The Third Painting
Dinner was at 8 but all four guests would arrive much earlier, probably to appease Imran, who was an auditor and everyone assumed to be prompt and maybe a little unforgiving. I was preparing the table when Nik arrived with his daughter, Amira who was coming to hug me.
A few steps away, she stops and looks to her right, into the dining room mirror that covers the wall – she consumes the view of the room and how it contained our figures – “How beautiful! This is all so bright and and just so beautiful!” – she slides her hand across the mirror, eyes still looking here and there – distracted by a dozen different things – until she jolts back and completes the embrace she owes me.
This is not the first time Nik and Amira have been invited to our house – he’s an old friend of Imran, they went to school together and were probably very close once – we heard of his wife’s passing, and decided to call the two over when we had the solat hajat shortly after we moved in.
I felt strange the first few days we were here , it scared me how empty the walls were. I decided immediately that the best way to rid of this was to have company around, and though I wouldn’t admit it to Imran, the solat hajat had gone a great way to pacify those initial fears.
The first time they appeared then, Amira was immediately very odd, fluttering endlessly throughout the house, studying an ashtray then a lamp and starting conversations with strangers before retiring them mid-sentence, making innocent and hyperbolic statements that belonged to a bubble in a comic strip. She seemed old enough to be aware of this, she must be in her late twenties – her face was fair and sharp, though her hair had a gluey texture and her body a weird herbal stench that I could sense around the house as she moved about all night.
The other pair present tonight were my two best friends, who had gotten married a while ago – Farah and Jin – they had not melted into a collective “we”, and they were still able to have different opinions. This is why I had them here, to observe Amira – who I had only told them very vaguely about. I don’t consider myself a gossip, because I had consciously chosen not to be one.
I grew up as the child of a second wife, and to many, that was all she was – in the early years of my childhood I remember how the neighbourhood aunties, even the immigrants manning the cashiers in the nearby laundry and grocery stores – they had reduced her to being “that other woman”, and this kept my mother confined to the house with her books and cigarettes and paintings, eventually she sunk into herself – going about chores with a hollowness only I seemed to notice. She had also decided that God was a friend – one day I opened her bedroom door in the late evening to find her praying, though it was too late for Asar and too early for Maghrib. I could hear her whisper under her breath, saying things I wasn’t made privy to.
After dinner, I detached myself from Nik, Farah and Jin – the three would be sufficient to entertain each other – while I fixated on Amira, who had gone missing. She had gone outside into the garden – and I observed her from the window – she was looking up and down and moving about to see how the light and shadows swam across her skin, and to noone there she whispered “Its beautiful, isn’t it? This place is just – wonderful, as if at night wild crea-tures would come and have tea here! Horses and lions and squirrels!”.
I then heard Nik calling for me, and I immediately sat down with the others – playing my duty as host – Farah clued me into the conversation. Her head was covered tonight, as she had recently become pious – her posture marked by a grating daintiness, and every now and then she ended a sentence clutching her chest – announcing her great luck, or some ridiculous thing like that.
Jin had called me a few weeks back, worried about her – the thing both of us couldn’t say, was how uncomfortable we were – were we supposed to change along with her? I felt like this was something they should have resolved together, it was selfish of her to go on and find this great revelation without consulting Jin first.
I was worried what would happen without Amira there, they behave around her the way they would if a child were present, so what if Farah and Jin started arguing?
I excused myself, saying I had to fetch something. I found Amira upstairs, in my study – what an inappropriate place for her to be, I thought – she was standing upright with her arms folded, looking like an adult for the first time – she was pondering over a painting I had on the wall – only one of three of my mother’s work, although this was my favorite.
The painting was made of four blocks of color – red, blue, pink and black – it was unremarkable but nice enough for the room, I would say to any observer, but there was something more about it that pulled me.
“My mother painted this, before she died” I said to Amira.
She was quiet, and I observed her studying the painting – her eyes transitioning slowly,from one color to the next, as something tiny and delicate and essential in her expression changed each time. Amira said nothing, and this rich quietness fell on me like a child’s new knowledge of a secret.
We both stood there for a long time, looking at the painting and its colors. Until I heard Nik’s voice from downstairs, calling for Amira – ready to reclaim her from me. And then I was alone with the painting, as I have always been.