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.”
*The story is published in cooperation with The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature.
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.
*”The Spider in the Jar” from “Clear Skies, No Wind, 100% Visibility”, Copyright © 2013, Théodora Armstrong, Reprinted with Permission of House of Anansi Press Inc. Canada.
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 it is 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
We used to jump, Lydia and I, as high and as often as we could, hands high over our heads, wearing colourful dresses, our knees pulled up, our feet in stout shoes we were allowed to keep on while jumping, though they sometimes came loose and fell off. Down there at the harbour where a few boats bobbed on the water behind the high fences and the no-entry signs, only four or five boats, perhaps because it wasn’t really a harbour, just brown water bordering an endless expanse of concrete where a circus set up its tents and trailers and stalls during the summer months. And a trampoline, a big trampoline we could jump on for fifty pfennigs, Lydia and I.
Lydia peered through the telescope someone had installed by the water, near a fence, long before our time, when there were still cranes and ships and sheds and box cars, and she peered through other telescopes too wherever and whenever we found them. It didn’t make sense to me, why she loved looking through a dark tube that made the world look a lot smaller and only showed a tiny piece of it, but maybe the reason I didn’t like it was because Lydia loved it, because for once I wanted to dislike something that she liked, even if it was only looking through a telescope. I didn’t understand what she could see, what anyone could see, for that matter; all I ever saw was green, and by the time I figured out how to hold the telescope and angle it, the lens snapped shut and it all went black.
Lydia always behaved as if she was the only person who could see what she saw, as if no one else could see it, as if the telescope through which she peered was not any old telescope you could throw a coin into but one made especially for her, to be operated by her alone. She never skipped a telescope on our rambles and expeditions, not the one on the viewing tower in the forest nearby, nor the one on the observation deck at the airport. Each time she would step up onto the tiny steel platform in the same stout shoes, summer or winter, grab the handles left and right that always stained her fingers red, and haul herself up.
There came a time when Lydia no longer liked these things, though neither she nor I knew why; not the telescopes, not the jumping, not the candyfloss we used to pull off in pink or white wads that left a sugary coating on our teeth, not even the summer sky, high above us, with its clouds and the occasional seagulls and jet trails, this sky Lydia had always loved because it changed colour every time we looked up. Before, we had been happy just to lie on that concrete expanse near the boats and look up at the sky, where the other children’s kites flew among the fluffy clouds and the seagulls, kites which they got from the circus folk and which, as soon as the wind changed, came crashing down on the concrete near our heads, their noses pointing down like arrows in flight. We called this summer sky our sky, because we liked the way it allowed us to fly kites, chasing them higher and higher to meet the sky, and because it changed colour from one moment to the next.
On her sixteenth birthday, Lydia stopped wearing the dresses her mother bought for us and never touched them again. Lydia’s mother used to order these dresses with the little bit of money she had to spare, out of catalogues left in hallways in spring and autumn; she would leaf through them for days, weeks, marking pages whenever something took her fancy, putting paper clips on anything she thought would look pretty on Lydia and on me.
Two years later, Lydia packed her bags, the two small holdalls she had, taking only the bare essentials – two books, two notebooks, a photo, and just a few clothes. She had given her mother and me plenty of notice of her new life and described it the way she saw it. She knew it already, before it had so much as begun; she had even started to fit out what would soon be her new room, filling it in her mind with furniture and rugs that would be different to her mother’s. She’d wear gloves all year round, Lydia had said, gloves of palest leather, and she’d buy her clothes in London, only in London, no other city in the world would do. We let her talk, Lydia’s mother and I, without believing a word of it, because Lydia often talked about things she seemed to forget as soon as they were out of her mouth, things that never happened in the end, at least not the way Lydia described them or imagined them. Maybe we didn’t want to believe her because we didn’t want our life to be a life without Lydia. Lydia used to say to me, when we are old, you and I, really old, we will still have each other, or we’ll have each other again, and nothing will bother us any more, not autumn, not winter, not our white hair. We will have each other; she said it again two months before she disappeared, leaving me behind wondering when.
Lydia’s mother spent a lot of time sitting on a chair by the window, a chair Lydia and I had painted white the previous summer, because that summer we’d painted all of Lydia’s mother’s furniture white. Lydia’s mother let us do it, because she always gave Lydia permission for her projects, and so, after Lydia had left, she sat by the window on this particular white chair, the only one on which Lydia had painted a stripe and two pale pink roses on top of the white, using a stencil she made herself. She never took her coat off now, the old check one that didn’t go with her skirt, the same coat Lydia had always wanted to hide or burn; she kept her gloves on too and clung to her coat with one hand as if this piece of cloth could hold her in place.
We waited, Lydia’s mother and I, and it took a long time for us to grasp that Lydia was gone, that she had let the door close behind her, had floated down the stairs, up the street to the bus stop, wearing her woolly hat and her dark jacket, holding the two bags and the ticket she had saved so long for, away to the airport and onto a plane Lydia’s mother and I did not want to watch taking off. But we imagined all that as we sat by the window on the white chairs, and during the days and the weeks that followed, imagining Lydia rushing with her two bags to the observation deck in the last few minutes before her flight was called to take one more look through the telescope, grabbing the handles left and right one last time.
Now there’s this postcard on my bed, and beside it a key on a ribbon, a bright red ribbon, an address in London, and Lydia’s kiss, also bright red, with which she stamped all her letters, and beside that the PIN code you have to key in if you want her door to open, and six words in her typical style, more catchphrase than letter: Come to see – autumn and me.
It takes some time for me to phone her, perhaps because I find myself thinking, too often, that she never came to see us, not even for a day, not even to see her mother, that every summer she came up with excuses that weren’t really excuses; and because I still find myself thinking, too often, how she didn’t just pretend that we weren’t right for her any more but actually made me think that we, the two of us, had never been right, that it had never really existed, me and her, not the clothes from the catalogues, nor the place we called the harbour, nor the circus that set up a trampoline and handed out kites, nor the telescopes for Lydia to look through. So I’m relieved, now, when all I get is the answering machine, Lydia’s voice repeating in English the number I just dialled, and I say something in a weak, faltering voice, something beginning with: Hi, Lydia. So… A stupid, meaningless So that doesn’t preface anything, and later, a few hours later, Lydia rings back and says: Are you OK? You sound really weird.
