“We’re visiting my daughters’ gravesites today, together as a family.” I hesitated, then added, “Jared’s never been to the cemetery to visit his mom.”
“Never?” Caryssa’s voice echoed from my speakerphone. “Wow, must be so difficult for him.”
“We all grieve differently.” I wondered if the boy is afraid to show his emotions to me. “We’ve asked him to come with us through the years. He always shook his head and looked away, distracting himself with something else.”
There was a moment of silence. The smells of thyme, garlic, and baked bread drifted from the kitchen. When Pierre cooks, it’s like we’re in our home city of Paris. The sound of Jared tapping on his keyboard was a calming melody.
Caryssa’s soft voice merged with my senses. “This is about the time of year that Cassidy…”
“Committed suicide,” I finished with raw emotion. I felt a sob escape my throat and pushed it back. “Today is the sixteenth anniversary. And nearly seventeenth of Bianca’s fatal skateboarding accident.”
“Let it out, Anna. Just let it all out,” Caryssa crooned. “Talk to me. I know you haven’t forgotten your girls or your pain just because I’m afraid to mention it.”
“Oh, believe me, I’ve let it out all morning,” I replied. Pierre dropped a homemade brioche on my bed stand and I comforted myself with its delicious buttery bubble top and goat cheese filling, washing it down with a sip of vanilla latte.
I heard Caryssa sigh—a compassionate exhalation. “This reminds me of why—or how, we became soul sisters when we met at the park twelve years ago. I’ll never forget meeting you and hearing your tragic story. We were all in tears. You had your grandson Jared with you; he was only four!”
“And Tyler, five.”
“Time flies,” Caryssa said. “Now Jared’s sixteen, and Tyler will be seventeen next month. He’s getting his driver’s license!”
My mind raced before I grasped the timeline. Her son was born the year Bianca died. “We saw such kindred spirits in each other. Jared and Tyler brought our friendship together.”
“Yes, but it was more than that, Anna. I found in you a benevolence that matches your outer beauty. What you did for Brandon Garth touched my heart beyond anything I’ve ever grasped.”
Caryssa referred to the boy who fatally struck my twelve-year-old daughter while skateboarding, that sweet boy the criminal injustice system wanted to put behind bars in the name of “justice.” It was a tragic accident. I dropped the case and never looked back.
“You were my confidante, Caryssa. You helped me make that decision by saying, ’Do what’s in your heart, Anna.’ And what was in my heart was a wish not to ruin the kid’s life with a vengeance I never felt. It wouldn’t have brought my girls back.”
Caryssa said, “It’s even more poignant to me now that my kid is the age Brandon Garth was when—”
“Are you ready, Grand-mére?” Jared’s young, deep voice crackled through our conversation. I wondered if he overheard us talking about his aunt’s case. His aunt died when she was four years younger than he is now.
“I’ll let you go, Anna. My thoughts and love will be with you in the churchyard,” Carryssa proclaimed.
Before we ended the call, I said, “Thanks for inviting me to go hiking and kayaking today, I’ll take a raincheck.”
I fixed my eyes on my grandson, six-feet tall with Pierre’s bright emerald eyes. Cassidy’s eyes. His loving presence blended with the scent of Paris ham, reminding me we’ll have a delicious Croque-Monsieur upon our return.
“I’m ready, sweetie. Check with grand-pére to see if he’s finished prepping dinner, and I’ll grab my bag.”
Pierre’s hands clutched the steering wheel of our vintage BMW, the wind blowing through our hair. Jared had insisted on having the convertible top down, despite the cool breeze coming in with the fog.
I glanced behind me. My grandson’s head was resting on the back of my seat, and I wondered if he was crying. Until I see the faint curve of his lips and his dimples crinkling.
But it wasn’t a gleeful smile. It was a stoical grin-and-bear-it expression, with a deep sadness. His happy-go-lucky demeanor transformed by a mask of bravado. I wished I could reach out to his teen mind but had no clue how to go there.
