When the porter’s wife (she used to answer the house-bell), announced “A gentleman—with a lady, sir,” I had, as I often had in those days, for the wish was father to the thought, an immediate vision of sitters. Sitters my visitors in this case proved to be; but not in the sense I should have preferred. However, there was nothing at first to indicate that they might not have come for a portrait. The gentleman, a man of fifty, very high and very straight, with a moustache slightly grizzled and a dark grey walking-coat admirably fitted, both of which I noted professionally—I don’t mean as a barber or yet as a tailor—would have struck me as a celebrity if celebrities often were striking. It was a truth of which I had for some time been conscious that a figure with a good deal of frontage was, as one might say, almost never a public institution. A glance at the lady helped to remind me of this paradoxical law: she also looked too distinguished to be a “personality.” Moreover one would scarcely come across two variations together.
Neither of the pair spoke immediately—they only prolonged the preliminary gaze which suggested that each wished to give the other a chance. They were visibly shy; they stood there letting me take them in—which, as I afterwards perceived, was the most practical thing they could have done. In this way their embarrassment served their cause. I had seen people painfully reluctant to mention that they desired anything so gross as to be represented on canvas; but the scruples of my new friends appeared almost insurmountable. Yet the gentleman might have said “I should like a portrait of my wife,” and the lady might have said “I should like a portrait of my husband.” Perhaps they were not husband and wife—this naturally would make the matter more delicate. Perhaps they wished to be done together—in which case they ought to have brought a third person to break the news.
“We come from Mr. Rivet,” the lady said at last, with a dim smile which had the effect of a moist sponge passed over a “sunk” piece of painting, as well as of a vague allusion to vanished beauty. She was as tall and straight, in her degree, as her companion, and with ten years less to carry. She looked as sad as a woman could look whose face was not charged with expression; that is her tinted oval mask showed friction as an exposed surface shows it. The hand of time had played over her freely, but only to simplify. She was slim and stiff, and so well-dressed, in dark blue cloth, with lappets and pockets and buttons, that it was clear she employed the same tailor as her husband. The couple had an indefinable air of prosperous thrift—they evidently got a good deal of luxury for their money. If I was to be one of their luxuries it would behove me to consider my terms.
“Ah, Claude Rivet recommended me?” I inquired; and I added that it was very kind of him, though I could reflect that, as he only painted landscape, this was not a sacrifice.
The lady looked very hard at the gentleman, and the gentleman looked round the room. Then staring at the floor a moment and stroking his moustache, he rested his pleasant eyes on me with the remark:
“He said you were the right one.”
“I try to be, when people want to sit.”
“Yes, we should like to,” said the lady anxiously.
“Do you mean together?”
My visitors exchanged a glance. “If you could do anything with me, I suppose it would be double,” the gentleman stammered.
“Oh yes, there’s naturally a higher charge for two figures than for one.”
“We should like to make it pay,” the husband confessed.
“That’s very good of you,” I returned, appreciating so unwonted a sympathy—for I supposed he meant pay the artist.
A sense of strangeness seemed to dawn on the lady. “We mean for the illustrations—Mr. Rivet said you might put one in.”
“Put one in—an illustration?” I was equally confused.
“Sketch her off, you know,” said the gentleman, colouring.
It was only then that I understood the service Claude Rivet had rendered me; he had told them that I worked in black and white, for magazines, for story-books, for sketches of contemporary life, and consequently had frequent employment for models. These things were true, but it was not less true (I may confess it now—whether because the aspiration was to lead to everything or to nothing I leave the reader to guess), that I couldn’t get the honours, to say nothing of the emoluments, of a great painter of portraits out of my head. My “illustrations” were my pot-boilers; I looked to a different branch of art (far and away the most interesting it had always seemed to me), to perpetuate my fame. There was no shame in looking to it also to make my fortune; but that fortune was by so much further from being made from the moment my visitors wished to be “done” for nothing. I was disappointed; for in the pictorial sense I had immediately seen them. I had seized their type—I had already settled what I would do with it. Something that wouldn’t absolutely have pleased them, I afterwards reflected.
“Ah, you’re—you’re—a—?” I began, as soon as I had mastered my surprise. I couldn’t bring out the dingy word “models”; it seemed to fit the case so little.
“We haven’t had much practice,” said the lady.
“We’ve got to do something, and we’ve thought that an artist in your line might perhaps make something of us,” her husband threw off. He further mentioned that they didn’t know many artists and that they had gone first, on the off-chance (he painted views of course, but sometimes put in figures—perhaps I remembered), to Mr. Rivet, whom they had met a few years before at a place in Norfolk where he was sketching.
“We used to sketch a little ourselves,” the lady hinted.
“It’s very awkward, but we absolutely must do something,” her husband went on.
“Of course, we’re not so very young,” she admitted, with a wan smile.
With the remark that I might as well know something more about them, the husband had handed me a card extracted from a neat new pocket-book (their appurtenances were all of the freshest) and inscribed with the words “Major Monarch.” Impressive as these words were they didn’t carry my knowledge much further; but my visitor presently added: “I’ve left the army, and we’ve had the misfortune to lose our money. In fact our means are dreadfully small.”
“It’s an awful bore,” said Mrs. Monarch.
They evidently wished to be discreet—to take care not to swagger because they were gentlefolks. I perceived they would have been willing to recognise this as something of a drawback, at the same time that I guessed at an underlying sense—their consolation in adversity—that they had their points. They certainly had; but these advantages struck me as preponderantly social; such for instance as would help to make a drawing-room look well. However, a drawing-room was always, or ought to be, a picture.
In consequence of his wife’s allusion to their age Major Monarch observed: “Naturally, it’s more for the figure that we thought of going in. We can still hold ourselves up.” On the instant I saw that the figure was indeed their strong point. His “naturally” didn’t sound vain, but it lighted up the question. “She has got the best,” he continued, nodding at his wife, with a pleasant after-dinner absence of circumlocution. I could only reply, as if we were in fact sitting over our wine, that this didn’t prevent his own from being very good; which led him in turn to rejoin: “We thought that if you ever have to do people like us, we might be something like it. She, particularly—for a lady in a book, you know.”
I was so amused by them that, to get more of it, I did my best to take their point of view; and though it was an embarrassment to find myself appraising physically, as if they were animals on hire or useful blacks, a pair whom I should have expected to meet only in one of the relations in which criticism is tacit, I looked at Mrs. Monarch judicially enough to be able to exclaim, after a moment, with conviction: “Oh yes, a lady in a book!” She was singularly like a bad illustration.
“We’ll stand up, if you like,” said the Major; and he raised himself before me with a really grand air.
I could take his measure at a glance—he was six feet two and a perfect gentleman. It would have paid any club in process of formation and in want of a stamp to engage him at a salary to stand in the principal window. What struck me immediately was that in coming to me they had rather missed their vocation; they could surely have been turned to better account for advertising purposes. I couldn’t of course see the thing in detail, but I could see them make someone’s fortune—I don’t mean their own. There was something in them for a waistcoat-maker, an hotel-keeper or a soap-vendor. I could imagine “We always use it” pinned on their bosoms with the greatest effect; I had a vision of the promptitude with which they would launch a table d’hôte.
Mrs. Monarch sat still, not from pride but from shyness, and presently her husband said to her: “Get up my dear and show how smart you are.” She obeyed, but she had no need to get up to show it. She walked to the end of the studio, and then she came back blushing, with her fluttered eyes on her husband. I was reminded of an incident I had accidentally had a glimpse of in Paris—being with a friend there, a dramatist about to produce a play—when an actress came to him to ask to be intrusted with a part. She went through her paces before him, walked up and down as Mrs. Monarch was doing. Mrs. Monarch did it quite as well, but I abstained from applauding. It was very odd to see such people apply for such poor pay. She looked as if she had ten thousand a year. Her husband had used the word that described her: she was, in the London current jargon, essentially and typically “smart.” Her figure was, in the same order of ideas, conspicuously and irreproachably “good.” For a woman of her age her waist was surprisingly small; her elbow moreover had the orthodox crook. She held her head at the conventional angle; but why did she come to me? She ought to have tried on jackets at a big shop. I feared my visitors were not only destitute, but “artistic”—which would be a great complication. When she sat down again I thanked her, observing that what a draughtsman most valued in his model was the faculty of keeping quiet.
“Oh, she can keep quiet,” said Major Monarch. Then he added, jocosely: “I’ve always kept her quiet.”
“I’m not a nasty fidget, am I?” Mrs. Monarch appealed to her husband.
He addressed his answer to me. “Perhaps it isn’t out of place to mention—because we ought to be quite business-like, oughtn’t we?—that when I married her she was known as the Beautiful Statue.”
“Oh dear!” said Mrs. Monarch, ruefully.
“Of course I should want a certain amount of expression,” I rejoined.
“Of course!” they both exclaimed.
“And then I suppose you know that you’ll get awfully tired.”
“Oh, we never get tired!” they eagerly cried.
“Have you had any kind of practice?”
They hesitated—they looked at each other. “We’ve been photographed, immensely,” said Mrs. Monarch.
“She means the fellows have asked us,” added the Major.
“I see—because you’re so good-looking.”
“I don’t know what they thought, but they were always after us.”
“We always got our photographs for nothing,” smiled Mrs. Monarch.
“We might have brought some, my dear,” her husband remarked.
“I’m not sure we have any left. We’ve given quantities away,” she explained to me.
“With our autographs and that sort of thing,” said the Major.
“Are they to be got in the shops?” I inquired, as a harmless pleasantry.
“Oh, yes; hers—they used to be.”
“Not now,” said Mrs. Monarch, with her eyes on the floor.
I could fancy the “sort of thing” they put on the presentation-copies of their photographs, and I was sure they wrote a beautiful hand. It was odd how quickly I was sure of everything that concerned them. If they were now so poor as to have to earn shillings and pence, they never had had much of a margin. Their good looks had been their capital, and they had good-humouredly made the most of the career that this resource marked out for them. It was in their faces, the blankness, the deep intellectual repose of the twenty years of country-house visiting which had given them pleasant intonations. I could see the sunny drawing-rooms, sprinkled with periodicals she didn’t read, in which Mrs. Monarch had continuously sat; I could see the wet shrubberies in which she had walked, equipped to admiration for either exercise. I could see the rich covers the Major had helped to shoot and the wonderful garments in which, late at night, he repaired to the smoking-room to talk about them. I could imagine their leggings and waterproofs, their knowing tweeds and rugs, their rolls of sticks and cases of tackle and neat umbrellas; and I could evoke the exact appearance of their servants and the compact variety of their luggage on the platforms of country stations.
They gave small tips, but they were liked; they didn’t do anything themselves, but they were welcome. They looked so well everywhere; they gratified the general relish for stature, complexion and “form.” They knew it without fatuity or vulgarity, and they respected themselves in consequence. They were not superficial; they were thorough and kept themselves up—it had been their line. People with such a taste for activity had to have some line. I could feel how, even in a dull house, they could have been counted upon for cheerfulness. At present something had happened—it didn’t matter what, their little income had grown less, it had grown least—and they had to do something for pocket-money. Their friends liked them, but didn’t like to support them. There was something about them that represented credit—their clothes, their manners, their type; but if credit is a large empty pocket in which an occasional chink reverberates, the chink at least must be audible. What they wanted of me was to help to make it so. Fortunately they had no children—I soon divined that. They would also perhaps wish our relations to be kept secret: this was why it was “for the figure”—the reproduction of the face would betray them.
I liked them—they were so simple; and I had no objection to them if they would suit. But, somehow, with all their perfections I didn’t easily believe in them. After all they were amateurs, and the ruling passion of my life was the detestation of the amateur. Combined with this was another perversity—an innate preference for the represented subject over the real one: the defect of the real one was so apt to be a lack of representation. I liked things that appeared; then one was sure. Whether they were or not was a subordinate and almost always a profitless question. There were other considerations, the first of which was that I already had two or three people in use, notably a young person with big feet, in alpaca, from Kilburn, who for a couple of years had come to me regularly for my illustrations and with whom I was still—perhaps ignobly—satisfied. I frankly explained to my visitors how the case stood; but they had taken more precautions than I supposed. They had reasoned out their opportunity, for Claude Rivet had told them of the projected édition de luxe of one of the writers of our day—the rarest of the novelists—who, long neglected by the multitudinous vulgar and dearly prized by the attentive (need I mention Philip Vincent?) had had the happy fortune of seeing, late in life, the dawn and then the full light of a higher criticism—an estimate in which, on the part of the public, there was something really of expiation. The edition in question, planned by a publisher of taste, was practically an act of high reparation; the wood-cuts with which it was to be enriched were the homage of English art to one of the most independent representatives of English letters. Major and Mrs. Monarch confessed to me that they had hoped I might be able to work them into my share of the enterprise. They knew I was to do the first of the books, “Rutland Ramsay,” but I had to make clear to them that my participation in the rest of the affair—this first book was to be a test—was to depend on the satisfaction I should give. If this should be limited my employers would drop me without a scruple. It was therefore a crisis for me, and naturally I was making special preparations, looking about for new people, if they should be necessary, and securing the best types. I admitted however that I should like to settle down to two or three good models who would do for everything.
“Should we have often to—a—put on special clothes?” Mrs. Monarch timidly demanded.
“Dear, yes—that’s half the business.”
“And should we be expected to supply our own costumes?”
“Oh, no; I’ve got a lot of things. A painter’s models put on—or put off—anything he likes.”
“And do you mean—a—the same?”
Mrs. Monarch looked at her husband again.
“Oh, she was just wondering,” he explained, “if the costumes are in general use.” I had to confess that they were, and I mentioned further that some of them (I had a lot of genuine, greasy last-century things), had served their time, a hundred years ago, on living, world-stained men and women. “We’ll put on anything that fits,” said the Major.
“Oh, I arrange that—they fit in the pictures.”
“I’m afraid I should do better for the modern books. I would come as you like,” said Mrs. Monarch.
“She has got a lot of clothes at home: they might do for contemporary life,” her husband continued.
“Oh, I can fancy scenes in which you’d be quite natural.” And indeed I could see the slipshod rearrangements of stale properties—the stories I tried to produce pictures for without the exasperation of reading them—whose sandy tracts the good lady might help to people. But I had to return to the fact that for this sort of work—the daily mechanical grind—I was already equipped; the people I was working with were fully adequate.
“We only thought we might be more like some characters,” said Mrs. Monarch mildly, getting up.
Her husband also rose; he stood looking at me with a dim wistfulness that was touching in so fine a man. “Wouldn’t it be rather a pull sometimes to have—a—to have—?” He hung fire; he wanted me to help him by phrasing what he meant. But I couldn’t—I didn’t know. So he brought it out, awkwardly: “The real thing; a gentleman, you know, or a lady.” I was quite ready to give a general assent—I admitted that there was a great deal in that. This encouraged Major Monarch to say, following up his appeal with an unacted gulp: “It’s awfully hard—we’ve tried everything.” The gulp was communicative; it proved too much for his wife. Before I knew it Mrs. Monarch had dropped again upon a divan and burst into tears. Her husband sat down beside her, holding one of her hands; whereupon she quickly dried her eyes with the other, while I felt embarrassed as she looked up at me. “There isn’t a confounded job I haven’t applied for—waited for—prayed for. You can fancy we’d be pretty bad first. Secretaryships and that sort of thing? You might as well ask for a peerage. I’d be anything—I’m strong; a messenger or a coalheaver. I’d put on a gold-laced cap and open carriage-doors in front of the haberdasher’s; I’d hang about a station, to carry portmanteaus; I’d be a postman. But they won’t look at you; there are thousands, as good as yourself, already on the ground. Gentlemen, poor beggars, who have drunk their wine, who have kept their hunters!”
I was as reassuring as I knew how to be, and my visitors were presently on their feet again while, for the experiment, we agreed on an hour. We were discussing it when the door opened and Miss Churm came in with a wet umbrella. Miss Churm had to take the omnibus to Maida Vale and then walk half-a-mile. She looked a trifle blowsy and slightly splashed. I scarcely ever saw her come in without thinking afresh how odd it was that, being so little in herself, she should yet be so much in others. She was a meagre little Miss Churm, but she was an ample heroine of romance. She was only a freckled cockney, but she could represent everything, from a fine lady to a shepherdess; she had the faculty, as she might have had a fine voice or long hair.
She couldn’t spell, and she loved beer, but she had two or three “points,” and practice, and a knack, and mother-wit, and a kind of whimsical sensibility, and a love of the theatre, and seven sisters, and not an ounce of respect, especially for the h. The first thing my visitors saw was that her umbrella was wet, and in their spotless perfection they visibly winced at it. The rain had come on since their arrival.
“I’m all in a soak; there was a mess of people in the ’bus. I wish you lived near a stytion,” said Miss Churm. I requested her to get ready as quickly as possible, and she passed into the room in which she always changed her dress. But before going out she asked me what she was to get into this time.
“It’s the Russian princess, don’t you know?” I answered; “the one with the ‘golden eyes,’ in black velvet, for the long thing in the Cheapside.”
“Golden eyes? I say!” cried Miss Churm, while my companions watched her with intensity as she withdrew. She always arranged herself, when she was late, before I could turn round; and I kept my visitors a little, on purpose, so that they might get an idea, from seeing her, what would be expected of themselves. I mentioned that she was quite my notion of an excellent model—she was really very clever.
“Do you think she looks like a Russian princess?” Major Monarch asked, with lurking alarm.
“When I make her, yes.”
“Oh, if you have to make her—!” he reasoned, acutely.
“That’s the most you can ask. There are so many that are not makeable.”
“Well now, here’s a lady”—and with a persuasive smile he passed his arm into his wife’s—“who’s already made!”
“Oh, I’m not a Russian princess,” Mrs. Monarch protested, a little coldly. I could see that she had known some and didn’t like them. There, immediately, was a complication of a kind that I never had to fear with Miss Churm.
This young lady came back in black velvet—the gown was rather rusty and very low on her lean shoulders—and with a Japanese fan in her red hands. I reminded her that in the scene I was doing she had to look over someone’s head. “I forget whose it is; but it doesn’t matter. Just look over a head.”
“I’d rather look over a stove,” said Miss Churm; and she took her station near the fire. She fell into position, settled herself into a tall attitude, gave a certain backward inclination to her head and a certain forward droop to her fan, and looked, at least to my prejudiced sense, distinguished and charming, foreign and dangerous. We left her looking so, while I went down-stairs with Major and Mrs. Monarch.
“I think I could come about as near it as that,” said Mrs. Monarch.
“Oh, you think she’s shabby, but you must allow for the alchemy of art.”
However, they went off with an evident increase of comfort, founded on their demonstrable advantage in being the real thing. I could fancy them shuddering over Miss Churm. She was very droll about them when I went back, for I told her what they wanted.
“Well, if she can sit I’ll tyke to bookkeeping,” said my model.
“She’s very lady-like,” I replied, as an innocent form of aggravation.
“So much the worse for you. That means she can’t turn round.”
