The small locomotive engine, Number 4, came clanking, stumbling down from Selston—with seven full waggons. It appeared round the corner with loud threats of speed, but the colt that it startled from among the gorse, which still flickered indistinctly in the raw afternoon, outdistanced it at a canter. A woman, walking up the railway line to Underwood, drew back into the hedge, held her basket aside, and watched the footplate of the engine advancing. The trucks thumped heavily past, one by one, with slow inevitable movement, as she stood insignificantly trapped between the jolting black waggons and the hedge; then they curved away towards the coppice where the withered oak leaves dropped noiselessly, while the birds, pulling at the scarlet hips beside the track, made off into the dusk that had already crept into the spinney. In the open, the smoke from the engine sank and cleaved to the rough grass. The fields were dreary and forsaken, and in the marshy strip that led to the whimsey, a reedy pit-pond, the fowls had already abandoned their run among the alders, to roost in the tarred fowl-house. The pit-bank loomed up beyond the pond, flames like red sores licking its ashy sides, in the afternoon’s stagnant light. Just beyond rose the tapering chimneys and the clumsy black head-stocks of Brinsley Colliery. The two wheels were spinning fast up against the sky, and the winding-engine rapped out its little spasms. The miners were being turned up.
The engine whistled as it came into the wide bay of railway lines beside the colliery, where rows of trucks stood in harbor.
Miners, single, trailing and in groups, passed like shadows diverging home. At the edge of the ribbed level of sidings squat a low cottage, three steps down from the cinder track. A large bony vine clutched at the house, as if to claw down the tiled roof. Round the bricked yard grew a few wintry primroses. Beyond, the long garden sloped down to a bush-covered brook course. There were some twiggy apple trees, winter-crack trees, and ragged cabbages. Beside the path hung dishevelled pink chrysanthemums, like pink cloths hung on bushes. A woman came stooping out of the felt-covered fowl-house, half-way down the garden. She closed and padlocked the door, then drew herself erect, having brushed some bits from her white apron.
She was a till woman of imperious mien, handsome, with definite black eyebrows. Her smooth black hair was parted exactly. For a few moments she stood steadily watching the miners as they passed along the railway: then she turned towards the brook course. Her face was calm and set, her mouth was closed with disillusionment. After a moment she called:
“John!” There was no answer. She waited, and then said distinctly:
“Where are you?”
“Here!” replied a child’s sulky voice from among the bushes. The woman looked piercingly through the dusk.
“Are you at that brook?” she asked sternly.
For answer the child showed himself before the raspberry-canes that rose like whips. He was a small, sturdy boy of five. He stood quite still, defiantly.
“Oh!” said the mother, conciliated. “I thought you were down at that wet brook—and you remember what I told you—”
The boy did not move or answer.
“Come, come on in,” she said more gently, “it’s getting dark. There’s your grandfather’s engine coming down the line!”
The lad advanced slowly, with resentful, taciturn movement. He was dressed in trousers and waistcoat of cloth that was too thick and hard for the size of the garments. They were evidently cut down from a man’s clothes.
As they went slowly towards the house he tore at the ragged wisps of chrysanthemums and dropped the petals in handfuls along the path.
“Don’t do that—it does look nasty,” said his mother. He refrained, and she, suddenly pitiful, broke off a twig with three or four wan flowers and held them against her face. When mother and son reached the yard her hand hesitated, and instead of laying the flower aside, she pushed it in her apron-band. The mother and son stood at the foot of the three steps looking across the bay of lines at the passing home of the miners. The trundle of the small train was imminent. Suddenly the engine loomed past the house and came to a stop opposite the gate.
The engine-driver, a short man with round grey beard, leaned out of the cab high above the woman.
“Have you got a cup of tea?” he said in a cheery, hearty fashion.
It was her father. She went in, saying she would mash. Directly, she returned.
“I didn’t come to see you on Sunday,” began the little grey-bearded man.
“I didn’t expect you,” said his daughter.
The engine-driver winced; then, reassuming his cheery, airy manner, he said:
“Oh, have you heard then? Well, and what do you think—?”
“I think it is soon enough,” she replied.
At her brief censure the little man made an impatient gesture, and said coaxingly, yet with dangerous coldness:
“Well, what’s a man to do? It’s no sort of life for a man of my years, to sit at my own hearth like a stranger. And if I’m going to marry again it may as well be soon as late—what does it matter to anybody?”
The woman did not reply, but turned and went into the house. The man in the engine-cab stood assertive, till she returned with a cup of tea and a piece of bread and butter on a plate. She went up the steps and stood near the footplate of the hissing engine.
“You needn’t ‘a’ brought me bread an’ butter,” said her father. “But a cup of tea”—he sipped appreciatively—”it’s very nice.” He sipped for a moment or two, then: “I hear as Walter’s got another bout on,” he said.
“When hasn’t he?” said the woman bitterly.
“I heered tell of him in the ‘Lord Nelson’ braggin’ as he was going to spend that b——afore he went: half a sovereign that was.”
“When?” asked the woman.
“A’ Sat’day night—I know that’s true.”
“Very likely,” she laughed bitterly. “He gives me twenty-three shillings.”
“Aye, it’s a nice thing, when a man can do nothing with his money but make a beast of himself!” said the grey-whiskered man. The woman turned her head away. Her father swallowed the last of his tea and handed her the cup.
“Aye,” he sighed, wiping his mouth. “It’s a settler, it is—”
He put his hand on the lever. The little engine strained and groaned, and the train rumbled towards the crossing. The woman again looked across the metals. Darkness was settling over the spaces of the railway and trucks: the miners, in grey sombre groups, were still passing home. The winding-engine pulsed hurriedly, with brief pauses. Elizabeth Bates looked at the dreary flow of men, then she went indoors. Her husband did not come.
The kitchen was small and full of firelight; red coals piled glowing up the chimney mouth. All the life of the room seemed in the white, warm hearth and the steel fender reflecting the red fire. The cloth was laid for tea; cups glinted in the shadows. At the back, where the lowest stairs protruded into the room, the boy sat struggling with a knife and a piece of whitewood. He was almost hidden in the shadow. It was half-past four. They had but to await the father’s coming to begin tea. As the mother watched her son’s sullen little struggle with the wood, she saw herself in his silence and pertinacity; she saw the father in her child’s indifference to all but himself. She seemed to be occupied by her husband. He had probably gone past his home, slunk past his own door, to drink before he came in, while his dinner spoiled and wasted in waiting. She glanced at the clock, then took the potatoes to strain them in the yard. The garden and fields beyond the brook were closed in uncertain darkness. When she rose with the saucepan, leaving the drain steaming into the night behind her, she saw the yellow lamps were lit along the high road that went up the hill away beyond the space of the railway lines and the field.
Then again she watched the men trooping home, fewer now and fewer.
Indoors the fire was sinking and the room was dark red. The woman put her saucepan on the hob, and set a batter pudding near the mouth of the oven. Then she stood unmoving. Directly, gratefully, came quick young steps to the door. Someone hung on the latch a moment, then a little girl entered and began pulling off her outdoor things, dragging a mass of curls, just ripening from gold to brown, over her eyes with her hat.
Her mother chid her for coming late from school, and said she would have to keep her at home the dark winter days.
“Why, mother, it’s hardly a bit dark yet. The lamp’s not lighted, and my father’s not home.”
“No, he isn’t. But it’s a quarter to five! Did you see anything of him?”
The child became serious. She looked at her mother with large, wistful blue eyes.
“No, mother, I’ve never seen him. Why? Has he come up an’ gone past, to Old Brinsley? He hasn’t, mother, ‘cos I never saw him.”
“He’d watch that,” said the mother bitterly, “he’d take care as you didn’t see him. But you may depend upon it, he’s seated in the ‘Prince o’ Wales’. He wouldn’t be this late.”
The girl looked at her mother piteously.
“Let’s have our teas, mother, should we?” said she.
The mother called John to table. She opened the door once more and looked out across the darkness of the lines. All was deserted: she could not hear the winding-engines.
“Perhaps,” she said to herself, “he’s stopped to get some ripping done.”
They sat down to tea. John, at the end of the table near the door, was almost lost in the darkness. Their faces were hidden from each other. The girl crouched against the fender slowly moving a thick piece of bread before the fire. The lad, his face a dusky mark on the shadow, sat watching her who was transfigured in the red glow.
“I do think it’s beautiful to look in the fire,” said the child.
“Do you?” said her mother. “Why?”
“It’s so red, and full of little caves—and it feels so nice, and you can fair smell it.”
“It’ll want mending directly,” replied her mother, “and then if your father comes he’ll carry on and say there never is a fire when a man comes home sweating from the pit.—A public-house is always warm enough.”
There was silence till the boy said complainingly: “Make haste, our Annie.”
“Well, I am doing! I can’t make the fire do it no faster, can I?”
“She keeps wafflin’ it about so’s to make ‘er slow,” grumbled the boy.
“Don’t have such an evil imagination, child,” replied the mother.
Soon the room was busy in the darkness with the crisp sound of crunching. The mother ate very little. She drank her tea determinedly, and sat thinking. When she rose her anger was evident in the stern unbending of her head. She looked at the pudding in the fender, and broke out:
“It is a scandalous thing as a man can’t even come home to his dinner! If it’s crozzled up to a cinder I don’t see why I should care. Past his very door he goes to get to a public-house, and here I sit with his dinner waiting for him—”
She went out. As she dropped piece after piece of coal on the red fire, the shadows fell on the walls, till the room was almost in total darkness.
“I canna see,” grumbled the invisible John. In spite of herself, the mother laughed.
“You know the way to your mouth,” she said. She set the dustpan outside the door. When she came again like a shadow on the hearth, the lad repeated, complaining sulkily:
“I canna see.”
“Good gracious!” cried the mother irritably, “you’re as bad as your father if it’s a bit dusk?”
Nevertheless she took a paper spill from a sheaf on the mantelpiece and proceeded to light the lamp that hung from the ceiling in the middle of the room. As she reached up, her figure displayed itself just rounding with maternity.
“Oh, mother—!” exclaimed the girl.
“What?” said the woman, suspended in the act of putting the lamp glass over the flame. The copper reflector shone handsomely on her, as she stood with uplifted arm, turning to face her daughter.
“You’ve got a flower in your apron!” said the child, in a little rapture at this unusual event.
“Goodness me!” exclaimed the woman, relieved. “One would think the house was afire.” She replaced the glass and waited a moment before turning up the wick. A pale shadow was seen floating vaguely on the floor.
“Let me smell!” said the child, still rapturously, coming forward and putting her face to her mother’s waist.
“Go along, silly!” said the mother, turning up the lamp. The light revealed their suspense so that the woman felt it almost unbearable. Annie was still bending at her waist. Irritably, the mother took the flowers out from her apron-band.
“Oh, mother—don’t take them out!” Annie cried, catching her hand and trying to replace the sprig.
“Such nonsense!” said the mother, turning away. The child put the pale chrysanthemums to her lips, murmuring:
“Don’t they smell beautiful!”
Her mother gave a short laugh.
“No,” she said, “not to me. It was chrysanthemums when I married him, and chrysanthemums when you were born, and the first time they ever brought him home drunk, he’d got brown chrysanthemums in his button-hole.”
She looked at the children. Their eyes and their parted lips were wondering. The mother sat rocking in silence for some time. Then she looked at the clock.
“Twenty minutes to six!” In a tone of fine bitter carelessness she continued: “Eh, he’ll not come now till they bring him. There he’ll stick! But he needn’t come rolling in here in his pit-dirt, for I won’t wash him. He can lie on the floor—Eh, what a fool I’ve been, what a fool! And this is what I came here for, to this dirty hole, rats and all, for him to slink past his very door. Twice last week—he’s begun now—”
She silenced herself, and rose to clear the table.
While for an hour or more the children played, subduedly intent, fertile of imagination, united in fear of the mother’s wrath, and in dread of their father’s home-coming, Mrs Bates sat in her rocking-chair making a ‘singlet’ of thick cream-coloured flannel, which gave a dull wounded sound as she tore off the grey edge. She worked at her sewing with energy, listening to the children, and her anger wearied itself, lay down to rest, opening its eyes from time to time and steadily watching, its ears raised to listen. Sometimes even her anger quailed and shrank, and the mother suspended her sewing, tracing the footsteps that thudded along the sleepers outside; she would lift her head sharply to bid the children ‘hush’, but she recovered herself in time, and the footsteps went past the gate, and the children were not flung out of their playing world.
But at last Annie sighed, and gave in. She glanced at her waggon of slippers, and loathed the game. She turned plaintively to her mother.
“Mother!”—but she was inarticulate.
John crept out like a frog from under the sofa. His mother glanced up.
“Yes,” she said, “just look at those shirt-sleeves!”
The boy held them out to survey them, saying nothing. Then somebody called in a hoarse voice away down the line, and suspense bristled in the room, till two people had gone by outside, talking.
“It is time for bed,” said the mother.
“My father hasn’t come,” wailed Annie plaintively. But her mother was primed with courage.
“Never mind. They’ll bring him when he does come—like a log.” She meant there would be no scene. “And he may sleep on the floor till he wakes himself. I know he’ll not go to work tomorrow after this!”
The children had their hands and faces wiped with a flannel. They were very quiet. When they had put on their nightdresses, they said their prayers, the boy mumbling. The mother looked down at them, at the brown silken bush of intertwining curls in the nape of the girl’s neck, at the little black head of the lad, and her heart burst with anger at their father who caused all three such distress. The children hid their faces in her skirts for comfort.
When Mrs Bates came down, the room was strangely empty, with a tension of expectancy. She took up her sewing and stitched for some time without raising her head. Meantime her anger was tinged with fear.
The clock struck eight and she rose suddenly, dropping her sewing on her chair. She went to the stairfoot door, opened it, listening. Then she went out, locking the door behind her.
