The last item on the shopping list was bread. Two o’clock in the afternoon. August. And the insistence to walk all the way to the bread shop. Specification is the sign of affluence and civilization; that which accommodates variety. I direct my steps toward the comforting scholasticism of bread, options of grain, types of pastry – and the choice made earlier, in a past time, at home – the thrill of finding the shape of a will. Despite the heat, this is what I need to pull myself together, the ritual of the hostess preparing for guests. The extended negotiation and the giving preceded by strategy. If I give as I wish, I could find rest in the giving. I take my place in line. An elderly couple: they too know in advance what they want, but somehow they lack the joy of simulated choice; pointing in itself is a sign of lost chances, of losing one’s hold on life. Having inquired what half-loaves are left and sampled some morsels, they decide in a whispered consultation to chose the sunflower bread once again. Though a bit pricy, it’s the best, they tell the saleswoman. The woman in front of me, dressed in red with large black-framed glasses, is hiding behind a big woman laden with shopping bags whose turn is coming up. The woman in red is ceaselessly groping the boxes of cookies stacked on our right, the ones you’re meant to take on your own. She takes one and puts into a plastic bag. Out of the
corner of my eye, only half seeing the motion of the theft, I am so stunned to see a thief in action, that immediately my face shows too great an interest, spoiling all her secrecy. Not looking at me she fiddles with the box of cookies, rattling it slightly, as though masking the secret by this delicate noise. By letting something slip by she leaves room for doubt. But I do not doubt. She backs away toward the door, giving me her place in the line. I know you, I tell her voicelessly. So shut up, her face retorts. We’ll see, I don’t know, I reply. I’ll kill you. You can’t – we’re surrounded by people. Profusion will protect me. You don’t say, she mocks – profusion whirls you in the wind till you rot in motion. Once a day I deserve something nobody knows of. Today it’s sesame cookies. And what about the young saleswoman and stocktaking and the boss’s accusations – who will pay for your desires. God
will pay. Oh, God, I pant. The only one who doesn’t surprise
himself, which is why we can no longer find refuge from the daily shock of loss. I feel her staring at my back. I’ve taken her place in line and she has withdrawn to its end. Other people press into the store. I see her turning to the shelves, taking the box out of her bag, replacing it among the cookie boxes. I feel somewhat disappointed. After all, who am I to know what she needs, and can one prevent matter from overflowing beyond its bounds – her obsession infects me, I’m already nearly drunk with some dark invisible substance that binds us together like love. No, not like love – we are each other’s riddle and we’re seeking an outlet for the wonder – how is it possible to recognize that which is sealed
inside its own nature – and the code, we already know, has been completely destroyed. I glance at her again. Once more she places the cookies in the bag and once more our gazes cross from behind. I am the victim of a crime. I want to tell the saleswoman politely, this woman is a thief, please. But my night is already lying there in mid-day, and my sins revealed to her – naturally, only sinners recognize their kind. I am familiar with all the motions of theft, the distractions, and the small noises of innocence. But she frightens me. The risks you take. The poorness of the truth. And the panic, the terrible panic that we shall never receive as much as we give, this
panic in its turn protects us from the disappointing feebleness of our generosity. The two of us, dreaming of robbery and revenge, standing in line for bread. She must have cookies, I must leave home. She wanted to have it for free and I’ve already made her pay with the anguish and rage of discovery; I want to betray effortlessly, with a kiss, but keep paying the price. Take it, take the goddamned cookies, I say, while asking for poppy-seed cake and three kinds of rolls – and I am overtaken by black vertigo.
No banister. No alliance. No word of accord. Only seeing. And sedimented seeing. While I pay she gets back in line with the concealed cookies to continue the game – stay away from me or I’ll kill you, I signal to her as I step out of the store. Don’t worry, she replies – your kind I can recognize anywhere.
*Image: © Álvaro Domínguez
In the cool blue twilight of two steep streets in Camden Town, the shop at the corner, a confectioner’s, glowed like the butt of a cigar. One should rather say, perhaps, like the butt of a firework, for the light was of many colours and some complexity, broken up by many mirrors and dancing on many gilt and gaily-coloured cakes and sweetmeats. Against this one fiery glass were glued the noses of many gutter-snipes, for the chocolates were all wrapped in those red and gold and green metallic colours which are almost better than chocolate itself; and the huge white wedding-cake in the window was somehow at once remote and satisfying, just as if the whole North Pole were good to eat. Such rainbow provocations could naturally collect the youth of the neighbourhood up to the ages of ten or twelve. But this corner was also attractive to youth at a later stage; and a young man, not less than twenty-four, was staring into the same shop window. To him, also, the shop was of fiery charm, but this attraction was not wholly to be explained by chocolates; which, however, he was far from despising.
He was a tall, burly, red-haired young man, with a resolute face but a listless manner. He carried under his arm a flat, grey portfolio of black-and-white sketches, which he had sold with more or less success to publishers ever since his uncle (who was an admiral) had disinherited him for Socialism, because of a lecture which he had delivered against that economic theory. His name was John Turnbull Angus.
Entering at last, he walked through the confectioner’s shop to the back room, which was a sort of pastry-cook restaurant, merely raising his hat to the young lady who was serving there. She was a dark, elegant, alert girl in black, with a high colour and very quick, dark eyes; and after the ordinary interval she followed him into the inner room to take his order.
His order was evidently a usual one. “I want, please,” he said with precision, “one halfpenny bun and a small cup of black coffee.” An instant before the girl could turn away he added, “Also, I want you to marry me.”
The young lady of the shop stiffened suddenly and said, “Those are jokes I don’t allow.”
The red-haired young man lifted grey eyes of an unexpected gravity.
“Really and truly,” he said, “it’s as serious—as serious as the halfpenny bun. It is expensive, like the bun; one pays for it. It is indigestible, like the bun. It hurts.”
The dark young lady had never taken her dark eyes off him, but seemed to be studying him with almost tragic exactitude. At the end of her scrutiny she had something like the shadow of a smile, and she sat down in a chair.
“Don’t you think,” observed Angus, absently, “that it’s rather cruel to eat these halfpenny buns? They might grow up into penny buns. I shall give up these brutal sports when we are married.”
The dark young lady rose from her chair and walked to the window, evidently in a state of strong but not unsympathetic cogitation. When at last she swung round again with an air of resolution she was bewildered to observe that the young man was carefully laying out on the table various objects from the shop-window. They included a pyramid of highly coloured sweets, several plates of sandwiches, and the two decanters containing that mysterious port and sherry which are peculiar to pastry-cooks. In the middle of this neat arrangement he had carefully let down the enormous load of white sugared cake which had been the huge ornament of the window.
“What on earth are you doing?” she asked.
“Duty, my dear Laura,” he began.
“Oh, for the Lord’s sake, stop a minute,” she cried, “and don’t talk to me in that way. I mean, what is all that?”
“A ceremonial meal, Miss Hope.”
“And what is that?” she asked impatiently, pointing to the mountain of sugar.
“The wedding-cake, Mrs. Angus,” he said.
The girl marched to that article, removed it with some clatter, and put it back in the shop window; she then returned, and, putting her elegant elbows on the table, regarded the young man not unfavourably but with considerable exasperation.
“You don’t give me any time to think,” she said.
“I’m not such a fool,” he answered; “that’s my Christian humility.”
She was still looking at him; but she had grown considerably graver behind the smile.
“Mr. Angus,” she said steadily, “before there is a minute more of this nonsense I must tell you something about myself as shortly as I can.’”
“Delighted,” replied Angus gravely. “You might tell me something about myself, too, while you are about it.”
“Oh, do hold your tongue and listen,” she said. “It’s nothing that I’m ashamed of, and it isn’t even anything that I’m specially sorry about. But what would you say if there were something that is no business of mine and yet is my nightmare?”
“In that case,” said the man seriously, “I should suggest that you bring back the cake.”
“Well, you must listen to the story first,” said Laura, persistently. “To begin with, I must tell you that my father owned the inn called the ‘Red Fish’ at Ludbury, and I used to serve people in the bar.”
“I have often wondered,” he said, “why there was a kind of a Christian air about this one confectioner’s shop.”
“Ludbury is a sleepy, grassy little hole in the Eastern Counties, and the only kind of people who ever came to the ‘Red Fish’ were occasional commercial travellers, and for the rest, the most awful people you can see, only you’ve never seen them. I mean little, loungy men, who had just enough to live on and had nothing to do but lean about in bar-rooms and bet on horses, in bad clothes that were just too good for them. Even these wretched young rotters were not very common at our house; but there were two of them that were a lot too common—common in every sort of way. They both lived on money of their own, and were wearisomely idle and over-dressed. But yet I was a bit sorry for them, because I half believe they slunk into our little empty bar because each of them had a slight deformity; the sort of thing that some yokels laugh at. It wasn’t exactly a deformity either; it was more an oddity. One of them was a surprisingly small man, something like a dwarf, or at least like a jockey. He was not at all jockeyish to look at, though; he had a round black head and a well-trimmed black beard, bright eyes like a bird’s; he jingled money in his pockets; he jangled a great gold watch chain; and he never turned up except dressed just too much like a gentleman to be one. He was no fool though, though a futile idler; he was curiously clever at all kinds of things that couldn’t be the slightest use; a sort of impromptu conjuring; making fifteen matches set fire to each other like a regular firework; or cutting a banana or some such thing into a dancing doll. His name was Isidore Smythe; and I can see him still, with his little dark face, just coming up to the counter, making a jumping kangaroo out of five cigars.
“The other fellow was more silent and more ordinary; but somehow he alarmed me much more than poor little Smythe. He was very tall and slight, and light-haired; his nose had a high bridge, and he might almost have been handsome in a spectral sort of way; but he had one of the most appalling squints I have ever seen or heard of. When he looked straight at you, you didn’t know where you were yourself, let alone what he was looking at. I fancy this sort of disfigurement embittered the poor chap a little; for while Smythe was ready to show off his monkey tricks anywhere, James Welkin (that was the squinting man’s name) never did anything except soak in our bar parlour, and go for great walks by himself in the flat, grey country all round. All the same, I think Smythe, too, was a little sensitive about being so small, though he carried it off more smartly. And so it was that I was really puzzled, as well as startled, and very sorry, when they both offered to marry me in the same week.
“Well, I did what I’ve since thought was perhaps a silly thing. But, after all, these freaks were my friends in a way; and I had a horror of their thinking I refused them for the real reason, which was that they were so impossibly ugly. So I made up some gas of another sort, about never meaning to marry anyone who hadn’t carved his way in the world. I said it was a point of principle with me not to live on money that was just inherited like theirs. Two days after I had talked in this well-meaning sort of way, the whole trouble began. The first thing I heard was that both of them had gone off to seek their fortunes, as if they were in some silly fairy tale.
“Well, I’ve never seen either of them from that day to this. But I’ve had two letters from the little man called Smythe, and really they were rather exciting.”
“Ever heard of the other man?” asked Angus.
“No, he never wrote,” said the girl, after an instant’s hesitation. “Smythe’s first letter was simply to say that he had started out walking with Welkin to London; but Welkin was such a good walker that the little man dropped out of it, and took a rest by the roadside. He happened to be picked up by some travelling show, and, partly because he was nearly a dwarf, and partly because he was really a clever little wretch, he got on quite well in the show business, and was soon sent up to the Aquarium, to do some tricks that I forget. That was his first letter. His second was much more of a startler, and I only got it last week.”
The man called Angus emptied his coffee-cup and regarded her with mild and patient eyes. Her own mouth took a slight twist of laughter as she resumed, “I suppose you’ve seen on the hoardings all about this ‘Smythe’s Silent Service’? Or you must be the only person that hasn’t. Oh, I don’t know much about it, it’s some clockwork invention for doing all the housework by machinery. You know the sort of thing: ‘Press a Button—A Butler who Never Drinks.’ ‘Turn a Handle—Ten Housemaids who Never Flirt.’ You must have seen the advertisements. Well, whatever these machines are, they are making pots of money; and they are making it all for that little imp whom I knew down in Ludbury. I can’t help feeling pleased the poor little chap has fallen on his feet; but the plain fact is, I’m in terror of his turning up any minute and telling me he’s carved his way in the world—as he certainly has.”
“And the other man?” repeated Angus with a sort of obstinate quietude.
Laura Hope got to her feet suddenly. “My friend,” she said, “I think you are a witch. Yes, you are quite right. I have not seen a line of the other man’s writing; and I have no more notion than the dead of what or where he is. But it is of him that I am frightened. It is he who is all about my path. It is he who has half driven me mad. Indeed, I think he has driven me mad; for I have felt him where he could not have been, and I have heard his voice when he could not have spoken.”
“Well, my dear,” said the young man, cheerfully, “if he were Satan himself, he is done for now you have told somebody. One goes mad all alone, old girl. But when was it you fancied you felt and heard our squinting friend?”
“I heard James Welkin laugh as plainly as I hear you speak,” said the girl, steadily. “There was nobody there, for I stood just outside the shop at the corner, and could see down both streets at once. I had forgotten how he laughed, though his laugh was as odd as his squint. I had not thought of him for nearly a year. But it’s a solemn truth that a few seconds later the first letter came from his rival.”
“Did you ever make the spectre speak or squeak, or anything?” asked Angus, with some interest.
Laura suddenly shuddered, and then said, with an unshaken voice, “Yes. Just when I had finished reading the second letter from Isidore Smythe announcing his success. Just then, I heard Welkin say, ‘He shan’t have you, though.’ It was quite plain, as if he were in the room. It is awful, I think I must be mad.”
“If you really were mad,” said the young man, “you would think you must be sane. But certainly there seems to me to be something a little rum about this unseen gentleman. Two heads are better than one—I spare you allusions to any other organs and really, if you would allow me, as a sturdy, practical man, to bring back the wedding-cake out of the window—”
Even as he spoke, there was a sort of steely shriek in the street outside, and a small motor, driven at devilish speed, shot up to the door of the shop and stuck there. In the same flash of time a small man in a shiny top hat stood stamping in the outer room.
Angus, who had hitherto maintained hilarious ease from motives of mental hygiene, revealed the strain of his soul by striding abruptly out of the inner room and confronting the new-comer. A glance at him was quite sufficient to confirm the savage guesswork of a man in love. This very dapper but dwarfish figure, with the spike of black beard carried insolently forward, the clever unrestful eyes, the neat but very nervous fingers, could be none other than the man just described to him: Isidore Smythe, who made dolls out of banana skins and match-boxes; Isidore Smythe, who made millions out of undrinking butlers and unflirting housemaids of metal. For a moment the two men, instinctively understanding each other’s air of possession, looked at each other with that curious cold generosity which is the soul of rivalry.
Mr. Smythe, however, made no allusion to the ultimate ground of their antagonism, but said simply and explosively, “Has Miss Hope seen that thing on the window?”
“On the window?” repeated the staring Angus.
“There’s no time to explain other things,” said the small millionaire shortly. “There’s some tomfoolery going on here that has to be investigated.”
He pointed his polished walking-stick at the window, recently depleted by the bridal preparations of Mr. Angus; and that gentleman was astonished to see along the front of the glass a long strip of paper pasted, which had certainly not been on the window when he looked through it some time before. Following the energetic Smythe outside into the street, he found that some yard and a half of stamp paper had been carefully gummed along the glass outside, and on this was written in straggly characters, “If you marry Smythe, he will die.”
“Laura,” said Angus, putting his big red head into the shop, “you’re not mad.”
“It’s the writing of that fellow Welkin,” said Smythe gruffly. “I haven’t seen him for years, but he’s always bothering me. Five times in the last fortnight he’s had threatening letters left at my flat, and I can’t even find out who leaves them, let alone if it is Welkin himself. The porter of the flats swears that no suspicious characters have been seen, and here he has pasted up a sort of dado on a public shop window, while the people in the shop—”
“Quite so,” said Angus modestly, “while the people in the shop were having tea. Well, sir, I can assure you I appreciate your common sense in dealing so directly with the matter. We can talk about other things afterwards. The fellow cannot be very far off yet, for I swear there was no paper there when I went last to the window, ten or fifteen minutes ago. On the other hand, he’s too far off to be chased, as we don’t even know the direction. If you’ll take my advice, Mr. Smythe, you’ll put this at once in the hands of some energetic inquiry man, private rather than public. I know an extremely clever fellow, who has set up in business five minutes from here in your car. His name’s Flambeau, and though his youth was a bit stormy, he’s a strictly honest man now, and his brains are worth money. He lives in Lucknow Mansions, Hampstead.”
“That is odd,” said the little man, arching his black eyebrows. “I live, myself, in Himylaya Mansions, round the corner. Perhaps you might care to come with me; I can go to my rooms and sort out these queer Welkin documents, while you run round and get your friend the detective.”
“You are very good,” said Angus politely. “Well, the sooner we act the better.”
Both men, with a queer kind of impromptu fairness, took the same sort of formal farewell of the lady, and both jumped into the brisk little car. As Smythe took the handles and they turned the great corner of the street, Angus was amused to see a gigantesque poster of “Smythe’s Silent Service,” with a picture of a huge headless iron doll, carrying a saucepan with the legend, “A Cook Who is Never Cross.”
“I use them in my own flat,” said the little black-bearded man, laughing, “partly for advertisements, and partly for real convenience. Honestly, and all above board, those big clockwork dolls of mine do bring your coals or claret or a timetable quicker than any live servants I’ve ever known, if you know which knob to press. But I’ll never deny, between ourselves, that such servants have their disadvantages, too.”
“Indeed?” said Angus; “is there something they can’t do?”
“Yes,” replied Smythe coolly; “they can’t tell me who left those threatening letters at my flat.”
The man’s motor was small and swift like himself; in fact, like his domestic service, it was of his own invention. If he was an advertising quack, he was one who believed in his own wares. The sense of something tiny and flying was accentuated as they swept up long white curves of road in the dead but open daylight of evening. Soon the white curves came sharper and dizzier; they were upon ascending spirals, as they say in the modern religions. For, indeed, they were cresting a corner of London which is almost as precipitous as Edinburgh, if not quite so picturesque. Terrace rose above terrace, and the special tower of flats they sought, rose above them all to almost Egyptian height, gilt by the level sunset. The change, as they turned the corner and entered the crescent known as Himylaya Mansions, was as abrupt as the opening of a window; for they found that pile of flats sitting above London as above a green sea of slate. Opposite to the mansions, on the other side of the gravel crescent, was a bushy enclosure more like a steep hedge or dyke than a garden, and some way below that ran a strip of artificial water, a sort of canal, like the moat of that embowered fortress. As the car swept round the crescent it passed, at one corner, the stray stall of a man selling chestnuts; and right away at the other end of the curve, Angus could see a dim blue policeman walking slowly. These were the only human shapes in that high suburban solitude; but he had an irrational sense that they expressed the speechless poetry of London. He felt as if they were figures in a story.
The little car shot up to the right house like a bullet, and shot out its owner like a bomb shell. He was immediately inquiring of a tall commissionaire in shining braid, and a short porter in shirt sleeves, whether anybody or anything had been seeking his apartments. He was assured that nobody and nothing had passed these officials since his last inquiries; whereupon he and the slightly bewildered Angus were shot up in the lift like a rocket, till they reached the top floor.
“Just come in for a minute,” said the breathless Smythe. “I want to show you those Welkin letters. Then you might run round the corner and fetch your friend.” He pressed a button concealed in the wall, and the door opened of itself.
It opened on a long, commodious ante-room, of which the only arresting features, ordinarily speaking, were the rows of tall half-human mechanical figures that stood up on both sides like tailors’ dummies. Like tailors’ dummies they were headless; and like tailors’ dummies they had a handsome unnecessary humpiness in the shoulders, and a pigeon-breasted protuberance of chest; but barring this, they were not much more like a human figure than any automatic machine at a station that is about the human height. They had two great hooks like arms, for carrying trays; and they were painted pea-green, or vermilion, or black for convenience of distinction; in every other way they were only automatic machines and nobody would have looked twice at them. On this occasion, at least, nobody did. For between the two rows of these domestic dummies lay something more interesting than most of the mechanics of the world. It was a white, tattered scrap of paper scrawled with red ink; and the agile inventor had snatched it up almost as soon as the door flew open. He handed it to Angus without a word. The red ink on it actually was not dry, and the message ran, “If you have been to see her today, I shall kill you.”
