You have become so smug, visited so many museums and galleries, seen picture after picture. You have fallen in and out of love with painters, genres, styles until art has become once again as boring as it was when your parents dragged their reluctant little girl from one dusty room to another, convinced that appreciating high art was the surest way to transform their little heathen into an intellectual.
But now, hurrying to meet your newly married grandson at the latest blockbuster retrospective, you miss your right turn and veer into the wrong hall. Here the light from ranks of incandescent bulbs seems to flow just as fast into the gravitational field created by a dark and greedy hole in the farthest wall.
The painting draws you closer, closer, closer until you can measure it with only your eyes. Eighty-one square feet of canvas surrounded by an almost irrelevant frame. It drags upon the air your breath, sucks at the hem of your dress, the neck, and the sleeves but you are not moved to escape its pull.
Too long later your worried grandson finds you still standing on that same spot. He’s been looking everywhere. You think perhaps you should soothe his fears but before you can turn to him he has turned toward the painting and fallen under its spell himself, “Oh,” he whispers.
“What do you think of it?” you query him.
“Think?” he answers so slowly that the chain of time seems to have added several links.
“I’ve seen her eyes before,” you offer, “Out on the streets. Women like her are pushing carts of old plastic bags, straggly plush dogs, or newspapers that someone else abandoned under bushes in the park.”
“Did you ever try to talk to a bag women or a bowery bum?” he asks.
“No, they make me want to get away — or even run.”
“This model of St. Joan looks so real,” he notes. “As if she will soon step out of her background and try to recruit me for some holy war. Load me down with chain mail and a Pope-blessed sword.”
“Sacrificial flames,” you add but then feel forced to say what you really mean. “She is too real.”
“Too real? Is it possible to be too real?”
“Maybe if death is close,” you slowly answer him.
“That would explain the ghosts hidden in the trees,” he says but you are too frightened to reply. Then you feel his unlined hand slip over one of your clinched fists. “Grandma,” he whispers, “I don’t want to let you go, not yet.”