On the third day after they moved to the country he came walking back from the village carrying a basket of groceries and a twenty-four-yard coil of rope. She came out to meet him, wiping her hands on her green smock. Her hair was tumbled, her nose was scarlet with sunburn; he told her that already she looked like a born country woman. His gray flannel shirt stuck to him, his heavy shoes were dusty. She assured him he looked like a rural character in a play.
Had he brought the coffee? She had been waiting all day long for coffee. They had forgot it when they ordered at the store the first day.
Gosh, no, he hadn’t. Lord, now he’d have to go back. Yes, he would if it killed him. He thought, though, he had everything else. She reminded him it was only because he didn’t drink coffee himself. If he did he would remember it quick enough. Suppose they ran out of cigarettes? Then she saw the rope. What was that for? Well, he thought it might do to hang clothes on, or something. Naturally she asked him if he thought they were going to run a laundry? They already had a fifty-foot line hanging right before his eyes? Why, hadn’t he noticed it, really? It was a blot on the landscape to her.
He thought there were a lot of things a rope might come in handy for. She wanted to know what, for instance. He thought a few seconds, but nothing occurred. They could wait and see, couldn’t they? You need all sorts of strange odds and ends around a place in the country. She said, yes, that was so; but she thought just at that time when every penny counted, it seemed funny to buy more rope. That was all. She hadn’t meant anything else. She hadn’t just seen, not at first, why he felt it was necessary.
Well, thunder, he had bought it because he wanted to, and that was all there was to it. She thought that was reason enough, and couldn’t understand why he hadn’t said so, at first. Undoubtedly it would be useful, twenty-four yards of rope, there were hundreds of things, she couldn’t think of any at the moment, but it would come in. Of course. As he had said, things always did in the country.
But she was a little disappointed about the coffee, and oh, look, look, look at the eggs! Oh, my, they’re all running! What had he put on top of them? Hadn’t he known eggs mustn’t be squeezed? Squeezed, who had squeezed them, he wanted to know. What a silly thing to say. He had simply brought them along in the basket with the other things. If they got broke it was the grocer’s fault. He should know better than to put heavy things on top of eggs.
She believed it was the rope. That was the heaviest thing in the pack, she saw him plainly when he came in from the road, the rope was a big package on top of everything. He desired the whole wide world to witness that this was not a fact. He had carried the rope in one hand and the basket in the other, and what was the use of her having eyes if that was the best they could do for her?
Well, anyhow, she could see one thing plain: no eggs for breakfast. They’d have to scramble them now, for supper. It was too damned bad. She had planned to have steak for supper. No ice, meat wouldn’t keep. He wanted to know why she couldn’t finish breaking the eggs in a bowl and set them in a cool place.
Cool place! If he could find one for her, she’d be glad to set them there. Well, then, it seemed to him they might very well cook the meat at the same time they cooked the eggs and then warm up the meat for tomorrow. The idea simply choked her. Warmed-over meat, when they might as well have had it fresh. Second best and scraps and makeshifts, even to the meat! He rubbed her shoulder a little. It doesn’t really matter so much, does it, darling? Sometimes when they were playful, he would rub her shoulder and she would arch and purr. This time she hissed and almost clawed. He was getting ready to say that they could surely manage somehow when she turned on him and said, if he told her they could manage somehow she would certainly slap his face.
He swallowed the words red hot, his face burned. He picked up the rope and started to put it on the top shelf. She would not have it on the top shelf, the jars and tins belonged there; positively she would not have the top shelf cluttered up with a lot of rope. She had borne all the clutter she meant to bear in the flat in town, there was space here at least and she meant to keep things in order.
Well, in that case, he wanted to know what the hammer and nails were doing up there? And why had she put them there when she knew very well he needed that hammer and those nails upstairs to fix the window sashes? She simply slowed down everything and made double work on the place with her insane habit of changing things around and hiding them.
She was sure she begged his pardon, and if she had had any reason to believe he was going to fix the sashes this summer she would have left the hammer and nails right where he put them; in the middle of the bedroom floor where they could step on them in the dark. And now if he didn’t clear the whole mess out of there she would throw them down the well.
Oh, all right, all right – could he put them in the closet? Naturally not, there were brooms and mops and dustpans in the closet, and why couldn’t he find a place for his rope outside her kitchen? Had he stopped to consider there were seven God-forsaken rooms in the house, and only one kitchen?
He wanted to know what of it? And did she realize she was making a complete fool of herself? And what did she take him for, a three-year-old idiot? The whole trouble with her was she needed something weaker than she was to heckle and tyrannize over. He wished to God now they had a couple of children she could take it out on. Maybe he’d get some rest.
Her face changed at this, she reminded him he had forgot the coffee and had bought a worthless piece of rope. And when she thought of all the things they actually needed to make the place even decently fit to live in, well, she could cry, that was all. She looked so forlorn, so lost and despairing he couldn’t believe it was only a piece of rope that was causing all the racket. What was the matter, for God’s sake?
Oh, would he please hush and go away, and stay away, if he could, for five minutes? By all means, yes, he would. He’d stay away indefinitely if she wished. Lord, yes, there was nothing he’d like better than to clear out and never come back. She couldn’t for the life of her see what was holding him, then. It was a swell time. Here she was, stuck, miles from a railroad, with a half-empty house on her hands, and not a penny in her pocket, and everything on earth to do; it seemed the God-sent moment for him to get out from under. She was surprised he hadn’t stayed in town as it was until she had come out and done the work and got things straightened out. It was his usual trick.
It appeared to him that this was going a little far. Just a touch out of bounds, if she didn’t mind his saying so. Why the hell had he stayed in town the summer before? To do a half-dozen extra jobs to get the money he had sent her. That was it. She knew perfectly well they couldn’t have done it otherwise. She had agreed with him at the time. And that was the only time so help him he had ever left her to do anything by herself.
Oh, he could tell that to his great-grandmother. She had her notion of what had kept him in town. Considerably more than a notion, if he wanted to know. So, she was going to bring all that up again, was she? Well, she could just think what she pleased. He was tired of explaining. It may have looked funny but he had simply got hooked in, and what could he do? It was impossible to believe that she was going to take it seriously. Yes, yes, she knew how it was with a man: if he was left by himself a minute, some woman was certain to kidnap him. And naturally he couldn’t hurt her feelings by refusing!
Well, what was she raving about? Did she forget she had told him those two weeks alone in the country were the happiest she had known for four years? And how long had they been married when she said that? All right, shut up! If she thought that hadn’t stuck in his craw.
She hadn’t meant she was happy because she was away from him. She meant she was happy getting the devilish house nice and ready for him. That was what she had meant, and now look! Bringing up something she had said a year ago simply to justify himself for forgetting her coffee and breaking the eggs and buying a wretched piece of rope they couldn’t afford. She really thought it was time to drop the subject, and now she wanted only two things in the world. She wanted him to get that rope from underfoot, and go back to the village and get her coffee, and if he could remember it, he might bring a metal mitt for the skillets, and two more curtain rods, and if there were any rubber gloves in the village, her hands were simply raw, and a bottle of milk of magnesia from the drugstore.
He looked out at the dark blue afternoon sweltering on the slopes, and mopped his forehead and sighed heavily and said, if only she could wait a minute for anything, he was going back. He had said so, hadn’t he, the very instant they found he had overlooked it?
Oh, yes, well . . . run along. She was going to wash windows. The country was so beautiful! She doubted they’d have a moment to enjoy it. He meant to go, but he could not until he had said that if she wasn’t such a hopeless melancholiac she might see that this was only for a few days. Couldn’t she remember anything pleasant about the other summers? Hadn’t they ever had any fun? She hadn’t time to talk about it, and now would he please not leave that rope lying around for her to trip on? He picked it up, somehow it had toppled off the table, and walked out with it under his arm.
Was he going this minute? He certainly was. She thought so. Sometimes it seemed to her he had second sight about the precisely perfect moment to leave her ditched. She had meant to put the mattresses out to sun, if they put them out this minute they would get at least three hours, he must have heard her say that morning she meant to put them out. So of course he would walk off and leave her to it. She supposed he thought the exercise would do her good.
Well, he was merely going to get her coffee. A four-mile walk for two pounds of coffee was ridiculous, but he was perfectly willing to do it. The habit was making a wreck of her, but if she wanted to wreck herself there was nothing he could do about it. If he thought it was coffee that was making a wreck of her, she congratulated him: he must have a damned easy conscience.
Conscience or no conscience, he didn’t see why the mattresses couldn’t very well wait until tomorrow. And anyhow, for God’s sake, were they living in the house, or were they going to let the house ride them to death? She paled at this, her face grew livid about the mouth, she looked quite dangerous, and reminded him that housekeeping was no more her work than it was his: she had other work to do as well, and when did he think she was going to find time to do it at this rate?
Was she going to start on that again? She knew as well as he did that his work brought in the regular money, hers was only occasional, if they depended on what she made – and she might as well get straight on this question once for all!
That was positively not the point. The question was, when both of them were working on their own time, was there going to be a division of the housework, or wasn’t there? She merely wanted to know, she had to make her plans. Why, he thought that was all arranged. It was understood that he was to help. Hadn’t he always, in summers?
Hadn’t he, though? Oh, just hadn’t he? And when, and where, and doing what? Lord, what an uproarious joke!
It was such a very uproarious joke that her face turned slightly purple, and she screamed with laughter. She laughed so hard she had to sit down, and finally a rush of tears spurted from her eyes and poured down into the lifted corners of her mouth. He dashed towards her and dragged her up to her feet and tried to pour water on her head. The dipper hung by a string on a nail and he broke it loose. Then he tried to pump water with one hand while she struggled in the other. So he gave it up and shook her instead.
She wrenched away, crying out for him to take his rope and go to hell, she had simply given him up: and ran. He heard her high-heeled bedroom slippers clattering and stumbling on the stairs.
He went out around the house and into the lane; he suddenly realized he had a blister on his heel and his shirt felt as if it were on fire. Things broke so suddenly you didn’t know where you were. She could work herself into a fury about simply nothing. She was terrible, damn it: not an ounce of reason. You might as well talk to a sieve as that woman when she got going. Damned if he’d spend his life humoring her! Well, what to do now? He would take back the rope and exchange it for something else. Things accumulated, things were mountainous, you couldn’t move them or sort them out or get rid of them. They just lay and rotted around. He’d take it back. Hell, why should he? He wanted it. What was it anyhow? A piece of rope. Imagine anybody caring more about a piece of rope than about a man’s feelings. What earthly right had she to say a word about it? He remembered all the useless, meaningless things she bought for herself: Why? because I wanted it, that’s why! He stopped and selected a large stone by the road. He would put the rope behind it. He would put it in the tool-box when he got back. He’d heard enough about it to last him a life-time.
When he came back she was leaning against the post box beside the road waiting. It was pretty late, the smell of broiled steak floated nose high in the cooling air. Her face was young and smooth and fresh-looking. Her unmanageable funny black hair was all on end. She waved to him from a distance, and he speeded up. She called out that supper was ready and waiting, was he starved?
You bet he was starved. Here was the coffee. He waved it at her. She looked at his other hand. What was that he had there?
Well, it was the rope again. He stopped short. He had meant to exchange it but forgot. She wanted to know why he should exchange it, if it was something he really wanted. Wasn’t the air sweet now, and wasn’t it fine to be here?
She walked beside him with one hand hooked into his leather belt. She pulled and jostled him a little as he walked, and leaned against him. He put his arm clear around her and patted her stomach. They exchanged wary smiles. Coffee, coffee for the Ootsum-Wootsums! He felt as if he were bringing her a beautiful present.
He was a love, she firmly believed, and if she had had her coffee in the morning, she wouldn’t have behaved so funny . . . There was a whippoorwill still coming back, imagine, clear out of season, sitting in the crab-apple tree calling all by himself. Maybe his girl stood him up. Maybe she did. She hoped to hear him once more, she loved whippoorwills . . . He knew how she was, didn’t he?
Sure, he knew how she was.
Katherine Anne Porter, “Rope” from The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter. Copyright 1928 by Katherine Anne Porter. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of The Katherine Anne Porter Literary Trust.
Yuda is banging the wall with his pillow; Moishe is switching the lights off and on again. I lay silent, not involved in the nightly disturbance. “He’s coming!” calls Zvika, the sun-shield watcher. We get under our blankets, pretending to be asleep. The door is opened, and my father peeps in. He stands silent in the doorway, listening. A loud girl’s laugh is coming from the room by the showers. He leaves the door open and rushes there. Moishe goes to the door, looks left and whispers: “He’s in the girls’ room.” Zvika takes off his blanket, stands up and signals Hai through the sun-shields that it’s their turn now. The stamping of the iron bed’s legs on the tiles thunders and then stops abruptly as my father’s footsteps rush there. I can visualize the ongoing signals through the sun-shield. “Give up, please.” I send a telepathic plea to my dad, “for the both of us.”
My father is on duty tonight, for the first time in this building, trying to enforce the “all lights out” policy. It’s a thankless job, trying to overcome 24 nine year old kids in six rooms who are not willing to go to sleep yet. In addition to the numerical advantage and youthful energy, the sun-shield advantage is on our side. It’s an elongated niche along the entire building. Blinds were probably not available at the time, so they built a concrete casing around the windows to keep away the sunlight. They did not realize that they created a back door corridor for us to send signals and crawl on all fours from one room to another.
In the short silence I pray that the revolt will end. My father has no chance against us. We the kids have already defeated: Berman, the smart electrician, who pulled out the fuse, Waxman, the lenient, who left after five minutes, and even Zuckerman, the cruel, who had no dilemma about tweaking someone even without a proof. Some fathers use a moment of silence to give up and leave, but my father is strict. Zvika checks the sun-shield and whispers: “It’s our turn now.” The room is dark but I can feel the looks of my three roommates. “Come on,” Yuda whispers. I feel bad for dad, but I have no choice. Any kid who does not take part in the disturbance when his father is on duty is boycotted for an entire month. Esther is the only one who does not have to participate in the nightly disturbances. Her family joined the Kibbutz only six months ago. Every night, when everyone finally goes to sleep, she cries in the sun-shield. She knows that her parents reside nearby and surely can hear her cry, and she can’t understand why they are not coming to comfort her.
I get out my whistle, tucked between the mattress and the wall, and blow my short angry contribution. The blinking light through the sunshield confirms that my signal is received in the girls’ room. I put the whistle back and pretend to be asleep while my father’s steps rush there. After a few silent minutes my father returns. He pauses in the doorway before he comes near my bed. My eyes are shut and my breathing is slow, but my heart beat is wild. Dad leans over me, straightens my pillow. His right hand presses hard on my left shoulder. I grit my teeth to stand the pain while my dad leans closer and whispers in my ear: “I know that you took part in it.” He leaves the room and closes the door. A minute later I hear the entrance door slammed.
A few minutes later all the lights are on and the hustle is everywhere. Pillows are flying, faces peep from the sun-shield and the yelling and ball thumps from the corridor declare that a “Stanga” game is on. Tonight, I don’t feel like joining the celebration. I ignore the noisy buzz around me, silently lying in bed and staring at the ceiling.
My hatred for Agnes led directly to our family’s appearance on Oprah. You’d say, oh, you didn’t hate her; she was just your older sister. But she was not my older sister. She looked older, but I was the elder by two years. No matter. People thought she was prettier, older, smarter. It didn’t matter that I got better grades, that I was three classes ahead of her. It didn’t matter, for example, that the Antropolis was my idea.
Everyone credited Agnes with the Antropolis, even my parents and Uncle Hayward, but I made it up one night as I read Kid’s Life with a penlight under my covers. I lifted a corner of the blanket so I could see Agnes where she sat cross-legged on my bedroom floor, braiding her long hair.
I said, “You know what’s a good idea, Agnes?” “What, Hannah?”
“If we made ant farms and sold them for twice as much money.” She wrinkled her nose, disgusted. “Ants are grody.”
Grody. That was her word, direct quote. But the next day she was telling Uncle Hayward all about it. He had arrived recently from the city to settle what he called “rambunctious nerves.” He thought the ants were a brilliant idea. He ordered the kits, which included special soil and food, a thin plastic farm, and about twenty-five Western-Harvester ants per purchase. He opened one door of our four-door garage and for days we swept and organized. He read us the directions for taking care of the ants, and even though I understood them from the get-go, Agnes had him repeat everything at least three times.
“But why do they die so fast?” she whined. She didn’t like that the ants only lived a month or so in the farms, and I admit I didn’t like it either, but while I understood this as merely a fact of life, Agnes was practically slitting her wrists over it.
“Without a queen,” Uncle Hayward said, “they just don’t live as long.” From where I stood next to the garage’s chest freezer, I sighed and scratched at my elbow. Hayward was my favorite uncle, but he could be so annoyingly patient with Agnes.
He continued, “The company that we order the ants from doesn’t permit us to order queens.”
