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The Read

Fiction: Now I See

Mr Jon Durbin’s campfire tale – a rookie photographer, a reclusive artist and a shot in the darkness of the Pacific Northwest

This happened years ago, back when I wanted to be a photographer. A glossy magazine commissioned me to shoot an artist at her home in the wilderness north of Vancouver. My wife Marina was eight months' pregnant or else would have accompanied me on the trip. She grew up in the Pacific Northwest and never missed any chance to visit; I promised her a vacation after the birth. “As soon as I’m back in action,” she said, and I agreed, hiding how grateful I was for the time alone. After all, family can make creative work difficult, and this was the assignment that could launch my career.

Since then the artist has fallen out of favour, barely remembered even by those who trafficked her work, but at the time critics called her one of the new century’s most revolutionary painters. Her portraits commanded enormous sums, driven in part by her near-religious isolation. She never gave interviews or appeared in public; she refused to attend gallery openings or society events. Just being granted an audience was a coup the magazine commemorated with a press release. And how did I win this honour? My editor financed the artist during a destitute period and had called in a favour. I considered it a mark of my own gathering fame – and earning potential, which photography had failed to deliver – that he asked me to go. Now I wish I’d turned him down, but some evil reveals itself only in hindsight.

Oh, there were signs. The morning I left, Marina was bedridden with nausea, warning me of dreams she’d had the night before – lumpy and clotted horrors, clearly influenced by the artist’s work. Then a winter storm forced my plane to lurch around the sky, stewardesses chirping Canadianly at us to return our seatbacks to their upright positions. When I attempted to assist the boy beside me, he threw up on my sneakers and burst into tears. Shrugging at the pink mess by my feet, his mother dug through her purse to show me a bottle of rose-coloured children’s medicine. I suppose she meant this as an apology, but the plane rattled with such violence apologies were impossible.

Once we landed, I wobbled to the rental lot to collect my Ford Focus, a thing so light a harsh word could knock it off the road, and white-knuckled it up the highway, thrashed about by backdrafts from 18-wheelers roaring out of the fog. When a dark shape flitted off the mountain to my right, I swerved, but too late; stopped at a lookout, ocean boiling the coast a thousand feet below, I found the remains of a crow mashed in my grill. Feathers plastered the bumper. My headlamps were stitched in sleet and blood.

At 5.00pm, I pulled into the hotel and, with tissue from the lobby, picked the bird out of the car. By then I needed a drink quite badly. I called Marina to inform her I’d arrived; she kept me on the phone with requests for details that might recall her childhood. “Is it very beautiful?” she asked. I said it was, then told her I planned to turn in early so I could drink without bother. After earning success at her firm, she had to come to support us both and feared what would happen if she were sidelined during maternity leave. The pregnancy wore on her. It wore on me, too.

The hotel was just shy of lovely, hidden behind an evergreen copse, with a superheated outdoor pool. My suite dripped in rustic charm – poster bed carved from rough-hewn wood, mirror framed by a tangle of antlers, stuffed crow nailed to the bathroom door. I threw a towel over the latter and leafed through the room’s information packet, which included graphic instructions on how to behave during an encounter with a bear: shock it however you can, try not to die.

Three whiskeys later, sitting in the pool, I willed myself to unwind. Somewhere towards the shallow end an infant sobbed, but I saw nothing save vapour rolling off the surface – no baby, no attendant adult. At that point, I decided I’d had enough relaxation and returned to the room to test my equipment.

The artist intimidated me, you see. She’d achieved the sort of reputation I wanted for myself, but without living in New York, struggling through that dance of encouraging your partner’s ambitions while searching for ways to fund your own. No, she’d stayed pure, painting in a bleak, satirical mode – nudes with the heads of animals, mainly, fleeing poisoned landscapes. A salmon-woman with scales for fingers, chest smeared with algae, wading out of a foaming grey sea; a tribe of wolf-women hauling flaming torches along a cliff, their hairy backs silhouetted against a sky belching ash. I’d heard each of these was a self-portrait, but thought that interpretation dismissive. Her art described something beyond language, a cold universe of unknowable ritual. Word had it she’d grown up rich in the West Village. That she’d been scarred in a fire. That she took bath salts to paint. That she’d been ordained. That she hadn’t yet turned 30.

I needed to prepare.

My evening ended wrapped in a bathrobe, smelling of chlorine, capturing test shots in the dead-deer mirror. I centred my body in the frame, backdrop soaked in shadow. The flash popped and camera whined, but I ached for bed and barely looked at my work.

