Even blind eyes can sparkle, and Isaac’s sightless eyes glowed with affection as he stretched a trembling hand to bless Jacob. When I was a little girl, I’d longed for that look from my father, who never forgave me for not being a boy. My life had been spent as an imperfect substitute, first a daughter instead of a son, and now a wife to a man still raw from his first wife’s death. My marriage had made me stepmother to a six-year-old who still cried for his mother when he had a fever.
Brian poked his head out from under my armpit. “What’s this painting about? It’s a really little one.”
I rubbed my arm, stirring the rosemary scent of my skin lotion. “Remember the Bible stories I read you at bedtime? Which story is this?”
“An old man is patting a young man’s arm.” Brian took a step forward.
“Don’t get too close.” I looked around, but the museum guard was helping a woman in a wheelchair navigate a doorway.
“What’s on his arm?” Brian asked.
“Goatskin. Jacob’s brother, Esau, had hairy arms, so Jacob wore the skin of young goats to make his blind father think he was Esau.”
“Did his daddy like Esau better? Was Esau his favorite?”
How do you explain inheritance and expectations to a six-year-old? “I think he was just playing a joke.”
“Tommy and I play jokes on each other.”
“Right,” I said absently as I leaned in to see how Diafano used his brush to create the texture of goat hair, making the strands glint in the glow of the lamp.
“Don’t get too close.” Brian imitated my tone exactly.
I laughed. “We’ll come back to this painting on the way out, if the crowds aren’t too thick. And, if you’re good, we’ll have ice cream later.”
The entire two-week exhibition was sold out, especially with school in Easter recess. Carville was a small town, barely earning a respectable dot on a southside Virginia map, and our little Barlow Museum didn’t get such quality art often. But the museum’s tenth anniversary had prompted loans from several big-city museums, thanks to our well-connected new curator.
I shepherded Brian through the ebb and flow of incoming visitors, many faintly surprised at the abundance of art. That surprise extended to the museum guards, as the increasingly unwieldy crowd disrupted their part-time routine. They lifted their shoulders from the walls, their uniform eyes darting from visitor to visitor, searching for likely sources of transgression.
We passed a group of teens clustered in front of Adam and Eve, the boys leering, the girls elbowing each other. A wizened guard watched them intently.
In the center hall, armored knights eyed scantily clad marble maidens. An odd-looking man scuttled past, and I pulled Brian close, turning to see what had set off my inner alarm. The man’s coat was too heavy for early spring, and he hunched too low for his tall frame.
The heavy-coated man approached the teens, who’d moved to the entrance of the Bible exhibit, still giggling over the lack of clothes on Adam and Eve. The tallest boy leaned down to the hunched man, his flop of bangs dangling between them. They whispered, and the man passed something to the boy in a handshake before disappearing into the Bible exhibit.
Brian tugged my arm and led me to a victorious bronze knight, his coppered legs planted wide. We compared the knight to various superheroes, as a white-haired couple ambled by, her hand on his arm as if they were taking a grassy stroll. Footsteps echoed around us amid the sterile museum scent that reminded me of damp paper.
Our tour of the Impressionists was short-lived, with Brian flatly rejecting Degas’ ballerinas as “girly stuff.” I aimed him toward the Renaissance, where I admired a portrait of a stern cardinal. I’d tried for years to understand my father’s grimace, yet this artist had captured it in one brushstroke. The robed cardinal’s thick brows rimmed deep-set eyes that glared at me. Thin, pursed lips drooped at the corners, as if preparing his nose to wrinkle in disdain.
I gave Brian’s shoulders a quick squeeze. “He looks disapproving, doesn’t he?” Even on his deathbed, my father’s reproach had lingered. I’d closed his contemptuous eyes while his skin was still warm.
Thankfully, Brian’s father wasn’t so stern. Gary had risen to the challenge of being a widowed parent, though he’d handed over Brian’s upbringing to me the moment he slipped the ring on my finger. His need for a wife, and a mother for his son, had drawn us together.
Which was better, to be loved or needed? The world revered love and dismissed need, assigning substitutes lesser terms like stand-in or understudy. I especially hated the word fungible. Such an ugly sound to describe one thing standing in seamlessly for another. When doctors substituted for each other, they fancied it up with Latin: locum tenens.
My father had at least given me an excellent education, though not out of love. He’d simply abhorred the thought that a child of his, even a daughter, would be unable to discuss Nietzsche or appreciate Rembrandt. All I could do with Gary in that area was nudge him to use his carpentry skill to craft wood sculptures to sell at art fairs, which was where he was today. But I had plenty of time to teach Brian, and I’d bought tickets for this exhibition the day they went on sale.
I glanced down to catch Brian mid-stare, his unblinking blue eyes fixed on my face. I stroked his cheek, reveling in the perfection of skin not yet damaged by the world or an aging body. Youth tended his skin the way eggs held flour together while seasoning it. I pressed his cheek gently to see it spring back like Jell-O.
We arrived at a massive painting surrounded by a gilded frame. The frame’s top nearly reached the ceiling.
