Lena was patient, gentle, sweet and german. She had been a servant for four years and had liked it very well.
Lena had been brought from Germany to Bridgepoint by a cousin and had been in the same place there for four years.
This place Lena had found very good. There was a pleasant, unexacting mistress and her children, and they all liked Lena very well.
There was a cook there who scolded Lena a great deal but Lena’s german patience held no suffering and the good incessant woman really only scolded so for Lena’s good.
Lena’s german voice when she knocked and called the family in the morning was as awakening, as soothing, and as appealing, as a delicate soft breeze in midday, summer. She stood in the hallway every morning a long time in her unexpectant and unsuffering german patience calling to the young ones to get up. She would call and wait a long time and then call again, always even, gentle, patient, while the young ones fell back often into that precious, tense, last bit of sleeping that gives a strength of joyous vigor in the young, over them that have come to the readiness of middle age, in their awakening.
Lena had good hard work all morning, and on the pleasant, sunny afternoons she was sent out into the park to sit and watch the little two year old girl baby of the family.
The other girls, all them that make the pleasant, lazy crowd, that watch the children in the sunny afternoons out in the park, all liked the simple, gentle, german Lena very well. They all, too, liked very well to tease her, for it was so easy to make her mixed and troubled, and all helpless, for she could never learn to know just what the other quicker girls meant by the queer things they said.
The two or three of these girls, the ones that Lena always sat with, always worked together to confuse her. Still it was pleasant, all this life for Lena.
The little girl fell down sometimes and cried, and then Lena had to soothe her. When the little girl would drop her hat, Lena had to pick it up and hold it. When the little girl was bad and threw away her playthings, Lena told her she could not have them and took them from her to hold until the little girl should need them.
It was all a peaceful life for Lena, almost as peaceful as a pleasant leisure. The other girls, of course, did tease her, but then that only made a gentle stir within her.
Lena was a brown and pleasant creature, brown as blonde races often have them brown, brown, not with the yellow or the red or the chocolate brown of sun burned countries, but brown with the clear color laid flat on the light toned skin beneath, the plain, spare brown that makes it right to have been made with hazel eyes, and not too abundant straight, brown hair, hair that only later deepens itself into brown from the straw yellow of a german childhood.
Lena had the flat chest, straight back and forward falling shoulders of the patient and enduring working woman, though her body was now still in its milder girlhood and work had not yet made these lines too clear.
The rarer feeling that there was with Lena, showed in all the even quiet of her body movements, but in all it was the strongest in the patient, old-world ignorance, and earth made pureness of her brown, flat, soft featured face. Lena had eyebrows that were a wondrous thickness. They were black, and spread, and very cool, with their dark color and their beauty, and beneath them were her hazel eyes, simple and human, with the earth patience of the working, gentle, german woman.
Yes it was all a peaceful life for Lena. The other girls, of course, did tease her, but then that only made a gentle stir within her.
“What you got on your finger Lena,” Mary, one of the girls she always sat with, one day asked her. Mary was good natured, quick, intelligent and Irish.
Lena had just picked up the fancy paper made accordion that the little girl had dropped beside her, and was making it squeak sadly as she pulled it with her brown, strong, awkward finger.
“Why, what is it, Mary, paint?” said Lena, putting her finger to her mouth to taste the dirt spot.
“That’s awful poison Lena, don’t you know?” said Mary, “that green paint that you just tasted.”
Lena had sucked a good deal of the green paint from her finger. She stopped and looked hard at the finger. She did not know just how much Mary meant by what she said.
“Ain’t it poison, Nellie, that green paint, that Lena sucked just now,” said Mary. “Sure it is Lena, its real poison, I ain’t foolin’ this time anyhow.”
Lena was a little troubled. She looked hard at her finger where the paint was, and she wondered if she had really sucked it.
It was still a little wet on the edges and she rubbed it off a long time on the inside of her dress, and in between she wondered and looked at the finger and thought, was it really poison that she had just tasted.
“Ain’t it too bad, Nellie, Lena should have sucked that,” Mary said.
Nellie smiled and did not answer. Nellie was dark and thin, and looked Italian. She had a big mass of black hair that she wore high up on her head, and that made her face look very fine.
Nellie always smiled and did not say much, and then she would look at Lena to perplex her.
And so they all three sat with their little charges in the pleasant sunshine a long time. And Lena would often look at her finger and wonder if it was really poison that she had just tasted and then she would rub her finger on her dress a little harder.
Mary laughed at her and teased her and Nellie smiled a little and looked queerly at her.
Then it came time, for it was growing cooler, for them to drag together the little ones, who had begun to wander, and to take each one back to its own mother. And Lena never knew for certain whether it was really poison, that green stuff that she had tasted.
During these four years of service, Lena always spent her Sundays out at the house of her aunt, who had brought her four years before to Bridgepoint.
This aunt, who had brought Lena, four years before, to Bridgepoint, was a hard, ambitious, well meaning, german woman. Her husband was a grocer in the town, and they were very well to do. Mrs. Haydon, Lena’s aunt, had two daughters who were just beginning as young ladies, and she had a little boy who was not honest and who was very hard to manage.
Mrs. Haydon was a short, stout, hard built, german woman. She always hit the ground very firmly and compactly as she walked. Mrs. Haydon was all a compact and well hardened mass, even to her face, reddish and darkened from its early blonde, with its hearty, shiny cheeks, and doubled chin well covered over with the up roll from her short, square neck.
The two daughters, who were fourteen and fifteen, looked like unkneaded, unformed mounds of flesh beside her.
The elder girl, Mathilda, was blonde, and slow, and simple, and quite fat. The younger, Bertha, who was almost as tall as her sister, was dark, and quicker, and she was heavy, too, but not really fat.
These two girls the mother had brought up very firmly. They were well taught for their position. They were always both well dressed, in the same kinds of hats and dresses, as is becoming in two german sisters. The mother liked to have them dressed in red. Their best clothes were red dresses, made of good heavy cloth, and strongly trimmed with braid of a glistening black. They had stiff, red felt hats, trimmed with black velvet ribbon, and a bird. The mother dressed matronly, in a bonnet and in black, always sat between her two big daughters, firm, directing, and repressed.
The only weak spot in this good german woman’s conduct was the way she spoiled her boy, who was not honest and who was very hard to manage.
The father of this family was a decent, quiet, heavy, and uninterfering german man. He tried to cure the boy of his bad ways, and make him honest, but the mother could not make herself let the father manage, and so the boy was brought up very badly.
Mrs. Haydon’s girls were now only just beginning as young ladies, and so to get her niece, Lena, married, was just then the most important thing that Mrs. Haydon had to do.
Mrs. Haydon had four years before gone to Germany to see her parents, and had taken the girls with her. This visit had been for Mrs. Haydon most successful, though her children had not liked it very well.
Mrs. Haydon was a good and generous woman, and she patronized her parents grandly, and all the cousins who came from all about to see her. Mrs. Haydon’s people were of the middling class of farmers. They were not peasants, and they lived in a town of some pretension, but it all seemed very poor and smelly to Mrs. Haydon’s american born daughters.
Mrs. Haydon liked it all. It was familiar, and then here she was so wealthy and important. She listened and decided, and advised all of her relations how to do things better. She arranged their present and their future for them, and showed them how in the past they had been wrong in all their methods.
Mrs. Haydon’s only trouble was with her two daughters, whom she could not make behave well to her parents. The two girls were very nasty to all their numerous relations. Their mother could hardly make them kiss their grandparents, and every day the girls would get a scolding. But then Mrs. Haydon was so very busy that she did not have time to really manage her stubborn daughters.
These hard working, earth-rough german cousins were to these american born children, ugly and dirty, and as far below them as were italian or negro workmen, and they could not see how their mother could ever bear to touch them, and then all the women dressed so funny, and were worked all rough and different.
The two girls stuck up their noses at them all, and always talked in English to each other about how they hated all these people and how they wished their mother would not do so. The girls could talk some German, but they never chose to use it.
It was her eldest brother’s family that most interested Mrs. Haydon. Here there were eight children, and out of the eight, five of them were girls.
Mrs. Haydon thought it would be a fine thing to take one of these girls back with her to Bridgepoint and get her well started. Everybody liked that she should do so and they were all willing that it should be Lena.
Lena was the second girl in her large family. She was at this time just seventeen years old. Lena was not an important daughter in the family. She was always sort of dreamy and not there. She worked hard and went very regularly at it, but even good work never seemed to bring her near.
Lena’s age just suited Mrs. Haydon’s purpose. Lena could first go out to service, and learn how to do things, and then, when she was a little older, Mrs. Haydon could get her a good husband. And then Lena was so still and docile, she would never want to do things her own way. And then, too, Mrs. Haydon, with all her hardness had wisdom, and she could feel the rarer strain there was in Lena.
Lena was willing to go with Mrs. Haydon. Lena did not like her german life very well. It was not the hard work but the roughness that disturbed her. The people were not gentle, and the men when they were glad were very boisterous, and would lay hold of her and roughly tease her. They were good people enough around her, but it was all harsh and dreary for her.
Lena did not really know that she did not like it. She did not know that she was always dreamy and not there. She did not think whether it would be different for her away off there in Bridgepoint. Mrs. Haydon took her and got her different kinds of dresses, and then took her with them to the steamer. Lena did not really know what it was that had happened to her.
Mrs. Haydon, and her daughters, and Lena traveled second class on the steamer. Mrs. Haydon’s daughters hated that their mother should take Lena. They hated to have a cousin, who was to them, little better than a nigger, and then everybody on the steamer there would see her. Mrs. Haydon’s daughters said things like this to their mother, but she never stopped to hear them, and the girls did not dare to make their meaning very clear. And so they could only go on hating Lena hard, together. They could not stop her from going back with them to Bridgepoint.
Lena was very sick on the voyage. She thought, surely before it was over that she would die. She was so sick she could not even wish that she had not started. She could not eat, she could not moan, she was just blank and scared, and sure that every minute she would die. She could not hold herself in, nor help herself in her trouble. She just staid where she had been put, pale, and scared, and weak, and sick, and sure that she was going to die.
Mathilda and Bertha Haydon had no trouble from having Lena for a cousin on the voyage, until the last day that they were on the ship, and by that time they had made their friends and could explain.
Mrs. Haydon went down every day to Lena, gave her things to make her better, held her head when it was needful, and generally was good and did her duty by her.
Poor Lena had no power to be strong in such trouble. She did not know how to yield to her sickness nor endure. She lost all her little sense of being in her suffering. She was so scared, and then at her best, Lena, who was patient, sweet and quiet, had not self-control, nor any active courage.
Poor Lena was so scared and weak, and every minute she was sure that she would die.
After Lena was on land again a little while, she forgot all her bad suffering. Mrs. Haydon got her the good place, with the pleasant unexacting mistress, and her children, and Lena began to learn some English and soon was very happy and content.
All her Sundays out Lena spent at Mrs. Haydon’s house. Lena would have liked much better to spend her Sundays with the girls she always sat with, and who often asked her, and who teased her and made a gentle stir within her, but it never came to Lena’s unexpectant and unsuffering german nature to do something different from what was expected of her, just because she would like it that way better. Mrs. Haydon had said that Lena was to come to her house every other Sunday, and so Lena always went there.
Mrs. Haydon was the only one of her family who took any interest in Lena. Mr. Haydon did not think much of her. She was his wife’s cousin and he was good to her, but she was for him stupid, and a little simple, and very dull, and sure some day to need help and to be in trouble. All young poor relations, who were brought from Germany to Bridgepoint were sure, before long, to need help and to be in trouble.
The little Haydon boy was always very nasty to her. He was a hard child for any one to manage, and his mother spoiled him very badly. Mrs. Haydon’s daughters as they grew older did not learn to like Lena any better. Lena never knew that she did not like them either. She did not know that she was only happy with the other quicker girls, she always sat with in the park, and who laughed at her and always teased her.
Mathilda Haydon, the simple, fat, blonde, older daughter felt very badly that she had to say that this was her cousin Lena, this Lena who was little better for her than a nigger. Mathilda was an overgrown, slow, flabby, blonde, stupid, fat girl, just beginning as a woman; thick in her speech and dull and simple in her mind, and very jealous of all her family and of other girls, and proud that she could have good dresses and new hats and learn music, and hating very badly to have a cousin who was a common servant. And then Mathilda remembered very strongly that dirty nasty place that Lena came from and that Mathilda had so turned up her nose at, and where she had been made so angry because her mother scolded her and liked all those rough cow-smelly people.
Then, too, Mathilda would get very mad when her mother had Lena at their parties, and when she talked about how good Lena was, to certain german mothers in whose sons, perhaps, Mrs. Haydon might find Lena a good husband. All this would make the dull, blonde, fat Mathilda very angry: Sometimes she would get so angry that she would, in her thick, slow way, and with jealous anger blazing in her light blue eyes, tell her mother that she did not see how she could like that nasty Lena; and then her mother would scold Mathilda, and tell her that she knew her cousin Lena was poor and Mathilda must be good to poor people.
Mathilda Haydon did not like relations to be poor. She told all her girl friends what she thought of Lena, and so the girls would never talk to Lena at Mrs. Haydon’s parties. But Lena in her unsuffering and unexpectant patience never really knew that she was slighted. When Mathilda was with her girls in the street or in the park and would see Lena, she always turned up her nose and barely nodded to her, and then she would tell her friends how funny her mother was to take care of people like that Lena, and how, back in Germany, all Lena’s people lived just like pigs.
The younger daughter, the dark, large, but not fat, Bertha Haydon, who was very quick in her mind, and in her ways, and who was the favorite with her father, did not like Lena, either. She did not like her because for her Lena was a fool and so stupid, and she would let those Irish and Italian girls laugh at her and tease her, and everybody always made fun of Lena, and Lena never got mad, or even had sense enough to know that they were all making an awful fool of her.
Bertha Haydon hated people to be fools. Her father, too, thought Lena was a fool, and so neither the father nor the daughter ever paid any attention to Lena, although she came to their house every other Sunday.
Lena did not know how all the Haydons felt. She came to her aunt’s house all her Sunday afternoons that she had out, because Mrs. Haydon had told her she must do so. In the same way Lena always saved all of her wages. She never thought of any way to spend it. The german cook, the good woman who always scolded Lena, helped her to put it in the bank each month, as soon as she got it. Sometimes before it got into the bank to be taken care of, somebody would ask Lena for it. The little Haydon boy sometimes asked and would get it, and sometimes some of the girls, the ones Lena always sat with, needed some more money; but the german cook, who always scolded Lena, saw to it that this did not happen very often. When it did happen she would scold Lena very sharply, and for the next few months she would not let Lena touch her wages, but put it in the bank for her on the same day that Lena got it.
So Lena always saved her wages, for she never thought to spend them, and she always went to her aunt’s house for her Sundays because she did not know that she could do anything different.
Mrs. Haydon felt more and more every year that she had done right to bring Lena back with her, for it was all coming out just as she had expected. Lena was good and never wanted her own way, she was learning English, and saving all her wages, and soon Mrs. Haydon would get her a good husband.
All these four years Mrs. Haydon was busy looking around among all the german people that she knew for the right man to be Lena’s husband, and now at last she was quite decided.
The man Mrs. Haydon wanted for Lena was a young german-american tailor, who worked with his father. He was good and all the family were very saving, and Mrs. Haydon was sure that this would be just right for Lena, and then too, this young tailor always did whatever his father and his mother wanted.
This old german tailor and his wife, the father and the mother of Herman Kreder, who was to marry Lena Mainz, were very thrifty, careful people. Herman was the only child they had left with them, and he always did everything they wanted. Herman was now twenty-eight years old, but he had never stopped being scolded and directed by his father and his mother. And now they wanted to see him married.
Herman Kreder did not care much to get married. He was a gentle soul and a little fearful. He had a sullen temper, too. He was obedient to his father and his mother. He always did his work well. He often went out on Saturday nights and on Sundays, with other men. He liked it with them but he never became really joyous. He liked to be with men and he hated to have women with them. He was obedient to his mother, but he did not care much to get married.
Mrs. Haydon and the elder Kreders had often talked the marriage over. They all three liked it very well. Lena would do anything that Mrs. Haydon wanted, and Herman was always obedient in everything to his father and his mother. Both Lena and Herman were saving and good workers and neither of them ever wanted their own way.
The elder Kreders, everybody knew, had saved up all their money, and they were hard, good german people, and Mrs. Haydon was sure that with these people Lena would never be in any trouble. Mr. Haydon would not say anything about it. He knew old Kreder had a lot of money and owned some good houses, and he did not care what his wife did with that simple, stupid Lena, so long as she would be sure never to need help or to be in trouble.
