For half a century the housewives of Pont-l’Eveque had envied Madame Aubain her servant Felicite.
For a hundred francs a year, she cooked and did the housework, washed, ironed, mended, harnessed the horse, fattened the poultry, made the butter and remained faithful to her mistress – although the latter was by no means an agreeable person.
Madame Aubain had married a comely youth without any money, who died in the beginning of 1809, leaving her with two young children and a number of debts. She sold all her property excepting the farm of Toucques and the farm of Geffosses, the income of which barely amounted to 5,000 francs; then she left her house in Saint-Melaine, and moved into a less pretentious one which had belonged to her ancestors and stood back of the market-place. This house, with its slate-covered roof, was built between a passage-way and a narrow street that led to the river. The interior was so unevenly graded that it caused people to stumble. A narrow hall separated the kitchen from the parlour, where Madame Aubain sat all day in a straw armchair near the window. Eight mahogany chairs stood in a row against the white wainscoting. An old piano, standing beneath a barometer, was covered with a pyramid of old books and boxes. On either side of the yellow marble mantelpiece, in Louis XV. style, stood a tapestry armchair. The clock represented a temple of Vesta; and the whole room smelled musty, as it was on a lower level than the garden.
On the first floor was Madame’s bed-chamber, a large room papered in a flowered design and containing the portrait of Monsieur dressed in the costume of a dandy. It communicated with a smaller room, in which there were two little cribs, without any mattresses. Next, came the parlour (always closed), filled with furniture covered with sheets. Then a hall, which led to the study, where books and papers were piled on the shelves of a book-case that enclosed three quarters of the big black desk. Two panels were entirely hidden under pen-and-ink sketches, Gouache landscapes and Audran engravings, relics of better times and vanished luxury. On the second floor, a garret-window lighted Felicite’s room, which looked out upon the meadows.
She arose at daybreak, in order to attend mass, and she worked without interruption until night; then, when dinner was over, the dishes cleared away and the door securely locked, she would bury the log under the ashes and fall asleep in front of the hearth with a rosary in her hand. Nobody could bargain with greater obstinacy, and as for cleanliness, the lustre on her brass sauce-pans was the envy and despair of other servants. She was most economical, and when she ate she would gather up crumbs with the tip of her finger, so that nothing should be wasted of the loaf of bread weighing twelve pounds which was baked especially for her and lasted three weeks.
Summer and winter she wore a dimity kerchief fastened in the back with a pin, a cap which concealed her hair, a red skirt, grey stockings, and an apron with a bib like those worn by hospital nurses.
Her face was thin and her voice shrill. When she was twenty-five, she looked forty. After she had passed fifty, nobody could tell her age; erect and silent always, she resembled a wooden figure working automatically.
Like every other woman, she had had an affair of the heart. Her father, who was a mason, was killed by falling from a scaffolding. Then her mother died and her sisters went their different ways; a farmer took her in, and while she was quite small, let her keep cows in the fields. She was clad in miserable rags, beaten for the slightest offence and finally dismissed for a theft of thirty sous which she did not commit. She took service on another farm where she tended the poultry; and as she was well thought of by her master, her fellow-workers soon grew jealous.
One evening in August (she was then eighteen years old), they persuaded her to accompany them to the fair at Colleville. She was immediately dazzled by the noise, the lights in the trees, the brightness of the dresses, the laces and gold crosses, and the crowd of people all hopping at the same time. She was standing modestly at a distance, when presently a young man of well-to-do appearance, who had been leaning on the pole of a wagon and smoking his pipe, approached her, and asked her for a dance. He treated her to cider and cake, bought her a silk shawl, and then, thinking she had guessed his purpose, offered to see her home. When they came to the end of a field he threw her down brutally. But she grew frightened and screamed, and he walked off.
One evening, on the road leading to Beaumont, she came upon a wagon loaded with hay, and when she overtook it, she recognised Theodore. He greeted her calmly, and asked her to forget what had happened between them, as it “was all the fault of the drink.”
She did not know what to reply and wished to run away.
Presently he began to speak of the harvest and of the notables of the village; his father had left Colleville and bought the farm of Les Ecots, so that now they would be neighbours. “Ah!” she exclaimed. He then added that his parents were looking around for a wife for him, but that he, himself, was not so anxious and preferred to wait for a girl who suited him. She hung her head. He then asked her whether she had ever thought of marrying. She replied, smilingly, that it was wrong of him to make fun of her. “Oh! no, I am in earnest,” he said, and put his left arm around her waist while they sauntered along. The air was soft, the stars were bright, and the huge load of hay oscillated in front of them, drawn by four horses whose ponderous hoofs raised clouds of dust. Without a word from their driver they turned to the right. He kissed her again and she went home. The following week, Theodore obtained meetings.
They met in yards, behind walls or under isolated trees. She was not ignorant, as girls of well-to-do families are – for the animals had instructed her; – but her reason and her instinct of honour kept her from falling. Her resistance exasperated Theodore’s love and so in order to satisfy it (or perchance ingenuously), he offered to marry her. She would not believe him at first, so he made solemn promises. But, in a short time he mentioned a difficulty; the previous year, his parents had purchased a substitute for him; but any day he might be drafted and the prospect of serving in the army alarmed him greatly. To Felicite his cowardice appeared a proof of his love for her, and her devotion to him grew stronger. When she met him, he would torture her with his fears and his entreaties. At last, he announced that he was going to the prefect himself for information, and would let her know everything on the following Sunday, between eleven o’clock and midnight.
When the time grew near, she ran to meet her lover.
But instead of Theodore, one of his friends was at the meeting-place.
He informed her that she would never see her sweetheart again; for, in order to escape the conscription, he had married a rich old woman, Madame Lehoussais, of Toucques.
The poor girl’s sorrow was frightful. She threw herself on the ground, she cried and called on the Lord, and wandered around desolately until sunrise. Then she went back to the farm, declared her intention of leaving, and at the end of the month, after she had received her wages, she packed all her belongings in a handkerchief and started for Pont-l’Eveque.
In front of the inn, she met a woman wearing widow’s weeds, and upon questioning her, learned that she was looking for a cook. The girl did not know very much, but appeared so willing and so modest in her requirements, that Madame Aubain finally said:
“Very well, I will give you a trial.”
And half an hour later Felicite was installed in her house.
At first she lived in a constant anxiety that was caused by “the style of the household” and the memory of “Monsieur,” that hovered over everything. Paul and Virginia, the one aged seven, and the other barely four, seemed made of some precious material; she carried them pig-a-back, and was greatly mortified when Madame Aubain forbade her to kiss them every other minute.
But in spite of all this, she was happy. The comfort of her new surroundings had obliterated her sadness.
Every Thursday, friends of Madame Aubain dropped in for a game of cards, and it was Felicite’s duty to prepare the table and heat the foot-warmers. They arrived at exactly eight o’clock and departed before eleven.
Every Monday morning, the dealer in second-hand goods, who lived under the alley-way, spread out his wares on the sidewalk. Then the city would be filled with a buzzing of voices in which the neighing of horses, the bleating of lambs, the grunting of pigs, could be distinguished, mingled with the sharp sound of wheels on the cobble-stones. About twelve o’clock, when the market was in full swing, there appeared at the front door a tall, middle-aged peasant, with a hooked nose and a cap on the back of his head; it was Robelin, the farmer of Geffosses. Shortly afterwards came Liebard, the farmer of Toucques, short, rotund and ruddy, wearing a grey jacket and spurred boots.
Both men brought their landlady either chickens or cheese. Felicite would invariably thwart their ruses and they held her in great respect.
At various times, Madame Aubain received a visit from the Marquis de Gremanville, one of her uncles, who was ruined and lived at Falaise on the remainder of his estates. He always came at dinner-time and brought an ugly poodle with him, whose paws soiled their furniture. In spite of his efforts to appear a man of breeding (he even went so far as to raise his hat every time he said “My deceased father”), his habits got the better of him, and he would fill his glass a little too often and relate broad stories. Felicite would show him out very politely and say: “You have had enough for this time, Monsieur de Gremanville! Hoping to see you again!” and would close the door.
She opened it gladly for Monsieur Bourais, a retired lawyer. His bald head and white cravat, the ruffling of his shirt, his flowing brown coat, the manner in which he took snuff, his whole person, in fact, produced in her the kind of awe which we feel when we see extraordinary persons. As he managed Madame’s estates, he spent hours with her in Monsieur’s study; he was in constant fear of being compromised, had a great regard for the magistracy and some pretensions to learning.
In order to facilitate the children’s studies, he presented them with an engraved geography which represented various scenes of the world; cannibals with feather head-dresses, a gorilla kidnapping a young girl, Arabs in the desert, a whale being harpooned, etc.
Paul explained the pictures to Felicite. And, in fact, this was her only literary education.
The children’s studies were under the direction of a poor devil employed at the town-hall, who sharpened his pocket-knife on his boots and was famous for his penmanship.
When the weather was fine, they went to Geffosses. The house was built in the centre of the sloping yard; and the sea looked like a grey spot in the distance. Felicite would take slices of cold meat from the lunch basket and they would sit down and eat in a room next to the dairy. This room was all that remained of a cottage that had been torn down. The dilapidated wall-paper trembled in the drafts. Madame Aubain, overwhelmed by recollections, would hang her head, while the children were afraid to open their mouths. Then, “Why don’t you go and play?” their mother would say; and they would scamper off.
Paul would go to the old barn, catch birds, throw stones into the pond, or pound the trunks of the trees with a stick till they resounded like drums. Virginia would feed the rabbits and run to pick the wild flowers in the fields, and her flying legs would disclose her little embroidered pantalettes. One autumn evening, they struck out for home through the meadows. The new moon illumined part of the sky and a mist hovered like a veil over the sinuosities of the river. Oxen, lying in the pastures, gazed mildly at the passing persons. In the third field, however, several of them got up and surrounded them. “Don’t be afraid,” cried Felicite; and murmuring a sort of lament she passed her hand over the back of the nearest ox; he turned away and the others followed. But when they came to the next pasture, they heard frightful bellowing.
It was a bull which was hidden from them by the fog. He advanced towards the two women, and Madame Aubain prepared to flee for her life. “No, no! not so fast,” warned Felicite. Still they hurried on, for they could hear the noisy breathing of the bull behind them. His hoofs pounded the grass like hammers, and presently he began to gallop! Felicite turned around and threw patches of grass in his eyes. He hung his head, shook his horns and bellowed with fury. Madame Aubain and the children, huddled at the end of the field, were trying to jump over the ditch. Felicite continued to back before the bull, blinding him with dirt, while she shouted to them to make haste.
Madame Aubain finally slid into the ditch, after shoving first Virginia and then Paul into it, and though she stumbled several times she managed, by dint of courage, to climb the other side of it.
The bull had driven Felicite up against a fence; the foam from his muzzle flew in her face and in another minute he would have disembowelled her. She had just time to slip between two bars and the huge animal, thwarted, paused.
For years, this occurrence was a topic of conversation in Pont-l’Eveque. But Felicite took no credit to herself, and probably never knew that she had been heroic.
Virginia occupied her thoughts solely, for the shock she had sustained gave her a nervous affection, and the physician, M. Poupart, prescribed the salt-water bathing at Trouville. In those days, Trouville was not greatly patronised. Madame Aubain gathered information, consulted Bourais, and made preparations as if they were going on an extended trip.
The baggage was sent the day before on Liebard’s cart. On the following morning, he brought around two horses, one of which had a woman’s saddle with a velveteen back to it, while on the crupper of the other was a rolled shawl that was to be used for a seat. Madame Aubain mounted the second horse, behind Liebard. Felicite took charge of the little girl, and Paul rode M. Lechaptois’ donkey, which had been lent for the occasion on the condition that they should be careful of it.
The road was so bad that it took two hours to cover the eight miles. The two horses sank knee-deep into the mud and stumbled into ditches; sometimes they had to jump over them. In certain places, Liebard’s mare stopped abruptly. He waited patiently till she started again, and talked of the people whose estates bordered the road, adding his own moral reflections to the outline of their histories. Thus, when they were passing through Toucques, and came to some windows draped with nasturtiums, he shrugged his shoulders and said: “There’s a woman, Madame Lehoussais, who, instead of taking a young man –” Felicite could not catch what followed; the horses began to trot, the donkey to gallop, and they turned into a lane; then a gate swung open, two farm-hands appeared and they all dismounted at the very threshold of the farm-house.
Mother Liebard, when she caught sight of her mistress, was lavish with joyful demonstrations. She got up a lunch which comprised a leg of mutton, tripe, sausages, a chicken fricassee, sweet cider, a fruit tart and some preserved prunes; then to all this the good woman added polite remarks about Madame, who appeared to be in better health, Mademoiselle, who had grown to be “superb,” and Paul, who had become singularly sturdy; she spoke also of their deceased grandparents, whom the Liebards had known, for they had been in the service of the family for several generations.
Like its owners, the farm had an ancient appearance. The beams of the ceiling were mouldy, the walls black with smoke and the windows grey with dust. The oak sideboard was filled with all sorts of utensils, plates, pitchers, tin bowls, wolf-traps. The children laughed when they saw a huge syringe. There was not a tree in the yard that did not have mushrooms growing around its foot, or a bunch of mistletoe hanging in its branches. Several of the trees had been blown down, but they had started to grow in the middle and all were laden with quantities of apples. The thatched roofs, which were of unequal thickness, looked like brown velvet and could resist the fiercest gales. But the wagon-shed was fast crumbling to ruins. Madame Aubain said that she would attend to it, and then gave orders to have the horses saddled.
It took another thirty minutes to reach Trouville. The little caravan dismounted in order to pass Les Ecores, a cliff that overhangs the bay, and a few minutes later, at the end of the dock, they entered the yard of the Golden Lamb, an inn kept by Mother David.
During the first few days, Virginia felt stronger, owing to the change of air and the action of the sea-baths. She took them in her little chemise, as she had no bathing suit, and afterwards her nurse dressed her in the cabin of a customs officer, which was used for that purpose by other bathers.
In the afternoon, they would take the donkey and go to the Roches-Noires, near Hennequeville. The path led at first through undulating grounds, and thence to a plateau, where pastures and tilled fields alternated. At the edge of the road, mingling with the brambles, grew holly bushes, and here and there stood large dead trees whose branches traced zigzags upon the blue sky.
Ordinarily, they rested in a field facing the ocean, with Deauville on their left, and Havre on their right. The sea glittered brightly in the sun and was as smooth as a mirror, and so calm that they could scarcely distinguish its murmur; sparrows chirped joyfully and the immense canopy of heaven spread over it all. Madame Aubain brought out her sewing, and Virginia amused herself by braiding reeds; Felicite wove lavender blossoms, while Paul was bored and wished to go home.
Sometimes they crossed the Toucques in a boat, and started to hunt for sea-shells. The outgoing tide exposed star-fish and sea-urchins, and the children tried to catch the flakes of foam which the wind blew away. The sleepy waves lapping the sand unfurled themselves along the shore that extended as far as the eye could see, but where land began, it was limited by the downs which separated it from the “Swamp,” a large meadow shaped like a hippodrome. When they went home that way, Trouville, on the slope of a hill below, grew larger and larger as they advanced, and, with all its houses of unequal height, seemed to spread out before them in a sort of giddy confusion.
When the heat was too oppressive, they remained in their rooms. The dazzling sunlight cast bars of light between the shutters. Not a sound in the village, not a soul on the sidewalk. This silence intensified the tranquility of everything. In the distance, the hammers of some calkers pounded the hull of a ship, and the sultry breeze brought them an odour of tar.
The principal diversion consisted in watching the return of the fishing-smacks. As soon as they passed the beacons, they began to ply to windward. The sails were lowered to one third of the masts, and with their fore-sails swelled up like balloons they glided over the waves and anchored in the middle of the harbour. Then they crept up alongside of the dock and the sailors threw the quivering fish over the side of the boat; a line of carts was waiting for them, and women with white caps sprang forward to receive the baskets and embrace their men-folk.
One day, one of them spoke to Felicite, who, after a little while, returned to the house gleefully. She had found one of her sisters, and presently Nastasie Barette, wife of Leroux, made her appearance, holding an infant in her arms, another child by the hand, while on her left was a little cabin-boy with his hands in his pockets and his cap on his ear.
At the end of fifteen minutes, Madame Aubain bade her go.
They always hung around the kitchen, or approached Felicite when she and the children were out walking. The husband, however, did not show himself.
Felicite developed a great fondness for them; she bought them a stove, some shirts and a blanket; it was evident that they exploited her. Her foolishness annoyed Madame Aubain, who, moreover did not like the nephew’s familiarity, for he called her son “thou”; – and, as Virginia began to cough and the season was over, she decided to return to Pont-l’Eveque.
Monsieur Bourais assisted her in the choice of a college. The one at Caen was considered the best. So Paul was sent away and bravely said good-bye to them all, for he was glad to go to live in a house where he would have boy companions.
Madame Aubain resigned herself to the separation from her son because it was unavoidable. Virginia brooded less and less over it. Felicite regretted the noise he made, but soon a new occupation diverted her mind; beginning from Christmas, she accompanied the little girl to her catechism lesson every day.
After she had made a curtsey at the threshold, she would walk up the aisle between the double lines of chairs, open Madame Aubain’s pew, sit down and look around.
Girls and boys, the former on the right, the latter on the left-hand side of the church, filled the stalls of the choir; the priest stood beside the reading-desk; on one stained window of the side-aisle the Holy Ghost hovered over the Virgin; on another one, Mary knelt before the Child Jesus, and behind the altar, a wooden group represented Saint Michael felling the dragon.
The priest first read a condensed lesson of sacred history. Felicite evoked Paradise, the Flood, the Tower of Babel, the blazing cities, the dying nations, the shattered idols; and out of this she developed a great respect for the Almighty and a great fear of His wrath. Then, when she had listened to the Passion, she wept. Why had they crucified Him who loved little children, nourished the people, made the blind see, and who, out of humility, had wished to be born among the poor, in a stable? The sowings, the harvests, the wine-presses, all those familiar things which the Scriptures mention, formed a part of her life; the word of God sanctified them; and she loved the lambs with increased tenderness for the sake of the Lamb, and the doves because of the Holy Ghost.
She found it hard, however, to think of the latter as a person, for was it not a bird, a flame, and sometimes only a breath? Perhaps it is its light that at night hovers over swamps, its breath that propels the clouds, its voice that renders church-bells harmonious. And Felicite worshipped devoutly, while enjoying the coolness and the stillness of the church.
As for the dogma, she could not understand it and did not even try. The priest discoursed, the children recited, and she went to sleep, only to awaken with a start when they were leaving the church and their wooden shoes clattered on the stone pavement.
In this way, she learned her catechism, her religious education having been neglected in her youth; and thenceforth she imitated all Virginia’s religious practices, fasted when she did, and went to confession with her. At the Corpus-Christi Day they both decorated an altar.
She worried in advance over Virginia’s first communion. She fussed about the shoes, the rosary, the book and the gloves. With what nervousness she helped the mother dress the child!
During the entire ceremony, she felt anguished. Monsieur Bourais hid part of the choir from view, but directly in front of her, the flock of maidens, wearing white wreaths over their lowered veils, formed a snow-white field, and she recognised her darling by the slenderness of her neck and her devout attitude. The bell tinkled. All the heads bent and there was a silence. Then, at the peals of the organ the singers and the worshippers struck up the Agnes Dei; the boys’ procession began; behind them came the girls. With clasped hands, they advanced step by step to the lighted altar, knelt at the first step, received one by one the Host, and returned to their seats in the same order. When Virginia’s turn came, Felicite leaned forward to watch her, and through that imagination which springs from true affection, she at once became the child, whose face and dress became hers, whose heart beat in her bosom, and when Virginia opened her mouth and closed her lids, she did likewise and came very near fainting.
The following day, she presented herself early at the church so as to receive communion from the cure. She took it with the proper feeling, but did not experience the same delight as on the previous day.
Madame Aubain wished to make an accomplished girl of her daughter; and as Guyot could not teach English or music, she decided to send her to the Ursulines at Honfleur.
The child made no objection, but Felicite sighed and thought Madame was heartless. Then, she thought that perhaps her mistress was right, as these things were beyond her sphere. Finally, one day, an old fiacre stopped in front of the door and a nun stepped out. Felicite put Virginia’s luggage on top of the carriage, gave the coachman some instructions, and smuggled six jars of jam, a dozen pears and a bunch of violets under the seat.
At the last minute, Virginia had a fit of sobbing; she embraced her mother again and again, while the latter kissed her on the forehead, and said: “Now, be brave, be brave!” The step was pulled up and the fiacre rumbled off.
Then Madame Aubain had a fainting spell, and that evening all her friends, including the two Lormeaus, Madame Lechaptois, the ladies Rochefeuille, Messieurs de Houppeville and Bourais, called on her and tendered their sympathy.
At first the separation proved very painful to her. But her daughter wrote her three times a week and the other days she, herself, wrote to Virginia. Then she walked in the garden, read a little, and in this way managed to fill out the emptiness of the hours.
Each morning, out of habit, Felicite entered Virginia’s room and gazed at the walls. She missed combing her hair, lacing her shoes, tucking her in her bed, and the bright face and little hand when they used to go out for a walk. In order to occupy herself she tried to make lace. But her clumsy fingers broke the threads; she had no heart for anything, lost her sleep and “wasted away,” as she put it.
In order to have some distraction, she asked leave to receive the visits of her nephew Victor.
He would come on Sunday, after church, with ruddy cheeks and bared chest, bringing with him the scent of the country. She would set the table and they would sit down opposite each other, and eat their dinner; she ate as little as possible, herself, to avoid any extra expense, but would stuff him so with food that he would finally go to sleep. At the first stroke of vespers, she would wake him up, brush his trousers, tie his cravat and walk to church with him, leaning on his arm with maternal pride.
His parents always told him to get something out of her, either a package of brown sugar, or soap, or brandy, and sometimes even money. He brought her his clothes to mend, and she accepted the task gladly, because it meant another visit from him.
In August, his father took him on a coasting-vessel.
It was vacation time and the arrival of the children consoled Felicite. But Paul was capricious, and Virginia was growing too old to be thee-and-thou’d, a fact which seemed to produce a sort of embarrassment in their relations.
Victor went successively to Morlaix, to Dunkirk, and to Brighton; whenever he returned from a trip he would bring her a present. The first time it was a box of shells; the second, a coffee-cup; the third, a big doll of ginger-bread. He was growing handsome, had a good figure, a tiny moustache, kind eyes, and a little leather cap that sat jauntily on the back of his head. He amused his aunt by telling her stories mingled with nautical expressions.
One Monday, the 14th of July, 1819 (she never forgot the date), Victor announced that he had been engaged on a merchant-vessel and that in two days he would take the steamer at Honfleur and join his sailer, which was going to start from Havre very soon. Perhaps he might be away two years.
The prospect of his departure filled Felicite with despair, and in order to bid him farewell, on Wednesday night, after Madame’s dinner, she put on her pattens and trudged the four miles that separated Pont-l’Eveque from Honfleur.
When she reached the Calvary, instead of turning to the right, she turned to the left and lost herself in coal-yards; she had to retrace her steps; some people she spoke to advised her to hasten. She walked helplessly around the harbour filled with vessels, and knocked against hawsers. Presently the ground sloped abruptly, lights flitted to and fro, and she thought all at once that she had gone mad when she saw some horses in the sky.
Others, on the edge of the dock, neighed at the sight of the ocean. A derrick pulled them up in the air, and dumped them into a boat, where passengers were bustling about among barrels of cider, baskets of cheese and bags of meal; chickens cackled, the captain swore and a cabin-boy rested on the railing, apparently indifferent to his surroundings. Felicite, who did not recognise him, kept shouting: “Victor!” He suddenly raised his eyes, but while she was preparing to rush up to him, they withdrew the gangplank.
The packet, towed by singing women, glided out of the harbour. Her hull squeaked and the heavy waves beat up against her sides. The sail had turned and nobody was visible; – and on the ocean, silvered by the light of the moon, the vessel formed a black spot that grew dimmer and dimmer, and finally disappeared.