Something scuffled in the yard, and she started, though she knew it was only the rats with which the place was overrun. The night was very dark. In the great bay of railway lines, bulked with trucks, there was no trace of light, only away back she could see a few yellow lamps at the pit-top, and the red smear of the burning pit-bank on the night. She hurried along the edge of the track, then, crossing the converging lines, came to the stile by the white gates, whence she emerged on the road. Then the fear which had led her shrank. People were walking up to New Brinsley; she saw the lights in the houses; twenty yards further on were the broad windows of the ‘Prince of Wales’, very warm and bright, and the loud voices of men could be heard distinctly. What a fool she had been to imagine that anything had happened to him! He was merely drinking over there at the ‘Prince of Wales’. She faltered. She had never yet been to fetch him, and she never would go. So she continued her walk towards the long straggling line of houses, standing blank on the highway. She entered a passage between the dwellings.
“Mr Rigley?—Yes! Did you want him? No, he’s not in at this minute.”
The raw-boned woman leaned forward from her dark scullery and peered at the other, upon whom fell a dim light through the blind of the kitchen window.
“Is it Mrs Bates?” she asked in a tone tinged with respect.
“Yes. I wondered if your Master was at home. Mine hasn’t come yet.”
“‘Asn’t ‘e! Oh, Jack’s been ‘ome an ‘ad ‘is dinner an’ gone out. E’s just gone for ‘alf an hour afore bedtime. Did you call at the ‘Prince of Wales’?”
“No, you didn’t like!— It’s not very nice.” The other woman was indulgent. There was an awkward pause. “Jack never said nothink about—about your Mester,” she said.
“No!—I expect he’s stuck in there!”
Elizabeth Bates said this bitterly, and with recklessness. She knew that the woman across the yard was standing at her door listening, but she did not care. As she turned:
“Stop a minute! I’ll just go an’ ask Jack if e’ knows anythink,” said Mrs Rigley.
“Oh, no—I wouldn’t like to put—!”
“Yes, I will, if you’ll just step inside an’ see as th’ childer doesn’t come downstairs and set theirselves afire.”
Elizabeth Bates, murmuring a remonstrance, stepped inside. The other woman apologized for the state of the room.
The kitchen needed apology. There were little frocks and trousers and childish undergarments on the squab and on the floor, and a litter of playthings everywhere. On the black American cloth of the table were pieces of bread and cake, crusts, slops, and a teapot with cold tea.
“Eh, ours is just as bad,” said Elizabeth Bates, looking at the woman, not at the house. Mrs Rigley put a shawl over her head and hurried out, saying:
“I shanna be a minute.”
The other sat, noting with faint disapproval the general untidiness of the room. Then she fell to counting the shoes of various sizes scattered over the floor. There were twelve. She sighed and said to herself, “No wonder!”—glancing at the litter. There came the scratching of two pairs of feet on the yard, and the Rigleys entered. Elizabeth Bates rose. Rigley was a big man, with very large bones. His head looked particularly bony. Across his temple was a blue scar, caused by a wound got in the pit, a wound in which the coal-dust remained blue like tattooing.
“Asna ‘e come whoam yit?” asked the man, without any form of greeting, but with deference and sympathy. “I couldna say wheer he is—’e’s non ower theer!”—he jerked his head to signify the ‘Prince of Wales’.
“‘E’s ‘appen gone up to th’ ‘Yew’,” said Mrs Rigley.
There was another pause. Rigley had evidently something to get off his mind:
“Ah left ‘im finishin’ a stint,” he began. “Loose-all ‘ad bin gone about ten minutes when we com’n away, an’ I shouted, ‘Are ter comin’, Walt?’ an’ ‘e said, ‘Go on, Ah shanna be but a’ef a minnit,’ so we com’n ter th’ bottom, me an’ Bowers, thinkin’ as ‘e wor just behint, an’ ‘ud come up i’ th’ next bantle—”
He stood perplexed, as if answering a charge of deserting his mate. Elizabeth Bates, now again certain of disaster, hastened to reassure him:
“I expect ‘e’s gone up to th’ ‘Yew Tree’, as you say. It’s not the first time. I’ve fretted myself into a fever before now. He’ll come home when they carry him.”
“Ay, isn’t it too bad!” deplored the other woman.
“I’ll just step up to Dick’s an’ see if ‘e is theer,” offered the man, afraid of appearing alarmed, afraid of taking liberties.
“Oh, I wouldn’t think of bothering you that far,” said Elizabeth Bates, with emphasis, but he knew she was glad of his offer.
As they stumbled up the entry, Elizabeth Bates heard Rigley’s wife run across the yard and open her neighbour’s door. At this, suddenly all the blood in her body seemed to switch away from her heart.
“Mind!” warned Rigley. “Ah’ve said many a time as Ah’d fill up them ruts in this entry, sumb’dy ‘ll be breakin’ their legs yit.”
She recovered herself and walked quickly along with the miner.
“I don’t like leaving the children in bed, and nobody in the house,” she said.
“No, you dunna!” he replied courteously. They were soon at the gate of the cottage.
“Well, I shanna be many minnits. Dunna you be frettin’ now, ‘e’ll be all right,” said the butty.
“Thank you very much, Mr Rigley,” she replied.
“You’re welcome!” he stammered, moving away. “I shanna be many minnits.”
The house was quiet. Elizabeth Bates took off her hat and shawl, and rolled back the rug. When she had finished, she sat down. It was a few minutes past nine. She was startled by the rapid chuff of the winding-engine at the pit, and the sharp whirr of the brakes on the rope as it descended. Again she felt the painful sweep of her blood, and she put her hand to her side, saying aloud, “Good gracious!—it’s only the nine o’clock deputy going down,” rebuking herself.
She sat still, listening. Half an hour of this, and she was wearied out.
“What am I working myself up like this for?” she said pitiably to herself, “I s’ll only be doing myself some damage.”
She took out her sewing again.
At a quarter to ten there were footsteps. One person! She watched for the door to open. It was an elderly woman, in a black bonnet and a black woollen shawl—his mother. She was about sixty years old, pale, with blue eyes, and her face all wrinkled and lamentable. She shut the door and turned to her daughter-in-law peevishly.
“Eh, Lizzie, whatever shall we do, whatever shall we do!” she cried.
Elizabeth drew back a little, sharply.
“What is it, mother?” she said.
The elder woman seated herself on the sofa.
“I don’t know, child, I can’t tell you!”—she shook her head slowly. Elizabeth sat watching her, anxious and vexed.
“I don’t know,” replied the grandmother, sighing very deeply. “There’s no end to my troubles, there isn’t. The things I’ve gone through, I’m sure it’s enough—!” She wept without wiping her eyes, the tears running.
“But, mother,” interrupted Elizabeth, “what do you mean? What is it?”
The grandmother slowly wiped her eyes. The fountains of her tears were stopped by Elizabeth’s directness. She wiped her eyes slowly.
“Poor child! Eh, you poor thing!” she moaned. “I don’t know what we’re going to do, I don’t—and you as you are—it’s a thing, it is indeed!”
“Is he dead?” she asked, and at the words her heart swung violently, though she felt a slight flush of shame at the ultimate extravagance of the question. Her words sufficiently frightened the old lady, almost brought her to herself.
“Don’t say so, Elizabeth! We’ll hope it’s not as bad as that; no, may the Lord spare us that, Elizabeth. Jack Rigley came just as I was sittin’ down to a glass afore going to bed, an’ ‘e said, ”Appen you’ll go down th’ line, Mrs Bates. Walt’s had an accident. ‘Appen you’ll go an’ sit wi’ ‘er till we can get him home.’ I hadn’t time to ask him a word afore he was gone. An’ I put my bonnet on an’ come straight down, Lizzie. I thought to myself, ‘Eh, that poor blessed child, if anybody should come an’ tell her of a sudden, there’s no knowin’ what’ll ‘appen to ‘er.’ You mustn’t let it upset you, Lizzie—or you know what to expect. How long is it, six months—or is it five, Lizzie? Ay!”—the old woman shook her head—”time slips on, it slips on! Ay!”
Elizabeth’s thoughts were busy elsewhere. If he was killed—would she be able to manage on the little pension and what she could earn?—she counted up rapidly. If he was hurt—they wouldn’t take him to the hospital—how tiresome he would be to nurse!—but perhaps she’d be able to get him away from the drink and his hateful ways. She would—while he was ill. The tears offered to come to her eyes at the picture. But what sentimental luxury was this she was beginning?—She turned to consider the children. At any rate she was absolutely necessary for them. They were her business.
“Ay!” repeated the old woman, “it seems but a week or two since he brought me his first wages. Ay—he was a good lad, Elizabeth, he was, in his way. I don’t know why he got to be such a trouble, I don’t. He was a happy lad at home, only full of spirits. But there’s no mistake he’s been a handful of trouble, he has! I hope the Lord’ll spare him to mend his ways. I hope so, I hope so. You’ve had a sight o’ trouble with him, Elizabeth, you have indeed. But he was a jolly enough lad wi’ me, he was, I can assure you. I don’t know how it is…”
The old woman continued to muse aloud, a monotonous irritating sound, while Elizabeth thought concentratedly, startled once, when she heard the winding-engine chuff quickly, and the brakes skirr with a shriek. Then she heard the engine more slowly, and the brakes made no sound. The old woman did not notice. Elizabeth waited in suspense. The mother-in-law talked, with lapses into silence.
“But he wasn’t your son, Lizzie, an’ it makes a difference. Whatever he was, I remember him when he was little, an’ I learned to understand him and to make allowances. You’ve got to make allowances for them—”
It was half-past ten, and the old woman was saying: “But it’s trouble from beginning to end; you’re never too old for trouble, never too old for that—” when the gate banged back, and there were heavy feet on the steps.
“I’ll go, Lizzie, let me go,” cried the old woman, rising. But Elizabeth was at the door. It was a man in pit-clothes.
“They’re bringin’ ‘im, Missis,” he said. Elizabeth’s heart halted a moment. Then it surged on again, almost suffocating her.
“Is he—is it bad?” she asked.
The man turned away, looking at the darkness:
“The doctor says ‘e’d been dead hours. ‘E saw ‘im i’ th’ lamp-cabin.”
The old woman, who stood just behind Elizabeth, dropped into a chair, and folded her hands, crying: “Oh, my boy, my boy!”
“Hush!” said Elizabeth, with a sharp twitch of a frown. “Be still, mother, don’t waken th’ children: I wouldn’t have them down for anything!”
The old woman moaned softly, rocking herself. The man was drawing away. Elizabeth took a step forward.
“How was it?” she asked.
“Well, I couldn’t say for sure,” the man replied, very ill at ease. “‘E wor finishin’ a stint an’ th’ butties ‘ad gone, an’ a lot o’ stuff come down atop ‘n ‘im.”
“And crushed him?” cried the widow, with a shudder.
“No,” said the man, “it fell at th’ back of ‘im. ‘E wor under th’ face, an’ it niver touched ‘im. It shut ‘im in. It seems ‘e wor smothered.”
Elizabeth shrank back. She heard the old woman behind her cry:
“What?—what did ‘e say it was?”
The man replied, more loudly: “‘E wor smothered!”
Then the old woman wailed aloud, and this relieved Elizabeth.
“Oh, mother,” she said, putting her hand on the old woman, “don’t waken th’ children, don’t waken th’ children.”
She wept a little, unknowing, while the old mother rocked herself and moaned.Elizabeth remembered that they were bringing him home, and she must be ready. “They’ll lay him in the parlour,” she said to herself, standing a moment pale and perplexed.
Then she lighted a candle and went into the tiny room. The air was cold and damp, but she could not make a fire, there was no fireplace. She set down the candle and looked round. The candle-light glittered on the lustre-glasses, on the two vases that held some of the pink chrysanthemums, and on the dark mahogany. There was a cold, deathly smell of chrysanthemums in the room. Elizabeth stood looking at the flowers. She turned away, and calculated whether there would be room to lay him on the floor, between the couch and the chiffonier. She pushed the chairs aside. There would be room to lay him down and to step round him. Then she fetched the old red tablecloth, and another old cloth, spreading them down to save her bit of carpet. She shivered on leaving the parlour; so, from the dresser-drawer she took a clean shirt and put it at the fire to air. All the time her mother-in-law was rocking herself in the chair and moaning.
“You’ll have to move from there, mother,” said Elizabeth. “They’ll be bringing him in. Come in the rocker.”
The old mother rose mechanically, and seated herself by the fire, continuing to lament. Elizabeth went into the pantry for another candle, and there, in the little penthouse under the naked tiles, she heard them coming. She stood still in the pantry doorway, listening. She heard them pass the end of the house, and come awkwardly down the three steps, a jumble of shuffling footsteps and muttering voices. The old woman was silent. The men were in the yard.
Then Elizabeth heard Matthews, the manager of the pit, say: “You go in first, Jim. Mind!”
The door came open, and the two women saw a collier backing into the room, holding one end of a stretcher, on which they could see the nailed pit-boots of the dead man. The two carriers halted, the man at the head stooping to the lintel of the door.
“Wheer will you have him?” asked the manager, a short, white-bearded man.
Elizabeth roused herself and came from the pantry carrying the unlighted candle.
“In the parlour,” she said.
“In there, Jim!” pointed the manager, and the carriers backed round into the tiny room. The coat with which they had covered the body fell off as they awkwardly turned through the two doorways, and the women saw their man, naked to the waist, lying stripped for work. The old woman began to moan in a low voice of horror.
“Lay th’ stretcher at th’ side,” snapped the manager, “an’ put ‘im on th’ cloths. Mind now, mind! Look you now—!”
One of the men had knocked off a vase of chrysanthemums. He stared awkwardly, then they set down the stretcher. Elizabeth did not look at her husband. As soon as she could get in the room, she went and picked up the broken vase and the flowers.
“Wait a minute!” she said.
The three men waited in silence while she mopped up the water with a duster.