There was a short silence, and then Isidore Smythe said quietly, “Would you like a little whiskey? I rather feel as if I should.”
“Thank you; I should like a little Flambeau,” said Angus, gloomily. “This business seems to me to be getting rather grave. I’m going round at once to fetch him.”
“Right you are,” said the other, with admirable cheerfulness. “Bring him round here as quick as you can.”
But as Angus closed the front door behind him he saw Smythe push back a button, and one of the clockwork images glided from its place and slid along a groove in the floor carrying a tray with syphon and decanter. There did seem something a trifle weird about leaving the little man alone among those dead servants, who were coming to life as the door closed.
Six steps down from Smythe’s landing the man in shirt sleeves was doing something with a pail. Angus stopped to extract a promise, fortified with a prospective bribe, that he would remain in that place until the return with the detective, and would keep count of any kind of stranger coming up those stairs. Dashing down to the front hall he then laid similar charges of vigilance on the commissionaire at the front door, from whom he learned the simplifying circumstances that there was no back door. Not content with this, he captured the floating policeman and induced him to stand opposite the entrance and watch it; and finally paused an instant for a pennyworth of chestnuts, and an inquiry as to the probable length of the merchant’s stay in the neighbourhood.
The chestnut seller, turning up the collar of his coat, told him he should probably be moving shortly, as he thought it was going to snow. Indeed, the evening was growing grey and bitter, but Angus, with all his eloquence, proceeded to nail the chestnut man to his post.
“Keep yourself warm on your own chestnuts,” he said earnestly. “Eat up your whole stock; I’ll make it worth your while. I’ll give you a sovereign if you’ll wait here till I come back, and then tell me whether any man, woman, or child has gone into that house where the commissionaire is standing.”
He then walked away smartly, with a last look at the besieged tower.
“I’ve made a ring round that room, anyhow,” he said. “They can’t all four of them be Mr. Welkin’s accomplices.”
Lucknow Mansions were, so to speak, on a lower platform of that hill of houses, of which Himylaya Mansions might be called the peak. Mr. Flambeau’s semi-official flat was on the ground floor, and presented in every way a marked contrast to the American machinery and cold hotel-like luxury of the flat of the Silent Service. Flambeau, who was a friend of Angus, received him in a rococo artistic den behind his office, of which the ornaments were sabres, harquebuses, Eastern curiosities, flasks of Italian wine, savage cooking-pots, a plumy Persian cat, and a small dusty-looking Roman Catholic priest, who looked particularly out of place.
“This is my friend Father Brown,” said Flambeau. “I’ve often wanted you to meet him. Splendid weather, this; a little cold for Southerners like me.”
“Yes, I think it will keep clear,” said Angus, sitting down on a violet-striped Eastern ottoman.
“No,” said the priest quietly, “it has begun to snow.”
And, indeed, as he spoke, the first few flakes, foreseen by the man of chestnuts, began to drift across the darkening windowpane.
“Well,” said Angus heavily. “I’m afraid I’ve come on business, and rather jumpy business at that. The fact is, Flambeau, within a stone’s throw of your house is a fellow who badly wants your help; he’s perpetually being haunted and threatened by an invisible enemy—a scoundrel whom nobody has even seen.” As Angus proceeded to tell the whole tale of Smythe and Welkin, beginning with Laura’s story, and going on with his own, the supernatural laugh at the corner of two empty streets, the strange distinct words spoken in an empty room, Flambeau grew more and more vividly concerned, and the little priest seemed to be left out of it, like a piece of furniture. When it came to the scribbled stamp-paper pasted on the window, Flambeau rose, seeming to fill the room with his huge shoulders.
“If you don’t mind,” he said, “I think you had better tell me the rest on the nearest road to this man’s house. It strikes me, somehow, that there is no time to be lost.”
“Delighted,” said Angus, rising also, “though he’s safe enough for the present, for I’ve set four men to watch the only hole to his burrow.”
They turned out into the street, the small priest trundling after them with the docility of a small dog. He merely said, in a cheerful way, like one making conversation, “How quick the snow gets thick on the ground.”
As they threaded the steep side streets already powdered with silver, Angus finished his story; and by the time they reached the crescent with the towering flats, he had leisure to turn his attention to the four sentinels. The chestnut seller, both before and after receiving a sovereign, swore stubbornly that he had watched the door and seen no visitor enter. The policeman was even more emphatic. He said he had had experience of crooks of all kinds, in top hats and in rags; he wasn’t so green as to expect suspicious characters to look suspicious; he looked out for anybody, and, so help him, there had been nobody. And when all three men gathered round the gilded commissionaire, who still stood smiling astride of the porch, the verdict was more final still.
“I’ve got a right to ask any man, duke or dustman, what he wants in these flats,” said the genial and gold-laced giant, “and I’ll swear there’s been nobody to ask since this gentleman went away.”
The unimportant Father Brown, who stood back, looking modestly at the pavement, here ventured to say meekly, “Has nobody been up and down stairs, then, since the snow began to fall? It began while we were all round at Flambeau’s.”
“Nobody’s been in here, sir, you can take it from me,” said the official, with beaming authority.
“Then I wonder what that is?” said the priest, and stared at the ground blankly like a fish.
The others all looked down also; and Flambeau used a fierce exclamation and a French gesture. For it was unquestionably true that down the middle of the entrance guarded by the man in gold lace, actually between the arrogant, stretched legs of that colossus, ran a stringy pattern of grey footprints stamped upon the white snow.
“God!” cried Angus involuntarily, “the Invisible Man!”
Without another word he turned and dashed up the stairs, with Flambeau following; but Father Brown still stood looking about him in the snow-clad street as if he had lost interest in his query.
Flambeau was plainly in a mood to break down the door with his big shoulders; but the Scotchman, with more reason, if less intuition, fumbled about on the frame of the door till he found the invisible button; and the door swung slowly open.
It showed substantially the same serried interior; the hall had grown darker, though it was still struck here and there with the last crimson shafts of sunset, and one or two of the headless machines had been moved from their places for this or that purpose, and stood here and there about the twilit place. The green and red of their coats were all darkened in the dusk; and their likeness to human shapes slightly increased by their very shapelessness. But in the middle of them all, exactly where the paper with the red ink had lain, there lay something that looked like red ink spilt out of its bottle. But it was not red ink.
With a French combination of reason and violence Flambeau simply said “Murder!” and, plunging into the flat, had explored, every corner and cupboard of it in five minutes. But if he expected to find a corpse he found none. Isidore Smythe was not in the place, either dead or alive. After the most tearing search the two men met each other in the outer hall, with streaming faces and staring eyes. “My friend,” said Flambeau, talking French in his excitement, “not only is your murderer invisible, but he makes invisible also the murdered man.”
Angus looked round at the dim room full of dummies, and in some Celtic corner of his Scotch soul a shudder started. One of the life-size dolls stood immediately overshadowing the blood stain, summoned, perhaps, by the slain man an instant before he fell. One of the high-shouldered hooks that served the thing for arms, was a little lifted, and Angus had suddenly the horrid fancy that poor Smythe’s own iron child had struck him down. Matter had rebelled, and these machines had killed their master. But even so, what had they done with him?
“Eaten him?” said the nightmare at his ear; and he sickened for an instant at the idea of rent, human remains absorbed and crushed into all that acephalous clockwork.
He recovered his mental health by an emphatic effort, and said to Flambeau, “Well, there it is. The poor fellow has evaporated like a cloud and left a red streak on the floor. The tale does not belong to this world.”
“There is only one thing to be done,” said Flambeau, “whether it belongs to this world or the other. I must go down and talk to my friend.”
They descended, passing the man with the pail, who again asseverated that he had let no intruder pass, down to the commissionaire and the hovering chestnut man, who rigidly reasserted their own watchfulness. But when Angus looked round for his fourth confirmation he could not see it, and called out with some nervousness, “Where is the policeman?”
“I beg your pardon,” said Father Brown; “that is my fault. I just sent him down the road to investigate something—that I just thought worth investigating.”
“Well, we want him back pretty soon,” said Angus abruptly, “for the wretched man upstairs has not only been murdered, but wiped out.”
“How?” asked the priest.
“Father,” said Flambeau, after a pause, “upon my soul I believe it is more in your department than mine. No friend or foe has entered the house, but Smythe is gone, as if stolen by the fairies. If that is not supernatural, I—”
As he spoke they were all checked by an unusual sight; the big blue policeman came round the corner of the crescent, running. He came straight up to Brown.
“You’re right, sir,” he panted, “they’ve just found poor Mr. Smythe’s body in the canal down below.”
Angus put his hand wildly to his head. “Did he run down and drown himself?” he asked.
“He never came down, I’ll swear,” said the constable, “and he wasn’t drowned either, for he died of a great stab over the heart.”
“And yet you saw no one enter?” said Flambeau in a grave voice.
“Let us walk down the road a little,” said the priest.
As they reached the other end of the crescent he observed abruptly, “Stupid of me! I forgot to ask the policeman something. I wonder if they found a light brown sack.”
“Why a light brown sack?” asked Angus, astonished.
“Because if it was any other coloured sack, the case must begin over again,” said Father Brown; “but if it was a light brown sack, why, the case is finished.”
“I am pleased to hear it,” said Angus with hearty irony. “It hasn’t begun, so far as I am concerned.”
“You must tell us all about it,” said Flambeau with a strange heavy simplicity, like a child.
Unconsciously they were walking with quickening steps down the long sweep of road on the other side of the high crescent, Father Brown leading briskly, though in silence. At last he said with an almost touching vagueness, “Well, I’m afraid you’ll think it so prosy. We always begin at the abstract end of things, and you can’t begin this story anywhere else.
“Have you ever noticed this—that people never answer what you say? They answer what you mean—or what they think you mean. Suppose one lady says to another in a country house, ‘Is anybody staying with you?’ the lady doesn’t answer ‘Yes; the butler, the three footmen, the parlourmaid, and so on,’ though the parlourmaid may be in the room, or the butler behind her chair. She says ‘There is nobody staying with us,’ meaning nobody of the sort you mean. But suppose a doctor inquiring into an epidemic asks, ‘Who is staying in the house?’ then the lady will remember the butler, the parlourmaid, and the rest. All language is used like that; you never get a question answered literally, even when you get it answered truly. When those four quite honest men said that no man had gone into the Mansions, they did not really mean that no man had gone into them. They meant no man whom they could suspect of being your man. A man did go into the house, and did come out of it, but they never noticed him.”
“An invisible man?” inquired Angus, raising his red eyebrows. “A mentally invisible man,” said Father Brown.
A minute or two after he resumed in the same unassuming voice, like a man thinking his way. “Of course you can’t think of such a man, until you do think of him. That’s where his cleverness comes in. But I came to think of him through two or three little things in the tale Mr. Angus told us. First, there was the fact that this Welkin went for long walks. And then there was the vast lot of stamp paper on the window. And then, most of all, there were the two things the young lady said—things that couldn’t be true. Don’t get annoyed,” he added hastily, noting a sudden movement of the Scotchman’s head; “she thought they were true. A person can’t be quite alone in a street a second before she receives a letter. She can’t be quite alone in a street when she starts reading a letter just received. There must be somebody pretty near her; he must be mentally invisible.”
“Why must there be somebody near her?” asked Angus.
“Because,” said Father Brown, “barring carrier-pigeons, somebody must have brought her the letter.”
“Do you really mean to say,” asked Flambeau, with energy, “that Welkin carried his rival’s letters to his lady?”
“Yes,” said the priest. “Welkin carried his rival’s letters to his lady. You see, he had to.”
“Oh, I can’t stand much more of this,” exploded Flambeau. “Who is this fellow? What does he look like? What is the usual get-up of a mentally invisible man?”
“He is dressed rather handsomely in red, blue and gold,” replied the priest promptly with precision, “and in this striking, and even showy, costume he entered Himylaya Mansions under eight human eyes; he killed Smythe in cold blood, and came down into the street again carrying the dead body in his arms—”
“Reverend sir,” cried Angus, standing still, “are you raving mad, or am I?”
“You are not mad,” said Brown, “only a little unobservant. You have not noticed such a man as this, for example.”
He took three quick strides forward, and put his hand on the shoulder of an ordinary passing postman who had bustled by them unnoticed under the shade of the trees.
“Nobody ever notices postmen somehow,” he said thoughtfully; “yet they have passions like other men, and even carry large bags where a small corpse can be stowed quite easily.”
The postman, instead of turning naturally, had ducked and tumbled against the garden fence. He was a lean fair-bearded man of very ordinary appearance, but as he turned an alarmed face over his shoulder, all three men were fixed with an almost fiendish squint.
Flambeau went back to his sabres, purple rugs and Persian cat, having many things to attend to. John Turnbull Angus went back to the lady at the shop, with whom that imprudent young man contrives to be extremely comfortable. But Father Brown walked those snow-covered hills under the stars for many hours with a murderer, and what they said to each other will never be known.
Someone, probably the ticket inspector, told him that his was the only suitcase. No one else was going to Alquila today. There’s no way it can get lost. But Hernández insisted on taking it with him. I like to keep an eye on my things.
On the platform Hernández ate a few biscuits, bought a bottle of water and nervously smoked his way through two or three cigarettes. Then the door to the bus opened, and he rushed inside even though he was the only one waiting. I need to keep it with me, he explained to the driver as he climbed the narrow steps. I have my medicine in here. The driver nodded without looking around, gripping his steering-wheel more tightly.
A superstitious man, Padilla was afraid that something would happen to his bus if he spoke before starting off, just as he never spoke before getting to the mountains to make sure that nothing happened to his passengers.
By then, Hernández had taken over a row of seats and put his suitcase in the aisle. He was excited to be the only one taking the bus to Alquila that day.
Don’t block the aisle, Padilla said as the bus went around a bend. Surprised, Hernández sat up to look at the driver in the mirror. Smiling, he asked, Are you serious?
It’s dangerous for the other passengers, Padilla answered, looking back at Hernández. Rules are rules, he added without revealing the real reason: if he allowed something to block the aisle they’d have an accident or, at best, be delayed.
Pointing to the seats around him, Hernández was ready to argue the point, but Padilla was an experienced driver, and he quickly looked away from the mirror and turned up the volume on the radio. Shaking his head, Hernández decided to ignore him and lay back down.
A few minutes later, while the driver fumed in his seat, Hernández took a map out from his jacket pocket. He had ordered it by mail. Now, he excitedly but carefully unfolded it and examined it for a long time. He was finally going to see her.
Hernández had met Romina three weeks before at a Faculty of Architecture party that had almost ended up with the two of them in bed. I’d love to see you in Alquila, she’d told him in the foyer of his block of flats. Whenever you like.
Since then it had been all Hernández could think about. At twenty years old he was the only one of his friends who was still a virgin – and Romina was his only viable option for getting rid of a label under which he had suffered for too long.
He was so nervous he was afraid he wouldn’t be able to get any rest on the trip, even though it would last all night. What if I come too soon? Hernández agonized in silence. What if I don’t last a minute? What if I come as soon as I see her naked?
Hernández folded up the map and put it away then reached for his suitcase, took out a bag and checked that he had everything he needed: four packets of condoms (Who knows how many I’ll waste out of nerves?), a box of Viagra (In case I get stage fright) and sleeping pills for the trip, which had been recommended by another customer in the pharmacy.
Although the box said that two would be enough, Hernández, who couldn’t get the image of Romina’s body or his fears about the potential failings of his own body out of his head, decided to take four. There’s plenty of time after all, he murmured before taking a swig from his bottle and lying back down, hoping that the effects would be immediate.
Just then the driver lowered the ten screens that had thus far been hidden, and a stewardess’ voice started to play very loud. You’re really getting on my nerves, Hernández exclaimed, sitting up with a jolt. Then he raised his voice. I don’t want to watch the movie! But Padilla pretended not to hear, and as soon as the advert for the coach company that paid his salary had finished he turned the speakers up as high as they would go. Covering his ears and clenching his jaw, Hernández realized the absurd situation he was in. He got up and walked down the aisle to Padilla. Please, can you turn it off? I assure you that no one is going to watch the movie, he added a few moments later, tugging the corners of his mouth into the most unconvincing smile imaginable.
That’s not possible, Padilla replied after another brief silence. It’s the rules. And although you may not respect them, I follow them to the letter. He turned to look at his passenger. Hernández’s smile faded from his face. Go back to your seat. You can’t stand here. It’s not allowed.
Fighting the urge to swear at him, Hernández bit back his frustration, turned around and started to walk back down the aisle. Then he quietly asked, Can’t you at least lower the volume a little?
Impossible, Padilla said, accelerating in an attempt to throw his passenger to the ground. I can’t touch the volume. Regulations.
Hernández kept his balance and hurried back to his seat, smiling again, this time out of impotence rather than condescension. He shook his head in anger, mumbled a couple of words that not even he understood and went back to his four seats with his tail firmly between his legs. Fortunately, the pills were already beginning to take effect. Now nothing, not the noise and glare from the television screens or Padilla’s jerky driving, would bother Hernández. As soon as he lay down his mind went blank.
Hernández slept so deeply and was so oblivious to the world that he wasn’t aware of anything more until they got to Alquila. Padilla, who had done all he could to make the journey a waking nightmare, shook his arm saying Come on, you bastard, we’re here. Get up. It’s not my job to wake you up. Then he pushed Hernández’s legs with the sole of his shoe. And I don’t have to wait for you either. Get yourself out, or I’ll do it for you, the driver threatened, kicking Hernández again. Feeling his heels on the ground, the passenger woke up. Fine, fine, I heard you. I’m going. After wiping the drool from his chin and rubbing his face with his hands, Hernández stood up, registered that he was still a little dizzy, picked up the suitcase as best he could and followed the driver, who was mumbling, I hope this place treats you the way you deserve.
Out in the street, fighting the dizziness the pills had left behind, Hernández rubbed his face and shook his head again before looking around. The sun was just coming up, and he couldn’t believe that Alquila was even uglier than it had looked in Romina’s photos.
Moments later someone, maybe the driver who would take charge of the bus after Padilla, told him how to get to the plaza – Not that there’s much point. There’s nothing to see here. Paying no attention to the stranger’s last words, Hernández set out and soon covered the six or seven blocks that separated him from his destination. Around him, light was flooding across the ground.
It’s too early to call her, Hernández said to himself, hugging his bag. He sat down on a bench and went on, I’m not going to wake her up just now and definitely not her parents. But he was just making excuses. He was a bundle of nerves. What the hell am I going to say to her when she answers? I’d better not call her. What if she doesn’t want to…? What if she’s changed her mind? he said as the plaza filled with people hurrying to and fro. He looked up and saw the sun appear behind the green church steeple. Then he raised his voice, trying to conquer his fears, What the hell am I thinking? Of course I’m going to call her.
Why would she have changed her mind? He exclaimed even louder, getting up. She would have told me. But I’ll have breakfast first to give her a little more time, he added, setting off across the plaza in search of somewhere to have breakfast, oblivious to the fact that this was just another pretext. Neither did he notice was how unusual it was for people to be hurrying around so urgently at that hour.
Then someone, maybe the man at the newspaper kiosk, told him that the best place for breakfast was the restaurant run by Doña Eumelia, The one on the other side of the plaza, next to the stationer’s. But hurry up, you don’t have much time. I don’t think it’ll be open for much longer. But Hernández was already walking off, so he didn’t hear the warning. As he went into the restaurant, Hernández smiled, thinking to himself that he’d solved a couple of problems in one: he could eat something and pass the time and also buy some paper in which to wrap up Romina’s present. If she has changed her mind, the present might change it back again, he thought as he ordered eggs. Then he sat down, looking at the window display of the stationer’s, examining the different rolls of wrapping paper. Eventually, Hernández opted for a blue roll and went over to the counter to ask the shop girl, Doña Eumelia’s niece and first cousin, who was staring fixedly at the television, Can I have a metre of this one?
No, the shop girl answered, barely looking at Hernández. That paper is for children. Also, I’m watching the news. And you’re not from around here. I don’t like to deal with strangers, the shop girl said rudely without taking her eyes off the television. Just for children. Damn, Hernández said, smiling. Strangers… then give me a metre of that one.
I can’t, I already told you, the shop girl said irritably, looking at Hernández for the first time.
What if I get a child to buy it for me? Hernández asked, turning to the plaza with an incredulous smile as he tried to make sense of the situation.
