In the late 1930’s, my mother aspired to failure. Within years, she’d achieved her goal.
Sometimes she glided around the house, intoning her lapses in a voice weirdly lovely, achingly stentorian, addressing the beat-up gold sofa and the battered dining-room chairs: her child was malformed, a dwarf. And she couldn’t paint, her sad, pale watercolors abandoned on the table, floor.
Each day my father offered solace via fresh meat for her kitchen, the ducks he’d felled and slaughtered.
Each day I attended to her ever-lengthening litanies of despair with the silence I accepted as the prerogative of the dwarf. Though my mother deemed me deformed, foreshortened in limbs and torso, I knew that I was whole.
We lived out at Lake George, and Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz were traveling there to visit Stieglitz’s family. My mother heard the news via a close friend, Betty, a fat woman with a passion for housedresses. Betty was like furniture in our house—always there. And I was always there, too, because I was homeschooled, a radical concept in the thirties.
On the morning Betty told my mother about the visit, I was concealed under the yellow tablecloth, lolling between my mother’s legs. I’d dozed on and off during the conversation and tea. When I woke up yet again, I eavesdropped while scrutinizing the runs in Betty’s stockings.
“They’ll be coming next Monday,” Betty said. “Better be ready.”
“Do you think I should show her my paintings?” my mother asked, her fragile voice blurred through the tablecloth’s folds.
Geniuses were my mother’s saints, and no saint wafted higher in the hagiography than O’Keeffe.
There was a silence that lengthened and lengthened until finally, I sensed, Betty had her hands cupped around her sagging face. I knew also, as clearly as if I could see her, that her fat, stubby fingers stroked the deepening grooves around her mouth.
“Do you think she’d even care?” she finally asked. “I mean, she’s great, Lillian, isn’t she?—after all.”
My mother, of course, didn’t reply, but I knew she was devastated.
Devastated but not tearful.
My mother never cried.
That Monday they arrived with two tons of luggage, big black suitcases that looked larger than either of them. I’d expected them to be taller, though that was the thinking, I suspected, hero-worship brought on, and I didn’t expect them to be wearing matching black capes. My mother forbade me to talk to them or address them, to interfere with their arrival in any way. The main cabin was just down the road, though, and I sneaked away to watch their preparations. It was easy to find a bush to hide behind.
In and out of the cabin they walked, carrying armloads of canvases, suitcases full of wrinkled-up tubes of oil paint that kept falling out of their overstuffed baggage. Stieglitz carried a huge black box camera, minus its tripod, in his arms as tenderly as a child though they didn’t have any offspring, the Stieglitzes: I’d heard that already. What appeared to be dozens of family members hovered around Steiglitz, stroking his silky white hair, kissing his tiny pink mouth beneath an enormous handlebar mustache that shone and glinted silver, sunlit. His family ignored Georgia, I noticed, and she appeared not to care, walking quietly in her long black dress into the house, carrying what looked like rabbit skulls between her palms.
At our house, the day of their arrival was solemn, dark. My mother walked the periphery of the house wringing her hands. Betty cooked her favorite comfort foods: flank steak and green beans with bacon.
I came into the kitchen and my mother was sitting on a plastic chair in the corner, looking out the window, a wet washcloth over her forehead. I knew she longed to meet the Stieglitzes but felt too shy. She looked at me when I stood before her in the little floral blouse and miniature summer shorts she’d sewn. Then, I nodded, scraped a tall chair over to the cabinets, swung myself with my strong, short arms atop it, got a thin china cup out for my afternoon cocoa. The household tasks I couldn’t manage with my fingers I could perform, rather deftly, with my feet.
“I saw them,” I said, as I boiled my milk for the cocoa atop the stove, stirring and stirring the pale liquid in the pan.
I glanced around and my mother was still sitting in the chair, still holding the washcloth to her forehead; though she was fair-skinned anyway, she appeared--if possible--more pale now.
“You didn’t,” she said. She sat on the chair, her mouth slightly ajar; she looked a little feral, her oversized incisors glinting.
I turned my back again.
I kept spooning, with my oversized wooden spatula, the bubbling viscous liquid.
“You didn’t,” she repeated, and I just shook my head.
Then, her voice, too high-pitched, strained: “What was she wearing? What was he doing? What was she like? Tell me, tell me, tell me!”
I gazed into the depths of the pan. “They didn’t say anything,” I said. “They were just moving in,” I added. I was furious, though I couldn’t say why. The kitchen swayed toward me, my mother’s slackening mouth. I poured the milk from the saucepan into my cup, crumbled a large slab of baking chocolate, dropped the sharded dark bits inside then carried the cup over to the table and sat down beside her, not understanding her dreamy smile or why she kept nibbling her fingers.
