A poet leaves his house in haste, heading toward the harbor. In one hand, he carries a book of poems; in the other, his keys. The man then boards a British ship that takes him from Haifa to Acre; and then from Acre to Beirut, Damascus, and other places. Can we imagine what these keys look like?
As a child, I had never heard of Abdul Karim al-Karmi—whose nickname was Abu Salma. His name was never mentioned, neither at home nor at school. When we were little, we learned how to recite and declaim poetry for rhyming competitions at school. Each competition started with the opening verse of a poem, which we coined “al-Miftah”—the key-verse. Our Arabic teacher used to start class with a key-verse taken from Abu Salma’s poetry: “the grievances of slaves about slaves, are delivered on the flare of a poem”. He always insisted on this one, although he never bothered telling us about Abu Salma. The truth is that we were not interested in him either, as we were busy recalling tricky verses that ended with a tough Arabic letter, such as the “Dal”.
Our history teacher, on the other hand, gave in to our pressures, and agreed to replace a dry history lesson with poetry competitions. However, he insisted on a different key-verse: “The Arabs are the noblest nation in the world, and whoever doubts it is a heretic.” To this day, I do not know who the author of this line was, since the teacher never told us. In fact he did not complete the school year with us. One day he disappeared without notice; and we were told that he had been removed from the school and had left the country to wander between Egypt, Libya, and Jordan. Our teacher never returned to his homeland, and we were left wondering: are the Arabs really the noblest nation in the world? Perhaps one day, when he returns, he will share with us his lessons about the nobility of the Arabs—whether they be among the faithful or the infidels. I have no doubt, and God is my witness, that after his long examination of the Arab people he will repent and apologize. Not for heresy, god forbid, but for the naive faith he had in those days.
My late father was a poet, and I became a poet as well. I used to write love sonnets and brag about them to the other schoolkids, who labeled me “the poet”. Everything was going very well until the schoolmaster got his hands on my sonnets, and gave me detention in his office. He stared at me and asked me with a stony face: “To whom did you write these sonnets, Ya Amar ibn Abu Rabia?” Abu Rabia was one of the greatest love poets from the pre-Islamic era; and at the time, I foolishly thought that a poet was free to express his passion and yearning for love. I believed that in the twentieth century I was entitled to announce my love in public just like the pre-Islamic Jahiliyyah poets. When I confessed and named a girl, he seemed agitated. He circled me slowly and said sarcastically: “I suggest that we find her family. Let us see if they support your flirting with their daughter. If they do, I will let you go. However, if they do not, I will let them cut off your head and make you a martyr on the altar of poetry—you, the great poet Abu al-Tayeb al-Mutnabi. ” He kept me locked in his office for five long hours. I sat on the chair staring at the window, trembling with fear, waiting for the hangman to come. Eventually, I decided to save my head and gave up. I was willing to admit that I was too young for love and that the whole episode was foolish, inappropriate, etcetera. He then let me go. Ever since then, I have not written any love sonnets. I turned my back on them, renounced my desires, and abandoned the notion of love altogether.
After this episode, the headmaster started summoning me to his office every year, requiring me to compose a poem for the Independence Day ceremony at school. The headmaster would correct my syntax and grammar and worked on the intonations of my readings. Everybody would attend the ceremony: village residents, Education Ministry inspectors, government representatives, the military governor, and even the director of nearby Damun Prison. When I would finish reading the poem, everybody would applaud along with the school headmaster and the officers of the military government.
Many years after I graduated from high school, our Arabic teacher appeared suddenly at my door. Worried and down, he asked me if I had kept those Independence Day poems. Apparently, a person from our village had denounced him to the police, claiming that he had been rousing Pro-Palestinian feelings among the children. As the headmaster had been removed from school, he wanted to bring my poems to the police as proof of his innocence. He needed evidence of his loyalty, of the fact that he was instilling joy of the holiday and love for the state in us. I handed him the poems and said to myself: If my poems have become certificates of innocence for the police, I should probably stop writing poetry.
Although I loved poetry, I never heard of Abu Salma while in high school. I still recall the painful memory that gripped me when I realized that I passed by his house every day for four consecutive years without ever having imagined that our national poet lived there. The truth is that at the time I did not know what the term “national poet” meant. The Hebrew teacher had planted in our minds the idea that Chaim Nachman Bialik was our national poet, and that no national poet could ever be born to any nation like Bialik had been to the Hebrew nation. Funny enough, it was only as I grew older that I was able to go back and ask the questions that only little boys dare to ask—namely, why do we not have our own national poet, as they do. I so much wanted for my father and the history teacher to become national poets.
I met Abu Salma in the summer of 1980 in Sofia, a few months before he passed away. I went there to study communism and he arrived to recite poetry. All he talked about was Haifa. At the time, I spent most of my days squeezed inside a small room in the editorial office of the communist newspaper Al-Ittihad. In one of the offices, there was a thick wooden desk that once belonged to Abu Salma, who used to gain his living by being a journalist. His desk vicariously kept us in touch with him, and he kept in touch with us through the keys to his house —like lovers Who converse under the moonlight – it is there, but far, far away.
He described a different Haifa, very different from the one I knew. He asked about al-Malukh Street, and about al-Hanatir Square, and said that his house was on al-Bassatin Street—in the German neighborhood. He asked: “Do you know the house? Is there anyone who looks after it?” Abu Salma scolded us for not watching the house, for being satisfied with his desk as a substitute. We did not dare to reply: “And you, why did you leave?”
He talked and wept. We cried together. “I left the house with the keys in one hand and a book of poems in the other. The poems fell and sank into the vast sea, and only the keys remained because they were tied to my waist.”
On my way to the Balkan Hotel, I saw a gypsy sitting on the pavement with a small baby in her lap; and next to her stood a boy of about seven years old, with his hand raised and his face like a beggar. I wanted to give him some coins, but the Bulgarian woman who accompanied me was reluctant. She said: “No. They really do not need it. The state gives them a whole lot and they reject it!”
“What kind of a talk is this in a socialist country, comrade?” I asked her with indignation.
And she answered:
“The Gypsies reject what the state offers and prefer begging in the streets! This is their way of life! We built apartment buildings for them and handed them the keys. They abandoned the apartments and sold the keys in the market. And then they scattered in the streets singing, dancing, and begging.”
“What are you saying?”
“Are you laughing at me, comrade?”
“Please take me to the Balkan Hotel where I am meeting with the Palestinian gypsy sheikh. He is our national poet. Do the gypsies have a national poet?”
“Bulgaria has its own national poet!”
Comrade Nana said this as she accompanied me to the hotel where I met with Abu Salma. When I embraced Abu Salma, who was waiting in the lobby, I heard nothing but his gentle weeping and the rattling of keys held by a hotel staff member who then disappeared into the spacious lounge.
The trip to the Balkan reminded me of those legends that are passed on from generation to generation. They are always woven with beliefs in blind fate, fruitful coincidences, and nostalgia. At the heart of these legends is the story of a man thrown into his own fate—just like this old poet who keeps dreaming about a return to his house. He could describe it in detail, corner by corner, stone by stone; he would ask about the condition of the stairs, about Said’s room, and about the courtyard; and he would reprimand us for not watching after it.
The poet started his long journey with a fairy tale: the legend of a young shepherd from Tel Radwan, who used to sing and play his flute to communicate with the buffalo flock. One day the young man fell in love with the daughter of the tribe’s sheikh and asked her hand. The sheikh was furious, his blood boiling at the insolent shepherd who dared to ask him for his daughter. In return, he ordered the shepherd’s fingers to be cut off. It was the harshest possible punishment for a young man who used to make the buffalos dance in the pasture with his fingers. The following morning, the flutist shepherd did not show up and the buffaloes refused to leave their pens. There was no choice but to make him new fingers out of wooden sticks. The shepherd played the flute once more and the buffaloes returned to the meadow. And in the end, he also married the sheikh’s daughter.
Abu Salma admitted that “Al-Miftah” was derived from this legend. It was a source of inspiration, much like the inspiration that filled the buffaloes when the shepherd played the flute again, with his wooden fingers. Is it possible to open the door into a new world, whether material or spiritual, without a key??
During the Nakba, tens of thousands of keys disappeared. Countless remained stuck in the wide-open doors of houses. Many others were lost in the arid paths or sunk into the sea, unless they had been attached to peoples’ waists. Their owners have been sitting and waiting for many years with a supreme and endless patience. They believe that patience is their real “al-Miftah” and have replaced the iron keys of their houses with the keys of hope. The spark of hope awoke in them the moment the bulldozers had finished demolishing their houses.
Yuda is banging the wall with his pillow; Moishe is switching the lights off and on again. I lay silent, not involved in the nightly disturbance. “He’s coming!” calls Zvika, the sun-shield watcher. We get under our blankets, pretending to be asleep. The door is opened, and my father peeps in. He stands silent in the doorway, listening. A loud girl’s laugh is coming from the room by the showers. He leaves the door open and rushes there. Moishe goes to the door, looks left and whispers: “He’s in the girls’ room.” Zvika takes off his blanket, stands up and signals Hai through the sun-shields that it’s their turn now. The stamping of the iron bed’s legs on the tiles thunders and then stops abruptly as my father’s footsteps rush there. I can visualize the ongoing signals through the sun-shield. “Give up, please.” I send a telepathic plea to my dad, “for the both of us.”
My father is on duty tonight, for the first time in this building, trying to enforce the “all lights out” policy. It’s a thankless job, trying to overcome 24 nine year old kids in six rooms who are not willing to go to sleep yet. In addition to the numerical advantage and youthful energy, the sun-shield advantage is on our side. It’s an elongated niche along the entire building. Blinds were probably not available at the time, so they built a concrete casing around the windows to keep away the sunlight. They did not realize that they created a back door corridor for us to send signals and crawl on all fours from one room to another.
In the short silence I pray that the revolt will end. My father has no chance against us. We the kids have already defeated: Berman, the smart electrician, who pulled out the fuse, Waxman, the lenient, who left after five minutes, and even Zuckerman, the cruel, who had no dilemma about tweaking someone even without a proof. Some fathers use a moment of silence to give up and leave, but my father is strict. Zvika checks the sun-shield and whispers: “It’s our turn now.” The room is dark but I can feel the looks of my three roommates. “Come on,” Yuda whispers. I feel bad for dad, but I have no choice. Any kid who does not take part in the disturbance when his father is on duty is boycotted for an entire month. Esther is the only one who does not have to participate in the nightly disturbances. Her family joined the Kibbutz only six months ago. Every night, when everyone finally goes to sleep, she cries in the sun-shield. She knows that her parents reside nearby and surely can hear her cry, and she can’t understand why they are not coming to comfort her.
I get out my whistle, tucked between the mattress and the wall, and blow my short angry contribution. The blinking light through the sunshield confirms that my signal is received in the girls’ room. I put the whistle back and pretend to be asleep while my father’s steps rush there. After a few silent minutes my father returns. He pauses in the doorway before he comes near my bed. My eyes are shut and my breathing is slow, but my heart beat is wild. Dad leans over me, straightens my pillow. His right hand presses hard on my left shoulder. I grit my teeth to stand the pain while my dad leans closer and whispers in my ear: “I know that you took part in it.” He leaves the room and closes the door. A minute later I hear the entrance door slammed.
A few minutes later all the lights are on and the hustle is everywhere. Pillows are flying, faces peep from the sun-shield and the yelling and ball thumps from the corridor declare that a “Stanga” game is on. Tonight, I don’t feel like joining the celebration. I ignore the noisy buzz around me, silently lying in bed and staring at the ceiling.
My mother said to me: ‘You must go to school, or they will lock up your father.’ There were five of us children at home, four girls and one boy. The eldest was my sister, then me, one year behind her. But I was stronger than her. And naughtier. So my mother said: ‘You will be the one who goes to school, because at home you only make trouble.’ My sister was to stay at home with the little children. She carried them around on her back, washed their nappies, wiped their noses and their little bottoms, and swept and cleaned the house. Everything had to be done by the daughter who was at home, because mothers went into the village to work for the gadjos, and only came back home at night. That was what our mother did, too. Our father went to make bricks. If there was no work, he would work for the gadjos for some food.
In the morning, my mother woke me up: ‘Get up, Little Bighead, go down to the stream and have a wash.’ A little stream passed by about thirty metres from our house. That was where we went to wash, every morning and every night. At night, I would run down to the stream on both feet, but when I came back I hopped on one foot. I never had shoes, and so I wanted at least one of my feet to stay clean. In winter and summer we went barefoot. I only had one set of clothes, which my mother had begged from the gadjos. As for knickers and petticoats, we did not even know what they were.
I went to the stream and washed my feet and my face. My hair was full of feathers, because Romani beds were nothing but feathers and straw, which came out of the mattress and the dirty old quilt. I went to school. I had no bag, I had no readers, no pencil, no exercise book – nothing! I had never had anything of that kind.
I went through the village, and the village was still sleeping. There was no one outside, only two or three gadjos going to the fields with their horses. No one even looked at me, it was as though I were not there at all. I knew where the school was, because when I used to go into the village with my mother, she said to me: ‘This is where you will go to school, so I will have some peace and quiet, Little Bighead!’
I pushed hard to open the heavy school gates. It was dark and cold, and I was half-naked and barefoot. No one was there at all. Only one old gadjo, who looked at me and said: ‘What do you want here?’
‘Well, I’ve come to school. I want to learn things.’
‘You?’ He started to laugh. ‘Look at that skirt on her! Why haven’t you washed? Why haven’t you combed your hair? Where’s your bag? You have nothing, you don’t even have a bag! How will you study?’
‘I will study! I will come to school, I will!’
The old man laughed, and he shoved me into a classroom. I sat in the front desk. I looked all around me. I was alone, all by my little self. The old gadjo started to sweep the floor. I just sat there, thinking to myself how I was going to be somebody! I would know everything. All knowledge would come into my head if I just sat in school – that was what I believed. But then I looked at my bare feet, and my heart sank within me. How could a poor Romani girl become somebody? I closed my eyes, and saw myself in a pink satin dress, embroidered with gold roses. Then I believed again that I would be that clever woman who would pave the way for other Roma. Already as a little girl, I knew that we Roma were the last of the last. No one said a kind word to us. If I wanted to go out from the settlement, my mother said to me: ‘Don’t you dare go into the village! The other children will beat you up.’ And so I only dared to go into the village when there were several of us, or when the older boys came with us, to stand up for us.
It was half past seven, and the bells rang in the church. One after another, the boys and girls filed into the class. Their mothers brought them. Two or three mothers came into the classroom, and seated their little girls in the front desk. They looked askance at me. But I stayed where I was, because I wanted to become clever. I was just waiting to become clever. More and more gadjo boys and girls kept coming in. They were finely dressed, everyone had a bag, and the little girls had ribbons in their hair.
At long last the teacher arrived. She saw me in the front desk. ‘Who put you there?’ She dragged me up, and sent me to sit at the back. ‘That’ll be your place.’ In the first desk she sat the rich little gadjo girls. Then came the poorer ones, and the very back desk was for the Romani kids. ‘The gypsy desk.’ Next to the cracked window, separated from everyone else. I felt like an orphan. Why did I have to sit there all alone? It was hard for me, when there was not a single Romani child with me, and I was afraid. I would have felt stronger, if only someone had sat next to me. But I was alone, all by myself.
The first day in school went by. I learnt nothing. None of that knowledge went into my head, the only thing that forced its way into my mind was how poor I was. When I arrived home, no one asked me: ‘so how was school?’
‘Mummy, the teacher said that I needed a reader, an exercise book and a pencil.’ My mother slapped me. ‘Run away! There isn’t enough to buy bread, and you want a book from me! Just keep on going, so they don’t take your father and lock him up.’
The next day, I washed my feet again and I combed my hair and put on my old clothes and went to school. And that’s how I went to school every day. A month went by, and the teacher did not ask me anything, but just looked to see that I was there. She did not know that I was listening to all that she said. When she asked one of the other girls or boys, in my mind I said along with them what they were supposed to say. I liked doing maths. The seven-times table was my favourite. At night, I was unable to fall asleep because the seven-times table kept dancing in my head. I raised my hand, and the teacher called on me: ‘Go on, count!’ And I counted very well. Again, the teacher asked: ‘What do they cultivate in Hungary?’ I knew. Peppers, melons.
‘You are not stupid,’ said the teacher. ‘If you had a reader and an exercise book and a pencil, you could learn something. Why doesn’t your mother buy you a reader?’
‘My mother has no money.’
‘Why do you go around so dirty? You don’t even have proper clothes!’
‘There are many of us at home, and there is no work.’
Then, one day, I did not go to school. ‘Where were you?’ asked the teacher when I returned.
‘You told me that my clothes were dirty, so my mother washed them for me.’ The teacher’s eyes popped out. ‘I couldn’t go out of the house until my clothes were dry.’
Then the teacher bought me an exercise book and started to give me little pencils, which the other children had thrown away. My fingers hurt from holding them, but I was glad to have them.
One day an order was given that all ‘gypsy’ children must go to school. That’s what the village mayor said. Among the Roma there was great horror, great panic. They ran up and down, the women tore their hair, what will they do with us? What will they do with us? The village guard came to the Romani settlement and began to drum, and the men ran out of their huts, half-naked, their hair full of feathers, and the women were screaming at the children: ‘Go to school! They’ll lock up your father if you don’t go! Who’ll support us?’
The children went. They all put on their ‘very best’ clothes – their mother’s skirt, their father’s trousers – and off they went to school. The village official went on his bicycle, and we chased after him. ‘Go on, run, you gypsy rabble!’
He took us in to the headmaster. I had never seen the headmaster before. He was short, fat-bellied and bald. He had onion eyes and a big moustache, which jigged up and down above his lips when he spoke. He only had two teeth, and God knows where the other teeth had gone. When he looked at us, his big eyes bulged out. He started to tell us off for being lazy Roma, who did not want to learn anything, who did not want to become real people! He cursed us, but you could see that he was a good man. ‘How will I divide you up? Filthy rabble! All the teachers are scared of you,’ he said, kindly. So he started to count: one, two, three, four, five. There were fifteen of us. He said: ‘You go there, you there, you there ’ So he divided us up among the classes. My sister Beži, who was a year older than me, also had to go to school. My mother cursed and cried that there was no one to be with the children when she went out to work.
We went into the classroom, and the teacher was scared of us. ‘Where will I put you!’ At the back were three desks, and she sat us there. We were separated from the gadjo children so that we wouldn’t fight with them. We couldn’t study.
Once, I was very hungry. It was just when there was a fair in the village. The gadjos were baking and boiling – the Roma were hungry. The teacher asked each of us what we had eaten, including the Romani children. Black Pot said: ‘I haven’t eaten anything since yesterday. We only eat when my mother gets home from the village.’
Bango said: ‘We don’t eat in the morning, either,’ which was true. Our first meal used to be in the afternoon, when our mothers came back from the village and brought potatoes, cottage cheese and milk, which the gadjo women gave them if they chopped firewood, cleaned the manure out of the stables, or wiped down the stove.
The teacher said to me: ‘What have you eaten?’
‘Wow!’ my eyes opened as wide as stars. ‘If you could see what I ate! Biscuits with cottage cheese, soup, buns and cake …!’
‘How is it that you have eaten, while there was nothing for your sister to put in her mouth?’ the teacher interrupted. ‘Why are you lying? Stick your tongue out! You’ll get something to make sure you don’t lie next time!’
I stuck my tongue out, and she hit me across it with a ruler. It hurt so much, I could not even speak. But when I came to myself again, I said to her: ‘I was not lying! I was eating all night long! I dreamed of eating, I ate in my dream.’
The teacher went red, said nothing and walked away.
A year went by. Everyone said I was not stupid. I did not fail. They let me move into the second year. I received my school report. There wasn’t a single C grade on it. And I was very proud!
I ran home, jumping up and down for joy, and shouting from far away: ‘Mummy, I only have As and Bs.’
‘I’ll give you ‘A’s! Do you think we can live off your A grades? A grades, A grades – at home you do everything to avoid working! At home you couldn’t care less about work!’ That’s how she cut me short. It was hard for me. The little gadjos got books, watches or money for good school reports – but what was there for me? Cursing. There was no one I could pour my heart out to.
