I – How to Survive with the Aid of Literature.
Astride a Play to Tiflis.
If someone asked me what I deserve, I would say in all honesty before God that I deserve hard labor.
Not because of Tiflis, however; I did not do anything wrong in Tiflis. Because of Vladikavkaz.
I was living out my last days in Vladikavkaz, and the terrible specter of hunger, (Cliché! Cliché!… “terrible specter”… However, I don’t give a damn! These memoirs will never be published!) as I was saying, the terrible specter of hunger knocked at the door of my modest apartment which I had obtained with a permit. And right after the specter knocked Attorney Genzulaev, a pure soul with a brush mustache and an inspired face.
We talked, and here I include a stenographic record:
“What are you so down in the mouth about?” (Genzulaev)
“Apparently, I’m doomed to die of starvation in this crummy Vladikavkaz of yours…”
“There’s no question about that. Vladikavkaz is a crummy city. I doubt there’s a crummier city anywhere in the world. But why do you have to starve to death?”
“There’s nothing else I can do. I’ve exhausted all possibilities. The Subdepartment of the Arts has no money, so they can’t pay any salaries. I won’t be making any more introductory speeches before plays. I had a feuilleton printed in the local Vladikavkaz newspaper for which I received 1,250 rubles and a promise that they would turn me over to the special department1 Secret police.2 if another one like it ever appeared in print.”
“Why?” (Genzulaev was alarmed. Understandably, if they wanted to turn me over to the special department, I must be suspect.)
“For my mocking tone.”
“Oh, rubbish. They just don’t understand anything about feuilletons here. I’ll tell you what…”
And here is what Genzulaev did. He incited me to write a revolutionary play with him about native life. I’m slandering Genzulaev here. He pushed me and, because of my youth and inexperience, I agreed. What does Genzulaev know about the writing of plays? Nothing whatsoever, it was plain to see. Right away he openly admits that he sincerely detests literature, and I myself hated literature, you better believe, even more than he did. But Genzulaev knows native life like the back of his hand, if, of course, you can call native life a combination of shishkebab houses, breakfasts against a backdrop of the most repulsive mountains in the world, daggers of inferior steel, sinewy horses, taverns, and disgusting music that wrenches the soul.
Therefore, I will write the play and Genzulaev will add the local color.
“Only idiots would buy this play.”
“We’re the idiots if we don’t manage to sell this play.”
We wrote it in seven-and-a-half days, thus spending half a day more than was necessary to create the world. Despite this, it turned out even worse than the world.
I can say one thing: if there is ever a competition to see who can write the most stupid, untalented, and presumptuous play, ours will receive first prize (however, several plays from 1921-26 now come to mind, and I begin to have my doubts…), well, if not first prize, certainly second or third.
In short, after writing this play I am forever stigmatized, and naturally I can only hope that the play will molder in the bowels of the local Subdepartment of the Arts. As for the receipt, the devil take it, it can stay there. It was two hundred thousand rubles. One hundred for me. One hundred for Genzulaev. The play ran for three nights (a record), and the authors were called on stage. Genzulaev came out and took a bow, laying his hand against his clavicle. Then I came out and made faces for a long time so that I would be unrecognizable in the photograph (which was taken from below with magnesium). Due to these faces a rumor spread throughout the town that I was brilliant but mad. It was annoying, especially because the faces were totally unnecessary, since the photographer who took our picture was requisitioned and assigned to the theater, so nothing came out on the photograph but a shotgun, the inscription, “Glory to…” and a blurred streak.
I ate up seven thousand in two days and decided to use the remaining ninety-three to leave Vladikavkaz
Why? Why Tiflis of all places? For the life of me, I do not now recall. However, I remember I was told that:
1) in Tiflis all the stores are open,
2) in Tiflis there is wine,
3) in Tiflis it is very hot and the fruit is cheap,
4) in Tiflis there are many newspapers, etc.., etc.
I decided to go. First, I packed my things. I took all my worldly possessions: a blanket, some under-clothes, and a Primus stove.
In 1921 things were not quite the same as in 1924. To be more precise, it was impossible to just pack up and go wherever you wanted! Apparently, those who were in charge of civilian travel reasoned something like this:
“If everyone started traveling, then where would we be?”
Therefore, a permit was required. I immediately submitted an application to the appropriate authorities, and where it asked, “What is the purpose of your trip?” I wrote with pride, “I am going to Tiflis for the production of my revolutionary play.”
In all of Vladikavkaz there was only one person who did not know me by sight, and it happened to be the gallant young fellow with the pistol on his hip who stood as if nailed to the spot by the table where permits for travel to Tiflis were issued.
When my turn came to receive a permit and I reached out to take it, the young man started to give it to me, but then stopped and said in an authoritative, high-pitched voice, “What is the purpose of your trip?”
“The production of my revolutionary play.”
Then the young man sealed the permit in an envelope and handed both me and the envelope over to someone with a rifle, saying, “Take him to the special department.”
The young man did not answer.
A very bright sun (the only good thing in Vladikavkaz) beamed down on me as I walked along the road with the man carrying the rifle to my left. He decided to strike up a conversation with me and said, We’re going to be passing through the bazaar now, but don’t even think about escaping. Nothing good will come of it.”
“Even if you begged me to do it, I wouldn’t,” I replied in all honesty.
Then I offered him a cigarette.
Smoking companionably, we arrived at the special department. As we crossed the courtyard, I fleetingly recalled all my crimes. There were three.
1) In 1907 I was given one ruble and 50 kopecks to buy Kraevich’s Physics but spent it at the cinema.
2) In 1913 I got married against the wishes of my mother.
3) In 1921 I wrote that celebrated feuilleton.
The play? But that play could hardly be called criminal, could it? Quite the contrary.
For the information of those who have never been inside the special department, it is a large room with a rug on the floor, a huge desk of unbelievable proportions, eight telephones of different designs with green, orange, and gray cords attached, and behind the desk, a small man in military uniform with a very pleasant face.
The luxuriant crowns of the chestnut trees could be seen through the open windows. Upon seeing me, the man sitting at the desk attempted to change the pleasant expression on his face to an unfriendly an unpleasant one, but was only partially successful.
He took a photograph out of the desk drawer and began scrutinizing both it and me in turn.
“Oh, no. That’s not me,” I hurriedly announced. “You could have shaved off the mustache,” Mr. pleasant responded thoughtfully.
“Yes, but if you look closely,” I said, “the guy in the picture has hair the color of black shoe polish and is about forty-five. I am blond and twenty-eight.”
“Dye?” the small man asked with uncertainty.
“But what about the bald spot? And besides look closely at the nose. I beg you to take a good look at the nose.”
The small man peered at my nose. He was over-come with despair.
“I believe you. There’s no resemblance.”
There was a pause, and a ray of sunlight sprang up in the inkwell.
“Are you an accountant?”
Pause. The crowns of the chestnuts. The stucco ceiling. Cupids.
“What is the purpose of your trip to Tiflis? Answer immediately without thinking,” the small man said in a rush.
“To stage my revolutionary play,” I answered in a rush.
The small man opened his mouth, but recoiled and was completely radiated by the sun.
“You write plays?”
“Yes, I have to.”
“No kidding. Was the play you wrote a good one?”
There was something in his voice that would have touched any heart but mine. I repeat, I deserve hard labor. Looking away, I said:
“Yes, a good one.”
Yes. Yes. Yes. This was my fourth crime, the worst one of all. If I had wanted to remain pure before the special department, I should have answered: “No it’s not a good play. It’s junk. I just really want to go to Tiflis.”
I looked at the toes of my worn-out boots and did not speak. I came to myself when the small man handed me a cigarette and my travel permit.
He said to the guy with the rifle, “Show the writer to the door.”
The special department! I must forget about it! You see, now I have confessed. I have shed the guilt I have carried for three years. What I committed in the special department was, for me, worse than sabotage, counter-revolution or abuse of power.
But I must forget it!!!
II – Eternal Wanderers
People say that in 1924 it was easy to travel from Vladikavkaz to Tiflis; you simply hire a car in Vladikavkaz and drive along the remarkably scenic Georgian Military Highway. It is only two hundred and ten versts.3 A Russian unit of distance, in this case equal to about 6.5 miles.4 However in Vladikavkaz in 1921 the word “hire,” sounded like a word from a foreign language.
In order to travel you had to go with your blanket and Primus stove to the station and then walk along the tracks, peering into the innumerable freight cars. Wiping the sweat from my brow, on track seven I saw a man with a fan-shaped beard standing in slippers by an open freight car. He was rinsing out a kettle and repeating the vile word, “Baku.”
“Take me with you,” I requested.
“No,” replied the man with the beard.
“Please, so I can stage my revolutionary play,” I said.
The bearded man carried the kettle up a plank and into the freight car. I sat on my blanket beside the hot rails and lit a cigarette. A stifling, intense heat filled the spaces between the freight cars, and I quenched my thirst at the faucet by the tracks. Then I sat down again and felt the scorching heat radiated by the freight car. The bearded man stuck his head out.
“What’s your play about?” he asked.
I unrolled my blanket and took out my play.
“You wrote it yourself?” the proprietor of the freight car asked dubiously.
“Never heard of him.”
“I really need to leave.”
“Well, I’m expecting two more, but if they don’t show up, perhaps I’ll take you. Only don’t have any designs on the plank bed. Don’t think that just because you wrote a play you can try anything funny. it’s a long journey, and as a matter of fact, we ourselves are from the Political Education Committee.”
“I won’t try anything funny,” I said, feeling a breath of hope in the searing heat. “I can sleep on the floor.”
Sitting down on the plank bed, the beard said “Don’t you have any food?”
“I have a little money.”
The bearded man thought for a moment.
“I’ll tell you what… you can share our food on the journey. But you’ll have to help with our railway newspaper. Can you write something for our paper?”
“Anything you want,” I assured him as I took possession of my ration and bit into the upper crust.
“Even feuilletons?” he asked, and the look on his face made it obvious that he thought me a liar.
“Feuilletons are my specialty.”
Three faces appeared out of the shadows of the plank bed, along with bare feet. They all looked at me.
“Fyodor! There’s room for one more on the plank bed. That son-of-a-bitch Stepanov isn’t coming,” the feet said in a bass voice. “I’ll make room for Comrade Feuilletonist.”
“Okay, make room for him,” bearded Fyodor said in confusion. “What feuilleton are you going to write?”
“The Eternal Wanderers.”
“How will it begin?” asked a voice from the plank bed. “Come over here and have some tea with us.” “Sounds good—Eternal Wanderers,” responded Fyodor, taking off his boots. “You should have said you wrote feuilletons to start with, instead of sitting on the tracks for two hours. Welcome aboard.”
A vast and wondrous evening replaces the scorching day in Vladikavkaz. The evening’s edge is the bluish mountains. They are shrouded in evening mist. The plain forms the bottom of the cup. And along the bottom, jolting slightly, wheels began to turn. Eternal Wanderers. Farewell forever, Genzulaev! Farewell, Vladikavkaz!
Agit-train in one of Dziga Vertov‘s famous documentaries
There often used to be two of us. Three of us. Four, five, or six. I had brothers, sisters, a tarantula. Parents, yes, them too.
Plus there was my Uncle Nikolai and the guy from the neighbourhood with the pom-pom gloves. We laughed, sometimes cried. The pigeons in the town park choked on our cookie crumbs. Then winter came, then summer again, and my cousin Sonya showed me all kinds of shapes in Playgirl. Later, it must have been fall or spring, I went on the big wheel with my cousin Arseniy and we looked through Playboy – that was nice too.
My brother Yevgeny ate the last slice of cheese pizza. My brother Yevgeny wrote Idiot on my forehead in lipstick. Yevgeny skates down the street on my brand-new roller skates. I close my eyes and see Yevgeny skating towards a giant pit, or at least a nuclear waste disposal site. And perhaps it would be good if everyone really was dead. Or at least gone.
Then school starts again and I’m good at maths. I think about other things and sometimes drink schnapps through a funnel. Later I accidentally touch a girl’s elbow and we go away together to Miami for spring break. I say no to heroin, I say no to heroin, I really would never try heroin.
Then it’s October, and later it’s another year, the leaves are falling and I have really never understood Halloween. I dress up as the velociraptor from Jurassic Park and kiss a girl. I kiss a boy. I kiss my maths teacher. I sleep with him. More often, I kiss a girl who dressed up as Alf from the TV series Alf. We watch Home Improvement together and for a little while we’re very happy.
Later I go to college and meet a good-looking economic geologist. We take weekend trips to the following cities: Atlanta, Baltimore, Jacksonville. I give papers and place LSD tabs on my tongue. Although we don’t intend to, we fall in love with each other, but when I tell him I’ve always wanted to travel around Europe, he laughs at me and calls me conservative, which kind of annoys me and I think at that moment something between us snaps. Shame, when we could have been so happy.
The flight to Montreal really is outrageously cheap, and when I get to the airport, I decide to stop smoking, buy a cycle helmet, or at least become a better person. I spend the first few days surfing the internet and avoid going outside, but when I realize I’ve just read the same article on theguardian.com that I read on theguardian.com yesterday, I decide to get off the internet and make a firm resolution to start a Canadian indie rock band called IntercityExperimental or Monsieur Brown Bear. Canada, this country seems incredibly liberal to me.
Before fall comes, I finish my degree at NYU and reward myself with a road trip to Venezuela. In Caracas there may be no functioning health system or any police officers who are acquainted with the concepts of law and order, but there are parties and a great sensual naivety, which I find extremely charming and inspiring. I buy myself a keyboard and start an electro-jazz trio with Juan and that seriously cute kid Ignacio. But Juan soon turns out to be a ridiculously bad bassist, and after a while Ignacio’s cousins steal all our instruments, our money, and my passport, but I’m totally okay with that. In any case, I’ve never been robbed in a third-world country before and this experience makes me more grown up and spiritually mature, no doubt about that.
