It was the longest night of winter. At the bottom of the sea, an old fish gathered together 12,000 of her children and grandchildren and began to tell them this story:
Once upon a time a little black fish lived with her mother in a small pond on the side of a mountain. Their home was behind a black, moss-covered rock, under which they both slept at night. The little fish longed to see the moonlight in their home just once. From morning till evening, the mother and child swam after each other. Sometimes they joined other fish and rapidly darted in and out of small crevices. The little fish was an only child, for of the 10,000 eggs which the mother had laid, only she had survived.
For several days the little fish had been deep in thought and had talked very little. She swam slowly behind her mother around the pond and did not play with the other fish. Her mother thought her child was sick and would soon be well. In fact, the black fish’s sickness was really something else!
Early one morning before the sun had risen, the little fish woke her mother and said
“Mother, I want to talk to you.”
Half-asleep, the mother responded
“Child, this isn’t the time to talk. Save your words for later. Go swimming?”
“No, Mother! I can’t go swimming anymore. I must leave here.”
“Do you really have to leave?”
“Yes, Mother, I must go.”
“Just a minute! Where do you want to go at this hour of the morning?”
“I want to go see where the stream ends. You know, Mother, I’ve been wondering where the end of the stream is … I haven’t been able to think about anything else. I didn’t sleep a wink all night. At last, I decided to go and find where the stream ends. I want to know what’s happening in other places.”
The mother laughed – “When I was a child, I used to think a lot like that. But, my dear, a stream has no beginning and no end. That’s the way it is. The stream just flows and never goes anywhere.”
“But mother dear, isn’t it true that everything comes to an end? Nights end, days end, weeks, months, years …”
“Forget this pretentious talk,” interrupted the mother – “Let’s go swimming. Now is the time to swim, not talk.”
“No, Mother, I’m tired of this swimming, I want to set out and see what’s happening elsewhere. Maybe you think someone taught me these ideas but believe me, I’ve had these thoughts for a long time. Of course, I’ve learned many things here and there. For instance, I know that when most fish get old, they complain about everything. I want to know if life is simply for circling around in a small place until you become old and nothing else, or is there another way to live in the world ?”
When the little fish finished the mother exclaimed – “My dear child, are you crazy? World! … World! What is this other world! The world is right here where we are. Life is just as we have it…”
Just then, a large fish approached their home and said: “Neighbor, what are you arguing about with your child? Aren’t you planning to go swimming today?”
Hearing her neighbor’s voice, the mother came out of the house and said, “What’s the world coming to! Now children even want to teach their mothers something!”
How so? “asked the neighbor.”
Listen to the places this half-pint wants to go!” replied the mother. “Saying over and over again I want to go see what’s happening in the world. What pretentious talk!”
“Little one,” said the neighbor, “let’s see. Since when have you become a scholar and philosopher and not told us?”
“Madam,” answered the little fish, “I don’t know what you mean by ‘scholar’ and ‘philosopher,’ I’ve just gotten tired of these swims. I don’t want to continue this boring stuff and be happy as a fool until one day I wake up and see that like all of you, I’ve become old, but still am as dumb as I am now.”
“Oh, what talk!” exclaimed the neighbor.
“I never thought my only child would turn out this way,” said the mother. “I don’t know what evil person put my sweet baby up to this.”
“No one put me up to anything,” said the little fish. “I have a reason, and intelligence and understanding. I have eyes and I can see.”
“Sister,” said the neighbor to the little fish’s mother, “do you remember that twisted-up snail?”
“Yes, you’re right,” said the mother. “He used to push himself on my baby. God knows what I would do to him!”
“That’s enough, Mother,” said the little fish. “He was my friend.”
“Friendship between a fish and a snail,” said the mother, “I’ve never heard of such a thing!”
“And I’ve never heard of a fish and a snail being enemies,” replied the little fish. “But you all drowned the poor fellow.”
“Let’s not bring up the past,” said the neighbor.
“You brought up the subject yourself,” said the little fish.
“It served him right to be killed,” said the mother. “Have you forgotten the things he used to say everywhere he went?”
“Then,” said the little fish, “kill me too since I’m saying the very same things.”
To make a long story short, the arguing voices attracted the other fish. The little fish’s words angered everyone.
One of the old fish asked, “Did you think we’d pity you?”
“That one just needs a little box on the ears,” said another.
“Go away,” said the black fish’s mother. “Don’t you touch my child.”
Another of them said, “Madam, if you don’t raise your child correctly, you must expect it to be punished.”
The neighbor said, “I’m ashamed to live next to you.”
Another said, “Let’s do to the little fish what we did to the old snail before it gets into trouble.”
When they tried to grab the little black fish, her friends gathered around and took the fish away from the brawl.
The black fish’s mother beat her head and chest and cried, “Oh, my baby is leaving me. What am I going to do? What a curse has fallen upon me!”
“Mother, don’t cry for me. Cry for the old fish who stay behind.”
“Don’t get smart, half-pint!” shouted one of the fish from afar.
“If you go away and afterwards regret it, we won’t let you come back,” said a second.
“These are useful fancies. Don’t go,” said a third.
“What’s wrong with this place?” said a fourth.
“There is no other world. The world is right here. Come back! Said a fifth.
“If you turn reasonable and come back, then we’ll believe you really are an intelligent fish,” said a sixth.
“Wait, we’ve gotten used to having you around …” said a seventh.
The mother cried, “Have mercy on me. Don’t go! Don’t go!”
The little fish didn’t have anything more to say to them. Several friends of the same age accompanied the fish as far as the waterfall. As they parted, the fish said,
“My friends, I hope to see you again. Don’t forget me!”
“How would it be possible to forget you?” asked the friends. “You’ve awakened us from a deep sleep. You’ve taught us many things that we had not even thought about before. We hope to see you again, learned and fearless friend.”
The little fish swam down the waterfall and fell into a pond full of water. At first, the fish lost its balance but after a while began to swim and circled around the pond. The fish had never seen so much water collected in one place.
Thousands of tadpoles were wriggling in the water. They laughed when they saw the little black fish,
“What a funny shape! What kind of creature are you?”
The fish looked them over thoroughly and said, “Please don’t insult me. My name is Little Black Fish. Tell me your names so that we’ll get acquainted.
“We call one another tadpole,” replied one of the tadpoles.
“We come from nobility,” said another.
“You can’t find anyone prettier than us in the whole world,” said another.
“We aren’t shapeless and ugly-faced like you,” said another one.
The fish said, “I never imagined you would be so conceited. That’s all right. I’ll forgive you since you’re speaking out of ignorance.”
In one voice the tadpoles demanded, “Are you saying we’re stupid?”
“If you weren’t ignorant,” replied the fish, “you’d know that there are many others in the world who are pleased with their appearances. You don’t even have names of your own.”
The tadpoles became very angry. But since they knew the little fish spoke truthfully, they changed their tone and said, “really, you’re wasting words! We swim around the world every day from morning till evening, but except for ourselves and our father and mother, we see no one. Of course, there are tiny worms, but they don’t count.”
“You can’t even leave the pond,” said the fish. “How can you talk about traveling around the world?”
“What! Do you think there’s a world other than the pond?” exclaimed the tadpoles.
“At least,” responded the fish, “you must wonder where this water comes from and what things are outside of it.”
“Outside the water!” exclaimed the tadpoles, “Where is that? We’re never seen outside of the water! Haha …haha …You’re crazy!”
Little Black Fish also started to laugh. The fish thought it would be better to leave the tadpoles to themselves and go away, but then changed its mind and decided to speak to their mother.
“Where is your mother?” asked the fish. Suddenly, the deep voice of a frog made the fish jump. The frog was sitting on a rock at the edge of the pond. She jumped into the water, came up to the fish and said:
“I’m right here. What do you want?”
“Hello, Great Lady,” said the fish.
The frog responded “Worthless creature, now is not the time to show off. You’ve found some children to listen to you and are talking pretentiously. I’ve lived long enough to know that the world is this pond. Mind your own business and don’t lead my children astray.”
“If you lived a hundred years,” said the little fish, “you’d still be nothing more than an ignorant and helpless frog.”
The frog got angry and jumped at Little Black Fish. The fish flipped quickly and fled like lightening, stirring up sediment and worms at the bottom of the pond.
The valley twisted and curved. The stream became deeper and wider. But if you looked down at the valley from the top of the mountains, the stream would seem like a white thread. In one place, a piece of large rock had broken off from the mountain, fallen to the bottom of the valley, and split the water into two branches. A large lizard the size of a hand, lay on her stomach on the rock. She was enjoying the sun’s warmth and watching a large, round crab resting on the sand at the bottom or the water in a shallow place and eating a frog he had snared.
The little fish suddenly saw the crab, became frightened, and greeted him from afar. The crab glanced sideways at the fish and said,
“What a polite fish! Come closer, little one. Come on!”
“I’m off to see the world,” said the little fish, “and I never want to be caught by you, sir!”
“Little fish, why are you so pessimistic and scared?” asked the crab.
“I’m neither pessimistic nor afraid,” answered the fish. “I speak about everything I see and understand.”
“Well, then,” said the crab, “please tell me what you’ve seen and understood that makes you think I want to capture you?”
“Don’t try to trick me!” responded the fish.
“Are you referring to the frog?” queried the crab. “How childish you are! I have a grudge against frogs; that’s the reason I hunt them. Do you know, they think they’re the only creatures in the world and that they’re very lucky. I want to make them understand who is really a master in the world! So you don’t have to be afraid, my dear. Come here. Come on.”
As the crab talked, he was walking backwards towards the little fish. His gait was so funny that the fish couldn’t help laughing and said,
“Poor thing! You don’t even know how to walk. How did you ever learn who runs the world?”
The black fish drew back from the crab. A shadow fell upon the water and suddenly a heavy blow pushed the crab into the sand. The lizard laughed so hard at the crab’s expression that she slipped and almost fell into the water. The crab couldn’t get up.
The little fish saw that a young shepherd was standing at the edge of the water watching the fish and the crab. A flock of sheep and goats came up to the water and thrust their mouths in. The valley filled with the sounds of “meh meh” and “bah bah.”
The little black fish waited until the sheep and goats had drunk their water and left, then called the lizard,
“Dear lizard, I’m a little black fish who’s going to search for the end of the stream. I think you’re wise, so, I’d like to ask you something.”
“Ask anything you want.”
“All along the way, they’ve been frightening me a great deal about the pelican, the swordfish and the heron. Do you know anything about them?”
“The swordfish and the heron,” said the lizard, “aren’t found in this area, especially the swordfish who lives in the sea. But it’s possible that the pelican is farther down. Be careful he doesn’t trick you and catch you in his pouch.”
“Under his throat,” explained the lizard, “the pelican has a pouch which holds a lot of water. When the pelican’s swimming, fish, without realizing it, sometimes enter his pouch and then go straight into his stomach. But if the pelican isn’t hungry, he stores the fish in his pouch to eat later.”
“If a fish enters the pouch, is there any way of getting out?” asked the fish.
“There’s no way unless the fish rips open the pouch,” answered the lizard.
“I’m going to give you a dagger so that if you get caught by the pelican, you can do just that.”
Then the lizard crawled into a crack in the rock and returned wit a very sharp dagger. The little fish took the dagger and said:
“Dear lizard, you are so kind! I don’t know how to thank you.”
“It’s not necessary to thank me, my dear. I have many of these daggers. When I have nothing to do, I sit down and make daggers from blades of grass and give them to smart fish like you.”
“What?” asked the fish, “Have other fish passed here before me?”
“Many have passed by,” the lizard replied. “They’ve formed themselves into a school and they give the fisherman a hard time.”
“Excuse me for talking so much,” said the black fish, “but if you don’t think me meddlesome, tell me how they give the fisherman a hard time.
“Well,” answered the lizard, “they stick together. Whenever the fisherman throws his net, they get inside, pull the net with them, and drag it to the bottom of the sea.”
The lizard placed her ear on the crack, listened and said, “I must excuse myself now. My children have awakened.” The lizard went into the crack in the rock. The black fish had no choice but to set out again. But all the while there were many questions on the fish’s mind. “Is it true that the stream flows to the sea? If only the pelican doesn’t catch me! Is it true the swordfish enjoys killing and eating its own kind? Why is the heron our enemy?”
The little fish continued swimming and thinking, In every stretch of the way the fish saw and learned new things. How the fish liked turning somersaults, tumbling down waterfalls, and swimming again. The fish felt the warmth of the sun and grew strong. At one place a deer was hastily drinking some water. The little fish greeted her.
“Pretty deer, why are you in such a hurry?”
“A hunter is following me,” replied the deer. “I’ve been hit by a bullet … right here!”
The little fish didn’t see the bullet hole, but from the deer’s limping gait knew she was telling the truth.
At one place turtles were napping in the sun’s warmth. At another place the boisterous noise of partridges twisted through the valley. The fragrance of mountain grass floated through the air and mixed with the water. In the afternoon the fish reached a spot where the valley widened and the water passed through the center of a grove of trees. There was so much water that the little black fish had a really good time.
Later on, the fish came upon a school of fish. The little fish had not seen any other fish since leaving home. Several tiny fish surrounded Little Black Fish and said:
“You must be a stranger here!”
“Yes,” responded the black fish, “I’m a stranger. I’ve come from far away.”
“Where do you want to go?” asked the tiny fish.
“I’m going to find the end of the stream,” replied the black fish.
“This very stream we’re swimming in,” answered the black fish.
“We call this a river,” stated the tiny fish.
The black fish didn’t say anything.
“Don’t you know that the pelican lives along the way?” inquired one of the tiny fish.
“Yes, I know,” answered the black fish.
“Do you know what a big wide pouch the pelican has?” asked another.
“I know that too,” replied the black fish.
“In spite of all this, you still want to go?” exclaimed the tiny fish.
“Yes,” said the black fish, “whatever happens, I must go.”
Soon a rumor spread among all the fish that a little black fish had come from far away and wanted to find the end of the river. And the fish wasn’t even afraid of the pelican! Several tiny fish were tempted to go with the black fish but didn’t because they were afraid of the grown-ups. Others said, “If there weren’t a pelican, we would come with you. We’re afraid of the pelican’s pouch.”
A village was on the edge of the river. Village women and girls were washing dishes and clothes in the river. The little fish listened to their chatter for a while and watched the children bathing, then set off. The fish went on and on and on, still farther on, until night fell, then lay down under a rock to sleep. The fish woke in the middle of the night and saw the moon shining into the water and lighting up everything. The little black fish liked the moon very much. On nights when the moon shone into the water, the fish longed to creep out from under the moss and speak with her. But Mother would always wake up, pull the fish under the moss, and make it go to sleep again.
The little fish looked up at the moon and said
“Hello, my lovely moon!”
“Hello, Little Black Fish. What brings you here?”
“I’m traveling around the world.”
“The world is very big,” said the moon. “You can’t travel everywhere.”
“That’s okay,” said the fish. “I’ll go everywhere I can.”
“I’d like to stay with you till morning,” said the moon, “but a big black cloud is coming toward me to block out my light.”
“Beautiful moon! I like your light so much. I wish you’d always shine on me.”
“My dear fish, the truth is, I don’t have any light of my own. The sun gives me light and I reflect it to the earth. Tell me, have you heard that humans want to fly up and land on me in a few years?”
“That’s impossible,” exclaimed the fish.
“It’s a difficult task,” said the moon, “but whatever they want, humans can …”
The moon couldn’t finish her sentence. The dark cloud approached and covered her face.
The night became dark again, and the black fish was alone. The fish looked at the darkness in surprise and amazement for several seconds, then crept under a rock and fell asleep.
The fish woke up early in the morning and saw overhead several tiny fish chattering. When they saw that the black fish was awake, they said in one voice:
The black fish recognized them right away and said, “Good morning! You followed me after all!”
“Yes,” answered one of the tiny fish, “but we’re still afraid.”
“The thought of the pelican just won’t go away,” said another.
“You worry too much,” said the black fish. “One shouldn’t worry all the time. Let’s start out and our fears will vanish completely.”
But as they were about to set out, they felt the water all around them rise up and a lid was placed over them. It was dark everywhere and there was no way to escape. The black fish immediately realized that they had been caught in the pelican’s pouch.
“My friends,” said the little black fish, “we’ve been caught in the pelican’s pouch, but there’s a chance to escape.”
All the tiny fish began to cry. One of them said, “There’s no way to escape! It’s your fault since you influenced us and led us astray.”
“Now he’s going to swallow us all, and then we’ll die,” said another.
