High up, stretching into the sky, loomed the tower of the fair princess. It was made of pure crystal and its pinnacle was bedecked with gold and precious stones. All around it, a multi-hued, large rose garden spread out. From amongst the thin net of narrow golden paths, perfumed flowerbeds, with countless roses, looked out; red as the setting sun, white as the wings of the Cabbage Whites, pink as the heavens at the brink of dawn, and yellow as the golden curls adorning the fair head of their mistress, the princess. Both beautiful and humble. Each one ten times more glorious and pleasing to the eye than the diamonds, sapphires and aquamarines bejewelling the tower’s crystal. Every single one, a little sun.
And glorious fragrances rose into the sky from the flowerbeds, like wondrous sounds of music, and blended together to become one choir, an ode to beauty. And for all those who saw this glory with their own eyes and listened to the song of fragrances – be they gloomy and their sorrow was forgotten; be they anguished and their torment was unheeded; be they dead and they would come back to life. The garden was surrounded by a tall, thick marble wall that distinguished it from the world around. Roses coiled against the wall, but not one of them dared ascend to the edge and raise her head beyond the kingdom of flowers. And the gate to the garden was locked shut, and hard metal bolts were always suspended across it.
Every morning, bright and early, as the sun rose, the first beams cast their light on the top of the tower, making the crystal glimmer and glisten and glow in a multitude of colours, and as the soft breeze moved the silver bells hanging in the window of the princess’ bedroom, she would walk down to her garden. Her little feet would stroke the ground as she walked, and the rim of her white, light, fragrant dress caressed her pink heels. She would reach the well, draw water from it, and, with her own two narrow hands, as delicate as the wings of white doves, she would water her flowers, one row after the other, flying from one flowerbed to the next, pouring fresh water over the buds, and they would bow to her in gratitude. When she was done, she would walk amongst the flowers to see that nothing had happened to them during the night. And if a rose was bent, she would straighten it; if it had been uprooted, she would plant it once more; if it had wilted, she would snip it off the bush and cast it far from her. And after combing the flowerbeds for thistles, brambles and weeds, she would scatter golden sand along the paths. This was how her day passed.
And when the sun started setting and pink mist began drifting through the air, the wondrous one would again walk the length and width of her garden and kneel next to each rose; and with her lips, which were as sweet as the taste of cherry nectar, she would kiss every flower. And after her kiss, the flowers were ten times as splendid and as beautiful, and their fragrance twenty times as powerful and intoxicating. The princess, dazed by the scent of her own flowers, would go up to her room in the tower and surrender herself to a blue night, full of dreams.
And beyond the wall was a large city, crowded and squalid. Long, narrow and grimy streets twisted through it like snakes. Tall grey houses with small dirty windows and rusted roofs stood crammed together, making it seem as if each one wanted to push the other and take its place. And thousands of factory chimneys raised their heads upwards, piping the black smoke into the sky. Outside of town, there were green pools of water that reeked, desolate fields whose crops grew low and meagre, and old, pitiful ramshackle houses. And only the wonderful scent of the roses, which emanated from the princess’ garden and lingered in the air, would shed a bit of comfort on this rancid city.
Every morning, when the clouded sky turned a little brighter, and all the factories’ chimneys roared their awful roar in one wild chorus, the inhabitants of the city would leave their houses. Their hair was unkempt, their eyes reddened with tears and sleeplessness. Their lips were pale and withered, their clothes made of a rough fabric, torn and grey like the dust of the roads. Even the heads of the children bowed down, and no one dared raise their voice in laughter. Group after group they would walk to the workshops and factories to toil away. And then each one would stiffen in his task. One hunched his back over a needle throughout the long grey day, another incessantly turned the wheel of a machine, the next dug a hole in a ground as hard as stone, another kept throwing wood into the mouth of a burning furnace, large drops of sweat rolling down his sooty body. And in the evening, when the yellow street lamps were lit and their murky light washed over the whole city, the people, dead tired, left their work and went outside, hurrying to their homes to quickly satiate themselves on a dry slice of bread, fall asleep and forget everything, everything.
And on their way home, they were accompanied by the factories’ second roar.
And three times a year only, on the days of the great holidays, the city would transform itself. The narrow streets were cleaner then, a strange smile appeared on the houses and in the little windows white curtains gleamed. On such days, the factories’ chimneys would remain silent and people would stay home until late. And then they would come out, fresh and with a smile on their lips, washed and wearing festive speckled clothes. They all hurried to the field outside the princess’ garden, and there they would stand and wait in anticipation.
At twelve noon, the princess, in all the glory of her beauty, would appear on the wall, her white attire coming down in folds on the wall’s marble, and within her soft face, between her eyelids, two blue eyes glistened, like pools of water among the reeds. On her arm hung a large basket and in it wonderful roses from her garden. For a while she would look down at the speckled field, where thousands of bright, eye-fetching colours burnt in the light of the sun, and then, with her long fingers, she would take the flowers out of her basket and throw them one-by-one to the expectant crowd below. And they would grab each flower and tear it into tiny pieces; and whoever came across even one petal would be elated.
And after the princess had shared her gifts, she would step down off the wall and into the garden, and there she would listen to the songs of joy sung by the dispersing crowed. The notes were powerful and full of hope. They rang through the clear air like the laughter of thunder in a spring sky and grew silent only as evening descended.
The next day the princess would resume her work in the rose garden. And, on the other side of the wall, the hard day-to-day life would also recommence.
Once there was a drought. The barren soil outside the city yielded only very little, and the low, meagre crops were singed as they budded. The wells and pools dried up, the tiles that paved the city streets burnt like coals, and the dust rose high up, enshrouding everything. The people despaired from hunger and thirst. They hunched their backs even lower. Their faces were pale and bleak, their eyes were on fire and their fists became clenched. And when the holiday arrived, none of the city’s inhabitants wore their speckled clothing. Sooty and dirty, wearing torn clothes, they gathered on the field outside the princess’ house and waited impatiently for her arrival. She was a little late that morning: “How beautiful the flowers are this year! And the basket so full. How happy they will be when I bring the roses to them,” she thought. But the strange voices that she heard from beyond the wall startled her. “What is it?” she wondered, “For I have never heard sounds such as these before, and why haven’t I?” She finally made her mind up and started climbing, and as she climbed strange wailing reached her ears – the sound of children crying, and women groaning, and roars which came from the parched throats of the men, and when she lowered her gaze to look down at the field, she was so startled she could barely hold herself, for it was so black and ugly. But still she placed her hand in the flower basket, meaning to throw the flowers to the crowd, but a wild laughter that rose from everyone’s throats stopped her.
“Enough!” they shouted from below. “We have no need for your gifts! We shall not let you go on dwelling safely beyond the wall, enjoying the scent of your flowers. See our poverty! How thin our arms, how white our hair. Look how ugly we are, how filthy our city. We no longer want a dog’s life. We need wonderful flowers in our gardens, not behind your wall! Come out to us! Walk among us. Be the gardener of our gardens. Open the gates! And if not… Well, we will tear down the wall, shatter your towers, and trample over those roses of yours with the soles of our boots. Open the gates!”
And the princess lowered her hand helplessly, twisted her dresses with anguish, and large shimmering tears rolled down from her eyes. Then she climbed down the wall and opened the gate.
The inflamed mass barged into the garden trampling and collecting the roses, destroying the crystal tower, and they took the princess away with them.
And from that day on she began planting the roses in their gardens, in their barren soil, but the buds that grew were pale and lifeless, their scent was so faint that no one sensed it, and the magical qualities of the roses in the garden beyond the wall were gone. The princess persisted in her efforts to retrieve their former glory, but to no avail. Even the kisses from her warm lips could not revive the roses.
Then the city’s inhabitants said: “Why did you deceive us? We have plenty of roses like these, we never asked you for trickery. We begged you for remedy and comfort. Grow the roses you once grew in your garden on our lands!”
And she replied: “I cannot. For the roses I once grew bloom only beyond the wall.”
And they would not believe her.
I thought that Mr. Purnell was a little young to be a funeral director, but he had the look down cold. In the instant between his warm, dry handshake and my taking my hand back to remove my winter hat and stuff it into my pocket, he assumed the look, a kind of concerned, knowing sympathy that suggested he’d weathered plenty of grief in his day and he was there to help you get through your own. He gestured me onto an oatmeal-colored wool sofa and pulled his wheeled office chair around to face me. I hung my coat over the sofa arm and sat down and crossed and uncrossed my legs.
“So, it’s like I said in the email—” was as far as I got and then I stopped. I felt the tears prick at the back of my eyes. I swallowed hard. I rubbed at my stubble, squeezed my eyes shut. Opened them.
If he’d said anything, it would have been the wrong thing. But he just gave me the most minute of nods—somehow he knew how to embed sympathy in a tiny nod; he was some kind of prodigy of grief-appropriate body language—and waited while the lump in my throat sank back down into my churning guts.
“Uh. Like I said. We knew Dad was sick but not how sick. None of us had much to do with him for, uh, a while.” Fifteen years, at least. Dad did his thing, we did ours. That’s how we all wanted it. But why did my chest feel like it was being crushed by a slow, relentless weight? “And it turns out he didn’t leave a will.” Thanks, Dad. How long, how many years, did you have after you got your diagnosis? How many years to do one tiny thing to make the world of the living a simpler place for your survivors?
Selfish, selfish prick.
Purnell let the silence linger. He was good. He let the precisely correct interval go past before he said, “And you say there is insurance?”
“Funeral insurance,” I said. “Got it with his severance from Compaq. I don’t think he even knew about it, but one of his buddies emailed me when the news hit the web, told me where to look. I don’t know what his policy number was or anything—”
“We can find that out,” Purnell said. “That’s the kind of thing we’re good at.”
“Can I ask you something?” “Of course.”
“Why don’t you have a desk?”
He shrugged, tapped the tablet he’d smoothed out across his lap. “I feel like a desk just separates me from my clients.” He gestured around his office, the bracketless shelves in somber wood bearing a few slim books about mourning, some abstract sculptures carved from dark stone or pale, bony driftwood. “I don’t need it. It’s just a relic of the paper era. I’d much rather sit right here and talk with you, face to face, figure out how I can help you.”
* * *
I’d googled him, of course. I’d googled the whole process. The first thing you learn when you google funeral homes is that the whole thing is a ripoff. From the coffin—the “casket,” which is like a coffin but more expensive—to the crematorium to the wreath to the hearse to the awful online memorial site with sappy music—all a scam, from stem to stern. It’s a perfect storm of graft: a bereaved family, not thinking right; a purchase you rarely have to make; a confusion of regulations and expectations. Add them all up and you’re going to be mourning your wallet along with your dear departed.
Purnell gets good google. They say he’s honest, modern, and smart. They say he’s young, and that’s a positive, because it makes him a kind of digital death native, and that’s just what we need, my sister and I, as we get ready to bury Herbert Pink: father, nerd, and lifelong pain in the ass. The man I loved with all my heart until I was 15 years old, whereupon he left our mother, left our family, and left our lives. After that, I mostly hated him. You should know: hate is not the opposite of love.
* * *
I was suddenly mad at this young, modern, honest, smart undertaker. I mean, funeral director. “Look,” I said. “I didn’t really even know my father, hadn’t seen him in years. I don’t need ‘help,’ I just need to get him in the ground. With a minimum of hand holding and fussing.”
He didn’t flinch, even though there’d been no call for that kind of outburst. “Bruce,” he said, “I can do that. If you’re in a hurry, we can probably even do it by tomorrow. It looks like your father’s insurance would take you through the whole process. We’d even pay the deductible for you.” He paused to let that sink in. “But Bruce, I do think I can help you. You’re your father’s executor, and he died intestate. That means a long, slow probate.”
“So what? I don’t care about any inheritance. My dad wasn’t a rich man, you know.”
“I’m sorry, that’s not what I meant to imply. Your father died intestate, and there’s going to be taxes to pay, bills to settle. You’re going to have to value his estate, produce an inventory, possibly sell off his effects to cover the expenses. Sometimes this can take years.”
He let that sink in. “All right,” I said, “that’s not something I’d thought of. I don’t really want to spend a month inventorying my father’s cutlery and underwear drawer.”
He smiled. “I don’t suppose a court would expect you to get into that level of detail. But the thing is, there’s better ways to do this sort of thing. You think that I’m young for a funeral director.”
The non sequitur caught me off guard. “I, uh, I suppose you’re old enough—”
“I am young for this job. But you know what Douglas Adams said: everything invented before you were born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. Anything after your fifteenth birthday is new and exciting and revolutionary. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things. The world has changed a lot since you were born, and changed even more since I was born, and I have to tell you, I think that makes my age an asset, not a liability.
“And not in some nebulous, airy-fairy way. Specifically, the fact that I’m 27 years old is how I got onto the beta-test for this.” He handed me his tablet. I smoothed it out and looked at it. It took me a minute to get what I was seeing. At first, I thought I was looking through a live camera feed from some hidden webcam in his office, but then I noticed I wasn’t in the picture. Then I thought I might be seeing a video loop. But after a few experimental prods, I understood that this was a zoomable panoramic image of the room in which I was sitting.
“Pick up one of the sculptures,” he said. I zoom-dragged to one of them, a kind of mountainscape made of something black and nonreflective. It had pleasing proportions, and a play of textures I quite admired. I double-tapped it and it filled the screen, allowing me to rotate it, zoom in on it. Playing along, I zoomed way up until it became a mash of pixellated JPEG noise, then back out again.
“Now try the white one,” he said, pointing at a kind of mathematical solid that suggested some kind of beautiful calculus, behind him and to the left. Zooming to it, I discovered that I could go to infinite depth on it, without any jaggies or artifacts appearing. “It’s so smooth because there’s a model of it on Thingiverse, so the sim just pulled in the vectors describing it and substituted a rendering of them for the bitmap. Same with the shelves. They’re Ikea, and all Ikea furniture has publicly disclosed dimensions, so they’re all vector based.” I saw now that it was true: the shelves had a glossy perfection that the rest of the room lacked.
“Try the books,” he said. I did. A copy of The Egyptian Book of the Dead opened at a touch and revealed its pages to me. “Book-search scans,” he said.
I zoomed around some more. The camel-colored coat hanging on the hook on the back of the door opened itself and revealed its lining. My pinky nail brushed an icon and I found myself looking at a ghostly line-art version of the room, at a set of old-fashioned metal keys in the coat’s pocket, and as I zoomed out, I saw that I was able to see into the walls—the wiring, the plumbing, the 2́4 studs.
“Teraherz radar,” he said, and took the tablet back from me. “There’s more to see, and it gets better all the time. There were a couple of books it didn’t recognize at first, but someone must have hooked them into the database, because now they move. That’s the really interesting thing, the way this improves continuously—”
“Sorry,” I said. “What are you showing me?”
“Oh,” he said. “Right. Got ahead of myself. The system’s called Infinite Space and it comes from a start-up here in Virginia. They’re a DHS spinout, started out with crime-scene forensics and realized they had something bigger here. Just run some scanners around the room and give it a couple of days to do the hard work. If you want more detail, just unpack and repack the drawers and boxes in front of it—it’ll tell you which ones have the smallest proportion of identifiable interior objects. You won’t need to inventory the cutlery; that shows up very well on a teraherz scan. The underwear drawer is a different matter.”
