The reallocation of a child’s atoms
by Jim Toal
On board the early morning bus to her cleaning job at the Museo del Prado Fatima reads a magazine article explaining how atoms in a human body are replaced every ten years. Because atoms are neither created nor destroyed it’s their redistribution that shapes us into several people in a lifetime.
At work she buffs, mops, and vacuums but isn’t allowed to touch the artwork. Her mop swishes past crucifixions and martyrdoms. Her vacuum-cleaner wails at Titian’s gruesome depiction of tortured Tityus. Even gentle still-lives are pregnant with loss: the sweet, seeded fruits of her homeland, flowers soft as baby skin.
The last room to clean houses Goya’s Black Paintings.
Silencing her vacuum-cleaner, she gawps at raving, moon-eyed Saturn, devouring the headless body of his son. Two skeletal men slobbering over soup, unable to satisfy their appetites. A baying guitarist serenading huddled pilgrims on an unending journey into a gloomy void.
Eventually, she comes to a picture called The Drowning Dog, which captures the last moments of a small dog sinking in what resembles quicksand. With only its head left to be consumed, it looks at Fatima with such perplexed loyalty, such pleading faith, she yearns to reach into the painting, grab it by the scruff and heave it to safety.
For the rest of her shift the image of the hapless dog stays with her. It follows her on the bus journey home. In her tiny flat it sniffs about, wagging its tail. It sits, ears pricked, as she kneels to her prayers. When she picks it up, and it snuggles its damp snout under her armpit, she lullabies a vow. That she’ll cling to the hope of liberated atoms and their boundless capacity to conceive new life. It’s all she can do to stop herself from slipping under.