God's Spies

Marjorie Sandor

Every morning that summer my father got up in the dark, made himself a cup of instant coffee, and took it out on the deck of the beach-house, to listen to the waves rushing up and back. He called this “communing with the sea,” and it was true that as he stood there, his face went blank, as if he were picking up a private signal—like that high ringing in the ears that used to close me up like a shell, just for a few seconds. “A little fluid in the ear,” he told me once, frowning. “Remind me to check it out, just routine.” But I didn’t want him to. It was a high strange song I loved, and even he, a medical man, had an unscientific name for it—“God’s dial tone.” I still think of him whenever I hear it. It never lasts, though I try to hang on to it, the way I did that summer, when I was fifteen and had the feeling I was finally getting to know him.

One of those mornings, woken by no alarm, I remember the sky and water having this pale, abandoned look—bereft of the night, I thought to myself, and was briefly pleased. I heard him moving around upstairs, opening the sliding door to the deck. I went upstairs and we stood together, leaning on the rails. This felt like a test: could I stand there as long as he did without saying something? Not until the light spread all the way across the water did he turn to me. “What are you doing up at this hour? Go back to bed—your mother’s still out cold.” And he went back inside, turned on the television for the financial news, and called his broker back east.

That day, his strength lasted straight through breakfast; he didn’t start to fade until eight o’clock or so. “I’ll just rest a minute, then I’ll be ready to hit the trail.” As we ate, he scanned our faces the way he scanned the newspapers for a new stock venture. It was only my mother, Grandma Eva and me. Gabe was off at summer biology camp, with his jars of seawater, his special notebooks. He’d come home for a weekend once, but even then, we hardly saw him. He’d show up for meals, bearing on his swim trunks traces of seaweed, and on his ankles, glistening bracelets of sand. He carried a clipboard under his arms at all times, plus one of the jars of seawater for unexpected specimens. What else was left to do with the ocean? I consoled myself that someday I would have the whole story of our house. Gabe could go ahead and beg me: I would give him nothing. 

In the kitchen, my mother, at last awake, moved dreamily, bringing things to the table, then frowning at them as if to keep them from floating off. She was still in thrall to the night, her throat pale and freckled above her bathrobe, an exhausted diva with her hair turbaned up, her powers pale and useless in daylight. My father’s gaze fell on her and he said lazily, “I almost forgot to tell you. I took a little chance and signed you up for the pageant.” 

My mother looked at him, and waited.

“An Evening with the Masters,” he said. Then he turned to me. “Look at her. She could’ve been a model for any one of those guys—Renoir, or Whosits.”

She blinked at him as if she might be about to wake up, but Eva was tapping her spoon lightly on the table. “I’d let him have his way on this one,” she said. She looked intently at my mother, as if she could hypnotize her into behaving like a normal wife.

My mother sighed. “What do they make you do?”

OF COURSE SHE KNEW. It was a thing we loved, my father and me especially. In the next town down coast, during the Summer Art Festival, regular citizens like ourselves were outfitted with extraordinary costumes and made up to look precisely like the figures in famous paintings and sculptures. I loved the spectacle of those nights: the blue of the sky at dusk, the hush in the ampitheater as the klieg lights went down, and a deep, mellifluous voice flooded the steep shell, startling everyone. “The rabbi should sound that good,” my father used to say. He took me once to a dress rehearsal, and we found the announcer’s booth backstage. I had never seen my father so excited. What manner of man would have such a voice, he wanted to know. But when the announcer turned around, he was pot-bellied, with a florid face, and a veiny, bulbous nose. Even the little booth he spoke from was a terrible disappointment to my father: it had pegboard walls, and little inspirational sayings tacked up everywhere. “Excuse me, my friends, I must away,” the man said to us in his stage voice, but it sounded absurd and fake in the cramped room. He must have felt this too, because he waved us away and lifted his headphones up, putting on an alert, fiercely inward face. “Ready when you are,” he said, to some authority we couldn’t see.

