Maman always told her Vincent was crazy but Gabrielle refused to believe.
He had always been so kind to her, the red-haired young man with piercing blue eyes. When they first met, she had just taken a job clearing tables and washing dishes at the Café de la Gare, open all night to serve the local drunks and derelicts.
It was just after midnight when he bounded through the door, hopping around the room in great humor, clasping hands with the old men, calling "Bonsoir, Gineaux!" to the waiter and enthusiastically buying everyone in the place a glass of absinthe. At that hour, there were only five people in the house, so, it wasn't much of an investment for the shabbily dressed young man.
Once seated at a blue-tiled table near the door, a stemmed glass of la fée verte held delicately in his hand, there was a pause in his manic energy as he assessed the space. She could see his eyes flick appreciatively to the muted shine of globed, gas chandeliers upon crimson walls, the contrast of green plaster ceiling and gold oaken floor, the lines of the room leading back to a curtained doorway. She could almost hear his curious mind whispering 'And what lies beyond that?'
His eyes wandered the room until they met hers, saw her watching him, and suddenly he was in motion again, rushing across the night cafe and grabbing her chin in his paint-splattered hand.
A timid girl, Gabrielle jerked her head away and, head cast down, looked fearfully at the stranger. Did he mean to kiss her, strike her? Her maman said you could never be sure what these bohemians would do to a young woman late at night.
"Tes yeux sont magnifiques!" he exclaimed in a rush. "Your eyes are beautiful! The aqua of the Mediterranean Sea. I should like to paint you. Would you sit for me? My name is Vincent Van Gogh." And with that he grasped her fingers to place a kiss upon her hand.
Raising her hand to his lips, the sleeve of her blouse slid downward, revealing an angry red scar that marked her forearm. His eyes grew wide and she jerked her arm away and slid her sleeve into place again.
"Bonsoir, Monsieur Van Gogh. Je m'appelle Gabrielle. You are the friend of Monsieur Gauguin, oui?"
Van Gogh rolled his eyes. "Gauguin is a friend of mine," he replied archly. "He lives in my maison, is part of my 'Studio of the South!' But please, call me Vincent. Now, come sit with a weary artiste and tell me a story. I must know how you came to have that scar."
Gabrielle was taken aback at his forward question, but could see no guile in his face, merely a childlike curiosity. She nodded and returned with him to his table, perching lightly on the rush seat.
She was a country girl and spoke simply. "My family has a farm. We grow lavende, lavender. Last summer I was in the field when I saw our shepherd dog stumbling about near the trees. It was in the shade and panting heavily and I thought perhaps it needed water. Maman told me to leave it but I ignored her. I approached it and knelt down. I put my hand out to feel his nose and, too late, I noticed the foam around the dog's mouth.
Her face paled as she recalled the scene.
"Le chien avait la rage! The dog had rabies!"
"It went mad, snapping at me, and I fell back. It lunged for my throat but I threw up my arms like this!" She demonstrated covering her face and neck.
"It bit down on my arm and shook me, but Papa had heard my cries and rushed out. He stabbed at the dog with his pitchfork and it fell on me, dead. I had been bitten so they knew I would have la rage too. There is but one way to stop the spread of it in the blood and that is to burn it out, fast as you can, so Papa and my brothers had to close my wound in the barn with an iron fresh from the fire." She looked regretfully at the red puckered skin of her forearm and shuddered.
"Most people die if they are infected with la rage!" Van Gogh exclaimed. "Yet, you live!"
"Maman had heard of a new treatment, in Paris, at l'Institut Pasteur. My family brought me there and I was given vaccines, many shots, but I survived. But, it was tres cher, so expensive, much more than they could afford. We are in debt because of me. And that is why I work here, and," she added under her breath "at 1 Rue du Bout d'Arles."
"1 Rue du Bout...but that is a brothel!" Van Gogh exclaimed, scandalized. "Surely you are to young to be..."
"Shhhh! Monsieur! Hush!" Gabrielle chided him, eyes wide, pressing her fingers upon his mouth. 'I am not une prostituée! But, La Madame does need someone to clean their sheets! The work is steady and the pay is good, so I am there during the day and here at night, until my debt is paid."
Van Gogh looked at her, hardly more than a child, and was filled with a melancholy so deep he nearly wept. Dog bites and blazing irons and prostitutes and debt. This world in which he lived was so beautiful and yet so cruel. Perhaps he could help her, could become Gabrielle's patron! When he left the cafe, he dropped a few extra coins on the table for petite Gaby.
Over the coming months, he visited her often, both at the Café de la Gare and occasionally at the brothel as well, where he was often shooed out the door by La Madame.
"If you didn't come here to pay, you cannot come here at all," she would call, braying at her double entendre as he hurried down the street.
He was passionately inspired by the small town, the light and color and soon painted the café where Gaby worked. Vincent often requested to paint her, but her maman had warned her well.
"Those bohemian types!" she'd chide. "First they say they'll paint your face and the next thing you know, you are nude on a chaise!"
Gaby swore to her mother that she knew him well. That he was a good man, a talented artiste, that he would one day BE someone, and that he WAS someone to her...but she never acquiesced to Vincent and her portrait went unpainted.
As fall slipped into winter, and the glory of the summer's sunflowers were dulled by dreary, windy weather, Van Gogh's mania drifted to depression. At the café, he would often wander in after midnight looking drawn and anxious. His clothes were unwashed and, by the smell of him, his skin was as well. His eyes were always moving, his mind never quiet, but he told Gabrielle fervently that a few moments with her was all he needed to find his soul again. He had determined that she was the last innocent thing left in this dark world.
Gaby had been working too much, and she developed a cough that frightened her benefactor. He believed it was his role to protect her, to save her. He feared it was hopeless as he was just a poor painter.
Sitting in la cathédrale just two days before Christmas, Vincent hadn't slept for several nights. He was worried about Gaby and prayed desperately that this dangerous world treat her with more kindness. Staring with bloodshot eyes at the body of Christ on the cross he knew what he must do. He began to sob, raising his arms heavenward in gratitude for providing him such inspiration.
Tucked away in one of the small brothel rooms that night, Gaby was pulling a stained sheet from an iron bed when she heard a commotion at the front of the house.
She stepped into the narrow hallway to see Vincent rushing toward her, trailed by the angry Madame and one of the working girls.
"Gaby, I must speak to you! I have something for you that is très important!"
"Vincent? Qu'est-ce que c'est? Are you all right?" Gaby grabbed his arms, taking in his pallid features, the bandage around his head and blood on his collar.
"I was in the cathedral and God spoke to me," Vincent cried, his voice strained. "He told me how I could heal you, Gabrielle! He told me I could make you whole again!"
He reached into his pocket and withdrew a small box and placed it in Gabrielle's hand.
"This is my body, which is given for you," he whispered reverently.
"Make me whole? Vincent?"
Gabrielle opened the box and found an object within, tucked in newspaper. She carefully unwrapped the petite package. She noted with amusement that Vincent, typical artist, had managed to splash red paint on the wrapping paper. She pulled a final fold free and stared in disbelief at his gift to her.
In her open palm lay a severed human ear. She realized, with horror, that it wasn't paint on the paper after all, was it?
"Mon dieu!" gasped La Madame.
"Keep this object like a treasure!" Vincent said fervently. He was reaching for her with shaking arms but all Gaby could see was the blood beginning to well from the bandage on his head.
"Why must maman always be right?" she wondered idly.
The world swam around her and she collapsed to the floor.
And it's all true.... In 1888, Van Gogh gave his ear to a farmer's daughter, poor girl. Luckily, it seems the rest of her life was far more uneventful.