On Thursday Anna found out that she was pregnant. When she came home from work, she didn’t start dinner but instead sat at the tiny kitchen table, put her gaunt hands on the new oilcloth, and stared at them in a stupor.
Nikolai came home as usual at 9 p.m.
Anna heard him taking off his coat in the narrow, over-furnished hallway. Then she walked up to him, threw her arms around his neck, greasy with ground-in diesel fuel, and held him tightly.
“Kolya, I can’t go on anymore. We have to do it.”
Nikolai sighed and delicately brushed his lips against her pale, thin hair.
“Everything will be fine. Don’t be scared.”
Her arms, like two pale snakes, crawled along her husband’s bony shoulders.
“Why are you trying to calm me down? Did you read yesterday’s ‘Truth’?”
“Of course I did.”
“So what are you waiting for? For them to come for us? Or denounce us as ‘spitters against the wind’?”
“Of course not. I’m just thinking.”
Anna turned away from him.
“You’re thinking… meanwhile He is still on the windowsill. Everyone sees Him.”
“Don’t worry. We’ll do it today. For sure.”
Twilight flattened the city into an uneven multicolored plane of flames that held up a strip of evening sky. The sky, squeezed in between the city and the paint-chipped window frame, quickly grew dark, filling up with acrid fog. The darker it became, the sharper and clearer His profile stood out against the gloomy plane of the city.
Nikolai had noticed before that His knobby, pale rose flesh seemed to light up against the background of the deepening darkness.
Twelve years ago, a tiny rose-colored tuber pushed its way up through the black earth that was packed into a silver flower pot shaped like an enormous wine glass, and Nikolai had been amazed at how quickly it brightened when twilight fell.
That evening the family had been celebrating the Day of the First Sprouting. They’d had to move a chest of drawers to seat everyone around the table. Nikolai remembered turning out the lights, listening to the Anthem and his now deceased father giving the Main Toast. He remembered how they drank wine and took turns shaking drops of wine from the glasses onto the unctuous black fertilized earth.
“Grow for our happiness o’er the centuries! Grow for the death of all our enemies!” Father proclaimed as he turned over his glass third, after the two fat representatives of the DSP (Directorate of Selectional Propaganda) and then quickly leaned over to kiss the tuber…
In three years, He grew by 13 centimeters, and Nikolai could make out the outline of the Leader in the knotty body, which was like an elongated potato. One morning he told his mother. She laughed and pushed Nikolai onto the bed.
“You silly boy! Did you think we didn’t notice?”
And then she added mysteriously, “Soon you won’t believe your eyes!”
And indeed, a year hadn’t gone by before the top part of what seemed at first glance to be a shapeless tuber became round, the lower part widened, and two protuberances pushed out on either side and slanted downward.
Then Father gathered the guests together again, cut his right hand, rubbed his blood into the top of the tuber and announced the Day of Formation.
Over the next two years the tuber grew another 10 centimeters, the rosy head became even rounder, a thick neck took shape, the shoulders became broader and a belly stuck out over the knobby waist.
“It’s the miracle of selection, son!” his father exclaimed, fiddling with his prematurely gray beard. “Only our miracle-working people could have invented it! Just imagine – a living Father of the Great Country! On the windowsill of every family, in every home, in every corner of our boundless state!”
Soon a meaty nose pushed out of the round head, then two swellings indicated eyebrows, a chin jutted forward, and ears appeared. His body, which was in the potting soil up to His waist, broadened and strengthened. A few pockmarks and warts gradually disappeared, and the knobbiness smoothed out.
After another year, lips appeared on the rosy face, brows majestically furrowed and pushed the bridge of his nose in, and his forehead became domed. A ridge with a short tuft of hair appeared at the top of His forehead. His neck was tightly encased in the collar of His field jacket, and his belly was even more solidly rooted in the earth.
Nikolai had already graduated from school when dimples appeared on the Leader’s cheeks, ear cavities were carved out and slight folds appeared in the tightly fitted jacket.
Two years later Nikolai’s father died.
And a year later they celebrated the Day of Enlightenment —two dark little beads pushed up the puffy eyelids. Nikolai had to lead the celebration. He powdered his face and sang the Anthem to the gathered guests. His mother poured a cup of family spit they’d saved up into the pot of the Leader. From that day on they only fed Him spit. And every twelfth day Nikolai gave Him his sperm.
When little bands of military ribbons appeared on His jacked and the end of a pen peeped out of His pocket, it was the Day of Complete Growth. They celebrated it without Nikolai’s mother.
Soon Nikolai married Anna and went to work at the factory.
From her first day in the house, Anna tended Him with great care. Every morning she wiped off the dust, watered the tuber with spit, raked the black soil and polished the silver flower pot until it shone.
And so it went for almost two years.
But on the twelfth June morning terrible news spread across the Land: The Great Leader had died.
No one worked for two weeks — everyone stayed home in a state of shock. At the end of two weeks, after the deceased had been buried, the new Leader ceremonially accepted the Helm. Unlike his predecessor, the new One was tall and thin. He gave speeches, wrote addresses, and spoke to the people. But none of his speeches so much as mentioned the previous Leader who had been at the Helm for 47 years. That frightened people. Some people lost their minds; others jumped out their windows holding on to their potted tubers.
After a month, the new Leader gave an address to the nation in which he mentioned “the former One at the Helm, made former due to necessary but sufficient reasons.”
No matter how Nikolai and Anna struggled to grasp the hidden meaning of those words, it eluded them. The people understood it in two ways and immediately paid for both: people who took their tubers off the windowsills were immediately arrested and people who left them on the sills received a warning. For some reason they forgot about Nikolai and Anna – they weren’t sent the red postcard with a warning and the image of a person spitting against the wind. But that didn’t make the couple happy; it upset them.
A month and a half went by in this information vacuum and tension. Their neighbors continued to be arrested and warned. Soon a directive was issued banning suicide. And the suicides stopped…
Nikolai didn’t notice Anna walking up behind him. Her hands touched his shoulders.
“Are you afraid, Kolya?”
Nikolai turned around. “What have we got to be afraid of? We have the right. We’re good people.”
“We’re good people, Kolya. Are we going to begin?”
Nikolai nodded. Anna turned out the light.
Nikolai got a knife and poked at the tuber to find the waist, and then, after he steadied the shaking of his wiry hands, he made a slit along the waist. His body turned out to be harder than a potato. The tuber weakly cracked under the knife. When Nikolai cut Him, Anna grabbed Him and delicately carried Him in the dark, like a child, to the table. Nikolai got out an eight-liter glass jar with a wide mouth. Anna lit the stove, filled a bucket with water, and put it on to heat.
They sat in the darkness, only illuminated by the weak gas flame, and stared at Him lying there. Both Nikolai and Anna thought that He moved. When the water came to a boil, Anna put it on the balcony to cool, poured it into the jar, added salt, vinegar, bay leaves and cloves. Then they carefully slipped Him into the jar. As He displaced the steaming water, He bobbed as if He wanted to crawl out of the jar. But Nikolai pushed down his head with the metal lid, grabbed the sealer and began to quickly and deftly tighten the lid.
When it was all done, the couple picked up the jar and carefully lifted it up onto the windowsill in the same place. Anna carefully wiped the warm jar with a towel. After a moment of hesitation, Nikolai turned on the light. The jar stood on the sill, its glass sides shining. His bobbing in the water, surrounded by a few bay leaves, was barely noticeable.
“Beautiful,” Anna said after a long pause.
“Yes,” Nikolai sighed.
He embraced his wife and lightly placed his hand on her belly. Anna smiled and covered his hand with her wan hands.
The next morning Anna got up as usual, a half-hour before her husband, and went into the kitchen, turned on the stove and put the kettle on. After that she would usually water Him with the spit that they had saved up over the day. Sleepily scratching herself, Anna automatically reached for the spit cup standing on the shelf and froze: the cup was empty. Anna glanced over at the windowsill and saw the jar with the tuber. She breathed out in relief as she remembered the procedure they’d done the night before. She walked over and put her hand on the jar. She looked out the window. The city was waking up and lights were going on in the windows. But something had changed in the city. Changed significantly. Anna rubbed her eyes as she looked: On the windowsills the silver and gold flowerpots that she was used to seeing since childhood were gone and in their place were glass jars with rose tubers.
I’d only been married six years when I started feeling tired and out of breath, especially when I was going up stairs. At first I thought it was a passing problem that would just go away. But it didn’t go away. In fact, it got worse. After doing all sorts of tests, I was told my heart muscle was weak, and that I’d have to get a new one, or else…!
There was a serious decline in my performance of important duties, the most serious of them being my marital ones.
Even the kids’ loving mother got in the act. “Get a heart transplant,” she said ominously, “or else…!”
I waited for the operation for over two years, during which time my condition got worse. Then somehow or other I got the message that I’d have to bribe the hospital officials if I wanted them to expedite a new heart for me, or else…!
I decided as a matter of principle that I wouldn’t try to bribe anybody, even if I croaked on account of it. It was my right to get the spare part my body needed by honorable means, and I was damn well going to hold onto it! So, things got complicated, and it looked as though it was going to be nearly impossible to get what I wanted.
Around that time, my dad discovered he had a relative who’d been buffeted about by one storm wind after another since the first Palestinian Nakba 1 until he’d finally washed up on the shores of Denmark.
My dad sold the last piece of land we owned. Then, with the money from the sale plus donations from good-hearted folks, I took off for Denmark to see his relative, and my wish came true faster than I would ever have expected. Somebody crashed his car into a snowplow and his brain stopped sending and receiving signals, so they removed his good heart and transplanted it into me, in place of my lousy one.
While I was in the hospital, I received a visit from the girlfriend of the heart’s original owner, whose name was Felix. She figured that from now on she had a share in my body, so she started hugging and kissing me, and I returned the sentiments quite enthusiastically.
From the time Felix’s heart was planted in my chest, I lost control over my feelings, which started overflowing every which way. I noticed that unlike before, I’d started falling with the greatest of ease into love’s snares and temptations. When I remembered my sickly, dried-up old heart, I’d think ruefully, “Damn you! You stood between me and happiness!”
As long as I live, I’ll never forget the favor that Dane did me. After I left Denmark, his girlfriend went on emailing me. She’d ask me how her boyfriend’s heart was doing, saying, “I hope you won’t be too hard on it, Abdul!” She’d send him a birthday card every year, and on the anniversary of their first physical intimacy, she wrote, “This was the night when we first made love, Babe, and we were happy even in a snow drift!” As weird as it sounds, when I read her letters, “his” heart would start racing and nearly leap out of my chest. It was like having an island with self-rule inside my body!
I started liking Danish canned meat and fish, as well as Danish dairy products. It wouldn’t even have occurred to me to crave things like that in the days of the old heart, and now I was addicted to them! But the real turnaround involved football matches. After siding automatically with teams from Third World countries like Cameroon, Iran and Egypt, I found myself rooting with a vengeance for the Danish team. This irritated friends and relatives, who viewed it as a step backwards ethically speaking, and as a sign of hostility towards liberation movements. As such, it was clear evidence that I was biased toward the European Union, with its wishy-washy position on our cause. Not only that, but if I saw a bottle of vodka on some store shelf with a picture of a couple of stags on its label, my mouth would water as though I knew what it tasted like. But for the grace of God, I would have gotten hooked on the stuff!
My fellow countrymen, pessimistic as usual, expected me to kick the bucket right away. They’d say naïve things like, “That Scandinavian heart won’t work in Abdullah’s body. After all, he’s an Arab!” I found out that a poet friend of mine had started composing an elegy for me so that my death wouldn’t take him by surprise. He also wanted to make sure it was worded just right when he delivered it at the memorial service he was going to organize for the express purpose of having a chance to read the poem. But I disappointed the poet and my esteemed compatriots. In fact, I started attending their funerals one after another, and earning a heavenly reward for each one. I’d often hear somebody say with my own ears, “We expected this to happen to Abdullah, not to so-and-so.”
To spite these folks who’d expected my rapid demise, I went to a big-time insurance company and took out a policy on my heart. In fact, I insured every one of my body parts. In the process, I learned that insurance companies hold Scandinavian hearts in high regard, and that they’re prepared to insure them for five years renewable provided that you get them retested. By contrast, they refuse to insure Taiwanese or African hearts despite the fact that studies have shown African hearts to be of high quality even though they’re cheap.
News got out to the effect that secret negotiations had taken place between the African Union and the German conglomerate Siemens, which had plans to establish a monopoly over African hearts given their low prices, and then use them in heart transplants for Europeans and Americans.
I started grooving to Danish music, which I hadn’t been able to stand before that, and I got all excited about hearing the Danes compete in the Eurovision song contest. Then one day, and without any prior planning, I walked into the Danish Embassy and started shouting like a madman at the top of my lungs, “Birruh biddam nafdik ya Andersen! (We’d give our heart and soul for you, Andersen!)” It turns out that this Andersen guy was a candidate at the time for the position of Speaker of the Danish Parliament. In any case, I didn’t snap out of it until the embassy guard, thinking I was getting ready to commit a terrorist act, intervened. I was insulted and slapped around, and a file was opened on me, and the only reason I ended up being released was Felix’s heart. The Danish Ambassador in Tel Aviv put in a good word for me and gave me a warm hug. And once he understood what had motivated me, he kissed me right on the scar from my heart transplant.
But on my way home I got into a horrible crash that put me in a coma for two weeks. The accident smashed me to smithereens and nearly every part of my body, even the family jewels, went out of commission. The insurance company went to work without delay, and started sending me to all sorts of places for treatment. My first stop was the United States, where I got a basketball player’s legs, and left nine centimeters taller. From there I hobbled to the UK, where I got myself a pair of arms that were in good shape apart from the fact that the left one had a naked girl tattooed on it. I also got a pair of kidneys of Indian origin. The family jewels came from a Dutch guy who’d given them up to join the female camp. The tongue had been pulled out of a French hooker’s mouth, and I was supplied with magnificent amber eyes that had belonged to a Samba dancer in Brazil. So, I went back to the way I had been, or maybe even better than before.
The only problem I hadn’t anticipated was that I started being slow to respond when my name was called. I noticed a lot of people complaining, saying, “Why don’t you answer? Don’t you hear us calling you!?” When I heard the name Abdullah, I’d start looking around, thinking Abdullah was somebody else! After some consultation, my friends and loved ones made a decision: The only solution was for them to start calling me Abdu Felix. Then I’d know who they were talking to! And sure enough, my heart would leap when I heard this name, and I’d snap to attention right away.
Over a period of months, people got used to the new me. Even my mom and dad, who put up fierce resistance at first, had to resign themselves to the status quo in the end and started calling me by the new name: Abdu Felix. When my dad uttered it for the first time, we locked glances, my Brazilian eyes fixed on his misty Arab ones, and there was a sad quiver in his voice. As he listened to my French way of pronouncing things, he trembled as though he were grasping hot coals until I thought he was going to throw up. I knew then that he realized I wasn’t the same old Abdullah, the son he’d always known, the fruit of his loins. And every now and then I’ll hear him ranting, “Abd Felix, Felix … Felix Abdu, Felix Felix!”
*Published in al-Quds al-Arabi and Kull al-Arab newspapers.
The fiRsT Thing ThaT happens, you tell me, is that school stops.
We are meeting in a room in a London university so that you can tell me, in anodyne safe surroundings, a bit about your life so far; I say so far because you aren’t old, you are maybe 30.
We meet at the front door and follow the man who’s showing us to the room. We go through several doors and down then up some stairs. We go through a lot of corridors, then some more corridors, then down more stairs and along more identical corridors, then further down again and along a corridor with lagged pipes in the ceiling above our heads. We go through some swing doors, round some corners to some dead ends. We double back on ourselves. The man, who’s not sure where the room is, has to keep pressing codes into doors on our way in and then on our way back out again because we’ve come the wrong way or taken a wrong turning.
Eventually we find the room we’re being lent for the two hours. It’s a room with some tables pushed together and two or three chairs in it. There’s a window with a view on to bricks and the side of a building. You put your bags down, one on each side of you, and we sit down at the pushed-together tables.
You begin to speak. You speak as if picking your way over broken glass. You are graceful in the speaking. You are a small man, dainty even, and gentle. You’re so small that the two quite small rucksacks you’ve got with you seem large beside you.
Later, when we leave this room and go back up through the maze of university corridors, you and your rucksacks keep getting caught in the swing doors because you aren’t strong enough to hold them open; the door hinges are stronger than you.
Here’s what you tell me. It’s all in the present tense, I realise afterwards, because it is all still happening.
So: the first thing you remember knowing is that there isn’t any more school. Your mother dies when you are three, you don’t remember. You never see your father, so you can’t remember him. You know, from being told, that your father’s family fought with your mother’s family; his were Hausa, hers were Christian. So you get given by your father’s family to a man in the village and for a short while there’s school under the great big tree, where you sit in the shade on the ground and the teacher sits on a seat and you get taught letters and reading.
Then the school has to have money so the man you’ve been given to takes you to the farm.
You are six years old.
There is definitely no school on the farm.
There is cocoa, there are bananas and plantain, and the harvests run from January to December. The older kids, seven or eight and upwards, drag and carry the sacks. The younger ones, like you when you arrive, do the bagging and drying. Cocoa, you explain to me, has to be dried twice. You have to climb the tree, cut the pods, break the shell with the seeds inside then pour them into the baskets, then there’s the spreading them out to dry on the leaves or on the tables. The sacks of seeds are as big as you are. You drag these sacks back in the heat. The only clothes you’ve got are made from the sacks you drag, shorts sewn from sack. It’s hot there. Not like here. You look out the window at the bricks. Not like when it’s hot here either; there on the farm it’s the hottest that hot can mean.
You arrive at the farm when you’re six and you run away when you are 21. That’s not the first time you’ve run away. The first time you’re 15. Hunger. Beatings. Headaches. You have a headache, you have it quite often, and you have to have the right medicine or leaves for it or you hit the earth.
One day when you’re 15 and the boss isn’t there, you just go. You get out. There’s a road. You follow it. It isn’t a tarmacked road like here, you tell me. It’s kind of a dirt or dust, an earth road. Anyway the boss catches you on that earth road. There are beatings for a week, and every day between the beatings you’re out to work again carrying the firewood on your head, sometimes five miles, sometimes eight, and at the end of the day the boss coming in to the room with the sleeping mats in it saying how you’re not making him enough money and beating you again.
There’re always beatings.
A man sometimes comes to the farm, he’s in the removing business, he comes to remove the stored beans. He sees the wounds on you when you are 20, 21. He says to you on the quiet, Beaten again? You need to get out of here, he says, or you’ll die.
You think about the boy called Nana, who was beaten so much that he hit the ground. He didn’t wake up. He didn’t respond. He just lay there. You went to work, you came back, he wasn’t in the house any more. Some days later you were told he was dead and that’s when they started to lock you all up at night.
You put your head in your hands, here in the nondescript university room, all the years later, in London.
A very difficult time, you say. A very very difficult time.
I’ve been working here for a long time and I know what I’m talking about, the man says. You’ve got to get out of here.
He says he is going to help you out.
I watch you remember, now, without knowing it’s what you’re doing, the wounds you had then. Your left hand goes to your right forearm, then to your right leg. I notice there’s a scar on your forehead too, the size of a walnut shell, like someone’s at some point scooped a handful-sized piece out of you.
The man tells you to go, when everyone else is busy eating, to the latrine, and when no one can see, to go through the hedges at a certain place. He tells you where the footpath is. He tells you to follow the footpath all the way.
It’s eight hours to the village. It’s a day when the boss and his wife aren’t at the farm. You go to the latrine. You push through the hedges. You find that path. You walk till it’s dark. You meet nobody. You walk till you get to a village. A woman is cooking under a shade. She sees you. She asks you where you are going. You tell her the man’s name and she takes you to a house.
You sit in this house and you hope you won’t be killed.
You wait there for four hours. The man comes. He says that because they’re already looking for you he has to move you tonight.
You walk almost the whole night to get to a town. You are there in a room for a week. Then the man comes back and another man with him. The other man takes your photograph. We are going to take you somewhere, he says, where you are going to be safe. This is where the white people are, do you want to go there?
You are in the town where the lorry station is for a month until the man comes back with a car. He tells you not to worry. He tells you this all the way through the local villages, all the way to the proper road. You never see that brown earth road again. From now on, instead, you see a lot of lights. Then there’s no lights, then lights again. Then you’re standing at the counter in the airport at the man’s side and there’s a girl, and another boy, and the man.
Say nothing, he says. If they ask you who I am to you, say I am your uncle.
When you get to the other airport, though, it isn’t London. You don’t find out for quite some time. It’s just a shut room that you’re in, and a warehouse. Much later you get to know that it’s called Luton. The shut room is all mattresses on the floor and there are six others and you in the room. There are girls in the room above, men in the room below. That night they give you all chicken and chips and tell you the work will start early so you’d better be ready.
A van comes at 4am. Someone opens the front door. The back of the van, with its door open, is right up against the front door. You and the others get in one by one. The van door closes. It’s dark in the van. You get to the warehouse. You hear the warehouse door go up. The van goes in. The warehouse door comes down again.
Room, van, warehouse. Warehouse, van, room. Four in the morning. Nine at night. Packing shoes. Ladies bags. Sorting dresses. Cleaning microwaves. They give you a cloth for this. Cleaning TVs. Cleaning fridges. They give you a roll of white rubber to wrap the electric things. They give you a winter jacket, one pair of jeans and a towel. They give you two shoes. They tell you it’s cost them a great deal of money to bring you here. They say you’ll be working till you’ve paid it all back. There aren’t beatings but there’s shouting. There is a lot of shouting.
Room, van, warehouse. Warehouse, van, room. Five years. Most weeks all week, 18 hours a day. You sit in silence, now, with me. You hold your head in your hands.
You meet a guy, you tell me. He’s the driver. He takes a liking to you. He says he can get you out of there and find you a cleaning job in London. You trust him.
You say the word trust and it is as if your whole body fills with pain. You sit silent again for a moment.
Then London. One place to the next, one place to the next. But you go to a church. You make some friends at the church. You tell them about your life. They tell you there are things that can be done to make this better. You can write to the Home Office, they tell you, and explain to them what’s happened to you, and the Home Office will help you sort this out.
You do it. You write to the Home Office.
They come. They arrest you.
They put you in prison for six months because the passport you’ve got is the wrong kind.
First it’s prison, then detention. That takes two years. Then they release you for six months. Then they arrest you again. Back to detention, another six months. Then they release you. Any moment now they can arrest you again. They say: We have accepted you are a victim of human trafficking. But to go back to Ghana? You have nobody there to go to. Indefinite leave to remain. That means they’ll arrest you again. They can, any time. We accept you are a victim of human trafficking. But we need to reconsider the case.
Most of all, you tell me, you want to go to school. Right now you are in a house belonging to a man from your church, and the man who has the house lets you live there. You do cleaning, do errands, you help look after the baby. It is kind of him to let you stay. There isn’t any money. You sleep in the lounge when they’ve gone to bed. There is a chair you can sit in. You just stay at the house, that’s what you do all day, except for the days you have to report. There isn’t any money for any rail or bus tickets. This is sometimes a problem. Central London to East Croydon is a long walk.
You want most to go to college, you tell me in that university, in the room borrowed for two hours. But colleges need ID. The piece of ID you have, the colleges tell you, isn’t enough for colleges.
You don’t tell me about what detention is like until we walk back up to street level through the interminable swing doored corridors, up staircases that lead to other corridors.
You stop in the middle of a corridor. You look at me and you say: you would ask God not to send your enemies to detention, where fellow human beings treat you not like human beings.
And being out of detention, and knowing they can put you back in detention? It is all like still being in detention. Detention is never not there.
You have seen things, you tell me, with your own naked eyes. The room there in detention has a window, sure. But a window without any air. The only place air comes in is the gap under the door. And the door in detention is an iron door, and when they come to lock it they bang it. They do it on purpose, to make the great noise that it makes. And there’s no privacy in detention. There’s no religious privacy. This is a terrible thing, you say. And there’s no medication guaranteed in detention. Not even for epilepsy, your headaches. Prison is better. At least in prison there is something to do. But not at the removal centre. They call it the removal centre, you know?
You raise your eyebrows at me.
Removal, you say. When you arrive they remove you from a life. Then they remove your phone from you. They make sure it isn’t the kind with cameras. They take it away for several days, and they put it ‘through security’.
But still, I’m thinking to myself as you speak. It can’t be that bad. It can’t be as bad as prison. And surely there’s a reason to take a phone away to check it. It’s for security, isn’t it? It doesn’t sound so bad. It doesn’t sound so rough, not really, and there’s a window. Albeit a window that doesn’t open. A window, all the same.
I am an idiot. But I’m learning. A mere hour or two with you in a university room and I’m about to find out that what I’ve been being taught is something world-sized.
Later this same day I will go and visit, for another couple of hours, what it is to be a detainee, in this day and age, in our country. No, not even that: what I’ll go and visit is only what it’s like to visit a detainee.
I’ll take the train to the removal centre you told me about, the very place where you’ve been detained then detained again, then any minute now might be detained again.
It’s a place so close to a runway that the sound of the planes taking off and landing is its only birdsong. There’s a jolly painted sign above the visitor centre reception desk. PROPERTY CHECK-IN, it says with a big painted tick, for correct, next to it. It’s the first thing I see. Is it a joke? Is it supposed to put people at ease? It’s an obscene irony, and, as I’ll find, maybe the most human thing in the process it takes to visit someone here. There are creatures painted, too, on the back wall of this check-in building, and some toys on the floor beneath them for visiting kids. The painted creatures are meant to be Disney jungle creatures but one looks anguished, as if in pain, and one has huge ferocious teeth.
Everywhere else there are bright information posters proclaiming in words and symbols how people of all origins, ethnicities, religions and sexual orientations will be treated equally here.