“But why not?” Agnes continued, even though he’d already explained this earlier that week.
“Because, stupid,” I said, “they might run rampant and then cause severe ecological damage.” I was good at quoting pamphlets directly. It was a photographic trait that drove my teachers and peers nuts. “Like fire ants, for example, or killer bees in Texas.”
Hayward patted my head in a way that made me feel less smart than I sounded. “Maybe if you girls learn something from these ant-kits, you can start digging up your own ants and find a queen, yourselves.”
I liked this idea. I foresaw huge glimmering dollar signs. “Don’t order any more ants,” I told Hayward. “I’ll supply the ants from now on.”
At first, our parents were skeptical of the whole ant farm idea. Hayward argued for us.
“It’s a great summer project. The girls will learn a ton.”
Though Dad respected Hayward as a businessman, he questioned his rationality. “I don’t want ants all over my garage,” he growled.
“There are ants all over your garage. Only these ants will be in tightly-sealed cases.”
Dad shook his head.
Hayward pressed, “Don’t you want the girls to learn fiscal responsibility? Customer-service relations? Respect for God’s creatures?”
Mom said to him, “What do you care, Brett? You’re never home anyway.”
Dad sold medical equipment to hospitals all over the nation. He was making us, as Mom often said, “rich but unfulfilled.” Mom, herself, believed that parenting consisted of greeting us after school and sitting with us on the couch while she stared glassy-eyed at the television. She wanted us to benefit from the womanly genius of Oprah, the only black person Mom had ever regarded seriously, aside from a kid named Eldridge that I had met at Jolly Cheezers and had played with in the ball crawl. The whole way home from Jolly Cheezers, Mom had applauded herself for not being a racist. “I was happy you were playing with that child,” she told me. “I was ecstatic.” She glowed over dinner and told Dad the whole story, too, and he said, “Good for you, Martha, good for you” This was always the encouragement he gave her when his mind had wandered elsewhere.
But yes, there was Oprah, and Mom would talk to us about the virtues discussed on the show, and then there was Springer, and Mom would tsk-tsk and sigh and tell us how pitiable these lower class people could be (the poor things have never learned a modicum of morality. I mean, they have no time to think of such things). Despite her disgust, I don’t think Agnes bleeding from her ears on the couch would have torn Mom’s eyes away from the brutality of that television set. I also believe, at the time, that she thought Springer was a hottie. Once he had embraced a pear-shaped, middle-aged woman not unlike herself, who was weeping because her husband had cheated on her yet again. With a passionate gasp, Mom sank her fingers into my forearm. When she let go, there were long white claw marks where the blood used to be. I was hoping that these would turn into bruises so that I could tell the school counselor the next day. Maybe I would get invited to the Springer show myself. Or even better, because it would destroy my mother, Oprah would call and ask me to share my dreadful experiences with her. But within minutes my arm was back to normal.
At first, Mom gushed about how Uncle Hayward’s appearance in the house would be “absolutely grand.” I think she assumed he would take her side on all things, especially where her husband was concerned. But while Hayward doted on Agnes and me, he gave my parents little attention. “Your concerns are your concerns,” he told my mother, and when she retorted that his involvement with the Antropolis idea was “a stupid, horrible sign of how horribly immature” he always had been and still very much was, Uncle Hayward just laughed. Dad didn’t seem to mind Hayward’s presence so much, although sometimes he muttered things like, “Hayward seems more than a little off,” and “What sort of a man doesn’t enjoy beer?” These statements arrived at odd moments, like when he was shaving, or when he sitting by himself with the newspaper. They were always said to no one in particular. Mom said that Dad’s talking to himself was the surest sign of his megalomania.
The week before school ended, Agnes and I went around the hallways taping up hand-scrawled flyers advertising “The Antropolis!!!” I had come up with the name after rifling through hundreds of variations: Anttastic, Ant You Happy, Ants in Your Pants. Agnes had come up with one lousy name, “Antsville,” which Hayward feigned to like until I belted out, Antropolis! Agnes started crying. Hayward patted her back and said things like, “She wouldn’t have thought of it if you hadn’t said ‘Antsville,’” which was a total lie, and that “Those who succeed stand upon the shoulders of giants,” which made her a giant and me a total shrimp. I saw an ant glide beneath me on the cool pavement. I put my foot to it and wiped its guts into a sweeping frown. “Is it Antropolis or not?” I asked. Hayward nodded at me but also put a finger to his lips. I stomped into the house. Later, prompted by Hayward, Mom visited me in my room and told me not to be upset by his giving Agnes more attention. “She’s younger than you and more sensitive,” Mom said. But what she meant was “She’s stupider than you and more attractive.” I told Mom to stuff it and thus martyred myself out of a fried-chicken dinner. Dad snuck a piece to me later. He knew it was my favorite.
The week after school finished, we had a flurry of customers. The neighborhood mothers found Hayward handsome, and they couldn’t wait to sidle up to him, stroking the pearls that grew like pale tumors from their necks and wrists, and purr about what a “deliciously adorable thing” he’d done, helping darling Agnes and that (“What’s her name again? Oh yes, of course”) Hannah with such a “cute” project. I ignored these distractions. With every passing hour I grew more and more attached to my ants. A dollop of honey on the driveway lured a herd of them from the Bermuda Triangle of our lawn. Old Popsicle sticks worked well for the transfer into large mason jars. I stabbed holes in the top with needles, and sometimes you could see the little legs poking through. “Ew,” Agnes said, “grody.” Despite her fragile stomach, she helped me transplant the ants into their new homes. Occasionally we crushed them between our fingers, or smashed them with the Popsicle sticks, and then we would have a solemn ten seconds of silence for each little death. But for the most part, everything went smoothly.
It was in one of my ant-fueled reveries, wondering what made one ant happy and the next sluggish, that I discovered Custom Ant-farm Creation. I explained this to a boy from my class, a boy named Viktor who had ridden his bike all the way from the valley to see what we were doing.
“What does that mean?” he asked me, picking up a farm and shaking it like an etch-a-sketch.
“Don’t do that, please,” I said. “It agitates them.” “What does custom creation mean?”
“Well,” I explained, delighted to find an interested patron, “let’s say you don’t want any old ant farm. Let’s say you want one where the ants are happier than regular ants, like a sort of Ant Playground or something, or let’s say you want one where the ants are super hard workers, three times as fast or something. You can place the order with me. Within a week I’ll make your ant farm happy, or fast, or jumpy, or whatever.”
Viktor seemed to like this idea. He looked at my sister, who sat beside me at the table fiddling with a pencil and staring up at him like he was made of gold. “What about horny ants,” he said.
“Oh, Viktor,” I laughed, “don’t say that in front of Agnes.”
Agnes blushed and Viktor smiled. Then he said to me, “It’s not Victor. It’s Viktor.”
“That’s what I said.”
“No, you didn’t. You say it wrong. I’m Vick-TOR, and you say it ‘Vick-TER’.”
I looked confused. “What’s the difference?” “The difference,” Agnes said, “is the TOR.” My knuckles itched.
“It’s Russian,” Viktor said. “I’m a direct descendant of the Tsar.” “What Tsar?” I asked.
“What, you stupid or something?” Viktor said. Agnes giggled.
“You her older sister?” he asked her.
“She’s two years younger than me, Vick-TOR.” He whistled. “Could have fooled me.”
The thing was, I had always liked Viktor. I liked that in class he didn’t speak a lot, and that some of the other kids seemed to find him annoying. They treated him sort of the same way they treated me, as if he had a cow’s head sprouting from one shoulder. We were both skinny and pale, too. In the right light we looked translucent. I daydreamed about how our children would come out of our mansion squinting into the light, all wormy and bone-white, bitter and smart.
Agnes, of course, had pink cheeks and actual boobs. She had gotten her period a year before I’d had mine. This made her somewhat awkward in her own year, I’d noticed, but had also given her a sort of other-worldly appeal. It had been the disgrace of my life this last spring when, having discovered blood during a routine bathroom break at school, I’d had to ask my little sister for a maxi pad. She’d been friendly enough about it, but I could never shake the feeling that in the race to womanhood, I hadn’t even made the B-squad.
Boys loved Agnes, of course. A few of them, some from her class, some older, skidded their bicycles to a stop on our driveway and glanced shyly into the garage. For the next several weeks, they treated our home like the parking lot in front of Jolly Cheezers, laughing loudly and exchanging jokes and ultimately pretending not to notice Agnes when any old idiot knew they were thinking of nothing else. Agnes poured soil into the plastic farms and ignored them just as efficiently. One of those short, bratty-looking boys said, without even trying to conceal his high voice, “They can’t be sisters. Hannah’s ugly as a horse,” and then he blew such a huge snot-rocket onto the pavement that the other boys exclaimed, “Wicked!” Agnes’s head snapped toward me and she said, “They suck. Nobody likes them.” But I knew this was a lie. They were the most popular boys at school. The fact that they sought her out like so many heat-seeking missiles meant only one thing: she was the most popular girl. Over the summer, the shame, like the heat, only thickened.
After the first few weeks, the numbers of interested parties grew scarce. Uncle Hayward didn’t return the lonely mothers’ and housewives’ flirtations, so they eventually retreated back into their expensive homes. The boys on their bikes still stopped by, but having less of a people-screen to hide behind, they grew skittish like lambs and stayed for shorter and shorter periods of time. Agnes and I still spent most of our days in the garage or on the driveway. I wore bruises into my knees and palms from foraging the pavement for more ants. There were now mason jars swarming with them. I had yet to find a queen.
Even though I protested, Uncle Hayward forced us to slow production. We could search for queens, he said, but we didn’t need more ants. He also suggested we keep the ants in a shadier place. “They’ll fry like bacon,” he warned. I pinned up signs in the coolest corner of the garage. They read, in alphabetical order, “Eager Farms,” “Happy Farms,” “Hardworking Farms,” “Super Farms,” “Wonderful Farms.” Hayward asked, “What’s the difference? They’re all the same.”
I knew that was baloney. “Believe me,” I told him. “Every ant has its own personality.”
Hayward laughed and ruffled my hair. “Don’t take yourself too seriously, kiddo.”
It took all of my newfound benevolence to just grit my teeth and smile.
The good thing, at first, was that Viktor kept stopping by. One day, I showed him the Horny Ant Farm I had made (without, of course, Hayward’s knowing). When he lifted it off of my workstation and peered through the plastic walls, he only said, “Nah. There’s no humping.”
I laughed, despite feeling hurt. How was I supposed to know there should be humping? I told him, “Take it anyway. It’s a gift.”
For the first time ever, he looked straight at me. “Wow, really?
Thanks.” He tucked the farm under his arm and asked, “Where’s Agnes?” I frowned. “Who cares?” Viktor clucked his tongue and stared off into the distance. “I’m in love with her,” he said dreamily.
“You’re stupid,” I hollered at him, much louder than necessary. “She’s stupid and you’re stupider.”
Viktor frowned. “What’s your prob? You jealous? Jealous that your sister’s pretty? Jealous you’re such a rat?”
Hayward heard the yelling and came over from the yard, where he had been sunning himself and listening to the radio.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
“I was just leaving,” Viktor said, and shoved the ant farm at me. I took it from him, about to cry. “I don’t want your stupid farm. They aren’t Horny Ants. They’re Stupid Ants. Those are the only ants you can make, Hannah.”
He cycled away.
Hayward said, “Horny ants?”
“He hates me,” I wailed. Hayward sat down next to me and patted his knee. I perched there and wiped at my face. It was strange sitting on a grown man’s knee. I hadn’t sat on my own father’s knee in years.
“He doesn’t hate you,” Hayward said. “He probably has a crush on you. That’s how boys act.”
I shook my head. “Viktor likes Agnes,” I said. “All the boys do. He said,” I started crying again, “he said I was a rat.”
Hayward hugged me and kissed the back of my head. “Now, now. You don’t believe that, do you? It’s not true.” His breath smelled of Altoids and cigarettes.
“He likes her,” I said resolutely. Hayward let me go and I stood up. “He does. Just ask her.”
Hayward looked troubled. “She’s so young,” he said. “Not to him.”
“Maybe I should say something.” Hayward looked at me as though wanting my approval.
“Yes. Definitely. You should.”
I hoped a boy-related conversation with Uncle Hayward would humiliate Agnes. At least a little bit.
Then Agnes appeared on her bike, looping slowly around the driveway. “What’s wrong?” she called.
“Nothing,” I said.
“Let’s look for a queen.” She dismounted and let the bike crash to the pavement.
I wiped at my face and said okay. Even Hayward helped. I knelt at a small hole in the yard from where I had seen some ants emerge, and I waited. “There’s a queen down there,” I whispered. I was going to find her and capture her and make an ant-farm immortal. Viktor would read about me in the papers, when I had become a famous entomologist, and he would regret his terrible behavior. He would call me up and I would laugh. Then I would tell him – but right then I saw a long, strange, winged ant. It moved sluggishly from the small hole and into the light. My heart thudded. I put my hand gingerly over it. “I’ve got one!” I screamed. “I’ve got a queen!” Agnes was impressed. “That’s so cool,” she said, after we had transferred it to a farm. I was beaming. Uncle Hayward patted me on the back. “See?” he said. “Life’s not so bad.”
I shrugged. But right then, life did feel pretty great.
Later that night, the phone rang during dinner. Dad hated it when the phone rang. “For the love of Christopher,” he said, standing, “can’t a man enjoy his dinner without being interrupted?”
“You could turn the ringer off,” Mom suggested. She always suggested this.
“It could be Elias. ”This was always Dad’s reply. Elias was Dad’s boss. Moments later, Dad returned from the den. “That was some snotty-sounding kid for Agnes. A Victor or something?” “Viktor, Dad,” Agnes corrected.
“Aren’t you, what, ten years old?” Dad said. “What’s with the opposite-sex phone calls?”
Agnes looked embarrassed. “I dunno. He’s never called before.” She saw me glowering at her and said over a forkful of peas, “What, Hannah? I think he’s stupid.”
“Ha,” I said. “So do I. Too bad he loves you.”
Mom said, “Is this the little Russian boy from your class, Hannah? I find the Russians so fascinating.”
“He’s not a Russian, Mom. He’s a liar.”
“Hannah,” she scolded, “it’s not polite to disallow someone their cultural heritage.”
The whole time, Hayward sat there regarding Agnes with his face all scrunched up. His concern gathered when Dad handed her an index card complete with Viktor’s misspelled name and telephone number.
“Is this such a good idea?” Hayward asked the table. “She’s a ten-year-old girl. Perhaps it’s not such a good idea. If this boy is pursuing her, after all.”
I loved Hayward for saying this.
“Oh please, Hayward,” Dad boomed, “what sort of twelve-year-old boy could even recognize his dick in a line-up?”
Mom gasped. “Brett, please!” Then she peered closer at the index card. “Oh!” she gasped delightedly. “That’s a downtown number. You should call him, Agnes, and invite him over tomorrow. The poor thing doesn’t breathe a drop of fresh air in that neighborhood.”
Hayward put his hands over his face. I could tell he was on my side.
Later that night, while Dad snored in front of the television and Mom went to take one of her lengthy peach-smelling baths, I went to the garage to read comics with my penlight on the old sofa Hayward had stored in one corner. I had just been getting to a great scene where Antzilla crushes all those who have ever tried to smash her, when light from the kitchen fell in a yellow rectangle across the hood of Dad’s car. Hayward and Agnes entered, Hayward shutting the door softly behind them. I catapulted over the back of the couch with my comic book, and then sat cross-legged against the couch’s moldy spine. I shut off my penlight. For some reason, Hayward did not switch on the overhead lamp.
On the way to the couch, they bumped into things. Agnes said, “I’m sorta afraid of the dark.”
Uncle Hayward replied in no more than a whisper, “Don’t worry, we’re almost there.” They sat down. I could smell the rising dust.
At first, I was impressed with what Hayward was saying. He told Agnes, “It’s not right, that boy with you. It’s just not.”
“Cause he’s in Hannah’s class?”
“Well, that, and that he wants to take advantage of you.”
I imagined that Agnes was, per usual, confused by Hayward’s remarks.
“Look,” Hayward said, “some boys are nice boys. Some are mean. That Viktor. He’s a bad seed. He does not want to be nice to you, do you see? I think he wants to be mean to you.”
“But Hannah likes him,” Agnes said. After a moment’s pause, she suggested, “Maybe she should date him.”
“Sure, sure. Hannah should date him. But you’re too lovely for those boys.” I heard, then, the sound of one body snuggling closer to the other. Then Hayward grunted as if he were lifting something. My eyes slowly adjusted to the dark. It took me a moment to figure out that Agnes was now seated squarely on Hayward’s lap, both of them facing away from me.
In the dark, her head appeared to be growing from out of his right shoulder.
“I want to be nice to you,” he said. “You’re always nice, Uncle Hayward.” “Do you want me to be nice to you?”
