The Imam’s words to me at the entrance to the mosque that night were strange and dramatic. He said that a pack of ferocious black cats had attacked the district and was destroying everything it came across. People had not come to evening prayer because they knew that around here the cats ruled the dark and this had struck terror into the residents. What he said was incredible, but he did not go on for long and ushered me in to pray.
Three of us prayed in reverence and calm: the Imam in his mihrab plus me and my friend Saeed behind him. I stood there firmly with a sense of serenity and confidence as if I had forgotten the frightening words of the Imam. Once we had finished prayers, he asked me to give him a lift home. I agreed, happy at the request, then went further and invited my friend Saeed to spend the night at my house.
The Imam held a large stick, but I did not ask why. I had started to question his sanity. That view changed, however, when we set off in the car and the Iman returned to his topic. I turned to my friend and asked, “What do you think about it, Saeed?” With a serious look on his face, he replied, “Yes, I’ve heard the same thing too. A neighbour told me that a group of cats attacked Mrs Nafisa. She’s pregnant and was on her way home from her parents’ down the road. The cats sprang at her and tore at her long dress. The poor woman froze helpless on the spot. All she could do was scream. She screamed with all her might, which only maddened the cats and they swooped on her. Fortunately, Mr Daniel, the French hunter, came to help her. He had his shotgun with him as well as his three dogs, and they threw themselves at the cats in a gruesome fight. With difficulty, the man rescued Mrs Nafisa from the beasts’ claws. He carried her to his house between life and death, then went back to save his dogs. But he was shocked to see that the cats had savaged them.”
My friend did not finish, for the Imam interrupted him: “Yes, my lad. God Almighty protect us, I heard the same myself and more…” Then he broke off his answer, said, “Here is far enough, thank you,” and got out after making his goodbyes. We continued our way back home, discussing the horrific and dramatic happenings. Suddenly we heard loud noises. Yes, it was them. The meowing was ear-splitting. Then they were running around us. I turned on the headlights and blew the horn. I tried to avoid them, but they crashed like waves towards us. I hit some and the meows mixed with caterwauls. Terror struck our hearts and we felt the night darken, as though the moon had been extinguished or eclipsed. God, O God, how to escape?
I stopped the car in front of my building. I steeled myself and decided to get out whatever the consequences. I opened the door and set a foot on the pavement. I tried to put my other foot down and they hurled themselves at me as one: rabid beasts driven by a fierce desire for revenge. I fell to the ground, flailing with my arms and legs. Saeed blew the horn without let up, and the neighbours hit out with sticks and ropes from every direction.
“Water! Water!” I shouted. “Spray the rabid cats with water. It’ll stop their frenzy. Water! Water!” After a few moments, I was drenched with water pouring down from above and the sides. The cats dropped back. I managed to get away and manhandled my friend Saeed and a neighbour to the house. I insisted on going to the balcony. The night was cold and damp, and the cats were jumping around in pain and fury. I felt raindrops falling. The rain gradually grew harder and the shrieks increased. Water and death spread beneath. The bodies piled up. I decided to go down and get my revenge. I rushed down the stairs and was confronted by a horrific field of death. I insisted on walking over them. One step… another… a screech… a convulsion. The black cats writhed beneath my feet.
I screamed and opened my eyes. I was alone in my room.
A certain Mr. Ts’ui, of Lin-ch’ing, was too poor to keep his garden walls in repair, and used often to find a strange horse lying down on the grass inside. It was a black horse marked with white, and having a scrubby tail, which looked as if the end had been burnt off;1 and, though always driven away, would still return to the same spot. Now Mr. Ts’ui had a friend, who was holding an appointment in Shansi; and though he had frequently felt desirous of paying him a visit, he had no means of travelling so far. Accordingly, he one day caught the strange horse, and, putting a saddle on its back, rode away, telling his servants that if the owner of the horse should appear, he was to inform him where the animal was to be found.
The horse started off at a very rapid pace, and, in a short time, they were thirty or forty miles from home; but at night it did not seem to care for its food, so the next day Mr. Ts’ui, who thought perhaps illness might be the cause, held the horse in, and would not let it gallop so fast. However, the animal did not seem to approve of this, and kicked and foamed until at length Mr. Ts’ui let it go at the same old pace; and by midday he had reached his destination.
As he rode into the town, the people were astonished to hear of the marvellous journey just accomplished, and the Prince2 sent to say he should like to buy the horse. Mr. Ts’ui, fearing that the real owner might come forward, was compelled to refuse this offer; but when, after six months had elapsed, no inquiries had been made, he agreed to accept eight hundred ounces of silver, and handed over the horse to the Prince. He then bought himself a good mule, and returned home.
Subsequently, the Prince had occasion to use the horse for some important business at Lin-ch’ing; and when there it took the opportunity to run away. The officer in charge pursued it right up to the house of a Mr. Tsêng, who lived next door to Mr. Ts’ui, and saw it run in and disappear. Thereupon he called upon Mr. Tsêng to restore it to him; and, on the latter declaring he had never even seen the animal, the officer walked into his private apartments, where he found, hanging on the wall, a picture of a horse, by Ch’ên Tzŭ-ang3,exactly like the one he was in search of, and with part of the tail burnt away by a joss-stick.
It was now clear that the Prince’s horse was a supernatural creature; but the officer, being afraid to go back without it, would have prosecuted Mr. Tsêng, had not Ts’ui, whose eight hundred ounces of silver had since increased to something like ten thousand, stepped in and paid back the original purchase-money. Mr. Tsêng was exceedingly grateful to him for this act of kindness, ignorant, as he was, of the previous sale of the horse by Ts’ui to the Prince.
*via Todd Compton
There are roosters around here somewhere.
Kneeling, with my head down and covered with a filthy rag, I concentrate on hearing the roosters, how many there are, if they’re in cages or a corral. Papa raised fighting cocks, and, since he didn’t have anyone to leave me with, he took me to the fights. The first few times I cried when I saw the poor rooster torn to bits in the sand and he laughed and called me prissy.
At night, giant vampire roosters devoured my insides, I would scream and he’d come running to my bed and again he’d call me prissy.
“Come on, don’t be so prissy. They’re just cocks, dammit.”
Eventually, I stopped crying when I saw the hot guts of the losing rooster in the dust. I was the one who cleaned up the ball of feathers and viscera and carried it to the trash bin. I would say: bye rooster, be happy in heaven where there are thousands of worms and fields and corn and families that love roosters. On the way, some cock fighter would always give me a piece of candy or a coin to touch me or kiss me or for me to touch him or kiss him. I was afraid that, if I told Papa, he’d call me prissy again.
“Come on, don’t be so prissy. They’re just cock fighters, dammit.”
One night, a rooster’s belly exploded as I was carrying it in my arms like a doll and I discovered that those macho men who shouted and jeered for one rooster to rip open the other were disgusted by the shit and blood and guts of the dead rooster. So I covered my hands, my knees, and my face with that mixture and they didn’t bother me with kisses and all that nonsense anymore.
They said to my papa:
“Your daughter is a monster.”
And he responded that they were the monsters and they clinked their shot glasses.
“You’re the monster. Salud.”
The smell inside the cockpit was disgusting. Sometimes I fell asleep in a corner, under the stands, and woke up with one of those men looking at my underwear beneath my school uniform. That’s why before falling asleep I stuck a rooster head between my legs. One or several. A belt of rooster heads. Those machos didn’t like lifting up my skirt to find little severed heads.
Sometimes, Papa would wake me up to clear away a gutted rooster. Sometimes, he did it himself and his friends asked him why the hell he brought his daughter if he was such a fag. He would gather the ruined and bloody rooster. From the door he blew them a kiss. His friends laughed.
I know that here, somewhere, there are roosters, because I’d recognize that smell from a thousand kilometers. The smell of my life, the smell of my father. It smells of blood, of man, of shit, of cheap liquor, of sour sweat and industrial grease. You wouldn’t have to be very intelligent to tell that this is an underground joint, a place hidden away who knows where, and that I’m well and properly fucked.
A man speaks. He must be around forty. I imagine him fat, bald and dirty, wearing a sleeveless white undershirt, shorts, and flip-flops; I imagine his pinky and thumbnails are long. He speaks in the plural. There’s someone else here besides me. There are other people on their knees here, with their heads ducked, covered in a disgusting dark cloth.
“Let’s see, let’s all calm down now, the first sonofabitch who makes a single sound I’ll put a bullet in his head. If we all work together, we’ll all make it through the night in one piece.”
I feel his stomach against my head and then the butt of a gun. No, he’s not joking.
A girl cries a few meters to my right. I suppose she couldn’t handle the feeling of the gun at her temple. The sound of a slap.
“Look, princess. No one cries on me, you hear? Or are you in a big hurry to meet sweet baby Jesus?”
Later, the fat man with the gun walks away. He’s gone to talk on the phone. He says a number: six, six motherfuckers. He also says there’s a good selection, very good, the best in months. He says they won’t want to miss it. He makes one call after another. He forgets, for a while, about us.
Beside me, I hear a cough muffled by the hood, a man’s cough.
“I’ve heard about this,” he says, very softly. “I thought it was a lie and urban legend. They’re called auctions. The taxi drivers pick up passengers they think they’ll be able to get good money for and they kidnap them. Then the buyers come and bid for their favorites. And they take them. They keep their things, they force them to steal, to let them into their houses, to give them their credit card numbers. And the women. The women.”
“What?” I ask.
He hears that I’m a woman. He goes quiet.
The first thing I thought when I got in the taxi that night was finally. I rested my head on the seat and closed my eyes. I’d had several drinks and I was depressed. I’d been at the bar with a man I had to pretend to be friends with. With him and his wife. I always pretend. I’m good at pretending. But when I got in the taxi I sighed and I said to myself What a relief: now I can go home and cry my eyes out. I think I fell asleep for a minute, and suddenly, when I opened my eyes, I was in some unfamiliar place. An industrial area. Empty. Darkness. My brain boiled with fear: they just fucked you over for life.
The taxi driver pulled out a gun, he looked me in the eye, he said with ridiculous politeness: “We’ve reached your destination, miss.”
What followed was quick. Someone opened the door before I could lock it, they wrapped the cloth around my head, they tied my hands and shoved me into a kind of garage that smelled like a rotting cockpit and they made me kneel in a corner.
The sound of conversations. The fat man and someone else and then someone else and someone else. People keep coming. The sound of laughter and beers being opened. The smell of marijuana and some other shit with a spicy smell. The man next to me stopped telling me to keep calm. He must be saying it to himself.
He mentioned before that he had an eight-month-old baby and a three-year-old son. He must be thinking about them. And about these junkies entering the gated community he lives in. Yes, that’s what he’s thinking about. About waving to the guard like he does whenever his car’s in the shop, while these animals sit in the back, ducking down. He’s going to take them to his house to meet his beautiful wife, his eight-month-old baby, and his three-year-old son. He’s going to take them to his house.
And there’s nothing he can do about it.
Further away, to the right, murmuring, a girl cries, I don’t know if it’s the same one who was crying before. The fat man shoots his gun and we all try to drop to the floor. He hasn’t shot us, he’s just shot. It doesn’t matter, the terror has ripped us in half. The fat man and his friends laugh. They come over to us, they move us into the center of the room.
“All right, gentlemen, ladies, tonight’s auction is officially open. So lovely, so well behaved, stand here for me. Closer, princess. Riiiiight there. Don’t be afraid, little mama, I don’t bite. Just like that. So that these gentlemen can choose which one of you they’re going to take. The rules, gentlemen, same as always: the most money gets the best prize. Put all your guns down over here for me, I’ll keep them safe till the auction’s over. Thank you. Delighted, as always, to have you.”
The fat man introduces us like he’s hosting a TV show. We can’t see them, but we know the men looking at us, sizing us up, are thieves. And rapists. They are definitely rapists. And murderers. They might be murderers. Or something worse.
“Laaaaaaadies and gentlemeeeeeen.”
The fat man doesn’t like the ones who whimper or the ones who say they have kids or the ones who shout desperately you don’t know who you’re messing with. No. He likes even less the ones who say he’s going to rot in jail. All these people, men and women alike, have received a punch to the gut. I’ve heard them fall to the floor breathless. I focus on the roosters. Maybe there aren’t any. But I hear them. Inside me. Men and roosters. Come on, don’t be so prissy. They’re just cock fighters, dammit.
“This man, what’s our first participant’s name? What? Speak up, friend. Ricardoooooo, welcoooome, he wears a nice watch and some niiiiiice Adidas shoes. Ricardooooo must have moneyyyyyyyyyyyyyy. Let’s take a look at Ricardo’s wallet. Credit cards, ohhhhhh a Visa Goooooold by Messi.”
The fat man tells bad jokes.
They start to bid for Ricardo. Someone offers three hundred, another person eight hundred. The fat man adds that Ricardo lives in a gated community outside the city: Riverview.
“A view poor folks like us can’t even get a glimpse of. That’s where our friend Richie lives. We can call you Richie, can’t we? Like Richie Rich.”
A terrifying voice says five thousand. The terrifying voice takes Ricardo. The others applaud.
“Sold to the man with the moustache for five thousand!”
The fat man fondles Nancy, a girl who speaks with a thread of a voice. I know this because he says Look at these tits, how delicious, such perky nipples and he sucks up his drool and other things you don’t say without touching, and, also, who’s to stop him from touching her, no one. Nancy sounds young. Early twenties. She could be a nurse or a school teacher. The fat man undresses Nancy. We hear him unbuckle her belt and open her buttons and rip off her underwear, while she says please so many times and with so much terror that we all stain our filthy hoods with tears. Look at this little ass. Oh, what a beaut. The fat man licks Nancy, Nancy’s ass. We hear the sound. The men jeer, roar, applaud. Then the slap of flesh against flesh. And the howls. The howls.
“Gentlemen, this is just quality control. I give her a ten. You can clean her up real pretty and our friend Nancy will be a delight.”
She must be beautiful because they bid, immediately, two thousand, three, three thousand five hundred. Nancy goes for three thousand five. Sexy is cheaper than wealthy.
“And the lucky man taking this lovely ass home is the gentleman with the gold ring and the cross.”
We’re sold off one by one. The fat man managed to get everything out of the guy who was next to me, the one with the eight-month-old baby and the three-year-old son and now he’s a big fish for the auction: money in different accounts, high-up executive, son of a businessman, artwork, kids, wife. The guy is a winning lottery ticket. They’ll probably ask for ransom for him. The bid starts at five thousand. It goes up to ten, fifteen thousand. It stops at twenty. Someone no one else wants to mess with has offered twenty. A new voice. He’s come just for this. He wasn’t interested in wasting time with anything else.
