‘Joanna, Mr Whistler is here.’
My mother stands in my bedroom doorway, all excitement. The last thing I want is to be paraded before yet another stranger, the damsel no longer in distress. I have had my fill of newspapermen and local gossips. But the man has offered to pay, and, despite myself, I am intrigued to meet someone who earns a living from painting. Slowly, I slide my feet into my wedding slippers, and follow my mother downstairs.
A young man stands next to my father, clutching a large, battered leather bag. As my mother and I descend he takes off his hat, releasing a mop of ochre-coloured hair, and makes a little bow.
‘Miss Hiffernan, a pleasure to meet you.’
He offers his free hand, and I take it.
My father leads us into the parlour, where an easel has been erected. I try not to look at the room’s new centrepiece. I will never become accustomed to seeing it. His beautiful skin, torn off him and spread out on the carpet; the cold marbles they inserted after gouging out his eyes; his mouth fixed open in a roar of agony from which I could not save him. The sheriff meant well, giving us the pelt as a gift, a symbol of our triumph over nature. I would rather they had thrown it to the dogs with the rest of him.
Against the far wall a thick white curtain has been hung, with the ghosts of berries and leaves stitched into it in white thread. Mr Whistler has requested I wear my wedding dress, and I feel like the bride in some horrid farce.
‘It’s perfect,’ he exclaims, taking in the room. ‘This is just what I had in mind. Thank you. I am grateful for your indulgence. And of course, I shall reimburse you for the materials.’
‘Think nothing of it,’ my father chuckles. But I can tell he is thrilled at the thought of money coming in.
‘And did you arrange for white flowers to be brought?’
‘I was going to ask the florist,’ my mother begins, ‘but Joanna…’
‘I would rather we used these.’ I touch my fingers to the wild flowers I collected this morning and placed in a vase. There is white among them, but also yellow and purple, and a spot of red. ‘I would not want to be all in white… before the wedding.’
My father looks concerned.
‘If they are not suitable we will happily…’
‘No, no, these are quite alright.’ Mr Whistler runs his hands over the flowers as if planning how to paint them. ‘They will provide a pleasant contrast. The wild and the tame, together in one vision! Now, I think we have all we need to get started. Would you care to… leave us, for a while?’
My parents look surprised.
‘Would you not like some tea?’ my mother asks.
‘That would be lovely. But perhaps in an hour or so, after Miss Hiffernan and I have had a chance to settle.’
‘Of course, as you wish,’ my father says, and ushers my mother out of the room. Despite myself, I am grateful to Mr Whistler for removing my parents. I feel less of a showpiece, now they are no longer here to present me. The painter asks me to move in front of the white curtain so he can ‘frame’ me. This will make standing on the pelt inevitable. I hesitate.
‘Would you mind, Sir, if I were to move… the animal?’
The eyes that look up through the pale fringe are dark and keen.
‘Move it? Where to?’
‘…Out of the painting.’
‘Oh, but my dear, the animal is half the point! Did your father not explain to you what I had in mind? When I read your story in the paper, I knew I had to paint the two of you together. You make the perfect contrast: the innocent young girl, the fearsome beast. The pure and untainted has triumphed over the wild and bestial. St George has slain the dragon. What happened to you is inspirational. It has so many implications, so much symbolism…’
‘But he wasn’t a fearsome beast! He never harmed me…’
Mr Whistler’s exuberance fades.
‘What do you mean?’
‘The papers have it all wrong. I was happy where I was. I could have left at any time. They… murdered him.’
I feel embarrassed now, but my words do not seem to have troubled the painter, nor does he laugh at me. Instead, his brow furrows and he sets down his pencil.
‘Tell me more, if you don’t mind.’
* * *
I study my arm on the kitchen table, the sleeve of my dress drawn back. There are so many colours in just a small space of skin. Different shades of white, yellow, pink and blue all mingling over the surface. One day, I shall have real tools; brushes, oils and pigments. I shall be able to paint anything. But for now, I make do with the coarse paper and pencil stolen from my father’s office, some shards of coal from the fire.