I had certain tendencies toward shyness because of my size, but I prided myself, too, on my politeness. It was a virtue my mother’d instilled by the age of three, when she taught me to walk up to strangers who stared and explain, in as kindly a voice as I could manage, the details of my “difference.”
So one day I put on a little sailor blouse on and jeans, combed my blonde hair into a bun I secured with a pin (I had a belief, accurate or not, that subduing my hair made my head appear smaller), packed a basket with fresh red apples, and set off down the road.
I skirted messy mud patches flanking their porch; they’d thoroughly overwatered, the Stieglitzes, killed half their yard foliage in the process, and a black backwash soaked my saddle shoes, socks. I hadn’t expected to find them outside, sitting on the porch in rocking chairs that tilted forward-back, forward-back, though at least they still wore their striking black capes.
“Alfred!” Georgia exclaimed, sighting me. “Look, Honey—look.”
She stood up.
“Hello,” I called out, approaching the porch, swinging my apple basket lightly, breathless.
I kept walking until I was flush with the steps, which, eyeing quickly, I determined were too steep to mount. Georgia walked to the porch edge then, her long dark hair flowing wild and tangled around her face; I reached up as far as I could, offered her the basket. She gazed at me from her height without taking the basket, one hand clasping the small of her back. I looked up, trying to tell her without words, with only my eyes, that I couldn’t climb that high. I kept looking at her, trying to communicate this, until she came down off the porch and picked me up suddenly, basket and all, in her red, raw-boned hands, hoisted me and the basket above her shoulders, the apples tumbling out everywhere, turned me this way and that while Stieglitz, from his rocking chair, watched.
That was the beginning of our relationship. My mother, still wary, observed Georgia every afternoon behind the curtains, smiling when Georgia walked the woods in front of our house, searching for rocks and animal bones, stooping in the dirt to run her fingertips over impressionable soil. And Georgia carried me everywhere, too, picked me up and slung me under her arm, stroking my hair and murmuring when I blushed.
I couldn’t say then which of them fascinated me more—and I fascinated them both. Soon they had a nickname for me: “The Art Dwarf.” Stieglitz came up with it and laughed when he said it. But Georgia said it seriously, rolling the name around in her mouth. I liked that, and I didn’t enjoy much since I’d turned seventeen and was still three-foot-two with an enormous yellow-haired head and parents who worried what would happen to me when they died. I also adored Georgia’s high white forehead and the dark hair she wore wadded up in a bun and the weird, clean-lined dresses she wore, black, that fell straight to her ankles.
But mostly I liked to follow her. She preferred to take the long path through the woods, walking as if she were drunk because she enjoyed examining everything. I’d follow behind bushes, dodging her backward glances. Her walking was like a song, beautiful and drawn-out, slow. She’d pick up a red leaf among all the leaves on the path and stare. Sometimes she’d crumple it on her palm then eye the scratchy little leaf bits that were left. I’d track her, memorize her movements. Frequently she’d pause in the middle of the path and tilt her head back and shade her eyes with one hand and take in the sky, which always had a lot of light and glare at Lake George, though not many clouds.
One day she meandered more than usual, and it took her a full half-hour to get to Georgia’s Shanty, the rickety cottage Stieglitz’s family had built for her to paint in. She said she needed privacy for that, and I wondered how that worked. I needed privacy, too. There were members of my family who hadn’t seen my naked body in years.
That day I watched her go into the shack. There was a spot where I liked to observe her, behind some dried shrubbery that looked into a tall window facing the lake. The sky was blue but quickly changed to gray. When I set up at my usual post behind the bushes, I was thinking rain was on its way. I hadn’t brought an umbrella, but the thought didn’t trouble me. I’d left the house in my short-legged jeans and flowery top; I’d also worn the little black cape that my mother had fashioned for me out of some old evening wear, a cape that I relished because I thought it jaunty.
The sky made sounds like branches cracking. The sky made sounds like whips snapped across horses’ backs. I looked up and a huge gray mass swelled then darkened. Lightning brightened the sky, sent a thick white seam down its middle. I smiled, watching it. I loved tempestuous weather. It made me feel zestful. It made me feel alive. I crawled up closer to the windowsill: rain. I didn’t want my fancy black cape, that my mother had spent so much time stitching and basting, to turn into a sodden mass of wool.
The sill was just above my head. Often I had to observe Georgia with stealth, because, if she looked directly toward the window, I knew she’d spot me. I never stopped to consider whether my activities were voyeuristic. I never stopped to consider whether they were forbidden. My interest in Georgia superceded all these possibilities. Even then, I knew I loved her, though she often treated me like a toy, or a favorite doll.
