There were violets lining the path back home.
Every spring, there the angel was, with her delicate hands in the dirt. She chased the cold away, opened the windows and hung the rugs out to dry.
She didn't like sharing, but she was very generous. Reserved, really, shy. She gave when she could but stayed away whenever possible. Yet, she gave me a flower whenever she came inside. Pulled it right from the ground and smeared dirt on my hands. I didn't wash it off until dinnertime.
And yes, there she was, hands in the dirt. A perfect painting, a beautiful woman chasing the winter from a cottage.
“I thought you were inside!” She called as I hurtled up the path, pulling her straw hat into her lap.
“You're a mess,” I responded, not because I was bothered by it.
She cupped my face in her hands and kissed my temple. I felt more than saw the dirt on my cheeks, and I let her paint my face with it the same way I painted canvases with hers.
“Where have you been all day?” Lucinda asks, cheeks stained red and muddy. “I was looking for you.”
“I was at the beach.” I drop my messenger bag on the stone, the contents clattering, and let her kiss me again.
“Did you bring me anything?”
I bend down to pull a particular shell from one of the pockets of my bag. She inspects it closely. “Your favorite color, right? Purple? I did pretty well, I’d say.”
“So would I. Good job.” In return, she offers me a flower. I tuck it behind my ear.
Lucinda leaves dirt on the floor when she pads inside after me. She leaves dirt everywhere. I’ve never cared all that much--I’m the same with my paint.
The paintings of Magnolia Colton were astounding. I could not find a word in any thesaurus to truly do her justice, but astounding works well. She inspired her small Maine town with pastels, coal, and watercolors on canvas, painting with emotions more than she did a brush. She was, without a doubt, an astonishingly intimate person, and this I could tell with no prior research on her whatsoever.
As her paintings were produced and consumed by her admirable public, it was just as clear they all began to think the same. Her art is art in the purest sense of the word; it is passionate and careful, meticulous and creative. It was and still is loved by whomever happens across it. Young and old, male and female, educated and uneducated; the only binding factor is that they must have some capacity for empathy.
It was her art that first captured my attention, but later, her history. She was born Meredith Colton in Eastport, Maine on June eighth, 1945, directly in the smouldering ashes of World War II. Her early life was unremarkable, but for the fact she spent quite a bit of her childhood outside in gardens and on beaches. So much time, in fact, her surroundings bled their way into her meaningless doodles and sketches.
As I studied this part of her history, I noticed something peculiar. Her pastels were bright and cheerful. She saw the world through the lens of youth. Of course, she was experimenting, but it had me intrigued. I simply had to know more about Magnolia Colton.
It was that winter the flowers died. Lucinda knew they died before she saw them. She said as much with her chin in her hands.
“Of course they died. It's winter.”
She shook her head. “I'm cold.”
I put down my pen and beckoned her away from the window. “Then close the shutters.”
“My flowers are sad without me.”
“They're plants, darling.”
“I'm cold.” There was a tremble in her voice that time, and when she turned, her sky eyes were dark and gray.
I noticed that. She was the kind of person to feel with the seasons and act like the sun. As the air cooled, so did she. As the days grew longer, her smiles lasted longer. She was always a toes-in-the-grass kind of person; she made a great silhouette of short skirts and long hair.
“Come sit with me,” I offered, and she did. I found it hard to believe she could have been cold; she was so warm.
I tracked down Elias H. Ramsey at his home in Bangor. After much prompting, he agreed to meet with me and allowed me to record our conversation via handheld camera. Our conversation is thus follows:
“You came here for something specific, Mister Alby.”
“I did, sir.” I handed him my journal, and let him flip through it. He nodded here and there as if in understanding or sympathy. As he was still flipping, I continued, “I came about your great aunt.”
He sighed. “I don’t have much about her.”
Here, it is important to note that he is her last living relative, and one of my only possible gateways into a more dynamic history on Magnolia Colton.
“You must have something, sir. Anything you can tell me.” I thought at the time I came on as too eager, but he must have found it empowering enough.
“I’ve heard the name somewhere before.”
“Do you remember where?”
