VIEW OF MY EMPLOYER'S WIFE
In the four-poster bed, my employer's wife, Kala Murie, lying beside me, the world seemed in perfect order. It was four o'clock in the morning, March 13, 1927. I almost drifted off to sleep. But then I felt a jolt of unease. This was natural to my character. It occurred to me that hidden deep inside my sense of the world in perfect order was the fear that the worst was on its way.
It was snowing. The room had light only from the coals in the fireplace and the streetlamp outside the window.
The world in perfect order. My room at least. I was living in room 28 of the Haliburton House Inn on Morris Street, Halifax, Nova Scotia. The Herald for March 12 carried the headline: TEMP. DROPS TO COLDEST IN 50 YEARS. There was a photograph of a man wearing a thick overcoat, face invisible under a knit cap, leaning into the terrible blizzard that took the city nearly a week to dig out from under. The caption of that particular photograph was Postal Employee Dirk Macomb heads home the right direction? A little humor in the bleakness.
Also on page 1: the British ambassador to Canada would stay in Halifax until the weather cleared. The Shipping Page announced that a Danish steamer, the Lifland, after delivering sugar for the Woodside Refinery and lying in harbor for a week, was locked in ice and couldn't set out for Glasgow via London. Also on the Shipping Page: "The schooner Annabel Cameron was at first waterlogged but within a day ice-logged, and the entire crew finally rescued by heroic dorymen navigating a barrage of needle ice and fog." I remember thinking that that sentence had a nice ring to it.
More important to my immediate situation, though, was the brief article on page 11: Expert to Lecture on Spirit Photographs. That expert was Kala Murie.
Kala and her husband my employer, Vienna Linn and I had arrived at the Haliburton House Inn on January 8. Our train journey had originated in Churchill, Manitoba, and had taken a total of nine days, the last leg of which, Winnipeg-Halifax, was all fits and starts. The blizzard hit mercilessly hard on that stretch. Half a dozen times the engineers had to stop the train and with the help of porters hack away at ice. "You get a thousand miles of snow on a roof," a porter said he was clutching a cup of hot tea, his boots caked with frozen slush "I've witnessed it cave that roof in."
Vienna and Kala at first occupied room 5 together in the main building. My room was number 28 in the annex, a building with a separate entrance next door. But by early March Kala had moved to room 20. As Kala put it, their marriage was "a loveless sham always had been, I suppose." She could be quite blunt. To describe it in the simplest of terms, Vienna was a photographer and I was his assistant. He had persuaded the proprietor of the Haliburton House Inn, Mrs. Bettina Sorrel, to rent him use of one of the pantries directly off the kitchen as a darkroom. Ten dollars a month.
I had been away from Halifax since September 1926. When I returned, I never once walked past the house where my mother, aunt, and I lived together, at 127 Robie Street. It was as if the past would judge me. The house would judge me. That merely looking at it would somehow cause me to calibrate my life, and in all aspects of usefulness I would come up short.
Next to the bed in my room was a square oak table. On the table was a round doily, a heavy iron candleholder, a white candle in it. The housekeeper always put a new candle in, if need be. Otherwise, there were oil lamps set about. The armoire was nearly six feet in height, a few inches taller than I am. It was situated across from the bed in the left-hand corner of the room, next to a window overlooking Morris Street. For Halifax, Morris Street was steeply inclined. One late afternoon I looked out and saw a daredevil boy ice-skate down. The street was glazed in ice. The boy disappeared into the fog extending up from the harbor.
Also in room 28 was a thickly braided, oval rug stretched partly under the bed. And a writing desk, with a blotter, inkwell, drawer full of Haliburton House stationery.
On the evening of March 12 it had taken me half an hour to get the room's temperature at a comfortable level. That is, pleasing to Kala. We were talking all along. I finally took the the Bible from its drawer, propped the window open using the upright Bible, and that did the trick. "Just enough cold air let in." Kala said. "Thank you. Now the bedcovers have a purpose."
I was not a photographer. I didn't have much talent for that, or ambition. But all the time I was inventing captions and thinking hard about captions. On any given day long before I ever met Kala and Vienna I might be, how to put it, preoccupied by captions. The habit could some days nearly wear me out; it was pitiable, like talking to myself in captions. So that, for instance, if I left my raincoat inside on a rainy day, I would immediately think, Man Who Forgot Raincoat Standing on Street. Now and then I would startle myself. One time I stepped up to the counter in an apothecary and said, "Man with Headache Asking for Help" Stepping back a few cautious paces, the pharmacist said, "Are you asking for headache powder, son?" He looked as if he might call the police at any moment. "Yes yes," I finally said. "That's exactly what I meant."
After we'd made love on the night of March 12, I slipped from the bed and stood by the window and watched Kala sleep. At one point deep in the night, I held my arms outstretched, pointed my thumbs upward as if framing a scene that I was about to photograph, and thought: View of My Employer's Wife. Why I didn't think something more intimate, such as View of Kala Murie Sleeping, I don't know. She slept on her stomach, her dark red hair fanned out on the pillow, her face all but hidden. She had turned the bed-clothes down to her knees. More than once she'd told me that the only part of her that ever got cold was her feet and legs up to her knees, and that it had been that way since childhood. "I always thought when I was six or seven that my knees were full of ice or something like that. Strange what a child will think. That my knees kept everything below them cold. I may have dreamt it, I don't remember." Though she kept a nightshirt close at hand, Kala slept with nothing on except for woolen fisherman's socks, sometimes two pairs. In fact, just before dinner on March 12 I'd accompanied her through the blizzard to Springs All-Purpose, a store at the bottom of Morris Street, where Kala purchased three new pairs of socks. I often took a walk with her. During one, she asked to see the house I'd lived in, and I quickly said, "It burnt down. It burnt to the ground." It was a lie that caused me such remorse that the following week I visited my mother's snow-covered grave in the Robie Street cemetery and apologized out loud.