I was away from my children for a while. They’d gone to the seaside with my sister and my mother, I stayed in the city, my mother was angry at me because I wrote and showed myself nowhere often enough. I’d talk about work appointments, none of which existed. I lived in a small hotel whose caretaker reeked, the smell of her body and her dress had risen violently with the heat. I’d head to the office every day, but I worked very little, I mostly went to the office to pretend I was a man, I was tired of being a woman. Everyone seems to enjoy entertaining for a while a role that isn’t theirs, the role I played was that of a man, I’d sit at the filthy office table and eat at an osteria, lazily hang out on the streets and in cafés with friends, come home late at night. I’d surprise myself thinking how different my life had once been, when I cradled my children and I cooked and I washed, how there’s always so many ways to live, and each of us can make a new being of ourselves, at times even enemies of each other. Then I got bored of that new role I was playing too, I’d be living the same life without any of the pleasure in it. But I wouldn’t go to my mother’s, at the seaside, I wanted to be away from the kids, be alone: I thought I couldn’t show myself to them as I was at that moment, with that loathing in my heart, I felt like I’d loathe them too if I ended up seeing them. I often thought it was like elephants and how they hide away to die. They hide to die, they spend a long time in the jungle looking for a secluded spot, full of trees, to hide the shame of their big, tired body dying. It was summer, summer was hot, blazing in the big city, and whenever I cycled on the tarmac under the trees, my heart was choked by a feeling of loathing and love towards every road, every house of that city, and several memories were born of different natures, burning like the sun, as I fled, ringing my bell. Giovanna was waiting for me in a café: when I left the office, in the evening, and I’d sit next to her at the table, I’d show her my mother’s letters. She knew I wanted to die, that’s why we no longer had that much more to say to each other, but we still sat one opposite the other, smoking, blowing away the smoke through closed lips. I wanted to die because a man, but also because of so many other things, because I owed my mother money, and because the caretaker stank, and because summer was hot, blazing, in the city full of memories and roads, and because I thought that I could be of no use to anyone, in that state.
So my children – just as they had lost their father one day – would also lose their mother but it didn’t matter, because the loathing and shame assault us at a certain moment in life, and no one has the power to help us when they do. It was a Sunday afternoon, I’d bought some sleeping pills from a pharmacy. I walked all day in the empty city, thinking about me and my children. Bit by bit I was losing awareness of their young age, the timbre of their young voices had died in me; I told them everything, about the pills and the elephants, of the caretaker and what they should do when they grew up, how to defend themselves from what would happen. But then I suddenly saw them as I had last seen them, on the floor, playing with bowling pins. And the echo of those thoughts and words resounded in the silence, I was stunned by seeing how alone I was, alone and free in the empty city, with the power to harm myself as much as I desired. I went home and took the pills, I dissolved all of their contents in a glass of water, I couldn’t figure out if I wanted to sleep for a very long time or die. The caretaker came the following morning, she found me asleep and after a while went to call for a doctor. I stayed in bed for a week, and Giovanna would come every day and she’d bring me oranges and ice. I’d tell her that those who have a loathing growing in their heart should not be alive, and she’d smoke in silence and watch me, blowing away the smoke through closed lips. Other friends would come too, and everyone gave me a piece of their mind, everyone wanted to teach me what I had to do now. But I’d reply that those who have a loathing growing in their heart should not be alive. Giovanna told me to leave the small hotel and move in with her for a while. She lived alone with a Danish girl who walked around the place barefoot. I didn’t feel like dying now, but I didn’t feel like living either, and I lazily hung out at the office or in the streets, with friends, people who wanted to teach me how to save myself. In the mornings, Giovanna would slip on a prune-coloured towelling robe, brush the hair away from her forehead and wave at me with disdain. In the mornings, the Danish girl would walk barefoot into the bedroom, and start writing all the dreams she’d had the previous night on a typewriter. One night she’d dreamt that she picked up an axe and killed her mother and father. But she really loved her mother and father. They were waiting for her in Copenhagen but she didn’t want to move back, because she said we all need to live away from our roots. She’d read out loud to us her mother’s letters. Giovanna’s mother had died and she had arrived too late to see her die, when she was still alive they had tried to no avail to talk to each other. I’d say that a mother is only needed by children when they’re small, to feed them and cradle them, but then she’s pointless and it’s pointless to talk to her. You can’t even tell her the simplest of things and so what can she do to help? She becomes a burden with that silence that is born out of trying to talk to each other. I’d say that my children no longer needed me, because they no longer needed to be fed and cradled, kids with dirty knees and patches on their shorts, and they weren’t old enough to be able to talk to each other either. But Giovanna would say that there’s only one good way to live, and it’s to get on a train headed to some foreign country, possibly at night. She had everything she needed for a trip at home, she had several thermos holders and many suitcases of all sorts, and even a sick bag for the plane. The Danish girl would tell me to write down my dreams, because our dreams tell us what we’re meant to do, and she’d tell me I should think back to my childhood and talk about it, because the secret of who we are is hidden in our childhood. But my childhood felt so remote and distant, and so remote was the face of my mother, and I was tired of all this thinking about myself, I wanted to look at others and understand what I was like. So I started watching people as I lazily hung out in cafés and on the streets, men and women with their children, maybe some of them had once had that loathing in their heart, then time had passed and they’d forgotten. Maybe someone had waited pointlessly on the corner of a street once, or someone had walked for a whole day in the silence of the dusty city, or someone looked at a dead person’s face and asked them for forgiveness. One day I got a letter from my mother, telling me that the kids had scarlet fever. And so the ancient motherly anxiety paralysed my heart. I took the train and left. Giovanna came with me to the station, and she smelled the smell of trains with desire, brushing the hair away from her forehead with her disdainful smile.
With my forehead stuck to the glass, I watched the city move further away, empty of any evil power by now, cold and harmless as spent embers. The ancient, known motherly anxiety was turmoiling inside me along with the thundering of the train, crushing like a storm the Danish girl, Giovanna, the small hotel’s caretaker, the sleeping pills and the elephants, as I wondered bemusedly to myself how I could’ve been so interested in such trivial things for a whole summer.
At the beginning of winter my father fell ill and took to his bed. He lay in bed for a long time with his bedroom door closed, and we would walk around the house on tiptoe so as not to disturb his rest.
A lot of people came to the house to inquire after my father’s health, but my mother refused to let them into his room, explaining that his sick heart needed rest and quiet. Once a woman we did not know came to the house. She handed my mother a woolen scarf and said:
“You don’t know me. Once I came to see the doctor with a high fever and a sore throat. He gave me medicine and also this scarf to wrap around my neck. He said that when you’re sick in winter you have to keep your throat warm. Now I’m well again and I want to return it to him. I owe him money too, but I haven’t got it now, and the doctor said I should pay when I can.”
That was typical of my father. Sometimes my mother would lose her temper and haul him over the coals for not only treating poor patients for nothing, but even giving away medicines for which he himself had paid the full price. “How do you think we’ll ever make a living”—she would say—“when the only patients we get are all poor people? In any case, people only know how to appreciate what they have to pay for.”
“God will help us,” my father would say serenely, “God helps those who place their trust in him.”
Mother told me that in the old country too father had been a poor man’s doctor, and there too he had never taken money from patients who could not afford to pay. “I remember,” she said, “how a fisherman once brought him three fish instead of money. It was on our betrothal day. His parents came to call on my family, and I cooked the fish for them. They said they had never tasted such delicious fish in their lives.”
Years later, when I grew up, I went to pay a visit to the old country, and in one of the small villages, in the district where my father had worked as a doctor, I met an old woman who said to me: “So you are his daughter. Of course I remember him. Yes, of course, it’s more than forty years ago, you’re right, how the time flies… but we still remember him, we still remember. How could we ever forget a doctor like him who never took money from the poor…”
At the beginning of that winter, when my father took ill, the rains stopped and in the afternoon, when I was doing my homework in the kitchen, my little brother went out to play in the yard.When darkness fell he would come in and play with his cars on the floor in the passage. At this hour the hall of our house would be empty of my father’s patients, who were now being treated by my mother, who was also a doctor. I would go and sit there, in mother’s big armchair, and read. Sometimes, after supper, my father would read aloud to us. We would go into his room for a few moments and he would ask us about our school work and look at my brother’s note-books, which were full of all the words he already knew how to write. When I said goodnight to him he would kiss me and stroke my hair.
At the end of the month of Tevet my father had begun to recover from his illness, and it was precisely then that the weather changed and heavy rains began to fall. It rained without stopping, day and night, and father said jokingly: “I get better, and the deluge comes.”
On the fourteenth of Shevat1 it was still raining, and my father, who was always worried about my health, said that he would not allow me to take part in the tree planting ceremony the next day. I was dying to take part in the ceremony because I had fallen in love with our new youth leader, Raffi. All day long I begged and pleaded with father, until in the end he gave in.
On the morning of Arbor Day it was still raining, and as I was about to leave the house my father said to me:
“Take another sweater and try not to get wet.”
A fine drizzle was falling on the mountainside, and as we walked to the spot where the ceremony was to take place my shoes got full of mud. Raffi was walking next to me and once my hand unintentionally touched his. A sweet feeling filled me for a moment.
When we reached the spot we were met by a man from the Jewish National Fund who told us that we were going to take part in the planting of a forest in honor of the Jewish martyrs. I saw boys and girls all over the mountainside with spades in their hands, planting saplings in basins of loose soil. When I planted my own little sapling and tightened the soil around it black earth stuck to my fingers. “Will my sapling live?” I Asked myself. An inexplicable dread suddenly took hold of me. My heart went out to Raffi, who was standing next to me planting a tree. Perhaps he would say something to comfort me. I straightened my back and looked in his direction. When my eyes met his he did not smile, and I knew that he would not be able to save me.
In the evening, when I came home, I saw my father sitting in his armchair in the hall. He smiled at me. I wanted to run up to him and kiss him, but something stopped me. It was a long time since he had sat in the armchair, and now I saw he was looking better.
On the days that followed the rain went on falling steadily. My father wandered around the house wrapped in his brown woolen dressing gown. He would often come into the kitchen, lean over my shoulder and peep into my exercise books.
Six rainy days went by, and on the seventh day after Arbor Day the sun came out. My father sat with us at the lunch table. He sang the blessing. When we had finished eating he went out to sit on the porch. The sun shone and a light breeze brought sweet scents from the orange groves. My mother sat next to my father and they spoke to each other.
I knew that soon my parents would be relieved of their worries about money. Soon, when my father was well again, he was going to get a job in the hospital.
I sat in the kitchen and did my homework. I soon tired and stood up. The sun had made my father’s cheeks pink and his eyes were shining, and when he smiled at me I forgot all my troubles.
“Have you finished?” he asked.
“I still have to write a composition in English,” I said.
“Go and do it then,” he said.
I moved my place from the kitchen to the hall. The window onto the porch was open and I could see my father and mother and hear them talking. Father said little and mother too fell silent. After a while, when I was absorbed in my composition, I suddenly heard my father say in a queer sounding voice: “I don’t feel well.”
As I was about to rise to my feet, overcome by panic, the door opened and I saw my father coming in, his hands clenched on his month, his back bent and his face very white. I saw my mother supporting him, leading him down the long passage to their room, and I went on standing rooted to the spot. Then I heard my mother’s voice from the other end of the house:
“Quick, run for the doctor!”
For a moment longer I went on standing there, seeing my father’s pale face before me, his eyes blank. Then I rushed into the yard, jumped onto my bicycle, and went to fetch the doctor. When he opened the door I couldn’t speak.
“Hurry, “ I stammered, “hurry…father…” and I raced away.
Instead of going straight home I rode to the wood at the top of the hill not far from our house. I sat down on a bench and my heart was empty. Afterwards I mounted my bike again, and as I rode past our house I saw the doctor crossing the yard on his way in and I knew that only a short time had passed. I was afraid to go home and I rode aimlessly up and down the village streets. In the end I landed up at the wood again and sat down on the bench. How long I sat there I don’t know, but by the time I came home the door of my parents’ room was closed. There was not a sound to be heard. I went into the kitchen and sat down by the table.
There were a few slices of bread lying on a plate. I took a slice and started eating it. After a while the door opened and the doctor came out. I heard the front door slam behind him. A little while later I heard the front door open and a woman neighbor came in, a friend of my mother’s.