“Well, sure.” Agnes’s voice sounded tighter now, almost annoyed. Then she said, as though eager for a subject change, “Isn’t it cool that Hannah found a queen?”
Hayward’s voice was muffled, in her hair or something. “That wasn’t a queen. I didn’t want to tell her, the poor thing, but that was just a young male ant. You need to dig up a queen, you know. They look almost the same, I guess, but you’re not going to find some queen just randomly roaming around.”
“Oh,” Agnes said. “Sucky.”
“Our little secret, though, right?” Hayward whispered this. I could hear his hands groping.
The tips of my ears flushed hot. I thought about the winged ant, something that looks special, but really is not. I bit my lip to keep from bawling. I wanted to believe that Hayward was wrong, but some dark part of me knew that he was right.
A“That tickles,” Agnes said. I could see that she was squirming.
“Just be quiet for a moment. Let me be nice to you.” He shuffled around on the couch again. “The most beautiful little girl. The most precious thing.”
I hated him so much. The most beautiful little girl. The most precious thing. I groped around for something, anything, to hurt him with, and what I came up with was one of my mason jars filled with about three-hundred ants. I unscrewed the jar. The lid made a rasping sound, the air escaping in one soft sigh, smelling sour like pee. Agnes said, “What was that?” but Uncle Hayward panted loudly in her ear, “I should stop. I should really stop,” and she said, sounding bored, “This is sorta weird. I want to go in now, Uncle Hayward.” I squatted behind them and turned over the jar right above the dark heavy line of his shoulders. The next second they were up on their feet, and he was screaming. The garage flooded with light. Dad stood at the top of the stairs, gaping. When my eyes adjusted, I saw Agnes standing there calmly, blinking, with part of her t-shirt pushed over the top of her right boob. Hayward was shaking himself and tearing off his shirt and begging for help.
“What’s going on here?” Dad roared.
“Hayward was being nice to me,” Agnes said, not without disgust. Ants glided from the open mason jar onto my fingers and up my arm. Dad stared, silent. Hayward wept and squirmed. Mom materialized and the sounds grew loud and sharp. Somehow Agnes and I were ushered inside. We sat on the floor of my bedroom together and said nothing. She picked an ant out of my hair and asked if I wanted to play cards. I said okay.
That was the last time we ever saw Hayward. The next day, while Mom continued to panic and make doctor’s appointment after doctor’s appointment for Agnes, Dad tossed out all of our ant farms. I asked if I could keep even one, the one with the winged ant, and he said “No.” Agnes tried to come to my defense. “But the ants were what saved me,” she said. But even her perfect charm failed. Dad would have none of it.
Agnes, of course, was fine. “He only kissed my neck and touched my boob,” Agnes said. I said to her, and also to Mom, “He kissed me, too.” Mom didn’t seem too worried about me. She wrote a letter to Oprah, describing how her brother had molested her littlest daughter without her even realizing it. “And under my own roof, Oprah!” One of Oprah’s representatives called a couple of weeks later and asked if they’d come on a special show, “Blind Mothers, Molested Daughters.” Mom was ecstatic. I asked if I was going to be on the show, too. She said no.
Dad and I flew to Chicago with them, anyway. We watched the show from a fancy hotel. Dad seemed embarrassed, seeing them on-screen. Mom was so excited that she couldn’t stop grinning, even when Agnes told Oprah, “Then he touched my boob and kissed my neck.”
Dad said, “Your mother looks psychotic.”
When they came back, we all went for a walk on the lake. Mom and Dad sat on a park bench and watched us from afar.
“Did you see the show?” Agnes asked. She was sullen. “Yeah.”
“Did you hear what I said about you?” I shook my head.
“Maybe they cut it. I told them you saved me. You and the ants.” “Really?”
We walked along silently, kicking at stones. “I guess it must kind of suck for you,” I said.
“Nah. One of the girls on the show I felt so sorry for. Some dude stuck his wiener in her!”
“Ick,” I said. We kind of laughed.
“I can’t believe they cut that,” she said, “what I said about you.”
I didn’t exactly trust her, but it made me kinder toward her. Even if she hadn’t told Oprah that I was her hero, she had at least admitted it to me. I would always have one-up on her for that.
We stood at the water’s edge and let it lick the tips of our sandals. “This water smells like bird poop,” I said.
“I wish I could lop these things off and toss them into the waves.” She was looking down at her breasts.
I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t tell if this was all a performance or not.
We went back to the hotel and ordered cokes and chicken-strips and French fries with extra ketchup through room service. When we had successfully pigged-out, Agnes and I put on our pajamas and brushed our teeth. Mom and Dad went to the bar downstairs, saying they’d be back soon. “Don’t let anyone in here,” Mom warned. The heavy door locked squarely behind them.
Alone, we flipped through all of the channels that we weren’t supposed to watch. In the scratchy grayness of one station, the screen swarming with herds of black ants, we could hear moans, and we could see a thigh here, a breast there, slightly unfamiliar game pieces of shuddering bodies.
“Shut it off,” Agnes said. I did.
I wouldn’t mind taking orders from her sometimes. If I could be her hero, then that meant she was salvageable. It wasn’t too hard to accept surrender then. But there were times, following, when out of either anger or pity I almost admitted, Hey, I saved you for all the wrong reasons.
*This story is taken from: Favorite Monster © 2012 by Sharma Shields, Autumn House Press.
My mother said to me: ‘You must go to school, or they will lock up your father.’ There were five of us children at home, four girls and one boy. The eldest was my sister, then me, one year behind her. But I was stronger than her. And naughtier. So my mother said: ‘You will be the one who goes to school, because at home you only make trouble.’ My sister was to stay at home with the little children. She carried them around on her back, washed their nappies, wiped their noses and their little bottoms, and swept and cleaned the house. Everything had to be done by the daughter who was at home, because mothers went into the village to work for the gadjos, and only came back home at night. That was what our mother did, too. Our father went to make bricks. If there was no work, he would work for the gadjos for some food.
In the morning, my mother woke me up: ‘Get up, Little Bighead, go down to the stream and have a wash.’ A little stream passed by about thirty metres from our house. That was where we went to wash, every morning and every night. At night, I would run down to the stream on both feet, but when I came back I hopped on one foot. I never had shoes, and so I wanted at least one of my feet to stay clean. In winter and summer we went barefoot. I only had one set of clothes, which my mother had begged from the gadjos. As for knickers and petticoats, we did not even know what they were.
I went to the stream and washed my feet and my face. My hair was full of feathers, because Romani beds were nothing but feathers and straw, which came out of the mattress and the dirty old quilt. I went to school. I had no bag, I had no readers, no pencil, no exercise book – nothing! I had never had anything of that kind.
I went through the village, and the village was still sleeping. There was no one outside, only two or three gadjos going to the fields with their horses. No one even looked at me, it was as though I were not there at all. I knew where the school was, because when I used to go into the village with my mother, she said to me: ‘This is where you will go to school, so I will have some peace and quiet, Little Bighead!’
I pushed hard to open the heavy school gates. It was dark and cold, and I was half-naked and barefoot. No one was there at all. Only one old gadjo, who looked at me and said: ‘What do you want here?’
‘Well, I’ve come to school. I want to learn things.’
‘You?’ He started to laugh. ‘Look at that skirt on her! Why haven’t you washed? Why haven’t you combed your hair? Where’s your bag? You have nothing, you don’t even have a bag! How will you study?’
‘I will study! I will come to school, I will!’
The old man laughed, and he shoved me into a classroom. I sat in the front desk. I looked all around me. I was alone, all by my little self. The old gadjo started to sweep the floor. I just sat there, thinking to myself how I was going to be somebody! I would know everything. All knowledge would come into my head if I just sat in school – that was what I believed. But then I looked at my bare feet, and my heart sank within me. How could a poor Romani girl become somebody? I closed my eyes, and saw myself in a pink satin dress, embroidered with gold roses. Then I believed again that I would be that clever woman who would pave the way for other Roma. Already as a little girl, I knew that we Roma were the last of the last. No one said a kind word to us. If I wanted to go out from the settlement, my mother said to me: ‘Don’t you dare go into the village! The other children will beat you up.’ And so I only dared to go into the village when there were several of us, or when the older boys came with us, to stand up for us.
It was half past seven, and the bells rang in the church. One after another, the boys and girls filed into the class. Their mothers brought them. Two or three mothers came into the classroom, and seated their little girls in the front desk. They looked askance at me. But I stayed where I was, because I wanted to become clever. I was just waiting to become clever. More and more gadjo boys and girls kept coming in. They were finely dressed, everyone had a bag, and the little girls had ribbons in their hair.
At long last the teacher arrived. She saw me in the front desk. ‘Who put you there?’ She dragged me up, and sent me to sit at the back. ‘That’ll be your place.’ In the first desk she sat the rich little gadjo girls. Then came the poorer ones, and the very back desk was for the Romani kids. ‘The gypsy desk.’ Next to the cracked window, separated from everyone else. I felt like an orphan. Why did I have to sit there all alone? It was hard for me, when there was not a single Romani child with me, and I was afraid. I would have felt stronger, if only someone had sat next to me. But I was alone, all by myself.
The first day in school went by. I learnt nothing. None of that knowledge went into my head, the only thing that forced its way into my mind was how poor I was. When I arrived home, no one asked me: ‘so how was school?’
‘Mummy, the teacher said that I needed a reader, an exercise book and a pencil.’ My mother slapped me. ‘Run away! There isn’t enough to buy bread, and you want a book from me! Just keep on going, so they don’t take your father and lock him up.’
The next day, I washed my feet again and I combed my hair and put on my old clothes and went to school. And that’s how I went to school every day. A month went by, and the teacher did not ask me anything, but just looked to see that I was there. She did not know that I was listening to all that she said. When she asked one of the other girls or boys, in my mind I said along with them what they were supposed to say. I liked doing maths. The seven-times table was my favourite. At night, I was unable to fall asleep because the seven-times table kept dancing in my head. I raised my hand, and the teacher called on me: ‘Go on, count!’ And I counted very well. Again, the teacher asked: ‘What do they cultivate in Hungary?’ I knew. Peppers, melons.
‘You are not stupid,’ said the teacher. ‘If you had a reader and an exercise book and a pencil, you could learn something. Why doesn’t your mother buy you a reader?’
‘My mother has no money.’
‘Why do you go around so dirty? You don’t even have proper clothes!’
‘There are many of us at home, and there is no work.’
Then, one day, I did not go to school. ‘Where were you?’ asked the teacher when I returned.
‘You told me that my clothes were dirty, so my mother washed them for me.’ The teacher’s eyes popped out. ‘I couldn’t go out of the house until my clothes were dry.’
Then the teacher bought me an exercise book and started to give me little pencils, which the other children had thrown away. My fingers hurt from holding them, but I was glad to have them.
One day an order was given that all ‘gypsy’ children must go to school. That’s what the village mayor said. Among the Roma there was great horror, great panic. They ran up and down, the women tore their hair, what will they do with us? What will they do with us? The village guard came to the Romani settlement and began to drum, and the men ran out of their huts, half-naked, their hair full of feathers, and the women were screaming at the children: ‘Go to school! They’ll lock up your father if you don’t go! Who’ll support us?’
The children went. They all put on their ‘very best’ clothes – their mother’s skirt, their father’s trousers – and off they went to school. The village official went on his bicycle, and we chased after him. ‘Go on, run, you gypsy rabble!’
He took us in to the headmaster. I had never seen the headmaster before. He was short, fat-bellied and bald. He had onion eyes and a big moustache, which jigged up and down above his lips when he spoke. He only had two teeth, and God knows where the other teeth had gone. When he looked at us, his big eyes bulged out. He started to tell us off for being lazy Roma, who did not want to learn anything, who did not want to become real people! He cursed us, but you could see that he was a good man. ‘How will I divide you up? Filthy rabble! All the teachers are scared of you,’ he said, kindly. So he started to count: one, two, three, four, five. There were fifteen of us. He said: ‘You go there, you there, you there ’ So he divided us up among the classes. My sister Beži, who was a year older than me, also had to go to school. My mother cursed and cried that there was no one to be with the children when she went out to work.
We went into the classroom, and the teacher was scared of us. ‘Where will I put you!’ At the back were three desks, and she sat us there. We were separated from the gadjo children so that we wouldn’t fight with them. We couldn’t study.
Once, I was very hungry. It was just when there was a fair in the village. The gadjos were baking and boiling – the Roma were hungry. The teacher asked each of us what we had eaten, including the Romani children. Black Pot said: ‘I haven’t eaten anything since yesterday. We only eat when my mother gets home from the village.’
Bango said: ‘We don’t eat in the morning, either,’ which was true. Our first meal used to be in the afternoon, when our mothers came back from the village and brought potatoes, cottage cheese and milk, which the gadjo women gave them if they chopped firewood, cleaned the manure out of the stables, or wiped down the stove.
The teacher said to me: ‘What have you eaten?’
‘Wow!’ my eyes opened as wide as stars. ‘If you could see what I ate! Biscuits with cottage cheese, soup, buns and cake …!’
‘How is it that you have eaten, while there was nothing for your sister to put in her mouth?’ the teacher interrupted. ‘Why are you lying? Stick your tongue out! You’ll get something to make sure you don’t lie next time!’
I stuck my tongue out, and she hit me across it with a ruler. It hurt so much, I could not even speak. But when I came to myself again, I said to her: ‘I was not lying! I was eating all night long! I dreamed of eating, I ate in my dream.’
The teacher went red, said nothing and walked away.
A year went by. Everyone said I was not stupid. I did not fail. They let me move into the second year. I received my school report. There wasn’t a single C grade on it. And I was very proud!
I ran home, jumping up and down for joy, and shouting from far away: ‘Mummy, I only have As and Bs.’
‘I’ll give you ‘A’s! Do you think we can live off your A grades? A grades, A grades – at home you do everything to avoid working! At home you couldn’t care less about work!’ That’s how she cut me short. It was hard for me. The little gadjos got books, watches or money for good school reports – but what was there for me? Cursing. There was no one I could pour my heart out to.
Three Romani boys went up with me into the second year. I became friends with those little boys, and the Roma said of me that I was stronger than a boy! Whatever the boys said, I said it too, and what they did, I did too. When they were beaten, I was beaten too.
One time the circus came to the village. I was mad about dancing. I knew how to put my leg around my neck. And so Šulo and Bango and Tarzan – those were the names of the three who went with me into the second year – said: ‘Listen, you go to the circus – and whatever you see there, you can tell us about it afterwards!’
I said: ‘How can I go, if we don’t have any money?’
And they said: ‘Don’t worry, we’ll get some money somehow. Come with us.’
We went over to the church. In front of the church was a statue of Saint John. In the morning, when the gadjos walked by the church, they threw money at it. And Šulo said: ‘What does a statue need money for? You can keep guard, to make sure the priest or the verger doesn’t come, and we’ll collect the money.’ They made some clay with slime and spit, and made a kind of sticky paste, which they put on the end of a stick, then they poked the stick through the grating towards Saint John. They wanted to raise the money from the dead. ‘Bango, do a wee in the clay, wee in it, it will be better,’ said Šulo. And sure enough, he caught a sixpence on the stick. But the priest was coming!
‘The priest is coming!’ I shouted. The boys stuck the sixpence in my mouth. ‘Swallow it! Get it down!’ I swallowed, and started to choke. I choked, retched, spat, turned red, and the boys were thumping me on the back.
‘What are you doing here, you devils?’ said the priest.
‘We came to pray to Saint John – look, she almost choked,’ lied Bango.
Of course, the priest did not know that I was choking on stolen money, and he said: ‘Come here, let me give you a bit of holy water.’ He poured some into my palm, and so I washed down the stolen money with holy water.
Bango said: ‘We need to think of a way of getting the money.’ But how? What? Where? I used to go to work for one gadjo who had chickens. ‘Do you know what?’ the boys said, ‘You go into the hen-house, take the eggs from under the chickens’ bottoms, and we can sell them to the Jew.’
I did not know what to do. ‘Bango, you go!’ I said.
‘Alright,’ the boys said. ‘You go up the tree, up the pear-tree, and you can pick pears. Bango can go for the eggs.’
I climbed the pear tree – the dog didn’t bark, because it knew me. The boys were in the hen-house, and the hens made no noise, because Šulo and Bango knew what to do. But who should be coming? The gadjo! And I was up the tree! He came straight for me. ‘Is that how you thank me for giving you work?’ He picked up a big stick, the kind you use to knock down nuts, and he went for me! I looked to see whether Bango and Šulo would run out of the hen-house. I saw them jump over the gate, and then they were gone. The gadjo saw nothing. Good, now I could come down from the tree. So I jumped, straight onto a nail. Luckily, it didn’t go into my leg, but it tore my skirt at the back. I ran for it, and the torn skirt flew in the wind, while my naked bottom shone out like the moon.
