My wife and I went with her parents to see a monument made by Paul Landowski in the French countryside. The monument is called “Les Fantômes de Landowski” (“Landowski’s Ghosts”), and it commemorates the Second Battle of the Marne in World War I. It sits on a hill overlooking the land where the battle took place. Steps lead up the hill to the monument, and even at the top you are dwarfed by the Fantômes looming over you.
When we went the sun was low behind them. The sky was cloudy and dark in places. And for some reason, looking at the figures, seeing them in their eternal watch over the battlefield (now simply grass with patches of trees and farmland), I remembered a toy my brother had when we were kids. It was the Scarecrow villain from Batman, and this particular version had a patch in the top of his hat that was clear red plastic, and eyes that were the same, so when light entered the top of his head it made his eyes glow.
It’s probably in poor taste for a World War I monument, but I imagined how much more ominous the statues would be with glowing eyes.
And as I’ve done with many other strange ideas born from circumstance and coincidence, I put it in my book Terrible Gardens (the novel formerly known as Mayfly), and it started to color the things around it.
It took the form of a giant bust of St. Joseph overlooking the cemetery visited by Ambrose and Vivian. I also made the eyes yellow instead of red, which keeps St. Joseph from seeming evil but retains his ominousness.
It created another way for Ambrose to contemplate the nature of the substitute versions he’s creating of his dead wife Vivian. I also learned that while yes, he is overjoyed to see her come back, he also resents her for dying, despite it being an accident. He actually has a history of feeling abandoned.
In this moment he helps her climb onto the statue, and then decides she can find her own way back down.
He looked at them. The ominous St. Joseph cut from rough, gray rock. His eyes full of sunlight. Vivian perched on his shoulder like an angel whispering in his ear. The pair were mythic—the giant and his ward.
But Ambrose wasn’t exempt from the scene. St. Joseph’s stare bade his inclusion, and he too became a statue among them. As a statue he was not monolithic, but the size of an average human being. Not cut from stone, but grown from organic tissues. Not impenetrable but porous and traveled by various materials—liquids, gases, solids living and dead. He was not merely crumbling at the edges and thinly caked with the grime of decades. He was expanding, contracting, dissolving, coalescing, ever-shifting in his composition.
The eyes of St. Joseph told him, “You are impermanent.”
The undead Vivian watched from her perch.
The eyes said, “So is she.”
Ambrose thought in response, “So are you.” He imagined the sculptor chiseling at the block of stone, chunks and fragments falling away to reveal the benevolent stare of St. Joseph. And he thought of the fragments continuing to fall away from the face—granules dissolved in the rain and wind, the stone expanding and contracting in the heat of the sun and the cold of winter. “You are man-made,” Ambrose thought to the bust of St. Joseph. “And so is she.”
“So are you,” said the eyes.
Ambrose felt a bitter pang of victory. As a statue he no longer felt excluded under the gaze of the other two. And together they stood, three monuments to the patron saints of futility.
Ambrose said to Vivian, “Please come down.”