The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.
She hated the narrow dirt mile between their trailer and town. She wanted to erase it the same way she might spit and rub a number off the back of her hand. Rachel didn’t own anything, but it was a lot to carry on soft ground. The mud and gravel road was thawing from the top down. It peeled under her steps like skin off rotten fruit. Its dampness rose into her shirt in a mix of sweat and dew that didn’t feel good. She would abandon the table and chairs, the bed and mattress. The lamps were useless; where they were going, there was no electricity. But she couldn’t abandon everything. They needed their bags of clothes, a handful of cutlery, and the pair of tins heavy with flour and sugar. In red-licorice cursive, the tins read Merry Christmas. But they weren’t Christmas tins, she used them all year.
Tristan wasn’t allowed to help because he made her think. She didn’t need to think but to walk the mile. Yet back and forth to town, thoughts of him persisted, distracting her and biting into her shoulder more sharply than any strap. She thought of how he didn’t run for the sake of running like other boys. She couldn’t even picture what it looked like when he ran. And he didn’t try to lift things just to see if he could. He was ten years old and had never tried to lift her.
Four trips made eight miles, and it was that long before she noticed the skin across her stomach was sore to touch. Stopping in the middle of the road, she pulled her shirt up roughly. She was scratched from the boxes she’d been carrying, written on in crappy graffiti. She missed being touched. Her stomach was never seen now, and it was impossible to imagine that it would be. She lowered her shirt, then lifted it roughly again. She’d forgotten her stomach. She would bend, she thought, and break under her own weight like a wave on this road she hated. She didn’t imagine a huge wave breaking, no crest and fall in a crush of white, but saw instead a small wave that slid over itself, each time folding in a thin sheet of light. Shyly, she ran two fingers along one of the scratches to her hip. Then she came back and followed another scratch down to her belt and flicked the buckle. Their trailer was close but Rachel didn’t want to get back yet. There was a lesson in being alone. There was something she was being taught. But how she hated that idea, that life would teach her something she needed to know by making her get low.
Tristan knelt on a wooden chair on bare knees and looked out the kitchen window. The road was less a road than a path roughly cut between black woods. It was packed with rocks – they had dug the rocks for their firepit out of the road, pocking it up, which made no difference. The road was like a portage: an opening that lets you in but makes no promise to bring you out on the other side. Maybe it narrowed to a dead end or was blocked by a swamp raised by a beaver dam. Maybe it led to a place they weren’t welcome. She walked through the cut slowly and stopped, her dark hair falling across her shoulders heavily, and Tristan imagined that she meant to let her hair sweep the ground as it did. He kept his knees on the chair. Most boys would have run out to meet their mothers. But he knew he couldn’t understand. She was always telling him, you can’t understand everything.
They moved into the boarding house in town, a wide two-storey building set on the one road, two hundred feet from the freight docks. It was painted white a long time ago and now the paint shed in chunks like receipts. The place was famous for this: it was a miracle the siding wasn’t bare. If you lived there, flaking paint was part of your weather. It fell like snow when the wind had fingernails. On still days, it floated down like leaves and melted on the ground, forming pools of warm blue-silver. This was the kind of place that survives wars on end because no one bothers to burn it. There was a sign over the porch, Hotel and Bait, but for ten months of the year, there were no tourists on Prioleau Lake, so the Hotel and Bait transformed into a cheap place for bachelors.
Tristan stayed in their room while Rachel was out working. Not that she was out, because she was only down the hallway or downstairs, earning their stay by cleaning other rooms and helping at the bar. Knowing their window overlooked the empty lot to the right of the building, she never went there. This lot held the appeal of all open fields: an invitation to wander without the threat of getting lost that’s felt twenty feet into the woods. There was only open sky. There were only wild grasses that would split around her waist. But Tristan had the calmest, blackest eyes, and she knew how they worked – same as hers – and if she walked down there, under the window, she would be his trespasser. So she never did that, letting him rule in peace, and she promised herself that at the end of June, when they had to move out, they would go down the lake, and the lake opened wider than any window.
He looked out the window, she was right, or slept on top of the bedspread. He slept when he wasn’t tired, which kept him up at night, turning him to the window again. All this meant the beginning of his daydream. Always the same dream, but sometimes he wasn’t in the water yet. He was clambering down rocks, cold against his feet. Once he could hear the water, he would pull his shirt off. He might carry himself quickly and dive in, but other times he moved with a dread sense, holding on to his shirt and coming up to the edge, standing there too long. In the dream it was night. If in the dream it was day, then day was dark as night. He would tread water: that was it. There was no horizon; the water and sky were the same solid black, but the water pulled him under, the sky lifted his head. He didn’t put up a fight; they fought over him. Sometimes it felt like he could tread forever, kicking at the black in peace. Or, he panicked from the start and there was no relief. Sometimes he had to force himself to dive, feeling so heavy in his legs that he could only imagine them sinking him. Diving like that felt like throwing an anchor over the side but at the last second not letting go. When it was very bad, he told himself that he shouldn’t have spit into the air and caught it in his own mouth. He probably shouldn’t have done other things he couldn’t even remember now.
A small stand of silver birch trees was budding in front of the hotel. There were five, but it seemed like more since each split at the base as a hand splits at the wrist. Because she liked these trees, Rachel took her breaks on the front steps. She didn’t want to rush the trees, but she was waiting for them. They would break into shade. Not everything that breaks, she thought, breaks into ruin. Every day, sometimes more than once, she would go to one of the low branches and try to pry open a leaf, to release it from its shell with her fingernails, and this is what she was doing when Codas came to find her.