I let my fingers crawl up over the warped wooden sill while the sky tore open and roared. On the pads of my fingers I could feel chunks of peeling paint, which I knew contained lead, and which I knew--if I placed them across my tongue—would cause me to go into convulsions and die. I let my fingers linger because I liked to live dangerously. I’m a dangerous dwarf, I thought, and smiled. She was standing naked inside her cabin, slouching, and I liked seeing her naked though her body, too, struck me as aggressive, slightly scary, with its oversized nipples, its black hair tangle like a wolf face below.
I pulled myself up onto the sill. It strained my arms; I could only hold on for a few seconds before I let go, though I wanted to keep looking at Georgia. I landed on my back in the bushes. The thunder cracked and roared. And then, more rain. I huddled next to the bush and watched, thinking about what I’d seen. Not much: an awful painting of the Stieglitz’s Lake George house. I didn’t like the colors; I preferred a more vibrant palette. Why paint what you lived? Why not make up something brighter, more hopeful? Georgia’s body, for example. Bold and bright and animalistically vivid. I loved it though it scared me.
I looked up at the sky. I opened my mouth, tasted rainwater. Then, I climbed to my feet, headed home through the woods. I felt quiet, but it was a nice kind of quiet. I was thinking about Georgia’s painting and how I didn’t like it, and how I would have chosen to paint something a little less like reality.
I was thinking about her body and how its adult anatomy was like a promise, a whispered promise, to my swollen, pale breast buds and shining, hairless “V.”
When I got home, the house was dark. Beats and carrots were simmering. My mother was nowhere to be seen, but I knew she wouldn’t leave the stove on and just go.
I climbed the turret-like stairs to the top level of our house, bracing my hands on my knees. When I felt sickly, unwell, I couldn’t manage the stairs. When I felt stronger—as I did today—my knee bones had turned watery by the end of the climb.
At the top of the stairs was a single cement corridor, a big, wooden door with a brass handle rusted black.
I knew better than to knock. I opened the door gently and a huge white wall of light from the picture window flooded me. The studio was ugly, with a big, stained cement floor and paint-splattered dropcloths. But the white light was glorious. It streamed toward me in an undulating tunnel of glows, pale with silver and ivory. My mother stood before the window, staring out, not sensing my presence. Against the far left wall was a painting she’d done, yellow jonquils against a lamp-black background (watercolor), insipid-looking, I thought, the colors muddied, diluted.
It was rare to enter and not see her working. She stood so composed and still against all that white, but her shoulderblades looked stiff protruding through her blouse, and one leg was arced forward in a dramatic pose in the tight black riding pants she wore. Next to her was the huge mahogany chair she liked to rock in, thinking.
She turned around then. “Mary Ann,” she said, and I swear her chin quivered. “What a lovely surprise. What have you been doing with yourself?”
“Nothing,” I mumbled. “Just walking around.”
“Did you see the storm? Hope you didn’t get caught.”
“No,” I said, loudly, and astonished myself with the lie.
Why was I keeping my excursion to spy on Georgia a secret?
My mother, more than anybody else I could think of, would understand.
Yet—strangely enough—the memory of this morning, the woods, the rain, Georgia’s painting of the cabin, Georgia herself in that fleeting glimpse naked over the sill, felt almost sacred.
But Mother was oblivious to this—as she was usually oblivious to my thought processes. She approached me rimmed with that spectacular light from the window. Behind her I could see the trees, the dark, dappled shadows of the forest, the tip of Georgia’s Shanty. Mother put her hands on my shoulders and steered me toward her latest flower painting. I stared at the undistinguished masses on the canvas, not knowing what to say. We stood there for moments, just scrutinizing the picture. Then Mother scooped me up in her arms, pressed me like a toddler to her breast. “Sweetie,” she said, “I have an announcement. A very important announcement.” She carried me to the mahogany rocker and cuddled me on her lap.
“I’ve invited the Stieglitzes to dinner,” she said. “Betty carried the invitation over, just one hour ago.”
I looked up at her radiant face and tried not to be afraid.
I nestled my face against her warm neck. What had it felt like, floating in her womb? I had no memories of that, but a lingering sensation of pre-birth safety persisted through my life when I imagined my mother, hugely pregnant and serene, walking around our house in her enormous maternity dress, one hand resting on her belly. She was always smiling when she was pregnant. The tops of her cheeks shone perpetually flushed, the delicate pinks and inner lights of sea-shells washed clean. She didn’t like to think much while she was waiting, she told me. She preferred to exist as expectant animals did: in the realm of pure sensation. She would eat—mostly baskets of ripe strawberries—and sit in her rocker gazing out at the gorgeous greens and shadows that constituted our “family forest.” Of course she never painted during her pregnancy, worried about the possible dangers posed by fumes, though not many women did at that time. I often wondered if she would have felt freer to paint if she’d known in advance what I was—a dwarf.