He thought for what seemed like quite a long time but what was, in reality, only a handful of seconds. I am rather embarrassed looking back over the video.
“There are diaries in the attic that mention a Magnolia a lot. Dated sometime like 1960s.”
At this, I distinctly remember my heart soaring. Breathlessly, I asked, “May I see them?”
He took me up to his attic, a tiny, dusty church of a room, and opened up a few boxes. The lighting there was dark so the video quality was ghastly, but I took pictures of what I needed.
Luci acted like the sun over the little town. On days she would brighten, I would be outside with her. I always thought she and I were the only two girls who didn't mind tanning. On days she was hollow and dim, I would give her her space. At night, when she was gone altogether, I would watch where she disappeared and wait until I could see her again. When she left, I would bask in her sunset and wonder if I had ever found her so beautiful before.
“Today is a sunlight day?” I asked her smile.
“What do you mean?”
High above her head, a seagull cried. I wiggled my toes in the rough rocky sand and took her shoes so she could put another stone in her pocket.
“You're pretty today.”
“I'm pretty every day.” She stuck her tongue out at me.
“You're prettiest today.”
“Why?” Her brow scrunched, and I wanted to smooth it out. To put my hands on her and caress her like she did those flowers. But she continued, “No… Yes, why? Where did I put my stone?”
“In your pocket.”
Her face reddened. “Oh. You were saying something.”
“You're prettiest when you're happy.”
“Me?” She turned toward the cold gray-green ocean.
“Why don’t you paint it?” She asked after a moment, staring out at the ocean. The water reflects in her eyes, crusted with diamonds, turbulent and very worth painting. I have before. The canvas is leaning against a closet wall at home. But Luci was always forgetful.
“I did,” I answer.
“Oh.” Embarrassment doesn’t look good on her.
“It’s alright. I know you forget a lot.”
“Yes,” she murmurs. “Forgetful.”
Lucinda Ogden. Who is Lucinda Ogden?
She mentions Magnolia Colton quite a bit in her detailed diaries. She writes with an admirable fervor, with as much passion as Colton paints. Some excerpts from her diaries have caught my eye.
The first page is dated May 14, 1959.
“I have met the most wonderful girl today. She was painting the ocean on the beach, even though it was so cold out tonight. I cannot remember her name for the life of me, but I will not forget to go to the beach tomorrow.”
May 15, 1959.
“I have forgotten to go to the beach.”
May 16, 1959
“The painter’s name is Magnolia Colton. Her landscape of the ocean is coming along rather nicely.”
May 20, 1959
“Magnolia has asked me to meet her at the beach tomorrow. I will write it on my arm if I must, but I will not forget.”
Lucinda Ogden goes on to write about a blossoming relationship with Colton.
It struck me late the night after I met with Elias that I am in the same town as Magnolia and Lucinda. This is no new concept, of course, but the gravity of it hit me that night. That they had walked these same streets, met these peoples’ ancestors. Her paintings are about this town, her love written in these buildings and beaches.
It was on a hunch and a sprinkling of red-hot hope that I frantically skimmed the rest of Lucinda’s diaries. I was so ecstatic when I found what I was looking for, I almost woke the whole hotel jumping for joy.
In the second diary in the front cover, there was a faded sketch. An original that left ghostly smudges of charcoal on my fingertips. It was a messy drawing of a cabin with a path lined with flowers, signed in the corner by Colton herself. On the back, it read, “For Luci. My home.”
Deeper in Lucinda Ogden’s diaries, I found the address of that cabin.
It was the next winter I began to notice the change. Again, her eyes were gray and salty, all ocean and no sky; all cloud and no sun.
“I'm cold,” she said, even though spring was blossoming.
This time, I was sitting on the sill next to her. So I said, “Close the shutters, darling.”
“The flowers are cold, Violet.”
And it was here I finally noticed. It was not her eyes that set me off, nor her full pill bottle that day. There was something very wrong.
There were no flowers outside.
“Luci, it’s winter.” I closed my book and sat up. “You’re worrying me.”
Her mouth flounders, and she turns away gloomily. I almost regret asking. But when she turns back to me, her eyes are once more the bright blue I remember.
