a portrait of the artist’s brother

he never admits it, but he hates the name theodorus.
hates the way it tumbles out of lips to
stick in all the wrong places ( theodor . . . us? )
hates the way his mother says it like a heartbeat ( the-o-dor-us ).
but vincent knows, like he somehow always does,
and calls him theo.

when they’re children, theo follows along,
forever his brother’s misshapen shadow
across fields, through streams, wild in the streets
he sees yellows and blues and greys, but nothing more.

it’s vincent who sees the subtleties
they flop on their backs in the grass; vincent’s finger darts
back and forth
theo’s eyes follow as they always do

(it’s azure there, sapphire there, and cobalt there, he says)
he promises that one day he’ll pluck the colors from the sky
and splay them on a canvas (so you can see it the way I do)

vincent says he wants to be a preacher
like their father
theo knows better
his brother hates words in their complexities,
could never make his living by speaking—
his words are a river, sloshing
over syllables and pouring
over pronunciation.
in the end, he trades in sermons for paintbrushes and collars for smocks.

the words starving artist hold no meaning
until theo realizes he can see the spindly bones in his brother’s paint-stained hands

(theo, he says, as if it’s the most obvious thing in the world
the sunflowers demanded to be painted)
apparently, his stomach didn’t demand to be filled.
theo buys him paints after that, disguised as gifts instead of the charity they are.

one time, he enters his brother’s house to find him asleep
his cheek rests on his palette and a paintbrush is still loosely tangled in his fingers
there’s a finished painting on the easel in front of him.
azure and sapphire and cobalt
vincent wakes as theo tries to haul him into his room.

(starry night, he explains in a mumble, so you can see the sky properly.)

he’s not surprised the day the wire arrives;
resigned, terrified, but not surprised.
(he was in the field, says the innkeeper, I didn’t want to disturb him, but when he came back—)
vincent isn’t going to make it
he sits by his brother’s bedside as he wilts away just like those sunflowers he’d loved to paint.

(did you see the colors, theo? he asks on the very last day.)
theo thinks of two boys running
of preachers and yellowed fingers
sunflowers and a thousand shades of blue.

(yes, vincent, he says. i did.)

Artist: Casey Robin
Riley Smith