If A Picture Paints A Thousand Words
“Johnny, have you ever seen anything so beautiful?”
I’ll admit that I was reluctant to turn my attention from the harbor to acknowledge my brother’s question. Water held an endless fascination for me. I suppose it was because most of my life had been spent in the dry and dusty towns of the Mexican border. Scott, who had grown up almost surrounded by water tolerated my infatuation, although I don’t think he ever truly understood it. The sun was setting in a riot of color – vivid orange, faded pink and pale blue. What could be more beautiful than that? Certainly not something in a shop window. But, there was something in Scott’s voice that compelled me to turn around.
His fingers caught my arm and then he pointed. His face was intent and I smiled to see my brother, who wasn’t easily impressed, so clearly taken with something. I looked through the window and the smile froze on my face. For a disjointed moment I thought I was ten years old again as the woman in the drawing stared back at me. She looked so alive that I stretched out a hand to her, only stopping when my fingers touched the cold glass. “Dios!” I could feel the blood rushing from my face. I remembered the day so clearly.
The worry in Scott’s voice brought me back and I let him lead me over to a bench facing the small gallery. Serious blue eyes watched me carefully – waiting patiently for me to offer, or withhold, my thoughts.
“We were walking through the market…I don’t remember where.” I’d begun without really stopping to think. That was one of the things I liked about having a brother. I could talk to him without having to weigh each word and guard each hurt. “Most of the local women were staring at mama and whispering behind their hands. At the time, I thought they were just jealous, you know? She was so pretty. Now, though…” I finished with a shrug and saw Scott nod in sympathetic understanding. There was a time when I’d have thrown that sympathy back in his face – not anymore.
“A man called out to her, asking her to stop. He was young and not bad looking. A gringo.” In the past I had used that term with derision, thinking of my absent father. “Oh boy, did she turn on the charm. When he said that all he wanted to do was draw her I could see she didn’t believe him. She lost her temper, right there in the square with everyone stopping to listen. I began to feel kinda sorry for him. His face was bright red with embarrassment, but he wouldn’t give up. When he said he’d pay her – well, my mama had done a lot worse things for money.”
“She was stunning. No wonder Murdoch fell in love with her.” Scott’s gaze was riveted to the picture.
“Yeah, and she broke his heart.” When would the pain of that betrayal lose its sting? Even after two years the truth could still hurt. Murdoch had never said one mean word about my mother, and for that I was grateful. He respected my right to love her, despite everything she had done.
In unspoken accord we returned to stand in front of the window. “The detail is amazing.” Scott’s voice and face were filled with admiration.
“He let me watch while he sketched her. Mama said afterwards that she’d never known me to sit still for so long.” I smiled at the memory, one of only a handful of things I let myself remember. So much of the rest was buried. “She was so excited to be all dressed up like that. It took her hours to get ready. I think she must’ve done her hair half a dozen different ways until she was satisfied with it.”
The glossy black hair was piled up to show the curve of her neck and the smooth lines of her bare shoulders. I recalled her annoyance when the artist had insisted upon loosening strands at either side of her face. She had pouted at him until he had shown her the effect in a mirror. While she had been admiring herself, he had carefully placed a high black comb at the back of her head, giving her a regal appearance.
“I never saw the finished portrait. The day before he promised to show it to her we left town in a hurry.” We always seemed to leave in a hurry, only this time had been different. She had been afraid and, looking at the drawing now, I could see the sorrow in her expressive dark eyes. Her mouth, which could turn up into a dazzling smile, was set in a straight line and I wondered what future she had seen for herself that day.
The white peasant style blouse bad been made of a thin silky material which had molded itself to her body. The light and shadow had been perfectly captured by the artist. The fringed shawl was draped across her arms, flowing down her back to frame the dark skirt. It had been sketched in breathtaking and exquisite detail.
Her only jewelry consisted of large hoops at her ears and a simple pearl ring on her right hand. She never told me who gave her that ring so I was free to believe that it had been from Murdoch, and that she wore it because she had never entirely stopped loving him. A lonely child’s imagination knows no bounds, and I suppose I could have asked him if there was any truth to it. But, some dreams are best left undisturbed.
“Come on.” Scott was pulling insistently on my arm. “The shop will be closing soon and we have to leave early tomorrow.”
“Where are we going?” Having just found her again I was reluctant to leave.
One blond eyebrow shot up in surprise. “We’re going to buy it.”
“Buy it? I don’t think Murdoch would be too happy about that. Besides,” I looked at the small card resting against the frame, “I sure can’t afford it.”
“We’ll worry about Murdoch later.” Scott had that determined look on his face, the one where I knew it was pointless to argue. “And, I can afford it. Call it a combined birthday and Christmas present.”
I should have protested, but I wanted that drawing so badly that I was swept along by Scott’s enthusiasm. Before I knew it, I was in the shop and Scott was negotiating with the owner. It was only when the man came up to me that I recognized him.
“You’re her son. I don’t think I could ever forget those eyes. I wanted to draw you as well, but your mother wouldn’t let me. I was sorry that she never saw the final picture. No one was able to tell me where you’d both gone.”
There was an implied question there that I wasn’t prepared to answer. I felt I owed him something though. “You caught her perfectly.” The fact that I was finally going to have something to remind me of my mother was sinking in and it was becoming harder to speak.
“I’ve arranged to have it shipped to Morro Coyo.” Scott was all business, efficient and focused. “It should arrive about a week after we get home. That’ll give us plenty of time to get Murdoch used to the idea.”
It wasn’t often that I was lost for words, but this was one of those occasions. Fortunately, Scott knew me well enough by then and he put his arm around my shoulders. “Come on, little brother. Maria Lancer has been gone long enough. It’s time she came home.”