Category: Magic Realism

TUESDAY: The Portrait

BY KARIN RUMIE

Copyright is held by the author.

SHE STOOD, eagle-eyed, in the centre of the gallery to ensure each piece showcased was placed exactly as shown on the diagram. She adjusted the bronze sculpture a couple of centimetres so that the light fell at the correct angle. It was a minuscule detail that only she would have noticed but, with so much riding on that night, every detail counted. A successful opening meant the gallery’s survival for the next few months.  She chose to ignore the alternative. For weeks, she curated the eclectic selection for the opening, depleting her bank account to promote it. The featured artist was a young sculptor who’d generated a lot of buzz in the Bay Area. The other was a local, undiscovered painter. Sienna Flynn was known in the Northern California art world as the patron saint of the struggling artist. She gulped her espresso and called the caterer with a last-minute request before hopping on her bike to go home.

She pedalled faster when she caught the first glimmer of the seashore. She missed her daily beach runs but her only focus had been on tonight. As she turned the corner, she saw that a car was driving on the wrong side of the road, coming directly at her. She waved frantically at the driver but the man didn’t even look up from his phone! Swerving to the side at the last minute, she was thrown from the bike onto a ditch. She got up, quickly checked herself and prepared to give the driver a piece of her mind when she realized he’d kept going. All she could see was the back of the sporty red convertible. He probably hadn’t even seen her. Her bike was a twisted mess and her hip and thigh were scratched and bloody. Rich city douchebag, she muttered, limping toward the cottage.

By seven o’clock, Downtown Pacific Grove was bustling. The unseasonably mild evening had drawn out residents and tourists alike. Diners waiting for tables spilled out onto the sidewalks of the café-lined street. Attendance at the gallery’s opening was better than Sienna anticipated. She wore a silk white jumpsuit and arranged her auburn curls in a loose bun. Her assistant Lisa gave her a thumbs-up signal when she saw her. They had already sold five sculptures and Sienna felt like she could finally exhale.  She was adding the commissions in her head when a man in an impeccably tailored suit approached her. There was something vaguely familiar about him. “Good evening Ms. Flynn, Aiden Connor. Quite an impressive collection you have,” he said in a surprised though not condescending tone.

She collected herself. He was probably a Bay Area investment banker or attorney, the type who bought the most expensive pieces. “Thank you” she said. “Is there something I could show you?”

To her surprise, he pointed to a painting in the back of the gallery, hanging above her desk.  It was a mid-nineteenth century portrait of a young woman. A fine work, in her opinion, but not one someone like him would typically notice. “I’m afraid it’s not for sale. I inherited it from my grandmother a few months ago.”

“Do you know anything about the artist? He bent down, squinting to read the signature. Mind if I take it down for a closer look?”

She nodded. “Henry Rhys? I couldn’t find much on him. All I know is he was born in Pacific Grove and lived here until his untimely death. He wasn’t well known, though his work attracted some attention after his death.  Nothing stokes people’s interest like the tragic death of a young artist.

He raised his eyebrow at her last comment but kept his eyes on the painting “You said you inherited this. How did your family acquire it?” he asked the question casually but Sienna got the feeling the answer was important to him. She was about to tell him she didn’t know when a woman’s voice stopped her. 

“There you are, darling. I’ve been looking for you. I found the perfect piece for your new place.” The black-haired woman picked an invisible piece of lint from his jacket and gave Sienna a tight-lipped smile.

The woman had chosen a stunning piece, the most expensive sculpture in the collection. He gave it a cursory glance before telling Sienna he would take it. “You have the same colour hair,” he said, handing her a black credit card. She gave him a puzzled look and he pointed to the painting in her office “The woman in the picture.” She watched them get into a red convertible parked outside and realized Aiden was the driver who’d run her off the road.

