By Miriam Vaswani
Eleanor, as everyone knows, is a name for an old woman. Eleanor isn’t old, she’s barely forty, and she uses her full first name as an assertion. I am still young enough to wear an old woman’s name. She pronounces it old-fashioned as well, like a 1930s movie star, emphasis on the first and last syllables, soft on the r.
Wen is not Wen’s name at all. His real name, Edward, is used only for buying things or printing in capital letters on landing cards. He’s been called Wen, by everyone but his parents, since a school play when he was seven years old, playing the part of the mythic Wendigo so convincingly in his modified bear costume that another child ran screaming from the gymnasium. He thinks of this as he sits at the table, in the back of the house, listening to nothing.
Eleanor is outside, hauling logs into the shelter. They still smell hot and new where the axe split their flesh a few hours before. She wants to get them in before it rains. Here, on her great-grandparents’ island, she can smell the rain coming much sooner than in Montréal. There, it radiates from the stone, as though the city’s oldest buildings decide when the weather will change. Her hair falls in her eyes and she blows it away. When she sets her armful of logs down in the shelter, she pins it behind her ears.
It’s Eleanor’s family’s place, but it’s Wen’s as well. His father was born in this cabin back when it was nothing but a room with a fat, stoked stove, and a mattress on the sleeping platform, with blankets that scratched and smelled of ageing wood and sweat. His grandparents built it with Eleanor’s, then her newly widowed grandfather helped to build the one six kilometres east, on the other side of the island, on land Wen’s uncle lost while Wen was at university in Victoria. Now, the building is bigger, rooms and a widening deck tacked on by the spread-out generations of their family. The table where he sits, where his coffee is cooling next to the stack of essays he intended to grade this week, was the original front door.
Eleanor has been thinking about the problem of the woman lately, but out here it seems like a story, some gossip she heard at the office or something barely read in the news. It is real, though, and there are things to consider. When she should leave Wen, who should buy whose half of the apartment, and why she has yet to feel anything about this. Wen is sleeping with a woman, someone who artfully arranges café receipts and the tips of condom wrappers in Eleanor’s apartment. The woman’s name is Frances; another old woman’s name, which turns a strange crank of familiarity. If they were introduced at a party, if Frances wasn’t sleeping with Wen, they’d talk about the lives of young women with old women’s names.
At the very least she should be angry about the intrusion. Eleanor’s own affair, three years earlier, was conducted in anonymity. She wouldn’t have dreamt of leaving clues for the man’s girlfriend, a woman she knew to be young and over-educated, blameless.
Wen stares at the first page of the first essay. He listens to the tick of Eleanor’s great-aunt’s kitchen clock. Three full minutes go past, and he knows he will leave her. He’ll pretend, at least to himself, that it’s for the woman, but he’ll also leave Frances, eventually. He pushes away from the table and tips his cold coffee down the sink, then refills the mug with hot, bitter liquid from the percolator, which he takes to the window. Now the rain is starting. He should go out and help her, but he won’t. She’ll come in, and the wood will get wet, but it won’t be wet forever. He watches Eleanor move across the grass, between the pines and the shelter. The muscles of her upper arms, which still have the power to arouse him, tense. He thinks of the birth control implant she had removed six years earlier. It was a fan-shaped set of tubes under her skin, firm to the touch, like a mosquito bite. The tissue of her upper arm had fused with it over its three year residence, and it had to be cut away. She didn’t get a new one, she said, because it made her period heavier, and who needs that.
Rain moves down, windless and not quite warm, but soft. Eleanor keeps working, holding the logs closer to her body as they and she became slippery. Her grey t-shirt darkens and sticks to her skin. She stops twice, to peel away her jeans and leave them under the pines, and to push her drenched hair away from her face and tie it in a knot. Her hair is flat and streaming, as wet as if she were under water. Rain water is good for hair, she remembers reading or knowing that as a child, but there was less chemical waste in the air back then, the clouds weren’t known to be poisonous as they are now. But now, it feels true. Her hair feels like a young girl’s hair, like silk, like walking out of the hairdresser in Montréal, her six-weekly visit, newly snipped, newly conditioned, and impervious to the city air.
Wen leaves his coffee on the window sill and lays on the bed. Not the bed he and Eleanor sleep in; it’s the old bed on the platform, which is a straw-stuffed mattress. A cloud of dust pools into the air as he falls. He thinks of a Dutch artist who made clouds in buildings, then photographed them. Frances showed him on Youtube, tapping the letters in with her long, mildly ugly fingers. The artist’s cloud machine is muddled in his mind with something he heard from Eleanor’s brother, about a mayor of Moscow who used a weather machine to push rain and clouds into the surrounding villages on public holidays. On the ceiling, something is painted, or rubbed away. It’s an oily patch of nothing, it could be a shadow. It could be damp, or a leak. Wen would like to get up, get the ladder and investigate. He lays still.
Eleanor remembers, as she pulls her wet jeans off, that she isn’t wearing underwear. It probably doesn’t matter, who would see her apart from Wen? She wonders about eyes in the forest, trappers like her and Wen’s grandfathers with the inherited instincts of thousands of years of history in this country people call new. She finds she doesn’t care. She bends at the knees, lifts another log, feels the twinge at the small of her back and the hurt of muscles she never uses in the city. She keeps the t-shirt on only so the tree bark won’t shred her breasts and stomach.
Wen found the chewed bones of Eleanor’s affair three years ago, the primal bite mark on her sleeping back of a man with one missing tooth. It looked, in the morning light of their south-facing bedroom, like it was grinning at him. He was certain she’d leave him, and she nearly did. She began to pack, in secret. Then she changed her phone number and her clothes returned, slowly, to their wooden hangers. He suffered a brief paralysis; he was terrified, frozen, good only for watching and waiting.
Eleanor carries the last three logs across the grass. Everything smells of wet pine; even, she’s certain, her skin. She remembers the dreams she had during a fever when she was a child, of being tapped like a maple, her blood turned to sap, dripping into a bucket. It was her mother and father who carried the buckets away, into the longhouse to boil. She blinks as the rain streams through her eyelashes and blinds her.
Wen is neither awake nor asleep. Rain is all around him, he can hear it in the fibre of the cabin, it cuts through wood and wax and darkens the house. It’s so wet, it won’t fall down but collapse, soft as paper. He says her name, quietly, into the air. It flattens and dissolves.
Eleanor bolts the shelter and walks behind the cabin, to the spot where the grass always grows sweet and babyish. The rain is warmer now, or she is warmer. There’s a pale rise of steam from her skin. She takes off the t-shirt and unknots her hair, and lays down.
Miriam Vaswani is a Canadian writer and editor, currently based in London, previously in Tunis, Stuttgart, Moscow, Delhi, Edinburgh and Glasgow. She’s the author of Frontier, a novella, and her short fiction has appeared in Gutter, Valve, Newfound, Tin House, Retort, Outside In Literary & Travel Magazine, and the anthology Whereabouts: Stepping out of Place.
Photograph: Drops of Light, credit: ~lzee~by~the~Sea~, CC 2.0.