Suddenly the sound of frightening laughter twisted through the water. It was the pelican. He kept on laughing and said, “What tiny fish I’ve caught! Ha. Ha. Truly, my heart bleeds for you. I don’t want to swallow you! Ha, Ha …”
The tiny fish began pleading, “Your Excellency, Mr. Pelican! We’ve been hearing about you for a long time. If you’d be so kind as to open your distinguished beak a little so that we might go out, we’ll always be grateful to you.”
“I don’t want to swallow you right now,” said the pelican. “I’ve some fish stored. Look below.”
Several large and tiny fish were scattered on the bottom of the pouch.
“Your Excellency, Mr. Pelican!” cried the tiny fish, “we haven’t done anything. We’re innocent. This little black fish led us astray …”
“Cowards!” exclaimed the little black fish, “are you crying like this because you think this dishonest bird is merciful?”
“You don’t know what you’re saying,” said the tiny fish. “Just wait and see … His Excellency, Mr. Pelican, will pardon us and swallow you!”
“Of course I’ll pardon you,” said the pelican. “But on one condition.”
“Your condition, please, sir!” begged the tiny fish.
“Strangle that meddlesome fish, and then you’ll get your freedom.”
The little black fish moved aside and said to the tiny fish,
“Don’t agree! This deceitful bird wants to turn us against each other. I have a plan …”
But the tiny fish were so intent on saving themselves that they couldn’t think of anything else. They advanced towards the little black fish who was sitting near the back of the pouch and talking slowly.
“Cowards! Whatever happens, you’ve been caught and don’t have a way to escape. And you’re not strong enough to hurt me.”
“We must strangle you,” said the tiny fish.
“We want freedom!”
“You’ve lost your senses,” said the black fish. “Even if you strangle me, you won’t escape. Don’t fall for his tricks…”
“You’re talking like this just to save yourself,” said the tiny fish. “Otherwise you wouldn’t think of us at all.”
“Just listen,” said the black fish, “and I’ll explain. I’ll pretend I’m dead. Then, we’ll see whether or not the pelican will free you. If you don’t agree to this, I’ll kill all of you with this dagger or rip open the pouch and escape while you …” “Enough!” interrupted one of the fish. “I can’t stand this talk. Oh, wee …oh, wee …oh wee …”>
“Why did you ever bring along this crybaby?” demanded the black fish upon seeing him cry. Then the fish took out the dagger and held it in front of the tiny fish. Helpless, they agreed to the little fish’s suggestion. They pretended to be fighting together. The black fish pretended to be dead. The others went forward and said, “Your Excellency, Mr. Pelican, we strangled the meddlesome black fish …” “Good work!” laughed the pelican. “Now, as a reward, I’m going to swallow all of you alive so that you can have a nice stroll in my stomach!”
The tiny fish never had a chance. Quick as lightening they passed through the pelican’s throat and were gone. But, at that very instant, the black fish drew the dagger, split open the wall of the pouch with one blow and fled. The pelican cried out in pain and smashed his head on the water but he couldn’t follow after the little fish.
The black fish went on and on and still farther on until it was noon. The river had passed through the mountains and valleys and now was flowing across a level plain. Several other smaller rivers had joined it from the right and the left, increasing its water greatly. The black fish was enjoying the immensity of the water.
Soon the fish realized the water had no bottom. The fish swam this way and that way and didn’t touch anywhere. There was so much water that the little fish got lost in it! No matter how far the fish swam, still the water was endless. Suddenly, the fish noticed a large, long creature charging forward like lightening. There was a two-edged sword in front of its mouth. The little fish thought, “The swordfish! He’s going to cut me to pieces this very instant!”
Quickly the fish jumped out of the way and swam to the surface. After a while the fish went under the water again to look for the bottom. On the way the fish met a school of fish-thousands and thousands of fish.
“Friend,” said the fish to one of them, “I’m a stranger. I’ve come from far away. Where is this place?”
The fish called his friends and said, “Look! Another …” Then replied to the black fish, “Friend, welcome to the sea.”
Another said, “All rivers and streams flow here, except some which flow into swamps.”
“You can join our group anytime you wish,” said one of the fish.
The little black fish was happy to have reached the sea and said, “I’d like to travel around first, then I’ll come join your group. I’d like to be with you the next time you pull down the fisherman’s net.”
“You’ll get your wish soon,” answered one of the fish. “Now go explore. But if you swim to the surface, watch out for the heron who isn’t afraid of anyone these days. She doesn’t stop bothering us till she’s caught four or five fish a day.”
The black fish then left the group of sea fish and began swimming. A little later the fish came to the surface of the sea. A warm sun was shining. The little black fish enjoyed feeling the sun’s bright rays on its back. Calm and happy, the fish was swimming on the surface of the sea and thinking, “Death could come upon me very easily now. But as long as I’m able to live, I shouldn’t go out to meet death. Of course, if someday I should be forced to face death-as I shall-it doesn’t matter. What does matter is the influence that my life or death will have on the lives of others . . .”
The little black fish wasn’t able to pursue these thoughts. A heron dived down, swooped up the fish, and carried it off. Caught in the heron’s long beak, the little fish kicked and waved but couldn’t get free. The heron had grabbed the fish’s waist so tightly that its life was ebbing away. After all, how long can a little fish stay alive out of water?
“If only the heron would swallow me this very instant,” thought the fish, “then the water and moisture inside her stomach would prevent my death at least for a few minutes.”
The fish addressed the heron with this thought in mind. “Why don’t you swallow me alive? I’m one of those fish whose body becomes full of poison after death.”
The heron didn’t reply. She thought, “Oh, a tricky one! What are you up to? You want to get me talking so you can escape!”
Dry land was visible in the distance. It got closer and closer.
“If we reach dry land,” thought the fish, “all is finished.”
“I know you want to take me to your children,” said the fish, “but by the time we reach land, I’ll be dead, and my body will become a sack full of poison. Why don’t you have pity for your children?”
“Precaution is also a virtue!” thought the heron. “I can eat you myself and catch another fish for my children… but let’s see… could this be a trick? No, you can’t do anything.”
As the heron thought she noticed that the black fish’s body was limp and motionless. “Does this mean you’re dead,” thought the heron. “Now I can’t even eat you! I’ve ruined such a soft and delicate fish for no reason at all!”
“Hey little one!” she called to the black fish. “Are you still half alive so that I can eat you?”
But she didn’t finish speaking because the moment she opened her beak, the black fish jumped and fell down.
The heron realized how badly she’d been tricked and dived after the little black fish. The fish streaked through the air like lightening. The fish had lost its senses from thirst for sea water and thrust its dry mouth into the moist wind of the sea. But as soon as the fish splashed into the water and took a new breath, the heron caught up and this time swallowed the fish so fast that the fish didn’t understand what had happened.
The fish only sensed that everywhere was wet and dark. There was no way out. The sound of crying could be heard. When the fish’s eyes had become accustomed to the dark, it saw a tiny fish crouched in a corner, crying. He wanted his mother. The black fish approached and said:
“Little one!… Get up! Think about what we should do. What are you crying for? Why do you want your mother?”
“You there…Who are you?” responded the tiny fish. “Can’t you see? …I’m …dy…ing. O, me …oh, my …oh, oh …mama …I …I can’t come with you to pull the fisherman’s net to the bottom of the sea any more …oh, oh …oh, oh!”
“Enough, there!” said the little fish. “You’ll disgrace all fish.”
After the tiny fish had controlled his crying, the little fish continued, “I want to kill the heron and find peace of mind to all fish. But first, I must send you outside so that you don’t ruin everything.”
“You’re dying yourself,” replied the tiny fish. “How can you kill the heron?”
The little fish showed the dagger. “From right inside here, I’m going to rip open her stomach. Now listen to what I say. I’m going to start tossing back and forth in order to tickle the heron. As soon as she opens her mouth and begins to laugh, you jump out.”
“Then what about you?” asked the tiny fish.
“Don’t worry about me. I’m not coming out until I’ve killed this good-for-nothing.”
The black fish stopped talking and began tossing back and forth and tickling the heron’s stomach. The tiny fish was standing ready at the entrance of the heron’s stomach. As soon as the heron opened her mouth and began to laugh, the tiny fish jumped out and fell into the water. But no matter how long he waited, there wasn’t any sign of the black fish. Suddenly, he saw the heron twist and turn and cry out. Then she began to beat her wings and fell down. She splashed into the water. She beat her wings again, then all movement stopped. But there was no sign of Little Black Fish, and since that time, nothing has been heard.
The old fish finished her tale and said to her 12,000 children and grandchildren, “Now it’s time to sleep, children. Go to bed.”
“Grandmother!” exclaimed the children and grand-children, “You didn’t say what happened to that tiny fish.”
“We’ll leave that for tomorrow night,” said the old fish. “Now, it’s time for bed. Goodnight.”
Eleven thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine little fish said goodnight and went to sleep. The grandmother fell asleep too. But try as she might, a little red fish couldn’t get to sleep. All night long she thought about the sea…..
*Published with the permission of Iran Chamber Society
I learned of the character of drugs and the nature of poisons from an alchemist – an Arab alchemist from the outskirts of Baghdad who had come to work as a physician in the palace of one of Van’s magistrates. This alchemist guided me to the knowledge of every herb from which lethal poison could be extracted.
He opened every sealed door to me and revealed all the secrets of alchemy, except how to mix mercury and lead! Since the dawn of time, it has been the alchemists’ practice never to reveal that secret nor that of converting base metal into gold. In the end, however, and before I had fully satisfied my thirst for knowledge, that Arab alchemist swore by the mausoleum of Sheikh Abdel Qadir Jilani that the amalgam of mercury and lead was a pure lie. They could never be blended, he said, and one who did so would reign over East and West.
The tale of my mother’s slaughter and what followed
My father – known by the name of Berzine Alchakordi – killed my mother in front of my eyes when I was a ten-year-old child. A dagger in his hand, he was bellowing like a bull: “Whore! You have defiled my honour!”
I didn’t understand what was going on nor why my father was so enraged. I was crammed in a corner of our small house, hiding behind the curtain and slyly peeping at their quarrel. I didn’t think my father would kill my beautiful young mother. Yet my thoughts were killed when my mother was killed. My father was still raging and holding my mother’s severed head when I escaped. I ran and ran, not looking back, until dusk; the sun sinking behind the mountains seemed like a severed head. I haven’t met my father again since. I thought he would kill me too if he saw me.
In a city about thirty or forty parasangs away, I fell into the hands of a gang of bandits and hashish fiends. I became the boy in whose inkwell they dipped their nibs to inscribe their lusts on my back. I suffered greatly to begin with, but got used to it after so many times and started to take some pleasure.
I was attractive and handsome, nicely plump and with glossy flesh. I feared the men and I wanted them to protect me. The cost of sheltering me and shattering the jar of fears in which I cowered was for them to quench their burning lust inside my body. Then I started wanting it, and if there was no one there to do it with, I would roam the alleys and proposition dervishes. They recognized boys like me and seized the first opportunity, throwing their beggar’s bags behind a rock and inviting me to follow them down into the valley. Once a dervish saw my smooth naked body, he would exalt, stuff his long beard in his mouth, and push his plough through my furrow.
I grew up like that, surrounded by bandits and hashish addicts in the village, and I started frequenting inns. Isolated inns far from the cities were a den for homosexuals, fornicators, merchants, Mullahs, students of jurisprudence, and every no-good sort. From the first glance I could pick out those who liked boys; their looks, their way of staring at the boys’ buttocks, the glint in the eyes, the spittle in the corners of the mouth…all that revealed they were sodomites.
My first victim:
One summer I was on my way to Diyarbakir. I had crossed the Mourad river and was welcomed by the Mouch plain. It was nightfall and I was exhausted, so dozy the drowsiness of a whole city was attacking my eyes. I couldn’t shake off the sleepiness no matter what I did. True, I was wearing my dagger tucked below my belt, but thieves on the road are many. I had to have a rest and get a little sleep. That night was gloomy and dark except for someone’s fire to which I was strongly attracted. All the fear of sinners and robbers filling my heart dissolved like a pinch of salt and the fire drew me like a magnet.
In short, I approached the fire and glimpsed the ruins of an inn, but nobody was by the fire. I recited some verses, thinking it was probably the work of the jinn or spirits. Fear gripped me and I thought of leaving that place, when I heard a clattering from the ruined inn followed by a human voice shouting, “Who’s there, is it human or jinn?”
He sounded no less afraid than me, and my fear vanished. “I’m human like you.” I called out. “A traveller on the road.” I headed towards the ruins of the inn, leaving the dying fire behind me. I and that man could barely see each other as it was pitch dark inside the inn except for the light of some stars and that almost dead fire.
No longer feeling afraid, the urge to sleep assailed me again. Without even letting the man ask my name and origin, I said, “I’m going to faint from lack of sleep. I’ve been walking a whole half day and I’m exhausted. Do you mind if I spend the night here?”
“Ace! And why, young man, would I mind? The inn is deserted and not my property. God has blessed me and sent you this night. I would have found the place desolate all on my own.”
He then withdrew into a corner, took off his shoes, and put them under his head. The handle of his dagger gleamed in the pale light . I desired him, so I went and lay down next to him. I took off my shoes and rested my head on them like him.
After an hour, I felt his hand running over my body, stroking every part of it. I kept calm and the man went further and caressed one curvaceous buttock. When he saw I was quiescent and did not object he fumbled for the drawstring of my trousers and hurriedly untied the knot. From behind, my hand fell on his hot cock, stiff as a tent peg! Aroused by flames of lust, I took off my trousers. Everything happened under the cloak of darkness and silence. Sexual pleasure heightens when one is half-asleep, so I kept my eyes shut while the man, whose face I still hadn’t seen, pulled me close and banged in his tent peg with consummate skill.
I had spent hundreds of nights like that one, but I had never met a man with such a thirst for sex. As soon as he finished with me, he turned on to his back, fell asleep, and started to snore.
Out of the eastern window I spied the full moon. I’d been afraid of the moon since infancy, and didn’t dare look too long at it. My mother would say: “One who looks too long at the moon or in the mirror will go mad!”
I put on my trousers, tying them tightly around my waist, and got up to cast an eye outside. I turned towards him and looked carefully at his face, then I started screaming at the top of my lungs.
That man was my father. His beard had gone white a little, but his face was as I remembered it: round with a flat nose and thick eyebrows.
Startled by such a high-pitched scream, he jumped to his feet in panic, fumbling for the handle of his dagger. When he saw me straight on he said in a shaky voice, “Who are you?”
I pulled out my dagger and leaned against the window. I saw sparks of death fly from his eyes and reflect in the glow of the moon. It was him, definitely him, with his frame, his voice, his stature. It was my father!
For a while I was dumbstruck then I said, “It’s better not to recognize me.”
But he replied with a voice that could split granite: “Who are you, boy? Come on tell me your name and your clan!”
I stepped forward and said, “I am your son. I am Yaouz. Yaouz, whose mother you slaughtered before his eyes. I am your son who, because of you, has spent his life wandering in the wilderness! Your son who…”
He didn’t let me finish and, like a wild boar, attacked me with his dagger as he said, “Son of that whore, you’re still alive! I spent ten years looking for you.”
He stabbed me in the face, but when I lunged at him, he ducked and stepped back, and the blow went wide. He attacked again, repeatedly stabbing me in the face. I stabbed him in the neck and we exchanged thrusts until I killed him. I was drained, exhausted, by multiple cuts to the face. My lips were slit. One final blow had reached my chest without penetrating deep. Although none of my wounds were serious, I slipped into unconsciousness and remained sprawled in that deserted inn.
*An excerpt from the novel Mirnameh – Poet and Prince by
She’s getting naked. Something either very bad or very good is happening. Happening to me. Whatever it is, my parents can’t find out. I’m at a friend’s house. Nothing strange there. But my new friend, half gringa, half local, is taking off her uniform, her sports bra, her thong, her shoes. She leaves on her socks, short ones, with a little pink ball at the heel. She’s naked, her back to me, staring at her closet.
It’s awkward and dazzling. Painful. My head down like an ashamed dog, an ugly, short-legged dog, I try to look the same as I did a moment before, when we were both dressed, when that image, the one of her body, hadn’t exploded like a thousand fireworks in my brain. Diana Ward-Espinoza. Sixteen years old. A meter eighty tall. Star player on the volleyball team at her school in the United States. Radioactive green cat eyes. The bright white smile of the people from up there.
Diana, pronounced Dayana in gringo, talks and talks, always, nonstop, mixing English and Spanish or making up a third language, very funny, making me squeal with laughter. With her, I laugh as if there were nothing wrong at my house, as if my dad loved me like a dad. I laugh as if I weren’t me, but a girl who sleeps peacefully. I laugh as if brutality didn’t exist.