It was after midnight when she finally collapsed into her office sofa, rubbing her bare, aching feet. Tonight’s proceeds would carry them for another six months, at least. Lying on the couch, she was at eye level with the woman on the portrait, which was now on the floor. Their hair colour really was the same. She stood up to place the portrait back on the wall. While hooking the string on the nail, she lost her balance and stumbled down, the portrait landing on top of her. For the second time that day, she cursed Aiden Connor.  

As she straightened the frame on the wall, she felt something wedged on the back of the painting. It was a leather-bound notebook. She laid it on her desk and wiped the dusty cover. Under the light of the desk lamp, she could see the paper was yellowed and frail but the handwriting was legible. A strange sense of déjà vu washed over her. Inscribed on the first page:  Bridget Burke, Pacific Grove. Winter 1823

October 15th
We’re finally home and, though the trip was gruelling, I woke up full of energy, like a child on Christmas morning. The thought of spending the next six months by the sea, waking to the playful chatter of seals has made me giddy. Anywhere that is not Billings, where the only thing colder than the weather is James’ family, would be wonderful. No. I won’t think of that place or those people right now. There is much to do here. I need to meet with the cook about the menu before going to the flower market. James wants our first dinner party to be grand.  

November 1
The party was a success and James was pleased, thank God. I am now left to my own devices until he thinks of some other project to keep me busy. I think I will explore the new art museum today. Hannah Wiley said it’s a must. I will ask James if I can invite her for tea next week. It would be good to have a friend here. Maybe she could help me find a gown for the portrait. I do dread sitting for hours in front of a brooding painter but James wanted it for Christmas and I can’t refuse.

Sienna closed the journal and tucked it in her bag. She could barely keep her eyes open by the time she pulled into her driveway. As she drifted off, she wondered about Bridget and whether they might have been friends. The next morning, she woke up disoriented, as if she’d travelled to a different time zone. There were tear stains on her pillow. She kicked the covers off and went to find her running shoes.

The morning was as foggy as her head felt. Once she settled into her running pace, stride and breath perfectly aligned, she recalled the dream. She saw herself walking down the hallway of a hospital, looking in several rooms before she found him.  He sat facing the window with his back to her. She called his name and, when he turned, she saw that he had aged terribly. She stepped closer and looked at his hands, folded in his lap. They were the same rugged, paint stained nails she’d known so well. She took them in hers and kissed them. Hanging above the bed was the painting she posed for an eternity ago but never had the chance to see. “You came back to me, Bridget,” he said in a hoarse voice, as if he hadn’t used it in years.

After her run, Sienna stopped at the bakery for fresh baked croissants. Back at the cottage, a huge bouquet of pink tea roses sat at her doorstep. She set the flowers on the kitchen counter and breathed in their heady scent. She read the card: Congratulations on the opening. Let’s celebrate when I get back, Love, Sam. “He’s quite a catch,” Liz had said the first time she met Sam, sounding very much like her mother.

After a lazy breakfast, she picked up the journal. Bridget’s life seemed privileged — a fully staffed vacation house, invitations to lavish dinner parties, and plenty of time for leisure. But she sounded lonely. There was no mention of any family besides her husband, who seemed very successful, and very controlling.

November 12
I met the painter today. He isn’t at all the snob with an affected accent I had imagined. Instead, he is unassuming and reserved, with a kindness about him. Also, he is younger and taller than I expected. I think I will enjoy Henry Rhys’s company.

Sienna sat up with a start. Henry Rhys? The man who’d painted the portrait in her office. Was Bridget the woman in the painting?  She skimmed over the next few entries until she found his name again.

December 28
It’s hard to believe how close you can feel to someone I’ve only known a few weeks, yet I feel as though I’ve known Henry all my life. He told me his parents died when he was a boy and has been working odd jobs most of his life to support his painting. I suspect painting the portraits of wealthy socialites is not what he is passionate about. Today, I noticed his fingers lingered on my neck when he tucked a strand of hair behind my ear.  

