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vol v, issue 6 < ToC
Unknown Canadian Artist
by
Zandra Renwick
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Unknown Canadian Artist
by
Zandra Renwick
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Wolf Girl
Unknown Canadian Artist
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Zandra Renwick
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Wolf Girl
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Unknown Canadian Artist
 by Zandra Renwick
Unknown Canadian Artist
 by Zandra Renwick
That winter toward the tail end of the last millennium, my father's predictions for the marketability of what he called my spendy eastcoast art degree finally came to pass, and I was forced by economic necessity to set aside my paints and canvas and accept a position in the only slightly less lucrative field of Social Services. Career-minded civil servants and individuals inspired by true vocation to assist those in need filled top slots in our field; the rest of us tended to be artists, misfits, and the generally unemployable.

I'd been born in what was even then still raw and tenaciously beautiful British Columbian farm country, but my parents moved across the border and down the coast before my first birthday. My new midsized hometown was one of those in the grip of perennial bust and boom cycles, with red brick peak-roofed houses trimmed in gingerbread, and factories outmoded but still cognizant of their bygone logging glory days in their cathedral-esque vaulted ceilings and the grand sweep of their towering stacks. My childhood had seen more bust than boom, our town's aging population forever in the process of being left behind while younger people flocked to larger cities. Returning from my small private New England college and my stint east brought a stark realization of how little had changed.

Like many civil service jobs mine consisted mainly of paperwork, but because my department handled calls from an anonymous hotline for concerned citizens regarding the health and safety of the incarcerated and the elderly, it was sometimes necessary to venture out in the field. After months of shuffling yellowed documents from one dusty file cabinet to another and performing what seemed endless hours of perfunctory data entry in an effort to modernize the department's silverfish-infested decaying precomputerized records, I welcomed my first home visit assignment with something close to eagerness.

The case I'd been handed was that of a Mrs. Labrett, eighty-two years of age, living alone. The client's address was penned in blue ballpoint at the top of a manila folder that pre-existed, like so many others, the department's digital database. The most recent entry was dated nine years previous and described a home visit by some long-gone social worker (had her art degree finally paid off, I wondered? her book deal come through? her garage band recorded a hit?) who'd responded to a call from a concerned neighbor. Squinting at the hasty jottings of my predecessor, I surmised Mr. Labrett had passed away a few months prior, leaving his wife of fifty years to live alone. Though the agent observed the house to be in a mildly untidy state and noted Mrs. Labrett had seemed lonely (the visit had lasted, if these scribblings were accurate, no less than four hours, all of which as far as I could surmise had been spent in the client's stuffy parlor drinking weak tea), she'd found no imminent concern as to the health or welfare of the client herself. No follow-up visit was recommended, and no further entries thickened the folder.

The afternoon remained gloomy but not overly cold, a common and near year-round condition for North America's Pacific Northwest. The address scrawled on the tab of Mrs. Labrett's file led me to the east side of town, an area across the railway tracks that had never been a more sought-after neighborhood but had certainly seen better days. It was a rundown street but a respectable one, where a concerned citizen might still place a vague and strangely undetailed call to a Social Services hotline to report an elderly neighbor in possible need of assistance.

The Labrett bungalow was typical for its era and its unpretentious origins. Once-white paint peeled in grey feathered sheets from clapboard siding and deep overhanging eaves. Some houses along the street had been repainted, some gardens populated with stone squirrels or lions or unidentifiable fruit hinting at being pineapples. I mounted the three sagging front steps and knocked on the door, wondering if the anonymous concerned neighbor could be whoever lurked behind the twitching blinds of the house across the street. Perhaps instead it was the owner of the spectacles dimly reflecting bright grey sky in two matching ovals in the upstairs window next door. Or maybe our hotline caller had been the frowning gentleman walking his squat brute of a dog at the opposite curb, his undisguised interest exuding a nebulous but palpable hostility.

Mrs. Labrett answered after my third round of polite but determined knocking. A small lady made smaller by the cruel curvature of osteoporosis, she smiled up at me through a narrow crack between peeling door and jamb, greeting me in a voice much younger than her posture, younger than the stark blue veins standing on the back of her hand where it clutched an old-fashioned dressing gown tight to her throat.

I introduced myself, explaining after the manner of my cursory field training why I was on her doorstep. To my discomfort I found this endeavor considerably more awkward in person than in the flat hypothetical world of training class. She, however, was gracious, and before shutting the door gently she bade me wait a moment and she'd let me in. I assumed she intended to change clothes or in some other way make herself more presentable, in her manner of thinking, to receive visitors. But the wait was brief. Shifting my creaking weight from one foot to the other on the sagging stoop, aware of the intense scrutiny of various observers as anonymous as the call received by our office, I thought I heard a frantic scrabbling on the other side of the door, a wild frenetic clacking of talons scraping wood, punctuated by a muffled snarl and following whimper. When Mrs. Labrett reopened the door she was dressed in the same threadbare dressing gown, her wisping hair gathered in the same loose bun at the back of her skull. She apologized for keeping me waiting, explaining that before receiving a stranger into the house she had to "put the babies away."