“Eh, what a job, what a job, to be sure!” the manager was saying, rubbing his brow with trouble and perplexity. “Never knew such a thing in my life, never! He’d no business to ha’ been left. I never knew such a thing in my life! Fell over him clean as a whistle, an’ shut him in. Not four foot of space, there wasn’t—yet it scarce bruised him.”
He looked down at the dead man, lying prone, half naked, all grimed with coal-dust.
“”Sphyxiated,’ the doctor said. It is the most terrible job I’ve ever known. Seems as if it was done o’ purpose. Clean over him, an’ shut ‘im in, like a mouse-trap”—he made a sharp, descending gesture with his hand.
The colliers standing by jerked aside their heads in hopeless comment.
The horror of the thing bristled upon them all.
Then they heard the girl’s voice upstairs calling shrilly: “Mother, mother—who is it? Mother, who is it?”
Elizabeth hurried to the foot of the stairs and opened the door:
“Go to sleep!” she commanded sharply. “What are you shouting about? Go to sleep at once—there’s nothing—”
Then she began to mount the stairs. They could hear her on the boards, and on the plaster floor of the little bedroom. They could hear her distinctly:
“What’s the matter now?—what’s the matter with you, silly thing?”—her voice was much agitated, with an unreal gentleness.
“I thought it was some men come,” said the plaintive voice of the child. “Has he come?”
“Yes, they’ve brought him. There’s nothing to make a fuss about. Go to sleep now, like a good child.”
They could hear her voice in the bedroom, they waited whilst she covered the children under the bedclothes.
“Is he drunk?” asked the girl, timidly, faintly.
“No! No—he’s not! He—he’s asleep.”
“Is he asleep downstairs?”
“Yes—and don’t make a noise.”
There was silence for a moment, then the men heard the frightened child again:
“What’s that noise?”
“It’s nothing, I tell you, what are you bothering for?”
The noise was the grandmother moaning. She was oblivious of everything, sitting on her chair rocking and moaning. The manager put his hand on her arm and bade her “Sh—sh!!”
The old woman opened her eyes and looked at him. She was shocked by this interruption, and seemed to wonder.
“What time is it?”—the plaintive thin voice of the child, sinking back unhappily into sleep, asked this last question.
“Ten o’clock,” answered the mother more softly. Then she must have bent down and kissed the children.
Matthews beckoned to the men to come away. They put on their caps and took up the stretcher. Stepping over the body, they tiptoed out of the house. None of them spoke till they were far from the wakeful children.
When Elizabeth came down she found her mother alone on the parlour floor, leaning over the dead man, the tears dropping on him.
“We must lay him out,” the wife said. She put on the kettle, then returning knelt at the feet, and began to unfasten the knotted leather laces. The room was clammy and dim with only one candle, so that she had to bend her face almost to the floor. At last she got off the heavy boots and put them away.
“You must help me now,” she whispered to the old woman. Together they stripped the man.
When they arose, saw him lying in the naïve dignity of death, the women stood arrested in fear and respect. For a few moments they remained still, looking down, the old mother whimpering. Elizabeth felt countermanded. She saw him, how utterly inviolable he lay in himself. She had nothing to do with him. She could not accept it. Stooping, she laid her hand on him, in claim. He was still warm, for the mine was hot where he had died. His mother had his face between her hands, and was murmuring incoherently. The old tears fell in succession as drops from wet leaves; the mother was not weeping, merely her tears flowed. Elizabeth embraced the body of her husband, with cheek and lips. She seemed to be listening, inquiring, trying to get some connection. But she could not. She was driven away. He was impregnable.
She rose, went into the kitchen, where she poured warm water into a bowl, brought soap and flannel and a soft towel.
“I must wash him,” she said.
Then the old mother rose stiffly, and watched Elizabeth as she carefully washed his face, carefully brushing the big blond moustache from his mouth with the flannel. She was afraid with a bottomless fear, so she ministered to him. The old woman, jealous, said:
“Let me wipe him!”—and she kneeled on the other side drying slowly as Elizabeth washed, her big black bonnet sometimes brushing the dark head of her daughter. They worked thus in silence for a long time. They never forgot it was death, and the touch of the man’s dead body gave them strange emotions, different in each of the women; a great dread possessed them both, the mother felt the lie was given to her womb, she was denied; the wife felt the utter isolation of the human soul, the child within her was a weight apart from her.
At last it was finished. He was a man of handsome body, and his face showed no traces of drink. He was blonde, full-fleshed, with fine limbs. But he was dead.
“Bless him,” whispered his mother, looking always at his face, and speaking out of sheer terror. “Dear lad—bless him!” She spoke in a faint, sibilant ecstasy of fear and mother love.
Elizabeth sank down again to the floor, and put her face against his neck, and trembled and shuddered. But she had to draw away again. He was dead, and her living flesh had no place against his. A great dread and weariness held her: she was so unavailing. Her life was gone like this.
“White as milk he is, clear as a twelve-month baby, bless him, the darling!” the old mother murmured to herself. “Not a mark on him, clear and clean and white, beautiful as ever a child was made,” she murmured with pride. Elizabeth kept her face hidden.
“He went peaceful, Lizzie—peaceful as sleep. Isn’t he beautiful, the lamb? Ay—he must ha’ made his peace, Lizzie. ‘Appen he made it all right, Lizzie, shut in there. He’d have time. He wouldn’t look like this if he hadn’t made his peace. The lamb, the dear lamb. Eh, but he had a hearty laugh. I loved to hear it. He had the heartiest laugh, Lizzie, as a lad—”
Elizabeth looked up. The man’s mouth was fallen back, slightly open under the cover of the moustache. The eyes, half shut, did not show glazed in the obscurity. Life with its smoky burning gone from him, had left him apart and utterly alien to her. And she knew what a stranger he was to her. In her womb was ice of fear, because of this separate stranger with whom she had been living as one flesh. Was this what it all meant—utter, intact separateness, obscured by heat of living? In dread she turned her face away. The fact was too deadly. There had been nothing between them, and yet they had come together, exchanging their nakedness repeatedly. Each time he had taken her, they had been two isolated beings, far apart as now. He was no more responsible than she. The child was like ice in her womb. For as she looked at the dead man, her mind, cold and detached, said clearly: “Who am I? What have I been doing? I have been fighting a husband who did not exist. He existed all the time. What wrong have I done? What was that I have been living with? There lies the reality, this man.”—And her soul died in her for fear: she knew she had never seen him, he had never seen her, they had met in the dark and had fought in the dark, not knowing whom they met nor whom they fought. And now she saw, and turned silent in seeing. For she had been wrong. She had said he was something he was not; she had felt familiar with him. Whereas he was apart all the while, living as she never lived, feeling as she never felt.
In fear and shame she looked at his naked body, that she had known falsely. And he was the father of her children. Her soul was torn from her body and stood apart. She looked at his naked body and was ashamed, as if she had denied it. After all, it was itself. It seemed awful to her. She looked at his face, and she turned her own face to the wall. For his look was other than hers, his way was not her way. She had denied him what he was—she saw it now. She had refused him as himself.—And this had been her life, and his life.—She was grateful to death, which restored the truth. And she knew she was not dead.
And all the while her heart was bursting with grief and pity for him. What had he suffered? What stretch of horror for this helpless man! She was rigid with agony. She had not been able to help him. He had been cruelly injured, this naked man, this other being, and she could make no reparation. There were the children—but the children belonged to life. This dead man had nothing to do with them. He and she were only channels through which life had flowed to issue in the children. She was a mother—but how awful she knew it now to have been a wife. And he, dead now, how awful he must have felt it to be a husband. She felt that in the next world he would be a stranger to her. If they met there, in the beyond, they would only be ashamed of what had been before. The children had come, for some mysterious reason, out of both of them. But the children did not unite them. Now he was dead, she knew how eternally he was apart from her, how eternally he had nothing more to do with her. She saw this episode of her life closed. They had denied each other in life. Now he had withdrawn. An anguish came over her. It was finished then: it had become hopeless between them long before he died. Yet he had been her husband. But how little!—
“Have you got his shirt, ‘Lizabeth?”
Elizabeth turned without answering, though she strove to weep and behave as her mother-in-law expected. But she could not, she was silenced. She went into the kitchen and returned with the garment.
“It is aired,” she said, grasping the cotton shirt here and there to try. She was almost ashamed to handle him; what right had she or anyone to lay hands on him; but her touch was humble on his body. It was hard work to clothe him. He was so heavy and inert. A terrible dread gripped her all the while: that he could be so heavy and utterly inert, unresponsive, apart. The horror of the distance between them was almost too much for her—it was so infinite a gap she must look across.
At last it was finished. They covered him with a sheet and left him lying, with his face bound. And she fastened the door of the little parlour, lest the children should see what was lying there. Then, with peace sunk heavy on her heart, she went about making tidy the kitchen. She knew she submitted to life, which was her immediate master. But from death, her ultimate master, she winced with fear and shame.
It’s a rough summer morning in Misiones, with all the sun, heat and tranquility that the season can provide. Mother Nature, open to the skies, seems proud of herself.
Like the sun, the heat, and the tranquil atmosphere, the father opens his heart to nature.
“Be careful, little one.” He says to his son, summarizing in one phrase all of the observations of what could go wrong, and his son understanding perfectly.
“Yes, papa.” Responds the young child, while picking up the shotgun and filling his shirt pockets with cartridges, buttoning them closed carefully.
“Come back at lunchtime.” The father adds.
“Yes, papa.” The boy repeats.
He balances the shotgun in his hand, smiles at his father, kisses him on the head and leaves.
His father follows him a bit with his eyes and goes back to his daily chores, gleaming with joy over his young one.
He knows that his son, taught from the youngest age proper habit and precaution when dealing in danger, can handle a firearm and hunt whatever he wishes. Even though he is very tall for his age, he’s only thirteen. And judging by his pure blue eyes, still sparkling with infantile joy, he looks even younger.
The father doesn’t even have to raise his head from his chores to follow his son’s path: already across the reddened path and walking upright to the forest past the opening in the grass field.
In order to hunt in the forest—a game hunt—one needs more patience than his young son can muster. After crossing the island of trees, the boy will follow the line of cactuses towards the marshland, looking for doves, toucans, or any kind of heron, like those that his friend Juan had discovered a few days back.
Now alone, the father smirks recalling the passion for hunting that young children share. At times they would hunt a yacu-toro or—if lucky— a surucua and return triumphant. Juan to his ranch with his nine millimeter firearm that had been given to him, and his son to the plateau with his huge, sixteen caliber, white powder, four lock Saint-Etienne shotgun.
The father had been the same. At thirteen he would have given his life for a shotgun. His son, at the same age, now had one—; and his father smiled.
Nevertheless, it is not easy for a widowed father, who without any other faith or hope in life other than his son, to educate his son like he had been taught, free in his limited range of knowledge, confident in his tiny feet and hands since four years old, conscious of the immensity of certain dangers and the scarcity of his own strengths.
This father had fought hard against what he sees as his own selfishness. It’s so easy for a child to miscalculate, put a foot in an empty hole and one loses a son.
Danger can always linger for a man despite his age; but the threat diminished since at an early age he learned to count on nothing besides his own abilities.
This is how the father had raised his son. And to achieve it he had to resist not only his heart, but his moral torments as well; because this father, of weak stomach and poor eyesight, has for some time suffered from hallucinations.
He has seen, in painfully clear visions, memories of a happiness that should have remained in the void where he has locked himself. The image of his own son has not escaped his torment. He had once seen him rolling, covered in blood, from hammering a parabellum bullet in the vice in his workshop; he had felt this despite that his son was only polishing his belt buckle.
Horrible things…But today, with the burning summer day full of live, the love of which his son seems to have inherited, the father feels happy, calm and sure of the future.
In that moment, not far off, he hears a loud boom.
“The Saint Etienne” the father thinks recognizing the detonation. Two fewer doves in the forest.
Without paying any more attention to the menial event, the man distracts himself with his work.
The sun, already very high, continues to rise. Wherever one looks—rocks, earth, trees—, the air, congested like an oven, vibrates with heat. A deep humming sound fills the entire body and saturates the atmosphere for as far as the eyes can see, a time that harnesses all tropical life.
The father takes a look at his wristwatch: twelve. And lifts his eyes out over the forest.
His son should already be back. In the mutual trust that the two give to one another—the father of silvery sideburns and the child of thirteen—there were never any lies. When his son said, “yes, papa”, he did what he was told. He said he would be back before twelve, and the father had smiled watching him leave.
But he hasn’t come back.
The father returns to his chores, struggling to concentrate on his work. It’s so easy, so easy to lose track of time when inside the forest, sitting a bit on the ground while resting motionless.
Suddenly, the midday sun, the tropical humming, and the beating of father’s heart stop in rhythm at the thought: his son, motionless…
Time has passed; twelve thirty. The father leaves his workshop, and resting his hand on the metal bench, the explosion of a parabellum bullet rushes from the depth of his memory, and instantly, for the first time in the last three hours, realizes that he has not heard a sound after the blast if the Saint-Etienne. He has not heard gravel stirring under familiar steps. His son hasn’t returned, and nature stands guard at the edge of the forest, awaiting him.
Oh, how the calm character and young confidence of the boy’s education is not enough to scare away the fatal ghost that the hallucinating father sees rising from the edge of the forest. Distraction, forgetfulness, fortuitous tardiness: none of these minute motives that could have delayed the arrival of his son could fit into the father’s heart.
A shot, he had heard one single shot, and a long time ago at that. Since then the father has not heard a single noise, has not seen a single bird, not a single person has walked through the opening in the grass field to announce that at the wire fence…a great disaster.
Distracted and without a machete, the father sets out. He cuts through the grass field, enters into the forest, follows the line of cactus without finding the slightest trace of his son.
Nature continues to stand still. And when the father had gone over all of the familiar hunting paths and had explored the marshlands in vain, he knew with certainty that each step forward would bring him, relentlessly and brutally, to the body of his son.
