Magda smoothed back a wild strand of her hair and crossed the vestibule at the Baltimore Museum of Art for the first time, stuffing the twelve o’clock entry ticket into her jeans’ pocket. On loan, Albert Bierstadt’s The Blue Grotto hung on the wall in front of her as she entered the first gallery of the exhibition thinking of her mother again—wrinkled and gnarly-thumbed, pouring tea for her daughter in the dark at their small kitchen table covered with bread and goat cheese and freshly-made cherry jam. Who would lock arms with her now, lead her safely across Rustaveli Avenue’s trafficked streets since Magda herself had boarded one of those jets her mother still called dragons?
Had she left with a man, as husband and wife, her mother wouldn’t have worried so much. But Magda departed alone, frustrated by the constraints of a home that dictated an early marriage, that said she should spend more time in the kitchen and forbid her from walking the streets at night. Art, on the other hand, gave new colors, a voice reaching back into time or deep into the future. If only the canvas meant more to her mother, to others, than a place to draw a realistic vase of flowers, a plate of apples, a portrait of loved ones or famous people.
Careful not to cross the white line on the floor, Magda walked up to the artwork in her black boots. The painting called her back to a time when she didn’t know she existed, but she couldn’t forget her mother’s story that lived in more than old newspapers and history books. As in Bierstadt’s painting, the water in the grotto of their escape had flowed toward a small opening where a fireball flashed and sent rays of sunlight back inside, creating shadowy scenes on the cave’s walls like the canvases hanging in the museum.
Twice a year her mother had retold her the story of their escape—once on the anniversary of her father’s death, and once more on her father’s birthday. “You must know it by heart, Magda. For when I pass, no one else will care to remember it. And your children, they must know it too.”
The oldest woman of the village, Nino, had escorted them to the boat—Mother, Father, and Magda herself, the tiniest of things wrapped in a hand-woven cotton cloth. With her head covered in an old scarf, her tatty skirt and blouse smelling of soil and sweat and fermented grapes, the nonagenarian blessed them, pushing the vessel away with her rough-skinned hand. And they floated on the water toward the light, leaving another womb.
Magda opened her notepad and added Albert Bierstadt to a long list of artists’ names. When she looked back up, a young man in an Echo and the Bunnymen t-shirt walked toward her, hands in his pockets and hair hanging over his eyes. Magda ran her fingers through her hair and turned away, walking into the next room of the museum’s temporary exhibit, Painting on the Water: 1850-1900. She didn’t want to play geography. Or hear trivial remarks about her accent.
On the far wall, two paintings faced her: Whistler’s Nocturne in Grey and Silver and Nocturne: Blue and Silver—Cremorne Lights. Grey water. Blue water. Serene at first, calming her family upon exiting the grotto—then waves formed, growing rougher. Magda’s father, a humble farmer and sheepherder, paddled their makeshift canoe across the lake under thick clouds and low visibility as Mother held on tightly to her only child.
“You okay?” he’d asked his wife, a new beard covering much of his mouth. He had once shaved daily using soap and a razor blade, but under siege, shaving had become a luxury.
“Yes, I’m okay. We’re going to be okay,” Magda’s mother answered. “Just look for the buoy. The boat should be near. Look for a light in the fog.” She wrapped Magda tighter and patted the newborn’s back while her husband kept paddling.
“We’re late. Maybe it’s already gone.”
“No. Nino said they’d wait for us.”
Magda’s father gave seven, brisk strokes more, then rested and let the canoe drift.
Magda saw it in front of her now, in another Whistler: Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket.
In the distance, imperial jets high above the clouds dropped their explosives. More of their villages burned…homes, sheep, beehives, vineyards, and the people who refused to flee. Only the cellars, those wombs filled with white wine from the rkatsiteli grapes, could survive months of bombing.
Magda’s mother followed streaks of crimson on her skirt down to a pool of blood in the bottom of the canoe. “I’m bleeding,” she said to her husband.
“No, dear, it’s not you. It’s me.” Under the jacket his shirt had turned dark red and his head began to sag, hanging down to his shoulder as Magda’s mother screamed. The boat sent to collect them appeared through fog, cloud, and despair.
The young man in the museum neared Magda again. This time she didn’t notice until he stepped up beside her. “Cool paintings, huh? You like Whistler?”
Magda raised her hands, feigned answering in sign language to avoid a conversation.
“Damn, I’m really sorry. I mean…yeah…sorry.” He pointed to his wrist, tapped it three times. Magda rolled up the sleeve of her flannel shirt to show him she had no watch. The young man lifted his hand apologetically and walked away to another room, jerking his head to get the bangs out of his eyes.
Magda paused, then headed in that direction too, welcomed in the next room by a Manet, three more Whistlers, and a pair from Winslow Homer. Lakes and seas, tranquility and turbulence; flowing waters, cloudy skies, and crashing waves. Five more rooms of paintings to cover fifty years, and she decided an exploration of the museum’s permanent collection should wait until a later visit.
In the second to last room, she sat down to rest her legs. From the cushioned bench she stared at another large Whistler: Symphony in Grey and Green: The Ocean. She could close her eyes and simply say the title to see the canvas, see her past. Her mother had told her all about the Caucasus Mountains of South Ossetia as she grew older, to know more than simply fleeing from them. She told Magda about the air, wonderfully clean and light, and about the dazzling greenness of its great slopes. It was all somewhere in front of her now, on canvas.
