Friday, October 16, 2009

Fused at the Root

By Kim

Madonna was lost in the woods. The air, thick with fog, smelled of damp earth, and she tripped over underbrush she could not see. Then she heard the noise, an unearthly sort of moan. She followed the sound until coming to a clearing. A man knelt in the grass nearby. The light was poor, everything in the forest shades of greenish gray, and he was so still she at first mistook him for a tree stump. There was that haunting cry again, the sound causing the very marrow in her bones to expand until she feared they would shatter. The man was hunched over, every line of his body mirroring the agony she endured. He clutched his dark hair, ripping it out in clumps. She knew those hands.

“Carl?” she said softly.

As he stood, turning, the landscape around him changed. The clearing widened, drawing him further  from her. A house was far off to her left, a man and woman standing together a short distance away. They were indistinct, featureless, their hair and clothes billowing in the wind. The sky threatened over them, but where she stood she saw the sun’s rays strike Carl’s face. She took in a sharp breath. It was his painting. He reached out for her, inviting her in.

She suspected he would vanish when they touched. He always did in dreams. His lips were soft, gentle, but this was not enough. Torn between her desire to encourage and punish, she raked her fingers through his hair, pulling his closer. His grip tightened, crushing her, but it didn’t matter; she no longer required air. She barely noticed the strange tugging sensation in her feet at first, the perception of being slowly swallowed by the earth. When she no longer felt her legs, she broke the kiss, gasping. Her torso had fused into a trunk. She looked up at him, wide-eyed; what had moments ago felt and tasted like skin had hardened into bark. His face was a cluster of wooden knots, her hand nothing but a clump of leaves brushing against him. Yet his voice was still clear in her mind. “We're fused at the root, Madonna. How long must I wait for you to see it?”
In The Oak Lovers, Carl Ahrens’ words transform Madonna from the young and proper step-daughter of an Episcopal priest into an unrepentant home wrecker. For me they were damned inconvenient.

You see, the dream was mine first. Even now, a year later, I can remember how that forest smelled, how my feet tangled in the underbrush. I can still hear that haunting cry, trapped between a moan and a scream, though the pain is an indistinct memory now. At the time I felt it deep in my bones, worse than childbirth. Had a tubercular hip felt like that, I wondered? Is that why I assumed the man pulling at his hair was my great-grandfather? Yet the voice that whispered his name wasn’t my own, the wisps of hair blowing across my field of vision were dark where I’m decidedly blond. The man turned and the resemblance to Carl ended at his height. I was disappointed. He often appeared in my dreams, but always at a distance, and he had never heard me when I spoke.

As the scenery changed my pain turned to longing, a longing so intense it was terrifying. The man before me was a conglomerate of several men who had starred in my daydreams over the years, but the emotions inspired by the sight of him were deeper than desire, than sex, than anything I’d ever imagined. I approached him with a sense of dread, fearing he’d disappear, fearing that I’d destroy him, or that if I touched him I’d be bound to him forever. His embrace would be unrelenting; I would live a life of slow strangulation. Yet the alternative would be an eternity of feeling nothing at all. There could be no one else, no in between. He reached out in invitation, waiting, and I didn’t hesitate. After my flesh hardened into bark, I woke, choking on my own tears. Thankfully, my husband was on a business trip at the time.

Further sleep out of the question, I sat in front of a photo of Madonna taken in 1904, shortly before Carl left his wife and three children to reunite with her in New York. The photograph had always disturbed me; her expression was sullen, her stare penetrating, accusatory, a woman captured in a moment of profound, yet private, suffering. Had she sent this photograph to him he would have seen the question in her eyes – Why have you not come for me? – and been on the next train. Perhaps that is why the photo was saved. Or perhaps it was because she had a second question, this one directed at me. Why have you written our story as though he was the only one who struggled?

She had a point. Early drafts show a man tormented by desire and an admiring young girl too innocent to realize the object of her childish infatuation adores her. Their flirtations are restrained, chaste, except for a stray thought or two on his part. It didn’t work because she wasn't free to behave as a girl in love would. In giving Madonna her decidedly unchaste dream back, as I felt I must, I had to rewrite a good fifty pages to keep the tone consistent. (That’s what was damn inconvenient!) The effort was well worth it, though. The emotional stakes are much higher now that Madonna openly gazes at Carl, brushes against him at every opportunity, and becomes territorial if anything infringes on their time together. It is far more dangerous for a man to toe the line between flirtation and seduction with a girl whom he knows could not find it in herself to refuse.

