A Certain Slant of Light

Cynthia Thayer

St. Martin's Press

John Patterson’s Mare
Peter hears the freezing rain pelting onto the cabin roof. He knows it is dripping down the shingles, icing the windows shut, covering the trees. He hears the snap, loud like a rifle shot, a snap from deep in the woods, the snap of tree limbs laden with ice. The birches will be the first to go, then the maples, then the evergreens. He pulls the blanket up to his mouth, heaves it around his shoulders, brings his legs up to his belly, shoves his hands between his knees, squeezes his eyes shut at every cracking noise. Each time he opens his eyes, the room is still there around him, his clothes still draped on nails pounded into the wall, windows intact but iced on the outside allowing only slanted dawn light through, onto the bare wooden floor.
His arm struggles to untangle itself from his legs, from the blankets, to reach for the floor beside the bed. The tips of his fingers wave back and forth until they catch in the matted fur. “Dog,” he says softly. “Dog, almost daylight.” That is the rule. No dog in bed until the light comes. “Dog.” His eyes close again as he waits to feel the pressure on his feet, the jostling of the bed, wet tongue on his face. Dog takes longer today than yesterday to climb onto the bunk and whines as he crawls up to lick.
Peter doesn’t mind the ice. If he falls on the way to the outhouse, breaks his leg or his hip, death will be easy. His body temperature will go down down down until he is euphoric, until he doesn’t even care that it is too easy, that he isn’t suffering enough. But Dog is scared of sliding, of losing purchase.
Peter allows the licking to continue for a few minutes while he contemplates the day. Splitting wood. Spreading sand on the paths. Maybe a walk to observe the damage in the woods. Cut up the downed birch and maple branches for firewood. End of March is late in the year for the ice, which usually comes in February. Another sharp volley outside causes Dog to stop the licking, drop his head on Peter’s face, resume the whining.
“Come on, Dog. Time to get going.”
Peter pulls himself out of the warm covers and slides his legs into the dungarees on the floor by the bed. He hasn’t worn underwear since the fire, a small sacrifice he’s gotten used to. His red waffle-knit shirt will have to be replaced soon. That means a trip to town. He’s patched the holes more times than he can even remember but now the patches have nothing to adhere to. The plaid flannel shirt is in better shape and he buttons up the front, hiding the frayed holes in the undershirt. It’s time for fresh socks and he pads barefoot over to the wooden chest in the corner. The socks are right on top. Hand-knit wool. His sister has sent them every year for over twenty years at Christmas. She says you have to wear real wool socks to stave off Maine winters.
His boots stand by the cold iron stove, frost covering the outside of the frozen leather. He yanks the birch bark into thin strips, piling them loosely in the firebox, and makes a small tent of kindling over them. The bark catches quickly under the kindling. Dog sits in front of him, head cocked, waiting for the command. Peter knows not to wait too long because Dog absolutely will not get the log until he hears the command. Once Peter was in a rush and threw the first log in himself. The howling that he heard from the outhouse would have awakened the dead. No, he doesn’t want to experience that scene again. “Dog. Bring the wood.” This is Dog’s favorite part of the day, the time when he can do something, feel competent, and Peter never forgets to give the command, even in the summer when there is no fire. Then Peter brings the wood back to the spot beside the door when Dog isn’t watching, ready for the next morning. It is Dog’s only trick.
Dog trots as quickly as he can over to the pile of wood by the door. The maple log he chooses is thick and heavy. He drops it before he even gets turned toward Peter but then muscles his mouth around the wood until he has a tight grip. He is not going to drop it again. His gait is slower now, his left leg dragging a bit. Peter waits patiently by the frigid stove, breathing his white breath into the space in front of him. He hopes Dog delivers the log before the kindling is burned up but refrains from encouraging him. Peter knows Dog will bring it as quickly as he is able. Dog looks up at Peter before he lowers the log. Peter jabs at the kindling and places the maple on top of the popping and flaming cedar sticks. One log is all Dog needs to bring. Peter always keeps an adequate stack of wood right beside the stove but Dog never seems to notice that. He only sees his own logs, the small heap of logs beside the front door. Peter sometimes teases Dog and makes him wait for a long time before he gives the command. The old dog would never get the wood without the command. Peter thinks he might die first.
He lowers two pieces of birch from his stack by the woodstove onto the flame and lingers his hand over the fire until he feels it, hot against his index finger. He doesn’t allow himself to shove his whole hand directly into the flames. Just enough to be too hot for a moment, to know what it feels like. When the logs catch he shuts the round iron cover, closes the damper, and heads for the door. Give the stove a chance to warm the place up. After the ice melts in the coming days, there will be trees to cut up, plenty of firewood for the next three years. At the front door, he shoves his wool-covered feet into an old pair of rubber boots and pulls open the inside door. The storm door doesn’t open at first. Iced over. Peter leans into it with his shoulder. Imagine, being locked in his cabin. Unable to get out. That would be fine, something he might look forward to except for the animals. Nobody there to feed them. But he leans into the door again, feeling it give with his body weight.