My parents are at Mass. At breakfast I pretended to feel unwell, and they let me stay. Now I might work without someone telling me to do something more useful. It is a bleak November morning, and I have pulled the table close to the stove and begun sketching a view of the garden through the window. Perhaps I shall turn the garden into a wild wood, and place myself in it.
The door at the front of the house opens. The clock face shows only just gone twelve. My parents must have left early. I hear my mother go upstairs, presumably to check on me. I try to bundle my paper into a drawer or cupboard, but they are too full. The footsteps return and the kitchen door opens. But it is not my mother who steps through.
Tobias smiles as if relieved.
‘Joanna, there you are.’
I regret not having gone to Mass after all.
‘Tobias, how are you?’
‘Your parents told me you were sick.’
‘I was…I felt a little better.’ I cough theatrically into my sleeve, make my eyes heavy. ‘How did you get in?’
‘The door was unlocked. I thought you would be pleased to see me.’
‘I am, of course. I’m just surprised.’
Tobias notices that my hands are behind my back.
‘Oh, this?’ I bring the crumpled paper round. ‘Just something I’ve been working on. When I felt better, I thought I could...’
Tobias takes the paper from me and lays it on the table. He studies the picture for a moment.
‘What do you think?’
‘Oh, I know nothing about art.’
‘But do you like it?’
‘Yes, of course, it’s very… pleasant.’
Frustrated, I take the paper and roll it up. It will be buried with the others in the box under my bed.
‘I keep asking Father to take me to Washington to see an exhibition, but he never does. I’m tired of only seeing paintings in books or newspapers.’
Tobias looks thoughtful but says nothing, runs his fingers through the charcoal marks on the table. He has begun to lapse into these awful silences, making me feel uneasy, like he is considering doing something uncalled for. I try to think of a reason why he should leave, why I might leave.
‘I’ll be back in a minute,’ I say and go to hide the picture. When I return, Tobias is still standing awkwardly against the table, looking down at it as if the paper were still there. Finally he turns around.
‘You know, if you really would like to go to Washington, I could take you.’
A sick feeling creeps into my stomach.
‘I’ve been saving my wages for nearly two years now.’
‘Oh. Good. That is quite an...’
‘If you like, we could make it our… honeymoon.’
The sick feeling travels to my throat. I feared it would come to this. My pulse quickens. Run or fight, run or fight.
‘I know this isn’t the most conventional of proposals. I haven’t got a ring…’
‘It’s not that. I… I’m sorry, Tobias. I can’t.’
‘But… why not?’
‘I just cannot picture myself as your wife. Or anyone’s for that matter. We have been friends for so long. I guess for too long...’
For a moment he says nothing. Then something passes over his face – hurt? anger? – and he moves quickly towards me. I see the heat in his eyes, feel it on his breath as his hands seize my arms.
I bolt. I do not stop for my shawl or hat, or to close the door behind me. There is no plan now, only to run. Tobias will never understand, nor my parents. But I can imagine it now, marrying him, being like everyone else, trapped and dull and lifeless. I will lose the urge to paint, to travel, to be free. I will drown under his desire and his children, and in a few years there will be nothing left of me.
I run through the town, mud splashing my skirts, people staring. The town ends but I continue, down into the opening valley. I run far across the fields and into the beginning of the forest, branches lashing my face, roots twisting my ankles. I do not stop until my lungs are obliterated by damp air, and the smell of pine fills my nose and there is only space and stillness and the creaking of trees and tap of the woodpecker.
My escape complete, I feel a little exposed. Anything could happen, out here in the woods. But I can’t go back. My feet continue to walk. I have never gone this far into the forest, and my mind furiously registers my surroundings. What was that movement over there? Which roots can you dig up and eat? My family nearly starved back in Ireland; I know all the old ways. But for some reason I feel calm, as if the potential dangers here cannot harm me, as if this is where I belong, in the wilds of the forest.
Fortunately, there are berry bushes and edible mushrooms along the path I take. After about four or five miles I reach a stream and follow it. The pines thin out and a hut emerges. I walk up to it and listen by the door. No sound. I knock, and then call out, but no-one answers.