When Felicite passed the Calvary again, she felt as if she must entrust that which was dearest to her to the Lord; and for a long while she prayed, with uplifted eyes and a face wet with tears. The city was sleeping; some customs officials were taking the air; and the water kept pouring through the holes of the dam with a deafening roar. The town clock struck two.
The parlour of the convent would not open until morning, and surely a delay would annoy Madame, so, in spite of her desire to see the other child, she went home. The maids of the inn were just arising when she reached Pont-l’Eveque.
So the poor boy would be on the ocean for months! His previous trips had not alarmed her. One can come back from England and Brittany; but America, the colonies, the islands, were all lost in an uncertain region at the very end of the world.
From that time on, Felicite thought solely of her nephew. On warm days she feared he would suffer from thirst, and when it stormed, she was afraid he would be struck by lightning. When she harkened to the wind that rattled in the chimney and dislodged the tiles on the roof, she imagined that he was being buffeted by the same storm, perched on top of a shattered mast, with his whole body bend backward and covered with sea-foam; or, – these were recollections of the engraved geography – he was being devoured by savages, or captured in a forest by apes, or dying on some lonely coast. She never mentioned her anxieties, however.
Madame Aubain worried about her daughter.
The sisters thought that Virginia was affectionate but delicate. The slightest emotion enervated her. She had to give up her piano lessons. Her mother insisted upon regular letters from the convent. One morning, when the postman failed to come, she grew impatient and began to pace to and fro, from her chair to the window. It was really extraordinary! No news since four days!
In order to console her mistress by her own example, Felicite said:
“Why, Madame, I haven’t had any news since six months! –”
“From whom? –”
The servant replied gently:
“Why – from my nephew.”
“Oh, yes, your nephew!” And shrugging her shoulders, Madame Aubain continued to pace the floor as if to say: “I did not think of it. – Besides, I do not care, a cabin-boy, a pauper! – but my daughter – what a difference! just think of it! –”
Felicite, although she had been reared roughly, was very indignant. Then she forgot about it.
It appeared quite natural to her that one should lose one’s head about Virginia.
The two children were of equal importance; they were united in her heart and their fate was to be the same.
The chemist informed her that Victor’s vessel had reached Havana. He had read the information in a newspaper.
Felicite imagined that Havana was a place where people did nothing but smoke, and that Victor walked around among negroes in a cloud of tobacco. Could a person, in case of need, return by land? How far was it from Pont-l’Eveque? In order to learn these things, she questioned Monsieur Bourais. He reached for his map and began some explanations concerning longitudes, and smiled with superiority at Felicite’s bewilderment. At last, he took a pencil and pointed out an imperceptible black point in the scallops of an oval blotch, adding: “There it is.” She bent over the map; the maze of coloured lines hurt her eyes without enlightening her; and when Bourais asked her what puzzled her, she requested him to show her the house Victor lived in. Bourais threw up his hands, sneezed, and then laughed uproariously; such ignorance delighted his soul; but Felicite failed to understand the cause of his mirth, she whose intelligence was so limited that she perhaps expected to see even the picture of her nephew!
It was two weeks later that Liebard came into the kitchen at market-time, and handed her a letter from her brother-in-law. As neither of them could read, she called upon her mistress.
Madame Aubain, who was counting the stitches of her knitting, laid her work down beside her, opened the letter, started, and in a low tone and with a searching look said: “They tell you of a – misfortune. Your nephew –”
He had died. The letter told nothing more.
Felicite dropped on a chair, leaned her head against the back, and closed her lids; presently they grew pink. Then, with drooping head, inert hands and staring eyes she repeated at intervals:
“Poor little chap! poor little chap!”
Liebard watched her and sighed. Madame Aubain was trembling.
She proposed to the girl to go to see her sister in Trouville.
With a single motion, Felicite replied that it was not necessary.
There was a silence. Old Liebard thought it about time for him to take leave.
Then Felicite uttered:
“They have no sympathy, they do not care!”
Her head fell forward again, and from time to time, mechanically, she toyed with the long knitting-needles on the work-table.
Some women passed through the yard with a basket of wet clothes.
When she saw them through the window, she suddenly remembered her own wash; as she had soaked it the day before, she must go and rinse it now. So she arose and left the room.
Her tub and her board were on the bank of the Toucques. She threw a heap of clothes on the ground, rolled up her sleeves and grasped her bat; and her loud pounding could be heard in the neighbouring gardens. The meadows were empty, the breeze wrinkled the stream, at the bottom of which were long grasses that looked like the hair of corpses floating in the water. She restrained her sorrow and was very brave until night; but, when she had gone to her own room, she gave way to it, burying her face in the pillow and pressing her two fists against her temples.
A long while afterward, she learned through Victor’s captain, the circumstances which surrounded his death. At the hospital they had bled him too much, treating him for yellow fever. Four doctors held him at one time. He died almost instantly, and the chief surgeon had said:
“Here goes another one!”
His parents had always treated him barbarously; she preferred not to see them again, and they made no advances, either from forgetfulness or out of innate hardness.
Virginia was growing weaker.
A cough, continual fever, oppressive breathing and spots on her cheeks indicated some serious trouble. Monsieur Popart had advised a sojourn in Provence. Madame Aubain decided that they would go, and she would have had her daughter come home at once, had it not been for the climate of Pont-l’Eveque.
She made an arrangement with a livery-stable man who drove her over to the convent every Tuesday. In the garden there was a terrace, from which the view extends to the Seine. Virginia walked in it, leaning on her mother’s arm and treading the dead vine leaves. Sometimes the sun, shining through the clouds, made her blink her lids, when she gazed at the sails in the distance, and let her eyes roam over the horizon from the chateau of Tancarville to the lighthouses of Havre. Then they rested on the arbour. Her mother had bought a little cask of fine Malaga wine, and Virginia, laughing at the idea of becoming intoxicated, would drink a few drops of it, but never more.
Her strength returned. Autumn passed. Felicite began to reassure Madame Aubain. But, one evening, when she returned home after an errand, she met M. Boupart’s coach in front of the door; M. Boupart himself was standing in the vestibule and Madame Aubain was tying the strings of her bonnet. “Give me my foot-warmer, my purse and my gloves; and be quick about it,” she said.
Virginia had congestion of the lungs; perhaps it was desperate.
“Not yet,” said the physician, and both got into the carriage, while the snow fell in thick flakes. It was almost night and very cold.
Felicite rushed to the church to light a candle. Then she ran after the coach which she overtook after an hour’s chase, sprang up behind and held on to the straps. But suddenly a thought crossed her mind: “The yard had been left open; supposing that burglars got in!” And down she jumped.
The next morning, at daybreak, she called at the doctor’s. He had been home, but had left again. Then she waited at the inn, thinking that strangers might bring her a letter. At last, at daylight she took the diligence for Lisieux.
The convent was at the end of a steep and narrow street. When she arrived about at the middle of it, she heard strange noises, a funeral knell. “It must be for some one else,” thought she; and she pulled the knocker violently.
After several minutes had elapsed, she heard footsteps, the door was half opened and a nun appeared. The good sister, with an air of compunction, told her that “she had just passed away.” And at the same time the tolling of Saint-Leonard’s increased.
Felicite reached the second floor. Already at the threshold, she caught sight of Virginia lying on her back, with clasped hands, her mouth open and her head thrown back, beneath a black crucifix inclined toward her, and stiff curtains which were less white than her face. Madame Aubain lay at the foot of the couch, clasping it with her arms and uttering groans of agony. The Mother Superior was standing on the right side of the bed. The three candles on the bureau made red blurs, and the windows were dimmed by the fog outside. The nuns carried Madame Aubain from the room.
For two nights, Felicite never left the corpse. She would repeat the same prayers, sprinkle holy water over the sheets, get up, come back to the bed and contemplate the body. At the end of the first vigil, she noticed that the face had taken on a yellow tinge, the lips grew blue, the nose grew pinched, the eyes were sunken. She kissed them several times and would not have been greatly astonished had Virginia opened them; to souls like this the supernatural is always quite simple. She washed her, wrapped her in a shroud, put her into the casket, laid a wreath of flowers on her head and arranged her curls. They were blond and of an extraordinary length for her age. Felicite cut off a big lock and put half of it into her bosom, resolving never to part with it.
The body was taken to Pont-l’Eveque, according to Madame Aubain’s wishes; she followed the hearse in a closed carriage.
After the ceremony it took three quarters of an hour to reach the cemetery. Paul, sobbing, headed the procession; Monsieur Bourais followed, and then came the principal inhabitants of the town, the women covered with black capes, and Felicite. The memory of her nephew, and the thought that she had not been able to render him these honours, made her doubly unhappy, and she felt as if he were being buried with Virginia.
Madame Aubain’s grief was uncontrollable. At first she rebelled against God, thinking that he was unjust to have taken away her child – she who had never done anything wrong, and whose conscience was so pure! But no! she ought to have taken her South. Other doctors would have saved her. She accused herself, prayed to be able to join her child, and cried in the midst of her dreams. Of the latter, one more especially haunted her. Her husband, dressed like a sailor, had come back from a long voyage, and with tears in his eyes told her that he had received the order to take Virginia away. Then they both consulted about a hiding-place.
Once she came in from the garden, all upset. A moment before (and she showed the place), the father and daughter had appeared to her, one after the other; they did nothing but look at her.
During several months she remained inert in her room. Felicite scolded her gently; she must keep up for her son and also for the other one, for “her memory.”
“Her memory!” replied Madame Aubain, as if she were just awakening, “Oh! yes, yes, you do not forget her!” This was an allusion to the cemetery where she had been expressly forbidden to go.
But Felicite went there every day. At four o’clock exactly, she would go through the town, climb the hill, open the gate and arrive at Virginia’s tomb. It was a small column of pink marble with a flat stone at its base, and it was surrounded by a little plot enclosed by chains. The flower-beds were bright with blossoms. Felicite watered their leaves, renewed the gravel, and knelt on the ground in order to till the earth properly. When Madame Aubain was able to visit the cemetery she felt very much relieved and consoled.
Years passed, all alike and marked by no other events than the return of the great church holidays: Easter, Assumption, All Saints’ Day. Household happenings constituted the only data to which in later years they often referred. Thus, in 1825, workmen painted the vestibule; in 1827, a portion of the roof almost killed a man by falling into the yard. In the summer of 1828, it was Madame’s turn to offer the hallowed bread; at that time, Bourais disappeared mysteriously; and the old acquaintances, Guyot, Liebard, Madame Lechaptois, Robelin, old Gremanville, paralysed since a long time, passed away one by one. One night, the driver of the mail in Pont-l’Eveque announced the Revolution of July. A few days afterward a new sub-prefect was nominated, the Baron de Larsonniere, ex-consul in America, who, besides his wife, had his sister-in-law and her three grown daughters with him. They were often seen on their lawn, dressed in loose blouses, and they had a parrot and a negro servant. Madame Aubain received a call, which she returned promptly. As soon as she caught sight of them, Felicite would run and notify her mistress. But only one thing was capable of arousing her: a letter from her son.
He could not follow any profession as he was absorbed in drinking. His mother paid his debts and he made fresh ones; and the sighs that she heaved while she knitted at the window reached the ears of Felicite who was spinning in the kitchen.
They walked in the garden together, always speaking of Virginia, and asking each other if such and such a thing would have pleased her, and what she would probably have said on this or that occasion.
All her little belongings were put away in a closet of the room which held the two little beds. But Madame Aubain looked them over as little as possible. One summer day, however, she resigned herself to the task and when she opened the closet the moths flew out.
Virginia’s frocks were hung under a shelf where there were three dolls, some hoops, a doll-house, and a basic which she had used. Felicite and Madame Aubain also took out the skirts, the handkerchiefs, and the stockings and spread them on the beds, before putting them away again. The sun fell on the piteous things, disclosing their spots and the creases formed by the motions of the body. The atmosphere was warm and blue, and a blackbird trilled in the garden; everything seemed to live in happiness. They found a little hat of soft brown plush, but it was entirely moth-eaten. Felicite asked for it. Their eyes met and filled with tears; at last the mistress opened her arms and the servant threw herself against her breast and they hugged each other and giving vent to their grief in a kiss which equalised them for a moment.
It was the first time that this had ever happened, for Madame Aubain was not of an expansive nature. Felicite was as grateful for it as if it had been some favour, and thenceforth loved her with animal-like devotion and a religious veneration.
Her kind-heartedness developed. When she heard the drums of a marching regiment passing through the street, she would stand in the doorway with a jug of cider and give the soldiers a drink. She nursed cholera victims. She protected Polish refugees, and one of them even declared that he wished to marry her. But they quarrelled, for one morning when she returned from the Angelus she found him in the kitchen coolly eating a dish which he had prepared for himself during her absence.
After the Polish refugees, came Colmiche, an old man who was credited with having committed frightful misdeeds in ‘93. He lived near the river in the ruins of a pig-sty. The urchins peeped at him through the cracks in the walls and threw stones that fell on his miserable bed, where he lay gasping with catarrh, with long hair, inflamed eyelids, and a tumour as big as his head on one arm.
She got him some linen, tried to clean his hovel and dreamed of installing him in the bake-house without his being in Madame’s way. When the cancer broke, she dressed it every day; sometimes she brought him some cake and placed him in the sun on a bundle of hay; and the poor old creature, trembling and drooling, would thank her in his broken voice, and put out his hands whenever she left him. Finally he died; and she had a mass said for the repose of his soul.
That day a great joy came to her: at dinner-time, Madame de Larsonniere’s servant called with the parrot, the cage, and the perch and chain and lock. A note from the baroness told Madame Aubain that as her husband had been promoted to a prefecture, they were leaving that night, and she begged her to accept the bird as a remembrance and a token of her esteem.
Since a long time the parrot had been on Felicite’s mind, because he came from America, which reminded her of Victor, and she had approached the negro on the subject.
Once even, she had said:
“How glad Madame would be to have him!”
The man had repeated this remark to his mistress who, not being able to keep the bird, took this means of getting rid of it.
He was called Loulou. His body was green, his head blue, the tips of his wings were pink and his breast was golden.
But he had the tiresome tricks of biting his perch, pulling his feathers out, scattering refuse and spilling the water of his bath. Madame Aubain grew tired of him and gave him to Felicite for good.
She undertook his education, and soon he was able to repeat: “Pretty boy! Your servant, sir! I salute you, Marie!” His perch was placed near the door and several persons were astonished that he did not answer to the name of “Jacquot,” for every parrot is called Jacquot. They called him a goose and a log, and these taunts were like so many dagger thrusts to Felicite. Strange stubbornness of the bird which would not talk when people watched him!
Nevertheless, he sought society; for on Sunday, when the ladies Rochefeuille, Monsieur de Houppeville and the new habitues, Onfroy, the chemist, Monsieur Varin and Captain Mathieu, dropped in for their game of cards, he struck the window-panes with his wings and made such a racket that it was impossible to talk.
Bourais’ face must have appeared very funny to Loulou. As soon as he saw him he would begin to roar. His voice re-echoed in the yard, and the neighbours would come to the windows and begin to laugh, too; and in order that the parrot might not see him, Monsieur Bourais edged along the wall, pushed his hat over his eyes to hide his profile, and entered by the garden door, and the looks he gave the bird lacked affection. Loulou, having thrust his head into the butcher-boy’s basket, received a slap, and from that time he always tried to nip his enemy. Fabu threatened to ring his neck, although he was not cruelly inclined, notwithstanding his big whiskers and tattooings. On the contrary, he rather liked the bird, and, out of devilry, tried to teach him oaths. Felicite, whom his manner alarmed, put Loulou in the kitchen, took off his chain and let him walk all over the house.
When he went downstairs, he rested his beak on the steps, lifted his right foot and then his left one; but his mistress feared that such feats would give him vertigo. He became ill and was unable to eat. There was a small growth under his tongue like those chickens are sometimes afflicted with. Felicite pulled it off with her nails and cured him. One day, Paul was imprudent enough to blow the smoke of his cigar in his face; another time, Madame Lormeau was teasing him with the tip of her umbrella and he swallowed the tip. Finally he got lost.
She had put him on the grass to cool him and went away only for a second; when she returned, she found no parrot! She hunted among the bushes, on the bank of the river, and on the roofs, without paying any attention to Madame Aubain who screamed at her: “Take care! you must be insane!” Then she searched every garden in Pont-l’Eveque and stopped the passers-by to inquire of them: “Haven’t you perhaps seen my parrot?” To those who had never seen the parrot, she described him minutely. Suddenly she thought she saw something green fluttering behind the mills at the foot of the hill. But when she was at the top of the hill she could not see it. A hod-carrier told her that he had just seen the bird in Saint-Melaine, in Mother Simon’s store. She rushed to the place. The people did not know what she was talking about. At last she came home, exhausted, with her slippers worn to shreds, and despair in her heart. She sat down on the bench near Madame and was telling of her search when presently a light weight dropped on her shoulder – Loulou! What the deuce had he been doing? Perhaps he had just taken a little walk around the town!
She did not easily forget her scare; in fact, she never got over it. In consequence of a cold, she caught a sore throat; and some time later she had an earache. Three years later she was stone deaf, and spoke in a very loud voice even in church. Although her sins might have been proclaimed throughout the diocese without any shame to herself, or ill effects to the community, the cure thought it advisable to receive her confession in the vestry-room.
Imaginary buzzings also added to her bewilderment. Her mistress often said to her: “My goodness, how stupid you are!” and she would answer: “Yes, Madame,” and look for something.
The narrow circle of her ideas grew more restricted than it already was; the bellowing of the oxen, the chime of the bells no longer reached her intelligence. All things moved silently, like ghosts. Only one noise penetrated her ears; the parrot’s voice.
As if to divert her mind, he reproduced for her the tick-tack of the spit in the kitchen, the shrill cry of the fish-vendors, the saw of the carpenter who had a shop opposite, and when the door-bell rang, he would imitate Madame Aubain: “Felicite! go to the front door.”
They held conversations together, Loulou repeating the three phrases of his repertory over and over, Felicite replying by words that had no greater meaning, but in which she poured out her feelings. In her isolation, the parrot was almost a son, a love. He climbed upon her fingers, pecked at her lips, clung to her shawl, and when she rocked her head to and fro like a nurse, the big wings of her cap and the wings of the bird flapped in unison. When clouds gathered on the horizon and the thunder rumbled, Loulou would scream, perhaps because he remembered the storms in his native forests. The dripping of the rain would excite him to frenzy; he flapped around, struck the ceiling with his wings, upset everything, and would finally fly into the garden to play. Then he would come back into the room, light on one of the andirons, and hop around in order to get dry.
One morning during the terrible winter of 1837, when she had put him in front of the fire-place on account of the cold, she found him dead in his cage, hanging to the wire bars with his head down. He had probably died of congestion. But she believed that he had been poisoned, and although she had no proofs whatever, her suspicion rested on Fabu.
She wept so sorely that her mistress said: “Why don’t you have him stuffed?”
She asked the advice of the chemist, who had always been kind to the bird.
He wrote to Havre for her. A certain man named Fellacher consented to do the work. But, as the diligence driver often lost parcels entrusted to him, Felicite resolved to take her pet to Honfleur herself.
Leafless apple-trees lined the edges of the road. The ditches were covered with ice. The dogs on the neighbouring farms barked; and Felicite, with her hands beneath her cape, her little black sabots and her basket, trotted along nimbly in the middle of the sidewalk. She crossed the forest, passed by the Haut-Chene, and reached Saint-Gatien.
Behind her, in a cloud of dust and impelled by the steep incline, a mail-coach drawn by galloping horses advanced like a whirlwind. When he saw a woman in the middle of the road, who did not get out of the way, the driver stood up in his seat and shouted to her and so did the postilion, while the four horses, which he could not hold back, accelerated their pace; the two leaders were almost upon her; with a jerk of the reins he threw them to one side, but, furious at the incident, he lifted his big whip and lashed her from her head to her feet with such violence that she fell to the ground unconscious.
Her first thought, when she recovered her senses, was to open the basket. Loulou was unharmed. She felt a sting on her right cheek; when she took her hand away it was red, for the blood was flowing.
She sat down on a pile of stones, and sopped her cheek with her handkerchief; then she ate a crust of bread she had put in her basket, and consoled herself by looking at the bird.
Arriving at the top of Ecquemanville, she saw the lights of Honfleur shining in the distance like so many stars; further on, the ocean spread out in a confused mass. Then a weakness came over her; the misery of her childhood, the disappointment of her first love, the departure of her nephew, the death of Virginia; all these things came back to her at once, and, rising like a swelling tide in her throat, almost choked her.
Then she wished to speak to the captain of the vessel, and without stating what she was sending, she gave him some instructions.
Fellacher kept the parrot a long time. He always promised that it would be ready for the following week; after six months he announced the shipment of a case, and that was the end of it. Really, it seemed as if Loulou would never come back to his home. “They have stolen him,” thought Felicite.
Finally he arrived, sitting bold upright on a branch which could be screwed into a mahogany pedestal, with his foot in the air, his head on one side, and in his beak a nut which the naturalist, from love of the sumptuous, had gilded. She put him in her room.
This place, to which only a chosen few were admitted, looked like a chapel and a second-hand shop, so filled was it with devotional and heterogeneous things. The door could not be opened easily on account of the presence of a large wardrobe. Opposite the window that looked out into the garden, a bull’s-eye opened on the yard; a table was placed by the cot and held a wash-basin, two combs, and a piece of blue soap in a broken saucer. On the walls were rosaries, medals, a number of Holy Virgins, and a holy-water basin made out of a cocoanut; on the bureau, which was covered with a napkin like an altar, stood the box of shells that Victor had given her; also a watering-can and a balloon, writing-books, the engraved geography and a pair of shoes; on the nail which held the mirror, hung Virginia’s little plush hat! Felicite carried this sort of respect so far that she even kept one of Monsieur’s old coats. All the things which Madame Aubain discarded, Felicite begged for her own room. Thus, she had artificial flowers on the edge of the bureau, and the picture of the Comte d’Artois in the recess of the window. By means of a board, Loulou was set on a portion of the chimney which advanced into the room. Every morning when she awoke, she saw him in the dim light of dawn and recalled bygone days and the smallest details of insignificant actions, without any sense of bitterness or grief.
As she was unable to communicate with people, she lived in a sort of somnambulistic torpor. The processions of Corpus-Christi Day seemed to wake her up. She visited the neighbours to beg for candlesticks and mats so as to adorn the temporary altars in the street.
In church, she always gazed at the Holy Ghost, and noticed that there was something about it that resembled a parrot. The likenesses appeared even more striking on a coloured picture by Espinal, representing the baptism of our Saviour. With his scarlet wings and emerald body, it was really the image of Loulou. Having bought the picture, she hung it near the one of the Comte d’Artois so that she could take them in at one glance.
They associated in her mind, the parrot becoming sanctified through the neighbourhood of the Holy Ghost, and the latter becoming more lifelike in her eyes, and more comprehensible. In all probability the Father had never chosen as messenger a dove, as the latter has no voice, but rather one of Loulou’s ancestors. And Felicite said her prayers in front of the coloured picture, though from time to time she turned slightly towards the bird.
She desired very much to enter in the ranks of the “Daughters of the Virgin.” But Madame Aubain dissuaded her from it.
A most important event occurred: Paul’s marriage.
After being first a notary’s clerk, then in business, then in the customs, and a tax collector, and having even applied for a position in the administration of woods and forests, he had at last, when he was thirty-six years old, by a divine inspiration, found his vocation: registrature! and he displayed such a high ability that an inspector had offered him his daughter and his influence.
Paul, who had become quite settled, brought his bride to visit his mother.
But she looked down upon the customs of Pont-l’Eveque, put on airs, and hurt Felicite’s feelings. Madame Aubain felt relieved when she left.
The following week they learned of Monsieur Bourais’ death in an inn. There were rumours of suicide, which were confirmed; doubts concerning his integrity arose. Madame Aubain looked over her accounts and soon discovered his numerous embezzlements; sales of wood which had been concealed from her, false receipts, etc. Furthermore, he had an illegitimate child, and entertained a friendship for “a person in Dozule.”
