The day I moved from the city to the country my dog returned his spirit to the God who gave it. I do not know whether it was the shock of the move or just a coincidence. Nevertheless, at one-thirty in the morning, after a death rattle that appeared suddenly and lasted a few hours, he lay his head in my lap, shivered one last time and went limp, while defecating on our new wooden flooring. Throughout that evening I could hear the jackals howling from the dry riverbed nearby. I don’t think there was any special reason, certainly nothing symbolic. The jackals were being jackals, and their howls were just howls. Yet back then their sound was still foreign to me and struck me as ominous. Moreover, at the very same moment the dog endured his final spasm, I heard a loud, guttural howl that was altogether different from those that had preceded it. I’m a rational person, but I must admit – it sent a shiver down my spine, and for a moment I was almost convinced it was the dog’s soul, parting from this world in fury and disappointment. Still, I ultimately dismissed it as just another of the jackals’ howls. For who can comprehend all their words and cries? And besides, whatever its source, the howl too ceased definitively after a few moments. Just like the dog.
I buried him in the riverbed the following morning. It seemed more respectful than taking him to the vet, where they would have undoubtedly sent him off in a black trash bag to a crematorium for biological waste. There was also the issue of transportation: conveying a dead body, albeit canine, in one’s trunk is a rather messy affair for the average law-abiding citizen. A burial felt more dignified. For dust you are, and to dust you shall return. Since you’ve already made it to the valley where we hoped you would roam, at least your bones will be laid to rest honorably in its soil. I do not wish to exhaust the reader with the fine details of the burial. In a nutshell, the dog was somewhat overweight, and the dry rocky ground of early summer refused to accede to my shovel’s pleas. Eventually, I buried my beloved dog in a hole not as deep as I would have wished for him, and tried to compensate for it by mounding a large pile of stones I had collected from nearby.
In the days that followed, I refrained from going anywhere near the grave. Maybe I was just being sentimental, or perhaps it was the strange odor that had come to envelop the yard, suggesting that the grave had not been properly sealed. All the same, after observing the traditional shiva week of mourning, I was overcome by an urge to check what had become of him, especially as the odor had begun knocking gently on the windows of the house during the nights. My heart told me that the scene I would encounter would not be a pretty one, but I was motivated by a sense of responsibility: what if a child walks by and comes across the grave, which I now began to suspect was open? Again, I will not tire the reader with graphic details. Suffice it to say that a half-eaten leg was protruding from the ground, like a strange summer bloom. The foot was completely intact, including the fur in its original honey hue: a true collectors’ item. Below, however, there was only gnawed red flesh with pieces of brown bone poking out. I fled home, praying the jackals would finish their sloppy work as quickly as possible.
A few weeks later, on a mid-summer Saturday morning, I was out having a light breakfast in the garden when I suddenly heard another strange cry coming from the valley. This time, I was not under any kind of hurry, and could consider the sound more intently. It was a throaty, agonized cry, like the one a moose or a giant rooster might produce, though neither have ever lived in the southern Judean foothills. My next speculation was that a dog or a jackal had gotten caught in a leg trap, the kind that locks onto the bone and bores a serrated hole into it. I once heard that there were partridge hunters in the area, so it was possible one of them might have set up a trap and mistakenly caught an animal with which he could do nothing except toss it away on the roadside. I waited another minute to see whether the sounds would subside, and when they did not, I set out running through the back gate to see if I could help. As I ran downhill, a potbellied man of about fifty appeared before me, wearing a woolen sweater and hat, despite the hot weather.
“Did you hear the hyena down there?” he asked.
I held my tongue. For a moment I was filled with a strange fear that he was an inspector who suspected I had buried the dog against the regulations.
“I saw it there, on the path.” He turned and pointed. “You’d be better off not going down there.”
“Is it dangerous?”
“Only if you’re a carcass,” he laughed. “No. It’ll just run off the moment it realizes you’re after it. They’re smart animals, those hyenas. Smarter than dogs.”
I got the hint, so I thanked him and walked back home. I waited quietly behind the orange tree in my yard until I saw him come up the path, pass the garden, and continue on to the street.
Every day since, with complete disregard for his instructions, I walk across the valley to look for the hyena. It doesn’t require a whole lot of effort. I fill a thermos with coffee, find a good vantage point, and wait. Mongooses pass me by in wonder; partridges march their chicks across; and one time I even inadvertently frightened a gazelle. But no hyena. Not once. Apparently, the scent of my yearning fills the valley.
And yesterday, on top of everything else, my house was broken into. I guess I forgot to lock the door when I went out for my daily walk. Upon my return I found it hanging from its upper hinge. I went through the rooms to check what had been taken. I do not possess many valuables. Still, there is my laptop, phone, car keys, wallet. All were left at home, and all remained untouched. I could not be certain that all the cash in the wallet was in place, but the credit cards were, along with a few bills. I figured no thief would take only some of the money. On one of the walls, in the corner, just above the floor, I found a small drawing of a dog, sketched in black chalk. “This is not a pipe,” was written beneath it.
I set out to look for a hyena in the valley near my home. Of course, I set out to look for a hyena. A genuine hyena, flesh, and blood. What else could I possibly be looking for there?
*The story has won the first place at “My one-hundred meters” competition, that took place during the Coronavirus lockdown.
You wanted me a slave bought and sold
You wanted me in despair joyless. 1
The distance between one floor and another was months and years. Sometimes the lift was crowded. Sometimes it was empty. Another lift might pass with people going down, but everyone was trying to go up, or convince themselves that they really had ascended. I would have fits of laughter when from my place on high I saw the fraudulent indulgences in the hands of the obsessed down below. It was tragic that they did not perceive the existence of the lift in the first place. So many faces, all looking only for what pleased them. Things and people always change, but the indulgences remain the same. I watched each fight the others to make them pleased with what was pleasing him! Everybody seemed content with their own chance delusion, and fought for it. How could such people have invented Him and striven for Him? I cracked up with laughter when I noticed disciples of the bearers of fraudulent indulgences. They imagined that through their intercession they would ascend. Absurd! Utter madness!
“Part of you is still there,” said my companion who had just appeared as he pointed down below. It appeared I had crossed the forbidden zone.
“Perhaps it is you who is not here.”
He leaned against the metal wall behind him. A gaze as deep as the years was etched in his eyes.
“I have been here since before time and space.”
“They created Him and He was created, my friend. What’s with the black?”
As if only then noticing that he was dressed in black, he looked at me, his eyes thinking. He did not answer, but his eyes, to say that is hubris, malevolence.
“Didn’t I say created? It was a joke.”
The lift picked up speed. In fact, it vanished when it exceeded the speed of light. My cells were obliterated. Madness and nothingness encompassed me. Everything was calm. There was no quality of silence to silence that I might describe it.
The number 6 lit up before me. I contemplated it for a moment and burst out laughing. He was almost marked with anger, and I deliberately laughed more. “One more left.”
He came slowly towards me, fixing the essence of his being in a stare: “That will not come to pass if I am with you.”
Casual and sarcastic, I asked, “Perhaps if you kept going, you would get through?”
“How did it escape Him to leave you and those like you?”
“Many things have escaped him, my friend. Now get out of my senses.” And he went.
The lift did not move, but the number 7 suddenly appeared and the door opened. I stepped forward.
I had reached my furthest point in Heaven.
In nowhere the expanse stretches to the non-horizon. All is white, no end to the white marble and pillars, although they support nothing. White here is a process: He is so it became to be. It bears me to what I am certain is the encounter with Him.
An oval office of mythic proportions. A gigantic desk as expansive as what is behind it, vast in size and appearance, but only four books on top of it! I saw the one seated behind the desk, ensconced on His throne, and He was smiling.
Everything about Him was white too. His countenance created emotions made tangible. His actions gave rise to the attributes, but no attribute surrounded him. I drew closer, a stone’s throw or less.
“So, here at last.”
“As if you didn’t know!” I said.
“My knowledge of an action does not predetermine anyone to do it.”
I wasn’t listening, but resumed contemplating the place. I couldn’t avert my gaze from Him. Meekly, I took in his countenance. I composed myself and said, “Are those the only books here? Do you have a book about Lincoln?”
Anger marked His countenance. I continued defiantly, “He did something that You have not done. He ended human slavery.”
“Don’t test My wrath.”
“Of course,” I said sarcastically, “I’ll ask no questions so as to do no wrong.” I looked at the hands of my watch. It was working fine and I pretended to be busy with it. “This watch has been working perfectly for ten years. A skilled watchmaker made it, but he’s no longer concerned about how it runs. It just works by itself. I thought it wouldn’t work here. But in fact, time passes unconcerned.”
“You come as a supplicant. Ask and I will answer.”
“In the past you did… many things. What I want is a tiny proportion of what has been achieved. It will not change whether I ask you or not. Incredibly, the result would be the same if I entreated my pillow. I have discovered that I must act, not ask.”
His countenance froze into a look of terrifying anger and He was fixed motionless before me.
A glass barrier seemed to enwrap the place. The clouds and the vast expanse were visible behind it. People floating and joyously becoming one with the clouds appeared behind it. I stared into His eyes. Inside I longed that He would know my wish to float away from Him with the others floating outside.
I learned of the character of drugs and the nature of poisons from an alchemist – an Arab alchemist from the outskirts of Baghdad who had come to work as a physician in the palace of one of Van’s magistrates. This alchemist guided me to the knowledge of every herb from which lethal poison could be extracted.
He opened every sealed door to me and revealed all the secrets of alchemy, except how to mix mercury and lead! Since the dawn of time, it has been the alchemists’ practice never to reveal that secret nor that of converting base metal into gold. In the end, however, and before I had fully satisfied my thirst for knowledge, that Arab alchemist swore by the mausoleum of Sheikh Abdel Qadir Jilani that the amalgam of mercury and lead was a pure lie. They could never be blended, he said, and one who did so would reign over East and West.
The tale of my mother’s slaughter and what followed
My father – known by the name of Berzine Alchakordi – killed my mother in front of my eyes when I was a ten-year-old child. A dagger in his hand, he was bellowing like a bull: “Whore! You have defiled my honour!”
I didn’t understand what was going on nor why my father was so enraged. I was crammed in a corner of our small house, hiding behind the curtain and slyly peeping at their quarrel. I didn’t think my father would kill my beautiful young mother. Yet my thoughts were killed when my mother was killed. My father was still raging and holding my mother’s severed head when I escaped. I ran and ran, not looking back, until dusk; the sun sinking behind the mountains seemed like a severed head. I haven’t met my father again since. I thought he would kill me too if he saw me.
In a city about thirty or forty parasangs away, I fell into the hands of a gang of bandits and hashish fiends. I became the boy in whose inkwell they dipped their nibs to inscribe their lusts on my back. I suffered greatly to begin with, but got used to it after so many times and started to take some pleasure.
I was attractive and handsome, nicely plump and with glossy flesh. I feared the men and I wanted them to protect me. The cost of sheltering me and shattering the jar of fears in which I cowered was for them to quench their burning lust inside my body. Then I started wanting it, and if there was no one there to do it with, I would roam the alleys and proposition dervishes. They recognized boys like me and seized the first opportunity, throwing their beggar’s bags behind a rock and inviting me to follow them down into the valley. Once a dervish saw my smooth naked body, he would exalt, stuff his long beard in his mouth, and push his plough through my furrow.
I grew up like that, surrounded by bandits and hashish addicts in the village, and I started frequenting inns. Isolated inns far from the cities were a den for homosexuals, fornicators, merchants, Mullahs, students of jurisprudence, and every no-good sort. From the first glance I could pick out those who liked boys; their looks, their way of staring at the boys’ buttocks, the glint in the eyes, the spittle in the corners of the mouth…all that revealed they were sodomites.
My first victim:
One summer I was on my way to Diyarbakir. I had crossed the Mourad river and was welcomed by the Mouch plain. It was nightfall and I was exhausted, so dozy the drowsiness of a whole city was attacking my eyes. I couldn’t shake off the sleepiness no matter what I did. True, I was wearing my dagger tucked below my belt, but thieves on the road are many. I had to have a rest and get a little sleep. That night was gloomy and dark except for someone’s fire to which I was strongly attracted. All the fear of sinners and robbers filling my heart dissolved like a pinch of salt and the fire drew me like a magnet.
In short, I approached the fire and glimpsed the ruins of an inn, but nobody was by the fire. I recited some verses, thinking it was probably the work of the jinn or spirits. Fear gripped me and I thought of leaving that place, when I heard a clattering from the ruined inn followed by a human voice shouting, “Who’s there, is it human or jinn?”
He sounded no less afraid than me, and my fear vanished. “I’m human like you.” I called out. “A traveller on the road.” I headed towards the ruins of the inn, leaving the dying fire behind me. I and that man could barely see each other as it was pitch dark inside the inn except for the light of some stars and that almost dead fire.
No longer feeling afraid, the urge to sleep assailed me again. Without even letting the man ask my name and origin, I said, “I’m going to faint from lack of sleep. I’ve been walking a whole half day and I’m exhausted. Do you mind if I spend the night here?”
“Ace! And why, young man, would I mind? The inn is deserted and not my property. God has blessed me and sent you this night. I would have found the place desolate all on my own.”
He then withdrew into a corner, took off his shoes, and put them under his head. The handle of his dagger gleamed in the pale light . I desired him, so I went and lay down next to him. I took off my shoes and rested my head on them like him.
After an hour, I felt his hand running over my body, stroking every part of it. I kept calm and the man went further and caressed one curvaceous buttock. When he saw I was quiescent and did not object he fumbled for the drawstring of my trousers and hurriedly untied the knot. From behind, my hand fell on his hot cock, stiff as a tent peg! Aroused by flames of lust, I took off my trousers. Everything happened under the cloak of darkness and silence. Sexual pleasure heightens when one is half-asleep, so I kept my eyes shut while the man, whose face I still hadn’t seen, pulled me close and banged in his tent peg with consummate skill.
I had spent hundreds of nights like that one, but I had never met a man with such a thirst for sex. As soon as he finished with me, he turned on to his back, fell asleep, and started to snore.
Out of the eastern window I spied the full moon. I’d been afraid of the moon since infancy, and didn’t dare look too long at it. My mother would say: “One who looks too long at the moon or in the mirror will go mad!”
I put on my trousers, tying them tightly around my waist, and got up to cast an eye outside. I turned towards him and looked carefully at his face, then I started screaming at the top of my lungs.
That man was my father. His beard had gone white a little, but his face was as I remembered it: round with a flat nose and thick eyebrows.
Startled by such a high-pitched scream, he jumped to his feet in panic, fumbling for the handle of his dagger. When he saw me straight on he said in a shaky voice, “Who are you?”
I pulled out my dagger and leaned against the window. I saw sparks of death fly from his eyes and reflect in the glow of the moon. It was him, definitely him, with his frame, his voice, his stature. It was my father!
For a while I was dumbstruck then I said, “It’s better not to recognize me.”
But he replied with a voice that could split granite: “Who are you, boy? Come on tell me your name and your clan!”
I stepped forward and said, “I am your son. I am Yaouz. Yaouz, whose mother you slaughtered before his eyes. I am your son who, because of you, has spent his life wandering in the wilderness! Your son who…”
He didn’t let me finish and, like a wild boar, attacked me with his dagger as he said, “Son of that whore, you’re still alive! I spent ten years looking for you.”
