I'd stared at the painting for more than three months, willing the words to come. They were there--the vowels and syllables and sentence-patter--but they were tantalizing me, dancing just out of reach. I was certain I'd eventually touch them. It was just a matter of time.
Trouble was, I'd run out of time.
I was on deadline to provide a short piece of prose to go along with the painting, "Fox Hawk: From the Lost Ornithology Series" an acrylic on wood panel by Christine Martin, as part of the Visions and Voices exhibit for the Imagine Butte Resource Center. They were already starting to hang the other artwork and accompanying texts at the gallery in uptown Butte and, as is typical of my procrastinating self, I was The Lagger. The story was there--waiting to be touched, within my grasp, tip of my tongue, etc.--I just needed to set aside some time and write the damned thing.
(I should note that at the time I didn't know the title of the painting or the artist's name. I think it worked out better this way, remaining totally ignorant of Christine's artistic vision and intent. Only this morning did I start browsing through her online gallery in which she marries skulls with living bird bodies. It's a fantastic and beautiful hybrid of life and death--something my words could barely begin to touch. If you want to see more of Christine's work, visit her at Deviant Art or her Etsy shop.)
So, hours before deadline, I returned to my copy of the painting, printed on 8x11 paper, and stared at the body of the hawk, topped by another creature's skull and standing in the center of a burst of sunrays. This was the Vision, I was the Voice.
Death. Isolation. Predation. Release.
Sometimes, you begin a story with a sense of feeling and let the plot and characters flow from that genesis. Such was the case with my Visions and Voices project. I had a hawk, I had a skull, I had that brilliant burst of sun whose rays looked like trails up to heaven. I pictured a woman trapped in a remote location somewhere in Montana. She's unable to move--broken legs, maybe? weak with starvation?--and she's in a stare-down contest with a hawk. Death is imminent for at least one of them. I thought about a finger of wind ruffling the beautiful mottled feathers on that bird's breast. I thought of that woman's life ebbing away. And then--
The words fell into place like the tumblers of a lock about to be opened.
I typed a sentence: In the end, it was just her and the hawk. And then I typed another and another....
* * *
Here's how the Visions and Voices project worked: the Imagine Butte Resource Center invited local Montana visual artists and writers to contribute a single piece of art--painting, poem, sculpture, or whatever--and then each person could choose something from the opposite medium which inspired them. It was the artistic equivalent of picking sides for dodge ball in junior high gym class, except it was much more pleasant. I'd contributed a short-short story called "Arm" (mainly because it was the first piece of fiction I'd ever written about Butte, Montana) and now it was up to me to choose from among the visual works.
Christine's painting immediately spoke to me. Back in June, I didn't have the broken, starving woman or the hawk hunched on a tree branch staring hungrily at her, but I had something. Inspiration wasn't yet fully formed--it was still just a nibble at the back of my brain--but that's how stories begin, isn't it? We feel the tiny bite of ideas and wait for the words to come. Sometimes, it's a flood; and sometimes, it's a trickle that takes three months to fill the catch-basin.
Last night, during the monthly Uptown Butte Artwalk, my wife and I attended the reception for the Visions and Voices exhibit. I was anxious to see how another artist (Christine Martin, the same person--either by coincidence or design--who'd painted my hawk) would interpret my somewhat bizarre story "Arm" and I wanted to see the hawk painting in person for the first time after months of staring at a blurry computer print-out. "Fox Hawk: From the Lost Ornithology Series" was smaller than I'd imagined it would be, but also more beautiful with its earthy browns and golden sunburst.
|"No One Gives a Shit About Butte, Montana"|
(poem by Justin Ringsak, painting by Jenna Radowski)
Christine's "Reliquary"--a glass jar containing a nest, dried leaves and a small jawbone--is not necessarily what I thought would have resulted from my story "Arm," but I'm sure she was thinking the same thing about my short fiction spawned by her "Fox Hawk." The draft of the story I turned in was raw, imperfect and quickly-written, but it was how I interpreted the painting.
Maybe "Reliquary" illustrated the withered dreams of the two couples in "Arm," the dessicated hope of ever getting out of a relationship which seems to have trapped them in Butte, Montana. I don't know--that's just my layman's interpretation of the glass jar full of dead things. What matters most in this case is how Christine felt when reading "Arm." Her vision and my voice ultimately began with emotion, which we brought to concrete life, put on display, then sat back and waited for the audience to come to the gallery and, perhaps, feel something else entirely.
