She Stands on a Step [Flash Fiction]

She stands on a step to be painted, except there is no step, it is a fictional step, one that the artist has put in the picture he is painting. The duchess – she is thought of as holding this title although she never thinks of herself in these terms – tries to keep her sons still by singing to them and declaiming poetry for children. When she runs out of ditties about goats and horses and knights, she turns to the poems that she herself loves, and the passion in her voice rivets them and keeps them quiet better than their favorite rhymes about animals and battles did.

The duke is perfectly posed, because he has a book held in front of him by a servant and he is reading from it. The duchess, who isn’t in the foreground, cannot have such a luxury, for any servant who would stand in front of her would block her exquisite dress, as well as the little boys. She doesn’t resent the duke this one privilege. There are plenty of other reasons to resent him.

She is much taller than the duke, which is unseemly, of course, as she is the female, the producer of children, the keeper of the house; it doesn’t matter that she saved him from financial ruin, she is still shamefully tall. It’s bad enough having guests with her across the table. At least the later generations who see their portrait needn’t know quite how huge she was. So in the family portrait that will hang for posterity in the halls of the great castle, the duchess will stand on a step, as the artist is painting her now, and will seem tall only because of this small geographical change in their whereabouts.

Her smaller son leans against her, tired of fidgeting. The dog has lain down on his feet and is warming his toes. She knows she mustn’t choose favorites, but her youngest is her beloved one, because the elder is, inevitably, his father’s boy. They ride together often, and she feels him growing colder to her. He has begun to use rude words despite his tender age, an influence that is surely his father’s. The younger, though, is frightened of his father. Though his mother is so much larger, it is his male parents girth that bothers him. He despises roughness of any kind and prefers his mother’s soft skin to any other surface on earth.

She knows she will lose her influence on him, too, one day, but she enjoys it while she can. She moves, eliciting a cough from the artist, puts her hand on her littlest boy’s cheek, and holds it there, perfectly still, committing the moment to memory.

An Excerpt

I have a few different stories that I’m working on. I always seem to have a few stories that I’m working on, and I never seem to continue writing enough of them. This, however, is part of a story I began thinking of a few months ago. I have a general plot laid out and a beginning scene. This, though, is a scene that I thought of in the middle of the night a few weeks ago. It came vividly into my mind and I fell asleep thinking about it. When I woke up in the morning, I wrote it down.

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The first time my mother lied to me, I was sitting at the window-seat in our large sitting room. My governess had caught a bad cold, and she was confined to bed. I didn’t know this at the time, but her confinement was probably more to do with the risk of her infecting me than with any goodwill towards her. Nevertheless, I’m sure she was grateful for the rest, for I was quite a difficult child at the age of five.
I was sitting in the window seat that day while my mother sat by the fireside. She was doing some fine needlework, embroidering a kerchief of my father’s with her own special design; a rose, its petals not yet fully open. She’d given me a cotton kerchief of my own, and a needle and thread as well, and bade me sit by the window quietly and try to embroider something. I had stuck the needle in the cloth a few times, but seeing that I didn’t get any pretty designs, I had given up and started watching the dismal outdoors. It was raining heavily, and every few moments lightning would flash. I would count, then, along with my heartbeats, and see how long it took the thunder to clap loudly after the lightning. My count grew shorter and shorter as I stared, transfixed, at the raging torrent outside.
I knew I was safe on this side of the glass window. I wondered if anyone could be outside in a downpour like that and live.
“Mama,” I said once the count between the lightning and the thunder was only one heartbeat. “Is anyone outside now?”
“No, Miyara, no one is outside,” she said serenely.
“But Mama, what if Pirima wasn’t sick? We would’ve gone out to play in the garden. It was sunny this morning. We would’ve. We would’ve been out there now.”
“No, darling, I’m sure Pirima would have seen the clouds and wouldn’t have taken you outdoors. No one is out there in the rain. Who would be silly enough to wander outside in weather like this?” She didn’t even look up from her sewing as she spoke. Anger flared in my five-year old self. She didn’t understand! I could easily have been out there with my governess in that frightful rain! It would have hurt us!
“But what if I was outside?” I demanded fiercely. I stood up, letting the cloth, needle and thread fall off me and roll to the ground. My hands were balled up in fists, and I could feel my lip beginning to pout in that way that signaled I was going to start crying. My mother gave me a stern look and finally rose. She placed her sewing things on the dainty table beside her chair, and came to me.
“Firstly, Miyara, get off that window-seat this instant. You are a lady, not some bar-maid to go standing on chairs and making a fuss,” her voice was mild, but then, my mother was always at her most mild when she was angry with me. Later in life, I understood it like this – it was as if I were a simpleton and she thought that if she only spoke clearly enough and rationally enough, I would go along with what she said and stop angering her. Mostly it worked. “Second,” she continued once she’d sat me down and settled herself beside me. “You will never need to be outside in a time like this. You are, as I said, a lady. You will always be able to be safe inside, by the fireplace, as is proper. If you’re on a journey, you will be settled comfortably in an inn. I promise you, you will never need to find yourself out in the rain. There,” she patted my hand with satisfaction. “Does that make you feel better?”
It did. It did, then. But that was the first lie my mother told me, for ten years after or so, I found myself outside. In the rain. All alone.