“Yes, I’ll be right out,” Anouk answered, turning to look over her shoulder, making sure that he was well hidden and could remain so if he was to reach the back door after she had answered the front.
She didn’t know who he was, this disheveled, red-haired man. But his green eyes were so piercing, so pleading, that she knew she had to help him, had to play along when she discovered him hiding in desperation.
The knock came again at the front door of the barn. More insistent this time. She knew she couldn’t hold them off much longer. She searched around for an excuse she could feed them, a reason for the sounds they had heard, for whatever it was that had drawn their attention to her family’s barn.
She had been sent out of the house by her mother to fetch something from the barn, and to bring it back right away. She couldn’t after all this commotion remember what it was she was supposed to be getting but she was sure that her mother would soon be out after her too, and she hoped, buoyed by her youthful feelings of invincibility, that she could get rid of these men before that happened. They sounded dangerous, and the fear in the red-haired stranger’s eyes only increased her worry.
She glanced out the broken, dusty window. Three shadows fell across the earthen ground. Beyond them, the hot sun baked the French countryside a golden brown. In the distance, great trees swayed slightly in the hot breeze.
Inside, she glanced again at the paints, the brushes and the many different boards, some covered with linen cloths, some turned backwards, all hidden in a hurry by the fugitive. She longed to look at the paintings, to see what he had been doing, to determine whether he was a good painter, a painter who could capture life the way the new artists could, the artists she had heard people in town talking about.
She hadn’t been out to the barn in a few months; her family didn’t use this one much now that Papa had built a new one closer to the house. She wondered how long the man had been hiding here, what he had been using it for, besides painting. Did he live here?
In the winter, they would be storing some of the summer farm tools here, and he would have been discovered then, if he had still been out here. But the cold would likely have forced him from this hiding place sooner.
She could hold off the men no longer. Drawing in a deep breath, she walked to the door and, setting her jaw stiffly, opened the door.
Three men stood there, unshaven, dirty and disheveled. The first man, possibly the leader, held a cigarette between his teeth as he snarled at her.
“Where is he?”
“Monsieur, I’m sorry, but who do you mean?’ she asked, quickly scanning the landscape, hoping to see a flash of red disappearing into the distance.
“You know perfectly well. The man, the painter, who has been hiding out here in your barn.”
“A painter has been hiding in my barn?” she asked, thinking quickly. “I think you must be mistaken. I think we would know if a stranger was hiding and painting in our barn.”
As they pushed past her, she suddenly wondered what other evidence of the hidden man they might find.
The men went straight to the paintings, dragged the cloths off those that were covered and turned the others around.
“Now these would fetch some good money I think,” snarled the man with the cigarette. “Money your friend owes us. He has obviously been here. Where is he now?”
She took in their casual disregard for the paintings themselves, their rough appearance and she made a rash decision, took a chance.
“Monsieur,” she said taking a breath, as she tried to put forward her most polite voice, her sweetest smile. “I’m sorry to disappoint you but these are my paintings. I paint here.”
“You!?” his eyes widened incredulously. “Impossible.”
“Why yes, I like to paint the scenery, the landscapes, the things I see. I have heard about this new style of painting and I have been out here trying it myself. I’m not very good though, not like real painters,” she added, watching their reactions. A careless glance at the paintings, and they began to poke around the rest of the barn.
She breathed a bit more easily. Her risk had paid off. They clearly didn’t know anything about art, or not enough to notice the quality, the fine play of light, the astonishing departure from the usual style of painting.
The men turned over various items, looked under them, opened the back door and looked up and down the golden field beyond. They didn’t find any additional evidence of the hidden man.
There wasn’t much they could do at this point and, losing interest, they wandered off muttering threats under their breaths.
Once they had left, she looked everywhere for the painter, but he was no where to be found.
Eventually, as she sat perplexed among his paints and his artwork, her mother came to find her and chastised her for wasting time, for being unhelpful. She paid little attention to the beautiful creations, the reds and blues and golds dancing across the boards.
Anouk followed her mother back to the house, turning to look at the barn every few minutes, hoping to see the man, wondering what had become of him, whether he would still be there when she returned later.
She didn’t get a chance to go back all that day, for her mother kept her so busy in the house. Every time she passed a window, she would stop and stare, hoping to pick out some movement, some hint of his whereabouts.
That night, she lay awake in bed, listening to the rest of her family tossing and breathing in their sleep. She watched the light of the moon as it shone through the window and cast silver shadows across the foot of her bed. Finally, when she could wait no longer, she threw off her covers and tip toed out of her room, down the hallway, and slowly lifted the latch on the front door, slipping out into the night.
When she reached the barn, she saw that no one was there. The paints and brushes and other artist paraphernalia were gone, but one painting sat leaning against a wooden box in the middle of the floor by itself. In it, a girl in a white dress picked her way across a burnished ochre field, a deep blue sky overhead, majestic trees in the distance.
Anouk smiled, whispering “thank you” into the night. She knew then that she would never see him again.
The painting stayed with her as she grew up, married and had children. It was not until she was much older that she realized what it was. Only then, with the increasing appreciation of his art, did she realize that her lie had protected, for a time, one of the most famous painters who had ever lived.