“She’ll do for the fashionable novels.”
“Oh yes, she’ll do for them!” my model humorously declared. “Ain’t they had enough without her?” I had often sociably denounced them to Miss Churm.
It was for the elucidation of a mystery in one of these works that I first tried Mrs. Monarch. Her husband came with her, to be useful if necessary—it was sufficiently clear that as a general thing he would prefer to come with her. At first I wondered if this were for “propriety’s” sake—if he were going to be jealous and meddling. The idea was too tiresome, and if it had been confirmed it would speedily have brought our acquaintance to a close. But I soon saw there was nothing in it and that if he accompanied Mrs. Monarch it was (in addition to the chance of being wanted), simply because he had nothing else to do. When she was away from him his occupation was gone—she never had been away from him. I judged, rightly, that in their awkward situation their close union was their main comfort and that this union had no weak spot. It was a real marriage, an encouragement to the hesitating, a nut for pessimists to crack. Their address was humble (I remember afterwards thinking it had been the only thing about them that was really professional), and I could fancy the lamentable lodgings in which the Major would have been left alone. He could bear them with his wife—he couldn’t bear them without her.
He had too much tact to try and make himself agreeable when he couldn’t be useful; so he simply sat and waited, when I was too absorbed in my work to talk. But I liked to make him talk—it made my work, when it didn’t interrupt it, less sordid, less special. To listen to him was to combine the excitement of going out with the economy of staying at home. There was only one hindrance: that I seemed not to know any of the people he and his wife had known. I think he wondered extremely, during the term of our intercourse, whom the deuce I did know. He hadn’t a stray sixpence of an idea to fumble for; so we didn’t spin it very fine—we confined ourselves to questions of leather and even of liquor (saddlers and breeches-makers and how to get good claret cheap), and matters like “good trains” and the habits of small game. His lore on these last subjects was astonishing, he managed to interweave the station-master with the ornithologist. When he couldn’t talk about greater things he could talk cheerfully about smaller, and since I couldn’t accompany him into reminiscences of the fashionable world he could lower the conversation without a visible effort to my level.
So earnest a desire to please was touching in a man who could so easily have knocked one down. He looked after the fire and had an opinion on the draught of the stove, without my asking him, and I could see that he thought many of my arrangements not half clever enough. I remember telling him that if I were only rich I would offer him a salary to come and teach me how to live. Sometimes he gave a random sigh, of which the essence was: “Give me even such a bare old barrack as this, and I’d do something with it!” When I wanted to use him he came alone; which was an illustration of the superior courage of women. His wife could bear her solitary second floor, and she was in general more discreet; showing by various small reserves that she was alive to the propriety of keeping our relations markedly professional—not letting them slide into sociability. She wished it to remain clear that she and the Major were employed, not cultivated, and if she approved of me as a superior, who could be kept in his place, she never thought me quite good enough for an equal.
She sat with great intensity, giving the whole of her mind to it, and was capable of remaining for an hour almost as motionless as if she were before a photographer’s lens. I could see she had been photographed often, but somehow the very habit that made her good for that purpose unfitted her for mine. At first I was extremely pleased with her lady-like air, and it was a satisfaction, on coming to follow her lines, to see how good they were and how far they could lead the pencil. But after a few times I began to find her too insurmountably stiff; do what I would with it my drawing looked like a photograph or a copy of a photograph. Her figure had no variety of expression—she herself had no sense of variety. You may say that this was my business, was only a question of placing her. I placed her in every conceivable position, but she managed to obliterate their differences. She was always a lady certainly, and into the bargain was always the same lady. She was the real thing, but always the same thing. There were moments when I was oppressed by the serenity of her confidence that she was the real thing. All her dealings with me and all her husband’s were an implication that this was lucky for me. Meanwhile I found myself trying to invent types that approached her own, instead of making her own transform itself—in the clever way that was not impossible, for instance, to poor Miss Churm. Arrange as I would and take the precautions I would, she always, in my pictures, came out too tall—landing me in the dilemma of having represented a fascinating woman as seven feet high, which, out of respect perhaps to my own very much scantier inches, was far from my idea of such a personage.
The case was worse with the Major—nothing I could do would keep him down, so that he became useful only for the representation of brawny giants. I adored variety and range, I cherished human accidents, the illustrative note; I wanted to characterise closely, and the thing in the world I most hated was the danger of being ridden by a type. I had quarrelled with some of my friends about it—I had parted company with them for maintaining that one had to be, and that if the type was beautiful (witness Raphael and Leonardo), the servitude was only a gain. I was neither Leonardo nor Raphael; I might only be a presumptuous young modern searcher, but I held that everything was to be sacrificed sooner than character. When they averred that the haunting type in question could easily be character, I retorted, perhaps superficially: “Whose?” It couldn’t be everybody’s—it might end in being nobody’s.
After I had drawn Mrs. Monarch a dozen times I perceived more clearly than before that the value of such a model as Miss Churm resided precisely in the fact that she had no positive stamp, combined of course with the other fact that what she did have was a curious and inexplicable talent for imitation. Her usual appearance was like a curtain which she could draw up at request for a capital performance. This performance was simply suggestive; but it was a word to the wise—it was vivid and pretty. Sometimes, even, I thought it, though she was plain herself, too insipidly pretty; I made it a reproach to her that the figures drawn from her were monotonously (bêtement, as we used to say) graceful. Nothing made her more angry: it was so much her pride to feel that she could sit for characters that had nothing in common with each other. She would accuse me at such moments of taking away her “reputytion.”
It suffered a certain shrinkage, this queer quantity, from the repeated visits of my new friends. Miss Churm was greatly in demand, never in want of employment, so I had no scruple in putting her off occasionally, to try them more at my ease. It was certainly amusing at first to do the real thing—it was amusing to do Major Monarch’s trousers. They were the real thing, even if he did come out colossal. It was amusing to do his wife’s back hair (it was so mathematically neat,) and the particular “smart” tension of her tight stays. She lent herself especially to positions in which the face was somewhat averted or blurred; she abounded in lady-like back views and profils perdus. When she stood erect she took naturally one of the attitudes in which court-painters represent queens and princesses; so that I found myself wondering whether, to draw out this accomplishment, I couldn’t get the editor of the Cheapside to publish a really royal romance, “A Tale of Buckingham Palace.” Sometimes, however, the real thing and the make-believe came into contact; by which I mean that Miss Churm, keeping an appointment or coming to make one on days when I had much work in hand, encountered her invidious rivals. The encounter was not on their part, for they noticed her no more than if she had been the housemaid; not from intentional loftiness, but simply because, as yet, professionally, they didn’t know how to fraternise, as I could guess that they would have liked—or at least that the Major would. They couldn’t talk about the omnibus—they always walked; and they didn’t know what else to try—she wasn’t interested in good trains or cheap claret. Besides, they must have felt—in the air—that she was amused at them, secretly derisive of their ever knowing how. She was not a person to conceal her scepticism if she had had a chance to show it. On the other hand Mrs. Monarch didn’t think her tidy; for why else did she take pains to say to me (it was going out of the way, for Mrs. Monarch), that she didn’t like dirty women?
One day when my young lady happened to be present with my other sitters (she even dropped in, when it was convenient, for a chat), I asked her to be so good as to lend a hand in getting tea—a service with which she was familiar and which was one of a class that, living as I did in a small way, with slender domestic resources, I often appealed to my models to render. They liked to lay hands on my property, to break the sitting, and sometimes the china—I made them feel Bohemian. The next time I saw Miss Churm after this incident she surprised me greatly by making a scene about it—she accused me of having wished to humiliate her. She had not resented the outrage at the time, but had seemed obliging and amused, enjoying the comedy of asking Mrs. Monarch, who sat vague and silent, whether she would have cream and sugar, and putting an exaggerated simper into the question. She had tried intonations—as if she too wished to pass for the real thing; till I was afraid my other visitors would take offence.
Oh, they were determined not to do this; and their touching patience was the measure of their great need. They would sit by the hour, uncomplaining, till I was ready to use them; they would come back on the chance of being wanted and would walk away cheerfully if they were not. I used to go to the door with them to see in what magnificent order they retreated. I tried to find other employment for them—I introduced them to several artists. But they didn’t “take,” for reasons I could appreciate, and I became conscious, rather anxiously, that after such disappointments they fell back upon me with a heavier weight. They did me the honour to think that it was I who was most their form. They were not picturesque enough for the painters, and in those days there were not so many serious workers in black and white. Besides, they had an eye to the great job I had mentioned to them—they had secretly set their hearts on supplying the right essence for my pictorial vindication of our fine novelist. They knew that for this undertaking I should want no costume-effects, none of the frippery of past ages—that it was a case in which everything would be contemporary and satirical and, presumably, genteel. If I could work them into it their future would be assured, for the labour would of course be long and the occupation steady.
One day Mrs. Monarch came without her husband—she explained his absence by his having had to go to the City. While she sat there in her usual anxious stiffness there came, at the door, a knock which I immediately recognised as the subdued appeal of a model out of work. It was followed by the entrance of a young man whom I easily perceived to be a foreigner and who proved in fact an Italian acquainted with no English word but my name, which he uttered in a way that made it seem to include all others. I had not then visited his country, nor was I proficient in his tongue; but as he was not so meanly constituted—what Italian is?—as to depend only on that member for expression he conveyed to me, in familiar but graceful mimicry, that he was in search of exactly the employment in which the lady before me was engaged. I was not struck with him at first, and while I continued to draw I emitted rough sounds of discouragement and dismissal. He stood his ground, however, not importunately, but with a dumb, dog-like fidelity in his eyes which amounted to innocent impudence—the manner of a devoted servant (he might have been in the house for years), unjustly suspected. Suddenly I saw that this very attitude and expression made a picture, whereupon I told him to sit down and wait till I should be free. There was another picture in the way he obeyed me, and I observed as I worked that there were others still in the way he looked wonderingly, with his head thrown back, about the high studio. He might have been crossing himself in St. Peter’s. Before I finished I said to myself: “The fellow’s a bankrupt orange-monger, but he’s a treasure.”
When Mrs. Monarch withdrew he passed across the room like a flash to open the door for her, standing there with the rapt, pure gaze of the young Dante spellbound by the young Beatrice. As I never insisted, in such situations, on the blankness of the British domestic, I reflected that he had the making of a servant (and I needed one, but couldn’t pay him to be only that), as well as of a model; in short I made up my mind to adopt my bright adventurer if he would agree to officiate in the double capacity. He jumped at my offer, and in the event my rashness (for I had known nothing about him), was not brought home to me. He proved a sympathetic though a desultory ministrant, and had in a wonderful degree the sentiment de la pose. It was uncultivated, instinctive; a part of the happy instinct which had guided him to my door and helped him to spell out my name on the card nailed to it. He had had no other introduction to me than a guess, from the shape of my high north window, seen outside, that my place was a studio and that as a studio it would contain an artist. He had wandered to England in search of fortune, like other itinerants, and had embarked, with a partner and a small green handcart, on the sale of penny ices. The ices had melted away and the partner had dissolved in their train. My young man wore tight yellow trousers with reddish stripes and his name was Oronte. He was sallow but fair, and when I put him into some old clothes of my own he looked like an Englishman. He was as good as Miss Churm, who could look, when required, like an Italian.
I thought Mrs. Monarch’s face slightly convulsed when, on her coming back with her husband, she found Oronte installed. It was strange to have to recognise in a scrap of a lazzarone a competitor to her magnificent Major. It was she who scented danger first, for the Major was anecdotically unconscious. But Oronte gave us tea, with a hundred eager confusions (he had never seen such a queer process), and I think she thought better of me for having at last an “establishment.” They saw a couple of drawings that I had made of the establishment, and Mrs. Monarch hinted that it never would have struck her that he had sat for them. “Now the drawings you make from us, they look exactly like us,” she reminded me, smiling in triumph; and I recognised that this was indeed just their defect. When I drew the Monarchs I couldn’t, somehow, get away from them—get into the character I wanted to represent; and I had not the least desire my model should be discoverable in my picture. Miss Churm never was, and Mrs. Monarch thought I hid her, very properly, because she was vulgar; whereas if she was lost it was only as the dead who go to heaven are lost—in the gain of an angel the more.
By this time I had got a certain start with “Rutland Ramsay,” the first novel in the great projected series; that is I had produced a dozen drawings, several with the help of the Major and his wife, and I had sent them in for approval. My understanding with the publishers, as I have already hinted, had been that I was to be left to do my work, in this particular case, as I liked, with the whole book committed to me; but my connection with the rest of the series was only contingent. There were moments when, frankly, it was a comfort to have the real thing under one’s hand; for there were characters in “Rutland Ramsay” that were very much like it. There were people presumably as straight as the Major and women of as good a fashion as Mrs. Monarch. There was a great deal of country-house life—treated, it is true, in a fine, fanciful, ironical, generalised way—and there was a considerable implication of knickerbockers and kilts. There were certain things I had to settle at the outset; such things for instance as the exact appearance of the hero, the particular bloom of the heroine. The author of course gave me a lead, but there was a margin for interpretation. I took the Monarchs into my confidence, I told them frankly what I was about, I mentioned my embarrassments and alternatives. “Oh, take him!” Mrs. Monarch murmured sweetly, looking at her husband; and “What could you want better than my wife?” the Major inquired, with the comfortable candour that now prevailed between us.
I was not obliged to answer these remarks—I was only obliged to place my sitters. I was not easy in mind, and I postponed, a little timidly perhaps, the solution of the question. The book was a large canvas, the other figures were numerous, and I worked off at first some of the episodes in which the hero and the heroine were not concerned. When once I had set them up I should have to stick to them—I couldn’t make my young man seven feet high in one place and five feet nine in another. I inclined on the whole to the latter measurement, though the Major more than once reminded me that he looked about as young as anyone. It was indeed quite possible to arrange him, for the figure, so that it would have been difficult to detect his age. After the spontaneous Oronte had been with me a month, and after I had given him to understand several different times that his native exuberance would presently constitute an insurmountable barrier to our further intercourse, I waked to a sense of his heroic capacity. He was only five feet seven, but the remaining inches were latent. I tried him almost secretly at first, for I was really rather afraid of the judgment my other models would pass on such a choice. If they regarded Miss Churm as little better than a snare, what would they think of the representation by a person so little the real thing as an Italian street-vendor of a protagonist formed by a public school?
If I went a little in fear of them it was not because they bullied me, because they had got an oppressive foothold, but because in their really pathetic decorum and mysteriously permanent newness they counted on me so intensely. I was therefore very glad when Jack Hawley came home: he was always of such good counsel. He painted badly himself, but there was no one like him for putting his finger on the place. He had been absent from England for a year; he had been somewhere—I don’t remember where—to get a fresh eye. I was in a good deal of dread of any such organ, but we were old friends; he had been away for months and a sense of emptiness was creeping into my life. I hadn’t dodged a missile for a year.
He came back with a fresh eye, but with the same old black velvet blouse, and the first evening he spent in my studio we smoked cigarettes till the small hours. He had done no work himself, he had only got the eye; so the field was clear for the production of my little things. He wanted to see what I had done for the Cheapside, but he was disappointed in the exhibition. That at least seemed the meaning of two or three comprehensive groans which, as he lounged on my big divan, on a folded leg, looking at my latest drawings, issued from his lips with the smoke of the cigarette.
“What’s the matter with you?” I asked.
“What’s the matter with you?”
“Nothing save that I’m mystified.”
“You are indeed. You’re quite off the hinge. What’s the meaning of this new fad?” And he tossed me, with visible irreverence, a drawing in which I happened to have depicted both my majestic models. I asked if he didn’t think it good, and he replied that it struck him as execrable, given the sort of thing I had always represented myself to him as wishing to arrive at; but I let that pass, I was so anxious to see exactly what he meant. The two figures in the picture looked colossal, but I supposed this was not what he meant, inasmuch as, for aught he knew to the contrary, I might have been trying for that. I maintained that I was working exactly in the same way as when he last had done me the honour to commend me. “Well, there’s a big hole somewhere,” he answered; “wait a bit and I’ll discover it.” I depended upon him to do so: where else was the fresh eye? But he produced at last nothing more luminous than “I don’t know—I don’t like your types.” This was lame, for a critic who had never consented to discuss with me anything but the question of execution, the direction of strokes and the mystery of values.
“In the drawings you’ve been looking at I think my types are very handsome.”
“Oh, they won’t do!”
“I’ve had a couple of new models.”
“I see you have. They won’t do.”
“Are you very sure of that?”
“You mean I am—for I ought to get round that.”
“You can’t—with such people. Who are they?”
I told him, as far as was necessary, and he declared, heartlessly: “Ce sont des gens qu’il faut mettre à la porte.”
“You’ve never seen them; they’re awfully good,” I compassionately objected.
“Not seen them? Why, all this recent work of yours drops to pieces with them. It’s all I want to see of them.”
“No one else has said anything against it—the Cheapside people are pleased.”
“Everyone else is an ass, and the Cheapside people the biggest asses of all. Come, don’t pretend, at this time of day, to have pretty illusions about the public, especially about publishers and editors. It’s not for such animals you work—it’s for those who know, coloro che sanno; so keep straight for me if you can’t keep straight for yourself. There’s a certain sort of thing you tried for from the first—and a very good thing it is. But this twaddle isn’t in it.” When I talked with Hawley later about “Rutland Ramsay” and its possible successors he declared that I must get back into my boat again or I would go to the bottom. His voice in short was the voice of warning.
I noted the warning, but I didn’t turn my friends out of doors. They bored me a good deal; but the very fact that they bored me admonished me not to sacrifice them—if there was anything to be done with them—simply to irritation. As I look back at this phase they seem to me to have pervaded my life not a little. I have a vision of them as most of the time in my studio, seated, against the wall, on an old velvet bench to be out of the way, and looking like a pair of patient courtiers in a royal ante-chamber. I am convinced that during the coldest weeks of the winter they held their ground because it saved them fire. Their newness was losing its gloss, and it was impossible not to feel that they were objects of charity. Whenever Miss Churm arrived they went away, and after I was fairly launched in “Rutland Ramsay” Miss Churm arrived pretty often. They managed to express to me tacitly that they supposed I wanted her for the low life of the book, and I let them suppose it, since they had attempted to study the work—it was lying about the studio—without discovering that it dealt only with the highest circles. They had dipped into the most brilliant of our novelists without deciphering many passages. I still took an hour from them, now and again, in spite of Jack Hawley’s warning: it would be time enough to dismiss them, if dismissal should be necessary, when the rigour of the season was over. Hawley had made their acquaintance—he had met them at my fireside—and thought them a ridiculous pair. Learning that he was a painter they tried to approach him, to show him too that they were the real thing; but he looked at them, across the big room, as if they were miles away: they were a compendium of everything that he most objected to in the social system of his country. Such people as that, all convention and patent-leather, with ejaculations that stopped conversation, had no business in a studio. A studio was a place to learn to see, and how could you see through a pair of feather beds?
