“Son coeur est un luth suspendu;
Sitôt qu’on le touche il rèsonne.” – De Béranger.
During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher. I know not how it was—but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible. I looked upon the scene before me—upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain—upon the bleak walls—upon the vacant eye-like windows—upon a few rank sedges—and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees—with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium—the bitter lapse into everyday life—the hideous dropping off of the veil. There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart—an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime. What was it—I paused to think—what was it that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher? It was a mystery all insoluble; nor could I grapple with the shadowy fancies that crowded upon me as I pondered. I was forced to fall back upon the unsatisfactory conclusion, that while, beyond doubt, there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us, still the analysis of this power lies among considerations beyond our depth. It was possible, I reflected, that a mere different arrangement of the particulars of the scene, of the details of the picture, would be sufficient to modify, or perhaps to annihilate its capacity for sorrowful impression; and, acting upon this idea, I reined my horse to the precipitous brink of a black and lurid tarn that lay in unruffled lustre by the dwelling, and gazed down—but with a shudder even more thrilling than before—upon the remodelled and inverted images of the gray sedge, and the ghastly tree-stems, and the vacant and eye-like windows.
Nevertheless, in this mansion of gloom I now proposed to myself a sojourn of some weeks. Its proprietor, Roderick Usher, had been one of my boon companions in boyhood; but many years had elapsed since our last meeting. A letter, however, had lately reached me in a distant part of the country—a letter from him—which, in its wildly importunate nature, had admitted of no other than a personal reply. The MS. gave evidence of nervous agitation. The writer spoke of acute bodily illness—of a mental disorder which oppressed him—and of an earnest desire to see me, as his best, and indeed his only personal friend, with a view of attempting, by the cheerfulness of my society, some alleviation of his malady. It was the manner in which all this, and much more, was said—it was the apparent heart that went with his request—which allowed me no room for hesitation; and I accordingly obeyed forthwith what I still considered a very singular summons.
Although, as boys, we had been even intimate associates, yet I really knew little of my friend. His reserve had been always excessive and habitual. I was aware, however, that his very ancient family had been noted, time out of mind, for a peculiar sensibility of temperament, displaying itself, through long ages, in many works of exalted art, and manifested, of late, in repeated deeds of munificent yet unobtrusive charity, as well as in a passionate devotion to the intricacies, perhaps even more than to the orthodox and easily recognisable beauties, of musical science. I had learned, too, the very remarkable fact, that the stem of the Usher race, all time-honored as it was, had put forth, at no period, any enduring branch; in other words, that the entire family lay in the direct line of descent, and had always, with very trifling and very temporary variation, so lain. It was this deficiency, I considered, while running over in thought the perfect keeping of the character of the premises with the accredited character of the people, and while speculating upon the possible influence which the one, in the long lapse of centuries, might have exercised upon the other—it was this deficiency, perhaps, of collateral issue, and the consequent undeviating transmission, from sire to son, of the patrimony with the name, which had, at length, so identified the two as to merge the original title of the estate in the quaint and equivocal appellation of the “House of Usher”—an appellation which seemed to include, in the minds of the peasantry who used it, both the family and the family mansion.
I have said that the sole effect of my somewhat childish experiment—that of looking down within the tarn—had been to deepen the first singular impression. There can be no doubt that the consciousness of the rapid increase of my superstition—for why should I not so term it?—served mainly to accelerate the increase itself. Such, I have long known, is the paradoxical law of all sentiments having terror as a basis. And it might have been for this reason only, that, when I again uplifted my eyes to the house itself, from its image in the pool, there grew in my mind a strange fancy—a fancy so ridiculous, indeed, that I but mention it to show the vivid force of the sensations which oppressed me. I had so worked upon my imagination as really to believe that about the whole mansion and domain there hung an atmosphere peculiar to themselves and their immediate vicinity—an atmosphere which had no affinity with the air of heaven, but which had reeked up from the decayed trees, and the gray wall, and the silent tarn—a pestilent and mystic vapor, dull, sluggish, faintly discernible, and leaden-hued.
Shaking off from my spirit what must have been a dream, I scanned more narrowly the real aspect of the building. Its principal feature seemed to be that of an excessive antiquity. The discoloration of ages had been great. Minute fungi overspread the whole exterior, hanging in a fine tangled web-work from the eaves. Yet all this was apart from any extraordinary dilapidation. No portion of the masonry had fallen; and there appeared to be a wild inconsistency between its still perfect adaptation of parts, and the crumbling condition of the individual stones. In this there was much that reminded me of the specious totality of old wood-work which has rotted for long years in some neglected vault, with no disturbance from the breath of the external air. Beyond this indication of extensive decay, however, the fabric gave little token of instability. Perhaps the eye of a scrutinizing observer might have discovered a barely perceptible fissure, which, extending from the roof of the building in front, made its way down the wall in a zigzag direction, until it became lost in the sullen waters of the tarn.
Noticing these things, I rode over a short causeway to the house. A servant in waiting took my horse, and I entered the Gothic archway of the hall. A valet, of stealthy step, thence conducted me, in silence, through many dark and intricate passages in my progress to the studio of his master. Much that I encountered on the way contributed, I know not how, to heighten the vague sentiments of which I have already spoken. While the objects around me—while the carvings of the ceilings, the sombre tapestries of the walls, the ebon blackness of the floors, and the phantasmagoric armorial trophies which rattled as I strode, were but matters to which, or to such as which, I had been accustomed from my infancy—while I hesitated not to acknowledge how familiar was all this—I still wondered to find how unfamiliar were the fancies which ordinary images were stirring up. On one of the staircases, I met the physician of the family. His countenance, I thought, wore a mingled expression of low cunning and perplexity. He accosted me with trepidation and passed on. The valet now threw open a door and ushered me into the presence of his master.
The room in which I found myself was very large and lofty. The windows were long, narrow, and pointed, and at so vast a distance from the black oaken floor as to be altogether inaccessible from within. Feeble gleams of encrimsoned light made their way through the trellissed panes, and served to render sufficiently distinct the more prominent objects around; the eye, however, struggled in vain to reach the remoter angles of the chamber, or the recesses of the vaulted and fretted ceiling. Dark draperies hung upon the walls. The general furniture was profuse, comfortless, antique, and tattered. Many books and musical instruments lay scattered about, but failed to give any vitality to the scene. I felt that I breathed an atmosphere of sorrow. An air of stern, deep, and irredeemable gloom hung over and pervaded all.
Upon my entrance, Usher arose from a sofa on which he had been lying at full length, and greeted me with a vivacious warmth which had much in it, I at first thought, of an overdone cordiality—of the constrained effort of the ennuyé man of the world. A glance, however, at his countenance, convinced me of his perfect sincerity. We sat down; and for some moments, while he spoke not, I gazed upon him with a feeling half of pity, half of awe. Surely, man had never before so terribly altered, in so brief a period, as had Roderick Usher! It was with difficulty that I could bring myself to admit the identity of the wan being before me with the companion of my early boyhood. Yet the character of his face had been at all times remarkable. A cadaverousness of complexion; an eye large, liquid, and luminous beyond comparison; lips somewhat thin and very pallid, but of a surpassingly beautiful curve; a nose of a delicate Hebrew model, but with a breadth of nostril unusual in similar formations; a finely moulded chin, speaking, in its want of prominence, of a want of moral energy; hair of a more than web-like softness and tenuity; these features, with an inordinate expansion above the regions of the temple, made up altogether a countenance not easily to be forgotten. And now in the mere exaggeration of the prevailing character of these features, and of the expression they were wont to convey, lay so much of change that I doubted to whom I spoke. The now ghastly pallor of the skin, and the now miraculous lustre of the eye, above all things startled and even awed me. The silken hair, too, had been suffered to grow all unheeded, and as, in its wild gossamer texture, it floated rather than fell about the face, I could not, even with effort, connect its Arabesque expression with any idea of simple humanity.
In the manner of my friend I was at once struck with an incoherence—an inconsistency; and I soon found this to arise from a series of feeble and futile struggles to overcome an habitual trepidancy—an excessive nervous agitation. For something of this nature I had indeed been prepared, no less by his letter, than by reminiscences of certain boyish traits, and by conclusions deduced from his peculiar physical conformation and temperament. His action was alternately vivacious and sullen. His voice varied rapidly from a tremulous indecision (when the animal spirits seemed utterly in abeyance) to that species of energetic concision—that abrupt, weighty, unhurried, and hollow-sounding enunciation—that leaden, self-balanced and perfectly modulated guttural utterance, which may be observed in the lost drunkard, or the irreclaimable eater of opium, during the periods of his most intense excitement.
It was thus that he spoke of the object of my visit, of his earnest desire to see me, and of the solace he expected me to afford him. He entered, at some length, into what he conceived to be the nature of his malady. It was, he said, a constitutional and a family evil, and one for which he despaired to find a remedy—a mere nervous affection, he immediately added, which would undoubtedly soon pass off. It displayed itself in a host of unnatural sensations. Some of these, as he detailed them, interested and bewildered me; although, perhaps, the terms, and the general manner of the narration had their weight. He suffered much from a morbid acuteness of the senses; the most insipid food was alone endurable; he could wear only garments of certain texture; the odors of all flowers were oppressive; his eyes were tortured by even a faint light; and there were but peculiar sounds, and these from stringed instruments, which did not inspire him with horror.
To an anomalous species of terror I found him a bounden slave. “I shall perish,” said he, “I must perish in this deplorable folly. Thus, thus, and not otherwise, shall I be lost. I dread the events of the future, not in themselves, but in their results. I shudder at the thought of any, even the most trivial, incident, which may operate upon this intolerable agitation of soul. I have, indeed, no abhorrence of danger, except in its absolute effect—in terror. In this unnerved—in this pitiable condition—I feel that the period will sooner or later arrive when I must abandon life and reason together, in some struggle with the grim phantasm, FEAR.”
I learned, moreover, at intervals, and through broken and equivocal hints, another singular feature of his mental condition. He was enchained by certain superstitious impressions in regard to the dwelling which he tenanted, and whence, for many years, he had never ventured forth—in regard to an influence whose supposititious force was conveyed in terms too shadowy here to be re-stated—an influence which some peculiarities in the mere form and substance of his family mansion, had, by dint of long sufferance, he said, obtained over his spirit—an effect which the physique of the gray walls and turrets, and of the dim tarn into which they all looked down, had, at length, brought about upon the morale of his existence.
He admitted, however, although with hesitation, that much of the peculiar gloom which thus afflicted him could be traced to a more natural and far more palpable origin—to the severe and long-continued illness—indeed to the evidently approaching dissolution—of a tenderly beloved sister—his sole companion for long years—his last and only relative on earth. “Her decease,” he said, with a bitterness which I can never forget, “would leave him (him the hopeless and the frail) the last of the ancient race of the Ushers.” While he spoke, the lady Madeline (for so was she called) passed slowly through a remote portion of the apartment, and, without having noticed my presence, disappeared. I regarded her with an utter astonishment not unmingled with dread—and yet I found it impossible to account for such feelings. A sensation of stupor oppressed me, as my eyes followed her retreating steps. When a door, at length, closed upon her, my glance sought instinctively and eagerly the countenance of the brother—but he had buried his face in his hands, and I could only perceive that a far more than ordinary wanness had overspread the emaciated fingers through which trickled many passionate tears.
The disease of the lady Madeline had long baffled the skill of her physicians. A settled apathy, a gradual wasting away of the person, and frequent although transient affections of a partially cataleptical character, were the unusual diagnosis. Hitherto she had steadily borne up against the pressure of her malady, and had not betaken herself finally to bed; but, on the closing in of the evening of my arrival at the house, she succumbed (as her brother told me at night with inexpressible agitation) to the prostrating power of the destroyer; and I learned that the glimpse I had obtained of her person would thus probably be the last I should obtain—that the lady, at least while living, would be seen by me no more.
For several days ensuing, her name was unmentioned by either Usher or myself: and during this period I was busied in earnest endeavors to alleviate the melancholy of my friend. We painted and read together; or I listened, as if in a dream, to the wild improvisations of his speaking guitar. And thus, as a closer and still closer intimacy admitted me more unreservedly into the recesses of his spirit, the more bitterly did I perceive the futility of all attempt at cheering a mind from which darkness, as if an inherent positive quality, poured forth upon all objects of the moral and physical universe, in one unceasing radiation of gloom.
I shall ever bear about me a memory of the many solemn hours I thus spent alone with the master of the House of Usher. Yet I should fail in any attempt to convey an idea of the exact character of the studies, or of the occupations, in which he involved me, or led me the way. An excited and highly distempered ideality threw a sulphureous lustre over all. His long improvised dirges will ring forever in my ears. Among other things, I hold painfully in mind a certain singular perversion and amplification of the wild air of the last waltz of Von Weber. From the paintings over which his elaborate fancy brooded, and which grew, touch by touch, into vaguenesses at which I shuddered the more thrillingly, because I shuddered knowing not why;—from these paintings (vivid as their images now are before me) I would in vain endeavor to educe more than a small portion which should lie within the compass of merely written words. By the utter simplicity, by the nakedness of his designs, he arrested and overawed attention. If ever mortal painted an idea, that mortal was Roderick Usher. For me at least—in the circumstances then surrounding me—there arose out of the pure abstractions which the hypochondriac contrived to throw upon his canvass, an intensity of intolerable awe, no shadow of which felt I ever yet in the contemplation of the certainly glowing yet too concrete reveries of Fuseli.
One of the phantasmagoric conceptions of my friend, partaking not so rigidly of the spirit of abstraction, may be shadowed forth, although feebly, in words. A small picture presented the interior of an immensely long and rectangular vault or tunnel, with low walls, smooth, white, and without interruption or device. Certain accessory points of the design served well to convey the idea that this excavation lay at an exceeding depth below the surface of the earth. No outlet was observed in any portion of its vast extent, and no torch, or other artificial source of light was discernible; yet a flood of intense rays rolled throughout, and bathed the whole in a ghastly and inappropriate splendor.
I have just spoken of that morbid condition of the auditory nerve which rendered all music intolerable to the sufferer, with the exception of certain effects of stringed instruments. It was, perhaps, the narrow limits to which he thus confined himself upon the guitar, which gave birth, in great measure, to the fantastic character of his performances. But the fervid facility of his impromptus could not be so accounted for. They must have been, and were, in the notes, as well as in the words of his wild fantasias (for he not unfrequently accompanied himself with rhymed verbal improvisations), the result of that intense mental collectedness and concentration to which I have previously alluded as observable only in particular moments of the highest artificial excitement. The words of one of these rhapsodies I have easily remembered. I was, perhaps, the more forcibly impressed with it, as he gave it, because, in the under or mystic current of its meaning, I fancied that I perceived, and for the first time, a full consciousness on the part of Usher, of the tottering of his lofty reason upon her throne. The verses, which were entitled “The Haunted Palace,” ran very nearly, if not accurately, thus:
In the greenest of our valleys,
By good angels tenanted,
Once a fair and stately palace—
Radiant palace—reared its head.
In the monarch Thought’s dominion—
It stood there!
Never seraph spread a pinion
Over fabric half so fair.
Banners yellow, glorious, golden,
On its roof did float and flow;
(This—all this—was in the olden
Time long ago)
And every gentle air that dallied,
In that sweet day,
Along the ramparts plumed and pallid,
A winged odor went away.
Wanderers in that happy valley
Through two luminous windows saw
Spirits moving musically
To a lute’s well-tunéd law,
Round about a throne, where sitting
In state his glory well befitting,
The ruler of the realm was seen.
And all with pearl and ruby glowing
Was the fair palace door,
Through which came flowing, flowing, flowing,
And sparkling evermore,
A troop of Echoes whose sweet duty
Was but to sing,
In voices of surpassing beauty,
The wit and wisdom of their king.
But evil things, in robes of sorrow,
Assailed the monarch’s high estate;
(Ah, let us mourn, for never morrow
Shall dawn upon him, desolate!)
And, round about his home, the glory
That blushed and bloomed
Is but a dim-remembered story
Of the old time entombed.
And travellers now within that valley,
Through the red-litten windows, see
Vast forms that move fantastically
To a discordant melody;
While, like a rapid ghastly river,
Through the pale door,
A hideous throng rush out forever,
And laugh—but smile no more.