Lena did not care much to get married. She liked her life very well where she was working. She did not think much about Herman Kreder. She thought he was a good man and she always found him very quiet. Neither of them ever spoke much to the other. Lena did not care much just then about getting married.
Mrs. Haydon spoke to Lena about it very often. Lena never answered anything at all. Mrs. Haydon thought, perhaps Lena did not like Herman Kreder. Mrs. Haydon could not believe that any girl not even Lena, really had no feeling about getting married.
Mrs. Haydon spoke to Lena very often about Herman. Mrs. Haydon sometimes got very angry with Lena. She was afraid that Lena, for once, was going to be stubborn, now when it was all fixed right for her to be married.
“Why you stand there so stupid, why don’t you answer, Lena,” said Mrs. Haydon one Sunday, at the end of a long talking that she was giving Lena about Herman Kreder, and about Lena’s getting married to him.
“Yes ma’am,” said Lena, and then Mrs. Haydon was furious with this stupid Lena. “Why don’t you answer with some sense, Lena, when I ask you if you don’t like Herman Kreder. You stand there so stupid and don’t answer just like you ain’t heard a word what I been saying to you. I never see anybody like you, Lena. If you going to burst out at all, why don’t you burst out sudden instead of standing there so silly and don’t answer. And here I am so good to you, and find you a good husband so you can have a place to live in all your own. Answer me, Lena, don’t you like Herman Kreder? He is a fine young fellow, almost too good for you, Lena, when you stand there so stupid and don’t make no answer. There ain’t many poor girls that get the chance you got now to get married.”
“Why, I do anything you say, Aunt Mathilda. Yes, I like him. He don’t say much to me, but I guess he is a good man, and I do anything you say for me to do.”
“Well then Lena, why you stand there so silly all the time and not answer when I asked you.”
“I didn’t hear you say you wanted I should say anything to you. I didn’t know you wanted me to say nothing. I do whatever you tell me it’s right for me to do. I marry Herman Kreder, if you want me.”
And so for Lena Mainz the match was made.
Old Mrs. Kreder did not discuss the matter with her Herman. She never thought that she needed to talk such things over with him. She just told him about getting married to Lena Mainz who was a good worker and very saving and never wanted her own way, and Herman made his usual little grunt in answer to her.
Mrs. Kreder and Mrs. Haydon fixed the day and made all the arrangements for the wedding and invited everybody who ought to be there to see them married.
In three months Lena Mainz and Herman Kreder were to be married.
Mrs. Haydon attended to Lena’s getting all the things that she needed. Lena had to help a good deal with the sewing. Lena did not sew very well. Mrs. Haydon scolded because Lena did not do it better, but then she was very good to Lena, and she hired a girl to come and help her. Lena still stayed on with her pleasant mistress, but she spent all her evenings and her Sundays with her aunt and all the sewing.
Mrs. Haydon got Lena some nice dresses. Lena liked that very well. Lena liked having new hats even better, and Mrs. Haydon had some made for her by a real milliner who made them very pretty.
Lena was nervous these days, but she did not think much about getting married. She did not know really what it was, that, which was always coming nearer.
Lena liked the place where she was with the pleasant mistress and the good cook, who always scolded, and she liked the girls she always sat with. She did not ask if she would like being married any better. She always did whatever her aunt said and expected, but she was always nervous when she saw the Kreders with their Herman. She was excited and she liked her new hats, and everybody teased her and every day her marrying was coming nearer, and yet she did not really know what it was, this that was about to happen to her.
Herman Kreder knew more what it meant to be married and he did not like it very well. He did not like to see girls and he did not want to have to have one always near him. Herman always did everything that his father and his mother wanted and now they wanted that he should be married.
Herman had a sullen temper; he was gentle and he never said much. He liked to go out with other men, but he never wanted that there should be any women with them. The men all teased him about getting married. Herman did not mind the teasing but he did not like very well the getting married and having a girl always with him.
Three days before the wedding day, Herman went away to the country to be gone over Sunday. He and Lena were to be married Tuesday afternoon. When the day came Herman had not been seen or heard from.
The old Kreder couple had not worried much about it. Herman always did everything they wanted and he would surely come back in time to get married. But when Monday night came, and there was no Herman, they went to Mrs. Haydon to tell her what had happened.
Mrs. Haydon got very much excited. It was hard enough to work so as to get everything all ready, and then to have that silly Herman go off that way, so no one could tell what was going to happen. Here was Lena and everything all ready, and now they would have to make the wedding later so that they would know that Herman would be sure to be there.
Mrs. Haydon was very much excited, and then she could not say much to the old Kreder couple. She did not want to make them angry, for she wanted very badly now that Lena should be married to their Herman.
At last it was decided that the wedding should be put off a week longer. Old Mr. Kreder would go to New York to find Herman, for it was very likely that Herman had gone there to his married sister.
Mrs. Haydon sent word around, about waiting until a week from that Tuesday, to everybody that had been invited, and then Tuesday morning she sent for Lena to come down to see her.
Mrs. Haydon was very angry with poor Lena when she saw her. She scolded her hard because she was so foolish, and now Herman had gone off and nobody could tell where he had gone to, and all because Lena always was so dumb and silly. And Mrs. Haydon was just like a mother to her, and Lena always stood there so stupid and did not answer what anybody asked her, and Herman was so silly too, and now his father had to go and find him. Mrs. Haydon did not think that any old people should be good to their children. Their children always were so thankless, and never paid any attention, and older people were always doing things for their good. Did Lena think it gave Mrs. Haydon any pleasure, to work so hard to make Lena happy, and get her a good husband, and then Lena was so thankless and never did anything that anybody wanted. It was a lesson to poor Mrs. Haydon not to do things any more for anybody. Let everybody take care of themselves and never come to her with any troubles; she knew better now than to meddle to make other people happy. It just made trouble for her and her husband did not like it. He always said she was too good, and nobody ever thanked her for it, and there Lena was always standing stupid and not answering anything anybody wanted. Lena could always talk enough to those silly girls she liked so much, and always sat with, but who never did anything for her except to take away her money, and here was her aunt who tried so hard and was so good to her and treated her just like one of her own children and Lena stood there, and never made any answer and never tried to please her aunt, or to do anything that her aunt wanted. “No, it ain’t no use your standin’ there and cryin’, now, Lena. Its too late now to care about that Herman. You should have cared some before, and then you wouldn’t have to stand and cry now, and be a disappointment to me, and then I get scolded by my husband for taking care of everybody, and nobody ever thankful. I am glad you got the sense to feel sorry now, Lena, anyway, and I try to do what I can to help you out in your trouble, only you don’t deserve to have anybody take any trouble for you. But perhaps you know better next time. You go home now and take care you don’t spoil your clothes and that new hat, you had no business to be wearin’ that this morning, but you ain’t got no sense at all, Lena. I never in my life see anybody be so stupid.”
Mrs. Haydon stopped and poor Lena stood there in her hat, all trimmed with pretty flowers, and the tears coming out of her eyes, and Lena did not know what it was that she had done, only she was not going to be married and it was a disgrace for a girl to be left by a man on the very day she was to be married.
Lena went home all alone, and cried in the street car.
Poor Lena cried very hard all alone in the street car. She almost spoiled her new hat with her hitting it against the window in her crying. Then she remembered that she must not do so.
The conductor was a kind man and he was very sorry when he saw her crying. “Don’t feel so bad, you get another feller, you are such a nice girl,” he said to make her cheerful. “But Aunt Mathilda said now, I never get married,” poor Lena sobbed out for her answer. “Why you really got trouble like that,” said the conductor, “I just said that now to josh you. I didn’t ever think you really was left by a feller. He must be a stupid feller. But don’t you worry, he wasn’t much good if he could go away and leave you, lookin’ to be such a nice girl. You just tell all your trouble to me, and I help you.” The car was empty and the conductor sat down beside her to put his arm around her, and to be a comfort to her. Lena suddenly remembered where she was, and if she did things like that her aunt would scold her. She moved away from the man into the corner. He laughed, “Don’t be scared,” he said, “I wasn’t going to hurt you. But you just keep up your spirit. You are a real nice girl, and you’ll be sure to get a real good husband. Don’t you let nobody fool you. You’re all right and I don’t want to scare you.”
The conductor went back to his platform to help a passenger get on the car. All the time Lena stayed in the street car, he would come in every little while and reassure her, about her not to feel so bad about a man who hadn’t no more sense than to go away and leave her. She’d be sure yet to get a good man, she needn’t be so worried, he frequently assured her.
He chatted with the other passenger who had just come in, a very well dressed old man, and then with another who came in later, a good sort of a working man, and then another who came in, a nice lady, and he told them all about Lena’s having trouble, and it was too bad there were men who treated a poor girl so badly. And everybody in the car was sorry for poor Lena and the workman tried to cheer her, and the old man looked sharply at her, and said she looked like a good girl, but she ought to be more careful and not to be so careless, and things like that would not happen to her, and the nice lady went and sat beside her and Lena liked it, though she shrank away from being near her.
So Lena was feeling a little better when she got off the car, and the conductor helped her, and he called out to her, “You be sure you keep up a good heart now. He wasn’t no good that feller and you were lucky for to lose him. You’ll get a real man yet, one that will be better for you. Don’t you be worried, you’re a real nice girl as I ever see in such trouble,” and the conductor shook his head and went back into his car to talk it over with the other passengers he had there.
The german cook, who always scolded Lena, was very angry when she heard the story. She never did think Mrs. Haydon would do so much for Lena, though she was always talking so grand about what she could do for everybody. The good german cook always had been a little distrustful of her. People who always thought they were so much never did really do things right for anybody. Not that Mrs. Haydon wasn’t a good woman. Mrs. Haydon was a real, good, german woman, and she did really mean to do well by her niece Lena. The cook knew that very well, and she had always said so, and she always had liked and respected Mrs. Haydon, who always acted very proper to her, and Lena was so backward, when there was a man to talk to, Mrs. Haydon did have hard work when she tried to marry Lena. Mrs. Haydon was a good woman, only she did talk sometimes too grand. Perhaps this trouble would make her see it wasn’t always so easy to do, to make everybody do everything just like she wanted. The cook was very sorry now for Mrs. Haydon. All this must be such a disappointment, and such a worry to her, and she really had always been very good to Lena. But Lena had better go and put on her other clothes and stop all that crying. That wouldn’t do nothing now to help her, and if Lena would be a good girl, and just be real patient, her aunt would make it all come out right yet for her. “I just tell Mrs. Aldrich, Lena, you stay here yet a little longer. You know she is always so good to you, Lena, and I know she let you, and I tell her all about that stupid Herman Kreder. I got no patience, Lena, with anybody who can be so stupid. You just stop now with your crying, Lena, and take off them good clothes and put them away so you don’t spoil them when you need them, and you can help me with the dishes and everything will come off better for you. You see if I ain’t right by what I tell you. You just stop crying now Lena quick, or else I scold you.”
Lena still choked a little and was very miserable inside her but she did everything just as the cook told her.
The girls Lena always sat with were very sorry to see her look so sad with her trouble. Mary the Irish girl sometimes got very angry with her. Mary was always very hot when she talked to Lena’s aunt Mathilda, who thought she was so grand, and had such stupid, stuck up daughters. Mary wouldn’t be a fat fool like that ugly tempered Mathilda Haydon, not for anything anybody could ever give her. How Lena could keep on going there so much when they all always acted as if she was just dirt to them, Mary never could see. But Lena never had any sense of how she should make people stand round for her, and that was always all the trouble with her. And poor Lena, she was so stupid to be sorry for losing that gawky fool who didn’t ever know what he wanted and just said “ja” to his mamma and his papa, like a baby, and was scared to look at a girl straight, and then sneaked away the last day like as if somebody was going to do something to him. Disgrace, Lena talking about disgrace! It was a disgrace for a girl to be seen with the likes of him, let alone to be married to him. But that poor Lena, she never did know how to show herself off for what she was really. Disgrace to have him go away and leave her. Mary would just like to get a chance to show him. If Lena wasn’t worth fifteen like Herman Kreder, Mary would just eat her own head all up. It was a good riddance Lena had of that Herman Kreder and his stingy, dirty parents, and if Lena didn’t stop crying about it — Mary would just naturally despise her.
Poor Lena, she knew very well how Mary meant it all, this she was always saying to her. But Lena was very miserable inside her. She felt the disgrace it was for a decent german girl that a man should go away and leave her. Lena knew very well that her aunt was right when she said the way Herman had acted to her was a disgrace to everyone that knew her. Mary and Nellie and the other girls she always sat with were always very good to Lena but that did not make her trouble any better. It was a disgrace the way Lena had been left, to any decent family, and that could never be made any different to her.
And so the slow days wore on, and Lena never saw her Aunt Mathilda. At last on Sunday she got word by a boy to go and see her aunt Mathilda. Lena’s heart beat quick for she was very nervous now with all this that had happened to her. She went just as quickly as she could to see her Aunt Mathilda.
Mrs. Haydon quick, as soon as she saw Lena, began to scold her for keeping her aunt waiting so long for her, and for not coming in all the week to see her, to see if her aunt should need her, and so her aunt had to send a boy to tell her. But it was easy, even for Lena, to see that her aunt was not really angry with her. It wasn’t Lena’s fault, went on Mrs. Haydon, that everything was going to happen all right for her. Mrs. Haydon was very tired taking all this trouble for her, and when Lena couldn’t even take trouble to come and see her aunt, to see if she needed anything to tell her. But Mrs. Haydon really never minded things like that when she could do things for anybody. She was tired now, all the trouble she had been taking to make things right for Lena, but perhaps now Lena heard it she would learn a little to be thankful to her. “You get all ready to be married Tuesday, Lena, you hear me,” said Mrs. Haydon to her. “You come here Tuesday morning and I have everything all ready for you. You wear your new dress I got you, and your hat with all them flowers on it, and you be very careful coming you don’t get your things all dirty, you so careless all the time, Lena, and not thinking, and you act sometimes you never got no head at all on you. You go home now, and you tell your Mrs. Aldrich that you leave her Tuesday. Don’t you go forgetting now, Lena, anything I ever told you what you should do to be careful. You be a good girl, now Lena. You get married Tuesday to Herman Kreder.” And that was all Lena ever knew of what had happened all this week to Herman Kreder. Lena forgot there was anything to know about it. She was really to be married Tuesday, and her Aunt Mathilda said she was a good girl, and now there was no disgrace left upon her.
Lena now fell back into the way she always had of being always dreamy and not there, the way she always had been, except for the few days she was so excited, because she had been left by a man the very day she was to have been married. Lena was a little nervous all these last days, but she did not think much about what it meant for her to be married.
Herman Kreder was not so content about it. He was quiet and was sullen and he knew he could not help it. He knew now he just had to let himself get married. It was not that Herman did not like Lena Mainz. She was as good as any other girl could be for him. She was a little better perhaps than other girls he saw, she was so very quiet, but Herman did not like to always have to have a girl around him. Herman had always done everything that his mother and his father wanted. His father had found him in New York, where Herman had gone to be with his married sister.
Herman’s father when he had found him coaxed Herman a long time and went on whole days with his complaining to him, always troubled but gentle and quite patient with him, and always he was worrying to Herman about what was the right way his boy Herman should always do, always whatever it was his mother ever wanted from him, and always Herman never made him any answer.
Old Mr. Kreder kept on saying to him, he did not see how Herman could think now, it could be any different. When you make a bargain you just got to stick right to it, that was the only way old Mr. Kreder could ever see it, and saying you would get married to a girl and she got everything all ready, that was a bargain just like one you make in business and Herman he had made it, and now Herman he would just have to do it, old Mr. Kreder didn’t see there was any other way a good boy like his Herman had, to do it. And then too that Lena Mainz was such a nice girl and Herman hadn’t ought to really give his father so much trouble and make him pay out all that money, to come all the way to New York just to find him, and they both lose all that time from their working, when all Herman had to do was just to stand up, for an hour, and then he would be all right married, and it would be all over for him, and then everything at home would never be any different to him.