She meets me at the airport, smiles her big wide smile and doesn’t stop, puts her arm around my shoulder and doesn’t take it away, not even later, on the train or on the escalator, in her entrance hall beside all the letter boxes, or in the little lift that takes us up once its black scissor gate has closed. She lets me open the door, using the key she sent me, the one with the red ribbon, and stands beside me, studying my hands as I turn the key in the lock, looking as if she had been longing for this moment, waiting for it to arrive.
Her apartment is painted white, a white bordering on cream; the bedlinen is white, the towels in the bathroom and kitchen are white. Lydia says she can’t bear any other colour, not on the furniture or on the walls. She has put a single photo up on the wall with two pins, over the sink in the kitchen, next to the white tiles; it’s one Lydia’s mother took of Lydia and me back then, with no heads. The picture isn’t of us; it’s of our new dresses on us, the fabric with its pattern full of flowers, tiny flowers. Even without the heads you can tell who’s who straight away, if only by how we hold our hands, each in her own way. My hands are clenched; it looks like I want to hide them, pull them back. Lydia’s hands are open, moving even while she stands still. Lydia says: Do you remember – those catalogues? She tries to smile but it looks like she’s angry still. Pretty little dresses, Lydia’s mother used to call them, and Lydia called them that too, though in a very different tone, and I’m quite sure that Lydia’s mother, when she was taking that photo, did not want Lydia’s face to be in it, nor the look in her eyes, just the dresses, which fit us for more than one summer and which we wore with skinny plastic belts and grey cardigans. In one corner, in thick pencil, Lydia has written: Lydia and Vicki – beautiful, even with no heads.
She walks around the apartment, makes coffee, says: Do you still take it that way? Then she says she has a ring for me, a ring she designed herself, just for me, in pale blue, because blue was my colour, blue like the blue of the sky back then, that blue that never stopped changing, it was exactly that blue – did I remember? I slip the ring over my finger, wondering how she managed, after all these years, to design a ring for me, to craft it here under her little white lamp, with her little pliers, a ring wrought of wires and stones I can see through, and I like it immediately because it has my blue, and it fits straight away, and Lydia says, it looks lovely, the ring, on you, on your finger. And she studies my hands as only she can, her eyes a little smaller than usual, her head to one side, her hands on her hips.
Lydia looks the way she looks because she doesn’t eat, because she suppresses her hunger, because she puts cotton wool soaked in herbal tea into her mouth if I don’t stop her. Her little fridge is empty, almost entirely empty – a bottle of juice, long past its sell-by date, and a gel mask Lydia puts on her eyelids in the mornings, when she drinks her de-caffeinated coffee in her white bathrobe, her wet hair in a white towel turban, her feet in white towelling slippers with her varnished white toenails peeking out. When she sits like this in the mornings, across from me, by this sash window, which has white glazing bars and which Lydia opens after every third, fourth cigarette, then I cannot help thinking that we will not see old age, the two of us, at least not the way Lydia envisaged it back then, shortly before she left: herself and myself, old and stooped, holding on, holding on to each other. Later, at intervals throughout the day, it is that one sentence that keeps coming back into my head: We will not see old age.
I find myself thinking it again when we leave the apartment and Lydia goes charging from one shop to the other, from one coffee shop to the next, in and out, the entrance bell announcing us, then her loud hello-o-o with the long, fading O the way only Lydia can say it, this hello-o-o that seems part invitation, part challenge, but also part threat, as if everyone else were only there to amuse her. We will not see old age, I think, perhaps because Lydia does not seem the sort of person who grows old, who sooner or later looks old, who allows wrinkles to appear in her face; I am thinking this now, as I watch her walk diagonally across the floor of this shop, with her Jackie O sunglasses, that strand of highlighted hair stuck to her forehead, that little black suit with the skirt cut just below the knee but still showing enough leg to make me feel slightly sick, perhaps because her legs are the way they are, and those shoes with the high heels and the straps around her bony ankles that divide Lydia’s legs into a top and a bottom part.
Back then, at fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, when we had each other every day, every hour, it never bothered me when people took Lydia and me for a couple. I liked the fact that people thought I could be with someone like Lydia, that Lydia would want someone like me. It amused us to spread rumours and lies and stories, and we laughed when other people believed us, when they whispered and giggled behind our backs and pointed at us. But now it bothers me, for the first time, that people might take us for a couple; it bothers me in all the cafés and all the shops, every time Lydia opens a door and the entrance bell rings and people turn to look at us, at Lydia and me.
We go for a cup of tea, which is served in a silver teapot, with scones that Lydia doesn’t even touch. Later we take a walk through a big park, because I insist on it, and Lydia looks bored there, with no people, no shops. Leaves flutter down, yellow and brown autumn leaves. There’s a leaf in your hair, I say, d’you want me to get it? Lydia nods, I pick the leaf out of her hair, a little red one; I show it to her, then it flutters to the ground at our feet. A boy wearing one of those short, dark coats children wear here is running across the grass, this lush, bright green grass, holding a line in his hand. His kite is flying in a colourless sky, way up high, like the kites we used to see back then, when we lay on the concrete at the harbour, our arms crossed behind our heads. Lydia stands still, looking up at this pink kite; a gust of wind catches it, and it pulls and drags the boy, who grows smaller and smaller, running faster and faster, and we stand like that for a while until Lydia says, it looks like it wants to lift him up and away.
When Dad’s eyelids drop like a guillotine she pulls the car door shut with a click. He turns his gaze to the road, and from her shady spot in the backseat she can only see his right arm and leg, a small patch of cheek. Dad’s sunglasses lie on the dashboard, glinting at Kore like black stars. The AC hums quietly. The car smells new.
As he backs out of the yard, she turns towards the window in time to wave to her mother who is standing down on the flagstones outside the house, watching them leave. The car stops, gears are shifted. Then they’re on their way.
