One Strange Country

Christmas, 1997 / No. 1

On the way through, they stopped at the gigantic falls. There was a darkness at the bottom of the falls, the meeting of all that coursing white and blue. He thought about God. Belief is made of strange places, quiet and loud, the rivers running fields down mountains, he knew all about belief. The mist caught in his beard. There are many ways to believe, he thought. The water disappeared in front of him.

He turned to tell her, but she was not beside him. He looked around for a stick or a stone to throw in the falls, but it was all pavement and railings. They had argued at breakfast. She had become impatient and said that they were being mistreated, that the prices were too high, that the food would be greasy and bland, that they should not have stopped.

Enough, he had yelled, you are the woman who worries about the dress she will wear in her grave. She waved her arms about to attract the attention of the serving staff. They ignored her. Her manner was unbearable. He turned away. He pressed his eyes shut with the palms of his hands.

You, she said loudly, you will not say anything?

They were her people. All around, shifting and staring in their tight denim trousers. He did not understand them. He closed his eyes. He opened his eyes. Underneath his beard was his skin. She was crying. He touched the ruffle of her cheek.

You, she said, pulling away from him.

After, they drove in silence. They stopped at the great falls. The noise of the water falling, the silence. His back hurt from the cheap seat of the car they had rented. Everything here is cheap, he thought. Where is she?

He saw her, the bob of her hair, a muted red spot in the thick mist air. He watched the blur of her face. She was always crying. He went to her and told her that he was a shit, an asshole. She smiled. He put his arms around her and tickled her under her ribs. The thud of falling water, the smear of cosmetics.

Come, he said. Let’s leave this.

Later, her lips were folded together. He would remember the falls. And when they were back in his country….He looked up at her hopefully. Her lips pressed. He did not like the land. The corn in planted, dying rows. Her hands were twisting a pretty scarf. He cleared his throat. He pressed down on the accelerator.

They drive slow, he said. In this place.

His back was sore.

They stopped along the road. He lay down gingerly in the dirt that separated the road from the fields of dying corn. A blur of brown and green edges rushed by him. Gently, she moved up and down his spine. Her balance was impeccable. There came from him cracks and groans and a long silence. She moved over him, one foot touching the other. A flock of black birds scattered. The corn creaked and rustled. She jumped up, suddenly, bringing her heels into him. His back split perfectly. Pain flashed across his body. She was in the dirt, her skirt pulled up. He took in air through his nostrils.

In the car, he stretched out across the rear seat. It was cramped. He slumped down, pressing his spine against the upholstery. When he closed his eyes, the crops rushed by him. Everything was divided. He opened his eyes. His toes stuck out from his feet. He moved them. They swayed together, and he smiled. His shoes were off. The car was really too small—not just for him, but for the country.

Is there any air blowing? he yelled. Are there vents you can open? He couldn’t see her, but he felt a rush of breeze on his toes through his thin black socks. Relieved, he closed his eyes into the hurried dream he had of corn rows pulsing and rippling, conduits of frothing water, reluctant strangers.

They were late. No time to tell her about his dream. He opened his mouth to speak. She looked up through her mask of makeup. He was quiet then. They were late. He tied his black shoes.

Come, she said urgently. She scowled at him. Everyone in this country grins. All the time, he thought, living mirrors. He put his arms into his jacket. Now he was dressed. He was handsome. Then they hurried out of their room in the motel and down the small main street.

He could see the spire of the church. Her heels rang out, hard against the sidewalk.

We are almost there, he said. He stopped to smooth his beard. She kept going. She was farther ahead of him. He stuck his hands in his pockets. He walked slowly, holding his back.

She waited for him at the entrance to the church. There were many people with bow ties all the same colour. They waved, urgently pointing to the wooden doors of the chapel. He took her arm as the door swung open. Now we are the blessed couple. His fingers dug in, feeling the fleshy part of her arm under the sheafs of fabric. There was a space made for them. He wanted to close his eyes. He kept shifting. The seats in this country, even in the places of God, these people, it must be very difficult for them. He put his feet down flat on the floor and pressed his spine hard against the straight edges of the wooden pew. He winced. He leaned forward. She was still. The faces all around him. The music played. She took his hand. The music was too loud. Everything, he thought, is too loud. The bride was not unattractive. He regretted the bilious folds of white lace she was wrapped in. The priest was enthusiastic about love.

He closed his eyes and opened them. His hand was limp in her grasp. The priest was sure about love. Jesus, they sang. Christ. The preacher was the loudest singer, he showed his throat like an answer. Her recessed lips. The pews in tight rows. He closed his eyes and saw the stalks of corn passing him. When he opened his eyes, there was clapping and polite hurrahs. She was silent, now looking at him, now looking away. Her tongue, a point between her brittle smiling lips, a parted darkness. So she did, after all, belong in this country. He thought of the corn, stained fields frozen the colour of rot. There was a line to leave the chapel. They joined in when it was their turn. He took her arm again, and he felt her wince.

Up close, the preacher looked like a strange man. The reception held them in its fist. The room was hot. He did not take off his jacket. She had abandoned the cumbersome part of her outfit. The preacher was on her shoulders, on the straight lines of her arms. In this country, he thought, she is beautiful. He was holding a piece of cheese. He did not want it. He slipped outside the glass doors and stood on the deck. Inside, the preacher had the bulging eyes of his countrymen. A moth danced along the glass, attracted. The insects are so much bigger here, he thought.

He turned away from the doors. The wind lifted his tie over his shoulder and he pulled it down. Too many trees. He could see his breath. The cheese was clammy my on the inside of his fist. He lifted his arm and rested it on the wood railing. He opened his hand. The waxen square spun as it fell. When is a crime forgiven? He looked up at the sky. The irregular constellations. The wind pushing against his beard. She will leave me here. He shivered, knocking his fist on the wood in front of him. He heard her laugh. The preacher bared his teeth. There was an echo; lines of running water.