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  • by Janet St. John

Art & Soul Short #7

Henri-Joseph Harpignies. French, 1819 - 1916

A Landscape with Figures Walking along a Path

Blue watercolor with gray and black wash on wove paper

Drawing. 11.2 x 7.5 cm (4 7/16 x 2 15/16 in.)t

Joseph F. McCrindle Collection

Open Access

Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington


A dirt-floored church chamber, said to gift miracles, called us. Figures on life’s path. Some with neighbors, family, friends. Me, accompanied only by small hope. We walked a long road. Land rose, fell away. Vapors clustered overhead with only sky’s particular blue standing brilliant from the grey, beige, and black. Our wish: arrival. No expectation of an easy journey.

Road and hillside became foreground. We walking strangers became blotch, blob, artist’s gouache abstraction. We reached out with words, The day is fine, small kindnesses of notice, The weather should stay good. We tugged threads to unravel deeper conversation. I would draw this sky, if I weren’t walking. Over miles, My mother was sick for years before dying. I’m sorry. Sinking-below-surface talk. My father was here at Christmas, gone by Easter. I’m walking in memory of the path he walked toward death last year. I touched his arm; reverent silence; continuation; walking.

Road ran away behind us. Cars passed. We stayed the course, for hours, seeking refuge at the shrine known for healing. Santuario built by bloody conquering. Self-righteous men’s dominance over differently devoted, beings bent on living without four-walled, steepled boundaries between this life and beyond.

As we approached, faithful flocks were gathered outside to hear loudspeaker prayers and blessings. Some lit candles inside, offered remembrances, spoke aloud their wishes to be well.

We waited for a turn to crouch in the small space, take soil stolen from the Christ’s blood mountains, refilled by man, not miracle, when tourists took too much away. I held a small silver box, removed its howling-wolf cover. That image-animal singing, crying, mourning for me who could not. When I stepped forward, I scooped iron-sand and hoped for healing my ailments, invisible. I had come so far but closed the cover.

Only at home would I rub the dirt between my fingers, taste it to my tongue. Only then would I pray to be plucked from my grey, black, blue living. Pray and wait for the miracle of a warmer-hued world, where something lit me up inside, turned my cells to starry sky.

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