She repeats the words the teachers say like tongue twisters and never gets them right. Maybe it’s because of this, because they think she’s dumb, or because she lives in a little apartment and not in a majestic house, or because her mom is the English teacher at the school and so she doesn’t pay tuition or because she jogs through the neighborhood in tiny shorts, blue with a white line that makes a V on her thighs. Because of all that, or for some other obscure hierarchical logic of the popular girls, no groups have accepted her. She’s blonde, white, she has green eyes, her tiny nose is dotted with golden freckles, but no group has accepted her.
They haven’t accepted me either, but with me, it’s the same as always: fat, dark, glasses, hairy, ugly, strange.
One day our last names are paired up in computer class. One right next to the other. That’s everything. I learn that BFF means Best Friends Forever.
Then we’re best friends forever. Then she invites me to her house to study. Then I tell my mom I’m going to spend the night at Diana’s. Then we’re in her tiny room and she’s naked. She turns around to cover her cream-colored body with a denim dress. She turns on music. She dances. Behind her, the gigantic American flag on her wall.
Covered in a fine white fuzz, her skin has the appearance, the delicacy, of a peach. She talks about boys, she likes my brother, about the exam we have the next day, philosophy, about the teacher, he’s funny, but what the fuck is being? About how she’s never going to understand things like I do, about how I’m the smartest person she’s ever met and about how she, okay, let’s be honest, she’s good at sports.
She stops in front of the mirror, less than a meter away from me, on her bed, pretending to be absorbed in the philosophy textbook. If I wanted to, and I do, I could reach out my index finger and touch her hipbones, sliding down to where her pubic hair starts, I’ve never seen golden pubes, and find out if what glimmers there is wetness.
She ties up her ringlets, like Mary had a little lamb, she paints her lips with a gloss that smells like bubble gum and she criticizes her hair, her ears, a pimple I say I can’t see. But I can’t look at her and she notices and she complains: you’re not even looking at me, stop studying, you already understand what being is.
She grabs my chin and raises my head to make me look at her. I smell the bubble gum on her lips. I hear my heart beating. I stop breathing.
“See this pimple? Here? Do you see it?”
My tongue is stuck to the roof of my mouth. I swallow sand. I nod.
We have lunch with her brother Mitch, her twin, who is so handsome that my jaw falls open when I have to talk to him. He’s had football practice. He takes off his sweaty shirt and doesn’t put on a new one. We eat alone, like a family of three. Diana sets the table, I pour the Coca-Cola, and Mitch mixes the pasta with sauce and heats it in a pot.
I suppose that their parents, both of them, are working. I know that Miss Diana, her mom, my English teacher, has another job in the afternoon at a language school. I don’t know anything about the dad. I don’t ask. I never ask about dads. They tell me that Miss Diana leaves food for them in the morning, that she isn’t a good cook. It’s horrible. We cover our plates in Kraft parmesan cheese and we laugh hysterically.
Mitch has an exam too, but he doesn’t want to study. In the dining room, which is also the living room, there are photos on the walls. Mitch and Diana, little, dressed as sunflowers. Miss Diana, thin and young, in front of a house with a mailbox. A black dog, Kiddo, next to a baby, Mitch. The kids at Christmas, surrounded by presents. Miss Diana pregnant. Diana, in white, at her First Communion.
There’s something sad in these photos, it’s in the lighting, typical of gringo photos from the seventies: maybe too many pastel colors, maybe the distance, maybe everything that isn’t pictured. I feel a sadness that doesn’t belong to me. Mine is there, but this is a different one. This life—the sunflower children, the beautiful baby beside the black dog, everything that looks so perfect—isn’t going to turn out so well. No. Despite their blond heads, their athletic bodies, their pink cheeks and their bright eyes, it’s not going to turn out so well.
There’s something desperate, somber, about Diana, about Mitch, about me, about this little apartment where three teenagers are sitting on the floor listening to music.
We play records: The Mamas & The Papas, The Doors, Fleetwood Mac, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, The Moody Blues, Van Morrison, Joan Baez.
Diana tells me how her parents went to Woodstock and she pulls out a photo album where, finally, there’s a picture of her father. Mr. Mitchell Ward: red mustache, long hair tied with a headband. Ultra gringo, as big and beautiful as his kids, looking at a girl, Miss Diana, almost unrecognizable so smiling, so natural.
Then, behind that page, there’s another photo that makes us all go silent: the dad, dressed as a soldier: Lieutenant Mitchell Ward.
He went to Vietnam.
The two of them, Diana and Mitch, say the words at the same time, like a single person with a voice that is both masculine and feminine.
He went to Vietnam.
He went to Nam.
The shadow reemerges, that suffocating lack of light, a silence like an angry sea. The three of us hug our knees and look at the record player. The Doors play, we like them. We sing a little and Diana translates: People are strange when you’re a stranger / faces are ugly when you’re alone. Mitch puts on Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks and during the song “Madame George” I lie down across Diana’s legs. Mitch rests his head on my stomach. We play with each other’s hair.
No one studies that afternoon. We listen to Mr. Mitchell Ward’s music, we take turns changing the records and putting them carefully back into their plastic sleeves, into their album covers and into their spots on the shelf. The movement is slow and sacramental. I imagine that the kids hadn’t been able to say goodbye to their father and that this, lying on the floor and listening to his beloved records, is the prettiest goodbye in the world. And I’m part of it and my heart bursts.
When “Mr. Tambourine Man” comes on Diana cries. I feel for her hand and I kiss it with a love so intense that I feel like it’s going to kill me. She bends down, she rocks me, she finds my mouth and just like that, listening to Bob Dylan, and through tears, I give, I am given, my first kiss.
Mitch watches us. He sits up, he leans over, he kisses me and he kisses his sister. The three of us kiss desperately, like orphans, like castaways. Hungry puppies licking up the last drops of milk in the universe. The harmonica plays Hey Mr. Tambourine Man play a song for me. We sit in the twilight. This is happening. There’s nothing more important in the world.
We are the world.
We’re almost naked when, from the other side of the door, Miss Diana rummages in her purse, looks for her key, rings the bell, calls to her kids in English.
Diana and I run to her room. Mitch goes into the bathroom. We’ve grabbed all our clothes, but the record is still playing. Miss Diana, brutally, removes the needle and the apartment goes silent. When she opens the bedroom door, Diana and I are pretending to study. Mitch comes out of the bathroom, wrapped in a towel, with his hair wet. No one admits to having put the record on. Their father’s record. The records of Lieutenant Ward, who was in Nam.
Shouting in English. Miss Diana is very red and looks like she’s about to cry or to burst into a thousand pieces. I hear words I don’t understand and others that I do know the meaning of, words like fucking and fuck and records and father. The kids deny everything and she walks over to Diana. Her hand is open, she’s about to hit her, and I, desperate with love, shout for Miss to stop, that it was me, I put the record on. She doesn’t know what to do or say. Her hand is frozen in the air like the Statue of Liberty without a torch and she remembers that she’s my teacher and that I’ve seen her do something she shouldn’t have done, something that stays within the walls of houses, something parents do to their kids when no one is looking.
She leaves without a word.
Diana looks at me. I look at her. I want to hug her, to kiss her, to take her away from there.
She pulls back her hair and says:
“We’d better start studying for philosophy.”
We stay up all night studying or pretending to study. She, who doesn’t understand any of it, falls asleep in the early morning and I, in the dim light, study her. She looks like Ophelia, from the painting, and also like She-Ra, He-Man’s sister. I pull off the covers to look at her whole body: I wish I were so tiny I could crawl through her half-open lips and live inside her forever. Even the chipped nail polish on her toenails moves me, it excites me, it captivates me. I’d kiss her every pore.
I’m no longer me.
I fall asleep. I dream that Diana is being chased by some black dogs, that she asks me for help and I can’t do anything. I hear screams, a man’s screams. Even with my eyes open I still hear them. I want to get up, but Diana hugs me tightly and whispers: It’s okay. It’s okay.
Daylight arrives with its sounds. Clinking dishes, cleaning up, and, finally, the door slamming behind the mother. Diana gets dressed without showing me her body, but as I’m putting on my uniform she turns around, lowers the zipper a little, and writes on my back with the tip of her finger then zips me back up. She smiles. I wear an I love you on my back.
I tell Diana that I have to go to the bathroom. She tells me that I’ll have to wait to go at school. That’s impossible. I got my period in the night, I need to pee, my stomach is upset. I can’t wait.
I have to go.
The apartment has two bathrooms. One, for guests, is in the living room, and the other is through the master bedroom, behind the door that’s always closed. Mitch is in the front bathroom and Diana says that her brother takes a long time and I’m too embarrassed to ask him to hurry up. I can’t do it, much less after yesterday, I can still feel Mitch Ward’s lips on my loser neck and my loser belly. I’d rip off my hand before I knocked on that door.
But I can’t wait any longer, I’m cold, I break out in a cold sweat, I have goosebumps. My legs feel weak.
I have to go.
Diana insists: I should go at school, that I can’t use her parents’ bathroom, that even she isn’t allowed in there, but I know I won’t make it, that I’ll shit my pants on the way to school and the uniform is white and I’ll die.
It’s urgent. I can’t wait any more. I’m not well.
I have to go.
She pulls me out of the house. Let’s go, there are bathrooms at school, we’ll be there in just a minute. My forehead is drenched in sweat. It’s about to happen, I’m going to shit myself. I tell her that I forgot my book and I go back into the house. I press my legs together, god, help me. The only thing I can think about is getting to a bathroom to keep from shitting myself, so that Diana and Mitch won’t see me stained with my own excrement. I have to get to a bathroom or I’ll die. If I shit myself I’ll never love or be loved again.
I open the door to the master bedroom. Inside it looks like an aquarium filled with thick water, embalming fluid. Threads of dust float in the air and there’s a smell that’s stifling, itchy. Sour and sweet and rotten, tear gas, a thousand cigarettes, urine, lemons, bleach, raw meat, milk, hydrogen peroxide, blood. A smell that does not come from an empty room, from a master bedroom.
I’m about to soil my underwear, this is the only thing that gives me courage, the only reason I take another step into that smell that’s now like a living creature violently slapping me. Another step. Another. Now I’m feeling nauseated, now it smells like when there’s a dead animal on the side of the road, but I’m already tangled in the guts of that animal, inside it.
I’m dizzy. I grab onto something and that something is a table and that table has a lamp on it which falls and breaks to pieces on the floor. Then, springing up from the bed, with the speed and force of a wave, a lump knocks me to the ground. I can’t see. The light is weak, sickly. I don’t know what’s on top of me. Some shapeless, terrifying thing has fallen on top of me. It’s on my chest and I can’t move. I try to scream but no sound comes out.
It has a head, it’s a monster. Its face, with angry yellow teeth, is stuck to mine. It smells like carrion. It mutters things I don’t understand, makes animal noises, grunts, snorts, it drools on me. It paws at my neck and squeezes and I see in those red eyes that it’s going to kill me, that it hates me and I’m going to die. I’m going to die.
Please, I say inside my head, please.
Then Diana comes to the door, Diana She-Ra, He-Man’s sister, my savior, comes to the door and shouts something I can’t understand and the beast that’s strangling me raises its head toward her and lets go of me.
I start to scream, I vomit, I piss myself and empty my bowels, there, on the carpet.
The light that comes in through the open door lets me see what was on top of me, killing me. Lying on the floor, it looks like a panting pillow.
She approaches it. She doesn’t even look at me. She picks him up and I see stumps waving just below his thighs and under his left elbow. Diana tucks him in bed like some atrocious child, who in reality is an emaciated, bald man, with bulging eyes and waxy skin. His right arm, the veins of his right arm, are covered in scabs and red wounds. She rocks him and comforts him and kisses his forehead, as he cries and they both repeat over and over I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.
I stand up as best I can. Mitch is in the door, looking at me hatefully. I go out into the living room, I dial the number to my house. My dad answers. I hang up the phone.
I walk to my grandma’s house. There, I lie, I tell her I’m sick, that I couldn’t hold it, that I shit my pants at school. Yes, that’s what happened. As I shower, I cry so hard my chest hurts.
Philosophy is the last exam of our last year of high school. My mom writes an excuse for my absence so I can retake the test another day. I get the highest score. I find out that Diana won’t be graduating with us, she didn’t show up for the exam. They say she’s going back to the United States.
I call her. She doesn’t answer my calls.
I wait by the telephone. She doesn’t call.
I never hear anything else about her. Until recently. I open my Facebook page and find a message from a former high school classmate:
“Hello, I’m sorry to give you this news, but, did you know that Diana Ward was killed in an attack in Afghanistan? She and her wife were in the U.S. Army. I wanted to let you know because I remember that you were good friends. How sad, isn’t it?”
In the geography lesson the teacher, Mr. Levy, was talking about the Yarkon, and for this reason Hefzibah locked herself in the Girls’ Room during the morning recess.
At the beginning of the lesson, the teacher announced that the class was going to study the Yarkon and “when we’ve finished, we’ll make a field trip to the headwaters of the river to see for ourselves how things are running.” And while the class was still laughing, and the teacher was saying that they wouldn’t be able to visit the Fortress of Antipater because the area was still mined, images rose in her mind of a visit she had made with her mother and brother to the Yarkon Hospital in Tel Aviv four years earlier, images suffused with an element of remoteness and disjunction because of some turbidity which screened them from her. They were nevertheless vivid and sharp and burdened her with painful guilt feelings. A strong light spilled into the room through the windows facing south—it was early afternoon—and the whiteness of the walls dazzled her. Because of the glare, she chose to reexamine for a moment the darkness of the night before, when she was startled out of her sleep and didn’t understand what the commotion was all about and what her father’s bridge partners were doing in the house. Later she was able to discern the doctor passing by her bed in the anteroom leading to her parents’ bedroom, and in some vague way began to realize that something serious had happened. Hefzibah asked herself if she had gone back to sleep that night and remembered that the next day the British declared a curfew, scheduled to start at four in the afternoon and include the entire country, and that before her mother climbed into the ambulance she told her that she wasn’t sure she would be back by four and that she should take care of her small brother and give him lunch. Hefzibah recalled the terrible tension which had wracked her the whole day and so she switched her thoughts back to the white room. The light that had dazzled her focused her glance on the black spot on the pillow: thin straight hair parted on the left and combed over the right temple.
“The mills on the river, Hefzibah!” The voice of Mr. Levy, the teacher, suddenly burst upon her and she turned her head in his direction. Her eyes glazed, curtained by those distant images, and she said nothing.
“Again you’re not paying attention, Hefzibah,” he chided her. Hefzibah lowered her eyes and returned to the scenes in her mind. It was in the fifth grade, she remembered, and her home teacher, Dr. Eisner, who was their neighbor and her parents’ friend, left at the end of that year and moved with his family to the new Rasco housing project on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, right next to the Yarkon. During the summer vacation, when she went to visit him with her little brother, the bus took them past that same hospital and she remembered being struck by some kind of momentary fear which froze the flow of her exhilaration. The family was happy to see them and Dr. Eisner, her former teacher, took them and his own children rowing on the Yarkon. Her brother was very frightened and wouldn’t let go of her hand.
Esther Strauss, who was her best friend and sat next to her, nudged her suddenly and she heard the teacher ask: “Have any of you ever gone rowing on the Yarkon?” But Hefzibah didn’t raise her hand, and her eyes went back to the glaring light, to the dazzling whiteness, and she remembered how frightened she was of looking at him—he was so strange and unfamiliar, covered up to the neck with a stiff starched sheet, his head on the pillow: the black spot where his hair was and his white face with a bluish hue on his cheeks. Hefzibah clearly remembered that she had been more interested in the good-looking boy lying on the next bed than she had been in her father, and her pencil sketched the memory on the piece of paper on her desk: a room, a row of beds, a head on a pillow. Only the face escaped her and she couldn’t understand how she had forgotten it so quickly—after only two weeks—and she asked herself why the features were so blurred: the eyes, the nose, the lips, the wrinkles—everything had been sucked into an elliptical void resembling an ancient theatrical mask, perhaps a Greek one like the mask she had once seen in a book. The name of the book slipped her mind.
Mr. Levy, the teacher, said: “Hefzibah, instead of paying attention you have been doodling the whole time.” Hefzibah said: “I’m not doodling, Mr. Levy, I’m drawing.” The teacher lost his temper and said: “Talking back again, are you? For tomorrow you can copy Psalm 82 one hundred times.” Hefzibah shrugged her shoulders and remembered that Dr. Eisner, her teacher in the fifth grade, had been sympathetic, had never reprimanded her. On the contrary, he would jokingly tell the class that Hefzibah could do anything, even listen and draw at the same time. It really didn’t bother him that she drew during class. That’s why Hefzibah showed him the journal she kept where she had written about Impressionism and why Van Gogh cut off his ear, and where she had copied her own poems and even a little story about three old women in a secluded house. But she was sure Mr. Levy wouldn’t appreciate things like that and there was no point in explaining them to him.
