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On the Quay at Smyrna (Working Title 3.2)

The Massachusetts Review presents the latest Working Titles e-book: ON THE QUAY AT SMYRNA by Margot Demopoulos—available this week!


“Look for color in the shadows!” Madame La Fleur fanned herself with a workbook on natural light. “Look at the sky until you see!”

Penelope sat on a stool facing a three-legged easel in the back row of the art class. She diluted green and violet watercolor washes on her palette. The class had set up on the western edge of the Maypole—what the British called “the fortifications”—above Smyrna’s harbor, ancient ruins with a panorama of the sea. Madame wore her blue, white, and red Bastille Day dress. She enjoyed her French Independence Day, Madame did, but not this year. No humming “La Marseillaise.” No chirping about the grand parade and the receptions to be held at the French consulate. Madame turned her back to the class and fixed her gaze on warships massing in the harbor.

The girls had nicknamed her Madame La Fleur because of her fragrant hats tied under the chin with a satin bow and mounded on the brim with flowers. Not silk flowers and painted fruit, the current millinery fashion in 1922 Paris, but fresh blooms found here and there from flower beds bordering stepping-stone walkways at elegant villas or fragrant vines over fences—whatever caught her practiced eye.

Though short, Madame had broad shoulders, a high neck, and a regal bearing. Her stunning hats gave her distinction and height. A giant hibiscus, a pink magnolia, three lavender rosebuds, a purple belladonna, and a profusion of daffodils, all attached with a cross work of pearl-beaded hatpins. She sat on a stone parapet and peered down at the sea. She coughed more than usual. Eye-stinging gusts blew in from the west. Madame gripped her hat with tiny hands clad in buttoned white gloves.

She turned around to face the class and shook her index finger at no one in particular. “That shade across the clouds is not a neutral charcoal. Look closer, girls. With painterly eyes. Don't smear it on, wash the color in layers . . .” Madame’s voice gave out to a whisper. It must have been the sapping heat. She cleared her throat, stood up, and glided past the easels to peer at each girl’s work. Madame tapped one painting in progress—a dark vulture rising from the sea and clutching a fish. “Bronze and blue. Bon.” Moving to the next student, “Josette, mix wet into wet on the paper, not your palette, eh?” Madame illustrated how to wash on color gradually. She struck the brush on the canvas like the quick taps of a bird, splattering paint on her gloves.

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