a literary review
She’d never meant to steal the painting. She’d been so good, so well behaved—anyway lately—and she hadn’t expected to find that familiar face looking at her from where it hung on the wall. Closer, closer, the eyes had seemed to call her. Come on, Emma. Just a little bit closer now.
She’d come into the San Francisco gallery with her husband, Marcus, and they were standing in the entry when the lights began to flicker on and off. All that week near-freezing rain had lashed the city, dampening the Bay Bridge and surrounding skyline with a layer of persistent fog.
“Stormageddon,” somebody ahead of them whispered when the lights blinked. This time, they threatened to stay off. The lights came back up unevenly and licked the portraits before curling back and the whole place went black.
“You see,” Marcus said, keeping his voice to a whisper. “This is why they need me. Every time the power goes off, the whole security system is useless. Right now anybody could reach out and take something off the wall.”
He’d looked at her strangely then, but when lights finally came back on, the strangeness melted back. He would never suspect this sort of thing from her—she knew that. There were guidelines, rules that governed one’s behavior. Even when their son, Ezra, fell ill with anaplastic astrocytoma, the untreatable rare cancer spreading through his child’s brain like a creeper twisting up a limb, even then Marcus expected her to remain composed. There were rules to follow: do not cry and scream, do not ball your hands into a fist and strike the doctor, do not let grief overwhelm you, do not crouch against the wall.
In her studio at home, she followed the rules of painting, of light and shape and color, the rules of wrestling ideas into being from blank space. At his job with AllWay Security, Marcus followed the rules of protection, of maintaining systems, of safeguarding other people’s things. He could keep things safe, if not people. Yet when it mattered most, and Ezra fell ill, he had been powerless to protect his own son.
In the four years since Ezra’s death, Emma had been working on her own series of small faces, tiny portraits of a grown-up Ezra, his image framed in little cubes of what Emma supposed. This is how he would look on his first day of college. This is how he would look the next year, as a young man in the city, and on his wedding day.
“Are you sure you want to paint these?” Marcus asked when she’d shown him the sketches.
That was one of the rare days when he came upstairs to see what she doing. He usually left her alone in the cold, creaky studio, a bright room where she would stand at the windows and run her fingers over the sill.
“I’m certain. I’ve even got a name for the series, Imagined Histories.”
“It’s your work,” he’d said, his voice thin, his shoulders tensed, the line of his throat betraying his discomfort. “Paint whatever you want.”
That day, after Marcus left the room, she stood at the window and looked south to her neighbor’s vineyard. The rows of grapes, the fruit nearly sugared, hanging heavy and ready to fall. The rows were like paths, she thought, beautiful little detours to nowhere. All those plants that gave up their bunches year after year so that the widower, Mr. Nesbitt, could make his small batch wines.
It was almost harvest season when she began Imagined Histories. She stood at the window drinking coffee every morning as the braceros worked in the mist, filling their buckets with bunches of grapes that left their fingers blue. Some of them, she knew, would finish the season and return to homes in another country. Others would stay longer, working on farms in other places until they returned for the grape harvest again.
Years ago, Nesbitt had given her a key to the back gate. When she was finished with her work each day, she would let herself in and walk the rows of the vineyard. She’d run her fingertips over the clusters. The plum-colored skins ripe to bursting, as though they couldn’t wait to spill the sweetness of their juice.
At first, she hadn’t wanted to come all the way from Santa Rosa, to wander San Francisco in the dark and snarling cold. But then Marcus had told her about the special exhibit, and as soon as he had said the name, American Miniature Faces, she knew she had to come.
In the gallery, the lights flicked off and on again. Finger-drumming of the rain, fluttery at times, but steady. Emma boots were wet through and the soles squished when she walked across the polished concrete floors. In weather like that, she thought, there was no such thing as a pair of waterproof shoes.
When the lights shivered back on, Marcus followed her to the wall of small portraits, the ones she had come to see.
The images were smaller than the ones she painted, like the old world relics she’d studied in museums. On the wall, the explanatory text read:
Miniature portraits were a favorite of European courts before the eighteenth century. Often called “miniare,” the pictures were made deliberately portable, small enough to be sent to loved ones or to be packed for easy travel.
For those living in areas of political instability, the images were especially desirable. They were often given to those going into exile. The images served as reminders of the former lives for those pushed out of their countries, and escapees would often take the little pictures with them as they made their way into new, strange lands.