Throughout the re-writes, the painting from my dream continued to haunt me. Surely I had seen it; the details were too clear to have imagined. I rifled through old auction records, newspaper articles, magazine articles, stopping short when I found it. The composition was a perfect match, though the black and white photocopy was of such poor quality I couldn’t imagine having given it more than a glance before. The Coming Storm, it was called, and it was featured in an article from 1904. Perhaps I should have been shocked by the date, or by the fact that it was displayed at the Macbeth Galleries in New York, a place Madonna would surely have gone to see it during their separation. Instead I simply whispered, “Thank you.”

Note: All art shown in this post is Carl’s, though it is cropped to show his oak lovers. To see more, please visit my website.


  1. Kim - very good clip from your book...definitely drawing me in to the story.

  2. Cindy Johnstone16 October, 2009

    You are so good!

  3. Everyone has figured out I'm your father but I want you to know that when I read your work I am so happy your Mom and I were able to help you get a great education. Your writing is wonderful - almost poetic to me. Your passion shows in each scene. If you have not figured it out yet, I am very proud of you.

  4. Dear Kim,

    Your images are wonderful. Living as I do, beside a forest at Doon, I can appreciate the feeling of the trees and foliage intertwining.

    You have a wonderful talent.


  5. Kim- you're such a powerful writer! You continually explore deeper dimensions of the relationship of Carl and Madonna. It's almost unreal how you have managed to tap into their emotional and intense relationship. I always look forward to each article you produce, and I'm overly anxious to get a copy of The Oak Lovers in my hands. Instead, I get morsels at a time and I really enjoy what I'm reading every time.

  6. As a big fan of your work and Carl's, I just can't resist gushing over Fused at the Root. The potent combination of your painterly words and Carl's sensual tree images brought on tears and took root in my soul. No doubt your muses are very proud of you, as well as your dad and me. I'm so excited over the colorful changes you're making to your website. Those modifications clearly show Carl should never again be called "the dark tree painter".

  7. Paula - thank you. I know you don't say WOW lightly.

    Dad - your comment brought tears to my eyes.

    Maxine - Some of the trees in the paintings included in this post may be in your back yard. Carl and Homer Watson often painted in what is now Homer Watson Park. Isn't that literally visible from your window?

  8. Dan - I'm about 2/3 of the way through the book and hope to get right back to work after my kids get over Swine Flu. What I have done so far is very polished, so it shouldn't take much editing.

    Deb/Mom - Thank you for your comments and for helping me crop that one image for the post. Thanks also for helping me with the background color selections on my Carl Ahrens website. The update is done now, and the paintings look so much better now that each page is customized.

  9. Kim - Thank you for bringing to public such a brilliant artist, as Carl. As a professional artist myself - I really appreciate the fact that we can not only view his paintings (thru your writings), but also get an idea what is behind this person. I have studied many 'popular' past artists - their paintings hang in many public places, museums, and exhibits - and I must say that Carl's work not only deserves a wider audience, but it technically rivals many of these well know artists. The website -, gives us a good perspective on his body of works, and I appreciate the fact that you are able to get first hand accounts of his life through your novel. Please keep me informed, as I have enjoyed many hours reviewing your writings alongside his paintings..I can't wait to see this novel competed and published.
    Chris Groves -

  10. Hi Chris,

    Thank you so much for your wonderful comments on my post and my website. I know that your priase is sincere, and it is always wonderful to hear that a professional artist today sees value in Carl's work. I should mention here, for the benefit of anyone else reading this, that you are a great admirer of the tonalist painter George Inness, who was Carl's mentor back in the 1890's. I see a lot of Inness' influence in your work, which is absolutely stunning, by the way. Any art lover should visit Chris' site at - you won't regret it!

  11. Lorna Ferguson19 October, 2009

    Very enticing! Gave me the shivers, actually.


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