The Miniaturist
(life-sized installation, mixed media)
Leah Browning

Slide 1. (detail)

AUTUMN

Laura woke in the night to the sound of church bells, and she couldn't have said, later, what compelled her to leave the house in her nightgown and walk across the backyard in the dark, the grass damp under her bare feet, toward the lighted windows of her father's workshop. She pushed open the door and discovered that he was inside.

He spent his days building enormous, hand-carved wooden dollhouses. After school, Laura often brought her textbooks and sat at the other end of his long worktable, solving math problems or conjugating French verbs. So it was no surprise to find him here, standing in front of a partially finished dollhouse. He was holding a piece of sandpaper and a miniature chest of drawers, unable to disguise the fact that he was building, in these early morning hours, an intricate, miniature version of their own house. Quickly, he moved to obscure the lower level, but it was too late: Laura had already seen a small version of her mother, sitting at the kitchen table, alive again in a detailed wooden form.

For her father's sake, though, she averted her eyes, and when he offered to take her back inside, exclaiming over her bare shoulders and bare feet, she allowed him to set the unfinished little chest of drawers and the sandpaper onto the table and steer her back in the direction of the house. It took her a long time to fall back to sleep, and in the morning, she wasn't sure whether she had, in fact, discovered her father, standing shamefaced in front of an alternate version of their house, or whether the whole sequence had been merely a single piece of a long and particularly vivid dream.

By the time her father came downstairs, she was in the kitchen in her bathrobe, cracking eggs into a blue and white porcelain bowl to make pancakes. He kissed her hair and poured them each a glass of milk, then walked outside to get the newspaper. He had already showered and dressed. She knew his routine as well as she knew her own, or so she had thought. He walked back inside with the paper rolled up under his arm. "It's brisk out," he said, settling himself at the kitchen table. He shook open the international news, turning the pages noisily, and in this way Laura understood that she was not to discuss what had happened the night before.

There were times when Laura had wondered what it would be like to have her mother still, or even a different kind of father, one in whom she could confide anything. He sat at the table, holding the newspaper out in front of him, looking for all the world like a human, living embodiment of a kindly old bear in a story he had once read to her, with his neat clothing, wire-rimmed glasses, and grizzled beard.

Still, his internal clockwork, and her own, remained unknown to the other. It was easier to speak of other, more quantifiable things, of mechanical processes and phases of the moon. Perhaps it was her own fault, she thought; the questions were there, but they lay nested in her throat, unspoken.

Outside, the morning sun shone on the grass. The leaves had already begun to turn.

Laura brought butter and maple syrup and a platter of pancakes to the table. In front of her father, she set a mug, and a small pitcher of cream for his coffee. Without being asked, he offered her a section of the paper.

They sat at the table in contented, companionable silence. It was difficult for Laura to imagine another life, one in which her mother had gone on living, mixing pancakes at the kitchen counter on an early autumn morning. Instead, her mother had been killed in a car accident more than fifteen years earlier, when Laura was not quite two years old. One of her older brothers had been in the passenger seat, and he had not died immediately, but had been on a ventilator in intensive care for almost a week. He had been seventeen, the oldest of the three children.

Laura had heard this story from aunts, neighbors, women at church; she had imagined it so many times that she had quite a clear picture in her mind, as detailed as a scene in a play. She had been a chubby, good-natured toddler, by all accounts, and they had cared for her during the endless days her father spent at the hospital sitting at his son's bedside with her other brother, who had been only fifteen at the time. That brother had died of a heroin overdose two years later. Laura could remember little of him, just the feeling of his arms swinging her around and the sound of her own uncontrollable, delirious laughter; he occupied, otherwise, a relatively bare patch in her memory.

At least she had been old enough to remember some small detail of him. The only reason that Laura had been able to recognize the doll version of her mother was the collection of framed photographs hung all over the house. Her father had not changed or moved any piece of furniture or embellishment since her mother's death; after vacuuming, he fitted each chair back into its exact imprints in the carpet. In this way, her mother lived on in the house, and her older brothers, and also Laura herself, who never grew any older but remained, eternally, a smiling, pink-cheeked baby.

It must have been that same impulse to hold on to the past that had driven her father, in his free hours, to recreate the house in such minute detail; though it was obviously unfinished—in its early stages, even—she had been able to recognize the outline of each room. It was one of his largest, most intricate constructions, the ones which were the most difficult and time-consuming and expensive: a hinged model which, when closed, represented the entire outside of the house, and opened like a storybook into the interior, often with overlapping parts which her father cleverly designed to fold into each other until the house was opened in full.

These were the commissions that he rarely took, because they were custom-made and required such investments of time and painstaking attention. Normally, with pieces like these, he worked from a series of photographs; he would stretch a clothesline across the table and pin up the queue of photos with big wooden clothespins. In this case, though, he had been working from memory.

