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
In the early nineties, The Beach of The Dead was little more than a greyish strip at one end of Boca del Rio, Veracruz’ twin city. Its burning sands were covered in spiny scrubs festooned with dead branches and bottles of chlorine that washed up during storms. It wasn’t a very popular or beautiful beach (not that any in Veracruz really fit that description): sometimes – during peak tides or heavy storms – the beach disappeared completely and the waves washed right over the breakwaters and onto the road between the two cities. Local people tended to avoid it: every year dozens of foolhardy souls, from Mexico City mostly, met their deaths in its treacherous waters. Signs hung only a few feet away from the water’s edge forbidding people from swimming while another less literate one read: ‘Danger: poolz’ underneath a lurid drawing of a skull. The powerful current that pushed the river up towards Antón Lizardo Point – home of the Heroica Escuela Naval Militar – burrowed into the breakwaters of The Beach of The Dead, leaving deep rock pools in which a grown man could easily drown.
I was nine when I saw the lights, which glowed like fireflies against the dark sea. The other witness was my brother Julio, who was six and a half. We were digging up the home of a celeste crab with a stick when we noticed a glow in the sky: five bright shining lights hovering over our heads. Then they flew inland, towards the estuary.
“Did you see that?” Julio asked, pointing towards the horizon.
“Of course, I’m not blind.”
“What was it?”
“A spaceship,” I told him.
But when we ran back to the campfire, none of the adults would hear us out. Not even our parents. They refused to listen and shooed us away from the fire and the group sitting around it.
On that Thursday, the eleventh of July, no one was thinking about the Gulf War, or the fall of the Berlin Wall… the fire and brimstone that was shattering Eastern Europe into pieces seemed a very long way away. Another raid by the Sendero Luminoso? People in the south dying of typhoid and dengue fever? No one cared about any of that: Mexico’s eyes were fixed on the skies, waiting for the miracle that would turn the sun into a ring of fire and reduce the moon to a large black circle. The TV showed nothing but shots of the sky and the crowds waiting for the total eclipse in squares, being careful not to look directly at the sun, just as the news had warned them.
In Mexico City, south of the ring road, Guillermo Arreguín was filming the sky from his balcony. He wasn’t interested so much in the eclipse’s climax as the planets and stars that he’d read would shine far more brightly in the untimely gloom. At the critical moment, Arreguín panned to the right. That was when he filmed the ‘shining object’.
That night, the video was being shown on the 24 Hour News channel. By Saturday the thirteenth, an article in La Prensa was describing it as a ‘solid metal object’ surrounded by ‘silver rings’; but the term ‘extra-terrestrial’ wouldn’t make its triumphant appearance until Friday the nineteenth on the programme ‘So… What do you think?’ whose subject that week was the supposed presence of aliens on Earth (the live debate lasted a record eleven hours and ten minutes). On it, a ufologist (as he insisted on describing himself) called Maussán claimed to have collected fifteen additional recordings made by different people during the eclipse. He stated that the videos had been subjected to tests that proved that the ‘object’ recorded in them was indeed a spaceship.
Thus began the UFO craze in Mexico. That summer I learned everything I needed to know on the subject: abductions, conspiracies, the building of the Great Pyramid, crop circles in the UK… All this fascinating information reached me via two sources: the television (or rather Mr Maussán’s videos of Lights in the Sky) and the tons of comic books I consumed each week. When it came to comics I was sickeningly sentimental: I liked Archie, Little Lulu, Scrooge McDuck and Condorito and that was it. But the rag I most hankered after at the newspaper kiosk was Semanario de lo Insólito (Amazing Stories Weekly), an anthology of human morbidity, a cult to horror, an uncritical encyclopaedia of doctored photography. Even now, I can recall some of its more eye-catching stories: the Giant Flying Man-eating Manta Ray of the Fiji Islands; the primary school teacher with a third eye at the base of her skull that she used to spy on her pupils; the silhouette of a hanged Judas in the eyes of an ayate basket Virgin Mary; and of course the autopsy of the alien body in the small gringo town of Roswell.
Thanks to all this edifying research I learned at the tender age of nine that the strange light I’d seen on The Beach of The Dead could be nothing else but an interplanetary spaceship crewed by small grey super-intelligent creatures who had managed to circumvent the laws of physics. And that they could well be coming to warn us about a cataclysm that was about to destroy the earth now that the end of the millennium was approaching and people were killing each other and getting involved in stupid wars and spilling oil over poor defenceless pelicans. Maybe they were looking for someone who could understand them, someone to whom they could bequeath their science and secrets. Maybe they were lonely, wandering the cosmos in their plasma and silicon ships on an unending quest to find a welcoming planet, new worlds, new homes and new friends in distant galaxies.
After what we saw on the beach, Julio and I decided that we needed to keep an eye on the sky. Maybe we’d be taken more seriously if we recorded some evidence. The problem was that dad refused to lend us his camera.
“How can you be stupid enough to believe in that rubbish? At your age?” he’d say when he saw us glued to the TV screen trying to decipher the mysterious symbols being left by flying saucers in British wheat fields.
Dad hated Maussán. He couldn’t stand the sight of him, let alone having to hear him repeat his stories over and over again. He threatened to take away the VCR.
“Can’t you see he’s a stoner?”
Poor dad, he just didn’t understand. We felt sorry for him. Mum was different; she and a friend of hers took us back to The Beach of The Dead one night so we could look for the UFO.
There was a full moon and the water reflected the silvery light like a giant mirror. But everything had changed since the last time we were there: the beach was full of people and cars. Dozens of teenage bodies were draped over the breakwaters and piled up around campfires made from the dry scrubs. Their cars packed the sandy parking lot, so close to the shore that the salt water splashed their tires. The murmur of the wind was drowned out by their burping, honking, and Soda Stereo cassettes. Lovers lay on the hoods of their cars, shielding their faces from camera flashes. I saw men from the television setting up steel tripods to film the sky. I saw fat women plowing through the dunes. Whiny little kids with sticky popsicle fingers pointed at the sky asking: “Mummy, when is the UFO coming?”
“This sucks,” Julio exclaimed in disappointment.
Then, without another word, he ran off to play a game of night tag with some other boys. I regarded this as a cowardly betrayal.
A few hours later, I was falling asleep. I went back to my mother and curled up on her lap. Her breath smelled of wine and her fingers of cigarettes. She was talking to her friend about the UFO: apparently lights – red and white ones – could be seen in the distance but I couldn’t keep my eyes open a second longer.
“All this fuss for a narco plane,” said mum.
“But it’s a good excuse for a party,” her friend replied cheerfully.
The first reports of strange aerial activity over the municipalities of Sotavento (Veracruz, Boca del Rio, Alvarado and Tlalixcoyan, among others) date back to 1989. The inhabitants of these rural territories, farmers and ranchers, often saw lights at night. The oldest among them called them witches, everyone else called them light aircraft. They even knew the name of the strip where the planes landed, a stretch of barren scrubland and villainy that was kept under constant surveillance by the army: La Víbora.
It was a plain surrounded by marshes, a natural landing strip. The residents of Tlalixcoyan were used to seeing soldiers on their land: the strip was used by the army for special manoeuvres. So no one was surprised at the end of October, 1991, when gangs of men arrived to clear the scrubland with machetes.
A week later, on the morning of the seventh of November that year, the Army, the Federal Police and a Cessna from Colombia were involved in a bloody skirmish that only just made it past the government censors: members of the 13th Infantry Battalion opened fire on seven federal agents getting out of a King Air in pursuit of a Cessna that had been detected off the Nicaraguan Coast by the US Customs Service. The propeller plane, which was assumed to belong to smugglers, landed on the La Víbora strip at 6:50 in the morning, followed by the federal aircraft. The smugglers, a man and a woman, abandoned it and its cargo of three hundred and fifty-five kilos of cocaine and fled into the undergrowth while two columns of soldiers neutralized the federal agents with a withering burst of fire.
I remember two photos of the incident that appeared in the local newspaper, the Nottiver: in one of them seven men were lying in a row face down on the grass. They were the agents that had been gunned down that Thursday, the seventh of December by elements of the army. Five of them were dressed in dark clothing; the other two were dressed as peasants, although they wore black jackets now dirtied with mud and grass. None of them was wearing shoes.
The second photograph showed someone sitting on the ground with a rifle barrel very close to his face. The man, who was wearing a vest with the Federal Police logo on it, was staring straight into the lens. His tongue was swollen, his lips frozen mid-spasm. He was the only survivor of the massacre.
It was December, or maybe January or February, when I saw those photos in the old newspaper I’d spread out on the floor of the patio to wrap up the dry leaves I’d swept up. It must have been around then – when the north wind blows the leaves from the almond trees – because I had the (daily) chore of clearing the damn things from the patio. I remember seeing the images and reading some of the columns in the crime section spread out on the ground (I also remember asking my mother what ‘rape’ meant that night) but it would be more than a decade before I was able to put the photographs together with the UFO I saw on the beach, a vessel transporting cocaine, not aliens.
The municipal government forbade people from visiting the area during the months following the massacre so I didn’t get back to The Beach of The Dead until late 1992. By then it had lost all its charm. New breakwaters had claimed back more land from the sea and it was swarming with hawkers and tourists: they’d even got rid of the sign with the skull. Years later they renamed it: Beach of The Rings.
I don’t think I ever believed in anything as fervently as I had believed in UFOs. Not the Tooth Fairy or the Headless Horseman (my father told me that he appeared every night at Horn Beach searching for his errant skull, which had been blown off by a cannon) or the Giant Flying Man-eating Manta Ray of the Fiji Islands and especially not Father Christmas or God. It was all your parents, it was all made up by grown-ups.
People who live in the area say that on moonless nights, strange colored lights cross the sky on their way to the plains. But I have no further interest in aliens. That chubby little intergalactic vigilante is no more, just like The Beach of The Dead, and the foolhardy idiots who drowned there.
“As long as there’s the sun … the sun!” the voice of Don Peppino Quaglia crooned softly near the doorway of the low, dark, basement apartment. “Leave it to God,” answered the humble and faintly cheerful voice of his wife, Rosa, from inside; she was in bed, moaning in pain from arthritis, complicated by heart disease, and, addressing her sister-in-law, who was in the bathroom, she added: “You know what I’ll do, Nunziata? Later I’ll get up and take the clothes out of the water.”
“Do as you like, to me it seems real madness,” replied the curt, sad voice of Nunziata from that den. “With the pain you have, one more day in bed wouldn’t hurt you!” A silence. “We’ve got to put out some more poison, I found a cockroach in my sleeve this morning.”
From the cot at the back of the room, which was really a cave, with a low vault of dangling spider webs, rose the small, calm voice of Eugenia:
“Mamma, today I’m putting on the eyeglasses.”
There was a kind of secret joy in the modest voice of the child, Don Peppino’s third-born. (The first two, Carmela and Luisella, were with the nuns, and would soon take the veil, having been persuaded that this life is a punishment; and the two little ones, Pasqualino and Teresella, were still snoring, as they slept feet to head, in their mother’s bed.)
“Yes, and no doubt you’ll break them right away,” the voice of her aunt, still irritated, insisted, from behind the door of the little room. She made everyone suffer for the disappointments of her life, first among them that she wasn’t married and had to be subject, as she told it, to the charity of her sister-in-law, although she didn’t fail to add that she dedicated this humiliation to God. She had something of her own set aside, however, and wasn’t a bad person, since she had offered to have glasses made for Eugenia when at home they had realized that the child couldn’t see. “With what they cost! A grand total of a good eight thousand lire!” she added. Then they heard the water running in the basin. She was washing her face, squeezing her eyes, which were full of soap, and Eugenia gave up answering.
Besides, she was too, too pleased.
A week earlier, she had gone with her aunt to an optician on Via Roma. There, in that elegant shop, full of polished tables and with a marvelous green reflection pouring in through a blind, the doctor had measured her sight, making her read many times, through certain lenses that he kept changing, entire columns of letters of the alphabet, printed on a card, some as big as boxes, others as tiny as pins. “This poor girl is almost blind,” he had said then, with a kind of pity, to her aunt, “she should no longer be deprived of lenses.” And right away, while Eugenia, sitting on a stool, waited anxiously, he had placed over her eyes another pair of lenses, with a white metal frame, and had said: “Now look into the street.” Eugenia stood up, her legs trembling with emotion, and was unable to suppress a little cry of joy. On the sidewalk, so many well-dressed people were passing, slightly smaller than normal but very distinct: ladies in silk dresses with powdered faces, young men with long hair and bright-colored sweaters, white-bearded old men with pink hands resting on silver-handled canes; and, in the middle of the street, some beautiful automobiles that looked like toys, their bodies painted red or teal, all shiny; green trolleys as big as houses, with their windows lowered, and behind the windows so many people in elegant clothes. Across the street, on the opposite sidewalk, were beautiful shops, with windows like mirrors, full of things so fine they elicited a kind of longing; some shop boys in black aprons were polishing the windows from the street. At a café with red and yellow tables, some golden-haired girls were sitting outside, legs crossed. They laughed and drank from big colored glasses. Above the café, because it was already spring, the balcony windows were open and embroidered curtains swayed, and behind the curtains were fragments of blue and gilded paintings, and heavy, sparkling chandeliers of gold and crystal, like baskets of artificial fruit. A marvel. Transported by all that splendor, she hadn’t followed the conversation between the doctor and her aunt. Her aunt, in the brown dress she wore to Mass, and standing back from the glass counter with a timidity unnatural to her, now broached the question of the cost: “Doctor, please, give us a good price … we’re poor folk ..” and when she heard “eight thousand lire” she nearly fainted.
“Two lenses! What are you saying! Jesus Mary!”
“Look, ignorant people …” the doctor answered, replacing the other lenses after polishing them with the glove, “don’t calculate anything. And when you give the child two lenses, you’ll be able to tell me if she sees better. She takes nine diopters on one side, and ten on the other, if you want to know. She’s almost blind.”
While the doctor was writing the child’s first and last name—“Eugenia Quaglia, Vicolo della Cupa at Santa Maria in Portico”—Nunziata had gone over to Eugenia, who, standing in the doorway of the shop and holding up the glasses in her small, sweaty hands, was not at all tired of gazing through them: “Look, look, my dear! See what your consolation costs! Eight thousand lire, did you hear? A grand total of a good eight thousand lire!” She was almost suffocating. Eugenia had turned all red, not so much because of the rebuke as because the young woman at the cash register was looking at her, while her aunt was making that observation, which declared the family’s poverty. She took off the glasses.
“But how is it, so young and already so nearsighted?” the young woman had asked Nunziata, while she signed the receipt for the deposit. “And so shabby, too!” she added.
“Young lady, in our house we all have good eyes, this is a misfortune that came upon us … along with the rest. God rubs salt in the wound.”
“Come back in eight days,” the doctor had said. “I’ll have them for you.”
Leaving, Eugenia had tripped on the step.
“Thank you, Aunt Nunzia,” she had said after a while. “I’m always rude to you. I talk back to you, and you are so kind, buying me eyeglasses.”
Her voice trembled.
“My child, it’s better not to see the world than to see it,” Nunziata had answered with sudden melancholy.
Eugenia hadn’t answered her that time, either. Aunt Nunzia was often so strange, she wept and shouted for no good reason, she said so many bad words, and yet she went to Mass regularly, she was a good Christian, and when it came to helping someone in trouble she always volunteered, wholeheartedly. One didn’t have to watch over her.
Since that day, Eugenia had lived in a kind of rapture, waiting for the blessed glasses that would allow her to see all people and things in their tiny details. Until then, she had been wrapped in a fog: the room where she lived, the courtyard always full of hanging laundry, the alley overflowing with colors and cries, everything for her was covered by a thin veil: she knew well only the faces of her family, especially her mother and her siblings, because often she slept with them, and sometimes she woke at night and, in the light of the oil lamp, looked at them. Her mother slept with her mouth open, her broken yellow teeth visible; her brother and sister, Pasqualino and Teresella, were always dirty and snot-nosed and covered with boils: when they slept, they made a strange noise, as if they had wild animals inside them. Sometimes Eugenia surprised herself by staring at them, without understanding, however, what she was thinking. She had a confused feeling that beyond that room always full of wet laundry, with broken chairs and a stinking toilet, there was light, sounds, beautiful things, and in that moment when she had put on the glasses she had had a true revelation: the world outside was beautiful, very beautiful.
“Marchesa, my respects.”
That was the voice of her father. Covered by a ragged shirt, his back, which until that moment had been framed by the doorway of the basement apartment, could no longer be seen. The voice of the marchesa, a placid and indifferent voice, now said:
“You must do me a favor, Don Peppino.”
“At your service … your wish is my command.”
Silently, Eugenia slid out of bed, put on her dress, and, still barefoot, went to the door. The pure and marvelous early morning sun, entering the ugly courtyard through a crack between the buildings, greeted her, lit up her little old lady’s face, her stubbly, disheveled hair, her rough, hard little hands, with their long, dirty nails. Oh, if only at that moment she could have had the eyeglasses! The marchesa was there, in her black silk dress with its white lace neckpiece. Her imposing yet benign appearance enchanted Eugenia, along with her bejeweled white hands; but she couldn’t see her face very well—it was a whitish oval patch. Above it, some purple feathers quivered.
“Listen, you have to redo the child’s mattress. Can you come up around ten-thirty?”