Cautiously, I try to open it. The forest is darkening, and, now this little haven has offered itself, the raw outdoors holds less of an appeal.
The door opens, and inside is a wooden bed frame and a couple of chairs. The fireplace is cold, so I close the door and set about with the tinder stone and remaining wood. If anyone is to return tonight, they will hopefully be glad to have a warm reception.
When the fire has taken I hear a heavy padding outside. Perhaps it is the owner of the hut, furious at the intruder, with harsh words or even a weapon ready. Or perhaps it is Tobias, having somehow tracked my progress. Or my father? He was a poacher back home, before business took off. The skill is not beyond him. Bracing myself, I turn the doorknob, and pull.
A bear stands in the doorway, his eyes level with mine.
It is true that, when confronted with something utterly terrifying, you do not run, or scream. Your whole body becomes numb, nausea fills your throat, and your bladder begs to be opened.
But the bear does not strike me down, or lunge forward and drag me into the forest to devour. His gaze is almost passive. A gigantic paw lands in front of my feet, and he pushes his muzzle into my apron and sniffs. He can smell the berries. I want to jump back and close the door. But it is unlikely to be strong enough to shut the bear out, and the action might anger him. So I take the only other alternative, to step slowly back into the room, leaving the door open. The bear follows me in, floorboards creaking violently, eyes first on my face, then back to my apron. His huge bulk sways towards me and his mouth begins to tear at the cloth. Red and purple baubles roll along the floor and he licks them up. Then his nose is pressing into me again, his step much faster than mine, forcing me back against the wall. The back of my head strikes the top of the fireplace and my legs become uncomfortably hot. There is a final tear and the remains of my forage fall to the floor, and are devoured in seconds. The bear looks up at me, as if expecting more food to appear, and I fear he will now, finally, attack. I want to run for the open door. But again, I will not be fast enough if he chooses to strike, and the door will only hold him for a while, giving me too small an advantage.
To my surprise, he takes a step back, lowers himself to the floor and stares into the fire. I begin to wonder whether I am dreaming, but my body feels very much awake. My visitor remains where he is, not finding any particular interest in me now. My stomach is painfully empty. The bear’s eyes are closing, and hunger makes me bold. I take a step towards the door. The huge head swings round and he looks straight into my eyes. I cannot tell if the look is threatening or merely interested. He settles down, only to swing round again when I take another step towards the door. I linger uneasily by the doorway. But then my fear changes to a strange sadness at the thought of leaving and, despite the hunger, I feel I must stay. The bear shows no objection when I move into the room, and sit down on the bed. He watches me, his expression calm, or as calm as a great bear can look. Once I am seated he rolls over so that his head is towards the door. Somehow, I begin to feel as I did earlier in the forest, safe and strong. As if the bear were now guarding me from the night. A leaden tiredness washes over me and I sink onto the hard board. Whoever this hut belongs to must be long gone, for there is only a bit of straw and a rag for a blanket left. I scrunch the straw into a pillow, stalks pricking my skull, and try to imagine warmth into the blanket. I hear the bear shift on the floorboards, and an immense yawn, and I sleep.
In the morning the bear is gone, the door closed, and I wonder whether I have dreamt him after all. I get up and collect fresh wood and food. While I am eating back in the hut, the same heavy footfall sounds outside and, when I open the door, the bear is there once more. His head is smeared with blood and a large stag hangs from his jaw. He drops the animal, then nudges it towards me and looks up. I think of a dog returning a stick.
‘What? For me?’
The bear says nothing.
I think how fine a meal roast venison would make. Very carefully, reassuring myself he wants me to, I drag the still warm body into the hut.
This night is much colder, and the rag refuses to warm me. I envy the bear his coat and place by the fire. He has cleaned himself, and his fur gleams in the amber light. His head turns to me, with an almost human directness. He shifts away slightly, like a person making room on a couch. Hoping I have understood correctly, I haul my shivering body from the bed and sit down beside him. Soon the warmth of the fire seeps into my limbs. I forget the wildness of my companion, who has remained quite still beside me. Without thinking, I lean a little into him. Warm fur envelops my right side, brushes my face. The bear makes a noise like a sigh, and I fall asleep.