Who would use it? You or the child? The shop girl asked, coming over to the counter but still staring at the television, where a local news presenter was saying, It’s going to be another difficult day.
It’s for me not the child. I was just making a joke, Hernández explained. I need to wrap a present –
Then stop asking, liar, the shop girl interrupted him. People come from outside and bring their bad manners with them, she added, turning around and going back to her seat. I’m not going to sell you anything. Too incredulous to be upset, Hernández considered trying again, but the shop girl got up from her seat, hurried back to the counter, pushed past him and poked her head into the other side of the premises where the restaurant was. They’re coming back.
Defeated, Hernández walked back to his table, just as Doña Eumelia was serving him his eggs, which would never be eaten.
Now they’re saying, said the shop girl behind Hernández, who watched Doña Eumelia walk to the threshold and look out at the street, that they’re already here. A couple of seconds later the shop girl and Doña Eumelia had lowered the shutters of the premises they shared, turned off the lights, hurried over to Hernández, picked him up and, saying We’re sorry but you can’t stay here, violently dragged him out back and thrown him out onto the street.
Someone, maybe one of the men running across the plaza, said to Hernández, Why are you just standing there? And someone else added, Run, they’re coming… they’re down here already, they’re everywhere.
Utterly confused, Hernández started to run after the men who’d spoken to him. A couple of blocks later, he heard the first explosions and the rattling of machine-gun fire. Gripped by fear, he felt his joints begin to creak and freeze up.
Romina, thought Hernández, still running. I have to call her. He took out his telephone in the middle of the street and hid in a doorway ready to dial, but someone, maybe a woman running along with two children in her arms, said, Don’t stop. They cut off the service. Utterly bewildered, Hernández put away his telephone, took out the map on which Romina had written her address and started to run in a daze, hearing the shots and explosions get closer and closer. A few paces further on, the woman tripped on a crack in the road and fell to the ground, sending her children tumbling.
Hernández helped her back up, picked up one of her children and ran as he’d never run before. He asked the woman if she knew how to get to Arteaga 17. You’re in luck… we’re close by… Just go around the corner and keep going straight on… It’s five, no, it must be four blocks. Or come with me and help my boy… You can hide at my house.
I’m sorry… really, said Hernández, stopping for a second to look at the woman and the child on the ground. He had no way of knowing that the decision he was taking would end up being the most important of his life. But he wanted to get to Romina’s house. The machine-gun fire and explosions continued in the distance. Turning at the corner the woman had pointed out to him, Hernández moved his legs impossibly fast. His chest felt as though it might burst at any moment, but he found strength he never knew he had. And so he arrived at the house he was looking for and started desperately banging on the door, shouting Romina’s name over and over again.
But no one came to answer. He couldn’t hear a thing behind the door, not a murmur. Romina’s family was hiding in the bathroom, and, although they heard the racket Hernández was making, the head of the family warned them, Don’t make a sound. I don’t want to hear a peep out of you. I don’t even want to hear you breathe. We don’t know who’s out there, who’s wandering the streets. Romina’s father stared hard at Romina, who was crying in silence. The more noise Hernández made, the deeper she burrowed her head into her arms. Maybe if we knew who it was, the head of the family whispered, but we don’t know him. We can’t take the risk.
When he had finally accepted the fact that the door he was kicking and thumping wouldn’t be opened, Hernández remembered the woman and the two children he’d abandoned. Lost and scared, he ran back the way he had come, but someone, maybe a woman on the roof, shouted out to him, The other way… run the other way… They’re coming that way.
Before Hernández had absorbed this piece of advice, a man cried out, and the people who were terrorizing the town came around the corner. Turning around, Hernández started to get his legs moving in the other direction, but then he stopped. They were at the other corner, too.
He froze and felt his bladder begin to fail. Hernández waited for the men to come towards him. When they finally arrived, he tried to say something, but someone, maybe the man who smashed in his jaw with the butt of the rifle, pre-empted him.
Before his eyes closed and he lost consciousness, Hernández saw the man who had hit him walk away and then heard the giggling of a pair of small boys, who were also armed.
Clinging on to the world by a thin thread of amazement, Hernández heard a woman’s voice giving orders. Load him up with his things… He must be an outsider.
Hernández felt nothing as they dragged him away, tied up his hands and feet and threw him into the back of a truck.
He came to a couple of hours later when someone, maybe one of the children who had laughed before, poured a bucket of water over his head. But when he finally opened his eyes, no one was there.
All he could see was a mess. They’d emptied out his suitcase in the back yard where he was lying. He looked up at the sun for a moment and felt a prickling across his entire body. He found that his T-shirt had been removed, his shoes taken off and his wrists and ankles throbbed with pain.
A couple of minutes later the woman who had ordered that he be brought with them appeared. Spitting out tangerine seeds, she stepped around the clothes and bent down next to Hernández. In a quiet voice she murmured, You’re not from around here. Then she moved around behind him and cut the ropes with which he had been tied up.
Stand up and follow me, she ordered, and it was then, hearing her voice, that Hernández realized that it reminded him of someone else. He’d heard it before. Maybe it was that woman, he thought. No, it was just like Romina’s voice. Or her mother’s.
Before he could continue with the nonsensical, absurd line of thought to which he clung so as not to have to think about anything else, to get away from where he was, Hernández found himself in a room. He and the woman he was following were met by a dozen adults and three or four children.
Hernández was hit again in the solar plexus and bent over before falling to his knees. Scratching at the earth, he tried to regain his breath, choke back the saliva running out from his mouth and dry his wet eyes. Around him people were laughing.
Someone, maybe the man who appeared to be the boss in that dark room, said, So you’ve come to fuck our wives. Surprised and terrified, Hernández thought, without knowing why or making any attempt to explain it now, that he also knew the voice that was talking to him. He’d heard it before, too.
Maybe it’s the man who hit me in the street, Hernández said to himself, as the laughter around him slowly faded away. No… it’s the driver… the one who brought me… Or, no… it’s Romina’s father, he thought to himself in silence. I heard him on the phone.
I’m talking to you, you son of a bitch! shouted the voice, and this time, instead of hitting Hernández, the man lifted up his head and waved several packets of condoms and a pack of Viagra in his face. You’ve come to fuck our girls, haven’t you?
Before Hernández managed to say anything, the man slapped him a couple of times. Well, as you can see, that’s not going to happen! The rules are different here! he added, hitting him again but this time with his fists. We’re in charge!
And do you know what I’m going to order now? asked the man, finally letting Hernández’s face go and looking around at the others who were there. For someone to be the first to volunteer.
Someone, maybe the one who had tied up Hernández, spoke up before the others.
And the other people there left the room, one by one.
*Image: © Jon Foster.
Mr. Weeks called me out again tonight, and I look back down the hall of my house. I left the kitchen light burning. This is an empty old house since the old lady died. When Mr. Weeks doesn’t call, I write everybody I know about my boy. Some of my letters always come back, and the folks who write back say nobody knows where he got off to. I can’t help but think he might come home at night when I am gone, so I let the kitchen light burn and go on out the door.
The cold air is the same, and the snow pellets my cap, sifts under my collar. I hear my hogs come grunting from their shed, thinking I have come to feed them. I ought to feed them better than that awful slop, but I can’t until I know my boy is safe. I told him not to go and look, that the hogs just squeal because I never kill them. They always squeal when they are happy, but he went and looked. Then he ran off someplace.
I brush the snow from my road plow’s windshield and climb in. The vinyl seats are cold, but I like them. They are smooth and easy cleaned. The lug wrench is where it has always been beside my seat. I heft it, put it back, I start the salt spreader, lower my shear, and head out to clean the mountain road.
The snow piles in a wall against the berm. No cars move. They are stranded at the side, and as I plow past them, a line falls in behind me, but they always drop back. They don’t know how long it takes the salt to work. They are common fools. They rush around in such weather and end up dead. They never sit still and wait for the salt to work.
I think I am getting too old to do this anymore. I wish I could rest and watch my hogs get old and die. When the last one is close to dying, I will feed him his best meal and leave the gate open. But that will most likely not happen, because I know this stretch of Route 60 from Ansted to Gauley, and I do a good job. Mr. Weeks always brags on what a good job I do, and when I meet the other truck plowing the uphill side of this road, I will honk. That will be Mr. Weeks coming up from Gauley. I think how I never met Mr. Weeks in my life but in a snowplow. Sometimes I look out to Sewel Mountain and see snow coming, then I call Mr. Weeks. But we are not friends. We don’t come around each other at all. I don’t even know if he’s got family.
I pass the rest stop at Hawks Nest, and a new batch of fools line up behind me, but pretty soon I am alone again. As I plow down the grade toward Chimney Corners, my lights are the only ones on the road, and the snow takes up the yellow spinning of my dome light and the white curves of my headlights. I smile at the pretties they make, but I am tired and wish I was home. I worry about the hogs. I should have given them more slop, but when the first one dies, the others will eat him quick enough.
I make the big turn at Chimney Corners and see a hitchhiker standing there. His front is clean, and he looks half frozen, so I stop to let him in.
He says, “Hey, thank you, Mister.”
“How far you going?”
“You got family there?” I say.
“I only go to Gauley Bridge, then I tum around.”
“That’s fine,” he says. He is a polite boy.
The fools pack up behind me, and my low gears whine away from them. Let them fall off the mountain for all I care.
“This is not good weather to be on the road” I say.
“Sure ain’t, but a fellow’s got to get home.”
“Why didn’t you take a bus?”
“Aw, buses stink,” he says. My boy always talked like that.
“where you been?”
“Roanoke. Worked all year for a man. He give me Christmastime and a place of change.”
“He sounds like a good man.”
“You bet. He’s got this farm outside of town — horses — you ain’t seen such horses. He’s gonna let me work the horses next year.”
“I have a farm, but I only have some hogs left.”
“Hogs is good business,” he says.
I look at him. “You ever see a hog die?” I look back at the road snow.
“Hogs die hard. I seen people die in the war easier than a hog at a butchering.”
“Never noticed. We shot and stuck them pretty quick. They do right smart jerking around, but they’re dead by then”
“What can you do with a hog if you don’t butcher him? Sell him?”
“My hogs are old hogs. Not good for anything. I just been letting then die. I make my money on this piece of road every winter. Don’t need much.”
He says, “Ain’t got any kids?”
“My boy run off when my wife died. But that was considerable time ago.”
He is quiet a long time. Where the road is patched, I work my shear up, and go slower to let more salt hit behind. In my mirror, I see the lights of cars sneaking up behind me.
Then of a sudden the hitchhiker says, “What’s your boy do now?”
“He was learning a mason’s trade when he run off.”
“Makes good money.”
“I don’t know. He was only a hod carrier then.”
He whistles. “I done that two weeks this summer. I never been so sore.”
“It’s hard work,” I say. I think, this boy has good muscles if he can carry hod.
I see the lights of Mr. Weeks’s snowplow coming toward us. I gear into first. I am not in a hurry. “Scrunch down,” I say. “I’d get in trouble for picking you up.”
The boy hunkers in the seat, and the lights from Mr. Weeks’s snowplow shine into my cab. I wave into the lights, not seeing Mr. Weeks, and we honk when we pass. Now I move closer to center. I want to do a good job and get all the snow, but when the line of cars behind Mr. Weeks comes toward me, I get fidgety. I don’t want to cause any accidents. The boy sits up and starts talking again, and it makes me jittery.
“I was kinda scared about coming through Fayette County,” he says.
“Uh-huh,” I say. I try not to brush any cars.
“Damn, but a lot of hitchhikers gets killed up here.”
A man lays on his horn as he goes past, but I have to get what Mr. Weeks left, and I am always too close to center.
The boy says, “That soldier’s bones — Jesus, but that was creepy.”
The last car edges by, but my back and shoulders are shaking and I sweat.
“That soldier,” he says. “You know about that?”
“I don’t know.”
“They found his duffel bag at the bottom of Lovers’ Leap. All his grip was in there, and his bones, too.”
“I remember. That was too bad.” The snow makes such nice pictures in my headlights, and it rests me to watch them.
“There was a big retard got killed up here, too. He was the only one they ever found with all his meat on. Rest of them, they just find their bones.”
“They haven’t found any in years,” I say. This snow makes me think of France. It was snowing like this when they dropped us over France. I yawn.
“I don’t know,” he says. “Maybe the guy who done them all in is dead.”
“I figure so,” I say.
The hill bottoms out slowly, and we drive on to Gauley, clearing the stretch beside New River. The boy is smoking and taking in the snow.
“It snowed like this in France the winter of ‘forty-four,'” I say. “I was in the paratroops, and they dropped us where the Germans were thick. My platoon took a farmhouse without a shot.”
“Damn,” he says. “Did you knife them?”
“Snapped their necks,” I say, and I see my man tumble into the sty. People die so easy.
We come to Gauley, where the road has already been cleared by the other trucks. I pull off, and the line of cars catches up, sloshing by. I grip the wrench.
“Look under the seat for my flashlight, boy.”
He bends forward, grabbing under the seat, and his head is turned from me. But I am way too tired now, and I don’t want to clean the seat.
“She ain’t there, Mister.”
“Well,” I say. I look at the lights of the cars. They are fools.
“Thanks again,” he says. He hops to the ground, and I watch him walking backward, thumbing. I am almost too tired to drive home. I Sit and watch this boy walking backward until a car stops for him. I think, he is a polite boy, and lucky to get rides at night.
All the way up the mountain, I count the men in France, and I have to stop and count again. I never get any farther than that night it snowed, Mr. Weeks passes me and honks, but I don’t honk. Time and again, I try to count and can’t…
I pull up beside my house. My hogs run from their shelter in the backyard and grunt at me. I stand by my plow and look at the first rims of light around Sewel Mountain through the snowy limbs of the trees. Cars hiss by on the clean road. The kitchen light still burns, and I know the house is empty. My hogs stare at me, snort beside their trough. They are waiting for me to feed them, and I walk to their pen.
*This story is taken from: The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake, Little, Brown, 1983.
In February 2001 we found exactly what we were looking for: a wooden house in the suburbs of Miami with large windows overlooking a canal with green water that flowed into the Atlantic. We considered ourselves lucky. It was a house at a good price in a peaceful spot far from the city. We didn’t have neighbors, except for the cats. We didn’t have bugs either. We painted it yellow, just like the metal mailbox we placed beside the front walk, and we replaced the glass in all the windows: some were broken; others just scratched. The wiring and the pipes were in perfect condition as were the hardwood floors; actually the place needed very little work. I polished and varnished the secondhand furniture we’d bought, made the curtains and valances and embroidered the pillows. We lived there about seven months until Philip’s death.
My Philip, it all happened so fast. Still, when I think back on it, I can see the sharpness of the cuts, the blood, the rubberiness of the exposed flesh. It all comes back to me with startling vividness.
I wasn’t happy but my days back then were calm.
My husband left early in the mornings and I spent hours sitting on the porch watching the cats with a book open on my lap. They wandered around indifferently with their feet always muddy from the swampy terrain. Maybe it’s a silly way to describe it, but I thought of them as little men strolling in the sunshine. Their curiosity and laziness entertained me. There were about seven of them (sometimes fewer) and I always took care of them.
When we moved in, I planted flowers in the ground and tried to grow a small vegetable garden, but nothing would take root in that wet clay soil. Everything immediately turned to rot in our small plot on the Florida peninsula. Our garden was a muddy and infertile uterus with a yellow metal mailbox full of flyers and coupons. Skittles: taste the rainbow. Only $0.99 with this coupon. Valid until 04.01.2001.
“No wonder it was so affordable, Jaime,” I said lifting a bag of topsoil: I was determined to fill our garden with plants, even if I had to put them in pots. “I mean, if you compare it to other houses in the area, the price was really good.”
Jaime was the owner of the shop. He was Cuban, with golden skin and long hair, still attractive at almost sixty. He liked to introduce himself by saying he’d escaped the heart of the fucking devil to live in the ass of his succubus.
“Now I know why, Jaime; no one wanted to live in that spot, with that ground that’s pure clay.”
My words might’ve sounded like a complaint but they weren’t. I just talked out of desire to converse with someone.
“Listen, put up a hammock and a wrought iron patio set,” he suggested. “Then you’ll see how much better and more cheerful. The garden I mean.”
I smiled weakly.
“And get a few citronella torches for the evenings.”
“We don’t have mosquitoes.”
“Damn, we’ve got all the bugs here, the mosquitos and those kids.”
Jaime and I spoke in Spanish, except when he said something vulgar. He only said curse words or insults in English. It was his way of distancing himself from what he felt didn’t fit his character or social position. He considered himself a gentleman, even when he shouted and ranted about Fidel and my shameless compatriot, El Che.
“It’s just that when I get started about the Cuban Revolution… Excuse my temper but I’m from Cienfuegos, Miss.”
“I’m from Cienfuegos” was his excuse, monolithic, unwavering. I have to look up the history of Cienfuegos to understand what this man is talking about, I told myself.
Jaime, the cats, and a group of teenagers—a fixture in the store parking lot—were the only living beings in the landscape of my days. There were seven cats; nine or ten teenagers. I’d made out two females in the group of animals; in the group of teenagers there was only one. I named the cats: Nevermore, who was all black, and Gondoliere, who had striped fur. I also remember Phileas Fogg, a perfect English gentleman who always waited patiently for the bowl of milk, and Franky “Frankenstein,” the oldest of them all. He had a cleft lip and arthritis. And, of course, Philip. My Philip. I never learned the names of even one of the boys. I didn’t know the name of the girl either: a bleached blonde with big eyes that always stared at me. Her stare was almost a battle cry. I know it’s not easy to understand what I’m saying. But I can’t, I could never have explained the girl better. They, on the other hand, the boys, were—or at least I thought at the time—easier to read. They looked just like the troubled teens in the movies: dirty, ripped jeans, T-shirts, sneakers, and baseball caps, terrible smell; always chewing gum and drinking beer at all hours. They got around on motorcycles; the one I thought was the leader had an impeccable Harley Davidson that glittered under the midday sun. I had a red Focus with beige leather seats which I drove to Jaime’s shop. It was the first automatic car I’d ever had. I liked being able to drive to Jaime’s without thinking too much, listening to country music. I felt as American as anyone; even more so as I loaded the car with the brown paper sacks full of things I’d bought for us and the cats. The car had a white license plate, LUK 620, with “Florida, a sunny state” inscribed in green letters. This is only partially true because in the south of Florida it rains a lot. In fact, that Monday morning the National Weather Service had issued an emergency alert about an approaching tropical storm that had the potential to turn into a hurricane.
Out of fear of the hurricane I went to the store and bought a week’s worth of provisions. While Jaime scanned the bar codes of all the items, I estimated I’d need at least three trips to get it all to the trunk of my car. The Cuban man worked alone, he was in a terrible mood, and he wouldn’t have wanted to help me anyway. I handed him my credit card.
“I once offered to pay those fucking kids to help with my customers’ purchases,” Jaime pulled the bags out from under the cash register. “But do you think trash like that has any desire to work, Miss?”
I’d told him a dozen times that I was married and I’d reminded him of my name another twenty times. But Jaime continued stubbornly with his “Miss.”
“Assholes, that’s what they are; the girl is the worst one of all, Miss.”
I wouldn’t correct him again. Not that Monday morning or ever. I was also in a terrible mood. My husband was going to be out of town the whole week. A business convention in las Vegas for him and a hurricane in the south of the sunny Florida peninsula for me.
“Couldn’t they hold it in Tampa or Orlando?” I’d asked him that morning.
“Headquarters makes the decision.”
My husband gave me a kiss, loaded his suitcase into the trunk of his car and left. That was it. He’d go straight from the office to the airport. A week in Nevada and me in the yellow house with the cats, an unopened book on the porch and the stuff I’d have to get from Jaime’s shop. And hear all about Castro and, about my compatriot, El Che. Exile, the sad Cuban exiled in Miami, Miss. Every time, as if he were the only Latin American exile in all of the United States. Every single time I went to his store, whether it was for fertilizer or cat food, it was the same. I had the impression that Jaime talked—a lot and badly—about the Cuban Revolution and, of course, about the teenagers, in order to hide something. All this that Monday morning as he rang up my purchase.
They’re criminals in training. I must’ve been crazy the day I tried to hire one of them, because . . .” He bit his lip and looked out the window: one of the kids was walking toward the store. “That’ll be thirty-five dollars, Miss.”