We walked through the rose and bougainvillea gardens, to the footpath that led to the churchyard. The lights along the path created shadows between the flowers. Pierre still hadn’t said a word, and I remembered the last time he and I visited our daughters’ graves together. We had quarreled over their tombstones.
There were more people at the graveyard than usual, weeping and whispering among their loved ones.
The wind howled, scattering the surrounding voices like dead leaves. Pierre found my eyes. “Where’s Jared?
“Ahead of us.” It was then I saw Jared kneeling by the two graves side by side. How did he recognize where to go?
“He’s been here before,” Pierre answered my thoughts.
“Yes.” It warmed my heart.
Jared’s head bowed over his mother’s grave, which held a fresh bouquet. I was wondering if Pierre brought the blossoms when I noticed the note left in the cardholder. My hands shaking, I lifted the note and read:
Before I was born, I heard your voice
When you cradled me, I felt your love
I see you in grand-pére’s eyes
I hear you in grand-mére’s cries
You’ve been with me all the time
You’ve wrapped your arms around me
You’ve understood my fears
Although done in spirit
You’ve wiped away my tears
You may not have been visible
Or see me from mortal eyes
But you’ve talked to me in silence
Your soul always replied
When I flailed in the storm
Like a cottonwood seed
You caught me and made me whole
No longer knocked around by the
harsh world and wind
I love you
I stood in tender shock, not realizing I was crying until tears dripped onto the card, smudging the ink. Jared turned and his mossy green eyes were wet, glittering with a sheen of moisture.
“Jared, this is so beautiful. The flowers, the poem—you.” Pierre had his palms on his daughters’ headstones, biting his lower lip.
Jared’s hands found a fold in his t-shirt and he pulled and twisted the fabric. His head lowered, and his eyes closed. I thought he would sob, but he said, “I came here during all those long walks. I’m sorry I never told you—”
“It’s okay, petit fils.” Pierre’s voice rang out, heard above the contrasting birdsong and boisterous wind. “It’s more than okay.” He opened his arms, “Come here, Jared.”
Rather than it being Jared weeping, it was Pierre during our family hug. The cold of the gravestones beneath my feet sent shivers up my spine, as we wrapped our arms around each other. Silent sobs wracked Pierre’s body. “I’m so sorry I reprimanded you for all the times you disappeared for hours,” he cried into Jared’s ear.
Jared’s now the age his mother was when she took her own life, I thought. He’s growing up and we need to give him independence. I could see Pierre, too, came to this crossroad.
Pierre jabbered on with intense emotion; “And… I’m sorry I grounded you when you took Bianca’s skateboard out for a spin. I just—”
“Didn’t want me to get killed on my aunt’s rad board, I know,” Jared answered. He slipped a hand into his backpack and produced a photo of him riding the skate park. He had laminated and mounted the photo onto a stake. As Jared twisted the stake into the soil, I saw words emblazoned on the back.
“What does it say?” I asked.
Jared pulled the photo out from its grounded position, turned it around, and handed it to me. I read his message:
Dear Aunt Bianca,
Your heartbeat stopped before mine ever started. I never met you, but I love you. Skateboarding was more than a hobby; it was your oxygen. I feel your presence every time I get on your board. It makes me want to shred harder and live life fuller. ~Jared
I handed the note to Pierre, too emotional to speak.
Jared was spreading his wings, and we needed to let him fly.
“Can we go to the log cabin?” Jared asked on the way back from the cemetery. “I want to go fishing and swimming. S’il vous plait!
Delighted with the idea, I glanced toward Pierre. He drove the winding last stretch of our street and pulled into our driveway. I expected his usual response of having too much work to do.
Instead, his eyebrows raised as an open-mouthed smile spread on his face. “Why didn’t I think of that first?”
“Yay, we’re going to Lake Tahoe!” Jared exclaimed. “Let’s have a race to see who gets packed the quickest!”
“Don’t forget swim shorts and sunscreen!” I called out to Jared.
“And hiking boots!” added Pierre. “And stuff a few masks in your bag in case we’re around people.”