The boys were waiting for me. They turned me round and round. ‘We need a patch to sew it up!’ said Bango. But where could we get a patch from?
‘Do you know what,’ said Bango, ‘you walk in front of me, and I’ll walk right behind you, and then no one will see your bottom.’ So that is how we walked. My mother was watching from a distance. ‘What on earth is that? Look! She’s with a boy! Stuck right up against him! Does an honest girl walk like that?’ (I was about seven or eight years old.) As I came nearer, my mother said: ‘Is that how you go about, my girl?!’ She beat me until I could not get up from the ground. My mother was wailing: ‘You have one set of clothes! And you’ve torn them up! How can you go to school?’ We never had cloth for a patch at home. My mother said to me, ‘Wait, we’ll do it somehow.’ She took a kind of apron, which was supposed to be tied to my front, and she tied it behind me. My naked bottom could not be seen.
As soon as my mother had tied the apron to me, we went to sell the eggs. The Jew said: ‘What kind of chickens do you have?’ Their shells were very thin. ‘You can see straight away that it’s a Romani chicken.’ The Jew would not buy the eggs from us.
Now what? How could we make money to go to the circus? I said: ‘Oh! I am so disappointed! I’ll never go anywhere. I’m going home.’
‘Aha!’ said the boys. ‘So you swallowed the money and now you want to go home!’ Šulo caught me by the ear. ‘Have no fear. Wherever you try to go, we’ll follow you, because that Saint-John sixpence is not just yours! It’s ours, too.’ But what use was the sixpence to us anyway, when the circus cost one crown twenty!
‘Let’s go and see what we can do,’ said Tarzan. We went to the place where the circus was, and it was already full of circus wagons. Bango went to ask whether he could go and carry wood, or help in any way. What the circus manager said was: ‘Yeah, I need nappies washing, and you can wash them if you want.’ Bango ran for water, Šulo washed, and I just stood there as if I was their princess. Bango said to the circus manager: ‘Let her go in! She can go and see the circus!’
The circus manager pushed me forward: ‘Hop in! Run off, then!’ I went inside, and the boys went on and on washing the nappies.
I was inside the circus! The acrobats swung on the bars, walked on the rope, and the clowns fell off bicycles – most of all, I liked the snake woman in the golden skirt, who did somersaults in the air and walked on her hands. In my mind, I did everything alongside her. I’d show the boys a thing or two!
I went home, glowing like a star. I was beaten by my mother for gadding about! I went to sleep in tears and hungry. As soon as I closed my eyes, I imagined myself as that circus lady, jumping through the air, walking on my hands, with the golden skirt shining on me like the sun.
It was not yet light when I got up secretly and disappeared off to the cemetery. There was a large lawn there, beautiful and soft, so that I would not break any bones. I did a crab. I could do that. I put my foot around my neck. I attempted a handspring. I fell crashing down on my back. No sooner had I recovered a little than I tried to do it again. I spun through the air. Good, now I could do a flip, as well. There was one thing I couldn’t do – I could not walk on my hands. I fell and fell again. I was broken and bruised. Everything hurt.
The bells were ringing in the church, and I fled to school. My first lesson was catechism. The priest came into the classroom, saying: ‘You were at the circus, weren’t you?’
‘Yes, I was.’
‘You go to the circus, but you don’t go to church!’
I said: ‘The floor is cold in the church, and I don’t have shoes.’
‘Tell me how our great God was born.’
‘I can’t tell you how God was born, but if you want I can tell you how my little sister Ili was born.’
‘Come out from behind your desk! You’ll get your bottom smacked for having no manners!’
‘Oh no! I can’t have my bottom smacked!’ I cried. The priest pulled me out of my desk, the apron flew open, and my naked bottom glowed like a full moon. The boys started to laugh. The priest sent me home. And finally my mother brought me some worn-out clothes from the village.
A week later, when I was not so bruised, I said to the boys, during a maths lesson: ‘Come with me.’ I put my hand up and said I needed to go to the toilet. The boys did the same thing, one after another. We had a modern school, with three flushing toilets and a corridor in front of them. In the corridor, I began to show them what the circus was like. The teacher started to wonder where the Romani boys were. Where had they gone? No one had come back from the toilet. The teacher came after us. And when she saw us, I was walking on my hands, spinning through the air and twisting my face like a clown.
‘So that’s what you’re doing! You’re teaching them circus acts. Wait here!’ I was beaten again. How many times had I been beaten for one circus! And what had I gained from it? One swallowed sixpence. When it came out of me again, I hid it in the cemetery. It’s buried there to this day.
A new teacher came. He was tall and young. He looked at us. ‘Are those all the Romani children? Are there no more of you?’
‘There are more of us, but the others don’t come to school. If there were more of us, the teachers would be scared!’
‘So I will take all the Romani children!’ said the new teacher. ‘But none of you will interrupt me or disturb me!’
The next day, what should we see but the new teacher, riding his bicycle into the middle of our settlement. He had come among the ‘gypsies’. Not a single gadjo had ever visited us, apart from the village guard. The teacher called out: ‘Every child who is supposed to be going to school, come outside!’ He even said ‘aven avri’, ‘come outside’, in our own language!
We ran out of the shacks – the teacher had a stick in his hand. ‘Get going, get going, run along to school!’ When we got to the classroom, he asked: ‘Hands up if you haven’t combed your hair.’ He didn’t need to ask, he could see that none of us had combed our hair.
‘Why haven’t you combed your hair?’
‘We don’t have any combs.’
‘Have you washed?’
‘We don’t have any towels.’ One after another, we started to tell him everything that we did not have.
‘Good. Tomorrow you can come to school one hour earlier! If not, I’ll give you what-for!’
The next day, we really did come an hour early. The teacher was already waiting for us. He had brought towels, soap, a washbowl and combs.
‘Who hasn’t eaten anything?’
We all put our hands up. The teacher sent Bango for bread rolls. He bought a roll for each one of us. Then he said: ‘Well, now we can start learning something! Today you can all stay in school for the afternoon, too.’ At midday, he bought food for us again, bread and margarine. He asked us: ‘What do you want to be when you are older?’
‘I want to dance and sing!’ I said.
He slapped me. ‘You won’t earn a living that way. You need to study, then you can dance and sing.’ Then he grabbed the boys by the hair. ‘What do you want to do?’
‘Me – a blacksmith.’
‘Good, you will be a blacksmith.’
‘I want to be a musician like my dad.’
‘That’s all fine, but you must still know how to read and write.’
Then he gave us pencils and exercise books and we really did start to learn something.
There was a fair in the village. The teachers chose good pupils to recite poems. So our teacher said:
‘Just wait and we’ll show them what you can do!’ He asked me: ‘Do you know how to sing?’
I sang a very amorous love song from a film. I must have been about eight years old.
‘Who taught you that?’ the teacher asked.
‘My father sings that to my mother at night,’ I said.
‘Which of you can recite a poem?’
‘Meeeeee!’ I shouted. I recited a patriotic poem which I had heard from the gadjo children. My face was red and my eyes shone – he stared at me.
‘Good,’ he said, ‘you can recite a poem, and then you can all sing and play music.’
The boys brought violins and basses and whatever they could from home. But we had nothing to wear, we had no smart clothes. The teacher said: ‘Oh my God, if I was not so poor! How I could help you all! Look what beautiful hair you have! Would you like ribbons in your hair?’
‘Wow! I’d love that.’
‘Look, boys and girls, you have to study so that you won’t be stupid! So that the gadjos can’t do whatever they want with you. If you study, you will be cleverer than your parents. You will hold your heads up high, you will know how to find your own place among the other people. Study, and pay no attention if I shout at you, or if I box your ears. I cannot get angry with those who treat you in such a way, so I have to vent my anger on you. Oh God! When I see how the gadjo children eat so well and bring bread with dripping, and you eat your hunger, how the anger rises in me! How am I supposed to help you? Grow up good and honourable, so that the gentlemen see that your poverty is not your fault but theirs.’
And we took an oath that we would never again be naughty or bad, that we would not steal money from Saint John, and that we would study.
We went to the celebrations. No one expected the Romani children there. The gadjo children were there with their mothers and fathers. They put on a play about a princess and a cobbler.
Then our teacher stood up. He said: ‘Now let me introduce my pupils to you.’ The boys began to play. The old men started pulling at their moustaches big and small and started tapping their feet, it made them so keen to dance! Then I recited the poem. The gadjos were astonished. Then I took a plate, as my teacher had told me to, and went to collect money. ‘We want to study, too, but we don’t have readers or exercise books.’ Everyone gave some money.
I did not go to school for long. The war began, and Roma were not allowed to go into the village. They did not allow us to go to school. I did three years of school.
*This Story is taken from: Povídky: Short Stories by Czech Women, ed. Nancy Hawker, copyright © Nancy Hawker, 2006.
And after all the weather was ideal. They could not have had a more perfect day for a garden-party if they had ordered it. Windless, warm, the sky without a cloud. Only the blue was veiled with a haze of light gold, as it is sometimes in early summer. The gardener had been up since dawn, mowing the lawns and sweeping them, until the grass and the dark flat rosettes where the daisy plants had been seemed to shine. As for the roses, you could not help feeling they understood that roses are the only flowers that impress people at garden-parties; the only flowers that everybody is certain of knowing. Hundreds, yes, literally hundreds, had come out in a single night; the green bushes bowed down as though they had been visited by archangels.
Breakfast was not yet over before the men came to put up the marquee.
“Where do you want the marquee put, mother?”
“My dear child, it’s no use asking me. I’m determined to leave everything to you children this year. Forget I am your mother. Treat me as an honoured guest.”
But Meg could not possibly go and supervise the men. She had washed her hair before breakfast, and she sat drinking her coffee in a green turban, with a dark wet curl stamped on each cheek. Jose, the butterfly, always came down in a silk petticoat and a kimono jacket.
“You’ll have to go, Laura; you’re the artistic one.”
Away Laura flew, still holding her piece of bread-and-butter. It’s so delicious to have an excuse for eating out of doors, and besides, she loved having to arrange things; she always felt she could do it so much better than anybody else.
Four men in their shirt-sleeves stood grouped together on the garden path. They carried staves covered with rolls of canvas, and they had big tool-bags slung on their backs. They looked impressive. Laura wished now that she had not got the bread-and-butter, but there was nowhere to put it, and she couldn’t possibly throw it away. She blushed and tried to look severe and even a little bit short-sighted as she came up to them.
“Good morning,” she said, copying her mother’s voice. But that sounded so fearfully affected that she was ashamed, and stammered like a little girl, “Oh—er—have you come—is it about the marquee?”
“That’s right, miss,” said the tallest of the men, a lanky, freckled fellow, and he shifted his tool-bag, knocked back his straw hat and smiled down at her. “That’s about it.”
His smile was so easy, so friendly that Laura recovered. What nice eyes he had, small, but such a dark blue! And now she looked at the others, they were smiling too. “Cheer up, we won’t bite,” their smile seemed to say. How very nice workmen were! And what a beautiful morning! She mustn’t mention the morning; she must be business-like. The marquee.
“Well, what about the lily-lawn? Would that do?”
And she pointed to the lily-lawn with the hand that didn’t hold the bread-and-butter. They turned, they stared in the direction. A little fat chap thrust out his under-lip, and the tall fellow frowned.
“I don’t fancy it,” said he. “Not conspicuous enough. You see, with a thing like a marquee,” and he turned to Laura in his easy way, “you want to put it somewhere where it’ll give you a bang slap in the eye, if you follow me.”
Laura’s upbringing made her wonder for a moment whether it was quite respectful of a workman to talk to her of bangs slap in the eye. But she did quite follow him.
“A corner of the tennis-court,” she suggested. “But the band’s going to be in one corner.”
“H’m, going to have a band, are you?” said another of the workmen. He was pale. He had a haggard look as his dark eyes scanned the tennis-court. What was he thinking?
“Only a very small band,” said Laura gently. Perhaps he wouldn’t mind so much if the band was quite small. But the tall fellow interrupted.
“Look here, miss, that’s the place. Against those trees. Over there. That’ll do fine.”
Against the karakas. Then the karaka-trees would be hidden. And they were so lovely, with their broad, gleaming leaves, and their clusters of yellow fruit. They were like trees you imagined growing on a desert island, proud, solitary, lifting their leaves and fruits to the sun in a kind of silent splendour. Must they be hidden by a marquee?
They must. Already the men had shouldered their staves and were making for the place. Only the tall fellow was left. He bent down, pinched a sprig of lavender, put his thumb and forefinger to his nose and snuffed up the smell. When Laura saw that gesture she forgot all about the karakas in her wonder at him caring for things like that—caring for the smell of lavender. How many men that she knew would have done such a thing? Oh, how extraordinarily nice workmen were, she thought. Why couldn’t she have workmen for her friends rather than the silly boys she danced with and who came to Sunday night supper? She would get on much better with men like these.
It’s all the fault, she decided, as the tall fellow drew something on the back of an envelope, something that was to be looped up or left to hang, of these absurd class distinctions. Well, for her part, she didn’t feel them. Not a bit, not an atom… And now there came the chock-chock of wooden hammers. Some one whistled, some one sang out, “Are you right there, matey?” “Matey!” The friendliness of it, the—the—Just to prove how happy she was, just to show the tall fellow how at home she felt, and how she despised stupid conventions, Laura took a big bite of her bread-and-butter as she stared at the little drawing. She felt just like a work-girl.
“Laura, Laura, where are you? Telephone, Laura!” a voice cried from the house.
“Coming!” Away she skimmed, over the lawn, up the path, up the steps, across the veranda, and into the porch. In the hall her father and Laurie were brushing their hats ready to go to the office.
“I say, Laura,” said Laurie very fast, “you might just give a squiz at my coat before this afternoon. See if it wants pressing.”
“I will,” said she. Suddenly she couldn’t stop herself. She ran at Laurie and gave him a small, quick squeeze. “Oh, I do love parties, don’t you?” gasped Laura.
“Ra-ther,” said Laurie’s warm, boyish voice, and he squeezed his sister too, and gave her a gentle push. “Dash off to the telephone, old girl.”
The telephone. “Yes, yes; oh yes. Kitty? Good morning, dear. Come to lunch? Do, dear. Delighted of course. It will only be a very scratch meal—just the sandwich crusts and broken meringue-shells and what’s left over. Yes, isn’t it a perfect morning? Your white? Oh, I certainly should. One moment—hold the line. Mother’s calling.” And Laura sat back. “What, mother? Can’t hear.”
Mrs. Sheridan’s voice floated down the stairs. “Tell her to wear that sweet hat she had on last Sunday.”
“Mother says you’re to wear that sweet hat you had on last Sunday. Good. One o’clock. Bye-bye.”
Laura put back the receiver, flung her arms over her head, took a deep breath, stretched and let them fall. “Huh,” she sighed, and the moment after the sigh she sat up quickly. She was still, listening. All the doors in the house seemed to be open. The house was alive with soft, quick steps and running voices. The green baize door that led to the kitchen regions swung open and shut with a muffled thud. And now there came a long, chuckling absurd sound. It was the heavy piano being moved on its stiff castors. But the air! If you stopped to notice, was the air always like this? Little faint winds were playing chase, in at the tops of the windows, out at the doors. And there were two tiny spots of sun, one on the inkpot, one on a silver photograph frame, playing too. Darling little spots. Especially the one on the inkpot lid. It was quite warm. A warm little silver star. She could have kissed it.
The front door bell pealed, and there sounded the rustle of Sadie’s print skirt on the stairs. A man’s voice murmured; Sadie answered, careless, “I’m sure I don’t know. Wait. I’ll ask Mrs Sheridan.”
“What is it, Sadie?” Laura came into the hall.
“It’s the florist, Miss Laura.”
It was, indeed. There, just inside the door, stood a wide, shallow tray full of pots of pink lilies. No other kind. Nothing but lilies—canna lilies, big pink flowers, wide open, radiant, almost frighteningly alive on bright crimson stems.
“O-oh, Sadie!” said Laura, and the sound was like a little moan. She crouched down as if to warm herself at that blaze of lilies; she felt they were in her fingers, on her lips, growing in her breast.
“It’s some mistake,” she said faintly. “Nobody ever ordered so many. Sadie, go and find mother.”
But at that moment Mrs. Sheridan joined them.
“It’s quite right,” she said calmly. “Yes, I ordered them. Aren’t they lovely?” She pressed Laura’s arm. “I was passing the shop yesterday, and I saw them in the window. And I suddenly thought for once in my life I shall have enough canna lilies. The garden-party will be a good excuse.”
“But I thought you said you didn’t mean to interfere,” said Laura. Sadie had gone. The florist’s man was still outside at his van. She put her arm round her mother’s neck and gently, very gently, she bit her mother’s ear.
“My darling child, you wouldn’t like a logical mother, would you? Don’t do that. Here’s the man.”
He carried more lilies still, another whole tray.