I well remember that suggestions arising from this ballad, led us into a train of thought wherein there became manifest an opinion of Usher’s which I mention not so much on account of its novelty, (for other men* have thought thus,) as on account of the pertinacity with which he maintained it. This opinion, in its general form, was that of the sentience of all vegetable things. But, in his disordered fancy, the idea had assumed a more daring character, and trespassed, under certain conditions, upon the kingdom of inorganization. I lack words to express the full extent, or the earnest abandon of his persuasion. The belief, however, was connected (as I have previously hinted) with the gray stones of the home of his forefathers. The conditions of the sentience had been here, he imagined, fulfilled in the method of collocation of these stones—in the order of their arrangement, as well as in that of the many fungi which overspread them, and of the decayed trees which stood around—above all, in the long undisturbed endurance of this arrangement, and in its reduplication in the still waters of the tarn. Its evidence—the evidence of the sentience—was to be seen, he said, (and I here started as he spoke,) in the gradual yet certain condensation of an atmosphere of their own about the waters and the walls. The result was discoverable, he added, in that silent, yet importunate and terrible influence which for centuries had moulded the destinies of his family, and which made him what I now saw him—what he was. Such opinions need no comment, and I will make none.
*Watson, Dr. Percival, Spallanzani, and especially the Bishop of Landaff.—See “Chemical Essays,” vol v.
Our books—the books which, for years, had formed no small portion of the mental existence of the invalid—were, as might be supposed, in strict keeping with this character of phantasm. We pored together over such works as the Ververt et Chartreuse of Gresset; the Belphegor of Machiavelli; the Heaven and Hell of Swedenborg; the Subterranean Voyage of Nicholas Klimm by Holberg; the Chiromancy of Robert Flud, of Jean D’Indaginé, and of De la Chambre; the Journey into the Blue Distance of Tieck; and the City of the Sun of Campanella. One favorite volume was a small octavo edition of the Directorium Inquisitorium, by the Dominican Eymeric de Gironne; and there were passages in Pomponius Mela, about the old African Satyrs and OEgipans, over which Usher would sit dreaming for hours. His chief delight, however, was found in the perusal of an exceedingly rare and curious book in quarto Gothic—the manual of a forgotten church—the Vigiliae Mortuorum secundum Chorum Ecclesiae Maguntinae.
I could not help thinking of the wild ritual of this work, and of its probable influence upon the hypochondriac, when, one evening, having informed me abruptly that the lady Madeline was no more, he stated his intention of preserving her corpse for a fortnight, (previously to its final interment,) in one of the numerous vaults within the main walls of the building. The worldly reason, however, assigned for this singular proceeding, was one which I did not feel at liberty to dispute. The brother had been led to his resolution (so he told me) by consideration of the unusual character of the malady of the deceased, of certain obtrusive and eager inquiries on the part of her medical men, and of the remote and exposed situation of the burial-ground of the family. I will not deny that when I called to mind the sinister countenance of the person whom I met upon the staircase, on the day of my arrival at the house, I had no desire to oppose what I regarded as at best but a harmless, and by no means an unnatural, precaution.
At the request of Usher, I personally aided him in the arrangements for the temporary entombment. The body having been encoffined, we two alone bore it to its rest. The vault in which we placed it (and which had been so long unopened that our torches, half smothered in its oppressive atmosphere, gave us little opportunity for investigation) was small, damp, and entirely without means of admission for light; lying, at great depth, immediately beneath that portion of the building in which was my own sleeping apartment. It had been used, apparently, in remote feudal times, for the worst purposes of a donjon-keep, and, in later days, as a place of deposit for powder, or some other highly combustible substance, as a portion of its floor, and the whole interior of a long archway through which we reached it, were carefully sheathed with copper. The door, of massive iron, had been, also, similarly protected. Its immense weight caused an unusually sharp grating sound, as it moved upon its hinges.
Having deposited our mournful burden upon tressels within this region of horror, we partially turned aside the yet unscrewed lid of the coffin, and looked upon the face of the tenant. A striking similitude between the brother and sister now first arrested my attention; and Usher, divining, perhaps, my thoughts, murmured out some few words from which I learned that the deceased and himself had been twins, and that sympathies of a scarcely intelligible nature had always existed between them. Our glances, however, rested not long upon the dead—for we could not regard her unawed. The disease which had thus entombed the lady in the maturity of youth, had left, as usual in all maladies of a strictly cataleptical character, the mockery of a faint blush upon the bosom and the face, and that suspiciously lingering smile upon the lip which is so terrible in death. We replaced and screwed down the lid, and, having secured the door of iron, made our way, with toil, into the scarcely less gloomy apartments of the upper portion of the house.
And now, some days of bitter grief having elapsed, an observable change came over the features of the mental disorder of my friend. His ordinary manner had vanished. His ordinary occupations were neglected or forgotten. He roamed from chamber to chamber with hurried, unequal, and objectless step. The pallor of his countenance had assumed, if possible, a more ghastly hue—but the luminousness of his eye had utterly gone out. The once occasional huskiness of his tone was heard no more; and a tremulous quaver, as if of extreme terror, habitually characterized his utterance. There were times, indeed, when I thought his unceasingly agitated mind was laboring with some oppressive secret, to divulge which he struggled for the necessary courage. At times, again, I was obliged to resolve all into the mere inexplicable vagaries of madness, for I beheld him gazing upon vacancy for long hours, in an attitude of the profoundest attention, as if listening to some imaginary sound. It was no wonder that his condition terrified—that it infected me. I felt creeping upon me, by slow yet certain degrees, the wild influences of his own fantastic yet impressive superstitions.
It was, especially, upon retiring to bed late in the night of the seventh or eighth day after the placing of the lady Madeline within the donjon, that I experienced the full power of such feelings. Sleep came not near my couch—while the hours waned and waned away. I struggled to reason off the nervousness which had dominion over me. I endeavored to believe that much, if not all of what I felt, was due to the bewildering influence of the gloomy furniture of the room—of the dark and tattered draperies, which, tortured into motion by the breath of a rising tempest, swayed fitfully to and fro upon the walls, and rustled uneasily about the decorations of the bed. But my efforts were fruitless. An irrepressible tremor gradually pervaded my frame; and, at length, there sat upon my very heart an incubus of utterly causeless alarm. Shaking this off with a gasp and a struggle, I uplifted myself upon the pillows, and, peering earnestly within the intense darkness of the chamber, harkened—I know not why, except that an instinctive spirit prompted me—to certain low and indefinite sounds which came, through the pauses of the storm, at long intervals, I knew not whence. Overpowered by an intense sentiment of horror, unaccountable yet unendurable, I threw on my clothes with haste (for I felt that I should sleep no more during the night), and endeavored to arouse myself from the pitiable condition into which I had fallen, by pacing rapidly to and fro through the apartment.
I had taken but few turns in this manner, when a light step on an adjoining staircase arrested my attention. I presently recognised it as that of Usher. In an instant afterward he rapped, with a gentle touch, at my door, and entered, bearing a lamp. His countenance was, as usual, cadaverously wan—but, moreover, there was a species of mad hilarity in his eyes—an evidently restrained hysteria in his whole demeanor. His air appalled me—but anything was preferable to the solitude which I had so long endured, and I even welcomed his presence as a relief.
“And you have not seen it?” he said abruptly, after having stared about him for some moments in silence—“you have not then seen it?—but, stay! you shall.” Thus speaking, and having carefully shaded his lamp, he hurried to one of the casements, and threw it freely open to the storm.
The impetuous fury of the entering gust nearly lifted us from our feet. It was, indeed, a tempestuous yet sternly beautiful night, and one wildly singular in its terror and its beauty. A whirlwind had apparently collected its force in our vicinity; for there were frequent and violent alterations in the direction of the wind; and the exceeding density of the clouds (which hung so low as to press upon the turrets of the house) did not prevent our perceiving the life-like velocity with which they flew careering from all points against each other, without passing away into the distance. I say that even their exceeding density did not prevent our perceiving this—yet we had no glimpse of the moon or stars—nor was there any flashing forth of the lightning. But the under surfaces of the huge masses of agitated vapor, as well as all terrestrial objects immediately around us, were glowing in the unnatural light of a faintly luminous and distinctly visible gaseous exhalation which hung about and enshrouded the mansion.
“You must not—you shall not behold this!” said I, shudderingly, to Usher, as I led him, with a gentle violence, from the window to a seat. “These appearances, which bewilder you, are merely electrical phenomena not uncommon—or it may be that they have their ghastly origin in the rank miasma of the tarn. Let us close this casement;—the air is chilling and dangerous to your frame. Here is one of your favorite romances. I will read, and you shall listen;—and so we will pass away this terrible night together.”
The antique volume which I had taken up was the “Mad Trist” of Sir Launcelot Canning; but I had called it a favorite of Usher’s more in sad jest than in earnest; for, in truth, there is little in its uncouth and unimaginative prolixity which could have had interest for the lofty and spiritual ideality of my friend. It was, however, the only book immediately at hand; and I indulged a vague hope that the excitement which now agitated the hypochondriac, might find relief (for the history of mental disorder is full of similar anomalies) even in the extremeness of the folly which I should read. Could I have judged, indeed, by the wild overstrained air of vivacity with which he harkened, or apparently harkened, to the words of the tale, I might well have congratulated myself upon the success of my design.
I had arrived at that well-known portion of the story where Ethelred, the hero of the Trist, having sought in vain for peaceable admission into the dwelling of the hermit, proceeds to make good an entrance by force. Here, it will be remembered, the words of the narrative run thus:
“And Ethelred, who was by nature of a doughty heart, and who was now mighty withal, on account of the powerfulness of the wine which he had drunken, waited no longer to hold parley with the hermit, who, in sooth, was of an obstinate and maliceful turn, but, feeling the rain upon his shoulders, and fearing the rising of the tempest, uplifted his mace outright, and, with blows, made quickly room in the plankings of the door for his gauntleted hand; and now pulling therewith sturdily, he so cracked, and ripped, and tore all asunder, that the noise of the dry and hollow-sounding wood alarummed and reverberated throughout the forest.”
At the termination of this sentence I started, and for a moment, paused; for it appeared to me (although I at once concluded that my excited fancy had deceived me)—it appeared to me that, from some very remote portion of the mansion, there came, indistinctly, to my ears, what might have been, in its exact similarity of character, the echo (but a stifled and dull one certainly) of the very cracking and ripping sound which Sir Launcelot had so particularly described. It was, beyond doubt, the coincidence alone which had arrested my attention; for, amid the rattling of the sashes of the casements, and the ordinary commingled noises of the still increasing storm, the sound, in itself, had nothing, surely, which should have interested or disturbed me. I continued the story:
“But the good champion Ethelred, now entering within the door, was sore enraged and amazed to perceive no signal of the maliceful hermit; but, in the stead thereof, a dragon of a scaly and prodigious demeanor, and of a fiery tongue, which sate in guard before a palace of gold, with a floor of silver; and upon the wall there hung a shield of shining brass with this legend enwritten—
Who entereth herein, a conqueror hath bin;
Who slayeth the dragon, the shield he shall win;
And Ethelred uplifted his mace, and struck upon the head of the dragon, which fell before him, and gave up his pesty breath, with a shriek so horrid and harsh, and withal so piercing, that Ethelred had fain to close his ears with his hands against the dreadful noise of it, the like whereof was never before heard.”
Here again I paused abruptly, and now with a feeling of wild amazement—for there could be no doubt whatever that, in this instance, I did actually hear (although from what direction it proceeded I found it impossible to say) a low and apparently distant, but harsh, protracted, and most unusual screaming or grating sound—the exact counterpart of what my fancy had already conjured up for the dragon’s unnatural shriek as described by the romancer.
Oppressed, as I certainly was, upon the occurrence of this second and most extraordinary coincidence, by a thousand conflicting sensations, in which wonder and extreme terror were predominant, I still retained sufficient presence of mind to avoid exciting, by any observation, the sensitive nervousness of my companion. I was by no means certain that he had noticed the sounds in question; although, assuredly, a strange alteration had, during the last few minutes, taken place in his demeanor. From a position fronting my own, he had gradually brought round his chair, so as to sit with his face to the door of the chamber; and thus I could but partially perceive his features, although I saw that his lips trembled as if he were murmuring inaudibly. His head had dropped upon his breast—yet I knew that he was not asleep, from the wide and rigid opening of the eye as I caught a glance of it in profile. The motion of his body, too, was at variance with this idea—for he rocked from side to side with a gentle yet constant and uniform sway. Having rapidly taken notice of all this, I resumed the narrative of Sir Launcelot, which thus proceeded:
“And now, the champion, having escaped from the terrible fury of the dragon, bethinking himself of the brazen shield, and of the breaking up of the enchantment which was upon it, removed the carcass from out of the way before him, and approached valorously over the silver pavement of the castle to where the shield was upon the wall; which in sooth tarried not for his full coming, but feel down at his feet upon the silver floor, with a mighty great and terrible ringing sound.”
No sooner had these syllables passed my lips, than—as if a shield of brass had indeed, at the moment, fallen heavily upon a floor of silver—I became aware of a distinct, hollow, metallic, and clangorous, yet apparently muffled reverberation. Completely unnerved, I leaped to my feet; but the measured rocking movement of Usher was undisturbed. I rushed to the chair in which he sat. His eyes were bent fixedly before him, and throughout his whole countenance there reigned a stony rigidity. But, as I placed my hand upon his shoulder, there came a strong shudder over his whole person; a sickly smile quivered about his lips; and I saw that he spoke in a low, hurried, and gibbering murmur, as if unconscious of my presence. Bending closely over him, I at length drank in the hideous import of his words.
“Not hear it?—yes, I hear it, and have heard it. Long—long—long—many minutes, many hours, many days, have I heard it—yet I dared not—oh, pity me, miserable wretch that I am!—I dared not—I dared not speak! We have put her living in the tomb! Said I not that my senses were acute? I now tell you that I heard her first feeble movements in the hollow coffin. I heard them—many, many days ago—yet I dared not—I dared not speak! And now—to-night—Ethelred—ha! ha!—the breaking of the hermit’s door, and the death-cry of the dragon, and the clangor of the shield!—say, rather, the rending of her coffin, and the grating of the iron hinges of her prison, and her struggles within the coppered archway of the vault! Oh whither shall I fly? Will she not be here anon? Is she not hurrying to upbraid me for my haste? Have I not heard her footstep on the stair? Do I not distinguish that heavy and horrible beating of her heart? Madman!”—here he sprang furiously to his feet, and shrieked out his syllables, as if in the effort he were giving up his soul—“Madman! I tell you that she now stands without the door!”
As if in the superhuman energy of his utterance there had been found the potency of a spell—the huge antique pannels to which the speaker pointed, threw slowly back, upon the instant, their ponderous and ebony jaws. It was the work of the rushing gust—but then without those doors there did stand the lofty and enshrouded figure of the lady Madeline of Usher. There was blood upon her white robes, and the evidence of some bitter struggle upon every portion of her emaciated frame. For a moment she remained trembling and reeling to and fro upon the threshold—then, with a low moaning cry, fell heavily inward upon the person of her brother, and in her violent and now final death-agonies, bore him to the floor a corpse, and a victim to the terrors he had anticipated.
From that chamber, and from that mansion, I fled aghast. The storm was still abroad in all its wrath as I found myself crossing the old causeway. Suddenly there shot along the path a wild light, and I turned to see whence a gleam so unusual could have issued; for the vast house and its shadows were alone behind me. The radiance was that of the full, setting, and blood-red moon, which now shone vividly through that once barely-discernible fissure, of which I have before spoken as extending from the roof of the building, in a zigzag direction, to the base. While I gazed, this fissure rapidly widened—there came a fierce breath of the whirlwind—the entire orb of the satellite burst at once upon my sight—my brain reeled as I saw the mighty walls rushing asunder—there was a long tumultuous shouting sound like the voice of a thousand waters—and the deep and dank tarn at my feet closed sullenly and silently over the fragments of the “House of Usher.”
In my other life I lived in a suburb of Ohio or Michigan with Paul-Marc, my husband, and the child. The houses were planted on manicured lawns that stretched as far as the eye could see, circling an artificial lake, all of them were similar, nearly identical, manufactured on the same assembly line, with the same faux brick siding and grey gables, two front steps and a large wooden front door or was it faux-wood I couldn’t tell and in any case no one ever used the front door except when delivering groceries or take-out, everyone always used the garage door entry, which was also identical in every house, and every garage was equipped with a second refrigerator and had a side-door leading to the kitchen and various items stuck in that uncertain realm between utility and garbage, crammed in between the two cars.