“With all my heart, but I’m only available in the afternoon, Signora Marchesa.”
“No, Don Peppino, it has to be this morning. In the afternoon people are coming. Set yourself up on the terrace and work. Don’t play hard to get … do me this favor … Now it’s time for Mass. At ten-thirty, call me.”
And without waiting for an answer, she left, astutely avoiding a trickle of yellow water that was dripping down from a terrace and had made a puddle on the ground.
“Papa,” said Eugenia, following her father, as he went back inside, “how good the marchesa is! She treats you like a gentleman. God should reward her for it.”
“A good Christian, that one is,” Don Peppino answered, with a meaning completely different from what might have been understood. With the excuse that she was the owner of the house, the Marchesa D’Avanzo constantly had the people in the courtyard serving her: to Don Peppino, she gave a wretched sum for the mattresses; and Rosa was always available for the big sheets; even if her bones were burning she had to get up to serve the marchesa. It’s true that the marchesa had placed her daughters in the convent, and so had saved two souls from the dangers of this world, which for the poor are many, but for that basement space, where everyone was sick, she collected three thousand lire, not one less. “The heart is there, it’s the money that’s lacking,” she loved to repeat, with a certain imperturbability. “Today, dear Don Peppino, you are the nobility, who have no worries … Thank … thank Providence, which has put you in such a condition … which wanted to save you.” Donna Rosa had a kind of adoration for the marchesa, for her religious sentiments; when they saw each other, they always talked about the afterlife. The marchesa didn’t much believe in it, but she didn’t say so, and urged that mother of the family to be patient and to hope.
From the bed, Donna Rosa asked, a little worried: “Did you talk to her?”
“She wants me to redo the mattress for her grandson,” said Don Peppino, in annoyance. He brought out the hot plate to warm up some coffee, a gift of the nuns, and went back inside to fetch water in a small pot. “I won’t do it for less than five hundred,” he said.
“It’s a fair price.”
“And then who will go and pick up Eugenia’s glasses?” Aunt Nunzia asked, coming out of the bathroom. Over her nightgown, she wore a torn skirt, and on her feet slippers. Her bony shoulders emerged from the nightgown, gray as stones. She was drying her face with a napkin. “I can’t go, and Rosa is ill.”
Without anyone noticing, Eugenia’s large, almost blind eyes filled with tears. Now maybe another day would pass without her eyeglasses. She went up to her mother’s bed, and in a pitiful manner, flung her arms and forehead on the blanket. Donna Rosa stretched out a hand to caress her.
“I’ll go, Nunzia, don’t get worked up … In fact, going out will do me good.”
Eugenia kissed her hand.
Around eight there was a great commotion in the courtyard. At that moment Rosa had come out of the doorway: a tall, lanky figure, in a short, stained black coat, without shoulder pads, that exposed her legs, like wooden sticks. Under her arm, she carried a shopping bag for the bread she would buy on her way home from the optician. Don Peppino was pushing the water out of the middle of the courtyard with a long-handled broom, a vain task because the tub was continually leaking, like an open vein. In it were the clothes of two families: the Greborio sisters, on the second floor, and the wife of Cavaliere Amodio, who had given birth two days earlier. The Greborios’ servant, Lina Tarallo, was beating the carpets on a balcony, making a terrible ruckus. The dust, mixed with garbage, descended gradually like a cloud on those poor people, but no one paid attention. Sharp screams and cries of complaint could be heard from the basement where Aunt Nunzia was calling on all the saints as witnesses to confirm that she was unfortunate, and the cause of all this was Pasqualino, who wept and shouted like a condemned man because he wanted to go with his mamma. “Look at him, this scoundrel,” cried Aunt Nunzia. “Madonna bella, do me a favor, let me die, but immediately, if you’re there, since in this life only thieves and whores thrive.” Teresella, born the year the king went away and so younger than her brother, was sitting in the doorway, smiling, and every so often she licked a crust of bread she had found under a chair.
Eugenia was sitting on the step of another basement room, where Mariuccia the porter lived, looking at a section of a children’s comic, with lots of bright-colored figures, which had fallen from the fourth floor. She held it right up to her face, because otherwise she couldn’t read the words. There was a small blue river in a vast meadow and a red boat going … going … who knows where. It was written in proper Italian, and so she didn’t understand much, but every so often, for no reason, she laughed.
“So, today you put on your glasses?” said Mariuccia, looking out from behind her. Everyone in the courtyard knew, partly because Eugenia hadn’t resisted the temptation to talk about it, and partly because Aunt Nunzia had found it necessary to let it be understood that in that family she was spending her own … and well, in short .
“Your aunt got them for you, eh?” Mariuccia added, smiling good-humoredly. She was a small woman, almost a dwarf, with a face like a man’s, covered with whiskers. At the moment she was combing her long black hair, which came to her knees: one of the few things that attested to her being a woman. She was combing it slowly, smiling with her sly but kind little mouse eyes.
“Mamma went to get them on Via Roma,” said Eugenia with a look of gratitude. “We paid a grand total of a good eight thousand lire, you know? Really. my aunt is .” she was about to add “truly a good person,” when Aunt Nunzia, looking out of the basement room, called angrily: “Eugenia!”
“Here I am, Aunt!” and she scampered away like a dog.
Behind their aunt, Pasqualino, all red-faced and bewildered, with a terrible expression somewhere between disdain and surprise, was waiting.
“Go and buy two candies for three lire each, from Don Vincenzo at the tobacco store. Come back immediately!”
She clutched the money in her fist, paying no more attention to the comic, and hurried out of the courtyard.
By a true miracle she avoided a towering vegetable cart drawn by two horses, which was coming toward her right outside the main entrance. The carter, with his whip unsheathed, seemed to be singing, and from his mouth came these words:
“Lovely … Fresh,” drawn out and full of sweetness, like a love song. When the cart was behind her, Eugenia, raising her protruding eyes, basked in that warm blue glow that was the sky, and heard the great hubbub all around her, without, however, seeing it clearly. Carts, one behind the other, big trucks with Americans dressed in yellow hanging out the windows, bicycles that seemed to be tumbling over. High up, all the balconies were cluttered with flower crates, and over the railings, like flags or saddle blankets, hung yellow and red quilts, ragged blue children’s clothes, sheets, pillows, and mattresses exposed to the air, while at the end of the alley ropes uncoiled, lowering baskets to pick up the vegetables or fish offered by peddlers. Although the sun touched only the highest balconies (the street a crack in the disorderly mass of buildings) and the rest was only shadow and garbage, one could sense, behind it, the enormous celebration of spring. And even Eugenia, so small and pale, bound like a mouse to the mud of her courtyard, began to breathe rapidly, as if that air, that celebration, and all that blue suspended over the neighborhood of the poor were also hers. The yellow basket of the Amodios’ maid, Rosaria Buonincontri, grazed her as she went into the tobacco shop. Rosaria was a fat woman in black, with white legs and a flushed, placid face.
“Tell your mamma if she can come upstairs a moment today, Signora Amodio needs her to deliver a message.”
Eugenia recognized her by her voice. “She’s not here now. She went to Via Roma to get my glasses.”
“I should wear them, too, but my boyfriend doesn’t want me to.”
Eugenia didn’t grasp the meaning of that prohibition. She answered only, ingenuously: “They cost a great amount; you have to take very good care of them.”
They entered Don Vincenzo’s hole-in-the-wall together.
There was a crowd. Eugenia kept being pushed back. “Go on … you really are blind,” observed the Amodios’ maid, with a kind smile.
“But now Aunt Nunzia’s gotten you some eyeglasses,” Don Vincenzo, who had heard her, broke in, winking, with an air of teasing comprehension. He, too, wore glasses.
“At your age,” he said, handing her the candies, “I could see like a cat, I could thread needles at night, my grandmother always wanted me nearby … but now I’m old.”
Eugenia nodded vaguely. “My friends. none of them have lenses,” she said. Then, turning to the servant Rosaria, but speaking also for Don Vincenzo’s benefit: “Just me. Nine diopters on one side and ten on the other. I am almost blind!” she said emphatically, sweetly.
“See how lucky you are,” said Don Vincenzo, smiling, and to Rosaria: “How much salt?”
“Poor child!” the Amodios’ maid commented as Eugenia left, happily. “It’s the dampness that’s ruined her. In that building it rains on us. Now Donna Rosa’s bones ache. Give me a kilo of coarse salt and a packet of fine … ”
“There you are.”
“What a morning, eh, today, Don Vincenzo? It seems like summer already.”
Walking more slowly than she had on the way there, Eugenia, without even realizing it, began to unwrap one of the two candies, and then put it in her mouth. It tasted of lemon. “I’ll tell Aunt Nunzia that I lost it on the way,” she proposed to herself. She was happy, it didn’t matter to her if her aunt, good as she was, got angry. She felt someone take her hand, and recognized Luigino.
“You are really blind!” the boy said laughing. “And the glasses?”
“Mamma went to Via Roma to get them.”
“I didn’t go to school; it’s a beautiful day, why don’t we take a little walk?”
“You’re crazy! Today I have to be good.”
Luigino looked at her and laughed, with his mouth like a money box, stretching to his ears, contemptuous.
“What a rat’s nest.”
Instinctively Eugenia brought a hand to her hair.
“I can’t see well, and Mamma doesn’t have time,” she answered meekly.
“What are the glasses like? With gold frames?” Luigino asked. “All gold!” Eugenia answered, lying. “Bright and shiny!”
“Old women wear glasses,” said Luigino.
“Also ladies, I saw them on Via Roma.”
“Those are dark glasses, for sunbathing,” Luigino insisted. “You’re just jealous. They cost eight thousand lire.”
“When you have them, let me see them,” said Luigino. “I want to see if the frame really is gold. You’re such a liar,” and he went off on his own business, whistling.
Reentering the courtyard, Eugenia wondered anxiously if her glasses would or wouldn’t have a gold frame. In the negative case, what could she say to Luigino to convince him that they were a thing of value? But what a beautiful day! Maybe Mamma was about to return with the glasses wrapped in a package. Soon she would have them on her face. She would have … A frenzy of blows fell on her head. A real fury. She seemed to collapse; in vain she defended herself with her hands. It was Aunt Nunzia, of course, furious because of her delay, and behind Aunt Nunzia was Pasqualino, like a madman, because he didn’t believe her story about the candies. “Bloodsucker! You ugly little blind girl! And I who gave my life for this ingratitude … You’ll come to a bad end! Eight thousand lire no less. They bleed me dry, these scoundrels.”
She let her hands fall, only to burst into a great lament. “Our Lady of Sorrows, holy Jesus, by the wounds in your ribs let me die!”
Eugenia wept, too, in torrents.
“Aunt, forgive me. Aunt .”
“Uh . uh . uh .” said Pasqualino, his mouth wide open.
“Poor child,” said Donna Mariuccia, coming over to Eugenia, who didn’t know where to hide her face, now streaked with red and tears at her aunt’s rage. “She didn’t do it on purpose, Nunzia, calm down,” and to Eugenia: “Where’ve you got the candies?”
Eugenia answered softly, hopelessly, holding out one in her dirty hand: “I ate the other. I was hungry.”
Before her aunt could move again, to attack the child, the voice of the marchesa could be heard, from the fourth floor, where there was sun, calling softly, placidly, sweetly:
Aunt Nunzia looked up, her face pained as that of the Madonna of the Seven Sorrows, which was at the head of her bed.
“Today is the first Friday of the month. Dedicate it to God.”
“Marchesa, how good you are! These kids make me commit so many sins, I’m losing my mind, I …” And she collapsed her face between her paw-like hands, the hands of a worker, with brown, scaly skin.
“Is your brother not there?”
“Poor Aunt, she got you the eyeglasses, and that’s how you thank her,” said Mariuccia meanwhile to Eugenia, who was trembling.
“Yes, signora, here I am,” answered Don Peppino, who until that moment had been half hidden behind the door of the basement room, waving a paper in front of the stove where the beans for lunch were cooking.
“Can you come up?”
“My wife went to get the eyeglasses for Eugenia. I’m watching the beans. Would you wait, if you don’t mind.”
“Then send up the child. I have a dress for Nunziata. I want to give it to her.”
“May God reward you … very grateful,” answered Don Peppino, with a sigh of consolation, because that was the only thing that could calm his sister. But looking at Nunziata, he realized that she wasn’t at all cheered up. She continued to weep desperately, and that weeping had so stunned Pasqualino that the child had become quiet as if by magic, and was now licking the snot that dripped from his nose, with a small, sweet smile.
“Did you hear? Go up to the Signora Marchesa, she has a dress to give you,” said Don Peppino to his daughter.
Eugenia was looking at something in the void, with her eyes that couldn’t see: they were staring, fixed and large. She winced, and got up immediately, obedient.
“Say to her: ‘May God reward you,’ and stay outside the door.”
“Believe me, Mariuccia,” said Aunt Nunzia, when Eugenia had gone off, “I love that little creature, and afterward I’m sorry, as God is my witness, for scolding her. But I feel all the blood go to my head, believe me, when I have to fight with the kids. Youth is gone, as you see,” and she touched her hollow cheeks. “Sometimes I feel like a madwoman.”
“On the other hand, they have to vent, too,” Donna Mariuccia answered. “They’re innocent souls. They need time to weep. When I look at them, and think how they’ll become just like us.” She went to get a broom and swept a cabbage leaf out of the doorway. “I wonder what God is doing.”
“It’s new, brand-new! You hardly wore it!” said Eugenia, sticking her nose in the green dress lying on the sofa in the kitchen, while the marchesa went looking for an old newspaper to wrap it in.
The marchesa thought that the child really couldn’t see, because otherwise she would have realized that the dress was very old and full of patches (it had belonged to her dead sister), but she refrained from commenting. Only after a moment, as she was coming in with the newspaper, she asked:
“And the eyeglasses your aunt got you? Are they new?”
“With gold frames. They cost eight thousand lire,” Eugenia answered all in one breath, becoming emotional again at the thought of the honor she had received, “because I’m almost blind,” she added simply.
“In my opinion,” said the marchesa, carefully wrapping the dress in the newspaper, and then reopening the package because a sleeve was sticking out, “your aunt could have saved her money. I saw some very good eyeglasses in a shop near the Church of the Ascension, for only two thousand lire.”
Eugenia blushed fiery red. She understood that the marchesa was displeased. “Each to his own position in life. We all must know our limitations,” she had heard her say this many times, talking to Donna Rosa, when she brought her the washed clothes, and stayed to complain of her poverty.
“Maybe they weren’t good enough. I have nine diopters,” she replied timidly.
The marchesa arched an eyebrow, but luckily Eugenia didn’t see it.
“They were good, I’m telling you,” the Marchesa said obstinately, in a slightly harsher voice. Then she was sorry. “My dear,” she said more gently, “I’m saying this because I know the troubles you have in your household. With that difference of six thousand lire, you could buy bread for ten days, you could buy… What’s the use to you of seeing better? Given what’s around you!” A silence. “To read, maybe, but do you read?”
“But sometimes I’ve seen you with your nose in a book. A liar as well, my dear. That is no good.”
Eugenia didn’t answer again. She felt truly desperate, staring at the dress with her nearly white eyes.
“Is it silk?” she asked stupidly.
The marchesa looked at her, reflecting.
“You don’t deserve it, but I want to give you a little gift,” she said suddenly, and headed toward a white wooden wardrobe. At that moment the telephone, which was in the hall, began to ring, and instead of opening the wardrobe the marchesa went to answer it. Eugenia, oppressed by those words, hadn’t even heard the old woman’s consoling allusion, and as soon as she was alone she began to look around as far as her poor eyes allowed her. How many fine, beautiful things! Like the store on Via Roma! And there, right in front of her, an open balcony with a lot of small pots of flowers.
She went out onto the balcony. How much air, how much blue! The apartment buildings seemed to be covered by a blue veil, and below was the alley, like a ravine, with so many ants coming and going … like her relatives. What were they doing? Where were they going? They went in and out of their holes, carrying big crumbs of bread, they were doing this now, had done it yesterday, would do it tomorrow, forever, forever. So many holes, so many ants. And around them, almost invisible in the great light, the world made by God, with the wind, the sun, and out there the purifying sea, so vast … She was standing there, her chin planted on the iron railing, suddenly thoughtful, with an expression of sorrow, of bewilderment, that made her look ugly. She heard the sound of the marchesa’s voice, calm, pious. In her hand, in her smooth ivory hand, the marchesa was holding a small book covered in black paper with gilt letters.
“It’s the thoughts of the saints, my dear. The youth of today don’t read anything, and so the world has changed course. Take it, I’m giving it to you. But you must promise to read a little every evening, now that you’ve got your glasses.”
“Yes, signora,” said Eugenia, in a hurry, blushing again because the marchesa had found her on the balcony, and she took the book. Signora D’Avanzo regarded her with satisfaction.
“God wished to save you, my dear!” she said, going to get the package with the dress and placing it in her hands. “You’re not pretty, anything but, and you already appear to be an old lady. God favors you, because looking like that you won’t have opportunities for evil. He wants you to be holy, like your sisters!”
Although the words didn’t really wound her, because she had long been unconsciously prepared for a life without joy, Eugenia was nevertheless disturbed by them. And it seemed to her, if only for a moment, that the sun no longer shone as before, and even the thought of the eyeglasses ceased to cheer her. She looked vaguely, with her nearly dead eyes, at a point on the sea, where the Posillipo peninsula extended like a faded green lizard. “Tell Papa,” the marchesa continued, meanwhile, “that we won’t do anything about the child’s mattress today. My cousin telephoned, and I’ll be in Posillipo all day.”
