Like Light from Dead Stars

Your mother only likes movies with dead people, their mouths forming words that don’t make a sound. The movies are never quiet, and your mother hums along with the accompanying music. It is only the people in the movies who are silent, expressing themselves with wide eyes and grand gestures.

She points out the dead people to you: That’s Mary Pickford. That’s Buster Keaton. Oh, look, it’s Marie Prevost. And there’s Florence Lawrence. She was the very first movie star, you know.

Your mother says you know, but you didn’t. You think your mother might be the only one who knew — though someone else must have, to tell her.

Mary Pickford was the most famous one, though. And Valentino and Chaplin. They were the first people that everyone in the world knew who they were. Can you imagine that? They were like gods.

You think how it must have been back then, in those black and white days, with gods walking amongst the people, gods who could be touched.

Your mother collects books about the dead people. She shows you their photographs.

Wasn’t Mary Pickford beautiful? she says, and runs her finger along the tight curls in the picture. Mary Pickford gazes out from the pages, and from the movies too, like the rest of them, silently, tragically.

She was an alcoholic, says your mother. John Gilbert too. Florence Lawrence ate poison. Buster Keaton died of lung cancer. Valentino didn’t want to go to the doctor, and he got so sick that he died.

You say: Why are they all dead? Why is it so sad?

Your mother kisses your forehead. It was a long time ago, she says. Nobody remembers them now. That’s the saddest thing, don’t you think?

You remember, you say. You remember them.

Well, yes, says your mother, but who am I?, and pulls you close to her on the couch, and the movie plays, and you watch, instead of the screen, the reflection of the stars in your mother’s eyes.

***

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Cathy Ulrich wishes more silent movies had been saved. Her work has been published in various journals, including Syntax & Salt, Melusine Magazine and Fiction Southeast.

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