Steven Mayoff (he/him) was born in Montreal and moved to Prince Edward Island in 2001. His books include the story collection Fatted Calf Blues (Turnstone Press, 2009), the novel Our Lady of Steerage (Bunim & Bannigan, 2015), the poetry chapbook Leonard’s Flat (Grey Borders Books, 2018) and the poetry collection Swinging Between Water and Stone (Guernica Editions, 2019)and the novel The Island Gospel According to Samson Grief (Radiant Press, 2023). As a lyricist, he has collaborated with composer Ted Dykstra on Dion a Rock Opera, which will receive its world premiere at the Coal Mine Theatre in Toronto in February 2024.
Satirical magic-realism abounds in this modern myth narrated by Samson Grief, a reclusive painter living in Mount Russet, Prince Edward Island. While struggling with a creative block, he is confronted by three redheaded strangers who identify themselves as Judas, Shylock and Fagin, figments of Samson’s imagination and messengers sent by a genderless deity named the Supreme One. Having decreed the Middle East to be a hopeless mess, the Supreme One wants PEI to be the new Promised Land and tasks Samson with building the Island’s first synagogue to get the cosmic wheels rolling. Scared, confused and seriously doubting his sanity, Samson eventually, though grudgingly, accepts the challenge and comes up against political intrigue as well as other obstacles along the way.
I knew something wasn’t right when I looked out the window that bright summer morning and saw the three of them. They were standing in the open field behind my building. I recognized them by their hats. The blue baseball cap, the coral bucket hat and the yellow porkpie hat. Really? I thought to myself, This again? I decided to go about my usual preparations for the day. My favourite L. Cohen CD, The Future, was playing in the paint-spattered boom box. Breakfast was a cup of lapsang souchong and a toasted fried egg sandwich. Slurping the dregs of my tea, I looked out the window again.
They were gone.
I surveyed the rickety table displaying a clutter of brushes, palettes, cans of turpentine, tubes of paint, as well as a variety of scissors, rulers, drawing utensils, etc. Through the boom box speakers, the gentle croak of the Jewish lo-fi blues poet made the deceptively simple observation that everything has a crack which functions as an aperture, allowing light to enter. I was grateful to hear this, since it was my habit to play this CD every morning and considered the observation to be a daily affirmation, inviting me to cross the threshold into a hallowed zone of creativity. As usual, I made the same backhanded remark, a superstitious part of the preparatory routine: “Except for the tuchus crack, Lenny, ‘cause that’s where the sun don’t shine.”
I removed the drop cloth covering the canvas on my easel and experienced an odd shiver somewhere between the hairline at the back of my neck and the slight depression between my shoulder blades. No doubt this was because I couldn’t stop thinking about the three figures I had just seen outside my window. There really was no earthly reason why that business should be starting up again after almost thirteen years.
Had it really been that long? I realized it was exactly thirteen years to the month and wondered if it had anything to do with the number thirteen. I didn’t want to go down this rabbit hole so I forced myself to stare at the unfinished painting before me.
It depicted a specific area at North Cape. Normally a narrow strand of ruddy, stone-encrusted shoreline tapers toward a divide where the waters of the Northumberland Strait meet those of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. In my painting, rather than merging, the two bodies of water part – waves rising in rapid brush strokes of shimmering aquamarine tinged with yellowish-white streaks, climaxing into a silvery Biblical scroll of oceanic sputum – to reveal a stretch of iron-rich red soil strewn with seashells, beer bottles, crustaceans and other detritus from the watery depths.
The original concept of the painting was yet another fantasia of Jewish iconography set on modern-day Prince Edward Island. The problem was I still couldn’t make up my mind: should I depict Moses leading his people onto the shores of North Cape or should they be escaping it? And if the latter, who were they fleeing from? Lobster fishermen? Potato farmers? Japanese tourists? The longer I surveyed this half-baked creation, the more I came to realize that my indecision was rooted in a personal conundrum I could no longer ignore, no matter how many tubes of acrylic I slathered onto the canvas.
I looked out the window again. Thankfully the three figures had not reappeared.
The first time I became aware of them was in 2002 when I was still living in Charlottetown. I had created a painting called Anne of Bergen-Belsen. It was a portrait of an emaciated Anne Shirley, complete with straw hat and ginger pigtails, their twisted plaits rendered in excruciating detail. I had her dressed in rags and sporting a yellow Star of David armband. Her left forearm, skeletal and pale, was imprinted with blue tattooed numbers. It was the eyes that filled me with pride. Simmering orange-green embers for irises with dilated coal-black pupils at their centers, like twin abysses of unspeakable terror. I imagined them burning into the viewer’s soul, evoking mixed reactions of pity and revulsion. Behind her was a dull grey barbed wire fence, the iron mesh made all the more menacing by being outlined with a sickly bluish-white. In the distance was a candy-striped lighthouse, complete with a machine-gun toting German soldier standing guard at the top and a red flag flying a black swastika in a white circle.
