Thirty-Two Faces

by Marion Agnew

art-thirtytwofacesWhen Kathryn got home from the hospital, she dropped her jacket and her leather purse just inside the door. Without stopping, she walked directly into the kitchen to the window over the sink.

She didn’t slip off her shoes or turn on a light. She didn’t cover her face with her hands and sob. She might do any of that and soon. But not yet.

She’d driven safely home from the hospital, roads treacherous with deer even in the pre-dawn gray, even at this time of the year when the sky filled with light early. She had held herself together for that.

She glanced at the broad lawn, then beyond it at the Kaministiquia River flowing swiftly past, at the familiar dock. Something was trapped beside it—a soccer ball? Yes, bobbing slightly, held by a tangle of brush and logs. The river still rushed. Somewhere, far back in the bush, the snow still melted, the ground thawed.

She looked left, at the fifty-foot spruce in the lawn just where it blocked the view upriver. Victor had meant to cut it down, then talked himself out of it, then swore again he’d cut it down. His desire for an unobstructed view argued one way; his enjoyment of the spruce as a condo for birds and squirrels rebutted. The argument had gone on for 25 years, 10 before Kathryn and 15 after.

Victor had meant to cut it down, then talked himself out of it, then swore again he’d cut it down. His desire for an unobstructed view argued one way; his enjoyment of the spruce as a condo for birds and squirrels rebutted.

In the end—which was today, Kathryn realized—the spruce stood. Victor had never happened to be outside with the chainsaw in one of the moments when the desire for a view was upon him, had never been so inspired by the need for a view upriver that he took his chainsaw to the tree. The tree remained. And thus the argument had been decided for him, in the end.

But Victor wasn’t there. And that, so far, was the oddest part of the experience. She had expected to come in and feel his presence, or at least to imagine that he could walk in at any moment. But she didn’t feel that way at all. The green plaid blanket that had covered Victor’s legs in the recliner lay on the floor where they had left it. Victor’s slacks, socks, briefs, and shirt would lie upstairs in a heap on the bedroom floor, right where he’d last shed them. A handkerchief would remain in the right front pocket of the slacks, the blood spots dried and brownish by now.

But he was not there. Nor would he be.

*

Kathryn still stood at the window. She made coffee—poured the water, measured the grounds—and, as it bubbled and softly hissed beside her, she watched the river. She would drink this coffee herself, no sharing. Even so, she made the pot full.

*

The soccer ball must have washed up to their dock while they were at the hospital. Maybe. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d looked out this window. Why would she have noticed? It had been what Victor would have called a “non-event.” Unremarkable, just a glance on a morning or afternoon or evening like any other, before an evening and now a morning like no other.

Kathryn looked at the microwave. The clock glowed 4:43, the digits red and staring, but it did not tell her what day it was. Wednesday, Monday—maybe it didn’t matter.

The season she did know—near midsummer. She observed and listed the reasons she knew.

Because, standing inside the house, she could see well enough to make coffee without turning on lights, even at 4:43.

Because the candles on the red pines, normally the length of a pen, were only one-inch stubby fingers in this wet year.

Because the scrub alder at the edge of the yard bore green leaves the size of loonies. Loonies to pay the ferryman, Kathryn thought, though it seemed unusually cruel to have to pay for death in June, the greening time of year. She wondered if Charon accepted green loonies as well as gold. Hell, these days he’d accept credit cards. She smiled a bit and knew that Victor would have laughed, but she also knew she could not tell him. She had no urge to summon him from another room, to call his name, no sense of “I must remember to tell…”

The scrub alder at the edge of the yard bore green leaves the size of loonies. Loonies to pay the ferryman, Kathryn thought, though it seemed unusually cruel to have to pay for death in June, the greening time of year.

The time did mean that it was still too early to phone anyone, and for that, Kathryn was grateful. She would wait till 6, maybe 7, and then call her stepchildren in order of age: Vic Junior, then Melissa. Then her own family—her sister, brother. But she didn’t have to do it yet. She was not yet forced to move through time. She could stay still.

