SOV THADE TAGE EM EREB, OF RER IN KARHIDE, ON GETHEN

I live in the oldest city in the world. Long before there were kings in Karhide, Rer was a city, the marketplace and meeting ground for all the Northeast, the Plains, and Kerm Land. The Fastness of Rer was a center of learning, a refuge, a judgment seat fifteen thousand years ago. Karhide became a nation here, under the Geger kings, who ruled for a thousand years. In the thousandth year Sedern Geger, the Unking, cast the crown into the River Arre from the palace towers, proclaiming an end to dominion. The time they call the Flowering of Rer, the Summer Century, began then. It ended when the Hearth of Harge took power and moved their capital across the mountains to Erhenrang. The Old Palace has been empty for centuries. But it stands. Nothing in Rer falls down. The Arre floods through the street-tunnels every year in the Thaw, winter blizzards may bring thirty feet of snow, but the city stands. Nobody knows how old the houses are, because they have been rebuilt forever. Each one sits in its gardens without respect to the position of any of the others, as vast and random and ancient as hills. The roofed streets and canals angle about among them. Rer is all corners. We say that the Harges left because they were afraid of what might be around the corner.

Time is different here. I learned in school how the Orgota, the Ekumen, and most other people count years. They call the year of some portentous event Year One and number forward from it. Here it’s always Year One. On Getheny Thern, New Year’s Day, the Year One becomes one-ago, one-to-come becomes One, and so on. It’s like Rer, everything always changing but the city never changing.

When I was fourteen (in the Year One, or fifty-ago) I came of age. I have been thinking about that a good deal recently.

It was a different world. Most of us had never seen an Alien, as we called them then. We might have heard the Mobile talk on the radio, and at school we saw pictures of Aliens—the ones with hair around their mouths were the most pleasingly savage and repulsive. Most of the pictures were disappointing. They looked too much like us. You couldn’t even tell that they were always in kemmer. The female Aliens were supposed to have enormous breasts, but my Mothersib Dory had bigger breasts than the ones in the pictures.

When the Defenders of the Faith kicked them out of Orgoreyn, when King Emran got into the Border War and lost Erhenrang, even when their Mobiles were outlawed and forced into hiding at Estre in Kerm, the Ekumen did nothing much but wait. They had waited for two hundred years, as patient as Handdara. They did one thing: they took our young king off-world to foil a plot, and then brought the same king back sixty years later to end her wombchild’s disastrous reign. Argaven XVII is the only king who ever ruled four years before her heir and forty years after.

The year I was born (the Year One, or sixty-four-ago) was the year Argaven’s second reign began. By the time I was noticing anything beyond my own toes, the war was over, the West Fall was part of Karhide again, the capital was back in Erhenrang, and most of the damage done to Rer during the Overthrow of Emran had been repaired. The old houses had been rebuilt again. The Old Palace had been patched again. Argaven XVII was miraculously back on the throne again. Everything was the way it used to be, ought to be, back to normal, just like the old days—everybody said so.

Indeed those were quiet years, an interval of recovery before Argaven, the first Gethenian who ever left our planet, brought us at last fully into the Ekumen; before we, not they, became the Aliens; before we came of age. When I was a child we lived the way people had lived in Rer forever. It is that way, that timeless world, that world around the corner, I have been thinking about, and trying to describe for people who never knew it. Yet as I write I see how also nothing changes, that it is truly the Year One always, for each child that comes of age, each lover who falls in love.

There were a couple of thousand people in the Ereb Hearths, and a hundred and forty of them lived in my Hearth, Ereb Tage. My name is Sov Thade Tage em Ereb, after the old way of naming we still use in Rer. The first thing I remember is a huge dark place full of shouting and shadows, and I am falling upward through a golden light into the darkness. In thrilling terror, I scream. I am caught in my fall, held, held close; I weep; a voice so close to me that it seems to speak through my body says softly, “Sov, Sov, Sov.” And then I am given something wonderful to eat, something so sweet, so delicate that never again will I eat anything quite so good…

I imagine that some of my wild elder hearthsibs had been throwing me about, and that my mother comforted me with a bit of festival cake. Later on when I was a wild elder sib we used to play catch with babies for balls; they always screamed, with terror or with delight, or both. It’s the nearest to flying anyone of my generation knew. We had dozens of different words for the way snow falls, floats, descends, glides; blows, for the way clouds move, the way ice floats, the way boats sail; but not that word. Not yet. And so I don’t remember “flying.” I remember falling upward through the golden light.

Family houses in Rer are built around a big central hall. Each story has an inner balcony clear round that space, and we call the whole story, rooms and all, a balcony. My family occupied the whole second balcony of Ereb Tage. There were a lot of us. My grandmother had borne four children, and all of them had children, so I had a bunch of cousins as well as a younger and an older wombsib. “The Thades always kemmer as women and always get pregnant,” I heard neighbors say, variously envious, disapproving, admiring. “And they never keep kemmer,” somebody would add. The former was an exaggeration, but the latter was true. Not one of us kids had a father. I didn’t know for years who my getter was, and never gave it a thought. Clannish, the Thades preferred not to bring outsiders, even other members of our own Hearth, into the family. If young people fell in love and started talking about keeping kemmer or making vows, Grandmother and the mothers were ruthless. “Vowing kemmer, what do you think you are, some kind of noble? some kind of fancy person? The kemmerhouse was good enough for me and it’s good enough for you,” the mothers said to their lovelorn children, and sent them away, clear off to the old Ereb Domain in the country, to hoe braties till they got over being in love.

So as a child I was a member of a flock, a school; a swarm, in and out of our warren of rooms, tearing up and down the staircases, working together and learning together and looking after the babies—in our own fashion—and terrorizing quieter hearthmates by our numbers and our noise. As far as I know we did no real harm. Our escapades were well within the rules and limits of the sedate, ancient Hearth, which we felt not as constraints but as protection, the walls that kept us safe. The only time we got punished was when my cousin Sether decided it would be exciting if we tied a long rope we’d found to the second-floor balcony railing, tied a big knot in the rope, held onto the knot, and jumped. “I’ll go first,” Sether said. Another misguided attempt at flight. The railing and Sether’s broken leg were mended, and the rest of us had to clean the privies, all the privies of the Hearth, for a month. I think the rest of the Hearth had decided it was time the young Thades observed some discipline.

Although I really don’t know what I was like as a child, I think that if I’d had any choice I might have been less noisy than my playmates, though just as unruly. I used to love to listen to the radio, and while the rest of them were racketing around the balconies or the centerhall in winter, or out in the streets and gardens in summer, I would crouch for hours in my mother’s room behind the bed, playing her old serem-wood radio very softly so that my sibs wouldn’t know I was there. I listened to anything, Lays and plays and hearthtales, the Palace news, the analyses of grain harvests and the detailed weather reports; I listened every day all one winter to an ancient saga from the Pering Storm-Border about snowghouls, perfidious traitors, and bloody ax-murders, which haunted me at night so that I couldn’t sleep and would crawl into bed with my mother for comfort. Often my younger sib was already there in the warm, soft, breathing dark. We would sleep all entangled and curled up together like a nest of Pesthry.

My mother, Guyr Thade Tage em Ereb, was impatient, warm-hearted, and impartial, not exerting much control over us three wombchildren, buy keeping watch. The Thades were all tradespeople working in Ereb shops and masteries, with little or no cash to spend; but when I was ten, Guyr bought me a radio, a new one, and said where my sibs could hear, “You don’t have to share it.” I treasured it for years and finally shared it with my own wombchild.

So the years went along and I went along in the warmth and density and certainty of a family and a Hearth embedded in tradition, threads on the quick ever-repeating shuttle weaving the timeless web of custom and act and work and relationship, and at this distance I can hardly tell one year from the other or myself from the other children: until I turned fourteen.

The reason most people in my Hearth would remember that year is for the big party known as Dory’s Somer-Forever Celebration. My Mothersib Dory had stopped going into kemmer that winter. Some people didn’t do anything when they stopped going into kemmer; others went to the Fastness for a ritual; some stayed on at the Fastness for months after, or even moved there. Dory, who wasn’t spiritually inclined, said, “If I can’t have kids and can’t have sex anymore and have to get old and die, at least I can have a party.”

I have already had some trouble trying to tell this story in a language that has no somer pronouns, only gendered pronouns. In their last years of kemmer, as the hormone balance chances, many people tend to go into kemmer as men; Dory’s kemmers had been male for over a year, so I’ll call Dory “he,” although of course the point was that he would never be either he or she again.

In any event, his party was tremendous. He invited everyone in our Hearth and the two neighboring Ereb Hearths, and it went on for three days. It had been a long winter and the spring was late and cold; people were ready for something new, something hot to happen. We cooked for a week, and a whole storeroom was packed full of beer kegs. A lot of people who were in the middle of going out of kemmer, or had already and hadn’t done anything about it, came and joined in the ritual. That’s what I remember vividly: in the firelit three-story centerhall of our Hearth, a circle of thirty or forty people, all middle-aged or old, singing and dancing, stamping the drumbeats. There was a fierce energy in them, their gray hair was loose and wild, they stamped as if their feet would go through the floor, their voices were deep and strong, they were laughing. The younger people watching them seemed pallid and shadowy. I looked at the dancers and wondered, why are they happy? Aren’t they old? Why do they act like they’d got free? What’s it like, then, kemmer?

No, I hadn’t thought much about kemmer before. What would be the use? Until we come of age we have no gender and no sexuality, our hormones don’t give us any trouble at all. And in a city Hearth we never see adults in kemmer. They kiss and go. Where’s Maba? In the kemmerhouse, love, now eat your porridge. When’s Maba coming back? Soon, love. And in a couple of days Maba comes back, looking sleepy and shiny and refreshed and exhausted. Is it like having a bath, Maba? Yes, a bit, love, and what have you been up to while I was away?

Of course we played kemmer, when we were seven or eight. This here’s the kemmerhouse and I get to be the woman. No, I do. No, I do, I thought of it! And we rubbed our bodies together and rolled around laughing, and then maybe we stuffed a ball under our shirt and were pregnant, and then we gave birth, and then we played catch with the ball. Children will play whatever adults do; but the kemmer game wasn’t much of a game. It often ended in a tickling match. And most children aren’t even very ticklish; till they come of age.

After Dory’s party, I was on duty in the Hearth creche all through Tuwa, the last month of spring; come summer I began my fast apprenticeship, in a furniture workshop in the Third Ward. I loved getting up early and running across the city on the wayroofs and up on the curbs of the open ways; after the late Thaw some of the ways were still full of water, deep enough for kayaks and poleboats. The air would be still and cold and clear; the sun would come up behind the old towers of the Unpalace, red as blood, and all the waters and the windows of the city would flash scarlet and gold. In the workshop there was the piercing sweet smell of fresh-cut wood and the company of grown people, hard-working, patient, and demanding, taking me seriously. I wasn’t a child anymore, I said to myself. I was an adult, a working person.

But why did I want to cry all the time? Why did I want to sleep all the time? Why did I get angry at Sether? Why did Sether keep bumping into me and saying “Oh sorry” in that stupid husky voice? Why was I so clumsy with the big electric lathe that I ruined six chair-legs one after the other? “Get that kid off the lathe,” shouted old Marth, and I slunk away in a fury of humiliation. I would never be a carpenter, I would never be adult, who gave a shit for chair-legs anyway?

“I want to work in the gardens,” I told my mother and grandmother.

“Finish your training and you can work in the gardens next summer,” Grand said, and Mother nodded. This sensible counsel appeared to me as a heartless injustice, a failure of love, a condemnation to despair. I Sulked. I raged.

“What’s wrong with the furniture shop?” my elders asked after several days of sulk and rage.

“Why does stupid Sether have to be there!” I shouted. Dory, who was Sether’s mother, raised an eyebrow and smiled.

“Are you all right?” my mother asked me as I slouched into the balcony after work, and I snarled, “I’m fine,” and rushed to the privies and vomited.

I was sick. My back ached all the time. My head ached and got dizzy and heavy. Something I could not locate anywhere, some part of my soul, hurt with a keen, desolate, ceaseless pain. I was afraid of myself: of my tears, my rage, my sickness, my clumsy body. It did not feel like my body, like me. It felt like something else, an ill-fitting garment, a smelly, heavy overcoat that belonged to some old person, some dead person. It wasn’t mine, it wasn’t me. Tiny needles of agony shot through my nipples, hot as fire. When I winced and held my arms across my chest, I knew that everybody could see what was happening. Anybody could smell me. I smelled sour, strong, like blood, tike raw pelts of animals. My clitopenis was swollen hugely and stuck out from between my labia, and then shrank nearly to nothing, so that it hurt to piss. My labia itched and reddened as with loathsome insect-bites. Deep in my belly something moved, some monstrous growth. I was utterly ashamed. I was dying.

“Sov,” my mother said, sitting down beside me on my bed, with a curious, tender, complicitous smile, “shall we choose your kemmerday?”

“I’m not in kemmer,” I said passionately.

“No,” Guyr said. “But next month I think you will be.”

“I won’t!

My mother stroked my hair and face and arm. We shape each other to be human, old people used to say as they stroked babies or children or one another with those long, slow, soft caresses.

After a while my mother said, “Sether’s coming in, too. But a month or so later than you, I think. Dory said let’s have a double kemmerday, but I think you should have your own day in your own time.”

I burst into tears and cried, “I don’t want one, I don’t want to, I just want, I just want to go away…”

“Sov,” my mother said, “if you want to, you can go to the kemmerhouse at Gerodda Ereb, where you won’t know anybody. But I think it would be better here, where people do know you. They’d like it. They’ll be so glad for you. Oh, your Grand’s so proud of you! ‘Have you seen that grandchild of mine, Sov, have you seen what a beauty, what amahad! ‘ Everybody’s bored to tears hearing about you…”

Mahad is a dialect word, a Rer word; it means a strong, handsome, generous, upright person, a reliable person. My mother’s stern mother, who commanded and thanked, but never praised, said I was a mahad? A terrifying idea, that dried my tears.

“All right,” I said desperately, “Here. But not next month! It isn’t. I’m not.”

“Let me see,” my mother said. Fiercely embarrassed yet relieved to obey, I stood up and undid my trousers.

My mother took a very brief and delicate look, hugged me, and said, “Next month, yes, I’m sure. You’ll feel much better in a day or two. And next month it’ll be different. It really will.”

Sure enough, the next day the headache and the hot itching were gone, and though I was still tired and sleepy a lot of the time, I wasn’t quite so stupid and clumsy at work. After a few more days I felt pretty much myself, light and easy in my limbs. Only if I thought about it there was still that queer feeling that wasn’t quite in any part of my body, and that was sometimes very painful and sometimes only strange, almost something I wanted to feel again.

My cousin Sether and I had been apprenticed together at the furniture shop. We didn’t go to work together because Sether was still slightly lame from that rope trick a couple of years earlier, and got a lift to work in a poleboat so long as there was water in the streets. When they closed the Arre Watergate and the ways went dry, Sether had to walk. So we walked together. The first couple of days we didn’t talk much. I still felt angry at Sether. Because I couldn’t run through the dawn anymore but had to walk at a lame-leg pace. And because Sether was always around. Always there. Taller than me, and quicker at the lathe, and with that long, heavy, shining hair. Why did anybody want to wear their hair so long, anyhow? I felt as if Sether’s hair was in front of my own eyes.

We were walking home, tired, on a hot evening of Ockre, the first month of summer. I could see that Sether was limping and trying to hide or ignore it, trying to swing right along at my quick pace, very straight-backed, scowling. A great wave of pity and admiration overwhelmed me, and that thing, that growth, that new being, whatever it was in my bowels and in the ground of my soul moved and turned again, turned towards Sether, aching, yearning.

Are you coming into kemmer?” I said in a hoarse, husky voice I had never heard come out of my mouth.

“In a couple of months,” Sether said in a mumble, not looking at me, still very stiff and frowning.

“I guess I have to have this, do this, you know, this stuff, pretty soon.”

“I wish I could,” Sether said. “Get it over with.”

We did not look at each other. Very gradually, unnoticeably, I was slowing my pace till we were going along side by side at an easy walk.

“Sometimes do you feel like your tits are on fire?” I asked without knowing that I was going to say anything.

Sether nodded.

After a while, Sether said, “Listen, does your pisser get…”

I nodded.

“It must be what the Aliens look like,” Sether said with revulsion. “This, this thing sticking out, it gets so big … it gets in the way.”

We exchanged and compared symptoms for a mile or so. It was a relief to talk about it, to find company in misery, but it was also frightening to hear our misery confirmed by the other. Sether burst out, “I’ll tell you what I hate, what I really hate about it—it’s dehumanizing. To get jerked around like that by your own body, to lose control, I can’t stand the idea. Of being just a sex machine. And everybody just turns into something to have sex with. You know that people in kemmer go crazy and die if there isn’t anybody else in kemmer? That they’ll even attack people in somer? Their own mothers?”

“They can’t,” I said, shocked.

“Yes they can. Tharry told me. This truck driver up in the High Kargav went into kemmer as a male while their caravan was stuck in the snow, and he was big and strong, and he went crazy and he, he did it to his cab-mate, and his cab-mate was in somer and got hurt, really hurt, trying to fight him off. And then the driver came out of kemmer and committed suicide.”

This horrible story brought the sickness back up from the pit of my stomach, and I could say nothing.

Sether went on, “People in kemmer aren’t even human anymore! And we have to do that—to be that way!

Now that awful, desolate fear was out in the open. But it was not a relief to speak it. It was even larger and more terrible, spoken.

“It’s stupid,” Sether said. “It’s a primitive device for continuing the species. There’s no need for civilized people to undergo it. People who want to get pregnant could do it with injections. It would be genetically sound. You could choose your child’s better. There wouldn’t be all this inbreeding, people fucking with their sibs, like animals. Why do we have to be animals?”

Sether’s rage stirred me. I shared it. I also felt shocked and excited by the word “fucking,” which I had never heard spoken. I looked again at my cousin, the thin, ruddy face, the heavy, long, shining hair. My age, Sether looked older. A half year in pain from a shattered leg had darkened and matured the adventurous, mischievous child, teaching anger, pride, endurance. “Sether,” I said, “listen, it doesn’t matter, you’re human, even if you have to do that stuff, that fucking. You’re a mahad.”

“Getheny Kus,” Grand said: the first day of the month of Kus, midsummer day.

“I won’t be ready,” I said.

“You’ll be ready.”

“I want to go into kemmer with Sether.”

“Sether’s got a month or two yet to go. Soon enough. It looks like you might be on the same moon-time, though. Dark-of-the-mooners, eh? That’s what I used to be. So, just stay on the same wavelength, you and Sether…” Grand had never grinned at me this way, an inclusive grin, as if I were an equal.

My mother’s mother was sixty years old, short, brawny, broad-hipped, with keen clear eyes, a stone-mason by trade, an unquestioned autocrat in the Hearth. I, equal to this formidable person? It was my first intimation that I might be becoming more, rather than less, human.

“I’d like it,” said Grand, “if you spent this half-month at the Fastness. But it’s up to you.”

“At the Fastness?” I said, taken by surprise. We Thades were all Handdara, but very inert Handdara, keeping only the great festivals, muttering the grace all in one garbled word, practicing none of the disciplines. None of my older hearthsibs had been sent off to the Fastness before their kemmerday. Was there something wrong with me?

“You’ve got a good brain,” said Grand. “You and Sether. I’d like to see some of you lot casting some shadows, some day. We Thades sit here in our Hearth and breed like pesthry. Is that enough? It’d be a good thing if some of you got your heads out of the bedding.”