The fat man doesn’t make any comments.
When it’s my turn I think about the roosters. I close my eyes and open my sphincter. This is the most important thing I will do in my life, so I’ll do it right. I soak my legs, my feet, the floor. I’m in the center of a room, surrounded by criminals, displayed before them like cattle and like cattle I empty my bowels. As best I can, I rub one leg against the other, I assume the position of a gutted doll. I scream like a madwoman. I shake my head, mutter obscenities, made up words, the things I said to the roosters about heaven full of corn and infinite worms. I know the fat man is about to shoot me.
But instead, he busts my lip open with a slap, I bite my tongue. The blood drips onto my chest, down my belly, mixes with the shit and piss. I start to laugh, deranged, to laugh, and laugh, and laugh.
The fat man doesn’t know what to do.
“How much for this monster?”
No one wants to bid.
The fat man offers up my watch, my cell phone, my purse. It’s all cheap, made in China. He grabs my tits in an attempt to encourage them and I shriek.
But nothing, no one.
They toss me into a patio. They hose me down and then they put me in a car that leaves me wet, barefoot, dazed, on the highway.
The waiter at the Café Au Chai de l’Abbaye, Claude, asked me to finish my drink quickly. It was a quarter past two in the morning and he had to close up the café. I walked a few paces and sat down in Place Furstenberg. This was where I ‘cleared’ my mind every day. Opposite me was the house in which the famous painter Delacroix had spent his last years, and which was now a museum. I started to smoke a cigarette. I thought of walking to Austerlitz, but I couldn’t sleep now, I was in such a troubled mood.
‘How long will the French go on repeating this tedious drama?’ I shouted loudly as if addressing the great painter.
I meant those enormous military parades that they put on every year. Thousands of soldiers, hundreds of tanks, rockets, and artillery, scores of planes circling in the sky, and everywhere thronged with people, with traffic policemen closing the main roads leading to the heart of Paris. All this led to complete chaos that lasted the whole day. The television channels broadcast these parades live. We could see the same pictures on the screens of hundreds of thousands of television sets displayed in the windows of electrical shops. I love France, but I never liked this day they call ‘Quatorze Juillet’ (14 July), when they celebrate the anniversary of the French Revolution.
I left Place Furstenberg and decided to take a stroll around Saint-Sulpice church, waiting for dawn to break so that I could go into the first café I found open. At the end of Rue Bonaparte, where it meets Rue Vieux Colombiers, I noticed an attractive woman walking in a way that caught my attention. She was wearing white shorts that allowed one to see her sturdy legs. I guessed that she was nearing fifty. As the distance between us narrowed, I thought she looked sad. Without expecting any reply, I asked her, ‘Why are you sad, madame?’ I was drunk, and it was nearly three in the morning.
The woman stopped. ‘Yes, I am very sad, monsieur,’ she said, trying to put on a little smile.
‘I am very sorry, madame,’ I said.
‘I lost my little dog on quatorze juillet, monsieur,’ she explained. ‘Isn’t that sad?’ she added in a coquettish way, licking her lips and pouting.
‘And I lost my country on quatorze juillet, madame, isn’t that sad?’ I said sarcastically.
She laughed and closed her eyes flirtatiously, ‘And how did that happen?’ she asked.
‘It’s a long story, madame.’
The woman remained silent for a moment, then said, ‘Listen, would you like to have a drink with me? I know a place that stays open till dawn.’
We crossed Boulevard Saint-Germain and walked on past the church. ‘I live on this boulevard,’ she said. ‘Isn’t it wonderful for someone to live in this quarter?’
‘It’s just a dream, as far as I’m concerned,’ I replied.
‘For me too,’ she said cheerfully, then added, ‘Think how wonderful it would be if we were to find my dog now!’
‘We’ll find it, madame, believe me. I feel it,’ I said.
She stopped and looked at me. ‘You are kind,’ she said. ‘You make me feel I’ve found a friend. You said, “We’ll find it”. That’s very kind of you.’
I shrugged my shoulders and didn’t know what to reply.
‘Yes, you are kind,’ she repeated.
When we went into the Café Conti I was greeted by Damien, the manager, who shook hands with me.
‘It seems you are famous,’ said the woman.
‘Only in bars,’ I replied.
She laughed loudly.
I asked for red wine and she asked for a Kir Royale. I noticed Damien leaving the bar, and knew that he would be going to the storeroom behind it, near the toilet. I immediately made for the toilet and waited for a few moments for him to come out of the storeroom, then said, ‘Damien, please, if we have to drink a lot, can I settle the bill tomorrow? I only met this woman today.’
‘Certainly,’ said Damien. He added, ‘She’s only been living in Paris for two weeks. She was in California before.’
‘You know her?’
‘She comes in for a drink in the evening. She lives only a few steps away from here.’
The woman said that her name was Micheline, and asked me my name, about my life and what had happened to my country. I told her that I was working at the moment in a translation and printing company and that my ambition was to be a film director. About my country, I told her that on Quatorze Juillet 1958 a group of wicked officers had carried out a bloody military coup that had done away with the monarchy in Iraq and that since then the Iraqi people had been living under the rule of the loutish military.
‘Are you a royalist?’ she asked me.
Yes, I’m a royalist. I believe that the monarchy in my country was better for us.’
She nodded her head in an understanding way. ‘I lived more than fifteen years in California. I had a big restaurant there, specialising in French cuisine. OK, it was owned by myself and my husband. I separated from him a month ago.’ As she ordered another drink, she added, ‘I’m a professional chef. I thought of opening a restaurant here in Paris, but I decided to test the waters first, so I took a job as a chef in a well-known restaurant behind the Palais de Justice. My customers are among the best-known judges in Paris.’
After a moment’s silence, she asked, ‘Where do you live?’
‘A little while ago, I left the place I was living in near here, and I’m now living in a small studio near the press where I work. Near the Bourse de Paris.’
‘A nice area, but it’s a long way away from here,’ she said.
We went on drinking until the café closed its doors. She invited me to continue drinking in her house, ‘It’s only a few steps away, come with me.’
In the morning, Micheline appeared out of the bathroom while I was still in bed. She said good morning and bent down to kiss me, so I pulled her back into bed.
‘You know, I’m a royalist as well,’ she said. ‘I’m a chef, and chefs have to be royalists, don’t they?’
‘Yes,’ I replied, pulling the large towel from her body.
Micheline went to work and left me to sleep. When she came back, I was in the bathroom taking a shower, singing Charles Aznavour’s song ‘Dans tes bras’ with vigour. She started singing with me as she took off her clothes and got under the shower.
‘I know Charles Aznavour personally,’ said Micheline as we ate some wonderful French food she had brought from the restaurant. ‘I was the personal chef of the pop singer Lionel Richie.’
‘Wow, I like Lionel Richie a lot,’ I told her.
‘Me too,’ said Micheline. ‘I was his favourite chef for several years. Once, Charles Aznavour was one of Lionel Richie’s guests and I was in charge of the cooking. Lionel Richie said to me, ‘Micheline, please pay even more attention to the food than usual. Charles Aznavour is our guest. He’s a stickler, he puts his nose into everything in the kitchen, big or small. Please, I don’t want him to complain!’ And when Aznavour came, he did indeed meddle in every detail concerning the food. He’s very fussy and demanding.’
‘Is Lionel Richie a nice man?’ I asked Micheline.
‘Very,’ replied Micheline enthusiastically. Then she asked me whether I had contacted the translation company to tell them I wouldn’t be going in. I told her that they were used to my habits. ‘Don’t forget that yesterday was quatorze juillet,’ I reminded her.
‘Quatorze juillet, that reminds me, we should go out and look for my dog. Perhaps we’ll find him where I lost him.’
‘In Place Saint-Sulpice?’
‘Yes, near Catherine Deneuve’s house, the actress, do you know about her?’
‘Who doesn’t know about Catherine Deneuve?’
‘True. Yesterday you said something to me about the movies.’
‘I’d like to be a film director.’
‘Yes, I remember that.’
We went to the police station opposite Saint-Sulpice church and Micheline handed in details of her lost dog. Then we spent the afternoon wandering around the streets near the church. We drank a few glasses of white wine in a café in Rue Lobineau. Then she told me she had to go back home and afterward go to work. She suggested I go with her so that she could give me a spare house key.
‘I have a feeling I’ve begun to fall in love with you,’ she said.
‘Me too,’ I said.
Before she left for work, we went to bed. Then Micheline took a shower and went out. I got up and put a small table by the window overlooking Boulevard Saint-Germain. I brought the bottle of bourbon and began to drink. Since the apartment was immediately above the Old Navy Café, which I was forbidden to enter as a result of an argument with the café owner, I imagined myself sitting on the upstairs floor of the café to spite him.
So far as work was concerned, I still had no steady job. There was just a small company undertaking translation and publishing work, run by a Lebanese called Jean, who needed me occasionally for typesetting a few pages in Arabic. Luckily, a week before I met Micheline, Jean had told me he had signed a contract with a French company, well known in the arms manufacturing trade, to translate some catalogs of arms that the company had sold recently to a number of Gulf states. The Arab states were making it a condition that the catalogs should be in Arabic. Jean was happy that day, inviting me to have a few drinks with him as he gave me the news of the deal. He told me that he would need me ‘for two months at least’, then gave me a sum of money on account.
Before Micheline came back from work, the telephone rang. There was a young Frenchman on the line who asked for Micheline and said that on quatorze juillet he had been in a café with his girlfriend when a small dog had come up and sat beside them. When they left the café at dawn, they had taken the dog with them ‘because we realised it was lost’. Then he explained that he had seen an American telephone number on its collar. He had called the number and a man speaking English with a French accent answered and told him that the dog belonged to his former wife who was now living in Paris. Then the man had given him Micheline’s telephone number.
I thanked the young man, asked for his telephone number, and told him that as soon as Micheline came back from work she would call him.
‘Didn’t I tell you we would find him?’ I shouted at the top of my voice as I lifted her up, along with the bags she was carrying.
‘Be careful, be careful, there are bottles of white wine!’ said Micheline, then stopped dead in her tracks. She stared at me. ‘I can smell bourbon, please don’t play games with me.’
‘I’m not playing games, Micheline, we’ve found your dog.’
‘Where? Did the police get in touch?’
I shook my head and told her the story. She took the telephone number and started to dial it, while I occupied myself with emptying the bags and putting the food and wine in the fridge.
‘We have to celebrate this news,’ Micheline shrieked. ‘It’s a big celebration!’
She had satisfied herself that the news was correct, and started dancing, hugging me and pulling me towards the bed. Before taking off our clothes, she asked me to open a bottle of white wine and leave it beside the bed.
I never did like Micheline’s dog. It was ugly. She kissed it all the time. From the moment it was there with us, it started to annoy me. When Micheline was at home, it would bark the whole time in protest at my being there. When Micheline went to work and it was left with me, it never opened its mouth at all. It would disappear from my sight and hide away, in God only knows what corner of the apartment. It stayed there until suddenly it would run out, come up to me, look at me in an impudent way, and begin barking in my face. At that precise moment, the door would open and Micheline would come in.
Despite the petty arguments between us, the result of differences in temperament and mood, Micheline started to feel comfortable with me and buy me clothes, especially shirts with designer labels. She particularly liked the Agnes B brand. And because I had some experience in printing and publishing, she bought a computer and a colour printer.
She said that she was going to write a book about French cooking, that we would supervise the technical production of it together, and ‘you can use the computer to write your script. It’s better than a typewriter’.
We never missed a chance to go to bed. Before leaving home, when we returned, after a meal, after a shower. One day, on the way back from work, she said that she was inviting me to a fancy Mexican restaurant. In the restaurant, she put to me the idea that ‘we should live together permanently’.
‘What do you think?’ she asked.
‘But we are together, Micheline,’ I replied.
‘True, but so far we haven’t talked about some important details.’
‘Let’s leave it until another time,’ I said offhandedly, clinking my glass against hers.
‘As you wish,’ she scowled.
This ‘As you wish’ didn’t come from her heart, though. As soon as we had left the restaurant and taken a few steps, she started to shout, ‘You all take advantage of my good nature in the same way. I take you out for a first-rate supper to talk about our relationship and all you can do is answer coldly, “Let’s leave it until another time”. What other time? Eh? Tell me. At the moment you just want to drink and fuck, isn’t that the truth, you bum?’
She opened her eyes as wide as she could and stared at me as she said ‘you bum’. I looked at her in astonishment.
‘Naturally,’ she said, ‘I asked about you. They told me that you lived on movie fantasies and slept on the streets. Despite that, I put up with you, even invite you to one of the best restaurants.’
She continued her tirade, which was attracting the attention of some passers-by, ‘You all take advantage of me in the same way. My husband cheated on me with my closest friend while all the time I was working for him.’
‘And you were also fucking a young Mexican boy while your husband was taking his siesta. You told me the story yourself!’
‘That’s none of your business,’ she said, then fell silent.
We walked on a few paces. She turned to me and said, ‘Give me the key to the apartment, please. Come tomorrow and get your things. I’m sorry, I’m not going back home now, I’m finishing my evening entertainment.’
I gave her the key as we stood there in the middle of the street. She went to finish off her evening in the bars of Rue Princesse. I headed for my favourite place, Au Chai de l’Abbaye, where I stayed drinking until two o’clock. A few minutes before the bar closed, Micheline came in and ordered a drink. Majid and Claude were astonished to see her standing beside me without talking to me.
I put my hand in my pocket and was about to pay my bill. I hesitated for a moment and thought of paying hers, but I was afraid of her reaction. I was conscious of the fact that I was wearing a shirt she had bought me. Who could guarantee that she wouldn’t demand it back in front of the customers? I was in a dilemma.
A Japanese customer, a regular, was standing at the bar. He was an eccentric fellow. He would go for days refusing to speak to any of the other customers, then on another day he would come and talk to everyone. He had a habit when he was talking to one customer, of withdrawing in the middle of a discussion and going to talk to another.
The Japanese man went up to Micheline and asked her if she’d like a drink. They started having a cheerful conversation and Micheline’s loud laughter could be heard throughout the bar. I took the opportunity to slip out. Not for a moment did I think that she would follow me and actually lure me in so that I would end up seeing in the dawn in a police station.
At first, I thought of getting away from the quarter, especially as the cafés that I drank in were all closed – Danton, Le Relais Odéon, Tennessee, Atlas, Bonaparte. I was reluctant to go to the Opera or Montparnasse quarters. I went to Café Conti. It was only a few moments before Micheline came in, with her arms around the Japanese man.