She didn’t see him coming but heard him say, “Don’t you think we should wait?”
“For what?” She didn’t turn around.
“For them to come to us? Do you always do things like this?”
“I don’t know,” she said. Her dark hair was tied loosely at her neck, in a confusion of depth that pulled him closer to her.
She rolled a bud between her thumb and finger, cracking the seam. But that was it: the leaf was unformed. Frustrated at her own impatience, Rachel turned to leave, stepping so abruptly that Codas didn’t have time to move and they collided.
“We agree then,” he said, saying something to distract from the collision.
“To let things happen.”
“I don’t know.” Rachel tried to step right but he shadowed and blocked her.
“The leaves, you’ve been trying to make them bloom with your hands. I saw you.”
Rachel withdrew her hands to her hips, then pulled them behind her back and held them there.
“I won’t hurt you.”
“I won’t hurt you,” she told him.
Codas had always believed that Rachel looked different than other women because of the scar that stretched from her eye. It nicked her left temple then ran down her jaw, tent-covering a depression where a full, round cheek should have been. Once, something in there broke, he thought, or maybe it was broken still. But no, it wasn’t the scar or the hollow that made her look different; she looked different because she was. He didn’t know how to make her listen to him.
There was nothing special about Codas. Maybe they were the same age, but she was still young. He had never been young. Never a boy and no pleasure to her. She couldn’t say what colour his eyes might be. Codas was made of one substance, Rachel thought: poured concrete. She had poured concrete for years at her summer job, helping her father. Its acidity ate away at her hands until the skin shed. Codas looked poured, and when they ran into each other, he felt poured too. It didn’t make it better that he was wearing a white shirt tucked in. No one on Prioleau wore white shirts. No one tucked in.
“Leaves don’t bloom, do they? Isn’t blooming for flowers?” she asked.
“I came here to speak with you. I came specifically.”
She ran her eyes down his pants to the crushed grass at their feet, to the bottom of the hotel steps and up the steps to the door, which stood wide open. She could see down the hall leading to the bar. Her break was over.
“I came all the way,” he said.
He had come from Treble Island, where he owned a piece of land that his father had torn off the bone of what was otherwise an Indian island. In a bend at shore was his propane business. On a hill above stood a small chapel. His father had been a Black Robe and was never supposed to have a woman or child. The woman, he never really had. She gave birth and went south, under what circumstances no one was supposed to guess. People said the son was a graft of the man. And it was as if young Codas had shaped himself to the rumour.
“I came here to see you.”
“I can’t imagine why.”
“You can’t imagine?”
She wasn’t looking at him but at the open front door.
“People talk, Rachel. This place isn’t a home for a woman living with a baby.”
“He’s not a baby.”
“Where is he? Is he very alone? Have you left him with someone?”
“Very alone? What does that mean? You’re alone or not.”
“You know what I mean.” He was offering them protection.
“He likes to be alone.”
“Some people are alone, but not by choice and they don’t like it.” She liked it.
“No one should be alone,” he kept on going.
“I have to tell you that you live alone.”
“I wouldn’t if you came, and you can come right now.”
He was proposing something he didn’t understand and blushed. It was embarrassing, she thought. He couldn’t even blush properly.
“Why don’t you come? You can live in the outbuilding.”
“How old is he?”
“Twelve,” she said.
Tristan was ten. There were ways that Tristan was weak – he didn’t run around and didn’t try to lift things – but there were ways he was growing stronger than other boys. There were ways, she was sure, that he was growing stronger than most men.
“You should think for him or someone else might step in.”
“No,” Rachel said, laughing at him roughly.
“I’m trying to help you.”
“But I didn’t ask anyone for help.”
“You did by living here.”
“I didn’t have anywhere else to go,” she said.
“Exactly,” he said. “Think about that.”
“If you make me explain myself, I’ll be too tired to do anything else all day.”
“You’re not okay.”
Rachel smiled beautifully.
“Please don’t laugh at me,” he said.
But she wasn’t laughing, only smiling.
“Do you see the door? It’s open,” she told him.
“I need to close it. I left it open.”
“What do you think about what I’ve been saying?”
“My break is over. That’s how far ahead I’m thinking.”
“You can have a place to stay.”
She would rub his offer into the ground and bury it shallow. She wanted to bury it right here, unmarked under the silver birches. The leaves, when they finally came, would cast the place in shade, and she would sit casually over the promise she had resisted. No one would know why she loved sitting here so much.
“You need to make a choice.”
But there was the possibility of hard rain, rain for days. The rain could be a dog and dig up the grass. Then his promise would surface more terrible than it had been to start.
“I probably will do something,” she said, mostly to herself. “I don’t know yet.”
“First the door? Let’s close it together.”
Pretending to go along was something Rachel knew how to do, though she took no pleasure in it.
Codas closed the door himself, quickly reaching across her.
“That was so easy,” he said. “We closed it.”
Born in Guelph and based in New York and Toronto, Jesse Ruddock first left Canada on a hockey scholarship to Harvard. Her writing and photography have appeared in NewYorker.com, N+1, Vice, and Music & Literature. Shot-Blue is her first novel, out in March 2017 from Coach House Books.