He stabbed me in the face, but when I lunged at him, he ducked and stepped back, and the blow went wide. He attacked again, repeatedly stabbing me in the face. I stabbed him in the neck and we exchanged thrusts until I killed him. I was drained, exhausted, by multiple cuts to the face. My lips were slit. One final blow had reached my chest without penetrating deep. Although none of my wounds were serious, I slipped into unconsciousness and remained sprawled in that deserted inn.
*An excerpt from the novel Mirnameh – Poet and Prince by
That year I spent the best two months of the dry season on one of the estates – in fact, on the principal cattle estate of a famous meat-extract manufacturing company.
B.O.S bos. You have seen the three magic letters on the advertisement pages of magazines and newspapers, in the windows of provision merchants, and on calendars for next year you receive by post in the month of November. They scatter pamphlets also, written in a sickly enthusiastic style and in several languages, giving statistics of slaughter and bloodshed enough to make a Turk turn faint. The “art” illustrating that “literature” represents in vivid and shining colours a large and enraged black bull stamping upon a yellow snake writhing in emerald-green grass, with a cobalt-blue sky for a background. It is atrocious and it is an allegory. The snake symbolizes disease, weakness – perhaps mere hunger, which last is the chronic disease of the majority of mankind. Of course everybody knows the B.O.S. Ltd., with its unrivalled products: Vinobos, Jellybos, and the latest unequalled perfection, Tribos, whose nourishment is offered to you not only highly concentrated, but already half digested. Such apparently is the love that Limited Company bears to its fellowmen – even as the love of the father and mother penguin for their hungry fledglings.
Of course the capital of a country must be productively employed. I have nothing to say against the company. But being myself animated by feelings of affection towards my fellow-men, I am saddened by the modern system of advertising. Whatever evidence it offers of enterprise, ingenuity, impudence, and resource in certain individuals, it proves to my mind the wide prevalence of that form of mental degradation which is called gullibility.
In various parts of the civilized and uncivilized world I have had to swallow B.O.S. with more or less benefit to myself, though without great pleasure. Prepared with hot water and abundantly peppered to bring out the taste, this extract is not really unpalatable. But I have never swallowed its advertisements. Perhaps they have not gone far enough. As far as I can remember they make no promise of everlasting youth to the users of B.O.S., nor yet have they claimed the power of raising the dead for their estimable products. Why this austere reserve, I wonder? But I don’t think they would have had me even on these terms. Whatever form of mental degradation I may (being but human) be suffering from, it is not the popular form. I am not gullible.
I have been at some pains to bring out distinctly this statement about myself in view of the story which follows. I have checked the facts as far as possible. I have turned up the files of French newspapers, and I have also talked with the officer who commands the military guard on the Ile Royale,
It concerns the engineer of the steam-launch belonging to the Marañon cattle estate of the B.O.S. Co., Ltd. This estate is also an island – an island as big as a small province, lying in the estuary of a great South American river. It is wild and not beautiful, but the grass growing on its low plains seems to possess exceptionally nourishing and flavouring qualities. It resounds with the lowing of innumerable herds – a deep and distressing sound under the open sky, rising like a monstrous protest of prisoners condemned to death. On the mainland, across twenty miles of discoloured muddy water, there stands a city whose name, let us say, is Horta.
But the most interesting characteristic of this island (which seems like a sort of penal settlement for condemned cattle) consists in its being the only known habitat of an extremely rare and gorgeous butterfly. The species is even more rare than it is beautiful, which is not saying little. I have already alluded to my travels. I travelled at that time, but strictly for myself and with a moderation unknown in our days of round-the-world tickets. I even travelled with a purpose. As a matter of fact, I am – “Ha, ha, ha! – a desperate butterfly-slayer. Ha, ha, ha!”
This was the tone in which Mr. Harry Gee, the manager of the cattle station, alluded to my pursuits. He seemed to consider me the greatest absurdity in the world. On the other hand, the B.O.S. Co., Ltd., represented to him the acme of the nineteenth century’s achievement. I believe that he slept in his leggings and spurs. His days he spent in the saddle flying over the plains, followed by a train of half-wild horsemen, who called him Don Enrique, and who had no definite idea of the B.O.S. Co., Ltd., which paid their wages. He was an excellent manager, but I don’t see why, when we met at meals, he should have thumped me on the back, with loud, derisive inquiries: “How’s the deadly sport to-day? Butterflies going strong? Ha, ha, ha!” – especially as he charged me two dollars per diem for the hospitality of the B.O.S. Co., Ltd., (capital L 1,500,000, fully paid up), in whose balance-sheet for that year those monies are no doubt included. “I don’t think I can make it anything less in justice to my company,” he had remarked, with extreme gravity, when I was arranging with him the terms of my stay on the island.
His chaff would have been harmless enough if intimacy of intercourse in the absence of all friendly feeling were not a thing detestable in itself. Moreover, his facetiousness was not very amusing. It consisted in the wearisome repetition of descriptive phrases applied to people with a burst of laughter. “Desperate butterfly-slayer. Ha, ha, ha!” was one sample of his peculiar wit which he himself enjoyed so much. And in the same vein of exquisite humour he called my attention to the engineer of the steam-launch, one day, as we strolled on the path by the side of the creek.
The man’s head and shoulders emerged above the deck, over which were scattered various tools of his trade and a few pieces of machinery. He was doing some repairs to the engines. At the sound of our footsteps he raised anxiously a grimy face with a pointed chin and a tiny fair moustache. What could be seen of his delicate features under the black smudges appeared to me wasted and livid in the greenish shade of the enormous tree spreading its foliage over the launch moored close to the bank.
To my great surprise, Harry Gee addressed him as “Crocodile,” in that half-jeering, half-bullying tone which is characteristic of self-satisfaction in his delectable kind:
“How does the work get on, Crocodile?”
I should have said before that the amiable Harry had picked up French of a sort somewhere in some colony or other – and that he pronounced it with a disagreeable forced precision as though he meant to guy the language. The man in the launch answered him quickly in a pleasant voice. His eyes had a liquid softness and his teeth flashed dazzlingly white between his thin, drooping lips. The manager turned to me, very cheerful and loud, explaining:
“I call him Crocodile because he lives half in, half out of the creek. Amphibious – see? There’s nothing else amphibious living on the island except crocodiles; so he must belong to the species – eh? But in reality he’s nothing less than un citoyen anarchiste de Barcelone.”
“A citizen anarchist from Barcelona?” I repeated, stupidly, looking down at the man. He had turned to his work in the engine-well of the launch and presented his bowed back to us. In that attitude I heard him protest, very audibly:
“I do not even know Spanish.”
“Hey? What? You dare to deny you come from over there?” the accomplished manager was down on him truculently.
At this the man straightened himself up, dropping a spanner he had been using, and faced us; but he trembled in all his limbs.
“I deny nothing, nothing, nothing!” he said, excitedly.
He picked up the spanner and went to work again without paying any further attention to us. After looking at him for a minute or so, we went away.
“Is he really an anarchist?” I asked, when out of ear-shot.
“I don’t care a hang what he is,” answered the humorous official of the B.O.S. Co. “I gave him the name because it suited me to label him in that way. It’s good for the company.”
“For the company!” I exclaimed, stopping short.
“Aha!” he triumphed, tilting up his hairless pug face and straddling his thin, long legs. “That surprises you. I am bound to do my best for my company. They have enormous expenses. Why – our agent in Horta tells me they spend fifty thousand pounds every year in advertising all over the world! One can’t be too economical in working the show. Well, just you listen. When I took charge here the estate had no steam-launch. I asked for one, and kept on asking by every mail till I got it; but the man they sent out with it chucked his job at the end of two months, leaving the launch moored at the pontoon in Horta. Got a better screw at a sawmill up the river – blast him! And ever since it has been the same thing. Any Scotch or Yankee vagabond that likes to call himself a mechanic out here gets eighteen pounds a month, and the next you know he’s cleared out, after smashing something as likely as not. I give you my word that some of the objects I’ve had for engine-drivers couldn’t tell the boiler from the funnel. But this fellow understands his trade, and I don’t mean him to clear out. See?”
And he struck me lightly on the chest for emphasis. Disregarding his peculiarities of manner, I wanted to know what all this had to do with the man being an anarchist.
“Come!” jeered the manager. “If you saw suddenly a barefooted, unkempt chap slinking amongst the bushes on the sea face of the island, and at the same time observed less than a mile from the beach, a small schooner full of niggers hauling off in a hurry, you wouldn’t think the man fell there from the sky, would you? And it could be nothing else but either that or Cayenne. I’ve got my wits about me. Directly I sighted this queer game I said to myself – ‘Escaped Convict.’ I was as certain of it as I am of seeing you standing here this minute. So I spurred on straight at him. He stood his ground for a bit on a sand hillock crying out: ‘Monsieur! Monsieur! Arrêtez!’ then at the last moment broke and ran for life. Says I to myself, ‘I’ll tame you before I’m done with you.’ So without a single word I kept on, heading him off here and there. I rounded him up towards the shore, and at last I had him corralled on a spit, his heels in the water and nothing but sea and sky at his back, with my horse pawing the sand and shaking his head within a yard of him.
“He folded his arms on his breast then and stuck his chin up in a sort of desperate way; but I wasn’t to be impressed by the beggar’s posturing.
“Says I, ‘You’re a runaway convict.’
“When he heard French, his chin went down and his face changed.
“‘I deny nothing,’ says he, panting yet, for I had kept him skipping about in front of my horse pretty smartly. I asked him what he was doing there. He had got his breath by then, and explained that he had meant to make his way to a farm which he understood (from the schooner’s people, I suppose) was to be found in the neighbourhood. At that I laughed aloud and he got uneasy. Had he been deceived? Was there no farm within walking distance?
“I laughed more and more. He was on foot, and of course the first bunch of cattle he came across would have stamped him to rags under their hoofs. A dismounted man caught on the feeding-grounds hasn’t got the ghost of a chance.
“‘My coming upon you like this has certainly saved your life,’ I said. He remarked that perhaps it was so; but that for his part he had imagined I had wanted to kill him under the hoofs of my horse. I assured him that nothing would have been easier had I meant it. And then we came to a sort of dead stop. For the life of me I didn’t know what to do with this convict, unless I chucked him into the sea. It occurred to me to ask him what he had been transported for. He hung his head.
“‘What is it?’ says I. ‘Theft, murder, rape, or what?’ I wanted to hear what he would have to say for himself, though of course I expected it would be some sort of lie. But all he said was – ‘Make it what you like. I deny nothing. It is no good denying anything.’
“I looked him over carefully and a thought struck me.
“‘They’ve got anarchists, there, too,’ I said. ‘Perhaps you’re one of them.’
“‘I deny nothing whatever, monsieur,’ he repeats.
“This answer made me think that perhaps he was not an anarchist. I believe those damned lunatics are rather proud of themselves. If he had been one, he would have probably confessed straight out.
“‘What were you before you became a convict?’
“‘Ouvrier,’ he says. ‘And a good workman, too.’
“At that I began to think he must be an anarchist, after all. That’s the class they come mostly from, isn’t it? I hate the cowardly bomb-throwing brutes. I almost made up my mind to turn my horse short round and leave him to starve or drown where he was, whichever he liked best. As to crossing the island to bother me again, the cattle would see to that. I don’t know what induced me to ask–
“‘What sort of workman?’
“I didn’t care a hang whether he answered me or not. But when he said at once, ‘Mécanicien, monsieur,’ I nearly jumped out of the saddle with excitement. The launch had been lying disabled and idle in the creek for three weeks. My duty to the company was clear. He noticed my start, too, and there we were for a minute or so staring at each other as if bewitched.
“‘Get up on my horse behind me,’ I told him. ‘You shall put my steam-launch to rights.'”
These are the words in which the worthy manager of the Marañon estate related to me the coming of the supposed anarchist. He meant to keep him – out of a sense of duty to the company – and the name he had given him would prevent the fellow from obtaining employment anywhere in Horta. The vaqueros of the estate, when they went on leave, spread it all over the town. They did not know what an anarchist was, nor yet what Barcelona meant. They called him Anarchisto de Barcelona, as if it were his Christian name and surname. But the people in town had been reading in their papers about the anarchists in Europe and were very much impressed. Over the jocular addition of “de Barcelona” Mr. Harry Gee chuckled with immense satisfaction. “That breed is particularly murderous, isn’t it? It makes the sawmills crowd still more afraid of having anything to do with him – see?” he exulted, candidly. “I hold him by that name better than if I had him chained up by the leg to the deck of the steam-launch.
“And mark,” he added, after a pause, “he does not deny it. I am not wronging him in any way. He is a convict of some sort, anyhow.”
“But I suppose you pay him some wages, don’t you?” I asked.
“Wages! What does he want with money here? He gets his food from my kitchen and his clothing from the store. Of course I’ll give him something at the end of the year, but you don’t think I’d employ a convict and give him the same money I would give an honest man? I am looking after the interests of my company first and last.”
I admitted that, for a company spending fifty thousand pounds every year in advertising, the strictest economy was obviously necessary. The manager of the Marañon Estancia grunted approvingly.
“And I’ll tell you what,” he continued: “if I were certain he’s an anarchist and he had the cheek to ask me for money, I would give him the toe of my boot. However, let him have the benefit of the doubt. I am perfectly willing to take it that he has done nothing worse than to stick a knife into somebody – with extenuating crrcumstances – French fashion, don’t you know. But that subversive sanguinary rot of doing away with all law and order in the world makes my blood boil. It’s simply cutting the ground from under the feet of every decent, respectable, hard-working person. I tell you that the consciences of people who have them, like you or I, must be protected in some way; or else the first low scoundrel that came along would in every respect be just as good as myself. Wouldn’t he, now? And that’s absurd!”
He glared at me. I nodded slightly and murmured that doubtless there was much subtle truth in his view.
The principal truth discoverable in the views of Paul the engineer was that a little thing may bring about the undoing of a man.
“Il ne faut pas beaucoup pour perdre un homme,” he said to me, thoughtfully, one evening.
I report this reflection in French, since the man was of Paris, not of Barcelona at all. At the Marañon he lived apart from the station, in a small shed with a metal roof and straw walls, which he called mon atelier. He had a work-bench there. They had given him several horse-blankets and a saddle, not that he ever had occasion to ride, but because no other bedding was used by the working-hands, who were all vaqueros – cattlemen. And on this horseman’s gear, like a son of the plains, he used to sleep amongst the tools of his trade, in a litter of rusty scrap-iron, with a portable forge at his head, under the work-bench sustaining his grimy mosquito-net.
Now and then I would bring him a few candle ends saved from the scant supply of the manager’s house. He was very thankful for these. He did not like to lie awake in the dark, he confessed. He complained that sleep fled from him. “Le sommeil me fuit,” he declared, with his habitual air of subdued stoicism, which made him sympathetic and touching. I made it clear to him that I did not attach undue importance to the fact of his having been a convict.
Thus it came about that one evening he was led to talk about himself. As one of the bits of candle on the edge of the bench burned down to the end, he hastened to light another.
He had done his military service in a provincial garrison and returned to Paris to follow his trade. It was a well-paid one. He told me with some pride that in a short time he was earning no less than ten francs a day. He was thinking of setting up for himself by and by and of getting married.
Here he sighed deeply and paused. Then with a return to his stoical note:
“It seems I did not know enough about myself.”
On his twenty-fifth birthday two of his friends in the repairing shop where he worked proposed to stand him a dinner. He was immensely touched by this attention.
“I was a steady man,” he remarked, “but I am not less sociable than any other body.”