I make a snap decision to do a master’s in philosophy in Göttingen, and buy a complete annotated works of the German philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte. I race through the first volume, but then in the last paragraph my eye falls on a crass error of reasoning and I turn away from Fichte in disappointment. Later I develop genuine feelings for my housemate Susanne, but her job as a model and all the traveling it involves make a genuine romance impossible, at least for me, and when I say this to Susanne she makes a fairly serious attempt to kill herself, which of course fails, but then I knew it would.
I go to the carnival in Cologne and dress up as the triceratops from The Lost World: Jurassic Park. I kiss an altar boy, I kiss a female pastor, I kiss a priest. Cologne, this city seems incredibly liberal to me. When I finally wake up on a sofa-bed in Düsseldorf, I realise that my money and my passport are gone. And it feels kind of cool not to own anything anymore. The apartment I’m in belongs to a very young theatre directing student, Annika, and is insanely minimalist. She says she didn’t do it deliberately, but I don’t believe her.
I ask my father to send me some money and I fly to the following cities: Prague, Tokyo, Barcelona, and Venice. For some reason I’m into city trips. A few days later, on the ferry from Hong Kong to Macau, I see a man jump into the water, incessantly shouting Ciao, ciao! Be good! I love you all! Ciao! And at once I am very quiet and terribly happy, and I believe everyone standing next to me feels the same: all at once everyone is very quiet and terribly happy and kind of one with each other.
And then I decide – probably on a whim – to visit the place where Bruce Willis was born in Idar-Oberstein. But then of course it isn’t a house, just a run-of-the-mill hospital, what else would it be, and during my stay in Idar-Oberstein I sleep with the following people: Malte and Doctor Inga Jansen. That’s all, but then I wasn’t there for very long.
I go into rehab for a little while in Tibet, and my father is mad because I quit my philosophy degree. In Shenyang, which is a Chinese mega-city that no one knows about, I walk through a marketplace and realize that maybe God really is dead. I scrabble my way through the crowds in Delhi. The pedestrian zone in Braunschweig. Carnival in Rio. I am dressed up as the flying dinosaur from Jurassic Park III. Sometimes I wish everyone was dead. Or at least gone.
I go to a spa, I relax, I drive out into the countryside. Then I sleep with the farmer. After that there are more city trips, druggy trips, splendid travels. I imagine shooting the chief executive of Google Maps in the face at close range, but quickly dismiss the thought because the chances of being immediately arrested seem pretty high. I go into rehab for a little while at home in Key West and for a short time I am very happy, watching Who’s the Boss? on the clinic’s little TV. Then I escape, steal my father’s diplomatic passport, and wake up three weeks later in Mainz, on Shrove Tuesday. Strangely I have dressed up as Chris Pratt from Jurassic World.
Sometimes I could really throttle you, my mother says on the phone, sometimes I would just like to smash your soft little head into the sink. And she’s probably right, she probably could really throttle me, I don’t want to rule out that possibility. Maybe it’s true, maybe I really am a ridiculously bad person who deserves such things, but then again maybe it isn’t and it’s actually all my mother’s fault.
On the spur of the moment, my new roommate Sven and I decide to write a manifesto, and it goes like this: our enemies are opticians and parents, men and women, our enemies are carbohydrates and nation states, times of day and the internet and train station toilets you have to pay for, our enemies are Bahncard 25 holders and those bastards at Google Maps, our enemies are right-handed scissors and German foreign ministers, our enemies are—
But unfortunately we don’t get any further, because we have to stop writing in order to do some serious kissing and then some serious making out and then some serious fucking, and that all takes so long that afterwards we can’t remember what we actually wanted to write.
And so I decide to breed sea monkeys and generally become a good person. But no matter what I do, the damn sea monkeys always go and die on me after a few days. Sometimes I wish all humans would just die as well. I throw the window open and holler: Just die! It would be so nice if you were gone. Or at least dead. Then it’s October and I wake up on a pull-out couch in Wiesbaden. My money and my passport are gone, and so is my roommate Sven. Shame, we could have been so happy.
When evening falls and I take a stroll along the Rhine, I am overcome by a great longing or sadness, and I secretly wish I was earning my money in the Korean StarCraft league or selling hot chestnuts on the Rue Royale in Brussels or was wanted for murder or was wanted for hijacking a plane or at least was wanted for something, but then I decide to finally be sensible after all and start an Icelandic fashion label with my brother Yevgeny.
The tax laws in Reykjavik are really incredibly liberal, and with a bit of luck and some clever tactics we sell the label after just six months, making us moderately rich in a short space of time, and we spend our time producing pop songs and financing diversity projects in Kinshasa. And without really noticing, we blow all our savings on cocaine and long-haul flights.
I arrive in Saarbrücken totally burned out, and secretly wishing to become a private detective, though I really have no idea why. But I soon realize that this wish is based on entirely false expectations, and also connected is with the fact that my father was never there for me when I needed him. During my short stay in Saarbrücken, then, I think a lot about connections and I buy a soft-serve ice cream and a bumper pack of Marlboro Menthols and think that these are also somehow connected.
I win 200 Euro in a betting shop for correctly predicting the results of three games in the Turkish league, and with the money I buy an intercity ticket to Zurich. I know no one in Zurich and have no idea at all what I am doing here, so I really do become a private detective, for nearly two weeks in any case, because the whole thing is actually quite tedious, and underpaid as well. Then I meet my former roommate Sven at a rave in Lucerne and he says he’s sorry about everything that happened, but he thanks me for my beautiful eyes and my reliability and my beautiful ass, thank you.
I ride down to the South of France on a scooter and take a two-week holiday in a luxury hotel in Nice to forget this whole fucked-up thing with Sven, and because it’s low season there it’s also outrageously cheap. I catch myself no longer wishing that everyone was dead or at least gone, and wonder whether I have now become a good person. I walk the steppes of Africa. I walk the steppes of Brandenburg. I wonder how my parents are doing and what my brother Yevgeny is doing and where he’s got to this time.
And just as I think that and take a drag on my electronic cigarette, I look out of the window of my hotel room and everything is on fire, no matter where I look, it burns all morning and all afternoon. And it keeps burning the next day and the day after, the houses are on fire, the roofs and the people and the galaxies burn for what must be weeks and months and there’s no end and no mercy and no darkness anymore; everything is just dazzling and crude and bright.
And then, some time later, I am sitting on a bus from Cincinnati to Indianapolis and thinking about masculine things. I think about DIY stores, razors, heart attacks. And then some time later, it must be spring or fall, I’m sitting on a train from Memphis to Phoenix and thinking about feminine things. I think about ermine, robots, earlobes. And then, some time after that, I’m sitting on a streetcar in San Francisco and suddenly I sense this great feeling within me, a feeling of purity, the feeling of shooting a machine gun into a crowd of people, and of eating the moon and being someone who knows what’s what, who is there for other people, who has the courage to admit his feelings and not be someone like my father, but someone who knows the score, who knows, for instance, that love is more important than Europe. I would like to be someone like that. I feel it and it’s the truth.
Video: from The Rules of Attraction (2002), Roger Avary.
A Turkish philosopher from Istanbul once visited me in Berlin. He was only there for a few days. He looked at the street and said quietly, ‘I don’t think I could live here.’
Not the summer planes but the winter planes brought many people who were crying from Europe to Istanbul, crying because their fathers or mothers had died in Turkey. Three years ago, I was on a winter plane. Suddenly, a woman got up from her seat, threw herself on the floor of the plane and started wailing. All the people stood up.
‘What’s the matter?’
Two of the woman’s children had died in a car accident in Istanbul, and she had to go to the funeral. The stewardesses put her back in her seat, held her hand. The woman wailed, ‘Open the door. Throw me out. I want to look for them in heaven.’ She kept looking out of the window, as though she could see the dead in the sky.
‘Open the door.’
Then she looked at the other passengers behind her, as though she wanted them all to walk into the sky with her to look for her dead. She wanted the plane to move around like a car, left, right, back, forward, and look for the dead. But the plane flew straight ahead, as though pulled across the sky along a rail…
Back when I still lived in Istanbul, twenty-five years ago, I got on a ship one summer night, and it took me from the European side to the Asian side. The tea-sellers brought people tea, small change jingling in their pockets. The moon was huge, as though it lived only in the Istanbul sky, loved only Istanbul, and polished itself every day only for this city. Wherever it looked, all doors would instantly open to let the moon wax in. Wherever you touched, you touched the moon too. Everyone held a piece of moon in their hands. Now the moon lit up two faces next to me on the ship. A boy, a girl. He said, ‘So, you gave Mustafa your key too. I’m leaving. Goodbye.’ He leapt from the ship’s deck into the sea and dived into the moonlight. The ship was exactly mid-way between Asia and Europe. Not saying anything, the girl stayed in her seat in the moonshine. All the other people dashed to the ship’s rail, the boat leaned with the crowd, and the tea glasses also slid towards the rail on their saucers. The tea-seller shouted, ‘Tea money. Tea money.’ I asked the girl, ‘Is he a good swimmer?’ She nodded. The crew threw two lifebelts after the boy but he didn’t want a lifebelt. The ship turned and sailed after the boy, a rescue boat pulled him out of the sea. The moon watched everything that happened, and when the boy had to go to the captain with wet clothes and wet hair, the moon lit him up with a circle of light like a clown in the circus. The ship turned back towards the Asian side, the tea-sellers found their customers and collected up the change. The moon shone on the empty tea glasses, but suddenly the ship turned back for the European side, because it had left the lifebelts behind in the sea. And the moon was always there above Europe and Asia.
At the Istanbul airport, the people waited, a long corridor of people, some of them crying.
How many doors were there now in Istanbul? Twelve million people, how many doors did they open? And can the moonshine wax in under all the doors? Can the moon manage that?
When I was a child, four hundred thousand people lived in Istanbul.
Our neighbour Madame Atina (‘Athena’), one of Istanbul’s Greeks, used to pull back her aged cheeks and tape them in place behind her ears. I was supposed to help her with it. She told me, ‘I’m a Byzantine like the Hagia Sophia church, which was built in the time of the Byzantine emperor Constantine the Great, 326 A.D., a basilica with stone walls and a wooden roof. In the Hagia Sophia, the Byzantines believed they were closer to God than anywhere else, and I too believe I’m closer to the moon in Constantinople than anywhere else in the world.’ With the tape behind her ears, Madame Atina would go to the greengrocer’s. I’d go with her. She looked young with her cheeks pulled back so I walked quickly. She wanted to walk as quickly as me and sometimes she fell down on the street. The greengrocer was a Muslim, and he’d joke with Madame Atina, ‘Madame, a Muslim angel came, he put his finger in a hole in a pillar and turned the Hagia Sophia to face Mecca.’ I loved the Hagia Sophia; its floor was uneven and the walls sported frescoes of Christ without a cross, a muezzin sang the ezan from the minaret, and in the night the moon shone on Christ’s face and on the face of the muezzin.
One day, Madame Atina took the ship with me to the Asian part. I was seven years old. My mother said, ‘Look, the Greeks of Istanbul are the city’s salt and sugar.’ And Madame Atina showed me her own Istanbul. ‘Look at that little tower by the sea. The Byzantine emperor, who had received a prophecy that his daughter would be bitten by a snake and killed, had this Tower of Leandros (Maiden’s Tower) built and hid his daughter inside it. One day, the maiden longed for figs, so a basket of figs was brought to her from the city. She was bitten by a snake that had hidden in the basket, and she died.’ Madame Atina cupped my face in her hands and said, ‘My girl, with those beautiful eyes you’ll burn many men’s hearts.’ The sun lit up her red-painted fingernails, behind which I saw the Maiden’s Tower by the sea.
Then Madame Atina walked with me across the Bridge of the Golden Horn. As I walked across the low bridge that moved with the waves, I didn’t yet know that Leonardo da Vinci – the Ottomans called him Lecardo – had once written a letter to the sultan, on the 3rd of July 1503. The sultan wanted him to build a bridge across the Golden Horn, and Leonardo sent the sultan his suggestions in that letter. Another suggestion came from Michelangelo in 1504. But Michelangelo had a question: ‘If I were to build this bridge, would the sultan demand that I adopt the Muslim faith?’ The Franciscan abbot who discussed the sultan’s suggestion with Michelangelo said, ‘No, my son, I know Istanbul as well as Rome. I don’t know which city holds more sinners. The Ottoman sultan will never demand such a thing of you.’ Michelangelo couldn’t build the bridge in the end, though, because the pope threatened to excommunicate him. For centuries, the Ottomans didn’t build a bridge between the two European parts of Istanbul because Muslims lived in one and Jews, Greeks, and Armenians in the other. Only fishing boats ferried the people to and fro. It was Sultan Mahmut II (1808–1836) who wanted to bring Muslims and non-Muslims together at last in Istanbul and had the famous bridge built. Once it was finished, the fishermen beat at the bridge with sticks because it had taken away their work. The bridge became a stage: Jews, Turks, Greeks, Arabs, Albanians, Armenians, Europeans, Persians, Circassians, women, men, horses, donkeys, cows, hens, camels, they all walked across the bridge. One day there were two crazies, a woman and a man, both of them naked. The man stood at one end of the bridge, the woman at the other. She shouted, ‘From here on, Istanbul is mine.’ He shouted, ‘From here on, Constantinople is mine.’
At the airport, I took a taxi. Since Istanbul had become a city of twelve million, the taxi drivers would no longer find the addresses and they’d lose their tempers. ‘Madame, if you don’t know where you want to be driven, why did you get in my car?’ I wanted to go to a friend’s house, I no longer had a father and a mother to go to first.
