A woman sits down beside you in Gallery 114.
“Do you know,” she says, “these were installed just as my mother was dying. “As she got sick, got worse, got that terrible treatment.”
You look at her and you’re in equal parts surprised and not to see this woman is your mother, dead herself now four and a half months.
If you speak, will she hear you? You decide to keep quiet, listen, for once, to what she has to say.
“Remember her? What a tough customer. She danced her way out of Saint Louis to Chicago and into my father’s arms. Or so she would have you think. She was a very good actress.”
You can’t help yourself. “I don’t think she liked me very much.”
Your mother turns, only her head, like an owl. She fixes you—the phrase is exactly true—with the one-eyed stare, just as she did on her last days, in hospice. The single dark brown eye, looking straight into you and out the other side, into eternity.
“No,” she says. “She didn’t. She couldn’t bend you to her will. You didn’t adore her, like the others.”
“I was afraid of her.”
“She was afraid of you.”
Her head swivels back to center. You each let your gazes wander over the Chagall America Windows. The ceiling is low right here, it’s a sort of alcove, the windows’ glass is mostly bright, pure blue, a shade that must have green and yellow mixed in. The light comes from behind the panels, so it feels like you’re in a swimming pool at dusk. And this pool is very crowded, with dancers and painters, the Statue of Liberty, the Chicago skyline. An open book floats past, a pink bird swoops over your head, a candelabra drifts at your feet. You know it’s an homage to America’s bicentennial and to the arts.
“My mother and I get two windows, and you get one,” your mother says.
It takes a minute, but you realize she means theater and dance for her mother, painting and music for her, and literature for you.
“Yes,” you say.
“But that’s not really it,” your mother says. She swivels a quarter turn, lays her head on your shoulder. “Just between you and me, this is heaven.”
You think you can feel the weight of your dead mother’s head on your shoulder, but you’re not quite sure. Could be gravity, could be the underwater pressure, the looming of that large pink bird. Her hair is a more brilliant shade of silver than you remember, as if there’s glitter in it, a lot of glitter, a billion tiny pieces of mica fused into a pageboy helmet. You remember how serious she looked in her formal wedding photograph, frightened almost, that same hairstyle, only soft brown. Deer in the headlights. You think somewhere you’ve seen a Chagall painting with a bride a groom and a deer, all three floating in a blue sky, just the color of these glass panes.
It’s very quiet in Gallery 114. You’re underwater. You’re asleep. You’re dreaming. No one comes to sit beside your mother on the white stone bench or the one next to it, which seems odd for a Saturday morning. You can’t even begin to guess what other people see when they look in the direction of your back and your mother’s back, her bent head and yours, canted slightly so your cheek just barely touches the mica helmet.
“Just between you and me,” she says again, “this is what it’s like.”
“What what is like?”
“You know,” your mother says.
“Tell me again,” you whisper.
“I am blue like Rembrandt is brown.”
You start to name the objects depicted in Chagall’s windows. “Woman,” you say, “guitar, sun, hand, book, bird, tree, earth, people, skyscrapers, angels, paintbrush, inkwell.”
“All true,” your mother says.
You’re saying words for things to keep her here, sitting beside you, her head on your shoulder. Anything else, and the whole idea of abstraction might occur to her, and she’ll shoot back into the blue she came out of.
“Candelabra,” you say, “violin, palette, mask.” You know this can’t go on forever. The museum will close, the sun will set, the seasons will change. Snow will cover the city.
And sure enough, your mother’s head begins to lift off your shoulder. “I’m going now,” she says. “I may be back.”
“Please,” you say.
“Or maybe not.” She rises from the bench, smooths her dress. She’s gone. You hear her steps fade down the hall of Gallery 114, then something else, vibration, a shimmer in the air. A pulse. Color is vibration, Chagall said, like music, he said. Everything is vibration. You strain to hear it. You listen for a long time.
A hand on your shoulder. “I’m sorry,” the guard says, “to have to come so close. You didn’t seem to be hearing me. We’re closing now.”
In this light, the glass of the America Windows looks shattered. What else could glass do? Everything is broken.
When you walk into your friends’ apartment, into the light, they look at you strangely.
“Your face,” they say. “What have you been up to all day? Your shoulder. Your coat. What is all that? There’s glitter everywhere.”
Liza Wieland has published nine books, most recently PARIS, 7 A.M., a novel about the poet Elizabeth Bishop in France in the 1930s.