I visited St. Louis lately, and on my way West, after changing cars at Terre Haute, Indiana, a mild, benevolent-looking gentleman of about forty-five, or maybe fifty, came in at one of the way-stations and sat down beside me. We talked together pleasantly on various subjects for an hour, perhaps, and I found him exceedingly intelligent and entertaining. When he learned that I was from Washington, he immediately began to ask questions about various public men, and about Congressional affairs; and I saw very shortly that I was conversing with a man who was perfectly familiar with the ins and outs of political life at the Capital, even to the ways and manners, and customs of procedure of Senators and Representatives in the Chambers of the national Legislature. Presently two men halted near us for a single moment, and one said to the other:
“Harris, if you’ll do that for me, I’ll never forget you, my boy.”
My new comrade’s eye lighted pleasantly. The words had touched upon a happy memory, I thought. Then his face settled into thoughtfulness– almost into gloom. He turned to me and said,
“Let me tell you a story; let me give you a secret chapter of my life– a chapter that has never been referred to by me since its events transpired. Listen patiently, and promise that you will not interrupt me.”
I said I would not, and he related the following strange adventure, speaking sometimes with animation, sometimes with melancholy, but always with feeling and earnestness.
THE STRANGER’S NARRATIVE
“On the 19th of December, 1853, I started from St. Louis on the evening train bound for Chicago. There were only twenty-four passengers, all told. There were no ladies and no children. We were in excellent spirits, and pleasant acquaintanceships were soon formed. The journey bade fair to be a happy one; and no individual in the party, I think, had even the vaguest presentiment of the horrors we were soon to undergo.
“At 11 P.m. it began to snow hard. Shortly after leaving the small village of Welden, we entered upon that tremendous prairie solitude that stretches its leagues on leagues of houseless dreariness far away toward the jubilee Settlements. The winds, unobstructed by trees or hills, or even vagrant rocks, whistled fiercely across the level desert, driving the falling snow before it like spray from the crested waves of a stormy sea. The snow was deepening fast; and we knew, by the diminished speed of the train, that the engine was plowing through it with steadily increasing difficulty. Indeed, it almost came to a dead halt sometimes, in the midst of great drifts that piled themselves like colossal graves across the track. Conversation began to flag. Cheerfulness gave place to grave concern. The possibility of being imprisoned in the snow, on the bleak prairie, fifty miles from any house, presented itself to every mind, and extended its depressing influence over every spirit.
“At two o’clock in the morning I was aroused out of an uneasy slumber by the ceasing of all motion about me. The appalling truth flashed upon me instantly–we were captives in a snow-drift! ‘All hands to the rescue!’ Every man sprang to obey. Out into the wild night, the pitchy darkness, the billowy snow, the driving storm, every soul leaped, with the consciousness that a moment lost now might bring destruction to us all. Shovels, hands, boards–anything, everything that could displace snow, was brought into instant requisition. It was a weird picture, that small company of frantic men fighting the banking snows, half in the blackest shadow and half in the angry light of the locomotive’s reflector.
“One short hour sufficed to prove the utter uselessness of our efforts. The storm barricaded the track with a dozen drifts while we dug one away. And worse than this, it was discovered that the last grand charge the engine had made upon the enemy had broken the fore-and-aft shaft of the driving-wheel! With a free track before us we should still have been helpless. We entered the car wearied with labor, and very sorrowful. We gathered about the stoves, and gravely canvassed our situation. We had no provisions whatever–in this lay our chief distress. We could not freeze, for there was a good supply of wood in the tender. This was our only comfort. The discussion ended at last in accepting the disheartening decision of the conductor, viz., that it would be death for any man to attempt to travel fifty miles on foot through snow like that. We could not send for help, and even if we could it would not come. We must submit, and await, as patiently as we might, succor or starvation! I think the stoutest heart there felt a momentary chill when those words were uttered.
“Within the hour conversation subsided to a low murmur here and there about the car, caught fitfully between the rising and falling of the blast; the lamps grew dim; and the majority of the castaways settled themselves among the flickering shadows to think–to forget the present, if they could–to sleep, if they might.
“The eternal night-it surely seemed eternal to us-wore its lagging hours away at last, and the cold gray dawn broke in the east. As the light grew stronger the passengers began to stir and give signs of life, one after another, and each in turn pushed his slouched hat up from his forehead, stretched his stiffened limbs, and glanced out of the windows upon the cheerless prospect. It was cheer less, indeed!-not a living thing visible anywhere, not a human habitation; nothing but a vast white desert; uplifted sheets of snow drifting hither and thither before the wind–a world of eddying flakes shutting out the firmament above.
“All day we moped about the cars, saying little, thinking much. Another lingering dreary night–and hunger.
“Another dawning–another day of silence, sadness, wasting hunger, hopeless watching for succor that could not come. A night of restless slumber, filled with dreams of feasting–wakings distressed with the gnawings of hunger.
“The fourth day came and went–and the fifth! Five days of dreadful imprisonment! A savage hunger looked out at every eye. There was in it a sign of awful import–the foreshadowing of a something that was vaguely shaping itself in every heart–a something which no tongue dared yet to frame into words.
“The sixth day passed–the seventh dawned upon as gaunt and haggard and hopeless a company of men as ever stood in the shadow of death. It must out now! That thing which had been growing up in every heart was ready to leap from every lip at last! Nature had been taxed to the utmost–she must yield. RICHARD H. GASTON of Minnesota, tall, cadaverous, and pale, rose up. All knew what was coming. All prepared–every emotion, every semblance of excitement–was smothered–only a calm, thoughtful seriousness appeared in the eyes that were lately so wild.
“‘Gentlemen: It cannot be delayed longer! The time is at hand! We must determine which of us shall die to furnish food for the rest!’
“MR. JOHN J. WILLIAMS of Illinois rose and said: ‘Gentlemen–I nominate the Rev. James Sawyer of Tennessee.’
“MR. Wm. R. ADAMS of Indiana said: ‘I nominate Mr. Daniel Slote of New York.’
“MR. CHARLES J. LANGDON: ‘I nominate Mr. Samuel A. Bowen of St. Louis.’
“MR. SLOTE: ‘Gentlemen–I desire to decline in favor of Mr. John A. Van Nostrand, Jun., of New Jersey.’
“MR. GASTON: ‘If there be no objection, the gentleman’s desire will be acceded to.’
“MR. VAN NOSTRAND objecting, the resignation of Mr. Slote was rejected. The resignations of Messrs. Sawyer and Bowen were also offered, and refused upon the same grounds.
“MR. A. L. BASCOM of Ohio: ‘I move that the nominations now close, and that the House proceed to an election by ballot.’
“MR. SAWYER: ‘Gentlemen–I protest earnestly against these proceedings. They are, in every way, irregular and unbecoming. I must beg to move that they be dropped at once, and that we elect a chairman of the meeting and proper officers to assist him, and then we can go on with the business before us understandingly.’
“MR. BELL of Iowa: ‘Gentlemen–I object. This is no time to stand upon forms and ceremonious observances. For more than seven days we have been without food. Every moment we lose in idle discussion increases our distress. I am satisfied with the nominations that have been made–every gentleman present is, I believe–and I, for one, do not see why we should not proceed at once to elect one or more of them. I wish to offer a resolution–‘
“MR. GASTON: ‘It would be objected to, and have to lie over one day under the rules, thus bringing about the very delay you wish to avoid. The gentleman from New Jersey–‘
“MR. VAN NOSTRAND: ‘Gentlemen–I am a stranger among you; I have not sought the distinction that has been conferred upon me, and I feel a delicacy–‘
“MR. MORGAN Of Alabama (interrupting): ‘I move the previous question.’
“The motion was carried, and further debate shut off, of course. The motion to elect officers was passed, and under it Mr. Gaston was chosen chairman, Mr. Blake, secretary, Messrs. Holcomb, Dyer, and Baldwin a committee on nominations, and Mr. R. M. Howland, purveyor, to assist the committee in making selections.
“A recess of half an hour was then taken, and some little caucusing followed. At the sound of the gavel the meeting reassembled, and the committee reported in favor of Messrs. George Ferguson of Kentucky, Lucien Herrman of Louisiana, and W. Messick of Colorado as candidates. The report was accepted.
“MR. ROGERS of Missouri: ‘Mr. President The report being properly before the House now, I move to amend it by substituting for the name of Mr. Herrman that of Mr. Lucius Harris of St. Louis, who is well and honorably known to us all. I do not wish to be understood as casting the least reflection upon the high character and standing of the gentleman from Louisiana far from it. I respect and esteem him as much as any gentleman here present possibly can; but none of us can be blind to the fact that he has lost more flesh during the week that we have lain here than any among us–none of us can be blind to the fact that the committee has been derelict in its duty, either through negligence or a graver fault, in thus offering for our suffrages a gentleman who, however pure his own motives may be, has really less nutriment in him–‘
“THE CHAIR: ‘The gentleman from Missouri will take his seat. The Chair cannot allow the integrity of the committee to be questioned save by the regular course, under the rules. What action will the House take upon the gentleman’s motion?’
“MR. HALLIDAY of Virginia: ‘I move to further amend the report by substituting Mr. Harvey Davis of Oregon for Mr. Messick. It may be urged by gentlemen that the hardships and privations of a frontier life have rendered Mr. Davis tough; but, gentlemen, is this a time to cavil at toughness? Is this a time to be fastidious concerning trifles? Is this a time to dispute about matters of paltry significance? No, gentlemen, bulk is what we desire–substance, weight, bulk–these are the supreme requisites now–not talent, not genius, not education. I insist upon my motion.’
“MR. MORGAN (excitedly): ‘Mr. Chairman–I do most strenuously object to this amendment. The gentleman from Oregon is old, and furthermore is bulky only in bone–not in flesh. I ask the gentleman from Virginia if it is soup we want instead of solid sustenance? if he would delude us with shadows? if he would mock our suffering with an Oregonian specter? I ask him if he can look upon the anxious faces around him, if he can gaze into our sad eyes, if he can listen to the beating of our expectant hearts, and still thrust this famine-stricken fraud upon us? I ask him if he can think of our desolate state, of our past sorrows, of our dark future, and still unpityingly foist upon us this wreck, this ruin, this tottering swindle, this gnarled and blighted and sapless vagabond from Oregon’s hospitable shores? Never!’ [Applause.]
“The amendment was put to vote, after a fiery debate, and lost. Mr. Harris was substituted on the first amendment. The balloting then began. Five ballots were held without a choice. On the sixth, Mr. Harris was elected, all voting for him but himself. It was then moved that his election should be ratified by acclamation, which was lost, in consequence of his again voting against himself.
“MR. RADWAY moved that the House now take up the remaining candidates, and go into an election for breakfast. This was carried.
“On the first ballot–there was a tie, half the members favoring one candidate on account of his youth, and half favoring the other on account of his superior size. The President gave the casting vote for the latter, Mr. Messick. This decision created considerable dissatisfaction among the friends of Mr. Ferguson, the defeated candidate, and there was some talk of demanding a new ballot; but in the midst of it a motion to adjourn was carried, and the meeting broke up at once.
“The preparations for supper diverted the attention of the Ferguson faction from the discussion of their grievance for a long time, and then, when they would have taken it up again, the happy announcement that Mr. Harris was ready drove all thought of it to the winds.
“We improvised tables by propping up the backs of car-seats, and sat down with hearts full of gratitude to the finest supper that had blessed our vision for seven torturing days. How changed we were from what we had been a few short hours before! Hopeless, sad-eyed misery, hunger, feverish anxiety, desperation, then; thankfulness, serenity, joy too deep for utterance now. That I know was the cheeriest hour of my eventful life. The winds howled, and blew the snow wildly about our prison house, but they were powerless to distress us any more. I liked Harris. He might have been better done, perhaps, but I am free to say that no man ever agreed with me better than Harris, or afforded me so large a degree of satisfaction. Messick was very well, though rather high-flavored, but for genuine nutritiousness and delicacy of fiber, give me Harris. Messick had his good points–I will not attempt to deny it, nor do I wish to do it but he was no more fitted for breakfast than a mummy would be, sir–not a bit. Lean?–why, bless me!–and tough? Ah, he was very tough! You could not imagine it–you could never imagine anything like it.”
“Do you mean to tell me that–“
“Do not interrupt me, please. After breakfast we elected a man by the name of Walker, from Detroit, for supper. He was very good. I wrote his wife so afterward. He was worthy of all praise. I shall always remember Walker. He was a little rare, but very good. And then the next morning we had Morgan of Alabama for breakfast. He was one of the finest men I ever sat down to handsome, educated, refined, spoke several languages fluently a perfect gentleman he was a perfect gentleman, and singularly juicy. For supper we had that Oregon patriarch, and he was a fraud, there is no question about it–old, scraggy, tough, nobody can picture the reality. I finally said, gentlemen, you can do as you like, but I will wait for another election. And Grimes of Illinois said, ‘Gentlemen, I will wait also. When you elect a man that has something to recommend him, I shall be glad to join you again.’ It soon became evident that there was general dissatisfaction with Davis of Oregon, and so, to preserve the good will that had prevailed so pleasantly since we had had Harris, an election was called, and the result of it was that Baker of Georgia was chosen. He was splendid! Well, well–after that we had Doolittle, and Hawkins, and McElroy (there was some complaint about McElroy, because he was uncommonly short and thin), and Penrod, and two Smiths, and Bailey (Bailey had a wooden leg, which was clear loss, but he was otherwise good), and an Indian boy, and an organ-grinder, and a gentleman by the name of Buckminster–a poor stick of a vagabond that wasn’t any good for company and no account for breakfast. We were glad we got him elected before relief came.”
“And so the blessed relief did come at last?”
“Yes, it came one bright, sunny morning, just after election. John Murphy was the choice, and there never was a better, I am willing to testify; but John Murphy came home with us, in the train that came to succor us, and lived to marry the widow Harris–“
“Relict of our first choice. He married her, and is happy and respected and prosperous yet. Ah, it was like a novel, sir–it was like a romance. This is my stopping-place, sir; I must bid you goodby. Any time that you can make it convenient to tarry a day or two with me, I shall be glad to have you. I like you, sir; I have conceived an affection for you. I could like you as well as I liked Harris himself, sir. Good day, sir, and a pleasant journey.”
He was gone. I never felt so stunned, so distressed, so bewildered in my life. But in my soul I was glad he was gone. With all his gentleness of manner and his soft voice, I shuddered whenever he turned his hungry eye upon me; and when I heard that I had achieved his perilous affection, and that I stood almost with the late Harris in his esteem, my heart fairly stood still!
I was bewildered beyond description. I did not doubt his word; I could not question a single item in a statement so stamped with the earnestness of truth as his; but its dreadful details overpowered me, and threw my thoughts into hopeless confusion. I saw the conductor looking at me. I said, “Who is that man?”
“He was a member of Congress once, and a good one. But he got caught in a snow-drift in the cars, and like to have been starved to death. He got so frost-bitten and frozen up generally, and used up for want of something to eat, that he was sick and out of his head two or three months afterward. He is all right now, only he is a monomaniac, and when he gets on that old subject he never stops till he has eat up that whole car-load of people he talks about. He would have finished the crowd by this time, only he had to get out here. He has got their names as pat as A B C. When he gets them all eat up but himself, he always says: ‘Then the hour for the usual election for breakfast having arrived; and there being no opposition, I was duly elected, after which, there being no objections offered, I resigned. Thus I am here.'”
I felt inexpressibly relieved to know that I had only been listening to the harmless vagaries of a madman instead of the genuine experiences of a bloodthirsty cannibal.
Citizen Jabir Sabeel awoke to the alarm of his Nokia mobile phone at exactly 6:05. He tried, like every morning, to cover his face with a pillow, but he felt an awful weakness. He could not move. The ringing of the alarm hammered and hammered louder and louder in his head. Eventually, he decided to reach over to the bedside table and silence the alarm; then he would give his heartbeat a few minutes to settle down before getting up. But he felt debilitated again. He had no sensation in his hand, in both hands, in his head, his legs, his whole body.
Citizen Jabir Sabeel had a shocking realization: he had turned into something else. He was no longer the person who had fallen asleep late the previous night, physically exhausted after a long evening at work. As he mentally gauged his rigidity, he became certain that he had metamorphosized into something metallic. Something stiff and hard lay in his place on the bed.
Citizen Jabir Sabeel spent some considerable time trying to get used to the hard, stiff body that had replaced his body of flesh. He then became aware of the voices of children racing through the streets on their way to school and the shouts of the sellers of vegetables, household items, and milk calling out their cheap goods. He had a strange feeling that the sunlight had started to seep into the room through a crack in the ceiling. In a panic, he remembered that he was very late for work at the government office and that a deduction from his wages and a rebuke from his stern boss awaited him. He made an effort to stand up quickly, but his heavy metal body failed him and pulled him back to the bed. In a panic, he thought, “I’m made of iron. I’ve turned into iron.”
Citizen Jabir Sabeel managed, after furious efforts, to fall out of the bed. In fact, he flung his whole new iron body onto the concrete floor. With the loud clang he made, he discovered that he had the equivalent of two long thin legs. He somehow willed himself to prop himself upon them, and he tottered over to the full-length mirror set in the middle of his wardrobe. He discovered something else: he had what appeared to be a single, seeing eye. Its sight was powerful and it led him with great accuracy towards the wardrobe.
He stopped for a few moments before lifting up his thin iron legs and positioning himself in front of the mirror. As he looked at the reflection of his new iron self, Citizen Jabir Sabeel could not stop himself crying out in a strange voice of shock and fright that made him spin around like crazy. Bullets sprayed from a tube sticking out of his front and lodged in the walls and furniture as they flew all over the place.
Jabir Sabeel was devastated to see that his new body had turned into a machine that looked like a cross between a DShK machinegun and a four-barrelled howitzer. Its sights were telescopic, like a deadly eye; its muzzle blazed like Hell; its two sturdy supports seemed to have been made to bear death. His sense of devastation worsened when he sensed the deadly bullets continue to fly out of his blazing body in every direction. His body jumped around erratically and led him into the street, leaving a trail of death and destruction all around.
“It is not enough to be the possessor of genius—the time and the man must conjoin. An Alexander the Great, born into an age of profound peace, might scarce have troubled the world—a Newton, grown up in a thieves’ den, might have devised little but a new and ingenious picklock. . . .”
Diversions of Historical Thought by
John Cleveland Cotton.
(The following extracts have been made from the letters of General Sir Charles William Geoffrey Estcourt, C.B., to his sister Harriet, Countess of Stokely, by permission of the Stokely family. Omissions are indicated by triple dots, thus . . .)
St. Philippe-des-Bains, September 3d, 1788.