These base actions affected her very much. In March, 1853, she developed a pain in her chest; her tongue looked as if it were coated with smoke, and the leeches they applied did not relieve her oppression; and on the ninth evening she died, being just seventy-two years old.
People thought that she was younger, because her hair, which she wore in bands framing her pale face, was brown. Few friends regretted her loss, for her manner was so haughty that she did not attract them. Felicite mourned for her as servants seldom mourn for their masters. The fact that Madame should die before herself perplexed her mind and seemed contrary to the order of things, and absolutely monstrous and inadmissible. Ten days later (the time to journey from Besancon), the heirs arrived. Her daughter-in-law ransacked the drawers, kept some of the furniture, and sold the rest; then they went back to their own home.
Madame’s armchair, foot-warmer, work-table, the eight chairs, everything was gone! The places occupied by the pictures formed yellow squares on the walls. They had taken the two little beds, and the wardrobe had been emptied of Virginia’s belongings! Felicite went upstairs, overcome with grief.
The following day a sign was posted on the door; the chemist screamed in her ear that the house was for sale.
For a moment she tottered, and had to sit down.
What hurt her most was to give up her room, – so nice for poor Loulou! She looked at him in despair and implored the Holy Ghost, and it was this way that she contracted the idolatrous habit of saying her prayers kneeling in front of the bird. Sometimes the sun fell through the window on his glass eye, and lighted a spark in it which sent Felicite into ecstasy.
Her mistress had left her an income of three hundred and eighty francs. The garden supplied her with vegetables. As for clothes, she had enough to last her till the end of her days, and she economised on the light by going to bed at dusk.
She rarely went out, in order to avoid passing in front of the second-hand dealer’s shop where there was some of the old furniture. Since her fainting spell, she dragged her leg, and as her strength was failing rapidly, old Mother Simon, who had lost her money in the grocery business, came very morning to chop the wood and pump the water.
Her eyesight grew dim. She did not open the shutters after that. Many years passed. But the house did not sell or rent. Fearing that she would be put out, Felicite did not ask for repairs. The laths of the roof were rotting away, and during one whole winter her bolster was wet. After Easter she spit blood.
Then Mother Simon went for a doctor. Felicite wished to know what her complaint was. But, being too deaf to hear, she caught only one word: “Pneumonia.” She was familiar with it and gently answered: –”Ah! like Madame,” thinking it quite natural that she should follow her mistress.
The time for the altars in the street drew near.
The first one was always erected at the foot of the hill, the second in front of the post-office, and the third in the middle of the street. This position occasioned some rivalry among the women and they finally decided upon Madame Aubain’s yard.
Felicite’s fever grew worse. She was sorry that she could not do anything for the altar. If she could, at least, have contributed something towards it! Then she thought of the parrot. Her neighbours objected that it would not be proper. But the cure gave his consent and she was so grateful for it that she begged him to accept after her death, her only treasure, Loulou. From Tuesday until Saturday, the day before the event, she coughed more frequently. In the evening her face was contracted, her lips stuck to her gums and she began to vomit; and on the following day, she felt so low that she called for a priest.
Three neighbours surrounded her when the dominie administered the Extreme Unction. Afterwards she said that she wished to speak to Fabu.
He arrived in his Sunday clothes, very ill at ease among the funereal surroundings.
“Forgive me,” she said, making an effort to extend her arm, “I believed it was you who killed him!”
What did such accusations mean? Suspect a man like him of murder! And Fabu became excited and was about to make trouble.
“Don’t you see she is not in her right mind?”
From time to time Felicite spoke to shadows. The women left her and Mother Simon sat down to breakfast.
A little later, she took Loulou and holding him up to Felicite:
“Say good-bye to him, now!” she commanded.
Although he was not a corpse, he was eaten up by worms; one of his wings was broken and the wadding was coming out of his body. But Felicite was blind now, and she took him and laid him against her cheek. Then Mother Simon removed him in order to set him on the altar.
The grass exhaled an odour of summer; flies buzzed in the air, the sun shone on the river and warmed the slated roof. Old Mother Simon had returned to Felicite and was peacefully falling asleep.
The ringing of bells woke her; the people were coming out of church. Felicite’s delirium subsided. By thinking of the procession, she was able to see it as if she had taken part in it. All the school-children, the singers and the firemen walked on the sidewalks, while in the middle of the street came first the custodian of the church with his halberd, then the beadle with a large cross, the teacher in charge of the boys and a sister escorting the little girls; three of the smallest ones, with curly heads, threw rose leaves into the air; the deacon with outstretched arms conducted the music; and two incense-bearers turned with each step they took toward the Holy Sacrament, which was carried by M. le Cure, attired in his handsome chasuble and walking under a canopy of red velvet supported by four men. A crowd of people followed, jammed between the walls of the houses hung with white sheets; at last the procession arrived at the foot of the hill.
A cold sweat broke out on Felicite’s forehead. Mother Simon wiped it away with a cloth, saying inwardly that some day she would have to go through the same thing herself.
The murmur of the crowd grew louder, was very distinct for a moment and then died away. A volley of musketry shook the window-panes. It was the postilions saluting the Sacrament. Felicite rolled her eyes, and said as loudly as she could:
“Is he all right?” meaning the parrot.
Her death agony began. A rattle that grew more and more rapid shook her body. Froth appeared at the corners of her mouth, and her whole frame trembled. In a little while could be heard the music of the bass horns, the clear voices of the children and the men’s deeper notes. At intervals all was still, and their shoes sounded like a herd of cattle passing over the grass.
The clergy appeared in the yard. Mother Simon climbed on a chair to reach the bull’s-eye, and in this manner could see the altar. It was covered with a lace cloth and draped with green wreaths. In the middle stood a little frame containing relics; at the corners were two little orange-trees, and all along the edge were silver candlesticks, porcelain vases containing sun-flowers, lilies, peonies, and tufts of hydrangeas. This mount of bright colours descended diagonally from the first floor to the carpet that covered the sidewalk. Rare objects arrested one’s eye. A golden sugar-bowl was crowned with violets, earrings set with Alencon stones were displayed on green moss, and two Chinese screens with their bright landscapes were near by. Loulou, hidden beneath roses, showed nothing but his blue head which looked like a piece of lapis-lazuli.
The singers, the canopy-bearers and the children lined up against the sides of the yard. Slowly the priest ascended the steps and placed his shining sun on the lace cloth. Everybody knelt. There was deep silence; and the censers slipping on their chains were swung high in the air. A blue vapour rose in Felicite’s room. She opened her nostrils and inhaled with a mystic sensuousness; then she closed her lids. Her lips smiled. The beats of her heart grew fainter and fainter, and vaguer, like a fountain giving out, like an echo dying away; – and when she exhaled her last breath, she thought she saw in the half-opened heavens a gigantic parrot hovering above her head.
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.
When I think back on it, I feel like digging a hole in the ground and crawling right in. I want to crawl right in this minute, so I’m thinking back on it.
Someone once gave me this blue pill; God, what a feeling that was. He said, Down the gullet, so I downed the gullet, whatever that means. I downed that pill, and while I was doing this bummer trip, I followed a guy who told me to get lost on Melchet Street. It was getting late, and I was under the influence of that pill. I didn’t know exactly what belonged where, or whether all the knots I was seeing were causes that had become entangled in effects, or buses going uptown.
I downed that pill and waited downstairs for the guy. What a fuckup that turned out to be. He went and phoned his real girlfriend, who, as you can figure out, wasn’t me. He went and phoned her to tell her something. I waited downstairs – how embarrassing, how I’d let myself go. He came down and said: Listen, my real girlfriend doesn’t buy my story, so I’m off, bye. That was long ago; I was twenty-two and a half.
You leaving? I asked him, and he said he had to. You can just imagine what I felt like on Melchet Street back then. There wasn’t a drop of moisture left in my cheeks, just that slap in the face. How did I get home? Down the main road, I guess. I got my legs over to the main road and they took it from there.
I was consistently disoriented and lost in those days, so I figured I might as well be told to get lost and then drift on; I’d wind up somewhere eventually.
I let myself go, all the way home. Boy, what a downhill trip that was. Nobody saw me, I hope.
It’s been light years since then. Sometimes I still look around for the guy who told me to get lost. I want to tell him I was under the influence of that pill, and if there’s one thing I regret it’s that I wasn’t sober enough to tell him: “Mikey, you got a dime for my bus fare?”
Life is a snowball of lost meaning. I let myself go day by day, trying not to lose my innocence all at once, in a matter of days, but gradually, in a matter of years. My hourglass is running low, and I get it going again with sublime feelings of freedom and complacency. My sanity scores are playing tricks on me, and I don’t understand the rules of the game. One day I’m cool, and five minutes later I’m hypnosis or a talking extrasensory system – I’m not me any more; they call me all kinds of names, and I answer to all of them and none of them, or else I turn around just as suddenly when they call someone else.
*The story is published in cooperation with The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature
*Translation © The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature.
That summer, I’d go there sometimes, and this week, I went again. It was a hot day at the end of summer. A hot wind blew from time to time, stopped suddenly and returned suddenly, full of dust, and when I entered, the place was empty. Not a living soul. I thought of wandering around a bit and then, on the other side behind the shed, I saw the gardener standing and talking with a young woman who sat bent over the stone, moving her head as she spoke, a head wreathed in balls of red curls, glowing like balls of fire in the hamsin light.
As I said, the place was empty. The paths had just been swept, sharpening the clean orderly lines of perspective, and in the heavy hamsin light it looked more colorful and shining than ever, wrapped in a thin pink coat of fresh watering and new blooming, almost a shining sheath of shining lacquer. And it was very quiet. Not even a sprinkler moved. But as I went along the path everything seemed full of rustling and talking and raspy sounds, rising from both sides of the path from the colored patches of the dense vegetation, as if someone there were grinding glass under the earth.
That was in the most beautiful section, the newly flourishing section of the Lebanon War, which was laden with a rich growth of living flowers and silk flowers and velvet flowers and flowers of thin copper plates and flowers of burlap and flowers of gauze and rust-colored bandages and long serrated cacti with fleshy shoots like explosive caps and tops shaped like an axe.
The woman lifted her face to me.
Do you have somebody here? she asked.
She clasped her knees to her body, didn’t take her eyes off me.
I’ve got somebody here too, she said.
Her knees were really up to her body, and she didn’t take her eyes off me.
My husband, she said.
Yes, my husband.
She turned half her body to me.
My husband, she repeated a third time.
It was quiet. Her eyes were fixed on me, pale, very bright, wide open in dark brown lashes that had nothing to do with the balls of fire, and I don’t know, maybe because of the quiet, I said I came here sometimes, hadn’t seen her.
Yes, I come once a year, she said. Her voice was low-pitched, almost masculine, almost basso, and she spoke like someone continuing a conversation that had been broken off.
And it usually falls on a hot day like this, a hamsin. Always on a hot day like this, a hamsin. She banged her knees together, clutched her leather bag to them. And I sit alone. Sometimes with the gardener.
I said I had met him here, the gardener.
She fixed me again with bright, wide-open eyes, raised her hand in the air with a quick movement.
I’m talking to you like I know you, she said.
Maybe we did know each other once.
She laughed, repeating the nervous gesture in the air.
Yes, could be.
Maybe, I said.
She laughed again, covering her knees with both hands. Then she shifted her eyes from her knees and moved closer to me on the stone frame surrounding the small, beautiful garden. She smiled. He’s a good man, the gardener.
The sun apparently blinded her, since she was facing the wrong way, and she closed one eye, and now she looked at me with one eye, round as an animal’s eye.
I said: Yes, a good man, the gardener.
She changed eyes, blinking, bent farther over the stone, and opened a cactus coiled up near the stone pillow. Apparently she saw me looking at the date on the pillow. No, No, I come on our anniversary, that’s the day I come here once a year.
Now, too, she spoke slowly, emphasizing every word.
I don’t come on any other day. Why should I come any other day?
It was quiet, and even quieter between one word and the next.
And I said, it always falls on a hot day like this, a hamsin. In fact, it was a hot day like this then too, a hamsin. She banged her knees together hard, pressed the palms of her hands on them, and said it was impossible to talk about it. I said she didn’t have to. She said: I can’t talk about it.
You don’t have to.
Yes, but when you think.
Better not to think.
That’s it, better not to think. That doesn’t always work. You understand.
Yes, I understand.
It was quiet. She bent over a bit, leaning forward, unzipped her purse, pulled out a pair of big grey glasses, and put them on.
Believe me, you learn it, and aside from that, time –
I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
It was quiet. She zipped up her purse and put it back on the stone.
Yes, time. You think time can?
I could see her dark lashes drop and open all at once through the big glasses. She took them off a moment and straightened up again, looking around leaning her head back, the way you look out a train window. In the meantime, everything, almost alive, years, almost alive, she said, turning around to me, and the word almost was doubled in the empty garden, hit the air like a pneumatic hammer, and I felt something heavy in my ears and some desire to cover my ears. It seemed that was what she did too, but the wind waved her hair, exposing her ears and they suddenly looked small, almost like a little girl’s ears. Her eyes moved slowly, wandering over the garden, as if the garden were fleeing behind her, and I thought I should say something but I didn’t know what. The light became even lower. The sky a bottomless dome. The blooming roses and chrysanthemums in the beautiful garden burned like scarecrows, and I wanted to tell her that there are many forms alive, and something about the length of the day and the length of the night, and the simple truth of death and loneliness when that truth comes from the earth and enters your feet and climbs on you through the soles of your feet. Suddenly I remembered the custom that women once used to measure their lovers’ graves with strings, and then they folded the strings and doubled them and made wicks of wax candles in honor of their lovers from the wrapped doubled string, and at night, in little cans, they lit the wax candles and all night the long wicks burned in the cans and the wind was forbidden to put out the fire in the cans, and I wanted to tell her something about the cans. But she sat quietly, gathering up her hair that was waving from side to son her neck, moving her fingers slowly through her hair as if the strength had gone out of her hands.
That’s it, she said. Her hair was now gathered on the back of her neck and she put her hands back on her knees. In the light you didn’t see her eyes, only the lenses of the glasses. She smiled weakly and took off the glasses, closing one eye again as if it were more and more blinded. It really was very hot. The air grew heavy, taking on an ashen color, holding the movement of a hot dry wind that suddenly approached from some unknown gate, covering that clean, well-swept expanse with a cloud of dust. You smelled a thin odour of smoke and resin. Stone tablets looked taut enough to burst. The fresh paths were filled with arteries of lead and the broken sound of broken flutes approached as if it were going into a cave. The woman facing me pressed her hands to her knees as if she wanted to say: quiet, quiet, but the sound of broken flutes just grew louder, the leaves over the garden plots folded into burned strips of paper, scattering torn petals all around like grains of oats, and I saw the slight trembling of her hands on her knees. Once again she seemed to want to say something, but I didn’t hear what, only how she closed both hands on her knees. The sound of broken flutes grew even louder, the light became really low, almost touching, and in the low light the stones suddenly seemed to be moving, waving like curtains, changing that strange architecture of cut off limbs and turning into a thick dough over the colorful fermentation over the cracks in the earth, contorting the precision of the well-chiselled tablets, and the paths, the markers, the signs at the corners of the paths, the cracks of radiance and the broken screens, and you couldn’t identify any stone now. The roses seemed to be plastic, and the grass full of heat worms, and when the wind passed as it had come, the black inscriptions on the stones still ran around in the air a moment and after a moment only the young woman was seen sitting alone, quiet, in the weary garden. Now too her hands were folded on her knees and she sat in silence.
She opened her eyes, looking at me with a special intimacy.
I’m lucky, there’s never anybody here on this day, I’m always here alone.
That really is nice, I said.
Yes, it’s nice. And I’m always scared they’ll come all of a sudden. But you see, God watches over me, until today that hasn’t happened, every year I’m here alone, sitting like this, alone.
Her eyes were fixed on me all the time, with that special intimacy that exists only between strangers.
It doesn’t bother you that we’re talking, she said.
No, of course not, it’s nice, I said.
She said: Sometimes, you know –
Yes, of course, I know.
It’s that, when you sit there, looking –
Of course, I understand.
She quickly rearranged her clasped hands, and asked if I had to go and I said, No, I’ve got time. She said: I’m glad. Then she said: Sometimes, you know, you want to talk. The light fell on her face, where two thin serpents of sweat ran down, and she wiped them off with the palm of her hand—Nothing special, just, to talk. She smiled in pain—You know, and I said certainly, I know. She smiled again in pain—You always think everything happens to other people. Even when it happens to you , it’s like it happened to other people. Her face now rested between the palms of her hands and she lifted it a little, turning aside. Some noise was heard and stones rolling around as in an execution by stoning, and she straightened up, looked, and took off her glasses a moment, putting them back on immediately, shifting them as if she couldn’t put them on right. She had long beautiful mocha-colored hands, and I looked at her hands which were circled with wide copper bracelets and rings, a ring on every finger, sometimes two, and when she lifted her arms, the bracelets dropped toward her elbow, linked together making a plate of thin copper. She smiled, bringing the bracelets close to her wrists while looking at me through the sparkling lenses. Then she bent over the took out a blue Hebron glass pitcher, put it next to the stone pillow, and said something about the glass and asked if it was beautiful, and I said to her it was very beautiful. Then she said she wanted to bring velvet flowers because she liked very much to make velvet flowers, especially since fresh flowers would fade tomorrow and she only came once a year, and I said yes, that’s how it is. She said: Yes, that’s how it is, and stopped a moment, once again moving the glasses that gleamed like two tin tablets. What can you do, that’s how it is, she repeated. Her eyes lit up with a strange passion and she shook her head, passed her hand over her throat, and once again I looked at her hands and at the bracelets, and every movement changed their position, making a dull noise of copper striking. They were very beautiful bracelets, and I noticed that every bracelet was set with different stones, and there was a bracelet with yellow amber and a bracelet with red amber and a bracelet with turquoise and a bracelet with small blue lapis and a bracelet with pink coral stones, as if she had a collection of bracelets on her arms. She said: Yesterday I almost made baked apples, every year I want to do that and I don’t, baked apples. She laughed a little—That’s what we used to do every year on this day, baked apples. Her voice was parched a moment, and I said that was really good, baked apples. She said: With raisins and nuts, you know that, and I said it was really good with raisins and nuts. She said: And cinnamon, of course cinnamon, and you burn the sugar a little, it’s very good when you burn the sugar. She moved away a bit on the stone. We didn’t put in honey, but he called it apples in honey, she said. She spoke very quietly now, the shaded dark lashes grew wet from one word to the next, and I said I also make that sometimes, especially at the end of summer. She asked why at the end of summer. Her face grew tense, firm, and I didn’t know why I had said that or why at the end of summer, and I felt I had to say something and I didn’t know what, and I said it was best to make it with Grand Alexanders, and that I always looked for Grand Alexanders. She listened quietly, and I said it was good to peel a thin strip around the apple so it wouldn’t burst when it was baking. Now too, she listened quietly. Once again her hair was undone and waved from side to side, and she pressed it, clasping it to her scalp, then she stuck her hand in her hair and wound the ends around her finger.
It’s really hot, she said.
Her face was wet and she wiped it with the palm of her hand, moving her hand from her forehead to her throat a few times, then she put her hands down on the surface of the little garden and wiped them with leaves. Her head swayed a bit and for a moment she seemed to be dozing, and I thought about the plants that hoard water in their stems, producing giant thorns for defence. Suddenly I remembered a friend of mine who wanted to be buried under his cafי under his table, and they told him: It must be somewhere else. And he said: how can I be somewhere else? Under my table, he said, under the table, and even broken up it’s all right even taken apart it’s all right even with one leg it’s all right, and I looked at that strange cemetery, at the stone pillows and the beautiful gardens. Within the emptiness the black letters and the white spaces ran around, moving within air pockets, and that’s how she sat too. Her hair still moved from side to side and she pressed it to the back of her neck, then she leaned over, hastily opened her bag and hastily closed it again right away, and seemed to take some hairpins out of it, because she started sticking pins in her hair. It took her time to do it because the curls kept opening up again and fell on her throat, and maybe the pins weren’t strong enough to hold the burden of her hair, and she plucked off a branch, smelled it, and then stuck it in her hair, then plucked another one and held it close to me. It had the sweet rotten smell of soft wood and she stroked her face lightly with it, and I said she had beautiful hair and beautiful hands. She laughed a little: The bracelets, you mean the bracelets, and I said the bracelets really were very beautiful. She moved away a bit on the stone—Yes, every year, he would bring me a bracelet, that was his anniversary present. Her bass voice suddenly broke like a watch that falls to the ground, and she straightened up and stretched her back—But I don’t wear them, only when I come here. She stopped, rotated her wrist—He loved it when I had bracelets on my hands, so when I come here—her eyes became big, yellow, an owl’s eyes, unmoving, and I saw her taking out the bracelets at night and putting them on the table and arranging them in order, and in the morning putting them on in order, and looking at her arms and some bracelets are missing on her arms, and she moves them and counts the missing bracelets.
Her throat was taut and she sat, looking straight ahead.
This is from the first year, she said, pointing to the bracelet near her wrist, the one with the big yellow amber stone which her hand stroked a few times, and I understood that they were put on in the sequence of the years, and the second year he bought her the red amber, and then the turquoise, and then the lapis, and then the coral, and I tried to guess what he would have brought her the year after. Her face was still impassive and you saw only the eyes, and it occurred to me that that was what she was thinking now too and that was certainly what she did this morning and how she went to the mirror, standing, looking, and the amber and the turquoise stones, the blue lapis beads and the pink coral return in the mirror, and she doesn’t get the dates right, or the years, and she counts the years, and suddenly I didn’t see her but only the bracelets shrivelling, narrow, thin, closing on her like handcuffs.
She turned around to me now, making a noise that sounded like laughter, but wasn’t.
Usually my arms are empty, I told you, all year long I walk around with empty arms, she said. She laughed briefly again, and I said she really had beautiful arms and they were beautiful even without the bracelets, and I tried to imagine how they looked without the bracelets but I simply couldn’t. The copper stabbed my eyes like needles and I felt a slight pain in my eyes, and I didn’t even see her arms but only how the bracelets wrapped one of her arms, then the other, and her shoulders her stomach her chest, and she was sitting all wrapped as in a giant rack. No, no, I said to myself, it’s the quiet, very quiet, it’s a strong light, it’s the strong light, how they sparkle, the bracelets, in the strong light, and how she’s dressed up for him, living or dead, she dressed up for him, what a beautiful dress she put on for him, maybe she even washed her hair for him, its shine is so fresh, and how it waves, burning on her head, making a living crown on her head. She said: I don’t wear the rings either, not the rings either, and I tried to imagine her fingers without the rings. She had mother-of-pearl colored polish on her fingernails and I saw how delicate her fingernails looked. Suddenly I remembered the story of the apples in honey and the small annual celebration. She said: For our tenth anniversary he said he would bring me one with garnets, and I tried to guess when the tenth anniversary should have been, and what he would have bought on the ninth, the eighth, the seventh, but the needles stabbed my eyes, the amber got mixed up with the turquoise, the lapis with the coral, and I said to myself: No no, so much light, you can’t sit in such light, I said to myself that was what she was doing now too, the tenth, the ninth, the eighth, and like me she was counting backward and the count was short, and she was saying it will get longer, every year this will get longer, the bracelets will get short and the counting will get longer, and then the arms will get shorter too. But she sat quietly, playing with the bracelets that made the banging sound of copper and a dull ding dong ding dong and I thought I might have met her once in the street at the corner and hadn’t recognized her, she had empty arms and I hadn’t recognized her, and I said to myself: No no, not that, it’s not her, it’s the light, impossible in such a light, and it’s a mistake, it’s all a mistake, but the bracelets were already running around in the garden mixing with the fresh beautiful blossoming, with the black letters and the white spaces and the rings too, and suddenly I remembered empty of all body and his house empty and empty his soul and his prayer returning empty, I remembered don’t leave me empty-handed, oh don’t leave me empty don’t come empty, and I said no no, the air shrivels and we walk empty, why did I remember that? Where did I hear that? Many years had gone by since I heard that, we stand poor and empty, I heard that, I was a little girl when I heard that, it was always in summer, when my mother would murmur that, and our hut was across from the Muslim cemetery and the windows were open and I was afraid of the cemetery, and I said let’s close the windows, but she said, it’s not the open windows, it’s the bell it’s empty it rings empty.