“I was there once, too …” Eugenia began, reviving at that name and looking, spellbound, in that direction.
“Yes? Is that so?” Signora D’Avanzo was indifferent, the name of that place meant nothing special to her. In her magisterial fashion, she accompanied the child, who was still looking toward that luminous point, to the door, closing it slowly behind her.
As Eugenia came down the last step and out into the courtyard, the shadow that had been darkening her forehead for a while disappeared, and her mouth opened in a joyful laugh, because she had seen her mother arriving. It wasn’t hard to recognize that worn, familiar figure. She threw the dress on a chair and ran toward her.
“Mamma! The eyeglasses!”
“Gently, my dear, you’ll knock me over!”
Immediately, a small crowd formed. Donna Mariuccia, Don Peppino, one of the Greborios, who had stopped to rest on a chair before starting up the stairs, the Amodios’ maid, who was just then returning, and, of course, Pasqualino and Teresella, who wanted to see, too, and yelled, holding out their hands. Nunziata, for her part, was observing the dress that she had taken out of the newspaper, with a disappointed expression.
“Look, Mariuccia, it’s an old rag … all worn out under the arms!” she said, approaching the group. But who was paying attention to her? At that moment, Donna Rosa was extracting from a pocket in her dress the eyeglass case, and with infinite care opened it. On Donna Rosa’s long red hand, a kind of very shiny insect with two giant eyes and two curving antennae glittered in a pale ray of sun amid those poor people, full of admiration.
“Eight thousand lire … a thing like that!” said Donna Rosa, gazing at the eyeglasses religiously, and yet with a kind of rebuke.
Then, in silence, she placed them on Eugenia’s face, as the child ecstatically held out her hands, and carefully arranged the two antennae behind her ears. “Now can you see?” Donna Rosa asked with great emotion.
Gripping the eyeglasses with her hands, as if in fear that they would be taken away from her, her eyes half closed and her mouth half open in a rapt smile, Eugenia took two steps backward, and stumbled on a chair.
“Good luck!” said the Amodios’ maid.
“Good luck!” said the Greborio sister.
“She looks like a schoolteacher, doesn’t she?” Don Peppino observed with satisfaction.
“Not even a thank you!” said Aunt Nunzia, looking bitterly at the dress. “With all that, good luck!”
“She’s afraid, my little girl!” murmured Donna Rosa, heading toward the door of the basement room to put down her things. “She’s put on the eyeglasses for the first time!” she said, looking up at the first-floor balcony, where the other Greborio sister was looking out.
“I see everything very tiny,” said Eugenia, in a strange voice, as if she were speaking from under a chair. “Black, very black.”
“Of course: the lenses are double. But do you see clearly?” asked Don Peppino. “That’s the important thing. She’s put on the glasses for the first time,” he, too, said, addressing Cavaliere Amodio, who was passing by, holding an open newspaper.
“I’m warning you,” the cavaliere said to Mariuccia, after staring at Eugenia for a moment, as if she were merely a cat, “that stairway hasn’t been swept. I found some fish bones in front of the door!” And he went on, bent over, almost enfolded in his newspaper, reading an article about a proposal for a new pension law that interested him.
Eugenia, still holding on to the eyeglasses with her hands, went to the entrance to the courtyard to look outside into Vicolo della Cupa. Her legs were trembling, her head was spinning, and she no longer felt any joy. With her white lips she wished to smile, but that smile became a moronic grimace. Suddenly the balconies began to multiply, two thousand, a hundred thousand; the carts piled with vegetables were falling on her; the voices filling the air, the cries, the lashes, struck her head as if she were ill; she turned, swaying, toward the courtyard, and that terrible impression intensified. The courtyard was like a sticky funnel, with the narrow end toward the sky, its leprous walls crowded with derelict balconies; the arches of the basement dwellings black, with the lights bright in a circle around Our Lady of Sorrows; the pavement white with soapy water; the cabbage leaves, the scraps of paper, the garbage and, in the middle of the courtyard, that group of ragged, deformed souls, faces pocked by poverty and resignation, who looked at her lovingly. They began to writhe, to become mixed up, to grow larger. They all came toward her, in the two bewitched circles of the eyeglasses. It was Mariuccia who first realized that the child was sick, and she tore off the glasses, because Eugenia, doubled over and moaning, was throwing up.
“They’ve gone to her stomach!” cried Mariuccia, holding her forehead. “Bring a coffee bean, Nunziata!”
“A grand total of a good eight thousand lire!” cried Aunt Nunzia, her eyes popping out of her head, running into the basement room to get a coffee bean from a can in the cupboard; and she held up the new eyeglasses, as if to ask God for an explanation. “And now they’re wrong, too!”
“It’s always like that, the first time,” said the Amodios’ maid to Donna Rosa calmly. “You mustn’t be shocked; little by little one gets used to them.”
“It’s nothing, child, nothing, don’t be scared!” But Donna Rosa felt her heart constrict at the thought of how unlucky they were.
Aunt Nunzia returned with the coffee bean, still crying: “A grand total of a good eight thousand lire!” while Eugenia, pale as death, tried in vain to throw up, because she had nothing left inside her. Her bulging eyes were almost crossed with suffering, and her old lady’s face was bathed in tears, as if stupefied. She leaned on her mother and trembled.
“Mamma, where are we?”
“We’re in the courtyard, my child,” said Donna Rosa patiently; and the fine smile, between pity and wonder, that illuminated her eyes, suddenly lit up the faces of all those wretched people.
“She’s a half-wit, she is!”
“Leave her alone, poor child, she’s dazed,” said Donna Mariuccia, and her face was grim with pity, as she went back into the basement apartment that seemed to her darker than usual.
Only Aunt Nunzia was wringing her hands:
“A grand total of a good eight thousand lire!”
*The story is taken from Evening Descends Upon the Hills by Anna Maria Ortese. Pushkin Press, 2018.
“I have not yet begun to fight!”
John Paul Jones
The road descends all the way to the sea, as though the whole world was a huge basin where everything drove, sailed, glided and swept down to the bottom. I’m on my way to visit my mother. I’m riding my old green bicycle, peddling happily, gears greased, hands firmly gripping the rusted handlebars. The evening air is humid but a gentle breeze sweeps my hair back and brushes against my face. And when tiny beads of sweat bud on my lips I lick them away, tasting their salinity. I speed past an illuminated billboard on which Mel Gibson grins with a smile once enthralling, but no longer. The first time I saw Lethal Weapon I laughed uproariously at Martin Riggs seated with Roger Murtaugh in the gleaming boat parked on his lawn, because it reminded me of the oval ocean in which father placed me and Eran when we were children. On bright summer days, father would stand outside our window, press his nose against the screen and call out loudly: “Who wants to be Archimedes today?”
“Me! Me!” we’d both shout, quickly undressing and rushing outside in our white underwear and tanned skin to father’s exciting ocean. The tub was already filled to the brim with fresh water, cold at first, from the garden hose. “Today you’ll be Archimedes,” father declared, beaming, pointing to the oval sea, “Get in. Let’s see how much water you’ll splash out today.” Eran followed me down into the depths and the green grass surrounding us was flooded by waves of water in adherence to the incontrovertible truth of Archimedes’ Law, which father patiently explained to us. He handed us the long pole, one end of which was already green with mold and always served as a mast, and tied a square of white cloth to it which had been surreptitiously cut from mother’s old holiday dress. When all was ready he grasped the thick rope tied to the tub’s handle and cried out, “Eran, today you’re Magellan! We’re sailing to Tierra del Fuego!” On another occasion I was Christopher Columbus. We bravely sailed west to discover India and, as always, when it was my turn to be Columbus, father would ask, “Well, my pretty one, what are the names of your three vessels?” and I would quickly clutch the rim of the tub to keep it from overturning because father was already running as hard as he could on the grass around the house, the tub careening, water splashing, me yelling back to him, “Nina, Pinta and Fanta Maria!” and the three of us roared with laughter because that’s what I’d say when I was little and didn’t know its name was “Santa Maria.”
We traveled with father to many faraway lands. We journeyed to Sweden to view the Vasa which had sunk in Stockholm’s ancient harbor with all of its crew and cannon as it set out on its maiden voyage; we sailed from port to port on the magnificent Love Boat and disembarked to tour Puerto Vallarta; and once even reached Polynesia where we embarked in a double pirogue and didn’t tip over. And on one unusually hot day father sprayed us with the hose so we wouldn’t become dehydrated, God forbid, and announced, “Today we’ll sail from Ashkelon to Arcachon and Biarritz, where the rich French people have summer homes.” But I, who’d already studied geography in school, said with an innocent expression on my face, “Dad, that’s not possible. They’re on the Atlantic coast.” Father was briefly mortified but recovered. “Alright, then we’ll go back to earlier times, they’re always fascinating. What do you say, let’s join Odysseus, King of Ithaca, on his journey home from the Trojan War?” My face expressed indifference because I didn’t like wars. I proposed boarding a black gondola on the canals of Venice, “If Eran agrees, of course.” I think that was the year the oval tub grew too small for both of us and father had to sail me first and then my brother. I no longer feared to journey alone to the Cape of Storms, and when we’d rounded the continent we decided unanimously to rename it the Cape of Good Hope. But Eran grew impatient even before we’d gone ashore and stamped his feet, “Enough, Dad, now it’s my turn. I want to go to the Galapagos, to the iguanas!”
We learned about many exotic locations and historic maritime expeditions during the delightful games with father on the lawn. Once Eran asked with a challenging thrust of his chin, “And what long voyages did you make, Dad?”, and father thought for a long moment, while the water in the tub settled, scratching his head as though attempting to remember, “Ah, I went on a long trip in Mauthausen, then a march from Bergen-Belsen, before then I also visited Auschwitz, which was a long time ago and I don’t really remember very well, but what I can tell you is that I was plunged into the eye of a storm long before I ever saw the open sea – “
Eran and I fell silent and our gaiety faded. We were already familiar with these names, Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Mauthausen, and other names of similar places from mother’s whispering to Aunt Lily, one of them crying silently, the other crushing larval cigarette butts in the glass ashtray, fingering a white handkerchief in her lap.
Father saw we’d quieted down and quickly moved to reinvigorate us. He pulled the rope with such strength we almost tumbled from the boat as he began rushing us to Mount Ararat to locate, once and for all, Noah’s lost ark.
Then Eran really got big. Hands, feet, neck, all his clothes and shoes were too small for him and his voice changed and he asked to move to the closed-in balcony, at least he’d have his own room, without me. I kept pace with him, as though we were twinned. I’d already discovered Osnat was using tampons and wondered when my turn would come. Meanwhile, I was wearing a double-A bra and putting on mother’s pink lipstick whenever she left the house.
One day, almost as an afterthought, the tub was shoved into the crawl space under the house, a shady, cool place with a musty odor where mother’s cats would shelter from the heat. Our last voyage in father’s tub was to the Lofoten Islands where the maelstrom, the deadly ocean whirlpool, waited in ambush at high tide. Father told us it was known even to Jules Verne; it was the mysterious whirlpool in which the Nautilus sank – and at night when I lay in bed, curled in a blanket, my nose between the pages of Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, I was pleased to learn the French author had been right. And because we had escaped the whirlpool the water in the tub subsided and Eran and I, and father, listened intently to the sirens’ song. Father shut his eyes, turned his ear to the wind and rhythmically stroked his cheek with pleasure. Eran wrung out his wet undershirt with abrupt movements, looked at father, an unfamiliar expression on his face, as if he were seeing him for the first time, and said angrily, “What sirens are you talking about, Dad, it’s only the wind and the crickets!” and turned to enter the house, dripping wet. Then he yelled, in a parting shot, “Why don’t you ever talk to me about soccer?!”
I silenced my brother quickly. As he walked away, I yelled at him that he didn’t understand anything! I still heard them singing, their gentle, tantalizing voices, and still looked up to my father, even though I too began to wonder how he knew so much about brave admirals like John Paul Jones and Captain Cook, about distant seas and exciting missions in places whose names sent chills of pleasure through me and filled me with an urgent lust to see the world.
Mother never swam in the ocean or in the pool and father dared only infrequently to drive our white Susita automobile as far as Beersheba or Tiberias, and even less frequently picked up a book and sat down to read it from cover to cover. “He no longer has patience to read,” mother sighed, tightening a screw in her eyeglass frame with a tiny screwdriver. “They killed his patience.”
At the end of that summer, just before the autumn winds began whipping the tips of the cedars along the border of our fading garden, and just before the spikes of the sea squills began their torturous emergence from the hard earth, at the end of that summer mother ran into the house with a terrified expression in her eyes. She’d been weeding the garden and saw a marbled snake slither beneath the house. Father ran outside, bent down between the oleander bushes and stared for a long time into the narrow, dim coolness between the earth and the house above. When he rose to his feet and saw mother standing at the doorway fingering the hem of her skirt he spread his arms – “there’s no snake there” – but when his glance met her frightened eyes and he saw her shrinking back he crouched again with a sigh and carefully removed all the junk that had accumulated beneath the house through the years: a roll of chicken wire that no one could remember why it had been purchased; Eran’s scooter, which had surrendered all its majesty; and the periscope we had constructed from plywood and mirrors, almost in one piece and perhaps still usable. And when he pulled out the small tub I saw sadly that time had corroded its surface into red-brown rust and had left it pitted like one of mother’s lace doilies that rested on the cushions of the living room armchairs, starched and stiff.
The days passed slowly, then sped on their way. The winds awoke from their summer slumber as though they’d been alerted. Mother picked pomegranates from the tree and placed them in a blue clay bowl that highlighted their pinkish-yellow colors. Most had been attacked by insects, but were still lovely on their surface. The grape arbor still sagged with the weight of lush clusters. Eran and I stretched our hands toward their twined vines, grasped the tendrils and pulled the ripe fruit down into our mouths. When the wagtails returned to peck the earth then autumn had truly arrived and the summer became a hazy memory. The traces of our adventurous journeys in the tub dissipated. Clouds arrived from the sea and clumped in corners of the sky like huddled sheep. Nights were chilly and brought rain. After days of downpours that beat down everywhere with unfathomable intensity the rain was transformed into a whispered, calming drizzle. I wandered outside for hours in my gray raincoat, seeing visions deep within the mirroring puddles. And when a storm arrived to beat wildly against the slats of the shutters, mother said it was the winter’s swan song and how pleasant it was in such weather to be beneath blankets in the eye of the storm. It was mother who taught us that the storm’s eye is the safest place to be at sea during a whirlwind, the exact opposite of what we’d believed, even father, and that ships can sail in the eye of the storm without fear. And so, if that winter’s final rain was a storm, we remained in the calm isle of its eye.
One morning the last orange dropped from the tree in obedience to an unspoken instruction and embarked on its journey of decomposition. Spring was brief that year and the summer very hot and oppressive. Eran was finishing twelfth grade. Every evening he ran a timed hour along the beach. He’d returned from the naval commando team-building exercise bruised and exhausted, and also dirty and somewhat ill, but with a smile of victory on his lips. However, he wasn’t accepted into the naval commando unit and no one could console him, not even his girlfriend Nitza. In the autumn Eran reluctantly joined a different unit, completed the training with distinction, eventually came to terms with the bright red color of his unit’s beret, returned to Nitza, and was killed one dark night in an ambush in southern Lebanon.
Afterwards, a silence descended on the house and never lifted. The sailors and brave discoverers of new lands who filled our childhood sailed away in their ships beyond the horizon, pennants flying, and never returned. We remained planted in the earth. Mother wrapped up her pain and buried it deep within her – “There’s still a child here at home” – while father submerged his rigid denial in the sea’s cold waters, swimming to a small island until his strength gave out or taking long morning walks along the beach, striding beside the waves on the same route Eran took every evening at the end of twelfth grade, pacing pensively, searching for a trace of his son’s footprints, his back bending, his heart unravelling.
I stopped at a red light, brakes screeching. I wiped the sweat from my face and adjusted the straps of my backpack. In the distance I saw the sea’s dusky shadow merge with the sky into a unitary boundless gray entity, pierced by pale starlight and the eyeballs of the round lamps along the promenade curving to the south. When the light turned green I made my way toward the anchorage. The gloomy sea was hidden momentarily by a brighter one: a giant billboard advertising a Greek island holiday.
On one of the few occasions that mother and father had enough money and energy to take a short holiday, the four of us drove to Eilat. The journey was long and enchanting. “It’s like Africa,” said Eran, amazed by the acacia trees struggling to survive in the arid heat, seeming to flee from him as fast as we were driving toward them. Mother told us that the manna eaten by the Israelites in the desert hadn’t fallen from the sky, as is written in the Torah, and that scientists believed that the biblical white material was, in fact, sweet secretions of ants living on the acacia branches. She went on to tell us the meaning of symbiosis, and Eran and I immediately responded, “Ugh, secretions of ants – “, then my brother turned around and swore he saw Lot’s wife. I cried that I saw ibexes leaping on the cliffs.