The main inconvenience I suffered at their hands was that, at first, I was shy of letting them discover how my artful little servant had begun to sit to me for “Rutland Ramsay.” They knew that I had been odd enough (they were prepared by this time to allow oddity to artists,) to pick a foreign vagabond out of the streets, when I might have had a person with whiskers and credentials; but it was some time before they learned how high I rated his accomplishments. They found him in an attitude more than once, but they never doubted I was doing him as an organ-grinder. There were several things they never guessed, and one of them was that for a striking scene in the novel, in which a footman briefly figured, it occurred to me to make use of Major Monarch as the menial. I kept putting this off, I didn’t like to ask him to don the livery—besides the difficulty of finding a livery to fit him. At last, one day late in the winter, when I was at work on the despised Oronte (he caught one’s idea in an instant), and was in the glow of feeling that I was going very straight, they came in, the Major and his wife, with their society laugh about nothing (there was less and less to laugh at), like country-callers—they always reminded me of that—who have walked across the park after church and are presently persuaded to stay to luncheon. Luncheon was over, but they could stay to tea—I knew they wanted it. The fit was on me, however, and I couldn’t let my ardour cool and my work wait, with the fading daylight, while my model prepared it. So I asked Mrs. Monarch if she would mind laying it out—a request which, for an instant, brought all the blood to her face. Her eyes were on her husband’s for a second, and some mute telegraphy passed between them. Their folly was over the next instant; his cheerful shrewdness put an end to it. So far from pitying their wounded pride, I must add, I was moved to give it as complete a lesson as I could. They bustled about together and got out the cups and saucers and made the kettle boil. I know they felt as if they were waiting on my servant, and when the tea was prepared I said: “He’ll have a cup, please—he’s tired.” Mrs. Monarch brought him one where he stood, and he took it from her as if he had been a gentleman at a party, squeezing a crush-hat with an elbow.
Then it came over me that she had made a great effort for me—made it with a kind of nobleness—and that I owed her a compensation. Each time I saw her after this I wondered what the compensation could be. I couldn’t go on doing the wrong thing to oblige them. Oh, it was the wrong thing, the stamp of the work for which they sat—Hawley was not the only person to say it now. I sent in a large number of the drawings I had made for “Rutland Ramsay,” and I received a warning that was more to the point than Hawley’s. The artistic adviser of the house for which I was working was of opinion that many of my illustrations were not what had been looked for. Most of these illustrations were the subjects in which the Monarchs had figured. Without going into the question of what had been looked for, I saw at this rate I shouldn’t get the other books to do. I hurled myself in despair upon Miss Churm, I put her through all her paces. I not only adopted Oronte publicly as my hero, but one morning when the Major looked in to see if I didn’t require him to finish a figure for the Cheapside, for which he had begun to sit the week before, I told him that I had changed my mind—I would do the drawing from my man. At this my visitor turned pale and stood looking at me. “Is he your idea of an English gentleman?” he asked.
I was disappointed, I was nervous, I wanted to get on with my work; so I replied with irritation: “Oh, my dear Major—I can’t be ruined for you!”
He stood another moment; then, without a word, he quitted the studio. I drew a long breath when he was gone, for I said to myself that I shouldn’t see him again. I had not told him definitely that I was in danger of having my work rejected, but I was vexed at his not having felt the catastrophe in the air, read with me the moral of our fruitless collaboration, the lesson that, in the deceptive atmosphere of art, even the highest respectability may fail of being plastic.
I didn’t owe my friends money, but I did see them again. They re-appeared together, three days later, and under the circumstances there was something tragic in the fact. It was a proof to me that they could find nothing else in life to do. They had threshed the matter out in a dismal conference—they had digested the bad news that they were not in for the series. If they were not useful to me even for the Cheapside their function seemed difficult to determine, and I could only judge at first that they had come, forgivingly, decorously, to take a last leave. This made me rejoice in secret that I had little leisure for a scene; for I had placed both my other models in position together and I was pegging away at a drawing from which I hoped to derive glory. It had been suggested by the passage in which Rutland Ramsay, drawing up a chair to Artemisia’s piano-stool, says extraordinary things to her while she ostensibly fingers out a difficult piece of music. I had done Miss Churm at the piano before—it was an attitude in which she knew how to take on an absolutely poetic grace. I wished the two figures to “compose” together, intensely, and my little Italian had entered perfectly into my conception. The pair were vividly before me, the piano had been pulled out; it was a charming picture of blended youth and murmured love, which I had only to catch and keep. My visitors stood and looked at it, and I was friendly to them over my shoulder.
They made no response, but I was used to silent company and went on with my work, only a little disconcerted (even though exhilarated by the sense that this was at least the ideal thing), at not having got rid of them after all. Presently I heard Mrs. Monarch’s sweet voice beside, or rather above me: “I wish her hair was a little better done.” I looked up and she was staring with a strange fixedness at Miss Churm, whose back was turned to her. “Do you mind my just touching it?” she went on—a question which made me spring up for an instant, as with the instinctive fear that she might do the young lady a harm. But she quieted me with a glance I shall never forget—I confess I should like to have been able to paint that—and went for a moment to my model. She spoke to her softly, laying a hand upon her shoulder and bending over her; and as the girl, understanding, gratefully assented, she disposed her rough curls, with a few quick passes, in such a way as to make Miss Churm’s head twice as charming. It was one of the most heroic personal services I have ever seen rendered. Then Mrs. Monarch turned away with a low sigh and, looking about her as if for something to do, stooped to the floor with a noble humility and picked up a dirty rag that had dropped out of my paint-box.
The Major meanwhile had also been looking for something to do and, wandering to the other end of the studio, saw before him my breakfast things, neglected, unremoved. “I say, can’t I be useful here?” he called out to me with an irrepressible quaver. I assented with a laugh that I fear was awkward and for the next ten minutes, while I worked, I heard the light clatter of china and the tinkle of spoons and glass. Mrs. Monarch assisted her husband—they washed up my crockery, they put it away. They wandered off into my little scullery, and I afterwards found that they had cleaned my knives and that my slender stock of plate had an unprecedented surface. When it came over me, the latent eloquence of what they were doing, I confess that my drawing was blurred for a moment—the picture swam. They had accepted their failure, but they couldn’t accept their fate. They had bowed their heads in bewilderment to the perverse and cruel law in virtue of which the real thing could be so much less precious than the unreal; but they didn’t want to starve. If my servants were my models, my models might be my servants. They would reverse the parts—the others would sit for the ladies and gentlemen, and they would do the work. They would still be in the studio—it was an intense dumb appeal to me not to turn them out. “Take us on,” they wanted to say—“we’ll do anything.”
When all this hung before me the afflatus vanished—my pencil dropped from my hand. My sitting was spoiled and I got rid of my sitters, who were also evidently rather mystified and awestruck. Then, alone with the Major and his wife, I had a most uncomfortable moment, He put their prayer into a single sentence: “I say, you know—just let us do for you, can’t you?” I couldn’t—it was dreadful to see them emptying my slops; but I pretended I could, to oblige them, for about a week. Then I gave them a sum of money to go away; and I never saw them again. I obtained the remaining books, but my friend Hawley repeats that Major and Mrs. Monarch did me a permanent harm, got me into a second-rate trick. If it be true I am content to have paid the price—for the memory.
Gentlemen, my name is Jamal Ahmad. I work as a signals private in Forward Reconnaissance Unit 312, engaging the American enemy in the south.
I confess in your presence, and I am of sound mind, that I killed Salim Hussein, signals corporal in our unit. I pulled out my revolver and shot him in the head, because he was quite simply a traitor, and the penalty for treason is death.
I do not deny it, and I am prepared to defend my action regardless of the punishment you impose.
I sentenced him to death and I carried out the sentence myself, with my own weapon. That was because as I went into the signals room I caught him speaking to an American intelligence officer. It was at noon on Monday, and I could not bear listening to him spouting abuse and filth. I pulled out my 9 mm calibre Browning army revolver. I fired three shots at him. I aimed right at his body so that one bullet lodged in his forehead and one in his heart, and I fired one at his balls.
I wanted to emasculate him because a traitor is not a man, and therefore has no right to die a man. These are the ethical values of we Arabs. Honour and the land above all. Whoever betrays honour has to die without balls, and whoever betrays the land has to die without a grave.
Gentlemen, I did him no wrong by this action, none. I went through an agony of reflection before I proceeded to kill him. I lost the ability to sleep, and for two months I didn’t sleep a wink. I even held a trial in my head. In my imagination I even gave him a lawyer. But in the end, I reached the conclusion that he was a traitor, and there is no escaping the fact that the penalty for treason is death.
I bid you, Gentlemen, not to imagine that the treason of the signals corporal in our unit is an enigma. I came upon him on Tuesday evening, and found him communicating with the Americans and giving them the coordinates of many military positions. I heard him with my own two ears, which will be eaten by worms after I die. I saw him with my own two eyes as he was committing an act of treason in front of me, without batting an eyelid about what he was doing.
He is quite simply a spy, and when I confronted him about it he confessed that he was a spy working for the Americans. But he felt remorse for what he had done or was afraid of being denounced. He asked me to shoot him once in the head. It would be a bullet of mercy, so I pulled out my 9 mm calibre Browning revolver and fired one shot. He fell to the ground.
Yes, one shot to the head was enough to kill him, and I don’t know about the other two shots. There was no need for more shots to kill the traitor, for the only punishment for a traitor is death as you know. I don’t suppose anyone in the whole world would dispute that.
Gentlemen, honour is our most precious asset. As you know, I am an honourable and courageous soldier, and so my military honour could not abide me coming across a traitor and a spy for the Americans in our unit and my not carrying out the sentence of death. There is no enigma about it at all, as I have explained to you. I came across him in the signals room and saw him laughing and speaking English with an American officer. I confronted him with the matter. He denied it however. He said he was talking to a certain corporal Adil in the Construction Unit who, like him, was practising speaking English. I knew that he wanted to deceive me. At that moment, Gentlemen, I did not have my revolver with me. But I looked to the right of the radio and noticed on the chair his 9 mm calibre Browning revolver. He sensed the danger and as he reached to get hold of it I pounced on it and snatched it from his grasp. I took two steps back. He stood there speechless, and I fired two shots straight at him, one at his heart, and the other to his balls, because a traitor is not a man.
I don’t know anything about the bullet that hit him in the head.
At that moment Signals Private Wahid came in. He came in immediately after hearing the shot that had been fired and saw the traitor spread out on the ground and me with the revolver in my hand. He was an eye-witness any way, and I suppose he told you that he entered the place after hearing the shot and found the corporal dead.
But what he said afterwards is not correct. I was not in the room at the initial moment. I was passing by in the corridor that led to the officer’s room and I passed the signals room by chance and heard Corporal Wahid asking me to come in. When I went in I found him shaking and in tears. I asked him what was wrong, and he said he had betrayed his military unit and had sullied his military honour. He had, in exchange for a sum of money, given the Americans the coordinates to enable American planes to bomb Iraqi forces. He was full of remorse for this and had decided to kill himself. I handed him my military revolver, and he took it from me with assurance. He stood in front of me, placed the revolver to his temple and fired one shot. He fell to the ground, the revolver in his hand. Then Signals Private Wahid came in. He had been smoking outside the signals room and found me standing there unarmed. The signals corporal had fallen to the ground, the revolver in his hand.
You know, Gentlemen, that Private Wahid is an ignorant fellow. He can neither read nor write. He is a peasant from the south who knows no English and does not know whether the signals corporal was speaking with the Americans or with one of his friends in the Construction Unit. But this issue does not fool me at all. I was standing near the signals room and heard strange sounds and an argument going on inside between Signals Corporal Salim and Private Wahid. The signals corporal was receiving telegrams from an unknown source, probably the Americans. In the course of the argument a shot was fired from Private Wahid’s revolver that hit the signals corporal in his balls. Private Wahid accused the signals corporal of having relations with his wife when he had sent her via him a sum of money two months earlier. The traitor had taken advantage of this and had had relations with Private Wahid’s wife, as Private Wahid himself confirmed.
You know, Gentlemen, that Private Wahid is lying when he says that the signals corporal was not speaking with the Americans. He said that he was on duty; that he was speaking with a soldier he knew in the Construction Brigade; that Corporal Wahid was asleep; and that it was me who went in and woke him up and accused him of having had relations with my wife when I asked him to take my salary to her when he was on regular leave.
It’s not like that. First of all, she isn’t my wife but Private Wahid’s wife, the man who accused him of treason. But afterwards I discovered that he had been talking with the Americans in English, and so, Gentlemen, I have not broken the law, but enforced it. The penalty for treason is death. When I caught him betraying Private Wahid and spying for the Americans, he stammered to begin with, then firmly denied it. He thought that I might let him get away with it. I said to him, “I’m not getting my own back on you, but there will be someone who does enforce the law against you.” I handed over my revolver to Private Wahid, and said to him, “Avenge your honour; this is the man who sullied your honour.”
As soon as Corporal Salim turned round, Private Wahid surprised him with a bullet to his heart. I took the revolver from Wahid and fired two shots, one at his balls so he would die without his manhood, and the other at his temple to kill him off.
The traitor, Gentlemen, deserved to die without mercy. These are our laws. He was not a human being, but a louse that had to be crushed!
Gentlemen, I am an honourable soldier. There is not a speck of dust on my honour. I have done nothing in my life out of order. It is now autumn, and this is the second year of my military service, and I don’t know why you have sent for me.
I don’t have any money and I don’t have any hopes. I never made contact with the Americans. Everything they have said about me is a fabrication to embarrass me in public, a character assassination. I did not kill Signals Corporal Salim because of a woman. The woman is my wife and not the wife of Private Wahid. He was not there and I don’t know who brought him as a witness. He did not see a thing. I have been living an insult for a long time, Gentlemen. My wife betrayed me and sullied my honour while I was here defending the honour of the fatherland. She deserved to die.
As for the signals corporal, I don’t know who killed him. Perhaps Private Wahid because one of those two was committing treason and spying for the Americans.
Much has happened to me whose meaning or causes I do not understand. The signals corporal tormented me for ages. He told me that to be a soldier in signals you had to have a voice that did not jar. You had to open your mouth and breathe out from your lungs as if you were singing. It was not necessary to speak but you had to know what you were saying.
Gentlemen, he threatened me because I was not proficient in my work. He said he would kill me and dance on my rotten corpse. He used to shout at me whenever I made a mistake in relaying messages among the officers. He spat at me. He kicked me in the stomach.
I am a humble private, Gentlemen. I haven’t slept for two months, since the beginning of the American invasion to this day. Everyone has ganged up against me: Time, Fate, the Americans, the signals corporal and my wife.
“Well then tell her that she intends to get out of here, mister,” the Israeli policeman called out. He was standing, arms folded, at one entrance to Mandelbaum Gate when I explained to him that we had come with my mother who intended to go through after being allowed to pass. I pointed over the Jordanian side of the gate.
That was at the end of the winter. The sun was hinting at spring. The dust between the mounds of rubble was covered in green. Rubble heaps to the right, mounds of rubble to the left. Children with pe’ot (side curls) playing amidst the piles and the green stirred a sense of wonder in our children’s hearts. Our kids had come with us in order to say goodbye to their grandmother. “Children and hair braids – how on earth?!”
In the heart of that old neighborhood we always called “Musrara”, there was an expanse of dusty asphalt which formed a wide courtyard. It was marked off by two doorways: the “here” door and the “there” door. These gates were made of stones from ruins and flattened tin, and were whitewashed by plaster. Each was wide enough to ensure proper passage for the “exiting” or the “entering” car.
Stressing the word “exit”, the guard said, as if he wanted to teach me a lesson; “What’s important is leaving the Garden of Eden, not getting in over “there”.” The customs officer did not want us to miss the lesson either. When everyone was kissing mother goodbye, he said: “Whoever exits from here never comes back”.
And I think that such unsettling thoughts also plagued mother during her last days with us. When our close friends and family members gathered the night before the trip to Jerusalem she said, “I lived in order to see my mourners (those who would eulogize me) with my own eyes.” And in the morning when we slid down the sloped alley to the car, she turned her gaze behind and gestured toward the olive and apricot trees at the door of her house, musing, “Twenty years I’ve lived here, and who can count the number of times I’ve gone up and down this alley!”
And when the car passed by the cemetery on the outskirts of town she turned to her deceased dear ones and let out, like an inner whisper, “Why isn’t it my fortune to be buried here? And who will place flowers on my granddaughter’s grave?”
In 1940, when she had gone up to Jerusalem, a fortune teller had told her that it would be her fate to die in the holy city. Would his prophecy come true in the end?
She was seventy-five back then and had not yet experienced this feeling of terror that was taking over her heart and injecting utter emptiness into her soul; a feeling like the pangs of a suffering conscience – missing one’s homeland. And if one were to ask her, for example, to explain the meaning of the word “homeland”, she would undoubtedly become confused just as she did that time she first came across the word in her prayer book and didn’t know whether to say it meant house, or at a minimum, laundry tub. Or perhaps it meant the piece of land – the Kuba crater – that had come down to her from mother (her friends laughed at her when she wanted to take the laundry tub with her but she did not even dare to think of the Kuba crater). Or maybe “homeland” was the cries of the milkman that came with the dawn, or the din-don of the oil vendor’s bell, or her sick husband’s coughing voice, or nights like the nights when her children were home – those who had gone with their families and abandoned her doorstep, leaving her alone.
Of all places, this lintel was her house’s doorstep, the one on which her last gaze rested, and the one that was privy and could attest to the countless times she stood on it, day in, day out – to see her children off, having gladdened their hearts, or to sing them a song; a tender, mother’s song, with tears in her eyes:
Dark-feathered chick, your expression grew
Into that of a bird; to sing and to nest were your teachings
Now you have grown, your wings have lifted your feathers,
You have flown, and I troubled over you for nought.
Even if she were told that “homeland” was each and every one of these things all together, the term’s riddle would not have been solved. But now, when her legs are stepping over to the “no-man’s land” and she is expecting them to let her move and step forward – now she turns to her daughter and says, “How my soul yearned to sit and rest, if only one more time, on that lintel!” Her elderly brother, who had troubled himself to come from the village to part from her, gave an instant nod, his face pained and puzzled. For indeed, this was the mysterious thing which caused him to mourn and his sister to suffer; that which she could not uproot from the ground and take with her – this thing that was most dear to his heart as well. A neighbor of ours said to him: “When all’s said and done you’ll be forced to sign on to their vendor’s contract. The law’s on their side!”
But the old man turned to me and said: “Listen, my dear, one day my father, my younger brother, and I were watching over the field. Suddenly a flock of thrushes engulfed the field. My little brother took a hunting rifle in his hands, to show that he was a real man. A loud laugh burst from my father (you remember how your grandfather laughed, my dear?). When he saw the son of his old age thus, he called out, “Hunting thrushes is a man’s job, my boy!”