MY DEAR SISTER: . . . I could wish that my excellent Paris physician had selected some other spot for my convalescence. But he swears by the waters of St. Philip and I swear by him, so I must resign myself to a couple of yawning months ere my constitution mends. Nevertheless, you will get long letters from me, though I fear they may be dull ones. I cannot bring you the gossip of Baden or Aix—except for its baths, St. Philip is but one of a dozen small white towns on this agreeable coast. It has its good inn and its bad inn, its dusty, little square with its dusty, fleabitten beg gar, its posting-station and its promenade of scrubby lindens and palms. From the heights one may see Corsica on a clear day, and the Mediterranean is of an unexampled blue. To tell the truth, it is all agreeable enough, and an old Indian campaigner, like myself, should not complain. I am well treated at the Cheval Blanc—am I not an English milord?—and my excellent Gaston looks after me devotedly. But there is a blue-bottle drowsiness about small watering places out of season, and our gallant enemies, the French, know how to bore themselves more exquisitely in their provinces than any nation on earth. Would you think that the daily arrival of the diligence from Toulon would be an excitement? Yet it is to me, I assure you, and to all St. Philip. I walk, I take the waters, I read Ossian, I play piquet with Gaston, and yet I seem to myself but half-alive. . . .
. . . You will smile and say to me, “Dear brother, you have always plumed yourself on being a student of human nature. Is there no society, no character for you to study, even in St. Philippe-des-Bains?” My dear sister, I bend myself earnestly to that end, yet so far with little result. I have talked to my doctor—a good man but unpolished; I have talked to the curé—a good man but dull. I have even attempted the society of the baths, beginning with Monsieur le Marquis de la Percedragon, who has ninety-six quarterings, soiled wristbands, and a gloomy interest in my liver, and ending with Mrs. Macgregor Jenkins, a worthy and red-faced lady whose conversation positively cannonades with dukes and duchesses. But, frankly, I prefer my chair in the garden and my Ossian to any of them, even at the risk of being considered a bear. A witty scoundrel would be the veriest godsend to me, but do such exist in St. Philip? I trow not. As it is, in my weakened condition, I am positively agog when Gaston comes in every morning with his budget of village scandal. A pretty pass to come to, you will say, for a man who has served with Eyre Coote and but for the mutabilities of fortune, not to speak of a most damnable cabal . . . (A long passage dealing with General Estcourt’s East Indian services and his personal and unfavorable opinion of Warren Hastings is here omitted from the manuscript.) . . . But, at fifty, a man is either a fool or a philosopher. Nevertheless, unless Gaston provides me with a character to try my wits on, shortly, I shall begin to believe that they too have deteriorated with Indian suns. . . .
September 21st, 1788.
My Dear Sister: . . . Believe me, there is little soundness in the views of your friend, Lord Martindale. The French monarchy is not to be compared with our own, but King Louis is an excellent and well-beloved prince, and the proposed summoning of the States-General cannot but have the most salutary effect. . . . (Three pages upon French politics and the possibility of cultivating sugar-cane in Southern France are here omitted.) . . . As for news of myself, I continue my yawning course, and feel a decided improvement from the waters. . . . So I shall continue them though the process is slow. . . .
You ask me, I fear a trifle mockingly, how my studies in human nature proceed?
Not so ill, my dear sister—I have, at least, scraped acquaintance with one odd fish, and that, in St. Philip, is a triumph. For some time, from my chair in the promenade, I have observed a pursy little fellow, of my age or thereabouts, stalking up and down between the lindens. His company seems avoided by such notables of the place as Mrs. Macgregor Jenkins and at first I put him down as a retired actor, for there is something a little theatrical in his dress and walk. He wears a wide-brimmed hat of straw, loose nankeen trousers and a quasi-military coat, and takes his waters with as much ceremony as Monsieur le Marquis, though not quite with the same ton. I should put him down as a Meridional, for he has the quick, dark eye, the sallow skin, the corpulence and the rodomontish airs that mark your true son of the Midi, once he has passed his lean and hungry youth.
And yet, there is some sort of unsuccessful oddity about him, which sets him off from your successful bourgeois. I cannot put my finger on it yet, but it interests me.
At any rate, I was sitting in my accustomed chair, reading Ossian, this morning, as he made his solitary rounds of the promenade. Doubtless I was more than usually absorbed in my author, for I must have pronounced some lines aloud as he passed. He gave me a quick glance at the time, but nothing more. But on his next round, as he was about to pass me, he hesitated for a moment, stopped, and then, removing his straw hat, saluted me very civilly.
“Monsieur will pardon me,” he said, with a dumpy hauteur, “but surely monsieur is English? And surely the lines that monsieur just repeated are from the great poet, Ossian?”
I admitted both charges, with a smile, and he bowed again.
“Monsieur will excuse the interruption,” he said, “but I myself have long admired the poetry of Ossian”—and with that he continued my quotation to the end of the passage, in very fair English, too, though with a strong accent. I complimented him, of course, effusively—after all, it is not every day that one runs across a fellow-admirer of Ossian on the promenade of a small French watering place—and after that, he sat down in the chair beside me and we fell into talk. He seems, astonishingly for a Frenchman, to have an excellent acquaintance with our English poets—perhaps he has been a tutor in some English family. I did not press him with questions on this first encounter, though I noted that he spoke French with a slight accent also, which seems odd.
There is something a little rascally about him, to tell you the truth, though his conversation with me was both forceful and elevated. An ill man, too, and a disappointed one, or I miss my mark, yet his eyes, when he talks, are strangely animating. I fancy I would not care to meet him in a guet-apens, and yet, he may be the most harmless of broken pedagogues. We took a glass of waters together, to the great disgust of Mrs. Macgregor Jenkins, who ostentatiously drew her skirts aside. She let me know, afterward, in so many words, that my acquaintance was a noted bandit, though, when pressed, she could give no better reason than that he lives a little removed from the town, that “nobody knows where he comes from” and that his wife is “no better than she should be,” whatever that portentous phrase entails. Well, one would hardly call him a gentleman, even by Mrs. Macgregor’s somewhat easy standards, but he has given me better conversation than I have had in a month—and if he is a bandit, we might discuss thuggee together. But I hope for nothing so stimulating, though I must question Gaston about him. . . .
. . . But Gaston could tell me little, except that my acquaintance comes from Sardinia or some such island originally, has served in the French army and is popularly supposed to possess the evil eye. About Madame he hinted that he could tell me a great deal, but I did not labor the point. After all, if my friend has been c-ck-ld-d—do not blush, my dear sister!—that, too, is the portion of a philosopher, and I find his wide range of conversation much more palatable than Mrs. Macgregor Jenkins’ rewarmed London gossip. Nor has he tried to borrow money from me yet, something which, I am frank to say, I expected and was prepared to refuse. . . .
. . . Triumph! My character is found—and a character of the first water, I assure you! I have dined with him in his house, and a very bad dinner it was. Madame is not a good housekeeper, whatever else she may be. And what she has been, one can see at a glance—she has all the little faded coquetries of the garrison coquette. Good-tempered, of course, as such women often are, and must have been pretty in her best days, though with shocking bad teeth. I suspect her of a touch of the tarbrush, though there I may be wrong. No doubt she caught my friend young—I have seen the same thing happen in India often enough—the experienced woman and the youngster fresh from England. Well, ’tis an old story—an old one with him, too—and no doubt Madame has her charms, though she is obviously one reason why he has not risen.
After dinner, Madame departed, not very willingly, and he took me into his study for a chat. He had even procured a bottle of port, saying he knew the Englishman’s taste for it, and while it was hardly the right Cockburn, I felt touched by the attention. The man is desperately lonely—one reads that in his big eyes. He is also desperately proud, with the quick, touchy sensitiveness of the failure, and I quite exerted myself to draw him out.
And indeed, the effort repaid me. His own story is simple enough. He is neither bandit nor pedagogue, but, like myself, a broken soldier—a major of the French Royal Artillery, retired on half pay for some years. I think it creditable of him to have reached so respectable a rank, for he is of foreign birth—Sardinian, I think I told you—and the French service is by no means as partial to foreigners as they were in the days of the first Irish Brigade. Moreover, one simply does not rise in that service, unless one is a gentleman of quarterings, and that he could hardly claim. But the passion of his life has been India, and that is what interests me. And, ‘pon my honor, he was rather astonishing about it.
As soon as, by a lucky chance, I hit upon the subject, his eyes lit up and his sickness dropped away. Pretty soon he began to take maps from a cabinet in the wall and ply me with questions about my own small experiences. And very soon indeed, I am abashed to state, I found myself stumbling in my answers. It was all book knowledge on his part, of course, but where the devil he could have got some of it, I do not know. Indeed, he would even correct me, now and then, as cool as you please. “Eight twelve pounders, I think, on the north wall of the old fortifications of Madras——” and the deuce of it is, he would be right. Finally, I could contain myself no longer.
“But, major, this is incredible,” I said. “I have served twenty years with John Company and thought that I had some knowledge. But one would say you had fought over every inch of Bengal!”
He gave me a quick look, almost of anger, and began to roll up his maps.
“So I have, in my mind,” he said, shortly, “but, as my superiors have often informed me, my hobby is a tedious one.”
“It is not tedious to me,” I said boldly. “Indeed, I have often marveled at your government’s neglect of their opportunities in India. True, the issue is settled now——”
“It is by no means settled,” he said, interrupting me rudely. I stared at him.
“It was settled, I believe, by Baron Clive, at a spot named Plassey,” I said frigidly. “And afterward, by my own old general, Eyre Coote, at another spot named Wandewash.”
“Oh, yes—yes—yes,” he said impatiently, “I grant you Clive—Clive was a genius and met the fate of geniuses. He steals an empire for you, and your virtuous English Parliament holds up its hands in horror because he steals a few lakhs of rupees for himself as well. So he blows out his brains in disgrace—you inexplicable English!—and you lose your genius. A great pity. I would not have treated Clive so. But then, if I had been Milord Clive, I would not have blown out my brains.”
“And what would you have done, had you been Clive?” I said, for the man’s calm, staring conceit amused me.
His eyes were dangerous for a moment and I saw why the worthy Mrs. Macgregor Jenkins had called him a bandit.
“Oh,” he said coolly, “I would have sent a file of grenadiers to your English Parliament and told it to hold its tongue. As Cromwell did. Now there was a man. But your Clive—faugh!—he had the ball at his feet and he refused to kick it. I withdraw the word genius. He was a nincompoop. At the least, he might have made himself a rajah.”
This was a little too much, as you may imagine. “General Clive had his faults,” I said icily, “but he was a true Briton and a patriot.”
“He was a fool,” said my puffy little major, flatly, his lower lip stuck out. “As big a fool as Dupleix, and that is saying much. Oh, some military skill, some talent for organization, yes. But a genius would have brushed him into the sea! It was possible to hold Arcot, it was possible to win Plassey—look!” and, with that, he ripped another map from his cabinet and began to expound to me eagerly exactly what he would have done [Pg 124]in command of the French forces in India, in 1757, when he must have been but a lad in his twenties. He thumped the paper, he strewed corks along the table for his troops—corks taken from a supply in a tin box, so it must be an old game with him. And, as I listened, my irritation faded, for the man’s monomania was obvious. Nor was it, to tell the truth, an ill-designed plan of campaign, for corks on a map. Of course these things are different, in the field.
I could say, with honesty, that his plan had features of novelty, and he gulped the words down hungrily—he has a great appetite for flattery.
“Yes, yes,” he said. “That is how it should be done—the thickest skull can see it. And, ill as I am, with a fleet and ten thousand picked men——” He dreamed, obviously, the sweat of his exertions on his waxy face—it was absurd and yet touching to see him dream.
“You would find a certain amount of opposition,” I said, in an amused voice.
“Oh, yes, yes,” he said quickly, “I do not underrate the English. Excellent horse, solid foot. But no true knowledge of cannon, and I am a gunner——”
I hated to bring him down to earth and yet I felt that I must.
“Of course, major,” I said, “you have had great experience in the field.”
He looked at me for a moment, his arrogance quite unshaken.
“I have had very little,” he said, quietly, “but one knows how the thing should be done or one does not know. And that is enough.”
He stared at me for an instant with his big eyes. A little mad, of course. And yet I found myself saying, “But surely, major—what happened?”
“Why,” he said, still quietly, “what happens to folk who have naught but their brains to sell? I staked my all on India when I was young—I thought that my star shone over it. I ate dirty puddings—corpo di Baccho!—to get there—I was no De Rohan or Soubise to win the king’s favor! And I reached there indeed, in my youth, just in time to be included in the surrender of Pondicherry.” He laughed, rather terribly, and sipped at his glass.
“You English were very courteous captors,” he said. “But I was not released till the Seven Years War had ended—that was in ’63. Who asks for the special exchange of an unknown artillery lieutenant? And then ten years odd of garrison duty at Mauritius. It was there that I met Madame—she is a Creole. A pleasant spot, Mauritius. We used to fire the cannon at the sea birds when we had enough ammunition for target practice,” and he chuckled drearily. “By then I was thirty-seven. They had to make me a captain—they even brought me back to France. To garrison duty. I have been on garrison duty, at Toulon, at Brest, at——” He ticked off the names on his fingers but I did not like his voice.
“But surely,” I said, “the American war, though a small affair—there were opportunities——”
“And who did they send?” he said quickly. “Lafayette—Rochambeau—De Grasse—the sprigs of the nobility. Oh, at Lafayette’s age, I would have volunteered like Lafayette. But one should be successful in youth—after that, the spring is broken. And when one is over forty, one has responsibilities. I have a large family, you see, though not of my own begetting,” and he chuckled as if at a secret joke. “Oh, I wrote the Continental Congress,” he said reflectively, “but they preferred a dolt like Von Steuben. A good dolt, an honest dolt, but there you have it. I also wrote your British War Office,” he said in an even voice. “I must show you that plan of campaign—sometime—they could have crushed General Washington with it in three weeks.”
I stared at him, a little appalled.
“For an officer who has taken his king’s shilling to send to an enemy nation a plan for crushing his own country’s ally,” I said, stiffly—”well, in England, we would call that treason.”
“And what is treason?” he said lightly. “If we call it unsuccessful ambition we shall be nearer the truth.” He looked at me, keenly. “You are shocked, General Estcourt,” he said. “I am sorry for that. But have you never known the curse”—and his voice vibrated—”the curse of not being employed when you should be employed? The curse of being a hammer with no nail to drive? The curse—the curse of sitting in a dusty garrison town with dreams that would split the brain of a Caesar, and no room on earth for those dreams?”
“Yes,” I said, unwillingly, for there was something in him that demanded the truth, “I have known that.”
“Then you know hells undreamed of by the Christian,” he said, with a sigh, “and if I committed treason—well, I have been punished for it. I might have been a brigadier, otherwise—I had Choiseul’s ear for a few weeks, after great labor. As it is, I am here on half pay, and there will not be another war in my time. More over, M. de Ségur has proclaimed that all officers now must show sixteen quarterings. Well, I wish them joy of those officers, in the next conflict. Meanwhile, I have my corks, my maps and my family ailment.” He smiled and tapped his side. “It killed my father at thirty-nine—it has not treated me quite so ill, but it will come for me soon enough.”
And indeed, when I looked at him, I could well believe it, for the light had gone from his eyes and his cheeks were flabby. We chatted a little on indifferent subjects after that, then I left him, wondering whether to pursue the acquaintance. He is indubitably a character, but some of his speeches leave a taste in my mouth. Yet he can be greatly attractive—even now, with his mountainous failure like a cloak upon him. And yet why should I call it mountainous? His conceit is mountainous enough, but what else could he have expected of his career? Yet I wish I could forget his eyes. . . . To tell the truth, he puzzles me and I mean to get to the bottom of him. . . .
February 12th, 1789.
. . . I have another sidelight on the character of my friend, the major. As I told you, I was half of a mind to break off the acquaintance entirely, but he came up to me so civilly, the following day, that I could find no excuse. And since then, he has made me no embarrassingly treasonable confidences, though whenever we discuss the art of war, his arrogance is unbelievable. He even informed me, the other day, that while Frederick of Prussia was a fair general, his tactics might have been improved upon. I merely laughed and turned the question. Now and then I play a war game with him, with his corks and maps, and when I let him win, he is as pleased as a child. . . . His illness increases visibly, despite the waters, and he shows an eagerness for my company which I cannot but find touching. . . . After all, he is a man of intelligence, and the company he has had to keep must have galled him at times. . . .
Now and then I amuse myself by speculating what might have happened to him, had he chosen some other profession than that of arms. He has, as I have told you, certain gifts of the actor, yet his stature and figure must have debarred him from tragic parts, while he certainly does not possess the humors of the comedian. Perhaps his best choice would have been the Romish church, for there, the veriest fisherman may hope, at least, to succeed to the keys of St. Peter. . . . And yet, Heaven knows, he would have made a very bad priest! . . .
But, to my tale. I had missed him from our accustomed walks for some days and went to his house—St. Helen’s it is called; we live in a pother of saints’ names hereabouts—one evening to inquire. I did not hear the quarreling voices till the tousle-haired servant had admitted me and then it was too late to retreat. Then my friend bounced down the corridor, his sallow face bored and angry.
“Ah, General Estcourt!” he said, with a complete change of expression as soon as he saw me. “What fortune! I was hoping you would pay us a call—I wish to introduce you to my family!”
He had told me previously of his pair of stepchildren by Madame’s first marriage, and I must confess I felt curious to see them. But it was not of them he spoke, as I soon gathered.
“Yes,” he said. “My brothers and sisters, or most of them, are here for a family council. You come in the nick of time!” He pinched my arm and his face glowed with the malicious naïveté of a child. “They do not believe that I really know an English general—it will be a great blow to them!” he whispered as we passed down the corridor. “Ah, if you had only worn your uniform and your Garters! But one cannot have everything in life!”
Well, my dear sister, what a group, when we entered the salon! It is a small room, tawdrily furnished in the worst French taste, with a jumble of Madame’s femininities and souvenirs from the Island of Mauritius, and they were all sitting about in the French after-dinner fashion, drinking tisane and quarreling. And, indeed, had the room been as long as the nave of St. Peter’s, it would yet have seemed too small for such a crew! An old mother, straight as a ramrod and as forbidding, with the burning eyes and the bitter dignity one sees on the faces of certain Italian peasants—you could see that they were all a little afraid of her except my friend, and he, I must say, treated her with a filial courtesy that was greatly to his credit. Two sisters, one fattish, swarthy and spiteful, the other with the wreck of great beauty and the evident marks of a certain profession on her shabby-fine toilette and her pinkened cheeks. An innkeeper brother-in-law called Buras or Durat, with a jowlish, heavily handsome face and the manners of a cavalry sergeant—he is married to the spiteful sister. And two brothers, one sheep-like, one fox-like, yet both bearing a certain resemblance to my friend.
The sheep-like brother is at least respectable, I gathered—a provincial lawyer in a small way of business whose great pride is that he has actually appeared before the Court of Appeals at Marseilles. The other, the fox-like one, makes his living more dubiously—he seems the sort of fellow who orates windily in taprooms about the Rights of Man, and other nonsense of M. Rousseau’s. I would certainly not trust him with my watch, though he is trying to get himself elected to the States-General. And, as regards family concord, it was obvious at first glance that not one of them trusted the others. And yet, that is not all of the tribe. There are, if you will believe me, two other brothers living, and this family council was called to deal with the affairs of the next-to-youngest, who seems, even in this mélange, to be a black sheep.
