THE CANARY’S CALLING
by Sharon Overend
Content Warnings: None.
I call him. Yeah, well, old habits die hard. Besides, if anyone’s going to understand what being fired from the portrait studio will do to my ego, it’ll be him, but he says he doesn’t know what to say. That’s a first. My ex-husband always has something to say. Maybe I was hoping he’d tell me it was their loss, that they never deserved someone with my talent in the first place. Then again, he might just as easily have said it figures I couldn’t hold onto anything, like a job, or him. But nope. He just says he has to go.
‘Thanks for nothing,’ I holler into the phone, but he’s already gone.
The wide leather strap of my camera bag digs into my shoulder. I adjust it to ease the pain barrelling across my back.
Bad attitude, my ass. That idiot manager doesn’t have the first clue what it takes to get a great portrait. And he sure as hell doesn’t know the first thing about what I’ve been going through.
Whatever. I’m done with him, and I’m done with photography. I haven’t got the stomach for this beating-my-head-against-a-brick-wall crap anymore. I push back my shoulders as much as the million-pound camera bag will let me. Half a block before the bus stop, the bus, my bus, zooms past. Off-peak hours mean a thirty-minute wait. I have nowhere to be, but still, thirty minutes feels too long to waste staring up the street. I turn toward a nearby lane, a shortcut that will have me home to my empty apartment in twenty-six minutes.
It’s a grey day. My neck is sticky wet, and my bra’s punishing underwire traps a pool of perspiration along its length. The mounting heat and humidity make pulling in a full breath difficult. I travel down the lane. I’m not lifting my feet high enough, so the soles of my running shoes drag and clunk against the uneven pavement. I stop midway, lift the bag off my shoulders and lower it to my feet. A stretch of my neck this way and that. The strained muscles prickle. Pressing my back against a graffiti-covered cinderblock wall, I slide to the ground. Crouched like that, my body folded into my raised knees, the first wave of panic surges forward. I have to push hard against it, quickly, urgently, if there’s any hope of blocking the tsunami of terror I know is coming. I close my eyes, drop my hands to the tarmac and brace myself. Two deep breaths, a third and fourth. On the fifth extended inhale, the brain swirl begins to slow. I keep my eyes shut. Tears pool inside the grey-black. My heart and my soul hurt. Every nerve ending in my body feels raw, stripped, exposed. I know I’ve got to get up, move on, but I’m not ready. Reality can wait. I’ve just decided staying glued to a graffiti wall and never returning to my life might actually be the best idea I’ve ever had when a melancholy strumming wobbles toward me.
Fingernails dragged the length of a wiped-clean chalkboard. My teeth itch.
I snap open my eyes. Twenty feet away, a woman in a yellow sundress sits on the back stoop of a small church, a guitar in her lap. Her head is lowered, her attention focused on her moving fingers. My pulse quickens. Each jagged nerve ending sparks like a frayed electrical cord. Maybe if she played through an entire song instead of stopping every two seconds to scribble notes on the sheet music in front of her, it wouldn’t be so bloody irritating. I’m seriously considering stomping over to her and giving her what for, but then she does play through an entire piece.
Music, familiar yet wondrously new and fresh, drifts over me. Colour swirls inside the soft, wispy notes – sapphire, violet, magenta – one flowing into the next. For a second time since arriving in this spot, I close my eyes. I imagine I’m levitating, then floating above the asphalt. The song ends, and like a helicopter seed, I twirl gently back to earth. My pulse and breathing have calmed, the throbbing in my temples stopped.
I peer through the gauzy summer haze. The woman sits crumpled over her guitar. Her shoulders shake. She’s crying.
I cover the distance between us.
She glances up, shielding her eyes. A weary smile creeps across her face.
‘It’s these lyrics.’ She indicates a notebook propped open with a sandal. The sheet music she’s been writing on lies next to it and is held down by a second sandal. Both pieces of paper wave up at me from beneath their shoe anchors. ‘My girl wrote them. She writes the lyrics. I compose the music.’
‘Right.’ I rub an open palm up and down my forearm.
‘Pretty sure she’s telling me we’re over.’
‘Right,’ I repeat. I don’t know what else to say.
‘I can’t do this now.’ She returns the guitar to its case, then the notebook and sheet music. She lowers the lid and flips the latching lock into place. ‘Impressive.’ She points across the lane to my camera bag. ‘You a photographer?’
‘Not anymore.’ I stab my toe into the ground. ‘Been working down at the portrait studio in the mall.’
‘Huh.’ She leans back against the top step. A whiff of vanilla bodywash swirls between us. ‘Did you suck?’
‘The opposite. Too damn good.’
‘Annie Leibovitz good?’
