The Portrait

Victorino Briones

Doña Pacing entered Madre Maria Graciaís office and did not bother to say good morning before sitting down.

"I donít understand what this is all about, madre," Doña Pacing began.

Madre Maria Gracia opened her drawer and took out a gray-covered music notebook. She explained that she had been teaching the class about the birth of the baby Jesus when she noticed her daughter Teresa looking out the window. She had called out her name, but Teresa seemed to be lost in her thoughts.

"She was watching the trees outside - not paying attention at all. I approached her table to see what she was doing."

Madre Gracia handed the notebook to Doña Pacing and told her to turn to the sixth page. "I caught her working on that, señora," she said, pointing to the drawing, which lay open on the page. Madre Maria Gracia expressed amazement at the accurate details of the sketch, and she added, "I have never seen such a sad grasshopper in my life."

"I still donít understand whatís wrong, madre," said Doña Pacing.

"The girl is bored."

"Cómo? How can she be bored when I give her everything she wants? Es ridículo, madre."

Madre Gracia explained that Teresa had seemed unusually quiet the past few months. The girl preferred to eat alone in the corner of the classroom during recess and always had her Bible tucked under her arm. Although Madre Gracia realized that the child was being trained to become a nun, at her age of sixteen she should be behaving like an energetic little girl rather than a hermit. At any rate, she concluded leaning back in her chair, these signs of a contemplative and withdrawn nature were not auspicious for a future life in the convent.

"Well, what do you suggest I do?"

Madre Gracia recommended finding an outlet for her interest in drawing, and including it in her weekly schedule. She suggested that Doña Pacing hire an art tutor for Teresa to nurture her apparent talent and handed her a slip of paper.

Doña Pacing raised the magnifying glass, which she always wore around her neck, to read the name written on the paper.

"This is an hombre!" she coughed, aghast. Trying for a moment to recover her breath, she thought she was going to have an attack of asthma from the surprise.

Madre Gracia quickly poured her a glass of water. "His credentials are excellent, señora," she declared.

She explained that Señor Tomás Alcazar was a famous painter of saints and was well known in Europe for his unique ability to evoke in his portraits a kind of graceful melancholy, similar to that found among black swans.

"But he is a man," repeated Doña Pacing, only this time she seemed more resigned.

"Well, of course I understand your hesitation," sighed Madre Gracia. "But this could be a wonderful opportunity for Teresa. Señor Alcazar will be staying here in Ibarra for a year to finish painting the image of the Virgin Mary for the convent chapel. I will let you decide."

Doña Pacing left the office to return home.

During the long ride in the carriage she was preoccupied by thoughts of her only daughter. Ever since Teresa was a baby, Doña Pacing had been preparing her to enter the convent. It was her dream to witness her daughter walk down the church aisle to become one of the devoted nuns of Santa Clara.

Unfortunately, Doña Pacingís husband could not be relied on to help plan their daughterís future. At one time he had proposed marrying Teresa to one of his business friendsí sons - to which Doña Pacing was quick to reply, "Only if you can find me a santo, then maybe." Once, for Teresaís tenth birthday, he brought home a red monkey on a leash. Their daughter was delighted by it and, although Doña Pacing had some misgivings, she decided to keep the animal. But later that evening, she heard giggling noises at the back of the kitchen and went out to investigate. To her horror, she saw the monkey playing with itself while Teresa fed it bits of ripe guava fruit. She had the animal released to the jungle immediately and threatened her husband with curses if he brought such perverted things into the house again. It was obvious to Doña Pacing that she needed to protect her daughter constantly if Teresa was ever to become a nun.

When Teresa started going to school, there was always a separate chair in the back of the classroom for the maid who accompanied her. The ruffles on Teresaís dress covered her from neck to toe, despite the oppressive heat that made the room feel like an oven. She never walked out in public alone and never, never slept without the company of either her mother or a nursemaid. She still had one more year before graduating from high school, and after that she would be entering the convent. Only after that point did Doña Pacing feel she could finally relinquish her duty as Teresaís guardian. Perhaps art lessons with the famous painter would not be such a bad thing for now, after all, she would be there to supervise them.