I can assure you, my head swam, and when my friend introduced me, proudly, as a Knight of the Garters, I did not even bother to contradict him. For they admitted me to their intimate circle at once—there was no doubt about that. Only the old lady remained aloof, saying little and sipping her camomile tea as if it were the blood of her enemies. But, one by one, the others related to me, with an unasked-for frankness, the most intimate and scandalous details of their brothers’ and sisters’ lives. They seemed united only on two points, jealousy of my friend, the major, because he is his mother’s favorite, and dislike of Madame Josephine because she gives herself airs. Except for the haggard beauty—I must say, that, while her remarks anent her sister-in-law were not such as I would care to repeat, she seemed genuinely fond of her brother, the major, and expounded his virtues to me through an overpowering cloud of scent.
It was like being in a nest of Italian smugglers, or a den of quarrelsome foxes, for they all talked, or rather barked at once, even the brother-in-law, and only Madame Mère could bring silence among them. And yet, my friend enjoyed it. It was obvious he showed them off before me as he might have displayed the tricks of a set of performing animals. And yet with a certain fondness, too—that is the inexplicable part of it. I do not know which sentiment was upmost in my mind—respect for this family feeling or pity for his being burdened with such a clan.
For though not the eldest, he is the strongest among them, and they know it. They rebel, but he rules their family conclaves like a petty despot. I could have laughed at the farce of it, and yet, it was nearer tears. For here, at least, my friend was a personage.
I got away as soon as I could, despite some pressing looks from the haggard beauty. My friend accompanied me to the door.
“Well, well,” he said, chuckling and rubbing his hands, “I am infinitely obliged to you, general. They will not forget this in a hurry. Before you entered, Joseph”—Joseph is the sheep-like one—”was boasting about his acquaintance with a sous-intendant, but an English general, bah! Joseph will have green eyes for a fortnight!” And he rubbed his hands again in a perfect paroxysm of delight.
It was too childlike to make me angry. “I am glad, of course, to have been of any service,” I said.
“Oh, you have been a great service,” he said. “They will not plague my poor Josie for at least half an hour. Ah, this is a bad business of Louis’—a bad business!”—Louis is the black sheep—”but we will patch it up somehow. Hortense is worth three of him—he must go back to Hortense!”
“You have a numerous family, major,” I said, for want of something better to say.
“Oh, yes,” he said, cheerfully. “Pretty numerous—I am sorry you could not meet the others. Though Louis is a fool—I pampered him in his youth. Well! He was a baby—and Jerome a mule. Still, we haven’t done so badly for ourselves; not badly. Joseph makes a go of his law practice—there are fools enough in the world to be impressed by Joseph—and if Lucien gets to the States-General, you may trust Lucien to feather his nest! And there are the grandchildren, and a little money—not much,” he said, quickly. “They mustn’t expect that from me. But it’s a step up from where we started—if papa had lived, he wouldn’t have been so ill-pleased. Poor Elisa’s gone, but the rest of us have stuck together, and, while we may seem a little rough, to strangers, our hearts are in the right place. When I was a boy,” and he chuckled again, “I had other ambitions for them. I thought, with luck on my side, I could make them all kings and queens. Funny, isn’t it, to think of a numskull like Joseph as a king! Well, that was the boy of it. But, even so, they’d all be eating chestnuts back on the island without me, and that’s something.”
He said it rather defiantly, and I did not know which to marvel at most—his preposterous pride in the group or his cool contempt of them. So I said nothing but shook his hand instead. I could not help doing the latter. For surely, if anyone started in life with a millstone about his neck . . . and yet they are none of them ordinary people. . . .
March 13th, 1789.
. . . My friend’s complaint has taken a turn for the worse and it is I who pay him visits now. It is the act of a Christian to do so and, to tell the truth, I have become oddly attached to him, though I can give no just reason for the attachment. He makes a bad patient, by the way, and is often abominably rude to both myself and Madame, who nurses him devotedly though unskillfully. I told him yesterday that I could have no more of it and he looked at me with his strangely luminous eyes. “So,” he said, “even the English desert the dying.” . . . Well, I stayed; after that, what else might a gentleman do? . . . Yet I cannot feel that he bears me any real affection—he exerts himself to charm, on occasion, but one feels he is playing a game . . . yes, even upon his deathbed, he plays a game . . . a complex character. . . .
April 28th, 1789.
. . . My friend the major’s malady approaches its term—the last few days find him fearfully enfeebled. He knows that the end draws nigh; indeed he speaks of it often, with remarkable calmness. I had thought it might turn his mind toward religion, but while he has accepted the ministrations of his Church, I fear it is without the sincere repentance of a Christian. When the priest had left him, yesterday, he summoned me, remarking, “Well, all that is over with,” rather more in the tone of a man who has just reserved a place in a coach than one who will shortly stand before his Maker.
“It does no harm,” he said, reflectively. “And, after all, it might be true. Why not?” and he chuckled in a way that repelled me. Then he asked me to read to him—not the Bible, as I had expected, but some verses of the poet Gray. He listened attentively, and when I came to the passage, “Hands, that the rod of empire might have swayed,” and its successor, “Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,” he asked me to repeat them. When I had done so, he said, “Yes, yes. That is true, very true. I did not think so in boyhood—I thought genius must force its own way. But your poet is right about it.”
I found this painful, for I had hoped that his illness had brought him to a juster, if less arrogant, estimate of his own abilities.
“Come, major,” I said, soothingly, “we cannot all be great men, you know. And you have no need to repine. After all, as you say, you have risen in the world——”
“Risen?” he said, and his eyes flashed. “Risen? Oh, God, that I should die alone with my one companion an Englishman with a soul of suet! Fool, if I had had Alexander’s chance, I would have bettered Alexander! And it will come, too, that is the worst of it. Already Europe is shaking with a new birth. If I had been born under the Sun-King, I would be a Marshal of France; if I had been born twenty years ago, I would mold a new Europe with my fists in the next half-dozen years. Why did they put my soul in my body at this infernal time? Do you not understand, imbecile? Is there no one who understands?”
I called Madame at this, as he was obviously delirious, and, after some trouble, we got him quieted.
May 8th, 1789.
. . . My poor friend is gone, and peacefully enough at the last. His death, oddly enough, coincided with the date of the opening of the States-General at Versailles. The last moments of life are always painful for the observer, but his end was as relatively serene as might be hoped for, considering his character. I was watching at one side of the bed and a thunderstorm was raging at the time. No doubt, to his expiring consciousness, the cracks of the thunder sounded like artillery, for, while we were waiting the death-struggle, he suddenly raised himself in the bed and listened intently. His eyes glowed, a beatific expression passed over his features. “The army! Head of the army!” he whispered ecstatically, and, when we caught him, he was lifeless . . . I must say that, while it may not be very Christian, I am glad that death brought him what life could not, and that, in the very article of it, he saw himself at the head of victorious troops. Ah, Fame—delusive spectre . . . (A page of disquisition by General Estcourt on the vanities of human ambition is here omitted.) . . . The face, after death, was composed, with a certain majesty, even . . . one could see that he might have been handsome as a youth. . . .
. . . I shall return to Paris by easy stages and reach Stokely sometime in June. My health is quite restored and all that has kept me here this long has been the difficulty I have met with in attempting to settle my poor friend, the major’s affairs. For one thing, he appears to have been originally a native of Corsica, not of Sardinia as I had thought, and while that explains much in his character, it has also given occupation to the lawyers. I have met his rapacious family, individually and in conclave, and, if there are further gray hairs on my head, you may put it down to them. . . . However, I have finally assured the major’s relict of her legitimate rights in his estate, and that is something—my one ray of comfort in the matter being the behavior of her son by the former marriage, who seems an excellent and virtuous young man. . . .
. . . You will think me a very soft fellow, no doubt, for wasting so much time upon a chance acquaintance who was neither, in our English sense, a gentleman nor a man whose Christian virtues counterbalanced his lack of true breeding. Yet there was a tragedy about him beyond his station, and that verse of Gray’s rings in my head. I wish I could forget the expression on his face when he spoke of it. Suppose a genius born in circumstances that made the development of that genius impossible—well, all this is the merest moonshine. . . .
. . . To revert to more practical matters, I discover that the major has left me his military memoirs, papers and commentaries, including his maps. Heaven knows what I shall do with them! I cannot, in courtesy, burn them sur-le-champ, and yet they fill two huge packing [Pg 137]cases and the cost of transporting them to Stokely will be considerable. Perhaps I will take them to Paris and quietly dispose of them there to some waste-paper merchant. . . . In return for this unsought legacy, Madame has consulted me in regard to a stone and epitaph for her late husband, and, knowing that otherwise the family would squabble over the affair for weeks, I have drawn up a design which I hope meets with their approval. It appears that he particularly desired that the epitaph should be writ in English, saying that France had had enough of him, living—a freak of dying vanity for which one must pardon him. However, I have produced the following, which I hope will answer.
Major of the Royal Artillery
Born August 15th, 1737
at Ajaccio, Corsica.
Died May 5th, 1789
at St. Philippe-des-Bains
“Rest, perturbed spirit . . .”
. . . I had thought, for some hours, of excerpting the lines of Gray’s—the ones that still ring in my head. But, on reflection, though they suit well enough, they yet seem too cruel to the dust.
Ivan Ivanovich Korobkin was employed in one of Moscow’s museums as the head of its library department for forty years now, at least.
In summer, and during winters, autumns and springs his old, bent frame would unfailingly appear in the museum lobby. During summer — in a white, breezy jacket, wearing galoshes, carrying an overlarge umbrella; winters — in a coon-skin fur reddened with age; in a frayed overcoat in the damp autumn; and during spring — in a trench coat.
Smacking his lips and smoothing out his tufted beard, he groans his way slowly up the stairs, eventually overcoming all the twenty four steps leading up to the reading hall, already packed full. He nods to the visitors racing past — he does not know them, but they have already known him a long time.
After walking into the library, he looks through memos and puts them aside — marking each off with a pencil.
Sometimes he looks a colleague over, and abruptly tears him away from his work with some worthy phrase, recalling a dictum of Lomonosov’s:
Sciences sustain the young
He then rubs his palms together and leans his head back while a broad, pleased smile spreads over his face; in an instant a face severe and dry, recalling portraits of the poet and censor Maikov becomes transparent, illuminated, simply — a child’s face:
“Iconography, young man, is science!” rings out amidst the dead quiet of the rooms adjacent to the reading hall, but when that young man, torn away from his work looks up, he sees: a face severe and dry, recalling portraits of the poet and censor Maikov.
They say that once, Ivan Ivanovich Korobkin, strolling through the museum’s tree-lined court proclaimed:
“Paradise, gentlemen, is, in essence, a garden…”
“We’re in a garden.”
“That is to say, we’re in paradise…”
They say that the features of his faded visage transformed themselves suddenly; such indisputability shone through them; the museum director’s assistant, walking alongside, for an instant
seemed to see: Ivan Ivanovich transported enraptured to heaven’s highest firmament suffers an
inexpressible sweetness — as he related to Agrafina Kondrativna that evening.
“Wouldn’t you know, Agrafina Kondrativna, God knows, who he is — or even — what he might be… isn’t he a Mason, now; and, see, the late Ma-yevski gave him the job; and about Ma-yevski they’d say, back in the day, that he was a Mason… And he’d wear some special type of ring on his index finger.”
Ivan Ivanovich Korobkin had no acquaintances; he never became close with anyone; visitors would try to come by for a visit, and — stop coming by; he was once met walking out of his home in Galosh Lane 1 with a large bronze tub, carefully covered over — and what, do you suppose, was in that tub? You’ll never guess: cockroaches.
Ivan Ivanovich Korobkin filled the tub with sugar and caught himself cockroaches; Ivan Ivanovich Korobkin had gotten cockroaches; he couldn’t exterminate them (he was soft-hearted), so he caught them in the tub, and then let them out of the tub, after taking it out into the street.
Not once one or another co-worker noticed the upon himself the old man’s trying gaze, originating from behind an enormous pair of blue spectacles; and noticed a desire: to relate a deeply interesting yet enigmatic event; but such elderly eccentricities were ignored. It so happened many times: Ivan Ivanovich directs his attention to someone, singling them out for no reason; and suddenly — withdraws: again — for no reason.
It was also noticed that these moments of attention to whomever it may be coincided, usually, with one or another everyday misfortune of that whoever it may be — a misfortune that Ivan Ivanovich could not possibly have known about just then; quite the opposite: the circumstances of whoever it may be luckily flowed across Ivan Ivanovich’s path; so, once, while N. N. Pustovalov and N. T. Kosich were having an argument, he mixed himself up right in the middle of their argument, and impolitely cutting off Pustovalov, took out his waistcoat watch, and looking at the second hand remarked:
“I’d give you, Nikolai Nikolaiovich, six minutes to explain your position… Well then, I’m listening: one minute…”
After such an intrusion into the argument, everything was turned upside down; and — the argument dissipated; with a face recalling the poet and censor Maikov, the respected Ivan Ivanovich laid out a weighty quote:
“Science lies in the sphere of fact: hypotheticals damage science… an argument, you see, is a game of hypotheticals, an inflation of hyperbole.”
“Read The Heuristics, now that is a study on the art of matching wits.”
Amazingly, one of the parties to the argument received an inheritance in forty-six days and resigned.
Bureaucrats avoided Ivan Ivanovich; essentially, they were unfamiliar with the events of his long life; he was already past seventy; he had served in the museum some forty years; he had begun work at a mature age, appearing in our parts from Tavrid2; he was given the position by the late Ma–yevski, a powerful influence from that long-gone epoch of czar Nicholas.
It was known only that Ivan Ivanovich himself was an epoch; and also: he resides in Galosh Lane, above the courtyard of a many-storied gray building, from which he unfailingly appears, going to work: autumns — in a coat, in summer — in a breezy canvas jacket, with an overlarge umbrella, winters — in a faded coon-skin fur.
In that old coon-skin fur he was seen running through a winter blizzard along Zhamenka Street, through a thick of snowflakes brocading the foot of the fence at the enormous Alexander institute.
Korobkin appears at 25 minutes to 5 on Galosh Lane, and at 5 exactly he sits in a worn, comfortable leather chair, wearing comfortable fur-lined slippers; after changing his frock-coat – for an exact (flimsier) same one – he sits at a table strewn with books and manuscripts; books of a particular kind – enormous parchment-bound folios: Principia Rerum Naturainm, Sive Novorum Tentanium Phenomena Mundi Elementaris. Or – rows of the Zion Herald‘s volumes.
Charming tomes were thrown about everywhere, like: The Letters of S.G., which nohow indicated authorship, but Ivan Ivanovich’s hand appended amalei to the G, so Gamalei came out.
On the wall, above the writing-desk, Ivan Ivanovich regularly hung out lists bearing the cursive motto of the day; everyday had its own motto for Ivan Ivanovich; mornings, before setting off to work, Ivan Ivanovich selects the motto of the day; and lives by it that whole day; all else was waved aside with: “Sufficient onto the day are its own troubles.”
The day’s trouble was often provided by: Foma Kempeiski’s dicta: “Read those books that would break your heart sooner than amuse it” …Or Latin mottoes. And so on, and so on.
Upon waking, before choosing a motto, Ivan Ivanovich spends some 10 minutes exercising concentration of thought; for this he takes a very plain, very simple thought, for example — of a pin; fixing that pin before his mental gaze, he considers everything concerning a pin, wholly avoiding any desultory associations and ideas; in Ivan Ivanovich’s language this exercise was called The first rule: that of mental control; and everything tied with the selected motto in Ivan Ivanovich’s language was called The second rule: that of initiation to action; Ivan Ivanovich had still a third, fourth, fifth rule, but that is not worth dwelling on. They say: Ivan Ivanovich had a journal, received by inheritance, and it accompanied him throughout his life as he observed all his rules over the span of thirty and then some years, and observed them so subtly that his colleagues never suspected the root cause of his actions, actions that his irreproachable service in the museum but masked, concealing the wisest of rituals, practiced in the realm of pure morality: Ivan Ivanovich was, in essence, a yogi, not an employee.
Even today such eccentrics live among us. Upright citizens, simply — you see them daily, find yourself exchanging hellos with them, and unable to discern the nature of their actions you see — mere peculiarities.
Ivan Ivanovich’s peculiarity of three and them some years’ time: he did not pronounce the first person pronoun “I”, maneuvering so delicately that none could suspect him, even were they, during those three and some years, to have asked Ivan Ivanovich:
“Say, did you read today’s paper?” — then Ivan Ivanovich would answer: “why, certainly,” instead of answering: “I certainly read it.” This rule of avoiding the personal pronoun “I” he called: the rule of fortifying self-consciousness. After three and some years Ivan Ivanovich built up enormous power over the personal pronoun “I.” And then, when the museum director’s assistant once doubted the soundness of setting out the exhibits according to Ivan Ivanovich’s plans, Ivan Ivanovich remarked to him:
“I know my work.”
And he said it just so, so that the director’s assistant saw the very walls stepping aside, and he and his plans flew right past, straight into Hades.
In the evening he proclaimed:
“Wouldn’t you know, Agrafina Kondrativna, everything happens in this world… They say, there
are Masons; and about Ma-yevski they’d say, that he was a Mason; he’d wear some special type of ring
there. Maybe, right among our acquaintances — aha! — they stroll about, so calmly; but just that we don’t know who they are.”
The rules of his exercises brought Ivan Ivanovich into particular states of consciousness, which he divided into three areas: 1) the concentration of thought, 2) meditation, and 3) contemplation, adopting the terms from an order of monks in St. Victor’s monastery in the middle ages.
Contemplation brought him to a state of clarity of thought bordering on clairvoyance; meditation pulled his entire soul into the circle of thought before him. And concentration?
Well, better we describe it.
Pressing his hands to his knees while stretched out in the leather chair Ivan Ivanovich grabs hold of a string of thought understandable to him alone that pierces his entire being; this string of thought evokes a sharpened state of awareness accompanied by the sensations, the recent protests of a dry, seventy-year-old body.
Fires spread around his hands, furious vibrations, furious vibrations felt by his thoughts; his thoughts poured into his hands, so that his hands thought; and – his head blossoms, the way a bud would into a luxurious, many-petaled rose, and his mind’s shutters open out into sensation, like hands around his head, plucking up the thoughts of those around Ivan Ivanovich: and so it might seem that Ivan Ivanovich can swallow thoughts whole.
Ivan Ivanovich spreads out over himself hands made of hands; hands of hands that start to circle, to carry him away.
And the familiar contours of the books, shelves, wardrobe, table, room become somehow transparent, and become shot through with the approach of new, roiling life, of the ever-seething world; within and without his own self everything boils over, spins, trails smoke in weightless strands; all manner of spark-clusters, brocades, diaphanous and glowing films wheel and spread without limit; Ivan Ivanovich sees himself as a roiling knot of thought-strings.
Many-winged and transforming, he is pulled off himself so that he dive into the ever-seething sea of beings, presented as: spark-clusters, brocades, diaphanous and glowing films, which all collapse through into the spark-clusters, brocades, the diaphanous and glowing films that were Ivan Ivanovich himself.
And so he could, pouring out of himself, pour into the roiling life of nearby beings; pouring out of one being into another he could clearly flow through the soul of this or that tenant in the building on Galosh Lane; and he could even flow through the soul of — well, for example: Milyukov, Vinaver, Karl Liebkhent, and maybe even: Bismark, Wikensfeld, Napoleon and Hannibal; and among these roiling, wheeling and warmly glowing forms there glimmer, of course, personages from long-gone epochs.