This was a fascinating experiment in artistic interpretation and I'm honored to have been part of it.
* * *
In the end, it was just her and the hawk.
Marjean—broken leg, skin wooden from the cold, regrets logjamming her soul—leaned back against the boulder and tried to stare down the bird. It was not working. The hawk hunched on the pine branch unblinking, waiting its turn.
The bears, wolves, wolverines, chipmunks and beetles were just over the horizon. They were coming. But first, the hawk must have its dinner.
The wind fluffed its feathers, but the bird did not break its stare.
Before long, it would begin to work on her: small nips at first, then larger and larger bites, beak-scraping her skin until there was nothing left but a pile of bones and a gleaming, grinning skull whose only speech would now forever be the song-moan of wind through bone cavity.
The boulder felt good pressed against her back, like a granite La-Z-Boy. Her only comfort in her final resting place.
Marjean looked down the hillside at the suitcase broken open, the money—what was left of it—fluttering in the wind like small green flags. Marjean hiccupped another sob and went back over her list of If Onlys:
If only she’d never moved to Butte. If only she’d never lost custody of her son and if only Gordon hadn’t been such a dick about it, draining her completely dry with lawyer fees. If only she hadn’t been forced to go back to work—first at the Finlen, then at Pork Chop John’s, then at Wal-Mart, and on and on in an ever-downward spiral of jobs until broke-starving-desperate she’d hooked up with Skeever that one regrettable night in a squalid apartment at Silver Bow Homes. If only she hadn’t liked it enough to stay. If only Skeever, working his usual mindfuck, hadn’t convinced her to take the suitcase to Helena. If only he hadn’t said, “Just this one time, baby.” If only she hadn’t said yes. If only she hadn’t passed that highway patrolman near Basin and, thinking he was U-turning in pursuit of her, stepped on the gas and sped faster and faster into the canyon. If only she hadn’t looked in the rearview mirror—to see nothing was there after all—at just the wrong turn in the road. If only that bend in the road had been less sharp. If only the guardrail had been stronger. If only the tires on Skeever’s never-reliable Chevy hadn’t slipped on the buttered gravel. If only the car hadn’t tumbled through the guardrail and rolled like a log down the hill, scattering Marjean, suitcase and Skeever’s dope money every which way. If only that bird hadn’t arrived so quickly, like it was summoned. If only it would blink, godammit.
If only, if only, if only.
Marjean, life draining in a faster trickle now, looked from the money to the hawk and knew it was time.
Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.
Later, the hawk lifted first one foot then the other with a preparatory talon-flex. It puffed its chest, spread its wings in a terrible feather-shake, rose into the air. The hawk flew seven feet above the car, the body, the money-scatter. It hovered there for seven seconds then the bird descended and began its terrible, beautiful work.
* * *
As I was going into Wal-Mart, a man with a useless arm came out. I’d never seen anything like that arm—a dangle-flesh, rubbery thing with no purpose. It was like this three-foot flaccid glove coming off his shoulder. Made me stop where I was, halfway in the door, and turn to look. Even made me go blank for why I was there in the first place. Julie needed mozzarella and oregano and I’d planned on picking up more beer and Oreos, but after seeing that arm, everything on the list went out of my head. Jules and her half-made lasagna were waiting for me back at the house and she was probably getting more and more pissed by the minute, but can you blame me, man? That arm, that arm.
That arm demanded you look at it flapping and turning in the wind coming down off the mountains around Butte. And I guess that was the point—stare at the arm and feel a little bad about doing so. That arm could have raked in a lot of money if the dude had a bell and a kettle.
He was with a woman, gabbing to her about a movie he’d seen last night for the third time. Or maybe they’d seen it together because she was nodding and saying, Yeah, yeah, yeah. She clutched a Wal-Mart sack. I could hear its loose edges snapping in the wind. A bag of fragile potato chips pushed up, trying to escape past the plastic handles.
The man wasn’t carrying anything in his good hand except a cigarette, which he used to stab the air and make his point about Harrison Ford. He was really into this movie, man, and I could tell it would be no fun to watch anything with this guy because you’d miss important lines of dialogue when he turned to talk to you in order to make his point, of which he had plenty.
Read the rest of the story at The Provo Canyon Review, where the story was originally published.