My hatred for Agnes led directly to our family’s appearance on Oprah. You’d say, oh, you didn’t hate her; she was just your older sister. But she was not my older sister. She looked older, but I was the elder by two years. No matter. People thought she was prettier, older, smarter. It didn’t matter that I got better grades, that I was three classes ahead of her. It didn’t matter, for example, that the Antropolis was my idea.
Everyone credited Agnes with the Antropolis, even my parents and Uncle Hayward, but I made it up one night as I read Kid’s Life with a penlight under my covers. I lifted a corner of the blanket so I could see Agnes where she sat cross-legged on my bedroom floor, braiding her long hair.
I said, “You know what’s a good idea, Agnes?” “What, Hannah?”
“If we made ant farms and sold them for twice as much money.” She wrinkled her nose, disgusted. “Ants are grody.”
Grody. That was her word, direct quote. But the next day she was telling Uncle Hayward all about it. He had arrived recently from the city to settle what he called “rambunctious nerves.” He thought the ants were a brilliant idea. He ordered the kits, which included special soil and food, a thin plastic farm, and about twenty-five Western-Harvester ants per purchase. He opened one door of our four-door garage and for days we swept and organized. He read us the directions for taking care of the ants, and even though I understood them from the get-go, Agnes had him repeat everything at least three times.
“But why do they die so fast?” she whined. She didn’t like that the ants only lived a month or so in the farms, and I admit I didn’t like it either, but while I understood this as merely a fact of life, Agnes was practically slitting her wrists over it.
“Without a queen,” Uncle Hayward said, “they just don’t live as long.” From where I stood next to the garage’s chest freezer, I sighed and scratched at my elbow. Hayward was my favorite uncle, but he could be so annoyingly patient with Agnes.
He continued, “The company that we order the ants from doesn’t permit us to order queens.”
“But why not?” Agnes continued, even though he’d already explained this earlier that week.
“Because, stupid,” I said, “they might run rampant and then cause severe ecological damage.” I was good at quoting pamphlets directly. It was a photographic trait that drove my teachers and peers nuts. “Like fire ants, for example, or killer bees in Texas.”
Hayward patted my head in a way that made me feel less smart than I sounded. “Maybe if you girls learn something from these ant-kits, you can start digging up your own ants and find a queen, yourselves.”
I liked this idea. I foresaw huge glimmering dollar signs. “Don’t order any more ants,” I told Hayward. “I’ll supply the ants from now on.”
At first, our parents were skeptical of the whole ant farm idea. Hayward argued for us.
“It’s a great summer project. The girls will learn a ton.”
Though Dad respected Hayward as a businessman, he questioned his rationality. “I don’t want ants all over my garage,” he growled.
“There are ants all over your garage. Only these ants will be in tightly-sealed cases.”
Dad shook his head.
Hayward pressed, “Don’t you want the girls to learn fiscal responsibility? Customer-service relations? Respect for God’s creatures?”
Mom said to him, “What do you care, Brett? You’re never home anyway.”
Dad sold medical equipment to hospitals all over the nation. He was making us, as Mom often said, “rich but unfulfilled.” Mom, herself, believed that parenting consisted of greeting us after school and sitting with us on the couch while she stared glassy-eyed at the television. She wanted us to benefit from the womanly genius of Oprah, the only black person Mom had ever regarded seriously, aside from a kid named Eldridge that I had met at Jolly Cheezers and had played with in the ball crawl. The whole way home from Jolly Cheezers, Mom had applauded herself for not being a racist. “I was happy you were playing with that child,” she told me. “I was ecstatic.” She glowed over dinner and told Dad the whole story, too, and he said, “Good for you, Martha, good for you” This was always the encouragement he gave her when his mind had wandered elsewhere.
But yes, there was Oprah, and Mom would talk to us about the virtues discussed on the show, and then there was Springer, and Mom would tsk-tsk and sigh and tell us how pitiable these lower class people could be (the poor things have never learned a modicum of morality. I mean, they have no time to think of such things). Despite her disgust, I don’t think Agnes bleeding from her ears on the couch would have torn Mom’s eyes away from the brutality of that television set. I also believe, at the time, that she thought Springer was a hottie. Once he had embraced a pear-shaped, middle-aged woman not unlike herself, who was weeping because her husband had cheated on her yet again. With a passionate gasp, Mom sank her fingers into my forearm. When she let go, there were long white claw marks where the blood used to be. I was hoping that these would turn into bruises so that I could tell the school counselor the next day. Maybe I would get invited to the Springer show myself. Or even better, because it would destroy my mother, Oprah would call and ask me to share my dreadful experiences with her. But within minutes my arm was back to normal.
At first, Mom gushed about how Uncle Hayward’s appearance in the house would be “absolutely grand.” I think she assumed he would take her side on all things, especially where her husband was concerned. But while Hayward doted on Agnes and me, he gave my parents little attention. “Your concerns are your concerns,” he told my mother, and when she retorted that his involvement with the Antropolis idea was “a stupid, horrible sign of how horribly immature” he always had been and still very much was, Uncle Hayward just laughed. Dad didn’t seem to mind Hayward’s presence so much, although sometimes he muttered things like, “Hayward seems more than a little off,” and “What sort of a man doesn’t enjoy beer?” These statements arrived at odd moments, like when he was shaving, or when he sitting by himself with the newspaper. They were always said to no one in particular. Mom said that Dad’s talking to himself was the surest sign of his megalomania.
The week before school ended, Agnes and I went around the hallways taping up hand-scrawled flyers advertising “The Antropolis!!!” I had come up with the name after rifling through hundreds of variations: Anttastic, Ant You Happy, Ants in Your Pants. Agnes had come up with one lousy name, “Antsville,” which Hayward feigned to like until I belted out, Antropolis! Agnes started crying. Hayward patted her back and said things like, “She wouldn’t have thought of it if you hadn’t said ‘Antsville,’” which was a total lie, and that “Those who succeed stand upon the shoulders of giants,” which made her a giant and me a total shrimp. I saw an ant glide beneath me on the cool pavement. I put my foot to it and wiped its guts into a sweeping frown. “Is it Antropolis or not?” I asked. Hayward nodded at me but also put a finger to his lips. I stomped into the house. Later, prompted by Hayward, Mom visited me in my room and told me not to be upset by his giving Agnes more attention. “She’s younger than you and more sensitive,” Mom said. But what she meant was “She’s stupider than you and more attractive.” I told Mom to stuff it and thus martyred myself out of a fried-chicken dinner. Dad snuck a piece to me later. He knew it was my favorite.
The week after school finished, we had a flurry of customers. The neighborhood mothers found Hayward handsome, and they couldn’t wait to sidle up to him, stroking the pearls that grew like pale tumors from their necks and wrists, and purr about what a “deliciously adorable thing” he’d done, helping darling Agnes and that (“What’s her name again? Oh yes, of course”) Hannah with such a “cute” project. I ignored these distractions. With every passing hour I grew more and more attached to my ants. A dollop of honey on the driveway lured a herd of them from the Bermuda Triangle of our lawn. Old Popsicle sticks worked well for the transfer into large mason jars. I stabbed holes in the top with needles, and sometimes you could see the little legs poking through. “Ew,” Agnes said, “grody.” Despite her fragile stomach, she helped me transplant the ants into their new homes. Occasionally we crushed them between our fingers, or smashed them with the Popsicle sticks, and then we would have a solemn ten seconds of silence for each little death. But for the most part, everything went smoothly.
It was in one of my ant-fueled reveries, wondering what made one ant happy and the next sluggish, that I discovered Custom Ant-farm Creation. I explained this to a boy from my class, a boy named Viktor who had ridden his bike all the way from the valley to see what we were doing.
“What does that mean?” he asked me, picking up a farm and shaking it like an etch-a-sketch.
“Don’t do that, please,” I said. “It agitates them.” “What does custom creation mean?”
“Well,” I explained, delighted to find an interested patron, “let’s say you don’t want any old ant farm. Let’s say you want one where the ants are happier than regular ants, like a sort of Ant Playground or something, or let’s say you want one where the ants are super hard workers, three times as fast or something. You can place the order with me. Within a week I’ll make your ant farm happy, or fast, or jumpy, or whatever.”
Viktor seemed to like this idea. He looked at my sister, who sat beside me at the table fiddling with a pencil and staring up at him like he was made of gold. “What about horny ants,” he said.
“Oh, Viktor,” I laughed, “don’t say that in front of Agnes.”
Agnes blushed and Viktor smiled. Then he said to me, “It’s not Victor. It’s Viktor.”
“That’s what I said.”
“No, you didn’t. You say it wrong. I’m Vick-TOR, and you say it ‘Vick-TER’.”
I looked confused. “What’s the difference?” “The difference,” Agnes said, “is the TOR.” My knuckles itched.
“It’s Russian,” Viktor said. “I’m a direct descendant of the Tsar.” “What Tsar?” I asked.
“What, you stupid or something?” Viktor said. Agnes giggled.
“You her older sister?” he asked her.
“She’s two years younger than me, Vick-TOR.” He whistled. “Could have fooled me.”
The thing was, I had always liked Viktor. I liked that in class he didn’t speak a lot, and that some of the other kids seemed to find him annoying. They treated him sort of the same way they treated me, as if he had a cow’s head sprouting from one shoulder. We were both skinny and pale, too. In the right light we looked translucent. I daydreamed about how our children would come out of our mansion squinting into the light, all wormy and bone-white, bitter and smart.
Agnes, of course, had pink cheeks and actual boobs. She had gotten her period a year before I’d had mine. This made her somewhat awkward in her own year, I’d noticed, but had also given her a sort of other-worldly appeal. It had been the disgrace of my life this last spring when, having discovered blood during a routine bathroom break at school, I’d had to ask my little sister for a maxi pad. She’d been friendly enough about it, but I could never shake the feeling that in the race to womanhood, I hadn’t even made the B-squad.
Boys loved Agnes, of course. A few of them, some from her class, some older, skidded their bicycles to a stop on our driveway and glanced shyly into the garage. For the next several weeks, they treated our home like the parking lot in front of Jolly Cheezers, laughing loudly and exchanging jokes and ultimately pretending not to notice Agnes when any old idiot knew they were thinking of nothing else. Agnes poured soil into the plastic farms and ignored them just as efficiently. One of those short, bratty-looking boys said, without even trying to conceal his high voice, “They can’t be sisters. Hannah’s ugly as a horse,” and then he blew such a huge snot-rocket onto the pavement that the other boys exclaimed, “Wicked!” Agnes’s head snapped toward me and she said, “They suck. Nobody likes them.” But I knew this was a lie. They were the most popular boys at school. The fact that they sought her out like so many heat-seeking missiles meant only one thing: she was the most popular girl. Over the summer, the shame, like the heat, only thickened.
After the first few weeks, the numbers of interested parties grew scarce. Uncle Hayward didn’t return the lonely mothers’ and housewives’ flirtations, so they eventually retreated back into their expensive homes. The boys on their bikes still stopped by, but having less of a people-screen to hide behind, they grew skittish like lambs and stayed for shorter and shorter periods of time. Agnes and I still spent most of our days in the garage or on the driveway. I wore bruises into my knees and palms from foraging the pavement for more ants. There were now mason jars swarming with them. I had yet to find a queen.
Even though I protested, Uncle Hayward forced us to slow production. We could search for queens, he said, but we didn’t need more ants. He also suggested we keep the ants in a shadier place. “They’ll fry like bacon,” he warned. I pinned up signs in the coolest corner of the garage. They read, in alphabetical order, “Eager Farms,” “Happy Farms,” “Hardworking Farms,” “Super Farms,” “Wonderful Farms.” Hayward asked, “What’s the difference? They’re all the same.”
I knew that was baloney. “Believe me,” I told him. “Every ant has its own personality.”
Hayward laughed and ruffled my hair. “Don’t take yourself too seriously, kiddo.”
It took all of my newfound benevolence to just grit my teeth and smile.
The good thing, at first, was that Viktor kept stopping by. One day, I showed him the Horny Ant Farm I had made (without, of course, Hayward’s knowing). When he lifted it off of my workstation and peered through the plastic walls, he only said, “Nah. There’s no humping.”
I laughed, despite feeling hurt. How was I supposed to know there should be humping? I told him, “Take it anyway. It’s a gift.”
For the first time ever, he looked straight at me. “Wow, really?
Thanks.” He tucked the farm under his arm and asked, “Where’s Agnes?” I frowned. “Who cares?” Viktor clucked his tongue and stared off into the distance. “I’m in love with her,” he said dreamily.
“You’re stupid,” I hollered at him, much louder than necessary. “She’s stupid and you’re stupider.”
Viktor frowned. “What’s your prob? You jealous? Jealous that your sister’s pretty? Jealous you’re such a rat?”
Hayward heard the yelling and came over from the yard, where he had been sunning himself and listening to the radio.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
“I was just leaving,” Viktor said, and shoved the ant farm at me. I took it from him, about to cry. “I don’t want your stupid farm. They aren’t Horny Ants. They’re Stupid Ants. Those are the only ants you can make, Hannah.”
He cycled away.
Hayward said, “Horny ants?”
“He hates me,” I wailed. Hayward sat down next to me and patted his knee. I perched there and wiped at my face. It was strange sitting on a grown man’s knee. I hadn’t sat on my own father’s knee in years.
“He doesn’t hate you,” Hayward said. “He probably has a crush on you. That’s how boys act.”
I shook my head. “Viktor likes Agnes,” I said. “All the boys do. He said,” I started crying again, “he said I was a rat.”
Hayward hugged me and kissed the back of my head. “Now, now. You don’t believe that, do you? It’s not true.” His breath smelled of Altoids and cigarettes.
“He likes her,” I said resolutely. Hayward let me go and I stood up. “He does. Just ask her.”
Hayward looked troubled. “She’s so young,” he said. “Not to him.”
“Maybe I should say something.” Hayward looked at me as though wanting my approval.
“Yes. Definitely. You should.”
I hoped a boy-related conversation with Uncle Hayward would humiliate Agnes. At least a little bit.
Then Agnes appeared on her bike, looping slowly around the driveway. “What’s wrong?” she called.
“Nothing,” I said.
“Let’s look for a queen.” She dismounted and let the bike crash to the pavement.
I wiped at my face and said okay. Even Hayward helped. I knelt at a small hole in the yard from where I had seen some ants emerge, and I waited. “There’s a queen down there,” I whispered. I was going to find her and capture her and make an ant-farm immortal. Viktor would read about me in the papers, when I had become a famous entomologist, and he would regret his terrible behavior. He would call me up and I would laugh. Then I would tell him – but right then I saw a long, strange, winged ant. It moved sluggishly from the small hole and into the light. My heart thudded. I put my hand gingerly over it. “I’ve got one!” I screamed. “I’ve got a queen!” Agnes was impressed. “That’s so cool,” she said, after we had transferred it to a farm. I was beaming. Uncle Hayward patted me on the back. “See?” he said. “Life’s not so bad.”
I shrugged. But right then, life did feel pretty great.
Later that night, the phone rang during dinner. Dad hated it when the phone rang. “For the love of Christopher,” he said, standing, “can’t a man enjoy his dinner without being interrupted?”
“You could turn the ringer off,” Mom suggested. She always suggested this.
“It could be Elias. ”This was always Dad’s reply. Elias was Dad’s boss. Moments later, Dad returned from the den. “That was some snotty-sounding kid for Agnes. A Victor or something?” “Viktor, Dad,” Agnes corrected.
“Aren’t you, what, ten years old?” Dad said. “What’s with the opposite-sex phone calls?”
Agnes looked embarrassed. “I dunno. He’s never called before.” She saw me glowering at her and said over a forkful of peas, “What, Hannah? I think he’s stupid.”
“Ha,” I said. “So do I. Too bad he loves you.”
Mom said, “Is this the little Russian boy from your class, Hannah? I find the Russians so fascinating.”
“He’s not a Russian, Mom. He’s a liar.”
“Hannah,” she scolded, “it’s not polite to disallow someone their cultural heritage.”
The whole time, Hayward sat there regarding Agnes with his face all scrunched up. His concern gathered when Dad handed her an index card complete with Viktor’s misspelled name and telephone number.
“Is this such a good idea?” Hayward asked the table. “She’s a ten-year-old girl. Perhaps it’s not such a good idea. If this boy is pursuing her, after all.”
I loved Hayward for saying this.
“Oh please, Hayward,” Dad boomed, “what sort of twelve-year-old boy could even recognize his dick in a line-up?”
Mom gasped. “Brett, please!” Then she peered closer at the index card. “Oh!” she gasped delightedly. “That’s a downtown number. You should call him, Agnes, and invite him over tomorrow. The poor thing doesn’t breathe a drop of fresh air in that neighborhood.”
Hayward put his hands over his face. I could tell he was on my side.
Later that night, while Dad snored in front of the television and Mom went to take one of her lengthy peach-smelling baths, I went to the garage to read comics with my penlight on the old sofa Hayward had stored in one corner. I had just been getting to a great scene where Antzilla crushes all those who have ever tried to smash her, when light from the kitchen fell in a yellow rectangle across the hood of Dad’s car. Hayward and Agnes entered, Hayward shutting the door softly behind them. I catapulted over the back of the couch with my comic book, and then sat cross-legged against the couch’s moldy spine. I shut off my penlight. For some reason, Hayward did not switch on the overhead lamp.
On the way to the couch, they bumped into things. Agnes said, “I’m sorta afraid of the dark.”
Uncle Hayward replied in no more than a whisper, “Don’t worry, we’re almost there.” They sat down. I could smell the rising dust.
At first, I was impressed with what Hayward was saying. He told Agnes, “It’s not right, that boy with you. It’s just not.”
“Cause he’s in Hannah’s class?”
“Well, that, and that he wants to take advantage of you.”
I imagined that Agnes was, per usual, confused by Hayward’s remarks.
“Look,” Hayward said, “some boys are nice boys. Some are mean. That Viktor. He’s a bad seed. He does not want to be nice to you, do you see? I think he wants to be mean to you.”
“But Hannah likes him,” Agnes said. After a moment’s pause, she suggested, “Maybe she should date him.”
“Sure, sure. Hannah should date him. But you’re too lovely for those boys.” I heard, then, the sound of one body snuggling closer to the other. Then Hayward grunted as if he were lifting something. My eyes slowly adjusted to the dark. It took me a moment to figure out that Agnes was now seated squarely on Hayward’s lap, both of them facing away from me.
In the dark, her head appeared to be growing from out of his right shoulder.
“I want to be nice to you,” he said. “You’re always nice, Uncle Hayward.” “Do you want me to be nice to you?”
“Well, sure.” Agnes’s voice sounded tighter now, almost annoyed. Then she said, as though eager for a subject change, “Isn’t it cool that Hannah found a queen?”
Hayward’s voice was muffled, in her hair or something. “That wasn’t a queen. I didn’t want to tell her, the poor thing, but that was just a young male ant. You need to dig up a queen, you know. They look almost the same, I guess, but you’re not going to find some queen just randomly roaming around.”
“Oh,” Agnes said. “Sucky.”
“Our little secret, though, right?” Hayward whispered this. I could hear his hands groping.
The tips of my ears flushed hot. I thought about the winged ant, something that looks special, but really is not. I bit my lip to keep from bawling. I wanted to believe that Hayward was wrong, but some dark part of me knew that he was right.
A“That tickles,” Agnes said. I could see that she was squirming.
“Just be quiet for a moment. Let me be nice to you.” He shuffled around on the couch again. “The most beautiful little girl. The most precious thing.”
I hated him so much. The most beautiful little girl. The most precious thing. I groped around for something, anything, to hurt him with, and what I came up with was one of my mason jars filled with about three-hundred ants. I unscrewed the jar. The lid made a rasping sound, the air escaping in one soft sigh, smelling sour like pee. Agnes said, “What was that?” but Uncle Hayward panted loudly in her ear, “I should stop. I should really stop,” and she said, sounding bored, “This is sorta weird. I want to go in now, Uncle Hayward.” I squatted behind them and turned over the jar right above the dark heavy line of his shoulders. The next second they were up on their feet, and he was screaming. The garage flooded with light. Dad stood at the top of the stairs, gaping. When my eyes adjusted, I saw Agnes standing there calmly, blinking, with part of her t-shirt pushed over the top of her right boob. Hayward was shaking himself and tearing off his shirt and begging for help.
“What’s going on here?” Dad roared.
“Hayward was being nice to me,” Agnes said, not without disgust. Ants glided from the open mason jar onto my fingers and up my arm. Dad stared, silent. Hayward wept and squirmed. Mom materialized and the sounds grew loud and sharp. Somehow Agnes and I were ushered inside. We sat on the floor of my bedroom together and said nothing. She picked an ant out of my hair and asked if I wanted to play cards. I said okay.
That was the last time we ever saw Hayward. The next day, while Mom continued to panic and make doctor’s appointment after doctor’s appointment for Agnes, Dad tossed out all of our ant farms. I asked if I could keep even one, the one with the winged ant, and he said “No.” Agnes tried to come to my defense. “But the ants were what saved me,” she said. But even her perfect charm failed. Dad would have none of it.
Agnes, of course, was fine. “He only kissed my neck and touched my boob,” Agnes said. I said to her, and also to Mom, “He kissed me, too.” Mom didn’t seem too worried about me. She wrote a letter to Oprah, describing how her brother had molested her littlest daughter without her even realizing it. “And under my own roof, Oprah!” One of Oprah’s representatives called a couple of weeks later and asked if they’d come on a special show, “Blind Mothers, Molested Daughters.” Mom was ecstatic. I asked if I was going to be on the show, too. She said no.
