Henceforth, every line and every color of Picasso will exude the spirit of this rough land; will have the savor of dried figs or of cracked olives, the vigor of the olive shoot, the light of an almond tree in flower, the perfume of a sprig of lavender. And in St Petersburg and New York, in Barcelona, in Paris, in Berlin… they will collect and admire beautiful fragments of this enamored gaze. —Angel Querol, son of the mayor of Horta Sant Joan
There are places where your feet shouldn’t be, Molly thinks. She scowls, hovering by the river’s edge. Above her, red mountains tower. Rock splits and scales. The sky is blue. It is unflinchingly hot. Crickets beat incessantly, yet nothing moves, not the rosemary bushes or the olive trees that line the valley’s robust flanks. In the deep, dark pool, Molly’s family swim. But Molly’s toes waver, undecided on the pebbles that stick knife-sharp into her skin.Something is wrong. Come in, come in, Mum and Dad shout, Typical Molly, she swam yesterday. Their voices echo and repeat, as they stand with Little Sister, their small pale torsos cut in half by green water. Hands on hips, belly deep. On the shore, Molly feels a hole inside her. The hole, she thinks, is just behind her heart. It stretches bigger and bigger, and is pulled by things. Today, the things push at the edges of her. Despite the heat, a strange cold sits inside her bones. It drips, slowly, into the hole. Earlier, as they drove along a steep track, the car bumping and curling in a cloud of yellow dust,Mum said, This place is a lost paradise. Dad replied, Picasso once stayed here in a cave.
When he was sixteen, Pablo Picasso left Madrid to convalesce in the Spanish village of Horta Sant Joan, in the El Ports Mountains. It was 1897. Picasso stayed for eight months. In August, he and his best friend Manuel Pallarèsdecided to live in a mountain cavern. Une cueva. It was just by the river, next to the high waters. For one month, they painted, drew, bathed in the river, lit fires and plucked almonds from the shimmering trees. A Spanish academic, Anne Balassrai wrote of this expedition, The young artists live half-naked in a sovereign solitude, an initiatory adventure in which the experiences of nature and painting are fused. Ten years later, Pablo returned for a second trip to Horta, accompanied by his girlfriend, Fernande Olivier. Certain researchers believe that the Ports landscape spit Cubism from its dry, burnt olive-silver guts. Picasso always said, Everything I know I learned in Horta.
Now, Molly dawdles in the mountains shadows. By the water’s edge, the sun slaps at her neck. The dark water flows, and nothing seems to end. Inside her, the hole expands, and grows. Molly thinks of yesterday: another mountain pool, clearer water. Yesterday, there was a Spanish boy who wore a white plastic cross, pearl beads strung round his brown velvety neck, alternating with drops of crystalline water born from the river’s source. Flipping into the pool, the boy’s body drew concentric circles, and from a stony ledge, Molly went to jump and join him. But Dad grabbed her and said, Try to dive. Try, just try to dive! But, Molly leapt free from Dad and held her arms close, flattened to her sides. She dropped like a stone, and sunk down and further into the cold water, turning in a helix of bubbles. Then, she swam, the boy like a seal by her side. Lines centring them in the blue.
In 1897, during their stay in the mountain cave, Pallarès and Picasso worked on large-scale compositions. Unfortunately, a violent storm struck in late August. Rain blurred paint and smudged charcoal. The canvases were ruined. That night, Picasso and Pallères built a fire to keep themselves warm, burning the remains of the wood and fabric. Another day, Pablo slipped, and fell on the rocks, tumbling into the rushing river. Luckily Pallarès’ reflexes were good, he reached out and grabbed Picasso just in time. Pablo did not know how to swim. In Horta, in the Picasso museum, they say that without Pallarès’s hand we might never have seen Cubism. In a letter from Picasso to Pallarès, the great painter wrote, I will never forget that you saved my life.