It took no more than an hour for each of us to toss together summer clothes and hit the road
Something happened during our family visit to the cemetery. We found new connections and resilience. With a spontaneity I’d never seen, we hopped into the car and took off for our Tahoe adventure. Between the pandemic and perturbation, we were reminded that life is short and to live in the moment.
We drove past the Victorian homes dotting the steep hills of our neighborhood then dropped down onto the waterfront of Bridgeway. We passed the yacht marinas, fanciful shops and houseboats and veered onto the 101 North. “Let me know if you want me to drive,” I said to Pierre.
He glanced into the rearview mirror. “I’m good. Feel free to take a nap, like our petit fils.
I turned around and saw Jared’s head lolled back, mouth open. “Wow, it’s been an emotional day for him,” I said. My grand plan to read a book during our road trip gave way to my own fatigue. The steady drone of the car moving, and the radio only made my head drop lower, so I gave up the fight and slept for hours.
The sound of Jared’s excited voice woke me. “Can I take the kayak and walk down to the lake when we get to the cabin?”
“As soon as you help unpack Jared,” Pierre responded. “I have a heavy cooler full of food you can carry in first and grab a bite to eat.”
The BMW hugged the curves of Highway 50, climbing through the mountains. Peeking out from behind the trees, a glimpse of Lake Tahoe, sparkling and blue invigorated my senses. “Wow, we’re here!” I said.
“The traffic was light with so many places closed,” Pierre responded. He touched my knee. “What are you looking forward to more; relaxing on the beach or our hot tub?”
“Both,” I replied. “But the first thing I want to do is paint.”
“Yes. When you and Jared pull the kayak out of the shed, I want you to also retrieve my replica of Picasso’s Guernica painting. The visit to our daughters’ graves today and all the violence across the nation has inspired me to complete the final sketches and brushstrokes that will bring the portrait to life.”
Pierre’s eyes went wide with incredulity. “You’re in this beautiful, tranquil setting and you want to finish an anti-war painting?”
“This peaceful atmosphere is what makes me want to finish it. Besides, I can’t keep storing it in the most careless place of any—a shed with fluctuating temperatures.”
“You’ve got enough padding on the painting to protect it,” Pierre said. We arrived at our cozy little cedar log cabin two blocks from the lake. With its rustic charm constructed of tapered logs and unique green rooftop, floor to the ceiling rock fireplace, one-bedroom, and tiny loft, it’s the perfect getaway. “Just make sure you enjoy the relaxing atmosphere while you attempt the final touches of such an ominous piece of art,” my husband added.
“It will be therapeutic for me to focus on this protest piece today,” I insisted.
“Hey Jared, come help me carry grand-méres’ painting out of the shed before anything else.” Jared had run out of the car toward the cabin, “I need to go pee!” he announced. Pierre tossed him the house key. “Carry the cooler and your bags in please.”
After Pierre opened the shed, I grabbed my tripod easel and supplies, then set it up on the lawn overlooking Heavenly Valley Ski Resort. The peaks of paradise surrounded our cabin and grounds as I prepared the paint mixtures for the matte brush strokes. I wanted to do this before it got dark.
Pierre and Jared dropped the large cardboard box holding my painting beside the easel, then opened it for me. For a split second, I thought the box looked as though it had been altered. The painting was further wrapped heavily in plastic and sealed again in a styrofoam box. I always braced myself for any damage done during storing but was pleased at how it looked after they lifted it onto the easel.
“It’s finished and looks exactly like Picasso’s painting,” Jared insisted. He awkwardly lifted the single kayak and double-ended paddle. “I’m headed to the lake for a spin.”
“I’ll join you with the other kayak soon,” Pierre announced. Then he gave my painting a discerning eye. “I can’t imagine what you need to clean up on this masterpiece. Yet—”
“Something’s missing. Look closely,” I interrupted. “Look at the dead soldier beneath the horse—the severed arm grasping the shattered sword. What’s supposed to be growing from his right hand?”
“A flower,” Pierre answered. “A white poppy.”