Three Romani boys went up with me into the second year. I became friends with those little boys, and the Roma said of me that I was stronger than a boy! Whatever the boys said, I said it too, and what they did, I did too. When they were beaten, I was beaten too.
One time the circus came to the village. I was mad about dancing. I knew how to put my leg around my neck. And so Šulo and Bango and Tarzan – those were the names of the three who went with me into the second year – said: ‘Listen, you go to the circus – and whatever you see there, you can tell us about it afterwards!’
I said: ‘How can I go, if we don’t have any money?’
And they said: ‘Don’t worry, we’ll get some money somehow. Come with us.’
We went over to the church. In front of the church was a statue of Saint John. In the morning, when the gadjos walked by the church, they threw money at it. And Šulo said: ‘What does a statue need money for? You can keep guard, to make sure the priest or the verger doesn’t come, and we’ll collect the money.’ They made some clay with slime and spit, and made a kind of sticky paste, which they put on the end of a stick, then they poked the stick through the grating towards Saint John. They wanted to raise the money from the dead. ‘Bango, do a wee in the clay, wee in it, it will be better,’ said Šulo. And sure enough, he caught a sixpence on the stick. But the priest was coming!
‘The priest is coming!’ I shouted. The boys stuck the sixpence in my mouth. ‘Swallow it! Get it down!’ I swallowed, and started to choke. I choked, retched, spat, turned red, and the boys were thumping me on the back.
‘What are you doing here, you devils?’ said the priest.
‘We came to pray to Saint John – look, she almost choked,’ lied Bango.
Of course, the priest did not know that I was choking on stolen money, and he said: ‘Come here, let me give you a bit of holy water.’ He poured some into my palm, and so I washed down the stolen money with holy water.
Bango said: ‘We need to think of a way of getting the money.’ But how? What? Where? I used to go to work for one gadjo who had chickens. ‘Do you know what?’ the boys said, ‘You go into the hen-house, take the eggs from under the chickens’ bottoms, and we can sell them to the Jew.’
I did not know what to do. ‘Bango, you go!’ I said.
‘Alright,’ the boys said. ‘You go up the tree, up the pear-tree, and you can pick pears. Bango can go for the eggs.’
I climbed the pear tree – the dog didn’t bark, because it knew me. The boys were in the hen-house, and the hens made no noise, because Šulo and Bango knew what to do. But who should be coming? The gadjo! And I was up the tree! He came straight for me. ‘Is that how you thank me for giving you work?’ He picked up a big stick, the kind you use to knock down nuts, and he went for me! I looked to see whether Bango and Šulo would run out of the hen-house. I saw them jump over the gate, and then they were gone. The gadjo saw nothing. Good, now I could come down from the tree. So I jumped, straight onto a nail. Luckily, it didn’t go into my leg, but it tore my skirt at the back. I ran for it, and the torn skirt flew in the wind, while my naked bottom shone out like the moon.
The boys were waiting for me. They turned me round and round. ‘We need a patch to sew it up!’ said Bango. But where could we get a patch from?
‘Do you know what,’ said Bango, ‘you walk in front of me, and I’ll walk right behind you, and then no one will see your bottom.’ So that is how we walked. My mother was watching from a distance. ‘What on earth is that? Look! She’s with a boy! Stuck right up against him! Does an honest girl walk like that?’ (I was about seven or eight years old.) As I came nearer, my mother said: ‘Is that how you go about, my girl?!’ She beat me until I could not get up from the ground. My mother was wailing: ‘You have one set of clothes! And you’ve torn them up! How can you go to school?’ We never had cloth for a patch at home. My mother said to me, ‘Wait, we’ll do it somehow.’ She took a kind of apron, which was supposed to be tied to my front, and she tied it behind me. My naked bottom could not be seen.
As soon as my mother had tied the apron to me, we went to sell the eggs. The Jew said: ‘What kind of chickens do you have?’ Their shells were very thin. ‘You can see straight away that it’s a Romani chicken.’ The Jew would not buy the eggs from us.
Now what? How could we make money to go to the circus? I said: ‘Oh! I am so disappointed! I’ll never go anywhere. I’m going home.’
‘Aha!’ said the boys. ‘So you swallowed the money and now you want to go home!’ Šulo caught me by the ear. ‘Have no fear. Wherever you try to go, we’ll follow you, because that Saint-John sixpence is not just yours! It’s ours, too.’ But what use was the sixpence to us anyway, when the circus cost one crown twenty!
‘Let’s go and see what we can do,’ said Tarzan. We went to the place where the circus was, and it was already full of circus wagons. Bango went to ask whether he could go and carry wood, or help in any way. What the circus manager said was: ‘Yeah, I need nappies washing, and you can wash them if you want.’ Bango ran for water, Šulo washed, and I just stood there as if I was their princess. Bango said to the circus manager: ‘Let her go in! She can go and see the circus!’
The circus manager pushed me forward: ‘Hop in! Run off, then!’ I went inside, and the boys went on and on washing the nappies.
I was inside the circus! The acrobats swung on the bars, walked on the rope, and the clowns fell off bicycles – most of all, I liked the snake woman in the golden skirt, who did somersaults in the air and walked on her hands. In my mind, I did everything alongside her. I’d show the boys a thing or two!
I went home, glowing like a star. I was beaten by my mother for gadding about! I went to sleep in tears and hungry. As soon as I closed my eyes, I imagined myself as that circus lady, jumping through the air, walking on my hands, with the golden skirt shining on me like the sun.
It was not yet light when I got up secretly and disappeared off to the cemetery. There was a large lawn there, beautiful and soft, so that I would not break any bones. I did a crab. I could do that. I put my foot around my neck. I attempted a handspring. I fell crashing down on my back. No sooner had I recovered a little than I tried to do it again. I spun through the air. Good, now I could do a flip, as well. There was one thing I couldn’t do – I could not walk on my hands. I fell and fell again. I was broken and bruised. Everything hurt.
The bells were ringing in the church, and I fled to school. My first lesson was catechism. The priest came into the classroom, saying: ‘You were at the circus, weren’t you?’
‘Yes, I was.’
‘You go to the circus, but you don’t go to church!’
I said: ‘The floor is cold in the church, and I don’t have shoes.’
‘Tell me how our great God was born.’
‘I can’t tell you how God was born, but if you want I can tell you how my little sister Ili was born.’
‘Come out from behind your desk! You’ll get your bottom smacked for having no manners!’
‘Oh no! I can’t have my bottom smacked!’ I cried. The priest pulled me out of my desk, the apron flew open, and my naked bottom glowed like a full moon. The boys started to laugh. The priest sent me home. And finally my mother brought me some worn-out clothes from the village.
A week later, when I was not so bruised, I said to the boys, during a maths lesson: ‘Come with me.’ I put my hand up and said I needed to go to the toilet. The boys did the same thing, one after another. We had a modern school, with three flushing toilets and a corridor in front of them. In the corridor, I began to show them what the circus was like. The teacher started to wonder where the Romani boys were. Where had they gone? No one had come back from the toilet. The teacher came after us. And when she saw us, I was walking on my hands, spinning through the air and twisting my face like a clown.
‘So that’s what you’re doing! You’re teaching them circus acts. Wait here!’ I was beaten again. How many times had I been beaten for one circus! And what had I gained from it? One swallowed sixpence. When it came out of me again, I hid it in the cemetery. It’s buried there to this day.
A new teacher came. He was tall and young. He looked at us. ‘Are those all the Romani children? Are there no more of you?’
‘There are more of us, but the others don’t come to school. If there were more of us, the teachers would be scared!’
‘So I will take all the Romani children!’ said the new teacher. ‘But none of you will interrupt me or disturb me!’
The next day, what should we see but the new teacher, riding his bicycle into the middle of our settlement. He had come among the ‘gypsies’. Not a single gadjo had ever visited us, apart from the village guard. The teacher called out: ‘Every child who is supposed to be going to school, come outside!’ He even said ‘aven avri’, ‘come outside’, in our own language!
We ran out of the shacks – the teacher had a stick in his hand. ‘Get going, get going, run along to school!’ When we got to the classroom, he asked: ‘Hands up if you haven’t combed your hair.’ He didn’t need to ask, he could see that none of us had combed our hair.
‘Why haven’t you combed your hair?’
‘We don’t have any combs.’
‘Have you washed?’
‘We don’t have any towels.’ One after another, we started to tell him everything that we did not have.
‘Good. Tomorrow you can come to school one hour earlier! If not, I’ll give you what-for!’
The next day, we really did come an hour early. The teacher was already waiting for us. He had brought towels, soap, a washbowl and combs.
‘Who hasn’t eaten anything?’
We all put our hands up. The teacher sent Bango for bread rolls. He bought a roll for each one of us. Then he said: ‘Well, now we can start learning something! Today you can all stay in school for the afternoon, too.’ At midday, he bought food for us again, bread and margarine. He asked us: ‘What do you want to be when you are older?’
‘I want to dance and sing!’ I said.
He slapped me. ‘You won’t earn a living that way. You need to study, then you can dance and sing.’ Then he grabbed the boys by the hair. ‘What do you want to do?’
‘Me – a blacksmith.’
‘Good, you will be a blacksmith.’
‘I want to be a musician like my dad.’
‘That’s all fine, but you must still know how to read and write.’
Then he gave us pencils and exercise books and we really did start to learn something.
There was a fair in the village. The teachers chose good pupils to recite poems. So our teacher said:
‘Just wait and we’ll show them what you can do!’ He asked me: ‘Do you know how to sing?’
I sang a very amorous love song from a film. I must have been about eight years old.
‘Who taught you that?’ the teacher asked.
‘My father sings that to my mother at night,’ I said.
‘Which of you can recite a poem?’
‘Meeeeee!’ I shouted. I recited a patriotic poem which I had heard from the gadjo children. My face was red and my eyes shone – he stared at me.
‘Good,’ he said, ‘you can recite a poem, and then you can all sing and play music.’
The boys brought violins and basses and whatever they could from home. But we had nothing to wear, we had no smart clothes. The teacher said: ‘Oh my God, if I was not so poor! How I could help you all! Look what beautiful hair you have! Would you like ribbons in your hair?’
‘Wow! I’d love that.’
‘Look, boys and girls, you have to study so that you won’t be stupid! So that the gadjos can’t do whatever they want with you. If you study, you will be cleverer than your parents. You will hold your heads up high, you will know how to find your own place among the other people. Study, and pay no attention if I shout at you, or if I box your ears. I cannot get angry with those who treat you in such a way, so I have to vent my anger on you. Oh God! When I see how the gadjo children eat so well and bring bread with dripping, and you eat your hunger, how the anger rises in me! How am I supposed to help you? Grow up good and honourable, so that the gentlemen see that your poverty is not your fault but theirs.’
And we took an oath that we would never again be naughty or bad, that we would not steal money from Saint John, and that we would study.
We went to the celebrations. No one expected the Romani children there. The gadjo children were there with their mothers and fathers. They put on a play about a princess and a cobbler.
Then our teacher stood up. He said: ‘Now let me introduce my pupils to you.’ The boys began to play. The old men started pulling at their moustaches big and small and started tapping their feet, it made them so keen to dance! Then I recited the poem. The gadjos were astonished. Then I took a plate, as my teacher had told me to, and went to collect money. ‘We want to study, too, but we don’t have readers or exercise books.’ Everyone gave some money.
I did not go to school for long. The war began, and Roma were not allowed to go into the village. They did not allow us to go to school. I did three years of school.
*This Story is taken from: Povídky: Short Stories by Czech Women, ed. Nancy Hawker, copyright © Nancy Hawker, 2006.
And after all the weather was ideal. They could not have had a more perfect day for a garden-party if they had ordered it. Windless, warm, the sky without a cloud. Only the blue was veiled with a haze of light gold, as it is sometimes in early summer. The gardener had been up since dawn, mowing the lawns and sweeping them, until the grass and the dark flat rosettes where the daisy plants had been seemed to shine. As for the roses, you could not help feeling they understood that roses are the only flowers that impress people at garden-parties; the only flowers that everybody is certain of knowing. Hundreds, yes, literally hundreds, had come out in a single night; the green bushes bowed down as though they had been visited by archangels.
Breakfast was not yet over before the men came to put up the marquee.
“Where do you want the marquee put, mother?”
“My dear child, it’s no use asking me. I’m determined to leave everything to you children this year. Forget I am your mother. Treat me as an honoured guest.”
But Meg could not possibly go and supervise the men. She had washed her hair before breakfast, and she sat drinking her coffee in a green turban, with a dark wet curl stamped on each cheek. Jose, the butterfly, always came down in a silk petticoat and a kimono jacket.
“You’ll have to go, Laura; you’re the artistic one.”
Away Laura flew, still holding her piece of bread-and-butter. It’s so delicious to have an excuse for eating out of doors, and besides, she loved having to arrange things; she always felt she could do it so much better than anybody else.
Four men in their shirt-sleeves stood grouped together on the garden path. They carried staves covered with rolls of canvas, and they had big tool-bags slung on their backs. They looked impressive. Laura wished now that she had not got the bread-and-butter, but there was nowhere to put it, and she couldn’t possibly throw it away. She blushed and tried to look severe and even a little bit short-sighted as she came up to them.
“Good morning,” she said, copying her mother’s voice. But that sounded so fearfully affected that she was ashamed, and stammered like a little girl, “Oh—er—have you come—is it about the marquee?”
“That’s right, miss,” said the tallest of the men, a lanky, freckled fellow, and he shifted his tool-bag, knocked back his straw hat and smiled down at her. “That’s about it.”
His smile was so easy, so friendly that Laura recovered. What nice eyes he had, small, but such a dark blue! And now she looked at the others, they were smiling too. “Cheer up, we won’t bite,” their smile seemed to say. How very nice workmen were! And what a beautiful morning! She mustn’t mention the morning; she must be business-like. The marquee.
“Well, what about the lily-lawn? Would that do?”
And she pointed to the lily-lawn with the hand that didn’t hold the bread-and-butter. They turned, they stared in the direction. A little fat chap thrust out his under-lip, and the tall fellow frowned.
“I don’t fancy it,” said he. “Not conspicuous enough. You see, with a thing like a marquee,” and he turned to Laura in his easy way, “you want to put it somewhere where it’ll give you a bang slap in the eye, if you follow me.”
Laura’s upbringing made her wonder for a moment whether it was quite respectful of a workman to talk to her of bangs slap in the eye. But she did quite follow him.
“A corner of the tennis-court,” she suggested. “But the band’s going to be in one corner.”
“H’m, going to have a band, are you?” said another of the workmen. He was pale. He had a haggard look as his dark eyes scanned the tennis-court. What was he thinking?
“Only a very small band,” said Laura gently. Perhaps he wouldn’t mind so much if the band was quite small. But the tall fellow interrupted.
“Look here, miss, that’s the place. Against those trees. Over there. That’ll do fine.”
Against the karakas. Then the karaka-trees would be hidden. And they were so lovely, with their broad, gleaming leaves, and their clusters of yellow fruit. They were like trees you imagined growing on a desert island, proud, solitary, lifting their leaves and fruits to the sun in a kind of silent splendour. Must they be hidden by a marquee?
They must. Already the men had shouldered their staves and were making for the place. Only the tall fellow was left. He bent down, pinched a sprig of lavender, put his thumb and forefinger to his nose and snuffed up the smell. When Laura saw that gesture she forgot all about the karakas in her wonder at him caring for things like that—caring for the smell of lavender. How many men that she knew would have done such a thing? Oh, how extraordinarily nice workmen were, she thought. Why couldn’t she have workmen for her friends rather than the silly boys she danced with and who came to Sunday night supper? She would get on much better with men like these.
It’s all the fault, she decided, as the tall fellow drew something on the back of an envelope, something that was to be looped up or left to hang, of these absurd class distinctions. Well, for her part, she didn’t feel them. Not a bit, not an atom… And now there came the chock-chock of wooden hammers. Some one whistled, some one sang out, “Are you right there, matey?” “Matey!” The friendliness of it, the—the—Just to prove how happy she was, just to show the tall fellow how at home she felt, and how she despised stupid conventions, Laura took a big bite of her bread-and-butter as she stared at the little drawing. She felt just like a work-girl.
“Laura, Laura, where are you? Telephone, Laura!” a voice cried from the house.
“Coming!” Away she skimmed, over the lawn, up the path, up the steps, across the veranda, and into the porch. In the hall her father and Laurie were brushing their hats ready to go to the office.
“I say, Laura,” said Laurie very fast, “you might just give a squiz at my coat before this afternoon. See if it wants pressing.”
“I will,” said she. Suddenly she couldn’t stop herself. She ran at Laurie and gave him a small, quick squeeze. “Oh, I do love parties, don’t you?” gasped Laura.
“Ra-ther,” said Laurie’s warm, boyish voice, and he squeezed his sister too, and gave her a gentle push. “Dash off to the telephone, old girl.”
The telephone. “Yes, yes; oh yes. Kitty? Good morning, dear. Come to lunch? Do, dear. Delighted of course. It will only be a very scratch meal—just the sandwich crusts and broken meringue-shells and what’s left over. Yes, isn’t it a perfect morning? Your white? Oh, I certainly should. One moment—hold the line. Mother’s calling.” And Laura sat back. “What, mother? Can’t hear.”
Mrs. Sheridan’s voice floated down the stairs. “Tell her to wear that sweet hat she had on last Sunday.”
“Mother says you’re to wear that sweet hat you had on last Sunday. Good. One o’clock. Bye-bye.”
Laura put back the receiver, flung her arms over her head, took a deep breath, stretched and let them fall. “Huh,” she sighed, and the moment after the sigh she sat up quickly. She was still, listening. All the doors in the house seemed to be open. The house was alive with soft, quick steps and running voices. The green baize door that led to the kitchen regions swung open and shut with a muffled thud. And now there came a long, chuckling absurd sound. It was the heavy piano being moved on its stiff castors. But the air! If you stopped to notice, was the air always like this? Little faint winds were playing chase, in at the tops of the windows, out at the doors. And there were two tiny spots of sun, one on the inkpot, one on a silver photograph frame, playing too. Darling little spots. Especially the one on the inkpot lid. It was quite warm. A warm little silver star. She could have kissed it.
The front door bell pealed, and there sounded the rustle of Sadie’s print skirt on the stairs. A man’s voice murmured; Sadie answered, careless, “I’m sure I don’t know. Wait. I’ll ask Mrs Sheridan.”
“What is it, Sadie?” Laura came into the hall.
“It’s the florist, Miss Laura.”
It was, indeed. There, just inside the door, stood a wide, shallow tray full of pots of pink lilies. No other kind. Nothing but lilies—canna lilies, big pink flowers, wide open, radiant, almost frighteningly alive on bright crimson stems.
“O-oh, Sadie!” said Laura, and the sound was like a little moan. She crouched down as if to warm herself at that blaze of lilies; she felt they were in her fingers, on her lips, growing in her breast.
“It’s some mistake,” she said faintly. “Nobody ever ordered so many. Sadie, go and find mother.”
But at that moment Mrs. Sheridan joined them.
“It’s quite right,” she said calmly. “Yes, I ordered them. Aren’t they lovely?” She pressed Laura’s arm. “I was passing the shop yesterday, and I saw them in the window. And I suddenly thought for once in my life I shall have enough canna lilies. The garden-party will be a good excuse.”
“But I thought you said you didn’t mean to interfere,” said Laura. Sadie had gone. The florist’s man was still outside at his van. She put her arm round her mother’s neck and gently, very gently, she bit her mother’s ear.
“My darling child, you wouldn’t like a logical mother, would you? Don’t do that. Here’s the man.”
He carried more lilies still, another whole tray.
“Bank them up, just inside the door, on both sides of the porch, please,” said Mrs. Sheridan. “Don’t you agree, Laura?”
“Oh, I do, mother.”
In the drawing-room Meg, Jose and good little Hans had at last succeeded in moving the piano.
“Now, if we put this chesterfield against the wall and move everything out of the room except the chairs, don’t you think?”
“Hans, move these tables into the smoking-room, and bring a sweeper to take these marks off the carpet and—one moment, Hans—” Jose loved giving orders to the servants, and they loved obeying her. She always made them feel they were taking part in some drama. “Tell mother and Miss Laura to come here at once.
“Very good, Miss Jose.”
