Monday, September 7, 2009

Reincarnate -- Short Story

I fell asleep thinking of the dead artist’s exhibit. I dreamed of her self-portrait throughout the night. Perhaps I wasn’t sleeping. Because when I opened my eyes, there it was again. The self-portrait. The water-color is vivid in my mind; although, it seems I only gave it a casual glance at the museum.

Water is running from the shower, which means Mark went jogging without me. I didn’t hear him get up, so apparently I slept some. I roll out of bed and peek out our window as I do every morning. Our sublime view in this secluded part of the world fills me with gratitude. The July sun blinds but beckons. A squirrel captures my attention. How would the artist capture this particular scene? Would she focus on the colors or the lines first? The squirrel scampers up a tree, and I’m reminded to check on my children.

I tiptoe into my daughter’s room, knowing my son will have found his way into her room in the night. My boy lays on top of the covers, sprawled across the lion’s share of the bed. His nubile face makes me feel young. My daughter’s mop of hair indicates her presence, buried under the covers and claiming only a small portion of her own bed. I kiss each of their heads ever so slightly and carefully step back out. Once in the hallway I skip to the laptop sitting on the sofa. My search begins.

Bailah Grace. 1941- 1975 American Impressionism or New Genre? Metropolitan Museum of Art. Diary Exhibition on Tour 2009.

“...recently discovered diary of Bailah Grace reveal clues to her psyche...themes surrounding the German occupation of Denmark in World War II… captures a collective sentiment within the depths of her subconscious.... Born in 1941, Ms. Grace certainly didn’t live through the era, but wrote entries of terrifying attempts to hide her Jewish friends. Perhaps she needed to live it to paint it.”

I click on the image search, scrolling through her most notable works like “Baltic” and “Occupation.” Finally, Bailah herself. I maximize the self-portrait, but the impressionistic smudges are nothing but a blur for me. I zoom back out. Pixie haircut, piercing blue eyes, desolate expression.

I set the laptop aside to rummage through the kids’ art supplies. After finding a blank piece of paper and a somewhat sharpened pencil, I sketch. I’m attempting to replicate the eyes that penetrated me in my dreams, that penetrate my thoughts now. I’m feverishly working on the detail of the deep-set eyelids when a touch on my shoulder startles me.

“What are you doing?” Mark asks.

I study my sketch and crumble the paper, “I don’t know. Trying to convince myself I can draw.”

“The exhibit sure had an effect on you,” he remarks while placing the teapot on the stove. “You’ve been distracted ever since we came home yesterday.”

I dig through our assortment of teas and casually toss out my plan, “I’m thinking of driving to the city today. Do the Soho thing.”

He seeks my expression to determine the appropriate response. I save him the trouble, “Alone. Can you entertain the kids?”
With a sigh Mark replies, “Of course. But I hate when you venture to New York City alone.”
We’ve discussed this issue so many times before. My periodic need for independence has always been our most notable point of contention. My intent isn’t for him to agonize, so I offer a compromise, “I’ll take my sister, if it will make you feel better.”
He wants to offer another solution. Like letting my sister watch the kids, so we can rendezvous in the city. But the purpose of my trip isn’t leisure, making my sister the perfect companion. We travel together well, each having our own agendas. Mark knows this and acquiesces.