“Bank them up, just inside the door, on both sides of the porch, please,” said Mrs. Sheridan. “Don’t you agree, Laura?”
“Oh, I do, mother.”
In the drawing-room Meg, Jose and good little Hans had at last succeeded in moving the piano.
“Now, if we put this chesterfield against the wall and move everything out of the room except the chairs, don’t you think?”
“Hans, move these tables into the smoking-room, and bring a sweeper to take these marks off the carpet and—one moment, Hans—” Jose loved giving orders to the servants, and they loved obeying her. She always made them feel they were taking part in some drama. “Tell mother and Miss Laura to come here at once.
“Very good, Miss Jose.”
She turned to Meg. “I want to hear what the piano sounds like, just in case I’m asked to sing this afternoon. Let’s try over ‘This life is Weary.’”
Pom! Ta-ta-ta Tee-ta! The piano burst out so passionately that Jose’s face changed. She clasped her hands. She looked mournfully and enigmatically at her mother and Laura as they came in.
“This Life is Wee-ary,
A Tear—a Sigh.
A Love that Chan-ges,
This Life is Wee-ary,
A Tear—a Sigh.
A Love that Chan-ges,
And then… Good-bye!”
But at the word “Good-bye,” and although the piano sounded more desperate than ever, her face broke into a brilliant, dreadfully unsympathetic smile.
“Aren’t I in good voice, mummy?” she beamed.
“This Life is Wee-ary,
Hope comes to Die.
A Dream—a Wa-kening.”
But now Sadie interrupted them. “What is it, Sadie?”
“If you please, m’m, cook says have you got the flags for the sandwiches?”
“The flags for the sandwiches, Sadie?” echoed Mrs. Sheridan dreamily. And the children knew by her face that she hadn’t got them. “Let me see.” And she said to Sadie firmly, “Tell cook I’ll let her have them in ten minutes.”
“Now, Laura,” said her mother quickly, “come with me into the smoking-room. I’ve got the names somewhere on the back of an envelope. You’ll have to write them out for me. Meg, go upstairs this minute and take that wet thing off your head. Jose, run and finish dressing this instant. Do you hear me, children, or shall I have to tell your father when he comes home to-night? And—and, Jose, pacify cook if you do go into the kitchen, will you? I’m terrified of her this morning.”
The envelope was found at last behind the dining-room clock, though how it had got there Mrs. Sheridan could not imagine.
“One of you children must have stolen it out of my bag, because I remember vividly—cream cheese and lemon-curd. Have you done that?”
“Egg and—” Mrs. Sheridan held the envelope away from her. “It looks like mice. It can’t be mice, can it?”
“Olive, pet,” said Laura, looking over her shoulder.
“Yes, of course, olive. What a horrible combination it sounds. Egg and olive.”
They were finished at last, and Laura took them off to the kitchen. She found Jose there pacifying the cook, who did not look at all terrifying.
“I have never seen such exquisite sandwiches,” said Jose’s rapturous voice. “How many kinds did you say there were, cook? Fifteen?”
“Fifteen, Miss Jose.”
“Well, cook, I congratulate you.”
Cook swept up crusts with the long sandwich knife, and smiled broadly.
“Godber’s has come,” announced Sadie, issuing out of the pantry. She had seen the man pass the window.
That meant the cream puffs had come. Godber’s were famous for their cream puffs. Nobody ever thought of making them at home.
“Bring them in and put them on the table, my girl,” ordered cook.
Sadie brought them in and went back to the door. Of course Laura and Jose were far too grown-up to really care about such things. All the same, they couldn’t help agreeing that the puffs looked very attractive. Very. Cook began arranging them, shaking off the extra icing sugar.
“Don’t they carry one back to all one’s parties?” said Laura.
“I suppose they do,” said practical Jose, who never liked to be carried back. “They look beautifully light and feathery, I must say.”
“Have one each, my dears,” said cook in her comfortable voice. “Yer ma won’t know.”
Oh, impossible. Fancy cream puffs so soon after breakfast. The very idea made one shudder. All the same, two minutes later Jose and Laura were licking their fingers with that absorbed inward look that only comes from whipped cream.
“Let’s go into the garden, out by the back way,” suggested Laura. “I want to see how the men are getting on with the marquee. They’re such awfully nice men.”
But the back door was blocked by cook, Sadie, Godber’s man and Hans.
Something had happened.
“Tuk-tuk-tuk,” clucked cook like an agitated hen. Sadie had her hand clapped to her cheek as though she had toothache. Hans’s face was screwed up in the effort to understand. Only Godber’s man seemed to be enjoying himself; it was his story.
“What’s the matter? What’s happened?”
“There’s been a horrible accident,” said Cook. “A man killed.”
“A man killed! Where? How? When?”
But Godber’s man wasn’t going to have his story snatched from under his very nose.
“Know those little cottages just below here, miss?” Know them? Of course, she knew them. “Well, there’s a young chap living there, name of Scott, a carter. His horse shied at a traction-engine, corner of Hawke Street this morning, and he was thrown out on the back of his head. Killed.”
“Dead!” Laura stared at Godber’s man.
“Dead when they picked him up,” said Godber’s man with relish. “They were taking the body home as I come up here.” And he said to the cook, “He’s left a wife and five little ones.”
“Jose, come here.” Laura caught hold of her sister’s sleeve and dragged her through the kitchen to the other side of the green baize door. There she paused and leaned against it. “Jose!” she said, horrified, “however are we going to stop everything?”
“Stop everything, Laura!” cried Jose in astonishment. “What do you mean?”
“Stop the garden-party, of course.” Why did Jose pretend?
But Jose was still more amazed. “Stop the garden-party? My dear Laura, don’t be so absurd. Of course we can’t do anything of the kind. Nobody expects us to. Don’t be so extravagant.”
“But we can’t possibly have a garden-party with a man dead just outside the front gate.”
That really was extravagant, for the little cottages were in a lane to themselves at the very bottom of a steep rise that led up to the house. A broad road ran between. True, they were far too near. They were the greatest possible eyesore, and they had no right to be in that neighbourhood at all. They were little mean dwellings painted a chocolate brown. In the garden patches there was nothing but cabbage stalks, sick hens and tomato cans. The very smoke coming out of their chimneys was poverty-stricken. Little rags and shreds of smoke, so unlike the great silvery plumes that uncurled from the Sheridans’ chimneys. Washerwomen lived in the lane and sweeps and a cobbler, and a man whose house-front was studded all over with minute bird-cages. Children swarmed. When the Sheridans were little they were forbidden to set foot there because of the revolting language and of what they might catch. But since they were grown up, Laura and Laurie on their prowls sometimes walked through. It was disgusting and sordid. They came out with a shudder. But still one must go everywhere; one must see everything. So through they went.
“And just think of what the band would sound like to that poor woman,” said Laura.
“Oh, Laura!” Jose began to be seriously annoyed. “If you’re going to stop a band playing every time some one has an accident, you’ll lead a very strenuous life. I’m every bit as sorry about it as you. I feel just as sympathetic.” Her eyes hardened. She looked at her sister just as she used to when they were little and fighting together. “You won’t bring a drunken workman back to life by being sentimental,” she said softly.
“Drunk! Who said he was drunk?” Laura turned furiously on Jose. She said, just as they had used to say on those occasions, “I’m going straight up to tell mother.”
“Do, dear,” cooed Jose.
“Mother, can I come into your room?” Laura turned the big glass door-knob.
“Of course, child. Why, what’s the matter? What’s given you such a colour?” And Mrs. Sheridan turned round from her dressing-table. She was trying on a new hat.
“Mother, a man’s been killed,” began Laura.
“Not in the garden?” interrupted her mother.
“Oh, what a fright you gave me!” Mrs. Sheridan sighed with relief, and took off the big hat and held it on her knees.
“But listen, mother,” said Laura. Breathless, half-choking, she told the dreadful story. “Of course, we can’t have our party, can we?” she pleaded. “The band and everybody arriving. They’d hear us, mother; they’re nearly neighbours!”
To Laura’s astonishment her mother behaved just like Jose; it was harder to bear because she seemed amused. She refused to take Laura seriously.
“But, my dear child, use your common sense. It’s only by accident we’ve heard of it. If some one had died there normally—and I can’t understand how they keep alive in those poky little holes—we should still be having our party, shouldn’t we?”
Laura had to say “yes” to that, but she felt it was all wrong. She sat down on her mother’s sofa and pinched the cushion frill.
“Mother, isn’t it terribly heartless of us?” she asked.
“Darling!” Mrs. Sheridan got up and came over to her, carrying the hat. Before Laura could stop her she had popped it on. “My child!” said her mother, “the hat is yours. It’s made for you. It’s much too young for me. I have never seen you look such a picture. Look at yourself!” And she held up her hand-mirror.
“But, mother,” Laura began again. She couldn’t look at herself; she turned aside.
This time Mrs. Sheridan lost patience just as Jose had done.
“You are being very absurd, Laura,” she said coldly. “People like that don’t expect sacrifices from us. And it’s not very sympathetic to spoil everybody’s enjoyment as you’re doing now.”
“I don’t understand,” said Laura, and she walked quickly out of the room into her own bedroom. There, quite by chance, the first thing she saw was this charming girl in the mirror, in her black hat trimmed with gold daisies, and a long black velvet ribbon. Never had she imagined she could look like that. Is mother right? she thought. And now she hoped her mother was right. Am I being extravagant? Perhaps it was extravagant. Just for a moment she had another glimpse of that poor woman and those little children, and the body being carried into the house. But it all seemed blurred, unreal, like a picture in the newspaper. I’ll remember it again after the party’s over, she decided. And somehow that seemed quite the best plan…
Lunch was over by half-past one. By half-past two they were all ready for the fray. The green-coated band had arrived and was established in a corner of the tennis-court.
“My dear!” trilled Kitty Maitland, “aren’t they too like frogs for words? You ought to have arranged them round the pond with the conductor in the middle on a leaf.”
Laurie arrived and hailed them on his way to dress. At the sight of him Laura remembered the accident again. She wanted to tell him. If Laurie agreed with the others, then it was bound to be all right. And she followed him into the hall.
“Hallo!” He was half-way upstairs, but when he turned round and saw Laura he suddenly puffed out his cheeks and goggled his eyes at her. “My word, Laura! You do look stunning,” said Laurie. “What an absolutely topping hat!”
Laura said faintly “Is it?” and smiled up at Laurie, and didn’t tell him after all.
Soon after that people began coming in streams. The band struck up; the hired waiters ran from the house to the marquee. Wherever you looked there were couples strolling, bending to the flowers, greeting, moving on over the lawn. They were like bright birds that had alighted in the Sheridans’ garden for this one afternoon, on their way to—where? Ah, what happiness it is to be with people who all are happy, to press hands, press cheeks, smile into eyes.
“Darling Laura, how well you look!”
“What a becoming hat, child!”
“Laura, you look quite Spanish. I’ve never seen you look so striking.”
And Laura, glowing, answered softly, “Have you had tea? Won’t you have an ice? The passion-fruit ices really are rather special.” She ran to her father and begged him. “Daddy darling, can’t the band have something to drink?”
And the perfect afternoon slowly ripened, slowly faded, slowly its petals closed.
“Never a more delightful garden-party… “ “The greatest success… ” “Quite the most… ”
Laura helped her mother with the good-byes. They stood side by side in the porch till it was all over.
“All over, all over, thank heaven,” said Mrs. Sheridan. “Round up the others, Laura. Let’s go and have some fresh coffee. I’m exhausted. Yes, it’s been very successful. But oh, these parties, these parties! Why will you children insist on giving parties!” And they all of them sat down in the deserted marquee.
“Have a sandwich, daddy dear. I wrote the flag.”
“Thanks.” Mr. Sheridan took a bite and the sandwich was gone. He took another. “I suppose you didn’t hear of a beastly accident that happened to-day?” he said.
“My dear,” said Mrs. Sheridan, holding up her hand, “we did. It nearly ruined the party. Laura insisted we should put it off.”
“Oh, mother!” Laura didn’t want to be teased about it.
“It was a horrible affair all the same,” said Mr. Sheridan. “The chap was married too. Lived just below in the lane, and leaves a wife and half a dozen kiddies, so they say.”
An awkward little silence fell. Mrs. Sheridan fidgeted with her cup. Really, it was very tactless of father…
Suddenly she looked up. There on the table were all those sandwiches, cakes, puffs, all uneaten, all going to be wasted. She had one of her brilliant ideas.
“I know,” she said. “Let’s make up a basket. Let’s send that poor creature some of this perfectly good food. At any rate, it will be the greatest treat for the children. Don’t you agree? And she’s sure to have neighbours calling in and so on. What a point to have it all ready prepared. Laura!” She jumped up. “Get me the big basket out of the stairs cupboard.”
“But, mother, do you really think it’s a good idea?” said Laura.
Again, how curious, she seemed to be different from them all. To take scraps from their party. Would the poor woman really like that?
“Of course! What’s the matter with you to-day? An hour or two ago you were insisting on us being sympathetic, and now—”
Oh well! Laura ran for the basket. It was filled, it was heaped by her mother.
“Take it yourself, darling,” said she. “Run down just as you are. No, wait, take the arum lilies too. People of that class are so impressed by arum lilies.”
“The stems will ruin her lace frock,” said practical Jose.
So they would. Just in time. “Only the basket, then. And, Laura!”—her mother followed her out of the marquee—“don’t on any account—”
No, better not put such ideas into the child’s head! “Nothing! Run along.”
It was just growing dusky as Laura shut their garden gates. A big dog ran by like a shadow. The road gleamed white, and down below in the hollow the little cottages were in deep shade. How quiet it seemed after the afternoon. Here she was going down the hill to somewhere where a man lay dead, and she couldn’t realize it. Why couldn’t she? She stopped a minute. And it seemed to her that kisses, voices, tinkling spoons, laughter, the smell of crushed grass were somehow inside her. She had no room for anything else. How strange! She looked up at the pale sky, and all she thought was, “Yes, it was the most successful party.”
Now the broad road was crossed. The lane began, smoky and dark. Women in shawls and men’s tweed caps hurried by. Men hung over the palings; the children played in the doorways. A low hum came from the mean little cottages. In some of them there was a flicker of light, and a shadow, crab-like, moved across the window. Laura bent her head and hurried on. She wished now she had put on a coat. How her frock shone! And the big hat with the velvet streamer—if only it was another hat! Were the people looking at her? They must be. It was a mistake to have come; she knew all along it was a mistake. Should she go back even now?
No, too late. This was the house. It must be. A dark knot of people stood outside. Beside the gate an old, old woman with a crutch sat in a chair, watching. She had her feet on a newspaper. The voices stopped as Laura drew near. The group parted. It was as though she was expected, as though they had known she was coming here.
Laura was terribly nervous. Tossing the velvet ribbon over her shoulder, she said to a woman standing by, “Is this Mrs. Scott’s house?” and the woman, smiling queerly, said, “It is, my lass.”
Oh, to be away from this! She actually said, “Help me, God,” as she walked up the tiny path and knocked. To be away from those staring eyes, or to be covered up in anything, one of those women’s shawls even. I’ll just leave the basket and go, she decided. I shan’t even wait for it to be emptied.
Then the door opened. A little woman in black showed in the gloom.
Laura said, “Are you Mrs. Scott?” But to her horror the woman answered, “Walk in please, miss,” and she was shut in the passage.
“No,” said Laura, “I don’t want to come in. I only want to leave this basket. Mother sent—”
The little woman in the gloomy passage seemed not to have heard her. “Step this way, please, miss,” she said in an oily voice, and Laura followed her.
She found herself in a wretched little low kitchen, lighted by a smoky lamp. There was a woman sitting before the fire.
“Em,” said the little creature who had let her in. “Em! It’s a young lady.” She turned to Laura. She said meaningly, “I’m ‘er sister, miss. You’ll excuse ‘er, won’t you?”
“Oh, but of course!” said Laura. “Please, please don’t disturb her. I—I only want to leave—”
But at that moment the woman at the fire turned round. Her face, puffed up, red, with swollen eyes and swollen lips, looked terrible. She seemed as though she couldn’t understand why Laura was there. What did it mean? Why was this stranger standing in the kitchen with a basket? What was it all about? And the poor face puckered up again.
“All right, my dear,” said the other. “I’ll thenk the young lady.”
And again she began, “You’ll excuse her, miss, I’m sure,” and her face, swollen too, tried an oily smile.
Laura only wanted to get out, to get away. She was back in the passage. The door opened. She walked straight through into the bedroom, where the dead man was lying.
“You’d like a look at ‘im, wouldn’t you?” said Em’s sister, and she brushed past Laura over to the bed. “Don’t be afraid, my lass,”—and now her voice sounded fond and sly, and fondly she drew down the sheet—“‘e looks a picture. There’s nothing to show. Come along, my dear.”
