Once a year, David travels to visit Stella; they have been divorced for 8 years (they were married for 21 years), and this year he brings Catherine, the woman he is with.
But Catherine is not his “new girl”; that is Dina — without the ‘h’ — whose picture he shows to Stella later in the day. Stella is unsurprised, and this show-and-tell routine is familiar to her, but it is unsettling for the reader, who has not even yet gotten a sense of Catherine.
Immediately, however, the reader is introduced to Stella. As David drives up, Stella steps out of the bushes, where she has been picking berries.
“She is a short, fat, white-haired woman, wearing jeans and a dirty T-shirt. There is nothing underneath these clothes, as far as he can see, to support or restrain any part of her.”
She lives in the family home, a summer house on clay bluffs overlooking Lake Huron; it feels like the same setting as ‘Walking on Water” (in Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You).
Nearby, her father inhabits the Balm of Gilead Nursing Home, which also overlooks the lake. David always visits him on these annual treks as well, bringing a bottle for the old man.
David recognizes the importance of these visits for Stella’s father, but he still feels a sense of inferiority.
“In his father-in-law’s eyes David would always be somebody learning how to be a man, somebody who might never learn, might never achieve the steadfastness and control, the decent narrowness of range.”
Stella’s perception is different; she sees her father respond to David in a peculiarly affecting way, and she grants it a significance that challenges the integral father-daughter bond.
“I suppose if he thought about you and me he’d have to be on my side, but that’s all right, he doesn’t have to think about it.”
Her father doesn’t have to think about it because Stella has not allowed David’s antagonism to colour their relationship following the divorce.
There is a solidity to Stella’s character, and an acceptance of her quiet life on the lake. For all that David harshly critiques and challenges her, she remains staid and seemingly undisturbed.
She is writing an article on the history of the lighthouse and has been researching the wrecks of the Great Lakes; she has tracked its sweeping patterns of illumination, its history of bringing vulnerable crafts to shore safely, and she has mapped the submerged dangers and debris of the ships lost beneath the surface.
The reader has the sense that Stella knows: she knows the truth of these things and she knows David’s truth too.
She knows that while Catherine is cast in the light, what appeals most to David is Dina, who exists only in the shadows.
David calls that “real love”, but he recognizes that other people don’t understand things the same way.
“People don’t have any patience with this sort of suffering, and why should they? The sufferer must forgo sympathy, give up on dignity, cope with the ravages. And on top of that, people will take time out to tell you that this isn’t real love. These bouts of desire and dependence and worship and perversity, willed but terrible transformations – they aren’t real love.”
He is desperate for Stella’s sympathy, for her to acknowledge what he feels for Dina, this “desire and dependence and worship and perversity”; he is desperate not only for Stella to see the photo, but for her to see what the photo means to him.
The reader understands that once it was Catherine’s photo which he showed to Stella, that he was just as desperate, in some distant time, for her to marvel at Catherine’s image, at all the promise beneath the surface of that photograph. “Lichen” is about a single visit, but simultaneously it is about the series of visits, the patterns that underlie them.
Catherine bears some similarity to the narrators in “Hard-Luck Stories” and “Bardon Bus”, women who have once identified a particular quality in a relationship but who have, since, reevaluated. In many ways, Catherine appears disconnected from the events of “Lichen”, distanced not only from David, but from the story itself.
Stella is the story’s focus. Catherine is not fully fleshed out and appears to be both knowing and oblivious, but when she speaks to Stella, it is clear that Catherine intuits more of David’s intent than he would guess.
She says: “It can make you mean. Love can make you mean. If you feel dependent on somebody, then you can be mean to them. I understand that in David.”
By this time, after the day has unfolded, the reader understands that David is desperate for the unknowing.
“You know, there’s a smell women get…when they know you don’t want them anymore. Stale.”
But the reader recognizes that something in David is what has gone stale, that staleness inhabits his being, that he only reaches for these new relationships in an effort to distract from it.
This is why he is no longer married to Stella.
“He could never feel any lightness, any secret and victorious expansion, with a woman who knew so much. She was bloated with all she knew.”
But Dina? Dina is fresh. In the picture he shows Stella, her “legs are spread wide – smooth, golden, monumental: fallen columns. Between them is the dark blot she called moss, or lichen.”
That’s what Stella thought it looked like, moss or lichen. It suits the lakeside setting, but it also suits the theme of the story, for lichen is a type of fungus that develops a symbiotic relationship with algae.
Stella sees the lichen in Dina, in the blurred photograph, but she is the crusty coating on the rock that creates the environment in which David once thrived.
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories, as I read through her work to date. She is one of my MRE authors. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. This story is the second in The Progress of Love, with Thursday November 1st reserved for “Monsieur les Deux Chapeaux” (the next two Thursdays being filled with International Festival of Authors’ posts).