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.

Another Excerpt

Here is another scene in the story I’m working on. It is the beginning of the first chapter, and follows a prologue, which I may or may not post here eventually. For those who may not have realized it yet, I wanted to explain the nature of this story. It’s a fantasy story, based in a kingdom where class and nobility matter.

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At fourteen, when everything changed for me, I was a beautiful girl. I had been a beautiful child as well. I knew this. I was the noble daughter of Duke Pietro der-Milt and his Lady Dermira. How ever could I not be beautiful? I was taught that the noble houses held the most beautiful people in the land, the most gifted thinkers, the greatest of artists and the kindest of spirits. So my governess told me during my childhood, using my parents as the best examples.
“Look at your pretty mother, little Miya! see what a beauty she is?” Pirima would say. She’d point at my mother, sitting in our great drawing room or in my father’s study or in the corner of my nursery. She was a beauty indeed. My mother always knew how to look beautiful and delicate. She could embroider, read, write letters, instruct servants, talk with my father, survey the accounts – all while looking as pretty as a picture, without a hair out of place or wrinkle in her dress. Pirima often whispered to me that she wished she could look like my mother, and her lips would twist in a sad little frown. I didn’t understand the nature of jealousy or envy when I was young; I merely thought it natural that everyone would want to look like Mama, who was, I was sure, the most beautiful woman in the world.
There were plenty of mirrors in our home, so I learned early on that I was a beautiful child. My skin was smooth and healthy, a few shades darker than my mother’s milky-white complexion. My hair, which was black as coal, thick and wavy, hung down my back when I was a little girl, kept away from my face by a neat little bow which Pirima would tie into it every morning. My eyes were grey, and Pirima always said they reminded her of the stormy sea because when I was angry or sad they turned dark blue. My black eyebrows were delicate and thin, and my nose was small and rather flat, accentuating the fullness of my red lips. My body was that of a healthy little girl – rounded with the healthy fat that children possess, my limbs strong with activity.
One day, when I was about six or seven, I stood looking into the tall, gilded mirror that stood in one of the corridors. As I stood there, admiring myself, I watched my mother come up behind me. She laid one white hand on my shoulder and smiled at me in the mirror. My eyes widened.
“I look like you, Mama!” I cried with delight.
“You do, my dove. You look like your papa as well. You have his hair and his nose,” she touched my hair and my nose as she said this, then knelt down behind me in a rare motherly gesture and hugged me tight, arms encircling my stomach. She usually didn’t touch me much. My joy at seeing we were alike, though, seemed to make her emotional. I had no cynicism at that age, and I didn’t see her emotion for what it was – a kind of vanity. I was happy to be in her arms, happy that she smiled at me, happy that I looked like her and like Papa.
“Now, Miyara, let’s go visit your papa in his study, hmm?” she took me by the hand and we spent a quiet afternoon in the study with Papa, who was in a good mood as well. I remember that day as one of the happiest of my childhood. It wasn’t often that my parents made any effort to spend time with me. We usually met only during meals. The rest of the time I spent with Pirima, who was my only other company for a long time.