“When they pulled us on board, your father had already passed. Three men carried him away, to some place for the dead, while I huddled inside the boat with you, with others they had rescued. They carried us across the lake where we boarded military vehicles to the capital and were housed in temporary shelters. A few days later they moved us into the high-rise apartment block converted into accommodation for refugees. Fourteenth floor, you know.”
Three short weeks ago Magda had left that apartment block, flying to London, then on to Baltimore, on an art scholarship. Her mother wailed that day as though Magda, too, had died on the boat. She cancelled the usual goodbye celebration, too embarrassed her neighbors would ask why this daughter was abandoning her.
“It’s only for a little time, Mom. I’ll get my degree and come back. Life will be better.” Her mother sobbed harder.
Magda couldn’t remember exactly how her love for art had developed, but she recalled even at a very young age looking through the holes of bricks in the entryway to their apartment complex, using them like photo frames to reconfigure angles and the content of her views. By ten years old she’d started collecting items she found thrown outside or in the trash: body parts of dolls, obsolete flags, damaged or faded icons—once a French translation of a Gogol story. She arranged the objects in new ways, making strange connections according to her mother, using vines and weeds to tie things together—her own collages. She started drawing as well, and later in school her science teacher’s jaw dropped as entire scenes of ruined buildings and bombed landscapes covered Magda’s notebooks. When she made it to high school, already fluent in German and English as well as Russian, Georgian, and Ossetic, the art teacher told her to tighten her shoes, that the new government was putting an emphasis on young artists, and that if she worked hard, together, they could make sure she had an opportunity to pursue a career in art.
“Yes, daughter. Now drink your tea,” her mother had said upon hearing the message after school, too tired to offer any praise or advice. For fifteen years she had cleaned business and government offices in Tbilisi. She had never remarried, never thought of it, even when men sent her flowers or inquired via neighbors.
A room full of Courbets, no visitors present, ended the exhibition. Magda entered and stared at the paintings, contemplating the moment of their creation more than a hundred years ago. She felt the tension of Courbet’s brushstrokes—particularly in his crashing waves—became lost in them until a museum guard tapped her on the elbow to say her face was too close to a canvas.
She apologized and took a deep breath, then walked to the basement to use the restroom. Upon collecting her handbag from the cloakroom, she looked closely at the light brown leather, perplexed that it appeared to have dried out and cracked. A strong scent of mildew on the bag surprised her even more, and when she returned to the main lobby, a grey darkness had replaced the natural light. Out of habit, Magda looked at her wrist to check the time, but it was bare. She’d given her watch to her friend Tamara as a parting gift. A clock on the wall read eight o’clock, but could that be right?
She exited the grand, 1920s-designed building through a pair of heavy, brass-plated doors. A single, long, overhead light illuminated the stairs in front of the museum, but the sidewalk below fell to shadow. In the distance, the highway lit up, its cars shooting by like tiny explosions.
On the steps the young man reappeared, leaning against the railing as if he had waited for her, the cover artwork of Ocean Rain now more apparent as the museum’s light shined directly on his t-shirt. He lifted his hand and waved.
Magda smiled, wondering how he could see through all his hair. She took a few steps down the stairs and stopped in front of him. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m not actually deaf. I don’t even know sign language.”
He let out a little laugh. “It’s okay.”
“Needed my space at the exhibition I guess,” she tried to explain.
“Yes, I understand. First time at the museum, right?”
“Yeah. I’ve only been here three weeks actually.”
“Ah, okay. Coming from where?”
“I’m from Georgia. Republic of Georgia.”
“Cool. Is that near Russia?”
Magda fidgeted and shifted her weight to the opposite foot. When she looked out again, the distant lights from the highway’s cars all blended together in a blinding glare.
“Yeah, very near.”
“Cool,” he said again, smiling. Magda figured he liked the way she looked, and maybe that was all that mattered to him.
“It’s so late now,” she said. “I lost track of time in there.”
“So you’ve been inside all this time?” He laughed and removed his hands from his pockets.
“I guess so, yeah. Didn’t you come from inside the museum now yourself?”
“Nah. I finished looking at the art about four hours ago actually. I’ve been home, showered, and taken a nap. I’m back here now to meet my friend for a movie.”
“You’re going to a movie now?”
“Yep. Going to see The Butterfly Effect. Want to come?”
“I don’t think I can right now. Is it supposed to be good?”
He laughed again. “I don’t even know what it’s about.”
“Hey, you ready?” another young man called up from the sidewalk.
“Well, my friend is here, but it was nice talking to you.”
By the time Magda said her goodbye, the lanky youth had reached the bottom of the stairs and didn’t hear her. They hadn’t even exchanged names, and she watched now as two shadows disappeared in the distance.
Looking out again at the highway from museum steps, Magda watched as thousands of people flashed past in their little machines of metal, scattering out from their own dark wombs. And in the glimmers of light came the Whistlers, her mother, her mountains—all the things that might be behind her forever: ancient myths painted on cave walls.