I snort. ‘Yeah, Annie Leibovitz good.’
‘I’m Roselyn,’ she says, extending her hand forward.
I take it. ‘Georgia,’ I say.
‘Got any of your good stuff on there?’
‘Of course.’ I concede a smile.
‘Let’s have a look.’
I consider her, then decide what the hell.
‘Wow. You have a great eye,’ Roselyn says when I show her the last shots I’d taken of my ex. ‘He looks so distant, maybe even a bit dangerous.’
‘He dumped me a week after I took these,’ I say.
‘Sorry.’ She passes back the camera.
I loop the strap over my neck but continue to hold the camera, its familiar weight comfortable in my palm. Without intending to, I start telling her about my ex-husband.
‘He’s a jerk, but he was my jerk,’ I say when I’ve given her the five-minute version of our ten-year relationship.
In turn, Roselyn tells me about her girlfriend. How they’d collaborated on two albums before becoming romantically involved. How they’ve been together eight months, seven of those good, but this past month, not so good; oh, and that her girlfriend is a pretty big someone on the music scene. She drops the girlfriend’s name. Definitely a pretty big someone.
‘She’s been riding my ass for weeks, telling me I need pictures, you know, a headshot and some candid stuff for the album insert.’
‘Not a bad idea.’
‘You know what, Georgia? The hell with those mall-tographers. I think the universe is calling you. I think today’s the day you strike out on your own.’
‘Don’t really buy into all that universe-talking garbage.’
‘Yeah, well, I do,’ she says. ‘How about I give you five hundred dollars to take my picture?’
I give her an up-and-down look. She’s got an Alanis Morissette kind of thing going on. Nice bone structure. Wild hair. Wicked eyebrows. I could probably do something with that face.
She stands and reaches for the church door. ‘We bought this place a couple of years ago and converted it into a studio. The acoustics are amazing.’
Roselyn crosses the threshold before I’ve agreed to take her portraits. I follow anyway. Inside, cool air washes forward. I pause and pull in a full breath. We pass into the nave where threads of rainbow light slice through stain-glass windows. The room is filled with instruments: a piano, a drum set, two guitar racks with four guitars each, three microphone stands, speakers everywhere, and a recording booth across the back wall. Persian-style area rugs lie scattered across the hardwood floor. A worn chaise and a wingback chair wait in opposite corners. A hint of ancient floor polish and mahogany waft in the air. Except for the cathedral ceiling, a balcony circling the back half of the nave, and those windows, the space no longer resembles a church, but my body remembers – the smell, the echo, the light.
‘I’ll just change.’ Roselyn disappears through the door marked ‘Rectory.’
While I wait, my eyes scan the room, searching for the best backdrop, but everything is great. The top of my head tingles like it hasn’t in years.
‘This okay?’ Roselyn asks from behind me.
I turn and see she’s tamed her hair with a ponytail. She’s changed into a tapered blue blouse and a multi-coloured peasant skirt. Three hangers holding three different outfits are slung over her arm.
Roselyn steps behind the bank of speakers. Instantly, the space comes alive with her girlfriend’s powerhouse vocals. She reappears. Her face has changed. Sadness and joy wrestle across her expression.
‘Stop there. Great. Just like that. Perfect.’ I aim my lens toward her. The shutter click sends chills down my arms. ‘Have a seat here.’
I guide her to a three-foot-wide window ledge. A prism of coloured light spills over her shoulder. For the next few minutes, neither of us speak as I snap shot after shot.
‘Let’s move to the chaise.’
‘Should I change first?’ she asks.
‘If you want.’
She takes off her blouse and skirt in front of me, no awkwardness, but also no ‘look at me’ thing going on. She pulls on a paisley-print dress, then lowers herself to the lounge. The music changes from an F-U anthem to a heart-wrenching ballad. My breath catches. The very breakup song that kept me just angry enough to manage my pain but not mad enough to storm over to my ex’s new place with an assault weapon. I try to block out the lyrics in case they seep through my skin, but the riptide pull of Roselyn’s music drags my feet out from under me. I steady myself against a speaker.
‘Ah, Georgia, you’ve really had your heart broken,’ she says, flashing a welcome-to-the-club smile.
‘Hasn’t everyone?’ I reach for a nearby guitar.
‘But you’re not over it yet.’ She takes the guitar and cradles it like a baby.
I clutch the camera tight against my chest. A familiar ache splays across my body. ‘Oh, I’m so over it.’
‘If you say so.’ She settles back against the chaise and stretches out her legs. ‘What ya gonna call your new business?’
‘Nothing. Can’t see myself doing this crap much longer.’
‘Gotta be realistic.’
