Previous Challenge Entry (Level 4 – Masters)
Topic: FINISH (05/26/16)
By Jan Ackerson
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Not that the museum job was much more glamorous than pushing burgers would have been. They had me in the archives, sorting and cataloging, updating their databases. The work was lonely and dusty, with occasional moments of something like joy upon discovering an unfamiliar lithograph by a favorite artist or a startling watercolor by an unfamiliar one. Real joy had been lost to me some months earlier, but this emotion was close enough, like an excellent forgery.
I was at my desk, writing a description of a bit of folk art when the crates arrived. The undergrad interns who delivered them, grunting and straining under their weight, gave me a wry salute as they left. One of them called out good luck.
I was about to text my supervisor—what’s going on?—when she appeared in person at my office door.
“You’ll never believe it,” she said. “These crates—” Her gesture took in the entire room. “—are the property of Maria Gallagher. Willed to us.”
We stared at each other for a moment, stunned. Maria Gallagher was perhaps the most famous American artist of the mid-20th century. She was childless, never married, and there had been much speculation in the art world as she aged and during her final illness—who would inherit? We knew of no ties to this institution, yet here were the crates, holding the entire contents of her studio and home.
Over the next several days, I opened them one at a time, handling the items with white gloves and meticulously entering each article into the museum’s database. I was saving the pictures for last, so I’d been going through reams of correspondence, mostly bills for brushes and canvas. When I opened the third shoebox of the afternoon, I saw a corner of thicker stock sticking out among the envelopes.
I pulled it out and saw that it was a charcoal sketch, a rough draft. I recognized it immediately as belonging to the group of paintings she’d done late in life: called Red Letters, they were a series of minimalist lithographs of Jesus, illustrating his spoken words. The sketch I held was hardly more than a few lines of charcoal on art board, but such was Gallagher’s genius that those sweeping curves captured Jesus from the back, his face in one-quarter profile as he looked down at an infant in his arms. In the margin, she had penned Suffer the little children.
The charcoal sketch was clearly unfinished. Jesus’s face, his shoulder, his hair—those were skillfully rendered and complete, but the baby was nothing more than a suggestion. A rounded head, some intersecting diagonal lines to indicate swaddling, nothing more.
My heart clenched; I couldn’t breathe. Suffer the little children… I swiveled in my chair and grabbed my bag, coming very close to tucking the little sketch into one of its pockets and walking out with it. But my conscience prickled, and instead I made a copy, and hastily left with it hidden inside a magazine.
Once home, I pulled out the sketch and opened my box of graphite pencils. My hand hesitated for just a moment above the lines suggesting the baby, and then I started to draw.
She had been so unbelievably little. Too small to live, of course, but I had been allowed to hold her just long enough so that I could memorize her face. No eyelashes except for the finest little cluster at the corner of each closed eye. Upturned nose, just like mine. Lower lip pushed out in a tiny pout.
No one had known I was pregnant. No one knew, even now, that I had lost her.
It didn’t take long to finish the Gallagher sketch, filling in the featureless form with the tiny features I’d memorized four months ago.
I wasn’t a person of faith—not then—not one to believe that unseen hands hold human lives. But it wasn’t coincidence that set Maria Gallagher’s crates in my office and her unfinished sketch in my hands, and it wasn’t chance that allowed me to sketch my Lily into the arms of love.
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