Still—trapped?—like the soccer ball. It bobbed and turned at the water’s whim, but it made no forward progress. It could have been sitting there for several days, even a week. Probably not longer; surely one of them would have noticed.

The ball’s markings were blue. Kathryn picked up the binoculars she kept on the windowsill. She could see that the ball wasn’t segmented and was therefore not a regulation ball. She reached into her past, her one undergraduate class in topology, for the name of the shape, a truncated icosahedron. Of course, she thought, a regulation ball also doesn’t look like a truncated icosahedron, an accumulation of flat surfaces. She remembered the topology prof holding a soccer ball aloft for the class to see. He explained how the internal pressure of the air against the leather forced the 32 individual faces of the ball into an approximation of a sphere. Yet the seams marked its essential shape.

Standing at her window with binoculars, Kathryn saw no seams on the ball stuck by the dock. Instead, she saw simply faded blue paint. Thus, this ball was not a regulation ball. There. She’d completed the proof. Quod erat demonstrandum. She felt an odd sense of accomplishment.

And then a flicker of shame. Victor was dead, and she had not yet fallen apart. If anything, she was too-successfully NOT falling apart. But perhaps that was only to be expected of her. She was a statistician. Cold. Logical.

Victor had never thought so, and so she had not been, with him. Who was she now?

Victor. She closed her eyes.

How the hell do you do this, anyway?

She forced her eyes open from the blackness, forced her focus to the soccer ball again. A round object for kids to kick around.

*

The kids. Or, rather, stepkids. She knew what they would want. When their mother died twenty years ago, Victor had bought two side-by-side plots and a double headstone. He hadn’t foreseen Kathryn. Hadn’t foreseen fifteen years of second marriage to a woman with no children except his grown pair, no other descendants except theirs.

Before they had married, Victor offered to sell the plot and replace the headstone. Although Kathryn appreciated the gesture, it had seemed irrelevant. With so much life together ahead, why plan for an unforeseeable future? The eventual disposal of human remains—Kathryn wondered how, from where, that phrase had surfaced—had not been a lingering, unresolved issue between them. It had never become an issue at all. If anyone had asked Kathryn about the plot, about the headstone, about death, she would have considered them equally immaterial, despite their inevitability and now, their surprising substance.

She’d known how time works: for every event that occurs, there is a period of “before” and one of “after.” For every “now,” a “then,” a “next.” But apparently part of her had hoped, Really? An “after” for this time, too?

She looked through the kitchen and dining room to the living room and the ceramic loons on the fireplace mantel—the pair mated for life, the two chicks. Years ago, Kathryn had added to the mantel a carved soapstone ptarmigan, in green, a gift from an aunt’s trip to Iqaluit. All five were birds, the same Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order. Not the same Family. Even after 15 years, some distinctions remained. “My father’s wife,” not even “my stepmother.” The family—ours. Your family. Separate.

Even after 15 years, some distinctions remained. “My father’s wife,” not even “my stepmother.” The family—ours. Your family. Separate.

Two plots, side by side.

Victor would point out—Kathryn was sure of it—that he was also a ptarmigan. His first life, his first wife, loons, family. After that, he was another bird altogether. Why not a ptarmigan? Call it a ptarmigan.

And now, it bothered her that he would be part of the loon family for eternity. She felt shame that it mattered. It showed a smallness of spirit she didn’t want to believe she possessed. But the shame carried a glint of defiance. Why must she be the one to give him up?

*

The fog, now mixed with rain, swirled past the window. Time must be passing, but she couldn’t anticipate dawn by a brightening sky. She stood in grey. Between showers, she could see looming dark clouds beyond the river.

There by the sink, Kathryn heard the pump in the basement below send water from the well into the cistern.

It had been a wet June but she and Victor had still somehow over-used their water supply. The cistern had never become empty, but it had been surprisingly low when Kathryn had thought to check. This gray, chill rain had first come mid-May and had persisted, in spite of Kathryn’s efforts to welcome spring: scrubbed floors, freshened sheets. Into mid-June, she and Victor had indulged in long baths and warm lingering showers to help brighten their moods. They had been thoughtless. They had used more water than the well could replenish, and the cistern had run low. The well struggled to keep up.