The entertainment came off in a little café on the Boulevard de la Chapelle. At dinner they drank some special wine. It was excellent. Everything was excellent; and the world – in his own words – seemed a very good place to live in. He had good prospects, some little money laid by, and the affection of two excellent friends. He offered to pay for all the drinks after dinner, which was only proper on his part.
They drank more wine; they drank liqueurs, cognac, beer, then more liqueurs and more cognac. Two strangers sitting at the next table looked at him, he said, with so much friendliness, that he invited them to join the party.
He had never drunk so much in his life. His elation was extreme, and so pleasurable that whenever it flagged he hastened to order more drinks.
“It seemed to me,” he said, in his quiet tone and looking on the ground in the gloomy shed full of shadows, “that I was on the point of just attaining a great and wonderful felicity. Another drink, I felt, would do it. The others were holding out well with me, glass for glass.”
But an extraordinary thing happened. At something the strangers said his elation fell. Gloomy ideas – des idées noires – rushed into his head. All the world outside the café appeared to him as a dismal evil place where a multitude of poor wretches had to work and slave to the sole end that a few individuals should ride in carriages and live riotously in palaces. He became ashamed of his happiness. The pity of mankind’s cruel lot wrung his heart. In a voice choked with sorrow he tried to express these sentiments. He thinks he wept and swore in turns.
The two new acquaintances hastened to applaud his humane indignation. Yes. The amount of injustice in the world was indeed scandalous. There was only one way of dealing with the rotten state of society. Demolish the whole sacrée boutique. Blow up the whole iniquitous show.
Their heads hovered over the table. They whispered to him eloquently; I don’t think they quite expected the result. He was extremely drunk – mad drunk. With a howl of rage he leaped suddenly upon the table. Kicking over the bottles and glasses, he yelled: “Vive l’anarchie! Death to the capitalists!” He yelled this again and again. All round him broken glass was falling, chairs were being swung in the air, people were taking each other by the throat. The police dashed in. He hit, bit, scratched and struggled, till something crashed down upon his head. . . .
He came to himself in a police cell, locked up on a charge of assault, seditious cries, and anarchist propaganda.
He looked at me fixedly with his liquid, shining eyes, that seemed very big in the dim light.
“That was bad. But even then I might have got off somehow, perhaps,” he said, slowly.
I doubt it. But whatever chance he had was done away with by a young socialist lawyer who volunteered to undertake his defence. In vain he assured him that he was no anarchist; that he was a quiet, respectable mechanic, only too anxious to work ten hours per day at his trade. He was represented at the trial as the victim of society and his drunken shoutings as the expression of infinite suffering. The young lawyer had his way to make, and this case was just what he wanted for a start. The speech for the defence was pronounced magnificent.
The poor fellow paused, swallowed, and brought out the statement:
“I got the maximum penalty applicable to a first offence.”
I made an appropriate murmur. He hung his head and folded his arms.
“When they let me out of prison,” he began, gently, “I made tracks, of course, for my old workshop. My patron had a particular liking for me before; but when he saw me he turned green with fright and showed me the door with a shaking hand.”
While he stood in the street, uneasy and disconcerted, he was accosted by a middle-aged man who introduced himself as an engineer’s fitter, too. “I know who you are,” he said. “I have attended your trial. You are a good comrade and your ideas are sound. But the devil of it is that you won’t be able to get work anywhere now. These bourgeois’ll conspire to starve you. That’s their way. Expect no mercy from the rich.”
To be spoken to so kindly in the street had comforted him very much. His seemed to be the sort of nature needing support and sympathy. The idea of not being able to find work had knocked him over completely. If his patron, who knew him so well for a quiet, orderly, competent workman, would have nothing to do with him now – then surely nobody else would. That was clear. The police, keeping their eye on him, would hasten to warn every employer inclined to give him a chance. He felt suddenly very helpless, alarmed and idle; and he followed the middle-aged man to the estaminet round the corner where he met some other good companions. They assured him that he would not be allowed to starve, work or no work. They had drinks all round to the discomfiture of all employers of labour and to the destruction of society.
He sat biting his lower lip.
“That is, monsieur, how I became a compagnon,” he said. The hand he passed over his forehead was trembling. “All the same, there’s something wrong in a world where a man can get lost for a glass more or less.”
He never looked up, though I could see he was getting excited under his dejection. He slapped the bench with his open palm.
“No!” he cried. “It was an impossible existence! Watched by the police, watched by the comrades, I did not belong to myself any more! Why, I could not even go to draw a few francs from my savings-bank without a comrade hanging about the door to see that I didn’t bolt! And most of them were neither more nor less than housebreakers. The intelligent, I mean. They robbed the rich; they were also the fools and the mad. Des exaltés – quoi! When I was drunk I loved them. When I got some drink I was angry with the world. That was the best time. I found refuge from misery in rage. But one can’t be always drunk – n’est-ce pas, monsieur? And when I was sober I was afraid to break away. They would have stuck me like a pig.”
He folded his arms again and raised his sharp chin with a bitter smile.
“By and by they told me it was time to go to work. The work was to rob a bank. Afterwards a bomb would be thrown to wreck the place. My beginner’s part would be to keep watch in a street at the back and to take care of a black bag with the bomb inside till it was wanted. After the meeting at which the affair was arranged a trusty comrade did not leave me an inch. I had not dared to protest; I was afraid of being done away with quietly in that room; only, as we were walking together I wondered whether it would not be better for me to throw myself suddenly into the Seine. But while I was turning it over in my mind we had crossed the bridge, and afterwards I had not the opportunity.”
In the light of the candle end, with his sharp features, fluffy little moustache, and oval face, he looked at times delicately and gaily young, and then appeared quite old, decrepit, full of sorrow, pressing his folded arms to his breast.
As he remained silent I felt bound to ask:
“Well! And how did it end?”
“Deportation to Cayenne,” he answered.
He seemed to think that somebody had given the plot away. As he was keeping watch in the back street, bag in hand, he was set upon by the police. “These imbeciles,” had knocked him down without noticing what he had in his hand. He wondered how the bomb failed to explode as he fell. But it didn’t explode.
“I tried to tell my story in court,” he continued. “The president was amused. There were in the audience some idiots who laughed.”
I expressed the hope that some of his companions had been caught, too. He shuddered slightly before he told me that there were two – Simon, called also Biscuit, the middle-aged fitter who spoke to him in the street, and a fellow of the name of Mafile, one of the sympathetic strangers who had applauded his sentiments and consoled his humanitarian sorrows when he got drunk in the café.
“Yes,” he went on, with an effort, “I had the advantage of their company over there on St. Joseph’s Island, amongst some eighty or ninety other convicts. We were all classed as dangerous.”
St. Joseph’s Island is the prettiest of the Iles de Salut. It is rocky and green, with shallow ravines, bushes, thickets, groves of mango-trees, and many feathery palms. Six warders armed with revolvers and carbines are in charge of the convicts kept there.
An eight-oared galley keeps up the communication in the daytime, across a channel a quarter of a mile wide, with the Ile Royale, where there is a military post. She makes the first trip at six in the morning. At four in the afternoon her service is over, and she is then hauled up into a little dock on the Ile Royale and a sentry put over her and a few smaller boats. From that time till next morning the island of St. Joseph remains cut off from the rest of the world, with the warders patrolling in turn the path from the warders’ house to the convict huts, and a multitude of sharks patrolling the waters all round.
Under these circumstances the convicts planned a mutiny. Such a thing had never been known in the penitentiary’s history before. But their plan was not without some possibility of success. The warders were to be taken by surprise and murdered during the night. Their arms would enable the convicts to shoot down the people in the galley as she came alongside in the morning. The galley once in their possession, other boats were to be captured, and the whole company was to row away up the coast.
At dusk the two warders on duty mustered the convicts as usual. Then they proceeded to inspect the huts to ascertain that everything was in order. In the second they entered they were set upon and absolutely smothered under the numbers of their assailants. The twilight faded rapidly. It was a new moon; and a heavy black squall gathering over the coast increased the profound darkness of the night. The convicts assembled in the open space, deliberating upon the next step to be taken, argued amongst themselves in low voices.
“You took part in all this?” I asked.
“No, I knew what was going to be done, of course. But why should I kill these warders? I had nothing against them. But I was afraid of the others. Whatever happened, I could not escape from them. I sat alone on the stump of a tree with my head in my hands, sick at heart at the thought of a freedom that could be nothing but a mockery to me. Suddenly I was startled to perceive the shape of a man on the path near by. He stood perfectly still, then his form became effaced in the night. It must have been the chief warder coming to see what had become of his two men. No one noticed him. The convicts kept on quarrelling over their plans. The leaders could not get themselves obeyed. The fierce whispering of that dark mass of men was very horrible.
“At last they divided into two parties and moved off. When they had passed me I rose, weary and hopeless. The path to the warders’ house was dark and silent, but on each side the bushes rustled slightly. Presently I saw a faint thread of light before me. The chief warder, followed by his three men, was approaching cautiously. But he had failed to close his dark lantern properly. The convicts had seen that faint gleam, too. There was an awful savage yell, a turmoil on the dark path, shots fired, blows, groans: and with the sound of smashed bushes, the shouts of the pursuers and the screams of the pursued, the man-hunt, the warder-hunt, passed by me into the interior of the island. I was alone. And I assure you, monsieur, I was indifferent to everything. After standing still for a while, I walked on along the path till I kicked something hard. I stooped and picked up a warder’s revolver. I felt with my fingers that it was loaded in five chambers. In the gusts of wind I heard the convicts calling to each other far away, and then a roll of thunder would cover the soughing and rustling of the trees. Suddenly, a big light ran across my path very low along the ground. And it showed a woman’s skirt with the edge of an apron.
“I knew that the person who carried it must be the wife of the head warder. They had forgotten all about her, it seems. A shot rang out in the interior of the island, and she cried out to herself as she ran. She passed on. I followed, and presently I saw her again. She was pulling at the cord of the big bell which hangs at the end of the landing-pier, with one hand, and with the other she was swinging the heavy lantern to and fro. This is the agreed signal for the Ile Royale should assistance be required at night. The wind carried the sound away from our island and the light she swung was hidden on the shore side by the few trees that grow near the warders’ house.
“I came up quite close to her from behind. She went on without stopping, without looking aside, as though she had been all alone on the island. A brave woman, monsieur. I put the revolver inside the breast of my blue blouse and waited. A flash of lightning and a clap of thunder destroyed both the sound and the light of the signal for an instant, but she never faltered, pulling at the cord and swinging the lantern as regularly as a machine. She was a comely woman of thirty – no more. I thought to myself, ‘All that’s no good on a night like this.’ And I made up my mind that if a body of my fellow-convicts came down to the pier – which was sure to happen soon – I would shoot her through the head before I shot myself. I knew the ‘comrades’ well. This idea of mine gave me quite an interest in life, monsieur; and at once, instead of remaining stupidly exposed on the pier, I retreated a little way and crouched behind a bush. I did not intend to let myself be pounced upon unawares and be prevented perhaps from rendering a supreme service to at least one human creature before I died myself.
“But we must believe the signal was seen, for the galley from Ile Royale came over in an astonishingly short time. The woman kept right on till the light of her lantern flashed upon the officer in command and the bayonets of the soldiers in the boat. Then she sat down and began to cry.
“She didn’t need me any more. I did not budge. Some soldiers were only in their shirt-sleeves, others without boots, just as the call to arms had found them. They passed by my bush at the double. The galley had been sent away for more; and the woman sat all alone crying at the end of the pier, with the lantern standing on the ground near her.
“Then suddenly I saw in the light at the end of the pier the red pantaloons of two more men. I was overcome with astonishment. They, too, started off at a run. Their tunics flapped unbuttoned and they were bare-headed. One of them panted out to the other, ‘Straight on, straight on!’
“Where on earth did they spring from, I wondered. Slowly I walked down the short pier. I saw the woman’s form shaken by sobs and heard her moaning more and more distinctly, ‘Oh, my man! my poor man! my poor man!’ I stole on quietly. She could neither hear nor see anything. She had thrown her apron over her head and was rocking herself to and fro in her grief. But I remarked a small boat fastened to the end of the pier.
“Those two men – they looked like sous-officiers – must have come in it, after being too late, I suppose, for the galley. It is incredible that they should have thus broken the regulations from a sense of duty. And it was a stupid thing to do. I could not believe my eyes in the very moment I was stepping into that boat.
“I pulled along the shore slowly. A black cloud hung over the Iles de Salut. I heard firing, shouts. Another hunt had begun – the convict-hunt. The oars were too long to pull comfortably. I managed them with difficulty, though the boat herself was light. But when I got round to the other side of the island the squall broke in rain and wind. I was unable to make head against it. I let the boat drift ashore and secured her.
“I knew the spot. There was a tumbledown old hovel standing near the water. Cowering in there I heard through the noises of the wind and the falling downpour some people tearing through the bushes. They came out on the strand. Soldiers perhaps. A flash of lightning threw everything near me into violent relief. Two convicts!
“And directly an amazed voice exclaimed, ‘It’s a mirade!’ It was the voice of Simon, otherwise Biscuit.
“And another voice growled, ‘What’s a miracle?’
“‘Why, there’s a boat lying here!’
“‘You must be mad, Simon! But there is, after all. . . . A boat.’
“They seemed awed into complete silence. The other man was Mafile. He spoke again, cautiously.
“‘It is fastened up. There must be somebody here.’
“I spoke to them from within the hovel: ‘I am here.’
“They came in then, and soon gave me to understand that the boat was theirs, not mine. ‘There are two of us,’ said Mafile, ‘against you alone.’
“I got out into the open to keep clear of them for fear of getting a treacherous blow on the head. I could have shot them both where they stood. But I said nothing. I kept down the laughter rising in my throat. I made myself very humble and begged to be allowed to go. They consulted in low tones about my fate, while with my hand on the revolver in the bosom of my blouse I had their lives in my power. I let them live. I meant them to pull that boat. I represented to them with abject humility that I understood the management of a boat, and that, being three to pull, we could get a rest in turns. That decided them at last. It was time. A little more and I would have gone into screaming fits at the drollness of it.”
At this point his excitement broke out. He jumped off the bench and gesticulated. The great shadows of his arms darting over roof and walls made the shed appear too small to contain his agitation.
“I deny nothing,” he burst out. “I was elated, monsieur. I tasted a sort of felicity. But I kept very quiet. I took my turns at pulling all through the night. We made for the open sea, putting our trust in a passing ship. It was a foolhardy action. I persuaded them to it. When the sun rose the immensity of water was calm, and the Iles de Salut appeared only like dark specks from the top of each swell. I was steering then. Mafile, who was pulling bow, let out an oath and said, ‘We must rest.’
“The time to laugh had come at last. And I took my fill of it, I can tell you. I held my sides and rolled in my seat, they had such startled faces. ‘What’s got into him, the animal?’ cries Mafile.
“And Simon, who was nearest to me, says over his shoulder to him, ‘Devil take me if I don’t think he’s gone mad!’
“Then I produced the revolver. Aha! In a moment they both got the stoniest eyes you can imagine. Ha, ha! They were frightened. But they pulled. Oh, yes, they pulled all day, sometimes looking wild and sometimes looking faint. I lost nothing of it because I had to keep my eyes on them all the time, or else – crack! – they would have been on top of me in a second. I rested my revolver hand on my knee all ready and steered with the other. Their faces began to blister. Sky and sea seemed on fire round us and the sea steamed in the sun. The boat made a sizzling sound as she went through the water. Sometimes Mafile foamed at the mouth and sometimes he groaned. But he pulled. He dared not stop. His eyes became blood-shot all over, and he had bitten his lower lip to pieces. Simon was as hoarse as a crow.
