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.
I remember a tree. Its crown awning the path. I remember a large trunk, thicker than any I had seen before. I remember roots cleaving the black earth, bursting it asunder, like snakes fighting free and then, twisted by the chill of the air, plunging their heads back underground. There was a large crevice in the trunk. I peeked inside and ran.
A storm is coming. A black spot gradually growing, widening and expanding, stirring the skies until it is transformed into a whirlpool, crimson over the Jerusalem mountains. Red and terrible, the wind glides down the arched mountains, winding down over the pathways. It collects under the porch, then climbs the walls built with Jerusalem stone, blows through the neighbor’s house with the little garden that is punctuated by dwarfish citrus trees and a gray plastic doghouse for the miniature canine, Zoe, that has been barking for hours, tail stretched and ears erect.
“Shut up already! The neighbor screams, blind to the crimson wind, slithering its way to me like a poisonous snake, wishing to paint the soles of my feet with drops of blood.
I press my legs together, shrinking into myself, holding the white rail that encloses the porch, following the movements of the wind, waiting to hear the sound of jackals urging each other to howl at dusk, their wailing breaking against the mountains only to be carried up into the sky. I have only moments to stand like this before my husband notices my actions and commences scolding me to get back into bed and not to leave it again. Not even if I need to pee? Not even. This is why they have brought me a bedpan, and Vivie from 10:00 am to 12:00 pm. Then Vivie leaves my house to do some overtime with Pops, her invalid patient in the next building. She sits him in a wheelchair, his lips flapping around his gaping, toothless mouth. She places a blanket over his knees, tightens a sock hat on his head, and rolls him to the rendezvous point in the garden to meet her friends, each with their own elderly invalid. They line them up in a circle of silent, stuffed people, all facing one another, urine bags hanging beside their wheelchairs, while Vivie and her friends sit on the benches, chattering in their foreign language. At six thirty she comes back to give me a bath.
From the porch, I see how she stretches her small, slender body and waves her raven-black straight hair, marching expeditiously. She doesn’t look back because she has a work permit she keeps in a waist pouch under her clothes. Close to the body.
“What do you need to get up for?” My husband asks. He is wearing his uniform, attaching the police pager to his belt, along with his cellphone and handcuffs. He shoves the gun into his pants.
I remember. I found shelter from the rain under the crown of the tree. I stood under the weeping leaves for long moments, shrouded by a veil of drops. I listened to the swaying movements of the branches whispering above.
I stretch my body, just a tiny, teeny bit, pressing my fingers, swollen like risen bread dough, into the mattress imprinted with my shape and sunken at the point at which I bleed. I raise myself up and kneel in bed, on all fours, like a heavy, obese bitch, then I reach out a hand to the window and open the shutter.
A cold wind blows in. I return to lie on my back inside the body-shaped depression in my bed. Alert. I send a hand between my legs to check if the blood is trickling and cringe when I discover it isn’t.
The house-call doctor comes to scold me. I promise not to move, not to move. “You mustn’t get up,” he says. “Except for ten minutes at noon.”
A walk around the living room. Vivie holds my hand tight. She is adept in holding those that can barely walk, knows she must lead them along the shortest possible infinite route, in circles, on wheelchairs down the path, from bench to bench, from bedroom to living room, slowly, slowly.
I remember a truck with mud-splattered wheels, driving slowly past me. I clung to the trunk and watched. A woman in a green dress, her hair black and long. It covered her back. She knelt over a wooden casket. I remember a procession of black-clad men and women following the truck, the men leading the way in silence, the women following closely, weeping, screaming, beating their chests with their fists. I remember the wailing and screaming drifting away.
We pay him, so he comes. My husband, panting, puts the bed up on its side. Then he turns and rotates it, trying to find an angle that will allow him to move it from the bedroom to the living room. Goddamn it, let him just come and do his work without any big ideas about how to furnish the house. He wipes his sweaty forehead with his hand. No use, the bed won’t come out this way. He needs to dismantle it, screw-by-screw, then put it together in the living room.
Until he finds the time to dismantle the bed, he drags the mattress alone from the bedroom, pushing it with his large, bear-like hands. “But if now the mattress is in the living room, you’ll stop getting up, then it will be worth my while to sleep on the folding bed as if I was in boot camp. No, don’t get up, that’s the last thing I need, you get up now.”
My husband wrestles with the double mattress, stained with the marks of a relationship. He barely manages to squeeze it through the corridor and drops it on the floor with a muffled thud.
“That’s it,” he says. “Now you have nothing to get up for at all.”
“The house-call doctor charges three-hundred and fifty per visit. In this country, only private healthcare offers you proper treatment,” my husband tells me, although they could have charged less for placing a monitor on my belly. It pays off for him to place the mattress in the middle of the living room, in front of the porch’s large sliding door, to the right of the television. And I won’t need to move my hands, or head, or belly, until Vivie returns from Pops.
“There,” he says. “Now you can lie down without moving. Not even a muscle, you hear? Tomorrow I’ll put the bed together and we’re done.”
Then he goes, leaving me sprawled on the mattress, wallowing in his concern, observing how, in the corner of the living room, where the wall meets the ceiling, an old spider is spinning her webs on the spindle of her body. She has been here for long days, un-banished by a swing of the duster brush. Circle by circle she spins a fine net, like thin patches placed over my watching eye.
A distant shifting of clouds ruffles the air. The Earth yields to the movement of the sky and convulses, rattling the foundations of the building, the cars, the sidewalk, the rubber flooring in the kindergartens that whiffs of tar in the summers. At seven in the evening, after my walk around the house, Vivie bundles my hair into a knot and takes me to the shower.
“All right – all right,” she tells me.
“All right,” I answer.
“Okeydokey,” she says.
She soaps my back, scrubbing all the places I can’t reach. Silently, I look at my large white breasts resting on my belly, like two Beluga whales stranded on a beach. Lower down, I see two swollen legs now covered with white scented foam. How ugly I have become.
I remember. I was walking barefoot along the bed of a shallow stream that led all the way to the forest. The stream gave onto a small natural pool. I placed my feet in it, then removed my dress and, with a quick movement, hurled it to the bank beside the pool. I sat in the water.
“Air, I have no air,” I tell my husband. “Open the porch.”
“It’s winter in Jerusalem, do you want to catch pneumonia?”
I wait until he leaves for his night shift, then open it myself. The rustle of the coming storm blows into my face. A single jackal howls as hard as it possibly can. The wind carries the miserable howling to my ears, the scent of its moist fur and its warm breath to my nostrils. The neighbor’s dog barks at the top of her lungs. The neighbor has gone to work and locked her up in the house because of the cold weather, but she has sensed the wind and, in her agitation, has knocked over an alarm clock that rings loudly until its battery runs out. The neighbor will beat her with his belt when he finds out she has scratched the door with her paws.
I sit and the mattress sways under me like muddy soil. The closets in the house are creaking; someone is dragging a chair across the floor; a woman’s high heels sound like muted gunfire as she walks. The lights in the neighbors’ houses go off one by one. A crying baby. I get up. One step, two steps, three. I make it to the armchair and sit down, filling the chair with my body. I pull the lever, popping up the leg rest.
My pulse knocks against my temples. My breath quickens, my hand extends towards the phone, but I draw it back. There’s no one. The drape hovers like a ghost. There’s no one… I begin to cough. I take a deep breath. The house-call doctor has taught me to count to ten. My breasts sway from side to side, rubbing against my arms in a waltz of vibrating flesh.
I remember. Clear and quiet water surrounded me, there were little pebbles, smooth, round. I slid them down my cheek. Naked, I emerged from the stream and sat by the pool, dipping my feet in the water, patches of light shortened and elongated and sparkled, the skin on the soles of my feet wrinkled.
“I think,” I said to Doron, “that there are wolves in the mountains. And no, it isn’t Zoe.”
“No, there aren’t any wolves here,” says Doron. “What are you blubbering about?”
He sits in his uniform. A cup of black coffee is placed on the little table in front of him. His smoking-trained hand sketches empty gestures in the air. Desperate, he picks a cigarette from a packet, strokes it from tip to filter with a yearning finger, narrows his mouth, sucks in the void.
“What a night I’ve had,” he says, then inspects the sheet, seeking blotches.
I remember. I had risen from the water and piled the stones into a little mound. I remember. A white blotch flickered among the trees. The tip of a tail appeared and vanished. I held my breath. I heard soft footsteps. I looked into the forest.
Black ants climb from the garden up to the pipes and into the house. From the mattress, close to the floor, I see them, a little convoy, parading out of the crevice between the wall and the panels, marching to the kitchen, invading my house. I rise and drag myself to the kitchen. I take a deadly spray from under the sink. Seven steps from the kitchen. I tower over the ants in the spread-legged posture of a landlady. I raise the can and spray. I close the windows so the insecticide will thoroughly soak in, so they won’t come back. From the pains of her body, the spider is still spinning her webs. And through the threads, she watches me closing my eyes. She continues to circle over me in her own orbit.
“Are you insane?” My husband screams. “Do you want to kill the child?” He forces Vivie to wash the insecticide off my body and calls the house-call doctor.
“Everything is fine,” he says. “But do me a favor, baby, lay off the chemicals. Really, I don’t understand what is going through your head. Are you all right?”
I remember. From inside the rim of the forest, a beautiful white wolf returned my gaze, his eyes two clear crystals, his tail erect. “Don’t run away,” I whispered. I remember how, completely naked, wet and dripping with water, I approached. “Don’t run away.” He was almost the same height as me. His nose quivered. I stretched out a hand, almost feeling the soft touch of his fur. Suddenly he trembled, turned and disappeared into the thicket.
“Vivie,” I tell her, “you can leave early today. It’s okay. A storm is coming.” Vivie looks at me in silence, and I return the exact same gaze. “Go, go to Pops. It’ll start raining soon. You don’t want to be caught in the storm.”
The wind howls, the building quivers. I guess they haven’t properly secured all the fixtures and connectors, nor did they anchor the foundations to the ground when it was being built.
I get up and open the window wide. I reach out with a heavy foot to pin it to the floor. The wind whistles, entering the living room through the porch. It ruffles the bedding on the mattress. Zoe barks at the top of her lungs.
From the darkness of noon, howls rise from the bottom of the earth. There, inside the asphalt plated earth, in a place where no roots can reach, and only the void exists, is the wolf. Here, he rises from his crouch, shaking the dirt from his fur and howling as loudly as he can. And the howl rattles the foundations of the building and shakes the city above him. The city that swallows his howls and forces him back inside it time and again, so he won’t be seen, or heard, so he won’t frighten anyone. But he calls to the wind and waits for the storm. He stretches his body and digs with his paws, as hard as he can, the way out. And on his way, he spreads open the building above, gaping chasms into the roads.
“A wolf!” I cry. Yet no one can hear my voice. Zoe’s barks dance about me like wild witches. I open the porch door wide, the wind ruffles my hair, the rain wets my face. I sense drops of blood trickling between my legs, mingling with the rainwater wetting my clothes.