The picture of the cabin and the actual cabin are very different. I found the mailbox easily enough, and the path was not hard to uncover after that.
It’s all grown in, moss over what may have once been cobblestones or just hard dirt. Nature has taken it over. Ivy chokes its walls, mold glosses its dank windows, water sags against its roof. I can’t help thinking that Magnolia would have appreciated it.
No one lives here. It’s not privately owned, so I step inside.
It’s quaint. It smells like earth and old tea, like must and mold and reeking water. It’s dim, with no light but that filtered unseemingly through the tainted brown-green windows and the creaking door. Flowers have sprung up where the wood floor has begun to decay. Mice have made this home theirs, nesting in rotting pillows and termite holes.
It was undoubtedly a painter’s home.
I take carefully one of the paintings from is place. It’s worn and damp around the edges, mold creeping into the bottom corner, but the picture is still clear. It’s a young woman of maybe nineteen or twenty with flowers in her hair and dirt on her cheeks (though that may just be the wear). She sits on the stoop of the calm reflection of the cabin, where the path is clean, packed dirt, the windows shining, and violets lining the path.
I liked having her sit up for me.
She went lower.
“No, up a bit,” I decided. She huffed a laugh, and pulled the silken robe up her shoulder.
I always wished I could have captured every moment. I could have written songs and ballads and epic poems about the flush on her cheeks, about the twitches of her eyebrows, the crashing and rolling of her laugh. Since I can’t, she lets me paint her.
She sits on the cabin stoop with dirt streaked across her suntanned cheeks and a mess of violets stuck in her hair. Her shoulders shake with barely contained laughter. I could have drawn her without reference, but I doubt I’d have done her justice. And accuracy is always more important than pride.
“Stop shaking.” I demanded, and she burst out laughing.
“I can’t help it!” Her voice was high and breathy. “You look so concentrated.”
“Because I’m concentrating. Stay still.”
“Why do you want to draw me right now, Maggie? I’m so dirty. And these clothes don’t go with my eyes.” Her nose scrunched up, and I was very tempted to paint that onto her face.
“Everything goes with your eyes.” It wasn’t a lie. Earthy brown is the best color. Sunlit amber and rich chocolate, soul-sucking voids I would have and could have fallen into. Maybe I have already.
“Why the flowers?”
“I’m sketching your mouth now, so be quiet.”
She stuck her tongue out at me, so I painted her mouth from memory.
When I was done, she scampered to my side, all flashy grin and loose robe hitched up around her knees. I wished I could have painted that too.
“Like it?” I asked when I was sure she’d had her fill of staring.
“Let’s hang it up.”
We did. Just over the kitchen table, with Luci, still in her loose robe, on her knees on the table with a hammer and a nail between her lips.
“It looks good,” she remarked thoughtfully. “Maybe a bit too bright.”
“I don’t think so.” She tilted her head at me. “I mean I think it’s bright enough. Take a look outside. It’s a pretty day.”
“The day is pretty.”
“Right.” She chewed on her lip. “You’re right. Promise me you’ll never ever take this down.”
Magnolia Colton painted with pastels and watercolors in her early years. It was easy to tell she was a woman desperately in love. Only lovestruck eyes see with such color; only the head-over-heels will plan each stroke to the millimeter. She was a woman of as much passion as calculation.
Her later paintings grew progressively darker. They became messier, sloppier, and the public chose to make her famous for these. They ate up her heartache as much as she could produce it.
When summer air graced the rest of the world, the cottage was still cold.
Neat rows of flowers, hardly ghosts of memories, lined the path. I almost expected Luci to be there. I called, “I'm home!” Before I realized there was no one there to greet me.
The sun is down. It's too late to be awake. And my cheeks are clean.
The painting on the wall reminded me of her face. I wondered if I could have still painted it from memory.
Lucinda Ogden still puzzles me. She left no paper trail in her life, hardly any record of he at all besides what Magnolia painted of her and what she wrote of herself.
At sometime past midnight my third week into my stay in Eastport, I finally found Lucinda Ogden’s name written somewhere other than her old diaries.
