The Grumbling Dark
by Patrick Doerksen
The family bought my painting, and I’m here, but there’s something the matter with this place. I can’t say what it is. The light falling on the window is frail, the darkness is grumbly, and something’s here that shouldn’t be. Even they feel it, though they pay little attention.
The mother, Aideen, will wake stiffly beneath her blankets and begin to probe the darkness, her eyeballs swivelling about in her inertia like weak lantern beams in the dark, and yet come morning she will have forgotten. They are determined to settle in.
Niamh has a long stick and is prodding at a rabbit hole she’s found in the yard, by the tallest pine, just prodding and prodding, though anyone can see it’s been abandoned. She hears hammering in the tea room, which means her father is home, and races in through the sliding door. Roger keeps hammering, always just missing his thumb.
“Daddy, I don’t want to sleep on a bed anymore. I want to sleep on a hammock,” she says.
“We’ll talk after, dear,” says Roger.
Now the nail’s in, now the painting’s up. They’ve chosen the space above the piano, next to the spider plant, where the morning sun can’t touch it. It’s their first original oil on canvas. I allow myself to be touched.
An earlier work, completed before my originality had fully flowered; yet it’s one of my favourites. There’s a dark charm to it, an alien power that, being alien, overstates itself. An important link in my development, the critics will say, though the same critics once lambasted me for painting those paradises of color by which I made spectacle an object of alarm. They did not know what to make of this ship of panicked crabbers, clutched by an insane ocean at night.
Niamh neither. She just stares at it. It’s night now, and she creeps downstairs just to stare at it. Yes, I allow myself to be touched. But I ask why so much fascination. Why so much secrecy? Niamh is a quiet girl by nature, that’s true; that’s why she has so few friends. Still, I can see that she spends not a single thought on this, and indeed she’s so self-assured for a child that I wonder if she has not planned it this way, to protect her quietness and her secrecy.
I can see that the only things she values are those which she alone can appreciate. Her parents are young and wealthy. They know they don’t understand her, but they’re eager to keep their life on course for the perfect finish and so try anxiously to please. They’ve bought her collections of dolls, built her a tree fort, dug her a pool. But she prefers her quiet, lonely moments. How it frustrates them.
She watches my painting now as though she expects it to do something. You can see she’s thinking intensely. The moonlight folds itself thinly onto her eyeballs. I’m always noticing eyeballs, here.
She does not turn the light on. I wonder if she does not care for the details. I wonder if it is the presence of the picture more than the picture itself that attracts her. No, I can see it’s something different than that yet. I’m inside now. She frowns slightly, does not blink. It’s a preternatural control she has over her eyelids, and yet it’s like she’s gathering something other than visible data.
Now I see. Now I see. It’s not for the painting that she’s creeping into the living room but for the sensation of having me peer through her eyes.
I flinch back out, startled. Is there influence after all?
Aideen, her mother, comes down in the morning. She’s a sentimental woman, I can tell by the way she talks to her daughter. It’s as though she were a child playing house. “Niamh, my dear! Look at you, all rosy-cheeked from the cold! Let me make you a cup of hot chocolate.”
Now she flicks the wall light on and comes to stand by my painting. She crosses herself and bows her head. Is she praying? Indeed, she’s praying. I grow alarmed, enter her, see that it’s her father, an Irish crabber who was caught in a net and drowned off the coast of Wexford, to whom she prays, her whole being turned for this moment towards him in yearning.
The public has always demanded of its artists pictures of sunsets, stories of tea parties that climax in merriment, coming-of-age tales in which the hero kills the dragon, gets the girl, finds the treasure... And it’s precisely the artist’s job not to give it to them.
The artist must represent life as it is. This and nothing else is the aim of art, and it will lead all artists to the same place: into the darkness that holds our lives and the silence that contains our speech. If the artist will sit for a moment face to face with reality, seeking not to defend himself or his comfort, he will see it. It’s obvious.
I was born an orphan, and that there was something the matter with the world was the first thing I knew. Look at how all the quiet people grow more quiet as they age. Look at how all the sad people always find more to grow sad about. There is something wrong even in mirth, for it — and love — only grows in obscenity as it grows in influence.
There are trajectories inherent to all states of being that separate us, so that it’s not good and evil that define life, but their inexorable snowball swell. I was taught by nuns who said things like, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” And such only proves my point.
Now here is Aideen using my painting for prayer. It’s acid on my soul, seeing it used for something so cheap.
But God is the angry ocean. I send her the thought and immediately she opens her eyes, then turns and leaves the room. Upstairs she looks at the window and a tear perches itself tremblingly below her eye.