I will have to fill in two forms. I will get given a bright red wristband. VISITOR, it says on it. (Anna, my companion for the afternoon, is a regular visitor of the detainees held in the centre, and will warn me with some urgency not to lose this wristband.) I will have to empty my pockets into a locker, all the pennies and the five pence pieces, all the bits of tissue, crushed receipts, even the little balls of fluff in the linings of the pockets. I will lock the locker door on my own ID, on everything that proves I’m me, and will get given a number instead and a lanyard. Visitor Lanyard 336.
I quite often get given lanyards in my job. At literature festivals they’re used as passes into all the events or the hospitality and the green rooms. I throw away several lanyards a year without thinking. This one, the one I’ll be given this afternoon, will render every other lanyard I’ve ever been given and ever will be given from now on nothing but a frippery. The little plastic wallet it’s in will be bent as if it’s been twisted over and over in someone’s hands, chewed by a hundred nervous people or their children – a beaten-up lanyard, a lanyard with a history. I will have to go through a guarded door and then through an airport scanner – no, something much more down market, scale down your vision, more like a body scanner would have been if this was back when I was in my twenties, 30 years ago, and was ill and was claiming invalidity benefit at the DSS and part of that process of signing on had ever involved being body scanned. Before this, a man will write down my number. He will check that I’m me from a photograph that’s already been taken, a minute ago, front of house, by a security camera. After it, a woman will come out of his glass-barrier office. She will make me take my boots off. She will thump them, shake them upside down. She will go through all the pockets of the coat she’s made me take off with more thoroughness than I’ve ever had at any airport. She will find a pencil sharpener and a spare coat button in a little button envelope in my inside pocket. She will hold them both up.
Were you going to use this sharpener to sharpen a pencil and write on this envelope? she will say. No, I’ll say. I didn’t even know that envelope was in there.
As I say it I will feel guilty, though I’m telling nothing but the truth.
She will put the things on a table by the scanner machine.
They may or may not be there when you come out, she’ll say. We take no responsibility for what’s left here.
Then, after she’s searched me from head to feet, the woman will unlock a door and we’ll go into a waiting space and the woman will open another locked door on the other side of the room which will open into a yard with a razor- wire fence so high and encircling such a tiny yard space that it would pass as a literal example of surreality.
Then she’ll unlock another door and we’ll pass into the Visitor Centre H-Block.
There will be placards everywhere. Inside the H-Block the placards will all be inspirational messages about how good the teamwork and the care are here.
Up some stairs there’ll be another security check.
Altogether there are four security checks, before you can visit someone here. Then a man will unlock a door into a big square room, somehow both bright and dim, with blue carpet tiles, blue chairs. We will be shown to a seat. The form we will have signed says we have to take the seat we are shown to, and no other seat. We will do as we’re told. Someone will unlock a different door behind us. The man we’ve come to visit will be shown through this different door.
No, not a man, something closer to a boy – a sweet tired boy, not much past adolescence. He is Vietnamese. He will find his painstaking way in English for just over an hour, telling me he is embarrassed not to be better at speaking it. I will tell him not to worry, that my Vietnamese isn’t up to much. He will laugh at this. The laugh, like a clear little torchbeam, will light up the true and profound state of this young man’s dejection. Anna will tell me later he spoke no English when he arrived here, and the epic nature of the story he tells me in hard-won broken phrases, of the one-and-a-half months hidden in the back of a lorry it took to get him here, will be pretty clear even though all the time I’m trying to listen to him all I’ll be able to hear are the guards of this place, three or sometimes four of them, rattling their keys and their keychains incessantly up and down the length of the room, though there’ll be no one here to guard but us and one other family on the cheap blue seats.
Airless, the room, and its windows barred and perspexed – and suddenly I’ll understand what you were telling me this morning, about how a window, when no air can come through it, isn’t the same thing as a window. You didn’t even mention the bars.
I will ask the boy I’m talking to if the windows in this room are the same as the window in his room. Yes, he’ll say. Do they have those bars on them? I’ll say. He will nod gently. I will ask him what the food is like here. The guards, male and female alike, will walk up and down, shaking their keys. It’s okay, he’ll say.
He’ll have his dictionary in his hand, a Pocket Vietnamese- English paperback. Its spine will be several times broken. The guards will jaunt up and down the room, joking with each other over and above our conversation and the whole time I’m there I will feel the paper edge of my VISITOR band round my wrist rough under my sleeve – I say paper, but I suppose I mean plasticised paper, because later when I try and rip it off I can’t, it won’t tear, and I’ll have to remove it with scissors – I will feel it keenly, the whole time, the reminder that I can leave. I will long to leave.
Meanwhile the young man will be looking overjoyed at the slip of paper Anna has given him, which means he can receive a little blank notebook she’s brought for him, though he won’t see it for several days because it’s got to go ‘through security’, though already we will have spent quite a long time, when we arrived in ‘check-in’, filling in forms about the notebook and having the notebook weighed and processed. He will say, several times, how delighted and grateful he is to have had visitors. Two visitors! Anna came! And another person! Like he can’t quite believe his luck. Again this moment of brightness will mean I catch the real low ebb of his spirit.
He will tell us in broken English that his mother, at home, is ill right now, how she doesn’t have a phone, and how someone from home has phoned him and told him. He will tell us he told his friend to tell her how he is fed and has a bed to sleep in. He doesn’t want her to worry, he will say. He will rub his forehead with his thumb between his eyes above his nose, trying to get to the right words. He will struggle, again, for polite enough, good enough words of apology about his English not being better.
Then it’s back to the H-Block reception and back through the barbed wire coiled yard. The man unlocking the doors will small-talk Anna and me about the weather. It’ll be a grey, grey English day, the day I go to the detention centre. My pencil sharpener and button will still be on the table and, as we go out, Anna will tell me she is surprised I managed to get through and keep both my pairs of glasses since, a couple of weeks before, she’d been disallowed a pair of clip-on shades she sometimes wears over hers and they’d sent her back to ‘check-in’, made her check in all over again.
We’ll go out to the carpark in the regular noise of the planes, another taking off, another one landing as we drive along the barbed wire airport fences through the new no-man’s-land.
After I get home, because I’ll finally have sensed the real depth of depression in the young man I’ve just met, I’ll do a bit of digging around in what information there is, to see if there’s such a thing as therapeutic help for people in detention.
Even if you’re traumatised? Even if, when you arrive there, you’ve seen deaths, been tortured? It isn’t provided. Even if you’ve got a mental illness? Like schizophrenia? Surely the place is full of people with post-traumatic stress disorder? Since nobody leaves home for no reason. Nobody crosses the world crushed in a crate in a lorry, drinking his own urine for one-and-half months; nobody gets flung on a plane from one trafficking destination to another, without terrible mental consequence.
For terrible mental consequence what there is is isolation, where the light is on 24 hours a day, where there’s no sheet on the bed and nothing else in the room, and where Security check on you every 15 minutes.
When I find this out, I’ll think of you and the epilepsy, and the beatings, and something you said in passing about how difficult, in detention, it is, to get the simplest medication.
Anyway, I’ll be out of there, and on my own safe way home. Anna will drive me to the station. When we get there, she’ll lean over, open the door for me and thank me for making the journey today.
Me? I’ll say. Making a journey? Today?
I’ll think of the young man in the lorry. I’ll think of you on all your roads, the road between the gone school and the farm, the first dirt road the time the boss caught you, the ground coming up to meet you when you fell with the headaches, the footpath to the village, the brown earth road you didn’t see again when the road to the airport took you to another country.
I’ll think of me asking you if you ever had visitors in your own time at the removal centre, and of how your face softens when I do for the only time in our talk.
Yes, you say. Mary.
Then you don’t say anything else.
This morning, in the university room, just before we attempt to find our way again around that building, I ask you if you’ll mind showing me the piece of paper that they give you as the proof of who you are – the proof that’s not enough, when it comes to ID, for colleges.
I watch you go through your bags. I realise, by the length of time it takes you to find it, that it is a very painful thing I’ve asked you to do. The longer it takes the more terrible I feel for having asked you to find it and show me.
But there it is at last. You unfold it there between us. It’s an A4 piece of paper, a photocopy whose ink is creased and flaking, beginning to disintegrate in the folds.
I pick it up. I hold it in my hand.
What kind of a life are we living on this earth when a photocopied piece of paper can mean and say more about your life than your life does?
On the train home this evening, I’ll think of the moment you say to me, as we’re saying goodbye: people don’t know about what it’s like to be a detainee. They think it’s like what the government tells them. They don’t know. You have to tell them.
On that train home, and all these weeks and months later, I’ll still be thinking of the only flash of anger in the whole of your telling me a little of what’s happened to you in this life so far.
It was a moment of anger only. It surfaced and disappeared in less than a breath. Except for this one moment you’re calm, accepting, even forgiving – but for these six syllables, six words, that carry the weight of a planet, weight of the earth – yes, earth, like those roads there under all our feet, whatever surfaces we cover them with, under all our journeys, the roads you walked between one place and another in the mix of fear and hope and the dark falling.
But when I came to this place, when I came to your country, you say.
I sit forward. I’m listening.
You shake your head.
I thought you would help me, you say.
The nighTMaRe always sTaRTs in the same way: a big man standing at the foot of my bed, shouting at me. ‘Get up! Hurry hurry hurry! Pack up your stuff! We’ve come to take you away.’ I call out to my parents, but they’ve disappeared. My little brother starts yelling, but the man just shouts again.
Sometimes it’s a nightmare, and sometimes it’s for real.
The first time it ever happened, it was for real, but it felt
like a nightmare. I was only eight, and my brother was seven. We were fast asleep in bed in our house in Bradford, when suddenly the light was switched on and the big man in a uniform was standing there. In fact there were four men in the room, all wearing the same dark uniforms. I tried to scream, but it just came out as a squeak.
‘Where are you taking us?’
‘We’re taking you home.’
‘But this is my home!’
‘Don’t argue. Just get your clothes on, and pack what you need.’
‘Where are my mum and dad?’
‘They’re downstairs. No, you can’t talk to them. Just pack
up all you need to take for your whole family.’
I was only eight, so I had no idea what to take. I took my favourite toys, and some bed-sheets and towels that were in the room, but I didn’t think of taking clothes or anything useful. My brother was screaming. I asked to go to the toilet, and I had to leave the door open, so they could watch me. That was horrible. When we’d finished packing, we were taken downstairs where our parents were being watched by four other officers – two per person, so there were eight altogether in our little house that morning. My mother was crying, but I couldn’t comfort her.
We still weren’t allowed to talk to our parents, but then we were all quickly bundled outside into a van. It was still dark outside. The van had a wire cage in it, and we were locked in the cage as though we were wild animals or something. It felt terrible.
‘We’re taking you home,’ they kept saying, as we drove away and left our home behind.
Later I found out that they weren’t policemen or soldiers at all, they were called ‘escorts’ and they worked for a private company that is contracted to the government. I don’t know who draws up the guidelines for how they should treat people they are deporting, or keeps a check on how they behave. It seems a bit incredible that they thought they needed four grown men to manage me and my seven-year-old brother – we were so dangerous!
Hours later, we arrived at a place called Yarl’s Wood. We were given a bag to take in what we needed, and my parents got upset that we had packed so much useless stuff. But of course we didn’t know what to take. My first impression of Yarl’s Wood was a funny smell, like a hospital and long grey-painted corridors with lots of doors that had to be unlocked and locked each time you went through. We were given two adjoining rooms, my parents in one, my brother and me in the other, all the furniture was bolted to the floor and there were bars on the windows – but one of the worst things was they could just come into your room at any time. We had no privacy. If I stood on tiptoe and held onto the bars I could see a small playground down below enclosed by high walls. That was the only place we could be allowed to feel like children.
We stayed 24 days in Yarl’s Wood. Each day started with a roll-call at 6am when they marched into our rooms and counted us: one, two, three, four. Breakfast was from 7:30 to 8am, it was always the same: eggs, toast, cornflakes, in a big canteen and everybody sat with their families. That sounds quite nice, doesn’t it? But it was actually quite scary, because there was often someone who was screaming, or panicking, or having a tantrum, and banging and shouting. Once we overslept and missed breakfast, and that meant we would not have anything to eat until lunch at one o’clock. Then my dad lost it and started shouting and crying. It was terrible to see him like that. My parents were quite good at hiding it, but suddenly at times like that you realised the stress they were under.
At that time, I didn’t know anything about their application for refugee status and why they kept on getting turned down – I just knew what it felt like to be eight years old and not know where we were going or why my parents were so upset, or when the big man out of my nightmares would appear again at the foot of my bed. Later on, I learned that my parents couldn’t stay in the former Soviet country where they came from, because my mum is a Christian and my dad is a Muslim, and mixed marriages are not allowed and people said they would kill us. When my brother and I went to school, some kids would always pick a fight with us, because our parents were different.
Everybody in Yarl’s Wood was in the same situation or worse, they did not know whether they would be allowed to stay or what would happen to them if they were sent home. Some people went a bit crazy, and my mum got sick with asthma and high blood pressure and panic attacks; she got very thin and nervy and she didn’t seem like my mum at all. Whenever she went to the medical centre, they said, ‘Are you sure you’re not just making it up? Go and take a paracetamol.’
It was me that had to look after her, and I had to be like a grown up even though I was only eight.
During the day, we spent our time in the library or the playground, or sometimes we went to school. It wasn’t a proper school, we didn’t learn anything, we just did things like colouring-in to pass the time, but one of the teachers was nice and encouraged us. Most of the security guards just shouted at us like we were just animals.
One day in the dining room I met a young Kurdish girl, and we made friends. She was so funny and lively, she wasn’t scared of anything, and that made me feel better, and after that we stuck together.
After about three weeks, we suddenly got news that Mum and my brother and I could be released. It felt good to be free, and I was so glad to say goodbye to Yarl’s Wood. Little did I know that I would see that horrible place again. We were taken back to our house in Bradford, but our dad was not allowed to come – they took him to a place near Oxford. Being at home without him was scary, because we never knew when we’d see him again. Mum was crying all the time, and she got very dependent on me, even though I was classed as the dependant.
Then after about three months, it happened all over again – the banging on the door at 6am. The big man at the foot of my bed shouting, ‘Quick, hurry, get up and pack! We’ve come to take you home!’
This time they took us straight to the airport, where we met up with our dad. The guards were shouting at us, saying, ‘If you try anything, we’ll have to handcuff you.’ So we didn’t struggle, we just got on the plane, and I don’t know what happened next, because I fell asleep, and when I woke up we were in our country.
It felt so strange being there – although they said we were going home, it was not like being home at all but somewhere strange and unfamiliar. When we got back, Mum blacked out and was rushed to hospital, and we were separated from our dad; we had nowhere to go so we just kept on moving around to different people’s houses.
Then Mum tried to come back to England again. I was so happy to be back in Folkestone again, because I felt safe. This time we were not sent to Bradford, we were sent to Wales. Mum started to cry at first because it was unfamiliar, but it was very nice. I went to school and started to make friends. Everything seemed normal, but Mum kept saying, Don’t buy anything new, clothes or toys, don’t get too settled, because we may have to move soon!
But that wasn’t the end of the nightmares. They carried on, always a bit different, but always the same. One night I had a dream that I was lying on a sofa in the dark when a man walked in and started shouting to get up and hurry, they were taking us home. I woke up screaming, then I realised that it was just a dream, and I fell asleep again. Then it happened again, and this time it was real. It was the same thing over again. This time there were six people all in the bedroom, including a woman who was taking photos of us, and Mum was once more on her own downstairs while we packed.
They got us into the caged van – but this time we only went as far as the police station. Mum told them we hadn’t had a reply to our letter – our case was still pending – and they made us wait inside the van while they checked, so we were taken back home.
That time of waiting was the worst, or maybe it was because I was older and could remember more. I started to be scared of everything; I had the nightmare early every night. My brother started wetting his bed. Mum was anxious and got very thin. She kept the door locked all the time, and wedged it with a rolling pin.
Then a couple of months later, it happened all over again – the banging on the door in the early morning, the shouting, the packing, the caged van. Only this time, one thing was different. I had a friend at school, and I managed to ring her, and she told her parents, and lots of people came from all over the area and gathered outside our house, protesting and pleading with them to let us stay. It felt much better, because we were no longer alone, but people could see what we were going through. It didn’t make any difference, we still had to go. They took us all the way back to Yarl’s Wood. They wouldn’t even let us get out to go to the toilet, and Mum was so embarrassed because she weed in the van.
Once again we were in Yarl’s Wood. To my delight my old friend was there too. She said it was the fourth time they were trying to deport her. But this time it was different. Far more people were now aware of the situation in Yarl’s Wood, through the Yarl’s Wood Befrienders and there was a big campaign building up with people including Natasha Walter and Juliet Stephenson, for women and children not to be held there. Through them we were also put in touch with a solicitor, who had more experience of immigration law, and wasn’t just trying to take our money and do nothing. I found out later that there had been a big campaign for us in Wales, too.
In spite of all that, though, we were still told to prepare ourselves for deportation. We got all packed up and I said goodbye to my friend. This time, I told my mum, I wasn’t just going to go quietly, I was determined to protest. At 2:30 in the morning they came and took us out to the airfield. I was praying that the flight would be cancelled, or that we would get a letter at the last minute. Then just as they opened the door of the van, the guard’s phone rang. Everything went quiet. ‘Yes,’ I heard him say. ‘Yes.’
Our deportation had been cancelled. Our new solicitor had succeeded in stopping it at the last minute. Mum fainted. I just sat in the van holding my breath until the plane took off without us.
We were taken back to Yarl’s Wood, and everything seemed as before for a couple of weeks. Then one day we were called by the teacher to go to reception. I was terrified because I was sure it would be something bad. But we were told we would be going back to our old home in Wales.
It was lovely being back in our old house, and seeing my friends, and all the people who had been campaigning for us and signing petitions for us while we were away. While we were in Wales, we also got news from our dad. He was in France, and he had been given refugee status there, and he would apply for residence to come to the UK. In 2009 we were all reunited. Now I’m a student in my third year at LSE, reading law.
So you might think this is a story with a happy ending, and in a way it is. But in a way, I feel I was robbed of my childhood, I was forced to grow up and have to deal with things no child should have to deal with. Whatever people think about the rights and wrongs of immigration, it can never be right to treat children like this. From time to time I still wake up in the night shaking with fear when I hear a loud banging or shouting. But then I realise it’s only a nightmare.
I thought that Mr. Purnell was a little young to be a funeral director, but he had the look down cold. In the instant between his warm, dry handshake and my taking my hand back to remove my winter hat and stuff it into my pocket, he assumed the look, a kind of concerned, knowing sympathy that suggested he’d weathered plenty of grief in his day and he was there to help you get through your own. He gestured me onto an oatmeal-colored wool sofa and pulled his wheeled office chair around to face me. I hung my coat over the sofa arm and sat down and crossed and uncrossed my legs.
“So, it’s like I said in the email—” was as far as I got and then I stopped. I felt the tears prick at the back of my eyes. I swallowed hard. I rubbed at my stubble, squeezed my eyes shut. Opened them.
If he’d said anything, it would have been the wrong thing. But he just gave me the most minute of nods—somehow he knew how to embed sympathy in a tiny nod; he was some kind of prodigy of grief-appropriate body language—and waited while the lump in my throat sank back down into my churning guts.
“Uh. Like I said. We knew Dad was sick but not how sick. None of us had much to do with him for, uh, a while.” Fifteen years, at least. Dad did his thing, we did ours. That’s how we all wanted it. But why did my chest feel like it was being crushed by a slow, relentless weight? “And it turns out he didn’t leave a will.” Thanks, Dad. How long, how many years, did you have after you got your diagnosis? How many years to do one tiny thing to make the world of the living a simpler place for your survivors?
Selfish, selfish prick.
Purnell let the silence linger. He was good. He let the precisely correct interval go past before he said, “And you say there is insurance?”
“Funeral insurance,” I said. “Got it with his severance from Compaq. I don’t think he even knew about it, but one of his buddies emailed me when the news hit the web, told me where to look. I don’t know what his policy number was or anything—”
“We can find that out,” Purnell said. “That’s the kind of thing we’re good at.”
“Can I ask you something?” “Of course.”
“Why don’t you have a desk?”
He shrugged, tapped the tablet he’d smoothed out across his lap. “I feel like a desk just separates me from my clients.” He gestured around his office, the bracketless shelves in somber wood bearing a few slim books about mourning, some abstract sculptures carved from dark stone or pale, bony driftwood. “I don’t need it. It’s just a relic of the paper era. I’d much rather sit right here and talk with you, face to face, figure out how I can help you.”
* * *
I’d googled him, of course. I’d googled the whole process. The first thing you learn when you google funeral homes is that the whole thing is a ripoff. From the coffin—the “casket,” which is like a coffin but more expensive—to the crematorium to the wreath to the hearse to the awful online memorial site with sappy music—all a scam, from stem to stern. It’s a perfect storm of graft: a bereaved family, not thinking right; a purchase you rarely have to make; a confusion of regulations and expectations. Add them all up and you’re going to be mourning your wallet along with your dear departed.
Purnell gets good google. They say he’s honest, modern, and smart. They say he’s young, and that’s a positive, because it makes him a kind of digital death native, and that’s just what we need, my sister and I, as we get ready to bury Herbert Pink: father, nerd, and lifelong pain in the ass. The man I loved with all my heart until I was 15 years old, whereupon he left our mother, left our family, and left our lives. After that, I mostly hated him. You should know: hate is not the opposite of love.
* * *
I was suddenly mad at this young, modern, honest, smart undertaker. I mean, funeral director. “Look,” I said. “I didn’t really even know my father, hadn’t seen him in years. I don’t need ‘help,’ I just need to get him in the ground. With a minimum of hand holding and fussing.”
He didn’t flinch, even though there’d been no call for that kind of outburst. “Bruce,” he said, “I can do that. If you’re in a hurry, we can probably even do it by tomorrow. It looks like your father’s insurance would take you through the whole process. We’d even pay the deductible for you.” He paused to let that sink in. “But Bruce, I do think I can help you. You’re your father’s executor, and he died intestate. That means a long, slow probate.”
“So what? I don’t care about any inheritance. My dad wasn’t a rich man, you know.”
“I’m sorry, that’s not what I meant to imply. Your father died intestate, and there’s going to be taxes to pay, bills to settle. You’re going to have to value his estate, produce an inventory, possibly sell off his effects to cover the expenses. Sometimes this can take years.”
He let that sink in. “All right,” I said, “that’s not something I’d thought of. I don’t really want to spend a month inventorying my father’s cutlery and underwear drawer.”
He smiled. “I don’t suppose a court would expect you to get into that level of detail. But the thing is, there’s better ways to do this sort of thing. You think that I’m young for a funeral director.”
The non sequitur caught me off guard. “I, uh, I suppose you’re old enough—”
“I am young for this job. But you know what Douglas Adams said: everything invented before you were born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. Anything after your fifteenth birthday is new and exciting and revolutionary. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things. The world has changed a lot since you were born, and changed even more since I was born, and I have to tell you, I think that makes my age an asset, not a liability.
“And not in some nebulous, airy-fairy way. Specifically, the fact that I’m 27 years old is how I got onto the beta-test for this.” He handed me his tablet. I smoothed it out and looked at it. It took me a minute to get what I was seeing. At first, I thought I was looking through a live camera feed from some hidden webcam in his office, but then I noticed I wasn’t in the picture. Then I thought I might be seeing a video loop. But after a few experimental prods, I understood that this was a zoomable panoramic image of the room in which I was sitting.
“Pick up one of the sculptures,” he said. I zoom-dragged to one of them, a kind of mountainscape made of something black and nonreflective. It had pleasing proportions, and a play of textures I quite admired. I double-tapped it and it filled the screen, allowing me to rotate it, zoom in on it. Playing along, I zoomed way up until it became a mash of pixellated JPEG noise, then back out again.
“Now try the white one,” he said, pointing at a kind of mathematical solid that suggested some kind of beautiful calculus, behind him and to the left. Zooming to it, I discovered that I could go to infinite depth on it, without any jaggies or artifacts appearing. “It’s so smooth because there’s a model of it on Thingiverse, so the sim just pulled in the vectors describing it and substituted a rendering of them for the bitmap. Same with the shelves. They’re Ikea, and all Ikea furniture has publicly disclosed dimensions, so they’re all vector based.” I saw now that it was true: the shelves had a glossy perfection that the rest of the room lacked.
“Try the books,” he said. I did. A copy of The Egyptian Book of the Dead opened at a touch and revealed its pages to me. “Book-search scans,” he said.
I zoomed around some more. The camel-colored coat hanging on the hook on the back of the door opened itself and revealed its lining. My pinky nail brushed an icon and I found myself looking at a ghostly line-art version of the room, at a set of old-fashioned metal keys in the coat’s pocket, and as I zoomed out, I saw that I was able to see into the walls—the wiring, the plumbing, the 2́4 studs.
“Teraherz radar,” he said, and took the tablet back from me. “There’s more to see, and it gets better all the time. There were a couple of books it didn’t recognize at first, but someone must have hooked them into the database, because now they move. That’s the really interesting thing, the way this improves continuously—”
“Sorry,” I said. “What are you showing me?”
“Oh,” he said. “Right. Got ahead of myself. The system’s called Infinite Space and it comes from a start-up here in Virginia. They’re a DHS spinout, started out with crime-scene forensics and realized they had something bigger here. Just run some scanners around the room and give it a couple of days to do the hard work. If you want more detail, just unpack and repack the drawers and boxes in front of it—it’ll tell you which ones have the smallest proportion of identifiable interior objects. You won’t need to inventory the cutlery; that shows up very well on a teraherz scan. The underwear drawer is a different matter.”
I sat there for a moment, thinking about my dad. I hadn’t been to his place in years. The docs had shown me the paramedics’ report, and they’d called it “crowded,” which either meant that they were very polite or my dad had gotten about a million times neater since I’d last visited him. I’d been twenty before I heard the term “hoarder,” but it had made instant sense to me.