I sat there for a moment, thinking about my dad. I hadn’t been to his place in years. The docs had shown me the paramedics’ report, and they’d called it “crowded,” which either meant that they were very polite or my dad had gotten about a million times neater since I’d last visited him. I’d been twenty before I heard the term “hoarder,” but it had made instant sense to me.
Purnell was waiting patiently for me, like a computer spinning a watch cursor while the user was woolgathering. When he saw he had my attention, he tipped his head minutely, inviting me to ask any questions. When I didn’t, he said, “You know the saying, ‘You can’t libel the dead’? You can’t invade the dead’s privacy, either. Using this kind of technology on a living human’s home would be a gross invasion of privacy. But if you use it in the home of someone who’s died alone, it just improves a process that was bound to take place in any event. Working with Infinite Space, you can even use the inventory as a checklist, value all assets using current eBay blue-book prices, divide them algorithmically or manually, even turn it into a packing and shipping manifest you can give to movers, telling them what you want sent where. It’s like full-text search for a house.”
I closed my eyes for a moment. “Do you know anything about my father?”
For the first time, his expression betrayed some distress. “A little,” he said. “When you showed up in my calendar, it automatically sent me a copy of the coroner’s report. I could have googled further, but… ” He smiled. “You can’t invade the privacy of the dead, but there’s always the privacy of the living. I thought I’d leave that up to you.”
“My father kept things. I mean, he didn’t like to throw things away. Nothing.” I looked into his eyes as I said these words. I’d said them before, to explain my spotless desk, my habit of opening the mail over a garbage can and throwing anything not urgent directly into the recycling pile, my weekly stop at the thrift-store donation box with all the things I’d tossed into a shopping bag on the back of the bedroom door. Most people nodded like they understood. A smaller number winced a little, indicating that they had an idea of what I was talking about.
A tiny minority did what Purnell did next: looked back into my eyes for a moment, then said, “I’m sorry.”
“Yeah,” I said. “He was always threatening to start an antique shop, or list his stuff on eBay. Once he even signed a lease, but he never bought a cash register. Never unlocked the front door, near as I could tell. But he was always telling me that his things were valuable, to the right person.” I swallowed, feeling an echo of the old anger I’d suppressed every time he’d played that loop for me. “But if there was anything worth anything in that pile, well, I don’t know how I’d find it amid all the junk.”
“Bruce, you’re not the first person to find himself in this situation. Dealing with an estate is hard at the best of times, and times like this, I’ve had people tell me they just wanted to torch the place, or bulldoze it.”
“Both of those sound like good ideas, but I have a feeling you don’t offer those particular services.”
He smiled a little funeral director’s smile, but it went all the way to his eyes. “No,” he said. “I don’t. But, huh.” He stopped himself. “This sounds a bit weird, but I’ve been looking forward to a situation like this. It was what I thought of immediately when I first saw Infinite Space demoed. This is literally the best test case I can imagine for this.”
I wish I was the kind of guy who didn’t cry when his father, estranged for decades, died alone and mad in a cluttered burial chamber of his own lunatic design. But I’d cried pretty steadily since I’d gotten the news. I could tell that I was about to cry now. There were Kleenex boxes everywhere. I picked one up and plucked out a tissue. Purnell didn’t look away but managed to back off slightly just by altering his posture. It was enough to give me the privacy to weep for a moment. The tears felt good this time, like they had somewhere to go. Not the choked cries I’d found myself loosing since I’d first gotten the news.
“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah, I think it probably is.”
* * *
I’d expected Roomba-style rolling robots and wondered how they’d get around the narrow aisles between the drifts and piles of things in Dad’s house. There were a few of those, clever ones, the size of my old Hot Wheels cars, and six-wheeled so they could drive in any direction. But the heavy lifting was done by the quadrotors, each the size of a dragonfly, swarming and swooping and flocking with an eerie, dopplered whine that bounced around in the piles of junk. Bigger rotors went around and picked up the ground-effect vehicles, giving them lifts up and down the stairs. As they worked, their data streamed back into a panorama on Purnell’s laptop. We sat on the porch steps and watched the image flesh out. The renderer was working from bitmaps and dead-reckoning telemetry to build its model, and it quivered like a funhouse as it continuously refined its guesses about the dimensions. At one point, the living room sofa appeared to pierce the wall behind us, the sofa itself rendered as a kind of eye-wateringly impossible Escherling that was thick and thin simultaneously. The whole region glowed pink.
“See,” Purnell said. “It knows that there’s something wrong there. There’s going to be a ton of quads tasked to it any second now.” And we heard them buzzing through the wall as they conferred with one another and corrected the software’s best guesses. Flicking through the panoramas, we saw other pink areas, saw them disappear as the bad geometries were replaced with sensible ones in a series of eyeblink corrections. There was something comforting about watching all the detail fill in, especially when the texturemaps appeared in another eyeblink, skinning the wireframes and giving the whole thing the feeling of an architectural rendering. The bitmaps had their own problems: improbable corners, warped-mirror distortions, but I could see that the software was self-aware enough to figure out its own defects, painting them with a pink glow that faded as the approximations were fined down with exact images from the missing angles.
All this time, there’d been a subtle progress bar creeping in fits and starts across the bottom of the screen, just few pixels’ worth of glowing silverly light, and now it was nearly all the way. “You don’t have to do the next part,” he said. “If you’d rather wait out here—”
“I’ll do it,” I said. “It’s okay.”
“They gave us eight scanners. That’s more than we should need for a two-bedroom house. Two should do it. One, even, if you don’t mind moving it, but I thought—”
“It’s okay,” I said again. “I can do this.”
I shook my own tablet out and pinched it rigid, holding it before me like a treasure map as I walked through the front door.
The smell stopped me in my tracks. It had been teasing me all the morning on the porch, but that was the attenuated, diluted version. Now I was breathing in the full-strength perfume, the smell of all my fathers’ dens: damp paper, oxidizing metal, loose copper pennies, ancient cleaners vaporizing through the pores in their decaying bottles, musty cushions, expired bulk no-name cheerios, overloaded power strips, mouse turds, and the trapped flatulence of a thousand lonely days. Overlaid with it, a rotten meat smell.
My father had been dead for at least a week before they found him.
* * *
Infinite Space wanted teraherz scanners in several highly specific locations. Despite Purnell’s assurances, it turned out that we needed to reposition half a dozen of them, making for fourteen radar panoramas in all. I let him do the second placement and went back out onto the porch to watch the plumbing and structural beams and wiring ghost into place as the system made sense of the scans. I caught a brief, airport-scan flash of Purnell’s naked form, right down to his genitals, before the system recognized a human silhouette and edited it out of the map. The awkwardness was a welcome change from the cramped, panicked feeling that had begun the moment I’d stepped into Dad’s house.
The screen blinked and a cartoon chicken did a little ironic head tilt in the bottom left corner. It was my little sister, Hennie, who is much more emotionally balanced than me, hence her ability to choose a self-mocking little avatar. I tapped and then cupped the tablet up into a bowl shape to help it triangulate its sound on my ear. “Have you finished mapping the burial chamber, Indiana Bruce?” She’s five years younger than me, and Dad left when she was only ten, and somehow it never seemed to bother her. As far as she was concerned, her father died decades ago, and she’d never felt any need to visit or call the old man. She’d been horrified when she found out that I’d exchanged a semi-regular, semi-annual email with him.
I snuffled up the incipient snot and tears. “Funny. Yeah, it’s going fast. Mostly automatic. I’ll send it to you when it’s done.”
She shook her head. “Don’t bother. It’ll just give Marta ideas.” Marta, her five-year-old daughter, refused to part with so much as a single stuffed toy and had been distraught for months when they remodeled the kitchen, demanding that the old fridge be brought back. I never wanted to joke about heredity and mental illness, but Hennie was without scruple on this score and privately insisted that Marta was just going through some kind of essential post-toddler conservatism brought on by the change to kindergarten and the beginning of a new phase of life.
“It’s pretty amazing, actually. It’s weird, but I’m kind of looking forward to seeing the whole thing. There’s something about all that mess being tamed, turned into a spreadsheet—”
“Listen to yourself, Bruce. The opposite of compulsive mess isn’t compulsive neatness—it’s general indifference to stuff altogether. I don’t know that this is very healthy.”
I felt an irrational, overarching anger at this, which is usually a sign that she’s right. I battened it down. “Look, if we’re going to divide the estate, we’re going to have to inventory it, and—”
“Wait, what? Who said anything about dividing anything? Bruce, you can keep the money, give it to charity, flush it down the toilet, or spend it on lap dances for all I care. I don’t want it.”
“But half of it is yours—I mean, it could go into Marta’s college fund—”
“If Marta wants to go to college, she can sweat some good grades and apply for a scholarship. I don’t give a damn about university. It’s a big lie anyway—the return on investment just isn’t there.” Whenever Hennie starts talking like a stockbroker, I know she’s looking to change the subject. She can talk economics all day long, and will, if you poke her in a vulnerable spot.
“Okay, okay. I get it. Fine. I won’t talk about it with you if it bugs you. You don’t have to know about it.”
“Come on, Bruce, I don’t mean it that way. You’re my brother. You and Marta and Sweyn”—her husband—“are all the family I’ve got. I just don’t understand why you need to do this. It’s got me worried about you. You know that you had no duty to him, right? You don’t owe him anything.”
“This isn’t about him. It’s about me.” And you, I added to myself. Someday you’ll want to know about this, and you’ll be glad I did it. I didn’t say it, of course. That would have been a serious tactical mistake.
“Whatever you say, Bruce. Meantime, and for the record, Sweyn’s looked up the information for the intestacy trustee. Anytime you want, you can step away from this. They’ll liquidate his estate, put the proceeds into public-spirited projects. You can just step away anytime. Remember that.”
“I’ll remember. I know you want to help me out here, but seriously, this is something I need to do.”
“This is something you think you need to do, Bruce.”
Yeah,” I said. “If that makes you feel better, then I can go with that.”
* * *
I got the impression that Infinite Space was tremendously pleased to have hit on a beta tester who was really ready to put their stuff through its paces. A small army of turkers were bid into work, filling in descriptions and URLs for everything the software couldn’t recognize on its own. At first they’d been afraid that we’d have to go in and rearrange the piles so that the cameras could get a look at the stuff in the middle, but a surprising amount of it could be identified edge on. It turns out books aren’t the only thing with recognizable spines, assuming a big and smart enough database. The Infinites (yes, they called themselves that, and they generated a near-infinite volume of email and weets and statuses for me, which I learned to skim quickly and delete even faster) were concerned at first that it wouldn’t work for my dad’s stuff because so much of their secret sauce was about inferences based on past experience. If the database had previously seen a thousand yoga mats next to folded towels, then the ambiguous thing on top of a yoga mat that might be a fitted sheet and might be a towel was probably a towel.
Dad’s teetering piles were a lot less predictable than that, but as it turned out, there was another way. Since they had the dimensions and structural properties for everything in the database, they were able to model how stable a pile would be if the towels were fitted sheets and vice-versa, and whittle down the ambiguities with physics. The piles were upright, therefore they were composed of things that would be stable if stacked one atop another. The code took very little time to implement and represented a huge improvement on the overall database performance.
“They’re getting their money’s worth out of you, Bruce,” Purnell told me, as we met in his office that week. He had my dad’s ashes, in a cardboard box. I looked at it and mentally sized it up for its regular dimensions, its predictable contents. They don’t put the whole corpseworth of ashes in those boxes. There’s no point. A good amount of ashes are approximately interchangeable with all the ashes, symbolically speaking. The ashes in that box would be of a normalized distribution and weight and composition. They could be predicted with enormous accuracy, just by looking at the box and being told what was inside it. Add a teraherz scan—just to be sure that the box wasn’t filled with lead fishing weights or cotton candy—and the certainty skyrockets.
I hefted the box. “You could have dinged the insurance for a fancy urn,” I said.
He shrugged. “It’s not how I do business. You don’t want a fancy urn. You’re going to scatter his remains. An urn would just be landfill, or worse, something you couldn’t bring yourself to throw away.”
“I can bring myself to throw anything away,” I said, with half a smile. Quipping. Anything to prolong the moment before that predictable box ended up in my charge. In my hands.
He didn’t say anything. Part of the undertaker’s toolkit, I suppose. Tactful silence. He held the box in the ensuing silence, never holding it out to me or even shifting it subtly in my direction. He was good. I’d take it when I was ready. I would never be ready. I took it.
It was lighter than I thought.
* * *
“Hennie, I need to ask you something and you’re not going to like it.”
“It’s about him.”
“Right,” I said. I stared at the ceiling, my eyes boring through the plaster and beams into the upstairs spare room, where I’d left the box, in the exact center of the room, which otherwise held nothing but three deep Ikea storage shelves—they’d render beautifully, was all I could think of when I saw them now—lined with big, divided plastic tubs, each neatly labeled.
“Bruce, I don’t want—”
“I know you don’t. But look, remember when you said I was all the family you had left?”
“You and Mattie and Sweyn.”
“Yes. Well, you’re all I have left, too.”
“You should have thought of that before you got involved. You’ve got no right to drag me into this.”
“I’ve got Dad’s ashes.”
That broke her rhythm. We’d fallen into the bickering cadence we’d perfected during a thousand childhood spats where we’d demanded that Mom adjudicate our disputes. Mom wasn’t around to do that anymore. Besides, she’d always hated doing it and made us feel like little monsters for making her do so. I don’t know that we’d had a fight like that in the seven years since she’d been gone.
“Oh, Bruce,” she said. “God, of course you do. I don’t want them.”
“I don’t want them either. I was thinking I’d, well, scatter them.”
“Where? In his house? Another layer of dust won’t hurt, I suppose.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea. What about by Mom’s grave?”
“Don’t you dare.” The vicious spin on the last word was so intense I fumbled my tablet and had to catch it as it floated toward the floor on an errant warm air current.
“Sorry,” I said.
“He never earned the right to be with Mom. He never earned what you’re giving him. He never earned me sparing a single brain cell for him. He’s not worth the glucose my neurons are consuming.”
“He was sick, Hennie.”
“He did nothing to get better. There are meds. Therapies. When I cleaned out Mom’s place, I found the letters from the therapists she’d set him up with, asking why he never showed up for the intake appointments. He did nothing to earn any of this.”
It dawned on me that Hennie had dealt with all of Mom’s stuff without ever bothering me. Mom had left a will, of course, and set out some bequests for me, and she hadn’t lived in a garbage house. But it must have been a lot of work, and Hennie had never once asked for my help.
“I’m sorry, Hennie, I never should have bothered you. You’re right.”
“Wait, Bruce, it’s okay—”
“No, really. I’ll deal with this. It’s just a box of ashes. It’s just stuff. I can get rid of stuff.”
“Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” I said. I was, too. I folded the tablet up and stuck it in the sofa cushions and stared at the ceiling for a moment longer.