But I had other memories, too, centered not on my birth but on Mother’s gentle, stroking hands and on the comfort I received from her rocking me. I could remember lying with my head pressed beneath her breasts, against her belly. The small acidy sounds—churnings—that her tummy made as she stroked my hair. Her fingers twining in against my scalp, coaxing my small sighs. The night flooding in through the unblinded window, a shadowed night, thick and porous as oil, no moon, no stars, the lovely scents of animals in their forest lingering on the breeze.
I wondered how it was that I could be so imperfect and still have her love me.
My mother was mysterious the night of the dinner. Of course, my mother was always mysterious, but when an excitement seized her, she became almost a different person, as if her very cells and pores had blossomed into receptors. In such a mindset, she was prone to create, though, for her, there was no correlation between prolificness and quality.
But she wasn’t painting that night.
Instead, she was carrying her excitement around like Georgia bore those frail, yellow animal skulls on her palms.
I could see all the movements and flickers of images across her intensely green irises: she was thinking about the studio. She was thinking about Georgia and Stieglitz and how fabulous it was that they’d consented to come to dinner. She was thinking about the veal and hoping Georgia liked veal and that the veal wouldn’t offend her because it was a baby cow. She was thinking about the blazing red mums and white orchids that she pressed together into a vase on the dining-room table and wondering if the loud colors were obnoxiously obvious.
She and I were alone in the dining room and the kitchen for a while before the others came. I liked being alone with her. Sometimes, as much as I hated it, I also savored her craziness, her pessimism seguing into raw appetite. It was a choice she adopted out of hunger and her perpetual subconscious cries of “I want. I want.”
I watched her hurry from the kitchen to the dining room, carrying silverware wrapped in dark-green linen napkins and a pure yellow vase of frosty milk and little torte plates, rimmed in gold, that I knew she’d use for the “Chocolate Surprise” she’d made for her distinguished guests.
Her excitement delighted me.
“I wonder what Georgia was up to today,” she said, glancing as she laid the silverware on the table.
“Painting, don’t you think?”
“I wonder what it’s like to be her,” my mother mused. “I just wonder what it’s like to inhabit that brain.”
Then my father came in. He was carrying seven or eight ducks upside-down, twine around their ankles. I hated it that my father hunted. The ducks should have been beautiful but they looked only limply dead as they slapped against his hunting pants, their necks as wobbly as if broken, their large eyes acquiring a glaze. When I glanced at the swinging ducks, I could see the black marks on their breasts where the bullets had penetrated their bodies. Soon my father would want my mother to strip all their feathers off while the bodies were still warm. He’d want her to chop off all the heads so we could eat the poor ducks for dinner the next night.
“Nice haul,” my father said, and laid them on the table. I watched, my mouth opening, thinking it was unhygienic, thinking they’d bleed out on the tablecloth.
But my mother was faster, snatched them up by their twine, slung them into the sink.
“Ted,” she said. “The blood.”
“Oh. Sorry,” my father said, and glanced away, toward the dining room window that looked out over the sloping lawn. I knew he hadn’t meant the apology; it was a gesture he affected, meaningless and perfect. I knew my father was waiting, almost breathless, for the moment O’Keeffe and Stieglitz would ascend, in their sweeping black capes, the lawn.
It was what all three of us were waiting for.
And when we saw them, what an ascension it was: I felt embarrassed for us, but I was equally certain we all held our breath. Georgia preceded Alfred up the lawn, her face flushed because the day had turned warm and she’d donned her ankle-length black cape. I could tell from this distance that Stieglitz was talking, his hands fluttering up under his own cape sleeves to underscore a point, and she was struggling not to listen, her face turned to the left as if she were feigning deafness. I knew Stieglitz was a talker: it was what had made him successful with 291, equally successful at marketing Georgia’s work. But I had no use for the garrulous, famous or otherwise. In my tiny world of the consciousness of deformity, I savored an ever deepening silence that I prayed, one day, would sweep me out into death.
The front door banged open; neither one bothered to knock. Stieglitz pushed past Georgia, came in gesticulating. His white, handlebar mustache tossed off flecks of moisture I assumed must be spit. He was talking loudly. Shouting.
“I’m telling you, it’s a grand idea. Why shouldn’t we? They’ve already opened their home. How much more convincing do you need?”
Georgia looked straight at my mother, and I swore she blushed.
“Please forgive my husband,” she said to my mother. “He still doesn’t know how to behave in polite society.”
My poor mother.
She glanced at Georgia then averted her eyes.
Really, she looked almost stricken.
And then I saw something that shocked me. Momma, I whispered to myself. Momma—what did you do?