“What’s happened?” she asked.
I said nothing.
Then the door of my parents’ room opened and my mother stood in the kitchen door. She looked at me and said:
“Your father is dead,” and then she turned to the neighbor woman and said in their language: “His beautiful daughter is fatherless now.” Then she turned back to me: “Come and see your father for the last time.”
My father’s eyes were closed. His face was blue and there was a faint smile on his lips. His face had never looked so beautiful and so kind as it did then.
When I left the room I went into the bathroom. My father’s brown dressing gown was hanging on a hook on the wall. I buried my head in the gown and kissed it. Afterwards I held the empty sleeves and stroked my face with the rough, warm wool. “I won’t cry, “I promised myself.
The next day a lot of people gathered in the yard of our house. Friends and relations, and my teachers and friends from school. And when the rabbi came they brought my little brother too. He walked with us after the coffin as far as the first synagogue on the way. There he said mourner’s kaddish and afterwards a friend of the family took him away.
My mother did not cry, and my eyes too were dry. Once my glance encountered Raffi, my youth leader, who was walking not far from me, and for a moment the sobs welled up in my throat. I remembered the sudden dread which had seized me when we were in the hills planting the trees, and again I said to myself that he would not be able to save me.
At the cemetery they tore my mother’s dress and mine too. Several people eulogized my father. The coffin was lowered into the hole and the people standing around took spades in their hands and earth fell onto the coffin and began covering it up. I copied my mother and bent down to the ground. My fist fastened round a little clod of earth, wet and black and sticky to the touch of my palm. A clod of earth from a hard land. Perhaps there was a seed in it and in the spring a flower would bloom on my father’s grave. And perhaps then too the little sapling I had planted on the hillside in memory of the martyrs would put out its leaves too. And I—would the ice in my heart ever thaw?
Yesterday the sun shone. A mild spring breeze brought sweet scents from the orange grove. My father sat on the porch of our house and said that soon it would be spring and that in the summer he would start work at the hospital. But now the earth was still muddy, for it had rained the whole month long: water flooded the land and the farmers rejoiced.
*The story is published in cooperation with The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature
*Translation © The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature.
Prison more like, said Madeleine.
Come now, said Mr Kramer.
If I run away they bring me back, said Madeleine.
Yes but, said Mr Kramer.
Mr Kramer often said, Yes but to Madeleine. Something to concede, something to contradict. Now he said again how kind everyone in the Unit was, all his visits never once had he seen any unkindness and couldn’t remember ever hearing a voice raised in anger against any girl or boy. So: not really like a prison.
Then why’s she sitting there? said Madeleine, nodding toward a nurse in the doorway. The nurse did her best to seem oblivious. She was reading a women’s magazine.
You know very well, said Mr Kramer.
So I won’t suddenly scratch your face and say you tried to rape me, said Madeleine. So I won’t suddenly throw myself out of the window.
That sort of thing, said Mr Kramer.
The window was open, but only the regulation few inches, as far as the locks allowed. Mr Kramer and Madeleine looked at it. She’d get through there, he thought, if she tried. Not that I’d ever get through there, said Madeleine, however hard I tried.
The walls of the room were decorated with images, in paintings and collages, of the themes and infinite variations of body and soul in their distress. A face shattering like a window. A range of mountains, stacked like the hoods of the Klan, blocking most of the sky, but from the foreground, in a red zig-zag, into them went a path, climbing, and disappeared. Mr Kramer liked the room. Waiting for Madeleine, or whoever it might be, he stood at the window looking down at a grassy bank that in its seasons, year after year, with very little nurture or encouragement, brought forth out of itself an abundance of ordinary beautiful flowers. At this point in his acquaintance with Madeleine it was the turn of primroses. The air coming in was mild. Behind the bank ran the wall of the ancient enclosure.
Asylum, said Mr Kramer. What is an asylum?
A place they lock nutters up, said Madeleine.
Well yes, said Mr Kramer, but why call it an asylum? Because they’re liars, said Madeleine.
All right, said Mr Kramer. Forget the nutters, as you call them, and the place they get looked after or locked up in, and tell me what you think an asylum-seeker is.
Someone from somewhere bad.
And when they come to the United Kingdom, say, or to France, Germany or Italy, what are they looking for?
Somewhere better than where they’ve come from. What are they seeking?
And what is asylum?
Sanctuary, said Mr Kramer. That’s a very good word. Those poor people come here seeking sanctuary in a land of prisons. An asylum, he said, is a refuge, a shelter, a safe haven. Lunatic asylums, as they used to be called, are places where people disordered in their souls can be housed safely and looked after.
Locked up, said Madeleine. Ward 16, they took Sam there last week.
So he’d be safer, said Mr Kramer. I’m sure of that. Madeleine shrugged.
OK, said Mr Kramer. A bit like a prison, I grant you. Sometimes it has to be a bit like a prison, but always for the best. Not like detention, internment, real prison, nothing like that.
Mr Kramer’s spirits lapsed. He forgot where he was and why. His spirits lapsed or the sadness in him rose. Either way he began to be occluded. An absence. When he returned he saw that Madeleine was looking at him. Being looked at by Madeleine was like being looked at by the moon. The light seemed to come off her face as though reflected from some far-away source. Her look was fearful, but rather as though she feared she had harmed Mr Kramer. Rema says Hi, she said. Rema said say Hi from me to Mr Kramer.
They both brightened.
Thank you, Madeleine, said Mr Kramer. Please give her my best regards next time you speak to her. How is she?
Can’t tell with her, said Madeleine. She’s such a liar. She says she’s down to four and a half stone. Her hair’s falling out, she says, from the starvation. She says she eats a few beansprouts a day and that is all. And drinks half a glass of water. But she’s a liar. It’s only so I’ll look fat. She phones and phones. She wants to get back in here. But Dr Khan says she won’t get back in here by starving herself. That’s blackmail, he says. She might, however, if she puts on weight. Show willing, he says, show you want to get better. Then we’ll see. She says if they won’t let her back she’ll kill herself. Thing is, if she gets well enough to come back here, she thinks they’ll send her home. Soon as she’s sixteen they’ll send her home, her aunty says. But Rema says she’ll kill herself twenty times before she’ll go back home.
Home’s not a war-zone, if I remember rightly, said Mr Kramer.
Her family is, said Madeleine. They are why she is the way she is. So quite understandably she’ll end it all before she’ll go back there.
Rema told me a lovely story once, said Mr Kramer.
Did she write it?
No, she never wrote it. She promised she would but she never did.
Typical, said Madeleine.
Yes, said Mr Kramer. But really it wasn’t so much a story as a place for one. She remembered a house near her village. The house was all shuttered up, it had a paved courtyard with a sort of shrine in the middle and white jasmine growing wild over the balconies and the wooden stairs.
Oh that, said Madeleine. It was an old woman’s and she wanted to do the Hajj and her neighbours lent her the money and the deal was they could keep her house if she didn’t come back and she never came back. That story.
Yes, said Mr Kramer, that story. I thought it very beautiful, the deserted house, I mean, the courtyard and the shrine.
Probably she made it up, said Madeleine. Probably there never was such a house. And anyway she never wrote it.
Mr Kramer felt he was losing the encounter. He glanced at the clock. I thought Rema was your friend, he said.
She is, said Madeleine. I don’t love anyone as much as I love her. But all the same she’s a terrible liar. And mostly to get at me. Four and a half stone! What kind of a stupid lie is that? Did she tell you she wanted to do the Hajj?
She did, said Mr Kramer. Her owl eyes widening and taking in more light, passionately she had told him she longed to do the Hajj.
So why is she starving herself? It doesn’t make sense.
I told her, said Mr Kramer. I said you have to be very strong for a thing like that. However you travel, a pilgrimage is a hard experience. You have to be fit.
Such a liar, said Madeleine.
Anyway, said Mr Kramer. You’ll write your story for next time. About an asylum-seeker, a boy, you said, a boy half your age.
I will, said Madeleine. Where’s the worst place in the world? Apart from here of course.
Hard to say, said Mr Kramer. There’d be quite a competition. But Somalia would take some beating.
I read there are pirates in Somalia.
Off the coast there are. They steal the food the rich people send and the people who need it starve.
Good, said Madeleine. I’ll have pirates in my story.
Madeleine and Mr Kramer faced each other in silence across the table. The nurse had closed her magazine and was watching them. Mr Kramer was thinking that from many points of view the project was a bad one. Madeleine had wanted to write about being Madeleine. Fine, he said, but displace it. Find an image like one of those on the wall. I have, she said. My image is a war-zone. My story is about a child in a war-zone, a boy half my age, who wants to get out to somewhere safe. Asylum, said Mr Kramer. He seeks asylum.
Tell me, Madeleine, said Mr Kramer. Tell me in a word before I go what feeling you know most about and what feeling the little boy will inhabit in your story.
The sleeves of Madeleine’s top had ridden up so that the cuts across her wrists were visible. Seeing them looked at sorrowfully by Mr Kramer she pulled the sleeves down and gripped the end of each very tightly into either palm.
Fear, she said.
Mr Kramer might have taken the bus home. There was a stop not far from Bartlemas where that extraordinary enclosure, its orchard, its gardens, the grassy humps of the ancient hospital, touched modernity on the east-west road. He could have ridden to his house from there, almost door to door, in twenty minutes. Instead, if the weather was at all decent and some days even if it wasn’t he walked home through the parks and allotments, a good long march, an hour and a half or more. That way it was late afternoon before he got in, almost time to be thinking about the cooking of his supper. Then came the evening, for which he always had a plan: a serious television programme, some serious reading, his notes, early to bed.
On his walk that mild spring afternoon Mr Kramer thought about Madeleine and Rema. It distressed him that Madeleine was so scathing about Rema’s story. How cruel they were to one another in their lethal competition! For him the abandoned house had a peculiar power. Rema said it was very quiet there, as soon as you pushed open the wooden gates, no shouting, no dogs, no noise of any traffic. The courtyard was paved with coloured tiles in a complicated pattern whose many intersecting arcs and loops she had puzzled over and tried to follow. The shrine was surely left over from before Partition, it must be a Hindu shrine, the Muslim woman had no use for it. But there it stood in the centre of the courtyard, a carved figure on a pedestal and a place for flowers, candles and offerings, and around it on all four sides the shuttered windows, the balcony, the superabundance of white jasmine. The old woman never came back, said Rema. It was not even known whether she ever reached Mecca, the place of her heart’s desire. So the neighbours kept the house but none had any real use for it. Sometimes their cattle strayed into the courtyard. And there also, when she dared, climbing the wooden stairs and viewing the shrine from the cool and scented balconies, went the child Rema, for sanctuary from the war-zone of her home.
Mr Kramer was watching a programme about the bombings, when the phone rang. Such a programme, after the cooking and the eating and the allowance of three glasses of wine, was a station on his way to bed. But the phone rang. It was Maria, his daughter, from the Ukraine, already midnight, phoning to tell him she had found the very shtetl, the names, the place itself. He caught her tone of voice, the one of all still in the world he was least proof against. He hardly heard the words, only the voice, its peculiar quality. Forest, memorial, the names, he knew what she was saying, but sharper than the words, nearer, flesh of his flesh, he felt the voice that was having to say these things, in a hotel room, three hours ahead, on a savage pilgrimage. The forest, the past, the small voice from so far away, he felt her to be in mortal danger, he felt he must pull her back from where she stood, leaning over the abyss of history, the pit, the extinction of all personal relations. Sweetheart, said Mr Kramer, my darling girl, go to sleep now if you can. And I’ve been thinking. Once you’re back I’ll come and stay with you. After all I cannot bear it on my own. But sleep now if you can.
Mr Kramer had not intended to say any such thing. He had set himself the year at least. One year. Surely a man could watch alone in grief that long.
The Unit phoned. Madeleine had taken an overdose, she was in hospital, back in a day or so. Mr Kramer, about to set off, did the walk anyway, it was a fine spring day, the beech trees leafing softly. He walked right to the gates of Bartlemas, turned and set off home again, making a detour to employ the time he would have spent with Madeleine.