“‘Comrade-‘ he begins.
“‘There are no comrades here. I am your patron.’
“‘Patron, then,’ he says, ‘in the name of humanity let us rest.’
“I let them. There was a little rainwater washing about the bottom of the boat. I permitted them to snatch some of it in the hollow of their palms. But as I gave the command, ‘En route!’ I caught them exchanging significant glances. They thought I would have to go to sleep sometime! Aha! But I did not want to go to sleep. I was more awake than ever. It is they who went to sleep as they pulled, tumbling off the thwarts head over heels suddenly, one after another. I let them lie. All the stars were out. It was a quiet world. The sun rose. Another day. Allez! En route!
“They pulled badly. Their eyes rolled about and their tongues hung out. In the middle of the forenoon Mafile croaks out: ‘Let us make a rush at him, Simon. I would just as soon be shot at once as to die of thirst, hunger, and fatigue at the oar.’
“But while he spoke he pulled; and Simon kept on pulling too. It made me smile. Ah! They loved their life these two, in this evil world of theirs, just as I used to love my life, too, before they spoiled it for me with their phrases. I let them go on to the point of exhaustion, and only then I pointed at the sails of a ship on the horizon.
“Aha! You should have seen them revive and buckle to their work! For I kept them at it to pull right across that ship’s path. They were changed. The sort of pity I had felt for them left me. They looked more like themselves every minute. They looked at me with the glances I remembered so well. They were happy. They smiled.
“‘Well,’says Simon, ‘the energy of that youngster has saved our lives. If he hadn’t made us, we could never have pulled so far out into the track of ships. Comrade, I forgive you. I admire you.’
“And Mafile growls from forward: ‘We owe you a famous debt of gratitude, comrade. You are cut out for a chief.’
“Comrade! Monsieur! Ah, what a good word! And they, such men as these two, had made it accursed. I looked at them. I remembered their lies, their promises, their menaces, and all my days of misery. Why could they not have left me alone after I came out of prison? I looked at them and thought that while they lived I could never be free. Never. Neither I nor others like me with warm hearts and weak heads. For I know I have not a strong head, monsieur. A black rage came upon me – the rage of extreme intoxication – but not against the injustice of society. Oh, no!
“‘I must be free!’ I cried, furiously.
“‘Vive la liberté!’ yells that ruffian Mafile. ‘Mort aux bourgeois who send us to Cayenne! They shall soon know that we are free.’
“The sky, the sea, the whole horizon, seemed to turn red, blood red all round the boat. My temples were beating so loud that I wondered they did not hear. How is it that they did not? How is it they did not understand?
“I heard Simon ask, ‘Have we not pulled far enough out now?’
“‘Yes. Far enough,’ I said. I was sorry for him; it was the other I bated. He hauled in his oar with a loud sigh, and as he was raising his hand to wipe his forehead with the air of a man who has done his work, I pulled the trigger of my revolver and shot him like this off the knee, right through the heart.
“He tumbled down, with his head hanging over the side of the boat. I did not give him a second glance. The other cried out piercingly. Only one shriek of horror. Then all was still.
“He slipped off the thwart on to his knees and raised his clasped hands before his face in an attitude of supplication. ‘Mercy,’ he whispered, faintly. ‘Mercy for me! -comrade.’
“‘Ah, comrade,’ I said, in a low tone. ‘Yes, comrade, of course. Well, then, shout Vive l’anarchie.’
“He flung up his arms, his face up to the sky and his mouth wide open in a great yell of despair. ‘Vive l’anarchie! Vive -‘
“He collapsed all in a heap, with a bullet through his head.
“I flung them both overboard. I threw away the revolver, too. Then I sat down quietly. I was free at last! At last. I did not even look towards the ship; I did not care; indeed, I think I must have gone to sleep, because all of a sudden there were shouts and I found the ship almost on top of me. They hauled me on board and secured the boat astern. They were all blacks, except the captain, who was a mulatto. He alone knew a few words of French. I could not find out where they were going nor who they were. They gave me something to eat every day; but I did not like the way they used to discuss me in their language. Perhaps they were deliberating about throwing me over-board in order to keep possession of the boat. How do I know? As we were passing this island I asked whether it was inhabited. I understood from the mulatto that there was a house on it. A farm, I fancied, they meant. So I asked them to put me ashore on the beach and keep the boat for their trouble. This, I imagine, was just what they wanted. The rest you know.”
After pronouncing these words he lost suddenly all control over himself. He paced to and fro rapidly, till at last he broke into a run; his arms went like a windmill and his ejaculations became very much like raving. The burden of them was that he “denied nothing, nothing!” I could only let him go on, and sat out of his way, repeating, “Calmez vous, calmez vous,” at intervals, till his agitation exhausted itself.
I must confess, too, that I remained there long after he had crawled under his mosquito-net. He had entreated me not to leave him; so, as one sits up with a nervous child, I sat up with him – in the name of humanity – till he fell asleep.
On the whole, my idea is that he was much more of an anarchist than he confessed to me or to himself; and that, the special features of his case apart, he was very much like many other anarchists. Warm heart and weak head – that is the word of the riddle; and it is a fact that the bitterest contradictions and the deadliest conflicts of the world are carried on in every individual breast capable of feeling and passion.
From personal inquiry I can vouch that the story of the convict mutiny was in every particular as stated by him.
When I got back to Horta from Cayenne and saw the “Anarchist” again, he did not look well. He was more worn, still more frail, and very livid indeed under the grimy smudges of his calling. Evidently the meat of the company’s main herd (in its unconcentrated form) did not agree with him at all.
It was on the pontoon in Horta that we met; and I tried to induce him to leave the launch moored where she was and follow me to Europe there and then. It would have been delightful to think of the excellent manager’s surprise and disgust at the poor fellow’s escape. But he refused with unconquerable obstinacy.
“Surely you don’t mean to live always here!” I cried. He shook his head.
“I shall die here,” he said. Then added moodily, “Away from them.”
Sometimes I think of him lying open-eyed on his horseman’s gear in the low shed full of tools and scraps of iron – the anarchist slave of the Marañon estate, waiting with resignation for that sleep which “fled” from him, as he used to say, in such an unaccountable manner.
Like at other periods of metaphysical ardor, at this time too, the body (that of a woman, to be sure) wasn’t taken very seriously. This may be why even the dockworkers in the port that day didn’t notice a woman disembarking from a dinghy in the port of Jaffa, whose legs, below her dark, collared dress, were without feet. These were, as said, times of metaphysical ardor, and we must understand the lack in that very spirit, and include this woman in the family of creatures that culture has crossbred between fantasy and biology: the unicorn, the child immaculately conceived, ministering angels, Mephisto, and the Loch Ness monster.
She was assigned a house on the beach of Tel Aviv. It did not take long before she was joined there by a well-known editor of matters of public and spiritual interest, at a paper in which she published her stories – stories that charmed him greatly. As was to be expected, in the deep sea tradition, he was doomed to drown. But before this came to pass, the woman gave birth to his daughter, a regular girl in all respects, and so as soon as she stood on her own two feet, she was put in charge of looking after her mother, whose only nourishment was grains and grasses which the girl collected from neighbors’ gardens and from the beach. And claiming that her mother was her teacher, the girl never visited school.
When the father crossed the sea to collect money from Diaspora Jews for building up the country, the girl and her mother stayed in this wooden house by the sea, as though they were living on an island, and other than the writers and poets who wrote for the paper, and who got together in their house once a week, no one came in. Like buzzing flowers, they circled the figure of the hostess, slim like a black wasp, who lay in bed, all covered, her hair tied together, exposing her dark, heart-shaped face, the white collar of her dress accentuating the hue of her eyes that burned with a black fire, part evil and part mournful. The girl too hovered like a dark butterfly with one damaged wing, pouring tea into tin mugs for the guests. They were all men, except for one English woman, who got herself into trouble with a man who brought her here and then ditched her. She did not return to her own country, her parents’ home, maybe out of pride, or for other reasons.
Because it was dark, those who looked through the window could not make out the sea, but the waves’ tumult entered the room, rising and falling, by turns, as if the little house were a shell or an ear whose depths the boom was supposed to drown out, to reveal something, to conceal completely, and get in the way of making any sense.
Meanwhile, the visitors sat and discussed Hebrew literature and what made it stand out, about its connection to the renewal of life here in this land. Lisbeth, the English poet, who in the yishuv was called by the name Elisheva, tried to raise her voice above the sea’s din and the others’ voices and said that literature needs its conceit, much like poetry, whose truth is at the same time its lie, that is, the attempt to catch hold of the stream of nothingness, the void, above which everything hovers, the absence in the very belly of words; being before the first day. The gentlemen seated around the bed protested vigorously: It’s sinful, they said, to think of poetry as a kind of hovering over the abyss. After all, we find ourselves in this life for the purpose of confirming it and to create a new world, to write new literature which replaces zero by one, and all this, in order to create the New Man. For what is literature if not a looking glass which reflects to man asleep his image fully awake.
“I drink to the life of contemporary man,” said one of the gentlemen and raised his empty tin mug, and all the gentlemen raised theirs and called out: “Here’s to the community, the individual’s salvation!” And this is how the evening came to its end.
“Will you be writing to Rabinovitch?” asked the visitors, as they were taking their leave, one after the other – S.Czaczkes, 1 S. Ben-Zion, 2 A. Siskind, 3 and Y. Zarchi 4 – adding, before stepping out onto the sandy path, “Give him our best regards and tell him we’re keeping our eyes open.” And Lisbeth too, a little embarrassed, sent her wishes so it wouldn’t seem that because of one man’s offense she was now holding a grudge against all the men in the world.
The hostess however felt no need to justify the letters she did not write. Privately she believed that every husband is nothing but his wife’s hangman, and also the other way around. She had a personal memory of a garden full of wild raspberry bushes which covered the riverbank, the river whose waters set her father’s flour mill into motion. That was where she and her brother played before her mother died, and also, after some time, where she joined him to study from his books by night what he studied during the day. Though that room held no more than a small table, one chair and a bed, she lacked for nothing. It was only after his death, when she arrived at the coast and disembarked onto this land, that she felt her feet had remained there, and maybe she had never had any in the first place.
Now the sea’s din abated. She turned down the oil lamp, whose shadow fell onto the tense face of the girl asleep in the chair – she who was born to a sorrow not produced by her life’s experience but which was nevertheless beyond her power to keep at bay. She returned to the table, opened the window, and looked out. The sea was utterly quiet. No one passing could have known that this expanse of dark continent was nothing other than the sea. She pondered what the gentlemen and the lady had been talking about. What is this here and what this now, she wondered, and what is the manifold, if only one sorrow always enfolds all wars, epidemics, and disappointments, because what you are able to suffer is necessarily the greatest suffering you can experience in this world. And time, what is time if it isn’t small links of pain that keep emerging every moment. She dipped the quill in her ink and began to write.
But tonight more than at other times, perhaps because of the gentlemen’s words which still lingered in the room, she felt the impotence of tales of the past: the small town, her father’s flour mill, her grandmother the rabbi’s wife and her spotted cow. She obviously must be wary of these gentlemen and stay safely in the little house, keep intact her world which was so fragile, so transparent that it took just one word to burst the bubble. Not an incessant nothingness, she thought, but an incessantly flickering electricity with which the brain hit the word, or the other way around, and one dead word would do to remove its root of fire and turn it into a mummified part.
She knew that those little stories would come back to her, but not tonight, and she felt how her gray brain lay orphaned from itself, heavy and lifeless, in the crown of her head, like a stone or a dead fish. Then she opened the door and sat down on the bench on the porch.
A tiny fishing boat, it must be Arab, cast a very slim ray of light which entered through the eyelashes like a net.
Someone approached from the sea and sat down by her side. It was a woman, a lady, and she introduced herself:
“Je suis Madame Bovary”.
Worried, the owner of the house looked to her sides. Madame Bovary, of all people, who the yishuv members, and the editorial board, considered the epitome of vacuity, of the corruption of feeling, was it she of all people who had to appear and sit down here by her side on the bench? In fact, even though the owner of the house felt a mixture of fondness and revulsion for her, she had always believed that if she ever got the opportunity to meet her, she might give her some useful advice. First, that the men she had decided to love, this Madame, were chosen neither intelligently nor in good taste. Even had she not been one of those women possessed by the dybbuk of having children, she might definitely have done with a little more imagination and delight in her genius for falling in love, and understood, after so much experience, that true hunger is a hunger never stilled; yet now that she actually emerged from the sea and sat next to her and she moreover had the chance to say it, she wondered whether there was any point left to it.
Madame was sitting there, wrapped in her black hood, like a Capuchin friar, but the owner of the house did not immediately say what was on her mind; instead she said: “Madame, what are you looking for here, at my place?”
Her coarse intonation made Bovary shiver, an intonation of the kind they used, in the yishuv-under-construction, with those women who were considered useless citizens, those who yearned for flirtations on nights when the hot desert wind deprived them of their sleep, for salons bathing in shadow, for pianos and for the touch of silk on a white, smooth thigh, for wild senseless weeping; but Madame did not reply and did not even remove from her head the dark hood which hid her face. The sound of the sea rose momentarily, blotting out this malicious remark to the visitor: “What was this mythology of love such that, in your foolishness, you assumed your role was that of a goddess, and to make it worse, alongside those who were many times cleverer than you, foxes of a minor existence?
“And on what intuition?” she continued with a lowered voice, because in those days that substance was not really recognized. “And if dramatic theater was what you were after, what kind of heroes did you come up with – some village apothecary and a bank clerk, and then that pathetic finale you arranged for yourself?”
“L’amour,” spoke Madame, and the word quivered, lifting briefly above the smooth Jaffa sands before being swallowed: “Who can even imagine a life without love?” Having said this, she held her head high like a heroine facing the guillotine. “I had to fall in love with one idiot or another. How could I have left it to the writer?! How could I trust him to give me a decent hero who would be able to make use of everything he himself, the writer, had put into me, all my gifts, my power, my will; so what if I used my own imagination a bit to help him along? The heroine, too, after all, has some responsibility for the story.”
The sea crashed, its sound like the wind blowing through corn stalks. The two women looked each other straight in the eye. Madame was the first to lower her head and she whispered: “And if you want to know the truth, all this didn’t depend on me. It was Gustave who took me for a ride.”
“It’s hard to blame another person when you’ve allowed him to live in your stead,” said the owner of the house, her voice harsh, “But letting him get away with dumping you just because his imagination had run dry, that’s overdoing it. Nobody told you to. And you should have known that, being a man, he was never on your side.”
Now the little boat near the beach could be made out. The lights on its deck swung in the wind making it hard to tell in what direction it was heading, or whether it was coming or going.
“What did you want me to do?” asked Madame, “We’re all actors performing the dialogue we were given, whether by nature, culture, the times, or God above, you might call it catechism, apology, karma, fate. It’s like when that nun confesses to the priest about the man who appears in her erotic hallucinations, and the priest answers her mockingly: “All you need is to wake up, dear lady. The dream, including its heroes, are the products of your sleep.”
She’s right, thought the owner of the house, without admitting it, of course we cannot wake up from our dream. Only the convinced, priests and the like, they are the ones who pretend, moronic enough to believe it. For the dream is our true nature – and how can we escape it? She was at a loss.
The two sat there in silence.