The next afternoon, I drove to meet the artist. She lived at the end of an access road in a house that resembled a fat white slug, mould and dead leaves speckling its wooden slats. My mood suffered. I should have known better than to arrive with little more than hopes her charisma and taste would carry the day.

The woman who answered the door had unhappy features and thin wrists, fingers blued with inscrutable tattoos. She stood behind the screen, breathing at me; only after I asked if she was the artist did recognition twitch across her face. She wore an oversize flannel shirt and long-john bottoms tucked into mud-crusted boots. Her hair ailed from a long-ago dye job, its ends bleached colourless, much of it wrapped in a loose braid. If she hadn’t turned 30, she was an unspeakably ancient 29.

I explained my plan to play around with distance and angles, but needn’t have bothered. All she wanted to know was how long I’d be. She had work to do, she said, but if I’d have tea, she’d put the kettle on later.

We did three set-ups. In the first, I positioned her at the doorway, backlit by a dim bulb. She held up her hand, fingers splayed in a wave of welcome or warning to keep out. Either way worked. The weather washed the scene in the right sort of menace.

For the second she wandered the yard, circling the clearing’s perimeter, reaching out to stroke the trunks of snow-damp trees. Thirty feet behind the house, a padlocked shed drew my attention. “That’s where I store my work,” she said as I approached it, her voice sharp for the first time that afternoon. “No one sees inside.” And then, softer: “It would go away if I showed you.”

By then the chill had worked its way under my clothes, and I said I’d take her up on that tea. She led me inside, keeping on her boots, tracking dirt across her carpet. In the corners of my vision I detected a scuttling, and confirmed this while seated at her peeling kitchen table: young women in woodsy clothes floated in and out of the room, some barefoot, their expressions unforgiving. The artist ignored them. She ignored me, too. She stared at the kettle until it whistled, then brewed us tea that tasted of old mass-market paperbacks, or mushrooms bred in abandoned basements.

I photographed her by the stove and seated at her table. She seemed hardly there. I had the sense her talent was so powerful that it had blown something out inside her, something fundamental, the human fuse. It’s curious to think that now I can’t imagine her at all – just a blankness where there should be a face.

“How do you come up with your ideas?” I asked, clicking away.

She frowned, holding her mug with both hands. “That’s the wrong question.”

“What should I ask?”

“Not that.”

A conversation about her process followed. We agreed that artistic maturity meant shedding prejudices – that a serious practitioner moved from a place of assumed knowledge, closed off to curiosity, furtively imitating influences, to a place of openness, receptive to signals from elsewhere, and that those signals were, at times, painful to conduct. But she had odd ideas about how to maintain this state. For her it required internal stillness so absolute she could have no lovers, no family, nothing at all, to ensure a clear channel between inspiration and her creative orifice.

I’m afraid I laughed. “Well, that’s kind of sad, don’t you think?”

“That’s what it is,” she said, anger sparking in her eyes. My insolence was borne of ignorance – I admit it – but, come on. If success resulted in your exile to a backwoods drug-shack populated by silent drifting women, what was the point? I expected her to raise her voice, but the artist remained calm, blowing on her tea. “When you want to see clearly,” she said, “first you must clearly see.”

I awoke dazed, a fungal taste in my mouth, uncertain of my whereabouts. Night had fallen, but a red light danced in the windows. Peering outside, I saw it was raining faintly, and that a bonfire had been lit in the clearing. Figures in hooded sweatshirts circled it, poking at its base with sticks. Embers exploded on updrafts, a column of smoke billowing into the trees.

I remember thinking, “This person is not OK,” just as a wave of nausea struck me, weakening my knees, pushing my stomach into my lungs. I pulled out a chair, legs squealing on the linoleum, and plunked down beside her. She offered more tea – I said no, thinking of Marina, swollen and distressed – and invited me to lie down. The couch in the front room was covered in dust and hair, but I was so sick, I fell asleep on it.

Stumbling to the vestibule, I discovered my coat hung from a hook by the entrance. While struggling into it, I kicked a boxy item on the carpet and realised someone had left my camera on the floor, as if it was trash they meant to discard. Irritated and groggy, I opened the screen door, intending to ask those at the fire if they knew where the artist went. After all, I needed to finish my work.

The figures thrust their sticks at the sides of a black lump in front of the fire – another person, prostrate on the ground. These were the women I’d seen earlier. Some were still barefoot despite the cold, and the object of their attention was clearly the artist. She spasmed – head jerking, hair a frizz of firelight – and clawed at her cheeks, moaning a tuneless song.