Brian tipped his head as far back as he could. “Wow.”
The painting, Love’s Rapture, featured a pale woman with abundant dark hair, leaning casually against a tree. A gossamer sheet draped her hourglass shape. Kneeling before her, a firm-jawed youth offered a sparkling ruby as he looked at her in awe. Deer halted mid-graze to adore her, and the tree stretched its branches to canopy her. Even the sun shone a pale corona around her body. She stared out confidently, knowing she was loved simply because she was beautiful, and because she was herself.
Brian wiped his nose with his arm, and I turned away from Love’s Rapture to forage in my purse for a tissue. I wiped his nose and stuffed the tissue into my purse’s outside pocket. No corona for me.
Brian burrowed his face into my ribcage, bunching my blouse. Since I’d started using his mother’s rosemary skin lotion, he clung to me, hoping for a whiff of her. My theft had transformed our relationship. Need was deeper than love.
When Brian lifted his head, I gave his ear a quick thumb squeeze. “How about pancakes for dinner?”
His mouth formed a perfect circle. “Really?”
“Blueberry pancakes, of course. You need your fruits and vegetables.”
He chuckled, prompting smiles from a gaggle of elderly women. Most people smiled at Brian. He looked like a maturing Gerber baby, with his round face, thick hair, and vast blue eyes. As the women shuffled past, one turned to continue smiling on him.
We came to a landscape painting, depicting distant hills layered behind a grassy field with a broad oak tree. Brian gasped. “My mom took me on a picnic in that field. We sat under that tree.”
I said softly, “I bet that was a really fun day.”
“It was! A bird flew down and tried to steal my sandwich. Mom tossed pieces of bread for him to catch. She didn’t even yell at him for stealing.”
“Maybe he thought he was just picking up bread crumbs you didn’t want.”
Brian sniffed my elbow. “Yeah.”
His little hand wiggled in mine, like a bird fluttering in the nest, restless yet unready. I would be the one to eventually watch him soar away. Would Brian think of me as the keeper of his nest? Or would that be his mother, though she would never usher him onto a school bus, cheer him on at soccer, or snap staircase photos before the prom?
I pointed to a clump of trees in the background. “Look! Broccoli trees.”
“I hate broccoli.” His lower lip jutted out.
I bit back a response. Brian and I were battling over his refusal to eat vegetables, with Gary refusing to support me beyond the rote statement, “Listen to your stepmother.”
We sauntered to the next painting. “Here’s another Diafano,” I said. “Remember the painting of Isaac and Jacob we saw when we came in? Diafano painted that, too. He’s my favorite artist.” I ruffled Brian’s hair, making pliable curls stand at attention. “Remember what I told you about the Renaissance?”
“It’s where people started reading and learning and painting.”
“That’s a good summary. You’re a smart boy.”
Brian hugged my thigh as I read a plaque about a Renaissance family referred to as minor Medicis. I knew about the Medicis, their presence at the pinnacles of the church and the thrones of Europe, and their patronage of artists like Michelangelo and Botticelli. This smaller family had apparently played a similar role on a regional level, including sponsoring artists such as Diafano.
Instead of looking at the painting, Brain craned his neck to watch a couple with thick white hair a few paintings down.
The woman said, “How come no one smiles in these portraits? Didn’t they know they were having their picture painted?”
“They’re just showing off their fancy clothes and jewelry.” The man pointed at a portrait of a grumpy woman. “They look kind of pale to be Italian.”
“Maybe they didn’t get out much,” his wife said.
I stifled a snort of laughter and led Brian to another Diafano, a portrait of a woman slathered in jewels, with a toddler in her lap.
“Lots of jewels.” I pointed to the child’s wide eyes and curly hair, only slightly darker than Brian’s. “He looks like you.” Auburn strands rippled through Brian’s thick, chocolate-colored hair that waved gently into tight curls flourishing the ends. My own hair wasn’t dark or light enough for contrasting highlights, but I could pass for his mother to strangers.
I glanced at the plaque. “The child’s name is Gianni.”
“I have a friend at school named Johnny.”
He inspected the painting in rare silence before shuffling toward a still life. As he tilted his head to gaze at the painting, a lock of chocolate hair stroked his cheek. Untied shoelaces tangled below already-too-short corduroys.
I hadn’t given birth to him. I never panted as he greeted the world, or cuddled him to my breast. But I loved the way his mouth crinkled when I made faces to pull him out of a sulk, or how he cocked his head to take in something new. I loved him when he stomped inside with muddy boots and screamed his refusal to clean up the mess. The waterfall of devotion that tumbled over me, drowning my heart, was undiverted by the fact that I hadn’t been there first.
As if sensing my thoughts, Brian turned toward me, a tear forming in the corner of his eye. I scooped him up, and buried my face in his flannel shirt, soft as shearling. When I felt myself start to shudder, I put him down and stared at the still life, as if nothing existed but grapes and a chalice and a loaf of bread.