Something wrong? said the woman. She was playing again with the branch in her hand, and I said I was tired and it was late and I had to go. She smiled. Of course, of course, and if you come next year you’ll find me here. She sounded very quiet, almost calm, and I said I would remember the date and come, certainly, I would come. Since she didn’t answer, I said it really was a very hot day and that wind, and I wanted to go in the evening but I was afraid it was closed in the evening.
She went on playing with the branch in her hand, passing it over her face. They don’t close a cemetery, she said.
When I left, I saw the gardener arranging his tools in the shed, lining up the hoes and the spades, the spare faucets, and a heap of new seedlings. He smiled when I asked about her. Come next year, he said, she’ll be here. He locked his shed. She always comes this time, every year.
*The story is published in cooperation with The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature
*Translation © The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature.
In September everyone’s looking for an apartment. Especially in Jerusalem. Especially students. This is the busy season for Yochanan Dvir, apartment renovator and owner of a few of them himself. Two small apartments which he renovated in Nahlaoth he rented out immediately for 4oo dollars each. He was on the point of renting out the third, a one-room apartment in Abulafia Street, for 300 dollars, but before he could sign the contract Haimke Levine called him from Tel Aviv and said: “Listen. Maybe you’ve got something for my daughter. She’s been accepted at the Betzalel art school and she needs a one-room apartment.”
Yochanan said “Yes.” Without hesitation.
Haimke Levine had helped Yochanan when he was in big trouble. He had fallen in love. Suddenly he understood the meaning of the words “for love is fierce as death”. And the girl ̶ a high-school student. He stopped working and ran around like a lunatic. One day he began taking an interest in the Shalom Tower, walking around and counting the floors. Haimke went with him, ate with him, refused to leave him alone. And all the time he told him horror stories about this one and that one and how they all, thank God, survived in the end. And were getting along nicely too. Once he even jumped into the Gordon swimming pool for him. He shouted “I’m sick of it!” and jumped in at the deep end. He didn’t know how to swim. Yochanan naturally jumped in after him and pulled him out. Afterwards it turned out that Haimke was once the junior swimming champion or something. He simply never left him alone. This was four years before. Yochanan got over it, and in the end he even got married (and divorced again). They didn’t see much of each other. But Yochanan kept a warm spot in his heart for Haimke. And when he called and asked a favour for his daughter, Yochanan immediately saw before his eyes Haimke’s floury face, his soft laugh, and the exposed gums at the front of his mouth. He wouldn’t hear of an implant or a prothesis. He claimed that he couldn’t afford it, that the alimony he paid for his two daughters ate up everything he earned teaching mathematics at a crammer ‘s. As far as this was concerned Yochanan didn’t believe him. In Yochanan’s opinion, Haimke knew that the exposed gums were part of his elderly charm. In any case, Yochanan was delighted to have the opportunity to repay him. He had never seen Haimke’s daughters.
“Her name’s Dana,” said Haimke Levine. “You’ll recognize her immediately. Innocent-looking with big eyes.”
They arranged for Yochanan to meet Dana the next day at seven o’clock in the evening next to Talitha Kumi,1 to show her the apartment and give her the key.
“How much?” asked Haimke.
“Don’t insult me. We’ll talk about money later.”
His watch was fast. Sometimes ten minutes and sometimes twenty. This didn’t bother him. He liked feeling that he was running ahead of time. He took his shoulder bag, but instead of wearing his regular jeans, which he used for work too, he put on a striped shirt and wide cotton trousers. He checked his beard after shaving too, smelled his armpits after showering, and combed his short, strong hair, and suddenly it occurred to him, and he wasn’t even surprised, that he was getting ready for a blind date.
But he didn’t change the contents of his shoulder-bag. The usual pliers and screwdriver, he never left the house without them. Any repair or renovation, big or small, you began with them.
And there was also a thick notebook with a hard black cover in the shoulder bag, on whose first page, under the word ‘Diary’, the opening date was written in green ink, and after that nothing. And there was also a thin book published by the Open University in a soft cobalt blue cover, the color of his Subaru car, on the subject of quantum theory. The fate of the universe had been worrying him lately.
Equipped with all the above, he made for Talitha Kumi. The clock on the facade of Talitha Kumi said six-thirty. He compared it with his wrist-watch, which said six-forty. He trusted the Talitha Kumi clock, which left him enough time to duplicate a key for Haimke Levine’s daughter, who appeared in his imagination as a pale, fragile girl who spoke in a whisper and whose big soft eyes shyly caressed his face.
At about the time Yochanan was putting the finishing touches to his mental portrait of the girl he was going to meet next to Talitha Kumi, the man finished duplicating the key. Yochanan was pleased by this synchronization, it seemed to him like a vestige of some longed-for, harmonious world which had once existed but was now lost. It also held out promise for a successful meeting. He looked for a key-ring and found a gilt medallion with a picture of Madonna. He supposed that she would want Madonna. He himself detested Madonna. The duplication of the key cost him four shekels, the key-holder eight. This seemed exorbitant to him, and he almost bought one in the shape of a Dutch clog for four shekels, but at the last moment, for the sake of Haimke Levine, he decided to buy the medallion with Madonna nevertheless.
A wonderful feeling of generosity flooded him. He didn’t exactly know what to do with it. He dropped a whole shekel into the violin case of a street musician, and called up one of his two tenants, a new immigrant from Russia, and asked him what he could do to help him. The new imniigrant said: “Everything. Everything. Nye harasho.” Yochanan promised to come and see what he could do. Maybe that very evening. He knew, of course, that the faucets had to be fixed, but his experience as a landlord told him that if he didn’t do it, the tenant would. The tenant, however, who misunderstood the landlord’s good intentions, said something in Russian which sounded to Yochanan like a curse.
Yochanan thought that this was unfair. But he made up his mind not to let it spoil the rendezvous. He returned to the Talitha Kumi plaza. On his arm he carried a black anorak. As a native Tel Avivian he mistrusted the Jerusalem weather: suddenly in the middle of summer, especially here, you would be hit by a freezing wind. Even without a wind, it was September now, and September evenings in Jerusalem meant sweaters and anoraks.
Talitha Kumi is the place where everybody meets everybody, especially at this hour. The light took on a a kind of blueish hue ̶ he was always astounded by this color of light in Jerusalem, in the last ten minutes before darkness gathered. Perhaps they would be in time to meet inside the blue. Now he saw her as a Japanese silk doll. Deathly pallor worked well on his hormones. He was glad that he had been given the opportunity to discover this side of himself. Not only would he give her the gilded key-ring studded with glittering stones, he would show her the apartment and ask her what it lacked, and after she told him shyly what it lacked, he would say to her, casually: “At the landlord’s expense.”
He liked these thoughts. He wanted to cry. His ex-wife’s words still rang in his ears (“You only think of yourself”), and in view of all this abundance he was about to shower on his friend’s daughter, he was overwhelmed by a swelling surge of self-love. After a long time of dulling his mind with house renovations and apartment rentals, together with abstract concern for the fate of the universe ̶ he suddenly felt good, and he was almost happy.
The watch on his wrist said ten past seven. Another ten minutes at least, he said to himself. Maybe fifteen. He looked forward to a delightful hour, and in the meantime, in a kind of eagerness hitherto ahnost unknown to him to do something for others, he went up to a particularly vociferous group clamoring near the edge of the plaza, and suggested that they state their case quietly. One of them, holding a placard with the clenched fist of the Kach movement, bent down and roared into his face: “Are you for or against?”
Yochanan thought that the man was joking, but he was afraid to laugh. At a distance of a few steps from there a young man in a teeshirt and short trousers was standing and muttering: “No more war, no more bloodshed.”2 Yochanan wanted to tell them that now, when the world was abou .to collapse anyway, there was no point in worrying about trifles. Most of all he wanted to shout: “I’m happy! I’m happy!”
But the lout with the placard, puzzled by the mumbling of the weirdo ̶ who at this moment opened his arms as if to embrace the world ̶ lowered his heavy head with a roar:
“Are you for or against?”
The question was definitely unfair. Yochanan saw the dagger flash under the flapping shirt of the armed giant with the cobalt face who was threatening the world.
He thought of inviting him to discuss the problem over a cup of coffee in the Cafe Atara, but in view of the urgency of the matter, he immediately declared:
“I’m for or against.”
The clenched fist of his interrogator remained suspended in the air, enabling Yochanan to withdraw in a more or less orderly manner.
As he retreated, walking backwards, Yochanan admitted to himself that the Cobalt Man’s question had a certain justice, if not in its style then in its content. He had never completely made up his mind whether he was for or against anything. It seemed to him a little besides the point. For example, if he happened to bump into a high-school student with a murmuring voice and caressing eyes, he wouldn’t ask himself if he was for or against, he would simply die for her.
Dana, for instance.
At this moment he realized that he was imagining the kind-hearted Haimke’s daughter as a kind of double of the high-school student for whose sake he had almost thrown himself off the Shalom Tower. This moved him, and he couldn’t come up with any good reason to fight against this wild flight of his imagination. Somewhere deep in his heart he was always ready to forget his apartments and the alimony which had turned him unwillingly into a landlord with apartments to rent, and the never-ending worry about the imminent destruction of the world, which appeared to him in the form of a cobalt-colored booklet shooting out of his bag and exploding into a million scraps of coloured paper ̶ a real celebration! ̶ and to begin the adventure of his death from the beginning.
A few useful details about the life history of Yochanan Dvir:
Motherless from the age of six, a bookworm to the age of sixteen, fatherless from the age of sixteen, apprenticed to a renovations contractor from the age of sixteen, non-registered student in the departments of Jewish Mysticism and Business Administration at Tel Aviv University, a six-month course in Japanese flower arrangement, two years as a pilgrim at a temple in Nepal, whence he returns bearded, smiling, and silent, to work from the age of twenty-four at odd jobs, and between one job and the next to lie on his back and smile at the ceiling. Sometimes he announces, alone or among casual acquaintance, over a glass of beer, in response to urgent events: “It’s impossible to know anything.” in this manner ten years go by. At the age of thirty four he is pushed into marriage by two of his acquaintances, themselves married, who are unable to bear his provocative bachelorhood. From the age of thirty-nine divorced with a child. At this age, one day after his divorce, he bought a thick notebook with a hard cover and wrote under the word ‘DIARY’, printed in large letters: “Begun on the 15th of September 198 ̶ Yochanan Dvir.” The date was important, since it was his birthday. But Yochanan did not believe in horoscopes and the signs of the zodiac, and accordingly he did not see the date as having any significance beyond the date itself . Ever since then he had carried the notebook around with him wherever he went, in a special compartment in his shoulder-bag. Apart from the opening date he didn’t write a single word in the notebook. After his divorce, his wanderings, the death of his parents, and his first love, he was sure that he would have something to write in the diary. But when he sat down to write in it, everything seemed to him trivial, meaningless, and incomprehensible, and the notebook remained empty. Nevertheless he never stopped believing that one day he would find something to write in his diary. When he fell in love with the beautiful high-school student, who spoke to him ̶ her private tutor in mathematics ̶ in a soft voice and with a caressing look, he decided that this was the thing he had been waiting for, and everything assumed a tremendous significance. Her name was Dana. In his dreams she smoked his pipe (he had never smoked a pipe) which had a gigantic stem. He immediately understood that the sights of Nepal were intruding here and signalling to him: This is your bride. This is your betrothed. He almost began to write in the diary, but then the girl made it clear to him that she had a boyfriend, and that if he continued to harass her she would call the police, and he began to contemplate suicide. Yochanan was sure that there had been a misunderstanding here, that she was meant for him, and that it was only because of some fault or hitch in a dark corner among the stars ̶ of which he could know nothing because of the immanent uncertainty stemming from quantum thcory ̶ that it had not come off, and the little high-school student had exchanged him in her blind naivete for some stupid athletic boy who still had pimples on his face.
According to the same logic, Yochanan argued in his own favor, as he lay on his back for days at a time looking at the ceiling, it was possible that some other, opposite fault, a kind of anti-fault, in some other corner of the universe, would cancel them both out, and the girl would return to him as naturally as the sun returns to its course in the morning, and his life would be saved.
Equipped with these thoughts and a full measure of self-pity, he stood for hours in front of the Shalom Tower and counted the floors from top to bottom, without any intention of committing suicide, but full of gratitude to Haimke Levine who took his tears and threats seriously From the age of thirty-nine he worked as a renovations contractor, both because of the need to pay alimony for his son, whom he hardly ever saw, and because of the opportunities offered him by the Jerusalem building market, which began to boom with the mass immigration from Russia; but mainly because of an inner consciousness that Jerusalem was a place in which everything was still possible. He soon found himself with apartments to rent. He had an accounts book, also in a hard cover, in which he wrote down his income and expenditure at the end of the day, but he did not take this notebook with him in his shoulder-bag. He thought: if what he had heard a scientist saying on the radio was true, that it was enough for a butterfly in Kamchatka to flutter its wings in order to create a cyclone in the constellation of Sirius, then mixing up the two notebooks could be really dangerous.
Yochanan shook his arms as if they were crawling with vermin, but for safety’s sake he also sent a conciliatory wave in the direction of the lout, who had not yet recovered from his stupefaction.
The twilight blue dissolved into the cold neon lights of the evening, and Yochanan asked himself if he had done everything possible to be worthy of the frissons of delight awaiting him at the appointed hour. In the meantime he scratched his back between his shoulder-blades, where a kind of scabies had taken up permanent residence during one of his journeys. A cold wind descended on the plaza and went away again, and the crowds of people, of all races and ages, who momentarily raised their heads as if to see where the cold wind was coming from, immediately returned to their searches or their wares, jewellery and balloons, knitwear, missionary leaflets and prayer-books for the High Holidays; the violinist to his violin, the messiahs to their demented mutterings, and the quarrelers to their quarrels, and a rabble of faces and garments moved to and fro like sleepwalkers around the stone arch bearing the name of a young girl who had come back to life ̶ and they all looked as if they were searching for their blind date.
Yochanan put on his black anorak, which up to now he had been carrying over his arm, examined the way it lay over his white shirt with the brown stripes, and leaving the sleeves unbuttoned for an effect of careless grace, he looked at the Talitha Kumi clock and was shocked.
T’he clock still said half past six.
The anticipated frissons of delight gave way to confusion. On principle he was against confusion. And,so he resolutely exchanged the confusion for paternal concern. What had happened to the girl? His dear friend Haimke had entrusted her to his care, and now where was the girl? Irrelevantly he remembered that he hadn’t had any supper. He bought a hotdog for three shekels, demanded mustard, crammed half of it into his mouth with one bite, and immediately spat it out into the municipal litter bin, into which he also disgustedly threw what was left in his hand. There. In spite of his hunger, he had given up the hotdog. This seemed to him a worthy sacrifice. His watch said seven forty. How was he to tell if his watch was fast or slow? Suddenly he no longer trusted his watch. He wanted to swear, but he couldn’t find the right word, and so he ripped it furiously off his wrist, but he couldn’t bring himself to throw it away and he put it in his pocket instead. He asked someone who looked serious: “What’s the time?” “I’m not from here,” said the man. Another man asked Yochanan if the number 4 bus went to Kiryat Yovel. Yochanan, who believed in the supreme importance of maintaining your presence of mind under stress, expIained patiently that he could go to Kiryat Yovel with the 18, 20, or 27, and that the nearest bus stop was in Jaffa Street. But the man interrupted him with a dismissive gesture and said: “All I asked was if number 4 goes to Kiryat Yovel.”
Suddenly he had the distinct feeling that all the people here, waiting on the steps of the monument and milling around it, had been waiting and milling around since yesterday, since the day before yesterday, and maybe forever. And they had all missed their appointments because of this bloody Talitha Kumi clock, which had probably stopped two thousand years ago at least. In the grip of this defeatist thought, he turned to a pale young girl, who was sitting and writing from left to right on a letter pad, and asked her, after apologizing in two languages, what the time was. She said: “Eight o’clock.” In Hebrew.
Her voice was soft, something delicate and painful tightened her lips. For a moment he hoped that she was Dana. In the terrible pressure he felt in his guts, he was ready to compromise, and so he asked her if she was by any chance Dana Levine. She whistled a few words between her almost-closed lips, among which he identified one English word he know: “Asshole.”
A mumbling, bearded messiah-freak who was standing with his back to the big display windows of the Mashbir Letzarhan went on mechanicafly repeating, in a nasal American accent: “The last train, gentlemen. It’s not too late.” Only now, perhaps under the influence of the words of the mad, self-anointed messiah, Yochanan grasped his new position: that he was late. By a simple calculation, while he was duplicating the key, phoning his tenant and messing around with the morons from Kach, Dana had been looking for him. He was at least half an hour late. Dana had waited for him for half an hour and left. He dismissed out of hand the possibility that she had not recognized him ̶ in such cases your eyes met with the force of an electric shock. By a simple calculation, the cold wind had descended on the plaza at exactly half past seven, and that was supposed to be the niinute at which it would happen. I’m thinking like a madman, thought Yochanan. He immediately formed a two-pronged plan. One: call Haimke ̶ Dana had undoubtely phoned him to tell him what had happened. And if the first move failed, then the second came into operation: he would go to the apartment in Abulafia Street, within spitting distance, and there ̶ he could see the picture in front of his eyes ̶ she walks past the entrance, lingers for a moment, and her big eyes caress the iron door, and she rings the bell, and listens, and when nobody answers she leans against the doorpost and waits.
He inserted ten tokens, anticipating a long conversation with his Tel Aviv friend. There was no reply. He proceeded immediately to the second move. But half-way there, as he crossed Mesilat-Yesharim Street, he remembered that he hadr’t retrieved the telephone tokens. He decided not to make an issue out of it and to continue on his way. But in the narrow alley, Avi, a skinny youth with a stealthy step, known in the quarter as something between a thief and a junkie, barred his way. Avi’s mother was sitting on the steps of the Hagoral synagogue, holding a chicken in her lap and stroking it. She always sat on the same step with a chicken in her lap. in the quarter they said that she saw everything, but she had one eye stuck together permanently shut. Her son, Avi, stood barring the way with his legs wide apart, and took a deep drag from his cigarette. The alley was narrow, barely one and a half metres wide, and it was impossible to pass without pushing up against him.
“I’ve got somebody for you.”
His voice was menacing.
“Thank you. I’ve already got someone,” said Yochanan.
“A girl, right?”
“How do you know.”
His heart was full of foreboding.
“There was some female here,” said Avi. “Don’t worry. I’ll give you a girl you can rely on, just right for you. Two hundred, maybe two hundred and fifty ̶ what the hell’s the matter with you!”
Yochanan charged forward, almost knocking him over. He ran, but immediately slowed down. He rang the bell and knocked on the door of his house, as if Dana were inside. But Dana wasn’t even outside.
He went up to his apartment. For a moment he wondered why Dana wasn’t there. Then he wondered at his wonder. In the meantime he promised himself that even if she wasn’t there, she would come back, of that there could be no doubt. After all, she belonged here.
The thought that Dana belonged here and that she would therefore simply return here, was so pleasing to him that he awarded himself a laugh in front of the mirror, rubbed his teeth with his finger and smelled it, and in order to give full expression to the feeling of relief he stretched his arms out to the empty room and yawned a deep yawn. And then he was seized by a terrible panic.
Maybe something had happened to her!
Yochanan Dvir found himself at this hour, inside his house, in a state of total uncertainty as to where to go and what to do, but with the clear knowledge that he had to do something, come what may. This being the case, he took his accounts book and began to write down his expenditures for the day: duplication of key 3 shekels, keyring for Dana Levine 8 shekels, hotdog, telephone calls ̶
A police car, or maybe an ambulance, drove past with a wail, right under his window. The situation seemed urgent, even threatening, but on no account could he clarify to himself where things had gone wrong. The Talitha Kumi clock appeared before him, confident and eternal, its hands on six-thirty. He tried to phone Haimke and found the line dead. it must have been that junkie Avi who had cut the line. The neighbourhood boss. Skinny as a dried fig, and lording it over everybody like a rooster. He had to phone the police, but the phone was dead.
Yochanan resolutely dismissed the idea that everyone had conspired against him. The effort he invested in this refusal made him sweat, especially in his armpits. He smelled his armpits. The smell wasn’t so bad, but nevertheless he sprayed himself with a deodorant. He liked &-odorants that smelled of tobacco. He liked his body. He still saw himself going to keep his appointment with Dana. He drew encouragement from his short, hard haircut, and decided to act with presence of mind.
And immediately, as if he had gone beserk, he began to run. In his catastrophe-haunted heart he immediately connected the nervous wailing of the police cars and ambulances arriving from the direction of the Talitha Kumi plaza with the inevitable death of Dana, hope of his life. As he ran he tried to connect his permanent anxiety about the collapse of the universe with the death of Dana, but they wouldn’t connect. The little pimp with his eternal cigarette barred his way, this time facing the opposite direction. Yochanan decided that with the wailing of the sirens in the background and Dana hovering between life and death it wouldr’t be so terrible if he knocked the little bastard out of his way. He did it. “I don’t believe it,” he said to himself in surprise. “I dor’t believe that I did it.” Judging by the squawking of the chicken, Yochanan guessed that the little pimp had rolled onto his mother.
But Yochanar’s heart was already elsewhere. His Dana lay dying on the Mashbir plaza, at the feet of the Talitha Kumi archway, covered with a blanket, and they were already pulling a stretcher out of one of the ambulances. He heard shouts: “Kill them, They work for Jews and come at you with knives.” He crossed knots of people, shouts, wailing sirens. He sensed huge powers in himself. Policemen grabbed him and he eluded them, and fell on the body. He tore the blanket off the body and lay down on it full length and shouted ‘Kumi, get up, Dana my soul, get up, Dana my heart – ”
That was as far as he got. The policemen grabbed hold of him and dragged him behind the arch of Talitha Kumi and seated him on the concrete step.
Someone brought water.
Yochanan rejected the water. The sweat was pouring off him. A policeman wiped the blood off his face.
“Take it easy,” said the policeman. “Is this yours?”
Yochanan nodded and the policeman hung the shoulder bag on his shoulder.
“Are you related to her?”
“She’s my brother’s daughter.”
“What’s your brother’s name?”
His answers were lucid. He didn’t look anywhere. He knew that all in all he was the hero of a tragedy and the victim of a great love, and decided to act accordingly.
“What’s your name?”
“How do you know that she’s your brother’s daughter?”
“That’s an idiotic question,” said Yochanan.
The policeman put the side of this hand in position for a dry chop. But another policeman intervened:
“Leave him alone. Can’t you see? The guy’s in shock.”
“What’s her name?”
“Dana. Dana Levine.”
The second policeman, the one who had spoken before, rummaged in a small denim knapsack and pulled out a document that looked like a passport. He paged through the passport and showed Yochanan the photo.
“Do you know this woman?”
“No,” said Yochanan.
“Her name’s Sandra Lee, Arkansas, USA. Is that your brother’s daughter?” asked the policeman.
“No. But. . .” said Yochanan, “it’s not too late.”
He stretched out his finger and pointed it at the level of their eyes. The second policeman exchanged a glance with the interrogating policeman.
“You can go,” said the interrogating policeman.
Yochanan felt slighted at not having been taken in for more serious questioning. What could you expect from policemen who saw the world through the nickel of their police badges? There had been a big mistake here, of that there was no doubt. A colossal mistake in his opinion, but completely comprehensible. If they had given him a chance he would have opened their eyes to see that there was something more, something else, more than the human eye could see, and that it was an everyday matter. Yochanar’s mind, which had in a certain sense been clouded, but in another sense been granted clarity, immediately connected everything with the great imminent collapse, when the bodies racing toward nothingness, toward the gathering darkness, would open up to each other like lovers at the hour of their last farewell. What’s the wonder that my Dana, Dana my soul, came back to life.