He then repeated not only the Miss but also the price, even though I’d already paid. I bagged my items without saying anything else. I could feel the boy’s stare on the back of my neck, Jaime’s suspicious silence. I took a couple of bags to my car.
“Hey, Miss; look what you forgot here.” I’d left a can of tuna and a can of hake for my little men next to the cash register. “You’re kind of distracted today. Be careful, because that’s not good.”
I went back home to feed my cats.
I’d done the shopping, I’d put everything away. I’d filled two bowls with milk and another two with cat food. Everything was done and it was only eleven o’clock on Monday morning.
I sat with the closed book on my lap. I didn’t have any plans, except to lie on the sofa and watch, after dinner, a documentary about hunting or fishing on the Wild Life Channel.
But the rain came ahead of schedule. The forecast had predicted the tropical storm would make landfall sometime after five in the evening; it started to rain around noon. All afternoon water crashed above, around, and up against our wooden house. There was something strange and intimate in the sound, almost a groan, as if the wood were remembering the forest from which it had come. The TV wasn’t working. It turned on but cable and cell phone service were out. Our yellow metal mailbox had also been knocked down by the wind sometime that afternoon, and dozens of flyers lay in the mud. Taste the rainbow and all that. What further destruction would the storm cause? Nothing worried me more than the cats—I don’t think I even thought of my husband’s flight to Las Vegas that was scheduled for around midnight. Where had my poor babies taken refuge? And my Philip? He was the fattest and smartest. His yellowish fur, his bluish eyes, and his theatrical personality had reminded me immediately of Philip Seymour Hoffman. Where were you that night, my Philip? Where did they find you? When we moved in, I wanted to bring him to live in the house with us. I bought a basket and embroidered a yellow pillow with his initials—PSH—but my husband said no, cats outside. Philip never lived with us. I thought about my Philip and about Nevermore and Gondoliere on that stormy night, and also about the two female cats that I’d never named, but mostly I thought about Philip.
The monotony of the rain made night come soon.
Gusts of wind blew invisibly through the darkness. For me it all seemed real and unreal at the same time. As if my head had been covered in a veil and through the tulle I could hear the raindrops and wind. So this was a tropical storm, I thought from my bed with a book—always the same one—unopened on my lap. The air around me whispered like a bunch of elderly ladies saying horrible things to each other. I thought all this without really understanding why. And outside, the wind, at eighty miles an hour, caused even the blood in my veins to accelerate.
Around ten at night it seemed like the storm was calming down. The wind blew weakly, a sound like playing cards being thrown in the air. Or maybe not. Maybe it was just my imagination somehow strangely linked to my husband, to his convention in Las Vegas—a whole week away from home talking sales strategies for fiberglass used to build slot machines and gaming tables. I got up and went to the kitchen to make myself a cup of hot tea. Outside everything was dark and darkness was everything until a bolt of lightning—like a long shiny fang gleaming in the mouth of the night—lit up the monotony of rain hitting mud. I opened the kitchen window a crack. The air carried the salty smell of the sea, of wet grass, hibiscus flowers. The air brought in life, stirred up and crushed into large refreshing gusts.
And then I saw them.
First just her. She’d picked up our yellow metal mailbox off the ground and she had it in her hand, like someone holding a scepter. She was walking toward the porch dressed in white. Her feet and the bottom of her dress were muddy. She looked like a priestess ready to carry out some ritual sacrifice. Also like a crazed queen. Then he appeared behind her. It was a new boy and he wore a huge backpack. I’d never seen him in Jaime’s parking lot. He was decidedly different from the others. Not only because he didn’t look like he’d stepped out of the same bad-boy movie, but because there was something in the way he walked, in the way he wore the backpack, that softened him. He, without a doubt, didn’t match the casting call for the crazy, dirty, bad guy. Finally, bringing up the ranks, were the rest—the grimy ones from the parking lot, with their baseball caps and their stench. They broke into two groups and posted themselves on either side of my house, in front of the kitchen windows. To look on dumbly in silence.
I quickly closed the window.
In an instant, I checked that all the windows and doors were locked. I turned off the lights. I ran to my room. My cell phone still didn’t have service. If I could’ve just made it to the car and fled. I was contemplating escaping out the back window when she said:
“We know you’re there, Miss.”
Fear pumped through my body like blood. I didn’t respond. I stayed still for a few seconds until she spoke again.
“The thing is, this house is ours. Isn’t it?”
The “isn’t it” wasn’t for me but for the boy with the backpack and the rest of the boys; at least, that’s what I think now. I went back to the kitchen and looked for the biggest knife we had. Then I remembered—they’d said it in a documentary about skinning prey on the Wild Life Channel—that a smaller and sharper knife can be more effective and is, without a doubt, easier to handle. I changed weapons.
Silence again. The only sound was my heavy breathing.
It wasn’t raining anymore, the dim starlight allowed me to make out the boys on both sides of the house in front of my windows: their white faces, their mouths hanging open, their noses pressed against the glass. Their breath fogging up the windows. Their wet puppy dog eyes. I wondered how much of the inside of the house they could see from that outside darkness. And then, the unexpected blow that made the glass of the kitchen window shatter.
The Crazed Queen, framed in my yellow wooden window. The water had made her mascara run and her eyes were even bigger and more deathlike. Her long hair was loose and her bangs were tucked behind her ears.
She gathered up her dress like a southern belle as she climbed through the window into my house, as if it had always been hers. Behind her came the new guy, her faithful choirboy with the mountain-climbing backpack.
I grabbed the big knife I’d previously discarded. Now I had two knives and I was barricaded behind a chair. It was obvious, although in the moment I refused to think about it, that if they all decided to come in and attack me there was no knife or barricade that would stop them. I wished more than ever, me who’d always been a gentle lamb, for a pistol.
Everything happened so fast.
But when I think about it now, I can still see the sharpness of the cut, the blood, the rubberiness of the exposed flesh, the entrails slipping from their membranes, the spindly bones. It all creeps back to my memory. Also the car lights, the screams. I always end up vomiting or with my stomach in knots at the memory of that night. My nerves are shot whenever I think about Miami, about those kids, about my husband, about everything that happened.
Now inside the house, the girl turned on the lights. She knew where the switches were; she could get around my house with her eyes closed. Without saying a word, the new boy opened his backpack. He took out: two large knives, a pair of disposable gloves, two trash bags, a hook like the ones butchers use to hang sides of beef in the freezer. And, inside a third bag, Philip. He set everything out neatly on the table. I thought that the cat was dead. I would’ve covered my mouth—I mean to say that’s the impulse I had—but I had my hands full with the knives. Anyway Philip wasn’t dead. He was drugged, I suppose, like the rest of those idiot kids. The half-open mouths of the cat and the kids with their noses pressed against my windows breathed almost in unison. Why didn’t they all come into the house together? Why did they stay outside? How many times had they repeated that identical ceremony? She, the Crazed Queen, inside with the initiate, and the rest, outside, watching the scene with their bovine eyes.
“Put the hook through his foot and hang him from that rail,” the girl ordered. From her accent, I could tell she was from the South.
I wanted to shout: “don’t do it,” but the words didn’t come to my mouth. I only took a few steps holding the knives out in front of me, like some armed sleepwalker. I didn’t dare do more than that, I wouldn’t have been able to do more than that. The Crazed Queen decided to preempt any possible surprises. She gave the sign to the boys outside and, a few seconds later, they were all inside the house.
“Put down the knives, Miss, and we’ll have a peaceful night.”
Two of the boys took me by the wrists and a third took the knives away.
“That’s better. Isn’t it, Miss?” the girl said (she called me “Miss” too, how ridiculous).
She petted met. Her hands were rough and cold; they smelled like rain, but her breath smelled of alcohol and cigarettes.
I wanted to insult her or spit in her face. I couldn’t do that either.
“Now, let’s do our thing; get to work,” she ordered the new boy. “We don’t want to be here all night. Do we, boys?”
The new one’s hands trembled a little. Could I count on him? Would he repent at the last minute? Did my Philip have any chance of getting away? The new one’s hands shook even more now. They were normal hands. Not fat or skinny, not bald or hairy. But you could tell—it was obvious—that they were soft hands, like a student’s, unaccustomed to manual labor. How much did Philp weigh? Around seven or eight kilos, maybe ten—he’d gained weight recently. For the new kid he seemed to weigh more than a deer. He didn’t dare to pick him up. Wounding or killing—an animal or a man, it’s the same—with your own hands isn’t the same as doing it with a gunshot, like those somber hunters on the Wild Life Channel. Now I know: the flesh tries to resist, it fights you. Muscles are strong and flexible. He had to find a way to insert a hook in the live furry flesh of the cat. Avoiding the bone, find the muscle under the fur. The blond fur of my Philip.
It wasn’t such an easy job.
Philip fought upside down, as much as the effects of the drug would allow him to, as the new boy battled his fear and disgust. I must’ve struggled against the boys who held me, because later, when everything was over, I noticed that I had bruises on my wrists. The new one, after several tries, through suppressed gagging, and Philip’s whimpering, managed to puncture the cat’s flesh. His left thigh. Philip hung by a leg and a thread of blood slowly stained his fur. Like an inverted Spanish flag: yellow, red, yellow.
The worst part wasn’t the helplessness. The worst part wasn’t being in an isolated house with some deranged teens who, who knows why, were practicing some initiation right using my favorite cat. The worst part was the uncertainty, the fear of knowing I was at the mercy of the Crazed Queen and who knows what drugs and how much alcohol she had in her bloodstream. Why did they want me to witness it? Why, out of all the places in the world, did they have to choose my house? Is that what Jaime knew, that my house had been these kids’ permanent base of operations? So many questions came to me and none of them had answers.
The Crazed Queen ordered the new one to lick a little of the blood that dripped from the animal. She even put her finger in the cat’s wound and brought it to her mouth. She painted her lips with the blood. Then she twirled several times, rolled her eyes back in her head and all the foul-smelling boys cheered for her with a strange chant and applause.
I’ll never know what other trials the complete initiation ceremony entailed.
Deep down, I was certain that the new one wouldn’t pass them all. I sensed it because his eyes didn’t have that wet gleam I saw in the eyes of the rest of her minions, nor did they have the fury of the Crazed Queen. I wanted to believe that, despite his desperate need to belong, he still had a spark of good in his eyes. The new one was the only one of the group that was capable of hesitation—out of fear, disgust, or whatever reason—and hesitation is what helps us conserve a glimmer of humanity. No, the new one would not pass the trials. I confirmed my suspicions when I saw that he was the first to run away.
The headlights of a car shone into the kitchen.
It was my husband coming home. He’d left his ID. Leaving behind his ID was his unconscious way of leaving behind his identity. He hadn’t been who he said he was for a long time now. Obviously, he wasn’t going on a business trip; obviously, he wasn’t going alone. The only truth was that he was going to Las Vegas for a week and that without his ID he couldn’t start the trip. And he came back home with her—bleached blonde, with big eyes, almost an aged replica of the Crazed Queen—seated brazenly in the passenger’s seat of his car. I don’t know why life sometimes plays this game of funhouse mirrors. But none of that pertains to this story. Or almost. The only thing that matters here is that the headlights were enough to scare them away. They all fled quickly, they scattered like nighttime birds at the first light of day; and the new one was first to go. All that was left behind was Philip, half-dead in our kitchen, and the backpack.
I unhooked Philip’s leg and put him on our table. There was nothing left of his theatricality, of the vivacity in his bluish eyes. His entire body was bloody. He didn’t even have the strength to whimper, poor thing. My husband came into the house with murky eyes and his feet covered in mud. What could we say to each other that we didn’t both already know?
I picked up the knife, the small sharp one like they recommended in the hunting documentary. My husband didn’t get the chance to ask any questions. Not who the kids were that he’s surely seen running away, not what they were doing there, not what had happened to the cat. He couldn’t even ask about the damn backpack as he tripped over it. I took two steps forward and he took four steps back. Without uttering a single word and without taking my eyes off his and with a single swipe, I cut the cat’s stomach wide open. I did it with such force that I also scratched the wood of the table.
In addition to the guts and blood, three wet fetuses with squinted eyes fell out. Philip wasn’t who I thought he was either. No one is.
My husband held back a gag. Then he collapsed onto a chair. The woman who was waiting for him in the car honked the horn two times. Somehow, she’d stopped mattering. It was like the cat’s blood had hypnotized us: it continued dripping from the wound to the edge of the table and from there to the floor. How many minutes would it take for Philip to become a flattened hide? How long did it take for the cat and her fetuses to lose their lives? I looked at my bloody hands and at the knife—it wasn’t raining anymore, I don’t know what smells the wind was carrying, or how many trees or plants the storm had pulled up by the roots. The blonde kept honking the horn rhythmically and with increasing urgency. My marriage was the exact opposite of what I thought it was. And I thought to myself that the only thing fertile and alive in that house had been destroyed by my own hands.
Who was Burke? His beginnings.
Born a caulbearer in the Bristol slums, in the quayside heap known only as “the Rat,” Jacob Burke, who would battle the great McGraw on that fateful day in 1824, was a winter child of the stevedore Isaac Burke and the seamstress Anne Murphy. He of Bristol, son of James, son of Tom, son of Zebedee, lifters all. She of Dublin and the cursed Gemini of Poverty and Fertility: Jacob was the twelfth of eighteen children, the third of the eight who survived.
It was a typical quayside childhood, of odd jobs and shoe-shining and sporadic bouts of schooling: quinsy, croup, and the irresistible temptation of diving from the piers. In the summer he ran with the flocks of children terrorizing the streets with their play.
He grew up quickly. Thick-necked, thick-shouldered, steel-fisted, tight-lipped, heavy-on-the-brow, the boy knew neither a letter nor the taste sweet until his tenth year, when in the course of a single moon, he learned to lip out the rune on the shingle at Mulloy’s Arms and stole an apple from a costermonger on the road to Bath. Two brothers, thinking they were bona fide Dick Turpins, had treaded into a life of brigandage, but by the grace of his mother’s daily prayers and father’s belt, Jacob Burke turned from the taste of apples and back to the straight and narrow of his bloodline, joining Burke père on the docks.
On the docks he remained, lifting barrels of fish and slabs of iron cold from the sea air, until his back broadened and his forearms broke his cuffs.
The ascent of Burke, including: the Riots. Also: his early career and its vicissitudes.
At age nineteen, Burke became known.
On the quay was a man named Sam Jones, and Sam Jones was a stevedore too, lifting with Burke from dark hour to dark hour. Sam Jones was an old man of forty when one morning his foot punched a rotted board on the dock and he went down beneath a load of flounder, one hundred and fifty pounds of fish in an oak-slatted crate that snapped his neck against the railing before he slumped, slipped, limp into the sea.
Sam Jones had a month’s wages coming, but the Company didn’t pay his widow, and on the docks the stevedores sat down and not a boat could move. Then the owners sent out their thugs, who fell on the men with clubs and iron pokers, and from the melee exploded the QuaysideRiots, of fame.
It was a newspaperman from London who first saw Burke throw a punch. When the riots were over (and Jones’s wages still not paid) the newspaperman found the boy back at work, resigned, murmuring a sad, low lifter’s song as he threaded the pier.
On that day (gray, preternaturally August cold, seagulls hopping on the jetty-rail) Burke stood on the dock, a ninety-pound bag of wheat thrown corpse-like over his shoulder. The newspaperman talked a streak. Jacob, not accustomed to long converses, didn’t set down the bag, said, Yes sir, like he was taught to speak to suits and elders, and occasionally repositioned the weight over his back. At long last the fellow drew out a calling card. Well? What do you think? Ever fought? asked the man, and Burke asked back: There’s a man’s never fought?
On the card was the name of a warehouse on the harbor, where over the following week Burke sent three men to the floor. They were hard affairs, fighters showing up on the minute as if it were nothing but a shakebag cockfight. No seconds, no ropes, no purse. If the Fancy went, it was only to scout. On the third night came a man, Cairn, who made an offer.
How Muscular became known.
There are five fights that first year. Five fights and Jacob Burke wins four. They are hush matches, dueled in warehouses or country inns or levees east of the city. Broughton’s rules. Bare knuckles. Twenty-four-foot ring. Round ends when a man goes down. Thirty seconds of rest, and the fight doesn’t end until a man can’t get back to the scratch. No gouging, no biting, no blows below the belt. No faking down to win a rest.
Cairn is his second. Also in his corner, holding his bottle, is an associate of Cairn’s, a Yankee who’d once been champion in New Orleans. Yankee must have a Christian name, but he changes the subject when Jacob asks. He has a crablike way of moving, of facing you, of rising to his tiptoes when he is about to speak, and Jacob thinks these are habits from the ring.
They are good to Jacob Burke, treat him like a son. Give him breeches and spiked shoes, read him the fighters’ correspondence in the Weekly Dispatch, get him victuals when victuals are dear. Take him to the pushing school, where they put up the socket fee and tell the girls he will be Champion of All England. There, amidst the crepe and taffeta, he is humiliated by the men’s attention, feels like he’s back in the ring, half thinks Cairn and Yankee will follow him and the girl to watch. When that winter his father is laid out with cough, they advance him money against his purses, and Jacob finds himself buying gifts for his mother and his brothers and his sisters. His winnings are small, five, ten pounds. He spends it all and borrows more.
Before each fight, Cairn takes him aside and tells him what scum the other is, makes it sound like he’s some avenging angel, meting out justice to a line of murderers and thieves and virgin-defilers. But Jacob Burke doesn’t much care. He likes the chance to hit and watch his man fall. A ha’penny Bristol rag, with a full page on the fistic, covers his fights but can’t seem to settle on a moniker, calling him the Quayside Brawler, then Stevedore Burke, Bruise Burke, then “Muscular,” which Cairn picks up for their promotions. It’s elegant, thinks Jacob. He buys a copy of the rag and brings it home, shows his mother which word on the page says “Muscular.” He writes it out for her in big letters on a piece of butcher paper, which she folds and tucks into the pocket where she keeps her lice comb. To prove the magnitude of his strength, he grabs two of his youngest brothers, one in each hand, and lifts them squealing high above his head.
He begins oiling his hair back in slick rows, which does little for his looks except emphasize the weight of his brow. He listens to tales of the professional fighters. He wants to be like Gully, so he buys a scarf for an ascot. Purse rises, fifteen and twenty. Buys a stovepipe of the first and wears it at a rake. Like Cairn wears his. Like Cairn, who in his day, he learns, was a bruiser too.
His days of cutting a swell are numbered. In his fourth fight, his match comes kicking and flapping at him like a bird out of a cage. He takes a thumb to the eye and has to spend a week taped up with brown paper and vinegar. Spikes a fever, but Cairn gets a surgeon to bleed him and he’s cured.
In his fifth fight, Burke defeats Bristol’s Beloved. It wasn’t supposed to happen; the fight was an exhibition, a setup conceived to make the champion look good taking down a specimen like Muscular, but Muscular is triumphant.
How it came about that Burke fought Blindman.
This is how it came about that Burke fought the Blindman:
In Lincolnshire, Broken Head Gall lost to the Moor, and in Liverpool, Will Skeggs beat Tom Johnson, who had no less than the great Peter Crawley in his corner, the butcher’s son known in his day as the “Young Rump Steak.” But Skeggs wouldn’t fight Broken Head, and at Moulsey Hurst, Tom Tate lost to “Le Petit.” So Broken fought Tate, but the fight was a cross, the Weekly Dispatch breaking the story that both men had met a fortnight before to fix. Then they went to Ted Shannon the Vainglorious, but Vainglorious knew Blindman, and Vainglorious said that if he was going to get killed, he needed a bigger purse for his widow. This left the Fancy looking for a man, and this left Burke.
The match was scheduled for February, but no one would post a farthing on Burke. So they called again on Vainglorious, but Vainglorious was gone, convicted of thieving and transported. They found a miller in Melchior Brown, from Manchester, who’d been breaking gobs on the tavern circuit under the nickname Sparrow. But Brown went down in just four rounds, and the next pick, Frank Smith the Picturesque, refused to fight Blindman’s murderous fists. So again they came looking for Burke. They decided Burke’s mum’s blood would get the Irish out, and Blindman would draw the Scots, and if there was a riot, then all the better. Besides, everyone knew the best fighters wore the Bristol yellow, and by then Burke had moved out of the quay, showing his mettle in a pair of battles at Egan’s Abbey.