Ice covers everything like shellac poured over the world, flash-frozen the instant it hits the surface. Dog whimpers, straddling the threshold but Peter gently pushes his rear end and shuts the door.
“Time to pee,” he says.
The sky is grey but Peter knows that when the sun comes out, the whole Maine coast is going to sparkle like millions of earth stars. The radio said it might clear by this afternoon. Before the fire, twenty years ago, they all might have come up to see the ice, and he would have put new film in his camera, strapped on his ice-cleats, and photographed the whole area, maybe even walked down the road, taken pictures of downed trees, ice-covered telephone wires, frosted fences. But now it is just Peter. Just one man living alone. No need for pictures. His rubber boots plant themselves on a solid plateau while he urinates away from the path.
“Come on, you too,” he says to Dog, who doesn’t move.
Peter maneuvers his way along the short path to the outhouse where the ice has settled like a dome over the roof and walls. He kicks the door. Bam. Cracks the ice enough for the door to move. He wonders if he could suffocate inside if the door ices over after he enters. Probably not unless it rains and refreezes.
Inside it is dark except for a piercing slant of light squeezing through the cut-out half-moon in the top of the door. The ice over the moon becomes a prism which throws dancing reds and yellows and blues onto the wall. His fingers are stiff with the cold as he unsnaps his dungarees and lowers them to his ankles. The wooden rim around the hole is cold but dry. It makes him glad he reroofed the outhouse the previous fall. Dog’s whimpering moves closer until it comes from directly outside the door. “Go on,” Peter says. “Let me be.” The reading material is old. Nothing but a few tool catalogs and a Newsweek from January. Peter settles into the reading position, holding a Johnny’s Seed catalog in front of him. It’s difficult to see the words because of the dark but the pictures of radishes and corn and delphiniums are clear. He flips the pages, blowing white breath over the vegetables and flowers, blotting out the continuing sounds from the other side of the door.
A rush of cold air hits his ass. He wonders how the wind could permeate the wall of ice covering the outhouse. He loves this time of day, the visceral act of depositing his waste in the ground, the cold, the anticipation of a cup of coffee. The ice covering everything enhances the excitement, except for Dog’s fear of slipping. He mustn’t stay too long. Things to do. Almost out of toilet paper. That means a trip to the store. A new undershirt and a bunch of toilet paper. Perhaps tomorrow when the ice loses its slickness he’ll try that new country store out on the highway. He drops the seed catalog and folds the remaining toilet paper in half, in half again, and again. Every day at the same time. Like clockwork.
The dungarees are cold and rough. He tucks his shirts into the pants and snaps them, lowers the lid onto the wooden seat, presses outward on the door. The ice hasn’t frozen it shut and it pops open easily. From the doorway of the outhouse, he watches the smoke curling toward the sky from the brick chimney top. Good, he thinks. The cabin will be warm when he gets back. Dog, as if he has been waiting for Peter, lifts his leg at nothing and empties a stream of yellow which freezes instantly on the shimmering ice at the side of the path. Peter waits for him to finish, allows him to go first up the slippery path toward the cabin. He hopes the ice melts soon because it is almost time to plant the peas and he remembers the smell of fresh parsnips pulled from the cold earth. The garden off to the right resembles the smooth skating rink on the front lawn of the old house, before the fire, except for the Brussels sprouts stems and corn stalks jutting up like frosted soldiers caught in attack mode. If he had pulled those old plants in the fall, he could put on his skates and try it. But the skates are gone. They, too, in the fire. No skates for years and years and years. He would never skate again. He’s too old now, anyway. He should have had grandchildren. They would skate in the garden, glide around the dead stalks in S turns, stop at the edge of the path, their blades shooting up a spray of frost. But he doesn’t have grandchildren. He doesn’t have children.
Dog’s rear legs slip out from under him and he whines again. “Come on, Dog,” Peter says, “keep going. Almost there.” He tries to place his rubber boots in spots near rocks or between plant stalks to keep from sliding backward while his hands hover, ready to touch ground if he needs to break a fall. Dog reaches the door first, wagging with relief and anticipation of oatmeal. A firm tug pulls the door open and Dog falls off the stoop into the garden in the scramble to enter the cabin. Peter has to pull him up by the collar, guide him into the warm room. Standing on the floor feels good, safe, as Peter yanks his feet out of the cumbersome rubber boots and ambles to the stove to make the coffee.
He always grinds the coffee beans, puts the coffee in the percolator, places it over the hottest part of the wood stove before he allows himself to set up the dollhouse. It used to be the most difficult part of the day, waiting. But he makes himself do it. Now it is the routine. First the outhouse, then the coffee, then the dolls. He closes the lid on the stove before he approaches the small colonial house open in the front like a movie set.
He’s been meaning to put another window in the back because the bookshelf is shadowed by the woodstove and the stone chimney. Sometimes even during the day, he uses his flashlight to find his Chekhov or his worn leather volume with WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS imprinted across the front cover. From the back wall of his cabin, he can see almost everything he owns. His bed, the table, his green rocker, the chest, his dishes. That’s the way he likes it. Simple.