“A wolf!” I cry to the wind, looking down into the pits dug by the wolf as he emerged from the earth. Then I place a hand on my belly. The baby moves. The spider quivers on her webs in the cold wind.
“Come,” she says. “Come, hold on to the webs.”
I held an unusually long reed in my hand and I dipped it as deep as I could into the river. It fell in and disappeared in front of me. I took my feet out of the water and stepped back a little, gripped by a powerful fear, which I recognized by the trembling of my hands. The river swallowing me up was a fear that had been with me ever since I heard Nanny Fanida’s story. She always retold the tale of a beautiful girl who just wanted to sleep for a little while in the river but drowned. Every time I saw the river when it was calm I would remember what my nanny had said: the river was at its most dangerous when it enticed you to sleep in its embrace.
I couldn’t play with the other children in our village, not when they tormented my beautiful friend every time they saw her. It was a sad day when I saw them fighting to be the one to seize hold of the ladybird. She had curled up her body until neither her head nor legs were visible. I rushed over to them and told them to let her go but they refused.
After that awkward day, I used to go out into the woods next to our house. The trees covered a large area and their thin twigs sprouted fresh shoots – I had never seen anything like them. I felt I was searching for that ladybird to prevent the village children from kicking her around every day. I really loved that tiny insect. I collected several of them in a big glass jar and put them on my balcony; I even brought them other insects to eat.
Now, I had made myself new friends of many different colours: red, yellow, orange – I liked the colour orange the most. I shut myself away with them in the boring evening hours that went by so slowly. Every evening, my father would put on his reading glasses and endeavour to keep them fixed on the tip of his nose. Then he would slowly peruse the newspapers, which used to arrive late in our village. He let out the most vitriolic curses and insults, followed by a loud grunt, which my mother always received with her usual composure. She had been doing embroidery for a long time and, in the next room, had built up several piles of headscarves – all the same colour but with different designs. (She did want some different colours but could not go into town to get them.)
I can still remember the clock striking eight, because I knew that after the eighth chime, my mother would call Nanny Fanida to put me to bed. I used to brush my teeth at four minutes to eight then rinse my mouth out with a handful of the sentences that my nanny used to repeat in those minutes before the clock struck eight, with its chimes that hammered in my chest every day. Once, I hid empty notebooks in my bedclothes, because I had begun to hate eight o’clock, the official time that announced the end of my childhood world around the house. I turned on the light and waited a while until any rustling had ended. Then, I got out my coloured pencils and began to draw pictures of my friend on the beautiful notebook. But, straightaway, my nanny came in to tell me that if I did not go to sleep she would lose her job. She put me back in bed at five past eight. That was the only time that I had the light on in my room past eight o’clock – for five minutes, or maybe a little more…
A few days later I put on my orange jacket with black spots, which I had gone to buy with my nanny in town. I loved that colour and I loved the way my friends wore it. My friends had got used to my balcony and had started to go away for a little while and come back, as if they knew it was their home. I got used to letting them climb up my finger and fly off on their little wings which helped them rise to the highest heights. They became closer to me once I had started to dress and even act like them. I would repeat this little song to them with all the kindness I could muster:
Laisse-moi compter tes vies sur tes ailes
Toi qui n’as jamais vu ta colère dis-moi
Dis-moi comment faire comme toi 1
The next night I couldn’t sleep, despite the darkness and constant chiming of hours. I could still hear the words of the children echoing loudly in my head. I could hear their laughs as they saw me wearing that jacket: “Ladybird … Ladybird … Ladybird.”
My mother did not notice me. She just stole glances at my father as she sewed her napkins, which had become so plentiful I could no longer count them; I don’t think my mother could either.
It was eight o’clock when my husband shouted for me at the top of his voice. I didn’t want to answer him at that precise moment. I took my feet out from under the covers to combat the anxiety attacks that I slipped into whenever the clock struck eight. I hoped that I would not see him until the heart palpitations had subsided and I had finished the subsequent rituals. I have got used to these secret rituals. Now, I even do them without realising. Sometimes Nanny Fanida would appear to me, holding her pink towel to dry and rub my body. She would say in her soft voice: “Your body is getting bigger. You have become a beautiful young woman.”
But my father saw the insects flying about on the balcony. That was the moment he changed his usual evening routine. He went up to my room to discover the glass jar where those beautiful creatures were living. He shouted in the nanny’s face, “The daughter of the best family in the village is breeding these stupid insects…”
My nanny swallowed her words so far down that I thought she might never speak again. He called the gardener and told him to burn the insects so that they would never again come back to the house. Then he settled his reading glasses on their usual place and sank into his newspapers. But the gardener did not burn my friends, he just put them back in the fields. “They are all of our friends,” he told me, “because they eat the insects that destroy our crops. I put them back in the fields.”
A few days later Nanny Fanida felt giddy and almost fainted. So, I called her over so I could surprise her with a ladybird; I had drawn them in many different ways. The orange colours shone out in the night and eased my moments of fear in the overwhelming darkness. Little by little the colour returned to Nanny Fanida and she was no longer faint. She tried to make up excuses to prevent my mother coming up to my room.
My husband was waiting for me, wondering where I was, as he put his black gloves on the bedside table. He had just come back from hunting, which had been a serious hobby of his for a while. He would go out at the same time in the afternoon, wearing the same clothes, with the same friends who talked about the same wealth that their fathers had managed to accumulate through devoted hard-work, unceasing perseverance, and honest toil. They smoked black cigarettes, wore black hats and put black glasses over their eyes to protect them from the sun. Then they would hunt beautiful animals. They had no need to eat them and, most of the time, they hunted them only to discard their bodies on a piece of wasteland. They competed with each other, speaking in well-rehearsed words with tightly drawn lips.
My husband stroked my stomach with total calm. His well-trimmed moustache trembled a little. That was the sign that let me know he wanted something. His manner was calm, emotionless. I longed to be able to scream or laugh so loud that the neighbours would hear me. But my husband was as precise as the American watch that he hadn’t stopped talking about since he visited the USA. He would treat me every evening to the same, repeated stories that had helped him discover the world that lay far beyond our eyes. That was his prelude to the heated rituals of cold nights.
I curled up into a ball… In my belly, there were some rumblings around my intestines. I wished that I could bring my beautiful insects from my little old room. They were still there. My father had left them on the wall after I had begged him not to make them leave the room. He gave a humdrum laugh and said, “OK, I’ll leave them, seeing as you are the only daughter we have. But we will remember your silliness and laugh about it some evening.” Then he laughed heartily; my mother also laughed with well-trained effort and she pulled her mouth into a little smile. My father complimented her and the way she had raised me.
I could not avert my eyes from his strong forearms. He hid his own beautiful eyes because he was too shy to look a woman in the face. One day, I began to insist that he looked straight at me when he was talking to me. His eyes were enchanting; I hoped that they would never blink. At that moment, I felt confused about everything. The world was spinning around me. I rushed into my room and grabbed a piece of paper to draw those eyes. He was very close to my friends. He looked like me, even if I was far removed from him.
That night, I could not sleep. My husband saw my anxiety and, with his usual calmness, tried to absorb all the emotions I had bottled up inside me. But it was him I saw with me. I retraced the map of his rough arms, until I felt I was touching him. That day I followed him. He was running between the trees. When he saw me, he was confused. He said to me: “What does the lady command?”
I gave him a look of passion and he looked down at the ground, shyly. I grabbed his arm and placed my hand on his lips. I felt the violence hidden within him – something ready to explode inside. I began to run my lips along his and he did not resist. He grabbed me with all the force that I craved and enveloped me in his strong arms until I melted. That was the only moment that I have ever felt that I truly existed on the face of this small earth. His embrace was strange. I had never felt any like it in real life before, I had only dreamed of it. I said to myself: “What matters is that I have experienced this feeling, even if it was only for a minute.” Afterwards, he looked at me with fear, as if he had kissed me without knowing it. I put my hands on his lips and intimated to him not to speak. I had only been with him for a few minutes, but those minutes would never disappear.
I took my cold feet out of the depths of the river and laughed, then screamed. Everyday, I go back to my house and, once sleep has caressed my husband’s eyelids, for a while I curl up into a ball.
Our friends the Zaitsevs live out of town “The air is so much better out in the suburbs,” they say. That is, they can’t afford to live where the air is bad. A small group of us went to visit them.
We set off without any mishap. That is, apart from minor details: we didn’t take enough cigarettes, one of us lost her gloves, another forgot her door key. And then, at the station, we bought one ticket less than we needed. Well, anyone can make a mistake. We counted wrong. Even though there were only four of us.
It was a little awkward, actually, that we counted wrong. Apparently, in Hamburg, there was once a horse that could count beautifully, right up to six…
And we got out without any mishap at the right station. Though we did get out once or twice before—at every station, as a matter of fact. But every time, realizing our mistake, we had, very sensibly, got back in the carriage.
When we arrived at our destination we had a few more awkward moments. It turned out that none of us knew the Zaitsevs’ address. Each of us was relying on the others.
A quiet, gentle voice came to our aid: “You’re here!”
It was the Zaitsevs’ daughter: a girl of eleven, clear-eyed, with blond Russian plaits just like I had had at that age (plaits pulled so many, many times by other children, plaits that brought me no end of grief!).
She had come to meet us.
“I really didn’t think you’d get here!” she said.
“Well, Mama kept saying that you’d either miss the train or get the wrong one.”
I was a little offended. I’m actually very punctual. Recently, when I was invited to a ball, not only did I not arrive late—I was a whole week early.
“Ah, Natasha, Natasha!” I said. “You don’t know me very well yet!”
Her clear eyes looked at me thoughtfully, then down at the ground.
Delighted that we now knew where we were going, we decided to go and sit in a café for a while, then to hunt down some cigarettes, then try to telephone Paris and then…
But the fair-haired girl said very seriously, “No, you absolutely mustn’t. We must go back home right away. They’re expecting us.”
So, shamefaced and obedient, we set off in single file behind the young girl.
We found our hostess at the stove.
She was looking bemusedly into a saucepan.
“Natasha, quick! Tell me what you think? What is this I’ve ended up with—roast beef or salt beef?”
The girl had a look.
“No, my angel,” she said. “This time it looks like beef stew.”
“Wonderful! Who’d have thought it?” cried Madame Zaitseva, delighted.
Dinner was a noisy affair.
We were all very fond of one another, all enjoying ourselves, and all in the mood to talk. We all talked at once. Somebody talked about the journal Contemporary Notes. Somebody talked about how you shouldn’t pray for Lenin. That would be a sin. After all, the Church didn’t pray for Judas. Somebody talked about Parisian women and dresses, about Dostoevsky, about the recent spelling reform, about the situation of writers abroad and about the Dukhobors, and somebody wanted to tell us how the Czechs cook eggs, but she never succeeded. She kept talking away, but she was constantly interrupted.