Years ago, I had come to Istanbul once before on a winter plane to bury my parents, who had died three days apart. My mother was the first to go. My father had sat in his chair, the opposite chair empty. He took out a pair of false teeth with sheep’s cheese still stuck to them, and said, ‘Here, your mother’s false teeth.’ Two days later he died too, and his coffin stood on a raised stone slab for the dead in the mosque’s courtyard. There were two other coffins on the other slabs, and the mosque got the coffins mixed up. They didn’t know which dead man belonged to which family. At the cemetery, the gravediggers took the corpses, wrapped in shrouds, out of the coffins, and a man from each family – the women weren’t allowed to stand near the graves – had to see which of the dead belonged to them. My brother looked at the three dead men’s faces and said, ‘That’s our father.’
In the taxi, I now drove past the cemetery where my parents were buried. I couldn’t remember which grave was my father’s. All I knew was that you could see the sea from his grave. Since Istanbul has become a city of twelve million, the cemetery management has demanded that relatives buy up the graves, otherwise new dead are laid on top of the dead. At the time, my brother called me in Germany: ‘What shall we do? Buy the grave or let him get lost between the other dead?’
‘What do you think?’
‘We can let him lie with the other dead, that suits him better.’
As no one visits cemeteries in Istanbul, we didn’t mind where the dead would lie. The cemeteries are empty, the only quiet places in the city. As a young girl, I sometimes used to go to the cemeteries with a poet. He had written down what it said on the gravestones. He said, ‘These are people’s last words. There are no lies.’ He wanted to use those words in his poems.
Although no one visits cemeteries in Istanbul, every cemetery has its own crazy. They wander between the gravestones, and cats wander after them because they give the cats cheese and bread. At my parents’ cemetery, there were two crazies who lived there for years. One of them would always give the other a lira. One day, he gave him three lira instead of one. The other man got angry and said, ‘Why are you giving me three lira, I only want one lira.’
‘My son, have you not heard of inflation? Three lira is one lira now.’
The other man started to cry; his friend gave him a handkerchief.
The taxi driver couldn’t find my friend’s address and he broke out in a sweat. I gave him a paper tissue and said, ‘Drive me to the city centre.’ Thirty years ago, there was a film producer in Istanbul who only filmed sad stories. He knew all the viewers would cry, so he had handkerchiefs made out of the finest cotton. He stood outside the cinema himself and handed the handkerchiefs to the moviegoers. He laughed all the while. In those days, there was a famous cinema crazy in Istanbul, who especially admired a particular Turkish actor. Because that actor was killed in a film role, the crazy came to the cinema with a gun one evening and tried to kill the murderer before he could shoot – and fired six shots at the screen. Istanbul loves its crazies. The city gives them its breast and suckles them. It has been ruled by several crazy sultans. When a crazy comes along, Istanbul gives him a place.
I got out of the taxi right outside the cinema where the crazy once shot at the screen. Before I left for Berlin twenty-two years ago, I would often stand outside that cinema waiting for my friends.
Now I’m standing here again, looking at the faces of the people walking past. It looks like films from all different countries are being screened one over another. Humphrey Bogart is speaking to an Arabic woman, asking her the time. A Russian whore is speaking to a man who moves like Woody Allen.
I look for my friends from back then in these people’s faces, but I’m looking for them in the young faces of today, as though my friends hadn’t got older over these twenty-two years, as though they’d waited for me with their faces from back then. As though Istanbul had frozen to a photo at the moment I left for Europe, to wait for me – with all its baths, churches, mosques, sultans’ palaces, fountains, towers, Byzantine walls, bazaars, wooden houses, steel lanes, bridges, fig trees, slum houses, street cats, street dogs, lice, donkeys, wind, sea, seven hills, ships, crazies, dead, living, whores, poets, porters. As though Istanbul had waited for me with its millions of shoes, all waiting for morning in the houses, with its millions of combs left below mirrors spotted with shaving soap.
I’m here, so now all the windows will open. The women will call out to their friends from window to window. The basil plants in the flowerpots will give off their scent. The children of the poor will throw themselves into the Marmara Sea in their long cotton underpants to wash. All the ships between Asia and Europe will sound their horns. The cats will yowl for love on the roofs. The seven hills of Istanbul will awaken. The gypsy women will pick flowers there to sell in the city centre later on. The children will climb the fig trees. The birds will peck at the figs.
‘Mother, do you make fig jam from the male or the female fig trees?’
‘The male ones. Look, their figs are small and hard.’
In the tulip gardens at the sultan’s palace, the tortoises will walk around with lit candles on their shells, the tulips will bend their heads towards the sea in the wind, the tortoises’ candle lights will flicker in the same direction. The wind will push the ships along today and make them sail faster, the passengers will arrive home sooner. When the men are at home, the lights will go on across the seven hills. The fathers will wash their hands. Sounds of water. ‘My daughter, will you pass me a towel?’
Opposite the cinema were a few shops. Some of the shopkeepers recognized me and said hello; they all had white hair and white eyebrows.
Next to the cinema stood a poor man, perhaps a farmer, trying to photograph the people passing by with a Polaroid camera.
‘Photo souvenir of Istanbul, photo souvenir of Istanbul!’
I let him take my photo; the picture was blurred. ‘Take another picture.’
‘I haven’t any more film.’
A beggar woman took the photo out of my hand and said to the photographer, ‘You’re the artist, aren’t you, why didn’t you photograph this lady in front of McDonald’s?’
She looked closely at the photo and exclaimed, ‘Oh, how beautiful my treasure is, how beautiful.’
I thought she meant me, but there was a cat on the wall behind me in the photo. I was blurred but the cat was in focus.
Then I called the Turkish philosopher who didn’t want to live in Berlin.
‘Where are you?’
I took the ship over to him, to the Asian part of Istanbul. Sailing alongside the ship sailed a fishing boat transporting two horses. The moon shone on the faces of the horses, which were perfectly calm. I dipped my hands in the sea to touch a little moonshine; the moon looked suddenly like it had in my childhood – as though it lived only ever here in the Istanbul sky, as though it loved only Istanbul, and polished itself every day only for this city.
*This story is taken from: Der Hof im Spiegel by Emine Sevgi Özdamar. © Kiepenheuer & Witsch GmbH & Co. KG, Cologne/Germany.
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.
Someone, probably the ticket inspector, told him that his was the only suitcase. No one else was going to Alquila today. There’s no way it can get lost. But Hernández insisted on taking it with him. I like to keep an eye on my things.
On the platform Hernández ate a few biscuits, bought a bottle of water and nervously smoked his way through two or three cigarettes. Then the door to the bus opened, and he rushed inside even though he was the only one waiting. I need to keep it with me, he explained to the driver as he climbed the narrow steps. I have my medicine in here. The driver nodded without looking around, gripping his steering-wheel more tightly.
A superstitious man, Padilla was afraid that something would happen to his bus if he spoke before starting off, just as he never spoke before getting to the mountains to make sure that nothing happened to his passengers.
By then, Hernández had taken over a row of seats and put his suitcase in the aisle. He was excited to be the only one taking the bus to Alquila that day.
Don’t block the aisle, Padilla said as the bus went around a bend. Surprised, Hernández sat up to look at the driver in the mirror. Smiling, he asked, Are you serious?
It’s dangerous for the other passengers, Padilla answered, looking back at Hernández. Rules are rules, he added without revealing the real reason: if he allowed something to block the aisle they’d have an accident or, at best, be delayed.
Pointing to the seats around him, Hernández was ready to argue the point, but Padilla was an experienced driver, and he quickly looked away from the mirror and turned up the volume on the radio. Shaking his head, Hernández decided to ignore him and lay back down.
A few minutes later, while the driver fumed in his seat, Hernández took a map out from his jacket pocket. He had ordered it by mail. Now, he excitedly but carefully unfolded it and examined it for a long time. He was finally going to see her.
Hernández had met Romina three weeks before at a Faculty of Architecture party that had almost ended up with the two of them in bed. I’d love to see you in Alquila, she’d told him in the foyer of his block of flats. Whenever you like.
Since then it had been all Hernández could think about. At twenty years old he was the only one of his friends who was still a virgin – and Romina was his only viable option for getting rid of a label under which he had suffered for too long.
He was so nervous he was afraid he wouldn’t be able to get any rest on the trip, even though it would last all night. What if I come too soon? Hernández agonized in silence. What if I don’t last a minute? What if I come as soon as I see her naked?
Hernández folded up the map and put it away then reached for his suitcase, took out a bag and checked that he had everything he needed: four packets of condoms (Who knows how many I’ll waste out of nerves?), a box of Viagra (In case I get stage fright) and sleeping pills for the trip, which had been recommended by another customer in the pharmacy.
Although the box said that two would be enough, Hernández, who couldn’t get the image of Romina’s body or his fears about the potential failings of his own body out of his head, decided to take four. There’s plenty of time after all, he murmured before taking a swig from his bottle and lying back down, hoping that the effects would be immediate.
Just then the driver lowered the ten screens that had thus far been hidden, and a stewardess’ voice started to play very loud. You’re really getting on my nerves, Hernández exclaimed, sitting up with a jolt. Then he raised his voice. I don’t want to watch the movie! But Padilla pretended not to hear, and as soon as the advert for the coach company that paid his salary had finished he turned the speakers up as high as they would go. Covering his ears and clenching his jaw, Hernández realized the absurd situation he was in. He got up and walked down the aisle to Padilla. Please, can you turn it off? I assure you that no one is going to watch the movie, he added a few moments later, tugging the corners of his mouth into the most unconvincing smile imaginable.
That’s not possible, Padilla replied after another brief silence. It’s the rules. And although you may not respect them, I follow them to the letter. He turned to look at his passenger. Hernández’s smile faded from his face. Go back to your seat. You can’t stand here. It’s not allowed.
Fighting the urge to swear at him, Hernández bit back his frustration, turned around and started to walk back down the aisle. Then he quietly asked, Can’t you at least lower the volume a little?
Impossible, Padilla said, accelerating in an attempt to throw his passenger to the ground. I can’t touch the volume. Regulations.
Hernández kept his balance and hurried back to his seat, smiling again, this time out of impotence rather than condescension. He shook his head in anger, mumbled a couple of words that not even he understood and went back to his four seats with his tail firmly between his legs. Fortunately, the pills were already beginning to take effect. Now nothing, not the noise and glare from the television screens or Padilla’s jerky driving, would bother Hernández. As soon as he lay down his mind went blank.
Hernández slept so deeply and was so oblivious to the world that he wasn’t aware of anything more until they got to Alquila. Padilla, who had done all he could to make the journey a waking nightmare, shook his arm saying Come on, you bastard, we’re here. Get up. It’s not my job to wake you up. Then he pushed Hernández’s legs with the sole of his shoe. And I don’t have to wait for you either. Get yourself out, or I’ll do it for you, the driver threatened, kicking Hernández again. Feeling his heels on the ground, the passenger woke up. Fine, fine, I heard you. I’m going. After wiping the drool from his chin and rubbing his face with his hands, Hernández stood up, registered that he was still a little dizzy, picked up the suitcase as best he could and followed the driver, who was mumbling, I hope this place treats you the way you deserve.
Out in the street, fighting the dizziness the pills had left behind, Hernández rubbed his face and shook his head again before looking around. The sun was just coming up, and he couldn’t believe that Alquila was even uglier than it had looked in Romina’s photos.
Moments later someone, maybe the driver who would take charge of the bus after Padilla, told him how to get to the plaza – Not that there’s much point. There’s nothing to see here. Paying no attention to the stranger’s last words, Hernández set out and soon covered the six or seven blocks that separated him from his destination. Around him, light was flooding across the ground.
It’s too early to call her, Hernández said to himself, hugging his bag. He sat down on a bench and went on, I’m not going to wake her up just now and definitely not her parents. But he was just making excuses. He was a bundle of nerves. What the hell am I going to say to her when she answers? I’d better not call her. What if she doesn’t want to…? What if she’s changed her mind? he said as the plaza filled with people hurrying to and fro. He looked up and saw the sun appear behind the green church steeple. Then he raised his voice, trying to conquer his fears, What the hell am I thinking? Of course I’m going to call her.
Why would she have changed her mind? He exclaimed even louder, getting up. She would have told me. But I’ll have breakfast first to give her a little more time, he added, setting off across the plaza in search of somewhere to have breakfast, oblivious to the fact that this was just another pretext. Neither did he notice was how unusual it was for people to be hurrying around so urgently at that hour.
Then someone, maybe the man at the newspaper kiosk, told him that the best place for breakfast was the restaurant run by Doña Eumelia, The one on the other side of the plaza, next to the stationer’s. But hurry up, you don’t have much time. I don’t think it’ll be open for much longer. But Hernández was already walking off, so he didn’t hear the warning. As he went into the restaurant, Hernández smiled, thinking to himself that he’d solved a couple of problems in one: he could eat something and pass the time and also buy some paper in which to wrap up Romina’s present. If she has changed her mind, the present might change it back again, he thought as he ordered eggs. Then he sat down, looking at the window display of the stationer’s, examining the different rolls of wrapping paper. Eventually, Hernández opted for a blue roll and went over to the counter to ask the shop girl, Doña Eumelia’s niece and first cousin, who was staring fixedly at the television, Can I have a metre of this one?
No, the shop girl answered, barely looking at Hernández. That paper is for children. Also, I’m watching the news. And you’re not from around here. I don’t like to deal with strangers, the shop girl said rudely without taking her eyes off the television. Just for children. Damn, Hernández said, smiling. Strangers… then give me a metre of that one.