“But anger?” the owner of the house suddenly said, remembering somewhat hopefully. “Isn’t anger even more powerful than the imagination?” She turned to with renewed vividness, “You should have taken your revenge on that feeble fat man La Bovary who took his pleasure from you as if you were him, when he pretended that your deceit rather than his own inability led to your end. Why didn’t you revolt?”
Madame rose from the bench, her figure darker even than the darkness.
“I never could,” she said and lifted the hem of her dress, exposing her feetless legs – and then she vanished.
The owner of the house remained seated as she was for a long time, until the dark air grew thinner, like aluminum foil children smooth with their nails, and turned transparent until the morning’s white light pierced it.
Still, she said to herself, as she got up from where she had sat, I won’t allow anyone, not even fate, to pull me along like that as though I had no anger. I will stand within my anger like Honi the Circledrawer who drew a circle around himself. And as for the foot, even if it’s only in our imagination, even then we must dedicate ourselves to it lovingly, no matter to whom it belongs – the writer or the hero of the story – for no one can tell us that the foot on which we stand in our imagination, against the story, exists more, or less, for real than the story itself.
She entered the house, picked up the book she was reading from the table, got into her bed, rested the book against the slate she held on her knees, and began to pour the sentences from French into Hebrew: “That wonderful spectacle that was so deeply engraved in Emma’s memory, seemed to her more beautiful than anything a person could imagine.”
I grew up suddenly like a tree. Once I had a dream when I was five years old. This dream visited me again. I slept for ten minutes that night. It was hard. The medicine that the psychiatrist prescribed to me did not work.
Tranquilizers had not worked for me in the past and would not work for me this time. I did not take them the night before. I had taken them in the past to take the edge off my fear. The previous night, something waded through my mind, convincing me that tranquilizers were not for me, my mind was like a narrow potholed way in an ancient town. I had a nightmare. In my dream, I was a child back in Gaza, on top of one of the city’s highest towers. I was riding a camel, which was over another smaller camel, while a storm was coming from the sea. Suddenly, I fell down and the sea swallowed me. I woke up shuddering. I have feared the sea since I almost drowned in Gaza at the age of nine. Why is the sea chasing me? I woke up wondering why now!
After the nightmare I did not go back to sleep. I put my cheek back on the pillow, reached for the desk, and glared at the screen of my phone, flicking from one page to another, from one application to another, aimlessly. Hundreds are online. Almost all from Gaza. It is four o’clock in Gaza, while I am here, in Sweden. One hour between us, but this hour is a time between two different worlds. I found one unread message. It was from my brother asking about my wellbeing. I pulled my leg to my chest, then reached for the desk, put the phone down smoothly, then stretched my other leg towards the cupboard. My home was similar to a small and beautiful cell. A tiny studio with a narrow crawling space in the middle. On the right was the kitchenette, on the left the sofa bed, and in front near the window a desk and small library. I slept, studied, wrote, ate and read on the same chair and sofa, which also happened to be my bed. Luckily, the bathroom door was one and a half meters from my sofa bed. A friend who visited me told me that this tiny studio was better than a villa in many countries of the world.
I opened my eyes, and suddenly clenched them shut again. They were swollen after a night of nightmares, preceded by four hours of reading and writing. It is difficult for the eyes to open all at once after a terrifying nightmare or a beautiful late night.
“Should I go to work?” I thought while my eyes were still shut. I could not decide if I would go or not. The cranks and dials in my head were still turning. “I will stay here in the four walls of this flat,” I said to myself. I opened my eyes again. This time, I did not look up at the white ceiling but back towards the window. I wanted to see the sky.
“Is there sun today? Will it visit us today?” I asked letting myself hear my voice.
We had not seen the sun for two weeks. In this northern city, sun comes rarely after August. It rises and shed its light, bringing a cold breeze and chilling weather to remind people of its mere existence. Suddenly, my eyes widened. “There is sun,” this time my voice was louder.
Today could be a beautiful day. I pulled my leg, put it down and stood on my bed. I looked on the desk and found a few books that I had to return back to the library. I had a bad habit of borrowing many books at once, after I bought a new collection of books. I end up reading half of what I buy and half of what I borrow. My relationship with books is cherishing. Books are my family, friends and soulmates. When people lose the meaning of family, they turn to new things, sometimes drugs and crime, sometimes noble things such as charity and volunteering. I turned to books. I could speak to them and learn from them. They never complained and I never complained. Once Luis Borges said that all human inventions are an extension of the senses. The microscope is an extension of the sense of sight; the telephone is an extension of hearing, and a plough an extension of arms and movement. However, the book is an extension for something invisible, inaudible and intangible. It is an extension of memory and imagination.
So, I had to return these books. I made myself get up, while looking at the packet of cigarettes. I remembered that I had not smoked for two days. Today could be the day for resuming the habit of smoking once or twice. I prepared the Swedish coffee machine- they call it bryggkaffe, turned it on and turned right towards the shower. I walked oddly, almost a sidle pushing my right leg in front of me as if I am testing a loose wooden floorboard. I wanted to shower, to have energy despite knowing that a hot shower would make drowsiness my friend again. I looked in the mirror. I could see myself blurred, a bearded-face with shapeless swollen eyes. “More grey hairs,” I said mumbling.
As soon as I left the shower, I made the sofa bed a sofa only, pushing it to the wall and making more space in the tiny villa. I opened the window slowly, making a crack to form an air-shaft. The coffee breath was filling the room. My brain started to work again. Coffee always remind me of Yemen. Yemen was the most important producer and exporter of coffee. Even “Moka” the Italian coffee machine was named after Mocha, the port in Yemen where coffee used to be exported. Since I learned this, it became my favorite story to tell my European friends whenever I see a Moka. I feel proud telling them this, as if I was giving colonialism a small slap on its face, correcting a small bit of history.
It is nine o’clock. I must go, but I remembered that I had to throw out the garbage. I folded the garbage bag, put on my sneakers and opened the door of the cell, or the studio. A stiff breeze blew in my face. It energized me. After almost fifteen stairs, I was on the ground outside the building. On my way out, I saw the postman with his green clothes. “God Morgon”, I said. Good morning in Swedish. He answered, “God Morgon.”
He started to distribute the post in the twenty-four mailboxes. Nothing for me on the horizon. I was not expecting anything. Suddenly, he took out a different post, which was a confidential post and put it in my box. I stopped and threw one leg back, standing behind him with a smile on my face. Once he was gone, I opened my box. I took the paper, went up, and looked at it. Strange. It was a paper to inform me that I had an important letter that I had to pick up from the post office. They stressed that I had to take a valid ID. This was strange. I was not expecting anything. The post office point was close to my home, just a ten-minute walk. The Swedish post made life easy by delegating posts and mails sending and receiving to the kiosks and tobacco shops. I decided to go and pick it up on my way to the library.
I put the bag filled with books and my laptop on my back. Before locking the door, I changed my mind. I decided to leave the bag, collect the post, buy some groceries and come back home, then go to the library. On my way to the post office, I was unnerved. Where from? Who sent me the post? Was it a gift? From whom? Friend? Lover? Many questions continued to make me muddled-headed.
The sun started to take on the weather, and the temperature hitched another notch. The smell of last night’s rain was filling my nose. A few crows were around and many other birds. The crows started to follow me. This made me feel my temples pulse with a steady pounding. Crows are not a good sign. I grew up knowing that crows are bad luck wherever they exist. Suddenly, a small wet leaf fell down on the post paper I was holding. Everything was silent around me and the leaf was sticking to the paper, yet moving as if it were dancing in a spiral motion. I smiled. I was in front of the service man.
“Hej Hej,” I said. Hello in Swedish. I handed the paper to him, and my driver’s license for an ID card. The sound of the machines was loud.
“Teck Teck, Peep Peep” he scanned the barcode of a big envelope. “Sign here please and write your name.” I did. All I need is that envelope. Curiosity is killing me. “Here we go”.
I have it now. Shall I go to the grocery store or open it now. I put my ID back in my wallet, and then my wallet back in my right pocket. The envelope said that it was from the migration board of Sweden. I had applied for citizenship last month. They may need more documents. They need more papers, for sure. Unlucky me. I have been told that one can wait up to one year to get a decision, but I needed something that makes me not “Stateless.”
I opened the envelope and I found my Palestinian travel document and other papers. I was mellowed, somehow now calm and quiet, yet I was sure the service man inside could hear my pulse and feel my hot painful breath. Two meters away I put the passport back inside my pocket and pulled the paper from inside the envelope to read. It could be a letter to explain whatever they needed.
Suddenly everything changed. My eyes were wide open. My mouth was wide open and the hot breath fog in front of my face became more intense. I smiled. It was a big smile. If someone saw me while staring on the paper, he would wait to see the outcome of that smile and why I am staring on that paper. -I was still staring at it, open mouthed and heavy thoughts.
It is here with the storm. It is here like a quaint dance coming from afar. It is an ivory page with the Swedish Kingdom logo. Yellow, blue and garnet colors decorate the document. It is written as if it were an honorary doctorate. They were informing me that I had become a Swedish citizen. It was as if some voice from far away was telling me of my new reality. It was the beginning of something. I knew that there would be more beginnings that there are more ends to them, but here is my new beginning. There was the beginning of “Them” and “We”. “I” and “Them”. My skin color and name does not match this passport: that was the most difficult beginning. There are moments when happiness and sadness violently collide, propelled by an insane wind blowing from the Russian steppe. This moment was one of them.
The journey of the ninth child, escaping death and life. How did it start?
While he was waiting for his gas tank to be filled at one of the many stations found at the beginning of the Cassia road, on the way out of Florence, attorney Adami kept looking at the girl in the blue tank top and jeans, standing on the edge of the road, a little further up. She was quite tall and slim, with loose washed-blond hair, and she had a large backpack at her feet. She must be a foreigner, possibly Nordic, one of those who hitchhike around Europe. But she must have been shy, or otherwise incredibly lazy, because she let cars go past without signaling them to stop. She didn’t signal attorney Adami either, but he, moved by some sort of indulgent concern, stopped his car anyway and, opening the door to invite her in, asked:
Maybe the girl was neither shy nor lazy, but just cautious: she looked at him with a pair of very light eyes, the color of the sea on windless days, and studied him with great seriousness, before deciding to note her consent. She then gathered herself on the seat, as far as possible from him, and seemed to become even smaller, with her tiny face, that, to be honest, seemed also not very expressive, as it is often the case with Nordic women, and her skinny arms, reddened by the sun.
Attorney Adami was no Don Juan, no seducer with little conscience. However, as he was sure he had been one in his youth, he was left with the calm awareness that, in the case of need, he would not lack the charm, nor the experience, needed to win a woman over. Naturally, the idea of using charm and experience with the girl he just picked up didn’t even remotely occur to him, and in fact, with great rectitude, he was thinking mostly of his daughter, and what she would be like when she grew up. This girl seemed to be fourteen or fifteen, she was pretty and delicate. In fact, he would not have minded at all if his daughter, in ten years’ time, would be like this girl, as pretty and delicate, but he would certainly not allow her to travel the world on her own, risking her falling into the hand of some villain. It wasn’t without any personal complacency, relating to his own virtue, that he thought he could be a villain himself if, faced by this very young and seemingly very pure girl, he wasn’t stopped by a sense of responsibility that could even be defined as fatherly.
The attorney was therefore feeling exceptionally well with his conscience, but it was this very sense of his cleanliness and appropriateness that made him feel he would appreciate it if the girl would show more trust, for example, by smiling back at him when he turned to smile at her. But instead, she remained enclosed and contained in her corner, and did not seem to be inclined to show any trust, to the point that it could even appear offensive, in the sense that it was possible to interpret it as an expression of doubt and suspicion that he, at the end of the day, did not deserve.
At San Casciano, at the café that is right at the top of the hill, he stopped for a moment to buy a bag of sweets. Sometimes children are won over this way, with small things, and indeed she finally smiled, when he put sweets in her hand, but immediately afterwards she returned to her corner, only that now she was munching on the sweets. The road was descending from the hills of San Casciano, one turn after the other, and on the trees the cicadas were singing in the air warmed by the sun. The valley ahead was wide, with a multitude of shades of green and yellow and farmhouses scattered on the hills, each with its own tassels of cypresses, and the attorney, who was feeling almost moved by all this beauty, was sorry that the girl from the north was not aware of it, it seemed. “Do you speak English?” he asked.
“Yes”, she replied with great calm.
The attorney gestured vaguely to the valley. “Beautiful Italy”, he said.
The girl confirmed with a nod, to show that she agreed. It wasn’t much to encourage a conversation, but the attorney thought that this was a start and explained to her that he lived in Rome and had a four-year-old daughter called Gisella. He also started to say that he would not mind at all if his daughter, when she grew up, would be like her, but this concept was too complicated for his English and he was soon stuck, and then asked her, in French, if she could speak French and she replied yes, of course. So he started explaining to her, in French, that he lived in Rome and had a four-year-old daughter called Gisella, and that he would not mind at all, etc. etc., but his French also failed him with this difficult concept, even ambiguous, that he could not explain, and she watched him as he struggled with foreign languages, and her face was no longer blank, but impertinent and amused, and in the end she said, in an Italian that was slightly softer than ours, that he could speak Italian to her, if he preferred, because she was a student in a college in Florence and understood Italian very well.
The attorney had the feeling, not entirely unfounded, that the girl was making fun of him, with the issue of foreign languages, and he resented that, not very much, but enough to encourage him to imagine treating her with less consideration than he had done to that point. Indeed, just because of that push, that the hidden resentment gave him, as he approached Poggibonsi, he thought: if that little flirt was a few years older, now, instead of heading for Rome, I would turn right and take her to San Gimignano, which is a place foreigners like and could lead to something. A few years older? Well, to be honest, the age issue was indeed a touchy one. He liked young girls, very young, in fact, but due to his legal profession, he was not the type to compromise himself with a young girl of fifteen, although, if he really looked closely, she was probably easily sixteen or even seventeen. Dear God, what if she was seventeen? With Nordic girls, you never know: they develop late and keep their virginal look even long after they lose their virginity. If she was seventeen, the situation would be different, reversed even. But she could not be that old. At seventeen, a girl, next to a man that, although he is a bit over forty, is certainly not unattractive, does not behave like that, in that disconnected, calm seriousness that the girl was displaying, while still munching on sweets. The attorney concluded that the temptation to turn right, to San Gimignano, a place favored by lovers, was nothing but bizarre fantasy, it was not right to act on such desires in contrast with the penal code, and indeed, when he reached Poggibonsi, he bravely remained on Cassia, and the road, having left the village, was again surrounded by vines and olive trees, with many twists and turns. The attorney was now satisfied, as one who just did what is usually defined as a good act, but, unfortunately, he was not one of those people who achieve perfect satisfaction from exercising virtue, and deep inside, he regretted missing San Gimignano, with that special timeless atmosphere, allowing us release from prejudice in our time. The attorney had no doubt that it was prejudice and stupid moralistic fancy. Who, at the time of Boccaccio, or, say, the Arezzo man — and those were, now we know this for sure, very civil times — who would hold back when facing such an adventure as the one that he had been offered? At the time, much worse used to happen, without anyone expressing any surprise, or causing inconvenience due to this penal code.
“At what time will we reach Rome?” the girl asked unexpectedly.
It was a standard question, maybe the most natural one could ask, under the circumstances, but it was asked just as the attorney, caught by nostalgia of what he could have done had he been born in any period preceding the Counter Reformation, was feeling rather touchy. “Why?” he asked. “Is anyone expecting you?”
