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.
I don’t think we did go blind, I think we are blind, blind but seeing, blind people who can see, but do not see.
Saeed, drunk, opened the door. The rabbit hopped inside. The kicking started. Both were yelling.
“What are you doing here? It’s my place.” With that Saeed was violently booted out of the broken-down electric fridge…
This country has a specially powerful and high-voltage electricity supply. When you try to turn off the light the switches don’t work. Electricity, like air, is compulsory. An electric sun blazes night and day; there’s no such thing as a dim light. Lots of equipment is broken because there’s no way to repair it. Repairs mean turning something off, so the repairman doesn’t get an electric shock.
Buildings, houses, and hospitals take measures to make the light less bright when needed. To lower the lighting, hospitals put cardboard boxes painted black over light bulbs and nail them to the wall. In people’s homes, incandescent bulbs are covered with pieces of thick canvas or coarse black cloth, which put up the price of coarse black cloth.
Saeed was aggrieved at being kicked out of his house. He squatted on the ground slapping his right thigh.
It was me who cleaned up the house when that damn cat was sleeping in it. I kicked her out. My friend Sameer helped. He gave me some cleaning products and told me I had to clean the place up. I don’t understand how that blasted Qassim could steal my house so cynically. I’ll complain to the police. It’s my right, people, my right.
Qassim was my friend until a few days ago. What made him renege on our friendship? Where am I going to find another fridge on such a cold night? What have I done to deserve all this?
The rabbit of the pavements started wailing and sobbing. He tried to pull his faded dishdasha tight around his body to block the holes. He wiped away his tears and, suddenly, as if he had remembered something, he rubbed the tattoo on his right arm. A surge of long-lost warmth lit up his tears.
He crossed to the pavement opposite, to the café whose owner had forgotten to turn off the radio. The newsreader announced: “Parliament is due to vote tomorrow on the decision to allocate residential plots to government officials.” Saeed collected a few plastic bags strewn nearby. He gathered them into a ball, put it down as a pillow, and lay on the ground. He gave a sigh, relaxed, and dozed off. The sound of his shivering bones mixed with his snores. He laughed and guffawed in his sleep. Perhaps he was dreaming?
The crowds were getting ready to plant the seeds of their dreams on the journey ahead. Samar raced behind the beautiful rabbits. One of them disappeared into its burrow. The little girl cried as she waited for it to emerge. She lowered her head and peered into the rabbit hole between the trees in an effort to find it. One of her four rabbits was missing.
Seagulls flapped over the Tigris. The bridge opened its gates to a crowd of thousands: tender heads whose time for reaping had not yet come and heads heavy with worry and sorrows. O God, O Helper, O Champion of the downtrodden, grant us, the poor and deprived, our desire. Iman pulled up her dusty, old abaya and pushed the children, Ahlam, Omar, Mohammed, Zayd, and Ali in front of her: “Hold on to me, kids. The Lord calls, and we have to obey. Bab al-Hawaij, the one who grants, refuses no one.” The children move with the crowds towards the roadway.
Saeed woke in the morning. He roamed around Mutanabbi Street. Everybody was his friend, but he had no friends. Sameer, who worked in one of the bookshops, took pity on him and gave him a cup of tea and a piece of bread.
“I swear by the Tigris and the Euphrates – I don’t distinguish between them – Qassim robbed me while I was sleeping. I had some money and when I woke up it was gone. That wretch Qassim who stole my home.”
“Saeed, calm down. It’s Friday today. The day you make money. God will compensate you. We’ll find you somewhere else. Guess what? Yesterday a friend left you a new dishdasha and some food. You have to come with me and take a shower and put on your dishdasha.”
“Today’s a work day. If I wear a new dishdasha I won’t make any money. You’re my friend and I like you because you’re kind and don’t steal.” He was silent for a while then continued, “Listen, yesterday I went fishing with a friend. Whenever he lifted his line he’d catch a big fat fish, but always threw it back in the river. Whenever I lifted mine, I’d hook some weeds or Qassim al-Tanbouri’s torn-up shoe. I asked him why he was throwing the fish back. He said he only had a small pan for cooking fish and wanted one that fit.”
“Listen. I’ve got good news for you. They gave me 9 million dinars and I repaired my house after it fell down. But government officials ignore me and travel to Egypt or Syria or I don’t know where. They’re always travelling and dropping my case. Even though all the papers are in order I still owe them 3 million dinars!”
“You’re talking nonsense, Saeed. What strange things you’re coming up with today.”
“If you add jam, it becomes really delicious. Should I buy you some? Give me the money then, I don’t have any.”
Saeed moved off to perform his daily rituals. He started with the Tigris. He raised his hands, recited the Fatiha, cupped his right hand and filled it with water. He brought the water to his nose, kissed it, then tried to put it back. He touched the tattoo on his upper arm. He turned around and was annoyed as they passed. All he could do was shout in English, “Why you inside? Come here so I can have a souvenir photo with you.”
He leapt into the midst of the people with white skin and blue eyes and the few dark-skinned ones with them. They smiled warily at him, and he called out to Sameer, “Come here for God’s sake. Take a picture for me with your camera.”
Smiling, Sameer did what he was asked. Saeed, however, intended to hang the picture in the toilet after spitting all over it.
At last, Samar’s rabbit came out of its hole to play with his friends. The rabbit of Mutanabbi Street disappeared. Nobody knew exactly where to find him. He might be sitting in some corner drinking alcohol and weeping over his old love.
Iman, don’t forget to pray for me. Perhaps God will guide me to give up drinking. Perhaps Kadouri, the shop owner, will raise my day’s wages rather then threatening to get rid of me. Perhaps God will provide me some other work, better than that blasted Kadouri. You know I’m a great metal worker, but for the drink. I love drinking Iman, like I love you, a lot. Watch out for the children, and pray for me there. Ask for your wish. Go in through Bab al-Hawaij and tie this green ribbon onto the window lattice. Don’t forget. Let all our needs be known there. Believe me, the Imam Musa bin Jaafar really loves me. I feel he will intercede for me this time. Trust me. He knows I’ve never robbed anyone and that I love him a lot. God be with you now.”
The convoy of a well-known security official was passing and Saeed turned up. The official got out of his car and was immediately followed by a great many police officers. They crossed Mutanabbi Street towards the river. When they got closer, the rabbit ran quickly behind them repeating in a loud voice:
Long life! for I died after you
Spurn me as long as you wish
What remained of love in my heart
Went out forever with you.”
He closed his eyes and waved his hands, totally immersed in his singing. Some of the officers tried to block his path and prevent him walking behind them, but one of them said to another, “Leave him be. He’s just a beggar.” Saeed heard them: “Shut up. You shut up, not a word.” The officer ignored him, and he carried on singing.
“I fell in love with a girl thirty years ago, a beautiful Indian-looking girl from Basra. She was called Suheir Mohammed. I spotted her working at a ladies’ hairdressers and spent two and a half hours every day waiting for her to come out of her workplace just so I could watch her from afar. Then I confessed my love to her and we were in a relationship for a year and a half without me touching her. I swear by God Almighty, I didn’t touch her. She did once go with me to Zawraa Park, and I brought her kibbeh, but her family forced her to marry her cousin. Time has made today’s love stories horrible because men have become love fiends. They’re randy donkeys.”
That’s what Saeed told me. He gave off alcohol fumes, swaying so much he could hardly walk. He was quiet for a little then continued as if far away, “But Iman…”
His eyes filled with tears and his voice choked off. He looked away and vanished.
On Fridays, pilgrims head to Mutanabbi Street, casting stones at the Devil in their various ways. All the roads were blocked, because it was also time for pilgrims to head to the bridge that leads to Bab al-Hawaij. When the tunic of Uthman took the road to Mecca, the road to God, it started in Baghdad. Uthman’s tunic was also stoning the Devil.
What are you talking about? What Friday? What road? What bridge? It’s all out of context. Uthman was martyred millennia ago. Absolutely not, Uthman was martyred a few years ago! No! Uthman was a boy in first grade at the Tigris Primary School! Sameer is crying on the banks of the Tigris: You’re not Naathal, Uthman. You’re the shining star of Iraq floating on the river.
The rabbits preened their fur after the little girl had washed them with the finest shampoos and dressed them in coloured ribbons with coloured stones and a blue bead in the middle. When one of the rabbits bit a large carrot the little girl clapped in delight.
“Mama, please tell me what do constitution and demonstration mean? Why are people going out into the streets everywhere and holding up signs? I saw it on TV yesterday.”
“Oh darling, the people are demanding their right to a decent life in which they can have food, medicine, and security.”
The little girl Samar got lost in deep thoughts…
Sameer went with Saeed to get him cleaned up and put on his new dishdasha. Saeed refused to have his long hair cut.
“Kebab. Kebab. Today I won’t scrabble in the rubbish. I’m going to have kebab, just like a VIP.”
While he was eating, scalding water suddenly poured down on him. He screamed as terrific heat surged through his entire body. His lower limbs seemed to boil. The rabbit fell to the ground yelling and screaming, “Sons of bitches! Ow! Ow!”
His new dishdasha was torn. The food was spilled. The skin was stripped from his body, like a sheep being flayed. The rabbit’s pelt was all burned. Blood spurted. A large empty bucket lay there.
The little girl Samar clapped. Her rabbits had finally crossed the path she had drawn for them. She called it the bridge and they crossed it with ease.
Devotees scrambled to jump into the Tigris. A rumour had spread: a suicide bomber in the crowd. Panic ensued. New openings for longings were announced in the depths of the Tigris. Prayers drowned in the stampede before they reached their intended path. Clothes floated. The Tigris was dressed in black abayas. Shoes were scattered. Many cried out for help from the midst of the river: “Uthman, Uthman, save us, Uthman!”
Uthman jumped, followed by his friends. Shout clung to shout; abaya clung to abaya, until the weight became too much for Uthman. The rocks dragged him down. Was he chasing away the blackness? Did he want the surface of the Tigris to be pure white?
Iman and her little ones and thousands of others slept cared for by the shark of needs, until at last the surface of the Tigris became white with Uthman’s tunic. Sameer beat his chest and shouted, “Our agony… for the past thousand years, Uthman’s tunic has been floating on the Tigris.
“If I knew who burned me I’d burn down his house. What do they want from me? Do I own a royal palace? If they’d asked I’d have given them the dishdasha as a present rather than all that!”
Saeed was crying in pain. Sameer handed him ointments and medicine. Al-Jawahiri turned in his grave and emerged, pointing his finger at the Tigris: “O apoplexy of death, O tempestuous storm, O dagger of betrayal, O olive branch.”
The forensic department in Baghdad answered al-Jawahiri’s call, declaring days of mourning and opening refrigerated burrows for the rabbits that had drowned in the Tigris and the rabbits yet to be born, so that they could go home without kicking. Saeed continued to guffaw in his sleep despite his burns.
Samar tugged at the hem of her mother’s robe. “Mama, come and look at the rabbits, please come!”