And in all the hubbub the young girl, now wearing an apron, walked round the table, picking up a fork that had fallen onto the floor, moving a glass away from the edge of the table, seeing to all our needs, taking our worries to heart, her blond plaits glinting as bright as ever.
At one point she came up to one of us and held out a ticket.
“Look,” she said. “I want to show you something. In your own home, is it you who looks after the housekeeping? Well, when you next buy some wine, ask for one of these tickets. When you’ve collected a hundred tickets, they’ll give you six towels.”
She kept pointing things out to us and explaining things. She very much wanted to help—to help us live in the world.
“How wonderful it is here,” enthused our hostess. “After the lives we led under the Bolsheviks! It’s barely believable. You turn on a tap—and water comes out. You go to light the stove—and there’s firewood already there.”
“Eat up, my angel,” the girl whispered. “Your food will go cold.”
We talked until it grew dark. The fair-haired girl had for some time been repeating something to each of us in turn. At last somebody paid attention.
“You need to catch the seven o’clock train,” she had been saying. “You must go to the station straight away.”
We grabbed our things and ran to the station.
There we had one last, hurried conversation.
“We need to buy Madame Zaitseva a dress tomorrow. Very modest, but showy. Black, but not too black. Narrow, but it must look full. And most important of all, one she won’t grow tired of.”
“Let’s take Natasha with us. She can advise us.”
And off we went again: Contemporary Notes, Gorky, French literature, Rome-
And the fair-haired girl was walking about, saying something, trying to convince us of something. At last, somebody listened.
“You need to go over the bridge to the other platform. Don’t wait till the train comes in or you’ll have to rush and you might miss it.”
The next day, in the shop, the graceful figure of Madame Zaitseva was reflected in two triple mirrors. A little salesgirl with pomaded hair and short legs was draping one dress after another over her. And on a chair, her hands politely folded, sat the fair-haired girl, dispensing advice.
“Oh!” said Madame Zaitseva, flitting about between the mirrors. “This one is lovely. Natasha, why aren’t you giving me any advice? Look, isn’t that beautiful—with the grey embroidery on the front. Quick, tell me what you think!”
“No, my angel, you mustn’t buy a dress like that. How could you go about every day with a grey stomach? It would be different if you had a lot of dresses. But as it is, it’s not very practical.”
“Well, fancy you saying that!” her mother protested. But she didn’t dare disobey.
We began to make our way out.
“Oh!” cried Madame Zaitseva, “Just look at these collars! They’re just what I’ve been dreaming of! Natasha, take me away from them quickly, don’t let me get carried away!”
Concerned, the fair-haired girl took her mother by the hand.
“Come this way, my angel, don’t look over there. Come over here and look at the needles and thread.”
“You know what?” whispered Madame Zaitseva, with a sideways glance at her daughter. “She heard what we were saying about Lenin yesterday. And in the evening she said, ‘I pray for him every day. People say he has much blood on his conscience. It’s a burden on his soul… I can’t help it,’ she said to me, ‘I pray for him.’”
*Taken from Rasputin and Other Stories by Teffi, ed. Robert Chandler and Ann Marie Jackson, Pushkin Press London
I wash my hands, scrubbing them.
They still smell of shit.
Sophie went joyfully down the slide, straight into Danny’s waiting arms. When he
offered to help her climb back up, she said, “By myself.”
He clapped. “That’s my big girl!” and returned to sit beside me on the bench, his hand on my left thigh. To my right, Sophie’s travel potty, still unused in its package.
It had been three days since Sophie announced: no more diapers. Festive and excited, we also bought a pink home potty, a plastic ladder for climbing to the toilet, and twenty pairs of size-3 Frozen underwear.
“Should I check if the sitter’s available tonight?” he asked.
That first day, Danny understood my good intensions, but suggested that if I kept asking her if she needed to poop every two minutes, she’d think it was some big deal. Yesterday he was enraged when he heard me promising her a pizza if she went in the potty. Why offer rewards for a natural process?
Now, on the bench at the playground, I said, “She hasn’t pooped in three days,” not looking at him. Not at preschool, not at home. We shouldn’t go out.”
He took a deep breath, trying to hide his criticism, “You think she’s in pain?”
Sophie was spinning another girl on the merry-go-round.
“Not yet,” I said. “But I’ve been reading about toilet anxiety. It’s a fear kids develop during potty training. They hold it in, then they get constipated, and then when they finally let it out it hurts, and it becomes a traumatic exper-”
“What?” Danny laughed. “Toilet anxiety?”
“It can end with an enema or even surgery, Danny. The experts suggest giving a gentle laxative. Not that we’re there yet.”
Now the other girl was spinning Sophie.
“How about a break from Facebook?” he smiled. “It’s like diagnosing yourself with cancer on Google.”
“I wish we had friends with children.”
“If you’re so worried you should call Dr. Barak.”
“I will, but I want to learn from other mothers’ experiences first.”
“It’s sort of like looking for proble-”
“There is a problem.” I glared at him. “And you’re ignoring it. And me.”
He raised an eyebrow, then dialed on speakerphone.
“No cause for concern,” the doctor assured us.
Danny looked at me victoriously.
“A child can hold it in even for ten days without any health risks, and possibly without constipation-”
“But how can we even tell if she’s ready?” I blurted. “Maybe we should offer her a diaper only for pooping?”
“After your whole ‘big girl’ shtick?” Danny barked. “Are you nuts?”
“I don’t know,” I hissed. “At least I’m trying to figure this out.”
“But Dr. Barak just gave you another week’s worth of peace of mind!”
Dr. Barak coughed.
Danny smiled at the phone. “Turns out my wife can’t control everything.”
Dr. Barak laughed. “Well, that’s a problem for another doctor.”
That night, his hand searched in the dark for my breasts. I whispered that I was tired.
He moved my hair from my face. “She’s going to be fine,” he said, rubbing my stomach. I blocked his hand with mine.
“Okay, good night.” He turned over, disappointed.
When his breathing slowed I burrowed under the blanket, losing myself in my phone. Suddenly, he glanced over my shoulder, then recoiled with insult when he noticed my choice. I tried to appease him with an embrace.
He pulled away. “Go fuck your iPhone.”
Sophie had her second helping of Cornflakes. Six days. Where was all that food going? I pictured a dark, dense lump of food in her small stomach.
“Can I have chocolate milk?”
For a moment, I couldn’t remember if Danny was still home. We spoke so briefly. He was right across the room, stuck at his computer. I turned around and quickly stirred the powder into Sophie’s chocolate milk. I hid the bottle.
“Baby,” Danny kissed her forehead. “Let’s go to school.”
That night, Danny waited for me in the kitchen after Sophie finally fell asleep, his arms crossed.
“Ilana found Sophie crying in the bathroom, covered in poop,” he announced coldly. I gaped. “Diarrhea, to be exact. Surrounded by dirty wipes. A huge mess. She tried to clean it up—”
My heart was racing. I flushed with heat. “Why are you only telling me this now?” I cried. “Why didn’t Ilana call me?”
“Did you give her something?”
He fixed his eyes on me. My pulse pounded in my temples.
“Laxative? Gentle laxative? Like you mentioned the other day?”
“Of course not!”
He kept his eyes on me until I heard my trembling voice confessing.
“It was a natural remedy… just a stool softener..Tears filled my eyes.
“Bravo,” he almost gloated, “Now she’s ripe for toilet anxiety.”
“Thanks a lot, Danny,” I said. “Maybe I should have lied to you.”
My hand shook as I stroked Sophie’s hair. The image of her in the bathroom flushing me, “I’m sorry” I whispered over and over into her sleeping face. I curled up in her little bed, staring up at the stars on the ceiling. My phone vibrated.
A Messenger alert.
It had been two years since we’d last met. Three days since my last visit to his Facebook page. Two days since I wrote him. The anticipation of a response had transformed into insult from his silence, then into the realization that I should never have written him, and a hope that he’d never answer. But now Ron had.
How long have I been on this bathroom floor? I had my regular spot and position.
Sophie towered above me on the toilet seat.
Ron said she wasn’t likely to go at preschool, so she’d better be in a safe space in case the poop came. Racked with guilt, I picked her up from school every day at one instead of four. Long days. Lunch, bathroom, television, bathroom, snack, bathroom, playground, bathroom. She never resisted it, nor did she ever do her business. We’d watched everything on YouTube. Read every book on the shelf. I’d come up with every dumb rhyme about how pooping was fun. “Mom, can I get off now?” “Let’s try a little longer.”
We were reading Olivia for the hundredth time. You’ll grow old on the bathroom floor. You’ll die here. But now, suddenly, Sophie flinched above me. I jumped. Her elbows squeezed against her stomach. “It hurts,” she whined, gasping. “It hurts.”
“Sure it hurts, sweetie,” I said, relieved. “You just need to poop.”
“I don’t.” Tears ran down her cheeks.
“There’s poop in your stomach and it wants to come out. Come on, give a little push,” I said.
She began to get off the toilet.
I sat her back down, firmly. “You’re not getting off until you poop.”
She started to get off again, and I sat her back, again. “Let’s go, right now. Do it already! Now! Push! Come on!”
She squirmed with stubborn refusal in my arms, kicking me, then biting me as hard as she could, crying hysterically.
I sat her down, furious. “You’re doing it, end of discussion! If you don’t poop you’ll get a time-out!”
She screamed, “Daddy!”
But there he was. He picked her up over my head and pulled up her underwear and leggings.
“What are you doing?! Her stomach hurts, she’s got to poop!” I tried to rip her away from him, but he held her tight and fast, evading me.
“Go take a walk,” he said. “Calm down.” Then he turned away from me and asked Sophie, “Want to play with your dolls?”
“No, she wants to poop,” I moaned. But they’d already disappeared into her bedroom before my defeated eyes.
My phone vibrated in my pocket.
That night as I read her a bedtime story, she began to writhe with pain again. I tensed up but continued to read, glossing faster and faster over the sweet, glittering prose. She fell asleep before we reached the happy ending. A cloud of pain rested on her face. Exhausted, I put my head in my hands.
Suddenly, I smelled something foul. When I noticed her expression—finally peaceful—I figured it out. I pulled off her underwear carefully and threw it in the garbage. I wiped her off. She didn’t even wake up.
I walked into the bedroom, wiping the sweat from my brow. “She pooped in her underwear,” I sighed.
Danny looked at me. “Is that good or bad?”
“At least she went.”
“But what does Ron have to say about it?”
I swallowed, recounting our correspondence, my deleted messages. What had he seen?
“Since when are you two back in touch?”
“Since when do you go through my phone?”
“Since I have a reason to.”
“How dare you?”
“You want to talk to me about morals?”
“There’s nothing going on. He’s a child psychologist.”
“For a therapy session, you’ve erased quite a bit of it.”
“Because I knew you’d get pissed off.”
“Sure. It’s my fault.”
“I wanted to get his opinion about Sophie. That’s all.”
“Does he call all his patients ‘babe’?”