Who is Blindman?
This is Blindman: Methuselah of thirty-five, icon of Scottish nationalists, hero of boys’ magazines, where he was drawn in monstrous proportions, sweeping Lilliputian armies down as if clearing a table for a game of cards. A dexterous hitter of steam-engine power. Won eighteen, lost two. Baptized Benjamin McGraw, he got his nickname in a fight in ’14, in the forty-third round, with eyes so swollen by the punches that he couldn’t see. Refused to have his lids lanced, saying he could beat his boy blind, and then leveled him, hard, as soon as they hit the scratch. After the fight, they asked how he’d done it and he answered, I hit where the breathing was. He had a patron in the Earl of Balcarres, who was said to slum with McGraw in Glasgow’s most notorious. He liked to tell how he’d even been asked to be Yeoman of the Guard, but with all the stories of cursing and rough living and all the girls he’d pollinated, the offer was rescinded. In ’16 he’d knocked down the champion Simon Beale in two rounds, and Simon Beale never rose again. In the famous cartoon published in the Gazette, McGraw was drawn shaking his fists over a gravestone, on which was written:
here in the shade lies simon beale
jaw of iron, fists of steel
won twenty-four fights with nerve and zeal
at twenty-five showed his achilles heel
took just two rounds for fate to seal
that no soul’s spared by fortune’s wheel.
Of course, there wasn’t a man among the Fancy who didn’t doubt Jacob Burke was going to get lathered. And Burke knew the rumors, but Cairn and the Yankee said he stood a chance, that Blindman was growing old, and Burke was improving daily in strength and science.
Truth was Burke didn’t need to be told. And Cairn knew, for Cairn had been organizing fights for thirteen years, and knew there wasn’t anything so proud as a twenty-three-year-old, except maybe a sixteen-year-old, but try to find a neck like Muscular’s on a kid. Only problem with Burke, he told him, finger pressed against his pectorals, only problem with you, is that Burke was too good and polite and he needed a little more meanness in him. Burke spent a good deal of time wondering about this, how a hitter could be a good man, wondering if he was good only because he was on the bottom and he couldn’t be anything else, that if conditions were different and he had something going, he wouldn’t be so. Once in a pub he’d heard, There’s no such thing as a sin man only a sin world, which he was told meant that the Devil was in everyone and it was a rare fellow who could keep him down. Then later, he started thinking that maybe he’d heard it wrong, and it should have been, There’s no such thing as a good man only a good world, and he started repeating it enough that he couldn’t remember if the basic situation was sin or good. Cairn said he was too good, but he knew inside that he hit because he liked the feeling of hitting the other fellow, which seemed at first like sin, but then he started thinking that if the other fellow was just like him, then the other fellow liked hitting too, and that meant he, Burke, was beating a sinner, and so he, Burke, was good, except when he looked at it another way, then the other fellow was also clobbering a fellow who liked hitting (him, Burke), this meant the other fellow was good, and Burke was a sinner for milling an upright man.
The reasoning went round and round like one of those impossible songs that never stopped, until Muscular decided that what he liked about the fight was that he didn’t have to wonder about such questions, only hit, because if you didn’t hit, you got hit. That was the answer!
The day approaches.
So Burke takes to training: docks in the day, dumbbells at dusk. Cairn has him running his dogs in the hills. Hits the bags of sand. Bans drink and the amorous.
The word spreads fast around Bristol. He hears a hush follow him where he walks. In the streets he’s besieged by the shoe-shiners, who beg to see standing flips and then set on one another for the title of “Muscular.” The girls lower their bonnets and lift their eyes when he rooster-swaggers past.
One night, on the docks, an old lifter called Booth approaches Burke as he makes his way home. Stepping in front of the boy, he grabs his forearm in a steel grip, says, This is a fool thing, and Jacob Burke says, Yes sir.
The posters go up, with sketches of the two men facing off as if they had posed together, shirtless, in ankle-boots and breeches, tied close with sashes. They say the fight will be held at Moulsey Hurst, southwest of London, but all know this is a sham to throw off the magistrates. The papers take to calling the fight Blindman’s Brag, as if it were not a fight but a showcase for McGraw. As if Burke weren’t even fighting.
One night, his mother is waiting for him when he comes home. They say you’re going to get killed, she says. Who says that? asks Jacob. They all say that, she says. I’ve been to the market. They say: Make sure they promise you the purse, Annie, ’cause your boy isn’t coming home.
Unspoken, but hidden in her words, is his father, who is coughing himself to bones and hasn’t been down to the docks in months. But she doesn’t say Jacob should walk away. Had she, then he would have squared his jaw and proclaimed he had his honor to protect. It is because she says nothing more that the doubts begin to eel their way in.
Except he knows he can’t get out even if he wants to. He owes Cairn, for the scarf, for the stovepipe, the food. Cairn says that with the purse from the fight with McGraw, he’ll be paid off and then some. He decides “then some” means even more if he wagers on himself. Then he will stop.
They find a patron.
Two weeks before the fight, Cairn quarries a Patron in a Corinthian named Cavendish; the rest of the purse is put up by the Pugilistic Club.
Cavendish meets Burke and Cairn at Ned Landon’s public house. He’s a dandy: curls, perfume, talking proud and fast and high. Wants to be called Cav, but Jacob calls him Mister Cavendish, and he smiles. He made his blunt during the Regency, and flaunts it, burns a bill before Burke’s eyes. Recites a fight poem that he had published in Bell’s Life, full of lettery words Burke has trouble getting his ears around. Cavendish tells a story about a fighter, laughing, says, Poor Tom had his eyes knocked from his head. Just like that. Plop. Plop. Couldn’t find work and suicided. Drank prussic. Plop. He laughs. Burke hates him immediately, feels his whole body tense when he hears him talk. He knows Cavendish is trying to look big by making him look small, but he can’t think of fast words to answer. Any other man, and he would hit him so hard he’d lose more than his eyes. He looks to his trainer, and Cairn tilts his head, just a little, as if to say, Easy, swallow the toad, Cavendish is putting up the purse.
Soaked, Cavendish begins to slur. Calls a wagtail over and throws an arm around her waist. Tells Jacob to remove his shirt. Says, Look at the symmetry, look at the strength. Says, Your mum’s Irish, Burke? Calls him My little boy. Touches his arms and says, Look, this is pretty. Drinks his blue ruin until it runs down his chin. Says he was a boxer, but he holds his fists with his thumbs inside.
They travel to the scene of the fight, where Burke meets a man who imparts his Philosophy.
The fight is set in Hertfordshire, in a field south of St. Albans called Dead Rabbit Heath. In St. Albans, they spend the night at a coaching inn. Cairn and the Yankee drink until they’re reeling, but Muscular is too nervous to keep anything down. The Publican is an aficionado of the fistic, the walls are decorated with sketches and mezzotints of the great fighters, and Burke recognizes Broughton and Painter, and the Jews Mendoza and Dutch Sam, and Gasman and Game Chicken. He wants to be like the portraits, still and quiet and distant on a watercolor patch all alone and glorious. But among the rabble that’s crowding the tavern, Muscular is cornered by a farrier, a fat, spectacled man who seems to have some reading behind him. Says he was a priest, once, which explains his fine diction, though he won’t say why they stripped his soutane. You’ll be one of the greats, he tells Jacob. Just look at you. Maybe you’ll lose tomorrow, but it doesn’t matter. Just hold your own, and soon you’ll be Champion. He asks if Burke knows of the battle between Achilles and Hector, but Burke has never heard of these two fighters. The farrier shrugs it off. You ever seen McGraw? he asks. Burke hasn’t, sketches only. Goliath, says the farrier. Like someone pressed two men into one. Misshapen like that too. You’ll see. Cauliflower ears. Ears? No! Cauliflower face.
He presses on. You want to hear my Philosophy? How are you going to win? Think, my boy. You want to win or you want to hurt him? Those are different things. Pastor Browne’s theory of the fight—you can tell the rest—is that anger only takes a man so far. That’s what all you poor boys start with: anger, needing it like a horse needs a rider. But soon that gets in the way. You boys go out and think you are fighting a boxer, but really you’re fighting the world. But a good fighter, you see, like Blindman, he knows that the man he’s fighting is fighting first to hurt and next to win. And he’ll use it. Use your hating to get you. That’s the difference. Men who fight to hurt will get it in their time. Gladiator in arena consilium capit. He’ll finish you. Mill you to a jelly. Get your head up in chancery and then where will you find yourself?
Burke doesn’t have an answer. He stares at the man, who’s got whiskers thick as string. The man’s going on about anger, and Burke’s tempted to say, There’s no such thing as a sin man only a sin world. I’m just hitting. He doesn’t want to talk anymore. But he won’t leave, won’t go to sleep either. A tavern chant swells. Then let us be merry/while drinking our sherry…
He has a sick feeling and thinks maybe he is scared.
They gather at Dead Rabbit Heath.
The fight is to take place another two leagues from the inn, on a field not far from the road, in a soft depression between a pair of hills.
Soon after sunrise, they take a coach. They pass crowds coming up the road, on horseback or foot. It is a cold morning, the light hesitant, the fields wet with dew. There are tents set up for peck and booze. The traffic’s slow, thick with broughams and horses. It takes Burke a long time to realize that the crowd is there, in part, for him. They park their carriage at a small clearing halfway up the hill. Burke gets out, followed by Cairn and Yankee. Almost immediately he is set upon by the tag-rag, who jostle him for no reason but to try to get close. They sing, Gotta get the Blindman, or the Blindman gets you. Muscular wears his stovepipe low over his eyes, his seconds flank him, leading him up a long path through the wet grass, over a rise and then down toward the ring. Both men hold him by his elbow. He knows it’s supposed to comfort him, but there is no comfort there. He thinks, Where do they flank men like this? and the answer is the gallows.
As they approach, there’s a massive crowd already gathered at the ropes, and he can hear a hushing in the near. They’ve got two stands set up by the ring for the paying, but the crowd overflows up the hills. He looks for his opponent, but Blindman is nowhere to be seen. He wants Blindman to be there, as if Blindman’s the only one who could know what he is feeling.
The ground is turned up like a pack of pigs came rooting through, but the ring is clean, neat, covered with sand, like nothing he’s ever fought in. They’ve strung two lines of painted rope, the scratch is already chalked. He keeps his greatcoat on as Cairn goes and speaks to the judge. He feels the eyes of the crowd on him, tries to ignore them, looks down, and keeps clenching his hands again and again. Finally, he lifts his face and looks out. The hill is all men, far as the eye can reach. There’s a pair of swells near him, ascots blooming, suits of bombazine, capes, and pearl buttons. Hey, Muscle, says one and then laughs. I’ve got money on you, Muscle, says the other. They’re talking funny, and then he realizes they’re mocking a brogue. He looks away.
Cairn comes back. This’s big, boy, he says. Ten thousand men, and not a stable free for a sleepy nag. Half the country wants to see our boy fell the Blindman.
Cheers and jeers as his opponent approaches.
Late in the morning, McGraw arrives. Burke hears the murmurs thrumming through the crowds, then shouts going up, the hillside parting for a dark figure to come through, surrounded by an entourage. They are far off, descending the opposite slope. For an instant it is as if he is watching a shadow at sundown, the dark hulk lumbering over his seconds. A fight song materializes out of the noise, but he can’t hear the words. Then suddenly, with McGraw halfway to the ring, something ugly must have been said, for the goliath lunges into the crowd. Then tumult, the black suits turning over as if they were dominoes. Burke can’t tell if McGraw is swinging: it’s all men coming up and falling back and shouting and flailing like some giant sea animal thrashing in the surf. Then his seconds must have gotten hold of him, for he’s pulled back, and the crowd ripples and is still. Murmurs now: McGraw is out of control, He’s an animal, they shouldn’t let him fight, but Burke knows his man did it for show, though he doesn’t know if the show is for him or for the crowd that’s come.
There are no more incidents. As McGraw gets closer, a quiet descends. At the edge of the ring, McGraw hands his greatcoat and hat to his second and steps inside. From his corner, Burke watches Blindman strip to his colors.
Jacob Burke has prepared himself for a giant, but he doesn’t think he has ever seen such a human as this. McGraw must be eighteen stone. Six foot six at least, but the illusion of height is increased by the size of his chest and belly, which set his head back like some faraway peak. Arms as thick as Muscular’s hams. Fists slung low. Skin pale blotched red. To call his ears “cauliflower” would be a compliment. Tuber is more like it, thinks Burke. Raw tuber that could break a knuckle. His nose is a gray-yellow color that makes it look like a dead man’s nose. There is so much of him that it is difficult for Burke to see where the man’s muscles begin: he looks like someone has taken a massive sculpture of a strong man and kept throwing clay on it in lumps, until the clay ran out. Burke doesn’t even know where he is going to land his fists. It seems like certain rules, like rules against grabbing the throat, don’t matter when it comes to Blindman, for Burke is uncertain where the neck ends and the head begins. He feels as if he were told to lift an awkward stone without a place to set his hands.
He knows now that he has been seduced by the promotion posters, which show the men facing off, as if they were two men fighting. This isn’t two men fighting. He thinks of the games of speculation he played as a child: If a lion fought a bear, if a turtle fought a buck, if a shark fought a giant fox. If an eagle fought a man of fire. Who would win? Who would kill whom?
If Muscular Burke fought the monster McGraw.
It is then that Jacob realizes he has been set up to lose, that Cairn and the Yankee could never have expected him to stand a chance against Blindman.
His pulse skitters, mad like a water bead in a hot pan.
He looks back out at the crowds. Now they stretch all the way to the crest of the hillside. The sound of their chanting is deafening. But he hears only Blindman, they are there to watch Blindman win or Blindman lose. Curse and praise but only Blindman’s name. The crowd doesn’t even seem to acknowledge Burke. Thinks Jacob: Who cheers the fox, when you’ve come to watch the hound?
The fight begins.
The Padders are at the ropes. There are six of them, a quintet of London coalmen and an ostler who is retired from the fistic. Their jackets are off, their cuffs rolled, fighting to keep the crowds back. Muscular realizes that while he has been lost in thought, his arms loose at his sides, his seconds have stripped him to his breeches.
He stands in a daze. He realizes he’s staring into the crowd, looking for someone he knows, another lifter from the docks or—thinking frantic now—a brother, or even his mother, when Cairn whispers something in his ear. He has almost forgotten his second, but now Cairn is behind him, his hands on Burke’s shoulders, massaging the massive deltoids of which he is so proud. Jacob shivers him off. Is he in on this? he wonders. How much is he being paid to have me get killed? He shakes his head as if there’s poison in his ear.
Behind him, he hears Cairn’s voice. Show ’em, Muscular. He coaxes Burke’s arms into the air, and Burke flexes. That’s right, Muscular, says Cairn. Show the old man.
What are the odds? whispers Jacob through his teeth. What am I at?
Cairn rubs his shoulders. Don’t worry, boy. You do the milling and I’ll do the betting and we’ll both go home rich men. He laughs, but Jacob doesn’t join him. No matter how hard he tries to throw his anger back toward the giant in the ring, he feels only betrayal, fury at his handlers for what is about to happen. The thought that Cairn and Yankee want him to lose vanishes, but what remains is somehow worse, that he is inconsequential. The idea that they could have cared for him any more than a trainer cares for a dancing bear seems now like an absurd fantasy. He was a fool to believe. He should sit, lay it down, get back to “the Rat,” to the quayside, to home.
They are called to the scratch. The judge joins the Padders in the outer ring. Burke sees Cavendish in the front row, toppered in a white stovepipe that is immaculately, impossibly clean. Beside him: the jostling bettors, the flit-fluttering fingers of a tic-tac man.
The two fighters shake. McGraw’s paws are like the rest of him, geologic, and while Jacob has a grip that can shatter a bottle, he cannot even get a purchase on the Scotsman’s hand.
Time is kept by a Lord from Essex. The judge launches his cant, promising strength and speed and stamina, a battle of brawn, a beautiful combat, a most severe contest for the benefit of Honorary Gentlemen. The crowd erupts.
May the best man win, says the judge.
Fists up and in the crouch, Burke can’t hear the bell for all the shouting. Before him, McGraw holds his pose, shoulders squared, his face a mask, waiting for the boy to come. Burke wants to strike, but he can’t move, can’t see a line through the giant’s arms. Blindman makes a kissing motion and the crowd roars. Muscle muscle, comes a taunt, and out of the corner of his eye, Burke sees the two swells laughing, and beside them Cavendish doing nothing to fight off a smile. Off the scratch, he strikes Blindman’s jaw. McGraw doesn’t budge. Again Burke strikes, and Blindman stops it with his left. His forearm barely gives. Blindman makes a face of mock surprise, brushes his arm as if brushing off a fly. Flourishes his fists. It’s a show for the crowd, and they reward it with laughter. Burke rushes again, left to Blindman’s jaw, feeling at the same time as if a brick has come down against his head.
Cairn takes him back in the corner, sits him, whispers, Tire him, Muscular, feet, Muscular, quick on the pins, dance like Mendoza, but Burke pushes him away, is back to the scratch before the Lord says thirty. Throws the instant Blindman gets up from his corner. Foul! he hears, but before they can pull him back, he’s down again, unaware of what happened. He tastes dirt this time, hears the judge call, First blood, and feels his cheek is wet. Hears numbers. Can’t distinguish the crowd’s shouting from the roaring in his ear.
Back to the scratch and Muscular down.
Back to the scratch. Blindman charges. Muscular turns, plants a fist in McGraw’s neck and the giant tumbles. The hillside roars like artillery fire. Then McGraw is up, his flesh shifting and shimmering, and Burke advances. He can’t think now; he can only move.
The fight continues.
The rounds seem to roll through him. Hook to Blindman’s ear. Burke to the mouth. One-two. One-two. Blood, tooth, and Muscular down. Jab to nose and Blindman down. Back to the scratch and Muscular pounds to the pudding bag, to the ear, to the ear, and the ear seems to crumple, break like a potato beneath a heel. Blindman down. Back to the scratch and Blindman rushes. Breadbasket, breadbasket, Muscular down. Topper in the ear and Muscular down. Pirouette, turn, and Blindman rushes. Muscular back, catches a heel and both men down. Back to the scratch. Fast in the eye, Muscular down. Again in the peeper, Muscular down. Blindman muzzled and Muscular down. Blindman coughs, spits out a grinder. Chop and chop and Muscular down. Back to the scratch and Muscular down. Blindman Blindman, Muscular down.
Eyelids swollen, tasting blood on his tongue, his knuckles wet with gore, Burke sits in the corner, letting Cairn’s hands caress his chest, Yankee sponge his face. He feels as if his men aren’t there. He’s being touched by bird’s wings. He wants at McGraw, needs to hit. It hurts to breathe, he doesn’t know how much lung he’s got in him, but something in him says that he’s taken the worst. That Blindman’s not going to hit any harder than he’s hit but that Burke’s still got it, still could heave a load. He murmurs a lifters’ song: Still lift the barrel still lift the barrel still lift the barrel, Hey!/Twelve kittens in the kitchen and another on the way. His lips, swollen, blubber. He rinses his mouth with Old Tom, rises before the thirty, and is at the scratch before Blindman stands.
By now the crowd is thundering, pressing up against the rope, throwing punches at the Padders, curses flying. Again Burke rushes. McGraw catches his wrist this time, turns with the force and throws him, coming down with his knee in Burke’s gut. Muscularmouth fills with bile, pants go wet. He hears hissing and a cry of foul, but McGraw, snorting through his broken nose, doesn’t care, he cradles Burke’s head, whispers something rasped into his ear, kicks Muscular in the flanks as he’s standing up. Again, Foul! but this is coming from the crowds, closer, and Burke sees a man breach the outer ring, hurling ugly curses at the Scot, followed by another and another, and Burke, up on his knees, thinks, Here we go, and he isn’t even standing when the punches start flying.
Pandemonium in the ring: the two fighters join forces to restore order.
A gasman hits a liveryman hits a brewer hits a baker. Two swells pound each other as if to send each to his maker. An ostler lands a muzzler while his best man lands a quaker.
The Padders overwhelmed, the ropes broken, the crowd implodes into the ring. They don’t seem to be after the pugilists but one another, though Muscular, spinning, can’t seem to make heads or tails of what’s happening. There’s a mob come down cursing the Scot. There are canes swinging and stones thrown and someone heaving a rope, and the air’s filled with curses, all kinds of animal and things that are going to be done and a liberal use of the Monosyllable.
