A Portrait

A Portrait 1920 1007 Alison Braid

The winter of 1992, the phone rang off the hook and wild dogs got into the peacock hut. Harriet read the last real winter had been in 1986, when the whole of Okanagan Lake froze over. Someone, brave or stupid, had attempted to drive across in an SUV, broke straight through the ice, and had to be lifted out by the Mounties. Ice in every direction, stretching in a U-shape 135 kilometres long, hemmed in by mountains round as broad shoulders. The noise of it cracking, Harriet thought, would have been the same sound as the sonic boom that occurred in the same air seventeen years earlier when a pilot flew too low through the sound barrier and shattered a quarter million dollars’ worth of the valley’s glass. These were nothing more than the markers of narratives overlapping, yet, Harriet felt a sharp loss as she put the book down and realized herself a stranger.

Harriet and Jack had moved into Jack’s childhood home that fall, flying from Toronto with two small suitcases, boxes of books shipped ahead of them by post. The farm was built eight kilometres out of town, past the landfill and the gravel pit, the rodeo grounds, and the station where tourists boarded the old steam train. The drive had made Harriet dizzy the first time, apple orchards blurring into horse pastures, becoming sudden forest with thick spruce and Douglas fir.

Back in the woods, said Jack, were cougars and bobcats, moose, California bighorn sheep, black bears, and rattlesnakes. A rumour circled among his old town friends that someone was breeding wolves—the real ones, not the red wolves that were half-coyote and half-wolf that prowled through backyards, patchy and emaciated.

“Tell me an animal story,” Harriet said as they drove. She looked for movement out the window, eyes blinking between tree trunks.

“Mom used to wring the necks of our chickens for supper,” said Jack. He made a twisting motion with his hands and steered with his knees. “Same chickens I fed alfalfa to every day after school.”

A flicker of tail skirted a juniper bush. Harriet pressed her nose to the window. Jack rapped his knuckles against the wheel. “I couldn’t do it. Couldn’t even watch. Hated her for it.”

 

Jack’s work had brought them back, a position at an environmental consulting firm that ferried him up north for two weeks at a time, overseeing site visits. Soon after the move, Jack took on extra hours and missed full weeks of his time off, so that Harriet was often alone on the farm. She busied herself by transforming a room in the east wing of the house into a studio and taking care of the peacocks—the only animals Jack hadn’t been able to sell off.

Easels stood in the studio’s main window and overlooked the rolling expanse of land where the neighbour’s horses grazed. Harriet had a modest following for her portraits out east, and received commissions in the mail—requests with photos paper-clipped to them, people holding each other tenderly, as though glass. Others cradled cats, or dogs, or snakes. Harriet’s weekly trips to the post office with commissions and runs to the grocery store become the only time she left the farm in Jack’s absence, and the excursions began to seem onerous.

 

The first big snow came in January. Harriet was accustomed to white winters in Toronto but all alone on the farm, a new loneliness settled in. She sat in the studio, staring across the white field and trying to imagine the space of it as if she were on foot, walking the perimeter as she had done many times in the fall. The rickety fence on her right framed the scene; the long strip of pasture sloping down after a kilometre to water, the short stone bridge that led across to the neighbour’s ranch.

Harriet mixed shade after shade of white attempting to match the snow. Painted lone figures on canvas. A horse or wolf, or a woman with hair trailing behind her like rope.

Harriet was staring at a blank canvas when the phone rang. She wedged her feet into slippers and shuffled into the kitchen.

“Harriet,” she said.

There was a dry cough and a woman’s thin voice. “Put Walter on, will you?”

“No Walter here,” said Harriet, leaning back to look out the kitchen window. The neighbour’s horses were at the fence, rubbing the lengths of their torsos against the wood.

“Well heavens,” came the reply. “What have you gone and done with him?”

Harriet sighed. “I’m afraid you have the wrong number.” She hung up. Pouring a glass of water and staring into the sink basin, Harriet realized it was the first time she’d spoken aloud in days.

 

Jack came home the following weekend. They watched old westerns and played Scrabble. Over meals, Harriet wondered what they’d ever had to talk about. She counted how many times she chewed her food before swallowing. One night, they went out to the bar and knocked back whiskey and water, sang karaoke duets. At home, Jack tugged off her t-shirt. Harriet couldn’t remember the last time they’d had sex sober.

“Don’t you miss this?” she asked. “All the way up north?” She lay back on the bed.

