Now I Know What True Love Is

Eric Ortlund

 

Dearest Susan,

I know I’ve been a terrible mother. I see that now, and I know you’ll hardly listen to me, after all my excuses. But can you listen just once more?

It just ate, so I think I have a little time before it comes back.

What a horrible mother I’ve been.

You probably already received the invitation for Thanksgiving. Did my handwriting look different? (It wasn’t me.) If you have any sense, stay away. But if you come, don’t look at the painting.

Don’t.

I got it from a student, a little weasel named Parker, and I should have known he was trouble right from the start, but you’ve always called me arrogant and now I see what you mean. I thought it was a painting at first, like everyone does. I saw a desolate, dark landscape and a knot of shadow moving among the mountains. I thought I recognized the scene from somewhere but couldn’t think where.

I was staring at it when Parker said if I didn’t keep it in my office, he’d bring a sexual harassment suit to the Dean! He said I’d done certain things, and other students would testify—

Well. I told him he should be so lucky. And I never did touch him, either, except for those two times; but certain things I said could have been taken the wrong way. And the Dean and I weren’t on friendly terms.

I took the painting and put it in my office behind some stacks of papers where I couldn’t see it. But I couldn’t get it out of my mind. There was something in it, something I was just about to see.

After a while, I couldn’t help myself and took it out and looked. What I saw this time—it was the same alien landscape, but there were people there now. Me and your father. We were having our last argument. I know it was our last, because I had the knife out, and his suitcase was packed. But other things were different. I was a lot bigger, with sharper teeth and wilder eyes and Medusa-like hair, and I made a huge shadow, even though the light wasn’t right. The painting was showing me how I looked to him—that’s what I think now. If he were still alive, I’d have to apologize a thousand times over for what I did to him. But he’d never forgive me, and he’d be right not to. And the thing that hurt the most was that I could see he loved me, from his expression in the painting, even as he left me.

I kept it in my office after that—I would have even if Parker hadn’t blackmailed me. I’d work late into the night and stare at it and the things it showed me. I knew it was telling me the truth. It was awful at first, but it was also kind of a relief. I’d always known these things about myself, even if I couldn’t admit them. And I started to feel powerful. Maybe it wasn’t my fault I drove your father away—maybe he just wasn’t strong enough to live with me. Nothing against him! He just wasn’t right for someone as ferocious as me.

I got a lot done during those weeks—three papers into publishable shape. And all the time, my mind was turning toward the painting, like a compass needle turning north.

One night I fell asleep at my desk with the painting next to me. When I pulled my head up, I felt so wonderful – better than I’d felt in years. For just a moment, I wondered if I’d made up with my lovely daughter. Then I saw the cleaning lady sitting in the other chair in my office.

She wasn’t dead. There’s that, at least. But she won’t speak or move, and has to be fed and changed herself, and how can anyone forgive that?

There was something in her eyes, like she was a prisoner in her own body, trying to communicate with me, with anyone.

They couldn’t charge me with anything. She couldn’t say I’d done anything because she couldn’t speak, and none of my prints were on her body.

After the police released me, I went home and slept for 24 hours straight. I felt so low, if there had been a knife in my bedroom, I might have used it; but I was too tired even to go downstairs to the kitchen. When I could drag myself out of bed, I went back to my office and locked the door and looked for a long time at a landscape as barren as I felt. It was just as strange and dark, but I thought I could make out the shape of the academic building in front of the mountains. And the dark thing was closer. It made my eyes swim to look at it, but I thought I could almost make out the sharp teeth, wild eyes, Medusa-like hair.

It’s a doorway, not a painting. I know that now. And Parker picked me because I was so similar to the thing on the other side—that’s what I think.

And he was right. I’m perfect for it. (And what does that say about me?)

I emailed Parker and asked to speak to him. He sat in the same chair the cleaning lady had. I had my speech all worked out about how sorry I was, and would he take the painting away, but Parker asked, “Are you ready to join us now?” and it all went out of my mind.

I asked him what he was talking about, and he said, “You’ll be a great one among us. I was trying to help you by giving it to you. You’re a fit receptacle. It’s the only thing a woman like you is fit for. This is the closest to forgiveness you’ll ever get.”

It came out of me then, and I had changed enough that I didn’t lose consciousness this time. He didn’t even scream; but a smile and a sigh escaped him as I ate. A sour little soul to fester in my guts, but I felt as large as the universe as I feasted, and just as wonderful. (I can still feel him, down there, somewhere.)

That was a couple days ago. This morning, I ate Frank. You don’t know him; he’s a gentleman friend who spends the night sometimes. His body is still in my bed and I don’t know what to do with it, but the first thing I had to do is apologize to my lovely daughter, who understands I’ve always been the monster and knew to stay away, and

I

I am here.

Strange, so strange, this lump of nerves and maggot guts.

Now I see what love is, which you humans value so much.

Are you coming to Thanksgiving, dear? It would be so wonderful to have you.

I love you.

 

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Eric Ortlund has had five short stories published in very small venues which don’t exist anymore and has published one novel, Dead Petals (Fingerpress, 2013).