Dad and I flew to Chicago with them, anyway. We watched the show from a fancy hotel. Dad seemed embarrassed, seeing them on-screen. Mom was so excited that she couldn’t stop grinning, even when Agnes told Oprah, “Then he touched my boob and kissed my neck.”
Dad said, “Your mother looks psychotic.”
When they came back, we all went for a walk on the lake. Mom and Dad sat on a park bench and watched us from afar.
“Did you see the show?” Agnes asked. She was sullen. “Yeah.”
“Did you hear what I said about you?” I shook my head.
“Maybe they cut it. I told them you saved me. You and the ants.” “Really?”
We walked along silently, kicking at stones. “I guess it must kind of suck for you,” I said.
“Nah. One of the girls on the show I felt so sorry for. Some dude stuck his wiener in her!”
“Ick,” I said. We kind of laughed.
“I can’t believe they cut that,” she said, “what I said about you.”
I didn’t exactly trust her, but it made me kinder toward her. Even if she hadn’t told Oprah that I was her hero, she had at least admitted it to me. I would always have one-up on her for that.
We stood at the water’s edge and let it lick the tips of our sandals. “This water smells like bird poop,” I said.
“I wish I could lop these things off and toss them into the waves.” She was looking down at her breasts.
I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t tell if this was all a performance or not.
We went back to the hotel and ordered cokes and chicken-strips and French fries with extra ketchup through room service. When we had successfully pigged-out, Agnes and I put on our pajamas and brushed our teeth. Mom and Dad went to the bar downstairs, saying they’d be back soon. “Don’t let anyone in here,” Mom warned. The heavy door locked squarely behind them.
Alone, we flipped through all of the channels that we weren’t supposed to watch. In the scratchy grayness of one station, the screen swarming with herds of black ants, we could hear moans, and we could see a thigh here, a breast there, slightly unfamiliar game pieces of shuddering bodies.
“Shut it off,” Agnes said. I did.
I wouldn’t mind taking orders from her sometimes. If I could be her hero, then that meant she was salvageable. It wasn’t too hard to accept surrender then. But there were times, following, when out of either anger or pity I almost admitted, Hey, I saved you for all the wrong reasons.
*This story is taken from: Favorite Monster © 2012 by Sharma Shields, Autumn House Press.
“Sonya, how could you? How can you wear those short dresses covered with pea-green dots?”
“Sonya, have you said your prayers?”
“Sonya, how can you listen to those fascists?”
“Sonya, have you read Sholem Aleichem?”
“Sonya, what are you eating? That’s not kosher!”
“Bubbe, I like peas on me, not in me.”
“How long can this go on? I can’t stand it!”
“It’s Wagner, Bach! They weren’t fascists. It’s not their fault they were born Germans and not Jews.”
“He’s writing about love and I don’t know what that is yet. I don’t understand what he’s saying.”
“But Bubbe, it tastes so good!”
I — Sonya — and my grandmother— Gittel Yakovlevna— live in a communal apartment in Odessa. I’m 15 years old, taking drum lessons but Bubbe thinks they’re piano lessons. I have unusual blonde hair and blue eyes. In my passport it says “Jewish,” but in Odessa they think I’m the illegitimate daughter of a German who lived here more than a quarter century ago.
If it weren’t for the line in my passport, the Torah my grandmother gave me on my third birthday, the endless Sholem Aleichem on the bookshelves, attendance at the synagogue and the lighting of Sabbath candles, I’d think I was German, but the way things are — I don’t think I’m German.
There’s a boy in my class who is also Jewish. I can’t stand him. He’s constantly pouring sand in my backpack, lifting up my dress and eating my fruit jellies in the cafeteria. But when they call Senya Hebe — that’s his real last name — when they call him “Heebie Hebe,” I go fight for him. I can’t fight at all, but I go anyway since Bubbe says that the war against the fascists started just like that — some blockhead called a Jew a “Hebe,” but no one noticed or everyone pretended like they didn’t notice. I don’t want a war. I want to live. I want to go to dances. And wear perfume. I want to learn to walk in high heels. And to kiss, to kiss — I really want to learn how to kiss.
A week ago Masha Koloradova brought a quiz to class. You know the kind — a notebook with questions like: “Who is your favorite actor?” “What’s your favorite color?” “Who do you love?” She gave it to me to fill out, and one question was, “When did you have your first kiss?” I looked at the answers of the other girls, and they all wrote things like, “A long time ago!” “A year ago,” or “When I was 12.” But I hadn’t kissed anyone. Can you imagine? I hadn’t kissed anyone, and I was so ashamed! You can’t even imagine how ashamed I was. You know what’s strange about it? I don’t know how to make borscht or use the washing machine or speak English. I’m not ashamed about that. But I’ve never kissed anyone and I’m ashamed. Really ashamed.
So that I wouldn’t embarrass myself, I wrote “When I was 11.” So? Let them envy me. No one will ever know the truth anyway.
Bubbe says that you should only kiss the one you think you’ll spend your whole life with. “So if you think you’ll spend your whole life with Fedya, kiss him,” Bubbe said. Which Fedya she had in mind, I don’t know. In fact I don’t know anyone named Fedya, but I really want to kiss. What’s it like — kissing?
When I pray before I go to bed, I don’t recite those boring old prayers that Bubbe taught me. I just talk with God. I ask to meet the one I’ll spend my life really soon with so that I can kiss him. Even if Bubbe sees. It’s good that there’s God. Even if He doesn’t exist. But the thing is, no one knows for sure. Whoever has God will never be alone. If you have God, that means you have someone to talk to. You can even imagine that He answers you.
I don’t have friends. There are kids I hang out with. We go to the movies or to the beach in the summer. I’ve got friends that I talk about acne cream with, but I don’t have a true friend — a person I can tell everything to. I keep it all inside me. Bubbe says that I’m very anti-social. I am anti-social with some people to keep from hurting them. And with others to keep from being hurt. For now, I’ve got God, and that’s the way it’s going to be. I share my secrets with Him and only Him.
Our communal apartment has five rooms, one kitchen, three stoves, one toilet and an old shower that breaks all the time. The line for the toilet can only be compared to the line outside the shop around the corner in the morning when they deliver fresh bread. All of world literature can be found in our toilet, beginning with Hugo and ending with Dostoevsky. But our neighbors love Chekhov’s short stories most of all.
“The man didn’t write bricks like comrade Tolstoy. He wrote normal-sized little stones — you have your morning movement and are five pages better read,” Isaak Fishilevich said. He lives in the room across the hall from us. He is, by the way, a decorated veterinarian and humanist.
I have the worst luck — someone always wants to use the toilet when I do. If I go first, after five minutes someone starts knocking on the door. If I go after someone else, after someone else you could die of asphyxiation. Only Uncle Isaak, the humanist, is tactful. He holds it. He holds it in and waits. So you can imagine my surprise when I saw Uncle Isaak carrying “Mein Kampf” in his string bag a while back. He bought it at the flea market. But when I went into our crapper I saw little cut-up pieces of paper in place of toilet paper. That was “Mein Kampf.” The paper was rough, but I left with a sense of duty well done and the image of dozens of little scraps floating down the sewer. In the symbolic battle, fascism lay dead on the dung pile.
Bubbe is 78 years old. She still puts on lipstick, puts combs in her hair, and buys lacy bras. Not for men! For herself. Bubbe says that she still feels like a woman thanks to her foundation garments. Men adore her. Bubbe still smokes, even today — she uses a cigarette holder. In the evenings she goes to the park to play card games and dominos with the men. She has beautiful large eyes, gray hair and a bedroom voice. People who don’t know her think that when she was young she sang arias, had affairs, and walked around in furs and jewels. I don’t know if that’s true or not. Bubbe doesn’t tell me. She doesn’t tell anyone anything. Probably her best friend is God, too.
Bubbe always tells me, “Smile even when you feel bad! Better people should envy you than feel sorry for you.” I never talked about sex with Bubbe. I always thought that she didn’t even know the word. But yesterday she told me, “I won’t tell you anything about sex. When you have a husband, let him tell you and show you. And even if you know everything about sex before you meet your husband, don’t say a thing. Keep your mouth shut and listen to your husband! If you want a smart husband, you have to be a little fool.”
Bubbe is considered wise. But you ought to see her in the morning — when she’s looking for yesterday. That’s what she calls it. She flips through all her books and turns her clothes inside out searching for her pension money and glasses. Bubbe is losing her memory. One old lady from Odessa, when she saw grandmother go by, she whispered in that way that is always really loud, “Old prostitute!” and she hissed like a snake, you know? I always want to walk up to her and punch her big nose, but Bubbe stops me, turns to face her and says, “Musichka, darling, it’s not my fault that in fifty-six Lenya Utesov fell in love with my tush and not your bones.” The old snake hisses even more as we walk away with our heads proudly held high and our tushes swaying.
Men still look adoringly at my grandmother, but I’m not pretty. When she hears me say I’m not pretty, she tells me I’m stupid. “Not only am I not pretty, I’m stupid, too. I’ve got the whole package!” I tell her. Then Bubbe takes me by the hand over to the mirror. “Look at my big nose,” she says. I look and see that her nose is big. “Look at my eyes,” she tells me. I look and see that the left is bigger than the right one, or the right is smaller than the left. “Look at my lips.” I look and see that they are thin and wrinkled. Grandmother seats me in a chair and smiles, and then she begins to walk around the room. You should see her walk! She’s a goddess! She sits on the edge of a chair and lights a cigarette. Her fingers, her neck, an untidy hair across her face… Oh, gods! I don’t see her big nose, or notice that her eyes are different, or see her thin lips. Sometimes I think she isn’t getting old, she’s just maturing. She’s maturing beautifully. “A person is beautiful on the outside when they aren’t rotting on the inside,” Bubbe says. “You’re like wine — you get better with age. But I’m like meat — I spoil the older I get,” I tell her.
It was autumn. It was raining. Yellow leaves stuck to my boots and didn’t want to let them go. I was sad, really sad for the first time. Like when it’s empty inside and you want to howl. I both wanted to hide and for someone to hug me without asking any questions. I wanted to be silent and scream at the same time. I headed for the sea. I got to the shore. I took off my boots and began to walk along the sand. I got a razor out of my pocket (I took it from home, special), took off my coat, and rolled up the sleeves of my chiffon blouse. Veins. My green veins. You could see them so easily. In a movie once I saw a razor gliding beautifully through veins. Like a knife through soft butter. I lowered the razor. One more centimeter and it would slide through butter.
The neighbor’s boy ran into our courtyard and rang the doorbell to our apartment. Our bright room, Bubbe putting on lipstick. “Do you know what happened? Did you see what your Sonya did,” Dima asked. “Gittel! Gittel! Did you see? Did you see Sonya? We warned you, didn’t we? We told you she could get up to anything,” our neighbor said. All our neighbors ran into our room and asked Bubbe the same questions, but no one dared to say what happened. They were afraid. Bubbe got up, walked up to the window and saw me. Sonya! Her Sonya! Holding a bouquet of yellow flowers with a shaved head. She started to laugh so hard that she could only say, “Well, maybe now my Sonya will start to wear a hat.”
That was the first debilitating depression. The first time I left home. With a razor. The first time I brought Bubbe flowers for no reason. The first time a razor came so close to my veins. Like in a movie.
But I’m afraid of pain.
I want to live. I want to go to dances. I want to wear perfume. I want to learn how to walk in heels. And to kiss — I really want to learn how to kiss.
I didn’t tell anyone what I wanted to do to myself. Only He and I knew about it. Later I was so ashamed before Him and Bubbe. And the stray dog Velvet, who I feed. If I didn’t feed her she might die. When winter came, I felt fine.
I love winter. In winter everything’s more straight-forward. Women don’t bare their legs and shoulders. Men don’t have to look at naked women’s bodies or shout vulgar things after high heels. All that’s left are eyes — sad, playful, varied — and desires, all cloaked by garments and God, who lives inside everyone. I love a lot of clothing on me and chicken is more expensive in the winter, so we don’t buy it often. And that’s good! In the summer chicken is cheaper, and Bubbe can’t cook anything but chicken and chicken cutlets. It’s chicken morning, noon and night. That poor, poor bird. And poor, poor Sonya. The bird and I are unhappy for the same reason: because I eat it.
Yesterday my favorite ballet troupe came to Odessa. Bubbe doesn’t like them. She says that before they go on stage they take or sniff something. But I sat in the upper balcony and wept, and then laughed, and then wept again. I want to live my life on stage to that music, with those people, in that dance. But I have to go to synagogue. Today is Friday and almost the Sabbath.
Bubbe sat like usual with her cigarette holder and barely smiled. My hair had grown out to a buzz-cut, and for some reason everyone thought that I’d had lice and had my head shaved. That’s why parents didn’t let their children get close to me. Bubbe thought this was hysterical. Lately only two things made her laugh: Mikhail Katsman’s courtship and my buzz-cut.
I love to go to synagogue. And I love to go to church, too. And to mosques.
But those people who call themselves the servants of God…
They act as if God Himself personally offered His friendship them, and even His protection to some people. Their crossword puzzles in cassocks. Their faces on the television. Their bank accounts. Their memorized, empty words that they try to fill other people’s ears and souls with. In vain. Sometimes I turn into a fly and buzz into their rooms when they’re alone. With my little paws I close their ears so that they don’t hear; I close their eyes so that they do not see. Shameful. I’m ashamed of them. And I go back to sinners. I feel better with them. I think it’s because God doesn’t live on their tongues. He is hidden deep down, so that they can cherish Him.
Yesterday Senya Hebe didn’t come to school. The teacher said he was sick. I sent him a bouquet of flowers. I always send flowers to people when they’re sick. No one has ever sent me flowers. But that’s just because I’m never sick.
A week ago Bubbe’s admirer came over — Uncle Misha, or rather Mikhail Katsman. He called me over quietly, so that Bubbe wouldn’t hear. “Sonya, what does your grandmother dream of?” Uncle Misha asked. I thought about it. She doesn’t really care much for Uncle Misha — she’s still head-over-heels in love with Utesov — so I said: “She’s dreams of a black typewriter.”
That very day the doorbell rang. It was a box — not for us but for Bubbe. A gift from Mikhail Katsman. She was puzzled and so I had to tell her everything.
Bubbe? What is it, Bubbe?
She shouted. There was a row. For the nth time she reminded me that I was cheeky, snotty and would go far. And when I left the room and she thought I couldn’t hear her, she burst out laughing.
Bubbe wants me to be a doctor, but I’m going to be a writer. The problem is, Bubbe says, that with the way I look now, only the circus school would take me. And even then we’d have to bribe my way in. Not long ago Uncle Misha sent Bubbe tulips. Where did he get them in the winter? Mikhail Katsman has a job in the government, and he’s 80 years old. He has always dreamed of being repatriated to Israel and living on the shores of the Red Sea with my grandmother.
I think Bubbe is falling in love. Yesterday she bought herself a new bra with roses on it and Guerlain perfume. She even went on a diet. And that old hag Musichka painted under our windows: “Gittel is a tramp.” Uncle Misha spent half a day scrubbing off the inscription. Bubbe sat by the window and watched him as he sent air kisses into our window. To her.
Humph. Either spring is in the air or I’ll have to go to synagogue and arrange with the Rabbi for a wedding soon.
Now Bubbe is Katsman. Gittel Yakovlevna Katsman. Tomorrow the newlyweds are going on their honeymoon to Israel. And Uncle Misha is prepared to put up with chicken morning, noon, and night.
And then for some reason flowers have been delivered to our room lately. Well, not to us, but to me. And on little cards there is something about love. I don’t know what love is yet. I don’t understand what he’s writing. It’s Senya Hebe who’s writing. I wrote about it in a letter to Bubbe in Israel. “What can I say, Sonya? If you take that last name on top of your personality, you’re sure to go far. And when you become a writer, you won’t have to worry about thinking up a pen name,” Bubbe replied.
Bubbe and Uncle Misha kiss all day long — so that means what they have is for eternity. Meanwhile, Senya and I like to sit on the shore of the Black Sea and get close to eternity. Yesterday I wrote my first short story about my favorite old lady, and Senya really liked it. Basically Senya likes everything about me. The only thing is that I can’t cook. Or rather, I can, but like Bubbe: it’s chicken morning, noon, and night.
My mother said to me: ‘You must go to school, or they will lock up your father.’ There were five of us children at home, four girls and one boy. The eldest was my sister, then me, one year behind her. But I was stronger than her. And naughtier. So my mother said: ‘You will be the one who goes to school, because at home you only make trouble.’ My sister was to stay at home with the little children. She carried them around on her back, washed their nappies, wiped their noses and their little bottoms, and swept and cleaned the house. Everything had to be done by the daughter who was at home, because mothers went into the village to work for the gadjos, and only came back home at night. That was what our mother did, too. Our father went to make bricks. If there was no work, he would work for the gadjos for some food.
In the morning, my mother woke me up: ‘Get up, Little Bighead, go down to the stream and have a wash.’ A little stream passed by about thirty metres from our house. That was where we went to wash, every morning and every night. At night, I would run down to the stream on both feet, but when I came back I hopped on one foot. I never had shoes, and so I wanted at least one of my feet to stay clean. In winter and summer we went barefoot. I only had one set of clothes, which my mother had begged from the gadjos. As for knickers and petticoats, we did not even know what they were.
I went to the stream and washed my feet and my face. My hair was full of feathers, because Romani beds were nothing but feathers and straw, which came out of the mattress and the dirty old quilt. I went to school. I had no bag, I had no readers, no pencil, no exercise book – nothing! I had never had anything of that kind.
I went through the village, and the village was still sleeping. There was no one outside, only two or three gadjos going to the fields with their horses. No one even looked at me, it was as though I were not there at all. I knew where the school was, because when I used to go into the village with my mother, she said to me: ‘This is where you will go to school, so I will have some peace and quiet, Little Bighead!’
I pushed hard to open the heavy school gates. It was dark and cold, and I was half-naked and barefoot. No one was there at all. Only one old gadjo, who looked at me and said: ‘What do you want here?’
‘Well, I’ve come to school. I want to learn things.’
‘You?’ He started to laugh. ‘Look at that skirt on her! Why haven’t you washed? Why haven’t you combed your hair? Where’s your bag? You have nothing, you don’t even have a bag! How will you study?’
‘I will study! I will come to school, I will!’
The old man laughed, and he shoved me into a classroom. I sat in the front desk. I looked all around me. I was alone, all by my little self. The old gadjo started to sweep the floor. I just sat there, thinking to myself how I was going to be somebody! I would know everything. All knowledge would come into my head if I just sat in school – that was what I believed. But then I looked at my bare feet, and my heart sank within me. How could a poor Romani girl become somebody? I closed my eyes, and saw myself in a pink satin dress, embroidered with gold roses. Then I believed again that I would be that clever woman who would pave the way for other Roma. Already as a little girl, I knew that we Roma were the last of the last. No one said a kind word to us. If I wanted to go out from the settlement, my mother said to me: ‘Don’t you dare go into the village! The other children will beat you up.’ And so I only dared to go into the village when there were several of us, or when the older boys came with us, to stand up for us.
It was half past seven, and the bells rang in the church. One after another, the boys and girls filed into the class. Their mothers brought them. Two or three mothers came into the classroom, and seated their little girls in the front desk. They looked askance at me. But I stayed where I was, because I wanted to become clever. I was just waiting to become clever. More and more gadjo boys and girls kept coming in. They were finely dressed, everyone had a bag, and the little girls had ribbons in their hair.
At long last the teacher arrived. She saw me in the front desk. ‘Who put you there?’ She dragged me up, and sent me to sit at the back. ‘That’ll be your place.’ In the first desk she sat the rich little gadjo girls. Then came the poorer ones, and the very back desk was for the Romani kids. ‘The gypsy desk.’ Next to the cracked window, separated from everyone else. I felt like an orphan. Why did I have to sit there all alone? It was hard for me, when there was not a single Romani child with me, and I was afraid. I would have felt stronger, if only someone had sat next to me. But I was alone, all by myself.
The first day in school went by. I learnt nothing. None of that knowledge went into my head, the only thing that forced its way into my mind was how poor I was. When I arrived home, no one asked me: ‘so how was school?’
‘Mummy, the teacher said that I needed a reader, an exercise book and a pencil.’ My mother slapped me. ‘Run away! There isn’t enough to buy bread, and you want a book from me! Just keep on going, so they don’t take your father and lock him up.’
The next day, I washed my feet again and I combed my hair and put on my old clothes and went to school. And that’s how I went to school every day. A month went by, and the teacher did not ask me anything, but just looked to see that I was there. She did not know that I was listening to all that she said. When she asked one of the other girls or boys, in my mind I said along with them what they were supposed to say. I liked doing maths. The seven-times table was my favourite. At night, I was unable to fall asleep because the seven-times table kept dancing in my head. I raised my hand, and the teacher called on me: ‘Go on, count!’ And I counted very well. Again, the teacher asked: ‘What do they cultivate in Hungary?’ I knew. Peppers, melons.
‘You are not stupid,’ said the teacher. ‘If you had a reader and an exercise book and a pencil, you could learn something. Why doesn’t your mother buy you a reader?’
‘My mother has no money.’
‘Why do you go around so dirty? You don’t even have proper clothes!’
‘There are many of us at home, and there is no work.’
Then, one day, I did not go to school. ‘Where were you?’ asked the teacher when I returned.
‘You told me that my clothes were dirty, so my mother washed them for me.’ The teacher’s eyes popped out. ‘I couldn’t go out of the house until my clothes were dry.’
Then the teacher bought me an exercise book and started to give me little pencils, which the other children had thrown away. My fingers hurt from holding them, but I was glad to have them.
