The Frame Gallery, short story – 27 June 2016

The frame above the fireplace has been empty for many years. A gilded artificial vernier, plastic with the finish of cured oak. It was well-worn, splintered along the holdspiece, cracked along the horizontal centerpiece. From a distance and in the proper light, you could mistake it for the real world, the world going on behind and beyond the empty spaces.

I left a candle just beneath it to highlight the imitation wood, the candle topped with a lanterns glass, glowing dome. I hang another on the nail above the patio, sometimes it’s placement on the lookout over the grounds framed it well.

I keep the little feeding trays, the red nectar left out for the Ruby-throated hummingbird, and sometimes a ruby thrush, darker than the hummingbird or bluebird, and when it lands on the string of electric cables running between the power grids.

I have to be in the right place for the frame to hold it together. There were hints of nail polish dabbled about the patches of naked tin beneath the varnish. It would be replaced, yes, perhaps on the patio in the shadow of Appalachia.

Perhaps the veranda? The pagoda under tatty umbrellas that always unfurled with a smattering of dust and the murmur of rustling polyester. Or the vegetable garden, Peabody had liked it there. The curator’s oft-quipping parakeet. I had been in the crypt of the Roland family, where the mother and her husband lay, ancestors to the current curator ; someday his son would heat the boilers and flip the generators in the morning.

I was set to curate the drawing room, and had ventured to the vaults below because of this strange knocking. Like a heart beat against wood. It was a haggard heart beat, coming from an anonymous, standing casket. I remember being nervous in the dark, leaning against the thin plywood. It startled him, but intrigued by the patter and not morbidly, he opened it up and out flew the parakeet, my sweet Canary!

The foyer was appointed with upholstery from the turn of the 1 9th century, fine cushions and settee, an upright piano in the floor gallery. It was silent now, save for the tinkling to be heard as Peabody came in upon the keys from an open window. The foyer, the fore-room and antechamber to the soup room at the base of the polished marble stairs barred by a simple velvet tassel, knotted and folded and pulled.

The Gallery once had fine recreations adorning the show piece of the gabled Manor home-Turner’s slaveship, a replica of Rembrandt’s famously stolen Storm on the Sea of Galilee – like the famous heist up north where the genuine article, Rembrandt’s storm, was cut from its frame along with works of Monet and Degas. Sketches by Velazquez and Delacroix, and all of them were taken that same night Rembrandt’s seascape disappeared from that insured gallery.

For all that is not there, it is amusing, thought the curator, those wonderful works long gone has its place held by the frame it was torn from. That gallery, there and quite famous, famous for all that’s no longer there, perhaps better known for their taking than their beauty. The empty frame is there, holding a spot at the table for ghosts.

My empty frames, and I’ve 3 now, but I’ve no heart to fill them with the donations that come in. Poor works by local artists come in often and I ship them out to the historic center for framing. The one that arrived briefly before an author, tall and gaunt and followed by a slender brunette, carrying paintings under her arm. When I pulled up to my convex lens and looked over the dedication. The first was an obvious flattery of this young woman before me.

The painting was lovely in the right light – but more the face, that painting a poor imitation but nevertheless awkward, as she was withdrawn into herself, perhaps uncomfortable with carrying the idealized portrait of her as a Satyr with soft horns and softer hair, dark brown with a hint of welcoming garnet and ever softer before smearing into white, a highlight giving shape to her soft countenance. The Satyr in the painting a face as warm as the color of milk and just as sweet. There was love, yes. Peabody squawked.

I sat it against the wall and looked at the second work she held. Much smaller, and much louder and desperate – this little origami figure, outlined in hasty charcoal but it blurred just right into the dark beneath the sun, a sweltering, having transmission tower, dwarfing the little ragged figures whose outlines were suggested with studied passion. At the end of a sidewalk a child bounded forward, off into the blur of the great Sun. But as I attached my convex lens, I saw the writing along the edges. The elderly move more slowly, the curator thought, retracing the panic of the first outline in this small painting… An apology? Yes, he does… And he’s going to pay it.
Squawk, squawk, squawk!
You’re right, they both will.

He’d given it to her, that Satyr or wood nymph and I can see it still, though the empty frames at the Rose Hill Historic Site still hang in the event their bodies are found and somehow stuffed back in. The maiden I found to be named Kathryn Hide, and the stand in for the lovely maiden was her portrait. The details come back sweet as spring, and he had not painted it for her, but for himself – because he couldn’t say it with words. Or maybe for her to see herself as he did? Perhaps he painted her to try to hold on in case she left. Yes, of course she will.

When they were out about their tour of the rest of the Manor and plantation, I rearranged my empty frames as to put them together, if briefly, to refill the frame some lonely night with Peabody on the curator’s shoulder, squawking. I do hope we see them again, the Curator thought, and sighed, rising to his feet, weight on his walking cane. Come, let’s go prepare the gallery.

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