Brian’s hand fumbled around mine, his small fingers trying to stretch across my palm. Failing that, he grabbed my last three fingers and wrapped his hand around them. I kept the quiver in my body at bay, constructing an imaginary dam at my wrist. When the tremble subsided, I used my two free fingers to stroke the back of his hand.
We stared at Still Life with Grapes for several moments.
The next painting was a portrait of Gianni’s father, Alonzo, who had a twinkle in his eye and an upward slant of the mouth that softened his long face. Gianni looked nothing like him.
“Look at this painting.” Brian had trotted ahead to a Diafano self-portrait, showing the artist at his easel, half turned toward the viewer. Close-cropped curls rimmed Diafano’s round face.
“This man looks like that little boy,” Brian said.
“He sure does.” Had Diafano painted his face on the child as a private joke? Or had he installed his son as the heir, perhaps through an affair, turning a family tree into a stairstep of broken bloodlines? The idea of Diafano sneaking into the inheritance amused me.
Brian began skipping across the room, humming in time to his steps, loud against the hush. I raced after him, lifting a finger to signal an approaching guard that I had the situation in hand. The guard dipped her head in acknowledgement and stayed at her post, her eyes on Brian.
“Brian.” I caught the hem of his coat. “Use your inside voice. And feet.” I tied his rebellious shoelaces.
We crossed the center hall to return to the Bible exhibit, an exhibit not merely suited to the borrowed art, but also mandatory for the museum. The Barlow Museum was once the Carville family mansion, its turrets and thick windows funded by tobacco before the Carville descendants left for leafier pastures. They’d named the museum after a relative, Thomas Carville Barlow, who’d served in the Civil War. Everyone knew which side. The bequest stipulated that the museum always include an exhibit relating to religion. Everyone knew which one.
The current Bible exhibit took up half the museum, including the turret, where a man doffed his baseball cap to take in the soaring ceiling that bypassed the first and second floor boundary. The art in the turret depicted ascension scenes, our new curator apparently owning a sense of humor.
We made our way through alcoves and hallways, focusing on familiar Bible stories and avoiding the less pleasant ones, particularly the crucifixion and the gore involved in taking the fall for the rest of us. We played “I spy” and “Guess who?” until we hit the limit of his attention span, and he began staring at a family with a baby and a boy about his age, whose father was explaining the perils of Joseph’s jealous brothers.
“Brian, stop fidgeting. Don’t you want ice cream later?”
He stilled his hands and feet briefly, but soon he was pulling at his shirt again.
I leaned down. “I’m thinking we’ll have broccoli ice cream.”
He threw me a startled look and our glances hovered in the air. Then we laughed so loudly that several people hissed at us to shush.
“We’d better use our inside voices,” I whispered. We giggled softly and headed toward the exit, passing the white-haired couple again. The woman pointed to the placard’s Bible verses. “I love what Ruth says to Naomi: Where you go, I will go.”
“A subtle hint for our daughter-in-law?” The man shook his head. “I always wondered why Ruth didn’t go back to her own family. Didn’t her parents miss her?”
I led Brian back toward Diafano’s painting of Isaac blessing Jacob, just inside the exhibit entrance. “One more look at that Isaac and Jacob painting, and we’ll go.”
We entered the room with the Diafano, and I halted Brian with a palm. The odd, heavy-coated man was in front of the Diafano, actually touching the small painting, his fingers hidden from the guard by a turn in the wall. But the guard saw him reach and snapped to attention. The man splayed his hands against his coat, tossed the guard a rueful look and nodded toward the teens, now huddled just outside the exhibit. After a quick return glance, the tall boy whispered to the other teens, prompting a burst of giggles and dance moves swinging perilously close to a painting.
As the security guard bolted toward them, the tall boy told him, “Don’t worry. We’re leaving.” The guard followed them out of the museum, the heavy-coated man slipping out behind them, his waxy fingers curled around something at his hip.
“Can we get ice cream?” Brian bumped my ribs to get my attention.
I cupped his shoulder to still him. “Soon. I want one more look at that painting.” I led him to the Diafano and examined the painting again. One goatskin brushstroke seemed different from before. The goat hair swirled right instead of left. It made the painting better somehow, but it wasn’t the same.
The odd man had touched the painting before clutching his coat, and then the teens distracted the guard so he could escape. He must have switched the Diafano for a forgery. The painting was tiny and would easily fit inside a coat too heavy for spring.
Should I say something? If I did, if the crime were discovered, the Barlow Museum — and our whole town — would be disgraced. New York and Chicago curators would sneer that we couldn’t even hold onto a little painting. And I even felt a vague pity for the heavy-coated man. But, mostly, I relished the thought of future crowds admiring the forgery, perhaps even remarking on the perfection of the reversed brushstroke. The theft was wrong, but the substitution made up for it.
I reexamined the forged depiction of Isaac’s blessing, a blessing meant for a son other than the one before him. Isaac himself was nearly sacrificed by his own father, saved at the last minute by an unfortunate lamb. He should have known the value of a substitute.
I stepped away from the painting, took Brian’s hand and we left the museum, fiercely debating the best flavor of ice cream.
Featured image: Vikulin / Shutterstock
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