In India, Lillian’s husband shot and killed a tiger. She did not herself witness this event and found it difficult to imagine her husband, an austere and proper man, intimately involved in that uncompromising moment of blood and passion when the tiger took the shot into its living body. But it was happily conceded by everyone who had been on the hunt: the tiger belonged to Lillian’s husband. Its skin was displayed on the polished floor of the house they occupied in Madras State. The tiger’s skull was unexpectedly small and innocent; its eyes were gold-coloured glass, blind. Lillian sat with her feet resting on the tiger’s back as she read or sewed. Secretly, she asked it to carry her away, to the hills, to the far-off mountains.
For nearly twenty years Lillian and her husband lived in India, most of the time in Madras State. They had four children, all boys. At about the time that Lillian could count on the fingers of one hand the years left until her husband’s retirement from the Indian Civil Service, he invited her to his office and showed her a map spread out on his desk. The map was of Canada, a country about which Lillian knew absolutely nothing. Her husband pointed to a dot of land on the left hand side of the map.
‘This is where we are going,’ he said.
Lillian did not understand. She placed her hand on a corner of the desk to steady herself, to keep from falling into the cold, painted waters, to keep from catching her hair and dress on the jagged edge of the ochre land mass. Her husband began to talk about annual rainfall, mean temperatures, a temperate climate, the benign influence of certain ocean currents. He spoke of the mystery, the beauty, of the northern rain forest, of which he had lately read, and in fact heard, from various sources. And the silence, he said. And the distance, the enormous, incontestable distance from India, the India of the British Raj, of which he had had more than enough.
‘But we are going home,’ said Lillian, meaning home to England.
‘We are not “going home”,’ her husband said. Then he tapped the map sharply with his finger. ‘We are going here. This will be our home.’
He seemed to gloat. He looked ferocious, and triumphant. Lillian thought: the soul of the tiger has entered his soul. She felt afraid of her husband, not, perhaps, for the first time. As soon as she had returned to the house she went straight to a table in the sitting room where she kept writing paper and a pen. She wrote her husband’s name quickly on a scrap of paper; then she burned the paper in a brass censer that hung in the sitting room and was meant to be only decorative. But she put it to use. The flames consumed her husband’s name and in this way she removed him from her mind.
That was in India, in 1919, and now it is one year later and Lillian and her children actually inhabit the place on the map. It is where they live. They are on the west coast of an island that is itself on the extreme west coast of Canada. They live in a fishing village of perhaps two hundred people, or less. Her husband brought his family here and then he returned to India, alone, to finish up the three years until his retirement. He went back to India and left Lillian and the boys here as if this were an entirely reasonable thing to do. ‘You will be safer here than anywhere,’ he told Lillian repeatedly. ‘The boys will be happier here than anywhere else.’ This new life would make men of them, he said.
While he was with them he had a house built on a piece of land at the edge of the inlet waters, a tall house of wood with a steep roof and two rooms up, two rooms down. He had some furnishings shipped from Victoria by boat: a table and chairs, a sideboard, a bookcase, and a wood-burning stove, which he proceeded to install himself. He unpacked a shelf full of his books, including Homer’s Iliad, Darwin’s Descent of Man, a volume entitled Principia Mathematica. He spoke of the time when he would return, and how he would sit in a chair by the window, undisturbed, reading these books. He nailed the tiger skin hastily to the wall, not minding what he damaged.
During the long days of rain that ensued, the tiger glowed like a lamp, like the Indian sun at dawn, only beginning to attain its true brilliance. In Lillian’s estimation the tiger’s face appeared less blind, less innocent, as if adversity were pushing it toward some new and interesting truth.
