Falling Triptych by Dale Trumbore

The first time I went with Estrella into the woods, my mother was still alive. Earlier that day, I’d waited in the car while she bought sliced glazed ham for Estrella’s visit, Hawaiian buns, celery and baby carrots to serve with bottled ranch dressing, sweet baby gherkins and canned black olives I liked to eat off the tips of my fingers. Back at the house, my father wiped down the bathrooms—his one job when guests came to visit, unless there was grilling to be done. I wiped the windows—my job—with a bunched-up piece of the Sunday paper in one hand and a bottle of Windex in the other. My mother, who had already cleaned for hours, layered the carrots and celery, gherkins and olives carefully onto a tray.

Finally it was 12:10 p.m., ten minutes before Estrella’s train was due to arrive, and the three of us headed off to the train station. Maybe this was the first time I sensed the train coming before everyone else: a mute ringing, a whistle with no pitch. That first time, I insisted to my father that the train was on its way, and he peered down the track. “I don’t think so, Addy,” he said, just before the train turned the curve.

We watched the passengers exit, discarding them all as not Estrella, not Estrella until there she was, reckless black curls, a tight black skirt, and black boots that reached nearly up to her knees. After my father drove us home, we ate the crudites alongside glazed ham sandwiches. I helped myself to two sandwiches even after I’d eaten nearly half of the sweet gherkins. My mother and Estrella drank a glass of chardonnay each, though as a general rule my mother never drank before six. This, I learned later, was one of the many exceptions she made for Estrella.

They talked, as they often did, of Estrella’s work, the book of photographs that was due to be published next year. They spoke of my mother’s time in college with Estrella, but I was still too young to care. I asked to be excused, and my father stepped away to take a phone call. I played quietly with my dolls in the next room until I heard Estrella mention a walk in the woods.

“Mom, can I show her?” I asked. The week before, my friend Yvette and I had wandered deeper than I was allowed to go by myself—which is to say, I wasn’t allowed in the woods alone at all. My parents were afraid they’d lose me like they’d lost my infant sister. But Yvette and I had found and propped up a piece of plywood against a huge oak. It was huge to us, an entire wall, and we’d lived in the fort for hours.

I was eager to show it off, and my parents had already seen it. My mother did not love the woods as I did; she’d barely glanced at the fort before returning to our house. Maybe she watched from the kitchen window as I grabbed Estrella’s hand and we skipped off into the woods without her.

Estrella had her camera, of course. I don’t remember her without her camera. Even the last time I saw her, it sat nestled in her bag until she needed it. In the woods, she took pictures of the trees looming above us. She nearly stepped on a dead crow, and while I ran away from it, shrieking, she paused. She gently placed a branch over it, so it looked as though the branch had struck the bird down. I heard her shutter click.

We reached the fort. She climbed inside with me, squatting down as far as her tight skirt would allow, not wanting, I suppose, to dirty it. I asked if she’d like me to take a photo of her, and she smiled and gave me the camera to hold, showing me which button to press.  It’s the only time I remember her letting me hold the camera. And then, as we emerged from the fort and she unfolded—she seemed giant to me then—she suggested I climb a tree.

“I’m not very good at that,” I said. I never climbed trees. I watched Yvette climb trees while I waited on the ground, my mother’s voice ringing in my ear: be safe, be safe.

Estrella shook her head. “Why don’t you try?” She pointed to one nearby, and I scrambled up onto the first branch. My mother had dressed me in patent leather Mary-Janes. Neither of us were dressed for the woods, but I found my footing and beamed at Estrella, exhilarated.

“What if you climbed a little higher?” she asked. Her camera was out, already clicking, hiding her face from view. She gestured toward the next branch up, a spindly, brittle arm reaching away from me, hovering over the empty ground.

“Do I have to?” I asked. My parents actively discouraged things like climbing trees. I didn’t play a single sport. After the death of my sister, they wanted me where they could see me: coloring quietly, practicing my quarter-sized violin.

“I know you can do it,” Estrella said, hardly an answer. Not a command, either, but I’d inherited the obedient, rule-following temperament my parents had willed upon me since my first breath. I began to climb up onto the branch, hearing the camera click with each step.

I must have been barely five feet off the ground when it snapped, but I remember the descent as if it lasted several minutes. The clench in my stomach at the crack of it—a sharp pain, a crunch as my arm hit the ground before the rest of me.

Surely I must have fallen before, or been dropped. This could not be the first time, though it was my first and only broken bone. But looking back, I remember only my father’s hand on the back of my bicycle for longer than I needed it, my mother suggesting I stay home whenever Yvette invited me to the amusement park. And then Estrella, only Estrella urging me on.