At that same rehearsal I saw a boy not much younger than myself riding a horse in a circus painting. He refused to come down out of his pose when the set was wheeled offstage. A stagehand poked his leg with a riding whip. “Hey Champ,” he shouted. “Wake up. It’s over.” On that boy’s face as he let himself be handed down was a stony, beautiful expression. He had been somewhere else, and did not want to come back. He looked stange coming out of the painting, as if he’d been drugged and transported to another time, the one where he really belonged; he looked the way I felt when I was woken up out of dreams too soon. He was stubbornly blank, spoke to no one, could not be coddled or cajoled. Someday, I promised myself, that’s how I’ll be.

THE AFTERNOON OF the audition, my father couldn’t come along. “I’ve got an appointment with some quack,” he said. “No cause for alarm.” My mother looked at him in surprise but he only smiled and leaned down to me. “I think she’s actually nervous,” he said. “Can you go with her for me? Be one of God’s spies. That’s nice—I like that. Where did I get that?”

“Shakespeare,” I said severely, confidently, though in fact this was a wild guess. 

He put his hand on my head. “Everything you know, your mother  taught you,” he said, his voice rough, burred. “You know that, don’t you?”

“I don’t know anything. Nobody ever tells me what’s going on,” I said, bitterly and not without calculation, hoping he’d tell me something he’d never told my mother, my brother, or anyone. But he only shrugged in his off-hand way. He could do this: go from corny, gangster-movie intimacy—as if he were asking your help in some shady business deal—to a breathtaking distance, like he was an old  mountain, and you, a speck in the valley far below. 

He and Grandma Eva walked with us out to the car that afternoon. The pink audition notice fluttered out of my mother’s purse, and he stuffed it back in for her.

“Don’t be shy,” he said. “Let them get a good look at you.”

“Abe, it’s not Broadway.”

“Don’t carp,” said Eva, giving my mother a little shove.  “Just go.”

My father stood back from the car and gave a little parade wave as we backed down the driveway. My mother said in a quiet voice, “I wish he wouldn’t do this. He’s doomed to disappointment.”

FROM OUR TOWN to theirs, the world changed entirely. We had the flat sandy beach, and one long curved cliff above it. They had the rocky shoreline, the waves always crashing, the tree branches bent low and hard by winds we didn’t get. The road south wound diabolically around the beach cliffs. My mother let everyone pass her: she braked after each curve precisely as my father had taught her to, and moisture collected delicately above her mouth. She was the only redhead in our family, and my father had a kind of awe about her looks which she scorned. “Don’t flatter me,” she’d cry, as if he’d inadvertently wounded her. Maybe he thought the experience of modeling in the pageant would give her some confidence. I imagined how the directors would take one look at her, and see exactly what my father did: that she was a beauty out of some lost era, straight out of Renoir’s Dance at Bougival, a poster he had in his office at home. That would be my mother, with her milky complexion, her eyelids cast down in a maidenly way as she is tilted slightly back by her handsome partner, her dress in a graceful twist under the trees...a natural beauty, they’d say to her, where have you been hiding yourself? She’d have to smile at last, though her hands would rise in faint protest. “It was my husband’s idea,” she’d say. “When he gets an idea, nobody can stop him.” 

The road to the Festival Grove was overhung with a canopy of live oak and eucalyptus. Here the hills began, and glades of tall trees made a hushing sound to lull you, their long leaves thin as fingers pointing down. The grove itself was two miles inland, far enough from the beach that you couldn’t hear the rough banging of the waves. As we got out of the car, my mother straightened her skirt and took a deep breath. “It’s good to get away from all that chaos,” she said.

“What chaos?” I said.

She looked at me in her new sleepy way. “What did I say?” she said. “I meant the usual, sweetie. I don’t know what I meant.”

For all her confusion she seemed to know exactly where to go, and threaded her way easily among the fiberboard booths of painters and sculptors under the eucalyptus trees. She barely glanced around her, but walked straight toward an enormous barn-like building. “Into the breach,” she said, opening the door wide.

In the dark barn the crowd was enormous: not only grown-ups, but children too, and girls and boys my age with long tanned arms and drifty blond hair. There was something foreign about it, as if we’d fallen into a different country, whose people who’d long ago been initiated into an important secret. Nobody seemed to notice us, and my mother smiled as if this pleased her somehow. She got a cup of coffee and a paper name-tag, and sat down in a metal chair against a wall, patting the seat beside her. On the walls behind us were pictures of the famous tableaux of previous Pageants, and my hopes rose as I imagined her cast in the part of a royal lady, perfectly erect in jewels and velvet, surrounded by maids and children. I was still picturing this when a man strolled over and looked her up and down.