In the evening, last thing, Mr Kramer read his old notes, a weakness he always tried to make up for by at once writing something new. He read for ten minutes, till he hit the words: Rema, her desire to be an owl. Then he leafed forward quickly to the day’s blank page and wrote: I haven’t thought nearly enough about Rema’s desire to be an owl. She said, Do you think I already look like one? I went to the office and asked did we have a mirror. We do, under lock and key. It is a lovely thing, face-shaped and just the size of a face, without a frame, the bare reflecting glass. I held it up for Rema. Describe your face, I said. Describe it exactly. I was a mite ashamed of the licence this exercise gave me to contemplate a girl’s face whilst she, looking at herself, never glancing at me, studied it as a thing to be described. Yes, her nose, quite a thin bony line, might become a beak. Pity to lose the lips. But if you joined the arcs of the brows with the arcs of shadow below the eyes, so accentuating the sockets, yes you might make the widening stare of an owl. The longing for metamorphosis. To become something else, a quite different creature, winged, feathered, intent. Like Madeleine’s, Rema’s face shows the bones. The softness of feathers would perhaps be a comfort. I wonder did she tell Madeleine about the mirror. Shards, the harming.
The Unit phoned, Madeleine was well enough, just about. Mr Kramer stood at the window. The primroses were already finishing. But there would be something else, on and on till the autumn cyclamens. It was a marvellous bank. Then Madeleine and the overweight nurse stood in the doorway, the nurse holding her women’s magazine. Madeleine wore loose trousers and a collarless shirt whose sleeves were far too long. She stood; and towards Mr Kramer, fearfully and defiantly, she presented her face and neck, which she had cut. Oh Maddy, said Mr Kramer, can’t you ever be merciful? Will you never show yourself any mercy?
The nurse sat in the open doorway and read her magazine. Madeleine and Mr Kramer faced each other across the small table. All the same, said Madeleine through her lattice of black cuts, I’ve made a start. Shall I read it? Yes, said Mr Kramer. Madeleine read:
Samuel lived with his mother. The soldiers had killed his father. Some of the soldiers were only little boys. Samuel and his mother hid in the forest. Every day she had to leave him for several hours to go and look for food and water. He waited in fear that she would not come back. There was nothing to do. He curled up in the little shelter, waiting. One day Samuel’s mother did not come back. He waited all night and all the next day and all the next night. Then he decided he must go and look for her or for some food and water at least because the emergency supplies she had left him were all gone. He followed the trail his mother had made day after day. It came to a road. She had told him that the road was very dangerous. But beyond the road were fields and in them, if you were lucky, you might find some things to eat that the farmers had planted before the soldiers came and burned their village. Samuel halted at the road. It was long and straight in both directions and very dusty. A little way off he saw a truck burning and another truck upside down in the ditch. But there were no soldiers. Samuel hurried across. Quite soon, just as his mother had said, he saw women and girls in blue and white clothes moving slowly over the land looking for food. Perhaps his mother would be among them after all? At the very least, somebody would surely give him food and water.
Madeleine lifted her face. That’s as far as I got, she said. It’s crap, isn’t it? No, said Mr Kramer, it is very good. Crap, said Madeleine. Tell me, Madeleine, said Mr Kramer, did you write this before or after you did that to your face? After, said Madeleine. I wrote it this morning. I did my face two nights ago, after they brought me back here from the hospital. Good, said Mr Kramer. That’s a very good thing. It means you can sympathise with other people’s lives even when your own distresses you so much you cut your face. I know the rest, said Madeleine with a sudden eagerness. I know how it goes on and how it ends. Shall I tell you? – Will you still be able to write it if you tell? – Yes, yes. – You promise? – Yes, I promise. – Tell then.
She laid her sleeves, in which her hands were hiding, flat on the table and began to speak, rapidly, staring into his eyes, transfixing him with the eagerness of her fiction.
In among the people looking for food he meets a girl. She’s my age. Her name is Ruth. The soldiers have killed her father too. Ruth’s mother hid with her and when the soldiers came looking she made Ruth stay in hiding and gave herself up to them. That was the end of her. But Ruth was taken by the other women and hid with them and went looking for food when it was safe. When Samuel came into the fields Ruth decided to look after him. She was like a sister to Samuel, a good big sister, or a mother, a good and loving mother. When it was safe to light a fire she cooked for him, the best meal she could. After a while the soldiers came back again, the fields were too dangerous, all the women hid in the forest but Ruth had heard that if you could only get to the coast you could maybe find someone with a boat who would carry you across the sea to Italy and the European Union, where it was really safe. So that’s what she did, with Samuel, she set off for the coast, only travelling at night, on foot, by moonlight and starlight, steering clear of the villages in flames.
Sounds good, said Mr Kramer. Sounds very exciting. All you have to do now is write it. You’ve looked at a map, I suppose? The nearest coast is no use at all. That’s where the pirates are. You need the north coast really, through the desert. And crossing the desert is said to be a terrible thing. You have to pay truckers to take you, I believe. Yes, said Madeleine, I thought she’d do better on the east coast, with the pirates. A pirate chief says he’ll take her and Samuel all the way to Libya but it will cost her a lot of money. When she says she has no money he says she can marry him, for payment that is, until they get to Libya, then he’ll sell her to a friend of his, who will take her and Samuel into the European Union, which is like the Promised Land, he says, and there she will be safe, but she’ll have to marry his friend as well, for the voyage from Libya into Italy. I asked Rema would she do it and she said she wouldn’t, she couldn’t, because of the things at home, but she said I could, Ruth in my story should, it would save the two of them, they would have a new life in the European Union and God would mercifully forgive her the sin. She says Hi, by the way. She asked me to ask you are you all right. She said it seemed to her you were a bit lonely sometimes. Thank you, said Mr Kramer, I’m fine. And guess what, said Madeleine, she doesn’t want to do the Hajj any more, not till she’s an old woman, and she doesn’t want to make Dr Khan have her back here either. No, she’s decided she’ll be a primary school teacher. Plus she’s down to four stone. So it’s all lies as usual.
A primary school teacher is a very good idea, said Mr Kramer. But of course you have to be strong for that. As strong as for a pilgrimage.
I told her that, said Madeleine. So she’s still a liar. Anyway, another thing about Ruth is that when she’s with the first pirate, as his prostitute, all the way up the Red Sea he sends her ashore to the markets – Samuel he keeps on board as a hostage – and she has to go and buy all the ingredients for his favourite meals, I’ve researched it, baby okra and lamb in tomato stew, for example, onion pancakes, fish and peppers, shoe-lace pastry, spicy creamy cheeses, all delicious, up the coast to Suez. So she makes her Lord and Master happy and Samuel gets strong.
Will they stay in Italy, Mr Kramer asked, if the second pirate keeps his word and carries her across the Mediterranean? No, said Madeleine, breathless on her story, they’re heading for Swansea. There’s quite an old Somali community in Swansea. I’ve researched it. They’ve been there a hundred years. At first she’ll live in a hostel, doing the cooking for everybody so that everybody likes her. Samuel goes to school and as soon as he’s settled Ruth will go to the CFE and get some qualifications.
Madeleine, said Mr Kramer, it’s very hard to enter the United Kingdom. Ruth and Samuel will need passports. I’ve thought of that, said Madeleine. The first pirate chief has a locker full of passports from people who died on his boat and because Ruth is such a good cook he gives her a couple and swears they’ll get her and Samuel through Immigration, no problem.
Rema should go to the CFE, said Mr Kramer. I believe the Home Office would extend her visa if she was in full-time education. And if she trained as a primary school teacher, who knows what might happen?
She’s a liar, said Madeleine, very white, almost translucent her face through the savage ornamentation of her cuts. She’s supposed to be my friend. If she was really my friend she’d come back here. Then we’d both be all right like we were before she left me.
You want to stay here?
Yes, said Madeleine. It’s safer here.
Why overdose? Why cut yourself?
The nurse was watching and listening.
Because I’m frightened.
My daughter was frightened, said Mr Kramer, and she’s twice your age. All the time her mother was ill, four and a half years, she got more and more frightened. And now she’s gone to the Ukraine, would you believe it, all on her own and not speaking the language, to research our family history. She phoned me the other night from the place itself, a terrible place, I never want to go there, all on her own, at midnight, in a hotel. Write your story, won’t you? You promised me. Somalia is very likely the worst place in the world and Swansea is a very good place, by all accounts. What an achievement it will be if you can get Ruth and Samuel safely there!
Madeleine’s white hands with their bitten nails still hid in her sleeves. All the animation had gone out of her. I’ll never get to Swansea from Somalia, she said. Never, never, never. I can’t even want to get out of here.
First the story, Madeleine, said Mr Kramer. First comes the fiction. Get Ruth and Samuel out of the killing fields, get them by the cruelty and kindness of pirates into a holding camp on the heel of Italy, get them north among strangers, not speaking a word of the language – devise it, work out the necessary means. You promised. Who knows what might happen if you get that lucky pair to Swansea?
*This story is taken from: In Another Country: Selected Stories Copyright © David Constantine, 2015.
My father died at six in the evening.
After the doctor told us the news, we went home. Ariane drove, and I sat next to her. Neither of us spoke. The taste of the coffee from the machine at the hospital still lingered in my mouth. I looked at the road illuminated by the headlights of our car and the cars coming towards us. There weren’t many; it was on a Friday evening.
When we got home, the kids were already asleep. Ariane paid the babysitter and walked her to the door. I went into the kitchen and sat down. I could hear Ariane saying goodbye, and the door closing. She turned off the living room light, came into the kitchen, and put on the kettle. Then she asked me if I wanted a cup of coffee.
I told her I did. I listened to the spoon clanging against the mugs as she poured in the boiling water.
“It’s better this way,” she said. “He was only suffering. In the last few weeks, he was only suffering. Believe me,” she said. “It’s better this way. For everyone.” Then she said, “It’s not just the last few weeks. It’s been going on for a few months already. He never used to sit on the porch that way. I mean, a year ago, for example. He didn’t sit on the porch that way.”
“I don’t know,” I said. I thought about it.
She put my coffee on the table next to me, and stood there for a minute with her hands on the back of the chair. She touched her face. “I’m wiped out,” she said. “And I’m hungry, too. Do you want anything to eat?”
I said no. “But you go ahead,” I said. “Make yourself something to eat.”
“O.K.,” she said. “I’m wiped out.” She stood there for a minute, her hands on either side of her neck, then lit a cigarette and started taking things out of the refrigerator. While she got her food ready, I drank my coffee and tried to think about what had happened and what I was feeling. I thought about the last few days.
“I’ve got to call my mother,” said Ariane. “I almost forgot. I’ll call her right now.” She carried her ash tray over to the phone. She left the food on the counter.
There was still a lot to do before the funeral, and I had no idea where to begin. How would I publish a death announcement, for example? When my mother died, my father took care of everything. This was the first time I ever had to deal with these things myself. I could hear Ariane talking to her mother in the hall. I lit a cigarette and tossed the match into the sink. I thought about my father.
About a year after we got married, he started pestering me about the apartment. He didn’t like the fact that we lived with Ariane’s parents. Especially after the child was born. He kept on telling us that it wasn’t good for our son and it wasn’t good for us. But at the time, we had no choice. We didn’t have any money. He said he was willing to help us out, but I didn’t ask him how much he could afford. He didn’t have a lot of money, that much I knew. Not even enough to get us started.
It took another year or so until I was able to take out a mortgage and could finally buy this apartment. We moved in over the summer, while the building was still being renovated. I was still fixing things inside the apartment. Mirrors, closets, bathroom shelves, things like that. Ariane and the baby slept in the small bedroom, and I slept in the still-empty living room.
The day we installed the kitchen cabinets- and they were still empty, I hadn’t even had a chance to clean up the sawdust- my father came to visit.
We stood in the new kitchen. He was so happy that he was smiling to himself every time there was a pause in the conversation. He brushed some dust off the counter, and I looked at his hand, the hand with the ring. That’s how I always remembered his hand, ever since I was a little boy. A hand with a wedding ring.
After a few minutes, Ariane came back and lit up another cigarette. She sat at the table and put the ashtray between us. She glanced at the candlestick holder that I was using as an ashtray. “It’s O.K.,” she said. “We shouldn’t have any trouble. You can do everything over the phone. But it can wait. Tomorrow’s Saturday,” she said, “there aren’t any papers. There’s nothing we have to do right now.”