But the little one was immensely stubborn. He held on to the rifle without relaxing a muscle. Sometime later he came back with a live thrush in the palm of his hand. The wonder of wonders! We were dumbfounded. And he, the little wild thing, was jumping with excitement. He was so proud of this chance to hunt that had come his way. “But we didn’t hear the gun shot!” my father called out, to which the little hunter replied, “I put a spell on the rifle, Dad!” And my father and my father’s fathers made me swear never to tell his secret – which was: he saw the thrush in danger when it was caught between the teeth of a big cat. Without a second thought, the boy bolted after the cat amid the boulders and the corn stalks, until he caught it and rescued the feathered thing from the predatory jaws.. .voila! And they expect me to sign on to a contract to sell (out) these memories? They have no power in their laws to do such a thing – none!
My advice to you is not to come to Mandelbaum Gate with your children. And it’s not because the ruined houses fascinate or entice them to cast about inside for a magic lamp or adventures like Aladdin’s. In fact, it’s not even because of the Hasidim’s waving sidecurls (pe’ot) that cause children to ask intriguing questions. They shouldn’t come with you because the road that leads to Mandelbaum Gate does not stop at it, even for a fleeting second, for those entering “there” or exiting “here”. There are American luxury cars whose passengers are healthy and dressed up, either with a blaze of color around their necks or in their army uniforms.
There are the cars of the “cease-fire people”, and of groups of U.N. inspectors. The rest of the passengers are ambassadors and representatives of Western states, with their presidents and their presidents’ cooks, their drinks, and their beautiful women. They do stop briefly by “our gate” so their drivers can exchange greetings with “our” guard — as cultured people do. And after passing through the no-man’s land, they stop briefly by “their gate” and exchange greetings with “their policemen” too, such that in this space of good manners and culture there is a back-and-forth Israeli-Jordanian competition.
The “he who goes from here” death sentence does not fall on these travelers; nor do they come under the Garden of Eden law of “he who enters does not leave.” For this way the honored observer can take lunch at the “Philadelphia” hotel over there, and dinner at the “Eden” hotel on this side, while his smile never skips off his face.
When my sister turned to the soldier – to the one who stands by “our gate,” to ask his permission to accompany mother to the Jordanian gate, he replied: “It’s forbidden Ma’am.” But I see those foreigners entering and leaving as if this were their home!” “Everyone is allowed to pass through these gates except Jews and Arabs. Except for the natives, my good lady.” He then said, “I must ask you to move out of the street. This is a main road bustling with traffic -.” He broke off in mid-sentence to joke with the passengers of a car pulling up (was it an “exiting” or an “entering” car?)
But we didn’t see what was funny here.
“Everything comes to an end, even in a time of parting!” said the customs official. An old woman leaning on a stick set out from “our gate” in the direction of “their gate.” She slowly crossed the “no-man’s land,” turning her head back from minute to minute, waving her hand and advancing further. And why should it be precisely now that her conscience knocks at her?
A soldier in a kaffiya and band burst out from among the ruins on the opposite side. He approached the old woman who was entering and stopped to snatch a bit of conversation with her. The two of them looked over to our side. We stood here with the children waving our hands. A soldier who looked deprived because of his exposed head stood in front of us and talked with us as well. He repeated that it was forbidden to go one step further.
Why did he say, “It’s as if she’s crossed the Valley of Death from which we don’t come back. That’s the reality of war; borders and Mandelbaum Gate. I must ask you to move over to the other side of the U.N. car”?
And suddenly a small body, squirming with life sprang out — leaped like a ball thrust into the air by a soccer game kick, streaking conspicuously towards the rival team’s goal post. The body leaped out and started to run ahead of us, cutting across the “no man’s land.” With a shock we realized that this was none other than my little daughter running after her grandmother, yelling, “Grandma! Grandma!” Look – the “no-man’s land” is already behind her and she’s reaching Grandmother..and Grandma is lifting her up in her arms.
From afar we saw how the soldier in the kaffiya was looking at the ground. My eyes were moist and I can attest that the soldier stood there pecking at the ground with his foot. And as for the soldier who stood with us, he also lowered his head and started scuffing the ground. The guard who was standing by the office doing nothing faded back and went inside. The customs official started looking for something in his pocket which he had apparently lost all of a sudden…
A great miracle happened here. A little girl cut across the Valley of Death from which none return. And see, in spite of everything she does come back to us crowned with triumph over the present reality of war, borders, and Mandelbaum Gate.
A girl ignorant of all of this, who doesn’t understand the real difference between the soldier in the kaffiya, and this one here with no head covering. A small, innocent girl! And because in those days there were no open hostilities towards the remote lands, how could the silly little one not think, as she was accustomed to, that she was still in her country? Here she saw her father stand on one side and her grandmother on the other. Here were cars galloping back and forth across the “no-man’s land” just like they did by her house. Here people speak Hebrew, there they speak Arabic. And therefore she speaks in the two languages, in the one with her great-grandson and in the other with his horse. The customs official despaired, it seemed, of finding the thing he had lost (there is an end to everything, even to embarrassment), for he suddenly stopped the exhausting search, moved in his place, and said to the soldier as if to comfort him: “an innocent child.” “I must ask you, good people, to move away from the street lest one of your children fall between the wheels of the stampeding cars.”
And he moved back first.
Do you understand, therefore, why I advised you not to come to Mandelbaum Gate accompanied by your children? Their logic is so simple and uncomplicated, but so healthy!
*Translated from Arabic into Hebrew by Sasson Somekh, 1955
**Reprinted in Iton 77 No. 196, May 1996. 18-19
***Translated from Hebrew into English by Stacy N. Beckwith, August 1999
The low sun, the brass bands, the President’s face blazing with self-confidence. Everyone over thirty can still bring the images to mind. The President, who was on an official visit to Afrasia, a turbulent and largely corrupt country with which he wished to strengthen diplomatic relations. The President who, perturbed by the decrease in his popularity and by criticisms of his supposedly anti-African policies, wanted it to be seen that he did not feel disdain for the native population and their customs.
Flanked by his security forces he stepped out of his armoured vehicle to stroll through the narrow streets of Afraat. He was smiling.
I remember that large, unwieldy body falling backwards when the bullet hit him, I remember the bodyguards rushing to cover him, to no avail, I remember the feet of this once powerful man, limp and lifeless. 5th May, 2017, five five, a date now branded into the history books.
By that evening it was already clear that the assassination had been carried out by a twenty-five year old white man, born in the United States but living in Afrasia for the past few months as an exchange student. Within a short space of time his surname, Goldstein, was abbreviated to G. G., who had altered the course of world history, twenty years ago, when he took the life of the President of the United States of America with a single shot.
In spite of strong diplomatic pressure the Afrasian government had refused to simply hand G. over. They locked him up in a maximum security prison, hoping that the new US President would do a deal with them. Journalists from every country in the world wanted to interview G. Someone like me wouldn’t have the slightest chance, and nothing was going to change that fact. That, at least, was what I expected.
But yet another President was elected, someone who had little interest in the drawn-out affair the assassination had become. When it became apparent that the preferential arrangements the Afrasians had hoped for would never materialize, the ties between the two countries were officially cut. That was the point at which G. lost his political value, and many journalists lost interest in him. In the end I was the only one who still persisted. For months I corresponded with the relevant Prison Governor, until he finally agreed to permit direct contact with G., allowing an exchange of letters. That was three years ago. For three whole years I’ve been trying to win G.’s trust and although the tone of the letters was rather impersonal at first, slowly they began to show signs of warmth, of friendship even. When it was his birthday, I would ask how it had been celebrated. And he’d enquire about my wife, my career, my life in general. I was honest with him. Perhaps too honest.
I’d almost stopped hoping for an actual meeting, but then last month I received an official-looking letter. G. had managed to persuade the governing board of the prison to agree to a meeting. I would be allowed to interview him for an hour. That is why I’m here today, walking through that menacing iron gate, handing in my keys and phone, being frisked and scanned.
I am escorted to a white, ice-cold room, in the middle of which stands a small metal table. Above the table there’s a fluorescent strip-light, to my left a large mirror behind which the Governor is probably standing, surrounded by officers who could halt the conversation at any point. I sit down at the table, on one of two metal stools. The waiting for G. begins, the wait for the very first interview with the President’s assassin.
From a journalistic perspective G. remains an interesting figure. Books and academic papers have been written about him, a biopic came out last year. But my interest in the man isn’t purely journalistic. I can still remember exactly how I felt when the President came into power, when he bent the constitution to his will, violated international treaties, demeaned large groups of people, destroyed the country’s reputation. Gripped by a sense of impotence, immensely disorientated, I felt myself becoming part of history.
For months I’d asked myself what I could do to get rid of that feeling, how I could best articulate my anxieties. I started writing: letters to newspaper editors, and then opinion pieces. I wrote and printed pamphlets to hand out at demonstrations. If the President hadn’t been elected, I would probably still be working for a printing firm, counting the minutes till the next coffee break. When my pieces began to be published on a regular basis, I quit my job to devote myself entirely to writing. But the more I wrote, the greater my realization that my words weren’t getting through to the White House, not even close. The President didn’t hear and continued to rule, unscathed. But how else could I express my anger? Was there some kind of act that could compel what words could not compel: the fall of the President?
That kind of act existed, of course it did. I remember an Irish magazine cover from that period. It showed an image of the President’s head behind the cross-hairs of a hypothetical sniper. The headline: Why Not? In the article that went with it, the Catholic theologian St. Thomas Aquinas was cited. He said that someone who killed a tyrant to save his land deserved nothing but praise. The case of Cassius and Brutus was examined, who had found reasons to kill Caesar, the dictator who had brought the Roman Republic to an end. The standpoint of utilitarian philosophers was also discussed: they believed that the correctness of an action was entirely determined by its ends. If an evil act led to an increase of happiness for a great number of people, could it still be described as evil? With hindsight this was how the theoretical framework for the forthcoming assassination was established. And two months later G. matched the deed to the word. The President collapsed, the bodyguards flung themselves over him, it was too late. I stared at the television, stunned, not knowing whether to weep or cheer.
Footsteps in the corridor. Six feet, three people. The light shining under the door is broken by shadows. A prison guard enters, and then G. appears. He sits down opposite me. The guards go and stand by the door, their arms folded. There he is, the physical, mortal, older version of G., as the world knows him. His eyes are more sunken than they used to be, and compared to the few photos of him in the papers, he has lost weight. He says that it took some doing but here we are at last, sitting opposite each other. His voice, which I’ve never heard before, is soft and melodious. His language is the same as in his letters: that feeling for understatement, that lightly archaic choice of words. All those hours I’ve thought about the first question I’ll ask him. And now I’m here I hear myself say: How are things for you now?
G.: ‘I hope you’ll forgive me if I don’t answer that question. It’s the only question that anyone here still asks me, and then it’s just the welfare officer, who is obliged to ask occasionally, although my answer doesn’t interest him. In other words, the question has become a caricature. My answer, moreover, would be meaningless. You can probably imagine what kind of quality of life a presidential assassin is permitted. And if you can’t, then you’re lucky.’
You’ve been a prisoner for exactly twenty years. Can you still remember the day that brought you here?
‘I think everyone can still remember that day. But my memories will differ from most. I saw no television images afterwards, no programmes which endlessly analyzed the act. What I remember is the walk to the building I would shoot from, to the window I knew wouldn’t be properly checked, because of its so-called unrealistic position. Every step I took had been measured and calculated in advance. I only had to set in motion the actions I had so often imagined. It was as if I was sleepwalking. I sleepwalked to the window, took out the gun, put the end of the barrel on the window frame, between those two shards of glass that caught the sun. As you probably realize, I knew that building very well. The university was situated in the same quarter. I had carefully prepared myself, studying hundreds of clips on the internet, taking notes. I’d practised in forests, in the desert. The weapon, obtained from the dark web, was easy to operate, which is why I had chosen it. The President was less than forty metres away from my window. Even for someone who had never previously aimed at a living being, it was not a difficult shot. I waited and pulled the trigger at the right moment. That is my version of the day.’
And the arrest? What do you still recall of that?
‘All arrests are the same in principle. Shouting, handcuffs, a police van.’
Well, the aftermath then. It was striking that you never opposed the charges. Statements to the outside world would emerge every so often, in which you claimed responsibility for the act without ever displaying a grain of remorse.
‘Would remorse, whether feigned or not, have made the slightest difference? Before carrying out the assassination, I was not the typical future murderer. I harboured no violent fantasies or aggressive dreams. I paid my taxes. I walked the neighbour’s dog when necessary. I was an excellent student. I had never even touched a gun. In the years before this President emerged, my engagement with politics had been limited. Well, you’re familiar with my file. I had no peculiar or distorted picture of the value of life. I knew exactly what was entailed. I knew I would deprive someone of his life, that I would make his children orphans and his wife a widow. But I consider it a question of politeness not to lament matters after the act, nor to display obscene pangs of remorse. If I have these, then I suffer them alone, in my cell.’
No regrets, then? Never?
It is extremely difficult to feel sympathy for someone who shows no remorse.
‘If I attached much value to a positive image, I would probably not have assassinated the leader of the free world. I ask for no one’s sympathy.’
Did you realize what the assassination would bring about?
I did not know exactly what would happen, but I considered it likely that matters would improve with someone else at the helm. And I believe that history has proved me right. Of course, massive global problems still remain, but that period of mounting chaos, the utter lawlessness that could have been unleashed at any point, those are behind us now. The world is better for it.’
Just before the assassination you wrote a manifesto, Industrial Society and its Future. When it became apparent that the manifesto had been written by the President’s assassin, it was published as a supplement in a number of the more important newspapers. Somewhere in that manifesto you write: ‘Think of history as being the sum of two components: an erratic component that consists of unpredictable events that follow no discernible pattern, and a regular component that consists of long-term historical trends.’ 1
To which component do you feel your act belongs?
‘That is a difficult question. An attempted assassination is, of course, an unpredictable event. That is more or less its essence. On the other hand, history is full of examples of the assassination of autocrats and despots. There is even a word for it: tyrannicide. Many philosophers believe that it is not only desirable but legitimate to kill a despot who consistently acts against the interests of his own subjects, who creates and extends his own mandate. According to John of Salisbury, a twelfth-century philosopher, the state can be seen as a political organism in which all the members and organs of the body actively cooperate, for each other’s benefit and for the greater whole. If one of the organs no longer carries out its function, paying no further attention to the rest of the body, it is the duty of the body to reject the diseased part. You are familiar with the Great Seal of the United States, of course? The eagle imprinted on all documents of state? Do you know what Benjamin Franklin suggested as its motto? “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God”.’
But however you twist the matter, the President’s mandate was not created by himself. He was democratically elected.
‘He received around three million fewer votes than the opposing candidate. Moreover, the democratic vote is not a valid excuse. Hitler was also democratically elected. Is an elected tyrant so much better than a tyrant who just takes over? The democratic vote grants legitimacy to the very first day that the President is in office; thereafter he must earn his legitimacy himself, through his words and deeds. The President in question paid no attention to international treaties, national laws, or universal values. And make no mistake, the body certainly did rebel. Can you not remember the demonstrations, the protests, the resistance, the chaos in the stock markets? The body was suffering from a high, life-threatening fever that would quite possibly lead to its death.’
Do you have the feeling that the political and social climate of that era influenced your act?
It is difficult to say. It was not so much that I was influenced by that climate, as that I gave it shape. Undoubtedly the fever, as I prefer to call it, did have an influence on me. But nowadays my act is seen as the ultimate manifestation of that fever, its hysterical climax. That’s not the way I see it. My act was rational and considered. It was the act of a surgeon who had carefully and calmly studied the body and knew that the moment for action had arrived.’
The President’s supporters later claimed that the bullet came from the left, because of your former left-leaning sympathies.
‘I have always considered that a nonsensical and misleading idea. Left has nothing at all do with my actions. There is no political tendency or group that can be held responsible for what I did. I pulled the trigger; I, and I alone.’
You sacrificed yourself.
‘That is a very melodramatic way of representing it. Many people saw that something had to happen. In your letters you wrote that you were one of these. But I was the only one who decided on that particular day that the something would be an assassination. And to this very day I think I was right.’
Could you explain in two sentences why you carried out this act?
At a certain point apathy shades into complicity. I saw him behave exactly as he pleased and I knew it was more evil to conform to that narrow Christian commandment, Thou shalt not kill, than to take up the gauntlet myself. That realization weighed more heavily on me as each day passed. There were, of course, many people who thought as I did, but none of them lived where I lived, none of them knew the area the President would visit. Someone had to do it and I was the obvious person. Were those two sentences?
Your action understandably aroused extreme reactions. Many were overjoyed by the President’s death, others demanded nothing less than the death penalty for you.
‘That reaction is one I have always found extraordinarily ironic. But then, those who clamoured for blood – in the Biblical sense – had every right to speak. I had assassinated their President, with malice aforethought. Although I immediately confessed my guilt, I showed no remorse. If there ever was a perfect candidate for the chair, then I was it. And I was and am prepared to accept any kind of punishment, and also to defend my actions in an American court. It is not my fault that I have never been handed over.’
But that is the only reason why you’re still alive.
‘A heartbeat does not always signify life.’
‘Just fifteen more minutes,’ the guard says. The announcement leads to a change in G.’s manner. He leans back and asks me why I made no reaction to his earlier comment, that I was one of the people who had felt something had to happen. This is the first time he has taken the initiative, breaking with his superior but somewhat passive mode of response. He asks why I continued to press for an interview with him. Why all the other journalists gave up in the course of time, but I didn’t. I answer that it was my duty as a journalist to persist. He shakes his head. ‘That is not the real reason.’
I consider myself to be a witness to your deed. At that time, I barely slept at all. I was glued to the television.
‘That isn’t the real reason either.’
‘What is the real reason then, according to you?’
‘Let me ask you a question. When you saw the President collapse, when you saw that brute writhing, when you saw all that perverse power vanish in an instant, what did you think then? Or rather, what did you feel?
I was stunned. I felt so many things at once, and nothing in particular.
‘Did you ever write about it?’
The Governor sometimes permits me to use the internet, you know, under strict supervision. I noticed that when the President was still alive your work could be described as politically engaged, very engaged indeed. You were deeply concerned. You knew that the world would be better off with a different President. But after the assassination you never wrote anything political again. You wrote about universities, sport, books, science, in fact about everything except politics. My act was a breaking point in your career. You know what I think? I think that my actions made you realize the relativity of your own words. And that is perfectly understandable. An act does what no word ever can: it changes the world.’
‘Five minutes,’ the guard says. ‘Wrap it up now.’
Just five more minutes. It probably won’t be easy to get another chance to speak to him. Perhaps I never shall. But before I can react to G.’s analysis, he says that he already knows what my last question will be: how could someone like him, educated and from a good middle class background, possibly carry out such a deed? How did he end up on that side of the table? ‘But actually you’d like to ask me a different question,’ he continues. ‘In the depths of your soul, what you would actually like to ask is how I’ve ended up on this side of the table and how you, with near enough the same ideals, convictions and anxieties as myself, have continued to sit on the other side.’