I can’t, I already told you, the shop girl said irritably, looking at Hernández for the first time.
What if I get a child to buy it for me? Hernández asked, turning to the plaza with an incredulous smile as he tried to make sense of the situation.
Who would use it? You or the child? The shop girl asked, coming over to the counter but still staring at the television, where a local news presenter was saying, It’s going to be another difficult day.
It’s for me not the child. I was just making a joke, Hernández explained. I need to wrap a present –
Then stop asking, liar, the shop girl interrupted him. People come from outside and bring their bad manners with them, she added, turning around and going back to her seat. I’m not going to sell you anything. Too incredulous to be upset, Hernández considered trying again, but the shop girl got up from her seat, hurried back to the counter, pushed past him and poked her head into the other side of the premises where the restaurant was. They’re coming back.
Defeated, Hernández walked back to his table, just as Doña Eumelia was serving him his eggs, which would never be eaten.
Now they’re saying, said the shop girl behind Hernández, who watched Doña Eumelia walk to the threshold and look out at the street, that they’re already here. A couple of seconds later the shop girl and Doña Eumelia had lowered the shutters of the premises they shared, turned off the lights, hurried over to Hernández, picked him up and, saying We’re sorry but you can’t stay here, violently dragged him out back and thrown him out onto the street.
Someone, maybe one of the men running across the plaza, said to Hernández, Why are you just standing there? And someone else added, Run, they’re coming… they’re down here already, they’re everywhere.
Utterly confused, Hernández started to run after the men who’d spoken to him. A couple of blocks later, he heard the first explosions and the rattling of machine-gun fire. Gripped by fear, he felt his joints begin to creak and freeze up.
Romina, thought Hernández, still running. I have to call her. He took out his telephone in the middle of the street and hid in a doorway ready to dial, but someone, maybe a woman running along with two children in her arms, said, Don’t stop. They cut off the service. Utterly bewildered, Hernández put away his telephone, took out the map on which Romina had written her address and started to run in a daze, hearing the shots and explosions get closer and closer. A few paces further on, the woman tripped on a crack in the road and fell to the ground, sending her children tumbling.
Hernández helped her back up, picked up one of her children and ran as he’d never run before. He asked the woman if she knew how to get to Arteaga 17. You’re in luck… we’re close by… Just go around the corner and keep going straight on… It’s five, no, it must be four blocks. Or come with me and help my boy… You can hide at my house.
I’m sorry… really, said Hernández, stopping for a second to look at the woman and the child on the ground. He had no way of knowing that the decision he was taking would end up being the most important of his life. But he wanted to get to Romina’s house. The machine-gun fire and explosions continued in the distance. Turning at the corner the woman had pointed out to him, Hernández moved his legs impossibly fast. His chest felt as though it might burst at any moment, but he found strength he never knew he had. And so he arrived at the house he was looking for and started desperately banging on the door, shouting Romina’s name over and over again.
But no one came to answer. He couldn’t hear a thing behind the door, not a murmur. Romina’s family was hiding in the bathroom, and, although they heard the racket Hernández was making, the head of the family warned them, Don’t make a sound. I don’t want to hear a peep out of you. I don’t even want to hear you breathe. We don’t know who’s out there, who’s wandering the streets. Romina’s father stared hard at Romina, who was crying in silence. The more noise Hernández made, the deeper she burrowed her head into her arms. Maybe if we knew who it was, the head of the family whispered, but we don’t know him. We can’t take the risk.
When he had finally accepted the fact that the door he was kicking and thumping wouldn’t be opened, Hernández remembered the woman and the two children he’d abandoned. Lost and scared, he ran back the way he had come, but someone, maybe a woman on the roof, shouted out to him, The other way… run the other way… They’re coming that way.
Before Hernández had absorbed this piece of advice, a man cried out, and the people who were terrorizing the town came around the corner. Turning around, Hernández started to get his legs moving in the other direction, but then he stopped. They were at the other corner, too.
He froze and felt his bladder begin to fail. Hernández waited for the men to come towards him. When they finally arrived, he tried to say something, but someone, maybe the man who smashed in his jaw with the butt of the rifle, pre-empted him.
Before his eyes closed and he lost consciousness, Hernández saw the man who had hit him walk away and then heard the giggling of a pair of small boys, who were also armed.
Clinging on to the world by a thin thread of amazement, Hernández heard a woman’s voice giving orders. Load him up with his things… He must be an outsider.
Hernández felt nothing as they dragged him away, tied up his hands and feet and threw him into the back of a truck.
He came to a couple of hours later when someone, maybe one of the children who had laughed before, poured a bucket of water over his head. But when he finally opened his eyes, no one was there.
All he could see was a mess. They’d emptied out his suitcase in the back yard where he was lying. He looked up at the sun for a moment and felt a prickling across his entire body. He found that his T-shirt had been removed, his shoes taken off and his wrists and ankles throbbed with pain.
A couple of minutes later the woman who had ordered that he be brought with them appeared. Spitting out tangerine seeds, she stepped around the clothes and bent down next to Hernández. In a quiet voice she murmured, You’re not from around here. Then she moved around behind him and cut the ropes with which he had been tied up.
Stand up and follow me, she ordered, and it was then, hearing her voice, that Hernández realized that it reminded him of someone else. He’d heard it before. Maybe it was that woman, he thought. No, it was just like Romina’s voice. Or her mother’s.
Before he could continue with the nonsensical, absurd line of thought to which he clung so as not to have to think about anything else, to get away from where he was, Hernández found himself in a room. He and the woman he was following were met by a dozen adults and three or four children.
Hernández was hit again in the solar plexus and bent over before falling to his knees. Scratching at the earth, he tried to regain his breath, choke back the saliva running out from his mouth and dry his wet eyes. Around him people were laughing.
Someone, maybe the man who appeared to be the boss in that dark room, said, So you’ve come to fuck our wives. Surprised and terrified, Hernández thought, without knowing why or making any attempt to explain it now, that he also knew the voice that was talking to him. He’d heard it before, too.
Maybe it’s the man who hit me in the street, Hernández said to himself, as the laughter around him slowly faded away. No… it’s the driver… the one who brought me… Or, no… it’s Romina’s father, he thought to himself in silence. I heard him on the phone.
I’m talking to you, you son of a bitch! shouted the voice, and this time, instead of hitting Hernández, the man lifted up his head and waved several packets of condoms and a pack of Viagra in his face. You’ve come to fuck our girls, haven’t you?
Before Hernández managed to say anything, the man slapped him a couple of times. Well, as you can see, that’s not going to happen! The rules are different here! he added, hitting him again but this time with his fists. We’re in charge!
And do you know what I’m going to order now? asked the man, finally letting Hernández’s face go and looking around at the others who were there. For someone to be the first to volunteer.
Someone, maybe the one who had tied up Hernández, spoke up before the others.
And the other people there left the room, one by one.
It looked like a good thing: but wait till I tell you. We were down South, In Alabama—Bill Driscoll and myself—when this kidnapping idea struck us. It was, as Bill afterward expressed it, “during a moment of temporary mental apparition”; but we didn’t find that out till later.
There was a town down there, as flat as a flannel-cake, and called Summit, of course. It contained inhabitants of as undeleterious an self-satisfied a class of peasantry as ever clustered around a Maypole.
Bill and me had a joint capital of about six hundred dollars, and we needed just two thousand dollars more to pull off a fraudulent town-lot scheme in Western Illinois with. We talked it over on the front steps of the hotel. Philoprogenitiveness, says we, is strong in semi-rural communities; therefore, and for other reasons, a kidnapping project ought to do better there than in the radius of newspapers that send reporters out in plain clothes to stir up talk about such things. We knew that Summit couldn’t get after us with anything stronger than constables and, maybe, some lackadaisical blood-hounds and a diatribe or two in the Weekly Farmers’ Budget. So, it looked good.
We selected for our victim the only child of a prominent citizen named Ebenezer Dorset. The father was respectable and tight, a mortgage fancier and a stern, upright collection-plate passer and forecloser. The kid was a boy of ten, with bas-relief freckles, and hair the color of the cover of the magazine you buy at the news-stand when you want to catch a train. Bill and me figured that Ebenezer would melt down for a ransom of two thousand dollars to a cent. But wait till I tell you.
About two miles from Summit was a little mountain, covered with a dense cedar brake. On the rear elevation of this mountain was a cave. There we stored provisions.
One evening after sundown, we drove in a buggy past old Dorset’s house. The kid was in the street, throwing rocks at a kitten on the opposite fence.
“Hey, little boy!” says Bill, “would you like to have a bag of candy and a nice ride?”
The boy catches Bill neatly in the eye with a piece of brick.
“That will cost the old man an extra five hundred dollars,” says Bill, climbing over the wheel.
That boy put up a fight like a welter-weight cinnamon bear; but, at last, we got him down in the bottom of the buggy and drove away. We took him up to the cave, and I hitched the horse in the cedar brake. After dark I drove the buggy to the little village, three miles away, where we had hired it, and walked back to the mountain.
Bill was pasting court-plaster over the scratches and bruises on his features. There was a fire burning behind the big rock at the entrance of the cave, and the boy was watching a pot of boiling coffee, with two buzzard tail-feathers stuck in his red hair. He points a stick at me when I come up, and says:
“Ha! cursed paleface, do you dare to enter the camp of Red Chief, the terror of the plains?”
“He’s all right now,” says Bill, rolling up his trousers and examining some bruises on his shins. “We’re playing Indian. We’re making Buffalo Bill’s show look like magic-lantern views of Palestine in the town hall. I’m Old Hank, the Trapper, Red Chief’s captive, and I’m to be scalped at daybreak. By Geronimo! that kid can kick hard.”
Yes, sir, that boy seemed to be having the time of his life. The fun of camping out in a cave had made him forget that he was a captive himself. He immediately christened me Snake-eye, the Spy, and announced that, when his braves returned from the warpath, I was to be broiled at the stake at the rising of the sun.
Then we had supper; and he filled his mouth full of bacon and bread and gravy, and began to talk. He made a during-dinner speech something like this:
“I like this fine. I never camped out before; but I had a pet ‘possum once, and I was nine last birthday. I hate to go to school. Rats ate up sixteen of Jimmy Talbot’s aunt’s speckled hen’s eggs. Are there any real Indians in these woods? I want some more gravy. Does the trees moving make the wind blow? We had five puppies. What makes your nose so red, Hank? My father has lots of money. Are the stars hot? I whipped Ed Walker twice, Saturday. I don’t like girls. You dassent catch toads unless with a string. Do oxen make any noise? Why are oranges round? Have you got beds to sleep on in this cave? Amos Murray has got six toes. A parrot can talk, but a monkey or a fish can’t. How many does it take to make twelve?”
Every few minutes he would remember that he was a pesky redskin, and pick up his stick rifle and tiptoe to the mouth of the cave to rubber for the scouts of the hated paleface. Now and then he would let out a war-whoop that made Old Hank the Trapper, shiver. That boy had Bill terrorized from the start.
“Red Chief,” says I to the kid, “would you like to go home?”
“Aw, what for?” says he. “I don’t have any fun at home. I hate to go to school. I like to camp out. You won’t take me back home again, Snake-eye, will you?”
“Not right away,” says I. “We’ll stay here in the cave a while.”
“All right!” says he. “That’ll be fine. I never had such fun in all my life.”
We went to bed about eleven o’clock. We spread down some wide blankets and quilts and put Red Chief between us. We weren’t afraid he’d run away. He kept us awake for three hours, jumping up and reaching for his rifle and screeching: “Hist! pard,” in mine and Bill’s ears, as the fancied crackle of a twig or the rustle of a leaf revealed to his young imagination the stealthy approach of the outlaw band. At last, I fell into a troubled sleep, and dreamed that I had been kidnapped and chained to a tree by a ferocious pirate with red hair.
Just at daybreak, I was awakened by a series of awful screams from Bill. They weren’t yells, or howls, or shouts, or whoops, or yawps, such as you’d expect from a manly set of vocal organs—they were simply indecent, terrifying, humiliating screams, such as women emit when they see ghosts or caterpillars. It’s an awful thing to hear a strong, desperate, fat man scream incontinently in a cave at daybreak.
I jumped up to see what the matter was. Red Chief was sitting on Bill’s chest, with one hand twined in Bill’s hair. In the other he had the sharp case-knife we used for slicing bacon; and he was industriously and realistically trying to take Bill’s scalp, according to the sentence that had been pronounced upon him the evening before.
I got the knife away from the kid and made him lie down again. But, from that moment, Bill’s spirit was broken. He laid down on his side of the bed, but he never closed an eye again in sleep as long as that boy was with us. I dozed off for a while, but along toward sun-up I remembered that Red Chief had said I was to be burned at the stake at the rising of the sun. I wasn’t nervous or afraid; but I sat up and lit my pipe and leaned against a rock.
“What you getting up so soon for, Sam?” asked Bill.
“Me?” says I. “Oh, I got a kind of a pain in my shoulder. I thought sitting up would rest it.”
“You’re a liar!” says Bill. “You’re afraid. You was to be burned at sunrise, and you was afraid he’d do it. And he would, too, if he could find a match. Ain’t it awful, Sam? Do you think anybody will pay out money to get a little imp like that back home?”
“Sure,” said I. “A rowdy kid like that is just the kind that parents dote on. Now, you and the Chief get up and cook breakfast, while I go up on the top of this mountain and reconnoitre.”