‘Why wouldn’t you want to try?’
‘Too big a burden,’ I sigh. ‘I’ll probably go back to school. Maybe take an accounting course.’
‘What’s a burden? Starting a business or sticking with photography?’
‘Your well’s just dry.’
‘Nah, I’m sick of trying to make money at this gig.’
‘Art can’t be about making money,’ she says.
‘Artists have to be paid for their work,’ I sneer because the music, remembering my ex, and now talking about photography have gotten to me.
‘Of course, but here’s the deal.’ Her voice has taken on a breathless, excited tone. ‘I work with vibrations, how this instrument vibrates to create this sound etc., so maybe vibrations are my thing, but seriously, it’s about the vibrations you send out to the world. Good or bad, that’s what’ll come back to you.’
Despite my heart fluttering like a gypsy moth, I roll my eyes, then point to the piano. ‘How about you vibrate over here?’
‘You’re laughing at me.’
‘Let’s spread out your sheet music.’ I ignore her hurt expression. ‘And now hold this pen. Awesome.’
‘I thought about quitting music once, but I couldn’t. This is the only thing I’m any good at.’ She smirks. ‘Annie Leibovitz good. Nothing makes me proud of myself the way my music does.’
‘Turn this way. No, don’t smile.’
‘Besides, I’m not very pleasant to be around when I’m not creating. When did you know photography was your calling?’
I straighten up. ‘Who says it is?’
‘Yeah, right,’ she snorts. ‘So when did it take over your life?’
‘Lean across the piano top.’
Without taking her eyes off me, Roselyn moves into the pose.
‘High school,’ I groan.
‘Who was your very first subject?’
‘This family,’ I say. She wasn’t giving up.
‘The whole family?’
‘Yeah. I had a friend with tons of siblings. They all looked alike – redheads with freckle-splattered faces.’
‘So, why them?’
‘I thought it’d be cool to capture what was different about each person, but also what was similar.’
Roselyn nods. ‘Their uniqueness and their commonality. Did they love your pictures?’
‘They did,’ I say. What I don’t say is that I’d recently run into my friend. She told me her father died ten years earlier, and her youngest brother had committed suicide the previous spring. She thanked me for their portraits. She cried when she said she kept them by her bedside.
I step back from the piano. Roselyn has reminded me who I used to be. Dangerous territory.
The music crescendos.
‘You can’t walk away from this, Georgia.’
Oh, I can, I think. The second I get home this camera is going in the closet where things go to die, like the Himalayan salt lamp that was supposed to vanish my sadness, and my wedding album. I come toward her from the opposite angle
‘What about your responsibility to society?’ she asks.
‘Society’s not my problem.’ My lips are pressed against the back of the camera.
‘Sure it is. Artists are the sensitives, the canaries in the coalmine,’ she says. I raise an eyebrow. I’ve heard this before. ‘But that’s a good thing. Our art is our comment on society, what’s good and beautiful and what’s bad and ugly.’
‘Doubt a few pictures and some notes on a music sheet are going to save the world.’
She lifts her chin off her palm. Through the viewfinder I see her look of wonder. What is she wondering? Whether I’m crazy? Or whether I’m right?
‘Don’t you see?’ she finally asks. ‘Because you were curious enough to want to know who and what they were, those redheads have something of themselves to give future generations. Your art did that.’
A shiver rolls across my arms. ‘Think that’s probably enough,’ I say and pull the memory card from the camera. I hand it to Roselyn. She inserts it into her laptop.
A hushed silence descends as, freeze-frame after freeze-frame, my new friend’s love, her longing, her pain flash across the screen.
‘Good god.’ Roselyn turns to me. Her eyes are moist, but she’s smiling, that same weary smile I’d seen on the church steps. ‘So good.’
My knees go weak. A jumble of excitement and dread pool together in my belly. Like a deflating balloon, the wind squeaks out of me, and I’m drifting down from the ceiling. I ease onto the chaise and look away. Staring up at the nearest window, my eyes follow the path of lead framing a sliver of lemon-yellow glass. Roselyn moves in close and rests her hand on my shoulder. I feel the slight tremble.
‘Damn it,’ I mutter.
Her gentle laugh quivers the space between us.
I pull my attention back to her and deliver my own meek smile. We both know she’s right. Blessing or curse, like it or not, I am an artist. A goddamn canary.
Roselyn nods. She’s read my mind.
‘No way around it,’ she whispers. ‘It’s the canary’s calling.’
Sharon Overend is an award-winning author whose short stories have appeared in Canadian, American and UK literary journals and anthologies. Originally from Toronto, Sharon and her husband recently purchased a country property where she plans to let nature inspire many more writing projects.