Dorothy Speak is a writer of unmistakable storytelling powers; a mesmerizing conjurer of the human heart. In these nine diamond-hard stories she writes with insight and honesty about women in love and the choices they must make when they find themselves loving what they cannot have.
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About the Author
DOROTHY SPEAK lives in Ottawa, Canada. She is the author of Object of Your Love.
Dorothy Speak lives in Ottawa, Canada. She is the author of Object of Your Love.
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Object of Your Love
By Dorothy Speak
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1996 Dorothy Speak
All rights reserved.
I am seized with violent desire Alone by myself I become lustful. I am seized with violent desire Alone by myself I become lustful.
– Inuit song
I live with a married man on a hill overlooking an Arctic settlement. From the living-room window I can see the red roofs of fifty prefab houses (bungalows for the Inuit, two-stories for the whites) lining a muddy road curving around the shore, from the Catholic mission at one end to the RCMP station at the other. I can look out across the black hills ringing the bay, and beyond at the everlasting frozen sky. The first time I saw this landscape it made me shake. I thought I might have touched down on the fruitless crust of the moon, or the rocky, infertile road to Hell. Now I am in love with its beautiful desolation. There is a sense here that, like the land and the Inuit themselves, there are no beginnings or endings. There is only endurance.
I never met Ruth, Egan's wife. She left six months ago, just before I came to the community. And yet, I feel I know her. You cannot live day in and day out with someone's things and not know them. When I touch the Shaker dining-room chairs, or the antique decoy on the mantle, or the needlepoint cushions, I feel something that is not jealousy, though I have heard of women driven to homicidal thoughts from having to use another woman's dishes, towels, bed sheets. Sometimes I have to bite my tongue. Egan will not hear anything bad about Ruth, though he has consented to turn her photograph face down on the bureau. I like to think of her long, humourless face pressed hard against the walnut surface.
It is possible that I know Ruth better than I know Egan. He is an unreadable, angerless man, but I am not sure he was always this way. They say that any southerner who survives twenty years in the North, as Egan has, has either gone weird or was crazy to begin with. In the evenings, I see him with a book open on his knee, staring for hours at the crackling fire, feeding on his selfish grief like a hungry dog eating its own entrails. I have to get out then. I storm down the hill and stride back and forth on the road beside the bay, looking out at the black water. I walk rapidly, past curtainless windows flickering with blue television light, past houses where men and women sit at kitchen tables killing bottles of whisky.
When my legs ache so much that I can go no further, I climb back up the hill. I have to pass Ruth's greenhouse, perched twenty feet from the house on a cement pad. It is the greenhouse that convinced me that Ruth must have been, in the end, quite mad. She tried to grow lettuce, tomatoes, orchids—orchids! —but of course they died during the dark months. The greenhouse stands beside Egan's A-frame, on sunny days glittering like a prism above the community. "Ruth's Folly," I call it privately.
When Egan is away on business trips to the South, I have seen the raven-haired Inuit children creep up the hill like hunters, step inside the greenhouse, cautiously, superstitiously, gazing round in wonder at the patterns of frost on the windows, intricate as stained glass, at the transparent, soaring ceiling, glorious and divine as a Gothic cathedral. I hear their voices echoing against the brittle walls like the thin cry of seagulls flown too far north or the sound of Ruth's ghost weeping. The children dump the earth out of Ruth's green plastic pots, dump it on the cement floor, and jubilantly bear the pots, like anthropologists' trophies, back down the hill. I have seen fragments of green plastic all over the community, lying in the dirt beside houses, or crushed underfoot on the pebbly beach. I've seen dogs chewing on them.
"Why don't you stop them if you see them doing it?" Egan has asked, smiling sadly, with the same tolerant, paternal expression he uses for the Inuit, and probably with his own children. (I am not much older than his daughter.)
"The greenhouse is preposterous. Why don't you have the silly thing pulled down?" I answer.
"I'm used to seeing it there."
"How can I replace," I demand angrily, "how can I hope to replace a woman who still lives all around me?"
I came North looking for freedom, a virgin country, a society where there were no rules. Almost immediately I was hired as bookkeeper at the art cooperative, where prints are produced, raw stone sold to carvers, completed sculptures purchased back from them and marketed to the South. I was given the bachelor apartment above the co-op. It was small and poorly heated, with bare windows looking out at the relentless horizon. Like a nun entering her cell, I embraced its brutal simplicity. The cold pine floors and rigid sofa bed made me feel pure and strong. I thought I wanted to live an essential, bedrock existence—like the treeless landscape I saw from my window.