Her coffee was tepid, and she went over to the sink and spilled it down the drain. I could see from her hair that she’d been pressing her forehead to her hand while she’d been on the phone.
It was a relief, that it was all over, I’m not denying it. At least I don’t have to go back to the hospital. I don’t know how many hours I spend sitting on that bench in the ward, staring at the doors. Almost ten days, almost all the time. I went home to shower and occasionally to sleep, but I spent most of my nights there. Sometimes Ariane took my place. Sometimes we sat there together.
Ariane put more water in the kettle. “Do you want some more coffee?” she asked.
I said no. Then she started putting everything back in the fridge. She hadn’t eaten a thing.
I rubbed my face. I felt tired and dirty. I felt the fatigue in my bones. But I didn’t have any desire to go to sleep. While Ariane was making the coffee, I stared at the table and tried to figure out what I was feeling.
“Do you want to shower first?” she asked. She threw her spoon into the sink. “Or do you want to have more coffee now and I’ll shower?” I looked at her coffee. She was holding it in the air, between us. She had just stirred it, and it was still swishing around inside the cup, a tiny whirlpool. One of us would have to drink it, and the other one would have to shower. That’s how it stood.
I closed my eyes and tried to calm down.
“Do you want it or not?” Ariane asked.
“I don’t want any coffee,” I said, “O.K.? You already asked me, and I told you I didn’t want any. Stop making me coffee. Go take a shower.”
She shrugged her shoulders and put the coffee on the counter. Then she said, “I’m going to shower. I’m falling asleep on my feet. I’m really wiped out.” She put her hands on my shoulders. “I’m falling off my feet,” she said. “Take a shower before you go to sleep, O.K.? Take a shower. You’ll feel better after you shower.”
“O.K.,” I said. I looked at her back as she left the kitchen.
A few years before my mother died, I suddenly noticed that my father was an old man. I hadn’t thought about it before. But one day, I think it was on Pesach, or maybe Rosh Ha-Shanah, I suddenly understood. It was a few months after I got married. I had brought them a toaster-oven as a holiday gift. For a long time, I’d been urging my mother to buy one, but she didn’t want to. And it irked me. She never liked new things, my mother. We’d always argue about it. But I knew how useful it was, so I bought them one anyway, for the holiday. It was a big one, top of the line. We took it out of the box, and my father and I went into the kitchen to try it out. But nothing happened. Nothing. We couldn’t even get it to turn on.
My father took out the instruction manual and we read through it a second time. Then he spread a sheet of newspaper over the floor and put the toaster oven on top of it, upside-down. It upset him that it didn’t work. We crouched down on all fours, unscrewed it, and took out the base. And then I looked at my father. He’d taken off his glasses and set them aside, on the newspaper. He looked strange without them. Like he was naked. He looked into the toaster oven, but I could tell he had no idea what he was looking for.
At that very moment, it dawned on me. I realized that all his life, my father’s had lousy luck. Life had screwed him over, and he’d never retaliated. I thought that whatever gift I’d brought, it wouldn’t have worked. It was doomed from the start. I could have brought him a television or a stereo or a lawn-mower or anything, and it wouldn’t have worked. But the worst part of it was that he always felt like he had to apologize. I watched him bending down, without his eyeglasses, telling me he was sorry I’d brought him something that didn’t work. That was the day I realized he was an old man. When I went to sleep that night, I couldn’t get that image out of my head. My father, without his glasses, leaning over the toaster oven.
I sat there in the kitchen and listened to the water running in the shower, then stopping. I thought about that young doctor who came out and told us that my father had died. And I suddenly wanted to hit him. I don’t know. Maybe it was the way he said it. I hadn’t noticed it when he spoke to us at the hospital, but I remembered it later. From the moment he opened his mouth, I knew. I shouldn’t have listened to the rest of it. He spoke like he knew exactly how he was supposed to do it. To make it easier for the family. He was pleased with the way he spoke. With the way he told me that my father had died. At that moment, when I remembered it, I could have killed him. I could have done it with my own two hands.
*The story is published in cooperation with The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature
*Translation © The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature.
Here in the city lives a prince whose left arm is like any other man’s and whose right arm is a swan’s wing.
He and his eleven brothers were turned into swans by their vituperative stepmother, who had no intention of raising the twelve sons of her husband’s former wife (whose pallid, mortified face stared glassily from portrait after portrait; whose unending pregnancies had dispatched her before her fortieth birthday). Twelve brawling, boastful boys; twelve fragile and rapacious egos; twelve adolescences—all presented to the new queen as routine aspects of her job. Do we blame her? Do we, really?
She turned the boys into swans, and commanded them to fly away.
She spared the thirteenth child, the youngest, because she was a girl, though the stepmother’s fantasies about shared confidences and daylong shopping trips evaporated quickly enough. Why, after all, would a girl be anything but surly and petulant toward the woman who’d turned her brothers into birds? And so—after a certain patient lenience toward sulking silences, after a number of ball gowns purchased but never worn—the queen gave up. The princess lived in the castle like an impoverished relative, fed and housed, tolerated but not loved.
The twelve swan-princes lived on a rock far out at sea, and were permitted only an annual, daylong return to their kingdom, a visit that was both eagerly anticipated and awkward for the king and his consort. It was hard to exult in a day spent among twelve formerly stalwart and valiant sons who could only, during that single yearly interlude, honk and preen and peck at mites as they flapped around in the castle courtyard. The king did his best at pretending to be glad to see them. The queen was always struck by one of her migraines.
Years passed. And then… At long last…
On one of the swan-princes’ yearly furloughs, their little sister broke the spell, having learned from a beggar woman she met while picking berries in the forest that the only known cure for the swan transformation curse was coats made of nettles.
However. The girl was compelled to knit the coats in secret, because they needed (or so the beggar woman told her) not only to be made of nettles, but of nettles collected from graveyards, after dark. If the princess was caught gathering nettles from among tombstones, past midnight, her stepmother would surely have accused her of witchcraft, and had her burned along with the rest of the garbage. The girl, no fool, knew she couldn’t count on her father, who by then harbored a secret wish (which he acknowledged not even to himself) to be free of all his children.
The princess crept nightly into local graveyards to gather nettles, and spent her days weaving them into coats. It was, as it turned out, a blessing that no one in the castle paid much attention to her.
She had almost finished the twelve coats when the local archbishop (who was not asked why he himself happened to be in a graveyard so late at night) saw her picking nettles, and turned her in. The queen felt confirmed in her suspicions (this being the girl who shared not a single virginal secret, who claimed complete indifference to shoes exquisite enough to be shown in museums). The king, unsurprisingly, acceded, hoping he’d be seen as strong and unsentimental, a true king, a king so devoted to protecting his people from the darker forces that he’d agree to the execution of his own daughter, if it kept his subjects safe, free of curses, unafraid of demonic transformations.
Just as the princess was about to be burned at the stake, however, the swan-brothers descended from the smoky sky, and their sister threw the coats onto them. Suddenly, with a loud crackling sound, amid a flurry of sparkling wind, twelve studly young men, naked under their nettle coats, stood in the courtyard, with only a few stray white feathers wafting around them.
…there were eleven fully intact princes and one, the twelfth, restored save for a single detail—his right arm remained a swan’s wing, because his sister, interrupted at her work, had had to leave one coat with a missing sleeve.
It seemed a small-enough price to pay.
Eleven of the young men soon married, had children, joined organizations, gave parties that thrilled everyone, right down to the mice in the walls. Their thwarted stepmother, so raucously outnumbered, so unmotherly, retreated to a convent, which inspired the king to fabricate memories of abiding loyalty to his transfigured sons and helplessness before his harridan of a wife, a version the boys were more than willing to believe.
End of story. “Happily ever after” fell on everyone like a guillotine’s blade.
It was difficult for the twelfth brother, the swan-winged one. His father, his uncles and aunts, the various lords and ladies, were not pleased by the reminder of their brush with such sinister elements, or their unskeptical willingness to execute the princess as she worked to save her siblings.
The king’s consort made jokes about the swan-winged prince, which his eleven flawlessly formed brothers took up readily, insisting they were only meant in fun. The young nieces and nephews, children of the eleven brothers, hid whenever the twelfth son entered a room, and giggled from behind the chaises and tapestries. His brothers’ wives asked repeatedly that he do his best to remain calm at dinner (he was prone to gesticulating with the wing while telling a joke, and had once flicked an entire haunch of venison against the opposite wall).
The palace cats tended to snarl and slink away whenever he came near.
Finally he packed a few things and went out into the world. The world, however, proved no easier for him than the palace had been. He could only get the most menial of jobs. He had no marketable skills (princes don’t), and just one working hand. Every now and then a woman grew interested, but it always turned out that she was briefly drawn to some Leda fantasy or, worse, hoped her love could bring him back his arm. Nothing ever lasted. The wing was awkward on the subway, impossible in cabs. It had to be checked constantly for lice. And unless it was washed daily, feather by feather, it turned from the creamy white of a French tulip to a linty, dispiriting gray.
He lived with his wing as another man might live with a dog adopted from the pound: sweet-tempered, but neurotic and untrainable. He loved his wing, helplessly. He also found it exasperating, adorable, irritating, wearying, heartbreaking. It embarrassed him, not only because he didn’t manage to keep it cleaner, or because getting through doors and turnstiles never got less awkward, but because he failed to insist on it as an asset. Which wasn’t all that hard to imagine. He could see himself selling himself as a compelling metamorphosis, a young god, proud to the point of sexy arrogance of his anatomical deviation: ninety percent thriving muscled man-flesh and ten percent glorious blindingly white angel wing.
Baby, these feathers are going to tickle you halfway to heaven, and this man-part is going to take you the rest of the way.
Where, he asked himself, was that version of him? What dearth of nerve rendered him, as year followed year, increasingly paunchy and slack-shouldered, a walking apology? Why was it beyond his capacities to get back into shape, to cop an attitude, to stroll insouciantly into clubs in a black lizardskin suit with one sleeve cut off?
Yeah, right, sweetheart, it’s a wing, I’m part angel, but trust me, the rest is pure devil.
He couldn’t seem to manage that. He might as well have tried to run a three-minute mile, or become a virtuoso on the violin.
He’s still around. He pays his rent one way or another. He takes his love where he can find it. In late middle age he’s grown ironic, and cheerful in a toughened, seen-it-all way. He’s become possessed of a world-weary wit. He’s realized he can either descend into bitterness or become a wised-up holy fool. It’s better, it’s less mortifying, to be the guy who understands that the joke’s on him, and is the first to laugh when the punch line lands.
Most of his brothers back at the palace are on their second or third wives. Their children, having been cosseted and catered to all their lives, can be difficult. The princes spend their days knocking golden balls into silver cups, or skewering moths with their swords. At night they watch the jesters and jugglers and acrobats perform.
The twelfth brother can be found, most nights, in one of the bars on the city’s outer edges, the ones that cater to people who were only partly cured of their curses, or not cured at all. There’s the three-hundred-year-old woman who wasn’t specific enough when she spoke to the magic fish, and found herself crying, “No, wait, I meant alive and young forever,” into a suddenly empty sea. There’s the crownletted frog who can’t seem to truly love any of the women willing to kiss him, and break the spell. There’s the prince who’s spent years trying to determine the location of the comatose princess he’s meant to revive with a kiss, and has lately been less devoted to searching mountain and glen, more prone to bar-crawling, given to long stories about the girl who got away.
In such bars, a man with a single swan wing is considered lucky.
His life, he tells himself, is not the worst of all possible lives. Maybe that’s enough. Maybe that’s what there is to hope for—that it merely won’t get any worse.
Some nights, when he’s stumbled home smashed (there are many such nights), negotiated the five flights up to his apartment, turned on the TV, and passed out on the sofa, he awakes, hours later, as the first light grays the slats of the venetian blinds, with only his hangover for company, to find that he’s curled his wing over his chest and belly; or rather (he knows this to be impossible, and yet…) that the wing has curled itself, by its own volition, over him, both blanket and companion, his devoted resident alien, every bit as imploring and ardent and inconvenient as that mutt from the pound would have been. His dreadful familiar. His burden, his comrade.
*This story is reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers Ltd© Michael Cunningham, 2015.