Laura looked outside, in the direction of the studio, then back at her father. He had absorbed more than his share of sorrow, she thought. Long before the deaths of his wife and sons, he had lost his own father at a young age, and his mother had lingered in an agonizing twilight of poor health for most of his adult life.

He looked up at her and smiled before turning another newspaper page. Laura smiled back. In every small golden pancake on his plate, in every mug of coffee or pitcher of cream, lay etched the words that bound her heart as painfully, at times, as filaments of thread, words which remained between them always unsaid.

Slide 2. (detail)

WINTER

Sometimes in the mornings, after Laura had slung her knapsack onto her back and gone out the back door, Jeremy stood at the window watching as she walked away. She wore a slim wool coat, and a fitted hat and gloves. Her skirt flared out under the hem of the coat, above her tights and the shoes that he knew she wore inside her winter boots. She grew smaller and smaller and then, at the entrance to the forest, where there was a shortcut between home and school, she disappeared from sight.

Jeremy wandered through the house. It felt peculiarly empty when she first left, as if her absence were its own physical presence. He imagined it as an expansive, gloomy cloud that waited on the porch until she was out of sight and then slipped under the door and spread through the rooms like an illness.

He had often been melancholy, even as a small child, and sometimes as he walked through the house on those mornings, after Laura had gone, he wondered whether he might have had some premonition. Was it possible that he had been born with his life already mapped out for him, each faint line leading inexorably to the next? Or, at his lowest points, he wondered if he could have been not a victim of circumstance but a cause—that his own negative energy had somehow poisoned his entire family. The idea was ludicrous. Or was it?

Lying in bed at night, Jeremy was gripped by a potent fear. It was long-forgotten but apparently had lingered from childhood: the fear that everyone he knew and loved would die and leave him finally, irrevocably, alone.

Laura was seventeen, the age that both his sons had been when they died. Every time he thought of it, the fact that she was seventeen filled him with dread and despair. But then she woke up one morning and she was eighteen, and the relief was so immense that he forgot, for a moment, that the others were still dead, and that if she did not die but instead went on living, then she would only leave him in some other way. Yet all that winter she woke up again and again for so long after her birthday that at some point he forgot what it was to be absolutely webbed with grief.

He drove to the hardware store, as he had done every week for many years, to buy sandpaper and wood glue. Maude sat on a stool behind the cash register, reading a book. She looked up as he opened the door and the little bells above the door chimed. He was like a Pavlovian dog, reacting to that sound, though he couldn't have said why he felt such a rush of well-being every time he walked into the store.

Maude tucked his purchases into a brown paper sack, and he drove home through the slush, whistling, to work on his houses. He had more orders than ever.

At night, he still retrieved his project from the side room and worked on it for a few hours, after Laura had gone to bed. It was almost finished, which was a mystery to him; he had painstakingly included every light socket and potted plant, but there was only so much to do; it had to come to an end at some point.

In the living room, Jeremy added Laura, a smiling toddler, and a basket of toys. The teenage boys were in the back bedroom, one sitting backward on a desk chair and the other standing, one of them talking and the other mid-laugh, just the way he remembered them.

He spent hours painting his own small wooden face: a younger version of himself, to match the others, and he placed the figure in the living room with Laura and his wife. He made a tiny roast and put it in the oven with a dish of roasted root vegetables. Inside the refrigerator was a green salad in a wooden bowl. His wife was stretched out on the couch with a paperback novel, and he was reading the newspaper in a wingback chair. With needle nose pliers, Jeremy bent a wire into a tiny pair of glasses, and fitted them to his face. He built a fire in the fireplace, with a heavy grate to keep the baby away.

But then he carved a second, current version of Laura, with her flared skirt and knapsack. She was about to graduate high school and had recently decided to study biology at Queen's. So he built a model of the university, and then, because the buildings felt incomplete on their own, he built the town square, and all the little shops and cafés on the surrounding streets, and the city council building with the face of the easternmost clock facing the waterfront.

As he bent over his table he thought of the real downtown, where it was still wintertime, with snow on the ground and ice in the square, with whole families skating and drinking hot chocolate, but when he made the fountain across the street from the city hall, he wanted instead to recreate the glittering spray of water, and the little children running on the grass in their T-shirts and shorts, and the food trucks and little restaurants with their sidewalk tables, and the ice cream shop that was only open for business in the summertime.

Outside it was dark. He bent over his workbench, and from his lamp the light fell, golden, around him.

He built a moving van.

He built a new house, with a big vegetable garden and a workshop in the back.

He built hardy fruit trees and a dog—an Irish setter—and a kitchen with wide, open windows to let in the light.

