Citizen Jabir Sabeel awoke to the alarm of his Nokia mobile phone at exactly 6:05. He tried, like every morning, to cover his face with a pillow, but he felt an awful weakness. He could not move. The ringing of the alarm hammered and hammered louder and louder in his head. Eventually, he decided to reach over to the bedside table and silence the alarm; then he would give his heartbeat a few minutes to settle down before getting up. But he felt debilitated again. He had no sensation in his hand, in both hands, in his head, his legs, his whole body.
Citizen Jabir Sabeel had a shocking realization: he had turned into something else. He was no longer the person who had fallen asleep late the previous night, physically exhausted after a long evening at work. As he mentally gauged his rigidity, he became certain that he had metamorphosized into something metallic. Something stiff and hard lay in his place on the bed.
Citizen Jabir Sabeel spent some considerable time trying to get used to the hard, stiff body that had replaced his body of flesh. He then became aware of the voices of children racing through the streets on their way to school and the shouts of the sellers of vegetables, household items, and milk calling out their cheap goods. He had a strange feeling that the sunlight had started to seep into the room through a crack in the ceiling. In a panic, he remembered that he was very late for work at the government office and that a deduction from his wages and a rebuke from his stern boss awaited him. He made an effort to stand up quickly, but his heavy metal body failed him and pulled him back to the bed. In a panic, he thought, “I’m made of iron. I’ve turned into iron.”
Citizen Jabir Sabeel managed, after furious efforts, to fall out of the bed. In fact, he flung his whole new iron body onto the concrete floor. With the loud clang he made, he discovered that he had the equivalent of two long thin legs. He somehow willed himself to prop himself upon them, and he tottered over to the full-length mirror set in the middle of his wardrobe. He discovered something else: he had what appeared to be a single, seeing eye. Its sight was powerful and it led him with great accuracy towards the wardrobe.
He stopped for a few moments before lifting up his thin iron legs and positioning himself in front of the mirror. As he looked at the reflection of his new iron self, Citizen Jabir Sabeel could not stop himself crying out in a strange voice of shock and fright that made him spin around like crazy. Bullets sprayed from a tube sticking out of his front and lodged in the walls and furniture as they flew all over the place.
Jabir Sabeel was devastated to see that his new body had turned into a machine that looked like a cross between a DShK machinegun and a four-barrelled howitzer. Its sights were telescopic, like a deadly eye; its muzzle blazed like Hell; its two sturdy supports seemed to have been made to bear death. His sense of devastation worsened when he sensed the deadly bullets continue to fly out of his blazing body in every direction. His body jumped around erratically and led him into the street, leaving a trail of death and destruction all around.
We used to jump, Lydia and I, as high and as often as we could, hands high over our heads, wearing colourful dresses, our knees pulled up, our feet in stout shoes we were allowed to keep on while jumping, though they sometimes came loose and fell off. Down there at the harbour where a few boats bobbed on the water behind the high fences and the no-entry signs, only four or five boats, perhaps because it wasn’t really a harbour, just brown water bordering an endless expanse of concrete where a circus set up its tents and trailers and stalls during the summer months. And a trampoline, a big trampoline we could jump on for fifty pfennigs, Lydia and I.
Lydia peered through the telescope someone had installed by the water, near a fence, long before our time, when there were still cranes and ships and sheds and box cars, and she peered through other telescopes too wherever and whenever we found them. It didn’t make sense to me, why she loved looking through a dark tube that made the world look a lot smaller and only showed a tiny piece of it, but maybe the reason I didn’t like it was because Lydia loved it, because for once I wanted to dislike something that she liked, even if it was only looking through a telescope. I didn’t understand what she could see, what anyone could see, for that matter; all I ever saw was green, and by the time I figured out how to hold the telescope and angle it, the lens snapped shut and it all went black.
Lydia always behaved as if she was the only person who could see what she saw, as if no one else could see it, as if the telescope through which she peered was not any old telescope you could throw a coin into but one made especially for her, to be operated by her alone. She never skipped a telescope on our rambles and expeditions, not the one on the viewing tower in the forest nearby, nor the one on the observation deck at the airport. Each time she would step up onto the tiny steel platform in the same stout shoes, summer or winter, grab the handles left and right that always stained her fingers red, and haul herself up.
There came a time when Lydia no longer liked these things, though neither she nor I knew why; not the telescopes, not the jumping, not the candyfloss we used to pull off in pink or white wads that left a sugary coating on our teeth, not even the summer sky, high above us, with its clouds and the occasional seagulls and jet trails, this sky Lydia had always loved because it changed colour every time we looked up. Before, we had been happy just to lie on that concrete expanse near the boats and look up at the sky, where the other children’s kites flew among the fluffy clouds and the seagulls, kites which they got from the circus folk and which, as soon as the wind changed, came crashing down on the concrete near our heads, their noses pointing down like arrows in flight. We called this summer sky our sky, because we liked the way it allowed us to fly kites, chasing them higher and higher to meet the sky, and because it changed colour from one moment to the next.
On her sixteenth birthday, Lydia stopped wearing the dresses her mother bought for us and never touched them again. Lydia’s mother used to order these dresses with the little bit of money she had to spare, out of catalogues left in hallways in spring and autumn; she would leaf through them for days, weeks, marking pages whenever something took her fancy, putting paper clips on anything she thought would look pretty on Lydia and on me.
Two years later, Lydia packed her bags, the two small holdalls she had, taking only the bare essentials – two books, two notebooks, a photo, and just a few clothes. She had given her mother and me plenty of notice of her new life and described it the way she saw it. She knew it already, before it had so much as begun; she had even started to fit out what would soon be her new room, filling it in her mind with furniture and rugs that would be different to her mother’s. She’d wear gloves all year round, Lydia had said, gloves of palest leather, and she’d buy her clothes in London, only in London, no other city in the world would do. We let her talk, Lydia’s mother and I, without believing a word of it, because Lydia often talked about things she seemed to forget as soon as they were out of her mouth, things that never happened in the end, at least not the way Lydia described them or imagined them. Maybe we didn’t want to believe her because we didn’t want our life to be a life without Lydia. Lydia used to say to me, when we are old, you and I, really old, we will still have each other, or we’ll have each other again, and nothing will bother us any more, not autumn, not winter, not our white hair. We will have each other; she said it again two months before she disappeared, leaving me behind wondering when.
Lydia’s mother spent a lot of time sitting on a chair by the window, a chair Lydia and I had painted white the previous summer, because that summer we’d painted all of Lydia’s mother’s furniture white. Lydia’s mother let us do it, because she always gave Lydia permission for her projects, and so, after Lydia had left, she sat by the window on this particular white chair, the only one on which Lydia had painted a stripe and two pale pink roses on top of the white, using a stencil she made herself. She never took her coat off now, the old check one that didn’t go with her skirt, the same coat Lydia had always wanted to hide or burn; she kept her gloves on too and clung to her coat with one hand as if this piece of cloth could hold her in place.
We waited, Lydia’s mother and I, and it took a long time for us to grasp that Lydia was gone, that she had let the door close behind her, had floated down the stairs, up the street to the bus stop, wearing her woolly hat and her dark jacket, holding the two bags and the ticket she had saved so long for, away to the airport and onto a plane Lydia’s mother and I did not want to watch taking off. But we imagined all that as we sat by the window on the white chairs, and during the days and the weeks that followed, imagining Lydia rushing with her two bags to the observation deck in the last few minutes before her flight was called to take one more look through the telescope, grabbing the handles left and right one last time.
Now there’s this postcard on my bed, and beside it a key on a ribbon, a bright red ribbon, an address in London, and Lydia’s kiss, also bright red, with which she stamped all her letters, and beside that the PIN code you have to key in if you want her door to open, and six words in her typical style, more catchphrase than letter: Come to see – autumn and me.
It takes some time for me to phone her, perhaps because I find myself thinking, too often, that she never came to see us, not even for a day, not even to see her mother, that every summer she came up with excuses that weren’t really excuses; and because I still find myself thinking, too often, how she didn’t just pretend that we weren’t right for her any more but actually made me think that we, the two of us, had never been right, that it had never really existed, me and her, not the clothes from the catalogues, nor the place we called the harbour, nor the circus that set up a trampoline and handed out kites, nor the telescopes for Lydia to look through. So I’m relieved, now, when all I get is the answering machine, Lydia’s voice repeating in English the number I just dialled, and I say something in a weak, faltering voice, something beginning with: Hi, Lydia. So… A stupid, meaningless So that doesn’t preface anything, and later, a few hours later, Lydia rings back and says: Are you OK? You sound really weird.
She meets me at the airport, smiles her big wide smile and doesn’t stop, puts her arm around my shoulder and doesn’t take it away, not even later, on the train or on the escalator, in her entrance hall beside all the letter boxes, or in the little lift that takes us up once its black scissor gate has closed. She lets me open the door, using the key she sent me, the one with the red ribbon, and stands beside me, studying my hands as I turn the key in the lock, looking as if she had been longing for this moment, waiting for it to arrive.
Her apartment is painted white, a white bordering on cream; the bedlinen is white, the towels in the bathroom and kitchen are white. Lydia says she can’t bear any other colour, not on the furniture or on the walls. She has put a single photo up on the wall with two pins, over the sink in the kitchen, next to the white tiles; it’s one Lydia’s mother took of Lydia and me back then, with no heads. The picture isn’t of us; it’s of our new dresses on us, the fabric with its pattern full of flowers, tiny flowers. Even without the heads you can tell who’s who straight away, if only by how we hold our hands, each in her own way. My hands are clenched; it looks like I want to hide them, pull them back. Lydia’s hands are open, moving even while she stands still. Lydia says: Do you remember – those catalogues? She tries to smile but it looks like she’s angry still. Pretty little dresses, Lydia’s mother used to call them, and Lydia called them that too, though in a very different tone, and I’m quite sure that Lydia’s mother, when she was taking that photo, did not want Lydia’s face to be in it, nor the look in her eyes, just the dresses, which fit us for more than one summer and which we wore with skinny plastic belts and grey cardigans. In one corner, in thick pencil, Lydia has written: Lydia and Vicki – beautiful, even with no heads.
She walks around the apartment, makes coffee, says: Do you still take it that way? Then she says she has a ring for me, a ring she designed herself, just for me, in pale blue, because blue was my colour, blue like the blue of the sky back then, that blue that never stopped changing, it was exactly that blue – did I remember? I slip the ring over my finger, wondering how she managed, after all these years, to design a ring for me, to craft it here under her little white lamp, with her little pliers, a ring wrought of wires and stones I can see through, and I like it immediately because it has my blue, and it fits straight away, and Lydia says, it looks lovely, the ring, on you, on your finger. And she studies my hands as only she can, her eyes a little smaller than usual, her head to one side, her hands on her hips.
Lydia looks the way she looks because she doesn’t eat, because she suppresses her hunger, because she puts cotton wool soaked in herbal tea into her mouth if I don’t stop her. Her little fridge is empty, almost entirely empty – a bottle of juice, long past its sell-by date, and a gel mask Lydia puts on her eyelids in the mornings, when she drinks her de-caffeinated coffee in her white bathrobe, her wet hair in a white towel turban, her feet in white towelling slippers with her varnished white toenails peeking out. When she sits like this in the mornings, across from me, by this sash window, which has white glazing bars and which Lydia opens after every third, fourth cigarette, then I cannot help thinking that we will not see old age, the two of us, at least not the way Lydia envisaged it back then, shortly before she left: herself and myself, old and stooped, holding on, holding on to each other. Later, at intervals throughout the day, it is that one sentence that keeps coming back into my head: We will not see old age.
I find myself thinking it again when we leave the apartment and Lydia goes charging from one shop to the other, from one coffee shop to the next, in and out, the entrance bell announcing us, then her loud hello-o-o with the long, fading O the way only Lydia can say it, this hello-o-o that seems part invitation, part challenge, but also part threat, as if everyone else were only there to amuse her. We will not see old age, I think, perhaps because Lydia does not seem the sort of person who grows old, who sooner or later looks old, who allows wrinkles to appear in her face; I am thinking this now, as I watch her walk diagonally across the floor of this shop, with her Jackie O sunglasses, that strand of highlighted hair stuck to her forehead, that little black suit with the skirt cut just below the knee but still showing enough leg to make me feel slightly sick, perhaps because her legs are the way they are, and those shoes with the high heels and the straps around her bony ankles that divide Lydia’s legs into a top and a bottom part.
Back then, at fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, when we had each other every day, every hour, it never bothered me when people took Lydia and me for a couple. I liked the fact that people thought I could be with someone like Lydia, that Lydia would want someone like me. It amused us to spread rumours and lies and stories, and we laughed when other people believed us, when they whispered and giggled behind our backs and pointed at us. But now it bothers me, for the first time, that people might take us for a couple; it bothers me in all the cafés and all the shops, every time Lydia opens a door and the entrance bell rings and people turn to look at us, at Lydia and me.
We go for a cup of tea, which is served in a silver teapot, with scones that Lydia doesn’t even touch. Later we take a walk through a big park, because I insist on it, and Lydia looks bored there, with no people, no shops. Leaves flutter down, yellow and brown autumn leaves. There’s a leaf in your hair, I say, d’you want me to get it? Lydia nods, I pick the leaf out of her hair, a little red one; I show it to her, then it flutters to the ground at our feet. A boy wearing one of those short, dark coats children wear here is running across the grass, this lush, bright green grass, holding a line in his hand. His kite is flying in a colourless sky, way up high, like the kites we used to see back then, when we lay on the concrete at the harbour, our arms crossed behind our heads. Lydia stands still, looking up at this pink kite; a gust of wind catches it, and it pulls and drags the boy, who grows smaller and smaller, running faster and faster, and we stand like that for a while until Lydia says, it looks like it wants to lift him up and away.
When Dad’s eyelids drop like a guillotine she pulls the car door shut with a click. He turns his gaze to the road, and from her shady spot in the backseat she can only see his right arm and leg, a small patch of cheek. Dad’s sunglasses lie on the dashboard, glinting at Kore like black stars. The AC hums quietly. The car smells new.
As he backs out of the yard, she turns towards the window in time to wave to her mother who is standing down on the flagstones outside the house, watching them leave. The car stops, gears are shifted. Then they’re on their way.
Five weeks, that’s the plan.
It’s the same every summer, time is split into two big blocks. The first has disappeared already, now it’s the middle of July and starting to get darker, you can see it in the corners, in the crowns of the trees, and the grass has deepened in colour, swapped its light June getup for a deeper dark green shag.
Five weeks. Kore sinks back in the seat and tries to loosen the belt, but it’s stuck. Along the roadside the midsummer flowers have lost their blossoms, only the empty stalks stick up. They had been pink, white, purple. When she and Mum had decorated the Midsummer pole there had been loads of them, they had picked an armful and then stayed up really late, until one thirty.
The car slows down a little when they reach the top of the slope. The dry sound of the blinker. Then they turn onto the highway. When the speedometer needle sweeps past seventy Dad pushes a button that locks all the doors.
The date had approached like a sharp hilltop with an unknown, and yet known, far side. Then the hour. Tick, tock. And then she had glimpsed the car up by the road. He never had to call for her. She would come anyway, as if pulled towards a black magnet, though her feet hardly moved. All morning she had wandered around from room to room with the open bag. But it didn’t matter what she packed. Everything was already there. A new toothbrush instead of the matted one she had at home, pink rainwear instead of the green ones hanging on the hook in the hallway, lots of comic books in the chest of drawers. And toys. A drawing pad. Even small tubes of oil paint that she got for Christmas. Everything you could imagine needing was at her Dad’s, everything.
And at the same time nothing.
He was always late and she always sat waiting, in the hallway, her hands clenched around the bag’s handles. Katja had been preparing dinner in the kitchen at the time. Susanna would be over later, they would sit on the veranda behind the house, light a mosquito coil, drink wine and gossip. Kore’s body had felt empty when she thought about it, that everything would be as usual here. Except her. If she weren’t waiting for Dad just then, she’d have taken out her craft kit and put it on the kitchen table, then listened to cassettes and made something out of paper balls, glue and sequins. And afterwards she and Mum would have watched Disney Afternoon and drunk fizzy drinks and then there would be Fort Boyard. But only if Mum had had time to finish the cleaning, otherwise she would do that first.
“I wonder if you’ll find any snails this year?” Katja had said, taking a packet of prawns out of the freezer, “And you’ve hardly had any time to ride your nice new bike, have you? I’m sure that chain doesn’t wobble at all.”
Kore had nodded and gripped the handles of the backpack again. Up there at the roadside the wind gently nudged the rowans. Still no car. The hallway was dim.
On the wall next to the front door were the faded chalk marks Kore had made when she was three. After Mum had finally found a forgotten bit of the same wallpaper in the attic and pasted it over, it had only taken a few days before Kore had drawn a new crude chalk picture in black and red on the exact same spot, “Apparently there was meant to be a drawing there,” Katja would say with a laugh.