Miriam tells them that he built the house himself with his own hands. She tells them how he piled up the rocks on rainy days, so that they’d get good and soaked before he soldered them into the cement. She tells them that it’s on the border of two regions, a magical place, inhabited by spirits, meigas. She explains what meigas are, using the original name, they repeat it, stopping on each syllable, with the respect of someone reciting a prayer.
Miriam makes up this whole story, jumping from one sentence to the next on tiptoes, like agile feet over river rocks, and she modulates her soft voice in such a way that he himself ends up believing this distorted version of the truth. Miriam goes silent, a pause long enough for Rafael to glance at his hands, no longer rough like before. Then he arches his back, now less flexible, and thinks that soon it will all be gone, this house, filled up with the careless junk collected by Miriam, who hasn’t shut up since they arrived.
“I’m going out to get some air.”
When Rafael says this, she gesticulates for the English. She begins to smoke an invisible cigarette and blows out smoke no one can see. She looks like a showgirl. He’ll wait till he’s outside to light it. In the entryway, he’s distracted by the wallpaper, which she hung haphazardly one Sunday morning, just to see how it looked, just to try it out. One corner wants to come unstuck. He rubs his fingertips over it, caressing it. The paper peels up like a strip of beech bark.
The cold surprises him. He lights the cigarette and walks in circles, staring at the orangey ember of its tip. He turns and looks behind him. He takes it in from this perspective. The land is on a hillside. There’s a part where the slope flattens out. On really rainy days, the water flows rapidly in that direction, as if it’s being chased by a bird of prey. Inside, someone uncorks another bottle and immediately a peal of laughter is heard. He thinks it was Miriam. Then he thinks that it could’ve been any woman.
“In a year, maybe two, you won’t even remember this place,” she’d said to him.
They’d arranged to meet the English to close the sale.
He went alone in the morning. The highway seemed more empty of cars, more hollow. The ploughed fields blurred past in the rearview mirror.
“I’m going to take one last look,” he’d said picking up the car keys. “I’m sure there’s something we left behind.”
He closes the door. He doesn’t expect an answer.
When he arrives, he goes up to the top floor. The fluorescent light in the bathroom trembles. He looks at himself in the mirror, opens the side sections and sees his face triple. It’s the last time I’ll shave in this sink, he thinks, and he doesn’t know if that’s why he does it so slowly, sliding the razor several times over the same grooves. Before pulling up the metal stopper, he looks for the crack in the tile behind the hot water tap. He only has to feel around for a few seconds. There it is. A quarter turn of the wrench scraped the enamel when it was installed. He moves a bit closer, raises his chin to shave a dimple, then he wipes his face. He packs everything up with the carefulness of a murderer and goes outside.
He needs a ladder from the garage to take down the swing. He remembers when the girls swung in it, a photo of Miriam rocking back and forth with the littlest one in her arms. He wondered where that photo was, if it had been lost in the most recent move. It doesn’t make sense anymore. The girls are grown, they’re busy with other things. He tries to remove the nails, but they’ve been encrusted in the tree for so long that they’ve become part of the branch. He gets the pruning shears and cuts the ropes. The seat hits the ground with a thud.
He’s tired from the effort. His heart pounds, for a different reason than it did back then, a faraway sound, like from the bottom of a well.
The lounge chair is still in the garden. He straddles it and looks at the woods in front of him. Someone has left behind a book of crossword puzzles, open to the middle. It must’ve been Miriam. She always starts things with manic enthusiasm then never finishes, he thinks. He picks the book up by its spine, the same way he’d pick up a puppy by the scruff of its neck, and tries to fill in the three horizontal lines that are missing. Mesopotaminan River, six letters. Roman emperor, eight. C-L-A-U-D-I-U-S. Claudius fits, but he doesn’t have a pen. He’d have to go inside and rummage through the drawers to find one. He crumples the book and throws it against a tree. The wind violently ruffles the top pages.
“I’ll put it all in the car and get rid of it,” he says aloud.
He remains in that position for a few seconds. He caresses the striped fabric of the lounge chair, the holes that time and use have left on its surface. He should fold it up, but he’s not sure he remembers how. He could stuff it in somehow, even if he had to leave the trunk open, and toss it onto the dump, beside the shredded couches, washing machine chassis. To seal the goodbye, he takes the keys out of his jeans’ pocket and stabs the longest one into the foam cushion. Another hole, new, fresh, intentional, separates a blue stripe from a white one. And no one will ever bother to sew it up.
He stands up and drags himself out of the small garden, his eyes fixed on the river. He can see it through the trees which have become denser with the summer. He feels like he’s following someone’s trail, a guide, past the property line. Under his feet, the ground is wet. In the canopy of the tallest tree, he hears a bird singing. He listens. He wonders if it will still be perched there when this place no longer belongs to him and he thinks that it will be, for a long time, until the next cold season. He turns around, admires the overgrown lawn that reaches the base of the house, the subtle yellowish color, the gray stone wall. He continues walking. He pushes aside some branches that weren’t there last year, or any previous year. It’s like pushing back a lush curtain. Then he can see, from afar, without having to walk down to the bank, Ruth’s silhouette stepping out of the water, her legs, her rounded shoulders, her hair soaked from the swim, with the unsteady wobble of someone standing on rounded pebbles.
“Take off that old jacket,” she’d shout from the water, her arms outstretched.
Miriam welcomed them today with her arms outstretched.
“Welcome to your home,” she’d said, fluidly, but her pronunciation had been better when she’d rehearsed it beforehand.
Miriam speaks only basic English and the English don’t speak any Spanish at all. It doesn’t matter. They really like the Galician wine Rafael keeps in the pantry.
“Bueno, muy bueno,” they say in unison. That much they can say.
Rafael goes inside proceeded by a mouthful of smoke that he doesn’t try to hide. In front of him, Miriam holds a bottle by the neck. She wipes it with a cloth before removing the cork. The English are starting to get a little drunk, they speak quickly to each other and Miriam can’t keep up. They’ve sat on the couch with their glasses in their hands. You’d think they’d lived there all their lives. Miriam has turned on the television and tries to explain a game show. They seem interested, but maybe they’re just being polite and don’t actually understand anything.
“Come here, sit with us,” Miriam says.
But he remains standing beside the window, hoping they finish all the wine, until there’s nothing left there.
Outside the window, on the other side of the garden, the hillside waves gently, like a huge carpet being shaken out and left flapping in the wind.
Ruth worked at his company, which made their meetings very easy. They left work at the same time, met on the second level of the parking garage. No one parked there because they could park on the street level and save themselves a few flights of stairs. Ruth was twenty-five years old, her eyes were murky and her nose was straight. She was always preceded by the echo of her heels on the cement floor of the parking garage.
In the beginning, he didn’t take her to the house. At first they went to the hostels on the outskirts of town, trying not to repeat the same ones too often. Ruth reserved the rooms herself. He remembered her boldness, always ready to play. On one occasion, they’d ended up in a hotel at the airport. The planes roared like furious elephants and then they couldn’t hear anything. Then a terrifying silence. Out the window, like now, but in another place, was the glass-walled side of a terminal.
As he drove, Ruth sat beside him, her svelte ballerina’s neck, her cheeks, her perfume mixed with the smell of the office collected behind her neck.
“I like your car,” she’d say. “Have I ever told you l like your car?”
They’d sit and have coffee at the metal table in the garden. Ruth’s blouse wet from her hair. She stretched out sometimes on the striped chair, recently purchased at the time, and closed her eyes, but she didn’t fall asleep. Without makeup or with smudges of mascara under her eyes she was even more attractive. Rafael walked around barefoot and he didn’t think about her, he thought about the days that would come, about all the Fridays of his life that would be completely uneventful, exactly the same as that one.
“Is there any cheese left in the fridge?” asked Ruth.
On one occasion they shared a cake, him standing, her sitting on the countertop. They didn’t even use plates. Rafael doesn’t want to recall whether it was left over from a kid’s party, one of the girls’ birthdays.
“Is there any wine in the kitchen?” Miriam asks. “I think these people drank it all.”
“If there’s none left in the pantry, we’re all out.”
He looks Miriam in the eye. Her face reminds him of all the photos they’ve put into the photo albums.
The English finally understand how the game show works and are overcome with a kind of euphoria. It consists of guessing a location through images that appear for a few seconds on screen. They assure them that there is a similar TV program in their country. They go silent when the image of a very tall tower shaped like a mushroom appears.
“Toronto, Canada,” says the English man, accentuating the first A.
The game show host confirms the answer. Miriam claps.
“Muy bien, muy Bueno.”
She says this in Spanish. They understand and the English man responds by sticking up his thumbs in a gesture of triumph.
Rafael sits in one of the chairs at the table where they had dinner, at a prudential distance from the others. Crumpled paper napkins and breadcrumbs on the tablecloth, dried pâté on the dessert plates. He rubs his chin, shaved this morning. The glass of the window returns his translucent and deformed reflection, his hair gray and too long, his bulging abdomen that now makes him uncomfortable in certain positions, like when tying his shoes or fertilizing the hydrangeas.
“We’ll be good friends for a long time,” Ruth had promised.
He’s suddenly overcome with a feeling of relief, deep relief and sadness. He tries to remember the name of the blond guy, Julian or Jaime, the reason Ruth never went back into the river. When the company retired him early, he drove by the new offices many times. Sometimes he was tempted to go down into the parking garage, look for her red Golf. He never had the nerve. She’d probably bought a new car by now, a convertible. She might even have a child.
The English sleep in what is now already their former bedroom. Rafael can’t fall asleep. He hears distant noises in the night, an intermittent flapping of wings. His insomnia pulls his thoughts to the tank of the toilet on the ground floor, next to the kitchen. He imagines the trickle of water, the calcium solidifying slowly on the walls of the bowl. Miriam drank a little too much and her breathing, from the other single bed, is rhythmic. She hugs a pillow tightly.
They’re spending the night in the room where the girls used to sleep. There’s a sky of glowing stars above their heads, missing the heavier planets which over time came unstuck as the glue deteriorated. Rafael sleeps in some uncertain location between the moon and Orion.
In the morning a sharp light comes in through the vertical slats of the shutters. He feels someone shaking his shoulder.
“Come on, man, get up.”
His head is heavy. He slept badly, in fits and starts, waking up every once in a while and wondering where he was. He suddenly remembers. The last hours of light, some loose tiles on the shed that he fixed that morning, the hands of the English man gripping the right side of the page, the tip of the pen signing the check. He feels an almost imperceptible twist of his heart, which disappears almost immediately.
“Let’s go, what are you waiting for, let’s get out of here.”
It’s the first time he’s heard Miriam use this expression. He sits up, annoyed, and puts on his jacket. He slept in his clothes. His body leaves a deep groove in the bedspread. He rubs his hand over the top, but the wrinkles don’t disappear. It’s Miriam who closes the front door, after placing the set of keys on the table in the entryway.
“You think they’ll see them?” she asks once they’re already outside.
Rafael shrugs his shoulders. He stares into the hedges with an expression of boredom, he sighs. He remembers for an instant Ruth’s face with her makeup smudged and all he knows is that one of her nostrils was smaller than the other.
“They’ll see the keys, right?” Miriam asks again.
Miriam looks up to the windows on the second floor. A few fluffy clouds chase each other across the bright blue sky. Rafael is certain Miriam is going to say something to him, that she’s going to ask him to force open the door to write them a note and stick it to the fridge or something like that, but then she gets in the car and says in a girlish voice: “Will you drive me to the city?”
The gravel crunches under the weight of the tires. Rafael reverses. He’s always afraid of running over the dog when he does this and he opens the door to see better, but the dog died of old age and is buried under the oak. He pictures the girls’ hot tears as he threw shovelfuls of dirt over the animal.
Under the back wheels there’s nothing but a gentle slope and the white rocks marking the way out.
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.
It has to be done, that’s clear, and today’s the day. Anne has an appointment – today, not tomorrow – and she’ll go there, and they’ll suck the embryo out of her. She’s going on her own. “Max,” she said, “I have to do this on my own. I don’t want you to come.”
I said, “Are you sure? Do you not want me to collect you either? Think about it, please – you don’t really want to be alone when you wake up, do you?” But Anne tilted her head slightly to one side and gave me a stern look, as if to say, This is my body, and you know where you can stick your leading question, so please just accept it, OK. And that was that. The worldly-wise Anne. When she’s got that look, it means keep your mouth shut or soon we’ll be having a screaming match. That much I know. Call it empirical evidence. We’ve been together for over two years.
