Protected Contact
  Seven Stories by Julie Stielstra
  1  Protected Contact
2  Posthumous
3  Little Deaths
4  Begin with Lilies
5  I Never Saw the Sea
6  The Heron
7  Requeening
  About the Author  |  echapbook.com  |  November 2017 Fiction Issue
 

Begin with Lilies

 “Why are you asking me?” she said. “What makes you think I could do this?”

A young woman and an old man stood in an empty chapel on a winter afternoon. She was small and plain with weak, pale hair, in a plum-colored suit and a crimson scarf –a peahen dressed in the cock’s clothes. His suit was well cut but his hair was not; he leaned on a stick. The air was chilly and sharp with the smell of new mortar and plaster dust; the gaslight, purring softly, was turned low. The pews were to be delivered soon. They spoke low, to tamp the echoes of the bare room.

“When you were my student,” he said, “you had a good eye. But they all did. You also had a mind that gave the proper importance to the things your eye saw. And you have a hand that can obey your eye and mind. I am still sorry you gave it all up.”

“Not entirely,” she said. “I do drawings and diagrams for my husband. And the maps.”

“Your hand and eye in the service of his mind. Not the same thing and you know it.”

She lowered her eyes.

“Miss Ross…”

“Mrs. Maquarie,” she reminded him, but gently. He inclined his head.

“Forgive me if I still think of you as Miss Ross. Mrs. Maquarie, my wife helped gather the funds to build this chapel, a room where the mothers and fathers of dead children can sit with them, weep for them and begin to grieve for them. We do not want a bare stone hall, a public ward, or a basement morgue. As we have reason to know.”

“Yes,” she murmured. “I was very sorry to hear about your granddaughter.”

“It is not a large room. Decorate it for us. Choose colors, borders, designs… it needs only to be elegant and dignified. A mortuary chapel for dead children… I thought a woman’s touch…”

“I have no children,” she said.

“They have an altar picture already for the east end,” he said.

“What is it?”

He made a slight face.

“A board member has a Madonna and Child to donate, a 17th century thing he bought in Italy. He confides to anyone who will listen that he has reason to think it’s a Guido Reni, in spite of what the dealer told him…” They both smiled a little.

“Angels and putti and cherubim?”

“Exactly.”

“May I see it?” The old man smiled. He had her.

“Of course. For what it’s worth.”

“Does the board have any other… ideas? Preferences?”

He made the face again. “I think they would be perfectly content with garlands and lilies. My wife trusts me. I trust you. Think about it. It would be a change from sketching strata of chalk and granite for your husband. And… they want to open the chapel in December, consecrated for the new century. Nineteen hundred,” he mused. “That will feel very odd. A new era, perhaps.”

“I will think about it,” she said. She paused to flick the plaster dust out of her skirts where they had trailed on the floor. “Thank you.”

It was a long walk home. But it did not feel long to her.

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Anna Ross Maquarie and her husband sat at the dinner table. His hair, thick and iron gray, and his suit were both extremely well cut. She said, “I had tea with Professor Berger this afternoon.” He looked over the rim of his soup spoon and said, “I hope he is well.”

“He showed me the new chapel in the children’s wing of the hospital.”

“Ah. That was sad, about his grandchild.”

“He asked me… he asked me if I would help paint and decorate it.”

“Really. And what did you say?”

“That it was very kind and I was flattered… and I would think about it.”

“And what would this ‘helping’ entail?”

“Oh, probably just choosing colors and perhaps some floral trim. You know. ‘Elegant and dignified,’ he said. Just so it won’t be barren and cold for such a place.” She gazed intently at the chop she was cutting.

“Do you feel you have time for such a project?”

She paused, chewing, and swallowed her chop.

“It would probably be for a few hours a day for a few weeks,” she answered. “They want to open the chapel at the end of next month.”

They ate some green beans.

“Tell Cook I like the sauce on these beans,” Frederick Maquarie said. “Well, it seems like a nice endeavor for you, and a good cause. I don’t have much in hand for you at the moment. If you feel up to it… Berger always seemed to think highly of you.”

“Yes,” she said. “He was always encouraging. I will tell him I can help. I’ve… I’ve rather missed it….”

When she got up from the table, Anna Maquarie hurried upstairs feeling as though she had gotten away with something. Nothing bad, nothing shameful, but gotten away with. There were things he wouldn’t understand. She had not told him they would pay her. 

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Anna Ross Maquarie sat in the empty chapel. Berger had given her a key. The pews had been delivered, and she sat in one, eyes roaming. Blank white plastered walls, two plain clerestory windows. All right, begin with ivy below the windows, and sheaves of lilies between. Berger had been right about the Madonna. An oily cow-eyed woman, a smirking infant and simpering angels. She disliked angels. There had been a statue in a building somewhere when she was very small, a towering white marble monster with flailing drapery, looming wings and no head — it had terrified her. But there was an angel in this painting, gowned in marigold yellow edged in tangerine. The insolent glow captured your eye away from the holy pair. Now there was a color. Maybe something like that on the east wall, behind the painting. Like a sunrise. The west wall where the door was: dark, then. Indigo, violet, midnight blues… a moon? Stars? Too much, perhaps. Perhaps.