Pityingly he now looked at the two ignorant policeman, who didn’t understand what they saw. One thing was absolutely clear: as long as he waited for his Dana, as long as he waited for his Dana, his Dana was alive.
These are good thoughts, said Yochanan to himself. He went up to the battery of public telephones to call Haimke, but remembered that he had no tokens left, and turned round to go home. His whole body hurt, but the sacrifice was worth it. Even if he never saw Dana as long as he lived, he had done his bit. At the same time, however, he wasn’t sure if the cosmic forces which had assisted hirn to bring Dana back to life would be enough to protect him from the swift knife of the little pimp, who was presumably lying in wait for him in the alley. Accordingly he made a detour round the quarter via Agrippas Street and approached his house from the rear, stealthily, and immediately phoned Haimke.
He was sure that Haimke knew everything. The hand which had previously cut the line had now repaired it. Haimke was on the line.
“Listen, Yochanan. It’s a good thing you phoned. Danka’s found something else. A friend of hers has rented a two-room apartment and she’s going to share it with her. Not far from you, by the way, in Bezalel Street.”
“But…..” said Yochanan in bewilderment. ‘She. You know. That’s to say..”
“Yes. Of course. She came to tell you. You sound … is anything wrong?”
“Then bye for now. Drop in some time.”
Yochanan leant on the table. He was very tired. And now he also felt a pressure at the base of his head, where it joined his neck. This he imagined was where the plug connecting all the positive cosmic forces was situated. He felt exhausted. He wasn’t sure that he would be able to play his role in maintaining the system. He needed concrete proof Accordingly he phoned his Russian tenant and the moment he heard the word ‘faucets’ he went for him and told him not to expect any refunds or repairs from him: “Listen here” ̶ he yelled at him – “you fix those faucets yourself. I’m telling you. Everyone has to do his bit, and that’s that.”
What he said sounded to him barbaric. But completely justified. It was high time they learnt Hebrew.
He went into the bathroom and tested the hot water. There was hot water. He left the faucet open. He liked seeing the steam rising from the hot water. As he pulled off his anorak and kicked off his sandals, he reviewed his day with detached interest, like a person examining someone else’s clothes. He vaguely remembered the clock set into the stone arch of Talitha Kumi. The clock said half past six. Why half past six, for God’s sake?
“Here’s something to open the diary with,” he said to himself.
In the meantime he got into the bath.
“It can wait till tomorrow,” he said to himself.
*The story is published in cooperation with The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature.
It was the first Michael had heard of the girl. His housekeeper was telling him about her: she claimed— Mandy did—that there was no father. She lived in the neighboring village of W. The housekeeper laughed, Michael sighed. As if it wasn’t enough that church attendance was way down, that the old people sent him away when he tried to visit them in their home, and the children cheeked him in Sunday school. It was all Communism, he said, or the aftereffects of it. Ach, nonsense, said the housekeeper, it was never any different. Did he know the large sugar-beet field on the road to W.? There was a sort of island in the middle of it. A clump of trees had been left standing by the farmer. Since forever, she said. And that’s where he has assignations with a woman. What woman? asked Michael. What farmer? The one who’s there, and his father before him, and his grandfather before that. All of them. Since forever. We’re only human, after all, them and me. Each of us has his needs.
Michael sighed. He had been the minister here since spring, but he hadn’t got any closer to his flock. He came from the mountains, where everything was different: the people, the landscape, and the sky, which here was so infinitely wide and remote.
She claims she’s never been with a man, said the housekeeper, the baby must be a gift from God. That Mandy girl, she said, was the daughter of Gregor who works for the bus company. The little fat driver. He gave her a good spanking, she was black and blue all over. And now the whole village is scratching its head over who the father might be. There aren’t a lot of men living there who are candidates. Maybe it was Marco the landlord. Ora passing tramp. She’s no oil painting, you know. But you take what you can get. That Mandy, she’s not the brightest either, said the housekeeper: maybe she didn’t realize. Up on the ladder picking cherries. All right, all right, said Michael.
Mandy came to the vicarage while Michael was eating lunch. The housekeeper brought her in, and he asked her to sit down and talk to him. She just sat there with downcast eyes and didn’t speak. She smelled of soap. Michael ate, and kept sneaking looks at the young woman. She wasn’t pretty, but she wasn’t ugly either. Perhaps she would turn to fat later. Now she was plump. She’s blooming, thought Michael. And he sneaked a look at her belly and her big breasts, very prominent under the rather garish sweater. He didn’t know if it was pregnancy or food. Then the young woman looked at him and immediately lowered her eyes, and he pushed away his half-eaten lunch and stood up. Let’s go out in the garden.
The year was far along. The leaves were turning on the trees. The morning had been misty, now the sun was trying to break through. Michael and Mandy walked together in the garden. Your Reverence, she said, and he, No, please just call me Michael, and I’ll call you Mandy. So she didn’t know who the father was? There was no father, said Mandy, I never . . . She stopped. Michael sighed. Sixteen, eighteen, he thought, no older than that. My dear child, he said, it’s a sin, but God will forgive you. Thus saith the Lord God of Israel: Every bottle shall be filled with wine!
Mandy tore a leaf off the old linden tree where they had come to a stop, and Michael said, Do you know how it is when a man lies with a woman? You mean, with the peter, said Mandy, and she blushed and looked down. Perhaps it was in her sleep, thought Michael, apparently such things happen. They had studied it in school, Mandy added, and quickly: Erection, coitus, and rhythm method. All right, all right, said Michael, school. That was the upshot of having so many Communists still sitting on school boards.
Holy mother of God, said Mandy, I’ve never… All right, all right, said Michael, and then, with sudden vehemence, Well, where do you think the baby’s come from then? Do you think it’s a gift from God? Yes, said Mandy. He sent her home.
On Sunday, Michael saw Mandy among the few who were at the service. If he remembered correctly, she had never been before. She was wearing a simple dress in dark green, and now he could see her condition plainly. She should be ashamed of herself, said the housekeeper.
Mandy was all at sea. Michael could see her craning around. When the others sang, she didn’t. And when she came forward at the end to receive Communion, he had to tell her, Open your mouth.
Michael spoke about steadiness in adversity. Frau Schmidt, who was always there, read the lesson with a quiet but firm voice. See that ye refuse not him that speaketh. For if they escaped not who refused him that spake on earth: be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.
Michael had kept his eyes closed during the reading, and he felt he could almost see the angel who came to visit men, an angel that had Mandy’s face, and whose belly in its white robes bulged like Mandy’s in her dress. Suddenly it got very quiet in the church. Michael opened his eyes and saw that everyone was looking at him expectantly. Then he said: We can speak with confidence. The Lord is my helper, and I will not fear what man shall do unto me.
After the service was over, Michael hurried over to the door to see out his old biddies. He had shut the door behind the last of them when he saw that Mandy was kneeling at the altar. He went up to her and laid his hand on her head. She looked at him, and he saw she had tears running down her cheeks. Come, he said, and he led her out of the church and across the road to the cemetery. Look at all these people, he said, they were all sinners: but God took them to Himself, and He will forgive you your sins as well. I am full of sin, said Mandy, but I have never been with a man. All right, all right, said Michael, and he touched Mandy’s shoulder with his hand.
But when he touched Mandy, it was as though his heart and his whole body were filling with a joy he had never felt in his life, and he shrank back, as though he had burned himself. And if it’s true? he thought.
And if it’s true? he thought that afternoon, as he walked down the road to the next village. The sun was shining and the sky was wide and cloudless. Michael felt tired after lunch, but his heart was still filled with the joy that had flowed from Mandy’s body into his own: and if it’s true?
He often walked to one of the other villages on a Sunday afternoon, striding quickly down the tree-lined roads in rain or shine. But on that day he had an objective. He had called the doctor who lived there, a man by the name of Klaus, and asked if he might talk to him: no, he couldn’t tell him what about.
Dr. Klaus was a local man, the son and grandson of farmers. He knew everyone and everything, and the word was that in an emergency, he would treat sick animals as well. He lived alone in a big house in W., following the death of his wife. He said if Michael promised to keep God out of it, he was welcome and might come. He was an atheist, said the doctor, no, not even an atheist, he believed in nothing, not even that there was no God. He was a man of science, not faith. A Communist, thought Michael, and he said, All right, all right, and suppressed a yawn.
The doctor served schnapps, and because Michael had a question, he drank the schnapps, drank it in one swallow, and then another glass that Dr. Klaus poured him. Mandy, said Michael, whether… and… He was sweating. She claimed her baby wasn’t the outcome of union with a man, that she had never, no, that no man had known… My God: you know what I’m trying to say. The doctor emptied his glass and asked whether Michael meant the Lord had a hand in the business, or maybe a peter. Michael stared at him with an empty, despairing expression. He drank the schnapps the doctor had poured him, and stood up. The hymen, he said quietly, almost inaudibly, the hymen. That would be a miracle, said the doctor, and here in our midst. He laughed. Michael excused himself. I am a man of science, said the doctor, you are a man of faith. Let’s not mix things up. I know what I know; you believe whatever you like.
On his way back, Michael was sweating still more pro- fusely. He grew dizzy. Blood pressure, he thought. He sat down on the grassy edge of a large beet field. The beets had already been harvested and were lying in long heaps along the road. In the distance he could see a strip of woodland, and in the middle of the enormous field was the little island that his housekeeper had spoken of, a few trees sprouting from the dark earth.
Michael stood up and took a step into the field, and then another one. He walked toward the island. The damp soil clung to his boots in great clumps, and he stumbled, reeled, walking was difficult. Be of good heart, he thought, howbeit we must be cast upon a certain island. He walked on.
Once he heard a car drive past on the road. He didn’t look around. He crossed the field, step by step, and finally the trees came nearer and he was there, and it really was like an island: the furrows of plowed land had divided and opened, as if an island had erupted from the land, and torn the soil aside like a curtain. This island was maybe half a yard in elevation. At its edge grew some grass, beyond was shrubbery. Michael broke a twig off one of the bushes and scraped some of the earth off his soles. Then he walked around the island on the narrow strip of grass. In one place there was a gap in the vegetation, and he climbed through it and got to a small clearing under the trees. The tall grass was trampled down, and there were a couple of empty bottles.
Michael looked up: between the tops of the trees he could see the sky, it seemed not so high as over the field. It was very quiet. The air was warm, even though the sun was far gone to the west. Michael took off his jacket and dropped it on the grass. Then, without really knowing what he was doing, he unbuttoned his shirt and took it off, and then his undershirt, his shoes, his pants, his shorts, and last of all his socks. He took off his wrist-watch and dropped it on the pile of clothes, and then his glasses and the ring his mother had given him for protection. And stood there the way God had made him: as naked as a sign.
Michael looked up at the sky. He had never felt more connected to it. He lifted his arms aloft, then he felt the dizziness of a moment before, and he toppled forward onto his knees, and knelt there, naked with upraised arms. He began singing, softly and with a cracked voice, but it wasn’t enough. And so he screamed, screamed as loudly as he could, because he knew that out here only God could hear him, and that God heard him and was looking down at him.
As he walked back home across the field, he thought about Mandy, and she was very near to him, as though she was in him. So he thought, without knowing it, I have given shelter to an angel.
Back in the vicarage, Michael went straight to the old sideboard, and got out a bottle of schnapps that a farmer had given him after the burial of his wife, and poured himself a little glassful and then a second. Then he lay down, and only woke when the housekeeper called him down to supper. He had a headache.
And what if it’s true? he said as the housekeeper brought in supper. What if what’s true? Mandy. If she’s conceived. By whom? Is not this land also a desert? said Michael. How do we know that He doesn’t direct His gaze here, and that this child has found favor in His eyes, this Mandy? The housekeeper shook her head angrily: Her father’s a bus driver. Well wasn’t Joseph a carpenter? But that was a long time ago. Didn’t she believe that God was still alive and in our midst? And that Jesus will return? Sure. But not here. What’s special about Mandy? She’s nothing. She works in the restaurant in W., she helps out.
With God nothing shall be impossible, said Michael, and verily, I say unto you, that the publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you. The housekeeper made a face and disappeared into the kitchen. Michael had never managed to persuade her to eat with him: she had always said she didn’t want there to be talk in the village. Talk about what? We’re only human, she
said then, we all have our needs.
After supper Michael went out again. He walked down the street, and the dogs in the yards barked like crazy, and Michael thought, You would do better to trust in God than in your dogs. That was the Communists’ doing: he should have talked them around, but he hadn’t done it. There were no more people in the church now than in the spring, and you could hear of immorality and drunkenness every day.
Michael went into the retirement home and asked for Frau Schmidt, who read the lesson every week. If she’s still awake, said Ulla, the nurse, unwillingly, and disappeared. A Communist, thought Michael, bound to be. He could tell, he knew what they thought when they saw him. And then, when someone passed away, they called him anyway. So that he gets a decent funeral, Ulla had said once, when he was required to bury a man who hadn’t been inside a church in his life.
Frau Schmidt was still awake. She was sitting in her comfy chair watching Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Michael shook her hand, Good evening, Frau Schmidt. He pulled up a chair and sat down beside her. She had read nicely, he said, and he wanted to thank her for it again. Frau Schmidt nodded from the waist. Michael took a small leather-bound Bible from his pocket. Today I’d like to read you something, he said. And while the TV quiz host asked which city was destroyed by a volcanic eruption in 79 A.D., Troy, Sodom, Pompeii, or Babylon, Michael read aloud, and steadily more loudly. There shall come in the last days scoffers, walking after their own lusts, and saying, Where is the promise of his coming? for since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as from the beginning of the creation. But, beloved, be not ignorant of this one thing, that one day with the Lord is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.
And he read, the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, and the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up.
All the while Michael read, the old woman nodded: she rocked back and forth, as if her whole body were one great yes. Then finally she spoke, and said, It’s not Sodom, and it’s not Babylon. Is it Troy?
The day is perhaps closer than we imagine, said Michael. But no one will know. I don’t know, said Frau Schmidt. He will come like a thief in the night, said Michael, standing up. Troy, said Frau Schmidt. He shook her hand. She didn’t say anything, and didn’t look when he left the room. Pompeii, said the quiz host. Pompeii, said Frau Schmidt.
No one will know it, thought Michael as he went home. The dogs of the Communists were barking, and once he bent down to pick up a stone and hurled it against a wooden gate. That made the dog behind bark still more loudly, and Michael hurried on, so that no one would spot him. He didn’t go back to the rectory, though, he walked out of the village.
It was half an hour to W. A single car passed him. He saw the beam of the headlights a long way ahead, and hid behind one of the trees lining the road until it was safely past. The island was nothing but a dark stain in the gray field, and it seemed to be closer than during the day. The stars were glittering: it had turned cold.
There was no one on the streets in W. The lights were on in the houses, and there was a single streetlamp at a crossroads. Michael knew where Mandy lived. He stopped at the garden gate and looked at the small single-story house. He saw shadows moving in the kitchen. It looked like someone was doing the dishes. Michael felt his heart grow warmer. He leaned against the gate. Then he heard breathing very close by, and suddenly a loud, yelping bark. He jumped back and ran off. He wasn’t a hundred yards away when the door of the house opened, and the beam of a flashlight showed in the darkness, and a man’s voice shouted, Shut yer noise!
On one of the following days, Michael went to the restaurant in W., where his housekeeper had said Mandy was helping out. And so it proved.
The dining room was high-ceilinged. The walls were yellowed with cigarette smoke, the windows were blind, the furniture aged, and nothing went with anything else. There was no one there but Mandy, standing behind the bar as if she belonged there, with her hands on the counter. She smiled and lowered her gaze, and Michael had the sense of her face glowing in the gloomy room. He sat down at a table near the entrance. Mandy went over to him, he ordered tea, she disappeared. Please no one come, he thought to himself. Then Mandy came back with his tea. Michael added sugar and stirred. Mandy was still standing beside the table. An angel at my side, thought Michael. He took a hurried sip and burned his mouth. And then, not looking at Mandy, nor she looking at him, he spoke.
But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only. But as the days of Noah were, so shall also the coming of the Son of man be. For as in the days that were before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the flood came, and took them all away; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.
Only now did Michael look at Mandy, and he saw that she was crying. Fear not, he said. Then he stood up and laid his hand on Mandy’s head, and then he hesitated, and placed his other hand on her belly. Will it be called Jesus? Mandy asked softly. Michael was taken aback. He hadn’t considered that. The wind bloweth where it listeth, he said, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth.
Then he gave Mandy the little manual for young women and expectant mothers that the church provides, and from which he drew all his understanding, and he said Mandy should come to instruction, and to service, that was the most important thing, she had plenty to catch up on.
Months passed. Autumn gave way to winter, the first snows fell and covered everything, the villages, the forest, and the fields. Winter stretched out over the land, and the acrid smell of woodsmoke hung heavy over the streets.
Michael went on long walks over the countryside, he went from village to village, and he went again across the large sugar-beet field, that was now frozen, to the island. Once again he stood there and raised his arms aloft. But the trees had lost their leaves, and the sky was distant. Michael waited for a sign. None came: there was no new star in the sky, no angel on the field to talk to him, no king and no shepherd and no sheep. Then he felt ashamed and thought, I am not chosen. She, Mandy, will receive the signal, it is to her the angel will appear.
Mandy was now coming in from W. on her moped every Wednesday to class, and every Sunday to church. Her belly was growing, but her face was growing thinner and pale. After service she stayed behind in church until everyone was gone, and then she sat with Michael in one of the pews, speaking quietly. Her baby was due in February, she said. If only it had been Christmas, thought Michael, if only it had been Easter. But Christ- mas was soon, while Easter was the end of March: they would see.
Then the housekeeper put her head through the door, and asked if the minister proposed to eat his lunch today. All the trouble she went to, she said, and not a word of praise, nothing, and then he left half of it. Michael said Mandy should stay for lunch, there was enough for two. For three, he added, and both smiled shyly. Why don’t we just open a restaurant, said the housekeeper, laying a second setting. She banged the plates down on the table and stalked off without a word, and certainly without wishing them Bon appétit.
Mandy said her father was tormenting her, he in- sisted on knowing who the father was, and he went into a rage when she said it was Almighty God. No, he didn’t beat her. Only slaps, she said, her mother as well. She wanted to leave home. They both ate in silence. Michael very little, Mandy twice helping herself to more. Do you like it? he asked. She nodded and blushed. Then he said, why didn’t she live here in the rectory, there was room enough. Mandy looked at him timidly.
You can’t do that, said the housekeeper. Michael said nothing. If you do that, I’m out of here, said the housekeeper. Still Michael said nothing. He crossed his arms. He thought of Bethlehem. Not this time, he thought. And the thought gave him strength. I’m moving out, said the housekeeper, and Michael nodded slowly. So much the better, he thought: he had already concluded that this housekeeper had been a Communist, and who knows what besides. Because she always said she was only human, and because her name was Carola, which was a heathen name. He had heard the stories about her and his predecessor, a married man. In the sacristy, they said, among other things. That woman had nothing to say to him. She least of all. And she wasn’t even a good cook.
The housekeeper disappeared into the kitchen, and then she left the house, because it wasn’t right and it wasn’t proper. And Mandy moved in: she was the new housekeeper, that was the agreement worked out with her parents. She was even paid. But Mandy was already in her fifth month, and her belly was so big that she snorted like a cow when she went up the stairs, and Michael was afraid something might happen to the baby one day when she lugged the heavy carpets out to beat them.
Michael was just returning from one of his walks when he saw Mandy beating the carpets in front of the vicarage. He said she ought to take it easy, and carried the carpets back into the house himself, even if it was almost more than he could do: his body wasn’t very strong. Everything has to be clean by Christmas, said Mandy. That pleased Michael, and seemed to him to be a good sign. Other than that he hadn’t found much evidence of faith, even if she liked to swear Holy Mother of God, and was firmly convinced that her baby was a baby Jesus, as she put it. She did say she was Protestant. But not so very much. Michael was in doubt. He felt ashamed of his doubts, but there they were, poisoning his love and his belief.
From now on, Michael did all the housework himself. Mandy cooked for him, and they ate together in the dark dining room, without speaking much. Michael worked far into the evenings. He read his Bible, and when he heard Mandy come out of the bathroom, he waited for five minutes, he was no longer able to work, that’s how excited he was. Then he knocked on the door of Mandy’s room, and she called, Come in, come in. There she was, already in bed, with her hand on her brow, or else on the blanket, over her belly.
On one occasion he asked her about her dreams: after all, he was waiting for a sign. But Mandy didn’t dream. She slept deeply and solidly, she said. So he asked her if she really hadn’t ever had a boyfriend or anything, and if she’d ever found blood on her sheets. Not during your period, he said, and he felt very peculiar, talking to her like that. If she is the new mother of God, then what sort of figure will I cut, he thought. Mandy didn’t reply. She cried, and said, didn’t he believe her? He laid his hand on the blanket and his eyes got moist. We should be called the children of God, he said, therefore the world knoweth us not, because it knew Him not. What Him? asked Mandy.
Once she pushed the blankets back and lay before him in her thin nightie. Michael had had his hand on the blanket, and then he raised it up, and now it was hovering in the air over Mandy’s belly. It’s moving, said Mandy, and she took his hand with both of hers and pulled it down so that it pressed against herbelly, and Michaelcouldn’t raise his hand, it lay there for a long time, heavy and sinful.
Christmas came and went. On Christmas Eve, Mandy went to her parents, but the next day she was back again. There were not many people in church. In the village there was talk about Michael and Mandy, letters had been written to the bishop, and letters were written back from the bishop. A call had gone out, and a representative of the bishop had traveled to the village on a Sunday, and had sat with Michael and spoken with him. On that day, Mandy had eaten in the kitchen. She was very excited, but when the visitor left, Michael said everything was fine: the bishop knew there was a lot of bad blood in the district, and that some old Communists were still fighting against the church, and sowing division.
With the passing of time, the baby grew, and Mandy’s belly got ever bigger, long after Michael thought it couldn’t possibly. As if it wasn’t part of her body. And so Michael laid his hand on the growing baby, and felt happiness.
The terrible thing happened when Michael went off on one of his afternoon walks. He realized he had left his book at home. He turned back, and half an hour later had returned. He quietly let himself into the house and tiptoed up the stairs. Mandy often slept in the daytime now, and if that was the case now, he didn’t want to wake her. But when he stepped into his room, Mandy was standing there naked: she was standing in front of the large mirror in the door of the wardrobe. And she was looking at herself from the side, and so confronted Michael, who could see everything. Mandy had heard him coming and had turned to face him, and they looked at each other, just exactly as they were.
What are you doing in my room? asked Michael. And he hoped Mandy would cover her nakedness with her hands, but she did not. Her hands hung at her sides like the leaves of a tree, barely stirring. She said she had no mirror in her room, and she had wanted to see this belly she had grown. Michael approached Mandy, so as not to have to look at her anymore. Then his hands touched her hands, and then he thought about nothing at all, because he was with Mandy, and she was with him. And so it was that Michael’s hand lay there, as if it had been newly brought forth: an animal from out of that wound.
Then Michael did sleep, and when he awakened, he thought, my God, what have I done. He lay there curled in bed, and with his hand covered his sin, which was great. Mandy’s blood was her witness and his proof, and he was surprised that the elements did not melt with fervent heat, or the heavens pass away with a great noise: to slay him and punish him with lightning or some other event. But this did not transpire.
Nor did the heavens open when Michael hurried along the street on the way to W. He was on his way to the island in the field, and he walked rapidly and with stumbling steps across the frozen furrows. Mandy had been asleep when he left the house, Mandy, whom he had taken in and to whom he had offered the hospitality of his house.
He reached the island and sat down in the snow. He could not stand any longer, so tired was he and so sad and lost. He would stay there and never leave. Let them find him, the farmer and the woman when they came here in spring to commit adultery.