Emma returned to the portraits. They were so small, you had to bend in close to see the faces. They were done in granulated oils, pulverized chalks and powders added to the paint. They were umbers and siennas with highlights of ultramarine blue. She leaned in and smelled the linseed oil, saw the lines where the artist had dragged his impasto knife. In the Old World, painters used different plants as paint foundations, hempseed and clove, walnut and poppy, rosemary and spike. These paintings looked as though they could have been done in any one of those oils, only instead of old-world Europeans, these pictures featured famous American faces. Jackie O and Andy Warhol, Marilyns and Elvises small enough to conceal in a closed hand.
Some faces belonged to more recent figures. Ellison and Reed and Kingston, the playwright Tracey Letts. And then, so small it seemed impossible in the intermittent darkness, there was the face of her old art teacher, a tiny portrait of the painter Maxine Wells.
Emma had been a student in Maxine’s graduate workshop the year Ezra turned eight, the year he had first grown listless. “Children sleep a lot sometimes,” Maxine told her. Emma had stayed to help clean the brushes after class. The words tumbled from her lips, how the cancer was rarely treatable. It spread quickly through the brain, the cancer cells squeezing the regions for sleep and speech and motor function. Emma now knew the words for the areas that controlled each brain function, the cerebellum, glials, and sulci—portions of the body too important to have such wildflower names.
Maxine’s face was soft, unlike those of the nurses and doctors who stood over Ezra and ran the tests and when Emma insisted that they double-check, shook their heads. When she was twelve, Maxine had lost her younger brother and knew what it was to live inside a loss. She understood the way sadness covers the body, the way you become sealed inside it and wear it like a second skin.
Four years after Ezra’s death, there was a retrospective of Maxine’s works at SFMOMA. The night after the opening, they went for Turkish food, to the neighborhood place they’d liked so much when Emma was a student. Emma wasn’t sure if it was the peppery spices or the thought of Maxine leaving again that made her eyes begin to tear.
“You never call me,” Emma said. “To see how I’m doing.” Emma gave a hurt look and Maxine put her wineglass down.
“Emma,” Maxine said. “You’re like a fly trapped in amber, only you’re trapped in time.”
When they parted on the street Emma had thought that Maxine’s eyes were changed, the gemstone eyes of a stranger.
Now, as Emma stood next to Marcus in the gallery, there was Maxine’s face staring at her. Only the eyes were soft again, rendered with a chiaroscuro touch.
Emma stared at the familiar eyes, slightly gray and flinty, and the face seemed to catch Emma’s own gaze.
Emma looked at the portrait of her old teacher and felt something open in her. It was as though she, Emma, were no longer made of muscle and bone, but composed of something fluid, as if seeing this version of Maxine had made the bones of her ribcage go to jelly in her chest. She understood then, how a miniature painting could give a traveler solace, how a picture could open up a portal to the past.
In the gallery, Marcus stood next to Emma.
He watched for signs of electrical failure, his eyes turned suspiciously to the street slicked with rain.
She said, “You’re sure about the system here? About the weather? The failure?”
The lights were guttering overhead.
“Yes, of course,” he said. “I’m certain. Every time the power goes, the whole security system goes out.”
Poor Marcus, she thought. So sure about everything always. He would never imagine that she might do the thing she was thinking. He couldn’t even begin to guess what was in her mind.
When the lights came on again, Emma had already slipped her hand inside her coat pocket and could feel the rough edge of the painting with her thumb. All through the drive home, Emma kept her hand closed around the painting. She imagined that in the darkness of her coat pocket, her fingers shuttered Maxine’s eyes.
The rain seemed to follow them home to West Sonoma. She went up to her studio after dinner, the room full of the cold blue of the winter evening. It was still raining and the studio was musty, a sugar smell from the vineyard mixed with sage and oils, leaded sweetness and damp dust. The worktables in the room were a jumble of collected items—feathers next to tranches of silk next to skeletons of winter plants next to dried out leaves and grape spines. Skeletons from the vineyard that once had been round beads of fruit she had plucked from the vines.
Marcus couldn’t know the painting was there. Yet she wanted those benevolent eyes turned toward her, wanted to catch the soft expression in Maxine’s likeness. At first, she’d thought the painting would be hidden by the clutter, just one more odd item in an arrangement already choked with things. She set the painting there, the familiar face just visible, but then remembered the way Marcus had looked at her in the gallery, trusting her, even as she’d stepped in closer to the picture on the wall. If he found the painting, he’d realize what she’d done. The stolen painting just one more way life had refused to conform to the rules he believed in.
Still, she wanted the picture close. A moment between them every morning, Maxine’s face, the old soft eyes with their memory of Ezra. In the portrait were all the things Emma learned from Maxine about how to be an artist: how to stretch and prep a canvas, how to layer colors to capture the weather, how to use paint to keep and hold parts of your life that are no longer really there.