On a big easel at the front of the dining room, my mother had placed this afternoon’s sadly botched arrangement of watercolor jonquils. Positioned the painting quite deliberately to capture Georgia’s and Alfred’s attention.
And of course they’d seen it.
But what was there to say?
I felt my face darken. My gaze slide to the floor.
I wasn’t ashamed of my mother.
I was ashamed for her.
But a hearty meal can cure all manner of ills: my mother believed this And she studiously avoided looking at the painting though, whenever Georgia and Alfred became deeply engaged in conversation, she’d sneak another glance.
Trying not to bump into anybody, she circled the table, distributing her best china. I was convinced that Georgia and Alfred wouldn’t even notice her extra “niceties,” performed solely on their behalf. They lived in a solipsistic art universe of their own, and it wasn’t big enough to include us, the commoners.
My mother finished distributing the plates.
“Let’s eat,” she said, in a mouse-tiny voice guaranteed not to interrupt Georgia and Alfred’s mid-kitchen argument. It was interesting to me that—the angrier Georgia got—the quieter she became.
With Stieglitz, it was the opposite. His big, manicured hands flew; his face turned a sour purple, and soon he was shouting and gesticulating so much that the rest of us, including Georgia, had no recourse but to leave him there, waving his arms, and seat ourselves at the table.
To begin the meal.
Betty came late, apologizing as she sat down, big and stark as a barn in her best summer dress; I saw Georgia eye her skeptically, study, with her artist’s gaze, the deep shadowed creases around Betty’s trembling mouth. “Welcome,” Georgia said then, interrupting Betty’s flurry of apologies: quickly, everyone relaxed.
As we ate the sliced veal my mother had prepared (my mother’s face alternately brightening and darkening as she struggled to think of things to say), I found myself drawn to Georgia’s hands, deeply tanned and muscular, the veins standing out in a bas-relief against her skin. When she wasn’t lifting a forkful of veal to her mouth, she allowed her hands to rest on the table, flattened on the cloth. And I wondered where her genius resided: in her mind, or in the combination of her thoughts and skillful hands. There was a simplicity about her that I envied; she ate with spare, tiny motions, no movement wasted.
I looked across the table at my mother and was startled at how agitated her face appeared next to Georgia’s.
Georgia’s face could have been that of the Buddha carved in wood.
My mother’s was more like a school girl’s whose turn at jump rope had been denied.
“Good food, Lillian,” Georgia murmured, after swallowing. “Very tender meat.”
“Yes!” Alfred shouted, who’d finally sat down. “Very tender.”
“You did a good job, Momma,” I said.
“Bravo,” Betty added.
I looked at my father. His fork hung in mid-air, his eyes filled with swamps and gray skies. It was as if he’d created a tableau in his mind then gone there to inhabit it.
“Why don’t you tell the mother and the father what we were talking about, Georgie,” Alfred said suddenly, and then attacked his meat with knife and fork, watching in a strange amazement—as if he’d never witnessed it before—the blood running out pink from the center.
“Are you sure this is—” Georgia said, and kept looking at her plate.
“Absolutely,” Alfred said. “In fact—”
“No, I don’t think so,” Georgia said. “They won’t take it well.”
Mother and Father were interested. All the duck and swamp images drifted out of Father’s eyes. My mother’s face was undergoing strange transformations: she looked at me and at Georgia, mouth open, cheeks tightening.
Alfred was eating faster and faster.
“I don’t think there’s need for delicacy in these matters,” he said, chewing. “Georgie and I have talked about it, and we’d very much—with your consent, Momma and Poppa!—like to use your daughter as a model.”
Now Mother was pale. Her skin the dead, mealy color of worms after a rainfall.
She looked at me and then tried to pretend that she hadn’t.
As for me, I scarcely inhabited my body.
Mother looked at her meat. Then she glanced at my father. He was sitting as if dazed, his gaze angled up toward the crown moulding.
Finally Mother looked up at Georgia.
“Why?” she said, and her word was a whisper.
Georgia stared back. “Why...not?”
“My daughter is a dwarf,” my mother said. “She...didn’t come out right. She’s afflicted.”
“Afflicted aschmichted,” Georgia said, and laughed. “No, she’s one of a kind; she’s unique, and that’s fabulous. I’d love to paint her.”
Mother looked at Georgia then at Alfred. “Without...garments?”
“Naked as the day she was born,” Alfred said.
And my mother flinched.
A moment of silence. The tension lifted and pulled like a tightening sheet around the table, clung to my mouth.
Then my mother said, “Whether she wants to or not...that decision rests with my daughter.”
“Yes,” I said quickly, and glanced around the table to see that everyone took note. “I agree—absolutely—’Yes.’”
“With Georgia and with Alfred, too?” my mother added, after another pause.