I went up on the peak of the little mountain and ran my eye over the contiguous vicinity. Over toward Summit I expected to see the sturdy yeomanry of the village armed with scythes and pitchforks beating the country-side for the dastardly kidnappers. But what I saw was a peaceful landscape dotted with one man ploughing with a dun mule. Nobody was dragging the creek; no couriers dashed hither and yon, bringing tidings of no news to the distracted parents. There was a sylvan attitude of somnolent sleepiness pervading that section of the external outward surface of Alabama that lay exposed to my view. “Perhaps,” says I to myself, “it has not yet been discovered that the wolves have borne away the tender lambkin from the fold. Heaven help the wolves!” says I, and I went down the mountain to breakfast.
When I got to the cave I found Bill backed up against the side of it, breathing hard, and the boy threatening to smash him with a rock half as big as a cocoanut.
“He put a red-hot boiled potato down my back,” explained Bill, “and then mashed it with his foot; and I boxed his ears. Have you got a gun about you, Sam?”
I took the rock away from the boy and kind of patched up the argument. “I’ll fix you,” says the kid to Bill. “No man ever yet struck the Red Chief but what he got paid for it. You better beware!”
After breakfast the kid takes a piece of leather with strings wrapped around it out of his pocket and goes outside the cave unwinding it.
“What’s he up to now?” says Bill, anxiously. “You don’t think he’ll run away, do you, Sam?”
“No fear of it,” says I. “He don’t seem to be much of a home body. But we’ve got to fix up some plan about the ransom. There don’t seem to be much excitement around Summit on account of his disappearance; but maybe they haven’t realized yet that he’s gone. His folks may think he’s spending the night with Aunt Jane or one of the neighbors. Anyhow, he’ll be missed to-day. To-night we must get a message to his father demanding the two thousand dollars for his return.”
Just then we heard a kind of war-whoop, such as David might have emitted when he knocked out the champion Goliath. It was a sling that Red Chief had pulled out of his pocket, and he was whirling it around his head.
I dodged, and heard a heavy thud and a kind of a sigh from Bill, like a horse gives out when you take his saddle off. A niggerhead rock the size of an egg had caught Bill just behind his left ear. He loosened himself all over and fell in the fire across the frying pan of hot water for washing the dishes. I dragged him out and poured cold water on his head for half an hour.
By and by, Bill sits up and feels behind his ear and says: “Sam, do you know who my favorite Biblical character is?”
“Take it easy,” says I. “You’ll come to your senses presently.”
“King Herod,” says he. “You won’t go away and leave me here alone, will you, Sam?”
I went out and caught that boy and shook him until his freckles rattled.
“If you don’t behave,” says I, “I’ll take you straight home. Now, are you going to be good, or not?”
“I was only funning,” says he sullenly. “I didn’t mean to hurt Old Hank. But what did he hit me for? I’ll behave, Snake-eye, if you won’t send me home, and if you’ll let me play the Black Scout to- day.”
“I don’t know the game,” says I. “That’s for you and Mr. Bill to decide. He’s your playmate for the day. I’m going away for a while, on business. Now, you come in and make friends with him and say you are sorry for hurting him, or home you go, at once.”
I made him and Bill shake hands, and then I took Bill aside and told him I was going to Poplar Cove, a little village three miles from the cave, and find out what I could about how the kidnapping had been regarded in Summit. Also, I thought it best to send a peremptory letter to old man Dorset that day, demanding the ransom and dictating how it should be paid.
“You know, Sam,” says Bill, “I’ve stood by you without batting an eye in earthquakes, fire, and flood—in poker games, dynamite outrages, police raids, train robberies, and cyclones. I never lost my nerve yet till we kidnapped that two-legged skyrocket of a kid. He’s got me going. You won’t leave me long with him, will you, Sam?”
“I’ll be back some time this afternoon,” says I. “You must keep the boy amused and quiet till I return. And now we’ll write the letter to old Dorset.”
Bill and I got paper and pencil and worked on the letter while Red Chief, with a blanket wrapped around him, strutted up and down, guarding the mouth of the cave. Bill begged me tearfully to make the ransom fifteen hundred dollars instead of two thousand. “I ain’t attempting,” says he, “to decry the celebrated moral aspect of parental affection, but we’re dealing with humans, and it ain’t human for anybody to give up two thousand dollars for that forty- pound chunk of freckled wildcat. I’m willing to take a chance at fifteen hundred dollars. You can charge the difference up to me.”
So, to relieve Bill, I acceded, and we collaborated a letter that ran this way:
“Ebenezer Dorset, Esq.:
“We have your boy concealed in a place far from Summit. It is useless for you or the most skilful detectives to attempt to find him. Absolutely, the only terms on which you can have him restored to you are these: We demand fifteen hundred dollars in large bills for his return; the money to be left at midnight to-night at the same spot and in the same box as your reply—as hereinafter described. If you agree to these terms, send your answer in writing by a solitary messenger to-night at half-past eight o’clock. After crossing Owl Creek, on the road to Poplar Cove, there are three large trees about a hundred yards apart, close to the fence of the wheat field on the right-hand side. At the bottom of the fence-post, opposite the third tree, will be found a small paste-board box.
“The messenger will place the answer in this box and return immediately to Summit.
“If you attempt any treachery or fail to comply with our demand as stated, you will never see your boy again.
“If you pay the money as demanded, he will be returned to you safe and well within three hours. These terms are final, and if you do not accede to them no further communication will be attempted.
“TWO DESPERATE MEN”
I addressed this letter to Dorset, and put it in my pocket. As I was about to start, the kid comes up to me and says:
“Aw, Snake-eye, you said I could play the Black Scout while you was gone.”
“Play it, of course,” says I. “Mr. Bill will play with you. What kind of a game is it?”
“I’m the Black Scout,” says Red Chief, “and I have to ride to the stockade to warn the settlers that the Indians are coming. I’m tired of playing Indian myself. I want to be the Black Scout.”
“All right,” says I. “It sounds harmless to me. I guess Mr. Bill will help you foil the pesky savages.”
“What am I to do?” asks Bill, looking at the kid suspiciously.
“You are the hoss,” says Black Scout. “Get down on your hands and knees. How can I ride to the stockade without a hoss?”
“You’d better keep him interested,” said I, “till we get the scheme going. Loosen up.”
Bill gets down on his all fours, and a look comes in his eye like a rabbit’s when you catch it in a trap.
“How far is it to the stockade, kid?” he asks, in a husky manner of voice.
“Ninety miles,” says the Black Scout. “And you have to hump yourself to get there on time. Whoa, now!”
The Black Scout jumps on Bill’s back and digs his heels in his side.
“For Heaven’s sake,” says Bill, “hurry back, Sam, as soon as you can. I wish we hadn’t made the ransom more than a thousand. Say, you quit kicking me or I’ll get up and warm you good.”
I walked over to Poplar Cove and sat around the post-office and store, talking with the chawbacons that came in to trade. One whiskerando says that he hears Summit is all upset on account of Elder Ebenezer Dorset’s boy having been lost or stolen. That was all I wanted to know. I bought some smoking tobacco, referred casually to the price of black-eyed peas, posted my letter surreptitiously, and came away. The postmaster said the mail- carrier would come by in an hour to take the mail on to Summit.
When I got back to the cave Bill and the boy were not to be found. I explored the vicinity of the cave, and risked a yodel or two, but there was no response.
So I lighted my pipe and sat down on a mossy bank to await developments.
In about half an hour I heard the bushes rustle, and Bill wabbled out into the little glade in front of the cave. Behind him was the kid, stepping softly like a scout, with a broad grin on his face. Bill stopped, took off his hat, and wiped his face with a red handkerchief. The kid stopped about eight feet behind him.
“Sam,” says Bill, “I suppose you’ll think I’m a renegade, but I couldn’t help it. I’m a grown person with masculine proclivities and habits of self-defence, but there is a time when all systems of egotism and predominance fail. The boy is gone. I have sent him home. All is off. There was martyrs in old times,” goes on Bill, “that suffered death rather than give up the particular graft they enjoyed. None of ’em ever was subjugated to such supernatural tortures as I have been. I tried to be faithful to our articles of depredation; but there came a limit.”
“What’s the trouble, Bill?” I asks him.
“I was rode,” says Bill, “the ninety miles to the stockade, not barring an inch. Then, when the settlers was rescued, I was given oats. Sand ain’t a palatable substitute. And then, for an hour I had to try to explain to him why there was nothin’ in holes, how a road can run both ways, and what makes the grass green. I tell you, Sam, a human can only stand so much. I takes him by the neck of his clothes and drags him down the mountain. On the way he kicks my legs black-and-blue from the knees down; and I’ve got to have two or three bites on my thumb and hand cauterized.
“But he’s gone”—continues Bill—”gone home. I showed him the road to Summit and kicked him about eight feet nearer there at one kick. I’m sorry we lose the ransom; but it was either that or Bill Driscoll to the madhouse.”
Bill is puffing and blowing, but there is a look of ineffable peace and growing content on his rose-pink features.
“Bill,” says I, “there isn’t any heart disease in your family, is there?”
“No,” says Bill, “nothing chronic except malaria and accidents. Why?”
“Then you might turn around,” says I, “and have a look behind you.”
Bill turns and sees the boy, and loses his complexion and sits down plump on the ground and begins to pluck aimlessly at grass and little sticks. For an hour I was afraid for his mind. And then I told him that my scheme was to put the whole job through immediately and that we would get the ransom and be off with it by midnight if old Dorset fell in with our proposition. So Bill braced up enough to give the kid a weak sort of a smile and a promise to play the Russian in a Japanese war with him as soon as he felt a little better.
I had a scheme for collecting that ransom without danger of being caught by counterplots that ought to commend itself to professional kidnappers. The tree under which the answer was to be left—and the money later on—was close to the road fence with big, bare fields on all sides. If a gang of constables should be watching for any one to come for the note, they could see him a long way off crossing the fields or in the road. But no, sirree! At half-past eight I was up in that tree as well hidden as a tree toad, waiting for the messenger to arrive.
Exactly on time, a half-grown boy rides up the road on a bicycle, locates the pasteboard box at the foot of the fence-post, slips a folded piece of paper into it, and pedals away again back toward Summit.
I waited an hour and then concluded the thing was square. I slid down the tree, got the note, slipped along the fence till I struck the woods, and was back at the cave in another half an hour. I opened the note, got near the lantern, and read it to Bill. It was written with a pen in a crabbed hand, and the sum and substance of it was this:
“Two Desperate Men.
“Gentlemen: I received your letter to-day by post, in regard to the ransom you ask for the return of my son. I think you are a little high in your demands, and I hereby make you a counter- proposition, which I am inclined to believe you will accept. You bring Johnny home and pay me two hundred and fifty dollars in cash, and I agree to take him off your hands. You had better come at night, for the neighbors believe he is lost, and I couldn’t be responsible for what they would do to anybody they saw bringing him back. Very respectfully, “EBENEZER DORSET.”
“Great pirates of Penzance!” says I; “of all the impudent——”
But I glanced at Bill, and hesitated. He had the most appealing look in his eyes I ever saw on the face of a dumb or a talking brute.
“Sam,” says he, “what’s two hundred and fifty dollars, after all? We’ve got the money. One more night of this kid will send me to a bed in Bedlam. Besides being a thorough gentleman, I think Mr. Dorset is a spendthrift for making us such a liberal offer. You ain’t going to let the chance go, are you?”
“Tell you the truth, Bill,” says I, “this little he ewe lamb has somewhat got on my nerves too. We’ll take him home, pay the ransom, and make our get-away.”
We took him home that night. We got him to go by telling him that his father had bought a silver-mounted rifle and a pair of moccasins for him, and we were going to hunt bears the next day.
It was just twelve o ‘clock when we knocked at Ebenezer’s front door. Just at the moment when I should have been abstracting the fifteen hundred dollars from the box under the tree, according to the original proposition, Bill was counting out two hundred and fifty dollars into Dorset’s hand.
When the kid found out we were going to leave him at home he started up a howl like a calliope and fastened himself as tight as a leech to Bill’s leg. His father peeled him away gradually, like a porous plaster.
“How long can you hold him?” asks Bill.
“I’m not as strong as I used to be,” says old Dorset, “but I think I can promise you ten minutes.”
“Enough,” says Bill. “In ten minutes I shall cross the Central, Southern, and Middle Western States, and be legging it trippingly for the Canadian border.”
And, as dark as it was, and as fat as Bill was, and as good a runner as I am, he was a good mile and a half out of Summit before I could catch up with him.
They were drunk when he proposed it. That they go to a church in some little town and ask a priest to marry them on the spot, then return to Guan Zhou and keep drinking like nothing had happened. She thought it was the funniest idea in the world.
Wait, she said, almost passed out across her arm. I’ll finish this beer first.
The flies buzzed around the empty bottles piled up on the table. They’d missed their classes at university that day. They hadn’t gone in the day before either. They were celebrating. He had just gotten back from a month-long bus trip around the country with Uzi and Sergio, his childhood friends. He told her about what had happened to him: he ran out of money right at the end of the trip and had to sell his belongings—a sleeping-bag, a backpack, a Victorinox knife—to pay for his return ticket. He had no choice but to sleep in the aisle of the bus, shivering with cold, without any kind of jacket. He’d asked a chola if he could cover himself with her underskirts. The woman had refused, offended.
She laughed hard at his stories. The jukebox played “I Pray for You”: they’d put enough coins in the machine to ensure that it would play only their favorite songs all afternoon. He rested his hand on her leg, as if by accident. They’d both been unfaithful and somehow knew it, but at that moment it didn’t matter. There’d be time to correct mistakes later.
After flipping a coin, they decided to take the La Guardia highway. They’d never driven that road on their own before. They stopped to buy more beers on the way; he paid for them. They fought over control of the radio.
Let me drive, he protested, or we’re going to crash.
They saw a man standing on the side of the highway and stopped to pick him up.
You’re crazy, she said, annoyed.
Today it’s you; tomorrow it’s me. The law of the highway.