During the recess, then, Hefzibah locked herself in one of the bathroom stalls. She pulled down the cover of the toilet seat and sat there, her face crushed in her hands. She went through her memories and tried to capture the features of the face on the white pillow in her parents’ bedroom when her mother had sent her in to look at him for the last time. But now, returning to the room, she couldn’t see anything. Her mind was unable to catch hold of any likeness and she was angry with herself and decided that as soon as she got home she would look at the photograph album and then close her eyes and summon up his picture over and over again until it was indelibly engraved in her mind and could never be lost again so thoughtlessly. The door to the Girls’ Room opened and Hefzibah heard someone come in, turn on the faucet and speak. She recognized the voice of Bracha Shvili and heard her say: “Did you notice that she was wearing the jumper at the funeral?”
“Yes,” said the voice of Shula Reisser. “So what?”
Bracha Shvili said: “She repaired the place where the rabbi tore it. It’s not done.”
“Is it forbidden?” asked Shula Reisser.
“I’ll have to check that ,” said Bracha. “I’ll ask the Talmud teacher.”
Meanwhile someone else came in and now Hefzibah heard Esther Strauss, her best friend, saying: “Did you hear how Hefzi laughed out loud. She should be ashamed of herself.”
The girls left the Girls’ Room and Hefzibah’s hand went up to her heart, fingering the place where the rabbi had rent her jumper.
She usually sat in class next to her best friend, Esther Strauss, but now she took the seat next to Eli Weiss. And during the lesson, when Mr. Levy, the teacher, was explaining the characteristics of the idyll, Eli Weiss wrote in her notebook:
“Your eyes exude a verdant light
Just like two sparkling emeralds.”
Hefzibah read the lines and smiled. Suddenly, Mr. Levy said: “Hefzibah! What are you doing over there? Take your things and come sit here”. He pointed to the empty seat in front of him.
Hefzibah took her time changing places and the teacher bellowed at her: “Hurry up! You’re wasting the whole lesson.” Hefzibah sullenly began to gather her things together. Eli Weiss whispered: “Why is he always picking on you?” She winked at him unobtrusively and he returned a shy smile. When she finally sat down in front of the teacher, she saw that Eli was flushed with anger and plea. Towards the end of the hour she tore a page out of her notebook, wrote a few words on it, folded it and tossed it to the back. Mr. Levy shouted: “This is too much! You are going to stay after school tomorrow for two hours. Tell your parents—I mean your mother—not to worry.”
Hefzibah thought: The whole class noticed his mistake. She was seething with anger and she said: “But, Mr. Levy, you already gave me a punishment…”
“No ‘buts’,” he broke in. “Psalm 82 a hundred times and two hours after school and if that won’t help you’ll have to bring your par.. your mother.”
Hefzibah thought about Dr. Eisner and about the fact that since he left, no other teacher had understood her. She remembered that on the way to visit them with her brother, the bus had passed between mounds of red earth carved out on either side of the road as if by a knife. She remembered that he had kept her journal for a few days and when he had come over to return it, he had said to her parents: “You have no idea what kind of girl you have.” And after that, her memories returned to the hospital and to the white room and the sharp light and the boy lying in the bed next to her father’s and she thought: I was more interested in the boy than I was in my father. Now I keep telling myself that I was afraid to look at him. But that’s not true. I was simply indifferent. I didn’t want to know.”
During the recess, Hefzibah stood on the terrace, leaning over the ledge, watching the boys and girls in the yard playing ball or jumping rope.
Dr. Moskowitz, the Talmud teacher, had taken out a chair and sat down in the sun. Hefzibah saw Bracha Shvili walk over to him, bend down and say something. Her hand moved up her jumper and she fingered the place where the rabbi had rent it. Only by actually touching it could you tell there was a defect in the weave.
Shula Reisser came over to her. “Look at that pair of turtledoves,” she said, motioning with her head towards a corner of the yard. Hefzibah saw Mr. Levy and Bracha Shvili standing and talking together. “Disgusting,” said Shula. “First she sucks up to Dr. Moskowitz and then to Mr. Levy.”
“I see that it’s been repaired,” said Shula Reisser, pointing to the top of the jumper.
“Yes. My mother gave it to invisible mending,” said Hefzibah.
“Is that allowed?” asked Shula.
“I never asked the rabbi,” said Hefzibah contemptuously. “I like this jumper. Maybe you think I should have walked around with it torn till doomsday?”
“You should find out if it’s allowed,” said Shula, annoyed.
“And if it’s not allowed, so what? What’s it your business? Maybe everybody’ll stop watching me like a hawk all the time?”
“You’d better watch out,” said Shula. “Everybody’s talking about you. They say you laugh too much.”
Hefzibah walked away and, standing by herself, again leaning on the ledge and watching the children play, she realized that there was no one in the world she could talk to: Esther Strauss, her best friend, was just a hairbrain and Eli Strauss was still a baby and didn’t understand a thing.
Now Bracha Shvili approached her. She fixed her eyes on the jumper and said: “They fixed it for you. You can’t see a thing.”
“Invisible mending,” said Hefzibah.
“Hefzi,” said Bracha Shvili softly, “they say it’s wrong. I asked Dr. Moskowitz. He teaches Jewish law. He should know. He says it’s forbidden.”
“And the fact that you’re so palsy-walsy with Mr. Levy, that’s not forbidden? He’s a married man with a wife and children in Jerusalem,” said Hefzibah, carpingly.
Bracha Shvili turned red and retorted: “Why are you always insulting people?”
“Look who’s talking about insults,” said Hefzibah.
The next day Hefzibah gave Mr. Levy the pages on which she had copied out Psalm 82 a hundred times.
“I hope that you now know the Psalm by heart,” he said.
Hefzibah didn’t answer and he said: “Don’t forget. You’re staying after school today for two hours. Did you tell your mother?”
“Yes,” lied Hefzibah and asked: “How can you be sure I won’t slip out in the middle?”
“I’m staying with you, that’s how. What did you suppose?”
“So then you’re also being punished,” she laughed.
“No,” he smiled, “I’ll be correcting homework.”
First she took out her sandwiches and ate them in silence. Then she took out a pad of drawing paper, a small glass and some tubes of gouache. “I’m just going to get some water,” she said to Mr. Levy. Then she painted for two hours without saying a word, inwardly abusing and vilifying the teacher the whole time, pouring out her wrath in strong colors, frenziedly covering the paper with paint, one coat on top of the other, page after page.
Suddenly the teacher said: “You can go. The two hours are over.”
Hefzibah screwed on the tops of the tubes, cleaned and dried her brush and put everything into her schoolbag. As she was leaving, Mr. Levy said: “I didn’t know you paint.”
“I only doodle,” she said.
Outside she saw Bracha Shvili. She’s waiting for him, she thought, and hid behind a wall to see what would happen. Mr. Levy came out of the school and Bracha Shvili went up to him. They exchanged a few words and then left together.
Crazy nut, thought Hefzibah. What can she possibly see in that revolting man? As for him, she thought, he punishes me on the slightest pretense while he himself goes for walks in the evening with Bracha Shvili, and him with a wife and children in Jerusalem.
Hefzibah sat in the kitchen picking over the rice. On one side she put the chaff and the tiny stones, and on the other the rice, until there was a small white mound. Her mother was standing near the kitchen counter changing the wick in the kerosene cooker. Hefzibah’s grandmother, who had just finished cleaning the house of their well-to-do neighbors (whom her mother had in mind when she said that in Palestine all the parvenus had made it big while people of culture and learning were starving), came in and asked if they needed any help. Hefzibah believed that if it weren’t for Hitler, her grandmother would have had servants of her own and wouldn’t have to clean house for other people and, maybe, her father would still be alive. She thought: It’s this country that killed him and maybe it’s true that mother shouldn’t have given my jumper to invisible mending.
Out loud she said: “You know, the girls say that it’s against Jewish law to mend the tear.”
“But you have nothing to wear,” her mother answered, “and winter clothes are awfully expensive.”
Hefzibah was late coming to meet her friends. “Where is everybody?” she asked the boy who was waiting for her.
“They left,” he said.
“Where to?” she asked irately.
“Nowhere in particular. Just strolling—in pairs.”
“Eli wasn’t here?” she asked.
He went off with Rickey,” the boy said.
Hefzibah’s heart sank and she thought: What a traitor. He didn’t even wait for me.
“Come on, let’s go over to the park,” said the boy, “maybe they’re there.”
They walked up the hill in silence. The silence weighed on Hefzibah and she said: “Are you from Jerusalem?”
“No,” he answered.
“Then where did you go to school before?”
“The Yeshivah,” he answered.
“Your people are that religious?” she asked, stunned. He didn’t look like that—like those ultra-orthodox from the Yeshivah.
“No,” he answered.
Hefzibah had no more questions and the boy was silent. They reached the top of the hill and Hefzibah said: “I don’t see them anywhere. I’m going home.”
The boy walked her home and quickly took his leave. In the front yard of the house a lantana bush grew wild around the fence, creating a small den. When she was small she would play there with her brother. Now she discerned a crouching figure, a large grey hulk, hiding in the foliage. She began to run in the direction of the house. The figure detached itself from the bush and ran after her, massive and floundering. “Mother! Mother!” Hefzibah screamed. Her mother appeared at the door. “Get out of here, do you hear me, or I’ll call the police!”
He would always lie in ambush for her there, fat crazy Shaul, trying to catch her and kiss her.
When he would pass her in the street he would shout after her:
“Pretty Hefzi is going to wed
Crazy Shalom with the hole in his head,” or
“Shalom is crazy, Hefzi is good,
The rabbi’s going to marthem because he should.”
Hefzibah found him repulsive and terrifying. Her mother always said: “one day I’ll lose all my patience with you and go to the police.” But she never did. She pitied him and his parents. “If I go to the police,” she said, “they’ll lock him up for good and finish him off with electric shocks.”
Saturday afternoon, Hefzibah went to the girls’ club. She didn’t pay attention to what the leader was saying. Later they were joined by the boys and began to play guessing games. Hefzibah sat on the side, not taking part. Eli was sitting next to Rickey and didn’t look at her even once. When evening fell and Sabbath was out, they went inside for folk dancing. Hefzibah stood around watching. She loved dancing. Bracha Shvili went over and stood next to her.
“Why aren’t you dancing?” Hefzibah asked her.
“I’m not in the mood,” answered Bracha Shvili.
Someone called for a krakowiak and Hancha pulled out his harmonica to play. Hefzibah noticed that Eli picked Rickey for the dance.
Bracha Shvili said: “Eli and Rickey are going together.”
Hefzibah didn’t say a word and Bracha Shvili said: “Somebody saw them kissing. On a bench on Rothschild Boulevard. That Rickey’ll give it to whoever asks.”
“He’s just a big baby,” said Hefzibah. She watched the dancing couples spinning around before her eyes. She thought she had better go home and learn the chapter in Jeremiah by heart. Otherwise Dr. Moskowitz would punish her. But she didn’t feel like going home alone. She was afraid that crazy Shalom would be waiting for her behind the lantana bush. She figured that if she waited until the dancing was over, she would find someone to walk her home.
There was a gallery running along the walls of the club about halfway to the ceiling and Hefzibah decided to go up and sit there alone, in the dark. When she entered the darkened gallery, she was surprised to see a figure sitting on one of the benches. She stopped, ready to turn back and retrace her steps, when the voice of Bracha Shvili, a little choked and hoarse, called to her: “Come over here, Hefzi.”
“Why are you sitting here alone in the dark?” Hefzibah asked, surprised.
“Come and sit down,” said Bracha Shvili and Hefzibah sat down next to her and asked: “What’s the matter? Why are you crying?”
But Bracha Shvili didn’t answer. Only choked sobs escaped.
“Stop it! That’s enough!” said Hefzibah, a little frightened, put off by this display of uncontrolled grief.
“I love him so much,” Bracha Shvili sobbed, “I really don’t know what to do. When he goes home to his wife and children I feel completely lost.”
“But how can you? He’s an old man. I can’t understand what you see in him,” said Hefzibah.
Bracha Shvili took Hefzibah’s hand and began caressing it.
“I can’t stand it anymore,” she moaned. “I can’t begin to tell you how crazy I am about him.”
And then, before Hefzibah’s darkening eyes, Bracha Shvili began to sway back and forth, her eyes closed, her voice whispering: “I love you, I love you so much. I can’t live without you.”
Hefzibah studied her in her anguish, trying to figure out what to do. Suddenly Bracha Shvili embraced her and whispered in her ear: “You’re mine, only mine.” Hefzibah was appalled and tried to break loose from the girl’s embrace but Bracha held on and whispered: “You won’t leave me. You’re mine alone.” And then she kissed her passionately on the mouth. Hefzibah pushed her away savagely, disgusted. “You’re out of your mind!” she whispered harshly, getting up and running down the stairs.
“Hefzi, Hefzi, wait for me!” the voice importuned her, but Hefzibah didn’t stop. When she reached the bottom she immediately joined the circle of dancers, now in the middle of a tempestuous hora. They stamped their feet and clapped their hands at a furious tempo, their voices emitting a frenzied gibberish: “Ho! Ya! Ho! Ya! Lefti, befti, belabelabefti, tchingileh, mingileh, loof, loof, loof!!!” The intense fervor drove the nausea out of her system and she gave herself up to the beat, oblivious to everything.
Only later, when the circle of dancers dissipated and the frenzied “Ho! Ya! Ho! Ya!” stopped throbbing against her temples did she realize what she had done. She didn’t stay a moment longer but left the club immediately.
Hefzibah walked rapidly, her knees shaking, as she tried to blot out everything. Still, her mind kept churning up the terrible question: “What will they say? What will they say?” Every so often she took a long deep breath in order to fortify her battery of counter-arguments, such as: “It’s my own business. It doesn’t concern anyone else.” But the question was overpowering, attacking her with renewed force.
When she reached the fence, she examined the yard carefully and, seeing no one, entered quietly, making her way stealthily past the thicket of the lantana bush. She kept as close as possible to the opposite hedge, her head bent a little, fighting the urge to look back at the dark shadow of overgrown foliage. But halfway to the door, a heavy, obese body sprang out and, stamping like a clumsy, tottering bear, fell upon her. He grabbed hold of her with his coarse, heavy hands, murmuring; “Hefzi, my beauty, the joy of my life. I’ve caught you!”
“Mother! Mother!” Hefzibah screamed, but his moist lips were already on her face, his hands red-hot tongs piercing the flesh of her arms.
In the square of light of the opened door, she saw her mother for half a second, standing and looking and suddenly running down the steps, waving a broom and shouting: “Get out of here! Now! Or I’ll call the police!” The demented man let Hefzibah go and disappeared into the overgrown bushes, an obscure mass sinking into the mouth of darkness.
Hefzibah broke into a loud wail and her mother took her in her arms and helped her into the house. In the foyer she held onto her a little longer, caressing her head and saying: “Daddy would have broken all his bones, only we have no daddy. Tomorrow I’ll tell the landlord he has to uproot that whole bush and I’ll go over and talk to that maniac’s parents.”
On Sunday the seat next to Eli Weiss was empty again and Hefzibah decided to sit there. Eli Weiss wrote her a letter of apology during class. He explained that he loved her, only her, that Rickey had provoked him and that his biological urge had gotten the better of him.
On the note she returned she wrote only: “Hope you had a good time.” That’s all.
While passing the note to Eli she felt the teacher’s menacing glance on her and she understood that if she wasn’t careful she might be punished again. When the bell rang, Eli Weiss got up but Hefzibah remained seated. She took the Book of Jeremiah out of her schoolbag and began to learn the assigned chapter by heart. The classroom emptied out slowly and in the end only a few girls remained, among them Esther Strauss, her best friend, Bracha Shvili, Shula Reisser and Leah Katz. Hefzibah was reading under her breath and her lips were moving:
“O Lord, I will dispute with thee, for thou art just;
yes, I will plead my case before thee.
Why do the wicked prosper
and traitors live at ease?
Thou hast planted them and their roots strike deep…”
And while she was still absorbed in the Bible, committing the passage to memory, she was suffused by the fear that some menacing presence was approaching, throbbing in the air, spinning towards her and crying: “Ho! Ya! Ho! Ya!” She tried to ward off the oppressive feeling, returning to the text:
“Thou art ever on their lips,
yet far from their hearts.