What I saw in the clearing stopped the question dead in my mouth.

“My love –”

a yelp –

“my love –”

a shout –

“where are you?”

Then, accompanied by groans of assent from her stick-poking coven, a howl:

“Show me.”

In the pines beyond the clearing, something shifted. The force of whatever it was parted the drizzle in opposing directions, east and west, and sundered the column of smoke. I could hear it snuffling, an allergic wheeze, and saw it was tall, taller than the firs, wearing a coat of glossy black feathers. Its head was a flesh-stripped skull, ice dripping from its nose holes and cheekbones like jewellery.

As I watched the thing, I had a feeling the thing was watching me. It heaved itself toward the shed, finger-wings extended in a gesture of embrace. Somehow, I knew it was female. I don’t know how I know, just that I do, sure as I am that it smelled thick and sweet, like children’s cough syrup, and that if I’d remained in the doorway I wouldn’t be here now.

Show me.

It glanced at the artist and glared at me, the intelligence behind its sockets boring into me, burning my insides. I stumbled backward and tripped, pressing the camera’s shutter by accident. The flash popped, blasting the scene in light, and the thing screeched in confusion. As my eyes readjusted, I had the oddest vision of Marina at our hotel-room vanity mirror the night before our wedding, her face hot with tears.

The thing didn’t stay stunned long. When it continued grunting out of the trees, I pressed the shutter again, and again the flash popped. This time I saw Marina backlit in our doorway, hair in her face, her hand raised in pain or warning or maybe in goodbye as I sped away in a cab to the airport. And something screamed.

I edged off the porch toward the car, paused to press the shutter, saw the flash, and there was Marina on our couch, legs curled beneath her, waiting for me, not wanting to want me home and wanting me home anyway.

I climbed into the Ford Focus and locked the doors, turned the key in the ignition and aimed the camera at the windshield. The flash blanked out the clearing and again something screamed, fading to a whine when I realised the screaming came from me. I believe I saw one future then, a what-might-have-been: Marina after a miscarriage, lying in the ER, arm wired with tubes, forehead smoothed by sleep.

From there out my memory is missing. I must have driven back in a fugue because a call from my editor woke me at 8.00am, the hotel room phone insistent and lacerating. “Congratulations,” he said. “I heard the shoot went well.” Wiping the sleep from my eyes, I sat up in bed and regretted the effort, every bit of me bruised. Perhaps Marina’s illness had gotten to me also, I reasoned, and the previous night’s events were a fever dream exacerbated by stress. “She’s sure you got what you needed,” my editor continued. I agreed with him so he would hang up, then dialled Marina.

“Was it very beautiful?” she asked.

“More than I can say,” I told her, deciding to believe it.

The rest is as it is. We never did take our trip, though Marina recovered and gave birth to our son. He turns 10 this month, healthy aside from allergies, and shows artistic promise – or so Marina tells me, describing the shapes in his notepad, inky drawings like great black wings. My own creative career is in the past, but a tenured position in college art history makes for a fine life, especially now that my sight is nearly gone and Marina made partner at her firm.

As for the artist, she stopped showing her work soon after our shoot. She lost the desire, or so my editor said. I don’t know if that’s true, because this conversation happened while he was firing me, accusing me of wearing sunglasses indoors to hide my cataracts.

That was after the magazine killed my feature. I’d saved hundreds of photos to a brand-new memory card, but nothing turned out – most were simple frames of burnt light. The one proper photo the card held was a self-portrait I’d shot in my suite’s antlered mirror. In it my body is distinct, but my face is a black smear, a shriek of darkness swiped to the side. I used to swear I could make out a shape behind me, something looming and feathered and full. It would anger Marina when I asked her to describe it; she said it wasn’t healthy to dwell. Of course she was right. These days, if I feel a presence, an allergic wheeze behind me, I know it’s only my son, wishing he could show me his artwork. But back then, when my world was dimming and I was scared of blindness, I told her she didn’t know anything. Isn’t that a laugh? Now that my eyes are useless, I see she knew me better than I knew myself.

What to wear where the wild things are

  • Oliver Spencer Suede-Trimmed Mélange Wool-Blend Gloves

  • Polo Ralph Lauren Faux Fur-Trimmed Cotton-Blend Hooded Down Parka

  • Kent & Curwen Fair Isle Wool-Blend Sweater

  • Fabric-Brand & Co Aksel Slim-Fit Distressed Selvedge Denim Jeans

  • Mr P. Striped Textured-Knit Socks

  • O'Keeffe Austin Suede-Trimmed Polished-Leather Boots