Another click—I looked up at her in shock from the ground, too startled to cry. I reached up for her, and she took another picture. Before she picked me up and carried me back to my parents—me sobbing into her dark curls, whimpering into her long, feathered earrings—first, she took a photograph.

In her published book, she called the series Falling Triptych. Me in the tree, stretching up toward the branch as it reaches like a hand toward her lens. Me on the branch, clinging to it even as it’s falling, we’re both falling, the branch and me, as if it has suspended me in mid-air like a witch’s broomstick. I am startled, mid-fall. I haven’t yet realized what’s coming. You could mistake the look on my face for joy. And then me on the ground looking up, too startled to cry, reaching toward her camera.

My parents dropped her off at the train station before they took me to the emergency room. My father said goodbye to her, and my mother got out of the car to hug her goodbye, Estrella already half-forgiven. I sniffled back my teary snot and waved with my good arm from the backseat.

“A clean break, at least,” the doctor told us.

A few days after she’d gone, Estrella mailed a set of colorful markers she’d found in the city. For your cast, the note said. So all of your friends can sign it.

What could I do? I forgave her as my mother had. They continued having lunch together in the city at least once a month, as they had always done, but it was two years before Estrella took the train to visit us again.

It was a Sunday in early August, the air dense and humid, like the inside of a car left to roast in the sun. Estrella’s visit came the week before they caught the cancer in my mother’s throat, the week before her decade of smoking caught up with her, finally, though she’d quit the day she’d learned she was pregnant with me. Estrella’s visit is the last solid memory I have of the time before my mother starting chemo, my mother refusing to eat, my mother rendered nearly skeletal. That lunch was the last time I remember her genuinely happy.

They talked about college, as they always did, and this time, I listened. I was old enough to find my mother interesting, then, and not yet old enough to find fault in her every action. By the time I reached that age, she was gone.

“Oh, she was awful!” Estrella laughed. “She’d book two dates for the same night and not decide until just before who she wanted to see. And then, when the one she didn’t want rang the doorbell, she’d make meanswer it and send them away. Some nights she refused both of them.”

My mother blushed, waving Estrella off. I’d never imagined her dating anyone else; it had never come up. “No one mattered until your father,” she said to reassure me, noticing the look of horror and fascination that flashed across my face. I still wonder what flashed across Estrella’s.

After lunch, I was eager to show Estrella the brook my father and I had discovered when we’d ventured further into the woods. I wanted Estrella’s approval the way I wanted my parents’; she meant something to my mother, clearly, so I suppose I wanted to mean something to her, too. When I suggested that Estrella and I walk to the river together, my father had already excused to himself to the den to read the Sunday paper. My mother nodded but did not offer to come, saying she was too tired for the woods.

This time, I was ready; I put on sneakers. Estrella’s camera hung on a thick strap around her neck. As we walked, I asked her more about my mother.

“What did she wear in college?”

“Oh, she was a skinny little thing. She favored these vintage dresses with lace collars and bright florals, but she could have worn anything.”

My mother was the prettiest one in their sorority, Estrella said, and the other girls were jealous of her. But Estrella was always grateful just to be near her. I’m sure I nodded. I felt the same way about my friend Yvette. I felt it with the ghost of my sister, too; my parents never spoke of her, so whenever I caught glimmers of their conversation—my father whispering to my mother once, when they thought I was sleeping, “Olivia would have been ten years old today”—I clung to each scrap of memory.

Soon enough, we were at the river. We watched as the sticky sun rendered it opalescent and glassy, Estrella’s camera clicking once, twice.

“Do you want to get in the river?” she asked. “It’ll be a better photo with someone in it.” I looked around, briefly searching the woods for the adult who would tell me not to—you’ll drift away in the current, Addy, you’ll slip and break your arm again. You’ll catch a cold, despite the summer heat. But there was only Estrella.

“Won’t my jeans get wet?” I asked, my left eye beginning to twitch slightly as it did whenever I was nervous.

“Take them off, then,” Estrella said. “Just leave on your tank top and underwear, and it’ll be like a bathing suit.”

Maybe I shrugged; maybe I nodded. Either way, I followed her suggestion, old enough now to delight in the idea of being someone’s muse. I slipped off my jeans and nearly tripped over a rock on the bottom of the river, the slimy stones slippery beneath my feet.

“It’s not so bad, is it?” Estrella asked, and then said, without waiting for an answer, “Can you sit down?” Her hair fell around the camera as she leaned towards me, until her curls swallowed her face and the camera was her one unflinching eye.