* * *
Somewhere in this house, there is an answer. Was there a moment when the grave robbers of ancient Egyptian pyramids found the plunder before them shimmer and change? Did they stand there, those wreckers with their hammers and shovels and treasure sacks, and gasp as the treasure before them became, for an instant, something naked and human and desperate, the terrified attempt of a dying aristocrat to put the world in a box, to make it behave itself? A moment when they found themselves standing not in a room full of gold and gems, but a room full of disastrous attempts to bring the universe to heel?
Here’s the thing. It turns out that I don’t mind mess at all. What I mind is disorganization. Clutter isn’t clutter once it’s been alphabetized on a hard drive. Once it’s been scanned and cataloged and put it its place, it’s stuff. It’s actionable. With the click of a button, you can list it on eBay, you can order packers and movers to get rid of it, you can search the database for just the thing to solve any problem.
Things are wonderful, really. Things are potential. The right thing at the right moment might save a life, or save the day, or save a friendship. Any of these things might someday be a gift. If times get tight, these things can readily be converted to cash. Honestly, things are really, really fine.
I wish Hennie would believe me. She freaked out when I told her I was moving out of my place into Dad’s. Purnell, too, kept coming over all grief counselor and trying to help me “process” what I was feeling. Neither of them gets it, neither of them understands what I see when I look into the ruin of Dad’s life, smartened up as neat as a precision machine. Minimalism is just a crutch for people who can’t get a handle on their things. In the modern age, things are adaptive. They’re pro-survival.
Really, things are fine.
On dark, stormy nights they would run through the sleeping streets, burning torches in their hands, and no one saw their faces and no one knew their names. And the echoes of the steps of fourteen feet and the flicker of the torches unnerved the slumbering town. And the mighty wind that was blowing, and the streams of rain pouring down could not blow out the torches’ yellow flames. They would swiftly pass through all the narrow, crooked alleys and run across the long bridge, whose iron would bend under the weight of their bodies, and they would stand in front of a small old wooden house and wait. And the low door would slowly open, and a small and hunched little woman would appear in its frame. With a deep bow and without a word, she would let one of the seven come into her quarters. And each day, a different one was called upon. And she would shut the door behind her and the remaining six would blow out their torches, and bow their heads, and wait.
The woman would bring the chosen one into her room, caress him with her burning little body and kiss him, and she would not utter a word and no smile ever passed her lips…
And the rain would trickle into the house through the decrepit roof, washing the two of them, and the wind would burst in and howl through the empty room and make the shutters shudder from outside. And they did not notice a thing…
And when the darkness would disperse and the grey and rainy morning twilight gazed through the windows with surveying eyes, the woman would wake up and take the head of the one who was beside her in both hands… And she would bring her face close to his and look into his eyes, and her mouth would twist with torment and her lips would whisper: “But no, it is not you!” And she would push him away from her, and go to the corner of the room and peer out from there with empty cold eyes, and he would get up and leave the house.
And again all seven would cross the bridge, and crawl like shadows through narrow and crooked alleys, secretly crying and sighing.
And on gloomy days, when the skies were one big block of lead, heavy and dark dreary days, the little woman would wander through the streets of the town. Her back was hunched and her dress was grey and soiled, and the rims of her grey sweater would flutter in the air. Her face was pale and there was no sparkle in her black eyes. She was like a wounded bat that could not find a place for itself. And everyone saw her face and no one knew her name. She would always hurry through the crowds of people and look at the face of every man who crossed her path. And no one graced her with a smile.
And then once the skies were a little higher and the air a little purer and colder. And she ran in the evening across the long bridge leading to her house, and the painted iron mocked and laughed under the steps of her little feet. And the woman suddenly raised her head and saw someone before her, who stood opposite and looked at the waters. He was tall and spruce. A white ferret fur shawl descended from his back, fold after fold. Light blue eyes brightened his young face and silver hairs adorned his cheeks, and a wreath of bluish luminance shimmered on his head. She went to him and looked at his face and he smiled. She took him by the hand and led him to her derelict house. And he, handsome and wonderful, followed her…
And the night was cold, and the first butterflies of snow came down from the skies, quivered in the air and then nestled on the ground. And seven men holding burning torches stood in front of the door of the old house on the other side of the river and waited. But the door did not open and no one came to greet them. And they started banging and banging on the doors and windows and there was no reply. And the wind blew out the flames of their torches, and the cold became greater and greater from hour to hour, and they began to freeze…
And when the darkness dispersed and the fresh morning brightness laughed gaily in the windows, the woman awoke from her sleep. She took the head of the one who was by her side in both hands and put her face close to his and looked into his eyes and her lips whispered: “Why, it is you!” and her cheeks turned rosy and her eyes and hair gleamed all at once and she raised her head and saw that the ceiling above her grew high and her room was glorious and all aglow and her heart was light and she laughed.
And when the townsfolk awoke and left their houses, they all saw with surprise and amazement a wonder on the other side of the river. Seven statues with torches in their hands were guarding its gates. And the ice torches laughed and glistened in the sunlight in thousands of colours.
It was her panting that drew me over. I was exhausted, as the new work regime had been sucking every last drop of life out of us. But my misreading of the situation (what with the cries, groans, and stifled moans) put some life back into me, and I shot over to her like an arrow.
She was alone under a palm tree in front of an abandoned shop and surrounded by her filth. Even though it was pitch dark in the alleyway, a shaft of light coming from a lamp on the main street illuminated her sufficiently for me to see her dust-covered face, its petite muscles drawn taut, and the redness of her eyes as they alternately narrowed and widened in a painful, mechanical sort of way as though, in her loneliness and gloom, she was crying out for pity to the demons of darkness. My gaze slid down to her hands, which she was pressing against a swollen belly beneath threadbare garments. When she saw me, she went quiet all of a sudden, gazing at me with steady eyes, and with a face as cold and expressionless as a mummy from the age of the Pharaohs.
Then, in utter innocence, she said, “Can you deliver the baby…? It’s going to split me in half. I’ll die if you don’t!”
Without thinking I asked, “Why don’t you go to hospital?”
She gave a dark, heavy smile. “I can’t walk, and I don’t have the taxi fare. Besides, I wouldn’t be able to pay the hospital. Everything costs money.”
She let out a faint meow and then passed out, babbling like a drunkard. I didn’t know what to do. All I had with me was five pounds for the bus ride home, and it was ten-thirty—just half an hour before curfew. I was so worn out from sweeping and mopping the cinema, I wouldn’t be able to pick her up and carry her on my back. And even if I did, the hospital wouldn’t admit her. After all, there isn’t a hospital in this country that would treat somebody out of the goodness of its heart.
A voice whispered inside me. I couldn’t tell if it was the voice of an angel or a demon.
“What’s with you?” it said. “Her Lord and Maker can find her a way out. Just take care of yourself now. Curfew’s in half an hour. So, hurry up and catch the last bus. Then come back tomorrow morning, and you’ll find that she gave birth to a big cockroach. It’ll be sitting next to her checking out the world with its antennae and its beady eyes.”
Then I had an idea: to try carrying her to the sidewalk along the main street. A patrol might find her and take her to the cells, then bring her a midwife or a doctor who’s paid by the government.
But before I could do it, the curfew patrol took us both away.
The doctor might have been right in part. She was dirty, filthy even. She reeked of the discharge caused by a sexually transmitted disease, and the stench was piercing, unbearable. So the doctor instructed the cleaning lady to remove her pubic hair with its crabs, foul odor, and rank secretions, wash the area thoroughly with warm water and carbolic soap, and apply Dettol.
Then he went to the sink and vomited up everything in his gut, cursing the day he’d decided to study medicine, gynecology, and obstetrics.
“Help me, please,” the cleaning lady said to me.
“I’m dying,” said the girl.
“Die, then! Die!” the cleaning lady lit into her furiously. “Make it easy on us and on yourself!”
Parting her brown legs, soiled and spotted with sores, the girl fell into a semi-coma, surrendered to the labor pains and the pleasure of travail.
When its front claws appeared—small, white, soft and smooth—the cleaning lady and I were startled, immersed in a dense, phantasmagoric trance that was being imprinted on our consciousness by the reggae music wafting in toward us from the health office next door: The squeaking of rats, the roaring of the sea, the cawing of black crows, the gentle rustling of the towering palm tree outside the window, a sudden clap of thunder, vague chatter filtering through the pores in the walls and the spaces between the beds, pieces of heavy white fabric, bloody cotton pads scattered here and there.
We felt cold all of a sudden as we saw its rectangular head emerge into the room, its tiny black whiskers drenched in sticky, translucent, jelly-like mucus.
The cleaning lady said to me later, “I felt things glowing, as if bright little moons had landed on them.”
I said, “When that happened, I was filled with eerie-sounding, weighty talk that I couldn’t understand. It was choking me up.”
With a final contraction, it popped out, nimble and energetic, as though the strains of the reggae music were giving a rhythm to the flow of blood in its newborn arteries.
In my statements to the Department of Criminal Investigations, I told them that the Qur’anic chants, the cooing of the doves, and the hymns of adoration hadn’t been coming from a specific source, and that we couldn’t possibly claim that any of us would be able to put Time’s standstill to music.
At that moment, the palm tree’s ripened fruit fell, a nightingale sang, and a star that had illuminated the world’s Eastern reaches tumbled to Earth. Opening a pair of bright black eyes, it shook the mucous off itself in a series of violent jerks. Then, as others can attest, it barked and leapt through the window onto the sidewalk outside.
Years ago, Aunt Renata squeezed a picture into my hand when my mother wasn’t looking. Aunt Renata wasn’t really my aunt, but rather someone to whom my mother had clung like a sister, like blood.
In the picture, my mother is thin but she is wearing a pale belted dress with a flared skirt and she is smiling. That is, her mouth is smiling. Her eyes are unreadable, her cheeks taut. There is a tree just behind her and the smallest hint of a fence. I have studied the picture a thousand times trying to figure out whether this was in one of the camps. The dress belies that possibility but still the fence looks menacing, cage-like and my mother’s expression is strained and odd. On the back of the picture, in German, and in a masculine script, it says only “Spring.” Aunt Renata said she had found the picture when they were liberated from the camp. She won’t tell me anything else.
My mother was a beautiful woman. Even now it’s obvious—her bearing still regal, her cheekbones high and proud. She never talks about her experiences and her silence walks the house like the ghosts that accompany her. She was 17 and had snuck out in search of food when the Gestapo came to collect her family. She was caught a few days later and shipped from Prague to the first of several camps. That’s all I know, and I don’t even think she was the one to tell me.
There is so much I have wanted to ask her but she’s never offered up anything but silence. The next part of her story is a void, a portal between dimensions that I dare not enter. Her words, when she speaks, are carefully chosen. I watch her move around the house like a spy in her own life, surprised to have found herself capable of holding a baby, of pulling weeds, her skin glowing, alive.
Throughout my childhood I waited for death to claim her. As if I didn’t dare believe her stay of execution, surprised again and again to find her moving about the kitchen in the morning, preparing her strong coffee then settling into her favorite chair by the window, not a figment of my imagination, not a dream I had dreamt.
In school, when I would perform in the annual play, I would peer out from between the curtains to make sure she was really there. But there she would be, sitting quietly in one of the front rows amid the chatty American-born mothers with whom she had nothing in common, the long sleeves of her simple but elegant dress hiding the number on her arm. I would see her looking around, as if she were once again wondering whether she had done the right thing by putting me in this Jewish school with its fortress-like walls, its windowless brick.
Alongside her would be a sprinkling of fathers who had rushed home early from work or rearranged their schedules to join their wives at the plays. I knew little about my own father except that my mother had met him in one of the DP camps, then lost track of him. A decade later they remet and were briefly married but he’d died when I was just a baby, ultimately succumbing to the ravage that had been done to his organs in Birkenau. Growing up, I couldn’t imagine what it might be like to have a father. My mother and I were plant and soil. We were a greenhouse, hermetically sealed. But lately, she seems to me paler, thinner. As if the reserve she had all those years, the strength with which she raised me and urged me far from the dark banks of her memories—as if that were finally dwindling.
Last week, when I entered her apartment unannounced, I caught her staring, unblinking, out the front window as if it held a view other than of a New York City street, as if her memories, rather than receding, were coming finally to greet her. It took all I had at that moment to hold back from asking her, When will you tell me?
It was a few days after that visit that some of my own memories came flooding in to haunt me. On my way home from work, I had slipped into my favorite bookstore with the idea of treating myself to a new novel. But once in the store, I found myself stopping instead in front of a dark wooden bookcase entitled World War II where a book I’d avoided about the children of survivors stared out at me. I pulled the thin book off the shelf, took a deep breath, and opened it in the middle.
I don’t know how long I stood there reading. I just remember at various junctures wanting to stop, but not being able to. It was as if someone had found all of the secrets of my childhood. All the quirks and odd behaviors, the ghosts and the inhabited silence. I was reading a section describing the different paths that survivors had taken with regard to their religious beliefs, either complete renunciation or complete acceptance, with a few sustaining a complicated and ambivalent relationship with both. I thought about the Jewish school my mother had put me in, but then otherwise seemed to want to avoid, and then about her relief when I asked to leave it and disappeared, indistinguishable from the others, into a vast public school. She never censored me or criticized as I transferred from school to school, from persona to persona. As if she thought—of course—how could it be otherwise?
What she did for me was hold the course. Grab onto her life and steady it as much as she could, let me know that at any moment, I had a place to land, and if necessary, to hide.
I looked up for a moment to check the time on the old brass clock that hung high above the bookshelves. And that’s when I saw him. Older, his face thinner and lightly lined but lit by the same shock of wavy blond hair. There was no question that it was he. His name was Jurgen and on that strange
and disturbing night on which we had met twenty years earlier,
he had just arrived to New York from Berlin. That night, I had learned little else about him. I was about to stop him and say hello when he continued past me down the non-fiction aisle, then turned out of sight.
He doesn’t know me, I thought. He doesn’t remember. And it all came back to me, as if all those years hadn’t passed, as if just the night before I’d rested my head on his shoulder, felt his arm around my waist, his cheek a breath from mine.
He didn’t know into what he had wandered that Saturday night, in the East Village, any more than my friends and I knew yet who we really were, what we were hiding. He had just flown in to begin his graduate degree in philosophy at Yale and someone had brought him, oblivious to what would take place. A party was a party. We were young, and we thought, very chic. Globe hoppers. Citizens of the world. We flirted with the edge. Offered ourselves to whatever abyss we could conjure. None of us had figured out yet that all of our parents had survived the camps. We’d simply met our last year at NYU and congealed like a tribe of abandoned children. We didn’t know and didn’t yet wonder what we were looking for in all the clubs and parties we sought at that time, in the excesses of alcohol and whatever fashionable drug lined the bathroom sink like a ritual offering.
This particular party was hosted by Zuna something, I can’t remember her last name, only that her parents were presumably diplomats living in London, and that she had piled her hair high on her head and secured it there with little cocktail forks. Someone in our group had met her at an art opening and had brought us along like extended family.
The party was in Zuna’s East Village apartment in which walls had been broken down to create a loft. Here and there a private space was carved out by a piece of dark cloth, or by curtains made of long strips of eight-millimeter film.
We arrived like the refugees we were into this dark room. Like speakers of an underground language, we had learned to find our way to the drugs that inevitably were served up at these evenings. One by one we went into the bathroom where a friend of Zuna’s was offering opium from tiny bits of foil.