Purnell was waiting patiently for me, like a computer spinning a watch cursor while the user was woolgathering. When he saw he had my attention, he tipped his head minutely, inviting me to ask any questions. When I didn’t, he said, “You know the saying, ‘You can’t libel the dead’? You can’t invade the dead’s privacy, either. Using this kind of technology on a living human’s home would be a gross invasion of privacy. But if you use it in the home of someone who’s died alone, it just improves a process that was bound to take place in any event. Working with Infinite Space, you can even use the inventory as a checklist, value all assets using current eBay blue-book prices, divide them algorithmically or manually, even turn it into a packing and shipping manifest you can give to movers, telling them what you want sent where. It’s like full-text search for a house.”
I closed my eyes for a moment. “Do you know anything about my father?”
For the first time, his expression betrayed some distress. “A little,” he said. “When you showed up in my calendar, it automatically sent me a copy of the coroner’s report. I could have googled further, but… ” He smiled. “You can’t invade the privacy of the dead, but there’s always the privacy of the living. I thought I’d leave that up to you.”
“My father kept things. I mean, he didn’t like to throw things away. Nothing.” I looked into his eyes as I said these words. I’d said them before, to explain my spotless desk, my habit of opening the mail over a garbage can and throwing anything not urgent directly into the recycling pile, my weekly stop at the thrift-store donation box with all the things I’d tossed into a shopping bag on the back of the bedroom door. Most people nodded like they understood. A smaller number winced a little, indicating that they had an idea of what I was talking about.
A tiny minority did what Purnell did next: looked back into my eyes for a moment, then said, “I’m sorry.”
“Yeah,” I said. “He was always threatening to start an antique shop, or list his stuff on eBay. Once he even signed a lease, but he never bought a cash register. Never unlocked the front door, near as I could tell. But he was always telling me that his things were valuable, to the right person.” I swallowed, feeling an echo of the old anger I’d suppressed every time he’d played that loop for me. “But if there was anything worth anything in that pile, well, I don’t know how I’d find it amid all the junk.”
“Bruce, you’re not the first person to find himself in this situation. Dealing with an estate is hard at the best of times, and times like this, I’ve had people tell me they just wanted to torch the place, or bulldoze it.”
“Both of those sound like good ideas, but I have a feeling you don’t offer those particular services.”
He smiled a little funeral director’s smile, but it went all the way to his eyes. “No,” he said. “I don’t. But, huh.” He stopped himself. “This sounds a bit weird, but I’ve been looking forward to a situation like this. It was what I thought of immediately when I first saw Infinite Space demoed. This is literally the best test case I can imagine for this.”
I wish I was the kind of guy who didn’t cry when his father, estranged for decades, died alone and mad in a cluttered burial chamber of his own lunatic design. But I’d cried pretty steadily since I’d gotten the news. I could tell that I was about to cry now. There were Kleenex boxes everywhere. I picked one up and plucked out a tissue. Purnell didn’t look away but managed to back off slightly just by altering his posture. It was enough to give me the privacy to weep for a moment. The tears felt good this time, like they had somewhere to go. Not the choked cries I’d found myself loosing since I’d first gotten the news.
“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah, I think it probably is.”
* * *
I’d expected Roomba-style rolling robots and wondered how they’d get around the narrow aisles between the drifts and piles of things in Dad’s house. There were a few of those, clever ones, the size of my old Hot Wheels cars, and six-wheeled so they could drive in any direction. But the heavy lifting was done by the quadrotors, each the size of a dragonfly, swarming and swooping and flocking with an eerie, dopplered whine that bounced around in the piles of junk. Bigger rotors went around and picked up the ground-effect vehicles, giving them lifts up and down the stairs. As they worked, their data streamed back into a panorama on Purnell’s laptop. We sat on the porch steps and watched the image flesh out. The renderer was working from bitmaps and dead-reckoning telemetry to build its model, and it quivered like a funhouse as it continuously refined its guesses about the dimensions. At one point, the living room sofa appeared to pierce the wall behind us, the sofa itself rendered as a kind of eye-wateringly impossible Escherling that was thick and thin simultaneously. The whole region glowed pink.
“See,” Purnell said. “It knows that there’s something wrong there. There’s going to be a ton of quads tasked to it any second now.” And we heard them buzzing through the wall as they conferred with one another and corrected the software’s best guesses. Flicking through the panoramas, we saw other pink areas, saw them disappear as the bad geometries were replaced with sensible ones in a series of eyeblink corrections. There was something comforting about watching all the detail fill in, especially when the texturemaps appeared in another eyeblink, skinning the wireframes and giving the whole thing the feeling of an architectural rendering. The bitmaps had their own problems: improbable corners, warped-mirror distortions, but I could see that the software was self-aware enough to figure out its own defects, painting them with a pink glow that faded as the approximations were fined down with exact images from the missing angles.
All this time, there’d been a subtle progress bar creeping in fits and starts across the bottom of the screen, just few pixels’ worth of glowing silverly light, and now it was nearly all the way. “You don’t have to do the next part,” he said. “If you’d rather wait out here—”
“I’ll do it,” I said. “It’s okay.”
“They gave us eight scanners. That’s more than we should need for a two-bedroom house. Two should do it. One, even, if you don’t mind moving it, but I thought—”
“It’s okay,” I said again. “I can do this.”
I shook my own tablet out and pinched it rigid, holding it before me like a treasure map as I walked through the front door.
The smell stopped me in my tracks. It had been teasing me all the morning on the porch, but that was the attenuated, diluted version. Now I was breathing in the full-strength perfume, the smell of all my fathers’ dens: damp paper, oxidizing metal, loose copper pennies, ancient cleaners vaporizing through the pores in their decaying bottles, musty cushions, expired bulk no-name cheerios, overloaded power strips, mouse turds, and the trapped flatulence of a thousand lonely days. Overlaid with it, a rotten meat smell.
My father had been dead for at least a week before they found him.
* * *
Infinite Space wanted teraherz scanners in several highly specific locations. Despite Purnell’s assurances, it turned out that we needed to reposition half a dozen of them, making for fourteen radar panoramas in all. I let him do the second placement and went back out onto the porch to watch the plumbing and structural beams and wiring ghost into place as the system made sense of the scans. I caught a brief, airport-scan flash of Purnell’s naked form, right down to his genitals, before the system recognized a human silhouette and edited it out of the map. The awkwardness was a welcome change from the cramped, panicked feeling that had begun the moment I’d stepped into Dad’s house.
The screen blinked and a cartoon chicken did a little ironic head tilt in the bottom left corner. It was my little sister, Hennie, who is much more emotionally balanced than me, hence her ability to choose a self-mocking little avatar. I tapped and then cupped the tablet up into a bowl shape to help it triangulate its sound on my ear. “Have you finished mapping the burial chamber, Indiana Bruce?” She’s five years younger than me, and Dad left when she was only ten, and somehow it never seemed to bother her. As far as she was concerned, her father died decades ago, and she’d never felt any need to visit or call the old man. She’d been horrified when she found out that I’d exchanged a semi-regular, semi-annual email with him.
I snuffled up the incipient snot and tears. “Funny. Yeah, it’s going fast. Mostly automatic. I’ll send it to you when it’s done.”
She shook her head. “Don’t bother. It’ll just give Marta ideas.” Marta, her five-year-old daughter, refused to part with so much as a single stuffed toy and had been distraught for months when they remodeled the kitchen, demanding that the old fridge be brought back. I never wanted to joke about heredity and mental illness, but Hennie was without scruple on this score and privately insisted that Marta was just going through some kind of essential post-toddler conservatism brought on by the change to kindergarten and the beginning of a new phase of life.
“It’s pretty amazing, actually. It’s weird, but I’m kind of looking forward to seeing the whole thing. There’s something about all that mess being tamed, turned into a spreadsheet—”
“Listen to yourself, Bruce. The opposite of compulsive mess isn’t compulsive neatness—it’s general indifference to stuff altogether. I don’t know that this is very healthy.”
I felt an irrational, overarching anger at this, which is usually a sign that she’s right. I battened it down. “Look, if we’re going to divide the estate, we’re going to have to inventory it, and—”
“Wait, what? Who said anything about dividing anything? Bruce, you can keep the money, give it to charity, flush it down the toilet, or spend it on lap dances for all I care. I don’t want it.”
“But half of it is yours—I mean, it could go into Marta’s college fund—”
“If Marta wants to go to college, she can sweat some good grades and apply for a scholarship. I don’t give a damn about university. It’s a big lie anyway—the return on investment just isn’t there.” Whenever Hennie starts talking like a stockbroker, I know she’s looking to change the subject. She can talk economics all day long, and will, if you poke her in a vulnerable spot.
“Okay, okay. I get it. Fine. I won’t talk about it with you if it bugs you. You don’t have to know about it.”
“Come on, Bruce, I don’t mean it that way. You’re my brother. You and Marta and Sweyn”—her husband—“are all the family I’ve got. I just don’t understand why you need to do this. It’s got me worried about you. You know that you had no duty to him, right? You don’t owe him anything.”
“This isn’t about him. It’s about me.” And you, I added to myself. Someday you’ll want to know about this, and you’ll be glad I did it. I didn’t say it, of course. That would have been a serious tactical mistake.
“Whatever you say, Bruce. Meantime, and for the record, Sweyn’s looked up the information for the intestacy trustee. Anytime you want, you can step away from this. They’ll liquidate his estate, put the proceeds into public-spirited projects. You can just step away anytime. Remember that.”
“I’ll remember. I know you want to help me out here, but seriously, this is something I need to do.”
“This is something you think you need to do, Bruce.”
Yeah,” I said. “If that makes you feel better, then I can go with that.”
* * *
I got the impression that Infinite Space was tremendously pleased to have hit on a beta tester who was really ready to put their stuff through its paces. A small army of turkers were bid into work, filling in descriptions and URLs for everything the software couldn’t recognize on its own. At first they’d been afraid that we’d have to go in and rearrange the piles so that the cameras could get a look at the stuff in the middle, but a surprising amount of it could be identified edge on. It turns out books aren’t the only thing with recognizable spines, assuming a big and smart enough database. The Infinites (yes, they called themselves that, and they generated a near-infinite volume of email and weets and statuses for me, which I learned to skim quickly and delete even faster) were concerned at first that it wouldn’t work for my dad’s stuff because so much of their secret sauce was about inferences based on past experience. If the database had previously seen a thousand yoga mats next to folded towels, then the ambiguous thing on top of a yoga mat that might be a fitted sheet and might be a towel was probably a towel.
Dad’s teetering piles were a lot less predictable than that, but as it turned out, there was another way. Since they had the dimensions and structural properties for everything in the database, they were able to model how stable a pile would be if the towels were fitted sheets and vice-versa, and whittle down the ambiguities with physics. The piles were upright, therefore they were composed of things that would be stable if stacked one atop another. The code took very little time to implement and represented a huge improvement on the overall database performance.
“They’re getting their money’s worth out of you, Bruce,” Purnell told me, as we met in his office that week. He had my dad’s ashes, in a cardboard box. I looked at it and mentally sized it up for its regular dimensions, its predictable contents. They don’t put the whole corpseworth of ashes in those boxes. There’s no point. A good amount of ashes are approximately interchangeable with all the ashes, symbolically speaking. The ashes in that box would be of a normalized distribution and weight and composition. They could be predicted with enormous accuracy, just by looking at the box and being told what was inside it. Add a teraherz scan—just to be sure that the box wasn’t filled with lead fishing weights or cotton candy—and the certainty skyrockets.
I hefted the box. “You could have dinged the insurance for a fancy urn,” I said.
He shrugged. “It’s not how I do business. You don’t want a fancy urn. You’re going to scatter his remains. An urn would just be landfill, or worse, something you couldn’t bring yourself to throw away.”
“I can bring myself to throw anything away,” I said, with half a smile. Quipping. Anything to prolong the moment before that predictable box ended up in my charge. In my hands.
He didn’t say anything. Part of the undertaker’s toolkit, I suppose. Tactful silence. He held the box in the ensuing silence, never holding it out to me or even shifting it subtly in my direction. He was good. I’d take it when I was ready. I would never be ready. I took it.
It was lighter than I thought.
* * *
“Hennie, I need to ask you something and you’re not going to like it.”
“It’s about him.”
“Right,” I said. I stared at the ceiling, my eyes boring through the plaster and beams into the upstairs spare room, where I’d left the box, in the exact center of the room, which otherwise held nothing but three deep Ikea storage shelves—they’d render beautifully, was all I could think of when I saw them now—lined with big, divided plastic tubs, each neatly labeled.
“Bruce, I don’t want—”
“I know you don’t. But look, remember when you said I was all the family you had left?”
“You and Mattie and Sweyn.”
“Yes. Well, you’re all I have left, too.”
“You should have thought of that before you got involved. You’ve got no right to drag me into this.”
“I’ve got Dad’s ashes.”
That broke her rhythm. We’d fallen into the bickering cadence we’d perfected during a thousand childhood spats where we’d demanded that Mom adjudicate our disputes. Mom wasn’t around to do that anymore. Besides, she’d always hated doing it and made us feel like little monsters for making her do so. I don’t know that we’d had a fight like that in the seven years since she’d been gone.
“Oh, Bruce,” she said. “God, of course you do. I don’t want them.”
“I don’t want them either. I was thinking I’d, well, scatter them.”
“Where? In his house? Another layer of dust won’t hurt, I suppose.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea. What about by Mom’s grave?”
“Don’t you dare.” The vicious spin on the last word was so intense I fumbled my tablet and had to catch it as it floated toward the floor on an errant warm air current.
“Sorry,” I said.
“He never earned the right to be with Mom. He never earned what you’re giving him. He never earned me sparing a single brain cell for him. He’s not worth the glucose my neurons are consuming.”
“He was sick, Hennie.”
“He did nothing to get better. There are meds. Therapies. When I cleaned out Mom’s place, I found the letters from the therapists she’d set him up with, asking why he never showed up for the intake appointments. He did nothing to earn any of this.”
It dawned on me that Hennie had dealt with all of Mom’s stuff without ever bothering me. Mom had left a will, of course, and set out some bequests for me, and she hadn’t lived in a garbage house. But it must have been a lot of work, and Hennie had never once asked for my help.
“I’m sorry, Hennie, I never should have bothered you. You’re right.”
“Wait, Bruce, it’s okay—”
“No, really. I’ll deal with this. It’s just a box of ashes. It’s just stuff. I can get rid of stuff.”
“Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” I said. I was, too. I folded the tablet up and stuck it in the sofa cushions and stared at the ceiling for a moment longer.
* * *
Somewhere in this house, there is an answer. Was there a moment when the grave robbers of ancient Egyptian pyramids found the plunder before them shimmer and change? Did they stand there, those wreckers with their hammers and shovels and treasure sacks, and gasp as the treasure before them became, for an instant, something naked and human and desperate, the terrified attempt of a dying aristocrat to put the world in a box, to make it behave itself? A moment when they found themselves standing not in a room full of gold and gems, but a room full of disastrous attempts to bring the universe to heel?
Here’s the thing. It turns out that I don’t mind mess at all. What I mind is disorganization. Clutter isn’t clutter once it’s been alphabetized on a hard drive. Once it’s been scanned and cataloged and put it its place, it’s stuff. It’s actionable. With the click of a button, you can list it on eBay, you can order packers and movers to get rid of it, you can search the database for just the thing to solve any problem.
Things are wonderful, really. Things are potential. The right thing at the right moment might save a life, or save the day, or save a friendship. Any of these things might someday be a gift. If times get tight, these things can readily be converted to cash. Honestly, things are really, really fine.
I wish Hennie would believe me. She freaked out when I told her I was moving out of my place into Dad’s. Purnell, too, kept coming over all grief counselor and trying to help me “process” what I was feeling. Neither of them gets it, neither of them understands what I see when I look into the ruin of Dad’s life, smartened up as neat as a precision machine. Minimalism is just a crutch for people who can’t get a handle on their things. In the modern age, things are adaptive. They’re pro-survival.
Really, things are fine.
Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet. Hardly had she brought one gentleman into the little pantry behind the office on the ground floor and helped him off with his overcoat than the wheezy hall-door bell clanged again and she had to scamper along the bare hallway to let in another guest. It was well for her she had not to attend to the ladies also. But Miss Kate and Miss Julia had thought of that and had converted the bathroom upstairs into a ladies’ dressing-room. Miss Kate and Miss Julia were there, gossiping and laughing and fussing, walking after each other to the head of the stairs, peering down over the banisters and calling down to Lily to ask her who had come. It was always a great affair, the Misses Morkan’s annual dance. Everybody who knew them came to it, members of the family, old friends of the family, the members of Julia’s choir, any of Kate’s pupils that were grown up enough, and even some of Mary Jane’s pupils too. Never once had it fallen flat. For years and years it had gone off in splendid style, as long as anyone could remember; ever since Kate and Julia, after the death of their brother Pat, had left the house in Stoney Batter and taken Mary Jane, their only niece, to live with them in the dark, gaunt house on Usher’s Island, the upper part of which they had rented from Mr. Fulham, the corn-factor on the ground floor. That was a good thirty years ago if it was a day. Mary Jane, who was then a little girl in short clothes, was now the main prop of the household, for she had the organ in Haddington Road. She had been through the Academy and gave a pupils’ concert every year in the upper room of the Antient Concert Rooms. Many of her pupils belonged to the better-class families on the Kingstown and Dalkey line. Old as they were, her aunts also did their share. Julia, though she was quite grey, was still the leading soprano in Adam and Eve’s, and Kate, being too feeble to go about much, gave music lessons to beginners on the old square piano in the back room. Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, did housemaid’s work for them. Though their life was modest, they believed in eating well; the best of everything: diamond-bone sirloins, threeshilling tea and the best bottled stout. But Lily seldom made a mistake in the orders, so that she got on well with her three mistresses. They were fussy, that was all. But the only thing they would not stand was back answers. Of course, they had good reason to be fussy on such a night. And then it was long after ten o’clock and yet there was no sign of Gabriel and his wife. Besides they were dreadfully afraid that Freddy Malins might turn up screwed. They would not wish for worlds that any of Mary Jane’s pupils should see him under the influence; and when he was like that it was sometimes very hard to manage him. Freddy Malins always came late, but they wondered what could be keeping Gabriel: and that was what brought them every two minutes to the banisters to ask Lily had Gabriel or Freddy come. “O, Mr. Conroy,” said Lily to Gabriel when she opened the door for him, “Miss Kate and Miss Julia thought you were never coming. Good-night, Mrs. Conroy.” “I’ll engage they did,” said Gabriel, “but they forget that my wife here takes three mortal hours to dress herself.” He stood on the mat, scraping the snow from his goloshes, while Lily led his wife to the foot of the stairs and called out: “Miss Kate, here’s Mrs. Conroy.” Kate and Julia came toddling down the dark stairs at once. Both of them kissed Gabriel’s wife, said she must be perished alive, and asked was Gabriel with her. “Here I am as right as the mail, Aunt Kate! Go on up. I’ll follow,” called out Gabriel from the dark. He continued scraping his feet vigorously while the three women went upstairs, laughing, to the ladies’ dressing-room. A light fringe of snow lay like a cape on the shoulders of his overcoat and like toecaps on the toes of his goloshes; and, as the buttons of his overcoat slipped with a squeaking noise through the snow-stiffened frieze, a cold, fragrant air from out-of-doors escaped from crevices and folds. “Is it snowing again, Mr. Conroy?” asked Lily. She had preceded him into the pantry to help him off with his overcoat. Gabriel smiled at the three syllables she had given his surname and glanced at her. She was a slim; growing girl, pale in complexion and with hay-coloured hair. The gas in the pantry made her look still paler. Gabriel had known her when she was a child and used to sit on the lowest step nursing a rag doll. “Yes, Lily,” he answered, “and I think we’re in for a night of it.” He looked up at the pantry ceiling, which was shaking with the stamping and shuffling of feet on the floor above, listened for a moment to the piano and then glanced at the girl, who was folding his overcoat carefully at the end of a shelf. “Tell me. Lily,” he said in a friendly tone, “do you still go to school?” “O no, sir,” she answered. “I’m done schooling this year and more.” “O, then,” said Gabriel gaily, “I suppose we’ll be going to your wedding one of these fine days with your young man, eh? “ The girl glanced back at him over her shoulder and said with great bitterness: “The men that is now is only all palaver and what they can get out of you.” Gabriel coloured, as if he felt he had made a mistake and, without looking at her, kicked off his goloshes and flicked actively with his muffler at his patent-leather shoes. He was a stout, tallish young man. The high colour of his cheeks pushed upwards even to his forehead, where it scattered itself in a few formless patches of pale red; and on his hairless face there scintillated restlessly the polished lenses and the bright gilt rims of the glasses which screened his delicate and restless eyes. His glossy black hair was parted in the middle and brushed in a long curve behind his ears where it curled slightly beneath the groove left by his hat. When he had flicked lustre into his shoes he stood up and pulled his waistcoat down more tightly on his plump body. Then he took a coin rapidly from his pocket. “O Lily,” he said, thrusting it into her hands, “it’s Christmastime, isn’t it? Just . . . here’s a little. . . .” He walked rapidly towards the door. “O no, sir!” cried the girl, following him. “Really, sir, I wouldn’t take it.” “Christmas-time! Christmas-time!” said Gabriel, almost trotting to the stairs and waving his hand to her in deprecation. The girl, seeing that he had gained the stairs, called out after him: “Well, thank you, sir.” He waited outside the drawing-room door until the waltz should finish, listening to the skirts that swept against it and to the shuffling of feet. He was still discomposed by the girl’s bitter and sudden retort. It had cast a gloom over him which he tried to dispel by arranging his cuffs and the bows of his tie. He then took from his waistcoat pocket a little paper and glanced at the headings he had made for his speech. He was undecided about the lines from Robert Browning, for he feared they would be above the heads of his hearers. Some quotation that they would recognise from Shakespeare or from the Melodies would be better. The indelicate clacking of the men’s heels and the shuffling of their soles reminded him that their grade of culture differed from his. He would only make himself ridiculous by quoting poetry to them which they could not understand. They would think that he was airing his superior education. He would fail with them just as he had failed with the girl in the pantry. He had taken up a wrong tone. His whole speech was a mistake from first to last, an utter failure. Just then his aunts and his wife came out of the ladies’ dressing-room. His aunts were two small, plainly dressed old women. Aunt Julia was an inch or so the taller. Her hair, drawn low over the tops of her ears, was grey; and grey also, with darker shadows, was her large flaccid face. Though she was stout in build and stood erect, her slow eyes and parted lips gave her the appearance of a woman who did not know where she was or where she was going. Aunt Kate was more vivacious. Her face, healthier than her sister’s, was all puckers and creases, like a shrivelled red apple, and her hair, braided in the same old-fashioned way, had not lost its ripe nut colour. They both kissed Gabriel frankly. He was their favourite nephew the son of their dead elder sister, Ellen, who had married T. J. Conroy of the Port and Docks. “Gretta tells me you’re not going to take a cab back to Monkstown tonight, Gabriel,” said Aunt Kate. “No,” said Gabriel, turning to his wife, “we had quite enough of that last year, hadn’t we? Don’t you remember, Aunt Kate, what a cold Gretta got out of it? Cab windows rattling all the way, and the east wind blowing in after we passed Merrion. Very jolly it was. Gretta caught a dreadful cold.” Aunt Kate frowned severely and nodded her head at every word. “Quite right, Gabriel, quite right,” she said. “You can’t be too careful.” “But as for Gretta there,” said Gabriel, “she’d walk home in the snow if she were let.” Mrs. Conroy laughed. “Don’t mind him, Aunt Kate,” she said. “He’s really an awful bother, what with green shades for Tom’s eyes at night and making him do the dumb-bells, and forcing Eva to eat the stirabout. The poor child! And she simply hates the sight of it! . . . O, but you’ll never guess what he makes me wear now!” She broke out into a peal of laughter and glanced at her husband, whose admiring and happy eyes had been wandering from her dress to her face and hair. The two aunts laughed heartily, too, for Gabriel’s solicitude was a standing joke with them. “Goloshes!” said Mrs. Conroy. “That’s the latest. Whenever it’s wet underfoot I must put on my galoshes. Tonight even, he wanted me to put them on, but I wouldn’t. The next thing he’ll buy me will be a diving suit.” Gabriel laughed nervously and patted his tie reassuringly, while Aunt Kate nearly doubled herself, so heartily did she enjoy the joke. The smile soon faded from Aunt Julia’s face and her mirthless eyes were directed towards her nephew’s face. After a pause she asked: “And what are goloshes, Gabriel?” “Goloshes, Julia!” exclaimed her sister. “Goodness me, don’t you know what goloshes are? You wear them over your… over your boots, Gretta, isn’t it?” “Yes,” said Mrs. Conroy. “Guttapercha things. We both have a pair now. Gabriel says everyone wears them on the Continent.” “O, on the Continent,” murmured Aunt Julia, nodding her head slowly. Gabriel knitted his brows and said, as if he were slightly angered: “It’s nothing very wonderful, but Gretta thinks it very funny because she says the word reminds her of Christy Minstrels.” “But tell me, Gabriel,” said Aunt Kate, with brisk tact. “Of course, you’ve seen about the room. Gretta was saying. . . .” “0, the room is all right,” replied Gabriel. “I’ve taken one in the Gresham.” “To be sure,” said Aunt Kate, “by far the best thing to do. And the children, Gretta, you’re not anxious about them?” “0, for one night,” said Mrs. Conroy. “Besides, Bessie will look after them.” “To be sure,” said Aunt Kate again. “What a comfort it is to have a girl like that, one you can depend on! There’s that Lily, I’m sure I don’t know what has come over her lately. She’s not the girl she was at all.” Gabriel was about to ask his aunt some questions on this point, but she broke off suddenly to gaze after her sister, who had wandered down the stairs and was craning her neck over the banisters. “Now, I ask you,” she said almost testily, “where is Julia going? Julia! Julia! Where are you going?” Julia, who had gone half way down one flight, came back and announced blandly: “Here’s Freddy.” At the same moment a clapping of hands and a final flourish of the pianist told that the waltz had ended. The drawing-room door was opened from within and some couples came out. Aunt Kate drew Gabriel aside hurriedly and whispered into his ear: “Slip down, Gabriel, like a good fellow and see if he’s all right, and don’t let him up if he’s screwed. I’m sure he’s screwed. I’m sure he is.” Gabriel went to the stairs and listened over the banisters. He could hear two persons talking in the pantry. Then he recognised Freddy Malins’ laugh. He went down the stairs noisily. “It’s such a relief,” said Aunt Kate to Mrs. Conroy, “that Gabriel is here. I always feel easier in my mind when he’s here. . . . Julia, there’s Miss Daly and Miss Power will take some refreshment. Thanks for your beautiful waltz, Miss Daly. It made lovely time.” A tall wizen-faced man, with a stiff grizzled moustache and swarthy skin, who was passing out with his partner, said: “And may we have some refreshment, too, Miss Morkan?” “Julia,” said Aunt Kate summarily, “and here’s Mr. Browne and Miss Furlong. Take them in, Julia, with Miss Daly and Miss Power.” “I’m the man for the ladies,” said Mr. Browne, pursing his lips until his moustache bristled and smiling in all his wrinkles. “You know, Miss Morkan, the reason they are so fond of me is—” He did not finish his sentence, but, seeing that Aunt Kate was out of earshot, at once led the three young ladies into the back room. The middle of the room was occupied by two square tables placed end to end, and on these Aunt Julia and the caretaker were straightening and smoothing a large cloth. On the sideboard were arrayed dishes and plates, and glasses and bundles of knives and forks and spoons. The top of the closed square piano served also as a sideboard for viands and sweets. At a smaller sideboard in one corner two young men were standing, drinking hop-bitters. Mr. Browne led his charges thither and invited them all, in jest, to some ladies’ punch, hot, strong and sweet. As they said they never took anything strong, he opened three bottles of lemonade for them. Then he asked one of the young men to move aside, and, taking hold of the decanter, filled out for himself a goodly measure of whisky. The young men eyed him respectfully while he took a trial sip. “God help me,” he said, smiling, “it’s the doctor’s orders.” His wizened face broke into a broader smile, and the three young ladies laughed in musical echo to his pleasantry, swaying their bodies to and fro, with nervous jerks of their shoulders. The boldest said: “O, now, Mr. Browne, I’m sure the doctor never ordered anything of the kind.” Mr. Browne took another sip of his whisky and said, with sidling mimicry: “Well, you see, I’m like the famous Mrs. Cassidy, who is reported to have said: ‘Now, Mary Grimes, if I don’t take it, make me take it, for I feel I want it.’