The houses looked so much alike that when I took the child out in his stroller for a walk the first week we moved in, I couldn’t find my way back; I finally managed to recognize the house thanks to two old ladies who were still standing there with their dogs, chatting, when I returned. There were no fences and therefore the endless green grass was also everyone’s own private backyard and no one added much to it, as if all those miles of grass had suppressed their impulse to garden, at most there was a single tree, a shrub or two, or a few tulips in spring that needed to be sprayed with a smelly solution in order to keep the deer from eating them up. The deer were a real nuisance and once Paul-Marc almost ran one over, but the child was enthusiastic about them and about the squirrels and he would tirelessly point and call out: “Squiwel!”, “Mamby!”.
Sometimes at night, lying beside Paul-Marc who slept as if knocked unconscious after a long day at work and the commute, I would listen to the rain, fighting the urge to jump out of bed and go to the window to see whether it was real. The sound of the wind in the trees was wonderful until I realized it sounded precisely every 2:15 minutes and I also remembered that there weren’t enough trees outside to generate that sound, but I was afraid to get up because if I stepped on the laminated wood floor it would unavoidably creak twice on my way to the window, and wake the child, who could wake Paul-Marc, who needed to be up at five thirty a.m. for work. The monthly payments on our mortgage kept rising and were more than we had planned for, and I hadn’t returned to work after the child was born, in any case the cost of childcare would’ve swallowed up my paycheck and the child was better off with me than with a stranger during those early years.
I tried saving up by using coupons, buying things on sale, and special offers for Christmas and Thanksgiving, and once in a while I shopped online, without Paul-Marc’s knowledge, either ordering an item of clothing that was too tight – it’s hard to get the sizing right on the internet – or something too pretty that was left hanging in the closet, some fancy bath toy for the child, which admittedly, required removing other toys, but still, most definitely stirred up some excitement at least twice or three times, or kitchenware (only some of which ended up adding to the pile in the garage) and of course, plenty of beauty products which are so much cheaper online, especially if you buy one and get the second one half price, or buy two and get one free, shipping included.
I tried walking on the treadmill that I got from Wal-Mart – which was fairly expensive, but I explained to Paul-Marc (I couldn’t hide the treadmill) that eventually the investment would pay off, help me get back in shape, back to myself, back to work – but most of the time I sat in front of the tv, the couch too soft to get up from, and rocked the child’s stroller vigorously, to be honest, even when he wasn’t supposed to be sleeping, and watched fitness and healthy living programs with tips for well-being that I tried to commit to memory, most if not all of the commercials were for diet products and cosmetics that presented body and face as a battle there is no chance at winning, the most you can do is minimize the damage with the help of buy-one-get-the-second-half-off or buy- two-get one-free.
Apart from that I didn’t do much during the day, sometimes by the end of it I couldn’t recall a single real thing except for the sharp motion when rising from the couch and hitting “off” on the remote control while attempting to quickly quiet down the child as soon as I heard the garage door opening for Paul-Marc’s car, but the days slid through my fingers somehow and when the weather was decent I would go out with the child. Once I had settled in the neighborhood and took every possible route from the house to the artificial lake, I began to discern subtle differences between the houses, ones that indicated their financial states, for example, the families that were more well-off had built-in swimming pools, while the others had round plastic ones that were far cheaper but had other advantages, for example, you could take them with you when you moved. I got ours on sale at Amazon for only 299.99$ and it took Paul-Marc two weekends to install. For an extra 59.99$ you could add a safety fence for the pool but that made the whole deal a lot more expensive and as long as the child was small we didn’t find it necessary.
Alright. You don’t need to have read The Iliad or Crime and Punishment (in any case I hadn’t read them in my other life) in order to guess the end, to picture me staring at the tv then suddenly becoming aware of the strange silence or the strange lightness of the stroller that I’m still rocking, getting up from the couch and seeing the child gone, running up the stairs and not finding him in our bedroom or in his room or in the bathrooms, going downstairs again to the living room and suddenly spotting the open front door, I didn’t shut it after the grocery delivery, freezing in terror for a moment and then racing outside to the pool, seeing from afar, face-down, floating in the water, the worst sight I would ever witness in my entire life but still running – and sometimes I cannot bear such a cruel fate for my other life and I reach the pool, the scream still stuck in my throat, and I see a large stupid squirrel that fell in and drowned, his eyes open and his paws still outstretched, and Paul-Marc Jr. sitting on the grass and staring at me puzzled.
Once I ran away. It was in kindergarten. I had known for some time that the fence between the schoolyard and the adjoining public park had fallen over. A thicket of oleander grew behind it. One day at noon I stood in front of the opening and saw that I could pass through it and leave. I couldn’t understand why all the other children had not passed through the opening. I felt no fear, nor a particularly strong desire to escape the kindergarten. It was not especially bad but mostly a little boring. I stepped over the loose wire and pushed my way through oleander branches, then found myself on a small path in the Pardes Hanna public park , which was planted around the Yad Labanim memorial.
I can clearly remember the cool breath of freedom that touched my face and the odd, fresh notion that attended it – I am alone. I walked quietly and left the public park, then turned onto the street of the palms and from there to the main village square. By Café Simone, in the open sandy space next to the pharmacy, some horses stood harnessed to their carts, and in the café sat the newspaper man Kovalik who scared me a little because I had once seen him lying on the road rolling around by his black tricycle with white foam coming out of his mouth, and Mom, pulling me aside, had explained that he was an epileptic.
“Where’s your mom?” Kovalik asked.
“Home,” I whispered.
“Go home,” said Kovalik and turned back to his newspaper.
I knew that no one knew where I was, and I was feeling untethered. There was no happiness or joy in it, and no anxiety either, but rather peace and an alert wakefulness. I went to get a good look at things that had caught my eye a couple of times before, when I had gone to town with Mom or Dad: to see the tinsmith’s shop and the fishmonger’s.
The tinsmith’s shop was the most fascinating of all market shops in town. Besides the basins and buckets that he would make, there were also funnels and brushes and a great garland of loofahs, and most importantly: a marvelous set of kerosene burners and primus stoves. The primuses shone in their burnished copper and stood like an entire family according to size – from the smallest one to the enormous father primus, which was thick all over; that is, every part – the legs, the pipes, the hinges and rings, slender and fragile in the small primuses, grew and grew in proportion till in the largest primuses they were looking very coarse indeed but also very beautiful and dangerous. What a great, noisy flame they were to make.
Having satisfied myself with all the shiny devices, I walked over to the smelly fishmonger’s, where I had never been allowed to linger by the carp pool and watch and watch the breathing fish, swimming with such beauty, so alive, so desirous, so packed together, twisting around each other in a never-ending dance.
“Where’s your mom?” asked the fishmonger who came to catch a fish with a net in his hand.
“Home,” I whispered.
“Go home,” he said, and a cigarette sticking to his lips, to the side of his mouth, trembled as he spoke.
He caught a big fish. I didn’t go. I watched, mesmerized, as the hunted fish flapped about with frightening force inside the net. Never before had I seen such a thing and never had I imagined that this is what was done with these fish. The fishmonger took the flapping, struggling fish in his hands and slammed it on the filthy wooden board that lay on his workbench, held it there with his left hand and picked up a big thick hammer with his right and dealt a terrible blow to the fish’s head. The fish flapped a terrible flap, which inexplicably carried directly into my own body. The fishmonger hit it again, and this blow as well carried into my head. I stood riveted. I remember how the choking feeling built up in my throat and stayed there throughout that day, then rose up again so many times later.
The fishmonger turned the dead fish around, picked up a large knife and slashed its stomach open. Every movement, every act and every detail from the opening of the fish’s gut and the pulling out of its intestines made the horror more thunderous. Yet I could not budge. Only when the slaughtering was done and the fish was packed in newspaper did I walk away with difficulty. My entire body was trembling with weakness. I wanted to go home and could barely walk.
Slowly I crossed the expanse of the market and then moved on to the grove by the wadi, through a large pile of feathers – feathers plucked from plenty of chickens slain in the nearby slaughterhouse and thrown away here by the trees by the wadi by the donkey and horse yard, and the smell of filth that suffused the place – a place of corpses and garbage and junk: shoes, rusted broken machinery, chopped-off chicken heads and feet. Then, on to the wadi itself, the dry channel growing deeper, twisting around the trees in the grove all the way down to the bridge.
I crossed the bridge crawling. For some reason, I chose to cross it from below, inside its culvert, in a crawl, and then emerged by our field, the wide field between the street of the pines and the houses beyond the wadi with the eucalypti to the west. From the wadi I went up the main lane of the field, peppered with the footprints of beetles, tortoises and birds, and then onto the dirt road which was our street, where, as always, I took off my sandals and walked home barefoot.
Suddenly the black truck stopped by my side and Dad stepped out very angry.
“There you are. Where were you? The kindergarten teacher said you ran away. How could you?!”
He almost shouted as he spoke. Then, in a grave descending tone, the very worst was uttered:
“This I did not expect from you.”
And he said no more.
I climbed quietly into the truck, and Dad drove us the rest of the short way home. My eyes welled up. My innards burned.
“I am angry with you,” Dad said, and my silence grew, hurting and rising from my gut to my chest. I turned towards Dad. There was nothing but anger and utter gravity in his face, and he did not look back at me. Something settled at the edge of my throat, something big and hard.
When we stopped at the house, just before opening the car door, I said in a whisper:
“You’re not my dad anymore.”
“What?” he asked, surprised.
“You’re not my dad anymore,” I repeated the words in a whisper.
He kept quiet for a moment, then smiled suddenly and said,
“This you cannot have, I will always be your dad.”
“No.” I said in complete earnest and did not take his outstretched hand. “You will always be a dad, but not mine. That you are mine – only I can decide. And I decide that you are not my dad. And I will give notice that you are not my dad.”
“And how will you do that?”
“I will go to the council and I will inform the head of the council that you are no longer my dad. It’s my decision” – I said in that same whisper, with tears in my eyes, bitter tears, of a step that cannot be unwalked.
Dad kept his silence and I repeated the words in a choked whisper: “It’s my decision.”
Dad looked at me in smiling seriousness, and then his face transformed and he said in a different voice, in complete earnest: “You’re right. It’s your decision.” Then he looked straight at me and offered me his large hand again and said: “Perhaps you will agree to delay your notice at the council, and maybe allow me to remain your dad for just a little bit longer?”
I remember well his large hand reaching out to me and my own small hand reaching out to him and the big warm fingers closing around mine and then the two of us climbing the small hill home to Mom, and I couldn’t say “yes” because the tears were choking my throat.
Thursday, July 6
I’m sitting down to write because I finally have something to tell you. The boy from the newsstand didn’t bring me the paper today. I went to complain. On the way there I had the idea to tell him to bring me a copy of every newspaper. How many are there? He doesn’t even know, so we counted them. Bring me all the newspapers, all of them. Poor boy, you should’ve seen his face.
Saturday, July 15
It’s exhausting. I start at eight in the morning. I stop for lunch and then keep going until around seven at night. I read the newspapers like you’d read a book, in exact order, from the first page till the last. I have to read like this so as not to miss anything. I tried other methods. For example, reading the politics section of each newspaper first, then the sports section, then entertainment, then international news. But no, the way I’m doing it now is much better.
Sunday, August 20
I’m sorry but I had to throw out your clothes. It’s strange, I didn’t even feel that guilty. I know I told you I was going to donate them, but I don’t have time. I just threw them away. There are days that this job with the newspapers takes me twelve hours and leaves me completely worn out, especially on weekends. So I have to leave some to finish on Monday. Usually by Tuesday I’m all caught up and I can take some time to clean. Since I got rid of your clothes, I have room in your wardrobe to keep the papers I’ve already read. Every time she comes to visit, Ana says I have to throw away the newspapers. Why are you saving them, Mom. Now your smell is mixed with the smell of the ink, but it’s not a new smell, it’s a battle of competing smells.
Friday, September 1
I read what no one else does in the newspapers. Sometimes I tell myself that I’m the only person that has read such and such news, in some forgotten corner of the paper. Sometimes I tell myself that I’m the reason they publish these insignificant news items that don’t change anything in the world at all. You should see me. I compare the stories. I copy the strangest ones into a notebook. Sometimes Ana comes over and I ask her to help me move the stacks of old papers into your wardrobe.
Monday, September 11
I don’t trust the stories that are printed in only one paper. I don’t trust the stories that are exactly the same in all the papers. I only trust the stories that are different in all the papers. Yesterday Ana came over, I showed her the notebook and I read her the story of the man who got a second head implanted. It was published in just one paper, so I guess the best stories are the ones I don’t trust. Ana tells me that it’s all lies, that there are papers that make things up. Of course. Then I ask her to stay and I read her my favorite story from the past month. In Holland, a movie director was found guilty of murdering four actors who’d worked for him years prior. The murderer had never been able to accept that his actors continued to appear in other movies made by other directors. When I finished reading it, Ana started laughing; she laughed so hard that she ended up crying and she looked sad. Then I told her that I miss you, that I’d love to be able to read you the things I copy into the notebook. I have other stories that sometimes, at night, I pretend to read to you. Ana got mad and didn’t want to listen anymore.
Sunday, October 29
Ana hasn’t been here in a while. The last time she came over I asked her not to drop by on weekends anymore because those are the days I work the most. It would be very convenient for her to come on Wednesdays after six o’clock in the evening, but I don’t know what’s wrong with her, she won’t listen to reason.
Monday, November 6
Yesterday Ana told me that a new paper started coming out last month. I didn’t know and I got really mad. Honestly, I don’t know if I was angry about what she told me or because yesterday was Sunday and I don’t want anyone bothering me on weekends. Today I went to the newsstand and I gave them a piece of my mind. In the end, they admitted I was right. Yes, ma’am, starting tomorrow we’ll send you the new paper too.
Friday, November 10
You should see how easy it is. I look up the phone number. I call. I find a section name and the name of whatever reporter and I ask for them. It almost never fails. Sometimes they tell me no, that they’re freelance, so I cross their name off the list. But the reporters they call editors are there all day. They’re on call like doctors or police. It’s required of them. I ask them any old dumb questions just so they they’ll have someone to talk to, someone to entertain them. They have to be nice because they know a reader could always complain to their boss. At this point I already know many of their voices. The ones who write about politics are mostly men and they sound like smokers. With entertainment it’s the opposite, all women with voices like secretaries. Lately, when I read the articles by the reporters I talk to regularly, I feel like I’m hearing them.
Thursday, November 16
I don’t know if I should tell you this. I met Sergio yesterday. Ana talked so much about Sergio. Do you remember? Then she stopped talking about him and I didn’t know if I should ask. Then she started talking about him again, I don’t remember if you were still here, but she’d mention him casually like they were friends. Last night Ana brought him over. The boy doesn’t talk much. He seems polite, but I don’t think you’d like him.
Tuesday, November 28
Now there’s another new paper. This makes things more complicated because the other newspapers are thicker and thicker. I was getting behind and that’s why I didn’t write you, but this weekend I didn’t sleep and I finally got caught up.
Wednesday, November 29
I forgot: Ana went on a trip without Sergio. It’s strange because she didn’t go on vacation, she went to pick up a shipment of I don’t know what for his business. I think she went to Brazil. Just in case I’ll read the news from Brazil more carefully tomorrow.
Monday, December 11
Ana already came back and then left again. With the excuse that she has to travel she hardly comes over now, we just talk on the phone. Last week I went to the ophthalmologist because my eyes have been bothering me for a few months. I didn’t say anything before so as not to worry you. The problem isn’t that I read too much, but that my hands get stained with ink and then I rub my eyes. That’s what the eye doctor says and he’s right. Sometimes my fingertips turn black. The day before yesterday I had the idea to start using a wet cloth to wipe my fingers every once in a while and my eyes are much better.
Thursday, December 21
I can’t believe it. Our Ana did something terrible. I read it in the papers. They say that Sergio is free, that he’s innocent and has nothing to do with it. Sergio could’ve at least called to let me know. Maybe he doesn’t have my number. Maybe he’ll stop by the house to explain what happened. Just in case I’m not going to leave, so he’ll be able to find me. Now Ana’s in all the papers. But all the papers say the same thing, so I shouldn’t believe them. I’m going to call and you’ll see, Ana will pick up and tell us that it was all a misunderstanding, that it’s someone else with her same name. But what if Sergio answers? I’ll just hang up.
Saturday, December 23
Ana was in all the papers again today, but this time they don’t all say the same thing. I’m hearing more about her now than I have in recent weeks, since she stopped visiting. Finally, I can catch up on Ana’s life without interrupting my reading.