One day an order was given that all ‘gypsy’ children must go to school. That’s what the village mayor said. Among the Roma there was great horror, great panic. They ran up and down, the women tore their hair, what will they do with us? What will they do with us? The village guard came to the Romani settlement and began to drum, and the men ran out of their huts, half-naked, their hair full of feathers, and the women were screaming at the children: ‘Go to school! They’ll lock up your father if you don’t go! Who’ll support us?’
The children went. They all put on their ‘very best’ clothes – their mother’s skirt, their father’s trousers – and off they went to school. The village official went on his bicycle, and we chased after him. ‘Go on, run, you gypsy rabble!’
He took us in to the headmaster. I had never seen the headmaster before. He was short, fat-bellied and bald. He had onion eyes and a big moustache, which jigged up and down above his lips when he spoke. He only had two teeth, and God knows where the other teeth had gone. When he looked at us, his big eyes bulged out. He started to tell us off for being lazy Roma, who did not want to learn anything, who did not want to become real people! He cursed us, but you could see that he was a good man. ‘How will I divide you up? Filthy rabble! All the teachers are scared of you,’ he said, kindly. So he started to count: one, two, three, four, five. There were fifteen of us. He said: ‘You go there, you there, you there ’ So he divided us up among the classes. My sister Beži, who was a year older than me, also had to go to school. My mother cursed and cried that there was no one to be with the children when she went out to work.
We went into the classroom, and the teacher was scared of us. ‘Where will I put you!’ At the back were three desks, and she sat us there. We were separated from the gadjo children so that we wouldn’t fight with them. We couldn’t study.
Once, I was very hungry. It was just when there was a fair in the village. The gadjos were baking and boiling – the Roma were hungry. The teacher asked each of us what we had eaten, including the Romani children. Black Pot said: ‘I haven’t eaten anything since yesterday. We only eat when my mother gets home from the village.’
Bango said: ‘We don’t eat in the morning, either,’ which was true. Our first meal used to be in the afternoon, when our mothers came back from the village and brought potatoes, cottage cheese and milk, which the gadjo women gave them if they chopped firewood, cleaned the manure out of the stables, or wiped down the stove.
The teacher said to me: ‘What have you eaten?’
‘Wow!’ my eyes opened as wide as stars. ‘If you could see what I ate! Biscuits with cottage cheese, soup, buns and cake …!’
‘How is it that you have eaten, while there was nothing for your sister to put in her mouth?’ the teacher interrupted. ‘Why are you lying? Stick your tongue out! You’ll get something to make sure you don’t lie next time!’
I stuck my tongue out, and she hit me across it with a ruler. It hurt so much, I could not even speak. But when I came to myself again, I said to her: ‘I was not lying! I was eating all night long! I dreamed of eating, I ate in my dream.’
The teacher went red, said nothing and walked away.
A year went by. Everyone said I was not stupid. I did not fail. They let me move into the second year. I received my school report. There wasn’t a single C grade on it. And I was very proud!
I ran home, jumping up and down for joy, and shouting from far away: ‘Mummy, I only have As and Bs.’
‘I’ll give you ‘A’s! Do you think we can live off your A grades? A grades, A grades – at home you do everything to avoid working! At home you couldn’t care less about work!’ That’s how she cut me short. It was hard for me. The little gadjos got books, watches or money for good school reports – but what was there for me? Cursing. There was no one I could pour my heart out to.
Three Romani boys went up with me into the second year. I became friends with those little boys, and the Roma said of me that I was stronger than a boy! Whatever the boys said, I said it too, and what they did, I did too. When they were beaten, I was beaten too.
One time the circus came to the village. I was mad about dancing. I knew how to put my leg around my neck. And so Šulo and Bango and Tarzan – those were the names of the three who went with me into the second year – said: ‘Listen, you go to the circus – and whatever you see there, you can tell us about it afterwards!’
I said: ‘How can I go, if we don’t have any money?’
And they said: ‘Don’t worry, we’ll get some money somehow. Come with us.’
We went over to the church. In front of the church was a statue of Saint John. In the morning, when the gadjos walked by the church, they threw money at it. And Šulo said: ‘What does a statue need money for? You can keep guard, to make sure the priest or the verger doesn’t come, and we’ll collect the money.’ They made some clay with slime and spit, and made a kind of sticky paste, which they put on the end of a stick, then they poked the stick through the grating towards Saint John. They wanted to raise the money from the dead. ‘Bango, do a wee in the clay, wee in it, it will be better,’ said Šulo. And sure enough, he caught a sixpence on the stick. But the priest was coming!
‘The priest is coming!’ I shouted. The boys stuck the sixpence in my mouth. ‘Swallow it! Get it down!’ I swallowed, and started to choke. I choked, retched, spat, turned red, and the boys were thumping me on the back.
‘What are you doing here, you devils?’ said the priest.
‘We came to pray to Saint John – look, she almost choked,’ lied Bango.
Of course, the priest did not know that I was choking on stolen money, and he said: ‘Come here, let me give you a bit of holy water.’ He poured some into my palm, and so I washed down the stolen money with holy water.
Bango said: ‘We need to think of a way of getting the money.’ But how? What? Where? I used to go to work for one gadjo who had chickens. ‘Do you know what?’ the boys said, ‘You go into the hen-house, take the eggs from under the chickens’ bottoms, and we can sell them to the Jew.’
I did not know what to do. ‘Bango, you go!’ I said.
‘Alright,’ the boys said. ‘You go up the tree, up the pear-tree, and you can pick pears. Bango can go for the eggs.’
I climbed the pear tree – the dog didn’t bark, because it knew me. The boys were in the hen-house, and the hens made no noise, because Šulo and Bango knew what to do. But who should be coming? The gadjo! And I was up the tree! He came straight for me. ‘Is that how you thank me for giving you work?’ He picked up a big stick, the kind you use to knock down nuts, and he went for me! I looked to see whether Bango and Šulo would run out of the hen-house. I saw them jump over the gate, and then they were gone. The gadjo saw nothing. Good, now I could come down from the tree. So I jumped, straight onto a nail. Luckily, it didn’t go into my leg, but it tore my skirt at the back. I ran for it, and the torn skirt flew in the wind, while my naked bottom shone out like the moon.
The boys were waiting for me. They turned me round and round. ‘We need a patch to sew it up!’ said Bango. But where could we get a patch from?
‘Do you know what,’ said Bango, ‘you walk in front of me, and I’ll walk right behind you, and then no one will see your bottom.’ So that is how we walked. My mother was watching from a distance. ‘What on earth is that? Look! She’s with a boy! Stuck right up against him! Does an honest girl walk like that?’ (I was about seven or eight years old.) As I came nearer, my mother said: ‘Is that how you go about, my girl?!’ She beat me until I could not get up from the ground. My mother was wailing: ‘You have one set of clothes! And you’ve torn them up! How can you go to school?’ We never had cloth for a patch at home. My mother said to me, ‘Wait, we’ll do it somehow.’ She took a kind of apron, which was supposed to be tied to my front, and she tied it behind me. My naked bottom could not be seen.
As soon as my mother had tied the apron to me, we went to sell the eggs. The Jew said: ‘What kind of chickens do you have?’ Their shells were very thin. ‘You can see straight away that it’s a Romani chicken.’ The Jew would not buy the eggs from us.
Now what? How could we make money to go to the circus? I said: ‘Oh! I am so disappointed! I’ll never go anywhere. I’m going home.’
‘Aha!’ said the boys. ‘So you swallowed the money and now you want to go home!’ Šulo caught me by the ear. ‘Have no fear. Wherever you try to go, we’ll follow you, because that Saint-John sixpence is not just yours! It’s ours, too.’ But what use was the sixpence to us anyway, when the circus cost one crown twenty!
‘Let’s go and see what we can do,’ said Tarzan. We went to the place where the circus was, and it was already full of circus wagons. Bango went to ask whether he could go and carry wood, or help in any way. What the circus manager said was: ‘Yeah, I need nappies washing, and you can wash them if you want.’ Bango ran for water, Šulo washed, and I just stood there as if I was their princess. Bango said to the circus manager: ‘Let her go in! She can go and see the circus!’
The circus manager pushed me forward: ‘Hop in! Run off, then!’ I went inside, and the boys went on and on washing the nappies.
I was inside the circus! The acrobats swung on the bars, walked on the rope, and the clowns fell off bicycles – most of all, I liked the snake woman in the golden skirt, who did somersaults in the air and walked on her hands. In my mind, I did everything alongside her. I’d show the boys a thing or two!
I went home, glowing like a star. I was beaten by my mother for gadding about! I went to sleep in tears and hungry. As soon as I closed my eyes, I imagined myself as that circus lady, jumping through the air, walking on my hands, with the golden skirt shining on me like the sun.
It was not yet light when I got up secretly and disappeared off to the cemetery. There was a large lawn there, beautiful and soft, so that I would not break any bones. I did a crab. I could do that. I put my foot around my neck. I attempted a handspring. I fell crashing down on my back. No sooner had I recovered a little than I tried to do it again. I spun through the air. Good, now I could do a flip, as well. There was one thing I couldn’t do – I could not walk on my hands. I fell and fell again. I was broken and bruised. Everything hurt.
The bells were ringing in the church, and I fled to school. My first lesson was catechism. The priest came into the classroom, saying: ‘You were at the circus, weren’t you?’
‘Yes, I was.’
‘You go to the circus, but you don’t go to church!’
I said: ‘The floor is cold in the church, and I don’t have shoes.’
‘Tell me how our great God was born.’
‘I can’t tell you how God was born, but if you want I can tell you how my little sister Ili was born.’
‘Come out from behind your desk! You’ll get your bottom smacked for having no manners!’
‘Oh no! I can’t have my bottom smacked!’ I cried. The priest pulled me out of my desk, the apron flew open, and my naked bottom glowed like a full moon. The boys started to laugh. The priest sent me home. And finally my mother brought me some worn-out clothes from the village.
A week later, when I was not so bruised, I said to the boys, during a maths lesson: ‘Come with me.’ I put my hand up and said I needed to go to the toilet. The boys did the same thing, one after another. We had a modern school, with three flushing toilets and a corridor in front of them. In the corridor, I began to show them what the circus was like. The teacher started to wonder where the Romani boys were. Where had they gone? No one had come back from the toilet. The teacher came after us. And when she saw us, I was walking on my hands, spinning through the air and twisting my face like a clown.
‘So that’s what you’re doing! You’re teaching them circus acts. Wait here!’ I was beaten again. How many times had I been beaten for one circus! And what had I gained from it? One swallowed sixpence. When it came out of me again, I hid it in the cemetery. It’s buried there to this day.
A new teacher came. He was tall and young. He looked at us. ‘Are those all the Romani children? Are there no more of you?’
‘There are more of us, but the others don’t come to school. If there were more of us, the teachers would be scared!’
‘So I will take all the Romani children!’ said the new teacher. ‘But none of you will interrupt me or disturb me!’
The next day, what should we see but the new teacher, riding his bicycle into the middle of our settlement. He had come among the ‘gypsies’. Not a single gadjo had ever visited us, apart from the village guard. The teacher called out: ‘Every child who is supposed to be going to school, come outside!’ He even said ‘aven avri’, ‘come outside’, in our own language!
We ran out of the shacks – the teacher had a stick in his hand. ‘Get going, get going, run along to school!’ When we got to the classroom, he asked: ‘Hands up if you haven’t combed your hair.’ He didn’t need to ask, he could see that none of us had combed our hair.
‘Why haven’t you combed your hair?’
‘We don’t have any combs.’
‘Have you washed?’
‘We don’t have any towels.’ One after another, we started to tell him everything that we did not have.
‘Good. Tomorrow you can come to school one hour earlier! If not, I’ll give you what-for!’
The next day, we really did come an hour early. The teacher was already waiting for us. He had brought towels, soap, a washbowl and combs.
‘Who hasn’t eaten anything?’
We all put our hands up. The teacher sent Bango for bread rolls. He bought a roll for each one of us. Then he said: ‘Well, now we can start learning something! Today you can all stay in school for the afternoon, too.’ At midday, he bought food for us again, bread and margarine. He asked us: ‘What do you want to be when you are older?’
‘I want to dance and sing!’ I said.
He slapped me. ‘You won’t earn a living that way. You need to study, then you can dance and sing.’ Then he grabbed the boys by the hair. ‘What do you want to do?’
‘Me – a blacksmith.’
‘Good, you will be a blacksmith.’
‘I want to be a musician like my dad.’
‘That’s all fine, but you must still know how to read and write.’
Then he gave us pencils and exercise books and we really did start to learn something.
There was a fair in the village. The teachers chose good pupils to recite poems. So our teacher said:
‘Just wait and we’ll show them what you can do!’ He asked me: ‘Do you know how to sing?’
I sang a very amorous love song from a film. I must have been about eight years old.
‘Who taught you that?’ the teacher asked.
‘My father sings that to my mother at night,’ I said.
‘Which of you can recite a poem?’
‘Meeeeee!’ I shouted. I recited a patriotic poem which I had heard from the gadjo children. My face was red and my eyes shone – he stared at me.
‘Good,’ he said, ‘you can recite a poem, and then you can all sing and play music.’
The boys brought violins and basses and whatever they could from home. But we had nothing to wear, we had no smart clothes. The teacher said: ‘Oh my God, if I was not so poor! How I could help you all! Look what beautiful hair you have! Would you like ribbons in your hair?’
‘Wow! I’d love that.’
‘Look, boys and girls, you have to study so that you won’t be stupid! So that the gadjos can’t do whatever they want with you. If you study, you will be cleverer than your parents. You will hold your heads up high, you will know how to find your own place among the other people. Study, and pay no attention if I shout at you, or if I box your ears. I cannot get angry with those who treat you in such a way, so I have to vent my anger on you. Oh God! When I see how the gadjo children eat so well and bring bread with dripping, and you eat your hunger, how the anger rises in me! How am I supposed to help you? Grow up good and honourable, so that the gentlemen see that your poverty is not your fault but theirs.’
And we took an oath that we would never again be naughty or bad, that we would not steal money from Saint John, and that we would study.
We went to the celebrations. No one expected the Romani children there. The gadjo children were there with their mothers and fathers. They put on a play about a princess and a cobbler.
Then our teacher stood up. He said: ‘Now let me introduce my pupils to you.’ The boys began to play. The old men started pulling at their moustaches big and small and started tapping their feet, it made them so keen to dance! Then I recited the poem. The gadjos were astonished. Then I took a plate, as my teacher had told me to, and went to collect money. ‘We want to study, too, but we don’t have readers or exercise books.’ Everyone gave some money.
I did not go to school for long. The war began, and Roma were not allowed to go into the village. They did not allow us to go to school. I did three years of school.
*This Story is taken from: Povídky: Short Stories by Czech Women, ed. Nancy Hawker, copyright © Nancy Hawker, 2006.
On the night before her last spell in the hospital, Dawn was haunted again by that old dream about the stone men. As always, she woke the moment she couldn’t stand being terrorized any longer. She opened her eyes and sat up. Her heart raced frantically; her face was drenched in cold sweat. She was still partially entangled in the throes of the nightmare when she realized she wasn’t alone in the room. Julia was sitting on the edge of the bed, glancing at her from the dark.
“What’s going on?” asked Dawn.
“You probably had a nightmare,” Julia said softly, “I want to hear all about it, angel.”
Dawn was about to tell Julia about her dream but wound up saying: “I don’t remember.”
“Here we go again,” Julia huffed. “You never tell me anything anymore.”
“Why are you sitting there like that?”
“It’s my last chance to look at you while you’re sleeping,” Julia explained, “you’re walking out on me.”
Dawn struggled to settle her breathing. Julia slid over on the bed and gently caressed Dawn’s closely shaved scalp.
“Angel,” she whispered in her ear, “please don’t leave me.”
Dawn emitted a helpless sigh. Her eyes were half shut by a persistent veil of sleep crust. She was still overwhelmed by the stone men. With great difficulty she uttered: “I’m not walking out on you.”
“Right, you’re abandoning me.”
“You know I have to do this.”
“No, I don’t.”
“We talked about it a thousand times.”
“You talked, you decided, as always. You never gave me a chance.”
Dawn lowered her head, evading Julia’s irresistible feline green eyes. She didn’t know what to say. Once again she was stunned by the ease with which Julia molded reality to fit her desires. And yet Julia’s conviction seemed to be so absolute and genuine and therefore reassuring, that Dawn felt tempted to believe that this was really how things had transpired. “Stop it.”
“Stop what? I don’t understand. You don’t need this shit.”
“I already explained…” Dawn pleaded. “Daphne says that…”
“Agghhh! I can’t listen to this anymore! So she says! So what? What is she, like, fucking God?!
“Can’t you see she’s evil?!
“Don’t talk about her that way.”
“You know how much she helps me.”
“No. What I do know is that she wants to take you away from me. And if you can’t see it you’re fucking blind.”
“Do you have any idea how crazy you sound?”
Julia shot Dawn a cold look. After a moment of dead silence she said: “You’re in love with her.”
“I knew it…” muttered Julia. She got up and started walking around the room nervously.
Julia paused. “Yeah? Weird, you didn’t used to talk to me like this.”
“You used to appreciate everything I did for you.”
“And I still do, babe, you know that,” Dawn implored, finally managing to unglue herself from the top of the bed and cautiously approach Julia.
“Who do you love more, me or her?”
Dawn couldn’t bring herself to answer.
Julia threw herself face-down onto the bed and burrowed her face in a pillow, muttering, “I can’t believe you’re doing this to me.”
Now she seemed so tiny and fragile that Dawn was flooded with compassion. She felt the need to apologize for something. She wrapped her bony arms around Julia and stroked her long brown hair. “Please don’t be angry with me, babe,” she said, “I don’t have a choice…”
“But you have me!” cried Julia, turning her head up from the pillow, “You’re my life!”
The love and helplessness in Julia’s words and eyes almost had Dawn caving in. For a brief moment she thought to herself, No one’s ever going to love me so powerfully, what am I doing, giving this up? But she shook the thought away.
“I’m twenty-eight years old,” she said. “I can’t keep doing this.”
“Doing what?” Julia sat up. “You’re the most amazing thing in the universe! I was sitting here for an hour thinking I must be blessed by God if He gave me such a perfect angel. It’s only because of you that I know I’m good. Without you I’m nothing.” Julia took hold of Dawn’s chin and tilted her face towards herself, saying, “And you know what else I was thinking? What if I covered your mouth and pinched your nose while you were sleeping? Then you wouldn’t ever leave me.”
“You’re scaring me.”
“Scaring you my ass!” said Julia, disengaging abruptly and jumping off the bed. “I’m protecting you! I love you! I’m the only one that truly loves you! Get that through your thick skull!” she shouted, waiving an accusing finger at Dawn’s face. Then she lowered her voice. “That’s it,” she said decisively, “You’re fucked. You’re like a different person now. I don’t recognize you anymore.”
Dawn found herself crawling to the edge of the bed, pleading, “Please don’t be mad at me, babe, please. I just want to be normal.”
“Fuck normal! There’s no such thing! It’s all men’s definitions! They just want to control us!”
“You know what?” Dawn sputtered. “Today, before you came back from work, I was so fucking scared of tomorrow that I took half a pack of Ex-lax!”
“So, what else is new?”
“Does that seem like the kind of thing a normal person would do?”
Julia crossed her thin arms against her lean chest, walked to the window and looked outside. “So I understand your decision is final.”
“Yes…” Dawn mumbled.
There was a moment of tense silence before Julia erupted: “Fuck you! When Daphne kicked you out, who did you come to? Huh? Me! Like a dog you came, crawling! And I let you live here, rent-free, I let you drive my car, I bought you cigarettes! But you?! You never really loved me! You lying whore!”
“That’s not true! Please!”
“You don’t know how to love. You’re evil. You’re a goddamn heart of stone.”
Dawn froze. She could have withstood anything Julia threw her way, anything but those last three words. Tears started flowing from her eyes. “I can’t believe you just said that…”
“I guess it’s true what they say, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” Julia took a few steps back towards the door. “Oh, and you can forget about a ride tomorrow!”
“But you promised!”
“But how will I get there?”
“Take the bus; call a cab.”
“You know I can’t.”
“Uber then. Get some woman to drive you. I’m done with you.”
When Dawn woke up the next morning she found the apartment empty. Julia was gone, without even a note. It wasn’t uncharacteristic of her to pull off this kind of disappearing act in a moment of rage. This time, Dawn had no time to waste pondering Julia’s whereabouts.
Good thing she prepared her suitcase yesterday, before swallowing all that Ex-lax. Now she could dress quickly and call an Uber, insisting on a female driver, as always. Unfortunately, on her first day back in the hospital, there was no escaping a similarly dreadful situation. She had to go through the chief of the eating disorders unit, Dr. Katz.
She had met him during her first hospitalization, nearly a decade ago. Over the years she had repeatedly described him as the devil incarnate. She called him a “misogynist” and a “woman-hater.” His most horrific attribute as far as Dawn was concerned was that she couldn’t even venture a guess as to how he felt about her. So she assumed he hated her.
When she entered his cramped office he didn’t make the slightest gesture of recognition. Dawn took a seat in front of his desk while morphing into her usual character—the good, compliant girl—that was so far off from who she really was.
During the short interview, which felt like a small eternity, she performed sweetness and adorability like a pro. She threw everything she had at him. But Dr. Katz remained chillingly serious and correct. He did not respond to her futile attempts at goofiness. He did not smile or laugh at her jokes. He did not even take his eyes off the computer screen while asking his routine questions. And when he typed in her responses, there were stretches of torturous silences which she strove to eradicate by flooding the room with grand declarations of her high motivation and promises that this time would be different.
