An Unfinished Portrait
by Audrey Y. Scharmen
Last year before the crisis of 9-11, I began work on a portrait of an Afghan woman and her infant, a pair of refugees
The fruit tree is bare
the rose bush a thorn
and the ground bitter with stones.
Through the advent of winter that time of foxes, frosted leaves and falling stars autumns flowers clung stubbornly to life in my garden beside the creek. Purple sage and red zinnias mingled with rosemarys pale lilac blossoms and gray boughs. Now the petals are fading fast on drooping stalks that straggle single-file like worn warriors along the fence.
At dawn I peer out at them from my bedroom window, and I listen warily, as I have come to do each morning of the unsettling year just past. All is calm. There in the cold light of a rising sun is silence: the sound of peace under siege. The sun briefly floods the creek with a bloody glow, and a new day begins.
They tell us this will be a new war, a provocative tag, I muse. Like a pitch for a new product, it conveys the notion that if we liked the old we are bound to love the new still on the drawing board at this writing.
I finish dressing and prepare to leave for class: I study art one day a week in a studio upcounty. There, with a group of mutually creative friends, I attempt to summon images of people from rough paper and a flurry of pastel chalk dust; and I see my subjects evolve from ghostly fetal figures into fully formed humans, to whom I always become inextricably bound during the process. In my case, that process can be as lengthy as the gestation period of an elephant.
So it was last year before the crisis of 9-11 I began work on a portrait of an Afghan woman and her infant, a pair of refugees I sketched from a color news photo that had caught my eye and filled me with sadness. (War is so much more terrifying in color than in black and white, I thought, as I worked.)
The mother is clothed in the dusty muted hues of my doomed garden, her face a reflection of anguish. Only a hint of color and a bit of tarnished silver thread are visible on her ragged cloak. She clasps the child snuggly, defensively. He wears a cunning peaked hat with all the jellybean colors of a patchwork quilt, lovingly pieced by hand, bright and new as he. His expression is one of uncertain wonder and the instinctive trust of the innocent. He is a bud in a garden where nothing thrives.
The portrait of these refugees stands, still, against the wall of my room. In an exquisite burst of naiveté, I had imagined their salvation as I called them forth on my easel. But of course that is unlikely now. This is, after all, their normal life: one of endless wandering and strife on a barren plain that stretches far beyond.
Tonight there is no moonlight
but a new star opens like a silver trumpet
over the desert
Tonight in a nest of ruins the babe is laid.
Scharmen, who makes her home creekside above Solomons, has written in all 10 of Bay Weekly volumes.