And his father went on; there was his poor mother saying always how her Herman always did everything before she ever wanted, and now just because he got notions in him, and wanted to show people how he could be stubborn, he was making all this trouble for her, and making them pay all that money just to run around and find him. “You got no idea Herman, how bad mama is feeling about the way you been acting Herman,” said old Mr. Kreder to him. “She says she never can understand how you can be so thankless Herman. It hurts her very much you been so stubborn, and she find you such a nice girl for you, like Lena Mainz who is always just so quiet and always saves up all her wages, and she never wanting her own way at all like some girls are always all the time to have it, and you mama trying so hard, just so you could be comfortable Herman to be married, and then you act so stubborn Herman. You like all young people Herman, you think only about yourself, and what you are just wanting, and your mama she is thinking only what is good for you to have, for you in the future. Do you think your mama wants to have a girl around to be a bother, for herself, Herman. Its just for you Herman she is always thinking, and she talks always about how happy she will be, when she sees her Herman married to a nice girl, and then when she fixed it all up so good for you, so it never would be any bother to you, just the way she wanted you should like it, and you say yes all right, I do it, and then you go away like this and act stubborn, and make all this trouble everybody to take for you, and we spend money, and I got to travel all round to find you. You come home now with me Herman and get married, and I tell your mama she better not say anything to you about how much it cost me to come all the way to look for you — Hey Herman,” said his father coaxing, “Hey, you come home now and get married. All you got to do Herman is just to stand up for an hour Herman, and then you don’t never to have any more bother to it — Hey Herman! — you come home with me to-morrow and get married. Hey Herman.”
Herman’s married sister liked her brother Herman, and she had always tried to help him, when there was anything she knew he wanted. She liked it that he was so good and always did everything that their father and their mother wanted, but still she wished it could be that he could have more his own way, if there was anything he ever wanted.
But now she thought Herman with his girl was very funny. She wanted that Herman should be married. She thought it would do him lots of good to get married. She laughed at Herman when she heard the story. Until his father came to find him, she did not know why it was Herman had come just then to New York to see her. When she heard the story she laughed a good deal at her brother Herman and teased him a good deal about his running away, because he didn’t want to have a girl to be all the time around him.
Herman’s married sister liked her brother Herman, and she did not want him not to like to be with women. He was good, her brother Herman, and it would surely do him good to get married. It would make him stand up for himself stronger. Herman’s sister always laughed at him and always she would try to reassure him. “Such a nice man as my brother Herman acting like as if he was afraid of women. Why the girls all like a man like you Herman, if you didn’t always run away when you saw them. It do you good really Herman to get married, and then you got somebody you can boss around when you want to. It do you good Herman to get married, you see if you don’t like it, when you really done it. You go along home now with papa, Herman and get married to that Lena. You don’t know how nice you like it Herman when you try once how you can do it. You just don’t be afraid of nothing, Herman. You good enough for any girl to marry, Herman. Any girl be glad to have a man like you to be always with them Herman. You just go along home with papa and try it what I say, Herman. Oh you so funny Herman, when you sit there, and then run away and leave your girl behind you. I know she is crying like anything Herman for to lose you. Don’t be bad to her Herman. You go along home with papa now and get married Herman. I’d be awful ashamed Herman, to really have a brother didn’t have spirit enough to get married, when a girl is just dying for to have him. You always like me to be with you Herman. I don’t see why you say you don’t want a girl to be all the time around you. You always been good to me Herman, and I know you always be good to that Lena, and you soon feel just like as if she had always been there with you. Don’t act like as if you wasn’t a nice strong man, Herman. Really I laugh at you Herman, but you know I like awful well to see you real happy. You go home and get married to that Lena, Herman. She is a real pretty girl and real nice and good and quiet and she make my brother Herman very happy. You just stop your fussing now with Herman, papa. He go with you to-morrow papa, and you see he like it so much to be married, he make everybody laugh just to see him be so happy. Really truly, that’s the way it will be with you Herman. You just listen to me what I tell you Herman.” And so his sister laughed at him and reassured him, and his father kept on telling what the mother always said about her Herman, and he coaxed him and Herman never said anything in answer, and his sister packed his things up and was very cheerful with him, and she kissed him, and then she laughed and then she kissed him, and his father went and bought the tickets for the train, and at last late on Sunday he brought Herman back to Bridgepoint with him.
It was always very hard to keep Mrs. Kreder from saying what she thought, to her Herman, but her daughter had written her a letter, so as to warn her not to say anything about what he had been doing, to him, and her husband came in with Herman and said, “Here we are come home mama, Herman and me, and we are very tired it was so crowded coming,” and then he whispered to her. “You be good to Herman, mama, he didn’t mean to make us so much trouble,” and so old Mrs. Kreder, held in what she felt was so strong in her to say to her Herman. She just said very stiffly to him, “I’m glad to see you come home to-day, Herman.” Then she went to arrange it all with Mrs. Haydon.
Herman was now again just like he always had been, sullen and very good, and very quiet, and always ready to do whatever his mother and his father wanted. Tuesday morning came, Herman got his new clothes on and went with his father and his mother to stand up for an hour and get married. Lena was there in her new dress, and her hat with all the pretty flowers, and she was very nervous for now she knew she was really very soon to be married. Mrs. Haydon had everything all ready. Everybody was there just as they should be and very soon Herman Kreder and Lena Mainz were married.
When everything was really over, they went back to the Kreder house together. They were all now to live together, Lena and Herman and the old father and the old mother, in the house where Mr. Kreder had worked so many years as a tailor, with his son Herman always there to help him.
Irish Mary had often said to Lena she never did see how Lena could ever want to have anything to do with Herman Kreder and his dirty stingy parents. The old Kreders were to an Irish nature, a stingy, dirty couple. They had not the free-hearted, thoughtless, fighting, mud bespattered, ragged, peat-smoked cabin dirt that irish Mary knew and could forgive and love. Theirs was the german dirt of saving, of being dowdy and loose and foul in your clothes so as to save them and yourself in washing, having your hair greasy to save it in the soap and drying, having your clothes dirty, not in freedom, but because so it was cheaper, keeping the house close and smelly because so it cost less to get it heated, living so poorly not only so as to save money but so they should never even know themselves that they had it, working all the time not only because from their nature they just had to and because it made them money but also that they never could be put in any way to make them spend their money.
This was the place Lena now had for her home and to her it was very different than it could be for an irish Mary. She too was german and was thrifty, though she was always so dreamy and not there. Lena was always careful with things and she always saved her money, for that was the only way she knew how to do it. She never had taken care of her own money and she never had thought how to use it.
Lena Mainz had been, before she was Mrs. Herman Kreder, always clean and decent in her clothes and in her person, but it was not because she ever thought about it or really needed so to have it, it was the way her people did in the german country where she came from, and her Aunt Mathilda and the good german cook who always scolded, had kept her on and made her, with their scoldings, always more careful to keep clean and to wash real often. But there was no deep need in all this for Lena and so, though Lena did not like the old Kreders, though she really did not know that, she did not think about their being stingy dirty people.
Herman Kreder was cleaner than the old people, just because it was his nature to keep cleaner, but he was used to his mother and his father, and he never thought that they should keep things cleaner. And Herman too always saved all his money, except for that little beer he drank when he went out with other men of an evening the way he always liked to do it, and he never thought of any other way to spend it. His father had always kept all the money for them and he always was doing business with it. And then too Herman really had no money, for he always had worked for his father, and his father had never thought to pay him.
And so they began all four to live in the Kreder house together, and Lena began soon with it to look careless and a little dirty, and to be more lifeless with it, and nobody ever noticed much what Lena wanted, and she never really knew herself what she needed.
The only real trouble that came to Lena with their living all four there together, was the way old Mrs. Kreder scolded. Lena had always been used to being scolded, but this scolding of old Mrs. Kreder was very different from the way she ever before had had to endure it.
Herman, now he was married to her, really liked Lena very well. He did not care very much about her but she never was a bother to him being there around him, only when his mother worried and was nasty to them because Lena was so careless, and did not know how to save things right for them with their eating, and all the other ways with money, that the old woman had to save it.
Herman Kreder had always done everything his mother and his father wanted but he did not really love his parents very deeply. With Herman it was always only that he hated to have any struggle. It was all always all right with him when he could just go along and do the same thing over every day with his working, and not to hear things, and not to have people make him listen to their anger. And now his marriage, and he just knew it would, was making trouble for him. It made him hear more what his mother was always saying, with her scolding. He had to really hear it now because Lena was there, and she was so scared and dull always when she heard it. Herman knew very well with his mother, it was all right if one ate very little and worked hard all day and did not hear her when she scolded, the way Herman always had done before they were so foolish about his getting married and having a girl there to be all the time around him, and now he had to help her so the girl could learn too, not to hear it when his mother scolded, and not to look so scared, and not to eat much, and always to be sure to save it.
Herman really did not know very well what he could do to help Lena to understand it. He could never answer his mother back to help Lena, that never would make things any better for her, and he never could feel in himself any way to comfort Lena, to make her strong not to hear his mother, in all the awful ways she always scolded. It just worried Herman to have it like that all the time around him. Herman did not know much about how a man could make a struggle with a mother, to do much to keep her quiet, and indeed Herman never knew much how to make a struggle against anyone who really wanted to have anything very badly. Herman all his life never wanted anything so badly, that he would really make a struggle against any one to get it. Herman all his life only wanted to live regular and quiet, and not talk much and to do the same way every day like every other with his working. And now his mother had made him get married to this Lena and now with his mother making all that scolding, he had all this trouble and this worry always on him.
Mrs. Haydon did not see Lena now very often. She had not lost her interest in her niece Lena, but Lena could not come much to her house to see her, it would not be right, now Lena was a married woman. And then too Mrs. Haydon had her hands full just then with her two daughters, for she was getting them ready to find them good husbands, and then too her own husband now worried her very often about her always spoiling that boy of hers, so he would be sure to turn out no good and be a disgrace to a german family, and all because his mother always spoiled him. All these things were very worrying now to Mrs. Haydon, but still she wanted to be good to Lena, though she could not see her very often. She only saw her when Mrs. Haydon went to call on Mrs. Kreder or when Mrs. Kreder came to see Mrs. Haydon, and that never could be very often. Then too these days Mrs. Haydon could not scold Lena, Mrs. Kreder was always there with her, and it would not be right to scold Lena, when Mrs. Kreder was there, who had now the real right to do it. And so her aunt always said nice things now to Lena, and though Mrs. Haydon sometimes was a little worried when she saw Lena looking sad and not careful, she did not have time just then to really worry much about it.
Lena now never any more saw the girls she always used to sit with. She had no way now to see them and it was not in Lena’s nature to search out ways to see them, nor did she now ever think much of the days when she had been used to see them. They never any of them had come to the Kreder house to see her. Not even Irish Mary had ever thought to come to see her. Lena had been soon forgotten by them. They had soon passed away from Lena and now Lena never thought any more that she had ever known them.
The only one of her old friends who tried to know what Lena liked and what she needed, and who always made Lena come to see her, was the good german cook who had always scolded. She now scolded Lena hard for letting herself go so, and going out when she was looking so untidy. “I know you going to have a baby Lena, but that’s no way for you to be looking. I am ashamed most to see you come and sit here in my kitchen, looking so sloppy and like you never used to Lena. I never see anybody like you Lena. Herman is very good to you, you always say so, and he don’t treat you bad even though you don’t deserve to have anybody good to you, you so careless all the time, Lena, letting yourself go like you never had anybody tell you what was the right way you should know how to be looking. No, Lena, I don’t see no reason you should let yourself go so and look so untidy Lena, so I am ashamed to see you sit there looking so ugly, Lena. No Lena that ain’t no way ever I see a woman make things come out better, letting herself go so every way and crying all the time like as if you had real trouble. I never wanted to see you marry Herman Kreder, Lena, I knew what you got to stand with that old woman always, and that old man, he is so stingy too and he don’t say things out but he ain’t any better in his heart than his wife with her bad ways, I know that Lena, I know they don’t hardly give you enough to eat, Lena, I am real sorry for you Lena, you know that Lena, but that ain’t any way to be going round so untidy Lena, even if you have got all that trouble. You never see me do like that Lena, though sometimes I got a headache so I can’t see to stand to be working hardly, and nothing comes right with all my cooking, but I always see Lena, I look decent. That’s the only way a german girl can make things come out right Lena. You hear me what I am saying to you Lena. Now you eat something nice Lena, I got it all ready for you, and you wash up and be careful Lena and the baby will come all right to you, and then I make your Aunt Mathilda see that you live in a house soon all alone with Herman and your baby, and then everything go better for you. You hear me what I say to you Lena. Now don’t let me ever see you come looking like this any more Lena, and you just stop with that always crying. You ain’t got no reason to be sitting there now with all that crying, I never see anybody have trouble it did them any good to do the way you are doing, Lena. You hear me Lena. You go home now and you be good the way I tell you Lena, and I see what I can do. I make your Aunt Mathilda make old Mrs. Kreder let you be till you get your baby all right. Now don’t you be scared and so silly Lena. I don’t like to see you act so Lena when really you got a nice man and so many things really any girl should be grateful to be having. Now you go home Lena to-day and you do the way I say, to you, and I see what I can do to help you.”
“Yes Mrs. Aldrich” said the good german woman to her mistress later, “Yes Mrs. Aldrich that’s the way it is with them girls when they want so to get married. They don’t know when they got it good Mrs. Aldrich. They never know what it is they’re really wanting when they got it, Mrs. Aldrich. There’s that poor Lena, she just been here crying and looking so careless so I scold her, but that was no good that marrying for that poor Lena, Mrs. Aldrich. She do look so pale and sad now Mrs. Aldrich, it just break my heart to see her. She was a good girl was Lena, Mrs. Aldrich, and I never had no trouble with her like I got with so many young girls nowadays, Mrs. Aldrich, and I never see any girl any better to work right than our Lena, and now she got to stand it all the time with that old woman Mrs. Kreder. My! Mrs. Aldrich, she is a bad old woman to her. I never see Mrs. Aldrich how old people can be so bad to young girls and not have no kind of patience with them. If Lena could only live with her Herman, he ain’t so bad the way men are, Mrs. Aldrich, but he is just the way always his mother wants him, he ain’t got no spirit in him, and so I don’t really see no help for that poor Lena. I know her aunt, Mrs. Haydon, meant it all right for her Mrs. Aldrich, but poor Lena, it would be better for her if her Herman had stayed there in New York that time he went away to leave her. I don’t like it the way Lena is looking now, Mrs. Aldrich. She looks like as if she don’t have no life left in her hardly, Mrs. Aldrich, she just drags around and looks so dirty and after all the pains I always took to teach her and to keep her nice in her ways and looking. It don’t do no good to them, for them girls to get married Mrs. Aldrich, they are much better when they only know it, to stay in a good place when they got it, and keep on regular with their working. I don’t like it the way Lena looks now Mrs. Aldrich. I wish I knew some way to help that poor Lena, Mrs. Aldrich, but she she is a bad old woman, that old Mrs. Kreder, Herman’s mother. I speak to Mrs. Haydon real soon, Mrs. Aldrich, I see what we can do now to help that poor Lena.”
These were really bad days for poor Lena. Herman always was real good to her and now he even sometimes tried to stop his mother from scolding Lena. “She ain’t well now mama, you let her be now you hear me. You tell me what it is you want she should be doing, I tell her. I see she does it right just the way you want it mama. You let be, I say now mama, with that always scolding Lena. You let be, I say now, you wait till she is feeling better.” Herman was getting really strong to struggle, for he could see that Lena with that baby working hard inside her, really could not stand it any longer with his mother and the awful ways she always scolded.
It was a new feeling Herman now had inside him that made him feel he was strong to make a struggle. It was new for Herman Kreder really to be wanting something, but Herman wanted strongly now to be a father, and he wanted badly that his baby should be a boy and healthy, Herman never had cared really very much about his father and his mother, though always, all his life, he had done everything just as they wanted, and he had never really cared much about his wife, Lena, though he always had been very good to her, and had always tried to keep his mother off her, with the awful way she always scolded, but to be really a father of a little baby, that feeling took hold of Herman very deeply. He was almost ready, so as to save his baby from all trouble, to really make a strong struggle with his mother and with his father, too, if he would not help him to control his mother.
Sometimes Herman even went to Mrs. Haydon to talk all this trouble over. They decided then together, it was better to wait there all four together for the baby, and Herman could make Mrs. Kreder stop a little with her scolding, and then when Lena was a little stronger, Herman should have his own house for her, next door to his father, so he could always be there to help him in his working, but so they could eat and sleep in a house where the old woman could not control them and they could not hear her awful scolding.
And so things went on, the same way, a little longer. Poor Lena was not feeling any joy to have a baby. She was scared the way she had been when she was so sick on the water. She was scared now every time when anything would hurt her. She was scared and still and lifeless, and sure that every minute she would die. Lena had no power to be strong in this kind of trouble, she could only sit still and be scared, and dull, and lifeless, and sure that every minute she would die.
Before very long, Lena had her baby. He was a good, healthy little boy, the baby. Herman cared very much to have the baby. When Lena was a little stronger he took a house next door to the old couple, so he and his own family could eat and sleep and do the way they wanted. This did not seem to make much change now for Lena. She was just the same as when she was waiting with her baby. She just dragged around and was careless with her clothes and all lifeless, and she acted always and lived on just as if she had no feeling. She always did everything regular with the work, the way she always had had to do it, but she never got back any spirit in her. Herman was always good and kind, and always helped her with her working. He did everything he knew to help her. He always did all the active new things in the house and for the baby. Lena did what she had to do the way she always had been taught it. She always just kept going now with her working, and she was always careless, and dirty, and a little dazed, and lifeless. Lena never got any better in herself of this way of being that she had had ever since she had been married.