At home she unearthed the baggy cotton wrapper she used to wear over her dress when she painted. Streaked and splattered, it smelled of lye soap and, still, faintly of turpentine. She put it on and pirouetted.

They had given her a man, a sort of factotum to build the scaffolding and prime the walls, a huge bearded, silent man, and and she was shy of him. But Cyrus began to lay down the creamy ivory ground coat with care, and he nodded gravely when she showed him the wall colors she wanted to use.

“Comin’ in through the darkness, toward the light,” he said. She met his eyes briefly, and he dipped his brush afresh.

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Ivies and lilies, but what else? She went to the botanic gardens. Schoolchildren scampered through the greenhouses. In the Arid Room, she watched them all, one by one, touch the spines of a towering cactus, then gasp or giggle and suck their fingers, or pretend it wasn’t sharp at all. They ducked in and out of the dripping fronds in the Fern Room, and one little girl declared, “I love how it smells in here!”

Anna drew them. At the park, at the zoo, in the street. She sat on damp benches with her pad and charcoal and drew girls with dolls, boys with balls, babies in prams or on their nannies’ shoulders. Boys making faces at the mournful orangutang, girls with the wide eyes and eyelashes of giraffes. The face of a baby, startled by a flapping pigeon, reddening and swelling into a wail. It wasn’t just the drawing. What charmed them? Thrilled them? Frightened them? Made them angry or sad? Coming out of church with Frederick, she stopped and watched the queue of children under the eye of their Sunday school teacher: they were solemn, obedient, submissive; they were chafing and sullen; some marched, some shuffled, one girl slunk at the rear as though hoping no one would see her. Frederick noticed her staring; he drew her away.

“Does it make you sad…” he began. She didn’t understand him at first. Then she realized: four years of marriage, with no child. They did not speak of it any more. But childbirth scared her, and as the prospect receded, she felt relief. Frederick went off every day to the museum, to his rocks and maps, and she suspected that he didn’t really mind either, but neither of them felt they could say so.

She went to the hospital wards only once. Wan, shivering, sweating little animals in their beds, mostly silent except for a few who howled and bucked in the hands of the nurses. Gasping babies, blue or red or yellow, with mothers hovering alongside, jaws, hands, and eyes all clenched in worry. She drew nothing at all. She let herself into the chapel and caressed the beautiful smooth paint, violet and cream and golden, on the walls. She would ask Cyrus to lay down a broad band of red, a rich bricky red, the length of the white walls, while she began with the lilies.

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It went quickly at first. She worked in the mornings, after Frederick had gone out. After the ivy, she came down from the scaffold and Cyrus borrowed a wheeled chair from the wards that was the perfect height to trundle along that red stripe. She painted a lacy trellis in gold and black against the red, and as the idea struck her, brushed in a bird here and there: robins, a bulfinch, a jay, and blue tits swinging upside down from the tracery. She mixed and scrubbed and dabbed and stroked and breathed the perfume of oil and turps, and wondered how she could have let this all go away from her for so long.

That day she did not make it home until tea time, and Frederick had begun to wonder where she was.

“Have you cut yourself?” he asked in alarm. “There, on your wrist?” She rubbed at the red smear with her napkin and gave a little laugh.

“Oh, dear, a bit of the robin’s red breast, is all,” she said.

“A robin?”

“Yes, well, I’ve had some ideas… trying some things… It’s a room to honor children, after all. So I thought it need not all be solemn and sober…”

“When will you be finished?” She paused.

“It might be bit longer than I thought,” she said carefully. “I haven’t done this in a long while.”

“Because,” he said, “I got a letter today from an engineer in Wessex. The new railway cutting exposed some formations he thought would interest me. I had thought of traveling out there for ten days or a fortnight, to map. Since you seem to be quite occupied, perhaps this would be a good time to go.”

Anna Ross Maquarie’s heart was leaping. A fortnight! She could paint, she could work all day, into the night if she wanted to!

“Why, yes, that would be fine,” she said soberly. “I will miss you, of course, but that will be just fine.”

“I’ll be back before the chapel opens. I’ll look forward to seeing what you’ve been dabbling away at all this time,” he said.

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She would have to work fast. Broad outlines, swatches of color, simple forms, like a children’s book illustration. No time for modelling, shadows, intricate detailing; the pre-Raphaelites would shudder. But those pale walls cried out for it.

Anna Ross Maquarie locked herself in and mounted the scaffolding at dawn.

For twelve days she worked, ten, fourteen hours a day. She yanked a comb through paint-gummed hair, and her fingernails were rimmed in green and blue. She bought another wrapper when the first was so stiff with pigment it could almost stand by itself. At night she barely slept as images drifted and capered in her head; she felt so woozy in the morning she almost gagged on a cup of tea. Someone — Cyrus, she thought — left trays outside the chapel door, and she nibbled and grazed on biscuits and dried apples. There was so much more she wanted to do. But there was no more time. 