Her mother moved towards the garden saying, “You are making a lot of demands these days, my dear.” She was taken aback to see the rabbits running in the garden. On their backs were pieces of paper tied on with coloured ribbons. Her mouth opened in shock and disbelief. She went closer to the rabbits and read the slogans scrawled on the pieces of paper:
— I want a big carrot
— I want a bunny to play with
— I want a bed to sleep in
— I love Samar a lot
Her mother burst out laughing. “What’s all this, Samar? A rabbit demonstration?” Then she clapped her hands together and said, “God preserve us. We have to get rid of these rabbits before you go mad. They’re all you ever think about.” Meanwhile the little girl was shouting …
Spring Will Come
I hate the world and I don’t want anyone to hate the world. Life is beautiful. Spring will come to Iraq, despite the autumn. He raised his palm towards the river and called, “Abu Ahmad, Abu Ahmad. Watch out, your boat is crowded with people. Take care, there are children on board.”
He touched his arm and smiled sadly to someone far away. He rolled up his ragged sleeve for me to look at the tattoo: a large heart with the names Iman, Zayd, Omar, Ahlam, Mohammed, and Ali written inside it.
Saeed left me and headed to the middle of Mutanabbi Street shouting, “I want a pillow! I’ve decided today I’m going to sleep on a pillow. I won’t sleep on the pavement. I want a pillow! I want a pillow!”
He laughed loudly when someone handed him a pillow. He threw it on the pavement, lay down, and put his head on it. He started to laugh and cry. “Life doesn’t deserve respect,” he said. “Only love.” He closed his eyes. He closed his eyes for ever.
Samar’s rabbits are still demonstrating in the garden, but this time they carry signs reading: “No relocation.”
 Bab al-Hawaij, literally the Gate of Needs, refers to the mausoleum of Musa ibn Jaafar al-Kadhim, the seventh Shia imam. Pilgrims visit to petition the Imam. His mausoleum is accessed by the Bridge of the Imams across the Tigris. In 2005, a stampede on the crowded bridge resulted in around 1,000 deaths.
 Abu al-Qassim al-Tanburi was a rich and miserly Baghdadi merchant who continually patched his shoes rather than buy a new pair. These shoes caused him much misery, imprisonment, and impoverishment. He finally had a legal document drawn up to exonerate him from any of the crimes committed by his shoes. For a version of the tale, see: http://www.knightsofarabia.com/arabian/001/arabian00009.html.
 Uthman’s tunic was the blood-stained shirt in which the third Caliph of Islam, Uthman ibn Affan, was murdered. The tunic was subsequently used by Mu’awiya to incite the people against Ali, whom he accused of being behind Uthman’s death.
 Naathal was a Jewish man who lived in Medina and who resembled Uthman. Uthman’s enemies called him Naathal to mock him and encourage people to kill him.
I made a request of no crying, for I had the grand task of handling the cat.
No crying, I said. Do whatever it takes to wait until I’ve gone.
He agreed to blame his contact lenses and to leave once I’d passed through security, but not before. Just in case the cat didn’t fly.
This cat can fly, I said. He will.
Like a superhero, he said. The sort of comment I could count on him for.
I said “this cat” to avoid saying “our” or “my.” That dog looks concerned. I had said this earlier as I stacked my bags by the door of that home. Don’t forget to water that plant.
This street is still asleep.
These neighbors haven’t woken yet, he said.
I looked at him and snort-laughed, swallowed stones. The cat curled drugged and dense inside the fabric carrier. I sought to bring him on the plane surreptitiously, to avoid explaining the fact of him. It could lead to talk of my oneway ticket. It costs eighty dollars each way to carry him aboard. Someone might say that up and back costs a pretty penny, and then what? I’d have to correct them. No no, just up. Then the panic might set in.
I was ready when the wide-belted woman by the metal walkthrough hollered that I must remove the animal from the carrier and walk him through. I had thought ahead and worn white because I knew I’d have to hold the great fluff to my chest. I unzipped the bag and glanced over to my husband, who fooled with his contacts on the other side of the security lines, rubbing and blinking his eyes. I looked forward to pressing the soft whiteness to my chest. I planned to push him hard into my solar plexus to keep that hot swell down.
I pulled him out of the bag. It was snug on him. It was as if he wore the bag more than the bag held him. For a week I’d take a measuring tape to his hugeness as he slept, willed him to lose some length, some girth. He was supposed to be able to stand up and move around in there, but come on, what good’s a cat so small he can turn around in 16x9x10? Besides, I knew his ways and his ways were not that active, so I bought the bag and told him to hunker down for a few hours. Catch some Z’s, I said.
I clutched him into my chest. I thought of ten years earlier when we found him in the basement of a highrise in which our friends lived—our friends who were a “one-cat couple,” they said, when they were still a couple—and whose one cat used the toilet and fetched the paper from the hallway, no lie. I thought these friends were the sort to look up to. I had slipped the gray kitten inside my coat and we walked the ten blocks home and thought of names for it. My husband suggested Concrete or Slate, but after we washed him we started to lean more toward the clean and banal, like Cotton or Snow. I pressed my face down into the cat’s nape when I thought of this time, and when I thought of the name on which we had finally settled—the name of the month in which we had met; the month in which we had married. That cat was like a calendar. Friends teased us by mixing it up, calling him January, September, ridiculous months like July.
The detector buzzed when we crossed under. The wide- belted woman ran a wand over me—my front, my back—and then over the cat—his collar, my left hand holding the softness under his arms, where my ring shone through his downy fur. I knew it was his ID tag that did it, but how appropriate, I thought, if the ring had sounded an alarm.
All right, she said. Let’s see him in action.
Did she want him to dance? I bounced him and then stopped. He’s not a big performer, I said.
Put him in the carrier, please.
It’s regulation, I said, leaning over and using the cat’s paw to point to the tag that said, Compliant with Aviation Standards.
I’m checking the fit, Ma’am. Place the animal inside the case.
I looked over toward where my husband stood, but couldn’t see his face through the people in line. I caught sight of a bit of his shoulder, though, and wanted desperately to tap it, say, What of the fit? How many points off for an ill fit? He’d know. It’s the sort of thing I could always count on him for.
Ma’am, she said. Place the animal inside.
I held the bag beneath the cat’s rear; his rear that slung like a potato sack due to the sedative. Why was I here? Why was I taking our cat?—my cat, that cat? Why had we decided this was the way? Every morning the cat waited to eat until the dog was ready. Who would he wait for now? We had no children, we had decided, so now’s the time to separate, reassess our situation for a year or so.
If ever there’s a time.
It was the or so that killed me. It woke me at night. Me and that cat, shoving his nose into my eye telling me to wake up already.
The cat’s arms stuck straight out as I slipped the bag over his enormity. I tucked his paws inside, zipped the front. I shook the bag as if he might settle into some mysterious crevice, make some room for him in there.
Nuh-uh, the wide-belted woman said. She shook her head. Her eyes wide like saucers.
He likes to be contained, I said, and pushed the palms of my hands together to show what? To show, held together. To show, held.
Nuh-uh, she said again.
To show, Please.
I felt a thumping in my chest. I looked over to my husband, who had committed to the parting, who said the pain of the very moment of leaving would subside, yet the continuation of stagnation would last forever.
I had asked him if he might graph that for me.
Now I saw him rubbing his nose as if it had wronged him.
You got someone who can take this cat?
What? I asked.
You got someone—
I can take him, I said. This cat can fly. Like a superhero, I added.
This cat can’t fly, she said. This cat too huge—
He likes to be contained, I said.
This cat too huge to fly. She shook her head, reached for the cat that slept so unaware inside his carrier. You got someone—
I got someone, I said. I do, but when I looked he seemed so far away I said, He’ll never reach! And what I meant was that his body—so hunkered now and shaking—it could never reach out and grab the cat that couldn’t fly. Not unless I threw the cat, or left the line and started over. Not unless I missed my flight and stayed instead within stagnation. We’re young, we said. We have no children. Now’s the time.
Now’s the time, I said to her. The cat is fine. He likes to be contained.
He ain’t happy in there, she said.
What’s happy? I said. Nothing’s happy. Nothing’s more or less OK with what they’ve got, and what we’ve got is quite OK. It’s really very much OK.
OK ain’t compliant, she said.
She grabbed the handles of the carrier, started to lift him somewhere different.
You’ll see it when you return, she said.
It’s a one-way! I said, maybe shouted, waved my boarding pass.
Ma’am, this is not the place to lose it. She held the cat up, away from me and headed for the place where confiscated items went.
I looked toward my husband. I caught a wisp of hair and what seemed to be his hand upon it. Is OK fine? I wanted to ask. Is OK perhaps the final goal? Where might familiar factor in? Where might: we like the same ice cream. Where might:
I know you.
I grabbed at him, the cat inside the carrier. I grabbed at him and said, Don’t take him from me!
Ma’am! she said with some conviction, although she looked away from me, toward another, who locked me then within his eyes as he walked forward. Is there a situation here?
Yes, I thought. No, I said. My husband by now had noticed the hold-up and had maneuvered himself into a position of receiving the cat over the black zip-line. I saw this in slow motion and something burst behind my rib cage; as it did my body filled with dense, hot liquid that added weight, that gave me a gelatinous pull upon the earth. I felt too heavy to move toward gate 34, let alone to lift up off the ground and fly to the place I had previously thought of as home, where my new life—temporal, or so—awaited my landing.
Hands guided me away from the security line and I heard myself tell the wide-belted woman of the cat hole my mother had so kindly cut into her basement door, and now for what? I looked back at my husband, saw the weight in the bag tipped him to the left. His eyes looked very sorry. He stretched open the palm of his free hand to show, what? To show he had nothing. I envied that cat. I, too, felt too huge to fly. I wanted to be contained. Just reach for me. Grab for me over the zip-line.
When we planned the wedding nearly a decade before, I had argued with the caterer because he insisted we provide more main dish choices than we had wanted to.
We’re not looking to feed these people for the entire weekend, I had said. We’re young and can’t afford it. I looked at the man who would soon be my husband, and he agreed, although he did so non-committed-like, with a nod and shrug of his shoulders. Who are you people? I thought then of men.
Perhaps you should wait until you’re older, the caterer suggested, until you can do it correctly.
I felt defiance well up within me. Had I not been doing it for love I would have married out of spite at that moment; but later I remember waking at night and thinking of it, only in my half-sleep state I heard the caterer grumble that it’s a long life—not a long reception—and people get hungry.
Perhaps you should wait until you’re older then. Until you can do it correctly.
My husband had turned away by now. He walked with that cat slung in that bag toward the exit door of the airport. We’re still young, I thought, as I saw the lovely leanness of my husband’s waist, as I slid my own weighted legs over the slick terrazzo, toward gate 34.
There once had been a superhero doll weighted just like this, his rubber arms filled with a gelatinous goo that stretched when you pulled and reformed when you let go. If you pierced the skin with scissors it would leak. What was he called, that heavy, stretchy superhero? He wasn’t the caped sort—he was earth-bound and tortured. He did good things reluctantly, not due to bravery. It hurt his body to do what needed to be done. It ripped his clothes and made him feel very much alone. What was he called?
He would know the answer, I thought. As I pulled my weighted legs over shiny terrazzo and walked passed the twenties, toward the mid-thirties, I made a mental note to ask him about this later. We’re from the same time and all— he and I. For years we had counted on the other for just this sort of vital, vital, vital thing.