“Jesus. It’s just a nickname… Never mind. I’ll tell him it’s over.”
He looked at me. “Hasn’t it been over for two years?”
“I meant the messaging.” I plopped down onto the bed. “I’m so tired.”
“You said you’d leave the studio to think things over, take some time off,” he said. “All you end up dealing with is poop. Or Ron.”
“How long has it been since we last fucked?” He punched the pillow. “A month? Longer?”
“I envy you for being able to think about sex.”
“Don’t give me that shit. Like you don’t think about sex when you talk to Ron.”
“He’s a child psychologist.”
A Google Calendar alert from Danny: “Appointment with Dr. Shafir, early childhood psychologist. Number one in her field. She has a cancellation tomorrow.”
I texted back a thumb’s up emoji and returned to Messenger.
My body hurt from sleeping on the thin mattress in Sophie’s room, staking out her nighttime poop.
Dr. Shafir explained, “Poop is a source of control. It’s natural that she’s only going in her sleep.” Her beautiful face beamed at us. “What area of her life won’t you let go of?”
Danny pounced at the question. A familiar, foul smell attacked my nostrils. Distractedly, I brought my fingers to my nose. I’d washed my hands twice at home, and again when I got here. Still, I smelled like shit.
She said, “Stay out of her underwear. Her poop is none of your business.” Her eyes moved from Danny’s excited face to me.
I got a whiff of her shampoo and inhaled, but my stench wouldn’t let go. My fingertips, my palm, under my nails. They needed to be scrubbed with a toothbrush. “Stop saying poop,” I said. “It isn’t poop, it’s shit.”
They were silent. Then Danny turned to me, “Are you willing to try this or not?”
I stayed out of her underwear. But I recognized the moment. The flinching. The concentration. The effort. The fleeing to a hidden corner like an animal. I kept repeating, It’s okay, you’ll make it to the bathroom next time. I emptied her underwear. Boiling water. Bleach. Or the garbage. The bathroom became superfluous. The potty and the ladder were monuments. It only happened in the daytime now, so Danny was miraculously spared from dealing with it. It’s okay, you’ll make it to the bathroom next time. The smell didn’t leave me, even when I burned my hands in the hot water. It was in my blood.
One night, our eyes met in the bathroom mirror. Me carrying smelly underwear; he a toothbrush. I wanted to kiss and make up, but instead I shoved the underwear in his hands defiantly. “Here. You deal with this.”
He took it, expressionless, wrapped it up in a plastic bag, and threw it in the trash.
I yelled, “Can’t you see this isn’t working?”
“We’ve made a commitment to try it, and it takes time,” he reminded and reprimanded me. “If we change course now we’ll drive Sophie crazy.”
“Same deal.” The lips that used to kiss me were now talking about shit. “You put her to bed when you know she’s tired, feed her when you know she’s hungry. She can’t get off the potty when you know she has to go. Five minutes. Time it. If she goes, great. If not—”
Ron had a beard now. I knew he grew it to hide old acne scars. Four years. What was he thinking now, looking at me but only discussing my daughter, Danny’s daughter?
The voice that used to call me ‘babe’ now emphasized the importance of consistency and patience. I rested my head in my hand. The smell flooded my airways again.
“Can you take some time off to devote to this?”
“I am taking time off,” I said. “I’ve left the studio.”
“Really? Where did you move to?” I recognized his instant regret at asking a personal question.
“Nowhere. I just wasn’t happy there.”
“Anyway,” he got back on track, “those five minutes are not about fun and games. No books, no phone. She’s supposed to get bored, so she’s motivated to—” “Ron.”
He looked at me tentatively.
“Do my hands smell like shit?”
I reached out my hands. He stared at me for a moment, hesitant, but finally took them in his, bringing them to his nose, sniffing from a safe distance. “They smell like patchouli. It’s from the hand soap in the bathroom. It’s nice.”
I grabbed his hands as they pulled away. Don’t go.
They covered my face.
I wept into them.
We couldn’t sleep, tossing and turning in harmony, so that we never came face to face. Back to face. Face to back.
“I met with Ron,” I finally said.
The rustle of the sheets paused. The reading light went on. “Why?” In his voice I heard the anticipation of an excuse.
“Because I wanted to see him.”
His face paled. His eyes fell away from mine.
“I wrote to him because of Sophie, but I knew we’d end up meeting.”
He said nothing, but his eyes bounced around. Lots of questions.
“I don’t know if it’s about him, or just about feeling like a normal woman. Or tenderness. Something we don’t have.”
A paralyzing silence fell over us.
Suddenly, we heard footsteps. We watched the door vigilantly, expecting Sophie’s sleepy face and small body to climb into bed with us. Instead, we saw the bathroom light go on.
We heard the squeak of plastic against tile. Danny put his hand on my arm to keep me still. I looked at his skin touching mine. Silence. Then another plastic squeak, followed by her footsteps. Silence again.
We walked together to the bathroom and stared at the full potty.
“As long as there’s the sun … the sun!” the voice of Don Peppino Quaglia crooned softly near the doorway of the low, dark, basement apartment. “Leave it to God,” answered the humble and faintly cheerful voice of his wife, Rosa, from inside; she was in bed, moaning in pain from arthritis, complicated by heart disease, and, addressing her sister-in-law, who was in the bathroom, she added: “You know what I’ll do, Nunziata? Later I’ll get up and take the clothes out of the water.”
“Do as you like, to me it seems real madness,” replied the curt, sad voice of Nunziata from that den. “With the pain you have, one more day in bed wouldn’t hurt you!” A silence. “We’ve got to put out some more poison, I found a cockroach in my sleeve this morning.”
From the cot at the back of the room, which was really a cave, with a low vault of dangling spider webs, rose the small, calm voice of Eugenia:
“Mamma, today I’m putting on the eyeglasses.”
There was a kind of secret joy in the modest voice of the child, Don Peppino’s third-born. (The first two, Carmela and Luisella, were with the nuns, and would soon take the veil, having been persuaded that this life is a punishment; and the two little ones, Pasqualino and Teresella, were still snoring, as they slept feet to head, in their mother’s bed.)
“Yes, and no doubt you’ll break them right away,” the voice of her aunt, still irritated, insisted, from behind the door of the little room. She made everyone suffer for the disappointments of her life, first among them that she wasn’t married and had to be subject, as she told it, to the charity of her sister-in-law, although she didn’t fail to add that she dedicated this humiliation to God. She had something of her own set aside, however, and wasn’t a bad person, since she had offered to have glasses made for Eugenia when at home they had realized that the child couldn’t see. “With what they cost! A grand total of a good eight thousand lire!” she added. Then they heard the water running in the basin. She was washing her face, squeezing her eyes, which were full of soap, and Eugenia gave up answering.
Besides, she was too, too pleased.
A week earlier, she had gone with her aunt to an optician on Via Roma. There, in that elegant shop, full of polished tables and with a marvelous green reflection pouring in through a blind, the doctor had measured her sight, making her read many times, through certain lenses that he kept changing, entire columns of letters of the alphabet, printed on a card, some as big as boxes, others as tiny as pins. “This poor girl is almost blind,” he had said then, with a kind of pity, to her aunt, “she should no longer be deprived of lenses.” And right away, while Eugenia, sitting on a stool, waited anxiously, he had placed over her eyes another pair of lenses, with a white metal frame, and had said: “Now look into the street.” Eugenia stood up, her legs trembling with emotion, and was unable to suppress a little cry of joy. On the sidewalk, so many well-dressed people were passing, slightly smaller than normal but very distinct: ladies in silk dresses with powdered faces, young men with long hair and bright-colored sweaters, white-bearded old men with pink hands resting on silver-handled canes; and, in the middle of the street, some beautiful automobiles that looked like toys, their bodies painted red or teal, all shiny; green trolleys as big as houses, with their windows lowered, and behind the windows so many people in elegant clothes. Across the street, on the opposite sidewalk, were beautiful shops, with windows like mirrors, full of things so fine they elicited a kind of longing; some shop boys in black aprons were polishing the windows from the street. At a café with red and yellow tables, some golden-haired girls were sitting outside, legs crossed. They laughed and drank from big colored glasses. Above the café, because it was already spring, the balcony windows were open and embroidered curtains swayed, and behind the curtains were fragments of blue and gilded paintings, and heavy, sparkling chandeliers of gold and crystal, like baskets of artificial fruit. A marvel. Transported by all that splendor, she hadn’t followed the conversation between the doctor and her aunt. Her aunt, in the brown dress she wore to Mass, and standing back from the glass counter with a timidity unnatural to her, now broached the question of the cost: “Doctor, please, give us a good price … we’re poor folk ..” and when she heard “eight thousand lire” she nearly fainted.
“Two lenses! What are you saying! Jesus Mary!”
“Look, ignorant people …” the doctor answered, replacing the other lenses after polishing them with the glove, “don’t calculate anything. And when you give the child two lenses, you’ll be able to tell me if she sees better. She takes nine diopters on one side, and ten on the other, if you want to know. She’s almost blind.”
While the doctor was writing the child’s first and last name—“Eugenia Quaglia, Vicolo della Cupa at Santa Maria in Portico”—Nunziata had gone over to Eugenia, who, standing in the doorway of the shop and holding up the glasses in her small, sweaty hands, was not at all tired of gazing through them: “Look, look, my dear! See what your consolation costs! Eight thousand lire, did you hear? A grand total of a good eight thousand lire!” She was almost suffocating. Eugenia had turned all red, not so much because of the rebuke as because the young woman at the cash register was looking at her, while her aunt was making that observation, which declared the family’s poverty. She took off the glasses.
“But how is it, so young and already so nearsighted?” the young woman had asked Nunziata, while she signed the receipt for the deposit. “And so shabby, too!” she added.
“Young lady, in our house we all have good eyes, this is a misfortune that came upon us … along with the rest. God rubs salt in the wound.”
“Come back in eight days,” the doctor had said. “I’ll have them for you.”
Leaving, Eugenia had tripped on the step.
“Thank you, Aunt Nunzia,” she had said after a while. “I’m always rude to you. I talk back to you, and you are so kind, buying me eyeglasses.”
Her voice trembled.
“My child, it’s better not to see the world than to see it,” Nunziata had answered with sudden melancholy.
Eugenia hadn’t answered her that time, either. Aunt Nunzia was often so strange, she wept and shouted for no good reason, she said so many bad words, and yet she went to Mass regularly, she was a good Christian, and when it came to helping someone in trouble she always volunteered, wholeheartedly. One didn’t have to watch over her.