Idiot. I don’t feel like playing good Samaritan.
He leaned over to kiss her. When he did, he passed a hand over her head and pulled her hair. She bit him.
Where are you going? the man asked through the car window. His clothes were stained with oil, as if he’d been working under a car.
To get married, she said, taking a sip from her can of beer.
The man stared at them.
Get in, he ordered. We’ll give you a ride.
The man was a taxi driver. His car had broken down, and he asked them to take him to a gas station. They offered him a can, and he sat in silence for the twenty minutes that followed. Before he got out of the car he tried to pay them, but they wouldn’t let him.
Pray for us, she shouted, waving her hand out the window, as the man became a spot in the distance.
Moron, he laughed. You don’t even believe in God.
They passed several towns. Crosses with plastic crowns bloomed on the sides of the highway. The light became orangey; afternoon was turning into evening. She passed him another beer. They’d never stayed the night together after making love. She always gathered her things quickly and went back to her mother’s house at first light, zigzagging down the road with the dawn breeze in her face, turning up the music on the car radio all the way to keep from succumbing to fatigue and drunkenness. She hadn’t wanted to get used to waking up next to him. The future is not ours, she thought.
Son of a bitch, he shouted suddenly, trying to dodge the dog that had just run into the middle of the highway. The tires of the old Ford Fiesta skidded, and her forehead bounced off the window. The car stopped on the highway, like an insect stranded in the sun. She rubbed her head; it didn’t seem like anything serious, just a scare. He frowned at the beer that had spilled on the seats.
You hit it, she said accusingly.
I have no idea, he answered, dizzy from the car’s maneuvers.
I heard it. You hit it. You killed it.
A muffled howl came from the rear of the Ford Fiesta.
The dog, she squealed, nervous.
I’m not going to get out and check, he said, and he reversed the car back into the right lane. The car jolted slightly as they passed over the animal.
Ohhh, she shouted, and covered her ears with her hands.
It’s better for him. His suffering is over.
How terrible, she said.
He shook the beer off his clothes and turned up the volume on the radio. She sat frozen in her seat, her hair messed up from the car’s sudden deceleration.
That was close, he said and opened another can of beer. People die in accidents like that.
She didn’t respond. He only realized there was something wrong when, a few kilometers down the road, he turned to talk to her and saw that she was crying.
Now what? he said, slamming on the brakes.
This isn’t going to work. I want to get out.
What did I do?
Leave me alone.
He got out of the car and leaned against the door. He lit a cigarette. He didn’t know where they were. The highway stretched on forever. He felt exhausted and bored.
Get out, he said.
She dried her tears with the back of her hand.
We’re not going to get married any more? she asked.
Some other day, he answered, containing his irritation.
Analía got out of the car with a slam of the door and began to follow the asphalt into the sunset. Diego started the car and turned back toward the city. She had a long walk ahead of her. She turned and threw the can of beer after him. She missed. Luckily she had her Discman in her pocket; this time she didn’t know how long it would take her to get home.
Later in the night he saw, strangely, the picture of himself as he had been before she came.
He thought: ‘She has power to wake the dead.’ –Karen Blixen, “Tempests”
Airport, present day, night-time
In the East, every day is different, the old books say. It’s made up of islands, each island is different, on each island there lives a witch, and I knew one of them.
She called herself Gabriela Sloane. We’re old thieves, and we met in a Roman park when we were casing a place for a spectacular robbery, though we didn’t realise right away that the only thing we each wanted to do, the only thing we were able to do, was steal. I’d once committed a crime on her Eastern island, but I didn’t know at the time that she’d been born there in the year 5502 (under the name Pesach Slabosky) and that she’d spent a witchy childhood there. While she was crouched in his cellar like a possum, oiling her Desert Eagle and nibbling at a dry, mouldy piece of bread, I was up in the penthouse, wining and dining with our victim, Frobart. She always came from below, digging tunnels, pushing herself through pipes, spending the night in cellars, while I worked upstairs right from the start. My tools were elegant cascades of words, flattery, phoney sophistication. I’d always wanted to conquer the world by pouring myself over it like perfumed bathwater. All she wanted to do was to steal and murder in silence, to wreak bloody revenge. I still don’t know what for; our approaches were very different. But there were some glorious moments when we were both young and in love with eternity because we were separated from each other again and again.
Gabriela Sloane: Here she was in her green suit, sitting in the departure lounge of Leonardo da Vinci. She never bore the slightest trace of the cellars when she surfaced. She was probably in her late twenties this time, deceptively young, deceptively small, coiled like a spring, black hair and eyes gleaming, and if I’d been harbouring any doubts that this thief and murderer was capable of glorious moments – that she was my beloved, my hated, my lost, my rediscovered one – her brazen eyes immediately dispelled them. Her glance bored deep into everything it met; as she eyed him suspiciously, even the man greedily sucking his newspaper dry beside her lost control of his drab inner life and allowed her murderous thoughts to spread through him like black ink through water. Did she detect in him a danger, a pursuer? No one follows me, it’s impossible, I read in her sad Eastern smile, a smile as old as the books. Two bodies, Frobart and his wife, Piazza Bologna crawling with police; her shooting frenzy put me in grave danger, too, but I was just about saved by my tuxedo and the piquant cloud of eau de toilette I’d shrouded myself in. After lengthy deliberations, the uniformed officers concluded that killers don’t wear Terre D’Hermes when they go to work.
Old, powerful feelings descended like black curtains, darkening the duty-free shop I’d followed her into. Between the baci di dama cookies and Romantica soap, we finally faced each other. But she turned away to sniff the soap.
“Do I know you?”
I understood. It was more fun if we again refused to believe it, to grasp it, if we acted like strangers and disavowed our joy. After all, we’re not just thieves, we’re liars and fantasists by nature, and we accept each other as such (though as far as I can recall, we never got married, unlike so many other liars).
“In the park in front of Frobart’s house,” I said, “that’s where we saw each other. We were both disguised as passers-by. You had a night-vision device, I didn’t.”
Now, instead of the soap, she was smelling one of her black locks of hair, all innocence and obliviousness, as if the here and now in an airport duty-free at night was entirely beyond her power of imagination. She’d always known how to anesthetise her so-called ‘consciousness’ from one moment to the next (she was often plagued by nightmares).
“Where do you get something like that?”
“A night-vision device. You know I’m clueless when it comes to technology.”
She laughed her pearly white, red-tongued laugh. “I beg your pardon? Why you scoundrel, you’re not quite the full shilling.” So charming, the witch’s slightly antiquated phrases, the trace of bygone centuries that wafted around her. And she was just about to march off. I hooked my little finger around hers and held on to her.
“I’ve missed you.”
She observed our fingers, taking her time. Was she going to remember at last? Without looking up, she said in a low voice, “If you don’t let me go right now, I’ll kill you right here beside the soap, and no one will notice, nor will it be any great loss for humanity.” I could well believe it. I said:
“Alright then, Gabriela, let’s get down to business.”
“How do you know my name?”
“Because I stole your passport.”
I watched with satisfaction as she rooted around in her yellow shoulder bag and pulled out her ID, the existence of which she’d never understood.
“Three times,” I said, smiling. “But I always gave it back.”
She puzzled over her passport as if her own forged document, her own assumed identity, were unfamiliar, incomprehensible, a riddle.
“Who are you?”
“Je suis le poinçonneur des Lilas. Je fais des trous, des petits trous, encore des petits trous…” I added, “And I have Frobart’s jewel.”
Out of the corner of her eye, she was watching every movement made by a few remarkably ugly, spoiled, frequent-flying children as they ran around pointing water pistols at each other. Pursuers? Or real children? Outnumbered, how was she going to fight them all off? Did she have a plan? An invisible weapon? Accomplices I hadn’t yet noticed? Did she have a lover? I knew her well enough to be certain she had something up her sleeve. And now she was driving her heel down into my patent-leather shoe.
“Oh really? Your jewel is fake. I swapped it.”
“So you admit we know each other then? It’s been so long, Pesach, I’m stunned. I’m pinching myself.”
She drove her heel in deeper.
“And you’re more beautiful than ever. By the way, I swapped back the jewel. Yours is false.”
“And then I swapped it again.”
“Do you think I’m an amateur? I swapped it back again, of course.”
“But then so did I.”
“What? So mine is fake?”
“Or maybe mine is. You’re driving me meshuga.”
“Gabriela, look at me and tell the truth: Is it you?”
Mutely, she shook her black curls and sneaked a few bars of soap into her suit. Force of habit. One bar fell to the floor. We both stared at it as if we’d lost something of incalculable value.
Suddenly Rosh Hashanah
My name is Simone Frobart. I had dinner with Pablo on Rue Gabrielle. He sketched me, but he didn’t paint me. I’m planning on having a blue period, he said, and somehow you’re just not blue enough for me. So I can’t have stolen the painting, because there was no painting of me in the first place, do you understand? Besides, it was the 6th of October. You don’t understand? Let me put it like this: You, monsieur, long for the next century, but we don’t. Not one has ever lived up to its promise. David and I have a small son, a bastard. When he grows up he wants to be a train conductor, to punch holes in tickets. I don’t want to think any further ahead than that, I don’t want to talk about the future any more, it’s bad luck. I’m constantly afraid, a very old fear. They’ll never catch David, he’s in Biarritz or somewhere by now. We designed the firecrackers and made them ourselves. We wanted to organise a little fireworks show, just for us – it was suddenly Rosh Hashanah, the holiday. Don’t you know it? It’s beside the point? I’m sorry we blew up the public pissoir, really. No, I’m not laughing. Yes, I’m aware of the gravity of my situation. David said: We’re looking into the night sky, into the darkness, but the stars will prevail. That’s the kind of thing he likes to say. I admit it, I taught him how to steal. For a lady of my social standing it’s not called stealing, by the way, it’s called kleptomania, a neurosis widely recognized in the circles I move in, possibly rooted in the libido. David always behaved like such an idiot when he was stealing, and he always felt sorry for the victims. It’s not true that pity isn’t the same as love, by the way. Often it’s love itself. Isn’t it funny that I’m sitting here now, and David, who’s blind, is the one who got away? You think it’s all an act? Ah, you have proof! Yes, you have proof for everything. Then he must be craftier than I thought. In four years, I never noticed anything strange. He felt his way so clumsily and so gracefully through the streets and through life, I couldn’t help but love him, and then he fell in love with my love. That can happen. By the way, I don’t believe a word you say, monsieur, you’re trying to tear us apart. My father, a traitor who’s recently taken to crossing himself in the Sacré Coeur every evening, tried to do the same. David never sent me billets-doux, he never had any money. We spent a year hiding in father’s cellars. That’s where our son came into the world. It was a wild, romantic time. We flogged father’s furniture, piece by hideous piece, I’ll readily admit it. He thought it was the work of ghosts, and in revenge, he became a Catholic. Non, je ne regrette rien.
An hour before her premature death (she was beaten to death by her father), Simone wrote a letter to David in the steeply sloping, illegible, beautiful handwriting she had learned as a four-year-old under a very large, revered sun in another life while in Babylonian exile.
Dearest, they’ve let me go. Pablo’s painting is in a safe hiding place. I’m not going to tell anyone where, not even you. Father has disinherited me, but one day we’ll sell the painting, and then our little Claude won’t have to work as a conductor. Today the rest of the world is dancing around the gas street lamps, and fireworks are going off in the Bois de Vicennes. Fiery man-made stars are shooting across the sky. They’re not our stars, but they’re shining nonetheless. Everyone’s shouting “Long live the twentieth century!” and throwing their hats into the air. I miss you, even if you’re not blind. Nous allons changer le monde. Answer me.
Meanwhile, at Leonardo da Vinci
Gabriela Sloane and I are still staring at the soap on the floor. Time falters for a moment, as if it has been spinning around and then fainted. When had it all started? I didn’t know. She didn’t know either, or if she did, she was hiding it. Our heads bumped against each other as we both bent down to pick up the soap. In the departure-lounge café, where everything but breathing is prohibited (if you’ve never been to a departure-lounge café where everything is prohibited at two o’clock in the morning, then you’ve no idea of the weariness the planet is working against), we’re polite. Breaking news on the screens: Frobart’s villa, the bodies of Frobart and his wife – a magazine of bullets from Gabriela’s Desert Eagle lodged in each one – being carried out under rubber sheets. Commentary: Frobart was well known, old family, Vatican Bank (that was news to me), had shaken Il Duce’s hand when he was a kid. Well done, I say, there’s no way we’ll get out of here, why’s our flight delayed, they’re already onto you, they’ll be here any minute. Our flight, she asks, giving me that brazen look, that look, we’re flying together? I kiss her. She tastes of rhubarb. Does she really think I’ll ever let her out of my sight again? Lost in thought, she kisses past me, kisses the air.
Rhubarb in the East
Art, crime, and theft are all based on, and in fact would be impossible without, a half-intentional and half-unintentional kind of inattentiveness and drowsiness, an impotent sense of time passing. Every artist knows there’s a thin line between the unformed work lying dormant in semi-darkness and the moment when it’s too late to improve anything. Despite their best intentions, most artists and criminals vacillate between these two stages because they’re too lazy, too apathetic, too self-satisfied, too inattentive, too vain. It’s a moral problem, of course, because all art and all crime are to some extent a struggle for righteousness; indeed, you might even say, for innocence …
This was according to Pauline, the unprepossessing Fräulein von —— (it was forbidden to utter her name; she’d been banned from giving lectures on aesthetics and was only supposed to provide knitting lessons by the stove).
But a kiss can change the world, I protested cheekily.