He could only blame himself, poor thing. There was only the cold reality, terrible and consuming: his son had died crossing a…
But where, in what field? There are so many fences, and the forest is so, so, muddy. God, so muddy. If one is not careful crossing the fences with the shotgun in their hand…
The father’s shout is stifled. He saw something rise into the air, oh, no, no it’s not his son…He turns to one direction, then the other, then the other.
Nothing could be gained by seeing the complexion of the man’s skin and the anguish in his eyes. The father still hasn’t called out to his son. Even though his heart yearns to shout, his mouth remains shut. He knows well that the simple act of pronouncing his name, calling out to him loudly, would be a confession of his death.
“Chiquito” he let out quickly. And if the voice of a principled was capable of crying, we would cover our ears with compassion from the anguish in his voice.
No one nor nothing responded. Down the sun-reddened paths, the father, who has aged ten years by now, went searching for his newly-dead son.
“Hijito mio!”…”Chiquito mio”…he clamored to his son in diminutives that rose from the depths of his soul.
Once before, in the throngs of happiness and peace, this father suffered the hallucination of his son rolling on the ground, his head opened by a chrome nickel bullet. Now, in every shadowed corner of the forest, he sees sparkling wires, and at the base of a post, with the discharged shotgun as his side, he sees his son.
Even the forces that bring a father to hallucinate the most awful of nightmares have their limits. The father feels his senses leaving him when he quickly sees his son stepping out from a side path.
From fifty meters, it was enough for the boy of thirteen to see his father’s expression, without a machete and in the forest, to make him hurry his steps with his eyes wet.
“Son” the man murmured. Exhausted, the man drops himself into the bright white sand, his hands clasped around his son’s legs.
The young one, with his legs hugged tightly, stands up, and understanding the pain of his father, caresses his head slowly.
More time has passed. It’s already close to three. Now together, father and son undertake the walk back to the house.
“Why didn’t you use the sun to keep track of time?” The father says first.
“I did, papa…but when I was headed back I saw the garzas that Juan caught and went after them.
“What you put me through, son!”
“pia pia” the boy murmurs back.
After a long silence, the father asks,
“And the garzas, did you kill any?”
Considering everything, a minute detail. Under the red hot sky, passing through the grass field, the man returns to his house with his son, on whose shoulders, almost even with his father’s, he carries the joyful arm of his father. He returns covered in sweat, and even broken in body and spirit, smiles with joy…..
Yet he smiles a hallucinated happiness…For this father walks alone. He has encountered no one, his arm supported by nothing but air. Because behind him, at the foot of a post and with his legs raised, tangled in barbed-wire, his loved son lies face down to the sun, dead since ten that morning.
*This translation is taken from: quirogatranslated.
I . . . am a cheap sock, I cost half a dinar. An industrial cooperative manufactured me, and my profit margin was redistributed among the elements of production. An ordinary man bought me, a manual worker quite poor. This worker married an ordinary young lady, and they lived together in a small apartment. They were very happy together.
The bride was very gentle with me, washing me every day in warm water. She did not hurt my skin with soap, nor burn me with washing soda, and to refresh me she hung me out on the balcony so the gentle Benghazi breeze would dry me.
I confided in the gusts of wind, recalling the vigorous effect of her fingertips that were dyed with henna. She scrubbed me slowly as if she were chewing gum with her polished teeth. I used to look at the skinny socks hanging up under the cupboard mirror by the front door.
One day the bride was unwell. Perhaps she was pregnant. The groom washed me in cold water – it was midwinter. All that rough scrubbing was physically painful. It almost frayed my threads. It almost ruined the elastic around my ribbed cuff. It was God’s will that I hid from him in the soap suds. When he put me on the line, he forgot to peg me, and the winds tossed me far away. I dropped into the yard of an elegant house. The wind blew me around the house from one place to another, as if it was revealing to me the difference between the flat and this grand palace. In one corner of the house there was a laundry room. Cautiously I went near it. There was a rumbling noise coming from inside. I watched with my back caught on the door handle. I saw the servant toss some articles of clothing into a metal vessel, connected by a quivering thread that hung from a box attached to the wall. This vessel that made the rumbling noise was not some narghileh that was not connected to a hose. I was afraid that the servant would see me, assume I was part of the family, and throw me in. Then I would whizz round and round with the other garments in that tomb. I got away from the room and approached the clothesline. I saw a coloured silk sock, hanging like a peacock, and held in place by a beautiful peg. I asked it in sock-language about the vessel that devoured clothes. At first, it did not understand me because I was not making myself clear on account of the small holes around my big toe . . . I repeated the question and it answered me in broken sock-language, “This is a washing machine, imported from overseas.”
I thanked him without smiling. I found it strange that there was no washing machine like it in the house of my owner, the bridegroom. I reckoned that this was because of its great expense. But I was happy that they did not have one. The clothes revolved in the washing-machine at the speed with which peace agreements are passed! I had been quite happy with being washed by ten human fingers with their beautiful smell, gentle touch, and slow scrub, and the sight of the cupboard by the front door where the shy skinny socks were stored – Oh what a lovely flat it was! I was delighted to cast my mind back to happy memories and then a spiral hose sprang at me, coiling itself like a snake seizing hold of everything: soil, dust, leaves and scraps of paper. I was violently swallowed up into its depths, and I found myself within its darkness. I took refuge with the leaf of a tree and kept myself away from the electric wires that were inside. I was happy because I was not damp and electrocuted.
In the evening they emptied the vacuum cleaner into a large rubbish bin that was by the secure steel door.
I spent the night in the body of that disgusting bin in which dirty rubbish with its awful stench was kept, and I sought comfort in memories of the smell of the bride and her kitchen and the sweat of factory workers, men and women, even the oil from machinery: those memories came to mind and defended me.
That morning the bridegroom’s holiday was over. Life went back to happy normality after the sugar rush of the honeymoon and the simple worker went back to his work as a dustman. The contents of the bin were emptied into the back of a dustcart. I was visible among the piles of garbage and he saw me. He smiled, picked me up gently, and put me in his pocket in spite of my filthiness. I was close to his heart – had I not witnessed his wedding night? After his shift, he took me back to the apartment and handed me to the bride: she recognised me and was delighted. She whooped with joy then made sure her husband was not under a spell. She brushed the dust off me, gave me a kiss, and put me on her hand as if I was a glove.
She’s getting naked. Something either very bad or very good is happening. Happening to me. Whatever it is, my parents can’t find out. I’m at a friend’s house. Nothing strange there. But my new friend, half gringa, half local, is taking off her uniform, her sports bra, her thong, her shoes. She leaves on her socks, short ones, with a little pink ball at the heel. She’s naked, her back to me, staring at her closet.
It’s awkward and dazzling. Painful. My head down like an ashamed dog, an ugly, short-legged dog, I try to look the same as I did a moment before, when we were both dressed, when that image, the one of her body, hadn’t exploded like a thousand fireworks in my brain. Diana Ward-Espinoza. Sixteen years old. A meter eighty tall. Star player on the volleyball team at her school in the United States. Radioactive green cat eyes. The bright white smile of the people from up there.
Diana, pronounced Dayana in gringo, talks and talks, always, nonstop, mixing English and Spanish or making up a third language, very funny, making me squeal with laughter. With her, I laugh as if there were nothing wrong at my house, as if my dad loved me like a dad. I laugh as if I weren’t me, but a girl who sleeps peacefully. I laugh as if brutality didn’t exist.
She repeats the words the teachers say like tongue twisters and never gets them right. Maybe it’s because of this, because they think she’s dumb, or because she lives in a little apartment and not in a majestic house, or because her mom is the English teacher at the school and so she doesn’t pay tuition or because she jogs through the neighborhood in tiny shorts, blue with a white line that makes a V on her thighs. Because of all that, or for some other obscure hierarchical logic of the popular girls, no groups have accepted her. She’s blonde, white, she has green eyes, her tiny nose is dotted with golden freckles, but no group has accepted her.
They haven’t accepted me either, but with me, it’s the same as always: fat, dark, glasses, hairy, ugly, strange.
One day our last names are paired up in computer class. One right next to the other. That’s everything. I learn that BFF means Best Friends Forever.
Then we’re best friends forever. Then she invites me to her house to study. Then I tell my mom I’m going to spend the night at Diana’s. Then we’re in her tiny room and she’s naked. She turns around to cover her cream-colored body with a denim dress. She turns on music. She dances. Behind her, the gigantic American flag on her wall.
Covered in a fine white fuzz, her skin has the appearance, the delicacy, of a peach. She talks about boys, she likes my brother, about the exam we have the next day, philosophy, about the teacher, he’s funny, but what the fuck is being? About how she’s never going to understand things like I do, about how I’m the smartest person she’s ever met and about how she, okay, let’s be honest, she’s good at sports.
She stops in front of the mirror, less than a meter away from me, on her bed, pretending to be absorbed in the philosophy textbook. If I wanted to, and I do, I could reach out my index finger and touch her hipbones, sliding down to where her pubic hair starts, I’ve never seen golden pubes, and find out if what glimmers there is wetness.
She ties up her ringlets, like Mary had a little lamb, she paints her lips with a gloss that smells like bubble gum and she criticizes her hair, her ears, a pimple I say I can’t see. But I can’t look at her and she notices and she complains: you’re not even looking at me, stop studying, you already understand what being is.
She grabs my chin and raises my head to make me look at her. I smell the bubble gum on her lips. I hear my heart beating. I stop breathing.
“See this pimple? Here? Do you see it?”
My tongue is stuck to the roof of my mouth. I swallow sand. I nod.
We have lunch with her brother Mitch, her twin, who is so handsome that my jaw falls open when I have to talk to him. He’s had football practice. He takes off his sweaty shirt and doesn’t put on a new one. We eat alone, like a family of three. Diana sets the table, I pour the Coca-Cola, and Mitch mixes the pasta with sauce and heats it in a pot.
I suppose that their parents, both of them, are working. I know that Miss Diana, her mom, my English teacher, has another job in the afternoon at a language school. I don’t know anything about the dad. I don’t ask. I never ask about dads. They tell me that Miss Diana leaves food for them in the morning, that she isn’t a good cook. It’s horrible. We cover our plates in Kraft parmesan cheese and we laugh hysterically.
Mitch has an exam too, but he doesn’t want to study. In the dining room, which is also the living room, there are photos on the walls. Mitch and Diana, little, dressed as sunflowers. Miss Diana, thin and young, in front of a house with a mailbox. A black dog, Kiddo, next to a baby, Mitch. The kids at Christmas, surrounded by presents. Miss Diana pregnant. Diana, in white, at her First Communion.
There’s something sad in these photos, it’s in the lighting, typical of gringo photos from the seventies: maybe too many pastel colors, maybe the distance, maybe everything that isn’t pictured. I feel a sadness that doesn’t belong to me. Mine is there, but this is a different one. This life—the sunflower children, the beautiful baby beside the black dog, everything that looks so perfect—isn’t going to turn out so well. No. Despite their blond heads, their athletic bodies, their pink cheeks and their bright eyes, it’s not going to turn out so well.
There’s something desperate, somber, about Diana, about Mitch, about me, about this little apartment where three teenagers are sitting on the floor listening to music.
We play records: The Mamas & The Papas, The Doors, Fleetwood Mac, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, The Moody Blues, Van Morrison, Joan Baez.
Diana tells me how her parents went to Woodstock and she pulls out a photo album where, finally, there’s a picture of her father. Mr. Mitchell Ward: red mustache, long hair tied with a headband. Ultra gringo, as big and beautiful as his kids, looking at a girl, Miss Diana, almost unrecognizable so smiling, so natural.
Then, behind that page, there’s another photo that makes us all go silent: the dad, dressed as a soldier: Lieutenant Mitchell Ward.
He went to Vietnam.
The two of them, Diana and Mitch, say the words at the same time, like a single person with a voice that is both masculine and feminine.
He went to Vietnam.
He went to Nam.
The shadow reemerges, that suffocating lack of light, a silence like an angry sea. The three of us hug our knees and look at the record player. The Doors play, we like them. We sing a little and Diana translates: People are strange when you’re a stranger / faces are ugly when you’re alone. Mitch puts on Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks and during the song “Madame George” I lie down across Diana’s legs. Mitch rests his head on my stomach. We play with each other’s hair.
No one studies that afternoon. We listen to Mr. Mitchell Ward’s music, we take turns changing the records and putting them carefully back into their plastic sleeves, into their album covers and into their spots on the shelf. The movement is slow and sacramental. I imagine that the kids hadn’t been able to say goodbye to their father and that this, lying on the floor and listening to his beloved records, is the prettiest goodbye in the world. And I’m part of it and my heart bursts.
When “Mr. Tambourine Man” comes on Diana cries. I feel for her hand and I kiss it with a love so intense that I feel like it’s going to kill me. She bends down, she rocks me, she finds my mouth and just like that, listening to Bob Dylan, and through tears, I give, I am given, my first kiss.
Mitch watches us. He sits up, he leans over, he kisses me and he kisses his sister. The three of us kiss desperately, like orphans, like castaways. Hungry puppies licking up the last drops of milk in the universe. The harmonica plays Hey Mr. Tambourine Man play a song for me. We sit in the twilight. This is happening. There’s nothing more important in the world.
We are the world.
We’re almost naked when, from the other side of the door, Miss Diana rummages in her purse, looks for her key, rings the bell, calls to her kids in English.
Diana and I run to her room. Mitch goes into the bathroom. We’ve grabbed all our clothes, but the record is still playing. Miss Diana, brutally, removes the needle and the apartment goes silent. When she opens the bedroom door, Diana and I are pretending to study. Mitch comes out of the bathroom, wrapped in a towel, with his hair wet. No one admits to having put the record on. Their father’s record. The records of Lieutenant Ward, who was in Nam.