She came up to me and said calmly, ‘Take this key, please. Go and collect your things. My Japanese friend and I have decided to get married, and I don’t want any hassle.’
‘OK,’ I said and took the key, while she began to kiss her Japanese boyfriend.
‘Oh, my love, my Japanese love.’
Some customers were looking at us and smiling, some of them were regulars who knew that she was supposed to be my girlfriend. As the apartment was only two hundred metres away from the Conti, I went at once and began to gather my things together. The dog looked at me from its corner, trembling. I smiled at it. It carried on panting and staring at me. Before putting the bottle of Jack Daniels in the bag, I thought of having a drink. Micheline wouldn’t come back before five, or so I thought. But no sooner had I started to drink than the dog began to bark and Micheline came in with her Japanese friend. She patted the dog, then flew into a rage when she saw me sitting with the glass in my hand.
‘My apartment’s not a bar, do you understand?’ She tried to snatch the glass from my hand, so I pushed her hard towards the sofa. The dog began to bark, and I saw the Japanese man undo his flies and go into the bathroom, shutting the door behind him.
‘You hit me!’ she shouted.
‘You’re a bitch,’ I told her angrily, grabbing hold of her.
She took the telephone and dialed the police. She wouldn’t let me leave the apartment until the policemen had arrived and she had told them that I was a violent man and was refusing to leave.
‘You’re a lying bitch, Micheline, and you know it,’ I said as I left with the police. The Japanese man was still in the bathroom, and the dog seemed happy in her lap.
In the car, one policeman asked me, ‘Did you buy a new dog?’
I looked at him in astonishment. He said that he had seen us when we came to the station to report the loss of the dog. I told him how we had found the ‘ugly’ dog. The policeman laughed. Then he told me politely that they were obliged to detain me until eight in the morning. I asked him whether it was possible to stay until eleven as I wanted to sleep a little.
‘I don’t think so,’ said the policeman, adding, ‘Actually, my shift ends at nine so I won’t wake you before then.’
But the policeman and I had both forgotten that it was Sunday and the bells of Saint-Sulpice church wouldn’t let anyone sleep.
After that incident, Micheline began to look for me in the bars and to call my office. Two or three days later, she found me sitting in Place Furstenberg. She told me she had been drunk and stupid and that she was sorry, and she blamed herself for her tactless behaviour.
Then she repeated her account of her hard time with her former husband. ‘Oh, you don’t know how cruel he was to me in that foreign country!’
She lit a cigarette and went on: ‘I was a foreigner like you. America wasn’t my country and I was afraid my husband would throw me onto the street and I’d become exactly like you, a vagabond or a refugee.’ And she added, ‘What does it mean for someone to become homeless? Anyone of us could become homeless at any moment.’
She concluded, with a reference to the two famous cemeteries, ‘There is no stability in this life except in Montparnasse or Père Lachaise.’
I listened, nodding.
‘He would come at night and throw himself onto the bed and keep on snoring until morning. Of course, I knew he was sleeping with the Mexican maids in the afternoon.’
‘But, Micheline, you told me about your own adventures with the Mexicans as well!’
‘One adventure, with a good-looking guy,’ she said teasingly.
I remember, one evening we were lying on the bed and Micheline had told me this story: ‘We had a large villa about seven kilometres away from the restaurant. My husband preferred to take his siesta at the restaurant, while I would go home as soon as lunch was over. Until that is, the young man who worked as a dishwasher told me that my husband used to stay at the restaurant in order to spend his siesta sleeping with the waitresses. I broached the subject with him and we argued about it a lot but to no avail. I had to do the same, in the end, I’m not stupid. Especially as I knew that the dishwasher, who was a strapping young man, dreamed, like any Mexican, of sleeping with blonde women. I used to notice his glances in my direction as he worked in the kitchen.
‘One day, I went up to the young man, told him I had left the car trunk open and asked him to get inside it, then shut it behind him. After work I opened the trunk and found the young man stretched out, dripping with sweat. I closed it again and headed home, where we, too, began to take a siesta every afternoon. After a bit, my husband found out, fired the young man and began to keep watch on me until he turned my life into hell.’
I agreed to go back to Micheline to get away from the hell of the street. The period I had spent with her, as a resident of Boulevard Saint-Germain, was a happy one. It helped me escape from the vagabond life I had led for nearly ten years. I had persuaded myself that the best way of staying with her was to go out every morning as if I was an employee going off to work and to come back in the evening to spend time with her like any couple.
But this plan only worked for a few days. I began to pine for the streets and cafés again and drinking with friends. Whenever I went to meet friends, Micheline would end up spending the evening with us. She’d search every café until she found me. Sometimes she made trouble between me and my friends, and on many occasions, she said to me, ‘You go home, I’ll follow later.’ We had several arguments, and I had to leave the apartment more than once, but then we’d makeup and I’d go back.
One morning, an official holiday, the sun had been slipping through our window since the early hours of dawn. I woke up in a cheerful mood and began to caress Micheline, who was rousing slowly, responding to my caresses with a considerable appetite. Afterward, I suggested to her that we should go to spend the day at Versailles.
‘Aren’t we royalists, after all?’ I asked her.
‘Wonderful,’ she said. ‘To Versailles. That would be really nice.’
We made an assortment of sandwiches, and I took two bottles of Muscadet from the fridge. Then we took the train to Versailles. We wandered around among hundreds of tourists. I took lots of pictures of Micheline at the palace gate, in the fascinating palace grounds, then Micheline asked a Japanese tourist to take a picture of us together wearing sunglasses. And we found a cozy spot under a tree where we finished off the sandwiches and Muscadet and lay down.
When sunset approached, I said to Micheline, ‘I’ll hire a rowing boat so we can spend the sunset on the lake.’ Micheline smiled and seemed very happy.
‘You’ll see the strength of my arms,’ I added, making rowing motions.
No sooner had we got into the boat than Micheline, looking left and right, said, ‘But almost everyone has gone.’
‘The tourists like to look at the rooms inside the palace,’ I replied.
‘The place is so beautiful,’ said Micheline in a gentle voice. ‘Imagine, after all these years the Palace of Versailles is still like paradise. Admittedly, at the time of Louis XVI, it was far better.’
I nodded in agreement.
‘You’re right, I feel proud to be a royalist,’ she said, massaging my outstretched feet between hers. Micheline was talking as I guided the boat towards the far end of the lake, to a place where overgrown trees touched the water, until we were in a secluded, almost completely shaded spot.
I started to look left and right, then at Micheline, smiling. She got her camera out and took a picture of me.
‘Why don’t you speak?’ she asked.
I was smiling as I looked into her eyes for a moment, then at my own arms as they worked the oars in the water of Lake Versailles in that enticing sunset.
‘Won’t you say something?’
I looked left and right and pulled on the oars vigorously to steer the boat into an even more shaded area.
‘Say something,’ said Micheline loudly.
I didn’t reply but continued to stare at her.
‘What are you thinking about? Come on, what are you thinking about? Say something, please! Tell me what’s going round in your head!’
I looked into her eyes and said nothing.
She took out a cigarette and began smoking. ‘But say something! Come on, what are you thinking about, come on, tell me what you’re thinking about.’
‘I’m thinking about Hitchcock, I’m thinking about a movie of Hitchcock’s, Micheline.’
She looked at me and said in a pleading tone, ‘No, that’s not true. That’s not what you’re thinking. But you did tell me you wanted to be a film director, didn’t you?’ Micheline began to look left and right, while her face turned completely red. I felt that she was about to lose her power of speech completely. Finally, she said, ‘Don’t scare me, please, you’re too nice.’
‘You too,’ I said to her, smiling, then asked her to light me a cigarette.
‘Right away,’ she said, sighing. She lit the cigarette and added, ‘Now it’s my turn to row.’
She began to row quickly. ‘Don’t you think that we’d better go back?’ she said, out of breath.
I nodded agreement.
She rowed like mad – as if she were trying to escape drowning. I was smoking my cigarette and looking at her. A big smile came over her face whenever our eyes met. When we reached the jetty, Micheline became confused. ‘I have to go home quickly, yes, quickly, I’m very tired,’ she said.
We didn’t talk at all on the train. Micheline quickly opened the door to the apartment. She made for the telephone, which she carried into the room overlooking the street. She shut the door from the inside and spoke to me through the large glass window that separated the two rooms.
‘Please take your things and leave me to myself. Our relationship is over, over, over.’
‘Au revoir, Micheline.’
I took my things and went out, without hearing any reply.
That night I wandered from café to café and carried on drinking until dawn, without Micheline appearing. She didn’t appear the following day either, or the next one. I didn’t see her for more than a month, and then one day I heard she had left Paris and gone off with a Moroccan dishwasher, who had been working with her, to another city where she had decided to open a restaurant of her own.
I remember a tree. Its crown awning the path. I remember a large trunk, thicker than any I had seen before. I remember roots cleaving the black earth, bursting it asunder, like snakes fighting free and then, twisted by the chill of the air, plunging their heads back underground. There was a large crevice in the trunk. I peeked inside and ran.
A storm is coming. A black spot gradually growing, widening and expanding, stirring the skies until it is transformed into a whirlpool, crimson over the Jerusalem mountains. Red and terrible, the wind glides down the arched mountains, winding down over the pathways. It collects under the porch, then climbs the walls built with Jerusalem stone, blows through the neighbor’s house with the little garden that is punctuated by dwarfish citrus trees and a gray plastic doghouse for the miniature canine, Zoe, that has been barking for hours, tail stretched and ears erect.
“Shut up already! The neighbor screams, blind to the crimson wind, slithering its way to me like a poisonous snake, wishing to paint the soles of my feet with drops of blood.
I press my legs together, shrinking into myself, holding the white rail that encloses the porch, following the movements of the wind, waiting to hear the sound of jackals urging each other to howl at dusk, their wailing breaking against the mountains only to be carried up into the sky. I have only moments to stand like this before my husband notices my actions and commences scolding me to get back into bed and not to leave it again. Not even if I need to pee? Not even. This is why they have brought me a bedpan, and Vivie from 10:00 am to 12:00 pm. Then Vivie leaves my house to do some overtime with Pops, her invalid patient in the next building. She sits him in a wheelchair, his lips flapping around his gaping, toothless mouth. She places a blanket over his knees, tightens a sock hat on his head, and rolls him to the rendezvous point in the garden to meet her friends, each with their own elderly invalid. They line them up in a circle of silent, stuffed people, all facing one another, urine bags hanging beside their wheelchairs, while Vivie and her friends sit on the benches, chattering in their foreign language. At six thirty she comes back to give me a bath.
From the porch, I see how she stretches her small, slender body and waves her raven-black straight hair, marching expeditiously. She doesn’t look back because she has a work permit she keeps in a waist pouch under her clothes. Close to the body.
“What do you need to get up for?” My husband asks. He is wearing his uniform, attaching the police pager to his belt, along with his cellphone and handcuffs. He shoves the gun into his pants.
I remember. I found shelter from the rain under the crown of the tree. I stood under the weeping leaves for long moments, shrouded by a veil of drops. I listened to the swaying movements of the branches whispering above.
I stretch my body, just a tiny, teeny bit, pressing my fingers, swollen like risen bread dough, into the mattress imprinted with my shape and sunken at the point at which I bleed. I raise myself up and kneel in bed, on all fours, like a heavy, obese bitch, then I reach out a hand to the window and open the shutter.
A cold wind blows in. I return to lie on my back inside the body-shaped depression in my bed. Alert. I send a hand between my legs to check if the blood is trickling and cringe when I discover it isn’t.
The house-call doctor comes to scold me. I promise not to move, not to move. “You mustn’t get up,” he says. “Except for ten minutes at noon.”
A walk around the living room. Vivie holds my hand tight. She is adept in holding those that can barely walk, knows she must lead them along the shortest possible infinite route, in circles, on wheelchairs down the path, from bench to bench, from bedroom to living room, slowly, slowly.
I remember a truck with mud-splattered wheels, driving slowly past me. I clung to the trunk and watched. A woman in a green dress, her hair black and long. It covered her back. She knelt over a wooden casket. I remember a procession of black-clad men and women following the truck, the men leading the way in silence, the women following closely, weeping, screaming, beating their chests with their fists. I remember the wailing and screaming drifting away.
We pay him, so he comes. My husband, panting, puts the bed up on its side. Then he turns and rotates it, trying to find an angle that will allow him to move it from the bedroom to the living room. Goddamn it, let him just come and do his work without any big ideas about how to furnish the house. He wipes his sweaty forehead with his hand. No use, the bed won’t come out this way. He needs to dismantle it, screw-by-screw, then put it together in the living room.
Until he finds the time to dismantle the bed, he drags the mattress alone from the bedroom, pushing it with his large, bear-like hands. “But if now the mattress is in the living room, you’ll stop getting up, then it will be worth my while to sleep on the folding bed as if I was in boot camp. No, don’t get up, that’s the last thing I need, you get up now.”
My husband wrestles with the double mattress, stained with the marks of a relationship. He barely manages to squeeze it through the corridor and drops it on the floor with a muffled thud.
“That’s it,” he says. “Now you have nothing to get up for at all.”
“The house-call doctor charges three-hundred and fifty per visit. In this country, only private healthcare offers you proper treatment,” my husband tells me, although they could have charged less for placing a monitor on my belly. It pays off for him to place the mattress in the middle of the living room, in front of the porch’s large sliding door, to the right of the television. And I won’t need to move my hands, or head, or belly, until Vivie returns from Pops.
“There,” he says. “Now you can lie down without moving. Not even a muscle, you hear? Tomorrow I’ll put the bed together and we’re done.”
Then he goes, leaving me sprawled on the mattress, wallowing in his concern, observing how, in the corner of the living room, where the wall meets the ceiling, an old spider is spinning her webs on the spindle of her body. She has been here for long days, un-banished by a swing of the duster brush. Circle by circle she spins a fine net, like thin patches placed over my watching eye.
A distant shifting of clouds ruffles the air. The Earth yields to the movement of the sky and convulses, rattling the foundations of the building, the cars, the sidewalk, the rubber flooring in the kindergartens that whiffs of tar in the summers. At seven in the evening, after my walk around the house, Vivie bundles my hair into a knot and takes me to the shower.
“All right – all right,” she tells me.
“All right,” I answer.
“Okeydokey,” she says.
She soaps my back, scrubbing all the places I can’t reach. Silently, I look at my large white breasts resting on my belly, like two Beluga whales stranded on a beach. Lower down, I see two swollen legs now covered with white scented foam. How ugly I have become.
