Two months ago, Anna’s mother withdrew from public life and began collecting assassinations. Her first acquisition, according to most reports, was a cumbrous reproduction of Gérôme’s The Death of Caesar, which she dangled above the fireplace of her dimly lit sitting room. The exact order of her subsequent purchases was not established, but by all accounts they included: a newspaper illustration of the shooting of Franz Ferdinand, which she situated in the solarium; Marat, aptly hung beside the bath; Mark Balma’s Pieta, placed above the desk in her home office; the Gandhis of Antonio Piedade da Cruz, strewn around the dining room; and Lincoln Borne by Loving Hands, the sumptuous gloom of which sparkled in the burgundy murk of the bar.
The abrupt and eccentric nature of her retreat was a cause for concern among the board of directors. Articles about the erratic CEO and her morbid excesses were being published throughout the city, and shareholders were starting to doubt the reliability of a company that would retain such an unpredictable figurehead. They confided their fears in the form of a vote, which unanimously resolved that a thoughtful visit to the estate should be undertaken by Anna – not in her capacity as Chief Operating Officer, but purely as a worried daughter paying a visit to her troubled parent.
Anna was resistant. Her relationship with her mother, while never a model of healthy, reciprocal expression, had recently degenerated beyond repair. The catalyst was a board meeting several weeks earlier, during which the topic of succession had been broached. Anna had assumed (notwithstanding her true artistic ambitions, which she’d long ago repressed at her parents’ request) that the position of CEO was fated for herself, the founder’s only child. So, when her mother instead nominated Linda Branch (general counsel since the company’s inception), Anna was shocked and offended. The ensuing conflict seemed, at least partly, to have provoked her mother’s flight to the comfort of the old family estate.
Anna rejected the board’s suggestion, but they quickly pointed out the correspondence between her recalcitrance and their CEO’s untimely withdrawal. Anna was, in their eyes, simultaneously the cause of the current uncertainty and its likely cure. Seeing no alternative, she agreed to go – although she foresaw no conclusion in which both her mother’s pride and her own would leave the estate unscathed.
She drove there the next afternoon. Upon her knock, a solitary staff member opened the door and directed her down the shadowy entry corridor, which had not yet been invaded by assassination (the only images on the walls were family photos – Anna and her parents, in various permutations). She was then led into the softly decorated sitting room where, validating gossip, a fantastically huge depiction of Caesar’s murder tyrannised the space’s otherwise homely tones. Her mother, dressed in slippers and a black robe, was seated before it, her gaze enraptured by the sombre chaos of the Theatre of Pompey. Anna hesitated, then joined her on the couch.
‘Hello,’ Anna said. Her eyes were on the painting, watching the black border ebb and flow with the flame’s lapping chiaroscuro.
‘Hey,’ her mother said, turning to her. ‘I didn’t think you’d come.’
‘Yes, well. You didn’t exactly send an invitation.’ Anna sighed. Caesar’s toga-cloaked corpse was nestled in the artwork’s lower corner, painted there as an apparent afterthought to the fervour of the crowd.
‘So what is all this?’ she opened, keen to complete her task. ‘Some kind of elaborate apology?’
Her mother smirked. ‘Is it really so elaborate?’
‘Honestly, Mom: are you lucid? Do you understand what you’re doing? The press has been all over this, you know. Of course you know; that’s part of your plan, isn’t it? The plan for your highly publicised and inexplicably coded apology for… for what, exactly?’
‘It happens quickly,’ her mother sighed. ‘It’s a sudden recognition when it comes, and yet it took me years to accept…’
‘To accept what?’
‘That most of this isn’t actually real.’
Anna leaned forward. ‘Most of what? What are you talking about?’
Her mother shook her head, evidently disappointed. ‘Don’t you remember what I told you?’
Anna sat back. ‘Yes,’ she said, crossing her arms. ‘I remember.’
‘Your father, he agreed with me. We decided, together, that it was for the best. You can’t let a young girl administer her own fate…’
‘Sure you can’t,’ Anna said, before refocusing the conversation. ‘So, it’s Linda. Did you and Dad decide that together too?’
‘You still don’t see…’
‘Oh, I see. Caesar, Lincoln, Marat, et cetera – martyrs, right? Just like you: forced into seclusion by the selfishness of your daughter, all because you chose a business associate over your own blood.’
‘You could’ve been a poet.’
Anna blinked. A log popped and reclined. The new structure of the firewood poured additional light into the room, adding a rosiness to the air that she found refreshing. The corner with Caesar’s corpse blushed as well – but then the logs adjusted once more, withholding their capacity to glow, and his body sunk back into darkness. ‘You don’t know what you’re saying,’ Anna muttered, and turned to face the other way.
Her mother clapped her hands and rose. ‘Dinner will be ready soon,’ she said, shuffling towards the dining room. ‘Are you going to eat with me?’
Anna reluctantly followed. They sat next to each other at the long ebony table, encircled by muted candlelight and the variable cadavers of da Cruz’s tortured Gandhis. The ingress to an adjoining room was ajar. Inside, Anna could see a sequence of gleaming bottles on a shelf, and underneath them a counter made of sheeny black wood. Behind the bar, she spied a portion of the room’s dedicated murder: Lincoln, post-bullet, lugged along by a hectic crowd, his head cradled in the arms of a man whose forlorn, torchlit face looked completely ruined by the loss.
‘Your father was scared of this place,’ her mother said, once the food had been delivered. ‘Too big – so much space that it negated space. After a while, he told me, the rooms started folding in on themselves. He once said that if you peeled back the wallpaper, you’d find forgotten windows, doorways to nowhere, the flattened creases of old corners. It unsettled him.’
‘That’s probably why he’s not here.’