Shouting in English. Miss Diana is very red and looks like she’s about to cry or to burst into a thousand pieces. I hear words I don’t understand and others that I do know the meaning of, words like fucking and fuck and records and father. The kids deny everything and she walks over to Diana. Her hand is open, she’s about to hit her, and I, desperate with love, shout for Miss to stop, that it was me, I put the record on. She doesn’t know what to do or say. Her hand is frozen in the air like the Statue of Liberty without a torch and she remembers that she’s my teacher and that I’ve seen her do something she shouldn’t have done, something that stays within the walls of houses, something parents do to their kids when no one is looking.
She leaves without a word.
Diana looks at me. I look at her. I want to hug her, to kiss her, to take her away from there.
She pulls back her hair and says:
“We’d better start studying for philosophy.”
We stay up all night studying or pretending to study. She, who doesn’t understand any of it, falls asleep in the early morning and I, in the dim light, study her. She looks like Ophelia, from the painting, and also like She-Ra, He-Man’s sister. I pull off the covers to look at her whole body: I wish I were so tiny I could crawl through her half-open lips and live inside her forever. Even the chipped nail polish on her toenails moves me, it excites me, it captivates me. I’d kiss her every pore.
I’m no longer me.
I fall asleep. I dream that Diana is being chased by some black dogs, that she asks me for help and I can’t do anything. I hear screams, a man’s screams. Even with my eyes open I still hear them. I want to get up, but Diana hugs me tightly and whispers: It’s okay. It’s okay.
Daylight arrives with its sounds. Clinking dishes, cleaning up, and, finally, the door slamming behind the mother. Diana gets dressed without showing me her body, but as I’m putting on my uniform she turns around, lowers the zipper a little, and writes on my back with the tip of her finger then zips me back up. She smiles. I wear an I love you on my back.
I tell Diana that I have to go to the bathroom. She tells me that I’ll have to wait to go at school. That’s impossible. I got my period in the night, I need to pee, my stomach is upset. I can’t wait.
I have to go.
The apartment has two bathrooms. One, for guests, is in the living room, and the other is through the master bedroom, behind the door that’s always closed. Mitch is in the front bathroom and Diana says that her brother takes a long time and I’m too embarrassed to ask him to hurry up. I can’t do it, much less after yesterday, I can still feel Mitch Ward’s lips on my loser neck and my loser belly. I’d rip off my hand before I knocked on that door.
But I can’t wait any longer, I’m cold, I break out in a cold sweat, I have goosebumps. My legs feel weak.
I have to go.
Diana insists: I should go at school, that I can’t use her parents’ bathroom, that even she isn’t allowed in there, but I know I won’t make it, that I’ll shit my pants on the way to school and the uniform is white and I’ll die.
It’s urgent. I can’t wait any more. I’m not well.
I have to go.
She pulls me out of the house. Let’s go, there are bathrooms at school, we’ll be there in just a minute. My forehead is drenched in sweat. It’s about to happen, I’m going to shit myself. I tell her that I forgot my book and I go back into the house. I press my legs together, god, help me. The only thing I can think about is getting to a bathroom to keep from shitting myself, so that Diana and Mitch won’t see me stained with my own excrement. I have to get to a bathroom or I’ll die. If I shit myself I’ll never love or be loved again.
I open the door to the master bedroom. Inside it looks like an aquarium filled with thick water, embalming fluid. Threads of dust float in the air and there’s a smell that’s stifling, itchy. Sour and sweet and rotten, tear gas, a thousand cigarettes, urine, lemons, bleach, raw meat, milk, hydrogen peroxide, blood. A smell that does not come from an empty room, from a master bedroom.
I’m about to soil my underwear, this is the only thing that gives me courage, the only reason I take another step into that smell that’s now like a living creature violently slapping me. Another step. Another. Now I’m feeling nauseated, now it smells like when there’s a dead animal on the side of the road, but I’m already tangled in the guts of that animal, inside it.
I’m dizzy. I grab onto something and that something is a table and that table has a lamp on it which falls and breaks to pieces on the floor. Then, springing up from the bed, with the speed and force of a wave, a lump knocks me to the ground. I can’t see. The light is weak, sickly. I don’t know what’s on top of me. Some shapeless, terrifying thing has fallen on top of me. It’s on my chest and I can’t move. I try to scream but no sound comes out.
It has a head, it’s a monster. Its face, with angry yellow teeth, is stuck to mine. It smells like carrion. It mutters things I don’t understand, makes animal noises, grunts, snorts, it drools on me. It paws at my neck and squeezes and I see in those red eyes that it’s going to kill me, that it hates me and I’m going to die. I’m going to die.
Please, I say inside my head, please.
Then Diana comes to the door, Diana She-Ra, He-Man’s sister, my savior, comes to the door and shouts something I can’t understand and the beast that’s strangling me raises its head toward her and lets go of me.
I start to scream, I vomit, I piss myself and empty my bowels, there, on the carpet.
The light that comes in through the open door lets me see what was on top of me, killing me. Lying on the floor, it looks like a panting pillow.
She approaches it. She doesn’t even look at me. She picks him up and I see stumps waving just below his thighs and under his left elbow. Diana tucks him in bed like some atrocious child, who in reality is an emaciated, bald man, with bulging eyes and waxy skin. His right arm, the veins of his right arm, are covered in scabs and red wounds. She rocks him and comforts him and kisses his forehead, as he cries and they both repeat over and over I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.
I stand up as best I can. Mitch is in the door, looking at me hatefully. I go out into the living room, I dial the number to my house. My dad answers. I hang up the phone.
I walk to my grandma’s house. There, I lie, I tell her I’m sick, that I couldn’t hold it, that I shit my pants at school. Yes, that’s what happened. As I shower, I cry so hard my chest hurts.
Philosophy is the last exam of our last year of high school. My mom writes an excuse for my absence so I can retake the test another day. I get the highest score. I find out that Diana won’t be graduating with us, she didn’t show up for the exam. They say she’s going back to the United States.
I call her. She doesn’t answer my calls.
I wait by the telephone. She doesn’t call.
I never hear anything else about her. Until recently. I open my Facebook page and find a message from a former high school classmate:
“Hello, I’m sorry to give you this news, but, did you know that Diana Ward was killed in an attack in Afghanistan? She and her wife were in the U.S. Army. I wanted to let you know because I remember that you were good friends. How sad, isn’t it?”
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.
I could smell the stench of death. From the first shades of darkness, I smelt the stench of death. A stench above me, a stench below me. Wherever I turned, I smelt the same stench. A putrid smell, like the smell of burning human flesh. Little by little, it flooded my nostrils. I tried to evade it but it pursued me. I turned to the right but it came up behind. I turned to the left but it struck my nostrils all the more. Whenever I ran away, it assailed me more. Where did this hateful smell come from? Who was forcing it up my nose?
The stench became unbearable. I had to overcome it. From my earliest days, I was accustomed to facing up to fears rather than run away from them. So why could I not outface this stench? I ran into the darkened street, guided by that stench. I ran and ran and ran until the stench was right under my nose. Then I stopped. My eyes lit upon a door that was beginning to open very slowly. My eyes were unable to distinguish the surrounds of the door. All I could be sure of was that the door was opening. I went in. The stench hit me full blast. I tried to block my nose with my hands but was unable to do so. My hands were helpless, not responding to what I wanted. I looked right and left, in an attempt to get away from the stench. But it only became stronger.
There I was, listening to the smell, hissing at me, “Where will you run from me? Whatever you do, I will catch you.”
I replied, my tongue frozen in my mouth, “What have I done to you to make you pursue me so ruthlessly?” I tried to move my neck to getaway. It came on even more strongly. Its voice was not unfamiliar. It was like the voice of my ailing wife on her death bed. I wanted to make sure of something deep down. “Who are you?” I asked the voice.
“Do you really want to know?” it asked.
I tried to go back in time to the day I found a treasure that I had spent nights and nights seeking. That day I came to my wife, with darkness in my soul and the scant light of the treasure on my lips. I was wondering how I could persuade her to love me after about half a century of being together but with hatred evident, in every gesture, she flung in my face. I dropped the treasure at her feet. I told myself that now she would love me. I was giving her what she had wanted and sought ever since she was a child.
My helpless old wife clutched the treasure as if she wanted to tell me without saying the words that the treasure was no longer mine but had become her exclusive property. I did not argue. I wanted to make her love me. I was sick of hatred. I could bear it no longer.
“This is yours,” I said. “All of it.” My wife seemed taken aback at my words. That was the first and last time that she was taken aback at anything I said. She asked me whether anyone knew about this treasure. I shook my head. I wanted to say that it all belonged to us, both of us. Fifty years of anger flashed from her eyes. I could tell from her look that she wanted the treasure all to herself. I tried to make her feel that it did belong to her and that all I asked for was that she loved me a little. She just clutched the treasure tighter and tighter. I understood that she had finally found what might make her happy even if only a little. Let it be so! But she would not want to love me even if I gave her the treasures of Korah. I knew that all the treasure in the world could not purchase the heart of a woman filled with hate. But it was something I had to try in that total darkness.
I turned round in this room that was full of the stench of death. Everything was in utter darkness. I went back to my wife and saw her clutching the treasure with an awful strength. Days and nights passed by and my wife clutched the treasure. She was cut off from the world, asking for nothing, not even food or drink. All her concerns were about clinging on to her beloved, her treasure. I felt she had found a substitute for everything that surrounded her. I realised behind time that it was I who had presented her with this substitute. I said to myself, “So be it. Half a century of hatred has gone by. And in exchange . . . trying to get closer to her and persuade her to love me. There’s no harm in keeping on trying.”
As I wandered among bats and jackals in the dark nights I always ended up stopping in the same place in front of her in the same room. The sight of her had not changed. My wife had cut herself off from the world, and my dream was limited to getting her back to it, then if I was able to bring her back to her normal life perhaps she would love me. Without much reflection I started offering her whatever was good and sweet from the fruits of the night. I piled them up before her in the hope she would take something that would nourish and strengthen her and make her carry on living. Perhaps then she would come to me that very night. Except she took nothing. I came back to her with more fruits and piled them up before her in the hope she would eat a very little. I was surprised whenever I came to her in her room and she was staring at the huge pile of food in front of her without stretching out her hand to it. I took one of the large pieces of fruit and offered it to her in the hope she was conscious of me, but she turned her face away. She stuck her tongue out in revulsion. I felt the fruit with my hand. It was a big apple. I turned away – it had gone rotten and there were maggots crawling out of it.
My wife started wasting away until I could hardly see her. If it had not been for the treasure in her grasp, perhaps it would have been impossible to see her. As she wasted away, I observed that disease was ravaging my wife. I had no alternative but to take her to the doctor but she refused. I felt she was afraid that I would take the treasure from her and keep it for myself. Perhaps it occurred to her that I might look for another woman to love me after all that overwhelming hatred that had endured to feeble old age. Still, I tried to convince her to see the doctor and to go through with an operation which I knew was risky, but that was better than sleepwalking to death. She went on refusing.
Thus we both found, she first of all and then myself — although the truth was completely the opposite, me first, then her — that we were in a dilemma. I wanted her to have an operation that might save her life, she refused so that I did not take her treasure, which earlier had been mine. Time passed hurling me from blackness to blackness. I grew tired waiting at the edge of the dark and the mist, and I surrendered to fitful sleep.
I saw my wife get up, lift the treasure, and crash it down on my head with all the strength of her weakness. She shouted at me, saying I wanted to make her have an operation to give me the chance to seize the treasure and to enjoy a happy life with one of the virgins of Paradise. She continued to bash the treasure on my head. Blood gushed until it was not long before I was like some fountain. After that my wife poured a burning substance over me. The smell of burning flesh spread from my body pervading the streets and the darkness. Meanwhile I left my own body. I saw her cast beside my corpse. I cried out, “Has my wife died?” I carried on screaming while I ran in flames through the streets… the stench of death in my wake.
After collecting the beer bottles from the bunkhouses at the sawmill, the brothers headed into the forest behind their house to eat wild blackberries, until their bellies were rotten with them and their fingertips were stained purple.
“Lookit.” Ben crouched on one knee, shaped his hand into a gun and took aim at a sparrow perched on a branch. “Bam!” The bird took flight through the trees. When the boys were in the forest, Ben spent a lot of time talking about BB guns.
“Don’t scare them,” Henry said. Their Mama kept three birdcages in the kitchen — one with finches, one with budgies and one with an African Grey — and Henry liked to stick a finger through the cages to rub their bellies or feel the curt jabs from their beaks. Every morning, it seemed to Henry, they tried to escape. At first light, he could hear them flapping around, screeching and knocking against the metal cages. By lunch they quieted, and by evening they slept. There was always a racket in the kitchen in the morning with the birds and the coffee machine and the brothers.
“It’s not real,” Ben said. He stood right in front of Henry and aimed his weapon at Henry’s black eye. “Bang!”
Henry flinched then looked away.
“Pantywaist,” Ben said. It was what their father called men he didn’t respect. Whenever Henry heard the word he thought of their mother’s underwear, the caramel-coloured ones that reached up past the belly button. Ben picked up two sticks and twirled them between his fingers like nunchucks, spinning his legs around with circular kicks. He pointed a stick at Henry’s swollen eye. “Does it still hurt?” It was the first time Ben said anything about it.
“No,” Henry lied. The area around the eye was a deep shade of purple, and this morning when Henry looked in the mirror and pried open the lid, there was a bloody spiderweb across his cornea. That day Ben had stood on the other side of the school’s chain-link fence, watching as the boys yelled faggot and chased Henry across the field toward the trees. Henry thought there would be lots of places to hide in the forest. Part of him had believed that once he hit the treeline, he would disappear or swoop high up into the branches of the evergreens like a winged creature.
“It’s this way,” Ben said when they reached a fork in the path. They were looking for a cave they found yesterday, past the clearing and past the creek. Henry wasn’t allowed to cross the water because he wasn’t a strong swimmer, but Ben had a way of making him do things, like sticking six peanuts up his nose. Henry had snorted most of them out, but he had to go to the emergency clinic for the last two.