Her husband stayed for six months in all. In early December he left on the mail boat, in a storm. The mail boat had to go along the open coast, which could be rough and dangerous at any time of year, in any weather. She stood on the dock watching the boat as it plunged into the waves, and at last she called out her husband’s name. The name was torn from her, a great cry for help, for assistance of some kind, and she was for a moment appalled at the sound. But the wind was fierce; no-one heard her. He certainly didn’t hear her. The mail boat was swept into the rain and fog and soon it was obscured.
There is no road out of this village. There is Lillian’s house and after that there is nothing much, only a rough trail leading into the bush. At first everything she sees offends her eye: the ugly twisted pines, the straggly cedars, dead snags, blackened stumps where land has been partly cleared and then abandoned; visions of despair, of desperation. Some days she thinks the constant rain and fog will surely destroy her. And then the west wind starts up, chilling her to the bone and making her feel somehow vagrant, dispossessed. Her boys seem to exult in the wind, as they do in everything here. They climb trees, wade in the sea, throw rocks at one another, hide when she calls them. They are being made men of, she supposes. She stands listening, watching at the place where the trail leads off into the woods. No-one lives there. It is an absence, an absence of life, of all but the most dangerous, elemental forms of life. She can see that it bears no relationship whatsoever to the milder forests of England and certainly none to the light-filled, dry, tumbling vastness of India.
No-one Lillian has spoken to in the village can tell her who made this trail, or when, to what purpose. It is simply there. As a diversion, almost against her better judgement, she begins to follow the trail into the forest. Underneath the trees she sees a surprising number of plants: sword fern, salal, thimbleberry, water hemlock and a species of frail, wild lily, the name unknown to her. She begins to make a project of naming as many of these plants as she can, and to make sketches of those she cannot yet name. All that first spring and summer she does this, drawing pages and pages of wet, inky ferns, the fronds translating themselves wilfully into mouths, eyes, the palms of hands; human features that delight Lillian, although she cannot decipher their meaning, or identity.
At night when her boys sleep, Lillian gets up from her bed and travels again down this trail, feeling her way in the dark. She is blind, her eyes full of a wonderful innocence. This is the night and she is in it, like a creature of the forest, a small animal. She feels, she knows, that this is a foolish practice, walking here by herself at night, but she cannot give it up, must not give it up. She feels the danger beating like her heart against her ribs, although more robust and sustaining. Easily she could lose her way, easily fall, tripping over a vine or tree root. And there truly are wild animals out here, dangerous animals. The village is rife with stories of encounters between men and bears and mountain lions. She chooses to discount these stories. Nothing in this forest is in the least interested in her. It even amuses her to imagine her husband’s consternation, if he were called back from India simply because his wife had lost herself in the forest, in the night, and had been gobbled up by a bear. What does his discomfort matter to her, however? What does any of it matter? She is a small forest animal, padding down the trail, snuffling and whistling. Impossible to tell just where Lillian leaves off and the damp night air begins.
As well as the tiger skin there are several other objects brought all the way here from India. There is a collection of brass vessels of different sizes, the largest nearly three feet tall. Lillian likes to fill it with ferns and branches and wild flowers she gathers out in the bush. As a result, the house smells persistently, and not unpleasingly, of damp earth. Upstairs in her bedroom is a plain sandalwood box with a hinged lid in which she keeps her hairpins and combs. These are her own belongings, her possessions. She bought them herself, over the years, at marketplaces in India. She went shopping in a rickshaw pulled by one of the servants. The rickshaw flew over the street, its wheels humming. There was a time when Lillian felt it wrong to be pulled along in this way, by another person, by a human being who might, after all, resent being used in this way. Her husband had laughed and said, ‘Oh, don’t be ridiculous, Lillian,’ and so, after a while, she thought only of the wind on her face, a sense of flight arranged for her pleasure, and now she misses it, she misses all of it. She misses India.