Five weeks, that’s the plan.
It’s the same every summer, time is split into two big blocks. The first has disappeared already, now it’s the middle of July and starting to get darker, you can see it in the corners, in the crowns of the trees, and the grass has deepened in colour, swapped its light June getup for a deeper dark green shag.
Five weeks. Kore sinks back in the seat and tries to loosen the belt, but it’s stuck. Along the roadside the midsummer flowers have lost their blossoms, only the empty stalks stick up. They had been pink, white, purple. When she and Mum had decorated the Midsummer pole there had been loads of them, they had picked an armful and then stayed up really late, until one thirty.
The car slows down a little when they reach the top of the slope. The dry sound of the blinker. Then they turn onto the highway. When the speedometer needle sweeps past seventy Dad pushes a button that locks all the doors.
The date had approached like a sharp hilltop with an unknown, and yet known, far side. Then the hour. Tick, tock. And then she had glimpsed the car up by the road. He never had to call for her. She would come anyway, as if pulled towards a black magnet, though her feet hardly moved. All morning she had wandered around from room to room with the open bag. But it didn’t matter what she packed. Everything was already there. A new toothbrush instead of the matted one she had at home, pink rainwear instead of the green ones hanging on the hook in the hallway, lots of comic books in the chest of drawers. And toys. A drawing pad. Even small tubes of oil paint that she got for Christmas. Everything you could imagine needing was at her Dad’s, everything.
And at the same time nothing.
He was always late and she always sat waiting, in the hallway, her hands clenched around the bag’s handles. Katja had been preparing dinner in the kitchen at the time. Susanna would be over later, they would sit on the veranda behind the house, light a mosquito coil, drink wine and gossip. Kore’s body had felt empty when she thought about it, that everything would be as usual here. Except her. If she weren’t waiting for Dad just then, she’d have taken out her craft kit and put it on the kitchen table, then listened to cassettes and made something out of paper balls, glue and sequins. And afterwards she and Mum would have watched Disney Afternoon and drunk fizzy drinks and then there would be Fort Boyard. But only if Mum had had time to finish the cleaning, otherwise she would do that first.
“I wonder if you’ll find any snails this year?” Katja had said, taking a packet of prawns out of the freezer, “And you’ve hardly had any time to ride your nice new bike, have you? I’m sure that chain doesn’t wobble at all.”
Kore had nodded and gripped the handles of the backpack again. Up there at the roadside the wind gently nudged the rowans. Still no car. The hallway was dim.
On the wall next to the front door were the faded chalk marks Kore had made when she was three. After Mum had finally found a forgotten bit of the same wallpaper in the attic and pasted it over, it had only taken a few days before Kore had drawn a new crude chalk picture in black and red on the exact same spot, “Apparently there was meant to be a drawing there,” Katja would say with a laugh.
The rustling in the kitchen had stopped. When Kore looked that way Katja had avoided her eyes and started fumbling with the knot of the plastic bag again. Kore had looked back outside and then she saw the car arrive. Emerge from nothing. She got up right away and put on her backpack.
“Call me if there’s anything,” her mum had said, giving Kore a hug. “My little sweetie pie.”
Have a great time, she had said. Haveagreathaveagreathavgrttme.
“Kore,” says her dad.
He looks at her in the rear-view mirror. Far behind them the house is already gone.
“Let’s go to the toy shop,” he says. “And you can choose whatever you want.”
The cool air inside the car gives her legs goosebumps, from her sneakers all the way up to her patterned cycling shorts. Her thighs stick to the cream-coloured leather seat covers. She feels a little cold but doesn’t say anything. Her voice has crawled deep inside her and hidden away, like a hard pea somewhere in her body.
Dad drives quickly through a changing landscape, the car moves almost soundlessly at seventy miles an hour. He glances over his shoulder at every car he glides past. The tip of Kore’s nose happens to touch the window pane, she wipes it carefully with her sleeve so as not to leave a mark. Outside she can see the invisible animals, the seven that have been with her since she was little, following them along the roadside. Titus, Babel, Bollo Sé, Mitko, Masha, Ivrahim and Long-fingers. Titus is running ahead, so beautiful. His pearly black eyes are gleaming. The others have to work to keep up with him, to make it over the tree stumps, through the thickets and across the dikes. Mitko flies sometimes, it’s easier that way. Ivrahim keeps his distance from the rest. Beyond the tilled fields on either side there’s nothing but miles of game fencing. And behind that bushy forest. She knows there are other, bigger animals in there among the trees. So far they haven’t made an appearance. But they are there.
The road descends, the sun flickers between the tree trunks. Here and there she glimpses houses, fewer of them the further down they get. Then the world becomes desolate and empty. They drive past an unattended petrol station, a collapsed barn. Some bare trunks against the burnt grass of the area. Everything is falling, gaping emptily in the void. Then the car reaches the muddy bottom, rounds a bend and the town spreads out in front of them. A roundabout with a large iron figure in the middle, behind which chimneys shoot straight up into the thick cloud cover. The manholes are steaming. Next to the bus station a teenager sits hunched on a railing.
A minute later the car stops, and with a single step her dad is outside. Kore steps onto the pavement and follows him towards the shop. Out of the corner of her eye she notices that the animals have stealthily hidden behind one of the rear wheels.
When they’re back outside Kore is holding a thin bag, and in it lies the doll. A light blue dress, rustling frills. There had been so many of them in there, in the end she took only one. Her hands look sooty in the weak light.
The animals get into the car with her this time, crowding around her feet on the mat. Now they are in her father’s land and live under her father’s laws. Their eyes wander.
Everything is quiet and peaceful in the villa quarter at Ektjärn, the sun smooth like a tongue above the roofs. No one is out mowing the lawn, the trampolines are abandoned. An auburn cat sits grooming itself on the front steps of one of the houses. It breaks off mid-movement as they drive past. Kore sees the car reflected in every window they pass. An egg-shaped, shiny stone. And in the middle of the stone – her face.