Mrs. Haydon never saw any more of her niece, Lena. Mrs. Haydon had now so much trouble with her own house, and her daughters getting married, and her boy, who was growing up, and who always was getting so much worse to manage. She knew she had done right by Lena. Herman Kreder was a good man, she would be glad to get one so good, sometimes, for her own daughters, and now they had a home to live in together, separate from the old people, who had made their trouble for them. Mrs. Haydon felt she had done very well by her niece, Lena, and she never thought now she needed any more to go and see her. Lena would do very well now without her aunt to trouble herself any more about her.
The good german cook who had always scolded, still tried to do her duty like a mother to poor Lena. It was very hard now to do right by Lena. Lena never seemed to hear now what anyone was saying to her. Herman was always doing everything he could to help her. Herman always, when he was home, took good care of the baby. Herman loved to take care of his baby. Lena never thought to take him out or to do anything she didn’t have to.
The good cook sometimes made Lena come to see her. Lena would come with her baby and sit there in the kitchen, and watch the good woman cooking, and listen to her sometimes a little, the way she used to, while the good german woman scolded her for going around looking so careless when now she had no trouble, and sitting there so dull, and always being just so thankless. Sometimes Lena would wake up a little and get back into her face her old, gentle, patient, and unsuffering sweetness, but mostly Lena did not seem to hear much when the good german woman scolded. Lena always liked it when Mrs. Aldrich her good mistress spoke to her kindly, and then Lena would seem to go back and feel herself to be like she was when she had been in service. But mostly Lena just lived along and was careless in her clothes, and dull, and lifeless.
By and by Lena had two more little babies. Lena was not so much scared now when she had the babies. She did not seem to notice very much when they hurt her, and she never seemed to feel very much now about anything that happened to her.
They were very nice babies, all these three that Lena had, and Herman took good care of them always. Herman never really cared much about his wife, Lena. The only things Herman ever really cared for were his babies. Herman always was very good to his children. He always had a gentle, tender way when he held them. He learned to be very handy with them. He spent all the time he was not working, with them. By and by he began to work all day in his own home so that he could have his children always in the same room with him.
Lena always was more and more lifeless and Herman now mostly never thought about her. He more and more took all the care of their three children. He saw to their eating right and their washing, and he dressed them every morning, and he taught them the right way to do things, and he put them to their sleeping, and he was now always every minute with them. Then there was to come to them, a fourth baby. Lena went to the hospital near by to have the baby. Lena seemed to be going to have much trouble with it. When the baby was come out at last, it was like its mother lifeless. While it was coming, Lena had grown very pale and sicker. When it was all over Lena had died, too, and nobody knew just how it had happened to her.
The good german cook who had always scolded Lena, and had always to the last day tried to help her, was the only one who ever missed her. She remembered how nice Lena had looked all the time she was in service with her, and how her voice had been so gentle and sweet-sounding, and how she always was a good girl, and how she never had to have any trouble with her, the way she always had with all the other girls who had been taken into the house to help her. The good cook sometimes spoke so of Lena when she had time to have a talk with Mrs. Aldrich, and this was all the remembering there now ever was of Lena.
Herman Kreder now always lived very happy, very gentle, very quiet, very well content alone with his three children. He never had a woman any more to be all the time around him. He always did all his own work in his house, when he was through every day with the work he was always doing for his father. Herman always was alone, and he always worked alone, until his little ones were big enough to help him. Herman Kreder was very well content now and he always lived very regular and peaceful, and with every day just like the next one, always alone now with his three good, gentle children.
*Image: Gari Melchers, “The Bride”.
Yasha Hein woke up while it was still dark – long before the alarm clock rang – because of a strange quietness that was filling him up from within.
During the evening of the previous day he had already felt a little unwell: a sort of pre-flu state. All of his joints and muscles had ached, he had had a headache, he had kept coming over dreadfully weak. The thermometer had showed 37.2 – not exactly a high temperature, of course, but subfebrile, which is even worse. At bedtime Yasha had taken two effervescent soluble aspirins, put some nasal drops in his nose to be on the safe side, even though it wasn’t blocked for the time being, and asked his wife to draw iodine grids on his chest and back – so that he didn’t develop a cough, because there was no way he could rest up in bed the next day, he had to get to work without fail, no matter what.
And so now Yasha was sitting in bed, wrapped up in a blanket, feeling appalling. It was as if his chest and stomach – but not just his chest and stomach, his whole body – were filled with congealed, sticky cotton wool. Or cold apple jelly. But the main thing was – this quietness… This strange quietness. Something inside him was clearly out of order, and out of order in a serious way. Now Yasha had to find the broken cogwheel that was preventing the whole complicated mechanism of his thirty-five-year-old body, faulty at times, but nonetheless relatively orderly, from working normally – find and eliminate the fault. By medicinal means. Perhaps even with antibiotics – he had to get to work at all costs.
Yasha stretched out on the bed and lay motionless for five minutes or so, listening closely to himself, feeling himself over, as it were, from within, carefully studying every organ to see if it was healthy.
His throat wasn’t sore. There was no cough or blocked nose, and his eyes weren’t hurting at all. Even the headache of the previous day had completely gone – in short, it wasn’t like a cold at all, not like flu really either. More likely there was something wrong with his blood pressure – ups or downs of some kind… Yasha’s health was dependent on the weather. Or his heart – he had had tachycardia since he was a child, after all.
Yasha reached out for his watch. He waited until the second hand was on the twelve, and took his left wrist in his right hand to check his pulse. Then he put his hand to the artery on his neck. Then to his chest.
Then he touched the bony shoulder of his wife, who was breathing heavily beside him, and said quietly:
‘Ira, I think I’m ill.’
‘A-hm,’ came a mumble of suffering in reply, and she rolled over onto her other side.
‘I’m ill,’ he said more loudly.
‘You’re always ill. If it’s not one thing, it’s another. Let me sleep,’ but she did open her eyes. ‘What is it this time?’
‘There’s something wrong with my…’ Yasha said haltingly, and licked his cold lips with the tip of his tongue. ‘My heart doesn’t seem to be beating.’
‘Good Lord, what sort of nonsense is that?’ with an effort Ira forced the words out through a heavy yawn, and closed her eyes once more.
* * *
Yasha got up and went into the kitchen. He pressed his hand to his chest once again. Quietness, absolute quietness from within. He switched on the electric kettle – it began hissing malevolently, demanding water. Yasha filled it and switched it on again. And it was then that he was seized by genuine panic. ‘If my heart really has stopped,’ thought Yasha, ‘that means I’m about to die. In a second. Well, in two seconds. I won’t have time to drink my tea. I probably won’t even have time to take the cup off the shelf.’
Yasha pattered across to the kitchen cupboard and grabbed a cup. Well then, I did have time. But what does that tell you? Absolutely nothing. It could happen any time all the same, at any moment. If the heart isn’t beating, that means the blood isn’t moving through the veins, and that means… what? Some problem with oxygen. A shortage of oxygen must develop, and so a man can no longer breathe and soon dies. Yes, a man stops breathing… Yasha held his breath. And suddenly realised that he didn’t actually have to breathe at all. That is, he was capable of breathing, but solely out of habit, and if he wanted, he could even manage quite happily without doing so – as long as he liked.
‘An ambulance! Call an ambulance!’ He ran back into the bedroom where his wife was asleep.
‘What are you yelling for?’ She finally woke up fully and looked weary and bad-tempered.
‘I need an ambulance! I’m not breathing!’
‘You need to go to the madhouse, Yasha. What’s all this nonsense you’re talking? Don’t addle my brains.’
Yasha leant against the chest of drawers and covered his face with his hands. She climbed out from under the blanket, stuck her bony feet into slippers with plush pompons and gave him a look that was almost sympathetic.
‘If you really need one, call it yourself. Ring them and say exactly that: “Hello, I want to call an ambulance, because I’ve stopped breathing, and my heart’s not beating either.” Maybe someone will come, too. They may even give you sick leave, on account of your disability. When you’re sick in the head, that’s serious too, after all. How can a man like that work? A man like that…’
At this point Yasha switched off as usual, stopped listening. The loud, steady drone, moving around with his wife (back and forth across the bedroom, then into the bathroom, the kitchen, and back again into the bedroom), sounded almost reassuring – meaningless words like husks, devoid of any sense, devoid of any core.
Coming up for fifteen years before, Yasha had married this woman, not really for love exactly, but for something of the sort. Or maybe not for love, but simply because of being young. Or being stupid. Or because that was the way everything was heading, and she was ten years older than him, and her mother was thirty years older than him, and both of them knew very well how to deal with a twenty-year-old, long-nosed boy. In short, the motives by which Yasha had then been guided weren’t very clear to him now. However, if he had wanted to clear the question up, he would, of course, have done so with no difficulty – and if he still hadn’t done so, it was solely because he didn’t feel any such need. And whatever there had been there, at the beginning, there was now a lot that bound them – the years they had lived together, the things they had bought together, the rows during which they had sucked one another dry – day and night, like demented vampires – their shared tiresomeness, shared irritation, and very much more besides.
Just a year after the wedding, swiftly and inexorably – the way Cinderella loses her expensive accessories at midnight, the way a werewolf grows a coat of hair at full moon – she had turned into her mother. And her mother was a highly strung and touchy individual, and unbelievably garrulous.
Take flight? Yes, in his time Yasha had cherished a dream of liberation. Yet not one real attempt at escape had he actually undertaken. Instead, he had developed a simple means of psychological defence, a sort of know-how; whenever she spoke for longer than a few seconds, he would press an invisible little button in his head that was responsible for the perception of human speech. The sound of her voice remained – but in such a form that it meant no more than, say, the noise of surf or the squeal of car tyres when someone put the brakes on sharply.
Upon mature consideration, Yasha decided not to call an ambulance after all: by the time they’d arrived, by the time this and that had been done… he could be late for work. Apart from that, who said competent doctors worked in ambulances? Those gloomy fellows, tired and short of sleep after the night shift? The best thing now, thought Yasha, is to calm down a bit, have some tea and go to work. And then in the evening go to a private health centre and see a good specialist.
The indignant buzzing that filled the entire room and was insistently trying to filter through to him, finally swept away all the obstacles in its path and at last invaded the zone of Yasha’s perception: ‘… what, can’t you hear… as if… cook some eggs… can’t you hear… like a statue… some eggs… as I’ve got up anyway… get cold… as I’ve had to anyway… go…’
* * *
The magazine called Fun Magazine would first open, then close, then open, then close, like a faulty lift stuck between floors. And this had been going on for about three years.
Nonetheless, people continued to work on FM. The instability of the situation got on the staff’s nerves only to begin with – they gradually got used to it and settled down. ‘Do you know, has he already found it?’ colleagues would ask one another quietly. ‘Apparently, yes.’
Their financial director was something of a magician. At least, he certainly possessed one magical quality: he always found finance.
Yasha arrived in good time for the emergency meeting. To do so, he ran all the way from the Metro, and then ran down the long, boring corridor of the editorial offices too. In actual fact, it wasn’t so much punctuality that made him resolve upon this heroic race, as the secret hope that such a warm-up might have a stimulating effect on his heart, but… In his chest there was still that same cotton-wool quietness.
The editor-in-chief, Vladimir Vladimirovich Stayomov, conducted the meeting very briskly, finishing in five minutes. It was only a couple of weeks before that FM had enjoyed its latest resurrection, for which reason Stayomov (or, to friends, simply Stay-home) was clearly in a good mood: his shiny button-eyes looked at his subordinates in a friendly way, and with what a dashing movement did he toss back onto the crown of his head the unruly forelocks which dangled down to the left in long, black strands, reluctant to cover the moist editorial bald patch.
After the meeting, a lot of people headed for the canteen, as usual, for a bite to eat. Yasha dragged along after them at first, but changed his mind halfway there. The memory of his recent breakfast was still too fresh… the tea pours into his throat in a warm, unbroken stream, washing down the last slippery bits of fried egg… it doesn’t have to be swallowed at all… the liquid flows freely down the oesophagus… with a slight gurgling sound – like a spring stream through the bars of a drain-hole…
Yasha stood there for a while, then moved off slowly down the empty, yellow-walled corridor. Clambered clumsily into the little plywood box of his workspace. Turned on the computer. Something inside the case gave a painful bleep, and then a disenchanted squeak, and the room was filled with a loud, oppressive buzzing. Yasha opened Word. Stared miserably at the flickering screen, lay his hands on the grey, beslobbered keyboard with repugnance. Felt with his index fingers in the customary way for the little ridges on the ‘f’ and ‘j’ keys – the celebrated ‘touch’ method. Today he had to write a big to-order exposé (commissioned, actually, by FM’s new investor). It would run under the rubric ‘Topic of the Week’. And then he would be given a bonus.
‘The main thing is not to think about your breathing,’ Yasha said to himself, ‘not to think about your heart. Think about taxes. And about corruption. I’m writing about taxes, using the ten-finger method, writing ever so quickly, writing – and not breathing… but it’s all right, I’m simply over-excited. I’m writing very quickly – and not… writing quickly, and going to see a doctor straight away.’
The white screen chirped irritably and was plunged into darkness. Jolly green seaweed appeared against a black background. Little yellow fish swam up from out of a distant, otherworldly ocean and stared at Yasha senselessly from the monitor.
* * *
The working day was already almost over, but Dr Zuckerbaum was in a bad mood. His impending liberation from the cramped white office where he had been conducting his surgery promised nothing pleasant: frozen vegetables or ravioli for dinner, an empty evening, an empty home, an empty bed. Dr Zuckerbaum had recently lost his wife.
Dr Zuckerbaum may not have been the best cardiologist. But on the other hand he did have a big heart. By virtue of this latter fact, he often married his patients, weary Balzacian ladies with heart defects. And by virtue of the former, he often lost them, and was greatly upset every time. However, it is worth noting that the unfortunate former fact was a hindrance to the doctor only in his personal life, and told on his work not one bit. His attitude to his work was a serious one. Zuckerbaum sympathised sincerely with all his patients, and the utterly human warmth of his manner compensated in full for his professional incompetence in some matters. The patients liked him, and in the commercial medical centre ‘Heartmed’ he was considered the top specialist.
Yasha Hein liked and respected Dr Zuckerbaum too, and, although Zuckerbaum’s consultations weren’t cheap, he went to see him from time to time about his tachycardia.
Tachycardia would have seemed a pleasure to him now – better a hundred and fifty beats a minute than none.
In the registry, Yasha was informed that Zuckerbaum had already finished his surgery.
‘Mine is a very very serious case Miss a question of life and death,’ Yasha began jabbering in alarm, ‘Miss you don’t understand Miss I really do very much need…’
The withered, fifty-year-old Miss raised her wise eyes to Yasha, examined his distrustfully and said:
‘Wait, I’ll just give it a try – if he’s still in the office… Hello! Lev Samuilovich? It’s the registry here… There’s a patient here bursting to see you… And I’ve already told him it’s finished… He says it’s very urgent – although, to be honest, it seems to me… Just a minute… What’s the name? His name’s Hein. What? Very well, he’ll be up right away…’
Yasha grabbed the ticket from her hands and rushed to the office.
Dr Zuckerbaum was a responsive man, and that day he had no desire whatsoever to go home either, so he had decided to stay a little late. Particularly as Yasha’s was such a simple case – banal sinusoidal tachycardia. Listening to the complaints, taking the pulse, prescribing Isoptin and walks in the fresh air – it would all take about ten minutes, no more.
But Dr Zuckerbaum was mistaken.
An hour later he tried for the last time to take Yasha’s cardio-gram – on a different, newer machine; without any particular hope of success he fingered Yasha’s wrist, then decisively detached the sticky suckers from his legs and chest. He stared sadly at Yasha and said:
‘I’m very sorry, young man…’
‘What’s the matter with me?’
‘Yakov Markovich! You and I are grown-ups, are we not?’
‘What’s the matter with me?’
‘Unfortunately, it comes to all of us sooner or later…’
‘But what’s the matter with me, Doctor?’ Yasha asked again, and for some reason giggled.
‘I’m very sorry. I’ve done all that I could.’
* * *
‘What is there to think about? First of all, you need to go to the Registry Office,’ Klavdia Mikhailovna declared, plunging Yasha into a state of agonising déjà vu.
