Still Life by Caleb N. Miller

With precarious balance, outstretched from the peak of Mount Storm, I reached for the treasure of Gold Beach. Below, echoed the Serpent Sea, a chorus of tangled undulation and snapping jaws. Before me, the Sand Queen pondered her kingdom, unaware of my presence, oblivious of my approaching victory.

But the mountain shifted beneath my weight, and I lost my balance. I was five years old, playing in the living room while my mother prepared lunch in the kitchen and my father was at work. As I fell from the top of the armchair, my world of magic and adventure was shattered by adrenal panic. My fingers clawed for Gold Beach, now, an ordinary painting depicting a solitary woman with black hair and a striped, red swimsuit. Her back to the painter, she sat watching the crashing waves.

I landed hard, but what had been the Serpent Sea—the pink shag carpet of our living room—helped cushion my fall. I tried to cry out, but a slushy mix of saltwater and sand rushed over my face, filled my mouth, choked my scream. The room silenced by escaping seas, my little hands clutched the spilling painting. 

Bless my poor mother. She kicked the painting away and pulled me, dripping, into her arms. The painting landed face-up; the deluging coast, again, captured in frame. Coughing water and sand onto her floral blouse, I gasped salty air. She held me while I cried into her flour dusted neck and told me I was safe. 

Comforted and uninjured, I blinked away tears and inspected the wreckage caused by my impromptu quest for imagined treasure. Darkened sand fanned out from my crash site and the carpet, thoroughly soaked, squished beneath my mother’s feet as she rocked me in her arms. 

She lowered me to the floor with a resigned sigh. The cool water on my feet and wet carpet between my toes lifted my spirits. Mother looked so tired, but she smiled at my mischievous grin and laughed when I plopped down and began splashing.

Her laughter stopped. “What’s wrong squirt?” 

The moment fell dark; water-logged serpents writhed between my fingers. The Sand Queen, expelled from her kingdom, lay beneath the coffee table, her face buried in the twisted snakes. With disturbing effort, she pushed onto hands and knees. The red stripes of her swimsuit appeared to ripple as a violent shudder rattled unheard through her chest, arching her body in pain. Her soaked black hair fell away and I saw her face.

If only she had smiled for her portrait. If only she had turned away from the waves and let the painter capture her face, let the painter give her a way to breathe.

Formless…unpainted, unseen, unseeing…lifeless yet alive…dying… her body heaved with one final convulsion, a final doomed struggle for air. I watched her die.


That evening, father was angry at dinner.  “I don’t give a damn that you cleaned the carpet if I don’t come home to a decent meal!” he said, pushing away his plate of half-eaten hotdogs and untouched beans.

“Please, not in front of Burt.” Mother looked so tired. I wanted to explain, confess that it was all my fault, but I was too afraid. 

While mother washed dishes, father noticed the painting. Mother had repaired Gold Beach as best she could and carefully repositioned the Sand Queen as if she still watched over her kingdom. He inspected it, as if trying to understand why it seemed different, why it felt so lifeless, unaware of the pink serpents biting his toes and injecting their deadly venom. 

Caleb N. Miller is an adjunct professor of anthropology who lives in the Texas Hill Country with his partner and three dogs.