She turned to Meg. “I want to hear what the piano sounds like, just in case I’m asked to sing this afternoon. Let’s try over ‘This life is Weary.’”
Pom! Ta-ta-ta Tee-ta! The piano burst out so passionately that Jose’s face changed. She clasped her hands. She looked mournfully and enigmatically at her mother and Laura as they came in.
“This Life is Wee-ary,
A Tear—a Sigh.
A Love that Chan-ges,
This Life is Wee-ary,
A Tear—a Sigh.
A Love that Chan-ges,
And then… Good-bye!”
But at the word “Good-bye,” and although the piano sounded more desperate than ever, her face broke into a brilliant, dreadfully unsympathetic smile.
“Aren’t I in good voice, mummy?” she beamed.
“This Life is Wee-ary,
Hope comes to Die.
A Dream—a Wa-kening.”
But now Sadie interrupted them. “What is it, Sadie?”
“If you please, m’m, cook says have you got the flags for the sandwiches?”
“The flags for the sandwiches, Sadie?” echoed Mrs. Sheridan dreamily. And the children knew by her face that she hadn’t got them. “Let me see.” And she said to Sadie firmly, “Tell cook I’ll let her have them in ten minutes.”
“Now, Laura,” said her mother quickly, “come with me into the smoking-room. I’ve got the names somewhere on the back of an envelope. You’ll have to write them out for me. Meg, go upstairs this minute and take that wet thing off your head. Jose, run and finish dressing this instant. Do you hear me, children, or shall I have to tell your father when he comes home to-night? And—and, Jose, pacify cook if you do go into the kitchen, will you? I’m terrified of her this morning.”
The envelope was found at last behind the dining-room clock, though how it had got there Mrs. Sheridan could not imagine.
“One of you children must have stolen it out of my bag, because I remember vividly—cream cheese and lemon-curd. Have you done that?”
“Egg and—” Mrs. Sheridan held the envelope away from her. “It looks like mice. It can’t be mice, can it?”
“Olive, pet,” said Laura, looking over her shoulder.
“Yes, of course, olive. What a horrible combination it sounds. Egg and olive.”
They were finished at last, and Laura took them off to the kitchen. She found Jose there pacifying the cook, who did not look at all terrifying.
“I have never seen such exquisite sandwiches,” said Jose’s rapturous voice. “How many kinds did you say there were, cook? Fifteen?”
“Fifteen, Miss Jose.”
“Well, cook, I congratulate you.”
Cook swept up crusts with the long sandwich knife, and smiled broadly.
“Godber’s has come,” announced Sadie, issuing out of the pantry. She had seen the man pass the window.
That meant the cream puffs had come. Godber’s were famous for their cream puffs. Nobody ever thought of making them at home.
“Bring them in and put them on the table, my girl,” ordered cook.
Sadie brought them in and went back to the door. Of course Laura and Jose were far too grown-up to really care about such things. All the same, they couldn’t help agreeing that the puffs looked very attractive. Very. Cook began arranging them, shaking off the extra icing sugar.
“Don’t they carry one back to all one’s parties?” said Laura.
“I suppose they do,” said practical Jose, who never liked to be carried back. “They look beautifully light and feathery, I must say.”
“Have one each, my dears,” said cook in her comfortable voice. “Yer ma won’t know.”
Oh, impossible. Fancy cream puffs so soon after breakfast. The very idea made one shudder. All the same, two minutes later Jose and Laura were licking their fingers with that absorbed inward look that only comes from whipped cream.
“Let’s go into the garden, out by the back way,” suggested Laura. “I want to see how the men are getting on with the marquee. They’re such awfully nice men.”
But the back door was blocked by cook, Sadie, Godber’s man and Hans.
Something had happened.
“Tuk-tuk-tuk,” clucked cook like an agitated hen. Sadie had her hand clapped to her cheek as though she had toothache. Hans’s face was screwed up in the effort to understand. Only Godber’s man seemed to be enjoying himself; it was his story.
“What’s the matter? What’s happened?”
“There’s been a horrible accident,” said Cook. “A man killed.”
“A man killed! Where? How? When?”
But Godber’s man wasn’t going to have his story snatched from under his very nose.
“Know those little cottages just below here, miss?” Know them? Of course, she knew them. “Well, there’s a young chap living there, name of Scott, a carter. His horse shied at a traction-engine, corner of Hawke Street this morning, and he was thrown out on the back of his head. Killed.”
“Dead!” Laura stared at Godber’s man.
“Dead when they picked him up,” said Godber’s man with relish. “They were taking the body home as I come up here.” And he said to the cook, “He’s left a wife and five little ones.”
“Jose, come here.” Laura caught hold of her sister’s sleeve and dragged her through the kitchen to the other side of the green baize door. There she paused and leaned against it. “Jose!” she said, horrified, “however are we going to stop everything?”
“Stop everything, Laura!” cried Jose in astonishment. “What do you mean?”
“Stop the garden-party, of course.” Why did Jose pretend?
But Jose was still more amazed. “Stop the garden-party? My dear Laura, don’t be so absurd. Of course we can’t do anything of the kind. Nobody expects us to. Don’t be so extravagant.”
“But we can’t possibly have a garden-party with a man dead just outside the front gate.”
That really was extravagant, for the little cottages were in a lane to themselves at the very bottom of a steep rise that led up to the house. A broad road ran between. True, they were far too near. They were the greatest possible eyesore, and they had no right to be in that neighbourhood at all. They were little mean dwellings painted a chocolate brown. In the garden patches there was nothing but cabbage stalks, sick hens and tomato cans. The very smoke coming out of their chimneys was poverty-stricken. Little rags and shreds of smoke, so unlike the great silvery plumes that uncurled from the Sheridans’ chimneys. Washerwomen lived in the lane and sweeps and a cobbler, and a man whose house-front was studded all over with minute bird-cages. Children swarmed. When the Sheridans were little they were forbidden to set foot there because of the revolting language and of what they might catch. But since they were grown up, Laura and Laurie on their prowls sometimes walked through. It was disgusting and sordid. They came out with a shudder. But still one must go everywhere; one must see everything. So through they went.
“And just think of what the band would sound like to that poor woman,” said Laura.
“Oh, Laura!” Jose began to be seriously annoyed. “If you’re going to stop a band playing every time some one has an accident, you’ll lead a very strenuous life. I’m every bit as sorry about it as you. I feel just as sympathetic.” Her eyes hardened. She looked at her sister just as she used to when they were little and fighting together. “You won’t bring a drunken workman back to life by being sentimental,” she said softly.
“Drunk! Who said he was drunk?” Laura turned furiously on Jose. She said, just as they had used to say on those occasions, “I’m going straight up to tell mother.”
“Do, dear,” cooed Jose.
“Mother, can I come into your room?” Laura turned the big glass door-knob.
“Of course, child. Why, what’s the matter? What’s given you such a colour?” And Mrs. Sheridan turned round from her dressing-table. She was trying on a new hat.
“Mother, a man’s been killed,” began Laura.
“Not in the garden?” interrupted her mother.
“Oh, what a fright you gave me!” Mrs. Sheridan sighed with relief, and took off the big hat and held it on her knees.
“But listen, mother,” said Laura. Breathless, half-choking, she told the dreadful story. “Of course, we can’t have our party, can we?” she pleaded. “The band and everybody arriving. They’d hear us, mother; they’re nearly neighbours!”
To Laura’s astonishment her mother behaved just like Jose; it was harder to bear because she seemed amused. She refused to take Laura seriously.
“But, my dear child, use your common sense. It’s only by accident we’ve heard of it. If some one had died there normally—and I can’t understand how they keep alive in those poky little holes—we should still be having our party, shouldn’t we?”
Laura had to say “yes” to that, but she felt it was all wrong. She sat down on her mother’s sofa and pinched the cushion frill.
“Mother, isn’t it terribly heartless of us?” she asked.
“Darling!” Mrs. Sheridan got up and came over to her, carrying the hat. Before Laura could stop her she had popped it on. “My child!” said her mother, “the hat is yours. It’s made for you. It’s much too young for me. I have never seen you look such a picture. Look at yourself!” And she held up her hand-mirror.
“But, mother,” Laura began again. She couldn’t look at herself; she turned aside.
This time Mrs. Sheridan lost patience just as Jose had done.
“You are being very absurd, Laura,” she said coldly. “People like that don’t expect sacrifices from us. And it’s not very sympathetic to spoil everybody’s enjoyment as you’re doing now.”
“I don’t understand,” said Laura, and she walked quickly out of the room into her own bedroom. There, quite by chance, the first thing she saw was this charming girl in the mirror, in her black hat trimmed with gold daisies, and a long black velvet ribbon. Never had she imagined she could look like that. Is mother right? she thought. And now she hoped her mother was right. Am I being extravagant? Perhaps it was extravagant. Just for a moment she had another glimpse of that poor woman and those little children, and the body being carried into the house. But it all seemed blurred, unreal, like a picture in the newspaper. I’ll remember it again after the party’s over, she decided. And somehow that seemed quite the best plan…
Lunch was over by half-past one. By half-past two they were all ready for the fray. The green-coated band had arrived and was established in a corner of the tennis-court.
“My dear!” trilled Kitty Maitland, “aren’t they too like frogs for words? You ought to have arranged them round the pond with the conductor in the middle on a leaf.”
Laurie arrived and hailed them on his way to dress. At the sight of him Laura remembered the accident again. She wanted to tell him. If Laurie agreed with the others, then it was bound to be all right. And she followed him into the hall.
“Hallo!” He was half-way upstairs, but when he turned round and saw Laura he suddenly puffed out his cheeks and goggled his eyes at her. “My word, Laura! You do look stunning,” said Laurie. “What an absolutely topping hat!”
Laura said faintly “Is it?” and smiled up at Laurie, and didn’t tell him after all.
Soon after that people began coming in streams. The band struck up; the hired waiters ran from the house to the marquee. Wherever you looked there were couples strolling, bending to the flowers, greeting, moving on over the lawn. They were like bright birds that had alighted in the Sheridans’ garden for this one afternoon, on their way to—where? Ah, what happiness it is to be with people who all are happy, to press hands, press cheeks, smile into eyes.
“Darling Laura, how well you look!”
“What a becoming hat, child!”
“Laura, you look quite Spanish. I’ve never seen you look so striking.”
And Laura, glowing, answered softly, “Have you had tea? Won’t you have an ice? The passion-fruit ices really are rather special.” She ran to her father and begged him. “Daddy darling, can’t the band have something to drink?”
And the perfect afternoon slowly ripened, slowly faded, slowly its petals closed.
“Never a more delightful garden-party… “ “The greatest success… ” “Quite the most… ”
Laura helped her mother with the good-byes. They stood side by side in the porch till it was all over.
“All over, all over, thank heaven,” said Mrs. Sheridan. “Round up the others, Laura. Let’s go and have some fresh coffee. I’m exhausted. Yes, it’s been very successful. But oh, these parties, these parties! Why will you children insist on giving parties!” And they all of them sat down in the deserted marquee.
“Have a sandwich, daddy dear. I wrote the flag.”
“Thanks.” Mr. Sheridan took a bite and the sandwich was gone. He took another. “I suppose you didn’t hear of a beastly accident that happened to-day?” he said.
“My dear,” said Mrs. Sheridan, holding up her hand, “we did. It nearly ruined the party. Laura insisted we should put it off.”
“Oh, mother!” Laura didn’t want to be teased about it.
“It was a horrible affair all the same,” said Mr. Sheridan. “The chap was married too. Lived just below in the lane, and leaves a wife and half a dozen kiddies, so they say.”
An awkward little silence fell. Mrs. Sheridan fidgeted with her cup. Really, it was very tactless of father…
Suddenly she looked up. There on the table were all those sandwiches, cakes, puffs, all uneaten, all going to be wasted. She had one of her brilliant ideas.
“I know,” she said. “Let’s make up a basket. Let’s send that poor creature some of this perfectly good food. At any rate, it will be the greatest treat for the children. Don’t you agree? And she’s sure to have neighbours calling in and so on. What a point to have it all ready prepared. Laura!” She jumped up. “Get me the big basket out of the stairs cupboard.”
“But, mother, do you really think it’s a good idea?” said Laura.
Again, how curious, she seemed to be different from them all. To take scraps from their party. Would the poor woman really like that?
“Of course! What’s the matter with you to-day? An hour or two ago you were insisting on us being sympathetic, and now—”
Oh well! Laura ran for the basket. It was filled, it was heaped by her mother.
“Take it yourself, darling,” said she. “Run down just as you are. No, wait, take the arum lilies too. People of that class are so impressed by arum lilies.”
“The stems will ruin her lace frock,” said practical Jose.
So they would. Just in time. “Only the basket, then. And, Laura!”—her mother followed her out of the marquee—“don’t on any account—”
No, better not put such ideas into the child’s head! “Nothing! Run along.”
It was just growing dusky as Laura shut their garden gates. A big dog ran by like a shadow. The road gleamed white, and down below in the hollow the little cottages were in deep shade. How quiet it seemed after the afternoon. Here she was going down the hill to somewhere where a man lay dead, and she couldn’t realize it. Why couldn’t she? She stopped a minute. And it seemed to her that kisses, voices, tinkling spoons, laughter, the smell of crushed grass were somehow inside her. She had no room for anything else. How strange! She looked up at the pale sky, and all she thought was, “Yes, it was the most successful party.”
Now the broad road was crossed. The lane began, smoky and dark. Women in shawls and men’s tweed caps hurried by. Men hung over the palings; the children played in the doorways. A low hum came from the mean little cottages. In some of them there was a flicker of light, and a shadow, crab-like, moved across the window. Laura bent her head and hurried on. She wished now she had put on a coat. How her frock shone! And the big hat with the velvet streamer—if only it was another hat! Were the people looking at her? They must be. It was a mistake to have come; she knew all along it was a mistake. Should she go back even now?
No, too late. This was the house. It must be. A dark knot of people stood outside. Beside the gate an old, old woman with a crutch sat in a chair, watching. She had her feet on a newspaper. The voices stopped as Laura drew near. The group parted. It was as though she was expected, as though they had known she was coming here.
Laura was terribly nervous. Tossing the velvet ribbon over her shoulder, she said to a woman standing by, “Is this Mrs. Scott’s house?” and the woman, smiling queerly, said, “It is, my lass.”
Oh, to be away from this! She actually said, “Help me, God,” as she walked up the tiny path and knocked. To be away from those staring eyes, or to be covered up in anything, one of those women’s shawls even. I’ll just leave the basket and go, she decided. I shan’t even wait for it to be emptied.
Then the door opened. A little woman in black showed in the gloom.
Laura said, “Are you Mrs. Scott?” But to her horror the woman answered, “Walk in please, miss,” and she was shut in the passage.
“No,” said Laura, “I don’t want to come in. I only want to leave this basket. Mother sent—”
The little woman in the gloomy passage seemed not to have heard her. “Step this way, please, miss,” she said in an oily voice, and Laura followed her.
She found herself in a wretched little low kitchen, lighted by a smoky lamp. There was a woman sitting before the fire.
“Em,” said the little creature who had let her in. “Em! It’s a young lady.” She turned to Laura. She said meaningly, “I’m ‘er sister, miss. You’ll excuse ‘er, won’t you?”
“Oh, but of course!” said Laura. “Please, please don’t disturb her. I—I only want to leave—”
But at that moment the woman at the fire turned round. Her face, puffed up, red, with swollen eyes and swollen lips, looked terrible. She seemed as though she couldn’t understand why Laura was there. What did it mean? Why was this stranger standing in the kitchen with a basket? What was it all about? And the poor face puckered up again.
“All right, my dear,” said the other. “I’ll thenk the young lady.”
And again she began, “You’ll excuse her, miss, I’m sure,” and her face, swollen too, tried an oily smile.
Laura only wanted to get out, to get away. She was back in the passage. The door opened. She walked straight through into the bedroom, where the dead man was lying.
“You’d like a look at ‘im, wouldn’t you?” said Em’s sister, and she brushed past Laura over to the bed. “Don’t be afraid, my lass,”—and now her voice sounded fond and sly, and fondly she drew down the sheet—“‘e looks a picture. There’s nothing to show. Come along, my dear.”
There lay a young man, fast asleep—sleeping so soundly, so deeply, that he was far, far away from them both. Oh, so remote, so peaceful. He was dreaming. Never wake him up again. His head was sunk in the pillow, his eyes were closed; they were blind under the closed eyelids. He was given up to his dream. What did garden-parties and baskets and lace frocks matter to him? He was far from all those things. He was wonderful, beautiful. While they were laughing and while the band was playing, this marvel had come to the lane. Happy… happy… All is well, said that sleeping face. This is just as it should be. I am content.
But all the same you had to cry, and she couldn’t go out of the room without saying something to him. Laura gave a loud childish sob.
“Forgive my hat,” she said.
And this time she didn’t wait for Em’s sister. She found her way out of the door, down the path, past all those dark people. At the corner of the lane she met Laurie.
He stepped out of the shadow. “Is that you, Laura?”
“Mother was getting anxious. Was it all right?”
“Yes, quite. Oh, Laurie!” She took his arm, she pressed up against him.
“I say, you’re not crying, are you?” asked her brother.
Laura shook her head. She was.
Laurie put his arm round her shoulder. “Don’t cry,” he said in his warm, loving voice. “Was it awful?”
“No,” sobbed Laura. “It was simply marvellous. But Laurie—” She stopped, she looked at her brother. “Isn’t life,” she stammered, “isn’t life—” But what life was she couldn’t explain. No matter. He quite understood.
“Isn’t it, darling?” said Laurie.
On the night before her last spell in the hospital, Dawn was haunted again by that old dream about the stone men. As always, she woke the moment she couldn’t stand being terrorized any longer. She opened her eyes and sat up. Her heart raced frantically; her face was drenched in cold sweat. She was still partially entangled in the throes of the nightmare when she realized she wasn’t alone in the room. Julia was sitting on the edge of the bed, glancing at her from the dark.
“What’s going on?” asked Dawn.
“You probably had a nightmare,” Julia said softly, “I want to hear all about it, angel.”
Dawn was about to tell Julia about her dream but wound up saying: “I don’t remember.”
“Here we go again,” Julia huffed. “You never tell me anything anymore.”
“Why are you sitting there like that?”
“It’s my last chance to look at you while you’re sleeping,” Julia explained, “you’re walking out on me.”
Dawn struggled to settle her breathing. Julia slid over on the bed and gently caressed Dawn’s closely shaved scalp.
“Angel,” she whispered in her ear, “please don’t leave me.”
Dawn emitted a helpless sigh. Her eyes were half shut by a persistent veil of sleep crust. She was still overwhelmed by the stone men. With great difficulty she uttered: “I’m not walking out on you.”
“Right, you’re abandoning me.”
“You know I have to do this.”
“No, I don’t.”
“We talked about it a thousand times.”
“You talked, you decided, as always. You never gave me a chance.”
Dawn lowered her head, evading Julia’s irresistible feline green eyes. She didn’t know what to say. Once again she was stunned by the ease with which Julia molded reality to fit her desires. And yet Julia’s conviction seemed to be so absolute and genuine and therefore reassuring, that Dawn felt tempted to believe that this was really how things had transpired. “Stop it.”
“Stop what? I don’t understand. You don’t need this shit.”
“I already explained…” Dawn pleaded. “Daphne says that…”
“Agghhh! I can’t listen to this anymore! So she says! So what? What is she, like, fucking God?!
“Can’t you see she’s evil?!
“Don’t talk about her that way.”
“You know how much she helps me.”
“No. What I do know is that she wants to take you away from me. And if you can’t see it you’re fucking blind.”
“Do you have any idea how crazy you sound?”
Julia shot Dawn a cold look. After a moment of dead silence she said: “You’re in love with her.”
“I knew it…” muttered Julia. She got up and started walking around the room nervously.
Julia paused. “Yeah? Weird, you didn’t used to talk to me like this.”
“You used to appreciate everything I did for you.”
“And I still do, babe, you know that,” Dawn implored, finally managing to unglue herself from the top of the bed and cautiously approach Julia.
“Who do you love more, me or her?”
Dawn couldn’t bring herself to answer.
Julia threw herself face-down onto the bed and burrowed her face in a pillow, muttering, “I can’t believe you’re doing this to me.”
