Sometimes, when the house is quiet, I like to patter on bare feet into the sitting room, and look at the picture that hangs over the fireplace, and think about the girl. Once upon a time, she and I were of an age. That was the age of fairy tales. I was so happy then.  Her dress  seems to be missing a sleeve and part of its collar, and I wonder what it was that caused it, and why she would pose for a portrait in a broken dress, or if she simply did not have time to finish it before she came. Sometimes, as I look down at my own white dress, I think I know her secrets, or some of them anyway. When she looks off in the distance like that, what does she really see?

We even look a bit alike, and I wonder if we think the same, too. Has she ever kissed her lover or danced barefoot in the rain? Did she inherit those eyes from her mother?  Does she walk the beach at sunrise, and write her wishes on the sand? What does she do all day? Is she a peasant girl with a poet’s heart, or royalty in disguise? I keep her secrets safe for her, locked away as I am, once a voice, now only a ghost in the shadowy remnants of a trunk buried under piles of memories in a long forgotten attic, or in the vestiges of an old lady’s mind, powerless to speak or come out, but glimpsed from time to time in rare, brief flashes from the most intense green eyes.

Does she dare the king of hearts to come for her, or is she more a diamond girl? Does she know the secrets of the universe?  Does she wonder what it would be like to test her mettle against the stars, or plumb the depths of the uncharted sea? Does she want to know how it feels to fly? I—do. Somewhere, vaguely, I remember the wonder, and the wanderlust. The sensation is there, though it now lies like dry dust in the corner that the broom forgot, and I wonder what the experience would have been like, had I ever had it. 

I tear my gaze from the portrait, for now, I can barely stand to look, and yet I can’t stop looking either—can’t stop remembering. Was there life after portrait for her?  Was she free to follow her dreams?  Did she live ‘til death do us part, or happily ever after, or are they the same, or perhaps, not quite? Did she know what a powerful gift she’d been given? Had she learned of the great curse it could be? Guarding her secrets is the most I can wish for now, for I am but an echo, a shadow in the moonlight, the whisper of a voice, a remembered giggle that sometimes breaks through the mist of dreams.

I stand looking at my dress, and as I look, the image changes. The dress grows more solid, and I turn into—I don’t know. Not her—not exactly. A whisper, perhaps, in the ear of a young girl. A voice she hears in darkness and can’t identify.    A young woman in a pretty white sundress is running down the beach in her bare feet, to meet her destiny. I embrace him, and we lose ourselves in each other’s soul, and as we kiss it starts to rain. Then the dream turns sideways or backwards, or maybe upside down, and he marches off to war, for the love of girl and country,  and as he starts to go, he tells me there are things worth dying for. In that moment, I realize what a gift his love is, and try not to cry at the emptiness of losing him. He swings his rifle over his shoulder and it tears my dress, and in that tear, I find the strength to be myself. I couldn’t bring myself to repair the dress, even afterwards.   I wore the dress as a badge of honor, a symbol of my independence. I wore it when the news came that he would never learn that there are also things (and people) worth living for. That was the day I realized what peculiar kind of curse this love of ours could be.  I wore it for the portrait, a gift I could never give him, and I wore it later, when we danced barefoot in the rain, and the crowds that gathered gave me funny looks. Let them watch. I only wish they could have seen what I had, and yet I am glad they didn’t.  For his final gift to me was intimate, and very personal. I swayed slightly on my bare feet, happy to waltz in the rain—for I was dancing with a soldier that only I could see.

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