“I even broke up with Julia,” she said, “Daphne helped me understand that she’s no good for me, that she colludes with my…” she paused to clear her throat, “with my pathology.”
Dr. Katz was obviously unimpressed by her deployment of professional jargon. He took off his glasses and leaned back in his armchair, his lengthy gaze invading Dawn, squeezing her heart in its pincers.
“Did you break up with her, or did she break up with you?”
“You don’t believe me?”
“Why are you dismissing it? Do you have any idea how hard it was?”
“Oh, I’m sure it was hard. But I have a vivid recollection of the kind of bond you two formed here. You would never have initiated a separation.”
“My relationship with Julia is another way for me to harm myself,” Dawn recited Daphne’s words.
“And I don’t want to harm myself anymore.”
Dawn met his beady, dispassionate eyes with desperation. “I’ll be honest with you, Dawn,” he said, “I didn’t want to admit you.”
“Good. It would be your seventh time here. Not a rare occurrence, unfortunately, but who knows better than you the resources we invest in our patients. You get an APRN, a social worker and a dietitian. You get individual psychotherapy twice a week, participation in a psychodynamic group, CBT group, DBT group, art therapy, dance therapy, occupational therapy…”
“I know all this…”
“So you understand, we provide you with every opportunity to thrive. But I don’t like investing so much in someone who doesn’t want to get better.”
“But I do!” Dawn protested.
“I think you’re saying what you think I want to hear. But all I want from you is the truth.”
“So what’s the truth?”
“The truth is that I don’t see any indication that you are truly willing to give up your illness. Daphne thinks you are. It’s only because I value her judgment so highly that I agreed to give you another chance.”
She dropped her gaze involuntarily to the floor.
“But…” said Dr. Katz as he leaned forward and placed his elbows on the table, “since you are here now, I do hope you’ll prove me wrong.”
Dawn forced her head up. What she saw was a smug monster of a man.
“I understand that we have a plan set up then,” he continued, “You spend three months here. If you make it, you go back to the rehabilitation home and continue your recovery there, just like you and Daphne decided.”
Dawn stared at him bleakly.
“There’s one thing that Daphne and I agree on: you still haven’t made up your mind about wanting to live.”
Dawn began to shiver for no apparent reason. The space seemed to be shrinking. Faintly, she said: “I do want.”
And that was that.
When she left Dr. Katz’s office and looked around at the gray corridors of the unit her head began to spin. She felt sick to her stomach. Her vision blurred. She wanted to run away and not be—here, or anywhere else, for that matter. A familiar voice snuck in, whispering: You don’t stand a chance.
Dawn spent the first weeks in the eating disorders unit re-familiarizing herself with everything she hated about the place. The strict regimented routine drove her crazy. Between meals she sat in the common room like a junky in withdrawal—agitated, biting her nails.
She couldn’t believe she was back in a place where she wasn’t allowed to take a shit without asking for permission and, to add insult to injury, without being escorted by a staff member. Although she knew all the unit’s policies by heart, she sounded surprised when she complained about them to Daphne in their weekly phone conversations. She ranted about how they forbade her to close the door completely or to flush the toilet before it was checked for signs of vomit. She went on and on about how hurtful it was to be so mistrusted.
She also hated the greasy food, telling Daphne that “It kind of puts me off balance.” But what she hated even more was hearing the other girls complain about it not being “healthy enough.” They didn’t understand that if they could survive this crap, there’s nothing in the world they wouldn’t be able to eat.
The close surveillance during meals annoyed her, but not as much as the comparative, competitive, envious looks the girls gave one another. It was also hard to see them chewing and swallowing so incorrectly, as though they were never taught the basics of proper eating or had simply forgotten after a long period of self-starvation.
Dawn was still outraged by all those little tricks they pulled to minimize the amount of food they’d taken or deprive themselves of any pleasure, God forbid they learn to enjoy eating. Zoe, for instance, cut her chicken breast into a hundred tiny pieces. Myriam ate her morning yogurt with a fork, inevitably spilling most of it. And there was that breakfast when Sharon poured ketchup into her Special K.
Yet these insubordinations were only the tip of the iceberg as far as the girls’ covert operations were concerned. Some girls went about it like fucking morons. Others were unbelievably adept transgressors. The staff person on duty had no chance of detecting every little thing that went on. But when a girl was caught red-handed, there were immediate sanctions, going all the way from extended post-meal detention to—and this was the girls’ worst nightmare—being forced to drink Ensure.
Dawn saw everything, and because she felt these misdemeanors came at her expense in some way, she was tempted to snitch. In another sense it made her feel better about herself, more advanced than the other girls. She was now able to look back at the year she’d spent at the rehabilitation home and realize it hadn’t been, as Julia kept telling her, a complete waste of time.
This feeling built Dawn’s confidence, but every day, in the shower, all that confidence peeled off and went down the drain. Outside the hospital Dawn used to go weeks without showering, even in summertime. She walked, ran and kick-boxed, wearing the same long sweatshirts and sweatpants, almost suffocating in her own foul stench, skillfully exterminating any chance of a man being attracted to her enough to come dangerously close.
But here she was forced to take better care of herself.
Taking off her clothes immediately filled her with self-loathing. She showered as quickly as possible, scrubbing herself with a thick sponge so she wouldn’t have to touch herself. She would look straight up at the ceiling, thus avoiding encountering her ugly fat belly, her disgusting plump hips, her repulsive cow-thighs, her repugnant wide shins, her abhorrent everything. She even forced herself to sing or whistle just to distract her mind from her body.
After showers she always felt a sudden urge to call Julia. But Julia never answered her calls and text messages, and Dawn felt too ashamed to tell Daphne about it. Eventually, though, she did, with tears falling from her eyes, at one of their usual phone conversations.
Daphne asked, “why are you doing this to yourself?”
Dawn knew the answer all too well. And yet she could not bring herself to say it out loud. She felt so weak she almost dropped the phone.
In her lowest moment, she even called her mother; the equivalent of cutting herself seeking some concrete, comprehensible pain that would alleviate, if only by means of replacing the dreadfully ambiguous pain that flooded her. But she hung up the moment her mom’s hoarse voice roared, “yeah?!”
That, she did not tell anyone.
Dawn had often described her hospital experience to Daphne as taking a walk on the edge of a cliff: constantly afraid of falling, secretly wishing it would happen already. Now two things restricted her impulse to push herself off: knowing it was her last chance to do things differently, and her fear of disappointing Daphne.
She showed up to meals on time. She followed through with her diet without shenanigans. She cooperated with her nutritionist and tried to be as open as she could in her sessions with her social worker, Erica. She steadily gained weight—1.5 pounds a week—according to plan.
At first, this made her feel anxious. But Daphne helped her see how this time around she was more afraid she would not gain weight than she was afraid she would. This, as Dawn had agreed, made all the difference in the world.
In group sessions she behaved herself, participating without dominating. She tried to be mindful of her most common pitfalls she’d fallen into, at least partially willingly, in the past. Like when she met Julia. Now she refrained from mingling with the other girls.
It was the loneliest period in her life–lonelier than her first days in the rehabilitation home, almost a year and a half ago. Every day ended exactly the same: Dawn stuffing her face in her pillow, crying herself to sleep.
After a month, Dawn was ready to raise the white flag. The voice that encouraged her to keep fighting was no longer superior or even distinguishable from the other, nefarious voice that was tempting her to throw up, starve herself, give in.
It was an unrelenting war of survival, and it drained Dawn completely when the finish line was hardly in sight.
And then Ronny was discharged and she found out that she was getting a new roommate.
Ronny was the classic anorexic girl: a timid, anemic creature who was too afraid of her own shadow to even dare speak to anyone, and thus kept to her diary. This had made her the perfect roommate for Dawn. Their room had been an exemplar of a symptom-free zone, a quiet and relatively safe space, a sanctuary.
In spite of everything she knew about the eating disorders unit, Dawn somehow deluded herself into thinking that Ronny’s bed would miraculously remain empty. As the days passed, her conviction became stronger.
She found out just how badly mistaken she was one morning when Dr. Katz summoned her to his office and dryly informed her of the change in her living situation. Dawn wept, begged and negotiated. Then she exploded with fury. She threatened to leave the unit immediately. Her screams echoed outside so everyone could hear. She gave it everything she had, but to no avail. Dr. Katz sat there calmly, waiting as she went through practically every stage of grief before his eyes, allowing her to complete her tantrum with a whimper while his decision stood.
Dawn ran straight to call Daphne to report the atrocity, hoping that she would pull some strings for her. After twenty minutes of complaining and crying, during which time Daphne tried to show her things weren’t as bleak as Dawn is portraying it, she offered to delve deeper into this subject in their weekly conversation that was scheduled to take place three days later. Dawn said “I get it, you don’t have time for me,” and hung up.
The new roommate arrived after lunch.
Dawn was killing time with some of the other girls in the lounge area outside the common room. They sat in clear sight of the entrance to the unit. A tall silver-haired man wearing a fancy blue suit entered the building. Radiating success, this was not your ordinary visitor. He was followed by a short black-haired young woman wrapped in a black hooded sweatshirt.
Dawn immediately realized that she knew this girl, but the circumstances of their acquaintance were lost on her.
The successful man turned to the information desk and, following a brief exchange with Nurse Tammy, proceeded to Dr. Katz’s office with the young woman following behind.
As they waited to be seen by Dr. Katz, the young woman studied her surroundings in the most cryptic fashion. Her gaze had a primary quality to it, as though this was the first time she was exposed to reality and was still taking in nothing but amorphous shapes and shadows.
It wasn’t immediately apparent that she was unwell. Her face was pale, but pretty. The dark circles around her eyes could have been explained by sleep deprivation or some kind of allergy, and her black sweatshirt with the Jolly Roger on the back almost reached her knees, camouflaging just how skinny the body underneath it was.
As she observed the new girl from afar, Dawn tried to retrieve the memory of their past encounter. The other girls were measuring her up as well, whispering with gleeful fascination. And when finally one of them said, “her name is Chelsea Craft,” Dawn’s heart quivered and she immediately got up and raced to her room to call Daphne. But Daphne didn’t pick up, so she went to Erica’s office, entering without knocking and sitting down without asking for permission. She told her that she couldn’t possibly live in the same room as Chelsea Craft, that “hateful creature.”
“What is it about Chelsea that stirs all these intense feelings in you?” Erica inquired empathically, but Dawn just repeated the same tune: Chelsea is “despicable and rotten from within.”
Then Erica made a few sensible suggestions of ways in which Dawn could protect herself while sharing a room with Chelsea, but Dawn dismissed each and every suggestion Erica made while rolling her eyes. Eventually, when Erica was in the middle of a sentence, Dawn got up and said, “I don’t like this conversation, you’re not helping me at all,” and left.
She found Chelsea sitting on her new bed and approached her with the most intimidating walk she had in her repertoire.
“You don’t talk to me,” she said, waving her finger, “you don’t look at me. To me, you don’t exist. You got that, Eva?”
Chelsea’s thin, colorless lips morphed into something resembling a smile, but the smile faded before it fully appeared. Her grayish freckles seemed to be dissipating in the hazy fog of aloofness that masked her almost transparent complexion. When she finally spoke, it was with a deceitfully suspended voice, like a late reminder of a matter long overdue.
“Yes,” she said, “I completely understand where you’re coming from.”
Dawn looked straight at those black eyes that were as distant as the eyes of a dead person. Dawn’s eyes wandered toward other parts of Chelsea. She noticed the little dark hairs sprouting above her lips and on the edges of her cheeks; her extremely bony left clavicle sticking out of her rising sweatshirt and her even bonier wrist joints. Then Dawn turned to the open window and walked over, looking outside. Chelsea immediately drifted after her.
“I weigh 61.72 pounds,” Chelsea said, yawning. “How much do you weigh?”
Dawn turned her glance on her with a swift, destructive motion. Her body began to tremble uncontrollably, her furious blue eyes nearly popping out of their sockets. “One more word and you’re dead, you hear me?!”
“Sure I do. I’m sitting right here, aren’t I?”
Dawn turned and rushed out of the room. She was already at the door when Chelsea’s feeble voice caught up with her.
“I have cigarettes, by the way,” she said. “Feel free to bum some.”
Dawn froze, took a long deep breath, and continued her journey out.
Throughout that day Dawn wandered the unit, shaking with almost ecstatic rage. When Chelsea didn’t show up for dinner, she felt herself about to combust. Some of the girls went to visit Chelsea in their room. They gathered around her bed as if around an idol. They bombarded her with questions, to which she replied with condescending impatience.
Dawn felt trapped outside. Every couple of minutes she looked in to check if they were still there. Finally, when she couldn’t stand it anymore, she stormed in.
“Everybody out, now,” she commanded.
They left right away.
That night she couldn’t find peace with Chelsea lying next to her, breathing.
Suddenly, a voice emerged from the darkness of the room. “Your name is Dawn, right?”
Dawn didn’t answer.
“You’re Dawn, am I correct?”
“I’ve heard of you. I’m friends with Sacha. I understand you worked together at the Viper. I think I saw you there once. You’re very pretty.”
“I’m sleeping,” moaned Dawn.
“My apologies then; I thought you couldn’t sleep either.”
“I’m trying to sleep, and you’re bothering me.”
“Oh, sorry. I promise I’ll be quiet. I just wanted to let you know that I find you very pretty.”
The following night Dawn couldn’t sleep again, and again she knew she wasn’t alone.
“It’s not your first time in here, I take it.”
Don’t answer her, don’t give that bitch anything.
Don’t answer, don’t answer.
“Dawn, are you awake?”
“Well, it is mine; my first time, I mean. But you probably know that already. I’ve been told that the E.D. unit is the end of the road. What do you think?”
Dawn opened her eyes and stared despairingly at the ceiling.
“Honestly, I think it’s baloney,” said Chelsea, and after a short pause added, “And you know what else I was told? That it’s like being in prison. Once you’re here it like gets you to identify with your disease or something. That’s what my therapist told me, anyway. But I think she’s just jealous. She’s obese. What do you think?”
“I think that you should shut the fuck up.”
“Interesting,” Chelsea said drily. And what else do you think?
“About what my therapist said.”
Dawn couldn’t hold it any longer. The ignoring tactic had completely collapsed under the burden of her wrecked nerves.
“Are you here to make me angry?”
“Goodness, no, I’m here because they made me come here.”
“So you don’t want to get better?”
“Better than what?”
Chelsea gained instant notoriety throughout the unit. Even Dr. Katz had to admit that in all his years in this profession he had yet to encounter such vehement resistance to treatment. She refused to put food in her mouth and swallow it. The staff had to resort to the kind of radical measures that hadn’t been implemented at the unit for years.
At first they tried using enteral nutrition, but Chelsea simply took the tube out and threw it away. Then they attached it to her nose, but she tore it off, injuring herself. Finally, they restrained her to the bed for feeding time. This was a girl who was barely able to keep her own head lifted, she was so weak. And yet she fought so wildly, at the risk of breaking her calcium-deficient bones. It took three staff members to get the job done.
In group sessions she didn’t speak. She refused to take off her hoody and just sat there, tucked within herself, projecting disinterest, her gaze wandering outside the window.
Dawn couldn’t stand this.
They didn’t interact and just passed each other in the hallways of the unit without a word. All their communications took place during the night, and Chelsea was always the one to initiate them. And yet Dawn had the feeling that Chelsea was everywhere, conspiring against her, wishing her ill.
One night Chelsea asked her: “So you do want to get better?”
“Better than what?”
“Than the instinct to ruin my own life.”
“Interesting… so… you want to stop?”
“But then you won’t be so pretty anymore.”
“What will you do then?”
“I’ll live. Leave me alone.”
“What makes you think you’ll succeed this time?”
“Shut up,” said Dawn, turning her back to Chelsea and vowing not to listen to her. But a few seconds later she turned again and asked, “Who forced you to be here?”
“My physician said if I keep at it I’ll be dead within a year from cardiac arrest, so my parents got scared, especially my dad. He raised hell to get me hospitalized. He’s a very powerful man. But they don’t get it.”
“What don’t they get?”
“My body, they don’t understand it. It doesn’t need food to live.”
“You don’t have to believe me if you don’t want to.”
“Well, I don’t.”
“That’s because you’re jealous.”
Dawn went to see Erica first thing the next morning. She said she couldn’t take it anymore. Chelsea was driving her insane, she was evil, pure evil. And she was torturing her.
“What has she been doing?” Erica asked softly.
“You don’t understand,” Dawn said impatiently. “It’s not what she does, it’s like, she’s just there, you know? She wants to ruin it for all of us.”
Erica started to say something but Dawn cut her off.
“You have no idea how sick this girl is.”
“What do you mean?”
Dawn took a long breath before letting out the secret she had been carrying ever since Chelsea joined the unit.
Although she was only nineteen, she said, Chelsea was kind of a big deal in the anorexia and bulimia community. She gained quite a reputation as a Pro-Ana celebrity. In her blog she preached self-starvation, offered advice as to how to purge efficiently and promoted the emaciated beauty ideal by, among other things, posting nude pictures of extremely anorexic women.
“She calls herself Eva X.”
“Do the other girls know that it’s her?”
“It’s obvious that they worship her for being the skinniest girl on the unit, and I heard some of them mentioning the name Eva X, but I don’t think they make the connection.”
“And how do you know it’s her?”
“We met once.”
The next few nights were terrible. Dawn didn’t sleep. She was afraid of everything – that Chelsea would speak to her again or that her heart would suddenly fail and she would find a dead body lying next to her in the morning.
She was constantly exhausted and nervous. She barely got out of bed in the mornings. She had to drag herself to the cafeteria. She made multiple visits to the nurse’s office, complaining about migraines and stomach aches. She begged her nutritionist to go easy on her diet, meaning, less food; fewer calories.
During mealtimes she was tempted to reduce her intake, but she knew that if she was caught that would be the end of it. Only once, when she couldn’t contain herself, did she put a ridiculous amount of salt on her rice, but she immediately regretted it.
The daily weighing made her more and more anxious, only now she couldn’t tell if she was more afraid of gaining weight or of not gaining weight. At any rate, she did gain: exactly 1.5 pounds a week, according to plan.
Suddenly she started to feel a familiar wish creeping inside her: she wanted to cut herself and alleviate that excruciating pain that poisoned her soul. But she didn’t know how to do it; as if all those tricks that she had once mastered had been completely wiped out of her memory.
And every time she took a shower she wanted to stick a finger down her throat and puke her guts out. But she was convinced that Dr. Katz was just waiting for an excuse to kick her out of the unit, and she wasn’t about to give him the satisfaction.
In groups she was quiet and uninvolved. When she was asked a direct question, she mumbled that she “didn’t feel like talking.”
More and more she considered, with genuine anguish, her lowly state; drowning in despair regarding her chances of ever being able to create “a life worth living,” as Daphne, who knew better than anyone how to paint a rosy horizon for Dawn, used to put it. And yet, she couldn’t bring herself to call her.
She also stopped calling Julia, because being just ignored wasn’t enough anymore. She wanted to get really hurt. So she called her mother, knowing that conversations with her always ended badly.
And her mom didn’t disappoint. They hadn’t spoken in over a year. But now, after Dawn had told her where she was, her immediate response was “they let you in?! ha! You ain’t skinny enough!”
One morning, Dawn visited Eva X’s blog. She was astounded to see that she was still posting her demented preaching from inside the unit. Her blood began to boil. That day, she arrived at group session in her most explosive state-of-mind. For half an hour she sat there silently, her body trembling and her thoughts running amok.
At some point, Erica asked her if there was anything she wanted to say.
“Are you sure?”
“Dawn, what’s going on with you lately?”
And then Dawn caught fire.
“What’s going on with me? I’m fucking disgusted by what’s happening here, how you all grovel before a person that couldn’t give a fuck about you!”
“Dawn,” Erica said.
“What? Is it my fault that everyone here is fucking blind?! If she wants to ruin her life, fine! But she doesn’t have to ruin it for others.”
“Dawn, I’m asking you to calm down.”
“Fuck that! She can die for all I care.”
“That’s not how we talk here, Dawn.”
“I don’t care.”
“Dawn, I want you to leave, please.”
“I want that fucking bitch to die, you hear me?!” Dawn shouted and got up and hurled her chair at the wall. Then she approached Chelsea, towering over her. “Die already!” she screamed, “DIE!”
In those moments, all life was sucked out of the room. The girls refrained from looking directly at Dawn, except for Chelsea, who didn’t take her hollow eyes off her.
That night, Chelsea spoke to Dawn as if nothing had happened.
“Do you remember I was telling you how my dad was the one who forced me to come here?”
“So it’s very hypocritical of him, because if there’s a problem, and I’m certainly not saying that there is one, then he’s to blame; and my mom too, but especially him. Do you have a dad?”
“How about a mom?”
“Where’s your dad?”
“Gone as in deceased, passed away?”
“Oh gosh. When did it happen?”
“A while ago.”
“How old were you?”
“Oh dear, that’s teeny-tiny. Do you have any memories of him?”
“Please tell me.”
Dawn turned and faced Chelsea, who looked at her curiously.
“My mom used to call him ‘heart of stone’.”
“It wasn’t a joke.”
“Oh, my apologies, then why did she call him that?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“And how did you feel when he died?”
“I’m just curious to know.”
“Why? We’re not friends.”
“I’m just interested in those kinds of things, you know, like, how do people feel when someone close to them dies.”
“You’re really fucking sick, you know that?”
“It’s a matter of perspective.”
“Please tell me.”
“Tell you what?”
“How you felt.”
“I was glad! You happy now?”
“Interesting… may I ask, why were you glad?”
“All right, I respect that… so it’s basically you who did it.”
“Killed him, killed your dad.”