Now she seemed so tiny and fragile that Dawn was flooded with compassion. She felt the need to apologize for something. She wrapped her bony arms around Julia and stroked her long brown hair. “Please don’t be angry with me, babe,” she said, “I don’t have a choice…”
“But you have me!” cried Julia, turning her head up from the pillow, “You’re my life!”
The love and helplessness in Julia’s words and eyes almost had Dawn caving in. For a brief moment she thought to herself, No one’s ever going to love me so powerfully, what am I doing, giving this up? But she shook the thought away.
“I’m twenty-eight years old,” she said. “I can’t keep doing this.”
“Doing what?” Julia sat up. “You’re the most amazing thing in the universe! I was sitting here for an hour thinking I must be blessed by God if He gave me such a perfect angel. It’s only because of you that I know I’m good. Without you I’m nothing.” Julia took hold of Dawn’s chin and tilted her face towards herself, saying, “And you know what else I was thinking? What if I covered your mouth and pinched your nose while you were sleeping? Then you wouldn’t ever leave me.”
“You’re scaring me.”
“Scaring you my ass!” said Julia, disengaging abruptly and jumping off the bed. “I’m protecting you! I love you! I’m the only one that truly loves you! Get that through your thick skull!” she shouted, waiving an accusing finger at Dawn’s face. Then she lowered her voice. “That’s it,” she said decisively, “You’re fucked. You’re like a different person now. I don’t recognize you anymore.”
Dawn found herself crawling to the edge of the bed, pleading, “Please don’t be mad at me, babe, please. I just want to be normal.”
“Fuck normal! There’s no such thing! It’s all men’s definitions! They just want to control us!”
“You know what?” Dawn sputtered. “Today, before you came back from work, I was so fucking scared of tomorrow that I took half a pack of Ex-lax!”
“So, what else is new?”
“Does that seem like the kind of thing a normal person would do?”
Julia crossed her thin arms against her lean chest, walked to the window and looked outside. “So I understand your decision is final.”
“Yes…” Dawn mumbled.
There was a moment of tense silence before Julia erupted: “Fuck you! When Daphne kicked you out, who did you come to? Huh? Me! Like a dog you came, crawling! And I let you live here, rent-free, I let you drive my car, I bought you cigarettes! But you?! You never really loved me! You lying whore!”
“That’s not true! Please!”
“You don’t know how to love. You’re evil. You’re a goddamn heart of stone.”
Dawn froze. She could have withstood anything Julia threw her way, anything but those last three words. Tears started flowing from her eyes. “I can’t believe you just said that…”
“I guess it’s true what they say, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” Julia took a few steps back towards the door. “Oh, and you can forget about a ride tomorrow!”
“But you promised!”
“But how will I get there?”
“Take the bus; call a cab.”
“You know I can’t.”
“Uber then. Get some woman to drive you. I’m done with you.”
When Dawn woke up the next morning she found the apartment empty. Julia was gone, without even a note. It wasn’t uncharacteristic of her to pull off this kind of disappearing act in a moment of rage. This time, Dawn had no time to waste pondering Julia’s whereabouts.
Good thing she prepared her suitcase yesterday, before swallowing all that Ex-lax. Now she could dress quickly and call an Uber, insisting on a female driver, as always. Unfortunately, on her first day back in the hospital, there was no escaping a similarly dreadful situation. She had to go through the chief of the eating disorders unit, Dr. Katz.
She had met him during her first hospitalization, nearly a decade ago. Over the years she had repeatedly described him as the devil incarnate. She called him a “misogynist” and a “woman-hater.” His most horrific attribute as far as Dawn was concerned was that she couldn’t even venture a guess as to how he felt about her. So she assumed he hated her.
When she entered his cramped office he didn’t make the slightest gesture of recognition. Dawn took a seat in front of his desk while morphing into her usual character—the good, compliant girl—that was so far off from who she really was.
During the short interview, which felt like a small eternity, she performed sweetness and adorability like a pro. She threw everything she had at him. But Dr. Katz remained chillingly serious and correct. He did not respond to her futile attempts at goofiness. He did not smile or laugh at her jokes. He did not even take his eyes off the computer screen while asking his routine questions. And when he typed in her responses, there were stretches of torturous silences which she strove to eradicate by flooding the room with grand declarations of her high motivation and promises that this time would be different.
“I even broke up with Julia,” she said, “Daphne helped me understand that she’s no good for me, that she colludes with my…” she paused to clear her throat, “with my pathology.”
Dr. Katz was obviously unimpressed by her deployment of professional jargon. He took off his glasses and leaned back in his armchair, his lengthy gaze invading Dawn, squeezing her heart in its pincers.
“Did you break up with her, or did she break up with you?”
“You don’t believe me?”
“Why are you dismissing it? Do you have any idea how hard it was?”
“Oh, I’m sure it was hard. But I have a vivid recollection of the kind of bond you two formed here. You would never have initiated a separation.”
“My relationship with Julia is another way for me to harm myself,” Dawn recited Daphne’s words.
“And I don’t want to harm myself anymore.”
Dawn met his beady, dispassionate eyes with desperation. “I’ll be honest with you, Dawn,” he said, “I didn’t want to admit you.”
“Good. It would be your seventh time here. Not a rare occurrence, unfortunately, but who knows better than you the resources we invest in our patients. You get an APRN, a social worker and a dietitian. You get individual psychotherapy twice a week, participation in a psychodynamic group, CBT group, DBT group, art therapy, dance therapy, occupational therapy…”
“I know all this…”
“So you understand, we provide you with every opportunity to thrive. But I don’t like investing so much in someone who doesn’t want to get better.”
“But I do!” Dawn protested.
“I think you’re saying what you think I want to hear. But all I want from you is the truth.”
“So what’s the truth?”
“The truth is that I don’t see any indication that you are truly willing to give up your illness. Daphne thinks you are. It’s only because I value her judgment so highly that I agreed to give you another chance.”
She dropped her gaze involuntarily to the floor.
“But…” said Dr. Katz as he leaned forward and placed his elbows on the table, “since you are here now, I do hope you’ll prove me wrong.”
Dawn forced her head up. What she saw was a smug monster of a man.
“I understand that we have a plan set up then,” he continued, “You spend three months here. If you make it, you go back to the rehabilitation home and continue your recovery there, just like you and Daphne decided.”
Dawn stared at him bleakly.
“There’s one thing that Daphne and I agree on: you still haven’t made up your mind about wanting to live.”
Dawn began to shiver for no apparent reason. The space seemed to be shrinking. Faintly, she said: “I do want.”
And that was that.
When she left Dr. Katz’s office and looked around at the gray corridors of the unit her head began to spin. She felt sick to her stomach. Her vision blurred. She wanted to run away and not be—here, or anywhere else, for that matter. A familiar voice snuck in, whispering: You don’t stand a chance.
Dawn spent the first weeks in the eating disorders unit re-familiarizing herself with everything she hated about the place. The strict regimented routine drove her crazy. Between meals she sat in the common room like a junky in withdrawal—agitated, biting her nails.
She couldn’t believe she was back in a place where she wasn’t allowed to take a shit without asking for permission and, to add insult to injury, without being escorted by a staff member. Although she knew all the unit’s policies by heart, she sounded surprised when she complained about them to Daphne in their weekly phone conversations. She ranted about how they forbade her to close the door completely or to flush the toilet before it was checked for signs of vomit. She went on and on about how hurtful it was to be so mistrusted.
She also hated the greasy food, telling Daphne that “It kind of puts me off balance.” But what she hated even more was hearing the other girls complain about it not being “healthy enough.” They didn’t understand that if they could survive this crap, there’s nothing in the world they wouldn’t be able to eat.
The close surveillance during meals annoyed her, but not as much as the comparative, competitive, envious looks the girls gave one another. It was also hard to see them chewing and swallowing so incorrectly, as though they were never taught the basics of proper eating or had simply forgotten after a long period of self-starvation.
Dawn was still outraged by all those little tricks they pulled to minimize the amount of food they’d taken or deprive themselves of any pleasure, God forbid they learn to enjoy eating. Zoe, for instance, cut her chicken breast into a hundred tiny pieces. Myriam ate her morning yogurt with a fork, inevitably spilling most of it. And there was that breakfast when Sharon poured ketchup into her Special K.
Yet these insubordinations were only the tip of the iceberg as far as the girls’ covert operations were concerned. Some girls went about it like fucking morons. Others were unbelievably adept transgressors. The staff person on duty had no chance of detecting every little thing that went on. But when a girl was caught red-handed, there were immediate sanctions, going all the way from extended post-meal detention to—and this was the girls’ worst nightmare—being forced to drink Ensure.
Dawn saw everything, and because she felt these misdemeanors came at her expense in some way, she was tempted to snitch. In another sense it made her feel better about herself, more advanced than the other girls. She was now able to look back at the year she’d spent at the rehabilitation home and realize it hadn’t been, as Julia kept telling her, a complete waste of time.
This feeling built Dawn’s confidence, but every day, in the shower, all that confidence peeled off and went down the drain. Outside the hospital Dawn used to go weeks without showering, even in summertime. She walked, ran and kick-boxed, wearing the same long sweatshirts and sweatpants, almost suffocating in her own foul stench, skillfully exterminating any chance of a man being attracted to her enough to come dangerously close.
But here she was forced to take better care of herself.
Taking off her clothes immediately filled her with self-loathing. She showered as quickly as possible, scrubbing herself with a thick sponge so she wouldn’t have to touch herself. She would look straight up at the ceiling, thus avoiding encountering her ugly fat belly, her disgusting plump hips, her repulsive cow-thighs, her repugnant wide shins, her abhorrent everything. She even forced herself to sing or whistle just to distract her mind from her body.
After showers she always felt a sudden urge to call Julia. But Julia never answered her calls and text messages, and Dawn felt too ashamed to tell Daphne about it. Eventually, though, she did, with tears falling from her eyes, at one of their usual phone conversations.
Daphne asked, “why are you doing this to yourself?”
Dawn knew the answer all too well. And yet she could not bring herself to say it out loud. She felt so weak she almost dropped the phone.
In her lowest moment, she even called her mother; the equivalent of cutting herself seeking some concrete, comprehensible pain that would alleviate, if only by means of replacing the dreadfully ambiguous pain that flooded her. But she hung up the moment her mom’s hoarse voice roared, “yeah?!”
That, she did not tell anyone.
Dawn had often described her hospital experience to Daphne as taking a walk on the edge of a cliff: constantly afraid of falling, secretly wishing it would happen already. Now two things restricted her impulse to push herself off: knowing it was her last chance to do things differently, and her fear of disappointing Daphne.
She showed up to meals on time. She followed through with her diet without shenanigans. She cooperated with her nutritionist and tried to be as open as she could in her sessions with her social worker, Erica. She steadily gained weight—1.5 pounds a week—according to plan.
At first, this made her feel anxious. But Daphne helped her see how this time around she was more afraid she would not gain weight than she was afraid she would. This, as Dawn had agreed, made all the difference in the world.
In group sessions she behaved herself, participating without dominating. She tried to be mindful of her most common pitfalls she’d fallen into, at least partially willingly, in the past. Like when she met Julia. Now she refrained from mingling with the other girls.
It was the loneliest period in her life–lonelier than her first days in the rehabilitation home, almost a year and a half ago. Every day ended exactly the same: Dawn stuffing her face in her pillow, crying herself to sleep.
After a month, Dawn was ready to raise the white flag. The voice that encouraged her to keep fighting was no longer superior or even distinguishable from the other, nefarious voice that was tempting her to throw up, starve herself, give in.
It was an unrelenting war of survival, and it drained Dawn completely when the finish line was hardly in sight.
And then Ronny was discharged and she found out that she was getting a new roommate.
Ronny was the classic anorexic girl: a timid, anemic creature who was too afraid of her own shadow to even dare speak to anyone, and thus kept to her diary. This had made her the perfect roommate for Dawn. Their room had been an exemplar of a symptom-free zone, a quiet and relatively safe space, a sanctuary.
In spite of everything she knew about the eating disorders unit, Dawn somehow deluded herself into thinking that Ronny’s bed would miraculously remain empty. As the days passed, her conviction became stronger.
She found out just how badly mistaken she was one morning when Dr. Katz summoned her to his office and dryly informed her of the change in her living situation. Dawn wept, begged and negotiated. Then she exploded with fury. She threatened to leave the unit immediately. Her screams echoed outside so everyone could hear. She gave it everything she had, but to no avail. Dr. Katz sat there calmly, waiting as she went through practically every stage of grief before his eyes, allowing her to complete her tantrum with a whimper while his decision stood.
Dawn ran straight to call Daphne to report the atrocity, hoping that she would pull some strings for her. After twenty minutes of complaining and crying, during which time Daphne tried to show her things weren’t as bleak as Dawn is portraying it, she offered to delve deeper into this subject in their weekly conversation that was scheduled to take place three days later. Dawn said “I get it, you don’t have time for me,” and hung up.
The new roommate arrived after lunch.
Dawn was killing time with some of the other girls in the lounge area outside the common room. They sat in clear sight of the entrance to the unit. A tall silver-haired man wearing a fancy blue suit entered the building. Radiating success, this was not your ordinary visitor. He was followed by a short black-haired young woman wrapped in a black hooded sweatshirt.
Dawn immediately realized that she knew this girl, but the circumstances of their acquaintance were lost on her.
The successful man turned to the information desk and, following a brief exchange with Nurse Tammy, proceeded to Dr. Katz’s office with the young woman following behind.
As they waited to be seen by Dr. Katz, the young woman studied her surroundings in the most cryptic fashion. Her gaze had a primary quality to it, as though this was the first time she was exposed to reality and was still taking in nothing but amorphous shapes and shadows.
It wasn’t immediately apparent that she was unwell. Her face was pale, but pretty. The dark circles around her eyes could have been explained by sleep deprivation or some kind of allergy, and her black sweatshirt with the Jolly Roger on the back almost reached her knees, camouflaging just how skinny the body underneath it was.
As she observed the new girl from afar, Dawn tried to retrieve the memory of their past encounter. The other girls were measuring her up as well, whispering with gleeful fascination. And when finally one of them said, “her name is Chelsea Craft,” Dawn’s heart quivered and she immediately got up and raced to her room to call Daphne. But Daphne didn’t pick up, so she went to Erica’s office, entering without knocking and sitting down without asking for permission. She told her that she couldn’t possibly live in the same room as Chelsea Craft, that “hateful creature.”
“What is it about Chelsea that stirs all these intense feelings in you?” Erica inquired empathically, but Dawn just repeated the same tune: Chelsea is “despicable and rotten from within.”
Then Erica made a few sensible suggestions of ways in which Dawn could protect herself while sharing a room with Chelsea, but Dawn dismissed each and every suggestion Erica made while rolling her eyes. Eventually, when Erica was in the middle of a sentence, Dawn got up and said, “I don’t like this conversation, you’re not helping me at all,” and left.
She found Chelsea sitting on her new bed and approached her with the most intimidating walk she had in her repertoire.
“You don’t talk to me,” she said, waving her finger, “you don’t look at me. To me, you don’t exist. You got that, Eva?”
Chelsea’s thin, colorless lips morphed into something resembling a smile, but the smile faded before it fully appeared. Her grayish freckles seemed to be dissipating in the hazy fog of aloofness that masked her almost transparent complexion. When she finally spoke, it was with a deceitfully suspended voice, like a late reminder of a matter long overdue.
“Yes,” she said, “I completely understand where you’re coming from.”
Dawn looked straight at those black eyes that were as distant as the eyes of a dead person. Dawn’s eyes wandered toward other parts of Chelsea. She noticed the little dark hairs sprouting above her lips and on the edges of her cheeks; her extremely bony left clavicle sticking out of her rising sweatshirt and her even bonier wrist joints. Then Dawn turned to the open window and walked over, looking outside. Chelsea immediately drifted after her.
“I weigh 61.72 pounds,” Chelsea said, yawning. “How much do you weigh?”
Dawn turned her glance on her with a swift, destructive motion. Her body began to tremble uncontrollably, her furious blue eyes nearly popping out of their sockets. “One more word and you’re dead, you hear me?!”
“Sure I do. I’m sitting right here, aren’t I?”
Dawn turned and rushed out of the room. She was already at the door when Chelsea’s feeble voice caught up with her.
“I have cigarettes, by the way,” she said. “Feel free to bum some.”
Dawn froze, took a long deep breath, and continued her journey out.
Throughout that day Dawn wandered the unit, shaking with almost ecstatic rage. When Chelsea didn’t show up for dinner, she felt herself about to combust. Some of the girls went to visit Chelsea in their room. They gathered around her bed as if around an idol. They bombarded her with questions, to which she replied with condescending impatience.
Dawn felt trapped outside. Every couple of minutes she looked in to check if they were still there. Finally, when she couldn’t stand it anymore, she stormed in.
“Everybody out, now,” she commanded.
They left right away.
That night she couldn’t find peace with Chelsea lying next to her, breathing.
Suddenly, a voice emerged from the darkness of the room. “Your name is Dawn, right?”
Dawn didn’t answer.
“You’re Dawn, am I correct?”
“I’ve heard of you. I’m friends with Sacha. I understand you worked together at the Viper. I think I saw you there once. You’re very pretty.”
“I’m sleeping,” moaned Dawn.
“My apologies then; I thought you couldn’t sleep either.”
“I’m trying to sleep, and you’re bothering me.”
“Oh, sorry. I promise I’ll be quiet. I just wanted to let you know that I find you very pretty.”
The following night Dawn couldn’t sleep again, and again she knew she wasn’t alone.
“It’s not your first time in here, I take it.”
Don’t answer her, don’t give that bitch anything.
Don’t answer, don’t answer.
“Dawn, are you awake?”
“Well, it is mine; my first time, I mean. But you probably know that already. I’ve been told that the E.D. unit is the end of the road. What do you think?”
Dawn opened her eyes and stared despairingly at the ceiling.
“Honestly, I think it’s baloney,” said Chelsea, and after a short pause added, “And you know what else I was told? That it’s like being in prison. Once you’re here it like gets you to identify with your disease or something. That’s what my therapist told me, anyway. But I think she’s just jealous. She’s obese. What do you think?”
“I think that you should shut the fuck up.”
“Interesting,” Chelsea said drily. And what else do you think?
“About what my therapist said.”
Dawn couldn’t hold it any longer. The ignoring tactic had completely collapsed under the burden of her wrecked nerves.
“Are you here to make me angry?”
“Goodness, no, I’m here because they made me come here.”
“So you don’t want to get better?”
“Better than what?”
Chelsea gained instant notoriety throughout the unit. Even Dr. Katz had to admit that in all his years in this profession he had yet to encounter such vehement resistance to treatment. She refused to put food in her mouth and swallow it. The staff had to resort to the kind of radical measures that hadn’t been implemented at the unit for years.
At first they tried using enteral nutrition, but Chelsea simply took the tube out and threw it away. Then they attached it to her nose, but she tore it off, injuring herself. Finally, they restrained her to the bed for feeding time. This was a girl who was barely able to keep her own head lifted, she was so weak. And yet she fought so wildly, at the risk of breaking her calcium-deficient bones. It took three staff members to get the job done.
In group sessions she didn’t speak. She refused to take off her hoody and just sat there, tucked within herself, projecting disinterest, her gaze wandering outside the window.
Dawn couldn’t stand this.
They didn’t interact and just passed each other in the hallways of the unit without a word. All their communications took place during the night, and Chelsea was always the one to initiate them. And yet Dawn had the feeling that Chelsea was everywhere, conspiring against her, wishing her ill.
One night Chelsea asked her: “So you do want to get better?”
“Better than what?”
“Than the instinct to ruin my own life.”
“Interesting… so… you want to stop?”
“But then you won’t be so pretty anymore.”
“What will you do then?”
“I’ll live. Leave me alone.”
“What makes you think you’ll succeed this time?”
“Shut up,” said Dawn, turning her back to Chelsea and vowing not to listen to her. But a few seconds later she turned again and asked, “Who forced you to be here?”
“My physician said if I keep at it I’ll be dead within a year from cardiac arrest, so my parents got scared, especially my dad. He raised hell to get me hospitalized. He’s a very powerful man. But they don’t get it.”
“What don’t they get?”
“My body, they don’t understand it. It doesn’t need food to live.”
“You don’t have to believe me if you don’t want to.”