“Clara Gershon,” he said, ticking a line off his clipboard. “Do you have a problem with apparent nudity?”

My mother’s hand came down on my shoulder so suddenly I flinched. She stood up. “This is my daughter Rachel.”

“Ah, Persephone herself,” he said, smiling at me as if we’d known each other for ages. He squatted beside my chair. “Listen, honey, Mom’s going to be Ceres, the Goddess of the Corn, painted gold from head to toe. Flat-out spectacular. How are you with secrets?” He looked severely at me, but didn’t wait for an answer. “Anonymity is crucial,” he said, looking up at my mother. “The illusion must be complete. We have never yet had a failure.”

He took her arm. “Come meet your Neptune.”

“Rachel,” said my mother. “Don’t move. Stay right here. I’ll be right back.”

When she came back, she was even paler than usual. In her hand was a glossy color photograph of a man and woman, golden and naked, lounging on a giant jeweled crown.

“The world’s gone crazy,” she said. “Your father included. I swear I will never again put you in this position, but for reasons I can’t fully comprehend it’s important to your father that I go through with this. I can’t explain it right now, but—can you promise me not to say a word at home? She waved the photograph in the air. “I don’t think he knows the particulars.”

She had never before spoken to me this way: weighty, conspiratorial, trusting. I nodded, afraid to say anything and break the spell. With any luck, my mother would be a stark naked pure gold earth goddess on a three-hundred-year old salt cellar, the famous one of the Pageant, the piece de resistance, according to the caption on the photograph. Golden Ceres she’d be, and facing at a distance of two feet, maximum, handsome and athletic Neptune, who leaned casually back with his trident held stiffly out. I noticed that Ceres didn’t look as good as Neptune. Her breasts sagged, her back slumped a bit; she looked sad. I pointed this out to my mother, and she explained hastily how Ceres had lost her daughter to the God of the Underworld, and by some deal they made, got her back each spring for a while. She had every right to look that way.

“Like a kid in a divorce?” I said.

She looked at me wearily. “No,” she said. “Like a kid in a myth. Look—you want to see Neptune, there he goes.” She pointed out a broad-shouldered man in Bermuda shorts and sandals. She leaned down again. “He thinks he’s God’s gift,” she said. “It doesn’t seem to take much around here.”

On the way home she told me how it had gone; how she’d wanted to sit down a moment, but there was nowhere at all. People swarmed, gathered. Neptune had leaned toward her. “It’s hotter than Hades in here,” he’d said, and waited for her to smile. She wasn’t in the mood, and simply said, “Nice to meet you,” but as she fled, an elegant woman her own age put a hand on her arm. She informed my mother that she herself was in a state of shock, having just found out she was going to be a Spanish royal personage all in green, encrusted with over a thousand gems, smack in the middle of somebody’s royal family—Delacroix, or Velasquez, the name just now escaped her. Then she leaned closer. “I heard about you, poor dear,” she said. “But don’t worry. I hear they let you wear a little diaper. You won’t actually be, you know, naked.”

Secrecy, it turned out, did not sit well with my father. He was all right for the first couple of days, thought it was cute of us. Then, one afternoon, resting in his chair, he called out suddenly to my mother, “Show me the fine print. Show me where it says And thy spouse shall remain in utter darkness until the big night.”

“Shall I have the director call you?” she said.

“He’ll think I’m jealous.”

My mother smiled. “Whose idea was this?”

“I didn’t know how far they’d take it,” he said. “You look like the cat that ate the canary.”

For the next two weeks, everything went wrong for him. Promising deals soured, shares fell, a rock ’n’ roll band he’d invested in was hauled in during a drug raid. He was having trouble at the office with a tricky diagnosis, and with my mother distracted, Grandma Eva had taken over the household. She closed all the blinds and curtains, and started cooking heavy, old-fashioned food: chicken and dumplings, noodle kugel, peas cooked until they were pale. “You need to be fortified,” she said. “Your mother has no comprehension, never has.”

