Ekphrasis – 8

Carmen Maria Machado

You head to the east wing of the museum, the Baroque artists. The south wing is all Impressionists, too jittery and sentimental for your tastes. You prefer the stoic realism of Gentileschi and Velázquez, the flat landscapes, domestic scenes, Biblical stories. This wing makes sense.


As you walk, you remember your parents bringing you to a museum like this as a child. You were so small, the idea of your mother is one of kneecaps glossy with pantyhose. You did not understand what paintings were, exactly. Your parents were educated people who wanted you to see art from an early age, but your sense of paintings—especially alongside the depth and breadth of their thick frames—was that they were holes in the walls in which tiny figures were trapped, moving so slowly that the eye could not perceive their motion. Puppets moving of their own free will, but ultimately trapped. You did not have the vocabulary to explain this idea, so you screamed and screamed, and nothing your parents did—not the soothing coos of your mother into your hair, nor the swift swat on your backside from your father—could stem the flow of horror. They took you from that museum, your face red, snot trailing down your chin and shirt. They took you home and had a conversation that you could not understand, though the words—“something wrong” and “phase” and “recovery”—darted over your head like angry swallows.


It is funny then, yes, that you developed an interest in art that carried you through graduate school, that you even met your late husband in the same field. Funnier still that while you grew out of your primal terrors, your parents never quite grew out of their angry spats.


You stop in front of Judith Slaying Holofernes, which is currently on loan from the Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte in Naples. This has always been one of your favorites—Judith’s impassive face as she drags her broadsword along the exposed throat of the evil Assyrian general, pulling away to avoid the blood but in a manner that suggests she’d be all right if she didn’t quite miss the spray, how her sleeves are rolled up around her upper arms, almost fiercely. You always smile when you see her. You have always been able to appreciate grit.


Far away, you can hear Gregory’s footsteps as he prowls the south wing. Against their even cadence, you are certain that you can hear it again—that odd shuffling noise. It doesn’t sound as close as it did before, but it’s hard to tell, what with all of the echoes bouncing through the open rooms. You feel nervous. You decide to return to your office.