by Norbert Kovacs
(Response to The Angelus by Jean-Francois Millet (France) 1857-59 and Archaeological Reminiscence of Millet's Angelus by Salvador Dalí (Spain) 1933-35. Image URLs: http://www.musee-orsay.fr/en/artworks/langelus-345 and https://archive.thedali.org/MWEBimages/Collection%20Images/OILS_images%20saved%20for%20Web/2000.5_Arch%20Rem_web.jpg)
The copy of the Angelus had worried him from when he first saw it hanging on the schoolroom wall. He believed the two peasants had buried a dead infant in the field at their feet. Later, he heard it said the peasants had stopped work to pray the Angelus after hearing the church bell ring in the distance. But his first reading of the picture stuck with him, and he went on trusting it. The basket by the peasant woman, he told himself, did not hold potatoes as it appeared, but the rumpled blanket that had swaddled her infant. The two absorbed in prayer were no mere peasants, either. Didn't the sharp angle of the woman's head, the fingers the man hooked over his broad-brimmed hat tell you -- that they were praying mantises! Yes, insects! While the idea was appalling, to think of the two peasants and the basket this way transfixed him. The whole painting was other than met the transient eye. When he looked, he saw it. And he knew he saw because he looked just as he did.
His thoughts were returning still to the painting when his parents removed him from the school where it hung. The Angelus had become very familiar to him by then, the painted couple's shapes easy to recall, the field known as well as if he walked it daily. The artwork had turned into something of his own, really. He felt comfortable playing with his memory of the Angelus. He'd think of the couple in the field morphed into forms that did not belong to the original work. The peasant man, hands clasped on his round hat, became, at times, a grieving giant, fatally poised to mourn his buried infant. The woman turned into a bent tree of regret, back never to straighten, sylvan hands (or mantis legs) held as if begging for relief that would not come. The basket that had held their baby changed into a puddle, to him, the remnant of a family that was no more.
With each recollection of the Angelus, his respect grew for the picture as its simple details offered ever fresh material for his imagination. He was taken by the man's half-open shirt. To many others, perhaps, the loose collar the man had not troubled to button was a trivial detail. But it told him of a man's unassuming poverty. It spoke of honest feeling and grief. He dwelled, at other times, on the woman's dress. The neat lines to her clothes announced she was a model of small, quiet cares. She had a fineness in her humility, he thought. At still other moments, the cart beside her claimed his attention. The worn wood, the spoked wheel seemed a respectable ruin despite their obvious daily use. They hinted at history, a past. All of the scene had this quiet kind of beauty.
Then, he went walking one day with a small boy from the village, and the two came upon the scene of the Angelus recast in the large on the open plain. He knew, with surreal certainty, that here was his private sense of the picture made outward and real, one his mind had refined over the years through countless acts of imagination and reflection. Before the distant hills, he saw the two peasants grown into monoliths, made of brick like the school where their picture had hung, in appearance, old as a first memory. The detail in their huge forms was telling. He noted the blocks missing from the man's torso and quietly thought of the peasant's heart that gave out grieving for his child. A mix of sadness and worry came with the idea much as he'd felt first looking on the Angelus in youth. As his eye descended, he took in the hollows on the man's leg and knee. Thought for the dead babe robbed the man's will to move, he once believed; now, it seemed the man's very form left him unable to stir.
From the man, his attention passed to the giant woman's bent figure. She was self-negating grief in person, he thought. The cypresses that grew from her, beside her, reached for heaven like her prayers. Her bowed form brought on a easy sadness, hard to resist. He saw, in fact, another woman from the village, who had come out with her son, slumped on the ground by the taller one, head bowed in anguish. The idea that the huge form had moved her to it stirred him. He lifted a hand to point out the female colossus to the boy at his side. "She is big on praying," he said. "She has since I first knew her as a child."
The boy turned to him. "You know who she is?"
He smiled. "Yes. Since I saw them both at school. They were sad, and it upset me. I was sure they were insects, would you believe it, though I knew they just lost a child like you."
He saw the boy's eyes widen and spied the fascination that had fixed him to the Angelus long ago. That fascination had made him return to the picture and re-imagine and re-know it time and again. He imagined the boy might do the same if he stayed open and true to the feeling that stirred him now. His hope rose in the notion, high as the monoliths. For he had learned nothing was so great as to hold onto the memories that seize us. The boy might find that out on an open plain like this one, he believed.
Norbert Kovacs lives and writes in Hartford, Connecticut. He has published short fiction in Blink Ink, Corvus Review, MacQueen's Quinterly, and Ekphrastic. His website: www.norbertkovacs.net.