“Oh, yes,” I said, and looked directly at Alfred. “It’d be a thrill.”
Now, oddly, enough, it was Alfred who concentrated on chewing his meat.
And—as for my father—it was like he never entered the equation. When my mother, her smile forced, started to bring in the Chocolate Surprise, he was still examining the crown moulding.
As for me, it was like I’d been given a gift. I didn’t want to scrutinize it for fear the mystery, magic, might dissipate. But imagine if nobody’d ever told you were special except your mother, and suddenly two of the most famous artists in the world recognized you as such.
Anyone would become delirious.
When Georgia and Alfred went off to the spare guestroom to sleep, I went into my own tiny bedroom, no bigger than a closet, small and crowded and dark. One bare lightbulb hung on a cord above my bed; the other one dangled over the toilet. In the little piece of mirror I’d been provided, I scrubbed my teeth, wiped an imaginary something off my mouth, spat into the streaked bowl. Then I shrugged my tiny nightgown on, the one my mother had fashioned, white cotton flannel with little red hearts, the sleeves basted short to accommodate my arms. She loved me, my mother did, had always loved and protected me, but it wasn’t the same thing as others considering me special. And she understood what I felt. All evening she’d waited for Georgia and Alfred to recognize her watercolor, and now this had happened.
That night, for the first time ever, I felt happy. Felt, for the first time, that I was a person who mattered, that--despite my small and deformed body—I had something to contribute. I pulled all of the sheets and heavy covers over me (my mother was always afraid of my catching a chill), stared at the ceiling. A warm orange glow swam across the plaster. I tracked that glow with my eyes, chewed on my knuckles.
I couldn’t sleep, as it turned out. Too much excitement.
At midnight I crept into the kitchen.
My mother was staring at her watercolor, the lights dimmed, a thin red candleflame tossing shadows across her eyes. Her hands were folded atop the tablecloth. I thought she looked like a nun.
Part of me wanted to flee.
She looked up and saw me there.
“Mary Ann,” she said. “Sit down. Please.” With a jerk of her head, she indicated the chair across from her.
She was my mother.
She’d given birth to me.
There should have been no more intimate relationship on Earth than the one between us.
I sat down, smoothing my nightie under my bottom. It was her eyes. Her eyes that scared me, like dark buildings that had just been boarded up.
I folded my hands in the exact same position. She looked at my hands and then hers broke apart.
Mine did, too.
“I couldn’t believe it,” my mother said. “I mean, they had no reaction at all. At ALL. Not even to be polite—”
“You mean,” I asked, “to your painting?”
“Yes. I wanted a conversation, at least. The possibility of a discussion. Then I was going to tell Georgia my idea. See what she thought. But I never even got a chance.”
My mother looked at me, her eyes starting to brighten. “Can you keep a secret, sweetie?”
“Mother. You know I can.”
“I wanted to talk to Georgia about painting some big flowers. Some really big flowers, huge and glossy and red, so enormous they’d force people to look at them-—like they never look at the flowers in real life, because—you know—they’re always so small! But now, I guess, I’ll never have the chance. She won’t listen to me. Maybe...she shouldn’t listen.”
I studied my hands in my lap. I was thinking, mostly, about tomorrow, but also about my mother’s idea—not that it made any difference.
“Sleep tight,” my mother said, and stood up, and kissed my head. “Don’t let the bedbugs bite.”
I watched her climb the stairs, as stooped and tired as an old woman.
I was up before dawn. I felt a sense of destiny as I shucked off my nightie and put on a little red t-shirt and toddler’s jeans, pushed my feet into size-three sneakers, gazed out the front window at the expanse of lawn furred with purple shadows; then, without waiting for my mother’s pancakes and eggs, I set off.
It was only when I was walking along that familiar path in the woods toward Georgia’s Shanty that I realized I had fallen asleep last night, had, in fact, dreamed. The dream came to me in cropped dwindling images that shrank as I recalled them. I was out in the swamp, duck-hunting with my father. The mists rose above us, diffusing my father’s face, which looked carved and curiously detached. And the ducks were everywhere. I glanced up at the sky and a darkening roil of wings, of bodies, drifted overhead, the wings furiously pumping.
My father lifted his shotgun. My father fired. First one bird plummeted, fell with a splash into the swamp. Then another. Another. Soon the dead ducks were falling all around me. Their bodies mounted in the swamp, one atop the other. There was no bird dog to pursue them, to bring them back. And my father wouldn’t stop. He seemed determined to annihilate every duck. I watched the bodies mount and mount, and only when they were at the level of my waist did I realize that none of them had heads.
This time I didn’t have to creep around the back of the cottage or hide in the bushes. This time, I knew I was welcome. But my knees felt weak. And there was a faint buzz above my nose, as if a bee had gotten caught in my sinus cavities. Nevertheless, I kept my legs going. I walked up to the door and knocked.