One afternoon she called me into her bedroom. Before she’d come to stay with us, this had been an ordinary guest room, a place we threw our extra stuff when nobody was visiting. It had white walls and  Venetian blinds, and three small seascapes my father had bought at the Festival over the years. But Grandma kept the blinds drawn, and now the room had the muffled, sinister dark of a carnival booth, the television flickering a malevolent blue in the corner.

“Be good to your father,” she said. “He’s not feeling well, and could use a little attention.”

“I knew it. Is it V.D., is that why nobody will say?”

“For God’s sake what do they teach you at school? Listen, they don’t know exactly, but it’s one of those things that usually strikes children.” She looked at me grimly. “Leave it to your father to break the mold.”

She was quiet a moment, then raised her hand in a royal gesture of dismissal. I stumbled out as if from a cave into blinding sunlight, and moved through the hall to the stairs. Above, I heard his voice; he was on the phone—with his broker, I figured, then remembered it would already be night in New York. I listened for familiar words, but heard none, and no gusto in his voice. He hung up then, and I heard him open the sliding door to the deck. Though he usually gave it a forceful shove, this time it made a forlorn swoosh, a sound like a car passing on a rainy street. By the time I came up he was out there, no coffee cup in his hands, the television on, the jaunty music still going, the numbers marching past. I went out and stood beside him.

“Heavy trading on the market?” I said.

He sighed. “Don’t bother your head with that garbage,” he replied. “I don’t know why I got into it. Listen, tell me about your mother. What painting is she in? I promise not to let on that I know.”

“I’m under oath,” I said. “From the director.”

“For Crissakes,” he shouted. “Why is she like this? And you! You were supposed to be my eyes and ears. What did I say?”

“You’re the same way,” I said. I held my breath; never before had I said such a thing to my father.

But he turned to me casually, as if he hadn’t heard me. “I just had a brainstorm,” he said. “Since you’re so good at keeping secrets, here’s one more.”

I trembled. Now he would tell me, in his own words, what was wrong with him.

“A secret of our own. She can be in the dark herself, for a change.”

“I’m ready, Dad,” I said.

“Rachel, this is going to be spectacular. Just bear with me a day or so.”

THE NEXT AFTERNOON, while she was in rehearsal, my father said that his plans had worked out, and I just needed to come with him down to the Festival grounds. I balked: what if she got let out of the barn for a coffee break, and ran into us. She’d think we were spying on her, and that I couldn’t be trusted. My father smiled. “You’ve got what we call an over-active imagination,” he said. “Take it from me, you’re doing nothing wrong. In fact, you’re giving her a little present. And it’s got nothing whatever to do with her show, I give you my word of honor.” He wanted Grandma Eva to come along, too, as “moral support,” he said, and she agreed. This was utterly unlike her, except that when it came to my father that summer she was meek, always smoothing the way. He seemed to know this, was maybe even testing her a little. On the drive down he pulled over at a turn-out called Inspiration Point, which looked out over a series of craggy tidepools. “Eva,” he cried. “Get a load of this drop-off!”he said. But as the three of us stood there, he was the one who clung to the railing, and whose hair stuck out like a seagull’s ruffled feathers. His trousers flapped wildly and I saw that he was pale, too quiet. He squinted at the roadside marker, and gazed down at the rocky tidepools until Grandma put her hand on his arm. 

“Okay, on we go,” he said, looking at me, his eyes strangely bright. 

“We’re doing this for posterity.”

AT THE FESTIVAL  grounds, we wandered among the booths of portraitists and potters until he found the one he was looking for: a slight slender man with dark hair, heavy lips, square hands with smooth dark hairs that looked like they’d been brushed.

“My God, it’s Rasputin,” Grandma whispered. “What does your father want with him?”

It was true he had an exotic, sinister look, with his glittery eyes and curly dark hair. He seemed to paint only dramatic, stormy ocean scenes. Even the brightest one, Sunset at Santa Dominga, was slate and blood-red, and if you looked close, you could see a little dinghy broken up in the tide pools.

“Let’s see what we’ve got here,” he said, taking my arm.

He lifted my chin lightly upward, turned my face this way and that. “A nice exotic confusion,” he said, his fingers warm on my skin. Then, as if I’d passed some test, he released me, and pointed to a little stool. When I was seated, he lifted my chin once more, turned my shoulders, and looked into my eyes. “Just like that,” he said. “Hold still, and don’t talk. Can you do that?” He put his hands on my shoulders once more—had I already moved? Grandma Eva flinched.