It would fill again, Victor had said. They had only to be careful for a short time, and the cistern would be full and so would the well. She had believed him. But sometimes he was wrong. Sometimes he didn’t seek help in time. Sometimes, it really was too late.

It would fill again, Victor had said. They had only to be careful for a short time, and the cistern would be full and so would the well. She had believed him. But sometimes he was wrong.

She thought of the days—as long as a week? surely not—she had sat on the living room loveseat with her laptop, analyzing data, drafting reports to finalize the funding for her sabbatical in January, when she and Victor would go to New Zealand and have two summers in one year.

She had sat in the living room, pretending to work but really listening for the pump, gauging the amount of water gurgling through pipes from the well to the cistern, adding up the drops and trickles and gushes. She needed them to accumulate. To restore her naïve confidence that water would be there when she needed it.

But even more than listening to the well (Kathryn could say this now, could tell herself the truth), she had been listening to Victor breathe. Victor had spent the past few nights—his last few nights—in the recliner, sitting up to help his breathing. Toward the end, or what had suddenly become the end, he had been too uncomfortable to leave it, but that had been a day or two at most. How many? Kathryn didn’t know, couldn’t really say, couldn’t pin it down in black and white.

She could see herself in that life, the one she lived before she stood at this sink and this window, with this cup of coffee, but she could not place herself in it anymore, could not inhabit it and look out from it. When she tried, she saw only swirling fog.

*

Rara avis, Kathryn thought. Not a ptarmigan. One of a kind, that was Victor, though she was similar. Enough of a feather to flock together, she supposed.

But he hadn’t foreseen her until he had seen her. Then he could foresee only “forever,” as they promised at their wedding on the dock. He hadn’t run forecasts, hadn’t drawn flowcharts, hadn’t played the numbers. And why should he? He wasn’t a statistician, as she was—but she too had wanted to ignore inevitabilities and she would not blame herself now. No one wanted to look ahead to the blackness or beyond. And Victor in particular had never been a planner. He was happy where he was, wherever he was, whenever he was. Even now, she supposed.

Kathryn drew in a breath. That’s why the spruce still looked back at her through the window. The spruce was there; Victor was happy to watch the birds and the squirrels. The unobstructed view upriver was not there in front of him. Until that view existed, it could never be as real to him as the spruce was. And thus the argument—to cut the spruce or not to cut the spruce—had never really been an argument at all.

Still. In the end, the argument had been decided for him.

*

Kathryn poured more coffee into the mug. It was too hot to drink. She held the mug under her chin so that the steam bathed her cheek. She opened and closed her eyes, but the fog outside remained—if anything, it intensified. She could barely make out the soccer ball.

The soccer ball. The 32 faces of a truncated icosahedron. Victor had not foreseen her or a life beyond his first wife. Yet he had found it; or she, Kathryn, had appeared, like the spruce, in front of him. In response, Victor had turned another face of his life to the sun. Today, Kathryn supposed she could say that he had turned yet another. Even though the pressure of the air on the 32 faces made life appear spherical, of a piece, the faces remain distinct. The seams prove it.

A seam, Kathryn thought. The join between two faces. There would be a “next” for this moment, an “after” in her life from which she would view her life with Victor, and then this moment at the window, as “before.”

All right, then. She could leave Victor where the kids would want to remember him, in his life before her. It was not actually okay with her. It might never be okay. But the family (his) had been one of his faces. Leaving him there might hurt her, but it would soothe others. So, then.

The tears, too—she could feel them building—would help. And after the tears, who could say, really. You never know what the river will bring. She might take down the spruce tree to have an unobstructed view upriver. Just a glimpse.

Finally, the tears: It was time.

Photo credit

About Marion Agnew

Marion Agnew's fiction has appeared in Prairie Fire, South Dakota Review, and the 11th annual Ten Stories High anthology, as well as at the Blind Hem. Her essay, “All I Can Say,” appeared in Best Canadian Essays 2012 and in Room magazine and was shortlisted for the 2009 CBC Literary Awards. An essay entitled “Words” is forthcoming in Room magazine this summer. She lives and writes near Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada.

Marion Agnew

Marion Agnew is online at