Thursday, January 4
In a village in China a woman gave birth to a dog. What I don’t understand is how they could put such an important story on a back page. Yesterday I argued with several editors about it. The thing is I waste the whole afternoon talking on the phone and then I have to make up for lost time. But they keep doing things so badly that I have to call more often. This didn’t happen so much before. And the worst part is that they refuse to listen. For example, one of the ones that writes about Ana won’t take my calls anymore. We used to talk regularly. Now they always tell me he’s not there. I shouldn’t have told him who I am. At first he didn’t believe me, you know, and he treated me like a prank caller. Listen to me, I told him. Listen to me carefully. And I told him the story of Ana and Sergio, and I gave him their phone number so he’d believe me. What’s that number, he asked. And he made me repeat it.
Friday, January 12
I’m going to have to ask the boy from the newsstand to help me organize the papers in your wardrobe. I was doing some calculations and in three months from now there isn’t going to be any room left. I might have to throw out some of my own clothes. There are things I don’t wear.
Wednesday, January 24
Today I woke up to Ana’s voice on the phone. What time is it? It’s eleven in the morning, she tells me, were you asleep? I didn’t argue with her because the poor thing’s in a bad state but on my watch, it was ten to seven. It seems Ana is back home now. But she gave me another phone number and told me to forget the old one. What about Sergio? We have to forget about Sergio too. You haven’t been in the papers for a while, I told her. Then Ana started to cry and said I need to see you, I want to tell you what happened. Luckily, I was able to convince her not to come, it’s not necessary, what for if I already know everything from the papers. I hung up on her.
Monday, January 29
Ana keeps calling. Now she says Sergio was guilty, that he sent her on those trips and then later pretended he knew nothing about it. I don’t know what to think. For the past four days I’ve been calling the guy who used to write about Ana to tell him this story, so they’ll tell me the truth. Today, if they say he’s not there again, I’m calling another paper.
Tuesday, February 13
In Hungary, during a concert, someone in the audience shot the violinist. The police arrested the man and discovered he was deaf. Here, the newspapers are getting fatter and my health is getting thinner. I was already a week behind, but the past few days I’ve had pains in my chest and legs, so now I’m two weeks behind. I don’t even turn on the TV or the radio so that I won’t find out about anything I haven’t read yet. You’re going to laugh: yesterday I made my order from the market and I told them not to wrap the eggs in any paper newer than January 20.
Tuesday, February 27
I can tell Ana is better because she hardly calls me anymore and she no longer insists on visiting during weekends. Yesterday she came over for a little while and, surprisingly, she wanted to help me organize the newspapers. I told her that there was no more room left in your wardrobe and it didn’t smell like you anymore. Then I tripped and I almost fell. Poor Ana was scared. Did you get dizzy? No, I told her. I’m used to that happening a lot now.
Monday, March 5
It’s getting worse. I’m still behind. I’m having eye problems again. Yesterday, to top it off, I started reading a newspaper I’d already read. I don’t know how I could’ve mixed them up. And I lost a whole hour because I didn’t realize it right away. When I got to the news about the Siamese quadruplets, all four conjoined at the head like a good-luck clover, that’s when I said I’ve already read this, because the truth is, except for the stories like that, the rest is always pretty much the same. That was yesterday because today my head hurt so bad that I lowered the blinds and sat in the dark, I didn’t read anything. I’m writing you in a rush. Sorry.
Sunday, March 11
Can you believe my bad luck that yesterday I got dizzy right as I was opening my wardrobe, I fell against the door, the whole thing shook, and the last three months of newspapers spilled out all over the floor. Now I don’t know what I’ve read and what I haven’t. I’m afraid I’ll skip a whole day by accident. The thing is I’ve lost count, I don’t know what date I was on, I just know that at this point I’m very behind. If I keep it up I’m going to be reading the papers a year after they come out. I still read the horoscopes and the weather forecast as if it were the right day.
Tuesday, March 20
I must’ve skipped several days because all of a sudden I don’t understand the news. Strange things are happening in Spain. I don’t know where I read about it. When my head hurts a lot I can only read the headlines. I don’t know if I told you about something that’s happened a few times now. I’ll be following a story day after day, like a soap opera, and then one day the story disappears. I tell myself it’ll be back. But the days go by and nothing. What happens to all those people when they’re not news anymore? No one at any of the papers can tell me what happened with the quadruplets. I don’t even have the energy to complain anymore.
Thursday, March 29
A boy was born in India with his hands on backwards, the fingernails on the inside and palms on the outside. For a second I thought it was you in the paper. The photo was blurry but the boy looked so much like you that I got out a magnifying glass to check. The thing I told you about in Spain has gone from bad to worse. Now Ana says she has a plan to solve my backlog. A friend of hers, a nurse, can’t find work, so she suggested I hire her to help me with the papers. The two of us together will be able to make some headway.
Saturday, April 7
I’ve never met anyone more useless than Violeta. If she keeps it up I’ll have to fire her. Ana asked me to be patient with her, because she’s out of work and has a five-year-old son. Since she’s no help at all with the papers, yesterday I sent her to the kitchen to make me something to eat.
Sunday, April 15
You looked better yesterday than you did the other day. What I don’t understand is why they print such tiny pictures of you. I have to spend all day with the magnifying glass so I can see you. I had to fire Violeta. Ana comes by sometimes.
Monday, April 30
They both begged me so I told Violeta okay, that she could come back, but with the condition that she can’t touch the papers. Just in case I lock the wardrobes with a key. I already caught her trying to open yours once. I shouted at her and she took off running. But if I shout too loud I get dizzy.
Thursday, May 17
I’m still dizzy. I even get dizzy sitting down, like I’m on a boat day and night.
Wednesday, June 20
This morning when I woke up I noticed a sour smell coming from the wardrobe. Everything stinks. The old newspapers are rotting. I won’t give up, but I’ve never smelled anything like it. Sometimes at night I start to howl.
Wednesday, July 4
Now the newspapers are coming in strange shapes: circles, rhombuses, ovals. The other day one of the papers had only one story: the same story told a hundred different ways. I’m so backlogged there’s no way I’ll be able to catch up. But I won’t stop trying. If I look very carefully, if I use the magnifying glass, there are very strange things going on behind you in the pictures. Some of the photos make me gag. Yesterday I fainted. Things in Spain are more and more worrying. I’m going to have to spray some perfume.
Monday, August 20
Dear Dad, it’s Ana. I just found this diary yesterday. As you already know, Mom died two Thursdays ago. I imagine she’d like to close out this journal with the clipping I’m pasting below. To think I was about to tell the funeral home not to run an obituary. But then I felt bad about it. I thought that maybe this way some old friend of hers might get the news. As far as I know, it’s the only time Mom has ever been in the paper.
My father died at six in the evening.
After the doctor told us the news, we went home. Ariane drove, and I sat next to her. Neither of us spoke. The taste of the coffee from the machine at the hospital still lingered in my mouth. I looked at the road illuminated by the headlights of our car and the cars coming towards us. There weren’t many; it was on a Friday evening.
When we got home, the kids were already asleep. Ariane paid the babysitter and walked her to the door. I went into the kitchen and sat down. I could hear Ariane saying goodbye, and the door closing. She turned off the living room light, came into the kitchen, and put on the kettle. Then she asked me if I wanted a cup of coffee.
I told her I did. I listened to the spoon clanging against the mugs as she poured in the boiling water.
“It’s better this way,” she said. “He was only suffering. In the last few weeks, he was only suffering. Believe me,” she said. “It’s better this way. For everyone.” Then she said, “It’s not just the last few weeks. It’s been going on for a few months already. He never used to sit on the porch that way. I mean, a year ago, for example. He didn’t sit on the porch that way.”
“I don’t know,” I said. I thought about it.
She put my coffee on the table next to me, and stood there for a minute with her hands on the back of the chair. She touched her face. “I’m wiped out,” she said. “And I’m hungry, too. Do you want anything to eat?”
I said no. “But you go ahead,” I said. “Make yourself something to eat.”
“O.K.,” she said. “I’m wiped out.” She stood there for a minute, her hands on either side of her neck, then lit a cigarette and started taking things out of the refrigerator. While she got her food ready, I drank my coffee and tried to think about what had happened and what I was feeling. I thought about the last few days.
“I’ve got to call my mother,” said Ariane. “I almost forgot. I’ll call her right now.” She carried her ash tray over to the phone. She left the food on the counter.
There was still a lot to do before the funeral, and I had no idea where to begin. How would I publish a death announcement, for example? When my mother died, my father took care of everything. This was the first time I ever had to deal with these things myself. I could hear Ariane talking to her mother in the hall. I lit a cigarette and tossed the match into the sink. I thought about my father.
About a year after we got married, he started pestering me about the apartment. He didn’t like the fact that we lived with Ariane’s parents. Especially after the child was born. He kept on telling us that it wasn’t good for our son and it wasn’t good for us. But at the time, we had no choice. We didn’t have any money. He said he was willing to help us out, but I didn’t ask him how much he could afford. He didn’t have a lot of money, that much I knew. Not even enough to get us started.
It took another year or so until I was able to take out a mortgage and could finally buy this apartment. We moved in over the summer, while the building was still being renovated. I was still fixing things inside the apartment. Mirrors, closets, bathroom shelves, things like that. Ariane and the baby slept in the small bedroom, and I slept in the still-empty living room.
The day we installed the kitchen cabinets- and they were still empty, I hadn’t even had a chance to clean up the sawdust- my father came to visit.
We stood in the new kitchen. He was so happy that he was smiling to himself every time there was a pause in the conversation. He brushed some dust off the counter, and I looked at his hand, the hand with the ring. That’s how I always remembered his hand, ever since I was a little boy. A hand with a wedding ring.
After a few minutes, Ariane came back and lit up another cigarette. She sat at the table and put the ashtray between us. She glanced at the candlestick holder that I was using as an ashtray. “It’s O.K.,” she said. “We shouldn’t have any trouble. You can do everything over the phone. But it can wait. Tomorrow’s Saturday,” she said, “there aren’t any papers. There’s nothing we have to do right now.”
Her coffee was tepid, and she went over to the sink and spilled it down the drain. I could see from her hair that she’d been pressing her forehead to her hand while she’d been on the phone.
It was a relief, that it was all over, I’m not denying it. At least I don’t have to go back to the hospital. I don’t know how many hours I spend sitting on that bench in the ward, staring at the doors. Almost ten days, almost all the time. I went home to shower and occasionally to sleep, but I spent most of my nights there. Sometimes Ariane took my place. Sometimes we sat there together.
Ariane put more water in the kettle. “Do you want some more coffee?” she asked.
I said no. Then she started putting everything back in the fridge. She hadn’t eaten a thing.
I rubbed my face. I felt tired and dirty. I felt the fatigue in my bones. But I didn’t have any desire to go to sleep. While Ariane was making the coffee, I stared at the table and tried to figure out what I was feeling.
“Do you want to shower first?” she asked. She threw her spoon into the sink. “Or do you want to have more coffee now and I’ll shower?” I looked at her coffee. She was holding it in the air, between us. She had just stirred it, and it was still swishing around inside the cup, a tiny whirlpool. One of us would have to drink it, and the other one would have to shower. That’s how it stood.
I closed my eyes and tried to calm down.
“Do you want it or not?” Ariane asked.
“I don’t want any coffee,” I said, “O.K.? You already asked me, and I told you I didn’t want any. Stop making me coffee. Go take a shower.”
She shrugged her shoulders and put the coffee on the counter. Then she said, “I’m going to shower. I’m falling asleep on my feet. I’m really wiped out.” She put her hands on my shoulders. “I’m falling off my feet,” she said. “Take a shower before you go to sleep, O.K.? Take a shower. You’ll feel better after you shower.”
“O.K.,” I said. I looked at her back as she left the kitchen.
A few years before my mother died, I suddenly noticed that my father was an old man. I hadn’t thought about it before. But one day, I think it was on Pesach, or maybe Rosh Ha-Shanah, I suddenly understood. It was a few months after I got married. I had brought them a toaster-oven as a holiday gift. For a long time, I’d been urging my mother to buy one, but she didn’t want to. And it irked me. She never liked new things, my mother. We’d always argue about it. But I knew how useful it was, so I bought them one anyway, for the holiday. It was a big one, top of the line. We took it out of the box, and my father and I went into the kitchen to try it out. But nothing happened. Nothing. We couldn’t even get it to turn on.
My father took out the instruction manual and we read through it a second time. Then he spread a sheet of newspaper over the floor and put the toaster oven on top of it, upside-down. It upset him that it didn’t work. We crouched down on all fours, unscrewed it, and took out the base. And then I looked at my father. He’d taken off his glasses and set them aside, on the newspaper. He looked strange without them. Like he was naked. He looked into the toaster oven, but I could tell he had no idea what he was looking for.
At that very moment, it dawned on me. I realized that all his life, my father’s had lousy luck. Life had screwed him over, and he’d never retaliated. I thought that whatever gift I’d brought, it wouldn’t have worked. It was doomed from the start. I could have brought him a television or a stereo or a lawn-mower or anything, and it wouldn’t have worked. But the worst part of it was that he always felt like he had to apologize. I watched him bending down, without his eyeglasses, telling me he was sorry I’d brought him something that didn’t work. That was the day I realized he was an old man. When I went to sleep that night, I couldn’t get that image out of my head. My father, without his glasses, leaning over the toaster oven.
I sat there in the kitchen and listened to the water running in the shower, then stopping. I thought about that young doctor who came out and told us that my father had died. And I suddenly wanted to hit him. I don’t know. Maybe it was the way he said it. I hadn’t noticed it when he spoke to us at the hospital, but I remembered it later. From the moment he opened his mouth, I knew. I shouldn’t have listened to the rest of it. He spoke like he knew exactly how he was supposed to do it. To make it easier for the family. He was pleased with the way he spoke. With the way he told me that my father had died. At that moment, when I remembered it, I could have killed him. I could have done it with my own two hands.
*The story is published in cooperation with The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature
*Translation © The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature.
Miriam tells them that he built the house himself with his own hands. She tells them how he piled up the rocks on rainy days, so that they’d get good and soaked before he soldered them into the cement. She tells them that it’s on the border of two regions, a magical place, inhabited by spirits, meigas. She explains what meigas are, using the original name, they repeat it, stopping on each syllable, with the respect of someone reciting a prayer.
Miriam makes up this whole story, jumping from one sentence to the next on tiptoes, like agile feet over river rocks, and she modulates her soft voice in such a way that he himself ends up believing this distorted version of the truth. Miriam goes silent, a pause long enough for Rafael to glance at his hands, no longer rough like before. Then he arches his back, now less flexible, and thinks that soon it will all be gone, this house, filled up with the careless junk collected by Miriam, who hasn’t shut up since they arrived.
“I’m going out to get some air.”
When Rafael says this, she gesticulates for the English. She begins to smoke an invisible cigarette and blows out smoke no one can see. She looks like a showgirl. He’ll wait till he’s outside to light it. In the entryway, he’s distracted by the wallpaper, which she hung haphazardly one Sunday morning, just to see how it looked, just to try it out. One corner wants to come unstuck. He rubs his fingertips over it, caressing it. The paper peels up like a strip of beech bark.
The cold surprises him. He lights the cigarette and walks in circles, staring at the orangey ember of its tip. He turns and looks behind him. He takes it in from this perspective. The land is on a hillside. There’s a part where the slope flattens out. On really rainy days, the water flows rapidly in that direction, as if it’s being chased by a bird of prey. Inside, someone uncorks another bottle and immediately a peal of laughter is heard. He thinks it was Miriam. Then he thinks that it could’ve been any woman.
“In a year, maybe two, you won’t even remember this place,” she’d said to him.
They’d arranged to meet the English to close the sale.
He went alone in the morning. The highway seemed more empty of cars, more hollow. The ploughed fields blurred past in the rearview mirror.
“I’m going to take one last look,” he’d said picking up the car keys. “I’m sure there’s something we left behind.”
He closes the door. He doesn’t expect an answer.
When he arrives, he goes up to the top floor. The fluorescent light in the bathroom trembles. He looks at himself in the mirror, opens the side sections and sees his face triple. It’s the last time I’ll shave in this sink, he thinks, and he doesn’t know if that’s why he does it so slowly, sliding the razor several times over the same grooves. Before pulling up the metal stopper, he looks for the crack in the tile behind the hot water tap. He only has to feel around for a few seconds. There it is. A quarter turn of the wrench scraped the enamel when it was installed. He moves a bit closer, raises his chin to shave a dimple, then he wipes his face. He packs everything up with the carefulness of a murderer and goes outside.