We reached Eilat hungry and dusty. The Red Sea’s waters were dark blue and the beach curving and golden. An expanse of cloth tents blossomed on the sand. Before it grew dark we also built a tent of flapping piqué bedspreads and broomsticks, near our Susita, and mother gave each of us our favorite sandwich. After eating we entered the water, except for mother. We splashed, swam, insisted we’d seen scorpion fish and parrot fish and took care to avoid being stung by the black sea anemones. All our urgings were useless, mother refused to go in the water. Father gave up first. “Leave mom alone,” he motioned, she’s hopeless, and again wet his black hair. “Did you forget the business with the cats?” We hadn’t forgotten. Mother observed one of the neighbors bathing three kittens in a large metal bucket and wanted to look, and saw their small heads and limbs trembling beneath the shimmering surface. With their remaining strength the kittens tried to free themselves from the grip of the man bent over the pail glancing out of the corner of his eye at the neighbors’ daughter, at mother, “You know what cats do in the garden, wailing all night like they’re being slaughtered? Then they give birth and the kittens bring fleas. It’s the same every year and their mother never learns!” He didn’t release their striped bodies until they grew limp and the water in the pail no longer moved. Since then mother’s fame had spread to all the stray cats in the neighborhood, who came to her for refuge. And since then – so we assumed – mother avoided water resolutely. When the town built a swimming pool she would enter only to her ankles, and never took her worried eyes off Eran and me though we swam like dolphins. Only when father placed us in the tub’s oval sea and became a daring admiral did mother watch us contentedly, seated on the porch stairs.
After Eran had been killed father lost all sense of time. He sat alone in the garden for hours on a wicker chair frayed from age and the sun, slumped in the lacy shade of the Persian Lilac tree, fingering an old piece of rope, as though reviewing all the knots he’d taught us when we were children: fisherman’s knot, overhand knot, reef knot, granny knot. Father’s fingers were thick and nimble. “You already know how to tie your shoelaces, right?” he said the first time he showed us the rope’s wonders, “so you already know one knot!”
When I saw him sitting like that in the shady garden I was horrified and a fist clutched my heart: father had shriveled and seemed so lost he required a lifeline. I imagined him leaning toward me and patiently explaining where to place my fingers and how to form the rope into a loop and where to pull and tighten so the knot would be secure, but I didn’t exactly remember what went where anymore. And so father continued to fade away from us until he silently disappeared from our lives, one moment visible, then illusory, glinting, then quenched in the distance – until he descended into the endless, macabre abyss at the horizon where the sea ended – and was never seen again.
I’m flying downhill on the bicycle, the wind flinging my hair back and cooling my skin. Mother moved away from the old house long ago. Now, though it seems unbelievable, she lives on the sea. Literally on the sea. A man with white hair desired my mother for her silences and the sorrow that withered her spirit, and brought her home to him. The stability mother always sought in a safe harbor she found, as it happened, on the man’s small, rocking boat anchored in the Jaffa marina. “Our house is big and empty, and it’s like a museum,” she sighed to me one morning, “Eran’s gone. Dad is gone. You have your own life, I don’t want to live here any longer. The house is yours now, with all that’s in it, and all that isn’t, it’s all yours. And if you don’t want it either, you’re welcome to sell it. We’ll split the proceeds fifty-fifty.”
Mother didn’t wait for me to sell the house – nor had I decided what to do with it – but packed a few suitcases and moved in with her sister Talma. After a while she also moved from Talma’s because she’d met Herbert. This was the first time she had invited me to her new home.
I arrived at the marina, panting heavily. I tied the bike to a streetlamp and scanned the area to locate the lights of the boat mother had described on the phone. “On the stern is the verse you, Eran and Dad always loved,” she set me a riddle we’d solved long ago, and added, surprised at herself, “You won’t believe the coincidence,” that is – I inferred – the verse was a sign this man was also a kindred spirit. I smiled to myself. For a brief moment my brother and I were again seated in the splashing tub, the sun gilding our heads, and repeated along with father the magical fact that “All the rivers go to the sea and the sea is not full.” My brother and I roiled the water’s surface and were answered by waves rippling outward, and we tried to understand how all the rivers go to the sea and the sea is not full.
I’m standing beneath the streetlamp, my feet in the puddle of light, hands on my hips. Large boats and small fishing craft rock in the marina’s waters. Nearby waves shatter dully against the rocks of the breakwater. The air smells of fish guts mingled with flecks of salt the wind carries to shore. In the deepening darkness I can’t find the boat or the verse on its stern. Only thanks to my cellphone do I find mother and Herbert, who have emerged onto the deck of a shiny white boat and are now waving a flashlight at me. He smiles pleasantly and extends a trembling hand as I climb up to his bobbing home. I look at him with interest, he’s the man who was able to do what father never could – detach mother from dry land.
I follow him down into the boat. Mother’s expression is welcoming, her eyes gleam and she hugs me tightly, “This is my daughter,” she proudly says to her new partner. “I’m pleased, pleased to meet you,” Herbert repeats.
The boat rocks gently and I glance at mother surreptitiously. She looks back at me with unfamiliar confidence. Her eyes tell me everything’s fine. My mind eases, mother has found new love, everything’s fine. Mother gestures and I sit opposite her on the upholstered bench, and Herbert immediately offers hot tea or cool cocoa, whichever we prefer.
I ask mother where they’re headed.
“We’re not headed anywhere, sweetheart,” she calmly replies, “We’re not headed anywhere. Nothing’s changed as far as that’s concerned. I’m not stepping into the water. Herbert assured me the boat is securely tied to the dock, we’ve dropped anchor and the basin within the breakwater is usually smooth as butter. It’s a house, that’s all it is.”
“And I thought you’d finally gotten over that business with the kittens.”
Mother shrugs, “Why would you think that. We’re staying here, and during the winter we’ll move to his apartment in Giv’at Olga. Anyway,” her smile sparkles, “No lands remain for us to discover – “
I thank Herbert as he hands me a cup of hot tea with a charming gesture and asks whether to add a sugar cube and whether I like sailing, or whether I’m “like your mother.”
Mother sips carefully, “No, she’s not like me. I’m something special. I never sought adventure, but who knows? You only live once.”
Herbert strokes her head very gently. I examine the cup in my hand.
“You know, Herbert,” mother says, “One day I’ll find the courage and then the three of us will sail west, perhaps to Ile d’If, opposite Marseille. We could pause near the St. Jean fortress, perhaps Dantès will wave to us through the bars of his cell.”
I stare at mother in amazement. Had she been listening when father read The Count of Monte Cristo to us? I don’t remember her ever reading it.
She smiles at me encouragingly. Father’s image, tall and joyful, appears momentarily between us. Our thoughts drift to Eran who had begun, for a short while, to resemble him, until a large, returning fishing vessel chugs toward us, and as it maneuvers its way into the anchorage the water grows agitated and Herbert’s boat sways.
A striped cat I hadn’t noticed before jumps onto mother’s knees and curls up in her lap like a snail. Its half-open eyes examine me, then close again.
I hear mother ask, “Have you decided what you want to do with the house?” and I, distracted, answer “No, not yet,” thinking about my green bicycle tied to the streetlamp on the pier, and that I’ll soon have to pedal back up the long slope that led down to the marina. Perhaps I should say goodbye, and leave.
*From “A Sensitive Woman”, a collection of stories, (The fifth book by Edna Shemesh, to be published in 2019)
That winter, like every winter before it, my father woke early each day and turned up the thermostat so the house would be warm by the time my mother and I got out of bed. Sometimes I’d hear the furnace kick in and the shower come on down the hall and I’d wake just long enough to be angry that he’d woken me. But usually I slept until my mother had finished making our breakfast. By then, my father was already at Goodyear, opening the service bay for the customers who had to drop their cars off before going to work themselves. Sitting in the sunny kitchen, warmed by the heat from the register and the smell of my mother’s coffee, I never thought about him dressing in the cold dark or shoveling out the driveway by porch light. If I thought of him at all, it was only to feel glad he was not there. In those days my father and I fought a lot, though probably not much more than most fathers and sons. I was sixteen then, a tough age. And he was forty, an age I’ve since learned is even tougher.
But that winter I was too concerned with my own problems to think about my father’s. I was a skinny, unathletic, sorrowful boy who had few friends, and I was in love with Molly Rasmussen, one of the prettiest girls in Glencoe and the daughter of a man who had stopped my father on Main Street that fall, cursed him, and threatened to break his face. My father had bought a used Ford Galaxie from Mr. Rasmussen’s lot, but he hadn’t been able to make the payments and eventually Mr. Rasmussen repossessed it. Without a second car my mother couldn’t get to her job at the school lunchroom, so we drove our aging Chevy to Minneapolis, where no one knew my father, and bought a rust-pitted yellow Studebaker. A few days later Molly Rasmussen passed me in the hall at school and said, “I see you’ve got a new car,” then laughed. I was so mortified I hurried into a restroom, locked myself in a stall, and stood there for several minutes, breathing hard. Even after the bell rang for the next class, I didn’t move. I was furious at my father. I blamed him for the fact that Molly despised me, just as I had for some time blamed him for everything else that was wrong with my life—my gawky looks, my discount store clothes, my lack of friends.
That night, and others like it, I lay in bed and imagined who I’d be if my mother had married someone handsome and popular like Dick Moore, the PE teacher, or Smiley Swenson, who drove stock cars at the county fair, or even Mr. Rasmussen. Years before, my mother had told me how she met my father. A girl who worked with her at Woolworth’s had asked her if she wanted to go out with a friend of her boyfriend’s, an army man just back from the war. My mother had never agreed to a blind date before, or dated an older man, but for some reason this time she said yes. Lying there, I thought about that fateful moment. It seemed so fragile— she could as easily have said no and changed everything—and I wished, then, that she had said no, I wished she’d said she didn’t date strangers or she already had a date or she was going out of town—anything to alter the chance conjunction that would eventually produce me.
I know now that there was something suicidal about my desire to undo my parentage, but then I knew only that I wanted to be someone else. And I blamed my father for that wish. If I’d had a different father, I reasoned, I would be better looking, happier, more popular. When I looked in the mirror and saw my father’s thin face, his rust-red hair, downturned mouth, and bulging Adam’s apple, I didn’t know who I hated more, him or me. That winter I began parting my hair on the right instead of the left, as my father did, and whenever the house was empty I worked on changing my voice, practicing the inflections and accents of my classmates’ fathers as if they were clues to a new life. I did not think, then, that my father knew how I felt about him, but now that I have a son of my own, a son almost as old as I was then, I know different.
If I had known what my father was going through that winter, maybe I wouldn’t have treated him so badly. But I didn’t know anything until the January morning of his breakdown. I woke that morning to the sound of voices downstairs in the kitchen. At first I thought the sound was the wind rasping in the bare branches of the cottonwood outside my window, then I thought it was the radio. But after I lay there a moment I recognized my parents’ voices. I couldn’t tell what they were saying, but I knew they were arguing. They’d been arguing more than usual lately, and I hated it—not so much because I wanted them to be happy, though I did, but because I knew they’d take their anger out on me, snapping at me, telling me to chew with my mouth closed, asking me who gave me permission to put my feet up on the coffee table, ordering me to clean my room. I buried one ear in my pillow and covered the other with my blankets, but I could still hear them. They sounded distant, yet somehow close, like the sea crashing in a shell held to the ear. But after a while I couldn’t hear even the muffled sound of their voices, and I sat up in the bars of gray light slanting through the blinds and listened to the quiet. I didn’t know what was worse: their arguments or their silences. I sat there, barely breathing, waiting for some noise.
Finally I heard the back door bang shut and, a moment later, the Chevy cough to life. Only then did I dare get out of bed. Crossing to the window, I raised one slat of the blinds with a finger and saw, in the dim light, the driveway drifted shut with snow. Then my father came out of the garage and began shoveling, scooping the snow furiously and flinging it over his shoulder, as if each shovelful were a continuation of the argument. I couldn’t see his face, but I knew that it was red and that he was probably cursing under his breath. As he shoveled, the wind scuffed the drifts around him, swirling the snow into his eyes, but he didn’t stop or set his back to the wind. He just kept shoveling fiercely, and suddenly it occurred to me that he might have a heart attack, just as my friend Rob’s father had the winter before. For an instant I saw him slump over his shovel, then collapse face-first into the snow. As soon as this thought came to me, I did my best to convince myself that it arose from love and terror, but even then I knew part of me wished his death, and that knowledge went through me like a chill.
I lowered the slat on the blinds and got back into bed. The house was quiet but not peaceful. I knew that somewhere in the silence my mother was crying and I thought about going to comfort her, but I didn’t. After a while I heard my father rev the engine and back the Chevy down the driveway. Still I didn’t get up. And when my mother finally came to tell me it was time to get ready, her eyes and nose red and puffy, I told her I wasn’t feeling well and wanted to stay home. Normally she would have felt my forehead and cross-examined me about my symptoms, but that day I knew she’d be too upset to bother. “Okay, Danny,” she said. “Call me if you think you need to see a doctor.” And that was it. She shut the door and a few minutes later I heard the whine of the Studebaker’s cold engine, and then she was gone.
It wasn’t long after my mother left that my father came home. I was lying on the couch in the living room watching TV when I heard a car pull into the driveway. At first I thought my mother had changed her mind and come back to take me to school. But then the back door sprang open and I heard him. It was a sound I had never heard before, and since have heard only in my dreams, a sound that will make me sit up in the thick dark, my eyes open to nothing and my breath panting. I don’t know how to explain it, other than to say that it was a kind of crazy language, like speaking in tongues. It sounded as if he were crying and talking at the same time, and in some strange way his words had become half-sobs and his sobs something more than words—or words turned inside out, so that only their emotion and not their meaning came through. It scared me. I knew something terrible had happened, and I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to go to him and ask what was wrong, but I didn’t dare. I switched off the sound on the TV so he wouldn’t know I was home and sat there staring at the actors mouthing their lines. But then I couldn’t stand it anymore and I got up and ran down the hall to the kitchen. There, in the middle of the room, wearing his Goodyear jacket and work clothes, was my father. He was on his hands and knees, his head hanging as though it were too heavy to support, and he was rocking back and forth and babbling in a rhythmic stutter. It’s funny, but the first thing I thought when I saw him like that was the way he used to give me rides on his back, when I was little, bucking and neighing like a horse. And as soon as I thought it, I felt my heart lurch in my chest. “Dad?” I said. “What’s wrong?” But he didn’t hear me. I went over to him then. “Dad?” I said again, and touched him on the shoulder. He jerked at the touch and looked up at me, his lips moving but no sounds coming out of them now. His forehead was knotted and his eyes were red, almost raw-looking. He swallowed hard and for the first time spoke words I could recognize, though I did not understand them until years later, when I was myself a father.
“Danny,” he said. “Save me.”
Before I could finish dialing the school lunchroom’s number, my mother pulled into the driveway. Looking out the window, I saw her jump out of the car and run up the slick sidewalk, her camel- colored overcoat open and flapping in the wind. For a moment I was confused. Had I already called her? How much time had passed since I found my father on the kitchen floor? A minute? An hour? Then I realized that someone else must have told her something was wrong.
She burst in the back door then and called out, “Bill? Bill? Are you here?”
“Mom,” I said, “Dad’s—” and then I didn’t know how to finish the sentence.
She came in the kitchen without stopping to remove her galoshes. “Oh, Bill,” she said when she saw us, “are you all right?”
My father was sitting at the kitchen table now, his hands fluttering in his lap. A few moments before, I had helped him to his feet and, draping his arm over my shoulders, led him to the table like a wounded man.
“Helen,” he said. “It’s you.” He said it as if he hadn’t seen her for years.
My mother went over and knelt beside him. “I’m so sorry,” she said, but whether that statement was born of sorrow over something she had said or done or whether she just simply and guiltlessly wished he weren’t suffering, I never knew. Taking his hands in hers, she added, “There’s nothing to worry about. Everything’s going to be fine.” Then she turned to me. Her brown hair was wind-blown, and her face was so pale the smudges of rouge on her cheeks looked like bruises. “Danny,” she said, “I want you to leave us alone for a few minutes.”
I looked at her red-rimmed eyes and tight lips. “Okay,” I said, and went back to the living room. There, I sat on the sagging couch and stared at the television, the actors’ mouths moving wordlessly, their laughs eerily silent. I could hear my parents talking, their steady murmur broken from time to time by my father sobbing and my mother saying “Bill” over and over, in the tone mothers use to calm their babies, but I couldn’t hear enough of what they said to know what had happened. And I didn’t want to know either. I wanted them to be as silent as the people on the TV, I wanted all the words to stop, all the crying.
I lay down and closed my eyes, trying to drive the picture of my father on the kitchen floor out of my head. My heart was beating so hard I could feel my pulse tick in my throat. I was worried about my father but I was also angry that he was acting so strange. It didn’t seem fair that I had to have a father like that. I’d never seen anybody else’s father act that way, not even in a movie.
Outside, the wind shook the evergreens and every now and then a gust would rattle the windowpane. I lay there a long time, listening to the wind, until my heart stopped beating so hard.
Some time later, my mother came into the room and sat on the edge of the chair under the sunburst mirror. Her forehead was creased, and there were black mascara streaks on her cheeks. Leaning toward me, her hands clasped, she bit her lip, then said, “I just wanted to tell you not to worry. Everything’s going to be all right.” Her breath snagged on the last word, and I could hear her swallowing.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
She opened her mouth as if she were about to answer, but suddenly her eyes began to tear. “We’ll talk about it later,” she said. “After the doctor’s come. Just don’t worry, okay? I’ll explain everything.”