In the marketplace, beggars held out their hands. Her husband warned her: ‘You will only encourage their indolence.’ That was the way he looked at it. To her the beggars didn’t seem indolent; they seemed rigid with intent and purposefulness. Their hands were lean and dark, sinewy and warm with the stored energy of the omnipresent sun. She gave them money, as much as she could spare. Her husband hated weakness; poverty, sickness. Once he pointed urgently to a dark shape huddled in a gutter and said, ‘Can you tell, is that a child or a monkey? Can you see which it is?’ He had been very agitated.
She said, ‘Oh, a monkey,’ but the truth was, from where they were standing, it was impossible to be sure. Her husband was a Tax Collector. He took money from the Indian people and gave it to the ruling English. That was how it worked. It was an important position her husband held, but he was, at least in this case, a realistic man. He said the taxes were paying for some very fine meals and elegant homes. ‘Could India survive on her own, however?’ He doubted it. ‘Look at Mohandas K. Gandhi, for one example,’ he said. ‘And the trouble he is causing.’
An incident occurred in India. Lillian went into her dresser drawer for something, a lace collar to wear with her dress. She pulled her hand out only just in time. Nestled in her folded petticoats and clean handkerchiefs was a scorpion. One of the servants had plainly hidden it in her drawer to hurt her, to kill her possibly. Shaking with anger and fear, she told her husband, and he assembled the servants on the veranda at dusk. The sun was a red disc spinning on the rim of the earth. Her husband went up and down the line of servants, saying, ‘Above all else, I expect you to be open, honest, above-board. Play fair with me and I will play fair with you.’ He wore a white suit, a white hat; he was a tall man, dark-complexioned, with dark eyes. Later, he took Lillian aside and said that it was her job as mistress of the household to see that this kind of thing did not happen again. It was obvious to him, he said, that she did not have the respect of the servants. ‘Less daydreaming, Lillian,’ he said. ‘And more attention to the task at hand.’
There is one more thing from India here in this new house on the inlet, and that is the brass censer in which Lillian burnt her husband’s name. She cannot precisely remember packing it in her trunk before leaving India, but here it is, somewhat tarnished it’s true, but still beautiful, a lovely object, hanging from a hook in the front room. One morning, in a reflective mood, she dips her finger into the bowl of the censer and brings it out coated with a fine white ash. Her husband’s name. She puts her finger to her mouth to lick it clean, then stops. In the pantry she scrubs her hands clean with a bar of soap, lathering her arms to the elbows. His ashes, she thinks. How awful, what a thing to do. In her mind, for a moment, it is as if her husband has died and she has desecrated his remains and now he is speaking to her, shouting at her from an omniscient position: ‘Do you see where your daydreaming gets you, my girl? Your indolence? You will do anything, won’t you?’
Toward the end of the second year, she writes to her husband: ‘I cannot tell what season of the year it is any more. There is one long season, cold and wet, every day the same. You cannot imagine the monotony, or how it weighs on the spirit.’
Her husband replies: ‘Last week I was forced to stay in a village stricken with disease. I am now dosing myself with quinine water. In addition, a rather brutal murder has occurred here, a Hindu-Muslim quarrel, I suspect. Every day the same, Lillian? Oh dear, oh dear.’
A pod of killer whales swims into the inlet. The whales are in a frenzy, leaping high into the air, sending up great plumes of white spray. The entire village has turned out to watch from the shore, from the wharves. This has never happened before, everyone tells Lillian. The whales careen wildly; the villagers call out, Oh! as if they were at a circus. Wind ripples the furiously churning surface of the water; clouds race past the mountains; everything is happening at once. Lillian drags her sons close, closer to the water’s edge. You may never see a sight like this again, she tells them, as excited as any of the others. A rumour spreads, that this is an omen, that this strange behaviour on the part of the whales means something, good luck or bad. A man near Lillian says it has nothing to do with luck, it is the whales being whales, it is nature. ‘Yes,’ Lillian says, ‘yes indeed; nature.’ Then she thinks: the whales are in love. In love with the sea, the sky. It is too much for them, they cannot contain the energy of their love. She feels sympathy for the whales; they could easily annihilate themselves for this love; they have lost all sense of danger.