“What do they do in the Fastness?” I asked, and Grand answered frankly, “I don’t know. Go find out.

They teach you. They can teach you how to control kemmer.”

“All right,” I said promptly. I would tell Sether that the Indwellers could control kemmer. Maybe I could learn how to do it and come home and teach it to Sether.

Grand looked at me with approval. I had taken up the challenge.

Of course I didn’t learn how to control kemmer, in a halfmonth in the Fastness. The first couple of days there, I thought I wouldn’t even be able to control my homesickness. From our warm, dark warren of rooms full of people talking, sleeping, eating, cooking, washing, playing remma, playing music, kids running around, noise, family, I went across the city to a huge, clean, cold, quiet house of strangers. They were courteous, they treated me with respect. I was terrified. Why should a person of forty, who knew magic disciplines of superhuman strength and fortitude, who could walk barefoot through blizzards, who could Foretell, whose eyes were the wisest and calmest I had ever seen, why should an Adept of the Handdara respect me?

“Because you are so ignorant,” Ranharrer the Adept said, smiling, with great tenderness.

Having me only for a halfmonth, they didn’t try to influence the nature of my ignorance very much. I practiced the Untrance several hours a day, and came to like it: that was quite enough for them, and they praised me. “At fourteen, most people go crazy moving slowly,” my teacher said.

During my last six or seven days in the Fastness certain symptoms began to show up again, the headache, the swellings and shooting pains, the irritability. One morning the sheet of my cot in my bare, peaceful little room was bloodstained. I looked at the smear with horror and loathing. I thought I had scratched my itching labia to bleeding in my sleep, but I knew also what the blood was. I began to cry. I had to wash the sheet somehow. I had fouled, defiled this place where everything was clean, austere, and beautiful.

An old Indweller, finding me scrubbing desperately at the sheet in the washrooms, said nothing, but brought me some soap that bleached away the stain. I went back to my room, which I had come to love with the passion of one who had never before known any actual privacy, and crouched on the sheetless bed, miserable, checking every few minutes to be sure I was not bleeding again. I missed my Untrance practice time. The immense house was very quiet. Its peace sank into me. Again I felt that strangeness in my soul, but it was not pain now; it was a desolation like the air at evening, like the peaks of the Kargav seen far in the west in the clarity of winter. It was an immense enlargement.

Ranharrer the Adept knocked and entered at my word, looked at me for a minute, and asked gently, “What is it?”

“Everything is strange,” I said.

The Adept smiled radiantly and said, “Yes.”

I know now how Ranharrer cherished and honored my ignorance, in the Handdara sense. Then I knew only that somehow or other I had said the right thing and so pleased a person I wanted very much to please.

“We’re doing some singing,” Ranharrer said, “you might like to hear it.”

They were in fact singing the Midsummer Chant, which goes on for the four days before Getheny Kus, night and day. Singers and drummers drop in and out at will, most of them singing on certain syllables in an endless group improvisation guided only by the drums and by melodic cues in the Chantbook, and failing into harmony with the soloist if one is present. At first I heard only a pleasantly thick-textured, droning sound over a quiet and subtle beat. I listened till I got bored and decided I could do it too. So I opened my mouth and sang “Aah” and heard all the other voices singing “Aah” above and with and below mine until I lost mine and heard only all the voices, and then only the music itself, and then suddenly the startling silvery rush of a single voice running across the weaving, against the current, and sinking into it and vanishing, and rising out of it again… Ranharrer touched my arm. It was time for dinner, I had been singing since Third Hour. I went back to the chantry after dinner, and after supper. I spent the next three days there. I would have spent the nights there if they had let me. I wasn’t sleepy at all anymore. I had sudden, endless energy, and couldn’t sleep. In my little room I sang to myself, or read the strange Handdara poetry which was the only book they had given me, and practiced the Untrance, trying to ignore the heat and cold, the fire and ice in my body, till dawn came and I could go sing again.

And then it was Ottormenbod, midsummer’s eve, and I must go home to my Hearth and the kemmerhouse.

To my surprise, my mother and grandmother and all the elders came to the Fastness to fetch me, wearing ceremonial hiebs and looking solemn. Ranharrer handed me over to them, saying to me only, “Come back to us.” My family paraded me through the streets in the hot summer morning; all the vines were in flower, perfuming the air, all the gardens were blooming, bearing, fruiting. “This is an excellent time,” Grand said judiciously, “to come into kemmer.”

The Hearth looked very dark to me after the Fastness, and somehow shrunken. I looked around for Sether, but it was a workday, Sether was at the shop. That gave me a sense of holiday, which was not unpleasant. And then up in the hearthroom of our balcony, Grand and the Hearth elders formally presented me with a whole set of new clothes, new everything, from the boots up, topped by a magnificently embroidered hieb. There was a spoken ritual that went with the clothes, not Handdara; I think, but a tradition of our Hearth; the words were all old and strange, the language of a thousand years ago. Grand rattled them out like somebody spitting rocks, and put the hieb on my shoulders. Everybody said, “Haya!”

All the elders, and a lot of younger kids, hung around helping me put on the new clothes as if I was a king or a baby, and some of the elders wanted to give me advice—”last advice,” they called it, since you gain shifgrethor when you go into kemmer, and once you have shifgrethor advice is insulting. “Now you just keep away from that old Ebbeche,” one of them told me shrilly. My mother took offense, snapping, “Keep your shadow to yourself, Tadsh!” And to me, “Don’t listen to the old fish. Flapmouth Tadsh! But now listen, Sov.”

I listened. Guyr had drawn me a little away from the others, and spoke gravely, with some embarrassment. “Remember, it will matter who you’re with first.”

I nodded. “I understand,” I said.

“No, you don’t,” my mother snapped, forgetting to be embarrassed. “Just keep it in mind!”

“What, ah,” I said. My mother waited. “If I, if I go into, as a, as female,” I said. “Don’t I, shouldn’t I—?”

“Ah,” Guyr said. “Don’t worry. It’ll be a year or more before you can conceive. Or get. Don’t worry, this time. The other people will see to it, just in case. They all know it’s your first kemmer. But do keep it in mind, who you’re with first! Around, oh, around Karrid, and Ebbeche, and some of them.”

“Come on!” Dory shouted, and we all got into a procession again to go downstairs and across the centerhall, where everybody cheered “Haya Sov! Haya Sov!” and the cooks beat on their saucepans. I wanted to die. But they all seemed so cheerful, so happy about me, wishing me well; I wanted also to live.

We went out the west door and across the sunny gardens and came to the kemmerhouse. Tage Ereb shares a kemmerhouse with two other Ereb Hearths; it’s a beautiful building, all carved with deep-figure friezes in the Old Dynasty style, terribly worn by the weather of a couple of thousand years. On the red stone steps my family all kissed me, murmuring, “Praise then Darkness,” or “In the act of creation praise,” and my mother gave me a hard push on my shoulders, what they call the sledge-push, for good luck, as I turned away from them and went in the door.

The doorkeeper was waiting for me; a queer-looking, rather stooped person, with coarse, pale skin.

Now I realized who this “Ebbeche” they’d been talking about was. I’d never met him, but I’d heard about him. He was the Doorkeeper of our kemmerhouse, a halfdead—that is, a person in permanent kemmer, like the Aliens.

There are always a few people born that way here. Some of them can be cured; those who can’t or choose not to be usually live in a Fastness and learn the disciplines, or they become Doorkeepers. It’s convenient for them, and for normal people too. After all, who else would want to live in a kemmerhouse? But there are drawbacks. If you come to the kemmerhouse in thorharmen, ready to gender, and the first person you meet is fully male, his pheromones are likely to gender you female right then, whether that’s what you had in mind this month or not. Responsible Doorkeepers, of course, keep well away from anybody who doesn’t invite them to come close. But permanent kemmer may not lead to responsibility of character; nor does being called halfdead and pervert all your life, I imagine. Obviously my family didn’t trust Ebbeche to keep his hands and his pheromones off me. But they were unjust. He honored a first kemmer as much as anyone else. He greeted me by name and showed me where to take off my new boots. Then he began to speak the ancient ritual welcome, backing down the hall before me; the first time I ever heard the words I would hear so many times again for so many years.

You cross earth now.

You cross water now.

You cross the Ice now….

And the exulting ending, as we came into the centerhall:

Together we have crossed the Ice.

Together we come into the Hearthplace,

Into life, bringing life!

In the act of creation, praise!

The solemnity of the words moved me and distracted me somewhat from my intense self-consciousness. As I had in the Fastness, I felt the familiar reassurance of being part of something immensely older and larger than myself, even if it was strange and new to me. I must entrust myself to it and be what it made me. At the same time I was intensely alert. All my senses were extraordinarily keen, as they had been all morning. I was aware of everything, the beautiful blue color of the walls, the lightness and vigor of my steps as I walked, the texture of the wood under my bare feet, the sound and meaning of the ritual words, the Doorkeeper himself. He fascinated me. Ebbeche was certainly not handsome, and yet I noticed how musical his rather deep voice was; and pale skin was more attractive than I had ever thought it. I felt that he had been maligned, that his life must be a strange one. I wanted to talk to him. But as he finished the welcome, standing aside for me at the doorway of the centerhall, a tall person strode forward eagerly to meet me.

I was glad to see a familiar face: it was the head cook of my Hearth, Karrid Arrage. Like many cooks a rather fierce and temperamental person, Karrid had often taken notice of me, singling me out in a joking, challenging way, tossing me some delicacy—”Here, youngun! get some meat on your bones!” As I saw Karrid now I went through the most extraordinary multiplicity of awarenesses: that Karrid was naked and that this nakedness was not like the nakedness of people in the Hearth, but a significant nakedness—that he was not the Karrid I had seen before but transfigured into great beauty—that he was he —that my mother had warned me about him—that I wanted to touch him—that I was afraid of him.

He picked me right up in his arms and pressed me against him. I felt his clitopenis like a fist between my legs. “Easy, now,” the Doorkeeper said to him, and some other people came forward from the room, which I could see only as large, dimly glowing, full of shadows and mist.

“Don’t worry, don’t worry,” Karrid said to me and them, with his hard laugh. “I won’t hurt my own get, will I? I just want to be the one that gives her kemmer. As a woman, like a proper Thade. I want to give you that joy, little Sov.” He was undressing me as he spoke, slipping off my hieb and shirt with big, hot, hasty hands. The Doorkeeper and the others kept close watch, but did not interfere. I felt totally defenseless, helpless, humiliated. I struggled to get free, broke loose, and tried to pick up and put on my shirt. I was shaking and felt terribly weak, I could hardly stand up. Karrid helped me clumsily; his big arm supported me. I leaned against him, feeling his hot, vibrant skin against mine, a wonderful feeling, like sunlight, like firelight. I leaned more heavily against him, raising my arms so that our sides slid together. “Hey, now,” he said. “Oh, you beauty, oh, you Sov, here, take her away, this won’t do!” And he backed right away from me, laughing and yet really alarmed, his clitopenis standing up amazingly. I stood there half-dressed, on my rubbery legs, bewildered. My eyes were full of mist, I could see nothing clearly.

“Come on,” somebody said, and took my hand, a soft, cool touch totally different from the fire of Karrid’s skin. It was a person from one of the other Hearths, I didn’t know her name. She seemed to me to shine like gold in the dim, misty place. “Oh, you’re going so fast,” she said, laughing and admiring and consoling. “Come on, come into the pool, take it easy for a while. Karrid shouldn’t have come on to you like that! But you’re lucky, first kemmer as a woman, there’s nothing like it. I kemmered as a man three times before I got to kemmer as a woman, it made me so mad, every time I got into thorharmen all my damn friends would all be women already. Don’t worry about me—I’d say Karrid’s influence was decisive,” and she laughed again. “Oh, you are so pretty!” and she bent her head and licked my nipples before I knew what she was doing.

It was wonderful, it cooled that stinging fire in them that nothing else could cool. She helped me finish undressing, and we stepped together into the warm water of the big, shallow pool that filled the whole center of this room. That was why it was so misty, why the echoes were so strange. The water lapped on my thighs, on my sex, on my belly. I turned to my friend and leaned forward to kiss her. It was a perfectly natural thing to do, it was what she wanted and I wanted, and I wanted her to lick and suck my nipples again, and she did. For a long time we lay in the shallow water playing, and I could have played forever. But then somebody else joined us, taking hold of my friend from behind, and she arched her body in the water like a golden fish leaping, threw her back, and began to play with him.

I got out of the water and dried myself, feeling sad and shy and forsaken, and yet extremely interested in what had happened to my body. It felt wonderfully alive and electric, so that the roughness of the towel made me shiver with pleasure. Somebody had come closer to me, somebody that had been watching me play with my friend in the water. He sat down by me now.

It was a hearthmate a few years older than I, Arrad Tehemmy. I had worked in the gardens with Arrad all last summer, and liked him. He looked like Sether, I now thought, with heavy black hair and a long, thin face, but in him was that shining, that glory they all had here—all the kemmerers, the women , the men —such vivid beauty as I had never seen in any human beings. “Sov,” he said, “I’d like—Your first—Will you—” His hands were already on me, and mine on him. “Come,” he said, and I went with him. He took me into a beautiful little room, in which there was nothing but a fire burning in a fireplace, and a wide bed. There Arrad took me into his arms and I took Arrad into my arms, and then between my legs, and fell upward, upward through the golden light.

Arrad and I were together all that first night, and besides fucking a great deal, we ate a great deal. It had not occurred to me that there would be food at a kemmerhouse, I had thought you weren’t allowed to do anything but fuck. There was a lot of food, very good, too, set out so that you could eat whenever you wanted. Drink was more limited; the person in charge, an old woman-halfdead, kept her canny eye on you, and wouldn’t give you any more beer if you showed signs of getting wild or stupid. I didn’t need any more beer. I didn’t need any more fucking. I was complete. I was in love forever for all time all my life to eternity with Arrad. But Arrad (who was a day farther into kemmer than I) fell asleep and wouldn’t wake up, and an extraordinary person named Hama sat down by me and began talking and also running his hand up and down my back in the most delicious way, so that before long we got further entangled, and began fucking, and it was entirely different with Hama than it had been with Arrad, so that I realized that I must be in love with Hama, until Gehardar joined us. After that I think I began to understand that I loved them all and they all loved me and that that was the secret of the kemmerhouse.

It’s been nearly fifty years, and I have to admit I do not recall everyone from my first kemmer; only Karrid and Arrad, Hama and Gehardar, old Tubanny, the most exquisitely skillful lover as a male that I ever knew—I met him often in later kemmers—and Berre, my golden fish, with whom I ended up in drowsy, peaceful, blissful lovemaking in front of the great hearth till we both fell asleep. And when we woke we were not women. We were not men. We were not in kemmer. We were very tired young adults.

“You’re still beautiful,” I said to Berre.

“So are you,” Berre said. “Where do you work?”

“Furniture shop, Third Ward.”

I tried licking Berre’s nipple, but it didn’t work; Berre flinched a little, and I said “Sorry,” and we both laughed.

“I’m in the radio trade,” Berre said. “Did you ever think of trying that?”

“Making radios?”

“No. Broadcasting. I do the Fourth Hour news and weather.”

“That’s you?” I said, awed.

“Come over to the tower some time, I’ll show you around,” said Berre.

Which is how I found my lifelong trade and a life-long friend. As I tried to tell Sether when I came back to the Hearth, kemmer isn’t exactly what we thought it was; it’s much more complicated.

Sether’s first kemmer was on Getheny Gor, the first day of the first month of autumn, at the dark of the moon. One of the family brought Sether into kemmer as a woman, and then Sether brought me in. That was the first time I kemmered as a man. And we stayed on the same wavelength, as Grand put it. We never conceived together, being cousins and having some modern scruples, but we made love in every combination, every dark of the moon, for years. And Sether brought my child, Tamor, into first kemmer—as a woman, like a proper Thade.

Later on Sether went into the Handdara, and became an Indweller in the old Fastness, and now is an Adept. I go over there often to join in one of the Chants or practice the Untrance or just to visit, and every few days Sether comes back to the Hearth. And we talk. The old days or the new times, somer or kemmer, love is love.


*Copyright © 1995 by Ursula K. Le Guin . The story first appeared NEW LEGENDS in 1995, and then in THE BIRTHDAY OF THE WORLD, published by HarperCollins in 2002 Reprinted by permission of Curtis Brown, Ltd.

*Image: Dancing the Dance of Life by Andrea Wan.

 

 

My parents always had visitors. They would come in the evening and sit in folding chairs on the back porch of our small house in New Brunswick. They greeted me—an only child —with the warmth of aunts and uncles. “How are your studies proceeding, Manny? Are you making good progress in school?” Except “good” sounded like “goot” and “school” like “skoo.” I hated the name Manny, after my dead grandfather, and insisted everyone call me Matt, an all-American name for a boy born in 1954, but our visitors didn’t know or remember to do this. Speaking the language was hard enough for them in their accents that thickened on their tongues like cornstarch the longer and more intensely they talked through the night with my parents.

Every summer my mother and I would go to the Lake Kiniwa Hotel in the Catskills, outside Liberty, New York. My father would stay behind to run the grocery and come up on weekends. Dora, my mother, waited on tables at the hotel, and in 1970, when I was sixteen, I worked as her busboy. The guests who had once numbered in the hundreds amounted to less than sixty, two stations worth of customers. Few children stayed at the hotel anymore, perhaps just a grandchild or two coming up on weekends. Some of the guests were the same ones who had visited our house over the years. They would cup my chin when I came over to clear their plates and pinch my cheek for good luck, even though I was bigger than my father, which wasn’t saying much, since he was only six inches taller than my five-foot mother.

I was all too interested in money, according to my parents. My “preoccupation,” as they referred to it, came to a head early in the season that summer of 1970 when Mr. Borwitz, one of our guests, died of a heart attack after dinner. The next day his daughter arrived to claim her father’s things; I didn’t hesitate to mention that it was the end of the month and neither my mother nor I had been tipped for our services. Mr. Borwitz’s daughter, a tall blonde wearing a silk scarf, whipped out two one-hundred-dollar bills, a premium on what we could normally expect. I presented the money to my mother, who was not pleased. “How could you?” she asked. “You run up to a grieving woman with your hand out begging?”

“First of all,” I said, “I wasn’t begging. It’s our money—”

“It was a tip!” my father, Isaac, interrupted; he’d driven up for the weekend. “A gratuity, which, by the way, I don’t agree with. Either you pay someone what they deserve—”

“Second of all,” I said, stopping him before he went off on one of his lectures about the dignity of the worker, “she wasn’t grieving at all. She was all business, complaining about how much crap her father had brought up with him and how would she ever get it all in the trunk of her big fat gold-trimmed Cadillac!”

“Go to your room, Manny!” which was what they called me when they were mad or wanted to make me mad.

“I don’t have a friggin room!” I screamed back. I shared one with my parents on the third floor of the hotel.

“What’s happened to your compassion for others?” my mother implored.

“A khazer,” my father muttered.

I was a selfish person, not quite a goniff, a thief, but close, and although my secular parents scorned religion, the opiate of the masses, after all, they didn’t hesitate to employ old world Yiddish for its unmatched tonal accuracy in evoking disappointment.

“Bad move,” Irwin said, when I told him of the incident. I’d known Irwin all my life. He was the other waiter besides Dora at the hotel, and we’d been neighbors until he went off to college. Twenty years old, he’d just finished his sophomore year at the University of Michigan. He’d gotten a low number in the draft lottery and wasn’t sure what he was going to do; his student deferment would no longer keep him out of the army. “Maybe Canada,” he said, when I pressed him.