“ His hot face had leaned forward a little too confidentially and he had assumed a very low Dublin accent so that the young ladies, with one instinct, received his speech in silence. Miss Furlong, who was one of Mary Jane’s pupils, asked Miss Daly what was the name of the pretty waltz she had played; and Mr. Browne, seeing that he was ignored, turned promptly to the two young men who were more appreciative. A red-faced young woman, dressed in pansy, came into the room, excitedly clapping her hands and crying: “Quadrilles! Quadrilles!” Close on her heels came Aunt Kate, crying: “Two gentlemen and three ladies, Mary Jane!” “O, here’s Mr. Bergin and Mr. Kerrigan,” said Mary Jane. “Mr. Kerrigan, will you take Miss Power? Miss Furlong, may I get you a partner, Mr. Bergin. O, that’ll just do now.” “Three ladies, Mary Jane,” said Aunt Kate. The two young gentlemen asked the ladies if they might have the pleasure, and Mary Jane turned to Miss Daly. “O, Miss Daly, you’re really awfully good, after playing for the last two dances, but really we’re so short of ladies tonight.” “I don’t mind in the least, Miss Morkan.” “But I’ve a nice partner for you, Mr. Bartell D’Arcy, the tenor. I’ll get him to sing later on. All Dublin is raving about him.” “Lovely voice, lovely voice!” said Aunt Kate. As the piano had twice begun the prelude to the first figure Mary Jane led her recruits quickly from the room. They had hardly gone when Aunt Julia wandered slowly into the room, looking behind her at something. “What is the matter, Julia?” asked Aunt Kate anxiously. “Who is it?” Julia, who was carrying in a column of table-napkins, turned to her sister and said, simply, as if the question had surprised her: “It’s only Freddy, Kate, and Gabriel with him.” In fact right behind her Gabriel could be seen piloting Freddy Malins across the landing. The latter, a young man of about forty, was of Gabriel’s size and build, with very round shoulders. His face was fleshy and pallid, touched with colour only at the thick hanging lobes of his ears and at the wide wings of his nose. He had coarse features, a blunt nose, a convex and receding brow, tumid and protruded lips. His heavy-lidded eyes and the disorder of his scanty hair made him look sleepy. He was laughing heartily in a high key at a story which he had been telling Gabriel on the stairs and at the same time rubbing the knuckles of his left fist backwards and forwards into his left eye. “Good-evening, Freddy,” said Aunt Julia. Freddy Malins bade the Misses Morkan good-evening in what seemed an offhand fashion by reason of the habitual catch in his voice and then, seeing that Mr. Browne was grinning at him from the sideboard, crossed the room on rather shaky legs and began to repeat in an undertone the story he had just told to Gabriel. “He’s not so bad, is he?” said Aunt Kate to Gabriel. Gabriel’s brows were dark but he raised them quickly and answered: “O, no, hardly noticeable.” “Now, isn’t he a terrible fellow!” she said. “And his poor mother made him take the pledge on New Year’s Eve. But come on, Gabriel, into the drawing-room.” Before leaving the room with Gabriel she signalled to Mr. Browne by frowning and shaking her forefinger in warning to and fro. Mr. Browne nodded in answer and, when she had gone, said to Freddy Malins: “Now, then, Teddy, I’m going to fill you out a good glass of lemonade just to buck you up.” Freddy Malins, who was nearing the climax of his story, waved the offer aside impatiently but Mr. Browne, having first called Freddy Malins’ attention to a disarray in his dress, filled out and handed him a full glass of lemonade. Freddy Malins’ left hand accepted the glass mechanically, his right hand being engaged in the mechanical readjustment of his dress. Mr. Browne, whose face was once more wrinkling with mirth, poured out for himself a glass of whisky while Freddy Malins exploded, before he had well reached the climax of his story, in a kink of high-pitched bronchitic laughter and, setting down his untasted and overflowing glass, began to rub the knuckles of his left fist backwards and forwards into his left eye, repeating words of his last phrase as well as his fit of laughter would allow him. Gabriel could not listen while Mary Jane was playing her Academy piece, full of runs and difficult passages, to the hushed drawing-room. He liked music but the piece she was playing had no melody for him and he doubted whether it had any melody for the other listeners, though they had begged Mary Jane to play something. Four young men, who had come from the refreshment-room to stand in the doorway at the sound of the piano, had gone away quietly in couples after a few minutes. The only persons who seemed to follow the music were Mary Jane herself, her hands racing along the key-board or lifted from it at the pauses like those of a priestess in momentary imprecation, and Aunt Kate standing at her elbow to turn the page. Gabriel’s eyes, irritated by the floor, which glittered with beeswax under the heavy chandelier, wandered to the wall above the piano. A picture of the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet hung there and beside it was a picture of the two murdered princes in the Tower which Aunt Julia had worked in red, blue and brown wools when she was a girl. Probably in the school they had gone to as girls that kind of work had been taught for one year. His mother had worked for him as a birthday present a waistcoat of purple tabinet, with little foxes’ heads upon it, lined with brown satin and having round mulberry buttons. It was strange that his mother had had no musical talent though Aunt Kate used to call her the brains carrier of the Morkan family. Both she and Julia had always seemed a little proud of their serious and matronly sister. Her photograph stood before the pierglass. She held an open book on her knees and was pointing out something in it to Constantine who, dressed in a man-o-war suit, lay at her feet. It was she who had chosen the name of her sons for she was very sensible of the dignity of family life. Thanks to her, Constantine was now senior curate in Balbrigan and, thanks to her, Gabriel himself had taken his degree in the Royal University. A shadow passed over his face as he remembered her sullen opposition to his marriage. Some slighting phrases she had used still rankled in his memory; she had once spoken of Gretta as being country cute and that was not true of Gretta at all. It was Gretta who had nursed her during all her last long illness in their house at Monkstown. He knew that Mary Jane must be near the end of her piece for she was playing again the opening melody with runs of scales after every bar and while he waited for the end the resentment died down in his heart. The piece ended with a trill of octaves in the treble and a final deep octave in the bass. Great applause greeted Mary Jane as, blushing and rolling up her music nervously, she escaped from the room. The most vigorous clapping came from the four young men in the doorway who had gone away to the refreshment-room at the beginning of the piece but had come back when the piano had stopped. Lancers were arranged. Gabriel found himself partnered with Miss Ivors. She was a frank-mannered talkative young lady, with a freckled face and prominent brown eyes. She did not wear a low-cut bodice and the large brooch which was fixed in the front of her collar bore on it an Irish device and motto. When they had taken their places she said abruptly: “I have a crow to pluck with you.” “With me?” said Gabriel. She nodded her head gravely. “What is it?” asked Gabriel, smiling at her solemn manner. “Who is G. C.?” answered Miss Ivors, turning her eyes upon him. Gabriel coloured and was about to knit his brows, as if he did not understand, when she said bluntly: “O, innocent Amy! I have found out that you write for The Daily Express. Now, aren’t you ashamed of yourself?” “Why should I be ashamed of myself?” asked Gabriel, blinking his eyes and trying to smile. “Well, I’m ashamed of you,” said Miss Ivors frankly. “To say you’d write for a paper like that. I didn’t think you were a West Briton.” A look of perplexity appeared on Gabriel’s face. It was true that he wrote a literary column every Wednesday in The Daily Express, for which he was paid fifteen shillings. But that did not make him a West Briton surely. The books he received for review were almost more welcome than the paltry cheque. He loved to feel the covers and turn over the pages of newly printed books. Nearly every day when his teaching in the college was ended he used to wander down the quays to the second-hand booksellers, to Hickey’s on Bachelor’s Walk, to Web’s or Massey’s on Aston’s Quay, or to O’Clohissey’s in the bystreet. He did not know how to meet her charge. He wanted to say that literature was above politics. But they were friends of many years’ standing and their careers had been parallel, first at the University and then as teachers: he could not risk a grandiose phrase with her. He continued blinking his eyes and trying to smile and murmured lamely that he saw nothing political in writing reviews of books. When their turn to cross had come he was still perplexed and inattentive. Miss Ivors promptly took his hand in a warm grasp and said in a soft friendly tone: “Of course, I was only joking. Come, we cross now.” When they were together again she spoke of the University question and Gabriel felt more at ease. A friend of hers had shown her his review of Browning’s poems. That was how she had found out the secret: but she liked the review immensely. Then she said suddenly: “O, Mr. Conroy, will you come for an excursion to the Aran Isles this summer? We’re going to stay there a whole month. It will be splendid out in the Atlantic. You ought to come. Mr. Clancy is coming, and Mr. Kilkelly and Kathleen Kearney. It would be splendid for Gretta too if she’d come. She’s from Connacht, isn’t she?” “Her people are,” said Gabriel shortly. “But you will come, won’t you?” said Miss Ivors, laying her warm hand eagerly on his arm. “The fact is,” said Gabriel, “I have just arranged to go—” “Go where?” asked Miss Ivors. “Well, you know, every year I go for a cycling tour with some fellows and so—” “But where?” asked Miss Ivors. “Well, we usually go to France or Belgium or perhaps Germany,” said Gabriel awkwardly. “And why do you go to France and Belgium,” said Miss Ivors, “instead of visiting your own land?” “Well,” said Gabriel, “it’s partly to keep in touch with the languages and partly for a change.” “And haven’t you your own language to keep in touch with—Irish?” asked Miss Ivors. “Well,” said Gabriel, “if it comes to that, you know, Irish is not my language.” Their neighbours had turned to listen to the cross-examination. Gabriel glanced right and left nervously and tried to keep his good humour under the ordeal which was making a blush invade his forehead. “And haven’t you your own land to visit,” continued Miss Ivors, “that you know nothing of, your own people, and your own country?” “0, to tell you the truth,” retorted Gabriel suddenly, “I’m sick of my own country, sick of it!” “Why?” asked Miss Ivors. Gabriel did not answer for his retort had heated him. “Why?” repeated Miss Ivors. They had to go visiting together and, as he had not answered her, Miss Ivors said warmly: “Of course, you’ve no answer.” Gabriel tried to cover his agitation by taking part in the dance with great energy. He avoided her eyes for he had seen a sour expression on her face. But when they met in the long chain he was surprised to feel his hand firmly pressed. She looked at him from under her brows for a moment quizzically until he smiled. Then, just as the chain was about to start again, she stood on tiptoe and whispered into his ear: “West Briton!” When the lancers were over Gabriel went away to a remote corner of the room where Freddy Malins’ mother was sitting. She was a stout feeble old woman with white hair. Her voice had a catch in it like her son’s and she stuttered slightly. She had been told that Freddy had come and that he was nearly all right. Gabriel asked her whether she had had a good crossing. She lived with her married daughter in Glasgow and came to Dublin on a visit once a year. She answered placidly that she had had a beautiful crossing and that the captain had been most attentive to her. She spoke also of the beautiful house her daughter kept in Glasgow, and of all the friends they had there. While her tongue rambled on Gabriel tried to banish from his mind all memory of the unpleasant incident with Miss Ivors. Of course the girl or woman, or whatever she was, was an enthusiast but there was a time for all things. Perhaps he ought not to have answered her like that. But she had no right to call him a West Briton before people, even in joke. She had tried to make him ridiculous before people, heckling him and staring at him with her rabbit’s eyes. He saw his wife making her way towards him through the waltzing couples. When she reached him she said into his ear: “Gabriel. Aunt Kate wants to know won’t you carve the goose as usual. Miss Daly will carve the ham and I’ll do the pudding.” “All right,” said Gabriel. “She’s sending in the younger ones first as soon as this waltz is over so that we’ll have the table to ourselves.” “Were you dancing?” asked Gabriel. “Of course I was. Didn’t you see me? What row had you with Molly Ivors?” “No row. Why? Did she say so?” “Something like that. I’m trying to get that Mr. D’Arcy to sing. He’s full of conceit, I think.” “There was no row,” said Gabriel moodily, “only she wanted me to go for a trip to the west of Ireland and I said I wouldn’t.” His wife clasped her hands excitedly and gave a little jump. “O, do go, Gabriel,” she cried. “I’d love to see Galway again.” “You can go if you like,” said Gabriel coldly. She looked at him for a moment, then turned to Mrs. Malins and said: “There’s a nice husband for you, Mrs. Malins.” While she was threading her way back across the room Mrs. Malins, without adverting to the interruption, went on to tell Gabriel what beautiful places there were in Scotland and beautiful scenery. Her son-in-law brought them every year to the lakes and they used to go fishing. Her son-in-law was a splendid fisher. One day he caught a beautiful big fish and the man in the hotel cooked it for their dinner. Gabriel hardly heard what she said. Now that supper was coming near he began to think again about his speech and about the quotation. When he saw Freddy Malins coming across the room to visit his mother Gabriel left the chair free for him and retired into the embrasure of the window. The room had already cleared and from the back room came the clatter of plates and knives. Those who still remained in the drawing room seemed tired of dancing and were conversing quietly in little groups. Gabriel’s warm trembling fingers tapped the cold pane of the window. How cool it must be outside! How pleasant it would be to walk out alone, first along by the river and then through the park! The snow would be lying on the branches of the trees and forming a bright cap on the top of the Wellington Monument. How much more pleasant it would be there than at the supper-table! He ran over the headings of his speech: Irish hospitality, sad memories, the Three Graces, Paris, the quotation from Browning. He repeated to himself a phrase he had written in his review: “One feels that one is listening to a thought-tormented music.” Miss Ivors had praised the review. Was she sincere? Had she really any life of her own behind all her propagandism? There had never been any ill-feeling between them until that night. It unnerved him to think that she would be at the supper-table, looking up at him while he spoke with her critical quizzing eyes. Perhaps she would not be sorry to see him fail in his speech. An idea came into his mind and gave him courage. He would say, alluding to Aunt Kate and Aunt Julia: “Ladies and Gentlemen, the generation which is now on the wane among us may have had its faults but for my part I think it had certain qualities of hospitality, of humour, of humanity, which the new and very serious and hypereducated generation that is growing up around us seems to me to lack.” Very good: that was one for Miss Ivors. What did he care that his aunts were only two ignorant old women? A murmur in the room attracted his attention. Mr. Browne was advancing from the door, gallantly escorting Aunt Julia, who leaned upon his arm, smiling and hanging her head. An irregular musketry of applause escorted her also as far as the piano and then, as Mary Jane seated herself on the stool, and Aunt Julia, no longer smiling, half turned so as to pitch her voice fairly into the room, gradually ceased. Gabriel recognised the prelude. It was that of an old song of Aunt Julia’s—Arrayed for the Bridal. Her voice, strong and clear in tone, attacked with great spirit the runs which embellish the air and though she sang very rapidly she did not miss even the smallest of the grace notes. To follow the voice, without looking at the singer’s face, was to feel and share the excitement of swift and secure flight. Gabriel applauded loudly with all the others at the close of the song and loud applause was borne in from the invisible supper-table. It sounded so genuine that a little colour struggled into Aunt Julia’s face as she bent to replace in the music-stand the old leather-bound songbook that had her initials on the cover. Freddy Malins, who had listened with his head perched sideways to hear her better, was still applauding when everyone else had ceased and talking animatedly to his mother who nodded her head gravely and slowly in acquiescence. At last, when he could clap no more, he stood up suddenly and hurried across the room to Aunt Julia whose hand he seized and held in both his hands, shaking it when words failed him or the catch in his voice proved too much for him. “I was just telling my mother,” he said, “I never heard you sing so well, never. No, I never heard your voice so good as it is tonight. Now! Would you believe that now? That’s the truth. Upon my word and honour that’s the truth. I never heard your voice sound so fresh and so . . . so clear and fresh, never.” Aunt Julia smiled broadly and murmured something about compliments as she released her hand from his grasp. Mr. Browne extended his open hand towards her and said to those who were near him in the manner of a showman introducing a prodigy to an audience: “Miss Julia Morkan, my latest discovery!” He was laughing very heartily at this himself when Freddy Malins turned to him and said: “Well, Browne, if you’re serious you might make a worse discovery. All I can say is I never heard her sing half so well as long as I am coming here. And that’s the honest truth.” “Neither did I,” said Mr. Browne. “I think her voice has greatly improved.” Aunt Julia shrugged her shoulders and said with meek pride: “Thirty years ago I hadn’t a bad voice as voices go.” “I often told Julia,” said Aunt Kate emphatically, “that she was simply thrown away in that choir. But she never would be said by me.” She turned as if to appeal to the good sense of the others against a refractory child while Aunt Julia gazed in front of her, a vague smile of reminiscence playing on her face. “No,” continued Aunt Kate, “she wouldn’t be said or led by anyone, slaving there in that choir night and day, night and day. Six o’clock on Christmas morning! And all for what?” “Well, isn’t it for the honour of God, Aunt Kate?” asked Mary Jane, twisting round on the piano-stool and smiling. Aunt Kate turned fiercely on her niece and said: “I know all about the honour of God, Mary Jane, but I think it’s not at all honourable for the pope to turn the women out of the choirs that have slaved there all their lives and put little whipper-snappers of boys over their heads. I suppose it is for the good of the Church if the pope does it. But it’s not just, Mary Jane, and it’s not right.” She had worked herself into a passion and would have continued in defence of her sister for it was a sore subject with her but Mary Jane, seeing that all the dancers had come back, intervened pacifically: “Now, Aunt Kate, you’re giving scandal to Mr. Browne who is of the other persuasion.” Aunt Kate turned to Mr. Browne, who was grinning at this allusion to his religion, and said hastily: “O, I don’t question the pope’s being right. I’m only a stupid old woman and I wouldn’t presume to do such a thing. But there’s such a thing as common everyday politeness and gratitude. And if I were in Julia’s place I’d tell that Father Healey straight up to his face. . . .” “And besides, Aunt Kate,” said Mary Jane, “we really are all hungry and when we are hungry we are all very quarrelsome.” “And when we are thirsty we are also quarrelsome,” added Mr. Browne. “So that we had better go to supper,” said Mary Jane, “and finish the discussion afterwards.” On the landing outside the drawing-room Gabriel found his wife and Mary Jane trying to persuade Miss Ivors to stay for supper. But Miss Ivors, who had put on her hat and was buttoning her cloak, would not stay. She did not feel in the least hungry and she had already overstayed her time. “But only for ten minutes, Molly,” said Mrs. Conroy. “That won’t delay you.” “To take a pick itself,” said Mary Jane, “after all your dancing.” “I really couldn’t,” said Miss Ivors. “I am afraid you didn’t enjoy yourself at all,” said Mary Jane hopelessly. “Ever so much, I assure you,” said Miss Ivors, “but you really must let me run off now.” “But how can you get home?” asked Mrs. Conroy. “O, it’s only two steps up the quay.” Gabriel hesitated a moment and said: “If you will allow me, Miss Ivors, I’ll see you home if you are really obliged to go.” But Miss Ivors broke away from them. “I won’t hear of it,” she cried. “For goodness’ sake go in to your suppers and don’t mind me. I’m quite well able to take care of myself.” “Well, you’re the comical girl, Molly,” said Mrs. Conroy frankly. “Beannacht libh,” cried Miss Ivors, with a laugh, as she ran down the staircase. Mary Jane gazed after her, a moody puzzled expression on her face, while Mrs. Conroy leaned over the banisters to listen for the hall-door. Gabriel asked himself was he the cause of her abrupt departure. But she did not seem to be in ill humour: she had gone away laughing. He stared blankly down the staircase. At the moment Aunt Kate came toddling out of the supper-room, almost wringing her hands in despair. “Where is Gabriel?” she cried. “Where on earth is Gabriel? There’s everyone waiting in there, stage to let, and nobody to carve the goose!” “Here I am, Aunt Kate!” cried Gabriel, with sudden animation, “ready to carve a flock of geese, if necessary.” A fat brown goose lay at one end of the table and at the other end, on a bed of creased paper strewn with sprigs of parsley, lay a great ham, stripped of its outer skin and peppered over with crust crumbs, a neat paper frill round its shin and beside this was a round of spiced beef. Between these rival ends ran parallel lines of side-dishes: two little minsters of jelly, red and yellow; a shallow dish full of blocks of blancmange and red jam, a large green leaf-shaped dish with a stalk-shaped handle, on which lay bunches of purple raisins and peeled almonds, a companion dish on which lay a solid rectangle of Smyrna figs, a dish of custard topped with grated nutmeg, a small bowl full of chocolates and sweets wrapped in gold and silver papers and a glass vase in which stood some tall celery stalks. In the centre of the table there stood, as sentries to a fruit-stand which upheld a pyramid of oranges and American apples, two squat oldfashioned decanters of cut glass, one containing port and the other dark sherry. On the closed square piano a pudding in a huge yellow dish lay in waiting and behind it were three squads of bottles of stout and ale and minerals, drawn up according to the colours of their uniforms, the first two black, with brown and red labels, the third and smallest squad white, with transverse green sashes. Gabriel took his seat boldly at the head of the table and, having looked to the edge of the carver, plunged his fork firmly into the goose. He felt quite at ease now for he was an expert carver and liked nothing better than to find himself at the head of a well-laden table. “Miss Furlong, what shall I send you?” he asked. “A wing or a slice of the breast?” “Just a small slice of the breast.” “Miss Higgins, what for you?” “O, anything at all, Mr. Conroy.” While Gabriel and Miss Daly exchanged plates of goose and plates of ham and spiced beef Lily went from guest to guest with a dish of hot floury potatoes wrapped in a white napkin. This was Mary Jane’s idea and she had also suggested apple sauce for the goose but Aunt Kate had said that plain roast goose without any apple sauce had always been good enough for her and she hoped she might never eat worse. Mary Jane waited on her pupils and saw that they got the best slices and Aunt Kate and Aunt Julia opened and carried across from the piano bottles of stout and ale for the gentlemen and bottles of minerals for the ladies. There was a great deal of confusion and laughter and noise, the noise of orders and counter-orders, of knives and forks, of corks and glass-stoppers. Gabriel began to carve second helpings as soon as he had finished the first round without serving himself. Everyone protested loudly so that he compromised by taking a long draught of stout for he had found the carving hot work. Mary Jane settled down quietly to her supper but Aunt Kate and Aunt Julia were still toddling round the table, walking on each other’s heels, getting in each other’s way and giving each other unheeded orders. Mr. Browne begged of them to sit down and eat their suppers and so did Gabriel but they said there was time enough, so that, at last, Freddy Malins stood up and, capturing Aunt Kate, plumped her down on her chair amid general laughter. When everyone had been well served Gabriel said, smiling: “Now, if anyone wants a little more of what vulgar people call stuffing let him or her speak.” A chorus of voices invited him to begin his own supper and Lily came forward with three potatoes which she had reserved for him. “Very well,” said Gabriel amiably, as he took another preparatory draught, “kindly forget my existence, ladies and gentlemen, for a few minutes.” He set to his supper and took no part in the conversation with which the table covered Lily’s removal of the plates. The subject of talk was the opera company which was then at the Theatre Royal. Mr. Bartell D’Arcy, the tenor, a dark-complexioned young man with a smart moustache, praised very highly the leading contralto of the company but Miss Furlong thought she had a rather vulgar style of production. Freddy Malins said there was a Negro chieftain singing in the second part of the Gaiety pantomime who had one of the finest tenor voices he had ever heard. “Have you heard him?” he asked Mr. Bartell D’Arcy across the table. “No,” answered Mr. Bartell D’Arcy carelessly. “Because,” Freddy Malins explained, “now I’d be curious to hear your opinion of him. I think he has a grand voice.” “It takes Teddy to find out the really good things,” said Mr. Browne familiarly to the table. “And why couldn’t he have a voice too?” asked Freddy Malins sharply. “Is it because he’s only a black?” Nobody answered this question and Mary Jane led the table back to the legitimate opera. One of her pupils had given her a pass for Mignon. Of course it was very fine, she said, but it made her