Once Dad has parked and let her into the house, she sits down in the armchair in the living room. Then he fetches the presents. She gets one after the other, until her lap is full of small figures and boxes inside boxes and hair accessories and colourful bracelets. The objects come from all over the world, her dad travels a lot with work, to various conferences and institutions. He travels to places where people speak like birds, have gold teeth and gaping mouths. He’s been to New York, Singapore and Madrid. Istanbul and Lima. Sydney, once. She holds a small lacquered box up to her nose and takes in the smell of the other life Dad leads, when she isn’t there.
Kore thanks him and thanks him some more, gets yet another present, and then, when she can hardly take it anymore, he stops and jiggles a slender piece of jewellery out of a red box in the pocket of his suit jacket and lays it out across his hand, and it glitters and from the very end of the necklace hangs a little silver heart.
“This is a grown-up present, really,” he says. “But I want you to have it. My little queen.”
Kore looks at the necklace that seems to run and trickle even though it’s lying perfectly still in her father’s hands. As he puts it around her neck she hears his voice behind her.
“The jeweller I got it from told me that the heart of whoever you give the necklace to is yours for ever.”
He laughs a little. The light from the living room lamp is making her giddy, its tiny electric strands whirl through the air and descend towards her. Straight at her black, absorbent pupils.
“Promise me, Kore?”
His voice seems to grow more distant, as if floating somewhere above her. That you’re mine for ever. She moves her lips but no sound passes them, she wants to say no but can’t, it sounds almost like he’s crying now, and the specks of light from the lamp steal into her eyes one by one, they’re pulled towards the earth and her face. In her stomach the black ball aches, digs down deeper into her flesh. On her second try, her answer is audible but no louder than a whisper. A final utterance before her voice shuts down.
Here at Dad’s house her room is in the basement, below the staircase. At night it creaks as if someone were walking down there. That does happen sometimes, when Dad’s on his way to his study, which is further along the hall. She never goes there, though. She stays on the other side. Her room here is bigger than the one at home, light blue and mauve – she got to choose the wallpaper herself. The floor is covered in soft carpet so that she won’t feel cold, and the windows are shut tight. Otherwise the snow might crack them in winter, Dad has said. But she knows that it’s to stop her from escaping.
If only she had a sister, she thinks, then everything would be different. In the room next door, a sister, like Snow-White had her Rose-Red, someone who would dare to raise her hand to any attackers and cry Stop! They could read stories to each other when they couldn’t get to sleep, tap messages through the wall using a secret code. And her sister could help her with Dad, so that he wouldn’t get sad.
After they have said goodnight that first night, Kore lies with the duvet pulled up to her chin and looks at the posters he has put up. A purple galaxy on one of them, two bunnies on the other. In the middle, a portrait of herself. Dad says it really resembles her, but when she tries to look at the picture all she can see is a small aching ball where her face ought to be. A shining black stone.
Kore. Daddy’s little queen.
The next morning Dad is happy, he sits at the kitchen table reading the newspaper with her at his side. The room smells of coffee. The latest hits are playing on the radio, and Kore makes drawing after drawing and shows them to him, they’re all for him, full of suns and animals and their houses. Then they play cards, a game for grown-ups.
“You come from a long line of poker players,” he says and lays out a three of a kind. “My dad taught me when I was six.”
He enjoys teaching her things, and she listens carefully and nods all the time, her face is glowing and after a while she can’t resist fooling around, trying to make him laugh by hiding cards up her sleeve, and it works because he laughs and says she is a card shark like his cousin Robert, who bought his house with the money he had won playing cards.
“He’s a real clever one,” says her dad.
Dad likes it when people are good at doing sums in their heads, so he tests her on the times table, she has practiced so much at school that she knows it by heart, even the most difficult number which her dad says is eight times seven. But then she accidentally knocks over a glass, sees it roll over the edge of the table and onto the floor in slow motion. Three big shards and lots of small ones, they spread everywhere. She doesn’t move. He gets up and fetches the broom from the cupboard. He says that he isn’t angry, but she knows the card game is over.
They eat lunch in growing silence. The bigger it gets, the harder it is to break. She forgets to chew, just sits there with the fork in her hand. In her leaden mouth, her tongue is an immovable slug. Then she notices the photo of the dogs on the wall behind him, next to the barometer. She says what were your dogs called again Dad. She asks although she already knows. Zeus and Argos, and then he had Medea who died before she was five. He points at the photo and says that one is Zeus, who didn’t obey anyone but me, a rare black breed, smart and loyal, but he’s been dead for a long time. Argos was good too, but none was like Zeus.
“He never betrayed me,” says Dad, “not even when we crossed the fresh bear tracks in Porsön and he got the shivers, not even then did he run away, although he was shaking all over.”
Kore immediately asks about bears. Then about shivering and foaming.
Once they’ve eaten Dad shows her how to make a fire in the big fireplace downstairs. First he tears strips out of yesterday’s paper, then he makes a rectangle out of the thinnest sticks of kindling he can find, stacks them carefully on top of each other. And then he lights it.
Now everything that happened before is forgotten, because Dad loves the fire. He loves blowing on it and watching the flames eat into the wood, he loves the way the wood groans, and the black smoke that emerges when a living thing starts burning. He loves putting his hands almost close enough for them to catch fire, too. But Dad never gets burnt. He can nudge a burning piece of firewood, move his finger through the flame of a candle as if he were immortal.
At times like this he’ll occasionally take her out. This is my daughter, she’s finally arrived, he’ll tell all the neighbours they meet. Look how pretty she is. Look at her eyes, so like mine.
At other times she will feel, even before she goes into the kitchen in the morning, that it – something – has happened again. The small animals will feel it too. Titus’s ears will go tense and his eyes restless, the others will press against her legs, seeking shelter from the unknown being that at any moment might turn around with the face of a predator and a mouth full of teeth. Just seeing his back is enough, she can feel it in the air, the vibrations of his distorted blood circulation.
But it can also happen suddenly. Even if she is close by. Sometimes she knows why. If something breaks or if she forgets herself and says something about Mum. She has taught herself the signs, even the smallest ones. A facial twitch. The change in his voice. Sometimes it can be mended. If she’s quick. But each eruption only barely hides the promise of an even greater rage.