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It was nearly midnight. She had been there since early morning, bundling up her dropcloths and towels and cleaning rags for Cyrus to take away. They would be coming in the morning to sweep and mop and polish, to place flowers and ribbons and bunting for the consecration the following day. Anna Ross Maquarie wiped her hair out of her face, and added a last broad slash of ochre to the nimbus on the east wall, a smoldering halo rising behind that dreadful painting. It was flanked by seated figures of a boy and a girl, the boy cross-legged, the girl hugging her knees, both looking up toward the Madonna — or, perhaps, to the glowing solar disk behind her. Anna gathered her pots and jars and palettes and brushes and carried them behind the screen in the corner. Cyrus would clean them for her.

The door to the chapel crashed open, and a woman was screaming.

“Jamie! Jamie, my baby, where are you? Jamie! Where is my baby?”

A barefoot woman in a white shift came storming up the aisle, alone. Anna froze behind the screen. She had forgotten to lock the door. Where had she come from? Patients wore white gowns like hers. Was she a lunatic, from that eerie corridor at the end of the wing? The woman roamed around the pews, wailing: Jamie, Jamie, Jamie! Where are you? What have they done with my baby?

She stopped short at the table where Anna had piled her cloths, and her eyes went huge. She laughed aloud and snatched up a bundle from the table.

“There you are!” she cried. “I knew I’d find you!”

Good God.

The woman cradled the bundle, kissing and crooning, sobbing and laughing.

“They said you were dead, my darling boy,” she said. “But they wouldn’t let me see you, so I didn’t believe them. And here you are! What are you doing here? What is this place?” She smoothed a fold close around the shape in her arms.

“Oh, look, Jamie!” she said. “Look there!” She approached the wall.

“That poor little baby — he’s crying so, he must be lost. But don’t worry, there’s a girl who will pick him up and take care of him. Oh, what a funny tree, Jamie! The boys are up in the tree, and the leaves are all silver and gold, and there are apples and pears and cherries, all in the same tree! Do you think they will pick some for us?” She paced slowly along the wall. “See the dog, Jamie? Doesn’t he look like Prince next door? That little girl must have something wrong with her legs, you see, that’s why she’s in a chair with wheels, but see all the kittens in her lap! And I think, I’m not sure, Jamie, but I think that must be an angel, bringing her flowers. Such a gentle face he has, and such little wings, but in colors like a peacock!” Cradling her bundle, she trailed across the back, past the doorway (“There’s the man in the moon, Jamie!”) and wandered up the other side.

“Flowers… look, snowdrops and poppies, buttercups and daffodils!... Oh, my, Jamie, would you be brave enough to ride on a tiger like that boy? And look at her necklace! It’s a snake — but he must be a friendly snake, because he’s smiling at her. And such a beautiful emerald green!”

Anna Ross Maquarie watched the woman walk round and round and round. Bereft and bereaved, she held up her bundle, showing her dead son animals and flowers, trees and stars, birds and angels and toys, showing him all the things he would never know in this world.

There were voices in the corridor, urgent, dismayed voices. The woman stopped. She laid her bundle carefully on the table. She arranged the wrappings neatly, bent down and kissed it, murmuring, “I have to go now, darling. Go to sleep now.” She padded down the aisle, and closed the door gently behind her.

Anna was afraid to look at the bundle the woman in the white gown had laid upon the table.

She hurried out, down corridors that shifted like sea decks, out the doors into the cold, fresh midnight street.

“Mrs. Maquarie?” called a cabman. Startled, she turned.

“Your husband sent me to wait for you, whatever time you came out,” he said.

“Is my husband at home?” she asked, as she pulled herself inside. She hadn’t expected him until tomorrow.

“Yes, ma’am,” said the cabman, and touched up the horse.

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Anna Ross Maquarie stumbled up the front steps. Her husband stood in the open door, in his shirtsleeves. He took her cloak from her and hung it on a hook himself.

“There’s a good fire,” he said, guiding her into the parlor. He touched her cold cheek as she sank into the chair. He turned away, and returned with a shining glass balloon of brandy and watched her drink it. He sat down across from her, with his own snifter, and just looked at her, then into his brandy.

“Is it finished?” he asked. She nodded.

“You can rest now,” he said. She said nothing.

“It will be a big day for you tomorrow, when they all come to see,” he said.

“I don’t want to see them look at it,” she said. “It isn’t for them.”

The fire shifted a log in the grate.

“How was your trip?” she asked. He looked surprised.

“Good. Interesting. Some unique strata there. I have a lot of measurements.”

The mantel clock ticked.

“I will have some things for you to look at,” he said. “When you’re ready. Would you want to do that?”

“Yes, please,” said Anna Ross Maquarie. “I would like that very much.”

     
  © Julie Stielstra, 2017

   

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