The rustling in the kitchen had stopped. When Kore looked that way Katja had avoided her eyes and started fumbling with the knot of the plastic bag again. Kore had looked back outside and then she saw the car arrive. Emerge from nothing. She got up right away and put on her backpack.
“Call me if there’s anything,” her mum had said, giving Kore a hug. “My little sweetie pie.”
Have a great time, she had said. Haveagreathaveagreathavgrttme.
“Kore,” says her dad.
He looks at her in the rear-view mirror. Far behind them the house is already gone.
“Let’s go to the toy shop,” he says. “And you can choose whatever you want.”
The cool air inside the car gives her legs goosebumps, from her sneakers all the way up to her patterned cycling shorts. Her thighs stick to the cream-coloured leather seat covers. She feels a little cold but doesn’t say anything. Her voice has crawled deep inside her and hidden away, like a hard pea somewhere in her body.
Dad drives quickly through a changing landscape, the car moves almost soundlessly at seventy miles an hour. He glances over his shoulder at every car he glides past. The tip of Kore’s nose happens to touch the window pane, she wipes it carefully with her sleeve so as not to leave a mark. Outside she can see the invisible animals, the seven that have been with her since she was little, following them along the roadside. Titus, Babel, Bollo Sé, Mitko, Masha, Ivrahim and Long-fingers. Titus is running ahead, so beautiful. His pearly black eyes are gleaming. The others have to work to keep up with him, to make it over the tree stumps, through the thickets and across the dikes. Mitko flies sometimes, it’s easier that way. Ivrahim keeps his distance from the rest. Beyond the tilled fields on either side there’s nothing but miles of game fencing. And behind that bushy forest. She knows there are other, bigger animals in there among the trees. So far they haven’t made an appearance. But they are there.
The road descends, the sun flickers between the tree trunks. Here and there she glimpses houses, fewer of them the further down they get. Then the world becomes desolate and empty. They drive past an unattended petrol station, a collapsed barn. Some bare trunks against the burnt grass of the area. Everything is falling, gaping emptily in the void. Then the car reaches the muddy bottom, rounds a bend and the town spreads out in front of them. A roundabout with a large iron figure in the middle, behind which chimneys shoot straight up into the thick cloud cover. The manholes are steaming. Next to the bus station a teenager sits hunched on a railing.
A minute later the car stops, and with a single step her dad is outside. Kore steps onto the pavement and follows him towards the shop. Out of the corner of her eye she notices that the animals have stealthily hidden behind one of the rear wheels.
When they’re back outside Kore is holding a thin bag, and in it lies the doll. A light blue dress, rustling frills. There had been so many of them in there, in the end she took only one. Her hands look sooty in the weak light.
The animals get into the car with her this time, crowding around her feet on the mat. Now they are in her father’s land and live under her father’s laws. Their eyes wander.
Everything is quiet and peaceful in the villa quarter at Ektjärn, the sun smooth like a tongue above the roofs. No one is out mowing the lawn, the trampolines are abandoned. An auburn cat sits grooming itself on the front steps of one of the houses. It breaks off mid-movement as they drive past. Kore sees the car reflected in every window they pass. An egg-shaped, shiny stone. And in the middle of the stone – her face.
Once Dad has parked and let her into the house, she sits down in the armchair in the living room. Then he fetches the presents. She gets one after the other, until her lap is full of small figures and boxes inside boxes and hair accessories and colourful bracelets. The objects come from all over the world, her dad travels a lot with work, to various conferences and institutions. He travels to places where people speak like birds, have gold teeth and gaping mouths. He’s been to New York, Singapore and Madrid. Istanbul and Lima. Sydney, once. She holds a small lacquered box up to her nose and takes in the smell of the other life Dad leads, when she isn’t there.
Kore thanks him and thanks him some more, gets yet another present, and then, when she can hardly take it anymore, he stops and jiggles a slender piece of jewellery out of a red box in the pocket of his suit jacket and lays it out across his hand, and it glitters and from the very end of the necklace hangs a little silver heart.
“This is a grown-up present, really,” he says. “But I want you to have it. My little queen.”
Kore looks at the necklace that seems to run and trickle even though it’s lying perfectly still in her father’s hands. As he puts it around her neck she hears his voice behind her.
“The jeweller I got it from told me that the heart of whoever you give the necklace to is yours for ever.”
He laughs a little. The light from the living room lamp is making her giddy, its tiny electric strands whirl through the air and descend towards her. Straight at her black, absorbent pupils.
“Promise me, Kore?”
His voice seems to grow more distant, as if floating somewhere above her. That you’re mine for ever. She moves her lips but no sound passes them, she wants to say no but can’t, it sounds almost like he’s crying now, and the specks of light from the lamp steal into her eyes one by one, they’re pulled towards the earth and her face. In her stomach the black ball aches, digs down deeper into her flesh. On her second try, her answer is audible but no louder than a whisper. A final utterance before her voice shuts down.
Here at Dad’s house her room is in the basement, below the staircase. At night it creaks as if someone were walking down there. That does happen sometimes, when Dad’s on his way to his study, which is further along the hall. She never goes there, though. She stays on the other side. Her room here is bigger than the one at home, light blue and mauve – she got to choose the wallpaper herself. The floor is covered in soft carpet so that she won’t feel cold, and the windows are shut tight. Otherwise the snow might crack them in winter, Dad has said. But she knows that it’s to stop her from escaping.
If only she had a sister, she thinks, then everything would be different. In the room next door, a sister, like Snow-White had her Rose-Red, someone who would dare to raise her hand to any attackers and cry Stop! They could read stories to each other when they couldn’t get to sleep, tap messages through the wall using a secret code. And her sister could help her with Dad, so that he wouldn’t get sad.
After they have said goodnight that first night, Kore lies with the duvet pulled up to her chin and looks at the posters he has put up. A purple galaxy on one of them, two bunnies on the other. In the middle, a portrait of herself. Dad says it really resembles her, but when she tries to look at the picture all she can see is a small aching ball where her face ought to be. A shining black stone.
Kore. Daddy’s little queen.
The next morning Dad is happy, he sits at the kitchen table reading the newspaper with her at his side. The room smells of coffee. The latest hits are playing on the radio, and Kore makes drawing after drawing and shows them to him, they’re all for him, full of suns and animals and their houses. Then they play cards, a game for grown-ups.
“You come from a long line of poker players,” he says and lays out a three of a kind. “My dad taught me when I was six.”
He enjoys teaching her things, and she listens carefully and nods all the time, her face is glowing and after a while she can’t resist fooling around, trying to make him laugh by hiding cards up her sleeve, and it works because he laughs and says she is a card shark like his cousin Robert, who bought his house with the money he had won playing cards.
“He’s a real clever one,” says her dad.
Dad likes it when people are good at doing sums in their heads, so he tests her on the times table, she has practiced so much at school that she knows it by heart, even the most difficult number which her dad says is eight times seven. But then she accidentally knocks over a glass, sees it roll over the edge of the table and onto the floor in slow motion. Three big shards and lots of small ones, they spread everywhere. She doesn’t move. He gets up and fetches the broom from the cupboard. He says that he isn’t angry, but she knows the card game is over.
They eat lunch in growing silence. The bigger it gets, the harder it is to break. She forgets to chew, just sits there with the fork in her hand. In her leaden mouth, her tongue is an immovable slug. Then she notices the photo of the dogs on the wall behind him, next to the barometer. She says what were your dogs called again Dad. She asks although she already knows. Zeus and Argos, and then he had Medea who died before she was five. He points at the photo and says that one is Zeus, who didn’t obey anyone but me, a rare black breed, smart and loyal, but he’s been dead for a long time. Argos was good too, but none was like Zeus.
“He never betrayed me,” says Dad, “not even when we crossed the fresh bear tracks in Porsön and he got the shivers, not even then did he run away, although he was shaking all over.”
Kore immediately asks about bears. Then about shivering and foaming.
Once they’ve eaten Dad shows her how to make a fire in the big fireplace downstairs. First he tears strips out of yesterday’s paper, then he makes a rectangle out of the thinnest sticks of kindling he can find, stacks them carefully on top of each other. And then he lights it.
Now everything that happened before is forgotten, because Dad loves the fire. He loves blowing on it and watching the flames eat into the wood, he loves the way the wood groans, and the black smoke that emerges when a living thing starts burning. He loves putting his hands almost close enough for them to catch fire, too. But Dad never gets burnt. He can nudge a burning piece of firewood, move his finger through the flame of a candle as if he were immortal.
At times like this he’ll occasionally take her out. This is my daughter, she’s finally arrived, he’ll tell all the neighbours they meet. Look how pretty she is. Look at her eyes, so like mine.
At other times she will feel, even before she goes into the kitchen in the morning, that it – something – has happened again. The small animals will feel it too. Titus’s ears will go tense and his eyes restless, the others will press against her legs, seeking shelter from the unknown being that at any moment might turn around with the face of a predator and a mouth full of teeth. Just seeing his back is enough, she can feel it in the air, the vibrations of his distorted blood circulation.
But it can also happen suddenly. Even if she is close by. Sometimes she knows why. If something breaks or if she forgets herself and says something about Mum. She has taught herself the signs, even the smallest ones. A facial twitch. The change in his voice. Sometimes it can be mended. If she’s quick. But each eruption only barely hides the promise of an even greater rage.
She imagines a butterfly-like man with a black cloak and antennae slowly descending from the ceiling towards Dad’s body as he sits reading the paper. When Dad feels the antennae on the nape of his neck and turns around, his eyes are filled with a dark dust from an evil star, and it’s this dust that turns her dad into the subterranean other. Into a heaviness that methodically sucks the oxygen from the house. She tries walking silently on the tips of her toes. The silver necklace hangs around her neck like a snare. The coldness of the metal numbs her skin.
She thinks about her promise.
After the Friday movie that night she can’t get away. A half-empty glass in hand, he turns to her with moist lips. His heavy breathing is machine-like, and the air around him pulsates when he fixes his eyes on her. A trembling mouse before the snake.
Why do you even come here, he starts chanting.
He looks at her from deep down, as if his gaze has slipped below the surface of his eyes. This is before he starts crying. That comes later, and it’s the worst. To begin with he hid his rage, let it grow in silence, a dough silently brimming over the edge. She had been focusing on the film, had probably sensed that something was tightening inside him, but not that it would happen so quickly. He must have started drinking earlier in the day. She hadn’t been paying enough attention.
His voice closes like a hand around her neck, intense, cruel, heavy. Why do you come here when you don’t even care. You just want presents, you don’t love me. I just give, and give, and you take. You’re not my princess anymore. You’re just as cold as her. She can’t speak. Sits on the edge of the armchair with all of her muscles tensed up.
The animals pull and drag at her, the whites of their eyes restless and gleaming, but she can’t move. She is caught in his gaze. Her father’s eyes are shiny and his cheeks oily, his mouth wet from saliva.
Kore’s lungs shrink inside her, she’s only exhaling now, nothing wants to go back inside.
“Are you too posh,” he slurs, setting his glass clumsily down on the table, “too posh to speak to your dad?”
For a moment his eyes lose focus, waver towards the dark window as a car drives past in the street. She is freed. The animals get her to her feet and drag her towards the staircase.
“Go on, get out of here!” he says and starts sobbing. “Just do it, leave me here alone … bloody scumbag …”
She doesn’t run, just walks quickly down the stairs. Remembers that her toothbrush is still upstairs. One single time doesn’t matter, that’s what Mum says. But Kore doesn’t want to think about her now, she turns the key and sits down on the bed to comfort her animals. Pets their fur slowly until they’ve stopped trembling. Long-fingers climbs up her arm and falls asleep on her shoulder. The others yawn and pile up on the blanket next to her, even Ivrahim. But Kore can’t sleep.
If she had a sister they would sit whimpering with their arms around one another. But when you’re alone, crying doesn’t help. The tiny pea has shot up in her throat like a choking lump she can’t get rid of, even though she keeps swallowing until her mouth goes dry. Her eyes on the lock of the door, she squeezes the key in her fist. But he’s got one too. In case there’s a fire. She listens for steps on the stairs, but he isn’t coming after her. After maybe twenty minutes she hears the front door slam shut. A bin falls over as he backs the car out. Then everything is quiet.
By half past eleven or so the next day she’s the meanest child in Norrbotten. It’s true. She’s sitting, sticky-fingered, at the kitchen table. Her dad is straight across from her in a dressing gown, just out of bed, his large body heavier than usual.
A viscous sour smell hovers in the air around him like a halo. Kore looks down at the table. Two halves of a pomegranate lie in front of her. They’re all around the house, placed in bowls, like bait. The heavy, meaty food in the fridge is hard to swallow, so this morning she took a piece of fruit. Cut it in two with a big knife from the second drawer. To begin with it didn’t taste any good, but she got used to it. The juice looks like blood on her hands and on the teaspoon she uses to scoop out the fruit. The pits are ruby-red like gemstones, they crackle as she chews. On the middle of her tongue lies a compressed mass that has grown to fill her mouth completely. She wants to go and spit it out in the sink. But she doesn’t. Because just then he enters the kitchen. Next to her on the table lies an old Bamse magazine that she brought up from the basement. It’s always the hardest thing, coming back upstairs. You never know what to expect. She doesn’t dare leaf through the magazine with her sticky hands. Still, it’s best not to move now. She is the meanest child in Norrbotten, deserting her own dad. Why doesn’t she say anything when he’s speaking to her? Finally she swallows down the sharp mass of seeds.
That day she and the animals keep to the basement. They are scared, don’t dare go upstairs with her, say there are other animals in the house that he let inside last night. Animals bigger than them, and older, and more dangerous. Her dad is mowing the lawn outside, she hears the distant sound of the mower through the narrow basement window just beneath the ceiling. The summer light gleams between the window slats. Just one week ago she was with Mum.
Kore sits with the animals on her lap and one on her shoulder, on the big corner sofa upholstered in grainy, dully shining black leather. On the shelf beside her his video tapes are lined up, she has watched almost all of them. Dad doesn’t like cartoons, so he usually translates the dialogue for her so that they can watch his films instead, but it’s hard to catch anything but the sharp sounds of echoing shots, the dark blood slowly covering the floor, the long nail digging into the wound until it dislodges a silver bullet, and the screams of the man as his steaming heart is torn right out of his chest.
Mum calls every Tuesday and Friday. The long piercing signals make Kore jump to her feet and start running. But when she picks up the voice is far away and scratchy. The little ball has begun aching more and more in her stomach again, and Kore has difficulty concentrating. She doesn’t answer Mum’s questions properly, and asks none of her own. Her ankles feel naked and cold up there. Only Titus and Masha have gone upstairs with her, though they stopped at the top step, now they’re crouching there, waiting for her to come back. Her dad is nowhere to be seen, the house holds its breath. Perhaps he’s standing with his back to an adjoining wall, listening.
“I miss you so much, my little sweetie,” says Katja.
Kore watches the slow dance of the dust motes in the ray of light from the kitchen window, without saying anything in reply. Soon they hang up.
That evening there is a party in the back garden with its dark vegetation and metallic lamps stuck into anything trying to live there, into tree trunks and into the ground. Taxi after taxi comes and drops people off: no one drives their own cars, everyone is going to drink and toast with her dad, together they raise their glasses towards the sky. A long table is set leading to a big fire into which he sticks small, flayed bodies, the sparks swirl around them like burning eyes in the night. The guests laugh and eat, with fatty, gleaming fingers and lips they shout for more between bites. And her dad chats and gurgles and drinks. Stands at the fire as if he were inside it. One eye an extinguisher, the other a lighter. He looks one by one at his guests until they start moving like waves. And when they break on Kore they grab at her with their fingers and the smell of meat steams at her neck, but she backs away, straight through an opening in the hawthorn hedge. On the other side of it the air is cool. There’s a little nook there, an arbour. She climbs into the neighbour’s old hammock and lies down, rocks it gently so that it won’t squeak. She brushes away the first mosquito that lands, but not the second.
Outside the sky is blue and the sun shines white in the clouds. Her dad tells her to lie down on the sofa in the living room. A stranger is standing next to him, a man he knows, a colleague named Kenneth. Dad pulls up her shirt and unbuttons her trousers for the man to examine her. His hands sink into her tummy in two places simultaneously. She’s ill again, in the end she had to say it. But the pain hides from the eyes of others. When Dad’s around it goes unnoticed, like everything else to do with her. She shakes her head when the man asks her if it hurts here, or here, or there. Kenneth moves his hands every time she says no. Dad’s mouth is tense.
“I’ve taken her everywhere over the years. Done an ultrasound, a gastroscopy.”
His colleague doesn’t notice the ball, doesn’t feel anything. It’s too small to be discovered. Impenetrable now, shiny, wet and black. They pull her trousers a bit further down to check the bottom of her tummy, exposing a few downy wisps of hair on her sex. Their eyes are immediately drawn there. A moist snake slithers through Kore’s insides, her hands break out into a cold sweat. Tense as a board, she clenches her jaws to be able to take the wave upon wave of shame breaking over her. But her dad and the other man seem relieved. The pressing on her tummy stops. Something premenstrual, probably. Puberty. Would have thought her too young, but anyway. They clumsily pull down her shirt again and shake hands. Kore pulls up her trousers and slips away.