The last time his mother-in-law had pronounced those same words was fifteen years before. She hadn’t very much liked the youthful, useless Yasha with the traces of recent adolescent zits on his forehead. More than that, she hadn’t liked him at all, and had even found him repellent – like all the rest of Irina’s admirers who had ever had the misfortune to drop in for half an hour to have some tea, and to squeeze into the narrow space between the table, the fridge, the windowsill and the wall.
However, it was the very time when Yasha had been invited to tea that maternal instinct and common sense had unexpectedly united in Klavdia Mikhailovna in the most unhappy way for Yasha, and won certain victory over her personal sympathies and antipathies. In other words, Klavdia Mikhailovna had finally come to the conclusion that it was high time her daughter set herself up with, firstly, a family, and secondly, an apartment.
Yasha had an apartment.
Squashed into the stuffy corner of the five and a bit square metres of his beloved’s kitchen, Yasha had felt like a luckless little insect, stuck fast in the middle of a small, but sound and very professionally spun spider’s web. The wall of the kitchen beside which the guest had been made to sit was furnished with a gigantic radiator (a peculiar bonus for the residents of five-storey apartment blocks of the Khrushchev era), and the heat rising from his back to his head had deadened his consciousness and plunged Yasha into a state close to fainting. The spider-mother had looked into his eyes with a fixed and angry stare. Under the table, through a hole in his slipper, the spider-daughter had been stroking the big toe of his right foot with her elegant, hairy little one. He hadn’t had the strength to resist.
‘…First of all, you need to go to the Registry Office,’ Klavdia Mikhailovna had said then.
‘Very well,’ Yasha had submitted.
Over the following fifteen years, her attitude to her son-in-law hadn’t undergone any particular changes – as before, she didn’t like him. Maternal concern and common sense had remained with her too, and so at the family conference, urgently convened by Ira in connection with ‘the unpleasantness Yasha was having’, Klavdia Mikhailovna declared:
‘…First of all, you need to go to the Registry Office. And draw up a death certificate – so that you can register your entitlement to inherit the apartment.’
‘What, go with him?’ wondered Ira.
‘You can do…’ Klavdia Mikhailovna began, with doubt in her voice. Yet after some reflection she added, ‘But actually you’d do better to go by yourself. After all, the case isn’t very… sort of… typical. And all they ever want to do is find fault. And in general, what use is he? He’s an intellectual, isn’t he, can’t even stake a place in a queue: he’s too shy to ask whose turn it is before him,’ his mother-in-law glanced quickly at Yasha, who was sitting in an armchair and pretending to watch the game show The Weakest Link, ‘that is, he used to be too shy, I meant…’
Yasha coughed nervously.
‘Well, all right, you mustn’t speak ill of the dead,’ again she gave her son-in-law a sidelong glance, ‘may he rest in peace… although… that’s not clear either…’ Klavdia Mikhailovna fell into an embarrassed silence. But, as ever, not for long. ‘Incidentally, about rest. Do forgive me, Yasha, for indelicacy, but we ought to give some thought to the funeral too. Because this isn’t the way these things are normally done somehow.’
‘But how can you give him a funeral?’ exclaimed Ira in annoyance. ‘I mean, he’s sort of… it’s not as if he’s actually deceased.’
‘What, want to bury me alive, do you?’ Yasha interjected. Klavdia Mikhailovna ignored her son-in-law’s comment. She gave her plump mouth a scornful twist. Then she started jabbering in a falsetto, mimicking her daughter:
‘Oh dear, really, how can we, it’s not as if he’s, I mean, he’s sort of… What is he then, in your opinion?’ she asked, in a normal voice now.
‘I don’t know.’
‘“I don’t know” what?’ Klavdia Mikhailovna grew angry.
‘It’s a moot point.’
‘Aha, a moot point…’
‘Why do you keep on repeating things after me, Mama?’ Ira grew angry in her turn.
‘Who’s dragging the whole team down?’ the television presenter enquired.
‘Because I’m lost for words, that’s why I’m repeating them,’ the mother-in-law snapped. ‘And so what are you going to do with him?’
‘Well… let him live here for the time being. And later on maybe everything will sort itself out… well, later on, that is, we’ll see.’
‘Well, thank you,’ Yasha butted in once more, ‘I’ll never forget it.’
‘Who gets frightened by elementary questions? Who’ll have to leave with nothing?’
‘Why are you acting the goat?’ his wife pulled him up. ‘Now why are you acting the goat? This is no joke, you know! It really is a serious problem! It really isn’t clear what’s to be done with you! What do you yourself suggest?’
The telephone rang in the kitchen.
‘Well, what are you standing there like a statue for? Go and pick it up,’ his wife commanded.
Yasha left the room.
‘Statistically, the weakest link in that round was Mikhail,’ a pleasant male voice filled the silence that had arisen, ‘he answered only one question. The strongest link was Arkady. He gave the greatest number of correct answers and banked money. However, we shall see…’
‘He has no business being here,’ whispered Klavdia Mikhailovna, nodding in the direction of the kitchen, ‘this isn’t the way these things are done at all – letting the deceased stay at home.’
‘Olga, why do you think it’s Mikhail that ought to go?’
‘Well, I don’t know, Mama…’
‘Well, Mikhail seems kind of overtired to me. I don’t kind of sense any potential in him somehow. With some of his answers to some of the questions he’s kind of bringing the good name of the team into disrepute, and he’s got no sense of its spirit…’
Yasha returned to the room, his face grey with worry.
‘Who was it?’ inquired his wife.
‘You are the weakest link. Goodbye!’
‘Turn that bitch off!’ said his mother-in-law in exasperation.
‘From work,’ Yasha replied quietly.
‘… but all the same, Olga really upset me, because I don’t know why she had to get personal and be so rude about me bringing the team’s name into disrepute and…’
Ira turned the volume down.
‘In any event, it’s no use our thinking about a funeral for at least a month now,’ said Yasha, not without malicious glee.
‘And why’s that?’ his mother-in-law narrowed her eyes.
‘Because I’ve been…
* * *
That ill-starred day when Yasha was hurrying to the doctor’s, he had submitted his article without reading it through. And so he had failed to notice a dreadful blunder he had committed in his haste. The section editor had failed to notice it as well; perhaps he had been late getting away somewhere too, or had been thinking of some matter of his own, or, most likely, had simply trusted Yasha and read his text inattentively. The publishing editor had failed to notice it too, because he trusted the section editor implicitly. To be fair, it should be added that Yasha’s blunder was noticed by the proofreader, yet he considered quite reasonably that it was nothing to do with him, because his business was spelling and punctuation marks. And Yasha had put all the punctuation marks in correctly. In short, the article went out quite happily in its original form. And the name of the investor (Spichkin was his name – but does that really matter very much?) who had recently undertaken to fund the magazine, and who had actually commissioned this very article, accidentally migrated from a list of oligarchs who meticulously paid their taxes into a list of inveterate tax-dodgers.
The denial that was published a day later looked pathetic and unconvincing.
Spichkin was upset. He called the financial director an idiot, the editor-in-chief a two-faced bastard, and Yasha a bloody Yid, and he left for Tibet to take his mind off it. But for some reason he became even more upset in Tibet, got depressed, came back a day later and stopped his funding. Fun Magazine closed down.
Not entirely, however. Once again the financial director briskly set about searching. At an emergency meeting of the editorial board it was decided to continue publishing FM for the time being in a heavily cut-down electronic version.
And after the meeting, Stay-home rang Yasha Hein at home and inquired irritably why he wasn’t at work. Yasha briefly explained the situation, apologised, and promised to bring his death certificate in to the personnel department in the very near future. Stay-home’s bewilderment was palpable. He paused for a while, breathing hard into the receiver, and was already on the point of saying goodbye, but then changed his mind and decided to say what he had phoned for after all. Clearing his throat well, he informed Yasha that, because of ‘the business with Spichkin’, he, Yasha, was, firstly, dismissed at his own request, and secondly, before leaving, had to work out a month’s notice in the office in accordance with his contractual obligations.
Yasha was silent. Stay-home waited, breathing hard, for a little longer, then sighed heavily and finally forced out of himself, half-questioningly:
‘But… in the light of your circumstances… your sad circumstances… you probably won’t be able…’
‘No, no, everything’s in order. I’ll work out my notice. Of course.’
Yasha was a responsible person and considered the fulfilment of contractual obligations to be his sacred duty.
‘Well then,’ Stay-home became perceptibly more animated, ‘if you really can?…’
‘Yes, I really can…’
‘All right. See you soon, then… er, er, er… and… please accept my condolences.’
* * *
The gaze is intelligent and stern. And a little tired as well – because of the dark rings under the eyes. The long, uncut, wavy hair is in some disorder, but the hairstyle doesn’t spoil the face at all, on the contrary, it lends it a certain charm, a sort of mysterious quality, perhaps. Or maybe it’s just that black-and-white photographs are always a little mysterious. It’s a good photograph. Big, glossy. But the wreath, on the other hand, is a cheap little one. Some revolting plastic daisies and bluebells…
Yasha was standing in the vestibule of the editorial offices and examining his own photograph, framed in black, with sorrow and pride. This must be the way an elderly father feasts his eyes on the photo of a son who has recently left for the front.
Since the previous day, an astonishing calm had set in in Yasha’s soul. Yes, in the evening, after his mother-in-law had gone home, after that awful discussion of the impending funeral, he had had another panic attack: and what if this isn’t a dream after all? But the attack was shorter than the previous ones, and this time Yasha didn’t even think of pinching his nose, biting his fingers, and banging his head against the wall in order to wake up. Instead he took some valerian drops, walked to and fro around the apartment, sat in front of the television and fell asleep.
Yasha was received well at work and he was very touched. Firstly, a fine obituary was put on the Fun Magazine website. Secondly, his colleagues greeted him cordially, despite the fact that, thanks to him, they found themselves once more ‘in a state of suspension’. They all expressed their sympathy – regarding both his dismissal and his sudden demise. The men shook Yasha’s cold hand warily, and with particular solicitude somehow, while the women offered him some handmade chocolates. Then everybody went off to the canteen (for some reason he wasn’t invited), and Yasha remained alone in the room. He turned the air-conditioning off. He used his mouse to prod at a small black rectangle with the inscription: ‘A special correspondent of the magazine dies [read more].’ He read it through once again.
Then he opened the news feed: it had been decided not to give him any more responsible tasks, and his duties in the coming month included the regular posting of fresh news on the FM website.
* * *
‘In Kamchatka the All-Russian Alpine Skiing competition “The Volcanoes of Kamchatka” is starting…’
‘In the Koryak Autonomous Area fifteen reindeer-herders are missing. The search for them goes on for a sixth day…’
‘In the capital of Indonesia an international forum on questions of infrastructure opens…’
‘In France a coach carrying Belgians has crashed…’
‘Federal benefit receivers want to receive benefits…’
‘In Novgorod the Great a memorial athletics meeting has taken place in memory of Marshal Meretskov…’
‘In Saransk the Russian Greco-Roman wrestling championships have come to an end…’
‘Madonna and Roger Waters have sung for victims of the tsunami…’
‘In Hong Kong there have been races for solar-powered cars…’
‘The corpses of the fighters in the ruined building may have been destroyed by fire…’
It had been for two weeks now that Yasha had been obediently appearing day after day in the offices of the closed Fun Magazine, delving into the news feeds, posting things on the website – but utterly mechanically, without any pleasure, ‘without zest’, as the editor-in-chief would sometimes say.
The news of this transient world no longer engaged him.
Over the past two weeks, an invisible slender crack between him and all other people had grown menacingly, it had turned into an insurmountable obstacle. Yasha had become absent-minded, and, coming in to work, he had forgotten to ask colleagues how things were, then had stopped offering his hand, and then completely stopped greeting people at all. His colleagues, in their turn, had been looking at him strangely somehow. Yasha remembered how, a year before, everyone had looked in exactly the same way at the secretary Olya, whose time had come to take maternity leave, but who had just kept on coming in with her huge belly, and it had already looked even indecent somehow… And every day, when meeting her, the staff had been more and more surprised, and had enquired ever more persistently after her health, and had looked almost censorious. She had been an irritation. You couldn’t smoke when she was there, she mustn’t be upset, but the main thing was, her time had come.
People stopped smoking in Yasha’s presence too, although he didn’t ask them to at all. And they spoke in muffled voices. And looked at him as if… as if his time had come too. His time had come.
Everything had changed at home as well. Without waiting for the conclusion of the red tape over the inheritance, his wife had organised refurbishment of the apartment so as, in her expression, ‘to freshen everything up’. There were newspapers spread out on the floor now, soiled with lime, glue, and God knows what else, there was the stench of dust and paint, and standing proudly in the middle of the living room was a battered stepladder. There too, next to the stepladder, stood the folding bed on which Yasha, banished from the conjugal bedroom, now slept. (‘You can go to prison in Russia for necrophilia, you know,’ Ira explained calmly, putting an old, striped mattress that bulged in places on the folding bed, ‘and apart from that, you’ve been snoring too loudly of late. At least I’ll get a good night’s sleep this way.’)
Running into one another in the kitchen in the mornings, Yasha and his widow experienced a certain awkwardness – and every time it seemed to Yasha that he was something along the lines of a house-sprite.
Then the gloomy, hung-over hulks of the decorating team would arrive. They felt no awkwardness, and simply paid Yasha no attention. They unceremoniously caught him with their elbows in passing. They drank vodka in front of him without embarrassment (when his wife was out, of course), and gloomily stole salami from the fridge. And didn’t speak to him as a matter of principle. With the exception of the one instance when the red-faced foreman Lyokha, breaking into a disarmingly genial smile – from which, in the course of the previous night, the two front teeth had disappeared – asked Yasha for ‘a loan’ of twenty roubles. But Lyokha the foreman had been in such a drunken state at that moment that he could quite easily have addressed the same request to a cupboard or, say, a light fitting.
‘They probably reckon my time’s come as well,’ Yasha thought in anguish, and didn’t give him the twenty roubles.
* * *
There was an interesting programme made by the BBC on the ‘Culture’ channel – American astronauts were talking about how they felt in a vacuum – and Yasha settled down to watch, although really it was time to go to work.
‘For the first two days you feel awful nauseous,’ a round, ruddy physiognomy, seemingly specially destined to be put into a spacesuit, reported joyfully, ‘because all the fluid in your organism is freed from the effects of the law of gravity and comes up; so we always have bags with us… But sometimes they don’t help,’ the physiognomy gave a vile smirk, ‘and then everything flies all over the place. And then it floats around the ship until the end of the flight, and you get to feel real awkward, well, you understand…’
‘An exercise room’s essential on the ship,’ declared a shaven-headed beanpole with unnaturally thin lips, ‘it’s real important in space to maintain your physical shape. Doing sport in conditions of weightlessness is much easier than on earth. There’s only one problem – sweat. Water behaves completely differently in space. It doesn’t flow down, but turns into these little balls, you know? And you’re sitting there, pedalling away on the exercise bike, and these little balls are crawling over your back, and at every abrupt movement they fly off in different directions…’
‘The closet.’ The first physiognomy occupied the entire screen once again. ‘I’d say the main problem for any astronaut is specifically the closet. In conditions of weightlessness it’s real hard…’
Yasha switched off the television, went into the corridor, put on his boots and started to cry.
Something had suddenly torn inside him. The continual hassle, the stress, the humiliation, the craziness of recent weeks, this awful inescapable dream (or was it a dream? – yes, of course it was), this refurbishment – up until now he had somehow endured it, with difficulty, and yet he had, but space… Beautiful, radiant space, without beginning or end, which had attracted him since childhood and was his most beautiful dream… Now he had been deprived of it. It’s nice rocking about in weightlessness with a book in your hand, floating here and there in the ship’s cabin and, finally, clinging to a porthole and spending a long time gazing at the distant Earth, at the fiery tails of comets rushing by… But no, of course not! Gripping a smelly paper bag in a trembling hand, dodging the little balls of sweat flying past, nausea, headache, a toilet with straps and a ventilator – that’s what there was there, in infinity!
It wasn’t that Yasha was intending to go into space – it’s obvious that he wasn’t intending to go there at all. Nevertheless, until now space had seemed to him something like a final opportunity, like an emergency exit in the very last resort. When there was nowhere else to go.
‘What a life,’ Yasha thought out loud, and went into the living room with his boots still on. He leant his head against the steamed-up window. ‘It’s time to go to work… What a life… What a stupid dream… But I suppose I can probably do the same as the one in that film, Groundhog Day, now,’ Yasha opened the window and clambered up onto the ledge, ‘what’s his name… it starts with an M…’
Yasha closed his eyes and jumped from the eleventh floor.