Weak, oversweet tea is an acquired taste, but one I didn't mind. The house was dark, every blind drawn to maintain what she described as a soothing environment for "the babies." With a bit of gentle probing of which I hoped my superiors at the Department would have been proud, I deduced these babies she spoke of must be dogs, strays she had acquired over the years one by one as they'd come scratching at her cellar door on cooler nights, begging for scraps. At first whiff of my concern over the potentially dangerous breed of these dogs, and whether or not their care and feeding might be overburdensome for an older woman living alone, Mrs. Labrett—justifiably, I thought in immediate retrospect—became less welcoming. She explained her babies were no trouble at all, content and comfortable downstairs where they had plenty of bedding and lots to eat. Indeed, the shelves of the open pantry behind her sagged under the weight of several bags of generic dog food, which she apparently arranged to have delivered weekly by "that sweet young fellow from the church." It was on the tip of my tongue to ask to meet these "babies" when she rose, thanked me for my time, and offered to show me out.

In the hallway I paused at the black vertical crack of a slightly ajar door I'd first taken to be a coat closet but now realized must lead downward into the basement. As Mrs. Labrett shuffled on, leading the way out farther along the hall, I leaned in, peering into the dark musty slit of the crack past the door's edge, straining to make sense of what could have been heavy wet panting echoing in the tar-black stairwell.

Hairs prickled at my nape as a sound wafted up, a staccato chorus of wide-jawed smackings of wet tongues against pointy teeth. I peered down into the inky basement, thinking I glimpsed the vaguely canid outlines of several hulking shapes crouched at the base of the stair. That same clatter rang as before in the hollow darkness, long nails scrabbling against wood, abruptly muffled when Mrs. Labrett reached past me to press the door firmly shut.

As if suddenly hard of hearing, she answered none of my queries about the animals in her cellar. She gently herded me out onto her porch and, with one last stilted banality of gratitude for my visit accompanied by an assurance that she was in good health and spirits thanks to the company of her beloved pets, bade me good afternoon and goodbye. A distinct finality accompanied the closure of her door, and though I stood on the slumped planks under the peeling awning for several minutes listening unabashedly for any sound of Mrs. Labrett or her strange pets, I heard nothing compelling enough to justify a continued intrusion where I'd outstayed my welcome.

Ignoring the twitching blinds and ruffling curtains of nearby houses, I let myself into my car. On the passenger seat lay the Labrett file, innocuous manila with blue ballpoint writing on the tab. I flipped to the last page and scrawled a cursory entry documenting beginning and ending times of my visit. I hated to add much detail, knowing I'd only have to re-enter it later for the computer record and the report to my supervisor.

Back in my stale cubicle deep in the heart of a state government building of un-ergonomic midcentury construction, I began typing into my unwieldy regulation-issue desktop a full report of my home visit. I'd observed nothing of overt concern at Mrs. Labrett's residence; the house had been tidier than my own apartment, where I back then still lived with a recent undergraduate's tendency toward lackadaisical housekeeping and cheap take-out meals. The exterior of the place, while worn, was no worse than many in the part of town where it had stood for better than seventy years. Mrs. Labrett herself had shown no overt signs of dementia or confusion, and if wearing one's dressing gown late into the day in the privacy of one's own home was grounds for concern then every art student I'd ever known would have been carted off to an assisted living facility for the terminally pajamaed.

No, nothing in particular had struck me as worrying, other than the deep unsettling sense of recognition I'd felt when I'd peered into the pitch black of the old lady's cellar and caught the hint of hunched figures squatting bowlegged at the base of the stairs, limned in a red glow seemingly reflected from the moist glinting eye sockets of their fellow "babies" . . .

It bothered me the rest of that afternoon, this nagging sense of familiarity which had gripped me gazing down into Mrs. Labrett's cellar. The sensation only intensified on my journey home that evening, and as soon as I let myself in I tossed my things aside and went directly to the lone rickety bookcase shoved behind the fold-down sofa which doubled as my bed.

Flipping past the few cheap paperbacks I'd acquired secondhand but never read, I hauled out art history textbooks I hadn't bothered to peruse since their respective semesters passed back at that "spendy eastcoast" Massachusetts university and the grades of my studies in each class finalized. It was with a minimum-wage earner's sense of value that I'd kept these cumbersome relics of my Miskatonic schooldays, a keen wistfulness for the money they'd cost me to acquire, for the years my Fine Arts degree had carved from my life, and for the lack of immediate fame or fortune or even comfort that graduation and supposed adulthood had brought as I'd dimly, in the recesses of my mind, thought it would or should.