“If you were glad that he died, that means that you were hoping for it, probably even praying to God for it to come true. The obvious conclusion one would be compelled to draw is that you made it happen. You have powers.”
Dawn didn’t respond. For some time she lay in bed, her eyes fixed on the ceiling. Finally, she sat up and asked: “Chelsea, why are you here?”
“Pardon me?” Chelsea said, sitting up and positioning herself exactly like Dawn.
“You stir up all this shit when it’s obvious you don’t want to be here. So why are you here? Why don’t you just walk out?”
Chelsea’s ponderous eyes gleamed in the dark.
“Well, Dawn, what you have to realize here is that I was hospitalized, and—”
“That’s bullshit,” said Dawn, “You enjoy this.”
“That is simply incorrect.”
“Oh, I think it is correct. You enjoy the fight; you enjoy it when they force you to eat and tie you all up and shit, because you’re fucking deranged.”
“Yeah? prove it, here’s a window, we’re on the first floor. You can open it and crawl out.”
“Is that so?”
“It’s easier than you think,” said Dawn.
Chelsea got up and approached the window, her footsteps making no sound. She studied the escape route at length before turning towards Dawn with dumbfounded eyes, as though seeking her final approval.
“You’re not a kid anymore,” said Dawn, “No one can force you to live.”
“Interesting,” said Chelsea, and returned to bed.
That night, Dawn dreamt again about the stone men. As usual, the dream was preceded by that singular sensation, inexplicable by words, which she had never experienced in any other situation, ever since she was a child. Something small grows horrific; a slight rustling inflates into full blown night terror.
She tossed and turned, moaning meekly.
Suddenly, Dawn is thrown out of some void into that familiar image, long past. She sees a lake nestling at the foot of the mountains, the snowy-white summits glimmering in the peaceful water.
The wondrous silence surfs freely on the chilly winds filling the fresh air, until it is shattered by the sound of rowing. An ancient wooden boat appears from the mists hovering over the center of the lake, and in it Dawn sees the stone men. At the bow of the boat she sees the biggest stone man of them all. He is wearing scale armor and carrying a huge spiky club. He is roaring in the most dreadful voice, shrieking in a primitive language only Dawn can understand.
He is shouting at his stone men to row harder and faster.
And she alone knows that they are coming here, to raid the town that lies at the foot of the snowy mountains, that they are coming to plunder and pillage and rape all the women.
And the oars tear through the water, the foamy ripples spreading all over.
And the noise grows louder.
And she is twitching and groaning, quivering and convulsing, as if one of her limbs was being amputated in the pre-anesthesia age of medicine.
And as always, when the stone men hit land, she wakes up.
She opened her eyes, everything was blurry.
She was all terror and water. But a soft, cold wind stroked her cheeks. The window was open. The curtain was moving gently.
It was a new morning, and the room was awash with bright sunlight.
And finally, finally, the bed next to Dawn’s was empty.
She sat at the window watching the evening invade the avenue. Her head was leaned against the window curtains and in her nostrils was the odour of dusty cretonne. She was tired.
Few people passed. The man out of the last house passed on his way home; she heard his footsteps clacking along the concrete pavement and afterwards crunching on the cinder path before the new red houses. One time there used to be a field there in which they used to play every evening with other people’s children. Then a man from Belfast bought the field and built houses in it – not like their little brown houses but bright brick houses with shining roofs. The children of the avenue used to play together in that field – the Devines, the Waters, the Dunns, little Keogh the cripple, she and her brothers and sisters. Ernest, however, never played: he was too grown up. Her father used often to hunt them in out of the field with his blackthorn stick; but usually little Keogh used to keep nix and call out when he saw her father coming. Still they seemed to have been rather happy then. Her father was not so bad then; and besides, her mother was alive. That was a long time ago; she and her brothers and sisters were all grown up her mother was dead. Tizzie Dunn was dead, too, and the Waters had gone back to England. Everything changes. Now she was going to go away like the others, to leave her home.
Home! She looked round the room, reviewing all its familiar objects which she had dusted once a week for so many years, wondering where on earth all the dust came from. Perhaps she would never see again those familiar objects from which she had never dreamed of being divided. And yet during all those years she had never found out the name of the priest whose yellowing photograph hung on the wall above the broken harmonium beside the coloured print of the promises made to Blessed Margaret Mary Alacoque. He had been a school friend of her father. Whenever he showed the photograph to a visitor her father used to pass it with a casual word:
“He is in Melbourne now.”
She had consented to go away, to leave her home. Was that wise? She tried to weigh each side of the question. In her home anyway she had shelter and food; she had those whom she had known all her life about her. Of course she had to work hard, both in the house and at business. What would they say of her in the Stores when they found out that she had run away with a fellow? Say she was a fool, perhaps; and her place would be filled up by advertisement. Miss Gavan would be glad. She had always had an edge on her, especially whenever there were people listening.
“Miss Hill, don’t you see these ladies are waiting?”
“Look lively, Miss Hill, please.”
She would not cry many tears at leaving the Stores.
But in her new home, in a distant unknown country, it would not be like that. Then she would be married – she, Eveline. People would treat her with respect then. She would not be treated as her mother had been. Even now, though she was over nineteen, she sometimes felt herself in danger of her father’s violence. She knew it was that that had given her the palpitations. When they were growing up he had never gone for her like he used to go for Harry and Ernest, because she was a girl but latterly he had begun to threaten her and say what he would do to her only for her dead mother’s sake. And no she had nobody to protect her. Ernest was dead and Harry, who was in the church decorating business, was nearly always down somewhere in the country. Besides, the invariable squabble for money on Saturday nights had begun to weary her unspeakably. She always gave her entire wages – seven shillings – and Harry always sent up what he could but the trouble was to get any money from her father. He said she used to squander the money, that she had no head, that he wasn’t going to give her his hard-earned money to throw about the streets, and much more, for he was usually fairly bad on Saturday night. In the end he would give her the money and ask her had she any intention of buying Sunday’s dinner. Then she had to rush out as quickly as she could and do her marketing, holding her black leather purse tightly in her hand as she elbowed her way through the crowds and returning home late under her load of provisions. She had hard work to keep the house together and to see that the two young children who had been left to her charge went to school regularly and got their meals regularly. It was hard work – a hard life – but now that she was about to leave it she did not find it a wholly undesirable life.
She was about to explore another life with Frank. Frank was very kind, manly, open-hearted. She was to go away with him by the night-boat to be his wife and to live with him in Buenos Ayres where he had a home waiting for her. How well she remembered the first time she had seen him; he was lodging in a house on the main road where she used to visit. It seemed a few weeks ago. He was standing at the gate, his peaked cap pushed back on his head and his hair tumbled forward over a face of bronze. Then they had come to know each other. He used to meet her outside the Stores every evening and see her home. He took her to see The Bohemian Girl and she felt elated as she sat in an unaccustomed part of the theatre with him. He was awfully fond of music and sang a little. People knew that they were courting and, when he sang about the lass that loves a sailor, she always felt pleasantly confused. He used to call her Poppens out of fun. First of all it had been an excitement for her to have a fellow and then she had begun to like him. He had tales of distant countries. He had started as a deck boy at a pound a month on a ship of the Allan Line going out to Canada. He told her the names of the ships he had been on and the names of the different services. He had sailed through the Straits of Magellan and he told her stories of the terrible Patagonians. He had fallen on his feet in Buenos Ayres, he said, and had come over to the old country just for a holiday. Of course, her father had found out the affair and had forbidden her to have anything to say to him.
“I know these sailor chaps,” he said.
One day he had quarrelled with Frank and after that she had to meet her lover secretly.
The evening deepened in the avenue. The white of two letters in her lap grew indistinct. One was to Harry; the other was to her father. Ernest had been her favourite but she liked Harry too. Her father was becoming old lately, she noticed; he would miss her. Sometimes he could be very nice. Not long before, when she had been laid up for a day, he had read her out a ghost story and made toast for her at the fire. Another day, when their mother was alive, they had all gone for a picnic to the Hill of Howth. She remembered her father putting on her mothers bonnet to make the children laugh.
Her time was running out but she continued to sit by the window, leaning her head against the window curtain, inhaling the odour of dusty cretonne. Down far in the avenue she could hear a street organ playing. She knew the air Strange that it should come that very night to remind her of the promise to her mother, her promise to keep the home together as long as she could. She remembered the last night of her mother’s illness; she was again in the close dark room at the other side of the hall and outside she heard a melancholy air of Italy. The organ-player had been ordered to go away and given sixpence. She remembered her father strutting back into the sickroom saying:
“Damned Italians! coming over here!”
As she mused the pitiful vision of her mother’s life laid its spell on the very quick of her being – that life of commonplace sacrifices closing in final craziness. She trembled as she heard again her mother’s voice saying constantly with foolish insistence:
“Derevaun Seraun! Derevaun Seraun!”
She stood up in a sudden impulse of terror. Escape! She must escape! Frank would save her. He would give her life, perhaps love, too. But she wanted to live. Why should she be unhappy? She had a right to happiness. Frank would take her in his arms, fold her in his arms. He would save her.
She stood among the swaying crowd in the station at the North Wall. He held her hand and she knew that he was speaking to her, saying something about the passage over and over again. The station was full of soldiers with brown baggages. Through the wide doors of the sheds she caught a glimpse of the black mass of the boat, lying in beside the quay wall, with illumined portholes. She answered nothing. She felt her cheek pale and cold and, out of a maze of distress, she prayed to God to direct her, to show her what was her duty. The boat blew a long mournful whistle into the mist. If she went, tomorrow she would be on the sea with Frank, steaming towards Buenos Ayres. Their passage had been booked. Could she still draw back after all he had done for her? Her distress awoke a nausea in her body and she kept moving her lips in silent fervent prayer.
A bell clanged upon her heart. She felt him seize her hand:
All the seas of the world tumbled about her heart. He was drawing her into them: he would drown her. She gripped with both hands at the iron railing.
No! No! No! It was impossible. Her hands clutched the iron in frenzy. Amid the seas she sent a cry of anguish.
He rushed beyond the barrier and called to her to follow. He was shouted at to go on but he still called to her. She set her white face to him, passive, like a helpless animal. Her eyes gave him no sign of love or farewell or recognition.
The week after was one off the busiest weeks of their lives. Even when they went to bed it was only their bodies that lay down and rested; their minds went on, thinking things out, talking things over, wondering, deciding, trying to remember where…
Constantia lay like a statue, her hands by her sides, her feet just overlapping each other, the sheet up to her chin. She stared at the ceiling.
“Do you think father would mind if we gave his top-hat to the porter?”
“The porter?” snapped Josephine. “Why ever the porter? What a very extraordinary idea!”
“Because,” said Constantia slowly, “he must often have to go to funerals. And I noticed at—at the cemetery that he only had a bowler.” She paused. “I thought then how very much he’d appreciate a top-hat. We ought to give him a present, too. He was always very nice to father.”
“But,” cried Josephine, flouncing on her pillow and staring across the dark at Constantia, “father’s head!” And suddenly, for one awful moment, she nearly giggled. Not, of course, that she felt in the least like giggling. It must have been habit. Years ago, when they had stayed awake at night talking, their beds had simply heaved. And now the porter’s head, disappearing, popped out, like a candle, under father’s hat… The giggle mounted, mounted; she clenched her hands; she fought it down; she frowned fiercely at the dark and said “Remember” terribly sternly.
“We can decide to-morrow,” she said.
Constantia had noticed nothing; she sighed.
“Do you think we ought to have our dressing-gowns dyed as well?”
“Black?” almost shrieked Josephine.
“Well, what else?” said Constantia. “I was thinking—it doesn’t seem quite sincere, in a way, to wear black out off doors and when we’re fully dressed, and then when we’re at home—”
“But nobody sees us,” said Josephine. She gave the bedclothes such a twitch that both her feet became uncovered, and she had to creep up the pillows to get them well under again.
“Kate does,” said Constantia. “And the postman very well might.”
Josephine thought of her dark-red slippers, which matched her dressing-gown, and of Constantia’s favourite indefinite green ones which went with hers. Black! Two black dressing-gowns and two pairs of black woolly slippers, creeping off to the bathroom like black cats.
“I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary,” said she.
Silence. Then Constantia said, “We shall have to post the papers with the notice in them to-morrow to catch the Ceylon mail… How many letters have we had up till now?”
Josephine had replied to them all, and twenty-three times when she came to “We miss our dear father so much” she had broken down and had to use her handkerchief, and on some of them even to soak up a very light-blue tear with an edge of blotting-paper. Strange! She couldn’t have put it on—but twenty-three times. Even now, though, when she said over to herself sadly “We miss our dear father so much,” she could have cried if she’d wanted to.
“Have you got enough stamps?” came from Constantia.
“Oh, how can I tell?” said Josephine crossly. “What’s the good of asking me that now?”
“I was just wondering,” said Constantia mildly.
Silence again. There came e a little rustle, a scurry, a hop.
“A mouse,” said Constantia.
“It can’t be a mouse because there aren’t any crumbs,” said Josephine.
“But it doesn’t know there aren’t,” said Constantia.
A spasm of pity squeezed her heart. Poor little thing! She wished she’d left a tiny piece of biscuit on the dressing-table. It was awful to think of it not finding anything. What would it do?
“I can’t think how they manage to live at all,” she said slowly.
“Who?” demanded Josephine.
And Constantia said more loudly than she meant to, “Mice.”
Josephine was furious. “Oh, what nonsense, Con!” she said. “What have mice got to do with it? You’re asleep.”
“I don’t think I am,” said C Constantia. She shut her eyes to make sure. She was.
Josephine arched her spine, pulled up her knees, folded her arms so that her fists came under her ears, and pressed her cheek hard against the pillow.
Another thing which complicated matters was they had Nurse Andrews staying on with them that week. It was their own fault; they had asked her. It was Josephine’s idea. On the morning—well, on the last morning, when the doctor had gone, Josephine had said to Constantia, “Don’t you think it would be rather nice if we asked Nurse Andrews to stay on for a week as our guest?”
“Very nice,” said Constantia.
“I thought,” went on Josephine quickly, “I should just say this afternoon, after I’ve paid her, ‘My sister and I would be very pleased, after all you’ve done for us, Nurse Andrews, if you would stay on for a week as our guest.’ I’d have to put that in about being our guest in case—”
“Oh, but she could hardly expect to be paid!” cried Constantia.
“One never knows,” said Josephine sagely.
Nurse Andrews had, of course, jumped at the idea. But it was a bother. It meant they had to have regular sit-down meals at the proper times, whereas if they’d been alone they could just have asked Kate if she wouldn’t have minded bringing them a tray wherever they were. And meal-times now that the strain was over were rather a trial.
Nurse Andrews was simply fearful about butter. Really they couldn’t help feeling that about butter, at least, she took advantage of their kindness. And she had that maddening habit of asking for just an inch more of bread to finish what she had on her plate, and then, at the last mouthful, absent-mindedly—of course it wasn’t absent-mindedly—taking another helping. Josephine got very red when this happened, and she fastened her small, bead-like eyes on the tablecloth as if she saw a minute strange insect creeping through the web of it. But Constantia’s long, pale face lengthened and set, and she gazed away— away— far over the desert, to where that line of camels unwound like a thread of wool…
“When I was with Lady Tukes,” said Nurse Andrews, “she had such a dainty little contrayvance for the buttah. It was a silvah Cupid balanced on the—on the bordah of a glass dish, holding a tayny fork. And when you wanted some buttah you simply pressed his foot and he bent down and speared you a piece. It was quite a gayme.”
Josephine could hardly bear that. But “I think those things are very extravagant” was all she said.
“But whey?” asked Nurse Andrews, beaming through her eyeglasses. “No one, surely, would take more buttah than one wanted—would one?”
“Ring, Con,” cried Josephine. She couldn’t trust herself to reply.
And proud young Kate, the enchanted princess, came in to see what the old tabbies wanted now. She snatched away their plates of mock something or other and slapped down a white, terrified blancmange.
“Jam, please, Kate,” said Josephine kindly.
Kate knelt and burst open the sideboard, lifted the lid of the jam-pot, saw it was empty, put it on the table, and stalked off.
“I’m afraid,” said Nurse Andrews a moment later, “there isn’t any.”
“Oh, what a bother!” said Josephine. She bit her lip. “What had we better do?”
Constantia looked dubious. “We can’t disturb Kate again,” she said softly.
Nurse Andrews waited, smiling at them both. Her eyes wandered, spying at everything behind her eyeglasses. Constantia in despair went back to her camels. Josephine frowned heavily—concentrated. If it hadn’t been for this idiotic woman she and Con would, of course, have eaten their blancmange without. Suddenly the idea came.
“I know,” she said. “Marmalade. There’s some marmalade in the sideboard. Get it, Con.”
“I hope,” laughed Nurse Andrews—and her laugh was like a spoon tinkling against a medicine-glass—”I hope it’s not very bittah marmalayde.”
But, after all, it was not long now, and then she’d be gone for good. And there was no getting over the fact that she had been very kind to father. She had nursed him day and night at the end. Indeed, both Constantia and Josephine felt privately she had rather overdone the not leaving him at the very last. For when they had gone in to say good-bye Nurse Andrews had sat beside his bed the whole time, holding his wrist and pretending to look at her watch. It couldn’t have been necessary. It was so tactless, too. Supposing father had wanted to say something—something private to them. Not that he had. Oh, far from it! He lay there, purple, a dark, angry purple in the face, and never even looked at them when they came in. Then, as they were standing there, wondering what to do, he had suddenly opened one eye. Oh, what a difference it would have made, what a difference to their memory of him, how much easier to tell people about it, if he had only opened both! But no—one eye only. It glared at them a moment and then… went out.
It had made it very awkward for them when Mr. Farolles, of St. John’s, called the same afternoon.
“The end was quite peaceful, I trust?” were the first words he said as he glided towards them through the dark drawing-room.
“Quite,” said Josephine faintly. They both hung their heads. Both of them felt certain that eye wasn’t at all a peaceful eye.
“Won’t you sit down?” said Josephine.
“Thank you, Miss Pinner,” said Mr. Farolles gratefully. He folded his coat-tails and began to lower himself into father’s arm-chair, but just as he touched it he almost sprang up and slid into the next chair instead.
He coughed. Josephine clasped her hands; Constantia looked vague.
“I want you to feel, Miss Pinner,” said Mr. Farolles, “and you, Miss Constantia, that I’m trying to be helpful. I want to be helpful to you both, if you will let me. These are the times,” said Mr. Farolles, very simply and earnestly, “when God means us to be helpful to one another.”
“Thank you very much, Mr. Farolles,” said Josephine and Constantia.
“Not at all,” said Mr. Farolles gently. He drew his kid gloves through his fingers and leaned forward. “And if either of you would like a little Communion, either or both of you, here and now, you have only to tell me. A little Communion is often very help—a great comfort,” he added tenderly.
But the idea of a little Communion terrified them. What! In the drawing-room by themselves—with no—no altar or anything! The piano would be much too high, thought Constantia, and Mr. Farolles could not possibly lean over it with the chalice. And Kate would be sure to come bursting in and interrupt them, thought Josephine. And supposing the bell rang in the middle? It might be somebody important—about their mourning. Would they get up reverently and go out, or would they have to wait… in torture?
“Perhaps you will send round a note by your good Kate if you would care for it later,” said Mr. Farolles.
“Oh yes, thank you very m much!” they both said.
Mr. Farolles got up and took his black straw hat from the round table.
“And about the funeral,” he said softly. “I may arrange that—as your dear father’s old friend and yours, Miss Pinner—and Miss Constantia?”
Josephine and Constantia got up too.
“I should like it to be quite simple,” said Josephine firmly, “and not too expensive. At the same time, I should like—”
“A good one that will last,” thought dreamy Constantia, as if Josephine were buying a nightgown. But, of course, Josephine didn’t say that. “One suitable to our father’s position.” She was very nervous.
“I’ll run round to our good friend Mr. Knight,” said Mr. Farolles soothingly. “I will ask him to come and see you. I am sure you will find him very helpful indeed.”
Well, at any rate, all that part of it was over, though neither of them could possibly believe that father was never coming back. Josephine had had a moment of absolute terror at the cemetery, while the coffin was lowered, to think that she and Constantia had done this thing without asking his permission. What would father say when he found out? For he was bound to find out sooner or later. He always did. “Buried. You two girls had me buried!” She had his stick thumping. Oh, what would they say? What possible excuse could they make? It sounded such an appallingly heartless thing to do. Such a wicked advantage to take of a person because he happened to be helpless at the moment. The other people seemed to treat it all as a matter of course. They were strangers; they couldn’t be expected to understand that father was the very last person for such a thing to happen to. No, the entire blame for it all would fall on her and Constantia. And the expense, she thought, stepping into the tight-buttoned cab. When she had to show him the bills. What would he say then?
She heard him absolutely roaring. “And do you expect me to pay for this gimcrack excursion of yours?”
“Oh,” groaned poor Josephine aloud, “we shouldn’t have done it, Con!”
And Constantia, pale as a lemon in all that blackness, said in a frightened whisper, “Done what, Jug?”
“Let them bu-bury father like that,” said Josephine, breaking down and crying into her new, queer-smelling mourning handkerchief.
“But what else could we have done?” asked Constantia wonderingly. “We couldn’t have kept him, Jug—we couldn’t have kept him unburied. At any rate, not in a flat that size.”
Josephine blew her nose; the cab was dreadfully stuffy.
“I don’t know,” she said forlornly. “It is all so dreadful. I feel we ought to have tried to, just for a time at least. To make perfectly sure. One thing’s certain”—and her tears sprang out again—”father will never forgive us for this—never!”
