Fitted to a Frame
by Melaney Love
Dear reader, the story I’m about to tell may seem fantastic. But make no mistake; this actually happened to me.
On this May night, I had gone for a walk to escape the heavy air of my house and ponder my recent loss. The sky was inky and trimmed in gray. Dirty, sooty rain began to fall. Since I was without an umbrella, I pulled my jacket up and over my head. The spongy squish of my shoes in the mud was interrupted by a night bird flying overhead. It seemed to be on the same route as I. Or maybe, like me, it had meandered through this dreamless night without purpose or joy, unable to sleep. In addition to all this, I suffered a deep and thorough chill to my core that was not from the rain.
I reached my street and released a long sigh when I saw my house from the corner. The home of my childhood stood in the middle of the block, singular, apart from all the rest. A jaundiced rectangle of light poured from the picture window into the darkness.
Once inside, I shook water from my head and my jacket. Before I left, my mother’s voice, always practical, always concerned for my well-being, told me the rain would come. But the air was dry, not heavy with the threat of showers. Though very window was shut tight, the whistle of the wind sweeping through the house was as ever-present as crows over a graveyard.
Inside, I was swallowed by total darkness. The storm had knocked the power out. No matter, Reader. I didn’t need to see my reflection in the coffin-sized gilded mirror in my den to know how I looked: the wet hair water-plastered to my face, the large, doleful eyes, ears and neck unadorned by jewelry. A picture altogether melancholy.
I lit the candle from the coffee table and proceeded with it toward my room. The normal creak of the floorboards was drowned out by a series of rolling thunderclaps.
I passed the old-fashioned cuckoo clock with its glossy, half-timbered home. The bird slid out of its house silently. I ran my finger over the bird’s head, a fruitless gesture, but a habit nonetheless. During my childhood, the clock’s original bird had mysteriously disappeared. My mother, never one to stand on convention, had replaced it with a beautiful red canary with bird-like feathers that were soft to the touch. The clock ticked loudly on the wall outside my bedroom, but the little red bird inside could not be bothered to appear only on the hour and half hour. She would venture outside her house at odd intervals: sometimes 8:22 a.m., sometimes 2:07 p.m. Her appearances could not be predicted. In her defense, I will say that she only cuckooed at the top of the hour.
As always, I stopped in the den. Something scurried across the floor just as I entered. When I held my candle closer to the area and saw nothing, I dismissed it as an illusion. I had come into the den to admire the ten-by-twenty inch framed photo of my mother. It was a cruise ship photo that hung on the wall opposite the large gilded mirror that was twice its size. I preferred the mirror in this position as it afforded me a passing view of my mother’s photo without entering the room. In the photo, my mother wore her black taffeta evening dress, the one she was buried in. It shimmered like the ocean that she could probably smell from where she stood. With her arms open and hanging at her side, my mother was as vibrant and alive as the tropical foliage behind her. One of her legs jutted out in front of the other as if the photographer had caught her mid-stride, an image that could have been an extension of the Three Graces sculpture that rested on the gaudy table in the photo. Her eyes, her smile, the purposeful stance of a suburbanite on her ambivalent way to a neighbor’s anniversary party perfectly captured my mother’s essence.
Every night, I stood before this photo. Reader, you may ask why. Perhaps I hoped my mother would rearrange her smile into one I could decipher; maybe I harbored a desperate wish that she would tilt her head in my direction and wink. Perhaps this was my attempt to memorize each corner and crevice of the photo for fear the memory of my mother would someday become as blurry as a watercolor painting adrift in a flood. Sometimes, her expression reads as a warning, telling me, “Don’t you dare forget.”
I did not stop at my mother’s room; I never did.
I took myself straight to bed, removing only the minimum clothing that would contribute to my comfort, if there were any comfort to be had. Since my mother had died, this bed, with its stony lumps and cavernous dips, had been like my own coffin. I rarely left it.