“Is it necessary to touch the child so often?”

The artist looked at me inquiringly.

I gave the merest shrug, so as not to ruin my pose, and he smiled. “Good. Very good.”

My father pulled up two folding chairs and invited Eva to sit down with him. “Eva, Rachel, this is Paul Godinski,” he said. “So, am I right, you’ll do the portrait today, and put in the background later, so it looks like she’s sitting on the tidepool rocks—you know that one called Sphinx Rock?” 

Godinski nodded. “I know it well.”

My father turned to me. “If it goes well, maybe we can take a break later and go see what your mother’s up to in the big rehearsal.”

“It’s against the rules,” I said.

Godinski smiled a small, bitter smile. His eyes gleamed at me. “Rules are for breaking,” he said.

The intensity of his gaze, his busy fingers, worked like a spell on me. The eucalyptus glade appeared slightly inflamed, a violence of blue and gold, and the voices of tourists and booth-artists seemed muted, miles away. The seagulls didn’t fly; they were flung around by an unseen hand. I felt achy, almost feverish. I wanted nothing more than to look at him, at his hands particularly, but I knew he would never forgive me, and the vague but certain sense of a communication between us would be lost forever. Grandma Eva, despite her best efforts, fell asleep, her arms draped on the sides of her folding chair, her feet, in their open-toed old lady sandals, looked strange among the acorns, the fallen leaves.

“You need a break,” Godinski said to me. “Go get a Coke or something,” and at this Eva startled awake. My father was still asleep in his own chair, his head fallen to one side, his mouth open.

“I’ll come with you,” Eva said. “Is he safe there?”

Godinski cocked his head. “Safe from what?” he said.

Eva sighed. “Never mind. I asked the wrong person. Come, Rachel.”

When we’d walked a few yards away from his booth, she turned to me. “This so-called Godinski is a menace,” she said. “With a mind like that, what will he do with a human subject, a young girl, no less?” 

I wanted to speak in his defense, so we could go back again, but I couldn’t answer. He had forbidden me to speak, and I liked the way the world looked under his command.

“Why don’t you show me the rehearsal hall,” Eva said casually. “I don’t want to see your mother. I’m just thinking we’ll know if your father wakes up and tries to sneak in.”

As I led her forward, I couldn’t muster the feeling of betrayal I knew I should have. It seemed correct—safer, somehow—that Grandma Eva be in on the Pageant conspiracy, and though she was newly obliging with my father, I could not picture her fully taking his side. She was forever saying to my mother, “You made your bed,” and I knew this had to do with him.

The floors creaked as we approached a dim corner of the stage, from which we could hear voices, laughter. At first I wasn’t sure what I was seeing. What looked like a parade float, like a crown, all made of gold foil and with great red and blue faceted glass pieces imbedded in its sides—to look like jewels from a distance, I guessed. Two women were assisting a third, very carefully, as she stepped up over the side of it. They all laughed again. “I’m dripping,” she said. This was my mother, my mother’s voice. She was entirely naked, entirely gold. Another woman came up with a little brush and dabbed more paint on her hands. “The Midas Touch,” said a man’s voice, and he was naked too.

“God in heaven,” said Eva.

“The family isn’t supposed to know,” I said.

“You can say that again.”

“You won’t tell anyone.”

“Indeed not,” said Eva. “Wild horses, as they say.”

“If we have to, we’ll tell Dad she’s in the Spanish painting. The Royal family of the Infante—he’ll like that.”

“Naked on a salt cellar,” said Eva.

“She’s the Goddess of the Corn,” I said.

She looked at me sharply. “Naked is naked,” she said. “The day you forget is the day I drop dead.” 

When we got back to the booth, my father was still asleep. Godinski was in fact kneeling before him, and looked at us in amazement. “This guy can sleep like nobody. Is he all right?”

“No, actually, he isn’t,” said Eva. “You’d better help me wake him up.”

I thought we’d have trouble tearing him away from the Festival Grounds, that he’d wake up in a delirium and beg us take him to the rehearsal barn. But his forehead shone with sweat, and his hands were cold.