She thinks also of the tiger, her tiger, alive and floating through the green and gold air of the mountain slopes, its prey below on the ground, and the tiger’s paws flexing, its claws unsheathed, its eyes burning with love, for itself, and the object it so desires: the prey.
Lillian walks out into the land at night, where no-one else has the courage to go, and she finds it surprisingly peaceful, dark, muted. It is like walking into a pleasant dream. Then she thinks, no, her dreams are not always pleasant; sometimes they frighten her. Sometimes she wakens with a cry and realizes that she is alone, she is alone on what seems the edge of the world; beyond the walls of her house there is only the sea and then nothing. That incomprehensible absence. She can’t get back to sleep; how could she sleep, she is too wrought up. She lies awake and listens to the wind, to the rain, to the sea. On the whole she would rather not sleep; she would rather be out there in the forest, playing a sort of game with fate. If I stumble and fall, she thinks. If a mountain lion leaps from a tree, snarling, its teeth bared. Nothing will happen, she tells herself. 1 am all right, she says. One more step, and then one after that. The ground underfoot is slick, uncertain. And there is the smell of dank vegetation, of death, she thinks. She is brave, unmindful. She walks on.
It occurs to her now that of course it was the children ayah who put the scorpion in her dresser drawer. The ayah didn’t like Lillian; she gave her sidelong glances, full of meaning. She spoiled the children, feeding them candies and hot Indian food, stroking their hair with her plump, scented hands.
The ayah was there on the evening Lillian’s husband reprimanded the servants over the issue of the scorpion. The ayah stood slightly apart from the others, as if wishing to disassociate herself from the matter and from her condition of servitude. She was not the same as the other servants, her posture seemed to say. In the warmth of the setting sun her face was rosy, swollen. Lillian’s husband went up and down, lecturing. ‘One of you is responsible,’ he said, ‘beyond doubt.’
The ayah was very pretty standing there, her hands meekly clasped.
Lillian thinks how strange, how very strange, that only now, years later, on the opposite side of the world, is she able to clearly recognize in the ayah’s combined attitudes of submission and apartness not innocence, but guilt.
Her husband taunted her. Before they left India, he said to her: ‘There is no society out there, you know. No English society, church teas, fancy dress balls, all that nonsense. You’ll be on your own, out there.’
‘I was never all that much interested,’ she said, although she had enjoyed the fancy dress balls, the impromptu theatre. In any case, her husband was wrong. In the village there are men and women from England, immigrants, like Lillian, anxiously running their hands over the walls of moist air to see if it is real, this prison, this small place they have come to. Wearing gumboots, they wade through mud to play Mah Jong around kitchen tables; they sing songs together, and dance, and toast one another with glasses of sherry. At the end of all this entertainment, they stand and sing ‘God Save the King’, their mouths alive, biting with great vigour into the words ‘victorious’ and ‘glorious’. The English in diaspora, Lillian thinks, it is the same everywhere. She does not join in the singing, but watches the energy of the open mouths with interest. She is amazed that the words still have meaning for these people, not only these words, but any words at all. Any spoken words. For her, words have become as vague and formless as the mist that wreathes the mountainsides. She begins to avoid social occasions; she develops a most unlikely habit of running to hide when people walk down the road to visit her. She hides in her garden, behind the trunk of a cedar tree, or she runs into the house and locks the door. Anything she or anyone else might have to say seems suddenly pointless, irrelevant. (Quite, quite irrelevant, she hears her husband’s voice saying.) She is a small animal, solitary, making her way down a trail no-one else dares to take.
Of course, she isn’t an animal. She is Lillian, with her sketchbook and her pen and ink, getting it all down on paper, recording the shapes, the mysterious, scarcely apprehended shapes and forms that green growing plants can take. As she draws, she is fascinated to see human features behind the branches, mixed in with the vining stems and fleshy leaves, appearing magically, independent of her pen. The corner of an eye, the tip of a nose, a full, pouting lower lip.