Her mother stared at the food, utensils clasped aimlessly in static hands. ‘I tested his theory a few days ago,’ she admitted. ‘I did it in your old bedroom… peeled back the wallpaper to see what portals time had tucked away under there. It was easy; it seems someone peeled it back at some point in the past, and then sealed it up with staples. Funny, but I’d never noticed it before…’ She set her knife and fork down, and looked into her daughter’s eyes. ‘There was writing, Anna. Writing, hidden underneath the paper. Do you know what it said?’
‘I don’t remember. It was a long time ago.’
‘It was a poem. A lovely little poem you wrote as a child. It’s about the view from your window; the flower patch, and the way the sunrise looked on the horizon… I couldn’t possibly do it justice.’
‘You didn’t like it then. But, listen, I’m not here to talk about that. I’m here on behalf of the board. They want to know when you’re coming back.’
‘What about me?’
‘Aren’t you curious as well?’
‘I have nothing more to say on the matter. My question is simple, and it isn’t my own: when will you be back? The shareholders are getting antsy, what with all this press about a wacky CEO and her macabre art collection.’
‘Yes,’ her mother chuckled sadly. ‘Fame, of a kind, is a curse.’
Anna fidgeted, recalling something her mother had told her decades before. ‘Well, you’d know,’ she said, carefully rotating her glass by its rim. ‘But, anyway… that isn’t important. I’m here for the board. I need to tell them something, Mom.’
‘Tell them to consider Linda their acting CEO. They can address their concerns to her.’
Anna froze. ‘Wait, so… you’re out? You’re resigning, just like that?’ Her mother nodded.
‘Wait, is… is this because of what I said at the meeting?’
‘Because if it is… then I admit, with some reservations, that I may have overreacted.’
‘Do you remember what you said?’
‘I didn’t mean to—’
‘You said: “You made this my life, and now you’re taking it from me.”’ She leaned closer, her expression so empty that it seemed stern. ‘You said: “I died for your future.”’
‘I concede that my reaction was a bit hyperbolic, but…’ Anna looked at her food, at her water, at the panels of transmuted history that encircled them. She couldn’t think of a way to end her sentence.
They finished their meals quietly, with occasional banal interjections about the weather, metropolitan industry and assorted world events. When evening dawned, her mother asked her to stay the night; her old bedroom was sorely unused, and in the morning she could leave directly for work and inform the board of their conversation. Anna, averting her eyes from a dying Gandhi’s gaze, accepted.
The staff brought pyjamas, a towel and some toiletries. She wished everybody in the house goodnight – including her mother, from whom she begrudgingly accepted a hug – and closed herself in for the night.
She wondered, while lying in bed and absorbing the estate’s manufactured silence, whether or not the visit was a success. After all, she had something encouraging to tell the board: the eccentric CEO had considered their woes, and was resigning in order to secure the investments of the shareholders. The meeting had gone well, all things considered – but Anna still felt incurably sombre. Had she been hoping, on some level, for a holistic healing rather than a purely professional one? She didn’t think so, but her clinging solemnity presented a contradiction. She stared at the crinkled, once-stapled, now-taped rectangle of wallpaper next to the door until she fell asleep.
The door opened in the middle of the night. She awakened, tiredly squirming, to see a silhouette drifting toward her, backlit by the hallway chandelier. The figure, slowly asserting a familiar outline, sat down on the side of her bed. Anna squinted up at her, saying nothing.
‘I’m not well,’ her mother said. ‘And yes, despite what you’re thinking, I remain mentally sound. In fact, I’ve never thought so clearly in my life. I can see the past so openly… and for the first time in my life, I can see our shared memories from both sides.’ She turned to look out the window, but it was cloaked in curtains, chiffon drapes that cut the edge off the moonlight and gently brushed her contours with icy blue.
‘Do you remember what you told your father and I when you were younger – fifteen, maybe sixteen? You told us you were going to be a famous poet. You told us you were going to spend your life assembling beautiful bouquets of verse, and pinning your name to them like a love note. And do you remember what I said? I said no. You had an obligation to us. You replied that once you became a famous poet, you wouldn’t have to listen to a word we said. I told you there were no famous poets. In order for history to know your name, I said, you had to be a leader. “Times are ephemeral,” I told you, “and poets are dispensable. Most people don’t even read their words. But Julius Caesar… Julius Caesar lasts forever.”
‘I have to give you credit: what you did next was clever. You wrote a haiku on a little notecard, folded it up and slipped it into my work bag. I pulled it out by mistake during our first shareholder meeting.’
Anna lay there, remembering. She could still see the purple card, could still follow the format of its text:
The slave galley rows
by the fine art of moonlight.
The shore blindly waits.
‘Over the next few weeks I found similar haikus around the house, attributed to Lincoln, Marat, Franz Ferdinand and many others. I couldn’t tell if the poems were good or not – I still can’t – but I appreciate, now, what you were trying to tell me. My sickness helped me see it.’ She reached for the curtain, prising it back just enough to see the murky flower patch below the window, its composition largely unchanged since Anna’s childhood. ‘But,’ she continued, ‘you don’t see it yourself. I don’t know what happened. It’s probably my fault… assassinating my daughter’s future. You shouldn’t have turned out this way. You should’ve tossed your bouquets across the world… but all your love notes have gone unread.’
The room was silent. Her mother dropped the curtain. Its chilly shade slipped down her face. She touched her daughter’s arm, stood up, and left.
Anna didn’t see her that morning. The door to her mother’s bedroom was closed, and she couldn’t bring herself to knock. Nor did she wait for her at breakfast. The board needed to know, she told herself; frankly, they should have been informed the previous evening. She hurried downstairs, passed the sitting room – glancing through the doorway to share a quick moment with Caesar’s corpse – and exited the estate through a crowd of family photos.
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