I find it hard to breathe and am barely aware that I’m nodding. Indeed, how has that happened?
‘Are you sure you want to hear this? The answer is actually quite simple.’
Although I am not at all sure I want to hear it, I can’t retreat. I nod again.
‘Even for people who are truly engaged, the question remains what form of engagement best suits them. Naturally, that is also a question of effectiveness: which form of engagement seems to offer them the greatest chance of success, etcetera. I immersed myself in learning about guns and marksmen, but I don’t think I spent more hours on my training than you did in watching satiric internet clips. The final choice of form is deeper, more personal, more irrational than these practical considerations. There is no fundamental, unbridgeable difference between you and me. I knew the neighbourhood. You didn’t. The fact that I’m sitting here and you there is a question of taste and chance. Nothing more or less.’
Before I can disagree with him, the guard tells us our time is up. G. doesn’t say goodbye and doesn’t look back as he is led away. When they turn right, I catch a flash of his profile, the pronounced nose, and that mysterious smile which for the rest of my life will make me ask: did it express cruelty or perhaps, after all, compassion?
The sands lolled and swam in the sun’s blazing rays all day, then when darkness fell, they patiently waited for the sun to rise. As far as the eye could see, the sands swelled in every direction, wild and silent. It even felt like they were stealthily watching us. Everyone except the leader and I slept like the dead. We had walked barefoot the whole day, but the journey ahead was still long. The sun had hollowed faces and etched deep lines; lips were painted the color of ash.
Life became nothing but a dark tunnel. The mothers’ milk had dried out, none of them had eaten since yesterday. Emaciated and pallid, hunger shone from their vacant eyes. Returning home was a forlorn hope because home was gone. Chased by fatigue, thirst and hunger, we fled amid the growing clamor of children crying. I heard fear in their panicked screams, perhaps alarm at a threat not visible to us, the adults. Their ribs clearly defined, the children wept with tearless eyes and pinched faces anything but childlike. Hunger and the strong rays of the sun had robbed them of their vitality during the arduous journey.
The boundless sands merged with the horizon to make the desert in front of us unending. No hint of clouds absorbed the blazing heat. The drought had invaded valleys where mirages shimmered. Drought and war had crushed even the most resilient desert plants.
The leader was a tall imposing man who watched the group closely as they walked. He was silent and fearless but helpful to all and with respect for everyone. Now he spoke of fortitude, his voice kind and gentle. “Now, we eat. Then we must continue marching.”
Then the leader went to pray. In a clear voice, he recited his prayers and asked Allah to ease the sufferings of the journey, bless the children and provide solace to anyone mourning the loss of their home. Then he made his own lengthy and mournful supplication.
We resumed our journey across the sands. Our group included fifty women, ten children and a pregnant woman about to give birth.
Time passed so slowly, every minute felt an eternity. We walked a long way until, in the middle of the wasteland, we reached a village. Engulfed by sand and barely visible from a distance, the village stood alone against the hellish winds of the desert. Half a dozen families inhabited the village, and they came out of their huts to welcome us. Dressed in filthy garments damp with sweat and gritty with sand, they had rifles over their shoulders. Their faces were blistered as if they had emerged from the underworld. Even more wretched than us, they had nothing to offer. Their thatched huts were the height of a man with entrances just above the dirt. There was no place for us to rest. With the emptiness still ahead, we continued crossing the vast expanse of sand. The sun crawled toward its final abode, its rays still flaming.
Our guide said to me, “Beyond that tongue of sand is the border, but first we have to pass the village of Turayba just before the border.”
We walked in silence, even the children’s screaming died out. The donkey’s hooves the only sound. The calm was shattered by a woman’s screams. It was her time to give birth.
Quickly, we picked a place to camp and set up a tent for the pregnant woman. Other women sat with her in the tent, while her mother, who said they would need hot water, lit a fire. Shortly, the pregnant woman crawled out of the tent screaming. Other women followed the trail of blood behind her. It seemed she was hemorrhaging and I asked them about her husband. They said he had died in the last attack, the one that had forced us to leave our homes. The pregnant woman was pouring with sweat. The other women gathered around her while I stood back observing the situation to see if they needed me. She gripped her mother’s arm, begging them with her eyes.
One of the women pointed at me. “Dig a hole the height of one and a half men and get a thick branch long enough to rest over the top.”
The guide and I wasted no time in digging. The pregnant woman’s moaning grew more distinct, yet sadder and deeper, and one of the women shouted, “Hurry up or she’s going to die.”
When we had finished, the oldest woman told us to tie a rope to the middle of the branch The other end of the rope was looped around the pregnant woman’s hands, so her body could be suspended inside the hole. It was my first time to see a rope delivery.
Unable to stand, the pregnant woman hemorrhaged blood all over her clothes. Her palms tied together with the rope, I carried her to the hole and lowered her down. The woman who told me to dig the hole also climbed down and sat on the bottom where she undressed the pregnant woman. The other women gathered around the edge to offer encouragement.
The woman in the hole called up to us, “It was a very difficult birth and she is still bleeding.”
Her mother was sobbing loudly, so I went over and stroked her head. “She will be all right. Pray for her.”
“Half of our women bleed to death. She will die,” said her mother.
I didn’t know what to do. My body trembled like a pigeon as our eyes, mine and the women’s, moved to the baby, who moaned softly. She was a tiny girl. Compassion tugging at me, I lifted her in my hands and hugged her as passionately as a real mother who had just given birth. Then I laid her tiny body, newly washed with blood, on a piece of cloth stretched out on the dirt inside the tent. The girl child was long and a native desert-brown color. Minutes passed like centuries, and I wished I could stay with the women inside the tent. Overwhelmed by emotion, I immersed myself in the child. Outside the tent, the new mother continued to bleed. The women tried hard to stop the bleeding with no success. The new mother stared at a point on the horizon where a mirage and false hopes shimmered. Despite the pain, she smiled. She was fifteen years old, her mother told me.
Everyone was distraught except her. Even the leader lost his patience and circled the tent like a millstone. Mute, her earthly body still, the dying woman calmly surrendered her soul to divine salvation and crossed purgatory into the Holy Kingdom. The women loudly mourned her, throwing handfuls of sand over their heads. I mourned too, but with the silence of a Darfurian man already ravaged by disaster that had left him dispossessed of his homeland, robbed of his home, and forced from his village.
Some of the women busied themselves preparing the body, while others ceaselessly wept. Then they noticed that the new-born girl was not moving. A gnarled old woman picked up the motionless child. Largely silent during the trip, she yelled now in a voice bigger than she was, “The child is dead too.”
Everyone drifted along a stream of sadness, their tears falling to the sand before being rapidly absorbed. They wrapped the body of the mother in her own clothes with the baby on her chest. Wailing, we carried the bodies to their last home, lowering them in after praying for them. I could no longer stand as I pushed the dirt into the grave, so I fell to my knees and keened at the edge. The sun had completely vanished, the darkness condensed and hid the expanse of space.
The guide said, “We have to keep marching so we reach the border quickly.”
Huddled together, we walked slowly on. The guide followed the stars, and we used the moonlight to guide our footsteps and keep us safe from the menacing darkness. War had slain the life of the desert, the ancient trees, the hardy thorn bushes that fed the cattle during drought. Everything had gone.
As we fought to resist the aching breath of the desert, the voices of our women mourned the home, the birthplace, they had fled. Everybody was hungry, children and adults alike could not bear it, and we had little food left. When most of the women were unable to keep going, I distributed a handful of dates. Their eyes followed me, speaking the language of misery. Fleeting looks, enough to translate the feelings behind them. Before the hunger could fade, thirst took its place.
We camped and lit a fire to make gruel. Hollowed out by hunger, the women worked steadily until a breathless and horrified voice from the back of the group broke the silence. The leader spun around, tripping over his own feet as he rushed to see what was wrong. I was close behind him.
“Batool!” said the woman standing near a prone body.
“Is she dead?” asked the leader.
Not replying either yes or no, the woman’s eyes overflowed with tears as she stared down at the dirt. There lay Batool on her back, eyes so wide open they were ringed in white. She seemed to be staring at the distant horizon, caught in a futile struggle to see the refugee camp beyond the mirage of the border. Her vacant stare was so strange that fear and horror percolated through me. In her last desperate expression, I saw dignity savaged by the loss of land, farm and home. She gazed at the heavens, at lost hope. Her hands clasped the sand where we buried her in a moment charged with fear and reverence. When the funeral was done, we laid a big stone on her grave.
The leader sat on a low mound staring into the vastness. “My son, most of the sand you see was once spanned by villages. Hundreds of families flourished here.” He sighed deeply and continued, “Now they’ve dissolved into nothing, forever a part of the desert.”
The leader withdrew into the darkness, and I followed him. We sat together under a sky free of clouds as the desert sank into darkness. In the face of the impenetrable silence, nothing could be heard except the sound of faith in Allah the Almighty, silent in His glory.
After midnight and before dawn, the voice calling to the journey summoned us to resume marching across purgatory till we reached salvation.
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.
Due to the imminent end of my summer break, and shortly before resuming my work at the Teacher Training College at the beginning of the third week of September, I reassured my wife, Zuleika al-Nadra, that we would not delay another day. She had already complained to me that there was a lot waiting for her to do at our apartment in Oran. I asked her to get ready the leave the following day. Then I headed out. A few meters away – thirty paces as counted years before with a child’s steps – on the other side of the street, I came to a stop. I had never stood like that before, with such sadness, in front of Chaim Ben Maimoun’s house. Like a being turned to stone, it looked haunted by emptiness for the three months since fate had effaced the last of its bygone residents.
I stepped forwards. By the silent door, the one I had seen Chaim coming out of twenty-eight years before with his satchel for us to go together to the Ecole Jules Ferry for the first time, I unhooked the cold piece of metal hanging from a small ring with “house key” written on a label. I inserted the key in the keyhole and turned it twice. Then I went inside and once again I experienced feelings the likes of which I had not felt even on the day when I went back to my grandmother’s house after her death. Such an oppressive calm brooded over the hallway, which was neither long or very wide with its red floor tiles and its walls painted a very light brown. Such a silence that rendered the doors to the three rooms and the kitchen mute as they stood facing each other, two on each side, all open except for the locked door that led to the backyard.
Everything, all the furniture, seemed in exactly the same place as Chaim had left it for the last time, how I had wanted it to remain for him since having told the cleaner Ouniya not to move anything when she came to clean the house every fortnight and water every week the plants in the backyard that needed watering.
It really seemed as though this was the first time. The hallway seemed longer and the wall-clock larger than when I had passed it as a child. Chaim’s bedroom, it’s window overlooking the street with its white curtain with a peacock pattern, looked bigger. Now, however, the room was a study with a wicker chair and an oak desk. The Parker fountain pen and bottle of black Waterman ink were still on the desk and between them a diary that I had seen when I went in two months ago and had been drawn towards as though responding to an ambiguous siren call saying that the diary had been left like that to attract my attention. Otherwise, Chaim would have tucked it away somewhere it couldn’t be seen or placed it on a bookshelf. Despite that, I had hesitated a few moments before opening it.
Here was his parents’ room, which became his bedroom after they died. It too had a closed window with a blind that overlooked the street. The wardrobe was still there, bedding and covers arranged on two tables on either side of it; the large bed and two bedside tables, a lamp on one and a seven-branched Menorah and a Bible bound in dark brown leather on the other.
The sitting room likewise had a large window with a sheer curtain with a pattern of oat florets overlooking the backyard. There were the two sofas and the two wooden armchairs and the low table on a rug. Here it was that three years before I had drunk with Zuleika the coffee that Chaim had offered us after he had escaped being beaten up on the morning of Independence Day. On the wall to the right hung three oil paintings. On the wall opposite were large framed portrait-style photographs: the first of Moshe, Chaim’s father, in a broadcloth turban; the second of his mother, Zahira Simah, whose kind, benign gaze, earrings and necklace, and tight headband made her look like my grandmother Rabia. The third photograph was of Chaim himself as he was in his first year at the Ecole Jules Ferry. I was filled with a nostalgic longing to sit down with him at the same table; for the smell of ink, the crackling of the logs in the stove, and the ringing of the bell; for the crush of our alleyway and the town square when it snowed and we threw snowballs at each other; for the river valley in the heat of summer when we once swam naked and discovered we were both circumcised.
“Since that age, I felt a secret attraction for your gentle features, calm manner, and dreamy eyes,” I whispered to his image. I imagined him smiling back and I added, “Do you remember our last piece of mischief?” That was when we got scared by Alphonso Batiste shouting at us; he had caught us up the pear tree on his little farm in the southern suburb by the western bank of the river. We jumped down and slipped away like two sly foxes between the wires of the fence. Our legs raced off with us in our shorts, cardigans, and rubber sandals. We didn’t pay attention to anything until the arches of the bridge loomed above us. Nearby we could hear the roaring of the engine of a car that I had seen when I glanced behind me. It was eating up the dusty road close to the Sigoura bar and causing clouds of dust as thick as Alphonso Batiste’s rage as he pressed on the accelerator as hard as he gripped the steering wheel. As I felt this, I imagined how he would deal with the Arab boy and the son of the Jewess.
“It’s because he knew who we were,” Chaim reminded me years later at the restaurant of the Orient Hotel, where we had lunch when the place appealed to us and talked about our old teacher at the Ecole Jules Ferry, Monsieur Jaime Sanchez, whose funeral we had attended a few days before at the Christian Cemetery in the eastern suburb of the city. We recalled his strictness and his fairness towards his pupils without discrimination. We only learned at his funeral that he had been a communist in the Republican ranks against Franco.
I have no doubt today that to Alphonso Batiste as he fumed behind us changing gear or swinging the steering wheel left to right we were far worse than two little devils who had disturbed his siesta. Alphonso Batiste – as during our lunch Chaim told me he had imagined – thought that once he had caught us, after having exhausted us and made us surrender, he would throw us into the boot of his car trussed back to back like the trophies of a hunt and take us back to the same pear tree. Then he would snap off some branches from other plum and apple trees, and raise and lower the amount in compensation he would demand from the families of the two little thieves, as he called them, or else he would make a formal complaint against them.
I still felt that shiver of fear whenever I remembered that Alphonso Batiste’s car would have caught up with us between the Sigoura Bar and the viaduct over the river. The fear had started to creep into my knees, and Chaim’s gasps behind me made more frightened that he was going to collapse. An idea flashed across my mind: jumping into the water. I signaled to him with my hand and he followed me as we suddenly swerved away to the right, using our arms like two birds for balance, down towards the river, slipping down the steep slope. We jumped into the water, and like two beavers, swam across to the other bank. When we got there, we turned around in terror and saw Alphonso Batiste, who had got out of his car and run after us. He stood there on the edge of the water, shouting incomprehensibly and gesturing threateningly. Laughing, we turned our backs on him and disappeared into the olive groves.
On the way back to our street, we crossed the railways’ lines and went down Jerriville Street, which, like the other streets, was almost devoid of movement on that burning-hot afternoon. Nothing moved apart from a car whose engine whined and whose wheels whooshed on the tarmac, a woman passing in a white cylindrical hat, and a man standing smoking on the opposite pavement in the shade of a plane tree.
“I was about to fall over,” said Chaim. “Then he would have trapped me like a rabbit.”
I laughed. “I could tell your tongue was hanging out like a puppy dog.”
“Yeah. But how did you come up with the idea?”
I replied that I didn’t know. I had only been planning to shorten the route.
“We were lucky that it’s summer and the river is low. Otherwise, we’d have drowned,” added Chaim as he tugged his sodden clothing off his stomach at one moment and off his thighs the next.
“That wouldn’t have happened because fear would have given us the strength to cross an ocean!” I said as I rubbed the water out of my hair.
Chaim raised his fist in victory and laughed in delight and I joined in.
Once we had gone past the clocktower close by the box-like sundial without the gaze of the suspicious policeman disturbing our steps, the Ecole Jules Ferry appeared to our left. We stopped and silently turned towards it. What voices of elation, disappointment, and deceit had filled it for six years!
Then, hand in hand, we turned towards our street, east of the town hall with its black slate roof. To our right was the Orient Hotel at the end of Izly Street. Close to our homes, we took shelter in an abandoned, roofless hut at the end of our street. We sat down on two rocks under the sun. As we waited for our clothes to dry, we went over our plot against our schoolmate Max Batiste, on account of which he had complained about us to his father Alphonso. He claimed that we had made fun of him one time in the playground because he had wet himself when the teacher had asked him to solve a long division on the blackboard, and that we had laughed at him on another occasion when he had been unable to learn the fable of the Crow and the Fox by heart. He told his father that the teacher, Monsieur Sanchez, mostly turned a blind eye and played deaf.
“I know, son, because Mr Sanchez sympathizes with the Jewish and Muslim natives,” Max’s father said at the time.
Those words were soon doing the rounds. When they reached Monsieur Sanchez, he devoted a civics class to integrity. On the blackboard he wrote something for us to copy into our exercise books: “A school teacher does not discriminate between his pupils and does not favour some over others on the basis of religion or race.”
What Max had concealed from his father was that we responded to his inducements in the form of the sweets and chocolates he kept in his pockets and helped him with his homework at the school gates before going in or when leaving.
Mr Alphonso Batiste visited the headmaster one day and asked him to clarify the matter. Monsieur Sanchez was summoned and questioned about the matter, which he firmly denied. Mr Alphonso Batiste was not convinced, however. He threatened to end his charitable contributions to the school unless the two guilty pupils – Arslan the Caid’s boy and Chaim the Jew boy – were made an example of. I only learned later that Mr Alphonso Batiste was a supporter of Marshal Pétain. The headmaster proposed bringing the three of us to his office straight away to discover what had happened. Alphonso Batiste conceded, promising to keep quiet this time, but threatening to make a complaint to the head of the town council if his son was upset again.
We, two little devils, looked at the marks of our schoolmate Max, which were poor in comparison with our own excellent marks, and we realized that nobody would dare punish us with expulsion, transfer, or detention, or even being denied lunch in the school dining room or the monthly film show in the school hall. Instead, we got a telling-off from the headmaster in front of our teacher.
Standing in front of Chaim’s photograph, I found it amazing that we should have come up with the idea of taking revenge against Max’s father in that way. I knew, just like Chaim, and we were both confident in our belief, that Alphonso Batiste would never make another complaint to the headmaster of the Ecole Jules Ferry, because we were never going back there, unlike his son Max, who had to redo the year, since we had won the competition to enter year six.
That year we would turn twelve, and in another year World War II would be over.
I turned away from Chaim’s portrait to leave, but I stopped again before the diary between the pen and the bottle of ink, unable to make up my mind for a few moments before setting off down the corridor towards the door out.