She looked at him with an expression that was almost aggressive, funny in her tiny face, and persevered with her questions. “What about you? Don’t you have anyone?”
The attorney felt like laughing. “My daughter”, he replied.
“If there is a daughter, surely she has a mother”, the girl observed. “In Italy there is no divorce”.
Well, why did she care if there was divorce or not? What did she want from him, was she trying to provoke him? As far as she was concerned, he would have been equally separated, a bigamist or even a widower. For a moment, he wanted to make her believe he was, indeed, a widower, but then he preferred to behave like a gentleman. “Yes, I also have a wife”, he answered proudly. And then he added, less proudly, “Unfortunately”.
The girl was quick to react to the last word: “Why unfortunately? All Italians say that.”
This time, the attorney was truly annoyed. “I am not responsible for other Italians”, he retorted dryly. “I am an anarchist, an individualist, I say unfortunately and I mean it. I haven’t been getting along with my wife for years, if I could turn back…” He stopped himself because he was too miserable. A married man can lie like that, and usually he does, only when there is a concrete advantage, that is when there is a need to use emotional arguments to knock down remaining objections of a woman who is about to fall. But there, with that girl, saved, physically, and especially being legally underage, what advantage could there be? He felt malice toward her, as if she was to blame for that small fall of idle hypocrisy, and in a sense, she was, because no one authorized her to be indiscreet and even provocative, and the least one could think of her is that she had a bad education, despite the college.
But he could not remain angry, and on the other hand, could her apparently insolent questions and comments be, after all, the proof of a growing interest in him? Young pubescent girls are particularly susceptible to the charm of men in their forties, he knew it both in theory and in practice, as the daughter of the concierge at his building, a fifteen year old girl, but unlike this one, even somewhat over developed, tended to blush in his presence, get confused and make a thousand faces, in other words, she was showing in many ways her secret crush for him. Of course, this girl was not he concierge’s daughter, yet, in itself, nothing prevented her from falling in love with him, and it would be wonderful, even though, naturally, he would not take advantage of it in any way, not even to stroke her neck and kiss her closed mouthed. He would respect her in any case, even if, for example, at some point she would offer herself to him spontaneously, a possibility that was quite improbable, as the girl, after that indiscreet explosion of interest for his marital status, returned to her corner, where she was again consuming sweets with detached, melancholy seriousness. Could she be hungry? The attorney was pleased with this thought as it detracted him, at least to an extent, from the guilty and equally morbid fantasies that occupied his mind in the last kilometers, and because he was approaching Siena, he decided to offer her a cappuccino and pastries.
He drove to the piazza and parked next to the café across from Palazzo della Signoria. The sun was burning hot and there were people only in the shade, with the exception of tourists who were walking in the heat with their cameras and straw hats they just bought, admiring the monuments. They sat under the café’s canopy, where it felt less hot, and the attorney, despite being behind schedule, was happy to have brought her here, to this magnificent piazza, and looked like he had built it all himself. When the waiter arrived, she ordered a bottle of German beer. “Won’t it be bad for you?” he asked her.
“Bad?” she replied with a shrug, then politely excusing herself and went inside the café. Before she was back, the waiter brought her beer and the coffee ordered by the attorney. He waited for a little while, but then decided to drink his coffee before it became too cold, and she was yet to return. The attorney thought, irritably, how he would not reach Rome at breakfast time, as he had promised his wife, and thought that if it wasn’t for the girl’s backpack in the car, he would have left her there, in Siena, as she deserved. After all, picking her up was just a careless act, nothing good was going to come out of it, it wasn’t at all an exaggeration to say that he regretted it, as it always happens with good acts that are completed without any prospect of profit. But then, when she finally reappeared, everything he was thinking was suddenly erased to give space for something that could also be called enchantment: she had put lipstick on, she put her hair up in a bun on top of her head, and, with her tank top tucked into her jeans, she displayed a thin waist, slim hips and in addition, tenderly, what little breast she had. “Tell me the truth”, he asked her once he was able to talk. “How old are you?”
She took a long sip of her beer, then turned toward him, with eyes shining with malice. “Almost twenty”, she answered.
After Siena, the Cassia road roams around the chalky scenery, going down into the valleys and back up again to the hills on the other side, apparently without much need, like narrow and often complicated turns, which the attorney reached before even realizing it, as he was driving quite nervously. The issue was that the adventure with the girl, that became suddenly possible and even probable, took him by surprise, he was unprepared for it, and in a way it even scared him, for a number of reasons. The first, and biggest question, he wasn’t hiding that from himself, was the following: was it worth cheating on his wife, the mother of his daughter, with a girl he happened to meet and for whom he could not yet have any real, deep affection? Well, to be honest, he had to answer yes, it was worth it, and not so much for the basic comparison between the girl and his wife, which would be extremely ungenerous and also not entirely justified, but for the more general consideration that for a man of forty, even if blessed by more charm than average, it doesn’t happen every day to have a twenty-year-old girl, beautiful, fresh, with breasts barely outlined, but undoubtedly moving, and so unusually blond. When something like this happens to him, usually a man does not let it go, and indeed, the lawyer didn’t intend to let her go, but in some secret fold of his conscience he still feels some vague discomfort about the idea of marital infidelity, and mostly, he attributed this discomfort to the fact that, even though the conquest appeared to be easy, he had no idea where to begin. Naturally, it wasn’t that he was afraid of having a technical deficiency, but that fact was that now, imagining any contact with the girl, even the most simple, made him feel confused, and probably even more inhibited than before, when he thought she was just a young girl. It was as if he was facing a woman he had known as a little girl, and that suddenly appeared all grown up, but not changed enough to allow him to forget her as a child, and in conclusion, he could not let go of the fear and respect towards childish innocence, and he was almost sorry that she grew up, as he was full of guilt, but also full of anger for the guilt that appeared at the most inconvenient moment. It was this confusion of emotions that made him take the turns so badly.
The girl let him drive as he wished for many kilometers, but then, on the climb to Radicofani, the road became dangerous, and she asked: “Why are you driving so fast? Are you in a rush to get to Rome?”
“No. And you?” The lawyer asked, finding it difficult to address her informally.
“I just need to get there before midnight.”
“Why before midnight?”
“At eleven fifty the train for Calabria leaves.”
“Are you going to Calabria?”
“No, with a guy.”
“Someone from your country?”
“No, a guy from Naples. Last year we traveled to Sicily. This year we are going to Calabria. They say it is even more beautiful.”
The lawyer was hurt by that answer more than it was expected, but, as he almost rightly understood when analyzing his own state of mind, it wasn’t jealousy, at least not the usual kind of jealousy, but the regret that he could not put himself in the place of the Neapolitan young man that was going to Calabria with her, he could not even put himself there in his fantasy, because he was married already, and youth for him had gone away, life came upon him with a suffocating weight of responsibility and concerns, not leaving space for love outside the limits of a rushed and enclosed adventure. These were the things, ultimately, more than the years, that marked a man’s decline.
It was with that feeling of self-pity that lawyer Adami, feeling in some way authorized to catch in his garden all the flowers that it was still possible to pick, reached the conclusion that any further hesitation on his part would be out of place, and in other words, that he would be a beast if he let that girl, who dropped on him from the sky, get away.
At Acquapendente, even though there was no need for it, he stopped to refuel, and in the meantime, from a nearby hotel, he called his wife and told her that one of his clients from Florence asked him to negotiate the purchase of a fund, so he would not arrive for breakfast, and maybe not even for lunch, but she should not worry about it, because he would certainly be home by midnight.
Once he removed the main psychological obstacles that stood in the way of his adventure, lawyer Adami found himself facing what bullfighting experts call the moment of truth, when the bullfighter faces the bull face to face, but as he had no doubt as to the balance of power between him and his victim, he felt very calm, and indeed, he was no longer driving dangerously, but with lively and optimistic elegance. The road descended from the heights of Acquapendente to enter that kind of funnel at the bottom of which is Lake Bolsena, and it was approximately one o’clock. The summer sun was tiring everyone and everything, with exception of the cicadas that with unparalleled ardor screeched on every tree. The girl, maybe because of the heat, stayed in her corner where the wind from the window was better, and generally seemed inattentive, in other words, not suspicious or at least indifferent, of what could happen to her before the evening. Nordic women, the lawyer knew just like anyone else, are like that: peaceful, reserved, maybe a bit cold, but at the right time they give themselves with great simplicity, as if it was the most natural thing in the world, and actually nothing was ever said to claim that it wasn’t.
The lawyer did not have reason to worry about the girl’s apparent reserve, but was instead thinking of the logistical difficulties of the matter, that could not be neglected, also because the girl was not yet twenty-one, which certainly was a complication. Ruling out a decent hotel, where would it happen: in the country behind a bush, in a wood, in a room of a dubious guest house or on the beach? At this moment, everything was possible, even the beach. Rome was less than 100 kilometers away, so they would reach it around three, and in another hour he could reach Tor San Lorenzo, where a painter friend of his owned a hut on the beach, used for these purposes exactly. The only inconvenience would be not to find the painter at home, because of the key, but other than that, the beach was not only the safest solution, but also the best in absolute terms, and the girl, in a bathing suit, would undoubtedly look stunning, with her long adolescent body, firm and contained. “Do you have your bathing suit?” He asked.
Called back from her distraction, the girl smiled at the question. “Of course I have one. In Calabria I want to go to the beach a lot. I always went to the beach in Sicily, too.”
A little annoyed by this unintentional hint at a past and a future in which he had no part at all, the lawyer replied forcefully, “I’ll also take you to the sea”. And because she was looking at him surprised and vaguely wondering, he explained, “We will get to Rome first, then go to the beach. Do you mind?”
“It would be wonderful,” she smiled with her usual simplicity.
Now the lawyer was imagining the adventure in all its magnificence, and it wasn’t difficult, looking at the girl, to imagine her as she would look in a bathing suit, or even without it, also because the wind that was coming through the window, was pressing on her tank top and was accentuating her breasts, that appeared to be of acceptable size, such as would inspire tenderness and other feelings. And because there is nothing like fantasizing about love for causing impatience to reach the desired conclusion, or at least to receive a reasonable advance, the lawyer started looking at the road for a convenient place to stop.
When the car stopped on the side of the road, where a part of a lake was visible between the oak trees, the girl, instead of looking at the view, hanged her head down as if she was already aware, and allowed him to put his arm around her, pull her close and kiss her on the neck that was left bare now that her hair was tied up. She didn’t resist later, when he lifted her face and started kissing her mouth, but she didn’t take part in any way, leaving him quite unsatisfied at the end of the long kiss, even resentful. On her part, she did not appear to be in a better mood, indeed, she immediately hung her head down, without doing or saying anything.
“Didn’t you like it?” he asked her.
And she asked, “Why did you do it, because you love me?”.
The question, even accounting for the girl’s possible inexperience, was without a doubt inappropriate, and in fact, everyone knows that for a kiss it is not essential to have binding and powerful emotions like love. Now, the lawyer didn’t want to think he had kissed her simply for pleasure or to try and win her, in fact, at the moment, nobody, not even him, could claim that he wasn’t already in love with her, at least a little bit, but talking about love before they even started was a bit too risky. In any case, if pursuing the adventure depended on a little lie, the lawyer was more than willing to say it. “I love you”, he confirmed with as much sincerity as he could show.
“All Italians say that”, the girl replied, without raising her head.
Offended in his effort to be honest, the lawyer was about to retort, when he noticed drops dripping on her trousers, that due to their position and other circumstances, could have only been tears. “Are you crying?” he asked, somewhat stupidly. “What is there to cry about?”
“You are just like the others”, she replied, pulling her nose. “But this is not why I’m crying. I am crying because I am like the others, the foreigners that come to Italy to make love with Italians.” She started crying harder. “I’m not like the others”, she said.
He pulled her to cry on his shoulder, and was stroking her hair, sweetly, then said, “You shouldn’t cry, the two of us are different”, but as much as he tried, he could not think of a reason to complete and explain his statement. However now, and not only because of a sense of satisfied pride, he started to feel that he and the girl were indeed different than other people, he felt that there was something inexpressible creeping into his soul, and that if it wasn’t love, it certainly was similar to it, but this complicated the issue greatly, both because he could not forget he had a wife at home, and because he knew that the sentimental way is not the shortest path to reach certain results, and here there certainly was not time to lose. Maybe a few glasses of Orvieto or Montefiascone wine would be enough to bring the adventure back to the easy and careless tracks that befitted it. “Are you hungry?” he asked the girl who was still crying.
She replied yes with ease, like a child.
“Let’s go then. We will stop at the first restaurant.”
“No, I’d rather get to Rome” she replied.
A little less than an hour later they were sitting, very close to each other, under the canopy of one of the little restaurants along the Cassia road, in the outer suburbs of Rome, and the lawyer could observe how accurate was his prevision that a little wine would be enough to do away with any melancholy. He felt at his best physically and mentally, and as for the girl, she was completely transformed. She was twisting, with amusing incompetence her fettuccine with sauce around the fork, and was laughing, continuously laughing, asking him, “Do you love me? Tell me you love me”, but without expecting any seriousness in his reply, like in a game.
And he swore he loved her, and again he poured her a drink, and she begged him not to, not to make her drink too much, because she loved him and therefore did not want to get drunk, and she pressed herself to him, with her small, warm and slim body, and they were kissing, they could do it because there were no other patrons at that time under the pergola, and the waiter did not mind them, numb with the heat and the hope of a good tip. “What will we do afterwards?” she was asking.
“I’ll take you to the beach, to a place called Tor San Lorenzo. There’s a hut there…”
“Two hearts and a hut”, she interrupted him beautifully, because she already drank a bit too much.
“It’s an outdoors hut”, he explained. “But inside it’s very well arranged. There’s a shower, a small kitchen with a fridge, and there is a big bed, with a flower print blanket…”
“A big bed”, she repeated with disconcerting malice, and he felt all confused, and they went back to kissing. And then, with a damp mouth, dazed by the kiss, she asked, “And the key, do you have the key?”
“No, but I will call my friend…”
“Didn’t you call him already?”
“Yes, but he was sleeping. He will wake at four thirty. I will call him again at four thirty.”
“At four thirty”, she repeated, suddenly melancholic, as if the wait weighed on her, or for who know what reason. “What time is it?”
“Almost four”, she said, becoming even more melancholic, until unpredictably she started laughing and said, “Do you love me? Tell me you love me”.
And he, despite understanding that all this was nothing but a generous game, replied that he loved her, my God, did he love her so much, and while he was saying that, he didn’t understand anymore if he crossed the boundaries of the game, because in fact he felt like he truly loved her, everything about her enchanted him, her youth, her beauty, her freshness, and especially her splendid ability to do the most ill-matched things, deviled chicken and kisses, tears and happiness, the immodesty with which she looked at him when they talked of what they would do in the beach cabin, and the childish innocence that bloomed again in her as soon as she was distracted by something of her own, looking at a cat searching for food, or playing with the remains of the bread on the tablecloth. “What time is it?” she asked.
She asked again for the time six or seven times, before it was finally four thirty, and she laughed less and less, as if her merriment was being suffocated by the impatience of arriving to the beach, but when, when it was finally four thirty, she didn’t want him to make the call anymore. “Wait a little”, she said. “A little longer.”
“But if I wait, he may go out, and then we won’t find the key anymore.”