She imagines a butterfly-like man with a black cloak and antennae slowly descending from the ceiling towards Dad’s body as he sits reading the paper. When Dad feels the antennae on the nape of his neck and turns around, his eyes are filled with a dark dust from an evil star, and it’s this dust that turns her dad into the subterranean other. Into a heaviness that methodically sucks the oxygen from the house. She tries walking silently on the tips of her toes. The silver necklace hangs around her neck like a snare. The coldness of the metal numbs her skin.
She thinks about her promise.
After the Friday movie that night she can’t get away. A half-empty glass in hand, he turns to her with moist lips. His heavy breathing is machine-like, and the air around him pulsates when he fixes his eyes on her. A trembling mouse before the snake.
Why do you even come here, he starts chanting.
He looks at her from deep down, as if his gaze has slipped below the surface of his eyes. This is before he starts crying. That comes later, and it’s the worst. To begin with he hid his rage, let it grow in silence, a dough silently brimming over the edge. She had been focusing on the film, had probably sensed that something was tightening inside him, but not that it would happen so quickly. He must have started drinking earlier in the day. She hadn’t been paying enough attention.
His voice closes like a hand around her neck, intense, cruel, heavy. Why do you come here when you don’t even care. You just want presents, you don’t love me. I just give, and give, and you take. You’re not my princess anymore. You’re just as cold as her. She can’t speak. Sits on the edge of the armchair with all of her muscles tensed up.
The animals pull and drag at her, the whites of their eyes restless and gleaming, but she can’t move. She is caught in his gaze. Her father’s eyes are shiny and his cheeks oily, his mouth wet from saliva.
Kore’s lungs shrink inside her, she’s only exhaling now, nothing wants to go back inside.
“Are you too posh,” he slurs, setting his glass clumsily down on the table, “too posh to speak to your dad?”
For a moment his eyes lose focus, waver towards the dark window as a car drives past in the street. She is freed. The animals get her to her feet and drag her towards the staircase.
“Go on, get out of here!” he says and starts sobbing. “Just do it, leave me here alone … bloody scumbag …”
She doesn’t run, just walks quickly down the stairs. Remembers that her toothbrush is still upstairs. One single time doesn’t matter, that’s what Mum says. But Kore doesn’t want to think about her now, she turns the key and sits down on the bed to comfort her animals. Pets their fur slowly until they’ve stopped trembling. Long-fingers climbs up her arm and falls asleep on her shoulder. The others yawn and pile up on the blanket next to her, even Ivrahim. But Kore can’t sleep.
If she had a sister they would sit whimpering with their arms around one another. But when you’re alone, crying doesn’t help. The tiny pea has shot up in her throat like a choking lump she can’t get rid of, even though she keeps swallowing until her mouth goes dry. Her eyes on the lock of the door, she squeezes the key in her fist. But he’s got one too. In case there’s a fire. She listens for steps on the stairs, but he isn’t coming after her. After maybe twenty minutes she hears the front door slam shut. A bin falls over as he backs the car out. Then everything is quiet.
By half past eleven or so the next day she’s the meanest child in Norrbotten. It’s true. She’s sitting, sticky-fingered, at the kitchen table. Her dad is straight across from her in a dressing gown, just out of bed, his large body heavier than usual.
A viscous sour smell hovers in the air around him like a halo. Kore looks down at the table. Two halves of a pomegranate lie in front of her. They’re all around the house, placed in bowls, like bait. The heavy, meaty food in the fridge is hard to swallow, so this morning she took a piece of fruit. Cut it in two with a big knife from the second drawer. To begin with it didn’t taste any good, but she got used to it. The juice looks like blood on her hands and on the teaspoon she uses to scoop out the fruit. The pits are ruby-red like gemstones, they crackle as she chews. On the middle of her tongue lies a compressed mass that has grown to fill her mouth completely. She wants to go and spit it out in the sink. But she doesn’t. Because just then he enters the kitchen. Next to her on the table lies an old Bamse magazine that she brought up from the basement. It’s always the hardest thing, coming back upstairs. You never know what to expect. She doesn’t dare leaf through the magazine with her sticky hands. Still, it’s best not to move now. She is the meanest child in Norrbotten, deserting her own dad. Why doesn’t she say anything when he’s speaking to her? Finally she swallows down the sharp mass of seeds.
That day she and the animals keep to the basement. They are scared, don’t dare go upstairs with her, say there are other animals in the house that he let inside last night. Animals bigger than them, and older, and more dangerous. Her dad is mowing the lawn outside, she hears the distant sound of the mower through the narrow basement window just beneath the ceiling. The summer light gleams between the window slats. Just one week ago she was with Mum.
Kore sits with the animals on her lap and one on her shoulder, on the big corner sofa upholstered in grainy, dully shining black leather. On the shelf beside her his video tapes are lined up, she has watched almost all of them. Dad doesn’t like cartoons, so he usually translates the dialogue for her so that they can watch his films instead, but it’s hard to catch anything but the sharp sounds of echoing shots, the dark blood slowly covering the floor, the long nail digging into the wound until it dislodges a silver bullet, and the screams of the man as his steaming heart is torn right out of his chest.
Mum calls every Tuesday and Friday. The long piercing signals make Kore jump to her feet and start running. But when she picks up the voice is far away and scratchy. The little ball has begun aching more and more in her stomach again, and Kore has difficulty concentrating. She doesn’t answer Mum’s questions properly, and asks none of her own. Her ankles feel naked and cold up there. Only Titus and Masha have gone upstairs with her, though they stopped at the top step, now they’re crouching there, waiting for her to come back. Her dad is nowhere to be seen, the house holds its breath. Perhaps he’s standing with his back to an adjoining wall, listening.
“I miss you so much, my little sweetie,” says Katja.
Kore watches the slow dance of the dust motes in the ray of light from the kitchen window, without saying anything in reply. Soon they hang up.
