Over the next days and weeks, the picture, the secret of the picture, made a weight in Lillian’s mind that had not been there before. Not a weight like a burden, but a warm, comforting weight, like a cat on her lap. A quietly purring, gray-striped secret, perfectly safe and comfortable because no one would ever dream of coming into her room. Maggie might invade her kitchen more than she would like, but she would never even knock on Lillian’s bedroom door, unless Ellen was suddenly much sicker than she had ever been up to this point. That was an unwritten law of this relationship, of this work.
Lillian turned the picture over and over in her mind as she dusted, took Ellen’s pulse and blood pressure, poked the thermometer under her tongue and slid it back out again, cooked breakfast, brought in vegetables, bathed and changed Ellen, made lunch, mopped the kitchen floor, chopped vegetables for dinner.
The picture was a secret, but one she didn’t know, couldn’t keep or tell. Or the picture itself was not a secret, but only the fact that she had it in the bottom of the drawer of her nightstand with a magazine on top of it, so that if asked, if ever asked about her possession of it, it could be made credible that it had been there, all along, lying in the drawer for thirty years maybe, who knew? And she had never noticed it, only tossed in a magazine as she had every right to do, surely, with the drawer of the nightstand beside the bed in the little yellow room she had been given. She prepared these defenses against an accusation that would never be made. She could not help herself.
A picture of Carlotta at the piano, what was the secret in that? It was no secret that Ellen hadn’t ever been pleased with her daughter, neither when she’d lived in the house nor when she left it, neither when she sat at the piano nor when she sat in a house surrounded by miles of sand, under a sun that might as well have been a different star, it operated so differently upon the land, the people, the sky and colors, beneath it.
The romance that Carlotta’s career, musical and magical—or did she mean marital? —represented to Maggie was not a secret either. And Carlotta herself, what would she say in that impossible confrontation—of course she meant conversation—from which Lillian could nonetheless not keep her obstinate imagination?
“A picture of me at the piano, when I was younger, before I got married, before Maggie was born.”
She might mention a month or a year, name a place. More likely she would shake her head, smiling a little. “I don’t remember any more. It could have been taken…oh, lots of places.”
What else was there to say?
The picture was not the secret, Lillian thought, washing the dinner dishes. The picture merely represented the secret, or secrets, old hurts and choices, the bleeding meat that the visible ghosts in this family had once been. Things not so much hidden, perhaps, as simply left unsaid. Still, she waited in suspense for the secret of the picture to reveal itself, as if another picture, taken in invisible ink, might appear if she held it patiently enough before the fire of her attention.
From The Caregiver, Copyright Maria Theresa Casale 2014
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