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Authors: Michael Ondaatje

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BOOK: Divisadero
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Claire recalls whistling
as she entered the horse barn, and reaching for a bridle when she heard a
bucket kicked over somewhere in the darkness. A bucket would not be left loose
in a stall, so it meant someone was there, or it meant a horse was loose. She
stepped forward with her uneven walk, the bridle still in one hand. She didn’t
call out. She reached the corner of the passageway, peered around it, and saw
my body lying inert on the ground in the dark silence of the barn. Then, as she
approached me, the horse came loud out of the blackness and smashed against
her, throwing her down.

There is a broken path in
both our memories towards this incident, even now. We are aware only that
something signi
fi
cant happened. Claire recalls herself whistling as she entered the
barn, but in what follows, in what we have tried to piece together, she is
still too close to the remembered evidence, as if she can see only grains of
colour. For a moment Claire had been staring at me, who had already been
knocked down by the attacking horse, and then the same horse had swerved out of
the darkness and turned on her, and her senses closed down. Or maybe she
remained like me, half awake on the concrete
fl
oor, unable to move, while everything
around us was vivid and nightmarish, hooves smashing against the
fl
oor

I felt I
could see sparks and
fl
ame to represent the loudness. The animal must have been crazed,
claustrophobic, for it raced up and down the passageway, slipping on straw and
concrete, banging into wood walls, charging the length of the barn, turning
once more at the blocked exit, its eyes and heart frantic. Was
she,
was I, conscious during this, or unconscious?
Or in a world of spirits, uncertain if we were dead or alive.

When Claire opened her
eyes, I was apparently sitting up six feet away and not moving, just looking at
her lazily. I didn’t have the strength to rise, uncertain as to what exactly
had happened. There were planks knocked loose all around us. No one had come
for us. It was suppertime, I could tell by the light against the dusty windows.

Territorial was Claire’s
lovely name for that horse. I kept watching her. Later I told her it was
because of all the blood on her cheek, though she said it was just her hands
that hurt. We were both
fi
fteen years old then, when Coop
fi
nally entered the barn and crouched down
by me and called me

Claire.

So that Claire herself became confused, uncertain for a moment as to who she
was. But she was Claire, with what would become a thin scar like the path of an
almost dried tear under her left eye, where all that blood had escaped.

Something happened in the
horse barn, that early evening, between the two of us, in the confusion. We had
stepped suddenly into the large uncertain world of adults, and we would now
need to be distinctly Anna and distinctly Claire. It became important not to be
known as the sister of—or worse, mistaken for—the other. From then on we would
try to bring Coop into our fold. In the next few months we often slipped back
into this ‘incident,’ to talk about it. There was a border now between us,
something we had never achieved in the series of photographs that kept the two
of us arm in arm. The album, I suspect, is still with Claire, on one of her
bookshelves. If she studies it, she could parse more clearly how the two of us
evolved away from each other. The year Claire cut most of her hair and grew
more distant, the year I stared out, wild-eyed, everything in me a secret.

Why was Coop never in our
father’s photographs? There were a few pictures taken of him, but these seemed
preoccupied with texture and light. And there were some abstract re
fl
ections of him in a window, or of his
shadow on the grass or on the
fl
ank of an animal. How many things could you throw your image
against?

In any case, it was Coop
who had found us that evening in the barn and had mistaken our identities, who
had eventually come over to me and lifted me into his embrace and said, ‘Claire,
my god, Claire,’ and I had thought, Then I am not Anna, then that must be Anna
over there.
C
oop began living in the grandfather’s cabin. From there,
on the high ridge, he could look out onto black oaks and buckeye trees, where a
glacier of mist appeared caught for an hour or so each morning in the roughness
of the branches. He was nineteen now, in a desired solitude. He was rebuilding
the cabin, working alone. He bathed in the cold water of a hill pond. In the
evenings he slipped past the farmhouse and ended up in Nicasio or Glen Ellen,
listening to music. Occasionally he ate with the others, abruptly rising from
the table, bread still in his hands, and was gone—the exit and destination
unannounced. The sisters knew that their days with Coop were
fi
nite. He was courteous and unruled, away
most evenings. Returning, he’d cut the motor at the top of the hill and coast
down so no one would hear him, then walk the half-mile to his cabin along with
a shadow.

He accompanied the girls
into town only if they insisted on hearing music. At the Nicasio dances, Claire
and Anna wore their San Rafael dresses and graded the men in the bar, as if
Coop, sitting beside them, were another species. He kept his distance, laughing
silently to himself, barely speaking. Who is Coop, really?
they
asked themselves. Once, having decided to go to Rancho Nicasio an hour after he

d left, they saw him on that small dance
fl
oor, caught in its mayhem. Women were
being swirled and then caught in his brown arms. He was not a good dancer, quite
bad in fact, but girls buried their faces into his neck, their pretty heels
next to his cow-shit boots. ‘Well, he’s a cowboy,’ Anna claimed. They didn’t
want the spell broken, and melted away before he could catch sight of them in
the crowd.

Still, being older, he
remained the emotional negotiator and translator between them and their
father,
handed the moderating role a mother would have had.
It did not
fi
t his temperament, and perhaps it was the desire to escape all this
that made him move into the grandfather

s cabin. To
rebuild it he needed money, and he earned it with extra work. His
fi
rst job on the farm when he was a boy had
been to help the father build the water tower that now was poised like a
lookout over the
fi
elds. The grey structure had slowly risen on its skeletal struts,
and even before it was completed, Coop would lounge on its sloped roof and gaze
at the adjacent hills as though they were a road out. Now, a decade later,
there was a leak somewhere within the tower’s dark interior.

