Lorette C. Luzajic: The Place Behind the Orchard

The Place Behind the Orchard

Inspired by Mourning Picture, a painting by Edwin Romanzo Elmer (USA) 1870.

Mourning Picture, by Edwin Romanzo Elmer. Oil on Canvas. 1890.

On an afternoon of clean cashmere clouds and heavy with apples, a girl with a lamb came in from the orchards and plunked herself beside me. She was spilling with stories about meadows and rivers and a clapboard house. She had a doll named Agatha, in a red and yellow buggy, and a pet chicken, but she’d lost them along the way.

Along the way where? I asked her.

To here, she said. To here, from there.

I knew she wasn’t there at all. I was an imaginative child with many storybook friends who climbed out of the pages of my favourite fairy tales and adventure novels. I called her Effie and envied her Titian tresses and pet sheep. She told me about the place behind the orchard, a maze of long corridors, where all kinds of people in funny costumes from the past shuffled around with their heads down. Said she had snuck away with Agatha and Patty and no one had even noticed.

I invited Effie inside to play Noah’s Ark, using my bed as the big boat for all of the plush animals. The floor was all terrible gales and raging floods. Some days the two of us made tea for the pets and toys instead, pouring creek water out of a discarded Brown Betty with a broken spout. We played at being fairies. We dressed Patty in old pajamas. We collected lost marbles and made up our own rules for our games. We were happy together for so many summers that I lost count.

Effie didn’t come to my tenth birthday party. She said the real girls would turn into mean girls if they saw her. And I never saw her again.

Some years later, my father was working seeds into soil that had once been the brook, and his shovel clinked against metal. He loosened the soil and pulled out some old carriage wheels with chips of red paint, and the remains of an old bisque doll.

Part of me leapt back in time, seized on those porcelain bones as proof…of something. The other part of me knew there were countless doll parts buried under the blankets of blossoms across New England. I was fifteen, old enough to know better, to fill my head with math and geography homework and daydreams for Jordache jeans and boys in Mustangs, instead of make-believe.

It was another lifetime later, me pushing a stroller with a cranky toddler inside, and dragging a husband through a museum for a little culture. We drove to an old gallery in a neighbouring town as a family excursion. I felt a desperate need for that intangible but essential thing you get from paintings or music, something other than dirty dishes and diapers and bills. I remembered visiting it with my folks when I was small.

I looked at small ivory carvings from the cold north, and tepid, floral flushes of soft oil. Nothing really spoke to me.

But then, there she was. A forgotten thing. An impossibility. Effie, in her rainbow piped corduroy smock, standing on the grass with that lamb. Patty. A drab and tidy house the colour of putty stood sturdy against the bluest sky, and a couple dressed in black robes rested soberly in the shade under it.

Her parents, in Victorian bereavement attire, while their little girl played on the front lawn.

Effie looked right past me down the glowing corridor. Then she caught my eye, and her expression changed, as if she recognized me, too.

I approached the placard, read the title. Mourning Picture, by Edwin Romanzo Elmer.

The museum notes explained. Elmer was a landscape painter with few known works. He painted this one in memory of Effie, his nine-year old daughter who died from a burst appendix, leaving her parents childless and heartbroken.

It was a painting of a ghost.

“Mama,” my son burbles, until I finally surface from my astonishment and return to the present. A strange prickle moves over my skin when I retrieve his black and white toy cat from the gallery floor. “Cow,” he says, holding up his toy, then pointing towards Effie. He grins at her. In the painting, her little cat is the same as the one he is holding.

Mark has moved on to a wall of ripening fruit with wasps and chalices and broken violins. My son, clutching Cow, turns in his stroller to catch a last glimpse of Effie and her cat. He opens and closes his little fingers, waving goodbye as if they are old friends.

Copyright © 2024, by Lorette C. Luzajic. All Rights Reserved.

Lorette C. Luzajic reads, writes, publishes, edits, and teaches small fictions, prose poetry and CNF or hybrid forms. Her work has been published in hundreds of journals, taught in schools and workshops including on Manitoulin Island and in Egypt, and translated into Urdu and Spanish. She was selected for Best Small Fictions 2023. She has been nominated several times each for Best Small Fictions, Best Microfictions, Best of the Net, the Pushcart Prize, and Best American Food Writing. She has been shortlisted for Bath Flash Fiction and The Lascaux Review awards. Her collections include The Rope Artist, The Neon Rosary, Pretty Time Machine and Winter in June. Lorette is the founding editor of The Ekphrastic Review, a journal of literature inspired by art, running for almost nine years, and the brand new prose poetry journal, The Mackinaw. Lorette is also an award-winning mixed media artist, with collectors in more than 40 countries so far. 

Lorette C. Luzajic: The Place Behind the Orchard
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