Jack sketched the outline of her jaw. “You don’t need to worry about me,” he said, and pushed the hair from her forehead.

The right words didn’t come. Instead, Harriet tapped a rhythm out on Jack’s chest with her fist as he spread her legs wide with his knee. When Jack was asleep, Harriet tiptoed to the kitchen. She got her mother’s answering machine and cried into the receiver. Repeated lonely until the word lost all meaning and then hung up mortified.

With Jack, Harriet stopped saying I love you and played a game with herself, keeping track of how many times he would say it unprompted.

 

Shortly after that weekend, the temperature plunged to twenty below. Jack had been flown into a community on the Alaskan border. In the kitchen boiling the kettle, Harriet thought of the peacocks. Normally haughty and independent, the birds had crowded together for warmth. Harriet led them into the house with a trail of macaroni on snow. Herded them into the bathroom where they forgot the cold and preened in front of the full-length mirror. They were fevered, ecstatic with themselves.

At the sound of the phone, the peacocks pecked each other nervously. Harriet raced for the phone.

“Walt?” the woman asked.

Harriet pinched the phone cord, wrapping it around her wrist. “Who is this?”

The woman huffed. “Quit pussyfooting around,” she said, “and put Walt on.”

“I’m sorry,” said Harriet. “What number are you—“

The woman cursed before the line went dead. The horses were staring into the kitchen. Harriet went outside. Slowed as she neared the horses, holding her hand out in front of her. The dark brown one snorted, the air hanging in a thick white cloud between them. Harriet touched his nose, stroked the long bone of his face.

She had yet to meet the neighbour but imagined him now with a weary face, a square jaw. He would come on horseback. Help her climb the fence and straddle the horse. They’d ride away, leave only footsteps leading to the fence and then disappearing. On horseback, she imagined she’d feel closer to the land. Connected. The sun would slink old and sorry across the sky and it would mean something, in the story of her life.

Inside the house, Harriet let the peacocks roam free. The pile of commissions grew as Harriet painted the field over and over again. Expensive oil paints were delivered from the coast to be worked in thick layers onto the canvas. Her brush found lines in the trees and fences, stretching out to touch borders. The figures were no longer stationary. Horses galloped knee-deep in snow. Peacocks receded into the distance, bleeding into the ice-blue of the creek. On one canvas, Harriet painted two figures dancing—herself, and a strange man she didn’t recognize. She considered it for a long time. Left it propped up against the easel.

Whenever she grew stiff, Harriet wandered the house, often ending up in Jack’s father’s old library, where she pulled slim volumes of poetry from the shelves. She paced through the rooms and practiced declarative sentences, narrating the way she moved. Harriet wanted to find a simile to describe the scene outside the studio window, but nothing seemed to fit. Many things were like another, but the field was like nothing.

When her mother resumed calling again to rail against Denver, her newest boyfriend who had left her for his ex-wife’s midwife, Harriet began hanging up at the sound of her voice. She thought more and more often about Walter and the woman, making up the next conversation in her head.

The odd time Jack called, Harriet had little to say. Sometimes, merely to hear her own voice, she read him poems until he cleared his throat, said he should be going.

Once, Harriet didn’t shower for a week and marvelled at her own strangeness. In mirrors, the whites of her eyes ran milky. Harriet held her hands out and wondered at the skin. How it could at times seem so alien, and yet still belong to her.

The phone rang again on a Thursday. The woman cried into the phone.

“Walt, this morning I made tea and grape juice came out the kettle. The trout in the oven refuses to cook.”

Harriet chewed at her lip. “Is someone at home with you? Are you alone?”

The woman went on. “I’ve been misplacing all the wrong things. I know that now. Won’t you come home?”

Harriet stayed standing long after the woman hung up. Snow fell. The horses were nowhere to be seen. In the studio, Harriet drew the face of the woman on the phone. In most versions, she resembled Harriet’s mother, but older and with a sadness Harriet found frightening. In each, her eyes were the startling blue of the peacock’s feathers.

Jack was due home the next evening, and Harriet drove the truck over town in the morning to pick up groceries and wine. She rented another tall stack of westerns. Made stabs at small talk with the round-mouthed cashier who smiled faintly, played with her hair and rubbed her small nose.