Since that day, Eugenia had lived in a kind of rapture, waiting for the blessed glasses that would allow her to see all people and things in their tiny details. Until then, she had been wrapped in a fog: the room where she lived, the courtyard always full of hanging laundry, the alley overflowing with colors and cries, everything for her was covered by a thin veil: she knew well only the faces of her family, especially her mother and her siblings, because often she slept with them, and sometimes she woke at night and, in the light of the oil lamp, looked at them. Her mother slept with her mouth open, her broken yellow teeth visible; her brother and sister, Pasqualino and Teresella, were always dirty and snot-nosed and covered with boils: when they slept, they made a strange noise, as if they had wild animals inside them. Sometimes Eugenia surprised herself by staring at them, without understanding, however, what she was thinking. She had a confused feeling that beyond that room always full of wet laundry, with broken chairs and a stinking toilet, there was light, sounds, beautiful things, and in that moment when she had put on the glasses she had had a true revelation: the world outside was beautiful, very beautiful.
“Marchesa, my respects.”
That was the voice of her father. Covered by a ragged shirt, his back, which until that moment had been framed by the doorway of the basement apartment, could no longer be seen. The voice of the marchesa, a placid and indifferent voice, now said:
“You must do me a favor, Don Peppino.”
“At your service … your wish is my command.”
Silently, Eugenia slid out of bed, put on her dress, and, still barefoot, went to the door. The pure and marvelous early morning sun, entering the ugly courtyard through a crack between the buildings, greeted her, lit up her little old lady’s face, her stubbly, disheveled hair, her rough, hard little hands, with their long, dirty nails. Oh, if only at that moment she could have had the eyeglasses! The marchesa was there, in her black silk dress with its white lace neckpiece. Her imposing yet benign appearance enchanted Eugenia, along with her bejeweled white hands; but she couldn’t see her face very well—it was a whitish oval patch. Above it, some purple feathers quivered.
“Listen, you have to redo the child’s mattress. Can you come up around ten-thirty?”
“With all my heart, but I’m only available in the afternoon, Signora Marchesa.”
“No, Don Peppino, it has to be this morning. In the afternoon people are coming. Set yourself up on the terrace and work. Don’t play hard to get … do me this favor … Now it’s time for Mass. At ten-thirty, call me.”
And without waiting for an answer, she left, astutely avoiding a trickle of yellow water that was dripping down from a terrace and had made a puddle on the ground.
“Papa,” said Eugenia, following her father, as he went back inside, “how good the marchesa is! She treats you like a gentleman. God should reward her for it.”
“A good Christian, that one is,” Don Peppino answered, with a meaning completely different from what might have been understood. With the excuse that she was the owner of the house, the Marchesa D’Avanzo constantly had the people in the courtyard serving her: to Don Peppino, she gave a wretched sum for the mattresses; and Rosa was always available for the big sheets; even if her bones were burning she had to get up to serve the marchesa. It’s true that the marchesa had placed her daughters in the convent, and so had saved two souls from the dangers of this world, which for the poor are many, but for that basement space, where everyone was sick, she collected three thousand lire, not one less. “The heart is there, it’s the money that’s lacking,” she loved to repeat, with a certain imperturbability. “Today, dear Don Peppino, you are the nobility, who have no worries … Thank … thank Providence, which has put you in such a condition … which wanted to save you.” Donna Rosa had a kind of adoration for the marchesa, for her religious sentiments; when they saw each other, they always talked about the afterlife. The marchesa didn’t much believe in it, but she didn’t say so, and urged that mother of the family to be patient and to hope.
From the bed, Donna Rosa asked, a little worried: “Did you talk to her?”
“She wants me to redo the mattress for her grandson,” said Don Peppino, in annoyance. He brought out the hot plate to warm up some coffee, a gift of the nuns, and went back inside to fetch water in a small pot. “I won’t do it for less than five hundred,” he said.
“It’s a fair price.”
“And then who will go and pick up Eugenia’s glasses?” Aunt Nunzia asked, coming out of the bathroom. Over her nightgown, she wore a torn skirt, and on her feet slippers. Her bony shoulders emerged from the nightgown, gray as stones. She was drying her face with a napkin. “I can’t go, and Rosa is ill.”
Without anyone noticing, Eugenia’s large, almost blind eyes filled with tears. Now maybe another day would pass without her eyeglasses. She went up to her mother’s bed, and in a pitiful manner, flung her arms and forehead on the blanket. Donna Rosa stretched out a hand to caress her.
“I’ll go, Nunzia, don’t get worked up … In fact, going out will do me good.”
Eugenia kissed her hand.
Around eight there was a great commotion in the courtyard. At that moment Rosa had come out of the doorway: a tall, lanky figure, in a short, stained black coat, without shoulder pads, that exposed her legs, like wooden sticks. Under her arm, she carried a shopping bag for the bread she would buy on her way home from the optician. Don Peppino was pushing the water out of the middle of the courtyard with a long-handled broom, a vain task because the tub was continually leaking, like an open vein. In it were the clothes of two families: the Greborio sisters, on the second floor, and the wife of Cavaliere Amodio, who had given birth two days earlier. The Greborios’ servant, Lina Tarallo, was beating the carpets on a balcony, making a terrible ruckus. The dust, mixed with garbage, descended gradually like a cloud on those poor people, but no one paid attention. Sharp screams and cries of complaint could be heard from the basement where Aunt Nunzia was calling on all the saints as witnesses to confirm that she was unfortunate, and the cause of all this was Pasqualino, who wept and shouted like a condemned man because he wanted to go with his mamma. “Look at him, this scoundrel,” cried Aunt Nunzia. “Madonna bella, do me a favor, let me die, but immediately, if you’re there, since in this life only thieves and whores thrive.” Teresella, born the year the king went away and so younger than her brother, was sitting in the doorway, smiling, and every so often she licked a crust of bread she had found under a chair.
Eugenia was sitting on the step of another basement room, where Mariuccia the porter lived, looking at a section of a children’s comic, with lots of bright-colored figures, which had fallen from the fourth floor. She held it right up to her face, because otherwise she couldn’t read the words. There was a small blue river in a vast meadow and a red boat going … going … who knows where. It was written in proper Italian, and so she didn’t understand much, but every so often, for no reason, she laughed.
“So, today you put on your glasses?” said Mariuccia, looking out from behind her. Everyone in the courtyard knew, partly because Eugenia hadn’t resisted the temptation to talk about it, and partly because Aunt Nunzia had found it necessary to let it be understood that in that family she was spending her own … and well, in short .
“Your aunt got them for you, eh?” Mariuccia added, smiling good-humoredly. She was a small woman, almost a dwarf, with a face like a man’s, covered with whiskers. At the moment she was combing her long black hair, which came to her knees: one of the few things that attested to her being a woman. She was combing it slowly, smiling with her sly but kind little mouse eyes.
“Mamma went to get them on Via Roma,” said Eugenia with a look of gratitude. “We paid a grand total of a good eight thousand lire, you know? Really. my aunt is .” she was about to add “truly a good person,” when Aunt Nunzia, looking out of the basement room, called angrily: “Eugenia!”
“Here I am, Aunt!” and she scampered away like a dog.
Behind their aunt, Pasqualino, all red-faced and bewildered, with a terrible expression somewhere between disdain and surprise, was waiting.
“Go and buy two candies for three lire each, from Don Vincenzo at the tobacco store. Come back immediately!”
She clutched the money in her fist, paying no more attention to the comic, and hurried out of the courtyard.
By a true miracle she avoided a towering vegetable cart drawn by two horses, which was coming toward her right outside the main entrance. The carter, with his whip unsheathed, seemed to be singing, and from his mouth came these words:
“Lovely … Fresh,” drawn out and full of sweetness, like a love song. When the cart was behind her, Eugenia, raising her protruding eyes, basked in that warm blue glow that was the sky, and heard the great hubbub all around her, without, however, seeing it clearly. Carts, one behind the other, big trucks with Americans dressed in yellow hanging out the windows, bicycles that seemed to be tumbling over. High up, all the balconies were cluttered with flower crates, and over the railings, like flags or saddle blankets, hung yellow and red quilts, ragged blue children’s clothes, sheets, pillows, and mattresses exposed to the air, while at the end of the alley ropes uncoiled, lowering baskets to pick up the vegetables or fish offered by peddlers. Although the sun touched only the highest balconies (the street a crack in the disorderly mass of buildings) and the rest was only shadow and garbage, one could sense, behind it, the enormous celebration of spring. And even Eugenia, so small and pale, bound like a mouse to the mud of her courtyard, began to breathe rapidly, as if that air, that celebration, and all that blue suspended over the neighborhood of the poor were also hers. The yellow basket of the Amodios’ maid, Rosaria Buonincontri, grazed her as she went into the tobacco shop. Rosaria was a fat woman in black, with white legs and a flushed, placid face.
“Tell your mamma if she can come upstairs a moment today, Signora Amodio needs her to deliver a message.”
Eugenia recognized her by her voice. “She’s not here now. She went to Via Roma to get my glasses.”
“I should wear them, too, but my boyfriend doesn’t want me to.”
Eugenia didn’t grasp the meaning of that prohibition. She answered only, ingenuously: “They cost a great amount; you have to take very good care of them.”
They entered Don Vincenzo’s hole-in-the-wall together.
There was a crowd. Eugenia kept being pushed back. “Go on … you really are blind,” observed the Amodios’ maid, with a kind smile.
“But now Aunt Nunzia’s gotten you some eyeglasses,” Don Vincenzo, who had heard her, broke in, winking, with an air of teasing comprehension. He, too, wore glasses.
“At your age,” he said, handing her the candies, “I could see like a cat, I could thread needles at night, my grandmother always wanted me nearby … but now I’m old.”
Eugenia nodded vaguely. “My friends. none of them have lenses,” she said. Then, turning to the servant Rosaria, but speaking also for Don Vincenzo’s benefit: “Just me. Nine diopters on one side and ten on the other. I am almost blind!” she said emphatically, sweetly.
“See how lucky you are,” said Don Vincenzo, smiling, and to Rosaria: “How much salt?”
“Poor child!” the Amodios’ maid commented as Eugenia left, happily. “It’s the dampness that’s ruined her. In that building it rains on us. Now Donna Rosa’s bones ache. Give me a kilo of coarse salt and a packet of fine … ”
“There you are.”
“What a morning, eh, today, Don Vincenzo? It seems like summer already.”
Walking more slowly than she had on the way there, Eugenia, without even realizing it, began to unwrap one of the two candies, and then put it in her mouth. It tasted of lemon. “I’ll tell Aunt Nunzia that I lost it on the way,” she proposed to herself. She was happy, it didn’t matter to her if her aunt, good as she was, got angry. She felt someone take her hand, and recognized Luigino.
“You are really blind!” the boy said laughing. “And the glasses?”
“Mamma went to Via Roma to get them.”
“I didn’t go to school; it’s a beautiful day, why don’t we take a little walk?”
“You’re crazy! Today I have to be good.”
Luigino looked at her and laughed, with his mouth like a money box, stretching to his ears, contemptuous.
“What a rat’s nest.”
Instinctively Eugenia brought a hand to her hair.
“I can’t see well, and Mamma doesn’t have time,” she answered meekly.
“What are the glasses like? With gold frames?” Luigino asked. “All gold!” Eugenia answered, lying. “Bright and shiny!”