As soon as she is out of the room she doubles over.
She has arranged all her presents on the shelf in her room. There’s nowhere to put the doll, so she holds it against her chest while looking around in indecision. Its blond hair is long as a grownup’s. Its eyes roll back into its head when she looks at it. She rests it like a baby on her arm and tries to catch hold of the eyelids, tries to close them. A shadow towers in the doorway. He is standing there, half visible. Between the wooden window slats, the sun is low and blinding. Almost gone. A glass hangs in his fingers, reflecting the light like amber.
“Do you have any milk for it,” he says with a smile.
Slowly her face slides off her, down into the abyss. There it continues to fall.
As soon as he’s gone, she hides the doll under some blankets in the wardrobe. Back in her room, she starts looking for her animals. Gets down on her knees and searches under the bed, raises the coverlet. Her eyes flit around the room, she runs into the hallway, to the room where the films are, to the bathroom, back to her own room. She can’t find them. Just the looks of the plastic animals on the shelf, so ingratiating with their painted-on smiles and synthetic fur. She touches her own face. Beneath the smooth layer of rubber it feels bumpy, like fuse-dried particles of coal directly on her skull.
She rubs and rubs.
That evening everything accelerates quickly and infinitely slowly at the same time. She knows it’s already too late. The blood fruit, the verbal agreement and Dad’s crying, swollen face.
“After all, it’s not like I’ve raped you,” he says after a pause.
She doesn’t know why he says it, where it comes from. So that idea is there, inside him? That look? Suddenly she can feel it, she feels nothing else anymore. And he said it in his own defense. As if to say that if he had actually done it she would have had the law on her side. It would have been possible to examine her, there would be traces. But no one can find the black ball, it’s invisible to everyone.
She flees like a hare, as she always does. Down the hole, down underground.
She wakes up in the night to find herself standing still in the middle of her dark room. She is trying to catch something. A sound she heard. A distant, cold sound, like metal against china. Against teeth. She’s heard it before, but doesn’t know where it comes from. The room is filled with tentative shadows that shrink and grow. She walks slowly to the door, follows the walls of the hallway. The open toilet door is an oblong, gaping hole of darkness, she continues past it, onwards, like a sleepwalker, mechanically, her eyes blurred, as if she were under water. Or inside the earth. She can feel the weight of the soil, feel it pressing against the walls and the roof. Faint clammy sounds are all that are heard when she raises her night-sweaty feet from the floor: she knows exactly where to step so the floorboards won’t creak. As if she’s woken up in the night a thousand times before, heard a sound and gotten up to check what it was. Right in front of her is the door to the study, now near, now far away. It pulsates to and fro. A streak of light falls out, the door is ajar, it’s usually always locked. She gets a glimpse of him inside, big and heavy, bent over something. And then she’s right there near him. The sight of his back makes the air harder to breathe, a heavy, wet sheet tightens around her chest, and the air she inhales is suddenly cold, as if she’s eaten a throat lozenge, she tries not to breathe in the air too noisily, the least sound will make him turn around and stare at her with shining eyes, chemically green in the thick darkness. His broad back is just meters away from her now, he’s wearing his doctor’s coat, rocking from side to side as if laughing, his elbows jut out to the side every now and then. He is stooped over something, she can’t see what. He is wearing white plastic gloves, and next to him lies a white tray of metal implements. There are tongs, pliers, scalpels – he moves quicker, drops one tool, takes another – the used ones are bloody and now Kore’s feet are moving towards him of their own accord, slowly, as if against the current.
And then she sees what is lying in front of him on the table.
She sees it. She sees.
She presses her hands against her mouth so as not to scream, but her knees bend and wobble at the sight of the pleading eyes radiating towards her from the table, those eyes that will never refuse, never speak out, never say no, just yes, yes, yes, do what you want with me! She sees the childlike, little look in those eyes, entreating, pitiful, pathetic. And she backs out of the room, step by step, shh, quiet, quiet, doesn’t let go of her mouth, the eyes, those eyes, the worst of all eyes. In the hallway she turns around and runs away, doesn’t care about being heard any more, she just has to get out of there, get back to her room in time, but it’s already far too late.
Where courage comes from, no one knows.
But eventually it comes.
Early in the morning she quietly calls the animals, tries one last time. This time they appear, the ones that are left. Just two have survived. Titus’s gaze is empty as she strokes his back with her index finger. He seems unharmed. Ivrahim has gone blind in both eyes, as if someone has scorched him with a white-hot poker. Kore lifts them gently into her backpack and steals away. She passes all the houses, only one neighbor is awake. On his way from the mailbox he hesitantly raises his hand to greet her. At the bus stop she mechanically takes out her money. For seven kronor she gets a ticket. When she gets off at the station in her mother’s town she goes straight to the phone booth, lets three more kronor drop, and then she dials the number for home.
“Are you sure?” her mum asks, when they’re sitting in the car.
But Kore says nothing. How can anyone be sure.
Later everything is quiet, not a sound is heard from her father’s realm. He doesn’t demand that she return, doesn’t send anyone to collect her. But every night she waits. To see someone outside the window, a long finger extended towards her, digging into her flesh, digging until it pulls out her steaming heart and breaks it open like a piece of fruit.
In her memories of him, all his power has drained away. If she closes her eyes she can see him, sees him sitting in his house at night. The lamp switched off, the only light touching him the light that falls in through the windows from the street lamps outside.
His eyes are dry. Because when you’re alone, crying doesn’t help. The cylindrical glass. Always meticulous about coasters to prevent ring-shaped stains on his coffee table from Switzerland. She remembers him buying it, how proud he was. He wanted everything he bought afterwards to match it. The rounded two-seaters in the colour of a dark-green avocado skin, the paintings in beige, dark brown, a similar green hue and a few wine-red splashes. Handed-down silver candlesticks on the walls. He never lit them, worried about getting spots of wax on the clear wooden floor.
She can picture him sitting there all by himself. Sitting there looking at nothing. The street light in his eye, his speckled, cloudy eye.
Then for a long time she tries to pretend that he doesn’t exist. Tries to forget the basement, his turned back, his stealthy car. That all those things never existed and belong to one of the thousands of evil stories that flow out of every book she touches. Because all the books she reads are about him, all the films. He still has that power. And sometimes she thinks she can see him driving past in his silvery car. She always feels totally cold, as if she’s been immersed in dark water. The moment when it seeps through her clothes. Sometimes she thinks he’s spying on her. That his tearful rage has changed into a fixation. That he’s become psychotic, delirious and wild-eyed, drives around in his car searching day and night all the way across the border into brighter lands. That he has started behaving strangely even among others, started showing other people who he really is. Missed the board meetings and finally lost his position at the clinic. And at night his neighbours can now see a strange greenish glow emanating from his basement window. Poisonous vapours steaming from every crack. The basement rebuilt as a laboratory.
And there he sits.
Night after night, chanting incantations to draw her towards him. To bind her. His eyes have become black hollows. From the blackness comes a sickly light. And then the little black ball inside her starts aching, wakes from its slumber and answers. Yes, Dad! I’m coming! Steam rises from the ball and right through her body, unobstructed, as if her flesh were a screen full of holes. Rises up to her eyes so that all she can see is mist. Inside it, a land of shadows emerges, with mud eyes and beasts of prey and tree crowns forming a black ceiling above her head. She did promise him. The ball remains, and inside the ball her father, a condensed, stunted version in which the essential is magnified, engraved and forever unchanging.
Whenever everything else is moving away, his face hovers in front of her. It is the only thing she can see. As if he has been sitting behind her all this time, in the dark. Waiting for her to stop running and turn around, to finally understand that he will never leave. That she is, and forever will remain, his little queen. He is not someone you leave, but someone you come to. And he will stand up and take her, fill her with the old.
With childhood again.
And so it came to be that she created her own kingdom, one more desolate than his. She is alone there. And though her kingdom may be new, it is also ancient. Because someone lived here a long time ago. The traces lie hidden in the moss. They have continually sunk deeper, become one of the treasures of the layers of soil.
This kingdom is the first and only landscape she has got to know. Her father’s face. There she stays. Waiting for the least twitch or tension, so that she can seek shelter in time.
She can see her footprints in the furrows along his face in which round tears used to drown all life. Now the ground is dried out, and the tracks in the dry clay have cracked. She finds her way into the eyebrows, but they offer no protection from the sun. Her feet sink into his cheeks like in quicksand.
The most secure place is at the tip of his cheekbone, at the edge of the forest on his temple. That’s how it used to be, and that’s how it is now. Some days she considers letting herself drop, when the silence inside is too resounding. But the height is dizzying. So instead she decides on the opposite, a journey within. The black ear hole.
Should I call out? she wonders for a moment, but finds it safest to enter first, down the hollow that leads deep inside, behind the mask where she’s been living until now. So she jumps. Inside the ear canal her steps echo like drops in a cavern. She continues inwards, but slips – glides downwards, downwards, until all light has vanished.
She starts to hear a terrifying sound, dull, rhythmical. Its strength increases as she reaches the edge of the throat. The wind beats against her, softer across her back, more intensely on its way back up. She squats down and tries to climb down his tracheal rings, but with just half her body below the ledge a cough jumbles everything, and she falls headlong.
She falls, falls further.
Life is now just a fall.
She lands with a thud on an elastic membrane. In the middle there is a tightly laced opening, and in the stomach below her acid is splashing. Down here the sound is louder, and she knows where to go. With her back to the wall, she starts pushing her arms into the softness. At first there is resistance, then the wall gives way. Maybe he knows. Maybe he can feel her now. For a long time she crawls through the tissue, the sound is dulled, the flesh is shaking. Then she feels her fingers pass through, into something else. An empty space. She grabs hold of the edges and pulls her body through.
The ear-splitting beats are slung at her.
And there it is. The machine. Blackened red, convulsive. Dad’s heart. She had always imagined it to be so much smaller, hardly visible to the naked eye. But she was wrong. It’s gigantic.
She tries to squeeze her leg inside it, but the muscle beats violently, repelling her. So she takes a run-up and jumps straight at it, her legs and arms outstretched. Fastens onto it with a sucking sound, forces her face straight through the muscle wall – and, like magic, her body slips through.
On the inside everything is quiet.
There is no wind, since no wind exists here. Is this it. Is there only this darkness here.
But then something comes floating towards her. A body, a small one. Sleeping. Swaddled in cloth, it drifts closer.
It is a child.
Is it me? she thinks. Is that me floating in your heart?
She wants to recognize herself in the child’s face. But its features are so plain that she forgets them in the blink of an eye. Like a picture in a frame before you replace it with your own.
After that, she tries to write a letter to him, but she just sounds and expresses herself like a small child, doesn’t know what she wants to say. Or how she wants him to respond. After all, she is the one who left. She glues a dried flower to it, a light blue forget-me-not. But she doesn’t send the letter. It sounds too helpless, too pleading. Something else is needed.
As the years pass, she starts dreaming of becoming tall and terrifying. Cool, patient, powerful. And she dreams of the day when he’ll finally come begging. She won’t even react when he enters, but will finish writing her very long sentence instead, calmly put away her pen and look at him with an expressionless face.
Only this, after his long journey to catch a glimpse of his lost child. Yes? And he will tremble before her, he’ll be anxious, but at the same time filled with wonder at her transformation. From a ten-year-old slip of a child with tear-heavy eyelashes to this being – so collected, so dangerous. With calm eyes she will watch him put forward his request for reconciliation, and she will let him finish speaking without interruption, then say with a honey-coated voice:
“For people like you there is no mercy.”
This “people like you” has been carefully thought out, since it shows that she knows him to be of a certain type – someone who always cared more about himself than his own child. This single sentence would make him understand, regret. And then the dust would vanish, the thicket of thorns around his house would dry up and scatter in the wind. Everything would be different.
It had to end like this.
But time passes. And he doesn’t come.
Nothing is as it should be.
Finally she goes to him, in secret, disguised. This time she goes there alone, in a borrowed car that can accelerate quickly. He has a new position at a clinic in one of the grey tower blocks in the centre of town. But the town looks different now. Like any other town, with a mall and a car park and a pond with a fountain in the middle. No one cares about her, or even recognizes her. She pulls off her cap and looks around in the pale afternoon light.
The trip reveals two things: He has acquired a new car and a new family. A new wife and a little daughter. Kore hardly looks at him, in fact, for as soon as she notices the new child that he lifts out of the car seat in the back and goes into the toy shop hand-in-hand with, she doesn’t have eyes for anyone else. The girl – small and light-haired with corkscrew curls and blinking eyes – doesn’t look like Kore at all. Like a dirty old man she stands hidden, staring at the sweet child. The child whom she, at the first opportunity, will catch in a black sack and carry into the forest. Cut her hair off. Drown her in some pool. And when the search party finds the dead little girl, she will be all pale and covered in mud, her locks straightened into ugly tangles.
But that would also be wrong, since Dad would cry and raise his hands to the heavens. And he would hold the dead child in his arms and gently rock her as if she were just sleeping, but her dark blue eyes would be staring blindly straight ahead.
Kore, squatting behind a stump or an uprooted tree, would see everything, and she would know that doing this had not made anything better, since now he would grieve his beloved child forever, the child who never betrayed him. And when Kore then looks down at her own hands, they are covered in grey, slimy scales, earth-spattered, with rough claws instead of nails.
She opens her mouth to shout, but no sound emerges. A reptilian click in her throat, that’s all. Once the new wife has gone to do some errands and her dad drives away with the child, Kore follows the car out of town, to his domain. The river is steel-grey, lifeless, empty. Then she is back at his house, just look how easy it was. He is waiting for her in the drive, as if he has known all along.
“Now, come and say hello,” he says immediately, as she watchfully steps out of the car.
He waves his hand gently, and she follows him, as she always has done. Then he shows her inside, where her little sister sits playing with Kore’s old toys. The black plastic horse, the doll, the wheel, the bracelets, the boxes. The marbles, the puzzle and the other animals.
“Now she’s finally here,” Dad calls out, loud enough for the girl to jump.
Kore asks him to stop, says that he’s scaring her, but he just laughs it off. Then they stand watching as the child places her plastic animals in a ring around her, at perfect angles. The animals look at the girl with frightened plastic eyes, until she gets angry and kicks them over. Dad takes Kore into the living room and offers her juice – she would rather have coffee, but he doesn’t care about that.
He hasn’t changed at all.
And as she sits there, on the very edge of the sofa, glancing at the nursery, her fingers clutched tightly at the glass so that he can see that she still bites her nails, just like before, he opens his mouth to speak.
And he says: When I was born my dad planted a tree that would grow in step with me, so that when I died the tree could be chopped down for the growth rings to be counted, and I would get to see how many years of my life I had lived happily. For trees only grow then, that’s what my dad told me.
“Is the tree still there?” asks Kore.
But then his face disappears into a black hole that sucks everything towards it, a vacuum mouth tearing at her clothes, tearing at her skin. With his hole of a face, he starts growing, turns a bluish grey, swells up towards the ceiling until his neck gets bent into a corner of the room. He squeezes her out of the room, she has to run to get away, to avoid getting sucked back into the hole. Something moves up through her throat, something burning, a small black ball that’s sucked out of her body and disappears, as she grabs hold of the door frame just in time and manages to pull herself out of the room. She throws open the front door and is outside.
On her way to the car she does see the tree, standing in the shade of the house. A pitiful sort of plant, she had never noticed it before. It has a sickly pale trunk and strangely dark-red flowers. And from the tree comes a quiet whistling, it follows her into the car and lies down on the rubber mat beneath her feet, like an animal that has been lost for a long time but has finally found its way home.
*Editor of translation: Alex Fleming
High up, stretching into the sky, loomed the tower of the fair princess. It was made of pure crystal and its pinnacle was bedecked with gold and precious stones. All around it, a multi-hued, large rose garden spread out. From amongst the thin net of narrow golden paths, perfumed flowerbeds, with countless roses, looked out; red as the setting sun, white as the wings of the Cabbage Whites, pink as the heavens at the brink of dawn, and yellow as the golden curls adorning the fair head of their mistress, the princess. Both beautiful and humble. Each one ten times more glorious and pleasing to the eye than the diamonds, sapphires and aquamarines bejewelling the tower’s crystal. Every single one, a little sun.
And glorious fragrances rose into the sky from the flowerbeds, like wondrous sounds of music, and blended together to become one choir, an ode to beauty. And for all those who saw this glory with their own eyes and listened to the song of fragrances – be they gloomy and their sorrow was forgotten; be they anguished and their torment was unheeded; be they dead and they would come back to life. The garden was surrounded by a tall, thick marble wall that distinguished it from the world around. Roses coiled against the wall, but not one of them dared ascend to the edge and raise her head beyond the kingdom of flowers. And the gate to the garden was locked shut, and hard metal bolts were always suspended across it.