He could observe much in that world; but he could not bring out his illuminations, contain them in any clear words, and if he try to contain them in a clear word, that word would shatter and open into a fan of words, and pass through a metamorphosis of lexical meanings and through the thousand thoughts and sounds secreted away within him, and emerge a clumsy muddle.
He had lived in this clumsy muddle for many years.
So, what then? A habit of keeping silent, or a habit of communicating with the help of epigrams — such were but the ordinary traces of an extraordinary life.
Ivan Ivanovich Korobkin, boiling over out of one form and into another is flung out beyond forms, and the wheeling creation of his rhythms (the wheelings of his soul) dissolve into the boundless in outwardly flowing orbits (like ripples on a pond’s surface) and melt in the formless; here the stuff of his states of consciousness resembles universal emptiness, and he – emptiness, mute, speechless, motionless – addresses his own exploded center of emptiness with an intimate ”you”, and this you stands acenter his soul; this you bears the stamp of the Unknown, and yet seems to be Known since time immemorial; and this you, the one who we have forgotten declares:
“The days pass by!
“Behold! I come!”
And upon returning to himself, finding himself seated (and wearing comfortable slippers), he feels a warm gladness spill out in the middle of his chest.
This is concentration!
Ivan Ivanovich Korobkin knew this deeply: the times — they have piled up, crowded up; possibilities take shape; new days come; a new era arises; with a majestic crash majestic culture bends and groans; under the skies of the old, the new ascends.
Ivan Ivanovich Korobkin loved the youth with all his heart; he knew — there will be children among children; clumsy rumors were spread that Ivan Ivanovich was something like a, but not quite a, confirmed mystic, but, so to say… a Gnostic — an Apocalyptic; not really a Socialist, nor really a Heliist.
Among his museum co-workers he behaved like an old-fashioned gentleman, avoiding politics; he was even apprehensive of political life; more than anyone he avoided the cadets3, members of the National Freedom Party who, after the rare conversation with Ivan Ivanovich Korobkin, decidedly labeled him a backward reactionary. So, once, in the museum building, a philosopher-cadet was espousing his view of the ideal government, one whose humane principles were so wide-reaching that even imprisoned convicts would be offered new and improved methods of entertaining themselves and one another.
Here Ivan Ivanovich interrupted his interlocutor:
“There will, after all, be prisons?”
To which the other responded:
“And how else?”
“I presumed that humanity would become enlightened by a lucid understanding of the principles of fairness and humane treatment.”
“No — there’ll be prisons… but those sitting locked-up in them will listen to symphonies. Right from behind the wall they’ll be played Bach’s fugues and Beethoven’s sonatas.”
But, Ivan Ivanovich, blowing his nose, and with a sour, dry face recalling the poet and censor Maikov, cut off the philosophizing:
“I prefer my prisons with bugs, and — without the sound of Beethoven.”
And so he became listed with the reactionaries.
Besides that, Ivan Ivanovich Korobkin denied the need for war in the year of the war; patriotic fervor did not buoy his spirits, and he supposed, contrary to the obvious, that it wasn’t worth making so much noise over a small, half-savage race; this gave everyone cause to think that he was secretly germanophiling. He kept silent about the current regime and made no remarks concerning Rasputin; the February Revolution didn’t please him.
But, as Russia boiled and melted, as fragments broke off of her — Poland, Finland, Latvia, Belorussia, the Caucuses, and the Ukraine, and as the museum screamed itself hoarse, as the residents of Galosh Lane lost their appetites and sleep from anxiety, as the the yellowish-brown pillars of dust swept through Moscow, eating out everyone’s eyes, as a tornado of papers whirled along the avenues, boulevards and squares encrusted with invalids who appeared from God knows where, and as the trams twisted more and more out of shape, and fringes stuck out from between the bodies squeezing and shoving one another within — Ivan Ivanovich, to everyone’s surprise, began to experience an unexplainable yet pleasant emotion, his eyes grew gentler, more radiant, and his elderly mouth bent more often into a smile.
What was it that was forming in Ivan Ivanovich’s mind? It was difficult to say; Russia’s annihilation pleased him, certainly.
Evenings, he would gaze out at the sunset from his window, and one summer (in June of 1917), he even once during a day off appeared at Agrafina Kondrativna’s summer estate, the very same Agrafina Kondrativna who, or, rather: whose… but that is not the point, the point is that – strolling through the field with the museum director’s assistant, Ivan Ivanovich surveyed the surroundings and then crisply remarked:
Yes, yes, yes
How clear and bright the air!”
From then on his colleagues noticed: among the epigrams uttered by Ivan Ivanovich, new epigrams appeared.
After walking into the library, he looks through memos; and he then suddenly flashes an uncanny smile and rub his palms together; looking at him, you would think that his spirit drank in a strange, aromatic drink, one that no one had yet drunk to the bottom — or so it seemed. After a long march of years, Ivan Ivanovich Korobkin made use of one of his days off to go spend time out in the open air.
Sometimes, sorting through his memos, he would grab his chest like one suffering from a heart disorder; but this was no disorder; it was his mind intently diving into his fluttering heart; he rolled down, like a pearl, into the cup of his heart, sending ripples along the surface of his blood; you would simply say:
“My heart jumped!”
And so, with a heart that just took an untimely jump (right in the museum!), Ivan Ivanovich Korobkin addressed his colleagues not with the usual sentence, not with something like:
“Iconography, gentlemen, is a science!”
No, rather he addressed them with the strange-sounding phrase:
“Yes, yes, yes — how clear and bright the air.”
Undoubtedly he spoke not of the museum air, thick with dust; nor did he mean the air over the fields; the subject of his awkward declaration was the air found in that realm of thought-feelings where he traveled evenings; that realm – of thought-feelings — was light and air; the composition of that air disturbed Ivan Ivanovich; he distinctly saw how before the revolution Russia was fogged up, dulled; how clouds of choking smoke escaped into the dancing light; only since the revolution did he notice a clarity of atmosphere (all the plumes of choking smoke sank, settling on the outside layer of our life, effecting an inner collapse — in the same manner that dust, packed down by rain, collects on the surfaces of objects in clumps, but the air, cleansed, shines more radiantly).
His words “How clear and bright the air” referred to that particular state of the atmosphere.
When the date reached the 20’s of July 1917, Ivan Ivanovich once appeared in the museum lobby with an overlarge umbrella, in a canvas jacket, but wearing galoshes, and while handing the umbrella to the doorman remarked:
The days pass by, Feramont Semyonivich, they pass by…
They pass by us…
The times are piling up…”
* * *
Those were the hard days of July4; Russia shook.
* * *
Before the October Revolution, when Ivan Ivanovich appeared in the museum already wearing the frayed autumnal overcoat (not the trench-coat), he fixed his gaze on a young man who recently took a post in the museum, a member of one of the newly-formed parties; lifting up his glasses, Ivan Ivanovich stood before him from time to time; Ivan Ivanovich shook his gray head with a feeling of deepest sympathy; and just as if he were caught in the middle of a sigh that began long ago and that seemed to go on without end, Ivan Ivanovich thought aloud:
“And so, young man, the never-setting and limitless makes its way forward; and – oh, yes!” he interrupted himself.
And, wiping off his glasses and returning to his papers, his face changed; his face recalled in rare instants the prophet Jeremiah’s face, as depicted by Michelangelo.
A few days later, that young man was killed on a sidewalk in a crossfire of machine-guns.
We have forgotten to mention one very important detail in Ivan Ivanovich’s life: 15 minutes to 10 every night, he brings the day’s affairs to a close, and views all of the day’s events in reverse: from the last moment to the moment of waking; after this, his thoughts and attention gather a particular solidity and strength; 5 minutes to 11 he lays down to sleep.
He stretches out on his back, his head covered, and lies motionless. The mental screw inside his head unravels spiralwise, and its point wedges against the inside of a seventy-year old skull, and that skull cracks, and the contents of Ivan Ivanovich Korobkin’s head stretch out immeasurably into sensation; at first, it seems to him that a tiara lay atop his head; the tiara then grows into his head and stretches out into an impossibly tall tower — just then, Ivan Ivanovich Korobkin’s heels feel pulled by the currents of his elongating and melting legs. First, Ivan Ivanovich felt his heels at the level of, say, his knees (his legs extended beyond his heels), then in his stomach, and finally Ivan Ivanovich feels his body circumscribed into some enormous body, newly pulsing from heart to throat — in a word, he feels himself within himself a pygmy in a giant’s body; so might a tired and drowsy traveler who wandered into a cavernous, empty and abandoned tower feel; Ivan Ivanovich distinctly sees that the tower’s walls are stitched of the sky’s daylight fabric; perceives that fabric to be none other than the skin blanketing us, or, better yet, the covering of some enormous body, from whose inside bones and skin crystallize outward; better yet — he feels himself a crystal in a glass in relation to the solution from which it precipitated.
In those minutes of transition to sleep, Ivan Ivanovich Korobkin knows that our body is a body circumscribed, folded inside of another, enormous body; and that larger body is a sky, and each of us travels under his own sky (if a chick could run inside its egg, it would roll the egg forward, stepping along the inside of the eggshell); such is the sky we walk under — an eggshell around our head. But Ivan Ivanovich Korobkin finds himself both inside and outside his own skin (inside the enormous body’s skin, and outside of his regular skin).
Here with an effort of will he squeezes into himself and feels himself as a concentrated, bright, forever straining point; a shudder passes through him; the body laying between the sheets breaks into a flowing stream, and Ivan Ivanovich Korobkin is free to move within the enormous tower (from the heart to the throat, toward the shadowed portal ahead); he feels himself running inside the tower, along the staircase, step by step (organ by organ), and he runs out onto the terrace of a magnificent tower (outside his physical body and outside the elemental body).
He stands out there before a heavenly expanse glittering with stars, but these particular stars glide and fly just like birds; Ivan Ivanovich, freed from his body, reaches the terrace where he contemplates them, and they become many-feathered beings; and they pour forth fountainous flames like feathers, out of their centers; and one being – one star-bird (Ivan Ivanovich’s star) descends to him and embraces him in a crackling fire of rays, or wings, and carries him away; it feels as if boiling water scald Ivan Ivanovich’s very essence; the sensation of hands becomes the sensation of the star’s wings, embracing him in conflagration; Ivan Ivanovich Korobkin flew through all into spark-clusters, brocades, diaphanous and glowing films – by way of spark-clusters, brocades, diaphanous and glowing films — into nothing, where at the core rises up our Old, Forgotten Teacher, greeting us since time immemorial — and he says:
“Behold, I come!”5
And so Ivan Ivanovich Korobkin came to clearly recognize within himself that ancient Celestial who secretly moved and filled him, exalted him with that light and air, with the stuff of his life.
Ivan Ivanovich Korobkin ordinarily drifted into unconsciousness during these sacred and hidden conversations with the Secret Teacher of life, and the most important parts of the conversation fogged over.
But, the dream conversations with the Teacher became lately edged with unusual clarity; with unusual clarity Ivan Ivanovich understood that his cloud drifts among earthly, murky ones, so that the hour, the fated moment, the foretold day may come when his cloud may rise up like a prophet above the gathered crowd; and hurl words into the crowd, not his own, but the Teacher’s, spoken through him like through a horn:
“Behold, I come!
We’ll build a grand temple…
The times are piling up…
Our homes — destroyed…
The hard soil melts,
And the floodwaters will surround you all.
Behold, I come!”
* * *
During one July day in 1918, when meetings gathered on the outskirts of the city, and when Mirbach’s murder was being planned, everyone noticed that Ivan Ivanovich Korobkin, entering the museum, did not even touch the day’s work, his face and posture recalling the prophet Jeremiah, as depicted by Michelangelo.
On finishing work at 20 to 5, Ivan Ivanovich found himself in a tram bound for the city’s outskirts; the time, he felt, was ripe.
A meeting was taking place under the open sky.
There was talk of freedom; of the chance to create life anew; there was talk of love and equality; of the brotherhood of man.
And then, after keeping silent all those years and awaiting in his solitary cell that shining day when the secrets of life would be distilled, and when maybe Spirit enter the heart – he stood up above the crowd.
From beneath gray and heavy brows his gaze penetrated the crowd with an inexpressible love; above the laughter, yells and gibes his inspired head turned, recalling the prophet Jeremiah’s, as depicted by Michelangelo; words sounded: a swansong in crystalline time; for an instant it seemed that something drew irrevocably closer, and life itself was melted upon those words, running like rivulets down into souls, the life that flew – a gold fabric of images (a shimmer of the Spirit) – back to primeval source.
For a moment, everyone felt a relieving sigh rise from the depths of his being; an unending sigh; and he, he who had ripened for so many long years towered above the crowd.
If just then anyone’s eyes could have opened up to gaze suddenly through the veil of illusions that shrouds us all, he would have seen the timeless Celestial, the Teacher taking wing like a bird from the distant spirit-world and hurling himself down into the lifeless abyss, rending a tear in the spirit- world, hurling himself into the divide of Nothing; and whoever could just then have seen, would have seen the soul of Ivan Ivanovich’s words bursting into that divide of Nothing up from the fogged-over, earthly realm (bursting out from the crown of his head); and — the unity of man and spirit, all while an earthly seventy year old body stood above the crowd and uttered words, not its own, but the Teacher’s, who spoke through him, like through a horn:
We’ll build a grand temple…
The times are piling up…
The whirlwinds gather…
Our homes destroyed…
The hard soil melts,
And the floodwaters will surround you all.
Behold, He comes!”
From the rostrum Ivan Ivanovich Korobkin clearly saw bloody passions rearing their heads like grunting leopards in the throng below; he saw: sallow faces, flushed brows, hateful eyes, lips twisting into snarls.
And he clearly understood that it isn’t time for a transformation, not yet; the future rose up from the depths of a discharged atmosphere, and then stepped aside and took no guests along.
He understood his error: an untimely revelation of the Spirit’s writ.
There was an old, worn-out man with blank, dim eyes fixed straight ahead, his eyes ringed with the feathery cinders of lightning burning itself away; so does a still smoldering coal grow gray with cold ash on its surface; eyes like scattered ash swept about the droning crowd, and the enfeebled body, crawling off the rostrum, fell, as if into deep night, seen off by gibes.
* * *
An enfeebled body trudged home, mashing its mouth; it walked along the sleeping city’s alleys and streets with a rumpled brimmed hat pulled down on its forehead, and from under the gray, rumpled hat, eye-whites helplessly stared into a puddle and turned in their orbits; they were set in a thing cast of flesh — a face recalling the censor and poet A. Maikov’s — in his grave.
* * *
But then: the true Ivan Ivanovich Korobkin climbs up to the enormous tower’s terrace and stands, leaning against the railing, contemplating the world of those stars, changing places in that sky; his star speeds toward him, to. . . to take him away to the Teacher awaiting him.
* * *
In the beginning of July 1918, a funeral procession moved toward the Novodevichy Monastery6. Ivan Ivanovich was being buried. His co-workers carried the coffin, and the museum director’s assistant thoughtfully remarked to the charming lady he accompanied:
“Wouldn’t you know, Agrafina Kondrativna, everything happens in this world. . . They say, there are Masons; and about Ma-yevski they’d say, that he was a Mason. . . and I know for sure that our dear departed here was a mason.”
Was it merely deception or something more?
The paths were so exhausting, and the days were so hard!
Wouldn’t it have been better to take the short-cuts?
Nothing is of any use now. All that matters is that he’s home at last, and his eyes have embraced the sea after an arduous journey of which he recollects little, and that took up two ages of his life.
Nothing has changed. Everything is just the way you left it when you were dragged from this world.
Knock on the door now. It’s all over. Knock!
At their first reunion, every barrier and limit melted away. The frozen time of separation melted. Yet the homeland, the dream, became a song burning with passion in head and heart.
She rested her eyes over his and collapsed to settle in his body. Inside her eyelids she drew him as an ideal beauty despite the stench of blood exuded by his briny limbs.
Open your eyes wide. Can you see her? Your wife, whose features you are now delineating so you can remember clearly. She sleeps like a wound lodged in your joints, which are branded with the scars of imprisonment. You loved her. You weren’t a romantic hero who won the hearts of the neighborhood beauties. Yet each of you settled in the bleeding of the other, a homeland rearranging its face. The first time you saw her, you were a sailor eking out a life in squalor, his only possessions hunger and dreams to fight for, and hoping against hope for a wife to warm his nights.
As he stood there thinking, the sea leapt before his eyes in its infinite grandeur. Discovering these aquamarine worlds for the first time, he placed his hand on the closed door on which he had still not dared to knock.
“What on Earth? Only an inch separates the sea from the prison cell, but it’s still so far off.”
Don’t you know? You’ve scaled your third decade, and now you’re afraid that the one who loved you when you smelled of hunger and the sea and who shared your dream won’t recognize you anymore. It’s been six years, long enough for entire dynasties to fall and rise. You’re coming back to her from exile in cold prison dungeons. Eternity is etched in your flickering eyes. How did you get out with your limbs still attached to your body? The torture was brutal. In the city, kids ran after you shouting. Streets, seedy cafes, and filthy alleyways pelted you with stones. You were written off as a madman, because your features were clothed in nakedness and fear.
“All your exacting questions remain unanswered.”
That time, you were Jean Valjean, buried alive in jail for the sake of a crust he’d stolen when starvation lay siege to the four quarters, and when death lay down with thousands of rebellious hungry mouths.
Wolves. Wolves. Wolves.
You remember them well. They were a night of black beetles. They led you away, drenched in sweat, like rabid beasts. Then your friends carried you, like a crack in the head and a mine ready to explode in the heart.
You knew very well that you would be led off to a place from which no visitor returned, because your body exuded the scent of the night, and they hated that sort of person. For the twentieth time you faced the sea in search of work, your eyes bathed in sadness. You accepted grudgingly in exchange for a few hungry Francs. Years later, a flood of warnings swept down on you because you had stepped out of the circle of silence, arming consciousness with an explosive device.
You were suspect.
You were a wanted man, accused of disturbing the peace of the city and distributing clandestine pamphlets.
The shackles bit into your wrists with a strange longing. Your little dreams from childhood were savaged by horses of fear and beetles of the night. The sinister police herded you onto a jeep that roved the narrow streets and quarters of that infested city. Your comrades of the sea saw you off in silence, the wound in their chests as deep as the heart.
They threw you into a dark dungeon and shrieked in your face. You’d become nothing but merchandise to be sold in the torture chambers.
“Wipe the blueness of the sea from your memory.”
“But the sea is the soul of my starving city.”
“You’re not from there anymore. You have no city.”
Defiance showed on your broad features; kicks rained down from every side and the whips engulfed you. Copious blood flowed from your limbs, murdered in broad daylight. You were no mythic hero and you tried in vain to wipe the colour of the sea from your eyes.
“Beware.” you thought, “Colours are part of you. If they’re erased, you’ll disappear with them.”
With a jolt, you remembered you were nothing but the colour blue.
Not far off, the train burst into a high-pitched shriek. He well knew that between a train coming and a train going were ages of struggle with death. The dream had emerged from his memory maimed and paralyzed. Against the contours of his face and his trembling body there formed a tragedy that recalled its every moment with its wails and groans. The whistle of the train and the shrieks of prisoners were superimposed into one, yielding a situation charged with death and destruction and moments of overwhelming terror.