The rain and thunder continued to batter the house. Sleep eluded me. I could only skitter from one end of my bed to the other, roiling in the tangled linens. The old house had its ever-present noises: clawing animals, creaking doors, dripping water, and always the wind blowing from some unknown place. My imagination went to sinister corners of my mind in darkness. I had only reached the age of four when my great-uncle Thomas died. Yet death did not prevent him from appearing to me nightly in the same hat and coat that he wore on every trip outside the house, the hat and coat that hung on the coat rack outside my bedroom. He stared at me with eyes blazed bright and as red as stop lights. I would freeze, holding my breath and holding my body taut until I fell asleep from exhaustion.
With each clap of thunder, my pulse lost its rhythm. I stared at the wall opposite my bed and watched the shadows from the candle become a sharp-fanged wolf; a spreading stream of black water threatening to drown me; a colony of rats linked by their tails; and whatever creature my imagination conjured to scurry across the floor in the half-light of the den.
The flame from my candle grew small.
I was alone in the house but myself, but I saw a shadow move in front of my closed door. I watched the shadow as it bent and stretched. I was sure, dear reader, that my eyes had reshaped illuminations of from the lightning as something wicked. So I closed them.
The doorknob turned. It made a halting squeal, impossibly slow. I threw the blanket over my head and froze. Just as when I was a child.
Who or whatever had hold of my doorknob let it go. A few seconds passed before I opened my eyes to see the shadow move across the length of my door and disappear. It left only a horizontal slit of the dimmest light.
For hours I lay trembling with the blanket wrapped tight around my body. If you’re wondering how did I not suffocate, I will confess that I came close. My hot breaths became shallow as they left me, circled around the perimeter of my lips and re-entered. Even this was better than what might have awaited me outside the blanket.
The storm subsided after a time, leaving only the sound of the clock and intermittent drips of rain like the tap of small feet running across exterior window sills. I threw off my blanket and took my candle, which had burned down to the size of a rabbit’s foot.
I ventured into the hall outside my room. Immediately, the clock released a strident cuckoo-cuckoo. But the platform slid from the clock empty: the canary had vanished. Only its disembodied call remained. After the clock sounded, the raindrops stopped. A heavy silence fell upon the house, except for the tick. Reader, I will swear to you: never was a house so quiet; never did a clock’s tick vibrate to my very soul’s center as this one did.
It was well before the break of dawn, only half past two.
Candle in hand, I walked the hall with my shadow. It loomed on both sides of me as large as a mastodon in the flickering candlelight. The heat released by the candle caused beads of sweat to appear on my upper lip and forehead. I stopped at the den and leaned across the threshold with my candle shoulder high, wary of small creatures, real or imagined. I entered and turned to face my mother’s picture. She was gone. My mother’s image had vanished from the photograph.
“Just like the canary,” I whispered to myself.
Where my mother’s image had stood looking out at me was now an empty space. It was as if she had been sliced her from the photograph with surgical precision. The paled cardboard behind the photo was the ghost of my mother’s image — her shape, but not her substance.
I was presently pummeled by a tsunami of dread and grief. My knees buckled from the force of it. You see, reader, I had never truly grieved for my mother. The picture was the surrogate to her living, breathing personage. Now even that was gone.
I quickly snatched my body out of the room and slammed the door so hard that the cuckoo clock shook slightly. It let out a weary and ghostly warble. The slam reverberated through the house like the echo from a deep cave. Then only the tick, tick, tick, tick of the clock once more.
I stood at the threshold of my mother’s room. I don’t mind telling you that I had a fair amount of trepidation about entering: I had not done so since her passing. What would I find there on this unnatural night? I peeked in and was relieved to find it empty save for my mother’s bed, mirror, and dresser. As I turned to leave, I stopped and pivoted back toward the room, only then noticing the lit candle on the dresser. Its flame flickered at me like a solitary wink, mocking me. I had not placed it there. I blew it out and darted from the room.