He pulls the stool up to the open front of the dollhouse, a tall stool so that he can be at eye level with the bedrooms. Leslie is the first to come down for breakfast. He used to change her clothes from nightgown to jeans and a hand-knit sweater he found in a bunch of doll clothes at a yard sale, but now he leaves the clothes on all night. He gently bends the knees and sits her at the table in the kitchen. She always got up first, made coffee, scrambled eggs, then called, “Peter, coffee’s ready. Sarah, Nathaniel, time to get up. Time for school.” She had sung out school until it became “schooooooowelll.”
Sarah’s room was at the back of the house, a small room with stuffed cats on the bed, on the desk, on the floor. She wanted a cat. “Please, Daddy, it’s a little black kitten and he purrs and purrs and won’t be any trouble.”
“Nathaniel is allergic,” he had said to her again on the last morning before he left. “You know Nathaniel is allergic.”
“But I’ll keep it away from him. Please. Not fair. He has a dog. I have nothing.”
He had kissed her anyway as she struggled against him, stamping her foot. Peter knew Nathaniel had grinned at her, happy to get the better of an older sister.
Peter’s hand stretches through the hallway between their bedroom and the children’s, back until he is able to reach into Sarah’s bedroom, reach to the bed for the girl doll already dressed for school. The roof is removable but usually he leaves it on unless he has to do some work in the back rooms. He sets Sarah in the chair opposite Leslie, slouches her leg up around the arm of the chair, places a miniature glass in her outstretched hand.
Nathaniel’s bed is just inside the opening of the house. The boydoll has only one sneaker. It isn’t really a sneaker because Peter has never been able to find one to fit the doll, but he colored a doll shoe with a magic marker to look like a sneaker. Only one sneaker because Nathaniel was constantly losing his sneakers. “Look under the bed,” Leslie always said to him. Almost every morning. Peter stands him at the counter, red lunchbox nearby, baseball hat tilted to the side.
There. Done. The whole ritual is a little crazy, Peter knows, but it’s something he has done every day for years and it is comforting. He built the house for Sarah’s fourth birthday, a place to put her dolls, to place them on furniture, move them around. It was not for a grown man. He sits on the stool for five or ten minutes every morning just thinking about them, watches the dolls have their breakfast. Sometimes he moves them during the day, to the living room, to the side porch, always back to bed after supper. In the early days, right after the fire, he cried when he touched the dolls, when he placed them in the kitchen, when he changed their clothes, but now something inside him feels comforted. He can even recall the children without taking a great gasping breath.
Leslie’s sweater looks dingy. And he has lost her coffee mug. Must have fallen out of her hand when Dog banged into the shelf earlier in the week. He runs his hand over the smooth wood floor feeling for the tiny mug, which has nestled itself by the newspaper basket. He doesn’t like to see the dolls looking ragged. He’ll start looking for another sweater. He pours himself a mug full of coffee before he settles in his rocking chair with the small volume and flips through onion skin pages to “Among School Children,” moves his mouth to the words on the page until he finishes. “How can we know the dancer from the dance?”
From his place at the stove, he thinks he sees the flash of a white tail. No. Nothing. Just ice. No deer would be out in this ice. He’ll have to wait until tomorrow to check on Dora, the old Indian woman next door, to see if his rowboat weathered the storm. Black Harbor is a good town. Far enough away from centers like Ellsworth and Machias and Bangor. Folks help you out if you are in trouble. In the twenty years he’s lived here he’s never heard of any crime worse than public drinking or dog stealing, but go south to Ellsworth or north to Machias, well, then, things were different.
Even with ice-cleats it would be a job slogging through the woods today. He pours more coffee into his mug and calls Dog over. They sit looking out the window every morning before chores start. Chores might be late this morning. The chickens wouldn’t even notice but Alice’s kicking should start any moment. One minute late and the old horse blasts the side of her stall. The ice is much too slippery for her to go out today anyway. Alice is close to twenty and that’s getting old for a horse but she seems to be agile enough to haul some wood and harrow his garden. She has sharp caulks on her hooves but he isn’t going to chance a fall on that ice.
Dog’s head rests on Peter’s lap. Peter sips his black coffee as the first blast of the horse feet against the side wall transcends the nowdistant sound of tree limbs breaking. “Damn,” he says aloud, determined to finish his coffee. As he takes a bigger sip, trying to finish quickly for Alice, he sees the woman. She leans on an ice encrusted birch. She looks like the birch, white, tall, but with a full belly. Who the hell is that? No one comes to this house. “Damn,” he says once more, for a different reason. Alice blasts a second round, causing the woman to jerk her head in the direction of the barn. She is very pale and wears no gloves. Straight and stark against the glare of the ice, she is the color of white. Almost as if she is part of it all; the ice, the birches. But she isn’t. She has no right. What the hell is a pregnant woman doing in his yard? His yard.
“Come on, Dog. Looks like we have some company,” he says.
A CERTAIN SLANT OF LIGHT. Copyright © 2000 by Cynthia Thayer. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.