*Licensed from Press53, LLC. Copyright 2018 by Walk Back from Monkey School by Kate Hill Cantrill
It is past midnight and Janet is up in the oak tree. She is the bird with black feathers. When she twitches her head the tips of her black feathered braids just brush the tips of her small breasts, just lightly, just so. Her flowered blouse hangs from a nearby branch. She does not need it. She is the black bird that drops feathers like leaves. Bark cuts her knees; she can see the blood, dark in the light of the moon. Down in the garden below her, in the tomato patch, the Parrish boy barks quietly over her sighing sister Tasha. Tasha does not need her blouse either, nor anything else. The Parrish boy’s buttocks roll above her. Pulped vegetables shine in their hair. The garden stretches out around them, a full wet acre behind the house.
Their father in his gorilla suit crouches in the middle of the corn rows, maybe forty yards from their sister Tasha and the Parrish boy. Her father’s fur gleams in the moonlight. He cocks his head, listening. His dark eyes roll up towards the sky, but he does not seem to see Janet up in the tree. He sways to his feet. He moves uncertainly towards the sound of their coupling. The corn obscures his vision. They roll like seals in the crushed tomatoes.
She can see what will unfold. She wraps one arm fiercely around the trunk of the oak tree. She plucks at her shorts where they cut into her thighs. A light breeze blows up the ridges of her spine. Black leaves fall like hail.
This is not a dream. This is the dreaming half of her family, out in the garden, by moonlight.
The father wears the gorilla suit because of a lump in his left testicle. He does not know if the lump is cancerous or not. He does not know what it is. He is deeply afraid of going to the doctor. He thinks the lump will go away. He thinks that if he thinks about it, it will only grow larger. He thinks that as long as nobody knows for sure what it is, it will not be cancerous. He thinks if he tells anyone about it, black cancer will explode into his testicles the moment the words pass his lips. So because of the lump, he will not shower with the other Gorilla-Gram workers at the end of the day. He wears the costume home, driving down I-65 at rush hour in the afternoon heat, the gorilla head in the back seat, his gorilla paws working the brakes, the gas, the brakes: a furry panic of control.
Each day he comes home to what? A drink, of course, and a family that is as quiet as an Ohio sky before a terrible storm. They are waiting him out. Battening the hatches, boarding up the windows to their souls. They know something is wrong; they smell it, the electric charge of worry and sickness bleeding out of his pores. His oldest daughter is sly, secretive. His youngest is pensive, watchful. His twin sons are self-absorbed, lifting weights, drinking high-protein milkshakes, critical eyes attuned to every twitch and ripple of their bodies. His wife was solicitous, then withdrawn. Drinking just that much too much. And he, too: a drink, and then out to the garden to inspect the latest damage. A patch at a time, plants trampled, fruit despoiled, rotting, crushed. There is no rhyme nor reason to it. He vows revenge. One sunless afternoon out in the cucumbers with a whiskey-soda in his hands, he gets the idea. He will use the gorilla suit to scare the hell out of whoever is running riot through his garden. He will dress up in the suit and prowl the garden and when he finds them he will exorcise them. He will reclaim his garden. It is a drunken idea, and it will be another five nights before he is drunk enough to remember it, and act.
In among the cornstalks that whisper like winos he squats, and waits, and itches, and wishes for a drink, and hears something, a murmur, a snide mocking laugh. He rolls to his feet. He lumbers forward, dark and terrible. Whiskey fumes float and shiver in the mask. He looks out at the dark shifting vegetation. He is the gorilla, the avenger, swift and awful.
The garden is thrumming; the gourds, the vines, the leaves, the stalks, the fruit and pulp and silk, all of it thrum, thrum, thrum. She feels it all, yawning and purring out and away from her. She sees the stars above his head, through the thick blurry branches of the oak tree. And then she sees her sister, her braids hanging low, the pale skin of her flesh shimmering in the dark night leaves. For just a second Natasha is shocked and then everything rises above and beneath her and all she hears is the thrumthrumming of the garden and a rustle in the corn. So she smiles up at her little sister Janet and lets her eyes roll back into her head, where she sees nothing but a thin red humming thread waiting to burst into ribbons.
Janet is the blackbird with all of the knowing. She drops her knowing behind her, a trail of black feathers that nobody sees. She is the Not-Beautiful daughter trapped in a forest of mirrors. There is nobody to follow the trail. They will not rescue her. She is the Not-Beautiful daughter and nobody wants to see what she knows.
Natasha is the Beautiful Daughter. Janet knows things about Natasha. She sleeps in the same bedroom with Natasha: she knows. At night, as soon as Janet pretends to sleep, Natasha turns into tongue and teeth, alone but not alone in her bed, her hair swishing and swaying and silver. At night Natasha’s teeth go clicking and her sheets tangle wild about her. Her legs flash white, thrash together and apart, Natasha dreaming her body, the sheets snapping, her hand fluttering against herself, the mutter, the coo, the groan. All of this Janet hears and she knows what it means.
She knows, now, perched above the garden, that the waking half of her family is inside, sleeping with their eyes open. The doors are all closed. The lights are bright. There are no shadows. In her parents’ bedroom she knows her mother is watching television, lying on top of the comforter in her blue silk kimono, the red and gold dragons curling about her heavy breasts. She chain-smokes, the ashtray on her belly. Smoke fills the room. The house rustles. She reaches for the remote control and turns up the volume. For a while the sirens on the television say “. . . this IS your MARriage WINDing DOWN aWAY from YOU. . . .” Listen to anything long enough and it becomes nothing: words become sounds, sounds become vibrations, vibrations are just air molecules stirring and sighing, and anything reduced can eventually be ignored.
Janet knows this is true, though she would not say it that way, if she would say it at all.
She knows that her brothers the twins are lifting weights in the Steroid Room. This is what they call their bedroom. It is a name that started as a joke and now is not. They stand face to face, doing curls, expelling hot sweet breath in each others’ faces. The room is filled with their grunting, the heavy smell of their sweat. There is a full-length mirror behind each of them. Looking over the others’ shoulders they see themselves front and back, a gallery of muscled teenagers straining, glistening. They stop simultaneously, an expulsion of hot breath. They smile shyly at each other.
This is the waking half of her family, lost in themselves, behind doors that click and snap.
Oh now Natasha’s world is ribbons, red ribbons, unfurling, encircling, red, and red, they rise from their spools and entwine and wrap her, ankle to nipple, tangle in her mouth, there is nothing she can’t do, there is nothing but her, and nobody has known this, nobody, nothing, not even the Parrish boy, especially not even him who grunts, grunts, grunts above and beyond her, far away, everything slicks way out unspooling and begins just now to fall. Something outside of her roars. Something outside of her snaps shut. Something is very wrong, swaying overhead, oh.
The corn whispers; his body burns. He will not allow vandals in the whispering corn. He will not allow this to happen in his garden. He has to know: how dark, how it pulses, how it spreads, how fast, how long, how long have you got. You have to know. You have to know this. He bursts through the last row of corn. He sees white figures bleating and writhing in the moonlight. He roars. He pounds his chest. He looks down at them.
He sees the bare breasts of his oldest daughter Natasha rise, fluid. The buttocks of that boy rising too like soft stones in the moonlight. The tangle of their limbs as they leap up, the sweat running down her face. He stands and turns and watches as they dart out through the garden, back through the corn rows, separating, their white flesh like fish bellies swallowed up by darkness. He stands stunned by the enormity of what he’s done. What he’s seen.
Up in the Steroid Room, the twins face each other. Reflections, reflected and refracted. He raises his right hand (and raises his right hand) and reaches (out with it) and touches (his left bicep) still (slick) with (sweat) like (touching himself in the mirror. Who is he? Where does he stop? Something stirs. Something)
screams outside. He hears it and snaps back into they. They both bolt for the door, careful not to look at each other, careful not to brush up against the other, out the door and down the stairs, ready to do anything to forget.
She is almost dozing, the ashtray on her belly aswarm with butts like minnows. Sirens fill the room. She has worked all evening to come to this place: whatever is out there cannot get in. The sirens are other people’s disasters. The man in the ambulance is a waxy little husband doll who can be bent into shape at the end of an hour. Everything disappears in the wash of wee sirens and the small ether of her own cigarettes. This will carry her. This is the murmured no of television and nicotine. This is the lull of watery wine. This is, this is, this is:
this is the shriek of her eldest daughter.
There is then for her a calm moment like ice covering ponds. She puts the ashtray on the nightstand. She knew this would come. She has always known you cannot willfully blind yourself: the act of erasure acknowledges something was there: words, etched by a skateblade on the ice, words that say “sorrow” and “loss” in long looping letters. Then the calm groans, the ice shifts, cracks run like lightning towards the edges of something that used to be her life and she is up, pulling her robe close to her body, the dragons spitting balefully at her breasts, she is up and she is running downstairs.
She is the black crow with all of the knowing and she watches it all.
She sees her father sink to his knees, and take the gorilla head off and throw it back over his shoulder toward the corn rows. It rolls and wobbles and bumps to a stop. Her father sinks back onto his heels. He stares at the clothing scattered around him. He stares at the glistening tomatoes smeared on the dark black soil. He picks up a twisted bra, stares at it blankly, and then, shuddering, flings it from him. He buries his naked face in his bristling paws.
She feels suddenly cold, and naked, and ashamed. She pulls her blouse from the branch and slips it onto her body, buttoning it up carefully, balancing on her knees upon the wide rough limb. Below, her father begins to cry. She has never seen him cry before, and gooseflesh ripples across her body. Before she understands what she’s doing, she swings down off of the limb and grabs the trunk of the tree and slides down it, not at all gracefully, scratching her arms and legs and feet with raw red scrapes that her mother will spread first aid cream on for many nights to come.
On the ground, the smell of raw tomatoes assaults her. She can smell, too, the whiskey and sweat and fur of her father. He slaps his furry thighs with his huge paws over and over again. He kneels in the garden with his bare head looking small and breakable in the harsh light of the moon.
Behind them, up at the house, more lights come on, and she can hear her mother at the patio door, saying, “Jim? Jim? Jim?” over and over again, calling out to them. The twins join their mother, all of them moving out onto the patio. The twins peer out into the darkness, dumb-bells firmly in hand.
She hesitates at the base of the tree, and then she walks over to her father. She stands before him. She smoothes her blouse and clears her throat. He looks up at her. His eyes are swollen walnuts.
“You were there?” her father says.
She nods, mute.
“You saw, then. Why didn’t you stop me?”
She doesn’t know. She doesn’t know why she came down from the tree, either. Gently, she gathers up her sister’s clothes. She stands in front of him. She reaches out a hand. He reaches up a black paw. She gives him a tiny tug that rocks him to his feet. Together, they walk up to the house burning with light, readying themselves.
There is a hole in the heart of the garden, at the center of everything, a perfect exhalation: the -oh- that lies trembling at the heart of the world. It is the oh of realization, the oh of satisfaction, the void that is the self staring back, stripped bare. It is the oh that lies buried in know, and it is the moan that floats after every uttered no.