When I came out, someone had turned off the raucous punk music and put on a waltz. As a joke I’m sure, but suddenly the large and shadowed loft, with its brooding ceiling murals, seemed like a large chandeliered hall. Some couples stood up laughing and struck poses of affected elegance. It was quite a sight—at least 80 people, most in different shades of black, some ears sporting skeletons, crossbones, some heads shaved, all dancing as if at a grand ball in Vienna.
I was watching Varda—the only other woman in our group—dance with Isaac, her glittering scarf, her long black dress, her dark hair flying like a gypsy’s after her. It was then
that I felt Jurgen’s hand on my arm. Tall and blond, with a
sweet smile, he didn’t say anything, just led me to the floor,
wrapped his arm around my waist and began initiating me into the trance of the waltz. He was a superb dancer and if I didn’t think about what my legs were doing, it felt effortless.
The room began to spin. One two three. One two three. He pulled me closer until we were flying as one body. It took a while before I looked up from that whirling, hypnotic dance and realized that my friends had all stopped dancing. From different corners of the room, they stood watching us, voyeurs to their own deepest horror and desire. And I understood from their expressions that the sight of us was somehow both thrilling and disturbing. The Ubermensch extending his arm to the Jewess. I knew then that I held all of their expectations, unarticulated, unimagined, all of their hopes that I would continue to rise to the occasion, that I would dance at least as gracefully as he, that somehow I might even introduce some new element, redeeming, transcendent. And I was thinking this when all of a sudden Jurgen somehow missed a beat and, still following the rhythm, I tripped over his foot and fell on my side.
“I’m so sorry. Are you okay?” Jurgen crouched down beside me. But as he did, I could suddenly feel the rage in the room and had I been able to, I would have pushed Jurgen away as Isaac rushed toward us, pulled him to his feet and away from me, then punched him in the face. Then, within seconds, as if some signal had been sent out, the rest of our group moved in on him. Before Jurgen could recover, his stunned hand just beginning to move to his cheek, they surrounded him and lifted him into the air, Rafa and Nano grabbing his legs, Isaac and Uri supporting the weight of his shoulders and back.
“Bastard,” they hissed as they carried him toward one of the loft’s large windows. “Son of a bitch.”
“What are you doing?” he yelled, as they held down his struggling arms, grabbed someone’s scarf off the coat hook and tied it around his kicking feet. They hoisted him head first out the window, holding him by his bound feet and dangling him over the pavement six floors below.
And Jurgen hung over East 6th Street like a sacrifice. Like everything that had never been said. Like the demons unmentioned, alongside which we had all been raised. In the closets that were sealed and stuck, the long dim hallways of the apartment buildings that collected every nation’s misery, the hallways in which we’d grown up. Even when we had moved to the suburbs, our cars full, our windows down, shadows followed us. Trap doors. Hatches. There were more lamps in my house than in any house I have ever known. Lights were left burning. Flowers planted in every inch of soil.
Some people on the edge of the crowd saw what was happening and stopped dancing. Zuna and I started yelling at Isaac and at the others. We rushed to the window, leaned out on either side of Jurgen, offering him our arms. He grabbed my arm with one hand then Zuna’s and we pulled him as hard as we could toward us.
“Untie his legs,” I yelled at Nano as we pulled him fully inside. Jurgen brushed himself off and left quickly, slamming the door. The moment was over. If there was shame, no one rose to claim it. Someone quickly changed the music. Isaac, Uri, Rafa and Nano retreated to a corner. When the crowd had thinned out, the rest of us collapsed exhausted in various corners of the large room. Zuna threw blankets over us and I remember wondering, before I fell asleep, why we had never realized it, why we had never talked about what it was that joined us. I remembered the thick darkness of Isaac’s mother’s house when we’d all visited once, Nano’s father who worked three jobs and who never met our eyes, about whom I was later to hear the whispered accusation, “Kapo.”
The next morning, I went to see my mother. There were no words to describe what had happened, not the events themselves, but rather that I had known then, in a new way, what was at the core of my being, what I needed to grapple with.
My mother didn’t hear me come in. She was cutting vegetables on the large marble counter in her kitchen, listening to her favorite classical music station. Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27 concluded and then the radio show host introduced the famous Strauss waltz—Voices of Spring. As the music began to play, my mother froze where she stood and the color drained from her face. She stared blankly at a corner of the room until I coughed and she looked up. Slowly her eyes began to register the present moment and her arms, trembling slightly, opened wide to greet me. She held me tightly to her, then released me.
“Coffee?” she asked.
She reached for two of her best ceramic mugs. Ground some beans. This was how it had always been. The small rituals that held us. But I could no longer keep my part of the bargain.
Her back was to me as she poured boiling water into the French press. The knotted bun that held her hair was almost all white now. A brilliant white pierced by a red lacquered hair stick.
“Mom, what happened?”
She turned to look at me, holding the carafe. “What do you mean?”
“During the war, what happened?”
For a second her eyes held mine, then she turned from me.
The carafe shook in her hands, the coffee sloshing up the sides. She set it down. When she turned back to look at me, she was livid.
“Why are you doing this?”
“I’m not—I just—are you ever going to tell me?”
She turned, giving me her back and just stood there. “There’s nothing to tell,” she said, and left the room.
How much time is left?
Is it fair of me to want to know what she lived through?
I am beginning to lose faith that she will be able to tell me. Still I wait. I tiptoe around the fortress of her silence, waiting to glimpse even the slightest easing. She obviously knows now what I need. But ultimately, the choice is hers. Only she can be the gatekeeper of her memory.
Meanwhile, I have begun to construct tales. I hang them next to one another like the panels of a triptych, try them in this, then that array. I move them, shift them, look at them in the light of different days. When I’ve come close, I tell myself, when I’ve captured some of the true essence of her story, I will know.
In one of these stories, which hangs alone, without a frame, without beginning or end, my mother is being waltzed around a small room. The man she is dancing with has removed his jacket and draped it over a chair, its insignias and swastika for the moment unseen. He clutches the waist of the pale dress he has her put on for these occasions.
One two three. One two three. She follows the man’s step carefully, trying not to think beyond this dance. Instead, she tries to imagine that beneath her hand is not a stiff brown fabric, but instead a jacket of linen and silk. That Strauss’s Voices of Spring is not locked inside this small room, but is reaching up into the cathedral ceiling of a vast and brilliantly lit hall. That beyond this room is not barbed wire but the glistening streets of a city. One two three, one two three. Her body continues to obey the rhythm but she suddenly knows what it is that will redeem her. For a moment her cheek goes soft, her eyes blaze with light as she reaches several decades forward to touch me, as she dreams me into being.
*Licensed from The University of North Texas Press. Copyright 2018 by Tehila Lieberman from Venus in the Afternoon
I don’t think we did go blind, I think we are blind, blind but seeing, blind people who can see, but do not see.
Saeed, drunk, opened the door. The rabbit hopped inside. The kicking started. Both were yelling.
“What are you doing here? It’s my place.” With that Saeed was violently booted out of the broken-down electric fridge…
This country has a specially powerful and high-voltage electricity supply. When you try to turn off the light the switches don’t work. Electricity, like air, is compulsory. An electric sun blazes night and day; there’s no such thing as a dim light. Lots of equipment is broken because there’s no way to repair it. Repairs mean turning something off, so the repairman doesn’t get an electric shock.
Buildings, houses, and hospitals take measures to make the light less bright when needed. To lower the lighting, hospitals put cardboard boxes painted black over light bulbs and nail them to the wall. In people’s homes, incandescent bulbs are covered with pieces of thick canvas or coarse black cloth, which put up the price of coarse black cloth.
Saeed was aggrieved at being kicked out of his house. He squatted on the ground slapping his right thigh.
It was me who cleaned up the house when that damn cat was sleeping in it. I kicked her out. My friend Sameer helped. He gave me some cleaning products and told me I had to clean the place up. I don’t understand how that blasted Qassim could steal my house so cynically. I’ll complain to the police. It’s my right, people, my right.
Qassim was my friend until a few days ago. What made him renege on our friendship? Where am I going to find another fridge on such a cold night? What have I done to deserve all this?
The rabbit of the pavements started wailing and sobbing. He tried to pull his faded dishdasha tight around his body to block the holes. He wiped away his tears and, suddenly, as if he had remembered something, he rubbed the tattoo on his right arm. A surge of long-lost warmth lit up his tears.
He crossed to the pavement opposite, to the café whose owner had forgotten to turn off the radio. The newsreader announced: “Parliament is due to vote tomorrow on the decision to allocate residential plots to government officials.” Saeed collected a few plastic bags strewn nearby. He gathered them into a ball, put it down as a pillow, and lay on the ground. He gave a sigh, relaxed, and dozed off. The sound of his shivering bones mixed with his snores. He laughed and guffawed in his sleep. Perhaps he was dreaming?
The crowds were getting ready to plant the seeds of their dreams on the journey ahead. Samar raced behind the beautiful rabbits. One of them disappeared into its burrow. The little girl cried as she waited for it to emerge. She lowered her head and peered into the rabbit hole between the trees in an effort to find it. One of her four rabbits was missing.
Seagulls flapped over the Tigris. The bridge opened its gates to a crowd of thousands: tender heads whose time for reaping had not yet come and heads heavy with worry and sorrows. O God, O Helper, O Champion of the downtrodden, grant us, the poor and deprived, our desire. Iman pulled up her dusty, old abaya and pushed the children, Ahlam, Omar, Mohammed, Zayd, and Ali in front of her: “Hold on to me, kids. The Lord calls, and we have to obey. Bab al-Hawaij, the one who grants, refuses no one.” The children move with the crowds towards the roadway.
Saeed woke in the morning. He roamed around Mutanabbi Street. Everybody was his friend, but he had no friends. Sameer, who worked in one of the bookshops, took pity on him and gave him a cup of tea and a piece of bread.
“I swear by the Tigris and the Euphrates – I don’t distinguish between them – Qassim robbed me while I was sleeping. I had some money and when I woke up it was gone. That wretch Qassim who stole my home.”
“Saeed, calm down. It’s Friday today. The day you make money. God will compensate you. We’ll find you somewhere else. Guess what? Yesterday a friend left you a new dishdasha and some food. You have to come with me and take a shower and put on your dishdasha.”
“Today’s a work day. If I wear a new dishdasha I won’t make any money. You’re my friend and I like you because you’re kind and don’t steal.” He was silent for a while then continued, “Listen, yesterday I went fishing with a friend. Whenever he lifted his line he’d catch a big fat fish, but always threw it back in the river. Whenever I lifted mine, I’d hook some weeds or Qassim al-Tanbouri’s torn-up shoe. I asked him why he was throwing the fish back. He said he only had a small pan for cooking fish and wanted one that fit.”
“Listen. I’ve got good news for you. They gave me 9 million dinars and I repaired my house after it fell down. But government officials ignore me and travel to Egypt or Syria or I don’t know where. They’re always travelling and dropping my case. Even though all the papers are in order I still owe them 3 million dinars!”
“You’re talking nonsense, Saeed. What strange things you’re coming up with today.”
“If you add jam, it becomes really delicious. Should I buy you some? Give me the money then, I don’t have any.”
Saeed moved off to perform his daily rituals. He started with the Tigris. He raised his hands, recited the Fatiha, cupped his right hand and filled it with water. He brought the water to his nose, kissed it, then tried to put it back. He touched the tattoo on his upper arm. He turned around and was annoyed as they passed. All he could do was shout in English, “Why you inside? Come here so I can have a souvenir photo with you.”
He leapt into the midst of the people with white skin and blue eyes and the few dark-skinned ones with them. They smiled warily at him, and he called out to Sameer, “Come here for God’s sake. Take a picture for me with your camera.”
Smiling, Sameer did what he was asked. Saeed, however, intended to hang the picture in the toilet after spitting all over it.
At last, Samar’s rabbit came out of its hole to play with his friends. The rabbit of Mutanabbi Street disappeared. Nobody knew exactly where to find him. He might be sitting in some corner drinking alcohol and weeping over his old love.
Iman, don’t forget to pray for me. Perhaps God will guide me to give up drinking. Perhaps Kadouri, the shop owner, will raise my day’s wages rather then threatening to get rid of me. Perhaps God will provide me some other work, better than that blasted Kadouri. You know I’m a great metal worker, but for the drink. I love drinking Iman, like I love you, a lot. Watch out for the children, and pray for me there. Ask for your wish. Go in through Bab al-Hawaij and tie this green ribbon onto the window lattice. Don’t forget. Let all our needs be known there. Believe me, the Imam Musa bin Jaafar really loves me. I feel he will intercede for me this time. Trust me. He knows I’ve never robbed anyone and that I love him a lot. God be with you now.”
The convoy of a well-known security official was passing and Saeed turned up. The official got out of his car and was immediately followed by a great many police officers. They crossed Mutanabbi Street towards the river. When they got closer, the rabbit ran quickly behind them repeating in a loud voice:
Long life! for I died after you
Spurn me as long as you wish
What remained of love in my heart
Went out forever with you.”
He closed his eyes and waved his hands, totally immersed in his singing. Some of the officers tried to block his path and prevent him walking behind them, but one of them said to another, “Leave him be. He’s just a beggar.” Saeed heard them: “Shut up. You shut up, not a word.” The officer ignored him, and he carried on singing.
“I fell in love with a girl thirty years ago, a beautiful Indian-looking girl from Basra. She was called Suheir Mohammed. I spotted her working at a ladies’ hairdressers and spent two and a half hours every day waiting for her to come out of her workplace just so I could watch her from afar. Then I confessed my love to her and we were in a relationship for a year and a half without me touching her. I swear by God Almighty, I didn’t touch her. She did once go with me to Zawraa Park, and I brought her kibbeh, but her family forced her to marry her cousin. Time has made today’s love stories horrible because men have become love fiends. They’re randy donkeys.”
That’s what Saeed told me. He gave off alcohol fumes, swaying so much he could hardly walk. He was quiet for a little then continued as if far away, “But Iman…”
His eyes filled with tears and his voice choked off. He looked away and vanished.
On Fridays, pilgrims head to Mutanabbi Street, casting stones at the Devil in their various ways. All the roads were blocked, because it was also time for pilgrims to head to the bridge that leads to Bab al-Hawaij. When the tunic of Uthman took the road to Mecca, the road to God, it started in Baghdad. Uthman’s tunic was also stoning the Devil.
What are you talking about? What Friday? What road? What bridge? It’s all out of context. Uthman was martyred millennia ago. Absolutely not, Uthman was martyred a few years ago! No! Uthman was a boy in first grade at the Tigris Primary School! Sameer is crying on the banks of the Tigris: You’re not Naathal, Uthman. You’re the shining star of Iraq floating on the river.
The rabbits preened their fur after the little girl had washed them with the finest shampoos and dressed them in coloured ribbons with coloured stones and a blue bead in the middle. When one of the rabbits bit a large carrot the little girl clapped in delight.
“Mama, please tell me what do constitution and demonstration mean? Why are people going out into the streets everywhere and holding up signs? I saw it on TV yesterday.”
“Oh darling, the people are demanding their right to a decent life in which they can have food, medicine, and security.”