He built a porch swing.

He built Maude.

Slide 3. (detail)

SPRING

It was a clear, sunny day in late spring, and after leaving the post office, Maude walked along the waterfront. She unbuttoned her coat. The sun shone off the water. There were boats in the distance, and a young woman who reminded her vaguely of Laura jogged toward her and then passed by, giving a polite little nod as she did so.

Two years earlier, Laura and her boyfriend had graduated with their degrees in veterinary medicine and finally gotten married. Instead of going on a honeymoon, they opened a joint practice in a rural part of the province; her new husband was specially trained to treat horses and other large animals.

They lived close enough to drive, if one were so inclined, but it was enough of a distance that Maude had mailed the package to Laura instead: several outfits, a bonnet, and pair of baby slippers she had knitted herself. Laura was due in the first half of June.

Maude turned toward the corner bookshop, and the museum that had purchased Jeremy's project for their permanent collection. The house had frightened her the first time she had seen it. He had shown it to her one night after dinner; he had taken her hand and led her down the path from the house to his old studio. They'd only been seeing each other for two months, at that point, and she didn't want to live the rest of her life in another woman's shadow.

All these years later, though, she knew that he had told her the truth that night. He was only preserving a memory, or perhaps not even an actual memory, but the idea of one: the house represented the possibility of their life together. It was a forgotten photograph found in a drawer long after the tragedy has taken place, a bittersweet memento of the family in happier times.

Everyone knew the story of what had happened to Jeremy's first wife because it had been in all the papers at that time; it had made national news. A pretty young mother, a drinking problem, the collision of two drunk drivers on a rainy night. The mother dead on impact. Her teenage son, a promising student, never recovering consciousness. And the younger teenage son rescuing his baby sister from the wreckage.

But that was all a distant memory now. After Laura had gone to university, Jeremy had sold the house and the studio and built something new for himself, for Maude. His new studio was similar to the old one—high ceilings, large windows to let in the light—but he had changed it in subtle ways. Maude knew that the memories still swarmed back, but infrequently now, and with less intensity.

Maude's fear had dwindled away as well, and she occasionally stopped at the museum to see the new exhibits and to look, again, at Jeremy's elaborate project. She hadn't been able to appreciate the workmanship when she had first seen it, but no matter how many times she had visited since then, she always found something new: some precise, intricate detail that stirred her admiration all over again. She saw, now, that it was his masterpiece.

Today, though, Maude did not linger at the museum or in the shops. She unfolded a cloth bag from her coat pocket and crossed the street toward the farmer's market in the square. She walked leisurely through the aisles, collecting fresh fruit, cheese, and a loaf of bread from one of the local bakeries. It was the anniversary of the day Jeremy had walked into the hardware store and invited her over to his house for dinner. Maude was feeling nostalgic, and she splurged on chocolates. A bottle of wine was already chilling at home, and the table was set with the good china and a pair of candlesticks.

Maude gathered whole armfuls of flowers at one of the flower stalls and carried them back along the lakefront, where a young woman pushing a baby in a stroller smiled at her as she passed by. What a sight I must be, Maude thought, but she didn't care.

At home, she went up the stone walkway, unlocked the door, and went inside.

In the neighborhood, two boys threw a baseball back and forth. The air was so fresh that a woman two doors down had pinned her laundry on the back clothesline to dry. In Maude's front yard and the yards all up and down the street, the trees and plants grew, flowers blossomed; there was a slow buzz of insects coming back to life, and birdsong.

The sun was going down by the time Jeremy turned off the lights and left his studio, crossing the grass toward the house on a well-trodden path. Maude had opened the windows, and he caught the aroma of roasting meat. As he opened the back door and went into the kitchen to find her, the clocks downtown were striking seven, each hour chiming like church bells, and nearby the volunteers at the museum were finishing their shifts, walking through the rooms one last time on their way out, and at the last exhibit they paused, gently closing his miniature house for the night.

Leah Browning is the author of three nonfiction books for teens and pre-teens and three chapbooks.  Her most recent chapbook, In the Chair Museum, was published by Dancing Girl Press in 2013.  Browning's fiction, poetry, essays, and articles have previously appeared in a variety of publications including Queen's Quarterly42opusThe Saint Ann's ReviewHalfway Down the Stairs300 Days of SunWigleafThe Citron Review, Fiction365Per Contra, and Brink Magazine, as well as on a broadside from Broadsided Press, on postcards from the program Poetry Jumps Off the Shelf, and in several anthologies.  Her fourth chapbook, Out of Body, is forthcoming from Dancing Girl Press.  In addition to writing, Browning serves as editor of the Apple Valley Review. Her personal website is located at www.leahbrowning.com