We were all in the backyard to witness an execution – my grandmother, parents, sister and brother. Standing around the fire pit, nana lit the kindling. Then she placed the painting on the pyre. Almost immediately, the canvas was consumed by flames. The more substantial frame took longer. It was a sad moment for all of us, but a necessary part of our grieving process.
Grandpa Fred died the month before. It’d been a lengthy illness and we were all prepared, as much as one ever can be, for his passing. The painting had been one of his prime talking points for as long as I had known him and to burn it seemed like a sacrilege. But nana was adamant.
Three feet by two feet, it had hung on my grandparents’ living room wall above the fireplace forever. It was not a particularly good painting in a technical sense. The brush strokes were frantic, the perspective was slightly off and the composition didn’t come fully to life. But it was the subject matter that counted.
For a spectator facing it, the bottom left quadrant was dominated by a coyote with head extended upward and snout open. In the background was a train trestle, with a steam locomotive charging upward across the expanse from right to left. The foreground at the bottom right featured a moonlight-dappled river. The time of day was early night-time. It was quintessential Canadiana.
Grandpa used to love talking about the work. It was out of place in the rest of the house, which was full of fine furniture and lovingly-chosen artworks. But a chord had been struck and the older grandpa became, the more he would stare at this particular scene of northern Ontario.
He talked about the mood of the piece, a combination of melancholy, wistfulness and isolation. Then there was the unheard music – the howl of the coyote and the air-splitting whistle of the train. There are few more mournful sounds on earth. It depicted a time that was already over. Diesels and electrics now rule the rails. New infrastructure is replacing the grand old railway crossings. And nature in the raw is being driven further backwards into whatever bush remains.
Grandpa seemed to become more obsessed by the painting with each passing year. There was a sense that it symbolized his own withdrawal from the newest fashions and influences to seek refuge in the past and more familiar memories from his youth. I asked but never got an answer about who the artist had been. I came to believe that grandpa had probably done it himself when he was a young man and that lingering affection for those early days kept him in its thrall.
After the unofficial ceremony, we all moved into the house and the day resumed a more normal rhythm. We ate a late lunch, the other members of my family took their leave and I was left alone with grandma. We sat quietly together in the dining room, each in our own thoughts. Finally, I broached the subject of the painting.
“Grandpa really loved that painting, eh nana?” I said.
“What? Oh sorry, I was thinking about something else. No, he absolutely hated it.”
“I beg your pardon.”
“He loathed that painting. He thought it was just awful.”
“How can that be? He talked about it all the time.”
“I guess I can speak about it now. Look around you. This house is full of beautiful artworks. Your grandfather had terrific taste. He was a connoisseur. McEwen, Lemieux, Roberts and Ronald, those are the artists that we’ve bought over the years, all top rung.”
She could tell my confusion and continued with her story. “The painting that we burned today was done by a boyfriend of mine from before I met your grandfather. It was given to me as a present after a brief intimacy that was quickly over. When Fred and I got married, I insisted we hang it in a prominent place partly as a test of our new partnership.
After only a little resistance, Fred came through beautifully. He accepted me for who I am, past, present and future. Gradually over the years, we were even able to laugh about Coyote Moon as we came to call it. Then as far as the rest of you were concerned, Fred had some secret fun putting you on about his regard for that painting. ”
“Then why burn it?”
“To officially bury my long-ago past. And out of respect for your grandfather. He really did think that painting was horrible. To have lived with it all those years for my sake made him quite a man.”
I was still stunned and it showed. That’s when she said the words that have stayed with me ever since.
“You still have some living to do, don’t you, sonny.”
There’s another moral lesson to be learned, painlessly I hope, in The Devil Pulls a Fast One.