“I guess that’s enough for one day,” he said. “When did it get so hot?”

All that week, I sat for the portrait, and every night as I lay in bed unable to sleep, the artist Godinski came to me with his fierce black eyes, his hot sandpaper fingers on my arm. It burned there, and I shivered all over. One night, I awoke abruptly, not knowing I’d slept. I was no longer in my room, but standing outside my parents’ bedroom door, which was slightly ajar. This was an old habit I thought I’d long since outgrown. There, as ever, were my parents’ twin beds, my father in his, my mother standing over him in her bathrobe. But he didn’t look like my father: he could have been a little boy sick in bed. I knew this from the sad, solicitous curve of her shoulders as she bent to him. I couldn’t see my father’s face, either, but his back moved a little, heaved, and her hand on his shoulder didn’t move at all.

I don’t remember saying anything, but she turned, no surprise in her face. “Rachel, do me a favor and go back to bed. It’s three in the morning.”

“Is Dad all right?” I asked.

“Just a little nausea,” she said. “Something’s going around—”
“A case of nerves,” my father called out weakly. “I’ve got stage fright on your mother’s behalf. Go! I expect to see you at the crack of dawn.”

WHEN I WOKE, as usual, to the ringing in my ears, he was still asleep, and my mother was awake, pacing the living room, a cup of tea in her hand. I must have frightened her, coming up the stairs, because she gave me a wild look. “What woke you?” she said. “Why is it that all other teenagers in the world sleep late? Could you do that for me sometime?” Then she sighed. “Listen, can you tell Grandma when she wakes up—I’m taking your father in.”

“What’s he got,” I asked.

She put her hand on my arm the way she’d done in the rehearsal barn. “They honest-to-God don’t know, Rachel.”

“Grandma says it’s something children get.”

She didn’t say anything, just looked over my head a long minute. “Grandma isn’t an expert in the field. I promise to tell you when we know.” And she turned away fast.

MY PARENTS WERE home again by afternoon—could my father have planned even this? Because just a few minutes before their car pulled up, Godinski appeared on our doorstep, the painting, I guessed, under a white sheet he held against his short, powerful thigh. He was trying to get Grandma Eva to let him in, and to my astonishment, she refused. She simply folded her arms across her chest and said, with absolute seriousness, “Please come back later, when the master of the house is at home.” But by then their car had pulled up, and my father was getting slowly out of the car, leaning on my mother’s arm. He came to the front door like a king, and with great ceremony opened our front door for Godinski. “Welcome to my humble abode,” he said, trying to smile, and my mother looked at all of us. “What’s going on this time?” she said hoarsely, but my father was already headed for his big leather chair. “Go ahead and do the honors,” he said to Godinski. “I forgot to say, it’s a surprise for my wife.”

Godinski dropped the sheet with a lazy flourish. It wasn’t my mother who gasped, but Grandma Eva.

“I should have stopped him,” she said to my mother. “But you married him. You know how he is.”

I didn’t see the problem. I liked the way I looked, the sad, almond-shape he’d given my eyes, and the way he’d given my short hair a darker, wilder look than it had in real life. It was how I felt, right down to the sea thrashing around me as I sat on Sphinx Rock, surrounded by nature’s violence. I flushed with pleasure, and could not look at Godinski, lest he catch me in a moment of vanity, and laugh, out of his terrible depths of  knowledge.

“Do you like it?” I asked my mother.

She smiled briefly. “It’s quite dramatic,” she said, taking my arm and nodding at Godinski at the same time. She drew me close as if I were a small child in need of protection. “You did a wonderful job. Has he paid you yet? We just got back from the hospital, or I’d invite you to stay—”

“Nonsense,” said my father. “Stick around. I’ll make you a drink.”

Godinski shifted awkwardly from one foot to the other, keeping his eyes down. My mother was looking at him intently. At last he spoke, in a rough, unused voice, and I realized he had not spoken to anyone else for hours, possibly the whole day. “Actually, I have to get back. I’ve got somebody coming at three—”

I followed him to the front door, and just as he was turning away, I cleared my throat.

“So,” I whispered, looking at him as steadily as I could. “Do I really look like that?”