He needs a ladder from the garage to take down the swing. He remembers when the girls swung in it, a photo of Miriam rocking back and forth with the littlest one in her arms. He wondered where that photo was, if it had been lost in the most recent move. It doesn’t make sense anymore. The girls are grown, they’re busy with other things. He tries to remove the nails, but they’ve been encrusted in the tree for so long that they’ve become part of the branch. He gets the pruning shears and cuts the ropes. The seat hits the ground with a thud.
He’s tired from the effort. His heart pounds, for a different reason than it did back then, a faraway sound, like from the bottom of a well.
The lounge chair is still in the garden. He straddles it and looks at the woods in front of him. Someone has left behind a book of crossword puzzles, open to the middle. It must’ve been Miriam. She always starts things with manic enthusiasm then never finishes, he thinks. He picks the book up by its spine, the same way he’d pick up a puppy by the scruff of its neck, and tries to fill in the three horizontal lines that are missing. Mesopotaminan River, six letters. Roman emperor, eight. C-L-A-U-D-I-U-S. Claudius fits, but he doesn’t have a pen. He’d have to go inside and rummage through the drawers to find one. He crumples the book and throws it against a tree. The wind violently ruffles the top pages.
“I’ll put it all in the car and get rid of it,” he says aloud.
He remains in that position for a few seconds. He caresses the striped fabric of the lounge chair, the holes that time and use have left on its surface. He should fold it up, but he’s not sure he remembers how. He could stuff it in somehow, even if he had to leave the trunk open, and toss it onto the dump, beside the shredded couches, washing machine chassis. To seal the goodbye, he takes the keys out of his jeans’ pocket and stabs the longest one into the foam cushion. Another hole, new, fresh, intentional, separates a blue stripe from a white one. And no one will ever bother to sew it up.
He stands up and drags himself out of the small garden, his eyes fixed on the river. He can see it through the trees which have become denser with the summer. He feels like he’s following someone’s trail, a guide, past the property line. Under his feet, the ground is wet. In the canopy of the tallest tree, he hears a bird singing. He listens. He wonders if it will still be perched there when this place no longer belongs to him and he thinks that it will be, for a long time, until the next cold season. He turns around, admires the overgrown lawn that reaches the base of the house, the subtle yellowish color, the gray stone wall. He continues walking. He pushes aside some branches that weren’t there last year, or any previous year. It’s like pushing back a lush curtain. Then he can see, from afar, without having to walk down to the bank, Ruth’s silhouette stepping out of the water, her legs, her rounded shoulders, her hair soaked from the swim, with the unsteady wobble of someone standing on rounded pebbles.
“Take off that old jacket,” she’d shout from the water, her arms outstretched.
Miriam welcomed them today with her arms outstretched.
“Welcome to your home,” she’d said, fluidly, but her pronunciation had been better when she’d rehearsed it beforehand.
Miriam speaks only basic English and the English don’t speak any Spanish at all. It doesn’t matter. They really like the Galician wine Rafael keeps in the pantry.
“Bueno, muy bueno,” they say in unison. That much they can say.
Rafael goes inside proceeded by a mouthful of smoke that he doesn’t try to hide. In front of him, Miriam holds a bottle by the neck. She wipes it with a cloth before removing the cork. The English are starting to get a little drunk, they speak quickly to each other and Miriam can’t keep up. They’ve sat on the couch with their glasses in their hands. You’d think they’d lived there all their lives. Miriam has turned on the television and tries to explain a game show. They seem interested, but maybe they’re just being polite and don’t actually understand anything.
“Come here, sit with us,” Miriam says.
But he remains standing beside the window, hoping they finish all the wine, until there’s nothing left there.
Outside the window, on the other side of the garden, the hillside waves gently, like a huge carpet being shaken out and left flapping in the wind.
Ruth worked at his company, which made their meetings very easy. They left work at the same time, met on the second level of the parking garage. No one parked there because they could park on the street level and save themselves a few flights of stairs. Ruth was twenty-five years old, her eyes were murky and her nose was straight. She was always preceded by the echo of her heels on the cement floor of the parking garage.
In the beginning, he didn’t take her to the house. At first they went to the hostels on the outskirts of town, trying not to repeat the same ones too often. Ruth reserved the rooms herself. He remembered her boldness, always ready to play. On one occasion, they’d ended up in a hotel at the airport. The planes roared like furious elephants and then they couldn’t hear anything. Then a terrifying silence. Out the window, like now, but in another place, was the glass-walled side of a terminal.
As he drove, Ruth sat beside him, her svelte ballerina’s neck, her cheeks, her perfume mixed with the smell of the office collected behind her neck.
“I like your car,” she’d say. “Have I ever told you l like your car?”
They’d sit and have coffee at the metal table in the garden. Ruth’s blouse wet from her hair. She stretched out sometimes on the striped chair, recently purchased at the time, and closed her eyes, but she didn’t fall asleep. Without makeup or with smudges of mascara under her eyes she was even more attractive. Rafael walked around barefoot and he didn’t think about her, he thought about the days that would come, about all the Fridays of his life that would be completely uneventful, exactly the same as that one.
“Is there any cheese left in the fridge?” asked Ruth.
On one occasion they shared a cake, him standing, her sitting on the countertop. They didn’t even use plates. Rafael doesn’t want to recall whether it was left over from a kid’s party, one of the girls’ birthdays.
“Is there any wine in the kitchen?” Miriam asks. “I think these people drank it all.”
“If there’s none left in the pantry, we’re all out.”
He looks Miriam in the eye. Her face reminds him of all the photos they’ve put into the photo albums.
The English finally understand how the game show works and are overcome with a kind of euphoria. It consists of guessing a location through images that appear for a few seconds on screen. They assure them that there is a similar TV program in their country. They go silent when the image of a very tall tower shaped like a mushroom appears.
“Toronto, Canada,” says the English man, accentuating the first A.
The game show host confirms the answer. Miriam claps.
“Muy bien, muy Bueno.”
She says this in Spanish. They understand and the English man responds by sticking up his thumbs in a gesture of triumph.
Rafael sits in one of the chairs at the table where they had dinner, at a prudential distance from the others. Crumpled paper napkins and breadcrumbs on the tablecloth, dried pâté on the dessert plates. He rubs his chin, shaved this morning. The glass of the window returns his translucent and deformed reflection, his hair gray and too long, his bulging abdomen that now makes him uncomfortable in certain positions, like when tying his shoes or fertilizing the hydrangeas.
“We’ll be good friends for a long time,” Ruth had promised.
He’s suddenly overcome with a feeling of relief, deep relief and sadness. He tries to remember the name of the blond guy, Julian or Jaime, the reason Ruth never went back into the river. When the company retired him early, he drove by the new offices many times. Sometimes he was tempted to go down into the parking garage, look for her red Golf. He never had the nerve. She’d probably bought a new car by now, a convertible. She might even have a child.
The English sleep in what is now already their former bedroom. Rafael can’t fall asleep. He hears distant noises in the night, an intermittent flapping of wings. His insomnia pulls his thoughts to the tank of the toilet on the ground floor, next to the kitchen. He imagines the trickle of water, the calcium solidifying slowly on the walls of the bowl. Miriam drank a little too much and her breathing, from the other single bed, is rhythmic. She hugs a pillow tightly.
They’re spending the night in the room where the girls used to sleep. There’s a sky of glowing stars above their heads, missing the heavier planets which over time came unstuck as the glue deteriorated. Rafael sleeps in some uncertain location between the moon and Orion.
In the morning a sharp light comes in through the vertical slats of the shutters. He feels someone shaking his shoulder.
“Come on, man, get up.”
His head is heavy. He slept badly, in fits and starts, waking up every once in a while and wondering where he was. He suddenly remembers. The last hours of light, some loose tiles on the shed that he fixed that morning, the hands of the English man gripping the right side of the page, the tip of the pen signing the check. He feels an almost imperceptible twist of his heart, which disappears almost immediately.
“Let’s go, what are you waiting for, let’s get out of here.”
It’s the first time he’s heard Miriam use this expression. He sits up, annoyed, and puts on his jacket. He slept in his clothes. His body leaves a deep groove in the bedspread. He rubs his hand over the top, but the wrinkles don’t disappear. It’s Miriam who closes the front door, after placing the set of keys on the table in the entryway.
“You think they’ll see them?” she asks once they’re already outside.
Rafael shrugs his shoulders. He stares into the hedges with an expression of boredom, he sighs. He remembers for an instant Ruth’s face with her makeup smudged and all he knows is that one of her nostrils was smaller than the other.
“They’ll see the keys, right?” Miriam asks again.
Miriam looks up to the windows on the second floor. A few fluffy clouds chase each other across the bright blue sky. Rafael is certain Miriam is going to say something to him, that she’s going to ask him to force open the door to write them a note and stick it to the fridge or something like that, but then she gets in the car and says in a girlish voice: “Will you drive me to the city?”
The gravel crunches under the weight of the tires. Rafael reverses. He’s always afraid of running over the dog when he does this and he opens the door to see better, but the dog died of old age and is buried under the oak. He pictures the girls’ hot tears as he threw shovelfuls of dirt over the animal.
Under the back wheels there’s nothing but a gentle slope and the white rocks marking the way out.
My sister always said that it was much better to have a niece or nephew than your own child. I suppose that my mother agreed with her. My sister said that with a nephew you got to enjoy the good times, all the fun of having a kid without going through any of the trials and tribulations that came with them. Like pregnancy, or labour. Or nappies. Or being woken up in the middle of the night. And when they grow up you don’t have to scold them, or educate them, my sister went on. You avoid all the enigma and bloodshed of their teenage years. You can just spoil them and be loved in return. For instance, you can get them a pair of trousers if you like but you don’t have to get them all their trousers and then keep tabs on them, watching out for when they’re getting frayed or too small. You can watch the children grow, but at a distance, safe from all the conflagrations and black holes. Not to mention the time that passes you by, the sensation that life is slowly slipping away from you like a rudderless boat on the tide. I couldn’t have disagreed more with what my sister was saying, but I didn’t let it show. A rudderless boat is much better than one that speeds all over the place, then springs a leak and sinks. I wanted all the trials and tribulations that my sister was talking about. I wanted to iron clothes, wipe bottoms, take their temperature and bring them to the doctor for check-ups. To lose sleep and never get that pressure off your chest. But it’s always difficult to contradict your older sister.
Laura was my sister’s daughter and thus my niece. A fragile, dreamy girl, just after she turned four she started to stay at my house once a week after school. She was born in October. At first we thought that it would be best if she came on Thursdays to spend Thursday afternoons with me. I remember the afternoon on which Laura, sitting on the sofa, pointed to the hall with an unmistakeable expression of joy on her face, smiling that radiant smile that only children are capable of. It was the second or third afternoon she’d spent with me, my sister hadn’t got back from her session yet and night was already falling, even though we’d only just had tea. I looked where Laura was pointing but there wasn’t anyone or anything there, just my dark, uninteresting hallway. There were crumbs all over the floor. Then she looked straight at me and excitedly exclaimed ‘Didn’t you see it? A ghost just passed by! It was so scared!’ That was the day that I knew I’d won her trust: she felt comfortable making things up with me. She was ready to lie, play jokes or test me. Until then, she’d barely talked at all.
After Christmas, my sister decided that it was better if her daughter came to my house on Fridays instead of Thursdays. My sister was so exhausted after her sessions that it made more sense to have Laura come and sleep over on Fridays. My flat was a one bedroom but we got a fold-out bed, I can’t remember where it came from, maybe we brought it from La Torre. A small cot with a thin, ten centimetre mattress.
On those first Fridays in winter, Laura always slept straight through, exhausted by the games and excitement of spending the night away from home (it was her first time) and maybe also by the mystery of her mother’s semi-clandestine adult activities. It was a few months before she woke up in the middle of the night for the first time, although her mother had told me that she did so regularly at home. One of the happiest moments of my life was the first time that Laura started to scream at three or four in the morning. I was fast asleep in bed when I was awoken by the sound of a crying child and for a few seconds I thought that it was a baby, my baby, a non-existent son or daughter (obviously, I don’t have any children of my own) and in my bewildered disappointment, before I went to console my niece, I cried a little too, from joy, a sense of foreboding and maybe anger. I immersed myself in Laura’s tears, plunging into them in my desperation for an alternative life. Then I went to her bed in the darkness and saw that she was screaming in her sleep with her eyes closed and her lower lip trembling, her red fingers gripping tight to the edge of the duvet. I stroked her hair and, slowly, she calmed down, as though my fingertips dispensed some kind of drug.
These regular sleepovers lasted two years. I bought a toothbrush, a pink pillow with animal pictures on it, pyjamas, toys and biscuits in different shapes and colours. At home she always slept with a teddy bear that Jaime had given her, so I got her a stuffed toy to cling to when she spent her nights with me. I found a cloth duck that I liked right from the beginning. It had the empty gaze of fake or stuffed animals but it wasn’t scary, because it didn’t look real. It was soft, there was something jelly-like in its movements, and it only cost me ten euros. I kept it in the built-in wardrobe in my bedroom and every Friday morning I carefully placed it under my pillow. The first thing Laura did when she came over was run to my bed to find the toy and say hello. She thought that the duck spent all week there, sleeping with me. She was a little sad that the toy didn’t have any children to play with. I suppose that my life seemed boring and predictable to her. Every time Laura saw the duck, she jumped and shrieked with joy, as though she’d spent all week worrying that the duck, or I, wouldn’t be there. We gave it a name, Feldsduck. ‘How are you, Feldsduck? Have you missed me very much?’ Laura said as she stroked its orange beak or kissed its yellow feet, covering it in drool.
I loved spending my Fridays with my niece. I went to pick her up from school in the car and we spent the afternoon listening to music, painting, in the park or at the cinema. We ran races and hid things. We smelled leaves and paints. We put make-up on each other and danced around an imaginary fire playing invisible instruments. In the evening, we made dinner: she liked to sit on a stool and taste each of the ingredients we added to the pizza or salad. Before going to bed, I read her a story. My collection of children’s books grew little by little, taking up more and more space on my bookshelf. Laura made up verbs from nouns: ‘story-ing’, ‘movie-ing’, ‘happy-ing’. She also said ‘blanket-ing’ when she wrapped herself up in the duvet. When I was with her, the world suddenly took on new meaning, it became a wonderful gamut of possibilities.
I lost Feldsduck. One Friday morning, as soon as I’d woken up, I got a strange feeling, an intuition, as though there were a gap in my chest. I immediately saw, or thought I saw, the duck’s indifferent gaze. I looked first in the wardrobe where I usually kept it and then, automatically, under the pillow. Next I searched the flat, wildly and at random initially and then systematically. In my anxious state I searched places I hadn’t explored in years, out of reach corners, under the bed and sofa, in the utility room, in a gigantic cardboard box where I keep old letters and papers, family photographs and my notes from university. As I looked back over my life I was surprised at the person I had been only a few years before. I felt guilty. I remembered that I had put the duck into the wash the previous Sunday, in with Laura’s sheets, and I remembered hanging it up to dry on the terrace, pinning its right wing to the clothesline with a clothes peg. It looked submissive hanging there, like a puppet waiting for a hand to fill it and bring it to life. But I couldn’t be sure that I’d put it back in its place in the wardrobe. Things one does regularly fade in the mind, they pile up like socks and shirts, two by two or three by three until you can’t tell them apart any more. Fortunately, I had plenty of time so I went to the shop where I’d bought the lost duck. They had a few that were just the same, lined up next to each other on the shelf, their feet hanging down lifelessly. Like children waiting their turn. They were all in the same, tired-looking pose, and had the same empty expression.
Before I went to pick Laura up, I put the new duck under the pillow. It looked identical to the other one, you couldn’t tell them apart. Maybe there was a slight difference, the one that I’d lost might have been a little worn, but a four year old girl wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.
I got into the car and went to the school. It was impossible to find a parking place at that time so I always left the car double-parked. The mothers (they were almost all mothers) formed a semi-circle around the door. The pre-schoolers trooped out one by one and ran to freedom. Laura was usually one of the last to come out. She walked over to me with a smile but didn’t hurry, as though she had a keen sense of dignity.
When we got home, she repeated her weekly ritual and ran to my bed. She lifted up the pillow, picked up the soft toy and looked at it. The joy disappeared from her face. She looked at me and then back to the toy. ‘This isn’t Feldsduck,’ she said. ‘Where’s Feldsduck?’