I remember. I was walking barefoot along the bed of a shallow stream that led all the way to the forest. The stream gave onto a small natural pool. I placed my feet in it, then removed my dress and, with a quick movement, hurled it to the bank beside the pool. I sat in the water.
“Air, I have no air,” I tell my husband. “Open the porch.”
“It’s winter in Jerusalem, do you want to catch pneumonia?”
I wait until he leaves for his night shift, then open it myself. The rustle of the coming storm blows into my face. A single jackal howls as hard as it possibly can. The wind carries the miserable howling to my ears, the scent of its moist fur and its warm breath to my nostrils. The neighbor’s dog barks at the top of her lungs. The neighbor has gone to work and locked her up in the house because of the cold weather, but she has sensed the wind and, in her agitation, has knocked over an alarm clock that rings loudly until its battery runs out. The neighbor will beat her with his belt when he finds out she has scratched the door with her paws.
I sit and the mattress sways under me like muddy soil. The closets in the house are creaking; someone is dragging a chair across the floor; a woman’s high heels sound like muted gunfire as she walks. The lights in the neighbors’ houses go off one by one. A crying baby. I get up. One step, two steps, three. I make it to the armchair and sit down, filling the chair with my body. I pull the lever, popping up the leg rest.
My pulse knocks against my temples. My breath quickens, my hand extends towards the phone, but I draw it back. There’s no one. The drape hovers like a ghost. There’s no one… I begin to cough. I take a deep breath. The house-call doctor has taught me to count to ten. My breasts sway from side to side, rubbing against my arms in a waltz of vibrating flesh.
I remember. Clear and quiet water surrounded me, there were little pebbles, smooth, round. I slid them down my cheek. Naked, I emerged from the stream and sat by the pool, dipping my feet in the water, patches of light shortened and elongated and sparkled, the skin on the soles of my feet wrinkled.
“I think,” I said to Doron, “that there are wolves in the mountains. And no, it isn’t Zoe.”
“No, there aren’t any wolves here,” says Doron. “What are you blubbering about?”
He sits in his uniform. A cup of black coffee is placed on the little table in front of him. His smoking-trained hand sketches empty gestures in the air. Desperate, he picks a cigarette from a packet, strokes it from tip to filter with a yearning finger, narrows his mouth, sucks in the void.
“What a night I’ve had,” he says, then inspects the sheet, seeking blotches.
I remember. I had risen from the water and piled the stones into a little mound. I remember. A white blotch flickered among the trees. The tip of a tail appeared and vanished. I held my breath. I heard soft footsteps. I looked into the forest.
Black ants climb from the garden up to the pipes and into the house. From the mattress, close to the floor, I see them, a little convoy, parading out of the crevice between the wall and the panels, marching to the kitchen, invading my house. I rise and drag myself to the kitchen. I take a deadly spray from under the sink. Seven steps from the kitchen. I tower over the ants in the spread-legged posture of a landlady. I raise the can and spray. I close the windows so the insecticide will thoroughly soak in, so they won’t come back. From the pains of her body, the spider is still spinning her webs. And through the threads, she watches me closing my eyes. She continues to circle over me in her own orbit.
“Are you insane?” My husband screams. “Do you want to kill the child?” He forces Vivie to wash the insecticide off my body and calls the house-call doctor.
“Everything is fine,” he says. “But do me a favor, baby, lay off the chemicals. Really, I don’t understand what is going through your head. Are you all right?”
I remember. From inside the rim of the forest, a beautiful white wolf returned my gaze, his eyes two clear crystals, his tail erect. “Don’t run away,” I whispered. I remember how, completely naked, wet and dripping with water, I approached. “Don’t run away.” He was almost the same height as me. His nose quivered. I stretched out a hand, almost feeling the soft touch of his fur. Suddenly he trembled, turned and disappeared into the thicket.
“Vivie,” I tell her, “you can leave early today. It’s okay. A storm is coming.” Vivie looks at me in silence, and I return the exact same gaze. “Go, go to Pops. It’ll start raining soon. You don’t want to be caught in the storm.”
The wind howls, the building quivers. I guess they haven’t properly secured all the fixtures and connectors, nor did they anchor the foundations to the ground when it was being built.
I get up and open the window wide. I reach out with a heavy foot to pin it to the floor. The wind whistles, entering the living room through the porch. It ruffles the bedding on the mattress. Zoe barks at the top of her lungs.
From the darkness of noon, howls rise from the bottom of the earth. There, inside the asphalt plated earth, in a place where no roots can reach, and only the void exists, is the wolf. Here, he rises from his crouch, shaking the dirt from his fur and howling as loudly as he can. And the howl rattles the foundations of the building and shakes the city above him. The city that swallows his howls and forces him back inside it time and again, so he won’t be seen, or heard, so he won’t frighten anyone. But he calls to the wind and waits for the storm. He stretches his body and digs with his paws, as hard as he can, the way out. And on his way, he spreads open the building above, gaping chasms into the roads.
“A wolf!” I cry. Yet no one can hear my voice. Zoe’s barks dance about me like wild witches. I open the porch door wide, the wind ruffles my hair, the rain wets my face. I sense drops of blood trickling between my legs, mingling with the rainwater wetting my clothes.
“A wolf!” I cry to the wind, looking down into the pits dug by the wolf as he emerged from the earth. Then I place a hand on my belly. The baby moves. The spider quivers on her webs in the cold wind.
“Come,” she says. “Come, hold on to the webs.”
The woods were already filled with shadows one June evening, just before eight o’clock, though a bright sunset still glimmered faintly among the trunks of the trees. A little girl was driving home her cow, a plodding, dilatory, provoking creature in her behavior, but a valued companion for all that. They were going away from whatever light there was, and striking deep into the woods, but their feet were familiar with the path, and it was no matter whether their eyes could see it or not.
There was hardly a night the summer through when the old cow could be found waiting at the pasture bars; on the contrary, it was her greatest pleasure to hide herself away among the huckleberry bushes, and though she wore a loud bell she had made the discovery that if one stood perfectly still it would not ring. So Sylvia had to hunt for her until she found her, and call Co’ ! Co’ ! with never an answering Moo, until her childish patience was quite spent. If the creature had not given good milk and plenty of it, the case would have seemed very different to her owners. Besides, Sylvia had all the time there was, and very little use to make of it. Sometimes in pleasant weather it was a consolation to look upon the cow’s pranks as an intelligent attempt to play hide and seek, and as the child had no playmates she lent herself to this amusement with a good deal of zest. Though this chase had been so long that the wary animal herself had given an unusual signal of her whereabouts, Sylvia had only laughed when she came upon Mistress Moolly at the swamp-side, and urged her affectionately homeward with a twig of birch leaves. The old cow was not inclined to wander farther, she even turned in the right direction for once as they left the pasture, and stepped along the road at a good pace. She was quite ready to be milked now, and seldom stopped to browse. Sylvia wondered what her grandmother would say because they were so late. It was a great while since she had left home at half-past five o’clock, but everybody knew the difficulty of making this errand a short one. Mrs. Tilley had chased the hornéd torment too many summer evenings herself to blame any one else for lingering, and was only thankful as she waited that she had Sylvia, nowadays, to give such valuable assistance. The good woman suspected that Sylvia loitered occasionally on her own account; there never was such a child for straying about out-of-doors since the world was made! Everybody said that it was a good change for a little maid who had tried to grow for eight years in a crowded manufacturing town, but, as for Sylvia herself, it seemed as if she never had been alive at all before she came to live at the farm. She thought often with wistful compassion of a wretched geranium that belonged to a town neighbor. “‘Afraid of folks,'” old Mrs. Tilley said to herself, with a smile, after she had made the unlikely choice of Sylvia from her daughter’s houseful of children, and was returning to the farm. “‘Afraid of folks,’ they said! I guess she won’t be troubled no great with ’em up to the old place!” When they reached the door of the lonely house and stopped to unlock it, and the cat came to purr loudly, and rub against them, a deserted pussy, indeed, but fat with young robins, Sylvia whispered that this was a beautiful place to live in, and she never should wish to go home.
The companions followed the shady wood-road, the cow taking slow steps and the child very fast ones. The cow stopped long at the brook to drink, as if the pasture were not half a swamp, and Sylvia stood still and waited, letting her bare feet cool themselves in the shoal water, while the great twilight moths struck softly against her. She waded on through the brook as the cow moved away, and listened to the thrushes with a heart that beat fast with pleasure. There was a stirring in the great boughs overhead. They were full of little birds and beasts that seemed to be wide awake, and going about their world, or else saying good-night to each other in sleepy twitters. Sylvia herself felt sleepy as she walked along. However, it was not much farther to the house, and the air was soft and sweet. She was not often in the woods so late as this, and it made her feel as if she were a part of the gray shadows and the moving leaves. She was just thinking how long it seemed since she first came to the farm a year ago, and wondering if everything went on in the noisy town just the same as when she was there, the thought of the great red-faced boy who used to chase and frighten her made her hurry along the path to escape from the shadow of the trees.
Suddenly this little woods-girl is horror-stricken to hear a clear whistle not very far away. Not a bird’s-whistle, which would have a sort of friendliness, but a boy’s whistle, determined, and somewhat aggressive. Sylvia left the cow to whatever sad fate might await her, and stepped discreetly aside into the bushes, but she was just too late. The enemy had discovered her, and called out in a very cheerful and persuasive tone, “Halloa, little girl, how far is it to the road?” and trembling Sylvia answered almost inaudibly, “A good ways.”
She did not dare to look boldly at the tall young man, who carried a gun over his shoulder, but she came out of her bush and again followed the cow, while he walked alongside.
“I have been hunting for some birds,” the stranger said kindly, “and I have lost my way, and need a friend very much. Don’t be afraid,” he added gallantly. “Speak up and tell me what your name is, and whether you think I can spend the night at your house, and go out gunning early in the morning.”
Sylvia was more alarmed than before. Would not her grandmother consider her much to blame? But who could have foreseen such an accident as this? It did not seem to be her fault, and she hung her head as if the stem of it were broken, but managed to answer “Sylvy,” with much effort when her companion again asked her name.
Mrs. Tilley was standing in the doorway when the trio came into view. The cow gave a loud moo by way of explanation.
“Yes, you’d better speak up for yourself, you old trial! Where’d she tucked herself away this time, Sylvy?” But Sylvia kept an awed silence; she knew by instinct that her grandmother did not comprehend the gravity of the situation. She must be mistaking the stranger for one of the farmer-lads of the region.
The young man stood his gun beside the door, and dropped a lumpy game-bag beside it; then he bade Mrs. Tilley good-evening, and repeated his wayfarer’s story, and asked if he could have a night’s lodging.
“Put me anywhere you like,” he said. “I must be off early in the morning, before day; but I am very hungry, indeed. You can give me some milk at any rate, that’s plain.”
“Dear sakes, yes,” responded the hostess, whose long slumbering hospitality seemed to be easily awakened. “You might fare better if you went out to the main road a mile or so, but you’re welcome to what we’ve got. I’ll milk right off, and you make yourself at home. You can sleep on husks or feathers,” she proffered graciously. “I raised them all myself. There’s good pasturing for geese just below here towards the ma’sh. Now step round and set a plate for the gentleman, Sylvy!” And Sylvia promptly stepped. She was glad to have something to do, and she was hungry herself.
It was a surprise to find so clean and comfortable a little dwelling in this New England wilderness. The young man had known the horrors of its most primitive housekeeping, and the dreary squalor of that level of society which does not rebel at the companionship of hens. This was the best thrift of an old-fashioned farmstead, though on such a small scale that it seemed like a hermitage. He listened eagerly to the old woman’s quaint talk, he watched Sylvia’s pale face and shining gray eyes with ever growing enthusiasm, and insisted that this was the best supper he had eaten for a month, and afterward the new-made friends sat down in the door-way together while the moon came up.
Soon it would be berry-time, and Sylvia was a great help at picking. The cow was a good milker, though a plaguy thing to keep track of, the hostess gossiped frankly, adding presently that she had buried four children, so Sylvia’s mother, and a son (who might be dead) in California were all the children she had left. “Dan, my boy, was a great hand to go gunning,” she explained sadly. “I never wanted for pa’tridges or gray squer’ls while he was to home. He’s been a great wand’rer, I expect, and he’s no hand to write letters. There, I don’t blame him, I’d ha’ seen the world myself if it had been so I could.
“Sylvy takes after him,” the grandmother continued affectionately, after a minute’s pause. “There ain’t a foot o’ ground she don’t know her way over, and the wild creaturs counts her one o’ themselves. Squer’ls she’ll tame to come an’ feed right out o’ her hands, and all sorts o’ birds. Last winter she got the jay-birds to bangeing here, and I believe she’d ‘a’ scanted herself of her own meals to have plenty to throw out amongst ’em, if I hadn’t kep’ watch. Anything but crows, I tell her, I’m willin’ to help support — though Dan he had a tamed one o’ them that did seem to have reason same as folks. It was round here a good spell after he went away. Dan an’ his father they didn’t hitch, — but he never held up his head ag’in after Dan had dared him an’ gone off.”
The guest did not notice this hint of family sorrows in his eager interest in something else.
“So Sylvy knows all about birds, does she?” he exclaimed, as he looked round at the little girl who sat, very demure but increasingly sleepy, in the moonlight. “I am making a collection of birds myself. I have been at it ever since I was a boy.” (Mrs. Tilley smiled.) “There are two or three very rare ones I have been hunting for these five years. I mean to get them on my own ground if they can be found.”
“Do you cage ’em up?” asked Mrs. Tilley doubtfully, in response to this enthusiastic announcement.
“Oh no, they’re stuffed and preserved, dozens and dozens of them,” said the ornithologist, “and I have shot or snared every one myself. I caught a glimpse of a white heron a few miles from here on Saturday, and I have followed it in this direction. They have never been found in this district at all. The little white heron, it is,” and he turned again to look at Sylvia with the hope of discovering that the rare bird was one of her acquaintances.
But Sylvia was watching a hop-toad in the narrow footpath.
“You would know the heron if you saw it,” the stranger continued eagerly. “A queer tall white bird with soft feathers and long thin legs. And it would have a nest perhaps in the top of a high tree, made of sticks, something like a hawk’s nest.”