think of poor Georgina Burns. Mr. Browne could go back farther still, to the old Italian companies that used to come to Dublin—Tietjens, Ilma de Murzka, Campanini, the great Trebelli, Giuglini, Ravelli, Aramburo. Those were the days, he said, when there was something like singing to be heard in Dublin. He told too of how the top gallery of the old Royal used to be packed night after night, of how one night an Italian tenor had sung five encores to Let me like a Soldier fall, introducing a high C every time, and of how the gallery boys would sometimes in their enthusiasm unyoke the horses from the carriage of some great prima donna and pull her themselves through the streets to her hotel. Why did they never play the grand old operas now, he asked, Dinorah, Lucrezia Borgia? Because they could not get the voices to sing them: that was why. “Oh, well,” said Mr. Bartell D’Arcy, “I presume there are as good singers today as there were then.” “Where are they?” asked Mr. Browne defiantly. “In London, Paris, Milan,” said Mr. Bartell D’Arcy warmly. “I suppose Caruso, for example, is quite as good, if not better than any of the men you have mentioned.” “Maybe so,” said Mr. Browne. “But I may tell you I doubt it strongly.” “O, I’d give anything to hear Caruso sing,” said Mary Jane. “For me,” said Aunt Kate, who had been picking a bone, “there was only one tenor. To please me, I mean. But I suppose none of you ever heard of him.” “Who was he, Miss Morkan?” asked Mr. Bartell D’Arcy politely. “His name,” said Aunt Kate, “was Parkinson. I heard him when he was in his prime and I think he had then the purest tenor voice that was ever put into a man’s throat.” “Strange,” said Mr. Bartell D’Arcy. “I never even heard of him.” “Yes, yes, Miss Morkan is right,” said Mr. Browne. “I remember hearing of old Parkinson but he’s too far back for me.” “A beautiful, pure, sweet, mellow English tenor,” said Aunt Kate with enthusiasm. Gabriel having finished, the huge pudding was transferred to the table. The clatter of forks and spoons began again. Gabriel’s wife served out spoonfuls of the pudding and passed the plates down the table. Midway down they were held up by Mary Jane, who replenished them with raspberry or orange jelly or with blancmange and jam. The pudding was of Aunt Julia’s making and she received praises for it from all quarters She herself said that it was not quite brown enough. “Well, I hope, Miss Morkan,” said Mr. Browne, “that I’m brown enough for you because, you know, I’m all brown.” All the gentlemen, except Gabriel, ate some of the pudding out of compliment to Aunt Julia. As Gabriel never ate sweets the celery had been left for him. Freddy Malins also took a stalk of celery and ate it with his pudding. He had been told that celery was a capital thing for the blood and he was just then under doctor’s care. Mrs. Malins, who had been silent all through the supper, said that her son was going down to Mount Melleray in a week or so. The table then spoke of Mount Melleray, how bracing the air was down there, how hospitable the monks were and how they never asked for a penny-piece from their guests. “And do you mean to say,” asked Mr. Browne incredulously, “that a chap can go down there and put up there as if it were a hotel and live on the fat of the land and then come away without paying anything?” “O, most people give some donation to the monastery when they leave.” said Mary Jane. “I wish we had an institution like that in our Church,” said Mr. Browne candidly. He was astonished to hear that the monks never spoke, got up at two in the morning and slept in their coffins. He asked what they did it for. “That’s the rule of the order,” said Aunt Kate firmly. “Yes, but why?” asked Mr. Browne. Aunt Kate repeated that it was the rule, that was all. Mr. Browne still seemed not to understand. Freddy Malins explained to him, as best he could, that the monks were trying to make up for the sins committed by all the sinners in the outside world. The explanation was not very clear for Mr. Browne grinned and said: “I like that idea very much but wouldn’t a comfortable spring bed do them as well as a coffin?” “The coffin,” said Mary Jane, “is to remind them of their last end.” As the subject had grown lugubrious it was buried in a silence of the table during which Mrs. Malins could be heard saying to her neighbour in an indistinct undertone: “They are very good men, the monks, very pious men.” The raisins and almonds and figs and apples and oranges and chocolates and sweets were now passed about the table and Aunt Julia invited all the guests to have either port or sherry. At first Mr. Bartell D’Arcy refused to take either but one of his neighbours nudged him and whispered something to him upon which he allowed his glass to be filled. Gradually as the last glasses were being filled the conversation ceased. A pause followed, broken only by the noise of the wine and by unsettlings of chairs. The Misses Morkan, all three, looked down at the tablecloth. Someone coughed once or twice and then a few gentlemen patted the table gently as a signal for silence. The silence came and Gabriel pushed back his chair. The patting at once grew louder in encouragement and then ceased altogether. Gabriel leaned his ten trembling fingers on the tablecloth and smiled nervously at the company. Meeting a row of upturned faces he raised his eyes to the chandelier. The piano was playing a waltz tune and he could hear the skirts sweeping against the drawing-room door. People, perhaps, were standing in the snow on the quay outside, gazing up at the lighted windows and listening to the waltz music. The air was pure there. In the distance lay the park where the trees were weighted with snow. The Wellington Monument wore a gleaming cap of snow that flashed westward over the white field of Fifteen Acres. He began: “Ladies and Gentlemen, “It has fallen to my lot this evening, as in years past, to perform a very pleasing task but a task for which I am afraid my poor powers as a speaker are all too inadequate.” “No, no!” said Mr. Browne. “But, however that may be, I can only ask you tonight to take the will for the deed and to lend me your attention for a few moments while I endeavour to express to you in words what my feelings are on this occasion. “Ladies and Gentlemen, it is not the first time that we have gathered together under this hospitable roof, around this hospitable board. It is not the first time that we have been the recipients—or perhaps, I had better say, the victims—of the hospitality of certain good ladies.” He made a circle in the air with his arm and paused. Everyone laughed or smiled at Aunt Kate and Aunt Julia and Mary Jane who all turned crimson with pleasure. Gabriel went on more boldly: “I feel more strongly with every recurring year that our country has no tradition which does it so much honour and which it should guard so jealously as that of its hospitality. It is a tradition that is unique as far as my experience goes (and I have visited not a few places abroad) among the modern nations. Some would say, perhaps, that with us it is rather a failing than anything to be boasted of. But granted even that, it is, to my mind, a princely failing, and one that I trust will long be cultivated among us. Of one thing, at least, I am sure. As long as this one roof shelters the good ladies aforesaid—and I wish from my heart it may do so for many and many a long year to come—the tradition of genuine warm-hearted courteous Irish hospitality, which our forefathers have handed down to us and which we in turn must hand down to our descendants, is still alive among us.” A hearty murmur of assent ran round the table. It shot through Gabriel’s mind that Miss Ivors was not there and that she had gone away discourteously: and he said with confidence in himself: “Ladies and Gentlemen, “A new generation is growing up in our midst, a generation actuated by new ideas and new principles. It is serious and enthusiastic for these new ideas and its enthusiasm, even when it is misdirected, is, I believe, in the main sincere. But we are living in a sceptical and, if I may use the phrase, a thought-tormented age: and sometimes I fear that this new generation, educated or hypereducated as it is, will lack those qualities of humanity, of hospitality, of kindly humour which belonged to an older day. Listening tonight to the names of all those great singers of the past it seemed to me, I must confess, that we were living in a less spacious age. Those days might, without exaggeration, be called spacious days: and if they are gone beyond recall let us hope, at least, that in gatherings such as this we shall still speak of them with pride and affection, still cherish in our hearts the memory of those dead and gone great ones whose fame the world will not willingly let die.” “Hear, hear!” said Mr. Browne loudly. “But yet,” continued Gabriel, his voice falling into a softer inflection, “there are always in gatherings such as this sadder thoughts that will recur to our minds: thoughts of the past, of youth, of changes, of absent faces that we miss here tonight. Our path through life is strewn with many such sad memories: and were we to brood upon them always we could not find the heart to go on bravely with our work among the living. We have all of us living duties and living affections which claim, and rightly claim, our strenuous endeavours. “Therefore, I will not linger on the past. I will not let any gloomy moralising intrude upon us here tonight. Here we are gathered together for a brief moment from the bustle and rush of our everyday routine. We are met here as friends, in the spirit of good-fellowship, as colleagues, also to a certain extent, in the true spirit of camaraderie, and as the guests of—what shall I call them?—the Three Graces of the Dublin musical world.” The table burst into applause and laughter at this allusion. Aunt Julia vainly asked each of her neighbours in turn to tell her what Gabriel had said. “He says we are the Three Graces, Aunt Julia,” said Mary Jane. Aunt Julia did not understand but she looked up, smiling, at Gabriel, who continued in the same vein: “Ladies and Gentlemen, “I will not attempt to play tonight the part that Paris played on another occasion. I will not attempt to choose between them. The task would be an invidious one and one beyond my poor powers. For when I view them in turn, whether it be our chief hostess herself, whose good heart, whose too good heart, has become a byword with all who know her, or her sister, who seems to be gifted with perennial youth and whose singing must have been a surprise and a revelation to us all tonight, or, last but not least, when I consider our youngest hostess, talented, cheerful, hard-working and the best of nieces, I confess, Ladies and Gentlemen, that I do not know to which of them I should award the prize.” Gabriel glanced down at his aunts and, seeing the large smile on Aunt Julia’s face and the tears which had risen to Aunt Kate’s eyes, hastened to his close. He raised his glass of port gallantly, while every member of the company fingered a glass expectantly, and said loudly: “Let us toast them all three together. Let us drink to their health, wealth, long life, happiness and prosperity and may they long continue to hold the proud and self-won position which they hold in their profession and the position of honour and affection which they hold in our hearts.” All the guests stood up, glass in hand, and turning towards the three seated ladies, sang in unison, with Mr. Browne as leader: For they are jolly gay fellows, For they are jolly gay fellows, For they are jolly gay fellows, Which nobody can deny. Aunt Kate was making frank use of her handkerchief and even Aunt Julia seemed moved. Freddy Malins beat time with his pudding-fork and the singers turned towards one another, as if in melodious conference, while they sang with emphasis: Unless he tells a lie, Unless he tells a lie, Then, turning once more towards their hostesses, they sang: For they are jolly gay fellows, For they are jolly gay fellows, For they are jolly gay fellows, Which nobody can deny. The acclamation which followed was taken up beyond the door of the supper-room by many of the other guests and renewed time after time, Freddy Malins acting as officer with his fork on high. The piercing morning air came into the hall where they were standing so that Aunt Kate said: “Close the door, somebody. Mrs. Malins will get her death of cold.” “Browne is out there, Aunt Kate,” said Mary Jane. “Browne is everywhere,” said Aunt Kate, lowering her voice. Mary Jane laughed at her tone. “Really,” she said archly, “he is very attentive.” “He has been laid on here like the gas,” said Aunt Kate in the same tone, “all during the Christmas.” She laughed herself this time good-humouredly and then added quickly: “But tell him to come in, Mary Jane, and close the door. I hope to goodness he didn’t hear me.” At that moment the hall-door was opened and Mr. Browne came in from the doorstep, laughing as if his heart would break. He was dressed in a long green overcoat with mock astrakhan cuffs and collar and wore on his head an oval fur cap. He pointed down the snowcovered quay from where the sound of shrill prolonged whistling was borne in. “Teddy will have all the cabs in Dublin out,” he said. Gabriel advanced from the little pantry behind the office, struggling into his overcoat and, looking round the hall, said: “Gretta not down yet?” “She’s getting on her things, Gabriel,” said Aunt Kate. “Who’s playing up there?” asked Gabriel. “Nobody. They’re all gone.” “O no, Aunt Kate,” said Mary Jane. “Bartell D’Arcy and Miss O’Callaghan aren’t gone yet.” “Someone is fooling at the piano anyhow,” said Gabriel. Mary Jane glanced at Gabriel and Mr. Browne and said with a shiver: “It makes me feel cold to look at you two gentlemen muffled up like that. I wouldn’t like to face your journey home at this hour.” “I’d like nothing better this minute,” said Mr. Browne stoutly, “than a rattling fine walk in the country or a fast drive with a good spanking goer between the shafts.” “We used to have a very good horse and trap at home,” said Aunt Julia sadly. “The never-to-be-forgotten Johnny,” said Mary Jane, laughing. Aunt Kate and Gabriel laughed too. “Why, what was wonderful about Johnny?” asked Mr. Browne. “The late lamented Patrick Morkan, our grandfather, that is,” explained Gabriel, “commonly known in his later years as the old gentleman, was a glue-boiler.” “O, now, Gabriel,” said Aunt Kate, laughing, “he had a starch mill.” “Well, glue or starch,” said Gabriel, “the old gentleman had a horse by the name of Johnny. And Johnny used to work in the old gentleman’s mill, walking round and round in order to drive the mill. That was all very well; but now comes the tragic part about Johnny. One fine day the old gentleman thought he’d like to drive out with the quality to a military review in the park.” “The Lord have mercy on his soul,” said Aunt Kate compassionately. “Amen,” said Gabriel. “So the old gentleman, as I said, harnessed Johnny and put on his very best tall hat and his very best stock collar and drove out in grand style from his ancestral mansion somewhere near Back Lane, I think.” Everyone laughed, even Mrs. Malins, at Gabriel’s manner and Aunt Kate said: “O, now, Gabriel, he didn’t live in Back Lane, really. Only the mill was there.” “Out from the mansion of his forefathers,” continued Gabriel, “he drove with Johnny. And everything went on beautifully until Johnny came in sight of King Billy’s statue: and whether he fell in love with the horse King Billy sits on or whether he thought he was back again in the mill, anyhow he began to walk round the statue.” Gabriel paced in a circle round the hall in his goloshes amid the laughter of the others. “Round and round he went,” said Gabriel, “and the old gentleman, who was a very pompous old gentleman, was highly indignant. ‘Go on, sir! What do you mean, sir? Johnny! Johnny! Most extraordinary conduct! Can’t understand the horse!” The peal of laughter which followed Gabriel’s imitation of the incident was interrupted by a resounding knock at the hall door. Mary Jane ran to open it and let in Freddy Malins. Freddy Malins, with his hat well back on his head and his shoulders humped with cold, was puffing and steaming after his exertions. “I could only get one cab,” he said. “O, we’ll find another along the quay,” said Gabriel. “Yes,” said Aunt Kate. “Better not keep Mrs. Malins standing in the draught.” Mrs. Malins was helped down the front steps by her son and Mr. Browne and, after many manoeuvres, hoisted into the cab. Freddy Malins clambered in after her and spent a long time settling her on the seat, Mr. Browne helping him with advice. At last she was settled comfortably and Freddy Malins invited Mr. Browne into the cab. There was a good deal of confused talk, and then Mr. Browne got into the cab. The cabman settled his rug over his knees, and bent down for the address. The confusion grew greater and the cabman was directed differently by Freddy Malins and Mr. Browne, each of whom had his head out through a window of the cab. The difficulty was to know where to drop Mr. Browne along the route, and Aunt Kate, Aunt Julia and Mary Jane helped the discussion from the doorstep with cross-directions and contradictions and abundance of laughter. As for Freddy Malins he was speechless with laughter. He popped his head in and out of the window every moment to the great danger of his hat, and told his mother how the discussion was progressing, till at last Mr. Browne shouted to the bewildered cabman above the din of everybody’s laughter: “Do you know Trinity College?” “Yes, sir,” said the cabman. “Well, drive bang up against Trinity College gates,” said Mr. Browne, “and then we’ll tell you where to go. You understand now?” “Yes, sir,” said the cabman. “Make like a bird for Trinity College.” “Right, sir,” said the cabman. The horse was whipped up and the cab rattled off along the quay amid a chorus of laughter and adieus. Gabriel had not gone to the door with the others. He was in a dark part of the hall gazing up the staircase. A woman was standing near the top of the first flight, in the shadow also. He could not see her face but he could see the terra-cotta and salmon-pink panels of her skirt which the shadow made appear black and white. It was his wife. She was leaning on the banisters, listening to something. Gabriel was surprised at her stillness and strained his ear to listen also. But he could hear little save the noise of laughter and dispute on the front steps, a few chords struck on the piano and a few notes of a man’s voice singing. He stood still in the gloom of the hall, trying to catch the air that the voice was singing and gazing up at his wife. There was grace and mystery in her attitude as if she were a symbol of something. He asked himself what is a woman standing on the stairs in the shadow, listening to distant music, a symbol of. If he were a painter he would paint her in that attitude. Her blue felt hat would show off the bronze of her hair against the darkness and the dark panels of her skirt would show off the light ones. Distant Music he would call the picture if he were a painter. The hall-door was closed; and Aunt Kate, Aunt Julia and Mary Jane came down the hall, still laughing. “Well, isn’t Freddy terrible?” said Mary Jane. “He’s really terrible.” Gabriel said nothing but pointed up the stairs towards where his wife was standing. Now that the hall-door was closed the voice and the piano could be heard more clearly. Gabriel held up his hand for them to be silent. The song seemed to be in the old Irish tonality and the singer seemed uncertain both of his words and of his voice. The voice, made plaintive by distance and by the singer’s hoarseness, faintly illuminated the cadence of the air with words expressing grief: O, the rain falls on my heavy locks And the dew wets my skin, My babe lies cold . . . “O,” exclaimed Mary Jane. “It’s Bartell D’Arcy singing and he wouldn’t sing all the night. O, I’ll get him to sing a song before he goes.” “O, do, Mary Jane,” said Aunt Kate. Mary Jane brushed past the others and ran to the staircase, but before she reached it the singing stopped and the piano was closed abruptly. “O, what a pity!” she cried. “Is he coming down, Gretta?” Gabriel heard his wife answer yes and saw her come down towards them. A few steps behind her were Mr. Bartell D’Arcy and Miss O’Callaghan. “O, Mr. D’Arcy,” cried Mary Jane, “it’s downright mean of you to break off like that when we were all in raptures listening to you.” “I have been at him all the evening,” said Miss O’Callaghan, “and Mrs. Conroy, too, and he told us he had a dreadful cold and couldn’t sing.” “O, Mr. D’Arcy,” said Aunt Kate, “now that was a great fib to tell.” “Can’t you see that I’m as hoarse as a crow?” said Mr. D’Arcy roughly. He went into the pantry hastily and put on his overcoat. The others, taken aback by his rude speech, could find nothing to say. Aunt Kate wrinkled her brows and made signs to the others to drop the subject. Mr. D’Arcy stood swathing his neck carefully and frowning. “It’s the weather,” said Aunt Julia, after a pause. “Yes, everybody has colds,” said Aunt Kate readily, “everybody.” “They say,” said Mary Jane, “we haven’t had snow like it for thirty years; and I read this morning in the newspapers that the snow is general all over Ireland.” “I love the look of snow,” said Aunt Julia sadly. “So do I,” said Miss O’Callaghan. “I think Christmas is never really Christmas unless we have the snow on the ground.” “But poor Mr. D’Arcy doesn’t like the snow,” said Aunt Kate, smiling. Mr. D’Arcy came from the pantry, fully swathed and buttoned, and in a repentant tone told them the history of his cold. Everyone gave him advice and said it was a great pity and urged him to be very careful of his throat in the night air. Gabriel watched his wife, who did not join in the conversation. She was standing right under the dusty fanlight and the flame of the gas lit up the rich bronze of her hair, which he had seen her drying at the fire a few days before. She was in the same attitude and seemed unaware of the talk about her. At last she turned towards them and Gabriel saw that there was colour on her cheeks and that her eyes were shining. A sudden tide of joy went leaping out of his heart. “Mr. D’Arcy,” she said, “what is the name of that song you were singing?” “It’s called The Lass of Aughrim,” said Mr. D’Arcy, “but I couldn’t remember it properly. Why? Do you know it?” “The Lass of Aughrim,” she repeated. “I couldn’t think of the name.” “It’s a very nice air,” said Mary Jane. “I’m sorry you were not in voice tonight.” “Now, Mary Jane,” said Aunt Kate, “don’t annoy Mr. D’Arcy. I won’t have him annoyed.” Seeing that all were ready to start she shepherded them to the door, where good-night was said: “Well, good-night, Aunt Kate, and thanks for the pleasant evening.” “Good-night, Gabriel. Good-night, Gretta!” “Good-night, Aunt Kate, and thanks ever so much. Goodnight, Aunt Julia.” “O, good-night, Gretta, I didn’t see you.” “Good-night, Mr. D’Arcy. Good-night, Miss O’Callaghan.” “Good-night, Miss Morkan.” “Good-night, again.” “Good-night, all. Safe home.” “Good-night. Good night.” The morning was still dark. A dull, yellow light brooded over the houses and the river; and the sky seemed to be descending. It was slushy underfoot; and only streaks and patches of snow lay on the roofs, on the parapets of the quay and on the area railings. The lamps were still burning redly in the murky air and, across the river, the palace of the Four Courts stood out menacingly against the heavy sky. She was walking on before him with Mr. Bartell D’Arcy, her shoes in a brown parcel tucked under one arm and her hands holding her skirt up from the slush. She had no longer any grace of attitude, but Gabriel’s eyes were still bright with happiness. The blood went bounding along his veins; and the thoughts went rioting through his brain, proud, joyful, tender, valorous. She was walking on before him so lightly and so erect that he longed to run after her noiselessly, catch her by the shoulders and say something foolish and affectionate into her ear. She seemed to him so frail that he longed to defend her against something and then to be alone with her. Moments of their secret life together burst like stars upon his memory. A heliotrope envelope was lying beside his breakfast-cup and he was caressing it with his hand. Birds were twittering in the ivy and the sunny web of the curtain was shimmering along the floor: he could not eat for happiness. They were standing on the crowded platform and he was placing a ticket inside the warm palm of her glove. He was standing with her in the cold, looking in through a grated window at a man making bottles in a roaring furnace. It was very cold. Her face, fragrant in the cold air, was quite close to his; and suddenly he called out to the man at the furnace: “Is the fire hot, sir?” But the man could not hear with the noise of the furnace. It was just as well. He might have answered rudely. A wave of yet more tender joy escaped from his heart and went coursing in warm flood along his arteries. Like the tender fire of stars moments of their life together, that no one knew of or would ever know of, broke upon and illumined his memory. He longed to recall to her those moments, to make her forget the years of their dull existence together and remember only their moments of ecstasy. For the years, he felt, had not quenched his soul or hers. Their children, his writing, her household cares had not quenched all their souls’ tender fire. In one letter that he had written to her then he had said: “Why is it that words like these seem to me so dull and cold? Is it because there is no word tender enough to be your name?” Like distant music these words that he had written years before were borne towards him from the past. He longed to be alone with her. When the others had gone away, when he and she were in the room in the hotel, then they would be alone together. He would call her softly: “Gretta!” Perhaps she would not hear at once: she would be undressing. Then something in his voice would strike her. She would turn and look at him. . . . At the corner of Winetavern Street they met a cab. He was glad of its rattling noise as it saved him from conversation. She was looking out of the window and seemed tired. The others spoke only a few words, pointing out some building or street. The horse galloped along wearily under the murky morning sky, dragging his old rattling box after his heels, and Gabriel was again in a cab with her, galloping to catch the boat, galloping to their honeymoon. As the cab drove across O’Connell Bridge Miss O’Callaghan said: “They say you never cross O’Connell Bridge without seeing a white horse.” “I see a white man this time,” said Gabriel. “Where?” asked Mr. Bartell D’Arcy. Gabriel pointed to the statue, on which lay patches of snow. Then he nodded familiarly to it and waved his hand. “Good-night, Dan,” he said gaily. When the cab drew up before the hotel, Gabriel jumped out and, in spite of Mr. Bartell D’Arcy’s protest, paid the driver. He gave the man a shilling over his fare. The man saluted and said: “A prosperous New Year to you, sir.” “The same to you,” said Gabriel cordially. She leaned for a moment on his arm in getting out of the cab and while standing at the curbstone, bidding the others good-night. She leaned lightly on his arm, as lightly as when she had danced with him a few hours before. He had felt proud and happy then, happy that she was his, proud of her grace and wifely carriage. But now, after the kindling again of so many memories, the first touch of her body, musical and strange and perfumed, sent through him a keen pang of lust. Under cover of her silence he pressed her arm closely to his side; and, as they stood at the hotel door, he felt that they had escaped from their lives and duties, escaped from home and friends and run away together with wild and radiant hearts to a new adventure. An old man was dozing in a great hooded chair in the hall. He lit a candle in the office and went before them to the stairs. They followed him in silence, their feet falling in soft thuds on the thickly carpeted stairs. She mounted the stairs behind the porter, her head bowed in the ascent, her frail shoulders curved as with a burden, her skirt girt tightly about her. He could have flung his arms about her hips and held her still, for his arms were trembling with desire to seize her and only the stress of his nails against the palms of his hands held the wild impulse of his body in check. The porter halted on the stairs to settle his guttering candle. They halted, too, on the steps below him. In the silence Gabriel could hear the falling of the molten wax into the tray and the thumping of his own heart against his ribs. The porter led them along a corridor and opened a door. Then he set his unstable candle down on a toilet-table and asked at what hour they were to be called in the morning. “Eight,” said Gabriel. The porter pointed to the tap of the electric-light and began a muttered apology, but Gabriel cut him short. “We don’t want any light. We have light enough from the street. And I say,” he added, pointing to the candle, “you might remove that handsome article, like a good man.” The porter took up his candle again, but slowly, for he was surprised by such a novel idea. Then he mumbled good-night and went out. Gabriel shot the lock to. A ghastly light from the street lamp lay in a long shaft from one window to the door. Gabriel threw his overcoat and hat on a couch and crossed the room towards the window. He looked down into the street in order that his emotion might calm a little. Then he turned and leaned against a chest of drawers with his back to the light. She had taken off her hat and cloak and was standing before a large swinging mirror, unhooking her waist. Gabriel paused for a few moments, watching her, and then said: “Gretta!” She turned away from the mirror slowly and walked along the shaft of light towards him. Her face looked so serious and weary that the words would not pass Gabriel’s lips. No, it was not the moment yet. “You looked tired,” he said. “I am a little,” she answered. “You don’t feel ill or weak?” “No, tired: that’s all.” She went on to the window and stood there, looking out. Gabriel waited again and then, fearing that diffidence was about to conquer him, he said abruptly: “By the way, Gretta!” “What is it?” “You know that poor fellow Malins?” he said quickly. “Yes. What about him?” “Well, poor fellow, he’s a decent sort of chap, after