Every morning, bright and early, as the sun rose, the first beams cast their light on the top of the tower, making the crystal glimmer and glisten and glow in a multitude of colours, and as the soft breeze moved the silver bells hanging in the window of the princess’ bedroom, she would walk down to her garden. Her little feet would stroke the ground as she walked, and the rim of her white, light, fragrant dress caressed her pink heels. She would reach the well, draw water from it, and, with her own two narrow hands, as delicate as the wings of white doves, she would water her flowers, one row after the other, flying from one flowerbed to the next, pouring fresh water over the buds, and they would bow to her in gratitude. When she was done, she would walk amongst the flowers to see that nothing had happened to them during the night. And if a rose was bent, she would straighten it; if it had been uprooted, she would plant it once more; if it had wilted, she would snip it off the bush and cast it far from her. And after combing the flowerbeds for thistles, brambles and weeds, she would scatter golden sand along the paths. This was how her day passed.
And when the sun started setting and pink mist began drifting through the air, the wondrous one would again walk the length and width of her garden and kneel next to each rose; and with her lips, which were as sweet as the taste of cherry nectar, she would kiss every flower. And after her kiss, the flowers were ten times as splendid and as beautiful, and their fragrance twenty times as powerful and intoxicating. The princess, dazed by the scent of her own flowers, would go up to her room in the tower and surrender herself to a blue night, full of dreams.
And beyond the wall was a large city, crowded and squalid. Long, narrow and grimy streets twisted through it like snakes. Tall grey houses with small dirty windows and rusted roofs stood crammed together, making it seem as if each one wanted to push the other and take its place. And thousands of factory chimneys raised their heads upwards, piping the black smoke into the sky. Outside of town, there were green pools of water that reeked, desolate fields whose crops grew low and meagre, and old, pitiful ramshackle houses. And only the wonderful scent of the roses, which emanated from the princess’ garden and lingered in the air, would shed a bit of comfort on this rancid city.
Every morning, when the clouded sky turned a little brighter, and all the factories’ chimneys roared their awful roar in one wild chorus, the inhabitants of the city would leave their houses. Their hair was unkempt, their eyes reddened with tears and sleeplessness. Their lips were pale and withered, their clothes made of a rough fabric, torn and grey like the dust of the roads. Even the heads of the children bowed down, and no one dared raise their voice in laughter. Group after group they would walk to the workshops and factories to toil away. And then each one would stiffen in his task. One hunched his back over a needle throughout the long grey day, another incessantly turned the wheel of a machine, the next dug a hole in a ground as hard as stone, another kept throwing wood into the mouth of a burning furnace, large drops of sweat rolling down his sooty body. And in the evening, when the yellow street lamps were lit and their murky light washed over the whole city, the people, dead tired, left their work and went outside, hurrying to their homes to quickly satiate themselves on a dry slice of bread, fall asleep and forget everything, everything.
And on their way home, they were accompanied by the factories’ second roar.
And three times a year only, on the days of the great holidays, the city would transform itself. The narrow streets were cleaner then, a strange smile appeared on the houses and in the little windows white curtains gleamed. On such days, the factories’ chimneys would remain silent and people would stay home until late. And then they would come out, fresh and with a smile on their lips, washed and wearing festive speckled clothes. They all hurried to the field outside the princess’ garden, and there they would stand and wait in anticipation.
At twelve noon, the princess, in all the glory of her beauty, would appear on the wall, her white attire coming down in folds on the wall’s marble, and within her soft face, between her eyelids, two blue eyes glistened, like pools of water among the reeds. On her arm hung a large basket and in it wonderful roses from her garden. For a while she would look down at the speckled field, where thousands of bright, eye-fetching colours burnt in the light of the sun, and then, with her long fingers, she would take the flowers out of her basket and throw them one-by-one to the expectant crowd below. And they would grab each flower and tear it into tiny pieces; and whoever came across even one petal would be elated.
And after the princess had shared her gifts, she would step down off the wall and into the garden, and there she would listen to the songs of joy sung by the dispersing crowed. The notes were powerful and full of hope. They rang through the clear air like the laughter of thunder in a spring sky and grew silent only as evening descended.
The next day the princess would resume her work in the rose garden. And, on the other side of the wall, the hard day-to-day life would also recommence.
Once there was a drought. The barren soil outside the city yielded only very little, and the low, meagre crops were singed as they budded. The wells and pools dried up, the tiles that paved the city streets burnt like coals, and the dust rose high up, enshrouding everything. The people despaired from hunger and thirst. They hunched their backs even lower. Their faces were pale and bleak, their eyes were on fire and their fists became clenched. And when the holiday arrived, none of the city’s inhabitants wore their speckled clothing. Sooty and dirty, wearing torn clothes, they gathered on the field outside the princess’ house and waited impatiently for her arrival. She was a little late that morning: “How beautiful the flowers are this year! And the basket so full. How happy they will be when I bring the roses to them,” she thought. But the strange voices that she heard from beyond the wall startled her. “What is it?” she wondered, “For I have never heard sounds such as these before, and why haven’t I?” She finally made her mind up and started climbing, and as she climbed strange wailing reached her ears – the sound of children crying, and women groaning, and roars which came from the parched throats of the men, and when she lowered her gaze to look down at the field, she was so startled she could barely hold herself, for it was so black and ugly. But still she placed her hand in the flower basket, meaning to throw the flowers to the crowd, but a wild laughter that rose from everyone’s throats stopped her.
“Enough!” they shouted from below. “We have no need for your gifts! We shall not let you go on dwelling safely beyond the wall, enjoying the scent of your flowers. See our poverty! How thin our arms, how white our hair. Look how ugly we are, how filthy our city. We no longer want a dog’s life. We need wonderful flowers in our gardens, not behind your wall! Come out to us! Walk among us. Be the gardener of our gardens. Open the gates! And if not… Well, we will tear down the wall, shatter your towers, and trample over those roses of yours with the soles of our boots. Open the gates!”
And the princess lowered her hand helplessly, twisted her dresses with anguish, and large shimmering tears rolled down from her eyes. Then she climbed down the wall and opened the gate.
The inflamed mass barged into the garden trampling and collecting the roses, destroying the crystal tower, and they took the princess away with them.
And from that day on she began planting the roses in their gardens, in their barren soil, but the buds that grew were pale and lifeless, their scent was so faint that no one sensed it, and the magical qualities of the roses in the garden beyond the wall were gone. The princess persisted in her efforts to retrieve their former glory, but to no avail. Even the kisses from her warm lips could not revive the roses.
Then the city’s inhabitants said: “Why did you deceive us? We have plenty of roses like these, we never asked you for trickery. We begged you for remedy and comfort. Grow the roses you once grew in your garden on our lands!”
And she replied: “I cannot. For the roses I once grew bloom only beyond the wall.”
And they would not believe her.
I thought that Mr. Purnell was a little young to be a funeral director, but he had the look down cold. In the instant between his warm, dry handshake and my taking my hand back to remove my winter hat and stuff it into my pocket, he assumed the look, a kind of concerned, knowing sympathy that suggested he’d weathered plenty of grief in his day and he was there to help you get through your own. He gestured me onto an oatmeal-colored wool sofa and pulled his wheeled office chair around to face me. I hung my coat over the sofa arm and sat down and crossed and uncrossed my legs.
“So, it’s like I said in the email—” was as far as I got and then I stopped. I felt the tears prick at the back of my eyes. I swallowed hard. I rubbed at my stubble, squeezed my eyes shut. Opened them.
If he’d said anything, it would have been the wrong thing. But he just gave me the most minute of nods—somehow he knew how to embed sympathy in a tiny nod; he was some kind of prodigy of grief-appropriate body language—and waited while the lump in my throat sank back down into my churning guts.
“Uh. Like I said. We knew Dad was sick but not how sick. None of us had much to do with him for, uh, a while.” Fifteen years, at least. Dad did his thing, we did ours. That’s how we all wanted it. But why did my chest feel like it was being crushed by a slow, relentless weight? “And it turns out he didn’t leave a will.” Thanks, Dad. How long, how many years, did you have after you got your diagnosis? How many years to do one tiny thing to make the world of the living a simpler place for your survivors?
Selfish, selfish prick.
Purnell let the silence linger. He was good. He let the precisely correct interval go past before he said, “And you say there is insurance?”
“Funeral insurance,” I said. “Got it with his severance from Compaq. I don’t think he even knew about it, but one of his buddies emailed me when the news hit the web, told me where to look. I don’t know what his policy number was or anything—”
“We can find that out,” Purnell said. “That’s the kind of thing we’re good at.”
“Can I ask you something?” “Of course.”
“Why don’t you have a desk?”
He shrugged, tapped the tablet he’d smoothed out across his lap. “I feel like a desk just separates me from my clients.” He gestured around his office, the bracketless shelves in somber wood bearing a few slim books about mourning, some abstract sculptures carved from dark stone or pale, bony driftwood. “I don’t need it. It’s just a relic of the paper era. I’d much rather sit right here and talk with you, face to face, figure out how I can help you.”
* * *
I’d googled him, of course. I’d googled the whole process. The first thing you learn when you google funeral homes is that the whole thing is a ripoff. From the coffin—the “casket,” which is like a coffin but more expensive—to the crematorium to the wreath to the hearse to the awful online memorial site with sappy music—all a scam, from stem to stern. It’s a perfect storm of graft: a bereaved family, not thinking right; a purchase you rarely have to make; a confusion of regulations and expectations. Add them all up and you’re going to be mourning your wallet along with your dear departed.
Purnell gets good google. They say he’s honest, modern, and smart. They say he’s young, and that’s a positive, because it makes him a kind of digital death native, and that’s just what we need, my sister and I, as we get ready to bury Herbert Pink: father, nerd, and lifelong pain in the ass. The man I loved with all my heart until I was 15 years old, whereupon he left our mother, left our family, and left our lives. After that, I mostly hated him. You should know: hate is not the opposite of love.
* * *
I was suddenly mad at this young, modern, honest, smart undertaker. I mean, funeral director. “Look,” I said. “I didn’t really even know my father, hadn’t seen him in years. I don’t need ‘help,’ I just need to get him in the ground. With a minimum of hand holding and fussing.”
He didn’t flinch, even though there’d been no call for that kind of outburst. “Bruce,” he said, “I can do that. If you’re in a hurry, we can probably even do it by tomorrow. It looks like your father’s insurance would take you through the whole process. We’d even pay the deductible for you.” He paused to let that sink in. “But Bruce, I do think I can help you. You’re your father’s executor, and he died intestate. That means a long, slow probate.”
“So what? I don’t care about any inheritance. My dad wasn’t a rich man, you know.”
“I’m sorry, that’s not what I meant to imply. Your father died intestate, and there’s going to be taxes to pay, bills to settle. You’re going to have to value his estate, produce an inventory, possibly sell off his effects to cover the expenses. Sometimes this can take years.”
He let that sink in. “All right,” I said, “that’s not something I’d thought of. I don’t really want to spend a month inventorying my father’s cutlery and underwear drawer.”
He smiled. “I don’t suppose a court would expect you to get into that level of detail. But the thing is, there’s better ways to do this sort of thing. You think that I’m young for a funeral director.”
The non sequitur caught me off guard. “I, uh, I suppose you’re old enough—”
“I am young for this job. But you know what Douglas Adams said: everything invented before you were born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. Anything after your fifteenth birthday is new and exciting and revolutionary. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things. The world has changed a lot since you were born, and changed even more since I was born, and I have to tell you, I think that makes my age an asset, not a liability.
“And not in some nebulous, airy-fairy way. Specifically, the fact that I’m 27 years old is how I got onto the beta-test for this.” He handed me his tablet. I smoothed it out and looked at it. It took me a minute to get what I was seeing. At first, I thought I was looking through a live camera feed from some hidden webcam in his office, but then I noticed I wasn’t in the picture. Then I thought I might be seeing a video loop. But after a few experimental prods, I understood that this was a zoomable panoramic image of the room in which I was sitting.
“Pick up one of the sculptures,” he said. I zoom-dragged to one of them, a kind of mountainscape made of something black and nonreflective. It had pleasing proportions, and a play of textures I quite admired. I double-tapped it and it filled the screen, allowing me to rotate it, zoom in on it. Playing along, I zoomed way up until it became a mash of pixellated JPEG noise, then back out again.
“Now try the white one,” he said, pointing at a kind of mathematical solid that suggested some kind of beautiful calculus, behind him and to the left. Zooming to it, I discovered that I could go to infinite depth on it, without any jaggies or artifacts appearing. “It’s so smooth because there’s a model of it on Thingiverse, so the sim just pulled in the vectors describing it and substituted a rendering of them for the bitmap. Same with the shelves. They’re Ikea, and all Ikea furniture has publicly disclosed dimensions, so they’re all vector based.” I saw now that it was true: the shelves had a glossy perfection that the rest of the room lacked.
“Try the books,” he said. I did. A copy of The Egyptian Book of the Dead opened at a touch and revealed its pages to me. “Book-search scans,” he said.
I zoomed around some more. The camel-colored coat hanging on the hook on the back of the door opened itself and revealed its lining. My pinky nail brushed an icon and I found myself looking at a ghostly line-art version of the room, at a set of old-fashioned metal keys in the coat’s pocket, and as I zoomed out, I saw that I was able to see into the walls—the wiring, the plumbing, the 2́4 studs.
“Teraherz radar,” he said, and took the tablet back from me. “There’s more to see, and it gets better all the time. There were a couple of books it didn’t recognize at first, but someone must have hooked them into the database, because now they move. That’s the really interesting thing, the way this improves continuously—”
“Sorry,” I said. “What are you showing me?”
“Oh,” he said. “Right. Got ahead of myself. The system’s called Infinite Space and it comes from a start-up here in Virginia. They’re a DHS spinout, started out with crime-scene forensics and realized they had something bigger here. Just run some scanners around the room and give it a couple of days to do the hard work. If you want more detail, just unpack and repack the drawers and boxes in front of it—it’ll tell you which ones have the smallest proportion of identifiable interior objects. You won’t need to inventory the cutlery; that shows up very well on a teraherz scan. The underwear drawer is a different matter.”
I sat there for a moment, thinking about my dad. I hadn’t been to his place in years. The docs had shown me the paramedics’ report, and they’d called it “crowded,” which either meant that they were very polite or my dad had gotten about a million times neater since I’d last visited him. I’d been twenty before I heard the term “hoarder,” but it had made instant sense to me.
Purnell was waiting patiently for me, like a computer spinning a watch cursor while the user was woolgathering. When he saw he had my attention, he tipped his head minutely, inviting me to ask any questions. When I didn’t, he said, “You know the saying, ‘You can’t libel the dead’? You can’t invade the dead’s privacy, either. Using this kind of technology on a living human’s home would be a gross invasion of privacy. But if you use it in the home of someone who’s died alone, it just improves a process that was bound to take place in any event. Working with Infinite Space, you can even use the inventory as a checklist, value all assets using current eBay blue-book prices, divide them algorithmically or manually, even turn it into a packing and shipping manifest you can give to movers, telling them what you want sent where. It’s like full-text search for a house.”
I closed my eyes for a moment. “Do you know anything about my father?”
For the first time, his expression betrayed some distress. “A little,” he said. “When you showed up in my calendar, it automatically sent me a copy of the coroner’s report. I could have googled further, but… ” He smiled. “You can’t invade the privacy of the dead, but there’s always the privacy of the living. I thought I’d leave that up to you.”
“My father kept things. I mean, he didn’t like to throw things away. Nothing.” I looked into his eyes as I said these words. I’d said them before, to explain my spotless desk, my habit of opening the mail over a garbage can and throwing anything not urgent directly into the recycling pile, my weekly stop at the thrift-store donation box with all the things I’d tossed into a shopping bag on the back of the bedroom door. Most people nodded like they understood. A smaller number winced a little, indicating that they had an idea of what I was talking about.
A tiny minority did what Purnell did next: looked back into my eyes for a moment, then said, “I’m sorry.”
“Yeah,” I said. “He was always threatening to start an antique shop, or list his stuff on eBay. Once he even signed a lease, but he never bought a cash register. Never unlocked the front door, near as I could tell. But he was always telling me that his things were valuable, to the right person.” I swallowed, feeling an echo of the old anger I’d suppressed every time he’d played that loop for me. “But if there was anything worth anything in that pile, well, I don’t know how I’d find it amid all the junk.”
“Bruce, you’re not the first person to find himself in this situation. Dealing with an estate is hard at the best of times, and times like this, I’ve had people tell me they just wanted to torch the place, or bulldoze it.”
“Both of those sound like good ideas, but I have a feeling you don’t offer those particular services.”
He smiled a little funeral director’s smile, but it went all the way to his eyes. “No,” he said. “I don’t. But, huh.” He stopped himself. “This sounds a bit weird, but I’ve been looking forward to a situation like this. It was what I thought of immediately when I first saw Infinite Space demoed. This is literally the best test case I can imagine for this.”