Sylvia’s heart gave a wild beat; she knew that strange white bird, and had once stolen softly near where it stood in some bright green swamp grass, away over at the other side of the woods. There was an open place where the sunshine always seemed strangely yellow and hot, where tall, nodding rushes grew, and her grandmother had warned her that she might sink in the soft black mud underneath and never be heard of more. Not far beyond were the salt marshes just this side the sea itself, which Sylvia wondered and dreamed much about, but never had seen, whose great voice could sometimes be heard above the noise of the woods on stormy nights.
“I can’t think of anything I should like so much as to find that heron’s nest,” the handsome stranger was saying. “I would give ten dollars to anybody who could show it to me,” he added desperately, “and I mean to spend my whole vacation hunting for it if need be. Perhaps it was only migrating, or had been chased out of its own region by some bird of prey.”
Mrs. Tilley gave amazed attention to all this, but Sylvia still watched the toad, not divining, as she might have done at some calmer time, that the creature wished to get to its hole under the door-step, and was much hindered by the unusual spectators at that hour of the evening. No amount of thought, that night, could decide how many wished-for treasures the ten dollars, so lightly spoken of, would buy.
The next day the young sportsman hovered about the woods, and Sylvia kept him company, having lost her first fear of the friendly lad, who proved to be most kind and sympathetic. He told her many things about the birds and what they knew and where they lived and what they did with themselves. And he gave her a jack-knife, which she thought as great a treasure as if she were a desert-islander. All day long he did not once make her troubled or afraid except when he brought down some unsuspecting singing creature from its bough. Sylvia would have liked him vastly better without his gun; she could not understand why he killed the very birds he seemed to like so much. But as the day waned, Sylvia still watched the young man with loving admiration. She had never seen anybody so charming and delightful; the woman’s heart, asleep in the child, was vaguely thrilled by a dream of love. Some premonition of that great power stirred and swayed these young creatures who traversed the solemn woodlands with soft-footed silent care. They stopped to listen to a bird’s song; they pressed forward again eagerly, parting the branches — speaking to each other rarely and in whispers; the young man going first and Sylvia following, fascinated, a few steps behind, with her gray eyes dark with excitement.
She grieved because the longed-for white heron was elusive, but she did not lead the guest, she only followed, and there was no such thing as speaking first. The sound of her own unquestioned voice would have terrified her — it was hard enough to answer yes or no when there was need of that. At last evening began to fall, and they drove the cow home together, and Sylvia smiled with pleasure when they came to the place where she heard the whistle and was afraid only the night before.
Half a mile from home, at the farther edge of the woods, where the land was highest, a great pine-tree stood, the last of its generation. Whether it was left for a boundary mark, or for what reason, no one could say; the woodchoppers who had felled its mates were dead and gone long ago, and a whole forest of sturdy trees, pines and oaks and maples, had grown again. But the stately head of this old pine towered above them all and made a landmark for sea and shore miles and miles away. Sylvia knew it well. She had always believed that whoever climbed to the top of it could see the ocean; and the little girl had often laid her hand on the great rough trunk and looked up wistfully at those dark boughs that the wind always stirred, no matter how hot and still the air might be below. Now she thought of the tree with a new excitement, for why, if one climbed it at break of day, could not one see all the world, and easily discover from whence the white heron flew, and mark the place, and find the hidden nest?
What a spirit of adventure, what wild ambition! What fancied triumph and delight and glory for the later morning when she could make known the secret! It was almost too real and too great for the childish heart to bear.
All night the door of the little house stood open and the whippoorwills came and sang upon the very step. The young sportsman and his old hostess were sound asleep, but Sylvia’s great design kept her broad awake and watching. She forgot to think of sleep. The short summer night seemed as long as the winter darkness, and at last when the whippoorwills ceased, and she was afraid the morning would after all come too soon, she stole out of the house and followed the pasture path through the woods, hastening toward the open ground beyond, listening with a sense of comfort and companionship to the drowsy twitter of a half-awakened bird, whose perch she had jarred in passing. Alas, if the great wave of human interest which flooded for the first time this dull little life should sweep away the satisfactions of an existence heart to heart with nature and the dumb life of the forest!
There was the huge tree asleep yet in the paling moonlight, and small and silly Sylvia began with utmost bravery to mount to the top of it, with tingling, eager blood coursing the channels of her whole frame, with her bare feet and fingers, that pinched and held like bird’s claws to the monstrous ladder reaching up, up, almost to the sky itself. First she must mount the white oak tree that grew alongside, where she was almost lost among the dark branches and the green leaves heavy and wet with dew; a bird fluttered off its nest, and a red squirrel ran to and fro and scolded pettishly at the harmless housebreaker. Sylvia felt her way easily. She had often climbed there, and knew that higher still one of the oak’s upper branches chafed against the pine trunk, just where its lower boughs were set close together. There, when she made the dangerous pass from one tree to the other, the great enterprise would really begin.
She crept out along the swaying oak limb at last, and took the daring step across into the old pine-tree. The way was harder than she thought; she must reach far and hold fast, the sharp dry twigs caught and held her and scratched her like angry talons, the pitch made her thin little fingers clumsy and stiff as she went round and round the tree’s great stem, higher and higher upward. The sparrows and robins in the woods below were beginning to wake and twitter to the dawn, yet it seemed much lighter there aloft in the pine-tree, and the child knew she must hurry if her project were to be of any use.
The tree seemed to lengthen itself out as she went up, and to reach farther and farther upward. It was like a great main-mast to the voyaging earth; it must truly have been amazed that morning through all its ponderous frame as it felt this determined spark of human spirit wending its way from higher branch to branch. Who knows how steadily the least twigs held themselves to advantage this light, weak creature on her way! The old pine must have loved his new dependent. More than all the hawks, and bats, and moths, and even the sweet-voiced thrushes, was the brave, beating heart of the solitary gray-eyed child. And the tree stood still and frowned away the winds that June morning while the dawn grew bright in the east.
Sylvia’s face was like a pale star, if one had seen it from the ground, when the last thorny bough was past, and she stood trembling and tired but wholly triumphant, high in the tree-top. Yes, there was the sea with the dawning sun making a golden dazzle over it, and toward that glorious east flew two hawks with slow-moving pinions. How low they looked in the air from that height when one had only seen them before far up, and dark against the blue sky. Their gray feathers were as soft as moths; they seemed only a little way from the tree, and Sylvia felt as if she too could go flying away among the clouds. Westward, the woodlands and farms reached miles and miles into the distance; here and there were church steeples, and white villages, truly it was a vast and awesome world
The birds sang louder and louder. At last the sun came up bewilderingly bright. Sylvia could see the white sails of ships out at sea, and the clouds that were purple and rose-colored and yellow at first began to fade away. Where was the white heron’s nest in the sea of green branches, and was this wonderful sight and pageant of the world the only reward for having climbed to such a giddy height? Now look down again, Sylvia, where the green marsh is set among the shining birches and dark hemlocks; there where you saw the white heron once you will see him again; look, look! a white spot of him like a single floating feather comes up from the dead hemlock and grows larger, and rises, and comes close at last, and goes by the landmark pine with steady sweep of wing and outstretched slender neck and crested head. And wait! wait! do not move a foot or a finger, little girl, do not send an arrow of light and consciousness from your two eager eyes, for the heron has perched on a pine bough not far beyond yours, and cries back to his mate on the nest and plumes his feathers for the new day!
The child gives a long sigh a minute later when a company of shouting cat-birds comes also to the tree, and vexed by their fluttering and lawlessness the solemn heron goes away. She knows his secret now, the wild, light, slender bird that floats and wavers, and goes back like an arrow presently to his home in the green world beneath. Then Sylvia, well satisfied, makes her perilous way down again, not daring to look far below the branch she stands on, ready to cry sometimes because her fingers ache and her lamed feet slip. Wondering over and over again what the stranger would say to her, and what he would think when she told him how to find his way straight to the heron’s nest.
“Sylvy, Sylvy!” called the busy old grandmother again and again, but nobody answered, and the small husk bed was empty and Sylvia had disappeared.
The guest waked from a dream, and remembering his day’s pleasure hurried to dress himself that it might sooner begin. He was sure from the way the shy little girl looked once or twice yesterday that she had at least seen the white heron, and now she must really be made to tell. Here she comes now, paler than ever, and her worn old frock is torn and tattered, and smeared with pine pitch. The grandmother and the sportsman stand in the door together and question her, and the splendid moment has come to speak of the dead hemlock-tree by the green marsh.
But Sylvia does not speak after all, though the old grandmother fretfully rebukes her, and the young man’s kind, appealing eyes are looking straight in her own. He can make them rich with money; he has promised it, and they are poor now. He is so well worth making happy, and he waits to hear the story she can tell.
No, she must keep silence! What is it that suddenly forbids her and makes her dumb? Has she been nine years growing and now, when the great world for the first time puts out a hand to her, must she thrust it aside for a bird’s sake? The murmur of the pine’s green branches is in her ears, she remembers how the white heron came flying through the golden air and how they watched the sea and the morning together, and Sylvia cannot speak; she cannot tell the heron’s secret and give its life away.
Dear loyalty, that suffered a sharp pang as the guest went away disappointed later in the day, that could have served and followed him and loved him as a dog loves! Many a night Sylvia heard the echo of his whistle haunting the pasture path as she came home with the loitering cow. She forgot even her sorrow at the sharp report of his gun and the sight of thrushes and sparrows dropping silent to the ground, their songs hushed and their pretty feathers stained and wet with blood. Were the birds better friends than their hunter might have been, — who can tell? Whatever treasures were lost to her, woodlands and summer-time, remember! Bring your gifts and graces and tell your secrets to this lonely country child!
The blinds are pulled down; the old couple who live opposite must be on holiday. Before, the old woman would come out every morning to water the plants on her balcony. The old man would stay inside; he needed a walker to get around. Some days a young girl in a blue jacket would come by, a nurse or a physiotherapist. On Sundays they’d be visited by other elderly couples. They’d sit around a table and play cards until late.
They have a nice balcony; it’s in an ‘L’ shape, wrapped around the building. A lot of plants, an azalea that blooms every spring. They’ve hung a wind chime up at the corner. On windy days you can hear it from a long way away, from the street even. Behind that is a red dreamcatcher with a feather that flutters in the slightest breeze. I imagine it must have been a gift from a grandchild, although I’ve never seen grandchildren in their flat. Maybe the physiotherapist gave it to them.
The flat below the one belonging to the old couple is empty. It takes up the whole floor. They left the blinds up, and you can see that the parquet floor is covered in dust. There’s something long and white lying on the floor in one of the bedrooms. It looks like the holder for a fluorescent light. Pigeons gather on the balcony; the tiles are covered in their shit. There are two nests, one at each end. One of the nests has three little white eggs. You can see them when the pigeon goes out foraging for food.
All you can see of the brown building behind the one where the old couple live is the roof terrace with its cages for drying clothes. Also, a pair of DirecTV antennae pointed at the Sierras. A black shirt is hanging upside down in one of the cages. The shirt cuffs almost touch the ground. There’s no wind, but it still sways a little and occasionally brushes against the rusty mesh of the cage. The flat on the top floor has its blinds pulled down. On the second from top, next to the window, is a white table with an architect’s lamp. They usually leave the light on until late at night. Sometimes I see a hand turning a page or scribbling something. Very occasionally, I see it holding a cigarette. The face is always hidden while the man reads, or works, or studies, or draws. If I met him in the shop downstairs I wouldn’t recognize him.
In the middle of the street, they’re building a pair of apartment blocks, one next to the other. The one closest to me is almost finished. Two men are installing the window frames. Nothing else. A truck came to deliver them yesterday afternoon. Thirty or forty grey-painted iron frames, exactly alike. The builders ran a rope through a pulley and threw it down from the roof. One builder stayed on the top floor while the others went down to the street, tied the first frame to the rope and started to pull. The builder on the top floor watched the metal frame coming up towards him. One of the corners got stuck under the third-floor balcony. The builder pulled on the rope to keep it away from the walls. They started with the frames for the top floors and progressed down the building.
Today the two men in grey shirts started to install the frames, and the air is full of the sound of electric saws and shrieking metal.
It’s five in the afternoon. The builders have left; I can hear their cars driving off into the distance. I like the silence of the flat, how every noise I make reverberates around it. My fingers on the keyboard, the click of the mouse button, a glass when I put it down on the glass table, the back of the chair creaking when I lean back, every footstep. It sounds like an Argentine film from the eighties. They all had dubbed superimposed soundtracks. Sounds added over silence; they never sounded genuine. It’s like I’m moving around in an unreal environment, or underwater, with just the flicking sound of the film for company.
I don’t want to order food. That would mean going downstairs, saying hello to the porter, talking to the delivery boy. I’d have to change out of my pajamas and slippers. I’d rather cook for myself. I put water on to boil and drop some dried pasta into it. The best brand. Before she left Claudia told me which was best at the supermarket.
Always buy these. They’re a little more expensive, but they taste homemade.
I put a couple of cloves of garlic on the table and crush each with the blade of the knife. Again, they make a noise that would be a soundman’s dream.
The telephone rings.
Just a moment, someone wants to speak to you, says a woman’s voice.
Then another voice comes on the line and asks if I am who I am. I say yes, that’s me.
Wait a moment, I’ll put you through, they say.
I wait, and a third voice appears. This one also belongs to a woman. Again, she asks if I am who I am.
You’re a writer? the voice asks.
I say that I am.
The minister of culture wants to speak to you, she says.
Yes, to you.
Can you come to the ministry tomorrow?
Any time in particular?
Any time between nine and twelve would be fine.
I’ll come by tomorrow, I say and hang up.
There’s a new minister. I didn’t know the previous one – he was fired recently – and I don’t know this one either. I call a friend to ask her about him. She doesn’t know him either. Apparently, no one knows who he is. My friend says she’ll try to get some more information, but I don’t hear from her again.
The minister has been called to an urgent meeting. They show me to a sunken chair to wait. Forty-five minutes later he arrives with a lot of files under his arm. He’s sweating, and his shirt is coming out of his trousers. He introduces himself, shows me into his office and tells the woman, whose name is Elsa, to bring me a coffee.
Elsa, a coffee for the young gentleman, he says, and then he looks at me.
You write, don’t you?
A pleasure, the minister says and stretches out his hand. I’ve heard good things about your work.
Thank you, I say.
The minister wants to inject some new energy, to bring in new people and encourage the exchange of ideas. Since his appointment, he has been working on a project called Crossover. He’s bringing together artists from different generations and disciplines to make works between the two of them. He’s setting up pairings. A young painter with an old writer. An old musician with a young actor. He’s looking for established artists from the province and is having them interact with young, promising talents.