Some night you will be out walking the dog through the streets of your neighborhood, and the catastrophes that lurk at the center of every life will decide to unfold: night-blooming flowers uncurling in the dark, fists to palms. You will hear the shriek in a neighbor’s back yard and you will see all of the lights go on in the house and you will see white naked bodies darting out from the sides of the house and flashing pure and beautiful beneath the streetlights before they are swallowed up by the darkness of other yards. Your dog will bark, once. You will stand there, waiting. You know exactly what this is. You have seen it all in your mind’s eye a thousand times. If you did not have the dog with you, you might go around the house to the back where voices are raised, truths unsheathed like weapons, unwound like bandages. You might go back there if you could trust the dog not to strain against the leash, or if you hadn’t already seen it yourself, but of course you have seen this, you’ve played every role there is to play, and you cannot trust this dog ever.
You will instead pull the dog back home to your own dark house, to your own sighing secrets, to the—oh—sputtering blue in your own dark basement, to the someone you left sleeping upstairs.
*Licensed from The University of North Texas Press. Copyright 2018 by Tehila Lieberman from Out of Time
From May to September Delia took the Churro sheep and two dogs and went up on Joe-Johns Mountain to live. She had that country pretty much to herself all summer. Ken Owen sent one of his Mexican hands up every other week with a load of groceries but otherwise she was alone, alone with the sheep and the dogs. She liked the solitude. Liked the silence. Some sheepherders she knew talked a blue streak to the dogs, the rocks, the porcupines, they sang songs and played the radio, read their magazines out loud, but Delia let the silence settle into her and by early summer she had begun to hear the ticking of the dry grasses as a language she could almost translate. The dogs were named Jesus and Alice. “Away to me, Hey-sus,” she said when they were moving the sheep. “Go bye, Alice.” From May to September these words spoken in command of the dogs were almost the only times she heard her own voice; that, and when the Mexican brought the groceries, a polite exchange in Spanish about the weather, the health of the dogs, the fecundity of the ewes.
The Churros were a very old breed. The O-Bar Ranch had a federal allotment up on the mountain, which was all rimrock and sparse grasses well suited to the Churros, who were fiercely protective of their lambs and had a long-stapled top coat that could take the weather. They did well on the thin grass of the mountain where other sheep would lose flesh and give up their lambs to the coyotes. The Mexican was an old man. He said he remembered Churros from his childhood in the Oaxaca highlands, the rams with their four horns, two curving up, two down. “Buen’ carne,” he told Delia. Uncommonly fine meat.
The wind blew out of the southwest in the early part of the season, a wind that smelled of juniper and sage and pollen; in the later months it blew straight from the east, a dry wind smelling of dust and smoke, bringing down showers of parched leaves and seedheads of yarrow and bittercress. Thunderstorms came frequently out of the east, enormous cloudscapes with hearts of livid magenta and glaucous green. At those times, if she was camped on a ridge she’d get out of her bed and walk downhill to find a draw where she could feel safer, but if she was camped in a low place she would stay with the sheep while a war passed over their heads, spectacular jagged flares of lightning, skull-rumbling cannonades of thunder. It was maybe bred into the bones of Churros, a knowledge and a tolerance of mountain weather, for they shifted together and waited out the thunder with surprising composure; they stood forbearingly while rain beat down in hard blinding bursts.
Sheepherding was simple work, although Delia knew some herders who made it hard, dogging the sheep every minute, keeping them in a tight group, moving all the time. She let the sheep herd themselves, do what they wanted, make their own decisions. If the band began to separate she would whistle or yell, and often the strays would turn around and rejoin the main group. Only if they were badly scattered did she send out the dogs. Mostly she just kept an eye on the sheep, made sure they got good feed, that the band didn’t split, that they stayed in the boundaries of the O-Bar allotment. She studied the sheep for the language of their bodies, and tried to handle them just as close to their nature as possible. When she put out salt for them, she scattered it on rocks and stumps as if she was hiding Easter eggs, because she saw how they enjoyed the search.
The spring grass made their manure wet, so she kept the wool cut away from the ewes’ tail area with a pair of sharp, short-bladed shears. She dosed the sheep with wormer, trimmed their feet, inspected their teeth, treated ewes for mastitis. She combed the burrs from the dogs’ coats and inspected them for ticks. You’re such good dogs, she told them with her hands. I’m very very proud of you.
She had some old binoculars, 7 x 32s, and in the long quiet days she watched bands of wild horses miles off in the distance, ragged looking mares with dorsal stripes and black legs. She read the back issues of the local newspapers, looking in the obits for names she recognized. She read spine-broken paperback novels and played solitaire and scoured the ground for arrowheads and rocks she would later sell to rockhounds. She studied the parched brown grass, which was full of grasshoppers and beetles and crickets and ants. But most of her day was spent just walking. The sheep sometimes bedded quite a ways from her trailer and she had to get out to them before sunrise when the coyotes would make their kills. She was usually up by three or four and walking out to the sheep in darkness. Sometimes she returned to the camp for lunch, but always she was out with the sheep again until sundown when the coyotes were likely to return, and then she walked home after dark to water and feed the dogs, eat supper, climb into bed.
In her first years on Joe-Johns she had often walked three or four miles away from the band just to see what was over a hill, or to study the intricate architecture of a sheepherder’s monument. Stacking up flat stones in the form of an obelisk was a common herders pastime, their monuments all over that sheep country, and though Delia had never felt an impulse to start one herself, she admired the ones other people had built. She sometimes walked miles out of her way just to look at a rockpile up close.
She had a mental map of the allotment, divided into ten pastures. Every few days, when the sheep had moved on to a new pasture, she moved her camp. She towed the trailer with an old Dodge pickup, over the rocks and creekbeds, the sloughs and dry meadows to the new place. For a while afterward, after the engine was shut off and while the heavy old body of the truck was settling onto its tires, she would be deaf, her head filled with a dull roaring white noise.
She had about 800 ewes, as well as their lambs, many of them twins or triplets. The ferocity of the Churro ewes in defending their offspring was sometimes a problem for the dogs, but in the balance of things she knew it kept her losses small. Many coyotes lived on Joe-Johns, and sometimes a cougar or bear would come up from the salt pan desert on the north side of the mountain, looking for better country to own. These animals considered the sheep to be fair game, which Delia understood to be their right; and also her right, hers and the dogs, to take the side of the sheep. Sheep were smarter than people commonly believed and the Churros smarter than other sheep she had tended, but by mid-summer the coyotes had passed the word among themselves, buen’ carne, and Delia and the dogs then had a job of work, keeping the sheep out of harm’s way.
She carried a .32 caliber Colt pistol in an old-fashioned holster worn on her belt. If you’re a coyot’ you’d better be careful of this woman, she said with her body, with the way she stood and the way she walked when she was wearing the pistol. That gun and holster had once belonged to her mother’s mother, a woman who had come West on her own and homesteaded for a while, down in the Sprague River Canyon. Delia’s grandmother had liked to tell the story: how a concerned neighbor, a bachelor with an interest in marriageable females, had pressed the gun upon her, back when the Klamaths were at war with the army of General Joel Palmer; and how she never had used it for anything but shooting rabbits.
In July a coyote killed a lamb while Delia was camped no more than two hundred feet away from the bedded sheep. It was dusk and she was sitting on the steps of the trailer reading a two-gun western, leaning close over the pages in the failing light, and the dogs were dozing at her feet. She heard the small sound, a strange high faint squeal she did not recognize and then did recognize, and she jumped up and fumbled for the gun, yelling at the coyote, at the dogs, her yell startling the entire band to its feet but the ewes making their charge too late, Delia firing too late, and none of it doing any good beyond a release of fear and anger.
A lion might well have taken the lamb entire; she had known of lion kills where the only evidence was blood on the grass and a dribble of entrails in the beam of a flashlight. But a coyote is small and will kill with a bite to the throat and then perhaps eat just the liver and heart, though a mother coyote will take all she can carry in her stomach, bolt it down and carry it home to her pups. Delia’s grandmother’s pistol had scared this one off before it could even take a bite, and the lamb was twitching and whole on the grass, bleeding only from its neck. The mother ewe stood over it, crying in a distraught and pitiful way, but there was nothing to be done, and in a few minutes the lamb was dead.
There wasn’t much point in chasing after the coyote, and anyway the whole band was now a skittish jumble of anxiety and confusion; it was hours before the mother ewe gave up her grieving, before Delia and the dogs had the band calm and bedded down again, almost midnight. By then the dead lamb had stiffened on the ground and she dragged it over by the truck and skinned it and let the dogs have the meat, which went against her nature but was about the only way to keep the coyote from coming back for the carcass.
While the dogs worked on the lamb, she stood with both hands pressed to her tired back looking out at the sheep, the mottled pattern of their whiteness almost opalescent across the black landscape, and the stars thick and bright above the faint outline of the rock ridges, stood there a moment before turning toward the trailer, toward bed, and afterward she would think how the coyote and the sorrowing ewe and the dark of the July moon and the kink in her back, how all of that came together and was the reason she was standing there watching the sky, was the reason she saw the brief, brilliantly green flash in the southwest and then the sulfur yellow streak breaking across the night, southwest to due west on a descending arc onto Lame Man Bench. It was a broad bright ribbon, rainbow-wide, a cyanotic contrail. It was not a meteor, she had seen hundreds of meteors. She stood and looked at it.
Things to do with the sky, with distance, you could lose perspective, it was hard to judge even a lightning strike, whether it had touched down on a particular hill or the next hill or the valley between. So she knew this thing falling out of the sky might have come down miles to the west of Lame Man, not onto Lame Man at all, which was two miles away, at least two miles, and getting there would be all ridges and rocks, no way to cover the ground in the truck. She thought about it. She had moved camp earlier in the day, which was always troublesome work, and it had been a blistering hot day, and now the excitement with the coyote. She was very tired, the tiredness like a weight against her breastbone. She didn’t know what this thing was, falling out of the sky. Maybe if she walked over there she would find just a dead satellite or a broken weather balloon and not dead or broken people. The contrail thinned slowly while she stood there looking at it, became a wide streak of yellowy cloud against the blackness, with the field of stars glimmering dimly behind it.
After a while she went into the truck and got a water bottle and filled it and also took the first aid kit out of the trailer and a couple of spare batteries for the flashlight and a handful of extra cartridges for the pistol and stuffed these things into a backpack and looped her arms into the straps and started up the rise away from the dark camp, the bedded sheep. The dogs left off their gnawing of the dead lamb and trailed her anxiously, wanting to follow, or not wanting her to leave the sheep. “Stay by,” she said to them sharply, and they went back and stood with the band and watched her go. That coyot’, he’s done with us tonight: This is what she told the dogs with her body, walking away, and she believed it was probably true.
Now that she’d decided to go, she walked fast. This was her sixth year on the mountain and by this time she knew the country pretty well. She didn’t use the flashlight. Without it, she became accustomed to the starlit darkness, able to see the stones and pick out a path. The air was cool but full of the smell of heat rising off the rocks and the parched earth. She heard nothing but her own breathing and the gritting of her boots on the pebbly dirt. A little owl circled once in silence and then went off toward a line of cottonwood trees standing in black silhouette to the northeast.