We don’t want to know what we’re doing, she responded, until it’s too late to change anything. The human spirit, she continued, is a ragbag. The body, the objects of the outside world, hot memories, warm fantasies, guilt, fear, hesitation, doubt, lies, small delights, great pain, and thousands of other things that can scarcely be expressed in words coexist within us; they coexist within you too, Herr Frobart.
We were on an Eastern island called Weimar, where people spent all their time taking part in poetry competitions. The island wasn’t big. It lay in the middle of an ice-cold sea that kept gnawing away at it so that one day it would be simply washed away, dissolved, leaving behind nothing but maybe an ice crystal. I felt uncomfortable in my skin as an idler. Didn’t I have a higher calling, wasn’t there a completely different Nathan Frobart hiding within me? Sometimes I went down on my knees and prayed and thought: The time has come.
Then, beneath the lilac tree, I kissed Pauline von ——. She tasted of the rhubarb she secretly preserved, devouring it in large quantities at night in the cellar of the palace. I discovered that she too felt out of place in Weimar and in her body and in the world. We’d been here before, we believed, we’d kissed each other beneath the lilac tree before, in another time. We were different then (we believed), exchanging glances from black almond-shaped eyes, smelling of cardamom and myrrh, oranges. We were somehow bluer, Pauline said. Somehow older, I said. Dare we talk this way, Nathan? It’s how witches talk, she whispered. No, it’s how lovers talk, I answered.
A kiss changes the world. All at once, the ragbag is sorted out: Everything inside us is put in order; there’s no anxiety, no fear, just room for yourself.
We became poets, but we didn’t write ourselves. We helped ourselves to the work of others, pulling their manuscripts out from underneath their pillows, stealing their notebooks and papers. Then we grabbed our scissors, cut everything up into strips like corned beef, rearranged the strips, and published them under a nom de plume I’ve since forgotten. We always carried a coin with us – I in my neck pouch, she in her petticoat – for the ferryman. Our longing, our intuition that something momentous, something earth-shattering would happen to us (worldwide fame, perhaps), and our sense of the direction our lives would take turned out to be correct. But the journey there took longer than we imagined.
We couldn’t steal there because we were dead (suffocated).
Today is Sunday. Our house has been reduced to a pile of rubble; thank you, Mr Werner von Braun. On Muswell Hill Broadway, the orphans are crying. Father is dead, mother didn’t say a word for seven days; she spoke with her heart, until it stopped. We thought we’d be safe in London. The women, rosy as marzipan, soothed our nerves. The men in their soft, pale, slightly crumpled leather would sometimes raise an eyebrow and give an amused smile. It was all so soothing, not least the ancient language of the Bard, which can be loud and sharp on occasion, but never barks. King Lear will never bark, let them rage and bluster all they like in Berlin. Scrabbling around in the sad remnants of our house, I find an old book about home, about the enchanted islands and the wonderful witches that live on them. They presented an opportunity, these witches, but my homeland didn’t want it. The portrait of a small, ageless, raven-haired witch with eyes that have seen a great deal and know many secrets draws me to another time, a time when the islands still lay in the warm sun, when they sometimes got out of the sea and wandered across the earth to settle down somewhere else. A young woman like me, dead for centuries; her name was Pesach.
Flight 0913 is ready for boarding
Back in the damn duty-free, theatre of suppressed feelings. Gabriela decided she urgently needed a couple of things, like Toblerone. A little competition to see who could swipe the most Toblerones beneath the swivelling cameras.
“We keep going from strength to strength,” I said.
“Is that so? Listen to me: We’ll be going our separate ways once we get to the checkout. And you’re paying.” She reached for a miniature painting, Rome in the rain, and thrust it into my hand. “For this thing.”
I held the painting up in front of my face. “You almost kissed me …”
“It’s late, Gabriela Sloane. You’re in danger.”
“Hasn’t it always been late?”
“Not back in Babylon,” I said.
“We could go to London and retire. I have an apartment on Muswell Hill. Or to Paris. I own a little Hotel on Rue – ”
“That time in the park,” she interjected, “the one in front of Frobart’s house. When you so rudely sat down beside me on the bench, did you notice the pigeons?”
“You see? You’re always asleep, you sleepwalk through our life. I’m sick of it, I need to free myself from you. You’re bad for me.”
“Yes, pigeons. They were standing in a semicircle around us. Rather old pigeons staring at us out of their hard eyes. And the sky was so blue and cold, which you didn’t notice either; it didn’t forgive us. And I hereby announce the irrevocable end.”
Then she touched me at last, her fingers (fingers that also murdered) drawing a small circle on my hand, and she rested her shock of black hair on my shoulder. It seemed as if she wanted my forgiveness. For the fact that she was young and beautiful and unspoiled and had a future, whereas I was old and ugly and a sinner and had none.
“Lufthansa Flight 0913 now boarding …” The disembodied voice.
Ah Berlin, we both thought. A city mercifully saving us from our fate, a city our fate had led us around in wide circles. What was she looking for in Berlin? A diamond as big as the Adlon?
“Was that God?” I asked.
“I beg your pardon?”
“You’ll never learn, will you? Us. It’s us.” She stood up. “Please don’t follow me. Fly somewhere else, fly to Paris. We were happy there once; live in our memories. I need a hiatus, a break, for at least a century. Just leave me alone.”
“Alone…”, I mused.
She’d already run off. I’d forgotten how fast she could run. It was as if a little ball of lightning was streaking through the departure lounge. The rest of the world made way, splattered apart, and I felt so proud of her. Was she right, did we need a break? First I had to convince her to stop killing. It wasn’t at all in our nature; thieving as an art form was in our nature, words and glances were in our nature.
During the flight, we talked about night-vision devices. They’re absolutely marvellous, she said, when you’re working in a building with lots of cellars. Everything looks green. It’s fantastic, like a dream. I loved her when she talked shop like this, and she knew it. We were masters of distance, we understood and revered the space between the stars in their lodgings in the night sky. She took my face in her hands. She didn’t kiss past me this time. A kiss can change the world. There are no timeless, scattered, isolated, unnoticed moments when we can do whatever we want and then carry on with our lives as if nothing has happened. There are kisses that have far-reaching consequences. Sometimes you have to steal them. Restless, wandering souls know that. Thieves too, needless to say.
As it began its descent into Berlin, the plane began to wobble, then to rock dangerously, then to spin, and all hell broke loose.
“This can’t be happening, Pesach. We’re going to crash. In the middle of Europe.”
“That’s right,” she said. She stuck her tongue out at me and fished her coin for the ferryman out of the yellow bag. “Make sure you have your coin ready,” she said.
“Have you got something to do with this?”
“There’s something I have to tell you: There’s a bomb as well.”
“We’re going to destroy half of Berlin.”
“Is this really necessary?”
“Nous allons changer le monde. Are you scared?”
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”
“We’ve never died together,” she said.
I wanted to say: Oh, but we did, we did. But I bit my tongue. I always bite my tongue. I’m not the only one, I think, and the other person thinks it too, and so we all bite our tongues together.
“Do you happen to know what became of our Claude?” she asked.
“What he always wanted, le poinçonneur des Lilas.”
“Je fais des trous …”
“Des petits trous …”
I sighed. It could have been so wonderful. She took my hand. “Baruch, back in Babylon, the sun on our heads, how new we were.”
Then the aeroplane with 129 souls on board tipped into a steep nosedive and exploded right in the middle of the city, erasing many stories, but only temporarily.
Have we got just one life? Probably. Can we weave together some kind of reality from our dreams and longings like the Parcae used to do, an enchanted eternal carpet that flies us through the skies and the ages? Gone, forgotten. Yet in our glorious moments we’re gods. We love in another shape, another form the person we’ve always loved; nothing is ever lost, we sing just one song.
We were gods. Now I’m alone in this cellar, no light, no stars, no night-vision device, just the past, a foreign land. Pesach, are you still there? Or are you here? Answer me.
*Copyright © Martin Kluger, 2015.
*The translation of this story was supported by the Goethe-Institute.
After passing a sign that said they’d soon be entering Natchez Trace, Jorge told his father that it would be a good idea to stop for petrol before they entered the park. His father nodded. For as long as I’m in this country, he said, you’re in charge. Jorge looked at him for a moment and knew that it was hopeless: he’d never change. He pulled in to the next petrol station.
Jorge turned off the engine of the red Chevrolet Cavalier and asked his father if he wanted anything. A pack of Marlboros. Jorge got out of the car, filled up the tank and went into the store. He walked up to the till, which was presided over by an obese woman whose sole and yet more than sufficient good feature was a pair of stirring, extraordinarily sweet green eyes.
“Will there be anything else?” she asked. Jorge asked for a pack of Marlboros and then paid.
“Have a nice day.”
“You too,” he answered as he left the store before walking back to the Chevrolet. It was hot and his shirt stuck to his skin; the clouds had cleared away as the morning went on. Thank you, said his father before lighting a cigarette. Jorge got back out on the road.
“Here we come, Willy,” he said.
In four days, Jorge would be receiving his BA in Journalism and his father had come from Bolivia to attend the ceremony. Given that there was little to see in Huntsville, where his university was based, Jorge had suggested they go to Oxford, Mississippi; William Faulkner’s home town. It was just a four hour drive. His father had agreed. Jorge had been very excited by the idea, his uneasy joy at seeing his father again and the graduation temporarily took a back seat: he had always wanted to go to the home town of his favourite writer but something had always got in the way. It was Faulkner’s example that encouraged him to spend all night writing, dreaming of one day becoming a writer himself. But now, in Natchez Trace, surrounded by pine forest and getting closer and closer to Oxford, Faulkner had been banished to a corner of his mind. His thoughts and feelings currently revolved around his father.
Summoning up a gesture from his adolescence, he glanced at him out of the corner of his eye. Why did he always have to look at his father out of the corner of his eye? For a while, after his father had called three weeks ago to tell him that he was coming to attend his graduation, Jorge had anticipated a kind of reconciliation. He must have changed, he told himself. He’s coming after all. Jorge made elaborate plans involving long conversations in bars, bathed in the warmth of good jazz and craft beer. He’d tell his father about his plans and ask him about his life: what was his childhood like? Had he taken part in the 52 revolution? Who had been his first love? What about his years spent in exile in Buenos Aires? Was he still in love his mother? There were so many things he wanted to ask, he felt ashamed at how little he knew about his father. He’d been a moron, unable to take the first step. He remembered the afternoon when he’d knocked on the closed door of his father’s office and a broken voice had asked him what he wanted. He’d asked for a few pesos to go to the movies and the voice had said yes, of course, and when the door opened Jorge had been met by distraught, inconsolable face. Then, however, he’d felt the coins in his hand and said goodbye. He’d never thought of that face again, until now.
Natchez Trace was overwhelmingly solitary: the occasional car, the odd squirrel. On each side of the road was a strange and fascinating combination of dry, dust-coloured trees appropriate for autumn and prodigiously green foliage redolent with the splendours of spring. Jorge was tired of driving. He looked again at his father, who was smoking in silence as he stared out at the landscape. He decided that if there was something he was sure of it was that he wasn’t the one to blame for their estrangement. He remembered their meeting at the airport, the undemonstrative embrace, the smattering of words. He remembered the subsequent couple of days, that familiar sensation, which he always got when he was with his father, that some form of communication was imminent: but said communication was rarely forthcoming. Generally, the rule was circumspection, words were left unsaid, feelings unexpressed. He didn’t say anything because he was waiting for his father to take the initiative. But why didn’t his father say anything? Or was coming so far his way of taking the first step? That had been his first assumption, but now Jorge was forced to conclude that his father had come to his graduation out of a sense of obligation.
So here they were, Jorge thought. A long way from their home country but only exchanging the bare minimum, counting down the seconds until the graduation ceremony came to an end and they could both get on with their lives. He thought about confronting his father, asking him what the hell was going on, was he going to take his silence to the grave? But no, he wouldn’t, he wasn’t capable of such an emotional outburst. Just then, a thought struck him: wasn’t his introverted nature something he’d inherited from his father? Wasn’t he more like him than he was ready to accept? Weren’t they stuck in this complex relationship together? Jorge imagined himself in twenty years, sitting in silence and smoking next to his son as he drove a red Chevrolet Cavalier to Oxford.
“I haven’t read Faulkner in years,” his father said. “I have very fond memories of him. For a time he was my great passion.”
“Really?” Jorge replied. A Mazda passed them at high speed, he could see the woman driving it.
“It was when I was in exile, I was living in a crappy boarding house. You were lucky. I didn’t have a cent for luxuries but my roommate was from Córdoba and he spent all his time reading. I read his books. I remember lots of Perry Mason novels and a few others by Faulkner. What a combination. I liked Perry Mason a lot: but I just read them, that was it. Faulkner was different, hard to understand, but magnificent, magnificent. And, believe it or not, I never forgot some of the phrases and images. I remember one character especially: Bayard Sartoris. I’ll never forget his melancholy ways, his crazy trips by car, by horse, by plane… Then there was Temple Drake, that was his name wasn’t it? And the story about the woman who slept with the corpse of her boyfriend. And another one about a fire in a stable and the kid who didn’t know whether to be true to his father, to obey the call of his family blood, or go his own way.
“Oh, yes, the great Faulkner,” he went on. “Did you know that for a few days I wanted to be a writer? Yes, I’m serious, the boring old engineer you see before you wanted to be a writer… But of course all I ever did was re-write Faulkner, badly. After a few months of making a fool of myself, I gave up. And that’s life; the guy from Cordóba left a year later and I never read Faulkner again. I thought about it a few times but I never did. Now, thirty years have passed in a flash and I still haven’t.”
Jorge wanted to say something but he didn’t know what.