As I continued down the hall, an aroma wafted just beneath my nose. I recognized it as chocolate cake. I rounded the
corner to the kitchen and I saw a familiar figure turned away from me smoothing, icing onto a three-layer chocolate cake.
“Mama?” There she stood, wearing the same long black taffeta evening dress from the framed photograph. My unexpressed grief combined with sleeplessness and my fanciful imagination had summoned my mother from the picture and dropped her into my kitchen – her kitchen. She had come back to me. But how? My joy was extreme; my confusion absolute.
Under the sweet smell of the cake was another smell: dirt and grass.
My mother didn’t look at me when I called to her, but continued to put the last touches on the cake. I took a step forward and reached out to touch her.
Only then did she turn her vacant eyes to me. Beneath her eyes, an even more vacant smile that I did not recognize as hers. She stepped out of my reach.
With an awkward flourish, she presented the cake with, “Happy birthday, Dana.” But her eyes never met mine. With her every move, I heard a mechanical tick, tick, tick, as if every gesture were being measured and timed.
My birthday had fallen on the week my mother died one year ago. I did not acknowledge it that year and resolved to never celebrate it again.
A bird flew into the kitchen — the bird missing from the cuckoo clock — bringing with it a resounding clap of thunder. The thunder slammed at the roof causing the house to shake at its very foundation. My mother didn’t flinch at the sound. I’d always hated the sound of thunder. In my childhood, my mother told me it was God fighting with his wife, throwing furniture around in Heaven. Unfortunately for me, reader, this prevarication did not make the thunder less terrifying.
My mother’s eyes followed the bird in awestruck wonder as it circled above our heads. My mother’s thin lips formed an O. Now there were two sets of ticks: my mother’s and those from the clock. With a series of ticks, my mother extended her finger. The bird alighted on it like an old friend. I’d never known my mother to be fond of animals, especially birds, which could be neither trained nor punished for their transgressions. Her body ticked its transfer of the bird from her finger to her shoulder. It was like watching a Christmas tableau slowly clicking to life.
Other than this, she was just the same.
I became aware of a coldness in the house. In spite of the candle burning just inches from my face, the sweat was gone, replaced with a chill that reached into my marrow. It was as if I had stood barefoot for hours in a torrential rain.
My mother placed the gleaming cake in front of me and cut a kidney-sized piece from it. The cake had no candles, but a fork of purplish lightning burst through the front windows, for a second giving the cake the luminescence of a thousand candles. In that second, my mother flickered out of my sight, then returned.
She tilted her head and said, “Yes,” as if answering a silent question from an invisible presence.
I dug into the desert, greedily stuffing forkful after forkful into my mouth. My mother watched me, her face serene and non-judgmental, her elegant hands clasped in her lap, still not meeting my eyes. I felt an acute urge to say, “I see you, Mama. Do you see me?” But I refrained.
As I chewed my cake, there came a sensation of something crunchy and abrasive in my mouth. Along with that came the feeling that things – many things – were crawling across my face. I touched my chin. A stream of large black ants crawled onto my hand and down my neck in a line as thick as a scarf. I gasped and jumped from my chair.
The gasp caused a few of the ants to slide down my throat and be inadvertently swallowed. They were coming out of my mouth, coming out of what I thought had been the chewed morsels of cake. I ran to the sink and spat again and again. Dozens of ants, still alive, dotted the porcelain sink like an abstract painting.
“Mama, what have you done to me?”
She responded without looking at me, as if nothing had happened. “It’s good cake?”
I coughed, then stood bent over the sink spitting and rinsing, spitting and rinsing until I could neither see nor taste the ants I had consumed.