It was cold and getting dark. Then it was night. Michael was still sitting on his island in the snow. The damp soaked through his coat, and he shivered and felt chilled to the bone. Let us not love one another with words, he thought, nor with speech. But with deeds. So God had led him to Mandy, and Mandy to him: that they might love one another. For she was not a child, she was eighteen or nineteen. And was it not written that no one should know? Was it not written that the day would come like a thief? So Michael thought: I cannot know. And if it was God’s will that she conceive His child, then it was also His will that she had received him: for was he not God’s work and creature?
Through the trees Michael could see only a few scattered stars. But when he left their cover and stepped out onto the field, he saw all the stars that can be seen on a cold night, and for the first time since he had come here, he was not afraid of this sky. And he was glad that the sky was so distant, and that he himself was so small on this endless field. So distant that even God had to take a second look to see him.
Soon he was back in the village. The dogs barked, and Michael threw stones at the gates and barked himself, and aped the dogs, their stupid yapping and howling, and he laughed when the dogs were beside themselves with rage and fury: and he was beside himself just as much.
In the vicarage the lights were on, and as soon as Michael stepped inside, he could smell the dinner that Mandy had cooked. And as he took off his sodden boots and his heavy coat, she stepped out into the kitchen doorway and looked anxiously at him. It had gotten cold, he said, and she said dinner was ready. Then Michael stepped up to Mandy, and he kissed her on the mouth, as she smiled up at him. Over supper they discussed one possible name for the baby, and then another one. And when it was bedtime they squeezed each other’s hands, and each went to their own room.
As it got colder and colder in January, and it was almost impossible to heat the old vicarage, Mandy moved one evening from the guest bedroom into the warmer room of the master of the house. She carried her blanket in front of her, and lay down beside Michael as he moved aside, without a word. And that night, and in all the nights to come, they lay in one bed, and so learned to know and to love one another better. And Michael saw everything, and Mandy was not ashamed.
But was it a sin? Who could know. And hadn’t Mandy’s own blood affirmed that it was a child of God that was growing, a child of purity? Could there be anything impure about purity?
Even if Michael hadn’t thought it possible, his word reached the people and the Communists of the village. They were touched by the wonder that had occurred, and one couldn’t say how: for such people came to the door and knocked. They came without many words, and brought what they had. A neighbor brought a cake. She had been baking, she said, and it was no more trouble to bake two than one. And was Mandy doing all right?
On another day, Marco the publican came around and asked how far along they were. Michael invited him in, and called Mandy, and made tea in the kitchen. Then the three of them sat at the table and were silent, because they didn’t know what to say. Marco had brought along a bottle of cognac, and set it down in front of them. He knew full well, he said, that it wasn’t the right thing for a small baby, but maybe if it had a colic. Then he asked to have it explained to him, and when Michael did so, Marco looked at Mandy and her belly with disbelief. Was that certain? he asked, and Michael said no one knew, and no one could know. Because it was pretty unlikely, Marco said. He had picked up the cognac again, and was looking at the bottle. He seemed to hesitate, but then he put it back on the table, and said, three stars, that’s the best you can get hereabouts. Not the one I serve my customers. And he was a little confused, and he stood up and scratched his head. Back in the summer you rode pillion on my bike, he said, and he laughed, think of it. They’d gone bathing, the whole lot of them, in the lake outside F. Who’d have thought it.
When Marco left, Frau Schmidt was standing in the garden, with something she had knitted for the baby. With her was Nurse Ulla from the retirement home, whom Michael had suspected of being a Communist. But she was bringing something herself, a soft toy, and she wanted Mandy to touch her as well.
It was one after another. The table in the front room was covered with presents, and the cupboard housed a dozen or more bottles of schnapps. The children brought drawings of Mandy and the baby, and sometimes Michael was in the pictures too, and perhaps an ass or an ox as well.
Before long the people were coming from W. and the other villages, wanting to see the expectant mother, to ask her advice on this or that matter. And Mandy gave them advice and comfort, and sometimes she would lay her hand on the arm or the head of the people, without saying anything. She had become so earnest and still that even Michael seemed to see her anew. And did all that needed to be done. In the village, various quarrels were settled during these days, and even the dogs seemed to be less ferocious when Michael walked down the street, and on some houses the straw stars and Christmas wreaths were back up on the doors again, and in the windows, because the whole village was rejoicing, as though Christmas was yet to come. Everyone knew it, but no one said it.
One time, Dr. Klaus came to see that all was well. But when he knocked on the door, Michael did not welcome him in. He sat upstairs with Mandy, and they were quiet as two children, and peeked out of the window until they saw the doctor leaving.
The next day, Michael went to W. to see the doctor. He poured schnapps, and asked how things stood with Mandy. Michael didn’t touch the schnapps. He merely said everything was fine, and they didn’t need a doctor. And these stories that were making the rounds? He that is of the earth is earthly, and speaketh of the earth, said Michael. Be that as it may, said the doctor, the baby will be born on earth, and not in heaven. And if you need help, then call me, and I’ll come. Then they shook hands, and nothing more was said. Michael, though, went back to the retirement home in the village and spoke to Nurse Ulla. She had four children herself, and knew the ropes. And she promised him she would assist when the time came.
Then in February, the time came: the baby was born. Mandy was assisted by Michael, and by Nurse Ulla, whom he had called in. As word spread of the impending event, people gathered on the village streets to wait in silence. It was already dark when the baby was born, and Ulla stepped up to the window and held it aloft, that all might see it. And it was a girl.
Michael sat at Mandy’s bedside, holding her hand and looking at the baby. She’s no beauty, said Mandy, but that was more of a question. And Nurse Ulla asked the new mother where she meant to go with her baby, as she would no longer be able to run the minister’s household anymore. Then Michael said: He that hath the bride is the bridegroom. And he kissed Mandy in full view of the nurse. And she later told everyone of it: that he had given his word.
Because the child could not be called Jesus, they called it Sandra. And as the people in the village believed it had been born for them, they didn’t mind that it was a girl. And all were contented and rejoiced.
The following Sunday attendance at church was greater than it had been for a long time. Mandy and the babe sat in the front pew. The organ was playing, and after it had played, Michael climbed up to the pulpit and spoke as follows: Whether this is a child that has long been awaited in the world, we do not know, and may not know. For you yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night. But ye, brethren, are not in darkness. For they that sleep sleep in the night; and they that be drunken are drunken in the night. But let us, who are of the day, be sober.
That which is born of the flesh is flesh, said Michael, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. But we, be- loved, should be called the children of God.
*This story is taken from: Wir fliegen by Peter Stamm. © S. Fischer Verlag Frankfurt am Main 2008.
*Translation copyright©2012 by Michael Hofmann. Reprinted by permission by Other Press. All rights reserved.
Elli wouldn’t let me stop until we’d crossed the line into Utah. She was a nail in the passenger seat—rigid, sharp, her blue eyes darting back and forth between the speedometer and the double yellow lines. Dry rivers of makeup connected her eyes to her chin. Leon lay where I’d put him across the backseat. His chin was propped on a pile of Carlos Castaneda books. Strands of drool hung from the orange spines. His haunches trembled whenever we went over a bump. His glazed, suffering face was fixed on the back of Elli’s bare shoulder. We’d gotten most of the blood out of the slate-colored fur on his back but there were still flecks on his pale belly.
Route 89 flanked the scrub brush and dust of Nevada for thirty miles before turning north through Kanab. A half-empty bottle of Popov rattled in the cup holder. Elli lifted it by the neck. “We might need that,” I said. She paused, considering, and then sipped it anyway. Power lines, suspended from transformer towers, were strung across the sky as far as I could see. Probably they ran all the way down to Mexico, like bandits.
Kanab only had one gas station, a neat little Sinclair with a scrubbed forecourt and gleaming green pumps. I pulled in, parked. It hardly even smelled like gas, the air was so fresh. A pine forest came right up behind the store. “Home of the State Champion Lady Rams” read a banner on the window where the beer advertisements should’ve been. I put my foot on the concrete plinth beneath the pump, swiped my credit card, and lifted the nozzle from its holster.
Elli got out and stretched. Her long torso gave her a snaky, undulating look as she leaned right and left, her arms over her head, her bare feet on the pavement. She walked stiffly to the bathroom at the side of the store, rolling her neck. ‘Put some shoes on,’ I wanted to yell after her, but I knew she wouldn’t. She was free-spirited about germs, money, underwear, and directions. Everything else she worried about.
A clump of fur clung to the hem of her orange dress. One of the shoulder straps had fallen. It hovered above her elbow. Clothes had a way of slipping off her frame, unable to disguise the girl beneath. My shoulders ached from driving all day, and from carrying Leon.
She came out with a wad of wet paper towels, her face radiant with worry. She opened the Sentra’s dust-sprayed back door and started dabbing the fur around Leon’s wound. We’d doused it in vodka and bandaged it up as best we could with athletic tape and a clean t-shirt from my gym bag. The bullet had gone in through his hip. I wondered if it was a bad place for a coyote to get shot—if they kept any organs back there.
“He’ll be fixed up by this time tomorrow,” I said. “He’ll make it.”
Elli didn’t answer. She just kept dabbing. Her thin arms were surprisingly muscular. She didn’t work out, but she was tense all the time. Even in sleep she ground her teeth. Leon didn’t complain about her touching him. He never did; never growled, not so much as a snort. Elli put her cracked lips against Leon’s nose. Their eyes met.
A gust of wind came in from the north and I shivered as I replaced the nozzle. We were climbing into winter latitudes. “Montana,” she’d said, when I’d emerged from the canyon with Leon a bleeding bundle in my arms. She knew a vet there, a friend of her father’s. She’d seen him bring a shot wolf back from worse, apparently, and he wouldn’t report us to animal control.
“Everything okay out there?” the cashier asked, when I went in to buy some water and chapstick. She was prettier than most women who work in gas stations. Tan, with feather earrings and a mother’s worried smile.
I nodded, realizing there was blood dried on my shirt. “Spilled some coffee.”
Mountains began to break through the desert. Red ones first: mesas, buttes, hoodoos. I told Elli about the time my father took us to Zion. We stayed in a Travelodge in Hurricane. It had HBO, and my brother and I just wanted to stay in the room and watch. My dad got so angry that he broke the TV screen with his fist and we went home two days early. Elli traced triangles on the window with her finger as the yellow-brown landscape blurred by. She wasn’t listening. Her lips, wet now with chapstick, were pressed together. Freckles shone through the makeup carelessly dusted on her nose. She was beautiful in a wrung-out, haggard sort of way that I couldn’t get over.
Leon peed. It hissed onto the floor, soaking the carpet and empty Styrofoam cups under my seat. The sweet toxic vinegar stink made my eyes water.
Elli turned and watched him struggling to get out of his mess. He knocked two of the books off the seat. His paw flailed the air. His hind leg was soaked, the wet fur matted to the bone. Yellow drops slid down the plastic seat cover onto the floor. “It’s okay,” she said. “It’s okay.”
I rolled the windows down and let the dry air blast my face. We merged onto I-15: four wide lanes running north all the way to Butte. I kept my eyes away from the rearview mirror. In a day or two, three at most, I’d be back home, freshly showered, lying on my couch with a cold beer, watching women’s tennis. Brown grass grew through gravel in the median. Semis rattled as we passed them, spitting diesel from their dark underbellies.
An hour went by before Elli spoke. “He needs food,” she said.
“It’ll just make him shit,” I answered.
She looked at me like I was a half-squashed insect.
“I’m kidding,” I said. “C’mon.”
I took the Nephi exit and drove up and down the quiet Mormon streets, past rows of white clapboard houses with blue trim and lawns mowed down to a military stubble. There was a hardware store, a confectioner’s. I didn’t know what we were looking for. Leon liked to eat cats, and he liked to eat them when they were still alive. I suggested using catnip as chum to lure one into the car.
“It isn’t funny,” Elli said.
We found a shaded parking spot behind The Country Kitchen, between a dumpster and a waxed red Mustang, probably the manager’s—some kind of hotshot. I changed shirts, gathered the piss-soaked cups in the old one, and threw the whole mess into the dumpster. Elli cracked the windows. She opened the back door and promised Leon we’d be back soon. I came and stood beside her. I’d need new floor mats, maybe new seat covers. Her head barely crested my shoulder. If she ever left, it was the fresh coral smell of her scalp that would haunt me. “Be good,” she said, like he was her own son. “Stay.”
He lifted his head off the books, blinking. His amber eyes were wider than usual, glowing in the short white hair around them. His mouth was clamped shut. He was embarrassed, hurting. When he was happy, his mouth lolled open toothily.
Damn coyote. I reached out to touch his face. He whipped his jaws at my fingers, snapping.
“Goddammit.” I jerked my hand away. He’d bit me once, when he was just a pup, and I still had two small scars beneath my thumb. He was five times that size now. His incisors were a half-inch long and I’d seen what they could do to a cat’s skull. My ears rang. I wanted to hit him. I turned and walked quickly toward the restaurant.
Elli murmured to him, gently shut the door, and followed me inside.
The waitress led us to a booth in the corner. Each of her thighs was as wide as Elli. Her blue apron was stretched tight across her groin like a linebacker’s jock. I hoped the Mustang was hers. The vinyl covering the booth squeaked when I sat down. There were paper placemats and a cup of crayons. Elli looked out the window at a gray steeple knifing into the sky. Her blond hair was cut one length all around, at her chin. Her face was drawn and gray at the edges, marked by exhaustion, physically beat, but also lit by it, as if she were becoming more alive.
She ordered a cherry malt and a steak.
“You need food too,” I said.
“I’ll eat the potatoes.”
The steeple didn’t have a crucifix but it was a church, sure enough. I’d heard somewhere that you had to be a Mormon to go into a Mormon church. I wondered if that was true, and if so, what was inside. I drew Richard Nixon in green on my placemat—all glowering jowls.
The waitress brought the malt on a silver tray. A cloud of whipped cream floated on top. Elli gave it all of her attention. The tendons in her neck stretched tight as she worked the straw. The skin on her right shoulder was sunburned a deep red from the car window.
“Slow down,” I said. “Your brain will freeze.”
When the glass was empty, Elli folded the straw into a triangle. She filled the triangle with salt—a white pyramid. Dry blood was crusted around her nails.
“He tried to bite me,” I said.
She broke a grain of salt with her thumbnail. “He’s hurt and scared.”
“Well they’d kill him here. All these hunters.” I nodded at the empty street.
Country music was playing softly and the waitress snapped her fingers just once as she pushed through the swinging steel doors into the kitchen. My burger came out separated into components on the plate: lettuce, tomato, onion, bun—all lined up next to the patty. Elli watched me put it together and then she watched me eat. The steak in front of her was shaped like Nevada and just as barren. I could tell she was counting the seconds in her head—tick, tick, tick. The waitress was leaning on the counter by the pies, watching me too. I hardly chewed.
When the check came, Elli didn’t ask for a box. She just wrapped the steak in a paper napkin and carried it out, dripping, in her bare hand. I left a tip and followed her, smiling apologetically.
The air outside was sharp with the coppery smell of exhaust. Goosebumps rose on her bare arms. A drop of steak juice ran down her calf. It had been hot in Phoenix when we left. Now, dusk was settling over the Wasatch Mountains. The snowy ridges made a jagged pink EKG running north. I put my hand on her shoulder, feeling the bones.
“It was Rod,” she said, opening the back door. “I know it was.”
I shook my head. “There’s lots of people it could have been.”
“It was Rod.” She held the steak out to Leon. I told her to be careful, but it wasn’t necessary. He ate it gently, keeping his teeth away from her fingers. He nodded his head back after each bite, gulping down the meat. Juice clung to his whiskers. He glanced at me, smugly.
“Rod’s a fag,” I said. “They don’t have guns.”
Leon finished and licked Elli’s hands clean. “They have cats.”
“Had.” I laughed, despite myself.
Elli exhaled, long and slow, and I pictured myself as a chart inside her head. Two sides: good and bad, with scraps of conversation, things I’d done, memories, posted on either side. The bad side just kept filling up.
“I’m doing this for you, you know,” I said. “Skipping work, driving all this way. I mean, I care about Leon.”
“Do you?” she asked.
“Of course.” Anger warmed my chest. “But he’s a wild animal.”
She squeezed his skull, massaging the base of his ears. “So you’d let him die?”
“You know that’s not what I meant.” But maybe it was. He’d been trouble since the day we brought him home. He stank up our bed, gnawed the baseboard, shed everywhere. I’d find cat parts strewn around the yard: a paw wedged in the gate, innards on the tomato plants, a half-chewed skull on the welcome mat. He’d start to growl whenever I raised my voice at Elli.
He pressed his long bristly chin into her hands and licked her wrist. “We’re almost there, love,” she whispered. “Just a few more hours.”
I turned the heat on and we continued north. I held the needle at seventy-five for a while—I didn’t know what I’d say if a cop pulled us over—but Elli kept staring at me so I edged it up over eighty. The big empty plains closed around us until the only light was the wedge of the high beams. I was exhausted. My head hurt. The muscles in my thighs ached from climbing up and down the canyon walls, tripping in the dark. Leon had been well hidden in a dugout between two boulders. I’d found him and carried him out. Elli seemed to have forgotten that.
She sat with her feet up on the passenger seat, her arms wrapped around her shins, her thighs against her stomach. Her chin hovered above her knees. The dashboard lights shone hazy and green on her drawn face. Her left eye twitched, the pinched skin revealing the pattern of future wrinkles. We listened to the radio until it crackled and turned to static. I knew there were farmhouses and pastures not far off but it felt like the world could end and we wouldn’t know till morning.
Trying to stay awake, I pictured her naked. Right there in the passenger’s seat, like she was, except the dress and underwear gone. Her thin muscled arms wrapped around her knees. The skin over her ribs scratched and bruised from clambering through the canyon. Her body folded over itself, pressed together, the color of wheat.
I put my hand on her knee. I let it slide down to where I could feel the rough lace hem of her underwear. She shifted away from me, pushing down my hand and her dress.
Fine, I thought. Fine fine fine.
Salt Lake City was a ghost beneath the freeway: silent buildings forming the uneven steps of a skyline at night, the slow blink of airport lights. The temple, with its turrets and balustrade, looked like a lost castle, stranded on the wrong continent. An American flag hung motionless on a hilltop, lit from below.
Past city limits, the houses gave way to fields lined with huge crouching sprinklers. One of them was on, throwing arcs of mist into the night. Time sped up and skipped forward. I thought of the women I’d known, the places I’d been, bandits, wolves. The car was so warm. My head fell, then jerked upright.
“We have to stop,” I said. “Get some rest.”
We switched places at another gas station. The clerk watched us through the window, a toothpick rolling between his lips. He was black. Black in Utah. It couldn’t be easy. The motel next door was a long low twenty-roomer slung around a parking lot. ‘Thunderbird,’ read the blue neon sign. I knew the mattresses were probably thin with stained yellow sheets and sharp springs, but I didn’t care. I just wanted to stretch out. Leon’s eyes gleamed in the rearview mirror. Part of his tongue hung between his teeth, pink as bubblegum.
Elli drove with both hands on the wheel, ten and two. Her lips moved every once in a while. Pursing into an almost kiss, then pulling back over her teeth.
“Does this vet have beds?” I asked.
“At his house,” she said. “Go to sleep. I’ll wake you.”
I let my head roll against the seat. It smelled like fur and piss. The engine hummed beneath me and I imagined giant horses and giant natives, a hundred feet tall, thundering over the dark mountains.
The car was stopped when I woke. We were on the shoulder, a vast plain all around. The headlights were off. Pure black, and above, a field of stars. I blinked, trying to swallow some moisture into my parched mouth. “Look,” Elli whispered.
Leon was sitting up. His front paws were underneath him, propped unsteadily on the shifting covers of the books. His nose was pushed against the window. His scrawny body—only two, still a puppy—was angled down to where his wounded hindquarters rested on the seat. His eyes were fixed on the waning thumbnail of moon as if it held the answer to all suffering.
The dark southern hills rose and fell like waves. His breath fogged the glass.
He pressed his long gray ears flat against his skull, opened his mouth, and howled. High and sharp, the sound sliced open the roof and carried into the night. He held the note. Piercing. Desperate. It was so loud it hurt my eardrums.
“No,” I said. “No barking.”
His haunches shook. He slipped and fell against the door.
Elli was twisted around in the driver’s seat, stretched toward him, her face contorted, her skin the same color as the moon.
“Where are we?” I asked.
She paused, staring at me. Her bared eyes held something frightening: disgust, maybe, or the beginning of hatred. “Get out,” she said.
I looked at her blankly. A few strands of her hair stuck to the headrest, straight out beside her, taut with electricity.
“Please. Just give us a minute, alone.”
I fumbled with the door; I kept yanking the handle until she reached across my chest, shouldering me back, and unlocked it. I pushed open the door. The cold night air stung my face. I stood up, dazed, then leaned back into the car. Elli stared at me, her lips pulled tight, the tendons in her neck raised against her skin. Leon’s claws scrabbled the plastic seat cover in the back.
“He’s going to die,” I said, and slammed the door.
Pebbles crunched beneath my sneakers. I walked away from the highway, down into a ditch, and back up again. I smelled snow, trees. Idaho, maybe. I thought I’d walk until I found a place to fall down. Orion’s Belt and The Big Dipper hung at opposite ends of the sky. I couldn’t remember any of the other constellations. Just a mess of stars.
*This story originally appeared in Narrative magazine, 2013. Copyright © Maxim Loskutoff.
How quickly that dark line gets longer,
how quickly the snuffed-out candles proliferate.
(Tr. Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard)
“It used to be that wars would thin the herd. Now that there’s peace, disasters help a little by killing some people off. Don’t look at me like that—it’s just the way it is.”
The old woman pointed to the tiny TV screen with a finger twisted by osteoarthritis. Ever since, three months earlier, she’d agreed to move into the home, she’d been torturing her son: she had to have a television in her room; it was urgent and of vital importance, because if she died without knowing how the trial against the philandering bullfighter turned out she’d never forgive him for it. There were days when she swore that if he didn’t come through on that very nearly last wish, when he died she’d go down to hell to find him and sink her dentures into his forearm. “I’ll leave a scar,” she threatened, tapping him with one of the three canes she always kept within reach, hanging from an armchair where, in theory, visitors were supposed to be able to sit in comfort.
It had taken three weeks for her son get around to buying the television, and it had been on night and day ever since, at a deafening volume, since she was hard of hearing. She missed the midday and evening news programs because they coincided with the lunch and supper times for the residents—the old folks, as she called them—in the dining-hall, but she spent the whole afternoon and much of the night catching up with the celebrity gossip. The bullfighter was already in jail. His story, which was no longer of any interest, had been swapped for one about a surgeon who raped anesthetized patients: every day there was new, increasingly gruesome information meted out, so that the audience ratings would inexorably grow.
That afternoon, the old woman was laying out her world-overpopulation theory to Rafel, the only grandkid who ever visited her. He came once a week, when he got off work at the pet-grooming salon, and, after politely taking her perceptive comments about how he reeked of dogs, he would put up with one of her monologues on whatever was being discussed on the television in front of them. Rafel knew more about the jailed bullfighter and the surgeon rapist than about his grandfather, who’d died when he was three: if he’d ever thought about that fact, he would have forced himself to smile, because he always tried to stay upbeat. That afternoon, a newscaster was explaining that a fire at a nightclub in Brazil had left 255 people dead. There were also more than three hundred wounded, a third of whom were in a serious or critical condition.
“They need disasters like that in those countries. If they don’t get rid of a few people every so often, they won’t have enough food for everybody.”
“That’s enough, Grandma. You know I don’t like when you say stuff like that.”
“It’s not that I like that they happen, but they have to. They’re necessary.”
In an attempt to change the subject, her grandson started talking about his routine. At ten on the dot he’d already lifted the shutters of the grooming salon—called Doggie Style—and was ready to solve the first furry challenge of the day.
“I don’t know what you see in dog haircuts. You do wash your hands well before you leave, right?”
“Of course, Grandma, of course.”
“I should hope so.”