It’s not enough. And see: she’s already smiling again. She’s spotted Niamh out the window. It’s the season of buttercups and dandelions, and Niamh is stealing all the yellow from the lawn. Niamh has a plan, it’s easy to see, and soon she’s enacting it, rubbing the yellow blooms on herself, mixing her fresh pink young skin with a cloying sapphire.
Aideen watches, regal, a soft pleasure flowering in her breast. It takes Niamh many minutes, and she’s giggling, imagining what she looks like, becoming hasty now, though she does not miss in between her fingers. Now she’s through the sliding doors and in the bathroom to look at her new skin.
I can see her coming up with stories. “I’m sick, I have leprosy!” “I’m a sunsprite and I’ve just escaped from the sun. Quick, you must help me hide!” Her glee barely containable, she creeps out of the bathroom and peers into the living room, looking for her mother. Aideen is waiting upstairs for Niamh to surprise her. Niamh puts a foot on the stairs, and then—
I don’t kill her, I just... pull her into where I am.
It comes as a surprise to me as much as to Niamh, though hers is the more affecting. I think perhaps I can reach into her with despair and before I know it I am drawing her in, her with this horrible expression, as though she wished to shout, Oh my God, is nobody seeing this, can nobody stop this? and her fear refracted in her diamond-pure eyes. I bring her near, nearer still, and she is gone.
Aideen now begins to call her name. Perhaps she will understand; perhaps she will see that there is something the matter with the world, and I will have found again my influence. She calls Roger and, hearing the panic in her voice, he drives home to join her. They do not stop calling for hours and hours. Time passes slowly, thick with worry and soon thicker with heartache.
Two search parties later they still have not found their daughter. The spider plant on the piano does not get watered, and its leaves yellow. The floors do not get swept, the lawn does not get mowed. There is about the old house the air of an ungroomed animal.
Aideen and Roger spend hollow hours staring past each other into what they, if they called it anything, would have called emptiness, but which is really the place where I am. I am careful they do not see me.
Within days, I am discovering by their grief things about the human mind I would not have otherwise. I learn the pressure points: the places and the toys and the smells that contain in them memories of Niamh, and not just any memories, but those in which Niamh is most herself. I learn how to turn pleasure into guilt, how to create absences wherever Niamh has been, and how to intensify them so that Aideen and Roger feel them even amidst company, even when in her grief their hugs have grown tighter than their first days of romance.
And as Aideen begins to look for surrogates of her daughter to which she can say her goodbye, I learn how to prevent closure by hiding them one by one by one: pictures of Niamh, Niamh’s scrapbook of sketchings, a stuffed rabbit with mangy fur that had been Aideen’s own. Niamh is lost, I tell her. That is the truth about your daughter, the truth about everyone. You know it is the truth because it is full of pain.
There was a fellow who once said that the passage into eternity would be as agonizing as that of a camel passing through the eye of a needle. I heard this and knew it was the truth, because it came as a wound.
But look how Roger and Aideen clutch each other, blind themselves, refuse to see the message in their pain. They let their tears run down to their toes, though I mean for them to be collected and drunk. They’re in the tea room now, sombre, their knuckles hot against each other. They do not even glance at the painting. Not deliberately; they notice very little these days.
There’s so much determinedness in how they hold each other that I’m beginning to wonder what I might hold. For I feel something tugging at me, even as I tug at them, urging them into the empty place as I did their daughter.
Ah, there it is again. I begin to pull more desperately, but they only clutch each other tighter. There’s really something the matter with them. In grief there arises an instinct in people that leads them, in order to open themselves more fully to their own tragedy, to become themselves a tragedy.
But I watch Roger and Aideen rub each other’s backs, blink desperately at each other, talk tentatively about healing, and it puts me at a complete loss. No, this is not true grief, I want to tell them. True grief breaks people. True grief is suicidal grief, a horrible inconsolable emptiness that should drive you to dash yourselves against things as I did, to swallow poison pills, to hate each other. But it’s their hearts’ fault, and how do you change the heart?
There’s another tug, even stronger. Yes, there’s something the matter. It wants me desperately, and... ah, there’s the hungering hole opening up now behind me. It’s there, I can feel it. How small it is, a hole such as barely any of me could get through, and yet it pulls. What have I got to cling to here? It’ll get me if I can’t find anything.
I grab at them again, Roger and Aideen. But what’s happened to my grip? They’re too far away now, and there’s nothing, nothing, and it’s worse behind me, deeper and thinner, even less to grab, and yes it’s tugging at me still, hankering after me, a darkness... No, worse, worse! It’s her. Yes it’s her, she’s caught me by the heel, and there’s definitely something the matter with this place, something the matter, and now I’ll find out, now I’ll find out what it is.
Copyright © 2016 by Patrick Doerksen