Through all of this, my mother watched me with that vacant, mannequin-like expression, her eyes focused just over my shoulder. I turned to her. She blinked several times — tick-tick, tick-tick. Then I heard the plop. My mother must’ve heard it, too. She looked down. The red canary had relieved itself on her shoulder. My mother showed no reaction. She simply removed the bird from her shoulder and squeezed it with both hands until the bird began to struggle. It moved its head from side to side in an attempt wriggle from my mother’s grasp. This was to no avail. The bird’s eyes bulged and popped out. My mother continued to squeeze until its innards spilled onto the kitchen tiles.
During my childhood bouts with asthma, I would often awaken in the breathless night with my mother’s hands on my chest as she checked for wheezing, essentially my bronchial tubes to clear. These were not the hands that could squeeze the life out of a bird.
My mother looked at the dead bird with the curiosity of someone who had just come upon it on a walk through the forest. She flashed a blank smile in my direction and left the kitchen, still holding the lifeless bird. The tick, tick, tick resonated in her wake.
Dear reader, I should not need to tell you how profoundly I trembled after witnessing my mother’s newly acquired tendency toward violence. I’d heard that something is sacrificed when a person to crosses to the other side and comes back. Maybe a portion of their humanity is jettisoned on the return.
In my ecstasy at finding my mother in my kitchen – her kitchen – I never asked the questions that needed asking: How did she get there? Where had she been? I had to find her again.
Other than the aberration I’d just seen, my mother was exactly the same.
With the taste of the ants in my mouth still, I ran down the hall toward the den. Reader, you may not believe it, but the hall seemed to become longer and longer as I ran. I passed the cuckoo clock and I slowed when I saw that the red canary was back in its place. It let out three cuckoos to signal the top of the hour: 3 a.m.
I walked toward my mother’s room. The carpet squealed with my every step, a child-like voice warning, “Go back, go back, go back.”
My mother’s bedroom door was now closed. I took a breath and slowly turned the knob, my fingers clinched around it, feeling the cold metal in my palm. The door squeaked open to an empty room.
I entered the den. In the framed photograph, my mother, too, was back in her place inside the picture. You may not believe this, dear reader, but she moved. With three ticks, she stretched her hand toward me. It breached the frame, creating tiny ripples like a canoe paddle dipped into a placid body of water.
“Come with me, Dana. It’s time.”
I heard the rumble of a distant landslide and felt myself pulled toward the frame as if on opposing magnetic poles.
“Mama, what’s happening.”
She gave me the vacant smile. I reached for the table, hooking my foot around its leg to stop my progression toward the frame.
As the pull continued, excepted that the cake was just from an old, expired box, which explained the taste. Would you be surprised to learn that the consistency of cake mix changes with time? The ants were merely my imagination run amok. I recalled the emptiness that had lived in me since my mother’s passing. I thought about the anguish I felt when she disappeared from the frame.
My will seemed to vanish as these thoughts made their way to the front of my mind. I watched my mother’s hand, with its casual curve, reach for me. I let myself slide closer to the picture until I could see my reflection in the glass of the frame. My hot breath gathered there and obscured my image. I closed my eyes and felt my mother’s cold hand in mine. I was pulled – hands, arms, face, legs – through the glass. It touched my skin like warm liquid. Then I was inside the frame with my mother and the rubber tree plant and the gold planter and the sculpture of the Three Graces on the gaudy table.
I breathed in the scent of dirt and grass, familiar now. In the mirror on the other side of the den, I could see my mother’s reflection, her arms at her side, her hands neither open nor closed.
As she turned her head toward me, I heard the tick for the last time. She looked at me, saw my eyes. And I saw her love for me. More importantly, I felt it. Outside the frame, her reflection in the mirror moved not one inch. Inside the frame there was only stillness, darkness on three sides. I watched my mother in the mirror, her inscrutable grin flashing at no one, her wide, knowing eyes staring straight ahead with knowledge no one else had. And me inside the picture with her.
She was exactly the same.
Lightning pierced the darkness, illuminating us both.
My story ends here, dear reader, motionless in the frame, my reflection motionless in the mirror. I am an unmoving image poised to remain my mother’s constant and frozen companion, until the end of time.