Lame Man Bench was a great upthrust block of basalt grown over with scraggly juniper forest. As she climbed among the trees the smell of something like ozone or sulfur grew very strong, and the air became thick, burdened with dust. Threads of the yellow contrail hung in the limbs of the trees. She went on across the top of the bench and onto slabs of shelving rock that gave a view to the west. Down in the steep-sided draw below her there was a big wing-shaped piece of metal resting on the ground which she at first thought had been torn from an airplane, but then realized was a whole thing, not broken, and she quit looking for the rest of the wreckage. She squatted down and looked at it. Yellow dust settled slowly out of the sky, pollinating her hair, her shoulders, the toes of her boots, faintly dulling the oily black shine of the wing, the thing shaped like a wing.
While she was squatting there looking down at it, something came out from the sloped underside of it, a coyote she thought at first, and then it wasn’t a coyote but a dog built like greyhound or a whippet, deep-chested, long legged, very light-boned and frail looking. She waited for somebody else, a man, to crawl out after his dog, but nobody did. The dog squatted to pee and then moved off a short distance and sat on its haunches and considered things. Delia considered, too. She considered that the dog might have been sent up alone. The Russians had sent up a dog in their little sputnik, she remembered. She considered that a skinny almost hairless dog with frail bones would be dead in short order if left alone in this country. And she considered that there might be a man inside the wing, dead or too hurt to climb out. She thought how much trouble it would be, getting down this steep rock bluff in the darkness to rescue a useless dog and a dead man.
After a while she stood and started picking her way into the draw. The dog by this time was smelling the ground, making a slow and careful circuit around the black wing. Delia kept expecting the dog to look up and bark, but it went on with its intent inspection of the ground as if it was stone deaf, as if Delia’s boots making a racket on the loose gravel was not an announcement that someone was coming down. She thought of the old Dodge truck, how it always left her ears ringing, and wondered if maybe it was the same with this dog and its wing-shaped sputnik, although the wing had fallen soundless across the sky.
When she had come about half way down the hill she lost footing and slid down six or eight feet before she got her heels dug in and found a handful of willow scrub to hang onto. A glimpse of this movement—rocks sliding to the bottom, or the dust she raised—must have startled the dog, for it leaped backward suddenly and then reared up. They looked at each other in silence, Delia and the dog, Delia standing leaning into the steep slope a dozen yards above the bottom of the draw, and the dog standing next to the sputnik, standing all the way up on its hind legs like a bear or a man and no longer seeming to be a dog but a person with a long narrow muzzle and a narrow chest, turned-out knees, delicate dog-like feet. Its genitals were more cat-like than dog, a male set but very small and neat and contained. Dog’s eyes, though, dark and small and shining below an anxious brow, so that she was reminded of Jesus and Alice, the way they had looked at her when she had left them alone with the sheep. She had years of acquaintance with dogs and she knew enough to look away, break off her stare. Also, after a moment, she remembered the old pistol and holster at her belt. In cowboy pictures, a man would unbuckle his gunbelt and let it down on the ground as a gesture of peaceful intent, but it seemed to her this might only bring attention to the gun, to the true intent of a gun, which is always killing. This woman is nobody at all to be scared of, she told the dog with her body, standing very still along the steep hillside, holding onto the scrub willow with her hands, looking vaguely to the left of him where the smooth curve of the wing rose up and gathered a veneer of yellow dust.
The dog, the dog person, opened his jaws and yawned the way a dog will do to relieve nervousness, and then they were both silent and still for a minute. When finally he turned and stepped toward the wing, it was an unexpected, delicate movement, exactly the way a ballet dancer steps along on his toes, knees turned out, lifting his long thin legs; and then he dropped down on all-fours and seemed to become almost a dog again. He went back to his business of smelling the ground intently, though every little while he looked up to see if Delia was still standing along the rock slope. It was a steep place to stand. When her knees finally gave out, she sat down very carefully where she was, which didn’t spook him. He had become used to her by then, and his brief, sliding glance just said, That woman up there is nobody at all to be scared of.
What he was after, or wanting to know, was a mystery to her. She kept expecting him to gather up rocks, like all those men who’d gone to the moon, but he only smelled the ground, making a wide slow circuit around the wing the way Alice and Jesus always circled round the trailer every morning, noses down, reading the dirt like a book. And when he seemed satisfied with what he’d learned, he stood up again and looked back at Delia, a last look delivered across his shoulder before he dropped down and disappeared under the edge of the wing, a grave and inquiring look, the kind of look a dog or a man will give you before going off on his own business, a look that says, You be okay if I go? If he had been a dog, and if Delia had been close enough to do it, she’d have scratched the smooth head, felt the hard bone beneath, moved her hands around the soft ears. Sure, okay, you go on now, Mr. Dog: This is what she would have said with her hands. Then he crawled into the darkness under the slope of the wing, where she figured there must be a door, a hatch letting into the body of the machine, and after a while he flew off into the dark of the July moon.
In the weeks afterward, on nights when the moon had set or hadn’t yet risen, she looked for the flash and streak of something breaking across the darkness out of the southwest. She saw him come and go to that draw on the west side of Lame Man Bench twice more in the first month. Both times, she left her grandmother’s gun in the trailer and walked over there and sat in the dark on the rock slab above the draw and watched him for a couple of hours. He may have been waiting for her, or he knew her smell, because both times he reared up and looked at her just about as soon as she sat down. But then he went on with his business. That woman is nobody to be scared of, he said with his body, with the way he went on smelling the ground, widening his circle and widening it, sometimes taking a clod or a sprig into his mouth and tasting it, the way a mild-mannered dog will do when he’s investigating something and not paying any attention to the person he’s with.
Delia had about decided that the draw behind Lame Man Bench was one of his regular stops, like the ten campsites she used over and over again when she was herding on Joe-Johns Mountain; but after those three times in the first month she didn’t see him again.
At the end of September she brought the sheep down to the O-Bar. After the lambs had been shipped out she took her band of dry ewes over onto the Nelson prairie for the fall, and in mid-November when the snow had settled in, she brought them to the feed lots. That was all the work the ranch had for her until lambing season. Jesus and Alice belonged to the O-Bar. They stood in the yard and watched her go.
In town she rented the same room as the year before, and, as before, spent most of a year’s wages on getting drunk and standing other herders to rounds of drink. She gave up looking into the sky.
In March she went back out to the ranch. In bitter weather they built jugs and mothering-up pens, and trucked the pregnant ewes from Green, where they’d been feeding on wheat stubble. Some ewes lambed in the trailer on the way in, and after every haul there was a surge of lambs born. Delia had the night shift, where she was paired with Roy Joyce, a fellow who raised sugar beets over in the valley and came out for the lambing season every year. In the black, freezing cold middle of the night, eight and ten ewes would be lambing at a time. Triplets, twins, big singles, a few quads, ewes with lambs born dead, ewes too sick or confused to mother. She and Roy would skin a dead lamb and feed the carcass to the ranch dogs and wrap the fleece around a bummer lamb, which was intended to fool the bereaved ewe into taking the orphan as her own, and sometimes it worked that way. All the mothering-up pens swiftly filled, and the jugs filled, and still some ewes with new lambs stood out in the cold field waiting for a room to open up.
You couldn’t pull the stuck lambs with gloves on, you had to reach into the womb with your fingers to turn the lamb, or tie cord around the feet, or grasp the feet barehanded, so Delia’s hands were always cold and wet, then cracked and bleeding. The ranch had brought in some old converted school buses to house the lambing crew, and she would fall into a bunk at daybreak and then not be able to sleep, shivering in the unheated bus with the gray daylight pouring in the windows and the endless daytime clamor out at the lambing sheds. All the lambers had sore throats, colds, nagging coughs. Roy Joyce looked like hell, deep bags as blue as bruises under his eyes, and Delia figured she looked about the same, though she hadn’t seen a mirror, not even to draw a brush through her hair, since the start of the season.
By the end of the second week, only a handful of ewes hadn’t lambed. The nights became quieter. The weather cleared, and the thin skiff of snow melted off the grass. On the dark of the moon, Delia was standing outside the mothering-up pens drinking coffee from a thermos. She put her head back and held the warmth of the coffee in her mouth a moment, and as she was swallowing it down, lowering her chin, she caught the tail end of a green flash and a thin yellow line breaking across the sky, so far off anybody else would have thought it was a meteor, but it was bright, and dropping from southwest to due west, maybe right onto Lame Man Bench. She stood and looked at it. She was so very goddamned tired and had a sore throat that wouldn’t clear and she could barely get her fingers to fold around the thermos, they were so split and tender.
She told Roy she felt sick as a horse, and did he think he could handle things if she drove herself into town to the Urgent Care clinic, and she took one of the ranch trucks and drove up the road a short way and then turned onto the rutted track that went up to Joe-Johns.
The night was utterly clear and you could see things a long way off. She was still an hour’s drive from the Churros’ summer range when she began to see a yellow-orange glimmer behind the black ridgeline, a faint nimbus like the ones that marked distant range fires on summer nights.
She had to leave the truck at the bottom of the bench and climb up the last mile or so on foot, had to get a flashlight out of the glove box and try to find an uphill path with it because the fluttery reddish lightshow was finished by then, and a thick pall of smoke overcast the sky and blotted out the stars. Her eyes itched and burned, and tears ran from them, but the smoke calmed her sore throat. She went up slowly, breathing through her mouth.
The wing had burned a skid path through the scraggly junipers along the top of the bench and had come apart into a hundred pieces. She wandered through the burnt trees and the scattered wreckage, shining her flashlight into the smoky darkness, not expecting to find what she was looking for, but there he was, lying apart from the scattered pieces of metal, out on the smooth slab rock at the edge of the draw. He was panting shallowly and his close coat of short brown hair was matted with blood. He lay in such a way that she immediately knew his back was broken. When he saw Delia coming up, his brow furrowed with worry. A sick or a wounded dog will bite, she knew that, but she squatted next to him. It’s just me, she told him, by shining the light not in his face but in hers. Then she spoke to him. “Okay,” she said. “I’m here now,” without thinking too much about what the words meant, or whether they meant anything at all, and she didn’t remember until afterward that he was very likely deaf anyway. He sighed and shifted his look from her to the middle distance, where she supposed he was focused on approaching death.
Near at hand, he didn’t resemble a dog all that much, only in the long shape of his head, the folded-over ears, the round darkness of his eyes. He lay on the ground flat on his side like a dog that’s been run over and is dying by the side of the road, but a man will lay like that too when he’s dying. He had small-fingered nail-less hands where a dog would have had toes and front feet. Delia offered him a sip from her water bottle but he didn’t seem to want it, so she just sat with him quietly, holding one of his hands, which was smooth as lambskin against the cracked and roughened flesh of her palm. The batteries in the flashlight gave out, and sitting there in the cold darkness she found his head and stroked it, moving her sore fingers lightly over the bone of his skull, and around the soft ears, the loose jowls. Maybe it wasn’t any particular comfort to him but she was comforted by doing it. Sure, okay, you can go on.
She heard him sigh, and then sigh again, and each time wondered if it would turn out to be his death. She had used to wonder what a coyote, or especially a dog would make of this doggish man, and now while she was listening, waiting to hear if he would breathe again, she began to wish she’d brought Alice or Jesus with her, though not out of that old curiosity. When her husband had died years before, at the very moment he took his last breath, the dog she’d had then had barked wildly and raced back and forth from the front to the rear door of the house as if he’d heard or seen something invisible to her. People said it was her husband’s soul going out the door or his angel coming in. She didn’t know what it was the dog had seen or heard or smelled, but she wished she knew. And now she wished she had a dog with her to bear witness.