“What about being a conscientious objector?”

“That wouldn’t work for me. It’s the conscientious part they might have trouble with—I’m not the most peaceful person.” He looked grim when he said this.

“You should have just pocketed it,” Irwin said, when I told him about getting the money from Mr. Borwitz’s daughter. He gave my shoulder a squeeze.

Every Tuesday, Nick and I—Nick worked as Irwin’s busboy and was a local kid from Liberty—placed newspapers written in Russian on about half the seats of our stations. Though I couldn’t read it, I knew that this was the equivalent of the Daily Worker, only with less stateside news and more of the Mother Country. I can’t say how many of our guests were actually members of the Communist Party, but a number of them spoke Russian as fluently as Stalin, whom they still defended. I’d taken to arguing with Mr. Peach—yes, that was actually his name, though it had been changed from the original Petrosky—about how he could possibly support the killing of millions of citizens. Stalin’s crimes were well known by this time. Hadn’t even Khrushchev changed the eponymous city’s name to Volgograd, for good reason, since Stalin was a mass murderer?

“And what of the attacks on Negroes in this country, Manny? You haven’t seen the news? Fire hoses and dogs, bombings and beatings—you call this democracy?”

“At least we have the right to protest,” I said. “In Russia you’d be arrested and never heard from again.”

“Let me tell you something,” Mr. Peach said, leaning on his cane. “The worst is yet to come.”

“Which is?”

He tapped his cane on the hotel porch. Ten feet from us a card game went on, but no one paid attention to our argument. “I tell you this country will be ripped in two.”

I don’t think Mr. Peach was referring to the Vietnam War or racial strife. Rather it was his dream of the revolution: workers pouring into the streets and freeing the masses from capitalism, of which, sadly for my parents, I was its chief exponent.

 

I CAME close to drowning that summer. I’d gone down to the lake in the evening after I served dinner and shortly before dark. No one went to the lake anymore. Only frogs and water bugs disturbed its glassy surface. Dragonflies buzzed above me as the sun started to set behind the white oaks and birch trees, their branches casting shadows across the water. I hadn’t bothered bringing a bathing suit because I wasn’t planning to swim—just paddle a canoe around until I got tired and could sleep through my father’s snoring.

I took off my shirt and paddled in one smooth motion, enjoying the burning in my muscles. An old handball wall and a sagging badminton net stood on the opposite shore, nearly overgrown with chokecherry bushes. When I got to the lake’s center, I sat a moment, listening to the crickets and watching the flreflies come out, eating the handful of blackberries I’d picked on my way down the path. I lay back in the canoe, closed my eyes, and then opened them a minute later to see how much darker it had become. My hand strayed below. I thought about Sheri Savitz who had bent over to pick up her pencil in civics class. Her pink sweater had risen above the waist of her skirt and revealed the top of her matching pink panties. Not good—not up here at least, without any girls my age and only a summer of frustration ahead, so I stopped and stripped off the rest of my clothes and dove in the water to shake myself free of the memory.

I tried to exhaust myself swimming as furiously as I could in no particular direction. And when I wearied of that, I dove down to the slimy bottom of the lake, grabbed a hunk of muck, slapped it against my chest, and then shot back up like a missile piercing the water’s surface. I must have done this about fifty times. Finally after almost an hour and now tired enough to sleep, I looked for the canoe, but it was gone—having drifted back to the far side of the lake, a good hundred yards away. I turned on my back and tried to float and stay calm. I’d completed a Red Cross swim class, in case I wanted to be a lifeguard at the hotel, but of course our elderly guests rarely swam in the pool and the camp for kids had long ago been disbanded. So I knew what I had to do, yet when I looked behind me I saw that I’d gone in circles. In the dark I’d lost my reference point on the opposite shore. And then I got a terrible cramp in my leg that was so painful it affected my whole right side. I used my left arm, but that only made me go in even tighter circles. Panic set in. I started breathing faster and took water in my mouth from favoring my left side too much. You’re a strong swimmer, I kept telling myself, stay calm, breathe evenly. But when I checked my progress and saw how far I still remained from shore, fear washed over me. My leg, aching with pain, threatened to pull my whole body under.

“Hey! You okay out there?”

My body stiffened immediately. It was a girl’s voice, familiar but too distant to recognize.

“No,” I said.

“What’d you say?”

“HELP!” I shouted.

“Coming!” the voice said. I didn’t think about being naked. I didn’t care that I had no idea who was coming for me. I couldn’t concentrate on anything other than the seconds passing. Then I heard the other canoe and grabbed hold of its solid bow.

 

ABOUT Irwin. We’d both come up to the area since we were young, attending the red-diaper summer camps and belting out the words to “Joe Hill,” “Union Maid,” and the “World Youth Song.” Once, when I was eight and Bobby Melk teased me about being skinny—he had called me Road Map because the veins showed through in my chest—Irwin, twelve years old, the same as Bobby, punched him in the nose. Irwin was “confined to quarters,” but when pressed as to why he had punched the boy, he wouldn’t say. He didn’t want to be seen as heroic in defending me, because this somehow diminished my stature, and he didn’t want to rat on the kid, because this diminished his. So he would only explain he’d done what was necessary. I finally told the counselors the story myself. Then we had a long group meeting at the baseball field about all of us being brothers and sisters and sharing beliefs in the common good and “from those with the most ability to those with the most need,” a variation of a speech I’d heard all my life. Bobby Melk mumbled an apology to me. Irwin was asked to apologize to Bobby—in front of the group. Irwin stood up and though we could have expected anything, he put two fingers in his mouth and blasted a whistle, at which Rusty, the camp’s Irish setter, came racing down the hill and sat at rigid attention in front of Irwin, an astonishing show of canine fealty.

“Irwin,” the counselor said, not knowing what to make of Rusty’s sudden presence, “don’t you have something to say to Bobby?” But Irwin snapped his fingers and Rusty twisted in the air like a hooked fish. Then Irwin put his hand out flat and motioned down, and Rusty put his snout on his front paws and crawled toward Irwin as if in jungle combat. We red-diaper campers cheered; Irwin must have been training him all along. The counselor’s plea for self-criticism and apology was drowned out, and Irwin, who had forgiven me for telling what happened, waved to us over his shoulder as he bolted into the woods with Rusty.

He was sent home the next morning to his parents, our neighbors. Of course that made him a martyr and started a movement of its own at the camp: Why had Irwin, our young comrade, been “expelled”? Why did he have to apologize to Bobby Melk, the camp bully (who later that summer wound up getting caught stealing)? Didn’t Irwin represent all the good things the camp was trying to teach us about fellowship? Indeed, just being associated with Irwin shot up my prestige at the camp, and in the absence of the real person, I mythicized his exploits, and invented some, by flashlight late at night.

So it was a great surprise to discover that my rescuer proved none other than Irwin’s fourteen-year-old sister, Julie, who’d just arrived that evening with her parents. She’d been sitting alone on the bank of the lake.

“You’re shivering,” she said when she reached me. “Get in.”

True, I was shivering, but not from cold as much as embarrassment at being saved by a fourteen-year-old girl who’d had a crush on me for the last several years. “I’m good here.”

“Don’t be silly, Manny.” When she leaned over I smelled peppermint chewing gum on her breath. I tried to rest my elbows on the side of the canoe, as if we were just having an idle conversation at the edge of a swimming pool. “I won’t look,” she promised, but there was more chance of me walking on water than getting into that boat naked with Julie. She’d obviously been watching me swim around, perhaps even followed me to the lake, and grateful as I was to be alive, I was irritated too.

Eventually Julie gave up trying to persuade me and paddled, as I held on to the stern and kicked along. When we got to shore, I asked her to turn away while I got my clothes from the other canoe, which had drifted to the lake bank. I had the distinct feeling she failed to obey my request as I streaked toward the boat, my buttocks flashing white in the moonlight.

 

THE next morning my mother fainted while serving breakfast. She dropped her service tray of twelve bowls of oatmeal. In the kitchen, I heard the loud crash and rushed out. I’d worried this would happen. For weeks, I’d pleaded with her to let me carry the tray, but she insisted she was strong enough. She would not, or could not, carry it one handed above her shoulder and had to hold the wide tray in front of her as if presenting a big birthday cake. Her face would turn red, she’d huff and puff, her back would creak under the strain, and she’d barely make it to the tray stand. I would chase after her, but she’d shoo me away: “This is my job, Manny. If I can’t do it right, I shouldn’t do it at all.”

“Don’t be stubborn,” I told her. But she wouldn’t listen. She didn’t want to be dependent on anyone, even her son. For years she’d schlepped at the store helping my father, cashiering and pushing around stock. She was her father’s daughter, my grandfather a Russian Jew from Odessa, who’d made his living as a tailor and hadn’t stopped working even in his seventies when nearly sightless he could only sew by touch.

Irwin was already at my mother’s side when I got there. She’d recovered enough to sit up. All around her were the shattered bowls, the metal lids, and gobs of oatmeal. Seeing her there dazed, her white apron between her spread legs, terrified me.

“Mom,” I said, kneeling down. “What happened?”

“I got dizzy, Matty.” She never called me Matty. Manny, or maybe Matt when I reminded her. “I saw stars—just like they say! ” She tried to make a joke out of it, but nobody was laughing. The guests had gathered around.

“Please give Dora some air,” Irwin asked. They shuffled back a few paces.

“She needs a doctor,” said Mr. Drach. “Anybody a doctor?”

No one answered. They were all communists, no high rollers here.

I got up and went to the serving station and poured a big glass of water. I held it to her lips. “Thank you, sweetheart,” she said. “I must be dehydrated.”

“You ready to stand up?” Irwin asked her. My mother nodded. Irwin motioned for me to get on her other side to help. Although my mother was a small woman, I was surprised at how heavy she was when we tried to lift her. Dead weight. She didn’t have any strength in her legs. We supported her until Mrs. Fishman pushed a chair under her, and she sat down again. “Just give me another moment,” she said. “Then I’ll be ready to go.” She drank some more water.

Irwin went to the kitchen for a mop. I kept my eye on Dora while the chef started to dish up more oatmeal. After a while, she stood up on her own. “I’ll take over, Mom,” I announced. I’d expected her to protest. I was only sixteen. But Miriam, the owner, who had come in from outside, nodded her consent. My mother didn’t argue.

 

SHE rested during the afternoon, while I served lunch without a hitch. Irwin’s busboy, Nick, the local kid from Liberty and sixteen like me, hustled between our stations and kept up with both jobs. But of all times, Miriam insisted that Nick and I polish two bus boxes full of flatware, a messy, smelly job. “Dora is ill,” I complained to her. “Can’t this wait?”

“It’s been waiting all summer. There’s nothing you can do for your mother right now. Let her have a good long rest.” Talk about your lapsed socialist. I’m not sure Miriam gave a damn for the Movement. She’d hosted the group for years, and despite their dwindling numbers, she counted on their core business. My mother was supposedly a distant cousin of hers, but we weren’t exactly treated like family. We had a small and hot room (I’d gotten two fans from the storeroom and put them near my mother to keep her cool) and were asked to work seven days a week. This was no union job. I didn’t care because I was young and glad for the work, any job, but I worried for my mother. It was no secret that my father’s grocery, in an increasingly downtrodden and crime-ridden section of New Brunswick, was barely making it, squeezed out by the larger supermarkets that had opened in the suburbs. His customers were the poor and elderly who walked to and from the store. They paid in food stamps, and when those ran out at the end of the month, my father extended them credit.

He prided himself on never being robbed and informed me the best protection a person can buy is generosity, but this didn’t keep his shelves from growing sparser, his creditors from leaning on him, and the other merchants from going out of business like swatted flies.

As Nick and I worked away at the silver, Julie came into the dining room, a moment I’d been dreading. She was wearing a red bikini and looking for a can to curl her hair. “You have one?” she asked pleasantly, her voice bright, her green eyes shining. I said I’d check in the kitchen. I dawdled a moment looking through the trash for an empty vegetable or fruit can the right size.

“Here you go,” I said, when I found one and came out with it.

“Thanks, Manny.” I shrugged. Matt, Manny, what did it matter? I’d almost drowned and was standing in front of my bikini- clad savior, her breasts substantially larger than when she used to come to my house and ask if she could play golf with me, a capitalistic sport if ever there was one that I’d taken up and devoutly played every Saturday. Or she’d come over with a plate of cookies. Or a quiz she wanted me to take in a teen magazine to determine if I was more a feeling or thinking person. This had been going on for the last two years, and now she was, as they say, developed, curvaceous and tanned, her lips a frosted pink. Nick dreamily rubbed a silver cream pitcher as he stared at her. Technically she and I, at this time of year, were only two years apart—her birthday in May, mine in July—but we were miles apart otherwise: I was going into eleventh grade, she into ninth, a huge gap in teenage time. It wasn’t so long ago that I’d watched her set up her stuffed animals in the backyard with nametags while she practiced gymnastics in front of them.

“I’d better get back to work,” I said.

“See ya,” Julie said. Barefoot, her hips wriggling in her low-slung bikini bottom, a scalloped shell of sun-bleached downy hair fanning out from the small of her back, and trying to balance the can on her head, she made her way out the door.

“Wow,” said Nick.

“She’s fourteen,” I said. “Just.”

Nick smirked. “Just right, you mean.”

“Not cool,” I warned him. I was grateful Julie hadn’t mentioned anything in front of Nick about saving me from drowning. “Let’s quit polishing,” I told him. “We’ve got to set up for tonight.” The hotel, more from tradition than demand, kept kosher, separate plates for lunch and dinner, no flayshadig with milchedig. And we had a few guests, mixed among our fellow travelers (and even some of those), who were observant. I set out the dinner plates and silverware, folded the linen napkins like swans tonight—I could do hares and doves too—and nestled them in the goblets, then I went to check on my mother.

 

BUT before I could get there, I became distracted by loud voices on the porch. Irwin, who had just come back from picking up clean tablecloths for breakfast because the laundry delivery truck had broken down, was going at it with Mr. Hower, also one of our visitors in New Brunswick, but someone I’d never cared for. He often drank and became loud and argumentative—obstreperous, my father called it. I’d gone to a number of protests with my parents, until I told them I didn’t want to go anymore, and Mr. Hower was always out in front. Usually we’d join a larger group, farm workers, strikers, civil rights marchers, and fit in alongside them, beefing up their numbers, until someone, specifically Mr. Hower, would unfurl the Communist Party banner. People would suddenly part from us as if the Red Sea had opened. Mr. Hower would inevitably call them weaklings or cowards or phony baloneys, or on one occasion, though my father disputed it, “proletarian pussies.” I knew I’d heard right. And I didn’t trust him.

Mr. Hower had stormed off and Irwin was breathing hard, as if he’d been in a fistfight, not just an argument. Mrs. Krantz and Mrs. Lieber, both widows, squinting up through their thick lenses at six-foot-two Irwin, were telling him not to pay any attention.

“What happened?” I asked.

“Nothing,” he said.

“What were you yelling about?” I wasn’t going to let it go. Between my mother’s fainting, my near drowning, and now this nasty argument, things were getting out of hand, especially considering the hotel’s usually arthritic pace.

“It was about those shootings,” said Mrs. Lieber. She meant Kent State, which had happened in May.

“What was Hower saying?”

“He thought the students were expendable,” Irwin said.

“You’re kidding?”

“If they had more sense, they would have made themselves part of a larger movement, been better organized and kept their focus on the greater good. No one should mistake themselves for being indispensable. What bullshit. He was trying to bait me. And I let him.”

“No surprise you lit into him,” I said.

Mrs. Krantz said, “He’s a very pushy man.”

“Yes, he is,” Mrs. Lieber agreed.

“He likes to get people’s goat,” Mrs. Krantz added.

“Does he ever!” Mrs. Lieber echoed.

“We’ll stick up for you,” Mrs. Krantz said, “if anyone gives you the business.”

They adored Irwin, who had grown a beard at school but had shaved it off to work at the hotel, as well as cut his dark curly hair. He’d promised his mother that he would help out Miriam, though he could have made more money at one of the bigger hotels, the Concord, Browns, the Flagler, the Pines, even Grossingers.

“Er toig nit,” Mrs. Lieber said, which I understood well enough to mean Mr. Hower was a loser.

 

I SERVED dinner that evening while my mother rested. As soon as I’d swept my station, I went up to see how she was doing. My father, who’d just arrived, a day early to be with my mother, was sitting in bed with her, both of them in their stocking feet. “See?” my mother said, patting the top of her head as if it were a good puppy. “All better.” She looked pleased, and the color had come back into her face.

My father wiggled his toes at me like sock puppets. “We’re very proud of you.”

“We are,” my mother said. “People stopped by and told me how well you’ve been taking care of them.”

“You’re growing up, son.”

They looked tiny, if happy and relieved, sitting in that small double bed (I slept on a cot the size of a strip of bacon). They’d surely forgiven me for whatever disappointment I’d caused them over Mr. Borwitz’s daughter.

“Sit, sit,” my father asked. “Tell me what you’ve been doing all week.”

“You know,” I said, looking at my watch, “I think I’m going to take a walk.”

“You just came upstairs! It’s getting late.”

I shrugged. “I guess I’m not sleepy yet.”

“I’m sorry, son,” my father said. “We should have insisted on getting you your own room.”

“That’s okay.” I knew they’d done it to save money. One room was free, a second would have meant a deduction from our meager pay. “I’m glad you’re feeling better,” I told my mother.

“Thank you, darling. You were a wonderful help.”

I went downstairs to the kitchen. Sometimes I would sneak into the walk-in refrigerator and just sit on a covered plastic bucket of floating pear halves and eat everything in sight: hardboiled eggs, salami, herring, grapefruit, olives, potato salad, cheesecake . . . I was always famished. My face had become leaner, my shoulders and chest broader, and I could barely close the top button of my white shirt to snap on my busboy’s bow tie. Like any growing adolescent I was on intimate terms with a refrigerator, in this case an entire walk-in, and considered it my rightful compensation for seven days of labor at seventy-five cents an hour, which didn’t include set-up time.

But when I sat there this evening, chilled as a beer glass, the cooler’s fan silencing any noise outside of my own thoughts, I didn’t eat. I just wondered if my mother would ever be able to stop working and if my father had expected this hard life, striving all hours of the day and justifying it by always saying he was “just one of the little people” trying to survive. It was as though he secretly believed his life meant more if he suffered as an example than if he succeeded as an exception. But who was I to blame them for the life they’d chosen? Sitting next to each other in bed, sharing some grand dream of a better world, planning to picket for fair housing, debating excitedly whether they should fork out the cash to print leaflets this time around or use a mimeograph machine, my father the treasurer, my mother the secretary of a nearly penniless and shrinking organization . . . and could I ever have made them happier, with any academic accomplishment or extracurricular achievement, than when I came home in second grade and reported that I’d refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance because it contained the words “one nation under God”? Who was to say their illusions were any worse than the ones I would collect over the years and lose? I felt too young to know something so disappointing, but I did.

I went outside and walked in back of the hotel to the casino, closed years ago. Julie and Irwin were there talking in the dark. I sat down next to them on the peeling wooden steps of the casino. Bats regularly flew around inside; pounds of guano were rumored to be above the rafters.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“Just talking,” Irwin said. Julie was wearing white shorts, all the better to show off her tan legs. Not one to be out of step with the times either, she had on a blossom-bursting, tie-dyed tank top.

“Am I disturbing you?”

“We’ve pretty much wrapped it up, right Jules?” If her sulking look was any indication, Julie didn’t seem to agree.

“Really, I can leave,” I offered.

