My Mother's Paintings

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There are few things that I remember about my mother. I can remember the perfume that she wore, how it hung in the folds of her dresses long after she had taken them off in favor of a house robe. I can remember the smell of coffee in the mornings before school, when she'd be leaning over the kitchen sink watching the morning light creep across the yard outside. I can remember the way her fingernails were always chewed short and rimmed with color from the paints she used.

What I can't remember is her face, her voice, the way she smiled. I was so young when my mother died, that my few precious memories of her come in fragments of fragrance and color. I accepted that for most of my life. While my older brother grew resentful and sullen after our mother died, I remained unaware of the person who was gone. The hole in my life that my mother left was large, but easily filled in by those around me. The hole in my brother's life remained fresh, a void that burst against any attempts to stitch it back up.

We grew distant over the years, my brother and I. He left home when I was only ten. I can remember the slamming doors and pleading voices as my father tried to get him to stay. That was six years after my mother died.

For most of my adolescence, it was just me and Dad. He tried his best to be both parents for me, to be supportive and encouraging, but I understood during my teenage years why my brother had gone away. It was hard on us, and the specter of my mother loomed throughout the house my father refused to sell.

Even though I don't remember much about my mother, there was much that I could gather from the house. Her paintings lined the hallways, adorned every place of prominence in every room. She was a painter, and a good one too. As I grew up, I found myself wanting to know her more, this woman who I resembled increasingly with each passing day. I would spend my free time staring at her paintings, moving from one room to another as if pulled by an unseen force. They were dynamic, and within their swirling colors and frenetic structures I thought I could see my mother. I felt the rush of energy that she must have painted with, and I knew, momentarily, who she was. I wanted more.

When I finally asked Dad about the studio, he balked. The old building stood behind he house, locked up tight since my mother died. The studio always looked out of place, choked by weeds and tangled in vines like a relic of a past world in our otherwise immaculate backyard. I never asked about it; I assumed that it was too painful for Dad to go near. He resisted my questions at first, told me that I should never go into that studio, that it held too much pain. I persisted. Didn't I have the right to know my mother? The bad and the good?

On a summer morning not long after my sixteenth birthday, I walked into the kitchen to find the studio key on the counter. Next to it was a note, left by Dad.

"Emma,

Here is the studio key. You are old enough now to decide for yourself what you wish to do with it. I cannot keep you from knowing her, but I hope that you will always remember that she loved you.

-Dad"

Holding the key in my hand felt weighty, as if the key itself were made of something other than metal. I didn't hesitate before heading outside to the studio. The humid summer air weighed down my lungs and made the cobwebs that spread from the old building stick unpleasantly to my skin. The lock had rusted and it took some effort to make the latch open. When I finally managed to pry it apart, the door swung open with a rusty creak.

It was dark inside, and nothing had been moved since my mother died. Even the rope she had used to hang herself was still tied around the rafters. A thick carpet of dust covered every surface of the studio, making it impossible to make out any details in the small space. A single bare light swayed slowly back and forth from the ceiling, throwing moving shadows from wall to wall. I opened the windows, stirring the dust and illuminating the room. Several blank canvases lay stacked across a wall, while easels and paint cans lined another. Throughout the room were finished and nearly finished paintings, as well as a work in progress set up in the very center. What my mother was working on when she decided to take her own life. So strange that she would leave so much unfinished.

I approached the painting in progress and gently blew the dust away from it. What I saw on the canvas shocked me to my core. There, staring back at me, was myself. It was as if I were looking in a mirror, right down to the clothes I was wearing. The background behind me was empty, unfinished, but the details of my face and hair were completed. I saw my blue eyes, dimpled chin and auburn hair exactly as they were in the swirls of acrylic on the canvas. I stepped backwards, hand covering my face in disbelief. Maybe it was a self-portrait? I looked so much like my mother, after all. Maybe the clothing was coincidental?

I moved on to the other finished and nearly finished paintings around the room. In one, my brother, now a grown man with a beard and a scar across his temple, stared back at me accusingly. I recognized him, but just barely. His face was contorted into a scowl and he looked deeply unhappy. Another painting showed my father, on his knees with his head between his hands. He looked pained, as if he were crying out in desperation. Most of all, he looked old. All of these paintings, they weren't things my mother had ever seen. They couldn't be.

There was a painting of me at age eleven, with a scraped up knee from falling off my bike. There was my brother, age eighteen with a needle in his arm. There was my father looming before a small woman whose face was bruised and battered--my mother. Around and around I went, looking at paintings that chronicled my mother's life, and of events that happened after my mother had died. They were so different from the paintings in our house. Those were full of light and life. These were dark and foreboding. But the technique was the same; the swirling energy and frenetic brushwork. They could not have been created by anyone other than my mother, but of course it was impossible that she could have created them.

I stood for what seemed like an eternity among the floating dust moats and fragments of my mother's unseen future. As I turned to leave the little studio, I noticed something strange. The portrait of myself, which had only just been me with no background looked different. In place of the blank white canvas, there was now paint. The background now showed the empty dark room, complete with dust and an open studio door. I leaned in closely, studying the painted room behind me in the portrait. In the doorway was painted a shadow, barely present, of a man. I quickly looked behind me and saw nothing but an empty doorway. When I glanced back towards the painting, something else had changed. My formerly placid face now was twisted in fear and blood was splashed across my face.

My heart caught in my chest as I crouched in the dark room. I picked up a painter's knife that lay on a work bench and waited in silence. My father couldn't see me when he entered the studio, but I could see him. I could see the knife in his hands and the apprehension on his face.

"Emma?" he called out softly. "I don't know what you've seen, but I can explain."

He stopped then, and stared at the work in progress, now almost complete, in the middle of the room. His mouth open and closed silently. Before he could turn back to me, I pulled my knife across his throat, sending blood drops flying like red paint in an arc through the room.

I peered down at the painting my father had been so taken aback by. My bloodied face stared back, vacant and calm. In the background lay the crumpled body of a man with blood pooling around him.