On the street in front of the truck, Harriet passed a string of young mothers with prams. What if she were to run her fingers across the babies’ slippery gums, feel the toothless ridge? Harriet hastened to the cab. Slammed the door shut and cranked the radio until her ears rang.

At home, Harriet made a soup she’d found in Jack’s mother’s cookbook. She shut the peacocks from the kitchen to debone the chicken. Jack was an hour and a half later than promised, and the soup developed a thick skin on the stove.

Jack came home with snow soaking his hair and the shoulders of his coat. When she took the lid off the crockpot, Jack blanched. Shook his head, said there’d been food on the flight. He ducked back outside to the car. When Harriet opened her mouth to speak, Jack held up a glass fishbowl and a plastic bag with an electric red and blue Siamese fighting fish that swam frantically, back and forth.

“I stopped over town,” he said. “Thought he’d keep you company.” When Harriet didn’t say anything, Jack rubbed his face and hunkered down at the table.

“I know it can be lonely.” He looked as though he might say more, and then hung his head.

Harriet held the fish in front of her face. Tried to hold its darting eyes. When Jack took her hand in his, Harriet felt a startling unease in her stomach, cold and slippery.

“What do you think?” asked Jack.

Harriet kept her eyes trained on the fish. A hum filled her ears. In poetry, she had learned, fish were often likened to struggle, or rebirth.

“Your face is like a dinner plate,” Harriet said quietly, as if to the fish. “Sometimes, I want to let it drop.”

Jack’s hand stilled and went loose in hers. He stared at her as though she were a stranger. She hardly recognized herself.

“I don’t know what it is you keep leaving,” said Harriet. “Me—or this.” She stretched her arm out, gestured to the room. The bag with the fish hung limp at her other side. In the silence, Harriet bridged the space between them to pick up the fishbowl. She carried it to the studio, set the bowl and the fish on the window ledge, one next to the other. Harriet listened for Jack to go alone to bed, working on a small series of pencil sketches of a man’s face. It was close to Jack’s, though the cheekbones and jaws were slightly askew. When she went to bed, she lay rigid facing Jack, and measured the distance between them with three of her hand-lengths.

On Saturday, Harriet and Jack threw macaroni outside in the sun for the peacocks. Jack rooted around the basement until he found the space heaters and installed them in the peacock hut. One by one, he hustled the squawking birds out of the snow and into the hut. They drank beer on the couch, filling in a crossword.

“Five letters for remove one’s slip,” said Jack.

“Erase,” answered Harriet.

“Five letters for solo.

Harriet shook her head and left the room. “Alone,” she told the peacocks, and locked the hut for the night.

 

Early Sunday morning, Harriet woke to the ring of the phone. She couldn’t bring herself to speak. On the other end, the woman was breathless and rambling.

“Walt, did you know the sound of silence is a b-flat? Did you ever hear anything more beautiful? Today a man on the street asked me, is this attraction or atrocity? I told him, there’s pricks and then there’s pincushions.” She paused. Hummed a little into the phone. “Walt, won’t she let you come home? I’m tired, Walt. Walter—I can’t go it alone.”

Harriet held the phone away from her mouth and counted to ten. When she couldn’t hold the silence any more, she hung up. Without waking Jack, she warmed the truck and drove into town, sat at the bar and ordered whisky, neat. What would it look like, to leave Jack? How much more alone could she feel?

Harriet pictured Walter and the woman on the phone. She imagined them white-haired, but dressed in the clothes they had worn as children. Harriet drank until closing, when she was ushered back into the cold. She promised the bartender she’d call a cab. Walked around the block to the church parking lot and, after a few tries, heaved herself into the truck.

Alcohol was a low base line strumming through her body. Harriet squinted her eyes against the snow that was coming down heavy. It was hard to know one side of the road from the other. There were more potholes than she remembered. Harriet counted the telephone poles as she passed them.

She was playing with the headlights, flashing them on and off and on and off, when a wide shape materialised in front of the truck—a deer, or bear, or wolf.  The truck slid sideways down the road. A thick pine in the ditch stopped it from flipping. Harriet sat stunned for what could have been ten minutes, or twenty, before swinging herself out of the truck and stumbling the rest of the way home.

The next morning, Jack was at the kitchen table, cradling his head in his hands. The crossword on the table, near finished. He’d missed his morning flight up north. Harriet sat across the table and reached to touch his elbows. Small bruises dotted one shoulder where she’d knocked up against the truck door.

“Four letters for like many trees in winter,” said Jack.

