THE PORTRAIT
by Malini Mohana

The paint on her face seemed to be gone. Dripped off during the post-mortems, the waits in between the arguments for and against burials or cremations, seeping out while the living quarrelled among each other. Yet she didn’t seem to wipe that almost-smile off her face. Even in death she seemed to be in on a joke that none of us understood. I wondered whether I had ever noticed that about her before.

I sat in the last pew in an empty corner, the corpse’s ex-lover, eyes cast down. Right up until this moment, I suppose I thought I knew her well. In some recess of my lonely mind, perhaps I had though that loving someone meant understanding them. I used to draw her in the mornings as minty light from sunrises poured over her back — hair dishevelled, lips parted, eyebrows furrowed in the concentration reserved for her own world. Her eyelashes held specks of gold and grey, the lines around her mouth prominent, perpetually resisting the urge to laugh — a look that I suddenly didn’t recognise anymore.

She died last week. I was at work and received the phone call during a meeting about the distribution of stock. Car accident. On her way somewhere, in an unfamiliar neighbourhood. I knew she was meant to be at work that day. I never asked questions. I simply went home and looked at the portrait I made of her.

She lay before me now, amidst the din and blur of her grievers. I didn’t notice anyone but her at this funeral. Others were simply shapes, dispossessed coats floating past, expelling murmurs of sorrys and condolences that leaked over me like water on a window. It was hailing, causing people to sit indoors, squeezed amongst each other, determinedly mourning.

As I sat, isolated, unseeing in my own selective deafness, I couldn’t shake the feeling that she looked so different in the midst of these people. As though we had entered her dressing room, all of us, fought for the mirror that held her image, accidentally breaking it as she watched on. Shards of her face on the floor, we all stooped down to each pick up what we could; millions of disjointed pieces of her held by hundreds of people. Some who had loved her, some who had raised her, some who had taught her to write her own name. Some who drew her breaths of ecstasy, others to whom she had simply said good morning a few times. I guess in our midst there were those who had shown her just how inadequate she was. Others who had believed that she was nothing less than the wind in their sails. Each person carrying a bit of her truth among her lies and her make-believe, trapped in the constraints of those shards.

In death I knew I would see, wholly and silently, a portrait of her that hung in the crevices of these broken mirrors. A side that sieved out the hopes and expectations of all of us, filtering out only her — distilled, dark and blinding. In death I hoped I would look up and see her shape in the broken shards, put them together and spell out the reasons she laughed. She never shared those reasons with me. In death, I hoped these people could stand together, hold up their shards, and in our cracked will create a portrait starker than I have ever made of of her. I stirred in my seat, looking up, in some hopeful delusion that the others around me had heard. That we could begin painting her together.

I stood up and they looked at me. All of them and their eyes and their solemnity, their cloudy silence. For a second, for just a moment in their eyes, I saw her clearly for the first time.

First published on Medium https://medium.com/@MalAdapting