“Now can you lean back, like the river is your bed? Can you tilt your head back a little more?”

My mother trusted her, even after I’d broken my arm. I did as she asked.

“Further back,” she said. “Ears, too. Try to relax.” I thought of the time I’d gone with Yvette and her family to swim in a lake nearby and returned with an ear infection. The urgent care doctor had prescribed a pink antibiotic we were instructed to keep in the fridge, along with ear drops that Yvette’s father and then my father administered twice a day. I hated those ear drops.

“That’s it,” Estrella said as I submerged my ears into the water and crossed my fingers where she couldn’t see them to stave off infection. When she told me I could sit up—she had to shout it, twice, because I couldn’t hear her—I slipped standing up, scraping my knee on a small, sharp rock as I fell. As I waded back to the river’s edge, I watched a thread of blood escape down the side of my shin before it vanished in the current.

Maybe she knew not to bring me back to my mother sopping wet. After I dried my face and the insides of my ears with my sun-warmed jeans, we climbed up onto two boulders nearby, my feet squelching in my sneakers. It felt like an adventure, being alone with her—something I wanted, something I’d asked for. She told me about the day my mother started a snowball fight in the quad one chilly day, which ended with hundreds of students flinging snow at each other. They were out there for hours, she said. Twelve students were sent to the infirmary for snow-related injuries, and my mother nearly escaped frostbite. It was still, Estrella told me proudly, the largest snowball fight in the college’s history.

When we returned, my dry jeans back on my legs and my hair still damp, my mother yelled to us from the kitchen. “Did you have fun?” she shouted.

“Run upstairs and change quick,” Estrella whispered to me. “The river will be our little secret.” I did; it was.

And then my mother grew sick, and I didn’t see Estrella again until the funeral. I hovered behind my father for most of the wake, twelve years old and speechless with grief. I’d been too young when my sister died to remember the funeral, but my mother’s funeral I’ve willfully tried to forget. I don’t remember much of Estrella there beyond hugging her hello and then watching her approach my mother’s closed coffin.

I’ve never seen that photo or the one in the river. I’ve looked, though. Nearly all of her work is online. I searchwhether any new interviews have been posted, if she’s mentioned my mother—though why would she?—or at least that time in their lives, back in college. In my earliest search for Estrella, I found again the same photos of myself, the triptych that I’d seen so many times I could sketch each photograph from memory. The pictures appeared in interviews with her, profiles, press releases of awards she’d won. Did my parents sign a release form for the images? Did she have their permission? I can’t bring myself to ask my father. He’s told me prefers to think about my mother, not to speak of her, so I do not mention her name or Estrella’s.

For all the times I’ve found the photos posted, there’s only one direct mention of me, in a profile in Photographer’s Forum.

PF: I want to talk about one of your most well-known images. How did you achieve that, the girl who looks like she’s flying? How did you prepare to capture that exact moment?

EE: I believe any photographer should always have their camera ready, and I was ready, at that moment. I didn’t know the branch would break, of course. How could I? But when it happened, I was ready.

The photos of children—Young Troubles, she’d called the series—were nothing like the work she was creating now. No, now she made digital manipulations that pulled her subjects—who were they, I wondered?—toward the border of each page. Her subjects were running, jumping, dancing, falling, a hand or leg or mouth always stretching toward the edge of the photograph, as if trying to escape the page.

I thought the funeral would be the last time I saw her. But on the twentieth anniversary of my mother’s death, Estrella emailed me. It was a short email, almost brusque.

Addy, she wrote. Thinking of your mother today, as I do every year. I’m sure your father has sent you my messages—he hadn’t—but I wanted to reach out to you. I’ll be in Los Angeles for a show in two weeks. Should we have lunch? xx, EE

My stomach knotted. My left eye twitched. I’d love that, I wrote back. I couldn’t help it. I wanted my mother back, and barring that, I wanted Estrella’s stories.

She suggested I meet her in Santa Monica, where the gallery was, and I told her no, that was too far. I asked her to meet me in Echo Park, where I lived with my family. I wanted her to drive to me, some small sacrifice on her part.

I recognized her instantly, the same long black curls, though surely she dyed them now—she was nearing seventy, then, the same age my mother would have been. She asked questions about me, for once. I told her my husband and I had a six-year-old daughter and two one-year-old boys, twins.

“I’d love to meet them someday,” she said, and my left eye twitched for the first time in thirty years. I thought of the doctor cutting the cast off my arm. My flesh had shriveled, unrecognizable—it must be someone else’s arm, I remember thinking, not mine. In the one dream I remember from that time in my life, the same doctor saws off my legs while I sit silently, holding my mother’s hand as we watch the doctor work.

