Brick 89

The Looking-Ahead Artist

An excerpt

Brick 89

Upon our arrival here we were made to fabricate effigies of ourselves. This was difficult work and took a long while, as the effigy was to be of a high quality—much more realistic than a scarecrow, for example. Having nearly been dashed across the rocks and drowned fifteen hours prior (the natives had attended to our scrapes and allowed us to eat and sleep before herding us into this thatch-hut working area and putting us to labour with a gentle but never-decreasing insistence), I found the industry pleasing in its non-dangerousness. At one point I laughed, a lone guffaw that startled and annoyed Lieutenant Commander Tyler, the only survivor of the shipwreck other than myself. He told me to be quiet and I obeyed the instruction for all of five minutes, after which time I asked in a whisper what he thought we should do, what our chances for escape were. Might we hide ourselves in the jungle? Or steal away in one of the canoes I had seen lining the shore of the beach? But Mr. Tyler had no plan, and no wish to discuss the formation of one. When I volunteered we might speak of it later he said vexedly, “Oh shut up, shut up!”

And so we worked in silence.

The materials for the effigies were brought in as we needed them, and the natives were generous with these, and not the least displeased if we called for more: folded piles of finely woven, multicoloured cloth (for the re-creation of flesh and clothing), sticks and branches (for the skeleton), lengths of gut for thread, sewing needles in the form of slim black thorns (these were remarkably hard and without the slightest give, as if petrified), and dried grasses for stuffing. They set one bushel of grass beside my workplace and two beside the much heavier Mr. Tyler, who when he noticed this did not try to hide his humiliation and insult. He demanded to know the meaning of the exercise, and the village Chieftan was summoned, entering the hut wearing nothing save for a pair of long pants made entirely of colourful feathers and addressing us in English, which he had learned in his youth working as a trader in the Dutch East Indes: “Whenever you men fall ashore on my island, it is as though you cannot see what you’re doing. So I will force you to look upon yourselves; when I believe you can identify your own actions and their consequences, then you may walk freely and without reminder. But until that time, you will wear the effigy.” Mr. Tyler gripped a fistful of grass. “What do you mean, wear?” The Chieftan explained we would carry the effigies with us everywhere we went, their arms crossed around our necks in the piggyback fashion. Mr. Tyler asked the Chieftan if he was aware of his, Mr. Tyler’s, rank in the King’s Navy; the Chieftan chuckled not unkindly, as one finding amusement in an overconfident child, and said, “But of course your rank means nothing here.” Now the regal man (his posture was perfectly straight and his eyes suggested an exceptional intelligence and depth of feeling) made a long study of my person. Pointing to Mr. Tyler, he asked me, “You are this man’s inferior?”

“Yes sir,” I said.

“Not any longer you aren’t.” Returning his attentions to Mr. Tyler, he spoke once more in the chiding but curiously fond tone of voice. “If I hear you are treating him as a subordinate in any way whatsoever, I will put you out in the rainstorm.”

“And what does that mean?” Mr. Tyler wondered, for it was, after all, a fairly tame threat. The Chieftan took up a squat whistle and blew it. (The sound was similar to a duck call, perhaps an octave lower.) “To be put out in the rainstorm,” he said, “you would not like this.” He bid us a good morning and exited the hut. Mr. Tyler told me, “When we are alone you will adhere to the rules of rank, is that understood?” I didn’t answer. I had not been sympathetic with him on the ship, and there are many reasons why, but here are two. Reason #1: He discovered several of the second-class seamen, myself among them, gambling our meagre wages below decks one evening, and he confiscated the entire pool of money. It is expressly forbidden for second-class seamen to gamble, so it is not so much that he took the pool that offended me, but that he didn’t report the incident to his superiors, by which I mean to say that he simply stole our money away from us. He knew we would not report him, for none of us wished to let the captain know of our wrongdoing. Mr. Tyler’s wage was fully three times the wage of an average second-class seaman. Reason #2: Having found two second-class seamen engaged in the sexual practice in the ship’s hold, he reported the pair to the captain, who gave the men twelve lashes apiece. Mr. Tyler had been a second-class seaman in his younger days and doubtless knew with what frequency the sexual practice took place in the hold, and let me say that I myself have engaged in the sexual practice in the hold, and so has every second-class seaman I have ever known engaged in the sexual practice with another second class-seaman in the hold! So, with these two incidents colouring my opinion of Mr. Tyler, and furthermore finding him boorish and small in the main, I was disinclined to show him the proper respect now that we were but two men washed onto this strip of land in the centre of an uncharted ocean.