“Please, a little bit longer”, she kept repeating with painful sadness, it was possible that she found herself in a moment of such acute love that she preferred the rest of the adventure to fall through rather than being away from him at the particular time, and without a doubt it was a beautiful and moving feeling, but the lawyer did not forget the rest of the adventure was what counted most, and that on the other hand, she was the one teasing him with the constant questions about what they would do at the hut, so it was not clear how come she now wanted to hold him back, risking losing out on the best. And all things considered, although he still thought that she was the most extraordinary and amazing girl he ever met, partly because of her unpredictable changes of tone and mood, he was also starting to wonder if it wasn’t better if he had met a less complicated girl.
At four forty five, although she kept begging him to wait a little longer, he did not listen to her and went into the restaurant, where the telephone was.
His painter friend was still asleep, but he asked his housekeeper to wake him, which she did, and the painter, having been woken up in the middle of a muggy afternoon, came to the phone in a bad mood and pique. He began by demanding to know exactly who the girl was. The lawyer could only tell him her name was Inge and she was Swedish, not from Stockholm, but from Lulea, a town near the North Pole, apparently. Then the painter asked him where he found her, and also wanted him to describe her, and the lawyer, despite being annoyed at the wasted time, described her, feeling justifiably complacent, because at the end of the day, she made him look good. He told his friend she was not even twenty yet and was divine, slim, but not too slim, unimaginably blond, and yes, the legs were also perfect and the breasts were this way and that, but suited her, she could not have had different breasts. After describing her well, with all the necessary abundance of details, the painter said he also wanted to come to Tor San Lorenzo, and the lawyer had to work hard to make him understand this was not appropriate, this is a good girl, a college girl, and that if things were not conducted with full discretion, everything may be ruined, and as much as he hated to mention the past, the painter should not forget the many favors he owed him, he even defended him in court a few times without asking for anything in return, and if he didn’t give him the key now, he wasn’t a friend. The painter answered that it was the lawyer himself who was not behaving as a friend should, because true friends share everything, especially girls, but in the end, he was persuaded to give him the key, but he asked him to at least let him see the magnificent Swede, when he came to pick up the key.
The lawyer went back out and didn’t see the girl in her place. Maybe she went to the bathroom to touch up her makeup after eating. In the meantime, he asked for the bill, and while waiting, he sat down, and naturally he kept fantasizing about the girl at the sea and the hut and of what would be the best adventure of his life, but the girl did not return, could it be that she felt unwell in the bathroom, because she truly did drink too much, and that would really be a drag. “Did you see the young lady who was with me?” he asked the waiter who brought him the bill.
With calm, that considering the occasion could even be considered insolent, the waiter gestured toward the road. “She left”, he said.
The lawyer felt his heart contract. Left? Where? And why, more importantly? As the waiter would not be able to answer these questions, the lawyer hurried to the road, or to the car he left parked in the yard, he wasn’t even sure himself, but the waiter held his arm respectfully, “The bill, sir.”
More than right. But it was this trivial request that caused the lawyer his second, and not less painful, contraction of his heart, as he could not find his wallet in the back pocket of his trousers, where he usually kept it, or in any other pocket of his suit. Now, at least to all outward appearances, the wonderful and sole adventure, so longed for and planned, was reduced to a theft, a pickpocketing, something painful and ridiculous at the same time, but as at present he was unable to see the funny aspect, the lawyer was caught by rage.
While he was recklessly driving down the last and quite difficult part of Cassia Vecchia road, on the way to the Ponte Milvio, at the entrance to Rome, lawyer Adami was completely dominated by the desire to strangle the girl, and not only because of the 70,000 or more Lira that he had in his wallet, but for the actual fact that she was so unprecedentedly evil. This powerful impulse was quite natural, not to say legitimate, but he understood that, to act on it, it was first necessary to get the hold of the girl. Now, there were two options: either she stopped a passing car to take her God knows where in the city, or she took the 201 bus that went along the Cassia Vecchia, ending at Ponte Milvio. If lawyer Adami was driving so recklessly down a dangerous road and with many speed limit signs, it was not so much to release the overwhelming storm in his mind, but mostly to try to overtake one of these buses. He succeeded in doing so, and stopped at the terminal, ready to pounce on the girl the moment she appeared. But she didn’t come off that bus or the next one, and the lawyer’s fury, rather than subside, increased, as was his pigheaded determination to find her again, however unreasonable it was. He would look for her all over Rome and at any event, at ten to midnight he would catch her at the train leaving for Calabria, although, coming to think of it, the Calabria story could also be one of the many lies the girl told him, and in fact it was almost absurd that a delinquent of this kind, for whom the skill of stealing was a real profession, would have given him the correct information to help him catch her. No, he could only look for her in Rome, and with this clear purpose the lawyer started the car again and drove into the city of two million inhabitants, hot like an oven at the end of a summer day.
The assumption, in the lawyer’s way of thinking, was not easy, but neither was it so senselessly difficult as it may have appeared to those less expert than him. In fact, the search could be, by following common sense, restricted to ten or a few more places that foreigners visit in Rome. Assuming that criminal was a foreigner, the lawyer thought bitterly, actually, anything was possible, she could even be from Milan or from Venice, but no, Italy does not produce hair so blond or eyes so light, and in conclusion, he was certainly the first Italian victim of a Swedish pickpocket in his own country. She had to be caught, even from the point of view of national pride.
Following a clear plan, the lawyer explored first the area of Castel Sant’Angelo and St. Peter’s Basilica, he then climbed Mount Gianicolo, then went down to the Colosseum and the Imperial Fora and then climbed another hill, the Campidoglio. In every place he stopped to look with a wild-eyed look for a girl in jeans, slim and blond, with the false look of a good girl. From the Campidoglio he went down to Piazza Venezia, and then, progressively discouraged, he drove along many roads and piazzas in the center, now full of cars and of people who came out to enjoy the relatively cool evening. He also drove past the Central Post, which, although it was not a beautiful monument, is one of the places that foreigners visit most. He then returned to a more touristic itinerary, visiting Piazza di Spagna and Piazza del Popolo, until, when the sun was almost down, he thought that the little thief could be on the Pincio terrace, where sunsets are enjoyed, and where a pickpocket can always find some work.
Pincio was so busy it seemed like a fair, it was especially full of girls, but none of them was in jeans, and mainly, none of them was slim and blond and with a sweet face full of childish innocence, so sweet in his memory, that the lawyer found himself missing her sharply, against his will, whoever she was, with her dark soul. He only wondered how come God had allowed such a terrible mixture of physical beauty and moral depravation. And by appealing to God, in some ways he cleared her of at least part of her sins, and he felt that now, if he happened to find her, he would not strangle her or drag her to the first police station, but would simply try to understand why she was so perverse, and once he understood this, he would let her go, maybe even with the sixty or more thousands of Lira. Everything had become bitter for him, in the evening that was so sweetly descending, and not only because of her, as after all, she was just a symbol of the too many things in the world that are wrong, and that one is not quite sure why they are wrong.
Totally pervaded by this desolate thought on life and the whole universe, the lawyer got back into his car, drove aimlessly for a while through the alleys of Villa Borghese, sensing the sharp smells of the lime trees like metaphysical bile, seeing even the children playing with dogs on the grass as decaying mortals, and finally, especially in order to escape the disappointment that even nature seemed to give him, he drove to Porta Pinciana and entered Via Veneto, that at the time was shining with lights and signboards, clogged with cars and full of people walking like in a procession along the two sidewalks crowded with coffee shop tables. And it was right there, in the middle of the crowd, between two newsstands, that he, having stopped thinking of her as a natural being, saw her, or rather, noticed a blond head, and from the turmoil of conflicting feelings that caught him all of the sudden, he felt immediately sure it was her. Without thinking twice, he jumped out of the car, pushing through the crowd, progressing like a lunatic until, before even reaching her he realized that her blond head was not hers, the blond did not even remotely resemble hers, but in the meantime he already caused quite a lot of trouble as half of Via Veneto was honking horns and an angry policeman was whistling his whistle like the God Aeolus whistling up a storm at the reckless driver who left his car in the middle of the road during rush hour.
The lawyer complied with the command to move his car to a side road and there, furiously aware of the risk of ending up in prison for verbal assault of a policeman, he prepared to start an argument with the policeman, not so much because he thought he was even slightly in the right, but because this incident, happening at the highest point of a particularly baleful day, truly exceeded the daily amount of bad luck that a man can reasonably tolerate. Therefore, when the policeman began by asking if he wasn’t by any chance crazy, he exploded, shouting that he, a respectable professional, did not allow anyone to doubt his mental stability, and that the policeman needed to learn to respect tax paying citizens, and do his duty, if he cared about it, without making a fuss, because he had no time to lose. The policeman, with that superior smile that only people in a position of power have, did all he could to waste his time as much as possible, and started by asking him to show his documents: his logbook and driver’s license.
The lawyer, who due to his profession had a good understanding of the law, understood that he managed to get himself into big trouble, because he suddenly remembered that his license was in the wallet and he no longer had possession of his wallet. He also could not say his wallet had been stolen between three and four in the afternoon because, aside for the trouble with his wife, once she learned of certain details of the story, his duty would have been to report the theft as soon as possible and without prompting.
The lawyer, after a very quick mental analysis of the situation, reached the conclusion that in order to get out of the situation in the best possible way, he had better put on an act. With a confident gesture, he brought his right hand to the back pocket of his trousers to pull out his wallet, and immediately made an angry face, but mostly confused, as if he was surprised not to find it. Then, with professional ability, he changed his expression slightly, adding a touch of lost look, and in the meantime saying to himself, but loudly enough so the policeman could hear him, “Strange, I can’t find my wallet… A little time ago I had it… I really don’t understand… I hope I didn’t lose it, my license was inside…”.
The policeman sneered in triumph, and it was even possible that he thought he was dealing not with a lawyer but with a car thief. “Try to look for it better”, he said, without even trying to hide the irony in his voice. “Maybe you will find it.”
The lawyer was now trapped in an absurd situation that he caused himself. Dramatically, with growing agitation, he searched all his pockets, sighed and shook his head, even smiled at the policeman, trying desperately to defuse the malevolence, but he continued to say, with an increasingly nasty expression, “Look for it, look for it better”.
Then, the lawyer, feeling like a clown, and worse than a worm, left the car, took off his jackets, showing he was hoping the wallet would miraculously appear from somewhere, and because the policeman still did not seem satisfied, he started looking also inside the car, between the seat and the backrest, and then even under the seat, and there, not even hidden, he found the wallet that he evidently dropped after paying for gas at Acquapendente, and inside there was everything, his license and over seventy thousand Lira.
Hidden behind one of the pillars supporting the roof of platform 7 at Termini Station in Rome, the lawyer saw, at a quarter to midnight, the slim and blond girl arriving, preceded by a porter carrying her large back pack. She got on the train for Reggio Calabria, and almost immediately looked out of the window and remained there for a full five minutes until the train left. Looking melancholic and maybe a little worried, as if she was waiting, but without much hope, for someone to come to say goodbye to her.
The lawyer waited behind the pillar until the train left, then left the station, got into his car and drove home, to his wife and daughter and his destiny, and he was also feeling a little melancholic, but with that right amount of melancholy that every human cannot refuse to carry. Now he knew that the girl was truly wonderful, as he thought she was, and if she escaped in that strange way it was because for her, for her too, that adventure that started almost like a joke, had crossed the boundaries allowed for an adventure and it was not right to complete it, having to remain one of the things that don’t happen, and that therefore remain perfect in a way that things that happened cannot have.
© Giuseppe Berto Estate. All rights reserved. Published by arrangement with The Italian Literary Agency, Milano, Italy.
As I was sitting in a taxi stuck in a queue of cars at the Atara Israeli army checkpoint, heading to Nablus to meet a beautiful widow I’d got to know on Facebook, it struck me that the timing of my trip to Nablus that day was unfortunate – there had been a martyrdom operation at the Atara checkpoint and some settlers had been killed.
There were extra checkpoints on the roads and the settlers were fuming. But being impetuous and impatient by nature, I still longed to meet the widow who had written that she wanted to tell me her life story so that I could turn it into a novel. She wanted to spare me the trouble of imagining surreal scenes, because her life was one long surrealist episode. “You just write it down,” she said. “The crazy events are already there. All they need from you is a little reworking and structure, and a bit of polish here and there.”
I was eager to meet her. Not to hear her stories, as it might have seemed from my reply to her: “Every month, I get dozens of messages from women I don’t know, who write telling me about their lives that would make perfect material for a novel,” but at the prospect of having her. Such deceptive backstories were often an avenue to wild sex.
The taxi inched forward. Over the shoulders of the passengers in front of me I could see Israeli soldiers slapping some young guys. I checked my wallet to make sure I hadn’t forgotten my ID card.
I trembled in shame and fear in front of the soldiers when they asked me to lift up my shirt so they could make sure I didn’t have explosives strapped around my waist. I politely refused. They asked to drop my trousers a little below the waist. I was so appalled, I almost fell over. I knew I had to do something.
“Hey soldier, I am a Palestinian man who writes short stories.”
The soldier gazed at my face: “But I don’t like short stories, I like long ones. It’s not your lucky day.”
The situation was excruciating. Behind me were hundreds of vehicles with their drivers and passengers, all staring at what was happening up ahead. I could practically hear them saying the same thing, “Disgraceful!”
A soldier, who didn’t like short stories, holding a truncheon, boredom already in his eyes and who thought he knew it all, was in my face. He asked me again to drop my trousers, to be extra certain of my innocence. At that point, I nearly fell over in terror. I knew I had to do something.
“Hey solider, have you read the book The Bus Driver Who Wanted To Be God by Etgar Keret?”
“What did you say? Etgar Keret? Have you really read Etgar Keret? Ooh, you like him then. That’s good enough. Off you go! Go on!”
That’s how I got away thanks to Etgar Keret, the famous Israeli writer, some of whose stories I had read in Arabic translation. I decided to use the same ploy at every Israeli army checkpoint to escape being humiliated by the soldiers. The taxi continued slowly on its way behind hundreds of other cars until Uyun al-Haramiya checkpoint where I took out my ID in readiness for further humiliation.
The solider was very tall and very blond. He looked to be in his thirties. In his blue eyes I could see he had read dozens of stories by Etgar Keret. I could hear voices telling me he had been influenced and astonished by Keret’s fictional world.
“Where are you going?”
“Who exactly are you going to see?”
“I’m going to see a beautiful widow.”
“What are you going to talk about?”
“About our lives, about literature, and maybe about sex.”
“We’re going to discuss the stories of the Israeli writer Etgar Keret.”
Having said that, I expected to be let go or his face to show skepticism, but he carried on with his high-handed questions about my trip to Nablus. It dawned on me that Etgar Keret wasn’t going to save me this time. The soldier told me to go back to the cars and tell the drivers to turn off their engines.
That was the height of contempt for a short story writer who preferred death rather than carry out such an order. My blood started to boil.
“Hey soldier, I can’t carry out your order. I’m a short story writer, and short story writers don’t carry out soldiers’ orders.”
Blows and kicks rained down. From down below and up above, dozens of soldiers’ feet and fists pounded my face, my back and my stomach with kicks and punches… I came to in the arms of Palestinian passengers who picked me up and took me to a car whose driver had volunteered to take me to the nearest hospital.
At the entrance to Ramallah Hospital, occupation soldiers were setting up a checkpoint to search people going in and out. They pointed their guns at my head, which was bleeding.
“Where are you going?”
“To get treatment.”
“Who hit you?”