But thou knowest me, O Lord, thou seest me;
thou dost test my devotion to thyself…”
But some commotion deflected her from the passage and she noticed that her friends had gathered around her, randomly, in a horseshoe. Then all of a sudden, as if in a phantasmagoria, she saw Bracha Shvili spinning towards her, her arms outstretched. And before she realized exactly what was happening, she felt the full force of an open hand strike her on the cheek. Hefzibah lifted her hand to her face, utterly nonplused, and heard Bracha Shvili saying: “It’s forbidden to repair the tear. Dr. Moskowitz says it’s a terrible sin.”
Esther Strauss, her best friend, came up close and, pointing at her with her finger, shouted: “You were dancing the hora last night at the club!” Bracha Shvili took her cue from that: “You should be ashamed of yourself! You slut!”
“Are you out of your minds?” said Leah Katz. “Leave her alone! What do you want from her?”
“You shut up, you scaredy-cat,” said Shula Reisser.
Hefzibah bent her head over the Bible on her desk and the tiny black letters grew before her eyes, crying out:
“Thou hast planted them and their roots strike deep,
they grow up and bear fruit…”
But Bracha Shvili swung again, striking her on the other cheek.
“Stop! I’m going to call the teacher!” cried Leah Katz, but Shula Reisser caught hold of her and said: “Shut up! You’re not going anywhere right now! We have to show her a thing or two. What does she think she’s doing? Laughing all the time. Dancing a hora. Sending her jumper to invisible mending.”
“She must be punished!” cried Bracha Shvili, but Esther Strauss said to her: “That’s enough.”
“She must be punished!” shouted Bracha Shvili, grabbing hold of Hefzibah’s hair and pulling. Esther Strauss pushed her away and said: “That’s enough. Stop it!” But Shula Reisser had meanwhile edged closer, holding a scissors.
“Gimme the scissors!” shouted Bracha Shvili and to Hefzibah she said: “Invisible mending, huh? We’ll show you how it’s done, Hefzi’leh.”
She caught hold of Hefzibah’s jumper from the front. Hefzibah resisted and from the back Esther Strauss caught hold of Bracha Shvili and pulled her away. The moment she was free, Hefzibah ran to the door. But Bracha Shvili, still holding the scissors, ran after her and caught her from behind.
Leah Katz screamed: “She’s liable to kill her!”
At that moment Hefzibah turned around and with all the force she could muster punched Bracha Shvili in the face.
“She broke my nose,” howled Bracha Shvili.
“Serves you right!” said Hefzibah, and Esther Strauss, her best friend, took the scissors out of Bracha’s hand. The sound of the bell, metallic and heavy, jolted them and they looked at one another, their faces flushed and angry, and Hefzibah was conscious of the fact that the prolonged ringing sound was cutting through her like the knife that had cut the top of her jumper not so many days past in that strange, remote place, just before she bent down to pick up a handful of moist red earth.
A sudden light suffused the room. Boys and girls burst through the door and on the threshold stood Dr. Moskowitz. He waited until everyone was standing in place, after which he walked up to his desk and said: “Be seated.”
He read out the names from the roll book and when he finished he said: “I hope that you’ve all learned the chapter by heart. Hefzibah, please begin.”
Hefzibah was sitting with her trembling hands folded under her chest. The seat underneath her was hot and sticky. For a moment she didn’t understand what he wanted but Eli Weiss, sitting next to her, nudged her, and she began:
“O Lord, I will dispute with thee, for thou art just;
yes, I will plead my case before thee.
Why do the wicked prosper
and traitors live at ease?”
And Eli Weiss continued:
Thou has planted them and their roots strike deep,
they grow up and bear fruit…”
Hefzibah raised her hand and asked permission to leave the room. The teacher gave her permission. Walking, she felt the blood sticky between her thighs. Thank God the jumper is thick and dark,” she reflected.
Outside, she unlocked her bike with trembling hands, gave it a push, mounted and rode home. The house was empty and silent. Hefzibah washed herself, changed her clothes and placed a thick wad of cotton in her underpants. “Why did it come early?” she asked herself, and she answered out loud without knowing quite why:
“If you have raced with men and the runners have worn you down,
how then can you hope to vie with horses…”
She folded her bloodstained jumper, wrapped it in a newspaper, went out into the yard and stuck it into the garbage can.
As she went up the street, riding her bicycle back to school to pick up her schoolbag, crazy Shalom came towards her from the opposite direction. He called out:
“Pretty Hefzi is going to wed
Crazy Shalom with the hole in his head.”
Hefzibah got back to school during the recess and, ignoring all the eyes digging into her, went straight into the classroom. Her schoolbag was where she had left it, under the desk, and she took out her English notebook to study the new vocabulary. Esther Strauss, her best friend, went up to her and said in a muted voice: “Good that you changed your clothes. That wasn’t right, that invisible mending. It’s forbidden.”
Hefzibah fixed her eyes on the notebook in front of her and said:
“My own people have turned on me like a lion from the scrub, roaring against me; therefore I hate them.”
After collecting the beer bottles from the bunkhouses at the sawmill, the brothers headed into the forest behind their house to eat wild blackberries, until their bellies were rotten with them and their fingertips were stained purple.
“Lookit.” Ben crouched on one knee, shaped his hand into a gun and took aim at a sparrow perched on a branch. “Bam!” The bird took flight through the trees. When the boys were in the forest, Ben spent a lot of time talking about BB guns.
“Don’t scare them,” Henry said. Their Mama kept three birdcages in the kitchen — one with finches, one with budgies and one with an African Grey — and Henry liked to stick a finger through the cages to rub their bellies or feel the curt jabs from their beaks. Every morning, it seemed to Henry, they tried to escape. At first light, he could hear them flapping around, screeching and knocking against the metal cages. By lunch they quieted, and by evening they slept. There was always a racket in the kitchen in the morning with the birds and the coffee machine and the brothers.
“It’s not real,” Ben said. He stood right in front of Henry and aimed his weapon at Henry’s black eye. “Bang!”
Henry flinched then looked away.
“Pantywaist,” Ben said. It was what their father called men he didn’t respect. Whenever Henry heard the word he thought of their mother’s underwear, the caramel-coloured ones that reached up past the belly button. Ben picked up two sticks and twirled them between his fingers like nunchucks, spinning his legs around with circular kicks. He pointed a stick at Henry’s swollen eye. “Does it still hurt?” It was the first time Ben said anything about it.
“No,” Henry lied. The area around the eye was a deep shade of purple, and this morning when Henry looked in the mirror and pried open the lid, there was a bloody spiderweb across his cornea. That day Ben had stood on the other side of the school’s chain-link fence, watching as the boys yelled faggot and chased Henry across the field toward the trees. Henry thought there would be lots of places to hide in the forest. Part of him had believed that once he hit the treeline, he would disappear or swoop high up into the branches of the evergreens like a winged creature.
“It’s this way,” Ben said when they reached a fork in the path. They were looking for a cave they found yesterday, past the clearing and past the creek. Henry wasn’t allowed to cross the water because he wasn’t a strong swimmer, but Ben had a way of making him do things, like sticking six peanuts up his nose. Henry had snorted most of them out, but he had to go to the emergency clinic for the last two.
This time they had matches with them, pilfered from the glove compartment of their mother’s car. The cave had been pitch black and Henry had ripped his favorite T-shirt scrambling from it after Ben let out a scream that made his eardrums go fuzzy. Ben was only teasing him, but in the total darkness of the cave Henry had imagined a bear’s coarse fur brushing against his cheek.
The creek came into view now, twisting through trees dripping with moss, and Ben ran ahead, wading through the water and coming out the other side soaking wet. He took off his shirt, wringing it out before putting it back on, smoothing the wrinkled cotton over his chest. “We need a torch,” he shouted across the water, picking up bits of dried grass and twigs from the ground. Henry scanned the length of the creek, trying to find a safe place to cross. The water was deep in parts, swirling gently where the rocks created whirlpools. Henry crossed along a line of large boulders, taking his steps carefully on the slimy green rocks. He tried not to think about being swept into the water and dragged all the way to the ocean. Every summer on their first day at the lake, their father would check his wristwatch and time Ben as he swam the length of the shore. He’d compare the result to last year’s time and then enter the numbers in a small booklet that fit in his shirt pocket. Henry would stand on the shore and watch, leaning against their father’s leg and letting his body go limp, his limbs hanging as though he were sick or very tired. When Ben came to shore, their father would pull out a stub of pencil for recording and give him claps on the back as Henry shrugged off the water drops that fell on him.
By the time Henry reached the entrance to the cave, Ben was on his hands and knees, already half inside, the unlit torch under one arm. Henry rushed to follow behind him, accidently bumping into his behind. “Give me some room, would ya?” Ben said, kicking at him. One of his kicks got Henry on the nose, making him sneeze and sending a spasm of pain through his eye.
The tunnel leading into the cave was narrow and as they crawled through, their bodies sealed off any light from outside.
“What about bears?” Henry said, feeling phantom bristles along his skin.
“The hole’s too small, dummy.” Ben’s voice was muffled.
The damp rock hugged the brothers as they squeezed blindly through the passageway, and then all of a sudden the cold walls were gone. The air became verdant, cool and wide. Henry reached out into the dark space and felt nothing. They sat silently in the void for a minute, close together, their knees touching. Henry tried to quiet his breathing so it sounded normal — the cave exaggerated every small noise. Ben lit a match, the delicate glow flickering, barely lighting the small circle between them. He held the match to the torch and the flame stirred before fizzling out. He lit a second match and the torch ignited, flaring brightly and filling the space with a smoke that smelled of burning hay.
“Holy crap.” Ben’s face warped in the fire’s weird light as he stood and swung the torch around. “This is awesome.”
The cave was almost a perfect circle of smooth rock walls with a dusty, pit-marked floor.
“Awesome,” Henry said, but the knot in his stomach was still there as he watched the sharp shadows move across Ben’s face.
A couple metres away from the brothers, something fell from the ceiling and landed near their feet. They stepped closer, peering down at the dark lump before looking up to find a black quivering carpet above them. Before Henry’s brain could make sense of the sight, Ben dropped the torch and darted out of the cave. In the now-total darkness, the impression hit Henry like a knee to the stomach — the cave’s ceiling was thick with large black spiders. Henry scampered back through the tunnel, but no light appeared before him. For a second, he wondered if he’d gotten turned around and was actually going deeper into the cave. His arms shook as he clawed at the darkness, trying to get his bearings. He hit something soft, reached out, and felt the stiff fabric of Ben’s jean jacket, his bony shoulder blades. Henry pushed at his brother’s back, but Ben had dug in his heels, sealing the exit with his own body. Henry’s throat tightened and from him came a strangled moan — an animal-like noise. “Benny, let me out.” Henry’s entire body trembled now, tears streaming down his cheeks. “Please.” His screams became frantic shrieks, echoing around the cave until they no longer seemed like his own. He thrashed around like one of the caged birds at daybreak. And then, all of a sudden, everything gave way — light poured around Henry’s body and he burst from the tunnel’s mouth, sprawling in the dirt, arms flailing over his body.
“Get them off me,” Henry shrieked. “Get them off.”
“There’s nothing there,” Ben said, doubled over, laughing so hard he was crying. He wiped at the tears streaking his cheeks, his dirty hands leaving behind bands of warrior dirt across his face. Even though Henry knew he was unharmed, he couldn’t stop screaming, his eyes wild and wide to the forest around them. Ben grabbed his shoulders and shook him.
I remember it was almost summer, and I called from my office, between patients, to make the appointment. Paz had recommended a beauty salon that happened to be near my parents’ house. I made an appointment for that very afternoon. I hung up and stared out the window at a cloud that was approaching very slowly. But the white mass was taking too long, so I told the nurse to send in the next one on the list. A tiny Chinese woman came in, pregnant up to her ears. Her body was all swollen belly and the fetus inside. I asked her a few questions, but she barely spoke the language. I’m not sure she understood me. There was no one with her. All I could do was lie her down on the examination table and, in lieu of the pertinent information I always give new mothers, I silently wrote in her chart as I listened to the background music.
That afternoon, when I entered the salon, I was greeted by a very old woman, heavily made up. She crossed my name off in a book as soon as I had given it to her and then hung my jacket on a hanger.
“Would you like coffee?”
The place was not very elegant; there were bottles of polish jumbled on the shelves, and the woman’s mannerisms suddenly seemed old-fashioned. I looked at her hips, so narrow, as I followed her down a hallway to the waxing room. I wondered if she’d had kids, and, if so, how the babies had been able to escape out of that narrow space.
I got undressed in a kind of changing room lit up by a blinking fluorescent light. I left my purse on the bench and hung my clothes from a rack nailed to the wall. The woman with the narrow hips had handed me a robe to put on. I had the same feeling I get when I’m about to enter the operating theater, but this time I wasn’t the one in control. I went into the room. I sat on the white table. It was covered in paper that crunched under my weight. I waited.
Then she appeared. We recognized each other immediately, and we both stared for a long second, recovering from all those sudden memories: her waiting with her friends to beat me up, me trying unsuccessfully to flee between the columns of the schoolyard. I would’ve liked to pretend I was someone else, fake a French accent, like when I met Diego, or run out of there with the excuse that the place didn’t meet my hygiene standards.
But then she called me by my name and said without any trace of aggression, “How have you been?”
After my parents finally decided to move me to another school, I never saw Sonia or her gang again. I finished lower school at a place where I didn’t even have time to make friends. High school was a different story. Later on, I studied medicine five hundred kilometers from home and did my residency another five hundred kilometers away. I got used to not going home very often. My life was elsewhere.
Sonia tied on her smock.
“What are you having done?”
When I remained silent, she said, “It’s your first time here, isn’t it?”
But I was unable to respond. I lay back on the table and stared at her as she began to melt the wax in a bowl. I thought about her past arrogance. I thought about what we’ve become. She left the room and after a minute came back in. I just lay there; I hadn’t moved a millimeter.
“Mari Carmen tells me you asked for underarms and bikini.”
Then she picked up the bowl of melted wax and stirred the thick substance with a wooden stick.
I felt a sudden urge to curse her and throw the wax in her eyes. I didn’t do anything. Finally, I opened my mouth. I answered yes, that those were the parts I wanted to be waxed. I was about to add that I had sensitive skin so she should be careful not to hurt me. I immediately realized that it was too late; the damage had been done all those years ago.
She started working on my right underarm. I could tell that she was pretty embarrassed and didn’t dare look at me. I imagined her with other clients, chatting comfortably about the benefits of massage for weight loss or how to get rid of ingrown hairs, but with me, she didn’t say a word. Maybe she was just concentrating. As she spread the wax, I knew she couldn’t see me, and I took the opportunity to scrutinize her face up close. Those eyes that I remembered full of flames now lacked even a spark. She had a piercing in her bottom lip and another in her eyebrow, and her hair was short with blonde highlights. The more I looked at her, the less I saw of the Sonia who used to punch and kick me every chance she got.
She finished with my underarms more quickly than I’d expected. Her movements were concise. It burned for a second, but then she spread a green gel on my skin that smelled very refreshing and instantly numbed the entire area. Then she moved to my bikini line.
When the time came she asked, “Want me to do more?”
I told her that it wasn’t necessary, that it was enough. She’d made my life miserable in school, but the girl who used to bully me was still in our hometown doing bikini waxes. I smiled slightly as Sonia did her work down below. When it was over, I paid and left without thanking her or the lady with the narrow hips.
The next day, as I was doing a mammogram on a woman with only one breast, my cell phone rang. I’d forgotten to turn the sound off. The woman didn’t say anything, but she seemed annoyed throughout the entire examination. Her skin was soft and brown, and her wrinkles reminded me of my mother when she wears a bathing suit. Before leaving she told me angrily that she knew the cancer was eating her up and that all of us doctors were useless. She said this in front of the nurse. Then she left. I was sure that as soon as she closed the door the nurse would rush to recount the entire scene to the girls in reception.
I looked at my phone as the next patient got undressed.
“Remove everything from the waist down and lie on the table when you’re ready.”
I made her wait a while. The previous patient had shaken me up.
For a second I thought that the call might’ve been from Sonia. I’d given them my cell when I made the appointment. She had access to my number. In the end, it was nothing so dramatic. I looked at the screen. Diego had left me a voicemail. I noticed the patient squirming on the table, and I searched for the cloud from the day before, but the sky was totally clear. The woman faked a cough, but what she really wanted was to get my attention so I’d examine her right away. I could spot her type a mile off. I got up, gave her a cursory examination, and wrote out a prescription for birth control, which was the only reason she’d come.