By the time I laid on the last stroke of paint, I knew I had turned a corner in my creative life. I decided to treat myself to a bubble tea in the Cradletown Court Mall. It wasn’t my usual choice of refreshment, but I was in the mood to celebrate with something different. I purchased a kiwi-flavoured tea at the Red Pearl stand on the mall’s uppermost level and sat in the food court seating area. As I slowly sipped through the wide plastic straw, I thought about my creation. Something in the painting scared and excited me. I had never done anything like it and revisiting the image in my mind’s eye made the hairs on the back of my neck tremble.
Since moving from Toronto to PEI in 1997, the year the Confederation Bridge opened, my output was more “whimsical”, according to a profile in The Drone, our monthly arts newspaper. Typical subject matter were watercolours of a swaddled infant Moses in a dory floating past channel markers and buoys on Malpeque Bay or Joseph wearing his rain slicker of many colours. I also tried my hand at sculpture with a model of Noah’s Ark made entirely out of lobster traps, which won first prize in an Island-wide competition held at the Cradletown Art Gallery, hosted by Kerrie-Jo Campbelljohn, Minister of Tourism and Culture. There was a cash prize of five hundred dollars and a photograph of my ark was used on a tourism poster. The competition’s judge, Digger Docherty, host of the long-running TV gardening show, A Patch of Red, and still PEI’s biggest local celebrity, called my sculpture “clever” and suggested “a garden gnome playing Noah might give it a cute final touch.”
My growing reputation led to an article in the Charlottetown Parrot, with the headline The Monet from Away. A freelancer for the Toronto Satellite, looking to do a human-interest piece on Toronto ex-pats, dubbed me Cézanne of Green Gables. Hungry as I was for the recognition, I felt that my work was being misrepresented as mere kitsch and wondered if it wasn’t my own fault. In 2001, after the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, it was clear to me that something had to change and Anne of Bergen-Belsen was definitely a bold departure from my creative status quo.
As I was enjoying my kiwi bubble tea and going through all of this in my mind, I had become aware of three men sitting at a nearby table by the food court railing that overlooked the level below. My first clue that they were not locals was their clothing, which bore the distinct signs of tourist attire: colourful short-sleeved shirts and casual headgear – a baseball cap, a straw porkpie hat and a denim bucket hat. Everything looked oddly random, maybe even too random as if the outfits were chosen from a theatrical wardrobe department or a Goodwill shop. Then I noticed they all had scraggly facial hair. Trying not to stare, it dawned on me that their hats were doing a bad job of concealing their long hair. When I realized their hair were various shades of red, I truly became uneasy.
The one in the yellow porkpie hat, whose gaunt and tanned leathery face tapered to a spade-like goatee, making him look like an ancient hipster, glanced my way. I did a quarter turn away from him in my seat, feigning interest in something or other before turning around again. Their table was now empty and they were nowhere to be seen. I extended my search to the level below. There was no trace of their garishly distinctive attire among the wandering shoppers.
Snapping out of this reverie, I was brought back to the task at hand: trying to finish this painting of the parting waters at North Cape. The voice of the Jewish lo-fi blues poet sang of “signs for all to see.” Scanning the ocean floor that tapered into the illusory perspective of distance, a different idea slowly began to dawn on me. Cohen’s observation in the song’s refrain, about everything having a crack to let in the light, took on a new meaning. It wasn’t that each single thing had its own individual crack. There was only one crack that ran throughout the world. It was the singular crack that simultaneously divides us from and connects us to each other. And this reddish strand that stretched out to the canvas’s point zero of infinity, this strip I had been pondering for the last five minutes was exactly that: the crack that ran through everything.
I was wrapping my mind around this notion when I saw it. I had to crouch down and bring my face right up to the painting. I couldn’t quite make it out, so I found a magnifying glass among the chaos on my worktable and inspected that section of the canvas more closely.
There, among the detritus was a starfish. But not just any starfish. This one had six arms. Like a Jewish star. A Starfish of David, if you will. It looked to have been painted with a fine detail brush. The only thing I knew for sure was that it wasn’t me who painted it.
A thick noxious fog of fear, anger and general bewilderment erupted in my brain.
“Nobody tampers with my work!” I cried while fumbling with a tube of paint. I squeezed it directly on the canvas, grabbing the closest brush and mashing the fanned bristles into the oily blob until the image of the six-armed creature was obliterated from my sight.