The Oval Frame

LOOKING at the back of it, you can clearly see what it’s made of. Six curved pieces of wood, cypress maybe, have been adroitly joined together to form the circumference of an oval; two steel eye-screws, one on either side, are connected by a coiled length of hanging wire; twelve three-penny nails, evenly spaced like clock numbers, have been bent onto an oval of cardboard set securely inside the frame; two words in cursive in pencil at the top; five words in black ink at the bottom.

Flip the whole thing over, and from the front the oval frame looks bronze at first. But when you take a closer look, you see it’s an illusion. The beveled plane of the frame is lacquered pearly brown, the beaded interior rim is painted pearly goldenrod, and where the pearly hues collide, their contrast reads metallic. Four floral medallions ornament the frame’s circumference. They’re also made of wood, but they easily pass for bronze.

Then there’s the frightening portrait inside the frame. One of those charcoal-enhanced photographs so popular in the nineteenth century. A woman all in white, ten years younger, at least, than her grim expression would have you believe, her long, haunted face made longer and more haunted by the mounds of jet black hair piled high on top of her head, penciled-in silver highlights threading lightning through her coiffure.

Her high white band-collar saws a smile across her neck — see how her head appears to float like a dead balloon above her body? Her skin has gone greenish in the years since the portrait was produced, her lips mere memories of pink, and the way her gown dissolves into the oval only adds to the illusion of ghostliness.

And her face literally bubbles out toward you. The portrait presses up against a convex thickness of glass, and the convex thickness of glass presses up against the frame, bulging slightly outward so as to bubble through the oval. I think that’s what makes the portrait so terrifying. It’s like you’re looking through a peephole and there’s a dead woman on the other side looking back at you.

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