“You will,” he said. “And pretty soon, too.” And he looked me over once more, until my face went hot and I had to look away.

And then he was gone.

My mother asked my father not to hang the picture in our living room or even the hallway, for reasons she could not explain to his satisfaction, though she tried. “Look at the jagged rocks, look at her eyes! It’s completely morbid, and doesn’t look anything like her.”

Grandma Eva stood up from the couch. “Not to mention it’s bad luck to have a picture of the living in your house. I thought you knew that, Abe.”

This gave my father pause. “Fine,” he said. “You leave me no choice. We’ll put it in the guest room.”

“The guest room,” cried Eva.

“There’s a big open spot on the wall behind the bed,” he said. “It’s the perfect spot.”

“Abe—” began my mother.

“Whose house is this?” he said. “Couldn’t one little thing be the way I’d like it?”

Eva flushed and looked at me. “Come downstairs with me,” she said. “Now.”

All that day and next, my father sulked. We all tiptoed around him, waiting for a thaw, but he held himself aloof, and one afternoon, when Eva and my mother were out shopping, he hung the portrait where he’d said he would, right over my grandmother’s bed. When she got back and saw it, she turned pale, but said nothing to him. To my mother she said, just once, “I washed my hands long ago.”

Not until the night of the Pageant itself did my father consent to speak to us. He had a slight headache, he said, but he wouldn’t miss it for anything. My mother, who had missed a rehearsal or two to take him to the doctor, begged him to “call a halt to the whole business,” as she put it. “They have understudies,” she said. “No harm done.” 

“Over my dead body.”

“Abe,” she cried, but she was looking at me.

“Aren’t you supposed to be down there fifteen minutes ago?” he asked. “To get dressed and all?”

Before she left, my mother laid out our clothes—my father’s and mine—as she’d done when I was small, for grand occasions. “I’m not taking any chances with either of you,” she said, and waved goodbye as if she were going on a long trip. At six thirty I knocked on the guest room door, and as Eva opened it, the hall light flooded in, lighting up her bed and a corner of the portrait over her head. Had she been sitting in the dark so she wouldn’t have to see it? She had circles under her eyes and a pale, surprised face, as if she’d already suffered a year of sleeplessness under my sad gaze. She straightened my barrettes, and licking a finger, reached up to flatten my bangs. “Listen to me. You’re not the tragic creature he made you out to be,” she said. “Your eyes aren’t like that at all. What is it with painters? They have no respect for reality.”

My father was waiting for us beside the car, jingling his keys in his pocket. His hair was still damp and raked carefully across his bald spot. “Well, well,” he said, helping Eva into the front seat. “The big night is here, the mystery about to be revealed.”

“Don’t count your chickens,” she said, but he was already smiling a little, as if she’d announced some happy prophecy.

THE FESTIVAL AMPITHEATER was lit golden-pink, like the inside of a conch shell. Streaky clouds moved across the sky, and the moon was just up, only a sliver.

Eva watched the stage closely. She had already rolled her program into a little tube and was beating it lightly against the armrest. “What’s the point of such a program,” she said in a loud and ragged voice. “She could be in anything, and we’ll never know unless she deigns to tell us. I didn’t raise her to be a sneaky person.”

 I looked down at my program. There was a list of participants, in which I found my mother’s name, and on the next page, a list of paintings and artists’ names. What amazed me was that they could sustain the mystery: up until now I hadn’t known how good adults could be at keeping secrets. I was beginning to see that they were better at keeping them than at letting them go.

The lights went down, the audience began to murmur, and the orchestra struck up—something grand and classical. My father put his arm around my shoulder. “Your mother would know what this is,” he said proudly. “She always knows.”

Out of darkness bloomed a scene: all velvet and golden with dark obscure corners. Rembrandt’s Holy Family, said the announcer in his deepest voice. It seemed to reverberate beyond the ampitheater, out toward the coastal hills. Eva leaned toward my father.

“God forbid she’s in some Christian picture,” she said.

“Ssh,” said my father. “I’ll tell you when I see her.”

On it went. Three ballerinas at the barre, each with a glowing face, a black band at the neck, a long salmon-pink leg in elevee, reflected in a mirror. A marble bas-relief of soldiers rushing into battle, the living figures looking precisely like stone. Eva gasped, and I saw that she was not yet swept up in the illusion, but was worrying that a player might lose his balance and tumble down onto the stage.