Then Muscular and Blindman have joined the Padders, pounding to clear the ring, because both are hungry for the fight. Blindman is red-faced and breathing heavy. Rested, Muscular feels the strength in him returning.
By the time the riot is cleared, a dozen men have been carried off. Then the ropes are restaked, the colors returned. A quiet settles, but the judge is still shouting, threatening to end the fight unless order is completely restored.
But what has become of Muscular’s eyes?
Time has played Blindman’s ally: by now, Muscular can barely see, both of his eyes are weeping, swollen shut, crusting over. With the stage reclaimed and the Padders back at the ropes, the boxers repair to their seconds. In the corner, Cairn runs his thumbs over Muscular’s lids. You’re out, he says. You’re out or I cut them, and Jacob just nods. Cairn pushes his head back, grabs the lancet, grabs his face, and the relief is immediate. His face streams with the claret, his cheeks feel as if he is crying.
Back to the scratch, and McGraw is fighting dirty, but the judge lets it fly. He’s angry, thinks Burke, he knows it shouldn’t have gone on this long. It was supposed to be easy, done. Face contorted, McGraw rushes, gets a hand on Muscular’s neck, drives him into the rope. Muscular down. Cairn calls Foul! but Burke’s back to the scratch.
Now it’s Burke who leads. Forward now, and Blindman back. Fists up and McGraw circles, spits, coughs, scratches the ground. Blindman back, Burke forward, watching, waiting, watching, and then he sees it, sees his channel in. Not now, but two moves from now, like a game of checkers. Feels the warmth in his arms, feels joys, thinks, This is glorious. Feints high and McGraw goes high and then Jacob Burke is inside. Left to the jaw, left, and Blindman ducks. Straight into Burke’s right and rising.
Jacob Burke knows then that the fight is over. Hears it, something slacken. Something soft, something broken in the jaw or in the face, something creaking in the temple. He’s worked shipbreaking at times, and there’s a feeling when a sledgehammer comes against a beam and nothing breaks, but you know the next time you swing it’s going to give. The fight’s over. Blindman is standing, but Burke has only to wait and Blindman will fall. An expression comes over Blindman’s face, a puzzled expression, like he’s hearing a song he’s never heard before.
At which point Burke has a very complicated thought.
Jacob Burke’s thought takes the form of a memory.
In his childhood on the docks, like all boys, Jacob and his friends spent days in games of earnest battle, clashing sticks and throwing stones long into the dark, chasing and fighting and raising hell. They played by the universal rules of cruelty and chivalry and thrill, thrill to strike and throw and be thrown at, and throwing and chasing one day Jacob and three friends had cornered an enemy knight and were taunting him before delivering the coup de grâce, which in such a situation, with such easy prey, typically consisted of touching him with the stone or tossing it lightly, as the boy was trapped against a wall and had no way to escape. But that afternoon the boy, who was a bit younger than the rest, went scared on them and started to cry, and, surrounding him, the others began to laugh and throw, and then the boy was crying louder, which only made the others laugh louder and throw harder, and then the boy was slobbering for his mother, and they all went grabbing more stones and throwing, and Burke reached down and felt his fist close around a stone he knew was too big for that game, but the crying had removed from him any restraint, and, laughing, he took hard aim at the head of the boy and he threw.
Watching from the crowds, amidst the cheers and curses, there’s not a soul that day at Dead Rabbit Heath that knows what Jacob Burke knows, that the fight is already over. For Blindman’s standing and Blindman’s fists are still up, and if he’s slack in the lip no one can see from what Muscular Jacob Burke has done to his face. They’ll know, in breaths they’ll know and for years they’ll talk about it, but in this half-second between Muscular’s knowing and the crowd’s knowing, it’s as if Muscular has been left alone with a knowledge and an omnipotence only God should have.
There is a moment when a lifter takes a load and heaves it onto his shoulder, when the massive weight, the sack or the crate or the barrel at the top of its heave, becomes briefly weightless, and the lifter, no matter how tired he may be, poised between his action and the consequences of his action, feels both an incredible lightness and the power of the weight at the same time. It is as if he is master of the weight, not struggling below it, and Jacob Burke has learned over the years to seek this joy, cling to this joy, knows secretly that in the misery of everything else, there is one moment when he is king.
Maybe he thinks this or maybe he feels it in the movement of his arms, for now there is no difference between thinking and feeling and hitting.
Blindman’s fists are down and Muscular comes in on his man. He is feeling for the break, the hole, the soft, searching again for that seam, hitting, hitting, that half-second gone, and now there’s no turning back, hitting, knowing that when he’d told himself he hit so he wouldn’t be hit he was lying, because beneath it, the reason he hit was that there was joy in hurting, real joy in the simplicity and the freedom and the astounding number of answers in a single movement of his arms. Later he’ll have pity, but not now, now there is no pity, not because he is cruel but because there is no more Ben McGraw. For Muscular is alone, mind clear of all but such joy and beauty as he moves in, striking his man, searching, knowing there is only one way that he wants this to end, only one ecstatic way for it to end, only one, and hitting he thinks, Blindman I’m hitting Blindman I’m hitting Cairn I am hitting Cairn I’m hitting Cav I’m killing Cairn I’m hitting Cav I’m hitting Blindman I’m hitting Cav, and then feeling the soft thinks, I’m in the break thinks in the crown thinks in the line thinks into McGraw thinks there is a line into McGraw into the soft into McGraw into the crown of Ben McGraw into the temple of McGraw the broken temple of McGraw
The broken temple of McGraw.
thinks there is no such thing as a fast man only a slow world
thinks break break
*This story is taken from: The Piano Tuner © by Daniel Philippe Mason, 2002.
1077 Pincay Drive
Henderson, Nevada 89015
Dear Mr Moser
On the afternoon of June 25 while on my last outing to Rhyolite, I was driving down Cane Springs Road some ten miles outside Beatty and happened upon what looked to be the debris left over from an auto accident. I got out of my truck and took a look around. The valley was bone dry. A hot west wind took the puffs of dust from where I stepped and curled them away like ashes. Near the wash I found broken glass, deep gouges in the dirt running off the side of the road, and an array of freshly bought groceries tumbled among the creosote. Coke cans (some full, some open and empty, some still sealed but dented and half full and leaking). Bud Light cans in the same shape as the Coke. Fritos. Meat. Et cetera. Of particular interest to me were the two almost-full prescriptions that had been filled at the pharmacy in Tonopah only three days before, and a sealed Ziploc bag full of letters signed M. I also took notice of a bundle of photos of an old car, part primer, part rust, that I presume was or is going to be restored. The car was a Chevy Chevelle, a ’66, I believe. I once knew a man who drove a Chevelle. Both medications had bright yellow stickers on their sides warning against drinking alcohol while taking them. Enter the Bud Light, and the gouges in the dirt, possibly. I copied your address off those prescription bottles. What happened out there? Where is your car? Why were the medications, food and other supplies left behind? Who are you, Duane Moser? What were you looking for out at Rhyolite?
I hope this letter finds you, and finds you well. Please write back.
PO Box 129, Verdi
PS I left most of the debris in the desert, save for the medications, pictures and letters from M. I also took the plastic grocery bags, which I untangled from the bushes and recycled on my way through Reno. It didn’t feel right to just leave them out there.
1077 Pincay Drive
Henderson, Nevada 89015
Dear Mr Moser
This morning, as I fed the horses, clouds were just beginning to slide down the slope of the Sierras, and I was reminded once again of Rhyolite. When I came inside I borrowed my father’s old copy of the Physician’s Desk Reference from his room. From that book I have gathered that before driving out to Rhyolite you may have been feeling out of control, alone, or hopeless. You were possibly in a state of extreme depression; perhaps you were even considering hurting yourself. Judging by the date the prescriptions were filled and the number of pills left in the bottles – which I have counted, sitting out in the fields atop a tractor which I let sputter and die, eating the sandwich which my wife fixed me for lunch – you had not been taking the medications long enough for them to counteract your possible feelings of despair. ‘Despair’, ‘depression’, ‘hopeless’, ‘alone’. These are the words of the PDR, 41st Edition, which I returned to my father promptly, as per his request. My father can be difficult. He spends his days shut up in his room, reading old crime novels populated by dames and Negroes, or watching the TV we bought him with the volume up too high. Some days he refuses to eat. Duane Moser, my father never thought he would live this long.
I think there will be lightning tonight; the air has that feel. Please, write back.
PO Box 129, Verdi
1077 Pincay Drive
Henderson, Nevada 89015
Dear Mr Moser
I slept terribly last night, dreamed dreams not easily identified as such. Had I told my wife about them she might have given me a small quartz crystal or amethyst and insisted I carry it around in my pocket all day, to cleanse my mind and spirit. She comes from California. Here is a story she likes to tell. On one of our first dates we walked arm in arm around downtown Reno, where she was a clerk at a grocery store and I was a student of agriculture and business. There she tried to pull me down a little flight of steps to the red-lit underground residence of a palm reader and psychic. I declined. Damn near an hour she pulled on me, saying what was I afraid of, asking what was the big deal. I am not a religious man but, as I told her then, there are some things I’d rather not fuck with. Now she likes to say it’s a good thing I wouldn’t go in because if that psychic had told her that she’d be stuck with me for going on fourteen years now she would have turned and headed for the hills. Ha! And I say, Honey, not as fast as I would’ve, ha, ha! This is our old joke. Like all our memories, we like to take it out once in a while and lay it flat on the kitchen table, the way my wife does with her sewing patterns, where we line up the shape of our life against that which we thought it would be by now.
I’ll tell you what I don’t tell her, that there is something shameful in this, the buoying of our sinking spirits with old stories.
I imagine you a man alone, Duane Moser, with no one asking after your dreams in the morning, no one slipping healing rocks into your pockets. A bachelor. It was the Fritos, finally, which reminded me of the gas station in Beatty where I worked when I was in high school and where I knew a man who owned a Chevelle like yours, a ’66. But it occurs to me perhaps this assumption is foolish; surely there are wives out there who have not banned trans fats and processed sugars, as mine has. I haven’t had a Frito in eleven years. Regardless, I write to enquire about your family, should you reply.
Our children came to us later in life than most. My oldest, Danielle, has just started school. Her little sister, Layla, is having a hard time with it. She wants so badly to go to school with Danielle that she screams and cries as the school bus pulls away in the morning. Sometimes she throws herself down to the ground, embedding little pieces of rock in the flesh of her fists. Then she is sullen and forlorn for the rest of the day. My wife worries for her, but truth be told, I am encouraged. The sooner Layla understands that we are nothing but the sum of that which we endure, the better. But my father has taken to walking Layla to the end of our gravel road in the afternoon to wait for Danielle at the bus stop. Layla likes to go as early as she is allowed, as if her being there will bring the bus sooner. She would stand at the end of the road all day if we let her. She pesters my father so that he sometimes stands there in the heat with her for an hour or more, though his heart is in no condition to be doing so. In many ways he is better to my girls than I am. He is far better to them than he was to me. I am not a religious man but I do thank God for that.
I am beginning to think I dreamed you up. Please, write soon.
PO Box 129, Verdi
1077 Pincay Drive
Henderson, Nevada 89015
Dear Mr Moser
I have read the letters from M, the ones you kept folded in the Ziploc bag. Forgive me, but for all I know you may be dead, and I could not resist. I read them in my shed, where the stink and thickness of the air were almost unbearable, and then again in my truck in the parking lot of the Verdi post office. I was struck, as I was when I first found them out near Rhyolite on Cane Springs Road, by how new the letters looked. Though most were written nearly twenty years ago the paper is clean, the creases sharp. Duane Moser, what I do not understand is this: why a Ziploc bag? Did you worry they might get wet on your journey through the desert in the middle of summer? Then again, I am reminded of the Coke and Bud Light. Or am I to take the Ziploc bag as an indication of your fierce, protective love for M.? Is it a sign, as M. suggests, that little by little you sealed your whole self off, until there was nothing left for her? Furthermore, I have to ask whether you committed this sealing purposefully. She says she thinks she was always asking too much of you. She is generous that way, isn’t she? She says you didn’t mean to become ‘so very alien’ to her. I am not so sure. I love my wife. But I’ve never told her how I once knew a man in Beatty with a ’66 Chevelle. I know what men like us are capable of.
Duane Moser, what I come back to is this: how could you have left M.’s letters by the side of Cane Springs Road near the ghost town Rhyolite where hardly anyone goes any more? (In fact, I have never seen another man out on Cane Springs Road. I drive out there to be alone. Maybe you do, too. Or you did, anyway.) Did you not realize that someone just like you might find them? How could you have left her again?
I have called the phone number listed on the prescription bottles, finally, though all I heard was the steady rising tones of the disconnected signal. Still, I found myself listening for you there. Please, write soon.
PO Box 129, Verdi
PS On second thoughts, perhaps sometimes these things are best left by the side of the road, as it were. Sometimes a person wants a part of you that’s no good. Sometimes love is a wound that opens and closes, opens and closes, all our lives.
1077 Pincay Drive
Henderson, Nevada 89015
Dear Mr Moser
My wife found your pictures, the ones of the Chevelle. The one you maybe got from a junkyard or from a friend, or maybe it’s been in your family for years, rotting in a garage somewhere because after what happened nobody wanted to look at it. I kept the pictures tucked behind the visor in my truck, bound with a rubber band. I don’t know why I kept them. I don’t know why I’ve kept your letters from M., or your medications. I don’t know what I would do if I found what I am looking for.
When I was in high school I worked the graveyard shift at a gas station in Beatty. It’s still there, on the corner of I-95 and Highway 374, near the hot springs. Maybe you’ve been there. It’s a Shell station now, but back then it was called Hadley’s Fuel. I worked there forty, fifty hours a week. Bill Hadley was a friend of my father’s. He was a crazy sonofabitch, as my father would say, who kept a shotgun under the counter and always accused me of stealing from the till or sleeping on the job when I did neither. I liked the graveyard shift, liked being up at night, away from Pop, listening to the tremors of the big walk-in coolers, the hum of the fluorescent lights outside.
Late that spring a swarm of grasshoppers moved through Beatty on their way out to the alfalfa fields down south. They were thick and fierce, roaring like a thunderstorm in your head. The hoppers ate anything green. In two days they stripped the leaves from all the cottonwoods and willows in town, then they moved on to the juniper and pine, the cheat grass and bitter salt cedar. A swarm of them ate the wool right off of Abel Prince’s live sheep. Things got so bad that the trains out to the mines shut down for a week because the guts of the bugs made the rails too slippery.
The grasshoppers were drawn to the fluorescent lights at Hadley’s. For weeks the parking lot pulsed with them. I would have felt them crunch under my feet when I walked out to the pumps that night, dead and dying under my shoes, only I never made it out to the pumps. I was doing schoolwork at the counter, calculus, for God’s sake. I looked up and the guy was already coming through the door at me. I looked outside and saw the ’66 Chevelle, gleaming under the lights, grasshoppers falling all around it like rain.
I tried to stop him but he muscled back behind the counter. He had a gun, held it like it was his own hand. He said, You see this?
There was a bandanna over his face. But Beatty is a small town and it was even smaller then. I knew who he was. I knew his mother worked as a waitress at the Stagecoach and that his sister had graduated the year before me. The money, he was saying. His name was Frankie. The fucking money, Frankie said.
I’d barely touched a gun before that night. I don’t know how I did it. I only felt my breath go out of me and reached under the counter to where the shotgun was and tried. I shot him in the head.
Afterwards, I called the cops. I did the right thing, they told me, the cops and Bill Hadley in his pyjamas, even my father. They said it over and over again. I sat on the kerb outside the store listening to them inside, their boots squeaking on the tile. The deputy sheriff, Dale Sullivan, who was also the assistant coach of the basketball team, came and sat beside me. I had my hands over my head to keep the grasshoppers away. Kid, it was bound to happen, Dale said. The boy was a troublemaker. A waste of skin.
He told me I could go on home. I didn’t ask what would happen to the car.
That night, I drove out on Cane Springs Road to Rhyolite. I drove around that old ghost town with the windows rolled down, listening to the gravel pop under my tyres. The sun was coming up. There, in the milky light of dawn, I hated Beatty more than I ever had. The Stagecoach, the hot springs, all the trees looking so naked against the sky. I’d never wanted to see any of it ever again.
I was already on my way to college and everyone knew it. I didn’t belong in Beatty. The boy’s family, his mother and sister and stepfather, moved away soon after it happened. I’d never see them around town, or at Hadley’s. For those last few weeks of school no one talked about it, at least not to me. Soon it was as though it had never happened. But – and I think I realized this then, up in Rhyolite, that dead town picked clean – Beatty would never be a place I could come home to.
When my wife asked about your pictures, she said she didn’t realize I knew so much about cars. I said, Yeah, sure. Well, some. See the vents there? On the hood? See the blackout grille? That’s how you know it’s a ’66. I told her I’d been thinking about buying an old car, fixing it up, maybe this one. Right then she just started laughing her head off. Sure, she managed through all her laughter, fix up a car. She kept on laughing. She tossed the bundle of photos on the seat of the truck and said, You’re shitting me, Tommy.
It’s not her fault. That man, the one who knows a ’66 when he sees one, that’s not the man she married. That’s how it has to be. You understand, don’t you?
I smiled at her. No, ma’am, I said. I wouldn’t shit you. You’re my favourite turd.
She laughed – she’s generous that way – and said, A car. That’s the last thing we need around here.
When I was a boy my father took me hunting. Quail mostly and, one time, elk. But I was no good at it and he gave up. I didn’t have it in me, my father said, sad and plain as if it were a birth defect, the way I was. Even now, deer come down from the mountains and root in our garden, stripping our tomatoes from the vine, eating the hearts of our baby cabbages. My father says, Kill one. String it up. They’ll learn. I tell him I can’t do that. I spend my Sundays patching the holes in the fence, or putting up a taller one. The Church of the Compassionate Heart, my wife calls it. It makes her happy, this life of ours, the man I am. Layla helps me mend the fence. She stands behind me and hands me my pliers or my wire cutters when I let her.
But here’s the truth, Duane Moser. Sometimes I see his eyes above that bandanna, see the grasshoppers leaping in the lights, hear them vibrating. I feel the kick of the rifle butt in my sternum. I would do it again.
PO Box 129, Verdi
1077 Pincay Drive
Henderson, Nevada 89015
Dear Duane Moser
This will be the last I write to you. I went back to Rhyolite. I told my wife I was headed south to camp and hike for a few days. She said, Why don’t you take Layla with you? It would be good for her.
Layla slept nearly the whole drive. Six hours. When I slowed the car and pulled on to Cane Springs Road she sat up and said, Dad, where are we?
I said, We’re here.
I helped her with her coat and mittens and we took a walk through the ruins. I told her what they once were. Here, I said, was the schoolhouse. They finished it in 1909. By then there weren’t enough children in town to fill it. It burnt down the next year. She wanted to go closer.
I said, Stay where I can see you.
Why? she said.
I didn’t know how to say it. Crumbling buildings, rotted-out floors, sinkholes, open mine shafts. Coyotes, rattlesnakes, mountain lions.
Because, I said. It’s not safe for little girls.
We went on. There behind the fence is the post office, completed in 1908. This slab, these beams, that wall of brick, that was the train station. It used to have marble floors, mahogany woodworking, one of the first telephones in the state. But those have been sold or stolen over the years.
Why? she said.
That’s what happens when a town dies.
Because, sweetheart. Because.
At dusk I tried to show Layla how to set a tent and build a fire but she wasn’t interested. Instead she concentrated on filling her pink vinyl backpack with stones and using them to build little pyramids along the path that led out to the town. She squatted over them, gingerly turning the stones to find a flat side, a stable base. What are those for? I asked.
For if we get lost, she said. Pop Pop showed me.
When it got dark we sat together listening to the hiss of the hot dogs at the ends of our sticks, the violent sizzle of sap escaping the firewood. Layla fell asleep in my lap. I carried her to the tent and zipped her inside a sleeping bag. I stayed and watched her there, her chest rising and falling, hers the small uncertain breath of a bird.
When I bent to step out through the opening of the tent something fell from the pocket of my overalls. I held it up in the fire light. It was a cloudy stump of amethyst, as big as a horse’s tooth.