You’re a young talent. We’ve suggested that you work with Gripa Castellano, the choreographer.
Then he asks if I know Gripa. She’s one of the artists from the seventies who went into exile in Europe, had some success there and then came back in the mid-eighties. All I know about her is that she’s famous. I suppose that I must have seen her around, but I can’t put a face to her name. It seems that Gripa is going to adopt one of my stories for a ballet. The minister says that Gripa wants to meet me as soon as possible. I need to bring my book with me because when she asked for it at El Ateneo bookshop they didn’t have it.
He gives me the number of Gripa’s assistant. I’m to call her to arrange a meeting.
You’ll get a fee, he says. Two hundred pesos. How does that sound?
That sounds fine.
Have you got your paperwork in order? Can you invoice officially?
Yes, I can.
Great. It’s been a pleasure, says the minister. He stands up and holds out his hand again. Good luck with Gripa. I’ll see you on opening night.
As soon as I’m out of the office, I call the number on the piece of paper he gave me. I say my name and explain that I need to talk to Gripa about the Crossover project.
Chub, is that you? a woman asks. No one has called me Chub in years. It was my nickname at secondary school.
Who is this? I ask.
Angelita Marolier. Don’t you remember me?
I try to scour my memory, but I come up blank. I apologize and say that I don’t.
Angi, Angi Marolier, you must remember. You’ll know me when you see me. Come over right now.
Gripa is rehearsing, but she’s going to take a break soon. Come over and we’ll talk.
Angelita gives me an address on the outskirts of town: a community centre. She tells me that Gripa often sets her pieces in non-traditional spaces and that right now she’s working in a slum. I take the bus, ride it for an hour and a quarter and get out where they tell me to. There’s a eucalyptus tree and a slope. At the bottom of the slope is a river, and the slum is on the other side. A garbage-filled wasteland with a horse and plastic bags occupies the space between the river and the slum. On this side of the river an evangelist chapel sits underneath another eucalyptus tree, and next to it is a breeze-block shed with a zinc roof and a metal sheet for a door. This is the community centre. I knock on the door and am met by a large woman filling out a form.
I’m looking for Gripa, I say.
The woman has no idea what I’m talking about.
The people from the ballet, I say.
Oh, the dancers! Down at the river, she tells me. Come on, I’ll walk you down.
Angelita! shouts the woman from the embankment behind the house. Angelita! The guy you were expecting is here.
I look down. On this side of the river, close to the water, a wooden platform has been built about a metre and a half above ground. On top of it is a circle of people. A crowd of kids from the slum are staring up from below. Someone waves to me to come down.
I walk down the path the woman shows me.
Put your hand on the ground so you won’t fall.
Angelita comes up to meet me. She’s wearing jeans, rubber boots and a hand-knitted sweater that’s a little tight on her. Her hair is loose. She’s about five or six months pregnant. She gives me a hug as though we were old friends. It lasts a little longer than it should. Then she steps back, looks me up and down and says, Chub! You’re so thin. How much weight did you lose?
Ten, twelve kilos, I say automatically, without thinking. Then I’m angry with myself. I’m talking to a stranger. I’ve never seen her before in my life.
I ask her how she knows me, and she says that she was a friend of my brother’s when my brother studied here and that she once came to a party we held on the roof terrace above the flat on Calle Independencia. She can remember the flat’s exact address. It’s true that my brother and I lived there for a few years, but we never had a party on that terrace. You weren’t even allowed onto the terrace in that building.
Gripa is in the middle of a motivational speech. Angelita tells me that she hates to be interrupted at times like this, but it’ll be over in five minutes. We wait at the foot of the stage. The kids from the slum are watching the goings-on on stage very closely, even though nothing’s happening. It’s just a group of people standing in a circle, talking. I can’t hear what they’re saying. The air smells of smoke and putrid mud. A bonfire is burning in the wasteland on the other side of the river. Close to the shore, a cement block sticks out from the water, and iron rebars stick out from it in their turn. A cormorant is sunbathing on the small island, its wings held open to dry.
Angelita tells me that they’re rehearsing a new choreography. Gripa wants to draw inspiration from poverty, which is why they’ve set up the stage there.
But not material poverty, Angelina tells me, spiritual poverty. You know? Inside and out, the two are related. They reflect one another. The slum is a metaphor, you know?
Her face radiates sweetness, and both her hands are on her belly. The wind is blowing her hair around, and from time to time she has to brush a lock out of her eyes.
On opening night we’re going to rent a coach so people feel safe. And there’ll be lights everywhere. Gripa wants to put lamps on each side and spotlights in the river. And one big one, the kind with a moving beam, to light up the slum. We want the effect to be like spies, or fugitives, as though the light was trying to illuminate someone trying to escape. It’s another metaphor. Gripa thought of it. It’s going to look great. We’ll make a staircase with ropes for banisters so people can come down the slope. It’ll be lined with torches.
The circle of people on stage breaks up. The dancers disperse, drink water, stretch their legs and practise different moves. A fat woman in an orange-and-fuchsia tunic with large batik circles comes down the ramp at the side. Her hair is carrot coloured. I expected her to be much smaller, skinny, a dry, frugal former dancer, but I know that this is Gripa. She hugs me and her hug lasts longer than normal too. She smiles.
Good to meet you, she says. It’ll be a pleasure to work with your texts. Did you bring me the book? I couldn’t find it anywhere.
I have. I look for it in my backpack and give it to her.
Gripa flicks through the pages. She reads the title of one of the stories and looks at the cover image.
As soon as I’m done with this I’ll start work on yours, she says and hands the book to Angelita. Then she apologizes.
Thank you for coming, she says. She kisses me again before heading back up to the stage. A dancer helps her up the ramp, and Angelita tells me that Gripa has been having trouble with her left knee for some time now. Then she asks if I need to call a taxi.
I tell her that I don’t; I’ll take the bus home.
Time passes. They finish building the block of flats in the middle of the street. Slowly, people begin to move in. They cover the windows in different coloured curtains. From what I can tell from the balcony, most of them are students. In the first week there was only one light; it came from one of the flats on the ninth floor. A kid was walking around the flat naked. He came out to the balcony to eat. I watched him and wondered how it would feel to sleep alone in a brand-new empty building.
The blinds are still down in the old couple’s flat. No one has come by to water the plants, and they’re drying in their pots.
The architect’s hand still smokes, very occasionally, late at night.
One morning the phone rings. It’s Angelita. She says that they’ve started to rehearse the new ballet, the one based on one of my stories.
Gripa wants you to see it. Can you come by? she asks.
I say that I can. Monday is my day off.
Great. In the basement at the Caraffa Museum. How’s two, two-thirty sound? Tell the guy at the door that Gripa invited you so you can get in without paying.
I have some lunch and go out. I get there at quarter past two. I walk up to the security guard and tell him that I’ve come to see the rehearsal. He tells me to talk to the girl at the desk. The girl doesn’t even know that someone is working in the basement.
I’m new, she says apologetically.
After trying to call her boss, who doesn’t answer, she dials another number and waits. I watch her a little more intensely than one should. The girl starts to get anxious and dials another number.
Are you sure they’re working in the basement? I’m calling and no one’s answering, she says.
Then the museum doors open and a group of nursery-school kids comes in. The boys are wearing coats with blue and white squares; the ones for the girls are pink and white. The teacher is wearing a headband with two antennae finished off with pom-poms that bounce when she moves. The antennae are just like the ones the Chapulín Colorado wore, but green. A couple of mothers have come along to help with the outing. The children form two rows, but when one gets to the staircase he shouts, and they all start to run. The mothers try to calm them down while the teacher with the green antennae comes over to the desk to occupy the attention of the girl at the ticket counter. She has a letter, shows it to the girl and reads a few paragraphs out loud. Meanwhile, the security guard talks on his radio to the other guards and, surrounded by nursery-school children, uses his body to shield a white-marble sculpture. In his light-blue shirt, navy-blue tie and movie-policeman’s cap he looks like a skinny giant standing in the middle of a crowd of ordinary humans who barely come up to his hip. The kids ignore him and stroke the marble with their little hands.
The sculpture is of a naked woman hugging a fish. The kids touch her breast and start saying booby, booby, booby, booby. Then one says vagina, and they all start a chorus of booby, vagina, booby, vagina, booby, vagina, again and again. Then they add bottom and go on. Booby, vagina, bottom. Booby, vagina, bottom. Booby with vagina with bottom. Bottom with boobies. Vaginabooby. The mothers scold them, but they’re ignored.
Willy! shouts a short, very blond boy.
Willy with booby with vagina with bottom, the others chorus.
I slip away and head down the stairs to the basement. It’s deserted. You can’t hear the screams of the nursery-school kids any more. I walk down some hallways with concrete walls. Pipes run along the ceiling, gurgling every now and again. Running water.
Angelita? I call, but no one answers.
I come to a lit room with white walls. In the centre is a table covered with paint pots, brushes, pliers and different-sized magnifying glasses. The smell of acetone burns my nostrils. Someone has left a half-finished cup of tea on the table. About a dozen fluorescent lights buzz from the ceiling.
Angelita? I call again.
I go back out into the hallway and walk to the other end, passing a bathroom with a leaky tap, an empty office and a packet of half-eaten biscuits on a table. At the end is a staircase going down. I think I can hear sounds down there. The staircase has landings. I stop at the second to rest, listening. I think I can hear Gripa’s deep voice.
I open a door and find a large empty space with a high ceiling and cement walls. Four large columns hold up the roof. I see people sitting on some chairs in the dark. The only light comes from a corner lined in semi-transparent plastic like a large, plastic aquarium. The dancers are moving around inside.
Gripa is walking among them, leaning on a cane. She’s marking time.
I see Angelita sitting on the chairs. Her profile has changed. She’s fatter. She’s watching events inside the aquarium closely. I tap her on the shoulder, and when I do I realize that she didn’t hear me come in. I might have startled her. But Angelita turns slowly, as though she can’t bear to take her eyes off the dancers. She doesn’t seem surprised.
You came, she says. She waves to me to sit down, then turns back to the lit area. Behind the plastic, the dancers are walking around the stage holding large blocks of wood up high. They’re moving slowly, turning the pieces of wood in their hands, holding them up as though they were an offering. At first, I think they’re naked, but then I realize that they’re wearing flesh-coloured suits. It’s very quiet; the only sound is Gripa’s voice.
One, two, three, four. Good, again. Go back to your places.
The dancers run quickly back and start again. Their strides are long and graceful, their backs arched.
Angelita turns to look at me. Her eyes are full of tears. She smiles.
Isn’t it beautiful? she asks.
I say it is, although I’m not really sure.
What does it feel like? How does it feel to see this and know that you helped to create it, that it came from one of your books?
I don’t know what to say. Blocks of wood don’t feature in any of my stories, neither does a plastic aquarium or half-naked dancers.
Which story did she choose? I ask.
No idea. Gripa lent me your book, but I didn’t have time to read it. She liked it a lot.
But you don’t know which story she adapted?
She didn’t say. All of them I think. Gripa works with sensations.
Oh, I say. I don’t have anything to add.
Angelita turns back to the aquarium. Gripa has stopped the action again. The dancers go back to their places and start over. They repeat what they did before. They cross the stage diagonally, contorting their bodies with blocks of wood raised over their heads.
This is the second part, Angelita explains. The first part is a performance recorded on video projected onto the plastic while the guys dance inside. Would you like to see it?
I tell her that I would, and Angelita rummages in a large leather bag. It takes her a while, but in the end she takes out a small video camera. She turns it on and opens a screen to the side.
It was filmed here, she explains. During the piece it’s going to be projected onto the plastic in the same place where it was filmed so that the spaces match up. The filmed columns will be superimposed over the real ones and won’t look as though they’re projected. The idea is for the dancers to be like ghosts or spectres, you know? The film will interact with the dancers.
I say that I understand; it’s a good idea.
Angelina rewinds the tape and passes me the camera.
You press this button for play and this for stop.
On the small screen of the video camera I see the same rectangular space, the cement and a patch of damp in the corner. A naked bulb is hanging centre stage. There’s only one spotlight. I immediately think it’s a reference to Bacon. I’ve never seen a painting by Bacon in person, I’m only familiar with him from pictures in books, but he’s one of my favourite painters, and I’m glad to see him there.
A dancer comes in from one side. This time there’s no doubt about it: he’s naked. Another dancer comes in from the other side, she’s naked too. They meet in the middle. The man is carrying a shotgun. They both stand very close together, looking at the camera. Then we hear a noise, and a pig appears. Someone has let it in from outside. The aquarium space is closed, and the pig is running around the sides. The pair of dancers stand very still in the centre. The pig is large and black. Suddenly the dancer aims his shotgun and fires. The speaker on Angelita’s camera buzzes. The sound of the shot was very loud. The pig runs around in desperation. The female dancer hugs the man’s back, protecting herself. The dancer shoots again. The pig howls in pain and lets out a high-pitched squeal that overloads the speaker again. The female dancer takes more cartridges from a cloth bag hanging around her neck and passes them to the other dancer, who reloads, aims and fires again. The pig starts to bleed and leaves a trail on the ground. It runs more slowly and bumps into the wall at the back. The outline of its body is pressed against the cement in blood. At one point, it turns to face the two dancers. For the first time, the female dancer screams for real. But the male dancer shoots the pig again in the head, and it falls to the ground. More or less in the centre of the aquarium. Then the female dancer takes a small knife out of her bag and sticks it into the pig’s neck. Blood begins to gush out. The dancer hugs the body and starts to howl in grief. The male dancer stands in a martial pose right behind the dead pig. He doesn’t look at the body. He looks straight ahead with cold eyes. To one side of the screen, eight dancers come in, dressed in black. One is carrying a pneumatic drill. He turns it on and starts to break up the cement floor in the centre of the aquarium, in front of the pig. The drill makes a horrifically loud noise that dominates the scene. The other dancers are carrying shovels. While the drill breaks up the floor, the dancers dig in the soil underneath. It’s a grave. It takes them twenty minutes to finish. Then they all pick up the pig and throw it into the grave. The naked dancer is covered in red. A mixture of blood and tears drips from her hair. The naked male dancer stays in position, completely still. The female dancer screams in heart-wrenching pain. She stretches out her hand. She doesn’t want to be parted from the dead pig, but the first shovel-loads of soil are already dropping on top of it. As they fill in the grave, more dancers come in from the other side. They’re pushing a wheelbarrow of fresh cement. They pour it onto the earth and smooth out the floor. Then they leave. The last to go is the naked male dancer who never looks at the pig or the grave.
Did you like it? Angelita asks when I give back the camera.
