Saturday, September 24, 2011
BOTH SIDES NOW: The Boy on the Horse
This is from a novel I work on now and then. An old female painter is living on the rez. She is widowed. Her husband, much older than she, had been a famous anthropologist. Now she is painting but also sorting through her husband’s effects.
THE BOY ON THE HORSE
The photo was down in the bottom of the box but also in an envelope with nothing written on it. By now she was wary of these unlabeled envelopes containing photos. One of them might have been an accident, an omission, but they were beginning to seem like a pattern, an un-label that meant something.
She opened it up and was stunned. It was HER photo. Not a photo OF her, but a photo that belonged to her, that she had looked for everywhere. It was a Blackfeet boy, about fourteen, barely adolescent, looking into the camera from the back of a horse with no saddle. No bridle either. Just a rope and not much of one, maybe baling twine. But he and his horse were getting along fine. They were in total agreement. She had loved the boy, not in a sexual way and not exactly maternally either. Just as a being, like his horse.
The day long ago rushed back into her consciousness. Her husband had left her out on the prairie where she had a view of the mountains, promising to return when the light went bad at the end of the afternoon. She had arranged her easel and folding chair, with its obligatory clamp-on black umbrella for shading the artist. After a bit of sketching to establish composition, she had easily slipped into absorption in issues of color values and their interactions. It was bright, so the usual subtle Payne’s gray versus yellow ochre interplay was replaced by cerulean and cadmium. She thought about geology a lot, how to bring up the mighty forces of nature from under the “prettiness” of mere scenery. This was such a challenge that she nearly forgot to eat her lunch sandwich.
She had missed seeing the boy until he was close, managing his skinny young horse skillfully as it warily approached what the steed clearly considered to be a horse-eating umbrella. When she called to the pair, the horse was not reassured, but the boy laughed, implying that he as well had been rather wondering at this strange apparition so unexpectedly deployed on a glacial moraine in the prairie.
For her part, she was now attentive to the structural anatomy of the summer-darkened boy, who was wearing only jeans, and the horse with no saddle. The boy’s relaxed shoulders and hips, his flexible narrow waist, his slender neck balancing a head of long loose hair, danced in compensation to the four shifting feet and weaving head of his steed, and under their feet was a moving banner of shadow, waving in the grass. She picked up her sketch tablet and began trying to capture the articulation of the bones, the overlay and interplay of the muscles as the graceful young creatures moved together.
The boy slid off and came over, careless of his horse, which finally saw that there was no immanent danger and went to grazing, the need for which was always present in its long head. There was plenty of grass and no need to run off. The boy stood where he could see her drawing and considered gravely. He did not think such practices trivial.
“Hullo,” she said distractedly. Taking this as an invitation, he sank down cross-legged on the ground, settling to watch the way he might watch grazing buffalo, memorizing small details and trying to predict what the animal would do next. Hunter’s skills. He was still, which pleased her as she tried to capture the curves of the side of his head: the hair moving in the wind, the curled snail of his ear, the gentle scoop of neck down to the dip between there and the knob of his shoulder. She was always pleased by the way a hook of bone from the scapula reached to the front in order to attach the collarbone, the bone unique to humans, the bone that held the shoulders apart so that arms could throw. The clavicula, named for Roman doorkeys because someone fancied the clavicles were the same shape -- sort of.
The boy knew nothing about all that, though he was pretty good at throwing as well as running and strategy. He had a hunter’s practical grip on anatomy; that is, where to penetrate for a sure kill and which parts were the best eating. But he had not seen a woman who drew -- until now -- because most of the tribal artists were men recording their own or history’s exploits, using more symbols than realistic representations. Still, this woman was doing something that made him see more than what was there, though it was recognizably there. A lot to think about. He needed more information.
“What are you doing?”
“Well, I was painting. Now I’m drawing you.”
He digested that. He was not displeased.
“Mostly because it pleases me.”
He understood that. He said nothing more and for the next few hours he just watched while the woman, untroubled by any need to make conversation, filled a page with sketches of parts of him, then put her landscape off the easel and painted his portrait in bold strokes that still caught details of mouth and eyelid.
Finally a cloud of dust was raised by a car on the wagon trail to the ridge. Her husband was coming to collect her. The boy rose and walked to get his wandered horse, but then rode the pony back instead of leaving, so that he was there when her husband swung out of the car. “I see you found a model.”
“A very good one.”
“Clearly. His portrait demonstrates exactly that.” He reached up to shake hands with the boy, which the latter was plainly not used to, and began to inquire about family and so on. The boy was not shy but didn’t volunteer a lot of information. While the two males established identity, she went to the car to load in her painting gear. Her camera was in the glovebox, so she brought it back and took a picture of the boy on his horse. She promised him a copy. They all parted happily, satisfied. Indeed, her husband had seemed almost euphoric.
Now, holding the photo, she saw who this boy was. Her landlord.