I had to admit what had happened. I apologized again and again. It’s hard to excuse yourself to a four year old girl. They don’t yet know about not hurting people’s feelings and explanations get tangled up, they sound absurd and pointless. But as I spoke I realized that she was more curious than upset. She didn’t cry. In fact, she didn’t say anything to me at all. Instead of looking at me, she looked at the new stuffed animal. ‘You know what?’ she said eventually, ‘We need to give him another name.’ ‘Oh, of course,’ I answered. ‘He needs a new name.’ I suggested a lot: Ducky, Mathew, Andy, Bart, Juan Carlos. None of them seemed right. ‘He doesn’t look like a Bart,’ she’d say, staring into the duck’s blank eyes. We spent the afternoon like that, staring at a cloth duck. Laura took the naming ceremony very seriously. I had to make an effort not to laugh. How did she know that it was a different stuffed animal? That night, after I’d helped her into her pyjamas, she announced that she’d found the right name. ‘Her name will be Duckological.’ I was left speechless. Where had that name come from? ‘It’s not a boy duck, no, not exactly,’ she said. ‘She’s a girl, a girl duck.’ (She said adverbs in a very funny way: instead of ‘exactly’, she said ‘esastly’.) I told her that in that case we should call it ‘Miss Duckological’. She thought for a moment. ‘Her name is Duckological,’ she decided, bringing the conversation to an end.
That Saturday, when my sister came to pick Laura up, mi niece told her all about the adventures of Duckological the duck. ‘Best of all,’ she said, ‘we have no idea what happened to the other duck. Maybe it flew away?’
On Sunday morning, the doorbell rang. My downstairs neighbour had the original duck, Feldsduck, tucked under her arm. It had apparently fallen off the clothesline onto her terrace. She’d come by a couple of times in the week but I had been out. I thanked her. I put the two ducks next to each other and inspected them for differences. I picked up a black marker and drew an F on the label of the duck my neighbour had brought and a D on the one I’d bought a few days ago.
The following Friday I decided to try an experiment. I put the stuffed toy with an F on the label under the pillow. Then I went to pick Laura up from school and when we got home she ran to my bed, took the toy from under the pillow and started to shout like crazy: ‘Feldsduck’s back! Feldsduck’s back! Where were you Feldsduck?’
Laura said that Feldsduck was a sad toy but Duckological was always happy. She had no trouble telling the difference. After that, I started sleeping with both of them. When I told my sister, she said that I’d always been dopey but also that I had a huge imagination. ‘There must be some distinguishing mark, something that a four year old girl can see but you can’t because you never pay attention.’ I took these words as a kind of reproach but I didn’t want an argument.
A couple of years later, when everything came to an end, Laura went to live with her father in Salamanca. I asked her if she wanted to take the ducks with her as a parting gift, but she didn’t want them. ‘They’re used to living with you,’ she told me. ‘They’d both be very sad in Salamanca, they wouldn’t know what to do. They don’t like cities they don’t know. And I know you’ll take good care of them.’ I had to make a big effort to stop myself from crying in front of her.
A few months later, I woke up in the middle of the night feeling as though I was drowning. I turned on the television and tried to watch a movie. I ate a tangerine. It was Friday, so I didn’t have to go into the office the next day. It was dawn when I opened the wardrobe door. I took out the two stuffed toys and ran my hand over their cloth tummies. I looked at the labels and realized that the letters I’d scribbled to distinguish them had faded. The D and the F were identical blotches. I wondered whether Laura would still be able to tell them apart and tell me which was which. I remembered my childhood, my sister, our mother and summers in La Torre, when we swam in a big, insect-ridden pond. You’re Duckological aren’t you? I said to one of the ducks. I put the other one back in the wardrobe. I hope I’m right, I thought, as I got into bed. I hugged the toy tight until I fell asleep. When I woke up, eight hours later, the cloth toy was still there. I went to the bathroom, took out my nail scissors, (I‘d often used them to cut Laura’s nails) and went back to bed. I looked at the stuffed toy, then at the label and held it out between my thumb and index finger, but I couldn’t go through with it. What if I was wrong?
You never saw such surprise as that of the people of Ros Dha Loch when they heard that Nora, daughter of Marcus Beag, was to go to England. A sister of hers was already over there, working, but Nora was needed at home. There would be nobody left after her except the old couple. The two brothers she had never did any good – for themselves or for anyone belonging to them. Martin, the eldest one, was sent to Galway to be a shop-boy, (old Marcus always had notions), but he wasn’t long there when he lost his job because of the drink and after that he joined the British Army. As for Stephen, the second one, there was no stopping the old fellow from thinking that he would make a “gentleman” of him, but when the headstrong lad didn’t get his own way from the father he stole off with the price of two bullocks sold at Uachtarard fair in his pocket.
“He’s no better here than out of here,” the old man said on hearing that he was gone. But he was only pretending that the story didn’t hurt him. Often at night he was unable to sleep a wink thinking about the two sons who had left him and gone astray. With any one of the neighbours who would try to brighten the dark old man then, as to sympathise with him over the misfortune of his sons, he would say nothing except – “What’s the good in talking? Very little thanks I got for trying to keep them in the old nest. The two of them took flight and left me by myself. They’ll give me little cause for worry from now on.”
But they did. And up until Nora said that she had decided not to stay at home any longer nothing troubled him but the way the two sons had left him. He had been shamed by them. People were making fun of him. He was the laughing stock of the village – himself and his family. And the way that he’d thought that he’d give them a decent livelihood. The way he worked himself to the bone, labouring morning to dusk in all weathers to keep them at school until they might be as erudite as the master himself, indeed!
But it would be a different story with Nora, according to himself. He would keep her at home. He would find a match for her. He would leave the small-holding to herself and her husband after death. When she told him that she would leave he thought that she was just joking. But it was soon clear to him that she wasn’t. Then he did his level best to keep her at home. It was useless. It was no use his wife talking to her either. For a month there was great antagonism between them: the old man threatening every evil on her head if she left, herself trying to better him. But her mind was set on going, and across she’d go no matter what was said.
“You had two sons,” she said to him one night, “and they left you. The two of them showed you. You don’t know that I would do the same, if you don’t leave me go willingly.”
“She’s the last of them, Marcus,” said the wife, “and by God I hate to part with her at the end of my life, but,” she continued and she nearly weeping, “maybe ’tis for her own good.”
The father didn’t think so. He was adamant. He was certain that it was far far better for her to stay where she was and make a match there. Her husband would have forty acres of land when her old father died. She was a pleasant and affectionate girl. There wasn’t a farmer or a shop-keeper in the seven parishes which were nearest to them who wouldn’t be very happy to marry her.
“And why wouldn’t they be,” he said, “such a lovely girl and with forty acres of land.”
But he had to give in in the end.
It’s then they saw the work! The great vexation and anxiety that had come over Nora for a while was all gone, apparently. There wasn’t a trace to be seen. She was as light and festive as the best days of her life, or so it seemed. They had so many things to do. Hats and dresses to make and decorate. Cloth and ribbons of every kind to be bought and dyed. She hadn’t one break in the weeks before she went. Visiting here today and elsewhere tomorrow.
She didn’t shed one tear until the two big travelling boxes that she had bought in Galway were put on the cart that was to take them to the railway station at Ballinahinch. Then she wept profusely. When they were east at the crossroads the showers of tears were on the cheeks.
“May God have mercy on them,” said one of the boys who was thrown on a ditch that was on a smooth mossy patch by the roadside.
“Amen,” said another one of them, “and everyone like them.”
“But do you know what’s the matter with her that she’s going away?”
“It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if she could do well at home.”
“Three fellows came asking for her last year – the three of them well known for their money.”
“It’s said that she had great time for the son of Sean Matthew, the shop-keeper,” said the old man in their midst.
“The one who was at the big college in Galway?”
“The very one.”
“I don’t believe it. He was a bad lad.”
“You don’t say.”
The cart was moving northwards through the great flat bogland between Ross and Ballinahinch. Nora could still see her own house below in the glen. It wasn’t about that she was thinking, but on the misfortunate day that the son of Sean Matthew met her at the Ros Dha Loch crossroads, and he spending his holidays at his uncle’s house in the village eastwards. She didn’t stop thinking about that until she reached Ballinahinch. The train let off a sharp impatient whistle as if it was telling people to hurry up and not delay something so huge and lively and powerful. Nora went in. The train gave a little jolt. It started to move slowly. Marcus Beag walked by its side. He took leave of his daughter and returned home sad and sorrowful.
It was true for the wise old man who was thrown on the mossy green looking at life and letting it go by that she once gave her heart to the son of Sean Matthew at one point in her life. But that time was gone. And it wouldn’t be a lie to say that it was an angry and intense hatred that she had for the fine young man who was over in Glasgow in a college studying to be a doctor. Because of that love that she had had for him she now had to leave Ros Dha Loch and her closest friends and bring the burden of the world on herself. He had been her most beloved once, that bright young man who spent his holidays in Ros Dha Loch, more so than any other person she’d ever met. And weren’t those wonderful stories that he told her about the life they’d have in the great towns out foreign! And how his tales pleased her! And when he said to the foolish naïve girl that he’d never met anyone he loved more than her, how pleased and heart-warmed she’d been! And the wonderful house that they’d have when he’d be a doctor!
And she believed everything that the young fellow told her. He believed it himself – while he was saying it. Indeed, such foolish talk didn’t worry him too much when he went away. But it was different with Nora. It would be a long time before he’d come back again. Summertime was a long way away! ‘Twould be a long time before it would be summer always.
She had had great trust but she was deceived. The letters she sent him were returned to her. He was in another place. Nobody had any information on him. Her life was confused. Her mind was in a turmoil when she understood the story correctly. She was thinking about him and turning it all over in her mind by day and by night. She could do nothing but leave the place entirely. She, herself, and everyone associated with her were ashamed in front of people. A young girl who used to be a servant in Ros Dha Loch was working over in London. She would head for that city. She would make for that city now and not for the big town where her sister was.
Sitting in the train she was filled with wonder at the way rivers and harbours, lake, mountain and plain flew past while she herself did nothing. Why were they all moving away from her? What kind of life would be there for her in the foreign faraway land where this wonderful vehicle would leave her? Dread and trembling came over her. Darkness was falling on the flatland and the mountains. A halt was put to her thoughts but it was clear to her that she was borne away on some strange animal; until she felt her heart starting and jumping with the force of anger; until she was a fire-dragon, and flames leaping from her eyes; that she was being taken to some terrible wasteland – a place where there was neither sunshine nor rainfall; that she had to go there against her will; that she was being banished to this wasteland because of one sin.
The train reached Dublin. She felt that the whole place was disturbed by a great single drone of sound. Men screaming and shouting. Trains coming and going and blowing whistles. The noise of men, of trains, of carriages. Everything she saw filled her with wonder. The boats and shipping on the Liffey. The bridges, the streets that were lit up at midnight. The people, the city itself that was so beautiful, so full of life, so bright in those dead hours of the night. For a little while she nearly forgot the misfortune that drove her from her own hometown.
But when she was on the train over, the reverse was true. The terrible dark thoughts pressed down on her again. There was no stopping them. Why did she leave her home anyway? Wouldn’t it have been better to stay, no matter what happened to her? What would she do now? What was going to happen to her in the place where she was going?
Things like that. If there were people long ago who spent a hundred years to discover that life was but a day, as the old storytellers tell us, she herself did something more marvellous. She made a hundred years out of one single day. She became old and withered in just one day. Every sorrow and heartbreak, and every great trouble of the mind that comes upon a person over a lifetime came to her in one single day from the time she left Ros Dha Loch to the moment she was at the centre of London, England – the moment she saw Kate Ryan, the servant girl they had had at home, waiting for her at the side of the train to give welcome. She never understood life until that very day.
The two young women were living in a miserable ugly back street on the southside of the city. In a large sprawling house where the people were on top of each other in one great heap was where they lived at the time. You never saw the likes of Nora’s amazement when she saw the number of them that were there. She could have sworn that there was at least one hundred people, between men, women and children. She used to be left alone there for the whole day, because Kate had to go out to work from morning until dusk. She would sit at the window looking at all the people going by, wondering where they could all be going. She wasn’t long like that until she began to wonder if she’s made a mistake in coming at all. She wondered why she had left the lonely village in the west among the hills on the edge of the great ocean. What would her father say if he knew why? He’d be furious of course.
“Why had I the misfortune more than anyone else?” she would say. But that was too insoluble a question, and when she couldn’t find an answer she’d go out onto the street; but she wouldn’t go far for fear of getting lost. But the same thoughts pressed down on her in the street among people, just like in the house.
One night, when Kate came home from work, Nora was sitting by the fire crying.
“Now, now, Nora love,” she said, “dry your eyes and drink a cup of tea with me. I was told to tell you that a girl is needed by relatives of my mistress, and if you would go there….”
“I’ll go there,” Nora said, rising quickly.
On the following morning she journeyed to the house of the lady. She started work there. She had so much to do there, so many new thoughts entered her mind, that she couldn’t think of anything else for a little while. In the letters she sent home she included a little money even though she knew that they didn’t lack much because they were already well set up. And the letters her father sent to her, she used to read and reread every night before going to bed. They used to have news of the village. That Tomas Pats Mor had bought a new boat. That Nell Griffin had emigrated to America.
A few months went like that but in the end the lady told her that she wasn’t satisfied with her and that she’d have to leave. She had to do that. She left what she had behind her and went. She had no shelter or protection that night but the rain falling on her and the hard streets under her feet.
Is it necessary to talk about everything that happened to her after that? About the “young nobleman” who gave her food and drink and money and she at the end of her tether with want and need. About the way that she started on the drink. About the way she tried to deceive herself, and daze and blind her mind. About the different people who met her in houses of drink and otherwise. About their talk and their conversation. About the way her self-esteem was narrowed until after a while she didn’t care what might become of her. About the way she was going to the bad day by day, until in the end she had no care or honour, but walked the streets.
Nine years she had like that. Drinking and carousing at night. Dressing up and getting herself ready during the day for the next night. Any thought that used to come into her head about the life she lived now and the one she lived at home she banished as quickly as she could. It was thoughts like that that caused her most unease. And – even if it’s true that a person would have no interest whatsoever in living unless he thought that somehow he was doing more good than bad – she couldn’t do any differently. But those thoughts came mercilessly against her will in their hundreds and hundreds during the day – especially after she had just sent a letter home, a thing she often did. And when they came upon her thickly like that she would go out drinking.
She was out one night walking the streets after she had just sent a letter home that contained some money. It was eleven o’clock. The people were coming out of the theatres in their thousands and thousands and she looking at them. There were some among them who stared at her and at women of her kind. The kind of looks that shows the desire and greed which brings destruction on people, that drives countries against each other and which gave material to poets and storytellers of the world from the time of Troy to the present day.
She wasn’t long like that when she saw a man in front of her, his woman by his side. They started at each other, without knowing why. They recognised each other. It was the son of Sean Matthew who was a doctor in London. She turned on her heels quickly. She heard him say it to his wife on going into a restaurant that was near them, and that he would join her shortly. Nora moved off on hearing that. He was after her. She quickened her walk. He did the same. She was trotting, he trotting after her. She had a head start on him. She ran up one street and down another. She feeling that he was at her heels. She worried to death that he might catch her. That everyone would find out about her predicament at home. That everyone would know.
A chapel was just in front of her – a small chapel that stayed open all night because of some feast day. She needed the shelter there from the man who was after her – that man to whom she gave the love in her heart and who’d deceived her. She had no recollection of getting inside, but in she went. What she saw made her feel strange, it had been so long since she was inside a church. Her youth came back to her. She was in Ros Dha Loch Church again. A statue of the Blessed Virgin was in a corner and a red light in front of it. She made for that corner. She threw her hands around it. She was shaking and rocking back and forth with heaviness of mind. Her bright peaked hat almost falling off her head. Her bright red ribbons drenched and soiled by the mud of the street. She was praying to God and the Virgin out loud, prayer after prayer, until she exclaimed in a strong fervent voice: “Holy Mary – Mother of God – pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death – Amen!”
An old priest behind her heard her pray. He spoke to her in a kind gentle manner. He calmed her. He took her with him. He questioned her. She told him her story without holding anything back. She showed him the letters she had received from her father.
He put further questions to her.
Yes – she was satisfied going home. ‘Twas she who sent the money home with which the old man bought the fishing boat. She was certain that they didn’t – they didn’t know anything about the life she led in London.