“Stay. In fact, you kids talk,” Irwin said like an uncle. “Give me a hug, Jules?” He put his long arms around her and she weakly reciprocated. He got up and left.

“What was that about?” I asked. “You look crushed.”

“He makes me so mad.” She put her head down between her knees.

After a long silence, I said, “Are you going to tell me why?”

“He won’t tell me what’s going on. He’s arguing with Mom and Dad about not going back to college. He’s got more important things on his mind than college, he says. So I keep asking him what’s wrong, and he goes, ‘Nothing’s wrong, Jules.’ ‘Is it the draft?’ I ask him. ‘No.’ ‘Did you get a girl in trouble?’ He grunted. I guess that meant no. He’s always told me everything before, everything.”

“Maybe he’s just trying to figure things out for himself.”

Julie lifted her head and looked at me. “I didn’t tell anyone,” she said. “About the lake.”

Now that she’d brought it up I couldn’t pretend it hadn’t happened. “I was embarrassed out there. I could hardly face you, let alone thank you.”

“You would have made it. I just gave a lift, was all. Anyway, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. I almost drowned once in Cape May. Irwin had to pull me out.”

“He’s good at saving people too. You’ve got a regular family franchise going.”

“Stop it,” Julie said, slapping my arm, but letting her hand linger there. “Don’t tease. I’m not in the mood for it. My brother’s treating me like a complete child. Everything’s so ‘personal.’ He actually used that word when I asked him what exactly his plans were for next year. He’s never been like that around me.”

I was listening, but I was also wondering if she was right. Would some survival instinct have finally propelled me safely to shore on my own?

“My parents are bugging me, too,” she said. “They won’t let me go to Long Island for a week. My friend Cindy’s parents have a house on Fire Island. We’d be there by ourselves for a couple of days while her parents traveled. I made the mistake of telling my mom that part, too—dope that I am.”

“It does sound a little unsupervised.”

“I knew you’d say that.” She brushed the ground with the toe of her sandal. Her nails were polished a pearly white. “Forget it,” she said. “Everyone’s turning against me anyway.”

“Nobody’s turning against you. Irwin’s in a bind, worried about being drafted—”

“He won’t even discuss it. He just keeps saying to leave him alone. He has to figure out what to do. Go to a psychiatrist and get a letter, I told him. ‘I’ve never been saner about things,’ he told me, but he was incredibly angry when he said it.”

I thought about Irwin’s explosion on the porch today. Julie was right about his anger, but I’d seen something else too—fear.

She put her hand on my thigh. “Let’s stop talking about my brother,” she said. “How’s your mother doing?”

“Better, thanks.” She let her hand drop further over my thigh and leaned her head on my shoulder. I thought about her lining up the stuffed animals in her backyard. She was still a skinny little girl then, using a deodorant can as a microphone to sing to those same stuffed animals, and though that shouldn’t have mattered now, our bodies having regenerated their cells several times over according to my tenth grade biology book, I couldn’t do what every new cell and engorged muscle in my body wanted to. “It’s getting late,” I said. “I’ve got to get up early and serve breakfast.”

“I don’t eat breakfast,” she said. “I don’t give a damn about breakfast.”

“I have to,” I said. “I don’t have a choice.”

“Then go. Leave. Desert me like everybody else,” she said, pouting and pointing her finger away, as if casting me out from the garden.

IN the morning, my mother was back at work, with my father’s help. At one point, they both carried the tray out, Mother on one side, Father on the other, as if moving a sofa across the room. “Come on, let me do that,” I said.

My father took me aside in the kitchen. “Leave your mother alone about the tray. She doesn’t want to look helpless.”

“But that’s exactly how she looks carrying it like that.” “Please,” he said, “she wants to do it this way.”

So I kept my mouth shut. Irwin went about serving, but I noticed during a lull he was standing at his station drinking coffee, which we weren’t supposed to do. After breakfast, he took me aside. He looked as if he’d lost weight since he’d first gotten here.

“What did my sister tell you last night?” he asked. “Nothing,” I said. “Just that she was worried about you.”

“She didn’t tell you anything else?”

“No. What’s wrong?”

He didn’t answer me. Not directly at least. “I want you to do something for me. If I’m not here tomorrow . . .”

“Wait—what do you mean, if I’m not here?”

“Just listen. I want you to tell my parents I’m okay. Can you do that?”

“Where are you going? Is this about the draft?”

Irwin took me to the end of the porch. Mr. Abrams, who once had to “disappear” for a few weeks after being subpoenaed during the McCarthy hearings, was playing a game of solitaire and occasionally glancing up at us. Irwin lowered his voice, just a bit. “I’m going to South America, all right? But you can’t tell anyone. I’ll be fine. I’ll contact people as soon as I can.”

“What are you talking about? Where in South America? Are you in trouble?”

“Take it easy,” he said. He wrapped his arms around me, just as he had his sister last night, and hugged me hard. “And take care of everyone, okay?”

“Julie’s very upset—”

“Keep an eye out for her most of all.”

“Irwin, you just can’t leave—what about your guests?”

He laughed and shook his head. “You would worry about that. The least of my problems, Matt.”

By the next morning he was gone. Everyone was looking for him. Miriam told me to check his room to see if he’d overslept, but I knew he wouldn’t be there. When there was no answer, she got a key and opened the door—an empty room, all his stuff missing. “What’s going on?” she asked me.

“I don’t know,” I said.

His parents came down next. Mr. Winterstein was a tall man, like his son, and Irwin’s mother was built more like her daughter, curvy; the ever-creepy Mr. Hower had always leered at her when she came to our house. I told them the same thing I’d told Miriam, and now my parents too, who had lined up in the hallway outside Irwin’s room: I knew nothing. But Mr. Abrams had mentioned I’d been talking to Irwin on the porch and that we were “whispering.”

“You must tell us,” my mother said, “if you know anything.”

“I don’t,” I said.

“Why would he take off like this?” Irwin’s father asked. “We were arguing, yes, about his going back to school, but this isn’t like him.”

Meanwhile, our guests were clamoring for breakfast. “We have people waiting,” I told the group jamming the hallway as if we were in a Marx Brothers movie. “I’ll take over Irwin’s station,” I announced, and that’s what I did, for the rest of the summer.

 

JUST before the season ended on Labor Day, we had a visitor at the hotel, a balding man with thick black glasses, wearing a dark blue suit and white shirt. He spent time speaking with Miriam in her office. I was down by the pool, cleaning it, and thinking that I wouldn’t come back next summer, that I didn’t want to work with my mother and see her sweating and grunting over this job, and that if I refused to return, money or no money, maybe she would too. My name was paged over the PA system: Manny Heffer- man, please come to the hotel lobby.

“This gentleman would like to speak with you, Manny,” Miriam said. My father was back in New Brunswick, and my mother had gone shopping in Monticello. “He’s with the FBI.”

“My parents aren’t here,” I said.

Ken Boyer, that’s what he said his name was, clapped his hand on my shoulder. “Let’s just talk for a couple of minutes. No big deal, Manny, right?” The term “super-friendly” came to mind, not in a good way.

“Why don’t I sit in too,” Miriam said. For once she seemed to be on my side and concerned about me.

“Sure, no problem,” said Agent Boyer—as I would later refer to him. “But I think Manny’s a big enough fellow to have a private chat. Aren’t you, Manny?” It felt patronizing, his appealing to my pride and maturity, as if he were talking to a child, but there was a threatening edge to his good cheer that also backed Miriam down, and she left us alone in her office.

He placed a legal pad on the desk in front of him and laid his fountain pen—gray with marble swirling—across it. “So how’s your summer going, Manny? You enjoying working up here? I understand you’re a waiter now.”

Since I was only sixteen and there were limited numbers of hours I could work, I just nodded vaguely.

“Got some good fishing around here, too, I hear. You fish down at that lake?”

“Used to,” I said, “when I was five.”

“Brookies, bass, walleyes . . . how’s your friend Irwin doing?”

“What?”

“Irwin. You and he are buddies, right? Heard from him lately?” Agent Boyer spun his marbled pen on the pad, a big smile on his face.

“I haven’t,” I said.

“I was hoping you could help me out, Manny.” It bothered me that he used my name so much. “He spoke with you before he left here, didn’t he?”

“Who told you that?”

“All I want to do is talk with your friend.”

“I really think I should have my parents here. They wouldn’t like me meeting alone with you. I shouldn’t be doing this, I’m only sixteen—”

“Seventeen,” Agent Boyer corrected.

“Just a few days ago.”

“You’re not a kid who lies, are you, Manny?”

“I’m not lying—”

“You just did about your age.”

“I forgot . . . I’m so used to being sixteen.”

Agent Boyer rubbed his hands together as if trying to start a fire. “A little cold back here,” he said. “Fall will be around before you know it. So what was it exactly that Irwin told you before he left?”

“He didn’t say anything.”

“I think he did, Manny. In fact, we know he did.”

It was the first time he’d used the word “we,” and it sent a shudder through me. “I want to call my father.”

“You want to get your father involved in this?”

“What do you mean?” I said.

He smiled without amusement, his eyes flat. “Just what I said.”

“My father had nothing to do with this!”

“With what? Oh, you mean with this?” Agent Boyer opened his briefcase and laid out a photograph of Irwin in a crowd of college students. He was holding a rock in his hand and facing a row of police with gasmasks on.

“I don’t know anything about it,” I said, and I didn’t.

Agent Boyer nodded agreeably. “Okay, how about this one?” He slipped a larger glossy photograph out of a manila envelope. My breath caught. It was a photograph of Irwin talking with my father outside his grocery in New Brunswick. Irwin had a beard then that dated the photograph, but I didn’t know how far back. It could have been as much as a year. “Irwin was our next door neighbor,” I said. “He came to the store all the time. Where did you get that picture?”

Agent Boyer put the photographs away without answering and knit his fingers into a ball. “You seem to know a great deal about his whereabouts, Manny. I’m sure you can think harder about them now.”

 

THE following winter my mother died. She’d had several more dizzy spells. Her doctors had advised her just to rest. It was most likely her diabetes or high blood pressure, they said. But one night after we all went to see the movie Mash, and allowed ourselves a good, if dark, laugh on a cold evening, she curled up in the back seat of our Plymouth on the ride home, claiming she was suddenly tired. She let out a sharp whimper that we thought was a sleep noise. By the time we reached our driveway, she’d died of a brain hemorrhage.

Many of the same visitors who’d come to our house over the years attended the funeral. Mr. Peach was there and Mr. Abrams, as well as Mrs. Lieber and Mrs. Krantz, although Mr. Hower was notably absent. They talked amongst themselves, offered their condolences, and told me how wonderful a person my mother was —not an enemy in the world. They drank the coffee and ate the knishes and kugel we had put out for them. My father, who hadn’t stepped foot in a synagogue since my bar mitzvah (that I’d insisted on, not for the least of reasons being money), sat shiva and asked me to join him. He was worried about me, a seventeen-year-old boy and only child losing his mother. I smoked my grief away, and when cigarettes didn’t do the trick anymore, I took up grass and kept myself stoned for my year of mourning. If anyone asked how I was doing, I said great, and believed it.

Julie and her parents were at the funeral, of course, but not Irwin. No one knew where he was. People suspected Canada, but I’d perhaps thrown the FBI off the track by telling them South America. “You haven’t heard anything from him?” I asked Julie.

“No, nothing, zip,” she said, and dropped her head. I could see the clean pink line of her parted brown hair that hung straight down her back now. She looked sophisticated in her black dress and a single strand of gold around her neck. Her parents were sick with worry about Irwin and still believed I was holding something back.

“Are you?” her eyes pleaded. “You can tell me now, if you are. It would give us all some peace of mind, no matter what.”

“He said he was going to South America—the same as I told the FBI.” I didn’t tell her that I feared for my father and mother if I didn’t cooperate, and that Agent Boyer had made it clear he knew everything about them—and me—and that he somehow knew, too, this was my greatest childhood fear: my parents would be taken away and executed like the Rosenbergs. I’d never quite outgrown it.

I turned away from her eyes, which were wide open with expectation. “He’s fine,” I said.

Julie put her hand on my arm, a steadying touch for her. “What are you saying?”

“Just that Irwin could always take care of himself. We both know that.”

“I want him back,” Julie said. “I can’t stand not knowing where he is and if he’s okay. Sometimes I feel crazy. Oh, God, your lovely mother just died and look at me going on about my problems.”

I put my arm around her shoulder. She kissed me lightly on the cheek and said to stay in touch, such an adult phrase. I was almost—or yes, I was at that moment—in love with her. “I’m so sorry about your mother, Manny.” It didn’t matter now. Irwin was the only one who remembered to call me Matt, anyway. I would be Manny from hereon, the name my mother had died calling me. Honor your name; name no names, my father had always told me.

 

I got a scholarship to a small liberal arts college in the Northwest. The summer of my freshman year I went camping with a student group in the Three Sisters Wilderness. One night, I wept uncontrollably for my mother. A girl from my economics class, Sandra, sat by me, and didn’t ask what was wrong, for which I was grateful. She seemed instinctively to understand I couldn’t do anything but weep, after years of not doing so. In the morning I decided when I went back in the fall I’d switch majors from marketing to history and would become a high school teacher.

Years later, when I was married to Sandra and living in Portland with our first child, a daughter named Daria after my mother, my father called to say he’d heard from Irwin’s family, who had moved to Florida. Julie had gone into broadcasting and was an anchor on a New Jersey TV station, married to, my father didn’t fail to mention, a lawyer for the ACLU. “You won’t believe it, Manny. Irwin’s been right above us all this time.”

“Above?”

“Canada! Under an alias. Michael Winn. All these years and his parents didn’t know a thing!” Irwin was coming home to serve an agreed upon sentence for the bombing of a ROTC building on campus. No one had been hurt in the incident, but it was a federal building and he would have to face the consequences. Amnesty had been granted to those draftees who fled to Canada but not to radicals who took action into their own hands. My father didn’t approve of such violence, but he could certainly understand the frustration that led to Irwin’s act.

I felt enormous relief, mostly because I could stop hiding what I’d kept secret all these years, telling no one, not even Sandra —that I’d been sending Irwin money from the part of my mother’s life insurance left to me. Nor was it for purely educational reasons that I’d gone to college in the Northwest. I’d cross the border into British Columbia, zigzag through the province, and meet him in remote places to bring him any news I had of the family. When the war ended and the threat of discovery and prosecution lessened, we eventually lost touch and I destroyed the phone numbers I had used to contact him.

That day on the porch at the hotel, after mentioning loud enough for Mr. Abrams to hear that he was going to South America, Irwin had whispered the first of these numbers and told me to memorize it, swearing me to silence. “Remember me,” he said. He bent his head down and rested his damp forehead on my shoulder, adjuring me to forgive him for what we were about to do.


*Steven Schwartz, “The Last Communist” from Little Raw Souls. Copyright © 2018 by Author. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Autumn House Books, www.autumnhouse.org

 

 

A cat was lying in the ditch by the exit road to Skogså, one of those long, strange autumn days when I’d just entered seventh grade but mostly tried to learn about magic, if any occult powers existed and if so which ones they were. When our car came closer I saw it lying stretched out on its side with eyes closed, right at the desolate end of the carriageway with the forest on one side and the rubbish tip on the other. It looked like it was sleeping. Just next to the shrubs that took over behind the dirty, yellow containers. At the bottom of the ditch ran a greenish sludge, a sluggish brook, and here and there gleamed small splinters of glass from the big clock-shaped COLOURED GLASS bin some distance away. I saw the cat first but didn’t even have to say anything to Mum. I just perceived it inside myself, and then she saw it too. Mum told Dad to stop the car and when he had done it both she and I went out. We went out under the restless cloudy sky vaulting above our heads. I hoped it was dead. The speed limit was sixty, most of them died immediately. You saw them along the roadside when you went to town. Mostly squirrels and foxes. Hares, birds. A badger once, striped and beautiful as an extraterrestrial. Some managed to get into the thicket to die in peace. But they all died.

When we got closer we saw blood running out of one ear. A narrow bright red trickle that was already drying. Both Mum and I recognised her. It was the homeless one. She had no name, but her tortoiseshell fur was black and luminous silver. Most of the time she used to be fat or have a kitten at her heels. But now she was small and empty. Her ribs could be seen through the fur.

The cat had lived outside since her owner returned to the town a few years before. He was one of the summer visitors, one of those who came and went. Who had a cabin near the bog and probably thought it was nice to have a kitten during the holiday, something for the kids to have fun with. Assumed it would manage just fine, and then driven away. That’s what Mum had said. Someone in town had tried to take the cat home when she saw it wandering around town without a collar, since there would be winter soon. Several people had got involved. Mum too would probably have taken it, if Dad wasn’t so allergic. But it was as if the cat became feral as soon as she didn’t have anything to do with people. No one succeeded in catching her. Two winters the cat had survived on her own, as by a miracle. And it wasn’t the winter that took her after all, but the road.

But the cat wasn’t dead. When we were just steps away from her, she opened her eyes. One of her eyelids couldn’t quite keep up. But the whites of her eyes gleamed from fear. She tried to crawl away, dragging her hind legs along the ground. I stopped, couldn’t look at her at all, how she tried to flee from us, what could I do, nothing. The cat could even be dangerous, scratch and bite. But Mum reached it in a second. A choked sound came out of her which made something shift in my body, as if all liquid had run out and just left some shrunken shells that rubbed against each other inside.
– Come back here now, shouted Jimmy from the backseat and knocked on the car window with his hockey club. Mum didn’t seem to notice. She had squatted down and put her hand on the cat, light enough as to hardly touch it. This seemed to calm it a little, or maybe it was too weak to react anymore. The lowest part of its back ended in a strange way. The increasing drizzle made Dad switch on the windscreen wipers behind us. Mum shook her head slowly, she didn’t look as big either now, when she looked at it.

Jimmy knocked on the window pane again. He was late for his training, that’s why he was making a fuss. The sludge in the ditch smelled sour and toxic. It had probably been drawn out of all the metal and plastic lying behind the grating up there on the ground. The greenest of the colour had gathered in a slimy band floating on top of the clay. Not a single blade of grass grew on the slope, everything was dead. Just gravel and soil and poison.
– Her back is broken, said Mum.

The eyes of the cat had slid shut again. Its breathing was weak, hardly noticeable. Its tail matted by clay. Mum looked around, her face totally calm, as when she was at home and tried to remember where she had put the newspaper and methodically ruled out alternatives one by one. To the right, at an angle behind her, lay a coarse stone half covered by tightly compressed gravel. Her fingertips whitened when she started rocking it back and forth until the soil let go of it. Rain dripped from her fingers and forehead as she raised her hand. It happened so quickly, the single strike, I turned away but still saw it. Stone in fur. Stone against flesh and bone. She took off her jacket, wrapped it around the cat and lifted her up. On our way back to the car I saw Jimmy rolling his eyes as he pointed at his wristwatch. Dad wound down the window.
– Not inside the car! he shouted.

She stopped, for just a moment, and turned to me. Maybe the change had already happened, because I remember that her eyes were shining, of something.

– Will you open the hatch?

 

It was the same day me and Mum buried the cat under the old willow that she moved up to the attic. Everything happened so suddenly that no one understood where she had taken off to. I went out and looked in the yard. But when I came back inside Jimmy said where she had gone. And that the door was locked. She had collected a few things, the folding bed, the little armchair from the living room, some of my books that were hers to begin with. Now and then she came downstairs to eat, otherwise we hardly saw her. Apart from the hockey, Jimmy was still grounded, but he kept to his room. The house fell silent. Dad didn’t say a word. Not at first. I heard him mentioning it to one of his friends on the phone. He laughed, but there was something new, kind of nervous, in his voice, as if there was a small, wet and hairy animal in his throat that he couldn’t swallow.