The little girl Samar got lost in deep thoughts…
Sameer went with Saeed to get him cleaned up and put on his new dishdasha. Saeed refused to have his long hair cut.
“Kebab. Kebab. Today I won’t scrabble in the rubbish. I’m going to have kebab, just like a VIP.”
While he was eating, scalding water suddenly poured down on him. He screamed as terrific heat surged through his entire body. His lower limbs seemed to boil. The rabbit fell to the ground yelling and screaming, “Sons of bitches! Ow! Ow!”
His new dishdasha was torn. The food was spilled. The skin was stripped from his body, like a sheep being flayed. The rabbit’s pelt was all burned. Blood spurted. A large empty bucket lay there.
The little girl Samar clapped. Her rabbits had finally crossed the path she had drawn for them. She called it the bridge and they crossed it with ease.
Devotees scrambled to jump into the Tigris. A rumour had spread: a suicide bomber in the crowd. Panic ensued. New openings for longings were announced in the depths of the Tigris. Prayers drowned in the stampede before they reached their intended path. Clothes floated. The Tigris was dressed in black abayas. Shoes were scattered. Many cried out for help from the midst of the river: “Uthman, Uthman, save us, Uthman!”
Uthman jumped, followed by his friends. Shout clung to shout; abaya clung to abaya, until the weight became too much for Uthman. The rocks dragged him down. Was he chasing away the blackness? Did he want the surface of the Tigris to be pure white?
Iman and her little ones and thousands of others slept cared for by the shark of needs, until at last the surface of the Tigris became white with Uthman’s tunic. Sameer beat his chest and shouted, “Our agony… for the past thousand years, Uthman’s tunic has been floating on the Tigris.
“If I knew who burned me I’d burn down his house. What do they want from me? Do I own a royal palace? If they’d asked I’d have given them the dishdasha as a present rather than all that!”
Saeed was crying in pain. Sameer handed him ointments and medicine. Al-Jawahiri turned in his grave and emerged, pointing his finger at the Tigris: “O apoplexy of death, O tempestuous storm, O dagger of betrayal, O olive branch.”
The forensic department in Baghdad answered al-Jawahiri’s call, declaring days of mourning and opening refrigerated burrows for the rabbits that had drowned in the Tigris and the rabbits yet to be born, so that they could go home without kicking. Saeed continued to guffaw in his sleep despite his burns.
Samar tugged at the hem of her mother’s robe. “Mama, come and look at the rabbits, please come!”
Her mother moved towards the garden saying, “You are making a lot of demands these days, my dear.” She was taken aback to see the rabbits running in the garden. On their backs were pieces of paper tied on with coloured ribbons. Her mouth opened in shock and disbelief. She went closer to the rabbits and read the slogans scrawled on the pieces of paper:
— I want a big carrot
— I want a bunny to play with
— I want a bed to sleep in
— I love Samar a lot
Her mother burst out laughing. “What’s all this, Samar? A rabbit demonstration?” Then she clapped her hands together and said, “God preserve us. We have to get rid of these rabbits before you go mad. They’re all you ever think about.” Meanwhile the little girl was shouting …
Spring Will Come
I hate the world and I don’t want anyone to hate the world. Life is beautiful. Spring will come to Iraq, despite the autumn. He raised his palm towards the river and called, “Abu Ahmad, Abu Ahmad. Watch out, your boat is crowded with people. Take care, there are children on board.”
He touched his arm and smiled sadly to someone far away. He rolled up his ragged sleeve for me to look at the tattoo: a large heart with the names Iman, Zayd, Omar, Ahlam, Mohammed, and Ali written inside it.
Saeed left me and headed to the middle of Mutanabbi Street shouting, “I want a pillow! I’ve decided today I’m going to sleep on a pillow. I won’t sleep on the pavement. I want a pillow! I want a pillow!”
He laughed loudly when someone handed him a pillow. He threw it on the pavement, lay down, and put his head on it. He started to laugh and cry. “Life doesn’t deserve respect,” he said. “Only love.” He closed his eyes. He closed his eyes for ever.
Samar’s rabbits are still demonstrating in the garden, but this time they carry signs reading: “No relocation.”
 Bab al-Hawaij, literally the Gate of Needs, refers to the mausoleum of Musa ibn Jaafar al-Kadhim, the seventh Shia imam. Pilgrims visit to petition the Imam. His mausoleum is accessed by the Bridge of the Imams across the Tigris. In 2005, a stampede on the crowded bridge resulted in around 1,000 deaths.
 Abu al-Qassim al-Tanburi was a rich and miserly Baghdadi merchant who continually patched his shoes rather than buy a new pair. These shoes caused him much misery, imprisonment, and impoverishment. He finally had a legal document drawn up to exonerate him from any of the crimes committed by his shoes. For a version of the tale, see: http://www.knightsofarabia.com/arabian/001/arabian00009.html.
 Uthman’s tunic was the blood-stained shirt in which the third Caliph of Islam, Uthman ibn Affan, was murdered. The tunic was subsequently used by Mu’awiya to incite the people against Ali, whom he accused of being behind Uthman’s death.
 Naathal was a Jewish man who lived in Medina and who resembled Uthman. Uthman’s enemies called him Naathal to mock him and encourage people to kill him.
Ginny stood on the counter of the diner decorated in tinfoil. She’s my wife, if you want to call her that, which I do. She’d made bracelets and earrings and a fake-fancy necklace by folding and shaping tiny glinting pieces. She even made a tinfoil tiara, perched on her red wig from the chemo clinic. Ginny clasped a ketchup bottle to her chest. “I really didn’t expect to win,” she gushed. “It’s such an honor to even be nominated. I have so many people to thank.”
“Get your skinny ass down from there and get back to work,” Joe said. He was standing over the flattop cooking us all some eggs. “Deb, get your honey’s skinny ass down from there before she breaks a leg,” he said to me.
I didn’t care about getting Ginny’s skinny ass down from there. She looked too damn pretty being all silly and shiny, like she used to be before she got sick. Her only customer at her only table was laughing his ass off anyway, and everyone else was home watching the Oscars. It didn’t matter if you lived six hundred miles from Hollywood. People still acted like all that business mattered.
“And really,” Ginny said. “There’s someone who deserves this award more than me, and that’s my high school drama teacher, Mrs. Futtlebutt. Mrs. Futtlebutt, will you please join me on stage?” She extended a hand down to me with a dopey look in her eyes.
“Oh my,” I said, clutching my throat. “What an honor.” I grabbed the edge of the counter to steady myself, then crawled up next to Ginny’s tennis shoes. The Formica was hard on my knees and my knees were hard on me, so I pushed myself the rest of the way up fast. Nobody could accuse me of being young and graceful, that’s for damn sure.
Ginny handed me the ketchup bottle. “Mrs. Futtlebutt, this is for you.” She placed the tinfoil tiara on my head.
“You sure are a couple of silly broads.” Joe stood there holding plates of fried eggs and hash browns. “Now get down before your dinner gets cold.”
We helped each other down. Ginny wiped off the counter with a rag, just like she did a dozen times a day, and we slid into a booth with Joe. I put Tabasco and ketchup on my eggs, but Ginny ate hers plain. That’s about all her stomach could handle these days.
When the phone rang, Ginny got up to answer it. “Eureka Diner, Home of the World’s Best Eggs, Crafted by Joe the Master Chef. How can I assist you this evening?”
“Wish she’d stop answering like that,” Joe said through a mouth of hash browns. I knew he didn’t really mean it—there’s just no way anybody could.
Ginny screamed. Not in a scary way, but more like she was at a Beatles concert. “No, really?” she said into the phone. “When? For how long? . . . Oh, I can’t wait! I love you!”
“Got competition, Deb?” Joe elbowed me in the ribs.
“Ha, ha.” There was only one other person Ginny said I love you to: her daughter.
Ginny slid back into the booth. “You’ll never guess what?”
“Christy coming to visit?” I said into my runny yolks.
“Yes! Tomorrow. She’s driving up first thing in the morning.”
Christy used to come stay with us for a week in April and another at Christmas and for six long ones in the summer. That was before she turned eighteen, when she still had to do what the custody agreement said. Too bad that agreement said nothing about looking me in the eyes, or saying anything more than “Let me talk to my mom” when she called, which wasn’t real often. Not since Ginny got sick. Not since I was left to handle it all.
After Ginny’s shift was done, we went straight home. We brushed our teeth side by side, taking turns spitting in the sink and passing the water cup to rinse. The sink was only a couple feet from the toilet which was only a couple feet from the bathtub— everything was only a couple feet from each other—but we knew how to make it work. We’d even figured it out with Ginny kneeling in front of the toilet and no room for me behind her. I could sit in the bathtub and reach one hand over to Ginny’s back to try and cool it off.
We got in bed under the wedding quilt my brother Keith gave us. Ginny curled onto her side, and I curved around her back. I put my hand on Ginny’s stomach. I didn’t rub, because that could be too much for her sometimes. But she liked a little pressure there. A little warmth.
“You should sleep in tomorrow,” I said. She didn’t have to be at work until eleven—Joe was real good about letting her work short shifts.
“I might go in early,” she said. “See if I can catch part of breakfast and pick up some extra tips.”
Maybe it seemed like Ginny should save her energy, but it was so good when she got it that she used it right up. I didn’t blame her. The energy surged in waves, and when a pretty one came along, she just had to jump on and ride it to the shore.
Ginny turned toward me, leaving a space just big enough for her to lay a hand on one of my breasts. She traced my nipple with her fingers, traced it like you run a finger through soft sand. That might have been all, just Ginny tracing my nipple because she often wasn’t up for much more, but my nipple got hard and I felt myself going warm and wet. I ran my hand from Ginny’s ass up to her head. Ginny moaned when I got to her smooth scalp. It turned out there were lots of nerve endings up there, and it felt good to Ginny in a way neither of us had known about before the chemo. Even though Ginny was in remission and her hair could grow back, she kept on shaving her head and wearing that silly wig.
Ginny slid her hand off my breast and travelled down to my stomach, and when her hand was there, on my stomach, I hoped that my healthy insides would soak into Ginny’s palm and make their way back inside of her. Even though some of her stomach had got cut out, I figured there was still a way for her to be whole. Her hand kept sliding down and between, and then it was less about Ginny’s hand and more about her fingers.
She’d caught a pretty wave and we were going to ride it to the shore.
I once saw a movie about three girls who were maids at a resort. They’d go into a room together and talk about boys and surfing while they stripped beds and folded towels and wiped down sinks. But I worked alone at the motel, pushing my cart from room to room.
I knocked on a first-floor door. “Housekeeping,” I said, even though there was probably no one to hear. Most people only slept in Eureka for one night on their way to or from the Redwoods. By the time I got to a room, the sheets were heaped and the towels were damp, the trash nothing more than a strand of dental floss or a dirty Band-Aid.
The inside of the room looked like a ghost town, with pages of the Times-Standard scattered over the floor. A pink lipstick stain rimmed a plastic cup next to the bed. I went about changing sheets and scrubbing the toilet and vacuuming the floor. It was the kind of job you didn’t need to think much for, which was good last fall. I’d been too worried that the surgery didn’t get all of Ginny’s tumor and that the chemo might not get the rest. Maybe a job that didn’t keep me on my middle-aged feet all day would have been nice, but at least it forced me upright. Made me move.
A shiny gum wrapper in the trash made me think of Ginny standing on the counter the night before. She used to be silly like that all the time. Her husband sometimes left her in charge of the market in Fresno while he ran to the bank or a meeting. As soon as he left, Ginny’d take over the P.A. system. “Knock, knock?” she’d say to the entire store.
“Who’s there?” I’d yell from the floor.
“Interrupting sheep,” she’d say.
At least once a week Ginny brought in food for the employees, Rice Krispies squares or chocolate pretzels or pumpkin-shaped cookies. She didn’t mind pitching in, either. Once a customer spilled a bag of rice on Aisle 6, and a kid threw up on Aisle 4. Ginny rolled a bucket and mop out to 4, and didn’t complain one bit while I swept up rice two aisles away.
After work, I stopped by the diner to see if Ginny wanted anything special from the store. She had a couple of tables, so I sat at the counter with a bowl of clam chowder. There wasn’t much lying around the kitchen that morning, so all I had for lunch was a hard- boiled egg, some saltines, and two slices of American cheese. I devoured the soup, not even chewing the bits of clam.
Three pencils stuck out from the curls of Ginny’s red wig. The hospital had wigs people donated after their hair grew back or after they were gone. One day I came home to find Ginny lying on the couch with one hand on her belly, and this red bouffant wig on her head. “Joe’s not gonna like it,” I told her. “Well, then he can just kiss my grits,” she said. Turned out that Joe got a kick out of the wig, and took to calling her Flo and fake-yelling that she was a silly broad.
Ginny wiped her hands on her apron and leaned toward me. “More coffee, babe?”
I shook my head. “Anything you want from the store?” What sounded good to Ginny changed from day to day, and there were some days when nothing did.
“Vanilla ice cream,” Ginny said. “With little brown specks in it. And noodles. And peas.”
I wrote it down on a piece of paper so I wouldn’t forget. Anymore, it seemed if I didn’t write something down, there wasn’t much chance of me remembering.
“Holy shit!” Ginny said, and went for the door. Standing outside the front window was Christy, wearing jeans and a bright blue UCLA T-shirt. Her hair streamed long and blond down her back, like Ginny’s used to.
Ginny started screaming—I could hear that from inside—and jumping up and down. She hugged Christy and it was hard to tell if Christy hugged back, because Ginny had pretty much pinned her arms.
“That’s Gin’s girl, huh?” Joe squinted toward the window.
“That’s her,” I said.
“She looks older.”
“Don’t we all.” Not that Christy cared about how old I looked or felt. I was pretty sure that girl didn’t care one bit how hard I’d had it, working full time and driving Ginny to the clinic, cooking and cleaning and wondering if there’d ever be fun again.
Ginny unpinned Christy and waved, then pointed to Christy like I might have missed the whole thing otherwise. It had been quite a while since I’d seen Ginny smile so wide for so long.
I cooked up noodles for dinner, with butter and peas, and figured we’d have vanilla bean ice cream for dessert. Christy took one bite of the noodles and said, “Kinda bland.”
“Spices are next to the stove.” Ginny pointed.
Christy walked to the drawer, which was only about an arm’s length from the table. Before she’d tasted the noodles, I’d asked what classes she was taking, so Christy went right on about that. “Mostly, I’m knocking out core classes,” she said, sprinkling on garlic salt. “But I’ve got this cool psych class on Theories of Cognition and Abnormal Behavior.”
“That’s quite a mouthful,” I said.
“Cognition means the way people think about things.” Christy stirred her noodles and sat back down. “And abnormal means—”
“I know what abnormal means.” I’d taken a smattering of classes at Fresno Community College when I was Christy’s age. Before it got to be too much, studying, working, paying the rent.
“You still a maid at that motel?” Christy asked. She had the same blue eyes as her mom, but they sure didn’t see people the same way. “It sounds gross. Cleaning other people’s toilets.”
“There’s much harder things than that,” I said. That girl had never cleaned up after anyone a day in her life. She’d certainly never had to wipe up puke or mop up diarrhea that wouldn’t go away.