“When did you first meet my mother?” I asked Estrella, though I’d heard the story before: They met at a rush event for their sorority. Before the night was over, they’d sworn to see each other again whether they made the sorority or not.

I asked her to describe the perfume my mother wore, the smell of her hair. I asked about my mother’s most serious relationship. A man named Wendall, Estrella said. They dated for a year, and my mother figured she’d marry him, but he broke it off for someone else. My mother was devastated, Estrella said, for a week.

Finally, I asked what I’d been wanting to ask all afternoon: “Do you have any photos of her from that time in her life?”

Estrella blushed. I’d never seen her look flustered before. I almost told her not to worry. I already have photographs of my mother. I’ve memorized each one.

“I’ll send them to you later,” she told me, and sure enough, a few weeks after her visit, she emailed them to me. My mother in a lace-collared dress, drinking a beer in an overgrown backyard. My mother reading Great Expectations in a floral robe, her legs kicked over the back of a worn pink couch. My mother turning back to grin at Estrella’s lens under a streetlamp that lights only half of her face.

They’re ordinary, everyday photos, I thought. Exactly what I wanted, until I reached the last three photos. My mother topless, standing on a bed, pulling a rumpled beige sheet up around her waist. My mother lounging on the bed, naked except for her lacy black underwear, the same beige sheet draped over her head like a wedding veil. And then my mother completely nude, falling backwards on to the bed, caught mid-fall as if she were flying, reaching a hand to the camera as if to pull Estrella into the frame. Seeing it, I searched her eyes for fear, a hint of reluctance, nerves, regret. But she’s smiling in the first two pictures, laughing, her mouth open so wide in the first photo that I could see her wisdom teeth.

I closed the email quickly. I imagined my mother, long gone but still shocked at the thought of me seeing her nearly nude. My mother scandalized; my mother covering my eyes. It could have been a one-off shoot, one of Estrella’s requests, or maybe a gift for a man my mother dated. I didn’t wonder until later if they might have been lovers—if one night, my mother turned down both of her would-be suitors and slipped out into the night with Estrella and her camera instead.

I never wrote Estrella back. Over lunch with Estrella that day—before she emailed the photos, before I learned in one of my late-night searches for her work that she, too, had passed—I hadn’t yet begun to wonder whether my father and I were wrong about their relationship, about every time my mother took the train into the city to meet Estrella. Or maybe my father knew; maybe he accepted their relationship as he accepted my mother’s wine at lunch, as a small and fleeting indulgence, one of the many exceptions we all made for Estrella.

But as we got up to leave the restaurant that last time I saw her, I told myself: One more story. I will be satisfied after one more.

To my relief, Estrella was the one to suggest a walk this time, a walk around Echo Park Lake before she got back in her car to head to the gallery. She told me she thought of my mother every day. She told me about the time my mother had gotten high and confused her boyfriend for another boy. To be fair, Estrella said, they were wearing the same shirt and it was very dark at the party.

“I had to intervene,” Estrella said, laughing. “She almost went home with the wrong one.” I was surprised she hadn’t just let it happen: sacrifice my mother and take a photo.

She had her camera with her that day, and she took a few snaps of the palm trees above us and a couple kissing unabashedly on the grass, the paper napkins from their picnic billowing up in the air beside them. I wonder if she’d ask to take my photo. To my surprise, seeing her, I wanted her to, wanted it deeply, desperately.

She didn’t, though. Instead, she walked up to the edge of the water and clicked her lens at the light glinting off of a green glass bottle floating in a patch of lily pads. She pointed at the bottle. “That would look even better with a body next to it, wouldn’t it?”

I was already slipping off my sandals and walking into the silty water, cool and thick and familiar.

“Addy, I didn’t mean—” Estrella shouted after me. “I wasn’t—”

But it was too late; I was knee-deep in the water by then, algaed rocks slippery between my toes. I was sitting down and lowering in and leaning back, back until I was floating, exactly the body that Estrella had wanted. I floated there, smiling, until I heard her camera click.

Dale Trumbore is a writer and composer based in Azusa, California. Her short fiction appears in failbetter, The Saturday Evening Post, Jabberwock Review, and SFWP Quarterly. She has written extensively about working through creative blocks and establishing a career in music in essays and in her first book, Staying Composed: Overcoming Anxiety and Self-Doubt Within a Creative Life. Find more of Trumbore’s writing and music at daletrumbore.com.