Doña Pacing arrived back at the house after meeting with Madre Maria Gracia and found Teresa in her room, sitting at her writing table and composing a letter to her favorite cousin in Cebu. The week before, after her mother had described how wonderful life in the convent was going to be, Teresa decided that since she could not bring any of her things it would be better to donate them somewhere. At Teresaís insistence, the maids had started just that morning to pack her childhood dolls, her fancy embroidered handkerchiefs and numerous other girlish items; eventually, all these would be given away to the daughters of the whores in Calle Electricidad. Teresa wanted to tell her cousin all about these changes.

After Teresa was finished writing, she folded the letter and put it into an envelope but did not bother to seal it. Doña Pacing would have to check the letter for errors in grammar and spelling and make sure the iís had been dotted, the tís crossed and the oís well rounded before having it delivered by the maid. Doña Pacing firmly believed that impeccable penmanship was a sign of good character.

Before closing the Bible beside her on the table, Teresa inserted a ribbon to mark the section from the Book of Job she had quoted in her letter. Then, although she was glad to see her dolls go, she excused herself so that she would not have to witness their limp bodies being stuffed inside the empty brown rice sacks to be taken away.

Doña Pacing observed her daughter get up and leave the room. She sighed with nostalgia. Time runs by so fast, she thought. Just last year she was doting on her daughter with gifts of expensive dolls and handkerchiefs, yet now Teresa seemed no longer to have any use for them.

"Are you sure you want give them away, híja?"

"Yes, mamá," she said without raising her head. "I donít think I need those childish things anymore."

Doña Pacing followed her daughter into the living room. Teresa opened the bird cage by the window and began to feed the two parrots with slices of bananas. She allowed the birds to eat from her hand without the slightest fear of being bitten by them. A month before, Teresa would not have dared, but now she appeared unconcerned.

"Are you happy, híja?" continued Doña Pacing.

Teresa remained quiet for a moment, and then she answered, "I am content, mama."

Teresa smiled and embraced her mother. Leaving the cage door open, she walked into the kitchen to wash her hands and help the maids prepare the table for supper.

Doña Pacing was troubled by the solemn tone of her daughterís answer. She closed the parrot cage and made certain the latch was safely in place. All right, she told herself, she would send a message to Señor Alcazar tomorrow and see if he was interested in tutoring Teresa in painting.

When Señor Tomás Alcazar first appeared at her front door, Doña Pacing had to cover her mouth to suppress a brief laugh. He was short and bald and he walked with the gait of a duck. His arms appeared too long and his nose was too pointed. He had nice, kind eyes, however, like a dogís. It was preposterous that she had been afraid of this small, odd man.

After he took off his hat and greeted Doña Pacing, she asked him where he was from.

"In all honesty, señora," he began, "I donít know where I was born, nor even how old I am. I am an orphan, you see."

"Eso es terible, Señor Alcazar!" she exclaimed.

"Well, I am not sorry. God has given me a wonderful gift and I serve Him well."

"And so you do. Madre Maria Gracia has nothing but praise for you."

"Madre Gracia is a kind soul," he replied.

During the ensuing conversation, Doña Pacing inquired how long it would take him to paint a picture of herself and her husband. Señor Alcazar replied that he had given up painting portraits to concentrate on saints.

He explained that, five years before, he had painted a couple in Madrid who were expecting to be married. A week before the wedding, for some mysterious reason the couple suddenly broke the engagement.

During the heat of their quarrel they mutilated each otherís images in the portrait. Señor Alcazar described how he watched helplessly as the woman grabbed a knife and decapitated the manís head; then the man took out a razor and amputated her left arm and the hand that rested on the chair. In the end, what remained on the wall was a broken frame and the tip of a leather shoe in the bottom right corner. The canvas was torn to pieces.

"I was devastated," he said sadly, admitting that he had never recovered from the massacre.