“And did your father ask you why you didn’t go to your sister in the first place?”
“He did. But I told him that the work was better in London.”
They spent a good while like that – himself questioning and she giving the answers. He found decent lodging for her for the night. He told her to send a letter home to say that she was thinking of returning, and that he would visit her the following day and that she would be able to make a confession. That night before he went to sleep he wrote a long letter to the Parish Priest of Ros Dha Loch telling him the story and asking him to keep an eye on the young woman when she arrived home.
They were expecting her at home. Everybody was saying that no person ever left Ros Dha Loch who did as well as her. There was no one among them who had sent that kind of money home.
“It must give you great satisfaction, Marcus,” Sean the Blacksmith was saying and he putting a shoe on Marcus’ horse down in the forge on the day she was coming home, “that in the end she’s coming home, because you haven’t got anybody to leave the land to.”
“Well you may say it,” he replied, “and I’m a fair old age an’ all.”
The horse and cart was fitted out for his journey to the railway station for her.
“They used to say,” he said boastfully and he fixing the horse to the cart, “that the other two did nothing, which was true I suppose, but you wouldn’t believe the help she gave me. Look at the big fishing boat that’ll be chasing mackerel tonight – I couldn’t have bought it but for her.”
“You’re saying nothing but the truth now, Marcus,” said the old man who was giving him a hand, “but tell me this,” he said nervously: “Did she ever tell you that my Seamus met her in some place?”
“I did ask her that, but she never saw him.”
“Well, look at that now…. And I haven’t had a letter from him in six months.”
Marcus left. He hadn’t been so light-hearted for many a long day as he went off to the railway station. If his sons had gone to the bad his daughter had surpassed all. She was an example for the whole parish. Now they wouldn’t be able to say that he’d have to sell the land in the end. He would keep Nora at home. He would make a match for her. He would find her a solid, prudent man….
These thoughts hadn’t ended when the train came in majestically. Nora came off it. And he had some welcome for her! And even greater than his, if that was possible, was the welcome that her mother gave her at home.
But didn’t she look spent and tired! What did they do to her at all? Was it the way she’d been doing too much work? But she wouldn’t be at home long before she would have a good appearance again. The wan cheeks would be gone; if she stayed at home and took their advice.
“And the first bit of advice I’ll give you is to have this lovely bit of meat and cabbage, because I suppose you never had time to have a bit to eat in that city,” said the old woman and she laughing.
But Nora couldn’t eat. She wasn’t a bit hungry. She was too upset from the long journey, she said. She would go straight to the room and undress. She would rest there. And after a while maybe she’d be able to eat something.
“Or maybe you’d like a cup of tea to begin with,” her mother said when she was back in the room.
“I’d prefer that,” she said, “maybe it would do me some good.”
That night when the people of the town came in to welcome her they couldn’t see her. They were told that she was so exhausted from the journey that she had to go asleep, but that they would see her tomorrow. Nora heard their talk and conversation as she was across in her room praying to God and The Virgin to put her on the right road from now on and to give her the power to stay that way forever.
It was amazing the way Nora worked after her homecoming. Within the person who was called Nora Marcus Beag in Ros Dha Loch there were two actual women: the young gentle one who had spent some time in England earning money and another woman who remained unknown to the people of the village, but who had suffered the hardships of life in a foreign city. And just as there were two persons, you might say, there were two minds and two modes of thought there as well. She had the outlook of the woman who had been led astray in London as well as the viewpoint she had before she ever left her native place at all.
And she bore the constant conflict between them. The woman who had once led a wild life fighting with the other woman who never left and who wanted nothing except to stay at home, settled and secure. It was a hard struggle. Sometimes the evil was stronger, she’d think, and then she could be seen making for the Chapel. And all the people saying that they’d never seen a young woman so devout and pious and polite as herself.
During this time the village nearest to them had a pattern-day. A large number of people from Ros went there. Some of them walking, some riding, and some others across the harbour in their boats. Some of them went there to sell stock. Yet others had no particular business there.
Nora was one of this crowd. She was walking around the fair looking at the cattle that were being sold. Getting to know people here and enquiring after some person who had left the district since she first left for London. She was cheery, all dressed-up and upright. A dress of the best white cotton, the most expensive, was what she wore. A dress that she’d brought back from London. Fine satin ribbons trailing after her. Peacock feathers standing up in her hat. She hadn’t been so breezy and happy for a long time. It was a terribly hot day. The sun was glaring down ferociously. If it wasn’t for the little breeze that came in off the harbour now and again, one couldn’t take the heat. Nora was exhausted by the day. She heard violin music close by. Soft, sweet, pleasant music. The fiddler was sitting by the door of the cabin. His head swaying back and forth. Such a satisfied and contented expression on his face and in his manner that you’d think he’d never had any worry or trouble in his life before and never would.
Nora went in. she sat on a stool by the door to listen to the music. She was exhausted. If she could only have a drink! That’s what she thought. That conflict was started again. She was just about to leave when a young man from Ros came over to her to ask if she’d have a glass with him.
“The day itself is so hot that it wouldn’t do a bit of harm to you. Have anything you like.”
She took a glass from him.
Any person who’s been fond of the drink at a point in their life and who’s stayed off it for a while, and who again touches a drop, ’tis certain that he’ll drink a second glass, and a third one, and maybe a ninth one, because the old desire is reawakened.
That was the way it was with Nora. She drank the second one. And the third one. It soon went to her head. She began to make a show. She went out and danced. But she had to give up before long. Dizziness was in her head. Her legs had gone from under her. She was barely able to go out but she hadn’t got far when she fell on a bank by the side of the road.
A few hours of night had gone by when her father found her like that.
He lifted her into the cart and drove her home.
The following morning the same cart was being prepared outside the door.
“If those are the kind of tricks you learned in England,” he said and bitterness in his voice, “it’s there you can be practising them.”
The two off them went to the railway station.
The very night that Nora left you could see an old man inside a fishing boat if you were by Ros Dha Loch shore. A container was drawn up by his side and he trying to obliterate the name that was written on the boat. Even if he did, he didn’t succeed in rubbing the name from his heart. ‘Twas the name of his daughter that was on the boat.
*This story is taken from: Padraic O Conaire – M’Asal Beag Dubh and 14 more of his greatest stories, Poolberg Press Ltd., 1982.
I came across him the other day when I was looking for the snorkel fins in the storage space. I didn’t even remember that I’d left him there. He was covered in dust and had a thin spider web in his hair. I wiped it away. He was still dressed in his blue pants and the brown jacket with the bear ears on the hood. His eyes were closed, his arms outstretched, wanting a hug maybe or to be picked up, I don’t remember which but he always wanted to be held.
I remember that the only thing I wished was that he have a button to be turned off and on. As I held the pregnancy test in my hands, I imagined that the body forming inside my body had a little button on its chest. Something simple, like a light switch. The same color as his skin, so that the deformity wouldn’t be too noticeable, I didn’t want anyone else to be able to use it. Just me.
Although we’d been trying to have a baby the pregnancy took me by surprise. Happy? Somewhat. I have to admit that the idea of having a kid wasn’t wholly disagreeable to me. Ever since we’d gotten married I knew that was one of our goals: to start a family. The priest said so during the ceremony, our parents repeated it. They’d been asking us to make them grandparents for a while. So after six years we decided to stop taking birth control pills. It sounds funny now to say “we decided,” when really it was me who took them, it was me who bled every month, it was me who was going to give birth to the baby. But we were united, because we were a couple, and it was popular at the time to say: “we’re pregnant.” It sounded as ridiculous as saying: “we have a vaginal infection.” But, anyway, we were pregnant and excited, although surprised by how quickly it had all happened.
The books I read said that a planned pregnancy could take up to a year, even if we were both healthy. So I thought: “Okay, I have a year. Maybe in a year I’ll be able to convince myself I really want to be a mom.”
But I didn’t get a year. I didn’t even get two months. We’d barely fucked, what, three, four times? As I looked at the positive test all I wished, with all my heart, was that he’d have a little button. Because when I saw other moms, most of them tired with dark circles under their eyes, I always thought that would be the solution to everything.
There he was, all dusty, stuck in a box with blankets and his favorite stuffed animal. I didn’t want him to get lonely. How long had he been here in storage?
When I first discovered that I could turn him off I’d put him in his crib, like he was sleeping. I’d do it for an hour or so, two at most. I’d take advantage of the time to take a little nap. Everyone tells you to sleep when the baby is sleeping, because they think that all babies do is eat, poop, and sleep. But he was different. He cried a lot, took naps that only lasted a half hour, and wanted to eat all the time. My energy quickly drained. Two weeks after he was born I was already more exhausted than I’d ever been in my life.
The delivery was the easiest part. I really don’t understand all the fuss over childbirth. Yes, it hurts, of course. But nothing I couldn’t handle. I focused on my breathing. It was fast. I’d been at the hospital just a few hours when the doctor told me I was ten centimeters dilated. They didn’t even get the chance to give me anesthesia. I wanted it, of course, but it was all so quick that the anesthesiologist didn’t get there in time. When he walked into my room the obstetrician said: “too late.” He looked at me, apologized with a quick smile, and left. I felt the urge to push so I pushed. I pushed again and then the doctor told me that the head was already out, that I should resist the urge to push, that she and the baby would take it from there.
He cried. I cried. We cried. My husband was by my side the whole time. They handed the baby over so I could put him to my chest, what they call skin to skin contact. He was little, very wrinkly, and covered in a whitish slime that made him look even more like an alien. It was all so fast. This was my son. This was my son? This was my son, that’s what everyone said. “Look what a pretty baby.” They took him, his dad following behind.
The boy was a month old when I found the button. By accident. I never imagined my wish would come true. I’d never heard of a baby that could be turned off. That’s why I was scared the first time it happened. I’d just taken him out of the tub and I was drying under his arms with a towel when I felt my thumb press down on some kind of a small lump and I heard a click and he sort of froze. It scared me, but immediately I knew that something, someone, had fulfilled my wish. I felt for the little lump under his arm and I pressed it again. He started moving, like always. Making the same little noises with his mouth, moving his tiny hands. I finished dressing him, settled him into the bassinet, put the blanket over him, and found the button. I turned him off and I slept for over two hours. I was happy.
I didn’t want to tell anyone about my discovery. I only used it when I was home alone. The first week I allowed myself two hours a day to sleep. The second week I started turning him off at lunchtime too, so I could make myself something other than a ham and cheese sandwich. The third week I started using the button as soon as my husband left for work, so I could go for a run in the park. I’d go home, turn the baby on, feed and bathe him, then turn him back off so I could take a shower and a nap. Then I’d turn him on, feed him, and put him face up in his baby gym for a while and then face down, on his stomach, so he could exercise his muscles. Then I’d turn him back off for lunch and another nap. Later I’d turn him on to put him in his stroller and take him out for a walk. This routine worked well for the first few months.
I picked up the box, forgetting all about the snorkel fins. I decided to bring him up to the apartment. He looked peaceful, but he was very dirty and seeing him in that state touched something inside me. His cheeks were black with dirt, his hands covered in dust. His clothes smelled damp. But he looked healthy. I got out the Hoover and gave him a good vacuuming. I took him out of the box and shook out the blankets, then I vacuumed the inside of the box and the stuffed dog too. I got a cloth and wet it to clean his face and hands. I stood looking at him for a minute. I’d loved dressing him in jackets that had round bear ears on the hood. He looked adorable in them.
One day my husband came home early from work and he found me sleeping and the baby turned off in his crib. Just a glance at the baby, so still, frozen, and he panicked. He started shaking me and screaming: “There’s something wrong with the baby!” I got frightened. I sat up in bed and looked at the crib. I immediately relaxed. “Calm down, love. He’s turned off. I’ll turn him back on.” His eyes looked like they were about to fall out of his head. I picked up the baby, pressed the button, and he calmly started moving, looking for my breasts. “He’s hungry.” My husband sat on the edge of the bed. He grabbed his head in disbelief. I fed the baby, changed his diaper, and put on his pajamas. My husband hadn’t moved. I waited a while longer. The baby fell asleep. Then he finally turned to me and said: “So the baby can be turned off and on?” He was expecting me to say that what he’d seen wasn’t real, that he’d dreamed it, I don’t know. “Yes, exactly. There’s a button under his arm. I turn him off when I need to sleep or eat. But it doesn’t hurt him. He’s doing great. Look at him, he’s a happy baby.”
I thought he was going to get mad at me, to say I was an irresponsible mother, insane. “Do you think we could turn him off this weekend to go to the movies?” he asked with a shy smile.
The blankets and the stuffed animal were dirty and they smelled bad. Like mildew. I decided to put them in the washing machine. In the back of the cabinet where I keep the cleaning products I found the hypoallergenic laundry detergent I’d used to wash the baby’s clothes. There was still enough for a few loads. The clothes were dirty too, so I carefully took them off and threw them in the wash. Meanwhile, I covered him with the bedspread.
We started turning him off to go out to eat, to go to the movies, to visit friends, go to parties. At first we agreed we’d only do it for special occasions. The rest of the time the baby would stay turned on. Then we talked about it some more and decided that the button should only be used to help us as a couple. To give us back the intimacy we’d lost when he’d arrived, to allow space for the two of us to be together.
The truth is that I continued doing it a few times a day without telling anyone, to make time for basic things like exercise, doing my nails, watching a TV show or two, reading a book, working.
When he turned one year old we got a little more audacious. We left him turned off for three days straight and we went on vacation to the beach. We were happy, as if nothing had changed. When we got home we started to use the button more freely. Sometimes we’d disconnect our son for a few days and let life go back to how it had been before he was born.
The new circumstances caused us to question everything. My husband decided he wanted to see the world. After thinking a lot about his life, on the nights we lay beside each other without sleeping or talking with the little one turned off in the other room, he realized that his deepest wish was to become a professional traveler, without a home or any fixed direction. So one day without warning he informed me that he planned to go off on an adventure around the world for two years. He told me that he loved me, but that he didn’t want me to wait for him, he asked me to start my life over and find my happiness.
I was so devastated that I forgot to turn the baby back on. After a few months I decided to put him in the closet and turn his nursery into a studio. I hung a huge TV on the wall and got a large computer monitor for the desk and I put an elliptical machine next to the window to exercise every morning while I watched something on Netflix. At some point I moved the baby to the box and took it down to the storage space. But I don’t remember how long ago that was. A couple of years?
As soon as the dryer finished its cycle I folded the blankets and put them back in the box. I got the little one dressed. When he was ready, in his blue pants and his jacket, I thought it would be a good time to turn him back on. So I did. I felt for the button. I heard the click. Immediately my son tried to hug me. I wrapped him in my arms. I’d forgotten how nice and warm his body felt against mine. I put his hood on his head, like when we were going out for a walk in the park. He looked so cute in the little bear ears. I loved to dress him like that.
“Mama,” he said. “Mamamamamamamama,” he repeated. I hugged him again. I kissed his pink, chubby cheeks. I felt for the button. I turned him off and settled him back into his box. Along with his stuffed animal, of course, so he doesn’t get lonely.
How quickly that dark line gets longer,
how quickly the snuffed-out candles proliferate.
(Tr. Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard)
“It used to be that wars would thin the herd. Now that there’s peace, disasters help a little by killing some people off. Don’t look at me like that—it’s just the way it is.”
The old woman pointed to the tiny TV screen with a finger twisted by osteoarthritis. Ever since, three months earlier, she’d agreed to move into the home, she’d been torturing her son: she had to have a television in her room; it was urgent and of vital importance, because if she died without knowing how the trial against the philandering bullfighter turned out she’d never forgive him for it. There were days when she swore that if he didn’t come through on that very nearly last wish, when he died she’d go down to hell to find him and sink her dentures into his forearm. “I’ll leave a scar,” she threatened, tapping him with one of the three canes she always kept within reach, hanging from an armchair where, in theory, visitors were supposed to be able to sit in comfort.
It had taken three weeks for her son get around to buying the television, and it had been on night and day ever since, at a deafening volume, since she was hard of hearing. She missed the midday and evening news programs because they coincided with the lunch and supper times for the residents—the old folks, as she called them—in the dining-hall, but she spent the whole afternoon and much of the night catching up with the celebrity gossip. The bullfighter was already in jail. His story, which was no longer of any interest, had been swapped for one about a surgeon who raped anesthetized patients: every day there was new, increasingly gruesome information meted out, so that the audience ratings would inexorably grow.
