Tousled by Alisha Mughal

The light from outside broke as it came in through the window panes, the ripples in the old glass splaying and fraying it, making it go where it wouldn’t have gone otherwise. Where it didn’t want to go.

Harold Erskine reached for his hat on the cushion next to him on the couch and then his cane leaning against the armrest, but then he changed his mind. He let his hands holding his hat dangle down between his thighs. He turned his hat round and round in his hands and watched it for a moment. Then he looked up at Doctor Brand sitting across from him behind his heavy mahogany desk, the light streaming in through the windows behind him cascading over and around him, his cigar smoke swirling up and mingling with the white light. The light haloed him, making the Doctor seem saintly, but the smoke made him appear to smoulder, as if he’d just risen up from the depths of the earth.

Harold felt embarrassed or guilty — he didn’t spend any of his energy trying to figure out which — about the question he knew was about to explode out of him. He looked where Doctor Brand’s eyes should be, seeking the confidential warmth churning within that would be reassuring in the way a child reaches for her favourite toy before going to sleep, but saw only the glint and glare of the light that he was shrouded in being thrown off by the lenses of his glasses, which made the Doctor look like a great and soulless judge. Harold looked down at his hands again but the question inside him grew impatient. It escaped his lips.

“What if she stays the same?” He sighed and looked up at the Doctor. “What if this is permanent?”

“Then,” the Doctor began in the calm and low tone that he’d maintained throughout the appointment, placing his hands, palms down, on his desk, his fingers spread wide, as if the desk was growing larger and larger and this was the only way for the Doctor to contain it, “we will have no choice. We’ll just have to bring her in.”

“Bring her in,” Harold echoed, the images of leather restraints and big men in starched white uniforms flashed through his mind. “Bring her in,” his voice trailed.

“But as I said, Harold, this is most likely just a rebellious phase. Just let your wife alone, doing as she does, for a few days, and I am fairly certain that she will come round sooner than later. And then your household will go back to being as it was. Ordered and calm. Until then, I’m sure you’ll be able to make do with your servants and governess.” The Doctor flicked a piece of lint off and away from the surface of his desk.

***

It was an alive night that couldn’t quite decide whether it wanted to rain or uproot a tree. Elizabeth Erskine’s hair flew and spun wildly about her face in the wind. She didn’t care to brush it aside or tuck it behind an ear. She lifted her camera up to her eyes and let her hair play and dance about her.

The camera her mother had gifted her on her birthday last month, mere days before that last stroke. “Remember when you were a little girl, you always used to talk about how you were going to grow up and be a photographer for National Geographic?” her mother had said by way of introduction, beaming as she handed her the immaculately wrapped box. Elizabeth remembered.

It was a cloudy night and the moon was full. The billowing clouds seemed quicksilver as they came near to and then went past the moon that refused to be hid behind them, that the wind wouldn’t allow to be cloaked. Elizabeth’s camera’s shutter rustled as she took a picture of the heavy and dark and swaying tops of the Douglas firs, swaying and bowing together like the lazily swelling waves of a calm sea, rolling away to meet the wide, moving sky. It was her final shot for the night.

She stepped back from the edge of the cliff and breathed, deeply. The air smelled earthy and felt cool, she felt good as her lungs swelled with it, and when she exhaled she felt as though it had left its goodness behind within her. She closed her eyes and enjoyed for a moment the gentle touch of the wind rushing about and around her and then away from her and down whispering and sighing into the valley and the trees beneath her. The thought that she was a part of this chain of movement, that she was a part of the night, made her feel heavy, staid, as though she belonged and was not a trespasser.

She picked up her camera bag from the ground by her feet, placed her camera within, and turned and left the moon and the trees and the clouds behind her with a bitter sorrow in her heart. She wished she could stay in the spot forever, but she knew that the night wouldn’t last, that the day would come and snuff out the dark silence, expose the secrets of the whispering trees. And so she sought and found comfort in the thought that she could always, if she wanted to, come back tomorrow night.

In the meantime, she enjoyed the hike back down the trail to her car through the desultory spray of rain. She enjoyed her weight on her feet, enjoyed her movement, the stretch and labour of her muscles that she had noticed had become more firm over the past week. She felt full, with the air, with the day’s work — she had accomplished so much today. So many pictures she had taken that wouldn’t exist without her brain, without her eyes, without her using her camera. Before she got into the seat of her car she took in another deep breath and felt proud of herself, of all that she had created today, of all the new thoughts that she had thought — of everything that she had at this moment that she would not have had otherwise, if she had stayed home and done nothing.

***

Harold had been pacing. In his silk robe and suede slippers over the soft, lush carpet of his study. When he heard his wife’s car roll up into the driveway he hurried downstairs, softly so as to not wake the children. He wanted to be sitting in the living room with the paper when Elizabeth came in, so she would see him, and just barely made it to the pose he wanted when she got in through the door.

Her hair was wild, sticking up errantly at the top of her head, poking out from behind her ears where she’d pushed it back without looking in a mirror. Harold wanted to tell her it was a mess, but he bit his tongue, remembering the scene she’d created yesterday when she’d rushed to the dinner table late and he’d complained about the dirt and grass stains on the knees of her trousers: She got up from the table instantly and wordlessly, without having touched her meal, and went up to her room and didn’t come back down.

“You still up, dear?” Elizabeth said, placing her camera bag on the floor, throwing her keys into the little tray on the table by the door, and picking up the unopened letters and bills lying in a neat pile near the tray.

“Hmm?” Harold chose to feign irrevocable immersion in the evening paper.