Let me be frank: I did not have faith in him as a man of God.

Franker still: I felt he was a man beneath me.

My effigy took eleven days to complete and I was genuinely proud of it when I had finished. It was just the same size as me to the quarter-inch, and the face, drawn over sun-bleached cloth in charcoal, was quite like my own despite my having no mirror to work with and having had no previous artistic training of any kind. The Chieftan congratulated me heartily, and after hefting the effigy onto my back, he allowed me to leave the working area for the first instance since I had begun the undertaking. (In all that time, in fact, neither Mr. Tyler nor myself were able to leave; whenever we were to get over-close to the exit, a friendly but abnormally muscular native holding a scythe-like tool would wave us back with the blade.) Mr. Tyler stood to leave also, but the Chieftan, gesturing to his not-nearly-finished effigy (it lay on the ground in shocks and pieces), would not permit this. Mr. Tyler slunk back, casting a brooding glance over his shoulder as he did so.

The Chieftan and I and my effigy stepped into the sunshine. It took some moments to acclimate my eyes to the brightness of the day. When I could finally look about without discomfort, I took in a paradise of sugary sand, bowed palms, and blue-green ocean. The tide was high and the bloated breakers approached the steep shoreline haltingly and with much rippling turmoil before finally leaping forward and clapping onto the wet sand. Natives dove and swam in the water, children and men and women wearing only the scantiest covering. The women were well bred and shapely and I smiled at them, and they in turn smiled and called to me in a singsong that made my heart whiffle. The Chieftan pointed up and down the beach and said, “In the days after your wreck, many of your shipmates’ bodies floated ashore. We have set them aside, in case you wished to visit with them.”

“No thank you, sir,” I said.

“I thought some of them might have been friends of yours.”

“Indeed, some of them were. Which is why I don’t want to see them.”

He nodded his head respectfully. “Perhaps Mr. Tyler would want to see them,” he said.

“Perhaps he would. Though, I don’t know why.”

“Oh?” said the Chieftan.

I paused. “Mr. Tyler had no friends on the ship,” I said.

Now he asked my personal opinion of Mr. Tyler. But my reply was indistinct and the Chieftan, recognizing the evasion, encouraged me to speak my mind. “I can tell you don’t like the man, why not talk with me about it?”

“That would be regarded as treason.”

“Not here it wouldn’t.”

“In my country, treason is punishable by death,” I explained.

The Chieftan lay a hand on my shoulder. “My good man, you don’t think you’ll ever actually see your home again, do you?”

Many miles in the distance I could make out the edges of the black- and ash-coloured storm that had landed me on the island wheeling away over the horizon.

Mr. Tyler stuck himself one too many times with the sewing thorn and gave up working on his effigy altogether. When he lay the thing at my feet, I bitterly acquiesced to finish it; for no matter what the Chieftan told me, I could not believe (and at this point still did not want to believe) I would never see my birthplace again—in my heart, Mr. Tyler still held sway over me. When it came time to draw his face, I spent long minutes looking over his every fold and mole and ingrown hair. He had the swollen appearance of a man cinched tightly at the waist, and one of his eyes wandered independent of the other. I drew the mismatched eyes faithfully, but he growled at the sight of it, casting coconut water over the visage and ordering me to start anew. I redrew his face with the eyes in a line and this satisfied him, but not the Chieftan, who when he saw the effigy pointed with the tip of his feathered umbrella and said to Mr. Tyler, “You did not draw the eye honestly.”

“It seems a good likeness to me,” Mr. Tyler answered.