When they flung you into the ring of interrogation and torture, the cold was a shaft lodged in your body. You held your tongue, maintaining a glacial silence despite the deafening screams. But they were too strong for you.
“Bid yourself farewell in this dungeon.”
One of them was in your face, his eyes those of a cat, and his face scarred from smallpox. Fear flickered in your eyes like a gazelle being pursued by an aged wolf.
They laughed among themselves when they put a bottle of wine under your nose.
“I only drink on special occasions and with friends,” you said.
One of them laughed, saying. “And we’re friends too.”
When with your vacant eyes you discovered that the bottle was empty, you understood the charade.
They made you, naked as a new-born mouse yet to open its eyes, sit down on the bottle.
In front of you a woman, a comrade, fainted, and went limp as a rag. She had clung in desperation to one of them, but he showed her no mercy. He pushed her down, sending her sprawling onto the freezing floor. Blood trickled out from between her parted thighs, forming surreal images. You, like a vanquished hero, turned your eyes away from her lacerated body and shut them tight. In vain you tried to erase the scene from your mind.
You swore, “Sons of bitches. They know the most painful and cruellest spots,” and were afraid they might have heard you.
One of them woke you up, his hand stained with her blood. “You’re all the same when the silence hollows you out,” he said. “Your friend is dead. Your woman comrade has fallen. You’re in so much pain, you’re about to scream. You know you’ll succumb soon, just like all the others. Talk, and before you know it, we’ll bring you back to life.”
A deceived black man, he devoured your limbs and more as maggots hatched in your hands and knives sprouted in your torn body.
Between an imminent death and a life now distant, you mumbled words that bounced back into your gut.
“Ah, if only I could meet him in a deserted forest …”
“And what would you do with him?”
“I‘d banish him from life forever. I’d kill him without the slightest remorse. A woman’s body is sacred. How could he take pleasure in lacerating and mutilating it? He must be sick and crushed inside.”
The whip cracked again on your hands. The knife carved a deep furrow in your chest.
“You‘ll die right here if we don’t get the list. Tell us, and you’ll be free of us.”
“What list are you talking about?”
“The one in your head.”
“There’s nothing in my head. Do I still have a head?”
Before you finished the sentence, the whip writhed like a serpent over your body. You hid you head between your hands and let it devour you slice by slice, relishing the pleasure of cutting you to pieces.
It was a black day when you received a telegram that said: “The streets uprooted themselves this morning, but the demonstration was routed and the sailors withdrew. The governor expects a repeat, so communiques were issued and different posters put up in the days that followed. Khabra was hanged at a public display. KS, Mohamed al-Himm, fell under torture because he wouldn’t talk. Little Larbi was caught at sea distributing clandestine pamphlets, so they shot him. Hussein Busafaia was found bloated one morning on the seashore with critical documents lying unread in his stomach.”
The comrades had kept the commandment.
The city took it upon itself to spread the news via dispatches and the radios planted along the sides of the road.
When you were in prison this was happening. The names of people who had shared with you the joy and terror of the sea had dropped off the list of those who had incurred wrath.
It’s said that when the demonstration erupted again, it was fiercer than the ones before.
Now you’re standing there like a soldier not brave enough to knock.
“Just knock, and you’ll see.”
Homesickness is killing you. The sea is just a hand’s breadth away. You can plunge into your dream through its wide-open gates. You can throw yourself in, bathe, and heal your bleeding scars with its salt. You can do anything without fear. Be quite convinced of that.
Ooof. Don’t be scared. Nobody’s watching. The eyes of the dogs who have been allowed to return to their distant cities will not follow you anymore.
Everything he saw seemed strange: the house hunkered by the sea that had spewed it out, its eroding roof and walls. The sea salt had eaten away at its wooden frame, which had begun gradually dissolving.
“From these shacks your son emerged consumptive from the damp. He embraced the verdant forest, carrying the same dispatches and orders that lie sleeping now in your brain.”
He ran his hands slowly over the door. It was as heavy as the grief of the one who had carved it.
A thousand and one times your heart told you to run away, and your nose broke against the rough metal of the door. How often did the blows rain down on your temple and the whip scourge your back? The guards threatened to kill you and make an example of you because you were an outlaw whose blood could be shed with impunity.
When they threw you in the dungeon, they confined you between four walls that oozed with damp. They made you clean clogged sewers and toilets and pick up cigarette butts despite the gaping wounds left on your back by the scourge’s gluttonous feasts.
“Dogs and sires of dogs, that’s all they are. Where did they come from? How did they rob the country and turn it into a secret arena for the daily taking of life? Where did they come from, and where were they before?”
All wishes are unacceptable.
You dozed off once and dreamed another dream the size of the buried moon. The night guard’s rifle came down on your head. He dragged you like a carcass and locked the door to your dungeon. You slept involuntarily under the impact of the vicious beating.
“To dream is forbidden… It’s forbidden to dream.” Those were the only words you heard before you fell.
Your clothes went stiff on your body. A six-year regime of attrition is no easy matter. During those years you dreamed yourself to exhaustion. Other things you faintly regretted.
The deserted streets of your city, which were your constant companion and upon which you spread your frigid nights, clearly recall your face’s sea-chiselled features.
He curled up inside his body like a frightened snail.
“You’re dissolving in your own blood now. In your guts howl the barrels of soapy water they forced you to drink so that you would confess the list in your head. Your dream that has fallen into the dustbin nestles among your open wounds. When the blood flowed from every part of you, you realized that before daybreak you would die in this filth.
“If you die, so what? Will the Earth start spinning in the opposite direction? A dog is better than you. The law will suffer no defeat after you, because it exists to protect those greater than you.”
He ran his hands over the wall again. The house had become old and decrepit, haunted by time, and furrowed by quotidian trials.
“Come on, be brave. Knock on the door. Knock! You won’t lose anything by it. Behind these boards eaten away by the sea’s blind woodworms lies your other face. Inside is a glorious culmination on a scale with these sufferings and this memory. Knock! Knock! you won’t lose anything.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
You don’t know how your hand fell so heavily on the door.
Suddenly, it seemed as if you were hearing a song of the sea coming from somewhere nearby. Your eyes slid towards the light that inhabits the sea. It seemed as if folk melodies were ringing out, sung by the blue people of the sea and the boats.
Then a great silence fell. He felt a deep sadness disfiguring what remained of his features. The first time had died, leaving behind a plague-stricken time.
“What? The big fat boss might have been itching, in this darkness, to add the last fishermen’s boats to his fleet and sell their labour on the market. Years ago, a fortune teller predicted: “When Jacques leaves, the boss will still be here.”
Departing never ends.
(You turned slightly. The dream seemed to expand and take on the shape of a new map shaped like the sea.)
The streets, departing with their shouts, were shut fast with split-open corpses in the press of the night. The hands of the fishermen interlocked in what can only be called a wonderous way to bring back the boats, the colour of the sea, and the beautiful songs.
Grandfather, who was swallowed up by the sea one night, used to repeat a wise old saying: “The river is the dream of the poor; the sea the dream of the stranger; and the night the memory of lovers.”
“You learned that by heart and repeated it as a unity because you combine exile, poverty, and the greatest love of life any person could have.”
Bang! Bang! Bang!
You knocked again more urgently. The door opened ever so gently.
“Sir? Do you need something? Like you, we have nothing to give except a little warmth, if you’re cold from the rain and afraid of the thunder.”
On the doorstep, a worn-out woman was speaking, her days exhausted and decayed by the years. Between her wheat-coloured wrinkles dwelt ages resisting death. The glow of a candle and the jet-blackness of the night outlined her features.
“Her! She’s only changed a little.”
He alit on the surface of her eyes like an incandescent star that illumined all the dreams and cities of blue.
In vain you tried to wipe out your memory.
Suddenly, she opened her eyes. Behind the thick beard that had stolen the light of your face and beyond the many wrinkles, she saw you. She clasped you violently and curled into a ball to settle in your chest as a green tattoo. She collapsed onto your body as a sea and sails billowing in the wind.
At their second reunion, at a time when both of them hauled a train of weary years behind them, all the barriers and limits fell away. She rearranged his face, and he hers, both of them, forming in their eyes a sea and a map of the fugitive homeland.
“Departures will never end.”
“That was the first age. This is the second age. The beautiful age will come.”
Their sea eyelids widened in an effort to forget the years of loss and deception.
“Was it just a nightmare that resembled deception, or was it something more?”
Perhaps it was something else. They stole everything from you. The homeland; your life; your spouse; and your children who died in your absence. They stole your ability to love.
Now you have to relearn everything afresh. You have to teach your killer how to become human. You will tell him: “The war is over. You have to devote yourself to rebuilding a land that turned to ashes, and whose heirs made it a widow.”
Heirs? Beware of saying that word. You’ll be accused of being a Communist, an infidel, an atheist, a nationalist, of manipulating the faith, of treason … No matter. Say nothing, but just teach your killer to see you as a human being like him.
You heard her murmur: “You’ve come back, and that’s all that matters to me. We’ll mend ourselves over time.”
You shut your eyes, and she plunged into a vortex of bitter sobs whose source you couldn’t identify.
*[Written in 1977, this story was published in the collection, Asmak al-Barr al-Mutawahhish, [The Fish of the Savage Land], Dar al-Jamal, 2010.]
“As long as there’s the sun … the sun!” the voice of Don Peppino Quaglia crooned softly near the doorway of the low, dark, basement apartment. “Leave it to God,” answered the humble and faintly cheerful voice of his wife, Rosa, from inside; she was in bed, moaning in pain from arthritis, complicated by heart disease, and, addressing her sister-in-law, who was in the bathroom, she added: “You know what I’ll do, Nunziata? Later I’ll get up and take the clothes out of the water.”
“Do as you like, to me it seems real madness,” replied the curt, sad voice of Nunziata from that den. “With the pain you have, one more day in bed wouldn’t hurt you!” A silence. “We’ve got to put out some more poison, I found a cockroach in my sleeve this morning.”
From the cot at the back of the room, which was really a cave, with a low vault of dangling spider webs, rose the small, calm voice of Eugenia:
“Mamma, today I’m putting on the eyeglasses.”
There was a kind of secret joy in the modest voice of the child, Don Peppino’s third-born. (The first two, Carmela and Luisella, were with the nuns, and would soon take the veil, having been persuaded that this life is a punishment; and the two little ones, Pasqualino and Teresella, were still snoring, as they slept feet to head, in their mother’s bed.)
“Yes, and no doubt you’ll break them right away,” the voice of her aunt, still irritated, insisted, from behind the door of the little room. She made everyone suffer for the disappointments of her life, first among them that she wasn’t married and had to be subject, as she told it, to the charity of her sister-in-law, although she didn’t fail to add that she dedicated this humiliation to God. She had something of her own set aside, however, and wasn’t a bad person, since she had offered to have glasses made for Eugenia when at home they had realized that the child couldn’t see. “With what they cost! A grand total of a good eight thousand lire!” she added. Then they heard the water running in the basin. She was washing her face, squeezing her eyes, which were full of soap, and Eugenia gave up answering.
Besides, she was too, too pleased.
A week earlier, she had gone with her aunt to an optician on Via Roma. There, in that elegant shop, full of polished tables and with a marvelous green reflection pouring in through a blind, the doctor had measured her sight, making her read many times, through certain lenses that he kept changing, entire columns of letters of the alphabet, printed on a card, some as big as boxes, others as tiny as pins. “This poor girl is almost blind,” he had said then, with a kind of pity, to her aunt, “she should no longer be deprived of lenses.” And right away, while Eugenia, sitting on a stool, waited anxiously, he had placed over her eyes another pair of lenses, with a white metal frame, and had said: “Now look into the street.” Eugenia stood up, her legs trembling with emotion, and was unable to suppress a little cry of joy. On the sidewalk, so many well-dressed people were passing, slightly smaller than normal but very distinct: ladies in silk dresses with powdered faces, young men with long hair and bright-colored sweaters, white-bearded old men with pink hands resting on silver-handled canes; and, in the middle of the street, some beautiful automobiles that looked like toys, their bodies painted red or teal, all shiny; green trolleys as big as houses, with their windows lowered, and behind the windows so many people in elegant clothes. Across the street, on the opposite sidewalk, were beautiful shops, with windows like mirrors, full of things so fine they elicited a kind of longing; some shop boys in black aprons were polishing the windows from the street. At a café with red and yellow tables, some golden-haired girls were sitting outside, legs crossed. They laughed and drank from big colored glasses. Above the café, because it was already spring, the balcony windows were open and embroidered curtains swayed, and behind the curtains were fragments of blue and gilded paintings, and heavy, sparkling chandeliers of gold and crystal, like baskets of artificial fruit. A marvel. Transported by all that splendor, she hadn’t followed the conversation between the doctor and her aunt. Her aunt, in the brown dress she wore to Mass, and standing back from the glass counter with a timidity unnatural to her, now broached the question of the cost: “Doctor, please, give us a good price … we’re poor folk ..” and when she heard “eight thousand lire” she nearly fainted.
“Two lenses! What are you saying! Jesus Mary!”
“Look, ignorant people …” the doctor answered, replacing the other lenses after polishing them with the glove, “don’t calculate anything. And when you give the child two lenses, you’ll be able to tell me if she sees better. She takes nine diopters on one side, and ten on the other, if you want to know. She’s almost blind.”
While the doctor was writing the child’s first and last name—“Eugenia Quaglia, Vicolo della Cupa at Santa Maria in Portico”—Nunziata had gone over to Eugenia, who, standing in the doorway of the shop and holding up the glasses in her small, sweaty hands, was not at all tired of gazing through them: “Look, look, my dear! See what your consolation costs! Eight thousand lire, did you hear? A grand total of a good eight thousand lire!” She was almost suffocating. Eugenia had turned all red, not so much because of the rebuke as because the young woman at the cash register was looking at her, while her aunt was making that observation, which declared the family’s poverty. She took off the glasses.
“But how is it, so young and already so nearsighted?” the young woman had asked Nunziata, while she signed the receipt for the deposit. “And so shabby, too!” she added.
“Young lady, in our house we all have good eyes, this is a misfortune that came upon us … along with the rest. God rubs salt in the wound.”
“Come back in eight days,” the doctor had said. “I’ll have them for you.”
Leaving, Eugenia had tripped on the step.
“Thank you, Aunt Nunzia,” she had said after a while. “I’m always rude to you. I talk back to you, and you are so kind, buying me eyeglasses.”
Her voice trembled.
“My child, it’s better not to see the world than to see it,” Nunziata had answered with sudden melancholy.
Eugenia hadn’t answered her that time, either. Aunt Nunzia was often so strange, she wept and shouted for no good reason, she said so many bad words, and yet she went to Mass regularly, she was a good Christian, and when it came to helping someone in trouble she always volunteered, wholeheartedly. One didn’t have to watch over her.
Since that day, Eugenia had lived in a kind of rapture, waiting for the blessed glasses that would allow her to see all people and things in their tiny details. Until then, she had been wrapped in a fog: the room where she lived, the courtyard always full of hanging laundry, the alley overflowing with colors and cries, everything for her was covered by a thin veil: she knew well only the faces of her family, especially her mother and her siblings, because often she slept with them, and sometimes she woke at night and, in the light of the oil lamp, looked at them. Her mother slept with her mouth open, her broken yellow teeth visible; her brother and sister, Pasqualino and Teresella, were always dirty and snot-nosed and covered with boils: when they slept, they made a strange noise, as if they had wild animals inside them. Sometimes Eugenia surprised herself by staring at them, without understanding, however, what she was thinking. She had a confused feeling that beyond that room always full of wet laundry, with broken chairs and a stinking toilet, there was light, sounds, beautiful things, and in that moment when she had put on the glasses she had had a true revelation: the world outside was beautiful, very beautiful.
“Marchesa, my respects.”
That was the voice of her father. Covered by a ragged shirt, his back, which until that moment had been framed by the doorway of the basement apartment, could no longer be seen. The voice of the marchesa, a placid and indifferent voice, now said:
“You must do me a favor, Don Peppino.”
“At your service … your wish is my command.”
Silently, Eugenia slid out of bed, put on her dress, and, still barefoot, went to the door. The pure and marvelous early morning sun, entering the ugly courtyard through a crack between the buildings, greeted her, lit up her little old lady’s face, her stubbly, disheveled hair, her rough, hard little hands, with their long, dirty nails. Oh, if only at that moment she could have had the eyeglasses! The marchesa was there, in her black silk dress with its white lace neckpiece. Her imposing yet benign appearance enchanted Eugenia, along with her bejeweled white hands; but she couldn’t see her face very well—it was a whitish oval patch. Above it, some purple feathers quivered.
“Listen, you have to redo the child’s mattress. Can you come up around ten-thirty?”
“With all my heart, but I’m only available in the afternoon, Signora Marchesa.”
“No, Don Peppino, it has to be this morning. In the afternoon people are coming. Set yourself up on the terrace and work. Don’t play hard to get … do me this favor … Now it’s time for Mass. At ten-thirty, call me.”
And without waiting for an answer, she left, astutely avoiding a trickle of yellow water that was dripping down from a terrace and had made a puddle on the ground.
“Papa,” said Eugenia, following her father, as he went back inside, “how good the marchesa is! She treats you like a gentleman. God should reward her for it.”
“A good Christian, that one is,” Don Peppino answered, with a meaning completely different from what might have been understood. With the excuse that she was the owner of the house, the Marchesa D’Avanzo constantly had the people in the courtyard serving her: to Don Peppino, she gave a wretched sum for the mattresses; and Rosa was always available for the big sheets; even if her bones were burning she had to get up to serve the marchesa. It’s true that the marchesa had placed her daughters in the convent, and so had saved two souls from the dangers of this world, which for the poor are many, but for that basement space, where everyone was sick, she collected three thousand lire, not one less. “The heart is there, it’s the money that’s lacking,” she loved to repeat, with a certain imperturbability. “Today, dear Don Peppino, you are the nobility, who have no worries … Thank … thank Providence, which has put you in such a condition … which wanted to save you.” Donna Rosa had a kind of adoration for the marchesa, for her religious sentiments; when they saw each other, they always talked about the afterlife. The marchesa didn’t much believe in it, but she didn’t say so, and urged that mother of the family to be patient and to hope.
From the bed, Donna Rosa asked, a little worried: “Did you talk to her?”
“She wants me to redo the mattress for her grandson,” said Don Peppino, in annoyance. He brought out the hot plate to warm up some coffee, a gift of the nuns, and went back inside to fetch water in a small pot. “I won’t do it for less than five hundred,” he said.
“It’s a fair price.”
“And then who will go and pick up Eugenia’s glasses?” Aunt Nunzia asked, coming out of the bathroom. Over her nightgown, she wore a torn skirt, and on her feet slippers. Her bony shoulders emerged from the nightgown, gray as stones. She was drying her face with a napkin. “I can’t go, and Rosa is ill.”
Without anyone noticing, Eugenia’s large, almost blind eyes filled with tears. Now maybe another day would pass without her eyeglasses. She went up to her mother’s bed, and in a pitiful manner, flung her arms and forehead on the blanket. Donna Rosa stretched out a hand to caress her.
“I’ll go, Nunzia, don’t get worked up … In fact, going out will do me good.”
Eugenia kissed her hand.
