By the pool a man was sleeping. Flies ran circles around his ankles. His partner did bicycle legs in the air, rested them down and spread her toes. The sun pierced the water of the pool and it shook with blue fire.
Two Russian women lay on adjacent loungers, conversing from beneath the silk scarves wrapped around their heads and faces, one blue and one patterned with green and yellow flowers. The material over their mouths moved as they spoke, catching the sun in fleeting spots of white light.
Earlier that morning, at the botanical gardens, it had been possible to gather up the thin leaves of a palm plant like a ponytail, then release them into a fan. The entrance walkway was lined with citrus trees. The citrus medica hung with fruit as big as a head, the limequat we picked and took home was no bigger than an olive. A wall in the rose garden was covered by a creeper – its dull purple flowers, kidney bean shaped, had the appearance and feel of almost deflated balloons. You could hold them in your palm, squeeze them lightly, let them fall, and they would bounce back silently from the bricks. When the pods burst into ripeness, they hung open like drawings of lungs. The roses were mostly past their peak, browning slightly at the edges and wide open.
I presume that the urge to forcibly ease open rosebuds at half bloom is one everyone contends with and resists. We saw no one else for the first hour or so of the visit. The silence and cultivated beauty of the place
was such that it felt like moving around a film set. Then, beneath the slatted light of the giant palms, the earth seemed suddenly very old. I thought about a short story in which a man is carried into a stadium full of people to die. It is an act of huge desperation and hope. An attempt to strip away the terror of leaving the world alone.
When I try to calm my terror of death, I often return to thoughts of our brevity. For example, yesterday we moved through the 12 courtyards of a Cordoban palace. In the seventh, at the centre of a shoulder- high maze of hedges, stood a four hundred year old oak tree. Dying at the foot of that might be an exercise in humility. The gigantic shadow of the trunk, the network of branches, the shoal of leaves.
The botanical gardens had six greenhouses. In one, touching the huge tongue of a banana plant, I imagined receiving news that a close friend, due to give birth, had died in labour. Outside, the towering palms with their hairy boots were so high. Their top leaves years beyond human interference.
Most of the citrus fruit was still green and clustered tightly, their weight bending the branches. In the mandarin tree, just one fruit was dazzlingly ripe. Three days ago, following the perimeter of the dark and hushed Mezquita, Judith had appeared, as she often does when you always long to see her, framed in gold. Judith triumphant with a dripping head among rows of stooped saints and pietas, brilliant in orange and weeping for no one.
By the pool, the sun was very low. The breeze blew spider silk across the grass and sunbeds. A wasp was wriggling on the surface of the water. As a child I would spend my time by the side of the pool, lifting out the drowning insects. This wasn’t down to a genuine kindness, only that death makes me feel sick.
Judith must have been a particular kind of woman, with particular convictions. If I were to find myself in the position of murdering a man, I imagine I would stab him in the heart. One motion: arm forward and pull back, in and out, sprint away. But Judith went for the whole neck, front to back, with its many obstacles.
A week ago, in Granada, we had walked through the Sierra Nevada, following the green posts of the Diechar loop walking trail. Thyme, eucalyptus and many other small plants somehow thrived in the rocks and sand. We rubbed the herbs between our fingers and wondered at their endurance, spread out flat against the uninterrupted sun. The goats wore bells around their necks which rang out with a mellow, haunting sound, like something from a dream. Actually quite a holy sound.
At the lowest point of the walk, the valley road forked left to the disused hydropower station, and right back to the start of the trail, completing the circle. Taking the right road, barbed wire fencing still ran along the left-hand side for about a kilometre. After hours with no signs of life, on the other side of the wire, was a single green plastic chair and a cluster of gigantic pumpkins resting among their network of vines. They were pale orange, as if bleached. There’s something forgotten-looking about squashes growing from the ground, like someone placed them there and walked away.
In the palace gardens, we had moved on from the four-hundred-year-old oak tree, through the remaining five courtyards. As we exited the twelfth, a row of painted angels lined the exterior wall. In the middle: a bored-eyed Judith presenting her blade.
Artemisia Gentileschi painted two versions of Judith Slaying Holofernes. In the earlier work Judith wears a blue dress and in the later work, orange, as if she has ripened. By the time Gentileschi painted the second piece, it seems she had applied Galileo’s discovery of the parabolic path of projectiles to the blood flying from Holofernes’ neck. In the early painting, the blood oozes down onto the white sheet; in the second it spurts out in arcs and splatters her hands and wrists.