“Well, I don’t.”
“That’s because you’re jealous.”
Dawn went to see Erica first thing the next morning. She said she couldn’t take it anymore. Chelsea was driving her insane, she was evil, pure evil. And she was torturing her.
“What has she been doing?” Erica asked softly.
“You don’t understand,” Dawn said impatiently. “It’s not what she does, it’s like, she’s just there, you know? She wants to ruin it for all of us.”
Erica started to say something but Dawn cut her off.
“You have no idea how sick this girl is.”
“What do you mean?”
Dawn took a long breath before letting out the secret she had been carrying ever since Chelsea joined the unit.
Although she was only nineteen, she said, Chelsea was kind of a big deal in the anorexia and bulimia community. She gained quite a reputation as a Pro-Ana celebrity. In her blog she preached self-starvation, offered advice as to how to purge efficiently and promoted the emaciated beauty ideal by, among other things, posting nude pictures of extremely anorexic women.
“She calls herself Eva X.”
“Do the other girls know that it’s her?”
“It’s obvious that they worship her for being the skinniest girl on the unit, and I heard some of them mentioning the name Eva X, but I don’t think they make the connection.”
“And how do you know it’s her?”
“We met once.”
The next few nights were terrible. Dawn didn’t sleep. She was afraid of everything – that Chelsea would speak to her again or that her heart would suddenly fail and she would find a dead body lying next to her in the morning.
She was constantly exhausted and nervous. She barely got out of bed in the mornings. She had to drag herself to the cafeteria. She made multiple visits to the nurse’s office, complaining about migraines and stomach aches. She begged her nutritionist to go easy on her diet, meaning, less food; fewer calories.
During mealtimes she was tempted to reduce her intake, but she knew that if she was caught that would be the end of it. Only once, when she couldn’t contain herself, did she put a ridiculous amount of salt on her rice, but she immediately regretted it.
The daily weighing made her more and more anxious, only now she couldn’t tell if she was more afraid of gaining weight or of not gaining weight. At any rate, she did gain: exactly 1.5 pounds a week, according to plan.
Suddenly she started to feel a familiar wish creeping inside her: she wanted to cut herself and alleviate that excruciating pain that poisoned her soul. But she didn’t know how to do it; as if all those tricks that she had once mastered had been completely wiped out of her memory.
And every time she took a shower she wanted to stick a finger down her throat and puke her guts out. But she was convinced that Dr. Katz was just waiting for an excuse to kick her out of the unit, and she wasn’t about to give him the satisfaction.
In groups she was quiet and uninvolved. When she was asked a direct question, she mumbled that she “didn’t feel like talking.”
More and more she considered, with genuine anguish, her lowly state; drowning in despair regarding her chances of ever being able to create “a life worth living,” as Daphne, who knew better than anyone how to paint a rosy horizon for Dawn, used to put it. And yet, she couldn’t bring herself to call her.
She also stopped calling Julia, because being just ignored wasn’t enough anymore. She wanted to get really hurt. So she called her mother, knowing that conversations with her always ended badly.
And her mom didn’t disappoint. They hadn’t spoken in over a year. But now, after Dawn had told her where she was, her immediate response was “they let you in?! ha! You ain’t skinny enough!”
One morning, Dawn visited Eva X’s blog. She was astounded to see that she was still posting her demented preaching from inside the unit. Her blood began to boil. That day, she arrived at group session in her most explosive state-of-mind. For half an hour she sat there silently, her body trembling and her thoughts running amok.
At some point, Erica asked her if there was anything she wanted to say.
“Are you sure?”
“Dawn, what’s going on with you lately?”
And then Dawn caught fire.
“What’s going on with me? I’m fucking disgusted by what’s happening here, how you all grovel before a person that couldn’t give a fuck about you!”
“Dawn,” Erica said.
“What? Is it my fault that everyone here is fucking blind?! If she wants to ruin her life, fine! But she doesn’t have to ruin it for others.”
“Dawn, I’m asking you to calm down.”
“Fuck that! She can die for all I care.”
“That’s not how we talk here, Dawn.”
“I don’t care.”
“Dawn, I want you to leave, please.”
“I want that fucking bitch to die, you hear me?!” Dawn shouted and got up and hurled her chair at the wall. Then she approached Chelsea, towering over her. “Die already!” she screamed, “DIE!”
In those moments, all life was sucked out of the room. The girls refrained from looking directly at Dawn, except for Chelsea, who didn’t take her hollow eyes off her.
That night, Chelsea spoke to Dawn as if nothing had happened.
“Do you remember I was telling you how my dad was the one who forced me to come here?”
“So it’s very hypocritical of him, because if there’s a problem, and I’m certainly not saying that there is one, then he’s to blame; and my mom too, but especially him. Do you have a dad?”
“How about a mom?”
“Where’s your dad?”
“Gone as in deceased, passed away?”
“Oh gosh. When did it happen?”
“A while ago.”
“How old were you?”
“Oh dear, that’s teeny-tiny. Do you have any memories of him?”
“Please tell me.”
Dawn turned and faced Chelsea, who looked at her curiously.
“My mom used to call him ‘heart of stone’.”
“It wasn’t a joke.”
“Oh, my apologies, then why did she call him that?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“And how did you feel when he died?”
“I’m just curious to know.”
“Why? We’re not friends.”
“I’m just interested in those kinds of things, you know, like, how do people feel when someone close to them dies.”
“You’re really fucking sick, you know that?”
“It’s a matter of perspective.”
“Please tell me.”
“Tell you what?”
“How you felt.”
“I was glad! You happy now?”
“Interesting… may I ask, why were you glad?”
“All right, I respect that… so it’s basically you who did it.”
“Killed him, killed your dad.”
“If you were glad that he died, that means that you were hoping for it, probably even praying to God for it to come true. The obvious conclusion one would be compelled to draw is that you made it happen. You have powers.”
Dawn didn’t respond. For some time she lay in bed, her eyes fixed on the ceiling. Finally, she sat up and asked: “Chelsea, why are you here?”
“Pardon me?” Chelsea said, sitting up and positioning herself exactly like Dawn.
“You stir up all this shit when it’s obvious you don’t want to be here. So why are you here? Why don’t you just walk out?”
Chelsea’s ponderous eyes gleamed in the dark.
“Well, Dawn, what you have to realize here is that I was hospitalized, and—”
“That’s bullshit,” said Dawn, “You enjoy this.”
“That is simply incorrect.”
“Oh, I think it is correct. You enjoy the fight; you enjoy it when they force you to eat and tie you all up and shit, because you’re fucking deranged.”
“Yeah? prove it, here’s a window, we’re on the first floor. You can open it and crawl out.”
“Is that so?”
“It’s easier than you think,” said Dawn.
Chelsea got up and approached the window, her footsteps making no sound. She studied the escape route at length before turning towards Dawn with dumbfounded eyes, as though seeking her final approval.
“You’re not a kid anymore,” said Dawn, “No one can force you to live.”
“Interesting,” said Chelsea, and returned to bed.
That night, Dawn dreamt again about the stone men. As usual, the dream was preceded by that singular sensation, inexplicable by words, which she had never experienced in any other situation, ever since she was a child. Something small grows horrific; a slight rustling inflates into full blown night terror.
She tossed and turned, moaning meekly.
Suddenly, Dawn is thrown out of some void into that familiar image, long past. She sees a lake nestling at the foot of the mountains, the snowy-white summits glimmering in the peaceful water.
The wondrous silence surfs freely on the chilly winds filling the fresh air, until it is shattered by the sound of rowing. An ancient wooden boat appears from the mists hovering over the center of the lake, and in it Dawn sees the stone men. At the bow of the boat she sees the biggest stone man of them all. He is wearing scale armor and carrying a huge spiky club. He is roaring in the most dreadful voice, shrieking in a primitive language only Dawn can understand.
He is shouting at his stone men to row harder and faster.
And she alone knows that they are coming here, to raid the town that lies at the foot of the snowy mountains, that they are coming to plunder and pillage and rape all the women.
And the oars tear through the water, the foamy ripples spreading all over.
And the noise grows louder.
And she is twitching and groaning, quivering and convulsing, as if one of her limbs was being amputated in the pre-anesthesia age of medicine.
And as always, when the stone men hit land, she wakes up.
She opened her eyes, everything was blurry.
She was all terror and water. But a soft, cold wind stroked her cheeks. The window was open. The curtain was moving gently.
It was a new morning, and the room was awash with bright sunlight.
And finally, finally, the bed next to Dawn’s was empty.
David stared at Mimi’s picture, taken at his bar mitzvah twenty-five years ago. She was his cousin, a second cousin, and she and her family had come out to Milwaukee from Brooklyn for the occasion. He remembered being smitten at the ceremony. She had dark silky hair and large brown eyes flecked with gold. Slender and tall, her face had an oval shape like a prized portrait, and her hair was tucked behind her small, well-articulated ears—carved as if from soap. Her throat had a long white curve, and she sat very still in the second row of the synagogue as he read from the Torah and led the congregation in blessings. At the end of giving his bar mitzvah speech, he’d thanked his parents for being so supportive and then thanked all his relatives and friends for coming. He looked at Mimi and said, “And thank you.” It was a bizarre and spontaneous moment for him in a life so far of calm, reasoned, and practiced application. Nevertheless, she just continued to stare unwaveringly at him on the bema. But he was a goner. It was his first experience of painful desire, a fervor that threatened to swallow his flesh. Nor did it hurt that he was just entering puberty, and Mimi, fifteen, was obviously there already.
She had hung back at the reception while he danced the box step with skinny and mostly undeveloped girls from his seventh-grade class, and Mimi’s remove and mystery gave her a kind of regal aloofness that only worked him into more of a frenzy. She had declined to dance with him, explaining, “I’m not a good partner. I like to lead.”
“That would be fine.”
“Thanks, but no.”
At one point, he saw her standing alone by the presents and went over to her. “Pick one,” he said.
“You can have one.”
She smiled at him, straight white teeth, free of braces. “You’re silly.”
“I’m serious.” He felt desperate to give her something.
“I can’t take your presents.”
“You are serious.”
And then her father, uncle Irv, had come up and congratulated David on his excellent reading of his haftorah, and that was the end of the exchange. He’d been ready to give up his newly gotten gains to her, the tower of gifts and gelt for becoming a man. My kingdom for your hand. I’ll marry you someday, he thought.
He’d seen her a couple times afterward, at a wedding and then an anniversary party for her parents where she wore a wool plaid cap, like a cabbie, and baggy corduroy pants, and seemed inappropriately dressed for the occasion. Still, he couldn’t deny that every time he saw her the same feelings flared up, though evidently not on Mimi’s part. Her eyes, almond shaped and impenetrable as to her own thoughts, remained curiously distant. And soon he lost touch with her.
Now he was driving to the Denver Hyatt. Mimi was coming in from New York for a social workers conference. David himself was a psychologist with a practice in Denver, which would give them something in common after all these years. All that was good. He had brought with him the picture of her at his bar mitzvah. Of course this was twenty-five years later, and she was now a he. Miles. Mimi had been gone for two years.
Miles told him he would be wearing a blue short-sleeve shirt and yellow tie and David had spotted him right away standing beside the fountain. He wouldn’t have thought for a moment Miles stood out from any other man, professionally attired and waiting to meet a lunch partner. With his dark cropped hair, he was shorter than David remembered him as Mimi—a taller girl but on the shorter end as a man. Above all he appeared neat. Well groomed, spotless nails, and with a firm handshake in place of a hug.
“My mother has been a lot better about it than my father,” Miles said when they sat down at lunch. He had ordered a steak to David’s Caesar salad and was taking sturdy bites. “Irv can’t really look me in the eye, but Mom asks me how I’m doing. She never says anything specific such as ‘How’s the hormone treatment going?’ or ‘Your voice is getting deeper,’ but she does remember to call me Miles, which my father won’t. He just avoids my name altogether. I think fathers have a harder time giving up their little girls. A mother just accepts her child regardless.”
David thought of his own daughter, Leah, twelve, and indeed he did have a problem imagining her transforming herself into Leon. He craved her daughterness.
“You just learn to live with people’s reactions—those who knew you when. Actually, I have more confusion with people I meet now. Do I tell them about the before? Or is the before no longer me? Will they feel tricked once they find out? Or worse. I had at least one person in my caseload who learned I’d undergone reassignment. This individual, who was a bit unstable anyway, threatened me.”
“What’d you do?”
“I forwarded a copy of the letter, which said some godawful things about making me back into a woman, to the police. I can’t say it didn’t shake me up. In any case, I have to consider every time how relevant it is to explain about my past. This may be the hardest part of gender reassignment—others.”
“I can only imagine,” David said. He searched Miles’ face, with its thin shadow of hirsute, to see if he had any inkling of what David had once secretly thought about him as a her. He’d been riveted by Mimi, by her elusive sylph beauty, her slender jaw and sinuous lips that reminded him of graceful Arabic script. He could still see a delicate handsomeness in the man now.
“And how about you?” Miles asked him. “Did you bring pictures of your family?”
“I did,” said David, and took out the leather folio and showed him photographs of his wife, Rose, and of Leah.
“You have a gorgeous family,” Miles said.
“We’ve been trying to have another child,” David told him. He had no idea why he’d admitted this to Miles. They rarely told anyone. After so much time the pursuit no longer felt new or promising. And they were thankful for just having Leah when he knew many couples who weren’t even that lucky. Though he knew, too, that Rose felt more frustrated than he. For him, Leah’s large and sometimes histrionic personality more than filled the house. She was enough. Just as he had always chosen to believe that he, an only child too, was enough for his parents. But Rose had spoken of the joys of a large family, having four sisters herself, and lately the subject, as she turned thirty-eight like him, had become a line signifying their places on opposite sides of a stubborn marker. More than once he’d indicated he’d like to have a vasectomy and be done with it. “It,” of course, was the pressure of making a baby, which had lately morphed into the pressure of performance.
“I’d like to have a family someday,” Miles said. “That was the hardest part of my decision. Bye bye to my reproductive organs.” “I can only imagine.” David realized he’d uttered these words twice now and must have sounded like a dazed observer at a side-show. He should have been less unsettled by Miles’ bluntness—what had happened to his professional training after all? He’d worked with gay men and women, even transvestites, though not someone who’d undergone a sex change. Yet he felt a personal reaction to everything that was being said. As if he were channeling the family’s regrets.
“I’d be glad to adopt, if I met the right woman. Of course, that’s a problem in itself.” Miles smiled broadly. “I mean, am I a straight man now who dates heterosexual women, or a man, formerly a woman, who still likes lesbians? And would any of them have me?”
“You had a partner before?”
“Helena.” Miles bent his linen napkin into a frown that drooped from his mouth. “End of a five year relationship.”
“You must have wanted to do this very badly.” “What you’re really asking is do I have any regrets?” David smiled. “You’re a good therapist, I can see.”
“I am, more than I get paid for. But to answer your question, well, let me put it this way. I’d look in my closet at the pantyhose I was supposed to put on for corporate America before I became a social worker and it would make my skin crawl. I never felt comfortable in women’s clothes or a woman’s skin. And frankly, I’d always wanted a penis. Now I have one. Would you like to see it?”
“Pardon?” David said, flushing.
Miles reached out to touch David’s hand. “I’m only fooling with you, cousin. Consider it transgender schtick.”
But was he? After lunch, Miles suggested they go for a swim. The hotel had an indoor lap pool. “I love to swim,” Miles informed David. “That’s the one sport I used to do competitively. Why don’t you join me?”
“I don’t have a suit.”
“I always bring an extra.” They were standing in the atrium of the hotel under the vast open glass panels, surrounded by a mauve forest of sofas, chairs, and wall hangings. “Unless you have to get back right away.”
“No,” said David, because he didn’t want to seem… What? Rude? Uptight about swimming with a transsexual? “Sure, let’s do it.”
They went up to Miles’ room, discussing the conference on the way. Miles’ presentation tomorrow was part of a panel called “Living with your (non) transgender Parents.” His own experience with his parents’ semi-denial was not atypical, he said. “I can certainly understand,” he admitted. “How would you feel about your child becoming a different gender in the middle of her life? For one, you’re asking parents to give up any illusions about carrying on the family name in a genetically natural way. It’s one thing not to have children; it’s quite another to willfully, as in my case, undermine the very capacity to do so. No wonder so few doctors will do the operation. They’re asked to perform an irrevocable procedure that is based entirely on a state of mind, something they’re supposed to believe in called gender dysphoria, that either removes the sex organs or constructs entirely sterile ones. I mean, I have a respectable penis, thanks to the wonders of phalloplasty, but heaven help it to squirt out a single sperm. I sympathize, I do, with my parents, with the doctors… With everyone. Do you want to change in the bathroom?” Miles asked, starting to get undressed. He threw David a suit.
He did. He hadn’t prepared himself after all. Not for the forthrightness of Miles’ remarks. If anything, he thought he’d have to draw Miles out, as he would a struggling client, a gentle questioning to establish trust. But Miles was a runaway train—I have a respectable penis. Had David ever said anything like this to anyone? And how big was Miles’ penis anyway?
In the bathroom, David held up the suit, small, but he could fit into it. At least it wasn’t a Speedo.
“You okay in there?” Miles asked.
“Fine,” said David.
David pulled at the crotch of the tan nylon trunks. “Just great.” When he opened the door, Miles was standing there in the hotel’s white bathrobe cinched tight and with flip flops.
“Not bad,” Miles remarked, eyeing David’s suit. It was almost as if his cousin had been expecting this moment.
Miles, as he’d hinted, proved to be an excellent swimmer. David watched him glide effortlessly back and forth in the pool, making smooth flip turns at the wall and then shooting forward with submerged musculature into the next lap, silent as an eel. Meanwhile, David stood in the water’s deep end supporting himself with his elbows on the ledge. Rose, a strong swimmer herself, had tried to encourage him to go with her to the community pool. He agreed that he needed exercise and too often got stuck in his head, the profession’s occupational hazard, and that he should follow his own advice to clients to get out there and stir up some endorphins.
“Want to sit in the hot tub?” Miles called to him from across the pool. They were the only ones in the pool. They’d come down on the elevator and passed through a throng of conferees registering for the conference. David had followed Miles assuming he knew the best way to the fitness center, but now he wondered if there hadn’t been a more direct—and private—route. In the popularized argot of the profession, he would have considered his cousin’s behavior—the eagerness to change clothes in the openness of the hotel room, the strolling through the lobby, the offer to view his respectable penis—an exhibitory overcompensation for his fears of being insufficiently masculine. the catch was that overcompensation or not, it was making David feel like the lesser man.
“Sure,” said David, and boosted himself out of the water. The trunks clung to his thighs. It was odd… He almost felt as if he were thirteen again, wearing this small suit, self-conscious about his changing body. Except presently his body was changing against his will—or lack thereof—into a sedentary salute to middle age. Miles, by comparison, showed all the signs of rejuvenation, if not outright youth.
In the hot tub, he got a good look at Miles’ chest, which had just a little extra padding, as if filled with a layer of down, but not so much that you’d think I’m staring at a former woman’s chest. He could see no signs of scars. The nipples appeared a bit asymmetrical and larger than they might (although compared to what? he had to ask himself). In a moment of strange elevator intimacy, David had confessed on the way down to the pool that he’d had a crush on him—on Mimi, that is. He hadn’t gone into the extent of it via his hormone-erupting, thirteen-year-old psyche at a religious rite of passage overseen by a God in whom he’d stop believing. Or that he’d mentally unzipped her pink dress and never dreamed he’d have to unzip her skin to find the real person. He’d simply said, “I had a pretty good crush on you as a teenager.” And Miles, standing up straight and thoughtful in his terrycloth hotel robe with its Hyatt insignia and his navy blue knee-length swim trunks, as if he were a boxer having a centering moment before he entered the ring, turned to him and said, “Admiration accepted. And returned.”
Miles caught him staring and smiled. David quickly turned away, embarrassed by his curiosity and gawking. “Enjoying yourself?” Miles asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Oh. I am,” said David. He had to keep flattening down his ballooning trunks.
“Is something troubling you?”
“No,” he said, though he knew from his own experience with clients that he’d responded too quickly to be credible.
Miles extended one leg—hairy, David noted—and tapped his big toe against David’s chest. “Sure?”