“The doctor?” I said.
“I’ll explain later,” she answered.
Then she left and I didn’t hear anything more until ten or fifteen minutes had passed and the doorbell rang. My mother ran to the door and opened it, and I heard her say, “Thank you for coming so quickly. He’s in the kitchen.” As they hurried down the hall past the living room, I caught a glimpse of Dr. Lewis and his black leather bag. It had been years since the doctors in our town, small as it was, made house calls, so I knew now that my father’s problem was something truly serious. The word emergency came into my mind, and though I tried to push it out, it kept coming back.
For the next half hour or so, I stayed in the living room, listening to the droning sound of Dr. Lewis and my parents talking. I still didn’t know what had happened or why. All I knew was that my father was somebody else now, somebody I didn’t know. I tried to reconcile the man who used to read to me at night when my mother was too tired, the man who patiently taught me how to measure and cut plywood for a birdhouse, even the man whose cheeks twitched when he was angry at me and whose silences were suffocating, with the man I had just seen crouched like an animal on the kitchen floor babbling some incomprehensible language. But I couldn’t. And though I felt sorry for him and his suffering, I felt as much shame as sympathy. This is your father, I told myself. This is you when you’re older.
It wasn’t until after Dr. Lewis had left and my father had taken the tranquilizers and gone upstairs to bed that my mother came back into the living room, sat down on the couch beside me, and told me what had happened. “Your father,” she began, and her voice cracked. Then she controlled herself and said, “Your father has been fired from his job.”
I looked at her. “Is that it?” I said. “That’s what all this fuss is about?” I couldn’t believe he’d put us through all this for something so unimportant. All he had to do was get a new job. What was the big deal?
“Let me explain,” my mother said. “He was fired some time ago. Ten days ago, to be exact. But he hadn’t said anything to me about it, and he just kept on getting up and going down to work every morning, like nothing had happened. And every day Mr. Siverhus told him to leave, and after arguing a while, he’d go. Then he’d spend the rest of the day driving around until quitting time, when he’d finally come home. But Mr. Siverhus got fed up and changed the locks, and when your father came to work today he couldn’t get in. He tried all three entrances, and when he found his key didn’t work in any of them, well, he threw a trash barrel through the showroom window and went inside.”
She paused for a moment, I think to see how I was taking this. I was trying to picture my father throwing a barrel through that huge, expensive window. It wasn’t easy to imagine. Even at his most angry, he had never been violent. He had never even threatened to hit me or my mother. But now he’d broken a window, and the law.
My mother went on. “Then when he was inside, he found that Mr. Siverhus had changed the lock on his office too, so he kicked the door in. When Mr. Siverhus came to work, he found your dad sitting at his desk, going over service accounts.” Her lips started to tremble. “He could have called the police,” she said, “but he called me instead. We owe him for that.”
That’s the story my mother told me. Though I was to find out later that she hadn’t told me the entire truth, she had told me enough of it to make me realize that my father had gone crazy. Something in him—whatever slender idea or feeling it is that connects us to the world—had broken, and he was not in the world anymore, he was outside it, horribly outside it, and could not get back in no matter how he tried. Somehow I knew this, even then. And I wondered if someday the same thing would happen to me.
The rest of that day, I stayed downstairs, watching TV or reading Sports Illustrated or Life, while my father slept or rested. My mother sat beside his bed, reading her ladies magazines while he slept and talking to him whenever he woke, and every now and then she came downstairs to tell me he was doing fine. She spoke as if he had some temporary fever, some twenty-four-hour virus, that would be gone by morning.
But the next morning, a Saturday, my father was still not himself. He didn’t feel like coming down for breakfast, so she made him scrambled eggs, sausage, and toast and took it up to him on a tray. He hadn’t eaten since the previous morning, but when she came back down awhile later all the food was still on the tray. She didn’t say anything about the untouched meal; she just said my father wanted to talk to me.
“I can’t,” I said. “I’m eating.” I had one sausage patty and a few bites of scrambled egg left on my plate.
“Not this minute,” she said. “When you’re done.”
I looked out the window. It had been snowing all morning, and the evergreens in the backyard looked like flocked Christmas trees waiting for strings of colored lights. Some sparrows were flying in and out of the branches, chirping, and others were lined up on the crossbars of the clothesline poles, their feathers fluffed out and blowing in the wind.
“I’m supposed to meet Rob at his house,” I lied. “I’ll be late.”
“Danny,” she said, in a way that warned me not to make her say any more.
“All right,” I said, and I shoved my plate aside and got up. “But I don’t have much time.”
Upstairs, I stopped at my father’s closed door. Normally I would have walked right in, but that day I felt I should knock. I felt as if I were visiting a stranger. Even his room—I didn’t think of it as belonging to my mother anymore—seemed strange, somehow separate from the rest of the house.
When I knocked, my father said, “Is that you, Danny?” and I stepped inside. All the blinds were shut, and the dim air smelled like a thick, musty mixture of hair tonic and Aqua Velva. My father was sitting on the edge of his unmade bed, wearing his old brown robe, nubbled from years of washings, and maroon corduroy slippers. His face was blotchy, and his eyes were dark and pouched.
“Mom said you wanted to talk to me,” I said.
He touched a spot next to him on the bed. “Here. Sit down.”
I didn’t move. “I’ve got to go to Rob’s,” I said.
He cleared his throat and looked away. For a moment we were silent, and I could hear the heat register ticking.
“I just wanted to tell you to take good care of your mother,” he said then.
I shifted my weight from one foot to the other. “What do you mean?”
He looked back at me, his gaze steady and empty, and I wondered how much of the way he was that moment was his medication and how much himself. “She needs someone to take care of her,” he said. “That’s all.”
“What about you? Aren’t you going to take care of her anymore?”
He cleared his throat again. “If I can.”
“I don’t get it,” I said. “Why are you doing this to us? What’s going on?”
“Nothing’s going on,” he answered. “That’s the problem. Not a thing is going on.”
“I don’t know what you mean. I don’t like it when you say things I can’t understand.”
“I don’t like it either,” he said. Then he added: “That wasn’t me yesterday. I want you to know that.”
“It sure looked like you. If it wasn’t you, who was it then?”
He stood up and walked across the carpet to the window. But he didn’t open the blinds; he just stood there, his back to me. “It’s all right for you to be mad,” he said.
“I’m not mad.”
“Don’t lie, Danny.”
“I’m not lying. I just like my father to use the English language when he talks to me, that’s all.”
For a long moment he was quiet. It seemed almost as if he’d forgotten I was in the room. Then he said, “My grandmother used to tell me there were exactly as many stars in the sky as there were people. If someone was born, there’d be a new star in the sky that night, and you could find it if you looked hard enough. And if someone died, you’d see that person’s star fall.”
“What are you talking about?” I said.
“People,” he answered. “Stars.”
Then he just stood there, staring at the blinds. I wondered if he was seeing stars there, or his grandmother, or what. And all of a sudden I felt my throat close up and my eyes start to sting. I was surprised—a moment before I’d been so angry, but now I was almost crying.
I tried to swallow, but I couldn’t. I wanted to know what was wrong, so I could know how to feel about it; I wanted to be sad or angry, either one, but not both at the same time. “What happened?” I finally said. “Tell me.”
He turned, but I wasn’t sure he’d heard me, because he didn’t answer for a long time. And when he did, he seemed to be answering some other question, one I hadn’t asked.
“I was so arrogant,” he said. “I thought my life would work out.”
I stood there looking at him. “I don’t understand.”
“I hope you never do,” he said. “I hope to God you never do.”
“Quit talking like that.”
“Like you’re so smart and everything. Like you’re above all of this when it’s you that’s causing it all.”
He looked down at the floor and shook his head slowly.
“Well?” I said. “Aren’t you going to say something?”
He looked up. “You’re a good boy, Danny. I’m proud of you. I wish I could be a better father for you.”
I hesitate now to say what I said next. But then I didn’t hesitate.
“So do I,” I said bitterly. “So the hell do I.” And I turned to leave.
“Danny, wait,” my father said.
But I didn’t wait. And when I shut the door, I shut it hard.
Two days later, after he took to fits of weeping and laughing, we drove my father to the VA hospital in Minneapolis. Dr. Lewis had already called the hospital and made arrangements for his admission, so we were quickly escorted to his room on the seventh floor, where the psychiatric patients were kept. I had expected the psych ward to be a dreary, prisonlike place with barred doors and gray, windowless walls, but if anything, it was cheerier than the rest of the hospital. There were sky blue walls in the hallway, hung here and there with watercolor landscapes the patients had painted, and sunny yellow walls in the rooms, and there was a brightly lit lounge with a TV, card tables, and a shelf full of board games, and even a crafts center where the patients could do decoupage, leatherwork, mosaics, and macramé. And the patients we saw looked so normal that I almost wondered whether we were in the right place. Most of them were older, probably veterans of the First World War, but a few were my father’s age or younger. The old ones were the friendliest, nodding their bald heads or waving their liver-spotted hands as we passed, but even those who only looked at us seemed pleasant or, at the least, not hostile.
I was relieved by what I saw but evidently my father was not, for his eyes still had the quicksilver shimmer of fear they’d had all during the drive from Glencoe. He sat stiffly in the wheelchair and looked at the floor passing between his feet as the big-boned nurse pushed him down the hall toward his room.
We were lucky, the nurse told us, chatting away in a strange accent, which I later learned was Czech. There had been only one private room left, and my father had gotten it. And it had a lovely view of the hospital grounds. Sometimes she herself would stand in front of that window and watch the snow fall on the birches and park benches. It was such a beautiful sight. She asked my father if that didn’t sound nice, but he didn’t answer.
Then she wheeled him into the room and parked the chair beside the white, starched-looking bed. My father hadn’t wanted to sit in the chair when we checked him in at the admissions desk, but now he didn’t show any desire to get out of it.
“Well, what do you think of your room, Mr. Conroy?” the nurse asked. My mother stood beside her, a handkerchief squeezed in her hand.
My father looked at the chrome railing on the bed, the stainless steel tray beside it, and the plastic-sealed water glasses on the tray. Then he looked at my mother and me.
“I suppose it’s where I should be,” he said.
During the five weeks my father was in the hospital, my mother drove to Minneapolis twice a week to visit him. Despite her urgings, I refused to go with her. I wanted to forget about my father, to erase him from my life. But I didn’t tell her that. I told her I couldn’t stand to see him in that awful place, and she felt sorry for me and let me stay home. But almost every time she came back, she’d have a gift for me from him: a postcard of Minnehaha Falls decoupaged onto a walnut plaque, a leather billfold with my initials burned into the cover, a belt decorated with turquoise and white beads. And a request: would I come see him that weekend? But I never went.
Glencoe was a small town, and like all small towns it was devoted to gossip. I knew my classmates had heard about my father—many of them had no doubt driven past Goodyear to see the broken window the way they’d drive past a body shop to see a car that had been totaled—but only Rob said anything. When he asked what had happened, I told him what Dr. Lewis had told me, that my father was just overworked and exhausted. Rob didn’t believe me any more than I believed Dr. Lewis, but he pretended to accept that explanation. I wasn’t sure if I liked him more for that pretense, or less.
It took a couple of weeks for the gossip to reach me. One day during lunch Rob told me that Todd Knutson, whose father was a mechanic at Goodyear, was telling everybody my father had been fired for embezzling. “I know it’s a dirty lie,” Rob said, “but some kids think he’s telling the truth, so you’d better do something.”
“Like what?” I said.
“Tell them the truth. Set the record straight.”
I looked at my friend’s earnest, acne-scarred face. As soon as he’d told me the rumor, I’d known it was true, and in my heart I had already convicted my father. But I didn’t want my best friend to know that. Perhaps I was worried that he would turn against me too and I’d be completely alone.
“You bet I will,” I said. “I’ll make him eat those words.”
But I had no intention of defending my father. I was already planning to go see Mr. Siverhus right after school and ask him, straight out, for the truth, so I could confront my father with the evidence and shame him the way he had shamed me. I was furious with him for making me even more of an outcast than I had been—I was the son of a criminal now—and I wanted to make him pay for it. All during my afternoon classes, I imagined going to see him at the hospital and telling him I knew his secret. He’d deny it at first, I was sure, but as soon as he saw I knew everything, he’d confess. He’d beg my forgiveness, swearing he’d never do anything to embarrass me or my mother again, but nothing he could say would make any difference— I’d just turn and walk away. And if I were called into court to testify against him, I’d take the stand and swear to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, my eyes steady on him all the while, watching him sit there beside his lawyer, his head hung, speechless.
I was angry at my mother too, because she hadn’t told me everything. But I didn’t realize until that afternoon, when I drove down to Goodyear to see Mr. Siverhus, just how much she hadn’t told me.
Mr. Siverhus was a tall, silver-haired man who looked more like a banker than the manager of a tire store. He was wearing a starched white shirt, a blue-and-gray striped tie with a silver tie tack, and iridescent sharkskin trousers, and when he shook my hand he smiled so hard his crow’s-feet almost hid his eyes. He led me into his small but meticulous office, closing the door on the smell of grease and the noise of impact wrenches removing lugs from wheels, and I blurted out my question before either of us even sat down.
“Who told you that?” he asked.
“My mother,” I answered. I figured he wouldn’t lie to me if he thought my mother had already told me the truth. Then I asked him again: “Is it true?”
Mr. Siverhus didn’t answer right away. Instead, he gestured toward a chair opposite his gray metal desk and waited until I sat in it. Then he pushed some carefully stacked papers aside, sat on the edge of the desk, and asked me how my father was doing. I didn’t really know—my mother kept saying he was getting better, but I wasn’t sure I could believe her. Still, I said, “Fine.”
He nodded. “I’m glad to hear that,” he said. “I’m really terribly sorry about everything that’s happened. I hope you and your mother know that.”
He wanted me to say something, but I didn’t. Standing up, he wandered over to the gray file cabinet and looked out the window at the showroom, where the new tires and batteries were on display. He sighed, and I knew he didn’t want to be having this conversation.
“What your mother told you is true,” he said then. “Bill was taking money. Not much, you understand, but enough that it soon became obvious we had a problem. After some investigating, we found out he was the one. I couldn’t have been more surprised. Your father had been a loyal and hardworking employee for years, and he was the last person I would’ve expected to be stealing from us. But when we confronted him with it, he admitted it. He’d been having trouble making his mortgage payments, he said, and in a weak moment he’d taken some money and, later on, a little more. He seemed genuinely sorry about it and he swore he’d pay back every cent, so we gave him another chance.”
“But he did it again, didn’t he?” I said.
I don’t know if Mr. Siverhus noticed the anger shaking my voice or not. He just looked at me and let out a slow breath. “Yes,” he said sadly. “He did. And so I had to fire him. I told him we wouldn’t prosecute if he returned the money, and he promised he would.”
Then he went behind his desk and sat down heavily in his chair. “I hope you understand.”
“I’m not blaming you,” I said. “You didn’t do anything wrong.”
He leaned over the desk toward me. “I appreciate that,” he said. “You don’t know how badly I’ve felt about all of this. I keep thinking that maybe I should have handled it differently. I don’t know, when I think that he might have taken his life because of this, well, I—”
“Taken his life?” I interrupted.
Mr. Siverhus sat back in his chair. “Your mother didn’t tell you?”
I shook my head and closed my eyes for a second. I felt as if something had broken loose in my chest and risen into my throat, making it hard to breathe, to think.
“I assumed you knew,” he said. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said anything.”
“Tell me,” I said.
“I think you’d better talk to your mother about this, Danny. I don’t think I should be the one to tell you.”
“I need to know,” I said.
Mr. Siverhus looked at me for a long moment. Then he said, “Very well. But you have to realize that your father was under a lot of stress. I’m sure that by the time he gets out of the hospital, he’ll be back to normal, and you won’t ever have to worry about him getting like that again.”
I nodded. I didn’t believe him, but I wanted him to go on.
Mr. Siverhus took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “When I came to work that morning and found your father in his office, he had a gun in his hand. A revolver. At first, I thought he was going to shoot me. But then he put it up to his own head. I tell you, I was scared. ‘Bill,’ I said, ‘that’s not the answer.’ And then I just kept talking. It took me ten or fifteen minutes to get him to put the gun down. Then he left, and that’s when I called your mother.”
I must have had a strange look on my face because the next thing he said was, “Are you all right?”
I nodded, but I wasn’t all right. I felt woozy, as if I’d just discovered another world inside this one, a world that made this one false. I wanted to leave, but I wasn’t sure I could stand up. Then I did.
“Thank you, Mr. Siverhus,” I said, and reached out to shake his hand. I wanted to say more but there was nothing to say. I turned and left.
Outside in the parking lot, I stood beside the Chevy, looking at the new showroom window and breathing in the cold. I was thinking how, only a few months before, I had been looking through my father’s dresser for his old army uniform, which I wanted to wear to Rob’s Halloween party, and I’d found the revolver tucked under his dress khakis in the bottom drawer. My father had always been full of warnings—don’t mow the lawn barefoot, never go swimming in a river, always drive defensively— but he had never even mentioned he owned this gun, much less warned me not to touch it. I wondered why, and I held the gun up to the light, as if I could somehow see through it to an understanding of its meaning. But I couldn’t—or at least I refused to believe that I could—and I put it back exactly where I found it and never mentioned it to anyone.