“Correct. That’s what I’m going to paint today. That message of peace to come. And I want to refine the lines of the other symbol of hope for peace—”
“The dove,” Pierre answered.
A dove is scribed on the wall behind the bull, part of its body comprising a crack in the wall through which bright light from the outside shines. An anguished mother, head back screaming with the lifeless body of her child in her arms. A burning building.
“You said that visiting Cassidy and Bianca’s graves today and all the chaos across America motivated you to finish this painting. What’s the correlation?”
“It’s all connected in my mind. The death of the rule of law in America reflected through a corrupt system wanting to put Brandon in prison, systemic racism, militarized police, raging fires, and perpetual wars. It frightens me for Jared’s future.”
I stared at the painting. It wrapped around me like Picasso intended, immersed me into its larger-than-life figures and actions. The overwhelming size itself holds its emotional power.
Pierre nodded but said nothing more about the painting and my reflections. He kissed me on the cheek. “I’m going down to the lake to join Jared, please think about coming down to enjoy the water.” And with that, he left.
When I bent down to pick up a graphite pencil, my eye caught the writing on the back of my canvas: the Kryptos messages that Ava Ramírez, the daughter of a rogue CIA agent, wrote when she stayed at our cabin. Ava’s father is the spy who spearheaded the robbery of my art gallery and murdered my security guard.
But there was an added word. When, or how, did the girl add it? Then I remembered I’d handed her a copy of the key to the cabin; in case she ever needed a safe place to hide from her father and his corrupt business cronies.
I stared at the word in bewilderment. “Northeast.”
Northeast what? Langley is in the northeastern part of the United States—where the CIA Kryptos puzzle is located. Or maybe it refers to Northeast Washington D.C.?
I glance up at Ava’s handwriting; the first decrypted message of Kryptos:
K1: Between subtle shading and the absence of light lies the nuance of iqlusion.
The purposefully misspelled word is illusion. Something that’s not what it seems.
In a flash, it was easy to see why Ava wrote the Kryptos messages on this art piece. It possesses similar complex imagery and hidden symbolism as the CIA’s art sculpture.
My eyes scanned the portrait, its somber black, and white with shades of grey throughout. The watercolor is digging into the truth behind pictures, I thought. The USA, through its own bombing sprees, echoes Picasso’s work of art. It’s like our nation glimpsing itself in the mirror.
The chaos in streets across the nation as ubiquitous as the cell phones recording the police violence sprouting from a relentless and silent war economy.
Have we learned anything from Picasso’s Guernica message? Such powerful art could teach about leadership. A Picasso quote popped into my mind as I moved from a light graphite pencil to a darker shade across the design. “Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.”
“America has turned itself upside down,” I said out loud to myself.
Birds and crickets sang all around me as I worked on the last details. The scent of pine trees and fresh air filled my senses. In the background, the snow-capped peaks against the brilliant blue of Lake Tahoe and sky inspired me to keep going. It’s mid-July in California, and I can’t think of any place more beautiful on Earth.
This overtly political painting motivated me to move my artist hand across the canvas. I finished both sketches of the dove and flower within an hour. Then I added patches of color. Or an absence of color, as the painting denounces a bloody attack without using the red of blood.
When I stepped back to look at my work, it dawned in my gut why this painting means so much to me. My father died in the Vietnam War when I was eleven. I can still hear my uncle screaming at the messenger back in 1968: ’My baby brother died in the fucking CIA’s war! It’s all imperialism, fucking imperialism!”
The all-seeing eye at the upper center of the painting stared down at me as if mocking my thoughts. Was it the Eye of God watching the sinful wars of humanity? Or symbolic of the deceptive money power at the center of it all?
Pierre had mentioned the light bulb and eye on Guernica symbolized advanced technology used for nefarious purposes. The light illuminates destruction rather than creation.
’Northeast.’ I looked at the word again. Could it refer to New York City where an American oilman, Torkild Rieber, sat in his elegantly wainscoted office ordering supplies of oil to become Hitler and Franco’s banker in carrying out the air raid on this tiny Basque city?