“Haters of the short story who haven’t read Etgar Keret.”
“Etgar Keret? Ooh, we like that writer. But how come you know him?”
“That’s a long story! Let me go in so they can stop my head bleeding.”
Inside the hospital in another bed near mine, lay a beautiful woman. She too had cuts to her head.
“Where are you from, Madam, and how did you get those cuts to your head?”
“The soldiers at the Atara checkpoint split my head open because I refused an intrusive search, one demeaning to a widow going to meet a famous writer who volunteered to turn her fascinating life story into a surrealist novel.”
“In the year 17__, having for some time determined on a journey through countries not hitherto much frequented by travellers, I set out, accompanied by a friend, whom I shall designate by the name of Augustus Darvell. He was a few years my elder, and a man of considerable fortune and ancient family: advantages which an extensive capacity prevented him alike from undervaluing or overrating. Some peculiar circumstances in his private history had rendered him to me an object of attention, of interest, and even of regard, which neither the reserve of his manners, nor occasional indications of an inquietude at times nearly approaching to alienation of mind, could extinguish.
“I was yet young in life, which I had begun early; but my intimacy with him was of a recent date: we had been educated at the same schools and university; but his progress through these had preceded mine, and he had been deeply initiated into what is called the world, while I was yet in my novitiate. While thus engaged, I heard much both of his past and present life; and, although in these accounts there were many and irreconcilable contradictions, I could still gather from the whole that he was a being of no common order, and one who, whatever pains he might take to avoid remark, would still be remarkable. I had cultivated his acquaintance subsequently, and endeavoured to obtain his friendship, but this last appeared to be unattainable; whatever affections he might have possessed seemed now, some to have been extinguished, and others to be concentred: that his feeling were acute, I had sufficient opportunities of observing; for, although he could control, he could not altogether disguise them: still he had a power of giving to one passion the appearance of another, in such a manner that it was difficult to define the nature of what was working within him; and the expressions of his features would vary so rapidly, though slightly, that it was useless to trace them to their sources. It was evident that he was a prey to some cureless disquiet; but whether it arose from ambition, love, remorse, grief, from one or all of these, or merely from a morbid temperament akin to disease, I could not discover: there were circumstances alleged which might have justified the application to each of these causes; but, as I have before said, these were so contradictory and contradicted, that none could be fixed upon with accuracy. Where there is mystery, it is generally supposed that there must also be evil: I know not how this may be, but in him there certainly was the one, though I could not ascertain the extent of the other – and felt loth, as far as regarded himself, to believe in its existence. My advances were received with sufficient coldness: but I was young, and not easily discouraged, and at length succeeded in obtaining, to a certain degree, that common-place intercourse and moderate confidence of common and every-day concerns, created and cemented by similarity of pursuit and frequency of meeting, which is called intimacy, or friendship, according to the ideas of him who uses those words to express them.
“Darvell had already travelled extensively; and to him I had applied for information with regard to the conduct of my intended journey. It was my secret wish that he might be prevailed on to accompany me; it was also a probable hope, founded upon the shadowy restlessness which I observed in him, and to which the animation which he appeared to feel on such subjects, and his apparent indifference to all by which he was more immediately surrounded, gave fresh strength. This which I first hinted, and then expressed: his answer, though I had partly expected it, gave me all the pleasure of surprise – he consented; and, after the requisite arrangement, we commenced our voyages. After journeying through various countries of the south of Europe, our attention was turned towards the East, according to our original destination; and it was in my progress through these regions that the incident occurred upon which will turn what I may have to relate.
“The constitution of Darvell, which must from his appearance have been in early life more than usually robust, had been for some time gradually giving away, without the intervention of any apparent disease: he had neither cough nor hectic, yet he became daily more enfeebled; his habits were temperate, and he neither declined nor complained of fatigue; yet he was evidently wasting away: he became more and more silent and sleepless, and at length so seriously altered, that my alarm grew proportionate to what I conceived to be his danger.
“We had determined, on our arrival at Smyrna on an excursion to the ruins of Ephesus and Sardis, from which I endeavoured to dissuade him in his present state of indisposition – but in vain: there appeared to be an oppression on his mind, and a solemnity in his manner, which ill corresponded with his eagerness to proceed on what I regarded as a mere party of pleasure little suited to a valetudinarian; but I opposed him no longer – and in a few days we set off together, accompanied only by a serrugee and a single janizary.
“We had passed halfway towards the remains of Ephesus, leaving behind us the more fertile environs of Smyrna, and were entering upon that wild and tenantless tract through the marshes and defiles which lead to the few huts yet lingering over the broken columns of Diana – the roofless walls of expelled Christianity, and the still more recent but complete desolation of abandoned mosques – when the sudden and rapid illness of my companion obliged us to halt at a Turkish cemetery, the turbaned tombstones of which were the sole indication that human life had ever been a sojourner in the wilderness. The only caravansera we had seen was left some hours behind us, not a vestige of a town or even cottage was within sight or hope, and this ‘city of the dead’ appeared to be the sole refuge of my unfortunate friend, who seemed on the verge of becoming the last of its inhabitants.
“In this situation, I looked round for a place where he might most conveniently repose: – contrary to the usual aspect of Mahometan burial-grounds, the cypresses were in this few in number, and these thinly scattered over its extent; the tombstones were mostly fallen, and worn with age: – upon one of the most considerable of these, and beneath one of the most spreading trees, Darvell supported himself, in a half-reclining posture, with great difficulty. He asked for water. I had some doubts of our being able to find any, and prepared to go in search of it with hesitating despondency: but he desired me to remain; and turning to Suleiman, our janizary, who stood by us smoking with great tranquility, he said, ‘Suleiman, verbana su,’ (i.e. ‘Bring some water,’) and went on describing the spot where it was to be found with great minuteness, at a small well for camels, a few hundred yards to the right: the janizary obeyed. I said to Darvell, ‘How did you know this?’ – He replied, ‘From our situation; you must perceive that this place was once inhabited, and could not have been so without springs: I have also been here before.’
“‘You have been here before! – How came you never to mention this to me? and what could you be doing in a place where no one would remain a moment longer than they could help it?’
“To this question I received no answer. In the mean time Suleiman returned with the water, leaving the serrugee and the horses at the fountain. The quenching of his thirst had the appearance of reviving him for a moment; and I conceived hopes of his being able to proceed, or at least to return, and I urged the attempt. He was silent – and appeared to be collecting his spirits for an effort to speak. He began –
“‘This is the end of my journey, and of my life; – I came here to die; but I have a request to make, a command – for such my last words must be. – You will observe it?’
“‘Most certainly; but I have better hopes.’
“‘I have no hopes, nor wishes, but this – conceal my death from every human being.’
“‘I hope there will be no occasion; that you will recover, and –’
“‘Peace! – it must be so: promise this.’
“‘Swear it, by all that –’ He here dictated an oath of great solemnity.
“‘There is no occasion for this. I will observe your request; and to doubt me is –-‘
“‘It cannot be helped, – you must swear.’
“I took the oath, it appeared to relieve him. He removed a seal ring from his finger, on which were some Arabic characters, and presented it to me. He proceeded –
“‘On the ninth day of the month, at noon precisely (what month you please, but this must be the day), you must fling this ring into the salt springs which run into the Bay of Eleusis; the day after, at the same hour, you must repair to the ruins of the temple of Ceres, and wait one hour.’
“‘You will see.’
“‘The ninth day of the month, you say?’
“As I observed that the present was the ninth day of the month, his countenance changed, and he paused. As he sat, evidently becoming more feeble, a stork, with a snake in her beak, perched upon a tombstone near us; and, without devouring her prey, appeared to be steadfastly regarding us. I know not what impelled me to drive it away, but the attempt was useless; she made a few circles in the air, and returned exactly to the same spot. Darvell pointed to it, and smiled – he spoke – I know not whether to himself or to me – but the words were only, ”Tis well!’
“‘What is well? What do you mean?’
“‘No matter; you must bury me here this evening, and exactly where that bird is now perched. You know the rest of my injunctions.’
“He then proceeded to give me several directions as to the manner in which his death might be best concealed. After these were finished, he exclaimed, ‘You perceive that bird?’
“‘And the serpent writhing in her beak?’
“‘Doubtless: there is nothing uncommon in it; it is her natural prey. But it is odd that she does not devour it.’
“He smiled in a ghastly manner, and said faintly, ‘It is not yet time!’ As he spoke, the stork flew away. My eyes followed it for a moment – it could hardly be longer than ten might be counted. I felt Darvell’s weight, as it were, increase upon my shoulder, and, turning to look upon his face, perceived that he was dead!
“I was shocked with the sudden certainty which could not be mistaken – his countenance in a few minutes became nearly black. I should have attributed so rapid a change to poison, had I not been aware that he had no opportunity of receiving it unperceived. The day was declining, the body was rapidly altering, and nothing remained but to fulfil his request. With the aid of Suleiman’s ataghan and my own sabre, we scooped a shallow grave upon the spot which Darvell had indicated: the earth easily gave way, having already received some Mahometan tenant. We dug as deeply as the time permitted us, and throwing the dry earth upon all that remained of the singular being so lately departed, we cut a few sods of greener turf from the less withered soil around us, and laid them upon his sepulchre.
“Between astonishment and grief, I was tearless.”
June 17, 1816.
Nur al-Din al-Ajnaf had been a Communist at university. After the fall of the Soviet Union he gave up on Communism for good. Or perhaps this was a rumour close friends spread about him. Nuru was then free to work as a Physics teacher and to concern himself with his family. But nobody could doubt the man’s love of Russia. He used to make trips of a few days to cities there – he and a group of his friends among whom was their leader, Salah ‘Amir, whom they used to call Capo, meaning “Chief” or “the Boss” in Italian. Capo was a man in his sixties who had never married and had spent his life as a hippy. He had a ring in his nose and the tattoo of a dragon on his arm. He tied his white hair back in a pony-tail, and allowed his beard to hang loose. He was into rock music, drugs and snake charming.
The trips they made to the Land of the Great White Bear were not normal tourist trips, like those when people visit museums, art galleries, ancient sites and the other usual travel clichés. Rather, their trips consisted of hanging out in a city other than Tunis. The funny things that happened to them there were enough to provide material for subsequent evenings, with the arguments and mockery, both of themselves and other people, which that demanded. For example, on their last trip, they looked for a restaurant that prepared Tunisian cuisine in St Petersburg and they got to know the chef who was a native of the country. Soon the man, who brought them plates of couscous with beef, became the butt of jokes. The word “country” in colloquial Russian meant “whore”, and Capo would thank him with the words, “a true son of the ‘country’”. The man would go along with a smile and his face would go red. He had doubts about what was intended, especially when he observed that the group were silent and not one of them laughed. They did it deliberately, so as not to spoil Capo’s joke. After the son of the country left to go to his kitchen, they doubled up in hysterical laughter, but not Capo. He made some comments on the side, which made them laugh all the more.
One year, Nur al-Din and Capo decided to go to Moscow – just the two of them, as the rest of their friends had other things to do. They spent their first evening at a nightclub, drinking vodka and watching Russian girls doing the striptease. As they were going back to the hotel in a rented car, Capo told Nur al-Din that they should go together the following day to a health spa where there would be beautiful Russian girls who gave an excellent massage for only forty roubles. After the massage session he would feel enormously refreshed and released from weariness and tension. Nuru agreed to the idea.
The following day Capo was at the steering wheel telling his friend again about the health spa, which he had been to many times in the past. He was silent for a moment and then said, “Actually, they don’t just do massage.”
Nur al-Din turned towards him. “Meaning what?” he asked.
“The lot, my dear friend, the lot,” Capo said with a smile.
Nuru struck his forehead in a high spirited way. “You’re a disaster, Capo,” he said.
“You have to give them an extra twenty roubles. You’ll see how things are done.”
At the health spa they each entered a warm jacuzzi, staying there for about half an hour. They got out, put on a bath robe and headed to the massage parlour where the masseuses were dressed in white coats waiting for their customers. The place was not crowded that day. They stretched out on their stomachs on massage tables leaving the masseuses to do their job. Capo flirted with his masseuse. First he asked her name. “Evrena,” she said. His Russian was good, and she laughed as he chatted with her. She asked him to place his head on the table and relax. Nur al-Din knew some words, but did not have Capo’s fluency in the language, and he smiled as he listened and felt the masseuse’s gentle hands passing over his back. Capo asked them to leave him alone with his friend for a moment. Nur al-Din was surprised at this; the masseuses moved towards the door and he whispered to Capo, “Why did you do that?”
“It was a sign,” he replied, and pointing his thumb behind him added, “It takes place in the bathroom.” He held his palm out towards Nur al-Din: “Have you got forty roubles on you?”
“Didn’t you say they only wanted twenty?”
“Yes. I mean for you and me. You’re paying.”
Nur al-Din laughed and grabbed his head with both hands. “Yes I’ve got the money,” he said.
“Go and get them, then.”
They both got off the massage tables, and went to collect their clothes. Nur al-Din took out his wallet and Capo took a packet of pills from his coat pocket. He took one out and gave it to his friend.
“What’s this?” asked Nuru.
“It’ll help you.”
“Screwing, of course.”
“Do you reckon I need it like you?”
“Just take it, man. You won’t regret it.”
Nur al-Din handled the pill with some hesitation, then swallowed it and tossed his head back. Then Capo said, “Follow me.”
Nur al-Din followed him and found the two masseuses really were waiting for them in the bathroom. Capo went in with Afrina after giving her the twenty roubles. Nur al-Din went in with his masseuse after giving her the same amount. She said her name was Oksana while she was licking his penis and gazing at him with her green eyes. When they were done, they got dressed and left. Nur al-Din was glowering. They got into the car and Capo was in a good mood. When he noticed that all was not right with his friend, he said, “What’s up?”
“Nothing, nothing at all.”
“Speak man, what’s the matter with you?”
“No . . . the pill . . .”
“The sex pill?”
“Has it made you ill?”
“It had no effect.”
“Just as I told you.”
Capo smiled. “You’re joking.”
“Not at all.”
“Most likely, the blonde girl drained you dry.. Their woman aren’t like our women, Nuru, my good friend. One pill has an effect on our women but for their women we need a whole factory.”
“Do you really think so?”
They returned to the hotel. Nur al-Din had a shot of whisky which he drank from miniature he took out of the fridge. After nearly an hour he started feeling a pain in his penis. It had started to swell after he had slept with that girl Oksana and now began to grow erect. Capo was sitting there smiling and they talked about their programme for the evening. Nur al-Din suddenly began to fidget, got up and began to pace the room, his hands on his crotch.
Holding back his laughter, Capo said, “What’s the matter with you?”
“My prick, Capo. . .”
“What about it?”
Nur al-Din was moving with difficulty with pain etched on his face. Capo burst out laughing, gaining the attention of his friend. Capo had never in his whole life laughed as he was laughing at that moment. Nuru looked at him and felt that he had been victim of a trick.
“It’s the pill, isn’t it?” he said.
Capo nodded his head, his face red from so much laughter. He said with an effort, “The pill takes effect after an hour.”
“You knew that from the beginning, huh?”
Capo nodded in agreement. Nuru took a pillow and hit him hard with it, shouting, “Goddamn you, you rotten bastard.”
Capo tried to get his breath back. “Keep calm, it’s nothing serious,” he said. “Have another drink, and it will soon sort itself out.” He started laughing again.
After this incident, many of those who knew Nur al-Din al-Ajnaf began to debate the date he gave up on Communism.