It may or may not be a sin, but I cannot hear your name, St. James the Less, without crocheting apocrypha for you, without drafting sentences, all of which start Nonetheless, St. James the Less and then lapse, describing a world whose vividness—the molting sycamores and lepers, an urn lurching on the potter’s wheel, the fishermen darning their nets—always trumped your quiet rectitude.
Nonetheless, St. James the Less—after the Greater James, his fervor all joy and rage, and not unlike simple imprudence, anointed the contrite and doused those who had it coming—it must have been you (was it not?) blotting kerosene from all the penitents’ habits.
Some things he will see again and again. From car windows, rows of corn, their strobe a flipbook in which nothing much ever happens, and stands of white birches, fistfuls of lightning dropped, then turned wooden.
And other things, not again and again, but at least again. An adolescent rolling a barbell home from a garage sale. A dead snake the color of toothpaste and mermaids. A sassafras that laps sun, and, under it, dozens of gray mittens fuddling applause.
Not, though, the sky from the kitchen sink, where we bathe him. And not the parishioner who patted his ribs, birdcage that breathes, and she all wonderment despite the century that shows in her rouge. And in her eyes, blue and weeping as sores weep.
In this painting, on a wagon’s perch, a man, reins invisible on his lap and his face a smudge of umber, further tarnished by the turkey red that day remainders on dusk. And around him, the hauler of fence posts, a dark outline, waxy as the outline of a child’s less practiced hand. Through the body’s black trace glows a little of the background: the going sun, its rusty flare.
Where it all seems to be this way, a little insubstantial around the edges, perhaps either will suffice to weigh us down: a load of fence posts to rut us into the snow and earth on the soft road home or the knowledge that we are not beautiful— at best our clothes hang on us like an angel costume made out of bed sheets hangs on a girl in a pageant, her tinsel halo letting through the dark of the stage curtain drawn behind her as she bows.
A Load of Fence Posts is a painting by Lawren Harris, a member of the Canadian Group of Seven. The painting can be found in the McMichael Gallery, near Toronto.
Last Sunday my grandma laughed at the memory of a clumsy silverware thief: one day she came home to a slamming screen door and a trail of knives that began in the living room and petered out in the yard. She said they were not precious. But my dad whispered. He remembered how she came in with them, all in one hand. In a delicate furious bouquet.