She went on petting him even after he had died, after she was sure he was dead, went on petting him until his body was cool, and then she got up stiffly from the bloody ground and gathered rocks and piled them onto him, a couple of feet high so he wouldn’t be found or dug up. She didn’t know what to do about the wreckage, so she didn’t do anything with it at all.
In May, when she brought the Churro sheep back to Joe-Johns Mountain, the pieces of the wrecked wing had already eroded, were small and smooth-edged like the bits of sea glass you find on a beach, and she figured this must be what it was meant to do: to break apart into pieces too small for anybody to notice, and then to quickly wear away. But the stones she’d piled over his body seemed like the start of something, so she began the slow work of raising them higher into a sheepherders monument. She gathered up all the smooth eroded bits of wing, too, and laid them in a series of widening circles around the base of the monument. She went on piling up stones through the summer and into September until it reached fifteen feet. Mornings, standing with the sheep miles away, she would look for it through the binoculars and think about ways to raise it higher, and she would wonder what was buried under all the other monuments sheepherders had raised in that country. At night she studied the sky, but nobody came for him.
In November when she finished with the sheep and went into town, she asked around and found a guy who knew about star-gazing and telescopes. He loaned her some books and sent her to a certain pawnshop, and she gave most of a year’s wages for a 14 x 75 telescope with a reflective lens. On clear, moonless nights she met the astronomy guy out at the Little League baseball field and she sat on a fold-up canvas stool with her eye against the telescope’s finder while he told her what she was seeing: Jupiter’s moons, the Pelican Nebula, the Andromeda Galaxy. The telescope had a tripod mount, and he showed her how to make a little jerry-built device so she could mount her old 7 x 32 binoculars on the tripod too. She used the binoculars for their wider view of star clusters and small constellations. She was indifferent to most discomforts, could sit quietly in one position for hours at a time, teeth rattling with the cold, staring into the immense vault of the sky until she became numb and stiff, barely able to stand and walk back home. Astronomy, she discovered, was a work of patience, but the sheep had taught her patience, or it was already in her nature before she ever took up with them.
The car that ran over Heidi didn’t even put on its brakes, let alone pull to the curb. Instead it signaled right onto Lexington Street. Heidi was a puppy, and a worried bloody smear on the slushy road that evening.
Christmas Eve, and even though I had suspected the night with the in-laws might be strange, I hadn’t imagined anything like this.
The year before, the worst thing had been the blow-up when Ted accused Sue of cheating at Pictionary and Sue breaking into tears as she threw the plastic hourglass at Ted. By some miracle of physics, the tiny hourglass hit Mary’s beveled-glass mirror and cracked it. That’s the kind of luck this family has. Mary cried too, as she hit Ted over the head with a blue throw pillow from her couch. The pillow had delicate tassels hanging from each corner. They bobbed and weaved a crazy belly dance as Mary banged and pushed against my husband’s head. These people are in their thirties and forties. I married into the family late. Everyone seems to know how to handle these outbursts except me. I sit back and watch, start smiling, forget to swallow.
When the puppy, Heidi, got run over, the full and extended family blubbered and snorted, and I stood mid-dining room holding a case of beer with an inappropriate grin on my face. Bottled beer. Kind of heavy. It seemed insensitive of me, but I knew if I set the box down one niece or another would come sniffling into my arms. I remained the only dry-eyed person in the room. Even Frank, the patriarch, wedged into Sue’s recliner in front of the TV, dabbed one eye then another, honking his nose with a big red hanky.
Frank, the big, burly father, used to beat the shit out of all the kids. Now no one except Ted seems to remember this. These days Frank is very old. It’s hard for me to imagine the growling larger-than-life monster Ted describes lumbering through their childhood home. Mostly, Frank stays in the recliner.
Frank bellowed, “I’ll get you a new dog. From my own pocket, full price. You’ll see. I’ll pay. You need a dog for those girls.”
Here is what confused me: this family already had a dog: Bucky. A big, fluffy dog—a nice dog—that everyone ignored. She came up and licked one of my hands. I clutched the beer box and said in my high-pitched dog voice, “Good doggy. Yes, I see you. Yes, I do.” And she seemed to smile as she wagged her feather duster of a tail.
Frank bellowed, “Put it in the fridge, Jessica. Or set it on the floor. You’re making me nervous with that box there.” Ted’s father liked me a lot. I was the only female he addressed by name. Bucky left the room, and I set the case of beer on the kitchen counter, pulled out two bottles. One for me, one for Frank.
By now the Husbands had settled in the living room with their heads hanging low. To me, they all looked alike. Kind of a farmer-turned-hunter-turned-salesman. This night they all wore turtlenecks and poly-cotton blend V-neck sweaters in patterns of brown, black, and yellow. One evening when Ted and I were first dating, I asked them if they called one another before get-togethers to plan the wardrobe. Later that night, Ted suggested I tone down my sarcasm in front of his family. He explained that the guys had no idea what I was talking about and that was why my question was met with the same kind of long steady stare my cat gives me when I yell at her for eating the plants.
It might help here if I mention that Ted’s family lives in Nebraska. I’m from Boston. Ted’s first wife, Katie, grew up in Nebraska too. In fact, her family lives down the street from his mom and dad. Ted and Katie rode their Big Wheels together, and then their bikes. To this day, she uses hairspray and thinks eating wings at the local sports bar is the hottest thing going. Ted admits he made a big mistake on that life decision. I know that Katie still gives his family presents, goes fast-walking with Sue and Mary every Thursday, even babysits Sue’s girls every third Saturday of the month.
I do t’ai chi and eat organic vegetables. Volunteer with inner-city kids. Many people think I’m a kind person, a good friend.
In general, Ted looks frazzled and confused compared to the rest of the family. Sort of a farmer-turned-activist-turned-highschool-teacher. He has a goatee, wears Converse All-Stars and blue jeans. We met at a cocktail party in Cambridge. When he told me he was from Nebraska, I didn’t believe him. These days, I love him a lot, and he loves me.
The Husbands had mopped and scraped up Heidi, put her into a garbage bag, and heaved her into the back of Tom’s pickup. The Christmas lights twinkled, and cookies lined the table along with sliced ham, baked beans, and a plate of shrimp. The shrimp’s naked bodies looked obscene compared to everything else, heaped together in a rubbery, cold mess with their cocktail sauce shimmering in the center of the display. Later, I heard Ted’s mom say she’d gotten them on sale at the Hinky-Dinky, just for me.
I could not eat the shrimp, and I couldn’t help wondering aloud where they had come from, seeing as how bodies of water containing shellfish did not ebb plentifully in the Great Plains.
I know Ted’s family thinks I am a thoughtless person.
Ted tells me I’m aloof—but good for him.
The way his family deals with crisis is so far from my own that I riffle through blank index cards in my brain, trying to find a response to the situations placed before me. But really, I don’t even know which letter of the alphabet to look up. My family is straightforward: the weak fall—adults don’t cry. Children throwing tantrums are escorted from the room; seafood is bought fresh from the docks if it’s bought at all. We’re polite even though we all dislike one another. There would never arise a circumstance under which a pillow would be thrown at another family member—in jest or in anger—for any reason whatsoever.
At any rate, after Heidi had been bagged and dumped, Sue took each young child (all female) down to the pickup, lifted her up, and showed her the garbage bag with blood leaking out of it. Sue said (to each one), “Heidi is dead.” Then she set each child back on the ground and each ran screaming to her mom or dad, who cried along with her and said, “Yes, Heidi is dead.”
I never saw Heidi in person. What I imagined was a small brown dog in a gingham dress with braids. That’s wrong, of course. I know this because I got to see Heidi in many pictures that night. That’s the next thing Sue did. Mary helped. They distributed snapshots of the puppy.
Christmas Eve. Everyone had brought presents to be exchanged. I knew that showing all the girls the dead dog had something to do with being a hunting family. I must admit the picture distribution looked festive. Some of the men tucked the photos into their billfolds or handed them to a wife to be put into a purse. Heidi would be on every fridge by Christmas day. I held my picture of Heidi at the corner so I wouldn’t get fingerprints on the glossy print. In it, Heidi had her head cocked at the camera, her tongue a long slippery blur of a thing hanging from her jaw. A constellation of spots speckled her reddish body. She sported short, perky ears.
Ted took the picture from me, replaced it with a beer, and gently squeezed my shoulder. Then he walked his beautiful, lanky walk back into the kitchen with a niece velcroed to each arm.
I swallowed, sat down by Frank.
Frank started talking NRA at me. “You know, Jessica. I’ve been thinking lately about how it’s every citizen’s responsibility to support the NRA, not just gun owners.” I nodded. My attention pleased Frank. I stayed sane during these discussions using a game Ted had taught me. I translated every NRA statement into the NEA. Thus, I heard, “It’s every citizen’s responsibility to support the NEA, not just art lovers.” That seemed logical to me, so I said, “Yes, Frank, but how can that be done?”
Heidi’s little ears peeked out of the photo in Frank’s front shirt pocket. For the next thirty minutes he discussed why and how he’d like to move his gun case to the living room—and also why his wife, Stella, couldn’t appreciate this idea like I could.
Everyone had calmed down by then. Two of the girls walked around clutching stuffed dogs that bore a remarkable resemblance to Heidi. Besides that, things looked up. Someone had put on some holiday music, and someone else had thought to break out the Wild Turkey. Soon, all the nieces gathered in the den to watch 101 Dalmatians, and the adults assembled in the living room to tell dead-dog stories. Tom got the fireplace going while Jimmy told the story about his old hunting dog, Lucky. One day Lucky raced out, after a duck. The punch line came when Jimmy found him stone-cold in the high weeds and he still had the duck hanging limp in his mouth. Frank talked about the cocker spaniel Boomer, who had drowned in the neighbor’s lake. Stella even contributed a short anecdote about her dog Pepper, who had miraculously survived being run over by a thresher on her girlhood farm but hadn’t faired so well the next month under a tractor tire. They continued to tell dead-and nearly dead-dog stories late into the night.
I knew that Ted and Katie’s married life had begun to end when their beagle Boom-Boom ran out the door and down the street, never to return. Ted liked to say he was just giving Boom-Boom a head start. But Ted stuck around for another year, let Katie rack up some more credit card debt while he drank himself silly with his oil paints in the basement.
His divorce settlement reads like an episode of Dallas. What I’ve been told is Katie’s attorney did a very good job of flirting with the judge.
Ted had opened the door to air out the place because Katie hated the smell of his artwork. Boom-Boom had been trained to never run out the door, but that day something went haywire in his head. Ted didn’t notice him missing until hours later. Katie never forgave Ted. She loved Boom-Boom. To this day, she still weeps at the mere mention of that dog’s name. Mary and Sue have told me this on more than one occasion. To Mary and Sue, Katie is a perpetual homecoming queen. They’re in awe of her suburban beauty, eternally bitchy nature, and endless skills in country crafting. I must admit, Katie has a great body. She looks like an aerobics instructor—which she isn’t.