Anne is dolling herself up big time. She’s been in the bathroom for three quarters of an hour already. I could hear the hairdryer a while ago, and before that she took another shower. Whenever the two of us are going out she doesn’t take half as long, and she goes round the apartment at least twice, shouting that she has nothing to wear. Then she comes into my room and stands in front of me, always a little lopsided, one leg bent slightly, all stressed out and panting with effort, and asks if she looks OK like that. Each time I fall a little in love with that stance, and with the panting, and I say, “You look great. You look fantastic.” I say the same about every outfit. It’s a ritual.
She emerges from the bathroom in her underwear, heads straight for her room, and closes the door without saying a word. I have no idea what to do with myself. I sit on the kitchen couch and study my fingernails; every now and then I bite off a bit of cuticle. I’m waiting, waiting for it to be over. I’m listening for sounds in the apartment, so that I can hear what Anne is doing. I’d rather be drinking, to be honest, preferably since this morning. Anne is getting dressed.
Three months ago, none of this would even have been possible. Anne hardly ever felt like sex any more. It was frustrating, for her and for me, and getting a little worse week by week. At first the problem only arose when we tried to make love and it didn’t work. More and more, we ended up lying back to back until one of us would touch the other gently on the arm. Later, she rejected me before it even got to that stage. I assume she did that because she wanted to avoid my obvious disappointment and her anger at her own body. But it didn’t make things any better.
At some point our relationship began to suffer as a result. Our behaviour towards each other became more distant; Anne was less and less inclined to spontaneously sit on my lap after Sunday breakfast. We no longer gave each other a kiss when we arrived home. And we got annoyed with each other way more often, blaming one another for silly little things. It crept up on us; we didn’t realise it until it was almost too late and we found ourselves wondering, after a vicious row, if we still loved each other at all.
The gynaecologist said that the pill can be a contributing factor to a lower libido. So Anne stopped taking it. This did help, in fact; we slept with each other more often. Our love-making changed around then; the sex got better. Anne especially seemed to be getting more out of it. But we didn’t like condoms. And we didn’t use any other form of contraception. We ignored the risk of pregnancy; we didn’t talk about it either – it was more a case of letting things happen than actually doing anything. Ten days ago, I came home and Anne said, “I’m pregnant.” That was the first and last time she uttered the word.
It’s 4pm. The appointment is in half an hour. That was the earliest available slot; they squeezed Anne in. She has been fasting since breakfast.
She still has to get to the other side of town, but she’s taking her time getting dressed. I knock on the door of her room. “What is it?” she says.
“Can I come in?” I ask.
“If you must.”
She’s wearing a white blouse, a black trouser suit, and high heels. She’s got lots of make-up on. Red lipstick, foundation, powder, eye shadow, mascara, kohl, rouge, the works – too much of everything. You can see little skin blemishes beneath the make-up, and a line on her neck where the make-up ends. Her hair is tied back tight in a ponytail. Anne doesn’t look at all like Anne. She looks like a version of herself about to try and trade in a clocked car for more than it’s worth.
“Well, say something, “she says, “Tell me how I look at least.”
“You look great. You look fantastic,” I say. “The whole waiting room will fall in love with you.”
“It’s a gynaecologist’s, Max. The only people there will be women waiting for an appointment during which a stranger will peer into their vagina.” She’s looking in the mirror. She tugs at her ponytail, at her cleavage, and wrinkles her forehead. “No one is going to be falling in love with anyone there.”
“What’s the matter?” I say. “All I was trying to say is you look great.”
“OK, Max. OK.”
Up to this point the day had been pretty normal. The usual morning routines. Anne was first into the bathroom; I stayed in bed and told her how beautiful she was when she came back to the bedroom wearing just underwear and a towel around her head and stood in front of the wardrobe as usual. We used the time in the morning to spring-clean the apartment. Cleaning out cupboards, descaling the kettle, clearing drains. We hardly spoke. If we did say anything, it was to remark on how surprising it is that closed cupboards can get so dirty on the inside.
One of our big pasta plates got broken, the last of them. We’d had four, all kaput now. I dropped it as Anne was handing it to me. It hit the floor, shards scattering in all directions. Anne cursed in a loud voice and accused me of being awfully clumsy. Later I cooked some pasta for myself and ate it off a flat plate. Silently, Anne watched me eat, then she headed for the bathroom.
She turns to face me. “I have to get rid of it. Have you any idea what this is doing to me?” She turns back to the mirror and runs a hand over her hair. She presses a tissue to her lips to remove the excess lipstick. Then she picks up her handbag and walks past me out of the room. I follow her into the hallway and as far as the front door. “By the way, Marie is coming to meet me afterwards, assuming everything goes to plan,” she says. “We’ll probably go for dinner or something. I’ll give you a ring when it’s over. Don’t wait for me in any case – I don’t know what time I’ll be back.”
“What do you mean,” I say, “Is that how it is now?”
“Max, it’s me they’re going to be sucking an embryo out of – me! But don’t you worry, I’ll be fine.”
I knew straight away that I didn’t want it. My response was clear, right from the start. “I can’t imagine having a kid, not right now,” I said. Anne was crying. I said, “I mean, I can imagine it in principle, and with you, just not yet.” We’d only been living together for six months. Anne had just been put in charge of her own group at the kindergarten. I had a thesis to write and final exams to prepare for. We’d been planning a long summer holiday travelling in the USA. That’s how things were. We sat on the bed, held each other, and could not believe how stupid we had been. We thumped the mattress with our fists and flung the pillows across the room. We both agreed that being pregnant should be good news. We didn’t spell out what that meant; we just decided not to say anything to our parents. Anne said the smell of coffee and cigarettes already made her feel sick.
She’s leaving, heading down the stairs without giving me a kiss or a hug. I stay in the apartment doorway. “Have you got the certificate?” I call out after her. Anne pauses on the landing. She grips the banister, looks up over her shoulder. There’s a ceiling light immediately above her, and it casts shadows on Anne’s face, under her eyes, on her cheeks. She looks hard. My sweet little Anne, the girl who stood in front of the wardrobe after our first night and couldn’t decide which socks to wear; this same Anne is now standing half a storey below me, stiff, in heels and an ironed blouse; and her eyes are hard too. She says, “Yes, I have the certificate.”
“Are you sure?” I say. “No harm checking again. You need that piece of paper.”
But Anne doesn’t answer, just continues down the stairs. The clack of her heels echoes dully in the stairwell. I remain at the apartment door, picking at a spot on my neck. Then the front door clicks shut downstairs. Throughout the last ten days, I was never able to imagine what a heavily pregnant Anne would look like.
The last time we were at the gynaecologist’s, Anne cried on the way home. She’s been going to the same practice since she got her first period. The bus was driving through the neighbourhood where she grew up, and Anne spent the whole time staring out the window, crying silent tears. We’d got confirmation; the doctor had pointed at the ultrasound monitor and said, “Yes, look here, see that – you’re pregnant.” With a great deal of imagination, you could just make out a worm-like shape the size of your fingertip. She gave us a leaflet with addresses of places where you can get crisis pregnancy counselling, and we set off home, and Anne cried.
I go back into the apartment and look down at the street from the window. Anne is already out of sight. In the kitchen, I get a beer out of the fridge. I see that my hand is shaking. I put the opener down beside the bottle, lean against the worktop and take a deep breath. Then I stretch both hands out in front of me. I’m shaking. I look at my trembling hands and remember my father once telling me how, ever since the moment I was born, he had lost control of his life: all he could do from then on was react, not act; it was like navigating through a permanent fog. There was no accusation in his voice, more surprise at this realisation. We were sitting in my grandparents’ garden, drinking cool beer under a blossoming cherry tree. He stood up and went back to the patio, where three generations were sitting together. My father was twenty-six when I was born, the same age I am now.
We didn’t tell anyone our news. We went to the countryside for the weekend, to get away from it all. To a small guesthouse that had oak furniture in the breakfast room. We explored the village, barbecued on the terrace at the guesthouse and walked the country lanes.
In the evenings we tried to imagine how it would be if we kept the baby. We only discussed practical things. Money, parental leave, the apartment. We each identified a close friend we would confide in. We didn’t once, the two of us together, picture the baby on a nappy-changing table, how it would grin at us and fart at the same time, or nestle at Anne’s breast to feed, or crawl around the apartment, or say its first words.
Nor did we speak about the stressful aspects of the first few years of parenting, the sleepless nights, the general restrictions. None of that. “We’d have to move house” – that’s the way we talked.
It was only during our walks, or at night when I couldn’t sleep, that I wondered what it would be like to push a buggy or to hear someone else’s breathing in the bedroom besides Anne’s. But I didn’t speak these thoughts out loud. On the last evening, Anne was smoking and drinking again. The word abortion had not been mentioned.
I’m sitting at the kitchen table, three empty beer bottles in front of me at this stage. My forehead is propped on my hand, and I’m still waiting. It occurs to me that we ought to oil the table top again; the wood is all dry and bleached. In one place you can see a deep circular indent. The legacy of one of our rows. I was so worked up that I slammed the base of a tumbler down hard on the table.
I take a fresh beer out of the fridge and sit down again. The shaking is a bit better now. It is quiet, unbelievably quiet. All I hear is the ticking of the clock. It’s making me nervous, so I take it off the wall and remove the battery. The hands stop at twelve minutes past six. I put the clock face down on the table, beside the empty bottles. I think of my Anne lying there with her legs open and various doctors and nurses coming and going around her. A breathing tube in her mouth; the anaesthetist seated by her head, watching the cardiac monitor, keeping an eye on Anne’s heartbeat, while down at the other end people are shoving sterile instruments into her. I start sweating, on the back of my neck, on my forehead, under my arms. I wonder whether everything went OK, whether she has come round yet. Whether it’s over. I finish my fourth beer.
I reckon we were a straightforward case for the Pro Familia counsellor. We had already reached a decision. We needed the counselling certificate and we knew that anyone who went for a counselling session always got the cert. On a form, we were supposed to give reasons why the pregnancy presented a conflict. Items one and two on the list were “family or relationship problems” and “father of the child does not support the pregnancy/mother”. I ticked number thirteen, “financial/economic circumstances”, and number sixteen, “educational/professional circumstances”, and pushed the form across the desk. Anne could see what I’d selected. Then she turned her page face down and slid it across to the counsellor.
The counsellor looked at our forms, then asked: “On a scale of 0 to 100 per cent, how much would you say you do not want to have this child?”
“90 per cent”, I said.
Anne looked sideways at me, and then she said: “90 per cent.”
Thirty minutes later we had a stamped certificate confirming that we had been for counselling. Anne took several leaflets from an information stand as well and stuffed them in her bag. The allocated time for the counselling session was one hour.
It’s after nine o’clock. Still no word from Anne. I’m still drinking beer, downing it faster. By now I’m drunk, pacing up and down in the kitchen, in the hallway. I’m pacing round and round the apartment like a man possessed. I’m no longer worried, I’m furious – with Anne, with us, with everything. I wobble a bit and bang into a doorframe. Calm down, damn it, I say to myself. I turn on the TV but I can’t watch a single programme for more than five minutes. Something on every station triggers an unpleasant association. I can’t even watch a cookery programme. I switch channels when I see a honeydew melon being de-seeded. I turn the TV off again and close my eyes. Then my mobile rings.
“I meant to ring you,” says Anne.
I can hear music in the background, voices. “How are you?” I say. “Is it over? Where are you?”
“Haven’t a clue,” she says. “Somewhere or other. Marie is here. We’re going to have something to eat now.” She sounds exhausted; she’s speaking slowly, with a heavy tongue.
“Come home,” I say. “Please, come home.”
“I told you, we’re going to have something to eat here. Don’t wait up for me. I have to go now.”
“Wait,” I say. “Just wait a minute, damn it. Is everything OK?”
“Yeah, yeah. I need to go to the toilet,” she says.
Then the line goes dead.