Several times, though, in the months after my arrival, I was forced to spend a few nights in Egan's spare bedroom. There is always a housing shortage in the community and, with Ruth and the children gone, he had more empty rooms than anyone else in the settlement. Being owned by the co-op, my apartment was often given over to official visitors—art historians, photographers, government officials—curious about the richest art community in the North, a settlement where there is a Ski-Doo at every door and a TV antenna on every roof. With the snow driving hard against the windows of the A-frame, Egan fed me exotic foods: watermelon, fresh artichokes, cashew nuts, things the Inuit have never heard of or seen. He never shops at the local Hudson's Bay store, where everything is sold dry or frozen; he can afford to fly all his groceries in from Timmins. He has a microwave oven, a Cuisinart, a dishwasher, a VCR, a waterbed. There isn't a piece of furniture in his house that isn't a century old. If you were to close the living-room curtains and shut out the vista of thin islands of ice floating on the blue bay, you could believe you are sitting in an upper-middle-class Toronto home.
But even for a man like Egan, who has lived in the Arctic nearly as long as he can remember, there are moments when the vastness of the landscape, the penetrating cold, the sight of the cruel hills and the jarring peacock sky can rock you to your core. Loneliness sets in, followed swiftly by despair. One feels a need to cleave to another human body, like the Inuit babies that lived inside their mother's parkas, wearing nothing but a piece of caribou hide for a diaper, skin pressed against skin, the smells of their bodies intermingling. One evening, during a week-long sojourn with Egan, we climbed the stairs together to retire to our respective rooms. But then Egan turned to me on the little landing and said, his hand on the light switch of his room, "Will you sleep with me tonight?" I didn't need to be persuaded. I was already aroused by his melancholy and restlessness, by his square bristly jaw and frontiersman's shoulders.
Egan has turned out to be a methodical, conservative lover. I put this down to Ruth's passionlessness: it is from a woman that a man learns to make love. His caresses are sorrowful, weary, bordering on penitent. Our love-making seems for him a cautious physical pleasure, but it does not satisfy his soul. I have never been convinced that he feels comfortable about what we are doing. But when I lie with my long thick hair thrown across the pillow and my bare breasts heaving, I do not see how he could prefer making love to plain Ruth. Sometimes, afterwards, he will lie very still beside me and I will turn to him in the dark, expecting to see his lips moving silently. I think he might be praying for Ruth to come back.
Under the house lives a white hare, which Egan feeds daily, squatting on his haunches, offering a carrot. The hare appeared the day Ruth left him. Egan sent word around the community that it was not to be hunted down and killed for someone's supper. I am convinced that Egan believes the hare is Ruth's spirit. That's why he's been throwing leafy vegetables under the house, to keep it alive. After half a lifetime up here, he may put some store in the Inuit notion that everything, animate and inanimate, has a spirit, an inua. He believes in transference. A person can become an animal, an animal a person. Creation is fluid. Physical manifestations are merely arbitrary boundaries, through which the soul can migrate, take up residence in another life form.
With Egan's money, Ruth has gone to live in an expensive suburb of Toronto, in a fortresslike stone house with a great medieval wooden door and dense boxwood shrubs clipped to look like unicorns and dragons. She has placed the children in private schools. At first she said Egan might be able to join her later, in the South. She thought that the smog and traffic noise, the long shadows cast by skyscrapers, the pace of city life would obscure the flaws in him that had become so painfully manifest in the pitiless northern light. But when he goes south, she will not let him stay in the house. When she sees him, she says, she feels the arctic wind blowing once more down her back. She is afraid that if she lets Egan near her, she will not be able to resist the strange spiritual pull of the North. Its wintry hand will come down on her, close around her throat.
Egan's children have become strangers to him. They wear the latest in labelled clothing, they go to a white school, they do not miss the North (the country of their birth!) or ever want to go back to it. When Egan visits Toronto, he rings the doorbell of Ruth's house and the children answer it. "Oh, Dad, it's you," they say coolly, in their new, sophisticated urban voices. "What are you doing here?" Until they moved south with their mother, he did not notice how much they resemble her. They have her hard, unforgiving mouth, her careful expressionlessness. Their faces are smooth and impervious as varnished wooden masks. Then Ruth will appear in the hallway behind them, her body rigid, her expression cold, cold as a soapstone carving, cold and distant as an iceberg floating on the Foxe Channel.
* * *
One afternoon at the cooperative, I open an invoice for ten bolts of duffle cloth that I can't remember ordering. That would be for the sewing project, I think. I take my cup of coffee and the invoice and set off to see Morgan. To reach the sewing studio, I must first pass through the stonecutting shop where three Inuit men are at work, transferring images on paper to the large stone blocks for the making of stonecut prints. These old men are very brown from a lifetime spent on a terrain offering not a sliver of shade from the raw arctic sun. They have shrunken necks, many missing teeth, bad haircuts revealing large flowery ears. Chipping silently away with chisels on the soft stone, they work without haste, smoking cigarettes. Their friends drop in to talk. This is allowed. We are lucky to get them to come in at all to do what they call "the white man's work." From time to time they get up and gaze longingly out the window at the land, their elbows, in threadbare sweaters, resting on the high windowsills. Their eyes narrow, scanning the horizon. They are watching for good hunting weather. If it comes, we may not see them again for weeks.