The royal household of the Infante was next: this was the one I had chosen for the deception, in case my father asked. Gold, pumpkin, dark green, a chaotic and impromptu scene of family life, at its center a woman having her hair done. On one side, the maids slightly irritated by the hair-dresser’s invasion, bear aloft trays of gold-frilled lace and black lacquered boxes. Between their skirts stands a little girl, her attention caught by something off in a corner, away from the main action. On the other side, courtiers in maroon frock- coats and green breeches face out with broad smiles or hostile, sneaky looks; surely they’re plotting. The Infante himself is an old prince, bewigged and pink-nosed, seated at the same table where his wife, draped in white, is having her long hair dressed. She is absolutely the center, pale-lit against the tapestry of household chaos, her face deep in some private absorption made possible only by the activity around her. I liked this: the business all around, the stillness at the center.

Eva seemed to like it, too; she relaxed again in her seat. She turned to my father and smiled. “That’s her,” she said. “I’d know her anywhere.”
“I don’t think so,” said my father. “You forget I know her too.”

Several pictures later my father began to shift in his seat. “That’s not her either,” he said. “She’s not that tall.” His forehead looked waxy, ivory-blue in the twilight.

That was when the curtain went up on the last tableau.

“Cellini’s Golden Salt Cellar,” said the announcer. A gasp came up from the audience as the golden crown slowly turned. There was Neptune, fresh, athletic, lazily leaning back, while Ceres held herself carefully erect. Just as in the picture my mother and I had been shown, Ceres looked less comfortable, and more alert than Neptune—you could see she was waiting for something. I could not, somehow, believe this was really my mother: she had never let me see her undressed, and yet there were her breasts, and the slightly rounded belly, all so golden that I had to take it on faith. Did it really take so little to make the familiar world vanish—even those closest to you? I wanted to cry: there was something so sad and generous about her body: beauty, finally, was not the thing. “Goddess of the Corn,” said the announcer, “Ceres spent years searching for her daughter Persephone, who was abducted by the King of the Underworld. Cellini captured her grace and grief in this spectacular Salt Cellar. . . .”

During the applause, I turned to see how my father was reacting to it. Like me, he’d been leaning forward, utterly absorbed. “Fantastic. You’d never recognize them in street clothes.”

The curtain came down, and the crowd came to its feet. He stood up, too, and stretched. I studied his face, but it gave nothing away. “So, Kiddo,” he said. “She’s got me baffled. Can you tell me now, which one was she in?”

“The Velasquez,” I said quickly.

“Ah, The Royal Family of the Infante,” he said, smiling down at me. “That would be the one with the old prince looking well out of it, and the painter hiding behind the curtain.”

“What painter?” I said.

“You didn’t notice him,” he said. “Funny, nobody ever does.”

“But you did,” I said.

“So, I’m entitled. Certain little things you start to notice, late in the game. It’s a mystery to me, too, why it takes so long.”

“I want to see those things too,” I said. “I don’t want to wait.”

“You have to,” he said. “That’s the beauty of it.” He was smiling, but his eyes were glassy bright. “Don’t be in a rush, Rachel,” he said. “When it’s time, you’ll know.” 

“Dad—” I started.

“No more questions for tonight,” he said. “I’m out of steam.” 

As we left the Festival Grove that night, I noticed, on my mother’s cheek, a little crescent of gold paint. I imagined her at the dressing room mirror, dabbing at her face with cold cream so no trace of her secret identity would be left. Had she been careless, hurried a little at the end, or was this a moment she couldn’t resist, a private gift to my father? The two of them walked ahead of Eva and me, arm in arm, and though neither of them spoke, I felt they were at peace. And surely, if I’d been granted to see it, so had he: that faint glittering curve on her pale skin as we passed under ordinary street lights. I took it as a sign that he knew her at last, and was content, for he hummed a corny old show tune as we walked back to the car. Just before he opened the door, he leaned toward her and said, “I’ve never seen you so beautiful. I’m right, aren’t I? Are you who I think you are?”

She raised her face to his and smiled, and I marveled at how gracefully they moved past the question, neither of them giving away how much they knew.