The Repentant Magdalene
The third in a series of exercises writing pieces based on, then removed from, a single artwork. This time it is “The Repentant Magdalene,” by Georges de la Tour, c. 1635/1640.
As she turned to walk away, I began to count out a head start. 49, 48, 47—the apple-crisp air of a pre-dawn autumn morning began to waft away the stink of band-aids and sweat. 39, 38, 37—I stepped into the hallway, panting. 29, 28, 27—opening the door to my apartment, I felt the sad 1970s spring of wall-to-wall shag carpet under my sneakers. 19, 18, 17—you sat on the couch, bottle in hand, laughing with your friends, who nervously laughed along. 9, 8, 7—Did I tense my stomach, like Houdini? Did I take off my glasses, like James would later teach me running through a Galway alley? Did I finger the can of mace in my pocket? 6, 5, 4—Did I shut my eyes when I told you she’d gone?
The darkness shimmers: it is brilliant, like a velvet-draped starless sky, in Georges de la Tour’s “Repentant Magdalene.” The gentle curve of Mary’s nose, her soft touch on the staged skull, the motionless flicker of the candle’s light—all are masterful incantations. But the darkness that surrounds her—in the painting’s corners, the nape of Mary’s neck, the shadow of cloth on her breast—these are the baroque blacks in which repentance hides. I have vampiric photos in which these shadows have disappeared. Even the most professional of images share hardly a shudder. But stand before “The Repentant Magdalene” and dare not to fall headfirst into those corners. It is the writer’s envy: irreproducible; an experiential artwork that endures—no moving parts, no reliance on another.
Swimming in those corners, I thought of Mary—bearer of seven sins. I thought of the fears meted out in the name of those sins, fears I had witnessed, ignored, even abetted. And I began to repent.
The bus we rode was short—both the vehicle and the route. You shouldn’t have been onboard at all, but pushed through the door when I let slip I might see her. (Bus and cab drivers, hourly-wage security guards, bartenders, sound men—these were a few of your favorite victims.) Still feigning normality, I let you sit beside her. I slouched behind and turned away when she flinched at your sight. That jagged, lupine grin, that scarred dimple—seven sins worth and more. I stuffed my fists in my jacket and ignored it all.
Your questioning lurches grew, already shaking the Saturday-night-traffic bound bus. My mind raced—maybe the driver would take a stand? Maybe it would be the sole other rider, a young black man—you listened to black people, prejudged them all to be thugs like you. But he left the bus at the corner. My eyes met the driver’s in his rear-view mirror, and his message was clear: You had to go, and he wasn’t the one to do it.
Where are you going?, you lurched, and each repetition of her truths gained falsehood in your eyes. She was meant to be safe with me—me, a known quantity. Where are you going?, and your forehead tapped hers as you lunged into her rainy face. Stop, I said, and you looked at me. Come on, let’s go, I said, we’ll get drunk. I’m buying. Stop, I said a second time, and pulled at your bulky shoulder. You grabbed my hand and squeezed—would the bones break? Would my veins split?
I don’t want to have to hurt you, you told me, suddenly near silent. But I swear to god—to fucking god—I will beat you… smash you… crush you… I lost track of the threats as they spittled on your tattooed lips. We left the bus, went to the party, drank from the shared tap and guffawed at the shared stories. At the end, you went home with her, as we all knew you would.
What does penance mean for the non-believer? What does repentance mean with no fear of god or damnation; with no witnesses to herald transformation and no victims to hear confession?
Mary speaks to a skull reflected in a mirror. So will I.
A man’s fingers dug into a woman’s wrist and I said stop. His free hand slapped my cheek and circled my throat, squeezing at my Adam’s apple, a wedding band cool against my skin.
A man’s fists threw a woman against a car—the nearby store clerk won’t call 911: Somebody teachin’ his girl a lesson.
A man forces himself on a woman: I know that, now. At the time, I chose not to believe it could be.
These images are all hidden in de la Tour’s darkened folds: Mary’s seven sins, each paid for a thousand times. Speaking to a skull is no penance, but perhaps confession makes a start.
3, 2, 1—Your chin began to tremble. She’s long gone, I said, and not to her home: she’s somewhere you don’t know, nor do I. You raised up, that bunched spine curved like a cornered dog. She’s gone, and that’s over. You won’t see her again.
A crack to the skull might be penance, and I watched for it, my crown reflected in the mirror above the mantle. But it never came. Your swing passed me and landed inside the cheap wall of the apartment. No candle, but a flickering TV illuminated the room: Did I touch my own skull to be sure I’d escaped? Did the guilt flare when no sticky wet came off on my finger? I watched you push another out of the way and storm into the hallway. The kitchen? Our knives were bachelor-dull. The bedroom? My possessions weren’t worth defending. The bathroom?
How brittle we are. Your friends scattered, unwilling to wait for the inevitable police presence. How tender. I thought, once again, of walking away, but I didn’t; a few stayed with me—going down with the ship. How dark are the corners that surround you, that hover on your tattooed nape, that shadow the chest from your collar. We stood back and kicked the bathroom door open to find the mirrored cabinet’s contents flooding the floor. I found a sticker with the number and dialed it: An ambulance was dispatched; jokes exchanged. All your bulk, all your weapons, all your loathing, and you couldn’t succeed at self-harm.
I saw you a few days ago, walking out of a doorway in a too-nice neighborhood. What’s her name, I wondered, and when will she learn? You grunted and lit a cigarette as I passed, unrecognized after two decades. I wish to repent for the times I didn’t throw myself between you and her—between all of you and all of them. But I would never repent for helping her escape, or for the poison we didn’t stop you from swallowing, or for the pause before we dialed the phone. I may yet repent for letting you fail.