I’ve tried, Duane Moser, but I can’t picture you at 1077 Pincay Drive. I can’t see you in Henderson period, out in the suburbs, on a cul-de-sac, in one of those prefab houses with the stucco and the garage gaping off the front like a mouth. I can’t see you standing like a bug under those street lights the colour of antibacterial soap. At home at night I sit on my porch and watch the lights of Reno over the hills, the city marching out at us like an army. It’s no accident that the first step in what they call developing a plot of land is to put a fence around it.
I can’t see you behind a fence. When I see you, I see you here, at Rhyolite, harvesting sticks of charcoal from the half-burnt schoolhouse and writing your name on the exposed concrete foundation. Closing one eye to look through the walls of Jim Kelly’s bottle house. No, that’s my daughter. That’s me as a boy getting charcoal stains on my blue jeans. That’s you in your Chevelle, the ’66, coming up Cane Springs Road, tearing past what was once the Porter Brothers’ Store. I see you with M., flinging Fritos and meat and half-full cans of Coke and Bud Light from the car like a goddamn celebration, a shedding of your old selves.
It’s almost Christmas. I’ve looked at the prescriptions, the letters, the photos. You’re not Frankie, I know this. It’s just a coincidence, a packet of pictures flung from a car out in the middle of nowhere. The car is just a car. The world is full of Chevelles, a whole year’s worth of the ’66. You know nothing of Hadley’s fuel in Beatty, of a boy who was killed there one night in late spring when the grasshoppers were so loud they sounded like a thunderstorm in your head. I don’t owe you anything.
When I woke this morning there was snow on the ground and Layla was gone. I pulled my boots on and walked around the camp. A layer of white covered the hills and the valley and the skeletons of the old buildings, lighting the valley fluorescent. It was blinding. I called my daughter’s name. I listened, pressing the sole of my shoe against the blackened rocks lining the fire pit. I watched the snow go watery within my boot print. There was no answer.
I checked the truck. It was empty. In the tent I found her coat and mittens. Her shoes had been taken. I scrambled up a small hill and looked for her from there. I scanned for the shape of her among the old buildings, on the hills, along Cane Springs Road. Fence posts, black with moisture, strung across the valley like tombstones. Sickness thickened in my gut and my throat. She was gone.
I called for her again and again. I heard nothing, though surely my own voice echoed back to me. Surely the snow creaked under my feet when I walked through our camp and out to the ruins. Surely the frozen tendrils of creosote whipped against my legs when I began to run through the ghost town, up and down the gravel path. But all sound had left me except for a low, steady roaring, the sound of my own blood in my ears, of a car rumbling up the old road.
Suddenly my chest was burning. I couldn’t breathe. Layla Layla. I crouched and pressed my bare palms against the frozen earth. The knees of my long johns soaked through, my fingers began to sting.
Then I saw a shape near the burnt remains of the schoolhouse. A panic as hot and fierce as anything – fiercer – rose in me. The slick pink vinyl of her backpack. I ran to it.
When I bent to pick it up I heard something on the wind. Something like the high, breathy language my daughters speak to each other when they play. I followed the sound around behind the schoolhouse and found Layla squatting there in her pyjamas, softly stacking one of her stone markers in the snow.
Hi, Dad, she said. The snow had reddened her hands and cheeks as though she’d been burnt. She handed me a stone. Here you go, she said.
I took my daughter by the shoulders and stood her up. I raised her sweet chin so her eyes met mine and then I slapped her across the face. She began to cry. I held her. The Chevelle drove up and down Cane Springs Road, the gravel under its tyres going pop pop pop. I said, Shh. That’s enough. A child means nothing out here.
*This story is taken from: Buttleborn © 2012 by Claire Vaye Watkins.
At a certain point in my life, my services entailed crossing the little bridge across the Seine (for the Pont Neuf was not yet built at that time) at a certain hour several times a week, and I was usually recognized and greeted by tradesmen or other simple folk, but most conspicuously and most regularly by a very pretty grocer’s wife whose shop bore a sign with two angels, and who, every time I passed over those five or six months, bowed low and watched me walking on as far as she could. Her behaviour caught my eye; I returned her gaze and thanked her kindly. Riding from Fontainebleau to Paris late that winter, I came to the little bridge again and she stepped outside her shop’s door and hailed me as I rode by: ‘Sir, your servant!’ I returned her greeting and looking back from time to time I saw she had leaned far forward to watch me for as long as possible. I had a manservant and a postillion behind me, whom I intended to send back to Fontainebleau with letters to certain ladies that evening. At my command, the manservant dismounted and went to the young woman to tell her my name and that I had noticed her habit of seeing and greeting me; should she wish to make my acquaintance, I would pay her a visit wherever she chose.
She responded to the manservant: He could not have brought her a more welcome message, and she would come anywhere I suggested.
As we rode on I asked the manservant whether he knew of any place where I might come together with the woman. He answered that he would take her to a certain procuress; being a very concerned and conscientious man, however, this servant, Wilhelm from Courtral, added: As the plague was showing its face here and there, and had killed not only common and dirty folk, but also a doctor and a canon, he would advise me to take along mattresses, blankets, and linen from my own house. I accepted his suggestion and he promised to prepare a good bed for me. Before dismounting, I told him to take along a decent basin, a small bottle of sweet-smelling essence, and some pastries and apples; he was also to make sure the room was well heated, for it was so cold that my feet had frozen in their stirrups and the sky was full of snowflakes.
That evening I went along and found a very beautiful woman of about twenty years sitting on the bed and enduring a zealous lecture from the procuress, whose head and bent back were swaddled in a black cloak. The door was ajar and large fresh logs blazed loudly in the fireplace; they did not hear me coming and I stood outside the doorway for a moment. The young woman gazed calmly at the flames, large-eyed. With a single motion of her head, she had shifted miles away from the repulsive hag. As she did so, strands of her dark, heavy hair had spilled out from beneath her small night cap and now fell, curling into natural ringlets, across her chemise between shoulder and chest. She was also wearing a short petticoat made of green woollen fabric and had clogs on her feet. At that moment, I must have made some noise that gave me away, for she cast her head around and turned to me a face lent an almost wild expression by the extreme tension of her features, were it not for the radiant devotion flowing from her wide eyes and flickering from her unspeaking mouth like an invisible flame. I liked her extraordinarily well; quicker than a thought, the hag was out of the room and I was with my paramour. As I attempted to extract a few liberties in the first intoxication of this surprising possession, she eluded me with an indescribably lively vigour both in her eyes and in her enigmatic voice. The next instant, however, I felt myself in her embrace, and she was clinging even closer with her forthright and inexhaustible eyes than with her lips and arms; then it was once again as though she wanted to speak, but her lips could form no words as they fluttered with kisses, her trembling throat allowed no clearer sound than a fractured sob.
I had spent a large part of that day riding on frosty country roads, followed by a most annoying and intense appearance in the king’s antechamber, upon which I had first drunk and then fenced hard with my zweihänder to tame my bad mood, and so I was overcome, amidst this delightful and mysterious adventure, embraced by soft arms, and bestrewn with perfumed hair, by such sudden fatigue and nigh stupefaction that I no longer remembered even how I had come to be in that room, indeed for a moment confused the person whose heart beat so close to mine with quite a different woman from earlier days, whereupon I instantly fell fast asleep.
When I awoke it was still the dead of night but I felt straight away that my paramour was no longer by my side. I raised my head and saw by the weak light of the collapsing embers that she was standing at the window. She had cracked open one shutter and was spying through the gap. Then she turned around, noticed that I was awake, and called out (I see her now, running the palm of her left hand up her cheek and throwing her hair back over her shoulder): ‘It’s not day yet, not for a long time!’ Now I saw full well how tall and beautiful she was, and I could scarcely await the moment she would return to me with a few long, calm steps of her beautiful feet, the reddish glimmer rising to her ankles. First, though, she went to the fireplace, bent down to the ground, took the last heavy log not yet on the fire in her radiant bare arms, and threw it on the embers. Then she turned, her face glinting with flames and glee, grabbed an apple from the table in passing and was at my side, her limbs still touched by the fresh whiff of the fire and then instantly dissolved and shaken from within by stronger flames, her right hand gripping me, her left at once offering up to my mouth the cool, bitten fruit and her cheeks, lips, and eyes. The last log on the fire burned stronger than all the others. Casting sparks, it sucked up the flame and made it blaze powerfully once again, the fire’s light washing over us like a wave breaking on the wall and lifting our entangled shadows abruptly before they sank anew. Over and over the strong wood crackled, nourishing new flames from within which leapt up and chased off the heavy darkness with gushes and trusses of bright red. All at once, though, the flame subsided and a cold draught pushed at the window shutter quietly as a hand, baring the sallow unwanted dawn.
We sat up and knew that day had come. What was out there, though, was nothing like a day. It bore no resemblance to the world’s awakening. What was out there did not look like a street. There was no single thing to be made out: it was a colourless, characterless tangle of ageless writhing larvae. From somewhere, far away as though from the depths of memory, a church clock struck, and clammy air that belonged to no hour came streaming in, so cold that we pressed our bodies together with a shudder. She leaned back and fastened her eyes on my face with all her might; her throat trembling, something rose within her and spilled to the edge of her lips. No word became of it, no sigh, and no kiss, but some unborn thing resembling all three. The day grew lighter from moment to moment, and the manifold expressions on her trembling face grew ever more meaningful. All at once, shuffling steps and voices came so close outside the window that she ducked and turned her face to the wall. It was two men passing. For an instant the light of a small lantern one of them was carrying shone in; the other was pushing a cart with a wheel that grated and groaned. Once they had passed I got up, closed the shutter, and lit a candle. Half an apple was still there; we ate it together and then I asked whether I might not see her again, for I was not leaving until Sunday. This had been a Thursday night.
She answered that she no doubt yearned more fervently than I, but meeting again was impossible unless I stayed all of Sunday, because she could only see me again on the Sunday night.
At first, various hindrances came to my mind and I listed a number of difficulties, to which she responded not with words but with a prompting look that was exceedingly painful as her face grew almost uncannily hard and dark. At that I promised of course to stay through Sunday, and added that I would report once again to that place on Sunday evening. Hearing this, she looked at me firmly and said, with a rough and broken tone in her voice: ‘I know all too well that I have come to a house of shame for your sake, but I did so of my own free will because I wanted to be with you, because I would have agreed to any condition. Now, though, I would feel like the lowest harlot if I were to come here a second time. I did it for your sake, because for me you are the man you are, because you’re Bassompierre, because you’re the one person in the world who makes this house honourable through your presence!’ She said ‘house’, but for a moment it was as though she were uttering a more contemptible word; as she spoke the word she cast such a glance at those four walls, that bed, the blanket slipped onto the floor, a look so powerful that the burst of light shooting from her eyes made all those ugly, common things seem to flinch and edge away from her, as though the pitiful room really had grown larger for an instant.
Then she added in an indescribably gentle and solemn tone: ‘May I die a miserable death if I have ever belonged to another apart from my husband and you, and if I ever yearn for another in all the world!’ Leaning forward with her half-open lips alive with her breath, she seemed to expect some kind of answer, some declaration of belief on my part, only she did not read what she wanted in my face, for her tense, searching eyes darkened, her lashes opened and closed, and all at once she was at the window with her back to me, her brow pressed with all her force to the shutter, her whole body so shaken by soundless but horridly intense weeping that the words died on my lips and I did not dare touch her. At last I cradled one of her hands, which were dangling as if lifeless, and, using the most urgent words that the moment inspired, was finally able to pacify her to such a point that she turned her tearstained face back to me, until suddenly a smile breaking out of her eyes and around her lips drained away all traces of her crying in an instant and flooded her whole face with light. As she began to speak once more, she started a most delightful game, playing endlessly with the following phrase: ‘You want to see me again? Then I’ll have you come to my aunt’s house!’ She spoke the first half ten times over, now with sweet intimacy, now with a childish pretence of mistrust. And then she at first whispered the second part into my ear as if it were the greatest secret, then said it with a shrug and pursed lips like the most normal arrangement in the world, casting it over her shoulder and at last repeated it, clutching me, laughing into my face, and embracing me. She described the house to me in detail, the way one gives a child directions the first time it is to cross the street to the bakery alone. Then she sat upright, grew earnest – the full force of her blazing eyes fastening upon me with such strength that it was as if they could draw even a dead creature to them – and continued: ‘I will await you from ten until midnight and later too and on and on, and the front door will always be open. First you’ll find a narrow passageway; don’t linger there, for that is where my aunt’s door is. Then you’ll come across a staircase that leads you to the first floor, and there I shall be!’ And closing her eyes as though dizzy, she threw back her head, spread out her arms, and embraced me, before slipping straight out of my arms and into her clothes, unfamiliar and earnest, and out of the room; for now full daylight had come.
I went about my appointments, sent a few of my people ahead with my things, and by the evening of the next day I felt such great impatience that soon after the evening bells I took my servant Wilhelm, whom I had instructed not to bring a light, and crossed the little bridge so as to at least see my paramour in her shop or the adjacent home and to give her a sign of my presence if need be, though I had no hope of anything more than exchanging a few words with her.
So as not to attract attention, I stayed on the bridge and sent my servant ahead to reconnoitre. He stayed away for some time and had on his return the downcast and brooding look with which I was familiar whenever he was unable to carry out my orders. ‘The shop is locked up,’ he said, ‘and no one seems to be inside. There is no one to be seen or heard in the rooms facing the road. The only way into the yard is over a high wall with a big dog growling behind it. One of the front rooms is lit up, though, and you can see in through a gap in the shutters, but unfortunately it’s empty.’
Discontented, I was about to turn back, when I did take one more slow stroll past the house, and my assiduous servant once again put his eye to the gap, through which a dim light shone, and whispered to me that, though there was no sign of the woman, her husband was now in the room. Curious to see the grocer, whom I could not remember ever spying in his shop, and whom I imagined in turn as a shapeless fat man and a thin, fragile dotard, I went to the window and was most astounded to see an unusually tall and well-built man walking around the well-appointed panelled room, a man a good head taller than me who, when he turned around, showed a very handsome and deeply earnest face, with a brown beard containing few silver threads and with a strangely lofty brow, so high that his temples enclosed a larger space than I had ever seen on a person before. Though he was all alone in the room his gaze wandered, his lips moving, and as he interrupted his pacing here and there he seemed to be holding an imaginary conversation: At one point he moved his arm as though to dismiss a contradiction with semi-indulgent superiority. Every one of his gestures was of great nonchalance and almost contemptuous pride, and as he paced alone I could not help but remember the image of a very noble prisoner I had guarded during his imprisonment in a chamber at Château de Blois while I was in the service of the king. This similarity seemed to grow even greater when the man raised his right hand and looked down at his curled fingers attentively, indeed, most sternly.
For it was with almost the same gesture that I had seen that noble prisoner looking at a ring he wore on the index finger of his right hand and would never part with. The man in the room then went to the table, moved the water basin towards the candle, and brought his hands into the circle of light, his fingers outstretched; he seemed to be inspecting his fingernails. Then he blew out the light and left the room, leaving me standing outside not without a dull, angry jealousy, as my yearning for his wife grew perpetually, nourished like a raging fire by everything I came across, and so was tortuously heightened by this unexpected sight, as it was by every snowflake now blown by a cold wind, each catching on my eyebrows and cheeks and melting.
I spent the next day in the most useless manner, had no concentration for any of my business, bought a horse I did not even like, attended the Duke of Nemours after dinner, and spent some time there with games and the most ridiculous, repulsive conversations. There was no other subject than the plague now spreading more and more around the city, and all the noblemen could speak of nothing but such stories of the hasty burial of corpses, of the straw that was to be burned in the rooms of the dead to consume the toxic fumes, and so on. The most ridiculous, however, appeared to be the Canon of Chandieu, who, although just as rotund and healthy as ever, could not refrain from peering constantly at his fingernails for signs of the suspicious blue taint with which the disease tends to announce itself.
All this nonsense disgusted me; I left early and retired to bed, but I could not find sleep, dressed again impatiently with the intention to go and see my paramour come what may, even if I had to force my way in with my men. I went to the window to wake my men, but the icy night air brought me to my senses, and I realized that was a sure-fire way to ruin everything. Still in my clothes, I collapsed onto my bed and at last fell asleep.
I spent that Sunday in a similar fashion until the evening, reaching the designated street far too early but forcing myself to walk up and down a side road until the clock struck ten. Then I immediately found the house and the door she had described, the door was open too, and behind it the passage and the staircase. At the top of stairs, however, the second door was locked, though a thin strip of light shone beneath it. She was inside, then, perhaps listening at the door, as I was outside it. I scratched at the door with my nails and then heard footsteps inside: they sounded like the hesitant, uncertain steps of bare feet. I stood unbreathing for a moment and then began to knock; yet I heard a man’s voice asking who was there. I pressed myself into the shadow of the doorpost and made not a sound; the door remained closed and I descended the stairs one by one in the greatest silence, crept along the passage into the open air, and paced a few streets, glowing with impatience, my temples pulsing and my teeth clenched. Finally I was drawn back to the house, though I did not yet want to enter; I felt, I knew, she would get rid of the man, she must manage it and I’d be able to join her shortly. The road was narrow; on the other side were no houses but the wall of a monastery garden. I pressed myself to it and sought to guess the window from across the street. In one, an open window on the top floor, a light flared and settled again, like the glow of a flame. Now I thought I saw it all before me: she had put a large log on the fire like last time, like last time she was standing in the middle of the room, her limbs glinting from the flame, or sitting on the bed, listening and waiting. From the door, I would see her and the shadow of her neck, her shoulders, rising and falling transparent on the wall. I was instantly in the passage, on the stairs; the door was no longer locked now; ajar, it let the swaying light through obliquely. As I reached out a hand to open it I thought I heard several people’s footsteps and voices. I refused to believe it, though; I took it for my blood pulsing in my temples, at my throat, and for the blazing of the fire inside. The fire had blazed loudly last time too. I had already gripped the door handle when I was forced to admit there were people in there, several people. But it was no matter to me now, for I felt that she was inside too, and as soon as I opened the door I would see her, grasp her, be it from the hands of other men, pull her to me with one arm, even if I had to use my sword, my dagger to carve out space for her and me from a jumble of screaming bodies! The only thing that seemed utterly unbearable was waiting any longer.
I pushed the door open and saw: a few people burning bed straw in the middle of the empty room, entirely lit up by the flames, scraped walls, their plaster covering the floor, and against one wall a table on which lay two naked bodies, one very tall with its head covered, the other smaller, stretched out along the wall, and alongside it the black shadow of subtle shapes, rising and falling again.
I stumbled back down the stairs and came upon two gravediggers outside the house. One held his small lantern to my face and asked what I was looking for, while the other pushed his groaning, grating cart to the front door. I pulled out my dagger to keep them away, and made my way home. I immediately drank three or four large glasses of heavy wine, and after taking my rest I set off for Lorraine the next day.
Upon my return, all my efforts to find out anything about the woman were in vain. I even went to the shop with its two angels; but the people now running it did not know who had had it before them.
Based on M. de Bassompierre, Journal de ma vie, Cologne, 1663 and Goethe, Conversations of German Refugees.
*The translation of this story was supported by the Goethe-Institute.
In those days I talked a lot about weapons. There was Alex, the lone soldier who lived with the old lady. It was unclear whether they were related. On Friday afternoons Alex was always out on the balcony in boxer shorts and an undershirt, cleaning his short barrel M-16 in the sun, smoking and sweating for an hour or two, and I would watch him from our balcony and say, what a waste of manpower.
The first time I thought about it was when I overheard him talking on the phone, he was saying that the IDF is the biggest whorehouse in the country, everyone is all over each other ‒ male officers and female soldiers, male soldiers and female commanders, female commanders and male ones, male commanders amongst themselves. Alex was tall and fair, he had the arrogant air of a proud Russian. His pale hairy legs shone in the sun, and the shadow underneath his armpits brought up memories of days long past: crumpled-up newspapers featuring lipstick ads that were scattered all over the floor of the army tent during basic training.
I had it all figured out, right down to the last detail. I spent hours on the balcony with the door closed behind me while Alex sat on the oil stained railing, the old lady had tried cleaning it but never managed to get the stains out.