The morning street greeted him with its customary, deafening, grating sound. How many days was it now that there had been some mysterious work going on around the apartment block, either building work or repairs, and the whole building proved to be surrounded by a deep, man-made ditch, across which, here and there, rotten little wooden bridges had been thrown. A short distance away, the lightly frozen autumnal earth was bulging with formless brown heaps.
Yasha got to his feet and brushed off the yellow leaves that had stuck to his trousers. Balancing with his arms and looking straight ahead, he carefully crossed over a bridge. And only when he found himself on the other side did he look down squeamishly. In the bottom of the pit, some little Tadzhiks in orange uniforms were swarming about. In a cloud of steam and dazzling sparks, one was drilling into some rusty pipes that poked out of the ground like a fragment of the charred skeleton of some gigantic prehistoric animal. The others were unhurriedly digging.
Digging, digging the earth.
When he was already at the entrance to the Metro, Yasha suddenly decided that he wouldn’t go to work. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever.
He stood for a while.
Two frozen girls were frenziedly thrusting some bits of yellow paper into the hands of passers-by. A fat woman in a green beret was cheerfully selling sausage rolls. But for some reason there was the smell of rotten fish and seaweed, like after a storm at sea – even though there was no sea anywhere near the Metro. Perhaps it was from the upturned autumnal earth, from the holey sewage pipes that this distant smell came…
‘It’s time I went,’ Yasha thought, and drew the air in through his nose, ‘to the sea somewhere… travelling.’
* * *
And for long years he wandered over the earth. He lived in various countries and various cities, and hundreds of women shared their beds with him. With some he remained for a long time, and they aged and died beside him; while from others he parted, leaving it to them to age and die in solitude.
And different peoples gave him different names. Many, very many names did he change. And for so long did he wander that he could remember no more who he had been first, and who he had been afterwards, or whether he was alive or dead, or what held him so firmly on this tedious earth.
And so long did he wander that all the peoples aged and vanished from the face of the earth, and the cities turned into sand and stones. He saw the earth settled by astonishing new animals. And he himself remained the only human amongst them.
*This story is taken from: An Awkward Age by Anna Starobinets, Hesperus Press Limited, 2010. First published in Russian as Perekhodnyj vozrast © Limbus Press, St. Petersburg (Russia), 2005.
My grandmother lived in Podlasie. The house wasn’t in the village itself. The neighborhood was known as “the colony”—scattered farms separated by stands of aspen and avenues of age-old, slender poplars. The cottage stood amid an orchard. In the summer, even at high noon it was cool out there. The apple trees were ancient and had grown rank. Their crowns joined overhead; it was a realm of eternal shade.
This forest of fruit trees on one side bordered a meadow. But I never heard the usual word for meadow, łąka. People said smug, the cows would grazing “on the smug.” Somewhere in the middle of it was a green strip with a well for watering the cattle. The well was old, and in place of a regular wall there was just a framework of planks. The bucket was pulled up using a long pole with a hook on the end. The pole was known as a kluczka.
The “u” has the softest, most gentle sound of all the vowels.
Whenever I think of my grandmother I remember those two words: kluczka, smug. And also a third one: duch—ghost.
Grandmother believed in ghosts.
In the sixties they had no electricity there. Grandfather would climb up on a small wooden stool and light a kerosene lamp that hung from the ceiling. In the fall it would be lit quite early, at six, maybe even five. In the fall my father and I would come for apples, we’d load whole cratefuls of them onto the Lublin truck of my uncle, a bona fide truck driver of early and middle communism.
So anyway, grandmother believed in ghosts. And it wasn’t the sort of fearful or reasoned belief that’s acquired from contacts with the beyond on special occasions, or from dreams or visions—nothing of the kind.
She would sit in the corner, on the woolen bedspread; behind her was a green and blue landscape with two stags at a watering hole, the delicate yellow light of the lamp bringing out only the silvery white of the water; and she would tell stories. They were long ones. They concerned banal happenings, work, visits, trips to the next village, family get-togethers. A measured narrative replete with facts, names of things and of people. The topography of their village and others nearby, a chronology that ran from Christmas to the Assumption to All Souls’.
In this humdrum subject matter, from time to time cracks would appear, the threads of warp and weft would pull apart, and the gap would reveal the other world—supernatural, in any case Other.
For example one summer evening, coming back from a visit to one of her many female cousins, grandmother saw a white figure among the hayricks. Half-human, half-animal, it was running along a field boundary, now on two legs, now on four, clearly visible in the moonlight, yet entirely immaterial.
Another time, after the death of a close relative she saw the deceased come into the kitchen. The door creaked, the visitor opened all the drawers and cupboards in the dresser then left without taking anything with him. It was at dawn. Grandmother had just been getting up. She saw the visit from where she sat on the bed, the same place from which she told her stories.
I don’t remember them all, of course, I can only recall snippets. But the atmosphere of those tales has stayed with me—it was utterly ordinary, devoid of surprise or exclamation.
This tearing of the fabric of existence mostly took place in my own imagination, I was the one who saw the holes. Grandmother ignored them. In general, for her there seemed to be only one indivisible order of events, all equally real and equally valid. It may have been that she was aware of certain distinctions, that she tacked and patched those doubtful, worn places, but in her stories there were no traces of the repair.
When a miniature whirlwind would appear over the fields on a still, windless afternoon, snatching up a line of hay cones, grandmother would simply cross herself, watch the phenomenon move away, and return to whatever she had been doing. After all, it had only been Evil manifesting its presence in one of its many forms. There was no excitation of the kind associated with table-turning or the stories of Edgar Allen Poe. If anything she was more like Svidrigailov and his banal excursions to the other side of existence. I’ve come to realize that her relative rummaging in the dresser was just as real and powerful as the phantom of Filka the servant entering Arkady Ivanovich’s room with a very ordinary hole in the elbow of his coat.
Why did she never tell stories about the saints? About the supernatural beings whose existence is confirmed by the teachings of the Church? Why did she never see Peter and Paul, or Saint Lucy? Them, she used only to measure time. Exactly as if they’d been lifeless objects, along the lines of ideal weights or measures. Their stillness was the stillness of the figures she saw at Sunday Mass. The little wooden church stood among trees in a shade as profound as that surrounding her own house. Once a week the squeaking brown-and-gilt interior offered her an image of eternity, of light, of a distant pledge and an even more distant reward.
Whereas ghosts, accursed sin-burdened souls, death—these accompanied her day to day. The truth that humans beings are closer to death, damnation, and chance than to salvation, found its embodiment in her life.
Nor was she an isolated case. The many aunts and great aunts that I’d meet in her home would take part in these stories, supplying all kinds of additional details, till my grandfather would lose patience and burst out: “Give it a rest, all of you”—though whether he was prompted by rationalism or dread I’ll never know. At such moments they’d fall silent for a while, then start up again like perverse Fates spinning the thread of that other, hidden human life which never for a moment forgets it is made up in equal parts of loss and dying.
The story about the mother who in broad daylight saw an unknown old woman in a gray dress out in the fields, and the same day the mother’s child fell ill, and subsequently died.
The story about how grandmother went into the cattle shed one evening and something almost knocked her over as it ran out the door, and no cow had milk to give that day.
Stories. . . stories. . . stories. . .
Grandmother died in the fall. I was too small to be able to remember the exact date. The wind was blowing at the time, and my father and I were there because the doctors had calculated not just the day but even the exact hour, it seemed. She lay on a board that was covered with black cloth, all dressed in black herself, thin and serene. Before they put her in the casket—such was the custom—all her relatives kissed her on the forehead. Maybe I was too young to comprehend the notion of death. Led by habit and affection I kissed her on the mouth, the way I would always greet her when I arrived at the start of the summer vacation. I was surprised that she was so hard and still, and that there were none of the usual warm, familiar aromas about her.
The fear came later. At the moment when I saw the black church banner with the silver cross hanging outside the house. Someone had fastened it to the wall in such a way that it was flapping noisily against the pale blue sky and the leafless branches.
That was my first ever lesson in the ascendancy of symbol over reality.
What am I driving at in this memoir-cum-story?
Before long the last grandmothers who looked upon the world of ghosts with their own eyes will be dead. They looked with faith and equanimity, though of course also with trepidation. A vivid, existing supernatural reality will disappear along with them. Aside from the rare mystical experiences of the chosen few, we’ll be reduced to a hard, exhausting trust in the existence of the unknown. The polished surface of the everyday will obligingly show us our own shallow reflection as if those were the depths.
My grandmother sat on the edge of her bed and told stories. She did it disinterestedly, without any particular goal. The ordinariness of these extraordinary happenings lent them credence.
When you left the house to go outside you passed through a large dark space known as the granary. Old horse tack hung there, clean winnowed grain lay behind wooden partitions. The pungent odor of leather impregnated with horse sweat mingled with the grain’s dry smell. Light entered through a small square opening in the wall. On sunny afternoons the darkness of the granary was pierced from end to end by a narrow beam of light filled with spinning motes. I’d run through the blackness, break the rays of light for a moment and rush outside. Each time I did, I was accompanied by the same fear. It was only once I was in the sunlight of the yard that my breathing returned to normal.
Through the window I could see the indistinct figure of my grandmother bustling about between stove and table, preparing dinner. She was all alone in the empty house; the brown-painted floorboards would creak at every step, while in the most ordinary way in the world she would be at the haunted dresser, taking out the condiments, plates, spoons and forks that the dead man had scorned.
Later, after she passed away, I often imagined death. The instinctive picture I saw was always the same: an old woman with a kind, mildly quizzical face, the face of my grandmother.
It was the last summer before they gave the Sinai back to Egypt. I was thirteen and I drove with my parents and their friends down to Ras Burka. I think that must have been our last big family trip. After that, I preferred going with my friends. In any case, one of the families traveling with us had a son with cerebral palsy. They put up their tent a little bit away from the rest of us so it took a few days before I even noticed him. And that was purely by accident too. I went into the water to snorkel and the current carried me too far out. The waves were high, salt water seeped into my snorkel and my mask steamed up. I wanted to go back to the shore but didn’t know how. After a long moment, I found a sandy path that wound through the corals and swam along it till I reached the shore. I rested there for a while, got my breathing regular again, took off my fins and started walking back toward our tent, swearing to myself that this was the last time I’d go underwater by myself.
And then I saw him.
He was sitting in a wheelchair near his family’s tent.
I couldn’t decide whether to go over to him, but he seemed to be smiling at me, so I turned away from the shoreline and walked toward him. When I got closer, I saw that the smile was actually an involuntary twitch that distorted his mouth.
But that wasn’t the main thing.
Dozens of flies were sitting on his face. There were flies on his lips, on his nose, inside his nose, in his ears, on his cheeks, his neck, his chin, his hair, his weird thick glasses. Big flies, small flies, flies that weren’t moving, flies that were rubbing their hands together in pleasure. Where were his parents? How could they have left him there like that?
“Do something,” his eyes pleaded from behind his glasses. “Save me from this torture.” He moaned, the sound an animal makes. A wounded animal.
I peeled off my shirt and started flapping it wildly around his body. Some of the flies took off. And some didn’t. I waved my other hand too, and kicked the air with my foot, close to his face. I did everything but touch him. I jumped and stamped, even went into their tent and brought out a piece of cardboard meant for fanning the barbecue coals, and waved it hard next to the back of his neck where an especially stubborn guerilla of flies was hanging on.
Finally, after a few minutes of hard work, I managed to cut down the number of flies by half. I knew that as soon as I left him, the flies would come back and retake his face easily. But there was no choice. I had to go back to the main tent for help.
“I’ll be right back,” I said. He didn’t nod his head and he didn’t shake it. I thought I could see a thank you in his eyes, but I wasn’t sure of that either. “I’ll be right back,” I repeated. And again, not a muscle in his face moved.
I started running back to the main tent, the soles of my feet burning in the sand, but before I reached it, I ran into his parents, who must have been on their way back. The mother was carrying their new, blond baby girl. The father was carrying two folding chairs.
Your son, I blurted out, he’s there… alone… the flies. The words were all jumbled in my mouth.
We know, the father said in a firm voice. Confident. What can we do, the mother said with a sigh. We can’t stand next to him all day and swat them away.
Yes, but… I wanted to object. To demand. To wave my fins around. But my protest couldn’t find its way into words, into a coherent argument. I was only thirteen and still a little bit afraid of grownups.
But thanks for taking an interest, the father said, and started walking again. She has sensitive skin, it isn’t good for her, being in the sun like this, the mother apologized, gesturing to the little blond girl, and walked past me. The little blond girl herself was asleep, her face bright and beautiful.
That night, I told my parents about it. I was sure they’d be outraged. That they’d use the same expressions they used when I did something to make them furious: “shameful,” “disgraceful,” or worst of all – “deplorable.”
To my shock, they were indifferent. Even worse: it turned out that it was nothing new for them. The boy had been with the group on their vacation at Lake Kinneret, and then too, he sat in his wheelchair outside the tent and the flies set up residence on him.
I agree with you, it’s not a pretty sight, my father said. But what can they do? Stand next to him all day and swat away the flies?
I actually think it’s nice that they insist on bringing him, my mother added. After all, they could leave him in the home. But they want him to grow up like a normal child.
So why do they hide him? the question burst out of me at full volume, volume that was fine for home, not the Sinai. If it’s so nice and they have nothing to be ashamed of, why did they put up their tent so far from everyone else?!
Because it took them a little more time to get organized and that was the only place left for them, my father said.
Yes, my mother backed him up – I hadn’t heard her back him up on anything for a long time – it’s purely by chance. At the Kinneret, they were right in the center of things.
Their arguments, added on to his parents’ arguments, paralyzed me. It all sounded so logical and convincing. But still, I had the feeling that an injustice was being done here. My father put out the candle and in the dark, my mother said it was nice that I thought about others, not only about myself, and maybe I should put that virtue to use by washing the plastic plates every once in a while because it makes no sense that she’s in the Sinai and the only thing she does all day is cook and wash up after us.
When we woke up the next morning, we saw that a lot of other Israeli families had come during the night and planted their tents on the beach. You can’t imagine, Rina, the whole country came to say goodbye to the Sinai, my father said after finishing his morning exercises outside the tent. Oh my God, my mother said when she went outside, the whole country really is here.
I hated it when they talked like that. As if they weren’t actually part of the country. But I didn’t say anything. I went outside and scanned the beach. The boy’s tent wasn’t on the edge of the camp anymore, but right in the middle of the rows of tents that now filled the small inlet from the little hill to the dunes. Terrific, I said to myself, now the whole country will see that boy being tortured on his wheelchair and someone will definitely say something to his parents.
That day, when the sun had begun to sink toward the hills, I went into the water with my snorkel and swam back to the spot where the narrow sandy path wound between the large fire corals. After I came out of the water and dried myself off on the beach, I began looking for their tent. It wasn’t easy to find anymore because there were so many other tents surrounding it, but the flash of the sun’s rays on the iron of the wheelchair showed me the way.
He was sitting there in the same small square of shade. I searched his eyes for a sign that he recognized me, remembered something. And didn’t find it. There were a million flies on his face. A billion. The whole country has been walking past him since the morning, I thought. And didn’t do a thing.
I started the work of swatting them away. This time, I was determined to get all the flies, every last one. I wanted to see his face completely clear for once, I wanted to give him a few seconds of grace free of irritation.
It took a long time – the sun was already turning the hilltops golden – but in the end, I did it. The last three flies turned out to be dead, and I peeled them off his cheek with my fingers. But while I was moving back a little to check if any flies had gotten away from me, four new ones landed on his nose.
Furious, I went back and slapped the air next to his nose until they gave up and flew away. Then I stood beside him for a few minutes to make sure that not a single fly dared to come back. It was starting to get dark and I hoped my parents were already worrying about me, so I promised the fly boy that I’d come back the next day at the same time, and left.
I’d like to say that I went back the next day and the day after that. I’d like to say that, in the end, I started a protest demonstration, maybe even a hunger strike, near the fly boy’s wheelchair until his parents had no choice but to stand on either side of him waving huge palm fronds all day long.
But at the moment, the truth is stronger, stronger than me.
That evening, near one of the circles of people listening to a guitar player, I met a fifteen-year-old girl. I lied to her, said I was fifteen too, and she believed me and told me that in Ashdod, where she lived, there are some girls who’d gone all the way with older boys. She had big green eyes and chocolate skin, and she always wore a white bikini, day and night, and spoke loudly about her boobs, how big and beautiful they were. I fell in love with her instantly, of course. And I spent the next few days playing endless games of backgammon with her and her cousins, trying desperately to impress her.
One afternoon, her cousins went into the water and just the two of us were left on the beach. The sun was behind us. I didn’t turn around, but I could picture it turning the hilltops golden now.
We didn’t talk. I felt that it was my responsibility to rescue us from the silence.