January 9
I went to his studio this afternoon. It wasn’t difficult to find his address. Looking through James’ files and leaving the house undetected was risky, but worth it. I could tell he was surprised and even a little embarrassed to see me there. The place was draftee and dreary with paint chipped walls and soot covered floors. But it was a large space with plenty of windows to let in the soft afternoon light. He showed me his paintings. The people in them looked nothing like the ones in the portraits I’ve seen. Each subject had been captured doing something mundane, as if they were unaware of being painted. One man laid his fishing net on the beach. A woman and child kneeled on the sand examining a shell. I was filled with a longing to be painted like this by him.  

May 15
I have neglected you for too long, I’m sorry. I am keeping this journal in Henry’s studio and, well, I haven’t had much time for writing while there. My life has changed drastically. On the outside, it all seems normal. I am still Mrs. James Burke, keeping up with most of the responsibilities that entails. But my heart and soul belong to Henry now. I convinced him to paint me in his studio, not in a formal portrait but in his style. For weeks, I came here in the afternoons, rushing home before James came home. We tried hard to be faithful but it was useless. I will not go back to Montana with James next month. I feel dreadful about my deceit. In spite of everything, James has been good to me. As soon as we are settled in Boston, I will write him a letter explaining everything and pray he can forgive me, in time. Henry has secured a sponsorship with a wealthy patron. He even found me a tutor position with a good family. No one will know us in the East Coast and we can live together openly.

It was the last entry in the book. Sienna knew that Henry died in a fire in his studio so they probably never made it to Boston. Without Bridget’s journal, her imagination raced with all the possible scenarios until she remembered a former classmate who was a local historian. She called him and asked him to dig up some information about Bridget and Henry. The next day, he sent her an email with his findings: Bridget Burke was married to James Burke, a wealthy businessman from Montana who’d built the largest mansion in Pacific Grove, now an upscale bed and breakfast. They spent the winters here, often hosting dinner parties attended by businessmen, politicians, writers and artists. There was no news of them again for nearly a decade, when the widow of James Burke turned the famous mansion into an art school. She ran the school until she died in 1860. There was no other information on Henry.

It had taken almost a week after the opening to finish the post-event wrap up. Sienna had just started looking at new collection ideas when Liz walked into her office, a look of concern on her usually cheerful face. “That client who bought the expensive sculpture is back. I really hope he doesn’t want to return it because we don’t have the cash to cover it.”

Dressed in trousers and a blue cashmere sweater, he looked casual yet still disarmingly handsome. She felt a familiar energy surge between them. “It’s good to see you, Sienna. I’m in town for the weekend and wanted to discuss a business proposition. Do you have time for a drink this evening?”

The proposition turned out to be a consulting project for Sienna. He wanted someone to help him choose artwork and furniture for his new house. Though Sienna rarely took on jobs that kept her away from the gallery, she was intrigued by the idea of working with Aiden and she accepted.

Aiden’s house was even more impressive than she had imagined. As she drove her old station wagon into the driveway, she was struck by the steel and glass modern structure in front of her. The house stood against an arresting backdrop of grey sky and breaking waves. Pink hydrangeas planted along the pebbled path interrupted the monochrome facade.  Aiden, who’d been waiting outside, led her through an elegant foyer into a vast but sparsely furnished living area. “You’ve just moved in?” she asked.

He poured two cups of tea and handed her one “Actually, I’ve lived here for over a year. I guess I’m a bit of a minimalist” Sienna, not being a tea drinker, took a sip out of politeness and had a sudden sense of having tasted it before. “I hope you like tea,” he said. This is one of my favourites.”

Their initial meeting lasted much longer than she’d planned. The sun was slowing sliding into the horizon when she got in her car.  She sent a text to Sam, telling him she would be late for dinner. She’d found Aiden to be surprisingly erudite, especially in art. He told her he’d been an art history major for one semester until he realized he was not suited for a life of poverty.  As the orange light turned purple, her thoughts drifted to Bridget and Henry. She made a mental note to call her mother and ask about the portrait. Could they be long lost relatives? She laughed at her imagination. She decided to show Aiden the journal the next time she saw him.

