The portrait was the size of life.
It hung between floors on the wall of the landing facing the upper stairs. The woman on the canvas was exactly as she had been when she was alive.
Lamps always burned around her, so she could be seen day or night.
She stood facing the artist, butter yellow gown falling in graceful folds from her chest to her feet. Her pale blonde hair hung loose, free around her shoulders and arms. Her lips were curved in the impish smile that had enchanted the Patron.
Her body was straight, head leaning over one shoulder, chin tucked in, almost shy.
Her eyes sparkled, looking beyond the man painting her likeness. Her forearms encircled her middle, white hands resting on the stomach still lying flat, her dreamy eyes seeing deep within, thinking only of the baby growing inside.
It had been years since she sat before her mother.
The girl held the stargaze in hand while she stared into the eyes of a woman immortalized in a moment of precious time.
The subject of the painting embraced her belly, yet still held traces of the wild maiden she was leaving behind for the motherhood to come.
There was no shadow of death coming for her when the portrait was made, only joy for the life she carried inside.
The edges of the crystal chafed the girl’s fingers, reminding her of the Sorcerer.
Day passed into night, but she never left the stairs facing her mother.
Images of the morning intruded on her vigil, the memory of the Patron’s expression before he looked away ripped through her.
“Take this stargaze and go home to your father,” the Sorcerer had said.
She could almost hear that deep voice whispering in her ear.
“If you decide to keep living the life you’ve always known…or not…”
The girl remembered how her reflection had distorted the moving water when she looked at herself from the river’s edge.
For a moment, she felt it; the resolution to jump and surrender to nothing, and again she had the relief that it could all be over soon.
But the grip inside her breast made her double over when she thought about dying.
Nothing had changed for her and she knew nothing ever would.
But the numbness was gone, along with the anguish that drove her to the river.
Something had changed.
She wanted to live.
The girl gazed into her mother’s eyes.
Even so many years after her death, there was still so much life in that gaze, the passion she had for living, and the desire to pass that gift on to her unborn child.
The girl gripped the crystal, her fingers slick from rivulets of blood. Then she thought about the Sorcerer and his offer, searching for a hint of judgment from the woman in the portrait.
But there was none.
Instead her mother was radiant.
Her likeness seemed to stretch beyond the paint to come back to life.
The girl closed her eyes and shook her head.
When she opened them again, the woman in the portrait glowed even more, the glaze of dreams gone from her expression.
Then the girl heard a soft soprano teasing at the edge of her hearing, a mother beseeching her daughter to come closer, closer.
There was that squeeze inside her breast again. The girl wondered if she was losing her mind.
“Mama?” she whispered, shaking her head in an attempt to regain her senses.
“Come to me, my child.”
The voice was louder, ringing with the clarity of a silver bell, and the painted gaze grew intense.
A wave of heat wrapped around the girl, a blanket she couldn’t touch.
Then she caught the scent of lilies, her mother’s favorite flowers and she sobbed.
She knew she could be going mad, but she didn’t care.
In that moment, the girl no longer felt alone. Coming down the stairs to stand before the portrait, she now stood two fingers taller than her mother, but became like a child when she reached out to her.
“Please,” she whispered, staring into the pale blue eyes. “Mama, please show me a way to protect my heart.”
The skin was so soft when she touched the painting, stroking the backs of the hands embracing the unborn inside her.
The girl sobbed again.
So this is what it was like to touch her mother.
Beyond the veil of death, the soprano sang a lullaby to ease the torment of her mind, coaxing the girl to lie down and sleep.
Fatigue settled over her and she did as she was bid, stretching out across the landing and resting her head at the painted feet.
The sweet cling of lilies guided the girl to where her mother waited.
“My darling,” the soft voice whispered. “I will be with you always.”
That promise was all she needed to let go. The loving words were the last she heard before the girl drifted away into dreams.