Georgia opened it. Her face seemed relaxed except for the deepening furrow between her eyes.
I looked at her and already felt apologetic.
“Am I late?” I asked, and she shook her head; then I saw the towel in her hands. She was wiping oil off her palms. I’d interrupted her—of course!—while she was painting.
“Come on in,” Georgia said. “I was wondering when you’d show up.” She indicated, with a flick of her fingers, the painting in the center of the room, the one I’d spotted when I’d been spying. “I’m trying to paint the cottage. It’s not much. But I’m not sure what to do with you, either. I’m not one for figure painting.”
I hesitated, my hands folded behind my back. I felt almost breathless. “Well, then...why did you say you wanted to work with me?”
She looked at me then. In the high light from the unblinded window, her eyes shone. Then she knelt before me in her long black gown, edged toward me on her knees. She smelled pungent, like apples left out in the grass. From this close, I could see the pocked assortment of pores across her nose, tiny holes in which oil granules lingered, flecks of dirt from the countryside; she was connected to the Earth, and I was her disciple.
She slid her long fingers under my chin, tilted my face up; we stared into each other’s eyes.
“Alfred,” she said then. “Alfred wants to paint you. As for me, I just find you interesting.”
I hesitated. My breath sprouting wings.
“’Interesting?’” I asked.
She stood up then, reached over to the shelf above her canvas, a place to put a palette and oils. Without a word, she removed a caked oil brush, dangled it between two fingers. Then, she eased the wood end of the brush into my hair. I felt it scrape along my scalpline, rubbing back and forth, back and forth; I couldn’t speak.
My whole scalp felt electrified.
I’d had this image of Georgia working constantly. How else, after all, could one even aspire to become a genius? My mother worked all the time. When I stood up on the counter to kiss her goodnight, canvases tilted backward inside her eyes. Her paintings weren’t good, but she pursued the process of them so incessantly it was as if nothing else existed.
Georgia didn’t strike me as my mother’s polar opposite. And yet she was as different from her as Antarctica is from the Bering Straits. Georgia inhabited her body with the same ease and beauty with which she inhabited her paintings. My mother stood apart from hers.
I didn’t learn everything about Georgia that day. But I learned enough to become startled at the variety of ways in which she and my mother were unlike.
Georgia popped a chocolate truffle into my mouth. I’d seen her shuck the foil off. I’d suspected, because of the way she was eyeing me (as if I were a slab of beef dripping blood in the butcher’s window) that she glimpsed no boundaries around my small body. So I assumed she was going to feed me. But the intimacy of the gesture still shocked me. Carelessly, easing the chocolate under the roof of my mouth, her fingers brushed my tongue; her fingers wafted a pungence I thought I could place: crushed eucalyptus leaves? Buck-fifty perfume? Unwashed pubic hair? Still, I chewed. Mechanically. Methodically. I was too mystified by her presence to dare relax. And she watched me chew, crouching animallike on her haunches in her long black gown that had a grease stain over the belly.
“How d’you like it?”
“Mmm,” I said. “Good.”
“Best chocolate in the world.”
Flavored with her nails, the chocolate wasn’t ambrosia. But it was tart and complex and dark--like Georgia herself.
“So,” I said, searching my mind. “Why does Stieglitz want to paint me?”
She looked at me then. Her eyes glowed deeply shadowed. “He thinks you’re odd,” Georgia said. “He’s attracted to whatever he thinks is odd. Grotesque. Hell, he chased me around for years.”
“You?” I said, swallowing the last of the chocolate; my mouth burned. “Why would he think you’re grotesque?”
Watching me and smiling, Georgia stood up, reached her right arm behind her back, unzipped the dress. I stared as it fell in a black heap to the floor. Georgia didn’t have underwear on. I’d never seen an adult woman naked up close, and the combination of her hardangled hips, luxurious black bush, pendulous breasts, made me draw in, sharply, my breath.
“See?” Georgia said. “We’re twins.”
I stared at her, uncomprehending.
“Your turn,” Georgia said then. “Your turn.”
I’d never believed it could happen. From the first moments in childhood, when doctors had scrutinized my malformed limbs, I’d been self-conscious about my body. But Georgia helped me shed my clothes, though I was shaking. When I was naked, too, I looked at her from groin to shoulders; she studied me quietly, and then we grinned.
“You see?” Georgia said. “This is why I’m not interested in figure drawing. The human body’s an abomination. So you have nothing to feel nervous about.” She glanced around the cabin. “Wait here for a second,” she said.
She disappeared into a tiny, dark room I’d thought it was a toilet. When she emerged, she was carrying two crimson silk pillows, a stained coffee mug, and books that she managed to tote by propping them under her chin.
