Gleaming like light
by Dawn Promislow
Some years ago I was to spend ten days at the cottage, and I needed someone to look after the cat. Iris was old, it was too much to ask her to come in twice a day, sit for half an hour, stroke Suyono, ah, it was enough. Iris had been doing it for years, but Iris was old now.
So I found someone else, a writer who lived in Toronto. Ten days of writing time in New York was perfect for her, she said. It was arranged.
It was October, and a soft October, the mornings misty on the lake where I was. I emailed the writer a photograph of the shrouded dock one day. In answer she sent me a photo of Suyono: regal, on the green velvet ottoman.
The writer slept in my bed, perhaps that was the thing that began to lodge in my mind. I started to think about her. She was a writer, yes, so she must be writing. My table, large and cluttered, had been cleared by me, mostly, my papers put away. She told me she wrote long-hand in a notebook, not on the computer. She had a stack of notebooks with her, the kind you buy at any stationery store: ring-bound, with lined paper, I’d seen them.
Perhaps she sat, to write, in the chair next to Suyono’s ottoman. That was near the windows, the triptych of windows, bay-shaped, tall and white-wood framed, that I love so much. There was the sheer curtain fragment at one window, that moved so gently in the breeze. And Suyono, her fur white as virgin snow, on the faded green velvet. Perhaps Suyono would tell the story, I used to think, but of course Suyono can’t do that.
There was the piano also in that room, alongside, mute and of dark wood, and dusty. I should dust sometimes, but I don’t. There’s sheet music on the piano stand—old music, faded music, I can hear echoes of it if I listen.
I imagined the writer would get up once in a while and stand at the window, one of the three, and look down the four floors to the street below. A hum of cars she would hear, that came and went, and she’d see the tall graceful trees that still had leaves in early October. And then, through the leaves, she’d see the greyish river, wide and slow. The Hudson River, of course, flowing south from north as far as the eye could see. Perhaps she’d follow the river’s path, in her mind, as I do. South, south, past rusted iron dockways, past boats plying. If her mind followed south far enough she’d reach— eventually—the sea. I loved to think of that, I still do.
Perhaps—I imagined—her story had trouble being told, being cajoled and coaxed out, perhaps it had trouble unspooling as it should. Perhaps she frowned, then. It was a grave face she had, and distracted.
She’d have to eat of course, although she told me she didn’t eat much. Tea, she drank tea. There was toast that she made, just dry.
And she’d go out, to the museum. I know that because she told me. The notebook would fall silent then, I saw it closed on the table in my mind’s eye, and the piano would grow more mute still, and Suyono would be curled up, asleep.
Afterwards she’d take the long, long walk through Central Park, richly treed in the autumn, home. (That part I only imagined, too.)
I wondered about her then, about her personal life I mean. I seemed to feel that she was convalescent, convalescing from some great injury, an injury I couldn’t see or even imagine. Because she didn’t look injured, not at all. Perhaps she would write the injury out, oh write it out. Suyono her sentinel, a witness.
At the cottage I spent my days near the dock. I felt remote as anything, and the tension of the last working year ebbed away.
The writer had mentioned glass. I don’t remember the context, and it seems odd now that she should have mentioned it in so brief an encounter that we had. She was interested in stained glass, and so her time in the museum was spent looking at glass, looking for it. I imagined the colours, rich and ruby red. And the black leaded veins between. Or perhaps the glass was green, green, lustred deeply, I don’t know.
She told me, afterwards, that she visited the deeply silent Cloisters. Twice, she said, she visited twice. Blued windows are there, with crimson, I’ve seen them.
And something else she told me, after. She liked my oak-framed painting, the small one, of the mountain lake, the one that hangs above the fireplace. Jocelyn painted that. Even when Jocelyn painted it that lake looked old: such a faded, dim blue.
I came back after my ten days away: my lungs felt clean, from the new air. The writer had left that morning. Suyono was on her ottoman, and she jumped down to greet me, then lay on her side to be stroked, her fur gleaming like light, like light. Of the writer there was no trace. She’d made the bed with clean sheets. I searched for her imprint on the sheets, perhaps she’d sat down while packing. But no, no imprint, no trace, at all. Perhaps a scent there was, but I imagined it only. I thought of her as resembling Suyono: immaculate and solitary as a cat.
I settled, and started work again that Monday.
I wondered about her though—the writer—from time to time. Did she have peace where she went, where she lived. It became winter then, and I imagined her home—Toronto— icy-white. A bleak northern wind I was sure, and air so grey. Perhaps it was hard for her to write there, I don’t know.
Many months later, perhaps a year later, I got a note from her. It was a short note, friendly. My book is done, she said. I’m going to send you and Suyono a copy. And some time after that, oh more months it was, the doorman had a package for me when I came home one evening. It was October again then too, I remember the softness in the air, but the sharpness also.
It was a handsome book, and slim. I kept it, the book, for several days on my night-table. I was almost fearful to open it, I wondered what scent, what spirit, what small weight I would release by opening its leaf-like pages, what was prisoned in the pages. I wondered and wondered about it.
And one night I sat, Suyono near me on the ottoman, and started reading. The book is slim, I say again, and a few hours of reading is all it took, and the night moved into deeper and deeper darkness, and my lamp glowed yellow, and no sound there was, at all.
I read . . . how can I say this. I read a story set in a distant country. A country I’ve never visited, an unfamiliar one to me, a lonely country, large and brown-plained and plain-spoken. And what is a lonely country you ask? You have to read the book to find out. But a tale I read of love and longing that broke my heart. Except for one strange thing: it was my story—my and Jerome’s long-finished story—that she wrote. How is that possible you will ask, since your story was in this place, here. Our story was in this place, yes, and I don’t know how it’s possible, but that is what she did.
The lake cottage beckons each year, each October. I took the book last time I went, I felt afraid to leave it, as if it might be lost, and never recovered.
And then it came to me what I wanted to do. Jerome had to read the story, since it belonged, half of it, to him.
I came back to the city and looked him up, his address. All these years and I’ve never looked him up, or even thought about him much. I bought a small padded envelope, and put the book in it with a note. I pictured walking over to the post office, which is still there where it’s been forever, on Columbus Avenue, and mailing it to him, to Jerome.
I imagined him opening the package, puzzled. I could see his face. And I imagined him reading the book, at night, by a golden light, as I did. I don’t know who loves Jerome now, or what his room looks like, its dimensions and colours. And my imagination fails me sometimes.
I didn’t do it though, I didn’t send the book to Jerome.
I kept it, I keep the book on a low table next to Suyono’s ottoman. At certain times of day, or at certain angles, it gleams like light.
Story first published in Canopic Jar, 2014. Republished with permission of the author.
About the Author:
Dawn Promislow is the author of Jewels and Other Stories (Mawenzi House, 2010), which was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award 2011 and named one of the 8 best fiction debuts of 2011 by The Globe and Mail. She was the 2015-2016 writer-in-residence at the Toronto Heliconian Club. She lives in Toronto where she is completing a novel.
Image by L. Prang and Co., 1895, via Boston Public Library (cc).