“Well, we’re struggling a bit right now. Rose and I. But it’s nothing serious.”
“Want to tell me about it?”
“I think it’s about the direction of our lives.”
“Sounds like a traffic problem.”
David laughed. “In a way. Rose would like another child, as I said.”
“Actually you said you both wanted a child. Is that not accurate?”
“She more than I. I think she believes this is the way to move forward. I’m not so sure.”
“You’ve been married, what? Fifteen years?”
“So that’s a lot of time together. I envy you. It’s an investment worth guarding.”
“That it is,” said David. And then thought how strange to be talking with his cousin in a hot tub about the intimacy of his marriage, his cousin who had just told him he had a respectable penis, and with whom, ironically, he felt completely honest in a way he rarely enjoyed these days. “I guess we’ll just have to see what happens next.”
“I couldn’t agree more,” Miles said. “I’m a poster boy for what comes next. And you want to know something? It’s always a work in progress. Somehow the definitiveness of next, despite my certainty of its permanence each time, still eludes me.”
They went upstairs to change, and again David used the bathroom, while Miles dressed in the less private confines of the room. David looked at his shriveled penis in the mirror, always to be counted on after swimming, but especially in a tight suit. He stretched the appendage, but it quickly retracted into its accordion mode like the face of a preternaturally wrinkled Chinese Shar-Pei dog.
“All right if I just rinse off in here?” David called through the door.
“Go ahead. I’ll do the same after you finish.”
He saw Miles’ travel kit on the back of the tub once he opened the shower curtain. He knew all about confidentiality. What could be more important in his profession? You went to jail, after all, to protect a client’s privacy. Or told yourself you would, if it ever came to that. Yet, he couldn’t stop himself from looking in the bag and picking up the prescription bottles. Lexapro, Trazodone, Ativan, Paxil… the whole gamut of depression and anxiety treatments. it didn’t surprise him. What did was the sudden pang of tenderness he felt for Miles and his vulnerabilities. He could recall when he’d first seen Mimi, and she looked so alone, maybe the loneliest and prettiest girl he had ever seen, a deadly combination for someone like him who was keen on others’ wounds and on his way to becoming a psychologist, the seed watered.
“You need anything, just take it out of my toiletry bag,” Miles said, and David drew his hand away quickly, as if Miles could see him. “I mean, deodorant or something.”
“Want to shower together?” “Huh?”
“David, David,” said Miles. “Just kidding.”
“Oh, yeah,” David said. “Transgender schtick. Right.”
He showered and dressed, and after Miles did the same they went down in the elevator. He was already planning what he would say to his parents who’d want to know how the visit with Mimi went, wondering if he would tell them the truth. He still couldn’t believe uncle Irv hadn’t told them about Miles. Oh, yes, he could. Repression could be a formidable force. He’d once had a client who, in trying to convey the degree of denial in her family, explained that when she was fifteen she’d had a miscarriage, literally in front of her parents. They’d all been sitting on the sofa in the living room watching TV. Four months pregnant and wearing baggy shirts to conceal what she’d been starting to show, his client, faint and weak, had gushed out a bloody clot. She’d run to the bathroom, but there was no mistaking what happened— the back of her shorts soaked, the blood right in front of her mother and father. They’d said nothing. She’d quietly cleaned up “the mess,” and that was the last ever spoken about it.
So it was no wonder Miles was still invisible and Mimi would live on in the family memory until the generation died out. David still had the sense that he was on a mission, a counteragent to the family secrecy. And Miles seemed grateful. He’d thanked him profusely for taking the time to meet.
“Of course,” said David. “I want to keep in touch.”
Miles tilted his head. “I’d like that.”
When he got home, the lights were off inside. Rose had left him a note that Leah was at a sleepover and that she herself had gone upstairs to think—code for napping. His wife adored naps. Whereas such naps led to insomnia for him, Rose could wake up from a luxurious repose, stretch happily, murmur indolently, and be asleep four hours later without interference. Disturb me, the note said.
He went into the bedroom. The sound machine whirred away. They’d gotten hooked on white noise, operant conditioning: as soon as the machine went on, they both became sleepy and reported to their dream quarters. It all seemed like such normalcy now after seeing Miles.
He lay down and curled up against her, and she pushed back into him. He felt the warmth of her buttocks through the thin fabric of her nightgown. He pressed his lips to the soft nape of her neck and then kissed her shoulder, biting her lightly until she said “Mmm.” Then she turned around and faced him. “What was it like?”
“Your father called. He wanted to know how it was seeing Mimi. If she’s married yet or has, as he put it, a beau. He doesn’t have a clue, does he?”
“No,” said David, “And I’m not sure I’m going to tell him. If Miles’ own father wants to keep it a secret, why should I say anything to my parents? It’s unlikely they’ll ever see Miles again, and everyone will go to their graves—this older generation— content with the perceived status quo.”
“what’s he look like? Like the photograph still?” He had shown her the picture of Mimi at fifteen and explained his adolescent crush. She’d had similar sentiments for one of her boy cousins, but nothing had happened there either… well, nothing, except a game of strip poker. Rose won, cousin lost, end of story. As much as she remembered at least. It was her first sight, given her family of four sisters, of a penis, which had a dampening effect on her crush: her cousin’s angelic face came with one of those?
“I can still see her in him.” He thought of the way Miles canted his head as they were saying goodbye—much the way Mimi had looked at him when he was thirteen and sent his heart then, and another organ, soaring, as if she wanted to study David from a cockeyed angle and to look pretty while doing it.
“You smell like chlorine.”
“We went swimming. I guess I didn’t get it all out of my hair.”
“You went swimming? With Miles?” “And I showered in his room afterward.”
“Oh, my.” She was unbuckling his belt as she said this, her hand slipping under the band of his underwear. He remembered standing in front of Miles’ bathroom mirror, examining himself and his manhood, trying to decipher what it meant that Mimi had once been the object of his earliest masturbatory fantasies when he was thirteen. And those weren’t the only ones. In the related category of his rescue fantasies, he’d saved her from burning buildings, muggings, sexual maraudings, and, ironically, considering Miles’ prowess as a swimmer, drowning. Her eternal gratitude was his dying reward. Breathless, sacrificing himself, he’d come. Le Petit Mort, as the French called orgasm, so willing with their philosophical fatalism to commingle sex and death at any opportunity.
Had he always wanted to save people?
“Ohh,” Rose cried.
“You all right?”
“Yes, yes, go… don’t stop.” He’d thrust into her hard, skipping their usual foreplay, bunching her nightgown up around her neck, and with his fingers splayed across her chest, pinning her down. Her cries echoed through the empty house. So rarely did they have it all to themselves. He heard his own moans, too, reverberating in his throat, his breath coming faster, his desire swift, heedless and unstoppable, and then Rose slapped him across the face, the resounding bite of her hand stinging his flesh, and he came instantly.
He rolled off her. They lay there next to each other, spent and looking up at the ceiling. He was reluctant to speak, and Rose’s breathing filled the silence. Finally, he asked, “Why’d you do that?”
“You said his name.”
She had never slapped him during sex or any other time. It was so unlike her. So unrestrained. He’d burst forth at the touch, but now he couldn’t tell if the slap had been simultaneous or if his coming had preceded it. “I think you imagined that,” David said. “Just because we’d been talking about him.”
“I didn’t. You called his name. It bothered me.”
“I wasn’t thinking about him.” Or was he? Was he thinking that he hadn’t told Rose about Miles’ bragging about his new penis or about the sudden kiss on David’s cheek that took him completely by surprise as they were saying goodbye and how he couldn’t get over how soft it was, Mimi’s kiss, as if Miles purposely had turned himself into her for a moment just to confuse him.
David propped himself up on one elbow and looked at Rose, her flushed face and chest, her still erect nipples, her eyes a green bemused cloud. “Well, whether I did or not, I’m sorry.”
“Me too. Did I hurt you?”
“No. I was just… surprised.”
She kissed the tips of her fingers and touched them to his cheek. “I wanted your attention. On me.”
The phone rang. He got up to answer it because it might be Leah. One day, when she was older, he wouldn’t feel the need to jump for the phone every time, but now he imagined terrible scenarios in the span of milliseconds. It was a hang up, a Denver number on the caller ID, and he wondered for a moment if it might be Miles.
When he came back to bed, Rose was lying on her back with her knees pressed against her chest. The doctor had told them this position didn’t help. If she was going to get pregnant, if they were going to have another child after trying all these years, the little fellas would swim up in her regardless and do their job, the doctor said. But Rose did it out of habit or superstition and David allowed her the practice without comment. “Wouldn’t it be ironic,” Rose said now, speaking into her knees, “If after seeing Miles, it finally did happen?”
David lay down beside her and placed his hand on her flat belly after she unfurled herself. He felt the warmth there, felt something stirring, felt, he was sure, a magnificent and mysterious transformation taking place. And he felt, too, Miles’ faint lips against his cheek, the same cheek that Rose had slapped, as if to startle a new life into being, neither him nor her but faceless creation.
*This story was published in: Little Raw Souls by Steven Schwartz, Autumn House Press. Copyright © 2013 by Steven Schwartz.
Day had broken cold and grey, exceedingly cold and grey, when the man turned aside from the main Yukon trail and climbed the high earth-bank, where a dim and little-travelled trail led eastward through the fat spruce timberland. It was a steep bank, and he paused for breath at the top, excusing the act to himself by looking at his watch. It was nine o’clock. There was no sun nor hint of sun, though there was not a cloud in the sky. It was a clear day, and yet there seemed an intangible pall over the face of things, a subtle gloom that made the day dark, and that was due to the absence of sun. This fact did not worry the man. He was used to the lack of sun. It had been days since he had seen the sun, and he knew that a few more days must pass before that cheerful orb, due south, would just peep above the sky-line and dip immediately from view.
The man flung a look back along the way he had come. The Yukon lay a mile wide and hidden under three feet of ice. On top of this ice were as many feet of snow. It was all pure white, rolling in gentle undulations where the ice-jams of the freeze-up had formed. North and south, as far as his eye could see, it was unbroken white, save for a dark hair-line that curved and twisted from around the spruce-covered island to the south, and that curved and twisted away into the north, where it disappeared behind another spruce-covered island. This dark hair-line was the trail—the main trail—that led south five hundred miles to the Chilcoot Pass, Dyea, and salt water; and that led north seventy miles to Dawson, and still on to the north a thousand miles to Nulato, and finally to St. Michael on Bering Sea, a thousand miles and half a thousand more.
But all this—the mysterious, far-reaching hairline trail, the absence of sun from the sky, the tremendous cold, and the strangeness and weirdness of it all—made no impression on the man. It was not because he was long used to it. He was a new-comer in the land, a chechaquo, and this was his first winter. The trouble with him was that he was without imagination. He was quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significances. Fifty degrees below zero meant eighty odd degrees of frost. Such fact impressed him as being cold and uncomfortable, and that was all. It did not lead him to meditate upon his frailty as a creature of temperature, and upon man’s frailty in general, able only to live within certain narrow limits of heat and cold; and from there on it did not lead him to the conjectural field of immortality and man’s place in the universe. Fifty degrees below zero stood for a bite of frost that hurt and that must be guarded against by the use of mittens, ear-flaps, warm moccasins, and thick socks. Fifty degrees below zero was to him just precisely fifty degrees below zero. That there should be anything more to it than that was a thought that never entered his head.
As he turned to go on, he spat speculatively. There was a sharp, explosive crackle that startled him. He spat again. And again, in the air, before it could fall to the snow, the spittle crackled. He knew that at fifty below spittle crackled on the snow, but this spittle had crackled in the air. Undoubtedly it was colder than fifty below—how much colder he did not know. But the temperature did not matter. He was bound for the old claim on the left fork of Henderson Creek, where the boys were already. They had come over across the divide from the Indian Creek country, while he had come the roundabout way to take a look at the possibilities of getting out logs in the spring from the islands in the Yukon. He would be in to camp by six o’clock; a bit after dark, it was true, but the boys would be there, a fire would be going, and a hot supper would be ready. As for lunch, he pressed his hand against the protruding bundle under his jacket. It was also under his shirt, wrapped up in a handkerchief and lying against the naked skin. It was the only way to keep the biscuits from freezing. He smiled agreeably to himself as he thought of those biscuits, each cut open and sopped in bacon grease, and each enclosing a generous slice of fried bacon.
He plunged in among the big spruce trees. The trail was faint. A foot of snow had fallen since the last sled had passed over, and he was glad he was without a sled, travelling light. In fact, he carried nothing but the lunch wrapped in the handkerchief. He was surprised, however, at the cold. It certainly was cold, he concluded, as he rubbed his numbed nose and cheek-bones with his mittened hand. He was a warm-whiskered man, but the hair on his face did not protect the high cheek-bones and the eager nose that thrust itself aggressively into the frosty air.
At the man’s heels trotted a dog, a big native husky, the proper wolf-dog, grey-coated and without any visible or temperamental difference from its brother, the wild wolf. The animal was depressed by the tremendous cold. It knew that it was no time for travelling. Its instinct told it a truer tale than was told to the man by the man’s judgment. In reality, it was not merely colder than fifty below zero; it was colder than sixty below, than seventy below. It was seventy-five below zero. Since the freezing-point is thirty-two above zero, it meant that one hundred and seven degrees of frost obtained. The dog did not know anything about thermometers. Possibly in its brain there was no sharp consciousness of a condition of very cold such as was in the man’s brain. But the brute had its instinct. It experienced a vague but menacing apprehension that subdued it and made it slink along at the man’s heels, and that made it question eagerly every unwonted movement of the man as if expecting him to go into camp or to seek shelter somewhere and build a fire. The dog had learned fire, and it wanted fire, or else to burrow under the snow and cuddle its warmth away from the air.
The frozen moisture of its breathing had settled on its fur in a fine powder of frost, and especially were its jowls, muzzle, and eyelashes whitened by its crystalled breath. The man’s red beard and moustache were likewise frosted, but more solidly, the deposit taking the form of ice and increasing with every warm, moist breath he exhaled. Also, the man was chewing tobacco, and the muzzle of ice held his lips so rigidly that he was unable to clear his chin when he expelled the juice. The result was that a crystal beard of the colour and solidity of amber was increasing its length on his chin. If he fell down it would shatter itself, like glass, into brittle fragments. But he did not mind the appendage. It was the penalty all tobacco-chewers paid in that country, and he had been out before in two cold snaps. They had not been so cold as this, he knew, but by the spirit thermometer at Sixty Mile he knew they had been registered at fifty below and at fifty-five.
He held on through the level stretch of woods for several miles, crossed a wide flat of nigger-heads, and dropped down a bank to the frozen bed of a small stream. This was Henderson Creek, and he knew he was ten miles from the forks. He looked at his watch. It was ten o’clock. He was making four miles an hour, and he calculated that he would arrive at the forks at half-past twelve. He decided to celebrate that event by eating his lunch there.
The dog dropped in again at his heels, with a tail drooping discouragement, as the man swung along the creek-bed. The furrow of the old sled-trail was plainly visible, but a dozen inches of snow covered the marks of the last runners. In a month no man had come up or down that silent creek. The man held steadily on. He was not much given to thinking, and just then particularly he had nothing to think about save that he would eat lunch at the forks and that at six o’clock he would be in camp with the boys. There was nobody to talk to and, had there been, speech would have been impossible because of the ice-muzzle on his mouth. So he continued monotonously to chew tobacco and to increase the length of his amber beard.
Once in a while the thought reiterated itself that it was very cold and that he had never experienced such cold. As he walked along he rubbed his cheek-bones and nose with the back of his mittened hand. He did this automatically, now and again changing hands. But rub as he would, the instant he stopped his cheek-bones went numb, and the following instant the end of his nose went numb. He was sure to frost his cheeks; he knew that, and experienced a pang of regret that he had not devised a nose-strap of the sort Bud wore in cold snaps. Such a strap passed across the cheeks, as well, and saved them. But it didn’t matter much, after all. What were frosted cheeks? A bit painful, that was all; they were never serious.
Empty as the man’s mind was of thoughts, he was keenly observant, and he noticed the changes in the creek, the curves and bends and timber-jams, and always he sharply noted where he placed his feet. Once, coming around a bend, he shied abruptly, like a startled horse, curved away from the place where he had been walking, and retreated several paces back along the trail. The creek he knew was frozen clear to the bottom—no creek could contain water in that arctic winter—but he knew also that there were springs that bubbled out from the hillsides and ran along under the snow and on top the ice of the creek. He knew that the coldest snaps never froze these springs, and he knew likewise their danger. They were traps. They hid pools of water under the snow that might be three inches deep, or three feet. Sometimes a skin of ice half an inch thick covered them, and in turn was covered by the snow. Sometimes there were alternate layers of water and ice-skin, so that when one broke through he kept on breaking through for a while, sometimes wetting himself to the waist.
That was why he had shied in such panic. He had felt the give under his feet and heard the crackle of a snow-hidden ice-skin. And to get his feet wet in such a temperature meant trouble and danger. At the very least it meant delay, for he would be forced to stop and build a fire, and under its protection to bare his feet while he dried his socks and moccasins. He stood and studied the creek-bed and its banks, and decided that the flow of water came from the right. He reflected awhile, rubbing his nose and cheeks, then skirted to the left, stepping gingerly and testing the footing for each step. Once clear of the danger, he took a fresh chew of tobacco and swung along at his four-mile gait.
In the course of the next two hours he came upon several similar traps. Usually the snow above the hidden pools had a sunken, candied appearance that advertised the danger. Once again, however, he had a close call; and once, suspecting danger, he compelled the dog to go on in front. The dog did not want to go. It hung back until the man shoved it forward, and then it went quickly across the white, unbroken surface. Suddenly it broke through, floundered to one side, and got away to firmer footing. It had wet its forefeet and legs, and almost immediately the water that clung to it turned to ice. It made quick efforts to lick the ice off its legs, then dropped down in the snow and began to bite out the ice that had formed between the toes. This was a matter of instinct. To permit the ice to remain would mean sore feet. It did not know this. It merely obeyed the mysterious prompting that arose from the deep crypts of its being. But the man knew, having achieved a judgment on the subject, and he removed the mitten from his right hand and helped tear out the ice-particles. He did not expose his fingers more than a minute, and was astonished at the swift numbness that smote them. It certainly was cold. He pulled on the mitten hastily, and beat the hand savagely across his chest.
At twelve o’clock the day was at its brightest. Yet the sun was too far south on its winter journey to clear the horizon. The bulge of the earth intervened between it and Henderson Creek, where the man walked under a clear sky at noon and cast no shadow. At half-past twelve, to the minute, he arrived at the forks of the creek. He was pleased at the speed he had made. If he kept it up, he would certainly be with the boys by six. He unbuttoned his jacket and shirt and drew forth his lunch. The action consumed no more than a quarter of a minute, yet in that brief moment the numbness laid hold of the exposed fingers. He did not put the mitten on, but, instead, struck the fingers a dozen sharp smashes against his leg. Then he sat down on a snow-covered log to eat. The sting that followed upon the striking of his fingers against his leg ceased so quickly that he was startled, he had had no chance to take a bite of biscuit. He struck the fingers repeatedly and returned them to the mitten, baring the other hand for the purpose of eating. He tried to take a mouthful, but the ice-muzzle prevented. He had forgotten to build a fire and thaw out. He chuckled at his foolishness, and as he chuckled he noted the numbness creeping into the exposed fingers. Also, he noted that the stinging which had first come to his toes when he sat down was already passing away. He wondered whether the toes were warm or numbed. He moved them inside the moccasins and decided that they were numbed.
He pulled the mitten on hurriedly and stood up. He was a bit frightened. He stamped up and down until the stinging returned into the feet. It certainly was cold, was his thought. That man from Sulphur Creek had spoken the truth when telling how cold it sometimes got in the country. And he had laughed at him at the time! That showed one must not be too sure of things. There was no mistake about it, it was cold. He strode up and down, stamping his feet and threshing his arms, until reassured by the returning warmth. Then he got out matches and proceeded to make a fire. From the undergrowth, where high water of the previous spring had lodged a supply of seasoned twigs, he got his firewood. Working carefully from a small beginning, he soon had a roaring fire, over which he thawed the ice from his face and in the protection of which he ate his biscuits. For the moment the cold of space was outwitted. The dog took satisfaction in the fire, stretching out close enough for warmth and far enough away to escape being singed.
