The Seventeen Seconds of Odette
Hidden in Sight
Resentment as a Kind of Relief
Over the Kanawha
Culled from the Flock
The Beauty in Fracturing
The Painting in Gallery 26
Watch the boy trailing his school group. Watch the distance between him and the canvas. The teacher told him to be careful, so he is careful not to touch anything. The other children keep their hands in their pockets. A tourist stands behind the boy, camera strapped around her neck, its sides crushed by her hands. Her pudgy finger presses the shutter. The flash catches the fine ridges left by brush strokes some hundred years ago. She ignores the sign that implores visitors: “Please, No Flash Photography.” The tourist has now stood directly in front of the painting for the past ten minutes; her width blocks the line of sight from the painting to the bench.
At least half of the view, anyway. One portion of the bench rests in front of the painting and the other in front of its neighbor—a Matisse—who depicts a country lane from the eyes of an old jalopy. It is only when the painting reflects in the glasses of an observer that it is able to see itself, able to catch a glimpse of its old friend. Though perhaps “friend” is not the correct term: they have stood shoulder to shoulder, frame to frame for far too long to be friends. They are like soldiers, hanging at attention in the face of civilians. They have no need for words: they gave up talking years ago.
The tourist moves on, but the bench remains empty. The painting wishes that an artist would come along and take a seat. Earlier, there was a boy who sat there for a while, but he hardly ever looked up. The artists are different. They scrape their pencils across cream-colored pages and Moleskin notebooks, trying to copy the painting’s dreams and lines. They all cock their heads and plow furrows between their eyebrows. Their hands can never convince their etchings to match the canvas. Through it all, the painting watches them, loves the way they surrender themselves to its form. The painting’s love for every artist is inherent to its nature.
The painting loves the writers as well—the way they sit, the way they coax black ink along lined pages. They posit its history, urge its swirling colors to speak to them, to show them what it has seen. They want to know about the time it was dropped down a flight of stairs in Paris by a museum curator, just moments after it caught sight of Mona’s smile. They want to know about the painting’s old neighbor: how the painting watched thieves slice its friend free and roll it into a tube, never to be seen again. If the painting could, it would speak of its artist, with his dark-framed lenses and his wide-brimmed hat. It would tell them how his hands floated his brush gently and sent the painting into the world of embodied things. But they are never able to ask the right questions, and the painting is never able to give them what they want. Instead, they silently pack away their pens, rise and leave—every single time. They almost never return.
The painting once again considers the bench, but it remains empty. Then it notices a movement through the room’s entrance: the painting’s favorite guide leads in a new group of whispering school children. The guide is careful to point her delicate hand in the painting’s direction, and she smiles when the students’ eyes land on it, as she always does. The children follow her to the next gallery, growing louder as they walk, their little feet scuffling along the polished floor. Their voices echo in the adjacent hallway, shrinking softly, until there is silence again.
Distracted by the children’s animated conversation, the painting did not notice the girl when she sat down on the bench. She wears no makeup around her bloodshot eyes: a few faint lines mark their corners, the beginnings of crow’s feet. The bags underneath them suggest that she has not slept in several nights. She closes her eyes as she inhales; the painting watches her chest rise. Her pursed lips release a breath that sends shivers through its colors. When her eyes open, her gaze locks on the painting. Her intensity traps. She does not cock her head to the side like the artists, nor does she study the gallery like a child. She does not inquire like the writers. Instead, she sits still, feet rooted to the tiled floor. Her hair, tied into a ponytail, drifts down her curved back, and her shoulders round slightly under her black, long-sleeved shirt. Her eyes shine under the studio lights. They blink, and tears fall toward the hands folded in her lap. The painting has never made anyone cry before.
The painting hates it.
An older couple stares at the Matisse. They hold each other’s wrinkled hands. The girl’s tears are now falling rapidly. The couple says nothing; they leave the room quietly. Her eyes bury the painting. For the first time, it realizes that it has nowhere to go. A guard’s voice reverberates through the gallery: “Please do not use your flash, ma’am.” The guide reappears, leading another group of children, this one a little older than the last.
“Okay, boys and girls, this gallery houses works by artists who were called ‘Impressionists.’ They believed that paintings did not need to be a perfect replica of the world. Instead, they painted using blurred colors and waving lines to reflect their own vision.” She smiles at them. Half of their eyes are glued to her green-and-white polka dotted shirt; they wonder how many hoops hang from her ears. The other half are drawn to anything with color. Their heads’ twisting mirrors a field of sunflowers caught in a breeze.
“But that one over there,” she points, “is my favorite Impressionist work.” Nineteen little faces swing around to the painting. Unlike the girl’s, their gentle eyes caress it. The gold plating of its frame glints, and the guide once again admires the painting’s elegance, up until the moment she notices the tears on the girl’s face. The children’s eyes leap to the girl; some mouths whisper, some fingers point. The girl’s lips whiten as they press together.
“Come on children, there’s more to see over here.” The guide turns around and moves the group down the same hallway she had before. Only the girl and the painting remain.
Her tears stop now, but she remains seated. Every so often, she looks down at her hands. She studies her fingernails, with their chipped burgundy polish. Her fingers are not as dainty as the guide’s. There is more here, yet softness persists—like the way in which they beg to be held. They could hold a brush with grace. She looks up from her fingers and to the painting once again.
The guide returns, this time without a tour group. She studies the back of the girl while she moves toward her and the bench. The guide is no longer smiling.
“Mind if I sit?”
The girl startles. Her eyes release the painting.
“No.” Then again. “That’s fine.”
The guide extends her hand: “My name is Josie.”
She slides onto the edge of the bench. The girl drops her head.
“Do you like this painting?”
The girl looks up. “It’s my favorite.”
“Same. It’s my favorite in this gallery.”
“It’s my favorite in the museum.”
Hear the crack in her voice, watch the way she looks at the painting. She talks about it the way one talks about the dead, though it is not in any danger of dying, or leaving.
“Does it move you?” The guide hesitates. “I only ask, because I noticed you crying a little bit ago and—”
“—that’s not why I was crying.” Her voice catches. She blinks hard, takes a breath and raises her shoulders slightly. “I just have some memories about this painting.”
The guide is silent.
“I brought my ex-boyfriend here while we were dating.”
The guide’s eyebrows raise and then fall as she nods an invitation to continue.
“I remember holding his hand while we climbed the escalator steps. He kept talking about how we needed to find a map, even though I had already been here a dozen times. He’s the only one I ever brought with me.” She pauses. “People don’t tell you that. You can get your stuff back, but memories are joint custody. He’ll always be holding that stupid map.”
The guide looks up at the girl with a small smile. She has the same glint to her eye that she does whenever she introduces the painting to someone who has never seen it before.
“Well, I know it’s your favorite now. And this is a different memory.”
Anne looks over at Josie and rubs her eyes. Then she nods and breathes deeply. The color is returning to her face.
They rise from the bench together. Anne smiles and walks through the archway into the next gallery. Josie watches her leave and then she goes to meet her next tour. The bench is empty again.
The painting hopes an artist sits down next.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sydney Crago is a senior at Baldwin Wallace University in Berea, Ohio. She is majoring in English, and she also serves as the editor of Baldwin Wallace’s undergraduate literary journal, The Mill. She spends her time exploring new places, cooking, reading and, of course, writing. Someday, she hopes to own a Great Dane that she will name Dewy.