The Folding Frame

by Oren Cedar

Chapter 1 - It Begins

It is a curse to live too long and watch your children go before. 

It is a curse to die too soon and never see your flowers bloom.

He walked to the front desk, “I am Henry Parker — my wife Alma checked in yesterday.”

“Call me Kepler — you are in suite twenty-six. Mrs. Parker said you would be arriving this morning. Celebrating your anniversary, I believe?”

“Yes — our silver — she came ahead because she prefers steamboats. I took the train because I had some business to finish yesterday.

“Congratulations — I am happy for you. We host many newlyweds, and there are some romantic restaurants on the river.”

“We have a reservation at the River View Restaurant.” 

Kepler said, “The chef is my friend, and his menu is delicious. His sister is a painter and owns the portrait studio next to the restaurant.” 

“Portrait studio — We discussed having portraits painted for our anniversary. However, we don’t have time on this trip.”

Kepler said, “A daguerreotypist works in the studio with Julia and can make portraits the same day. Here is your room key.”

As he walked to the room, he thought about getting a portrait to remember their trip. At the room, the porter said,” I put your bags in the room. I’ll be back tonight to turn the bed down and light the lamps. Let me know if you need anything.” 

Henry handed him a tip and walked into the room — the view along the riverfront was breathtaking. The bed was made, and her medicine was on the nightstand. Her bags and umbrella were in the closet; she always folded and hung her clothes. A basket on the floor beside the dresser held yesterday’s clothes. 

He unpacked his bags and washed his face. Alma’s towel was damp, and her washcloth hung to dry. Her perfume hovered in the air. He noticed a door opened to a balcony overlooking the river. He stepped out and listened to the steamboats paddling up the river. He saw a tavern along the river, and he decided to visit before they returned. He watched for Alma along the street, and after a while, he decided to ask Kepler if he might know where she went.

Henry saw Kepler at the front desk, “Have you seen Alma lately?”

“I haven’t seen her today — Look, there is Julia.” 

She walked up carrying a package, “Good morning, Kepler — this package is for Mrs. Parker in suite twenty-six.”

“Julia, this is Henry, her husband.”

“Nice to meet you. We made this portrait for your wife yesterday. She said it was for your anniversary and paid for two. So when you have time, come by, and we’ll make yours.”

“When are you open?”

“Peter will be around until three.”

“I’ll see you in the studio. — Kepler, I’m going to find Alma. Hold her package and tell her I’ll be on River Street or at the studio.”

Kepler said, “I’ll let her know — take this umbrella — we expect rain today.”

Henry walked in the direction of the busiest shops. He knew that Alma wanted to buy a new dress for dinner, so he glanced inside each dress shop as he passed.

He came to the tavern that he saw from the balcony. He grabbed a stool at the outside bar. He had a clear view of people strolling by.

The barkeeper said, “I’m William, welcome to my tavern; what is your pleasure?”, 

“I’ll have a pint of the brown ale.”

He could see inside the building over the bar as his eyes adjusted to the dim interior. A dozen people were sitting around a long table, listening to a man standing at the end. They were passing cards to each other around the table. He couldn’t read the cards or hear what the man was saying. William returned with the pint. 

Henry said, “What are the people doing around that table?”

William said, “They are the Spiritualists Order, a group of wealthy believers who meet on the 11th day of each month. They were the First Millerites until 1844. The man talking is a spirit photographer. He and his wife travel, holding séances and making photographs of believers with their ancestors.

William’s explanation disturbed Henry. He is not a religious man, and his greatest fear is dying. Thinking of his spirit haunting his descendants after he dies troubled him. Picturing himself watching them and in their pictures was too much. Would he be imprisoned forever? He had to put that out of his mind, so he ordered another pint and spun to face the road.

He sipped the ale and watched for Alma. After he finished, he decided to have his portrait made.

Henry saw Julia behind her easel, working on a portrait. He sat in the chair beside the checkout desk to wait for her. A letter on the desk from the city granted permission for the studio to continue making daguerreotypes for two weeks after the order banning them. He was curious but didn’t want to ask Julia in front of her customer. So, he decided to wait and ask the daguerreotypist later. 

Julia noticed him and said, “I’m glad you could come by today. I’ll call Peter — our daguerreotypist — to help you.” 

She shouted down the basement stairs and returned to the customer she was painting.  

When Peter came up, he said, “I recognize you from the tavern. I was there to hear the guest photographer and noticed you outside.”

“I saw the group around the table inside. Do you make spirit photographs?”