Shallowly skimming text and glossy art plates of old masters and new, I heavily tossed aside first one weighty book, then the next. It was in the third, a smaller and less substantial volume but with denser text than either of the other two, that I found what I sought. With no small sense of guilt I read the embossed stamp on the flyleaf, recognized the peeling yellowed parchment label along the spine, and knew it for a book I'd checked out and never returned to the university library. In my hand the cloth spine creased, falling naturally open to its page most used, one with which I'd obsessed myself an entire semester.

My finger itched and tingled where it rested on the page. It was this very sort of ambient discomfort that had remained with me in the years since I'd first come across this particular work in my studies deep in the library reference stacks. In the grip of my fixation I combed crumbling university archives and scoured every antiquarian bookshop in Essex County with sleepless, feverish determination, possessed, wanting, needing to write a paper on the painting. Finally, sick, exhausted, and in danger of failing my other courses, I abandoned the notion, finding no available material about the artist, though the piece itself appeared in several other library texts and was even now, to my knowledge, on display in the permanent collection of a small but prestigious private Boston museum.

The evening had grown dark without my noticing, so intent had I been on scratching this itchy memory. Absentmindedly fumbling for the room's sole lamp I tugged its chain, tilting the page toward the light to better read the caption under the black-and-white plate of what was most certainly a richly colored original canvas. I imagined deep bloodthirsty hues, wine-stain brown splashes, and wet vermilion splatters overpainted with a darkly transparent bitumen wash. The painting showed a richly-appointed lady's boudoir, the setting probably more an invention of early Victorian pornographic photography than of any truer reflection of historical setting. Spiky potted palms, free-standing columns, and heavy damasked drapes dominated the periphery, and in the background an incongruous painted scrim or screen more appropriate for gothic gaslight theater than for portraiture or still life. Even from the black-and-white plate one got a sense of meta-narrative from the piece, the painting within the painting, artist inviting viewer in on a very deliberate joke—or perhaps it was pure artistic commentary, an acknowledgment of the thin theatrical line between real and irreal.

In the painting's background painting hulked the ruins of a crumbling churchyard, eerily lit with the dancing glow of flames just beyond the frame. In the foreground lounged an odalisque typical for the time in her direct gaze and round-limbed beauty, a forthright display of her nude form to titilate or otherwise engage the viewer, pose and demeanor reminiscent of any of a dozen canvases in the permanent collections of national galleries the world over. What was unusual was the small child—unmistakably a boy, barefoot, naked to the waist, dirty and afraid but with a haunted starkness to his sunken eyes—emerging in a manner implying materialization direct from the backdrop scrim's painted landscape. No seraph or robust cherub as in other classic tableaux, this boy child hunched over the odalisque's ripe naked thigh as if over a slab of bleeding meat, poised to feed face-first on the bared human flesh. In the churchyard behind squatted a ring of bluntly feral doglike creatures all wide-jowled and point-toothed, gouged eye sockets seeping, expressions lit with predatory hungers having nothing to do with food. The faces of these last tilted forward with an unexpected three-dimensional looming quality, an oddly three-dimensional effect that suggested they were the most imminent figures of the piece, despite being rendered as thrice-removed, painted on a painting in a painting.

Squinting in the dull lamplight I read the attribution I remembered from my research: Untitled (unknown Canadian artist, c.1919). See also works of Odilon Redon (1840 —1916), Sidney Herbert Sime (1865 —1941), Richard Upton Pickman (1884 — 1926?).

After a fitful and restless night I returned to work the next day to find an acknowledgment of my field report and a query regarding my opinion about whether any of our fellow agencies should be alerted to possible animal cruelty, or questions of minimum habitability standards on the part of the dwelling. The dithering uncertainty of my reply to the first point served only to annoy my supervisor. In light of my throat-clearing indecisiveness, I tried not to take it as punishment for a mediocre job performance that she elected to send me back to the Labrett place for a follow-up assessment.

I put off the task as long as possible, preferring to spend the entire day wearing the pads off my fingertips with the data-entry of fusty files rather than revisit the unmitigated sweetness of Mrs. Labrett and her tea and face my growing unjustified unease over the lady's so-called babies. No matter how I tried to stall or distract myself, I couldn't erase the uncanny-valley effect of that enigmatic painting's monstrous figures in my imagination, or completely convince myself of their irrelevance to my case.

Especially in those days, before the ubiquitous ease of modern technological communication, it was uncommon but not unheard of for Social Services agents to make home visits after hours. Emergencies might call for such, naturally, but even less urgent matters were sometimes best handled in the evening when clients were sure to be home. As a retiree Mrs. Labrett didn't much fit into this scenario, but I clung to it as standard practice, putting off a return to that hallway door, those cellar stairs, and whatever things squatted in wait at the bottom, smacking their quivering jowls and licking their long sharp teeth.