Around eight there was a great commotion in the courtyard. At that moment Rosa had come out of the doorway: a tall, lanky figure, in a short, stained black coat, without shoulder pads, that exposed her legs, like wooden sticks. Under her arm, she carried a shopping bag for the bread she would buy on her way home from the optician. Don Peppino was pushing the water out of the middle of the courtyard with a long-handled broom, a vain task because the tub was continually leaking, like an open vein. In it were the clothes of two families: the Greborio sisters, on the second floor, and the wife of Cavaliere Amodio, who had given birth two days earlier. The Greborios’ servant, Lina Tarallo, was beating the carpets on a balcony, making a terrible ruckus. The dust, mixed with garbage, descended gradually like a cloud on those poor people, but no one paid attention. Sharp screams and cries of complaint could be heard from the basement where Aunt Nunzia was calling on all the saints as witnesses to confirm that she was unfortunate, and the cause of all this was Pasqualino, who wept and shouted like a condemned man because he wanted to go with his mamma. “Look at him, this scoundrel,” cried Aunt Nunzia. “Madonna bella, do me a favor, let me die, but immediately, if you’re there, since in this life only thieves and whores thrive.” Teresella, born the year the king went away and so younger than her brother, was sitting in the doorway, smiling, and every so often she licked a crust of bread she had found under a chair.
Eugenia was sitting on the step of another basement room, where Mariuccia the porter lived, looking at a section of a children’s comic, with lots of bright-colored figures, which had fallen from the fourth floor. She held it right up to her face, because otherwise she couldn’t read the words. There was a small blue river in a vast meadow and a red boat going … going … who knows where. It was written in proper Italian, and so she didn’t understand much, but every so often, for no reason, she laughed.
“So, today you put on your glasses?” said Mariuccia, looking out from behind her. Everyone in the courtyard knew, partly because Eugenia hadn’t resisted the temptation to talk about it, and partly because Aunt Nunzia had found it necessary to let it be understood that in that family she was spending her own … and well, in short .
“Your aunt got them for you, eh?” Mariuccia added, smiling good-humoredly. She was a small woman, almost a dwarf, with a face like a man’s, covered with whiskers. At the moment she was combing her long black hair, which came to her knees: one of the few things that attested to her being a woman. She was combing it slowly, smiling with her sly but kind little mouse eyes.
“Mamma went to get them on Via Roma,” said Eugenia with a look of gratitude. “We paid a grand total of a good eight thousand lire, you know? Really. my aunt is .” she was about to add “truly a good person,” when Aunt Nunzia, looking out of the basement room, called angrily: “Eugenia!”
“Here I am, Aunt!” and she scampered away like a dog.
Behind their aunt, Pasqualino, all red-faced and bewildered, with a terrible expression somewhere between disdain and surprise, was waiting.
“Go and buy two candies for three lire each, from Don Vincenzo at the tobacco store. Come back immediately!”
She clutched the money in her fist, paying no more attention to the comic, and hurried out of the courtyard.
By a true miracle she avoided a towering vegetable cart drawn by two horses, which was coming toward her right outside the main entrance. The carter, with his whip unsheathed, seemed to be singing, and from his mouth came these words:
“Lovely … Fresh,” drawn out and full of sweetness, like a love song. When the cart was behind her, Eugenia, raising her protruding eyes, basked in that warm blue glow that was the sky, and heard the great hubbub all around her, without, however, seeing it clearly. Carts, one behind the other, big trucks with Americans dressed in yellow hanging out the windows, bicycles that seemed to be tumbling over. High up, all the balconies were cluttered with flower crates, and over the railings, like flags or saddle blankets, hung yellow and red quilts, ragged blue children’s clothes, sheets, pillows, and mattresses exposed to the air, while at the end of the alley ropes uncoiled, lowering baskets to pick up the vegetables or fish offered by peddlers. Although the sun touched only the highest balconies (the street a crack in the disorderly mass of buildings) and the rest was only shadow and garbage, one could sense, behind it, the enormous celebration of spring. And even Eugenia, so small and pale, bound like a mouse to the mud of her courtyard, began to breathe rapidly, as if that air, that celebration, and all that blue suspended over the neighborhood of the poor were also hers. The yellow basket of the Amodios’ maid, Rosaria Buonincontri, grazed her as she went into the tobacco shop. Rosaria was a fat woman in black, with white legs and a flushed, placid face.
“Tell your mamma if she can come upstairs a moment today, Signora Amodio needs her to deliver a message.”
Eugenia recognized her by her voice. “She’s not here now. She went to Via Roma to get my glasses.”
“I should wear them, too, but my boyfriend doesn’t want me to.”
Eugenia didn’t grasp the meaning of that prohibition. She answered only, ingenuously: “They cost a great amount; you have to take very good care of them.”
They entered Don Vincenzo’s hole-in-the-wall together.
There was a crowd. Eugenia kept being pushed back. “Go on … you really are blind,” observed the Amodios’ maid, with a kind smile.
“But now Aunt Nunzia’s gotten you some eyeglasses,” Don Vincenzo, who had heard her, broke in, winking, with an air of teasing comprehension. He, too, wore glasses.
“At your age,” he said, handing her the candies, “I could see like a cat, I could thread needles at night, my grandmother always wanted me nearby … but now I’m old.”
Eugenia nodded vaguely. “My friends. none of them have lenses,” she said. Then, turning to the servant Rosaria, but speaking also for Don Vincenzo’s benefit: “Just me. Nine diopters on one side and ten on the other. I am almost blind!” she said emphatically, sweetly.
“See how lucky you are,” said Don Vincenzo, smiling, and to Rosaria: “How much salt?”
“Poor child!” the Amodios’ maid commented as Eugenia left, happily. “It’s the dampness that’s ruined her. In that building it rains on us. Now Donna Rosa’s bones ache. Give me a kilo of coarse salt and a packet of fine … ”
“There you are.”
“What a morning, eh, today, Don Vincenzo? It seems like summer already.”
Walking more slowly than she had on the way there, Eugenia, without even realizing it, began to unwrap one of the two candies, and then put it in her mouth. It tasted of lemon. “I’ll tell Aunt Nunzia that I lost it on the way,” she proposed to herself. She was happy, it didn’t matter to her if her aunt, good as she was, got angry. She felt someone take her hand, and recognized Luigino.
“You are really blind!” the boy said laughing. “And the glasses?”
“Mamma went to Via Roma to get them.”
“I didn’t go to school; it’s a beautiful day, why don’t we take a little walk?”
“You’re crazy! Today I have to be good.”
Luigino looked at her and laughed, with his mouth like a money box, stretching to his ears, contemptuous.
“What a rat’s nest.”
Instinctively Eugenia brought a hand to her hair.
“I can’t see well, and Mamma doesn’t have time,” she answered meekly.
“What are the glasses like? With gold frames?” Luigino asked. “All gold!” Eugenia answered, lying. “Bright and shiny!”
“Old women wear glasses,” said Luigino.
“Also ladies, I saw them on Via Roma.”
“Those are dark glasses, for sunbathing,” Luigino insisted. “You’re just jealous. They cost eight thousand lire.”
“When you have them, let me see them,” said Luigino. “I want to see if the frame really is gold. You’re such a liar,” and he went off on his own business, whistling.
Reentering the courtyard, Eugenia wondered anxiously if her glasses would or wouldn’t have a gold frame. In the negative case, what could she say to Luigino to convince him that they were a thing of value? But what a beautiful day! Maybe Mamma was about to return with the glasses wrapped in a package. Soon she would have them on her face. She would have … A frenzy of blows fell on her head. A real fury. She seemed to collapse; in vain she defended herself with her hands. It was Aunt Nunzia, of course, furious because of her delay, and behind Aunt Nunzia was Pasqualino, like a madman, because he didn’t believe her story about the candies. “Bloodsucker! You ugly little blind girl! And I who gave my life for this ingratitude … You’ll come to a bad end! Eight thousand lire no less. They bleed me dry, these scoundrels.”
She let her hands fall, only to burst into a great lament. “Our Lady of Sorrows, holy Jesus, by the wounds in your ribs let me die!”
Eugenia wept, too, in torrents.
“Aunt, forgive me. Aunt .”
“Uh . uh . uh .” said Pasqualino, his mouth wide open.
“Poor child,” said Donna Mariuccia, coming over to Eugenia, who didn’t know where to hide her face, now streaked with red and tears at her aunt’s rage. “She didn’t do it on purpose, Nunzia, calm down,” and to Eugenia: “Where’ve you got the candies?”
Eugenia answered softly, hopelessly, holding out one in her dirty hand: “I ate the other. I was hungry.”
Before her aunt could move again, to attack the child, the voice of the marchesa could be heard, from the fourth floor, where there was sun, calling softly, placidly, sweetly:
Aunt Nunzia looked up, her face pained as that of the Madonna of the Seven Sorrows, which was at the head of her bed.
“Today is the first Friday of the month. Dedicate it to God.”
“Marchesa, how good you are! These kids make me commit so many sins, I’m losing my mind, I …” And she collapsed her face between her paw-like hands, the hands of a worker, with brown, scaly skin.
“Is your brother not there?”
“Poor Aunt, she got you the eyeglasses, and that’s how you thank her,” said Mariuccia meanwhile to Eugenia, who was trembling.
“Yes, signora, here I am,” answered Don Peppino, who until that moment had been half hidden behind the door of the basement room, waving a paper in front of the stove where the beans for lunch were cooking.
“Can you come up?”
“My wife went to get the eyeglasses for Eugenia. I’m watching the beans. Would you wait, if you don’t mind.”
“Then send up the child. I have a dress for Nunziata. I want to give it to her.”
“May God reward you … very grateful,” answered Don Peppino, with a sigh of consolation, because that was the only thing that could calm his sister. But looking at Nunziata, he realized that she wasn’t at all cheered up. She continued to weep desperately, and that weeping had so stunned Pasqualino that the child had become quiet as if by magic, and was now licking the snot that dripped from his nose, with a small, sweet smile.
“Did you hear? Go up to the Signora Marchesa, she has a dress to give you,” said Don Peppino to his daughter.
Eugenia was looking at something in the void, with her eyes that couldn’t see: they were staring, fixed and large. She winced, and got up immediately, obedient.
“Say to her: ‘May God reward you,’ and stay outside the door.”
“Believe me, Mariuccia,” said Aunt Nunzia, when Eugenia had gone off, “I love that little creature, and afterward I’m sorry, as God is my witness, for scolding her. But I feel all the blood go to my head, believe me, when I have to fight with the kids. Youth is gone, as you see,” and she touched her hollow cheeks. “Sometimes I feel like a madwoman.”
“On the other hand, they have to vent, too,” Donna Mariuccia answered. “They’re innocent souls. They need time to weep. When I look at them, and think how they’ll become just like us.” She went to get a broom and swept a cabbage leaf out of the doorway. “I wonder what God is doing.”
“It’s new, brand-new! You hardly wore it!” said Eugenia, sticking her nose in the green dress lying on the sofa in the kitchen, while the marchesa went looking for an old newspaper to wrap it in.
The marchesa thought that the child really couldn’t see, because otherwise she would have realized that the dress was very old and full of patches (it had belonged to her dead sister), but she refrained from commenting. Only after a moment, as she was coming in with the newspaper, she asked:
“And the eyeglasses your aunt got you? Are they new?”
“With gold frames. They cost eight thousand lire,” Eugenia answered all in one breath, becoming emotional again at the thought of the honor she had received, “because I’m almost blind,” she added simply.
“In my opinion,” said the marchesa, carefully wrapping the dress in the newspaper, and then reopening the package because a sleeve was sticking out, “your aunt could have saved her money. I saw some very good eyeglasses in a shop near the Church of the Ascension, for only two thousand lire.”
Eugenia blushed fiery red. She understood that the marchesa was displeased. “Each to his own position in life. We all must know our limitations,” she had heard her say this many times, talking to Donna Rosa, when she brought her the washed clothes, and stayed to complain of her poverty.
“Maybe they weren’t good enough. I have nine diopters,” she replied timidly.
The marchesa arched an eyebrow, but luckily Eugenia didn’t see it.
“They were good, I’m telling you,” the Marchesa said obstinately, in a slightly harsher voice. Then she was sorry. “My dear,” she said more gently, “I’m saying this because I know the troubles you have in your household. With that difference of six thousand lire, you could buy bread for ten days, you could buy… What’s the use to you of seeing better? Given what’s around you!” A silence. “To read, maybe, but do you read?”
“But sometimes I’ve seen you with your nose in a book. A liar as well, my dear. That is no good.”
Eugenia didn’t answer again. She felt truly desperate, staring at the dress with her nearly white eyes.
“Is it silk?” she asked stupidly.
The marchesa looked at her, reflecting.
“You don’t deserve it, but I want to give you a little gift,” she said suddenly, and headed toward a white wooden wardrobe. At that moment the telephone, which was in the hall, began to ring, and instead of opening the wardrobe the marchesa went to answer it. Eugenia, oppressed by those words, hadn’t even heard the old woman’s consoling allusion, and as soon as she was alone she began to look around as far as her poor eyes allowed her. How many fine, beautiful things! Like the store on Via Roma! And there, right in front of her, an open balcony with a lot of small pots of flowers.
She went out onto the balcony. How much air, how much blue! The apartment buildings seemed to be covered by a blue veil, and below was the alley, like a ravine, with so many ants coming and going … like her relatives. What were they doing? Where were they going? They went in and out of their holes, carrying big crumbs of bread, they were doing this now, had done it yesterday, would do it tomorrow, forever, forever. So many holes, so many ants. And around them, almost invisible in the great light, the world made by God, with the wind, the sun, and out there the purifying sea, so vast … She was standing there, her chin planted on the iron railing, suddenly thoughtful, with an expression of sorrow, of bewilderment, that made her look ugly. She heard the sound of the marchesa’s voice, calm, pious. In her hand, in her smooth ivory hand, the marchesa was holding a small book covered in black paper with gilt letters.
“It’s the thoughts of the saints, my dear. The youth of today don’t read anything, and so the world has changed course. Take it, I’m giving it to you. But you must promise to read a little every evening, now that you’ve got your glasses.”
“Yes, signora,” said Eugenia, in a hurry, blushing again because the marchesa had found her on the balcony, and she took the book. Signora D’Avanzo regarded her with satisfaction.
“God wished to save you, my dear!” she said, going to get the package with the dress and placing it in her hands. “You’re not pretty, anything but, and you already appear to be an old lady. God favors you, because looking like that you won’t have opportunities for evil. He wants you to be holy, like your sisters!”
Although the words didn’t really wound her, because she had long been unconsciously prepared for a life without joy, Eugenia was nevertheless disturbed by them. And it seemed to her, if only for a moment, that the sun no longer shone as before, and even the thought of the eyeglasses ceased to cheer her. She looked vaguely, with her nearly dead eyes, at a point on the sea, where the Posillipo peninsula extended like a faded green lizard. “Tell Papa,” the marchesa continued, meanwhile, “that we won’t do anything about the child’s mattress today. My cousin telephoned, and I’ll be in Posillipo all day.”
“I was there once, too …” Eugenia began, reviving at that name and looking, spellbound, in that direction.
“Yes? Is that so?” Signora D’Avanzo was indifferent, the name of that place meant nothing special to her. In her magisterial fashion, she accompanied the child, who was still looking toward that luminous point, to the door, closing it slowly behind her.
As Eugenia came down the last step and out into the courtyard, the shadow that had been darkening her forehead for a while disappeared, and her mouth opened in a joyful laugh, because she had seen her mother arriving. It wasn’t hard to recognize that worn, familiar figure. She threw the dress on a chair and ran toward her.
“Mamma! The eyeglasses!”
“Gently, my dear, you’ll knock me over!”
Immediately, a small crowd formed. Donna Mariuccia, Don Peppino, one of the Greborios, who had stopped to rest on a chair before starting up the stairs, the Amodios’ maid, who was just then returning, and, of course, Pasqualino and Teresella, who wanted to see, too, and yelled, holding out their hands. Nunziata, for her part, was observing the dress that she had taken out of the newspaper, with a disappointed expression.
“Look, Mariuccia, it’s an old rag … all worn out under the arms!” she said, approaching the group. But who was paying attention to her? At that moment, Donna Rosa was extracting from a pocket in her dress the eyeglass case, and with infinite care opened it. On Donna Rosa’s long red hand, a kind of very shiny insect with two giant eyes and two curving antennae glittered in a pale ray of sun amid those poor people, full of admiration.
“Eight thousand lire … a thing like that!” said Donna Rosa, gazing at the eyeglasses religiously, and yet with a kind of rebuke.
Then, in silence, she placed them on Eugenia’s face, as the child ecstatically held out her hands, and carefully arranged the two antennae behind her ears. “Now can you see?” Donna Rosa asked with great emotion.
Gripping the eyeglasses with her hands, as if in fear that they would be taken away from her, her eyes half closed and her mouth half open in a rapt smile, Eugenia took two steps backward, and stumbled on a chair.
“Good luck!” said the Amodios’ maid.
“Good luck!” said the Greborio sister.
“She looks like a schoolteacher, doesn’t she?” Don Peppino observed with satisfaction.
“Not even a thank you!” said Aunt Nunzia, looking bitterly at the dress. “With all that, good luck!”
“She’s afraid, my little girl!” murmured Donna Rosa, heading toward the door of the basement room to put down her things. “She’s put on the eyeglasses for the first time!” she said, looking up at the first-floor balcony, where the other Greborio sister was looking out.
“I see everything very tiny,” said Eugenia, in a strange voice, as if she were speaking from under a chair. “Black, very black.”
“Of course: the lenses are double. But do you see clearly?” asked Don Peppino. “That’s the important thing. She’s put on the glasses for the first time,” he, too, said, addressing Cavaliere Amodio, who was passing by, holding an open newspaper.
“I’m warning you,” the cavaliere said to Mariuccia, after staring at Eugenia for a moment, as if she were merely a cat, “that stairway hasn’t been swept. I found some fish bones in front of the door!” And he went on, bent over, almost enfolded in his newspaper, reading an article about a proposal for a new pension law that interested him.
Eugenia, still holding on to the eyeglasses with her hands, went to the entrance to the courtyard to look outside into Vicolo della Cupa. Her legs were trembling, her head was spinning, and she no longer felt any joy. With her white lips she wished to smile, but that smile became a moronic grimace. Suddenly the balconies began to multiply, two thousand, a hundred thousand; the carts piled with vegetables were falling on her; the voices filling the air, the cries, the lashes, struck her head as if she were ill; she turned, swaying, toward the courtyard, and that terrible impression intensified. The courtyard was like a sticky funnel, with the narrow end toward the sky, its leprous walls crowded with derelict balconies; the arches of the basement dwellings black, with the lights bright in a circle around Our Lady of Sorrows; the pavement white with soapy water; the cabbage leaves, the scraps of paper, the garbage and, in the middle of the courtyard, that group of ragged, deformed souls, faces pocked by poverty and resignation, who looked at her lovingly. They began to writhe, to become mixed up, to grow larger. They all came toward her, in the two bewitched circles of the eyeglasses. It was Mariuccia who first realized that the child was sick, and she tore off the glasses, because Eugenia, doubled over and moaning, was throwing up.
“They’ve gone to her stomach!” cried Mariuccia, holding her forehead. “Bring a coffee bean, Nunziata!”