After dipping my paintbrush in linseed oil and mixing it with the last of the paint on my palette, I brushed it over the freshly coated parts of my design, then struggled while pushing the large canvas out of the late afternoon sunlight. The labor of trying to move it brought my mind to the warning Picasso was trying to convey about the dangers of advanced machinery destroying mankind. Brilliant of him, to do this at the Paris World Fair which held a theme of modern technology.
My eyes caught the near-typographical hash marks that evoke newspaper-like typeset. I thought I did a great job reproducing Picasso’s image of this within the lighter shades of gray, and my mind raced to the artist’s message about hidden truths in the news. No newspaper covered America’s financial involvement in the atrocity. It was covered up, like today.
And that bull standing enigmatically in the background! It’s a symbol of Spain. But to me, so much more—it hints to the core of my own personal strength even in the face of loss and tragedy.
I looked closer at the bull and saw another side. A fragile symbol of power, anger, and aggression. The raging, charging, killing, and suffering of war. The ghostly image of the woman with the oil lamp further reiterates this moral message.
Upon closer inspection, I decided to do one last touchup. The dove, which is hardly visible like Picasso intended, could be rubbed out a bit more; symbolic of the peace that disappears through war. Just like Ava’s message. I brushed grey tones onto the dove’s wings, tail, and head.
I had to get to the beach. I carefully raised the tripod with the painting onto the dolly I noticed leaning on the shed and rolled it into a safe space where it wouldn’t be seen and can dry.
Then I went into the cabin, changed into a bathing suit and cover-up. I grabbed one of the tiny French bottles of wine, opting for a 2018 La Vieille Ferme Rouge, and tossed it into my daypack along with sunscreen, sandals, and a book. I stuck my feet into a pair of running shoes, grabbed a hat, a bottle of water, and flew out the door.
Excited to get to the beach, I maintained a light jog, my bag slapped against my back. I stopped to tighten the straps. A feeling of deep relaxation washed over me with the sounds of the blue-green waters lapping against the shore. The smells of lingering BBQ’s filled my senses as I rounded the corner to the patch of beach where we meet as a family.
“It’s a beautiful day!” called a guy strolling a baby along the paved trail.
“Don’t let it get away!” I responded with the lyrics of my favorite U2 song.
I didn’t see Pierre and Jared. They must be out there somewhere in their kayaks. I rented an umbrella and chair and sat on the beach reading, intermittently putting my feet in the water and admiring the views of snow-capped mountains. There were only two others on the shoreline, sporting tie-dyed masks matching their casual beach attire.
Getting my Picasso reproduction finished gave me a sense of accomplishment. I felt a renewed hope for the fate of the world. But why? Do I think the power and legacy of Picasso’s image on display in my art gallery will suddenly change the world? That it will stop the international financiers of global wars? My own little Sausalito Peace Forum?
Laughter drifted over the lake, a familiar sound that warmed my heart. Jared and Pierre’s kayaks came into view, racing side by side. “I’m winning! I’m going to beat you, Grand-pére!” I heard Jared’s sweet voice echo over the crystalline waters and pine-scented air. The tips of their kayaks pointed toward me, making me excited for a spin in one of the boats myself.
I retrieved the tiny bottle of red wine I had stuffed into my shoulder bag and poured some into a plastic cup. While sipping and staring intently at the pristine, peaceful shoreline, I noticed Jared had challenged my husband to another race. Watching them brought me such inner joy.
It takes a village; I thought. I want my grandson to grow up in a safe nation; not one transitioning into authoritarianism. I’m not in this alone, as Sean Coleman goes across the state and country to fight to get Pentagon funding out of our universities. Sean is warning students of the danger he faced by accepting DoD money—shot three times by the same overreach of military elite command we’ve been convinced protect us. Hopefully, he’ll alert them on President Crown’s bullying tactics against innocent Chinese students accused of “stealing technology secrets.”
Like Picasso’s warning, it’s the danger of emerging technologies globally that’s the threat to world peace.
The technology supremacy game must end.