This time they had matches with them, pilfered from the glove compartment of their mother’s car. The cave had been pitch black and Henry had ripped his favorite T-shirt scrambling from it after Ben let out a scream that made his eardrums go fuzzy. Ben was only teasing him, but in the total darkness of the cave Henry had imagined a bear’s coarse fur brushing against his cheek.
The creek came into view now, twisting through trees dripping with moss, and Ben ran ahead, wading through the water and coming out the other side soaking wet. He took off his shirt, wringing it out before putting it back on, smoothing the wrinkled cotton over his chest. “We need a torch,” he shouted across the water, picking up bits of dried grass and twigs from the ground. Henry scanned the length of the creek, trying to find a safe place to cross. The water was deep in parts, swirling gently where the rocks created whirlpools. Henry crossed along a line of large boulders, taking his steps carefully on the slimy green rocks. He tried not to think about being swept into the water and dragged all the way to the ocean. Every summer on their first day at the lake, their father would check his wristwatch and time Ben as he swam the length of the shore. He’d compare the result to last year’s time and then enter the numbers in a small booklet that fit in his shirt pocket. Henry would stand on the shore and watch, leaning against their father’s leg and letting his body go limp, his limbs hanging as though he were sick or very tired. When Ben came to shore, their father would pull out a stub of pencil for recording and give him claps on the back as Henry shrugged off the water drops that fell on him.
By the time Henry reached the entrance to the cave, Ben was on his hands and knees, already half inside, the unlit torch under one arm. Henry rushed to follow behind him, accidently bumping into his behind. “Give me some room, would ya?” Ben said, kicking at him. One of his kicks got Henry on the nose, making him sneeze and sending a spasm of pain through his eye.
The tunnel leading into the cave was narrow and as they crawled through, their bodies sealed off any light from outside.
“What about bears?” Henry said, feeling phantom bristles along his skin.
“The hole’s too small, dummy.” Ben’s voice was muffled.
The damp rock hugged the brothers as they squeezed blindly through the passageway, and then all of a sudden the cold walls were gone. The air became verdant, cool and wide. Henry reached out into the dark space and felt nothing. They sat silently in the void for a minute, close together, their knees touching. Henry tried to quiet his breathing so it sounded normal — the cave exaggerated every small noise. Ben lit a match, the delicate glow flickering, barely lighting the small circle between them. He held the match to the torch and the flame stirred before fizzling out. He lit a second match and the torch ignited, flaring brightly and filling the space with a smoke that smelled of burning hay.
“Holy crap.” Ben’s face warped in the fire’s weird light as he stood and swung the torch around. “This is awesome.”
The cave was almost a perfect circle of smooth rock walls with a dusty, pit-marked floor.
“Awesome,” Henry said, but the knot in his stomach was still there as he watched the sharp shadows move across Ben’s face.
A couple metres away from the brothers, something fell from the ceiling and landed near their feet. They stepped closer, peering down at the dark lump before looking up to find a black quivering carpet above them. Before Henry’s brain could make sense of the sight, Ben dropped the torch and darted out of the cave. In the now-total darkness, the impression hit Henry like a knee to the stomach — the cave’s ceiling was thick with large black spiders. Henry scampered back through the tunnel, but no light appeared before him. For a second, he wondered if he’d gotten turned around and was actually going deeper into the cave. His arms shook as he clawed at the darkness, trying to get his bearings. He hit something soft, reached out, and felt the stiff fabric of Ben’s jean jacket, his bony shoulder blades. Henry pushed at his brother’s back, but Ben had dug in his heels, sealing the exit with his own body. Henry’s throat tightened and from him came a strangled moan — an animal-like noise. “Benny, let me out.” Henry’s entire body trembled now, tears streaming down his cheeks. “Please.” His screams became frantic shrieks, echoing around the cave until they no longer seemed like his own. He thrashed around like one of the caged birds at daybreak. And then, all of a sudden, everything gave way — light poured around Henry’s body and he burst from the tunnel’s mouth, sprawling in the dirt, arms flailing over his body.
“Get them off me,” Henry shrieked. “Get them off.”
“There’s nothing there,” Ben said, doubled over, laughing so hard he was crying. He wiped at the tears streaking his cheeks, his dirty hands leaving behind bands of warrior dirt across his face. Even though Henry knew he was unharmed, he couldn’t stop screaming, his eyes wild and wide to the forest around them. Ben grabbed his shoulders and shook him.
*”The Spider in the Jar” from “Clear Skies, No Wind, 100% Visibility”, Copyright © 2013, Théodora Armstrong, Reprinted with Permission of House of Anansi Press Inc. Canada.
The tie is doomed, just as the larger Asian elephant is doomed.
8 January 2018
I can’t stand them. I’d burn them in a dirty flame, a diesel flame, no sandalwood or ceremony necessary. Their prints are ridiculous. They combine chickens and unicorns, vines and roses, diamonds and golf clubs. Their linings are always garish: sapphire blue, duckling yellow, pumpkin orange… they represent an era, the glorious 70s and 80s in Spain when the best restaurants were full of smoke, wine, steaks and laughter. My father’s ties are all hugs, jokes, camaraderie and whisky. The male bonding that was so crucial to sealing business deals. Of course, they’re made of Italian silk, stitched at the finest workshops Milan had to offer. Their images make a filigree, infinite symmetries worthy of Escher, sewn by artists well aware of the fine line between the original and the ridiculous. Plain blue ties, the kind I wear, are for men with ice in their souls. Only an idiot like me would seek to broadcast their suffering.
My father loves light and, especially, the spotlight: he likes to run meetings, organize dinners and solve other people’s problems. The latter most of all. Whether you want him to or not, he’ll get you the best radiotherapy for lung cancer, or find your bags for you even if you lost them in New York. In a tornado. And then, of course, he’ll expect your eternal gratitude. A man like that would only ever choose to wear ties that stand out like a castle made exclusively of fireworks. When he turned eighty, he gave up wearing them and now heads to the office in checked shirts and a Barbour jacket, as though he were going duck hunting. So he’s started giving them to me. As with everything he does, he does so in a methodical, orderly fashion: every Monday morning at eight he leaves two on my desk, wrapped carefully in tissue paper. In all, there are two hundred and forty-four, which he accumulated over dozens of Christmases, birthdays and board meetings. Sometimes I imagine their hundreds of drawings and colours stretched out on the floor in an eye-watering mosaic worthy of a museum of horrors.
I can’t wear them. Going to the office in a yellow tie would be like coming in in a tracksuit. An old, grey, baggy tracksuit, I mean. A junkie’s tracksuit, not those skin-tight Nike ones that it’s now apparently perfectly acceptable to wear to breakfast at the Ritz. Of course, an alpha male like him, elderly as he is, can’t help but criticize my cowardice, which he associates with my lack of enterprise.
He’s the founder of our legal firm and its honorary president. A self-made man who rose out of the ashes of the post-war period. I don’t know if he ever went hungry, or if his father wore a tie. Although I’ve been running the business for over ten years now, I’ve never dared to ask for his office. I’m still in my broom cupboard, sharing it with piles of paper that reach right to the ceiling. Meetings are held in the room adjacent to his office, underneath photos of him with two kings, five presidents and the great Alfredo Di Stefano. They aren’t just decorative: clients trust lawyers with genuine pedigree. So far, we’ve managed to get through the economic crisis and keep our clients in the face of savage competition. On average, I work about twelve hours a day. My eyesight is shot and, beyond the odd Christmas card, I’ve lost all my friends but of course, my father takes the credit for our healthy balance sheet.
I’ve decided to hide the ties from my wife. They’re piled up at the back of my wardrobe, Italian silk be damned. I’m not brave enough to just throw them away. If they were cotton I would have but how could I get rid of yards and yards of soft, vintage Italian silk? The ties aren’t just occupying space in my wardrobe, they’ve taken possession of my subconscious as well. I won’t countenance hanging them around my neck, but still, they cause me continuous anxiety in my chest, stomach and lungs already worn thin by tobacco.
12 January 2018
My father didn’t attack immediately, he just observed, waiting for the right moment to pounce, like a feral cat. Today, Friday, at 12 noon, a moment calculated to create a maximum amount of guilt over the weekend, he came into my work space, grabbed my blue tie and, in front of all the employees, asked:
“What? Are you ashamed of your father?”
“No, I’m very proud of you. Why do you ask, dad?”
“No reason, son, none at all. I’ll give my ties to someone who’ll appreciate them, then.”
“It’s just habit, I always wear these. I love yours. They’re very original.”
“Don’t lie to me. You’ve always been a pansy. You’re almost fifty and you couldn’t sell a sandwich to a starving man.”
17 January 2018
As one of my mottos in life has always been to avoid conflict, to try to understand others, I decided to take a couple to the office and put them on before I go in. A couple of the more discreet specimens: yellow polka dots on a blue background and some innocuous steam engines over orange stripes. But this noble intention only served to highlight my lack of character. I got so nervous that I didn’t even think to hide in the bathroom. Right in front of my employees I undid my plain blue tie and put on my father’s one, without doing up my top button or straightening my shirt. It just dangled, like a clown tie. The first day, he just laughed. Today, he called me into his office and, looking me in the eye, said:
“If you don’t like my ties, don’t wear them and accept the consequences, but don’t play me for a fool.”
Meanwhile, my anxiety coursed through my body at the usual rate, spilling out of my mouth and into my lungs until it came to settle in my stomach. I left the office in silence, the black smoke puffing out of the steam engines’ smokestacks ruining their child-like beauty.
18 January 2018
I arrived at midday and gave a couple of ties to old man Tomás, a horrible lawyer who takes naps in the afternoon and is only good for scraping and bowing to clients whose contempt for him grows every day. At least, thank God, he’s stopped kissing women’s hands. I know that, as usual, it’ll do no good. One of the causes of my plight is that I always strive to keep regular habits, not realizing that good intentions mean nothing when faced with the power of a father of biblical proportions.
I’ve just come to a decision. I don’t know if it’s about the past or the future. We always think that we’re making progress; we need to just to go on living. We need to construct an epic about ourselves, to have faith in our advances, even if we’re just stumbling around a void. That step has been to leave the house without a tie – it’s the modern way, I tell my wife and son; in Silicon Valley only squares wear ties – hide one of them in a computer case and put it on in the lift, thus avoiding the embarrassment of walking through my neighbourhood in a tie with a blue daisy print. The employees murmured and giggled the first few days. Or maybe they didn’t, I’ve always been a little paranoid. Probably, they didn’t even look at me. They don’t normally: their boss is the same man he’s always been. They don’t respect me because I pay them at the end of every month. They respect me because I’m his son. Blood of his blood, even if it is more watered down, not quite so scarlet. They even look for his approval when I ask them to do overtime.
5 March 2018
One of the firm’s businesses is the administration of building organizations. Today I went to a meeting that went on until two in the morning. Do you know what it’s like to listen to ten neighbours screaming at each other for eight hours, without pause, unburdening themselves of all the anger they’ve built up with the family, or at work or just because they’re growing old? You don’t, dear readers. Even if you think you might be able to imagine it, you don’t know the true horror. You think that psychopaths are the murderers you see on Netflix, but that’s not it. The real psychopaths are presidents of building associations. My father could smile all the way through them: he knew humanity better than me. He knew that human beings aren’t governed by reason but emotion: leaks aren’t what’s important; it’s the need for compassion and understanding. That’s what his colourful ties and eternal sympathy conveyed. Perfectly kept accounts don’t demonstrate love as well as a sensitively-shared handkerchief swarming with paramecia. I stepped into the cool night, dog tired. I just wanted to get back to bed. I went straight back home, forgetting to take off my tie. This was the first my wife knew of it. My father had been supplying them to me in secret, like a drug dealer.
“What a lovely tie,” she said from the bed, half asleep. She turned on the lamp on the bedside table, got up and started to ask about the meeting; she even made me a mug of warm milk and honey, so I decided to share my secret and showed her the back of my wardrobe, which was full of bright, dust-repellent colours.
“They’re beautiful, works of art. Why did you hide them back there?” she asked as she smoothed them out on the bed. “We’ll iron them tomorrow.”
“Please don’t start. You know that my father and I have different styles…”
“You need to brighten up your life. Wear them: anyone who renounces their father, renounces themselves, she said quietly, looking me in the eyes. “Also, your father is a much better salesman than you. Maybe you’ll learn, honey. It’s about time you took some responsibility and let him enjoy his grandchildren.”
I put on my pyjamas, took a sleeping pill and slept for two, nightmare-strewn hours. The next day, I didn’t go to work. I called my father and told him, with butterflies in the pit of my stomach, that I was sick. I spent the day walking up and down the Gran Via with my head down and my hands in the pockets of my trench coat. There was only one thing on my mind: dad, dad, dad, dad. At five in the afternoon, I went into the Museo del Jamón where I ordered a sandwich and a lemon shandy. I looked at my wrinkled, forty-seven-year-old face in the greasy mirror. I couldn’t go on like this. Either I allowed him in or I quit the firm and maybe went to a Buddhist temple in Nepal: at almost fifty years of age, I couldn’t risk poverty. Suddenly an answer came to me like a lightning bolt from heaven: I am my father, I can’t help that, fighting it made no sense. I am my father, I am my father, I said to myself as I went down the stairs to the metro station, took out my metro card and waited for the train. In the carriage, I decided that I’d wear them every day. Even the yellow one with the blue lilies, the kind that a French prince high on cocaine might wear. You can’t fight your genes.
12 March 2018
It was difficult at first, but everything gets easier with time. My father pretended not to notice initially but when he saw that it was sticking he came into my office and pointed at my tie with the biggest smile I’d ever seen on his face:
“Lovely, one of my favourites.”