The following Saturday I met with Paz. We had dinner at a Thai restaurant that had recently opened. The waiter was very cute and smiled non-stop. Paz was mesmerized; she couldn’t stop repeating how great the restaurant was, but to me, it seemed like any other greasy Chinese place, only with a bit of a facelift. I asked Paz how sales were going at the real-estate agency, and she made a face that expressed tragedy. I feigned interest in problems that I wouldn’t lose a moment of sleep over, such as the price of bricks and the fluctuations in the residential market. I didn’t understand a word she said, but I knew it made her feel better to vent. I guess she didn’t have anyone else to talk to about it except her co-workers, who never discussed anything else. Paz, however, never asked me about my practice, for which I was almost thankful.
Throughout the entire dinner, I was tempted to tell her who I’d run into at the beauty salon she’d recommended, but I didn’t. Paz and I had only been friends for three years, and I don’t think she would have understood my shock at seeing Sonia or how brutally the girl she’d been had treated the girl I’d been.
When it came time for dessert, we were full. Paz leaned back in her chair, her long legs stretched out, and stared off into space. She swore she was about to burst and couldn’t eat another bite, but then we shared a green-tea ice cream and accepted the shots the waiter offered us on the house. I was now convinced it was just a Chinese restaurant with green tablecloths. We toasted to summer, our upcoming vacations, my escape from the pregnant women, and Paz’s escape from the Euribor, and, when we clinked our ice cream bowls, Paz asked, “How was your waxing?”
I looked at her, made a gesture that said, Give me a minute, I’m swallowing, and then I told her that it hadn’t been so bad. Paz agreed that Sonia was very professional and was also a super sweet girl, only she didn’t say Sonia, she said the girl with the piercings, and I smiled, changed the subject, and asked for the check.
When I got home, I felt like talking to someone, and I called Diego. He didn’t pick up. I took off my make-up in the bathroom. A little while later my phone rang. It was him.
“What’s going on?” I asked him. “Were you undressing some cardiologist, so you couldn’t answer when I called?”
“I’ve got five of them waiting for me in bed,” he answered.
After joking around for a while, we stopped playing at being adults, and I asked him about the conference. He told me that it was afternoon there and that Boston was full of huge trees. I didn’t know if he meant the university campus where the conference was being held or the rest of the city. He found the talks interesting, and he’d been going out with the American doctors to gorge on gigantic hamburgers and Southern-style fried chicken while they talked about cholesterol and cardiac catheterization. The group from his hospital had presented that morning.
“At first I was nervous, but then I got over it.” He paused. “Because of my English, you know, but then I got over it,” he repeated.
Then he described the places they’d visited with some doctors from Massachusetts General Hospital.
“They offered to show us around,” he said. “We hit it off, and they offered to show us around.”
I didn’t understand why he had to repeat everything. Maybe he was tired. I imagined myself thousands of miles from my apartment, from Paz’s neuroses, from Sonia, now haggard but who in other times had pulled my ponytail until I cried. Suddenly Diego didn’t want to talk any more. He explained that the call was being paid for by the hospital, and he didn’t want to abuse the privilege. Anyway, I could tell I was boring him or he’d rather be watching a basketball game and just didn’t want to be rude.
When I hung up, I got on the internet. I read about Boston on Wikipedia. The city’s economy is based on higher education, research, health, banking, and technology, especially biotech. It has the second-most-important fine-arts museum in the country, a huge estuary, and their basketball team is called the Celtics. I looked at some photos of skyscrapers crowned in white clouds. Then I entered a forum about school bullying, where the victims, parents, and teachers talked about their experiences. They blamed each other or gave terrifying testimonies, but I couldn’t tell which ones were real and which ones had been made up to shock people or as a creative outlet for pent-up cruelty. I got sleepy, turned off the computer, and went to bed.
The next day was Sunday. I’d wasted the morning and was feeling lonely, so I went to lunch at my parents’ house. As I helped my mom with the dishes, I told her that I’d bumped into Sonia nearby. My mother immediately knew who I was talking about.
“She works in a beauty salon,” she said, “the one next to the butcher’s shop.”
I didn’t need details, and I didn’t want her to ask me for any, so I didn’t tell her that I’d been Sonia’s unwitting client. For a second I wanted to ask if she’d seen her on the street or if someone had told her or if she’d gone in for a manicure and come face to face with those piercings. My mother dried the dishes and set them on the kitchen table for me to put into the cupboards.
It started to rain. The drops splashed the window at regular intervals. My mother rushed to close the shutters so that the glass wouldn’t get dirty. I didn’t feel like walking home in the rain, so I decided to stay, at least until the storm let up. I looked out the window. There was no movement, just the dense and silent rain. My parents were in the living room. A movie was about to start, but they changed the channel. I got bored. I didn’t have much to do.
I went into my old room. I opened drawers, most of them empty. My mother had hung her winter clothes in one of the wardrobes, which smelled strongly of mothballs. In the other, among various useless objects, were my old hair straighteners, a badminton racket, a scroll saw wrapped in brown paper. I don’t know why they hadn’t gotten rid of all that junk. Maybe they were hoping I’d take it to my apartment. There was a red folder lying on top of the loose racket strings. It was filled with the articles I’d written for the school paper and some snapshots of parties. I couldn’t bear to think that it was really me under that ridiculous party dress and huge bangs. I suddenly knew I would come across a certain clipping and quickly found it. It was a photo of the fifth-grade class. We’d gone on a field trip to the local newspaper. Sonia looked just like I remembered her, with her hair curled around her ears, smiling defiantly into the camera and putting bunny ears on the girl in front of her. I was in the opposite corner, to the right of the teacher, who had a plump, protective arm around my shoulders. I don’t remember the field trip or who took the picture, just that it was impossible to keep us still and that my parents bought the paper the next day for the sole purpose of cutting out the photo.
I put the yellowed piece of newspaper in my bag and closed the folder. I went to say goodbye to my parents. They were watching two seals diving for food in a frozen ocean. My father was half asleep with his feet resting on the coffee table and one shoe hanging off. My mother got up and walked me out. She asked me how Diego was doing.
“Fine,” I said.
I didn’t mention that he was in Boston. Then I started down the stairs with my eyes fixed on the floor. My mother kept shouting to me over the railing until I was two floors down. I wanted to say Mama, get inside, will you, but I didn’t want the neighbors to know my mother still came out on the landing to say goodbye, like when I was a little girl on my way to school.
Before going back to my apartment, I went into the convenience store that was always open, and the Pakistani owners sold me a bag of ham-flavored potato chips, a pack of gum, and a beer. That was my Sunday dinner. I looked at a few patients’ charts. I was part of a research team at the hospital. We had our patients sign consent forms, we dug around in their medical records, and then we prepared presentations and got invited to conferences and dinners. That’s what’s expected of you when you’re a doctor and your practice bores you.
Two months went by. Diego and I went to Istanbul for a week on vacation. I brought my mother back a thimble with a picture of the Blue Mosque on it. She collected them. Then we went back to our jobs. My research team met frequently. We needed to get a hundred subjects, but we only had around ninety, and the deadline was fast approaching. We were running out of time. There were fewer births than in the spring and the number of patients had decreased too. People tended to neglect their health in summer, just like they did the gym and language classes. Occasionally I remembered Sonia and the wax job because my skin had never been smoother. I went out for drinks with Paz in the evenings. Diego and I started making plans to move in together without a hint of romance, as if it were something that was bound to happen sooner or later, and so, at some point in August, we agreed that I’d rent my apartment and move into his, which had an extra bedroom. Every once in a while we’d go shopping to pick out throw pillows or a toaster.
One day in early September, Sonia walked into my office accompanied by the nurse, and once again I felt like I’d seen a ghost. Her hair was longer, and her highlights were auburn instead of blonde. I gestured to the chair. She sat down. She was calm and didn’t seem surprised. I didn’t look at her right away, instead I searched for a fake chart on my computer and pretended to take notes on a piece of paper. I needed to buy some time to decide how I was going to handle the situation, but then she spoke.
“I said I was your friend and got an appointment with you because I didn’t want to see a stranger.”
I asked the nurse to leave, saying I could handle it on my own. She left, annoyed, muttering something and closing the door loudly behind her.
Sonia got undressed as I looked out the window for some dense cloud that might offer some advice, but all I saw were wispy cirrus clouds, long thin filaments that didn’t mean anything. Sonia lay down on the table. She stared up at the fluorescent light. I’d done this hundreds of times, but I didn’t know where to start the examination. When I asked her what had brought her in, she said her periods were long and painful. I wanted to know how she’d found me, but in this tiny city, there were endless possibilities. I asked her to move to the end of the bed, and I examined her.
“I turn thirty-two today,” she said.
I didn’t say happy birthday. I continued doing what I was doing. I inserted a long device into her and started to look at the images that appeared on the screen.
“Dani and I want to have kids, but as much as we try I can’t get pregnant.”
Then there was a silence.
“I’m all dried up.”
I kept looking with fascination at the curved shapes inside her, black and white, like summer storm clouds about to burst, then I told her I was done, that she could get dressed.
When she reappeared from behind the screen, I asked her a few questions that confirmed my diagnosis. I ordered some blood tests. I didn’t expect them to tell me anything I didn’t already know. Sonia didn’t seem worried, she was just a little sad, and she listened carefully as I explained the possible causes of her infertility. She looked at me and slowly twirled a tarnished ring around her finger. I noticed her nails: ugly, bitten-down, yellowed. Suddenly she seemed like a defenseless specimen, a rare flower, sick from a tumor that deformed her from the inside. I talked to her about surgery, which I could do myself, but my explanation was cold, and the memories of the past began to dissolve little by little.
Before closing her chart, I remembered that we needed subjects for our study, and I asked her if she wanted to participate. I assured her that she wouldn’t have to answer any uncomfortable questions; all that would happen was that a group of gynecologists from the hospital, including me, would look at her medical records. She twirled her ring again. For a second I was afraid she’d refuse. I tried to make her see that it was positive, so many experts following her progress, but all I cared about was getting her to sign. I think that even if I hadn’t explained it she wouldn’t have cared. I handed her the consent form and a pen.
“Where?” she asked.
“Here,” I answered, and I pointed to a blank space where she proceeded to stamp her childlike signature.
When she raised her face from the page her eyes were red, and I quickly dismissed her from the office before she could start to cry, doing the math and determining that Sonia and I were finally even.
I was intending to paint a picture of David as the Shepherd, but nowhere could I find a suitable model for the face; there were several white and ruddy,’ but none which had on them the impress of the born King, or the inspiration of the Psalmist. One day I was rowing up the river, and came across the very face I had been seeking for so long. He was a boy of about fifteen, clad in flannels, alone in a boat which he had moored to the shore of a little island in the middle of the river; he was occupied in sketching. ‘This is lucky,’ I thought, ‘it will be a good excuse to begin a conversation,’ so I rowed up to him, and saying that I was an artist, asked to see what he was drawing; he blushed, and showed me. Of course I had expected the usual smudged landscape; but imagine my surprise to find a certainly beautifully conceived drawing of Hylas by the river’s brink, with the Nymph stretching out her arms towards him. He was merely copying the rushes and trees of the island as a background. The Hylas was not at all a bad portrait of himself, but my surprise was still greater to find that the face of the Nymph was an evident copy of my own last picture called ‘The Siren,’ which I had recently sold to a certain Professor Langton (at a very low price, as I knew the Professor was not well off and his genuine enthusiasm for my work was so refreshing after the inane compliments of those who thought it the thing’ to admire me because I happened to be the fashion just then). I praised the drawing, and pointed out one or two faults, then asked for paper and pencil, and reproduced the drawing as it should have been. The boy watched with ever- increasing eagerness; at last he said with a deep blush, May I ask you what your name is?’
My name is Gabriel Giynde,’ I replied.
‘Ah, I thought so all the time you were drawing. Do you know, your pictures have always had a peculiar fascination for me; father has lots of them, at least drawings, only one painting, that one called “The Siren,” from which I copied that: you must know father, he went to see your studio the other day;’ then, blushing still deeper, ‘May I come and see your studio too?
‘Certainly you may; but I ask something in return: that is, that you will sit as model for the “shepherd David.” I guess from what you say that you are the son of Professor Langton; am I not right? May I ask what is your Christian name?’
‘Oh, Lionel,’ he said simply; ‘there’s only father and me; I don’t mind being a model if you like, and will let me see your studio, though why you should think I should make a suitable David I am at a loss to understand.’
There was a mixture of simple boyishness, and at the same time education, about his way of talking which puzzled me, but the explanation was not difficult to unravel. We rowed down together: I took him to tea at an old wayside inn covered with honeysuckle, then went straight with him to his father’s. He had told me all about himself on the way. He was his father’s only son, he had never been to school, his father had taught him everything himself, he had no companions of his own age, and amused himself alone. He liked riding and rowing and swimming, but hated shooting and fishing (curious this, that he should share my own ingrained dislikes), but what he loved above all was drawing and painting; he had never learnt to draw, but he had always drawn ever since he could remember. His father knew everything, but could not draw, but was very fond of pictures, but nevertheless would not let him go to an art school, etc. So he prattled on. I could not help remarking that he seemed very much more educated than boys of his age usually are, though wholly unconscious of the fact, and yet, at the same time, showed a singular artlessness and innocence about the most common-place things.
Professor Langton received me with the utmost amiability, and the end of it was that I stayed there the evening. After he had sent his son to bed, he expounded to me his ideas on education. He did not approve of schools of any kind he said; boarding schools were an abomination, but day schools, perhaps, were a necessity. ‘But in my case,’ he said, ‘happily not, indeed, what is the use of being a Professor if I cannot instruct my own boy?’
Well, the end of all this was, that having Lionel as a model, I took a great fancy to him and the more I saw of him the less I liked the idea of his going to an Academy school. Perhaps to a boy ordinarily brought up the usual conversation of art students would not do much harm, but to Lionel — this exotic flower — I shuddered to think of it. I never before had had any pupils, wishing to be individual, and not to create a school but then Lionel was of my school already. So the end of it was that I offered to take him as a gratuitous and exclusive pupil, for which his father was intensely grateful.
Years passed by, and I taught him to draw and to paint very well; perhaps I impregnated him a little too much with my own individuality. I used to chuckle to myself, “This is just like Leonardo da Vinci and Salaino. Critics in the future will be disputing which is genuine “Glindio”. I do not mean by this that Lionel had no imagination or inventive power — on the contrary, he was, as I have said before, a `genius`, an artist, born, not made — but merely that his style of execution was based on mine; indeed, I even hoped that he might surpass in my own line.
One does not realise what a frightful responsibility one incurs in introducing one person to another. In nine cases out of ten nothing particular may ensue, but the tenth case may be the turning-point in a life for good or for evil. Thus it was when I introduced Lionel to Lady Julia Gore-Vere. When I say introduced him, I did nothing of the kind; she was having tea with me in my studio, and Lionel, who I thought was going up the river that day (that was one of the reasons I had selected that day to ask her), suddenly walked in. Well! what could I do but introduce them.
Lady Julia bore the name Gore-Vere because she had two husbands, both alive and kicking, and through some anomaly of the Divorce Court, she could not legally ascertain whether she ought to bear the name of Mr. Gore or Mr. Vere, so she split the difference by giving herself both appellations. What her past was I did not know, and did not care to inquire—it was no concern of mine; what did concern me was that she bought my pictures. She was certainly the last person I should have liked Lionel to meet. She was a very lovely woman and very clever (when I say clever I do not merely mean sharp and witty, but really cultured), and when she talked about Art she really knew what she was talking about. Except for a moment of irritation, I did not see any particular harm. Lionel knew nothing about her; there was nothing remarkable in the fact that she took an interest in him; and he took a childish pleasure in showing her his sketches, which she criticised and admired, justly, for, as I have said before, they were remarkably good.
I had always thought of Lionel as a child, and never realised that he was now grown up. Happening to know Lady Julia’s age, it did not occur to me that to people in general she looked a very great deal younger than she really was. Well, they met several times. One day Lionel said, ‘How like Lady Julia is to your picture “The Siren.’” I have always maintained that artists give models for faces, as much as faces give models for artists. I had done so many pictures since, I had quite forgotten about ‘The Siren.’ Now ‘The Siren’ was entirely an imaginative face, taken from no model at all, but when Lionel said so, it struck me she was like ‘The Siren.’ Then I thought of his drawing the first day I had met him. A disagreeable sensation and vague fear haunted me; I took to watch him more closely. Then the truth flashed upon me—he was hopelessly in love with her. She was doing her best to egg him on; what an idiot I was not to have seen that before, I who pretend to be observant of all things.