That evening there is a party in the back garden with its dark vegetation and metallic lamps stuck into anything trying to live there, into tree trunks and into the ground. Taxi after taxi comes and drops people off: no one drives their own cars, everyone is going to drink and toast with her dad, together they raise their glasses towards the sky. A long table is set leading to a big fire into which he sticks small, flayed bodies, the sparks swirl around them like burning eyes in the night. The guests laugh and eat, with fatty, gleaming fingers and lips they shout for more between bites. And her dad chats and gurgles and drinks. Stands at the fire as if he were inside it. One eye an extinguisher, the other a lighter. He looks one by one at his guests until they start moving like waves. And when they break on Kore they grab at her with their fingers and the smell of meat steams at her neck, but she backs away, straight through an opening in the hawthorn hedge. On the other side of it the air is cool. There’s a little nook there, an arbour. She climbs into the neighbour’s old hammock and lies down, rocks it gently so that it won’t squeak. She brushes away the first mosquito that lands, but not the second.
Outside the sky is blue and the sun shines white in the clouds. Her dad tells her to lie down on the sofa in the living room. A stranger is standing next to him, a man he knows, a colleague named Kenneth. Dad pulls up her shirt and unbuttons her trousers for the man to examine her. His hands sink into her tummy in two places simultaneously. She’s ill again, in the end she had to say it. But the pain hides from the eyes of others. When Dad’s around it goes unnoticed, like everything else to do with her. She shakes her head when the man asks her if it hurts here, or here, or there. Kenneth moves his hands every time she says no. Dad’s mouth is tense.
“I’ve taken her everywhere over the years. Done an ultrasound, a gastroscopy.”
His colleague doesn’t notice the ball, doesn’t feel anything. It’s too small to be discovered. Impenetrable now, shiny, wet and black. They pull her trousers a bit further down to check the bottom of her tummy, exposing a few downy wisps of hair on her sex. Their eyes are immediately drawn there. A moist snake slithers through Kore’s insides, her hands break out into a cold sweat. Tense as a board, she clenches her jaws to be able to take the wave upon wave of shame breaking over her. But her dad and the other man seem relieved. The pressing on her tummy stops. Something premenstrual, probably. Puberty. Would have thought her too young, but anyway. They clumsily pull down her shirt again and shake hands. Kore pulls up her trousers and slips away.
As soon as she is out of the room she doubles over.
She has arranged all her presents on the shelf in her room. There’s nowhere to put the doll, so she holds it against her chest while looking around in indecision. Its blond hair is long as a grownup’s. Its eyes roll back into its head when she looks at it. She rests it like a baby on her arm and tries to catch hold of the eyelids, tries to close them. A shadow towers in the doorway. He is standing there, half visible. Between the wooden window slats, the sun is low and blinding. Almost gone. A glass hangs in his fingers, reflecting the light like amber.
“Do you have any milk for it,” he says with a smile.
Slowly her face slides off her, down into the abyss. There it continues to fall.
As soon as he’s gone, she hides the doll under some blankets in the wardrobe. Back in her room, she starts looking for her animals. Gets down on her knees and searches under the bed, raises the coverlet. Her eyes flit around the room, she runs into the hallway, to the room where the films are, to the bathroom, back to her own room. She can’t find them. Just the looks of the plastic animals on the shelf, so ingratiating with their painted-on smiles and synthetic fur. She touches her own face. Beneath the smooth layer of rubber it feels bumpy, like fuse-dried particles of coal directly on her skull.
She rubs and rubs.
That evening everything accelerates quickly and infinitely slowly at the same time. She knows it’s already too late. The blood fruit, the verbal agreement and Dad’s crying, swollen face.
“After all, it’s not like I’ve raped you,” he says after a pause.
She doesn’t know why he says it, where it comes from. So that idea is there, inside him? That look? Suddenly she can feel it, she feels nothing else anymore. And he said it in his own defense. As if to say that if he had actually done it she would have had the law on her side. It would have been possible to examine her, there would be traces. But no one can find the black ball, it’s invisible to everyone.
She flees like a hare, as she always does. Down the hole, down underground.
She wakes up in the night to find herself standing still in the middle of her dark room. She is trying to catch something. A sound she heard. A distant, cold sound, like metal against china. Against teeth. She’s heard it before, but doesn’t know where it comes from. The room is filled with tentative shadows that shrink and grow. She walks slowly to the door, follows the walls of the hallway. The open toilet door is an oblong, gaping hole of darkness, she continues past it, onwards, like a sleepwalker, mechanically, her eyes blurred, as if she were under water. Or inside the earth. She can feel the weight of the soil, feel it pressing against the walls and the roof. Faint clammy sounds are all that are heard when she raises her night-sweaty feet from the floor: she knows exactly where to step so the floorboards won’t creak. As if she’s woken up in the night a thousand times before, heard a sound and gotten up to check what it was. Right in front of her is the door to the study, now near, now far away. It pulsates to and fro. A streak of light falls out, the door is ajar, it’s usually always locked. She gets a glimpse of him inside, big and heavy, bent over something. And then she’s right there near him. The sight of his back makes the air harder to breathe, a heavy, wet sheet tightens around her chest, and the air she inhales is suddenly cold, as if she’s eaten a throat lozenge, she tries not to breathe in the air too noisily, the least sound will make him turn around and stare at her with shining eyes, chemically green in the thick darkness. His broad back is just meters away from her now, he’s wearing his doctor’s coat, rocking from side to side as if laughing, his elbows jut out to the side every now and then. He is stooped over something, she can’t see what. He is wearing white plastic gloves, and next to him lies a white tray of metal implements. There are tongs, pliers, scalpels – he moves quicker, drops one tool, takes another – the used ones are bloody and now Kore’s feet are moving towards him of their own accord, slowly, as if against the current.
And then she sees what is lying in front of him on the table.
She sees it. She sees.