He invited me to lunch with D. Fermín, an aristocrat who owns hunting lodges where partridges are slaughtered with the best shotguns in Spain. Until that moment, he saw me as a kind of manager, lacking the soul one needs to take real decisions. He didn’t say anything about the beautiful purple tie with Christmas baubles I was wearing, even though it was Spring. But he did let me talk, and allowed Fermín to ask me how the firm was doing. Afterwards, he said that I could go to the next lunch on my own. That marked the beginning of the shift. He even started coming into the office less often. He signed up to a painting class and the day before yesterday told me that his office had got too big for him, that he was thinking of making a change. My entire life has improved: I’ve started going back to the gym, my wife fondles me every morning and my son tells me that he loves me every night. Of course, I’m still wearing the ties. Every morning, as I brush my teeth, I repeat the mantra: I am my father and there’s nothing I can do about it. Before they become aware of their powers, superheroes usually go through a period of suffering, a time of resentment, slings and arrows. For me, that period lasted forty-seven years. I’m the first superhero with grey on their temples.
My ties, which are either plain or have sober geometric patterns, are piled up, wrinkled, at the back of the wardrobe. No-one asks about them. One day the maid ironed them and hung them up next to the ones belonging to my father but I shoved them back to the back of the wardrobe. I’d like to give them to my son, but I want him to have my father’s. Even in a post-human world run by robots in eternal polluted twilight, those who accept their past are bound to triumph.
My son’s Tamagotchi had AIDS. The virtual pet was rendered on the little LCD screen with no more than 30 pixels, but the sickness was obvious. It had that AIDS look, you know? It was thinner than it had been. Some of its pixels were faded, and the pupils of its huge eyes were smaller, giving it an empty stare.
I had bought the Tamagotchi, named Meemoo, for Luke just a couple of weeks ago. He had really wanted a kitten, but Gabby did not want a cat in the house. ‘A cat will bring in dead birds and toxoplasmosis,’ she said, her fingers spread protectively over her bulging stomach.
A Tamagotchi had seemed like the perfect compromise– something for Luke to empathise with and to look after, to teach him the rudiments of petcare for a time after the baby had been born. Empathy is one of the things that the book said Luke would struggle with. He would have difficulty reading facial expressions. The Tamagotchi had only three different faces, so it would be good practice for him.
Together, Luke and I watched Meemoo curled in the corner of its screen. Sometimes, Meemoo would get up, limp to the opposite corner, and produce a pile of something. I don’t know what this something was, or which orifice it came from – the resolution was not good enough to tell.
‘You’re feeding it too much,’ I told Luke. He said that he wasn’t, but he’d been sitting on the sofa thumbing the buttons for hours at a time, so I’m sure he must have been.
There’s not much else to do with a Tamagotchi.
I read the instruction manual that came with Meemoo. Its needs were simple: food, water, sleep, play. Meemoo was supposed to give signals when it required one of these things. Luke’s job as Meemoo’s carer was to press the appropriate button at the appropriate time. The manual said that overfeeding, underfeeding, lack of exercise and unhappiness could all make a Tamagotchi sick. A little black skull and crossbones should appear on the screen when this happens, and by pressing button A twice, then B, one could administer medicine. The instructions said that sometimes it might take two or three shots of medicine, depending on how sick your Tamagotchi is.
I checked Meemoo’s screen again and there was no skull and crossbones.
The instructions said that if the Tamagotchi dies, you have to stick a pencil into the hole in its back to reset it. A new creature would then be born.
When Luke had finally gone to sleep and could not see me molesting his virtual pet, I found the hole in Meemoo’s back and jabbed a sharpened pencil into it. But when I turned it back over, Meemoo was still there, as sick as ever. I jabbed a few more times and tried it with a pin too, in case I wasn’t getting in deep enough. But it wouldn’t reset.
I wondered what happened if Meemoo died, now that its reset button didn’t work. Was there a malfunction that had robbed Luke’s Tamagotchi of its immortality? Did it have just one shot at life? I guess that made it a lot more special, and in a small way, it made me more determined to find a cure for Meemoo.
I plugged Meemoo into my PC – a new feature in this generation of Tamagotchis. I hoped that some kind of diagnostics wizard would pop up and sort it out.
A Tamagotchi screen blinked into life on my PC. There were many big-eyed mutant creatures jiggling for attention, including another Meemoo, looking like its picture on the box, before it got sick. One of the options on the screen was ‘sync your Tamagotchi’.
When I did this, Meemoo’s limited world of square grey pixels was transformed into a full colour three-dimensional animation on my screen. The blank room in which it lived was revealed as a conservatory filled with impossible plants growing under the pale-pink Tamagotchi sun. And in the middle of this world, lying on the carpet, was Meemoo.
It looked awful. In this fully realised version of the Tamagotchi’s room, Meemoo was a shrivelled thing. The skin on its feet was dry and peeling. Its eyes, once bright white with crisp highlights, were yellow and unreflective. There were scabs around the base of its nose. I wondered what kind of demented mind would create a child’s toy that was capable of reaching such abject deterioration.
I clicked through every button available until I found the medical kit. From this you could drag and drop pills onto the Tamagotchi. I guess Meemoo was supposed to eat or absorb these, but they just hovered in front of it, as if Meemoo was refusing to take its medicine.
I tried the same trick with Meemoo that I do with Luke to get him to take his medicine. I mixed it with food. I dragged a chicken drumstick from the food store and put it on top of the medicine, hoping that Meemoo would get up and eat them both. But it just lay there, looking at me, its mouth slightly open. Its look of sickness was so convincing that I could practically smell its foul breath coming from the screen.
I sent Meemoo’s makers a sarcastic email describing its condition and asking what needed to be done to restore its health.
A week later, I had received no reply and Meemoo was getting even worse. There were pale grey dots appearing on it. When I synced Meemoo to my computer, these dots were revealed as deep red sores. And the way the light from the Tamagotchi sun reflected off them, you could tell they were wet.
I went to a toyshop and showed them the Tamagotchi. ‘I’ve not seen one do that before,’ the girl behind the counter said. ‘Must be something the new ones do.’
I came home from work one day to find Luke had a friend over for a play-date. The friend was called Becky, and she had a Tamagotchi too. Gabby was trying to organise at least one play-date a week to help Luke socialise.
Becky’s Tamagotchi gave me an idea.
This generation of Tamagotchis had the ability to connect to other Tamagotchis. By getting your Tamagotchi within a metre of a friend’s, your virtual pets could play games or dance together. Maybe if I connected the two Tamagotchis, the medicine button in Becky’s would cure Meemoo.
At first, Luke violently resisted giving Meemoo to me, despite me saying I only wanted to help it. But when I bribed Luke and Becky with chocolate biscuits and a packet of crisps, they agreed to hand them over.
When Gabby came in from hanging up the washing, she was furious.
‘Why’d you give the kids crisps and chocolate?’ she said, slamming the empty basket on the ground. ‘I’m just about to give them dinner.’
‘Leave me alone for a sec,’ I said. I didn’t have time to explain. I had only a few minutes before the kids would demand their toys back, and I was having trouble getting the Tamagotchis to find each other – maybe Meemoo’s Bluetooth connection had been compromised by the virus.
Eventually though, when I put their connectors right next to each other, they made a synchronous pinging sound, and both characters appeared on both screens. It’s amazing how satisfying that was.
Meemoo looked sick on Becky’s screen too. I pressed A twice and then B to administer medicine. Nothing happened.
I tried again. But the Tamagotchis just stood there. One healthy, one sick. Doing nothing.
Luke and Becky came back, their fingers oily and their faces brown with chocolate. I told them to wipe their hands on their trousers before they played with their Tamagotchis. I was about to disconnect them from each other, but when they saw that they had each other’s characters on their screens, they got excited and sat at the kitchen table to play together.
I poured myself a beer, and for Gabby a half glass of wine (her daily limit), then, seeing the crisps out on the side, I helped myself to a bag.
Later, when my beer was finished and it was time for Becky’s mum to pick her up, Becky handed me her Tamagotchi.
‘Can you fix Weebee?’ she asked.
Becky’s pink Tamagotchi was already presenting the first symptoms of Meemoo’s disease: the thinning and greying of features, the stoop, the lethargy.
I heard Becky’s mum pull up in the car as I began to press the medicine buttons, knowing already that they would not work. ‘It just needs some rest,’ I said. ‘Leave it alone until tomorrow, and it should be okay.’
Luke had been invited to a birthday party. Usually Gabby would take Luke to parties, but she was feeling rough – she was having a particularly unpleasant first trimester this time. So she persuaded me to go, even though I hate kids’ parties.
I noticed that lots of other kids at the party had Tamagotchis fastened to the belt loops of their skirts and trousers. The kids would stop every few minutes during their games to lift up their Tamagotchis and check they were okay, occasionally pressing a button to satisfy one of their needs.
‘These Tamagotchis are insane, aren’t they?’ I remarked to another dad who was standing at the edge of the garden with his arms folded across his chest.
‘Yeah,’ he smiled.
‘My kid’s one got sick,’ I said. ‘One of its arms fell off this morning. Can you believe that?’
The dad turned to me, his face suddenly serious. ‘You’re not Luke’s dad, are you?’ he asked.
‘I am,’ I said.
‘I had to buy a new Tamagotchi thanks to you.’
I frowned and smirked, thinking that he couldn’t be serious, but my expression seemed to piss him off.
‘You had Becky Willis over at your house, didn’t you?’ he continued. ‘Her pet got Matty’s pet sick ‘cause she sits next to him in class. My boy’s pet died. I’ve half a mind to charge you for the new one.’
I stared right into his eyes, looking for an indication that he was joking, but there was none. ‘I don’t know what to say,’ I said. And truly, I didn’t. I thought he was crazy, especially the way he referred to the Tamagotchis as ‘pets’, like they were real pets, not just 30 pixels on an LCD screen with only a little more functionality than my alarm clock. ‘Maybe there was something else wrong with yours. Luke’s didn’t die.’
The other dad shook his head and blew out, and then turned sideways to look at me, making a crease in his fat neck. ‘You didn’t bring it here, did you?’ he said.
‘Well, Luke takes it everywhere with him,’ I said. ‘Jesus,’ he said, and then he literally ran across a game of Twister that some of the kids were playing to grab his son’s Tamagotchi and check that it was okay. He had an argument with his son as he detached it from the boy’s belt loop, saying he was going to put it in the car for safety. They were making so much noise that the mother of the kid having the birthday came over to calm them. The dad leaned in close to her to whisper, and she looked at the ground while he spoke ,then up at me, then at Luke.
She headed across the garden towards me.
‘Hi there. We’ve not met before,’ she said, offering her hand with a pretty smile. ‘I’m Lillian, Jake’s mum.’ We shook hands and I said that it was nice to meet her. ‘We’re just about to play pass the parcel,’ she said.
‘Yes, and I’m concerned about the other children catching…’ She opened her mouth, showing that her teeth were clenched together, and she nodded, hoping that I understood, that she wouldn’t need to suffer the embarrassment of spelling it out.
‘It’s just a toy,’ I said. ‘Still, I’d prefer…’
‘You make it sound like…’ ‘If you wouldn’t mind…’
I shook my head at the lunacy of the situation, but agreed to take care of it.
When I told Luke I had to take Meemoo away for a minute he went apeshit. He stamped and he made his hand into the shape of a claw and yelled, ‘Sky badger!’
When Luke does sky badger, anyone in a two-metre radius gets hurt. Sky badger is vicious. His sharp fingernails rake forearms. He goes for the eyes.
‘Okay okay,’ I said, backing away and putting my hands up defensively. ‘You can keep hold of Meemoo, but I’ll have to take you home then.’
Luke screwed up his nose and frowned so deeply that I could barely see his dark eyes.
‘You’ll miss out on the birthday cake,’ I added.
Luke relaxed his talons and handed Meemoo to me, making a growl as he did so. Meemoo was hot, and I wondered whether it was from Luke’s sweaty hands or if the Tamagotchi had a fever.
I held Luke’s hand and took him over to where the pass-the-parcel ring was being straightened out by some of the mums, stashing Meemoo out of sight in my pocket. I sat Luke down and explained to him what would happen and what he was expected to do. A skinny kid with two front teeth missing looked at me and Luke, wondering what our deal was.
I had to wait until Monday to check my e-mails at work. There was still nothing from the makers of Tamagotchi. At lunch, while I splashed Bolognese sauce over my keyboard, I Googled ‘Tamagotchi’ along with every synonym for ‘virus’. I could find nothing other than the standard instructions to give it medicine when the skull and crossbones appeared.
Half way through the afternoon, while I was in my penultimate meeting of the day, a tannoy announcement asked me to call reception. When a tannoy goes out, everyone knows it’s an emergency, and when it’s for me, everyone knows it’s something to do with Luke. I stepped out of the meeting room and ran back to my desk, trying hard not to look at all the heads turning towards me.
Gabby was on hold. When reception put her through, she was crying. Luke had had one of his fits. A short one this time, for him, just eight minutes, but since he’d come round, the right side of his body was paralysed. This was something new. It terrified me that his fits were changing, that they might be developing in some way. I told Gabby to stay calm and that I would leave right away.
When I got home, the ambulance was still parked outside, but the crew were packing away their kit. ‘He’s okay,’ one of the ambulance men said as I ran up the drive.
Luke’s paralysis had lasted 15 minutes after the seizure had finished, but now he was moving normally again, except for a limpness at the edge of his mouth that made him slur his words. The ambulance man said this happens sometimes, so we needn’t worry.
I hugged Luke, burying my lips into his thick hair and kissing the side of his head, wishing that we lived in a world where kisses could fix brains. I stroked his back, hoping that maybe I would find a little reset button there, sunk into a hole, something I could prod that would let us start over, that would wipe all the scribbles from the slate and leave it blank again.
Gabby was sitting on the edge of the armchair holding her stomach.
‘Are you okay?’ I asked.
She nodded, taking a tissue from the sleeve of her cardigan and wiping her nose. Gabby’s biggest fear was that Luke’s problems weren’t just a part of him, but part of the factory that had made him – what if every kid we produced together had the same design fault?
The doctors had all said that the chances of it happening twice were tiny, but I don’t think we’d ever be able to fully relax. I knew that long after our second kid was born, we’d both be looking out for the diagnostic signs that had seemed so innocuous at first with Luke.