They are nomads. They grace only Paris with their presence for months and are niggardly to Berlin, Vienna, Neapoli, Madrid, and other capitals. In Paris they feel quasi-at home; for them, Paris is the capital, their residence, and all the rest of Europe is a boring, pointless province which can be gazed on through the lowered curtains of grand-hôtels or from the stage. They are not old, but they have already been to all the European capitals two or three times. They are bored with Europe. They have begun to talk about a trip to America and will continue to talk about it until they are convinced that her voice is not so splendid that it must be shared on both hemispheres.
It’s hard to catch sight of them. You can’t see them on the streets because they travel in carriages, and they travel in the evening or at night when it is already dark. They sleep until lunch. They usually awaken in poor spirits and do not receive anyone. They receive visitors only occasionally, at odd moments backstage or at dinner.
You can see her on postcards, which are for sale. On postcards, she is a great beauty, but she has never been beautiful. Don’t believe her postcards. She is hideously ugly. Most people see her on stage. But on stage she is unrecognizable: white face, rouge, eye shadow, and someone else’s hair cover her face like a mask. It is the same at her concerts.
When she plays Margarita, this 27-year-old, wrinkled, lumbering woman with a nose covered in freckles looks like a slender, lovely, 17-year-old girl. On stage, she couldn’t look less like herself.
Should you want to see them, wangle an invitation to attend their luncheons, which are given in her honor or which she occasionally gives before leaving one capital for another. Getting an invitation isn’t as easy as it might seem at first glance; only the chosen few sit around her luncheon table… The chosen include such gentlemen as reviewers; social climbers passing themselves off as reviewers, local singers, directors, bandleaders, music lovers and devotees with their hair slicked back over bald spots, theater habitués, and hangers-on who were invited thanks to their gold, silver or bloodlines. These luncheons are not boring. They are quite interesting to an observer. Dining with them once or twice is worth it.
The famous among them (and there are many) eat and talk. Their poses are rather informal: neck turned one way, head the other and one elbow on the table. The older ones even pick their teeth.
The newspaper men grab the chairs closest to hers. They are almost all drunk, and their behavior is quite forward as if they’ve known her forever. If they had just a bit more to drink, they’d be cheeky. They make loud jokes, drink and interrupt each other (never forgetting to say “pardon!”), make high-flown toasts and apparently are not afraid of making fools of themselves. Some gallantly heave themselves over the table to kiss her hand.
The social climbers passing themselves off as reviewers chat in a patronizing tone with the music lovers and devotees. The music lovers and devotees are silent. They are envious of the newspapermen, smiling beatifically and drinking only red wine, which is often especially good at the luncheons.
She, queen of the table, is dressed in a wardrobe that is modest but terribly expensive. A large diamond glitters under lacy chiffon on her neck. She wears massive, smooth bracelets on both wrists. Her hairdo is highly controversial: ladies like it, men do not. Her face glows as she bestows a wide smile on all her fellow diners. She has the ability to smile at everyone all at once, to speak with everyone, to nod her head sweetly; her head nods are for each person at the table. If you look at her face, you’d think that she is sitting with a group of her closest and most beloved friends. At the end of the luncheon, she gives some of them her postcards. On the back, right at the table, she writes the name and surname of the lucky recipient and autographs it. Naturally, she speaks French and switches to other languages at the end of the meal. Her English and German are comically bad, but her poor language skills sound sweet coming from her. Indeed, she is so sweet that you forget for a long time how hideously ugly she really is.
And him? He sits, le mari d’elle, five chairs from her, where he drinks a lot and eats a lot, and is silent a lot, and rolls the bread into little balls and rereads the labels on the bottles. As you look at this figure, you feel that he has nothing to do, that he’s bored, lazy and sick of it all.
He is extremely fair with streaks of bald spots across the top of his head. Women, wine, sleepless nights and traipsing all over the world have furrowed his face, leaving deep wrinkles. He is about 35 years old, no more, but he looks older. His face seems to have been soaked in kvass. His eyes are fine but lazy… Once he was not hideous, but now he is. Bowed legs, sallow hands, a hairy neck. In Europe, for some reason, he got the nickname of “pram” because of his crooked legs and strange gait. In his frock coat, he looks like a wet jackdaw with a dry tail. The diners do not notice him. He returns the favor.
If you are at the luncheon, look at them, that husband and wife, observe them and tell me what brought and keeps these two people together.
When you look at them, you’ll reply (more or less), like this:
“She is a famous singer and he is just the husband of a famous singer, or, to use backstage jargon, he is the husband of his wife. She earns up to 80,000 a year in Russian money, and he does nothing, so he has time to be her servant. She needs an accountant and someone to deal with the entrepreneurs, contracts, and agreements. She only associates with her adoring public and does not deign to deal with the box office proceeds or the prosaic side of her work. She has no time for that. Therefore, she needs him. She needs him as a lackey, a servant… She’d get rid of him if she could take care of things herself. He gets a considerable salary from her (she doesn’t know the value of money!), and like two times two is four, he robs her together with the maid, throws away her money, carouses recklessly and very likely puts away something for a rainy day — and is as pleased with his place as a worm on a juicy apple. He’d leave her if she didn’t have any money.”
That’s what everyone who sees them at a luncheon thinks and says about them. They think and say that because they can’t get to the heart of the matter, so they judge by appearances. They regard her as a diva, and they avoid him like a pygmy covered in toad slime. But actually, that European diva is tied to that toad by the most enviable, noble bond.
This is what he writes:
People ask why I love this virago. This woman is really not worthy of love. And she isn’t worthy of hatred. She ought to be shown no attention and her very existence should be ignored. To love her, you must be either me or insane — which is, in the end, one and the same thing.
She is not pretty. When I married her, she was hideously ugly, and now she’s even worse. She has no forehead. In place of eyebrows, she has two barely noticeable lines above her eyes. Instead of eyes, she had two shallow crevices. Nothing shines out of those crevices — not intelligence, not desire, not passion. She has a potato nose. Her mouth is small and pretty, but she has terrible teeth. She has no bust or waist. That last flaw is covered up prettily by her fiendish ability to lace herself up in a corset with extraordinary agility. She is short and stout. She is flabby. En masse, in all of her form there is one flaw that I consider the worst of all — a total absence of femininity. I do not consider skin pallor and physical weakness to be feminine, and in that, I do not share the views of a great many people. She is not a lady or a woman of fine breeding. She is a shopkeeper with a crude manner: when she walks, she waves her arms around; when she sits, she crosses her legs and rocks her whole body back and forth; when she lies down, she raises her legs, and so on.
She is slovenly. Her suitcases are a prime example of this: she tosses together clean underclothes with soiled ones, cuffs with shoes and my boots, new corsets with broken ones. We never receive anyone because our rooms are always a dirty mess. Or why tell you about it? Just look at her at noon when she wakes up and lazily crawls out from under the covers, and you would never guess that she was a woman with the voice of a nightingale. Her hair unbrushed and snarled, her eyes sleepy and puffy, in a nightgown with torn shoulders, barefoot, hunched over surrounded by a cloud of yesterday’s tobacco smoke… is that your notion of a nightingale?
She drinks. She drinks like a sailor, whenever and whatever. She’s been drinking for a long time. If she didn’t drink, she’d be better than Adelina Patti, or at least no worse. She lost half of her career because of her drinking and she’ll lose the other half soon enough. Some nasty Germans taught her to drink beer and now she won’t go to sleep without drinking two or three bottles before bed. If she didn’t drink, she wouldn’t have gastritis.
She is impolite, which the students who sometimes invite her to their concerts can testify to.
She loves advertising. Advertisements cost us several thousand francs every year. I loathe advertising with all my being. No matter how expensive that silly advertisement is, it is always worth less than her voice. My wife likes it when she is patted on the head. Unless it is praise, she doesn’t like it when people tell the truth about her. For her, a Judas kiss that is paid for is finer than honest criticism. She has no sense of dignity whatsoever.
She is intelligent, but her intelligence is not trained. Her brain lost its elasticity long ago. It is covered with fat and is asleep.
She is capricious and fickle. She doesn’t have a single firm conviction. Yesterday she said that money is nothing, that the purpose of life is not in money, and today she is giving concerts in four places because she has developed the conviction that there is nothing on earth more important than money. Tomorrow she’ll say what she said yesterday. She doesn’t want to learn anything about her homeland, she has no political heroes, no favorite newspapers, no beloved writers.
She is rich but doesn’t help the poor. In fact, she often shortchanges milliners and hairdressers. She has no heart.
A wicked woman, thousand times over!
But look at that virago when she is made-up, corseted and every hair in place as she approaches the footlights to begin her duel with nightingales and larks as they welcome the May dawn. Such dignity and such loveliness in her swan-like walk. Look at her and, I beg, you, look carefully. When she first raises her hand and opens her mouth, those crevices are transformed into enormous eyes, glimmering with passion… Nowhere else will you find such magnificent eyes. When she, my wife, begins to sing, when the first trills fly about the air when I begin to feel my tumultuous soul quietening under the influence of those marvelous sounds, then look at my face and you will understand the secret of my love.
“Isn’t she magnificent?” I ask my neighbors.
They say, “yes,” but that is not enough for me. I want to destroy anyone who might think that this extraordinary woman is not my wife. I forget everything that came before, and I live only in the present.
Do you see what an artist she is! How much profound meaning she puts in every one of her gestures! She understands everything: love, hatred, the human soul… It is no wonder that the theater shakes with applause.
After the last act, I escort her from the theater. She is pale, exhausted, having lived an entire life in one evening. I am also pale and fatigued. We get into the carriage and go to the hotel. In the hotel, without a word and fully dressed, she throws herself onto the bed. I silently sit on the edge of the bed and kiss her hand. That evening she doesn’t push me away. Together we fall asleep, we sleep until morning and wake up to curse one another…
Do you know when else I love her? When she is at balls or luncheons. On those occasions, I love the fine actress in her. What an actress she must be to get around and overcome her own nature the way she does! I don’t recognize her at those silly luncheons… she turns a plucked chicken into a peacock.
This letter was written in a drunken, barely legible hand. It was written in German dotted with spelling mistakes.
This is what she wrote:
“You ask if I love that boy? Yes, sometimes. For what? God only knows.
He really is not handsome or likeable. Men like him are not born for requited love. Men like him can only buy love; they never get it for free. Judge for yourself.
He’s drunk as a sailor day and night. His hands shake, which is very unattractive. When he is drunk, he grouses and gets into fights. He even hits me. When he is sober, he lies on whatever is around and doesn’t say a thing.
He’s always very shabby although he has plenty of funds for clothing. Half of my earnings slip through his hands, who knows where.
I will never attempt to monitor him. Accountants are so very expensive for poor married artists. Husbands receive half the box office take for their work.
He doesn’t spend it on women — I know that. He is disdainful of women.
He is lazy. I have never seen him do anything. He drinks, eats and sleeps. And that’s all he does.
He never graduated from school. He was expelled from the university for insolence in his first year.
He is not a nobleman. He is the very worst — a German.
I don’t like German people. Ninety-nine out of Hundred Germans are idiots and the last one is a genius. I learned that from a prince, a German with some French blood.
He smokes repulsive tobacco.
But he does have some good qualities. He loves my noble art more than he loves me. If they announce before a performance that I can’t sing due to illness, that is, I’m acting up, he stomps around like a corpse and makes fists.
He is not a coward and is not afraid of people. I love this quality most of all in people. I’ll tell you a little story from my life. It took place in Paris, a year after I had graduated from the Conservatory. I was still very young and learning to drink. Every night I caroused as much as my youthful strength would allow. And, of course, I caroused in a company. On one spree as I was clinking glasses with my distinguished admirers, a very unattractive boy I didn’t know walked up to the table, looked me right in the eye and asked, “Why do you drink?”
We laughed. My boy wasn’t embarrassed.
The second question was more insolent and came straight from the heart.
“Why are you laughing? These blackguards pouring you glass after glass of wine won’t give you a cent when you ruin your voice from drink and lose all your money!”
Such cheek! My guests got very upset. I seated the boy next to me and ordered that he be served wine. It turns out that this temperance worker drinks wine very well indeed. A propos, I call him a boy only because he has a very small moustache.
I paid for his impudence by marrying him.
Most of the time he says nothing. When he speaks, it’s usually just one word. He says this word with a deep voice deep, with a catch in his throat and a facial tick. He might say the word when he is sitting with some people at a luncheon or a ball… When someone — regardless of who it is — says a lie, he raises his head, and without a glance and not the least bit ill at ease, he says:
That’s his favorite word. What woman could resist the glint in his eye when he says that word? I love that word. I love the way his eyes shine and his face twitches. Not just anyone can say that fine, bold word, but my husband says it everywhere and any time. I love him sometimes, and that “sometimes” — as far as I recall — coincides with his utterance of that fine word. But really, God only knows why I love him. I’m a bad psychologist, and in this case, I guess a psychological issue is involved…
That letter is written in French in splendid, almost male handwriting. You won’t find a single grammatical error in it.
Was it merely deception or something more?
The paths were so exhausting, and the days were so hard!
Wouldn’t it have been better to take the short-cuts?
Nothing is of any use now. All that matters is that he’s home at last, and his eyes have embraced the sea after an arduous journey of which he recollects little, and that took up two ages of his life.
Nothing has changed. Everything is just the way you left it when you were dragged from this world.
Knock on the door now. It’s all over. Knock!
At their first reunion, every barrier and limit melted away. The frozen time of separation melted. Yet the homeland, the dream, became a song burning with passion in head and heart.
She rested her eyes over his and collapsed to settle in his body. Inside her eyelids she drew him as an ideal beauty despite the stench of blood exuded by his briny limbs.
Open your eyes wide. Can you see her? Your wife, whose features you are now delineating so you can remember clearly. She sleeps like a wound lodged in your joints, which are branded with the scars of imprisonment. You loved her. You weren’t a romantic hero who won the hearts of the neighborhood beauties. Yet each of you settled in the bleeding of the other, a homeland rearranging its face. The first time you saw her, you were a sailor eking out a life in squalor, his only possessions hunger and dreams to fight for, and hoping against hope for a wife to warm his nights.
As he stood there thinking, the sea leapt before his eyes in its infinite grandeur. Discovering these aquamarine worlds for the first time, he placed his hand on the closed door on which he had still not dared to knock.
“What on Earth? Only an inch separates the sea from the prison cell, but it’s still so far off.”
Don’t you know? You’ve scaled your third decade, and now you’re afraid that the one who loved you when you smelled of hunger and the sea and who shared your dream won’t recognize you anymore. It’s been six years, long enough for entire dynasties to fall and rise. You’re coming back to her from exile in cold prison dungeons. Eternity is etched in your flickering eyes. How did you get out with your limbs still attached to your body? The torture was brutal. In the city, kids ran after you shouting. Streets, seedy cafes, and filthy alleyways pelted you with stones. You were written off as a madman, because your features were clothed in nakedness and fear.
“All your exacting questions remain unanswered.”
That time, you were Jean Valjean, buried alive in jail for the sake of a crust he’d stolen when starvation lay siege to the four quarters, and when death lay down with thousands of rebellious hungry mouths.
Wolves. Wolves. Wolves.
You remember them well. They were a night of black beetles. They led you away, drenched in sweat, like rabid beasts. Then your friends carried you, like a crack in the head and a mine ready to explode in the heart.
You knew very well that you would be led off to a place from which no visitor returned, because your body exuded the scent of the night, and they hated that sort of person. For the twentieth time you faced the sea in search of work, your eyes bathed in sadness. You accepted grudgingly in exchange for a few hungry Francs. Years later, a flood of warnings swept down on you because you had stepped out of the circle of silence, arming consciousness with an explosive device.
You were suspect.
You were a wanted man, accused of disturbing the peace of the city and distributing clandestine pamphlets.
The shackles bit into your wrists with a strange longing. Your little dreams from childhood were savaged by horses of fear and beetles of the night. The sinister police herded you onto a jeep that roved the narrow streets and quarters of that infested city. Your comrades of the sea saw you off in silence, the wound in their chests as deep as the heart.
They threw you into a dark dungeon and shrieked in your face. You’d become nothing but merchandise to be sold in the torture chambers.
“Wipe the blueness of the sea from your memory.”
“But the sea is the soul of my starving city.”
“You’re not from there anymore. You have no city.”
Defiance showed on your broad features; kicks rained down from every side and the whips engulfed you. Copious blood flowed from your limbs, murdered in broad daylight. You were no mythic hero and you tried in vain to wipe the colour of the sea from your eyes.
“Beware.” you thought, “Colours are part of you. If they’re erased, you’ll disappear with them.”
With a jolt, you remembered you were nothing but the colour blue.
Not far off, the train burst into a high-pitched shriek. He well knew that between a train coming and a train going were ages of struggle with death. The dream had emerged from his memory maimed and paralyzed. Against the contours of his face and his trembling body there formed a tragedy that recalled its every moment with its wails and groans. The whistle of the train and the shrieks of prisoners were superimposed into one, yielding a situation charged with death and destruction and moments of overwhelming terror.
When they flung you into the ring of interrogation and torture, the cold was a shaft lodged in your body. You held your tongue, maintaining a glacial silence despite the deafening screams. But they were too strong for you.
“Bid yourself farewell in this dungeon.”
One of them was in your face, his eyes those of a cat, and his face scarred from smallpox. Fear flickered in your eyes like a gazelle being pursued by an aged wolf.
They laughed among themselves when they put a bottle of wine under your nose.
“I only drink on special occasions and with friends,” you said.
One of them laughed, saying. “And we’re friends too.”
When with your vacant eyes you discovered that the bottle was empty, you understood the charade.
They made you, naked as a new-born mouse yet to open its eyes, sit down on the bottle.
In front of you a woman, a comrade, fainted, and went limp as a rag. She had clung in desperation to one of them, but he showed her no mercy. He pushed her down, sending her sprawling onto the freezing floor. Blood trickled out from between her parted thighs, forming surreal images. You, like a vanquished hero, turned your eyes away from her lacerated body and shut them tight. In vain you tried to erase the scene from your mind.
You swore, “Sons of bitches. They know the most painful and cruellest spots,” and were afraid they might have heard you.
One of them woke you up, his hand stained with her blood. “You’re all the same when the silence hollows you out,” he said. “Your friend is dead. Your woman comrade has fallen. You’re in so much pain, you’re about to scream. You know you’ll succumb soon, just like all the others. Talk, and before you know it, we’ll bring you back to life.”
A deceived black man, he devoured your limbs and more as maggots hatched in your hands and knives sprouted in your torn body.
Between an imminent death and a life now distant, you mumbled words that bounced back into your gut.
“Ah, if only I could meet him in a deserted forest …”
“And what would you do with him?”
“I‘d banish him from life forever. I’d kill him without the slightest remorse. A woman’s body is sacred. How could he take pleasure in lacerating and mutilating it? He must be sick and crushed inside.”
The whip cracked again on your hands. The knife carved a deep furrow in your chest.
“You‘ll die right here if we don’t get the list. Tell us, and you’ll be free of us.”
“What list are you talking about?”
“The one in your head.”
“There’s nothing in my head. Do I still have a head?”