She presses her hands against her mouth so as not to scream, but her knees bend and wobble at the sight of the pleading eyes radiating towards her from the table, those eyes that will never refuse, never speak out, never say no, just yes, yes, yes, do what you want with me! She sees the childlike, little look in those eyes, entreating, pitiful, pathetic. And she backs out of the room, step by step, shh, quiet, quiet, doesn’t let go of her mouth, the eyes, those eyes, the worst of all eyes. In the hallway she turns around and runs away, doesn’t care about being heard any more, she just has to get out of there, get back to her room in time, but it’s already far too late.
Where courage comes from, no one knows.
But eventually it comes.
Early in the morning she quietly calls the animals, tries one last time. This time they appear, the ones that are left. Just two have survived. Titus’s gaze is empty as she strokes his back with her index finger. He seems unharmed. Ivrahim has gone blind in both eyes, as if someone has scorched him with a white-hot poker. Kore lifts them gently into her backpack and steals away. She passes all the houses, only one neighbor is awake. On his way from the mailbox he hesitantly raises his hand to greet her. At the bus stop she mechanically takes out her money. For seven kronor she gets a ticket. When she gets off at the station in her mother’s town she goes straight to the phone booth, lets three more kronor drop, and then she dials the number for home.
“Are you sure?” her mum asks, when they’re sitting in the car.
But Kore says nothing. How can anyone be sure.
Later everything is quiet, not a sound is heard from her father’s realm. He doesn’t demand that she return, doesn’t send anyone to collect her. But every night she waits. To see someone outside the window, a long finger extended towards her, digging into her flesh, digging until it pulls out her steaming heart and breaks it open like a piece of fruit.
In her memories of him, all his power has drained away. If she closes her eyes she can see him, sees him sitting in his house at night. The lamp switched off, the only light touching him the light that falls in through the windows from the street lamps outside.
His eyes are dry. Because when you’re alone, crying doesn’t help. The cylindrical glass. Always meticulous about coasters to prevent ring-shaped stains on his coffee table from Switzerland. She remembers him buying it, how proud he was. He wanted everything he bought afterwards to match it. The rounded two-seaters in the colour of a dark-green avocado skin, the paintings in beige, dark brown, a similar green hue and a few wine-red splashes. Handed-down silver candlesticks on the walls. He never lit them, worried about getting spots of wax on the clear wooden floor.
She can picture him sitting there all by himself. Sitting there looking at nothing. The street light in his eye, his speckled, cloudy eye.
Then for a long time she tries to pretend that he doesn’t exist. Tries to forget the basement, his turned back, his stealthy car. That all those things never existed and belong to one of the thousands of evil stories that flow out of every book she touches. Because all the books she reads are about him, all the films. He still has that power. And sometimes she thinks she can see him driving past in his silvery car. She always feels totally cold, as if she’s been immersed in dark water. The moment when it seeps through her clothes. Sometimes she thinks he’s spying on her. That his tearful rage has changed into a fixation. That he’s become psychotic, delirious and wild-eyed, drives around in his car searching day and night all the way across the border into brighter lands. That he has started behaving strangely even among others, started showing other people who he really is. Missed the board meetings and finally lost his position at the clinic. And at night his neighbours can now see a strange greenish glow emanating from his basement window. Poisonous vapours steaming from every crack. The basement rebuilt as a laboratory.
And there he sits.
Night after night, chanting incantations to draw her towards him. To bind her. His eyes have become black hollows. From the blackness comes a sickly light. And then the little black ball inside her starts aching, wakes from its slumber and answers. Yes, Dad! I’m coming! Steam rises from the ball and right through her body, unobstructed, as if her flesh were a screen full of holes. Rises up to her eyes so that all she can see is mist. Inside it, a land of shadows emerges, with mud eyes and beasts of prey and tree crowns forming a black ceiling above her head. She did promise him. The ball remains, and inside the ball her father, a condensed, stunted version in which the essential is magnified, engraved and forever unchanging.
Whenever everything else is moving away, his face hovers in front of her. It is the only thing she can see. As if he has been sitting behind her all this time, in the dark. Waiting for her to stop running and turn around, to finally understand that he will never leave. That she is, and forever will remain, his little queen. He is not someone you leave, but someone you come to. And he will stand up and take her, fill her with the old.
With childhood again.
And so it came to be that she created her own kingdom, one more desolate than his. She is alone there. And though her kingdom may be new, it is also ancient. Because someone lived here a long time ago. The traces lie hidden in the moss. They have continually sunk deeper, become one of the treasures of the layers of soil.
This kingdom is the first and only landscape she has got to know. Her father’s face. There she stays. Waiting for the least twitch or tension, so that she can seek shelter in time.
She can see her footprints in the furrows along his face in which round tears used to drown all life. Now the ground is dried out, and the tracks in the dry clay have cracked. She finds her way into the eyebrows, but they offer no protection from the sun. Her feet sink into his cheeks like in quicksand.
The most secure place is at the tip of his cheekbone, at the edge of the forest on his temple. That’s how it used to be, and that’s how it is now. Some days she considers letting herself drop, when the silence inside is too resounding. But the height is dizzying. So instead she decides on the opposite, a journey within. The black ear hole.
Should I call out? she wonders for a moment, but finds it safest to enter first, down the hollow that leads deep inside, behind the mask where she’s been living until now. So she jumps. Inside the ear canal her steps echo like drops in a cavern. She continues inwards, but slips – glides downwards, downwards, until all light has vanished.
She starts to hear a terrifying sound, dull, rhythmical. Its strength increases as she reaches the edge of the throat. The wind beats against her, softer across her back, more intensely on its way back up. She squats down and tries to climb down his tracheal rings, but with just half her body below the ledge a cough jumbles everything, and she falls headlong.
She falls, falls further.
Life is now just a fall.
She lands with a thud on an elastic membrane. In the middle there is a tightly laced opening, and in the stomach below her acid is splashing. Down here the sound is louder, and she knows where to go. With her back to the wall, she starts pushing her arms into the softness. At first there is resistance, then the wall gives way. Maybe he knows. Maybe he can feel her now. For a long time she crawls through the tissue, the sound is dulled, the flesh is shaking. Then she feels her fingers pass through, into something else. An empty space. She grabs hold of the edges and pulls her body through.
The ear-splitting beats are slung at her.