There lay a young man, fast asleep—sleeping so soundly, so deeply, that he was far, far away from them both. Oh, so remote, so peaceful. He was dreaming. Never wake him up again. His head was sunk in the pillow, his eyes were closed; they were blind under the closed eyelids. He was given up to his dream. What did garden-parties and baskets and lace frocks matter to him? He was far from all those things. He was wonderful, beautiful. While they were laughing and while the band was playing, this marvel had come to the lane. Happy… happy… All is well, said that sleeping face. This is just as it should be. I am content.
But all the same you had to cry, and she couldn’t go out of the room without saying something to him. Laura gave a loud childish sob.
“Forgive my hat,” she said.
And this time she didn’t wait for Em’s sister. She found her way out of the door, down the path, past all those dark people. At the corner of the lane she met Laurie.
He stepped out of the shadow. “Is that you, Laura?”
“Mother was getting anxious. Was it all right?”
“Yes, quite. Oh, Laurie!” She took his arm, she pressed up against him.
“I say, you’re not crying, are you?” asked her brother.
Laura shook her head. She was.
Laurie put his arm round her shoulder. “Don’t cry,” he said in his warm, loving voice. “Was it awful?”
“No,” sobbed Laura. “It was simply marvellous. But Laurie—” She stopped, she looked at her brother. “Isn’t life,” she stammered, “isn’t life—” But what life was she couldn’t explain. No matter. He quite understood.
“Isn’t it, darling?” said Laurie.
That night we were having guests for dinner, and Ines had been in a frenzy all week. She hunted down innovative recipes on the internet and buried my desk in sheets of paper as she printed them out. I’m a psychiatrist, so I like order, and I can’t stand it if my space is invaded for no good reason. However, I was reasonable and tried to get Ines to see things from my patients’ perspective. How would you feel if you arrived at a session and found piles of paper all over the office? I knew my persuasive tactics lost their effectiveness the day she stopped being my patient and became my wife, but in the end I managed to get her to pick it all up before the session with my Friday patient, a workaholic beyond repair.
In recent years we’d stopped inviting our friends over as much, so our friends, in turn, had stopped extending invitations or accepting our evermore sporadic ones. Since the twins were born there had been so little time for social interaction. But recently, after the girls turned seven magical years old, we decided it was time to get back in touch with the friends we’d neglected as we focused on the little ones. We started going out more regularly. But we were responsible parents, you could say.
That night we’d invited a couple over; they were a little older than us, but the age difference was hardly noticeable. They didn’t have kids. We’d known them forever. In fact, Ines was some sort of cousin to Eduardo, who’d met his wife Adela at our wedding. Adela had been a classmate of mine at university, and there’d been one episode after a night of partying that we never spoke of again.
Two weeks prior, Adela had called me from the hospital to invite me to dinner with them at their new town house. When I told her, Ines went crazy and thought of nothing other than returning the invitation. I remember that night at Adela and Eduardo’s house, she wouldn’t stop praising the food and the décor. She did it in an exaggerated and awkward way, insisting repeatedly that the colonial-style furniture our friends had picked out looked exactly like the authentic pieces she and I had seen on our honeymoon in Thailand.
During dinner at their house we jumped from topic to topic. At some points Eduardo and I conversed on our own; at another I asked Adela about her cases, and she wanted to know about mine. We liked to exchange funny stories in which our patients came out looking terrible. Then we ended up arguing over what Adela called the feudal privileges of private psychiatry over public. Adela had a sharp and sparkling way of speaking that still strongly attracted me despite all the time that had passed. At points, Eduardo was clearly bored. He looked at the clock on the wall, and you could tell that deep down he wanted us to finish our wine. Ines took the opportunity to get up and go into the kitchen alone, carrying away the dirty plates as if it were her own home. Adela let her do it; she wasn’t even paying attention. Ines seemed more like the maid than my wife.
We didn’t leave until late. Eduardo had perked up, he was excited about showing me his collection of fountain pens. He explained that the new house finally gave him enough space to display them in their custom-built case. His collections didn’t interest me in the slightest. Collecting is something I’d classify as obsessive behavior. I looked at the floor as he showed off a mother-of-pearl inlay, and I noticed one of his shoelaces had come untied, but I didn’t tell him.
At the door, the women kissed goodbye loudly and Eduardo and I exchanged a firm handshake that turned into a half-hearted hug. I thought it had been the final goodbye; however, at the last minute Ines noticed some geraniums, the color of which could barely be made out in the darkness, and I had to turn around and walk back. Adela insisted that Ines should take a cutting, and Ines insisted even more fervently that she shouldn’t trouble herself, but she ended up accepting a branch after making something of a song and dance out of the whole matter. As this was going on I feared that Eduardo would start back up with the pens, but his gaze held only a desire to put his pajamas on and get into his big colonial-style bed.
Ever since that night, Ines has thought of nothing other than Adela and Eduardo’s visit to our house. When we got into the car and started the engine, thinking about the best route home, I saw her sitting there beside me, how she smiled with her eyes wide open but without seeing anything. She looked like a martyr facing the firing squad. With her right hand tightly gripping the geranium. I noticed she’d caught her skirt in the car door without realizing it. We didn’t say a word the whole way home. Ines was in a daze, even though she hadn’t drunk much wine, and I was just driving, trying to think about my patients, whom I’d been increasingly neglecting.
When I parked in front of our house, Ines rested her face on my shoulder, burst into tears, and thanked me several times. At first I was frightened, mentally running through the kinds of psychiatric disorders that could cause such behavior. Then she calmed down, stopped crying, and asked me for permission to invite Eduardo and Adela over for dinner. I agreed, more because I wanted to end the scene than because I liked the idea. She looked at me with her red and excited eyes for a minute then fixed her gaze on the night sky, as before. I sat looking at her profile. I’d forgotten how her curls fell over her forehead. I didn’t want to get out of the car or go anywhere.
The days that followed were smooth as silk. My patients seemed willing to give sanity another try and stopped moaning about their tragedies. Maybe it was because the nights were shorter and they had less time to contemplate suicide. I thought about what would happen if they all got well. I wouldn’t make any money, and I’d be forced to look for new, even more degenerate patients. Or maybe my fame would grow to an international level, and I’d have to start studying English to treat Hollywood celebrities with their delusions of grandeur and depression. As I imagined these things, my appointments flew by.
At the same time, the twins were less annoying because summer was coming and they were playing outside more. Ines assured me that she’d take care of all the dinner preparations, that I wouldn’t have to lift a finger. For my part, I hadn’t asked any questions or offered to do anything, but she wouldn’t stop insisting all the same. When the office was empty, Ines spent hours with her elbows on the desk, studying websites about serving protocol or how to fold napkins to look like birds. Later she tried to put this into practice with the table linen we kept in the living-room cabinets, but the napkins wouldn’t stand up. Some nights I’d turn off my bedside light, and she’d still be sitting on the other side of the bed typing terms into Google, ten tabs open at the same time. I started to worry she might be going into chat rooms and talking to strangers who were anxious to give her their phone numbers and ask what color panties she had on. She reminded me of a patient who, two years after she thought she’d gotten over her addiction to chat rooms, still believed that the man of her dreams was in there, waiting for her inside her laptop.
The day of the dinner party started off badly. The geranium cutting that Adela had given Ines fell twisted and dead from the vase. When she saw it, Ines had an attack of hysterics, and I had to make her lie down for a few minutes on the couch my patients used. The armrests were worn out. It seemed sad and undignified for a practice of my standing. Ines was convinced that the flower’s death was a bad omen, and I repeated that it wasn’t, but I still couldn’t get her out of there. She insisted on getting a geranium to give to Adela at all costs. I found geraniums absolutely repulsive. Somehow I ended up offering to help, to lend a hand with the cooking as if it were a joint effort, and she started to calm down. I would have preferred to just give her a tranquilizer, but I took the risk and opened Pandora’s box.
My idea of helping was to go downtown, leave the car double parked with the hazards on, and buy something in a deli, but Ines had knives, cutting boards, and gadgets in the kitchen that I knew nothing about, let alone how to use, and she slipped an apron over my head like someone putting a collar on a dog. My suggestion of ready-made food was a disgusting abomination and an insult to our friends. It all embarrassed me a little, the apron and my dirty hands. It reminded me of one of those cooking shows where a housewife with misplaced maternal instincts tries unsuccessfully to teach a bachelor how to peel a potato. Luckily, with all those stupendous gadgets, I didn’t have to do much, and Ines took care of the more difficult or sticky tasks.
In the middle of the ordeal the twins came into the kitchen and asked for a snack. They looked at me and laughed. Their laughter was loud. It sounded like dry leaves that crackle when you step on them. I don’t know if they were laughing at me in the apron or if they were just happy because they were going to spend the night at their aunt’s house.
Ines made some sandwiches, and the girls ate as I lectured them about the importance of getting along. It’s crucial that the girls begin to become aware of their moods and emotions, and I talk to them a lot about it in the hope that it will help them later on. Also, I was tired of making melon balls. The twins listened politely then bit into their sandwiches, looked at each other and laughed, and it sounded like crackling. Ines wasn’t paying any attention to me. She was too busy. She was scrubbing things that immediately got dirty again.
Even though they hadn’t finished their snack, Ines was in a hurry to drop them off at my sister’s house. I took off the apron and went to get dressed. I had to do their hair myself. One of their ponytails leaned to the left, the other one’s ponytail leaned to the right, and since they looked so much alike, my lack of skill was all the more evident. I looked at them in the mirror and patted their ponytails. They ran off. I looked at myself in the mirror and then closed my eyes. I imagined myself somewhere else, somewhere far away, but when I opened my eyes again I was still there. I pulled down the medicine chest and counted to check there wasn’t too much of anything missing. Then I left the house.
I wrangled the twins into the car. At the last minute they’d decided they weren’t going to go, that they wanted to stay with Mom and Dad and that they didn’t want the old people (Eduardo and Adela, they meant) to come over. I thought it was funny, and I felt proud to have shaped such strong personalities with such an ability to assert themselves. I thought of going back in and telling Ines, with a straight face, that, given how the girls were behaving, the best thing to do would be to cancel the dinner. Then I worried she might react too violently and murder her own children. I smiled mischievously.
I drove fast down the highway. The girls didn’t talk. They stared symmetrically at the cars that we passed or that passed us. When we got there, my sister was surprised; she was expecting us an hour later based on what Ines had told her on the phone. She seemed annoyed.
“It’s fine,” she said finally.
She invited me to come in.
“It’s been a long time since we talked,” said my sister. “And I have a fresh pot of coffee in the kitchen.”
I wondered if she wanted to talk to her brother or to a psychiatrist. I could recommend a few good ones.
“I have to go,” I said. “Ines is waiting for me, and there’s a lot left to do.”
I didn’t apologize. We didn’t agree on a time to pick the twins up the next day either. I wanted to say goodbye to the girls, but before I knew it they’d disappeared, and I supposed they were in some other room antagonizing the cat.
On my way home I took some streets I didn’t know. In fact, I didn’t remember my sister’s neighborhood very well at all, and it was starting to get dark. I thought I was going to get lost and that if I got lost I’d be late for dinner and that if I was late for dinner Ines might cry in front of the guests. Still in motion, I grabbed the steering wheel with my left hand and opened the glove box with my right. The GPS wasn’t there. Just packs of Kleenex that no one ever used and several CDs of kids’ music. As I closed the glove box I lost balance and gave the wheel a sharp jerk. It was a miracle I didn’t go up onto the central reservation.
There was no one on the street I could ask for directions. I turned the corner and saw a bar, so I parked and got out of the car. I went in with every intention of asking someone how to get out of the neighborhood, but instead I ordered a glass of wine and sat on a stool at the bar. I looked at my watch and confirmed that I had plenty of time for another glass.
The waiter served me the first of the two glasses I planned on having. His face looked familiar. As I drank, I realized he reminded me of the top student in my class at school, a boy named Ignacio Alcalde, very intelligent and hardworking but marred by an unfortunate tic. With that uncontrollable movement of his mouth, no one could see a future for him in this profession where patients never take their eyes off you and you’re obliged to worry about your appearance. I hadn’t thought about Ignacio for many years, until I arrived, not really knowing how, at that bar and came across that waiter. It could easily be him, the best doctor in the class of ’78, lost and forgotten.
I left my wine half drunk and asked for directions. It scared me to think that Ignacio had ended up there, and I wanted to leave immediately. I asked for the check like I was in a restaurant, and the waiter gave me a strange look, unsure whether I wanted to know how much or if I also wanted a receipt. I paid, and the waiter—or Ignacio—gave me the directions I needed. His voice was deep and gravelly, completely different from the voice I remembered, and I felt relieved. Then I thought about how cigarettes, among other factors, could change the tone of a person’s voice.
I started the car and quickly found my way. I tried to picture the name of the bar in case I ever drove by again in the light of day. I’d sat for a few seconds looking at the lit sign before I went in, but now I was unable to remember it. A gust of wind blew a spiky leaf onto the windshield, and it gleamed with a bluish reflection. My cell phone rang. I moved into fifth and then felt around for my phone in the pocket of my blazer. The spiky leaf disappeared like a butterfly scared off by a puppy. It was a message from Ines. It said where are you, hurry up or we’re going to start without you.
As if unconsciously, I lifted my foot off the accelerator and stopped trying to pass the car in front of me.
There was always, in the square, a curious and ancient rentable stagecoach that no one ever rented. The dozing coachman would shake himself awake at the striking of the hours from the bell tower, then his chin would fall back onto his chest. In the corner, by the faded yellow City Hall building, there was a fountain spurting a trickle of water from a bizarre marble face. Thick, cylindrical hair coiled liked snakes around it, and the bulging eyes, devoid of pupils, returned a dead, blank stare.
For at least the past three centuries, another building stood facing City Hall. It was an old aristocracy mansion once grandiose, now in ruins, undone and run-down. The façade saturated with decorations, turned grey with time, showed the merciless signs of passing time. The flying putti guarding the threshold were corroded and filthy, the marble festoons were losing their flowers and leaves, and the closed portal displayed a selection of mould stains. Yet, the house was lived in; the owners, however, heirs to an illustrious and fallen name, rarely showed themselves. On few occasions, they received the priest or doctor, and once in a few years, family from faraway cities, who always left swiftly.
The inside of the mansion offered a succession of empty rooms into which, during storm-ridden days, rain and dust whirled through the broken windows. There were strips of wallpaper, worn remnants of tapestries peeling off the walls, and on the ceilings sailed, among shining, plump clouds, swans and naked angels, and beautiful women leaning out of flower and fruit garlands. Some of the rooms were frescoed with adventures and tales, inhabited by regal characters riding camels or playing in luxurious gardens among monkeys and falcons.
The house’s two sides overlooked narrow and bare streets, while the third spilled onto a closed garden, a prison with high walls in which laurel and orange trees withered. With no gardener to look after it, nettles had invaded that tight space, and sad, blueish flowered weeds grew out of the walls.
The Marquis’ family, the owners of the building, left most of the rooms uninhabited, and had retreated into a small flat on the second floor, complete with outdated furniture that resounded, in the quiet darkness, with the feeble lament of woodworms. The marquess and marquis, both small and wretched people, showed in their features that sad resemblance that sometimes mimetically takes over after endless years of coexistence. Thin and withered, with pale lips and drooping cheeks, their movements were not too dissimilar from those of puppets. Maybe instead of blood, their veins ran with a lazy, yellowish fluid, and only one thing held up their strings: for her, it was authority, for him, fear. For, you see, the marquis had once been a small-town aristocrat, cheerful and without too many thoughts, his only concern being to find ways to finish up the rest of the family wealth. But the marquess had educated him. Ideal humanity, in her mind, should refrain from laughing and speaking out loud, and above all should hide secret weaknesses from the rest of the world. According to her teachings, it was a crime for one to smirk, fret, forcefully blow one’s nose; so the marquis, afraid to err in his gestures and forbidden noises, had avoided all noises and gestures entirely for some time now, lowering his head and reducing himself to a mummified human with docile eyes. It still did not shield him from scoldings and reproaches. Extremely high-mannered and sharp, she would often strike him with direct reprimands, or allude to certain unspeakable figures, only worthy of their contempt. They, she’d say, ignorant of their own will and unable to educate their own children, would drag the house into ruin, if the Holy Grace had not found them a Wife. So the man meekly endured her tortures, until the times when he left, with the little change the austere Administrator allowed him in his pockets, for his walks. Maybe, in the solitude of the tiny countryside roads, he let himself go to excesses, to singing cavatinas, and thunderous nose blowings; sure, when he’d return home, he had a strange light in his eyes and this involuntary reveal of his possible fun and impolite interior dimension would always raise the marquess’ suspicions. She’d press him with questions all evening, which would get more and more humiliating and sharp in order to extort compromising admissions. And the poor man, through coughing fits, stuttering, and blushing, would keep putting himself in a corner, to the point that the marquess started a scrupulous and austere control over her husband, and decided to often escort him on his walks. He resigned to the facts; the flame in his eyes, however, became obsessive, and fixed, and no longer sparked by joy.