I didn’t tell my mother what I had learned from Mr. Siverhus, and I didn’t tell anyone else either. After dinner that night I went straight to my room and stayed there. I wanted to be alone, to figure things out, but the more I thought, the more I didn’t know what to think. I wondered if it was starting already, if I was already going crazy like my father, because I wasn’t sure who I was or what I felt. It had been a long time since I’d prayed, but that night I prayed that when I woke the next day everything would make sense again.
But the next morning I was still in a daze. Everything seemed so false, so disconnected from the real world I had glimpsed the day before, that I felt disoriented, almost dizzy. At school, the chatter of my classmates sounded as meaningless as my father’s babble, and everything I saw seemed out of focus, distorted, the way things do just before you faint. Walking down the hall, I saw Todd Knutson standing by his locker, talking with Bonnie Zempel, a friend of Molly Rasmussen’s, and suddenly I found myself walking up to them. I didn’t know what I was going to say or do, I hadn’t planned anything, and when I shoved Todd against his locker, it surprised me as much as it did him.
“I hope you’re happy now,” I said to him. “My father died last night.” I’m not sure I can explain it now, but in a way I believed what I was saying, and my voice shook with a genuine grief.
Todd slowly lowered his fists. “What?” he said, and looked quickly at Bonnie’s startled, open face.
“He had cancer,” I said, biting down on the word to keep my mind from whirling. “A tumor on his brain. That’s why he did the things he did, taking that money and breaking that window and everything. He couldn’t help it.”
And then my grief was too much for me, and I turned and strode down the hall, tears coming into my eyes. I waited until I was around the corner and out of their sight, then I started running, as fast as I could. Only then did I come back into the world and wonder what I had done.
That afternoon, my mother appeared at the door of my algebra class in her blue uniform and black hair net. At first I thought she was going to embarrass me by waving at me, as she often did when she happened to pass one of my classrooms, but then I saw the look on her face. “Excuse me, Mr. Laughlin,” she said grimly, “I’m sorry to interrupt your class but I need to speak with my son for a moment.”
Mr. Laughlin turned his dour face from the blackboard, his stick of chalk suspended in mid-calculation, and said, “Certainly, Mrs. Conroy. I hope there’s nothing the matter.”
“No,” she said. “It’s nothing to worry about.”
But out in the hall, she slapped my face hard.
“How dare you say your father is dead,” she said through clenched teeth. Her gray eyes were flinty and narrow.
“I didn’t,” I answered.
She raised her hand and slapped me again, even harder this time.
“Don’t you lie to me, Daniel.”
I started to cry. “Well, I wish he was,” I said. “I wish he was dead, so all of this could be over.”
My mother raised her hand again, but then she let it fall. “Go,” she said. “Get away from me. I can’t bear to look at you another minute.”
I went back into the classroom and sat down. I felt awful about hurting my mother, but not so awful that I wasn’t worried whether my classmates had heard her slap me or noticed my burning cheek. I saw them looking at me and shaking their heads, heard them whispering and laughing under their breath, and I stood up, my head roiling, and asked if I could be excused.
Mr. Laughlin looked at me. Then, without even asking what was wrong, he wrote out a pass to the nurse’s office and handed it to me. As I left the room, I heard him say to the class, “That’s enough. If I hear one more remark . . .”
Later, lying on a cot in the nurse’s office, my hands folded over my chest, I closed my eyes and imagined I was dead and my parents and classmates were kneeling before my open coffin, their heads bowed in mourning.
After that day, my mother scheduled meetings for me with Father Ondahl, our priest, and Mr. Jenseth, the school counselor. She said she hoped they could help me through this difficult time, then added, “Obviously, I can’t.” I saw Father Ondahl two or three times, and as soon as I assured him that I still had my faith, though I did not, he said I’d be better off just seeing Mr. Jenseth from then on. I saw Mr. Jenseth three times a week for the next month, then once a week for the rest of the school year. I’m not sure how those meetings helped, or even if they did. All I know is that, in time, my feelings about my father, and about myself, changed.
My mother continued her visits to my father, but she no longer asked me to go along with her, and when she came home from seeing him, she waited until I asked before she’d tell me how he was. I wondered whether she’d told him I was seeing a counselor, and why, but I didn’t dare ask. And I wondered if she’d ever forgive me for my terrible lie.
Then one day, without telling me beforehand, she returned from Minneapolis with my father. “Danny,” she called, and I came out of the living room and saw them in the entryway. My father was stamping the snow off his black wingtips, and he had a suitcase in one hand and a watercolor of our house in the other, the windows yellow with light and a thin swirl of gray smoke rising from the red brick chimney. He looked pale and even thinner than I remembered. I was so surprised to see him, all I could say was, “You’re home.”
“That’s right,” he said, and put down the suitcase and painting. “The old man’s back.” Then he tried to smile, but it came out more like a wince. I knew he wanted me to hug him and say how happy I was to see him, and part of me wanted to do that, too. But I didn’t. I just shook his hand as I would have an uncle’s or a stranger’s, then picked up the painting and looked at it.
“This is nice,” I said. “Real nice.”
“I’m glad you like it,” he answered.
And then we just stood there until my mother said, “Well, let’s get you unpacked, dear, and then we can all sit down and talk.” Despite everything that had happened, our life together after that winter was relatively peaceful. My father got a job at Firestone, and though for years he barely made enough to meet expenses, eventually he worked his way up to assistant manager and earned a good living. He occasionally lost his temper and succumbed to self-pity as he always had, but for the rest of his life, he was as normal and sane as anybody. Perhaps Dr. Lewis had been right after all, and all my father had needed was a good rest. In any case, by the time I was grown and married myself, his breakdown seemed a strange and impossible dream and I wondered, as I watched him play with my infant son, if I hadn’t imagined some of it. It amazed me that a life could break so utterly, then mend itself.
But of course it had not mended entirely, as my life had also not mended entirely. There was a barrier between us, the thin but indestructible memory of what we had been to each other that winter. I was never sure just how much he knew about the way I’d felt about him then, or even whether my mother had told him my lie about his death, but I knew he was aware that I hadn’t been a good son. Perhaps the barrier between us could have been broken with a single word—the word love or its synonym forgive—but as if by mutual pact we never spoke of that difficult winter or its consequences.
Only once did we come close to discussing it. He and my mother had come to visit me and my family in Minneapolis, and we had just finished our Sunday dinner. Caroline and my mother were clearing the table, Sam was playing on the kitchen floor with the dump truck my parents had bought him for his birthday, and my father and I were sitting in the living room watching “Sixty Minutes.” The black pastor of a Pentecostal church in Texas was talking to Morley Safer about “the Spirit that descends upon us and inhabits our hearts.” Then the camera cut to a black woman standing in the midst of a clapping congregation, her eyes tightly closed and her face glowing with sweat as she rocked back and forth, speaking the incoherent language of angels or demons. Her syllables rose and fell, then mounted in a syntax of spiraling rapture until finally, overcome by the voice that had spoken through her, she sank to her knees, trembling, her eyes open and glistening. The congregation clapped harder then, some of them leaping and dancing as if their bodies were lifted by the collapse of hers, and they yelled, “Praise God!” and “Praise the Lord God Almighty!”
I glanced at my father, who sat watching this with a blank face, and wondered what he was thinking. Then, when the camera moved to another Pentecostal minister discussing a transcript of the woman’s speech, a transcript he claimed contained variations on ancient Hebrew and Aramaic words she couldn’t possibly have known, I turned to him and asked, in a hesitant way, whether he wanted to keep watching or change channels.
My father’s milky blue eyes looked blurred, as if he were looking at something a long way off, and he cleared his throat before he spoke. “It’s up to you,” he said. “Do you want to watch it?”
I paused. Then I said, “No,” and changed the channel.
Perhaps if I had said yes, we might have talked about that terrible day he put a gun to his head and I could have told him what I had since grown to realize—that I loved him. That I had always loved him, though behind his back, without letting him know it. And, in a way, behind my back, too. But I didn’t say yes, and in the seven years that remained of his life, we never came as close to ending the winter that was always, for us, an unspoken but living part of our present.
That night, though, unable to sleep, I got up and went into my son’s room. Standing there in the wan glow of his night light, I listened to him breathe for a while, then quietly took down the railing we’d put on his bed to keep him from rolling off and hurting himself. Then I sat on the edge of the bed and began to stroke his soft, reddish blond hair. At first he didn’t wake, but his forehead wrinkled and he mumbled a little dream-sound.
I am not a religious man. I believe, as my father must have, the day he asked me to save him, that our children are our only salvation, their love our only redemption. And that night, when my son woke, frightened by the dark figure leaning over him, and started to cry, I picked him up and rocked him in my arms, comforting him as I would after a nightmare. “Don’t worry,” I told him over and over, until the words sounded as incomprehensible to me as they must have to him, “it’s only a dream. Everything’s going to be all right. Don’t worry.”
*Licensed from Press53, LLC. Copyright 2018 by Glossolalia by David Jauss
“Win, win, win, win, win, win, win!!” was the incessant cry of our stepmother Sophie. It was the command that drove our household. She was a slight woman with a turned-up nose and a perky hairdo and the figure of a former Miss Alabama, which she was. She smoked Salems from dawn to dusk. We thought we could outlast her because of that, we thought that cancer would take her before she could claim our hearts. In this we were only partially correct. In the meantime, the ferocious bellow that issued forth from that perfect suburban figure was itself enough to sting us all into immediate and unconsidered action, no matter what our chosen field. It did not matter to Sophie whether our pursuits were intellectual or physical. Achievement was the bottom line.
There were seven of us. The tail-end of the family was dominated by two sets of twins, born just twelve months apart. The Quinns, the three of us called them. We did not think of the nickname as reductive. They were all boys, dark-haired and thin and grubby. They ran through the neighborhood like looters. They ran through our house like Tasmanian Devils, a whirl of teeth and limbs. Even in their sleep they ran, twitching their legs like wild dogs and barking to each other in their alien Quinn language. The content of their conversations: unknown. Supposition: sinister in intent. They had no mother until Sophie, who invaded the family unit when they were four. They had no memory of a mother to dictate their loyalties. Sophie trained them like laboratory monkeys. All of them athletes, all of them fierce and wild and beautiful. Lost to us. Winners.
Their sport was soccer. Sophie taught it to them, in the backyard. She dressed up in sweatpants and a sweatshirt and pulled her hair back in a ponytail and put on a sweatband. Even when she was playing goalie she kept her Salems handy, lighting one after another, flicking the ashes in the short green grass. The Quinns wore their jeans at first; later, as they grew, black silky shorts and long-sleeved jerseys and cleats and bright blue knee-length socks. Sophie dribbled the ball around the yard and kept it from the Quinns, who raced and tripped after her. She played goalie by the side of the house, and the Quinns took turns shooting, trying to score on her. They spent hours out there in the backyard, even after the Quinns were teenagers and too big for her and too good as well. It’s a time-lapse movie, this memory of the Quinns, starting out as blue-jeaned ruffians and growing tall and graceful and colorful, until at the end they are big enough and strong enough to hoist her up on their shoulders and carry her in a ceremonial lap around the yard, the chant, the cry, rising up to the closed windows on the second floor: “Win, win, win, win, win, win, WIN!!!”
The status of the Quinns, present-day: halved. One of the younger Quinns dead of a heart episode at the age of twenty-five; one of the elder Quinns blown up in a late-night car wreck. The surviving Quinns are rarely seen: glimpsed once a year at Christmas with their own wild children and wild-haired wives gathered around the Christmas tree. Greetings from our families to yours. An unthinking gesture: the rest of us have no families, none but the one we fled.
The eldest of us was George. He was the one who carried the soul of the Real Mother. She was alive in his memory and his face, which was long and thin and fiercely gentle. Just like hers.
He was the one who had the stories of her. George was the one who knew best the last story about her. The last story about the Real Mother. How the youngest of the Quinns started crying together in the middle of the day and then the older ones joined in. Their howling filled the house. The Real Mother was in the bathtub. It was the first bath she’d allowed herself in many many months. Her hair was up in the shower cap. The one with the blue flowers printed on it. She heard the howling Quinns. We all heard the thundering Quinns. George was nine and he was outside in the yard playing on the monkey bars and he heard their yowl. He ran in because it went on so long and he ran upstairs to the crib-room which was down the hall from our room, next to Mother and Father’s room. The Quinns were lined up in their cribs, four red faces surrounded by light blue blankets. The room a cacophony. So loud George did not hear the thud. The thud she made. Downstairs. In the bathroom on the floor she lay on the watery tiles and would not get up. Who found her? We all did. We all went in there from wherever we were playing, all three of us. All but the Quinns. She had slipped on a water-toy before she could even get a towel to cover her and we all saw her. We all saw everything. The rest of it was just crying. That was the last story but only George was allowed to tell it.
George was crafty and brilliant. He was the brains of the family. He was the memory. His plot was simple: agree to everything Sophie suggested, pretend to accept her, and keep our hearts our own. He made straight A’s all through high school, and all through college, and we trusted everything about him. He was fastidious. He was carefully organized. He kept notecards on everything that Sophie did that was terrible, or different from what the Real Mother would have done. DOES NOT MAKE A HOSPITAL TUCK. ALWAYS BULLYING FOR BETTER GRADES. DRIVES TOO FAST. CANNOT CARRY A TUNE. He was the only one of us who could remember the Real Mother in enough detail to know when betrayal occurred.
Status of George, present-day: a short-order cook at the Waffle House. A genius at it. The waitresses write nothing down. He does the pancakes and the bacon and the waffles and the sausage and the scrambled, poached, fried and hardboiled eggs simultaneously. Economically. He is perfectly organized. He keeps the shouted orders in his head and blots out everything else and so is perfectly happy.
Janet was the next oldest, and she had her own stories, which she did not tell George. George was not a part of these stories which were secrets. One of the secrets was the secret of kissing glass. One of these secrets was the secret of the month. One of these secrets was the secret of the turtle. One of these secrets was the list of boys. One of these secrets was the Real Mother’s song, which had no words. One of these secrets was the shriek of colors. These were the secrets she told in the five motherless years. They were secrets from the Quinns and Father and George and when Sophie came they were secrets from her. Janet was the ugly one with all of the knowing. She was not ugly but she thought she was. She thought this because she was short, and because she had hair on her forearms which everyone always looked at immediately. “You’re the beautiful one,” she said. “You’re the one with the beautiful hair.” But it was not true, not really. When Sophie came she said the same thing, and then we knew that it could not be true.
Sophie spent hours fixing Janet’s hair, and showing her how to use makeup, and what kind of clothes to wear, and what her Best Colors are. Then Janet knew that she was the ugly one. Then the world became a place filled with mirrors. George wrote this down on a notecard. But Sophie talked to Janet, too, in ways that no one else would talk to her. She told her that looks were not everything, that minds and work and words could be more important. George knew that the secret message in everything Sophie told Janet was that she was ugly, and he made sure that Janet could always recognize the subtext of every conversation.
Janet’s Status: Doctor. Unmarried. Lonely. Alcoholic? In pictures she looks wild-eyed in her white coat, caught by surprise, a doe in headlights. The white coat is not purity. It is competence. The stethoscope around her neck is dark and silent, repelled by the heart.
Our father revealed a hidden talent for pet names after he married Sophie. “Come here, my little spider monkey,” we heard him heavy-breathing on some thundery nights. Was it always raining in those days, or is that a distortion of memory? Our father: “Come say hello to your organ grinder.” The Quinns: barking in Martian. Us: silent. Listening. Hardening in our beds like loaves of bread left out and forgotten. The names: Spider-Monkey. Organ Grinder. Cantaloupe. Beautiful. Daphne. Apollo. Jekyll. Hyde. And the sounds: Bark, bark, bark. Mew and mewl. Fish on the rocks. Loons in the water. Geese in the air. Bark and mewl and slap, slap, slap. What they do is love and it is not terror. Thunder rocked the house. We heard nothing. We heard nothing at all.
Can we doubt that our father loved her? In no way. It was a hard thing to reconcile with George’s notecards. George wanted to write down a special card for that: HAS BRAINWASHED OUR FATHER. But this did not seem right. He was so much happier than he had been in the years without a mother. He did not drink any more. He whistled, and we had never known that he could. He brought friends to dinner. He took us out to movies once a week. He started touching all of us again. If he was brainwashed, then it had been done in a way that made him happy. George was enraged. “Every time he kisses her, he forgets about where we came from. But we never will.” So the card that went into the file read : MAKES FATHER FORGET. He kept the cards all of the years he lived in the house, even when he was older, in high school, and should have known better. WEARS TOO-TIGHT SWEATERS. LIES ABOUT LOVE. TOUCHES HERSELF. MARRIED FOR MONEY. FLIRTS WITH OTHER MEN. DREAMS OUR DEATHS. He never relented. He made us read them. He never let us forget. We thought when he graduated from high school and went off to college that that was the end, that he had burned them, or shredded them, or buried them. In this, too, we were mistaken.
Status of our father: he remembers everything, and he will not forgive us. He has lost two wives and two children and the rest of us he has excised from his daily life. But he remembers. He still lives in the house. He has kept everything as it was. He remembers it all. He plots against us. His is the spirit of wrathful revenge.