No, this would not do at all, it would be the ruin of his life. I must save him at any cost. Perhaps I had been wrong all the time, I had kept him too much under a glass case; perhaps if he had had more experience he would not have become so suddenly and completely infatuated. Oh, how wicked of her! I raged and gnashed my teeth. Had she not the whole world for prey that she could not spare this poor boy? What could he be to her? But then, perhaps, she did not realise what harm she was doing. I would go and expostulate with her myself; from what I knew of her she was by no means heartless.
So next day I called on her, and somewhat rudely came to the point at once. `Why,` I said, do you seek to ruin that poor boy’s life? You know whom I meant–Lionel. Surely such a conquest must be nothing to you?
I spoke very bitterly, she answered calmly, ‘You ask me why? I will tell you the reason quite simply: first, because I am jealous of him; secondly, because I thought you cared for me a little, and I thought I might make you jealous of me, and finally, because I love you!
I was utterly dumfounded; for some time I could not speak at all. Then I said, ‘If it is true, as you say, that you love me, do at least this one thing for me—spare him! She answered in the same calm voice. ‘There is one way to overcome the difficulty.’ I went out without a word.
All that night I remained without sleep, thinking. ‘There was one way to overcome the difficulty.’ I had said I would save him at any cost, and the cost was to sacrifice myself. However unselfish one’s motive may be, selfish considerations are inevitably intermingled. I thought, After all, the sacrifice is not so very terrible, the way out of the difficulty comparatively easy—I certainly liked her well enough, and now that my studio parties were on a much larger scale than heretofore, it would really be a great convenience to have a lady in the house. And then I thought, trying to be unselfish again, I shall be doing a good turn to her; by giving her my name I shall re-establish her reputation and people will soon forget that her name has ever been Gore or Vere. . . Lionel would soon realise the absurdity of his own position, and of course would not think of making love to my wife.
So next morning I wrote to Lady Julia, asking her if she would be willing to exchange the ambiguous name of Gore-Vere for that of Glynde. She wrote back to say she would be very pleased to accept my offer, but she thought I might have phrased it more kindly.
Fortunately Lionel was going away the next day on a walking tour by himself (a thing which he was very fond of doing), for I could not bring myself to tell Lionel about it just yet, or indeed till the whole thing was over. There was no reason whatever for delay, so we arranged to be married quietly in Paris before a Maire, as, for obvious reasons, it would be better not to be married in London. When the marriage was over I made up my mind to write to Lionel. I tore up several letters in various styles; at last I resolved to adopt the flippantly facetious. I said, ‘I am now in Paris, and who do you think is my companion? You will never guess—Lady Julia Gore-Vere, only her name isn’t Gore-Vere now, but Glynde, because I have married her; but it won’t make any difference, you must call her Lady Julia all the same.’
To this letter there was no response; to this I attached but little importance. ‘Of course,’ I thought, ‘he will be a little sulky at first, but he will soon get over it; his innate sense of humour will show him how foolish he has been.’
In spite of all people might say against my wife, there could be no more charming travelling companion, always amusing and amused, and intelligently critical; indeed, if I had not always had the haunting thought of Lionel, I think we should have enjoyed ourselves very much.
Will you understand me if I say that I was sorry to find out my wife’s was by no means as black as it was painted; indeed, she was much more the wronged than the wrongdoer. This, I suppose, is inverted selfishness; it is a luxury to pose as a hero. What was my heroic self-sacrifice? Simply getting a charming wife, who really loved me, and who had never loved any one else before.
I wrote to Lionel once more—a long, lively letter describing the places we had been to, interspersed with graphic sketches of persons and places. To this again I received no answer. But then as I had addressed it to the last country place where I knew Lionel had been staying, I came to the conclusion he could not have received it, possibly having left no address behind him.
At last we came home; I learned that Lionel was staying with his father. I sent a note, saying: ‘I insist on seeing you. Come this evening. Waiting for an answer.’
There was no answer; but in the evening Lionel came in person.
Lionel, I say? Could this be Lionel? He was utterly changed. All youth and buoyancy had gone from him; he rather dragged himself along than walked; he was quite pale, and wore a look of utter, absolute dejection. I tried to pretend to take no notice.
Well, Lionel,’ I said, with sham cheerfulness, ‘what have you been doing all this time?’ He answered in a dull, apathetic voice, ‘painting a picture.’
‘A picture? What about?’
‘You will get it the day after to-morrow,’ he said in the same dull monotone.
‘Child, what has come over you? Why do you keep aloof from me? Why do you not answer my letters?’
‘I think it is somewhat needless for you to ask that question,’ he said.
‘No, but tell me—explain,’ I cried, stretching out my hands to him. He went backwards to the other end of the room, and then said in a voice filled with tears, ‘You have taken from me all that I loved; I should not have thought that of you. Of course you had a perfect right to do so, but still, at least, you might have told me first.’
‘All that you loved? ‘I said.
Yes! All except yourself, and you have killed my love for you, he said, almost with a wail.
‘But, Lionel, listen; I do not love her.’
Do you consider that an excuse?’ he said fiercely; if you did I might forgive you; but as itis I cannot. ‘But listen, child,’ I cried; ‘hear me out; it is not her that I love but you; it was to save you from what I thought would be your utter ruin that I married her.’
‘A strange way of showing love to break my heart,’ he said in the same spiritless voice as before; ‘Good-bye,’ and then he turned his back on me, and held out his left hand—it was quite cold, and fell limp to his side; he turned once round as he opened the door with a look of mute reproach which will haunt me for ever.
The day after tomorrow I took up the morning paper, and saw this:—
SHOCKING ACCIDENT WHILE
‘Near —— Island (the island where I first met Lionel), the body of a young man was found yesterday. There was little difficulty in identifying the body as that of Mr. Lionel Langton, a young artist of much promise, as his clothes were on the shore, and a pocket-book containing cards and letters was found in the coat pocket, and also as Mr. Langton was well-known in this neighbourhood, being particularly fond of bathing at this spot. The fact of his being drowned has caused much astonishment, as he was known to be a remarkably good swimmer. Death was attributed to sudden cramp. His father, Professor Langton, was immediately telegraphed for, and seemed quite overcome with grief. He deposed that lately he had been much distressed about his son; he had been unwell and very depressed, also strange in his manner, for which he, his father, could assign no cause.
Hardly had I read this, when there was a violent knock at the door, and two men came in bringing a picture. Never had I seen anything so good from Lionel’s hand; it was simply wonderful. It represented Hylas lying at the bottom of a river, seen through water. The figure of Hylas was a portrait of himself as he was when I first saw him, but somehow into the closed eyes he had infused the expression which I had last seen in his face. Looking down, reflected in the water, was my own face. Starting up, I caught a sight of my face in a mirror; by what prescience did he know that I should look thus on hearing the tidings of his death?
Mom gave me a block of cheddar cheese and a sleeve of Fig Newtons when I left home for California in August of 1983. Apparently back then, when crossing the country alone in an unreliable foreign car, it wasn’t money, a map or even an old blanket, but foodstuffs from home rolled up in a paper bag that really said you care.
The Fiat station wagon with the fake wood side panels rattled like a rusty birdcage as I deposited the last of my albums inside and slammed the hatchback. Mom was waiting for me on the sidewalk in her faded yellow zip-up robe, arms crossed at her stomach. She hunched a bit like she ate something bad. To her credit she had dragged herself out of bed at dawn for my farewell to Michigan, an undeniable feat for someone who raised eight kids and liked to stay up late smoking Kents, drinking red wine and writing letters to cousins in Wisconsin.
Despite being just over five feet tall, my mother was a warrior, a fighter you didn’t cross. She once killed a snake with one whack of a hoe while balancing a child on her hip. She could deliver sermons worthy of any Catholic priest from the Kalamazoo diocese and for twice as long. She could hold a grudge for years, if not decades. But now Mom’s eyes, normally narrowed in skepticism, were wide and watery as a baby seal’s. She was weeping for me, her sixth child, the quiet daughter, the untalented one, the one for whom no expectations were ever expected by anyone. Even me.
I could have left already. The sun was rising through the neighbor’s maple tree, the one Mom hated, the one with leaves as big as plates. I was politely standing before the woman who tortured me for the past three months about my meager plans to leave for LA. The woman who railed about my quitting the radio station. The woman who would not let me forget that the Fiat was really her car even though she sold it to me for four hundred dollars the year before.
Our family did not embrace physical affection, especially back in the ‘80s, before people coast to coast started hugging each other like Mafiosi. Growing up, any affection from Mom stopped when my little sister Kitty arrived home from the hospital. I was seven then and didn’t get much more than a pat on the back after that. So when I left home there were no hugs or kisses expected. Mom stood still. I shifted around.
“Someone from WHFB called the house yesterday asking for you,” she said. “He said there is a job opening. You could live at home and work right in town.”
Much was wrong with that horrifying suggestion, but instead of insisting I’d never want to live at home again, I flailed my arms in the direction of the stuffed yellow car. “But I’m all packed.”
She took a step forward and concocted another argument. “But Mims Dear, what will you do at Christmas? All alone?”
“I’m not worried about it Mom,” I said, slowly inching to the car.
Now following me down the driveway, she gave it another try. Desperation gripped her face. “But what if you fail?”
I wanted to laugh it was so absurd. “Would that be so terrible?”
Seeing my mother in tears was unusual but the idea of failure was not. Failure I have known since 7th-grade gym, 8th-grade gym, high school gym entirely, 10th-grade geometry, college boys from Bay City, Econ 101 and the teaching assistant from English Comp 167. Failure was my normal. I expected it. To Mom it was unacceptable. Failure could ruin social standings, job opportunities, dating prospects, marriage proposals, and God forbid, your reputation. Avoiding failure was so important to both my parents they legally changed my name from Martine to Miriam on the advice of Dad’s hot-shot boss who came to dinner one night in 1960. I was six months old. The family had just moved to Michigan for Dad’s new job. He must have been under a lot of pressure. The unfortunate name change was not meant to bolster a child into life, but to spare me a lifetime of Dean Martin martini jokes and spare them the debilitation of having a daughter who might be called Tina.
Instead of enjoying the je ne sais quoi of a French name, I grew up with one so Biblical no one in the family used it. By the time I was in first grade at Brown School, I still had no idea I was anyone but Mimi. One day Mrs. Cleveland said “Write your real name on your paper. Mimi is not your real name.” Confusion buzzed my brain and lit my cheeks on fire. How did old Mrs. Cleveland know my name and I didn’t?
Running home from the bus stop I imagined a name like Cathy or Susie, regular 1965 stuff. I was excited. My sisters had pretty girl names: Mary, Michelle, Elisa, Catherine and Christiane. That afternoon Mom sat me down at the kitchen counter and told me the genesis of the name Miriam, from historic Bible story to fateful dinner party. It was a heavy name for someone just six years old. Why was I being punished?
Mom taught me how to spell Miriam and produced an official green replacement birth certificate from the county courthouse which I immediately hid in my dresser drawer under my anklets. No cute birth certificate with footprints for me. The entire miserable experience fueled my adoption fantasy for years in which I’m the only child of rich, loving parents who buy me pretty clothes, give me my own bedroom with a canopy bed and call me Candy.
One day after school I was shuffling through eighth grade when my record player had just crackled through my favorite John Denver album for the millionth time and I realized I could not live another day without music ruling my life. I strode to the kitchen, boosted by thirteen-year-old girl hormones and the power of pop music. Standing next to the stove I confided to Mom my dream of being the female version of John Denver, complete with guitar and mountain cabin.
Without looking up from the spaghetti she was breaking into boiling water, she imploded. “Do not even think about becoming a musician. Besides, you have no talent.”
I backed away and slid down the hall to the tiny blue bedroom I shared with Elisa, swishing as quietly as I could in my pink corduroy bell bottoms, the ones I bought with babysitting money, the ones that matched the purple heart I drew on my right cheek in honor of Elton John and Glitter Rock. The subject never came up again.
After that, I practiced my flute and suffered through piano lessons, but for no purpose beyond satisfying my parents and keeping the peace. For a few years, there was a rebellious dream of learning sound-mixing and going on the road with a rock band. This idea I lifted from an advertisement in the Whole Earth Catalog. It coincided nicely with my plan to run away to San Francisco, get my own apartment with a porch and hang some glass Chinese wind chimes, the kind they sold at the dime store.
My senior year in high school my parents suddenly took an interest in my life, sharing with me their ideas for my so-called career. Dad suggested I become a stewardess. “They look like they’re having fun!” Mom thought the Navy was perfect for her listless daughter. She was a WAVE in Pensacola during WWII and apparently had the time of her life despite the war. “It will give your life some structure.”
Neither of them suggested going away to college but pushed the community college instead.
Both were surprised when the University of Michigan sent me an admittance letter. “Must be because your sisters and brother already go there,” said Mom as she explained away the academic anomaly. Maybe it was true. I didn’t care. Then Michigan State also sent an admittance letter, but I decided against it because it has a huge campus and would require more walking.
The summer after my freshman year, Dad invited me along on a short business trip to Champaign. He graduated from the University of Illinois and got his start in advertising down there and still knew plenty of large farming businesses around the state.
“Put a dress on,” he said standing in the bedroom door. “You’re coming with me today.”
I didn’t own a dress. I was in college. So I zipped myself into a tight blue corduroy skirt and was pulling up some coordinated knee socks when Dad appeared in the doorway, appalled. “For God’s sake, put on some nylons!” I didn’t own nylons. I was in college.
Four hours later we were peering over Reuben sandwiches the size of footballs at a dinner with Dad’s client, a sweat-braised farmer who brought along his tall, blond son who would someday inherit the family chicken farm. “This is my son Bobby,” the farmer says, laying a baseball mitt of a hand on his boy’s shoulder. “He just graduated from the University of Illinois.” Bobby tilted his head in polite embarrassment and fluttered sun bleached eyelashes. In an instant, I knew what was going on. And it explained the nylons. This trip was not part of a plan to show Mimi a side of the advertising business. It was my parents’ plan to marry off their drifting daughter to a rich farmer.
The ride home was long and quiet as my anger turned to sadness. Cornfields threaded the prairie together into hours and miles of monotony. Then the blue sky turned a shade of orangey-pink, my favorite. As the sun drooped down I distracted myself with its beauty before we turned east to round Lake Michigan and head toward home.
A year later I chose my college major: Broadcasting/Film. Since my parents wouldn’t pay for music school I opted for the thrill of seeing my name scrawled across the big screen for producing the adaptation of my poignant best-selling book, the one that pushed my young readers to sob into their pillows for days. It would have to do. After graduation and a year of working on the radio, I decided to move to LA.
If it had been fifteen years earlier I would be driving an orange VW van to San Francisco for some acid and a Grateful Dead concert. In comparison, how could I not be way ahead? LA’s famous greed was in full swing and jobs were plentiful. If anything was going to fail it would be the car, but I had $800 and a can of Fix-A-Flat. I was prepared. Failure would have to wait.
Two days later I was crawling across Nebraska in 112-degree heat, slugging lemonade and bringing in the sweat pooling under my legs. My co-pilot, the block of cheese, had separated and curdled on the seat next to me. Five hours later we slid off the prairie and into an avalanche of green clouds that barreled down I-70 from the foothills above Denver.
A few miles east of the Continental Divide in the roiling guts of the storm, the little yellow car grew weary. It was something about rolling the wheels, running the wipers and driving uphill at the same time. My student-driver pace of 55 miles an hour slipped to 35, then 25 and then — nothing. If only we had made it to the Eisenhower Tunnel I could have floated all the way to Grand Junction on a river of rain.
While I waited at the side of the road, the temperature dropped at least 30 degrees. I shimmied into a pair of Levi’s, fully expecting a cop or trucker to stop at any moment. But there I sat with blinkers on as the car shuddered with each stampede of semi trucks that whizzed by. No one stopped. Bullets of rain hit the roof for an hour and a half before I realized I had to do something.
Hitchhiking was a heart-pounding success. Within a minute of sticking my thumb out a burly Ford Bronco roared up, handsome mountain man at the wheel. “You need a lift? I’m going as far as Silverthorne.”
As luck would have it, I was going anywhere he was going. I peeked into his car. There was a mug on the dashboard and whiskey on his breath. A confident commuter. He made me miss the farm boys I left behind in Michigan who could maneuver a car the size of a corn combine through a foot of snow at 70 miles an hour with a beer between their legs and a dead deer strapped to the roof. If this guy could drink and drive in this rain he must be a pretty good driver. I hopped in, relaxing deep into the seat which exhaled a perfume of cigarettes and aftershave.