“Your passion for Faulkner reminds me a lot of those days,” his father went on, staring out at the horizon. “You’ve never shown me any of your writing, but I know you’ll stick at it. I know you’re serious about this and that you’ll write things I would never have been capable of. And you’ll remind everyone, because everyone needs reminding from time to time, that given the choice between pain and nothing, you must always choose pain. That love and pain are the same thing and anyone who finds love on the cheap is kidding themselves. That there’s nothing better than being alive, even if it’s just for the short time we are given to draw breath.
Jorge pulled the car over and turned off the engine.
“Dad,” he said. “Will you look at me?”
His father slowly turned his head and their eyes met.
“We haven’t exactly had a model relationship, have we?”
“There’s no reason we should have. Do you know anyone who has had a model relationship?”
“But it could have been better.”
“Is it too late?”
“Some things it’s better not to talk about.”
“I love you, dad. Very much.”
“I know,” his father replied and he put his left hand on Jorge’s right shoulder. A brief, gentle squeeze. “Now let’s get back on the road.”
“I’d like to chat for a while.”
“We can chat while you’re driving.”
Jorge made a face, restarted the engine and got back on the road.
But his bad mood didn’t last long. After a while, he realized that that was how things were and there was no point being upset over what might have been. It wasn’t worth being bitter over everything that was left unsaid and all those unexpressed feelings. In fact, he drew strength from them, those and the few real encounters they did have. There’ll be other Faulkners, he told himself. It’s just a question of digging.
Faced with the stunning, intimidating beauty of their surroundings, Jorge remarked that it was a beautiful day.
“Yes,” his father replied. “Very nice.”
And a smile; part sincere, part ironic, came to Jorge’s face.
The house was falling down around us, but once you reach a certain age you just let it happen. The dirty plates were piled up in the kitchen, there was no one to make my bed, and the closet was beginning to run low on shirts. I think we were saved from the ants only because we lived on an upper floor. Eight days in, Mom asked me to go with her to see if something had happened. She was worried. I’d see her cross the hall or stop in the middle of her bedroom in her nightdress, like she’d forgotten where her slippers were and this was something terrifying. She hadn’t done anything about it up to now, not because she didn’t care, it was more like a case of wait and see.
“How is it possible that you don’t have her phone number?”
“I never needed it.”
That’s how Mom is. She takes everything for granted. Elda had never missed work without letting us know at least a day in advance. In the twenty-two years she’d worked in our house she’d never failed to call.
“All right, let’s go,” I said. I didn’t want her to go alone.
This was my lot for being the last one to move out. First we went to the service room and looked through her things. It seemed like everything was there: the pink uniform that Mom had told her to stop using, a notebook with notes and figures, a few bottles of perfume—and possibly the last black-and-white television set on earth. When I got out of the shower, the car keys were on my bed. I couldn’t figure out if she was rushing me or she was afraid I’d back out. As we went down in the elevator I ran through all the memories I had of Elda. I was surprised that there were so few. I couldn’t picture her on the day I graduated, for example, but I knew she’d set the table and cooked for my friends who showed up that night to celebrate. And afterward, when everyone had left and we went to bed, she’d silently cleaned and straightened the house. Or when I had meningitis while Mom and Dad were on vacation (another of their attempts to fix the unfixable). That memory is nothing more than a succession of days and nights of fever, of the television turned on nonstop, of hands that warm me and feed me but without any distinguishable face.
Mom had a piece of paper with the address on it. It was crumpled, and some of the letters and numbers were almost rubbed out. The only thing we knew for sure was the name of her neighborhood.
“Don’t worry. We’ll ask, and someone will tell us how to get there.”
Ever since Dad had left, I’d learned the litany of encouraging phrases I needed to recite. Mom looked at me out of the corner of her eye, smiling, and I thought that if I held her gaze a second longer she’d be able to see all my secrets, one after the other. Although it was her car, I was the only one who ever drove it except for maybe one of my siblings. But the two of us had a tacit agreement that I had to ask every time I wanted to use it.
“You paid her, didn’t you?”
We turned onto the avenue. She didn’t look at me.
“Why wouldn’t I have paid her?”
“I don’t know. Maybe you forgot. I could happen…” But she didn’t respond. “Could she have been offended by something? Something you said?”
Mom and Elda could spend an entire day together without speaking, but they always knew what the other was thinking. Elda served tea or dinner at the time Mom felt was the appropriate hour. She went into the bedrooms to straighten up and clean when she was sure she wouldn’t be bothering anyone. They divided up the house into shifts.
“What do you know about Elda?”
“What do you mean, what do I know about Elda?”
“I mean, what do you know about her life?”
We drove through an industrial area near the river. The columns of smoke from the chimneys twisted southward. We heard the foghorn of a ship, but we couldn’t tell whether it was coming or going.
“Not much,” she said. She was silent for several kilometers. The sun was beside us, and shadows stretched across her face. “I know she was born in Paraguay, in a little town on the river… the name means High Sun or something like that, but I don’t know how they say it in Guaraní,” she paused and looked at me enthusiastically before continuing. “I know she has four kids and several grandkids. Nine, I think. She’s been divorced for many years. He was a carpenter or a plumber, I don’t really remember. Her birthday is in February,” she counted on her fingers. “Fifty-eight?”
She didn’t seem sure. From around a bend, before exiting the highway, we saw a building lot under construction. In the center, they’d dug a gigantic hole that looked more like a crater left by a bomb. I estimated that the future building would have at least fifteen, twenty floors.
“Apparently he hit her.”
When we got off the highway, we were only halfway there. And the next stretch was the part we were unsure about. As we moved farther from the city, signage was increasingly sporadic and the roads unpaved. We stopped at a bakery to buy some pastries.
“We can’t show up empty-handed.”
I agreed. “Get some with dulce de leche.”
“Do you think something’s happened to her?” she asked me.
“I don’t know. I don’t think so.”
But then I had the image of a terrible accident; two cars crashing and bouncing off each other from the violence of the impact. They came to a stop at the side of the road, fender to fender. No one moved inside either vehicle. Then smoke began to pour from within, slowly. And a few minutes later, fire. None of the other cars driving by stopped.
“If she comes back, I’m going to pay more attention to her.”
We passed a neighborhood where the houses all looked the same, with water tanks on the roofs imitating chimneys. Some appeared to have people living in them even though they didn’t look completed. We reached a very narrow street, and the cars coming the other way forced us to pull over. From their seats, with the windshields between us and their hands gripping the steering wheels, the drivers looked at us. It was clear that we didn’t know where we were. Every two or three blocks Mom got out of the car to try to see the street numbers because we couldn’t read the signs from the car or the houses weren’t numbered in order. I pulled over at a corner and asked a boy on a bike if he knew where Elda Rubatto’s house was. It couldn’t be too far. He came over to the window, looked back at the houses behind him, and took all the time in the world before answering.
“It’s that one.”
The girl who opened the door was probably around twenty, no older. Her hair was black, straight, and it reached down to her elbows. I’d never seen her before in my life, but she’d just said my name. She called my mom “ma’am” and made excessive gestures with her hands, inviting us inside. She closed the door behind us, and the room, which was already dark, became even darker. Elda appeared from the kitchen, wiping her hands with a dishtowel. She didn’t seem surprised to see us, and I had the impression she’d been expecting our visit.
“How’s it going, ma’am?”
“Elda… what happened to you?” Mom said with exaggerated worry. “It’s been over a week—”
But Elda didn’t let her finish. She quickly kissed us hello and introduced us to Romina, her daughter, the girl who had let us in. Then she called in her grandkids one by one. They appeared immediately, out of breath like they’d come running from an impossible distance. Their names went in one ear and out the other, but they all resembled their grandmother in some way. They stood there, impatient, until she gave them permission to leave.
Once we were alone, Elda said that she wanted to show us the house. She seemed so excited by the idea of hosting us that it was impossible to say no. She led the way through several rooms. We’d go into a room. Mom would make a comment—how pretty or look how spacious—or she’d simply nod her head in approval at everything she saw. Then we’d leave the room. We’d go into another. The ceilings were of varying heights and the floors were covered with diverse materials, as if the house had been built in stages over a long period of time.
Mom, as ever, realized it before me. In her expression, her way of moving her hands, I knew there was something wrong. I took another look at the room we were in, seeing it as if for the first time, trying to see what she was seeing. That’s when I began to notice things I’d seen before, at home. Decorations, small objects. At first, a few here and there. Nothing valuable or important. But when I started to look closer, as we moved through the house, I saw a lot more, everywhere. They lit up in my mind; they organized themselves as if on a map, with dates and references. A glass ashtray. A pair of wooden boxes Mom had brought home from a trip. A horrible painting of a lake landscape that some aunt or uncle of mine—I can’t remember which one—had painted. A chair I could’ve sworn I’d seen in the closet just a few days before. I tried to estimate how many of these things Mom might’ve gotten rid of voluntarily and how many had just disappeared over the years without our noticing. At this point, I closed my eyes. Why keep counting? But I had the feeling that the tour wasn’t over. When I opened my eyes again we were in another room. I’d walked there blindly. And then I understood the other thing that Mom had already figured out: the entire house was an exact replica of our apartment. That’s why it had all seemed so natural, and I’d been able to walk through automatically as if it were my own house. It was impressive how in spaces so small they’d been able to arrange the furniture in the same position or how a mirror was placed on the same wall, facing the same direction, in two different houses.
I wanted to move faster, to get ahead of them, because I thought I knew what was coming. We walked through a few more doors and out onto a patio. At the far end of the yard, under the afternoon sun, several men were working on the construction of a new house. They were bathed in sweat. They looked exhausted, but their arms didn’t stop, as if they were determined to finish the job before night sprung up on them.
“My sons,” said Elda.
We waved with one hand as we used the other to block the sun. At that hour the rays were hitting us head on. They stopped for barely a second to return the wave and then got back to work.
We retraced the route through the house in silence.
“Romina, we’re going to have tea, please.” She talked to her daughter the way Mom had talked to her. Always with respect and even affection but also with authority. The rest of the afternoon we made small talk. At one point I asked where the bathroom was, just to be polite, because I already knew where it was.
On some shelves I saw photos of my family among the pictures of her children. I saw myself at my first communion. When I graduated the seventh grade. My brother skiing with friends. The five of us at a prehistoric Christmas dinner before my dad left. Some of the photos were so close to others that they gave the impression we all knew each other, that we were part of the same big family.
When I came out of the bathroom, Romina appeared in a doorway and grabbed me by the hand. We walked down a hallway to what looked like a porch leading to a patio that was smaller than the one we’d seen before. We hadn’t been in this part of the house. Three clotheslines crossed over our heads, draped with laundry. I recognized a sweater I’d worn many years ago.
“You don’t remember me,” she said.
I made an effort. I searched for her face among all the faces I’d ever met.
“Yes,” I told her. “How could I forget?”
“Liar… When you were a little boy, this tall, my mom took me to your house. She didn’t have anyone to leave me with and Mrs. gave her permission. I remember we played in your room the whole afternoon. You let me use your toys, but only if I stayed close by; you never let me take one out of your sight.”
What could I say? There was a silence, but it wasn’t uncomfortable. The wind whipped through the hanging sheets for several seconds, and then everything went still. I could have given her a kiss. She wasn’t ugly. It would have been the perfect scene in a soap opera, I thought with a cynicism I haven’t felt again since. But I didn’t do it, and we went back inside without looking at each other.
Mom was standing, waiting for me. By her face I could tell that they’d run out of topics of conversation or that it didn’t make sense to stay there any longer. Romina kept walking and, without saying goodbye, gathered the teacups, and then I heard the water in the kitchen.
“Ready to go?”
We were about to leave, and I was surprised by our ability to play along, our family talent for sustaining a charade. Before we left, Elda stopped under the cone of light thrown by a bulb.
“You know, ma’am, I’ve always wanted to invite you over. To have a meal together. Back there, in the yard, there’s room for…”
We turned our heads simultaneously toward the window, looking for signs of the scene Elda had imagined, but there was no longer anyone outside, and the glass just reflected us. We smiled and nodded.
It was nighttime. With large swaths thrown into darkness, the neighborhood didn’t seem so ugly now. There was a smell of oranges or tangerines—some kind of citrus, for sure. Someone was having a barbeque a few houses over. Elda walked with us down the path to the sidewalk. Some of her grandkids had climbed in the window and were looking out at us. I turned around to wave to them. Their eyes shone like eyes shine before a photo is taken. I saw two heads I hadn’t seen before, and I remembered the little house at the end of the yard. I had the feeling that all the houses in the neighborhood were connected, that the doors and hallways never ended. Drawing the route with a finger, Elda indicated the best way home, down safe, well-lit streets. But we weren’t afraid. We said goodbye, exchanged hugs and promises to see each other again.
“Thanks, thanks for everything,” she said.
When we got in the car we saw an ambulance pass by with its siren off. At the corner, it slammed on its brakes and backed up a hundred meters, retracing its route.
We didn’t speak the whole way home. I thought about turning on the radio at one point, but I decided not to. I didn’t want to listen to music. As we moved closer to the city, the landscape through the windows became more developed. The houses and buildings grew taller. Gardens and businesses sprung up around us. Not until we’d pulled into our garage did it seem like Mom wanted to say something. I noticed it in the twitching of her lips. Our parking bay was in the third underground level, and that night, as we moved down the spiral of ramps, the air seemed to become darker and denser. The tires squealed around every curve until we parked in the spot allocated to our apartment.
“We’re here,” I said.
I turned off the engine and put the stereo in the glove box.
“You’re big now,” she said unexpectedly. “It won’t be long before you go. I know. And the house doesn’t get that dirty. I think that… I think that for now I can handle it on my own… For a while. At least until we find someone.”
I looked her in the eyes so that she’d know I was listening, but I didn’t say anything. I just stretched out my arms to lock the two rear doors.
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