Today, Molly hates everything. As she stands by the water’s edge, the hate swims inside the hole with the slippery dream she had the night before. In the dream, the Spanish boy grinned as she ran from a stone well. The pearls round his neck fell into the water, dropping one by one. Everything went too fast. Now, in the river, Little Sister is speaking, she says, I can’t see the fishes, maybe they’ve gone home. She splashes in the river. Mum and Dad giggle. Molly longs for her favourite cloud-covered dressing gown, to put her hood on tight, for her head to be surrounded by the sky, by the sun, by the moon, by day and night. Suddenly, Molly is scared. The hole is so big it almost fills her body.
Under a glass-fronted cabinet in the Picasso Museum in Horta, is a small piece of paper entitled Red Area. It describes Object 2: A death certificate. An unfortunate incident is recorded. During his first trip to Horta, Pablo Picasso attended the autopsy of a girl who had been killed by a lightning bolt. Une chispa eléctrica. From under a white sheet, her body was revealed, the skin covered in multi-colored, threads of marbled bruises. The lighting forced the blood from her capillaries to burst under her skin. She was a cadaver drawn in ink black and terracotta red. Underneath the death certificate, is a quote from Picasso, I like Horta very much. Sometimes I think I should have stayed to live there.
By the water’s edge, Molly is shivering now, frozen. Get in. Don’t be bloody stubborn! Dad yells. Too cold, Molly whispers at her toes. But, no one listens. Ignore her, Dad says. Mum shakes her head, What’s the matter? Mum is looking for perspective. Mum often says this word, as if perspective was a place where all things turned out right. Molly answers, I’m too cold. Impossible! Mum snaps, Its boiling hot. But goose bumps are spreading over Molly’s skin. She is covered in a million tiny peaks, each one topped with glistening snow. The goose bumps also fill the hole inside her. At this moment, the hole is expanding, closing in on Molly’s brain, reaching towards her hands and feet. She is full to the brim. Molly wants to say she is too tired. We’re too tired, she and Little Sister croon when they misbehave. These words sometimes soften Mum’s brow, and she bends from her anger, into a place like a burrow, a warm hearth to where you can return. Other times, Mum stays untouchable.
In 1909, ten years after his first visit. Pablo returned to Horta with Fernande. That June he was no longer a teenager, but an artist with dealers and a reputation. The couple stayed in Horta for three months. Throughout the summer, Pablo painted obsessively, portrait after portrait of Fernande, breaking the mountains and her face into geometrical pieces outlined in black, clearly and irrationally divided. He worked feverishly, abandoning the illusion of classical perspective to reveal the essence of the physical world. It wasn’t what you saw but something else. The canvases crossed morphologies, fusing Fernande’s body and that of the mountains. A new metamorphic body was created, crystals and flesh forming sharp triangular forms. The paintings could be seen as a humanized mountain, or a human made mountainous.
Molly, Mum is calling now. Mum is leaving the river, her body emerging whole, legs joining her torso. Mum wraps a hot towel over Molly’s sunburnt shoulders. All Molly can hear is Mum’s words in her ear, one after another: Poor thing, poor thing, poor thing. The line of sounds is soft, made from butterfly kisses, homemade lullabies sung into frightened, dark nights. Molly tumbles, slips and falls into Mum.
Around them, the mountains still, a snake sleeps on a rock. Without warning, Molly springs up. She runs from the towel, escaping Mum, leaving behind her an empty shape. The shadow of the hole, the inside turned outside. I want to swim, she screams into the open, mountain sky. Molly strides over pebbles, and runs into the water. Around her crickets chant, olive trees rustle, from inside a cave there is an echo. She plunges under the green water, gliding and turning in the darkness, and Molly and the river are one.
Susanna Crossman is a British writer based in France. She has just been nominated for Best of The Net 2018 for her non-fiction essay, The Nomenclature of a Toddler. Co-author of the French novel, L’Hôpital, Le dessous des Cartes (LEH), she has recent/upcoming work with Repeater Books, 3:AM Magazine, The Creative Review, Litro, ZenoPress and elsewhere. Her writing has been short-listed for the Bristol Prize and Glimmertrain. She regularly collaborates on international hybrid arts projects, currently, Morning 360°, an experimental film, with American composer Michael Dickes and Spanish photographer Juanan Requena. She is represented by Craig Literary, NY. More at: https://susanna-crossman.squarespace.com @crossmansusanna