Father would never forgive them. That was what they felt more than ever when, two mornings later, they went into his room to go through his things. They had discussed it quite calmly. It was even down on Josephine’s list of things to be done. “Go through father’s things and settle about them.” But that was a very different matter from saying after breakfast:
“Well, are you ready, Con?”
“Yes, Jug—when you are.”
“Then I think we’d better get it over.”
It was dark in the hall. It had been a rule for years never to disturb father in the morning, whatever happened. And now they were going to open the door without knocking even… Constantia’s eyes were enormous at the idea; Josephine felt weak in the knees.
“You—you go first,” she g gasped, pushing Constantia.
But Constantia said, as she always had said on those occasions, “No, Jug, that’s not fair. You’re the eldest.”
Josephine was just going to say—what at other times she wouldn’t have owned to for the world—what she kept for her very last weapon, “But you’re the tallest,” when they noticed that the kitchen door was open, and there stood Kate…
“Very stiff,” said Josephine, grasping the door handle and doing her best to turn it. As if anything ever deceived Kate!
It couldn’t be helped. That girl was… Then the door was shut behind them, but—but they weren’t in father’s room at all. They might have suddenly walked through the wall by mistake into a different flat altogether. Was the door just behind them? They were too frightened to look. Josephine knew that if it was it was holding itself tight shut; Constantia felt that, like the doors in dreams, it hadn’t any handle at all. It was the coldness which made it so awful. Or the whiteness—which? Everything was covered. The blinds were down, a cloth hung over the mirror, a sheet hid the bed; a huge fan of white paper filled the fireplace. Constantia timidly put out her hand; she almost expected a snowflake to fall. Josephine felt a queer tingling in her nose, as if her nose was freezing. Then a cab klop-klopped over the cobbles below, and the quiet seemed to shake into little pieces.
“I had better pull up a blind,” said Josephine bravely.
“Yes, it might be a good idea,” whispered Constantia.
They only gave the blind a touch, but it flew up and the cord flew after, rolling round the blind-stick, and the little tassel tapped as if trying to get free. That was too much for Constantia.
“Don’t you think—don’t you think we might put it off for another day?” she whispered.
“Why?” snapped Josephine, feeling, as usual, much better now that she knew for certain that Constantia was terrified. “It’s got to be done. But I do wish you wouldn’t whisper, Con.”
“I didn’t know I was whispering,” whispered Constantia.
“And why do you keep staring at the bed?” said Josephine, raising her voice almost defiantly. “There’s nothing on the bed.”
“Oh, Jug, don’t say so!” said poor Connie. “At any rate, not so loudly.”
Josephine felt herself that she had gone too far. She took a wide swerve over to the chest of drawers, put out her hand, but quickly drew it back again.
“Connie!” she gasped, and she wheeled round and leaned with her back against the chest of drawers.
Josephine could only glare. She had the most extraordinary feeling that she had just escaped something simply awful. But how could she explain to Constantia that father was in the chest of drawers? He was in the top drawer with his handkerchiefs and neckties, or in the next with his shirts and pyjamas, or in the lowest of all with his suits. He was watching there, hidden away—just behind the door-handle—ready to spring.
She pulled a funny old-fashioned face at Constantia, just as she used to in the old days when she was going to cry.
“I can’t open,” she nearly wailed.
“No, don’t, Jug,” whispered Constantia earnestly. “It’s much better not to. Don’t let’s open anything. At any rate, not for a long time.”
“But—but it seems so weak,” said Josephine, breaking down.
“But why not be weak for once, Jug?” argued Constantia, whispering quite fiercely. “If it is weak.” And her pale stare flew from the locked writing-table—so safe—to the huge glittering wardrobe, and she began to breathe in a queer, panting away. “Why shouldn’t we be weak for once in our lives, Jug? It’s quite excusable. Let’s be weak—be weak, Jug. It’s much nicer to be weak than to be strong.”
And then she did one of those amazingly bold things that she’d done bout twice before in their lives: she marched over to the wardrobe, turned the key, and took it out of the lock. Took it out of the lock and held it up to Josephine, showing Josephine by her extraordinary smile that she knew what she’d done—she’d risked deliberately father being in there among his overcoats.
If the huge wardrobe had lurched forward, had crashed down on Constantia, Josephine wouldn’t have been surprised. On the contrary, she would have thought it the only suitable thing to happen. But nothing happened. Only the room seemed quieter than ever, and the bigger flakes of cold air fell on Josephine’s shoulders and knees. She began to shiver.
“Come, Jug,” said Constantia, still with that awful callous smile, and Josephine followed just as she had that last time, when Constantia had pushed Benny into t the round pond.
But the strain told on them when they were back in the dining-room. They sat down, very shaky, and looked at each other.
“I don’t feel I can settle to anything,” said Josephine, “until I’ve had something. Do you think we could ask Kate for two cups of hot water?”
“I really don’t see why we shouldn’t,” said Constantia carefully. She was quite normal again. “I won’t ring. I’ll go to the kitchen door and ask her.”
“Yes, do,” said Josephine, sinking down into a chair. “Tell her, just two cups, Con, nothing else—on a tray.”
“She needn’t even put the jug on, need she?” said Constantia, as though Kate might very well complain if the jug had been there.
“Oh no, certainly not! The jug’s not at all necessary. She can pour it direct out of the kettle,” cried Josephine, feeling that would be a labour-saving indeed.
Their cold lips quivered at the greenish brims. Josephine curved her small red hands round the cup; Constantia sat up and blew on the wavy steam, making it flutter from one side to the other.
“Speaking of Benny,” said Josephine.
And though Benny hadn’t been mentioned Constantia immediately looked as though he had.
“He’ll expect us to send him something of father’s, of course. But it’s so difficult to know what to send to Ceylon.”
“You mean things get unstuck so on the voyage,” murmured Constantia.
“No, lost,” said Josephine sharply. “You know there’s no post. Only runners.”
Both paused to watch a black man in white linen drawers running through the pale fields for dear life, with a large brown-paper parcel in his hands. Josephine’s black man was tiny; he scurried along glistening like an ant. But there was something blind and tireless about Constantia’s tall, thin fellow, which made him, she decided, a very unpleasant person indeed… On the veranda, dressed all in white and wearing a cork helmet, stood Benny. His right hand shook up and down, as father’s did when he was impatient. And behind him, not in the least interested, sat Hilda, the unknown sister-in-law. She swung in a cane rocker and flicked over the leaves of the “Tatler.”
“I think his watch would be the most suitable present,” said Josephine.
Constantia looked up; she seemed surprised.
“Oh, would you trust a gold watch to a native?”
“But of course, I’d disguise it,” said Josephine. “No one would know it was a watch.” She liked the idea of having to make a parcel such a curious shape that no one could possibly guess what it was. She even thought for a moment of hiding the watch in a narrow cardboard corset-box that she’d kept by her for a long time, waiting for it to come in for something. It was such beautiful, firm cardboard. But, no, it wouldn’t be appropriate for this occasion. It had letter ring on it: “Medium Women’s 28. Extra Firm Busks.” It would be almost too much of a surprise for Benny to open that and find father’s watch inside.
“And of course it isn’t as though it would be going—ticking, I mean,” said Constantia, who was still thinking of the native love of jewellery. “At least,” she added, “it would be very strange if after all that time it was.”
Josephine made no reply. She had flown off on one of her tangents. She had suddenly thought of Cyril. Wasn’t it more usual for the only grandson to have the watch? And then dear Cyril was so appreciative, and a gold watch meant so much to a young man. Benny, in all probability, had quite got out of the habit of watches; men so seldom wore waistcoats in those hot climates. Whereas Cyril in London wore them from year’s end to year’s end. And it would be so nice for her and Constantia, when he came to tea, to know it was there. “I see you’ve got on grandfather’s watch, Cyril.” It would be somehow so satisfactory.
Dear boy! What a blow his sweet, sympathetic little note had been! Of course they quite understood; but it was most unfortunate. “It would have been such a point, having him,” said Josephine.
“And he would have enjoyed it so,” said Constantia, not thinking what she was saying. However, as soon as he got back he was coming to tea with his aunties. Cyril to tea was one of their rare treats.
“Now, Cyril, you mustn’t be frightened of our cakes. Your Auntie Con and I bought them at Buszard’s this morning. We know what a man’s appetite is. So don’t be ashamed of making a good tea.”
Josephine cut recklessly into the rich dark cake that stood for her winter gloves or the soling and heeling of Constantia’s only respectable shoes. But Cyril was most unmanlike in appetite.
“I say, Aunt Josephine, I simply can’t. I’ve only just had lunch, you know.”
“Oh, Cyril, that can’t be true! It’s after four,” cried Josephine. Constantia sat with her knife poised over the chocolate-roll.
“It is, all the same,” said Cyril. “I had to meet a man at Victoria, and he kept me hanging about till… there was only time to get lunch and to come on here. And he gave me— phew”—Cyril put his hand to his forehead—”a terrific blow-out,” he said.
It was disappointing—to-day of all days. But still he couldn’t be expected to know. “But you’ll have a meringue, won’t you, Cyril?” said Aunt Josephine. “These meringues were bought specially for you.
Your dear father was so fond of them. We were sure you are, too.”
“I am, Aunt Josephine,” cried Cyril ardently. “Do you mind if I take half to begin with?” “Not at all, dear boy; but we mustn’t let you off with that.”
“Is your dear father still so fond of meringues?” asked Auntie Con gently. She winced faintly as she broke through the shell of hers. “Well, I don’t quite know, Auntie Con,” said Cyril breezily.
At that they both looked up.
“Don’t know?” almost snapped Josephine. “Don’t know a thing like that about your own father, Cyril?”
“Surely,” said Auntie Con softly.
Cyril tried to laugh it off. “Oh, well,” he said, “it’s such a long time since—” He faltered. He stopped. Their faces were too much for him.
“Even so,” said Josephine.
And Auntie Con looked.
Cyril put down his teacup. “Wait a bit,” he cried. “Wait a bit, Aunt Josephine. What am I thinking of?”
He looked up. They were beginning to brighten. Cyril slapped his knee.
“Of course,” he said, “it was meringues. How could I have forgotten? Yes, Aunt Josephine, you’re perfectly right. Father’s most frightfully keen on meringues.”
They didn’t only beam. Aunt Josephine went scarlet with pleasure; Auntie Con gave a deep, deep sigh.
“And now, Cyril, you must come and see father,” said Josephine. “He knows you were coming to-day.”
“Right,” said Cyril, very firmly and heartily. He got up from his chair; suddenly he glanced at the clock.
“I say, Auntie Con, isn’t y your clock a bit slow? I’ve got to meet a man at—at Paddington just after five. I’m afraid I shan’t be able to stay very long with grandfather.”
“Oh, he won’t expect you to stay very long!” said Aunt Josephine.
Constantia was still gazing at the clock. She couldn’t make up her mind if it was fast or slow. It was one or the other, she felt almost certain of that. At any rate, it had been.
Cyril still lingered. “Aren’t you coming along, Auntie Con?”
“Of course,” said Josephine, “we shall all go. Come on, Con.”
They knocked at the door, and Cyril followed his aunts into grandfather’s hot, sweetish room.
“Come on,” said Grandfather Pinner. “Don’t hang about. What is it? What’ve you been up to?”
He was sitting in front of a roaring fire, clasping his stick. He had a thick rug over his knees. On his lap there lay a beautiful pale yellow silk handkerchief.
“It’s Cyril, father,” said Josephine shyly. And she took Cyril’s hand and led him forward.
“Good afternoon, grandfather,” said Cyril, trying to take his hand out of Aunt Josephine’s. Grandfather Pinner shot his eyes at Cyril in the way he was famous for. Where was Auntie Con? She stood on the other side of Aunt Josephine; her long arms hung down in front of her; her hands were clasped. She never took her eyes off grandfather.
“Well,” said Grandfather Pinner, beginning to thump, “what have you got to tell me?”
What had he, what had he got to tell him? Cyril felt himself smiling like a perfect imbecile. The room was stifling, too.
But Aunt Josephine came to his rescue. She cried brightly, “Cyril says his father is still very fond of meringues, father dear.”
“Eh?” said Grandfather Pinner, curving his hand like a purple meringue-shell over one ear.
Josephine repeated, “Cyril says his father is still very fond of meringues.”
“Can’t hear,” said old Colonel Pinner. And he waved Josephine away with his stick, then pointed with his stick to Cyril. “Tell me what she’s trying to say,” he said.
(My God!) “Must I?” said Cyril, blushing and staring at Aunt Josephine.
“Do, dear,” she smiled. “It will please him so much.”
“Come on, out with it!” cried Colonel Pinner testily, beginning to thump again.
And Cyril leaned forward and yelled, “Father’s still very fond of meringues.”
At that Grandfather Pinner jumped as though he had been shot.
“Don’t shout!” he cried. “What’s the matter with the boy? Meringues! What about ’em?”
“Oh, Aunt Josephine, must we go on?” groaned Cyril desperately.
“It’s quite all right, dear boy,” said Aunt Josephine, as though he and she were at the dentist’s together. “He’ll understand in a minute.” And she whispered to Cyril, “He’s getting a bit deaf, you know.” Then she leaned forward and really bawled at Grandfather Pinner, “Cyril only wanted to tell you, father dear, that his father is still very fond of meringues.”
Colonel Pinner heard that time, heard and brooded, looking Cyril up and down.
“What an esstrordinary thing!” said old Grandfather Pinner. “What an esstrordinary thing to come all this way here to tell me!”
And Cyril felt it was.
“Yes, I shall send Cyril the watch,” said Josephine.
“That would be very nice,” said Constantia. “I seem to remember last time he came there was some little trouble about the time.”
They were interrupted by Kate bursting through the door in her usual fashion, as though she had discovered some secret panel in the wall.
“Fried or boiled?” asked the bold voice.
Fried or boiled? Josephine and Constantia were quite bewildered for the moment. They could hardly take it in.
“Fried or boiled what, Kate?” asked Josephine, trying to begin to concentrate.
Kate gave a loud sniff. “Fish.”
“Well, why didn’t you say so immediately?” Josephine reproached her gently. “How could you expect us to understand, Kate? There are a great many things in this world you know, which are fried or boiled.” And after such a display of courage she said quite brightly to Constantia, “Which do you prefer, Con?”
“I think it might be nice to have it fried,” said Constantia. “On the other hand, of course, boiled fish is very nice. I think I prefer both equally well… Unless you… In that case—”
“I shall fry it,” said Kate, and she bounced back, leaving their door open and slamming the door of her kitchen.
Josephine gazed at Constantia; she raised her pale eyebrows until they rippled away into her pale hair. She got up. She said in a very lofty, imposing way, “Do you mind following me into the drawing-room, Constantia? I’ve got something of great importance to discuss with you.”
For it was always to the drawing-room they retired when they wanted to talk over Kate.
Josephine closed the door meaningly. “Sit down, Constantia,” she said, still very grand. She might have been receiving Constantia for the first time. And Con looked round vaguely for a chair, as though she felt indeed quite a stranger.
“Now the question is,” said Josephine, bending forward, “whether we shall keep her or not.”
“That is the question,” agreed Constantia.
“And this time,” said Josephine firmly, “we must come to a definite decision.”
Constantia looked for a moment as though she might begin going over all the other times, but she pulled herself together and said, “Yes, Jug.”
“You see, Con,” explained d Josephine, “everything is so changed now.” Constantia looked up quickly. “I mean,” went on Josephine, “we’re not dependent on Kate as we were.” And she blushed faintly. “There’s not father to cook for.”
“That is perfectly true,” agreed Constantia. “Father certainly doesn’t want any cooking now, whatever else—”
Josephine broke in sharply, “You’re not sleepy, are you, Con?”
“Sleepy, Jug?” Constantia was wide-eyed.
“Well, concentrate more,” said Josephine sharply, and she returned to the subject. “What it comes to is, if we did”—and this she barely breathed, glancing at the door—”give Kate notice”—she raised her voice again—”we could manage our own food.”
“Why not?” cried Constantia. She couldn’t help smiling. The idea was so exciting. She clasped her hands. “What should we live on, Jug?”
“Oh, eggs in various forms!” said Jug, lofty again. “And, besides, there are all the cooked foods.”
“But I’ve always heard,” said Constantia, “they are considered so very expensive.”
“Not if one buys them in moderation,” said Josephine. But she tore herself away from this fascinating bypath and dragged Constantia after her.
“What we’ve got to decide now, however, is whether we really do trust Kate or not.”
Constantia leaned back. Her flat little laugh flew from her lips.
“Isn’t it curious, Jug,” said she, “that just on this one subject I’ve never been able to quite make up my mind?”
She never had. The whole difficulty was to prove anything. How did one prove things, how could one? Suppose Kate had stood in front of her and deliberately made a face. Mightn’t she very well have been in pain? Wasn’t it impossible, at any rate, to ask Kate if she was making a face at her? If Kate answered “No”—and, of course, she would say “No”—what a position! How undignified! Then again Constantia suspected, she was almost certain that Kate went to her chest of drawers when she and Josephine were out, not to take things but to spy. Many times she had come back to find her amethyst cross in the most unlikely places, under her lace ties or on top of her evening Bertha. More than once she had laid a trap for Kate. She had arranged things in a special order and then called Josephine to witness.
“You see, Jug?”
“Now we shall be able to tell.”
But, oh dear, when she did go to look, she was as far off from a proof as ever! If anything was displaced, it might so very well have happened as she closed the drawer; a jolt might have done it so easily.
“You come, Jug, and decide. I really can’t. It’s too difficult.”
But after a pause and a long glare Josephine would sigh, “Now you’ve put the doubt into my mind, Con, I’m sure I can’t tell myself.”
“Well, we can’t postpone it again,” said Josephine. “If we postpone it this time—”
But at that moment in the street below a barrel-organ struck up. Josephine and Constantia sprang to their feet together.
“Run, Con,” said Josephine. “Run quickly. There’s sixpence on the—”
Then they remembered. It didn’t matter. They would never have to stop the organ-grinder again. Never again would she and Constantia be told to make that monkey take his noise somewhere else. Never would sound that loud, strange bellow when father thought they were not hurrying enough. The organ-grinder might play there all day and the stick would not thump.
“It never will thump ag gain,
It never will thump again,
played the barrel-organ.
What was Constantia thinking? She had such a strange smile; she looked different. She couldn’t be going to cry.
“Jug, Jug,” said Constantia softly, pressing her hands together. “Do you know what day it is? It’s Saturday. It’s a week to-day, a whole week.”
“A week since father died,
A week since father dieed,”
cried the barrel-organ. And Josephine, too, forgot to be practical and sensible; she smiled faintly, strangely. On the Indian carpet there fell a square of sunlight, pale red; it came and went and came—and stayed, deepened—until it shone almost golden.
“The sun’s out,” said Josephine, as though it really mattered.
A perfect fountain of bubbling notes shook from the barrel-organ, round, bright notes, carelessly scattered.
Constantia lifted her big, cold hands as if to catch them, and then her hands fell again. She walked over to the mantelpiece to her favourite Buddha. And the stone and gilt image, whose smile always gave her such a queer feeling, almost a pain and yet a pleasant pain, seemed to-day to be more than smiling. He knew something; he had a secret. “I know something that you don’t know,” said her Buddha. Oh, what was it, what could it be? And yet she had always felt there was… something.
The sunlight pressed through the windows, thieved its way in, flashed its light over the furniture and the photographs. Josephine watched it. When it came to mother’s photograph, the enlargement over the piano, it lingered as though puzzled to find so little remained of mother, except the earrings shaped like tiny pagodas and a black feather boa. Why did the photographs of dead people always fade so? wondered Josephine. As soon as a person was dead their photograph died too. But, of course, this one of mother was very old. It was thirty-five years old. Josephine remembered standing on a chair and pointing out that feather boa to Constantia and telling her that it was a snake that had killed their mother in Ceylon… Would everything have been different if mother hadn’t died? She didn’t see why. Aunt Florence had lived with them until they had left school, and they had moved three times and had their yearly holiday and… and there’d been changes of servants, of course.
Some little sparrows, young sparrows they sounded, chirped on the window-ledge. “Yeep—eyeep—yeep.” But Josephine felt they were not sparrows, not on the window-ledge. It was inside her, that queer little crying noise. “Yeep—eyeep—yeep.” Ah, what was it crying, so weak and forlorn?
If mother had lived, might they have married? But there had been nobody for them to marry. There had been father’s Anglo-Indian friends before he quarrelled with them. But after that she and Constantia never met a single man except clergymen. How did one meet men? Or even if they’d met them, how could they have got to know men well enough to be more than strangers? One read of people having adventures, being followed, and so on. But nobody had ever followed Constantia and her. Oh yes, there had been one year at Eastbourne a mysterious man at their boarding-house who had put a note on the jug of hot water outside their bedroom door! But by the time Connie had found it the steam had made the writing too faint to read; they couldn’t even make out to which of them it was addressed. And he had left next day. And that was all. The rest had been looking after father, and at the same time keeping out of father’s way. But now? But now? The thieving sun touched Josephine gently. She lifted her face. She was drawn over to the window by gentle beams…
Until the barrel-organ stopped playing Constantia stayed before the Buddha, wondering, but not as usual, not vaguely. This time her wonder was like longing. She remembered the times she had come in here, crept out of bed in her nightgown when the moon was full, and lain on the floor with her arms outstretched, as though she was crucified. Why? The big, pale moon had made her do it. The horrible dancing figures on the carved screen had leered at her and she hadn’t minded. She remembered too how, whenever they were at the seaside, she had gone off by herself and got as close to the sea as she could, and sung something, something she had made up, while she gazed all over that restless water. There had been this other life, running out, bringing things home in bags, getting things on approval, discussing them with Jug, and taking them back to get more things on approval, and arranging father’s trays and trying not to annoy father. But it all seemed to have happened in a kind of tunnel. It wasn’t real. It was only when she came out of the tunnel into the moonlight or by the sea or into a thunderstorm that she really felt herself. What did it mean? What was it she was always wanting? What did it all lead to? Now? Now?