I find Morgan in the sewing room with four or five Inuit women. They are using binder twine to tie up bunches of flowers, lichens and grass collected out in the rocky hills where they bloom, during a brief summer, in miraculous little pockets of blazing colour. These will be dried and then used to make natural dyes. The white duffle we import from the South will be stewed in great vats of colour, producing subtle burnt ochres, hazels, olives, saffrons. Then the women will cut up the cloth and sew Inuit fashions for the southern market, thick parkas with heavy whipstitch detail and appliqued seals, narwhal, bears, caribou, all the creatures that southerners want to believe still populate the North but which now in fact exist in abundance only in Inuit dreams.
When the Inuit women see me they become quiet and look down at their weathered hands. I respect these shy, tough, polite people. In their wise, passive eyes are reflected a history of death by starvation, intense cold, drowning on the sea-floe edge, a heritage of powerful legends involving giants, enchanted loons, man-eating monsters, the marriage of young women to eagles. But they are nervous around me because I am living with Egan. It is not that they pass judgement, as the whites do, but that Egan is their White God. He has run the art cooperative for two decades, buying their carvings and drawings, managing the marketing of their art. He is their lifeline to the bewildering South.
Some of these women may be bashful, too, because in the middle of the night they have come to Egan, who is the local justice of the peace. They climb the hill, bloody-faced, when their husbands have beaten them, and ask Egan what they should do. They come to him when their children have been caught by the RCMP, breaking into the nursing station for drugs or into the Hudson's Bay store for cases of Coca-Cola. Now they file past me out of the room, bowing and smiling to themselves. It is four thirty and time to go home. Some of the women wear large, expensive wristwatches, but do not consult them. Most of them were born in snowhouses, they know the precise time of day by the angle and quality of the light outside.
Morgan watches them go, saying, "Tavvauvutit. Tavvauvutit. Good night." She comes down from the ladder where she has been hanging the grasses and flowers from the ceiling to dry. She was the first friend I made here, but she became distant after I moved in with Egan. She and Ruth had been good friends.
"She used to sit up there and cry all day and wring her hands," Morgan said about Ruth after I had moved up the hill. When she told me this, tears ran down her sharp cheekbones and fell in a pot of ammonia and lichens that she was stirring on the stove in the sewing room.
"Is that my fault?" I asked angrily. "That she was unhappy here? I never met the woman."
The fact is this: Morgan was not grieving for Ruth, she was simply jealous that I was living with Egan. All the whites are envious that Egan and I have something fresh and passionate and unorthodox. They are trapped in their own dull framework of sin. They survive on gossip and liquor and isolation pay. They learn a little Inuktitut and exploit the Inuit, trading packs of cigarettes for valuable carvings, which they hope one day to sell to a museum for a fortune. They slip into traditional role-playing. While the women stay home baking and breast-feeding their babies, the men buy rifles and go hunting on weekends with the Inuit men, sliding smoothly over the snow in plywood boxes mounted on komatiks pulled by Ski-Doos. In the dark months of winter, when boredom and hysteria run high, the white men molest the Inuit daughters. Some go insane up here. They develop agoraphobia and must be carried blindfolded on stretchers across the airstrip to a waiting Twin Otter.
To avoid such a fate, Morgan married an Inuk, an older man who was once a powerful camp leader when these people lived on the land. She has produced six flat-faced children, each of them cursed with her frizzy fawn hair. She has become more native than the Inuit themselves, carrying her babies everywhere in the deep hood of an amautik, while the young Inuit mothers these days wear ordinary parkas purchased at the Hudson's Bay store and transport their children in their arms. She eats whale blubber and is a champion bannock maker, but to the Inuit she is still an outsider. Behind her back, they call her Pinguarti. "The Pretender." She claims that she is not white any more but, like other whites here, who live in a spiritual void, she turns her television set on for company when she gets up in the morning and leaves it going all day with the volume turned off, its images flickering like blue lightning across her living room, even when she's out of the house.
"Would you take a look at this invoice?" I ask her. "I can't find the order in my records."
She washes her hands slowly at the sink. I am sure she feels me watching her impatiently. She turns, pulling a towel from a rod on the wall, her habitually serious face spread thick with satisfaction. I can hear the whistle of her baby sleeping heavily in the hood of her amautik.
"What's the matter?" I say, dropping the invoice at my side.
Morgan dries her hands, watching my face carefully. "Ruth's coming back," she says with quiet triumph. I see the corners of her mouth twitch.
Excerpted from Object of Your Love by Dorothy Speak. Copyright © 1996 Dorothy Speak. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents
A River Landscape,
Object of Your Love,
Summer Sky: White Ship,
The Sum of Its Parts,
The View From Here,
What People are Saying About This
"There is a wondeful new short story writer called Dorothy Speak. Have you caught up with Dorothy Speak?"
"One of the finest story collections I have read in years. Dorothy Speak can run with the best storytellers: Alice Munro, Ellen Gilchrist, Alice Adams, Joyce Carol Oates, jayne Anne Phillips." -- Author of Shoeless Joe