One afternoon when all of us were supposed to still be at school, Sophie took out her high school cheerleader outfit. She put it on. It was not even tight anywhere, it still fit her perfectly. She had long since lost the pom-poms. In the short red skirt and the red sweater with the big T bisecting her chest, she rummaged through a trunk full of her old things. She had pictures of herself on the eve that she was crowned Miss Alabama, and in her graduation gown. These were framed but had never been hung on our walls. Also framed were her diplomas: high school and her B.A from the University of Alabama. She took these, and packets of old love letters from a half a dozen men, and playbills from productions she had starred in, and she spread them all out on the kitchen table. She did a little cheer then. “Win, win, win, win, win, win, win!” She heard the click of the kitchen door. She looked up. “Oh,” she said. She looked very young, and so obviously embarrassed that she was one of us. “You didn’t see that,” she said. “You weren’t even here. What are you doing home so early?” So it was a secret, just between the two of us. It was not shared with Janet or George. It was a secret that could have changed things, but didn’t.
Status: another body on the 34th floor of a building wrapped in reflective glass. Secretary/typist. Days spent with earphones strapped like electrodes to the head, transcribing meetings and minutes, secrets and plans. Nights spent in a box-room five minutes from the glass building. Walk to and from work past the million passive faces. Ears burn with words and words and words and words.
This spring Sophie died of cancer. Two of the Quinns were already dead; we were no strangers to death. But we wished this into being. It was terrible. When the cancer came she rode it fast; she was dead not two weeks after the diagnosis.
We came back for the funeral. It was afterwards that our father approached us, in the cemetery.
“I found your notecards,” he said to George. Nose to nose. Spittle and tears. “I found them in her things. You bastard, you killed her. You robbed her of every happiness. You are no children of mine. You were no children of hers.”
Sunlight fell upon us like a curse. The priest led my father away. George looked at both of us.
He knew what he was doing. He knew what he was doing when he left them there for her, like a bomb in the bottom of a dresser drawer. We didn’t know. We thought he’d thrown them away, perhaps taken them with him.
But that was not the worst thing we did not know. It was what he said to us next:
“I don’t remember anything about her. Our real mother. I don’t remember how she dressed or what her voice sounded like. I don’t remember a single lullaby. I never did. I tried, but the only thing I could ever remember was her lying there dead.” He shrugged. He turned away.
We are impoverished of spirit, all of us. There is nothing more to disclose.
*Licensed from The University of North Texas Press. Copyright 2018 by Geoff Schmidt from Out of Time
CHAPTER I–THE PROMISE
“An old-fashioned Christmas.–A lively family will accept a gentleman as paying guest to join them in spending an old-fashioned Christmas in the heart of the country.”
That was the advertisement. It had its points. I was not sure what, in this case, an old-fashioned Christmas might happen to mean. I imagine there were several kinds of “old-fashioned” Christmases; but it could hardly be worse than a chop in my chambers, or–horror of horrors!–at the club; or my cousin Lucy’s notion of what she calls the “festive season.” Festive? Yes! She and her husband, who suffers from melancholia, and all the other complaints which flesh is heir to, and I, dragging through what I call a patent-medicine dinner, and talking of everybody who is dead and gone, or else going, and of nothing else.
So I wrote to the advertiser. The reply was written in a sprawling feminine hand. It was a little vague. It appeared that the terms would be five guineas; but there was no mention of the length of time which that fee would cover. I might arrive, it seemed, on Christmas Eve, but there was no hint as to when I was to go, if ever. The whole thing was a trifle odd. There was nothing said about the sort of accommodation which would be provided, nothing about the kind of establishment which was maintained, or the table which was kept. No references were offered or asked for. It was merely stated that “we’re a very lively family, and that if you’re lively yourself you’ll get on uncommonly well.” The letter was signed “Madge Wilson.”
Now it is a remarkable thing that I have always had an extraordinary predilection for the name Madge. I do not know why. I have never known a Madge. And yet, from my boyhood upward, I have desired to meet one. Here was an opportunity offered. She was apparently the careworn mother of a “lively family.” Under such circumstances she was hardly likely to be “lively” herself, but her name was Madge, and it was the accident of her Christian name which decided me to go.
I had no illusions. No doubt the five guineas were badly wanted; even a “lively family” would be hardly likely to advertise for a perfect stranger to spend Christmas with them if they were not. I did not expect a princely entertainment. Still I felt that it could hardly be worse than a chop or cousin Lucy; the subjects of her conversation I never cared about when they were alive, and I certainly do not want to talk about them now they are dead. As for the “pills” and “drops” with which her husband doses himself between the courses, it makes me ill even to think of them.
On Christmas Eve the weather was abominable. All night it had been blowing and raining. In the morning it began to freeze. By the time the streets were like so many skating rinks it commenced to snow. And it kept on snowing; that turned out to be quite a record in the way of snow-storms. Hardly the sort of weather to start for an unknown destination “in the heart of the country.” But, at the last moment, I did not like to back out. I said I would go, and I meant to go.
I had been idiot enough to load myself with a lot of Christmas presents, without the faintest notion why. I had not given a Christmas present for years–there had been no one to give them to. Lucy cannot bear such trifling, and her husband’s only notion of a present at any time was a gallon jar of somebody’s Stomach Stirrer. I am no dealer in poisons.
I knew nothing of the people I was going to. The youngest member of the family might be twenty, or the oldest ten. No doubt the things I had bought would be laughed at, probably I should never venture to offer them. Still, if you have not tried your hand at that kind of thing for ever so long, the mere act of purchasing is a pleasure. That is a fact.
I had never enjoyed “shopping” so much since I was a boy. I felt quite lively myself as I mingled with the Christmas crowd, looking for things which might not turn out to be absolutely preposterous. I even bought something for Madge–I mean Mrs. Wilson. Of course, I knew that I had no right to do anything of the kind, and was aware that the chances were a hundred to one against my ever presuming to hint at its existence. I was actually ass enough to buy something for her husband–two things, indeed; alternatives, as it were–a box of cigars, if he turned out to be a smoker, and a case of whiskey if he didn’t. I hoped to goodness that he would not prove to be a hypochondriac, like Lucy’s husband. I would not give him pills. What the “lively family” would think of a perfect stranger arriving burdened with rubbish, as if he had known them all their lives, I did not dare to think. No doubt they would set him down as a lunatic right away.
It was a horrible journey. The trains were late, and, of course, overcrowded; there was enough luggage in our compartment to have filled it, and still there was one more passenger than there ought to have been; an ill-conditioned old fellow who wanted my hat-box put into the van because it happened to tumble off the rack on to his head. I pointed out to him that the rack was specially constructed for light luggage, that a hat-box was light luggage, and that if the train jolted, he ought to blame the company, not me. He was impervious to reason. His wrangling and jangling so upset me, that I went past the station at which I ought to have changed. Then I had to wait three-quarters of an hour for a train to take me back again, only to find that I had missed the one I intended to catch. So I had to cool my heels for two hours and a half in a wretched cowshed amidst a bitter, whirling snowstorm. It is some satisfaction for me to be able to reflect that I made it warm for the officials, however cold I might have been myself.
When the train did start, some forty minutes after scheduled time, it jolted along in a laborious fashion at the rate of about six miles an hour, stopping at every roadside hovel. I counted seven in a distance, I am convinced, of less than twenty miles. When at last I reached Crofton, my journey’s end, it turned out that the station staff consisted of a half-witted individual, who was stationmaster, porter, and clerk combined, and a hulking lad who did whatever else there was to do. No one had come to meet me, the village was “about half a mile,” and Hangar Dene, the house for which my steps were bent, “about four miles by the road”–how far it was across ploughed fields my informant did not mention.
There was a trap at the “Boy and Blunderbuss,” but that required fetching. Finally the hulking lad was dispatched. It took him some time, considering the distance was only “about half a mile.” When the trap did appear it looked to me uncommonly like an open spring cart. In it I was deposited, with my luggage. The snow was still descending in whirling clouds. Never shall I forget the drive, in that miserable cart, through the storm and those pitch black country lanes. We had been jogging along some time before the driver opened his mouth.
“Be you going to stop with they Wilsons?”
There was something in the tone of his “Ah!” which whetted my curiosity, near the end of my tether though I was.
“Why do you ask?”
“It be about time as someone were to stay with them as were a bit capable like.”
I did not know what he meant. I did not ask. I was beyond it. I was chilled to the bone, wet, tired, hungry. I had long been wishing that an old-fashioned Christmas had been completely extinct before I had thought of adventuring in quest of one. Better cousin Lucy’s notion of the “festive season.”
We passed through a gate, which I had to get down to open, along some sort of avenue. Suddenly the cart pulled up.
“Here we be.”
That might be so. It was a pity he did not add where “here” was. There was a great shadow, which possibly did duty for a house, but, if so, there was not a light in any of the windows, and there was nothing visible in the shape of a door. The whereabouts of this, however, the driver presently made clear.
“There be the door in front of you; you go up three steps, if you can find ’em. There’s a knocker, if none of ’em haven’t twisted it off. If they have, there’s a bell on your right, if it isn’t broken.”
There appeared to be no knocker, though whether it had been “twisted” off was more than I could say. But there was a bell, which creaked with rust, though it was not broken. I heard it tinkle in the distance. No answer; though I allowed a more than decent interval.
“Better ring again,” suggested the driver. “Hard. Maybe they’re up to some of their games, and wants rousing.”
Was there a chuckle in the fellow’s voice? I rang again, and again with all the force I could. The bell reverberated through what seemed like an empty house.
“Is there no one in the place?”
“They’re there right enough. Where’s another thing. Maybe on the roof; or in the cellar. If they know you’re coming perhaps they hear and don’t choose to answer. Better ring again.”
I sounded another peal. Presently feet were heard advancing along the passage–several pairs it seemed–and a light gleamed through the window over the door. A voice inquired: “Who’s there?”
“Mr. Christopher, from London.”
The information was greeted with what sounded uncommonly like a chorus of laughter. There was a rush of retreating feet, an expostulating voice, then darkness again, and silence.
“Who lives here? Are the people mad?”
Once more I suspected the driver of a chuckle. My temper was rising. I had not come all that way, and subjected myself to so much discomfort, to be played tricks with. I tolled the bell again. After a few seconds’ interval the pit-pat of what was obviously one pair of feet came towards the door. Again a light gleamed through the pane. A key was turned, a chain unfastened, bolts withdrawn; it seemed as if some one had to drag a chair forward before one of these latter could be reached. After a vast amount of unfastening, the door was opened, and on the threshold there stood a girl, with a lighted candle in her hand. The storm rushed in; she put up her hand to shield the light from danger.
“Can I see Mrs. Wilson? I’m expected. I’m Mr. Christopher, from London.”
That was all she said. I looked at her; she at me. The driver’s voice came from the background.
“I drove him over from the station, Miss. There be a lot of luggage. He do say he’s come to stay with you.”
“Is that you, Tidy? I’m afraid I can offer you nothing to drink. We’ve lost the key of the cellar, and there’s nothing out, except water, and I don’t think you’d care for that.”
“I can’t say rightly as how I should, Miss. Next time will do. Be it all right?”
The girl continued to regard me.
“Perhaps you had better come inside.”
“I think I had.”
I went inside; it was time.
“Have you any luggage?” I admitted that I had. “Perhaps it had better be brought in.”
“Perhaps it had.”
“Do you think that you could manage, Tidy?”
“The mare, she’ll stand still enough. I should think I could, miss.”
CHAPTER II–AND THE PERFORMANCE
By degrees my belongings were borne into the hall, hidden under an envelope of snow. The girl seemed surprised at their number. The driver was paid, the cart disappeared, the door was shut; the girl and I were alone together.
“We didn’t expect that you would come.”
“Not expect me? But it was all arranged; I wrote to say that I would come. Did you not receive my letter?”
“We thought that you were joking.”
“Joking! Why should you imagine that?”
“We were joking.”
“You were? Then I am to gather that I have been made the subject of a practical joke, and that I am an intruder here?”
“Well, it’s quite true that we did not think you were in earnest. You see, it’s this way, we’re alone.”
“Alone? Who are ‘we’?”
“Well, it will take a good while to explain, and you look tired and cold.”
“I am both.”
“Perhaps you’re hungry?”
“I don’t know what you can have to eat, unless it’s to-morrow’s dinner.”
“To-morrow’s dinner!” I stared. “Can I see Mrs. Wilson?”
“Mrs. Wilson? That’s mamma. She’s dead.”
“I beg your pardon. Can I see your father?”
“Oh, father’s been dead for years.”
“Then to whom have I the pleasure of speaking?”
“I’m Madge. I’m mother now.”
“You are–mother now?”
“The trouble will be about where you are to sleep–unless it’s with the boys. The rooms are all anyhow, and I’m sure I don’t know where the beds are.”
“I suppose there are servants in the house?”
She shook her head.
“No. The boys thought that they were nuisances so we got rid of them. The last went yesterday. She wouldn’t do any work, so we thought she’d better go.”
“Under those circumstances I think it probable that you were right. Then am I to understand that there are children?”
As she spoke there came a burst of laughter from the other end of the passage. I spun round. No one was in sight. She explained.
“They’re waiting round the corner. Perhaps we’d better have them here. You people, you’d better come and let me introduce you to Mr. Christopher.”
A procession began to appear from round the corner of boys and girls. In front was a girl of about sixteen. She advanced with outstretched hand and an air of self-possession which took me at a disadvantage.
“I’m Bessie. I’m sorry we kept you waiting at the door, but the fact is that we thought it was Eliza’s brother who had come to insult us again.”
“Pray, don’t mention it. I am glad that it was not Eliza’s brother.”
“So am I. He is a dreadful man.”
I shook hands with the rest of them. There were six more, four boys and two girls. They formed a considerable congregation as they stood eyeing me with inquiring glances. Madge was the first to speak.
“I wondered all along if he would take it as a joke or not, and you see he hasn’t. I thought all the time that it was a risky thing to do.”
“I like that! You keep your thoughts to yourself then. It was you proposed it. You said you’d been reading about something of the kind in a story, and you voted for our advertising ourselves for a lark.”
The speaker was the biggest boy, a good-looking youngster, with sallow cheeks and shrewd black eyes.
“But, Rupert, I never meant it to go so far as this.”
“How far did you mean it to go then? It was your idea all through. You sent in the advertisement, you wrote the letters, and now he’s here. If you didn’t mean it, why didn’t you stop his coming?”
The girls cheeks were crimson. Bessie interposed.
“The thing is that as he is here it’s no good worrying about whose fault it is. We shall simply have to make the best of it.” Then, to me, “I suppose you really have come to stay?”
“I confess that I had some notion of the kind–to spend an old-fashioned Christmas.”
At this there was laughter, chiefly from the boys. Rupert exclaimed:
“A nice sort of old-fashioned Christmas you’ll find it will be. You’ll be sorry you came before it’s through.”
“I am not so sure of that.”
There appeared to be something in my tone which caused a touch of silence to descend upon the group. They regarded each other doubtfully, as if in my words a reproof was implied. Bessie was again the spokeswoman.
“Of course, now that you have come, we mean to be nice to you, that is as nice as we can. Because the thing is that we are not in a condition to receive visitors. Do we look as if we were?”
To be frank, they did not. Even Madge was a little unkempt, while the boys were in what I believe is the average state of the average boy.
“And,” murmured Madge, “where is Mr. Christopher to sleep?”
“What is he to eat?” inquired Bessie. She glanced at my packages. “I suppose you have brought nothing with you?”
“I’m afraid I haven’t. I had hoped to have found something ready for me on my arrival.”
Again they peeped at each other, as if ashamed. Madge repeated her former suggestion.
“There’s to-morrow’s dinner.”
“Oh, hang it!” exclaimed Rupert. “It’s not so bad as that. There’s a ham.”
“You can cut a steak off, or whatever you call it, and have it broiled.”
A meal was got ready, in the preparation of which every member of the family took a hand. And a room was found for me, in which was a blazing fire and traces of recent feminine occupation. I suspected that Madge had yielded her own apartment as a shelter for the stranger. By the time I had washed and changed my clothes, the impromptu dinner, or supper, or whatever it was, was ready.
A curious repast it proved to be; composed of oddly contrasted dishes, cooked–and sometimes uncooked–in original fashion. But hunger, that piquant sauce, gave it a relish of its own. At first no one seemed disposed to join me. By degrees, however, one after another found a knife and fork, until all the eight were seated with me round the board, eating, some of them, as if for dear life.
“The fact is,” explained Rupert, “we’re a rum lot. We hardly ever sit down together. We don’t have regular meals, but whenever anyone feels peckish, he goes and gets what there is, and cooks it and eats it on his own.”
“It’s not quite so bad as that,” protested Madge, “though it’s pretty bad.”
It did seem pretty bad, from the conventional point of view. From their conversation, which was candour itself, I gleaned details which threw light upon the peculiar position of affairs. It seemed that their father had been dead some seven years. Their mother, who had been always delicate, had allowed them to run nearly wild. Since she died, some ten months back, they appeared to have run quite wild. The house, with some six hundred acres of land, was theirs, and an income, as to whose exact amount no one seemed quite clear.
“It’s about eight hundred a year,” said Rupert.
“I don’t think it’s quite so much,” doubted Madge.
“I’m sure it’s more,” declared Bessie. “I believe we’re being robbed.”