“A grand total of a good eight thousand lire!” cried Aunt Nunzia, her eyes popping out of her head, running into the basement room to get a coffee bean from a can in the cupboard; and she held up the new eyeglasses, as if to ask God for an explanation. “And now they’re wrong, too!”
“It’s always like that, the first time,” said the Amodios’ maid to Donna Rosa calmly. “You mustn’t be shocked; little by little one gets used to them.”
“It’s nothing, child, nothing, don’t be scared!” But Donna Rosa felt her heart constrict at the thought of how unlucky they were.
Aunt Nunzia returned with the coffee bean, still crying: “A grand total of a good eight thousand lire!” while Eugenia, pale as death, tried in vain to throw up, because she had nothing left inside her. Her bulging eyes were almost crossed with suffering, and her old lady’s face was bathed in tears, as if stupefied. She leaned on her mother and trembled.
“Mamma, where are we?”
“We’re in the courtyard, my child,” said Donna Rosa patiently; and the fine smile, between pity and wonder, that illuminated her eyes, suddenly lit up the faces of all those wretched people.
“She’s a half-wit, she is!”
“Leave her alone, poor child, she’s dazed,” said Donna Mariuccia, and her face was grim with pity, as she went back into the basement apartment that seemed to her darker than usual.
Only Aunt Nunzia was wringing her hands:
“A grand total of a good eight thousand lire!”
*The story is taken from Evening Descends Upon the Hills by Anna Maria Ortese. Pushkin Press, 2018.
He was a young socialist. His father, a minor official, had thus threatened to disown him. Yet he had remained true to his convictions, for he was possessed of both burning zeal and supportive friends.
They formed an organization, distributed ten-page pamphlets, and held lectures. He naturally attended such meetings regularly, and from time to time his essays were included in the pamphlets they produced. Beyond their group it would appear unlikely that any of these were widely read, but he was nonetheless quite proud of one: Remembering Liebknecht. The ideas it expressed may not have been altogether precise, but it was suffused with poetic passion.
In due time he completed his studies and went to work for a magazine publishing company, though without neglecting his attendance at group gatherings. There he and his comrades discussed the issues before them with the same fervor as before, striving toward their goal like underground water slowly seeping through solid rock.
His father now no longer interfered in his affairs. He found a bride and moved with her into a small house. It was a very small house indeed, but far from being discontent, he regarded himself as rather fortunate. His wife, their puppy, the poplars at the end of the garden…all this lent his life a sense of intimacy and comfort he had not known before.
Now that he was married and caught up in the time-consuming demands of his job, he was sometimes absent from meetings. Yet his ardor was undiminished; at least, he himself was convinced that over the years he had remained quite the same. His comrades, however, took a different view. Those younger members who had joined the league only in recent years were particularly scathing in their criticism of his tepid commitment.
This, of course, only led him to edge his way even further from their gatherings. Then he became a father, and this gave him an even greater feeling of contented domesticity.
And yet his passion still lay in socialism, and in studious devotion to its goals, he burned the midnight oil. At the same time, he became progressively dissatisfied with the dozen or so essays he had written, especially with Remembering Liebknecht.
His comrades had in the meantime grown sufficiently indifferent to him that he was now unworthy even of their denunciations. They simply turned their backs on him – and others, mostly his associates – and plodded steadily forward in the service of the cause. Whenever he encountered a friend from the old days, he would again go through the motions of lamenting his fate, but in fact, by this time he had clearly grown content with his tranquil life as an ordinary citizen.
Years went by. He worked for a company, earning the trust of the men at the top. This in turn enabled him and his wife to live in a considerably larger house and to rear several children. Yet as for his passion of yore, only the gods could say where it had gone. Sometimes, sitting back in his rattan chair, enjoying a cigar, he would recall his youth. Such memories inevitably filled him with a strange melancholy, but at such times the Oriental capacity for graceful resignation would come to his aid.
He had, to be sure, been left behind, but then someone happened to read Remembering Liebknecht and was deeply moved. He was a young man from Ōsaka who had invested his inheritance in stock speculation and lost everything. The essay proved to be the catalyst in his conversion to socialism.
Needless to say, the author was aware of none of this. Even now he sits back in his rattan chair, enjoys a cigar, and remembers his youth – and all quite humanly, perhaps too humanly.
A Chapter from the novel, Black Foam
He placed the suitcase lightly into the tray, and then took off to meet it on the other side. However, the soldier across from him waved him back as he scrutinized the screen in front of him. The conveyer belt moved backwards, and as the suitcase emerged from the screener, everyone looked suspiciously at it and its owner. It moved again and disappeared inside the baggage screener. The man crossed over for a second time to wait for it on the other side, but once more the soldier sent it back to where it had come from. The owner of the suitcase wanted to ask what was going on, but by this time the soldier was busy talking to a coworker. He stepped forward slightly, only to receive a stern gesture to stay where he was. Looking in his wife’s direction, he saw that she had finished going through inspection and was anxiously waiting for him.
The line behind him had grown quite long by this time, and impatient grumbles were getting steadily louder. Faced with no other choice, the soldier instructed the man to step aside for his suitcase to be searched by hand, and gestured to those behind him to pass through. Once again, the man looked over to where his wife was standing. She was witness to what was happening, observing his public humiliation as two soldiers gingerly spread out the contents of his bag for all to see, eyeing him warily the entire time.
“Ok. Go ahead.”
After being engrossed in what was happening to the Arab man in the neighboring line, Dawit snapped to attention at the sound of a soldier’s voice. Fearful of meeting the same fate, he placed his suitcase hesitantly onto the conveyor belt, then straightened up in anticipation. He waited for the bag as it passed slowly through the baggage screener, his eyes fixed on the security officer’s facial expression, which registered no reaction. He picked up his suitcase and turned to the officer, awaiting his decision, and saw him wave another traveler through.
He looked back at the Arab, who was still in the same spot, nervously chewing his nails as he watched his belongings being strewn about. When at last he got the signal to gather them up, his fellow travelers were passing through one after another without being stopped by either the machine or the security official.
Dawit felt sympathy toward the man, perhaps because he himself was all too familiar with the taste of humiliation. He had experienced it first in his home country. From there he had fled from the Blue Nile Valley to Northern Ethiopia. When he first reached Ethiopia’s Endabaguna Camp, he had jumped for joy despite his exhaustion after the lengthy, grueling escape. Yet, despite his initial relief and elation, he had grown wearily accustomed to being humiliated anew in his place of refuge.
It was a voyage of desperation that could have had only one of two outcomes: either arrival at the final destination, or death at the hands of border guards. Nevertheless, his existence in the forced conscription camp had become so meaningless that it made no difference to Daoud whether he lived or died. So, when he crossed the border amid scores of others, he was different from all the rest. Unlike them, he paused to look back. He wanted to take in the full reality of deliverance. He wanted to experience what it really felt like to be leaving humiliation and degradation behind once and for all. There, beyond the distant mountains that had drained his strength to the last drop as he had climbed some and skirted others, lay Eritrea. He felt no nostalgia at all. With every step he took on his journey of escape, nostalgic longing had fallen away from his spirit. He’d been purged by his growing distance from the Blue Nile Valley, emptying out his store of pain and distress in the attempt to come home to his spirit before it was caked with scars.
“Hurry up … quick … this way.”
At the entrance to Endabaguna there was something else one needed to be delivered from, namely, an Ethiopian soldier who was using a whip to make new arrivals line up correctly. The whip missed Daoud and hit a woman behind him, who was so taken by surprise that she had no chance to get out of the way. Everybody was lined up in a snake-like fashion so that larger numbers could be accommodated in front of the registration office, and the soldier took pleasure in either keeping the lines in order or scattering them if they got too orderly on their own, finding sadistically artful ways of drawing their curves with his heavy lash.
The registration office served as the entrance to the sprawling camp. Beyond it lay scattered tents of varying sizes, most of them so threadbare that the blue UNHCR logos printed on them were hardly visible anymore. What with the thick crowds lined up in front of him, the slowness of the registration office bureaucracy, and the noonday sun beating down on people’s heads, the time crept by without Daoud’s turn coming. He sat down on the ground and busied himself drawing random circles in the sand. He ran his hand over his knotted black and white woolen wristband. He shut his eyes and saw black. He opened them again, and the sun, which had been lying in wait for him, hurt his pupils. He held his head between his knees and lifted it up again. Then he repeated the sequence, but nothing changed. He was still just as far from the registration office as he had been before.
“Don’t tell them you’re Muslim.”
Keeping his curiosity in check, Daoud resisted the urge to turn toward the source of the lowered voice. As much as he wanted to follow the conversation he’d picked up on between a couple of young men behind him, he was afraid that if he let on that he was listening, they might stop talking.
“Migration organizations won’t pay any attention to your file. I’ve heard that a lot. And they’ll make up excuses without giving you the real reason.”
Daoud knew Endabaguna was nothing but a reception camp and that for some there was a slight chance of resettlement in European countries, while the rest would be distributed among permanent camps in Ethiopia. This was what made him wish he could join in the conversation, make more inquiries. But the whispered exchange was obviously a confidential one. When a silence ensued, Daoud feared that the conversation might still be going on, but too softly for him to hear.
“What to do?”
Rescued by the other young man’s question, he put his senses on high alert. Adjusting his sitting position, he managed to inch slightly backwards, his ears pricked for the answer he was looking for, and which was rather late in coming.
“Do what I did. I got rid of my identity papers and chose a Christian name.”
As sundown approached, Daoud stood outside the registration office, brushing off his clothes as he listened to the question being addressed to him. His head lowered, he gazed at the blank sheet of paper and the blue ink pen hovering over it. Then he lifted his gaze somewhat toward the dark hand with the protruding veins, and from there toward the angry-looking face that was waiting for his answer. The employee repeated his question irritably. As David ran his hand again over his knotted black and white woolen wristband, the employee filled in the box according to what he had heard: “David.”
“Bo’u nelech.” 1 The group coming from Gondar followed the signal from a girl wearing a blue suit and holding a sign that read “Beta Israel” in Hebrew and Amharic. Looking as though they’d stepped straight out of some period of ancient history, this bewildered mass of black humanity piqued the interest of passersby who stopped on both sides to gawk at them, with some of them taking pictures.
In the middle of the group, Dawit pulled his head covering down in an attempt to cover as much of his face as possible. He still felt vulnerable and exposed, as though his features invited attention. For all he knew, his looks called out to passersby, telling them that he was a thief, and in possession of all the evidence of his crimes.
The group proceeded in a semicircular path that ended at a glass door. The door opened automatically, and as soon as it did, cries went up and a commotion erupted. Dawit couldn’t make out what was happening. The group had been thrown into confusion. Some of them wanted to go back inside, but the organizers ordered them to keep going.
“Lama ba’tem?! Lama ba’tem?!” Dawit’s ears were pierced by the screaming of a white girl, who was heatedly asking why they had come to Israel. He looked over at her, only to find her glaring at him. She had picked him out of the crowd to be the object of her enraged stares. Then he stopped hearing her shrieks. He was too busy looking at the greenish veins in her neck that were swollen with rage. When he reached the point closest to her, he averted his gaze and hurried past as her screams tried to overtake him. When he’d gotten some distance away, he looked back to see what was happening behind him. In the process, he bumped into a suitcase, knocking it accidentally out of the hand of its owner, who shoved him and lit into him with curses and insults. Leaning towards a woman next to him, the man grumbled, “These slaves have overrun the country!”
Without a word, Dawit moved quickly away, raising his hands in a gesture of silent apology. Then suddenly the man’s features stopped him up short. It was the Arab who had been searched by the soldiers in such an insulting way.
When he turned to be on his way and catch up with the group, his glance fell on a blue neon sign in bold Hebrew letters: “Broukhim haba’im li Yisrael: Welcome to Israel.”
I’d only been married six years when I started feeling tired and out of breath, especially when I was going up stairs. At first I thought it was a passing problem that would just go away. But it didn’t go away. In fact, it got worse. After doing all sorts of tests, I was told my heart muscle was weak, and that I’d have to get a new one, or else…!
There was a serious decline in my performance of important duties, the most serious of them being my marital ones.
Even the kids’ loving mother got in the act. “Get a heart transplant,” she said ominously, “or else…!”
I waited for the operation for over two years, during which time my condition got worse. Then somehow or other I got the message that I’d have to bribe the hospital officials if I wanted them to expedite a new heart for me, or else…!
I decided as a matter of principle that I wouldn’t try to bribe anybody, even if I croaked on account of it. It was my right to get the spare part my body needed by honorable means, and I was damn well going to hold onto it! So, things got complicated, and it looked as though it was going to be nearly impossible to get what I wanted.
Around that time, my dad discovered he had a relative who’d been buffeted about by one storm wind after another since the first Palestinian Nakba 1 until he’d finally washed up on the shores of Denmark.
My dad sold the last piece of land we owned. Then, with the money from the sale plus donations from good-hearted folks, I took off for Denmark to see his relative, and my wish came true faster than I would ever have expected. Somebody crashed his car into a snowplow and his brain stopped sending and receiving signals, so they removed his good heart and transplanted it into me, in place of my lousy one.
While I was in the hospital, I received a visit from the girlfriend of the heart’s original owner, whose name was Felix. She figured that from now on she had a share in my body, so she started hugging and kissing me, and I returned the sentiments quite enthusiastically.
From the time Felix’s heart was planted in my chest, I lost control over my feelings, which started overflowing every which way. I noticed that unlike before, I’d started falling with the greatest of ease into love’s snares and temptations. When I remembered my sickly, dried-up old heart, I’d think ruefully, “Damn you! You stood between me and happiness!”
As long as I live, I’ll never forget the favor that Dane did me. After I left Denmark, his girlfriend went on emailing me. She’d ask me how her boyfriend’s heart was doing, saying, “I hope you won’t be too hard on it, Abdul!” She’d send him a birthday card every year, and on the anniversary of their first physical intimacy, she wrote, “This was the night when we first made love, Babe, and we were happy even in a snow drift!” As weird as it sounds, when I read her letters, “his” heart would start racing and nearly leap out of my chest. It was like having an island with self-rule inside my body!
I started liking Danish canned meat and fish, as well as Danish dairy products. It wouldn’t even have occurred to me to crave things like that in the days of the old heart, and now I was addicted to them! But the real turnaround involved football matches. After siding automatically with teams from Third World countries like Cameroon, Iran and Egypt, I found myself rooting with a vengeance for the Danish team. This irritated friends and relatives, who viewed it as a step backwards ethically speaking, and as a sign of hostility towards liberation movements. As such, it was clear evidence that I was biased toward the European Union, with its wishy-washy position on our cause. Not only that, but if I saw a bottle of vodka on some store shelf with a picture of a couple of stags on its label, my mouth would water as though I knew what it tasted like. But for the grace of God, I would have gotten hooked on the stuff!
My fellow countrymen, pessimistic as usual, expected me to kick the bucket right away. They’d say naïve things like, “That Scandinavian heart won’t work in Abdullah’s body. After all, he’s an Arab!” I found out that a poet friend of mine had started composing an elegy for me so that my death wouldn’t take him by surprise. He also wanted to make sure it was worded just right when he delivered it at the memorial service he was going to organize for the express purpose of having a chance to read the poem. But I disappointed the poet and my esteemed compatriots. In fact, I started attending their funerals one after another, and earning a heavenly reward for each one. I’d often hear somebody say with my own ears, “We expected this to happen to Abdullah, not to so-and-so.”
To spite these folks who’d expected my rapid demise, I went to a big-time insurance company and took out a policy on my heart. In fact, I insured every one of my body parts. In the process, I learned that insurance companies hold Scandinavian hearts in high regard, and that they’re prepared to insure them for five years renewable provided that you get them retested. By contrast, they refuse to insure Taiwanese or African hearts despite the fact that studies have shown African hearts to be of high quality even though they’re cheap.
News got out to the effect that secret negotiations had taken place between the African Union and the German conglomerate Siemens, which had plans to establish a monopoly over African hearts given their low prices, and then use them in heart transplants for Europeans and Americans.
I started grooving to Danish music, which I hadn’t been able to stand before that, and I got all excited about hearing the Danes compete in the Eurovision song contest. Then one day, and without any prior planning, I walked into the Danish Embassy and started shouting like a madman at the top of my lungs, “Birruh biddam nafdik ya Andersen! (We’d give our heart and soul for you, Andersen!)” It turns out that this Andersen guy was a candidate at the time for the position of Speaker of the Danish Parliament. In any case, I didn’t snap out of it until the embassy guard, thinking I was getting ready to commit a terrorist act, intervened. I was insulted and slapped around, and a file was opened on me, and the only reason I ended up being released was Felix’s heart. The Danish Ambassador in Tel Aviv put in a good word for me and gave me a warm hug. And once he understood what had motivated me, he kissed me right on the scar from my heart transplant.
But on my way home I got into a horrible crash that put me in a coma for two weeks. The accident smashed me to smithereens and nearly every part of my body, even the family jewels, went out of commission. The insurance company went to work without delay, and started sending me to all sorts of places for treatment. My first stop was the United States, where I got a basketball player’s legs, and left nine centimeters taller. From there I hobbled to the UK, where I got myself a pair of arms that were in good shape apart from the fact that the left one had a naked girl tattooed on it. I also got a pair of kidneys of Indian origin. The family jewels came from a Dutch guy who’d given them up to join the female camp. The tongue had been pulled out of a French hooker’s mouth, and I was supplied with magnificent amber eyes that had belonged to a Samba dancer in Brazil. So, I went back to the way I had been, or maybe even better than before.
The only problem I hadn’t anticipated was that I started being slow to respond when my name was called. I noticed a lot of people complaining, saying, “Why don’t you answer? Don’t you hear us calling you!?” When I heard the name Abdullah, I’d start looking around, thinking Abdullah was somebody else! After some consultation, my friends and loved ones made a decision: The only solution was for them to start calling me Abdu Felix. Then I’d know who they were talking to! And sure enough, my heart would leap when I heard this name, and I’d snap to attention right away.
Over a period of months, people got used to the new me. Even my mom and dad, who put up fierce resistance at first, had to resign themselves to the status quo in the end and started calling me by the new name: Abdu Felix. When my dad uttered it for the first time, we locked glances, my Brazilian eyes fixed on his misty Arab ones, and there was a sad quiver in his voice. As he listened to my French way of pronouncing things, he trembled as though he were grasping hot coals until I thought he was going to throw up. I knew then that he realized I wasn’t the same old Abdullah, the son he’d always known, the fruit of his loins. And every now and then I’ll hear him ranting, “Abd Felix, Felix … Felix Abdu, Felix Felix!”
*Published in al-Quds al-Arabi and Kull al-Arab newspapers.
The first thing that happens, you tell me, is that school stops.
We are meeting in a room in a London university so that you can tell me, in anodyne safe surroundings, a bit about your life so far; I say so far because you aren’t old, you are maybe 30.
We meet at the front door and follow the man who’s showing us to the room. We go through several doors and down then up some stairs. We go through a lot of corridors, then some more corridors, then down more stairs and along more identical corridors, then further down again and along a corridor with lagged pipes in the ceiling above our heads. We go through some swing doors, round some corners to some dead ends. We double back on ourselves. The man, who’s not sure where the room is, has to keep pressing codes into doors on our way in and then on our way back out again because we’ve come the wrong way or taken a wrong turning.