Before you finished the sentence, the whip writhed like a serpent over your body. You hid you head between your hands and let it devour you slice by slice, relishing the pleasure of cutting you to pieces.
It was a black day when you received a telegram that said: “The streets uprooted themselves this morning, but the demonstration was routed and the sailors withdrew. The governor expects a repeat, so communiques were issued and different posters put up in the days that followed. Khabra was hanged at a public display. KS, Mohamed al-Himm, fell under torture because he wouldn’t talk. Little Larbi was caught at sea distributing clandestine pamphlets, so they shot him. Hussein Busafaia was found bloated one morning on the seashore with critical documents lying unread in his stomach.”
The comrades had kept the commandment.
The city took it upon itself to spread the news via dispatches and the radios planted along the sides of the road.
When you were in prison this was happening. The names of people who had shared with you the joy and terror of the sea had dropped off the list of those who had incurred wrath.
It’s said that when the demonstration erupted again, it was fiercer than the ones before.
Now you’re standing there like a soldier not brave enough to knock.
“Just knock, and you’ll see.”
Homesickness is killing you. The sea is just a hand’s breadth away. You can plunge into your dream through its wide-open gates. You can throw yourself in, bathe, and heal your bleeding scars with its salt. You can do anything without fear. Be quite convinced of that.
Ooof. Don’t be scared. Nobody’s watching. The eyes of the dogs who have been allowed to return to their distant cities will not follow you anymore.
Everything he saw seemed strange: the house hunkered by the sea that had spewed it out, its eroding roof and walls. The sea salt had eaten away at its wooden frame, which had begun gradually dissolving.
“From these shacks your son emerged consumptive from the damp. He embraced the verdant forest, carrying the same dispatches and orders that lie sleeping now in your brain.”
He ran his hands slowly over the door. It was as heavy as the grief of the one who had carved it.
A thousand and one times your heart told you to run away, and your nose broke against the rough metal of the door. How often did the blows rain down on your temple and the whip scourge your back? The guards threatened to kill you and make an example of you because you were an outlaw whose blood could be shed with impunity.
When they threw you in the dungeon, they confined you between four walls that oozed with damp. They made you clean clogged sewers and toilets and pick up cigarette butts despite the gaping wounds left on your back by the scourge’s gluttonous feasts.
“Dogs and sires of dogs, that’s all they are. Where did they come from? How did they rob the country and turn it into a secret arena for the daily taking of life? Where did they come from, and where were they before?”
All wishes are unacceptable.
You dozed off once and dreamed another dream the size of the buried moon. The night guard’s rifle came down on your head. He dragged you like a carcass and locked the door to your dungeon. You slept involuntarily under the impact of the vicious beating.
“To dream is forbidden… It’s forbidden to dream.” Those were the only words you heard before you fell.
Your clothes went stiff on your body. A six-year regime of attrition is no easy matter. During those years you dreamed yourself to exhaustion. Other things you faintly regretted.
The deserted streets of your city, which were your constant companion and upon which you spread your frigid nights, clearly recall your face’s sea-chiselled features.
He curled up inside his body like a frightened snail.
“You’re dissolving in your own blood now. In your guts howl the barrels of soapy water they forced you to drink so that you would confess the list in your head. Your dream that has fallen into the dustbin nestles among your open wounds. When the blood flowed from every part of you, you realized that before daybreak you would die in this filth.
“If you die, so what? Will the Earth start spinning in the opposite direction? A dog is better than you. The law will suffer no defeat after you, because it exists to protect those greater than you.”
He ran his hands over the wall again. The house had become old and decrepit, haunted by time, and furrowed by quotidian trials.
“Come on, be brave. Knock on the door. Knock! You won’t lose anything by it. Behind these boards eaten away by the sea’s blind woodworms lies your other face. Inside is a glorious culmination on a scale with these sufferings and this memory. Knock! Knock! you won’t lose anything.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
You don’t know how your hand fell so heavily on the door.
Suddenly, it seemed as if you were hearing a song of the sea coming from somewhere nearby. Your eyes slid towards the light that inhabits the sea. It seemed as if folk melodies were ringing out, sung by the blue people of the sea and the boats.
Then a great silence fell. He felt a deep sadness disfiguring what remained of his features. The first time had died, leaving behind a plague-stricken time.
“What? The big fat boss might have been itching, in this darkness, to add the last fishermen’s boats to his fleet and sell their labour on the market. Years ago, a fortune teller predicted: “When Jacques leaves, the boss will still be here.”
Departing never ends.
(You turned slightly. The dream seemed to expand and take on the shape of a new map shaped like the sea.)
The streets, departing with their shouts, were shut fast with split-open corpses in the press of the night. The hands of the fishermen interlocked in what can only be called a wonderous way to bring back the boats, the colour of the sea, and the beautiful songs.
Grandfather, who was swallowed up by the sea one night, used to repeat a wise old saying: “The river is the dream of the poor; the sea the dream of the stranger; and the night the memory of lovers.”
“You learned that by heart and repeated it as a unity because you combine exile, poverty, and the greatest love of life any person could have.”
Bang! Bang! Bang!
You knocked again more urgently. The door opened ever so gently.
“Sir? Do you need something? Like you, we have nothing to give except a little warmth, if you’re cold from the rain and afraid of the thunder.”
On the doorstep, a worn-out woman was speaking, her days exhausted and decayed by the years. Between her wheat-coloured wrinkles dwelt ages resisting death. The glow of a candle and the jet-blackness of the night outlined her features.
“Her! She’s only changed a little.”
He alit on the surface of her eyes like an incandescent star that illumined all the dreams and cities of blue.
In vain you tried to wipe out your memory.
Suddenly, she opened her eyes. Behind the thick beard that had stolen the light of your face and beyond the many wrinkles, she saw you. She clasped you violently and curled into a ball to settle in your chest as a green tattoo. She collapsed onto your body as a sea and sails billowing in the wind.
At their second reunion, at a time when both of them hauled a train of weary years behind them, all the barriers and limits fell away. She rearranged his face, and he hers, both of them, forming in their eyes a sea and a map of the fugitive homeland.
“Departures will never end.”
“That was the first age. This is the second age. The beautiful age will come.”
Their sea eyelids widened in an effort to forget the years of loss and deception.
“Was it just a nightmare that resembled deception, or was it something more?”
Perhaps it was something else. They stole everything from you. The homeland; your life; your spouse; and your children who died in your absence. They stole your ability to love.
Now you have to relearn everything afresh. You have to teach your killer how to become human. You will tell him: “The war is over. You have to devote yourself to rebuilding a land that turned to ashes, and whose heirs made it a widow.”
Heirs? Beware of saying that word. You’ll be accused of being a Communist, an infidel, an atheist, a nationalist, of manipulating the faith, of treason … No matter. Say nothing, but just teach your killer to see you as a human being like him.
You heard her murmur: “You’ve come back, and that’s all that matters to me. We’ll mend ourselves over time.”
You shut your eyes, and she plunged into a vortex of bitter sobs whose source you couldn’t identify.
*[Written in 1977, this story was published in the collection, Asmak al-Barr al-Mutawahhish, [The Fish of the Savage Land], Dar al-Jamal, 2010.]
“As long as there’s the sun … the sun!” the voice of Don Peppino Quaglia crooned softly near the doorway of the low, dark, basement apartment. “Leave it to God,” answered the humble and faintly cheerful voice of his wife, Rosa, from inside; she was in bed, moaning in pain from arthritis, complicated by heart disease, and, addressing her sister-in-law, who was in the bathroom, she added: “You know what I’ll do, Nunziata? Later I’ll get up and take the clothes out of the water.”
“Do as you like, to me it seems real madness,” replied the curt, sad voice of Nunziata from that den. “With the pain you have, one more day in bed wouldn’t hurt you!” A silence. “We’ve got to put out some more poison, I found a cockroach in my sleeve this morning.”
From the cot at the back of the room, which was really a cave, with a low vault of dangling spider webs, rose the small, calm voice of Eugenia:
“Mamma, today I’m putting on the eyeglasses.”
There was a kind of secret joy in the modest voice of the child, Don Peppino’s third-born. (The first two, Carmela and Luisella, were with the nuns, and would soon take the veil, having been persuaded that this life is a punishment; and the two little ones, Pasqualino and Teresella, were still snoring, as they slept feet to head, in their mother’s bed.)
“Yes, and no doubt you’ll break them right away,” the voice of her aunt, still irritated, insisted, from behind the door of the little room. She made everyone suffer for the disappointments of her life, first among them that she wasn’t married and had to be subject, as she told it, to the charity of her sister-in-law, although she didn’t fail to add that she dedicated this humiliation to God. She had something of her own set aside, however, and wasn’t a bad person, since she had offered to have glasses made for Eugenia when at home they had realized that the child couldn’t see. “With what they cost! A grand total of a good eight thousand lire!” she added. Then they heard the water running in the basin. She was washing her face, squeezing her eyes, which were full of soap, and Eugenia gave up answering.
Besides, she was too, too pleased.
A week earlier, she had gone with her aunt to an optician on Via Roma. There, in that elegant shop, full of polished tables and with a marvelous green reflection pouring in through a blind, the doctor had measured her sight, making her read many times, through certain lenses that he kept changing, entire columns of letters of the alphabet, printed on a card, some as big as boxes, others as tiny as pins. “This poor girl is almost blind,” he had said then, with a kind of pity, to her aunt, “she should no longer be deprived of lenses.” And right away, while Eugenia, sitting on a stool, waited anxiously, he had placed over her eyes another pair of lenses, with a white metal frame, and had said: “Now look into the street.” Eugenia stood up, her legs trembling with emotion, and was unable to suppress a little cry of joy. On the sidewalk, so many well-dressed people were passing, slightly smaller than normal but very distinct: ladies in silk dresses with powdered faces, young men with long hair and bright-colored sweaters, white-bearded old men with pink hands resting on silver-handled canes; and, in the middle of the street, some beautiful automobiles that looked like toys, their bodies painted red or teal, all shiny; green trolleys as big as houses, with their windows lowered, and behind the windows so many people in elegant clothes. Across the street, on the opposite sidewalk, were beautiful shops, with windows like mirrors, full of things so fine they elicited a kind of longing; some shop boys in black aprons were polishing the windows from the street. At a café with red and yellow tables, some golden-haired girls were sitting outside, legs crossed. They laughed and drank from big colored glasses. Above the café, because it was already spring, the balcony windows were open and embroidered curtains swayed, and behind the curtains were fragments of blue and gilded paintings, and heavy, sparkling chandeliers of gold and crystal, like baskets of artificial fruit. A marvel. Transported by all that splendor, she hadn’t followed the conversation between the doctor and her aunt. Her aunt, in the brown dress she wore to Mass, and standing back from the glass counter with a timidity unnatural to her, now broached the question of the cost: “Doctor, please, give us a good price … we’re poor folk ..” and when she heard “eight thousand lire” she nearly fainted.
“Two lenses! What are you saying! Jesus Mary!”
“Look, ignorant people …” the doctor answered, replacing the other lenses after polishing them with the glove, “don’t calculate anything. And when you give the child two lenses, you’ll be able to tell me if she sees better. She takes nine diopters on one side, and ten on the other, if you want to know. She’s almost blind.”
While the doctor was writing the child’s first and last name—“Eugenia Quaglia, Vicolo della Cupa at Santa Maria in Portico”—Nunziata had gone over to Eugenia, who, standing in the doorway of the shop and holding up the glasses in her small, sweaty hands, was not at all tired of gazing through them: “Look, look, my dear! See what your consolation costs! Eight thousand lire, did you hear? A grand total of a good eight thousand lire!” She was almost suffocating. Eugenia had turned all red, not so much because of the rebuke as because the young woman at the cash register was looking at her, while her aunt was making that observation, which declared the family’s poverty. She took off the glasses.
“But how is it, so young and already so nearsighted?” the young woman had asked Nunziata, while she signed the receipt for the deposit. “And so shabby, too!” she added.
“Young lady, in our house we all have good eyes, this is a misfortune that came upon us … along with the rest. God rubs salt in the wound.”
“Come back in eight days,” the doctor had said. “I’ll have them for you.”
Leaving, Eugenia had tripped on the step.
“Thank you, Aunt Nunzia,” she had said after a while. “I’m always rude to you. I talk back to you, and you are so kind, buying me eyeglasses.”
Her voice trembled.
“My child, it’s better not to see the world than to see it,” Nunziata had answered with sudden melancholy.
Eugenia hadn’t answered her that time, either. Aunt Nunzia was often so strange, she wept and shouted for no good reason, she said so many bad words, and yet she went to Mass regularly, she was a good Christian, and when it came to helping someone in trouble she always volunteered, wholeheartedly. One didn’t have to watch over her.
Since that day, Eugenia had lived in a kind of rapture, waiting for the blessed glasses that would allow her to see all people and things in their tiny details. Until then, she had been wrapped in a fog: the room where she lived, the courtyard always full of hanging laundry, the alley overflowing with colors and cries, everything for her was covered by a thin veil: she knew well only the faces of her family, especially her mother and her siblings, because often she slept with them, and sometimes she woke at night and, in the light of the oil lamp, looked at them. Her mother slept with her mouth open, her broken yellow teeth visible; her brother and sister, Pasqualino and Teresella, were always dirty and snot-nosed and covered with boils: when they slept, they made a strange noise, as if they had wild animals inside them. Sometimes Eugenia surprised herself by staring at them, without understanding, however, what she was thinking. She had a confused feeling that beyond that room always full of wet laundry, with broken chairs and a stinking toilet, there was light, sounds, beautiful things, and in that moment when she had put on the glasses she had had a true revelation: the world outside was beautiful, very beautiful.
“Marchesa, my respects.”
That was the voice of her father. Covered by a ragged shirt, his back, which until that moment had been framed by the doorway of the basement apartment, could no longer be seen. The voice of the marchesa, a placid and indifferent voice, now said:
“You must do me a favor, Don Peppino.”
“At your service … your wish is my command.”
Silently, Eugenia slid out of bed, put on her dress, and, still barefoot, went to the door. The pure and marvelous early morning sun, entering the ugly courtyard through a crack between the buildings, greeted her, lit up her little old lady’s face, her stubbly, disheveled hair, her rough, hard little hands, with their long, dirty nails. Oh, if only at that moment she could have had the eyeglasses! The marchesa was there, in her black silk dress with its white lace neckpiece. Her imposing yet benign appearance enchanted Eugenia, along with her bejeweled white hands; but she couldn’t see her face very well—it was a whitish oval patch. Above it, some purple feathers quivered.
“Listen, you have to redo the child’s mattress. Can you come up around ten-thirty?”
“With all my heart, but I’m only available in the afternoon, Signora Marchesa.”
“No, Don Peppino, it has to be this morning. In the afternoon people are coming. Set yourself up on the terrace and work. Don’t play hard to get … do me this favor … Now it’s time for Mass. At ten-thirty, call me.”
And without waiting for an answer, she left, astutely avoiding a trickle of yellow water that was dripping down from a terrace and had made a puddle on the ground.
“Papa,” said Eugenia, following her father, as he went back inside, “how good the marchesa is! She treats you like a gentleman. God should reward her for it.”
“A good Christian, that one is,” Don Peppino answered, with a meaning completely different from what might have been understood. With the excuse that she was the owner of the house, the Marchesa D’Avanzo constantly had the people in the courtyard serving her: to Don Peppino, she gave a wretched sum for the mattresses; and Rosa was always available for the big sheets; even if her bones were burning she had to get up to serve the marchesa. It’s true that the marchesa had placed her daughters in the convent, and so had saved two souls from the dangers of this world, which for the poor are many, but for that basement space, where everyone was sick, she collected three thousand lire, not one less. “The heart is there, it’s the money that’s lacking,” she loved to repeat, with a certain imperturbability. “Today, dear Don Peppino, you are the nobility, who have no worries … Thank … thank Providence, which has put you in such a condition … which wanted to save you.” Donna Rosa had a kind of adoration for the marchesa, for her religious sentiments; when they saw each other, they always talked about the afterlife. The marchesa didn’t much believe in it, but she didn’t say so, and urged that mother of the family to be patient and to hope.
From the bed, Donna Rosa asked, a little worried: “Did you talk to her?”
“She wants me to redo the mattress for her grandson,” said Don Peppino, in annoyance. He brought out the hot plate to warm up some coffee, a gift of the nuns, and went back inside to fetch water in a small pot. “I won’t do it for less than five hundred,” he said.
“It’s a fair price.”
“And then who will go and pick up Eugenia’s glasses?” Aunt Nunzia asked, coming out of the bathroom. Over her nightgown, she wore a torn skirt, and on her feet slippers. Her bony shoulders emerged from the nightgown, gray as stones. She was drying her face with a napkin. “I can’t go, and Rosa is ill.”
Without anyone noticing, Eugenia’s large, almost blind eyes filled with tears. Now maybe another day would pass without her eyeglasses. She went up to her mother’s bed, and in a pitiful manner, flung her arms and forehead on the blanket. Donna Rosa stretched out a hand to caress her.
“I’ll go, Nunzia, don’t get worked up … In fact, going out will do me good.”
Eugenia kissed her hand.
Around eight there was a great commotion in the courtyard. At that moment Rosa had come out of the doorway: a tall, lanky figure, in a short, stained black coat, without shoulder pads, that exposed her legs, like wooden sticks. Under her arm, she carried a shopping bag for the bread she would buy on her way home from the optician. Don Peppino was pushing the water out of the middle of the courtyard with a long-handled broom, a vain task because the tub was continually leaking, like an open vein. In it were the clothes of two families: the Greborio sisters, on the second floor, and the wife of Cavaliere Amodio, who had given birth two days earlier. The Greborios’ servant, Lina Tarallo, was beating the carpets on a balcony, making a terrible ruckus. The dust, mixed with garbage, descended gradually like a cloud on those poor people, but no one paid attention. Sharp screams and cries of complaint could be heard from the basement where Aunt Nunzia was calling on all the saints as witnesses to confirm that she was unfortunate, and the cause of all this was Pasqualino, who wept and shouted like a condemned man because he wanted to go with his mamma. “Look at him, this scoundrel,” cried Aunt Nunzia. “Madonna bella, do me a favor, let me die, but immediately, if you’re there, since in this life only thieves and whores thrive.” Teresella, born the year the king went away and so younger than her brother, was sitting in the doorway, smiling, and every so often she licked a crust of bread she had found under a chair.
Eugenia was sitting on the step of another basement room, where Mariuccia the porter lived, looking at a section of a children’s comic, with lots of bright-colored figures, which had fallen from the fourth floor. She held it right up to her face, because otherwise she couldn’t read the words. There was a small blue river in a vast meadow and a red boat going … going … who knows where. It was written in proper Italian, and so she didn’t understand much, but every so often, for no reason, she laughed.
“So, today you put on your glasses?” said Mariuccia, looking out from behind her. Everyone in the courtyard knew, partly because Eugenia hadn’t resisted the temptation to talk about it, and partly because Aunt Nunzia had found it necessary to let it be understood that in that family she was spending her own … and well, in short .