The minute Coop opened the
trapdoor and looked down, panic hit him. There was in his mind the possibility
of a snake or even a corpse in that unseen water. He stood for a last moment in
the sunlight, pulled up the ladder he’d used to climb onto the apron roof, and
dropped it down through the water. Then he removed his clothes, attached a slim
hammer to the belt around his waist, and descended into the tank.

Around his wrist were
tight rubber bands, and tucked into them pencil-shaped pieces of redwood. He’d
been sent to Abdon Lumber in Petaluma. The old men there with furls of wood
shavings attached to their arms had politely told him, after he asked to speak
with Mr. Abdon, that Abdon was the patron saint of barrel makers. Coop assumed
that once he found the leak he could pound in dry shims from outside the water
tower, but these men who built and mended wine barrels proposed sharpened
sticks of redwood or cedar, and recommended he drive them into the holes from
the inside so that dampened they would eventually swell up. Redwood, they told
him, lasted over a hundred years, even if it had lain sunk at the bottom of a
river.

He let go of the ladder
and swam into darkness until he reached a wall. The leak would not be under the
water or above it, where the wood was dry, but somewhere around the surface
line where the two met. Wood deteriorated at a
boundary,
it was where the weakness would occur. He was treading water, his
fi
ngers on the slippery edges. He had to
feel for the leak, would not be able to identify it by sight. This could take
hours, or days, in the numbing cold and in the windlessness of the tank. Even
when his
fi
ngers
discovered the initials he had cut into the wood years before, he was not
appeased. It suggested a fate. How many times in his life would he or this
family need to
fi
x the tank? They had built a prison for themselves.

He climbed out shivering,
put on his pants and shirt, and stood in the bliss of the sun. He saw Anna and
Claire waving from the second-storey window of the farmhouse. When he got warm
he went down again.

How we are almost nothing.
We think, in our youth, we are the centre of the universe, but we simply
respond, go this way or that by accident, survive or improve by the luck of the
draw, with little choice or determination on our part. Years later, if he had
been able to look back, Coop might have attempted to discern or reconsider
aspects of his or Claire’s or Anna’s character, but when he had waved back to
them, standing in the afternoon sunlight, Anna and Claire were interchangeable,
one yellow shirt, one green, and he would not have been able to tell who wore
this or that colour. And when he was back in the darkness of the water tank,
there was just a retrospective image of the two girls, a tree branch partially
concealing their identities and their waving arms.

Once more, as he swam in
the water, his
fi
ngers touched the wood for any clue of disintegration, some small
tear. Coop preferred metal, the smell of it, oil in a crankcase, rust on a
chain, all those varieties and moods of metal life. Reviving a car brought with
it the possibility of another life, whereas this family rarely left the farm.
The father had once ventured across the border into Nevada and spoke of it
still as something foolish and unnecessary, perhaps dangerous. But Coop loved
risk and could be passive around danger. He’d been gathered into this fold by a
neighbour whose wife died a few months later in childbirth. He knew all things
were held in the palm of chance.

He had covered most of the
circumference of the tank before he found the leak. He gave a false, theatrical
laugh and luxuriated inside the echo, then hung in the water the way he’d seen
frogs loll near the riverbank. He inserted the bullet of redwood and hammered
it in through water. He found a second hole near the
fi
rst and
fi
lled that too, then swam over to the
ladder. Up there, on the roof of the tank, even the sun couldn

t warm him. He went into the farmhouse,
undressed and wrapped himself in a blanket, then went back outside.

Coop
fi
nished the cabin and inserted a large
window that allowed him to look out on the trees. Then he began work on the
deck. By seven each morning the others could hear the echo of his hammer
ricochet down into the valley. He had insisted on working alone, and the only
living thing to keep him company during those months of building was Alturas
the cat, who roamed everywhere and never settled within anyone’s sight. Now and
then the cat took a formal walk along the narrow man-made path that crested the
hill but those were his only steps into their world. Though whenever Coop
looked up from his carpentry, he’d see Alturas watching him, half hidden by the
crest of the hill, and the cat would then lower his head and disappear from
view. No one had ever seen the cat
sleep,
no one knew
what the cat lived on. Yet when the great storm overtook the region the
following winter, none of them assumed Alturas had perished.

Coop used rippled sheets
of corrugated iron for the exterior walls, saving wood for the eventual deck.
He had poured concrete pilings, which allowed the deck to end in mid-air, ten
feet above the slope of the earth. He took his time, hammering down the planks,
letting himself be diverted easily by a hawk or its shadow, or by mist moving
like that glacier through the slope of trees. He felt himself gregarious in
this solitude, though what
happened
a short while
later may have been the result of his seeing no one for weeks. There was a
hunger in him for something as simple as the sharing of a laugh or a touch.

Was what
happened
a sin or a natural act? You live within the
crucible of a family long enough and you attach yourself to what you gaze on as
a boy or a girl, some logic might say to explain what took place on that deck,
in the silence where there was no hammering, a silence as if no other life was
being lived.

BOOK: Divisadero
12.86Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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