And so I stay in that magical place with my husband of the wild. He hunts the great game and I set traps for rabbits and birds. We catch fish and wash in the river, and we share the warmth of our fire. When spring comes I weave flowers into wreaths and hang them around our window. I do not care that knots have developed in my hair, or that the stains on my dress will never come out. I have all the comfort I need.
I wake to the sound of my name. There is a flutter in my chest as I think in my half-sleep that the bear has started talking. But he is sleeping peacefully next to me on the floor.
‘Joaaannaaa!’ The voice comes again.
‘Miss Hiffernan!’ Another voice. I am awake enough now to distinguish two men, calling from some distance away. One sounds like my father. I rise, slide my feet into what remains of my slippers, and walk to the door.
My footsteps wake the bear, and he blinks up at me.
‘It’s ok. Go back to sleep.’
I open the door a fraction. The bear yawns and pulls himself up off the floor. Through the chink in the door I can see a group of men climbing the hill towards the hut. At their head is my father, the rest are in uniform; they must be the sheriff and some officers. I decide to meet them before they get here. I do not wish to go home, but nor do I want to hide. And I do not want them to see the bear. He is my secret and I will keep him that way. I open the door enough to reveal myself.
‘Joanna, thank God.’ My father sinks slightly in his step, but picks himself up and comes towards me. The bear’s nose nudges my shoulder.
‘Stay here,’ I whisper. I try to close the door but he pushes against it. I push harder but, with no effort at all, the bear forces his way through and comes to stand next to me before the hut. The men freeze.
‘Stay calm, Ma’am,’ the sheriff says, hands slowly raising his rifle.
‘Don’t.’ I step in front of the bear.
‘What are you doing?’ my father asks.
‘He’s harmless. He’s been here with me ever since I...’
I say nothing.
‘Joanna, you have been out here… alone… for some time…’
‘I’m not imagining it. Look.’ I take a step back and run my hand over the bear’s head, along his shoulder. He stares at the men. ‘He’s perfectly tame.’
My father looks horrified as he watches my hand, and his voice sounds strained. ‘Joanna, please, move away from the animal. We can see it is calm now; but I really do think it is time you came home, don’t you?’
I hesitate, then say, ‘This is home.’
My father says something I cannot make out, and takes a step forward. The bear snorts and stamps his front feet, the force rippling through the ground. The sheriff clicks something on his gun. I try to shield the bear once more, but he moves forward too quickly.
‘Stop it.’ I push a hand against his side. I wish I had the strength to pull him back.
My father steps forward again. The bear’s muscles tense against my palm.
‘Joanna, your mother has been worried sick. I’ve been going half crazy. And Tobias…’
‘Oh enough of Tobias! Why do you think I left in the first place!’
Giving the bear a wide berth, my father arcs towards me.
‘That is enough. You are coming home!’
The bear lurches forward and roars at my father. But he does not touch him. I will hold until the day I die that he does not touch him, and never would have. But it does not matter. People will see what they want to see. A shot bursts the air and the bear falls forward with a groan. Red gushes from his front leg. Before I can react, my father grabs me and pulls me sideways. The sheriff aims again, fires again. Blood shoots from the bear’s temple and he slumps to the floor. Birds fly away in terror, but I cannot hear them. Nor can I feel my father carrying me away. There is only the wail, in my head, bursting my lungs, making me choke, and then the darkness and the light.
* * *
Something brushes the skin beneath my left eye. I put my hand to it and feel another hand, and within it a handkerchief. My eyes beginning to focus, I look up. Mr Whistler is kneeling in front of me, on the floor where I sit, my hands running through the once-warm fur.
‘I believe you, Miss Hiffernan. I believe everything you say happened.’
For a moment I struggle to pull my thoughts back into the room, this situation. Then I feel the thick dress move against me, see the canvas waiting to be decorated with my image. His hands lift me until I am standing.
