Here is a brief excerpt from "Annabelle," just one of the stories in Nancy Christie's new collection:
“My father was a painter,” Annabelle had said—was it at the second session or the third?—“and my mother would pose for him.”
Annabelle remembered watching her father paint in the cold, clear light filtering into his studio. He used canvas and oils the way God had used clay, creating life from inanimate objects. The walls of the house were hung with his paintings—those his agent could not con- vince him to release—and everywhere Annabelle looked, her mother’s dark eyes would follow her, glowing on the canvas.
Sometimes, after a long session in the studio, her mother would be pale and weak, barely able to stand, so colorless that one would think her a ghost. The portraits, by con- trast, were pulsing with life. Annabelle had feared that her father was drawing the very lifeblood from her mother, leaving behind an empty shell.
And yet, her mother gloried in the atten- tion, willingly changing herself into any figure her husband desired, just to be able to stand there, caught by his passion, while he painted.
His work sold quite well in galleries across the country, but even if it had not, her father would have continued to paint, and her mother to pose.
And Annabelle-the-child would be standing, somewhere just outside their line of sight, watching. And waiting.
“Did your father never paint you, Anna?” Jules’ question was spoken so softly in the darkened room that it almost seemed the words originated in Annabelle’s mind, and she answered them just to hear her own voice echoing in the darkness.
Annabelle blushed, an ugly red stain against her pale skin. “He did not paint chil- dren,” she answered hesitantly, not adding that once she had asked—begged!—her father to paint her.
She had been young, five or six, and per- haps a little jealous of the attention given her mother during those endless sessions in the studio. Just once, she wanted her father to look at her with the intensity he reserved for his wife—to fix her so clearly on the canvas that there was no possibility of her ceasing to exist.
The promises she had made—‟I won’t move! I won’t even breathe if you would just paint me!”—were all in vain. Her father had looked at her absently, his brush suspended in mid-stroke, and Annabelle realized in that moment that he wasn’t at all certain who she was or why she was there in his studio.
Her mother, with gentle, insistent fin- gers, had urged her reluctant daughter from the room, promising “another time, darling. You’re too young to be a model for your father’s
art. He needs someone a little older, more knowledgeable. You are still unformed, innocent... too young. You must wait,” and then the door closed and Annabelle was left outside while her mother went back to pose for her husband.
Sometimes, when Annabelle remem- bered that moment, she almost hated her mother. She had wanted her chance, and her mother wouldn’t let her have it. Perhaps she should have argued or cried. She didn’t want to wait. She wanted her father to see her now.
But Annabelle was a good child, an obedient daughter. Her mother said she must wait. Therefore, she would wait. If not for her father, then someone else—some other man who would be drawn to her like a moth to a candle. It would happen. Her mother had promised.
“But when?” and she was unaware she had spoken aloud until she saw Jules’ raised eyebrows and understood he had not been following her thoughts.
“When will it happen? My mother,” she explained awkwardly, twisting her hands together until the knuckles gleamed whitely in the lamplight, “my mother promised me a lover...someone like my father. She said I was beautiful, that men would follow me wherever I went. She used to call me her own ‘lovely Annabelle’.
“Sometimes she would lie with me and twist our long hair together into one long rope and you couldn’t tell, not really, which was my mother’s hair and which was mine. I was a pretty child then...‘lovely Annabelle,’” and then she fell silent.
Lovely Annabelle she once was, but Anna was what she had become—the long curls cut short, the golden strands darkened and dirty-looking, the blue eyes washed to some indeterminate shade of gray.
There was no one left who remembered Annabelle, and no one who particularly cared about Anna. Although once, there had been a rose, sent by a man she hardly knew, who worked in the office next to hers.
“He brought me a rose,” she said to Jules, “this man I didn’t know. And I thought perhaps this was what my mother meant...that this flower would be the beginning of passion for me.”
It was a full-blown red rose, tears of moisture still trapped on paper-thin petals. He had laid it on her desk before she came into the office, and at first, she didn’t believe it was meant for her.
She lifted the stem, heavy with the weight of the blossom, and caressed her lips with the silken, scarlet petals. And deep inside her, a fire began to smolder, bringing an unac- customed warmth and color to her pale cheeks.
“I put the rose in my water glass. I wanted it there, right in front of me, so I could see it while I worked”—typing endless mean- ingless reports about people she would never know.
All morning long, she typed, and while she worked, she cast furtive glances at the flower, fearing it might disappear before her eyes.
It didn’t, of course, but what did happen was, in its own way, infinitely worse. The petals began to curl and the color to fade (she had failed to add water to the glass—and was that omission accidental or intentional?) and by the end of the day, the rose had withered before her eyes—the promise of passion gone before she could respond to it.
“Did the man come to see you?” Jules asked, leaning forward to see her more clearly. But Annabelle avoided his eyes.
“I like this office,” she said instead. “It’s never very bright in here. Bright lights hurt my eyes. My father’s studio was bright... he said he needed light to see life more clearly. But sometimes it isn’t good to see too much. It can hurt you.”
But the light never hurt her father’s eyes. And when Annabelle’s mother was there, posing for one of the hundred—thousand!—pic- tures her father painted, the white light was shot through with color, as if her mother were a prism, capturing the clear beam and trans- forming it into all the colors of the rainbow.
“The man,” Jules persisted, and Annabelle frowned. Man? What man? Oh, the man with the rose—Annabelle never knew his name, and now couldn’t even recall his face or the color of his eyes or the shape of his mouth.
“He came by my desk as he was leaving,” she answered finally, snatches of the long-ago conversation drifting through her memory like falling leaves."
My review of TRAVELING LEFT OF CENTER will be posted soon.