From such parents, three children had come to the world; for them, in their first years, the world was made in their image and likeness. The town’s other characters were but vague presences, nasty, unlikeable brats, women in thick, black tights with long, oily hair, sad old religious men. All of these badly-dressed presences wandered along the short bridges, small streets, and the square. The three children hated the town; whenever they walked outside, in a row with the single servant, following the walls, their gazes were dark and disdainful. The local kids took their revenge by mocking and terrorizing them.
The servant was a tall, vulgar man, with hairy wrists, flaring red nostrils, and small mercurial eyes. He took out the subjection to the marquess on the children, treating them as a master would; when he accompanied them, swaying his hips slightly and looking down on them, or bluntly reprimanded them, they trembled with hatred. But outside as well as inside, their mother’s curt admonishments followed them; they walked in an orderly fashion, in grim silence.
The walk almost always ended at the church’s entrance, the two columns held up by a pair of sizeable lions with a tame expression. Higher up, a wide rose window let into the nave a cleansed, fresh light, in which the light of the candles fluttered. The apse housed a tall body of Christ, with purple blood flowing from his wounds, and figures around him gesturing and despairing with heavy movements.
The three children would kneel contritely and bring their hands together.
Antonietta, the eldest, despite her seventeen years of age, still had the body and the clothing of a child. She was thin and uncoordinated, and her straight hair, as it wasn’t customary to wash frequently in the mansion, always smelled faintly of mouse droppings. They were parted at the middle, and the parting was more clearly obvious on the back of her head, as the hair grew shorter and thinner, inspiring feelings of pity and protection. The girl’s nose was long, curved and sensitive, and her thin lips pulsated when she spoke. In the frame of her pale, emaciated face, her eyes moved with nervous passion, except when in the presence of the marquess, when she kept them low and dull.
She wore tresses onto her shoulders, and a black smock so short as to reveal – if she moved too much too quickly – her underwear, tight and almost reaching her knees, with its red ribbon; the smock opened at the back, onto her laced petticoat. Her black tights were held up with simple elastic, twisted and consumed.
Pietro, the middle child of sixteen, was docile. He moved both his small, stocky body and his eyes, discretely lit under the thick eyebrows, very slowly. He had a sweet, tame smile and his dependence from the other two was obvious by just looking at them.
Giovanni, the youngest, was the ugliest in the family. His meager body, almost as if he were born old, was too withered to grow any further; but his quick and burning eyes resembled those of his sister. After short bursts of frantic activity, he’d immediately fall into prostration, followed by fevers. The doctor would say of him: I do not believe he will survive puberty.
Whenever his fevers would strike, sudden and for no apparent reason, his body was shook as if by electric shocks. He knew this to be the sign, and he’d wait for the incumbent illness, his lips stretched and eyes wide. Nightmares would dance and buzz around his bed for long stretches of days, and a shapeless tedium would weigh down on him, inside of a dense, gloomy mood. Then his recovery would come, and too weak to move, he’d curl up on an armchair and drum his fingers rhythmically on the armrests. And he’d think. Or read.
The marquess, busy as she was in her administrative duties, didn’t really supervise the children’s education and learning. She was content with them not speaking or moving. And so, Giovanni was able to read strange and wonderful books, in which characters wore clothes never seen before: wide-brimmed hats, velvet waistcoats, swords and wigs, and dames in fantastic dresses, rich with gems and nets woven out of gold.
These beings spoke a winged language, which knew how to reach peaks and chasms, sweet in love, fierce in anger, and they lived dreams and adventures of which the young boy daydreamed for hours on end. He shared his discovery with his siblings and the three of them all believed they could identify the characters in those books with the painted figures on the walls and ceilings of the mansion and that, long alive in them but hidden in the cellars of their childhood, were now resurfacing once more. Soon there was an unspoken understanding between the siblings. When no one could hear them, they spoke of their creatures, unmaking and remaking them, talking about them until they were alive and breathing among them. Deep hatred and love tied them to this and that character, and it often happened that they’d spend their nights awake talking to each other with those words. Antonietta slept alone is a small room connected to that of her brothers’; their parents’ room was separated from their by a large room, parlour or dinette. So no one could hear them if, each from their own bed, they talked as if they were the beloved characters.
They were new, wonderful conversations.
‘Leblanc, sir Leblanc,’ whispered Giovanni’s raspy voice from the bed on the right, ‘have you sharpened the shining blades for the duel? The blood dawn will rise soon, and you know, dear sir, that proud lord Arturo knows no human mercy nor fear before death’.
‘Alas, my brother,’ whimpered Antonietta’s voice, ‘the white dressings and perfumed balms have already been prepared. May the Heavens grant you their use on your enemy’s corpse.’
‘The blood dawn, the blood dawn,’ mumbled Pietro, not as imaginative and always a little asleep. But Giovanni always intervened, suggesting his lines:
‘You,’ he’d say, ‘have to reply that you will face the danger devoid of fear, and that no Count Arturo will be the one to stop you, no man has been born who can.’
That was how the three children discovered theatre.
Their characters appeared fully-formed from the mists of invention, arms clamouring and clothes swishing. They acquired flesh and voice, and the children started living a second life. As soon as the marquess retired to her rooms, the servant to the kitchen, the marquis out on his walk, each of them turned into their counterpart. Her heart beating, Antonietta closed the front shutters, and became princesמs Isabella; Roberto, in love with Isabella, was played by Giovanni. Pietro never had a definite part, but played a rotation of the rival, the servant, the captain of a ship. The force of the fiction was so strong that they each forgot about their own real person; often, during the long, boring sessions supervised by the marquess, that marvellous, compressed secret almost bounced off them in secretive and sparkling glances: ‘later – they meant – we’ll play the game’. At night, in the dark, the game’s creatures populated their loneliness under the sheets, and the events of tomorrow would start taking shape; they smiled among themselves, or in the case of violence or tragedy, clench their fists.
In spring, the prison-garden also gained a fictional life. In the sun-bathed corner, the orange striped cat would quiver as it closed its green eyes. Strange, sudden smells would seem to burst from this or that corner, that pile of soil or this hedge. Flowers sickened by shadows would bloom and fall in silence, their petals reduced to pulp between the stones; the smells would draw lazy butterflies who’d let their pollen slip.
In the evening, dull, warm rain would often fall, barely making the ground damp. It’d be followed by a low wind, also carrying smells wandering across the night. The marquis and marquess, after breakfast, would fall asleep in their chairs; the townsfolk’s conversations, at sunset, sounded like conspiracies.
The secret game had become a kind of plot, taking place on a wonderful and distant planet, known only to the three siblings. Taken by the enchantment, they’d be unable to sleep at night for their thinking about it. One night, the wake was even longer; Isabella and Roberto, the hindered lovers, were to plan an escape, and the children were fretting in their beds to come up with a solution for that dire situation. Eventually, the two boys fell asleep, and the faces of their invented companions danced a little before their eyes, between light and dark, until they vanished.
Antonietta couldn’t sleep. Sometimes she thought she could hear a dark, long cry in the night, and she stayed awake to hear better. Sometimes it was strange noises in the attic breaking the comedy she still inhabited, as she made it up under the sheet. Eventually, she stepped out of bed; she quietly walked into her brothers’ room and whispered their names.
Giovanni, a light sleeper, sat upright. His sister had worn on her nightgown, which barely reached her knees, a worn-down black wool coat. Her straight hair, neither thick nor long, was undone, her eyes shone in the slanted shadows of the candlelight she held between her hands.
‘Wake up, Pietro,’ she said, leaning over his bed with feverish impatience. At that moment, Pietro stirred and slowly opened his tired eyes. ‘It’s about the game,’ she explained.
Lazily, fairly unwilling, Pietro lifted himself onto his elbow: both boys were looking at their sister, the eldest, distractedly and with glazed eyes, the other, already curious, leaning his young-but-old face towards the candle.
‘It came to pass,’ started Antonietta in a rush, as if talking about some sudden, dramatic event, ‘that during the hunt, Roberto wrote a note and hid it in a tree trunk. Isabella’s greyhound by chance runs towards that same tree and returns with the note in his mouth. ‘Pretend you’re lost,’ it says, ‘and meet me as darkness falls in the woods that surrounds Challant castle. We’ll escape from there.’ And so, as they all chase the fox, I run away and meet Roberto. And the wind blows, and he makes me get on his horse, and we flee in the night. But the knights notice our absence and they follow us blowing the horns.’
‘Shall we make it that they’re found?’ Giovanni asked, his eyes flitting and curious in the reddish light.
His sister was unable to stay still, she kept making gestures with both hands, so the flame swung between feeble flashes and giant shadows.
‘We don’t know yet,’ she replied. ‘Because,’ she added, with a mysteriously triumphant laugh, ‘we’re going to go to the hunting room to play the game.’
‘The hunting room! That’s impossible!’ Pietro said, shaking his head. ‘You’re joking! At night! They’ll hear us and find out. And everything will be over.’ But the others attacked him, insulted.
‘How dare you!’ they said. ‘You’re afraid!’
In a defiant attempt to rebel, Pietro lay down on his bed again.
‘No, I’m not coming,’ he said. Antonietta changed her tone.
‘Don’t ruin everything,’ she begged him, ‘you’re the hunters and the horns.’ And so she won the last of Pietro’s reticence, and he got up. He was wearing, like his brother, a worn-down flannel shirt, over which he slipped a pair of shorts. Antonietta cautiously opened the door leading to the stairs. ‘Bring your candle too,’ she told them, ‘there are no lamps up there’.
So the three set off, single file, up the narrow marble staircase, filthy and dull from use. The ‘hunting room’ was on the first floor, right after the stairs. It was one of the biggest rooms in the mansion, and the squalor of the other abandoned rooms was here animated instead by the vast frescoes on the walls and ceiling. They showed hunting scenes against a rocky landscape, with dark, straight trees. Several greyhounds, their muzzles pointed and their hind legs taut, ran everywhere in a frenzy, as the horses jumped or proceeded with dignity, in their red and gold caparisons. The hunters, in their bizarre, fish-skinned silks, tall hats with long feathers and green tricorns, walked or marched blowing their horns. Long ribbons hung from the latter, yellow and red standards flapped against the terse skies, and out of the cliff grew sharp-leaved bushes, and open, rigid flowers, almost like rocks. All of this was now buried in darkness. The candles, with their light too feeble for the sheer size of the room, revealed here and there the vivid colours of the saddles or the white backs of the horses. The children’s shadows swayed on the walls in magnified movements and ghostly footsteps.
They closed the doors. The piece began.
The silence of the night was vast; the wind had ceased for the trees to not rustle. Antonietta was stood by a painted tree which suddenly started flowing with sap. Birds came to life and slept in the foliage. And on her appeared, like a miracle, a long gown of floral and regal make, and a golden satchel. Her hair parted into two blonde tresses, and her pupils enlarged from fear and rapture.
‘Courage, my love, I am here, here, by you,’ murmured the other, turning into brave knight. His sweet and faunish face peered out of the darkness. ‘Roberto!’ she exclaimed quietly. ‘Roberto! Hold me, my love!’
A sudden grace bloomed in her. Her teeth and eyes shone with grace, her curved neck and her lips housed grace. She kneeled, her bare knees touching the ground. ‘What are you doing, my beloved?’ he asked. ‘Stand.’
She shuddered. ‘You came,’ she murmured almost in pain, ‘and it is night no longer, I have no more fear. I am finally close to you! I am like within the walls of a fortress, within a nest. If only you knew the sadness, how I cried these lonely nights! And you, my heart, what have you done these nights?’
‘I wandered,’ he said, ‘on my horse, thinking of ways to liberate you. But do not dwell, my darling, on the times of solitude. That has passed. No force can separate us now. We are together for eternity.’
‘For eternity!’ she repeated, bewildered. She smiled with her eyes closed, and sighed and trembled. Shuddering, she moved closer to him. ‘Do you not hear,’ she said, ‘a sound of horns in the distance?’
Roberto listened. ‘Do I have to blow the horns now?’ asked Pietro, coming closer. It was his specialty. He could mimic the sound of wind instruments and animal noises, and in doing so his cheeks engorged in grotesque ways.
‘Yes,’ the other two whispered.
The sound of a horn, low and growling, slowly moving closer and shriller, could be heard in the background. The wind picked up in the forest; a gust shook the leaves on the trees like banners. The horses leapt, the knights shook on their backs, falcons circled in the whistling air. The greyhounds leapt into the darkness, and the knights blew their horns.
‘Hark! Hark!’ they shouted, running through the torches that marked the air with lines and circles of smoke.
Isabella let out a cry, and threw her head back, clinging to Roberto.
‘My Queen!’ he shouted. ‘No one will take you from these arms! I swear. And with this kiss I seal my oath. Now, come forth! Come forth, if you dare!’
The two children kissed on the lips, Giovanni grew in size. His cheekbones reddened and temples beating, he came closer to his sister. And she, hair in disarray, mouth burning, danced in a frenzy. ‘Come, knights and steeds!’ they shouted. And Pietro bounced from here to there, swaying on his stocky body and blowing out his cheeks, like a large zuffolo.
At that moment, tragedy and triumph ceased. Trees and knights stopped, losing their dimensions, and a dusty silence entered the room. The light of the candles only showed three ugly children.
The door was opening. The marquess, inspired, had suddenly decided to check upon the children in their rooms, and her search had eventually brought her to the hunting room. ‘What is this farce?’ she shrieked with her silly voice. And stepped inside, holding a tall chandelier, followed by the marquis.
Their grotesque shadows crept along the opposite wall. The marquess’ sharp nose and chin, her bony fingers, her swaying tresses pinned to the top of her head, slightly fluttered in that now marginally more lit room, and the small, demure figure of the marquis stayed behind, still. He was wearing a worn bedrobe, with red and yellow stripes that made him look like a beetle, and the few grey hairs left on his head, usually smoothed down with an ointment of his making, were standing straight up, making him look terrified. He stood there cautiously, as if afraid of tripping up, and sheltered the flame of the candle with his open palm.
The marquess turned a sharp gaze onto her children, who froze; then she turned to her daughter, with raised eyebrows and a wry, scornful smile.
‘Look at her!’ she cried. ‘Pretty! Oh dear, dear!’ and suddenly becoming irate and combative, raised her voice. ‘You should be ashamed, Antonia! Explain…’
The children were quiet. But while the two boys were stunned, their eyes to the ground, Antonietta, curled up by her tree, now dead, stared at her mother with open, lost eyes, similar to a young quail surprised by a sparrow hawk. Then her incredibly pale face, her drained lips, was covered by a disordered and violent redness, covering her skin in dark stains. Her lips trembled, and she shuddered, lost, overwhelmed by painful and uncontrollable shame. She kept curling further into her nook, as if afraid that someone might touch and search her.
The two brothers were shocked by the scene that followed. Their sister suddenly fell to her knees, and they thought she might beg for forgiveness: instead, she covered her blazing face with her hands, and started shaking in a bizarre, raspy, and feverish laughter, which soon turned into angry crying. She uncovered her strained face and, lying on the ground with her legs stiff, she started ripping out, in a childish and continuous gesture, her untied hair.
‘Antonietta! What happens?’ exclaimed the marquis, aghast. ‘Silence, you!’ ordered the marquess, and because her daughter had uncovered her frail, white legs in her thrashing, she twisted her face in disgust.
‘On your feet, Antonietta,’ she barked. But her voice exasperated her daughter, who seemed possessed by the Furies; the jealousy of her secret had shattered her. In silence, her brothers shifted away, and she was left alone in the middle, shaking her head as if trying to remove it off her neck, moaning with agitated and improper gestures. ‘Help me to lift her up,’ the marquess finally said, and as soon as her parents touched her, Antonietta ceased all movement, exhausted. Holding her under her arms, she moved without realising up the dimly lit staircase; her eyes were dry and fixed, her lips showed the spittle of ire, and her cries had been replaced by a muffled and inconstant moan, but still filled with anger. She kept moaning in the same manner even once they reached her bed, where she was made to lie, and left alone.
From the nearby room, the brothers couldn’t help but listen to that lament that distracted them even from the thought of the violated secret. Then Pietro was taken over by a dreamless sleep, and Giovanni was left alone in the darkness. He kept tossing and turning without peace, until he decided to leave his bed, and headed barefoot to his sister’s bedroom. It was small, misshapen, in which the smell of childhood lingered, but one oppressed by boarding school. The ceiling sported a faded image: a slender woman, draped in orange veils, dancing with her arms reaching for a painted vase. The walls were stained and miserable, a pair of old red slippers were placed to one side of the wooden bed, and on the wall opposite an angel spread its wings and held a stoup. The night lamp was lit and let onto the bed a feeble bluish aura.