I wish I was the kind of guy who didn’t cry when his father, estranged for decades, died alone and mad in a cluttered burial chamber of his own lunatic design. But I’d cried pretty steadily since I’d gotten the news. I could tell that I was about to cry now. There were Kleenex boxes everywhere. I picked one up and plucked out a tissue. Purnell didn’t look away but managed to back off slightly just by altering his posture. It was enough to give me the privacy to weep for a moment. The tears felt good this time, like they had somewhere to go. Not the choked cries I’d found myself loosing since I’d first gotten the news.
“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah, I think it probably is.”
* * *
I’d expected Roomba-style rolling robots and wondered how they’d get around the narrow aisles between the drifts and piles of things in Dad’s house. There were a few of those, clever ones, the size of my old Hot Wheels cars, and six-wheeled so they could drive in any direction. But the heavy lifting was done by the quadrotors, each the size of a dragonfly, swarming and swooping and flocking with an eerie, dopplered whine that bounced around in the piles of junk. Bigger rotors went around and picked up the ground-effect vehicles, giving them lifts up and down the stairs. As they worked, their data streamed back into a panorama on Purnell’s laptop. We sat on the porch steps and watched the image flesh out. The renderer was working from bitmaps and dead-reckoning telemetry to build its model, and it quivered like a funhouse as it continuously refined its guesses about the dimensions. At one point, the living room sofa appeared to pierce the wall behind us, the sofa itself rendered as a kind of eye-wateringly impossible Escherling that was thick and thin simultaneously. The whole region glowed pink.
“See,” Purnell said. “It knows that there’s something wrong there. There’s going to be a ton of quads tasked to it any second now.” And we heard them buzzing through the wall as they conferred with one another and corrected the software’s best guesses. Flicking through the panoramas, we saw other pink areas, saw them disappear as the bad geometries were replaced with sensible ones in a series of eyeblink corrections. There was something comforting about watching all the detail fill in, especially when the texturemaps appeared in another eyeblink, skinning the wireframes and giving the whole thing the feeling of an architectural rendering. The bitmaps had their own problems: improbable corners, warped-mirror distortions, but I could see that the software was self-aware enough to figure out its own defects, painting them with a pink glow that faded as the approximations were fined down with exact images from the missing angles.
All this time, there’d been a subtle progress bar creeping in fits and starts across the bottom of the screen, just few pixels’ worth of glowing silverly light, and now it was nearly all the way. “You don’t have to do the next part,” he said. “If you’d rather wait out here—”
“I’ll do it,” I said. “It’s okay.”
“They gave us eight scanners. That’s more than we should need for a two-bedroom house. Two should do it. One, even, if you don’t mind moving it, but I thought—”
“It’s okay,” I said again. “I can do this.”
I shook my own tablet out and pinched it rigid, holding it before me like a treasure map as I walked through the front door.
The smell stopped me in my tracks. It had been teasing me all the morning on the porch, but that was the attenuated, diluted version. Now I was breathing in the full-strength perfume, the smell of all my fathers’ dens: damp paper, oxidizing metal, loose copper pennies, ancient cleaners vaporizing through the pores in their decaying bottles, musty cushions, expired bulk no-name cheerios, overloaded power strips, mouse turds, and the trapped flatulence of a thousand lonely days. Overlaid with it, a rotten meat smell.
My father had been dead for at least a week before they found him.
* * *
Infinite Space wanted teraherz scanners in several highly specific locations. Despite Purnell’s assurances, it turned out that we needed to reposition half a dozen of them, making for fourteen radar panoramas in all. I let him do the second placement and went back out onto the porch to watch the plumbing and structural beams and wiring ghost into place as the system made sense of the scans. I caught a brief, airport-scan flash of Purnell’s naked form, right down to his genitals, before the system recognized a human silhouette and edited it out of the map. The awkwardness was a welcome change from the cramped, panicked feeling that had begun the moment I’d stepped into Dad’s house.
The screen blinked and a cartoon chicken did a little ironic head tilt in the bottom left corner. It was my little sister, Hennie, who is much more emotionally balanced than me, hence her ability to choose a self-mocking little avatar. I tapped and then cupped the tablet up into a bowl shape to help it triangulate its sound on my ear. “Have you finished mapping the burial chamber, Indiana Bruce?” She’s five years younger than me, and Dad left when she was only ten, and somehow it never seemed to bother her. As far as she was concerned, her father died decades ago, and she’d never felt any need to visit or call the old man. She’d been horrified when she found out that I’d exchanged a semi-regular, semi-annual email with him.
I snuffled up the incipient snot and tears. “Funny. Yeah, it’s going fast. Mostly automatic. I’ll send it to you when it’s done.”
She shook her head. “Don’t bother. It’ll just give Marta ideas.” Marta, her five-year-old daughter, refused to part with so much as a single stuffed toy and had been distraught for months when they remodeled the kitchen, demanding that the old fridge be brought back. I never wanted to joke about heredity and mental illness, but Hennie was without scruple on this score and privately insisted that Marta was just going through some kind of essential post-toddler conservatism brought on by the change to kindergarten and the beginning of a new phase of life.
“It’s pretty amazing, actually. It’s weird, but I’m kind of looking forward to seeing the whole thing. There’s something about all that mess being tamed, turned into a spreadsheet—”
“Listen to yourself, Bruce. The opposite of compulsive mess isn’t compulsive neatness—it’s general indifference to stuff altogether. I don’t know that this is very healthy.”
I felt an irrational, overarching anger at this, which is usually a sign that she’s right. I battened it down. “Look, if we’re going to divide the estate, we’re going to have to inventory it, and—”
“Wait, what? Who said anything about dividing anything? Bruce, you can keep the money, give it to charity, flush it down the toilet, or spend it on lap dances for all I care. I don’t want it.”
“But half of it is yours—I mean, it could go into Marta’s college fund—”
“If Marta wants to go to college, she can sweat some good grades and apply for a scholarship. I don’t give a damn about university. It’s a big lie anyway—the return on investment just isn’t there.” Whenever Hennie starts talking like a stockbroker, I know she’s looking to change the subject. She can talk economics all day long, and will, if you poke her in a vulnerable spot.
“Okay, okay. I get it. Fine. I won’t talk about it with you if it bugs you. You don’t have to know about it.”
“Come on, Bruce, I don’t mean it that way. You’re my brother. You and Marta and Sweyn”—her husband—“are all the family I’ve got. I just don’t understand why you need to do this. It’s got me worried about you. You know that you had no duty to him, right? You don’t owe him anything.”
“This isn’t about him. It’s about me.” And you, I added to myself. Someday you’ll want to know about this, and you’ll be glad I did it. I didn’t say it, of course. That would have been a serious tactical mistake.
“Whatever you say, Bruce. Meantime, and for the record, Sweyn’s looked up the information for the intestacy trustee. Anytime you want, you can step away from this. They’ll liquidate his estate, put the proceeds into public-spirited projects. You can just step away anytime. Remember that.”
“I’ll remember. I know you want to help me out here, but seriously, this is something I need to do.”
“This is something you think you need to do, Bruce.”
Yeah,” I said. “If that makes you feel better, then I can go with that.”
* * *
I got the impression that Infinite Space was tremendously pleased to have hit on a beta tester who was really ready to put their stuff through its paces. A small army of turkers were bid into work, filling in descriptions and URLs for everything the software couldn’t recognize on its own. At first they’d been afraid that we’d have to go in and rearrange the piles so that the cameras could get a look at the stuff in the middle, but a surprising amount of it could be identified edge on. It turns out books aren’t the only thing with recognizable spines, assuming a big and smart enough database. The Infinites (yes, they called themselves that, and they generated a near-infinite volume of email and weets and statuses for me, which I learned to skim quickly and delete even faster) were concerned at first that it wouldn’t work for my dad’s stuff because so much of their secret sauce was about inferences based on past experience. If the database had previously seen a thousand yoga mats next to folded towels, then the ambiguous thing on top of a yoga mat that might be a fitted sheet and might be a towel was probably a towel.
Dad’s teetering piles were a lot less predictable than that, but as it turned out, there was another way. Since they had the dimensions and structural properties for everything in the database, they were able to model how stable a pile would be if the towels were fitted sheets and vice-versa, and whittle down the ambiguities with physics. The piles were upright, therefore they were composed of things that would be stable if stacked one atop another. The code took very little time to implement and represented a huge improvement on the overall database performance.
“They’re getting their money’s worth out of you, Bruce,” Purnell told me, as we met in his office that week. He had my dad’s ashes, in a cardboard box. I looked at it and mentally sized it up for its regular dimensions, its predictable contents. They don’t put the whole corpseworth of ashes in those boxes. There’s no point. A good amount of ashes are approximately interchangeable with all the ashes, symbolically speaking. The ashes in that box would be of a normalized distribution and weight and composition. They could be predicted with enormous accuracy, just by looking at the box and being told what was inside it. Add a teraherz scan—just to be sure that the box wasn’t filled with lead fishing weights or cotton candy—and the certainty skyrockets.
I hefted the box. “You could have dinged the insurance for a fancy urn,” I said.
He shrugged. “It’s not how I do business. You don’t want a fancy urn. You’re going to scatter his remains. An urn would just be landfill, or worse, something you couldn’t bring yourself to throw away.”
“I can bring myself to throw anything away,” I said, with half a smile. Quipping. Anything to prolong the moment before that predictable box ended up in my charge. In my hands.
He didn’t say anything. Part of the undertaker’s toolkit, I suppose. Tactful silence. He held the box in the ensuing silence, never holding it out to me or even shifting it subtly in my direction. He was good. I’d take it when I was ready. I would never be ready. I took it.
It was lighter than I thought.
* * *
“Hennie, I need to ask you something and you’re not going to like it.”
“It’s about him.”
“Right,” I said. I stared at the ceiling, my eyes boring through the plaster and beams into the upstairs spare room, where I’d left the box, in the exact center of the room, which otherwise held nothing but three deep Ikea storage shelves—they’d render beautifully, was all I could think of when I saw them now—lined with big, divided plastic tubs, each neatly labeled.
“Bruce, I don’t want—”
“I know you don’t. But look, remember when you said I was all the family you had left?”
“You and Mattie and Sweyn.”
“Yes. Well, you’re all I have left, too.”
“You should have thought of that before you got involved. You’ve got no right to drag me into this.”
“I’ve got Dad’s ashes.”
That broke her rhythm. We’d fallen into the bickering cadence we’d perfected during a thousand childhood spats where we’d demanded that Mom adjudicate our disputes. Mom wasn’t around to do that anymore. Besides, she’d always hated doing it and made us feel like little monsters for making her do so. I don’t know that we’d had a fight like that in the seven years since she’d been gone.
“Oh, Bruce,” she said. “God, of course you do. I don’t want them.”
“I don’t want them either. I was thinking I’d, well, scatter them.”
“Where? In his house? Another layer of dust won’t hurt, I suppose.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea. What about by Mom’s grave?”
“Don’t you dare.” The vicious spin on the last word was so intense I fumbled my tablet and had to catch it as it floated toward the floor on an errant warm air current.
“Sorry,” I said.
“He never earned the right to be with Mom. He never earned what you’re giving him. He never earned me sparing a single brain cell for him. He’s not worth the glucose my neurons are consuming.”
“He was sick, Hennie.”
“He did nothing to get better. There are meds. Therapies. When I cleaned out Mom’s place, I found the letters from the therapists she’d set him up with, asking why he never showed up for the intake appointments. He did nothing to earn any of this.”
It dawned on me that Hennie had dealt with all of Mom’s stuff without ever bothering me. Mom had left a will, of course, and set out some bequests for me, and she hadn’t lived in a garbage house. But it must have been a lot of work, and Hennie had never once asked for my help.
“I’m sorry, Hennie, I never should have bothered you. You’re right.”
“Wait, Bruce, it’s okay—”
“No, really. I’ll deal with this. It’s just a box of ashes. It’s just stuff. I can get rid of stuff.”
“Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” I said. I was, too. I folded the tablet up and stuck it in the sofa cushions and stared at the ceiling for a moment longer.
* * *
Somewhere in this house, there is an answer. Was there a moment when the grave robbers of ancient Egyptian pyramids found the plunder before them shimmer and change? Did they stand there, those wreckers with their hammers and shovels and treasure sacks, and gasp as the treasure before them became, for an instant, something naked and human and desperate, the terrified attempt of a dying aristocrat to put the world in a box, to make it behave itself? A moment when they found themselves standing not in a room full of gold and gems, but a room full of disastrous attempts to bring the universe to heel?
Here’s the thing. It turns out that I don’t mind mess at all. What I mind is disorganization. Clutter isn’t clutter once it’s been alphabetized on a hard drive. Once it’s been scanned and cataloged and put it its place, it’s stuff. It’s actionable. With the click of a button, you can list it on eBay, you can order packers and movers to get rid of it, you can search the database for just the thing to solve any problem.
Things are wonderful, really. Things are potential. The right thing at the right moment might save a life, or save the day, or save a friendship. Any of these things might someday be a gift. If times get tight, these things can readily be converted to cash. Honestly, things are really, really fine.
I wish Hennie would believe me. She freaked out when I told her I was moving out of my place into Dad’s. Purnell, too, kept coming over all grief counselor and trying to help me “process” what I was feeling. Neither of them gets it, neither of them understands what I see when I look into the ruin of Dad’s life, smartened up as neat as a precision machine. Minimalism is just a crutch for people who can’t get a handle on their things. In the modern age, things are adaptive. They’re pro-survival.
Really, things are fine.
On dark, stormy nights they would run through the sleeping streets, burning torches in their hands, and no one saw their faces and no one knew their names. And the echoes of the steps of fourteen feet and the flicker of the torches unnerved the slumbering town. And the mighty wind that was blowing, and the streams of rain pouring down could not blow out the torches’ yellow flames. They would swiftly pass through all the narrow, crooked alleys and run across the long bridge, whose iron would bend under the weight of their bodies, and they would stand in front of a small old wooden house and wait. And the low door would slowly open, and a small and hunched little woman would appear in its frame. With a deep bow and without a word, she would let one of the seven come into her quarters. And each day, a different one was called upon. And she would shut the door behind her and the remaining six would blow out their torches, and bow their heads, and wait.
The woman would bring the chosen one into her room, caress him with her burning little body and kiss him, and she would not utter a word and no smile ever passed her lips…
And the rain would trickle into the house through the decrepit roof, washing the two of them, and the wind would burst in and howl through the empty room and make the shutters shudder from outside. And they did not notice a thing…
And when the darkness would disperse and the grey and rainy morning twilight gazed through the windows with surveying eyes, the woman would wake up and take the head of the one who was beside her in both hands… And she would bring her face close to his and look into his eyes, and her mouth would twist with torment and her lips would whisper: “But no, it is not you!” And she would push him away from her, and go to the corner of the room and peer out from there with empty cold eyes, and he would get up and leave the house.
And again all seven would cross the bridge, and crawl like shadows through narrow and crooked alleys, secretly crying and sighing.
And on gloomy days, when the skies were one big block of lead, heavy and dark dreary days, the little woman would wander through the streets of the town. Her back was hunched and her dress was grey and soiled, and the rims of her grey sweater would flutter in the air. Her face was pale and there was no sparkle in her black eyes. She was like a wounded bat that could not find a place for itself. And everyone saw her face and no one knew her name. She would always hurry through the crowds of people and look at the face of every man who crossed her path. And no one graced her with a smile.
And then once the skies were a little higher and the air a little purer and colder. And she ran in the evening across the long bridge leading to her house, and the painted iron mocked and laughed under the steps of her little feet. And the woman suddenly raised her head and saw someone before her, who stood opposite and looked at the waters. He was tall and spruce. A white ferret fur shawl descended from his back, fold after fold. Light blue eyes brightened his young face and silver hairs adorned his cheeks, and a wreath of bluish luminance shimmered on his head. She went to him and looked at his face and he smiled. She took him by the hand and led him to her derelict house. And he, handsome and wonderful, followed her…
And the night was cold, and the first butterflies of snow came down from the skies, quivered in the air and then nestled on the ground. And seven men holding burning torches stood in front of the door of the old house on the other side of the river and waited. But the door did not open and no one came to greet them. And they started banging and banging on the doors and windows and there was no reply. And the wind blew out the flames of their torches, and the cold became greater and greater from hour to hour, and they began to freeze…
And when the darkness dispersed and the fresh morning brightness laughed gaily in the windows, the woman awoke from her sleep. She took the head of the one who was by her side in both hands and put her face close to his and looked into his eyes and her lips whispered: “Why, it is you!” and her cheeks turned rosy and her eyes and hair gleamed all at once and she raised her head and saw that the ceiling above her grew high and her room was glorious and all aglow and her heart was light and she laughed.
And when the townsfolk awoke and left their houses, they all saw with surprise and amazement a wonder on the other side of the river. Seven statues with torches in their hands were guarding its gates. And the ice torches laughed and glistened in the sunlight in thousands of colours.
