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Authors: Michael Ondaatje

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BOOK: Divisadero
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Neither one of them had
made a move before the other. It felt as if one heartbeat was at work. Anna—who
used to leap around like a boy or a dog; the one who

d
broken her wrist, which Coop had splinted up with willow before he drove her to
a sawbones in Petaluma, and who dared her sister to walk across the highway by
the reservoir blindfolded (‘
I’ll pay you, Claire

)
and, when Claire didn

t, did so herself; the one who
read so constantly and carefully she always had a frown, as if gazing at a
fl
y on the end of her nose

one day began walking up the east ridge to his cabin in sunlight,
along the curving path the cows, and sometimes Alturas, took. She passed the
tree with the pesticide bag hanging from its low branches, under which cattle
gathered to escape the swarms of
fl
ies and mosquitoes, then walked through the circular corral. Coop,
she thought, must have
fi
nished lunch by now. It was almost two. She closed the second gate
to the corral, and as she drew the chain around the post and snapped it, a
sudden and heavy rain began, so whatever she wore was transformed. Everything
felt heavy, was darker. And then, after a few minutes, the rain ceased.

Coop was sitting, unaware
of the brief shower, on the edge of the deck looking towards the thousand or so
trees on the facing hill. There wasn’t a creak as she moved across the new
wood. Wind swept across the deck. He turned and she stepped into his gaze. The
rain light made his face a shadow.

You’re wet, she began.
Is that true...
His casual voice saying nothing more, abandoning
her.
It would take a bird
fi
ve minutes to swim through the air all

the
way back to the farmhouse, she thought. It would not, of course,
move so formally, it would use sweeps and curves, preferring diversions, and be
in
fl
uenced by the
surface of the earth. It had taken her twenty-
fi
ve minutes to walk up here. A car could
make it in four.
An unhurried horse in ten.
But now
the farmhouse below seemed like a city one would spend days travelling towards.
When she looked back into that distance, she felt there were a hundred valleys
of mist and night travel that sheltered the two of them from the others.

Build a
fi
re, will you, Coop!
It

s a warm rain, he said
quietly to himself, and then louder,

It’s a warm rain.
But build a
fi
re for me.
My clothes.
They

re wet.
Here. I

ll do this.
The cotton shirt like seaweed as he peeled it off, and he startled to see it
come away in one piece. She looked down, her face burning, at her whiteness, in
the grey light.
The freckles of rain on her small frame.
My turn,
she said.

There was silence, only
water climbing down a chain from the spout. Everything else was still.
Clouds, unseen tentative hills.
She saw herself and Coop in
this pause of weather, the sun coming out. A fox’s wedding, her father called
it.

In her memory later, in
her unforgetfulness of that day, she sensed she had been present everywhere.
With Claire by the stove in the farmhouse, saying, ‘Oh, I got caught in the
rain.’
And Claire coming forward to help her, to (again!)
undress.
‘No, it’s all right, I’ll do it myself.’ Or she was sheltered
under the green curling trees across the gully, watching their two fragile,
unprotected bodies on the deck. Anna and Coop, with the sun coming out from
under the brief rainstorm so that there were actual shadows on her when his
fi
ngers moved back and forth on her stomach
as if he were thoughtlessly or thoughtfully trailing them in a river. She
watched his dark arm, his wild hair in this light, turned her head away and saw
the damp hand-rolled cigarette he had placed on the lip of the deck, still
burning.

He was
,
it felt to her, no longer Coop beside her, on top of her, his hands pinning her
shoulders too hard into the wood so she was trying to shrug him off. Anna, he
said,
fi
nally,
as if that word was naked in his throat, so much an admission.
Then his palms releasing the grip that held her against the deck,
so that his chest now was on her and she could no longer see him, only his hair
against her eyes and face, in this changing light.

They were on their sides
facing each other. ‘A fox’s wedding,’ he said, sharing the familiar phrase he
had heard in their household; but it embarrassed her now, she wanted no
evidence of a familial link, wanted wordlessness. As if ...as if...if they did
not say anything, all this physicality wouldn’t exist, could not be tangible
evidence anywhere.

Some days she would come
up to the cabin and just watch him work. She would offer to hammer planks
alongside him, but he did not want that. Sometimes she brought a library book
and sat reading in the shadow of the corrugated roof’s overhang until the sound
of his sawing and hammering disappeared and she was in another country, in
Italy with
The Leopard,
or in France with a musketeer. There were days
they barely touched, when they would try to talk themselves out of this desire,
and there were days when she would bring her book and there was no reading, no
talking, in this sparse cabin that was colourless. One afternoon she brought an
old gramophone that she had found in the farmhouse, along with some 78s. They
wound it up like a Model T and danced to ‘Begin the Beguine,’ wound it up and
danced to it again. The music made them belong to another time, no longer a
part of this family or place.

Anna was sitting on the
deck, hugging his black t-shirt to her stomach, watching him. She leaned over
and opened her little satchel and unstrung the set of Buddhist
fl
ags she had bought through a mail-order
catalogue. She put on his t-shirt and looked at the struts that bolstered the
overhang by the door. ‘Can you help me, Coop? I need to get up there. We can
tack this to the rain lip over the door.’ She already had his hammer in her
hand, and a nail. He crouched so she could sit on his shoulders. ‘Time for the
heart and the mind,’ she sang. ‘You need to be wind-blessed!’ He could feel her
wetness at the back of his neck, as she reached up and attached one end of the
strip of
fl
ags so
the snake of it
fl
uttered loose, free of the earth.