“It sounds fun,” Ginny said. “Learning about so many different things.” She hadn’t touched her noodles, but I didn’t know if that was about the excitement of Christy being there, or more about her stomach.
“So, what’s with the wig?” Christy asked through a full mouth.
“It’s kind of fun, don’t you think?” Ginny pushed and primped her curls like she was Rita Hayworth fussing to go on stage. She didn’t normally wear the wig at home, at the dinner table. She usually wore a hat or a scarf or nothing at all, and when she wore nothing at all I would reach over and run a hand across her smooth head.
“It’s weird,” Christy said. “You can do better.”
“So, what are you doing here?” I asked.
“Came to see my mom.”
“Well, it’s spring bre—”
“No, why now?” I clanked down my fork. “Why now, when she’s all finished with the surgery and the chemo, why are you coming to see her now, and you didn’t then?”
“Deb,” Ginny reached over to touch my hand, but all she got was a fist. “She was just starting college. I didn’t want her to get distracted.”
“That was your decision, huh?” I looked at Ginny, who was looking at her napkin trying to pretend that the hurt hadn’t dug away at her. “What about Christmas break? Or Thanksgiving? Or just some long weekend.”
“College is hard,” Christy said. “It takes all my time.”
It was the excuse Ginny had told me and herself and everyone else again and again, so you couldn’t really blame Christy for falling back on it. But I wanted Christy to tell the truth. I wanted someone else to say that Ginny being sick was so terrifying you couldn’t see or feel straight, that it made you want to hide away.
“You don’t know one damn thing about hard,” I said.
“Mom!” Christy’s voice got loud and whiny. “Don’t let her talk to me like that.”
“Stop it,” Ginny said. “Both of you stop it, stop it, stop it!” She pulled off her wig and threw it on the table between us. It sat there limp and dull, like a circus balloon that lost all its air.
I pushed my chair back and rose up tall. I picked up Ginny’s wig from the kitchen table and took it with me, out the front door.
I walked for a long time. My legs and feet were already tired from pushing my cart from room to room all day, but there wasn’t much else to do. I’d left the apartment without grabbing the car keys or my wallet, like some teenage drama queen. I didn’t even grab a coat.
My head and hands were cold. I wanted to blame it on the moon, which couldn’t even bother to get half-full. The cold light made the sequoias look like Halloween decorations, blackened cutouts from giant pieces of cardboard. I slipped Ginny’s wig over my head. It was a tight fit and I had to yank it down hard.
After Ginny left Christy’s dad, the last thing on her mind was being a wife again. She was plenty happy just to be making a home with me. But when they started marrying folks down in San Francisco a few years back, it just seemed like the thing to do. My brother, Keith, even said he’d come up from Fresno with a minister friend who’d do the ceremony for free.
We drove to San Francisco early in the morning and stood in line for nearly five hours. Everyone was laughing and holding hands, sharing coffee and muffins, and someone we didn’t even know handed a single red rose to every couple in line. After we got our license, we took the trolley down to Fisherman’s Wharf and had a glass of wine. We sat staring out at Alcatraz, wondering why someone would build something so ugly in the middle of so much pretty. When Ginny asked the waiter, he said, “They wanted the prisoners to see what they were missing.” I know they were criminals, but it still seemed cruel, forcing them to look right at what they couldn’t have every single day.
By the time Keith got to us, it was all over. He’d heard on the radio. No more marriage licenses were being given out, and the ones already out there didn’t count. Keith said that didn’t matter none, we should still do the ceremony. His minister friend blessed me and Ginny while we kissed and exchanged rings. The fog had come in, and we couldn’t see past the bridge. Only the tops peeked through, and they didn’t look golden so much as a ragged red.
I drove us home the next day, playing the radio to cut the quiet. The signal turned fuzzy about a mile into the Humbolt Redwoods. The giants made it dark like dusk in there, even though it was just past lunch. I looked over at Ginny to ask for a CD, but her eyes were closed. Her forehead rested against the window and her blond hair curled around her neck. Even in the daytime dusk, I could see the collar of Ginny’s pink shirt was blotched by tears.
The red wig made my head hot and my scalp itch. I shifted it around, shoving strands of hair underneath, then pulling them back out. But there was no way to make it comfortable, so I took it off. I took off that wig and dropped it to the ground, and I stepped on it once or twice. Hard.
When I got home the living room was hot and bright. Christy was on the couch watching TV. “Where’s your mom?” I asked.
“Gee, I don’t know.” Christy didn’t move her eyes. “Maybe she’s in the screening room or the conservatory or something.” The girl had no intention of going for sorry, and I suppose I didn’t either.
I pushed open the bedroom door real quiet. Ginny was lying on her side with a pillow scrunched underneath her. I unbuttoned my shirt and unhooked my bra, and while I was taking off my jeans, Ginny turned and watched. The sliver of moon peeking in the window made me feel flabby and ghost white. I pulled on Keith’s flannel shirt, the one I’d been sleeping in since stealing it from him years ago. It was worn and ratty, but sure didn’t feel that way.
“Where’s my wig?” Ginny asked.
I got under the quilt, looked at the popcorn ceiling. The peaks and valleys looked like the far-away surface of the moon. “I lost it.”
“What do you mean, you lost it?”
“I guess I dropped it,” I said. “Out in the woods.”
“How could you drop it?” Ginny sounded exhausted more than mad. “I need it. I wear it every day.”
“Not every day.”
There was as much room between us as could be in our double bed. I’d hate to see how we looked, like two sides of a log split by a dull axe.
“You were too hard on her,” Ginny said.
“She doesn’t respect me,” I said. “Us.”
Ginny turned to face me, and the lack of light didn’t matter. I could see her blue eyes just fine, her sharp cheekbones, her thin lips, bare skull. “She thinks you’re why I left her dad.”
“That makes no sense.” I could see how Christy thought that when her folks split up, because that’s how young people think. But now she was in college, thinking for herself. She should have figured out it was more complicated. That a big piece of Ginny had already left him, long before I came along. That all of her was never really with him in the first place.
“She’s the only family I’ve got,” Ginny said. She had no brothers or sisters, and ten years had gone since her parents last talked to her. Ten years since Ginny decided she couldn’t stay married to Christy’s dad.
I reached across the small space between us. I slid my hand over Ginny’s bare head. There was no wave between us that night, but no riptide either. There was just water creeping on the shore, and then draining back, leaving a blanket of smooth, wet sand.
The next day when I got home from work, Ginny and Christy weren’t in front of the TV. They weren’t in the kitchen, so I headed to the bedroom. I heard Christy before seeing her, heard her small, clipped whining sounds. She was on the ground next to the closed bathroom door, hands wrapped around her raised knees. Ginny was behind the door, retching up nothing but bitter bile. It used to be the tumor that made Ginny sick. Then it was the chemo. Anymore, it was because her stomach was so small it didn’t empty out right. Her body knew purging would rid her of the pain.
Christy looked up at me, eyes puffy and pink. “She won’t come out and won’t let me in.”
I crouched down next to her, the muscles around my knees straining like old rubber bands. “How long’s she been in there?”
Christy wiped her nose with the back of her hand, her fist coming back wet and shiny. “I don’t know. Like, half an hour, maybe.”
I was still wearing my work uniform, brown polyester pants and a navy blue smock. I swiped the corner of the smock across Christy’s nose. She was just a scared kid who didn’t know how to deal with a sick mom. She shouldn’t have to.
I reached above the door frame for the allen key. “It’s just me, babe,” I said to Ginny as I let myself in.
Her body was a limp paisley on the cool bathroom floor, her ear pressed down like an Indian listening for footsteps. “Close the door.”
I pushed it most of the way closed but didn’t let it latch, didn’t let it lock. Left some room for Christy to hear, to talk, to move. I stepped into the tub and sat with my legs long. I reached my hand out to Ginny’s back, to her green T-shirt damp with sweat.
“Someone left a brochure in one of the rooms,” I said. “For Lake Shasta.” Nobody ever left clues of where they were going, but sometimes I could piece together where they’d been. “Prettiest picture you’d ever seen, the water like a mirror. Same color as the sky.”
“Was the mountain in it?” Ginny asked.
“Oh, sure.” I reached over and flushed the toilet, sucking away layers of bile. “The snow was so bright that it looked like it was covered in diamonds.”
The bathroom door pushed open real quiet. Christy’s voice had a shakiness that didn’t match up with the girl from the kitchen table last night. “You okay, Mom?”
“Been better, been worse,” Ginny said.
Christy couldn’t get to her mom because there was no space to crouch into. It would have been easy for her to leave, to just close the door and let us be.
“Here.” I folded my knees to my chest and scooted to the other end of the tub. Christy climbed in next to me. I lifted my hand off Ginny’s sweat-stained shirt and nodded there, to the damp imprint of my palm on her back.
Christy reached toward Ginny real slow, like she was moving toward a fire. Her hand landed on my palm-mark. It seemed like Christy might jerk back, away. It was easy to get scared like that, like your hand might just make the pain worse. Like it might make the disease come back. Like it might be your fault in the first place. All that fear never really went away. It just kept shifting around, trying to figure out what else to be. But Christy kept her hand steady. Her mother’s back. Next to me.
I kneeled up in the hard tub. I ran my hand over the landscape of Ginny’s skull, over hills and rivers and flat sand beaches.
“This summer,” I said, “We’ll go over to Shasta. We’ll get a room that looks out on the mountain.” I got a discount at other motels in the chain and, maybe, if we started saving right away, there’d be enough for a couple of nights. “We’ll rent a little boat and pack a picnic, and I’ll row you out to the middle of the lake.”
We’d have wine and vanilla bean ice cream, if that’s what Ginny wanted that day. The two of us would lie back in the sun, letting our skin grow warm and wet in the middle of the lake.
“We’ll take lots of pictures,” I said. “Make one into a Christmas card.”
“I’ll put it up on my mirror,” Christy said. “In my dorm.”
I couldn’t see it, Christy’s dorm or her mirror or the Christmas card held on by clear tape. But I had no problems seeing Ginny lying in a boat caressed by the sun, the water like a mirror, and Mount Shasta glittering nearby.
*Licensed from Press53, LLC. Copyright 2018 by Baby’s on Fire: stories by Liz Prato
From May to September Delia took the Churro sheep and two dogs and went up on Joe-Johns Mountain to live. She had that country pretty much to herself all summer. Ken Owen sent one of his Mexican hands up every other week with a load of groceries but otherwise she was alone, alone with the sheep and the dogs. She liked the solitude. Liked the silence. Some sheepherders she knew talked a blue streak to the dogs, the rocks, the porcupines, they sang songs and played the radio, read their magazines out loud, but Delia let the silence settle into her and by early summer she had begun to hear the ticking of the dry grasses as a language she could almost translate. The dogs were named Jesus and Alice. “Away to me, Hey-sus,” she said when they were moving the sheep. “Go bye, Alice.” From May to September these words spoken in command of the dogs were almost the only times she heard her own voice; that, and when the Mexican brought the groceries, a polite exchange in Spanish about the weather, the health of the dogs, the fecundity of the ewes.
The Churros were a very old breed. The O-Bar Ranch had a federal allotment up on the mountain, which was all rimrock and sparse grasses well suited to the Churros, who were fiercely protective of their lambs and had a long-stapled top coat that could take the weather. They did well on the thin grass of the mountain where other sheep would lose flesh and give up their lambs to the coyotes. The Mexican was an old man. He said he remembered Churros from his childhood in the Oaxaca highlands, the rams with their four horns, two curving up, two down. “Buen’ carne,” he told Delia. Uncommonly fine meat.
The wind blew out of the southwest in the early part of the season, a wind that smelled of juniper and sage and pollen; in the later months it blew straight from the east, a dry wind smelling of dust and smoke, bringing down showers of parched leaves and seedheads of yarrow and bittercress. Thunderstorms came frequently out of the east, enormous cloudscapes with hearts of livid magenta and glaucous green. At those times, if she was camped on a ridge she’d get out of her bed and walk downhill to find a draw where she could feel safer, but if she was camped in a low place she would stay with the sheep while a war passed over their heads, spectacular jagged flares of lightning, skull-rumbling cannonades of thunder. It was maybe bred into the bones of Churros, a knowledge and a tolerance of mountain weather, for they shifted together and waited out the thunder with surprising composure; they stood forbearingly while rain beat down in hard blinding bursts.
Sheepherding was simple work, although Delia knew some herders who made it hard, dogging the sheep every minute, keeping them in a tight group, moving all the time. She let the sheep herd themselves, do what they wanted, make their own decisions. If the band began to separate she would whistle or yell, and often the strays would turn around and rejoin the main group. Only if they were badly scattered did she send out the dogs. Mostly she just kept an eye on the sheep, made sure they got good feed, that the band didn’t split, that they stayed in the boundaries of the O-Bar allotment. She studied the sheep for the language of their bodies, and tried to handle them just as close to their nature as possible. When she put out salt for them, she scattered it on rocks and stumps as if she was hiding Easter eggs, because she saw how they enjoyed the search.
The spring grass made their manure wet, so she kept the wool cut away from the ewes’ tail area with a pair of sharp, short-bladed shears. She dosed the sheep with wormer, trimmed their feet, inspected their teeth, treated ewes for mastitis. She combed the burrs from the dogs’ coats and inspected them for ticks. You’re such good dogs, she told them with her hands. I’m very very proud of you.
She had some old binoculars, 7 x 32s, and in the long quiet days she watched bands of wild horses miles off in the distance, ragged looking mares with dorsal stripes and black legs. She read the back issues of the local newspapers, looking in the obits for names she recognized. She read spine-broken paperback novels and played solitaire and scoured the ground for arrowheads and rocks she would later sell to rockhounds. She studied the parched brown grass, which was full of grasshoppers and beetles and crickets and ants. But most of her day was spent just walking. The sheep sometimes bedded quite a ways from her trailer and she had to get out to them before sunrise when the coyotes would make their kills. She was usually up by three or four and walking out to the sheep in darkness. Sometimes she returned to the camp for lunch, but always she was out with the sheep again until sundown when the coyotes were likely to return, and then she walked home after dark to water and feed the dogs, eat supper, climb into bed.
In her first years on Joe-Johns she had often walked three or four miles away from the band just to see what was over a hill, or to study the intricate architecture of a sheepherder’s monument. Stacking up flat stones in the form of an obelisk was a common herders pastime, their monuments all over that sheep country, and though Delia had never felt an impulse to start one herself, she admired the ones other people had built. She sometimes walked miles out of her way just to look at a rockpile up close.
She had a mental map of the allotment, divided into ten pastures. Every few days, when the sheep had moved on to a new pasture, she moved her camp. She towed the trailer with an old Dodge pickup, over the rocks and creekbeds, the sloughs and dry meadows to the new place. For a while afterward, after the engine was shut off and while the heavy old body of the truck was settling onto its tires, she would be deaf, her head filled with a dull roaring white noise.
She had about 800 ewes, as well as their lambs, many of them twins or triplets. The ferocity of the Churro ewes in defending their offspring was sometimes a problem for the dogs, but in the balance of things she knew it kept her losses small. Many coyotes lived on Joe-Johns, and sometimes a cougar or bear would come up from the salt pan desert on the north side of the mountain, looking for better country to own. These animals considered the sheep to be fair game, which Delia understood to be their right; and also her right, hers and the dogs, to take the side of the sheep. Sheep were smarter than people commonly believed and the Churros smarter than other sheep she had tended, but by mid-summer the coyotes had passed the word among themselves, buen’ carne, and Delia and the dogs then had a job of work, keeping the sheep out of harm’s way.
She carried a .32 caliber Colt pistol in an old-fashioned holster worn on her belt. If you’re a coyot’ you’d better be careful of this woman, she said with her body, with the way she stood and the way she walked when she was wearing the pistol. That gun and holster had once belonged to her mother’s mother, a woman who had come West on her own and homesteaded for a while, down in the Sprague River Canyon. Delia’s grandmother had liked to tell the story: how a concerned neighbor, a bachelor with an interest in marriageable females, had pressed the gun upon her, back when the Klamaths were at war with the army of General Joel Palmer; and how she never had used it for anything but shooting rabbits.
In July a coyote killed a lamb while Delia was camped no more than two hundred feet away from the bedded sheep. It was dusk and she was sitting on the steps of the trailer reading a two-gun western, leaning close over the pages in the failing light, and the dogs were dozing at her feet. She heard the small sound, a strange high faint squeal she did not recognize and then did recognize, and she jumped up and fumbled for the gun, yelling at the coyote, at the dogs, her yell startling the entire band to its feet but the ewes making their charge too late, Delia firing too late, and none of it doing any good beyond a release of fear and anger.
A lion might well have taken the lamb entire; she had known of lion kills where the only evidence was blood on the grass and a dribble of entrails in the beam of a flashlight. But a coyote is small and will kill with a bite to the throat and then perhaps eat just the liver and heart, though a mother coyote will take all she can carry in her stomach, bolt it down and carry it home to her pups. Delia’s grandmother’s pistol had scared this one off before it could even take a bite, and the lamb was twitching and whole on the grass, bleeding only from its neck. The mother ewe stood over it, crying in a distraught and pitiful way, but there was nothing to be done, and in a few minutes the lamb was dead.
There wasn’t much point in chasing after the coyote, and anyway the whole band was now a skittish jumble of anxiety and confusion; it was hours before the mother ewe gave up her grieving, before Delia and the dogs had the band calm and bedded down again, almost midnight. By then the dead lamb had stiffened on the ground and she dragged it over by the truck and skinned it and let the dogs have the meat, which went against her nature but was about the only way to keep the coyote from coming back for the carcass.
While the dogs worked on the lamb, she stood with both hands pressed to her tired back looking out at the sheep, the mottled pattern of their whiteness almost opalescent across the black landscape, and the stars thick and bright above the faint outline of the rock ridges, stood there a moment before turning toward the trailer, toward bed, and afterward she would think how the coyote and the sorrowing ewe and the dark of the July moon and the kink in her back, how all of that came together and was the reason she was standing there watching the sky, was the reason she saw the brief, brilliantly green flash in the southwest and then the sulfur yellow streak breaking across the night, southwest to due west on a descending arc onto Lame Man Bench. It was a broad bright ribbon, rainbow-wide, a cyanotic contrail. It was not a meteor, she had seen hundreds of meteors. She stood and looked at it.
Things to do with the sky, with distance, you could lose perspective, it was hard to judge even a lightning strike, whether it had touched down on a particular hill or the next hill or the valley between. So she knew this thing falling out of the sky might have come down miles to the west of Lame Man, not onto Lame Man at all, which was two miles away, at least two miles, and getting there would be all ridges and rocks, no way to cover the ground in the truck. She thought about it. She had moved camp earlier in the day, which was always troublesome work, and it had been a blistering hot day, and now the excitement with the coyote. She was very tired, the tiredness like a weight against her breastbone. She didn’t know what this thing was, falling out of the sky. Maybe if she walked over there she would find just a dead satellite or a broken weather balloon and not dead or broken people. The contrail thinned slowly while she stood there looking at it, became a wide streak of yellowy cloud against the blackness, with the field of stars glimmering dimly behind it.
After a while she went into the truck and got a water bottle and filled it and also took the first aid kit out of the trailer and a couple of spare batteries for the flashlight and a handful of extra cartridges for the pistol and stuffed these things into a backpack and looped her arms into the straps and started up the rise away from the dark camp, the bedded sheep. The dogs left off their gnawing of the dead lamb and trailed her anxiously, wanting to follow, or not wanting her to leave the sheep. “Stay by,” she said to them sharply, and they went back and stood with the band and watched her go. That coyot’, he’s done with us tonight: This is what she told the dogs with her body, walking away, and she believed it was probably true.
Now that she’d decided to go, she walked fast. This was her sixth year on the mountain and by this time she knew the country pretty well. She didn’t use the flashlight. Without it, she became accustomed to the starlit darkness, able to see the stones and pick out a path. The air was cool but full of the smell of heat rising off the rocks and the parched earth. She heard nothing but her own breathing and the gritting of her boots on the pebbly dirt. A little owl circled once in silence and then went off toward a line of cottonwood trees standing in black silhouette to the northeast.
Lame Man Bench was a great upthrust block of basalt grown over with scraggly juniper forest. As she climbed among the trees the smell of something like ozone or sulfur grew very strong, and the air became thick, burdened with dust. Threads of the yellow contrail hung in the limbs of the trees. She went on across the top of the bench and onto slabs of shelving rock that gave a view to the west. Down in the steep-sided draw below her there was a big wing-shaped piece of metal resting on the ground which she at first thought had been torn from an airplane, but then realized was a whole thing, not broken, and she quit looking for the rest of the wreckage. She squatted down and looked at it. Yellow dust settled slowly out of the sky, pollinating her hair, her shoulders, the toes of her boots, faintly dulling the oily black shine of the wing, the thing shaped like a wing.
While she was squatting there looking down at it, something came out from the sloped underside of it, a coyote she thought at first, and then it wasn’t a coyote but a dog built like greyhound or a whippet, deep-chested, long legged, very light-boned and frail looking. She waited for somebody else, a man, to crawl out after his dog, but nobody did. The dog squatted to pee and then moved off a short distance and sat on its haunches and considered things. Delia considered, too. She considered that the dog might have been sent up alone. The Russians had sent up a dog in their little sputnik, she remembered. She considered that a skinny almost hairless dog with frail bones would be dead in short order if left alone in this country. And she considered that there might be a man inside the wing, dead or too hurt to climb out. She thought how much trouble it would be, getting down this steep rock bluff in the darkness to rescue a useless dog and a dead man.
After a while she stood and started picking her way into the draw. The dog by this time was smelling the ground, making a slow and careful circuit around the black wing. Delia kept expecting the dog to look up and bark, but it went on with its intent inspection of the ground as if it was stone deaf, as if Delia’s boots making a racket on the loose gravel was not an announcement that someone was coming down. She thought of the old Dodge truck, how it always left her ears ringing, and wondered if maybe it was the same with this dog and its wing-shaped sputnik, although the wing had fallen soundless across the sky.
When she had come about half way down the hill she lost footing and slid down six or eight feet before she got her heels dug in and found a handful of willow scrub to hang onto. A glimpse of this movement—rocks sliding to the bottom, or the dust she raised—must have startled the dog, for it leaped backward suddenly and then reared up. They looked at each other in silence, Delia and the dog, Delia standing leaning into the steep slope a dozen yards above the bottom of the draw, and the dog standing next to the sputnik, standing all the way up on its hind legs like a bear or a man and no longer seeming to be a dog but a person with a long narrow muzzle and a narrow chest, turned-out knees, delicate dog-like feet. Its genitals were more cat-like than dog, a male set but very small and neat and contained. Dog’s eyes, though, dark and small and shining below an anxious brow, so that she was reminded of Jesus and Alice, the way they had looked at her when she had left them alone with the sheep. She had years of acquaintance with dogs and she knew enough to look away, break off her stare. Also, after a moment, she remembered the old pistol and holster at her belt. In cowboy pictures, a man would unbuckle his gunbelt and let it down on the ground as a gesture of peaceful intent, but it seemed to her this might only bring attention to the gun, to the true intent of a gun, which is always killing. This woman is nobody at all to be scared of, she told the dog with her body, standing very still along the steep hillside, holding onto the scrub willow with her hands, looking vaguely to the left of him where the smooth curve of the wing rose up and gathered a veneer of yellow dust.
The dog, the dog person, opened his jaws and yawned the way a dog will do to relieve nervousness, and then they were both silent and still for a minute. When finally he turned and stepped toward the wing, it was an unexpected, delicate movement, exactly the way a ballet dancer steps along on his toes, knees turned out, lifting his long thin legs; and then he dropped down on all-fours and seemed to become almost a dog again. He went back to his business of smelling the ground intently, though every little while he looked up to see if Delia was still standing along the rock slope. It was a steep place to stand. When her knees finally gave out, she sat down very carefully where she was, which didn’t spook him. He had become used to her by then, and his brief, sliding glance just said, That woman up there is nobody at all to be scared of.
What he was after, or wanting to know, was a mystery to her. She kept expecting him to gather up rocks, like all those men who’d gone to the moon, but he only smelled the ground, making a wide slow circuit around the wing the way Alice and Jesus always circled round the trailer every morning, noses down, reading the dirt like a book. And when he seemed satisfied with what he’d learned, he stood up again and looked back at Delia, a last look delivered across his shoulder before he dropped down and disappeared under the edge of the wing, a grave and inquiring look, the kind of look a dog or a man will give you before going off on his own business, a look that says, You be okay if I go? If he had been a dog, and if Delia had been close enough to do it, she’d have scratched the smooth head, felt the hard bone beneath, moved her hands around the soft ears. Sure, okay, you go on now, Mr. Dog: This is what she would have said with her hands. Then he crawled into the darkness under the slope of the wing, where she figured there must be a door, a hatch letting into the body of the machine, and after a while he flew off into the dark of the July moon.
In the weeks afterward, on nights when the moon had set or hadn’t yet risen, she looked for the flash and streak of something breaking across the darkness out of the southwest. She saw him come and go to that draw on the west side of Lame Man Bench twice more in the first month. Both times, she left her grandmother’s gun in the trailer and walked over there and sat in the dark on the rock slab above the draw and watched him for a couple of hours. He may have been waiting for her, or he knew her smell, because both times he reared up and looked at her just about as soon as she sat down. But then he went on with his business. That woman is nobody to be scared of, he said with his body, with the way he went on smelling the ground, widening his circle and widening it, sometimes taking a clod or a sprig into his mouth and tasting it, the way a mild-mannered dog will do when he’s investigating something and not paying any attention to the person he’s with.
Delia had about decided that the draw behind Lame Man Bench was one of his regular stops, like the ten campsites she used over and over again when she was herding on Joe-Johns Mountain; but after those three times in the first month she didn’t see him again.
At the end of September she brought the sheep down to the O-Bar. After the lambs had been shipped out she took her band of dry ewes over onto the Nelson prairie for the fall, and in mid-November when the snow had settled in, she brought them to the feed lots. That was all the work the ranch had for her until lambing season. Jesus and Alice belonged to the O-Bar. They stood in the yard and watched her go.
In town she rented the same room as the year before, and, as before, spent most of a year’s wages on getting drunk and standing other herders to rounds of drink. She gave up looking into the sky.
In March she went back out to the ranch. In bitter weather they built jugs and mothering-up pens, and trucked the pregnant ewes from Green, where they’d been feeding on wheat stubble. Some ewes lambed in the trailer on the way in, and after every haul there was a surge of lambs born. Delia had the night shift, where she was paired with Roy Joyce, a fellow who raised sugar beets over in the valley and came out for the lambing season every year. In the black, freezing cold middle of the night, eight and ten ewes would be lambing at a time. Triplets, twins, big singles, a few quads, ewes with lambs born dead, ewes too sick or confused to mother. She and Roy would skin a dead lamb and feed the carcass to the ranch dogs and wrap the fleece around a bummer lamb, which was intended to fool the bereaved ewe into taking the orphan as her own, and sometimes it worked that way. All the mothering-up pens swiftly filled, and the jugs filled, and still some ewes with new lambs stood out in the cold field waiting for a room to open up.
You couldn’t pull the stuck lambs with gloves on, you had to reach into the womb with your fingers to turn the lamb, or tie cord around the feet, or grasp the feet barehanded, so Delia’s hands were always cold and wet, then cracked and bleeding. The ranch had brought in some old converted school buses to house the lambing crew, and she would fall into a bunk at daybreak and then not be able to sleep, shivering in the unheated bus with the gray daylight pouring in the windows and the endless daytime clamor out at the lambing sheds. All the lambers had sore throats, colds, nagging coughs. Roy Joyce looked like hell, deep bags as blue as bruises under his eyes, and Delia figured she looked about the same, though she hadn’t seen a mirror, not even to draw a brush through her hair, since the start of the season.
By the end of the second week, only a handful of ewes hadn’t lambed. The nights became quieter. The weather cleared, and the thin skiff of snow melted off the grass. On the dark of the moon, Delia was standing outside the mothering-up pens drinking coffee from a thermos. She put her head back and held the warmth of the coffee in her mouth a moment, and as she was swallowing it down, lowering her chin, she caught the tail end of a green flash and a thin yellow line breaking across the sky, so far off anybody else would have thought it was a meteor, but it was bright, and dropping from southwest to due west, maybe right onto Lame Man Bench. She stood and looked at it. She was so very goddamned tired and had a sore throat that wouldn’t clear and she could barely get her fingers to fold around the thermos, they were so split and tender.
She told Roy she felt sick as a horse, and did he think he could handle things if she drove herself into town to the Urgent Care clinic, and she took one of the ranch trucks and drove up the road a short way and then turned onto the rutted track that went up to Joe-Johns.
The night was utterly clear and you could see things a long way off. She was still an hour’s drive from the Churros’ summer range when she began to see a yellow-orange glimmer behind the black ridgeline, a faint nimbus like the ones that marked distant range fires on summer nights.
She had to leave the truck at the bottom of the bench and climb up the last mile or so on foot, had to get a flashlight out of the glove box and try to find an uphill path with it because the fluttery reddish lightshow was finished by then, and a thick pall of smoke overcast the sky and blotted out the stars. Her eyes itched and burned, and tears ran from them, but the smoke calmed her sore throat. She went up slowly, breathing through her mouth.
The wing had burned a skid path through the scraggly junipers along the top of the bench and had come apart into a hundred pieces. She wandered through the burnt trees and the scattered wreckage, shining her flashlight into the smoky darkness, not expecting to find what she was looking for, but there he was, lying apart from the scattered pieces of metal, out on the smooth slab rock at the edge of the draw. He was panting shallowly and his close coat of short brown hair was matted with blood. He lay in such a way that she immediately knew his back was broken. When he saw Delia coming up, his brow furrowed with worry. A sick or a wounded dog will bite, she knew that, but she squatted next to him. It’s just me, she told him, by shining the light not in his face but in hers. Then she spoke to him. “Okay,” she said. “I’m here now,” without thinking too much about what the words meant, or whether they meant anything at all, and she didn’t remember until afterward that he was very likely deaf anyway. He sighed and shifted his look from her to the middle distance, where she supposed he was focused on approaching death.