I thought it extremely probable. They must have had peculiar parents. Their father had left everything absolutely to their mother, and the mother, in her turn, everything in trust to Madge, to be shared equally among them all. Madge was an odd trustee. In her hands the household had become a republic, in which every one did exactly as he or she pleased. The result was chaos. No one wanted to go to school, so no one went. The servants, finding themselves provided with eight masters and mistresses, followed their example, and did as they liked. Consequently, after sundry battles royal–lively episodes some of them had evidently been–one after the other had been got rid of, until, now, not one remained. Plainly the house must be going to rack and ruin.
“But have you no relations?” I inquired.
“We’ve got some cousins, or uncles, or something of the kind in Australia, where, so far as I’m concerned, I hope they’ll stop.”
When I was in my room, which I feared was Madge’s, I told myself that it was a queer establishment on which I had lighted. Yet I could not honestly affirm that I was sorry I had come. I had lived such an uneventful and such a solitary life, and had so often longed for someone in whom to take an interest–who would not talk medicine chest!–that to be plunged, all at once, into the centre of this troop of boys and girls was an accident which, if only because of its novelty, I found amusing. And then it was so odd that I should have come across a Madge at last!
In the morning I was roused by noises, the cause of which, at first, I could not understand. By degrees the explanation dawned on me; the family was putting the house to rights. A somewhat noisy process it seemed. Someone was singing, someone else was shouting, and two or three others were engaged in a heated argument. In such loud tones was it conducted that the gist of the matter travelled up to me.
“How do you think I’m going to get this fire to burn if you beastly kids keep messing it about? It’s no good banging at it with the poker till it’s alight.”
The voice was unmistakably Rupert’s. There was the sound of a scuffle, cries of indignation, then a girlish voice pouring oil upon the troubled waters. Presently there was a rattle and clatter, as if someone had fallen from the top of the house to the bottom. I rushed to my bedroom door.
“What on earth has happened?”
A small boy was outside–Peter. He explained,
“Oh, it’s only the broom and dustpan gone tobogganing down the stairs. It’s Bessie’s fault; she shouldn’t leave them on the landing.”
Bessie, appearing from a room opposite, disclaimed responsibility.
“I told you to look out where you were going, but you never do. I’d only put them down for a second, while I went in to empty a jug of water on to Jack, who won’t get out of bed, and there are all the boots for him to clean.”
Injured tones came through the open portal.
“You wait, that’s all! I’ll soak your bed tonight–I’ll drown it. I don’t want to clean your dirty boots, I’m not a shoe-black.”
The breakfast was a failure. To begin with, it was inordinately late. It seemed that a bath was not obtainable. I had been promised some hot water, but as I waited and waited and none arrived, I proceeded to break the ice in my jug–it was a bitterly cold morning, nice “old-fashioned” weather–and to wash in the half-frozen contents. As I am not accustomed to perform my ablutions in partially dissolved ice, I fear that the process did not improve my temper.
It was past eleven when I got down, feeling not exactly in a “Christmassy” frame of mind. Everything, and everyone, seemed at sixes and sevens. It was after noon when breakfast appeared. The principal dish consisted of eggs and bacon; but as the bacon was fried to cinders, and the eggs all broken, it was not so popular as it might have been, Madge was moved to melancholy.
“Something will have to be done! We can’t go on like this! We must have someone in to help us!”
Bessie was sarcastic.
“You might give Eliza another trial. She told you, if you didn’t like the way she burned the bacon, to burn it yourself, and as you’ve followed her advice, she might be able to give you other useful hints on similar lines.”
Rupert indulged himself in the same vein.
“Then there’s Eliza’s brother. He threatened to knock your blooming head off for saying Eliza was dishonest, just because she collared everything she laid her hands on; he might turn out a useful sort of creature to have about the place.”
“It’s all very well for you to laugh, but it’s beyond a jest. I don’t know how we’re going to cook the dinner.”
“Can I be of any assistance?” I inquired. “First of all, what is there to cook?”
It seemed that there were a good many things to cook. A turkey, a goose, beef, plum pudding, mince pies, custard, sardines–it seemed that Molly, the third girl, as she phrased it, could “live on sardines,” and esteemed no dinner a decent dinner at which they did not appear–together with a list of etceteras half as long as my arm.
“One thing is clear; you can’t cook all those things to-day.”
“We can’t cook anything.”
This was Rupert. He was tilting his chair back, and had his face turned towards the ceiling.
“Because there’s no coal.”
“There’s about half a scuttle full of dust. If you can make it burn you’ll be clever.”
What Rupert said was correct. Madge confessed, with crimson cheeks, that she had meant, over and over again, to order some coal, but had continually forgotten it, until finally Christmas Day had found them with an empty cellar. There was plenty of wood, but it was not so dry as it might have been, and anyhow, the grate was not constructed to burn wood.
“You might try smoked beef,” suggested Rupert. “When that wood goes at all it smokes like one o’clock. If you hung the beef up over it, it would be smoked enough for anyone by the time that it was done.”
I began to rub my chin. Considering the breakfast we had had, from my point of view the situation commenced, for the first time, to look really grave, I wondered if it would not be possible to take the whole eight somewhere where something really eatable could be got. But, when I broached the subject, I learned that the thing could not be done. The nearest hostelry was the “Boy and Blunderbuss,” and it was certain that nothing eatable could be had there, even if accommodation could be found for us at all. Nothing in the shape of a possible house of public entertainment was to be found closer than the market town, eight miles off; it was unlikely that even there a Christmas dinner for nine could be provided at a moment’s notice. Evidently the only thing to do was to make the best of things.
When the meeting broke up Madge came and said a few words to me alone.
“I really think you had better not stay.”
“Does that mean that you had rather I went?”
“No; not exactly that.”
“Then nearly that?”
“No; not a bit that. Only you must see for yourself how awfully uncomfortable you’ll be here, and what a horrid house this is.”
“My dear Madge”–everybody called her Madge, so I did–“even if I wanted to go, which I don’t–and I would remind you that you contracted to give me an old-fashioned Christmas–I don’t see where there is that I could go.”
“Of course, there’s that. I don’t see, either. So I suppose you’ll have to stay. But I hope you won’t think that I meant you to come to a place like this–really, you know.”
“I’m sorry; I had hoped you had.”
“That’s not what I mean. I mean that if I had thought that you were coming, I would have seen that things were different.”
“How different? I assure you that things as they are have a charm of their own.”
“That’s what you say. You don’t suppose that I’m so silly as not to know you’re laughing at me? But as I was the whole cause of your coming, I hope you won’t hate the others because of me.”
She marched off, brushing back, with an impatient gesture, some rebellious locks which had strayed upon her forehead.
That Christmas dinner was a success–positively. Of a kind–let that be clearly understood. I am not inferring that it was a success from the point of view of a “chef de cuisine.” Not at all; how could it be? Quite the other way. By dint of ransacking all the rooms, and emptying all the scuttles, we collected a certain amount of coal, with which, after adding a fair proportion of wood, we managed. Not brilliantly, but after a fashion. I can only say, personally, I had not enjoyed myself so much for years. I really felt as if I were young again; I am not sure that I am not younger than I thought I was. I must look the matter up. And, after all, even if one be, say forty, one need not be absolutely an ancient. Madge herself said that I had been like a right hand to her; she did not know what she would have done without me.
Looking back, I cannot but think that if we had attempted to prepare fewer dishes, something might have been properly cooked. It was a mistake to stuff the turkey with sage and onions; but as Bessie did not discover that she had been manipulating the wrong bird until the process of stuffing had been completed, it was felt that it might be just as well to let it rest. Unfortunately, it turned out that some thyme, parsley, mint, and other things had got mixed with the sage, which gave the creature quite a peculiar flavour; but as it came to table nearly raw, and as tough as hickory, it really did not matter.
My experience of that day teaches me that it is not easy to roast a large goose on a small oil stove. The dropping fat caused the flame to give out a strong smelling and most unpleasant smoke. Rupert, who had charge of the operation, affirmed that it would be all right in the end. But, by the time the thing was served, it was as black as my hat. Rupert said that it was merely brown; but the brown was of a sooty hue, and it reeked of paraffin. We had to have it deposited in the ashbin. I daresay that the beef would not have been bad if someone had occasionally turned it, and if the fire would have burned clear. As it was, it was charred on one side and raw on the other, and smoked all over. The way in which the odour and taste of smoke permeated everything was amazing. The plum-pudding, came to the table in the form of soup, and the mince pies were nauseous. Something had got into the crust, or mincemeat, or something, which there, at any rate, was out of place.
Luckily we came upon a tin of corned beef in a cupboard, and with the aid of some bread and cheese, and other odds and ends, we made a sort of picnic. Incredible though it may seem, I enjoyed it. If there was anywhere a merrier party than we were, I should like to know where it was to be found. It must have been a merry one. When I produced the presents, in which a happy inspiration had urged me to invest, “the enthusiasm reached a climax”–I believe that is the proper form of words which I ought to use. As I watched the pleasure of those youngsters, I felt as if I were myself a boy again.
* * * * *
That was my first introduction to “a lively family.” They came up to the description they had given of themselves. I speak from knowledge, for they have been my acquaintances now some time. More than acquaintances, friends; the dearest friends I have. At their request, I took their affairs in hand, Madge informally passing her trusteeship on to me. Things are very different with them now. The house is spick and span. There is an excellent staff of servants. Hangar Dene is as comfortable a home as there is in England. I have spent many a happy Christmas under its hospitable roof since then.
The boys are out in the world, after passing with honour through school and college. The girls are going out into the world also. Bessie is actually married. Madge is married too. She is Mrs. Christopher. That is the part of it all which I find is hardest to understand–to have told myself my whole life long that the name of my ideal woman would be Madge, and to have won that woman for my own at last! That is greater fortune than falls to the lot of most men. I thought that I was beyond that kind of thing; that I was too old. But Madge seemed to think that I was young enough. And she thinks so still.
And now there is a little Madge, who is big enough to play havoc with the sheets of paper on which I have been scribbling, to whom, one day, this tale will have to be told.
I could think of nothing else all month: Would they let me go to the Christmas party, or not?
I was cunning. I prepared the ground. I told my mother about the glorious achievements of Zhenya Ryazanova, for whom the party was being given. I said that Zhenya was doing very well at school, that she was almost top of the class and was always being held up as an example to us. And that she wasn’t just a little girl, but a very serious woman: she was already sixteen.
In short, I didn’t waste any time. And then, one fine morning I was called into the living room and told to stand in front of the big mirror and try on a white dress with a blue sash; I understood that I had won. I would be going to the party.
After that, preparations began in earnest: I took oil from the icon lamp in Nanny’s room and smeared it on my eyebrows every evening to make them grow thicker in time for the ball; I altered a corset my older sister had thrown away and then hid it under the mattress; I rehearsed sophisticated poses and enigmatic smiles in front of the mirror. My family expressed surprise. “Why’s Nadya looking so idiotic?” people kept asking. “I suppose she’s at that awkward age. Oh well, she’ll grow out of it.”
The Christmas party would be on the 24th. Zhenya’s name day.
I did everything in my power on the aesthetic front. With no resources at my disposal but a torn corset, I still managed to achieve a quite extraordinary effect. I cinched myself in so tight at the waist that I could only stand on tiptoe. I could barely breathe, and my face took on an imploring look. But it was a joy to make my first sacrifices in the name of beauty.
Nanny was to take me to the party. I put on my fur coat before saying goodbye to my family so as not to overwhelm them with my shapeliness.
There were a lot of people at the Ryazanovs, and most of them grown up: officers, friends of Zhenya’s brother, ladies of various ages. There were only two or three younger girls like myself, and only one cadet between us, so we had to dance with the officers. This was a great honour, of course, but a little intimidating.
At dinner, despite all my attempts to manoeuvre myself into the place next to the cadet, I was seated beside a large officer with a black beard. He was probably about thirty, but at the time he seemed to me a decrepit creature whose life was behind him.
“A fine old relic to be sitting next to,” I thought. “Seems I’m in for a jolly evening!”
The officer studied me very seriously and said, “You’re a typical Cleopatra. Quite remarkable.”
Alarmed, I said nothing.
“I just said,” he went on, “that you remind me of Cleopatra. Have you done Cleopatra at school yet?”
“You have her regal air, and you are just as sophisticated and experienced a flirt. The only thing is, your feet don’t touch the ground. But that’s a minor detail.”‘
My heart beat faster. That I was an experienced flirt, I had no doubt. But how had this old man spotted it so very quickly?
“Look inside your napkin,” he said.
I looked. A pink chenille ballerina was poking out of the napkin.
“Look what I have.”
He had a green devil, with a tail made from silver metallic cord. The tail shook and the devil danced on a wire, so jolly and so beautiful that I gasped and reached my hand out towards it.
“Stop it!” he said. “He’s my devil! You have a ballerina. Tell her how pretty she is!”
He stood the devil in front of his plate.
“Look at him. Isn’t he wonderful? I can honestly say he’s the finest work of art I’ve ever seen. Still, I don’t suppose you’re interested in art. You’re a flirt. A Cleopatra. You just want to lure men to their doom.”
“Yes, he really is the very most handsome,” I babbled. “Nobody else has anyone like him.”
The officer briskly inspected the other guests. Everybody had a small chenille figure: a dog wearing a skirt, a chimney sweep, a monkey. Nobody had a devil like he did. Or anything the least bit like him.
“Well, of course, a devil like him doesn’t come along every day of the week. Look at his tail. It shakes all by itself without anyone even touching it. And he’s such a jolly little fellow!”
There was no need to tell me all this. I was already very taken with the devil. So much so that I didn’t even feel like eating.
“Why aren’t you eating? Did your mother tell you not to?”
Ugh, how very rude! What did my mother have to do with it, when I was a society woman dining with an officer at a ball?
“No, merci, I just don’t feel like it. I never eat much at balls.”
“Really? Well, you know what’s best for you, you must have been to lots of balls over the years. But why aren’t you looking at my little devil? You won’t be able to admire him much longer, you know. Dinner will be over soon and I’ll be putting him in my pocket and going back home with him.”
“What will you do with him?” I asked, with timid hope.
“What do you mean? He will bring beauty to my lonely life. And then I’ll get married and show him to my wife, if she’s well-behaved. He’s a wonderful little devil, isn’t he?”
Horrid old, mean old man, I thought. Didn’t he understand how I loved that jolly devil? How I loved him!
If he hadn’t been so delighted with the devil himself, I might have suggested a swap. My ballerina for his devil. But he was so entranced with this devil that there seemed no point in pestering him.
“Why are you so sad all of a sudden?” he asked. “Is it because all this will be over soon? And you’ll never again see anything like him? It’s true, you don’t come across his sort so very often.”
I hated this unkind man. I even refused a second helping of ice cream, which I really wanted. I refused because I was very unhappy. Nothing in the world mattered to me any more. I had no use for any of life’s pleasures and believed in nothing.
Everyone got up from the table. And my companion hurried off, too. But the little devil was still there on the table. I waited. Not that I was thinking anything in particular. I wasn’t thinking with my head. It seemed that only my heart was thinking, because it began to beat fast and hard against the top of my tight corset.
The officer didn’t come back.
I took the devil. The springy silver tail whipped against my hand. Quick—into my pocket he went.
They were dancing again in the hall. The nice young cadet asked me for a dance. I didn’t dare. I was afraid the devil would jump out of my pocket.
I didn’t love the devil any more. He had not brought me joy. Only worry and anxiety. Perhaps I just needed to take a quick look at him then I’d be ready to suffer for his sake. But as it was… What had I gone and done? Should I just slip in and put him back on the table? But the dining room door was locked now. Probably they were already clearing the table.
“Why are you looking so sad, my charming lady?”
The “old man” was standing beside me, smiling roguishly “I’ve suffered a real tragedy,” he said. “My devil’s gone missing. I’m at my wit’s end. I’m going to ring the police. They need to carry out a search. There may be a dangerous criminal in our midst.”
He smiled. What he said about the police was, of course, a joke.
“How old are you?” he asked suddenly.
“I’ll be fifteen soon. In ten months.”
“Aha! As soon as that! So in three years’ time I could be marrying you. If only my dear little devil hadn’t disappeared so inexplicably. How will I be able to make my wife happy now? Why are you so silent? Do you think I’m too old for you?”
“Not now,” I answered gloomily. “But in three years’ time you’ll be an important general.”
“A general. That’s a nice thought. But what can have happened to my devil?”
I looked up into his face. I hated him so much and I was so hugely unhappy that he stopped smiling and walked away.
And I went to my friend’s room and, hiding behind the curtain (not that there was anyone else in the room), I took out the devil. He was a little squashed, but there was something else besides. He had changed. Looking at him no longer made me feel the least bit happy. I didn’t want to touch him, and I didn’t want to laugh. He was just the most ordinary devil, green chenille with a little silver tail. How could he make anybody happy? How ridiculous it all was!
I stood up on the window sill, opened the small pane at the top and threw him out on the street.
Nanny was waiting for me in the hall.
The officer walked up to us, glanced at Nanny and chuckled: “Here to collect our Queen Cleopatra, are you?”
And then he fell silent, looked at me thoughtfully and said, simply and kindly, “Off you go. Off to bed with you, little one. You’ve gone quite pale. God bless you.”
I said goodbye and left, quiet and tired.
*Taken from Rasputin and Other Stories by Teffi, ed. Robert Chandler and Ann Marie Jackson, Pushkin Press London