There are
fi
ve
fl
ags, she explained. The yellow one is earth, the green is water, the
red is
fi
re

the one we must escape

and white is cloud,
and blue is sky, limitless space or mind. Coop, I don

t know what to do. She was on his shoulders, in mid-air, looking
into space.

Do you
think Claire knows?

Claire talks to me every
night, and I don’t say a word about you, and she must wonder why I don’t say a
word about you.
Then Claire knows.
Some afternoons she spoke to him in an earnest schoolgirl French—as though she
were not someone who had grown up alongside him, almost a sibling. Or she’d
move away from his desire and read him a description of a city. Sometimes she
snuggled against his brown shoulders and after making love burst into tears.
There were times she needed this boy or man, whatever he was, to cry as well,
to show he understood the extremity of what was happening between them. When he
was in her, about to come, looking down on her, his passive face looked torn
open, but still he was wordless. It was easier for him. He did not accompany
her down to the farmhouse each evening and eat a meal with her father and
sister, and play a game of whist during which she’d look up suddenly to see
Claire staring at her, attempting to break into her privacy. They were long,
maddening, sterile games of chance and counting and collecting pairs or runs,
with her father keeping score obsessively. (Besides, Coop was the only one
among them good at cards. There were games in the past, Anna remembered, when
he would sit laughing at their incompetence.) Worst of all, she had to sleep in
the bed next to Claire in mutual silence.
Then Claire knows.
Had Coop loved anyone else? Did you love anyone else?
she
asked. He was shy at
fi
rst. Then he said, ‘A woman in Tulare.’ Tell me about her. ‘No.’
Tell—. ‘No.’
What
am I like compared to her? ‘It was
just one night I slept with her.’ Ah good, you
slept.
She kissed him on
his doubtful face, then dressed and walked down the hill alone. Halfway home
she approached tears, but refused them. She tried to imagine sleeping with
anybody else. No
one
could ever know her as well as
Coop did. No one knew Coop as well as she did. She felt this gave her some
power,
in her walk down to her other life. She was sixteen
years old.
Almost nothing.

Anna went into Rex

s Hardware in Petaluma and bought a can of blue paint, a
speci
fi
c blue
to match the blue on one of the flags, and lugged it uphill to the cabin. Coop
brought his table out onto the deck. She eased the top off the can and stirred
the paint. The weather was strange that day, the heat interrupted by gusts of
wind, and they watched the
fl
ags bucking, almost breaking loose. Anna remembers every detail. She
wound up the gramophone for music. They waited to make love. She sanded down
the wood while conjugating French verbs out loud and then began painting the
table. All that colourless wood in the cabin had driven her mad, and this blue
was a gift for Coop. The wind died suddenly into silence and she looked up. The
sky was a dark green, the clouds turbulent like oil.

Thunder exploded over the
deck while they were lying there, holding on to each other, as if it had come
down a funnel onto their nakedness. They didn’t dare let go. It felt to Anna
that whatever was in each of them had leapt out into the body of the other.
That she’d replaced her heart with Coop’s. She could hear nothing, the thunder
crash still in her ears. She was trembling in his arms. Then she saw a hand
come forward out of nowhere and grip the hair on Coop’s head and pull it back,
pull him off her, so that she saw sky for a moment and then her father’s head
looking down at her.

He had ridden up to the
cabin to warn the boy of a storm, a possible tornado, had slipped off his
quarter horse that was shying under the claps of thunder, and walked round the
cabin onto the deck. It was not embarrassment that overcame him at that moment,
but a fear. He picked up his daughter, naked as an infant, by her shoulders and
fl
ung her off the deck
onto the slope of wet earth. Coop stood there not moving. Her father walked
towards him, with a three-legged stool, and swung it into his face. The boy
fell back through the collapsing wall of glass into the cabin. Then he stood up
slowly and turned to look at the man who had raised him, who was now coming
towards him again. He didn’t move. Another blow on his chest knocked him onto
his back. Anna began screaming. She saw Coop’s strange submissiveness, saw her
father attack Coop’s beautiful strong face as if that were the cause, as if in
this way he could remove what had happened. Then her father was kneeling above
Coop, reaching for the stool again and smashing it down, until the body was
completely still.

Coming out of shock,
realizing that her father was not going to stop, that he was going to kill him,
Anna ran onto the deck and tried to pull her father away. But she could not
separate them. Coop looked unconscious, wasn’t moving. The stool came down hard
on his chest once more, and blood came out of his mouth. Again she tried to
embrace her father and pull him away from the body, but she was nothing against
his strength. She turned away from him, lifted a large shard of glass and
pierced it into his shoulder, pushing it deeper and deeper into his
fl
esh through the checkered shirt. There
was a sound like that from a bull, and he turned and struck her with an arm
that now held only half its power. He looked backwards and saw the triangle of
glass still in him. Anna evaded him until her nakedness was between him and
Coop.
Her lover.
Again her father swept her away.
Again she put herself between her father and Coop’s body. His strong left arm
came up slowly and clutched her neck and began to crush her windpipe. Then
everything began darkening and she dropped to her knees and went limp. She was
near to Coop, she brought her face beside him and listened for the sound of his
breath beneath that of her own frantic breathing, and finally heard a whisper
of it. But he was so still. She nudged him and there was nothing. One eye badly
closed, covered in blood. She stayed beside him, her arms around her chest, as
if protecting Coop’s heart safe within her.

BOOK: Divisadero
2.7Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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