“Old women wear glasses,” said Luigino.
“Also ladies, I saw them on Via Roma.”
“Those are dark glasses, for sunbathing,” Luigino insisted. “You’re just jealous. They cost eight thousand lire.”
“When you have them, let me see them,” said Luigino. “I want to see if the frame really is gold. You’re such a liar,” and he went off on his own business, whistling.
Reentering the courtyard, Eugenia wondered anxiously if her glasses would or wouldn’t have a gold frame. In the negative case, what could she say to Luigino to convince him that they were a thing of value? But what a beautiful day! Maybe Mamma was about to return with the glasses wrapped in a package. Soon she would have them on her face. She would have … A frenzy of blows fell on her head. A real fury. She seemed to collapse; in vain she defended herself with her hands. It was Aunt Nunzia, of course, furious because of her delay, and behind Aunt Nunzia was Pasqualino, like a madman, because he didn’t believe her story about the candies. “Bloodsucker! You ugly little blind girl! And I who gave my life for this ingratitude … You’ll come to a bad end! Eight thousand lire no less. They bleed me dry, these scoundrels.”
She let her hands fall, only to burst into a great lament. “Our Lady of Sorrows, holy Jesus, by the wounds in your ribs let me die!”
Eugenia wept, too, in torrents.
“Aunt, forgive me. Aunt .”
“Uh . uh . uh .” said Pasqualino, his mouth wide open.
“Poor child,” said Donna Mariuccia, coming over to Eugenia, who didn’t know where to hide her face, now streaked with red and tears at her aunt’s rage. “She didn’t do it on purpose, Nunzia, calm down,” and to Eugenia: “Where’ve you got the candies?”
Eugenia answered softly, hopelessly, holding out one in her dirty hand: “I ate the other. I was hungry.”
Before her aunt could move again, to attack the child, the voice of the marchesa could be heard, from the fourth floor, where there was sun, calling softly, placidly, sweetly:
Aunt Nunzia looked up, her face pained as that of the Madonna of the Seven Sorrows, which was at the head of her bed.
“Today is the first Friday of the month. Dedicate it to God.”
“Marchesa, how good you are! These kids make me commit so many sins, I’m losing my mind, I …” And she collapsed her face between her paw-like hands, the hands of a worker, with brown, scaly skin.
“Is your brother not there?”
“Poor Aunt, she got you the eyeglasses, and that’s how you thank her,” said Mariuccia meanwhile to Eugenia, who was trembling.
“Yes, signora, here I am,” answered Don Peppino, who until that moment had been half hidden behind the door of the basement room, waving a paper in front of the stove where the beans for lunch were cooking.
“Can you come up?”
“My wife went to get the eyeglasses for Eugenia. I’m watching the beans. Would you wait, if you don’t mind.”
“Then send up the child. I have a dress for Nunziata. I want to give it to her.”
“May God reward you … very grateful,” answered Don Peppino, with a sigh of consolation, because that was the only thing that could calm his sister. But looking at Nunziata, he realized that she wasn’t at all cheered up. She continued to weep desperately, and that weeping had so stunned Pasqualino that the child had become quiet as if by magic, and was now licking the snot that dripped from his nose, with a small, sweet smile.
“Did you hear? Go up to the Signora Marchesa, she has a dress to give you,” said Don Peppino to his daughter.
Eugenia was looking at something in the void, with her eyes that couldn’t see: they were staring, fixed and large. She winced, and got up immediately, obedient.
“Say to her: ‘May God reward you,’ and stay outside the door.”
“Believe me, Mariuccia,” said Aunt Nunzia, when Eugenia had gone off, “I love that little creature, and afterward I’m sorry, as God is my witness, for scolding her. But I feel all the blood go to my head, believe me, when I have to fight with the kids. Youth is gone, as you see,” and she touched her hollow cheeks. “Sometimes I feel like a madwoman.”
“On the other hand, they have to vent, too,” Donna Mariuccia answered. “They’re innocent souls. They need time to weep. When I look at them, and think how they’ll become just like us.” She went to get a broom and swept a cabbage leaf out of the doorway. “I wonder what God is doing.”
“It’s new, brand-new! You hardly wore it!” said Eugenia, sticking her nose in the green dress lying on the sofa in the kitchen, while the marchesa went looking for an old newspaper to wrap it in.
The marchesa thought that the child really couldn’t see, because otherwise she would have realized that the dress was very old and full of patches (it had belonged to her dead sister), but she refrained from commenting. Only after a moment, as she was coming in with the newspaper, she asked:
“And the eyeglasses your aunt got you? Are they new?”
“With gold frames. They cost eight thousand lire,” Eugenia answered all in one breath, becoming emotional again at the thought of the honor she had received, “because I’m almost blind,” she added simply.
“In my opinion,” said the marchesa, carefully wrapping the dress in the newspaper, and then reopening the package because a sleeve was sticking out, “your aunt could have saved her money. I saw some very good eyeglasses in a shop near the Church of the Ascension, for only two thousand lire.”
Eugenia blushed fiery red. She understood that the marchesa was displeased. “Each to his own position in life. We all must know our limitations,” she had heard her say this many times, talking to Donna Rosa, when she brought her the washed clothes, and stayed to complain of her poverty.
“Maybe they weren’t good enough. I have nine diopters,” she replied timidly.
The marchesa arched an eyebrow, but luckily Eugenia didn’t see it.
“They were good, I’m telling you,” the Marchesa said obstinately, in a slightly harsher voice. Then she was sorry. “My dear,” she said more gently, “I’m saying this because I know the troubles you have in your household. With that difference of six thousand lire, you could buy bread for ten days, you could buy… What’s the use to you of seeing better? Given what’s around you!” A silence. “To read, maybe, but do you read?”
“But sometimes I’ve seen you with your nose in a book. A liar as well, my dear. That is no good.”
Eugenia didn’t answer again. She felt truly desperate, staring at the dress with her nearly white eyes.
“Is it silk?” she asked stupidly.
The marchesa looked at her, reflecting.
“You don’t deserve it, but I want to give you a little gift,” she said suddenly, and headed toward a white wooden wardrobe. At that moment the telephone, which was in the hall, began to ring, and instead of opening the wardrobe the marchesa went to answer it. Eugenia, oppressed by those words, hadn’t even heard the old woman’s consoling allusion, and as soon as she was alone she began to look around as far as her poor eyes allowed her. How many fine, beautiful things! Like the store on Via Roma! And there, right in front of her, an open balcony with a lot of small pots of flowers.
She went out onto the balcony. How much air, how much blue! The apartment buildings seemed to be covered by a blue veil, and below was the alley, like a ravine, with so many ants coming and going … like her relatives. What were they doing? Where were they going? They went in and out of their holes, carrying big crumbs of bread, they were doing this now, had done it yesterday, would do it tomorrow, forever, forever. So many holes, so many ants. And around them, almost invisible in the great light, the world made by God, with the wind, the sun, and out there the purifying sea, so vast … She was standing there, her chin planted on the iron railing, suddenly thoughtful, with an expression of sorrow, of bewilderment, that made her look ugly. She heard the sound of the marchesa’s voice, calm, pious. In her hand, in her smooth ivory hand, the marchesa was holding a small book covered in black paper with gilt letters.
“It’s the thoughts of the saints, my dear. The youth of today don’t read anything, and so the world has changed course. Take it, I’m giving it to you. But you must promise to read a little every evening, now that you’ve got your glasses.”
“Yes, signora,” said Eugenia, in a hurry, blushing again because the marchesa had found her on the balcony, and she took the book. Signora D’Avanzo regarded her with satisfaction.
“God wished to save you, my dear!” she said, going to get the package with the dress and placing it in her hands. “You’re not pretty, anything but, and you already appear to be an old lady. God favors you, because looking like that you won’t have opportunities for evil. He wants you to be holy, like your sisters!”
Although the words didn’t really wound her, because she had long been unconsciously prepared for a life without joy, Eugenia was nevertheless disturbed by them. And it seemed to her, if only for a moment, that the sun no longer shone as before, and even the thought of the eyeglasses ceased to cheer her. She looked vaguely, with her nearly dead eyes, at a point on the sea, where the Posillipo peninsula extended like a faded green lizard. “Tell Papa,” the marchesa continued, meanwhile, “that we won’t do anything about the child’s mattress today. My cousin telephoned, and I’ll be in Posillipo all day.”
“I was there once, too …” Eugenia began, reviving at that name and looking, spellbound, in that direction.
“Yes? Is that so?” Signora D’Avanzo was indifferent, the name of that place meant nothing special to her. In her magisterial fashion, she accompanied the child, who was still looking toward that luminous point, to the door, closing it slowly behind her.
As Eugenia came down the last step and out into the courtyard, the shadow that had been darkening her forehead for a while disappeared, and her mouth opened in a joyful laugh, because she had seen her mother arriving. It wasn’t hard to recognize that worn, familiar figure. She threw the dress on a chair and ran toward her.
“Mamma! The eyeglasses!”
“Gently, my dear, you’ll knock me over!”
Immediately, a small crowd formed. Donna Mariuccia, Don Peppino, one of the Greborios, who had stopped to rest on a chair before starting up the stairs, the Amodios’ maid, who was just then returning, and, of course, Pasqualino and Teresella, who wanted to see, too, and yelled, holding out their hands. Nunziata, for her part, was observing the dress that she had taken out of the newspaper, with a disappointed expression.
“Look, Mariuccia, it’s an old rag … all worn out under the arms!” she said, approaching the group. But who was paying attention to her? At that moment, Donna Rosa was extracting from a pocket in her dress the eyeglass case, and with infinite care opened it. On Donna Rosa’s long red hand, a kind of very shiny insect with two giant eyes and two curving antennae glittered in a pale ray of sun amid those poor people, full of admiration.
“Eight thousand lire … a thing like that!” said Donna Rosa, gazing at the eyeglasses religiously, and yet with a kind of rebuke.
Then, in silence, she placed them on Eugenia’s face, as the child ecstatically held out her hands, and carefully arranged the two antennae behind her ears. “Now can you see?” Donna Rosa asked with great emotion.
Gripping the eyeglasses with her hands, as if in fear that they would be taken away from her, her eyes half closed and her mouth half open in a rapt smile, Eugenia took two steps backward, and stumbled on a chair.
“Good luck!” said the Amodios’ maid.
“Good luck!” said the Greborio sister.
“She looks like a schoolteacher, doesn’t she?” Don Peppino observed with satisfaction.
“Not even a thank you!” said Aunt Nunzia, looking bitterly at the dress. “With all that, good luck!”
“She’s afraid, my little girl!” murmured Donna Rosa, heading toward the door of the basement room to put down her things. “She’s put on the eyeglasses for the first time!” she said, looking up at the first-floor balcony, where the other Greborio sister was looking out.
“I see everything very tiny,” said Eugenia, in a strange voice, as if she were speaking from under a chair. “Black, very black.”