Ted’s whole family believes he is irresponsible. For a while, they sided with Katie in the divorce even though she was the one with the lover, the high-paying job, and the bad credit. I knew when Ted and I weren’t in town, his family invited Katie to family dinners, to holiday celebrations like this one. I knew if Katie was there, she’d tell the story of Boom-Boom and everyone would weep and nod and understand her anger and grief. Tonight no one mentions Boom-Boom in the dog discussion, but he lurks behind every word.
I felt uncomfortably warm. The Wild Turkey dwindled in my tumbler, and I’d had very little to eat. I loved Ted. I knew that for sure. My family thought he was the best thing since lemon butter.
He sat beside me on the couch. We were newly married. I loved the arm he had around my shoulder, the shirt he’d worn, his thigh. One of the Husbands said, “So, Jessica, you guys got a dog?”
I smiled. I said, “No, a cat. I’m not really a dog person. We have a white cat named Ishmael.”
Ted squeezed my arm in this way that meant faux pas. Stop there. Quick.
The whole family stared. Christmas lights blinked. A Husband cleared his throat. I thought about the naked shrimp piled in the dining room. Ted squeezed my arm again which meant, Say something. Anything. Right now. Save yourself, please.
So I said, “My cat, Ishmael? He can fetch. Most people don’t know you can teach cats tricks. I wad up a piece of paper, throw it across the room, and he runs over, picks it up in his little mouth, and trots it right back. He drops it at my feet so I can throw it again.” I looked around the room at all the blank faces, cheeks made bright pink from the crackling fire. Finally, I said, “I didn’t know Heidi personally, but I’m sure she was a very special dog.”
Frank cleared his throat, fiddling with the dog in his pocket. A sign. And like magic, conversation began again without me.
Dracula’s Guest was excised from the original Dracula manuscript by its publisher because of the length of the original book. It was published as a short story in 1914, two years after Stoker’s death.
When we started for our drive the sun was shining brightly on Munich, and the air was full of the joyousness of early summer.
Just as we were about to depart, Herr Delbruck (the maitre d’hotel of the Quatre Saisons, where I was staying) came down bareheaded to the carriage and, after wishing me a pleasant drive, said to the coachman, still holding his hand on the handle of the carriage door, “Remember you are back by nightfall. The sky looks bright but there is a shiver in the north wind that says there may be a sudden storm. But I am sure you will not be late.” Here he smiled and added, “for you know what night it is.”
Johann answered with an emphatic, “Ja, mein Herr,” and, touching his hat, drove off quickly. When we had cleared the town, I said, after signalling to him to stop:
“Tell me, Johann, what is tonight?”
He crossed himself, as he answered laconically: “Walpurgis nacht.” Then he took out his watch, a great, old-fashioned German silver thing as big as a turnip and looked at it, with his eyebrows gathered together and a little impatient shrug of his shoulders. I realized that this was his way of respectfully protesting against the unnecessary delay and sank back in the carriage, merely motioning him to proceed. He started off rapidly, as if to make up for lost time. Every now and then the horses seemed to throw up their heads and sniff the air suspiciously. On such occasions I often looked round in alarm. The road was pretty bleak, for we were traversing a sort of high windswept plateau. As we drove, I saw a road that looked but little used and which seemed to dip through a little winding valley. It looked so inviting that, even at the risk of offending him, I called Johann to stop—and when he had pulled up, I told him I would like to drive down that road. He made all sorts of excuses and frequently crossed himself as he spoke. This somewhat piqued my curiosity, so I asked him various questions. He answered fencingly and repeatedly looked at his watch in protest.
Finally I said, “Well, Johann, I want to go down this road. I shall not ask you to come unless you like; but tell me why you do not like to go, that is all I ask.” For answer he seemed to throw himself off the box, so quickly did he reach the ground. Then he stretched out his hands appealingly to me and implored me not to go. There was just enough of English mixed with the German for me to understand the drift of his talk. He seemed always just about to tell me something—the very idea of which evidently frightened him; but each time he pulled himself up saying, “Walpurgis nacht!”
I tried to argue with him, but it was difficult to argue with a man when I did not know his language. The advantage certainly rested with him, for although he began to speak in English, of a very crude and broken kind, he always got excited and broke into his native tongue—and every time he did so, he looked at his watch. Then the horses became restless and sniffed the air. At this he grew very pale, and, looking around in a frightened way, he suddenly jumped forward, took them by the bridles, and led them on some twenty feet. I followed and asked why he had done this. For an answer he crossed himself, pointed to the spot we had left, and drew his carriage in the direction of the other road, indicating a cross, and said, first in German, then in English, “Buried him—him what killed themselves.”
I remembered the old custom of burying suicides at cross roads: “Ah! I see, a suicide. How interesting!” But for the life of me I could not make out why the horses were frightened.
Whilst we were talking, we heard a sort of sound between a yelp and a bark. It was far away; but the horses got very restless, and it took Johann all his time to quiet them. He was pale and said, “It sounds like a wolf—but yet there are no wolves here now.”
“No?” I said, questioning him. “Isn’t it long since the wolves were so near the city?”
“Long, long,” he answered, “in the spring and summer; but with the snow the wolves have been here not so long.”
Whilst he was petting the horses and trying to quiet them, dark clouds drifted rapidly across the sky. The sunshine passed away, and a breath of cold wind seemed to drift over us. It was only a breath, however, and more of a warning than a fact, for the sun came out brightly again.
Johann looked under his lifted hand at the horizon and said, “The storm of snow, he comes before long time.” Then he looked at his watch again, and, straightway holding his reins firmly—for the horses were still pawing the ground restlessly and shaking their
heads—he climbed to his box as though the time had come for proceeding on our journey.
I felt a little obstinate and did not at once get into the carriage.
“Tell me,” I said, “about this place where the road leads,” and I pointed down.
Again he crossed himself and mumbled a prayer before he answered,
“It is unholy.”
“What is unholy?” I enquired.
“Then there is a village?”
“No, no. No one lives there hundreds of years.”
My curiosity was piqued, “But you said there was a village.”
“Where is it now?”
Whereupon he burst out into a long story in German and English, so mixed up that I could not quite understand exactly what he said. Roughly I gathered that long ago, hundreds of years, men had died there and been buried in their graves; but sounds were heard under the clay, and when the graves were opened, men and women were found rosy with life and their mouths red with blood. And so, in haste to save their lives (aye, and their souls!—and here he crossed himself) those who were left fled away to other places, where the living lived and the dead were dead and not—not something. He was evidently afraid to speak the last words. As he proceeded with his narration, he grew more and more excited. It seemed as if his imagination had got hold of him, and he ended in a perfect paroxysm of fear-white-faced, perspiring, trembling, and looking round him as if expecting that some dreadful presence would manifest itself there in the bright sunshine on the open plain.
Finally, in an agony of desperation, he cried, “Walpurgis nacht!” and pointed to the carriage for me to get in.
All my English blood rose at this, and standing back I said, “You are afraid, Johann—you are afraid. Go home, I shall return alone, the walk will do me good.” The carriage door was open. I took from the seat my oak walking stick–which I always carry on my holiday excursions—and closed the door, pointing back to Munich, and said, “Go home, Johann—Walpurgis nacht doesn’t concern Englishmen.”
The horses were now more restive than ever, and Johann was trying to hold them in, while excitedly imploring me not to do anything so foolish. I pitied the poor fellow, he was so deeply in earnest; but all the same I could not help laughing. His English was quite gone now. In his anxiety he had forgotten that his only means of making me understand was to talk my language, so he jabbered away in his native German. It began to be a little tedious. After giving the direction, “Home!” I turned to go down the cross road into the valley.
With a despairing gesture, Johann turned his horses towards Munich. I leaned on my stick and looked after him. He went slowly along the road for a while, then there came over the crest of the hill a man tall and thin. I could see so much in the distance. When he drew near the horses, they began to jump and kick about, then to scream with terror. Johann could not hold them in; they bolted down the road, running away madly. I watched them out of sight, then looked for the stranger; but I found that he, too, was gone.
With a light heart I turned down the side road through the deepening valley to which Johann had objected. There was not the slightest reason, that I could see, for his objection; and I daresay I tramped for a couple of hours without thinking of time or distance and certainly without seeing a person or a house. So far as the place was concerned, it was desolation itself. But I did not notice this particularly till, on turning a bend in the road, I came upon a scattered fringe of wood; then I recognized that I had been impressed unconsciously by the desolation of the region through which I had passed.
I sat down to rest myself and began to look around. It struck me that it was considerably colder than it had been at the commencement of my walk—a sort of sighing sound seemed to be around me with, now and then, high overhead, a sort of muffled roar. Looking upwards I noticed that great thick clouds were drafting rapidly across the sky from north to south at a great height. There were signs of a coming storm in some lofty stratum of the air. I was a little chilly, and, thinking that it was the sitting still after the exercise of walking, I resumed my journey.
The ground I passed over was now much more picturesque. There were no striking objects that the eye might single out, but in all there was a charm of beauty. I took little heed of time, and it was only when the deepening twilight forced itself upon me that I began to think of how Ishould find my way home. The air was cold, and the drifting of clouds high overhead was more marked. They were accompanied by a sort of far away rushing sound, through which seemed to come at intervals that mysterious cry which the driver had said came from a wolf. For a while I hesitated. I had said I would see the deserted village, so on I went and presently came on a wide stretch of open country, shut in by hills all around. Their sides were covered with trees which spread down to the plain, dotting in clumps the gentler slopes and hollows which showed here and there. I followed with my eye the winding of the road and saw that it curved close to one of the densest of these clumps and was lost behind it.
As I looked there came a cold shiver in the air, and the snow began to fall. I thought of the miles and miles of bleak country I had passed, and then hurried on to seek shelter of the wood in front. Darker and darker grew the sky, and faster and heavier fell the snow, till the earth before and around me was a glistening white carpet the further edge of which was lost in misty vagueness. The road was here but crude, and when on the level its boundaries were not so marked as when it passed through the cuttings; and in a little while I found that I must have strayed from it, for I missed underfoot the hard surface, and my feet sank deeper in the grass and moss. Then the wind grew stronger and blew with ever increasing force, till I was fain to run before it. The air became icy cold, and in spite of my exercise I began to suffer. The snow was now falling so thickly and whirling around me in such rapid eddies that I could hardly keep my eyes open. Every now and then the heavens were torn asunder by vivid lightning, and in the flashes I could see ahead of me a great mass of trees, chiefly yew and cypress all heavily coated with snow.
I was soon amongst the shelter of the trees, and there in comparative silence I could hear the rush of the wind high overhead. Presently the blackness of the storm had become merged in the darkness of the night. By-and-by the storm seemed to be passing away, it now only came in fierce puffs or blasts. At such moments the weird sound of the wolf appeared to be echoed by many similar sounds around me.
Now and again, through the black mass of drifting cloud, came a straggling ray of moonlight which lit up the expanse and showed me that I was at the edge of a dense mass of cypress and yew trees. As the snow had ceased to fall, I walked out from the shelter and began to investigate more closely. It appeared to me that, amongst so many old foundations as I had passed, there might be still standing a house in which, though in ruins, I could find some sort of shelter for a while. As I skirted the edge of the copse, I found that a low wall encircled it, and following this I presently found an opening. Here the cypresses formed an alley leading up to a square mass of some kind of building. Just as I caught sight of this, however, the drifting clouds obscured the moon, and I passed up the path in darkness. The wind must have grown colder, for I felt myself shiver as I walked; but there was hope of shelter, and I groped my way blindly on.