“No, your one eye follows the sun, and the other the moon. Why are you pretending otherwise? As if we didn’t know? Redraw the eyes, and then you will be finished.”

The Chieftan exited the hut and I sat beside my effigy (indoors, it was accepted that we should remove them from our backs), watching Mr. Tyler. I fell to thinking of the plight of the ugly man, and wondered if his personality had also been fixed at birth as his face was, or if this had become repellent over time. I suspected the latter—that he had been pure at the start, but as the years passed, his gruesome exterior had poisoned him inwardly. Realizing I was studying him, he threw the effigy at me. “You heard what the savage said. Go on and do your worst.”

I stood. “I will not do it,” I said.

His face turned puce with disbelief. “You will do it at once!” he hissed.

I held my ground and told him, “You no longer have any power to wield over me. We are equals now, and you must do it yourself.”

I picked up my effigy and left Mr. Tyler to assess and dislike himself.

The Chieftan came to understand I couldn’t swim, and though I didn’t want to in the least, for I was frightened of the ocean (all the more so after the shipwreck), he insisted on teaching me how, as the natives’ relationship with the water was profound, and the idea of one living so near it without taking advantage struck him as lamentable, and rightly so. He was a patient and thorough instructor (he had me practise my strokes in the sand), never making me feel embarrassed when I became scared, which was often. Once, a tall breaker crept up and crested over the top of my head, tumbling me so that I couldn’t tell up from down. I’d taken in a stomach-full of water and all was growing dim when I felt the Chieftan’s hand grip me by the hair. He pulled me up to face him and the fear I witnessed in his eyes—the fear that I had been hurt while under his supervision—made a bond of true friendship and loyalty between us. He escorted me to the shore (we were both laughing weakly now), and a thought came to me.

“How many white men have landed here, sir?”

“Oh, many, many.”

“Where are they now?”

“Sooner or later, they were all of them put out in the rainstorm.”

“What happens when one is put out in the rainstorm?”

“Knock-knock-knock,” he said, tapping his knuckles on my skull. “Knock-knock-knock-knock.”

“Will Mr. Tyler be put out in the rainstorm?”

“If he doesn’t hurry up with his effigy he will be. Probably he will be anyway.”

“Will I be?”

“I sincerely hope not,” he said.

My effigy was propped against the base of a palm up from the shoreline, and as we approached, all at once I had a feeling of fondness for the thing, as though it were my pet—I was glad to see it and wished to speak to it. I mentioned this to the Chieftan, and he smiled. “You like yourself,” he said. “That is good, and understandable.”

“But that isn’t what I meant,” I said softly.

“We like you also,” he answered.

The Chieftan consulted with the council of tribal elders, and they decided I was to be assigned a working position within the village—an unheralded event for an outsider. The Chieftan could not directly translate the title of the long-vacant post; the closest he could come up with was to name it “the looking-ahead artist.” I was given long swaths of fabric, rudimentary brushes fashioned from bamboo and human hair, supplies of charcoal, the ash of pitch-pine (which when combined with water created something like ink), and for colouring, cinnabar, indigo extracted from woad, and the dusted powder of flower petals, similar in texture to pounce or pumice. After these were delivered to mine and Mr. Tyler’s hut, the Chieftan paid a visit, encouraging me to begin the fulfillment of my duties. When I admitted I did not understand just what it was he hoped I would accomplish, he said, “You draw what happens later.”

“What do you mean, later?” I said. “Later when?”

“Tomorrow, the day after—many days after.”

“You want me to look into the future?”

“I want you to make a picture of the future.”

“But I can’t see into the future.”

“You have tried before?”


“Try now.”

