by Gabriel Blackwell 


The professional mourners, we know, traveled on ahead, into the burning horizon, crossing the Nile in the first bark. The body of the deceased came next. A third craft brought servants and sacred objects. The living, the dead, and the deathless; after all had come to the other shore safely, the funeral party passed into the cemetery and were met by the Mww-dancers. Born in the land of the dead and fated never to leave it, their costumes cackled like skeletons, we are told, wimples of whitened papyrus and bleached conical kilts slanting sharply away from the bodies beneath. The sound was a warning: look away. The mourners examined their feet. The pall-bearers looked into the sun. Dust rose to shield erring eyes. The Mww-dancers pulsed spastically upstream past the ululations of the heart, into the land of the dead, bearing the body out of breath and into the tomb. They danced with eyes closed, taught not to attend their own movements. Though their costumes were frequently depicted on tomb walls, the dance could not be:






As the body of their President rolled through each town, Americans gathered along the tracks, on platforms and in fields. Cars jerked and chunked past—was that the one? Was that? In the interstice, a slice of sky, a cloud slowed. Deferentially, each echoed the moirologists of the ancient past: hats doffed, heads down, tears rolled down faces. The sun made their grief more real. It was April, already hot. They suffered to suffer. When the train passed, consolation descended. And then the sun.

And in Warm Springs, Elizabeth Shoumatoff packed away her palette and brushes. She had become an afterthought in an instant; between soup and supper, her purpose was extinguished. The caretaker stood ready, outside, on the porch. He had refused to enter when he let Shoumatoff in. Every corridor empty; all had already boarded the train, the train, departed the station. Everywhere the white of a house suddenly closed up.

She held up the portrait in front of her as one holds up a newspaper. The news? So much white. There, the left eye already drooping, cocked, the mouth not quite even either, the torsion of the stroke to come already apparent in the lifeless eye. And behind Roosevelt, over that left shoulder and weighing heavily, slanting the portrait down, the outline of the engine that would bring his body north. She had divided her last study into a living Roosevelt and a dead one. Both were flanked by the hourglass dresses of the Mww-dancers. The collar of Roosevelt’s cape: on the right, upturned against the train, meant to suggest the lining of the coffin in which he would lie in state; on the left, tightly fitted, as it had been in life, concealing his handicap. Shoumatoff’s shadows ran down her subject’s neck as well, and across his profile. Eleanor briefly conferred with her. Perhaps, yes. She had begun the unpainting with the President still in front of her, bleaching and scraping the paper until he complained of a headache. Very well, Mr. President. A break for lunch. This is when she added the train. She scraped until the Mww-dancer blinked into existence. She scraped everything below the collar. She scraped until it was white again. The Mww-dancer turned. She felt her own headache coming on. The President fell into his soup. A cerebral hemorrhage.

And now, she set the painting on the floor. She pulled down her easel. Its legs clacked together, collapsed. One stuck out. Looking past it, at the vague shape under the sheet of the chair Roosevelt had sat in, she thought of his struggling, swaying, swiveling walk. That awkward shuffle of feet just before he sat. The clacking of his canes. Leaning over the lateral easel to close that last leg, her right leg stiffened and swung around to avoid trampling it, involuntarily imitating the dead man getting into position. She compared the chair’s sheet’s shape’s echo in her portrait, the white where his cape should have been, swallowing Roosevelt whole from below, the lips of his lapels birthing the man. She wondered at her past self. There was a face tenting the sheet from underneath, giving it contour. Now, alone, she poked the rise of the nose underneath the sheet, pinched it between thumb and forefinger, lifted it away just a bit. The sheet was starched, thick, wooden. Like canvas, or something thicker. Had the nose twitched, the eye above it winked? She pulled the sheet around her and onto the floor. She took a new handhold. Still it came. It bunched around her ankles, her calves. Soon it was up to her waist. Still she pulled, turned, pulled again, a herky-jerky jerk, the pistons of a train speeding and then stilling, coming to rest, exhalation signaling destination:





Somehow, she hadn’t thought of the back of her study, of all of that unused nothing. She had not thought of all of that white. She had not thought to simply turn around, to look away. Why did you never finish, Elizabeth Shoumatoff? Can it be that the only thing left unfinished here was the one thing you could not portray in pigment suspended in water? Do we, too, always focus our attention on the wrong side of the thing? Somehow, without a single report, the Mww-dancers’ dance makes its way down through history. Somehow, the last, most famous portrait of the President remembered for so much is mostly blank. Where should we focus our attention at such a moment? What do we look at when we look away?




Gabriel Blackwell is the author of Shadow Man: A Biography of Lewis Miles Archer and Critique of Pure Reason. He edits reviews for The Collagist, and is a contributor to Big Other. Read the next story, HARRY S. TRUMAN, here.

* thanks to Amber Sparks and Brian Carr for their editorial work on this project.