“Of course: the lenses are double. But do you see clearly?” asked Don Peppino. “That’s the important thing. She’s put on the glasses for the first time,” he, too, said, addressing Cavaliere Amodio, who was passing by, holding an open newspaper.
“I’m warning you,” the cavaliere said to Mariuccia, after staring at Eugenia for a moment, as if she were merely a cat, “that stairway hasn’t been swept. I found some fish bones in front of the door!” And he went on, bent over, almost enfolded in his newspaper, reading an article about a proposal for a new pension law that interested him.
Eugenia, still holding on to the eyeglasses with her hands, went to the entrance to the courtyard to look outside into Vicolo della Cupa. Her legs were trembling, her head was spinning, and she no longer felt any joy. With her white lips she wished to smile, but that smile became a moronic grimace. Suddenly the balconies began to multiply, two thousand, a hundred thousand; the carts piled with vegetables were falling on her; the voices filling the air, the cries, the lashes, struck her head as if she were ill; she turned, swaying, toward the courtyard, and that terrible impression intensified. The courtyard was like a sticky funnel, with the narrow end toward the sky, its leprous walls crowded with derelict balconies; the arches of the basement dwellings black, with the lights bright in a circle around Our Lady of Sorrows; the pavement white with soapy water; the cabbage leaves, the scraps of paper, the garbage and, in the middle of the courtyard, that group of ragged, deformed souls, faces pocked by poverty and resignation, who looked at her lovingly. They began to writhe, to become mixed up, to grow larger. They all came toward her, in the two bewitched circles of the eyeglasses. It was Mariuccia who first realized that the child was sick, and she tore off the glasses, because Eugenia, doubled over and moaning, was throwing up.
“They’ve gone to her stomach!” cried Mariuccia, holding her forehead. “Bring a coffee bean, Nunziata!”
“A grand total of a good eight thousand lire!” cried Aunt Nunzia, her eyes popping out of her head, running into the basement room to get a coffee bean from a can in the cupboard; and she held up the new eyeglasses, as if to ask God for an explanation. “And now they’re wrong, too!”
“It’s always like that, the first time,” said the Amodios’ maid to Donna Rosa calmly. “You mustn’t be shocked; little by little one gets used to them.”
“It’s nothing, child, nothing, don’t be scared!” But Donna Rosa felt her heart constrict at the thought of how unlucky they were.
Aunt Nunzia returned with the coffee bean, still crying: “A grand total of a good eight thousand lire!” while Eugenia, pale as death, tried in vain to throw up, because she had nothing left inside her. Her bulging eyes were almost crossed with suffering, and her old lady’s face was bathed in tears, as if stupefied. She leaned on her mother and trembled.
“Mamma, where are we?”
“We’re in the courtyard, my child,” said Donna Rosa patiently; and the fine smile, between pity and wonder, that illuminated her eyes, suddenly lit up the faces of all those wretched people.
“She’s a half-wit, she is!”
“Leave her alone, poor child, she’s dazed,” said Donna Mariuccia, and her face was grim with pity, as she went back into the basement apartment that seemed to her darker than usual.
Only Aunt Nunzia was wringing her hands:
“A grand total of a good eight thousand lire!”
*The story is taken from Evening Descends Upon the Hills by Anna Maria Ortese. Pushkin Press, 2018.
“I have not yet begun to fight!”
John Paul Jones
The road descends all the way to the sea, as though the whole world was a huge basin where everything drove, sailed, glided and swept down to the bottom. I’m on my way to visit my mother. I’m riding my old green bicycle, peddling happily, gears greased, hands firmly gripping the rusted handlebars. The evening air is humid but a gentle breeze sweeps my hair back and brushes against my face. And when tiny beads of sweat bud on my lips I lick them away, tasting their salinity. I speed past an illuminated billboard on which Mel Gibson grins with a smile once enthralling, but no longer. The first time I saw Lethal Weapon I laughed uproariously at Martin Riggs seated with Roger Murtaugh in the gleaming boat parked on his lawn, because it reminded me of the oval ocean in which father placed me and Eran when we were children. On bright summer days, father would stand outside our window, press his nose against the screen and call out loudly: “Who wants to be Archimedes today?”
“Me! Me!” we’d both shout, quickly undressing and rushing outside in our white underwear and tanned skin to father’s exciting ocean. The tub was already filled to the brim with fresh water, cold at first, from the garden hose. “Today you’ll be Archimedes,” father declared, beaming, pointing to the oval sea, “Get in. Let’s see how much water you’ll splash out today.” Eran followed me down into the depths and the green grass surrounding us was flooded by waves of water in adherence to the incontrovertible truth of Archimedes’ Law, which father patiently explained to us. He handed us the long pole, one end of which was already green with mold and always served as a mast, and tied a square of white cloth to it which had been surreptitiously cut from mother’s old holiday dress. When all was ready he grasped the thick rope tied to the tub’s handle and cried out, “Eran, today you’re Magellan! We’re sailing to Tierra del Fuego!” On another occasion I was Christopher Columbus. We bravely sailed west to discover India and, as always, when it was my turn to be Columbus, father would ask, “Well, my pretty one, what are the names of your three vessels?” and I would quickly clutch the rim of the tub to keep it from overturning because father was already running as hard as he could on the grass around the house, the tub careening, water splashing, me yelling back to him, “Nina, Pinta and Fanta Maria!” and the three of us roared with laughter because that’s what I’d say when I was little and didn’t know its name was “Santa Maria.”
We traveled with father to many faraway lands. We journeyed to Sweden to view the Vasa which had sunk in Stockholm’s ancient harbor with all of its crew and cannon as it set out on its maiden voyage; we sailed from port to port on the magnificent Love Boat and disembarked to tour Puerto Vallarta; and once even reached Polynesia where we embarked in a double pirogue and didn’t tip over. And on one unusually hot day father sprayed us with the hose so we wouldn’t become dehydrated, God forbid, and announced, “Today we’ll sail from Ashkelon to Arcachon and Biarritz, where the rich French people have summer homes.” But I, who’d already studied geography in school, said with an innocent expression on my face, “Dad, that’s not possible. They’re on the Atlantic coast.” Father was briefly mortified but recovered. “Alright, then we’ll go back to earlier times, they’re always fascinating. What do you say, let’s join Odysseus, King of Ithaca, on his journey home from the Trojan War?” My face expressed indifference because I didn’t like wars. I proposed boarding a black gondola on the canals of Venice, “If Eran agrees, of course.” I think that was the year the oval tub grew too small for both of us and father had to sail me first and then my brother. I no longer feared to journey alone to the Cape of Storms, and when we’d rounded the continent we decided unanimously to rename it the Cape of Good Hope. But Eran grew impatient even before we’d gone ashore and stamped his feet, “Enough, Dad, now it’s my turn. I want to go to the Galapagos, to the iguanas!”
We learned about many exotic locations and historic maritime expeditions during the delightful games with father on the lawn. Once Eran asked with a challenging thrust of his chin, “And what long voyages did you make, Dad?”, and father thought for a long moment, while the water in the tub settled, scratching his head as though attempting to remember, “Ah, I went on a long trip in Mauthausen, then a march from Bergen-Belsen, before then I also visited Auschwitz, which was a long time ago and I don’t really remember very well, but what I can tell you is that I was plunged into the eye of a storm long before I ever saw the open sea – “
Eran and I fell silent and our gaiety faded. We were already familiar with these names, Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Mauthausen, and other names of similar places from mother’s whispering to Aunt Lily, one of them crying silently, the other crushing larval cigarette butts in the glass ashtray, fingering a white handkerchief in her lap.
Father saw we’d quieted down and quickly moved to reinvigorate us. He pulled the rope with such strength we almost tumbled from the boat as he began rushing us to Mount Ararat to locate, once and for all, Noah’s lost ark.
Then Eran really got big. Hands, feet, neck, all his clothes and shoes were too small for him and his voice changed and he asked to move to the closed-in balcony, at least he’d have his own room, without me. I kept pace with him, as though we were twinned. I’d already discovered Osnat was using tampons and wondered when my turn would come. Meanwhile, I was wearing a double-A bra and putting on mother’s pink lipstick whenever she left the house.
One day, almost as an afterthought, the tub was shoved into the crawl space under the house, a shady, cool place with a musty odor where mother’s cats would shelter from the heat. Our last voyage in father’s tub was to the Lofoten Islands where the maelstrom, the deadly ocean whirlpool, waited in ambush at high tide. Father told us it was known even to Jules Verne; it was the mysterious whirlpool in which the Nautilus sank – and at night when I lay in bed, curled in a blanket, my nose between the pages of Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, I was pleased to learn the French author had been right. And because we had escaped the whirlpool the water in the tub subsided and Eran and I, and father, listened intently to the sirens’ song. Father shut his eyes, turned his ear to the wind and rhythmically stroked his cheek with pleasure. Eran wrung out his wet undershirt with abrupt movements, looked at father, an unfamiliar expression on his face, as if he were seeing him for the first time, and said angrily, “What sirens are you talking about, Dad, it’s only the wind and the crickets!” and turned to enter the house, dripping wet. Then he yelled, in a parting shot, “Why don’t you ever talk to me about soccer?!”
I silenced my brother quickly. As he walked away, I yelled at him that he didn’t understand anything! I still heard them singing, their gentle, tantalizing voices, and still looked up to my father, even though I too began to wonder how he knew so much about brave admirals like John Paul Jones and Captain Cook, about distant seas and exciting missions in places whose names sent chills of pleasure through me and filled me with an urgent lust to see the world.
Mother never swam in the ocean or in the pool and father dared only infrequently to drive our white Susita automobile as far as Beersheba or Tiberias, and even less frequently picked up a book and sat down to read it from cover to cover. “He no longer has patience to read,” mother sighed, tightening a screw in her eyeglass frame with a tiny screwdriver. “They killed his patience.”
At the end of that summer, just before the autumn winds began whipping the tips of the cedars along the border of our fading garden, and just before the spikes of the sea squills began their torturous emergence from the hard earth, at the end of that summer mother ran into the house with a terrified expression in her eyes. She’d been weeding the garden and saw a marbled snake slither beneath the house. Father ran outside, bent down between the oleander bushes and stared for a long time into the narrow, dim coolness between the earth and the house above. When he rose to his feet and saw mother standing at the doorway fingering the hem of her skirt he spread his arms – “there’s no snake there” – but when his glance met her frightened eyes and he saw her shrinking back he crouched again with a sigh and carefully removed all the junk that had accumulated beneath the house through the years: a roll of chicken wire that no one could remember why it had been purchased; Eran’s scooter, which had surrendered all its majesty; and the periscope we had constructed from plywood and mirrors, almost in one piece and perhaps still usable. And when he pulled out the small tub I saw sadly that time had corroded its surface into red-brown rust and had left it pitted like one of mother’s lace doilies that rested on the cushions of the living room armchairs, starched and stiff.