‘Your story has inspired me, Miss Hiffernan.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I understand now that you have not been rescued from the wild, but torn from it. And I shall change my composition accordingly.’
‘Well, for a start, would you like to loosen your hair?’
‘Yes. Let it fall, if you wish. I am sure it would suit you better.’ He is right; and I loathe having my hair up. I pull out the pins, releasing the tight bun. My hair falls past my shoulders, the red strands burning against the stark white of my dress. Mr Whistler smiles.
‘Why, you look like Miss Siddal herself.’
‘Forgive me. Elizabeth Siddal, model to the great Dante Gabriel Rosetti.’
‘You are familiar with Mr Rossetti?’
‘The entire Brotherhood, and their muses. You seem to know of whom I speak.’
‘Yes! I adore their work. Though I only get to see it in newspaper cuttings and school books. I wish I could paint like that.’
‘You paint yourself?’
‘A little… drawing mostly. Father would never let me spend money on paints or that sort of nonsense. But I do the odd sketch, now and then.’
‘Would you let me see, sometime?’
I feel myself grow hot.
‘Yes, of course, if you wish.’
So, when his arms grow tired at the end of the day, he views my sketches, suggests how to improve them. He explains how to capture distance, how to create the illusion of light. He says my work has potential. As the days pass and we talk more and more, I begin to enjoy standing for hours at a time, and it becomes less difficult to make my feet sink into the dead fur. My escape to the forest seems ever further away, and I begin to hunger for a different kind of adventure.
Then one afternoon, he steps back from the board, one hand stroking his moustache, the other tucked into his jacket. He squints, angles his head, then sighs and drops his arms.
I try to look pleased, enthusiastic.
Mr Whistler beckons me to join him. For the last time, I step my feet off the bear’s back and go to stand beside him. The painting is luminous, almost blinding me as the overhead light reflects off the drying oils. A symphony in white greets me as my eyes adjust.
I am slightly surprised by the way he has left me on the canvas. I was expecting to be transformed into an ethereal, evanescent vision like the heroines in Rossetti’s work. But instead, it is me, myself, on the canvas, as I was the day we met, still raw and slightly uncomfortable. My face and posture are tired, my hair unkempt, and Mr Whistler has painted the flowers as they fell, one by one, onto the beloved beast.
As if he has really seen me.
A warm hand places itself in the small of my back, and his voice shivers the skin by my ear.
‘What do you think?’
‘I think… it’s wonderful.’
‘Thank you. From you, I know it is not flattery.’
‘And now you will go back to Washington, to your adventurous life.’
‘I would hardly call the last few weeks dull.’
His hand burns into my back and I step away, before my chin quivers too much or the yearning in me becomes too great. Keeping my back to him, I begin to pick up his brushes and palette.
‘You can settle up with my parents in the morning. I’ll have all this washed and dried by then.’
‘Miss Hiffernan,’ he says, but I ignore him. ‘Joanna.’
At that I stop. If I hold the brushes for much longer they might drip onto the dress, so I lay them back down on the easel. He stands quite still, unlike his usual gesticulating self.
‘I’ll still need a muse when I’m in Washington.’
I turn, very slightly, and my eyes lock on the canvas, on my sullen reflection. I could go with him, into a different forest. He comes close enough to touch me, and I resist the delicious impulse to respond.
Through the sitting room door we hear the front door open and, in the hallway, my father’s voice calls out. Scraping sounds come from the kitchen, followed by footsteps and murmuring. I catch a few words, ‘church’, ‘about time’, and my stomach contracts. But then I feel the soft pressure of a hand on my shoulder, a nose nuzzling my hair.
‘Come with me.’
The footsteps are nearing the sitting room door. A hand will knock and my parents will enter, and they will see the work is finished.
Blood hammering in my throat, I find myself smiling. Slowly, I turn and raise my head until I am looking straight at him, into his eyes. Dark and shining, like a bear’s.
Inspired by Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl by James McNeill Whistler.