It was after dark when I drew my car to the curb opposite Mrs. Labrett's. I was relieved to find the street possessed a less sinister aspect than in the flat white harsh of day. Evening was made mellow, punctuated with the warm yellow glow of dining-room windows. All those neighbors with not much better to do during the afternoons than spy on each other past blind-slats and the ruffled edges of drawn drapes were busy watching television or eating supper. The night was mild for the season, if a bit humid for my tastes; nothing to justify the chill up my spine as I sat in my car across the street from the Labrett house, listening to the engine click and tick while it cooled.

For courage, to make myself feel official and legitimize my presence at least in my own mind, I grabbed the old manila file folder off the seat beside me and clamped it under my arm. Halfway up the narrow cement walk bisecting the browned front yard, I slowed. Unlike neighboring homes Mrs. Labrett's place appeared dark, no yellow incandescence shining from any window to soften the black silhouette of the looming house. When I drew nearer the front porch my relief warred with disappointment on seeing a long vertical sliver of blue television-screen flicker from between heavy curtains in the front window of what must be the living room off to one side of the entry.

My foot hesitated over the first step of the short flight to the porch. Rather than letting footfalls announce my arrival I eased my weight onto the bottom stair, and mounted the next with the same level of what my guilty conscience recognized as stealth. With this concentrated silence I picked my way across the weathered boards of the porch, careful to choose those looking less likely to broadcast my approach by creak or woody groan. If any anonymous neighbors had peered then from the well-lit warmth of their homes they probably could not have seen me crouching under the wide dark-draped window of Mrs. Labrett's living-room on a moonless night. In fact, no one—no thing—would have detected my presence at that window, my left eye only faintly illuminated where it peered through the tiniest gap in the drapes at the startling sight inside, if not for the self-betrayal of my involuntary gasp.

That was it: one tiny startled whoosh of air being sucked into my lungs as I glimpsed the hulking brutish dogthings flanking the old lady where she sat facing the other way on a worn but serviceable sofa, a television flickering silently into the room. The savage scoop-shovel heads popped up at the negligible sound of my intaken breath, impossible to have been heard by human ears through glass, past drapes and humid air and the darkness of night. They were not precisely human, of course; no humanity could exist in such slavering, leering, gristled faces, intently staring with bulging inverted eyes—orbs like split grapes turned inside out, slick and turgid—straight into the visible illuminated sliver of mine. I was again gripped by the uncanny-valley quality of their oozing gaze. Their inhuman reddish orbs sparked with cunning predatory intelligence that may have once been human. The only place I've ever seen the like is on Mrs. Labrett's humble living room sofa . . . and in a disturbing nameless painting by an unknown Canadian artist, completed circa 1919.

The slavering fiends bounded off the sofa, howling and cursing. Though I could see only the back of Mrs. Labrett's head silhouetted against the flickering television screen, the stark outline of her skull softened by the grey nimbus of wisps escaping her hairpins, I noted she did not turn, did not move even a little as the beasts scrabbled and slobbered toward me at the window. At their hurtling approach I freed myself from my paralysis and fled, all pretense to stealth gone. I clattered down the wooden porch steps, papers from the manila folder fluttering all around like white pigeons escaping a magician's hat. Behind me I heard the thump of large bodies crashing against the inside of the closed front door, the whack of meaty shoulders slamming into the wood. I slowed, thinking to gather the papers from the muddy path near my feet, but a wordless howl rose from inside the house, accompanied by snarls and moans professing unnameable hungers.

Abandoning the file I stumbled onward, over curb and across street, in a darkness now complete, no longer dotted with the glowing squares of dining room windows or the heartening yellow globes of porchlights—only with the retinal afterimage of something degraded, something from a pit with a bottom I could never see, that promised an appetite that could never be sated.

I drove away that night and have not gone back. Not to visit Mrs. Labrett, not to my job in Social Services—not even to my sad rundown apartment with the next month's rent looming due. The thing I did return to was my art, and to New England, to study that painting. On this tortured canvas lay my irrefutable proof some other nameless undiscovered painter had, at least once, witnessed and been unable to forget whatever creatures had clawed their way up from the world's putrefying bowels into my unremarkable midsized hometown, only to befriend a lonely old lady who didn't fit in with her neighbors.

If I do go back west after all these years it won't be for my parents, or for my old supervisor, or to assuage the nagging guilt that I should've done something more for the woman who never wanted my intervention or assistance to begin with. No. I spend all my days now locked in my damp basement studio on this far side of the continent, painting and painting and painting. Sometimes I stop, quiet my ragged breaths, press my ear to the packed earth wall's thin veneer of crumbled brick, and listen. I listen, knowing if I ever do find myself compelled to return it will be because I, like that other unknown Canadian artist, work better with a model from life.

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