Featured Essay   

Pictures

by Jean Berrett

The walls had always hung heavy with pictures, gilt‑framed, dark and dimming, holding fiercely onto what was already lost. Old pictures of Baltimore, the streets of cobblestone and white scrubbed concrete steps in front of the row houses like nuns waiting for supper.

In some of the photos, the people stood tall in front of cardboard cutouts of mountains and lakes, infinite shades of gray. The women in corsets that propped their bosoms high up under their collarbones and the men in wide lapels with hats tipped at a devil‑may‑care angle. The photographed children looked unhappy, smiles forced over frowns or whimpers, little girls in dresses flounced and laced, row upon row, and little boys standing straight as infantry.

In one of the largest frames was a drawing of a stone cathedral, medieval‑style: two massive, ornately sculpted towers, a huge rose window in the columned belfry and three high arches that pointed to God, each topped with its bleeding stone crucified Christ above the three stone entranceways.

Her husband had left her for another woman twenty‑five years younger than both of them. In the long year following divorce, those pictures still hung from the rosy wall‑papered walls, gray and gilded and moldering green. One day I remarked that her house still looked like a parsonage (the husband had been a minister). Two days later, when I stopped by, the walls were almost bare. Where the pictures had been, pale squares and rectangles on the faded clustering roses marked their absences.

All the pictures were gone but one, a two foot by three foot lithograph in a carved oak frame, which surrounded an inner frame of tarnished metal crosshatched in gold and black. Under the aged glass of the frame was Uncle Joe, half‑bald with a thick but neatly‑trimmed mustache curling over his upper lip and around the corners of his unsmiling mouth. Everything, even his white man's face, had faded to shades of tepid brown. He too wore a wide lapelled suit and a stiff white shirt with the collar pressed down around a small triangular cravat. The look on his face not sad but intent, as if he studied the scene before him and seemed to be saying to all who looked, "You whose hearts still beat, whose blood pumps into your brains and behind your eyes so that you can see what I cannot, you, who believe somehow that I watch your strange, strange lives from behind these ink‑print eyes. I am bones at most by now, my dear. But you know, I lived. My blood too pumped through muscles and brain and limbs as my own inconceivably magic heart did its inexplicable dance for a while.” Almost a kindness in Uncle Joe's eyes. His picture remained alone on the walls.

The following week, new pictures hung across from Uncle Joe. Pictures which she herself had painted during those long years of marriage. Pictures selected from those kept hidden behind an ancient wood desk, canvases unframed and stuffed in a narrow slot against that wall where bookshelves filled with heavy books hung above and all the way down on both sides.

A painting of a turtle's face peeking out from under a yellow and orange and green‑streaked shell. Black eyes, one almost round and open, the other one angular, half‑closed. Two small dark holes at the snout on a face where soft‑blended reds and blues and violets made a mixing of sundown above the animal's two front claws. The fine‑brushed outline of those claws was filled with tiny trapezoids of brown and orange and yellow and white. Most amazing was the turtle's mouth, a line crossing the face from side to side. At the center, the line lifted slightly and wavered—a warily hopeful smile.

Above the turtle were two other canvases, both of them paintings of luminous crabs. Viewed from the top, the shells on their backs were shaded and stroked with dark and light greens and dark and light blues. The eyes protruded bright, bright red under an arc of red and blue and lavender claws balanced on the other side of the shell with orange and green and lavender flippers. The sand behind stunned to pink and orange by the sunlight that must have fallen that day on the moon‑loving tides of the Chesapeake.

Hung on a diagonal from Uncle Joe was a close‑up painting, a side view of the large blue head of a blue‑eyed bird, its orange beak open as if in song. It was thick with feathers that seemed to have burst that very moment from neck and head, and the white ring around the bright blue eye grew a luxurious circle of lashes. Out of the top of the feathery head poked three small heads of hungry nestlings with wide open mouths that had to be fed.

Three full‑grown children came that night to have dinner with their mother.


 

Jean Berrett has been publishing poetry since 1973, after she took the first graduate Creative Writing-Poetry course to be offered by University of Wisconsin-Madison. The instructor told her that he thought she was the best poet in the class and encouraged her to begin submitting her poems or stories to magazines. She obtained her MFA in Creative Writing from Eastern Washington University and taught English at College of Menomonee Nation in Wisconsin. Since she first started sharing her work professionally, she has published ninety-two poems. Other publications include translations from Virgil and Lucretius and stories and book reviews. She has two sons and seven grandchildren.

Did you enjoy this piece? Please consider showing your appreciation by donating to the magazine.