Over the maroon horsehair sofa in my grandmother’s house where, as a child, I took my afternoon nap, there was a picture of a girl with black hair. She wore the kind of garment that is not so much dress as drapery. It folded in dozens of deep creases, and was a dark, hypnotic green. In her arms she held a lute. One hand was draped over the strings near the sounding board’s hole; the other hardly seemed to exert any pressure on the frets. Her hair was rich and heavy, like the dress; it was curled and tangled beautifully, alluringly. She was an art nouveau figure, relaxed in what looked to me like extra flesh, the arms just round enough to suggest sausages and in that association to attach her and her beauty to the plain earth, in spite of the fantasy of her hair. She looked, except for the upholstery fabric of her dress, like my grandmother in the wedding picture I had seen.
The girl’s mouth was parted slightly. She might have been meant to be singing, but I always thought the song had just ended. Her gaze was not directed at me as I lay on the sofa, looking up at her in the mid-afternoon half -light of the parlour. Her gaze was higher, above me, pure and direct, undeflected. I thought she was beautiful.
Beauty, for my grandmother and my aunts, was divided like a territory into estates, each part governed by a different seignior. There were no alliances among the fiefdoms. A woman was not ‘beautiful’, not even ‘pretty’. It was more complicated than that. She had perfect skin, but her hands were bad; she had lovely brown eyes, but she was fat; her legs were good, but what are legs if your teeth are crooked? The body was a collection of unfederated states, constantly at odds with each other, recognizing no sovereign to sort out the endless clan feuds.