"I see," said Doña Pacing. She had never known an artist before. Feeling a little uncomfortable and uncertain how to react to such a passionate story, she ordered the maids to bring the hot chocolate and sugar-coated biscocho she had prepared earlier.

He could begin lessons right away if that would be convenient with her and with Teresa, said Señor Alcazar. Doña Pacing agreed, but quickly added that first she needed to discuss a list of conditions which had to be followed to the letter. She said that she would always be present during the tutorial sessions. Never, under any circumstances, might he be permitted to touch her daughter or any of her clothing, and never might he be left alone with Teresa.

"Of course, señora," he replied.

Señor Alcazar swore on the Bible to accept her terms.

Teresa met her new tutor the following Sunday after mass. When she entered the living room she was properly introduced by her mother.

"This is Señor Alcazar, Teresa," explained Doña Pacing. "He will be teaching you how to paint."

"But I do not know how to paint, mamá."

"Then you will learn, híja," said Señor Alcazar. "I looked over your pencil sketches in Madre Maria Graciaís office and they showed much promise. But I think painting portraits may be where your real talent lies."

"Whose portrait shall I be doing?"

Señor Alcazar unwrapped a small framed mirror he had brought with him. "You will paint yourself, of course, híja."

After setting up the easel and canvas, the artist began to acquaint Teresa with her brushes and tubes of paint. He taught her how to mix colors and instructed her to recognize shapes, not simply as lines, but as patterns of light and shade. In doing portraits, he said, it was important to emphasize the fullness of the face. He then pointed at her delicate neck in the mirror. He warned Teresa not to draw the neck too long and slender.

The first lesson went well, thought Doña Pacing. By the following week, Teresa had lost her impassive expression and appeared to be happier. She concentrated more in school and even received praise from her teachers for getting the highest scores during the monthly examinations.

Then, one morning during a lesson, while Doña Pacing was sitting in her rocking chair, resting for a moment from reading her prayer book, she noticed a smile pass briefly over Teresaís face. Her daughterís eyes were focused on Señor Alcazar, who acknowledged her with a slight nod. Doña Pacing blinked and the moment was over. Doubtful of what she had just witnessed, she decided to ignore the incident.

That night during dinner, Doña Pacing encouraged Teresa to talk about her art tutor.

"So what do you think of Señor Alcazar, Teresa?"

"He is a good teacher, mamá. He knows a lot about painting."

"So you are enjoying yourself then?"

"Yes, very much," answered Teresa. She stopped eating for a moment and rested her hands on her knees. Looking intently at her mother, she added, "He is ugly though, mamá."

Doña Pacing sighed with relief to hear that Teresa had no interest in Señor Alcazar. For a moment she had thought that Teresa might be experiencing some attraction to her tutor. Now she was almost certain that her fears were unfounded.

The fifth week of lessons, Señor Alcazar set up the easel again as usual in the living room. He placed the mirror on the chair and checked to see that Teresa was posed correctly. Half an hour had passed when Doña Pacing suddenly started coughing. She was experiencing a mild attack of asthma brought on by the smell of fresh paint fumes and went into the kitchen to take a spoonful of cough syrup. When she returned, she caught sight of Señor Alcazar holding Teresaís small, white hand to assist her brushing in the eyelashes of the portrait. Doña Pacing observed that they stood so close to each other their elbows were nearly touching.

Doña Pacingís eyes widened. Nervously, she remarked that it was getting late, and she ordered Teresa to go back to her room and finish her Latin assignments. Teresa set down her brush and walked up the stairs without making any further comment.

Doña Pacing was about to inform Señor Alcazar that his services would no longer be needed, when he suddenly announced, "I am deeply sorry, señora, but I donít think I can teach Teresa any more after next week."

"Why not?" she replied, completely surprised by his announcement.

"I was planning to tell you earlier, but I felt guilty having to abandon your daughter. The Santo Papa has commanded me to come back to Rome and do another portrait of Christ for him," he explained, "as soon as possible. God summons me and I can only obey."

He told Doña Pacing that he would be willing to come to the house one last time to help Teresa finish the portrait.