When the man had finished, he filled his pipe and took his comfortable time over a smoke. Then he pulled on his mittens, settled the ear-flaps of his cap firmly about his ears, and took the creek trail up the left fork. The dog was disappointed and yearned back toward the fire. This man did not know cold. Possibly all the generations of his ancestry had been ignorant of cold, of real cold, of cold one hundred and seven degrees below freezing-point. But the dog knew; all its ancestry knew, and it had inherited the knowledge. And it knew that it was not good to walk abroad in such fearful cold. It was the time to lie snug in a hole in the snow and wait for a curtain of cloud to be drawn across the face of outer space whence this cold came. On the other hand, there was keen intimacy between the dog and the man. The one was the toil-slave of the other, and the only caresses it had ever received were the caresses of the whip-lash and of harsh and menacing throat-sounds that threatened the whip-lash. So the dog made no effort to communicate its apprehension to the man. It was not concerned in the welfare of the man; it was for its own sake that it yearned back toward the fire. But the man whistled, and spoke to it with the sound of whip-lashes, and the dog swung in at the man’s heels and followed after.
The man took a chew of tobacco and proceeded to start a new amber beard. Also, his moist breath quickly powdered with white his moustache, eyebrows, and lashes. There did not seem to be so many springs on the left fork of the Henderson, and for half an hour the man saw no signs of any. And then it happened. At a place where there were no signs, where the soft, unbroken snow seemed to advertise solidity beneath, the man broke through. It was not deep. He wetted himself half-way to the knees before he floundered out to the firm crust.
He was angry, and cursed his luck aloud. He had hoped to get into camp with the boys at six o’clock, and this would delay him an hour, for he would have to build a fire and dry out his foot-gear. This was imperative at that low temperature—he knew that much; and he turned aside to the bank, which he climbed. On top, tangled in the underbrush about the trunks of several small spruce trees, was a high-water deposit of dry firewood—sticks and twigs principally, but also larger portions of seasoned branches and fine, dry, last-year’s grasses. He threw down several large pieces on top of the snow. This served for a foundation and prevented the young flame from drowning itself in the snow it otherwise would melt. The flame he got by touching a match to a small shred of birch-bark that he took from his pocket. This burned even more readily than paper. Placing it on the foundation, he fed the young flame with wisps of dry grass and with the tiniest dry twigs.
He worked slowly and carefully, keenly aware of his danger. Gradually, as the flame grew stronger, he increased the size of the twigs with which he fed it. He squatted in the snow, pulling the twigs out from their entanglement in the brush and feeding directly to the flame. He knew there must be no failure. When it is seventy-five below zero, a man must not fail in his first attempt to build a fire—that is, if his feet are wet. If his feet are dry, and he fails, he can run along the trail for half a mile and restore his circulation. But the circulation of wet and freezing feet cannot be restored by running when it is seventy-five below. No matter how fast he runs, the wet feet will freeze the harder.
All this the man knew. The old-timer on Sulphur Creek had told him about it the previous fall, and now he was appreciating the advice. Already all sensation had gone out of his feet. To build the fire he had been forced to remove his mittens, and the fingers had quickly gone numb. His pace of four miles an hour had kept his heart pumping blood to the surface of his body and to all the extremities. But the instant he stopped, the action of the pump eased down. The cold of space smote the unprotected tip of the planet, and he, being on that unprotected tip, received the full force of the blow. The blood of his body recoiled before it. The blood was alive, like the dog, and like the dog it wanted to hide away and cover itself up from the fearful cold. So long as he walked four miles an hour, he pumped that blood, willy-nilly, to the surface; but now it ebbed away and sank down into the recesses of his body. The extremities were the first to feel its absence. His wet feet froze the faster, and his exposed fingers numbed the faster, though they had not yet begun to freeze. Nose and cheeks were already freezing, while the skin of all his body chilled as it lost its blood.
But he was safe. Toes and nose and cheeks would be only touched by the frost, for the fire was beginning to burn with strength. He was feeding it with twigs the size of his finger. In another minute he would be able to feed it with branches the size of his wrist, and then he could remove his wet foot-gear, and, while it dried, he could keep his naked feet warm by the fire, rubbing them at first, of course, with snow. The fire was a success. He was safe. He remembered the advice of the old-timer on Sulphur Creek, and smiled. The old-timer had been very serious in laying down the law that no man must travel alone in the Klondike after fifty below. Well, here he was; he had had the accident; he was alone; and he had saved himself. Those old-timers were rather womanish, some of them, he thought. All a man had to do was to keep his head, and he was all right. Any man who was a man could travel alone. But it was surprising, the rapidity with which his cheeks and nose were freezing. And he had not thought his fingers could go lifeless in so short a time. Lifeless they were, for he could scarcely make them move together to grip a twig, and they seemed remote from his body and from him. When he touched a twig, he had to look and see whether or not he had hold of it. The wires were pretty well down between him and his finger-ends.
All of which counted for little. There was the fire, snapping and crackling and promising life with every dancing flame. He started to untie his moccasins. They were coated with ice; the thick German socks were like sheaths of iron half-way to the knees; and the mocassin strings were like rods of steel all twisted and knotted as by some conflagration. For a moment he tugged with his numbed fingers, then, realizing the folly of it, he drew his sheath-knife.
But before he could cut the strings, it happened. It was his own fault or, rather, his mistake. He should not have built the fire under the spruce tree. He should have built it in the open. But it had been easier to pull the twigs from the brush and drop them directly on the fire. Now the tree under which he had done this carried a weight of snow on its boughs. No wind had blown for weeks, and each bough was fully freighted. Each time he had pulled a twig he had communicated a slight agitation to the tree—an imperceptible agitation, so far as he was concerned, but an agitation sufficient to bring about the disaster. High up in the tree one bough capsized its load of snow. This fell on the boughs beneath, capsizing them. This process continued, spreading out and involving the whole tree. It grew like an avalanche, and it descended without warning upon the man and the fire, and the fire was blotted out! Where it had burned was a mantle of fresh and disordered snow.
The man was shocked. It was as though he had just heard his own sentence of death. For a moment he sat and stared at the spot where the fire had been. Then he grew very calm. Perhaps the old-timer on Sulphur Creek was right. If he had only had a trail-mate he would have been in no danger now. The trail-mate could have built the fire. Well, it was up to him to build the fire over again, and this second time there must be no failure. Even if he succeeded, he would most likely lose some toes. His feet must be badly frozen by now, and there would be some time before the second fire was ready.
Such were his thoughts, but he did not sit and think them. He was busy all the time they were passing through his mind, he made a new foundation for a fire, this time in the open; where no treacherous tree could blot it out. Next, he gathered dry grasses and tiny twigs from the high-water flotsam. He could not bring his fingers together to pull them out, but he was able to gather them by the handful. In this way he got many rotten twigs and bits of green moss that were undesirable, but it was the best he could do. He worked methodically, even collecting an armful of the larger branches to be used later when the fire gathered strength. And all the while the dog sat and watched him, a certain yearning wistfulness in its eyes, for it looked upon him as the fire-provider, and the fire was slow in coming.
When all was ready, the man reached in his pocket for a second piece of birch-bark. He knew the bark was there, and, though he could not feel it with his fingers, he could hear its crisp rustling as he fumbled for it. Try as he would, he could not clutch hold of it. And all the time, in his consciousness, was the knowledge that each instant his feet were freezing. This thought tended to put him in a panic, but he fought against it and kept calm. He pulled on his mittens with his teeth, and threshed his arms back and forth, beating his hands with all his might against his sides. He did this sitting down, and he stood up to do it; and all the while the dog sat in the snow, its wolf-brush of a tail curled around warmly over its forefeet, its sharp wolf-ears pricked forward intently as it watched the man. And the man as he beat and threshed with his arms and hands, felt a great surge of envy as he regarded the creature that was warm and secure in its natural covering.
After a time he was aware of the first far-away signals of sensation in his beaten fingers. The faint tingling grew stronger till it evolved into a stinging ache that was excruciating, but which the man hailed with satisfaction. He stripped the mitten from his right hand and fetched forth the birch-bark. The exposed fingers were quickly going numb again. Next he brought out his bunch of sulphur matches. But the tremendous cold had already driven the life out of his fingers. In his effort to separate one match from the others, the whole bunch fell in the snow. He tried to pick it out of the snow, but failed. The dead fingers could neither touch nor clutch. He was very careful. He drove the thought of his freezing feet; and nose, and cheeks, out of his mind, devoting his whole soul to the matches. He watched, using the sense of vision in place of that of touch, and when he saw his fingers on each side the bunch, he closed them—that is, he willed to close them, for the wires were drawn, and the fingers did not obey. He pulled the mitten on the right hand, and beat it fiercely against his knee. Then, with both mittened hands, he scooped the bunch of matches, along with much snow, into his lap. Yet he was no better off.
After some manipulation he managed to get the bunch between the heels of his mittened hands. In this fashion he carried it to his mouth. The ice crackled and snapped when by a violent effort he opened his mouth. He drew the lower jaw in, curled the upper lip out of the way, and scraped the bunch with his upper teeth in order to separate a match. He succeeded in getting one, which he dropped on his lap. He was no better off. He could not pick it up. Then he devised a way. He picked it up in his teeth and scratched it on his leg. Twenty times he scratched before he succeeded in lighting it. As it flamed he held it with his teeth to the birch-bark. But the burning brimstone went up his nostrils and into his lungs, causing him to cough spasmodically. The match fell into the snow and went out.
The old-timer on Sulphur Creek was right, he thought in the moment of controlled despair that ensued: after fifty below, a man should travel with a partner. He beat his hands, but failed in exciting any sensation. Suddenly he bared both hands, removing the mittens with his teeth. He caught the whole bunch between the heels of his hands. His arm-muscles not being frozen enabled him to press the hand-heels tightly against the matches. Then he scratched the bunch along his leg. It flared into flame, seventy sulphur matches at once! There was no wind to blow them out. He kept his head to one side to escape the strangling fumes, and held the blazing bunch to the birch-bark. As he so held it, he became aware of sensation in his hand. His flesh was burning. He could smell it. Deep down below the surface he could feel it. The sensation developed into pain that grew acute. And still he endured it, holding the flame of the matches clumsily to the bark that would not light readily because his own burning hands were in the way, absorbing most of the flame.
At last, when he could endure no more, he jerked his hands apart. The blazing matches fell sizzling into the snow, but the birch-bark was alight. He began laying dry grasses and the tiniest twigs on the flame. He could not pick and choose, for he had to lift the fuel between the heels of his hands. Small pieces of rotten wood and green moss clung to the twigs, and he bit them off as well as he could with his teeth. He cherished the flame carefully and awkwardly. It meant life, and it must not perish. The withdrawal of blood from the surface of his body now made him begin to shiver, and he grew more awkward. A large piece of green moss fell squarely on the little fire. He tried to poke it out with his fingers, but his shivering frame made him poke too far, and he disrupted the nucleus of the little fire, the burning grasses and tiny twigs separating and scattering. He tried to poke them together again, but in spite of the tenseness of the effort, his shivering got away with him, and the twigs were hopelessly scattered. Each twig gushed a puff of smoke and went out. The fire-provider had failed. As he looked apathetically about him, his eyes chanced on the dog, sitting across the ruins of the fire from him, in the snow, making restless, hunching movements, slightly lifting one forefoot and then the other, shifting its weight back and forth on them with wistful eagerness.
The sight of the dog put a wild idea into his head. He remembered the tale of the man, caught in a blizzard, who killed a steer and crawled inside the carcass, and so was saved. He would kill the dog and bury his hands in the warm body until the numbness went out of them. Then he could build another fire. He spoke to the dog, calling it to him; but in his voice was a strange note of fear that frightened the animal, who had never known the man to speak in such way before. Something was the matter, and its suspicious nature sensed danger,—it knew not what danger but somewhere, somehow, in its brain arose an apprehension of the man. It flattened its ears down at the sound of the man’s voice, and its restless, hunching movements and the liftings and shiftings of its forefeet became more pronounced but it would not come to the man. He got on his hands and knees and crawled toward the dog. This unusual posture again excited suspicion, and the animal sidled mincingly away.
The man sat up in the snow for a moment and struggled for calmness. Then he pulled on his mittens, by means of his teeth, and got upon his feet. He glanced down at first in order to assure himself that he was really standing up, for the absence of sensation in his feet left him unrelated to the earth. His erect position in itself started to drive the webs of suspicion from the dog’s mind; and when he spoke peremptorily, with the sound of whip-lashes in his voice, the dog rendered its customary allegiance and came to him. As it came within reaching distance, the man lost his control. His arms flashed out to the dog, and he experienced genuine surprise when he discovered that his hands could not clutch, that there was neither bend nor feeling in the lingers. He had forgotten for the moment that they were frozen and that they were freezing more and more. All this happened quickly, and before the animal could get away, he encircled its body with his arms. He sat down in the snow, and in this fashion held the dog, while it snarled and whined and struggled.
But it was all he could do, hold its body encircled in his arms and sit there. He realized that he could not kill the dog. There was no way to do it. With his helpless hands he could neither draw nor hold his sheath-knife nor throttle the animal. He released it, and it plunged wildly away, with tail between its legs, and still snarling. It halted forty feet away and surveyed him curiously, with ears sharply pricked forward. The man looked down at his hands in order to locate them, and found them hanging on the ends of his arms. It struck him as curious that one should have to use his eyes in order to find out where his hands were. He began threshing his arms back and forth, beating the mittened hands against his sides. He did this for five minutes, violently, and his heart pumped enough blood up to the surface to put a stop to his shivering. But no sensation was aroused in the hands. He had an impression that they hung like weights on the ends of his arms, but when he tried to run the impression down, he could not find it.
A certain fear of death, dull and oppressive, came to him. This fear quickly became poignant as he realized that it was no longer a mere matter of freezing his fingers and toes, or of losing his hands and feet, but that it was a matter of life and death with the chances against him. This threw him into a panic, and he turned and ran up the creek-bed along the old, dim trail. The dog joined in behind and kept up with him. He ran blindly, without intention, in fear such as he had never known in his life. Slowly, as he ploughed and floundered through the snow, he began to see things again—the banks of the creek, the old timber-jams, the leafless aspens, and the sky. The running made him feel better. He did not shiver. Maybe, if he ran on, his feet would thaw out; and, anyway, if he ran far enough, he would reach camp and the boys. Without doubt he would lose some fingers and toes and some of his face; but the boys would take care of him, and save the rest of him when he got there. And at the same time there was another thought in his mind that said he would never get to the camp and the boys; that it was too many miles away, that the freezing had too great a start on him, and that he would soon be stiff and dead. This thought he kept in the background and refused to consider. Sometimes it pushed itself forward and demanded to be heard, but he thrust it back and strove to think of other things.
It struck him as curious that he could run at all on feet so frozen that he could not feel them when they struck the earth and took the weight of his body. He seemed to himself to skim along above the surface and to have no connection with the earth. Somewhere he had once seen a winged Mercury, and he wondered if Mercury felt as he felt when skimming over the earth.
His theory of running until he reached camp and the boys had one flaw in it: he lacked the endurance. Several times he stumbled, and finally he tottered, crumpled up, and fell. When he tried to rise, he failed. He must sit and rest, he decided, and next time he would merely walk and keep on going. As he sat and regained his breath, he noted that he was feeling quite warm and comfortable. He was not shivering, and it even seemed that a warm glow had come to his chest and trunk. And yet, when he touched his nose or cheeks, there was no sensation. Running would not thaw them out. Nor would it thaw out his hands and feet. Then the thought came to him that the frozen portions of his body must be extending. He tried to keep this thought down, to forget it, to think of something else; he was aware of the panicky feeling that it caused, and he was afraid of the panic. But the thought asserted itself, and persisted, until it produced a vision of his body totally frozen. This was too much, and he made another wild run along the trail. Once he slowed down to a walk, but the thought of the freezing extending itself made him run again.
And all the time the dog ran with him, at his heels. When he fell down a second time, it curled its tail over its forefeet and sat in front of him facing him curiously eager and intent. The warmth and security of the animal angered him, and he cursed it till it flattened down its ears appeasingly. This time the shivering came more quickly upon the man. He was losing in his battle with the frost. It was creeping into his body from all sides. The thought of it drove him on, but he ran no more than a hundred feet, when he staggered and pitched headlong. It was his last panic. When he had recovered his breath and control, he sat up and entertained in his mind the conception of meeting death with dignity. However, the conception did not come to him in such terms. His idea of it was that he had been making a fool of himself, running around like a chicken with its head cut off—such was the simile that occurred to him. Well, he was bound to freeze anyway, and he might as well take it decently. With this new-found peace of mind came the first glimmerings of drowsiness. A good idea, he thought, to sleep off to death. It was like taking an anæsthetic. Freezing was not so bad as people thought. There were lots worse ways to die.
He pictured the boys finding his body next day. Suddenly he found himself with them, coming along the trail and looking for himself. And, still with them, he came around a turn in the trail and found himself lying in the snow. He did not belong with himself any more, for even then he was out of himself, standing with the boys and looking at himself in the snow. It certainly was cold, was his thought. When he got back to the States he could tell the folks what real cold was. He drifted on from this to a vision of the old-timer on Sulphur Creek. He could see him quite clearly, warm and comfortable, and smoking a pipe.
“You were right, old hoss; you were right,” the man mumbled to the old-timer of Sulphur Creek.
Then the man drowsed off into what seemed to him the most comfortable and satisfying sleep he had ever known. The dog sat facing him and waiting. The brief day drew to a close in a long, slow twilight. There were no signs of a fire to be made, and, besides, never in the dog’s experience had it known a man to sit like that in the snow and make no fire. As the twilight drew on, its eager yearning for the fire mastered it, and with a great lifting and shifting of forefeet, it whined softly, then flattened its ears down in anticipation of being chidden by the man. But the man remained silent. Later, the dog whined loudly. And still later it crept close to the man and caught the scent of death. This made the animal bristle and back away. A little longer it delayed, howling under the stars that leaped and danced and shone brightly in the cold sky. Then it turned and trotted up the trail in the direction of the camp it knew, where were the other food-providers and fire-providers.
Sunshine crept into the room, forming a white frame around the short dark curtain that barely covered the window. The glow around the darkened window reminded him of Malevich’s black square. He sighed. Vera would have laughed at this ludicrous thought. He sat at the edge of the bed, uneasy about his plans. The box was in the living room and he wanted to go, open it, and have a mystical experience.
He decided he would cover all the mirrors in the house. He didn’t want this to be a moment to face reality, but a time to flee from it. Should he change his clothes? He’d excused himself from work today and had put on his leisure clothes out of habit. But was this appropriate? Maybe it was. After all, most of their time together had taken place on weekends and holidays.
He began his task by shrouding each mirror with meticulous care. When he was finished, he dusted the ottoman Vera had loved to sit on.
He took the package and placed it carefully next to the ottoman. He opened the box and found another one inside. In the smaller carton was a Styrofoam head that held the wig in its place. He removed it and took a deep breath. It didn’t smell like her, but it looked perfect. He placed the wig on his carefully combed hair. He sat still and read a note on the invoice:
“According to your wishes, we have arranged your wife’s hair as in the picture you sent us.”
*This story was first published in “Thrice Fiction”, issue no. 18, 2016.
When the waste and dreariness of her life become too much for Zivia, the younger and more embittered of the two unmarried Pozis sisters, she stops eating and washing. Wearing only her shift and a bandana tied around her unkempt hair, she attacks the house in a frenzy of cleaning, sweating and panting as she works. The large salon that no one ever uses now gets special attention. With the greatest care she wipes the yellowing wallpaper and scrubs the walls and the balcony until they shine. When someone speaks to her, she doesn’t respond; if she is called into the dining room for dinner, she flies into a rage.
Often she won’t even drink a glass of tea and stays in her unmade bed all day, sometimes two days, sobbing pitifully and crying out in desperation, “God in Heaven, we’re rotting here before we’re even in our shrouds! This is a living death!”