She told herself that Marcus hardly ever came into her studio, and when he did she always had a warning, his footsteps on the stairwell, his voice calling ahead to warn her. And if Marcus did see it, maybe that wouldn’t matter. Then he’d know that she was past everything about rules except the impulse to see them break.
It was almost three months later when she came in from the vineyard to find the kitchen full of slanting light, the house warm with air of the new season. She’d had an idea for another of her miniature Ezras and went to her desk in a hurry, needing to get the sketch down. She put on the radio, Schubert on KDFC, the classical station, and didn’t notice that she’d left the studio door open, didn’t hear the footsteps, the soft puffs of breath. When she looked up it was too late—Marcus’ face in the studio doorway, his feet already in the room, in his hand a glass of sweating lemonade.
“I brought you this,” he said and took a step forward, the glass of lemonade held forward.
She moved quickly from the desk, standing and positioning her body between her husband and Maxine’s portrait.
“I’ll come down later. I need privacy right now.”
“It’s hot in here,” he said. “Just take it.” He held the glass toward her, a sprig of mint tucked thoughtfully below the lip’s rounded rim.
She wanted to reach for the glass, wanted the bitterness of the lemonade, but if she moved, he’d have a straight line to Maxine’s portrait.
“Really, I’m not thirsty just now,”
It would be no good later, he insisted. The ice cubes dissolved quickly, and when they did, the tang and sweetness were diluted away.
“I’ll just leave it.” He’d stepped forward to set it on the table when his eyes caught the miniare of Maxine. Slowly, his face filled with questions.
“It was there, in that gallery, the day it wouldn’t stop raining. When I saw her—I knew she belonged to me.”
He took the painting in his hands, touched its face with his fingers.
“You stole this?” Marcus said. “You stole a painting?”
“It’s Maxine. My Maxine. She belongs up here, with me.”
“You have to do something. Find the artist. Pay. Return it.”
Emma could see the tension rising in his shoulders.
“It’s mine,” she said. “Anyway, taking isn’t the same as stealing. Things have been taken from us—from you and me.”
They were both thinking of Ezra, the starburst of the cancer spreading through his brain like an exploding galaxy. Emma remembered the day that he had died, the doctor’s drawn face in the hospital hallway. She had wanted to bury her own face in her husband’s shoulder, to smell the salt-scent of his body, to draw his warmth into her, to feel less alone in the loss. To fall against her husband, bite his shoulder, sob into his shirt. But as she’d moved forward he’d held up a hand and said, “Not here. Not now.” They were in public, after all.
There were days, after they’d visited the doctors, when she’d bring Ezra to the studio to see the work that she had done. Some days, she’d have to turn away from him and look out the windows. Her back to her son, she’d count the brown spots where the sun had singed the lawn. Too much heat, too much life out of control can be vicious. On the sill where the paint was peeling, more came away each time, her hands shedding rotted paint from both palms.
Now, in the studio, Marcus and Emma stood on opposite sides of the painting. Emma wanted him to shout, scream, cry, or scold her, to say how he hated her for stealing and lying and for the fact that Ezra was gone. Anything would have been better than watching the way he sighed, turned, and left the room with stiff formality.
She knew she would not return the miniare, would not contact the artist and offer to pay for the little image of Maxine. She told herself she hadn’t stolen so much as taken from nature. That’s not the same as stealing, and anyway nature owed her.
At the window, she stared down at the yard and beyond it, to the places where the past lingered in the air around the soil and trees. Her life would always be divided into two parts, before and after Ezra. Her son alive, then sick, then the strange country that was ongoing, the time after the end of her son’s life. They have no use for rules, she thought, those people who were banished. They followed the rules and their countries betrayed them anyhow.
In her studio, the light was golden, obscenely generous, spilling in. She took the painting from the table and held it, watching as her fingers went white and patchy, the pale color highlighting the blue veins beneath the skin. She walked back to the window and looked down the sun-scarred grass beneath it. There was the widower’s vineyard, the grapevine roots lacing their bodies up through the soil, the oak trees shading the path between the cultivated rows and her own spotted lawn. She told herself it was just something small, a little miniare. That was all she wanted, this one small thing to keep for her own.
~ ~ ~
Corie Rosen‘s fiction has appeared in Crab Creek Review, Two Cities Review, Bangalore Review, and Konch Magazine, among other places. Her writing has been anthologized, integrated into classroom curriculum, and has also been featured on NPR. A Denver resident by way of Berkeley, Los Angeles, and Phoenix, she teaches writing at the University of Colorado and is a member of the Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop.