One morning, after a fall of snow.
Yasukichi sat on a chair in the physics teachers’ lounge, watching the flames in the heating stove. The flames licked up yellow one moment, then fell to sooty ruins the next, as if they were breathing: proof of their continued struggle against the cold that filled the room. Yasukichi thought of the interplanetary chill beyond the earth’s atmosphere, and felt something akin to sympathy for the brightly glowing embers.
Yasukichi looked up at the physicist called Miyamoto who had stepped in front of the stove. Hands tucked into his trouser pockets, the bespectacled Miyamoto wore a good-natured smile beneath his thin moustache.
“Mr. Horikawa. Tell me, are you aware that even women are physical objects?”
“I’m aware that they are physical beings.”
“Not beings. Objects. It’s a fact that I’ve recently discovered myself, after no small effort.”
“Mr. Horikawa, you mustn’t take Mr. Miyamoto too seriously.”
This was the other instructor, a physicist called Hasegawa. Yasukichi turned to the desk behind him. Hasegawa riffled through some exam papers as a self-conscious smile made its way up toward his balding forehead.
“Why, the cheek — I know for a fact that my discovery is making you very happy indeed. Mr. Horikawa, are you familiar with the Law of Heat Transfer?”
“Heat transfer? Something to do with moving coal?”
“You literature fellows are quite hopeless!”
Even as he said so, Miyamoto tipped another pailful of coal into the mouth of the stove, which glowed as it reflected the flames.
“When you take two physical objects of differing temperatures, and cause them to come into contact with one another, heat transfers from the object with the higher temperature to the object with the lower temperature until their temperatures become equal.”
“Isn’t that simply common sense?”
“Well, that is what we call the Law of Heat Transfer. Now, say that a woman is an object. Agreed? If a woman is an object, then so – undoubtedly – is a man. In which case, passion must equal heat. If we now cause a man and a woman to come into contact with one another, passion must surely transfer like heat, from the more impassioned man to the less impassioned woman, until her passion equals his. Mr. Hasegawa’s case is a perfect example.”
“Here we go.”
In spite of his words, Hasegawa looked delighted, and made a noise as if he was being tickled.
“Now, call E the quantity of heat that transfers within time T across a surface area S, when – are you following? – H is the temperature, X the distance in the direction of heat transfer, and K the conductivity of the material in question. Now, in Mr. Hasegawa’s case…”
Miyamoto started writing what appeared to be a formula on a small blackboard, but then suddenly turned around and threw aside his piece of chalk, looking quite discouraged.
“It’s no use trying to get a layman like you to appreciate my discovery, Mr. Horikawa. In any case, what matters is that Mr. Hasegawa’s betrothed would appear to be warming up nicely, as per the formula.”
“The world would certainly be a simpler place if such a formula really did exist.”
Yasukichi stretched out his legs, and gazed aimlessly at the snowy view outside the window. The physics instructors’ lounge being at the corner of the first floor of the building, he could easily take in the athletic field, with its sporting apparatus, and beyond that the line of pine trees, and beyond that, the red brick buildings. And the sea, too — the sea was visible between the buildings, sending up indistinct grey waves.
“But then the literature fellows would be out of a job. How is your latest book selling?”
“Not at all, as usual. It seems heat transfer doesn’t take place between writers and readers. By the way, Mr. Hasegawa; it can’t be long till your wedding?”
“Yes, only a month or so. There are quite a few arrangements that need taking care of before then — it’s a nuisance not being able to get any work done.”
“Too distracted to work, eh?”
“I’m not you, Mr. Miyamoto! For one thing, we need somewhere to live, and I simply can’t find anything for rent. Just last Sunday I walked across most of town searching. But even when you think you’ve managed to find a house, it’s snapped up before you know it.”
“What about over by me? Provided you don’t mind getting the train in every day.”
“You’re a little too far out. I hear there are houses for rent over there, and my wife would prefer it; however — Why, Mr. Horikawa! Isn’t your shoe getting singed?”
It appeared that one of Yasukichi’s shoes had somehow come into contact with the body of the stove, and was giving off a cloud of steam along with the smell of burning leather.
“There you go — that’s heat transfer again.”
Miyamoto, who was polishing his spectacles, peered up myopically toward Yasukichi, grinning.
* * *
Four of five days later – a frosty dull morning.
Yasukichi, trying to catch his train, was hurrying as fast as his legs would carry him past the outskirts of a seaside town. The path was on an embankment about six feet wide, with wheat fields to his right, and train tracks to his left. The deserted fields were replete with a very slight sound which he could only take to be that of someone walking between the rows of wheat; however, it seemed in fact to be the sound of needle ice beneath the ploughed soil, collapsing under its own weight.
Soon enough, the eight o’clock up-bound train passed by on the bank, keeping up its speed, and giving a long toot on its whistle. The down-bound train that Yasukichi needed to catch departed half an hour after this one. He took out his watch. For some reason, it was showing nearly a quarter past eight. He decided his watch must be at fault for the discrepancy. He even thought, with good reason: No fear of missing my train today. The wheat fields along the path gradually gave way to hedges. Yasukichi lit an Asahi cigarette and went on walking, feeling less hurried than before.
The cinder-laid path sloped upward to a level crossing. Yasukichi had come up to it just as usual when he noticed people gathered on either side of the tracks. Some part of him immediately thought: Someone’s been killed. Fortunately, he spotted the butcher’s boy with his laden bicycle propped beside the crossing railings. Still holding his cigarette, Yasukichi tapped the boy on the shoulder from behind.
“Hey, what’s happened?”
“Got run over. Run over, by the last up train.”
The boy spoke quickly. Under his rabbit-fur ear muffs, his features seemed to sparkle with a strange vitality.
“The crossing guard. He was trying to save a schoolkid that was about to get run over. You know the bookshop called Nagai’s, opposite the Hachiman Shrine? Their little girl.”
“The child was all right?”
“Yes, she’s the one crying over there.”
The boy indicated the crowd on the other side of the crossing. Yasukichi saw that there was indeed a young girl, who was being questioned by a constable. Beside him, a man who was evidently the stationmaster’s deputy put in a word from time to time. As for the crossing guard — Yasukichi spotted the corpse under a straw mat, in front of the guard’s hut. He had to admit that it inspired curiosity in him as well as aversion. Even from this distance, he could make out the guard’s shoes peeking out from beneath the screen.
“Those men moved the body.”
Two or three railway men stood under the crossing’s signal post on the near side, surrounding a small bonfire. The fire with its yellow flame emitted neither light nor smoke, and looked all the more chilly for it. One of the men was drying the seat of his knee-length trousers by the fire.
Yasukichi started over the crossing. This close to the station, numerous tracks intersected the crossing. Each time he passed one, he wondered just where it was that the crossing guard had been run over. But it was immediately evident. Blood on one of the rails told of the tragedy that had taken place only a few minutes ago. Almost reflexively, he looked away to the other side of the crossing, but it was no use. The image of the viscous red substance pooled on the coldly gleaming face of the iron had instantly etched itself onto his memory. The blood was even giving off a faint shimmer of vapor from upon the rail.
Some ten minutes later, Yasukichi was pacing on the station platform. His head was filled with the unsettling sight he had just seen. In particular, he vividly recalled the shimmer of vapor rising from the blood. He thought of the notion of heat transfer, which had been discussed only the other day. The life heat contained in the blood was transferring to the rail according to the law that Miyamoto had taught him — cruelly, and without a modicum of error. It made no difference whose life it was; whether that of the crossing guard killed performing his duty or that of a convicted felon, the heat would be transferring just as cruelly. He knew, of course, that these were meaningless thoughts. He tried repeatedly to convince himself that even a dutiful child must drown in water, even a devoted wife must be burned by fire. But the scene he had witnessed had left such a burdensome impression that it did not easily admit such reasoning.
Meanwhile, the people on the platform seemed for all the world contented, oblivious to his state of mind. That, too, upset Yasukichi. In particular, the loud chatter emanating from a group of Navy officers was viscerally offensive. He lit another Asahi, and walked to the end of the platform. From there, the crossing was visible a few hundred yards ahead. The crowds on either side of the crossing seemed to have mostly dissipated. Only the workmen’s bonfire by the signal post waved its yellow flame.
Yasukichi felt something akin to sympathy for that distant fire. But being in sight of the crossing still made him anxious. He turned his back on it, and started back along the platform toward the mass of people. He hadn’t gone ten steps, however, when he realized that he had dropped one of his red leather gloves, which he’d been carrying after taking it off his right hand to light his cigarette. He turned and looked back. The glove lay fallen at the end of the platform, palm side up. Wordlessly, it seemed to be calling to him.
Beneath the dull frosty sky, Yasukichi sensed the heart of the red leather glove as it lay left behind. In that moment, he knew that even this chill world would someday be pierced by the first warm rays of sun.
The small locomotive engine, Number 4, came clanking, stumbling down from Selston—with seven full waggons. It appeared round the corner with loud threats of speed, but the colt that it startled from among the gorse, which still flickered indistinctly in the raw afternoon, outdistanced it at a canter. A woman, walking up the railway line to Underwood, drew back into the hedge, held her basket aside, and watched the footplate of the engine advancing. The trucks thumped heavily past, one by one, with slow inevitable movement, as she stood insignificantly trapped between the jolting black waggons and the hedge; then they curved away towards the coppice where the withered oak leaves dropped noiselessly, while the birds, pulling at the scarlet hips beside the track, made off into the dusk that had already crept into the spinney. In the open, the smoke from the engine sank and cleaved to the rough grass. The fields were dreary and forsaken, and in the marshy strip that led to the whimsey, a reedy pit-pond, the fowls had already abandoned their run among the alders, to roost in the tarred fowl-house. The pit-bank loomed up beyond the pond, flames like red sores licking its ashy sides, in the afternoon’s stagnant light. Just beyond rose the tapering chimneys and the clumsy black head-stocks of Brinsley Colliery. The two wheels were spinning fast up against the sky, and the winding-engine rapped out its little spasms. The miners were being turned up.
The engine whistled as it came into the wide bay of railway lines beside the colliery, where rows of trucks stood in harbor.
Miners, single, trailing and in groups, passed like shadows diverging home. At the edge of the ribbed level of sidings squat a low cottage, three steps down from the cinder track. A large bony vine clutched at the house, as if to claw down the tiled roof. Round the bricked yard grew a few wintry primroses. Beyond, the long garden sloped down to a bush-covered brook course. There were some twiggy apple trees, winter-crack trees, and ragged cabbages. Beside the path hung dishevelled pink chrysanthemums, like pink cloths hung on bushes. A woman came stooping out of the felt-covered fowl-house, half-way down the garden. She closed and padlocked the door, then drew herself erect, having brushed some bits from her white apron.
She was a till woman of imperious mien, handsome, with definite black eyebrows. Her smooth black hair was parted exactly. For a few moments she stood steadily watching the miners as they passed along the railway: then she turned towards the brook course. Her face was calm and set, her mouth was closed with disillusionment. After a moment she called:
“John!” There was no answer. She waited, and then said distinctly:
“Where are you?”
“Here!” replied a child’s sulky voice from among the bushes. The woman looked piercingly through the dusk.
“Are you at that brook?” she asked sternly.
For answer the child showed himself before the raspberry-canes that rose like whips. He was a small, sturdy boy of five. He stood quite still, defiantly.
“Oh!” said the mother, conciliated. “I thought you were down at that wet brook—and you remember what I told you—”
The boy did not move or answer.
“Come, come on in,” she said more gently, “it’s getting dark. There’s your grandfather’s engine coming down the line!”
The lad advanced slowly, with resentful, taciturn movement. He was dressed in trousers and waistcoat of cloth that was too thick and hard for the size of the garments. They were evidently cut down from a man’s clothes.
As they went slowly towards the house he tore at the ragged wisps of chrysanthemums and dropped the petals in handfuls along the path.
“Don’t do that—it does look nasty,” said his mother. He refrained, and she, suddenly pitiful, broke off a twig with three or four wan flowers and held them against her face. When mother and son reached the yard her hand hesitated, and instead of laying the flower aside, she pushed it in her apron-band. The mother and son stood at the foot of the three steps looking across the bay of lines at the passing home of the miners. The trundle of the small train was imminent. Suddenly the engine loomed past the house and came to a stop opposite the gate.
The engine-driver, a short man with round grey beard, leaned out of the cab high above the woman.
“Have you got a cup of tea?” he said in a cheery, hearty fashion.
It was her father. She went in, saying she would mash. Directly, she returned.
“I didn’t come to see you on Sunday,” began the little grey-bearded man.
“I didn’t expect you,” said his daughter.
The engine-driver winced; then, reassuming his cheery, airy manner, he said:
“Oh, have you heard then? Well, and what do you think—?”
“I think it is soon enough,” she replied.
At her brief censure the little man made an impatient gesture, and said coaxingly, yet with dangerous coldness:
“Well, what’s a man to do? It’s no sort of life for a man of my years, to sit at my own hearth like a stranger. And if I’m going to marry again it may as well be soon as late—what does it matter to anybody?”
The woman did not reply, but turned and went into the house. The man in the engine-cab stood assertive, till she returned with a cup of tea and a piece of bread and butter on a plate. She went up the steps and stood near the footplate of the hissing engine.
“You needn’t ‘a’ brought me bread an’ butter,” said her father. “But a cup of tea”—he sipped appreciatively—”it’s very nice.” He sipped for a moment or two, then: “I hear as Walter’s got another bout on,” he said.
“When hasn’t he?” said the woman bitterly.
“I heered tell of him in the ‘Lord Nelson’ braggin’ as he was going to spend that b——afore he went: half a sovereign that was.”
“When?” asked the woman.
“A’ Sat’day night—I know that’s true.”
“Very likely,” she laughed bitterly. “He gives me twenty-three shillings.”
“Aye, it’s a nice thing, when a man can do nothing with his money but make a beast of himself!” said the grey-whiskered man. The woman turned her head away. Her father swallowed the last of his tea and handed her the cup.
“Aye,” he sighed, wiping his mouth. “It’s a settler, it is—”
He put his hand on the lever. The little engine strained and groaned, and the train rumbled towards the crossing. The woman again looked across the metals. Darkness was settling over the spaces of the railway and trucks: the miners, in grey sombre groups, were still passing home. The winding-engine pulsed hurriedly, with brief pauses. Elizabeth Bates looked at the dreary flow of men, then she went indoors. Her husband did not come.
The kitchen was small and full of firelight; red coals piled glowing up the chimney mouth. All the life of the room seemed in the white, warm hearth and the steel fender reflecting the red fire. The cloth was laid for tea; cups glinted in the shadows. At the back, where the lowest stairs protruded into the room, the boy sat struggling with a knife and a piece of whitewood. He was almost hidden in the shadow. It was half-past four. They had but to await the father’s coming to begin tea. As the mother watched her son’s sullen little struggle with the wood, she saw herself in his silence and pertinacity; she saw the father in her child’s indifference to all but himself. She seemed to be occupied by her husband. He had probably gone past his home, slunk past his own door, to drink before he came in, while his dinner spoiled and wasted in waiting. She glanced at the clock, then took the potatoes to strain them in the yard. The garden and fields beyond the brook were closed in uncertain darkness. When she rose with the saucepan, leaving the drain steaming into the night behind her, she saw the yellow lamps were lit along the high road that went up the hill away beyond the space of the railway lines and the field.
Then again she watched the men trooping home, fewer now and fewer.
Indoors the fire was sinking and the room was dark red. The woman put her saucepan on the hob, and set a batter pudding near the mouth of the oven. Then she stood unmoving. Directly, gratefully, came quick young steps to the door. Someone hung on the latch a moment, then a little girl entered and began pulling off her outdoor things, dragging a mass of curls, just ripening from gold to brown, over her eyes with her hat.
Her mother chid her for coming late from school, and said she would have to keep her at home the dark winter days.
“Why, mother, it’s hardly a bit dark yet. The lamp’s not lighted, and my father’s not home.”
“No, he isn’t. But it’s a quarter to five! Did you see anything of him?”
The child became serious. She looked at her mother with large, wistful blue eyes.
“No, mother, I’ve never seen him. Why? Has he come up an’ gone past, to Old Brinsley? He hasn’t, mother, ‘cos I never saw him.”
“He’d watch that,” said the mother bitterly, “he’d take care as you didn’t see him. But you may depend upon it, he’s seated in the ‘Prince o’ Wales’. He wouldn’t be this late.”
The girl looked at her mother piteously.
“Let’s have our teas, mother, should we?” said she.
The mother called John to table. She opened the door once more and looked out across the darkness of the lines. All was deserted: she could not hear the winding-engines.
“Perhaps,” she said to herself, “he’s stopped to get some ripping done.”
They sat down to tea. John, at the end of the table near the door, was almost lost in the darkness. Their faces were hidden from each other. The girl crouched against the fender slowly moving a thick piece of bread before the fire. The lad, his face a dusky mark on the shadow, sat watching her who was transfigured in the red glow.
“I do think it’s beautiful to look in the fire,” said the child.
“Do you?” said her mother. “Why?”
“It’s so red, and full of little caves—and it feels so nice, and you can fair smell it.”
“It’ll want mending directly,” replied her mother, “and then if your father comes he’ll carry on and say there never is a fire when a man comes home sweating from the pit.—A public-house is always warm enough.”
There was silence till the boy said complainingly: “Make haste, our Annie.”
“Well, I am doing! I can’t make the fire do it no faster, can I?”
“She keeps wafflin’ it about so’s to make ‘er slow,” grumbled the boy.
“Don’t have such an evil imagination, child,” replied the mother.
Soon the room was busy in the darkness with the crisp sound of crunching. The mother ate very little. She drank her tea determinedly, and sat thinking. When she rose her anger was evident in the stern unbending of her head. She looked at the pudding in the fender, and broke out:
“It is a scandalous thing as a man can’t even come home to his dinner! If it’s crozzled up to a cinder I don’t see why I should care. Past his very door he goes to get to a public-house, and here I sit with his dinner waiting for him—”
She went out. As she dropped piece after piece of coal on the red fire, the shadows fell on the walls, till the room was almost in total darkness.
“I canna see,” grumbled the invisible John. In spite of herself, the mother laughed.
“You know the way to your mouth,” she said. She set the dustpan outside the door. When she came again like a shadow on the hearth, the lad repeated, complaining sulkily:
“I canna see.”
“Good gracious!” cried the mother irritably, “you’re as bad as your father if it’s a bit dusk?”
Nevertheless she took a paper spill from a sheaf on the mantelpiece and proceeded to light the lamp that hung from the ceiling in the middle of the room. As she reached up, her figure displayed itself just rounding with maternity.
“Oh, mother—!” exclaimed the girl.
“What?” said the woman, suspended in the act of putting the lamp glass over the flame. The copper reflector shone handsomely on her, as she stood with uplifted arm, turning to face her daughter.
“You’ve got a flower in your apron!” said the child, in a little rapture at this unusual event.
“Goodness me!” exclaimed the woman, relieved. “One would think the house was afire.” She replaced the glass and waited a moment before turning up the wick. A pale shadow was seen floating vaguely on the floor.
“Let me smell!” said the child, still rapturously, coming forward and putting her face to her mother’s waist.
“Go along, silly!” said the mother, turning up the lamp. The light revealed their suspense so that the woman felt it almost unbearable. Annie was still bending at her waist. Irritably, the mother took the flowers out from her apron-band.
“Oh, mother—don’t take them out!” Annie cried, catching her hand and trying to replace the sprig.
“Such nonsense!” said the mother, turning away. The child put the pale chrysanthemums to her lips, murmuring:
“Don’t they smell beautiful!”
Her mother gave a short laugh.
“No,” she said, “not to me. It was chrysanthemums when I married him, and chrysanthemums when you were born, and the first time they ever brought him home drunk, he’d got brown chrysanthemums in his button-hole.”
She looked at the children. Their eyes and their parted lips were wondering. The mother sat rocking in silence for some time. Then she looked at the clock.
“Twenty minutes to six!” In a tone of fine bitter carelessness she continued: “Eh, he’ll not come now till they bring him. There he’ll stick! But he needn’t come rolling in here in his pit-dirt, for I won’t wash him. He can lie on the floor—Eh, what a fool I’ve been, what a fool! And this is what I came here for, to this dirty hole, rats and all, for him to slink past his very door. Twice last week—he’s begun now—”
She silenced herself, and rose to clear the table.
While for an hour or more the children played, subduedly intent, fertile of imagination, united in fear of the mother’s wrath, and in dread of their father’s home-coming, Mrs Bates sat in her rocking-chair making a ‘singlet’ of thick cream-coloured flannel, which gave a dull wounded sound as she tore off the grey edge. She worked at her sewing with energy, listening to the children, and her anger wearied itself, lay down to rest, opening its eyes from time to time and steadily watching, its ears raised to listen. Sometimes even her anger quailed and shrank, and the mother suspended her sewing, tracing the footsteps that thudded along the sleepers outside; she would lift her head sharply to bid the children ‘hush’, but she recovered herself in time, and the footsteps went past the gate, and the children were not flung out of their playing world.
But at last Annie sighed, and gave in. She glanced at her waggon of slippers, and loathed the game. She turned plaintively to her mother.
“Mother!”—but she was inarticulate.
John crept out like a frog from under the sofa. His mother glanced up.
“Yes,” she said, “just look at those shirt-sleeves!”
The boy held them out to survey them, saying nothing. Then somebody called in a hoarse voice away down the line, and suspense bristled in the room, till two people had gone by outside, talking.
“It is time for bed,” said the mother.
“My father hasn’t come,” wailed Annie plaintively. But her mother was primed with courage.
“Never mind. They’ll bring him when he does come—like a log.” She meant there would be no scene. “And he may sleep on the floor till he wakes himself. I know he’ll not go to work tomorrow after this!”
The children had their hands and faces wiped with a flannel. They were very quiet. When they had put on their nightdresses, they said their prayers, the boy mumbling. The mother looked down at them, at the brown silken bush of intertwining curls in the nape of the girl’s neck, at the little black head of the lad, and her heart burst with anger at their father who caused all three such distress. The children hid their faces in her skirts for comfort.
When Mrs Bates came down, the room was strangely empty, with a tension of expectancy. She took up her sewing and stitched for some time without raising her head. Meantime her anger was tinged with fear.
The clock struck eight and she rose suddenly, dropping her sewing on her chair. She went to the stairfoot door, opened it, listening. Then she went out, locking the door behind her.
Something scuffled in the yard, and she started, though she knew it was only the rats with which the place was overrun. The night was very dark. In the great bay of railway lines, bulked with trucks, there was no trace of light, only away back she could see a few yellow lamps at the pit-top, and the red smear of the burning pit-bank on the night. She hurried along the edge of the track, then, crossing the converging lines, came to the stile by the white gates, whence she emerged on the road. Then the fear which had led her shrank. People were walking up to New Brinsley; she saw the lights in the houses; twenty yards further on were the broad windows of the ‘Prince of Wales’, very warm and bright, and the loud voices of men could be heard distinctly. What a fool she had been to imagine that anything had happened to him! He was merely drinking over there at the ‘Prince of Wales’. She faltered. She had never yet been to fetch him, and she never would go. So she continued her walk towards the long straggling line of houses, standing blank on the highway. She entered a passage between the dwellings.
“Mr Rigley?—Yes! Did you want him? No, he’s not in at this minute.”
The raw-boned woman leaned forward from her dark scullery and peered at the other, upon whom fell a dim light through the blind of the kitchen window.
“Is it Mrs Bates?” she asked in a tone tinged with respect.
“Yes. I wondered if your Master was at home. Mine hasn’t come yet.”
“‘Asn’t ‘e! Oh, Jack’s been ‘ome an ‘ad ‘is dinner an’ gone out. E’s just gone for ‘alf an hour afore bedtime. Did you call at the ‘Prince of Wales’?”
“No, you didn’t like!— It’s not very nice.” The other woman was indulgent. There was an awkward pause. “Jack never said nothink about—about your Mester,” she said.
“No!—I expect he’s stuck in there!”
Elizabeth Bates said this bitterly, and with recklessness. She knew that the woman across the yard was standing at her door listening, but she did not care. As she turned:
“Stop a minute! I’ll just go an’ ask Jack if e’ knows anythink,” said Mrs Rigley.
“Oh, no—I wouldn’t like to put—!”
“Yes, I will, if you’ll just step inside an’ see as th’ childer doesn’t come downstairs and set theirselves afire.”
Elizabeth Bates, murmuring a remonstrance, stepped inside. The other woman apologized for the state of the room.
The kitchen needed apology. There were little frocks and trousers and childish undergarments on the squab and on the floor, and a litter of playthings everywhere. On the black American cloth of the table were pieces of bread and cake, crusts, slops, and a teapot with cold tea.
“Eh, ours is just as bad,” said Elizabeth Bates, looking at the woman, not at the house. Mrs Rigley put a shawl over her head and hurried out, saying:
“I shanna be a minute.”
The other sat, noting with faint disapproval the general untidiness of the room. Then she fell to counting the shoes of various sizes scattered over the floor. There were twelve. She sighed and said to herself, “No wonder!”—glancing at the litter. There came the scratching of two pairs of feet on the yard, and the Rigleys entered. Elizabeth Bates rose. Rigley was a big man, with very large bones. His head looked particularly bony. Across his temple was a blue scar, caused by a wound got in the pit, a wound in which the coal-dust remained blue like tattooing.
“Asna ‘e come whoam yit?” asked the man, without any form of greeting, but with deference and sympathy. “I couldna say wheer he is—’e’s non ower theer!”—he jerked his head to signify the ‘Prince of Wales’.
“‘E’s ‘appen gone up to th’ ‘Yew’,” said Mrs Rigley.
There was another pause. Rigley had evidently something to get off his mind:
“Ah left ‘im finishin’ a stint,” he began. “Loose-all ‘ad bin gone about ten minutes when we com’n away, an’ I shouted, ‘Are ter comin’, Walt?’ an’ ‘e said, ‘Go on, Ah shanna be but a’ef a minnit,’ so we com’n ter th’ bottom, me an’ Bowers, thinkin’ as ‘e wor just behint, an’ ‘ud come up i’ th’ next bantle—”
He stood perplexed, as if answering a charge of deserting his mate. Elizabeth Bates, now again certain of disaster, hastened to reassure him:
“I expect ‘e’s gone up to th’ ‘Yew Tree’, as you say. It’s not the first time. I’ve fretted myself into a fever before now. He’ll come home when they carry him.”
“Ay, isn’t it too bad!” deplored the other woman.
“I’ll just step up to Dick’s an’ see if ‘e is theer,” offered the man, afraid of appearing alarmed, afraid of taking liberties.
“Oh, I wouldn’t think of bothering you that far,” said Elizabeth Bates, with emphasis, but he knew she was glad of his offer.
As they stumbled up the entry, Elizabeth Bates heard Rigley’s wife run across the yard and open her neighbour’s door. At this, suddenly all the blood in her body seemed to switch away from her heart.
“Mind!” warned Rigley. “Ah’ve said many a time as Ah’d fill up them ruts in this entry, sumb’dy ‘ll be breakin’ their legs yit.”
She recovered herself and walked quickly along with the miner.
“I don’t like leaving the children in bed, and nobody in the house,” she said.
“No, you dunna!” he replied courteously. They were soon at the gate of the cottage.
“Well, I shanna be many minnits. Dunna you be frettin’ now, ‘e’ll be all right,” said the butty.
“Thank you very much, Mr Rigley,” she replied.
“You’re welcome!” he stammered, moving away. “I shanna be many minnits.”
The house was quiet. Elizabeth Bates took off her hat and shawl, and rolled back the rug. When she had finished, she sat down. It was a few minutes past nine. She was startled by the rapid chuff of the winding-engine at the pit, and the sharp whirr of the brakes on the rope as it descended. Again she felt the painful sweep of her blood, and she put her hand to her side, saying aloud, “Good gracious!—it’s only the nine o’clock deputy going down,” rebuking herself.
She sat still, listening. Half an hour of this, and she was wearied out.
“What am I working myself up like this for?” she said pitiably to herself, “I s’ll only be doing myself some damage.”
She took out her sewing again.
At a quarter to ten there were footsteps. One person! She watched for the door to open. It was an elderly woman, in a black bonnet and a black woollen shawl—his mother. She was about sixty years old, pale, with blue eyes, and her face all wrinkled and lamentable. She shut the door and turned to her daughter-in-law peevishly.
“Eh, Lizzie, whatever shall we do, whatever shall we do!” she cried.
Elizabeth drew back a little, sharply.
“What is it, mother?” she said.
The elder woman seated herself on the sofa.
“I don’t know, child, I can’t tell you!”—she shook her head slowly. Elizabeth sat watching her, anxious and vexed.
“I don’t know,” replied the grandmother, sighing very deeply. “There’s no end to my troubles, there isn’t. The things I’ve gone through, I’m sure it’s enough—!” She wept without wiping her eyes, the tears running.
“But, mother,” interrupted Elizabeth, “what do you mean? What is it?”
The grandmother slowly wiped her eyes. The fountains of her tears were stopped by Elizabeth’s directness. She wiped her eyes slowly.
“Poor child! Eh, you poor thing!” she moaned. “I don’t know what we’re going to do, I don’t—and you as you are—it’s a thing, it is indeed!”
“Is he dead?” she asked, and at the words her heart swung violently, though she felt a slight flush of shame at the ultimate extravagance of the question. Her words sufficiently frightened the old lady, almost brought her to herself.
“Don’t say so, Elizabeth! We’ll hope it’s not as bad as that; no, may the Lord spare us that, Elizabeth. Jack Rigley came just as I was sittin’ down to a glass afore going to bed, an’ ‘e said, ”Appen you’ll go down th’ line, Mrs Bates. Walt’s had an accident. ‘Appen you’ll go an’ sit wi’ ‘er till we can get him home.’ I hadn’t time to ask him a word afore he was gone. An’ I put my bonnet on an’ come straight down, Lizzie. I thought to myself, ‘Eh, that poor blessed child, if anybody should come an’ tell her of a sudden, there’s no knowin’ what’ll ‘appen to ‘er.’ You mustn’t let it upset you, Lizzie—or you know what to expect. How long is it, six months—or is it five, Lizzie? Ay!”—the old woman shook her head—”time slips on, it slips on! Ay!”
Elizabeth’s thoughts were busy elsewhere. If he was killed—would she be able to manage on the little pension and what she could earn?—she counted up rapidly. If he was hurt—they wouldn’t take him to the hospital—how tiresome he would be to nurse!—but perhaps she’d be able to get him away from the drink and his hateful ways. She would—while he was ill. The tears offered to come to her eyes at the picture. But what sentimental luxury was this she was beginning?—She turned to consider the children. At any rate she was absolutely necessary for them. They were her business.
“Ay!” repeated the old woman, “it seems but a week or two since he brought me his first wages. Ay—he was a good lad, Elizabeth, he was, in his way. I don’t know why he got to be such a trouble, I don’t. He was a happy lad at home, only full of spirits. But there’s no mistake he’s been a handful of trouble, he has! I hope the Lord’ll spare him to mend his ways. I hope so, I hope so. You’ve had a sight o’ trouble with him, Elizabeth, you have indeed. But he was a jolly enough lad wi’ me, he was, I can assure you. I don’t know how it is…”
The old woman continued to muse aloud, a monotonous irritating sound, while Elizabeth thought concentratedly, startled once, when she heard the winding-engine chuff quickly, and the brakes skirr with a shriek. Then she heard the engine more slowly, and the brakes made no sound. The old woman did not notice. Elizabeth waited in suspense. The mother-in-law talked, with lapses into silence.
“But he wasn’t your son, Lizzie, an’ it makes a difference. Whatever he was, I remember him when he was little, an’ I learned to understand him and to make allowances. You’ve got to make allowances for them—”
It was half-past ten, and the old woman was saying: “But it’s trouble from beginning to end; you’re never too old for trouble, never too old for that—” when the gate banged back, and there were heavy feet on the steps.
“I’ll go, Lizzie, let me go,” cried the old woman, rising. But Elizabeth was at the door. It was a man in pit-clothes.
“They’re bringin’ ‘im, Missis,” he said. Elizabeth’s heart halted a moment. Then it surged on again, almost suffocating her.
“Is he—is it bad?” she asked.
The man turned away, looking at the darkness:
“The doctor says ‘e’d been dead hours. ‘E saw ‘im i’ th’ lamp-cabin.”
The old woman, who stood just behind Elizabeth, dropped into a chair, and folded her hands, crying: “Oh, my boy, my boy!”
“Hush!” said Elizabeth, with a sharp twitch of a frown. “Be still, mother, don’t waken th’ children: I wouldn’t have them down for anything!”
The old woman moaned softly, rocking herself. The man was drawing away. Elizabeth took a step forward.
“How was it?” she asked.
“Well, I couldn’t say for sure,” the man replied, very ill at ease. “‘E wor finishin’ a stint an’ th’ butties ‘ad gone, an’ a lot o’ stuff come down atop ‘n ‘im.”
“And crushed him?” cried the widow, with a shudder.
“No,” said the man, “it fell at th’ back of ‘im. ‘E wor under th’ face, an’ it niver touched ‘im. It shut ‘im in. It seems ‘e wor smothered.”
Elizabeth shrank back. She heard the old woman behind her cry:
“What?—what did ‘e say it was?”
The man replied, more loudly: “‘E wor smothered!”
Then the old woman wailed aloud, and this relieved Elizabeth.
“Oh, mother,” she said, putting her hand on the old woman, “don’t waken th’ children, don’t waken th’ children.”
She wept a little, unknowing, while the old mother rocked herself and moaned.Elizabeth remembered that they were bringing him home, and she must be ready. “They’ll lay him in the parlour,” she said to herself, standing a moment pale and perplexed.
Then she lighted a candle and went into the tiny room. The air was cold and damp, but she could not make a fire, there was no fireplace. She set down the candle and looked round. The candle-light glittered on the lustre-glasses, on the two vases that held some of the pink chrysanthemums, and on the dark mahogany. There was a cold, deathly smell of chrysanthemums in the room. Elizabeth stood looking at the flowers. She turned away, and calculated whether there would be room to lay him on the floor, between the couch and the chiffonier. She pushed the chairs aside. There would be room to lay him down and to step round him. Then she fetched the old red tablecloth, and another old cloth, spreading them down to save her bit of carpet. She shivered on leaving the parlour; so, from the dresser-drawer she took a clean shirt and put it at the fire to air. All the time her mother-in-law was rocking herself in the chair and moaning.
“You’ll have to move from there, mother,” said Elizabeth. “They’ll be bringing him in. Come in the rocker.”
The old mother rose mechanically, and seated herself by the fire, continuing to lament. Elizabeth went into the pantry for another candle, and there, in the little penthouse under the naked tiles, she heard them coming. She stood still in the pantry doorway, listening. She heard them pass the end of the house, and come awkwardly down the three steps, a jumble of shuffling footsteps and muttering voices. The old woman was silent. The men were in the yard.
Then Elizabeth heard Matthews, the manager of the pit, say: “You go in first, Jim. Mind!”
The door came open, and the two women saw a collier backing into the room, holding one end of a stretcher, on which they could see the nailed pit-boots of the dead man. The two carriers halted, the man at the head stooping to the lintel of the door.
“Wheer will you have him?” asked the manager, a short, white-bearded man.
Elizabeth roused herself and came from the pantry carrying the unlighted candle.
“In the parlour,” she said.
“In there, Jim!” pointed the manager, and the carriers backed round into the tiny room. The coat with which they had covered the body fell off as they awkwardly turned through the two doorways, and the women saw their man, naked to the waist, lying stripped for work. The old woman began to moan in a low voice of horror.
“Lay th’ stretcher at th’ side,” snapped the manager, “an’ put ‘im on th’ cloths. Mind now, mind! Look you now—!”
One of the men had knocked off a vase of chrysanthemums. He stared awkwardly, then they set down the stretcher. Elizabeth did not look at her husband. As soon as she could get in the room, she went and picked up the broken vase and the flowers.
“Wait a minute!” she said.
The three men waited in silence while she mopped up the water with a duster.
“Eh, what a job, what a job, to be sure!” the manager was saying, rubbing his brow with trouble and perplexity. “Never knew such a thing in my life, never! He’d no business to ha’ been left. I never knew such a thing in my life! Fell over him clean as a whistle, an’ shut him in. Not four foot of space, there wasn’t—yet it scarce bruised him.”
He looked down at the dead man, lying prone, half naked, all grimed with coal-dust.
“”Sphyxiated,’ the doctor said. It is the most terrible job I’ve ever known. Seems as if it was done o’ purpose. Clean over him, an’ shut ‘im in, like a mouse-trap”—he made a sharp, descending gesture with his hand.
The colliers standing by jerked aside their heads in hopeless comment.
The horror of the thing bristled upon them all.
Then they heard the girl’s voice upstairs calling shrilly: “Mother, mother—who is it? Mother, who is it?”
Elizabeth hurried to the foot of the stairs and opened the door:
“Go to sleep!” she commanded sharply. “What are you shouting about? Go to sleep at once—there’s nothing—”
Then she began to mount the stairs. They could hear her on the boards, and on the plaster floor of the little bedroom. They could hear her distinctly:
“What’s the matter now?—what’s the matter with you, silly thing?”—her voice was much agitated, with an unreal gentleness.
“I thought it was some men come,” said the plaintive voice of the child. “Has he come?”
“Yes, they’ve brought him. There’s nothing to make a fuss about. Go to sleep now, like a good child.”
They could hear her voice in the bedroom, they waited whilst she covered the children under the bedclothes.
“Is he drunk?” asked the girl, timidly, faintly.
“No! No—he’s not! He—he’s asleep.”
“Is he asleep downstairs?”
“Yes—and don’t make a noise.”
There was silence for a moment, then the men heard the frightened child again:
“What’s that noise?”
“It’s nothing, I tell you, what are you bothering for?”
The noise was the grandmother moaning. She was oblivious of everything, sitting on her chair rocking and moaning. The manager put his hand on her arm and bade her “Sh—sh!!”
The old woman opened her eyes and looked at him. She was shocked by this interruption, and seemed to wonder.
“What time is it?”—the plaintive thin voice of the child, sinking back unhappily into sleep, asked this last question.
“Ten o’clock,” answered the mother more softly. Then she must have bent down and kissed the children.
Matthews beckoned to the men to come away. They put on their caps and took up the stretcher. Stepping over the body, they tiptoed out of the house. None of them spoke till they were far from the wakeful children.
When Elizabeth came down she found her mother alone on the parlour floor, leaning over the dead man, the tears dropping on him.
“We must lay him out,” the wife said. She put on the kettle, then returning knelt at the feet, and began to unfasten the knotted leather laces. The room was clammy and dim with only one candle, so that she had to bend her face almost to the floor. At last she got off the heavy boots and put them away.
“You must help me now,” she whispered to the old woman. Together they stripped the man.
When they arose, saw him lying in the naïve dignity of death, the women stood arrested in fear and respect. For a few moments they remained still, looking down, the old mother whimpering. Elizabeth felt countermanded. She saw him, how utterly inviolable he lay in himself. She had nothing to do with him. She could not accept it. Stooping, she laid her hand on him, in claim. He was still warm, for the mine was hot where he had died. His mother had his face between her hands, and was murmuring incoherently. The old tears fell in succession as drops from wet leaves; the mother was not weeping, merely her tears flowed. Elizabeth embraced the body of her husband, with cheek and lips. She seemed to be listening, inquiring, trying to get some connection. But she could not. She was driven away. He was impregnable.
She rose, went into the kitchen, where she poured warm water into a bowl, brought soap and flannel and a soft towel.
“I must wash him,” she said.
Then the old mother rose stiffly, and watched Elizabeth as she carefully washed his face, carefully brushing the big blond moustache from his mouth with the flannel. She was afraid with a bottomless fear, so she ministered to him. The old woman, jealous, said:
“Let me wipe him!”—and she kneeled on the other side drying slowly as Elizabeth washed, her big black bonnet sometimes brushing the dark head of her daughter. They worked thus in silence for a long time. They never forgot it was death, and the touch of the man’s dead body gave them strange emotions, different in each of the women; a great dread possessed them both, the mother felt the lie was given to her womb, she was denied; the wife felt the utter isolation of the human soul, the child within her was a weight apart from her.
At last it was finished. He was a man of handsome body, and his face showed no traces of drink. He was blonde, full-fleshed, with fine limbs. But he was dead.
“Bless him,” whispered his mother, looking always at his face, and speaking out of sheer terror. “Dear lad—bless him!” She spoke in a faint, sibilant ecstasy of fear and mother love.
Elizabeth sank down again to the floor, and put her face against his neck, and trembled and shuddered. But she had to draw away again. He was dead, and her living flesh had no place against his. A great dread and weariness held her: she was so unavailing. Her life was gone like this.
“White as milk he is, clear as a twelve-month baby, bless him, the darling!” the old mother murmured to herself. “Not a mark on him, clear and clean and white, beautiful as ever a child was made,” she murmured with pride. Elizabeth kept her face hidden.
“He went peaceful, Lizzie—peaceful as sleep. Isn’t he beautiful, the lamb? Ay—he must ha’ made his peace, Lizzie. ‘Appen he made it all right, Lizzie, shut in there. He’d have time. He wouldn’t look like this if he hadn’t made his peace. The lamb, the dear lamb. Eh, but he had a hearty laugh. I loved to hear it. He had the heartiest laugh, Lizzie, as a lad—”
Elizabeth looked up. The man’s mouth was fallen back, slightly open under the cover of the moustache. The eyes, half shut, did not show glazed in the obscurity. Life with its smoky burning gone from him, had left him apart and utterly alien to her. And she knew what a stranger he was to her. In her womb was ice of fear, because of this separate stranger with whom she had been living as one flesh. Was this what it all meant—utter, intact separateness, obscured by heat of living? In dread she turned her face away. The fact was too deadly. There had been nothing between them, and yet they had come together, exchanging their nakedness repeatedly. Each time he had taken her, they had been two isolated beings, far apart as now. He was no more responsible than she. The child was like ice in her womb. For as she looked at the dead man, her mind, cold and detached, said clearly: “Who am I? What have I been doing? I have been fighting a husband who did not exist. He existed all the time. What wrong have I done? What was that I have been living with? There lies the reality, this man.”—And her soul died in her for fear: she knew she had never seen him, he had never seen her, they had met in the dark and had fought in the dark, not knowing whom they met nor whom they fought. And now she saw, and turned silent in seeing. For she had been wrong. She had said he was something he was not; she had felt familiar with him. Whereas he was apart all the while, living as she never lived, feeling as she never felt.
In fear and shame she looked at his naked body, that she had known falsely. And he was the father of her children. Her soul was torn from her body and stood apart. She looked at his naked body and was ashamed, as if she had denied it. After all, it was itself. It seemed awful to her. She looked at his face, and she turned her own face to the wall. For his look was other than hers, his way was not her way. She had denied him what he was—she saw it now. She had refused him as himself.—And this had been her life, and his life.—She was grateful to death, which restored the truth. And she knew she was not dead.
And all the while her heart was bursting with grief and pity for him. What had he suffered? What stretch of horror for this helpless man! She was rigid with agony. She had not been able to help him. He had been cruelly injured, this naked man, this other being, and she could make no reparation. There were the children—but the children belonged to life. This dead man had nothing to do with them. He and she were only channels through which life had flowed to issue in the children. She was a mother—but how awful she knew it now to have been a wife. And he, dead now, how awful he must have felt it to be a husband. She felt that in the next world he would be a stranger to her. If they met there, in the beyond, they would only be ashamed of what had been before. The children had come, for some mysterious reason, out of both of them. But the children did not unite them. Now he was dead, she knew how eternally he was apart from her, how eternally he had nothing more to do with her. She saw this episode of her life closed. They had denied each other in life. Now he had withdrawn. An anguish came over her. It was finished then: it had become hopeless between them long before he died. Yet he had been her husband. But how little!—
“Have you got his shirt, ‘Lizabeth?”
Elizabeth turned without answering, though she strove to weep and behave as her mother-in-law expected. But she could not, she was silenced. She went into the kitchen and returned with the garment.
“It is aired,” she said, grasping the cotton shirt here and there to try. She was almost ashamed to handle him; what right had she or anyone to lay hands on him; but her touch was humble on his body. It was hard work to clothe him. He was so heavy and inert. A terrible dread gripped her all the while: that he could be so heavy and utterly inert, unresponsive, apart. The horror of the distance between them was almost too much for her—it was so infinite a gap she must look across.
At last it was finished. They covered him with a sheet and left him lying, with his face bound. And she fastened the door of the little parlour, lest the children should see what was lying there. Then, with peace sunk heavy on her heart, she went about making tidy the kitchen. She knew she submitted to life, which was her immediate master. But from death, her ultimate master, she winced with fear and shame.
I . . . am a cheap sock, I cost half a dinar. An industrial cooperative manufactured me, and my profit margin was redistributed among the elements of production. An ordinary man bought me, a manual worker quite poor. This worker married an ordinary young lady, and they lived together in a small apartment. They were very happy together.
The bride was very gentle with me, washing me every day in warm water. She did not hurt my skin with soap, nor burn me with washing soda, and to refresh me she hung me out on the balcony so the gentle Benghazi breeze would dry me.
I confided in the gusts of wind, recalling the vigorous effect of her fingertips that were dyed with henna. She scrubbed me slowly as if she were chewing gum with her polished teeth. I used to look at the skinny socks hanging up under the cupboard mirror by the front door.
One day the bride was unwell. Perhaps she was pregnant. The groom washed me in cold water – it was midwinter. All that rough scrubbing was physically painful. It almost frayed my threads. It almost ruined the elastic around my ribbed cuff. It was God’s will that I hid from him in the soap suds. When he put me on the line, he forgot to peg me, and the winds tossed me far away. I dropped into the yard of an elegant house. The wind blew me around the house from one place to another, as if it was revealing to me the difference between the flat and this grand palace. In one corner of the house there was a laundry room. Cautiously I went near it. There was a rumbling noise coming from inside. I watched with my back caught on the door handle. I saw the servant toss some articles of clothing into a metal vessel, connected by a quivering thread that hung from a box attached to the wall. This vessel that made the rumbling noise was not some narghileh that was not connected to a hose. I was afraid that the servant would see me, assume I was part of the family, and throw me in. Then I would whizz round and round with the other garments in that tomb. I got away from the room and approached the clothesline. I saw a coloured silk sock, hanging like a peacock, and held in place by a beautiful peg. I asked it in sock-language about the vessel that devoured clothes. At first, it did not understand me because I was not making myself clear on account of the small holes around my big toe . . . I repeated the question and it answered me in broken sock-language, “This is a washing machine, imported from overseas.”
I thanked him without smiling. I found it strange that there was no washing machine like it in the house of my owner, the bridegroom. I reckoned that this was because of its great expense. But I was happy that they did not have one. The clothes revolved in the washing-machine at the speed with which peace agreements are passed! I had been quite happy with being washed by ten human fingers with their beautiful smell, gentle touch, and slow scrub, and the sight of the cupboard by the front door where the shy skinny socks were stored – Oh what a lovely flat it was! I was delighted to cast my mind back to happy memories and then a spiral hose sprang at me, coiling itself like a snake seizing hold of everything: soil, dust, leaves and scraps of paper. I was violently swallowed up into its depths, and I found myself within its darkness. I took refuge with the leaf of a tree and kept myself away from the electric wires that were inside. I was happy because I was not damp and electrocuted.
In the evening they emptied the vacuum cleaner into a large rubbish bin that was by the secure steel door.
I spent the night in the body of that disgusting bin in which dirty rubbish with its awful stench was kept, and I sought comfort in memories of the smell of the bride and her kitchen and the sweat of factory workers, men and women, even the oil from machinery: those memories came to mind and defended me.
That morning the bridegroom’s holiday was over. Life went back to happy normality after the sugar rush of the honeymoon and the simple worker went back to his work as a dustman. The contents of the bin were emptied into the back of a dustcart. I was visible among the piles of garbage and he saw me. He smiled, picked me up gently, and put me in his pocket in spite of my filthiness. I was close to his heart – had I not witnessed his wedding night? After his shift, he took me back to the apartment and handed me to the bride: she recognised me and was delighted. She whooped with joy then made sure her husband was not under a spell. She brushed the dust off me, gave me a kiss, and put me on her hand as if I was a glove.
I had headed out to buy a pack of cigarettes and a few tomatoes, and there was a black shoe in the entrance to the building. A black shoe, just one, on the second tile beyond the doorway near the stairs. The tiles were neither white nor coloured but varied between light and dark due to the passage of time and the passage of the shoes of people going up and down, whether to and from work or school, or visiting family and friends, or going out for no other reason than to relax on a pleasantly breezy evening or on a weekend morning. That’s to say nothing of going to a nearby café or cinema or a meeting for whatever purpose. They might be heading out to a shop, clinic, or market, or to pay the electricity and water bills at the bank or send a letter from the post office. Then again, they might have been obliged to come down from the floors above to show the gas delivery man, who was new at his job, the location of their empty gas cylinder that needed replacing. There were mouths and bellies to be fed, as well as hands and minds that wished to be mildly and pleasantly occupied for an hour or two cooking, distracted from work worries, family problems, and passing quarrels with family and friends, or the rising cost of living, or anxiety about what might happen to mother, who still had a strange pain in her side, or the lack of a reply about a job two weeks after sending out a CV.
Strange that a single shoe should be there like that, the heel towards the outside and the pointed toe towards the inside. It could still be worn, and might even be considered new given that it was quite shiny. A little black shoe polish and three or four deft, or even clumsy, strokes would make it as good as new again, refreshed, just like a person who’s taken a leisurely hot bath after an afternoon nap before going out in the evening to a restaurant with friends, or even alone to an unassuming café near by in the hope of meeting friends and acquaintances, or simply staying in and listening to music or reading a novel or the news or features in the paper, or even a few pages from last week’s supplement, or sit languidly and have a drink on the balcony.
A single shoe in good condition at the entrance to a large building wasn’t something that happened every day. It might happen once a year to some, but only once every five years to others. Then again, it might not happen at all, even if one lived a long time. Take me, for example. It was the first time it had happened to me, as if there was something special, or even miraculous, about it, whether for good or ill, that only the lucky got to enjoy. It could be compared to unexpectedly falling in love, the reverberations of which could be heard in the racing of the heart inside the ribcage, and which you didn’t know how to handle. You’re as happy as a child about it but also as scared as a child at the way your loneliness has been invaded, loneliness which itself always makes you scared.
It was like hearing about an accident in which an old friend had died. A friend whom you hadn’t seen for a year and a half, and to whom you had given little thought and didn’t call, and in fact, when you missed his call once, you didn’t try to call him back. You would feel a sadness mixed with guilt and shame because you would be standing powerless right in the face of a death you never even thought about and that came knocking at your door in the black hours before dawn and shook you out of the warmth of your bed and the innocence of your dreams to make you get up in apprehension to open the door as you repeat inside, “Please God no more bad news.” Then, when you open the door and find that there’s nobody there, you only feel more apprehensive and disoriented.
Perhaps the single new shoe at the entrance to the building was more like seeing some clothes on the beach plastered with brownish-yellow sand that had belonged to someone who went into the sea and drowned. The waves had washed them up as a sign to the people on dryland that one of their sons or daughters had been swallowed up by the graveyard of the deep.
Going near the shoe was scary. It might have been packed with explosives and targeted one of the residents. That would mean calling the bomb squad. Perhaps there was something strange going on and it had been put here to signify emptiness. A shoe devoid of a foot next to the stairs, going up or going down, a shoe without its usual partner in a pair of shoes. Did that single shoe beneath five floors inhabited by dozens of people scream at all of them to pay attention to life? Did it want to tell us: “I am like the life which you will one day depart, with the same ease, indifference, and calm with which you take off your shoes before bed”? Was it there as a sign of death and death’s emptiness, like the verse saying: “Remind, in case the reminder should be of benefit”? Or was its presence here in all its blackness just one of those run-of-the-mill coincidences whereby people inundated with names, faces, and CVs die without having done anything to deserve being punished with so much death?
I kept going to the shop. They didn’t have my brand of cigarettes. I went to the shop in the next street. I headed back with my cigarettes, lighting one up on the way and forgetting the tomatoes. When I reached the entrance to the building, the shoe had vanished. A cold shiver ran through me. The place seemed so empty, emptier than ever.
Gentlemen, my name is Jamal Ahmad. I work as a signals private in Forward Reconnaissance Unit 312, engaging the American enemy in the south.
I confess in your presence, and I am of sound mind, that I killed Salim Hussein, signals corporal in our unit. I pulled out my revolver and shot him in the head, because he was quite simply a traitor, and the penalty for treason is death.
I do not deny it, and I am prepared to defend my action regardless of the punishment you impose.
I sentenced him to death and I carried out the sentence myself, with my own weapon. That was because as I went into the signals room I caught him speaking to an American intelligence officer. It was at noon on Monday, and I could not bear listening to him spouting abuse and filth. I pulled out my 9 mm calibre Browning army revolver. I fired three shots at him. I aimed right at his body so that one bullet lodged in his forehead and one in his heart, and I fired one at his balls.
I wanted to emasculate him because a traitor is not a man, and therefore has no right to die a man. These are the ethical values of we Arabs. Honour and the land above all. Whoever betrays honour has to die without balls, and whoever betrays the land has to die without a grave.
Gentlemen, I did him no wrong by this action, none. I went through an agony of reflection before I proceeded to kill him. I lost the ability to sleep, and for two months I didn’t sleep a wink. I even held a trial in my head. In my imagination I even gave him a lawyer. But in the end, I reached the conclusion that he was a traitor, and there is no escaping the fact that the penalty for treason is death.
I bid you, Gentlemen, not to imagine that the treason of the signals corporal in our unit is an enigma. I came upon him on Tuesday evening, and found him communicating with the Americans and giving them the coordinates of many military positions. I heard him with my own two ears, which will be eaten by worms after I die. I saw him with my own two eyes as he was committing an act of treason in front of me, without batting an eyelid about what he was doing.
He is quite simply a spy, and when I confronted him about it he confessed that he was a spy working for the Americans. But he felt remorse for what he had done or was afraid of being denounced. He asked me to shoot him once in the head. It would be a bullet of mercy, so I pulled out my 9 mm calibre Browning revolver and fired one shot. He fell to the ground.
Yes, one shot to the head was enough to kill him, and I don’t know about the other two shots. There was no need for more shots to kill the traitor, for the only punishment for a traitor is death as you know. I don’t suppose anyone in the whole world would dispute that.
Gentlemen, honour is our most precious asset. As you know, I am an honourable and courageous soldier, and so my military honour could not abide me coming across a traitor and a spy for the Americans in our unit and my not carrying out the sentence of death. There is no enigma about it at all, as I have explained to you. I came across him in the signals room and saw him laughing and speaking English with an American officer. I confronted him with the matter. He denied it however. He said he was talking to a certain corporal Adil in the Construction Unit who, like him, was practising speaking English. I knew that he wanted to deceive me. At that moment, Gentlemen, I did not have my revolver with me. But I looked to the right of the radio and noticed on the chair his 9 mm calibre Browning revolver. He sensed the danger and as he reached to get hold of it I pounced on it and snatched it from his grasp. I took two steps back. He stood there speechless, and I fired two shots straight at him, one at his heart, and the other to his balls, because a traitor is not a man.
I don’t know anything about the bullet that hit him in the head.
At that moment Signals Private Wahid came in. He came in immediately after hearing the shot that had been fired and saw the traitor spread out on the ground and me with the revolver in my hand. He was an eye-witness any way, and I suppose he told you that he entered the place after hearing the shot and found the corporal dead.
But what he said afterwards is not correct. I was not in the room at the initial moment. I was passing by in the corridor that led to the officer’s room and I passed the signals room by chance and heard Corporal Wahid asking me to come in. When I went in I found him shaking and in tears. I asked him what was wrong, and he said he had betrayed his military unit and had sullied his military honour. He had, in exchange for a sum of money, given the Americans the coordinates to enable American planes to bomb Iraqi forces. He was full of remorse for this and had decided to kill himself. I handed him my military revolver, and he took it from me with assurance. He stood in front of me, placed the revolver to his temple and fired one shot. He fell to the ground, the revolver in his hand. Then Signals Private Wahid came in. He had been smoking outside the signals room and found me standing there unarmed. The signals corporal had fallen to the ground, the revolver in his hand.
You know, Gentlemen, that Private Wahid is an ignorant fellow. He can neither read nor write. He is a peasant from the south who knows no English and does not know whether the signals corporal was speaking with the Americans or with one of his friends in the Construction Unit. But this issue does not fool me at all. I was standing near the signals room and heard strange sounds and an argument going on inside between Signals Corporal Salim and Private Wahid. The signals corporal was receiving telegrams from an unknown source, probably the Americans. In the course of the argument a shot was fired from Private Wahid’s revolver that hit the signals corporal in his balls. Private Wahid accused the signals corporal of having relations with his wife when he had sent her via him a sum of money two months earlier. The traitor had taken advantage of this and had had relations with Private Wahid’s wife, as Private Wahid himself confirmed.
You know, Gentlemen, that Private Wahid is lying when he says that the signals corporal was not speaking with the Americans. He said that he was on duty; that he was speaking with a soldier he knew in the Construction Brigade; that Corporal Wahid was asleep; and that it was me who went in and woke him up and accused him of having had relations with my wife when I asked him to take my salary to her when he was on regular leave.
It’s not like that. First of all, she isn’t my wife but Private Wahid’s wife, the man who accused him of treason. But afterwards I discovered that he had been talking with the Americans in English, and so, Gentlemen, I have not broken the law, but enforced it. The penalty for treason is death. When I caught him betraying Private Wahid and spying for the Americans, he stammered to begin with, then firmly denied it. He thought that I might let him get away with it. I said to him, “I’m not getting my own back on you, but there will be someone who does enforce the law against you.” I handed over my revolver to Private Wahid, and said to him, “Avenge your honour; this is the man who sullied your honour.”
As soon as Corporal Salim turned round, Private Wahid surprised him with a bullet to his heart. I took the revolver from Wahid and fired two shots, one at his balls so he would die without his manhood, and the other at his temple to kill him off.
The traitor, Gentlemen, deserved to die without mercy. These are our laws. He was not a human being, but a louse that had to be crushed!
Gentlemen, I am an honourable soldier. There is not a speck of dust on my honour. I have done nothing in my life out of order. It is now autumn, and this is the second year of my military service, and I don’t know why you have sent for me.
I don’t have any money and I don’t have any hopes. I never made contact with the Americans. Everything they have said about me is a fabrication to embarrass me in public, a character assassination. I did not kill Signals Corporal Salim because of a woman. The woman is my wife and not the wife of Private Wahid. He was not there and I don’t know who brought him as a witness. He did not see a thing. I have been living an insult for a long time, Gentlemen. My wife betrayed me and sullied my honour while I was here defending the honour of the fatherland. She deserved to die.
As for the signals corporal, I don’t know who killed him. Perhaps Private Wahid because one of those two was committing treason and spying for the Americans.
Much has happened to me whose meaning or causes I do not understand. The signals corporal tormented me for ages. He told me that to be a soldier in signals you had to have a voice that did not jar. You had to open your mouth and breathe out from your lungs as if you were singing. It was not necessary to speak but you had to know what you were saying.
Gentlemen, he threatened me because I was not proficient in my work. He said he would kill me and dance on my rotten corpse. He used to shout at me whenever I made a mistake in relaying messages among the officers. He spat at me. He kicked me in the stomach.
I am a humble private, Gentlemen. I haven’t slept for two months, since the beginning of the American invasion to this day. Everyone has ganged up against me: Time, Fate, the Americans, the signals corporal and my wife.
Mojito sniffs through the bars of the gate. He gets bored and comes back with muddy feet. I pet his fur. The color of tea with milk, Brenda says, as the dog licks my hands.
She needs me to take care of him while she’s away. I’m hoping she’ll offer to let me stay at her house for the two months, but I don’t say anything and she doesn’t suggest it. Would I take a peek at her panties? Yes.
I try to count the number of living things I have in my apartment. No ficus or pet or even a cactus. Only bacteria and the rotting vegetables in my fridge.
I agree. The bag of dog food weighs more than the dog.
His whines and need for affection keep me up and when I finally fall asleep I sink into an elastic and sweaty confusion that there’s no escaping.
My dreams look like a scene from Counter Strike. The terrorism of old loves. You want to rescue your hostages but it’s too late.
Headshot and out of bed to go to work.
Eight hours in the office means eight hours on the internet. You can’t talk about that.
You can talk about the open carcasses of the computers, the heat of the server room, the coffee maker that sometimes spits out dirt, the shrillness of each ring, message, and alarm that a person hears every day.
The security guard shakes my hand after I swipe the magnetic card. Aníbal spends the night in the building; he’ll be getting off work soon. I know that he hides a mattress in the basement, next to the service bathrooms.
On his netbook he watches tutorials on how to make origami. More animals than flowers.
He makes them out of the gold wrappers of the cigarettes he smokes leisurely all night or quickly, secretly during the day. Every once in a while me gives me one of his animals.
The smoke sticks to his fingers and then to the paper and then to me.
I help with the systems. There are a lot of systems and my hand dips into all of them. Always under different users, like a glove that changes color. I imagine my work like a hand tying up cables inside a bucket of Jell-O.
I’m also the one who checks what my co-workers search on Google. Some are interested in clothes or in some zodiac sign or soccer team. In my opinion our individual identities are defined by the terms we search for.
This week I’m “can you eat banana peel,” “angelface redhead on the beach,” “song that starts with biribiribiribibí,” and “name for the white part of your eye.”
I also Google my name. It relaxes me. It gives me certainty. It’s objective: that’s what I am. My boss on the other hand reads about weightlifting, cocks, and fishing. He also has braces on his teeth. According to his CV he’s one year younger than me. One Friday working late he told me that he wanted to leave everything behind and move to Italy.
But I’ve never seen that in his searches.
There are people who don’t even dare to type their dreams in Google.
The secretary calls and tells me to go up to the boss’s office on the top floor. I say I’m on my way. She’s the vegetarian version of Catwoman who keeps an Excel spreadsheet on what she steals from petty cash. I don’t read her e-mails. One time when I used the boss’s bathroom there was a strong smell of raw fish from the trashcan. The lid was on.
The boss only calls me when his computer freezes or his antivirus expires; and also when they want to scold me for something I did right but they think I did wrong. All systems leak.
Of course only the worst ones sink.
The air-conditioning is always on. The janitors move around the building from computer to computer with buckets and jugs. I stare at the painting of Rosas until the secretary gives me permission to enter the boss’s office.
Without even greeting me, my boss asks me if I want to grow. I say yes. Perfect, he smiles, great. His braces sparkle like a white dwarf star. He hands me a Blackberry and says I’m a good kid. That’s it.
I need an app that will completely uninstall my expectations.
The rest of the workday slides by. I want to configure my Gmail account on my new Blackberry but it keeps giving me an error message. I restart and it seems to have been successfully installed, but then the error message again. I take out the battery, I put the battery back in and turn it on.
Error. I shouldn’t have gotten my hopes up. In systems there’s never room to grow.
At least I manage to set the Tetris theme as my ringtone.
I leave work tired but as I begin to walk I feel my energies return. A little bit of air, unexpected cold, quick trip to the corner store where I make the rounds down the same aisles as always. I pay with exact change. I’m happy when I unlock my door on the first try.
The first thing I do when I get inside is turn on the computer. Then I turn on the light, the gas for the heater, I open Chrome, I start iTunes, I find a yogurt in the back of the fridge and shuffle takes me directly to Brenda’s favorite song. She must already be on the road, driving at night, the last CD spinning infinitely in her CD player.
Mojito falls asleep under my jacket.
Gmail Facebook Twitter Tumblr. Gmail Facebook Twitter Tumblr. The repetition unravels until all of the updates are exhausted. And then again. And Again.
News, torrents, weather forecast, subtitles, 24 hour pharmacies, movie show times. Music. Gmail Facebook Twitter Tumblr. Update. Delete. Share. Send.
Surfing the internet is like a workout routine.
Sometimes it feels like military training.
Just as I’m about to go to bed I get an e-mail. Not the one I was hoping for, never the one I was hoping for. One of my co-workers is mad about something that I supposedly did but I’m sure I didn’t do.
I mark it as spam.
Dried tea bags on my desk at work. Eye drops. Flash drives. Origami. Broken pens. A Plastic fork from the sweet and greasy Chinese takeout. The box my speakers came in filled now with I don’t know what. Breadcrumbs.
Systems are so clean in comparison, even when they don’t work.
But they never don’t work like they didn’t work today.
The chat windows in my Gtalk are full of sentences I didn’t type.
“YOU LIKE TO PUT YOUR FINGER IN YOUR ASS AND SMELL IT. FAG. AIRPLANE GREASE FAT-ASS.” Et cetera.
I try to avoid it but it’s impossible: as much as I move the cursor or sign out of Gtalk the ghost continues to send messages from my username. The majority of my contacts respond aggressively.
Some understand that it’s not me.
I try to explain to my friends what’s happening, but I don’t even know what’s happening. Most of them say okay. Not much else: okay. One of them tells me to post a message on my Facebook wall; I do it. Another one suggests I change my account; no.
I take lunch late and there are hardly any restaurants still open. As I chew a milanesa and cheese sandwich I realize that in my mass apology I must have also written to the person responsible for the messages. A co-worker, most likely.
I search the histories up to the last cleaning, but it’s too late. It’s no surprise. Links break. Servers break. Users break.
It starts with e-mails I never sent and continues with new avatars on my Facebook wall. I’m not sure if I should erase them; a lot of people have even liked them. The images came from my Tumblr account, but under a username no one knows. On the internet there are always traces for people who want to follow you.
I change all my passwords. I write them down in a notebook so I won’t forget them; my handwriting looks as foreign to me as what’s being written in my Gtalk.
For the first few days I forget I changed the passwords until sign-in fails.
Brenda took several days to get online or at least to sign on to Gtalk. It annoyed me to have to wait around in the same space that they’ve been hijacking, with me inside. There were many false alarms: whenever the computer would make any noise, like a hiccup, and it sounded like someone was trying to chat with me. Finally my status isn’t invisible and Brenda talks to me when she finally connects. She just asks me about the dog; but it makes me happy anyway.
She says that she received a pretty strange message from me on her phone, but she didn’t want to respond. It makes me sad somehow. How could she not have known that it wasn’t really from me? Then she starts telling me about her trip and we drop the subject but I’m nervous the whole time that they’ll take over my account in the middle of our conversation.
As the photos she sends upload I think about how every time we see each other she lets me use her computer, without passwords, without protests, without erasing the history. If I’d stayed at her house I’d be safe I think.
She likes to search recipes for carrot casseroles. The rest stays in her imagination. I would like one day to be able to Google “What does Brenda think about when she masturbates” and see the results appear in my browser.
Every once in a while my boss contacts me via Blackberry to tell me to hurry up with the systems I’m managing. Nothing or no one has written to him yet, but it’s possible that the secretary told him about it. I know they talk about me behind my back in the office because they talk to me to my face less and less every day.
At least Mojito barks at me when I get home from work.
Then I remember that he must be hungry.
Sometimes it’s hard for me to recognize that this is happening to me, and not some stranger who’s telling his story on a webpage devoted to secrets. I wonder if the excessive light of the monitors might be driving me mad.
I need an app that impedes me from writing this at night.
I need an app that impedes me from reading during the day.
As I shower I think: I could also track the person who’s tracking me. Something always filters through. I copy all the e-mails, all the chat messages, and all the posts into one document. I use an Excel spreadsheet to record the origin and content of each message.
It has to be a group of people that secretly hate me. I look at the faces of my co-workers and I imagine them thinking up the messages together.
Even the ones who were the victims of the joke.
Some are just insults to my contacts, gratuitous but well-reasoned and true. But there are also the miserable ones. As if my account were drunk with a score to settle and all the time in the world.
The guy who took a drink from a water bottle that was in the trash. The girl who peed in a trashcan because the bathrooms were occupied. The man who has to take his dates to hotel rooms because he still lives with his mom. The lady who’s antsy all day because she has anal parasites that stick to her underwear. The guy who has purple marks on his hands because he bites them when he’s nervous.
Admit that she doesn’t like you. She thinks you’re ugly. All she sees is your bald head. She likes dick, little guy, you know what she does with your presents? Did you really think that you could win her over with those ingenious e-mails? You’re so small that you can’t see how pathetic you are. When you smile you look like you have Down’s. Even your mom has more sex than you. She gives you pecks but with him she watches movies where they stick things in their asses. Everyone knows you’re so desperate that you show up at the clubs you know she’s going to and then say it was a coincidence. Look in the mirror, your crossed eyes, your hands the size of your feet. You’re teeth are so yellow it looks like you eat plaque for breakfast. We’re not laughing with you, we’re laughing at you.
I wake up feeling like there’s a telephone pole stuck in my back. I don’t know how I manage to get up, but I do. I serve Mojito his food and decide not to make any breakfast for myself.
Last night I left a book on top of the modem and now it’s hot like a piece of toast.
I rub it on my face. When I open it, the pages are cold.
The security guard offers me an origami of a cat made from neon green paper. He hasn’t figured out how to make the whiskers, he apologizes. Aníbal is the only employee in the office who still talks to me.
I don’t want to make the dog jealous. I leave the cat on top of the toilet in the boss’s bathroom.
I need an app that keeps me from accepting other people’s animals.
Brenda says I should get off the internet.
I can’t, I tell her, it’s part of my job. And how would we talk during your trip, I think.
It’s true that I can’t, I don’t know how. Is there any place where wifi still doesn’t reach? I wouldn’t know where to hide out. Internet is the next Soviet Union. Someday it’s going to collapse but in the meantime we’re trapped inside and subject to its whims.
Now I’m the one my e-mails are shaming. The precision of detail makes my stomach churn, as if the modem was connected directly into my digestive tract. No one could possibly know so much about me; there’s no one who knows the exact version of all my humiliations.
The computer exposes me like a nerve to all of my contacts, as if suddenly the search engine started showing all my thoughts and conversations when someone types my name.
Things I didn’t even know existed appear, things I thought no longer existed but still exist, things that remain in cache even when I know they don’t exist anymore.
The dog pissed on my collection of pirated DVDs, in the dirty clothes hamper, on my photocopies; also on the laptop. I should shut him in the patio, but deep down I’m happy to be with someone who doesn’t know anything about love, communism, or the internet.
I need an app that can clean the piss off this keyboard.
I try to erase all of my accounts, the ones that are linked to my name and the ones that aren’t. The ones for work and the ones for pleasure. Credit cards, newspapers, magazines, games, porn.
The pages either say they’re under maintenance, or an error message pops up when I finish the configuration, or there’s simply no way to delete the account.
I stop going to work. The computer’s fan sounds like the wind, or a snowstorm when it’s working hard. I’m tired like a computer that gets restarted every once in a while but hasn’t been unplugged in too long. For the first time, I make a place for Mojito under the covers. His snout is cold and his fur the color of tea with milk is warm.
My boss calls me on the Blackberry. Will the systems keep running without me?
I let the Tetris theme play.
I decide to turn off the computer. First I just want to reread one more time the last conversation I had with Brenda, but the connection is down. I keep trying for several hours.
When the internet returns it’s nighttime and all my contacts are connected. A video recorded on a webcam has gone viral from my Facebook account. As it loads I see the final image: it’s me, sitting in front of the computer; on my desk there’s an origami animal that I don’t have yet.
I hear myself squeal like a girl until I come. “Look, you have come all over your hands,” I hear Brenda’s voice on the video. I turn off the speaker but I know what she’s going to say: “Lick them.”
As I close the video the Facebook notifications continue to grow exponentially.
I was away from my children for a while. They’d gone to the seaside with my sister and my mother, I stayed in the city, my mother was angry at me because I wrote and showed myself nowhere often enough. I’d talk about work appointments, none of which existed. I lived in a small hotel whose caretaker reeked, the smell of her body and her dress had risen violently with the heat. I’d head to the office every day, but I worked very little, I mostly went to the office to pretend I was a man, I was tired of being a woman. Everyone seems to enjoy entertaining for a while a role that isn’t theirs, the role I played was that of a man, I’d sit at the filthy office table and eat at an osteria, lazily hang out on the streets and in cafés with friends, come home late at night. I’d surprise myself thinking how different my life had once been, when I cradled my children and I cooked and I washed, how there’s always so many ways to live, and each of us can make a new being of ourselves, at times even enemies of each other. Then I got bored of that new role I was playing too, I’d be living the same life without any of the pleasure in it. But I wouldn’t go to my mother’s, at the seaside, I wanted to be away from the kids, be alone: I thought I couldn’t show myself to them as I was at that moment, with that loathing in my heart, I felt like I’d loathe them too if I ended up seeing them. I often thought it was like elephants and how they hide away to die. They hide to die, they spend a long time in the jungle looking for a secluded spot, full of trees, to hide the shame of their big, tired body dying. It was summer, summer was hot, blazing in the big city, and whenever I cycled on the tarmac under the trees, my heart was choked by a feeling of loathing and love towards every road, every house of that city, and several memories were born of different natures, burning like the sun, as I fled, ringing my bell. Giovanna was waiting for me in a café: when I left the office, in the evening, and I’d sit next to her at the table, I’d show her my mother’s letters. She knew I wanted to die, that’s why we no longer had that much more to say to each other, but we still sat one opposite the other, smoking, blowing away the smoke through closed lips. I wanted to die because of a man, but also because of so many other things, because I owed my mother money, and because the caretaker stank, and because summer was hot, blazing, in the city full of memories and roads, and because I thought that I could be of no use to anyone, in that state.
So my children – just as they had lost their father one day – would also lose their mother but it didn’t matter, because the loathing and shame assault us at a certain moment in life, and no one has the power to help us when they do. It was a Sunday afternoon, I’d bought some sleeping pills from a pharmacy. I walked all day in the empty city, thinking about me and my children. Bit by bit I was losing awareness of their young age, the timbre of their young voices had died in me; I told them everything, about the pills and the elephants, of the caretaker and what they should do when they grew up, how to defend themselves from what would happen. But then I suddenly saw them as I had last seen them, on the floor, playing with bowling pins. And the echo of those thoughts and words resounded in the silence, I was stunned by seeing how alone I was, alone and free in the empty city, with the power to harm myself as much as I desired. I went home and took the pills, I dissolved all of their contents in a glass of water, I couldn’t figure out if I wanted to sleep for a very long time or die. The caretaker came the following morning, she found me asleep and after a while went to call for a doctor. I stayed in bed for a week, and Giovanna would come every day and she’d bring me oranges and ice. I’d tell her that those who have a loathing growing in their heart should not be alive, and she’d smoke in silence and watch me, blowing away the smoke through closed lips. Other friends would come too, and everyone gave me a piece of their mind, everyone wanted to teach me what I had to do now. But I’d reply that those who have a loathing growing in their heart should not be alive. Giovanna told me to leave the small hotel and move in with her for a while. She lived alone with a Danish girl who walked around the place barefoot. I didn’t feel like dying now, but I didn’t feel like living either, and I lazily hung out at the office or in the streets, with friends, people who wanted to teach me how to save myself. In the mornings, Giovanna would slip on a prune-coloured towelling robe, brush the hair away from her forehead and wave at me with disdain. In the mornings, the Danish girl would walk barefoot into the bedroom, and start writing all the dreams she’d had the previous night on a typewriter. One night she’d dreamt that she picked up an axe and killed her mother and father. But she really loved her mother and father. They were waiting for her in Copenhagen but she didn’t want to move back, because she said we all need to live away from our roots. She’d read out loud to us her mother’s letters. Giovanna’s mother had died and she had arrived too late to see her die, when she was still alive they had tried to no avail to talk to each other. I’d say that a mother is only needed by children when they’re small, to feed them and cradle them, but then she’s pointless and it’s pointless to talk to her. You can’t even tell her the simplest of things and so what can she do to help? She becomes a burden with that silence that is born out of trying to talk to each other. I’d say that my children no longer needed me, because they no longer needed to be fed and cradled, kids with dirty knees and patches on their shorts, and they weren’t old enough to be able to talk to each other either. But Giovanna would say that there’s only one good way to live, and it’s to get on a train headed to some foreign country, possibly at night. She had everything she needed for a trip at home, she had several thermos holders and many suitcases of all sorts, and even a sick bag for the plane. The Danish girl would tell me to write down my dreams, because our dreams tell us what we’re meant to do, and she’d tell me I should think back to my childhood and talk about it, because the secret of who we are is hidden in our childhood. But my childhood felt so remote and distant, and so remote was the face of my mother, and I was tired of all this thinking about myself, I wanted to look at others and understand what I was like. So I started watching people as I lazily hung out in cafés and on the streets, men and women with their children, maybe some of them had once had that loathing in their heart, then time had passed and they’d forgotten. Maybe someone had waited pointlessly on the corner of a street once, or someone had walked for a whole day in the silence of the dusty city, or someone looked at a dead person’s face and asked them for forgiveness. One day I got a letter from my mother, telling me that the kids had scarlet fever. And so the ancient motherly anxiety paralysed my heart. I took the train and left. Giovanna came with me to the station, and she smelled the smell of trains with desire, brushing the hair away from her forehead with her disdainful smile.
With my forehead stuck to the glass, I watched the city move further away, empty of any evil power by now, cold and harmless as spent embers. The ancient, known motherly anxiety was turmoiling inside me along with the thundering of the train, crushing like a storm the Danish girl, Giovanna, the small hotel’s caretaker, the sleeping pills and the elephants, as I wondered bemusedly to myself how I could’ve been so interested in such trivial things for a whole summer.
I could smell the stench of death. From the first shades of darkness, I smelt the stench of death. A stench above me, a stench below me. Wherever I turned, I smelt the same stench. A putrid smell, like the smell of burning human flesh. Little by little, it flooded my nostrils. I tried to evade it but it pursued me. I turned to the right but it came up behind. I turned to the left but it struck my nostrils all the more. Whenever I ran away, it assailed me more. Where did this hateful smell come from? Who was forcing it up my nose?
The stench became unbearable. I had to overcome it. From my earliest days, I was accustomed to facing up to fears rather than run away from them. So why could I not outface this stench? I ran into the darkened street, guided by that stench. I ran and ran and ran until the stench was right under my nose. Then I stopped. My eyes lit upon a door that was beginning to open very slowly. My eyes were unable to distinguish the surrounds of the door. All I could be sure of was that the door was opening. I went in. The stench hit me full blast. I tried to block my nose with my hands but was unable to do so. My hands were helpless, not responding to what I wanted. I looked right and left, in an attempt to get away from the stench. But it only became stronger.
There I was, listening to the smell, hissing at me, “Where will you run from me? Whatever you do, I will catch you.”
I replied, my tongue frozen in my mouth, “What have I done to you to make you pursue me so ruthlessly?” I tried to move my neck to getaway. It came on even more strongly. Its voice was not unfamiliar. It was like the voice of my ailing wife on her death bed. I wanted to make sure of something deep down. “Who are you?” I asked the voice.
“Do you really want to know?” it asked.
I tried to go back in time to the day I found a treasure that I had spent nights and nights seeking. That day I came to my wife, with darkness in my soul and the scant light of the treasure on my lips. I was wondering how I could persuade her to love me after about half a century of being together but with hatred evident, in every gesture, she flung in my face. I dropped the treasure at her feet. I told myself that now she would love me. I was giving her what she had wanted and sought ever since she was a child.
My helpless old wife clutched the treasure as if she wanted to tell me without saying the words that the treasure was no longer mine but had become her exclusive property. I did not argue. I wanted to make her love me. I was sick of hatred. I could bear it no longer.
“This is yours,” I said. “All of it.” My wife seemed taken aback at my words. That was the first and last time that she was taken aback at anything I said. She asked me whether anyone knew about this treasure. I shook my head. I wanted to say that it all belonged to us, both of us. Fifty years of anger flashed from her eyes. I could tell from her look that she wanted the treasure all to herself. I tried to make her feel that it did belong to her and that all I asked for was that she loved me a little. She just clutched the treasure tighter and tighter. I understood that she had finally found what might make her happy even if only a little. Let it be so! But she would not want to love me even if I gave her the treasures of Korah. I knew that all the treasure in the world could not purchase the heart of a woman filled with hate. But it was something I had to try in that total darkness.
I turned round in this room that was full of the stench of death. Everything was in utter darkness. I went back to my wife and saw her clutching the treasure with an awful strength. Days and nights passed by and my wife clutched the treasure. She was cut off from the world, asking for nothing, not even food or drink. All her concerns were about clinging on to her beloved, her treasure. I felt she had found a substitute for everything that surrounded her. I realised behind time that it was I who had presented her with this substitute. I said to myself, “So be it. Half a century of hatred has gone by. And in exchange . . . trying to get closer to her and persuade her to love me. There’s no harm in keeping on trying.”
As I wandered among bats and jackals in the dark nights I always ended up stopping in the same place in front of her in the same room. The sight of her had not changed. My wife had cut herself off from the world, and my dream was limited to getting her back to it, then if I was able to bring her back to her normal life perhaps she would love me. Without much reflection I started offering her whatever was good and sweet from the fruits of the night. I piled them up before her in the hope she would take something that would nourish and strengthen her and make her carry on living. Perhaps then she would come to me that very night. Except she took nothing. I came back to her with more fruits and piled them up before her in the hope she would eat a very little. I was surprised whenever I came to her in her room and she was staring at the huge pile of food in front of her without stretching out her hand to it. I took one of the large pieces of fruit and offered it to her in the hope she was conscious of me, but she turned her face away. She stuck her tongue out in revulsion. I felt the fruit with my hand. It was a big apple. I turned away – it had gone rotten and there were maggots crawling out of it.
My wife started wasting away until I could hardly see her. If it had not been for the treasure in her grasp, perhaps it would have been impossible to see her. As she wasted away, I observed that disease was ravaging my wife. I had no alternative but to take her to the doctor but she refused. I felt she was afraid that I would take the treasure from her and keep it for myself. Perhaps it occurred to her that I might look for another woman to love me after all that overwhelming hatred that had endured to feeble old age. Still, I tried to convince her to see the doctor and to go through with an operation which I knew was risky, but that was better than sleepwalking to death. She went on refusing.
Thus we both found, she first of all and then myself — although the truth was completely the opposite, me first, then her — that we were in a dilemma. I wanted her to have an operation that might save her life, she refused so that I did not take her treasure, which earlier had been mine. Time passed hurling me from blackness to blackness. I grew tired waiting at the edge of the dark and the mist, and I surrendered to fitful sleep.
I saw my wife get up, lift the treasure, and crash it down on my head with all the strength of her weakness. She shouted at me, saying I wanted to make her have an operation to give me the chance to seize the treasure and to enjoy a happy life with one of the virgins of Paradise. She continued to bash the treasure on my head. Blood gushed until it was not long before I was like some fountain. After that my wife poured a burning substance over me. The smell of burning flesh spread from my body pervading the streets and the darkness. Meanwhile I left my own body. I saw her cast beside my corpse. I cried out, “Has my wife died?” I carried on screaming while I ran in flames through the streets… the stench of death in my wake.
Ricardo González loved to go to the cinema. His first major cinematic memory, many years ago now, was of a black-and-white film about cops and robbers. Before that he only went to the cinema occasionally, once or twice a month, but after that film everything changed. As he was leaving the theatre he felt a pressing need to watch the movie again. So he did. He sat in front of the same black-and-white scenes once more, closely following the robbers’ flight from the police. They stole an armoured car but were never able to break into it. Ricardo González knew that the other spectators didn’t know how the movie ended, and he wanted to talk to someone about it. He looked at the person sitting in the seat next to him and who was enthralled by the masterful scene in which one of the crooks stretches out his hand to pick up a guard’s gun, unaware that the guy is still alive. But Ricardo González didn’t know any of the people sitting near him; they were all strangers. In the end everything goes wrong for the thieves and the girl. She and the leader of the gang throw themselves off a cliff. The word “End” came up on screen, and Ricardo realized from what people were saying that the film hadn’t been a hit. It was rubbish, they said, the ending was confusing. Ricardo walked the city for hours, surprised at the audience’s reaction. He thought about the film, wondering whether he had been mistaken about how good it was. The ending wasn’t difficult at all; it was very easy to follow! The boss and the girl commit suicide, that much was obvious. What was it that people didn’t understand? He felt that he didn’t know enough about films to make a definitive judgement one way or the other, so his doubts remained. Maybe if he talked about it with someone, if he met someone in the street and asked them what they thought of the movie… But there wasn’t anyone around he could ask. The best idea would be to go back to the theatre the next day.
As he gave back Ricardo’s ticket, the usher smiled in recognition. “At least somebody likes the flop,” he said behind Ricardo’s back. “The guy who just went in has seen it about eight times.”
Ricardo González sat in the same seat as he had for the previous screenings. He anxiously waited for the lights to go down. He now knew that the actor who played the gang leader was called Rod Steiger, while the girl was played by Nadja Tiller. He followed the plot in a cold sweat. During the final scene, when Steiger and the girl tell the police that they’re “coming down” from the mountain, Ricardo saw that, once again, the audience wasn’t getting it.
“They kill themselves. They throw themselves off a cliff,” he shouted, standing up on his seat and cupping his hands to project his voice.
He was hit by a wave of voices telling him to shut up, but he ignored them.
“The camera is filming from below. They choose to commit suicide instead of giving themselves up to the police. Don’t you see?” he shouted again. That was when he was pulled off his perch by three employees.
“The only good thing about that waste of time was the guy who started shouting in the middle of the theatre,” said a woman in a purple dress as she headed for the exit.
The best thing about going to the movies is sharing in people’s pleasure as they leave the auditorium after a great film, or, if the film is bad, when we shout for our money back. That’s what’s so great about Saturdays. I see the couples going into the theatre holding hands, and I love them because I know that that’s what’s most important. On Saturday people are happy and talk a lot, so I can hear what they’re saying. I can be close to groups of people talking about the film and find out whether I agree with them or not. Sundays are good, too, but different. People go to the movies, but their faces are no longer flushed with joy. Monday is too close, I think. On Sundays I rarely get to find out what people thought of the film.
But if I had someone who liked the movies, things would be much easier. Yes, we could go to the movies every day, we wouldn’t care if the theatre was empty, and then talk about it as we stroll through the city. That would be very good for me, especially on days of the week when hardly anyone goes to the cinema. It’s depressing sitting on your own, but if I didn’t go, what else would there be for me to do? Often, on Mondays, when I’m only accompanied by three or four bitter-looking people, I consider leaving. One day I’ll set out into the city to find people who I know like cinema and then arrange to meet up with them on Saturdays at such and such a theatre. For example, I could look for the girl with the nice hair who comes with her boyfriend and is always smiling. She must know a lot about the movies because she comes almost twice a week. If I found someone to talk to, I’d tell them everything, from the first film to the last. One day I’ll do it. I promise.
You’re a Big Boy Now was only screened for three days. Ricardo González saw it on all three showings on Friday and came back on Saturday. It was on that Saturday that the audience angrily began to ask for their money back just half an hour in. Because no one paid them any attention, they started to throw greasy popcorn cartons around as well as a number of shoes that crashed against the screen. They even had to turn up the lights and inform the audience that the management reserved the right to eject anyone causing a disruption. The lights went down again and people went on making a fuss, but the management didn’t eject anyone. Ricardo, shaking with anger, wondered why they didn’t stop the screening or why people didn’t simply leave if they didn’t like the movie. For him, the film was one long ordeal as he looked up apologetically at the new guy and the debutante, begging the beautiful Elizabeth Hartman and Francis Ford Coppola in the name of all true lovers of cinema to forgive such awful behaviour. Once the film came to an end Ricardo González joined the crowd of unruly people. The girl with pretty hair was there. Ricardo came up behind her to hear her opinion, but she wasn’t saying anything at all; she was just beaming up at her boyfriend. Ricardo González thought incredulously that she was too pretty not to have anything to say after watching a movie as lovely as You’re a Big Boy Now.
If she says something about how much she liked the film I’ll go over to congratulate her. But she’s not saying a word; all she does is smile and smile.
“It was a great film, the best I’ve seen this year.” These words came from very close by. Ricardo González turned around, his eyes wide and his mouth clamped shut, looking for the person who had uttered them: it was a fat young man stuffed into a pair of jeans who continued to enumerate the qualities of the film to his excessively hostile audience. But Ricardo felt no sympathy for the man’s plight. What he felt was admiration. He wanted to run up to the fat man, hug him and shout that he felt similarly about Coppola’s film. But he restrained himself; it would be better to wait until they left the theatre. He watched the man slip away from the crowd and stand under the film poster. Ricardo followed him and was happy to see that he had come on his own. He must also be looking for someone he can talk to about films, he thought as the fat man set off down the avenue.
Realizing that he was letting his best chance of starting a conversation get away, Ricardo González walked behind the fat man, thinking about what he’d say to break the ice. Respect, man, you know your films. That’s how people talk in the city. And when the fat man asked him what he had done to deserve the compliment, Ricardo would tell him that he felt the same way about You’re a Big Boy Now, and they’d pity the poor morons who hadn’t got it. Then they’d go to a soda fountain somewhere or walk along with their hands in their pockets, talking about the best films they’d ever seen: Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits; the one by Carol Reed called Prófugo de su pasado in Spanish. Do you know it? I think it has an Englishman, a little old Englishman. Profugo de su pasado, starring Laurence Harvey and Alan Bates – it’s pronounced “Beits”. No? And Lee Remick, a stunner with good teeth. In English it’s called The Running Man or The Ballad of the Running Man – more poetic, don’t you think? It’s a fantastic thriller. And they’d also talk about Robert Wise, the films he made before he started to make movies just to win Oscars. They’d talk about La mansión de los espectros – Hill House or The Haunted, something like that. I always get confused between the Spanish and English titles, not to mention the title of the novel on which the film is based. I never know which is which. Hill House, a film about ghosts starring Julie Harris – that’s the way to do it, I’d say with subtlety and respect. And I’d also tell him that I’ve been coming to the cinema since I was a baby, but I’ve never had anyone to talk to about it. This is the first time I’ve ever been able to share my thoughts. He’d wait a couple more blocks and then approach the fat man. Hey, I liked You’re a Big Boy Now, too. All hail Francis Ford Coppola.
The fat man took his hands out of his pockets and stopped walking. A few paces behind him, Ricardo González did the same. The fat man looked over his shoulder as though something had fallen out of his pocket. He looked behind him and saw Ricardo smiling at him. That was all Ricardo could manage, a smile, as he waited for the fat man to come back and shake his hand. You’ve just been to the movies, haven’t you? Seeing that the fat man wasn’t moving, Ricardo thought that he might be waiting for him to come over. But he was wrong about that, too. The fat man put his hands back in his pockets and went on, a little faster now.
It was getting dark; they’d walked a long way. Ricardo told himself, speeding up a little, that he’d say something to the man at the next corner. You know your films. You liked You’re a Big Boy Now, didn’t you? The fat man got to the corner, looked over his shoulder a second time, and Ricardo smiled again, thinking that now he’d stop. But he didn’t. He crossed the road, hurrying to the right. Ricardo, confused, almost ran to the corner and crossed the road, too. To his amazement, the fat man had disappeared. Ricardo González shielded his eyes with his hands to see if the man walking in the distance in the weak late-evening light was the person he was looking for. No, he wasn’t. Worried, he wondered what might have happened to his friend. Where did you go, man? I wanted to talk to you about You’re a Big Boy Now. It’s a great movie, isn’t it?
Then he saw him. The door to a yellow house opened, and his friend’s sizeable body appeared. His hands were shoved into the pockets his jeans, and he was staring at Ricardo, who had already begun to smile and introduce himself when he caught sight of the others.
“Good afternoon,” said Ricardo. That was a bad start. In this town, people say hello with a “Hey” or a “What’s up?”
The fat man didn’t answer; he just stared. Behind him four young men emerged, followed by a fifth, who closed the door to the yellow house behind him.
“You liked the movie, didn’t you?” Ricardo stammered, coming closer.
“Don’t touch me, you faggot,” the fat man said after hesitating for a moment. “Stay away from me.”
“Let’s smash his face in,” said a boy who looked like the fat man but was incredibly skinny.
“What?” Ricardo González asked. “No, I came to talk to him,” he said, pointing at the fat man. “To discuss the film. I’m telling the truth, ask him. You went to see You’re a Big Boy Now, didn’t you?”
“What’s wrong? Couldn’t you find any of your little friends at the theatre?” asked the fat man, slapping away the hand Ricardo had proffered.
“No, you don’t understand, there’s been a misunderstanding. I just came to talk about the film. You liked it, didn’t you?”
“No, I didn’t like it.”
And so Ricardo González was beaten up. He felt the first blow at the back of his head while he was still trying to process the fat man’s answer. Then came the fat man’s fist and his face behind it; something hit his back, and the boys started to crow gleefully. If they hit me there again I’ll burst, but there won’t be any blood. I’ll just burst. He said that he didn’t like the film… but that wasn’t him… I came to talk about the film… I think that your mama is calling the boys in for dinner… Look at those ripe mangos… This kind of thing doesn’t happen here… Everyone in this city loves everyone else… Then his body hit something hard, the welcoming cement, on which a puddle soon began to form.
I’ve been coming to the cinema for so long that I can even tell how the people on the screen smell. A little while ago I saw a movie by Peter Collinson, The Long Day’s Dying, a long, long day on which the only thing they do is kill because even when they die they kill: they kill themselves. But a multitude of Saturdays and Sundays and many, many films have come and gone, and I doubt there’s a single person in the city as happy as I am when I see that the people who have come to the cinema agree with me about a film. One of these days I’m going to say hello to all my friends, all the girls who sit next to me, but once begun it would never end. That girl with the pretty hair has disappeared; she must have moved. The guy who was with her keeps coming, only now he’s accompanied by a different girl, one with green eyes and black hair. They’re my friends, too. They give me an affectionate hello when they see me. Many stories have been shown on the screen on many different Saturdays, and I’m happy when people leave wowed by a film by Polanski, or Winner, or Peter Watkins, or Pontecorvo, and also when the guy telling the story is Stuart Rosenberg, the guy from La leyenda del indomable starring Paul Newman. Have you seen it? Yes, Cool Hand Luke. Don’t moan. You know very well that I have to say the original title when they get it wrong in Spanish. I wait eagerly for Saturday to come around, to say hello to my friends and chat as we walk around the city, remembering Kim Novak in The Legend of Lylah Clare by Robert Aldrich, admitting that we’re head over heels in love with Lee Remick, Shirley MacLaine or Anjanette Comer when she played a Mexican alongside Marlon Brando, and also that we loved Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion. And why not occasionally recall the films of the late Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, speculating about the car accident in which they were killed? We make fun of them, but we also remember them fondly. And the weekends, the routine never changes, when we go to second- or third-class theatres to catch anything we might have missed. For example, a short while ago we got to see The Chase by Arthur Penn, and I leave holding her hand, remembering the final scenes in Blow-Up – you know, my love, the one where a man wanders through the city and sees a pair of lovers that would make an excellent photo, the very image of love, but the picture of love turns out to be about crime and death, and the man doesn’t want to let it go because it’s the only important thing ever to happen to him in his sorry life. But that’s impossible, my love, you can’t survive like that. It’s better to join the happy people who have the good fortune not to be thinkers. To survive you have to know how to play tennis without a ball or a racket. So, here we have the city, I live in the city, I watch films, and I’m happy.
What Ricardo González would like most in life would be to talk about a film he saw a long time ago, a cowboy film, Journey to Shiloh, which has war scenes borrowed from another film. It’s the only youthful film about the US Civil War. It’s about seven boys from Texas running around searching for something, but they don’t know what. He’d like to tell someone how great some of the scenes in that movie are, but he doesn’t, he knows that he mustn’t say anything, and when he leaves the theatre he walks the city streets talking to himself and staring at the ground. He knows the pavements by heart, reliving the colours, emotions and words he saw on the screen.
Because Ricardo González still loves to go to the cinema.
Hadiya would visit us with her mother. On sunny days, we did our homework together under the grapevine; in winter, we did it by the stove. Her books were often torn: she didn’t like books or school. I held back my anger and reasoned it didn’t mean there was anything wrong with her. She was such a beauty, white as milk, her eyes pools of honey. Her beautiful plaits were fit for a man to hang himself with, or be led to the gardens of eternity by. Beautiful girls have no need for school; they themselves are knowledge, culture, and poetry. They are the prize.
I reproached her for being careless with her books. Unlike me with my tiny pot of glue that dried out as soon as I opened it, her father had a bucket full of glue always exposed to the air. Ever since I discovered the miracle of white glue, I was drawn to her damaged books, repairing and binding them to heal their wounds. While I repaired her textbooks and notebooks, I reveled in the clean smell of the glue and the film it formed as it dried on my forefinger. I would peel it off happily, as day peeled off the skin of night.
In the neighborhood, I was known as the book repairer. Fathers sent me their copies of the Quran, and I reacquainted the leaves separated by the fingers of time. I learned how to sew the spines of the books. I even repaired the leather-hard covers of the Qurans from the mosque, although the worshipers warned me that they were endowments. Nevertheless, I kept repairing them in secret.
Hadiya and I were neighbors and we shared a long narrow alleyway, only wide enough for two people to walk, holding hands across the edges of a stone gutter—it was the only alleyway of its kind in the entire town.
Our front door faced Hadiya’s, which had a brass latch plated with a design in zinc. Along the middle of the alleyway ran an open culvert that collected the rain and made it stream over a Sakia wheel—her father was a carpenter. Hadiya liked rivers and making boats, while I liked binding books and making bird traps. In other words, she loved tearing and I loved pasting. Her paper boats were always well crafted, while mine listed, capsized, and sunk.
My mom asked Hadiya’s mother for Hadiya’s hand for me as, one winter, we clustered around the stove roasting chestnuts and smelling the aroma of roasting orange peel. Hadiya’s mother agreed, and Hadiya smiled her consent. I assured my bride that she was free to tear up her books because I’d repair them all when we got married. But something unexpected happened. As if by magic, Hadiya grew up. And treacherously behind my back, she got engaged again. Beautiful girls get engaged in a flash, plucked from the bunch like the first ripe grapes of summer.
When my mom reminded Hadiya’s mother that Hadiya was engaged to me, Hadiya’s mom disagreed, saying that I was Hadiya’s milk brother and forbidden to her. My mom argued it depended on how often the suckling took place; two feedings did not make her forbidden. But Hadiya’s mom claimed she had fed me to satiety for an entire year. If only I had stayed unfed. If only we hadn’t grown up, the little lambs hadn’t grown up. I believe that my mom lied about the number of feedings. Defeated, she knew her son, who played with marbles and chased birds with traps and worms, couldn’t outpace Hadiya in the race to grow up, even if he drank rivers of milk and honey.
I wasn’t too upset; I was still her brother. And what could be better than the striking Hadiya, who turned overnight into a mighty fine woman like her mother Hawa, being my sister? I admitted defeat. I only had two options available, a victorious lover or a defeated brother.
But Hadiya changed. All I wished for was that she would say hello back. On the narrow lane, it was as if a butterfly passed alongside when she was going to school and I was coming home—boys had school in the morning, girls in the afternoon. I would say hello and she wouldn’t respond. She just kept going as if a ghost had gone by! Perhaps I had gotten thinner and she couldn’t see me, or her fiancé ordered her to cut me. She became a butterfly, while I stayed stuck to the ground with white glue like the cover of a book. Wherever I went, I carried the glue pot. I wanted to paste clouds to the sky, street to street, north to south. The butterfly flew far away to countries where enormous boats traversed majestic rivers.
Hadiya left school, and her marriage was celebrated in a magnificent wedding ceremony that felt like a funeral. Her marriage contract was the only paper that I doubted I would restore if I found it torn. I asked my dad to open a door onto the street at the front of the house instead of onto the narrow lane that depressed me, lined as it was with the debris of sunken paper boats. In its gutter, I buried my bundle of precious memories. I became a disobedient child and deserved the Lord’s anger. I refused to visit, even during Feasts, my second mom’s house, Hadiya’s mom, who had made me replete me with poisonous feedings.
My mother tried to comfort me when I removed the film of white glue from my wounded finger. She said, “Oh, my son, son of my flesh, apple of my eye, you will grow up and repair all the books in the world. Then you will get married to one a thousand times more beautiful than her. I will bring up my grandsons and marry them to fair wives.”
I no longer saw Hadiya everywhere. I didn’t have her photo, although I wished I had kept one of her torn books. Her handwriting was messy; dots hovered like bees around the inconsistent letters. Still, I had loved it and it had intoxicated me. I used to ask her to write my name in honey on my books and on the walls. She signed them as if she were a film star, her handwriting an old master painting.
The river in our town dried up. The winds buffeted my paper ships as they lay wrecked on the shores. My wealth of hellish colored marbles got lost in the oceans. My memories stuck together with glue until they were completely erased. I had stitched together thousands of pages using the white glue. I had caught hundreds of birds and then freed them again in hope of good news, but I never found anyone more beautiful than Hadiya; my heart remained torn to pieces, its yellow pages have strewn everywhere like autumn leaves. I waited for Hadiya to repair the cover of my heart and its lost pages just like I had repaired her books and paper.
She forgot her brother who once shared her mom’s milk and the glue flowing from my mom’s breast. She also forgot her lover, who travelled with her across the seas, for them to live on desert islands and shepherd flocks of gazelles, elephants and tame dinosaurs with beaks; her lover, who, like a tobacco addict, still carried a pot of glue with him wherever he went, in an effort to bear the pains of his broken heart. With the glue of his pure-white soul that had been torn apart thousands of times, he mended thousands of books; books of love, philosophy, religion, and the world, science and poetry; books in Arabic and those translated from the languages of jinn, man and bird. Between their lines, behind the shadow of the words, under the rubble of numbers, he searched for her ghost and the scent of orange peel diffusing like perfume over the hell of longing.