Before opening up the salon that morning, Rafel had bought groceries for the week and gone to the park to walk Elvis. Rafel had never mentioned his pet to his grandmother. He had fallen in love with the tiny dog shortly after Nikki left him. Elvis had a shrewd gaze and was jumpy, and he would see him in the window of the neighborhood pet shop on his way to work. After a week, he told himself that if the little dog was still there in three days’ time he would take him home. “A dog that tiny can’t be a big problem,” the shopkeeper told him the afternoon he decided to enter the store, willing to adopt the little animal for a reasonable price. Elvis had come from a long way away. His breed was created in the fifties based on the English toy terrier and was one of the favorite pets of the Russian nobility, who for years had kept them practically in secret: Communism didn’t allow for any sort of luxuries, especially if they had Western origins. The English toy terrier turned into the Russian toy terrier (Русский той) and soon quit hunting mice—the original purpose of the breed—to devote itself to the typical frolicking of a mammal weighing barely two kilos. It was a breed loved with equal enthusiasm by skinny girls, teenagers who had already given in to the temptations of vodka, sad-eyed mothers, and fathers with those bushy mustaches that are an attempted tribute to Stalin but actually seem more like a nod to the useless majesty of sea lions.
Thanks to Elvis, Rafel had gotten over the rough breakup with Nikki. They had been together for five years, and, while there was no denying they’d reached a point of stagnation, he never thought she would up and start from scratch in Klagenfurt, a small city in Austria.
“Give me a little time, Rafel,” she’d said, taking him by the hand as if he were a child. “I need to know that I’m still alive.”
He was convinced that Nikki was going to Klagenfurt with someone else. He was hopeful that her stay wouldn’t be as idyllic as she was expecting and that after a while she’d come back to Barcelona with her tail between her legs. She thought keeping a pet in an apartment was a crime, and he hadn’t said anything about Elvis to her either. They talked on the phone once a week, and often Rafel and the little dog would gaze at each other tenderly as the conversation grew more and more difficult. He had never barked: his ancestors had had to live on the margins of the law, always on the alert for the Communist police, and he and most of his kind had inherited their silent predisposition.
“Getting a dog and losing your girlfriend is an odd combination,” Rafel had said more than once as he walked Elvis and sensed some girl’s eyes fixed on his pet. The instantaneous affection women were capable of feeling for the little Russian dog could easily segue into long dialogues that started with some anecdote about the animal and soon shifted into more personal waters. Rafel had taken down a few cell phone numbers, but he’d never called any of them. He would list them with his dog’s name in front so he wouldn’t forget the link they shared. When he’d accumulated half a dozen, he deleted them, embarrassed: if he ever got back together with Nikki, the list could be problematic.
Up to that point, Elvis had been his constant, unrivaled companion. Rafel had gotten used to sleeping with him, and the last thing he saw before he went to sleep was that pair of bright, solicitous eyes, which gazed at him with devotion until he drifted off and were often already open when he got up.
“Good morning, Elvis,” he would say.
The dog would give him a rough lick on the cheek and start wagging his tail.
If his grandmother had ever gotten over her aversion toward animals, she could have had a wonderful companion in a dog like Elvis, and maybe that would have delayed her move to the home. Rafel imagined a dog running excitedly through the apartment, brightening the morbid grayness of the rooms or eating off a little plate with its name—which would be something unimaginative like Spot or Blackie—or even sitting on her lap, wrapped in a blanket, while she enjoyed one of the not-terribly-demanding TV programs she watched religiously.
“They say the king went elephant hunting in Africa and got hurt. It seems he was with that woman,” she would’ve said to the dog, scratching its head with one of her long, indestructible fingernails. “If I were the queen, I’d put a stop to that fast.”
When Rafel went to the home and spent some time with his grandmother, he couldn’t help inventing less terrible final chapters for her life. Since he’d had Elvis, he imagined a placid old age beside a doting pet. Before, when he was still with Nikki, he had—in his mind—sent his grandmother on a Mediterranean cruise, and there she’d met an old widower like herself, needing company. They had fallen in love on the voyage, and once back in Barcelona they kept seeing each other until the man—a former insurance salesman, hard-working and reliable—suggested they move in together. Grandma left her apartment on the margins of the city and set herself up in his second home in the Maresme, which the man had scarcely visited since his wife’s death.
Rafel found the home depressing, and the stories that grew inside him helped him isolate himself from those surroundings while his grandmother let herself be abducted by the TV. It was true that she was very well looked after—she was fine there, maybe even better than in her apartment—but three or four years back there would have been no way she could have adapted to that place. Her perception had atrophied, and she wasn’t as demanding now. That’s what her grandson told himself. He wouldn’t have lasted long in that common room, surrounded by senile old folks who wiled away the time staring at a fixed-yet-vague point on the wall. He also didn’t have the stomach to play a game of dominoes with someone whose dentures might suddenly fall out on the table, much less sharing a meal with a resident afflicted by some strange mental illness that made him shout out random words every time a nurse brought a spoonful of food to his mouth. “Sunday!” “Tortoise!” “Lily pad!”
On the one hand, visiting his grandmother upset him; on the other, when he left there he had more desire to live than ever. He had to get over Nikki leaving him somehow, and he would either go out to dinner with friends or put in extra time at the dog salon, trying to save up enough money to take a trip to Australia. One Monday, when he’d decided to go to the movies on his own, he ran into a woman he’d gone to high school with, and after the film they went for a beer. Laura had been working at a pharmaceutical lab until recently. The company had just been absorbed by a French multinational that had decided to sell off its Spanish office.
“I could go work near Paris, but I don’t have much faith in them; in a few months’ time they might close the other factory,” she divulged later with a vodka tonic in front of her.
“I’m sure they wouldn’t,” said Rafel. He knew nothing about the pharmaceutical sector, yet he felt obligated to murmur words of reassurance.
“Can you imagine a year from now, when I’m all set up in Paris, they tell me that to keep my job I have to move to the Czech Republic? And then a year after that they send me to Beijing?”
Laura couldn’t imagine herself settling down and raising kids in the Chinese capital. But to have children she’d have to find a partner first. After hearing that last comment, Rafel stared at his whisky and Coke for a few seconds before finally giving her a brief account of what had happened with Nikki. They’d seen each other for the first time at one of the fruit stalls at the market five years back and struck up a conversation not long after that one day while waiting at the pharmacy. Rafel already had the dog salon and didn’t make any secret of his job, despite the expression he’d seen on other girls’ faces when he told them what he did for a living. He and Nikki had hooked up quickly and started living together six months after they’d met. She changed jobs a lot. He sheared dogs, mostly poodles and fox terriers.
“Probably not a very ambitious life, I admit, but we were happy.”
Last summer they’d visited Munich. Nikki fell in love with an engagement ring and let him know, first with a sweet look and later with flattering words, swathed in sincere romantic sentiment. The shop was very close to the hostel they were staying at. Every time they passed it, she would look at the ring, which sparkled with modern elegance amid all the other rings, necklaces, and earrings. Rafel understood that it was time to make a decision, and one evening when Nikki had fallen asleep after an exhausting visit to the castle of King Ludwig II of Bavaria, he tiptoed out of the room, went down to the shop, and bought the ring that, once he’d presented it to her after a fancy meal out, was meant to be the prelude to their wedding.
“It didn’t work out the way I pictured it.”
“What happened?” Laura picked up her vodka tonic and waited for Rafel to answer. Then she put it back down on the table without taking a sip.
“Doesn’t matter. Now she lives in Klagenfurt, Austria. She says she needs some time.”
That night went on till late. They had another cocktail while they exhausted the virtues of the movie they’d seen that evening. Emboldened by the alcohol and the film’s tale of adultery set in a remote house in the jungles of Mozambique, Rafel and Laura ended up sleeping in the same bed together after seven minutes of sex, observed by the accepting eyes of Elvis, who hadn’t barked even during the most ardent moments.
At four in the morning, Rafel was awakened by Laura’s screams.
“I killed somebody once before in another nightmare,” she said when she woke up.
Rafel, who’d just realized he was naked, got dressed while Laura was in the bathroom. He couldn’t find his underpants anywhere, so he grabbed some fresh ones from the drawer and pulled them on quickly before his former high-school classmate came back into the room.
“Are you okay?” he asked her.
Still without a stitch of clothes on—she had a more athletic body than Nikki—Laura said yeah and tried to explain the nightmare to him. There was a Jehovah’s Witness, a nosy neighbor, and two cops, who started hassling her first in the entryway of her building and then, without any transition, they were pointing out the large bloodstain covering a good part of the rug in her dining-room.
“I’d hidden the corpse from the last nightmare, but nobody knew where, not even me. I had to wait for the policemen, the Jehovah’s Witness, and the neighbor lady to leave so I could find it, but I couldn’t convince them to go, and one of the cops grabbed me by the hair and said that my trial would be starting the next day.”
Rafel listened in silence to the story, sitting on the bed, illuminated by the whitish light from the night-table. When Laura had finished, she asked if he had any pajamas, and Rafel lent her some. Elvis came into the bedroom and started to wag his tail.
“No, Elvis, not today,” he said when the dog approached the bedside.
“What a cute dog.”
“He usually sleeps with me, but he can’t just now.”
“If you want I can leave,” said Laura, winking.
They put the dog out and got naked again as they kissed with a hint of aggressiveness. The next morning, Rafel went crazy trying to find the underpants he’d lost the night before but had no luck. He even rummaged through his former high-school classmate’s bag, convinced for a few moments that he had a sex maniac in his shower. He didn’t find them there either.
As soon as she’d left he turned the room upside down, to no avail. He only heard tiny Elvis occasionally barking a complaint as he watched him from one corner of the bedroom with his ears alert and his little nose pointing up at the ceiling.
A few weeks later, Nikki called and announced to her ex-boyfriend that she was coming home at the end of the month. The news stopped him in his tracks. That was only ten days away. All of a sudden, Nikki’s time out in Austria seemed short to him. If she was leaving Klagenfurt, that meant she was giving up, that the other life wasn’t possible. And, most importantly, she’d accepted that Rafel was her path. He expressed it in those same words that evening to Laura when they were both naked on the sofa.
“So we’ll have to call it quits, right?” she asked. Then she sighed loudly and buried her face in the cushions.
Rafel was about to apologize, but he stopped himself before he said a word. He tried to swallow the indecipherable silence of the dining-room with his eyes closed. If he opened them he wouldn’t be able to ignore Laura’s tears and Elvis’s expectant gaze.
When she’d left, Rafel looked at the little dog woefully. He’d already made a decision: he would have to get rid of him before Nikki came back.
The man at the pet shop made things simple for him. He found a new owner in three days. That was one of the most complicated weeks in Rafel’s life. He never imagined that separating from Elvis would be so hard for him. He’d almost picked up the phone and called it off half a dozen times, but at the last minute he’d resisted, convinced that if he were capable of making that sacrifice for Nikki (even though she didn’t know the dog existed) they would never have problems again.
The day he said goodbye to his pet, Rafel called the dog salon and told his partner that he was in bed with a fever. He needed to cry all day long. When he went back to work, every dog reminded him of Elvis. He almost lost it when he had to groom Mrs. Roig’s Pekinese. Diminutive and obliging, the little creature licked his hands when he lifted him up onto the table where he would shear him, trembling and holding back tears.
That same night, Rafel dreamed that Elvis was back in the apartment. He was barking to get him out of bed, and he obliged, still half asleep, adjusting his pajamas. After kissing his feet, the dog stuck his nose into the rift between the headboard and the floor and pulled out the underpants he’d lost that first night with Laura.
“Good boy!” shouted Rafel as he grabbed them. After licking one of his fingers, the dog started rifling around in the slit again and pulled out a sock that Rafel didn’t remember having lost. He rescued another one before offering up a crumpled piece of paper covered in drool where Rafel could read the first three or four ingredients on a shopping list.
“You’re finding a lot of stuff down there, huh? Good boy!” he said, rubbing his head while the little dog struggled to yank something else out.
Elvis pulled out a little blue box and placed it at the feet of his master, whose eyes were wide and mouth agape. Inside was the engagement ring that Rafel had lost shortly after returning from Munich, while he was still searching for the right time to have the fancy dinner that would precede its ceremonious presentation and, if everything went well, their engagement. He had spent two weeks hunting frantically behind Nikki’s back. He couldn’t find it. Eventually he’d thrown in the towel, telling himself that he’d take some Monday or Tuesday off and hop on a plane, buy the ring again, and return home with the booty. That extra effort would mean that the wedding would happen for sure, he was convinced. Nikki had left for Klagenfurt before he was able to act out his redemptive gesture.
In the dream, Rafel didn’t open up the little blue box until Elvis nodded, as if giving him permission to continue. When he did, the ring gleamed with Nikki’s modern elegance.
“Will you marry me?” he said.
He woke up repeating the phrase. Rafel hastily flicked on the light and, before raising the blind, before even going to the bathroom, he took the bed apart piece by piece. In a corner obscured by dust were the underpants and the little blue box. The upstairs neighbor didn’t mind the victory cry—sharp and hyperbolic—that came up through the bowels of his apartment.
The first thing Nikki saw the day she came home was the little blue box on top of the dining-room table beside a bouquet of red roses and a piece of paper on which he’d written: “I love you.” She ran out of the apartment when she saw what was inside. Rafel wasn’t expecting such a euphoric reaction. As he groomed a drowsy Afghan at the salon he heard the commotion at the entrance. He didn’t even have time to put the shears down onto the tray. Nikki threw her arms around him, and as she kissed his face—the gesture was slightly canine—she said that she loved him, too, and wanted to marry him.
They had a small celebration after the civil ceremony. Both sets of parents were there, Nikki’s brother, six of her friends and five of his, and their dates—if they had one—plus his partner at the dog salon, Alejandro, and his grandmother, who’d been allowed to leave the home as long as she was with a careworker, who got drunk before the cake was served while the old woman glared at her. During one trip to the bathroom, Rafel saw that he had a new message on his phone. It said: “Congratulations. Laura.” He deleted it as soon as he’d read it and then felt bad because he didn’t have his former high-school classmate’s number saved in his contacts. He would look like a jackass, but there was no going back: the damage was done. He washed his hands and went back to the large dining-hall of the Navarran restaurant where they were throwing the reception.
Since he hadn’t been able to save up enough to go to Australia, Rafel suggested another, less flashy, honeymoon destination. But in the end both sets of parents chipped in generously to make their dream come true. They bought tickets for Adelaide, planning to drive from there to Brisbane. Then from there to Sydney, passing through Canberra and Melbourne before taking a boat to Tasmania. Once they’d seen the island, they’d return to Sydney and fly from there to Jakarta, where they would spend one night before catching a flight to Istanbul then changing planes for Barcelona.
After cutting the cake and making their final photogenic kiss, Rafel’s grandmother gestured for him to come over and asked him not to go on the trip.
“I have a premonition,” she warned him. “I think something bad is going to happen. Some disaster.”
Rafel planted a kiss on her forehead and promised her that in a month he’d be back with a little plastic kangaroo souvenir she could put on top of the TV to watch over her, even when she was sleeping.
“I don’t need anything anymore, dear.”
He took her hand and gave her another kiss on the forehead. The last one ever.
What you might think just after you’ve said goodbye to him and just before you leave the house:
1. What’s that photo on the wall?
2. Is that her in the photo on the wall?
3. She’s standing in front of a not very high wooden fence separating her from a small herd of geese, you might think. Her body taut, her head thrown back. You can’t see where she’s looking.
4. The photo is hanging on one of those small stretches of wall jammed between corners and doors; the kind of wall on which people hang calendars and not pictures; not the kind of wall you face as you walk through rooms; the kind of wall that gets walked straight past.
If you don’t walk straight past you see a photo she would never have hung on the wall when she was alive: standing in front of her fence, in front of her geese, while they waddle happily through the shallow puddles almost everywhere around their fanned feet. The geese aren’t looking at her, they’re looking at each other or at their own feathers. Their plumage isn’t dirty; quite the opposite, it’s very white. Some of them don’t have their beaks pressed to their chests; they are stretching their necks as though trying not to cross the puddles but to heave themselves out of them. And she too, you might think, looks like she’s trying to get herself out of something, out of a great big mess into extremely clean air, so deliberately strained that she must have briefly forgotten all notions of cleanliness she acquired over the years.
What you might think:
That she must not have noticed being photographed, her behaviour becoming a picture. She never engaged in excesses of the body; at most of her mouth. A remarkable number of people poorly disposed to her for certain reasons – idiotic reasons, she said – had died shortly after she quietly cursed them.
The path in the photo would lead her to the house, were she to continue along it: alongside the fence, over the edge of the photo, to the place where her photo is being looked at now, this picture of a body collapsed in almost stubborn permanence, which seems to have straightened up very suddenly, vertically towards the sun, towards the wind blowing on high, into which she has stretched. That’s how she’s standing there in front of the fence while on the other side of it common or garden geese waddle, avoiding looking at her directly as consistently as if that gaze had been practiced for centuries from the Baltic Sea to the Atlantic Ocean, migrating birds having flown it in from the most African of all countries and dropped it from the air onto these animals like heavenly providence.
At their feet, vaguely visible: goosegrass, gooseberries, gooseneck loosestrife, gooseplant, gooseweed. Geese live on an earth named only after them, which expands productively upwards every morning out of growing gratitude at being sidestepped, until its foreseeable end, a fence. On the sidestep is where she is, not looking around and not noticing she’s being photographed. Her arms outstretched alongside her, ahead of her dull wood, above her circling air.
She never behaved that way, neither outside nor inside this house she had moved into, coming from the town. For love – later she said: for sheer idiocy – she had married a man who had joined Hitler’s bodyguards at the age of 18; later, he gained a PhD in ornithology.
The camera had collapsed her and only unfolded her again over a sheet of paper, in a generous gesture – indiscernible whether she was the depicted or responsible for the depicting, on this narrowly passing rectangle of wall you’re standing in front of now: with him. And about which he’s attempting to provide information; in other words, he goes over to his books, opens them and closes them and does so again three rooms along, as you hear him murmuring: Deuterostomia, Deuterostomia. That’s the superphylum of all goose species, in ornithological terms, but what’s the phylum? It must be here somewhere – and also, why insight comes about by hitting something to make it open and hitting so that it closes.
By the side of the tiny herd of geese is a tiny stream. The water flows horizontally into the air, from right to left – against the motion of the thoughts circling above the photo. Possibly, as opposed to their peculiar eye contact behaviour, the geese’s sounds, albeit proceeding on invisible paths, were directed at the person standing by the fence, especially the lower and stronger, female sounds. Possibly, the geese were not chattering but screeching. Possibly, that’s why their beaks are so wide open. Possibly, she was screeching back, her head tipped, vertical into mid-air. Her body launching itself upwards as she screamed, a motion she hadn’t made for a very long time, or only in secret. Cursing someone as she did so, this time very loudly because she was alone. Possibly, that’s why the photographer never showed the photo to anyone but her, and he survived because he hid the evidence of her acrobatic soul from others until her death. Whereby the question in that case would be: with what intent did the photographer want to photograph her; had the camera happened upon her by chance; or had she perhaps cursed him audibly days before and he had been trying ever since, sweating with fear, to capture her in a position undepictable for her, an inconceivably depictable position, and to blackmail her with it. – Possibly, she had said nothing in view of the geese, in view of a subphylum from the superphylum of Deuterostomia; possibly, the air had been taut around her in the pose caught in black and white, taut as a net with hard or thin thread, at its loosest around her chest and tightest at her neck; possibly, she had realized how pretty and useless perspectives are when everything is so close to you, even if everything close immediately vanishes, like the brightness does in the evening, having spent all day shining from a sky filled to the brim with light.
Will he come up with the correct ornithological term for the phylum if he chants the Latin name of the superphylum to himself, as he’s doing now?
Above the white-feathered heads, the outstretched head in front of which she is stretched out: the pale leaves of the hornbeams, or white beeches. Are they too, going by the logic of the previous plant names, named after the animals beneath them? The leaves of the white beeches hang close to their branches and the branches don’t grow far away from their trunk, the whole ensemble more shrub than tree.
You might think: her parting looks rather messy in the otherwise very neat surroundings.
The hornbeams are still standing back there, you might think, just after you’ve said goodbye to him a second time and just before you leave the house. The fence still in front of it. In front of that the path. Walks are taken along the fence and glances are cast over it as you leave the house. Among the walkers is a child who tries to stop and look through the fence, his hand held by another walker’s hand. The child is very small and clumsy and tries hard to see what the fence posts alternately hide and reveal:
the subfamily of geese.
The weather was excellent that day, you hear him calling inside the house, as if searching for you and then at a window: The clouds stood still above the geese, not moving an inch!
You might think something now, but:
The child doesn’t manage to stand still. The fence posts the child is pulled past recall eyelids, fluttering and blurring what is seen; if they were mouths they would chatter without revealing anything of what they were saying. The child tries nonetheless to get through to the hidden things behind the fence, at least with his eyes. It doesn’t look as though the child might be lifted up so as to see more. Someone tugs at his arm (the same someone who was holding his hand) and tugs at his arm until all walkers have passed the fence; continuing along the path, the child’s head is slowly lowered, so slowly that it’s hard to watch the disappointed onlooker.
According to Ashin’s “Essentials of Salvation,” the Ten Pleasures are but a drop in the ocean when compared to the joys of the Pure Land. In that Land the earth is made of emerald and the roads that lead across it are lined by cordons of gold rope. The surface is endlessly level and there are no boundaries. Within each of the sacred Precincts are fifty thousand million halls and towers wrought of gold, silver, lapis lazuli, crystal, coral, agate, and pearls; and wondrous garments are spread out on all the jeweled daises. Within the halls and above the towers a multitude of angels are forever playing sacred music and singing paeans of praise to the Tathagata Buddha. In the gardens that surround the halls and the towers and the cloisters are great gold and emerald ponds where the faithful may perform their ablutions; and the gold ponds are lined with silver sand, and the emerald ponds are lined with crystal sand. The ponds are covered with lotus plants which sparkle in variegated colors and, as the breeze wafts over the surface of the water, magnificent lights crisscross in all directions. Both day and night the air is filled with the songs of cranes, geese, mandarin ducks, peacocks, parrots, and sweet-voiced Kalavinkas, who have the faces of beautiful women. All these and the myriad other hundred-jeweled birds are raising their melodious voices in praise of the Buddha. (However sweet their voices may sound, so immense a collection of birds must be extremely noisy.)
The borders of the ponds and the banks of the rivers are lined with groves of sacred treasure trees. These trees have golden stems and silver branches and coral blossoms, and their beauty is mirrored in the waters. The air is full of jeweled cords, and from these cords hang the myriad treasure bells which forever ring out the Supreme Law of Buddha; and strange musical instruments, which play by themselves without ever being touched, also stretch far into the pellucid sky.
If one feels like having something to eat, there automatically appears before one’s eyes a seven-jeweled table on whose shining surface rest seven-jeweled bowls heaped high with the choicest delicacies. But there is no need to pick up these viands and put them in one’s mouth. All that is necessary is to look at their inviting colors and to enjoy their aroma: thereby the stomach is filled and the body nourished, while one remains oneself spiritually and physically pure. When one has thus finished one’s meal without any eating, the bowls and the table are instantly wafted off.
Likewise, one’s body is automatically arrayed in clothes, without any need for sewing, laundering, dyeing, or repairing.
Lamps, too, are unnecessary, for the sky is illumined by an omnipresent light. Furthermore, the Pure Land enjoys a moderate temperature all year round, so that neither heating nor cooling is required. A hundred thousand subtle scents perfume the air and lotus petals rain down constantly.
In the chapter of the Inspection Gate we are told that, since uninitiated sightseers cannot hope to penetrate deep into the Pure Land, they must concentrate, first, on awakening their powers of “external imagination” and, thereafter, on steadily expanding these powers. Imaginative power can provide a short cut for escaping from the trammels of our mundane life and for seeing the Buddha. If we are endowed with a rich, turbulent imagination, we can focus our attention on a single lotus flower and from there can spread out to infinite horizons.