She turned away from the Buddha with one of her vague gestures. She went over to where Josephine was standing. She wanted to say something to Josephine, something frightfully important, about—about the future and what…
“Don’t you think perhaps—” she began.
But Josephine interrupted her. “I was wondering if now—” she murmured. They stopped; they waited for each other.
“Go on, Con,” said Josephine.
“No, no, Jug; after you,” said Constantia.
“No, say what you were going to say. You began,” said Josephine.
“I… I’d rather hear what you were going to say first,” said Constantia.
“Don’t be absurd, Con.”
A pause. Then Constantia said faintly, “I can’t say what I was going to say, Jug, because I’ve forgotten what it was… that I was going to say.”
Josephine was silent for a moment. She stared at a big cloud where the sun had been. Then she replied shortly, “I’ve forgotten too.”
It was the last summer before they gave the Sinai back to Egypt. I was thirteen and I drove with my parents and their friends down to Ras Burka. I think that must have been our last big family trip. After that, I preferred going with my friends. In any case, one of the families traveling with us had a son with cerebral palsy. They put up their tent a little bit away from the rest of us so it took a few days before I even noticed him. And that was purely by accident too. I went into the water to snorkel and the current carried me too far out. The waves were high, salt water seeped into my snorkel and my mask steamed up. I wanted to go back to the shore but didn’t know how. After a long moment, I found a sandy path that wound through the corals and swam along it till I reached the shore. I rested there for a while, got my breathing regular again, took off my fins and started walking back toward our tent, swearing to myself that this was the last time I’d go underwater by myself.
And then I saw him.
He was sitting in a wheelchair near his family’s tent.
I couldn’t decide whether to go over to him, but he seemed to be smiling at me, so I turned away from the shoreline and walked toward him. When I got closer, I saw that the smile was actually an involuntary twitch that distorted his mouth.
But that wasn’t the main thing.
Dozens of flies were sitting on his face. There were flies on his lips, on his nose, inside his nose, in his ears, on his cheeks, his neck, his chin, his hair, his weird thick glasses. Big flies, small flies, flies that weren’t moving, flies that were rubbing their hands together in pleasure. Where were his parents? How could they have left him there like that?
“Do something,” his eyes pleaded from behind his glasses. “Save me from this torture.” He moaned, the sound an animal makes. A wounded animal.
I peeled off my shirt and started flapping it wildly around his body. Some of the flies took off. And some didn’t. I waved my other hand too, and kicked the air with my foot, close to his face. I did everything but touch him. I jumped and stamped, even went into their tent and brought out a piece of cardboard meant for fanning the barbecue coals, and waved it hard next to the back of his neck where an especially stubborn guerilla of flies was hanging on.
Finally, after a few minutes of hard work, I managed to cut down the number of flies by half. I knew that as soon as I left him, the flies would come back and retake his face easily. But there was no choice. I had to go back to the main tent for help.
“I’ll be right back,” I said. He didn’t nod his head and he didn’t shake it. I thought I could see a thank you in his eyes, but I wasn’t sure of that either. “I’ll be right back,” I repeated. And again, not a muscle in his face moved.
I started running back to the main tent, the soles of my feet burning in the sand, but before I reached it, I ran into his parents, who must have been on their way back. The mother was carrying their new, blond baby girl. The father was carrying two folding chairs.
Your son, I blurted out, he’s there… alone… the flies. The words were all jumbled in my mouth.
We know, the father said in a firm voice. Confident. What can we do, the mother said with a sigh. We can’t stand next to him all day and swat them away.
Yes, but… I wanted to object. To demand. To wave my fins around. But my protest couldn’t find its way into words, into a coherent argument. I was only thirteen and still a little bit afraid of grownups.
But thanks for taking an interest, the father said, and started walking again. She has sensitive skin, it isn’t good for her, being in the sun like this, the mother apologized, gesturing to the little blond girl, and walked past me. The little blond girl herself was asleep, her face bright and beautiful.
That night, I told my parents about it. I was sure they’d be outraged. That they’d use the same expressions they used when I did something to make them furious: “shameful,” “disgraceful,” or worst of all – “deplorable.”
To my shock, they were indifferent. Even worse: it turned out that it was nothing new for them. The boy had been with the group on their vacation at Lake Kinneret, and then too, he sat in his wheelchair outside the tent and the flies set up residence on him.
I agree with you, it’s not a pretty sight, my father said. But what can they do? Stand next to him all day and swat away the flies?
I actually think it’s nice that they insist on bringing him, my mother added. After all, they could leave him in the home. But they want him to grow up like a normal child.
So why do they hide him? the question burst out of me at full volume, volume that was fine for home, not the Sinai. If it’s so nice and they have nothing to be ashamed of, why did they put up their tent so far from everyone else?!
Because it took them a little more time to get organized and that was the only place left for them, my father said.
Yes, my mother backed him up – I hadn’t heard her back him up on anything for a long time – it’s purely by chance. At the Kinneret, they were right in the center of things.
Their arguments, added on to his parents’ arguments, paralyzed me. It all sounded so logical and convincing. But still, I had the feeling that an injustice was being done here. My father put out the candle and in the dark, my mother said it was nice that I thought about others, not only about myself, and maybe I should put that virtue to use by washing the plastic plates every once in a while because it makes no sense that she’s in the Sinai and the only thing she does all day is cook and wash up after us.
When we woke up the next morning, we saw that a lot of other Israeli families had come during the night and planted their tents on the beach. You can’t imagine, Rina, the whole country came to say goodbye to the Sinai, my father said after finishing his morning exercises outside the tent. Oh my God, my mother said when she went outside, the whole country really is here.
I hated it when they talked like that. As if they weren’t actually part of the country. But I didn’t say anything. I went outside and scanned the beach. The boy’s tent wasn’t on the edge of the camp anymore, but right in the middle of the rows of tents that now filled the small inlet from the little hill to the dunes. Terrific, I said to myself, now the whole country will see that boy being tortured on his wheelchair and someone will definitely say something to his parents.
That day, when the sun had begun to sink toward the hills, I went into the water with my snorkel and swam back to the spot where the narrow sandy path wound between the large fire corals. After I came out of the water and dried myself off on the beach, I began looking for their tent. It wasn’t easy to find anymore because there were so many other tents surrounding it, but the flash of the sun’s rays on the iron of the wheelchair showed me the way.
He was sitting there in the same small square of shade. I searched his eyes for a sign that he recognized me, remembered something. And didn’t find it. There were a million flies on his face. A billion. The whole country has been walking past him since the morning, I thought. And didn’t do a thing.
I started the work of swatting them away. This time, I was determined to get all the flies, every last one. I wanted to see his face completely clear for once, I wanted to give him a few seconds of grace free of irritation.
It took a long time – the sun was already turning the hilltops golden – but in the end, I did it. The last three flies turned out to be dead, and I peeled them off his cheek with my fingers. But while I was moving back a little to check if any flies had gotten away from me, four new ones landed on his nose.
Furious, I went back and slapped the air next to his nose until they gave up and flew away. Then I stood beside him for a few minutes to make sure that not a single fly dared to come back. It was starting to get dark and I hoped my parents were already worrying about me, so I promised the fly boy that I’d come back the next day at the same time, and left.
I’d like to say that I went back the next day and the day after that. I’d like to say that, in the end, I started a protest demonstration, maybe even a hunger strike, near the fly boy’s wheelchair until his parents had no choice but to stand on either side of him waving huge palm fronds all day long.
But at the moment, the truth is stronger, stronger than me.
That evening, near one of the circles of people listening to a guitar player, I met a fifteen-year-old girl. I lied to her, said I was fifteen too, and she believed me and told me that in Ashdod, where she lived, there are some girls who’d gone all the way with older boys. She had big green eyes and chocolate skin, and she always wore a white bikini, day and night, and spoke loudly about her boobs, how big and beautiful they were. I fell in love with her instantly, of course. And I spent the next few days playing endless games of backgammon with her and her cousins, trying desperately to impress her.
One afternoon, her cousins went into the water and just the two of us were left on the beach. The sun was behind us. I didn’t turn around, but I could picture it turning the hilltops golden now.
We didn’t talk. I felt that it was my responsibility to rescue us from the silence.
There’s this kid here, I said. He has some disease, I don’t what. Anyway, his parents leave him in a wheelchair outside their tent the whole day, and all the flies in the Sinai come and sit on his face.
How disgusting, she said.
Yes, I agreed. And added, spitting out the words quickly, I go to see him every once in a while and swat away the flies. Want to come with me?
What, now? she asked and buried her tan legs in the soft sand like someone who has no intention of going anywhere.
No, I said, alarmed. Who said now? I was thinking later, tomorrow.
We’ll see, maybe, she said, and jumped up suddenly. Are you coming to the water?
I didn’t see the boy with the flies anymore. I was sure I’d see him the last day when my parents’ whole gang took down their tents and gathered together to make the trip to Eilat in a convoy of Subarus. I planned to tell his parents a thing or two, or at least say goodbye to him and apologize for not keeping my promise, but when we got to the meeting place, his family wasn’t there.
They left yesterday, my mother explained. Their little girl had a bad upset stomach.
And what about the… I started to ask, but my father changed the subject. Son, he said, take one last look at the beach and make sure you remember what you see. Inside of a year, the Egyptians will build an army base here. And that’s the end of the corals and the fish.
No, my mother said, I think they’ll develop the place for tourism.
And he answered her.
And she answered him.
And they were off, arguing till Eilat, and maybe even till we were on the Arava Road, I don’t know, because after Kibbutz Yotvata, I fell asleep.
A few months later, the Sinai went back to Egypt and became cleaner and quieter.
Ras Burka was taken over by an obnoxious blue-eyed Egyptian sheikh and his German wife. They let Israelis in the first few years, but then the intifada started and they hung out a little cardboard sign saying that only people with European passports could enter.
The pretty girl from Ashdod starred in my fantasies for a few months. And when I couldn’t summon up her face anymore, I replaced her with Sharon Haziz, the latest, hottest singer.
I haven’t thought about the boy with the flies for years, but during my last stint in the reserves – I was posted in Nablus, and when it was over, I asked for a transfer to a different unit – I suddenly remembered him. I was sitting alone in the small shed at the Ein Huwara checkpoint counting stars, listening to fragmented conversations on the radio, and I don’t really know why, but that boy’s face floated up before my eyes and my heart swelled all at once to the size of a watermelon, good God, there were even flies on his eyelashes, in his nostrils, in his ears. And I’d promised him I’d come.
A thought buzzed in my mind: it’s funny that I never mention the incident to anyone. After all, I’ve revealed more embarrassing things to the world – secrets, lies, perversions – but for some reason, not that. I promised myself I’d tell my wife when I got home, I felt that I had to tell at least her, but when I got home, the twins had fever and we took turns sitting with them and hardly had any time to talk –
Later I forgot about it. And I have no idea why I remembered it now, of all times. That terrible reserve duty was a year and a half ago, and I’m sitting at the computer now to prepare a laser optics marketing presentation for tomorrow morning. All the company’s head honchos will be there, and I still have a lot of work, so many slides that aren’t ready yet, so many slides I have to proofread, and obviously, this is a text I won’t show anyone. Obviously, it’ll be buried in the depths of my hard disk, where it’ll keep buzzing.
One day, when I was nine or ten years old, my uncle sent me alone from my father’s clothing shop to the post office in downtown Haifa. I’m not sure whether it was my idea or his idea that I would go unaccompanied by an adult.
High cobwebs hung in the high ceilings soaked in dust, and various types of dead insects hung on the web of the arthropods. Outside the clothing shop was a sign “M. Shmuelof and his sons – Clothing business,” Despite the fact that with the death of Persian grandfather, the family’s business sense disappeared.
I walked from “Kiat” Street straight into “Independence” Street. And I turned right toward the road leading to the Krayot suburbia. I remembered that somewhere was hiding a huge post office. I had come to Dubek’s cigarettes factory when I found out that I am lost. I haven’t had a clue where is the post office. On the way back, I was walking slower and slower, because I was ashamed. By the time I got to my father’s clothes store, my face was rinsed with sobs and a sniff of the nose.
My father’s brother was angry with me for not sending and receiving the mail; maybe deep inside, he was angry with my geeky personality; Maybe he it was annoying that I was flying in the air like thousands colorful kites, covering the filthy Krayot-Haifa skies with the familiar stench of the refineries factories; Maybe he was wondering how could he trusted in un-cool and queer kid like me. I looked at my uncle earnest face, which was like my father, but more full. His wrinkles were deeper. I remember that I gazed down to the ground trying to hide my failure.
After I was reprimanded by my uncle for not bringing the letters to their destination, I went up to the gallery of the store, a dark dusty wooden storehouse. I sat in front of the spiders and their stories. I was surrounded by lonely hangers without any cloths, with table pins that I used to make impossible to match with the rough desk. Behind me stood a row of uneaten boxes of clothes waiting to be sent back to the vendors. I was waiting impatiently for my father to arrive.
When my father came into the store, I ran downstairs to tell him what had happened. Then I fell down the stairs and my arm was torn from a rusty nail. My father was helpless, facing the endless stream of blood and immediately called for an ambulance. My uncle said to him, “Well, I told you, your son should stop hovering like a kite.” And ever since then I’ve been walking with a scar on my left writing hand, which looks like a boat that ready to sail away to find treasures in pirate sea.
Over the years, downtown Haifa streets had dried up from customers, who moved to shopping centers and later just stayed home and order clothes from the internet. My father and my uncle went bankrupt. The only thing the Haifa municipality did in the downtown was to offer the empty shops as a studio for artists from Tel Aviv. And so one day I found myself, celebrating with my Tel Aviv friends, an exhibition of “Ma’ayan” magazine, right next to my grandfather’s shop.
The shop was empty like a sad tombstone without a name or a past. As if someone had cursed the place and the capitalist bank for buying the shop in a very cheap price. My Tel-Avivian friends knew nothing about the cemetery of the shops that surrounds them. Only I stood silent and did not say a word. The pain was too strong.
Today I know that there is a huge post office at the end of “Independence” Street loaded with ex-sailors-dealers selling Cd’s, and waiting for the little boy, a fleet of postmans and mailmans, and at least one of them smiles at me and offers his help. The vast and mysterious post office is constantly expanding, above all profuseness, and its grandiose rooms are decorated with innovative designs that change constantly. You can’t miss it. From his innards are sent endless kites in the form of empty envelopes.
I stand by my uncle’s fireplace in the high-ceilinged clothing store. “You was wrong, the boy is allowed to float like a kite.” I tell him.
“Who are you?” He looks at my clothes surprised.
“I’ve been a friend of your brother’s son for thirty years.” I stroke the curly head of this boy, who is me.
“Look, I understand that you are angry, but the boy went wild and because of that he was injured. Someone has to put a clear line between what is permitted and what is forbidden.”
“If you did not scold him, he would not stretch like a spring and went wild when his father arrives.” I looked again at this shop where I spent my childhood and where my mother met my father.
“How could I know?” He takes a few puffs and throws the cigarette across the sidewalk. A car passes and crunches the butt of the cigarette.
“You should have encouraged him to dream even more; Let him paint the legendary map of the huge post office that belongs only to kids like him.” The boy looks at me and agrees with me.
“Why?” My uncle asks with a serious look.
“Because maybe, decades after that, he would write you a love song.” I notice that my uncle never heard about my career as a writer.
“Look, our whole life has taught us that it is forbidden to dream.” My uncles moves forward and walks around the table to sit at the cash register.
“And now that you know…” I look at the transparent glass of the table, beneath which postcards were visible from different places where my parents were touring. Some of the pictures became red, brown and worn out over time.
“Sir, if that helps, I promise not to yell at the kid, and encourage him to dream more.” My uncle, taking out words that I did not believe he would tell me.
“Thank you very much, I appreciate it very much.” I signal for the words to take me back to the future.
At the beginning of winter my father fell ill and took to his bed. He lay in bed for a long time with his bedroom door closed, and we would walk around the house on tiptoe so as not to disturb his rest.
A lot of people came to the house to inquire after my father’s health, but my mother refused to let them into his room, explaining that his sick heart needed rest and quiet. Once a woman we did not know came to the house. She handed my mother a woolen scarf and said:
“You don’t know me. Once I came to see the doctor with a high fever and a sore throat. He gave me medicine and also this scarf to wrap around my neck. He said that when you’re sick in winter you have to keep your throat warm. Now I’m well again and I want to return it to him. I owe him money too, but I haven’t got it now, and the doctor said I should pay when I can.”
That was typical of my father. Sometimes my mother would lose her temper and haul him over the coals for not only treating poor patients for nothing, but even giving away medicines for which he himself had paid the full price. “How do you think we’ll ever make a living”—she would say—“when the only patients we get are all poor people? In any case, people only know how to appreciate what they have to pay for.”
“God will help us,” my father would say serenely, “God helps those who place their trust in him.”
Mother told me that in the old country too father had been a poor man’s doctor, and there too he had never taken money from patients who could not afford to pay. “I remember,” she said, “how a fisherman once brought him three fish instead of money. It was on our betrothal day. His parents came to call on my family, and I cooked the fish for them. They said they had never tasted such delicious fish in their lives.”
Years later, when I grew up, I went to pay a visit to the old country, and in one of the small villages, in the district where my father had worked as a doctor, I met an old woman who said to me: “So you are his daughter. Of course I remember him. Yes, of course, it’s more than forty years ago, you’re right, how the time flies… but we still remember him, we still remember. How could we ever forget a doctor like him who never took money from the poor…”
At the beginning of that winter, when my father took ill, the rains stopped and in the afternoon, when I was doing my homework in the kitchen, my little brother went out to play in the yard.When darkness fell he would come in and play with his cars on the floor in the passage. At this hour the hall of our house would be empty of my father’s patients, who were now being treated by my mother, who was also a doctor. I would go and sit there, in mother’s big armchair, and read. Sometimes, after supper, my father would read aloud to us. We would go into his room for a few moments and he would ask us about our school work and look at my brother’s note-books, which were full of all the words he already knew how to write. When I said goodnight to him he would kiss me and stroke my hair.
At the end of the month of Tevet my father had begun to recover from his illness, and it was precisely then that the weather changed and heavy rains began to fall. It rained without stopping, day and night, and father said jokingly: “I get better, and the deluge comes.”
On the fourteenth of Shevat1 it was still raining, and my father, who was always worried about my health, said that he would not allow me to take part in the tree planting ceremony the next day. I was dying to take part in the ceremony because I had fallen in love with our new youth leader, Raffi. All day long I begged and pleaded with father, until in the end he gave in.
On the morning of Arbor Day it was still raining, and as I was about to leave the house my father said to me:
“Take another sweater and try not to get wet.”
A fine drizzle was falling on the mountainside, and as we walked to the spot where the ceremony was to take place my shoes got full of mud. Raffi was walking next to me and once my hand unintentionally touched his. A sweet feeling filled me for a moment.
When we reached the spot we were met by a man from the Jewish National Fund who told us that we were going to take part in the planting of a forest in honor of the Jewish martyrs. I saw boys and girls all over the mountainside with spades in their hands, planting saplings in basins of loose soil. When I planted my own little sapling and tightened the soil around it black earth stuck to my fingers. “Will my sapling live?” I Asked myself. An inexplicable dread suddenly took hold of me. My heart went out to Raffi, who was standing next to me planting a tree. Perhaps he would say something to comfort me. I straightened my back and looked in his direction. When my eyes met his he did not smile, and I knew that he would not be able to save me.
In the evening, when I came home, I saw my father sitting in his armchair in the hall. He smiled at me. I wanted to run up to him and kiss him, but something stopped me. It was a long time since he had sat in the armchair, and now I saw he was looking better.
On the days that followed the rain went on falling steadily. My father wandered around the house wrapped in his brown woolen dressing gown. He would often come into the kitchen, lean over my shoulder and peep into my exercise books.
Six rainy days went by, and on the seventh day after Arbor Day the sun came out. My father sat with us at the lunch table. He sang the blessing. When we had finished eating he went out to sit on the porch. The sun shone and a light breeze brought sweet scents from the orange groves. My mother sat next to my father and they spoke to each other.
I knew that soon my parents would be relieved of their worries about money. Soon, when my father was well again, he was going to get a job in the hospital.
I sat in the kitchen and did my homework. I soon tired and stood up. The sun had made my father’s cheeks pink and his eyes were shining, and when he smiled at me I forgot all my troubles.
“Have you finished?” he asked.
“I still have to write a composition in English,” I said.
“Go and do it then,” he said.
I moved my place from the kitchen to the hall. The window onto the porch was open and I could see my father and mother and hear them talking. Father said little and mother too fell silent. After a while, when I was absorbed in my composition, I suddenly heard my father say in a queer sounding voice: “I don’t feel well.”
As I was about to rise to my feet, overcome by panic, the door opened and I saw my father coming in, his hands clenched on his month, his back bent and his face very white. I saw my mother supporting him, leading him down the long passage to their room, and I went on standing rooted to the spot. Then I heard my mother’s voice from the other end of the house:
“Quick, run for the doctor!”
For a moment longer I went on standing there, seeing my father’s pale face before me, his eyes blank. Then I rushed into the yard, jumped onto my bicycle, and went to fetch the doctor. When he opened the door I couldn’t speak.