There’s this kid here, I said. He has some disease, I don’t what. Anyway, his parents leave him in a wheelchair outside their tent the whole day, and all the flies in the Sinai come and sit on his face.
How disgusting, she said.
Yes, I agreed. And added, spitting out the words quickly, I go to see him every once in a while and swat away the flies. Want to come with me?
What, now? she asked and buried her tan legs in the soft sand like someone who has no intention of going anywhere.
No, I said, alarmed. Who said now? I was thinking later, tomorrow.
We’ll see, maybe, she said, and jumped up suddenly. Are you coming to the water?
I didn’t see the boy with the flies anymore. I was sure I’d see him the last day when my parents’ whole gang took down their tents and gathered together to make the trip to Eilat in a convoy of Subarus. I planned to tell his parents a thing or two, or at least say goodbye to him and apologize for not keeping my promise, but when we got to the meeting place, his family wasn’t there.
They left yesterday, my mother explained. Their little girl had a bad upset stomach.
And what about the… I started to ask, but my father changed the subject. Son, he said, take one last look at the beach and make sure you remember what you see. Inside of a year, the Egyptians will build an army base here. And that’s the end of the corals and the fish.
No, my mother said, I think they’ll develop the place for tourism.
And he answered her.
And she answered him.
And they were off, arguing till Eilat, and maybe even till we were on the Arava Road, I don’t know, because after Kibbutz Yotvata, I fell asleep.
A few months later, the Sinai went back to Egypt and became cleaner and quieter.
Ras Burka was taken over by an obnoxious blue-eyed Egyptian sheikh and his German wife. They let Israelis in the first few years, but then the intifada started and they hung out a little cardboard sign saying that only people with European passports could enter.
The pretty girl from Ashdod starred in my fantasies for a few months. And when I couldn’t summon up her face anymore, I replaced her with Sharon Haziz, the latest, hottest singer.
I haven’t thought about the boy with the flies for years, but during my last stint in the reserves – I was posted in Nablus, and when it was over, I asked for a transfer to a different unit – I suddenly remembered him. I was sitting alone in the small shed at the Ein Huwara checkpoint counting stars, listening to fragmented conversations on the radio, and I don’t really know why, but that boy’s face floated up before my eyes and my heart swelled all at once to the size of a watermelon, good God, there were even flies on his eyelashes, in his nostrils, in his ears. And I’d promised him I’d come.
A thought buzzed in my mind: it’s funny that I never mention the incident to anyone. After all, I’ve revealed more embarrassing things to the world – secrets, lies, perversions – but for some reason, not that. I promised myself I’d tell my wife when I got home, I felt that I had to tell at least her, but when I got home, the twins had fever and we took turns sitting with them and hardly had any time to talk –
Later I forgot about it. And I have no idea why I remembered it now, of all times. That terrible reserve duty was a year and a half ago, and I’m sitting at the computer now to prepare a laser optics marketing presentation for tomorrow morning. All the company’s head honchos will be there, and I still have a lot of work, so many slides that aren’t ready yet, so many slides I have to proofread, and obviously, this is a text I won’t show anyone. Obviously, it’ll be buried in the depths of my hard disk, where it’ll keep buzzing.
In my other life I lived in a suburb of Ohio or Michigan with Paul-Marc, my husband, and the child. The houses were planted on manicured lawns that stretched as far as the eye could see, circling an artificial lake, all of them were similar, nearly identical, manufactured on the same assembly line, with the same faux brick siding and grey gables, two front steps and a large wooden front door or was it faux-wood I couldn’t tell and in any case no one ever used the front door except when delivering groceries or take-out, everyone always used the garage door entry, which was also identical in every house, and every garage was equipped with a second refrigerator and had a side-door leading to the kitchen and various items stuck in that uncertain realm between utility and garbage, crammed in between the two cars.
The houses looked so much alike that when I took the child out in his stroller for a walk the first week we moved in, I couldn’t find my way back; I finally managed to recognize the house thanks to two old ladies who were still standing there with their dogs, chatting, when I returned. There were no fences and therefore the endless green grass was also everyone’s own private backyard and no one added much to it, as if all those miles of grass had suppressed their impulse to garden, at most there was a single tree, a shrub or two, or a few tulips in spring that needed to be sprayed with a smelly solution in order to keep the deer from eating them up. The deer were a real nuisance and once Paul-Marc almost ran one over, but the child was enthusiastic about them and about the squirrels and he would tirelessly point and call out: “Squiwel!”, “Mamby!”.
Sometimes at night, lying beside Paul-Marc who slept as if knocked unconscious after a long day at work and the commute, I would listen to the rain, fighting the urge to jump out of bed and go to the window to see whether it was real. The sound of the wind in the trees was wonderful until I realized it sounded precisely every 2:15 minutes and I also remembered that there weren’t enough trees outside to generate that sound, but I was afraid to get up because if I stepped on the laminated wood floor it would unavoidably creak twice on my way to the window, and wake the child, who could wake Paul-Marc, who needed to be up at five thirty a.m. for work. The monthly payments on our mortgage kept rising and were more than we had planned for, and I hadn’t returned to work after the child was born, in any case the cost of childcare would’ve swallowed up my paycheck and the child was better off with me than with a stranger during those early years.
I tried saving up by using coupons, buying things on sale, and special offers for Christmas and Thanksgiving, and once in a while I shopped online, without Paul-Marc’s knowledge, either ordering an item of clothing that was too tight – it’s hard to get the sizing right on the internet – or something too pretty that was left hanging in the closet, some fancy bath toy for the child, which admittedly, required removing other toys, but still, most definitely stirred up some excitement at least twice or three times, or kitchenware (only some of which ended up adding to the pile in the garage) and of course, plenty of beauty products which are so much cheaper online, especially if you buy one and get the second one half price, or buy two and get one free, shipping included.
I tried walking on the treadmill that I got from Wal-Mart – which was fairly expensive, but I explained to Paul-Marc (I couldn’t hide the treadmill) that eventually the investment would pay off, help me get back in shape, back to myself, back to work – but most of the time I sat in front of the tv, the couch too soft to get up from, and rocked the child’s stroller vigorously, to be honest, even when he wasn’t supposed to be sleeping, and watched fitness and healthy living programs with tips for well-being that I tried to commit to memory, most if not all of the commercials were for diet products and cosmetics that presented body and face as a battle there is no chance at winning, the most you can do is minimize the damage with the help of buy-one-get-the-second-half-off or buy- two-get one-free.
Apart from that I didn’t do much during the day, sometimes by the end of it I couldn’t recall a single real thing except for the sharp motion when rising from the couch and hitting “off” on the remote control while attempting to quickly quiet down the child as soon as I heard the garage door opening for Paul-Marc’s car, but the days slid through my fingers somehow and when the weather was decent I would go out with the child. Once I had settled in the neighborhood and took every possible route from the house to the artificial lake, I began to discern subtle differences between the houses, ones that indicated their financial states, for example, the families that were more well-off had built-in swimming pools, while the others had round plastic ones that were far cheaper but had other advantages, for example, you could take them with you when you moved. I got ours on sale at Amazon for only 299.99$ and it took Paul-Marc two weekends to install. For an extra 59.99$ you could add a safety fence for the pool but that made the whole deal a lot more expensive and as long as the child was small we didn’t find it necessary.
Alright. You don’t need to have read The Iliad or Crime and Punishment (in any case I hadn’t read them in my other life) in order to guess the end, to picture me staring at the tv then suddenly becoming aware of the strange silence or the strange lightness of the stroller that I’m still rocking, getting up from the couch and seeing the child gone, running up the stairs and not finding him in our bedroom or in his room or in the bathrooms, going downstairs again to the living room and suddenly spotting the open front door, I didn’t shut it after the grocery delivery, freezing in terror for a moment and then racing outside to the pool, seeing from afar, face-down, floating in the water, the worst sight I would ever witness in my entire life but still running – and sometimes I cannot bear such a cruel fate for my other life and I reach the pool, the scream still stuck in my throat, and I see a large stupid squirrel that fell in and drowned, his eyes open and his paws still outstretched, and Paul-Marc Jr. sitting on the grass and staring at me puzzled.
I was away from my children for a while. They’d gone to the seaside with my sister and my mother, I stayed in the city, my mother was angry at me because I wrote and showed myself nowhere often enough. I’d talk about work appointments, none of which existed. I lived in a small hotel whose caretaker reeked, the smell of her body and her dress had risen violently with the heat. I’d head to the office every day, but I worked very little, I mostly went to the office to pretend I was a man, I was tired of being a woman. Everyone seems to enjoy entertaining for a while a role that isn’t theirs, the role I played was that of a man, I’d sit at the filthy office table and eat at an osteria, lazily hang out on the streets and in cafés with friends, come home late at night. I’d surprise myself thinking how different my life had once been, when I cradled my children and I cooked and I washed, how there’s always so many ways to live, and each of us can make a new being of ourselves, at times even enemies of each other. Then I got bored of that new role I was playing too, I’d be living the same life without any of the pleasure in it. But I wouldn’t go to my mother’s, at the seaside, I wanted to be away from the kids, be alone: I thought I couldn’t show myself to them as I was at that moment, with that loathing in my heart, I felt like I’d loathe them too if I ended up seeing them. I often thought it was like elephants and how they hide away to die. They hide to die, they spend a long time in the jungle looking for a secluded spot, full of trees, to hide the shame of their big, tired body dying. It was summer, summer was hot, blazing in the big city, and whenever I cycled on the tarmac under the trees, my heart was choked by a feeling of loathing and love towards every road, every house of that city, and several memories were born of different natures, burning like the sun, as I fled, ringing my bell. Giovanna was waiting for me in a café: when I left the office, in the evening, and I’d sit next to her at the table, I’d show her my mother’s letters. She knew I wanted to die, that’s why we no longer had that much more to say to each other, but we still sat one opposite the other, smoking, blowing away the smoke through closed lips. I wanted to die because of a man, but also because of so many other things, because I owed my mother money, and because the caretaker stank, and because summer was hot, blazing, in the city full of memories and roads, and because I thought that I could be of no use to anyone, in that state.
So my children – just as they had lost their father one day – would also lose their mother but it didn’t matter, because the loathing and shame assault us at a certain moment in life, and no one has the power to help us when they do. It was a Sunday afternoon, I’d bought some sleeping pills from a pharmacy. I walked all day in the empty city, thinking about me and my children. Bit by bit I was losing awareness of their young age, the timbre of their young voices had died in me; I told them everything, about the pills and the elephants, of the caretaker and what they should do when they grew up, how to defend themselves from what would happen. But then I suddenly saw them as I had last seen them, on the floor, playing with bowling pins. And the echo of those thoughts and words resounded in the silence, I was stunned by seeing how alone I was, alone and free in the empty city, with the power to harm myself as much as I desired. I went home and took the pills, I dissolved all of their contents in a glass of water, I couldn’t figure out if I wanted to sleep for a very long time or die. The caretaker came the following morning, she found me asleep and after a while went to call for a doctor. I stayed in bed for a week, and Giovanna would come every day and she’d bring me oranges and ice. I’d tell her that those who have a loathing growing in their heart should not be alive, and she’d smoke in silence and watch me, blowing away the smoke through closed lips. Other friends would come too, and everyone gave me a piece of their mind, everyone wanted to teach me what I had to do now. But I’d reply that those who have a loathing growing in their heart should not be alive. Giovanna told me to leave the small hotel and move in with her for a while. She lived alone with a Danish girl who walked around the place barefoot. I didn’t feel like dying now, but I didn’t feel like living either, and I lazily hung out at the office or in the streets, with friends, people who wanted to teach me how to save myself. In the mornings, Giovanna would slip on a prune-coloured towelling robe, brush the hair away from her forehead and wave at me with disdain. In the mornings, the Danish girl would walk barefoot into the bedroom, and start writing all the dreams she’d had the previous night on a typewriter. One night she’d dreamt that she picked up an axe and killed her mother and father. But she really loved her mother and father. They were waiting for her in Copenhagen but she didn’t want to move back, because she said we all need to live away from our roots. She’d read out loud to us her mother’s letters. Giovanna’s mother had died and she had arrived too late to see her die, when she was still alive they had tried to no avail to talk to each other. I’d say that a mother is only needed by children when they’re small, to feed them and cradle them, but then she’s pointless and it’s pointless to talk to her. You can’t even tell her the simplest of things and so what can she do to help? She becomes a burden with that silence that is born out of trying to talk to each other. I’d say that my children no longer needed me, because they no longer needed to be fed and cradled, kids with dirty knees and patches on their shorts, and they weren’t old enough to be able to talk to each other either. But Giovanna would say that there’s only one good way to live, and it’s to get on a train headed to some foreign country, possibly at night. She had everything she needed for a trip at home, she had several thermos holders and many suitcases of all sorts, and even a sick bag for the plane. The Danish girl would tell me to write down my dreams, because our dreams tell us what we’re meant to do, and she’d tell me I should think back to my childhood and talk about it, because the secret of who we are is hidden in our childhood. But my childhood felt so remote and distant, and so remote was the face of my mother, and I was tired of all this thinking about myself, I wanted to look at others and understand what I was like. So I started watching people as I lazily hung out in cafés and on the streets, men and women with their children, maybe some of them had once had that loathing in their heart, then time had passed and they’d forgotten. Maybe someone had waited pointlessly on the corner of a street once, or someone had walked for a whole day in the silence of the dusty city, or someone looked at a dead person’s face and asked them for forgiveness. One day I got a letter from my mother, telling me that the kids had scarlet fever. And so the ancient motherly anxiety paralysed my heart. I took the train and left. Giovanna came with me to the station, and she smelled the smell of trains with desire, brushing the hair away from her forehead with her disdainful smile.
With my forehead stuck to the glass, I watched the city move further away, empty of any evil power by now, cold and harmless as spent embers. The ancient, known motherly anxiety was turmoiling inside me along with the thundering of the train, crushing like a storm the Danish girl, Giovanna, the small hotel’s caretaker, the sleeping pills and the elephants, as I wondered bemusedly to myself how I could’ve been so interested in such trivial things for a whole summer.
When I think back on it, I feel like digging a hole in the ground and crawling right in. I want to crawl right in this minute, so I’m thinking back on it.
Someone once gave me this blue pill; God, what a feeling that was. He said, Down the gullet, so I downed the gullet, whatever that means. I downed that pill, and while I was doing this bummer trip, I followed a guy who told me to get lost on Melchet Street. It was getting late, and I was under the influence of that pill. I didn’t know exactly what belonged where, or whether all the knots I was seeing were causes that had become entangled in effects, or buses going uptown.
I downed that pill and waited downstairs for the guy. What a fuckup that turned out to be. He went and phoned his real girlfriend, who, as you can figure out, wasn’t me. He went and phoned her to tell her something. I waited downstairs – how embarrassing, how I’d let myself go. He came down and said: Listen, my real girlfriend doesn’t buy my story, so I’m off, bye. That was long ago; I was twenty-two and a half.
You leaving? I asked him, and he said he had to. You can just imagine what I felt like on Melchet Street back then. There wasn’t a drop of moisture left in my cheeks, just that slap in the face. How did I get home? Down the main road, I guess. I got my legs over to the main road and they took it from there.
I was consistently disoriented and lost in those days, so I figured I might as well be told to get lost and then drift on; I’d wind up somewhere eventually.
I let myself go, all the way home. Boy, what a downhill trip that was. Nobody saw me, I hope.
It’s been light years since then. Sometimes I still look around for the guy who told me to get lost. I want to tell him I was under the influence of that pill, and if there’s one thing I regret it’s that I wasn’t sober enough to tell him: “Mikey, you got a dime for my bus fare?”
Life is a snowball of lost meaning. I let myself go day by day, trying not to lose my innocence all at once, in a matter of days, but gradually, in a matter of years. My hourglass is running low, and I get it going again with sublime feelings of freedom and complacency. My sanity scores are playing tricks on me, and I don’t understand the rules of the game. One day I’m cool, and five minutes later I’m hypnosis or a talking extrasensory system – I’m not me any more; they call me all kinds of names, and I answer to all of them and none of them, or else I turn around just as suddenly when they call someone else.
*The story is published in cooperation with The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature
*Translation © The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature.
My father died at six in the evening.
After the doctor told us the news, we went home. Ariane drove, and I sat next to her. Neither of us spoke. The taste of the coffee from the machine at the hospital still lingered in my mouth. I looked at the road illuminated by the headlights of our car and the cars coming towards us. There weren’t many; it was on a Friday evening.
When we got home, the kids were already asleep. Ariane paid the babysitter and walked her to the door. I went into the kitchen and sat down. I could hear Ariane saying goodbye, and the door closing. She turned off the living room light, came into the kitchen, and put on the kettle. Then she asked me if I wanted a cup of coffee.
