Every morning, Anna walked into the painting on her bedroom wall. The warm breeze ruffled the scarf wound around her head. Feathered strokes of Autumn leaves fluttered down around her like a blessing. Slowly, she moved toward the doe standing among the trees. Her sympathetic friend’s large eyes shone, calling Anna like a beacon. Anna’s hand caressed the rough hair on the doe’s back. She leaned her cheek into the animal’s rounded side and felt the gentle undulation of its inhaling and exhaling. Anna sighed in contentment.
Reluctantly, she stepped back into her bedroom. Another day, another appointment. After dressing, she sipped a small amount of ginger ale. Praykul, her regular Uber driver, would be picking her up at 9:30.
“Hello, Mrs. Tyler,” Praykul said, as Anna carefully eased into the back seat. “How are you today?”
“I’m just fine,” Anna replied. “And you?”
“Could not be better.”
Praykul pulled into traffic. As Anna looked the back of his yellow turban, the small car melted away around her. Now she, the Princess Sharma, peeked around a curtain in the palanquin. Six strong men lifted the wooden poles and bore her down the street to the palace. She leaned back on the cushions, closed her eyes, and rested. Classical Raga music for meditation floated in out of nowhere, twanging notes of the sitar and trilling bird songs from the bamboo flute.
“Here we are, Mrs. Tyler. Would you like help up the stairs?”
Anna smiled as Praykul, the Raja, offered his arm and they climbed to the door of the large white building.
Once inside, she gave her ordinary name to the receptionist, but straightened her back to regally walk to the chair specially designated for royalty. The throne was pure gold embellished with radiant jewels. She sunk down into the plush purple velvet seat. Other occupants of the court looked up briefly and she graciously inclined her head toward her subjects.
“Mrs. Tyler, we’re ready for you now,” one of the uniformed palace servants said. Ushered to the inner sanctum, she sat down, this time waiting for the potion to be mixed. When the purifying serum or who knew, perhaps a slow acting poison, was administered, she leaned back on the lounge and let it seep into her body.
Every stroke of the painting etched in her memory; she reentered her sanctuary. She waded into the creek; the smooth stones pressed against the arch of her foot. Cool water washed over her toes and up to her ankles. The sun’s rays slanted through the trees and reached through her filmy blouse to touch her shoulders and arms.
The beginning of Anna’s shutting the real world out had begun when her husband, Mark, had died unexpectedly. In shock, she had gone through all the motions of deciding where he would be buried, what the service would be like, informing friends and relatives, and settling financial concerns. At night, she hugged the long pillow she had bought, a poor substitute for his warm body next to her. She spoke to Mark like many bereaved people do, but when home alone it seemed as if he was still there. She often kept up a running conversation about everything and nothing. She began to stop and wait for him to answer. Sometimes, she answered for him.
But the diagnosis one year and three months after his death, had caused an escape from which she didn’t return. By staring at the picture, which she had loved at first sight and bought despite its cost several years previous, she could remove herself from grim realities.
Then gradually, all aspects of her life became something other than what they were. The truck lumbering down her street on Tuesday morning was an extinct dinosaur devouring garbage. The hummingbirds drinking nectar at the backyard feeders were visiting fairies dressed in iridescent emerald, ruby red, and sapphire blue.
Anna’s neighbor, Lottie, worried about Anna. She checked in on her several days a week.
“I brought you a casserole, Anna. You need to eat something.” Lottie said, setting the dish down on the kitchen counter.
But Anna’s appetite for food waned. She choked down protein and vitamin filled drinks; elixirs made by the good witch at the health food store. To quell her nausea, she munched on soda crackers which were actually crumpets from Alice’s Wonderland and tea from the Mad Hatter’s table.
When pain pierced through the dense fog in her brain, and now it often did, she wrapped herself in one of Mark’s big soft flannel shirts, pulled her knees up to her chest, and became a caterpillar. She could morph into a butterfly and wing away above this earth.
One day, when no one answered the door, Lottie used the key Anna had given her and stepped into the foyer.
“Anna are you here?” she called.
“Come in here. I’m in the bedroom.”
Anna was enshrouded in a plaid shirt lying on top of the bedspread.
“You okay, Honey?” Lottie said. “You look ill. Do you need me to take you to the hospital?”
“No, Cleopatra, I’m just tired.”
Lottie frowned. “What did you just call me?”
But Anna just smiled. “I know who you are really.”
Lottie shifted her weight nervously and stared at the picture above Anna’s bed.
“Now that’s what I call a beautiful picture.”
“Yes,” Anna said, “I visit there often.”
At her last visit to the white palace, Praykul, the Raja, carried her up the stairs. “A romantic gesture,” Princess Sharma thought.
“You hardly weigh anything, Mrs. Tyler.”
Lottie gave up on the casseroles. The things Anna said lately made her believe Anna was losing her mind. When she came over one week later, no one answered the doorbell, so she came in and called. No answer. She thought maybe Anna was sleeping, so she tiptoed down the hall to the bedroom.
Anna lay on the bed, her arms spread out wide, her eyes wide open, but sightless. Her mouth was slightly parted in a smile. Though Lottie knew Anna was dead, she appeared so beautiful and peaceful. Lottie raised her eyes to say a prayer for Anna. But when she did, she couldn’t believe what she saw. Her breath caught in her throat when she saw what had not been there before.
In the picture, under the trees, beside the stream, was Anna, her arms around the deer.