Red velvet curtains; ornate, centuries-old windows; snobbish-yellow light washing the walls with nineteenth-century aristocracy; an ottoman and an intricate, plum-colored cushion; empty crystal vases; Persian carpet choked with antique dust … one couldn’t care less about the setting, glorified and mundane.
The subject sitting atop the ottoman, however, is far more compelling. She looks ahead with wide black eyes, this woman so similar to yet so incongruous with her backdrop. Her rings glisten gold and platinum, matching the colors of the thick frame surrounding her. Her hair is tightly pinned behind, not a single strand out of place. The camera is positioned toward her, with all intent of capturing more than just her beauty. Not just her lightly blushed rosewood cheeks smoothed over with layers of makeup, the luxurious folds of her brightly patterned dress, but also the creases of her hand, the tense grip in her jaw.
What has she been through to voyage all these leagues? Expulsion or persecution from her land, lack of support, a temporary sojourn in the first world…the possibilities flip through like stills. She is asked to turn a little more toward the westward window, where dwindling rays of sunlight fall upon her, illuminating irises like muddy rivers, beating violently against the boulders that constrict them. A glistening film coats those tumultuous eyes.
Weep, but don’t let those tears fall, woman—you cannot choose who sees them. Let them sit atop your lashes like morning dew.
She does not react to the first blinding flash. Her mouth is pinched into a small rosebud, her hands clasped tightly on her lap. Her skirt, intertwined with gold and red and violet, is frozen, unruffled by movement. Underneath the heavy volume of her dress, the outline of her legs becomes more apparent. She is thin, bony, constructed of scaffolding. The skin on her face hangs against her cheekbones, creating hollows her paint cannot hide.
Tremble, woman, but don’t rattle your seat.
Finally, an aperture: in between takes she exhales, mouth open. Within the gateway, cumulonimbus clouds pulsate dense grays and lash out lightning bolts. Gnarled, ancient trees with young lime-green foliage reach for the ceiling, bending before they can shatter it. She conceives universes she is too frail to hold. She yearns to release the wealth she carries inside, but the image she maintains is unrelenting.
Bleed, woman, but do it gracefully; don’t fall apart, or we cannot piece you back together again.
She shifts, pouring her life’s discomfort into the tilt of her foot she has been taught to maintain for years. Her joints creak in their limited span of movement. Her lips purse, stopping the whistle of air that fluted through her sighs. The gleam in her eyes disappears and she becomes the portrait the camera is supposed to create.
Where is the vibrancy of your youth, where you questioned the walls built before you? Where is the vigor that propelled you to climb them? Was it age that weakened your hands, that made you slip and tumble to a kneel? Who makes you crumble under the weight of his pronoun? Restricting your realm to the claustrophobic box of your mind, all the while taunting you with soft brushstrokes of foundation, creams, silk or cotton dresses and vibrant geometric patterns. Stuffing you in this room…what are your origins whose primitive lies bind and gag you?
Woman, where is your essence? The colors inside you are locked within that golden chest surrounding you, key long lost. Look at you now, still-life fixture. Have you traveled this far to be an ornament clasped onto tradition?
But stay still. This is hardly the time to speak.
Nithya Ramcharan is a high school senior from New Orleans, Louisiana. She loves writing in her free time, along with drawing, playing the piano, and walking her dogs. Her work has been recognized by the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards and the Apprentice Writer.