The days passed slowly, then sped on their way. The winds awoke from their summer slumber as though they’d been alerted. Mother picked pomegranates from the tree and placed them in a blue clay bowl that highlighted their pinkish-yellow colors. Most had been attacked by insects, but were still lovely on their surface. The grape arbor still sagged with the weight of lush clusters. Eran and I stretched our hands toward their twined vines, grasped the tendrils and pulled the ripe fruit down into our mouths. When the wagtails returned to peck the earth then autumn had truly arrived and the summer became a hazy memory. The traces of our adventurous journeys in the tub dissipated. Clouds arrived from the sea and clumped in corners of the sky like huddled sheep. Nights were chilly and brought rain. After days of downpours that beat down everywhere with unfathomable intensity the rain was transformed into a whispered, calming drizzle. I wandered outside for hours in my gray raincoat, seeing visions deep within the mirroring puddles. And when a storm arrived to beat wildly against the slats of the shutters, mother said it was the winter’s swan song and how pleasant it was in such weather to be beneath blankets in the eye of the storm. It was mother who taught us that the storm’s eye is the safest place to be at sea during a whirlwind, the exact opposite of what we’d believed, even father, and that ships can sail in the eye of the storm without fear. And so, if that winter’s final rain was a storm, we remained in the calm isle of its eye.
One morning the last orange dropped from the tree in obedience to an unspoken instruction and embarked on its journey of decomposition. Spring was brief that year and the summer very hot and oppressive. Eran was finishing twelfth grade. Every evening he ran a timed hour along the beach. He’d returned from the naval commando team-building exercise bruised and exhausted, and also dirty and somewhat ill, but with a smile of victory on his lips. However, he wasn’t accepted into the naval commando unit and no one could console him, not even his girlfriend Nitza. In the autumn Eran reluctantly joined a different unit, completed the training with distinction, eventually came to terms with the bright red color of his unit’s beret, returned to Nitza, and was killed one dark night in an ambush in southern Lebanon.
Afterwards, a silence descended on the house and never lifted. The sailors and brave discoverers of new lands who filled our childhood sailed away in their ships beyond the horizon, pennants flying, and never returned. We remained planted in the earth. Mother wrapped up her pain and buried it deep within her – “There’s still a child here at home” – while father submerged his rigid denial in the sea’s cold waters, swimming to a small island until his strength gave out or taking long morning walks along the beach, striding beside the waves on the same route Eran took every evening at the end of twelfth grade, pacing pensively, searching for a trace of his son’s footprints, his back bending, his heart unravelling.
I stopped at a red light, brakes screeching. I wiped the sweat from my face and adjusted the straps of my backpack. In the distance I saw the sea’s dusky shadow merge with the sky into a unitary boundless gray entity, pierced by pale starlight and the eyeballs of the round lamps along the promenade curving to the south. When the light turned green I made my way toward the anchorage. The gloomy sea was hidden momentarily by a brighter one: a giant billboard advertising a Greek island holiday.
On one of the few occasions that mother and father had enough money and energy to take a short holiday, the four of us drove to Eilat. The journey was long and enchanting. “It’s like Africa,” said Eran, amazed by the acacia trees struggling to survive in the arid heat, seeming to flee from him as fast as we were driving toward them. Mother told us that the manna eaten by the Israelites in the desert hadn’t fallen from the sky, as is written in the Torah, and that scientists believed that the biblical white material was, in fact, sweet secretions of ants living on the acacia branches. She went on to tell us the meaning of symbiosis, and Eran and I immediately responded, “Ugh, secretions of ants – “, then my brother turned around and swore he saw Lot’s wife. I cried that I saw ibexes leaping on the cliffs.
We reached Eilat hungry and dusty. The Red Sea’s waters were dark blue and the beach curving and golden. An expanse of cloth tents blossomed on the sand. Before it grew dark we also built a tent of flapping piqué bedspreads and broomsticks, near our Susita, and mother gave each of us our favorite sandwich. After eating we entered the water, except for mother. We splashed, swam, insisted we’d seen scorpion fish and parrot fish and took care to avoid being stung by the black sea anemones. All our urgings were useless, mother refused to go in the water. Father gave up first. “Leave mom alone,” he motioned, she’s hopeless, and again wet his black hair. “Did you forget the business with the cats?” We hadn’t forgotten. Mother observed one of the neighbors bathing three kittens in a large metal bucket and wanted to look, and saw their small heads and limbs trembling beneath the shimmering surface. With their remaining strength the kittens tried to free themselves from the grip of the man bent over the pail glancing out of the corner of his eye at the neighbors’ daughter, at mother, “You know what cats do in the garden, wailing all night like they’re being slaughtered? Then they give birth and the kittens bring fleas. It’s the same every year and their mother never learns!” He didn’t release their striped bodies until they grew limp and the water in the pail no longer moved. Since then mother’s fame had spread to all the stray cats in the neighborhood, who came to her for refuge. And since then – so we assumed – mother avoided water resolutely. When the town built a swimming pool she would enter only to her ankles, and never took her worried eyes off Eran and me though we swam like dolphins. Only when father placed us in the tub’s oval sea and became a daring admiral did mother watch us contentedly, seated on the porch stairs.
After Eran had been killed father lost all sense of time. He sat alone in the garden for hours on a wicker chair frayed from age and the sun, slumped in the lacy shade of the Persian Lilac tree, fingering an old piece of rope, as though reviewing all the knots he’d taught us when we were children: fisherman’s knot, overhand knot, reef knot, granny knot. Father’s fingers were thick and nimble. “You already know how to tie your shoelaces, right?” he said the first time he showed us the rope’s wonders, “so you already know one knot!”
When I saw him sitting like that in the shady garden I was horrified and a fist clutched my heart: father had shriveled and seemed so lost he required a lifeline. I imagined him leaning toward me and patiently explaining where to place my fingers and how to form the rope into a loop and where to pull and tighten so the knot would be secure, but I didn’t exactly remember what went where anymore. And so father continued to fade away from us until he silently disappeared from our lives, one moment visible, then illusory, glinting, then quenched in the distance – until he descended into the endless, macabre abyss at the horizon where the sea ended – and was never seen again.
I’m flying downhill on the bicycle, the wind flinging my hair back and cooling my skin. Mother moved away from the old house long ago. Now, though it seems unbelievable, she lives on the sea. Literally on the sea. A man with white hair desired my mother for her silences and the sorrow that withered her spirit, and brought her home to him. The stability mother always sought in a safe harbor she found, as it happened, on the man’s small, rocking boat anchored in the Jaffa marina. “Our house is big and empty, and it’s like a museum,” she sighed to me one morning, “Eran’s gone. Dad is gone. You have your own life, I don’t want to live here any longer. The house is yours now, with all that’s in it, and all that isn’t, it’s all yours. And if you don’t want it either, you’re welcome to sell it. We’ll split the proceeds fifty-fifty.”
Mother didn’t wait for me to sell the house – nor had I decided what to do with it – but packed a few suitcases and moved in with her sister Talma. After a while she also moved from Talma’s because she’d met Herbert. This was the first time she had invited me to her new home.
I arrived at the marina, panting heavily. I tied the bike to a streetlamp and scanned the area to locate the lights of the boat mother had described on the phone. “On the stern is the verse you, Eran and Dad always loved,” she set me a riddle we’d solved long ago, and added, surprised at herself, “You won’t believe the coincidence,” that is – I inferred – the verse was a sign this man was also a kindred spirit. I smiled to myself. For a brief moment my brother and I were again seated in the splashing tub, the sun gilding our heads, and repeated along with father the magical fact that “All the rivers go to the sea and the sea is not full.” My brother and I roiled the water’s surface and were answered by waves rippling outward, and we tried to understand how all the rivers go to the sea and the sea is not full.
I’m standing beneath the streetlamp, my feet in the puddle of light, hands on my hips. Large boats and small fishing craft rock in the marina’s waters. Nearby waves shatter dully against the rocks of the breakwater. The air smells of fish guts mingled with flecks of salt the wind carries to shore. In the deepening darkness I can’t find the boat or the verse on its stern. Only thanks to my cellphone do I find mother and Herbert, who have emerged onto the deck of a shiny white boat and are now waving a flashlight at me. He smiles pleasantly and extends a trembling hand as I climb up to his bobbing home. I look at him with interest, he’s the man who was able to do what father never could – detach mother from dry land.
I follow him down into the boat. Mother’s expression is welcoming, her eyes gleam and she hugs me tightly, “This is my daughter,” she proudly says to her new partner. “I’m pleased, pleased to meet you,” Herbert repeats.
The boat rocks gently and I glance at mother surreptitiously. She looks back at me with unfamiliar confidence. Her eyes tell me everything’s fine. My mind eases, mother has found new love, everything’s fine. Mother gestures and I sit opposite her on the upholstered bench, and Herbert immediately offers hot tea or cool cocoa, whichever we prefer.
I ask mother where they’re headed.
“We’re not headed anywhere, sweetheart,” she calmly replies, “We’re not headed anywhere. Nothing’s changed as far as that’s concerned. I’m not stepping into the water. Herbert assured me the boat is securely tied to the dock, we’ve dropped anchor and the basin within the breakwater is usually smooth as butter. It’s a house, that’s all it is.”
“And I thought you’d finally gotten over that business with the kittens.”
Mother shrugs, “Why would you think that. We’re staying here, and during the winter we’ll move to his apartment in Giv’at Olga. Anyway,” her smile sparkles, “No lands remain for us to discover – “
I thank Herbert as he hands me a cup of hot tea with a charming gesture and asks whether to add a sugar cube and whether I like sailing, or whether I’m “like your mother.”
Mother sips carefully, “No, she’s not like me. I’m something special. I never sought adventure, but who knows? You only live once.”
Herbert strokes her head very gently. I examine the cup in my hand.
“You know, Herbert,” mother says, “One day I’ll find the courage and then the three of us will sail west, perhaps to Ile d’If, opposite Marseille. We could pause near the St. Jean fortress, perhaps Dantès will wave to us through the bars of his cell.”
I stare at mother in amazement. Had she been listening when father read The Count of Monte Cristo to us? I don’t remember her ever reading it.
She smiles at me encouragingly. Father’s image, tall and joyful, appears momentarily between us. Our thoughts drift to Eran who had begun, for a short while, to resemble him, until a large, returning fishing vessel chugs toward us, and as it maneuvers its way into the anchorage the water grows agitated and Herbert’s boat sways.
A striped cat I hadn’t noticed before jumps onto mother’s knees and curls up in her lap like a snail. Its half-open eyes examine me, then close again.
I hear mother ask, “Have you decided what you want to do with the house?” and I, distracted, answer “No, not yet,” thinking about my green bicycle tied to the streetlamp on the pier, and that I’ll soon have to pedal back up the long slope that led down to the marina. Perhaps I should say goodbye, and leave.
*From “A Sensitive Woman”, a collection of stories, (The fifth book by Edna Shemesh, to be published in 2019)