I told her I did. I listened to the spoon clanging against the mugs as she poured in the boiling water.
“It’s better this way,” she said. “He was only suffering. In the last few weeks, he was only suffering. Believe me,” she said. “It’s better this way. For everyone.” Then she said, “It’s not just the last few weeks. It’s been going on for a few months already. He never used to sit on the porch that way. I mean, a year ago, for example. He didn’t sit on the porch that way.”
“I don’t know,” I said. I thought about it.
She put my coffee on the table next to me, and stood there for a minute with her hands on the back of the chair. She touched her face. “I’m wiped out,” she said. “And I’m hungry, too. Do you want anything to eat?”
I said no. “But you go ahead,” I said. “Make yourself something to eat.”
“O.K.,” she said. “I’m wiped out.” She stood there for a minute, her hands on either side of her neck, then lit a cigarette and started taking things out of the refrigerator. While she got her food ready, I drank my coffee and tried to think about what had happened and what I was feeling. I thought about the last few days.
“I’ve got to call my mother,” said Ariane. “I almost forgot. I’ll call her right now.” She carried her ash tray over to the phone. She left the food on the counter.
There was still a lot to do before the funeral, and I had no idea where to begin. How would I publish a death announcement, for example? When my mother died, my father took care of everything. This was the first time I ever had to deal with these things myself. I could hear Ariane talking to her mother in the hall. I lit a cigarette and tossed the match into the sink. I thought about my father.
About a year after we got married, he started pestering me about the apartment. He didn’t like the fact that we lived with Ariane’s parents. Especially after the child was born. He kept on telling us that it wasn’t good for our son and it wasn’t good for us. But at the time, we had no choice. We didn’t have any money. He said he was willing to help us out, but I didn’t ask him how much he could afford. He didn’t have a lot of money, that much I knew. Not even enough to get us started.
It took another year or so until I was able to take out a mortgage and could finally buy this apartment. We moved in over the summer, while the building was still being renovated. I was still fixing things inside the apartment. Mirrors, closets, bathroom shelves, things like that. Ariane and the baby slept in the small bedroom, and I slept in the still-empty living room.
The day we installed the kitchen cabinets- and they were still empty, I hadn’t even had a chance to clean up the sawdust- my father came to visit.
We stood in the new kitchen. He was so happy that he was smiling to himself every time there was a pause in the conversation. He brushed some dust off the counter, and I looked at his hand, the hand with the ring. That’s how I always remembered his hand, ever since I was a little boy. A hand with a wedding ring.
After a few minutes, Ariane came back and lit up another cigarette. She sat at the table and put the ashtray between us. She glanced at the candlestick holder that I was using as an ashtray. “It’s O.K.,” she said. “We shouldn’t have any trouble. You can do everything over the phone. But it can wait. Tomorrow’s Saturday,” she said, “there aren’t any papers. There’s nothing we have to do right now.”
Her coffee was tepid, and she went over to the sink and spilled it down the drain. I could see from her hair that she’d been pressing her forehead to her hand while she’d been on the phone.
It was a relief, that it was all over, I’m not denying it. At least I don’t have to go back to the hospital. I don’t know how many hours I spend sitting on that bench in the ward, staring at the doors. Almost ten days, almost all the time. I went home to shower and occasionally to sleep, but I spent most of my nights there. Sometimes Ariane took my place. Sometimes we sat there together.
Ariane put more water in the kettle. “Do you want some more coffee?” she asked.
I said no. Then she started putting everything back in the fridge. She hadn’t eaten a thing.
I rubbed my face. I felt tired and dirty. I felt the fatigue in my bones. But I didn’t have any desire to go to sleep. While Ariane was making the coffee, I stared at the table and tried to figure out what I was feeling.
“Do you want to shower first?” she asked. She threw her spoon into the sink. “Or do you want to have more coffee now and I’ll shower?” I looked at her coffee. She was holding it in the air, between us. She had just stirred it, and it was still swishing around inside the cup, a tiny whirlpool. One of us would have to drink it, and the other one would have to shower. That’s how it stood.
I closed my eyes and tried to calm down.
“Do you want it or not?” Ariane asked.
“I don’t want any coffee,” I said, “O.K.? You already asked me, and I told you I didn’t want any. Stop making me coffee. Go take a shower.”
She shrugged her shoulders and put the coffee on the counter. Then she said, “I’m going to shower. I’m falling asleep on my feet. I’m really wiped out.” She put her hands on my shoulders. “I’m falling off my feet,” she said. “Take a shower before you go to sleep, O.K.? Take a shower. You’ll feel better after you shower.”
“O.K.,” I said. I looked at her back as she left the kitchen.
A few years before my mother died, I suddenly noticed that my father was an old man. I hadn’t thought about it before. But one day, I think it was on Pesach, or maybe Rosh Ha-Shanah, I suddenly understood. It was a few months after I got married. I had brought them a toaster-oven as a holiday gift. For a long time, I’d been urging my mother to buy one, but she didn’t want to. And it irked me. She never liked new things, my mother. We’d always argue about it. But I knew how useful it was, so I bought them one anyway, for the holiday. It was a big one, top of the line. We took it out of the box, and my father and I went into the kitchen to try it out. But nothing happened. Nothing. We couldn’t even get it to turn on.
My father took out the instruction manual and we read through it a second time. Then he spread a sheet of newspaper over the floor and put the toaster oven on top of it, upside-down. It upset him that it didn’t work. We crouched down on all fours, unscrewed it, and took out the base. And then I looked at my father. He’d taken off his glasses and set them aside, on the newspaper. He looked strange without them. Like he was naked. He looked into the toaster oven, but I could tell he had no idea what he was looking for.
At that very moment, it dawned on me. I realized that all his life, my father’s had lousy luck. Life had screwed him over, and he’d never retaliated. I thought that whatever gift I’d brought, it wouldn’t have worked. It was doomed from the start. I could have brought him a television or a stereo or a lawn-mower or anything, and it wouldn’t have worked. But the worst part of it was that he always felt like he had to apologize. I watched him bending down, without his eyeglasses, telling me he was sorry I’d brought him something that didn’t work. That was the day I realized he was an old man. When I went to sleep that night, I couldn’t get that image out of my head. My father, without his glasses, leaning over the toaster oven.
I sat there in the kitchen and listened to the water running in the shower, then stopping. I thought about that young doctor who came out and told us that my father had died. And I suddenly wanted to hit him. I don’t know. Maybe it was the way he said it. I hadn’t noticed it when he spoke to us at the hospital, but I remembered it later. From the moment he opened his mouth, I knew. I shouldn’t have listened to the rest of it. He spoke like he knew exactly how he was supposed to do it. To make it easier for the family. He was pleased with the way he spoke. With the way he told me that my father had died. At that moment, when I remembered it, I could have killed him. I could have done it with my own two hands.
*The story is published in cooperation with The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature
*Translation © The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature.
The last item on the shopping list was bread. Two o’clock in the afternoon. August. And the insistence to walk all the way to the bread shop. Specification is the sign of affluence and civilization; that which accommodates variety. I direct my steps toward the comforting scholasticism of bread, options of grain, types of pastry – and the choice made earlier, in a past time, at home – the thrill of finding the shape of a will. Despite the heat, this is what I need to pull myself together, the ritual of the hostess preparing for guests. The extended negotiation and the giving preceded by strategy. If I give as I wish, I could find rest in the giving. I take my place in line. An elderly couple: they too know in advance what they want, but somehow they lack the joy of simulated choice; pointing in itself is a sign of lost chances, of losing one’s hold on life. Having inquired what half-loaves are left and sampled some morsels, they decide in a whispered consultation to chose the sunflower bread once again. Though a bit pricy, it’s the best, they tell the saleswoman. The woman in front of me, dressed in red with large black-framed glasses, is hiding behind a big woman laden with shopping bags whose turn is coming up. The woman in red is ceaselessly groping the boxes of cookies stacked on our right, the ones you’re meant to take on your own. She takes one and puts into a plastic bag. Out of the
corner of my eye, only half seeing the motion of the theft, I am so stunned to see a thief in action, that immediately my face shows too great an interest, spoiling all her secrecy. Not looking at me she fiddles with the box of cookies, rattling it slightly, as though masking the secret by this delicate noise. By letting something slip by she leaves room for doubt. But I do not doubt. She backs away toward the door, giving me her place in the line. I know you, I tell her voicelessly. So shut up, her face retorts. We’ll see, I don’t know, I reply. I’ll kill you. You can’t – we’re surrounded by people. Profusion will protect me. You don’t say, she mocks – profusion whirls you in the wind till you rot in motion. Once a day I deserve something nobody knows of. Today it’s sesame cookies. And what about the young saleswoman and stocktaking and the boss’s accusations – who will pay for your desires. God
will pay. Oh, God, I pant. The only one who doesn’t surprise
himself, which is why we can no longer find refuge from the daily shock of loss. I feel her staring at my back. I’ve taken her place in line and she has withdrawn to its end. Other people press into the store. I see her turning to the shelves, taking the box out of her bag, replacing it among the cookie boxes. I feel somewhat disappointed. After all, who am I to know what she needs, and can one prevent matter from overflowing beyond its bounds – her obsession infects me, I’m already nearly drunk with some dark invisible substance that binds us together like love. No, not like love – we are each other’s riddle and we’re seeking an outlet for the wonder – how is it possible to recognize that which is sealed
inside its own nature – and the code, we already know, has been completely destroyed. I glance at her again. Once more she places the cookies in the bag and once more our gazes cross from behind. I am the victim of a crime. I want to tell the saleswoman politely, this woman is a thief, please. But my night is already lying there in mid-day, and my sins revealed to her – naturally, only sinners recognize their kind. I am familiar with all the motions of theft, the distractions, and the small noises of innocence. But she frightens me. The risks you take. The poorness of the truth. And the panic, the terrible panic that we shall never receive as much as we give, this
panic in its turn protects us from the disappointing feebleness of our generosity. The two of us, dreaming of robbery and revenge, standing in line for bread. She must have cookies, I must leave home. She wanted to have it for free and I’ve already made her pay with the anguish and rage of discovery; I want to betray effortlessly, with a kiss, but keep paying the price. Take it, take the goddamned cookies, I say, while asking for poppy-seed cake and three kinds of rolls – and I am overtaken by black vertigo.
No banister. No alliance. No word of accord. Only seeing. And sedimented seeing. While I pay she gets back in line with the concealed cookies to continue the game – stay away from me or I’ll kill you, I signal to her as I step out of the store. Don’t worry, she replies – your kind I can recognize anywhere.
What you might think just after you’ve said goodbye to him and just before you leave the house:
1. What’s that photo on the wall?
2. Is that her in the photo on the wall?
3. She’s standing in front of a not very high wooden fence separating her from a small herd of geese, you might think. Her body taut, her head thrown back. You can’t see where she’s looking.
4. The photo is hanging on one of those small stretches of wall jammed between corners and doors; the kind of wall on which people hang calendars and not pictures; not the kind of wall you face as you walk through rooms; the kind of wall that gets walked straight past.
If you don’t walk straight past you see a photo she would never have hung on the wall when she was alive: standing in front of her fence, in front of her geese, while they waddle happily through the shallow puddles almost everywhere around their fanned feet. The geese aren’t looking at her, they’re looking at each other or at their own feathers. Their plumage isn’t dirty; quite the opposite, it’s very white. Some of them don’t have their beaks pressed to their chests; they are stretching their necks as though trying not to cross the puddles but to heave themselves out of them. And she too, you might think, looks like she’s trying to get herself out of something, out of a great big mess into extremely clean air, so deliberately strained that she must have briefly forgotten all notions of cleanliness she acquired over the years.
What you might think:
That she must not have noticed being photographed, her behaviour becoming a picture. She never engaged in excesses of the body; at most of her mouth. A remarkable number of people poorly disposed to her for certain reasons – idiotic reasons, she said – had died shortly after she quietly cursed them.
The path in the photo would lead her to the house, were she to continue along it: alongside the fence, over the edge of the photo, to the place where her photo is being looked at now, this picture of a body collapsed in almost stubborn permanence, which seems to have straightened up very suddenly, vertically towards the sun, towards the wind blowing on high, into which she has stretched. That’s how she’s standing there in front of the fence while on the other side of it common or garden geese waddle, avoiding looking at her directly as consistently as if that gaze had been practiced for centuries from the Baltic Sea to the Atlantic Ocean, migrating birds having flown it in from the most African of all countries and dropped it from the air onto these animals like heavenly providence.
At their feet, vaguely visible: goosegrass, gooseberries, gooseneck loosestrife, gooseplant, gooseweed. Geese live on an earth named only after them, which expands productively upwards every morning out of growing gratitude at being sidestepped, until its foreseeable end, a fence. On the sidestep is where she is, not looking around and not noticing she’s being photographed. Her arms outstretched alongside her, ahead of her dull wood, above her circling air.
She never behaved that way, neither outside nor inside this house she had moved into, coming from the town. For love – later she said: for sheer idiocy – she had married a man who had joined Hitler’s bodyguards at the age of 18; later, he gained a PhD in ornithology.
The camera had collapsed her and only unfolded her again over a sheet of paper, in a generous gesture – indiscernible whether she was the depicted or responsible for the depicting, on this narrowly passing rectangle of wall you’re standing in front of now: with him. And about which he’s attempting to provide information; in other words, he goes over to his books, opens them and closes them and does so again three rooms along, as you hear him murmuring: Deuterostomia, Deuterostomia. That’s the superphylum of all goose species, in ornithological terms, but what’s the phylum? It must be here somewhere – and also, why insight comes about by hitting something to make it open and hitting so that it closes.
By the side of the tiny herd of geese is a tiny stream. The water flows horizontally into the air, from right to left – against the motion of the thoughts circling above the photo. Possibly, as opposed to their peculiar eye contact behaviour, the geese’s sounds, albeit proceeding on invisible paths, were directed at the person standing by the fence, especially the lower and stronger, female sounds. Possibly, the geese were not chattering but screeching. Possibly, that’s why their beaks are so wide open. Possibly, she was screeching back, her head tipped, vertical into mid-air. Her body launching itself upwards as she screamed, a motion she hadn’t made for a very long time, or only in secret. Cursing someone as she did so, this time very loudly because she was alone. Possibly, that’s why the photographer never showed the photo to anyone but her, and he survived because he hid the evidence of her acrobatic soul from others until her death. Whereby the question in that case would be: with what intent did the photographer want to photograph her; had the camera happened upon her by chance; or had she perhaps cursed him audibly days before and he had been trying ever since, sweating with fear, to capture her in a position undepictable for her, an inconceivably depictable position, and to blackmail her with it. – Possibly, she had said nothing in view of the geese, in view of a subphylum from the superphylum of Deuterostomia; possibly, the air had been taut around her in the pose caught in black and white, taut as a net with hard or thin thread, at its loosest around her chest and tightest at her neck; possibly, she had realized how pretty and useless perspectives are when everything is so close to you, even if everything close immediately vanishes, like the brightness does in the evening, having spent all day shining from a sky filled to the brim with light.
Will he come up with the correct ornithological term for the phylum if he chants the Latin name of the superphylum to himself, as he’s doing now?
Above the white-feathered heads, the outstretched head in front of which she is stretched out: the pale leaves of the hornbeams, or white beeches. Are they too, going by the logic of the previous plant names, named after the animals beneath them? The leaves of the white beeches hang close to their branches and the branches don’t grow far away from their trunk, the whole ensemble more shrub than tree.
You might think: her parting looks rather messy in the otherwise very neat surroundings.
The hornbeams are still standing back there, you might think, just after you’ve said goodbye to him a second time and just before you leave the house. The fence still in front of it. In front of that the path. Walks are taken along the fence and glances are cast over it as you leave the house. Among the walkers is a child who tries to stop and look through the fence, his hand held by another walker’s hand. The child is very small and clumsy and tries hard to see what the fence posts alternately hide and reveal:
the subfamily of geese.
The weather was excellent that day, you hear him calling inside the house, as if searching for you and then at a window: The clouds stood still above the geese, not moving an inch!
You might think something now, but:
The child doesn’t manage to stand still. The fence posts the child is pulled past recall eyelids, fluttering and blurring what is seen; if they were mouths they would chatter without revealing anything of what they were saying. The child tries nonetheless to get through to the hidden things behind the fence, at least with his eyes. It doesn’t look as though the child might be lifted up so as to see more. Someone tugs at his arm (the same someone who was holding his hand) and tugs at his arm until all walkers have passed the fence; continuing along the path, the child’s head is slowly lowered, so slowly that it’s hard to watch the disappointed onlooker.
The Short Story Project C | The Short Story Project INC 2018
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