Eventually we find the room we’re being lent for the two hours. It’s a room with some tables pushed together and two or three chairs in it. There’s a window with a view on to bricks and the side of a building. You put your bags down, one on each side of you, and we sit down at the pushed-together tables.
You begin to speak. You speak as if picking your way over broken glass. You are graceful in the speaking. You are a small man, dainty even, and gentle. You’re so small that the two quite small rucksacks you’ve got with you seem large beside you.
Later, when we leave this room and go back up through the maze of university corridors, you and your rucksacks keep getting caught in the swing doors because you aren’t strong enough to hold them open; the door hinges are stronger than you.
Here’s what you tell me. It’s all in the present tense, I realise afterwards, because it is all still happening.
So: the first thing you remember knowing is that there isn’t any more school. Your mother dies when you are three, you don’t remember. You never see your father, so you can’t remember him. You know, from being told, that your father’s family fought with your mother’s family; his were Hausa, hers were Christian. So you get given by your father’s family to a man in the village and for a short while there’s school under the great big tree, where you sit in the shade on the ground and the teacher sits on a seat and you get taught letters and reading.
Then the school has to have money so the man you’ve been given to takes you to the farm.
You are six years old.
There is definitely no school on the farm.
There is cocoa, there are bananas and plantain, and the harvests run from January to December. The older kids, seven or eight and upwards, drag and carry the sacks. The younger ones, like you when you arrive, do the bagging and drying. Cocoa, you explain to me, has to be dried twice. You have to climb the tree, cut the pods, break the shell with the seeds inside then pour them into the baskets, then there’s the spreading them out to dry on the leaves or on the tables. The sacks of seeds are as big as you are. You drag these sacks back in the heat. The only clothes you’ve got are made from the sacks you drag, shorts sewn from sack. It’s hot there. Not like here. You look out the window at the bricks. Not like when it’s hot here either; there on the farm it’s the hottest that hot can mean.
You arrive at the farm when you’re six and you run away when you are 21. That’s not the first time you’ve run away. The first time you’re 15. Hunger. Beatings. Headaches. You have a headache, you have it quite often, and you have to have the right medicine or leaves for it or you hit the earth.
One day when you’re 15 and the boss isn’t there, you just go. You get out. There’s a road. You follow it. It isn’t a tarmacked road like here, you tell me. It’s kind of a dirt or dust, an earth road. Anyway the boss catches you on that earth road. There are beatings for a week, and every day between the beatings you’re out to work again carrying the firewood on your head, sometimes five miles, sometimes eight, and at the end of the day the boss coming in to the room with the sleeping mats in it saying how you’re not making him enough money and beating you again.
There’re always beatings.
A man sometimes comes to the farm, he’s in the removing business, he comes to remove the stored beans. He sees the wounds on you when you are 20, 21. He says to you on the quiet, Beaten again? You need to get out of here, he says, or you’ll die.
You think about the boy called Nana, who was beaten so much that he hit the ground. He didn’t wake up. He didn’t respond. He just lay there. You went to work, you came back, he wasn’t in the house any more. Some days later you were told he was dead and that’s when they started to lock you all up at night.
You put your head in your hands, here in the nondescript university room, all the years later, in London.
A very difficult time, you say. A very very difficult time.
I’ve been working here for a long time and I know what I’m talking about, the man says. You’ve got to get out of here.
He says he is going to help you out.
I watch you remember, now, without knowing it’s what you’re doing, the wounds you had then. Your left hand goes to your right forearm, then to your right leg. I notice there’s a scar on your forehead too, the size of a walnut shell, like someone’s at some point scooped a handful-sized piece out of you.
The man tells you to go, when everyone else is busy eating, to the latrine, and when no one can see, to go through the hedges at a certain place. He tells you where the footpath is. He tells you to follow the footpath all the way.
It’s eight hours to the village. It’s a day when the boss and his wife aren’t at the farm. You go to the latrine. You push through the hedges. You find that path. You walk till it’s dark. You meet nobody. You walk till you get to a village. A woman is cooking under a shade. She sees you. She asks you where you are going. You tell her the man’s name and she takes you to a house.
You sit in this house and you hope you won’t be killed.
You wait there for four hours. The man comes. He says that because they’re already looking for you he has to move you tonight.
You walk almost the whole night to get to a town. You are there in a room for a week. Then the man comes back and another man with him. The other man takes your photograph. We are going to take you somewhere, he says, where you are going to be safe. This is where the white people are, do you want to go there?
You are in the town where the lorry station is for a month until the man comes back with a car. He tells you not to worry. He tells you this all the way through the local villages, all the way to the proper road. You never see that brown earth road again. From now on, instead, you see a lot of lights. Then there’s no lights, then lights again. Then you’re standing at the counter in the airport at the man’s side and there’s a girl, and another boy, and the man.
Say nothing, he says. If they ask you who I am to you, say I am your uncle.
When you get to the other airport, though, it isn’t London. You don’t find out for quite some time. It’s just a shut room that you’re in, and a warehouse. Much later you get to know that it’s called Luton. The shut room is all mattresses on the floor and there are six others and you in the room. There are girls in the room above, men in the room below. That night they give you all chicken and chips and tell you the work will start early so you’d better be ready.
A van comes at 4am. Someone opens the front door. The back of the van, with its door open, is right up against the front door. You and the others get in one by one. The van door closes. It’s dark in the van. You get to the warehouse. You hear the warehouse door go up. The van goes in. The warehouse door comes down again.
Room, van, warehouse. Warehouse, van, room. Four in the morning. Nine at night. Packing shoes. Ladies bags. Sorting dresses. Cleaning microwaves. They give you a cloth for this. Cleaning TVs. Cleaning fridges. They give you a roll of white rubber to wrap the electric things. They give you a winter jacket, one pair of jeans and a towel. They give you two shoes. They tell you it’s cost them a great deal of money to bring you here. They say you’ll be working till you’ve paid it all back. There aren’t beatings but there’s shouting. There is a lot of shouting.
Room, van, warehouse. Warehouse, van, room. Five years. Most weeks all week, 18 hours a day. You sit in silence, now, with me. You hold your head in your hands.
You meet a guy, you tell me. He’s the driver. He takes a liking to you. He says he can get you out of there and find you a cleaning job in London. You trust him.
You say the word trust and it is as if your whole body fills with pain. You sit silent again for a moment.
Then London. One place to the next, one place to the next. But you go to a church. You make some friends at the church. You tell them about your life. They tell you there are things that can be done to make this better. You can write to the Home Office, they tell you, and explain to them what’s happened to you, and the Home Office will help you sort this out.
You do it. You write to the Home Office.
They come. They arrest you.
They put you in prison for six months because the passport you’ve got is the wrong kind.
First it’s prison, then detention. That takes two years. Then they release you for six months. Then they arrest you again. Back to detention, another six months. Then they release you. Any moment now they can arrest you again. They say: We have accepted you are a victim of human trafficking. But to go back to Ghana? You have nobody there to go to. Indefinite leave to remain. That means they’ll arrest you again. They can, any time. We accept you are a victim of human trafficking. But we need to reconsider the case.
Most of all, you tell me, you want to go to school. Right now you are in a house belonging to a man from your church, and the man who has the house lets you live there. You do cleaning, do errands, you help look after the baby. It is kind of him to let you stay. There isn’t any money. You sleep in the lounge when they’ve gone to bed. There is a chair you can sit in. You just stay at the house, that’s what you do all day, except for the days you have to report. There isn’t any money for any rail or bus tickets. This is sometimes a problem. Central London to East Croydon is a long walk.
You want most to go to college, you tell me in that university, in the room borrowed for two hours. But colleges need ID. The piece of ID you have, the colleges tell you, isn’t enough for colleges.
You don’t tell me about what detention is like until we walk back up to street level through the interminable swing doored corridors, up staircases that lead to other corridors.
You stop in the middle of a corridor. You look at me and you say: you would ask God not to send your enemies to detention, where fellow human beings treat you not like human beings.
And being out of detention, and knowing they can put you back in detention? It is all like still being in detention. Detention is never not there.
You have seen things, you tell me, with your own naked eyes. The room there in detention has a window, sure. But a window without any air. The only place air comes in is the gap under the door. And the door in detention is an iron door, and when they come to lock it they bang it. They do it on purpose, to make the great noise that it makes. And there’s no privacy in detention. There’s no religious privacy. This is a terrible thing, you say. And there’s no medication guaranteed in detention. Not even for epilepsy, your headaches. Prison is better. At least in prison there is something to do. But not at the removal centre. They call it the removal centre, you know?
You raise your eyebrows at me.
Removal, you say. When you arrive they remove you from a life. Then they remove your phone from you. They make sure it isn’t the kind with cameras. They take it away for several days, and they put it ‘through security’.
But still, I’m thinking to myself as you speak. It can’t be that bad. It can’t be as bad as prison. And surely there’s a reason to take a phone away to check it. It’s for security, isn’t it? It doesn’t sound so bad. It doesn’t sound so rough, not really, and there’s a window. Albeit a window that doesn’t open. A window, all the same.
I am an idiot. But I’m learning. A mere hour or two with you in a university room and I’m about to find out that what I’ve been being taught is something world-sized.
Later this same day I will go and visit, for another couple of hours, what it is to be a detainee, in this day and age, in our country. No, not even that: what I’ll go and visit is only what it’s like to visit a detainee.
I’ll take the train to the removal centre you told me about, the very place where you’ve been detained then detained again, then any minute now might be detained again.
It’s a place so close to a runway that the sound of the planes taking off and landing is its only birdsong. There’s a jolly painted sign above the visitor centre reception desk. PROPERTY CHECK-IN, it says with a big painted tick, for correct, next to it. It’s the first thing I see. Is it a joke? Is it supposed to put people at ease? It’s an obscene irony, and, as I’ll find, maybe the most human thing in the process it takes to visit someone here. There are creatures painted, too, on the back wall of this check-in building, and some toys on the floor beneath them for visiting kids. The painted creatures are meant to be Disney jungle creatures but one looks anguished, as if in pain, and one has huge ferocious teeth.
Everywhere else there are bright information posters proclaiming in words and symbols how people of all origins, ethnicities, religions and sexual orientations will be treated equally here.
I will have to fill in two forms. I will get given a bright red wristband. VISITOR, it says on it. (Anna, my companion for the afternoon, is a regular visitor of the detainees held in the centre, and will warn me with some urgency not to lose this wristband.) I will have to empty my pockets into a locker, all the pennies and the five pence pieces, all the bits of tissue, crushed receipts, even the little balls of fluff in the linings of the pockets. I will lock the locker door on my own ID, on everything that proves I’m me, and will get given a number instead and a lanyard. Visitor Lanyard 336.
I quite often get given lanyards in my job. At literature festivals they’re used as passes into all the events or the hospitality and the green rooms. I throw away several lanyards a year without thinking. This one, the one I’ll be given this afternoon, will render every other lanyard I’ve ever been given and ever will be given from now on nothing but a frippery. The little plastic wallet it’s in will be bent as if it’s been twisted over and over in someone’s hands, chewed by a hundred nervous people or their children – a beaten-up lanyard, a lanyard with a history. I will have to go through a guarded door and then through an airport scanner – no, something much more down market, scale down your vision, more like a body scanner would have been if this was back when I was in my twenties, 30 years ago, and was ill and was claiming invalidity benefit at the DSS and part of that process of signing on had ever involved being body scanned. Before this, a man will write down my number. He will check that I’m me from a photograph that’s already been taken, a minute ago, front of house, by a security camera. After it, a woman will come out of his glass-barrier office. She will make me take my boots off. She will thump them, shake them upside down. She will go through all the pockets of the coat she’s made me take off with more thoroughness than I’ve ever had at any airport. She will find a pencil sharpener and a spare coat button in a little button envelope in my inside pocket. She will hold them both up.
Were you going to use this sharpener to sharpen a pencil and write on this envelope? she will say. No, I’ll say. I didn’t even know that envelope was in there.
As I say it I will feel guilty, though I’m telling nothing but the truth.
She will put the things on a table by the scanner machine.
They may or may not be there when you come out, she’ll say. We take no responsibility for what’s left here.
Then, after she’s searched me from head to feet, the woman will unlock a door and we’ll go into a waiting space and the woman will open another locked door on the other side of the room which will open into a yard with a razor- wire fence so high and encircling such a tiny yard space that it would pass as a literal example of surreality.
Then she’ll unlock another door and we’ll pass into the Visitor Centre H-Block.
There will be placards everywhere. Inside the H-Block the placards will all be inspirational messages about how good the teamwork and the care are here.
Up some stairs there’ll be another security check.
Altogether there are four security checks, before you can visit someone here. Then a man will unlock a door into a big square room, somehow both bright and dim, with blue carpet tiles, blue chairs. We will be shown to a seat. The form we will have signed says we have to take the seat we are shown to, and no other seat. We will do as we’re told. Someone will unlock a different door behind us. The man we’ve come to visit will be shown through this different door.
No, not a man, something closer to a boy – a sweet tired boy, not much past adolescence. He is Vietnamese. He will find his painstaking way in English for just over an hour, telling me he is embarrassed not to be better at speaking it. I will tell him not to worry, that my Vietnamese isn’t up to much. He will laugh at this. The laugh, like a clear little torchbeam, will light up the true and profound state of this young man’s dejection. Anna will tell me later he spoke no English when he arrived here, and the epic nature of the story he tells me in hard-won broken phrases, of the one-and-a-half months hidden in the back of a lorry it took to get him here, will be pretty clear even though all the time I’m trying to listen to him all I’ll be able to hear are the guards of this place, three or sometimes four of them, rattling their keys and their keychains incessantly up and down the length of the room, though there’ll be no one here to guard but us and one other family on the cheap blue seats.
Airless, the room, and its windows barred and perspexed – and suddenly I’ll understand what you were telling me this morning, about how a window, when no air can come through it, isn’t the same thing as a window. You didn’t even mention the bars.
I will ask the boy I’m talking to if the windows in this room are the same as the window in his room. Yes, he’ll say. Do they have those bars on them? I’ll say. He will nod gently. I will ask him what the food is like here. The guards, male and female alike, will walk up and down, shaking their keys. It’s okay, he’ll say.
He’ll have his dictionary in his hand, a Pocket Vietnamese- English paperback. Its spine will be several times broken. The guards will jaunt up and down the room, joking with each other over and above our conversation and the whole time I’m there I will feel the paper edge of my VISITOR band round my wrist rough under my sleeve – I say paper, but I suppose I mean plasticised paper, because later when I try and rip it off I can’t, it won’t tear, and I’ll have to remove it with scissors – I will feel it keenly, the whole time, the reminder that I can leave. I will long to leave.
Meanwhile the young man will be looking overjoyed at the slip of paper Anna has given him, which means he can receive a little blank notebook she’s brought for him, though he won’t see it for several days because it’s got to go ‘through security’, though already we will have spent quite a long time, when we arrived in ‘check-in’, filling in forms about the notebook and having the notebook weighed and processed. He will say, several times, how delighted and grateful he is to have had visitors. Two visitors! Anna came! And another person! Like he can’t quite believe his luck. Again this moment of brightness will mean I catch the real low ebb of his spirit.
He will tell us in broken English that his mother, at home, is ill right now, how she doesn’t have a phone, and how someone from home has phoned him and told him. He will tell us he told his friend to tell her how he is fed and has a bed to sleep in. He doesn’t want her to worry, he will say. He will rub his forehead with his thumb between his eyes above his nose, trying to get to the right words. He will struggle, again, for polite enough, good enough words of apology about his English not being better.
Then it’s back to the H-Block reception and back through the barbed wire coiled yard. The man unlocking the doors will small-talk Anna and me about the weather. It’ll be a grey, grey English day, the day I go to the detention centre. My pencil sharpener and button will still be on the table and, as we go out, Anna will tell me she is surprised I managed to get through and keep both my pairs of glasses since, a couple of weeks before, she’d been disallowed a pair of clip-on shades she sometimes wears over hers and they’d sent her back to ‘check-in’, made her check in all over again.
We’ll go out to the carpark in the regular noise of the planes, another taking off, another one landing as we drive along the barbed wire airport fences through the new no-man’s-land.
After I get home, because I’ll finally have sensed the real depth of depression in the young man I’ve just met, I’ll do a bit of digging around in what information there is, to see if there’s such a thing as therapeutic help for people in detention.
Even if you’re traumatised? Even if, when you arrive there, you’ve seen deaths, been tortured? It isn’t provided. Even if you’ve got a mental illness? Like schizophrenia? Surely the place is full of people with post-traumatic stress disorder? Since nobody leaves home for no reason. Nobody crosses the world crushed in a crate in a lorry, drinking his own urine for one-and-half months; nobody gets flung on a plane from one trafficking destination to another, without terrible mental consequence.
For terrible mental consequence what there is is isolation, where the light is on 24 hours a day, where there’s no sheet on the bed and nothing else in the room, and where Security check on you every 15 minutes.
When I find this out, I’ll think of you and the epilepsy, and the beatings, and something you said in passing about how difficult, in detention, it is, to get the simplest medication.
Anyway, I’ll be out of there, and on my own safe way home. Anna will drive me to the station. When we get there, she’ll lean over, open the door for me and thank me for making the journey today.
Me? I’ll say. Making a journey? Today?
I’ll think of the young man in the lorry. I’ll think of you on all your roads, the road between the gone school and the farm, the first dirt road the time the boss caught you, the ground coming up to meet you when you fell with the headaches, the footpath to the village, the brown earth road you didn’t see again when the road to the airport took you to another country.
I’ll think of me asking you if you ever had visitors in your own time at the removal centre, and of how your face softens when I do for the only time in our talk.
Yes, you say. Mary.
Then you don’t say anything else.
This morning, in the university room, just before we attempt to find our way again around that building, I ask you if you’ll mind showing me the piece of paper that they give you as the proof of who you are – the proof that’s not enough, when it comes to ID, for colleges.
I watch you go through your bags. I realise, by the length of time it takes you to find it, that it is a very painful thing I’ve asked you to do. The longer it takes the more terrible I feel for having asked you to find it and show me.
But there it is at last. You unfold it there between us. It’s an A4 piece of paper, a photocopy whose ink is creased and flaking, beginning to disintegrate in the folds.
I pick it up. I hold it in my hand.
What kind of a life are we living on this earth when a photocopied piece of paper can mean and say more about your life than your life does?
On the train home this evening, I’ll think of the moment you say to me, as we’re saying goodbye: people don’t know about what it’s like to be a detainee. They think it’s like what the government tells them. They don’t know. You have to tell them.
On that train home, and all these weeks and months later, I’ll still be thinking of the only flash of anger in the whole of your telling me a little of what’s happened to you in this life so far.
It was a moment of anger only. It surfaced and disappeared in less than a breath. Except for this one moment you’re calm, accepting, even forgiving – but for these six syllables, six words, that carry the weight of a planet, weight of the earth – yes, earth, like those roads there under all our feet, whatever surfaces we cover them with, under all our journeys, the roads you walked between one place and another in the mix of fear and hope and the dark falling.
But when I came to this place, when I came to your country, you say.
I sit forward. I’m listening.
You shake your head.
I thought you would help me, you say.