Still Life

She paints a small still life of flowers from her garden, her eyes lost to shadow cast by the brim of her straw hat. Delphinium, foxglove, lobelia.

We swam in the lake. We dozed on a plaid blanket. Someone was singing. The birds dipped and dived. Alchemy of light.

She thinks memory is a series of one still life after another. At times this thought soothes her.

Light fades. The child is carried to bed. She is unable to resist the end of day. She has been bathed in light and that is what gathers and remains in her mind as she drifts somewhere other than into the world she is trying to know.

The doctor hands her a brochure. He pauses before he speaks.

A tray of pastries. A cup of tea. It is important to remember everything.

Do you remember how the blue-tinted air bound the world together?

A painting is a window. Green apples. Peaches in a glass bowl. We were sharing a black umbrella on the steps at the Met.

Her paintings are maps. They are plots. Three smooth white stones. Absolutely everything.

Sometimes she can remember nothing. Her mind a blank canvas.

Sensation of color. Magenta, sienna. She crossed the meadow. Butterflies rose, brushing her bare legs.

The child walks beside her father along the shore, counts their footprints in the sand. She has never seen him cry. If she listens carefully she can hear the way his mind grinds out words..

Her paintings are small and blue. Textured like oriental carpets.

We picnicked on the shore. You fed me slices of yellow cheese on squares of brown bread. We drank white wine we bought at a local vineyard.

Coins of sunlight. On the window ledge—newspapers, faded paperback books.

A painting is a state of mind. Yoke smeared on a plate. A black cat on a pillow. A basket of apples.

She thinks her life is predetermined. That it is moved along as if by waves.

Tall grass. Hundreds of butterflies. It is important to remember everything. How did Bonnard capture all that light?

Color. Line. Composition. Her eyes ache. Colored pencils in a tin box. The way the body records an entire life.

The child’s mother gave her a sketchbook with her name embossed in gold. The feel of leather warming in her hands. The mother’s laugh deep as a man’s, teeth square and white.

An image floats inside her dream. She catches it as a child would a falling leaf.

Glass stars. Deep blue of midnight. She’d captured that. Apricots in a brown bag. Peaches, too. You said all must come from inner sight. A false move is easily detected.

She thinks she has let go of her childhood. The father with the bruised eyes. The mother with the freckled hands. She ran across a rickety bridge.

A girl in a striped T-shirt, hair pale as a cloud. She records what she sees. Painful, accurate lines. She is too young for shadow.

The first time she noticed his hand. Blotches of red, patches of dark hair. Big enough to cover her entire thigh. She’d wanted to cover her face with its sprawl. Spread it flat against her like a giant star fish. Something caught, smelling of the sea.

In the garden, mother and daughter bend to plant, their sun burned shoulders the color of sea shells.

The rain stopped. He touched my face. We lived off Rush Street on money inherited from my aunt. We never slept.

She has two scars on her chin where she fell on her patio in April 2006 and 2007.

The doctor is kind. He pauses often to give her enough time to understand.

Wind enters the bedroom. Then moonlight bright and white. Canvasses stacked in the hallway. The smell of turpentine and oils. Yes, it was a lovely day. Yes, I love you. You must pay attention to what you thought you saw. Your mind isn’t always playing tricks on you.

When she first read Woolf she wept. Then she tried to capture the words with paint.

The train speeds towards Chicago. Past stop lights, lit store windows. There is a yielding in her. A losing of who she is. A movement towards who she will become. Clack of wheels. Endless sleeping fields. Lights of distant small towns.

It will be a slow process. You will have time to adjust.

She begins to learn about shadow. Bucket of water. Broken stem. Sunlight caught in a tree.

The pamphlet says central scotomos: shadows or missing areas of vision.

There were hundreds of butterflies. Hundreds. She looks out her bedroom window. She strokes her dog and he nuzzles her. She is still a child. She wants to remember everything. She doesn’t know that she will never be able to forget.

“Allow me to show you.” Her mother drew two lines, then a third. Everything in that salmon light.

Remember how we wore turtleneck sweaters and smoked Sherman cigarettes? Ate canned clams and herring on toast?

A grid of straight lines appears to waver. Many patients first notice this when looking at Venetian blinds.

She learns that shade communicates an absence. That there is always shadow between object and light.

You will have trouble distinguishing colors; specifically dark ones from light ones.

Small blue square canvasses. They float on the wall.

The award-winning fiction, poetry, and nonfiction of Jane Downs has appeared in numerous publications including Filed Magazine, North American Review, Ninth Letter, and Rhino. She is an editor and partner in Red Berry Editions. www.redberryeditions.com