I was at a loss, however, and all that night I lay awake wondering what images I might put to the fabric. Mr. Tyler also lay awake; he could keen my anxiety and encouraged this by telling me I would acutely offend the natives when it was discovered I had no psychic abilities, that I would be slaughtered by them, and furthermore that by engaging even half-heartedly in their future-gazing witchcraft I would be denied entry into heaven. When he finally drifted away to sleep he had all but convinced me of my own ruin, so that by the time the sun came up I was in a state of desperation. At last I drew a simple sketch, not of what I believed might happen, but what I hoped might, for this seemed preferable to drawing nothing at all. The Chieftan arrived to inspect my work; he studied it with no expression whatsoever and I held my breath, certain I had failed the man. But a moment later he called out a series of instructions in the native language, and beyond the hut I heard much hurrying and shouting—and soon came the felling of a palm. This activity stirred Mr. Tyler from his slumber, and he crossed the hut in his dire underthings to squint at my artwork. Pointing at the fabric he asked, “What are you doing, there?’”

“Resting in my own private hut,” I explained. And by sundown of that day the natives had constructed this just as I had foreseen it, and many among the village came to visit and wonder at my powers. Congratulations and gifts were impressed upon me: gourds of palm wine, fragrant bouquets of violently colourful flowers, a table and set of chairs, and also a hammock to sleep in—this last a gift from the Chieftan himself, his face lowered as he handed it over. “It’s only a trifle,” he said bashfully.

I took care to set up a reverent area for my many supplies, for I suddenly felt I could see the future just as clear as the present, and was eager to begin my transcription.

I drew a naked native beauty visiting my hut by the moonlight, and this came to pass; I drew a cook and servant both, and these soon appeared to do my bidding; I drew a feast and celebration in my honour, and it was re-created faithfully. Any pleasing thing I could want, all I had to do for it to become fact was sketch it out. However, there was so little lacking from my life on the island that after a time I began to feel something of the glutton. Deciding I had done quite enough for myself I turned my brushes and charcoal charitably outward. One of the native boys, I had noticed, was often taunted and teased by his peers. I painted him as a favoured son of the village, and the artwork had hardly dried on the fabric before his popularity quadrupled, and it was all the chubby, club-footed chap could do to keep up with his numberless social commitments.

I don’t know if the natives were aware I was not transcribing visions, only drawing things I wanted to take place, but it is interesting to note that after involving myself with the above-mentioned native child, the Chieftan came to my hut and wordlessly removed my effigy, and I was never to lay eyes upon it again.

It was during this time I began to dream of my home, a place I did not think of in my waking hours, a place I no longer hoped to revisit. I had not had a happy life there, truth be told: I had been orphaned as an infant, my childhood had been a violent one, and as an adult I had struggled to establish close friendships with any man or woman. So, these visions of my birthplace came to me quite against my will—literal recollections or recreations wherein nothing fanciful or unique ever took place: I would be sitting in a café eating a solitary dinner, or perusing the shelves in a muted, musty bookseller’s, or stepping through a dense fog beside the canal and nearly walking into a passing lamplighter (neither of us saying a word to each other, no greeting or apology). But the scenarios were so vividly steeped in every sensory detail (the inscrutable gloominess of a bowlful of steam-wrinkled peas; the unpleasant coating of residual grime resting on the palms and fingertips after handling second-hand books; the way a walk beside the canal summoned the need to make water) that upon waking, the feeling of having returned to the place was so strong as to fill me with an overwhelming heartsickness and sense of placelessness. Rising away from my hammock, I would find myself comforted by the reality of the village, of the breakers combing the shore, and the voices of the children playing in the palm trees, the coolness of the sand in my hut. And yet my sorrow would linger all through the day, and I was much relieved when the dreams ebbed away, replaced by images of island life, or else a blank space (which was preferable to me), a benign nothingness that unhappiness and regret could never, for unknown reasons, penetrate.