"I am most grateful to you, Señor Alcazar," she heard herself saying. "But I--"

"I am the one who should be grateful to you, Doña Pacing," he said. "It is fortunate that you are an intelligent and understanding mother to Teresa."

"Thank you, Señor Alcazar," she replied.

He quickly packed up the brushes and easel, saying good-bye and assuring Doña Pacing that he would not fail to return the next week.

"I must make this one last effort for you and your daughter," he finally said.

He closed the door behind him and was gone before Doña Pacing had a chance to utter another word.

The next week Doña Pacing made certain that a proper distance of three feet was kept between Teresa and her tutor. She pulled her reading chair up close and sat behind her daughter so she could hear their conversation. She kept her spoon and cough syrup in her pocket so that she would not have to go to the kitchen if she should have another attack. The lesson ended quietly after an hour and a half, and Señor Alcazar again apologized, said good-bye for the last time, and left. Teresa walked back to her room.

Doña Pacing made preparations to have a party for her daughterís friends and classmates to display the completed portrait and baked a delicious chocolate cake the night before the occasion.

The following morning, on the day of the party, Doña Pacing entered Teresaís room without knocking to call her for breakfast. The girl was nowhere to be seen and the nursemaid lay asleep on the bed. On the dresser table was an open volume of Shakespeareís love sonnets translated into Spanish and a half-eaten piece of cake Teresa had begged for the previous night. Doña Pacing saw an empty bottle of her cough syrup beside the cake. The portrait stood inclined against the dresser table.

As she leaned over to wake up the maid, Doña Pacing happened to feel a hard object hidden under the sheets. She reached down to find her magnifying glass and remembered that Teresa had borrowed it a week before in order to paint the fine eyelashes in the portrait. The maid stretched and yawned and Doña Pacing noticed a smear of chocolate along her lips.

"Peste!" she exclaimed in anger. "Where is Teresa?"

The maid shook her drowsy head in surprise and said she did not know.

"Well, go out and find her. Breakfast is getting cold."

Just as Doña Pacing was about to leave the room she noticed the portrait again. The hair had developed into a blossom of curls, occupying every corner of the canvas. She was alarmed by the portraitís tantalizing eyes. Taking her magnifying glass, she moved in to examine the image more closely.

Suddenly, letters began to come into focus in her glass. The word "hola," written in Teresaís careful handwriting, was printed with black paint on the right eye. The other eye contained "how are you," written by a different hand, surely that of Señor Alcazar. Many more words were hidden in the portraitís hair, lips and lashes. Doña Pacing read whole passages of devotions and promises inscribed into the curls like snakes around her neck. She read how Señor Alcazar instructed Teresa to drug the maid with her motherís cough medication and how he planned to come at midnight and throw small pebbles at the glass to signal his arrival. He promised to gather her into his arms and take her to safety. Calling her his beloved peacock, beloved dove, his darling, he wrote that he would love her forever. On the right side of the face was a line from one of the Shakespeare sonnets:

Look in thy glass, and tell the face thou viewest
Now is the time that face should form another;
Whose fresh repair if thou not renewest,
Thou dost beguile the world, unbless some mother.

Doña Pacing shuddered as she traced the last lines at the left side of the imageís neck. "Tonight, finally, we will be together, mi amor." Teresaís reply, written in deep red, was close by. "I will be all yours soon, my love."

A long, piercing scream was heard throughout the house. Doña Pacingís husband rushed into the bedroom and found his wife crying and gasping. With her bare hands she tore at the portrait of a grown woman.

© 2000 Victorino Briones

Victorino Briones is a physician from the Philippines presently living in Arlington, Virginia. He arrived in America in 1998 and took the exams for medical certification during that year. In 1999, He was accepted in Boston University's Creative Writing Program under Leslie Epstein. The course also gave him the opportunity to attend Saul Bellow's class, to meet the American Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky, Dereck Walcott, and Susanna Kaysen. Presently he is finishing his novel, "Ven and Nena," which is a memoir of his parents.

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