I visited the Eastport Central Hospital the next day with bags under my eyes and my journal under my arm. Of course, no one remembers anything about her, but luckily, hospitals tend to keep extensive records.
I found Lucinda Ogden’s records by convincing the administration that I was her grandson.
She was a remarkable woman. She was diagnosed with Mixed dementia at eighteen, and continued to live her life in and out of hospitals. She was admitted back in 1967, the year her diaries stop, and there is no record of her ever leaving.
I realized later that around 1965, Magnolia Colton’s paintings began to darken.
It was summer before I saw her again. She ran into my arms all pink cheeks and sunny smile, and I was happy that I got to see her sunrise so close.
We took a walk on the beach. She filled her pockets with stones, and I held her shoes.
“The clouds are pretty,” she remarked, musical voice sweet and soft. “I missed you.”
She left dirt on my waist where she held me, on my scalp where she ran her fingers through my hair.
“You got dirt on me.” I couldn't help a smile.
“You're welcome.” And then her brow furrowed. “I’m sorry.”
“Don't be sorry.”
She grinned again, and everything was okay.
“Okay.” Her head whipped forward, and she turned back with mirth. “I'll race you to the end of the beach.”
We raced. I didn't let her win. I knew she would--
Yes. She fell on me with a great whoosh of air, her heartbeat pounding on my shoulder, and her elbows caged me in.
She kissed me on the sand, pressed me further into the dirt, like I was a flower she could have planted. I would have grown for her if I could have, sprouted and blossomed just to feel her fingers on me. Pushing, prodding, tickling, let her ease me into life, let her plant me along her bare feet. I am delicate enough to bloom only with her care, only survive in her sun, and I would have had it no other way. I loved Lucinda Ogden shamelessly, desperately, so much so I was almost codependent on her.
When she pulled away, breathless and panting and suntanned red splashing over her cheeks like the waves sprinkling her bare shoulders, she whispered, “I love you, Magnolia.”
And I believed her.
So we walked back to the end of the beach, and she left me with a final, “I'll see you again, Violet.”
And I believed her.
It’s a four hour drive from Eastport to Portland. I am so very close to understanding Magnolia Colton, but I’m missing something important.
I recorded and annotated my conversation with Julia Hopkins, historian, researcher, and art guru. She was elated I found Magnolia Colton as interesting as she did.
As we sat for tea, she got straight to the point. “Mister Alby, what do you know about Colton already?”
“My research was through for a college blogging project,” I admitted lightly. “I learned as much as I could from the Internet, but Magnolia was so small and…” I knew it was best to leave it at that.
“Do you know about Lucinda Ogden?” She asked.
I nodded. “I do, ma’am. She was Magnolia’s friend. She was admitted to the hospital in 1967 and never left.”
“Lucinda was Magnolia’s lover.” I must have looked startled. “Magnolia’s emotional paintings can be tied directly to Lucinda’s condition. I think that makes them more than friends, Mister Alby.” She chuckled.
I was in too serious a mood to laugh. “So… the lack of bright colors and deterioration can be chalked up to Lucinda’s disappearance?”
She raised an eyebrow at me. “I expected a smart young man to piece that together.”
“It took quite a while to figure this much out, Miss Hopkins--”
“Are you familiar with her last painting?”
Painted in 1969, the watercolor titled simply Violet is a scene of a choppy gray ocean that really has nothing to do with violets. It was the last one before her death that same year, and often referred to on online forums as the most disgraceful canvas she ever produced. Yes, it was sloppy, but only because it was painted on over and over until all the colors grayed and the canvas nearly began to fall apart.
I suppose Miss Hopkins must have seen it all come together in my mind, because it was not long until she practically pushed me from her front door.
I thumb through thick canvases and letters tucked between them. Luci sends me the same letters every week addressed to Violet. I’ve stopped opening them.
I stand and stretch and paw at my cheeks. They’re too light with no dirt on them, and my hands are too cold with no one to put the dirt there.
There was a painting somewhere. I must have misplaced it.
It’s hanging above the kitchen table like it always is. I debate taking it with me, but decide to leave it here. After all, I did make a promise to never take it down.