Even the tiger is there, his black stripes boldly visible against the delicate tracery of a sword fern. The tiger makes her smile. He is arrogant, indifferent, strutting on the paper: Did you intend to forget me? he asks.
Lillian ventures farther down the trail than she has ever gone. She plunges on and on through the bush. She scratches her hand on a branch; pauses to pull her skirt free of a thorned vine. Then she arrives at an open place, unlike anywhere else. She has an idea, from studying maps of the area, and from hearing people talk, that she has come to the mud-flats, where the sea at last wears itself out and becomes engulfed by the land. The ground is marshy, like a peat bog, and the water is everywhere shallow and blue and motionless. Tall, bearded grasses grow along the shore. A blue heron stands one-legged not far from her. Everything is quiet and seems consecrated to this singular moment. Lillian sits down on a log and places her sketchbook open on her knee. Will she find her way back? she wonders. Will her sons notice that she’s been gone for an unusually long time? It is July and surprisingly hot. She is wearing a wide-brimmed hat tied under her chin with a scarf, to shade her eyes. It is, in fact, a hat she wore many times in India, while engaged in just such an activity as this: sketching the indigenous flora and fauna of the land. She draws a long curved line meant to represent the heron’s long neck, which ought to look graceful but is instead strangely clumsy, unmanageable. She turns to a fresh page. Behind her in the bush there is a noise, as if something, an animal, were creeping up on her to have a better look. She doesn’t turn around.
Her husband said to her before he went back to India, ‘I suppose you will forget me once I am gone.’ He had been at the window looking at the inlet, at the small, dark islands that rise abruptly out of the water. She wanted to tell him that it was too late. She had already forgotten him, she had forgotten his name; she had written it down and let it be consumed by fire. Instead she said, ‘The children might forget you. Three years is a long time to a child.’ He replied that it was her responsibility to see that they did not forget him. Then he began unpacking his books, telling her she must encourage the boys to read these books, it was important that they read and exercise their minds. ‘I will write to them,’ he said. ‘A letter for each child, every month.’
Of course, even after all this time the boys have not forgotten their father, although they mention him less and less as the weeks and months go by. And even after reducing it to a line white ash, Lillian remembers her husband’s name. She hasn’t spoken it aloud since the day he left on the mail boat, but she does remember it. No, the irony is that it is herself she has forgotten. Her self, her physical presence, seems to have become amorphous; parts of her float through the cedar forest; parts of her catch on dead snags. Her husband said, ‘The great beauty of this place is that you can make anything you want out of it. No-one has really discovered it yet. It is a sort of dreamland, waiting. You can make what you want out of it. That’s what I want. That’s exactly what I want.’
He spoke with such enthusiasm; he so badly wanted his dreamland away from the rest of the world, away from India, away from the ancient populated parts of the world. But Lillian knows what her husband does not know, even yet: that the land makes what it wants of you. The land is not clay waiting to be shaped; it is a monster already formed, with claws and a hungry mouth. A shiver runs clown her spine. She can sense something behind her, although common sense tells her nothing is there. She is alone and at any moment she can get up and begin the walk back.
She draws, curving a slender grass stem deliberately across the clean white page. Her hand moves quickly, forming a lattice-work of sea grasses bending as if swept by a fierce wind; only there is no wind. Behind the grasses elusive human features appear, shy, diffident. They lack an identity, although it seems to Lillian they might at any moment assume one. She sees an ear, then the open palm of a hand. The fluttering edge of a scarf; the brim of a sun-hat much like the one she has on her head. And an eye, wide, surprised; knowledgeable.
Carol Windley is a fiction writer from Vancouver Island. This story was originally published in Visible Light, Oolichan Books, Lantzville, 1993, and is reprinted by permission of the author.