Apart from the old lady, Alex didn’t have any family in Israel. My family was merely background noise: my wife, Iris, who took care of behaviorally challenged kids, and the twins, Ben and Beth.1 Ben took an immediate liking to the scouts; he once dragged a gigantic wooden beam home to prove his devotion, and Beth started her own blog online. I don’t know what she did there.
In the free community newspaper they deliver to every house, I read that the security situation was heating up and caution should be exercised. Children should not be out alone after dark; power locks should be installed in the car; a home security system indoors; they even steal dogs, it said. When we started giving things up, when it became a struggle to buy things for the house, when I gave up cigarettes, we used copies of the community newspaper that had piled up – seven, eight or nine in the front entrance of each house – to line the boxes we packed and placed in the reinforced security room.
I studied Alex’s short, jagged toenails, the way he played with them in the hot air and tried to think about Iris. The way he sits with his legs wide apart, concentrating, dismantling the weapon down to its smallest parts, using a brush and a flannel cloth to clean them. When Iris would return from one of her conferences, she smelled of other counselors’ perfumes. It was summer, and the average temperature was thirty-eight degrees Celsius.
I missed the city. I slept outside, on the balcony, at night, and whenever the security jeeps drove by, they would temporarily blind me. All we ever wanted was a nice house in a quiet area. Well, we got it. Beth started attending Yoga for Children, which drained our checking account, and Ben was always in need of a monthly check for the scouts. Alex would spend weekends with the old lady, and when I sat on the balcony and Ben came out with a question about his homework, I tried to figure out why he couldn’t see Alex and only I could.
I began thinking about what would happen if he agreed to give me his weapon. I’d go over all of the details with him. He’d file a report with the Military Police and tell them that it was stolen when he was attacked by a group of terrorists on his way to the base. He struggled, they were trying to kidnap him and one of them even attempted to inject him with something, but he managed to break free and they just got his weapon as he ran for his life.
Tell them that you wounded one of them too, I planned on saying.
He’d clean his weapon one last time, for my sake, and then hand it over along with the ammunition.
The night the children disappeared began by someone alerting the neighborhood security watch. The jeeps started circling around, driving at full speed. Their Kojaks blinked like crazy. Police cars joined in, and searchlights lit up our dark silence. A group of scouts had gathered their equipment and gone hiking or went out to earn a badge or whatever it is that scouts do. It was Ben and his friends, like that kid who always comes over to our house smelling of iron. Beth disappeared too. Iris came home late. She stepped in from all of the noise, dropped her keys and said, “I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
The police stopped by every house. Ben and his group, there were ten of them, weren’t the only ones missing. There were two girls missing, and Beth. We answered questions. The streets were filled with police cars and SUVs. They asked us for photographs. The police officers went through the children’s rooms and returned embarrassed, speechless. Reporters began arriving. That’s when it got really scary. Iris burst into tears and fled to the bathroom.
We were cooped up in the house. Then they asked us to come out and join the search. I heard someone say that the first night is the most critical. They have less than two hours to get them to the territories of the Palestinian authority. Someone said, how could they make twenty kids disappear, and someone else said, thirteen, they’re thirteen. I grabbed the keys and went out. Standing on our front walk, I could see Alex heading towards the old lady’s house. His army shirt was unbuttoned, he wore an undershirt underneath it, and his duffel bag was slung over his shoulder. He was looking at the police cars.
We took the car towards the southern part of the fence. They told us to contact the officer in charge of the area and he’d instruct us where to search. Alex sat down, lit a cigarette and asked, “Can you turn on the AC?” I drove the dark, circular road, perspiring. The air conditioned air crawled out of the vents and onto my skin. We could see flashing lights. Dogs were barking in the distance. My ears were ringing. Alex smoked. Dogs again. I thought to myself, Beth came out taller than her brother. And they’re both dark, they look more like their mother. I thought I was speaking aloud, but Alex sat and smoked, and I drove silently.
An hour later, Alex and I were walking through a thorny field carrying large flashlights that the local security team had provided us with. I yelled, “Ben!” and Alex yelled, “Beth!” The only things we could see were the thorns just before us and an occasional porcupine fleeing the light and the noise. The air became heavier. The dust rising from the thorns burned the throat and eyes. My shirt and underwear stuck to my body. Alex’s undershirt went transparent, dirty in the middle. His chest was smooth and shiny.
We could hear the police radio screeching in the distance. We heard a helicopter too, but it was only there by coincidence and continued flying north. I yelled, “Ben!” and Alex yelled, “Beth!” I couldn’t remember the names of the other kids, maybe just Gilli, the one with the large braces and the retainer; I gave up because I thought I got the name wrong.
After four, just before sunrise, we returned to the car. I notified the officer that we didn’t find anything. He notified me that they didn’t either. I was tired and preferred not to find a damn thing. We headed home. I drove. I left the radio switched off. Alex stayed in his undershirt and had tied the army shirt to his belt. We reeked of sweat. I was embarrassed that my sweat was sharper than his. Alex took out his cigarettes and offered one to me. I took it and he lit them both for us. I said, I’m not going to cry now, speaking the language that my parents spoke, the language Alex couldn’t understand. The cigarettes were strong and I coughed. I had to take a piss but kept driving. I thought that I was sensing some smell coming from the air conditioning, but it was just the army boots that smelled of diesel fuel and shoe polish.
“You got two kids?” he asked.
I felt a stinging sensation in my stomach. I Nodded.
“No more?” he asked, taking another drag.
I signaled right to turn into the neighborhood. The clicking of the signal broke the silence. Our windows were rolled down and we passed some jackass in flip flops and socks who was standing outside. He told us that they found a torn green scout kerchief. We ignored him and continued driving.
“What do you do? For a living.”
“I’m a photographer. But I’m thinking of quitting. Leaving. Don’t know. What kind of weapons do you guys have?”
“Short caliber M-16’s. American military surplus.”
I rearranged myself in the seat and my foot hit the gas pedal. We momentarily leaped forward.
“What do you photograph?”
“A sign saying ‘Welcome to the Municipality of Hod Hasharon.’ Dishes in a restaurant in Ra’anana. A piece-of-shit dump that belonged to the Turks that a subsidiary of the Ministry of Agriculture is holding on to. A few fashion models. There’s plenty, more than enough.”
Alex bounced his leg up and down. He took a drag on his cigarette and blew out the smoke.
I realized that a smell of alcohol was coming from him. “It doesn’t have to do with art?”
Alex chuckled. We heard helicopters above. This time they were intended for us. For the children.
I swallowed. The air was rough, with a combination of nicotine and dust.
Later, Alex told me that The Association for the Wellbeing of Israel’s Soldiers had fixed him up with the old lady. She was looking to lend a hand, to help soldiers because they help us and so on, and he was on the lone soldier list so the two had been brought together.
“Ten months with the woman,” he said, lighting another cigarette. I had already gotten used to the smell of our sweat. “How long have you been neighbors?” Alex asked.
“Here? Four years.” I looked at the reflective yellow light on the shoulder of the road.
The next morning the search continued, and when I got home, I felt that something had changed. I hurried inside with my keys, the car remote always gets tangled up in them, I nearly threw everything on the floor and kicked the pile of community newspapers, but the reporter who tried to interview me was there. The children’s photographs were printed again and again. They called it “The Night of the 13,” A Heinous Crime. She was waiting in the living room with Iris, who wouldn’t agree to talk, but had made tea for them both. I told her that unless she wanted to go home on all fours and have her kids ‒ if she has any ‒ see their mom a cripple, she’d better get out fast.
At night I dreamt that the children came home. Ben just walked in, and I looked at him and said, “but you’re dead,” and he shrugged and went into the living room. He was all beaten up, but I couldn’t tell which parts of his body were hurt. I asked him where Beth was, and when he turned to me I said, “Doesn’t all of this have to do with your death?” Later we went out to the balcony so I could show Alex to him.
In the evening, Iris collected pairs of shoes and dismantled bicycle handlebars and school books that belonged to Ben and Beth, and she placed everything in boxes lined with copies of the community newspaper. I asked her what she was doing. She said that if she couldn’t see the children, she didn’t want to have to see their stuff either.
“Are you out of your mind?” I asked.
I was standing in the doorway of Ben’s room and I called out to her several times. I told her, “Don’t you ever talk to me like that,” but it didn’t help. She was throwing nightlights and electronic mosquito repellents into the boxes lined with newspapers, and muttering, “Now’s the time to start smoking again, right?” I turned and bumped into the metal window frame. Outside the sidewalk was filled with parked cars. People were walking down the street, clustered in small groups. The scouts handed out maps of the neighborhood and the surrounding area. The small wooded area facing our block had been cordoned off with red tape but it was only tied to the bushes on one side, the other was dangling in the wind. “Is that the kind of advice you give to people in these situations?”
Iris sniffled behind me and dragged a box down the hall. “I’m not a counselor every moment of my life.”
We stood there, Iris and me, the box being the only thing between us.
“It’s about time that you open your eyes,” she told me, sniffling again. “Open your eyes and do something. Pay attention to the news. Listen to the radio. Children don’t come back to this place after they disappear.”
That weekend Alex was home on leave again. The Police task force had spread out on both sides of the neighborhood. Police representatives, National Security Agency representatives, even one from the Prime Minister’s office, had spoken with us. The old lady sat hunched over near her balcony door, then got up to prepare Shabbat dinner in the kitchen. A dark Mazda was parked on the street with its engine running, waiting for Alex. After they had dinner on the balcony, he went out. I stayed up waiting for more than half of the night and when the Mazda brought him back, stumbling and singing in Russian, I closed the door behind me and got into bed with Iris.
It was late in the afternoon when he came out on the balcony, barefoot, wearing light jeans and without his cigarettes. He sat there wordlessly, his head in his hands.
We drove out of the neighborhood. “Thanks for helping me with this, man,” Alex said. We passed the empty guard post that was manned lately with police officers enforcing a checkpoint. Alex took out his cigarettes and lit one for us both.
“Hang on,” I said, “let’s get out of here first.”
He held the two burning cigarettes. “Where do we search now?” he asked once we were on the highway. “Let’s get out of here first,” I repeated.
I was trying to think what would happen if everyone had a home security service, the kind that they recommend you get, and then all of the homes were broken into at the exact same time; what would happen then; how many houses would ten hired security guards, in five patrol cars, manage to save; and what if everyone’s children went out after dark at the same time? I slapped myself on the back of my neck. Alex turned on the radio. I turned it off.
“Thanks for helping me with this, man,” he said again. “I don’t know how I forgot the rifle. I always feel it. I have a hole in my back because of it.” He pressed on a point under his back ribs and furrowed his brows. “It’s jail, for sure.”
We passed a sign that read Hummus, Falafel, Tahini, Pickles sold by Wait and had red arrows pointing the way. “How many bullets does your rifle hold?” I asked.
Alex raised his eyebrow and answered. “Thirty. You load twenty-nine.”
“And you shot one of your own?”
We drove and drove until we passed Ra’anana Junction, the entrance to Givatayim and its exit, and then Alex said, “Stop there.” I pulled up into a gas station. The blue neon lights were blinding. Alex said, “Be back in a sec,” he asked for four hundred Shekels, got out of the car and walked into the convenience store. My heart began to pound. I turned off the air conditioning. Alex disappeared from sight. I thought about the children. Two images were going through my mind: the wind blowing over the sand, and a boy and a girl running into the sea. How come you always run into the sea and never just walk? I pictured Ben, blindfolded in a basement, the smell of urine and iron all around him. I couldn’t imagine Beth. I couldn’t get a view of Alex from the car.
I nearly honked in order to break the silence, as Alex appeared holding a heavy plastic bag that the blue neon lights turned to yellow. He got in the car and pulled two cold, metallic-blue cans out of the bag. “Is that what they’re drinking at places nowadays?” I asked. Alex smiled and coughed. I saw that he was missing a tooth deep in his mouth.
He poured two shots of vodka into plastic cups. “It helps with the taste.” I drank just as he did. I shifted in my seat and had to pass gas. My body was heavy from the past few days and I laughed coarsely, loudly, how it all hurts, and Alex laughed too. We drank whatever was left. In the distance, rather close by, we could see the hypnotic lights of the city arranged in geometrical shapes, precise, well-formed, like something unbelievable, something that doesn’t even exist. I asked whether I should keep driving. Alex hummed a Russian melody, not anything familiar, not something the first settlers sang, but some disgusting, heavy, loud crap that young people dance to. He threw the empty cans on the car mat. We drove through the city’s narrow streets. Drops of moisture thickened over the window panes. Where do your friends live? I asked. Alex hummed and tapped his fingers on the window and dashboard. Just tell me already, I said, Where’s the weapon, and he laughed again. He had that bitter smell of alcohol again. I kept driving and yelled, Where’s your damn weapon? The steering wheel shook in my hands. He said, it’s on Mandevoshkes or something street, and burst out laughing. Then he gave me vague directions by memory. We progressed slowly. We reached Mandevoshkes Mocher Sforim Street and stopped before a neglected building. Alex put his hand on my shoulder, then looked at me, narrowing his eyes. He drew closer and said, “You’re under a lot of pressure now,” and burst out laughing.
His gaze wandered to a small balcony on the second floor. There were four tall guys standing there, talking and drinking. Two of them were peeling the paint off of the banister, and the thick flecks fell into the darkened yard. They looked very much like Alex and seemed shiny, freshly showered. My diaphragm was hurting as if I had just come back from a run. “Is this where your friends live?” I asked. Alex nodded.
“Then get lost.” He pushed the door open and got out of the car.
I parked not far from the shrub marked by the dangling tape and walked towards the house. The old lady came out with empty plastic bottles in her hands, heading for the recycling bin. She had left the lights on behind her. She stopped and approached me on the sidewalk. Her eyes were small, blue, and ugly, and she had wrinkles on the sides of her nose. She extended one hand, which remained in the air. “This is not easy,” she said, looking me in the eye. Afterwards, we walked up and sat on her balcony. She offered me a chair. I sat and stared at the oil stains on the stone banister, eating her dinner.
That night Iris fell asleep in Ben’s bed. I looked at her. Her eyelids were shut, puffy and soft. A few boxes lined with copies of the community newspaper were filled with things. I didn’t look inside, but I went into Beth’s room, stepping by accident on a pink flip flop at the entrance. The air smelled of tangerines and coconut, the fabric softener Iris uses. I sat down in the chair facing the small silver computer that we once bought. I leaned over it and blew out air. I had to breathe deeply and keep from looking around. The computer’s mouse was covered with sparkles. I rested my palm on it, and the screen turned on with a whir of static electricity. A line ran through in purple. God damn it. Beth Mautner’s blog!! Everything you could possibly want to say!!
The latest entry date appeared beneath the line running across the screen. It was the day the children had disappeared. After which came the lines: In those days I talked a lot about weapons. There was Alex, the lone soldier who lived with the old lady across the street. It was unclear whether they were related. On Friday afternoons Alex was always out on the balcony in boxer shorts and an undershirt, cleaning his short barrel M – 16 in the sun, smoking and sweating for an hour or two and I would watch him from our balcony and say, what a waste of manpower.
The rest was familiar too. It continued with Tell them that you wounded one of them, I planned on saying. He’d clean his weapon one last time, for my sake, and then hand it over along with the ammunition.
And further down, highlighted in purple:
My dad is in love with the neighbor’s soldier…!!!!! OMG!!!!!!!!!!
I sat back down in the chair. It was several sizes too small. Fine hairs of dust moved like long arms from the computer’s air vents. The silver table that we bought was there, the same as always. A chill went through my body. I pressed ENTER after along with the ammunition. And I began typing. The night the children disappeared began by someone alerting the neighborhood security watch. The jeeps started circling around, driving at full speed. Their Kojaks blinked like crazy. Police cars joined in and searchlights lit up our dark silence.
*Image: via Surgery Collective
The taxi cab drove all over town. The driver was leering at me, telling stupid jokes to get my attention. I waited until I had finished my cigarette and asked him to pull over at the corner, in front of the Orient Bar. We sat there for five minutes. He turned to me and tried to start a conversation but I told him to shut up, put on my lipstick and paid the fare. Stammering, he wished me good night. I slammed the door shut. It was a cold Wednesday evening. Valentine’s Day. I stood in front of the ticket office and asked who was playing. Frank Jorge and Júlio Reny, the doorman informed me. I went in. Leaning at the bar, all by myself, I ordered a gin and tonic (quite daring for a woman of fifty-six, I thought). The musicians began to play and I ordered another drink. During the ninth or tenth song, a tall, skinny boy with shaved head caught my eye. He was wearing a black jacket buttoned up to the neck and was walking back and forth, glancing at the floor, staring at everyone around him. Every now and then he would stop, light a cigarette, and take a few drags (trying to focus on the show), but then he would resume his pacing. It made me nervous, it was all I could think about. Suddenly, he left. Feeling restless, I downed my drink and went downstairs. I followed him onto Osvaldo Aranha Avenue. A weak, ,cold rain was falling. It must have been about one in the morning. Several lean kids came up next to me, offering marijuana, crack and who knows what else. I refused (I told them I would scream if they didn’t go away). They gave up, but not without insulting first: I was a fat-arsed old woman. I quickened my pace. He turned onto Fernandes Vieira. I went with him. In the middle of the block between Vasco and Independência, he stopped, took out an aluminium package (his wallet fell out as he did so), opened it, passed the tip of his index finger several times over whatever was in there, then stuck the finger in his nose, moving it frantically from side to side. It was disgusting. He repeated the gesture twice more and went on, swinging his arms, his neck stretched upright. I picked up the wallet, then went back home. I looked at his ID card. His name was Marcelo. There was also a photo of a girl pretty enough to be a model, a two real bill, a guitar pick and a business card with the name, address and telephone number of a woman from Erechim. His ID card stayed on the nightstand for almost a week. The following Tuesday, I went home at lunchtime to pick up some documents. Suddenly, I reached out for the business card and called Erechim. A woman answered and I told her that I was a friend of Marcelo’s. What a pleasure! I’m his mother… then she asked me: So, tell me my dear, are you his girlfriend? I am, I hated myself as I said it. We chatted for a while, she said it had been a long time since she’d heard from him and asked if he was doing okay, if he was going to his university classes, whether he’d told me that he left his home town on the same day of his father’s funeral and never gone back. I said that he hadn’t. She told me many things, and the tone of her voice changed as she went on, growing sadder and sadder. I looked at the clock (nearly two hours had passed), and was sorry to have to go. We said goodbye. She said: Call me whenever you want, I’m lonely and I miss Marcelo very much. I promised that I would. I ended up calling almost every day, our friendship lasted three weeks. I made up stories about her son and promised to try to get him to call her. One Sunday (we had never spoken on a Sunday before), I called her in the afternoon. It took a while for her to come to the phone. I apologized for bothering her, but she was friendly. We chatted for hours (I had grown used to lying). Before hanging up, she asked me when Marcelo would call. I gave a vague reply. She interrupted me and said she was upset; she was desperately lonely. We stayed silent for a moment. I wished her a good Sunday night and hung up. Later that evening, around eight o’clock, the doorbell rang: it was the police. I went downstairs. There were two policemen. I invited them up. The elder man got straight to the point: look, lady… I know you think it’s hilarious, but this little joke of yours is going too far. What joke? I asked, like a coward. You know very well, these calls to the boy’s mother… They’re disrespectful! She’s a lonely widow. If you keep it up, we’ll have to arrest you. Understood? Arrest you! Why would you do that?, I replied defiantly. He didn’t like my answer and took hold of my chin: look, lady, don’t play innocent with us… don’t test us, you crazy piece of shit. We have our ways, you know. Phone calls are easy to trace. He pulled a newspaper clipping from his jacket pocket and held it out to me before angrily ordering me to open the door and storming out. As he left, the other cop whispered: Seriously, you’d better stop it. I was shaking when I came back inside. I was dying for a cup of tea so I put the water on to boil. I sat down on the sofa and looked at the newspaper clipping. It was from the crime section, the same day as the early morning when I had first seen the kid. It went something like: young, unidentified man found dead on Independência Avenue, on the corner of Felipe Camarão, in just his underwear and a t-shirt. He had died of a heart attack. To the bottom right of the article was a picture of the dead man’s face. Someone from Erechim had probably recognized him. She knew! Stunned, I let the newspaper slip from my fingers and turned off the lights. The kettle made a low whistle. Tears started to flow. I sat there in the dark. I felt alone, very alone.
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