He once caught Nana singing in a language whose words seemed all one seamless word. She was singing to her paintings, portraits of faces he’d never known and could only ask whose bodies they belonged to. “Me,” Nana said. “These are my faces, all of them.”
Yet he couldn’t understand the figure she shaped on the canvas in front of her. It was so unevenly clotted with yellow paint that it bore no semblance of Nana at all, let alone any of her other portraits. On the floor, stacked against each other with their images overlapping, he saw half-faces whose eyes were strange shades of gold and grainy amber, violet and abyssal blue, and whose contours frightened and delighted him with their unpatterned grace.
He asked what language her song was sung in, and what she said.
“Glossolalia is what this is called,” she told him. “But it’s not a song, really, and not language. Just singing.”
He thought little but how he wanted her to sing again. His body ached with the question: what do you sing if not a song?
“Never be fooled,” she said, sweeping her hand sideways through the air between them. “People will tell you this is prayer in the language of the angels. You can never believe them. It might well be prayer, but it isn’t language; it is so much bigger. And it’s nothing angels would speak among themselves, I’d say.” She rolled her hands down the sides of her apron. “Do you believe in angels?”
He couldn’t say. He only knew Nana’s voice was the closest to holiness he’d ever been.
“Tell me what an angel looks like,” she said, considering. “Can we see them?” She spidered her hands against her hips at her apron’s edge. “If we could see them, would we remember being witness? Would we have words to speak our memory after the moment falls away?” She turned fully away from her work to look at him.
He could only ask a question in return. “Have you seen them?”
She looked to an open white corner of the room where there was only a little light. “Never angels,” she said, very softly. “I’ve seen strangeness. But never angels.” Then she shook her head. “No, I don’t know that. I’ve never seen anyone I took for an angel. But, then, I wouldn’t know if I had.”
“No,” he said in confused agreement. “I don’t suppose so.” He stood around.
Her head fell to one side, and over her shoulder slipped every strand of her silverdown hair. “You’re holding your breath,” she told him. “Why don’t you ask that question you’re carrying?” She smiled, and he was glad to feel her permission ease over him.
“Would you paint my parents for me?”
“No.” She made the word sound heavy, like she was desperate to set it down. She shifted in her seat. Her thumbs slid over the pads of her other fingers. She offered alternating taps to the floorboards between heel and toe, the click unbearable in the quiet while the sky’s light grew subtle. Evening drew slowly near.
“Sweet thing, ” she said, “I paint the parts of myself I’m prepared to recognize. That part of my life is something I haven’t yet learned to countenance. I’m not ready. But you can borrow my paint if you think it might help you.” She set to work again, singing to a portrait whose bone-yellow skin and wild, jaundiced eyes did not resemble her in any way the boy could see. Its long teeth showed in a broad, unseemly grin.
How could this face be hers when it carried no impression of her in its structure, color, texture? When he asked, she told him warmly, kindly, in a voice he couldn’t imagine in the throat of any portrait.
“I made them,” she said. “They’re mine, bodied out of the stories I dream up in the days that slide past me out here.” She passed a hand several times quickly over the downy stuff of her hair. “You may not see me in them—you don’t need to—but there I am. Each holds a moment’s mixture of everything I’ve seen, thought, dreamed, and felt over a lifetime of watching. They’re strange because the world I live in is strange because it’s peopled with strangers. You see?” Her jaw trembled faintly.
In a moment tears burned at the edges of his vision. “Sweet thing,” she called him again. “Sweet thing, go ahead and cry. We ache for everyone we love and lose. Always, forever, wherever we are.”
He cried hard. Embarrassed, he turned and walked outside to watch the sky. The clouds were dark and low and heavy. He reveled.
Wildgrass tore between his toes as he tamped the earth with his feet. He brisked his hand over the close-knotted bark of the trees edging the field beyond the house. He relished the storm’s sound, like some giant dreambeast lowing, roaring about the thunderhead. The clouds burst and spent themselves with breathtaking rain.
When he came in from the storm he was sick. Something tightened in his chest and made breathing costly. The fever brought visions to him of his parents, who he knew were gone. The world outside was dark and cold, but in the house Nana tended to him with tea and talk warm enough to call a little cheer to heart. All night long she sat beside him breathing, sighing, whispering.
In dreams he walked the hallways grown wide with darkness. He wandered to Nana’s gallery where every canvas held a face, reiterations of her own face alive with motion. In every portrait, on every one of Nana’s faces, he saw strange and beautiful new expressions of her grief, and of her love. And every mouth moved with wordless singing, and their voices were the voice of loss and longing. And, though it was wordless, he understood in that one seamless sound the names of his mother, his father, himself.
Adam De Petris is a young fiction writer from Orange, California. He holds a B.A. in English Literature from the University of California, Irvine. He works as a bookseller in Irvine.