I grab my canvas under my arm and my paint in my bag. The walk to the beach has never seemed so long, and I’m panting under the weight of my items when I finally reach the rocks. I toe off my shoes and nestle into a shallow area in which I can see the sea.
I compare it to the old painting in my hands.
“You’re right,” I mutter to the waves. “Too bright.”
I paint over it. I dirty the water and chop it into pieces. I dull the sand and cloud the sky. I gray the ocean as dark as steel wool. The colors blend together harshly, dampening the canvas until tiny droplets of paint tatter my sleeves.
When I get up to leave, dissatisfied with my smear of morose colors, I try to remember what my home looks like.
There was an angel kneeling in the dirt. She sat on the stoop of the cabin in silk robes and flowers, sat on the sill of the window with her head in her palm, sat curled into my side too warm to be so cold. There was light in my home. There was dirt scattered across the floor. There was a reason to hang paintings above the kitchen table.
I am writing my final post in a taxi somewhere in the outskirts of Eastport.
My journey with Magnolia Colton and Lucinda Ogden is at a close. I find myself reluctant to leave them behind. How silly is that? I’ve come to get to know them after a month of research.
Julia Hopkins told me that the painting I found in Colton’s cabin could have sold for millions if restored. Something possessed me to leave it there. I was going to take it at first, but I stood in the cabin’s door with apprehension. It felt wrong, like I was lying or breaking a promise.
I never truly found out what happened to Magnolia Colton. I found, after another night spent Googling her name, that she threw herself off the roof of the hospital in 1970. But after that, there is nothing. Of course, I knew there would be no more paintings, but it doesn’t seem like enough. I know there should be more.
Lucinda Ogden died at the hospital in 1971. In her will, she left her cabin and everything she owned to someone called Violet. The records had no surname, so the property went to auction. Everything she owned fell through.
As I leave Eastport, it strikes me again how close I am to Magnolia and Lucinda. It seems unfair now that they were so far apart, given how easy it was to find them even decades later.
I shouldn’t be here. I stall outside the hospital door once again. It will be okay tomorrow.
“Are you waiting to see someone?” A nurse calls as she walks by. I only shake my head and swing the door open.
Luci puts down her book politely, and gives me a smile framed by a winter sun shining shamefully through the window. The sun has learned long ago that, even in this state, my Luci could outshine it at its brightest.
“Hello,” she greets, pulling her legs into a tangle. “I’m Luci.”
“Magnolia,” I offer. “I brought you something.”
I unfold the paper from my pocket, smearing the charcoal down one edge. She takes it, dirtying fingertips black, and grins. “It’s beautiful. What inspired it?”
“It’s only the ocean.”
“Sit.” She moves, though there’s really no need, and I almost sit too close. “Is this for me?”
She leans forward to open the bottom drawer of the nightstand, and gasps at what she finds. Dozens of charcoal drawings, each smeared with fingerprints. She looks up at me incredulously. “Did you… have we met?"
“I think so.”
The clouds cover the sun, casting the room in dim shadows. She frowns. “I… am very bad with faces. I’m sorry I don’t remember you. Where did we meet?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Yes it does.”
I sigh. I could never deny her, especially when she frowned like that. So I tell her, because there’s nothing else to do. And, of course, if I make a fool of myself, I can always come back in a few days.
“A cottage,” I murmur.
“A cottage?” She frowns again, and digs through the bottom drawer. She pulls out a charcoal drawing from a few years ago. “Like this?"
Her finger traces the path up to the door. “I like this. It’s pretty. The flowers. Um… it looks familiar.”
I whip my head around.
She puts it together. Her mouth works through words she doesn’t have the capacity to say. Her fingers trace the memory of flowers, the steps down to the dirt path.
“Can you describe it to me? The cottage, I mean.”
“Do you remember… no. It looked like sunlight. There were lots of rugs, and we drank tea all the time. There was always paint on the walls, and you were always cleaning it up. There was dirt on the floor.” I can’t look at her. “There were violets lining the path back home.”
“Oh. Yes.” Vapid and misunderstanding, she tucks the picture back into the drawer. “I remember now.”
“No. You don’t.”