Mr. Tyler eventually finished his effigy (half a month had passed with all but the errant eye filled in) and upon showing it to the scythe-wielding guard was admitted into native society, looking hopeful for some congratulations, as I had had. But he was to be disappointed in this, as far too much time had passed for there to be any observances, and besides, I had at last spoken to the Chieftan about what type of man Mr. Tyler was, and the Chieftan in turn shared this information with his council, who then informed the rest of the village, and so the prevailing attitude toward him, which was already one of suspicion, had further cooled. Recognizing what had happened, Mr. Tyler gave up on mingling entirely and spent his days pacing the shores of the island, gazing winsomely out to sea, his clothing gone to rags but refusing to wear the native attire, as I had begun to. (At first sight I had been intrigued by the Chieftan’s feather pants, and as my outfit grew shabby I requested something similar. The Cheiftan presented me with a pair soon after, identical to his own, though with the hem cut just below the knee, whereas his ran to the ankle. At the start I felt conspicuous in these, for here I was a twenty-year-old man in pink and blue feathered short pants, but the gasps of pleasure these elicited in the native women erased my shame, and while it did not occur to me right away, looking back now I can see that my wearing these, when only the Chieftan had worn them before, increased my standing considerably amongst the natives, who took to greeting me as “the Chieftan’s boy”; and the Chieftan himself began calling me his “unknown son.” I was happy to hear him address me thus but also vaguely intimidated by the mysterious phrase. I asked him what its significance was, and he told me, “I look upon your flesh and eyes and know you did not come from my body. And yet the feeling is so strong in me that our hearts are twinned.” To illustrate this he held his fists together, each mimicking our hearts pumping in concert.) Mr. Tyler’s complexion was fair, and as he paced the shores his skin went from burnt to blistered to what can only be called charred. After a week of this I approached him, offering the shade of the Chieftan’s feather umbrella. His effigy peered over his shoulder at me and I noticed Tyler had drawn angry eyebrows on its face, and so were his own eyebrows arched drastically downward. He spoke in a tone of perfect abhorrence: “I will take nothing in the way of assistance from you,” he said. “A traitor to your race and country both.”

“At the very least you should step back from the water,” I told him. “Can’t you see it reflecting the rays of light? The sun will burn you alive, Tyler.”

“You will call me Mr. Tyler!” he said. “Or Lieutenant Commander Tyler! But you will not simply call me Tyler!” It was obvious to me his hold on reality was slackening dangerously, such was the weight of his solitude. Gently, and with not a little sympathy, I asked him, “What do you think is going to happen, that one of the King’s ships will suddenly appear on the shore and welcome you aboard?”

“That is precisely what I think will happen. And when it does, I trust you will say your prayers, for after your perfidy against the Crown is made public I expect you to be hung without trial, in your feathery knickers, from the stern of the boat. And after your spirit has left your body, this entire heathen population will be eaten alive by the flames of my torch!” He broke away and his pacing began once again, hurrying to and fro with a canine-like exuberance. Over the sound of the breakers, I told him, “If and when a ship appears, it will take a full day before it drops anchor. Do you truly believe these people will let you stay here and greet your countrymen when they land?”

He, and his effigy, turned to face me. “And just what does that mean?”

“Of course they will hide me away to protect me, Tyler. And you—well, you will not be around to speak ill of us, let me say that much.”

His eyes for an instant flashed in surprise, then his face shrivelled with righteous scorn. “You are threatening to have the savages kill me, is that it?”

“I make no threats. If I wanted you dead, I would only have to paint you so. What I am trying to do is help you. For I suspect you could live a pleasant enough life here if you would only show these people the bare minimum of respect.”

“I’d just as soon commune with the animals in the jungle,” he said. “And now you have my final word on the matter.”

I took the umbrella and walked away from him. The Chieftan had been watching the exchange from up the beach; he sat cross-legged, awaiting my return. I told him, “He shuns all friendship and assistance. He does not wish to have a position in the village. He refused the umbrella and made a mockery of my pants.”

The Chieftan’s eyes narrowed. He blew his duck whistle and a young villager appeared at his side to receive instructions in the native tongue. I could not grasp the words individually, but by the way he knocked upon the boy’s head, I understood well enough that he was calling for the preparation of the rainstorm, an evidently laborious process that took many hours to complete. After the villager left, there was an ungainly and discomfiting distance between the Chieftan and myself. Hoping to put this to rest I began to speak, but he quieted me, saying, “I prefer the privacy of silence just now.”

Mr. Tyler, unaware of his fate, was watching his feet washed over in the mallowy froth of the breakers.

Brick 89

Patrick deWitt was born in British Columbia in 1975. He has written two novels, Ablutions: Notes for a Novel and The Sisters Brothers.