A letter came home from school banning Tamagotchis. Another three kids’ Tamagotchis had died and could not be resurrected.
‘People are blanking me when I drop Luke off in the morning,’ Gabby said. She was rubbing her fingers into her temples.
The situation had gone too far. Meemoo would have to go.
When I went to tell Luke that he’d have to say goodbye to Meemoo, he was sitting on the edge of the sand pit injecting the sand with a yellow straw.
‘No!’ he barked at me, and made that frown-face of his. He gripped Meemoo in his fist and folded his arms across his chest.
Gabby came outside with her book. ‘Help me out will you?’ I asked.
‘You can handle this for a change,’ she said.
I tried bribing Luke with a biscuit, but he just got angrier. I tried lying to him, saying that I needed to take Meemoo to hospital to make him better, but I had lost his trust. Eventually, I had only one option left. I told Luke that he had to tidy up his toys in the garden or I’d have to confiscate Meemoo for two whole days. I knew that Luke would never clean up his toys. The bit of his brain in charge of tidying up must have been within the damaged area. But I went through the drama of asking him a few times, and, as he got more irate, stamping and kicking things, I began to count.
‘Don’t count!’ he said, knowing the finality of a countdown.
‘Come on,’ I said. ‘You’ve got four seconds left. Just pick up your toys and you can keep Meemoo.’
If he’d actually picked up his toys then, it would have been such a miracle that I would have let him keep Meemoo, AIDS and all.
‘Stop counting!’ Luke screamed, and then the dreaded, ‘Sky badger!’
Luke’s fingers curled into that familiar and frightening shape and he came after me. I skipped away from him, tripping over a bucket.
‘One and a half….one…come on, you’ve only got half a second left.’ A part of me must have been enjoying this, because I was giggling.
‘Stop it,’ Gabby said. ‘You’re being cruel.’
‘He’s got to learn,’ I said. ‘Come on Luke, you’ve only got a fraction of a second left. Start picking up your toys now and you can keep Meemoo.’
Luke roared and swung sky badger at me, at my arms, at my face. I grabbed him round the waist and turned him so that his back was towards me. Sky badger sunk his claws into my knuckles while I wrestled Meemoo out of his other hand.
By the time I’d got Meemoo away, there were three crescent-shaped gouges out of my knuckles, and they were stinging like crazy.
‘I HATE YOU!’ Luke screamed, crying. He stormed inside and slammed the door behind him.
‘You deserved that,’ Gabby said, looking over the top of her sunglasses.
I couldn’t just throw Meemoo away. Luke would never forgive me for that. It might become one of those formative moments, something that would forever warp him and give him all kinds of trust issues in later life. Instead, I planned to euthanize Meemoo.
If I locked Meemoo in the medicine cabinet, taking away the things that were helping it survive: food, play, petting and the toilet, the AIDS would get stronger as it got weaker and surrounded by more of its effluence. The AIDS would win. And when Meemoo was dead, it would either reset itself as a healthy Tamagotchi, or it would die. If it was healthy, Luke could have it back; if it died, then Luke would learn a valuable lesson about mortality and I would buy him a new one to cheer him up.
It was tempting while Meemoo was in the cabinet to sneak a peek, to watch for its final moments, but the Tamagotchi had sensors that picked up movement. It might interpret my attention as caring, and gain some extra power to resist the virus destroying it. No, I had to leave it alone, despite the temptation.
Meemoo’s presence inside the medicine cabinet seemed to transform the cabinet’s outward appearance. It went from being an ordinary medicine cabinet to being something else, something… other.
After two whole days, I could resist no longer. I was certain that Meemoo must have perished by now. Luke was insistent about being there when I opened up the cabinet, and I did not have the strength for an argument.
‘Okay,’ I said. ‘But have you learned your lesson about tidying up?’
‘Give it back,’ he said, pouting.
I opened the cupboard and took out the Tamagotchi. Meemo was alive.
It had now lost three of its limbs, having just one arm left, which was stretched out under its head. One of its eyes had closed up to a small unseeing dot. Its pixellated circumference was broken in places, wide open pores through which invisible things must surely be entering and escaping.
‘This is ridiculous,’ I said. ‘Luke, I’m sorry, but we’re going to have to throw him away.’
Luke snatched the Tamagotchi from me and ran to Gabby, screaming. He was shaking, his face red and sweaty.
‘What have you done now?’ Gabby scowled at me.
I held my forehead with both hands. ‘I give up,’ I said, and stomped upstairs to the bedroom.
I put on the TV and watched a cookery show. There was something soothing in the way the chef was searing the tuna in the pan that let my heartbeats soften by degrees.
Gabby called me from downstairs. ‘Can you come and get Luke in? Dinner’s almost ready.’
I let my feet slip over the edge of each step, enjoying the pressure against the soles of my feet. I went outside in my socks. Luke was burying a football in the sandpit.
‘Time to come in little man,’ I said. ‘Dinner’s ready.’ He ignored me.
‘Come in Luke,’ Gabby called through the open window, and at the sound of his mum’s voice, Luke got up, brushed the sand from his jeans, and went inside, giving me a wide berth as he ran past.
A drop of rain hit the tip of my nose. The clouds above were low and heavy. The ragged kind that can take days to drain. As I turned to go inside, I noticed that Luke had left Meemoo on the edge of the sandpit. I started to reach down for it, but then stopped, stood up, and went inside, closing the door behind me.
After dinner, it was Gabby’s turn to take Luke to bed. I made tea and leaned over the back of the sofa, resting my cup and my elbows on the windowsill and inhaling the hot steam. Outside, the rain was pounding the grass, making craters in the sandpit, and bouncing off of the Tamagotchi. I thought how ridiculous it was that I was feeling guilty, but out of some strange duty I continued to watch it, until the rain had washed all the light out of the sky.
The news was brought by Darío, the baker’s son. We knew something had happened as soon as we saw him, standing up on his bike pedals, coming closer under the midday sun. Someone said, “Who could that be? Hey, it’s Darío!” We were sitting on the terrace, exhausted from the hot, still air that had settled in over the last week, and the sea-like hum of the fan was the only thing that could be heard. Across from me, Clara was dozing, her dress rolled up above her bony thighs, and her chest, like a scrawny, embalmed bird, was rising just enough to let a little air in. Next to her sat Mamá, dressed in black despite the sweltering heat wave. Her hair was pulled back with bobby pins and her bun looked like a poorly constructed tower. Farther away sat Gorda Teresa and her husband Jesus. They were both wearing new clothes as they liked to do on national holidays. She is in a sundress and him in a shirt Gorda had sewn for him with leftover fabric. That’s what I was thinking about just before someone, perhaps it was Gorda, spotted the bike on the road. Then Clara said, “Yep, it’s Darío.” We sat up a bit, though not enough to get up from our deck chairs. Mamá crossed herself, and the unease on all our faces was like a bad omen of things to come.
“Hilda, go fix something for the poor thing,” my mother said, with a nod of her head.
I slipped my feet into my sandals and slowly stood up. My bones creaked. Something inside of me seemed to resist the movement, threatening to snap like a dry branch. As I passed in front of the fan, with its light, warm air, I stopped for a minute to let the breeze hit my face and blow through my hair.
As he got closer, I could hear the sound of his tires on the gravel. I was waiting for him at the door, with a glass of lemonade in my hand. Darío stopped a few meters away from the house. He put one foot on the ground and hopped off the bike, which kicked up dust as it fell sideways. “Hi Señora Hilda,” he said from a distance. He was puffy from the heat and his eyes were sunken deep into his face, like two openings made by a blow. He was clutching a brown paper package. The sun was beating down strongly, and though I had sought refuge in the shaded line made by the eaves, I began to feel the wet hair on the back of my neck again, and the ruthless heat rising from the ground.
“What do you have there?” I asked him.
He took a few steps toward me, indecisive. The poor kid wasn’t sure if he should tell me the news first.
“Didn’t your mother tell you that you can get sick this time of day?”
He didn’t have the nerve to come closer, or maybe he didn’t know what to say, because he stood still in the ray of sunlight, straight and solemn like a soldier as the sweat dripped down his face and soaked his T-shirt.
“It’s sweet Christmas bread,” he said, and offered me the package, lifting it with both hands.
I motioned for him to come onto the porch.
“Here, do you want some lemonade?”
He nodded and moved closer with apprehensive steps. He gave me the package and once his hands were free, he wiped his forehead and eyes with outstretched palms and then took the glass. The package was burning hot and I could feel the flattened, sticky bread through the paper.
“Thank your mother,” I said, but I don’t know if he heard me, because the glass was covering his face up to his eyebrows as he swallowed the lemonade with a gulp.
When he finished, he looked up at me and spoke slowly, still out of breath.
“He’s back.” He looked down into the empty glass as if he were waiting for something. Then he rolled his tongue, which I imagined was cool and damp, and seemed to gather courage: “Señor Augusto told my mamá and she didn’t believe him but he said everyone saw him, and that he’s here, alive and kicking. That’s what Augusto told her, and that he’s on his way here, and that it was best to let Señora Luisa know so she doesn’t fall into a swoon.”
“Yes, a swoon,” he said again, and something in his eyes sparkled, the fleeting illusion that something terrible might happen.
“All right, I’ll tell her. Do you want another glass?”
He wavered, and then refused with his head and looked over at the bicycle lying in the road.
“Thank your mother for the bread. And don’t you worry, I’ll let Señora Luisa know.”
This seemed to calm him down. Maybe he was worried I’d drag him up to the terrace and force him to repeat those same words in front of my mother. And then the swoon, a fainting fit, an unrestrained shriek of happiness. Tears, perhaps. Her hands flung to the sky, her eyes blank, her tongue rolled back, stifling her dry throat. She no longer believed in miracles. And there was Darío, like an angel with his hot and rusty metallic wings.
I wasn’t surprised by the news, just as I hadn’t been surprised by the previous news of his faraway death. Maybe it’s because since I was little I had gotten used to imagining him dead, lying inside a coffin, not pale or cold, but as if he were sleeping, his head surrounded by flowers. It started the year they sent my mother to Misericordia Psychiatric Hospital. My sister and I were left in Fabio’s care. Clara was a baby, she doesn’t remember anything. But I remember the cold, and my body shivering under the stiff white sheet. I had to take a bath before I went to sleep, and thought Fabio would let me wash myself, he always stayed in the bathroom. To this day I shower with the radio on to avoid remembering that silence of the water. Afterwards, he’d wrap me in a big towel and dry me off. Sometimes, as I was trying to fall asleep, I’d imagine Fabio dead, with a crown of roses. Sometimes the coffin was the bathtub. Sometimes I was the only one keeping vigil over him.
Maybe that’s why I wasn’t surprised. But Clara wept for him violently, exaggerating each rattle of her skeletal chest. She’d tell whoever would listen about the day Fabio had saved her from the collapse in the wood cabin. And who knows how many times I’d heard her say, “My brother was everything to me.” Mamá, silent and proud, restricted herself to dressing in mourning. And to this day, twelve years after that semblance of a funeral from afar, the black and worn-out clothing she had imposed on herself was still her way of showing everyone that she had the deepest, most unforgettable grief. But not me. I didn’t join the women’s chorus of lamenters, Gorda included, and deep down I always believed the only thing my brother wanted was to get away from us, from Mamá especially, and that the whole town thought he was some sort of victor or hero. Now he was turning into something more: a resurrected dead man who had come back full of great adventures and tales of how death had almost, unexpectedly, taken him away.
I stood there in the front entryway watching Darío ride away. I was holding the package with the soft, lumpy bread in one hand. In the other, the boy’s glass. The ice cubes had melted and I took advantage of the wet glass to cool off my forehead and neck. This time he set off down the slope and was barely visible, hidden now behind a cloud of dust. If I had been thinking about something, I don’t remember what it was. Sometimes thinking about a lot at the same time feels like not thinking about anything at all. I just know that I waited there for a long time. I waited, that is, even after there was no trace of the bicycle and the ground had started to settle again, now devoid of any mystery.
The sun didn’t reach the dining room, and the candles flickered on the altar in the cool and moldy darkness. The flames had stained the wall with soot and in the middle of the two black columns hung rosaries, photos of the Virgin, crosses, small bleeding hearts crowned with thorns. Below, on the sideboard, there was a collection of photos of Fabio at almost every age, surrounded by plastic flowers, holy cards, and prayers that relatives and friends had left: He was even more handsome dead than alive. Now we could love him even more. What would he be like now? Old. Maybe wounded, legless, fingerless, with a patch over one eye. Or haggard from the years, toothless, ravaged by the elements and all the lies like an abandoned tin can of peas. I thought of the can and saw myself shooting him in the chest. Three perfectly round holes, my aim spot on like before. The rifle was kept in the mahogany cabinet, right beneath the altar. I just had to turn the key and wait for him at the entrance to the property. After all, no one was expecting him. No one would go out looking for him. I could see it: an old and holey tin can, and through the holes, the memories slipping away, together with the last possibility of any return.
I left the glass in the kitchen, passed by the fan without stopping, climbed the steps with the same slowness with which I had come down, and slumped back into the chair. I slipped off a sandal with one foot, dropping it onto the wooden floor with a thud, then the other. Everyone waited in silence as I took them off.
“They sent us this bread,” I said and began to unwrap the package on my lap.
“Hilda,” said my mother.
Despite the brightness, her face was obscured by the shade.
The hot, smashed bread, wrinkled with cracks, now looked like an exposed brain, a terrible and painful flower.
“They sent us this bread,” I repeated, firmly, “and asked me to come over. The oldest daughter and her husband split up and the guy took everything: the furniture, money, everything. She’s devastated.”
“And what do you have to do with it?”
I shrugged my shoulders:
“They don’t have anyone else.”
Gorda drew in a quick breath as if she was going to say something but Jesus gestured to her to keep quiet. I looked up. In the distance, on the southernmost part of the road, a black figure, still imperceptible to the others, was slowly making its way toward us.