“Your aunt got them for you, eh?” Mariuccia added, smiling good-humoredly. She was a small woman, almost a dwarf, with a face like a man’s, covered with whiskers. At the moment she was combing her long black hair, which came to her knees: one of the few things that attested to her being a woman. She was combing it slowly, smiling with her sly but kind little mouse eyes.
“Mamma went to get them on Via Roma,” said Eugenia with a look of gratitude. “We paid a grand total of a good eight thousand lire, you know? Really. my aunt is .” she was about to add “truly a good person,” when Aunt Nunzia, looking out of the basement room, called angrily: “Eugenia!”
“Here I am, Aunt!” and she scampered away like a dog.
Behind their aunt, Pasqualino, all red-faced and bewildered, with a terrible expression somewhere between disdain and surprise, was waiting.
“Go and buy two candies for three lire each, from Don Vincenzo at the tobacco store. Come back immediately!”
She clutched the money in her fist, paying no more attention to the comic, and hurried out of the courtyard.
By a true miracle she avoided a towering vegetable cart drawn by two horses, which was coming toward her right outside the main entrance. The carter, with his whip unsheathed, seemed to be singing, and from his mouth came these words:
“Lovely … Fresh,” drawn out and full of sweetness, like a love song. When the cart was behind her, Eugenia, raising her protruding eyes, basked in that warm blue glow that was the sky, and heard the great hubbub all around her, without, however, seeing it clearly. Carts, one behind the other, big trucks with Americans dressed in yellow hanging out the windows, bicycles that seemed to be tumbling over. High up, all the balconies were cluttered with flower crates, and over the railings, like flags or saddle blankets, hung yellow and red quilts, ragged blue children’s clothes, sheets, pillows, and mattresses exposed to the air, while at the end of the alley ropes uncoiled, lowering baskets to pick up the vegetables or fish offered by peddlers. Although the sun touched only the highest balconies (the street a crack in the disorderly mass of buildings) and the rest was only shadow and garbage, one could sense, behind it, the enormous celebration of spring. And even Eugenia, so small and pale, bound like a mouse to the mud of her courtyard, began to breathe rapidly, as if that air, that celebration, and all that blue suspended over the neighborhood of the poor were also hers. The yellow basket of the Amodios’ maid, Rosaria Buonincontri, grazed her as she went into the tobacco shop. Rosaria was a fat woman in black, with white legs and a flushed, placid face.
“Tell your mamma if she can come upstairs a moment today, Signora Amodio needs her to deliver a message.”
Eugenia recognized her by her voice. “She’s not here now. She went to Via Roma to get my glasses.”
“I should wear them, too, but my boyfriend doesn’t want me to.”
Eugenia didn’t grasp the meaning of that prohibition. She answered only, ingenuously: “They cost a great amount; you have to take very good care of them.”
They entered Don Vincenzo’s hole-in-the-wall together.
There was a crowd. Eugenia kept being pushed back. “Go on … you really are blind,” observed the Amodios’ maid, with a kind smile.
“But now Aunt Nunzia’s gotten you some eyeglasses,” Don Vincenzo, who had heard her, broke in, winking, with an air of teasing comprehension. He, too, wore glasses.
“At your age,” he said, handing her the candies, “I could see like a cat, I could thread needles at night, my grandmother always wanted me nearby … but now I’m old.”
Eugenia nodded vaguely. “My friends. none of them have lenses,” she said. Then, turning to the servant Rosaria, but speaking also for Don Vincenzo’s benefit: “Just me. Nine diopters on one side and ten on the other. I am almost blind!” she said emphatically, sweetly.
“See how lucky you are,” said Don Vincenzo, smiling, and to Rosaria: “How much salt?”
“Poor child!” the Amodios’ maid commented as Eugenia left, happily. “It’s the dampness that’s ruined her. In that building it rains on us. Now Donna Rosa’s bones ache. Give me a kilo of coarse salt and a packet of fine … ”
“There you are.”
“What a morning, eh, today, Don Vincenzo? It seems like summer already.”
Walking more slowly than she had on the way there, Eugenia, without even realizing it, began to unwrap one of the two candies, and then put it in her mouth. It tasted of lemon. “I’ll tell Aunt Nunzia that I lost it on the way,” she proposed to herself. She was happy, it didn’t matter to her if her aunt, good as she was, got angry. She felt someone take her hand, and recognized Luigino.
“You are really blind!” the boy said laughing. “And the glasses?”
“Mamma went to Via Roma to get them.”
“I didn’t go to school; it’s a beautiful day, why don’t we take a little walk?”
“You’re crazy! Today I have to be good.”
Luigino looked at her and laughed, with his mouth like a money box, stretching to his ears, contemptuous.
“What a rat’s nest.”
Instinctively Eugenia brought a hand to her hair.
“I can’t see well, and Mamma doesn’t have time,” she answered meekly.
“What are the glasses like? With gold frames?” Luigino asked. “All gold!” Eugenia answered, lying. “Bright and shiny!”
“Old women wear glasses,” said Luigino.
“Also ladies, I saw them on Via Roma.”
“Those are dark glasses, for sunbathing,” Luigino insisted. “You’re just jealous. They cost eight thousand lire.”
“When you have them, let me see them,” said Luigino. “I want to see if the frame really is gold. You’re such a liar,” and he went off on his own business, whistling.
Reentering the courtyard, Eugenia wondered anxiously if her glasses would or wouldn’t have a gold frame. In the negative case, what could she say to Luigino to convince him that they were a thing of value? But what a beautiful day! Maybe Mamma was about to return with the glasses wrapped in a package. Soon she would have them on her face. She would have … A frenzy of blows fell on her head. A real fury. She seemed to collapse; in vain she defended herself with her hands. It was Aunt Nunzia, of course, furious because of her delay, and behind Aunt Nunzia was Pasqualino, like a madman, because he didn’t believe her story about the candies. “Bloodsucker! You ugly little blind girl! And I who gave my life for this ingratitude … You’ll come to a bad end! Eight thousand lire no less. They bleed me dry, these scoundrels.”
She let her hands fall, only to burst into a great lament. “Our Lady of Sorrows, holy Jesus, by the wounds in your ribs let me die!”
Eugenia wept, too, in torrents.
“Aunt, forgive me. Aunt .”
“Uh . uh . uh .” said Pasqualino, his mouth wide open.
“Poor child,” said Donna Mariuccia, coming over to Eugenia, who didn’t know where to hide her face, now streaked with red and tears at her aunt’s rage. “She didn’t do it on purpose, Nunzia, calm down,” and to Eugenia: “Where’ve you got the candies?”
Eugenia answered softly, hopelessly, holding out one in her dirty hand: “I ate the other. I was hungry.”
Before her aunt could move again, to attack the child, the voice of the marchesa could be heard, from the fourth floor, where there was sun, calling softly, placidly, sweetly:
Aunt Nunzia looked up, her face pained as that of the Madonna of the Seven Sorrows, which was at the head of her bed.
“Today is the first Friday of the month. Dedicate it to God.”
“Marchesa, how good you are! These kids make me commit so many sins, I’m losing my mind, I …” And she collapsed her face between her paw-like hands, the hands of a worker, with brown, scaly skin.
“Is your brother not there?”
“Poor Aunt, she got you the eyeglasses, and that’s how you thank her,” said Mariuccia meanwhile to Eugenia, who was trembling.
“Yes, signora, here I am,” answered Don Peppino, who until that moment had been half hidden behind the door of the basement room, waving a paper in front of the stove where the beans for lunch were cooking.
“Can you come up?”
“My wife went to get the eyeglasses for Eugenia. I’m watching the beans. Would you wait, if you don’t mind.”
“Then send up the child. I have a dress for Nunziata. I want to give it to her.”
“May God reward you … very grateful,” answered Don Peppino, with a sigh of consolation, because that was the only thing that could calm his sister. But looking at Nunziata, he realized that she wasn’t at all cheered up. She continued to weep desperately, and that weeping had so stunned Pasqualino that the child had become quiet as if by magic, and was now licking the snot that dripped from his nose, with a small, sweet smile.
“Did you hear? Go up to the Signora Marchesa, she has a dress to give you,” said Don Peppino to his daughter.
Eugenia was looking at something in the void, with her eyes that couldn’t see: they were staring, fixed and large. She winced, and got up immediately, obedient.
“Say to her: ‘May God reward you,’ and stay outside the door.”
“Believe me, Mariuccia,” said Aunt Nunzia, when Eugenia had gone off, “I love that little creature, and afterward I’m sorry, as God is my witness, for scolding her. But I feel all the blood go to my head, believe me, when I have to fight with the kids. Youth is gone, as you see,” and she touched her hollow cheeks. “Sometimes I feel like a madwoman.”
“On the other hand, they have to vent, too,” Donna Mariuccia answered. “They’re innocent souls. They need time to weep. When I look at them, and think how they’ll become just like us.” She went to get a broom and swept a cabbage leaf out of the doorway. “I wonder what God is doing.”
“It’s new, brand-new! You hardly wore it!” said Eugenia, sticking her nose in the green dress lying on the sofa in the kitchen, while the marchesa went looking for an old newspaper to wrap it in.
The marchesa thought that the child really couldn’t see, because otherwise she would have realized that the dress was very old and full of patches (it had belonged to her dead sister), but she refrained from commenting. Only after a moment, as she was coming in with the newspaper, she asked:
“And the eyeglasses your aunt got you? Are they new?”
“With gold frames. They cost eight thousand lire,” Eugenia answered all in one breath, becoming emotional again at the thought of the honor she had received, “because I’m almost blind,” she added simply.
“In my opinion,” said the marchesa, carefully wrapping the dress in the newspaper, and then reopening the package because a sleeve was sticking out, “your aunt could have saved her money. I saw some very good eyeglasses in a shop near the Church of the Ascension, for only two thousand lire.”
Eugenia blushed fiery red. She understood that the marchesa was displeased. “Each to his own position in life. We all must know our limitations,” she had heard her say this many times, talking to Donna Rosa, when she brought her the washed clothes, and stayed to complain of her poverty.
“Maybe they weren’t good enough. I have nine diopters,” she replied timidly.
The marchesa arched an eyebrow, but luckily Eugenia didn’t see it.
“They were good, I’m telling you,” the Marchesa said obstinately, in a slightly harsher voice. Then she was sorry. “My dear,” she said more gently, “I’m saying this because I know the troubles you have in your household. With that difference of six thousand lire, you could buy bread for ten days, you could buy… What’s the use to you of seeing better? Given what’s around you!” A silence. “To read, maybe, but do you read?”
“But sometimes I’ve seen you with your nose in a book. A liar as well, my dear. That is no good.”
Eugenia didn’t answer again. She felt truly desperate, staring at the dress with her nearly white eyes.
“Is it silk?” she asked stupidly.
The marchesa looked at her, reflecting.
“You don’t deserve it, but I want to give you a little gift,” she said suddenly, and headed toward a white wooden wardrobe. At that moment the telephone, which was in the hall, began to ring, and instead of opening the wardrobe the marchesa went to answer it. Eugenia, oppressed by those words, hadn’t even heard the old woman’s consoling allusion, and as soon as she was alone she began to look around as far as her poor eyes allowed her. How many fine, beautiful things! Like the store on Via Roma! And there, right in front of her, an open balcony with a lot of small pots of flowers.
She went out onto the balcony. How much air, how much blue! The apartment buildings seemed to be covered by a blue veil, and below was the alley, like a ravine, with so many ants coming and going … like her relatives. What were they doing? Where were they going? They went in and out of their holes, carrying big crumbs of bread, they were doing this now, had done it yesterday, would do it tomorrow, forever, forever. So many holes, so many ants. And around them, almost invisible in the great light, the world made by God, with the wind, the sun, and out there the purifying sea, so vast … She was standing there, her chin planted on the iron railing, suddenly thoughtful, with an expression of sorrow, of bewilderment, that made her look ugly. She heard the sound of the marchesa’s voice, calm, pious. In her hand, in her smooth ivory hand, the marchesa was holding a small book covered in black paper with gilt letters.
“It’s the thoughts of the saints, my dear. The youth of today don’t read anything, and so the world has changed course. Take it, I’m giving it to you. But you must promise to read a little every evening, now that you’ve got your glasses.”
“Yes, signora,” said Eugenia, in a hurry, blushing again because the marchesa had found her on the balcony, and she took the book. Signora D’Avanzo regarded her with satisfaction.
“God wished to save you, my dear!” she said, going to get the package with the dress and placing it in her hands. “You’re not pretty, anything but, and you already appear to be an old lady. God favors you, because looking like that you won’t have opportunities for evil. He wants you to be holy, like your sisters!”
Although the words didn’t really wound her, because she had long been unconsciously prepared for a life without joy, Eugenia was nevertheless disturbed by them. And it seemed to her, if only for a moment, that the sun no longer shone as before, and even the thought of the eyeglasses ceased to cheer her. She looked vaguely, with her nearly dead eyes, at a point on the sea, where the Posillipo peninsula extended like a faded green lizard. “Tell Papa,” the marchesa continued, meanwhile, “that we won’t do anything about the child’s mattress today. My cousin telephoned, and I’ll be in Posillipo all day.”
“I was there once, too …” Eugenia began, reviving at that name and looking, spellbound, in that direction.
“Yes? Is that so?” Signora D’Avanzo was indifferent, the name of that place meant nothing special to her. In her magisterial fashion, she accompanied the child, who was still looking toward that luminous point, to the door, closing it slowly behind her.
As Eugenia came down the last step and out into the courtyard, the shadow that had been darkening her forehead for a while disappeared, and her mouth opened in a joyful laugh, because she had seen her mother arriving. It wasn’t hard to recognize that worn, familiar figure. She threw the dress on a chair and ran toward her.
“Mamma! The eyeglasses!”
“Gently, my dear, you’ll knock me over!”
Immediately, a small crowd formed. Donna Mariuccia, Don Peppino, one of the Greborios, who had stopped to rest on a chair before starting up the stairs, the Amodios’ maid, who was just then returning, and, of course, Pasqualino and Teresella, who wanted to see, too, and yelled, holding out their hands. Nunziata, for her part, was observing the dress that she had taken out of the newspaper, with a disappointed expression.
“Look, Mariuccia, it’s an old rag … all worn out under the arms!” she said, approaching the group. But who was paying attention to her? At that moment, Donna Rosa was extracting from a pocket in her dress the eyeglass case, and with infinite care opened it. On Donna Rosa’s long red hand, a kind of very shiny insect with two giant eyes and two curving antennae glittered in a pale ray of sun amid those poor people, full of admiration.
“Eight thousand lire … a thing like that!” said Donna Rosa, gazing at the eyeglasses religiously, and yet with a kind of rebuke.
Then, in silence, she placed them on Eugenia’s face, as the child ecstatically held out her hands, and carefully arranged the two antennae behind her ears. “Now can you see?” Donna Rosa asked with great emotion.
Gripping the eyeglasses with her hands, as if in fear that they would be taken away from her, her eyes half closed and her mouth half open in a rapt smile, Eugenia took two steps backward, and stumbled on a chair.
“Good luck!” said the Amodios’ maid.
“Good luck!” said the Greborio sister.
“She looks like a schoolteacher, doesn’t she?” Don Peppino observed with satisfaction.
“Not even a thank you!” said Aunt Nunzia, looking bitterly at the dress. “With all that, good luck!”
“She’s afraid, my little girl!” murmured Donna Rosa, heading toward the door of the basement room to put down her things. “She’s put on the eyeglasses for the first time!” she said, looking up at the first-floor balcony, where the other Greborio sister was looking out.
“I see everything very tiny,” said Eugenia, in a strange voice, as if she were speaking from under a chair. “Black, very black.”
“Of course: the lenses are double. But do you see clearly?” asked Don Peppino. “That’s the important thing. She’s put on the glasses for the first time,” he, too, said, addressing Cavaliere Amodio, who was passing by, holding an open newspaper.
“I’m warning you,” the cavaliere said to Mariuccia, after staring at Eugenia for a moment, as if she were merely a cat, “that stairway hasn’t been swept. I found some fish bones in front of the door!” And he went on, bent over, almost enfolded in his newspaper, reading an article about a proposal for a new pension law that interested him.
Eugenia, still holding on to the eyeglasses with her hands, went to the entrance to the courtyard to look outside into Vicolo della Cupa. Her legs were trembling, her head was spinning, and she no longer felt any joy. With her white lips she wished to smile, but that smile became a moronic grimace. Suddenly the balconies began to multiply, two thousand, a hundred thousand; the carts piled with vegetables were falling on her; the voices filling the air, the cries, the lashes, struck her head as if she were ill; she turned, swaying, toward the courtyard, and that terrible impression intensified. The courtyard was like a sticky funnel, with the narrow end toward the sky, its leprous walls crowded with derelict balconies; the arches of the basement dwellings black, with the lights bright in a circle around Our Lady of Sorrows; the pavement white with soapy water; the cabbage leaves, the scraps of paper, the garbage and, in the middle of the courtyard, that group of ragged, deformed souls, faces pocked by poverty and resignation, who looked at her lovingly. They began to writhe, to become mixed up, to grow larger. They all came toward her, in the two bewitched circles of the eyeglasses. It was Mariuccia who first realized that the child was sick, and she tore off the glasses, because Eugenia, doubled over and moaning, was throwing up.
“They’ve gone to her stomach!” cried Mariuccia, holding her forehead. “Bring a coffee bean, Nunziata!”
“A grand total of a good eight thousand lire!” cried Aunt Nunzia, her eyes popping out of her head, running into the basement room to get a coffee bean from a can in the cupboard; and she held up the new eyeglasses, as if to ask God for an explanation. “And now they’re wrong, too!”
“It’s always like that, the first time,” said the Amodios’ maid to Donna Rosa calmly. “You mustn’t be shocked; little by little one gets used to them.”
“It’s nothing, child, nothing, don’t be scared!” But Donna Rosa felt her heart constrict at the thought of how unlucky they were.
Aunt Nunzia returned with the coffee bean, still crying: “A grand total of a good eight thousand lire!” while Eugenia, pale as death, tried in vain to throw up, because she had nothing left inside her. Her bulging eyes were almost crossed with suffering, and her old lady’s face was bathed in tears, as if stupefied. She leaned on her mother and trembled.
“Mamma, where are we?”
“We’re in the courtyard, my child,” said Donna Rosa patiently; and the fine smile, between pity and wonder, that illuminated her eyes, suddenly lit up the faces of all those wretched people.
“She’s a half-wit, she is!”
“Leave her alone, poor child, she’s dazed,” said Donna Mariuccia, and her face was grim with pity, as she went back into the basement apartment that seemed to her darker than usual.
Only Aunt Nunzia was wringing her hands:
“A grand total of a good eight thousand lire!”
*The story is taken from Evening Descends Upon the Hills by Anna Maria Ortese. Pushkin Press, 2018.