Home > Contributors > Wendy Kawabata > "Dora," a story by Jennifer Colville

"Dora," a story by Jennifer Colville

The first time Dora came back I didn’t recognize her.

She appeared at our party as a ripple in the wallpaper, as an outline of a young woman whose cloak matched the damask -- her hair, a mess as usual, was now a hovering arrangement of funeral flowers.

Our father had died only a month before, and I was busy with his friends, high-ranking party officials who had come about the money. Today these men were made of sheet metal. Only their eyes were alive, wide and trapped in steel casing. I was sure any grief they had for my father’s passing, escaped their bodies in toxic fumes.

When I looked for the young woman, I caught glimpses of her – moving to sit on the high backed sofa, though here her face blurred and her skin absorbed the ripples in the silk. I saw her walk across the oriental carpet, its swirls and arabesques curled up around her legs like vines. It wasn’t until she passed by a window that I understood her body was delineated by tiny holes, empty cells, like pin perforations made in paper, and that those holes shifted inside her to absorb the shape or pattern of whatever she stood in front of. There in the window the sun shone right through her. She was a woman shaped tree -- strings of tiny lights wrapped intricately around her branches. She was just as I imagine she always wanted to be.

Perhaps it was my father’s death that made her appearance possible. For the last month everything had seemed like a photographic illusion, a double exposed photograph in which the two takes almost, but don’t quite match. In one take my father was still alive, in the second my father had died too early, without, I felt, every really knowing me.

As soon as I could escape my father’s friends I climbed the stairs to my old perch in a corner of the second story balcony where Dora and I used to crouch and peer through the balustrade, eves dropping over parties like this. Above me rose the suit of armor, seventeenth century and mottled, arms sealed at its sides. When I was a boy I dreamt I was trapped inside it, vanished to oblivion inside my own home. Sometimes I’d dream my father was trapped in an identical suit, and we stood in silence, our voices stolen, in much the same way we took our Sunday tea.

The sun was setting and the chandeliers had not been lit. In the large foyer she was nearly invisible. She hovered and listened over shoulders yet took care never to betray her self, never to stay in one place for too long. When she stopped for one, two, three seconds her cells clumped together, the perforations clustered into vaguely familiar features.

But I stopped myself. I was a painter of portraits. How many sketches had I made in which the subject resembled me, or her, in which my yearning made the models grow long noses, and close-set eyes?

And then I lost track of her. I didn’t notice the ripple on the stairs until she was three or four steps up, heading toward me. I pressed back against the wall and listened to the tap of her feet, accompanied by a third beat, which I first imagined came from the tip of an umbrella. But the sound was too pronounced for an umbrella, too much an announcement of presence – more like the sound of a gavel or a wooden walking stick tipped in steel. And then the sound stopped. Her steps proceeded softly to the center of the balcony. And then stopped again.

I knew I should move. Discover her. I was a grown man, famous in certain circles, inheritor of the estate. I was a painter of portraits; men and women sat for me until I uncovered their secrets. I revealed people to themselves and they thanked me for it, though not, I think, my father.  He sat for me once, many years after Dora left, and when he looked at the finished portrait his face sealed into its final defensive mask. “Is that how you see me?” he asked.

I stepped out toward her; she had her back to me and was leaning against, looking out over the banister.  With my step she grew more solid. She revealed herself, for the game was on her terms. She wore the unfashionable thick wool cloak she had left in, and her hair was loose and by now, streaked with a silvery grey. She held a rifle in her left hand, her rifle for shooting birds, her most unwomanly rifle.

‘Yes, of course’ I thought, this was the beat I’d heard on the stairs.

When I reached her side I too looked out over the party, at my all father’s foreshortened and black suited friends.

“Should I shoot them,” she asked with a smile in her voice.

And I said, “No Dora. They’re just birds.”

But I didn’t dare move. I had found her again, my wild and prodigal twin, and I needed her to stay there, poised and by my side.