“Whew,” she said, and dropped the contents of her arms in front of me. “What a load.”
“What is this stuff?”
“Stuff?” Georgia said, and smiled. “This, my dear Mary Ann, is not ‘stuff’ but the rest of our day.”
“I thought I came here to work. That you,” I corrected myself, “would want to work on an oil painting today.”
Georgia widened her eyes until the upper lids fell back into the sockets—an odd effect. “What ever gave you that idea? I’m so bored with painting,” she said. “It doesn’t mean as much to me as you think. Sweetie...I want to play.”
My parents were very serious people, though their areas of gravity differed. My father was quite sincere about blowing the head off every duck he encountered. My mother wanted to be an artist with a capital “A,” one for the ages. It was an easy enough dream for my mother to sustain, because both my father and I were too softhearted to let her in on the secret the rest of the world knew: she possessed no talent.
But “fun”—as I soon discovered—was a religion to Georgia O’Keeffe, though her preference was for the quieter varieties. No rampant revelry for her, but a slow, sensuous savoring of the pleasures of the day. At her bidding, her insistence, I propped myself on one of the crimson velvet cushions, large enough to cradle my body. Georgia rested her long feet on hers. I peered at those feet with some curiosity: they reminded me of Christ’s in the old paintings I’d seen, slender, warped, with oversized bones that stretched and extended her skin.
“Ugly, aren’t they,” Georgia said, seeing me look. “Stieglitz photographed them, too. Ugh. Can you imagine?”
I lay back on the cushion, my hands behind my head, my short legs crossed. I felt deliciously sleepy, had no desire to prod the conversation along. I closed my eyes, dozing but aware of the bright flashes of light that seeped through the window and turned veins against my eyelids red. Aware, too, of the sounds that Georgia made as she got up and padded naked about the cabin. She was making me cocoa, she called out across the room. We could play chess if I wanted. Or we could draw. Or we could talk.
Inert, I lacked the strength to answer.
When I woke up, she was kissing my feet; startled, I jerked away from her mouth. I was breathing hard, though I didn’t know why; I knew I’d dreamed of horrible things, but I couldn’t remember any images. I stared at Georgia, so close to me in the dim dull light of dusk, and I swear I fell forward, away from my body, into her gaze: I stared at her irises and saw hundreds of headless ducks.
“I have to go,” I said, jumping up, running toward the door.
“Why?” she shouted. “We were just getting started.”
Once I got outside, I realized that I had no clothes on, but at least the woods were dark. With any luck, nobody would spot my pale and shining body as I headed on home.
I stumbled through the woods. The tangled brambles tore at my arms; in the gray, shifting darkness, blood shone glistening against my skin. I ran until I could no longer breathe.
Then I was at the door of my house. I didn’t know why I’d been scared. Georgia had only been kissing my feet.
What could I tell her?
That I was the typical misanthropic dwarf, who’d only been held by her mother since she was diagnosed?
But it was true.
Only my mother could touch me.
Anyone else’s fingers drove me into a panic.
I paused outside my front door, picturing the layout of the house, the kitchen where my mother had displayed her flowers with such hope, the bedroom where, upstairs, my mother and father slept in separate twin beds. I thought about my mother’s idea, how good it was, though Georgia would never know. The tiny room adjacent to theirs that I hadn’t changed since I was a child, the ridiculous wallpaper decorated with yellow ducks and bunnies. And, on my nightstand, the lamp that burned perpetually because, even at seventeen, I was afraid of the dark.
I went into the house. I went upstairs to my room, found my favorite white nightgown, the one my mother had made. I pulled it on after checking my scratches in the mirror.
Then I went into my parents’ room. It was so dark that a faint light beneath the blinds tossed an eerie sheen around the room. My parents looked like cut-outs in their separate beds. Both of them slept on their backs, which made them look dead. The white transparency of their skin a shock. My mother slept on her back, her head tilted back into the pillow, her lips parted. I went next to the bed and looked at her body. I had a theory—never expressed—that sometimes the soul took flight while the body slept, that the body became a container, a receptacle, into which the spirit might enter and exit at will. And, when it was away from the body for its seven or eight hours of sleep, the spirit visited all those places it craved but had lost contact with over the years, including the womb.
I peeled back the covers on my mother’s side. The sheets. I crawled onto the flat mattress beside her, wrapped my arms around her torso, hugged her, kissed her cheek. She didn’t register my presence, just kept on sleeping. She was breathing but her body was cold to the touch, and I thought of the disappointments that had entered that body over the years, forcing her spirit, finally, out, until she was only a receptacle for the disappointments she’d endured. Until her skin had gone cold with them, though I preferred that coldness to greatness, because it was human.