Oscar Bonhomme’s palms sweated as he crept from the warm kitchen filled with the spice-laden aroma of frying sausage mixed with the smell of aromatic, dark coffee into Monet’s yellow dining room.
He’d used what little money he had to purchase new work clothes for his first day on the job. He twisted his still-stiff brown woolen cap between his sweating fingers as he glanced at his reflection in the picture glass to see if his pale skin betrayed his stay in the military hospital. Did his slight frame and frail stature look well enough for rigorous gardening work? No one would believe he was once tanned, muscular, and robust. Did his prematurely graying hair and the red circles around his eyes reveal the trials he had endured at the front? Although thirty-four, he felt and looked much older.
Oscar summoned his courage, pulled from somewhere deep inside himself as he did when climbing out of the trenches and facing the enemy. “Bonjour, Monsieur Monet.”
No movement. The newspaper Monet held did not lower. The first salvo had fallen short.
He fired off another. “Bonjour, Monsieur Monet.”
Still no response. Second salvo, off-target.
Perhaps Monet was hard of hearing. Oscar added more powder and fired the third shot as he shouted, “Bonjour, Monsieur Monet.”
The paper lowered to reveal piercing black eyes and a long white beard stained yellow with nicotine. Monet resembled the newspaper photos Oscar had seen of him—short, stocky, and with an intense gaze that seemed to miss nothing around him. His hands, with translucent skin and heavily veined, looked muscular and tanned, befitting a painter who mainly worked outdoors.
Monet stared at Oscar as if trying to remember who was this invader of his dining room and disturber of his early morning coffee. He wore an English herringbone wool suit buttoned at the neck, with just an inch of white ruffled shirt cuffs showing at the sleeves.
At last, he spoke. “Who are you?”
He sounded irritated.
Oscar drew in his breath and squared his shoulders to make himself look the part before responding with, “I’m your new gardener, Monsieur.”
Monet frowned. “I don’t remember you. Who hired you? Why should I hire a gardener in the middle of the winter?”
Oscar stammered as he gathered enough breath to reply. “You… You did, Monsieur. Yesterday. At least, that’s what I was told.”
He gripped his newspaper tighter, shook his head, and frowned. “So, what are you doing in here? This isn’t the garden.”
“Madame Blanche asked me to meet you here before dawn to carry your paintings for you.”
And with that, Monet raised the paper again. Oscar remained standing in the doorway, unsure whether to stay or go.
Oscar stood twisting and untwisting his cap and wondering if Monet would dismiss him, fall asleep, or begin their first day together. Could this cranky old man be his father? Probably not. But he might know who is.
Since it was his first day on this new job, he remained to see what would happen next.
He looked around the room after one, two, three, four, five minutes with no response. Yellow was the theme color. Even the chairs and light fixtures were Provence yellow, as his mother called it. Monet seemed obsessed with the color yellow and eating, by the looks of the dining room with its multiple sets of dishes and an abundance of silverware.
The odd prints that hung on the walls perplexed him. They were most unusual and not yellow. He saw dozens of them depicting an assortment of Japanese people in native costumes through scenes of Japan. They reminded him of photos his Japanese friends in San Francisco had shown him. The prints featured plants and animals that he didn’t recognize.
Oscar scratched his head and thought, why would one of the world’s most famous Impressionist painters have these Japanese prints on his walls instead of his art or that of his colleagues?
Lying in the hospital, he had dreamed of what he would do when he was released. He never imagined he would work in one of the most famous gardens in France. This job was the start of his new life; he was excited and frightened to be here.
Curiosity was getting the better of him as he walked around the long table, examining the prints. Each one seemed more colorful and stranger than the one before, and someone had labeled every one with the artist’s name. He made a note to ask Monsieur Monet about the prints. They must have been significant to him if they were hanging in his dining room. Undoubtedly, he would have dictated the decoration of this space, the essential room for entertaining.
Finally, Monet’s hand emerged to crush out his cigarette in his overflowing ashtray. He lowered his paper, rose from his chair, and shuffled to the door.
“Are you coming?” he threw over his shoulder.
Caught off-guard while still staring at the prints, Oscar felt he was a puppy following its master and hurried through the door after him, down the steps, across the garden, past the cart, and into the massive darkened studio.
“Put these in the cart and follow me.”
The paintings looked to be in various completion stages, and Oscar assembled them back-to-back so as not to smudge the fresh paint. Later, he’d need to add wooden partitions between them to keep them safe. Equal measures of fright and honor washed over him as he quickly managed this chore and set off behind Monet in the pre-dawn.
Once outside, his inquiry about where they were going received no response—Monet lived up to his storied reputation as a reluctant speaker. Oscar acknowledged his role was to obey commands and keep silent.
After some minutes struggling with the loaded cart down the garden pathway, up a hill, across the railroad tracks that divided the two pieces of Monet’s property, down an embankment, and across a bridge, he stopped beside Monet at the edge of the water lily pond. Oscar was sweating and exhausted.
Monet chose the first canvas of the day. It proved to be large and awkward to place on the easel that Oscar set up under the umbrella used to shield Monet from the sun or rain. He settled on his stool and prepared his palette with paints, squeezing first one tube, then another. Monet allowed no distractions. Speaking was a distraction.
Oscar’s lungs burned from the exertion, his breath short and choppy. His arms and legs hadn’t worked so hard since he’d left the front. It would take a lot of gardening to get his body back into the shape it was in when he worked for his mom at Golden Gate Park.
He stepped back to take in the scene Monet was painting. The pond covered several acres, encompassed by trees, flowers, and shrubs. They’d crossed over a Japanese-style bridge covered with bare wisteria branches. It was still winter, and the famed water lilies were waiting for the season when they would again cover the water’s pea-green surface.
But that was not what Monet was painting. Instead, he captured the fractured light on the water’s surface and the rays filtering into the depths beneath them. No ground, no sky—just the water and the willows interwoven in patterns of colors and shapes. He looked to be painting the essence of the light that moved on the surface of the pond.
It was not the typical garden scene Oscar had studied in landscape design classes at college. The lily pond represented a living canvas upon which the sun painted a constantly developing picture, just, he supposed, as Monet had designed it. His Japanese gardener friends would say it felt reminiscent of a Japanese garden, but this one held far more prolific planting. Monet had covered every inch with stocks and petals of exotic and familiar domestic plants.