I don’t know what to say.
Did they really kill it? I ask.
Yes, of course. We drugged it a little before it came in so it wouldn’t hurt the guys. But still, as you saw, it tried to attack them.
And you buried it there? It’s down there right now? As I ask I peer through the plastic into the centre of the aquarium. The spot where the grave is can be clearly seen. The cement is a different colour, lighter.
It’s down there, Angelita says. It was very important to Gripa that it be real and for the spectator to come to the realization gradually. Ever since we killed the pig, this place has been different. It has another feel; it’s charged.
Are you sure that this is based on my book? I say. There aren’t any pigs in my book.
The pig isn’t a pig. It’s a symbol, Angelita explains.
What does it symbolize?
Something from your book. Gripa read it.
The museum people let you do this? It’s crazy. You’ve buried a pig down there.
Gripa is friends with the director. He loved the idea. He saw immediately how important the burial was. He read your book too. He liked it a lot.
I see, I say.
Inside the aquarium the dancers are still holding the wooden blocks. They’re throwing them in the air. Gripa is encouraging them to throw harder and harder.
Do you want me to call Gripa so you can talk to her? Angelita asks me.
No, don’t worry. I have to go. I’ll come by another day.
We rehearse here on Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoons. Come by whenever you like.
I leave. From up above I hear the shrill voice of a guide talking to the nursery-school children.
The guard doesn’t look at me as I pass him on my way out.
A week later I see the news in the Arts and Entertainment section in the newspaper. Not a long article. The minister of culture has been fired. The next day a letter appears in The Voice of the Interior. The former minister says that he wasn’t fired, he resigned. I call the ministry. They say that for the moment all activities have been suspended. I ask about the Crossover project specifically, and they say that it’s suspended too.
I call Angelita on her mobile. She doesn’t know what’s going to happen. For the moment Gripa has stopped the rehearsals and has started to work on a new ballet that she wants to hold at the airport.
In the arrivals hall? I ask.
No, says Angelita, on the runway. We’re negotiating. It doesn’t look like there’s going to be a problem. Let me find out what’s going on with this Crossover thing, and I’ll let you know, she says.
I don’t hear any more about it. I call Angelita again, and a woman’s voice answers. I ask for her, and she says that Angelita is in the hospital; she can’t come to the phone because she’s just had her first baby. For a moment I think that the voice belongs to Gripa.
Gripa, is that you? But she’s hung up.
The Crossover project is definitively suspended. The fees for the work haven’t been paid because the budget for the project was never approved.
I let a couple of months pass and dial Angelita’s number again. A pre-recorded, metallic voice tells me that the number is out of service.
The old couple in the flat opposite never came back from their holidays. They’ve been replaced by a young couple. For a few days, I thought that they were the old couple’s grandchildren because the furniture remained the same. Then, one afternoon, a removals van came and wrapped everything up, even the pots with their dry plants. The next day the new arrivals brought their things. Modern furniture, cream sofas, a steel-and-glass table, a painting with a large green splodge. The guy leaves early every morning in a suit and tie; the girl sleeps in. She gets up and walks around the flat in her nightdress. She reads magazines until the man gets back. At night they watch TV. I see the blue reflection from the screen on the bedroom wall.
The flat below is still empty. There are more and more pigeons.
I learn from the newspaper that Gripa is going to hold her ballet at the airport. There aren’t going to be many performances, and they’ll be at strange hours when there’s no air traffic. I find it hard to get tickets. I send an email to someone I know at the culture section asking if he has any. He doesn’t answer, so I call him. He’s a little thrown because we haven’t spoken in years. He could have lied, but I caught him off-guard. He sends me two tickets. I invite a friend who cancels at the last minute, so I go alone. At the airport a light aircraft is parked in the middle of the runway. In front of it are a hundred folding chairs set out in rows. They have us sit there. The lights go down, and the show starts.
A girl comes running out of the darkness at the back of the runway. She’s carrying a torch. She runs around the plane a couple of times and then lights a pyre in front of a propeller. The fire grows in the darkness. Nothing happens for a while, and we all stare at the fire, expectantly at first, then bored, or moved, or whatever. When it’s almost gone out, the lights come on again. A crowd of dancers in skin-tight black outfits surrounds the plane. Each of them has blocks of wood raised above their heads. A caravan of women covered in dark shrouds comes in from the left. They’re pushing a wheeled cage. Inside the cage is a black pig. I can guess what’s going to happen next. In this version, instead of burying the dead pig, the dancers shove it into a coffin and push it up a ramp into the plane’s hold. Then, either side of the runway, two rows of red lights come on. A pilot appears and gets into the cockpit, starts the engines and points the nose to the north. The dancers escort it until it’s in place, then they move away. The plane accelerates down the runway, takes off and soars into the night. Its roar gradually fades until it’s lost in the wind and the plane has disappeared completely. All that is left on the asphalt is the cage in which they brought the pig, which is empty with its door hanging open. Gripa comes out, waving.
We all stand and applaud.
I held an unusually long reed in my hand and I dipped it as deep as I could into the river. It fell in and disappeared in front of me. I took my feet out of the water and stepped back a little, gripped by a powerful fear, which I recognized by the trembling of my hands. The river swallowing me up was a fear that had been with me ever since I heard Nanny Fanida’s story. She always retold the tale of a beautiful girl who just wanted to sleep for a little while in the river but drowned. Every time I saw the river when it was calm I would remember what my nanny had said: the river was at its most dangerous when it enticed you to sleep in its embrace.
I couldn’t play with the other children in our village, not when they tormented my beautiful friend every time they saw her. It was a sad day when I saw them fighting to be the one to seize hold of the ladybird. She had curled up her body until neither her head nor legs were visible. I rushed over to them and told them to let her go but they refused.
After that awkward day, I used to go out into the woods next to our house. The trees covered a large area and their thin twigs sprouted fresh shoots – I had never seen anything like them. I felt I was searching for that ladybird to prevent the village children from kicking her around every day. I really loved that tiny insect. I collected several of them in a big glass jar and put them on my balcony; I even brought them other insects to eat.
Now, I had made myself new friends of many different colours: red, yellow, orange – I liked the colour orange the most. I shut myself away with them in the boring evening hours that went by so slowly. Every evening, my father would put on his reading glasses and endeavour to keep them fixed on the tip of his nose. Then he would slowly peruse the newspapers, which used to arrive late in our village. He let out the most vitriolic curses and insults, followed by a loud grunt, which my mother always received with her usual composure. She had been doing embroidery for a long time and, in the next room, had built up several piles of headscarves – all the same colour but with different designs. (She did want some different colours but could not go into town to get them.)
I can still remember the clock striking eight, because I knew that after the eighth chime, my mother would call Nanny Fanida to put me to bed. I used to brush my teeth at four minutes to eight then rinse my mouth out with a handful of the sentences that my nanny used to repeat in those minutes before the clock struck eight, with its chimes that hammered in my chest every day. Once, I hid empty notebooks in my bedclothes, because I had begun to hate eight o’clock, the official time that announced the end of my childhood world around the house. I turned on the light and waited a while until any rustling had ended. Then, I got out my coloured pencils and began to draw pictures of my friend on the beautiful notebook. But, straightaway, my nanny came in to tell me that if I did not go to sleep she would lose her job. She put me back in bed at five past eight. That was the only time that I had the light on in my room past eight o’clock – for five minutes, or maybe a little more…
A few days later I put on my orange jacket with black spots, which I had gone to buy with my nanny in town. I loved that colour and I loved the way my friends wore it. My friends had got used to my balcony and had started to go away for a little while and come back, as if they knew it was their home. I got used to letting them climb up my finger and fly off on their little wings which helped them rise to the highest heights. They became closer to me once I had started to dress and even act like them. I would repeat this little song to them with all the kindness I could muster:
Laisse-moi compter tes vies sur tes ailes
Toi qui n’as jamais vu ta colère dis-moi
Dis-moi comment faire comme toi 1
The next night I couldn’t sleep, despite the darkness and constant chiming of hours. I could still hear the words of the children echoing loudly in my head. I could hear their laughs as they saw me wearing that jacket: “Ladybird … Ladybird … Ladybird.”
My mother did not notice me. She just stole glances at my father as she sewed her napkins, which had become so plentiful I could no longer count them; I don’t think my mother could either.
It was eight o’clock when my husband shouted for me at the top of his voice. I didn’t want to answer him at that precise moment. I took my feet out from under the covers to combat the anxiety attacks that I slipped into whenever the clock struck eight. I hoped that I would not see him until the heart palpitations had subsided and I had finished the subsequent rituals. I have got used to these secret rituals. Now, I even do them without realising. Sometimes Nanny Fanida would appear to me, holding her pink towel to dry and rub my body. She would say in her soft voice: “Your body is getting bigger. You have become a beautiful young woman.”
But my father saw the insects flying about on the balcony. That was the moment he changed his usual evening routine. He went up to my room to discover the glass jar where those beautiful creatures were living. He shouted in the nanny’s face, “The daughter of the best family in the village is breeding these stupid insects…”
My nanny swallowed her words so far down that I thought she might never speak again. He called the gardener and told him to burn the insects so that they would never again come back to the house. Then he settled his reading glasses on their usual place and sank into his newspapers. But the gardener did not burn my friends, he just put them back in the fields. “They are all of our friends,” he told me, “because they eat the insects that destroy our crops. I put them back in the fields.”
A few days later Nanny Fanida felt giddy and almost fainted. So, I called her over so I could surprise her with a ladybird; I had drawn them in many different ways. The orange colours shone out in the night and eased my moments of fear in the overwhelming darkness. Little by little the colour returned to Nanny Fanida and she was no longer faint. She tried to make up excuses to prevent my mother coming up to my room.
My husband was waiting for me, wondering where I was, as he put his black gloves on the bedside table. He had just come back from hunting, which had been a serious hobby of his for a while. He would go out at the same time in the afternoon, wearing the same clothes, with the same friends who talked about the same wealth that their fathers had managed to accumulate through devoted hard-work, unceasing perseverance, and honest toil. They smoked black cigarettes, wore black hats and put black glasses over their eyes to protect them from the sun. Then they would hunt beautiful animals. They had no need to eat them and, most of the time, they hunted them only to discard their bodies on a piece of wasteland. They competed with each other, speaking in well-rehearsed words with tightly drawn lips.
My husband stroked my stomach with total calm. His well-trimmed moustache trembled a little. That was the sign that let me know he wanted something. His manner was calm, emotionless. I longed to be able to scream or laugh so loud that the neighbours would hear me. But my husband was as precise as the American watch that he hadn’t stopped talking about since he visited the USA. He would treat me every evening to the same, repeated stories that had helped him discover the world that lay far beyond our eyes. That was his prelude to the heated rituals of cold nights.
I curled up into a ball… In my belly, there were some rumblings around my intestines. I wished that I could bring my beautiful insects from my little old room. They were still there. My father had left them on the wall after I had begged him not to make them leave the room. He gave a humdrum laugh and said, “OK, I’ll leave them, seeing as you are the only daughter we have. But we will remember your silliness and laugh about it some evening.” Then he laughed heartily; my mother also laughed with well-trained effort and she pulled her mouth into a little smile. My father complimented her and the way she had raised me.
I could not avert my eyes from his strong forearms. He hid his own beautiful eyes because he was too shy to look a woman in the face. One day, I began to insist that he looked straight at me when he was talking to me. His eyes were enchanting; I hoped that they would never blink. At that moment, I felt confused about everything. The world was spinning around me. I rushed into my room and grabbed a piece of paper to draw those eyes. He was very close to my friends. He looked like me, even if I was far removed from him.
That night, I could not sleep. My husband saw my anxiety and, with his usual calmness, tried to absorb all the emotions I had bottled up inside me. But it was him I saw with me. I retraced the map of his rough arms, until I felt I was touching him. That day I followed him. He was running between the trees. When he saw me, he was confused. He said to me: “What does the lady command?”
I gave him a look of passion and he looked down at the ground, shyly. I grabbed his arm and placed my hand on his lips. I felt the violence hidden within him – something ready to explode inside. I began to run my lips along his and he did not resist. He grabbed me with all the force that I craved and enveloped me in his strong arms until I melted. That was the only moment that I have ever felt that I truly existed on the face of this small earth. His embrace was strange. I had never felt any like it in real life before, I had only dreamed of it. I said to myself: “What matters is that I have experienced this feeling, even if it was only for a minute.” Afterwards, he looked at me with fear, as if he had kissed me without knowing it. I put my hands on his lips and intimated to him not to speak. I had only been with him for a few minutes, but those minutes would never disappear.
I took my cold feet out of the depths of the river and laughed, then screamed. Everyday, I go back to my house and, once sleep has caressed my husband’s eyelids, for a while I curl up into a ball.
Nature is a haunted house — but Art — is a house that tries to be haunted.
-Letter excerpt, Emily Dickinson, 1876.
Chilled Autumn air settled over me, the dryness of it tickling my lungs. I walked down the dirt path, overtaken by tree roots and layered with crisp, fallen foliage. I kept my head down and shoulders hunched for most of the walk, searching for the leaves that would make the most satisfying crunch when I stepped on them. When I removed my hands from my coat pockets the harshness of the air prickled my fingers.
I finally brought my head up and evened out my posture. The cemetery gate was slightly askew, silently enticing me to enter. The people buried here didn’t have many visitors anymore, the most recent year on any gravestone was 1850. Nature had reclaimed the forlorn cemetery as her own—some headstones had toppled over, and most had become overgrown and faded. On one evening visit with my sister Louise, we saw forget-me-nots placed over one of the graves. I searched for clues of their origin, but the inscription on the headstone did nothing but further my curiosity. Like most, it was almost completely deteriorated, only visible to those who looked.
1780 – 1813. AGED 33.
No last name. Nothing about her family, the life she lived, or who she was. Years have passed since I saw the forget-me-nots on Abigail’s grave, and I still wonder if or when the flowers will appear again.
I walked about the cemetery, collecting the brightest botanicals I could find. I recalled their scientific names from a grade school expedition: acer rubrum, monarda didyma, lobelia cardinalis. I used a long piece of switchgrass to tie my makeshift bouquet together, and held it up to the sun, admiring how the crimson edges burned in the light—before placing it over Abigail’s grave. Autumn whipped up another bluster of brisk air, and I turned and exited the cemetery as the wind echoed at my back.
On my way home, I was joined by Prince, the shaggy black Maine Coon that occasionally accompanied me on my walks. His coat was dusty. Leaves clung to his belly, and tufts of fur stuck out from under his ears, but he walked with regality. And why should he not? It was his kingdom, and I was merely an inhabitant.