It was her panting that drew me over. I was exhausted, as the new work regime had been sucking every last drop of life out of us. But my misreading of the situation (what with the cries, groans, and stifled moans) put some life back into me, and I shot over to her like an arrow.
She was alone under a palm tree in front of an abandoned shop and surrounded by her filth. Even though it was pitch dark in the alleyway, a shaft of light coming from a lamp on the main street illuminated her sufficiently for me to see her dust-covered face, its petite muscles drawn taut, and the redness of her eyes as they alternately narrowed and widened in a painful, mechanical sort of way as though, in her loneliness and gloom, she was crying out for pity to the demons of darkness. My gaze slid down to her hands, which she was pressing against a swollen belly beneath threadbare garments. When she saw me, she went quiet all of a sudden, gazing at me with steady eyes, and with a face as cold and expressionless as a mummy from the age of the Pharaohs.
Then, in utter innocence, she said, “Can you deliver the baby…? It’s going to split me in half. I’ll die if you don’t!”
Without thinking I asked, “Why don’t you go to hospital?”
She gave a dark, heavy smile. “I can’t walk, and I don’t have the taxi fare. Besides, I wouldn’t be able to pay the hospital. Everything costs money.”
She let out a faint meow and then passed out, babbling like a drunkard. I didn’t know what to do. All I had with me was five pounds for the bus ride home, and it was ten-thirty—just half an hour before curfew. I was so worn out from sweeping and mopping the cinema, I wouldn’t be able to pick her up and carry her on my back. And even if I did, the hospital wouldn’t admit her. After all, there isn’t a hospital in this country that would treat somebody out of the goodness of its heart.
A voice whispered inside me. I couldn’t tell if it was the voice of an angel or a demon.
“What’s with you?” it said. “Her Lord and Maker can find her a way out. Just take care of yourself now. Curfew’s in half an hour. So, hurry up and catch the last bus. Then come back tomorrow morning, and you’ll find that she gave birth to a big cockroach. It’ll be sitting next to her checking out the world with its antennae and its beady eyes.”
Then I had an idea: to try carrying her to the sidewalk along the main street. A patrol might find her and take her to the cells, then bring her a midwife or a doctor who’s paid by the government.
But before I could do it, the curfew patrol took us both away.
The doctor might have been right in part. She was dirty, filthy even. She reeked of the discharge caused by a sexually transmitted disease, and the stench was piercing, unbearable. So the doctor instructed the cleaning lady to remove her pubic hair with its crabs, foul odor, and rank secretions, wash the area thoroughly with warm water and carbolic soap, and apply Dettol.
Then he went to the sink and vomited up everything in his gut, cursing the day he’d decided to study medicine, gynecology, and obstetrics.
“Help me, please,” the cleaning lady said to me.
“I’m dying,” said the girl.
“Die, then! Die!” the cleaning lady lit into her furiously. “Make it easy on us and on yourself!”
Parting her brown legs, soiled and spotted with sores, the girl fell into a semi-coma, surrendered to the labor pains and the pleasure of travail.
When its front claws appeared—small, white, soft and smooth—the cleaning lady and I were startled, immersed in a dense, phantasmagoric trance that was being imprinted on our consciousness by the reggae music wafting in toward us from the health office next door: The squeaking of rats, the roaring of the sea, the cawing of black crows, the gentle rustling of the towering palm tree outside the window, a sudden clap of thunder, vague chatter filtering through the pores in the walls and the spaces between the beds, pieces of heavy white fabric, bloody cotton pads scattered here and there.
We felt cold all of a sudden as we saw its rectangular head emerge into the room, its tiny black whiskers drenched in sticky, translucent, jelly-like mucus.
The cleaning lady said to me later, “I felt things glowing, as if bright little moons had landed on them.”
I said, “When that happened, I was filled with eerie-sounding, weighty talk that I couldn’t understand. It was choking me up.”
With a final contraction, it popped out, nimble and energetic, as though the strains of the reggae music were giving a rhythm to the flow of blood in its newborn arteries.
In my statements to the Department of Criminal Investigations, I told them that the Qur’anic chants, the cooing of the doves, and the hymns of adoration hadn’t been coming from a specific source, and that we couldn’t possibly claim that any of us would be able to put Time’s standstill to music.
At that moment, the palm tree’s ripened fruit fell, a nightingale sang, and a star that had illuminated the world’s Eastern reaches tumbled to Earth. Opening a pair of bright black eyes, it shook the mucous off itself in a series of violent jerks. Then, as others can attest, it barked and leapt through the window onto the sidewalk outside.
Years ago, Aunt Renata squeezed a picture into my hand when my mother wasn’t looking. Aunt Renata wasn’t really my aunt, but rather someone to whom my mother had clung like a sister, like blood.
In the picture, my mother is thin but she is wearing a pale belted dress with a flared skirt and she is smiling. That is, her mouth is smiling. Her eyes are unreadable, her cheeks taut. There is a tree just behind her and the smallest hint of a fence. I have studied the picture a thousand times trying to figure out whether this was in one of the camps. The dress belies that possibility but still the fence looks menacing, cage-like and my mother’s expression is strained and odd. On the back of the picture, in German, and in a masculine script, it says only “Spring.” Aunt Renata said she had found the picture when they were liberated from the camp. She won’t tell me anything else.
My mother was a beautiful woman. Even now it’s obvious—her bearing still regal, her cheekbones high and proud. She never talks about her experiences and her silence walks the house like the ghosts that accompany her. She was 17 and had snuck out in search of food when the Gestapo came to collect her family. She was caught a few days later and shipped from Prague to the first of several camps. That’s all I know, and I don’t even think she was the one to tell me.
There is so much I have wanted to ask her but she’s never offered up anything but silence. The next part of her story is a void, a portal between dimensions that I dare not enter. Her words, when she speaks, are carefully chosen. I watch her move around the house like a spy in her own life, surprised to have found herself capable of holding a baby, of pulling weeds, her skin glowing, alive.
Throughout my childhood I waited for death to claim her. As if I didn’t dare believe her stay of execution, surprised again and again to find her moving about the kitchen in the morning, preparing her strong coffee then settling into her favorite chair by the window, not a figment of my imagination, not a dream I had dreamt.
In school, when I would perform in the annual play, I would peer out from between the curtains to make sure she was really there. But there she would be, sitting quietly in one of the front rows amid the chatty American-born mothers with whom she had nothing in common, the long sleeves of her simple but elegant dress hiding the number on her arm. I would see her looking around, as if she were once again wondering whether she had done the right thing by putting me in this Jewish school with its fortress-like walls, its windowless brick.
Alongside her would be a sprinkling of fathers who had rushed home early from work or rearranged their schedules to join their wives at the plays. I knew little about my own father except that my mother had met him in one of the DP camps, then lost track of him. A decade later they remet and were briefly married but he’d died when I was just a baby, ultimately succumbing to the ravage that had been done to his organs in Birkenau. Growing up, I couldn’t imagine what it might be like to have a father. My mother and I were plant and soil. We were a greenhouse, hermetically sealed. But lately, she seems to me paler, thinner. As if the reserve she had all those years, the strength with which she raised me and urged me far from the dark banks of her memories—as if that were finally dwindling.
Last week, when I entered her apartment unannounced, I caught her staring, unblinking, out the front window as if it held a view other than of a New York City street, as if her memories, rather than receding, were coming finally to greet her. It took all I had at that moment to hold back from asking her, When will you tell me?
It was a few days after that visit that some of my own memories came flooding in to haunt me. On my way home from work, I had slipped into my favorite bookstore with the idea of treating myself to a new novel. But once in the store, I found myself stopping instead in front of a dark wooden bookcase entitled World War II where a book I’d avoided about the children of survivors stared out at me. I pulled the thin book off the shelf, took a deep breath, and opened it in the middle.
I don’t know how long I stood there reading. I just remember at various junctures wanting to stop, but not being able to. It was as if someone had found all of the secrets of my childhood. All the quirks and odd behaviors, the ghosts and the inhabited silence. I was reading a section describing the different paths that survivors had taken with regard to their religious beliefs, either complete renunciation or complete acceptance, with a few sustaining a complicated and ambivalent relationship with both. I thought about the Jewish school my mother had put me in, but then otherwise seemed to want to avoid, and then about her relief when I asked to leave it and disappeared, indistinguishable from the others, into a vast public school. She never censored me or criticized as I transferred from school to school, from persona to persona. As if she thought—of course—how could it be otherwise?
What she did for me was hold the course. Grab onto her life and steady it as much as she could, let me know that at any moment, I had a place to land, and if necessary, to hide.
I looked up for a moment to check the time on the old brass clock that hung high above the bookshelves. And that’s when I saw him. Older, his face thinner and lightly lined but lit by the same shock of wavy blond hair. There was no question that it was he. His name was Jurgen and on that strange
and disturbing night on which we had met twenty years earlier,
he had just arrived to New York from Berlin. That night, I had learned little else about him. I was about to stop him and say hello when he continued past me down the non-fiction aisle, then turned out of sight.
He doesn’t know me, I thought. He doesn’t remember. And it all came back to me, as if all those years hadn’t passed, as if just the night before I’d rested my head on his shoulder, felt his arm around my waist, his cheek a breath from mine.
He didn’t know into what he had wandered that Saturday night, in the East Village, any more than my friends and I knew yet who we really were, what we were hiding. He had just flown in to begin his graduate degree in philosophy at Yale and someone had brought him, oblivious to what would take place. A party was a party. We were young, and we thought, very chic. Globe hoppers. Citizens of the world. We flirted with the edge. Offered ourselves to whatever abyss we could conjure. None of us had figured out yet that all of our parents had survived the camps. We’d simply met our last year at NYU and congealed like a tribe of abandoned children. We didn’t know and didn’t yet wonder what we were looking for in all the clubs and parties we sought at that time, in the excesses of alcohol and whatever fashionable drug lined the bathroom sink like a ritual offering.
This particular party was hosted by Zuna something, I can’t remember her last name, only that her parents were presumably diplomats living in London, and that she had piled her hair high on her head and secured it there with little cocktail forks. Someone in our group had met her at an art opening and had brought us along like extended family.
The party was in Zuna’s East Village apartment in which walls had been broken down to create a loft. Here and there a private space was carved out by a piece of dark cloth, or by curtains made of long strips of eight-millimeter film.
We arrived like the refugees we were into this dark room. Like speakers of an underground language, we had learned to find our way to the drugs that inevitably were served up at these evenings. One by one we went into the bathroom where a friend of Zuna’s was offering opium from tiny bits of foil.
When I came out, someone had turned off the raucous punk music and put on a waltz. As a joke I’m sure, but suddenly the large and shadowed loft, with its brooding ceiling murals, seemed like a large chandeliered hall. Some couples stood up laughing and struck poses of affected elegance. It was quite a sight—at least 80 people, most in different shades of black, some ears sporting skeletons, crossbones, some heads shaved, all dancing as if at a grand ball in Vienna.
I was watching Varda—the only other woman in our group—dance with Isaac, her glittering scarf, her long black dress, her dark hair flying like a gypsy’s after her. It was then
that I felt Jurgen’s hand on my arm. Tall and blond, with a
sweet smile, he didn’t say anything, just led me to the floor,
wrapped his arm around my waist and began initiating me into the trance of the waltz. He was a superb dancer and if I didn’t think about what my legs were doing, it felt effortless.
The room began to spin. One two three. One two three. He pulled me closer until we were flying as one body. It took a while before I looked up from that whirling, hypnotic dance and realized that my friends had all stopped dancing. From different corners of the room, they stood watching us, voyeurs to their own deepest horror and desire. And I understood from their expressions that the sight of us was somehow both thrilling and disturbing. The Ubermensch extending his arm to the Jewess. I knew then that I held all of their expectations, unarticulated, unimagined, all of their hopes that I would continue to rise to the occasion, that I would dance at least as gracefully as he, that somehow I might even introduce some new element, redeeming, transcendent. And I was thinking this when all of a sudden Jurgen somehow missed a beat and, still following the rhythm, I tripped over his foot and fell on my side.
“I’m so sorry. Are you okay?” Jurgen crouched down beside me. But as he did, I could suddenly feel the rage in the room and had I been able to, I would have pushed Jurgen away as Isaac rushed toward us, pulled him to his feet and away from me, then punched him in the face. Then, within seconds, as if some signal had been sent out, the rest of our group moved in on him. Before Jurgen could recover, his stunned hand just beginning to move to his cheek, they surrounded him and lifted him into the air, Rafa and Nano grabbing his legs, Isaac and Uri supporting the weight of his shoulders and back.
“Bastard,” they hissed as they carried him toward one of the loft’s large windows. “Son of a bitch.”
“What are you doing?” he yelled, as they held down his struggling arms, grabbed someone’s scarf off the coat hook and tied it around his kicking feet. They hoisted him head first out the window, holding him by his bound feet and dangling him over the pavement six floors below.
And Jurgen hung over East 6th Street like a sacrifice. Like everything that had never been said. Like the demons unmentioned, alongside which we had all been raised. In the closets that were sealed and stuck, the long dim hallways of the apartment buildings that collected every nation’s misery, the hallways in which we’d grown up. Even when we had moved to the suburbs, our cars full, our windows down, shadows followed us. Trap doors. Hatches. There were more lamps in my house than in any house I have ever known. Lights were left burning. Flowers planted in every inch of soil.
Some people on the edge of the crowd saw what was happening and stopped dancing. Zuna and I started yelling at Isaac and at the others. We rushed to the window, leaned out on either side of Jurgen, offering him our arms. He grabbed my arm with one hand then Zuna’s and we pulled him as hard as we could toward us.
“Untie his legs,” I yelled at Nano as we pulled him fully inside. Jurgen brushed himself off and left quickly, slamming the door. The moment was over. If there was shame, no one rose to claim it. Someone quickly changed the music. Isaac, Uri, Rafa and Nano retreated to a corner. When the crowd had thinned out, the rest of us collapsed exhausted in various corners of the large room. Zuna threw blankets over us and I remember wondering, before I fell asleep, why we had never realized it, why we had never talked about what it was that joined us. I remembered the thick darkness of Isaac’s mother’s house when we’d all visited once, Nano’s father who worked three jobs and who never met our eyes, about whom I was later to hear the whispered accusation, “Kapo.”
The next morning, I went to see my mother. There were no words to describe what had happened, not the events themselves, but rather that I had known then, in a new way, what was at the core of my being, what I needed to grapple with.
My mother didn’t hear me come in. She was cutting vegetables on the large marble counter in her kitchen, listening to her favorite classical music station. Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27 concluded and then the radio show host introduced the famous Strauss waltz—Voices of Spring. As the music began to play, my mother froze where she stood and the color drained from her face. She stared blankly at a corner of the room until I coughed and she looked up. Slowly her eyes began to register the present moment and her arms, trembling slightly, opened wide to greet me. She held me tightly to her, then released me.
“Coffee?” she asked.
She reached for two of her best ceramic mugs. Ground some beans. This was how it had always been. The small rituals that held us. But I could no longer keep my part of the bargain.
Her back was to me as she poured boiling water into the French press. The knotted bun that held her hair was almost all white now. A brilliant white pierced by a red lacquered hair stick.
“Mom, what happened?”
She turned to look at me, holding the carafe. “What do you mean?”
“During the war, what happened?”
For a second her eyes held mine, then she turned from me.
The carafe shook in her hands, the coffee sloshing up the sides. She set it down. When she turned back to look at me, she was livid.
“Why are you doing this?”
“I’m not—I just—are you ever going to tell me?”
She turned, giving me her back and just stood there. “There’s nothing to tell,” she said, and left the room.
How much time is left?
Is it fair of me to want to know what she lived through?
I am beginning to lose faith that she will be able to tell me. Still I wait. I tiptoe around the fortress of her silence, waiting to glimpse even the slightest easing. She obviously knows now what I need. But ultimately, the choice is hers. Only she can be the gatekeeper of her memory.
Meanwhile, I have begun to construct tales. I hang them next to one another like the panels of a triptych, try them in this, then that array. I move them, shift them, look at them in the light of different days. When I’ve come close, I tell myself, when I’ve captured some of the true essence of her story, I will know.
In one of these stories, which hangs alone, without a frame, without beginning or end, my mother is being waltzed around a small room. The man she is dancing with has removed his jacket and draped it over a chair, its insignias and swastika for the moment unseen. He clutches the waist of the pale dress he has her put on for these occasions.
One two three. One two three. She follows the man’s step carefully, trying not to think beyond this dance. Instead, she tries to imagine that beneath her hand is not a stiff brown fabric, but instead a jacket of linen and silk. That Strauss’s Voices of Spring is not locked inside this small room, but is reaching up into the cathedral ceiling of a vast and brilliantly lit hall. That beyond this room is not barbed wire but the glistening streets of a city. One two three, one two three. Her body continues to obey the rhythm but she suddenly knows what it is that will redeem her. For a moment her cheek goes soft, her eyes blaze with light as she reaches several decades forward to touch me, as she dreams me into being.