‘Antonietta!’ called Giovanni. ‘It’s me…’
His sister seemed to not notice him, despite her eyes being open and filled with tears; she lay immersed in her childish crying, her lips taut and trembling, and unmoving; slowly, her eyes started to close, and her wet lashes seemed long and displayed. Suddenly, she jolted awake again.
‘Roberto!’ she called, and the name and the sharp sweetness in the voice filled with regret shocked her brother.
‘Antonietta!’ he called again. ‘It’s me, Giovanni, your brother!’
‘Roberto,’ she said, her voice lower. Calming down now, she seemed more absorbed and attentive, as someone carefully following the tracks of a dream. In silence, her brother also felt Roberto’s presence in the room; tall, a little arrogant, with his black velvet waistcoat, the arabesque weapon and silver buckles, Roberto was standing between them.
Antonietta seemed calm and asleep by now; Giovanni stepped out into the corridor. Here the house’s silence enveloped him, contained yet infinite, like the one found in burials. He felt suffocated and nauseated, so he moved to the wide window on the stairs and opened it. He could hear, in the darkness outside, light thuds, as of soft bodies falling onto the sand in the garden; the space beyond the garden seemed alive and sensible to him, and the urge to escape, an old urge despite its vague, chimeric nature, took hold of him now, sudden and irresistible.
Without thinking, almost out inertia, he went back to his room and put on his clothes in the dark. Shoes in hand, he walked down the stairs, and the creaking of the front door behind him both horrified him and, in its song, filled him with delight.
‘Goodbye, Antonietta,’ he murmured. He thought he would never see Antonietta again, never again the house and the square; all he had to do was walk straight ahead for none of it to exist any longer.
Only the gurgling of the fountain could be heard in the empty square, and he turned, facing away from that cold and sad marble visage. He walked along known streets, until he reached the countryside paths and finally the open fields. The already tall and green wheat grew to both his left and right, the mountains in the background were more of a cloudy mass, and the night dragged on, exhausted, breathing damp and still beneath the sharp light of the stars. ‘I’ll reach that mountain range,’ he thought, ‘then the sea.’ He had never seen the sea, and the illusion of thunderous rumbling of a shell came back to him, from when he used to bring it up to his ear to play. But the sound was now alive and resounding, so that instead of the fields around him, he felt as though he was surrounded by two calm bodies of water on either side. After some time, he was sure of having walked far, though really he had only left the town. Exhausted, he decided to rest by a smooth tree, with wide foliage, split in two long branches similar to the arms of a cross.
He had only just rested his head on the bark when he felt a shiver: ‘The illness,’ he thought, both calm and horrified. The fever was indeed taking him, burrowing with burning, restless roots through his already drained body, too tired to stand up. His eyesight suddenly sharpened, so that he could now see the crawling of the night’s creatures surrounding him, and he could see the beating and flickering of their eyes, like hazy fires.
They were winking, he recognised them all, and he might have been able to call them one by one and ask them the infinite series of questions he had been harbouring since his early childhood.
But out of a strange urgency, the night turned towards dawn. The sunrise that came was bright, turning the landscape into a vast city of clay, dusty and empty, scattered with huts that looked more like mounds of soil, and short pillars. In this city, on the side of the rising sun, Isabella appeared, as big as a cloud against the sky, her dress like the chalice of a red flower. She approached him, despite her feet not moving. Her bare shoulders dropped from exhaustion, and her closed lips seemed to be smiling, her shining, still eyes stared at him to help him sleep.
He did, meekly. With daybreak, it was the hated servant who found him and took him home in his rough arms. As many times before, Giovanni stayed in his bed for days he never knew had passed, and his sister Antonietta looked over him. She sat there, calm and lazy, sometimes knitting, often just idling. She watched her brother deliriously imagining his red, burning worlds, offering him water every now and then. She sat there, in her apron and smooth hair, like a servant in a monastery.
Her lips looked burned.
You walk, you walk and you forget: that’s what she always says. Well, not in those exact words. It’s usually a more specific complaint: you didn’t call Pacheco, you didn’t check the Supercable contract, you didn’t take the car to the shop, it’s past dinnertime, you forgot our wedding anniversary and to buy the shampoo I asked you to. She doesn’t expect answers, and Benjamin knows it would be useless to reply. He also knows that beyond that litany of small complaints the true reproach rises up like a weathered plateau, existential, unforgivable. That he didn’t remember. There’s an enormous difference between forgetting and not remembering.
A reproach that, of course, has never been stated outright. The damning weight of everything Benjamin doesn’t remember—or pretends not to remember—could trigger a massive earthquake in all the geological layers that have built up patiently over the years to form a stable foundation. Benjamin doesn’t remember the future that was left behind in the past, that glorious future, bright as the sun, its contours mysteriously fading the closer he got to it. Their thirty-five years together has proved it.
The worst part is that you didn’t remember, she says without saying it, as she talks about the mechanic and the shampoo. You forget everything, she says. The life you promised me (she doesn’t say that). You just walk, and walking doesn’t solve anything, she says, and lately that’s all you do.
As if she didn’t know that Benjamin had started walking under doctor’s orders. The cure for everything at his age, high cholesterol, fatty liver, clogged arteries, and a heart as slow as the owner of these broken-down organs. So he got used to walking. Now his wife suspects that he likes doing it and that’s not something she can allow; it’s not fair, while she lives with the burden of having to remember that dazzling shared future that has simply vanished into the present.
“Enough with the walking, Benjamin. Open the door please! Mauricio is coming for dinner tonight with your grandkids. He never knows what to do with them when it’s his turn to take care of them. They’ve become unbearable since the divorce, clearly their mother’s doing (don’t get me started on her), and Sandrita is sleeping, so you’ll have to run by the bakery. And you could set the table, too, don’t you think? I have to do everything myself. And you, walking and walking!”
The gravel crunches under his feet and the spring air bursts with the trill of invisible birds. Benjamin turns up the volume; from far away comes the neighing of a horse. A delicious sound.
He’s surrounded by a green world of vegetation, just like in the beginning, when he went to the places with public walking trails: La Autopista, Los Caobos, El Parque del Este. He bought himself a Walkman and for a while sucked in his stomach and raised his head, the way one should as a member of the healthy athletic community, where the successful businessmen democratically wear the same shorts as the losers; kingdom of long muscular legs training for marathons, tight leggings, impeccable rear ends, bodies glimmering with sunscreen and sweat. Until the inevitable day when he realized that the others ran or jogged, and even the ones that walked like him passed him easily, time and again. Pounding the cement of the shady trails they seemed to be rushing to some important destination unknown to him. Benjamin, on the other hand, just strolled. He was left behind, as ever. And that reminded him in a way of his wife’s silent reproach, unavoidable as a mountain range. So he put his Walkman in a drawer (you always buy things and then you don’t use them) and opted to give up the car and walk to work, there and back.
“Did you hear me, Benjamin, enough already!” she says. “Open this door! The bakery is going to close.”
Benjamin picks up his pace. He still has a way to go.
His office is in the same old building in which he’d set it up when it was new, long before the city had passed it by and left it forgotten at the end of a pedestrian-only street now crowded with peddlers. Walking there meant getting lost among the stalls and tables, among the chaos of plastic jewelry, perfumes from Taiwan, knockoff blue jeans and Lycra panties with lace. Benjamin wandered, skimming secondhand books and pawing at the pornographic magazines displayed on the sidewalk; sometimes he bought dulce de leche or a badly weighed kilo of tangerines from a young mestiza whose baby the color of raw chocolate slept surrounded by her wares. She spoke in a friendly manner, said that the tangerines were sweet, she called him “my love,” and the magazine seller, a German with white hair and a Colombian accent, shared with him profound reflections on the current state of the nation that Benjamin couldn’t disagree with.
Here there was no past or future at all, much less a now-past future. It was easy to wander with no destination or luggage through that immediate present, ephemeral and eternal at the same time, brought down by shouts and the folding of blankets as soon as the uniformed officers peered around a corner leaving the street suddenly empty, with peeling facades, trash cans crammed with rubbish, and asphalt patches on the cobbled street; but none of it was tragic or permanent: minutes later the vibrant hustle and bustle would return.
Very soon the walk to and from work became the most pleasurable part of each day. Benjamin kept it a secret, of course. He knew very well that he didn’t have the right, while Mauricio was being cleaned out by that harpy of an ex, and Sandrita was putting that powder up her nose that made her incoherent and shrill. And her, poor thing, in the house, alone and remembering.
In the end they found him out. It was inevitable. He was late getting to work, and he had to lie to his elderly secretary. To top it all, his brother-in-law was mugged nearby at the entrance to the Notaría. They ripped open his coat, took out his wallet, and apparently got very angry, since they hit him again and again. So his wife and the doctor forbade him to walk on the street: in any number of ways it was hazardous to the health.
It was an indisputable fact that his cholesterol had increased considerably and his heartrate wasn’t terribly improved by the aimless wanderings of those walks. It doesn’t do anything, they told him, to walk at such a slow pace. Now they’re worried: it seems he walks too fast. At your age it’s dangerous; it could give you a heart attack.
Benjamin, open the door! come the voices of Sandra and his wife. But he plays the madman, he walks, walks, walks, faster and faster. His legs have become strong and his belly has decreased in volume; however, he’s sweaty and panting, his heart pounds in his chest. It doesn’t matter, someday he’ll reach the end of the route. For once in his life he’s doing the right thing: setting objectives and achieving them.
In fact, they’re all responsible, too. They suggested this solution and were even pleased when The Walker was delivered to the house, although they were a bit surprised by the uncharacteristic initiative he’d shown by buying it without consulting anyone. It had been years since Benjamin had bought so much as a shirt by himself. He didn’t even seem to know how he’d discovered the machine in a department store, or how he managed to be immediately persuaded by the salesman, who—strangest thing—didn’t even realize the value of his own merchandise. Almost without meaning to, Benjamin became the owner of a walking machine, the best on the market, latest model. Thankfully they’ll never know how much the extravagance cost.
Immediately thereafter he converted the guest room (totally useless, by the way) into a kind of private gym. There, reading the instruction manual with painstaking care, he set up The Walker with its battery of speakers and projectors.
He began to walk at the lowest speed, and from the start felt a great affinity for this form of exercise that seemed to have been designed especially for him. There’s a melancholically familiar abandon in the act of walking and walking and never reaching your destination. He’d been doing something like that his entire life.
With the exception that he now has something more: the video that came in the package. From the first moment he turned on the projector he knew that something new and important had come into his life. The white wall in front of him was filled with green landscapes as he paraded from tree to tree between crystalline fountains and flowerbeds, the speakers perfectly reproducing the chirping of birds and the crunch of the gravel under his steps. He was alone, marvelously alone, undisputed king of all that beauty. He had a deadbolt installed on the door of his improvised gym. He jealously guarded the key, even sleeping with it in the pocket of his pajamas; your father has gone crazy, she says, who’s going to clean in there?
He patiently clarified that he’d finally found the ideal form of exercise, and he needed to concentrate in order to improve. He was so animated that his wife furrowed her eyebrows, suspicious, but she abstained from commenting. In the end it was a healthy activity, boring, and something recommended by the doctor. She didn’t recognize the signs of danger.
Benjamin, on the other hand, sensed that his life had acquired a new dimension, although it was only after two or three weeks that he began to notice slight alterations in the landscape of the video. First came the inexplicable sounds, suggesting a barely perceptible animal presence. It started with a cicada whose stubbornly unpleasant buzzing followed him for a long stretch of the path. Convinced that the creature had crawled in through the window, Benjamin interrupted the session, determined to get rid of the intruder, and realized with surprise that the buzzing ceased at the very instant he stopped the video. It was either a strange coincidence or a particularly intelligent insect; it began its flight again as soon as he restarted the projection. It never returned. And Benjamin soon forgot it as he concentrated on his walking—becoming ever faster—until one day he stopped, pensive, at the edge of the third pond. He could’ve sworn that every time he’d passed it a clear and powerful stream erupted from its center; nevertheless, today the fountain was turned off, the water took on deep-green tones, and a small wild duck played on the bank. Perplexed, Benjamin let the tape rewind, then started it from the beginning and retraced his steps. This time the stream of water gushed forth, there was no doubt about it, but the little duck remained in place. It was strange that he’d never noticed it before.
For the first time he realized that he’d never made it past that pond, and he was curious. He extended the duration of his walks, then he made an effort to increase his speed. The video rewarded his efforts: indeed, further on the landscape changed. The trees of the park began to morph, on both sides of the path elaborate iron gates now appeared allowing glimpses of opulent mansions two or three stories high and surrounded by gardens. On the third day, panting from exhaustion, he reached a particularly beautiful house, made of wood and covered in rampant ivy. It seemed vaguely familiar to him. He wanted to know who lived there, to ring the bell and go inside, but the rules of The Walker wouldn’t allow it. He could only stay on the path, walking slowly without taking his eyes from the cheerful yellow curtains that hid the mystery within, and he strained his ears to pick up the faint laughter of children playing somewhere in the garden. Suddenly the memory surged forth: her, young and radiant, cutting out pictures from a magazine, the home she’d dreamed of for their shared future. Deep down he knew that it couldn’t be merely a coincidence, a chance image in the video. That house was there for him, some kind of divine trick. Benjamin was struck by it. He stopped exercising and the image disappeared, leaving him sweaty and huffing in front of the blank white wall of the former guest room.
That night he couldn’t get to sleep. Her irregular snores and the sounds of partying that filtered in from Sandra’s room heightened his state of feverish excitement. So anxious was he to return to the house that by five in the morning he was already decked out in his gray sweat-suit.
“Did you fall out of bed or something?” On a sudden impulse he wanted to bring her along—come with me, I want to show you something. She turned her back to him, unwilling to indulge such foolishness. “At this hour? You’re crazy.” So Benjamin briefly caressed the soft foam rollers on his wife’s head and gave up the idea of sharing his discovery with her.
It was for the best: she would’ve called him crazy. From the third pond the clear fountain sprouted up and a family of ducks now swam on the water, but there was no sign of the ivy-covered house. He searched in vain as he walked furiously. He left behind the iron gates and mansions and the path was replaced by a two-lane highway through an uninteresting rural landscape. Soft bluish hills rippled on the horizon. Atop one of them was a city, like a drawing of something far away. After a few days he stopped looking for the house and concentrated all his efforts on reaching the city.
“What’s wrong with you?” she asked. “You’re more distracted than ever. You have the same glazed look as Sandra when she was in that institution. And you forgot to call the bank about my credit card … You’re worse than ever. You forget everything. Everything!”
This time it was true: he forgot everything. But he felt better than ever. With a secret sense of anticipation Benjamin caressed the key in his pocket and couldn’t wait for his next exercise session. Now he walked several times a day, locking himself away with The Walker for longer and longer stretches. Unfortunately, the video was designed to encourage a progressive increase in effort: there was no way to restart it at any given point on the route, it always rewound itself to the beginning. If he wanted to get to the end, where the faraway city rose up on the hill or, who knew, further still, he had to return each time to the starting point, cross the park, run around the ponds, the path, the mansions … the highway that followed seemed endless.
“You’ve gone crazy,” she said. “Look at yourself when you leave that room. Pale. You can hardly breathe from exhaustion. The doctor said it’s dangerous; you can’t do it. It’s worse than a physical. No one should do a physical without medical supervision.”
It was true. In some hidden part of Benjamin’s consciousness he knew he had to slow his pace. His legs had become stronger, but his heart had not reacted well. Last night he’d had a pain in his chest again; he had to stop the machine and lie down, panting beside the path, without taking his eyes off the distant hills until they vanished into the whiteness of the horizon. The wall came down on him as he tried to sit up on the carpet, his ears filled with the inexorable whir of the video as it rewound again to the beginning of the route.
They were pounding on the door now. He heard voices, Sandra’s stupid giggling, the shouts of Mauricio’s kids, Come out, Dad. Come out, Grandpa. We want to eat!
“Benjamin, enough already! Forget about the table. I already set it myself. Just come out. Ridiculous old man. I’m going to sell that damned machine. It’s bad for you.”
Benjamin has just reached the foot of the first hill and begins the long-dreamed-of ascent. The pain returns, sharp, this time in his left arm, and his vision blurs a little, but the city isn’t so far away now. His last chance to escape. There, he’ll find another street where the peddlers display their frivolous wonders just for him along the sidewalk. Maybe another office. Maybe another house. Maybe a car will pass and give him a ride, because his time is precious.
“Benjamin,” she begs, now in an anxious voice. “Open the door, Benjamin.”
Mauricio says something about the locksmith who’s on his way. Benjamin longs for the shelter of that unknown city. What a shock they’ll get when they finally break down the door.
He knows that if he gets there soon enough they won’t be able to take away The Walker. Or anything else. Getting to the end is vitally important … A goal, finally. If he trains enough, he’ll get there. It’s simply a question of practice.
With his eyes fixed on his goal, Benjamin picks up the pace.
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”.
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.