Near at hand, he didn’t resemble a dog all that much, only in the long shape of his head, the folded-over ears, the round darkness of his eyes. He lay on the ground flat on his side like a dog that’s been run over and is dying by the side of the road, but a man will lay like that too when he’s dying. He had small-fingered nail-less hands where a dog would have had toes and front feet. Delia offered him a sip from her water bottle but he didn’t seem to want it, so she just sat with him quietly, holding one of his hands, which was smooth as lambskin against the cracked and roughened flesh of her palm. The batteries in the flashlight gave out, and sitting there in the cold darkness she found his head and stroked it, moving her sore fingers lightly over the bone of his skull, and around the soft ears, the loose jowls. Maybe it wasn’t any particular comfort to him but she was comforted by doing it. Sure, okay, you can go on.
She heard him sigh, and then sigh again, and each time wondered if it would turn out to be his death. She had used to wonder what a coyote, or especially a dog would make of this doggish man, and now while she was listening, waiting to hear if he would breathe again, she began to wish she’d brought Alice or Jesus with her, though not out of that old curiosity. When her husband had died years before, at the very moment he took his last breath, the dog she’d had then had barked wildly and raced back and forth from the front to the rear door of the house as if he’d heard or seen something invisible to her. People said it was her husband’s soul going out the door or his angel coming in. She didn’t know what it was the dog had seen or heard or smelled, but she wished she knew. And now she wished she had a dog with her to bear witness.
She went on petting him even after he had died, after she was sure he was dead, went on petting him until his body was cool, and then she got up stiffly from the bloody ground and gathered rocks and piled them onto him, a couple of feet high so he wouldn’t be found or dug up. She didn’t know what to do about the wreckage, so she didn’t do anything with it at all.
In May, when she brought the Churro sheep back to Joe-Johns Mountain, the pieces of the wrecked wing had already eroded, were small and smooth-edged like the bits of sea glass you find on a beach, and she figured this must be what it was meant to do: to break apart into pieces too small for anybody to notice, and then to quickly wear away. But the stones she’d piled over his body seemed like the start of something, so she began the slow work of raising them higher into a sheepherders monument. She gathered up all the smooth eroded bits of wing, too, and laid them in a series of widening circles around the base of the monument. She went on piling up stones through the summer and into September until it reached fifteen feet. Mornings, standing with the sheep miles away, she would look for it through the binoculars and think about ways to raise it higher, and she would wonder what was buried under all the other monuments sheepherders had raised in that country. At night she studied the sky, but nobody came for him.
In November when she finished with the sheep and went into town, she asked around and found a guy who knew about star-gazing and telescopes. He loaned her some books and sent her to a certain pawnshop, and she gave most of a year’s wages for a 14 x 75 telescope with a reflective lens. On clear, moonless nights she met the astronomy guy out at the Little League baseball field and she sat on a fold-up canvas stool with her eye against the telescope’s finder while he told her what she was seeing: Jupiter’s moons, the Pelican Nebula, the Andromeda Galaxy. The telescope had a tripod mount, and he showed her how to make a little jerry-built device so she could mount her old 7 x 32 binoculars on the tripod too. She used the binoculars for their wider view of star clusters and small constellations. She was indifferent to most discomforts, could sit quietly in one position for hours at a time, teeth rattling with the cold, staring into the immense vault of the sky until she became numb and stiff, barely able to stand and walk back home. Astronomy, she discovered, was a work of patience, but the sheep had taught her patience, or it was already in her nature before she ever took up with them.
Every night my father took the path from the cemetery to our house. I could hear his footsteps in the garden. I pretended to be asleep while he looked for the stick that he used to hide in my closet. I left the door open for him and played an amusing game with him – he left his eyes in his grave and every time I hid his stick in a different place.
I watched him with half an eye until he gave up. Then he curled up on the floor, miserable and tired. I got out of bed, took his hand and walked him back to the cemetery gate before the people of the house woke up. He walked through the gate confidently and with assurance, and I watched him from a short distance as he disappeared among the graves.
I’d never thought of getting rid of the stick—by throwing it in the river, for example, or breaking it on the garden wall. On the contrary, I’d taken extra care of it since my father’s night visits began. After each visit I got rid of one of the scars he had given me with it. I had one on my right shoulder, one on my left leg, and many small scars here and there—some visible and some beneath the skin.
I had gotten rid of all but one scar that was left at the bottom of the list. I didn’t know where it was on the skin or beneath it. One last visit from him and it would all be over and I would have eliminated them all. This time I would leave him lying curled up miserably in the corner of the room for longer than usual. I might wait until dawn or until he swallowed his pride and asked me openly to escort him back to his grave before the sun came up.
But he didn’t come for three nights. His absence made me very anxious. Had he caught on to the game? Or had he given up hope of finding his stick?
On the fourth night I decided to look for him. Maybe he had lost his way or was having a long doze in his grave. But this would be his last visit to us and then I would leave his stick on top of his grave and he wouldn’t bother walking around at night dead and blind.
At two o’clock in the morning I left my room quietly, taking care not to wake my mother, who leaves the door of her bedroom ajar. Then I crossed the living-room and the garden and made my way towards the cemetery. I didn’t think about how I was going to persuade my father to visit us for one last time. I didn’t have any particular plan in mind. But what dead person doesn’t hope to be invited out for a walk at night so that they can breathe cool refreshing air?
At the cemetery gate I spotted two shadows moving in the distance. I couldn’t make out their features in the dark. I went closer slowly and watched them from behind a large tree. It was my mother laying into my father with the stick. My father was trying to avoid her blows but he wasn’t moving from where he was or making any noise.
From my hiding place I heard her say, “You bastard, I told you not to hit him on the head. Don’t hit him on the head or you’ll kill him.”
I felt my head and found a deep wound covered with dried blood.
A few minutes later the two of them were making their way towards the house with tired and heavy steps.
I went through the cemetery gate and disappeared among the graves sunk in darkness.
Most of all I hate the sun, loud human voices, and pounding. Rapid, rapid pounding. I am so afraid of people that if I hear someone else’s footsteps and the sound of voices in the corridor in the evening, I start to scream. Because of this I have a special room, the quietest and the best, No. 27, at the very end of the corridor. No one can get to me. But in order to protect myself further, I kept begging Ivan Vasilievich for a long time (actually, I cried in front of him), to give me an official typed authorization. He consented and wrote that I was under his protection and that no one had the right to take me away. But, to tell you the truth, I did not have much confidence in the weight of his signature. So he persuaded a professor to sign it too, and affixed a round blue seal to the paper. That made all the difference. I know of many instances where people have avoided death solely because they had a piece of paper with a round blue seal on it in their pockets. True, that worker in Berdyansk with the cheek smeared with soot was hung from a lamppost after they found a crumpled piece of paper with a stamp on it in his boot. But that was altogether different. He was a criminal Bolshevik and the blue seal was a criminal seal. It reserved him a place on that lamppost and the lamppost was the reason for my illness (don’t worry, I know perfectly well that I am ill).
In fact, something had happened to me even before Kolya. I walked away in order to avoid seeing a man being hanged, but fear walked with me in my trembling legs. At the time, of course, there was nothing I could do, but now I would boldly say, “General, you are an animal! How dare you hang people!”
This alone shows you that I’m no coward. I did not go on about the seal because I am afraid of death. Oh, no. I am not afraid of that. I am going to shoot myself, and it will be soon, because Kolya will drive me to despair. I will shoot myself so that I do not have to see or hear Kolya. As for the thought that other people might come… It is loathsome.
For days on end I have been lying on the couch and staring out the window. Above our green garden is an empty void. Beyond it the yellow bulk of a seven-story building turns its deaf, windowless wall to me, and right under the roof is a rusty square. A sign. Dental Laboratory. In white letters. At first I hated it. Then I got used to it and if it were gone I might even miss it. It can be seen clearly the whole day. I focus my attention on it and ponder many important things. But evening is falling. The cupola darkens, the white letters fade from view. I become gray and dissolve in the gloom just like my thoughts. Twilight. A frightening and portentous time of day. Everything fades, everything becomes indistinct. A pale ginger cat begins to slink along the corridor with velvety steps and from time to time I scream. But I will not allow a lamp to be lit because the glare of the lamp will cause me to wring my hands and sob all night. It is better to wait submissively for the moment when that most important last picture begins to burn in the quivering darkness.
My aged mother said to me: “I can’t go on like this much longer. All I see is madness. You are the oldest, and I know that you love him. Bring Kolya back. Bring him back. You are the oldest.”
I said nothing. ٠
So she put all of her yearning and all of her pain into her words.
“Find him. You pretend that nothing can be done. But I know you. You are intelligent, you have long understood that this is all madness. Bring him to me for a day. For just one day. I’ll let him go again.”
She was lying. Would she really let him go again?
I said nothing.
“I only want to kiss his eyes. I know he will be killed. Don’t you understand? He’s my baby. Who else can I ask? You are the oldest. Bring him.”
I could not stand it, so avoiding her eyes, I said, “Okay.”
But she grabbed my sleeve and turned me around so that she could look into my face.
“No, you will swear that you will bring him back alive.”
How could I swear any such thing?
But being the insane person that I am, I did it: “I swear.”
My mother is fainthearted. With that thought I left. But in Berdyansk I saw the crooked lamppost. General, Sir, I agree that I was no less criminal than you, I accept great responsibility for the man smeared with soot, but my brother does not have anything to do with it. He is nineteen years old.
After Berdyansk, I resolutely fulfilled my oath and found him by a small stream twenty versts away. The day was unusually bright. Along the road to the village, from which came the smell of ashes, a cavalry column moved slowly, stirring up clouds of white dust. He rode at the end of the first rank, with the visor of his cap pulled down over his eyes. I remember every detail. The right spur came all the way down to his heel. The strap of his cap stretched across his cheek and down under his chin.
“Kolya. Kolya!” I yelled, and ran down to the roadside ditch.
He started. Along the ranks the sullen, sweaty soldiers turned their heads.
“Ah… brother!” he cried in response. For some reason he never called me by my name, but always said brother. I am ten years older than he. And he always listened carefully to what I said. “Wait, wait here,” he continued, “by the little wood. We’ll be back right away I can’t leave the troop.”
At the edge of the wood, a little away from the dismounted troop, we smoked greedily I was calm and insistent. Everything was madness. Mother was absolutely right.
I whispered to him, “As soon as you return from the village, come with me into town. Then get out of here and never come back.”
“What are you saying, brother?”
“Be quiet,” I said, “Be quiet. I know what I’m saying.”
The troop had mounted. They were swaying, moving at a trot toward the billowing black smoke. In the distance a pounding began. Rapid, rapid pounding.
What could happen in just an hour? They would come back. I settled down to wait by the tent with the red cross on it.
An hour later I saw him. He also returned at a trot. But there was no troop. Only one horseman with a lance galloped on either side of him, and one of them, the one on the right, leaned towards my brother periodically, as if he were whispering something to him. Squinting into the sun, I watched the strange masquerade. He had left in a gray cap and was returning in a red one. The sun was setting. Only a black silhouette crowned with brightness remained. There was no hair and there was no forehead. Instead, there was a red crown with yellow spikes in clumps.
My brother, the horseman, wearing a ragged red crown, sat motionless on a lathered horse, and if the horseman on the right had not been carefully supporting him, he might have been on his way to a parade.
The horseman sat proud in the saddle, but he was blind and mute. There were two red blotches with streaks where an hour ago bright eyes had shone…
The horseman on the left dismounted, his left hand clutched the reins, but the one on the right very carefully led Kolya by the hand. Kolya swayed.
A voice said, “I’m afraid our volunteer… he’s been hit by a shell fragment. Orderly, call a doctor…”
The other sighed and said, “Sure… but why call a doctor, buddy? Better a priest.”
Then the black veil thickened and everything was obscured, even the head gear…
I have gotten used to everything. To this white building of ours, to the twilight, to the ginger cat who purrs at the door, but I cannot get used to his visits. The first time it happened, when I was still living downstairs in No. 63, he came out of the wall. He was wearing the red crown. There was nothing terrifying in that. I had seen him like that in dreams. But of course I knew that since he was wearing the crown he was dead. Then he spoke, moving his lips, which were caked with blood. He eased them apart, clicked his heels, put his hand to the crown in a salute, and said: “Brother, I can’t leave the troop.”
Since then it is always the same. He comes wearing his field shirt, with straps across his chest, with a curved saber and silent spurs, and says the same thing. Salute. Then: “Brother, I can’t leave the troop. “
You cannot imagine how it affected me the first time it happened! He gave the whole clinic a fright. Anyway, it is all over for me. It stands to reason that since he is wearing a halo, he has been killed, and if the dead come and talk to me, it means I have gone mad.
Yes. Now it’s twilight. It is the hour of reckoning. But once I dozed off and saw the living room with the worn red velvet furniture. The comfortable armchair with a cracked leg. The portrait in a dusty black frame on the wall. Flowers on stands. The piano was open and on it was the score from Faust. He stood in the doorway, and a wild happiness warmed my heart. He was not a horseman. He was as he had been before those accursed days. In a black double-breasted jacket with a smudge of chalk on the elbow. His lively eyes smiled playfully and a lock of hair hung down over his forehead. He was nodding to me.
“Brother, let’s go to my room. Do I have something to show you!… “
The rays from his eyes lit up the living room, and the burden of remorse melted inside me. That ill-fated day when I told him: “Go” had never existed, there was no pounding or acrid smoke. He had never gone away and had never been a horseman. He played the piano, the ivory keys tinkled, the golden rays of light touched everything, and his voice was expressive and he laughed.
Then I woke up. There was nothing. No light, no eyes. I never had that dream again. Then that very night, to compound my unbearable torture, he came anyway, stepping silently, the horseman in full military regalia, and he spoke to me the way he has decided to speak to me for eternity.
I decided to put an end to it. I said forcefully, “What are you, my eternal torturer? Why do you come? I admit everything. I take the blame for sending you on that doomed mission. I also take the blame for the hanging. Since I admit all this, forgive me and leave me alone.”
I tell you. General, Sir, he said nothing and left.
So I became bitter from this torment and wished with all my might that he would come to you just once and put his hand to the crown in a salute. I assure you, you would be finished, just like me. At one stroke. However, perhaps you, too, are not alone at night? Who knows, perhaps you are visited by that soot-smeared man from the lamppost in Berdyansk? If this is so, we suffer it as we must. I sent Kolya to help you carry out the hanging, but you were the one who actually did it. By verbal order.
So, he did not leave. Then I scared him away with a scream. Everyone woke up. The attendant came running, they woke Ivan Vasilievich. I could not face the next day, but they wouldn’t let me do myself in. They bound me with canvas straps, tore the glass from my hands, and bandaged me. Since then I have been in No. 27. After I was drugged I began to doze off, and heard the attendant talking in the corridor:
“A hopeless case. “
It’s true. I have no hope. Futilely, in burning anguish, I wait in the twilight for the dream to come – that old familiar room and the peaceful light from those radiant eyes. But all of that is gone forever.
The burden does not ease. And at night I wait submissively for the familiar horseman with the sightless eyes to come and say hoarsely: “I can’t leave the troop.”
Yes, I am hopeless. He will drive me to my grave.