That afternoon, the old woman was laying out her world-overpopulation theory to Rafel, the only grandkid who ever visited her. He came once a week, when he got off work at the pet-grooming salon, and, after politely taking her perceptive comments about how he reeked of dogs, he would put up with one of her monologues on whatever was being discussed on the television in front of them. Rafel knew more about the jailed bullfighter and the surgeon rapist than about his grandfather, who’d died when he was three: if he’d ever thought about that fact, he would have forced himself to smile, because he always tried to stay upbeat. That afternoon, a newscaster was explaining that a fire at a nightclub in Brazil had left 255 people dead. There were also more than three hundred wounded, a third of whom were in a serious or critical condition.
“They need disasters like that in those countries. If they don’t get rid of a few people every so often, they won’t have enough food for everybody.”
“That’s enough, Grandma. You know I don’t like when you say stuff like that.”
“It’s not that I like that they happen, but they have to. They’re necessary.”
In an attempt to change the subject, her grandson started talking about his routine. At ten on the dot he’d already lifted the shutters of the grooming salon—called Doggie Style—and was ready to solve the first furry challenge of the day.
“I don’t know what you see in dog haircuts. You do wash your hands well before you leave, right?”
“Of course, Grandma, of course.”
“I should hope so.”
Before opening up the salon that morning, Rafel had bought groceries for the week and gone to the park to walk Elvis. Rafel had never mentioned his pet to his grandmother. He had fallen in love with the tiny dog shortly after Nikki left him. Elvis had a shrewd gaze and was jumpy, and he would see him in the window of the neighborhood pet shop on his way to work. After a week, he told himself that if the little dog was still there in three days’ time he would take him home. “A dog that tiny can’t be a big problem,” the shopkeeper told him the afternoon he decided to enter the store, willing to adopt the little animal for a reasonable price. Elvis had come from a long way away. His breed was created in the fifties based on the English toy terrier and was one of the favorite pets of the Russian nobility, who for years had kept them practically in secret: Communism didn’t allow for any sort of luxuries, especially if they had Western origins. The English toy terrier turned into the Russian toy terrier (Русский той) and soon quit hunting mice—the original purpose of the breed—to devote itself to the typical frolicking of a mammal weighing barely two kilos. It was a breed loved with equal enthusiasm by skinny girls, teenagers who had already given in to the temptations of vodka, sad-eyed mothers, and fathers with those bushy mustaches that are an attempted tribute to Stalin but actually seem more like a nod to the useless majesty of sea lions.
Thanks to Elvis, Rafel had gotten over the rough breakup with Nikki. They had been together for five years, and, while there was no denying they’d reached a point of stagnation, he never thought she would up and start from scratch in Klagenfurt, a small city in Austria.
“Give me a little time, Rafel,” she’d said, taking him by the hand as if he were a child. “I need to know that I’m still alive.”
He was convinced that Nikki was going to Klagenfurt with someone else. He was hopeful that her stay wouldn’t be as idyllic as she was expecting and that after a while she’d come back to Barcelona with her tail between her legs. She thought keeping a pet in an apartment was a crime, and he hadn’t said anything about Elvis to her either. They talked on the phone once a week, and often Rafel and the little dog would gaze at each other tenderly as the conversation grew more and more difficult. He had never barked: his ancestors had had to live on the margins of the law, always on the alert for the Communist police, and he and most of his kind had inherited their silent predisposition.
“Getting a dog and losing your girlfriend is an odd combination,” Rafel had said more than once as he walked Elvis and sensed some girl’s eyes fixed on his pet. The instantaneous affection women were capable of feeling for the little Russian dog could easily segue into long dialogues that started with some anecdote about the animal and soon shifted into more personal waters. Rafel had taken down a few cell phone numbers, but he’d never called any of them. He would list them with his dog’s name in front so he wouldn’t forget the link they shared. When he’d accumulated half a dozen, he deleted them, embarrassed: if he ever got back together with Nikki, the list could be problematic.
Up to that point, Elvis had been his constant, unrivaled companion. Rafel had gotten used to sleeping with him, and the last thing he saw before he went to sleep was that pair of bright, solicitous eyes, which gazed at him with devotion until he drifted off and were often already open when he got up.
“Good morning, Elvis,” he would say.
The dog would give him a rough lick on the cheek and start wagging his tail.
If his grandmother had ever gotten over her aversion toward animals, she could have had a wonderful companion in a dog like Elvis, and maybe that would have delayed her move to the home. Rafel imagined a dog running excitedly through the apartment, brightening the morbid grayness of the rooms or eating off a little plate with its name—which would be something unimaginative like Spot or Blackie—or even sitting on her lap, wrapped in a blanket, while she enjoyed one of the not-terribly-demanding TV programs she watched religiously.
“They say the king went elephant hunting in Africa and got hurt. It seems he was with that woman,” she would’ve said to the dog, scratching its head with one of her long, indestructible fingernails. “If I were the queen, I’d put a stop to that fast.”
When Rafel went to the home and spent some time with his grandmother, he couldn’t help inventing less terrible final chapters for her life. Since he’d had Elvis, he imagined a placid old age beside a doting pet. Before, when he was still with Nikki, he had—in his mind—sent his grandmother on a Mediterranean cruise, and there she’d met an old widower like herself, needing company. They had fallen in love on the voyage, and once back in Barcelona they kept seeing each other until the man—a former insurance salesman, hard-working and reliable—suggested they move in together. Grandma left her apartment on the margins of the city and set herself up in his second home in the Maresme, which the man had scarcely visited since his wife’s death.
Rafel found the home depressing, and the stories that grew inside him helped him isolate himself from those surroundings while his grandmother let herself be abducted by the TV. It was true that she was very well looked after—she was fine there, maybe even better than in her apartment—but three or four years back there would have been no way she could have adapted to that place. Her perception had atrophied, and she wasn’t as demanding now. That’s what her grandson told himself. He wouldn’t have lasted long in that common room, surrounded by senile old folks who wiled away the time staring at a fixed-yet-vague point on the wall. He also didn’t have the stomach to play a game of dominoes with someone whose dentures might suddenly fall out on the table, much less sharing a meal with a resident afflicted by some strange mental illness that made him shout out random words every time a nurse brought a spoonful of food to his mouth. “Sunday!” “Tortoise!” “Lily pad!”
On the one hand, visiting his grandmother upset him; on the other, when he left there he had more desire to live than ever. He had to get over Nikki leaving him somehow, and he would either go out to dinner with friends or put in extra time at the dog salon, trying to save up enough money to take a trip to Australia. One Monday, when he’d decided to go to the movies on his own, he ran into a woman he’d gone to high school with, and after the film they went for a beer. Laura had been working at a pharmaceutical lab until recently. The company had just been absorbed by a French multinational that had decided to sell off its Spanish office.
“I could go work near Paris, but I don’t have much faith in them; in a few months’ time they might close the other factory,” she divulged later with a vodka tonic in front of her.
“I’m sure they wouldn’t,” said Rafel. He knew nothing about the pharmaceutical sector, yet he felt obligated to murmur words of reassurance.
“Can you imagine a year from now, when I’m all set up in Paris, they tell me that to keep my job I have to move to the Czech Republic? And then a year after that they send me to Beijing?”
Laura couldn’t imagine herself settling down and raising kids in the Chinese capital. But to have children she’d have to find a partner first. After hearing that last comment, Rafel stared at his whisky and Coke for a few seconds before finally giving her a brief account of what had happened with Nikki. They’d seen each other for the first time at one of the fruit stalls at the market five years back and struck up a conversation not long after that one day while waiting at the pharmacy. Rafel already had the dog salon and didn’t make any secret of his job, despite the expression he’d seen on other girls’ faces when he told them what he did for a living. He and Nikki had hooked up quickly and started living together six months after they’d met. She changed jobs a lot. He sheared dogs, mostly poodles and fox terriers.
“Probably not a very ambitious life, I admit, but we were happy.”
Last summer they’d visited Munich. Nikki fell in love with an engagement ring and let him know, first with a sweet look and later with flattering words, swathed in sincere romantic sentiment. The shop was very close to the hostel they were staying at. Every time they passed it, she would look at the ring, which sparkled with modern elegance amid all the other rings, necklaces, and earrings. Rafel understood that it was time to make a decision, and one evening when Nikki had fallen asleep after an exhausting visit to the castle of King Ludwig II of Bavaria, he tiptoed out of the room, went down to the shop, and bought the ring that, once he’d presented it to her after a fancy meal out, was meant to be the prelude to their wedding.
“It didn’t work out the way I pictured it.”
“What happened?” Laura picked up her vodka tonic and waited for Rafel to answer. Then she put it back down on the table without taking a sip.
“Doesn’t matter. Now she lives in Klagenfurt, Austria. She says she needs some time.”
That night went on till late. They had another cocktail while they exhausted the virtues of the movie they’d seen that evening. Emboldened by the alcohol and the film’s tale of adultery set in a remote house in the jungles of Mozambique, Rafel and Laura ended up sleeping in the same bed together after seven minutes of sex, observed by the accepting eyes of Elvis, who hadn’t barked even during the most ardent moments.
At four in the morning, Rafel was awakened by Laura’s screams.
“I killed somebody once before in another nightmare,” she said when she woke up.
Rafel, who’d just realized he was naked, got dressed while Laura was in the bathroom. He couldn’t find his underpants anywhere, so he grabbed some fresh ones from the drawer and pulled them on quickly before his former high-school classmate came back into the room.
“Are you okay?” he asked her.
Still without a stitch of clothes on—she had a more athletic body than Nikki—Laura said yeah and tried to explain the nightmare to him. There was a Jehovah’s Witness, a nosy neighbor, and two cops, who started hassling her first in the entryway of her building and then, without any transition, they were pointing out the large bloodstain covering a good part of the rug in her dining-room.
“I’d hidden the corpse from the last nightmare, but nobody knew where, not even me. I had to wait for the policemen, the Jehovah’s Witness, and the neighbor lady to leave so I could find it, but I couldn’t convince them to go, and one of the cops grabbed me by the hair and said that my trial would be starting the next day.”
Rafel listened in silence to the story, sitting on the bed, illuminated by the whitish light from the night-table. When Laura had finished, she asked if he had any pajamas, and Rafel lent her some. Elvis came into the bedroom and started to wag his tail.
“No, Elvis, not today,” he said when the dog approached the bedside.
“What a cute dog.”
“He usually sleeps with me, but he can’t just now.”
“If you want I can leave,” said Laura, winking.
They put the dog out and got naked again as they kissed with a hint of aggressiveness. The next morning, Rafel went crazy trying to find the underpants he’d lost the night before but had no luck. He even rummaged through his former high-school classmate’s bag, convinced for a few moments that he had a sex maniac in his shower. He didn’t find them there either.
As soon as she’d left he turned the room upside down, to no avail. He only heard tiny Elvis occasionally barking a complaint as he watched him from one corner of the bedroom with his ears alert and his little nose pointing up at the ceiling.
A few weeks later, Nikki called and announced to her ex-boyfriend that she was coming home at the end of the month. The news stopped him in his tracks. That was only ten days away. All of a sudden, Nikki’s time out in Austria seemed short to him. If she was leaving Klagenfurt, that meant she was giving up, that the other life wasn’t possible. And, most importantly, she’d accepted that Rafel was her path. He expressed it in those same words that evening to Laura when they were both naked on the sofa.
“So we’ll have to call it quits, right?” she asked. Then she sighed loudly and buried her face in the cushions.
Rafel was about to apologize, but he stopped himself before he said a word. He tried to swallow the indecipherable silence of the dining-room with his eyes closed. If he opened them he wouldn’t be able to ignore Laura’s tears and Elvis’s expectant gaze.
When she’d left, Rafel looked at the little dog woefully. He’d already made a decision: he would have to get rid of him before Nikki came back.
The man at the pet shop made things simple for him. He found a new owner in three days. That was one of the most complicated weeks in Rafel’s life. He never imagined that separating from Elvis would be so hard for him. He’d almost picked up the phone and called it off half a dozen times, but at the last minute he’d resisted, convinced that if he were capable of making that sacrifice for Nikki (even though she didn’t know the dog existed) they would never have problems again.
The day he said goodbye to his pet, Rafel called the dog salon and told his partner that he was in bed with a fever. He needed to cry all day long. When he went back to work, every dog reminded him of Elvis. He almost lost it when he had to groom Mrs. Roig’s Pekinese. Diminutive and obliging, the little creature licked his hands when he lifted him up onto the table where he would shear him, trembling and holding back tears.
That same night, Rafel dreamed that Elvis was back in the apartment. He was barking to get him out of bed, and he obliged, still half asleep, adjusting his pajamas. After kissing his feet, the dog stuck his nose into the rift between the headboard and the floor and pulled out the underpants he’d lost that first night with Laura.
“Good boy!” shouted Rafel as he grabbed them. After licking one of his fingers, the dog started rifling around in the slit again and pulled out a sock that Rafel didn’t remember having lost. He rescued another one before offering up a crumpled piece of paper covered in drool where Rafel could read the first three or four ingredients on a shopping list.
“You’re finding a lot of stuff down there, huh? Good boy!” he said, rubbing his head while the little dog struggled to yank something else out.
Elvis pulled out a little blue box and placed it at the feet of his master, whose eyes were wide and mouth agape. Inside was the engagement ring that Rafel had lost shortly after returning from Munich, while he was still searching for the right time to have the fancy dinner that would precede its ceremonious presentation and, if everything went well, their engagement. He had spent two weeks hunting frantically behind Nikki’s back. He couldn’t find it. Eventually he’d thrown in the towel, telling himself that he’d take some Monday or Tuesday off and hop on a plane, buy the ring again, and return home with the booty. That extra effort would mean that the wedding would happen for sure, he was convinced. Nikki had left for Klagenfurt before he was able to act out his redemptive gesture.
In the dream, Rafel didn’t open up the little blue box until Elvis nodded, as if giving him permission to continue. When he did, the ring gleamed with Nikki’s modern elegance.
“Will you marry me?” he said.
He woke up repeating the phrase. Rafel hastily flicked on the light and, before raising the blind, before even going to the bathroom, he took the bed apart piece by piece. In a corner obscured by dust were the underpants and the little blue box. The upstairs neighbor didn’t mind the victory cry—sharp and hyperbolic—that came up through the bowels of his apartment.
The first thing Nikki saw the day she came home was the little blue box on top of the dining-room table beside a bouquet of red roses and a piece of paper on which he’d written: “I love you.” She ran out of the apartment when she saw what was inside. Rafel wasn’t expecting such a euphoric reaction. As he groomed a drowsy Afghan at the salon he heard the commotion at the entrance. He didn’t even have time to put the shears down onto the tray. Nikki threw her arms around him, and as she kissed his face—the gesture was slightly canine—she said that she loved him, too, and wanted to marry him.
They had a small celebration after the civil ceremony. Both sets of parents were there, Nikki’s brother, six of her friends and five of his, and their dates—if they had one—plus his partner at the dog salon, Alejandro, and his grandmother, who’d been allowed to leave the home as long as she was with a careworker, who got drunk before the cake was served while the old woman glared at her. During one trip to the bathroom, Rafel saw that he had a new message on his phone. It said: “Congratulations. Laura.” He deleted it as soon as he’d read it and then felt bad because he didn’t have his former high-school classmate’s number saved in his contacts. He would look like a jackass, but there was no going back: the damage was done. He washed his hands and went back to the large dining-hall of the Navarran restaurant where they were throwing the reception.
Since he hadn’t been able to save up enough to go to Australia, Rafel suggested another, less flashy, honeymoon destination. But in the end both sets of parents chipped in generously to make their dream come true. They bought tickets for Adelaide, planning to drive from there to Brisbane. Then from there to Sydney, passing through Canberra and Melbourne before taking a boat to Tasmania. Once they’d seen the island, they’d return to Sydney and fly from there to Jakarta, where they would spend one night before catching a flight to Istanbul then changing planes for Barcelona.
After cutting the cake and making their final photogenic kiss, Rafel’s grandmother gestured for him to come over and asked him not to go on the trip.
“I have a premonition,” she warned him. “I think something bad is going to happen. Some disaster.”
Rafel planted a kiss on her forehead and promised her that in a month he’d be back with a little plastic kangaroo souvenir she could put on top of the TV to watch over her, even when she was sleeping.
“I don’t need anything anymore, dear.”
He took her hand and gave her another kiss on the forehead. The last one ever.
The Short Story Project © | Ilamor LTD 2017
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