The feeling of actual horsepower is comforting to us Fiat owners. We roared up the mountain, through the tunnel and into the next town, achieving in minutes what my car had been trying to do all afternoon. The mountain man offered to put me up for the night. Tempting, but after driving all day I had no energy left in case I had to fight him off. “Oh no thanks, I’ll just get a room,” I said in a tone I hadn’t heard myself use before, as if I had gotten many rooms many times before from travels with a temperamental vehicle.
He deposited me at the gas station next to the Super 8 motel and drove off with a casual hand out the window. “Don’t leave,” I whispered to myself. If only I was brave enough to let him help me more.
The green wooden bench outside the gas station was wet where the paint had peeled away, but I sat there anyway, feeling it soak through my jeans. The clouds broke apart and the sun began melting the events of the day from my thoughts. Water dripped from gushing gutters into a puddle in the gravel parking lot. The station guy droned in the background as he called around for a tow truck. Traffic from down the street echoed in the wetness. Life was resuming after the storm and with a cool mountain evening approaching, I felt fall waiting in the pines.
Due to the imminent end of my summer break, and shortly before resuming my work at the Teacher Training College at the beginning of the third week of September, I reassured my wife, Zuleika al-Nadra, that we would not delay another day. She had already complained to me that there was a lot waiting for her to do at our apartment in Oran. I asked her to get ready the leave the following day. Then I headed out. A few meters away – thirty paces as counted years before with a child’s steps – on the other side of the street, I came to a stop. I had never stood like that before, with such sadness, in front of Chaim Ben Maimoun’s house. Like a being turned to stone, it looked haunted by emptiness for the three months since fate had effaced the last of its bygone residents.
I stepped forwards. By the silent door, the one I had seen Chaim coming out of twenty-eight years before with his satchel for us to go together to the Ecole Jules Ferry for the first time, I unhooked the cold piece of metal hanging from a small ring with “house key” written on a label. I inserted the key in the keyhole and turned it twice. Then I went inside and once again I experienced feelings the likes of which I had not felt even on the day when I went back to my grandmother’s house after her death. Such an oppressive calm brooded over the hallway, which was neither long or very wide with its red floor tiles and its walls painted a very light brown. Such a silence that rendered the doors to the three rooms and the kitchen mute as they stood facing each other, two on each side, all open except for the locked door that led to the backyard.
Everything, all the furniture, seemed in exactly the same place as Chaim had left it for the last time, how I had wanted it to remain for him since having told the cleaner Ouniya not to move anything when she came to clean the house every fortnight and water every week the plants in the backyard that needed watering.
It really seemed as though this was the first time. The hallway seemed longer and the wall-clock larger than when I had passed it as a child. Chaim’s bedroom, it’s window overlooking the street with its white curtain with a peacock pattern, looked bigger. Now, however, the room was a study with a wicker chair and an oak desk. The Parker fountain pen and bottle of black Waterman ink were still on the desk and between them a diary that I had seen when I went in two months ago and had been drawn towards as though responding to an ambiguous siren call saying that the diary had been left like that to attract my attention. Otherwise, Chaim would have tucked it away somewhere it couldn’t be seen or placed it on a bookshelf. Despite that, I had hesitated a few moments before opening it.
Here was his parents’ room, which became his bedroom after they died. It too had a closed window with a blind that overlooked the street. The wardrobe was still there, bedding and covers arranged on two tables on either side of it; the large bed and two bedside tables, a lamp on one and a seven-branched Menorah and a Bible bound in dark brown leather on the other.
The sitting room likewise had a large window with a sheer curtain with a pattern of oat florets overlooking the backyard. There were the two sofas and the two wooden armchairs and the low table on a rug. Here it was that three years before I had drunk with Zuleika the coffee that Chaim had offered us after he had escaped being beaten up on the morning of Independence Day. On the wall to the right hung three oil paintings. On the wall opposite were large framed portrait-style photographs: the first of Moshe, Chaim’s father, in a broadcloth turban; the second of his mother, Zahira Simah, whose kind, benign gaze, earrings and necklace, and tight headband made her look like my grandmother Rabia. The third photograph was of Chaim himself as he was in his first year at the Ecole Jules Ferry. I was filled with a nostalgic longing to sit down with him at the same table; for the smell of ink, the crackling of the logs in the stove, and the ringing of the bell; for the crush of our alleyway and the town square when it snowed and we threw snowballs at each other; for the river valley in the heat of summer when we once swam naked and discovered we were both circumcised.
“Since that age, I felt a secret attraction for your gentle features, calm manner, and dreamy eyes,” I whispered to his image. I imagined him smiling back and I added, “Do you remember our last piece of mischief?” That was when we got scared by Alphonso Batiste shouting at us; he had caught us up the pear tree on his little farm in the southern suburb by the western bank of the river. We jumped down and slipped away like two sly foxes between the wires of the fence. Our legs raced off with us in our shorts, cardigans, and rubber sandals. We didn’t pay attention to anything until the arches of the bridge loomed above us. Nearby we could hear the roaring of the engine of a car that I had seen when I glanced behind me. It was eating up the dusty road close to the Sigoura bar and causing clouds of dust as thick as Alphonso Batiste’s rage as he pressed on the accelerator as hard as he gripped the steering wheel. As I felt this, I imagined how he would deal with the Arab boy and the son of the Jewess.
“It’s because he knew who we were,” Chaim reminded me years later at the restaurant of the Orient Hotel, where we had lunch when the place appealed to us and talked about our old teacher at the Ecole Jules Ferry, Monsieur Jaime Sanchez, whose funeral we had attended a few days before at the Christian Cemetery in the eastern suburb of the city. We recalled his strictness and his fairness towards his pupils without discrimination. We only learned at his funeral that he had been a communist in the Republican ranks against Franco.
I have no doubt today that to Alphonso Batiste as he fumed behind us changing gear or swinging the steering wheel left to right we were far worse than two little devils who had disturbed his siesta. Alphonso Batiste – as during our lunch Chaim told me he had imagined – thought that once he had caught us, after having exhausted us and made us surrender, he would throw us into the boot of his car trussed back to back like the trophies of a hunt and take us back to the same pear tree. Then he would snap off some branches from other plum and apple trees, and raise and lower the amount in compensation he would demand from the families of the two little thieves, as he called them, or else he would make a formal complaint against them.
I still felt that shiver of fear whenever I remembered that Alphonso Batiste’s car would have caught up with us between the Sigoura Bar and the viaduct over the river. The fear had started to creep into my knees, and Chaim’s gasps behind me made more frightened that he was going to collapse. An idea flashed across my mind: jumping into the water. I signaled to him with my hand and he followed me as we suddenly swerved away to the right, using our arms like two birds for balance, down towards the river, slipping down the steep slope. We jumped into the water, and like two beavers, swam across to the other bank. When we got there, we turned around in terror and saw Alphonso Batiste, who had got out of his car and run after us. He stood there on the edge of the water, shouting incomprehensibly and gesturing threateningly. Laughing, we turned our backs on him and disappeared into the olive groves.
On the way back to our street, we crossed the railways’ lines and went down Jerriville Street, which, like the other streets, was almost devoid of movement on that burning-hot afternoon. Nothing moved apart from a car whose engine whined and whose wheels whooshed on the tarmac, a woman passing in a white cylindrical hat, and a man standing smoking on the opposite pavement in the shade of a plane tree.
“I was about to fall over,” said Chaim. “Then he would have trapped me like a rabbit.”
I laughed. “I could tell your tongue was hanging out like a puppy dog.”
“Yeah. But how did you come up with the idea?”
I replied that I didn’t know. I had only been planning to shorten the route.
“We were lucky that it’s summer and the river is low. Otherwise, we’d have drowned,” added Chaim as he tugged his sodden clothing off his stomach at one moment and off his thighs the next.
“That wouldn’t have happened because fear would have given us the strength to cross an ocean!” I said as I rubbed the water out of my hair.
Chaim raised his fist in victory and laughed in delight and I joined in.
Once we had gone past the clocktower close by the box-like sundial without the gaze of the suspicious policeman disturbing our steps, the Ecole Jules Ferry appeared to our left. We stopped and silently turned towards it. What voices of elation, disappointment, and deceit had filled it for six years!
Then, hand in hand, we turned towards our street, east of the town hall with its black slate roof. To our right was the Orient Hotel at the end of Izly Street. Close to our homes, we took shelter in an abandoned, roofless hut at the end of our street. We sat down on two rocks under the sun. As we waited for our clothes to dry, we went over our plot against our schoolmate Max Batiste, on account of which he had complained about us to his father Alphonso. He claimed that we had made fun of him one time in the playground because he had wet himself when the teacher had asked him to solve a long division on the blackboard, and that we had laughed at him on another occasion when he had been unable to learn the fable of the Crow and the Fox by heart. He told his father that the teacher, Monsieur Sanchez, mostly turned a blind eye and played deaf.
“I know, son, because Mr Sanchez sympathizes with the Jewish and Muslim natives,” Max’s father said at the time.
Those words were soon doing the rounds. When they reached Monsieur Sanchez, he devoted a civics class to integrity. On the blackboard he wrote something for us to copy into our exercise books: “A school teacher does not discriminate between his pupils and does not favour some over others on the basis of religion or race.”
What Max had concealed from his father was that we responded to his inducements in the form of the sweets and chocolates he kept in his pockets and helped him with his homework at the school gates before going in or when leaving.
Mr Alphonso Batiste visited the headmaster one day and asked him to clarify the matter. Monsieur Sanchez was summoned and questioned about the matter, which he firmly denied. Mr Alphonso Batiste was not convinced, however. He threatened to end his charitable contributions to the school unless the two guilty pupils – Arslan the Caid’s boy and Chaim the Jew boy – were made an example of. I only learned later that Mr Alphonso Batiste was a supporter of Marshal Pétain. The headmaster proposed bringing the three of us to his office straight away to discover what had happened. Alphonso Batiste conceded, promising to keep quiet this time, but threatening to make a complaint to the head of the town council if his son was upset again.
We, two little devils, looked at the marks of our schoolmate Max, which were poor in comparison with our own excellent marks, and we realized that nobody would dare punish us with expulsion, transfer, or detention, or even being denied lunch in the school dining room or the monthly film show in the school hall. Instead, we got a telling-off from the headmaster in front of our teacher.
Standing in front of Chaim’s photograph, I found it amazing that we should have come up with the idea of taking revenge against Max’s father in that way. I knew, just like Chaim, and we were both confident in our belief, that Alphonso Batiste would never make another complaint to the headmaster of the Ecole Jules Ferry, because we were never going back there, unlike his son Max, who had to redo the year, since we had won the competition to enter year six.
That year we would turn twelve, and in another year World War II would be over.
I turned away from Chaim’s portrait to leave, but I stopped again before the diary between the pen and the bottle of ink, unable to make up my mind for a few moments before setting off down the corridor towards the door out.
Our friends the Zaitsevs live out of town “The air is so much better out in the suburbs,” they say. That is, they can’t afford to live where the air is bad. A small group of us went to visit them.
We set off without any mishap. That is, apart from minor details: we didn’t take enough cigarettes, one of us lost her gloves, another forgot her door key. And then, at the station, we bought one ticket less than we needed. Well, anyone can make a mistake. We counted wrong. Even though there were only four of us.
It was a little awkward, actually, that we counted wrong. Apparently, in Hamburg, there was once a horse that could count beautifully, right up to six…
And we got out without any mishap at the right station. Though we did get out once or twice before—at every station, as a matter of fact. But every time, realizing our mistake, we had, very sensibly, got back in the carriage.
When we arrived at our destination we had a few more awkward moments. It turned out that none of us knew the Zaitsevs’ address. Each of us was relying on the others.
A quiet, gentle voice came to our aid: “You’re here!”
It was the Zaitsevs’ daughter: a girl of eleven, clear-eyed, with blond Russian plaits just like I had had at that age (plaits pulled so many, many times by other children, plaits that brought me no end of grief!).
She had come to meet us.
“I really didn’t think you’d get here!” she said.
“Well, Mama kept saying that you’d either miss the train or get the wrong one.”
I was a little offended. I’m actually very punctual. Recently, when I was invited to a ball, not only did I not arrive late—I was a whole week early.
“Ah, Natasha, Natasha!” I said. “You don’t know me very well yet!”
Her clear eyes looked at me thoughtfully, then down at the ground.
Delighted that we now knew where we were going, we decided to go and sit in a café for a while, then to hunt down some cigarettes, then try to telephone Paris and then…
But the fair-haired girl said very seriously, “No, you absolutely mustn’t. We must go back home right away. They’re expecting us.”
So, shamefaced and obedient, we set off in single file behind the young girl.
We found our hostess at the stove.
She was looking bemusedly into a saucepan.
“Natasha, quick! Tell me what you think? What is this I’ve ended up with—roast beef or salt beef?”
The girl had a look.
“No, my angel,” she said. “This time it looks like beef stew.”
“Wonderful! Who’d have thought it?” cried Madame Zaitseva, delighted.
Dinner was a noisy affair.
We were all very fond of one another, all enjoying ourselves, and all in the mood to talk. We all talked at once. Somebody talked about the journal Contemporary Notes. Somebody talked about how you shouldn’t pray for Lenin. That would be a sin. After all, the Church didn’t pray for Judas. Somebody talked about Parisian women and dresses, about Dostoevsky, about the recent spelling reform, about the situation of writers abroad and about the Dukhobors, and somebody wanted to tell us how the Czechs cook eggs, but she never succeeded. She kept talking away, but she was constantly interrupted.
And in all the hubbub the young girl, now wearing an apron, walked round the table, picking up a fork that had fallen onto the floor, moving a glass away from the edge of the table, seeing to all our needs, taking our worries to heart, her blond plaits glinting as bright as ever.
At one point she came up to one of us and held out a ticket.
“Look,” she said. “I want to show you something. In your own home, is it you who looks after the housekeeping? Well, when you next buy some wine, ask for one of these tickets. When you’ve collected a hundred tickets, they’ll give you six towels.”
She kept pointing things out to us and explaining things. She very much wanted to help—to help us live in the world.
“How wonderful it is here,” enthused our hostess. “After the lives we led under the Bolsheviks! It’s barely believable. You turn on a tap—and water comes out. You go to light the stove—and there’s firewood already there.”
“Eat up, my angel,” the girl whispered. “Your food will go cold.”
We talked until it grew dark. The fair-haired girl had for some time been repeating something to each of us in turn. At last somebody paid attention.
“You need to catch the seven o’clock train,” she had been saying. “You must go to the station straight away.”
We grabbed our things and ran to the station.
There we had one last, hurried conversation.
“We need to buy Madame Zaitseva a dress tomorrow. Very modest, but showy. Black, but not too black. Narrow, but it must look full. And most important of all, one she won’t grow tired of.”
“Let’s take Natasha with us. She can advise us.”
And off we went again: Contemporary Notes, Gorky, French literature, Rome-
And the fair-haired girl was walking about, saying something, trying to convince us of something. At last, somebody listened.
“You need to go over the bridge to the other platform. Don’t wait till the train comes in or you’ll have to rush and you might miss it.”
The next day, in the shop, the graceful figure of Madame Zaitseva was reflected in two triple mirrors. A little salesgirl with pomaded hair and short legs was draping one dress after another over her. And on a chair, her hands politely folded, sat the fair-haired girl, dispensing advice.
“Oh!” said Madame Zaitseva, flitting about between the mirrors. “This one is lovely. Natasha, why aren’t you giving me any advice? Look, isn’t that beautiful—with the grey embroidery on the front. Quick, tell me what you think!”
“No, my angel, you mustn’t buy a dress like that. How could you go about every day with a grey stomach? It would be different if you had a lot of dresses. But as it is, it’s not very practical.”
“Well, fancy you saying that!” her mother protested. But she didn’t dare disobey.
We began to make our way out.
“Oh!” cried Madame Zaitseva, “Just look at these collars! They’re just what I’ve been dreaming of! Natasha, take me away from them quickly, don’t let me get carried away!”
Concerned, the fair-haired girl took her mother by the hand.
“Come this way, my angel, don’t look over there. Come over here and look at the needles and thread.”
“You know what?” whispered Madame Zaitseva, with a sideways glance at her daughter. “She heard what we were saying about Lenin yesterday. And in the evening she said, ‘I pray for him every day. People say he has much blood on his conscience. It’s a burden on his soul… I can’t help it,’ she said to me, ‘I pray for him.’”
*Taken from Rasputin and Other Stories by Teffi, ed. Robert Chandler and Ann Marie Jackson, Pushkin Press London