“Bare,” said Harriet.

Jack waited for her to speak. The lines of his face seemed deeper.

“I went to the bar,” she said.

He nodded. Gripped her wrists as though to feel her pulse. “And the truck?”

“In the ditch.”

Jack reached for her shoulders. Felt for lumps along the bones of her arms.

“Harriet,” he said, low. “Something’s got to give.” Harriet wasn’t used to him looking so unsteady. She nodded. Jack let his hands fall back into his lap.

The phone rang. Harriet jumped up.

“Harriet. Now?” asked Jack.

Harriet picked up. It wasn’t her.

“Who is this?” asked a man.

“Harriet,” she said, putting a hand out for balance and finding Jack’s arm.

“Harriet?” Papers were rifled. “Ina Harold has you down as—Walter. Her emergency contact.”

Harriet sat down heavy. “What’s happened?” Her heartbeat picked up like a machine. It surged into her fingertips. “I’m Walt’s daughter,” she said into the static, her pulse pausing and then racing with the ease of this lie.

Jack shrugged off her hand and stood.

The man gave a short laugh of relief. “It’s not serious. Ina’s been admitted here—here being St. Andrew’s, and naturally, we wanted to inform you.”

“St. Andrew’s?”

“In the dementia ward.”

Harriet nodded. Wrote the address into the crossword puzzle. Jack shrugged and held up his hands. Harried looked behind him where the horses were back, knee-deep in snow.

“It’s hard to explain.” She folded the puzzle; fit it into her back pocket. Jack shrugged again. His shoulders fell as he followed her gaze and turned to watch the horses, running now, along the fence towards the creek.

St. Andrew’s was in a wing of the hospital two towns over. The roads were slick with snow that had hardened overnight and Harriet drove Jack’s car carefully. It took forty minutes to reach the hospital, passing first her truck, nosed into the ditch, and then a string of red barns like lighthouses that dotted the blank horizon, men out shovelling driveways, women hefting chicken feed to the coops.

In the care home, a frazzled nurse pointed her in the direction of Ina’s room and then beetled off to break up a skirmish over a game of crib. In the room, three women lay in their beds, a fourth sat in a wheelchair by the window.

“Ina?” asked Harriet. She stood in the doorway with one hand raised as if to knock. The woman nearest turned to her crossly, but gestured with her head to the woman at the window.

“Pipe down,” she said. “We’re neither deaf nor dead.” She sucked at a juice box. Harriet drew a chair up beside the wheelchair. The woman didn’t turn, but rested a hand on Harriet’s arm.

“She’ll go to hell in a hand basket,” said Ina finally, jerking her hand behind her. Outside, a nurse was taking his smoke break and scattered birdseed across the snow in a jagged line. The birds flitted nervously over the lawn. One tipped sideways and made a show of righting itself, flapping its wings and turning up snow.

“You’ve been calling me,” said Harriet. Ina shook her head.

“There’s only one person I call,” she said.

The woman in the bed scoffed. “This one thinks every Tom, Dick, and Harry is her good ex-husband. It’s not so uncommon, mind you.”

Ina took her hand from Harriet’s lap and let it hang in mid-air before pressing it to the glass. They sat in silence. Harriet took her sketchbook from her purse and drew Ina as she looked out across the snow. Ina turned, one hand still on the glass. “Seeing connection in everything is not an inherent evil,” she said, and resumed watching the birds. Behind them, the woman snorted again.

Harriet wrote her name at the bottom of her sketch and closed Ina’s hand around it. Ina traced the dark outside of her jaw with a finger.

 

At home, Harriet found Jack in her studio. He stood with his back to her, hands in his pockets. At some point, he had transferred the Siamese fighter fish into the fishbowl and fed it. The fish swam lazily at the bottom, a shock of colour in front of the window. Harriet hung in the doorway. Jack looked back and forth between the painting on the easel, and the field outside.

On the canvas were the two figures—Harriet, and the man she still didn’t recognize. Jack, she realized, was looking at the man in the field and seeing himself. Behind them, outside the house, wild dogs were breaking into the peacock hut, snapping neck after neck for the brief taste of blood. That evening, by the light of a lamp, Harriet would follow a trail of blue feathers and paw prints carmine in the snow, leading across the white field and down to the creek, where it all disappeared.

Header photograph © Jason D. Ramsey.

Share This:

Leave a Reply