Elizabeth walked into the living room with the letters and bills, and, finding nothing very much interesting, threw the pile onto the coffee table. She put her hands into the pockets of her trousers and looked at Harold with a laugh in her eyes. “Is the news much less depressing upside down?” she asked.

Harold started and the paper rustled and his face turned red. “Oh, I hadn’t noticed,” he muttered, folding the paper, disregarding its previous folds, and placing it on the coffee table, on top of the letters and bills. “I was thinking about a work problem.” He settled back into his armchair and looked at his wife. Elizabeth was laughing at him with her eyes. “How was your day,” Harold asked, folding his hands over his belly.

“It was absolutely lovely,” Elizabeth said, coming round the couch and sitting down into it deeply, crossing her legs wide, her right ankle on her left knee.

“Where did you go?” Harold asked when Elizabeth didn’t go on.

“Mostly up into the forest. I followed the hiking trail all the way up to Eagle’s Peak.” Elizabeth yawned. “It was beautiful, but boy am I tired.”

“What you need is some rest,” Harold said. “You should take a nice warm bath and then have a good lie in tomorrow. I’ll bring you breakfast in bed — remember, like I used to every Saturday?” Harold sighed in reminiscence but kept his eyes on Elizabeth, keeping on the lookout for the slightest hint of irritation on her face — the tightening of the skin around her eyes, the downward pull at the corners of her mouth.

Elizabeth smiled sleepily and shook her head. “Thanks, but no thanks,” she said. “I’m going to the lake tomorrow morning. I want to capture it when the water is as blue as the sky.”

Harold thought carefully about how to word what he wanted to say. “Why don’t you take the kids with you? They’ll love it at the lake.”

“No, I won’t be able to look after them and do what I need to do at the same time,” Elizabeth said with her eyes closed.

“But you haven’t been with the kids at all this week,” he shot back. “I’m afraid they’ll forget what you look like,” he added with a laugh for some levity.

Elizabeth opened her eyes and considered Harold for a long time. “No,” she said finally and evenly, with finality. “They’re pretty good at remembering what you look like while you’re away on your business trips. No, I’m going to the lake alone tomorrow.” And she got up and went to the front door where her camera bag still lay, picked it up and climbed up the stairs.

“Your dinner’s in the oven,” Harold called up after her, but received only the gentle shutting of Elizabeth’s bedroom door in answer. Harold sat for a long while in his armchair, picking loose the strands in his silk robe.

***

Elizabeth lifted her camera up to her eyes and let Juliet who sat on the bench next to her play with her hair, practicing her braiding because she’d never learned to braid as a little girl. Elizabeth’s camera’s shutter rustled as she took a picture of the women lounging in the TV Room. The TV played a black-and-white private detective movie toward which no woman had her gaze turned. Betty sat in a rocking chair with her sewing and Claire sat at Betty’s feet, searching through Betty’s basket of thread and fabric. Lydia and Sara enacted Hamlet with their puppets on the rug on the ground by the couch. And Rachel lay luxuriantly in the couch, napping.

Juliet began to tell Elizabeth for the fifth time the reason Doctor Brand had brought her to the Hospital. “Mother went and complained to Doctor Brand that I wouldn’t keep my clothes on, even when the guests came to dinner, which happened almost every night, because Mother is very fond of having dinners and having all the best people there with their bachelor sons, because Mother wants me and my sister Julia to marry someone very nice, you see? Anyway, Mother wanted me to keep my clothes on — I’m not hurting you, am I?”

“No,” Elizabeth said as she pointed her camera at the barred windows that overlooked the beach that they were allowed to visit as a group every Saturday. “You’re very gentle, Juliet. I can’t wait to see my braid.”

“Okay, good. So, Mother wanted me to keep my nice clothes on because she spent a lot of money on them and because you’re supposed to cover up. But I didn’t like them, she never even asked me if I liked them. I didn’t — they were so itchy, those damn pantyhose, unlike these soft cotton pants they give us here. So I took them off, and when I did that at a dinner that the Fairbanks brothers were at, Mother called Doctor Brand and he brought me here. There, I’m done. Can I take a picture of it so you can see?”

Elizabeth said yes because there was no mirror around nearby because they weren’t allowed access to mirrors except in the bathrooms, where they were always supervised by the nurses. “It feels lovely, Juliet. I’m sure you did a fine job,” Elizabeth said, running her hand over her hair. She handed her camera to Juliet, who very carefully and gently brought it up to her eyes and snapped a picture of the side of Elizabeth’s unsmiling face and the braid snaking down over her shoulder. Elizabeth wouldn’t be able to see the photograph for another week, until after she paid Nurse Constance who would get her boyfriend to have them developed at the department store in town.

“Doctor Brand doesn’t like you using this, does he?” Juliet asked, handing the camera back to Elizabeth.

“No,” Elizabeth said, placing the camera in her lap and wrapping her arms around it.

“Why?” Juliet asked.

“He says it took me away from my husband and my children.”

“So he took you away from your husband and your children?”

“Yes,” Elizabeth said.

“But you’re using your camera here now?”

“Yes, I won’t allow them to take it away from me.”

“You’re using it but it’s not taking you away from us right now,” Juliet said in a low voice to herself, trying to understand.

The air-conditioning started up behind the bench Elizabeth and Juliet were sat on, sending a prickly cold gust of air that smelled of an old freezer and food cooked and fried a very long time ago rushing past them. Neither the women’s braided hair danced in the stale air.


Alisha Mughal’s work has appeared in Queen Mob’s Teahouse, The Fem, and The Nottingham Review. She has a BA in Philosophy from the University of Toronto and currently resides in Ontario, Canada. She was born in Pakistan.

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