We waited for her to make one of her famous “statements.” She was an old hippie, Mum. That’s what Dad used to say, anyway. “One week it’s the government, the next we can’t eat meat and the third there’s some war she’s read a report about in the paper.” I knew that what he said about Mum was mostly for fun, because he liked her ideas most of the time. As long as he didn’t have to do anything, like coming with her to demonstrations, signing petitions, stapling information to notice boards or standing outside the liquor store to collect money to save the old railway bridge no one used anymore. But it wasn’t at all as fleeting as Dad made it sound, Mum had always been political. Previously, her statements could come almost anytime and become quite heated. When me and my brother were younger we had mostly listened and soaked up her words with varying attention, but lately it had changed so that Dad and he formed a united front and started arguing with her. Sometimes there would be trouble. My brother used to giggle at Mum when she got fired up and then she got hopping mad. Daddy loved it. I usually didn’t say much. I agreed with Mum in most things, actually, but if I said so both Dad and Jimmy would tease me to death. So I kept quiet. Sometimes she would cry a whole day about something she had read. Like this latest war. She had asked Dad if we could be the foster family of one of the refugee children. But he said no, that we didn’t have room. Or time. And Mum did work all the time, as did he. She nagged and nagged, no one could nag like her. Then someone from the police called and told about Jimmy, and after that she hadn’t nagged at all. All her energy went into speaking with Jimmy. She went into his room and closed the door and stayed for a long time. Then she wanted Dad in there too, but he thought she was better at things like that. They started arguing, mostly she. Don’t you understand? she yelled one night, I heard it straight through the door and all the way to the depths of my body. Don’t you understand what they’ve done? But later she stopped yelling. Stopped arguing too.
She had become so quiet that everything was strange, and then left me behind down there in the strangeness and gone upstairs and locked herself inside.

Since Mum moved upstairs it had become Dad’s responsibility to take care of everything at home, a responsibility he didn’t shoulder quietly. He needed to get a recipe for the simplest things and complained about me and Jimmy that we never helped out, that he was like a slave in his own home and that we were the most spoiled kids in the world. Jimmy was as good as Mum at slinking out of the kitchen, so I had to do everything instead. I tried to protest, but Dad had always been indulgent with Jimmy. Let him rest a bit, he just got back from training, Dad would say if I pointed at the piles of dishes. And I didn’t have the energy to keep nagging, I wasn’t like her. But every time I gave in it felt like I was losing something, that something was running out of my hands and down the drain with the dishwater, that something was being pulled out of my body, making the ground toxic.

 

When Mum hadn’t stopped after more than a week Dad got fed up. Made up errands up there and looked for things that weren’t even there. He knocked till Mum asked what he wanted. and when she offered to bring what he wanted downstairs if she found it he got even more annoyed.
– Open the door now, Ingrid, he said. You behave like a child.
But she refused, so he kept knocking for minutes. It could be heard all over the house, I couldn’t focus on my math. But she didn’t seem to care. Finally he gave up and came swearing down the stairs, started rummaging in the cupboard for an extra key without finding any. When he saw me standing in the doorway he shut the cupboard immediately.
– Don’t look at me like that, he said. Nothing of this is my fault.
Then he left. The sound of shots from Jimmy’s video game was the only thing that could be heard.
It turned out that she had quit her job at the hospital. I was the first one to notice. It was in October, and a water leak had forced the head teacher to close the school for the day, so I went home to cram. Most in my class had gone to the café they always went to after school or if we had a free period. I didn’t drink coffee yet.  Ever since they let me skip fifth grade and change class I hadn’t had anyone to be with, and during breaks I mostly sat staring at my pen, trying to make it move by the force of thought. This was the way it was. More than a year had passed now, so I was used to it.

On my way home I saw that Klara was back, she came from the ninth-grade corridor with her friends. Although she passed me in the entrance hall at just a few meters’ distance she didn’t say hello. Even though she had been at our house twice. She had cut off all her hair. Madde in 9A stared at me, with a black look in her eyes. Apparently she had found Klara, on the top floor in the bedroom of Danne’s parents. Her dress over her head, passed out. They even pumped her stomach. I thought that would feel like being turned inside out, twisted, drained, stretched. Like an old shirt.
Mum heard the bang when all my school books landed on the hallway floor before she came out of the kitchen. It was a pretty comical sight. A big scrap of meat of some kind was hanging out of her mouth (which was strange since she was a vegetarian) and she looked a bit guilty. Maybe because I had surprised her at large in the house.
– You’re so early, was the only thing she said, chewing.
– There was a water leak at school, I said. Why aren’t you at work?
And then I got to know that she had quit.

It wasn’t the same downstairs without her. Dad had some sort of allergic reaction and was whinier than usual, he walked around sniffling and rubbing his eyes. Or else he just watched TV. She used to come to my room in the evening when I sat with my homework, to stroke my hair and ask me if I wanted something to eat. Said that I’ve done enough for today, I don’t have to be best at everything. I even missed all her outbursts about things Dad thought were small potatoes. Ever since I was little she and I had had our own private jokes, as when we pressed the tongue against the inside of the lower lip, crossed the eyes and said whatswrongwithyouthen? And then we laughed like maniacs. Jimmy thought we were incredibly childish, so we always made sure to do it when he had his friends over. She knew how to listen, and she always had the right things to say. But most of all she knew when to be silent. When saying anything didn’t help, because it was just the way things were, in class, or when Dad just wanted to tease. Then it felt great that she actually didn’t say anything, but just kept quiet for a while. Afterwards she always had some suggestion. It didn’t have to be anything special, maybe just a crossword she needed some help with.
And at night when I lay in bed without being able to sleep I thought about how she too was lying there, right above my room in the rickety folding bed, and then it was like someone went into my body. That another body went into mine and filled it up, so big that it stretched my skin, my head, and all my thoughts started teeming until it got unbearable. But I could hardly move, because the other body was heavy as lead inside my own. And when I finally fell asleep, I dreamt the same dream I always dreamt. That I was in a black space, being squeezed between the golden cog wheels of a huge clockwork. I tried to get out of there, but my sweaty hands slid off the metal. And the ticking made me almost insane. I had taught myself the technique of waking up before it was too late, before I got squeezed to death. And then I stood up straight on the floor, made the sign and pronounced the right words to see the truth. Then I walked three rounds counter-clockwise to avoid coming back to the same place when I fall asleep again. I had read about this in one of Mum’s books. Sometimes it worked. At other times I woke up in another dream instead, in which my room was similar but still different. So similar that I thought it was really my own room and walked three more rounds even there. Sometimes the room was empty apart from the bed, as if to say that there was nowhere else to go, and then I fell asleep back in the first dream, or in a new, strange dream I couldn’t remember later. Once I tried to resist the dream room and sat down on the floor in a corner instead of returning to the bed and going to sleep there, but when I leaned against the wall it gave way and I started falling and falling. After this happened, my rebellions in the second dream room stopped.
Before Mum moved upstairs I had reported all this to her, and she had said that processing your feelings at night was good, since you didn’t have to worry so much about them during the day. And this was true in a way. I worried less about what I processed at night, but in their turn the dreams led to new things to consider. Would the dream room ever become so real that I could continue living there without suspecting anything? In a parallel world, where a similar Mum existed, a similar brother, a similar school, similar books and similar things to worry about. And finally: would that be any easier?

One Saturday I pulled on my winter coat and went outside to sit on a garden chair I had carried out from the storage shed. I set it down in the heap of leaves inside the picket fence and angled it towards the attic window. Then I sat there staring. The window up there was open and I could hear her playing music, her old LP records from the seventies. The record player that used to be in the living room had disappeared a few days after she had moved. She was singing a strange melody, not at all the same as on the record, with odd words I didn’t understand. Words of different types. As if she was singing in a thousand languages. Maybe she was dancing. She used to do that sometimes while cooking, on the mat in the kitchen. With rolled up trouser legs. I waited for her to see me sitting there, or call for me to come up. But she never looked out.

 

Later that day, as we were sitting around the dinner table, some of Dad’s friends came over. Mum disappeared quickly as usual, after saying hello and kissing Dad on the mouth. It was Jörgen from Dad’s old job and then Olof and Rickard who he had met during military service. Just as she was heading upstairs she looked at me and there was a flash of something in her eyes, I don’t know what. I opened my mouth to say something, anything. But nothing came out, and she was gone.
Dad’s friends punched Jimmy on the back and greeted me on my way to the sink. Then they sat down at the kitchen table.
– So it’s true what we heard, said Jörgen. That your wife has taken a lover up there in the attic?
Everyone started laughing and Dad took out glasses from the cupboard and laughed too, but I saw that his face was completely stiff. Jimmy, who had stayed put, answered for him.
– Yes, we think she’s doing some voodoo up there, or has a mysterious women’s club.
Which made them laugh even more, and Jörgen turned to me.
– Then you at least should be let in.
His face was reddish, flaky and rough as a stone.
– I don’t want to be in any weird club, I said.
I felt ashamed at once and regretted it, it felt almost like they were laughing at Mum. But they hadn’t noticed what I said.
– You look bloody awful, said Rickard to Dad. Have you caught a virus or something?
Dad sat down at the short end of the table.
– It’s some kind of allergy, he said.
– Maybe you’re allergic to all the housework, said Jörgen and everyone started guffawing again, Jimmy too. He sat next to the window and spun his mobile around with his index finger. Lately I had hardly been able to look at him, his hands had become so big and chunky, just two flabby fins, really, and his face was as coarse as a large pig’s. He probably weighed eighty kilos now, I used to run faster than him, but now I wouldn’t have a chance, he had gained muscle, and his voice just got deeper and deeper every day. He sounded like Dad and the others now. And a few days ago as he passed me the potatoes his hand brushed against mine and I could feel how it was completely moist from sweat and I felt like I was going to puke then, get turned inside out, and then I got different pictures of him in my mind of what he looked like naked, both when he looked like a grown-up and when he was in that yucky in-between stage of down and smirk and dandruff and pimples. Previously he had been smooth just like me, now it was like a lardy thick film had been laid over him. It had happened that we played together when we were younger, of course, and sometimes we had bathed in the same tub. Just the thought of all that could almost make me cry. As if someone would force me to bathe with him now, as if he could climb into the bathtub when I was there without asking me, and what I would do then. A heavy machine of sweat and flesh. He would just grin at me, like he did at everything, and give me an Indian burn until my arm fell off or the skin got ripped to shreds.
When I had done the dishes, I dried my hands on the kitchen towel and left the kitchen. All my homework was finished already, which was a minor miracle. I knew that Dad and his friends would play cards and drink beer all night. Jimmy would probably play computer games as usual. No one would disturb me.
I took out my portable CD player and sat down on the bed. Soon the whole universe was filled by The Cure, not the least sound from the kitchen penetrated the music. I stretched out on the bed with my hands on my tummy and closed my eyes. Started yoga breathing as Mum had taught me and tried to enter that special, almost meditative state I sometimes could end up in when I listened to some specific music. Even before I got sleepy I had fallen asleep.

 

 

When I woke up the record was finished. It was past one o’clock. Through the wall I heard that there were still people in the kitchen, even though I knew that Dad was getting up early in the morning to drive to the garage with the car. I had to pee, so I pulled out the earphones and put the CD player on the chest of drawers. When I had peed and brushed my teeth I went to the kitchen to get a glass of water. Everyone was still there, Jimmy too.
– Hi and hello, said Jörgen when I came in.
I could see they were drunk, since their outlines were kind of vague and Dad was a bit red in the face. The windows were steamy and the table was full of beer cans. I asked idiotically enough what they were doing, with a cheeky voice I didn’t recognize. Everything looked a little blurred, as if I could see all the particles in the air, how they floated slowly around, in and out of all the wet mouths, down in the lungs and then back up and into me.
– We’re sitting here talking about life, pet, said Jörgen.
– Weren’t you going to hang up the laundry, I said to Jimmy. But I was ashamed, felt so proper, just like at school when everybody rolled their eyes at me raising my hand. Jimmy had a beer in front of him, held tightly in his hand.
– Will do it later, he said.
– Jimmy is sitting here to get some words of wisdom from us who’ve been around a while, said Jörgen.
– Some beer too, I see, said I, unable to control myself, as I took a glass from the cupboard and filled it with water.
– A little beer can’t be that bad, said Dad. He’ll be eighteen soon, you know.
– He is sixteen, I said.
– And how old are you now? asked Jörgen, a little sluggishly.
– She is thirteen, said Jimmy.
– Oh dear, we’d better behave then, said Jörgen to Olof and nudged him with his elbow.
– I hope you aren’t a spy for Big Sister up there? said Olof.
I began saying that I wasn’t anything, but Dad interrupted me.
– As long as she’s up there, I’m in charge down here, he said. And I don’t think a beer or two is anything to moan about.
– Sure, I said and left the kitchen.
They started laughing again.

Back in my room I lay down on the bed and pulled the duvet up to my chin but knew that I wouldn’t be able to sleep. Couldn’t get Jimmy’s bloody arrogant look out of my head. The one he had when I thought about what had happened, which I didn’t even know anything about, really. The whole school knew more about it than I, since no one ever told me anything. Not even Mum. All of them just looked at me, or looked away. Disconnected pieces were all I had. And I had never been at Danne’s house, where the party had been. There were often parties there, apparently, maybe his parents travelled a lot. But even though I’d never been over at Danne’s, or even at any party at all, I could see the door in front of me. I could see everything, through time and space. I could see through walls. How the living room is full of beer cans, how the windows are steaming up and people are standing everywhere. They’re snogging, and yell to make themselves heard over the music that has blown out the loudspeakers that have started scratching just like Jimmy’s speakers scratch because he never takes care and does whatever he wants to. Some are smoking cigarettes, maybe even indoors. A few are on the veranda. A blonde girl is throwing up in the flowerbed, it looks like bloody chunks. But I turn my eyes away and force them to look upwards, towards the door on the top floor. Up there everything is quiet, the door to the bedroom is that to the right of the staircase, painted white. It is ajar. The music from the apartment below is subdued and sounds hollow and wailing, as if played backwards. The corridor light falls into the darkened room, the double bed is made, but the coverlet is crumpled and pulled down from the pillows. And there lies Klara. Sleeping, in the middle of the light cone from the door. As if she has gone up to rest, to get away from everybody for a while. Maybe she has fought with Madde, otherwise they would have been together, as they always were at school. But Klara had probably got so drunk that she had gone to bed. Everyone in school said that Klara loved to party. That Klara would always “pass out.” Her face is turned away, it’s hard for me to see her properly. I can see through all other walls but not through these, here I can only see the crack, and my eyes lose their foothold into the darkness at the sides. Klara is lying there, and her long hair has spilled out across the bed. It disappears down into the fold of the coverlet, making it look extremely long, and reaches down over the sides of the bed. Klara is the prettiest of all the girls in the whole school, even when she has passed out she is more beautiful than all of them as she is lying in the light falling in from the corridor. But it’s so dark in the corners of the room. A darkness that swells and shrinks back but grows a little bigger all the time. It takes over everything. And then it is like everything disappears for me, kind of sinks a bit farther away in my field of vision. The stripe of light from the door wobbles, someone has walked past. Something moves in the blackness. The light is broken again. There is someone else in the room.
Maybe they did it for the fun of it, I don’t know. I can just see a large hand pulling up her dress and then I can’t see anything more, the light starts flickering and fluttering and becomes all grainy until I have to look away, and then the whole picture disappears. But I know that Jimmy was there. I know it, because in science class I heard Mikaela tell Linnea that Madde had said that Klara had told it to the police. Before she withdrew her report, she said to the police that Jimmy and Danne and Robin and Ante had been inside there. Even though she was so drunk that she was asleep, she had noticed them being there. And maybe she had seen Jimmy’s grin, his idiotic bloody expression, maybe that’s what she had seen then. The same as he had in the kitchen now, as if nothing had happened. Nothing at all.
And out there sat Jimmy and Dad and Olof and Jörgen and Rickard laughing. I could hear it all the way to my room. Perhaps Mum heard them too, or maybe she was sleeping, it didn’t matter much anymore, because she didn’t do anything, just let them laugh as they pleased.
After maybe twenty minutes I heard the kitchen chairs scraping against the floor. Shortly afterwards Jörgen and the others were walking on the street past my window, their voices getting lower and lower until they finally disappeared. And then there was silence for a while. Nobody went to the toilet to brush his teeth, both Dad and Jimmy remained in the kitchen. I saw them while looking straight through the walls, they spoke quietly with one another, excited, bombastic. But I couldn’t make out anything they said, I just saw them, how they sat closely together, striking their beer cans together in a toast before gulping down the rest. A few minutes later the entrance door opened and closed. I sat upright on the bed, switched off the bedside lamp to be able to see outside in the dark.  It was Jimmy, on his way to the garden shed. I saw the door resist a little when he pulled the handle, like it used to in winter when the ground frost forced the threshold upwards. He jerked it open and disappeared inside. After a while he came out again with something narrow and oblong in his hand. I went to the window and looked out from behind the curtain, but couldn’t see what it was. He got into the house again and I heard him and Dad talking, but not what they said. They laughed a little, and one of them hushed the other.
It got quiet again. Then I heard the stairs creaking. Suddenly I understood. It was the crowbar. They wanted to enter the room.
I almost ran to the door, felt that I had to stop them. But I halted. What did it matter if they forced that door open? They only wanted to have some fun with Mum. It’s just for the fun of it.
But a strange light shone inside me. And I knew that just shouting wouldn’t do. To stop them I had to take the crowbar from them with my own hands. That was the only way.
So I opened the door and entered the corridor, but as I started running upstairs, I heard how they, with a sound that resembled a tormented animal, bent open the door and shouted something to Mum. I froze in the middle of my movement. Suddenly everything fell completely silent. Something ice-cold ran slowly through my body. I could feel it as it found its way through my throat, down my stomach, out to the sides and down over my thighs till it gathered in my knees in two whirls. Then I heard someone crying.
Mum.
It gained strength, she wailed and almost started howling, no, not howling, it sounded hollower. Long, moaning sounds from the depths of a body. They grew louder, so loud that I didn’t even hear Dad and Jimmy returning down the stairs. They said nothing when they passed me where I was still standing, ready to run. Their eyes looked completely empty as they disappeared to their rooms, but I remained standing without going upstairs to comfort her.