When I was around six, I trod with a bare foot on a snail in the garden. I started screaming, shaking my hands at my sides and spitting on the grass. This is how death makes me feel.
After the greenhouse, we walked through the vegetable section of the gardens. Chillies can grow to such a size. Herbs can become bushes that seem to blossom into clouds. A patch of purple, spiralling cabbages were opening up like roses. To make the sound of a head being rendered from a body, sound effect artists will chop a cabbage or lettuce in two and let one half drop into a basket.
When I came home from Cordoba, I visited my friend and her new baby, who had a look of great surprise at his new situation. I remembered when we were so young, when she had been very unhappy, how I would force myself into toilet cubicles and we would sit together on the dirty floor as I held tissue on her bleeding arms. And here she was, a shining apple.
I have always had an affection for weeds. They are just growing, same as other flowers and plants, which is the same sort of green miracle. My affection was challenged when I came to have my own garden – the dahlias and violas were overtaken by this quick green rush, so sudden to appear, like hands bursting out of graves. I became protective of the plants I had put in place and ripped out the weeds, dug down into the complicated network growing under the soil. I soon learnt, you can pull up weeds by their tough little white bones and they will come and come.
When winter arrived, the dahlias turned black, the weeds flourished and I was grateful for the frosted green, though I couldn’t shake the feeling of dirtiness and contamination. As if the good garden had been replaced by an imposter. I lay in bed at night and thought of the roots spreading.
When I came home, I sat in the pub with a friend. He had just returned from working on an art project in Israel. He talked of: the vegetables tasted like vegetables; the conflict; chickens sat in the window boxes of the huge house he was staying in, allowing themselves to be stroked; lemon trees, courtyards, cloisters, swimming in the sea. His way of talking was transportive. He said that, in Jaffa, he felt very close to me when he saw the same strange, purple plant covering a wall. To identify it to me he said the purple one, that looks like blown up socks.
In most other depictions of Judith killing Holofernes, we see her triumphant with his already- severed head, her mission complete. Elsewhere the head is in a basket or sack, held by her maidservant, in readiness for removal from the scene. Judith’s eyes tend to look straight out to us or are cast upwards or sideways; the eyes of a woman who has been vilified, the eyes of a woman in conversation with God.
The head, the body, the blood – sometimes she hardly seems to notice.
Even when we see the murder in action, and the hair of Holofernes pulled back, the sword seems to be animated by the wrath of God, as if the action is happening independent of Judith – passive eyes, the sword seeming to cut through no more than a piece of fruit. In Gentileschi’s work, the energy is so explicitly in Judith’s arms and shoulders – both fists gripped tight, one full of his hair and the other driving the sword downwards.
The composition of the painting is such that Judith’s arms, the maidservant’s arms, and Holofernes’ arms are all angled towards a central point, creating a frame in the centre of the canvas.
In the middle of that frame is Judith’s right hand, the pommel and grip of the sword, and the thickest spurt of blood. Gentileschi has set up a perfect trinity of retribution and she knows how to make sure we look.
The night before we were due to leave Cordoba, I had a dream. In that dream the pool was full to the top with insects and I was being encouraged to jump in. The surface was moving like an inky wave. I woke and went to the window, pulled back the curtain and watched the milky blue pool, which was completely still and lit by underwater spotlights. The pool was set in a rectangle of grass, which was bordered by orange trees, like guards in the shadows. I could feel the insects descending even in the dark.
It was calming to think about the goats in the Sierra Nevada, probably sleeping, bells silent, about the pumpkins, which would surely rot into the ground, and the green fruit waiting out the dark.
If I had to say what I love best about Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith, it would be the expression on her face, as if she is just disgusted at the mess Holofernes is making. The Uffizi houses the orange Judith, where it hangs near the exit of the building – the final point at the end of hundreds of marble busts and serious men and a sea of rust red floor – a large dark cloud of female fury you must walk past on your way to the door, and sunlight.
Rebecca Perry’s first book-length collection, Beauty/Beauty (Bloodaxe, 2015) was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize and won the Michael Murphy Memorial Prize. Rebecca also has a pamphlet, cleanliness of rooms and walls, with If A Leaf Falls Press. She is currently poet in residence, alongside Amy Key, at the National Centre for Folk Art.