I drive to the outskirts of Manhattan and park in the first garage with a vacancy. A cab takes us into the heart of Soho. As we step on to the busy sidewalk Annie inhales, “Smell that!” We both agree meat on a stick is repulsive, yet the aroma is alluring. Soho invigorates me. It’s not quite like coming home, but it gives me a strange sense of belonging.
“Where to?” Asks my sister.
I shrug, “Not sure. Let’s see where the wind takes us.”
We pace past the unhurried and are jostled by the scurried. Every so often, I look down. After a twenty minute shuffle, I see a coppery glow near the curb. Swiftly I pick up the coin and close my eyes. Then, I open my eyes and point, “There.” Across the street sits a narrow building with a window much smaller than other trendier galleries.
We escape the herd to enter “Kelly’s Hut.” There are iron sculptures, ethnic baskets, colorful pottery and only a few paintings. I’m disappointed.
“Mahrnin,” says the African clerk in a peculiar accent. He drops something heavy to greet us. As he approaches, I’m alarmed by his green eyes.
“Hello,” we say in unison, both smiling because of the manners our pleasant mother has taught us.
“Wat can Ah help ya lovely ladies wit today?”
“Just browsing,” I say abruptly.
“Browz away,” he offers and returns to his project. “Holler at Thabo if ya needs anyting.”
As I cautiously scan the store, my sister makes her way to Thabo to give me space. There are intriguing pieces, but I don’t see what I want. What do I want? Gradually, I find myself next to Annie.
“Find wat ya looking for?” Thabo addresses me.
“Have you heard of Bailah Grace?” I finally ask.
He’s quiet a moment, adjusting a piece of iron. “She all da rage. Wit de diary, heh?”
I nod, “It’s compelling, don’t you think?”
Thabo stands up and bores through me with those haunting green eyes. I meet his gaze for a moment, then turn a way. Annie interjects, “Was that the expo you attended yesterday, Sis?”
I nod. Thabo taps his chin and walks away. Quickly he returns, unrolling a small painting. “Aha,” he scrutinizes the picture, “before impressionism.” He hands it to me. Sharp lines. Concave eyes. Primary colors. The image in my dreams.
“Me likes tis Bailah best,” Thabo smiles.
“You realize what you have here, don’t you?” I ask.
Thabo nods. His leisurely attitude stiffens, “Not for sale.”
I immerse myself in the details of the treasure. Then I close my eyes. This portrait is already imprinted into my memory. “Thanks for sharing,” I offer as I give the portrait back.
Thabo groans, “Ah. You make me feel guilty.”
I laugh. Annie giggles. With a grunt, Thabo beckons us to follow him to a table near the back. He exits as we sit.
“Interesting fellow, isn’t he?” Annie comments.
Thabo returns with an envelope, then looks to the ceiling and mutters, “Forgive me, Auntie if dis is wrong.” He offers me the envelope. “Bailah Grace and me crazy African mahter were like seesters. She give me dis before she die. Now I give to you.”
I shake my head, “Why me? I have no connection…”
Thabo puts his hand over my lips, “Just take de letter. Read it alone.”
I nod, and soon we leave.

It’s Sunday morning, and I’m peeking out the window. No squirrels, but the birds are wretchedly loud. I hope they don’t wake Mark. Quickly I dress for a jog and check on the children. Remarkably, they sleep in their own beds.
I escape outside, letter in hand, and follow the path to our pond. My heart beats quickly as I unfold the crackling paper.

Instructions to my Zulu-Irish Dearie:

Thabo, deliver this letter to the reincarnated me when I come looking for myself. I trust you’ll understand when the moment arrives. Much love, Auntie Bailah


I have blamed myself, not the Germans, for a guilt that started in a former life. Failing to help the Jews is not easily forgotten. Not even through rebirth. Apparently I didn’t do enough to save them. Art was not the catharsis I assumed. It was merely a self-absorbed passion.

As I lay on my deathbed, I realize what I should have done. It wasn’t about me.


The pond ripples. I realize Bailah died the year I was born. A frog croaks. I put the letter in my pocket and begin my jog. To ponder the German occupation of Denmark.

Later that day, I’m sealing a package addressed to Thabo Kelly with instructions to deliver to his mother.

Dearest Ms. Kelly,

Enclosed please find a picture of my family and a listing of every school child I ever taught. So far, there are 273. The students with asterisks don’t signify if they were good students or graduated with honors. They honorably indicate if they demonstrated an act of kindness

Much Love,

Mrs. Levine

P.S. If it suits you, I’d like to keep in touch. Tea sometime?

1 comment:

  1. You have done it again to me Stef! I NEED more! Your writing always grabs me, but I think all your short stories should be novels!!! You have such a wonderful way of telling your stories and making me want MORE!! Thanks for sharing!


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