 

 

The day after I woke up late, remained in bed for a moment, listening. Dust moved in dreamlike patterns above my face. The house was quiet. I went upstairs, fumbling. It felt so empty everywhere. The door to Jimmy’s room was open. The bed wasn’t made.
The stairs to the attic were dim, the wood of the worn-down steps felt smooth against my feet. I went as soundlessly as I could, halfway up I saw the attic room door standing ajar. Clear marks of the crowbar. Broken-up bright wounds in the door frame. The light streamed out onto my feet.
– Mum?
I pushed open the door.
That she had managed to tidy up so much was incredible. I remembered the room as being crammed, dark and filthy. Dirt-encrusted windows, a thick layer of dust on heavy rubbish bags and long-forgotten furniture. But now it looked like any other room, smelled weakly of citrus, wood and incense. Between two purple lengths of curtain the mild winter light fell onto a desk full of books. In the middle stood a gleaming typewriter with an empty sheet of paper. The folding bed was made, and on the floor next to it was a glass half-full of water. A few thin, downy strands of hair had fastened to the sides of the glass, the water was a little dusty. I took a few steps that way, but stopped again. A sound, like a thump. Or a hollow note struck somewhere in the house, dampened by the journey through the walls but reaching me at the exact moment I stopped. I stood in silence, listening. The distant rattle of a magpie outside the window. Nothing else. It was colder up here, and I was barefoot on the wooden floor. A few centimetres from my toes I saw that someone had drawn a white crayon line that disappeared under the red oriental rug on the floor in front of me. My hand trembled slightly as I hid it behind my back. I was right at the edge now, of something. Very slowly, as if not to show it, I opened my mouth a little. The rest of my body was still, which was decisive. I made the sign with a quick movement of my hand next to the spine, it was hardly visible. The intense concentration made the skin of my face tighten across my forehead and temples. I said the word very quietly, almost inaudibly, and very calmly, in almost complete silence. Even so, it would probably be heard. Then I took the first counter-clockwise steps of the circle. When I was ready I halted. My whole body felt numb, my eyes looking around, searching. But nothing happened. Not even the magpie could be heard now. I turned around to leave. But halfway out of the room I could see a billowing movement in the corner of my eye. It came from the floor, behind the curtain of the nearest window. As if something had been sitting there for a while, but now was on its way out.

 

But the best evidence we have that time travel is not possible, and never will be, is that we have not been invaded by hordes of tourists from the future.

                                                                              Stephen Hawking, “The Future of the Universe”

 

 

I remember now how lonely I was when I met Cross. I never let anyone know about it, because being alone back then didn’t make me quite so unhappy. Besides, I was just a kid. I thought it was my own fault. 

It looked like I had friends. In 1962, I was on the swim team and got elected Assistant Patrol Leader of the Wolf Patrol in Boy Scout Troop 7. When sides got chosen for kickball at recess, I was usually the fourth or fifth pick. I wasn’t the best student in the sixth grade of John Jay Elementary School — that was Betty Garolli. But I was smart and the other kids made me feel bad about it. So I stopped raising my hand when I knew the answer and I watched my vocabulary. I remember I said albeit once in class and they teased me for weeks. Packs of girls would come up to me on the playground. “Oh Ray,” they’d call and when I turned around they’d scream, “All beat it!” and run away, choking with laughter.    

It wasn’t that I wanted to be popular or anything. All I really wanted was a friend, one friend, a friend I didn’t have to hide anything from. Then came Cross, and that was the end of that. 

One of the problems was that we lived so far away from everything. Back then, Westchester County wasn’t so suburban. Our house was deep in the woods in tiny Willoughby, New York, at the dead end of Cobb’s Hill Road. In the winter, we could see Long Island Sound, a silver needle on the horizon pointing toward the city. But school was a half hour drive away and the nearest kid lived in Ward’s Hollow, three miles down the road, and he was a dumb fourth-grader.

So I didn’t have any real friends. Instead, I had science fiction. Mom used to complain that I was obsessed. I watched Superman reruns every day after school.  On Friday nights Dad used to let me stay up for Twilight Zone, but that fall CBS had temporarily cancelled it. It came back in January after everything happened, but was never quite the same. On Saturdays, I watched old sci-fi movies on Adventure Theater. My favorites were Forbidden Planet and The Day The Earth Stood Still. I think it was because of the robots. I decided that when I grew up and it was the future, I was going to buy one, so I wouldn’t have to be alone anymore. 

On Monday mornings I’d get my weekly allowance — a quarter. Usually I’d get off the bus that same afternoon down in Ward’s Hollow so I could go to Village Variety.  Twenty five cents bought two comics and a pack of red licorice. I especially loved DC’s Green Lantern, Marvel’s Fantastic Four and Incredible Hulk, but I’d buy almost any superhero. I read all the science fiction books in the library twice, even though Mom kept nagging me to try different things. But what I loved best of all was Galaxy magazine.  Dad had a subscription and when he was done reading them he would slip them to me.  Mom didn’t approve. I always used to read them up in the attic or out in the lean-to I’d lashed together in the woods. Afterwards I’d store them under my bunk in the bomb shelter. I knew that after the nuclear war, there would be no TV or radio or anything and I’d need something to keep me busy when I wasn’t fighting mutants. 

I was too young in 1962 to understand about Mom’s drinking. I could see that she got bright and wobbly at night, but she was always up in the morning to make me a hot breakfast before school. And she would have graham crackers and peanut butter waiting when I came home — sometimes cinnamon toast.  Dad said I shouldn’t ask Mom for rides after five because she got so tired keeping house for us.  He sold Andersen windows and was away a lot, so I was pretty much stranded most of the time. But he always made a point of being home on the first Tuesday of the month, so he could take me to the Scout meeting at 7:30. 

No, looking back on it, I can’t really say that I had an unhappy childhood — until I met Cross.     

            #

I remember it was a warm Saturday afternoon in October. The leaves covering the ground were still crisp and their scent spiced the air. I was in the lean-to I’d built that spring, mostly to practice the square and diagonal lashings I needed for Scouts. I was reading Galaxy. I even remember the story: “The Ballad of Lost C’Mell” by Cordwainer Smith.   The squirrels must have been chittering for some time, but I was too engrossed by Lord Jestocost’s problems to notice. Then I heard a faint crunch, not ten feet away. I froze, listening. Crunch, crunch … then silence. It could’ve been a dog, except that dogs didn’t usually slink through the woods. I was hoping it might be a deer — I’d never seen deer in Willoughby before, although I’d heard hunters shooting. I scooted silently across the dirt floor and peered between the dead saplings. 

At first I couldn’t see anything, which was odd. The woods weren’t all that thick and the leaves had long since dropped from the understory brush. I wondered if I had imagined the sounds; it wouldn’t have been the first time. Then I heard a twig snap, maybe a foot away. The wall shivered as if something had brushed against it, but there was nothing there. Nothing. I might have screamed then, except my throat started to close. I heard whatever it was skulk to the front of the lean-to. I watched in horror as an unseen weight pressed an acorn into the soft earth and then I scrambled back into the farthest corner.  That’s when I noticed that, when I wasn’t looking directly at it, the air where the invisible thing should have been shimmered like a mirage. The lashings that held the frame creaked, as if it were bending over to see what it had caught, getting ready to drag me, squealing, out into the sun and ….

“Oh, fuck,” it said in a high, panicky voice and then it thrashed away into the woods.

In that moment I was transformed — and I suppose that history too was forever changed.  I had somehow scared the thing off, twelve-year-old scrawny me! But more important was what it had said. Certainly I was well aware of the existence of the word fuck before then, but I had never dared use it myself, nor do I remember hearing it spoken by an adult. A spaz like the Murphy kid might say it under his breath, but he hardly counted.  I’d always thought of it as language’s atomic bomb; used properly the word should make brains shrivel, eardrums explode. But when the invisible thing said fuck and then ran away, it betrayed a vulnerability that made me reckless and more than a little stupid.

“Hey, stop!” I took off in pursuit.          

I didn’t have any trouble chasing it. The thing was no Davy Crockett; it was noisy and clumsy and slow. I could see a flickery outline as it lumbered along. I closed to within twenty feet and then had to hold back or I would’ve caught up to it. I had no idea what to do next. We blundered on in slower and slower motion until finally I just stopped.    

“W-Wait,” I called. “W-What do you want?”  I put my hands on my waist and bent over like I was trying to catch my breath, although I didn’t need to.

The thing stopped too but didn’t reply. Instead it sucked air in wheezy, ragged hooofs. It was harder to see, now that it was standing still, but I think it must have turned toward me.    

“Are you okay?” I said. 

“You are a child.” It spoke with an odd, chirping kind of accent.  Child was Ch-eye-eld.

“I’m in the sixth grade.” I straightened, spread my hands in front of me to show that I wasn’t a threat. “What’s your name?” It didn’t answer. I took a step toward it and waited.   Still nothing, but at least it didn’t bolt. “I’m Ray Beaumont,” I said finally. “I live over there.” I pointed. “How come I can’t see you?”

“What is the date?”  It said da-ate-eh.  

For a moment I thought it meant data. Data?  I puzzled over an answer. I didn’t want it thinking I was just a stupid little kid. “I don’t know,” I said cautiously. “October twentieth?”

The thing considered this, then asked a question that took my breath away. “And what is the year?”

“Oh jeez,” I said.  At that point I wouldn’t have been surprised if Rod Serling himself had popped out from behind a tree and started addressing the unseen TV audience. Which might have included me, except this was really happening. “Do you know what you just … what it means when ….”

“What, what?”  Its voice rose in alarm.

“You’re invisible and you don’t know what year it is?  Everyone knows what year it is. Are you … you’re not from here.”
“Yes, yes, I am. 1962, of course. This is 1962.”  It paused. “And I am not invisible.” It squeezed about eight syllables into invisible. I heard a sound like paper ripping. “This is only camel.” Or at least, that’s what I thought it said.

“Camel?”

“No, camo.” The air in front of me crinkled and slid away from a dark face. “You have not heard of camouflage?”  

“Oh sure, camo.”

I suppose the thing meant to reassure me by showing itself, but the effect was just the opposite. Yes, it had two eyes, a nose, and a mouth. It stripped off the camouflage to reveal a neatly-pressed gray three piece business suit, a white shirt and a red and blue striped tie. At night, on a crowded street in Manhattan, I might’ve passed it right by — Dad had taught me not to stare at the kooks in the city. But in the afternoon light, I could see all the things wrong with its disguise. The hair, for example. Not exactly a crewcut, it was more of a stubble, like Mr. Rudowski’s chin when he was growing his beard. The thing was way too thin, its skin was shiny, its fingers too long and its face — it looked like one of those Barbie dolls.

“Are you a boy or a girl?” I said.

It started. “There is something wrong?”   

I cocked my head to one side. “I think maybe it’s your eyes. They’re too big or something.  Are you wearing makeup?”

“I am naturally male.”  It — he bristled as he stepped out of the camouflage suit.  “Eyes do not have gender.” 

“If you say so.”  I could see he was going to need help getting around, only he didn’t seem to know it.  I was hoping he’d reveal himself, brief me on the mission. I even had an idea how we could contact President Kennedy or whoever he needed to meet with. Mr. Newell, the Scoutmaster, used to be a colonel in the Army — he would know some general who could call the Pentagon. “What’s your name?” I said.

He draped the suit over his arm. “Cross.”

I waited for the rest of it as he folded the suit in half.  “Just Cross?” I said. 

“My given name is Chitmansing.” He warbled it like he was calling birds.

“That’s okay,” I said. “Let’s just make it Mr. Cross.”

“As you wish, Mr. Beaumont.” He folded the suit again, again and again.  

“Hey!” 

He continued to fold it.   

“How do you do that?  Can I see?”

He handed it over. The camo suit was more impossible than it had been when it was invisible. He had reduced it to a six inch square card, as thin and flexible as the queen of spades. I folded it in half myself. The two sides seemed to meld together; it would’ve fit into my wallet perfectly. I wondered if Cross knew how close I was to running off with his amazing gizmo. He’d never catch me. I could see flashes of my brilliant career as the invisible superhero. Tales to Confound presents: the origin of Camo Kid!  I turned the card over and over, trying to figure out how to unfold it again. There was no seam, no latch. How could I use it if I couldn’t open it? “Neat,” I said. Reluctantly, I gave the card back to him.

Besides, real superheroes didn’t steal their powers.

I watched Cross slip the card into his vest pocket. I wasn’t scared of him. What scared me was that at any minute he might walk out of my life. I had to find a way to tell him I was on his side, whatever that was.

“So you live around here, Mr. Cross?”

“I am from the island of Mauritius.” 

“Where’s that?”

“It is in the Indian Ocean, Mr. Beaumont, near Madagascar.”

I knew where Madagascar was from playing Risk, so I told him that but then I couldn’t think of what else to say. Finally, I had to blurt out something — anything — to fill the silence. “It’s nice here. Real quiet, you know. Private.”

“Yes, I had not expected to meet anyone.” He, too, seemed at a loss. “I have business in New York City on the twenty-sixth of October.”  

“New York, that’s a ways away.”

“Is it?  How far would you say?”

“Fifty miles.  Sixty, maybe. You have a car?”

“No, I do not drive, Mr. Beaumont. I am to take the train.”

The nearest train station was New Canaan, Connecticut. I could’ve hiked it in maybe half a day. It would be dark in a couple of hours. “If your business isn’t until the twenty-sixth, you’ll need a place to stay.”

“The plan is to take rooms at a hotel in Manhattan.”

“That costs money.”

He opened a wallet and showed me a wad of crisp new bills. For a minute I thought they must be counterfeit; I hadn’t realized that Ben Franklin’s picture was on money. Cross was giving me the goofiest grin. I just knew they’d eat him alive in New York and spit out the bones.   

“Are you sure you want to stay in a hotel?”  I said.
 He frowned. “Why would I not?”

“Look, you need a friend, Mr. Cross. Things are different here than … than on your island. Sometimes people do, you know, bad stuff. Especially in the city.”

He nodded and put his wallet away. “I am aware of the dangers, Mr. Beaumont. I have trained not to draw attention to myself. I have the proper equipment.” He tapped the pocket where the camo was. 

I didn’t point out to him that all his training and equipment hadn’t kept him from being caught out by a twelve-year-old. “Sure, okay. It’s just … Look, I have a place for you to stay, if you want. No one will know.”

“Your parents, Mr. Beaumont …”

“My dad’s in Massachusetts until next Friday. He travels; he’s in the window business.   And my mom won’t know.”

“How can she not know that you have invited a stranger into your house?”

“Not the house,” I said. “My dad built us a bomb shelter. You’ll be safe there, Mr. Cross.  It’s the safest place I know.”   

            #

I remember how Cross seemed to lose interest in me, his mission and the entire twentieth century the moment he entered the shelter. He sat around all of Sunday, dodging my attempts to draw him out. He seemed distracted, like he was listening to a conversation I couldn’t hear. When he wouldn’t talk, we played games. At first it was cards: Gin and Crazy Eights, mostly. In the afternoon, I went back to the house and brought over checkers and Monopoly. Despite the fact that he did not seem to be paying much attention, he beat me like a drum. Not one game was even close. But that wasn’t what bothered me. I believed that this man had come from the future, and here I was building hotels on Baltic Avenue!  

Monday was a school day. I thought Cross would object to my plan of locking him in and taking both my key and Mom’s key with me, but he never said a word. I told him that it was the only way I could be sure that Mom didn’t catch him by surprise. Actually, I doubted she’d come all the way out to the shelter. She’d stayed away after Dad gave her that first tour; she had about as much use for nuclear war as she had for science fiction.  Still, I had no idea what she did during the day while I was gone. I couldn’t take chances.  Besides, it was a good way to make sure that Cross didn’t skin out on me. 

Dad had built the shelter instead of taking a vacation in 1960, the year Kennedy beat Nixon. It was buried about a hundred and fifty feet from the house. Nothing special — just a little cellar without anything built on top of it. The entrance was a steel bulkhead that led down five steps to another steel door.  The inside was cramped; there were a couple of cots, a sink and a toilet. Almost half of the space was filled with supplies and equipment. There were no windows and it always smelled a little musty, but I loved going down there to pretend the bombs were falling.

When I opened the shelter door after school on that Monday, Cross lay just as I had left him the night before, sprawled across the big cot, staring at nothing. I remember being a little worried; I thought he might be sick. I stood beside him and still he didn’t acknowledge my presence. 

“Are you all right, Mr. Cross?” I said. “I bought Risk.” I set it next to him on the bed and nudged him with the corner of the box to wake him up. “Did you eat?”

He sat up, took the cover off the game and started reading the rules. “President Kennedy will address the nation,” he said, “this evening at seven o’clock.”  

For a moment, I thought he had made a slip. “How do you know that?”

“The announcement came last night.” I realized that his pronunciation had improved a lot; announcement had only three syllables. “I have been studying the radio.”

I walked over to the radio on the shelf next to the sink. Dad said we were supposed to leave it unplugged — something about the bombs making a power surge. It was a brand new solid-state, multi-band Heath kit that I’d helped him build. When I pressed the on button, women immediately started singing about shopping: Where the values go up, up, up!  And the prices go down, down, down! I turned it off again.

“Do me a favor, okay?” I said. “Next time when you’re done would you please unplug this? I could get in trouble if you don’t.” I stooped to yank the plug.  

When I stood up, he was holding a sheet of paper. “I will need some things tomorrow, Mr. Beaumont. I would be grateful if you could assist me.” 

I glanced at the list without comprehension. He must have typed it, only there was no typewriter in the shelter. 

 

            To buy:

                                -One General Electric transistor radio with earplug

                                -One General Electric replacement earplug

                                -Two Eveready Heavy Duty nine volt batteries

                                -One New York Times, Tuesday, October 23

                                -Rand McNally map of New York City and vicinity

           To receive in change:

                                -Five dollars in coins

                                -twenty nickels

                                -ten dimes

                                -twelve quarters

 

When I looked up, I could feel the change in him. His gaze was electric; it seemed to crackle down my nerves. I could tell that what I did next would matter very much. “I don’t get it,” I said. 

“There are inaccuracies?”

I tried to stall. “Look, you’ll pay almost double if we buy a transistor radio at Ward’s Hollow. I’ll have to buy it at Village Variety. Wait a couple of days — we can get one much cheaper down in Stamford.”

“My need is immediate.”  He extended his hand and tucked something into the pocket of my shirt. “I am assured this will cover the expense.”

I was afraid to look, even though I knew what it was.  He’d given me a hundred dollar bill. I tried to thrust it back at him but he stepped away and it spun to the floor between us. I can’t spend that.”

“You must read your own money, Mr. Beaumont.” He picked the bill up and brought it into the light of the bare bulb on the ceiling. “This note is legal tender for all debts public and private.”

“No, no, you don’t understand. A kid like me doesn’t walk into Village Variety with a hundred bucks. Mr. Rudowski will call my mom!”

“If it is inconvenient for you, I will secure the items myself.” He offered me the money again.

If I didn’t agree, he’d leave and probably never come back. I was getting mad at him.  Everything would be so much easier if only he’d admit what we both knew about who he was. Then I could do whatever he wanted with a clear conscience. Instead he was keeping all the wrong secrets and acting really weird. It made me feet dirty, like I was helping a pervert. “What’s going on,” I said. 

“I do not know how to respond, Mr. Beaumont. You have the list. Read it now and tell me please with which item you have a problem.”  

I snatched the hundred dollars from him and jammed it into my pants pocket. “Why don’t you trust me?” 

He stiffened as if I had hit him. 

“I let you stay here. I didn’t tell anyone. You have to give me something, Mr. Cross.”

“Well then … ” He looked uncomfortable. “I would ask you to keep the change.” 

“Oh jeez, thanks.” I snorted in disgust. “Okay, okay, I’ll buy this stuff right after school tomorrow.”

With that, he seemed to lose interest again. When we opened the Risk board, he showed me where his island was, except it wasn’t there because it was too small.  We played three games and he crushed me every time. I remember at the end of the last game, watching in disbelief as he finished building a wall of invading armies along the shores of North Africa. South America, my last continent, was doomed. “Looks like you win again,” I said.  I traded in the last of my cards for new armies and launched a final, useless counter-attack. When I was done, he studied the board for a moment. 

“I think Risk is not a proper simulation, Mr. Beaumont.  We should both lose for fighting such a war.”

“That’s crazy,” I said.  “Both sides can’t lose.”

“Yet they can,” he said. “It sometimes happens that the victors envy the dead.” 

            #

That night was the first time I can remember being bothered by Mom talking back to the TV. I used to talk to the TV too. When Buffalo Bob asked what time it was, I would screech It’s Howdy Doody Time just like every other kid in America.