Peter said, “No, spirit photographs require a photographer and are copies. I make daguerreotypes, and light from the person goes directly onto the plate. They can’t be copied, so you know the original is made in the person’s presence.

Henry was relieved — He wanted nothing to do with spirit photographs or the people who make them. Peter led the way to his studio in the courtyard. As they passed the basement door, he smelled noxious fumes and saw a purple fog floating up the stairs. They made him nauseous. 

Peter pointed at a chair and said, “Have a seat.” 

“I read where the city banned daguerreotypes. I am curious why?”

Pater laughed, “Those pesky painters schemed that up to protect their business. You don’t need to worry; the portraits are completely safe.” 

He stepped out of sight for a moment. Then, he returned and placed a box on the stand in front of Henry, pointing the opening at his face. Then, he asked Henry to be still while pulling a cord, causing a snapping sound. 

“There, your part is done; You can see yourself out while I finish up here.”

He felt odd after leaving the studio. He blamed it on those chemicals he breathed. Things seemed to be moving slower than usual, and the light seemed to fade in and out. 

He returned to the inn and saw Alma’s package still in the mail slot; he picked it up and started feeling dizzy. He had to sit in the reading chair next to the desk. He decided to rest there and wait for Alma to come back. 

He fell asleep. A crack of thunder woke him. Kepler was right about that rain; I wish Alma had her umbrella. Since the package wasn’t a secret, he decided to open it. It held an ornate golden frame wrapped in tissue. The back was covered with intricate engraving, and porcelain roses lined the edges. It had a hinge on the side where another portrait would attach. He flipped it over to see Alma’s image; she looked beautiful and vibrant, just as he remembered her. The instant he looked at her, loud noises came through the front door from the street. Horses were neighing incessantly, and people were screaming and crying. 

He heard a man yell,” I couldn’t stop; she just walked right in front of us like we weren’t there.” 

Henry jumped up, grabbed the umbrella, and ran out to see. He had a bad feeling in his soul and hoped it wasn’t Alma. He ran out the door — tripping over the gathered people — he shoved his way through the crowd.

It was Alma! Lying there on the side of the road, unconscious. Instantly, he jumped into the river of water and embraced her, believing she would wake up. But, instead, she didn’t move — he was in shock and debilitated with grief. There was nothing he could do but keep the rain off her with his umbrella.

Finally, a doctor stopped to see if he could help, but he could do nothing.

Henry stayed by Alma’s side as long as he could — he couldn’t accept losing her. Eventually, the undertaker came for her body, and everyone left. He had to return to the inn.

In the lobby, Kepler said, “This is terrible — I am so sorry it happened. I hope you are going to be all right. You should go up and get some sleep if you can.”

Back in the suite, he was shaking and pale with shock. His heart was broken, and he was sick with sorrow. He sat on the bed crying until he rolled over and passed out. 

The storm’s wind began to blow so hard that it blew out the lamp flames. Then, finally, the noise of the drapes flapping in the gusts woke Henry up.  

He thought, “I had a nightmare that a carriage ran over Alma crossing the street in s storm. It has to be a nightmare. It can’t be true — she can’t be gone.”

He passed out again.

In the morning, Kepler found Alma’s portrait under the reading chair. He brushed it off and put it on the table behind the front desk. Julia arrived to deliver Henry’s portrait and saw Kepler standing behind the desk. She wasn’t aware of the accident, and he described it to her. Crying, she said, “I feel so sorry for him.” Then, pointing to the frame on the table, she said, “At least he has her portrait to cherish.”

After she left, Kepler began putting the frames together. He felt it was the least he could do for Henry. So he opened the package, removed Henry’s portrait, and unwrapped it. He turned it over to look at Henry’s picture and thought, “what a perfect couple.”

He heard the valet yelling for him from upstairs, “Help! Kepler! — You have to come up here now!” 

He dropped everything and ran up the stairs. Upon entering Henry’s room, he saw him lying on the bed, his eyes were closed, and he was blue and stiff. He smelled pungent lamp gas, so he turned the values off and opened the windows. Then sent the valet to get the doctor.

There was nothing the doctor could do. Kepler thought, how horrific, first Alma and now Henry. They were here for only two days -- what a tragic end to their anniversary. Everyone left, and Kepler packed their belongings into the bags and asked the porter to take them to the storage closet. 

At the front desk, Kepler saw the two frames lying on the table. He finished putting them together, thinking their relatives would want them. After snapping the halves together, he put the frame with their bags.

Alma, are you here? I love you!

I love you too, Henry. It’s good to be together again!

Chapter 2 - Return Home

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