all,” continued Gabriel in a false voice. “He gave me back that sovereign I lent him, and I didn’t expect it, really. It’s a pity he wouldn’t keep away from that Browne, because he’s not a bad fellow, really.” He was trembling now with annoyance. Why did she seem so abstracted? He did not know how he could begin. Was she annoyed, too, about something? If she would only turn to him or come to him of her own accord! To take her as she was would be brutal. No, he must see some ardour in her eyes first. He longed to be master of her strange mood. “When did you lend him the pound?” she asked, after a pause. Gabriel strove to restrain himself from breaking out into brutal language about the sottish Malins and his pound. He longed to cry to her from his soul, to crush her body against his, to overmaster her. But he said: “O, at Christmas, when he opened that little Christmas-card shop in Henry Street.” He was in such a fever of rage and desire that he did not hear her come from the window. She stood before him for an instant, looking at him strangely. Then, suddenly raising herself on tiptoe and resting her hands lightly on his shoulders, she kissed him. “You are a very generous person, Gabriel,” she said. Gabriel, trembling with delight at her sudden kiss and at the quaintness of her phrase, put his hands on her hair and began smoothing it back, scarcely touching it with his fingers. The washing had made it fine and brilliant. His heart was brimming over with happiness. Just when he was wishing for it she had come to him of her own accord. Perhaps her thoughts had been running with his. Perhaps she had felt the impetuous desire that was in him, and then the yielding mood had come upon her. Now that she had fallen to him so easily, he wondered why he had been so diffident. He stood, holding her head between his hands. Then, slipping one arm swiftly about her body and drawing her towards him, he said softly: “Gretta, dear, what are you thinking about?” She did not answer nor yield wholly to his arm. He said again, softly: “Tell me what it is, Gretta. I think I know what is the matter. Do I know?” She did not answer at once. Then she said in an outburst of tears: “O, I am thinking about that song, The Lass of Aughrim.” She broke loose from him and ran to the bed and, throwing her arms across the bed-rail, hid her face. Gabriel stood stockstill for a moment in astonishment and then followed her. As he passed in the way of the cheval-glass he caught sight of himself in full length, his broad, wellfilled shirt-front, the face whose expression always puzzled him when he saw it in a mirror, and his glimmering gilt-rimmed eyeglasses. He halted a few paces from her and said: “What about the song? Why does that make you cry?” She raised her head from her arms and dried her eyes with the back of her hand like a child. A kinder note than he had intended went into his voice. “Why, Gretta?” he asked. “I am thinking about a person long ago who used to sing that song.” “And who was the person long ago?” asked Gabriel, smiling. “It was a person I used to know in Galway when I was living with my grandmother,” she said. The smile passed away from Gabriel’s face. A dull anger began to gather again at the back of his mind and the dull fires of his lust began to glow angrily in his veins. “Someone you were in love with?” he asked ironically. “It was a young boy I used to know,” she answered, “named Michael Furey. He used to sing that song, The Lass of Aughrim. He was very delicate.” Gabriel was silent. He did not wish her to think that he was interested in this delicate boy. “I can see him so plainly,” she said, after a moment. “Such eyes as he had: big, dark eyes! And such an expression in them—an expression!” “O, then, you are in love with him?” said Gabriel. “I used to go out walking with him,” she said, “when I was in Galway.” A thought flew across Gabriel’s mind. “Perhaps that was why you wanted to go to Galway with that Ivors girl?” he said coldly. She looked at him and asked in surprise: “What for?” Her eyes made Gabriel feel awkward. He shrugged his shoulders and said: “How do I know? To see him, perhaps.” She looked away from him along the shaft of light towards the window in silence. “He is dead,” she said at length. “He died when he was only seventeen. Isn’t it a terrible thing to die so young as that?” “What was he?” asked Gabriel, still ironically. “He was in the gasworks,” she said. Gabriel felt humiliated by the failure of his irony and by the evocation of this figure from the dead, a boy in the gasworks. While he had been full of memories of their secret life together, full of tenderness and joy and desire, she had been comparing him in her mind with another. A shameful consciousness of his own person assailed him. He saw himself as a ludicrous figure, acting as a pennyboy for his aunts, a nervous, well-meaning sentimentalist, orating to vulgarians and idealising his own clownish lusts, the pitiable fatuous fellow he had caught a glimpse of in the mirror. Instinctively he turned his back more to the light lest she might see the shame that burned upon his forehead. He tried to keep up his tone of cold interrogation, but his voice when he spoke was humble and indifferent. “I suppose you were in love with this Michael Furey, Gretta,” he said. “I was great with him at that time,” she said. Her voice was veiled and sad. Gabriel, feeling now how vain it would be to try to lead her whither he had purposed, caressed one of her hands and said, also sadly: “And what did he die of so young, Gretta? Consumption, was it?” “I think he died for me,” she answered. A vague terror seized Gabriel at this answer, as if, at that hour when he had hoped to triumph, some impalpable and vindictive being was coming against him, gathering forces against him in its vague world. But he shook himself free of it with an effort of reason and continued to caress her hand. He did not question her again, for he felt that she would tell him of herself. Her hand was warm and moist: it did not respond to his touch, but he continued to caress it just as he had caressed her first letter to him that spring morning. “It was in the winter,” she said, “about the beginning of the winter when I was going to leave my grandmother’s and come up here to the convent. And he was ill at the time in his lodgings in Galway and wouldn’t be let out, and his people in Oughterard were written to. He was in decline, they said, or something like that. I never knew rightly.” She paused for a moment and sighed. “Poor fellow,” she said. “He was very fond of me and he was such a gentle boy. We used to go out together, walking, you know, Gabriel, like the way they do in the country. He was going to study singing only for his health. He had a very good voice, poor Michael Furey.” “Well; and then?” asked Gabriel. “And then when it came to the time for me to leave Galway and come up to the convent he was much worse and I wouldn’t be let see him so I wrote him a letter saying I was going up to Dublin and would be back in the summer, and hoping he would be better then.” She paused for a moment to get her voice under control, and then went on: “Then the night before I left, I was in my grandmother’s house in Nuns’ Island, packing up, and I heard gravel thrown up against the window. The window was so wet I couldn’t see, so I ran downstairs as I was and slipped out the back into the garden and there was the poor fellow at the end of the garden, shivering.” “And did you not tell him to go back?” asked Gabriel. “I implored of him to go home at once and told him he would get his death in the rain. But he said he did not want to live. I can see his eyes as well as well! He was standing at the end of the wall where there was a tree.” “And did he go home?” asked Gabriel. “Yes, he went home. And when I was only a week in the convent he died and he was buried in Oughterard, where his people came from. O, the day I heard that, that he was dead!” She stopped, choking with sobs, and, overcome by emotion, flung herself face downward on the bed, sobbing in the quilt. Gabriel held her hand for a moment longer, irresolutely, and then, shy of intruding on her grief, let it fall gently and walked quietly to the window. She was fast asleep. Gabriel, leaning on his elbow, looked for a few moments unresentfully on her tangled hair and half-open mouth, listening to her deep-drawn breath. So she had had that romance in her life: a man had died for her sake. It hardly pained him now to think how poor a part he, her husband, had played in her life. He watched her while she slept, as though he and she had never lived together as man and wife. His curious eyes rested long upon her face and on her hair: and, as he thought of what she must have been then, in that time of her first girlish beauty, a strange, friendly pity for her entered his soul. He did not like to say even to himself that her face was no longer beautiful, but he knew that it was no longer the face for which Michael Furey had braved death. Perhaps she had not told him all the story. His eyes moved to the chair over which she had thrown some of her clothes. A petticoat string dangled to the floor. One boot stood upright, its limp upper fallen down: the fellow of it lay upon its side. He wondered at his riot of emotions of an hour before. From what had it proceeded? From his aunt’s supper, from his own foolish speech, from the wine and dancing, the merry-making when saying good-night in the hall, the pleasure of the walk along the river in the snow. Poor Aunt Julia! She, too, would soon be a shade with the shade of Patrick Morkan and his horse. He had caught that haggard look upon her face for a moment when she was singing Arrayed for the Bridal. Soon, perhaps, he would be sitting in that same drawing-room, dressed in black, his silk hat on his knees. The blinds would be drawn down and Aunt Kate would be sitting beside him, crying and blowing her nose and telling him how Julia had died. He would cast about in his mind for some words that might console her, and would find only lame and useless ones. Yes, yes: that would happen very soon. The air of the room chilled his shoulders. He stretched himself cautiously along under the sheets and lay down beside his wife. One by one, they were all becoming shades. Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age. He thought of how she who lay beside him had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover’s eyes when he had told her that he did not wish to live. Generous tears filled Gabriel’s eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman, but he knew that such a feeling must be love. The tears gathered more thickly in his eyes and in the partial darkness he imagined he saw the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree. Other forms were near. His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling. A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
It was her panting that drew me over. I was exhausted, as the new work regime had been sucking every last drop of life out of us. But my misreading of the situation (what with the cries, groans, and stifled moans) put some life back into me, and I shot over to her like an arrow.
She was alone under a palm tree in front of an abandoned shop and surrounded by her filth. Even though it was pitch dark in the alleyway, a shaft of light coming from a lamp on the main street illuminated her sufficiently for me to see her dust-covered face, its petite muscles drawn taut, and the redness of her eyes as they alternately narrowed and widened in a painful, mechanical sort of way as though, in her loneliness and gloom, she was crying out for pity to the demons of darkness. My gaze slid down to her hands, which she was pressing against a swollen belly beneath threadbare garments. When she saw me, she went quiet all of a sudden, gazing at me with steady eyes, and with a face as cold and expressionless as a mummy from the age of the Pharaohs.
Then, in utter innocence, she said, “Can you deliver the baby…? It’s going to split me in half. I’ll die if you don’t!”
Without thinking I asked, “Why don’t you go to hospital?”
She gave a dark, heavy smile. “I can’t walk, and I don’t have the taxi fare. Besides, I wouldn’t be able to pay the hospital. Everything costs money.”
She let out a faint meow and then passed out, babbling like a drunkard. I didn’t know what to do. All I had with me was five pounds for the bus ride home, and it was ten-thirty—just half an hour before curfew. I was so worn out from sweeping and mopping the cinema, I wouldn’t be able to pick her up and carry her on my back. And even if I did, the hospital wouldn’t admit her. After all, there isn’t a hospital in this country that would treat somebody out of the goodness of its heart.
A voice whispered inside me. I couldn’t tell if it was the voice of an angel or a demon.
“What’s with you?” it said. “Her Lord and Maker can find her a way out. Just take care of yourself now. Curfew’s in half an hour. So, hurry up and catch the last bus. Then come back tomorrow morning, and you’ll find that she gave birth to a big cockroach. It’ll be sitting next to her checking out the world with its antennae and its beady eyes.”
Then I had an idea: to try carrying her to the sidewalk along the main street. A patrol might find her and take her to the cells, then bring her a midwife or a doctor who’s paid by the government.
But before I could do it, the curfew patrol took us both away.
The doctor might have been right in part. She was dirty, filthy even. She reeked of the discharge caused by a sexually transmitted disease, and the stench was piercing, unbearable. So the doctor instructed the cleaning lady to remove her pubic hair with its crabs, foul odor, and rank secretions, wash the area thoroughly with warm water and carbolic soap, and apply Dettol.
Then he went to the sink and vomited up everything in his gut, cursing the day he’d decided to study medicine, gynecology, and obstetrics.
“Help me, please,” the cleaning lady said to me.
“I’m dying,” said the girl.
“Die, then! Die!” the cleaning lady lit into her furiously. “Make it easy on us and on yourself!”
Parting her brown legs, soiled and spotted with sores, the girl fell into a semi-coma, surrendered to the labor pains and the pleasure of travail.
When its front claws appeared—small, white, soft and smooth—the cleaning lady and I were startled, immersed in a dense, phantasmagoric trance that was being imprinted on our consciousness by the reggae music wafting in toward us from the health office next door: The squeaking of rats, the roaring of the sea, the cawing of black crows, the gentle rustling of the towering palm tree outside the window, a sudden clap of thunder, vague chatter filtering through the pores in the walls and the spaces between the beds, pieces of heavy white fabric, bloody cotton pads scattered here and there.
We felt cold all of a sudden as we saw its rectangular head emerge into the room, its tiny black whiskers drenched in sticky, translucent, jelly-like mucus.
The cleaning lady said to me later, “I felt things glowing, as if bright little moons had landed on them.”
I said, “When that happened, I was filled with eerie-sounding, weighty talk that I couldn’t understand. It was choking me up.”
With a final contraction, it popped out, nimble and energetic, as though the strains of the reggae music were giving a rhythm to the flow of blood in its newborn arteries.
In my statements to the Department of Criminal Investigations, I told them that the Qur’anic chants, the cooing of the doves, and the hymns of adoration hadn’t been coming from a specific source, and that we couldn’t possibly claim that any of us would be able to put Time’s standstill to music.
At that moment, the palm tree’s ripened fruit fell, a nightingale sang, and a star that had illuminated the world’s Eastern reaches tumbled to Earth. Opening a pair of bright black eyes, it shook the mucous off itself in a series of violent jerks. Then, as others can attest, it barked and leapt through the window onto the sidewalk outside.
This all happened a long time ago, in the early decades of the Second Republic, when I was a boy growing up in Upper Pannonia. Life was very simple then, at least for us. We lived in a forest village on the right bank of the Danubius, my parents, my grandmother, my sister Friya, and I. My father Tyr, for whom I am named, was a blacksmith, my mother Julia taught school in our house, and my grandmother was the priestess at the little Temple of Juno Teutonica nearby.
It was a very quiet life. The automobile hadn’t yet been invented then – all this was around the year 2650, and we still used horse-drawn carriages or wagons – and we hardly ever left the village. Once a year, on Augustus Day – back then we still celebrated Augustus Day – we would all dress in our finest clothes and my father would get our big iron-bound carriage out of the shed, the one he had built with his own hands, and we’d drive to the great municipium of Venia, a two-hour journey away, to hear the imperial band playing waltzes in the Plaza of Vespasian. Afterward there’d be cakes and whipped cream at the big hotel nearby, and tankards of cherry beer for the grownups, and then we’d begin the long trip home. Today, of course, the forest is gone and our little village has been swallowed up by the ever-growing municipium, and it’s a twenty-minute ride by car to the center of the city from where we used to live. But at that time it was a grand excursion, the event of the year for us.
I know now that Venia is only a minor provincial city, that compared with Londin or Parisi or Roma itself it’s nothing at all. But to me it was the capital of the world. Its splendors stunned me and dazed me. We would climb to the top of the great column of Basileus Andronicus, which the Greeks put up eight hundred years ago to commemorate their victory over Caesar Maximilianus during the Civil War in the days when the Empire was divided, and we’d stare out at the whole city; and my mother, who had grown up in Venia, would point everything out to us, the senate building, the opera house, the aqueduct, the university, the ten bridges, the Temple of Jupiter Teutonicus, the proconsul’s palace, the much greater palace that Trajan VII built for himself during that dizzying period when Venia was essentially the second capital of the Empire, and so forth. For days afterward my dreams would glitter with memories of what I had seen in Venia, and my sister and I would hum waltzes as we whirled along the quiet forest paths.
There was one exciting year when we made the Venia trip twice. That was 2647, when I was ten years old, and I can remember it so exactly because that was the year when the First Consul died – C. Junius Scaevola, I mean, the Founder of the Second Republic. My father was very agitated when the news of his death came. “It’ll be touch and go now, touch and go, mark my words,” he said over and over. I asked my grandmother what he meant by that, and she said, “Your father’s afraid that they’ll bring back the Empire, now that the old man’s dead.” I didn’t see what was so upsetting about that – it was all the same to me, Republic or Empire, Consul or Imperator – but to my father it was a big issue, and when the new First Consul came to Venia later that year, touring the entire vast Imperium province by province for the sake of reassuring everyone that the Republic was stable and intact, my father got out the carriage and we went to attend his Triumph and Processional. So I had a second visit to the capital that year.
Half a million people, so they say, turned out in downtown Venia to applaud the new First Consul. This was N. Marcellus Turritus, of course. You probably think of him as the fat, bald old man on the coinage of the late 27th century that still shows up in pocket change now and then, but the man I saw that day – I had just a glimpse of him, a fraction of a second as the consular chariot rode past, but the memory still blazes in my mind seventy years later – was lean and virile, with a jutting jaw and fiery eyes and dark, thick curling hair. We threw up our arms in the old Roman salute and at the top of our lungs we shouted out to him, “Hail, Marcellus! Long live the Consul!”
(We shouted it, by the way, not in Latin but in Germanisch. I was very surprised at that. My father explained afterward that it was by the First Consul’s own orders. He wanted to show his love for the people by encouraging all the regional languages, even at a public celebration like this one. The Gallians had hailed him in Gallian, the Britannians in Britannic, the Japanese in whatever it is they speak there, and as he traveled through the Teutonic provinces he wanted us to yell his praises in Germanisch. I realize that there are some people today, very conservative Republicans, who will tell you that this was a terrible idea, because it has led to the resurgence of all kinds of separatist regional activities in the Imperium. It was the same sort of regionalist fervor, they remind us, that brought about the crumbling of the Empire two hundred years earlier. To men like my father, though, it was a brilliant political stroke, and he cheered the new First Consul with tremendous Germanische exuberance and vigor. But my father managed to be a staunch regionalist and a staunch Republican at the same time. Bear in mind that over my mother’s fierce objections he had insisted on naming his children for ancient Teutonic gods instead of giving them the standard Roman names that everybody else in Pannonia favored then.)
Other than going to Venia once a year, or on this one occasion twice, I never went anywhere. I hunted, I fished, I swam, I helped my father in the smithy, I helped my grandmother in the Temple, I studied reading and writing in my mother’s school. Sometimes Friya and I would go wandering in the forest, which in those days was dark and lush and mysterious. And that was how I happened to meet the last of the Caesars.
There was supposed to be a haunted house deep in the woods. Marcus Aurelius Schwarzchild it was who got me interested in it, the tailor’s son, a sly and unlikable boy with a cast in one eye. He said it had been a hunting lodge in the time of the Caesars, and that the bloody ghost of an Emperor who had been killed in a hunting accident could be seen at noontime, the hour of his death, pursuing the ghost of a wolf around and around the building. “I’ve seen it myself,” he said. “The ghost, I mean. He had a laurel wreath on, and everything, and his rifle was polished so it shined like gold.”
I didn’t believe him. I didn’t think he’d had the courage to go anywhere near the haunted house and certainly not that he’d seen the ghost. Marcus Aurelius Schwarzchild was the sort of boy you wouldn’t believe if he said it was raining, even if you were getting soaked to the skin right as he was saying it. For one thing, I didn’t believe in ghosts, not very much. My father had told me it was foolish to think that the dead still lurked around in the world of the living. For another, I asked my grandmother if there had ever been an Emperor killed in a hunting accident in our forest, and she laughed and said no, not ever: the Imperial Guard would have razed the village to the ground and burned down the woods, if that had ever happened.
But nobody doubted that the house itself, haunted or not, was really there. Everyone in the village knew that. It was said to be in a certain dark part of the woods where the trees were so old that their branches were tightly woven together. Hardly anyone ever went there. The house was just a ruin, they said, and haunted besides, definitely haunted, so it was best to leave it alone.
It occurred to me that the place might just actually have been an imperial hunting lodge, and that if it had been abandoned hastily after some unhappy incident and never visited since, it might still have some trinkets of the Caesars in it, little statuettes of the gods, or cameos of the royal family, things like that. My grandmother collected small ancient objects of that sort. Her birthday was coming, and I wanted a nice gift for her. My fellow villagers might be timid about poking around in the haunted house, but why should I be? I didn’t believe in ghosts, after all.
But on second thought I didn’t particularly want to go there alone. This wasn’t cowardice so much as sheer common sense, which even then I possessed in full measure. The woods were full of exposed roots hidden under fallen leaves; if you tripped on one and hurt your leg, you would lie there a long time before anyone who might help you came by. You were also less likely to lose your way if you had someone else with you who could remember trail marks. And there was some occasional talk of wolves. I figured the probability of my meeting one wasn’t much better than the likelihood of ghosts, but all the same it seemed like a sensible idea to have a companion with me in that part of the forest. So I took my sister along.
I have to confess that I didn’t tell her that the house was supposed to be haunted. Friya, who was about nine then, was very brave for a girl, but I thought she might find the possibility of ghosts a little discouraging. What I did tell her was that the old house might still have imperial treasures in it, and if it did she could have her pick of any jewelry we found.
Just to be on the safe side we slipped a couple of holy images into our pockets – Apollo for her, to cast light on us as we went through the dark woods, and Woden for me, since he was my father’s special god. (My grandmother always wanted him to pray to Jupiter Teutonicus, but he never would, saying that Jupiter Teutonicus was a god that the Romans invented to pacify our ancestors. This made my grandmother angry, naturally. “But we are Romans,” she would say. “Yes, we are,” my father would tell her, “but we’re Teutons also, or at least I am, and I don’t intend to forget it.”)
It was a fine Saturday morning in spring when we set out, Friya and I, right after breakfast, saying nothing to anybody about where we were going. The first part of the forest path was a familiar one: we had traveled it often. We went past Agrippina’s Spring, which in medieval times was thought to have magical powers, and then the three battered and weather beaten statues of the pretty young boy who was supposed to be the first Emperor Hadrianus’s lover two thousand years ago, and after that we came to Baldur’s Tree, which my father said was sacred, though he died before I was old enough to attend the midnight rituals that he and some of his friends used to hold there. (I think my father’s generation was the last one that took the old Teutonic religion seriously.)
Then we got into deeper, darker territory. The paths were nothing more than sketchy trails here. Marcus Aurelius had told me that we were supposed to turn left at a huge old oak tree with unusual glossy leaves. I was still looking for it when Friya said, “We turn here,” and there was the shiny-leaved oak. I hadn’t mentioned it to her. So perhaps the girls of our village told each other tales about the haunted house too; but I never found out how she knew which way to go.
Onward and onward we went, until even the trails gave out, and we were wandering through sheer wilderness. The trees were ancient here, all right, and their boughs were interlaced high above us so that almost no sunlight reached the forest floor. But we didn’t see any houses, haunted or otherwise, or anything else that indicated human beings had ever been here. We’d been hiking for hours, now. I kept one hand on the idol of Woden in my pocket and I stared hard at every unusual-looking tree or rock we saw, trying to engrave it on my brain for use as a trail marker on the way back.
It seemed pointless to continue, and dangerous besides. I would have turned back long before, if Friya hadn’t been with me; but I didn’t want to look like a coward in front of her. And she was forging on in a tireless way, inflamed, I guess, by the prospect of finding a fine brooch or necklace for herself in the old house, and showing not the slightest trace of fear or uneasiness. But finally I had had enough.
“If we don’t come across anything in the next five minutes -” I said.
“There,” said Friya. “Look.”
I followed her pointing hand. At first all I saw was more forest. But then I noticed, barely visible behind a curtain of leafy branches, what could have been the sloping wooden roof of a rustic hunting lodge. Yes! Yes, it was! I saw the scalloped gables, I saw the boldly carved roof-posts.
So it was really there, the secret forest lodge, the old haunted house. In frantic excitement I began to run toward it, Friya chugging valiantly along behind me, struggling to catch up.
And then I saw the ghost.
He was old – ancient – a frail, gaunt figure, white-bearded, his long white hair a tangle of knots and snarls. His clothing hung in rags. He was walking slowly toward the house, shuffling, really, a bent and stooped and trembling figure clutching a huge stack of kindling to his breast. I was practically on top of him before I knew he was there.
For a long moment we stared at each other, and I can’t say which of us was the more terrified. Then he made a little sighing sound and let his bundle of firewood fall to the ground, and fell down beside it, and lay there like one dead.
“Marcus Aurelius was right!” I murmured. “There really is a ghost here!”
Friya shot me a glance that must have been a mixture of scorn and derision and real anger besides, for this was the first she had heard of the ghost story that I had obviously taken pains to conceal from her. But all she said was, “Ghosts don’t fall down and faint, silly. He’s nothing but a scared old man.” And went to him unhesitatingly.
Somehow we got him inside the house, though he tottered and lurched all the way and nearly fell half a dozen times. The place wasn’t quite a ruin, but close: dust everywhere, furniture that looked as if it’d collapse into splinters if you touched it, draperies hanging in shreds. Behind all the filth we could see how beautiful it all once had been, though. There were faded paintings on the walls, some sculptures, a collection of arms and armor worth a fortune.
He was terrified of us. “Are you from the quaestors?” he kept asking. Latin was what he spoke. “Are you here to arrest me? I’m only the caretaker, you know. I’m not any kind of a danger. I’m only the caretaker.” His lips quavered. “Long live the First Consul!” he cried, in a thin, hoarse, ragged croak of a voice.
“We were just wandering in the woods,” I told him. “You don’t have to be afraid of us.”
“I’m only the caretaker,” he said again and again.