“My fellow citizens,” said President Kennedy, “let no one doubt that this is a difficult and dangerous effort on which we have set out.” I thought the president looked tired, like Mr. Newell on the third day of a campout. “No one can foresee precisely what course it will take or what costs or casualties will be incurred.”

“Oh my god,” Mom screamed at him. “You’re going to kill us all!” 

Despite the fact that it was close to her bedtime and she was shouting at the President of the United States, Mom looked great.  She was wearing a shiny black dress and a string of pearls.  She always got dressed up at night, whether Dad was home or not. I suppose most kids don’t notice how their mothers look, but everyone always said how beautiful Mom was. And since Dad thought so too, I went along with it — as long as she didn’t open her mouth. The problem was that a lot of the time, Mom didn’t make any sense.  When she embarrassed me, it didn’t matter how pretty she was. I just wanted to crawl behind the couch.   

Mom.

As she leaned toward the television, the martini in her glass came close to slopping over the edge.

President Kennedy stayed calm. “The path we have chosen for the present is full of hazards, as all paths are — but it is the one most consistent with our character and courage as a nation and our commitments around the world.  The cost of freedom is always high — but Americans have always paid it. And one path we shall never choose, and that is the path of surrender or submission.”

“Shut up! You foolish man, stop this.” She shot out of her chair and then some of her drink did spill. “Oh, damn!”

“Take it easy, Mom.”

“Don’t you understand?” She put the glass down and tore a Kleenex from the box on the end table. “He wants to start World War III!” She dabbed at the front of her dress and the phone rang.

I said, “Mom, nobody wants World War III.”

She ignored me, brushed by and picked up the phone on the third ring.

            “Oh thank God,” she said.  I could tell from the sound of her voice that it was Dad. “You heard him then?” She bit her lip as she listened to him. “Yes, but….”

Watching her face made me sorry I was in the sixth grade. Better to be a stupid little kid again, who thought grownups knew everything. I wondered whether Cross had heard the speech. 

“No, I can’t, Dave. No.” She covered the phone with her hand. “Raymie, turn off that TV!”

I hated it when she called me Raymie, so I only turned the sound down.

“You have to come home now, Dave. No, you listen to me.  Can’t you see, the man’s obsessed? Just because he has a grudge against Castro doesn’t mean he’s allowed to … .”        

With the sound off, Chet Huntley looked as if he were speaking at his own funeral.

“I am not going in there without you.”

I think Dad must have been shouting because Mom held the receiver away from her ear.     

She waited for him to calm down and said, “And neither is Raymie. He’ll stay with me.”

“Let me talk to him,” I said. I bounced off the couch. The look she gave me stopped me dead. 

“What for?” she said to Dad. “No, we are going to finish this conversation, David, do you hear me?”

She listened for a moment. “Okay, all right, but don’t you dare hang up.” She waved me over and slapped the phone into my hand as if I had put the missiles in Cuba. She stalked to the kitchen.

I needed a grownup so bad that I almost cried when I heard Dad’s voice. “Ray,” he said, “your mother is pretty upset.”

“Yes,” I said.

“I want to come home — I will come home — but I can’t just yet. If I just up and leave and this blows over, I’ll get fired.”

“But, Dad ….”

“You’re in charge until I get there. Understand, son? If the time comes, everything is up to you.”        

“Yes, sir,” I whispered. I’d heard what he didn’t say — it wasn’t up to her.

“I want you to go out to the shelter tonight. Wait until she goes to sleep. Top off the water drums. Get all the gas out of the garage and store it next to the generator. But here’s the most important thing. You know the sacks of rice? Drag them off to one side, the pallet too. There’s a hatch underneath, the key to the airlock door unlocks it. You’ve got two new guns and plenty of ammunition. The revolver is a .357 Magnum. You be careful with that, Ray, it can blow a hole in a car but it’s hard to aim. The double-barreled shotgun is easy to aim but you have to be close to do any harm. And I want you to bring down the Gamemaster from my closet and the .38 from my dresser drawer.” He had been talking as if there would be no tomorrow; he paused then to catch his breath. “Now, this is all just in case, okay?  I just want you to know.”  

I had never been so scared in my life.

“Ray?”  

I should have told him about Cross then, but Mom weaved into the room. “Got it, Dad,” I said. “Here she is.”

Mom smiled at me. It was a lopsided smile that was trying to be brave but wasn’t doing a very good job of it.  She had a new glass and it was full. She held out her hand for the phone and I gave it to her.

            #

I remember waiting until almost ten o’clock that night, reading under the covers with a flashlight. The Fantastic Four invaded Latveria to defeat Doctor Doom; Superman tricked Mr. Mxyzptlk into saying his name backwards once again. When I opened the door to my parents’ bedroom, I could hear Mom snoring. It spooked me; I hadn’t realized that women did that. I thought about sneaking in to get the guns, but decided to take care of them tomorrow.

I stole out to the shelter, turned my key in the lock and pulled on the bulkhead door. It didn’t move. That didn’t make any sense, so I gave it a hard yank. The steel door rattled terribly but did not swing away. The air had turned frosty and the sound carried in the cold. I held my breath, listening to my blood pound. The house stayed dark, the shelter quiet as stones. After a few moments, I tried one last time before I admitted to myself what had happened.

Cross had bolted the door shut from the inside.

            #

I went back to my room, but couldn’t sleep. I kept going to the window to watch the sky over New York, waiting for a flash of killing light. I was all but convinced that the city would burn that very night in thermonuclear fire and that mom and I would die horrible deaths soon after, pounding on the unyielding steel doors of our shelter. Dad had left me in charge and I had let him down.

I didn’t understand why Cross had locked us out. If he knew that a nuclear war was about to start, he might want our shelter all to himself. But that made him a monster and I still didn’t see him as a monster. I tried to tell myself that he’d been asleep and couldn’t hear me at the door — but that couldn’t be right. What if he’d come to prevent the war? He’d said he had business in the city on Thursday; he could be doing something really, really futuristic in there that he couldn’t let me see. Or else he was having problems. Maybe our twentieth century germs had got to him, like they killed H. G. Wells’s Martians.

I must have teased a hundred different ideas apart that night, in between uneasy trips to the window and glimpses at the clock. The last time I remember seeing was 4:16. I tried to stay up to face the end, but I couldn’t.

            #

I wasn’t dead when I woke up the next morning, so I had to go to school. Mom had Cream of Wheat all ready when I dragged myself to the table. Although she was all bright and bubbly, I could feel her giving me the mother’s eye when I wasn’t looking.  She always knew when something was wrong. I tried not to show her anything. There was no time to sneak out to the shelter; I barely had time to finish eating before she bundled me off to the bus.   

Right after the morning bell, Miss Toohey told us to open The Story of New York State to Chapter Seven, Resources and Products and read to ourselves. Then she left the room.  We looked at each other in amazement. I heard Bobby Coniff whisper something. It was probably dirty; a few kids snickered. Chapter Seven started with a map of product symbols. Two teeny little cows grazed near Binghamton. Rochester was cog and a pair of glasses. Elmira was an adding machine, Oswego an apple. There was a lightning bolt over Niagara Falls. Dad had promised to take us there someday. I had the sick feeling that we’d never get the chance. Miss Toohey looked pale when she came back, but that didn’t stop her from giving us a spelling test. I got a ninety-five. The word I spelled wrong was enigma. The hot lunch was American Chop Suey, a roll, a salad and a bowl of butterscotch pudding. In the afternoon we did decimals. 

Nobody said anything about the end of the world. 

I decided to get off the bus in Ward’s Hollow, buy the stuff Cross wanted and pretend I didn’t know he had locked the shelter door last night. If he said something about it, I’d act surprised. If he didn’t … I didn’t know what I’d do then.  

Village Variety was next to Warren’s Esso and across the street from the Post Office. It had once been two different stores located in the same building, but then Mr. Rudowski had bought the building and knocked down the dividing wall.  On the fun side were pens and pencil and paper and greeting cards and magazines and comics and paperbacks and candy. The other side was all boring hardware and small appliances. 

Mr. Rudowski was on the phone when I came in, but then he was always on the phone when he worked. He could sell you a hammer or a pack of baseball cards, tell you a joke, ask about your family, complain about the weather and still keep the guy on the other end of the line happy. This time though, when he saw me come in, he turned away, wrapping the phone cord across his shoulder.

I went through the store quickly and found everything Cross had wanted. I had to blow dust off the transistor radio box but the batteries looked fresh. There was only one New York Times left; the headlines were so big they were scary.

            US IMPOSES ARMS BLOCKADE ON CUBA

            ON FINDING OF OFFENSIVE MISSILE SITES;

            KENNEDY READY FOR SOVIET SHOWDOWN  

            Ships Must Stop       President Grave       Prepared To Risk War.

 

I set my purchases on the counter in front of Mr. Rudowski. He cocked his head to one side, trapping the telephone receiver against his shoulder, and rang me up. The paper was on the bottom of the pile.

“Since when do you read the Times, Ray?” Mr. Rudowski punched it into the cash register and hit total. “I just got the new Fantastic Four.” The cash drawer popped open.

“Maybe tomorrow,” I said.

“All right then. It comes to twelve dollars and forty-seven cents.”

I gave him the hundred dollar bill.

“What is this, Ray?” He stared at it and then at me.   

I had my story all ready. “It was a birthday gift from my grandma in Detroit. She said I could spend it on whatever I wanted so I decided to treat myself but I’m going to put the rest in the bank.”

“You’re buying a radio? From me?”

“Well, you know. I thought maybe I should have one with me with all this stuff going on.”

He didn’t say anything for a moment. He just pulled a paper bag from under the counter and put my things into it. His shoulders were hunched; I thought maybe he felt guilty about overcharging for the radio. “You should be listening to music, Ray,” he said quietly. “You like Elvis? All kids like Elvis. Or maybe that colored, the one who does the Twist?”

“They’re all right, I guess.”

“You’re too young to be worrying about the news. You hear me? Those politicians ….”  He shook his head. “It’s going to be okay, Ray. You heard it from me.”

“Sure, Mr. Rudowski.  I was wondering, could I get five dollars in change?”

I could feel him watching me as I stuffed it all into my book bag. I was certain he’d call my mom, but he never did. Home was three miles up Cobb’s Hill. I did it in forty minutes, a record.

            #

I remember I started running when I saw the flashing lights. The police car had left skid marks in the gravel on our driveway.

“Where were you?” Mom burst out of the house as I came across the lawn. “Oh, my God, Raymie, I was worried sick.” She caught me up in her arms. 

“I got off the bus in Ward’s Hollow.” She was about to smother me; I squirmed free.  “What happened?”

“This the boy, ma’am?” The state trooper had taken his time catching up to her. He had almost the same hat as Scoutmaster Newell.

“Yes, yes!  Oh, thank God, officer!”

The trooper patted me on the head like I was a lost dog. “You had your mom worried, Ray.”

“Raymie, you should’ve told me.”

“Somebody tell me what happened!” I said.

A second trooper came from behind the house. We watched him approach. “No sign of any intruder.” He looked bored: I wanted to scream.  

“Intruder?” I said.

“He broke into the shelter,” said Mom. “He knew my name.”

“There was no sign of forcible entry,” said the second trooper. I saw him exchange a glance with his partner. “Nothing disturbed that I could see.”

“He didn’t have time,” Mom said. “When I found him in the shelter, I ran back to the house and got your father’s gun from the bedroom.”

The thought of Mom with the .38 scared me. I had my Shooting merit badge, but she didn’t know a hammer from a trigger. “You didn’t shoot him?”

“No.” She shook her head. “He had plenty of time to leave but he was still there when I came back. That’s when he said my name.”

I had never been so mad at her before. “You never go out to the shelter.”

She had that puzzled look she always gets at night. “I couldn’t find my key. I had to use the one your father leaves over the breezeway door.”

“What did he say again, ma’am? The intruder.”

“He said, ‘Mrs. Beaumont, I present no danger to you.’ And I said, ‘Who are you?’ And then he came toward me and I thought he said ‘Margaret,’ and I started firing.    

“You did shoot him!”

Both troopers must have heard the panic in my voice. The first one said, “You know something about this man, Ray?”

“No, I-I was at school all day and then I stopped at Rudowski’s ….”  I could feel my eyes burning. I was so embarrassed; I knew I was about to cry in front of them.

Mom acted annoyed that the troopers had stopped paying attention to her. “I shot at him.  Three, four times, I don’t know. I must have missed, because he just stood there staring at me. It seemed like forever. Then he walked past me and up the stairs like nothing had happened.”

“And he didn’t say anything?”

“Not a word.”

“Well, it beats me,” said the second trooper. “The gun’s been fired four times but there are no bullet holes in the shelter and no bloodstains.”

“You mind if I ask you a personal question, Mrs. Beaumont?” the first trooper said.

She colored.  “I suppose not.”

“Have you been drinking, ma’am?”

“Oh that!”  She seemed relieved. “No. Well, I mean, after I called you, I did pour myself a little something. Just to steady my nerves. I was worried because my son was so late and … Raymie, what’s the matter?”

I felt so small. The tears were pouring down my face.   

            #

After the troopers left, I remember Mom baking brownies while I watched Superman. I wanted to go out and hunt for Cross, but it was already sunset and there was no excuse I could come up with for wandering around in the dark. Besides, what was the point? He was gone, driven off by my mother. I’d had a chance to help a man from the future change history, maybe prevent World War III, and I had blown it.  My life was ashes. 

I wasn’t hungry that night, for brownies or spaghetti or anything, but Mom made that clucking noise when I pushed supper around the plate, so I ate a few bites just to shut her up. I was surprised at how easy it was to hate her, how good it felt. Of course, she was oblivious, but in the morning she would notice if I wasn’t careful. After dinner she watched the news and I went upstairs to read. I wrapped a pillow around my head when she yelled at David Brinkley. I turned out the lights at 8:30, but I couldn’t get to sleep.  She went to her room a little after that.      

“Mr. Beaumont?”

I must have dozed off, but when I heard his voice I snapped awake immediately.

“Is that you, Mr. Cross?” I peered into the darkness. “I bought the stuff you wanted.”   The room filled with an awful stink, like when Mom drove with the parking brake on.

“Mr. Beaumont,” he said, “I am damaged.”

I slipped out of bed, picked my way across the dark room, locked the door and turned on the light.

“Oh jeez!”  

He slumped against my desk like a nightmare. I remember thinking then that Cross wasn’t human, that maybe he wasn’t even alive. His proportions were wrong: an ear, a shoulder and both feet sagged like they had melted. Little wisps of steam or something curled off him; they were what smelled. His skin had gone all shiny and hard; so had his business suit. I’d wondered why he never took the suit coat off and now I knew. His clothes were part of him. The middle fingers of his right hand beat spasmodically against his palm.

“Mr. Beaumont,” he said.  “I calculate your chances at 1016 to 1.”  

“Chances of what?” I said. “What happened to you?”

“You must listen most attentively, Mr. Beaumont. My decline is very bad for history. It is for you now to alter the time line probabilities.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Your government greatly overestimates the nuclear capability of the Soviet Union. If you originate a first strike, the United States will achieve overwhelming victory.”

“Does the President know this? We have to tell him!”

“John Kennedy will not welcome such information. If he starts this war, he will be responsible for the deaths of tens of millions, both Russians and Americans. But he does not grasp the future of the arms race. The war must happen now, because those who come after will build and build until they control arsenals which can destroy the world many times over. People are not capable of thinking for very long of such fearsome weapons.  They tire of the idea of extinction and then become numb to it. The buildup slows but does not stop and they congratulate themselves on having survived it. But there are still too many weapons and they never go away. The Third War comes as a surprise. The First War was called the one to end all wars. The Third War is the only such war possible, Mr. Beaumont, because it ends everything. History stops in 2009. Do you understand? A year later, there is no life. All dead, the world a hot, barren rock.”

“But you …?”

“I am nothing, a construct. Mr. Beaumont, please, the chances are 1016 to 1,” he said. “Do you know how improbable that is?” His laugh sounded like a hiccup. “But for the sake of those few precious time lines, we must continue. There is a man, a politician in New York. If he dies on Thursday night, it will create the incident that forces Kennedy’s hand.”

“Dies?” For days, I had been desperate for him to talk. Now all I wanted was to run away.  “You’re going to kill somebody?”

“The world will survive a Third War that starts on Friday, October 22, 1962.”

“What about me? My parents? Do we survive?”

“I cannot access that time line. I have no certain answer for you. Please, Mr. Beaumont, this politician will die of a heart attack in less than three years. He has made no great contribution to history, yet his assassination can save the world.”

“What do you want from me?” But I had already guessed.  

“He will speak most eloquently at the United Nations on Friday evening. Afterward he will have dinner with his friend, Ruth Fields. Around ten o’clock he will return to his residence at the Waldorf Towers. Not the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, but the Towers. He will take the elevator to Suite 42A. He is the American ambassador to the United Nations. His name is Adlai Stevenson.”

“Stop it!  Don’t say anything else.”

When he sighed, his breath was a cloud of acrid steam. “I have based my calculation of the time line probabilities on two data points, Mr. Beaumont, which I discovered in your bomb shelter. The first is the .357 Magnum revolver, located under a pallet of rice bags.   I trust you know of this weapon?”

“Yes.” I whispered.

“The second is the collection of magazines, located under your cot. It would seem that you take an interest in what is to come, Mr. Beaumont, and that may lend you the terrible courage you will need to divert this time line from disaster. You should know that there is not just one future. There are an infinite number of futures in which all possibilities are expressed, an infinite number of Raymond Beaumonts”        

“Mr. Cross, I can’t ….”

“Perhaps not,” he said, “but I believe that another one of you can.” 

“You don’t understand … .”  I watched in horror as a boil swelled on the side of his face and popped, expelling an evil jet of yellow steam. “What?”

“Oh fuck.” That was the last thing he said.

He slid to the floor — or maybe he was just a body at that point. More boils formed and burst. I opened all the windows in my room and got the fan down out of the closet and still I can’t believe that the stink didn’t wake Mom up. Over the course of the next few hours, he sort of vaporized.  

When it was over, there was a sticky, dark spot on the floor the size of my pillow. I moved the throw rug from one side of the room to the other to cover it up. I had nothing to prove that Cross existed but a transistor radio, a couple of batteries, an earplug and eighty-seven dollars and fifty-three cents in change.

#

I might have done things differently if I hadn’t had a day to think. I can’t remember going to school on Wednesday, who I talked to, what I ate. I was feverishly trying to figure out what to do and how to do it. I had no place to go for answers, not Miss Toohey, not my parents, not the Bible or the Boy Scout Handbook, certainly not Galaxy magazine.  Whatever I did had to come out of me. I watched the news with Mom that night.  President Kennedy had brought our military to the highest possible state of alert. There were reports that some Russian ships had turned away from Cuba; others continued on course. Dad called and said his trip was being cut short and that he would be home the next day.

But that was too late.

I hid behind the stone wall when the school bus came on Thursday morning. Mrs. Johnson honked a couple of times, and then drove on. I set out for New Canaan, carrying my bookbag. In it were the radio, the batteries, the coins, the map of New York and the .357.  I had the rest of Cross’s money in my wallet.  

It took more than five hours to hike to the train station. I expected to be scared, but the whole time I felt light as air. I kept thinking of what Cross had said about the future, that I was just one of millions and millions of Raymond Beaumonts. Most of them were in school, diagramming sentences and watching Miss Toohey bite her nails. I was the special one, walking into history. I was super. I caught the 2:38 train, changed in Stamford, and arrived at Grand Central just after four. I had six hours. I bought myself a hot pretzel and a coke and tried to decide where I should go. I couldn’t just sit around the hotel lobby for all that time; I thought that would draw too much attention. I decided to go to the top of the Empire State Building. I took my time walking down Park Avenue and tried not to see all the ghosts I was about to make. In the lobby of the Empire State Building, I used Cross’s change to call home.

