Ann Stewart McBee
Ekphrastic: Wedding Photo 1997
Donna Lynn is dancing with her son because her father died long ago, and she is thirty-seven years old. Behind them, fuzzy marionettes dance on strings, wry amusement and wooden enjoyment painted in blurs. Donna’s brass-streaked hair is pulled back tightly and brushed smooth, and just a smile of the bun at the nape of her neck is visible, along with a ring of shine like a flashlight’s beam. Behind her ear, a lurid red camellia is tucked, its inner petals wilting and bent, covering the impertinent stamen in modesty. The sad flower is Southern, like the bride. A setting sun casts oval blobs of light at her back or a trick of mirror balls. Her eyes are closed, but she is smiling smiling smiling. Closed lips naturally hued a fleshy pink that draws the eye back to the camellia. Not a hint of makeup or nail polish, but the lashes are clearly false, ferns of brownish black on her cheeks. Her blue dress floats in the center of the photograph, with short billowy sleeves and a print pattern that looks like clouds until further examination reveals apple blossoms. A northern flower below the southern one. An overturning. Clusters hug her mid-swaying hips and bloom on the ruffles that just cover her knees, where the photo ends. The dress was handmade by Donna Lynn herself for her senior prom in 1978, and it still fits as it did that sorrowful evening. Twenty years dipping beneath the horizon and a morning in its unboxing. There’s a spike of light at her caramel-tan throat, which might be a comet, or an arc of electricity, or a minnow in a pond, but is actually a cross, recently purchased. Her son, wearing a rumpled grey suit, is smirking. His eyes wide open and accusatory. Flashing red. Hair defiantly mussed and the same color as his mother’s – brass with layers of champagne-yellow and brown. He is fifteen going on sixty-two, though his forehead just reaches her chin. An easy kiss. Her hand on his shoulder is snugly protective. His hand on her waist looks poised to pinch. A signal between them. Between their bodies her hand is a sliver in his, the fingers relaxed but the thumb tightly clamped around her son’s. A chain afraid of being broken. A picked lock.
Ekphrastic: Christmastime 1999
Donna Lynn’s gaze points down at a tray of gingerbread that she is in the midst of cutting into bars. One hand holds the tray with love-filled steadiness, the other blurs into the knife. One gray and gold swath, like the waterfall that conceals the treasure, connecting mother to knife. Dividing evenly, symmetrically, a portcullis of order against a field of dishevelment. On the counter, a yellow box of plastic wrap and a bowl of frosting from which a spatula sneers. Always the worry that the plastic wrap will stick and there will be less frosting on the bars that her son eats in the hospital, and there will be more disappointment. There is also a scrap of white paper and a cordless phone on its side. A short glass of amber liquid half full. One gold hoop earring. A blue name badge. A pair of sunglasses. A clip for opened bags. An uncapped pen. A length of paracord. A roll of tape. Things for tying, for sealing, for affixing, for nothing. Things on places. A well-thumbed book on teenage depression with a sappy drawing of a boy on the cover who looks nothing like her son. She wears an ill-fitting red sweatshirt that belonged to him briefly. He is no longer smaller than she is. He watches from a framed photo on the wall to her left with a nod and a mummer’s smile. Staring him down is the Macy’s angel with her noel-reddened cheeks and her perfectly round halo. The harp she carries like a bow and arrow aimed at Donna. Slick wisps of hair hang forward and frame Donna Lynn’s cheeks, which sag forth into lips pursed in concentration, in the need for control. To control the story. Hansel and Gretel come home. The mother is sorry she sent them into the woods to die. The gingerbread house is home to a cannibal witch. Donna Lynn’s hair is in a bun, knotted messily at the back of her head, run through with chopsticks in an unenthused cross. One earring on, the other off. Her eyelids are see-through blue, the bags underneath a downy gray. Baking is an exhausting narrative. Where the photo ends, see one apple-red candle in a nest of pine sprigs. See the flame that is so round and white it must be an angel’s halo or a piece of paper waiting to be scribbled upon.
Ekphrastic: Shenandoah National Park 2000
Donna Lynn sits atop a shadow-dappled boulder overlooking a bluff in a park in the state where she was born. Behind her, miles of hills roll, carpeted with maple, ash, and basswood in the dark greens of late summer. Old Rag Mountain shows a bare shoulder of rock just above Donna Lynn’s head. Behind that a sea of leaves and branches, delightfully impertinent and various in shade, before fading into a misty gray-green that fades into white at the top of the photo. There is no blue in the picture whatsoever, just the promise of it. Her son sits beside her, angled toward her, towering now, his eyes shaded by an orange fisherman’s hat and his open-lipped smile beneath. Donna Lynn is smiling too, wide and white. Her hair in two braids that hang over her tan-and-also-pink shining shoulders. A red bandana to keep the bangs in line. Her cross is gone, replaced by a beaded choker, orange and brown flowers of resin, made by her son in hospital. He made one he wears as well, a snake’s rattle in ceramic on a thin leather rope. The passerby taking the photo will note their matching boots, their matching army-green cargo shorts, their matching sun-kissed chests, glistening with thin sweat. She couldn’t resist him–his tilted head, his Puckish wink, his front teeth just slightly longer than the rest, and she took the camera blushing. Donna Lynn wears a white tank with a red sports bra underneath. Control with comfort. Her son wears a looser brown tank with a golden wild horse in pursuit of WMU. She holds a knotted walking stick of ash wood between her knees that works like a fissure in the photo, creating a gap between them and another person in the corner, peering over the edge of the bluff. Her son’s black backpack sits slumped against his soot-smudged knee. He carried the water, the insect repellent, the flask, the cigs, the matches, his mother’s heart, the center of this photo, the Blue Ridge highway that stretches from hurt to healing.
Ann Stewart McBee was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan. She obtained her PhD in creative writing at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. She has published fiction and poetry in Ellipsis, Untamed Ink, The Pinch, and Citron Review among others. Her short story collection titled How Rabbit Went Down and other Mishaps is available from Hoot-n-Waddle press. She now teaches English at Des Moines Area Community College, and lives outside Des Moines, Iowa. The limited use of her hands due to Rheumatoid Arthritis does not prevent her from writing in the same way that living in heavy air pollution does not prevent one from breathing.
A Song for Ann