I ring straight back, once, twice, and the third time she rejects the call. The fourth time, the call goes straight to voicemail. I fling my mobile on the floor and the battery falls out. I am struggling to breathe and have to sit down on the floor. I start crying, for the first time since Anne told me that she was pregnant. I weep hysterically and let out one loud scream. Then I get up again, wipe my hand across my face and piece my mobile back together again. I start searching the apartment for clues as to where Anne might have gone with Marie.
I read the notes on her desk. I turn her computer on and check her internet search history. I am determined to find out where she is, to go there and bring her home. She didn’t search for any restaurants or bars in the last three days. Instead, Anne seems to have trawled her way through every German-language discussion forum about abortion. Threads with titles like “Eternal memory” or “Anniversary of due date”. The pile of leaflets Anne picked up at Pro Familia catches my eye. The covers show happy-looking parents with toddlers: Child Benefits and Parental Leave, Studying and Parenting, Pregnant in Berlin. I delete the search history, grab the leaflets, take them straight down to the basement, and dump them in the paper bin. On the way back up, I hear my mobile ringing. I sprint up the stairs.
“Where are you?” I ask.
“It’s Marie,” says Marie, “Anne wanted me to let you know that everything’s OK. We’re in a restaurant. I’ll take her home later.”
“Which restaurant? I’ll come and get you,” I say.
“Max,” says Marie, “Anne doesn’t want you to come here. I’ll make sure she gets home, don’t worry. But please don’t ring again.”
She hangs up.
A few minutes later, I ring Anne again and get her voicemail. The recorded message is cheerful, she sounds good-humoured and happy, the kind of voice you’d like to leave a message for.
After the beep, I say in a faltering voice, “Anne, it’s Max. If I’ve done something wrong, I’m really sorry. But please come home now. Come home – OK? I can’t stand it any more… I love you.”
I’m standing at the window keeping an eye out. Every time a car approaches I hope it’s a taxi with its roof light off and Anne in it. Now I’m drinking the dregs of cheap schnapps on ice. My mobile is on the window seat beside me. In the building across the street, a couple is cuddled up on the sofa watching TV. Insects swarm around the glow of a streetlamp. Another car approaches slowly, but it doesn’t stop. I ask myself where I lost Anne along the way. I try to think of a moment, any gesture or phrase that ought to have signalled that what was running through her head in the last ten days was completely different to what was running through mine. I realise that I have no idea where we go from here.
I wake when I hear the key turning in the apartment door. The TV is flickering in silence, throwing faint light into the room in time with the scene changes. I get up and quickly head for the hallway. Anne bumps off the wall as she enters. Her make-up is smeared, her face oddly contorted; she has been crying. “Anne…,” I say and go to her.
She takes half a step back, holds her hands chest high, palms out, and looks past me. She looks like a stop sign.
“Anne…,” I say again, “it’s over now, isn’t it, you got through it.”
She doesn’t answer, just manoeuvres past me with her hands still raised, careful not to touch me. When she’s right beside me, I reach gently for her chin, to try and get her to raise her head, to get her to look at me at least, to find out what’s really going on. She catches my wrist, looks me in the eye and guides my hand down very slowly. It feels like a threat. The piercing disdain in her eyes brings goose bumps to the back of my neck. She goes into her room.
I hear her pulling something out from under the bed. I head for her room and stand on the threshold. Anne is packing a small suitcase. She says, “I’m staying at Marie’s tonight.”
*This story is taken from: “Das Licht der Flammen auf unseren Gesichtern” by Dorian Steinhoff © mairisch Verlag 2013.
Many stories have happened. This is one of them. You have a wife, you have kids, you have a job, you have a car, you have a house in the suburbs. It appears you’ll die happy, your children will cry at your funeral, and your neighbors will be sorry you’re gone. Then one night as you’re driving home in the last evaporating tendrils of light, going no faster than usual, there’s a thump, you hit something. You haven’t seen anything, there was just this thud against your car. You stop, you get out to see what’s happened. There’s a child lying under your car, seven, eight years old, you’ve got one just like him waiting for you at home, he could’ve been yours. He doesn’t move. A pool of blood is forming under his head.
You cry out, bend down, feel for his pulse, find nothing. You look around, there’s no one about, the street is deserted. You drive along this street every day without knowing anyone, a housing development, gray and disheveled. There’s no one looking on, all the lights are out.
What now? What do you do when something like this happens to you? You know: were the child to moan, it would be simple. You’d load him in your car and rush him to the hospital. Or call for an ambulance. But you can see there’s nothing to save. When you calm down a little you see the street lamps haven’t come on. You see there are no cars in the street. You turn and look around to see if anyone’s coming, if anyone’s lurking behind the dumpsters, looking on. But there’s no one anywhere.
You’d like to make a call, but to whom? Besides, your phone’s battery has suddenly run out and you realize that nobody would answer even if it did still work. You look at the child again. He seems to have been lying there for hours, his face has grown colorless, the blood under his head dried. You look around again and the buildings along the street seem to be crumbling, the asphalt crackling, huge fissures appearing in the night sky, through which the void will begin to seep in at any moment. You’re still holding your car keys, you look at them, you look at your car and know it will never move again. You drop the keys, they slowly fall into the dark beneath you and you’re not even surprised when you don’t hear the metal strike the asphalt. There is no sound left anywhere. No dogs barking, no televisions buzzing, no phones ringing. Again you bend over the child. He’s getting tinier and tinier and more and more dried out, you look at your hands and wait for the cracks to appear on them. You think: I had a wife, I had kids, it appeared I would die happy. Now things will happen differently. Many stories don’t have happy endings. This is one of them.
This happened back in the day when I still had a full head of hair, way back than it seems now, but back then it was all right here, every night was right here, but let’s not, I don’t want to go into that now.
I’d rather talk about that night, about how she caught my eye out of all the women there, how I said: my, she looks fine! and the laughter broke out, my friends saying, are you out of your mind, she? fine?
I let them scoff, say what they would, and I went over and asked her to dance, and she laughed and said: you sure your mom’s okay with this?
It wasn’t mean the way she said it, though, not mean at all, just nice and warm.
And then I said I’d buy us a drink, and she laughed again and said it was okay, that was nice, and that’s just how it turned out to be, nice, and I didn’t go home with the guys.
And then she told me she’d got the scar on her belly from a captain she wanted to get away from fast, too fast to his mind.
And she said that after that she’d preferred to stay away from the coast, despite being asked to come; the coast’s dangerous, some other captain could happen along.
But then comes a time one must face one’s fears, must go where it’s hard to go, so now she’s here, and she’s having a ball.
She talked some more, she went on and on about stuff I didn’t think was real, or at least wouldn’t happen to anyone I’d ever know, but it had to her, and still did sometimes if she let herself go.
And then I had to, I had to say I had to go, I had to be in my bed in the morning or I couldn’t go dancing anymore, and she laughed and said she knew, that she’d known all along that I’d have to, that I’d go.
And that it had been nice.
The last thing I said was at the door: will you come dancing again?
And now every time I walk by that place where nobody’s danced in years, the hall razed to make room for what’s always going to be the biggest hotel for miles, owned by a new developer every few months and then all the work dies, every time I walk by that place I remember the look on her face as she said: no, I have to go back tomorrow.
What look, you ask? Sad.
And I knew even back then that it had been the way it had, so that I would remember every time I walked by, and many other times as well, in sleepless nights, how it had been, then and there, way back when I still had a full head of hair.
*The story “Cracks” is taken from: You Do Understand, Dalkey Archive Press, 2011.
She called you two weeks ago. Just like that. Out of the blue. Today is Mother’s Day, and you’re going to see her again. You wanted to make as good a start to the day as possible, but on Saturday night you went to bed late and drunk and she wakes you with another phone call at twenty past eleven the next morning. She’s called to ask if you’re coming to lunch as you agreed. You say that you are. She asks if Fernanda is coming, too. You say that she isn’t; you already told her that. She asks you, please, not to be late, and you hang up. Over the past few days a voice in your head has been telling you that it’s your fault that you haven’t seen her in all this time, and you’ve begun to think about how that might have made her feel. Being with her is a trick you learned when you were a boy, but since you’ve grown up you haven’t been able to do it so well. Also, whenever you make an effort to be nice you lose patience. But for some reason you think things will work themselves out at the lunch. On Friday afternoon you got her a gift. You can’t remember the last time you did that. And you have something to say to her, a few phrases that will make everything right.
It’s midday on the third Sunday of October in a year that doesn’t and will never have a decade. You step into the bath and slip into cloudy, impeccable nothingness, like in an advert for cream or salt. You’re shrouded in silence. You’re swimming in a pool on the roof of a tower of thirty dark floors. No one else is there. You lean your back against the tiles and look up: no light or noise. The water is so clear that you don’t notice when it’s gone. The floor is grass, and you walk like Kwai Chang Caine, like Johnnie Walker in a Scottish meadow; there are white sheep that turn into a white cloud, and you open your eyes, cough and spit out a little cold water. You have no idea what time it is because in the bath it’s always late at night. Then you hear the noise of the traffic and, on the other side of the wall, a neighbour flushing the toilet before washing their hands and closing the door behind them.
Something on that corner of the avenue seems familiar. Almost without thinking you walk the blocks that separate your flat from the area where you lived with your mum and sister a few years ago. Only now, going back, do you realize that you never went very far. You can’t remember what used to be on the avenue. It definitely wasn’t a pair of internet cafés.
To pass by the door, acting on a somewhat morbid urge to see how things have changed, you’d just have to turn the corner and carry on for half a block, but you don’t move. Your phone tells you that it’s ten past two. You hail a taxi, and when it pulls off you search your pockets for money. When you arrive you have to explain to the doorman who you are. He doesn’t believe you’re her son; he’s never seen you before. He makes you ring the bell. Fourteenth floor. He asks you if you were away travelling. You smile and look away. On the desk from which he presides over the lobby is an expensive mobile phone. Finally, a strange man’s voice tells you that you can come up. In the lift you tidy your hair and clothes in the mirror. You stare at your face and think about your sister. Somehow you feel that you abandoned her. For a long time, during those early years in Buenos Aires, you two were the only things that didn’t fall apart. Your mum’s big hair and your skinny dad with his moustache. You were both trapped on their merry-go-round like a fare fought over by a pair of taxi drivers on a slow night.
But all that’s over now. It’s simpler. You just have to share a few meals a year with the two women, plus a guy and his family, in a fourteenth-floor flat with a landing, open door and, behind it, a window that looks out onto a balcony, the nature reserve and the river behind it. You go inside, but no one’s around. You come back out, ring the bell and wait, but nothing happens. You wander around the living-room and bend over to read the spines of books and inspect the smiling faces in the picture frames. Your movements are tense and cautious, as though the decorations might disintegrate at the slightest touch. Or as though you were burgling the house of a family that has gone out to spend the day in the countryside.
Naked except for a towel, a blonde girl who isn’t your sister comes down the hall. Before closing the door to the bedroom she turns to look at you for an interminable second. Then your mother appears by her side and gives you a hug. She hasn’t changed – a little thinner, the hair blonder and in a different style, new, less-crumpled clothes, but the same. She steps back, rests her hands on your shoulders, looks at you and hugs you again. Then she steps back again. She’s crying. She says that she’s crying from joy. You put your hand in your jacket pocket and feel the package inside. You hug and kiss again. You’re about to open your mouth when she steps back again. Her eyes are red. She tells you to follow her. She wants to show you the flat. But all the doors to the bedrooms are locked. She says that they must be getting changed and shows you the bathrooms; one of them is still full of steam, foam, and there is a wet pair of burgundy-coloured panties hanging from the tap. You sneeze once, and again. She says that it must be the carpet. You’d better go into the kitchen. You keep on sneezing; it’s almost as if you were doing it on purpose, as though for some reason you were trying to make a show of being uncomfortable.
As you blow your nose she asks if you can do her a favour. “What?” Everyone’s busy getting ready and she still has to take a shower, but she miscalculated and needs more cream for the sauce and also there’s no wine, and Gustavo doesn’t like to eat without wine. A door opens, and a man’s voice, the same voice you heard distorted through the intercom, asks where something is. Who cares if he doesn’t like to eat without wine? He can get it himself. You’re alone together, and you don’t know when you’ll get another chance. But at the same time you suddenly feel shy, and you agree to go out. She asks you to take Lucky with you. The dog comes out from the laundry room, stretching.