“Hello?”  I hadn’t expected Dad to answer. I would’ve hung up except that I knew I might never speak to him again.

“Dad, this is Ray.  I’m safe, don’t worry.”

“Ray, where are you?”

“I can’t talk.  I’m safe but I won’t be home tonight. Don’t worry.”

“Ray!” He was frantic. “What’s going on?”

“I’m sorry.”

“Ray!”

I hung up; I had to. “I love you,” I said to the dial tone.

I could imagine the expression on Dad’s face, how he would tell Mom what I’d said.  Eventually they would argue about it.  He would shout; she would cry. As I rode the elevator up, I got mad at them. He shouldn’t have picked up the phone. They should’ve protected me from Cross and the future he came from. I was in the sixth grade, I shouldn’t have to have feelings like this. The observation platform was almost deserted. I walked completely around it, staring at the city stretching away from me in every direction. It was dusk; the buildings were shadows in the failing light. I didn’t feel like Ray Beaumont anymore; he was my secret identity. Now I was the superhero Bomb Boy; I had the power of bringing nuclear war. Wherever I cast my terrible gaze, cars melted and people burst into flame. 

And I loved it.

It was dark when I came down from the Empire State Building. I had a sausage pizza and a coke on 47th Street. While I ate, I stuck the plug into my ear and listened to the radio. I searched for the news. One announcer said the debate was still going on in the Security Council. Our ambassador was questioning Ambassador Zorin. I stayed with that station for a while, hoping to hear his voice. I knew what he looked like, of course. I knew Adlai Stevenson had run for President a couple of times when I was just a baby. But I couldn’t remember what he sounded like. He might talk to me, ask me what I was doing in his hotel; I wanted to be ready for that. 

I arrived at the Waldorf Towers around nine o’clock. I picked a plush velvet chair that had a direct view of the elevator bank and sat there for about ten minutes. Nobody seemed to care but it was hard to sit still. Finally I got up and went to the men’s room. I took my bookbag into a stall, closed the door and got the .357 out. I aimed it at the toilet.  The gun was heavy and I could tell it would have a big kick. I probably ought to hold it with both hands. I put it back into my bookbag and flushed.

When I came out of the bathroom, I had stopped believing that I was going to shoot anyone, that I could. But I had to find out for Cross’s sake. If I was really meant to save the world, then I had to be in the right place at the right time. I went back to my chair, checked my watch. It was nine-twenty.

I started thinking of the one who would pull the trigger, the unlikely Ray. What would make the difference? Had he read some story in Galaxy that I had skipped? Was it a problem with Mom? Or Dad? Maybe he had spelled enigma right; maybe Cross had lived another thirty seconds in his time line. Or maybe he was just the best that I could possibly be.         

I was so tired of it all. I must have walked thirty miles since morning and I hadn’t slept well in days. The lobby was warm. People laughed and murmured. Elevator doors dinged softly. I tried to stay up to face history, but I couldn’t. I was Raymond Beaumont, but I was just a twelve-year-old kid.      

I remember the doorman waking me up at eleven o’clock. Dad drove all the way into the city that night to get me. When we got home, Mom was already in the shelter.     

Only the Third War didn’t start that night. Or the next. 

I lost television privileges for a month.

#

For most people my age, the most traumatic memory of growing up came on November 22, 1963.  But the date I remember is July 14, 1965, when Adlai Stevenson dropped dead of a heart attack in London.

I’ve tried to do what I can, to make up for what I didn’t do that night. I’ve worked for the cause wherever I could find it. I belong to CND and SANE and the Friends of the Earth and was active in the nuclear freeze movement. I think the Green Party is the only political organization worth your vote. I don’t know if any of it will change Cross’s awful probabilities; maybe we’ll survive in a few more time lines.

When I was a kid, I didn’t mind being lonely. Now it’s hard, knowing what I know. Oh, I have lots of friends, all of them wonderful people, but people who know me say that there’s a part of myself that I always keep hidden. They’re right. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to tell anyone about what happened with Cross, what I didn’t do that night. It wouldn’t be fair to them.

Besides, whatever happens, chances are very good that it’s my fault.

 

His father was now his mother but he was still an epic asshole.

“He won’t even let me get a tattoo,” Josh said. “He gets his whole dick cut off and he won’t even let me get a tattoo.”

Josh hated being forced to sit here at family therapy every week, the therapist and his parents waiting for him to miraculously be okay with the fact that his asshole father was now his asshole second mother or something. What a freak show.

“Call me Goat Boy,” Josh said. “From this day forth, my name is Goat Boy. If he can change from a man to a woman, from Joe to Heidi, then I can do the same. I am officially changing my name to Goat Boy and my gender to half goat, half boy.”

“I’m not paying good money for you to mutilate your body with tattoos like all the other losers,” Heidi said.

“But you can mutilate your body and we’re supposed to be all happy for you,” Josh said.

“We’re not here to talk about tattoos, Josh.” “Goat Boy.”

“There’s no such thing. But there is such a thing as a woman born into a man’s body. We’ve been through this. You’re fourteen, not some baby,” said Heidi. She patted and stroked her long hair as she talked.

He looks stupid patting his hair like that. He stinks at this. Josh pictured Ashlee in his Spanish class, the sexy way she tugged on her ponytail when she smiled at him. Now that was how a real girl handled her hair. He felt an immediate erection rise up and gathered his coat over his lap to cover it.

“Maa-maa. Maa-maa. Goat Boy is bleating,” Josh said.

“Knock it off, Josh,” said his mother, Sue Ann. “It’s not easy for me either but you don’t see me bleating.”

“Maa-maa, I was born into a goat body and you’ll just have to accept me as I am,” Josh said. “If I have to accept him as a she-male, he has to accept me as a goat boy. Maa-maa.”

“She-male is not an acceptable way to describe Heidi, Josh,” the therapist said.

“Josh is not an acceptable way to address Goat Boy,” Josh said. “Heidi is still the same person,” the therapist said. “I’d like you to try something, Josh. Just for a minute. Turn your whole body toward Heidi and look her right in the eyes.”

Josh turned his whole body to face his father. He looked him right in the eyes and held his gaze for a full minute, forcing himself to wait before he spoke.

He felt sick at what he saw. He wasn’t used to it at all, even though his father had started dressing like a woman months before his surgeries. It was still disgusting and wrong and ugly. His father had been a regular looking man, kind of nerdy, with square glasses and a normal dad haircut. He had been a skinny guy, clean-shaven always. He said he couldn’t stand the scruffy look that so many movie stars and singers had. They look dirty with that stubble on their faces, he had said. Look at that bum, why would it be a fashion to look like a dirty bum.

Now Josh saw the strangest man when he looked at his father. Puffy face. Long straight blonde hair. Red lipstick! Eyes ringed with brown eyeliner, fluttering long eyelashes. Contact lenses instead of glasses. He didn’t know how to dress like a woman. Nothing fit him right. His blouse was all bunchy and his skirt started way high above his waist and hung below his knees, like it belonged on an old nun. To Josh, he looked like he was in a cheap Halloween costume or like he was one of those gross female impersonator guys in the Philadelphia Mummers Parade strutting down the street with big red lips and a ruffled umbrella. He was a fake woman with fake breasts and a fake vagina and nothing would change that.

There was a family story about the first time Josh saw his dad’s penis, but Josh was too young to actually remember. He had heard his mom tell the story to girlfriends cackling around the kitchen table and to tipsy aunts at family parties. His dad had been trying to teach Josh to pee in the toilet while standing up. Toddler Josh looked at his dad’s penis, pointed to it, and said one of the few words he knew, “big.” Josh wished he didn’t have a picture of that story in his mind. He would give anything to be able to take a penknife to his brain and cut it away.

Josh saw an eager look on his dad’s face, like he was waiting to hear a compliment. Like he actually thought Josh would be one molecule of okay with this. Fuck that shit.

“Hey Dad, how are you doing in there? You can come out now. Admit it was all a crazy mistake. Take off the makeup and stockings, chop off that hair, stop taking hormones because that’s a losing battle. Hate to break it to you, Dad, but you still look like a dude. Your big feet and hands—dead giveaway. What are you going to do—chop them off too? I don’t think so. Period, end of story,” Josh said.

His dad looked away, his face reddening. Josh felt his heart thumping like a drummer was flailing wildly around on his rib cage. He wanted to ask his mother if she was going to stay married to this asshole. Did she even want to be married to a woman? She didn’t sign up for this. Poor Mom.

“Can we wrap this up?” Sue Ann said. “I’ve had about as much of this as I can take for one day.”

 “We have ten more minutes on the clock,” Heidi said.

“Un. Fucking. Believable. He wants to get his money’s worth,” Josh said.

“Why do you let him dominate these sessions?” Heidi said to the therapist. “It’s outrageous. Everything is not about him.”

“I said I’m done, Joe,” Sue Ann said. “I mean Heidi.” It was the same voice she used to order Josh and the farm animals around. No nonsense.

Josh loved when his mom cracked. When she called him Joe. When she said “my husband.” It meant he wasn’t the only one who looked at Heidi and still saw Joe in there.

*

“I have my own money,” Josh said. “I’m getting a tattoo with my own money.”

In the front seat of the truck, his parents exchanged a look. It was too fast. He couldn’t tell what was going on up there.

“It’s not about the money,” Sue Ann said. “We don’t want you to do something you’ll be sorry about later in life.”

“Like you never did that.”

“Yeah, we did stupid shit, Josh,” Sue Ann said. “So we feel like that’s our job, to save you from doing stupid shit, all right? Enough. Get off it.”

Josh felt a rage so huge he wanted to pound his fists against the truck windows and break out of there like Superman, roar out into the corn fields and knock down everything in his path—barns, cows, fences, tractors—smash it all down.

“I hate you,” he cried. “You suck. I don’t know why I was even born. Do you know what kind of shit I have to endure every day of my life, having a she-male for a father? Do you know what happens to me at school every day? Anyone else would have blown their brains out by now. And all I ask is one thing. I want a fucking tattoo on my arm. And I am getting one, no matter what you say or do. If I have to go to an illegal place where they don’t ask for the stinking permission form because I’m underage, I will. And if I die from an infection because you made me go to a butcher tattoo shop, that’s fine. I’ll be better off dead anyway.”

His parents looked at each other again. They did that thing married people do, talk with their eyes. Josh hated when they did that. It wasn’t fair to send thoughts to each other instead of having to say them out loud so he could hear.

Finally Sue Ann said, “We said get off it, Josh.” But her voice wavered and Josh knew that meant his parents were weakening.

“All you care about is yourselves. You don’t even care what I go through. I have a right to my own life. I have a right to get a tattoo. It’s my body. Luke got a tattoo when he was eleven. Stevie got his first one when he was twelve and now he has like ten of them all over him. All my friends have tattoos. I’m the only one without one.” He wasn’t going to bring up Ashlee, who had a purple rose tattoo on her lower back and a pierced belly button.

“We’ll talk about it later,” Heidi said finally. She still drove like a guy, one arm draped over the top of the steering wheel.

“There is no later,” Josh said.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Sue Ann said.

“I’m doing it this weekend. Or else.”

“You don’t speak to us like that,” Sue Ann said. “You don’t tell us what to do and when.” But she didn’t sound like herself. She sounded like a new mom, who was not quite sure of what she was supposed to say. His normal mom was a bellower. When she yelled at you, you moved. She got lots of practice yelling at the cows, who were good at getting out of the pasture and milling around in the middle of the road. When she yelled at the pigs, they jerked around and followed her.

“I’m not telling you what to do. I’m telling you what I’m going to do. This weekend.”

Everything Josh had said about school was a lie. His friends were great. They said the right thing when they heard about his dad. They said they were sorry. It was like a dad dying, wasn’t it? Like what you say to a guy whose dad dies. Sorry for your loss.

Just one guy gave him a hard time. Bernardo wanted to be a film-maker and he would not shut up about making a documentary about Joe/Heidi. Every time Josh saw Bernardo coming, he ran. He was sick of hearing how important the film project was, how it would go viral, how Josh would be famous for having a tranny dad. He hated the stupid questions Bernardo kept asking. What exactly did they do with his dick after they cut it off? Does he keep it in a jar like my uncle’s kidney stones? Is he a lesbian now, because he’s still married to your mom? Bernardo said, Don’t you see, it’s like a story of America, here in lower Delaware, all these farms and shit, and there’s your dad, walking in a corn field with her long blond hair blowing in the wind, no city around him to protect him, nobody else like him.

His friends said they would lean on Bernardo to shut him up, if Josh wanted. But Josh said no. He was trying to keep a low profile. If he got in trouble at school, those fucking family therapy sessions might go on forever.

*

The tattoo guy was a girl. Josh didn’t expect that. She was covered with tattoos herself, her arms and legs a sea of colors and pictures. She looked like a cartoon that you wanted to read, with a story line that led you up one arm and down her back, down her leg and up her other arm.

She barely glanced at his forged permission form and didn’t even ask him for i.d. Josh could not believe his good luck. He actually thought they would throw him right out the front door and tell him to come back in a few years.

She didn’t look directly at him, but gestured for him to sit down in her chair and stood over him silently.

“I want a real big one,” he said. He pulled out a picture of a huge bull with red angry eyes and black flared nostrils. It was an intricate  beautiful design, with curly plumes of smoke coming out of the bull’s nose and his legs kicking up in the air. “On my right arm. Like I want his tail to end up in my armpit and the rest of him all over my whole arm. And when I move my arm, can it look like the bull is pawing on the ground?”

“Jesus Christ,” she said. “I knew it. I knew someone would ask for something really, really hard on my first day. I might as well quit right now. I’m sorry, man.” Her face scrunched up and her eyes filled with tears.

“Don’t be sorry. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to ask for something hard,” Josh said.

“I don’t know what to do anymore. Everything I touch turns to total crap. I try so hard,” she cried.

Josh felt totally helpless. He didn’t know what to do or say to make her stop. He stood up.

“It’s okay. I don’t even need it. I can go,” Josh said.

“No. No. No,” she said. “I have to do this. I can’t keep fucking up my whole entire useless life.”

“Are you sure? I’m cool with not doing it. I swear,” Josh said. “Fake it till you make it. Fake it till you make it,” she chanted under her breath. Her hands shook as she groped for her tattoo gun. Josh turned around, reached out, and touched her hand with one finger. He was trying to settle her down, the way he laid his hands softly on the farm animals when they were scared. When it was time to inseminate the heifers, he was the one who stroked their backs to keep them calm and held the tail up in the air while his mom reached deep inside them to thread the insemination rod into the uterus and pump the bull semen in. He had the magic touch, his mom said.

The tattoo girl still didn’t look him in the eyes but she opened her palm and took his hand, breathing heavily like she was trying to catch her breath. She held on tight, like she was bobbing in choppy water and he was her lifeline.

He was so happy holding her hand. He had forgotten what happy felt like. It was like he just ate a warm, oozy brownie where the taste stayed in his mouth and filled him up everywhere. It was like waking up after a wonderful dream where a girl put her mouth right on his penis and her soft long hair fell all over his naked body. Wow.

The tattoo girl whispered, “You’re a good guy, you know that? Thanks for being so super nice to me.”

“It’s nothing. Everyone should always be nice to you all the time. Don’t even worry about it. You won’t be nervous forever. It’s only your first day,” Josh said.

“Come here, you,” she said, pulling him close. She hugged him so fiercely and for so long that he almost fainted with pleasure. She smelled so incredibly good. “Let’s try again. I think I’m ready now.” Josh smiled and sat down in her tattoo chair. He took off his shirt, hoping he didn’t smell of cows or sweat. She studied his picture, made a stencil of the bull, then wiped his arm and armpit with rubbing alcohol. The gentle way she swabbed him down and the feel of her hands on him were so wonderful that he had to stop himself from laughing out loud.

When the first stab of the needle in the tattoo gun landed under his armpit, Josh cried out in shock. It felt like the needle reached all the way to his bone, like she was stabbing him with a jagged knife, ripping him open. Was this normal? Or was he a baby who couldn’t stand a little pain?

She continued, panting a little and murmuring under her breath, like she was remembering the steps and repeating them to herself. She stabbed so hard and so fast, Josh couldn’t even find words to stop her. The pain paralyzed him. Finally his nose started gushing blood and he vomited and fainted almost at the exact same time. As he slid from the chair to the floor, he saw the air turn a gorgeous shimmering green all around him. Isn’t that amazing, there’s all this green hidden under the air, was his last thought before blacking out.

Someday he would tell his wife about the first woman who got under his skin. He would describe it all—the bull, the green cloud that enveloped him, the ink that remained under his armpit in a trail that went nowhere. How that was the moment he knew his childhood was over. He would tell his wife he was born into his manhood covered with blood and vomit and paralyzed by pain. Try having a baby claw its way out of you and then we’ll talk, she would say, laughing.

*

When Josh woke up in the emergency room and saw two faces looming over him, his first thought was, Who’s that lady with my mom? Then he saw Heidi reach her long, hairy arm with her big man’s hands around his mom’s shoulder and he knew. He closed his eyes again, but he could feel her there, waiting.


*This story was published in: Bull and Other Stories by Kathy Anderson, Autumn House Press, 2016.

*Copyright © 2016 by Kathy Anderson.

*Image: Alon Braier

 

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?”

Dad harrumphed.

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?”

“Yeah.”

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 do.’

‘Sing, then!’

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?!

“No…”

“Can’t you see she’s evil?!

“Don’t talk about her that way.”

“Why not?”

“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.”

“What?”

“I knew it…” muttered Julia. She got up and started walking around the room nervously.

“That’s nonsense.”

Julia paused. “Yeah? Weird, you didn’t used to talk to me like this.”

“Like how?”

“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!”

“Tough.”

“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?”

“No.”

“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…?”

“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.”

“I know…”

“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?”

Silence.

“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.

“Dawn?”

Don’t answer, don’t answer.

“Dawn, are you awake?”

SHUT UP!!!

“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?!”

“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?”

“Yes.”

“Better than what?”

“Than the instinct to ruin my own life.”

“Interesting… so… you want to stop?”

“Yes.”

“But then you won’t be so pretty anymore.”

“Fuck pretty.”

“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.”

“Right.”

“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.

“No.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

“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?”

“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?”

“No.”

“How about a mom?”

“Hardly.”

“Where’s your dad?”

“Gone.”

“Gone as in deceased, passed away?”

“Yes.”

“Oh gosh. When did it happen?”

“A while ago.”

“How old were you?”

“Nine.”

“Oh dear, that’s teeny-tiny. Do you have any memories of him?”

“Few.”

“Please tell me.”

Dawn turned and faced Chelsea, who looked at her curiously.

“My mom used to call him ‘heart of stone’.”

“That’s funny.”

“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?”

“What?”

“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.”

“Bullshit.”

“Please tell me.”

“Tell you what?”

“How you felt.”

“I was glad! You happy now?”

“Interesting… may I ask, why were you glad?”

“No.”

“All right, I respect that… so it’s basically you who did it.”

“Did what?”

“Killed him, killed your dad.”

“What?”

“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.”

“Not true.”

“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:

“Come!”

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.

“Come!”

No! No! No! It was impossible. Her hands clutched the iron in frenzy. Amid the seas she sent a cry of anguish.

“Eveline! Evvy!”

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.