The older sister, Rochele, who never leaves her side when she’s like this, takes it all to heart. She is thirty-four and short, with a delicate mustache above her upper lip. Through the open window she sees their neighbour, the cooper’s wife, straining to pick up a tub full of laundry. Her dress is torn and hitched up front and she tries to balance the tub on her high belly while she carps continuously at a grubby little girl who keeps getting underfoot. Rochele can see her thick, swollen lips move up and down but can’t hear what she’s saying. There are tears in Rochele’s eyes and she bites her knuckles, unable to stop thinking about Zivia even for a minute. “Dear God in Heaven, what does Zivia want from my life? Zivia, Zivia, do you know what you’re doing? Zivia!”
As she repeats these words she remembers all the other times. It mostly happens after the Pentecost holiday when summer is approaching and the thick walls of the old neglected house begin to sweat and smell musty. The house is sinking into the damp ground and the bricks, which have become spotted with white lime, give off the sour-sweet odor of clay being baked in the factory.
This is the time of day when the house is quiet and cool. Old Mr. Pozis, the father of the household, lies on the sofa in the dining room. He is blind. His sightless eyes are covered with a white film and he blinks nervously when he hears Zivia sobbing in her room. “What is she crying about in there?” he wonders.
Bored, he scratches his head and his gray beard and lets out a long, loud sigh through his twisted mouth as he mutters weakly, “Oh, dear God and Father, King of the Universe.”
The old man is waiting for Yekusiel, the bookbinder and inept beadle of the Sadegerer Synagogue, to come join him in a glass of tea. As they pass the time of day together the beadle is sure to bring up the subject of his daughters. “They have no luck, poor things.” Then he’ll report the news around town and finally the conversation will turn to himself, Kalman Pozis, and his former business affairs. Again he will tell him the story of the time he bought an entire forest for a song – the Zavalina, it was called. It seems like only yesterday.
“We cut down a lot of trees in the Zavalina – for twelve years we cut down trees and made a lot of money. You know, Yekusiel, Kalman Pozis was considered a very clever man once, very clever. But when the wheel turned it was his wife Leah who became the smart one; she had rich relatives. Now his children think he’s a fool.”
“Eh – what will Yekusiel say to that?”
Yekusiel is a nice man and not unintelligent, but he doesn’t talk much. He has a handsome flaxen beard, a close-cut mustache and large, impressive flaxen eyebrows. Entering the room with an amiable expression on his face, he smiles at old Pozis from a distance. “There’s nothing much new, Reb Kalman. What can be new? Things are bad; it’s hard and bitter to be so poor on this long summer day.”
All at once the old man is flustered; is Yekusiel referring to himself or to the old, impoverished Pozis? For a while he just lies there feeling worthless and blinking his opaque, sightless eyes in embarrassment.
“Sit down, Yekusiel.”
“Thank you, Reb Kalman.”
“Things were different once, eh, Yekusiel?”
“Yes, they were different.”
“Those days are gone now, Yekusiel.”
“Gone, Reb Kalman.”
The old man is lost in thought.
“How old are you, Yekusiel?”
The old man would like to know what the world looks like and what Yekusiel looks like, too – he hasn’t seen anything for twelve years.
“Yekusiel,” he asks cautiously, like a person who is walking on tiptoe, “do you have gray hair yet, Yekusiel?”
But Yekusiel is gone. He could feel that something was wrong and that there was no chance of getting a glass of tea today, so he left early. Old Pozis is alone in the large dining room again, listening to Zivia’s melancholy weeping. He is bored, bored to death with waiting.
In the late afternoon heat the shadows grow longer on the paved streets of the shtetl. The mailman, sweltering in the scorching sun, might be stopping at the house at this very moment to leave precisely one hundred and fifty rubles and the usual note: “On orders from your son I am sending herewith, etc.”
The envelope is from Shmiel, his only son, who owns several distilleries somewhere near Yekaterinaslav and who sends a monthly check for living expenses. The mailman never comes except to bring Shmiel’s letter once a month. The summer days seem endless – and Zivia is crying. The old man scratches his gray head and beard and with every long, drawn-out sigh he mutters, “Oh, God in Heaven – oh, dear God.”
Something happened. There is a letter from the rich son, Shmiel, inviting Zivia to come for a visit. His daughter-in-law added a few words, too: “Zivia won’t regret it! And she needn’t worry if she doesn’t have the proper clothes.”
It’s as clear as day – they have a match for her. And there’s no doubt that if Shmiel and Broche like the prospective groom he’s sure to be somebody special, someone who’s looking for character and family and not just a pretty face.
The old man lies on the sofa, feeling gratified and blinking his opaque eyes in excitement. “What then? Wasn’t it clear all along that Shmiel would find her a groom?”
He’s beside himself with curiosity about the prospective bridegroom and even more about the groom’s father. There must be a few words about this in Shmiel’s letter and he tries to coax the girls into reading it to him.
“Rochele, darling, tell me again how many distilleries Shmiel has,” he pleads, knowing that the girls think the world of their brother. Over and over again, he repeats, “As a young man he was a Hasid – right after the wedding he went to see the rebbe with his father-in-law. And now they say that he wears kid gloves and shakes hands with rich noblemen. He’s bound to have a thick black beard, Rochele, don’t you think? A thick black beard.”
The girls are convinced that it was their late mother, Leah, who had the brains in the family and that their blind father is a fool. They don’t say a word to him about the family and respectability and their expressions seem to say “Just look at whom we have to answer to.”
For a few days the house is filled with unrestrained excitement. The local seamstress, who used to be Rochele’s friend, is always in Zivia’s room, sewing and offering advice. She has three children already and her face is covered with brown spots from her fourth pregnancy. Raised in the city by a rich step-grandfather, she is self-confident and talks as if she’s an expert in the art of attracting grooms. She claims to know some useful charms and herbs for the purpose.
Finally, Zivia is ready to leave. A hired driver waits in front of the house with the luggage and Rochele is there, too, her pathetic, slightly crossed eyes brimming with tears of yearning and repressed envy. She pats the cushion: “Zivia will be comfortable sitting here.”
But four weeks later Zivia is back. She is exhausted and her face is sunburned, as if she’d taken the cure. Now her heart is filled with even more despair and she has a terrible headache on top of it from the long night without sleep in the coach.
Stepping off the carriage with a smile, she seems happy to be home. The house has a holiday air about it, there’s a clean yellow tablecloth on the dining room table and the family is drinking tea. Zivia, frowning, complains of a migraine; the week-long celebration at Shmiel’s rich father-in-law’s house was very noisy.
“Oh my, oh my,” she moans, “it was ear-splitting. Whenever the door creaks I think that the klezmer band is still scratching away.”
The old man lies on the sofa at the side of the room, his blind eyes blinking quickly.
“Well,” he asks, “and how are things in their house? He’s rich, eh? They run a lavish house, eh?”
No one mentions last month’s letter from Shmiel. Zivia sleeps late, but when she wakes up she can still hear the roaring in her ears. Every time the door squeaks she imagines she hears the band playing or the train whistling.
The summer days are long but the house is cool. Lonely and bored, the old man yawns as he lies on the couch in the dining room, scratching his head and pulling on his beard. And with every long, drawn-out sigh he mutters, “Oh, God in heaven – oh, dear God.”
It seems as if nothing will ever happen in this house again.
It is just before sunset on a clear, beautiful day late in summer. The old man is lying on his couch, waiting for his daughter to help him into his Sabbath gabardine and take him out for a walk. Not long ago his old partner, Yisroel Kitiver, died and left a lot of money to his grandson, Notte Hirsh. Now he’s busy refurbishing his grandfather’s house and extending a balcony into the market.
Blind old Pozis imagines himself standing there in his Sabbath gabardine, pointing his stick at the house and saying: “Look here, Notte Hirsh – I remember that there was a deep ditch in the very place where you’re planning to extend the balcony. You’d better dig down and see if the foundation will support it.”
And the people from the shtetl who are watching say, “Well, what do you think? He knows what he’s talking about. Kalman Pozis has a lot of experience in building houses.”
The old man can hardly wait to get to Kitiver’s house in the market.
“Rochele darling,” he calls out every minute, “where is my Sabbath suit?” But Rochele doesn’t answer.
Something happened! A telegram has arrived. The messenger handed it to the sisters through the open window and took off. It’s from Shmiel, the wealthy son. In two days’ time, on his way abroad for the cure, his train will stop briefly at the nearby railroad station and he wants the family to come to see him.
This is surely a portent of good things to come. Suddenly everyone talks at once; a holiday spirit has replaced the usual gloom, and hope has been restored – forever and ever. Shmiel’s telegram must surely be linked to the letter he sent at the beginning of the summer when he invited Zivia to his home. He’s probably bringing someone with him – he can’t be traveling alone.
Rochele’s pained, slightly crossed eyes well up with tears and she is so overcome with emotion that she can only smile and say, “Shmiel! It’s been eight years since we’ve seen you!” And calling out his name, she has the feeling that he’s in the adjoining room.
All the next day the sisters work – they bake ginger cookies, wash handkerchiefs, iron their white jackets. The windows are wide open. The servant-girl watches as Rochele curls her hair and the old man, lying on the couch in the dining room, hears the sisters singing in the back room where they are pressing their clothes, running back and forth between the stove and the table with the hot iron. Yekusiel, inept beadle from the Sadegerer Synagogue, is with the old man.
“Shmiel was a good Hasid, eh, Yekusiel,” he says. “Right after the wedding he went to visit the rebbe with his father-in-law. And now Shmiel is rich – very, very rich.”
Then he becomes thoughtful and silently blinks his sightless eyes, trying to picture what Shmiel looks like now. “He has a beard – he’s sure to have a thick black beard. And he wears kid gloves when he shakes hands with the great lords and landowners with whom he does business, my Shmiel!”
He hardly sleeps at all that night. In the morning, wearing his good coat, he goes out with one of his daughters to the rented coach that is waiting in front of the house. But he doesn’t climb on right away; first he walks around the carriage, touching it here and there – he wants to know if the seats are made of genuine leather. He imagines people from the shtetl standing around on the paved street, watching. Kalman Pozis is going off to meet his son.
“Is there a leather hood?” he asks. “Ah, there is.”
The sisters, wearing their best holiday clothes, pile on all the good things they’ve prepared. They drive around the wide postal road, as excited as if they were going to a wedding. Everything is perfect except for the old man’s constant jabbering. But when they arrive at the station they realize that they set out much too early. They will have to spend a few long hours waiting for Shmiel’s train. Finally it comes. It’s a fast train with reserved seats only. The conductor wears a fancy uniform and has no consideration for the people waiting on the platform. He blows the whistle twice as soon as the train pulls into the station and can hardly wait to blow the third.
“Finished yet? Eh?”
As they rush around the platform they hear a deep, rich baritone voice shouting, “Poppa! Here I am, Poppa, standing near the window!”
A broad-chested young man with a thick black beard and shining, arrogant eyes is standing at the window. It is Shmiel, the rich son. He stretches his hand out toward his father and the old man, excited and shaking like a leaf, feels around with trembling fingers, his cloudy eyes blinking nervously. The sisters take hold of his elbows and guide his arms towards his son.
“Is it Shmiel’s hand?” he asks. “Eh? Shmiel’s hand?”
By now the conductor has blown the whistle for the third time and the train begins to move. The old man keeps tapping the air, as if he were still clutching his son’s smooth kid glove in his hands. Finally he lets his arms down slowly.
They turn to go. The train has left the station and is far away by now, swallowed up somewhere in the furthest corner of the late summer horizon. When they climb into the carriage the sisters search the cabin; they’ve lost a tablecloth full of ginger cookies. But why did they bring the cookies in the first place?
No one says a word in the coach. The horses are tired and move so slowly that the bells around their necks hardly make a sound. But even the faint tinkling gets on Zivia’s nerves and she cries out, “God in Heaven, those bells will drive me mad!” When they get to a wider part of the road she makes the driver stop and remove them.
In the west, over a little wooded area, the sun is about to set. There is a flowing stream in the distance, clear as crystal – pure amber. A short, rosy stripe stretches across the sky and fades in the distance. The sun looks as if it will remain suspended where it is forever, like in Givon.
The old man doesn’t say a word now, heeding his daughters’ warning about his prattling. He blinks his opaque white eyes and smiles into his beard. “Psheh, they think I’m a fool,” he says to himself.
Slowly and silently, without the sound of tinkling bells, they wend their way home. They are eager to be there already – the sooner, the better. No one utters a sound.
Now nothing will ever happen again in the old, neglected house. Next summer, when the thick walls begin to sweat, Zivia will walk around half-dressed and clean all the rooms. She’ll stop eating and drinking and finally take to her bed – and then she’ll sob her heart out. And old Pozis, lying on the sofa in the cool dining room, his narrow, opaque eyes blinking, will engage Yekusiel in conversation. He doesn’t want him to hear Zivia crying.
“The years have passed, eh Yekusiel?”
“They’ve passed, Reb Kalman.”
“They’re gone now, Yekusiel, eh? Not even a shadow is left.”
“Not even a shadow, Reb Kalman – like a dream.”
*This story is taken from: The Short Stories of David Bergelson: Yiddish Short Fiction from Russia, ed. Golda Werman, Syracuse University Press, 1996.
She sat at the window watching the evening invade the avenue. Her head was leaned against the window curtains and in her nostrils was the odour of dusty cretonne. She was tired.
Few people passed. The man out of the last house passed on his way home; she heard his footsteps clacking along the concrete pavement and afterwards crunching on the cinder path before the new red houses. One time there used to be a field there in which they used to play every evening with other people’s children. Then a man from Belfast bought the field and built houses in it – not like their little brown houses but bright brick houses with shining roofs. The children of the avenue used to play together in that field – the Devines, the Waters, the Dunns, little Keogh the cripple, she and her brothers and sisters. Ernest, however, never played: he was too grown up. Her father used often to hunt them in out of the field with his blackthorn stick; but usually little Keogh used to keep nix and call out when he saw her father coming. Still they seemed to have been rather happy then. Her father was not so bad then; and besides, her mother was alive. That was a long time ago; she and her brothers and sisters were all grown up her mother was dead. Tizzie Dunn was dead, too, and the Waters had gone back to England. Everything changes. Now she was going to go away like the others, to leave her home.
Home! She looked round the room, reviewing all its familiar objects which she had dusted once a week for so many years, wondering where on earth all the dust came from. Perhaps she would never see again those familiar objects from which she had never dreamed of being divided. And yet during all those years she had never found out the name of the priest whose yellowing photograph hung on the wall above the broken harmonium beside the coloured print of the promises made to Blessed Margaret Mary Alacoque. He had been a school friend of her father. Whenever he showed the photograph to a visitor her father used to pass it with a casual word:
“He is in Melbourne now.”
She had consented to go away, to leave her home. Was that wise? She tried to weigh each side of the question. In her home anyway she had shelter and food; she had those whom she had known all her life about her. Of course she had to work hard, both in the house and at business. What would they say of her in the Stores when they found out that she had run away with a fellow? Say she was a fool, perhaps; and her place would be filled up by advertisement. Miss Gavan would be glad. She had always had an edge on her, especially whenever there were people listening.
“Miss Hill, don’t you see these ladies are waiting?”
“Look lively, Miss Hill, please.”
She would not cry many tears at leaving the Stores.
But in her new home, in a distant unknown country, it would not be like that. Then she would be married – she, Eveline. People would treat her with respect then. She would not be treated as her mother had been. Even now, though she was over nineteen, she sometimes felt herself in danger of her father’s violence. She knew it was that that had given her the palpitations. When they were growing up he had never gone for her like he used to go for Harry and Ernest, because she was a girl but latterly he had begun to threaten her and say what he would do to her only for her dead mother’s sake. And no she had nobody to protect her. Ernest was dead and Harry, who was in the church decorating business, was nearly always down somewhere in the country. Besides, the invariable squabble for money on Saturday nights had begun to weary her unspeakably. She always gave her entire wages – seven shillings – and Harry always sent up what he could but the trouble was to get any money from her father. He said she used to squander the money, that she had no head, that he wasn’t going to give her his hard-earned money to throw about the streets, and much more, for he was usually fairly bad on Saturday night. In the end he would give her the money and ask her had she any intention of buying Sunday’s dinner. Then she had to rush out as quickly as she could and do her marketing, holding her black leather purse tightly in her hand as she elbowed her way through the crowds and returning home late under her load of provisions. She had hard work to keep the house together and to see that the two young children who had been left to her charge went to school regularly and got their meals regularly. It was hard work – a hard life – but now that she was about to leave it she did not find it a wholly undesirable life.
She was about to explore another life with Frank. Frank was very kind, manly, open-hearted. She was to go away with him by the night-boat to be his wife and to live with him in Buenos Ayres where he had a home waiting for her. How well she remembered the first time she had seen him; he was lodging in a house on the main road where she used to visit. It seemed a few weeks ago. He was standing at the gate, his peaked cap pushed back on his head and his hair tumbled forward over a face of bronze. Then they had come to know each other. He used to meet her outside the Stores every evening and see her home. He took her to see The Bohemian Girl and she felt elated as she sat in an unaccustomed part of the theatre with him. He was awfully fond of music and sang a little. People knew that they were courting and, when he sang about the lass that loves a sailor, she always felt pleasantly confused. He used to call her Poppens out of fun. First of all it had been an excitement for her to have a fellow and then she had begun to like him. He had tales of distant countries. He had started as a deck boy at a pound a month on a ship of the Allan Line going out to Canada. He told her the names of the ships he had been on and the names of the different services. He had sailed through the Straits of Magellan and he told her stories of the terrible Patagonians. He had fallen on his feet in Buenos Ayres, he said, and had come over to the old country just for a holiday. Of course, her father had found out the affair and had forbidden her to have anything to say to him.
“I know these sailor chaps,” he said.
One day he had quarrelled with Frank and after that she had to meet her lover secretly.
The evening deepened in the avenue. The white of two letters in her lap grew indistinct. One was to Harry; the other was to her father. Ernest had been her favourite but she liked Harry too. Her father was becoming old lately, she noticed; he would miss her. Sometimes he could be very nice. Not long before, when she had been laid up for a day, he had read her out a ghost story and made toast for her at the fire. Another day, when their mother was alive, they had all gone for a picnic to the Hill of Howth. She remembered her father putting on her mothers bonnet to make the children laugh.
Her time was running out but she continued to sit by the window, leaning her head against the window curtain, inhaling the odour of dusty cretonne. Down far in the avenue she could hear a street organ playing. She knew the air Strange that it should come that very night to remind her of the promise to her mother, her promise to keep the home together as long as she could. She remembered the last night of her mother’s illness; she was again in the close dark room at the other side of the hall and outside she heard a melancholy air of Italy. The organ-player had been ordered to go away and given sixpence. She remembered her father strutting back into the sickroom saying:
“Damned Italians! coming over here!”
As she mused the pitiful vision of her mother’s life laid its spell on the very quick of her being – that life of commonplace sacrifices closing in final craziness. She trembled as she heard again her mother’s voice saying constantly with foolish insistence:
“Derevaun Seraun! Derevaun Seraun!”
She stood up in a sudden impulse of terror. Escape! She must escape! Frank would save her. He would give her life, perhaps love, too. But she wanted to live. Why should she be unhappy? She had a right to happiness. Frank would take her in his arms, fold her in his arms. He would save her.
She stood among the swaying crowd in the station at the North Wall. He held her hand and she knew that he was speaking to her, saying something about the passage over and over again. The station was full of soldiers with brown baggages. Through the wide doors of the sheds she caught a glimpse of the black mass of the boat, lying in beside the quay wall, with illumined portholes. She answered nothing. She felt her cheek pale and cold and, out of a maze of distress, she prayed to God to direct her, to show her what was her duty. The boat blew a long mournful whistle into the mist. If she went, tomorrow she would be on the sea with Frank, steaming towards Buenos Ayres. Their passage had been booked. Could she still draw back after all he had done for her? Her distress awoke a nausea in her body and she kept moving her lips in silent fervent prayer.
A bell clanged upon her heart. She felt him seize her hand:
All the seas of the world tumbled about her heart. He was drawing her into them: he would drown her. She gripped with both hands at the iron railing.
No! No! No! It was impossible. Her hands clutched the iron in frenzy. Amid the seas she sent a cry of anguish.
He rushed beyond the barrier and called to her to follow. He was shouted at to go on but he still called to her. She set her white face to him, passive, like a helpless animal. Her eyes gave him no sign of love or farewell or recognition.