By means of microscopic observation and astronomical projection the lotus flower can become the foundation for an entire theory of the universe and an agent whereby we may perceive the Truth. And first we must know that each of the petals has eighty-four thousand veins and that each vein gives off eighty-four thousand lights. Furthermore, the smallest of these flowers has a diameter of two hundred and fifty yojana. Thus, assuming that the yojana of which we read in the Holy Writings correspond to seventy-five miles each, we may conclude that a lotus flower with a diameter of nineteen thousand miles is on the small side.
Now such a flower has eighty-four thousand petals and between each of the petals there are one million jewels, each emitting one thousand lights. Above the beautifully adorned calyx of the flower rise four bejeweled pillars and each of these pillars is one hundred billion times as great as Mount Sumeru, which towers in the center of the Buddhist universe. From the pillars hang great draperies and each drapery is adorned with fifty thousand million jewels, and each jewel emits eighty-four thousand lights, and each light is composed of eighty-four thousand different golden colors, and each of these golden colors in its turn is variously transmogrified.
To concentrate on such images is known as “thinking of the Lotus Seat on which Lord Buddha sits”; and the conceptual world that hovers in the background of our story is a world imagined on such a scale.
The Great Priest of Shiga Temple was a man of the most eminent virtue. His eyebrows were white, and it was as much as he could do to move his old bones along as he hobbled on his stick from one part of the temple to another.
In the eyes of this learned ascetic the world was a mere pile of rubbish. He had lived away from it for many a long year and the little pine sapling that he had planted with his own hands on moving into his present cell had grown into a great tree whose branches swelled in the wind. A monk who had succeeded in abandoning the Floating World for so long a time must feel secure about his future.
When the Great Priest saw the rich and the noble, he smiled with compassion and wondered how it was that these people did not recognize their pleasures for the empty dreams that they were. When he noticed beautiful women, his only reaction was to be moved with pity for men who still inhabited the world of delusion and who were tossed about on the waves of carnal pleasure.
From the moment that a man no longer responds in the slightest to the motives that regulate the material world, that world appears to be at complete repose. In the eyes of the Great Priest the world showed only repose; it had become a mere picture on a piece of paper, a map of some foreign land. When one has attained a state of mind from which the evil passions of the present world have been so utterly winnowed, fear too is forgotten. Thus it was that the priest no longer could understand why Hell should exist. He knew beyond all peradventure that the present world no longer had any power left over him; but, as he was completely devoid of conceit, it did not occur to him that this was the effect of his own eminent virtue.
So far as his body was concerned, one might say that the priest had well-nigh been deserted by his own flesh. On such occasions as he observed it—when taking a bath, for instance—he would rejoice to see how his protruding bones were precariously covered by his withered skin. Now that his body had reached this stage, he felt that he could come to terms with it, as if it belonged to someone else. Such a body, it seemed, was already more suited for the nourishment of the Pure Land than for terrestrial food and drink.
In his dreams he lived nightly in the Pure Land, and when he awoke he knew that to subsist in the present world was to be tied to a sad and evanescent dream.
In the flower-viewing season large numbers of people came from the Capital to visit the village of Shiga. This did not trouble the priest in the slightest, for he had long since transcended that state in which the clamors of the world can irritate the mind. One spring evening he left his cell, leaning on his stick, and walked down to the lake. It was the hour when dusky shadows slowly begin to thrust their way into the bright light of the afternoon. There was not the slightest ripple to disturb the surface of the water. The priest stood by himself at the edge of the lake and began to perform the holy rite of Water Contemplation.
At that moment an ox-drawn carriage, clearly belonging to a person of high rank, came around the lake and stopped close to where the priest was standing. The owner was a Court lady from the Kyogoku district of the Capital who held the exalted title of Great Imperial Concubine. This lady had come to view the springtime scenery in Shiga and now on her return she had stopped the carriage and raised the blind in order to have a final look at the lake.
Unwittingly the Great Priest glanced in her direction and at once he was overwhelmed by her beauty. His eyes met hers and, as he did nothing to avert his gaze, she did not take it upon herself to turn away. It was not that her liberality of spirit was such as to allow men to gaze on her with brazen looks; but the motives of this austere old ascetic could hardly, she felt, be those of ordinary men.
After a few moments the lady pulled down the blind. Her carriage started to move and, having gone through the Shiga Pass, rolled slowly down the road that led to the Capital. Night fell and the carriage made its way toward the city along the Road of the Silver Temple. Until the carriage had become a pinprick that disappeared between the distant trees, the Great Priest stood rooted to the spot.
In the twinkling of an eye the present world had wreaked its revenge on the priest with terrible force. What he had imagined to be completely safe had collapsed in ruins.
He returned to the temple, faced the Main Image of Buddha, and invoked the Sacred Name. But impure thoughts now cast their opaque shadows about him. A woman’s beauty, he told himself, was but a fleeting apparition, a temporary phenomenon composed of flesh—of flesh that was soon to be destroyed. Yet, try as he might to ward it off, the ineffable beauty which had overpowered him at that instant by the lake now pressed on his heart with the force of something that has come from an infinite distance. The Great Priest was not young enough, either spiritually or physically, to believe that this new feeling was simply a trick that his flesh had played on him. A man’s flesh, he knew full well, could not alter so rapidly. Rather, he seemed to have been immersed in some swift, subtle poison which had abruptly transmuted his spirit.
The Great Priest had never broken his vow of chastity. The inner fight that he had waged in his youth against the demands of the flesh had made him think of women as mere carnal beings. The only real flesh was the flesh that existed in his imagination. Since, therefore, he regarded the flesh as an ideal abstraction, rather than as a physical fact, he had relied on his spiritual strength to subjugate it. In this effort the priest had achieved success—success, indeed, that no one who knew him could possibly doubt.
Yet the face of the woman who had raised the carriage blind and gazed across the lake was too harmonious, too refulgent, to be designated as a mere object of flesh, and the priest did not know what name to give it. He could only think that, in order to bring about that wondrous moment, something which had for a long time lurked deceptively within him had finally revealed itself. That thing was nothing other than the present world, which until then had been at repose, but which had now suddenly lifted itself out of the darkness and begun to stir.
It was as if he had been standing by the highway that led to the Capital, with his hands firmly covering both ears, and had watched two great oxcarts rumble past each other. All of a sudden he had removed his hands and the noise from outside had surged all about him.
To perceive the ebb and flow of passing phenomena, to have their noise roaring in one’s ears, was to enter into the circle of the present world. For a man like the Great Priest, who had severed his relations with all outside things, it was to place himself once again into a state of relationship.
Even as he read the Sutras he would time after time hear himself heaving great sighs of anguish. Perhaps nature, he thought, might serve to distract his spirits, and he gazed out of the window of his cell at the mountains that towered in the distance under the evening sky. Yet his thoughts, instead of concentrating on the beauty, broke up like tufts of cloud and drifted away. He fixed his gaze on the moon, but his thoughts continued to wander as before; and when once again he went and stood before the Main Image in a desperate effort to regain his purity of mind, the countenance of the Buddha was transformed and looked like the face of the lady in the carriage. His universe had been imprisoned within the confines of a small circle: at one point was the Great Priest and opposite was the Great Imperial Concubine.
The Great Imperial Concubine of Kyogoku had soon forgotten about the old priest whom she had noticed gazing so intently at her by the lake at Shiga. After some time, however, a rumor came to her ears and she was reminded of the incident. One of the villagers happened to have caught sight of the Great Priest as he had stood watching the lady’s carriage disappear into the distance. He had mentioned the matter to a Court gentleman who had come to Shiga for flower-viewing and had added that since that day the priest had behaved like one crazed.
The Imperial Concubine pretended to disbelieve the rumor. The virtue of this particular priest, however, was noted throughout the Capital, and the incident was bound to feed the lady’s vanity.
For she was utterly weary of the love that she received from the men of this world. The Imperial Concubine was fully aware of her own beauty, and she tended to be attracted by any force, such as religion, that treated her beauty and her high rank as things of no value. Being exceedingly bored with the present world, she believed in the Pure Land. It was inevitable that Jodo Buddhism, which rejected all the beauty and brilliance of the visual world as being mere filth and defilement, should have a particular appeal for someone like the Imperial Concubine who was thoroughly disillusioned with the superficial elegance of Court life—an elegance that seemed unmistakably to bespeak the Latter Days of the Law and their degeneracy.
Among those whose special interest was love, the Great Imperial Concubine was held in honor as the very personification of Courtly refinement. The fact that she was known never to have given her love to any man added to this reputation. Though she performed her duties toward the Emperor with the most perfect decorum, no one for a moment believed that she loved him from her heart. The Great Imperial Concubine dreamt of a passion that lay on the boundary of the impossible.
The Great Priest of Shiga Temple was famous for his virtue, and everyone in the Capital knew how this aged prelate had totally abandoned the present world. All the more startling, then, was the rumor that he had been dazzled by the charms of the Imperial Concubine and that for her sake he had sacrificed the future world. To give up the joys of the Pure Land which were so close at hand—there could be no greater sacrifice than this, no greater gift.
The Great Imperial Concubine was utterly indifferent to the charms of the young rakes who flocked about the Court and of the handsome noblemen who came her way. The physical attributes of men no longer meant anything to her. Her only concern was to find a man who could give her the strongest and deepest possible love. A woman with such aspirations is a truly terrifying creature. If she is a mere courtesan, she will no doubt be satisfied with worldly wealth. The Great Imperial Concubine, however, already enjoyed all those things that the wealth of the world can provide. The man whom she awaited must offer her the wealth of the future world. The rumors of the Great Priest’s infatuation spread throughout the Court. In the end the story was even told half jokingly to the Emperor himself. The Great Concubine took no pleasure in this bantering gossip and preserved a cool, indifferent mien. As she was well aware, there were two reasons why the people of the Court could joke freely about a matter which would normally have been forbidden: first, by referring to the Great Priest’s love they were paying a compliment to the beauty of the woman who could inspire even an ecclesiastic of such great virtue to forsake his meditations; secondly, everyone fully realized that the old man’s love for the noblewoman could never possibly be requited.
The Great Imperial Concubine called to mind the face of the old priest whom she had seen through her carriage window. It did not bear the remotest resemblance to the face of any of the men who had loved her until then. Strange it was that love should spring up in the heart of a man who did not have the slightest qualification for being loved. The lady recalled such phrases as “my love forlorn and without hope” that were widely used by poetasters in the Palace when they wished to awaken some sympathy in the hearts of their indifferent paramours. Compared to the hopeless situation in which the Great Priest now found himself, the state of the least fortunate of these elegant lovers was almost enviable, and their poetic tags struck her now as mere trappings of worldly alliance, inspired by vanity and utterly devoid of pathos.
At this point it will be clear to the reader that the Great Imperial Concubine was not, as was so widely believed, the personification of Courtly elegance, but, rather, a person who found the real relish of life in the knowledge of being loved. Despite her high rank, she was first of all a woman; and all the power and authority in the world seemed to her empty things if they were bereft of this knowledge. The men about her might devote themselves to struggles for political power; but she dreamt of subduing the world by different means, by purely feminine means. Many of the women whom she had known had taken the tonsure and retired from the world. Such women struck her as laughable. For, whatever a woman may say about abandoning the world, it is almost impossible for her to give up the things that she possesses. Only men are really capable of giving up what they possess.
That old priest by the lake had at a certain stage in his life given up the Floating World and all its pleasures. In the eyes of the Imperial Concubine he was far more of a man than all the nobles whom she knew at Court. And, just as he had once abandoned this present Floating World, so now on her behalf he was about to give up the future world as well.
The Imperial Concubine recalled the notion of the sacred lotus flower, which her own deep faith had vividly imprinted upon her mind. She thought of the huge lotus with its width of two hundred and fifty yojana. That preposterous plant was far more fitted to her tastes than those puny lotus flowers which floated on the ponds in the Capital. At night when she listened to the wind soughing through the trees in her garden, the sound seemed to her extremely insipid when compared to the delicate music in the Pure Land when the wind blew through the sacred treasure trees. When she thought of the strange instruments that hung in the sky and that played by themselves without ever being touched, the sound of the harp that echoed through the Palace halls seemed to her a paltry imitation.
The Great Priest of Shiga Temple was fighting. In the fight that he had waged against the flesh in his youth he had always been buoyed up by the hope of inheriting the future world. But this desperate fight of his old age was linked with a sense of irreparable loss.
The impossibility of consummating his love for the Great Imperial Concubine was as clear to him as the sun in the sky. At the same time he was fully aware of the impossibility of advancing toward the Pure Land so long as he remained in the thralls of this love. The Great Priest, who had lived in an incomparably free state of mind, had in a twinkling been enclosed in darkness and the future was totally obscure. It may have been that the courage which had seen him through his youthful struggles had grown out of self-confidence and pride in the fact that he was voluntarily depriving himself of pleasure that could have been his for the asking.
The Great Priest was again possessed by fear. Until that noble carriage had approached the side of Lake Shiga, he had believed that what lay in wait for him, close at hand, was nothing less than the final release of Nirvana. But now he had awaked into the darkness of the present world, where it is impossible to see what lurks a single step ahead.
The various forms of religious meditation were all in vain. He tried the Contemplation of the Chrysanthemum, the Contemplation of the Total Aspect, and the Contemplation of the Parts; but each time that he started to concentrate, the beautiful visage of the Concubine appeared before his eyes. Water Contemplation, too, was useless, for invariably her lovely face would float up shimmering from beneath the ripples of the lake.
This, no doubt, was a natural consequence of his infatuation. Concentration, the priest soon realized, did more harm than good, and next he tried to dull his spirit by dispersal. It astonished him that spiritual concentration should have the paradoxical effect of leading him still deeper into his delusions; but he soon realized that to try the contrary method by dispersing his thoughts meant that he was, in effect, admitting these very delusions. As his spirit began to yield under the weight, the priest decided that, rather than pursue a futile struggle, it were better to escape from the effort of escaping by deliberately concentrating his thoughts on the figure of the Great Imperial Concubine.
The Great Priest found a new pleasure in adorning his vision of the lady in various ways, just as though he were adorning a Buddhist statue with diadems and baldachins. In so doing, he turned the object of his love into an increasingly resplendent, distant, impossible being; and this afforded him particular joy. But why? Surely it would be more natural for him to envisage the Great Imperial Concubine as an ordinary female, close at hand and possessing normal human frailties. Thus he could better turn her to advantage, at least in his imagination.
As he pondered this question, the truth dawned on him. What he was depicting in the Great Imperial Concubine was not a creature of flesh, nor was it a mere vision; rather, it was a symbol of reality, a symbol of the essence of things. It was strange, indeed, to pursue that essence in the figure of a woman. Yet the reason was not far to seek. Even when falling in love, the Great Priest of Shiga had not discarded the habit, to which he had trained himself during his long years of contemplation, of striving to approach the essence of things by means of constant abstraction. The Great Imperial Concubine of Kyogoku had now become uniform with his vision of the immense lotus of two hundred and fifty yojana. As she reclined on the water supported by all the lotus flowers, she had become vaster than Mount Sumeru, vaster than an entire realm.
The more the Great Priest turned his love into something impossible, the more deeply was he betraying the Buddha. For the impossibility of this love had become bound up with the impossibility of attaining enlightenment. The more he thought of his love as hopeless, the firmer grew the fantasy that supported it and the deeper-rooted became his impure thoughts. So long as he regarded his love as being even remotely feasible, it was paradoxically possible for him to resign himself; but now that the Great Concubine had grown into a fabulous and utterly unattainable creature the priest’s love became motionless like a great stagnant lake which firmly, obdurately, covers the earth’s surface.
He hoped that somehow he might see the lady’s face once more, yet he feared that when he met her, that figure, which had now become like a giant lotus, would crumble away without a trace. If that were to happen, he would without doubt be saved. Yes, this time he was bound to attain enlightenment. And the very prospect filled the Great Priest with fear and awe.
The priest’s lonely love had begun to devise strange, self-deceiving guiles, and when at length he reached the decision to go and see the lady, he was under the delusion that he had almost recovered from the illness that was searing his body. The bemused priest even mistook the joy that accompanied his decision for relief at having finally escaped from the trammels of his love.
None of the great Concubine’s people found anything especially strange in the sight of an old priest standing silently in the corner of the garden, leaning on a stick and gazing somberly at the residence. Ascetics and beggars frequently stood outside the great houses of the Capital and waited for alms. One of the ladies in attendance mentioned the matter to her mistress. The Great Imperial Concubine casually glanced through the blind that separated her from the garden. There in the shadow of the fresh green foliage stood a withered old priest with faded black robes and bowed head. For some time the lady looked at him. When she realized that this was without any question the priest whom she had seen by the lake at Shiga, her pale face turned paler still.
After a few moments of indecision, she gave orders that the priest’s presence in her garden should be ignored. Her attendants bowed and withdrew.
Now for the first time the lady fell prey to uneasiness. In her lifetime she had seen many people who had abandoned the world, but never before had she laid eyes on someone who had abandoned the future world. The sight was ominous and inexpressibly fearful. All the pleasure that her imagination had conjured up from the idea of the priest’s love disappeared in a flash. Much as he might have surrendered the future world on her behalf, that world, she now realized, would never pass into her own hands.
The Great Imperial Concubine looked down at her elegant clothes and at her beautiful hands, and then she looked across the garden at the uncomely features of the old priest and at his shabby robes. There was a horrible fascination in the fact that a connection should exist between them.
How different it all was from the splendid vision! The Great Priest seemed now like a person who had hobbled out of Hell itself. Nothing remained of that man of virtuous presence who had trailed the brightness of the Pure Land behind him. The brilliance which had resided within him and which had called to mind the glory of the Pure Land had vanished utterly. Though this was certainly the man who had stood by the Shiga Lake, it was at the same time a totally different person.
Like most people of the Court, the Great Imperial Concubine tended to be on her guard against her own emotions, especially when she was confronted with something that could be expected to affect her deeply. Now on seeing this evidence of the Great Priest’s love, she felt disheartened at the thought that the consummate passion of which she had dreamt during all these years should assume so colorless a form.
When the priest had finally limped into the Capital leaning on his stick, he had almost forgotten his exhaustion. Secretly he made his way into the grounds of the Great Imperial Concubine’s residence at Kyogoku and looked across the garden. Behind those blinds, he thought, was sitting none other than the lady whom he loved.
Now that his adoration had assumed an immaculate form, the future world once again began to exert its charm on the Great Priest. Never before had he envisaged the Pure Land in so immaculate, so poignant, an aspect. His yearning for it became almost sensual. Nothing remained for him but the formality of meeting the Great Concubine, of declaring his love, and of thus ridding himself once and for all of the impure thoughts that tied him to this world and that still prevented him from attaining the Pure Land. That was all that remained to be done.
It was painful for him to stand there supporting his old body on his stick. The bright rays of the May sun poured through the leaves and beat down on his shaven head. Time after time he felt himself losing consciousness and without his stick he would certainly have collapsed. If only the lady would realize the situation and invite him into her presence, so that the formality might be done with! The Great Priest waited. He waited and supported his ever-growing weariness on his stick. At length the sun was covered with the evening clouds. Dusk gathered. Yet still no word came from the Great Imperial Concubine.
She, of course, had no way of knowing that the priest was looking through her, beyond her, into the Pure Land. Time after time she glanced out through the blinds. He was standing there immobile. The evening light thrust its way into the garden. Still he continued standing there.
The Great Imperial Concubine became frightened. She felt that what she saw in the garden was an incarnation of that “deep-rooted delusion” of which she had read in the Sutras. She was overcome by the fear of tumbling into Hell. Now that she had led astray a priest of such high virtue, it was not the Pure Land to which she could look forward, but Hell itself, whose terrors she and those about her knew in such detail. The supreme love of which she had dreamt had already been shattered. To be loved as she was—that in itself represented damnation. Whereas the Great Priest looked beyond her into the Pure Land, she now looked beyond the priest into the horrid realms of Hell.
Yet this haughty noblewoman of Kyogoku was too proud to succumb to her fears without a fight, and she now summoned forth all the resources of her inbred ruthlessness. The Great Priest, she told herself, was bound to collapse sooner or later. She looked through the blind, thinking that by now he must be lying on the ground. To her annoyance, the silent figure stood there motionless.
Night fell and in the moonlight the figure of the priest looked like a pile of chalk-white bones.
The lady could not sleep for fear. She no longer looked through the blind and she turned her back to the garden. Yet all the time she seemed to feel the piercing gaze of the Great Priest on her back.
This, she knew, was no commonplace love. From fear of being loved, from fear of falling into Hell, the Great Imperial Concubine prayed more earnestly than ever for the Pure Land. It was for her own private Pure Land that she prayed—a Pure Land which she tried to preserve invulnerable within her heart. This was a different Pure Land from the priest’s and it had no connection with his love. She felt sure that if she were ever to mention it to him it would instantly disintegrate.
The priest’s love, she told herself, had nothing to do with her. It was a one-sided affair, in which her own feelings had no part, and there was no reason that it should disqualify her from being received into her Pure Land. Even if the Great Priest were to collapse and die, she would remain unscathed. Yet, as the night advanced and the air became colder, this confidence began to desert her.
The priest remained standing in the garden. When the moon was hidden by the clouds, he looked like a strange, gnarled old tree.
That form out there has nothing to do with me, thought the lady, almost beside herself with anguish, and the words seemed to boom within her heart. Why in Heaven’s name should this have happened?
At that moment, strangely, the Great Imperial Concubine completely forgot about her own beauty. Or perhaps it would be more correct to say that she had made herself forget it.
Finally, faint traces of white began to break through the dark sky and the priest’s figure emerged in the dawn twilight. He was still standing. The Great Imperial Concubine had been defeated. She summoned a maid and told her to invite the priest to come in from the garden and to kneel outside her blind.
The Great Priest was at the very boundary of oblivion when the flesh is on the verge of crumbling away. He no longer knew whether it was for the Great Imperial Concubine that he was waiting or for the future world. Though he saw the figure of the maid approaching from the residence into the dusky garden, it did not occur to him that what he had been awaiting was finally at hand.
The maid delivered her mistress’s message. When she had finished, the priest uttered a dreadful, almost inhuman cry. The maid tried to lead him by the hand, but he pulled away and walked by himself toward the house with fantastically swift, firm steps.
It was dark on the other side of the blind and from outside it was impossible to see the lady’s form. The priest knelt down and, covering his face with his hands, he wept. For a long time he stayed there without a word and his body shook convulsively.
Then in the dawn darkness a white hand gently emerged from behind the lowered blind. The priest of the Shiga Temple took it in his own hands and pressed it to his forehead and cheek.
The Great Imperial Concubine of Kyogoku felt a strange cold hand touching her hand. At the same time she was aware of a warm moisture. Her hand was being bedewed by someone else’s tears. Yet when the pallid shafts of morning light began to reach her through the blind, the lady’s fervent faith imbued her with a wonderful inspiration: she became convinced that the unknown hand which touched hers belonged to none other than the Buddha.
Then the great vision sprang up anew in the lady’s heart: the emerald earth of the Pure Land, the millions of seven-jeweled towers, the angels playing music, the golden ponds strewn with silver sand, the resplendent lotus, and the sweet voices of the Kalavinkas—all this was born afresh. If this was the Pure Land that she was to inherit—and so she now believed—why should she not accept the Great Priest’s love?
She waited for the man with the hands of Buddha to ask her to raise the blind that separated her from him. Presently he would ask her; and then she would remove the barrier and her incomparably beautiful body would appear before him as it had on that day by the edge of the lake at Shiga; and she would invite him to come in.
The Great Imperial Concubine waited.
But the priest of Shiga Temple did not utter a word. He asked her for nothing. After a while his old hands relaxed their grip and the lady’s snow-white hand was left alone in the dawn light. The priest departed. The heart of the Great Imperial Concubine turned cold.
A few days later a rumor reached the Court that the Great Priest’s spirit had achieved its final liberation in his cell at Shiga. At this news the lady of Kyogoku set to copying the Sutras in roll after roll of beautiful writing.
*This story is taken from: Death in Midsummer and other stories by Yukio Mishima, New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1966.
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