“Hurry, “ I stammered, “hurry…father…” and I raced away.
Instead of going straight home I rode to the wood at the top of the hill not far from our house. I sat down on a bench and my heart was empty. Afterwards I mounted my bike again, and as I rode past our house I saw the doctor crossing the yard on his way in and I knew that only a short time had passed. I was afraid to go home and I rode aimlessly up and down the village streets. In the end I landed up at the wood again and sat down on the bench. How long I sat there I don’t know, but by the time I came home the door of my parents’ room was closed. There was not a sound to be heard. I went into the kitchen and sat down by the table.
There were a few slices of bread lying on a plate. I took a slice and started eating it. After a while the door opened and the doctor came out. I heard the front door slam behind him. A little while later I heard the front door open and a woman neighbor came in, a friend of my mother’s.
“What’s happened?” she asked.
I said nothing.
Then the door of my parents’ room opened and my mother stood in the kitchen door. She looked at me and said:
“Your father is dead,” and then she turned to the neighbor woman and said in their language: “His beautiful daughter is fatherless now.” Then she turned back to me: “Come and see your father for the last time.”
My father’s eyes were closed. His face was blue and there was a faint smile on his lips. His face had never looked so beautiful and so kind as it did then.
When I left the room I went into the bathroom. My father’s brown dressing gown was hanging on a hook on the wall. I buried my head in the gown and kissed it. Afterwards I held the empty sleeves and stroked my face with the rough, warm wool. “I won’t cry, “I promised myself.
The next day a lot of people gathered in the yard of our house. Friends and relations, and my teachers and friends from school. And when the rabbi came they brought my little brother too. He walked with us after the coffin as far as the first synagogue on the way. There he said mourner’s kaddish and afterwards a friend of the family took him away.
My mother did not cry, and my eyes too were dry. Once my glance encountered Raffi, my youth leader, who was walking not far from me, and for a moment the sobs welled up in my throat. I remembered the sudden dread which had seized me when we were in the hills planting the trees, and again I said to myself that he would not be able to save me.
At the cemetery they tore my mother’s dress and mine too. Several people eulogized my father. The coffin was lowered into the hole and the people standing around took spades in their hands and earth fell onto the coffin and began covering it up. I copied my mother and bent down to the ground. My fist fastened round a little clod of earth, wet and black and sticky to the touch of my palm. A clod of earth from a hard land. Perhaps there was a seed in it and in the spring a flower would bloom on my father’s grave. And perhaps then too the little sapling I had planted on the hillside in memory of the martyrs would put out its leaves too. And I—would the ice in my heart ever thaw?
Yesterday the sun shone. A mild spring breeze brought sweet scents from the orange grove. My father sat on the porch of our house and said that soon it would be spring and that in the summer he would start work at the hospital. But now the earth was still muddy, for it had rained the whole month long: water flooded the land and the farmers rejoiced.
*The story is published in cooperation with The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature
*Translation © The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature.
Prison more like, said Madeleine.
Come now, said Mr Kramer.
If I run away they bring me back, said Madeleine.
Yes but, said Mr Kramer.
Mr Kramer often said, Yes but to Madeleine. Something to concede, something to contradict. Now he said again how kind everyone in the Unit was, all his visits never once had he seen any unkindness and couldn’t remember ever hearing a voice raised in anger against any girl or boy. So: not really like a prison.
Then why’s she sitting there? said Madeleine, nodding toward a nurse in the doorway. The nurse did her best to seem oblivious. She was reading a women’s magazine.
You know very well, said Mr Kramer.
So I won’t suddenly scratch your face and say you tried to rape me, said Madeleine. So I won’t suddenly throw myself out of the window.
That sort of thing, said Mr Kramer.
The window was open, but only the regulation few inches, as far as the locks allowed. Mr Kramer and Madeleine looked at it. She’d get through there, he thought, if she tried. Not that I’d ever get through there, said Madeleine, however hard I tried.
The walls of the room were decorated with images, in paintings and collages, of the themes and infinite variations of body and soul in their distress. A face shattering like a window. A range of mountains, stacked like the hoods of the Klan, blocking most of the sky, but from the foreground, in a red zig-zag, into them went a path, climbing, and disappeared. Mr Kramer liked the room. Waiting for Madeleine, or whoever it might be, he stood at the window looking down at a grassy bank that in its seasons, year after year, with very little nurture or encouragement, brought forth out of itself an abundance of ordinary beautiful flowers. At this point in his acquaintance with Madeleine it was the turn of primroses. The air coming in was mild. Behind the bank ran the wall of the ancient enclosure.
Asylum, said Mr Kramer. What is an asylum?
A place they lock nutters up, said Madeleine.
Well yes, said Mr Kramer, but why call it an asylum? Because they’re liars, said Madeleine.
All right, said Mr Kramer. Forget the nutters, as you call them, and the place they get looked after or locked up in, and tell me what you think an asylum-seeker is.
Someone from somewhere bad.
And when they come to the United Kingdom, say, or to France, Germany or Italy, what are they looking for?
Somewhere better than where they’ve come from. What are they seeking?
And what is asylum?
Sanctuary, said Mr Kramer. That’s a very good word. Those poor people come here seeking sanctuary in a land of prisons. An asylum, he said, is a refuge, a shelter, a safe haven. Lunatic asylums, as they used to be called, are places where people disordered in their souls can be housed safely and looked after.
Locked up, said Madeleine. Ward 16, they took Sam there last week.
So he’d be safer, said Mr Kramer. I’m sure of that. Madeleine shrugged.
OK, said Mr Kramer. A bit like a prison, I grant you. Sometimes it has to be a bit like a prison, but always for the best. Not like detention, internment, real prison, nothing like that.
Mr Kramer’s spirits lapsed. He forgot where he was and why. His spirits lapsed or the sadness in him rose. Either way he began to be occluded. An absence. When he returned he saw that Madeleine was looking at him. Being looked at by Madeleine was like being looked at by the moon. The light seemed to come off her face as though reflected from some far-away source. Her look was fearful, but rather as though she feared she had harmed Mr Kramer. Rema says Hi, she said. Rema said say Hi from me to Mr Kramer.
They both brightened.
Thank you, Madeleine, said Mr Kramer. Please give her my best regards next time you speak to her. How is she?
Can’t tell with her, said Madeleine. She’s such a liar. She says she’s down to four and a half stone. Her hair’s falling out, she says, from the starvation. She says she eats a few beansprouts a day and that is all. And drinks half a glass of water. But she’s a liar. It’s only so I’ll look fat. She phones and phones. She wants to get back in here. But Dr Khan says she won’t get back in here by starving herself. That’s blackmail, he says. She might, however, if she puts on weight. Show willing, he says, show you want to get better. Then we’ll see. She says if they won’t let her back she’ll kill herself. Thing is, if she gets well enough to come back here, she thinks they’ll send her home. Soon as she’s sixteen they’ll send her home, her aunty says. But Rema says she’ll kill herself twenty times before she’ll go back home.
Home’s not a war-zone, if I remember rightly, said Mr Kramer.
Her family is, said Madeleine. They are why she is the way she is. So quite understandably she’ll end it all before she’ll go back there.
Rema told me a lovely story once, said Mr Kramer.
Did she write it?
No, she never wrote it. She promised she would but she never did.
Typical, said Madeleine.
Yes, said Mr Kramer. But really it wasn’t so much a story as a place for one. She remembered a house near her village. The house was all shuttered up, it had a paved courtyard with a sort of shrine in the middle and white jasmine growing wild over the balconies and the wooden stairs.
Oh that, said Madeleine. It was an old woman’s and she wanted to do the Hajj and her neighbours lent her the money and the deal was they could keep her house if she didn’t come back and she never came back. That story.
Yes, said Mr Kramer, that story. I thought it very beautiful, the deserted house, I mean, the courtyard and the shrine.
Probably she made it up, said Madeleine. Probably there never was such a house. And anyway she never wrote it.
Mr Kramer felt he was losing the encounter. He glanced at the clock. I thought Rema was your friend, he said.
She is, said Madeleine. I don’t love anyone as much as I love her. But all the same she’s a terrible liar. And mostly to get at me. Four and a half stone! What kind of a stupid lie is that? Did she tell you she wanted to do the Hajj?
She did, said Mr Kramer. Her owl eyes widening and taking in more light, passionately she had told him she longed to do the Hajj.
So why is she starving herself? It doesn’t make sense.
I told her, said Mr Kramer. I said you have to be very strong for a thing like that. However you travel, a pilgrimage is a hard experience. You have to be fit.
Such a liar, said Madeleine.
Anyway, said Mr Kramer. You’ll write your story for next time. About an asylum-seeker, a boy, you said, a boy half your age.
I will, said Madeleine. Where’s the worst place in the world? Apart from here of course.
Hard to say, said Mr Kramer. There’d be quite a competition. But Somalia would take some beating.
I read there are pirates in Somalia.
Off the coast there are. They steal the food the rich people send and the people who need it starve.
Good, said Madeleine. I’ll have pirates in my story.
Madeleine and Mr Kramer faced each other in silence across the table. The nurse had closed her magazine and was watching them. Mr Kramer was thinking that from many points of view the project was a bad one. Madeleine had wanted to write about being Madeleine. Fine, he said, but displace it. Find an image like one of those on the wall. I have, she said. My image is a war-zone. My story is about a child in a war-zone, a boy half my age, who wants to get out to somewhere safe. Asylum, said Mr Kramer. He seeks asylum.
Tell me, Madeleine, said Mr Kramer. Tell me in a word before I go what feeling you know most about and what feeling the little boy will inhabit in your story.
The sleeves of Madeleine’s top had ridden up so that the cuts across her wrists were visible. Seeing them looked at sorrowfully by Mr Kramer she pulled the sleeves down and gripped the end of each very tightly into either palm.
Fear, she said.
Mr Kramer might have taken the bus home. There was a stop not far from Bartlemas where that extraordinary enclosure, its orchard, its gardens, the grassy humps of the ancient hospital, touched modernity on the east-west road. He could have ridden to his house from there, almost door to door, in twenty minutes. Instead, if the weather was at all decent and some days even if it wasn’t he walked home through the parks and allotments, a good long march, an hour and a half or more. That way it was late afternoon before he got in, almost time to be thinking about the cooking of his supper. Then came the evening, for which he always had a plan: a serious television programme, some serious reading, his notes, early to bed.
On his walk that mild spring afternoon Mr Kramer thought about Madeleine and Rema. It distressed him that Madeleine was so scathing about Rema’s story. How cruel they were to one another in their lethal competition! For him the abandoned house had a peculiar power. Rema said it was very quiet there, as soon as you pushed open the wooden gates, no shouting, no dogs, no noise of any traffic. The courtyard was paved with coloured tiles in a complicated pattern whose many intersecting arcs and loops she had puzzled over and tried to follow. The shrine was surely left over from before Partition, it must be a Hindu shrine, the Muslim woman had no use for it. But there it stood in the centre of the courtyard, a carved figure on a pedestal and a place for flowers, candles and offerings, and around it on all four sides the shuttered windows, the balcony, the superabundance of white jasmine. The old woman never came back, said Rema. It was not even known whether she ever reached Mecca, the place of her heart’s desire. So the neighbours kept the house but none had any real use for it. Sometimes their cattle strayed into the courtyard. And there also, when she dared, climbing the wooden stairs and viewing the shrine from the cool and scented balconies, went the child Rema, for sanctuary from the war-zone of her home.
Mr Kramer was watching a programme about the bombings, when the phone rang. Such a programme, after the cooking and the eating and the allowance of three glasses of wine, was a station on his way to bed. But the phone rang. It was Maria, his daughter, from the Ukraine, already midnight, phoning to tell him she had found the very shtetl, the names, the place itself. He caught her tone of voice, the one of all still in the world he was least proof against. He hardly heard the words, only the voice, its peculiar quality. Forest, memorial, the names, he knew what she was saying, but sharper than the words, nearer, flesh of his flesh, he felt the voice that was having to say these things, in a hotel room, three hours ahead, on a savage pilgrimage. The forest, the past, the small voice from so far away, he felt her to be in mortal danger, he felt he must pull her back from where she stood, leaning over the abyss of history, the pit, the extinction of all personal relations. Sweetheart, said Mr Kramer, my darling girl, go to sleep now if you can. And I’ve been thinking. Once you’re back I’ll come and stay with you. After all I cannot bear it on my own. But sleep now if you can.
Mr Kramer had not intended to say any such thing. He had set himself the year at least. One year. Surely a man could watch alone in grief that long.
The Unit phoned. Madeleine had taken an overdose, she was in hospital, back in a day or so. Mr Kramer, about to set off, did the walk anyway, it was a fine spring day, the beech trees leafing softly. He walked right to the gates of Bartlemas, turned and set off home again, making a detour to employ the time he would have spent with Madeleine.
In the evening, last thing, Mr Kramer read his old notes, a weakness he always tried to make up for by at once writing something new. He read for ten minutes, till he hit the words: Rema, her desire to be an owl. Then he leafed forward quickly to the day’s blank page and wrote: I haven’t thought nearly enough about Rema’s desire to be an owl. She said, Do you think I already look like one? I went to the office and asked did we have a mirror. We do, under lock and key. It is a lovely thing, face-shaped and just the size of a face, without a frame, the bare reflecting glass. I held it up for Rema. Describe your face, I said. Describe it exactly. I was a mite ashamed of the licence this exercise gave me to contemplate a girl’s face whilst she, looking at herself, never glancing at me, studied it as a thing to be described. Yes, her nose, quite a thin bony line, might become a beak. Pity to lose the lips. But if you joined the arcs of the brows with the arcs of shadow below the eyes, so accentuating the sockets, yes you might make the widening stare of an owl. The longing for metamorphosis. To become something else, a quite different creature, winged, feathered, intent. Like Madeleine’s, Rema’s face shows the bones. The softness of feathers would perhaps be a comfort. I wonder did she tell Madeleine about the mirror. Shards, the harming.
The Unit phoned, Madeleine was well enough, just about. Mr Kramer stood at the window. The primroses were already finishing. But there would be something else, on and on till the autumn cyclamens. It was a marvellous bank. Then Madeleine and the overweight nurse stood in the doorway, the nurse holding her women’s magazine. Madeleine wore loose trousers and a collarless shirt whose sleeves were far too long. She stood; and towards Mr Kramer, fearfully and defiantly, she presented her face and neck, which she had cut. Oh Maddy, said Mr Kramer, can’t you ever be merciful? Will you never show yourself any mercy?
The nurse sat in the open doorway and read her magazine. Madeleine and Mr Kramer faced each other across the small table. All the same, said Madeleine through her lattice of black cuts, I’ve made a start. Shall I read it? Yes, said Mr Kramer. Madeleine read:
Samuel lived with his mother. The soldiers had killed his father. Some of the soldiers were only little boys. Samuel and his mother hid in the forest. Every day she had to leave him for several hours to go and look for food and water. He waited in fear that she would not come back. There was nothing to do. He curled up in the little shelter, waiting. One day Samuel’s mother did not come back. He waited all night and all the next day and all the next night. Then he decided he must go and look for her or for some food and water at least because the emergency supplies she had left him were all gone. He followed the trail his mother had made day after day. It came to a road. She had told him that the road was very dangerous. But beyond the road were fields and in them, if you were lucky, you might find some things to eat that the farmers had planted before the soldiers came and burned their village. Samuel halted at the road. It was long and straight in both directions and very dusty. A little way off he saw a truck burning and another truck upside down in the ditch. But there were no soldiers. Samuel hurried across. Quite soon, just as his mother had said, he saw women and girls in blue and white clothes moving slowly over the land looking for food. Perhaps his mother would be among them after all? At the very least, somebody would surely give him food and water.
Madeleine lifted her face. That’s as far as I got, she said. It’s crap, isn’t it? No, said Mr Kramer, it is very good. Crap, said Madeleine. Tell me, Madeleine, said Mr Kramer, did you write this before or after you did that to your face? After, said Madeleine. I wrote it this morning. I did my face two nights ago, after they brought me back here from the hospital. Good, said Mr Kramer. That’s a very good thing. It means you can sympathise with other people’s lives even when your own distresses you so much you cut your face. I know the rest, said Madeleine with a sudden eagerness. I know how it goes on and how it ends. Shall I tell you? – Will you still be able to write it if you tell? – Yes, yes. – You promise? – Yes, I promise. – Tell then.
She laid her sleeves, in which her hands were hiding, flat on the table and began to speak, rapidly, staring into his eyes, transfixing him with the eagerness of her fiction.
In among the people looking for food he meets a girl. She’s my age. Her name is Ruth. The soldiers have killed her father too. Ruth’s mother hid with her and when the soldiers came looking she made Ruth stay in hiding and gave herself up to them. That was the end of her. But Ruth was taken by the other women and hid with them and went looking for food when it was safe. When Samuel came into the fields Ruth decided to look after him. She was like a sister to Samuel, a good big sister, or a mother, a good and loving mother. When it was safe to light a fire she cooked for him, the best meal she could. After a while the soldiers came back again, the fields were too dangerous, all the women hid in the forest but Ruth had heard that if you could only get to the coast you could maybe find someone with a boat who would carry you across the sea to Italy and the European Union, where it was really safe. So that’s what she did, with Samuel, she set off for the coast, only travelling at night, on foot, by moonlight and starlight, steering clear of the villages in flames.
Sounds good, said Mr Kramer. Sounds very exciting. All you have to do now is write it. You’ve looked at a map, I suppose? The nearest coast is no use at all. That’s where the pirates are. You need the north coast really, through the desert. And crossing the desert is said to be a terrible thing. You have to pay truckers to take you, I believe. Yes, said Madeleine, I thought she’d do better on the east coast, with the pirates. A pirate chief says he’ll take her and Samuel all the way to Libya but it will cost her a lot of money. When she says she has no money he says she can marry him, for payment that is, until they get to Libya, then he’ll sell her to a friend of his, who will take her and Samuel into the European Union, which is like the Promised Land, he says, and there she will be safe, but she’ll have to marry his friend as well, for the voyage from Libya into Italy. I asked Rema would she do it and she said she wouldn’t, she couldn’t, because of the things at home, but she said I could, Ruth in my story should, it would save the two of them, they would have a new life in the European Union and God would mercifully forgive her the sin. She says Hi, by the way. She asked me to ask you are you all right. She said it seemed to her you were a bit lonely sometimes. Thank you, said Mr Kramer, I’m fine. And guess what, said Madeleine, she doesn’t want to do the Hajj any more, not till she’s an old woman, and she doesn’t want to make Dr Khan have her back here either. No, she’s decided she’ll be a primary school teacher. Plus she’s down to four stone. So it’s all lies as usual.
A primary school teacher is a very good idea, said Mr Kramer. But of course you have to be strong for that. As strong as for a pilgrimage.
I told her that, said Madeleine. So she’s still a liar. Anyway, another thing about Ruth is that when she’s with the first pirate, as his prostitute, all the way up the Red Sea he sends her ashore to the markets – Samuel he keeps on board as a hostage – and she has to go and buy all the ingredients for his favourite meals, I’ve researched it, baby okra and lamb in tomato stew, for example, onion pancakes, fish and peppers, shoe-lace pastry, spicy creamy cheeses, all delicious, up the coast to Suez. So she makes her Lord and Master happy and Samuel gets strong.
Will they stay in Italy, Mr Kramer asked, if the second pirate keeps his word and carries her across the Mediterranean? No, said Madeleine, breathless on her story, they’re heading for Swansea. There’s quite an old Somali community in Swansea. I’ve researched it. They’ve been there a hundred years. At first she’ll live in a hostel, doing the cooking for everybody so that everybody likes her. Samuel goes to school and as soon as he’s settled Ruth will go to the CFE and get some qualifications.
Madeleine, said Mr Kramer, it’s very hard to enter the United Kingdom. Ruth and Samuel will need passports. I’ve thought of that, said Madeleine. The first pirate chief has a locker full of passports from people who died on his boat and because Ruth is such a good cook he gives her a couple and swears they’ll get her and Samuel through Immigration, no problem.
Rema should go to the CFE, said Mr Kramer. I believe the Home Office would extend her visa if she was in full-time education. And if she trained as a primary school teacher, who knows what might happen?
She’s a liar, said Madeleine, very white, almost translucent her face through the savage ornamentation of her cuts. She’s supposed to be my friend. If she was really my friend she’d come back here. Then we’d both be all right like we were before she left me.
You want to stay here?
Yes, said Madeleine. It’s safer here.
Why overdose? Why cut yourself?
The nurse was watching and listening.
Because I’m frightened.
My daughter was frightened, said Mr Kramer, and she’s twice your age. All the time her mother was ill, four and a half years, she got more and more frightened. And now she’s gone to the Ukraine, would you believe it, all on her own and not speaking the language, to research our family history. She phoned me the other night from the place itself, a terrible place, I never want to go there, all on her own, at midnight, in a hotel. Write your story, won’t you? You promised me. Somalia is very likely the worst place in the world and Swansea is a very good place, by all accounts. What an achievement it will be if you can get Ruth and Samuel safely there!
Madeleine’s white hands with their bitten nails still hid in her sleeves. All the animation had gone out of her. I’ll never get to Swansea from Somalia, she said. Never, never, never. I can’t even want to get out of here.
First the story, Madeleine, said Mr Kramer. First comes the fiction. Get Ruth and Samuel out of the killing fields, get them by the cruelty and kindness of pirates into a holding camp on the heel of Italy, get them north among strangers, not speaking a word of the language – devise it, work out the necessary means. You promised. Who knows what might happen if you get that lucky pair to Swansea?
*This story is taken from: In Another Country: Selected Stories Copyright © David Constantine, 2015.