*Licensed from The University of North Texas Press. Copyright 2018 by Tehila Lieberman from Venus in the Afternoon
I don’t think we did go blind, I think we are blind, blind but seeing, blind people who can see, but do not see.
Saeed, drunk, opened the door. The rabbit hopped inside. The kicking started. Both were yelling.
“What are you doing here? It’s my place.” With that Saeed was violently booted out of the broken-down electric fridge…
This country has a specially powerful and high-voltage electricity supply. When you try to turn off the light the switches don’t work. Electricity, like air, is compulsory. An electric sun blazes night and day; there’s no such thing as a dim light. Lots of equipment is broken because there’s no way to repair it. Repairs mean turning something off, so the repairman doesn’t get an electric shock.
Buildings, houses, and hospitals take measures to make the light less bright when needed. To lower the lighting, hospitals put cardboard boxes painted black over light bulbs and nail them to the wall. In people’s homes, incandescent bulbs are covered with pieces of thick canvas or coarse black cloth, which put up the price of coarse black cloth.
Saeed was aggrieved at being kicked out of his house. He squatted on the ground slapping his right thigh.
It was me who cleaned up the house when that damn cat was sleeping in it. I kicked her out. My friend Sameer helped. He gave me some cleaning products and told me I had to clean the place up. I don’t understand how that blasted Qassim could steal my house so cynically. I’ll complain to the police. It’s my right, people, my right.
Qassim was my friend until a few days ago. What made him renege on our friendship? Where am I going to find another fridge on such a cold night? What have I done to deserve all this?
The rabbit of the pavements started wailing and sobbing. He tried to pull his faded dishdasha tight around his body to block the holes. He wiped away his tears and, suddenly, as if he had remembered something, he rubbed the tattoo on his right arm. A surge of long-lost warmth lit up his tears.
He crossed to the pavement opposite, to the café whose owner had forgotten to turn off the radio. The newsreader announced: “Parliament is due to vote tomorrow on the decision to allocate residential plots to government officials.” Saeed collected a few plastic bags strewn nearby. He gathered them into a ball, put it down as a pillow, and lay on the ground. He gave a sigh, relaxed, and dozed off. The sound of his shivering bones mixed with his snores. He laughed and guffawed in his sleep. Perhaps he was dreaming?
The crowds were getting ready to plant the seeds of their dreams on the journey ahead. Samar raced behind the beautiful rabbits. One of them disappeared into its burrow. The little girl cried as she waited for it to emerge. She lowered her head and peered into the rabbit hole between the trees in an effort to find it. One of her four rabbits was missing.
Seagulls flapped over the Tigris. The bridge opened its gates to a crowd of thousands: tender heads whose time for reaping had not yet come and heads heavy with worry and sorrows. O God, O Helper, O Champion of the downtrodden, grant us, the poor and deprived, our desire. Iman pulled up her dusty, old abaya and pushed the children, Ahlam, Omar, Mohammed, Zayd, and Ali in front of her: “Hold on to me, kids. The Lord calls, and we have to obey. Bab al-Hawaij, the one who grants, refuses no one.” The children move with the crowds towards the roadway.
Saeed woke in the morning. He roamed around Mutanabbi Street. Everybody was his friend, but he had no friends. Sameer, who worked in one of the bookshops, took pity on him and gave him a cup of tea and a piece of bread.
“I swear by the Tigris and the Euphrates – I don’t distinguish between them – Qassim robbed me while I was sleeping. I had some money and when I woke up it was gone. That wretch Qassim who stole my home.”
“Saeed, calm down. It’s Friday today. The day you make money. God will compensate you. We’ll find you somewhere else. Guess what? Yesterday a friend left you a new dishdasha and some food. You have to come with me and take a shower and put on your dishdasha.”
“Today’s a work day. If I wear a new dishdasha I won’t make any money. You’re my friend and I like you because you’re kind and don’t steal.” He was silent for a while then continued, “Listen, yesterday I went fishing with a friend. Whenever he lifted his line he’d catch a big fat fish, but always threw it back in the river. Whenever I lifted mine, I’d hook some weeds or Qassim al-Tanbouri’s torn-up shoe. I asked him why he was throwing the fish back. He said he only had a small pan for cooking fish and wanted one that fit.”
“Listen. I’ve got good news for you. They gave me 9 million dinars and I repaired my house after it fell down. But government officials ignore me and travel to Egypt or Syria or I don’t know where. They’re always travelling and dropping my case. Even though all the papers are in order I still owe them 3 million dinars!”
“You’re talking nonsense, Saeed. What strange things you’re coming up with today.”
“If you add jam, it becomes really delicious. Should I buy you some? Give me the money then, I don’t have any.”
Saeed moved off to perform his daily rituals. He started with the Tigris. He raised his hands, recited the Fatiha, cupped his right hand and filled it with water. He brought the water to his nose, kissed it, then tried to put it back. He touched the tattoo on his upper arm. He turned around and was annoyed as they passed. All he could do was shout in English, “Why you inside? Come here so I can have a souvenir photo with you.”
He leapt into the midst of the people with white skin and blue eyes and the few dark-skinned ones with them. They smiled warily at him, and he called out to Sameer, “Come here for God’s sake. Take a picture for me with your camera.”
Smiling, Sameer did what he was asked. Saeed, however, intended to hang the picture in the toilet after spitting all over it.
At last, Samar’s rabbit came out of its hole to play with his friends. The rabbit of Mutanabbi Street disappeared. Nobody knew exactly where to find him. He might be sitting in some corner drinking alcohol and weeping over his old love.
Iman, don’t forget to pray for me. Perhaps God will guide me to give up drinking. Perhaps Kadouri, the shop owner, will raise my day’s wages rather then threatening to get rid of me. Perhaps God will provide me some other work, better than that blasted Kadouri. You know I’m a great metal worker, but for the drink. I love drinking Iman, like I love you, a lot. Watch out for the children, and pray for me there. Ask for your wish. Go in through Bab al-Hawaij and tie this green ribbon onto the window lattice. Don’t forget. Let all our needs be known there. Believe me, the Imam Musa bin Jaafar really loves me. I feel he will intercede for me this time. Trust me. He knows I’ve never robbed anyone and that I love him a lot. God be with you now.”
The convoy of a well-known security official was passing and Saeed turned up. The official got out of his car and was immediately followed by a great many police officers. They crossed Mutanabbi Street towards the river. When they got closer, the rabbit ran quickly behind them repeating in a loud voice:
Long life! for I died after you
Spurn me as long as you wish
What remained of love in my heart
Went out forever with you.”
He closed his eyes and waved his hands, totally immersed in his singing. Some of the officers tried to block his path and prevent him walking behind them, but one of them said to another, “Leave him be. He’s just a beggar.” Saeed heard them: “Shut up. You shut up, not a word.” The officer ignored him, and he carried on singing.
“I fell in love with a girl thirty years ago, a beautiful Indian-looking girl from Basra. She was called Suheir Mohammed. I spotted her working at a ladies’ hairdressers and spent two and a half hours every day waiting for her to come out of her workplace just so I could watch her from afar. Then I confessed my love to her and we were in a relationship for a year and a half without me touching her. I swear by God Almighty, I didn’t touch her. She did once go with me to Zawraa Park, and I brought her kibbeh, but her family forced her to marry her cousin. Time has made today’s love stories horrible because men have become love fiends. They’re randy donkeys.”
That’s what Saeed told me. He gave off alcohol fumes, swaying so much he could hardly walk. He was quiet for a little then continued as if far away, “But Iman…”
His eyes filled with tears and his voice choked off. He looked away and vanished.
On Fridays, pilgrims head to Mutanabbi Street, casting stones at the Devil in their various ways. All the roads were blocked, because it was also time for pilgrims to head to the bridge that leads to Bab al-Hawaij. When the tunic of Uthman took the road to Mecca, the road to God, it started in Baghdad. Uthman’s tunic was also stoning the Devil.
What are you talking about? What Friday? What road? What bridge? It’s all out of context. Uthman was martyred millennia ago. Absolutely not, Uthman was martyred a few years ago! No! Uthman was a boy in first grade at the Tigris Primary School! Sameer is crying on the banks of the Tigris: You’re not Naathal, Uthman. You’re the shining star of Iraq floating on the river.
The rabbits preened their fur after the little girl had washed them with the finest shampoos and dressed them in coloured ribbons with coloured stones and a blue bead in the middle. When one of the rabbits bit a large carrot the little girl clapped in delight.
“Mama, please tell me what do constitution and demonstration mean? Why are people going out into the streets everywhere and holding up signs? I saw it on TV yesterday.”
“Oh darling, the people are demanding their right to a decent life in which they can have food, medicine, and security.”
The little girl Samar got lost in deep thoughts…
Sameer went with Saeed to get him cleaned up and put on his new dishdasha. Saeed refused to have his long hair cut.
“Kebab. Kebab. Today I won’t scrabble in the rubbish. I’m going to have kebab, just like a VIP.”
While he was eating, scalding water suddenly poured down on him. He screamed as terrific heat surged through his entire body. His lower limbs seemed to boil. The rabbit fell to the ground yelling and screaming, “Sons of bitches! Ow! Ow!”
His new dishdasha was torn. The food was spilled. The skin was stripped from his body, like a sheep being flayed. The rabbit’s pelt was all burned. Blood spurted. A large empty bucket lay there.
The little girl Samar clapped. Her rabbits had finally crossed the path she had drawn for them. She called it the bridge and they crossed it with ease.
Devotees scrambled to jump into the Tigris. A rumour had spread: a suicide bomber in the crowd. Panic ensued. New openings for longings were announced in the depths of the Tigris. Prayers drowned in the stampede before they reached their intended path. Clothes floated. The Tigris was dressed in black abayas. Shoes were scattered. Many cried out for help from the midst of the river: “Uthman, Uthman, save us, Uthman!”
Uthman jumped, followed by his friends. Shout clung to shout; abaya clung to abaya, until the weight became too much for Uthman. The rocks dragged him down. Was he chasing away the blackness? Did he want the surface of the Tigris to be pure white?
Iman and her little ones and thousands of others slept cared for by the shark of needs, until at last the surface of the Tigris became white with Uthman’s tunic. Sameer beat his chest and shouted, “Our agony… for the past thousand years, Uthman’s tunic has been floating on the Tigris.
“If I knew who burned me I’d burn down his house. What do they want from me? Do I own a royal palace? If they’d asked I’d have given them the dishdasha as a present rather than all that!”
Saeed was crying in pain. Sameer handed him ointments and medicine. Al-Jawahiri turned in his grave and emerged, pointing his finger at the Tigris: “O apoplexy of death, O tempestuous storm, O dagger of betrayal, O olive branch.”
The forensic department in Baghdad answered al-Jawahiri’s call, declaring days of mourning and opening refrigerated burrows for the rabbits that had drowned in the Tigris and the rabbits yet to be born, so that they could go home without kicking. Saeed continued to guffaw in his sleep despite his burns.
Samar tugged at the hem of her mother’s robe. “Mama, come and look at the rabbits, please come!”
Her mother moved towards the garden saying, “You are making a lot of demands these days, my dear.” She was taken aback to see the rabbits running in the garden. On their backs were pieces of paper tied on with coloured ribbons. Her mouth opened in shock and disbelief. She went closer to the rabbits and read the slogans scrawled on the pieces of paper:
— I want a big carrot
— I want a bunny to play with
— I want a bed to sleep in
— I love Samar a lot
Her mother burst out laughing. “What’s all this, Samar? A rabbit demonstration?” Then she clapped her hands together and said, “God preserve us. We have to get rid of these rabbits before you go mad. They’re all you ever think about.” Meanwhile the little girl was shouting …
Spring Will Come
I hate the world and I don’t want anyone to hate the world. Life is beautiful. Spring will come to Iraq, despite the autumn. He raised his palm towards the river and called, “Abu Ahmad, Abu Ahmad. Watch out, your boat is crowded with people. Take care, there are children on board.”
He touched his arm and smiled sadly to someone far away. He rolled up his ragged sleeve for me to look at the tattoo: a large heart with the names Iman, Zayd, Omar, Ahlam, Mohammed, and Ali written inside it.
Saeed left me and headed to the middle of Mutanabbi Street shouting, “I want a pillow! I’ve decided today I’m going to sleep on a pillow. I won’t sleep on the pavement. I want a pillow! I want a pillow!”
He laughed loudly when someone handed him a pillow. He threw it on the pavement, lay down, and put his head on it. He started to laugh and cry. “Life doesn’t deserve respect,” he said. “Only love.” He closed his eyes. He closed his eyes for ever.
Samar’s rabbits are still demonstrating in the garden, but this time they carry signs reading: “No relocation.”
 Bab al-Hawaij, literally the Gate of Needs, refers to the mausoleum of Musa ibn Jaafar al-Kadhim, the seventh Shia imam. Pilgrims visit to petition the Imam. His mausoleum is accessed by the Bridge of the Imams across the Tigris. In 2005, a stampede on the crowded bridge resulted in around 1,000 deaths.
 Abu al-Qassim al-Tanburi was a rich and miserly Baghdadi merchant who continually patched his shoes rather than buy a new pair. These shoes caused him much misery, imprisonment, and impoverishment. He finally had a legal document drawn up to exonerate him from any of the crimes committed by his shoes. For a version of the tale, see: http://www.knightsofarabia.com/arabian/001/arabian00009.html.
 Uthman’s tunic was the blood-stained shirt in which the third Caliph of Islam, Uthman ibn Affan, was murdered. The tunic was subsequently used by Mu’awiya to incite the people against Ali, whom he accused of being behind Uthman’s death.
 Naathal was a Jewish man who lived in Medina and who resembled Uthman. Uthman’s enemies called him Naathal to mock him and encourage people to kill him.
Ginny stood on the counter of the diner decorated in tinfoil. She’s my wife, if you want to call her that, which I do. She’d made bracelets and earrings and a fake-fancy necklace by folding and shaping tiny glinting pieces. She even made a tinfoil tiara, perched on her red wig from the chemo clinic. Ginny clasped a ketchup bottle to her chest. “I really didn’t expect to win,” she gushed. “It’s such an honor to even be nominated. I have so many people to thank.”
“Get your skinny ass down from there and get back to work,” Joe said. He was standing over the flattop cooking us all some eggs. “Deb, get your honey’s skinny ass down from there before she breaks a leg,” he said to me.
I didn’t care about getting Ginny’s skinny ass down from there. She looked too damn pretty being all silly and shiny, like she used to be before she got sick. Her only customer at her only table was laughing his ass off anyway, and everyone else was home watching the Oscars. It didn’t matter if you lived six hundred miles from Hollywood. People still acted like all that business mattered.
“And really,” Ginny said. “There’s someone who deserves this award more than me, and that’s my high school drama teacher, Mrs. Futtlebutt. Mrs. Futtlebutt, will you please join me on stage?” She extended a hand down to me with a dopey look in her eyes.
“Oh my,” I said, clutching my throat. “What an honor.” I grabbed the edge of the counter to steady myself, then crawled up next to Ginny’s tennis shoes. The Formica was hard on my knees and my knees were hard on me, so I pushed myself the rest of the way up fast. Nobody could accuse me of being young and graceful, that’s for damn sure.
Ginny handed me the ketchup bottle. “Mrs. Futtlebutt, this is for you.” She placed the tinfoil tiara on my head.
“You sure are a couple of silly broads.” Joe stood there holding plates of fried eggs and hash browns. “Now get down before your dinner gets cold.”
We helped each other down. Ginny wiped off the counter with a rag, just like she did a dozen times a day, and we slid into a booth with Joe. I put Tabasco and ketchup on my eggs, but Ginny ate hers plain. That’s about all her stomach could handle these days.
When the phone rang, Ginny got up to answer it. “Eureka Diner, Home of the World’s Best Eggs, Crafted by Joe the Master Chef. How can I assist you this evening?”
“Wish she’d stop answering like that,” Joe said through a mouth of hash browns. I knew he didn’t really mean it—there’s just no way anybody could.
Ginny screamed. Not in a scary way, but more like she was at a Beatles concert. “No, really?” she said into the phone. “When? For how long? . . . Oh, I can’t wait! I love you!”
“Got competition, Deb?” Joe elbowed me in the ribs.
“Ha, ha.” There was only one other person Ginny said I love you to: her daughter.
Ginny slid back into the booth. “You’ll never guess what?”
“Christy coming to visit?” I said into my runny yolks.
“Yes! Tomorrow. She’s driving up first thing in the morning.”
Christy used to come stay with us for a week in April and another at Christmas and for six long ones in the summer. That was before she turned eighteen, when she still had to do what the custody agreement said. Too bad that agreement said nothing about looking me in the eyes, or saying anything more than “Let me talk to my mom” when she called, which wasn’t real often. Not since Ginny got sick. Not since I was left to handle it all.
