother read fat novels, I watched people go by and tried never to blink, afraid that if I closed my eyes I would imagine the scuttling people as something other than what they actually were. As a slight indulgence, I practiced holding my hand perfectly across my field of vision so it appeared the pedestrians were walking not on the boardwalk that stretched along the river, but atop the water itself.
Eventually, we stood to stroll down the remodeled river and see the places where sand is carted in to make beaches in summer and snow to make festivals in winter. The odor of erosion mingled with the smells of waterside stands where men attempted to sell fruits to uninterested people, hindered by the fact that much of their produce seemed to spell out morte in dimpled patterns on its skin.
Near where the boardwalk shifts from a domestic promenade to the plateau teenagers colonize at night to drink wine and flirt with passing mouches, we reached our destination, a narrow, repurposed museum with a cavalcade of rooms that had been described to me many times but never seen with my own eyes. Descriptions proved irrelevant to prepare me for the place. I was immediately lost—disoriented by the building’s circuitous sleekness that seemed to slither inside and make me see paradoxes in everything and beauty where it wasn’t supposed to be.
In rooms that were supposed to proceed from old to new, I found myself leaping from brown, dingy years to impossibly luminescent ones, bemused that this configuration was often the backward one. A certain fraternité also meant that each room shared lineage with the room two prior, matching in a way that made the supposed guiding chronology of each exhibition ambiguous and disobliging.
After some wandering, I realized I had lost track of my mother. Knowing her capacity for staring at things that would make others queasy, I wasn’t worried that she too would get lost in the museum. Only, that if I left her alone with a painting for too long, she might fall in.
To get back to her, I marched patriotically forward. I continually stepped into spaces of novelty and excitement and became hopeful that the rooms would carry on that way, each more illustrious than the last, only to have my optimism shattered upon entering the next room, reinvigorated in the next, and executed once more in the next. I never learned to approach the odd numbered rooms with trepidation thanks to the delight of the evens. I began to linger in the porticos of each room, finding that I found solace in places where it was permissible to touch the walls and floor.
In this eking way I came upon my first compatriot within the great menagerie. He was a morose looking docent with puffed shirt sleeves and a single proffered foot. I asked the man for directions, flaunting my knowledge of the word oú, but he perhaps misunderstood. From what I gathered, he mistook my actual query: “Where might I go from here to find myself back in order?” for the not dissimilar question: “Did it upset you to find that, all these years later, your work now hangs in celebrated galeries and sells for pretentiously large sums?” I found his response only slightly less effective than had he answered my intended question, as it was given, predictably, in a language I barely understood.
I left the docent, and I continued my cyclical search for the mother I had lost somewhere by glancing down at the archived pictures on my camera, hoping I might have had the foresight to photograph a map. Then, I considered pulling out a ball of twine for the hunt, but gave that up when I realized that accidentally re-crossing my own path was actually what I was hoping to do. What I really needed was perspective, a quality I have always coveted. I once saw my mother use it to turn a childish drawing of fields upon fields of millet into food for a month simply by bending over and plucking.
A few rooms of searching later, the second man I met appeared to be a housekeeper. He was standing by a forgotten vacuum and seemed to be cleaning the floor by hand, picking individual motes from the reedy carpet one at a time. Some of his acquisitions were so small I might have thought his hand was coming up empty except that occasionally he would slide his thumb down the length of his forefinger and make gory smears appear across his oily, canvas skin, turning a tangible speck into something two-dimensional.
Thinking I might as well put my map-less camera to good use, I furtively photographed this man on my way past. I caught him consumed in his gleaning, both arms working as if he could not move fast enough with one. In the stilled picture, his right hand deposits remnants into the pouch at his waist, whatever he thinks won’t be missed by whoever empties the vacuum bag at the end of the day. The other hand reaches toward the ground for the next grain of dust, chipped paint, gold leaf, or other filth only recently knocked down when a fixture of the room was shuffled or loaned out for the first time in decades.
Sometime after this room, I finally stumbled back upon my mother. She was, obligingly, right where I left her. Being unwilling to disturb her reverie and perhaps wishing to assuage the evidence of my haphazard adventure from my face, I slipped in behind her as if I had been there the whole time, gazing forward and, like her, seeing something more like a diorama than the flat thing that was actually before us. I had fallen to musing about the rushing Seine again when she finally turned around to find me smiling to myself.
“You like it too?” she asked. “I had a print of this hanging in our old house, do you remember?”
“Of course,” I replied. “It was strung up by the neck in the entryway.”
She hesitated, “. . . Right. But I had to move it. Too much grime from the coats and shoes. I’m sure I still have it. Maybe I should get it back out. It’s a trilogy you know. I should look for the other two. They wouldn’t really go with the color now. That’s what I’ll look for, something to go with the new color. There’s more light with that big window in the living room. I don’t think this one would work at all. Will you help me look for something? Something bright. Maybe blue to match the pitcher on the mantel. The couch is white. Maybe we’ll be inspired here and I can make something myself. Will you he—“
“Would you like to hear a joke?” I asked.
“. . . Alright.”
“What do you call a derogatory daguerreotype?”
“A what? I don’t know. What?”
My mother stared at me until something crashed in the depths of the building. She started a bit. I imagined all of the liberated dust. Then she smiled, commented on gilt frames, and, by some instinct, turned and proceeded through the door I had missed, straight into the next sequential room.
For the rest of the day, I stuck by my mother’s side. With her in the lead, we proceeded in order through the remaining rooms, finishing where we had started in the present day. I did not say anything when we came to things I had already seen in my sporadic wanderings, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that although the rooms were meant to be experienced chronologically they also existed individually. My second experience of seeing was lovely, but no better than the first.
Our final destination in the Musée d'Orsay was its adjoining café. After a delightful meal, I snuck my final glass of wine outside the restaurant and poured it out on the cobblestone street. The rusty liquid formed rivers running through each crack and turned the raised stones into tiny boardwalks, smoothly paved and fit for mites, vermin, and motes of things. I stood for a bit, enraptured by the wine roaring along multilevel pavement, waiting for someone to rush out of the shadows to siphon it up, then search frantically for barrel staves to squeeze for more.
With a start, I found my mother behind me putting on her jacket, perhaps having been there the whole time, perhaps pretending to have been.
I asked, “You like it too?”
Karoline Schaufler is a writer from Bellingham, Washington. She is a recent graduate from the MA English program at Western Washington University where she studied rhetoric and composition and learned the word "ekphrastic." This is her debut fiction publication.