We laid him out on a couch. There was a spring just outside the house, and Friya brought water from it and sponged his cheeks and brow. He looked half starved, so we prowled around for something to feed him, but there was hardly anything: some nuts and berries in a bowl, a few scraps of smoked meat that looked like they were a hundred years old, a piece of fish that was in better shape, but not much. We fixed a meal for him, and he ate slowly, very slowly, as if he were unused to food. Then he closed his eyes without a word. I thought for a moment that he had died, but no, no, he had simply dozed off. We stared at each other, not knowing what to do.
“Let him be,” Friya whispered, and we wandered around the house while we waited for him to awaken. Cautiously we touched the sculptures, we blew dust away from the paintings. No doubt of it, there had been imperial grandeur here. In one of the upstairs cupboards I found some coins, old ones, the kind with the Emperor’s head on them that weren’t allowed to be used any more. I saw trinkets, too, a couple of necklaces and a jewel-handled dagger. Friya’s eyes gleamed at the sight of the necklaces, and mine at the dagger, but we let everything stay where it was. Stealing from a ghost is one thing, stealing from a live old man is another. And we hadn’t been raised to be thieves.
When we went back downstairs to see how he was doing, we found him sitting up, looking weak and dazed, but not quite so frightened. Friya offered him some more of the smoked meat, but he smiled and shook his head.
“From the village, are you? How old are you? What are your names?”
“This is Friya,” I said. “I’m Tyr. She’s nine and I’m twelve.”
“Friya. Tyr.” He laughed. “Time was when such names wouldn’t have been permitted, eh? But times have changed.” There was a flash of sudden vitality in his eyes, though only for an instant. He gave us a confidential, intimate smile. “Do you know whose place this was, you two? The Emperor Maxentius, that’s who! This was his hunting lodge. Caesar himself! He’d stay here when the stags were running, and hunt his fill, and then he’d go on into Venia, to Trajan’s palace, and there’d be such feasts as you can’t imagine, rivers of wine, and the haunches of venison turning on the spit – ah, what a time that was, what a time!”
He began to cough and sputter. Friya put her arm around his thin shoulders.
“You shouldn’t talk so much, sir. You don’t have the strength.”
“You’re right. You’re right.” He patted her hand. His was like a skeleton’s. “How long ago it all was. But here I stay, trying to keep the place up – in case Caesar ever wanted to hunt here again – in case – in case – ” A look of torment, of sorrow. “There isn’t any Caesar, is there? First Consul! Hail! Hail Junius Scaevola!” His voice cracked as he raised it.
“The Consul Junius is dead, sir,” I told him. “Marcus Turritus is First Consul now.”
“Dead? Scaevola? Is it so?” He shrugged. “I hear so little news. I’m only the caretaker, you know. I never leave the place. Keeping it up, in case – in case – “
But of course he wasn’t the caretaker. Friya never thought he was: she had seen, right away, the resemblance between that shriveled old man and the magnificent figure of Caesar Maxentius in the painting behind him on the wall. You had to ignore the difference in age – the Emperor couldn’t have been much more than thirty when his portrait was painted – and the fact that the Emperor was in resplendent bemedalled formal uniform and the old man was wearing rags. But they had the same long chin, the same sharp, hawklike nose, the same penetrating icy-blue eyes. It was the royal face, all right. I hadn’t noticed; but girls have a quicker eye for such things. The Emperor Maxentius’ youngest brother was who this gaunt old man was, Quintus Fabius Caesar, the last survivor of the old imperial house, and, therefore, the true Emperor himself. Who had been living in hiding ever since the downfall of the Empire at the end of the Second War of Reunification.
He didn’t tell us any of that, though, until our third or fourth visit. He went on pretending he was nothing but a simple old man who had happened to be stranded here when the old regime was overthrown, and was simply trying to do his job, despite the difficulties of age, on the chance that the royal family might someday be restored and would want to use its hunting lodge again.
But he began to give us little gifts, and that eventually led to his admitting his true identity.
For Friya he had a delicate necklace made of long slender bluish beads. “It comes from Aiguptos,” he said. “It’s thousands of years old. You’ve studied Aiguptos in school, haven’t you? You know that it was a great empire long before Roma ever was?” And with his own trembling hands he put it around her neck.
That same day he gave me a leather pouch in which I found four or five triangular arrowheads made of a pink stone that had been carefully chipped sharp around the edges. I looked at them, mystified. “From Nova Roma,” he explained. “Where the redskinned people live. The Emperor Maxentius loved Nova Roma, especially the far west, where the bison herds are. He went there almost every year to hunt. Do you see the trophies?” And, indeed, the dark musty room was lined with animal heads, great massive bison with thick curling brown wool, glowering down out of the gallery high above.
We brought him food, sausages and black bread that we brought from home, and fresh fruit, and beer. He didn’t care for the beer, and asked rather timidly if we could bring him wine instead. “I am Roman, you know,” he reminded us. Getting wine for him wasn’t so easy, since we never used it at home, and a twelve-year-old boy could hardly go around to the wineshop to buy some without starting tongues wagging. In the end I stole some from the Temple while I was helping out my grandmother. It was thick sweet wine, the kind used for offerings, and I don’t know how much he liked it. But he was grateful. Apparently an old couple who lived on the far side of the woods had looked after him for some years, bringing him food and wine, but in recent weeks they hadn’t been around and he had had to forage for himself, with little luck: that was why he was so gaunt. He was afraid they were ill or dead, but when I asked where they lived, so I could find out whether they were all right, he grew uneasy and refused to tell me. I wondered about that. If I had realized then who he was, and that the old couple must have been Empire loyalists, I’d have understood. But I still hadn’t figured out the truth.
Friya broke it to me that afternoon, as we were on our way home. “Do you think he’s the Emperor’s brother, Tyr? Or the Emperor himself?”
“He’s got to be one or the other. It’s the same face.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, sister.”
“The big portrait on the wall, silly. Of the Emperor. Haven’t you noticed that it looks just like him?”
I thought she was out of her mind. But when we went back the following week, I gave the painting a long close look, and looked at him, and then at the painting again, and I thought, yes, yes, it might just be so.
What clinched it were the coins he gave us that day. “I can’t pay you in money of the Republic for all you’ve brought me,” he said. “But you can have these. You can’t spend them, but they’re still valuable to some people, I understand. As relics of history.” His voice was bitter. From a worn old velvet pouch he drew out half a dozen coins, some copper, some silver. “These are coins of Maxentius,” he said. They were like the ones we had seen while snooping in the upstairs cupboards on our first visit, showing the same face as on the painting, that of a young, vigorous bearded man. “And these are older ones, coins of Emperor Laureolus, who was Caesar when I was a boy.”
“Why, he looks just like you!” I blurted.
Indeed he did. Not nearly so gaunt, and his hair and beard were better trimmed; but otherwise the face of the regal old man on those coins might easily have been that of our friend the caretaker. I stared at him, and at the coins in my hand, and again at him. He began to tremble. I looked at the painting on the wall behind us again. “No,” he said faintly. “No, no, you’re mistaken – I’m nothing like him, nothing at all – ” And his shoulders shook and he began to cry. Friya brought him some wine, which steadied him a little. He took the coins from me and looked at them in silence a long while, shaking his head sadly, and finally handed them back. “Can I trust you with a secret?” he asked. And his tale came pouring out of him.
A glittering boyhood, almost sixty years earlier, in that wondrous time between the two Wars of Reunification: a magical life, endlessly traveling from palace to palace, from Roma to Venia, from Venia to Constantinopolis, from Constantinopolis to Nishapur. He was the youngest and most pampered of five royal princes; his father had died young, drowned in a foolish swimming exploit, and when his grandfather Laureolus Caesar died the imperial throne would go to his brother Maxentius. He himself, Quintus Fabius, would be a provincial governor somewhere when he grew up, perhaps in India or Nova Roma, but for now there was nothing for him to do but enjoy his gilded existence.
Then death came at last to old Emperor Laureolus, and Maxentius succeeded him; and almost at once there began the six-year horror of the Second War of Reunification, when somber and harsh colonels who despised the lazy old Empire smashed it to pieces, rebuilt it as a Republic, and drove the Caesars from power. We knew the story, of course; but to us it was a tale of the triumph of virtue and honor over corruption and tyranny. To Quintus Fabius, weeping as he told it to us from his own point of view, the fall of the Empire had been not only a harrowing personal tragedy but a terrible disaster for the entire world.
Good little Republicans though we were, our hearts were wrung by the things he told us, the scenes of his family’s agony: the young Emperor Maxentius trapped in his own palace, gunned down with his wife and children at the entrance to the imperial baths. Camillus, the second brother, who had been Prince of Constantinopolis, pursued through the streets of Roma at dawn and slaughtered by revolutionaries on the steps of the Temple of Castor and Pollux.
Prince Flavius, the third brother, escaping from the capital in a peasant’s wagon, hidden under huge bunches of grapes, and setting up a government-in-exile in Neapolis, only to be taken and executed before he had been Emperor a full week. Which brought the succession down to sixteen-year-old Prince Augustus, who had been at the university in Parisi. Well named, he was: for the first of all the Emperors was an Augustus, and another one two thousand years later was the last, reigning all of three days before the men of the Second Republic found him and put him before the firing squad.
Of the royal princes, only Quintus Fabius remained. But in the confusion he was overlooked. He was hardly more than a boy; and, although technically he was now Caesar, it never occurred to him to claim the throne. Loyalist supporters dressed him in peasant clothes and smuggled him out of Roma while the capital was still in flames, and he set out on what was to become a lifetime of exile.
“There were always places for me to stay,” he told us. “In out-of-the-way towns where the Republic had never really taken hold, in backwater provinces, in places you’ve never heard of. The Republic searched for me for a time, but never very well, and then the story began to circulate that I was dead. The skeleton of some boy found in the ruins of the palace in Roma was said to be mine.
After that I could move around more or less freely, though always in poverty, always in secrecy.”
“And when did you come here?” I asked.
“Almost twenty years ago. Friends told me that this hunting lodge was here, still more or less intact as it had been at the time of the Revolution, and that no one ever went near it, that I
could live here undisturbed. And so I have. And so I will, for however much time is left.” He reached for the wine, but his hands were shaking so badly that Friya took it from him and poured him a glass. He drank it in a single gulp. “Ah, children, children, what a world you’ve lost! What madness it was, to destroy the Empire! What greatness existed then!”
“Our father says things have never been so good for ordinary folk as they are under the Republic,” Friya said.
I kicked her ankle. She gave me a sour look.
Quintus Fabius said sadly, “I mean no disrespect, but your father sees only his own village. We were trained to see the entire world in a glance. The Imperium, the whole globe-spanning Empire. Do you think the gods meant to give the Imperium just to anyone at all? Anyone who could grab power and proclaim himself First Consul? Ah, no, no, the Caesars were uniquely chosen to sustain the Pax Romana, the universal peace that has enfolded this whole planet for so long. Under us there was nothing but peace, peace eternal and unshakeable, once the Empire had reached its complete form. But with the Caesars now gone, how much longer do you think the peace will last? If one man can take power, so can another, or another. There will be five First Consuls at once, mark my words. Or fifty. And every province will want to be an Empire in itself. Mark my words, children. Mark my words.”
I had never heard such treason in my life. Or anything so wrongheaded.
The Pax Romana? What Pax Romana? Old Quintus Fabius would have had us believe that the Empire had brought unbroken and unshakeable peace to the entire world, and had kept it that way for twenty centuries. But what about the Civil War, when the Greek half of the Empire fought for fifty years against the Latin half? Or the two Wars of Unification? And hadn’t there been minor rebellions constantly, all over the Empire, hardly a century without one, in Persia, in India, in Britannica, in Africa Aethiopica? No, I thought, what he’s telling us simply isn’t true. The long life of the Empire had been a time of constant brutal oppression, with people’s spirits held in check everywhere by military force. The real Pax Romana was something that existed only in modern times, under the Second Republic. So my father had taught me.
But Quintus Fabius was an old man, wrapped in dreams of his own wondrous lost childhood. Far be it from me to argue with him about such matters as these. I simply smiled and nodded, and poured more wine for him when his glass was empty. And Friya and I sat there spellbound as he told us, hour after hour, of what it had been like to be a prince of the royal family in the dying days of the Empire, before true grandeur had departed forever from the world.
When we left him that day, he had still more gifts for us. “My brother was a great collector,” he said. “He had whole houses stuffed full of treasure. All gone now, all but what you see here, which no one remembered. When I’m gone, who knows what’ll become of them? But I want you to have these. Because you’ve been so kind to me. To remember me by. And to remind you always of what once was, and now is lost.”
For Friya there was a small bronze ring, dented and scratched, with a serpent’s head on it, that he said had belonged to the Emperor Claudius of the earliest days of the Empire. For me a dagger, not the jewel-handled one I had seen upstairs, but a fine one all the same, with a strange undulating blade, from a savage kingdom on an island in the Oceanus Magnus. And for us both, a beautiful little figurine in smooth white alabaster of Pan playing on his pipes, carved by some master craftsman of the ancient days.
The figurine was the perfect birthday gift for grandmother. We gave it to her the next day. We thought she would be pleased, since all of the old gods of Roma are very dear to her; but to our surprise and dismay she seemed startled and upset by it. She stared at it, eyes bright and fierce, as if we had given her a venomous toad.
“Where did you get this thing? Where?”
I looked at Friya, to warn her not to say too much. But as usual she was ahead of me.
“We found it, grandmother. We dug it up.”
“You dug it up?”
“In the forest,” I put in. “We go there every Saturday, you know, just wandering around. There was this old mound of dirt – we were poking in it, and we saw something gleaming – “
She turned it over and over in her hands. I had never seen her look so troubled. “Swear to me that that’s how you found it! Come, now, at the altar of Juno! I want you to swear to me before the Goddess. And then I want you to take me to see this mound of dirt of yours.”
Friya gave me a panic-stricken glance.
Hesitantly I said, “We may not be able to find it again, grandmother. I told you, we were just wandering around – we didn’t really pay attention to where we were – “
I grew red in the face, and I was stammering, too. It isn’t easy to lie convincingly to your own grandmother.
She held the figurine out, its base toward me. “Do you see these marks here? This little crest stamped down here? It’s the Imperial crest, Tyr. That’s the mark of Caesar. This carving once belonged to the Emperor. Do you expect me to believe that there’s Imperial treasure simply lying around in mounds of dirt in the forest? Come, both of you! To the altar, and swear!”
“We only wanted to bring you a pretty birthday gift, grandmother,” Friya said softly. “We didn’t mean to do any harm.”
“Of course not, child. Tell me, now: where’d this thing come from?”
“The haunted house in the woods,” she said. And I nodded my confirmation. What could I do? She would have taken us to the altar to swear.
Strictly speaking, Friya and I were traitors to the Republic. We even knew that ourselves, from the moment we realized who the old man really was. The Caesars were proscribed when the Empire fell; everyone within a certain level of blood kinship to the Emperor was condemned to death, so that no one could rise up and claim the throne in years hereafter.
Some minor members of the royal family did manage to escape, so it was said; but giving aid and comfort to them was a serious offense. And this was no mere second cousin or great-grandnephew that we had discovered deep in the forest: this was the Emperor’s own brother. He was, in fact, the legitimate Emperor himself, in the eyes of those for whom the Empire had never ended. And it was our responsibility to turn him in to the quaestors. But he was so old, so gentle, so feeble. We didn’t see how he could be much of a threat to the Republic. Even if he did believe that the Revolution had been an evil thing, and that only under a divinely chosen Caesar could the world enjoy real peace.
We were children. We didn’t understand what risks we were taking, or what perils we were exposing our family to.
Things were tense at our house during the next few days: whispered conferences between our grandmother and our mother, out of our earshot, and then an evening when the two of them spoke with father while Friya and I were confined to our room, and there were sharp words and even some shouting. Afterward there was a long cold silence, followed by more mysterious discussions. Then things returned to normal. My grandmother never put the figurine of Pan in her collection of little artifacts of the old days, nor did she ever speak of it again.
That it had the imperial crest on it was, we realized, the cause of all the uproar. Even so, we weren’t clear about what the problem was. I had thought all along that grandmother was secretly an Empire loyalist herself. A lot of people her age were; and she was, after all, a traditionalist, a priestess of Juno Teutonica, who disliked the revived worship of the old Germanic gods that had sprung up in recent times – “pagan” gods, she called them – and had argued with father about his insistence on naming us as he had. So she should have been pleased to have something that had belonged to the Caesars. But, as I say, we were children then. We didn’t take into account the fact that the Republic dealt harshly with anyone who practiced Caesarism. Or that whatever my grandmother’s private political beliefs might have been, father was the unquestioned master of our household, and he was a devout Republican.
“I understand you’ve been poking around that old ruined house in the woods,” my father said, a week or so later. “Stay away from it. Do you hear me? Stay away.”
And so we would have, because it was plainly an order. We didn’t disobey our father’s orders.
But then, a few days afterward, I overheard some of the older boys of the village talking about making a foray out to the haunted house. Evidently Marcus Aurelius Schwarzchild had been talking about the ghost with the polished rifle to others beside me, and they wanted the rifle. “It’s five of us against one of him,” I heard someone say. “We ought to be able to take care of him, ghost or not.”
“What if it’s a ghost rifle, though?” one of them asked. “A ghost rifle won’t be any good to us.”
“There’s no such thing as a ghost rifle,” the first speaker said. “Rifles don’t have ghosts. It’s a real rifle. And it won’t be hard for us to get it away from a ghost.”
I repeated all this to Friya.
“What should we do?” I asked her.
“Go out there and warn him. They’ll hurt him, Tyr.”
“But father said – “
“Even so. The old man’s got to go somewhere and hide. Otherwise his blood will be on our heads.”
There was no arguing with her. Either I went with her to the house in the woods that moment, or she’d go by herself. That left me with no choice. I prayed to Woden that my father wouldn’t find out, or that he’d forgive me if he did; and off we went into the woods, past Agrippina’s spring, past the statues of the pretty boy, past Baldur’s Tree, and down the now-familiar path beyond the glossy-leaved oak.
“Something’s wrong,” Friya said, as we approached the hunting lodge. “I can tell.”
Friya always had a strange way of knowing things. I saw the fear in her eyes and felt frightened myself.
We crept forward warily. There was no sign of Quintus Fabius. And when we came to the door of the lodge we saw that it was a little way ajar, and off its hinges, as if it had been forced. Friya put her hand on my arm and we stared at each other. I took a deep breath.
“You wait here,” I said, and went in.
It was frightful in there. The place had been ransacked – the furniture smashed, the cupboards overturned, the sculptures in fragments. Someone had slashed every painting to shreds. The collection of arms and armor was gone.
I went from room to room, looking for Quintus Fabius. He wasn’t there. But there were bloodstains on the floor of the main hall, still fresh, still sticky.
Friya was waiting on the porch, trembling, fighting back tears.
“We’re too late,” I told her.
It hadn’t been the boys from the village, of course. They couldn’t possibly have done such a thorough job. I realized – and surely so did Friya, though we were both too sickened by the realization to discuss it with each other – that grandmother must have told father we had found a cache of Imperial treasure in the old house, and he, good citizen that he was, had told the quaestors. Who had gone out to investigate, come upon Quintus Fabius, and recognized him for a Caesar, just as Friya had. So my eagerness to bring back a pretty gift for grandmother had been the old man’s downfall. I suppose he wouldn’t have lived much longer in any case, as frail as he was; but the guilt for what I unknowingly brought upon him is something that I’ve borne ever since.
Some years later, when the forest was mostly gone, the old house accidentally burned down. I was a young man then, and I helped out on the firefighting line. During a lull in the work I said to the captain of the fire brigade, a retired quaestor named Lucentius, “It was an Imperial hunting lodge once, wasn’t it?”
“A long time ago, yes.”
I studied him cautiously by the light of the flickering blaze. He was an older man, of my father’s generation.
Carefully I said, “When I was a boy, there was a story going around that one of the last Emperor’s brothers had hidden himself away in it. And that eventually the quaestors caught him and killed him.”
He seemed taken off guard by that. He looked surprised and, for a moment, troubled. “So you heard about that, did you?”
“I wondered if there was any truth to it. That he was a Caesar, I mean.”
Lucentius glanced away. “He was only an old tramp, is all,” he said, in a muffled tone. “An old lying tramp. Maybe he told fantastic stories to some of the gullible kids, but a tramp is all he was, an old filthy lying tramp.” He gave me a peculiar look. And then he stamped away to shout at someone who was uncoiling a hose the wrong way.
A filthy old tramp, yes. But not, I think, a liar.
He remains alive in my mind to this day, that poor old relic of the Empire. And now that I am old myself, as old, perhaps, as he was then, I understand something of what he was saying. Not his belief that there necessarily had to be a Caesar in order for there to be peace, for the Caesars were only men themselves, in no way different from the Consuls who have replaced them. But when he argued that the time of the Empire had been basically a time of peace, he may not have been really wrong, even if war had been far from unknown in Imperial days.
For I see now that war can sometimes be a kind of peace also: that the Civil Wars and the Wars of Reunification were the struggles of a sundered Empire trying to reassemble itself so peace might resume. These matters are not so simple. The Second Republic is not as virtuous as my father thought, nor was the old Empire, apparently, quite as corrupt. The only thing that seems true without dispute is that the worldwide hegemony of Roma these past two thousand years under the Empire and then under the Republic, troubled though it has occasionally been, has kept us from even worse turmoil. What if there had been no Roma? What if every region had been free to make war against its neighbors in the hope of creating the sort of Empire that the Romans were able to build? Imagine the madness of it! But the gods gave us the Romans, and the Romans gave us peace: not a perfect peace, but the best peace, perhaps, that an imperfect world could manage. Or so I think now.
In any case the Caesars are dead, and so is everyone else I have written about here, even my little sister Friya; and here I am, an old man of the Second Republic, thinking back over the past and trying to bring some sense out of it. I still have the strange dagger that Quintus Fabius gave me, the barbaric-looking one with the curious wavy blade, that came from some savage island in the Oceanus Magnus. Now and then I take it out and look at it. It shines with a kind of antique splendor in the lamplight. My eyes are too dim now to see the tiny imperial crest that someone engraved on its haft when the merchant captain who brought it back from the South Seas gave it to the Caesar of his time, four or five hundred years ago. Nor can I see the little letters, S P Q R, that are inscribed on the blade. For all I know, they were put there by the frizzy-haired tribesman who fashioned that odd, fierce weapon: for he, too, was a citizen of the Roman Empire. As in a manner of speaking are we all, even now in the days of the Second Republic. As are we all.
When I came down, Granpa’s door was barely open. A blade of candlelight from inside crossed the floor and the living room couch. Mom whispered orders. Someone prayed. When I peeked in, Mom’s hand touched the bed and her other was on Granpa’s chest. In the candlelight his mask was too thin, too much like his face. His chin had fallen. Someone closed his eyes.
I went upstairs and practiced lying stiff, my own eyes and mouth gaping in the dark, and wondered if the silence I heard would go away, if a deeper quiet would come, something Granpa could now hear. I sank backward into my mattress. I felt death like fast water rise and run over my sheets, my pillow, my ears and shoulders, the whole length of me submerged, all but my nose, a lump in the fast surface. I listened until my heart became loud, a meat-faced giant with bloody boots stomping through a village, so I awoke again and practiced not listening. I concentrated on all that was left of me, my open nostrils like two diminishing circles of breath that rose and fell.
Next came the noise of the birds and the light. Already the horizon sizzled. The distant pop and crackle of firecrackers was steadily marked more and more by an echoing boom. I remembered the excitement and the fireworks—it was the Fourth of July—and all the things my brother Rocky taught me that summer: M80s, bottle rockets, sizzlers, ashcans, and bottom-blasters.
Granpa was dead on the Fourth! He had looked like a dead man for so long and though I’d never known him when he wasn’t out of his mind, I couldn’t imagine the Fourth without him. Our entire family, all the Fitzgeralds and the Tomasinos (Aunt Maureen had married an Italian) always staked out the front of the Belleville firehouse with lawn chairs and coolers and boxes of sparklers for anyone who wanted one and all of us came to wave at Granpa in his fire chief’s hat and sash as he rode smiling like a mummy on display and waving from his own beach chair strapped to the roof of the hook and ladder. He’d been chief of the Volunteers for thirty years and honorary Parade Master every Fourth since he retired. The Fourth was the one day he got out of his pajamas. At home, he was skin and bones, his shoulders a hanger draped in a yellowed terrycloth robe as he wandered the house, as quiet as the cats. Dad explained I should treat him more like a four-year-old than a grown-up and be as patient as I would with any of my littlest cousins.
But Granpa and I had a running game of Tom and Jerry. Once I tied kite string around his ankles while he slept sitting up on the couch and when at last he stood, he toppled over the coffee table like a two-by-twelve. He didn’t even have time to put his hands out. Another time I dropped a shrew down the back of his union suit. His hair grew a little long and shaggy now and then and I got my cousins, the little Tomasino twins, Lynnie and Marie, walking tippy-toes and whispering, to put curlers in his hair while he snored. In return, I expected him if I was at my homework in the den or the kitchen having a doughnut. I could smell him or just know he was behind me and turn in time, before he put a gunnysack over my head or screeched in my ear. Once, a fireplace poker came down across my bowl as I lifted a spoonful of Cheerios. Milk went everywhere, onto the walls, the floor behind me, all over my shirt and face. Another time I was at the table doing penmanship when somehow I knew, thanks to an unmistakable sensation, a steak knife was at my temple. What I loved was to be in a quiet room, alone with my baseball cards or a book and realizing he was there too, in the chair next to me or standing with his back to the bookshelves and staring at me, his eyes lit like candles.
When Dad came to me with the news, I was in the living room watching Sunday morning cartoons. I listened politely and turned back to the TV. What concerned me though was the arrival from Vermont of my cousin Doreen, who always came for Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, and the Fourth. I was eleven and she was only nine but already in the fifth grade and smarter in her school than anyone. As far as they knew, I tolerated her because she was good at sports, being double-jointed, with quick, wiry little monkey legs. Because she was two years younger and a girl, I didn’t always treat her well, but secretly I loved her more than anyone. Always after she went home, she was all I thought of for weeks, the first thing when I opened my eyes in the morning and again as I had my cereal. For days I had long imaginary conversations with her. She was the last thing at night I saw before I fell asleep.