“Hello, your highness. How are you today?” I asked him, with the air of respect one of royal lineage deserved. I often kept treats in my coat pocket as tribute to his rule.
Prince stopped walking, looked up at me, slowly blinked, then continued on. It was his usual response, but it still warmed my heart each time he did it.
When I got home, Louise was sitting in her usual spot by the window. Her shoulders were slouched forward and she held her volume of Edgar Allan Poe short stories too close to her face.
“Why don’t you wear your glasses?” I asked as I kicked my shoes under the bench.
“Hey Beatrice, how’s the dead lady?” Louise said without looking up.
“She misses you.”
Louise looked up and rolled her eyes. “You’re so weird,” she said, her voice cracking slightly as she tried to hold back a laugh.
“Why don’t you come with me anymore?”
Louise dog-eared the page she was on, and tossed her book onto the cushion next to her, “It’s probably haunted.”
“I don’t think so,” I said, “but don’t you like haunted places?”
“I don’t like cemeteries.”
“Guess what?” I said, changing the subject. “The historical society finally approved my research request. I got the key.”
“Can I come?” Louise asked, almost jolting off the couch.
“Nope, just me.”
Louise scrunched up her face, annoyed.
“I’m kidding, of course you can come,” I said.
When Louise and I were young we would always stop to peek in the windows of what we called “the castle in the woods” on our way home from school. It was never really a castle, and we knew it, but there was something exciting about imagining that it was. I used to lift her up so she could see the antique furniture covered in white sheets like eerie specters.
“Those are ghosts,” I’d tell her. “They stay still like that when we look in the windows because they’re shy.”
“Stop it, I’m not stupid,” she’d say, wiggling until I put her down.
When the most recent owners died, almost a century ago, the house was left to the town, who let it fall into disrepair. For a while, it was considered a dilapidated eyesore by many, and at one point, we were afraid it would be demolished—I was relieved when the town
historical society finally started paying attention. A researcher was hired and there was talk about converting it into a museum, but progress had halted in recent years.
The afternoon of our visit to the house was foggy and wet. The air clung to my skin and the leaves that had been crisp and dry the day before stuck to the pavement in clumps. Louise and I walked in silence together, watching the birds patter on the sidewalk as they searched for stranded worms. About halfway through our walk, we were joined by Prince, who greeted us by nuzzling his head against our legs.
We turned the street corner and the house came into view. It looked less like a castle than
I remembered, but seeing it again gave me chills. The chipping paint I remembered was stripped away, the result of recent preservation work. The windows, however, were the same— they still evoked the intrigue I had felt since childhood.
Louise gently tugged my arm. “This is it,” she said, and I sensed a hint of wonder in her
The key I was given opened a side door of the house. I felt a nervous pang in my heart as I realized a dream from my adolescence was about to become a reality. I hoped the house wouldn’t disappoint that inner part of me.
“Sorry, my friend, you have to wait outside,” I said to Prince, whose eyes revealed that he
was planning to follow us.
Prince cocked his head to the side, and I took a treat out of my pocket to give to him. Louise and I went inside, leaving poor Prince on the steps, crunching on his snack.
We entered into a narrow hallway. The walls were plastered with mustard wallpaper, and every few inches, there was a mounted electric candle. We were only steps down the hallway when Louise released a horse-like exhale as if she had gotten something in her mouth. When I turned towards her, she was swatting around her face with her hands.
“You okay?” I said.
“I think I just walked through a spiderweb,” she said.
“But I’m in front of you and I didn’t walk through anything.”
“Beatrice, that’s just what it felt like, I don’t know.”
I kept walking, and for a brief moment, I thought I felt Louise standing close behind me. I took a small step forward and a glint of gold in the design of the yellow wallpaper caught my eye. Gilded flowers merged together into halos, encasing miniature scenes portraying the Roman myth of Diana. One hand rested on her quiver, the other shielded a young fawn—her crescent moon diadem illuminated in the incandescent candlelight. My attention was drawn away from the wallpaper when I felt a distinct tap on my shoulder. I turned around, but Louise wasn’t there.
“Louise?” I called out.
“I found something,” Louise answered from another room.
“Where are you?”
“In the basement.”
“The basement?” I asked, Why?”
“I was curious. Come on.”
I thought I followed Louise’s voice, but found myself in what must have been the parlor, face to face with a portrait of a young woman hanging above the fireplace mantle. Her features
were soft, she was beautiful, yet something about her was drenched in sadness. The subject
simultaneously looked dead and alive. Her skin had a pink tinge, and her hair framed her face
with ease— her eyes, her eyes were flat, with no glimmer of life in them. A panging misery
hung over me and made its way to the pit of my stomach as I peered into the portrait’s eyes. The bottom of the frame read “Mrs. Elijah Scott.”
“Beatrice?” I heard Louise say.
“I’ll be there in a second,” I called back, prying my eyes away from the painting. I
hesitated before turning away.
I walked down the hallway until I came across the open basement door. The basement was well lit with a harsh LED glow, and there were a few worn chairs arranged around an obtrusive metal desk. On the desk was a haphazard pile of papers, files, and manilla envelopes.
“There’s a bunch of information about the house in here,” Louise said while squinting at
We skimmed through the weighty binder, flipping through pictures and descriptions of the house’s collections: dining room chairs, the grandfather clock in the parlor, a taxidermied owl—a black and white photograph caught my attention.
I flipped back to the page. It was the painting I saw upstairs. Underneath, a small
“Abigail Scott was chronically ill for a majority of her life, and spent most of her time confined to her room. She married the inheritor of the house, Elijah Scott, and died in 1813 at the age of thirty-three.”
I was stunned. This was where she lived. This was her home. “I saw her upstairs,” I said,
still staring down at the page.
I felt a light tap on my shoulder along with a cold brush of air, followed by a faint voice—a gentle whisper.
When I turned around, Louise was standing behind me. Her face looked drained and
“I feel nauseous,” she said.
I put the binder in my tote bag, and we went outside. I would return it before we left, but for now, there was more I wanted to know. We sat on the front steps and the color returned to
Louise’s face after a few moments.
“You probably just needed to sit down. It was stuffy in there,” I said.
Louise and I ate some homemade ginger crinkle cookies I had packed in my bag. For a while we were comfortable outside, and I imagined what it was like in Abigail’s time. Prince sauntered over to us and purred while we ate. We took in the scents of the ginger, cinnamon, and nutmeg mixed with the damp fall atmosphere. Before we knew it, the sun had gone down and the temperature dropped so quickly we shivered. I took another nibble of my cookie and felt a cool droplet of rain hit my hand, signaling us to head back inside.
When I opened the door, Prince dashed in front of me, running into the house. Louise and I called out to him, but he was nowhere to be seen. All the lights inside were off except the electric candles on the walls. They cast a still, artificial glow down the hallway that somehow froze the past and the now in conjunction. There were no ever changing flickers of light and shadow, only stillness until a figure passed by, splashing a glint of life across the walls like a projected memory.
As we walked around the house in search of Prince, everything seemed odd—like walking through a dream. We found him in a small room furnished only by a sewing table.
“Silly kitty,” Louise said.
I walked over and patted Prince on the head.
“Can I see that binder?” Louise asked.
I took it out of my bag and handed it to her before scooping Prince up into my arms. We walked over to the window at the end of the room, and looked out. During daylight hours, I could imagine the perfect view of technicolor autumn tree leaves, but after sundown, all I could see was darkness seeping in from outside. It was cold, and I held Prince close to me, his long fur tickling my neck.
“It’s gotten dark, your highness,” I said, stepping closer to the window. “I think it’s time to go home.”
“This was Abigail’s room,” I heard Louise say.
As Louise spoke, I noticed something peculiar. The glass panes had words etched into them. I could feel my heart beating in my throat.
“Look at this,” I said, running a finger lightly across the glass and turning towards her.
Louise squinted, dug through her tote bag, and took out her glasses.
In the dim light, it was difficult to make out what the inscriptions said. The words were coarse, the handwriting scratchy and scrawled, done hurriedly, but with care. The clouds shifted in the sky and the moon briefly let in a flood of milky iridescence, teasing me as I attempted to make out the words to no avail. I imagined Abigail confined to her room, carving into the glass, perhaps with her diamond wedding ring, covering her work with the curtains when her husband came in—defiant, yet careful not to be caught. I could almost feel her presence as I stood where she would have. I crossed my heart and wished to set her free.
After we returned the binder to the basement, Louise walked in front of me as we went to
leave, cradling Prince in her arms. Abigail’s illusory presence followed us as we made our way
down the hall, and I made sure to walk by her portrait before we locked the house back up.
Abigail’s figure hung in the forlorn parlor, hovering above the emberless fireplace. I clicked off
The next day, Louise and I walked along the familiar path overtaken with roots and leaves. Prince greeted us at the cemetery gate, stretching out his front paws towards us, as though bowing. I placed the forget-me-nots over Abigail’s grave and rested my hand lightly over the
top, closing my eyes and breathing in the freedom of the forest. We sat in the grass, wanting to
be with her, with Abigail. The wind picked up, cold air rushing past us, and we walked home.
My cat is in the driveway, gnawing on fine bones. The rain has begun: a warm muzzled sound, large soft drips, not the rapid dark downpour of yesterday. Everything wet and green, sopping, soaking.
My cat comes in, sits on the desk where I write. His paw leaves a pale red print on the page. He wants to be scratched behind the ears, he splays himself belly up for extra attention. He thinks he lives a fine life and he does. Inside he is petted and catered to; outside he lives the secret life of a hunter.
Meat Eaters and Plant Eaters: my son has divided his dinosaurs into two collections, counts how many he has in each. Plant eaters are more pot-bellied we learn: huge stomachs to process all that scruffy plant material.
Meat Eaters are leaner, tougher, their bodies efficient hunting machines. My son likes the meat eaters best: their jagged teeth, fierce open jaws, arms outstretched for prey. He prefers predators to prey, words he’s recently learned.
But in the morning: “Mom? What is that? What did I step on?”
And I clean his bare foot and the rug, now blood-stained, of the gizzards our cat left behind during the night. My son stares at what I flush away. “Was it a mouse?” “Yes, I think so.”
It’s summer and the dead things are multiplying: mice, a chipmunk, and if we are very unlucky: a small bird, its downy feathers floating in the house for days, like milkweed seeds come to rest.
The cat has retired to the closet, kneads a sweater that’s fallen over the tips of shoes. The pawing sets him purring, and soon he is curled into himself to sleep away the day.
“Are we going to die?” We are brushing our teeth, a ritual my son performs reluctantly, especially in the morning. “Are we going to die?” he asks again.
“Yes, but . . . not for a long long long time, not for maybe 100 years . . .”
“NO! We’re not, we’re never going to die.”
Silence—we’re both thinking—and then the question again: “Are we going to die?”
I hesitate—he’s only five. “Yes, but . . .”
“NO!” and he pounds on my chest. What he doesn’t like he tries to pound right out of me. I know I need to talk to him about not hitting when he’s mad, but for now I take the pounds. I go soft, evasive. “Maybe we won’t die . . .” He must know I’m just saying that because he wants me to, I rationalize.
“Never. We’re never going to die.”
“Maybe . . .”
“Maybe means no. We’re not going to die.”
And that decides it. For now anyway. He’s off to his bedroom, where his dinosaurs are. Craaak! I hear them crashing into one another, the Tyrannosaurus charging the Triceratops, but the Triceratops has horns and a thick skin, he may be able to get away alive. The swift meat eater catches him by the back leg, his teeth sink in; he bites a huge chunk of Triceratops; the poor plant eater will slowly die.
“I’m just going to drink water,” my son tells me over lunch.
“And why is that?”
“Because if you drink water, you won’t die.”
I nod, wondering how he’s reached this conclusion,
then remember a book we read recently about the human body: we can live for so many days without food, but without water, we die. I pour another glass for him, glad that he prefers water to soda, at least for now.
From my window I catch sight of the cat outside. I watch him circle something in the tall grass. Quietly he paces, his circle tightening, closing in, and then quite suddenly he leaps, back arched. He’s got something— though I can’t see what—between his paws.
We find the something on the bathroom floor—this time abandoned, not eaten or opened, not even a bloody scar: a tiny brown field mouse, its tail a long wire. My son stares at it, watches as I gather it in a paper towel. “Is it alive? Are you going to let it go outside?” I nod, though I’m unsure whether it’s dead or just stunned. I take the small bundle downstairs to thrust out the back door under the bushes outside.
“Did it get away?” my son asks.
I tell him that it did, though I didn’t really see.
“Big plant-eating dinosaurs gulped down stones as they ate. The stones stayed in the gut, helping the stomach muscles grind leaves and twigs into a soft sticky stew of plants. Dinosaurs, such as Apatosaurus, could digest this stew more easily,” I read from the thick book we got from the library, All About Dinosaurs.
“Apatosaurus used to be Brontosaurus. Read about the meat eaters now, Mom.”
“Allosaurus had large eyes, nearly twice the size of those of the much bigger meat eater, Tyrannosaurus Rex. Above the eyes was a bony flap forming an eye ridge, possible to shade its eyes from the sun. Allosaurus had about 40 teeth in its upper jaw and 32 in its lower jaw. They were up to four inches long and their front and back edges were sharp and serrated, like steak knives, for slicing through flesh. As they wore out or broke, new teeth grew in their place . . .” I read on. The words do not seem to be putting my son to sleep; he’s alert, intent on processing anything new we might learn. Our cat slips into the room through the closet door. He’s found his way in, as he usually does, through the crawl space that leads through the attic, the attached garage, to the outside. He jumps onto the bed where we’re sitting, slinks past us, his fur brushing against us in turn, as he makes his way to the end. He kneads himself a warm spot, and soon he is curled into himself, purring softly. My son likes that his bed has become the cat’s favored resting spot.
“Shut the door Mom,” he tells me as soon as I close the book.
I do, and from the other side I hear him slip out of the bed I’ve tucked him into, slam the closet door closed, then slip back in between covers. Now the cat is trapped in the room—no secret passageway to the nightworld outside. Most likely he hasn’t realized this yet. I wonder how long he’ll indulge my son, tolerate his constant stroking. For now they lie, two warm bodies fitted into one another: one purring, one stroking, soon twitching and dreaming.
*Jessica Treat, “Meat Eaters & Plant Eaters” from Meat Eaters & Plant Eaters. Copyright ©2018. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of BOA Editions, Ltd., www.boaeditions.org.