It’s a new neighbourhood built on land reclaimed from the river, a country club of towers. All the buildings are enormous, spaced out as though the ground wouldn’t be able to hold them if they were any closer together. They’re surrounded by well-kept squares with recently planted trees and new benches. In another life your best ideas came when you walked this same dog through run-down plazas, smoking for blocks along streets that you no longer dare to go back to. From the outside the only supermarket in the area looks like a designer boutique. You tie the dog up and walk towards the sliding doors, which open on their own. A guard grabs your arm and tells you that you can’t leave a dog tied up on the pavement. You try to argue, but he just points at a sign that declares it is prohibited and then to the dog’s lead tied up to the lamp-post.
You walk a further six blocks along the avenue to a Korean supermarket. You go straight to the refrigerator with the dairy products. The smell of floor cleaner tickles your nose. You compare several different kinds of wines and pick a couple of the more expensive bottles. At the till the lady in front drops all her things on the belt and walks forward so she’s standing opposite the cashier. The cashier can barely see her over the till. On the black rubber belt are a lettuce, paper napkins, bread, a cut of beef you’ve never eaten and two cartons of wine. She asks the cashier to let her know when the bill comes to twenty pesos. The cashier says that they’re at nineteen pesos forty, and one of the wine cartons stays where it is. She has everything else in two bags. You don’t see what happened to the other wine carton – if she has bought it or not – because as she opens her purse she tells the cashier that food is very expensive. How can food be so expensive? She takes out a wrinkled twenty-peso note, the kind of note you’d see in the hands of a child going shopping for the first time, a note that spent years rolled up in the trunk of a ceramic elephant studded with glass jewels. As she smooths it out before giving it to the cashier, she asks her if she has a mother. Then she asks if she minds working on Mother’s Day. They should change what Mother’s Day is, she says.
She’s wearing dark glasses and shorts that reach down to her white knees, making her look a little out of place. You can sometimes tell what people are about to say from their postures. Her mummy lost her mummy – she says “mummy” twice – when she was very little, and she always felt bad on Mother’s Day.
The cashier is looking blankly at the special offers at the butcher’s counter. By now she must not see words, just exclamation marks and numbers all along the aisle. Numbers and exclamation marks at every imaginable angle on the signs and labels, with bleach-scented light shining down from the ceiling. The woman goes on talking. She says that there was a time when it was called the Day of the Family, and she thinks that’s better. You put the cream on the belt. The wine carton isn’t there. It cost a tenth of the wine you’re going to buy. While you pay you peer outside worriedly to make sure that the dog’s still there. You walk back quickly, almost without moving your arms, as though the cream will go bad if shaken outdoors.
They’re all sitting around the table. You kiss your sister, shake hands with Gustavo, kiss each of their daughters and the youngest son, although you can’t believe that he’s wearing one of your T-shirts. You don’t say anything. She’s the one who mentions it, as if it will somehow bring you closer. He must be sixteen or seventeen. He’s one of those teenagers who’s done his growing already. He’s tall, skinny, wears his hair slightly long, and you don’t know whether he shaves or if his beard hasn’t come out yet. He barely says anything at the table. You wonder whether you have anything else in common; he must be using a lot of your things. You tell her that she should have asked. She glares at you for a second and grabs your hand. Then she gives you an exaggerated, slightly absurd compliment that you find more annoying than embarrassing. You don’t say anything, and she tries to kiss you in front of everyone, but you move so she just brushes you. You snatch your hand away. You can’t help it. It’s as though something physical has got lost along the way.
And she’s living with another man. It’s not that you mind – in fact, you liked Gustavo right from the start, after he said “So you paint?” After a couple of glasses of wine you rediscover the layer of genuine empathy that has always made your interactions with other people easier. You like how he treats her, how he speaks to her and the jokes he makes to cheer her up after what you say. And the story he tells. The week before he went on a trip and got caught up in a road block. But it’s his tone more than anything. By now you’re guaranteed to like him whatever he says about the incident.
It seems that ahead of him was a minibus carrying a band that was supposed to be playing a gig in another city that night. They were late, and some of the musicians and a few others who didn’t look very musical got out to see what was going on. After a while a couple of band members started to play with the protesters’ drums, and everyone sang and chanted. Almost all of them were children, teenagers or women, he says. Of all ages, thirty-something and up. They had turned five bicycles upside down, with the seats resting on the asphalt, and a couple of kilometres of cars and trucks had backed up on either side. Then the musicians took pictures of themselves in front of the protestors’ flag, all of them smiling. Make sure that the organization’s crest is in there, shouted one of the women. And another said, This is all very well, but the roadblock stays.
They were from a town a couple of miles away and were protesting against plans for a refinery to be built in the area. The musicians had to keep going; they weren’t going to get there in time, and the organizer of the gig went over to plead with the protestors. He said that they supported the cause, they supported every cause. In fact, the worn-out green army jacket he was wearing had been given to him by El Perro a couple of weeks ago. Gustavo made a face to emphasize the absurdity of the situation. They supported the cause, the organizer said again, and he offered to read out the protestors’ petition on stage that night. Then he gave them several copies of the band’s first album and a few of their second, too.
His two daughters are there as well. You know that one is called Delfina and the other Belén, but you can’t remember which is which. They told you when you were introduced – you stared at the one who’d been wearing the towel – but you didn’t say their names out loud; you weren’t paying attention. The tablecloth is getting dirtier and dirtier. They’re both blonde. One is twenty-six, the other twenty-three. One of them says something about the musicians, something like all women like musicians but then end up marrying someone with money. It could have been worse; she might have said “painters” or “artists”. Gustavo answers, Only the stupid ones. He says it nicely, as though he’s still trying to teach her things.
The twenty-three-year-old seems like the eldest, your mother told you over the phone in an amused voice. You’re a little annoyed that she’s acting so familiarly, but, then again, if you lived there you’d be meeting her in the middle of the night in the kitchen, in a nightshirt, sitting on the counter, stretching out her pale legs next to you, her burgundy-coloured panties bunched to one side in the light of the open refrigerator and the green numbers of the clock on the microwave reflected in the window. And then they tell you that they’ve changed the dog’s name. Now its name is Eliot because “they like it better”. You have nothing against T.S. Eliot, Eliot Ness, Billy Elliot, Elliott Smith, Elliott Murphy or Missy Elliott, but people can’t go about changing a dog’s name, so you start calling him. “Lakiii…! Lakiii!” you shout, louder and louder.
Then you stop because everyone is staring at you except for your sister. Belén and Delfina make faces, and you see the resemblance even if you can’t tell which is which. For a second you think that family is something you catch. Then you realize that your sister is closer to them than you, and you feel that somehow you weren’t a good older brother. But it’s too late now. For another second you think that your relationship with her is like the plant the previous owners left behind in your flat. The plant you don’t water, not even in summer, but which still survives and sometimes even flowers.
The only moment you get alone with her, you don’t know what it is, but you can’t give her the gift. You feel as though the package were broken or the product faulty when you had it all planned out perfectly in your head. You start to cough and sneeze, and Gustavo sticks his head around the door to see what’s going on. He asks you if you’re all right, and she rubs a cloth in your face, a paper napkin. She tells you that you need to quit smoking. It’s not good for you. That’s it, you want to leave. She says “please”. You think that she’s going to say something more, but she just says “please” again and looks at you. It’s raining hard, and Gustavo offers to give you a lift. If you say no you’ll end up ruining the day, and it really didn’t go all that badly. Much as you try not to you can’t help feeling a kind of twisted regret; every time you leave you feel like you should have stayed, and whenever you stay a little longer you feel as though you should have left.
The only sound inside the car is the muffled noise made by the windscreen wipers. When he stops for a traffic light Gustavo sees the bag in your hand and asks you what it is. You say that it’s a gift from someone that you don’t want. “Thanks for reminding me.” You forgot that you were planning to exchange it. If you don’t go now you never will. He says that on Sundays shops don’t usually accept exchanges or returns, but you just want to get out of the car without offending him. You say that now that the rain is letting up you’ll give it a try. He can just drop you off on the avenue. Before getting out you shake hands and hug briefly.
There’s a queue of cars at the petrol station. People are inflating their tyres and filling up their tanks before getting locked back into their routines on Monday morning. Sunday afternoon still has that fixed sense of melancholy that comes with the knowledge that you’ll have to go to school the next day, especially on an afternoon like this when you have lots to do and no time to think. You’re going to tidy up a little and finish a bottle of wine that’s waiting to be finished, and as you’re thinking about that you see the woman who lives on the sixth floor sitting in the lobby. She’s using the chair the caretaker sits on when he has nothing to do.
You pass by her in silence because ever since you got out of the car you’ve been feeling a little slow. She’s lived in the building with her two children – a boy and a girl, about six or seven, who always shout when they get out of the lift – since before you moved in. She’s from Brazil, but her ex is Argentinian. You once exchanged a few words with him at the door of the building as he was waiting for his children to come down. From her expression it looks as though she’s waiting for him to bring them back. Your dad was always late when he had to come to pick you up – an hour or two. You drop your keys, and she turns to look at you. She looks at you without seeing anything, a little slow herself. You say “Hello” as you push the button to call the lift, but she doesn’t answer, and you say that someone must not have closed the lift doors properly. You peer into the gap between the frame and the door and say, “Someone must be unloading a whole floor full of shopping.” But she still doesn’t answer and continues to stare blankly out into the street. Suddenly she leans towards you and says, as though she were completing a sentence she’d started in her head, or was saying just before you arrived, that fortunately her ex-husband has taken the kids to his house. The boy is getting impossible; he hit her this morning.
There’s something about her annoyance with her son and the exhaustion in her voice and face that make you look her up and down for the first time, noticing the body under the tights and T-shirt. You tell her that your grandmother, your “mum’s mum”, used to say, “There’s nothing worse in the world than hitting your mother.” She laughs. You think that you might be able make yourself attractive to her by adopting an air of gentle empathy and youthful vigour. You’re sure that’s the right approach, but you can’t think what to say, so you start to shake the package. The sound of the metal door opening makes you jump. It’s the elderly couple who live on the fifth floor. They always take a couple of minutes to leave the building.
You get into the lift together, and only when you get to the fourth floor do you say, “So you’re on your own…” You feel strange knowing that another flat in the building in which you live is both identical and different from your own. Maybe you’re a little frightened at the prospect of glancing into the children’s room and seeing their still unmade beds, clothes on the floor and the black arm of an articulated toy figure. “Until tomorrow afternoon, thank goodness, when they come back from school,” she says before opening the door, getting out and looking at you from the hallway. The nightshirt you were going to give your mother would suit her. Maybe it would be a little tight and a little short. You’d like to say something about tonight, about how it’s better to spend Sunday nights with someone, to tell her that you have an almost full bottle of wine that needs finishing, but you don’t say a word, and she says, even though it’s only six in the evening, “Sleep well,” and closes the lift door.
The living-room in your flat is an empty mess, and you left the lights on. On the table are three open books, a full ashtray, a jumble of photographs, the mobile phone and a glass with dregs of wine. On a chair is a crumpled shirt and on another a teabag on which you can still see the impression left by a pair of nervous fingers. There’s no wind outside, no cars, no noise, just a few lights that come on and off in a mysterious pattern. From the seventh floor this part of the city looks like a stage set after the closing night.
On the side of the bath is a bottle of ordinary shampoo, shower gel, a book with a flowery border, toothpaste for sensitive teeth, a cup of coffee and a toothbrush. There’s limescale in between some of the tiles, and the shower curtain is mouldy along the edges. It’s cold, and you can never get the window to shut completely. You’re in the bath, warmed by the steam and a second serving of hot water. Sometimes you spend all day in there, running the hot water tap every now and again with one foot, while the other deals with the plug. It creates an amniotic atmosphere.
You think that it would be nice if it rained. Just then, as if your wish had been granted by a merciful power, you see a flash of lightning and a few drops of water hit the misted glass of the window. You think about the Brazilian woman, about how she’s actually not too daunting at all and that you’ll be better prepared the next time you meet. Maybe you could get her to let you into her flat when the kids aren’t there under the pretext of checking to see whether your bath is leaking. Meanwhile, for the moment, you could invite someone to the movies. But you have no idea what’s on. Not even a title or an actor’s name.
The Short Story Project © | Ilamor LTD 2017
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