I stopped, for there was a sudden stillness. The storm had passed; and, perhaps in sympathy with nature’s silence, my heart seemed to cease to beat. But this was only momentarily; for suddenly the moonlight broke through the clouds showing me that I was in a graveyard and that the square object before me was a great massive tomb of marble, as white as the snow that lay on and all around it. With the moonlight there came a fierce sigh of the storm which appeared to resume its course with a long, low howl, as of many dogs or wolves. I was awed and shocked, and I felt the cold perceptibly grow upon me till it seemed to grip me by the heart. Then while the flood of moonlight still fell on the marble tomb, the storm gave further evidence of renewing, as though it were returning on its track. Impelled by some sort of fascination, I approached the sepulchre to see what it was and why such a thing stood alone in such a place. I walked around it and read, over the Doric door, in German:
COUNTESS DOLINGEN OF GRATZ
SOUGHT AND FOUND DEATH
On the top of the tomb, seemingly driven through the solid marble—for the structure was composed of a few vast blocks of stone—was a great iron spike or stake. On going to the back I saw, graven in great Russian letters:
THE DEAD TRAVEL FAST.
There was something so weird and uncanny about the whole thing that it gave me a turn and made me feel quite faint. I began to wish, for the first time, that I had taken Johann’s advice. Here a thought struck me, which came under almost mysterious circumstances and with a terrible shock. This was Walpurgis Night!
Walpurgis Night was when, according to the belief of millions of people, the devil was abroad–when the graves were opened and the dead came forth and walked. When all evil things of earth and air and water held revel. This very place the driver had specially shunned. This was the depopulated village of centuries ago. This was where the suicide lay; and this was the place where I was alone–unmanned, shivering with cold in a shroud of snow with a wild storm gathering again upon me! It took all my philosophy, all the religion I had been taught, all my courage, not to collapse in a paroxysm of fright.
And now a perfect tornado burst upon me. The ground shook as though thousands of horses thundered across it; and this time the storm bore on its icy wings, not snow, but great hailstones which drove with such violence that they might have come from the thongs of
Balearic slingers–hailstones that beat down leaf and branch and made the shelter of the cypresses of no more avail than though their stems were standing corn. At the first I had rushed to the nearest tree; but I was soon fain to leave it and seek the only spot that seemed to afford refuge, the deep Doric doorway of the marble tomb. There, crouching against the massive bronze door, I gained a certain amount of protection from the beating of the hailstones, for now they only drove against me as they ricochetted from the ground and the side of the marble.
As I leaned against the door, it moved slightly and opened inwards. The shelter of even a tomb was welcome in that pitiless tempest and I was about to enter it when there came a flash of forked lightning that lit up the whole expanse of the heavens. In the instant, as I am a living man, I saw, as my eyes turned into the darkness of the tomb, a beautiful woman with rounded cheeks and red lips, seemingly sleeping on bier. As the thunder broke overhead, I was grasped as by the hand of a giant and hurled out into the storm. The whole thing was so sudden that, before I could realize the shock, moral as well as physical, I found the hailstones beating me down. At the same time I had a strange, dominating feeling that I was not alone. I looked towards the tomb. Just then there came another blinding flash which seemed to strike the iron stake that surmounted the tomb and to pour through to the earth, blasting and crumbling the marble, as in a burst of flame. The dead woman rose for a moment of agony while she waslapped in the flame, and her bitter scream of pain was drowned in the thundercrash. The last thing I heard was this mingling of dreadful sound, as again I was seized in the giant grasp and dragged away, while the hailstones beat on me and the air around seemed reverberant with the howling of wolves. The last sight that I remembered was a vague, white, moving mass, as if all the graves around me had sent out the phantoms of their sheeted dead, and that they were closing in on me through the white cloudiness of the driving hail.
Gradually there came a sort of vague beginning of consciousness, then a sense of weariness that was dreadful. For a time I remembered nothing, but slowly my senses returned. My feet seemed positively racked with pain, yet I could not move them. They seemed to be numbed. There was an icy feeling at the back of my neck and all down my spine, and my ears, like my feet, were dead yet in torment; but there was in my breast a sense of warmth which was by comparison delicious. It was as a nightmare—a physical nightmare, if one may use such an expression; for some heavy weight on my chest made it difficult for me to breathe.
This period of semilethargy seemed to remain a long time, and as it faded away I must have slept or swooned. Then came a sort of loathing, like the first stage of seasickness, and a wild desire to be free of something—I knew not what. A vast stillness enveloped me, as though all the world were asleep or dead—only broken by thelow panting as of some animal close to me. I felt a warm rasping at my throat, then came a consciousness of the awful truth which chilled me to the heart and sent the blood surging up through my brain. Some great animal was lying on me and now licking my throat. I feared to stir, for some instinct of prudence bade me lie still; but the brute seemed to realize that there was now some change in me, for it raised its head. Through my eyelashes I saw above me the two great flaming eyes of a gigantic wolf. Its sharp white teeth gleamed in the gaping red mouth, and I could feel its hot breath fierce and acrid upon me.
For another spell of time I remembered no more. Then I became conscious of a low growl, followed by a yelp, renewed again and again. Then seemingly very far away, I heard a “Holloa! holloa!” as of many voices calling in unison. Cautiously I raised my head and looked in the direction whence the sound came, but the cemetery blocked my view. The wolf still continued to yelp in a strange way, and a red glare began to move round the grove of cypresses, as though following the sound. As the voices drew closer, the wolf yelped faster and louder. I feared to make either sound or motion. Nearer came the red glow over the white pall which stretched into the darkness around me. Then all at once from beyond the trees there came at a trot a troop of horsemen bearing torches. The wolf rose from my breast and made for the cemetery. I saw one of the horsemen (soldiers by their caps and their long military cloaks) raise his carbine and take aim. A companion knocked up his arm, and I heard the ball whiz over my head. He had evidently taken my body for that of the wolf. Another sighted the animal as it slunk away, and a shot followed. Then, at a gallop, the troop rode forward—some towards me, others following the wolf as it disappeared amongst the snow-clad cypresses.
As they drew nearer I tried to move but was powerless, although I could see and hear all thatwent on around me. Two or three of the soldiers jumped from their horses and knelt beside me. One of them raised my head and placed his hand over my heart.
“Good news, comrades!” he cried. “His heart still beats!”
Then some brandy was poured down my throat; it put vigor into me, and I was able to open my eyes fully and look around. Lights and shadows were moving among the trees, and I heard men call to one another. They drew together, uttering frightened exclamations; and the lights flashed as the others came pouring out of the cemetery pell-mell, like men possessed. When the further ones came close to us, those who were around me asked them eagerly, “Well, have you found him?”
The reply rang out hurriedly, “No! no! Come away quick–quick! This is no place to stay, and on this of all nights!”
“What was it?” was the question, asked in all manner of keys. The answer came variously and all indefinitely as though the men were moved by some common impulse to speak yet were restrained by some common fear from giving their thoughts.
“It—it—indeed!” gibbered one, whose wits had plainly given out for the moment.
“A wolf–and yet not a wolf!” another put in shudderingly.
“No use trying for him without the sacred bullet,” a third remarked in a more ordinary manner.
“Serve us right for coming out on this night! Truly we have earned our thousand marks!” were the ejaculations of a fourth.
“There was blood on the broken marble,” another said after a pause, “the lightning never brought that there. And for him—is he safe? Look at his throat! See comrades, the wolf has been lying on him and keeping his blood warm.”
The officer looked at my throat and replied, “He is all right, the skin is not pierced. What does it all mean? We should never have found him but for the yelping of the wolf.”
“What became of it?” asked the man who was holding up my head and who seemed the least panic-stricken of the party, for his hands were steady and without tremor. On his sleeve was the chevron of a petty officer.
“It went home,” answered the man, whose long face was pallid and who actually shook with terror as he glanced around him fearfully. “There are graves enough there in which it may lie. Come, comrades—come quickly! Let us leave this cursed spot.”
The officer raised me to a sitting posture, as he uttered a word of command; then several men placed me upon a horse. He sprang to the saddle behind me, took me in his arms, gave the word to advance; and, turning our faces away from the cypresses, we rode away in swift military order.
As yet my tongue refused its office, and I was perforce silent. I must have fallen asleep; for the next thing I remembered was finding myself standing up, supported by a soldier on each side of me. It was almost broad daylight, and to the north a red streak of sunlight was reflected like a path of blood over the waste of snow. The officer was telling the men to say nothing of what they had seen, except that they found an English stranger, guarded by a large dog.
“Dog! that was no dog,” cut in the man who had exhibited such fear. “I think I know a wolf when I see one.”
The young officer answered calmly, “I said a dog.”
“Dog!” reiterated the other ironically. It was evident that his courage was rising with the sun; and, pointing to me, he said, “Look at his throat. Is that the work of a dog, master?”
Instinctively I raised my hand to my throat, and as I touched it I cried out in pain. The men crowded round to look, some stooping down from their saddles; and again there came the calm voice of the young officer, “A dog, as I said. If aught else were said we should only be laughed at.”
I was then mounted behind a trooper, and we rode on into the suburbs of Munich. Here we came across a stray carriage into which I was lifted, and it was driven off to the Quatre Saisons—the young officer accompanying me, whilst a trooper followed with his horse, and the others rode off to their barracks.
When we arrived, Herr Delbruck rushed so quickly down the steps to meet me, that it was apparent he had been watching within. Taking me by both hands he solicitously led me in. The officer saluted me and was turning to withdraw, when I recognized his purpose and insisted that he should come to my rooms. Over a glass of wine I warmly thanked him and his brave comrades for saving me. He replied simply that he was more than glad, and that Herr Delbruck had at the first taken steps to make all the searching party pleased; at which ambiguous utterance the maitre d’hotel smiled, while the officer pleaded duty and withdrew.
“But Herr Delbruck,” I enquired, “how and why was it that the soldiers searched for me?”
He shrugged his shoulders, as if in depreciation of his own deed, as he replied, “I was so fortunate as to obtain leave from the commander of the regiment in which I serve, to ask for volunteers.”
“But how did you know I was lost?” I asked.
“The driver came hither with the remains of his carriage, which had been upset when the horses ran away.”
“But surely you would not send a search party of soldiers merely on this account?”
“Oh, no!” he answered, “but even before the coachman arrived, I had this telegram from the Boyar whose guest you are,” and he took from his pocket a telegram which he handed to me, and I read:
Be careful of my guest—his safety is most precious to me. Should aught happen to him, or if he be missed, spare nothing to find him and ensure his safety. He is English and therefore adventurous. There are often dangers from snow and wolves and night. Lose not a moment if you suspect harm to him. I answer your zeal with my fortune.
As I held the telegram in my hand, the room seemed to whirl around me, and if the attentive maitre d’hotel had not caught me, I think I should have fallen. There was something so strange in all this, something so weird and impossible to imagine, that there grew on me a sense of my being in some way the sport of opposite forces—the mere vague idea of which seemed in a way to paralyze me. I was certainly under some form of mysterious protection. From a distant country had come, in the very nick of time, a message that took me out of the danger of the snow sleep and the jaws of the wolf.