And there it is. The machine. Blackened red, convulsive. Dad’s heart. She had always imagined it to be so much smaller, hardly visible to the naked eye. But she was wrong. It’s gigantic.
She tries to squeeze her leg inside it, but the muscle beats violently, repelling her. So she takes a run-up and jumps straight at it, her legs and arms outstretched. Fastens onto it with a sucking sound, forces her face straight through the muscle wall – and, like magic, her body slips through.
On the inside everything is quiet.
There is no wind, since no wind exists here. Is this it. Is there only this darkness here.
But then something comes floating towards her. A body, a small one. Sleeping. Swaddled in cloth, it drifts closer.
It is a child.
Is it me? she thinks. Is that me floating in your heart?
She wants to recognize herself in the child’s face. But its features are so plain that she forgets them in the blink of an eye. Like a picture in a frame before you replace it with your own.
After that, she tries to write a letter to him, but she just sounds and expresses herself like a small child, doesn’t know what she wants to say. Or how she wants him to respond. After all, she is the one who left. She glues a dried flower to it, a light blue forget-me-not. But she doesn’t send the letter. It sounds too helpless, too pleading. Something else is needed.
As the years pass, she starts dreaming of becoming tall and terrifying. Cool, patient, powerful. And she dreams of the day when he’ll finally come begging. She won’t even react when he enters, but will finish writing her very long sentence instead, calmly put away her pen and look at him with an expressionless face.
Only this, after his long journey to catch a glimpse of his lost child. Yes? And he will tremble before her, he’ll be anxious, but at the same time filled with wonder at her transformation. From a ten-year-old slip of a child with tear-heavy eyelashes to this being – so collected, so dangerous. With calm eyes she will watch him put forward his request for reconciliation, and she will let him finish speaking without interruption, then say with a honey-coated voice:
“For people like you there is no mercy.”
This “people like you” has been carefully thought out, since it shows that she knows him to be of a certain type – someone who always cared more about himself than his own child. This single sentence would make him understand, regret. And then the dust would vanish, the thicket of thorns around his house would dry up and scatter in the wind. Everything would be different.
It had to end like this.
But time passes. And he doesn’t come.
Nothing is as it should be.
Finally she goes to him, in secret, disguised. This time she goes there alone, in a borrowed car that can accelerate quickly. He has a new position at a clinic in one of the grey tower blocks in the centre of town. But the town looks different now. Like any other town, with a mall and a car park and a pond with a fountain in the middle. No one cares about her, or even recognizes her. She pulls off her cap and looks around in the pale afternoon light.
The trip reveals two things: He has acquired a new car and a new family. A new wife and a little daughter. Kore hardly looks at him, in fact, for as soon as she notices the new child that he lifts out of the car seat in the back and goes into the toy shop hand-in-hand with, she doesn’t have eyes for anyone else. The girl – small and light-haired with corkscrew curls and blinking eyes – doesn’t look like Kore at all. Like a dirty old man she stands hidden, staring at the sweet child. The child whom she, at the first opportunity, will catch in a black sack and carry into the forest. Cut her hair off. Drown her in some pool. And when the search party finds the dead little girl, she will be all pale and covered in mud, her locks straightened into ugly tangles.
But that would also be wrong, since Dad would cry and raise his hands to the heavens. And he would hold the dead child in his arms and gently rock her as if she were just sleeping, but her dark blue eyes would be staring blindly straight ahead.
Kore, squatting behind a stump or an uprooted tree, would see everything, and she would know that doing this had not made anything better, since now he would grieve his beloved child forever, the child who never betrayed him. And when Kore then looks down at her own hands, they are covered in grey, slimy scales, earth-spattered, with rough claws instead of nails.
She opens her mouth to shout, but no sound emerges. A reptilian click in her throat, that’s all. Once the new wife has gone to do some errands and her dad drives away with the child, Kore follows the car out of town, to his domain. The river is steel-grey, lifeless, empty. Then she is back at his house, just look how easy it was. He is waiting for her in the drive, as if he has known all along.
“Now, come and say hello,” he says immediately, as she watchfully steps out of the car.
He waves his hand gently, and she follows him, as she always has done. Then he shows her inside, where her little sister sits playing with Kore’s old toys. The black plastic horse, the doll, the wheel, the bracelets, the boxes. The marbles, the puzzle and the other animals.
“Now she’s finally here,” Dad calls out, loud enough for the girl to jump.
Kore asks him to stop, says that he’s scaring her, but he just laughs it off. Then they stand watching as the child places her plastic animals in a ring around her, at perfect angles. The animals look at the girl with frightened plastic eyes, until she gets angry and kicks them over. Dad takes Kore into the living room and offers her juice – she would rather have coffee, but he doesn’t care about that.
He hasn’t changed at all.
And as she sits there, on the very edge of the sofa, glancing at the nursery, her fingers clutched tightly at the glass so that he can see that she still bites her nails, just like before, he opens his mouth to speak.
And he says: When I was born my dad planted a tree that would grow in step with me, so that when I died the tree could be chopped down for the growth rings to be counted, and I would get to see how many years of my life I had lived happily. For trees only grow then, that’s what my dad told me.
“Is the tree still there?” asks Kore.
But then his face disappears into a black hole that sucks everything towards it, a vacuum mouth tearing at her clothes, tearing at her skin. With his hole of a face, he starts growing, turns a bluish grey, swells up towards the ceiling until his neck gets bent into a corner of the room. He squeezes her out of the room, she has to run to get away, to avoid getting sucked back into the hole. Something moves up through her throat, something burning, a small black ball that’s sucked out of her body and disappears, as she grabs hold of the door frame just in time and manages to pull herself out of the room. She throws open the front door and is outside.
On her way to the car she does see the tree, standing in the shade of the house. A pitiful sort of plant, she had never noticed it before. It has a sickly pale trunk and strangely dark-red flowers. And from the tree comes a quiet whistling, it follows her into the car and lies down on the rubber mat beneath her feet, like an animal that has been lost for a long time but has finally found its way home.
*Editor of translation: Alex Fleming