She was so pretty, it pained me to look at her. Her chin and cheeks and forehead were so perfectly shaped and so empty of freckles I could barely remember what she looked like. She used to squinch her nose and follow me everywhere when she was five, no matter how mean I was. Now her nose was as straight as a line drawn with a ruler and her glasses always slid down so she could peer over at me with her small gray eyes. Sometimes her eyes were green or blue, depending on her mood or the time of day, whether I was telling lies or not, whether she hated or loved me, though I never knew which color meant which.
She must have loved Granpa more than I did. She was crying into a big hanky when she stepped out of the car into the driveway. She wouldn’t look at me, though I’d been waiting for her all morning. She had come straight from church in her white stockings and blue round-toed shoes but when she finally looked at me I was startled at what a mess she was.
Aunt Angela was a mess, too. Her nose-blowing sent all three cats—Spooky, Clumpy, and mine, Ratface—around back. Uncle Paul, in a black suit and black tie, looked like he might be dead, too. He sat bolt upright in the driver’s seat and stared over the wheel after Angela and Doreen left the two passenger doors wide open.
Doreen just stood in the gravel, gripping her hanky. She stared at her shoes, her shoulders all jumpy as she sucked her lips. I looked hard at her and wondered why she was putting on this show. I had waited all morning and now that she was here, I despised her, as if she were some dressed-up circus chimp. Was she the one I loved? I wondered how to get rid of her.
Angela clumped noisily up the steps and pulled my head to her big bosom and squeezed me. She smelled sweet and sweaty, her bare arms hot on my neck for a moment before she ran indoors where the noise, the wailing, thanks to the Italians, began in earnest.
For a long time I stared curiously at Doreen, until I got bored with the pathetic little battle between her lips and her eyes.
“Hi, Doreen,” I said. “You submarine.”
Her gray eyes flashed green outrage and blue injustice. Then she said, “Hi,” and exploded into tears.
I thought of something and ran into the house. When I got back, I had two orange popsicles. She had gotten better hold of herself by then, the hanky and both her hands were in her pockets.
“Popsicle?” I asked.
She scowled. “How can you be thinking about popsicles?”
I looked at her for a long time, almost telling her I was glad Granpa Fitz was dead, then decided against it. I felt lovesick for a second, holding the two melting treats in my fists. Then I hated her again.
“Nothing wrong with popsicles,” I said. “I don’t care who died.”
“Aren’t you even upset?” she said.
“What?” I said, pretending I hadn’t understood.
“Aren’t you upset?” This time she screamed, her fists and front pockets forced down hard into the depths of her lap as she leaned toward me, peering up into my eyes, as if to see the inner dome of my empty skull.
“Why should I?” I shouted.
“Granpa Fitz is dead!”
This made me so angry, my shoulders, my arms, my whole body shook. How could she be such a little lap-dog? Who put her up to this?
“Haven’t you any sense?” I said, mimicking Mom.
“What did you say?” she said.
I could have screamed, but I whispered, “Granpa’s not dead!”
“What?” she said. “You’re sick.”
“He’s not dead,” I said. “You’ll see. At the parade. Granpa wouldn’t miss the parade. Not ever. Even if he was dead.”
Now her eyes were red with hatred. Her mouth was open, gasping for air.
“Cross my heart,” I said as she watched. I dragged my finger twice across my shirt. “Hope to die.”
There was such a fuss all morning. Two reporters from the Belleville Sentinel, the EMTs, the county coroner, the police and all the stupid little second-cousins in their church clothes came marching back and forth past us as Doreen and I sat on the porch in sunlight. We had covered a lot of ground by then.
“I can’t imagine what it’s all about,” I said and stood up. “Mom knows. So does Pop. I don’t see why everyone’s faking.”
Normally Doreen took a superior attitude whenever I got into a fix as ridiculous as this, but what pleasure our secret gave her by now. She peered intelligently down her perfect nose through her lenses at the yard, as if the inexplicable situation were some iridescent insect crawling across a slate. By then I had so easily enlisted her that I was unbearably bored. Where was Rocky? The morning before, he and Bean, his best friend, dragged me out of bed and assigned me a bag of dinged golfballs to carry down through the woods by the country club, where Bean buried the capped butt of a lead pipe in a mound of dirt. A hundred yards away, beyond an electric fence and a meadow, was the target we could see with Beanie’s binoculars. When everything was ready, he struck a match and held it while he peered through his binoculars with the other hand. Once he shouted FIRE, Rocky set an M80 to the flame then dropped it into the pipe. I shoved in a golfball and we dove for cover.
That was fun. There had been no wind and Rocky had our cannon calibrated so that pretty soon we hit the tee every shot. After the blast Bean jumped to his feet with his spyglasses and watched the old guys tee up, smoking cigars, climbing in and out of their carts oblivious to the white ordnance that bounced in their midst and danced into the high trees. Bean wouldn’t let us touch his binoculars but he gave a full report of what happened each time and Rocky made adjustments. Before long we were rolling in the dirt. One big fat guy Bean called Butterballs was so slow-moving we took three shots at him.
“Once,” Doreen said, interrupting my thoughts, “I heard Mommy say how rich she’ll be once Daddy kicks off. They both laughed but I didn’t think it was funny. Dad said if he could just convince the insurance company (Doreen looked gravely at me when she said these two words) into believing he’d fallen into the incinerator at the garbage plant, we could live like royalty. Daddy said he’d grow a long beard and come back to get hired as her gardener. That was really all he ever wanted anyway, to just dig in the dirt like a dumb old gardener.”
She put the palms of her hands up and looked at me with big eyes. I wondered if I should ditch her and head now for the woods or wait until Rocky came for me. Rocky was always out of the house before all of us. He might not even know about Granpa yet and I suspected I knew where to find him. But shouldn’t they have come and got me? Maybe Bean couldn’t get any more M80s.
“Maybe Granpa just wants to fool the insurance company so we can all live like royalty,” she said and put her chin on her knee. I could see her thinking, how do royalty live? I had no clue either and before long I went down the steps to kick gravel out of the driveway onto the lawn. After she said a few more stupid things I realized I was furious at her for buying in so easily, but when I looked at her sideways she caught my eye, becoming suspicious at once.
“Granpa’s dead,” she hissed and her lip began to waver. I hated her so much then I shivered.
“He is not, stupid.”
“Is too!” She spit the words at my feet.
“I’ll prove it to you,” I said. “At the parade.”
“You won’t!” she said, without looking up.
“Goddamn you to hell,” I said. “You’ll see.”
At noon Mrs. Falato arrived, trailed by her sons Mark and Paul with huge trays of ham, roast beef and sliced cheeses in their arms. They ran back out and returned with another tray of subs and three cases of root beer. Doreen and I had made tentative peace by then and ate in a hurry on the porch. The commotion inside, the crying, the laughter and the drinking (the liquor cabinet had been opened early in the morning) reached a hysterical volume. When we were done we hid our plates under the hedge and charged through the Whalens’ yard out to London Road and ran the whole way into town. Our place in front of the firehouse was already taken so we ran for a long time on the sidewalk, through the dense crowd of families past the Comet Market, the Presbyterian Church, past Albee’s stationers and the hardware store.
“Wait!” said Doreen and stopped and put her hands on her knees to catch her breath. I breathed fast too, but waved at her to come. The parade was about to start and we wouldn’t see a thing. When she pointed up behind me, I knew what she meant. No one was up by the flag yet except a fifth grader named Jamison who was bouncing a basketball against the pole. We ran and ducked through the gate and up the steps and arrived in full sunshine with a perfect view.
We claimed our places on the wall. We sat a minute until I said, “Save my seat” and ran back down the stairs and under the rail again, through the crowd and into Albee’s where I found myself looking up at the counter and a Styrofoam pyramid bristling with twenty-five-cent flags. Mr. Albee had turned to the top shelf for sun lotion a woman in a straw hat had asked about. In no hurry, I reached for a flag for Doreen. Then took one for me. Mr. Albee was still searching the shelf. I waited and watched him. A second later I was outside in the sunshine again, lost in the crowd. Flags waved everywhere. Everyone was all smiles. It must have been the warmest, sunniest, friendliest day in the history of America. When I heard the drums my heart nearly burst. Already our wall was a throng of kids and I charged up the steps to find Jamison standing in my spot next to Doreen.
“Hey!” I said and she looked at him sullenly.
“He’s just there till you get back,” she said.
“No, I ain’t,” he said. He had the basketball under his arm and a stripe of chocolate went from his mouth almost to his ear. He looked at me and tossed a crumpled Hershey’s wrapper into the crowd below.
“That’s my spot,” I said but he just smiled and gave me the finger.
When the trumpets sounded everyone turned, even Jamison, and I shoved him so hard he fell over an empty stroller. His basketball went bouncing onto the road. He was too surprised to even cry and the last I saw of him some adults with a picnic basket and a baby had jostled him out of the way.
“You’ll see,” I said and turned to give Doreen a flag. I said it again as the VFW brass came marching down the hill and she turned her eyes from me. Despite the excitement, the brass were a dull gang in suits and sashes and I would have shouted something rude if not for the majorette who marched in front. She was a lady I never saw except on the Fourth. I wondered who she was, embarrassed and thrilled by her tall white hat and feather, the black curls that framed her pretty pointed face, the short white marching skirt as it flapped about her thighs and her white boots that went up and up past her knees. She twirled the baton over her head, around her back and through her legs. I stared and stared at the white gloves over the elbows of her otherwise bare arms, hypnotized by a strange desire, and could find no escape from her until the Vietnam vets finally hit the drums at the hilltop. Then they sounded the trumpets and tubas and their fabulous band played medleys of tunes like “I Feel Good” and “Shake That Thing” and a jazzy version of “Sympathy for the Devil.”
We had to stand on our toes to see Jonah O’Neil. He was the most famous war hero in Belleville now because of the things he had done in Vietnam and the collection of mementos everyone said he kept in a safe in his mom’s basement. Rocky once said Jonah had eyes like a cruel retard, which had given me nightmares, but he looked pitiful and bloated when I finally saw him, with giant elephant legs, the purple nose, his face the color of a spoiled ham. No one laughed at him as he marched in his fatigues, which were tight enough to burst the buttons and zippers, or the green beret bobby-pinned to the side of his head.
Next came the Korean War vets. Granpa had been a major in Korea and these were his best pals. Like the group before them, they followed Old Glory but all had their jaws squared and their corsairs tilted jauntily on their heads. Mr. Reid, who was a Scot and must have done something in Korea as well marched alongside them in a kilt and a bearskin busby. Mostly because of the busby, they got warm applause.
Amidst all the shouting and applause and laughter, the crying, the squealing babies, the sea of flags, the noise of the bands and the fire engine strobing red and blue intermittently beyond the hill, Doreen had been silent. Now and then she stood on tip-toes for a minute to scan the crowd. Once I got tired and sat down next to her feet. Her knees and her ankles in those little white socks were so pretty I wanted to close my eyes.
“Granpa rides the hook-and-ladder,” I said, looking up at her. Since she obviously knew, she didn’t bother to answer. I wanted to tell her Granpa never marched with the WWII vets either, when they came down the hill, but that would have been pointless also. All of them—except Mr. Cleary, who had lung cancer— had always looked bigger and stronger than him. They carried an attitude of victory and heroism in a way none of the others who had come before them had and a hush came over the crowd. No one shouted. Everyone stared at this, the largest troop of all, white-haired, bone-skinny or pot-bellied old geezers in sashes and corsairs marching silently below us as I tried to imagine all the Krauts and Japs they must have killed.
This year only three from WWI were alive. They rode in a racing blue Corvette convertible driven nervously by Lucy Farr, the prom queen who must have just gotten her license. Mr. Pilsen, who was ninety-two, kept standing in the tiny back seat to throw kisses and wave his flag but Mr. Stuart who sat in front in a kaiser hat turned around every few seconds and pushed him down into his seat. The other old guy, whose name I didn’t know, seemed asleep in the back as he slouched forward, resting his big strawberry of a nose on Lucy’s shoulder.
After that came the Civil War cannons. They were pulled by horses, the big wooden spokes in a blur followed by a dozen ponies of the Kilsy Civil War & Cavalry Club. The ponies were mounted this year by Union riders with blue uniforms, sabers, black boots and white gloves. All kinds of things came next—three librarians from the public library; Boy Scout troop number 111; the Belleville Brownies; the Masons; the Farr County Clown Club. The freshmen marching band, in torn-up, ketchup-stained blouses and bandages, canvas knickers and tricornered hats came near the end and sent a wave of laughter and applause through the crowd by playing their disorganized “Yankee Doodle Dandy” with tin whistles, flutes, a parade drum, a triangle and a bugle. It seemed the whole thing would never end when a cheer went up that was so loud Doreen covered her ears and sat down. I tapped her shoulder and handed her my flag. The cheer went up again and I realized the firemen marching in front of the engines, Irishmen to a man, were singing. The crowd all up and down the street began to sway and join in too, though by then whatever it was sounded more like a brawl than a song.
As the hook-and-ladder approached I could barely see over the shoulders of the grown-ups. The third cheer was so loud I had to scream at Doreen. She took my hand and I leapt to my toes in time to see Granpa’s sash and the fire hat laid out on the seat of his empty lawn chair, which had been duct-taped to the roof over the red cab and floated away from us, far out in the middle, like a toy boat on a wide colorful river.
Doreen let go of my hand. I looked up the street and down toward St. Paul’s. The commotion was everywhere the same. Everyone in the world had crowded onto the streets of Belleville. Weekenders from Boston and New York and Montreal had come for a peek at our majorette, our soldiers, our hook-and-ladder bearing an empty lawn chair dressed with a red fire chief’s hat and a green sash. For a minute the noise and crowd were complete, a deafening loneliness, the same as the silence I heard in the morning in my bed, after concentrating so long on the puzzle of Granpa’s absence.
Doreen sat at my feet and covered her ears again. It was the strangest thing, that Granpa Fitz was dead, as if something too big to see had changed—and changed everything else in ways that were too small to see. I sat down next to her, only half intending cruelty as I whispered into her delicate hair, but she shook her head, eyes closed, hands over her ears, to stop me.
I tried again but she was trapped by something. She kept her ears covered and shook and shook her head. I waited, until a platoon of state troopers on Harley Davidsons cleared the road with their metal thunder and brought me to my feet. Rocky loved motorcycles more than anything on earth. More than God. Almost as much as he loved Granpa. You could never say anything against Granpa or the Ultra Glides when Rocky was around. Where the hell was he? Shouldn’t someone find him? And tell him? Did he know? I searched the crowd for him but it was pointless. I checked the front of the firehouse. I watched the formation of white helmets pass below us and disappear into a rumble in the crowd, then turned back to the confusion up the street. Everywhere a thousand red, white and blue flags waved. When I saw Doreen’s hands over her face, I figured at least now she could hear.
I knelt and said, “Hello, Doreen. You jelly bean. Did you see him?”
She turned a savage, unfocused glare at me. She stared at my mouth now, hating me with perfect reason, as if I’d led her into a dangerous place then run off and left her.
“Did you?” she answered. “Did you, honestly?” Something in her eyes scared me.
I almost said it was a stupid question and didn’t matter anyway. She had been such a sucker. In a moment of violent confusion I had to stand, turning my back on her, and run to the flagpole which I kicked and kicked. I began to shake and the shaking took hold of me until my nose itched. I rubbed it furiously with the backs of my hands but my cheeks got hotter, my lips and all the muscles from my nose to my chin cinched tight by the time she called me, and asked me again.
When I turned she was standing with both flags in her hand, as if offering me a flower. I showed her a fist and said I would strangle her, anything to shut her up. I pointed a finger too close to her eye. She only frowned and crossed her arms. Then she scrunched her nose and looked past me over her glasses.
*Licensed from The University of North Texas Press. Copyright 2018 by Peter Brown from A Bright Soothing noise
I’m going to a funeral, and for the occasion, I’ve chosen a knee-length black Donna Karan dress (Flashy Trash, $15), black lace bra and panties, garter belt, sheer black stockings and brown snow boots with my “For Funerals Only” black pumps stuffed in a Hello Kitty backpack. If I didn’t care at all what people think, I would have added purple elbow-length gloves and a hat with a dotted veil. I would’ve used brown eyeliner to paint a mole on one cheekbone like Marie Antoinette. I wear the garter belt in memoriam of the guy who died. He would have appreciated the effort. I also like the shiver that comes when the wind whips under my dress and tickles my bare thighs. It makes me want to squeal and bend my leg at the knee.
It’s not often I can dress this way. The people at Mitch, Saunders, Mitch and Saunders are Republican lawyers whose idea of a fashion risk is a Wile E. Coyote tie.
At the first bus stop, raincoat-wearing passengers line up at the door. I sit in the front row of seats thinking, don’t you dare sit next to me. No, not you either—when this guy steps on who looks just like the man in the Levi’s commercial. I beam thought rays at him. Fuck me. Fuck me now. The fat guy in front of him heaves into the seat next to mine. My man passes by, leaving a whiff of lemony cologne.
For the rest of the ride, I try out scenarios for how it could happen. The bus stalls, no—the bus driver has a diabetic fit and my Levi man takes control, yelling, I’ll drive! Everyone (except me) shrieks. His manly hands grip the steering wheel. I must finish this route! I run to the front of the bus, pushing people out of my way, Excuse me, excuse me, the skirt of my dress riding up my thighs. I must help him because he’s injured his left hand (it’s been sprained somehow by the fat guy), and I have to steer for him, and the only way to do that is to sit on his lap.
It’s too close to the premise of Speed, and anyway, I’d no doubt block his view and we’d crash and my mom would have to identify the body and she would be mortified to see me wearing a black lace thong.
I exit the bus at Michigan Avenue, casting one last meaningful glance at my almost-lover. He doesn’t even turn his head to look at me while I stand at the crosswalk, wishing a breeze would come along and blow my hair across my cheek.
I have a minor panic attack as I enter the church foyer, because I have forgotten how to genuflect.
Then I see the guy from Divorce Law in the last pew. I usually don’t find him attractive because his face is dented with pockmarks and he walks on the balls of his feet with his hands in his pockets, but when he turns, his gaze skimming over me, I notice he has the bluest, bluest eyes and you can’t help but wonder what he looks like naked. Maybe underneath his starched button-up oxford he’s hiding a chest rippled with muscles. Maybe he has excellent technique, very adept fingers that would make me arch my back and lose complete control, and, at our wedding, our guests would line up to congratulate us, dying to ask me what I saw in him. I would look over at his long thin, talented fingers, one now circled with a gold band, smile and say, Oh, yes, thank you for coming.
The service begins with the horn-like opening bars of “Morning Has Broken.” I squeeze in next to my friend, Jennifer Sanantini, who works as a receptionist for Fred Cornell who smokes cigars and chews gum at the same time. The casket sits in the front of the church, and all you can see of the body is the tip of the nose, sticking into the air like it’s testing the smell of the white orchids in large baskets on the floor.
The organ music falls silent when the priest approaches the pulpit. He is not your typical, sixty-eight-year-old holy man with a shaky voice and bald head. He’s about Jesus’ age when he died and he appears heterosexual. His hair springs around his head in neat whorls and he has the chiseled features like a religious figure from a stained glass window. Strong jaw, defined cheekbones, sensuous wide mouth, and sweet hands now making the sign of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Holy Mary, mother of God pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. I want to crawl under the podium and slip between his legs while he says, Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. While everyone prays, he would look down at me, there, prone on my knees. He’d push my head away, his face white. For the love of God, what are you doing? I would bow my head and say, Forgive me, Father, for I am about to sin and then I would take him in my mouth and his hands would tighten on the podium and he’d whisper, No, no, you must cease and desist, but I wouldn’t, and he would respond against his will.
Jennifer Sanantini is frowning at me and I realize I’m wiggling and I stop.
Sometimes, I worry that God listens to my thoughts and will answer stray fragments of them one day, causing me to be gang-raped in an alleyway by a pack of eighteen-year-old construction workers with Irish accents who resemble J. Crew models. I try to keep my prayers very explicit. Please let Jonathan Pervival Simmons from Accounting whom I know only to say hi to through Brenda Lesley in P.R. show up at my apartment one night, banging his fists on the door and shouting, Katie! Open up! I can’t go another minute without touching you! This, God, must happen on a night I’m wearing my red short nightgown instead of a yellow-pitted white T-shirt and my kitty-cat flannel pajama bottom and glasses. And I have definitely not picked my face and my eyes are not puffy from crying over long distance phone commercials and my bed is actually made, and he’s wearing—but, you know, sometimes I never make it beyond the door-knocking. The details are exhausting and the struggle to make it real is too tedious and so the rest of the story doesn’t seem worth the effort.
After the ceremony ends, we must file past the body and pay our last respects. I follow Jennifer Sanantini whose slip peeks under the hem of her dress. This is my first dead person in a while. I can’t stop chewing my fingernails. When I finally see him, it’s not that bad. He’s wearing a suit I don’t recognize from work. He looks the same, more or less, except it’s as though his face is made of wax, like if you took a wet washcloth and rubbed a little circle on his cheek, it’d turn shiny.
A bunch of us meet up at a semi-professional bar in Lincoln Park to drink a beer in his memory.
We’re there for about fifteen minutes when I spot this man at the end of the bar who reminds me of a boy I was in love with in college. Jon Preston. You had to say his full name, in whispered tones. He sewed patches on his jeans before it was even cool and I thought, Damnit! Why didn’t I think of that? Now I can’t wear patches because it’ll seem like I’m copying him.
I stood in awe, every moment with him was unreal, like this gift from heaven. I’d think he didn’t even know my name and then catch him staring hard at me while I was doing something stupid like trying to open the door without using my hands.
The most lucid memory I have of that time is lying on his mattress covered with dinosaur sheets. I was wearing a heavy metal square my friend gave me from Afghanistan. It hung on a leather strap around my neck. I said, Do you want me to take it off? He said, No, leave it on, and the cool gray metal thumped between us while I rocked on top of him. He looked at me with clear blue eyes, his pupils large and black with a dot of gold in the center. I wish I could draw them to show you how perfect they were and how much I wanted inside those eyes to switch places with him and know what he was seeing in me.
Three Heinekens later, this look-alike Jon Preston stands next to me. His eyes are closer together than I first thought. He says, It’s loud in here. It’s hard to talk.
I yell, What? As a joke. He repeats, It’s loud in here. That’s ten points off for not knowing how funny I am.
Then I discover he loves Annie Hall and he quotes the line about the raccoons and I believe we could fall in love and raise adorable children without pretentious names and move to the country and buy a golden retriever and name it Janet and in the winter he’d wear soft flannel shirts and heavy boots and he’d chop wood and also cook oatmeal and when he’d come in from the snow carrying an armload of wood, his cheeks would be so rosy I’d want to bite them. I ask him who his favorite artist is. Norman Rockwell. What music does he listen to? Phish. What toy did he like best when he was growing up? Huh?
I say I have to go find my friend now.
Jennifer Sanantini is listening to one of the junior lawyers tell about a messy divorce case involving a box of Penthouse Forum letters that the wife found to be harmful to their children. Jennifer laughs and nods and shakes her head and, when she sees I’m watching her and the guy is not, she wrinkles her nose and sticks out her tongue a little.
Our group has suddenly grown alcohol-maudlin, in part because someone put “Seasons in the Sun” on the jukebox and also because, after all, we did just come from a funeral. The junior lawyer starts telling another story, this one about the deceased and how he used to crack everyone up because he’d always forget to zip up his pants and once he walked around at a convention with his shirt tail hanging out of his crotch. Gary, the guy who’s always loitering by the water cooler, throws his head back and laughs and tries to put his arms around me but I see it coming and duck to inspect a non-existent run in my stocking.
I wonder what the dead man’s family remembers about him, or maybe he lived alone in an apartment overlooking Lake Michigan. Maybe he played old Frank Sinatra records over and over and only ate Swanson pot pies. Maybe he wore checkered grandpa-pajamas and thick mule slippers and maybe he looked out the window and thought, Is this everything?
I count six baseball hats and three men in Cubs T-shirts. I search for one guy I would take home with me, just one; I have to pick one or else God will kill my entire family. There is no one. This makes me want to go home, turn off the lights, lie on the floor and listen to Counting Crows’ “Omaha,” even though it makes me sad because it reminds me of my grandma, whom I miss but never call.
Jennifer acts overly concerned when I tell her I’m leaving. Are you sure you’ll be okay? Are you sure? Out of the corner of her eye, she’s looking to see if Brad, the married guy in Damage Control, notices how good of a friend she is. Brad is not; he is guzzling a beer and involved in a serious conversation about the Bulls. I admire his leather suspenders, but only because I really, really hate them.
While hailing a taxi, I pretend I’m “That Girl.” A cab zips to the curb and stops without a screech. I give the driver my address, squirming in the seat to see his dashboard ID photograph and name without him becoming suspicious.
The cabby’s neck is smooth, vulnerable, and his ears stick out. Please don’t talk to me, I pray. He says, It’s starting to snow, huh? The wiper blades squeak across the windshield.
Yes, it is.
He says, You are coming from a party?
I press my legs together. The skin sticks. I feel like he can tell what kind of underwear I’m wearing. Maybe he can even smell me. Yeah, I say. Somebody died.
We drive the rest of the way in silence. When he pulls up to my apartment, I tip him extra for not being better company.
The snow is falling in huge white flakes, God sifting great puffs of flour from the sky. The cabbie waits to see if I make it inside okay. I want to run over to his window and say, Would you like to come up for a cup of hot chocolate? Instead, I hold out my hand and catch a snowflake on my mitten, turn, and spin for him so that my skirt flares out a little.
I look back, and he is still watching me, almost smiling. He waves and starts to drive off. I say, Thank you, and run down the sidewalk to the warmth of my building.
*Licensed from The University of North Texas Press. Copyright 2018 by Aimee LaBrie from Wonderful Girl