After Ginny’s shift was done, we went straight home. We brushed our teeth side by side, taking turns spitting in the sink and passing the water cup to rinse. The sink was only a couple feet from the toilet which was only a couple feet from the bathtub— everything was only a couple feet from each other—but we knew how to make it work. We’d even figured it out with Ginny kneeling in front of the toilet and no room for me behind her. I could sit in the bathtub and reach one hand over to Ginny’s back to try and cool it off.
We got in bed under the wedding quilt my brother Keith gave us. Ginny curled onto her side, and I curved around her back. I put my hand on Ginny’s stomach. I didn’t rub, because that could be too much for her sometimes. But she liked a little pressure there. A little warmth.
“You should sleep in tomorrow,” I said. She didn’t have to be at work until eleven—Joe was real good about letting her work short shifts.
“I might go in early,” she said. “See if I can catch part of breakfast and pick up some extra tips.”
Maybe it seemed like Ginny should save her energy, but it was so good when she got it that she used it right up. I didn’t blame her. The energy surged in waves, and when a pretty one came along, she just had to jump on and ride it to the shore.
Ginny turned toward me, leaving a space just big enough for her to lay a hand on one of my breasts. She traced my nipple with her fingers, traced it like you run a finger through soft sand. That might have been all, just Ginny tracing my nipple because she often wasn’t up for much more, but my nipple got hard and I felt myself going warm and wet. I ran my hand from Ginny’s ass up to her head. Ginny moaned when I got to her smooth scalp. It turned out there were lots of nerve endings up there, and it felt good to Ginny in a way neither of us had known about before the chemo. Even though Ginny was in remission and her hair could grow back, she kept on shaving her head and wearing that silly wig.
Ginny slid her hand off my breast and travelled down to my stomach, and when her hand was there, on my stomach, I hoped that my healthy insides would soak into Ginny’s palm and make their way back inside of her. Even though some of her stomach had got cut out, I figured there was still a way for her to be whole. Her hand kept sliding down and between, and then it was less about Ginny’s hand and more about her fingers.
She’d caught a pretty wave and we were going to ride it to the shore.
I once saw a movie about three girls who were maids at a resort. They’d go into a room together and talk about boys and surfing while they stripped beds and folded towels and wiped down sinks. But I worked alone at the motel, pushing my cart from room to room.
I knocked on a first-floor door. “Housekeeping,” I said, even though there was probably no one to hear. Most people only slept in Eureka for one night on their way to or from the Redwoods. By the time I got to a room, the sheets were heaped and the towels were damp, the trash nothing more than a strand of dental floss or a dirty Band-Aid.
The inside of the room looked like a ghost town, with pages of the Times-Standard scattered over the floor. A pink lipstick stain rimmed a plastic cup next to the bed. I went about changing sheets and scrubbing the toilet and vacuuming the floor. It was the kind of job you didn’t need to think much for, which was good last fall. I’d been too worried that the surgery didn’t get all of Ginny’s tumor and that the chemo might not get the rest. Maybe a job that didn’t keep me on my middle-aged feet all day would have been nice, but at least it forced me upright. Made me move.
A shiny gum wrapper in the trash made me think of Ginny standing on the counter the night before. She used to be silly like that all the time. Her husband sometimes left her in charge of the market in Fresno while he ran to the bank or a meeting. As soon as he left, Ginny’d take over the P.A. system. “Knock, knock?” she’d say to the entire store.
“Who’s there?” I’d yell from the floor.
“Interrupting sheep,” she’d say.
At least once a week Ginny brought in food for the employees, Rice Krispies squares or chocolate pretzels or pumpkin-shaped cookies. She didn’t mind pitching in, either. Once a customer spilled a bag of rice on Aisle 6, and a kid threw up on Aisle 4. Ginny rolled a bucket and mop out to 4, and didn’t complain one bit while I swept up rice two aisles away.
After work, I stopped by the diner to see if Ginny wanted anything special from the store. She had a couple of tables, so I sat at the counter with a bowl of clam chowder. There wasn’t much lying around the kitchen that morning, so all I had for lunch was a hard- boiled egg, some saltines, and two slices of American cheese. I devoured the soup, not even chewing the bits of clam.
Three pencils stuck out from the curls of Ginny’s red wig. The hospital had wigs people donated after their hair grew back or after they were gone. One day I came home to find Ginny lying on the couch with one hand on her belly, and this red bouffant wig on her head. “Joe’s not gonna like it,” I told her. “Well, then he can just kiss my grits,” she said. Turned out that Joe got a kick out of the wig, and took to calling her Flo and fake-yelling that she was a silly broad.
Ginny wiped her hands on her apron and leaned toward me. “More coffee, babe?”
I shook my head. “Anything you want from the store?” What sounded good to Ginny changed from day to day, and there were some days when nothing did.
“Vanilla ice cream,” Ginny said. “With little brown specks in it. And noodles. And peas.”
I wrote it down on a piece of paper so I wouldn’t forget. Anymore, it seemed if I didn’t write something down, there wasn’t much chance of me remembering.
“Holy shit!” Ginny said, and went for the door. Standing outside the front window was Christy, wearing jeans and a bright blue UCLA T-shirt. Her hair streamed long and blond down her back, like Ginny’s used to.
Ginny started screaming—I could hear that from inside—and jumping up and down. She hugged Christy and it was hard to tell if Christy hugged back, because Ginny had pretty much pinned her arms.
“That’s Gin’s girl, huh?” Joe squinted toward the window.
“That’s her,” I said.
“She looks older.”
“Don’t we all.” Not that Christy cared about how old I looked or felt. I was pretty sure that girl didn’t care one bit how hard I’d had it, working full time and driving Ginny to the clinic, cooking and cleaning and wondering if there’d ever be fun again.
Ginny unpinned Christy and waved, then pointed to Christy like I might have missed the whole thing otherwise. It had been quite a while since I’d seen Ginny smile so wide for so long.
I cooked up noodles for dinner, with butter and peas, and figured we’d have vanilla bean ice cream for dessert. Christy took one bite of the noodles and said, “Kinda bland.”
“Spices are next to the stove.” Ginny pointed.
Christy walked to the drawer, which was only about an arm’s length from the table. Before she’d tasted the noodles, I’d asked what classes she was taking, so Christy went right on about that. “Mostly, I’m knocking out core classes,” she said, sprinkling on garlic salt. “But I’ve got this cool psych class on Theories of Cognition and Abnormal Behavior.”
“That’s quite a mouthful,” I said.
“Cognition means the way people think about things.” Christy stirred her noodles and sat back down. “And abnormal means—”
“I know what abnormal means.” I’d taken a smattering of classes at Fresno Community College when I was Christy’s age. Before it got to be too much, studying, working, paying the rent.
“You still a maid at that motel?” Christy asked. She had the same blue eyes as her mom, but they sure didn’t see people the same way. “It sounds gross. Cleaning other people’s toilets.”
“There’s much harder things than that,” I said. That girl had never cleaned up after anyone a day in her life. She’d certainly never had to wipe up puke or mop up diarrhea that wouldn’t go away.
“It sounds fun,” Ginny said. “Learning about so many different things.” She hadn’t touched her noodles, but I didn’t know if that was about the excitement of Christy being there, or more about her stomach.
“So, what’s with the wig?” Christy asked through a full mouth.
“It’s kind of fun, don’t you think?” Ginny pushed and primped her curls like she was Rita Hayworth fussing to go on stage. She didn’t normally wear the wig at home, at the dinner table. She usually wore a hat or a scarf or nothing at all, and when she wore nothing at all I would reach over and run a hand across her smooth head.
“It’s weird,” Christy said. “You can do better.”
“So, what are you doing here?” I asked.
“Came to see my mom.”
“Well, it’s spring bre—”
“No, why now?” I clanked down my fork. “Why now, when she’s all finished with the surgery and the chemo, why are you coming to see her now, and you didn’t then?”
“Deb,” Ginny reached over to touch my hand, but all she got was a fist. “She was just starting college. I didn’t want her to get distracted.”
“That was your decision, huh?” I looked at Ginny, who was looking at her napkin trying to pretend that the hurt hadn’t dug away at her. “What about Christmas break? Or Thanksgiving? Or just some long weekend.”
“College is hard,” Christy said. “It takes all my time.”
It was the excuse Ginny had told me and herself and everyone else again and again, so you couldn’t really blame Christy for falling back on it. But I wanted Christy to tell the truth. I wanted someone else to say that Ginny being sick was so terrifying you couldn’t see or feel straight, that it made you want to hide away.
“You don’t know one damn thing about hard,” I said.
“Mom!” Christy’s voice got loud and whiny. “Don’t let her talk to me like that.”
“Stop it,” Ginny said. “Both of you stop it, stop it, stop it!” She pulled off her wig and threw it on the table between us. It sat there limp and dull, like a circus balloon that lost all its air.
I pushed my chair back and rose up tall. I picked up Ginny’s wig from the kitchen table and took it with me, out the front door.
I walked for a long time. My legs and feet were already tired from pushing my cart from room to room all day, but there wasn’t much else to do. I’d left the apartment without grabbing the car keys or my wallet, like some teenage drama queen. I didn’t even grab a coat.
My head and hands were cold. I wanted to blame it on the moon, which couldn’t even bother to get half-full. The cold light made the sequoias look like Halloween decorations, blackened cutouts from giant pieces of cardboard. I slipped Ginny’s wig over my head. It was a tight fit and I had to yank it down hard.
After Ginny left Christy’s dad, the last thing on her mind was being a wife again. She was plenty happy just to be making a home with me. But when they started marrying folks down in San Francisco a few years back, it just seemed like the thing to do. My brother, Keith, even said he’d come up from Fresno with a minister friend who’d do the ceremony for free.
We drove to San Francisco early in the morning and stood in line for nearly five hours. Everyone was laughing and holding hands, sharing coffee and muffins, and someone we didn’t even know handed a single red rose to every couple in line. After we got our license, we took the trolley down to Fisherman’s Wharf and had a glass of wine. We sat staring out at Alcatraz, wondering why someone would build something so ugly in the middle of so much pretty. When Ginny asked the waiter, he said, “They wanted the prisoners to see what they were missing.” I know they were criminals, but it still seemed cruel, forcing them to look right at what they couldn’t have every single day.
By the time Keith got to us, it was all over. He’d heard on the radio. No more marriage licenses were being given out, and the ones already out there didn’t count. Keith said that didn’t matter none, we should still do the ceremony. His minister friend blessed me and Ginny while we kissed and exchanged rings. The fog had come in, and we couldn’t see past the bridge. Only the tops peeked through, and they didn’t look golden so much as a ragged red.
I drove us home the next day, playing the radio to cut the quiet. The signal turned fuzzy about a mile into the Humbolt Redwoods. The giants made it dark like dusk in there, even though it was just past lunch. I looked over at Ginny to ask for a CD, but her eyes were closed. Her forehead rested against the window and her blond hair curled around her neck. Even in the daytime dusk, I could see the collar of Ginny’s pink shirt was blotched by tears.
The red wig made my head hot and my scalp itch. I shifted it around, shoving strands of hair underneath, then pulling them back out. But there was no way to make it comfortable, so I took it off. I took off that wig and dropped it to the ground, and I stepped on it once or twice. Hard.
When I got home the living room was hot and bright. Christy was on the couch watching TV. “Where’s your mom?” I asked.
“Gee, I don’t know.” Christy didn’t move her eyes. “Maybe she’s in the screening room or the conservatory or something.” The girl had no intention of going for sorry, and I suppose I didn’t either.
I pushed open the bedroom door real quiet. Ginny was lying on her side with a pillow scrunched underneath her. I unbuttoned my shirt and unhooked my bra, and while I was taking off my jeans, Ginny turned and watched. The sliver of moon peeking in the window made me feel flabby and ghost white. I pulled on Keith’s flannel shirt, the one I’d been sleeping in since stealing it from him years ago. It was worn and ratty, but sure didn’t feel that way.
“Where’s my wig?” Ginny asked.
I got under the quilt, looked at the popcorn ceiling. The peaks and valleys looked like the far-away surface of the moon. “I lost it.”
“What do you mean, you lost it?”
“I guess I dropped it,” I said. “Out in the woods.”
“How could you drop it?” Ginny sounded exhausted more than mad. “I need it. I wear it every day.”
“Not every day.”
There was as much room between us as could be in our double bed. I’d hate to see how we looked, like two sides of a log split by a dull axe.
“You were too hard on her,” Ginny said.
“She doesn’t respect me,” I said. “Us.”
Ginny turned to face me, and the lack of light didn’t matter. I could see her blue eyes just fine, her sharp cheekbones, her thin lips, bare skull. “She thinks you’re why I left her dad.”
“That makes no sense.” I could see how Christy thought that when her folks split up, because that’s how young people think. But now she was in college, thinking for herself. She should have figured out it was more complicated. That a big piece of Ginny had already left him, long before I came along. That all of her was never really with him in the first place.
“She’s the only family I’ve got,” Ginny said. She had no brothers or sisters, and ten years had gone since her parents last talked to her. Ten years since Ginny decided she couldn’t stay married to Christy’s dad.
I reached across the small space between us. I slid my hand over Ginny’s bare head. There was no wave between us that night, but no riptide either. There was just water creeping on the shore, and then draining back, leaving a blanket of smooth, wet sand.
The next day when I got home from work, Ginny and Christy weren’t in front of the TV. They weren’t in the kitchen, so I headed to the bedroom. I heard Christy before seeing her, heard her small, clipped whining sounds. She was on the ground next to the closed bathroom door, hands wrapped around her raised knees. Ginny was behind the door, retching up nothing but bitter bile. It used to be the tumor that made Ginny sick. Then it was the chemo. Anymore, it was because her stomach was so small it didn’t empty out right. Her body knew purging would rid her of the pain.
Christy looked up at me, eyes puffy and pink. “She won’t come out and won’t let me in.”
I crouched down next to her, the muscles around my knees straining like old rubber bands. “How long’s she been in there?”
Christy wiped her nose with the back of her hand, her fist coming back wet and shiny. “I don’t know. Like, half an hour, maybe.”
I was still wearing my work uniform, brown polyester pants and a navy blue smock. I swiped the corner of the smock across Christy’s nose. She was just a scared kid who didn’t know how to deal with a sick mom. She shouldn’t have to.
I reached above the door frame for the allen key. “It’s just me, babe,” I said to Ginny as I let myself in.
Her body was a limp paisley on the cool bathroom floor, her ear pressed down like an Indian listening for footsteps. “Close the door.”
I pushed it most of the way closed but didn’t let it latch, didn’t let it lock. Left some room for Christy to hear, to talk, to move. I stepped into the tub and sat with my legs long. I reached my hand out to Ginny’s back, to her green T-shirt damp with sweat.
“Someone left a brochure in one of the rooms,” I said. “For Lake Shasta.” Nobody ever left clues of where they were going, but sometimes I could piece together where they’d been. “Prettiest picture you’d ever seen, the water like a mirror. Same color as the sky.”
“Was the mountain in it?” Ginny asked.
“Oh, sure.” I reached over and flushed the toilet, sucking away layers of bile. “The snow was so bright that it looked like it was covered in diamonds.”
The bathroom door pushed open real quiet. Christy’s voice had a shakiness that didn’t match up with the girl from the kitchen table last night. “You okay, Mom?”
“Been better, been worse,” Ginny said.
Christy couldn’t get to her mom because there was no space to crouch into. It would have been easy for her to leave, to just close the door and let us be.
“Here.” I folded my knees to my chest and scooted to the other end of the tub. Christy climbed in next to me. I lifted my hand off Ginny’s sweat-stained shirt and nodded there, to the damp imprint of my palm on her back.
Christy reached toward Ginny real slow, like she was moving toward a fire. Her hand landed on my palm-mark. It seemed like Christy might jerk back, away. It was easy to get scared like that, like your hand might just make the pain worse. Like it might make the disease come back. Like it might be your fault in the first place. All that fear never really went away. It just kept shifting around, trying to figure out what else to be. But Christy kept her hand steady. Her mother’s back. Next to me.
I kneeled up in the hard tub. I ran my hand over the landscape of Ginny’s skull, over hills and rivers and flat sand beaches.
“This summer,” I said, “We’ll go over to Shasta. We’ll get a room that looks out on the mountain.” I got a discount at other motels in the chain and, maybe, if we started saving right away, there’d be enough for a couple of nights. “We’ll rent a little boat and pack a picnic, and I’ll row you out to the middle of the lake.”
We’d have wine and vanilla bean ice cream, if that’s what Ginny wanted that day. The two of us would lie back in the sun, letting our skin grow warm and wet in the middle of the lake.
“We’ll take lots of pictures,” I said. “Make one into a Christmas card.”
“I’ll put it up on my mirror,” Christy said. “In my dorm.”
I couldn’t see it, Christy’s dorm or her mirror or the Christmas card held on by clear tape. But I had no problems seeing Ginny lying in a boat caressed by the sun, the water like a mirror, and Mount Shasta glittering nearby.
*Licensed from Press53, LLC. Copyright 2018 by Baby’s on Fire: stories by Liz Prato