On the day the paintings were to arrive in Aiden’s house, she sat alone in his kitchen, rereading his note.

Sienna,

I had to leave for New York this morning but I’ve left a spare key with my housekeeper. I can’t wait to see how it all looks. I’ll call and check in with you later. 

Fondly,
Aiden

Brushing aside her disappointment, she began to mark the wall spaces where each painting would go. Looking down at her blouse, she saw she had marked it up too.  The stain would set if she didn’t get some spot remover on it. Looking around for the laundry room, she opened the door closest to the kitchen. She flipped the light switch on. A large canvas sat on an easel near the window. An assortment of brushes and paints lay on top of a table in the middle of the room. Aiden made no mention of painting and she felt guilty about intruding.

She turned to leave but curiosity got the better of her and walked to the easel. She stood frozen in front of the canvas. It was the same painting from her dream. It was half finished, but the same indelible image. Bridget’s dark red hair fell in loose waves down her shoulders, against pale, almost translucent skin. She leaned back against a velvet couch, wearing a man’s shirt. Once again, Sienna had the feeling she’d been here before. The same feeling she had when she opened Bridget’s journal.

She had no time to digest what she’d seen. As she walked back into the living room, she nearly collided into a woman. “I’m sorry to have startled you,” she said Sienna recognized her from the night of the opening. “It’s Francesca. Aiden told me you’d be here to receive the furniture and I couldn’t resist getting a peek.”

Francesca stayed all afternoon, helping her arrange the new furniture that Sienna had ordered for Aiden. The walls came alive with the newly hung paintings. “Aiden was right, you have exquisite taste. This place is unrecognizable.” Poised on a new leather ottoman, Francesca blended perfectly with the room’s exquisite décor.  Her pale blue eyes fixed on Sienna “I imagine you’re anxious to get back to the gallery, now that you’ve finished here.” Sienna felt like she’d overstayed her welcome and thanked Francesca before leaving.

In fact, her absences from the gallery created a backlog of work and Sienna spent the weekend catching up. From the gallery window, she saw people strolling by, on their way to lazy Sunday brunches. It was a cloudless day and she was glad she’d ridden her bike. An image of Aiden flashed in her mind and she was annoyed when she caught her dreamy expression on the blank computer screen. There was a message from him on her voicemail that she left unheard. She was unsure how to bring up the painting in his house but the constant thoughts of him unsettled her.

As she neared the beach cottage, Sienna heard the seagulls on the beach bickering loudly. She admired their effortless glide and wondered if Henry had ever come here to paint them. The thought of him filled her with sadness.  

A FedEx truck was parked in her driveway when she pulled her bike in. “Perfect timing,” the delivery guy said, handing her a pen to sign. He helped her put the large, thin box in her living room. There was an envelope attached with her name on it. She recognized the handwriting instantly.

Dear Sienna,

First of all, thank you for the job you did on my house. I’m sorry I wasn’t there with you in person but please know that it was everything I imagined and more.

I hope you like the gift I have included as a token of my appreciation. But I feel I must share with you the strange story behind it. As you know, I have been drawn to art, paintings in particular most of my life. The night of your gallery opening, when I saw the portrait, I felt as though I’d seen it before, though I was sure I’d never heard of the artist. Since then, I began to dream of the woman in the picture. But the strangest thing of all is that I had a sudden desire to paint. It wasn’t only a desire. I realized I also had the ability to paint. I swear I’d never picked up a paintbrush before. Without knowing why, I set up a studio in my house to see where this would take me. I can’t take credit for the painting you see. It’s true that I did paint it but I don’t know where it came from. It’s as if the image was buried in some unknown part of me.

Sienna, I think this whole thing is somehow connected to your grandmother’s painting. I have no rational explanation and I don’t blame you if you think I’m nuts. I’m hoping that this means something to you and that we can find a way to make sense of it together.

Fondly,
Aiden

Sienna got up from her seat with unsteady legs and walked slowly towards the package. She tore the brown paper covering the painting and stood back to look at the finished portrait of Bridget.