It was one of the secret opinions, such as we all have, of Peter Brench that his main success in life would have consisted in his never having committed himself about the work, as it was called, of his friend, Morgan Mallow. This was a subject on which it was, to the best of his belief, impossible, with veracity, to quote him, and it was nowhere on record that he had, in the connection, on any occasion and in any embarrassment, either lied or spoken the truth. Such a triumph had its honour even for a man of other triumphs—a man who had reached fifty, who had escaped marriage, who had lived within his means, who had been in love with Mrs. Mallow for years without breathing it, and who, last not least, had judged himself once for all. He had so judged himself in fact that he felt an extreme and general humility to be his proper portion; yet there was nothing that made him think so well of his parts as the course he had steered so often through the shallows just mentioned. It became thus a real wonder that the friends in whom he had most confidence were just those with whom he had most reserves. He couldn’t tell Mrs. Mallow—or at least he supposed, excellent man, he couldn’t—that she was the one beautiful reason he had never married; any more than he could tell her husband that the sight of the multiplied marbles in that gentleman’s studio was an affliction of which even time had never blunted the edge. His victory, however, as I have intimated, in regard to these productions was not simply in his not having let it out that he deplored them; it was, remarkably, in his not having kept it in by anything else.
The whole situation, among these good people, was verily a marvel, and there was probably not such another for a long way from the spot that engages us—the point at which the soft declivity of Hampstead began at that time to confess in broken accents to St. John’s Wood. He despised Mallow’s statues and adored Mallow’s wife, and yet was distinctly fond of Mallow, to whom, in turn, he was equally dear. Mrs. Mallow rejoiced in the statues—though she preferred, when pressed, the busts; and if she was visibly attached to Peter Brench it was because of his affection for Morgan. Each loved the other, moreover, for the love borne in each case to Lancelot, whom the Mallows respectively cherished as their only child and whom the friend of their fireside identified as the third—but decidedly the handsomest—of his godsons. Already in the old years it had come to that—that no one, for such a relation, could possibly have occurred to any of them, even to the baby itself, but Peter. There was luckily a certain independence, of the pecuniary sort, all round: the Master could never otherwise have spent his solemn Wanderjahre 1 in Florence and Rome and continued, by the Thames as well as by the Arno and the Tiber, to add unpurchased group to group and model, for what was too apt to prove in the event mere love, fancy-heads of celebrities either too busy or too buried—too much of the age or too little of it—to sit. Neither could Peter, lounging in almost daily, have found time to keep the whole complicated tradition so alive by his presence. He was massive, but mild, the depositary of these mysteries—large and loose and ruddy and curly, with deep tones, deep eyes, deep pockets, to say nothing of the habit of long pipes, soft hats, and brownish, greyish, weather-faded clothes, apparently always the same.
He had ‘written,’ it was known, but had never spoken—never spoken, in particular, of that; and he had the air (since, as was believed, he continued to write) of keeping it up in order to have something more—as if he had not, at the worst, enough—to be silent about. Whatever his air, at any rate, Peter’s occasional unmentioned prose and verse were quite truly the result of an impulse to maintain the purity of his taste by establishing still more firmly the right relation of fame to feebleness. The little green door of his domain was in a garden-wall on which the stucco was cracked and stained, and in the small detached villa behind it everything was old, the furniture, the servants, the books, the prints, the habits, and the new improvements. The Mallows, at Carrara Lodge, were within ten minutes, and the studio there was on their little land, to which they had added, in their happy faith, to build it. This was the good fortune, if it was not the ill, of her having brought him, in marriage, a portion that put them in a manner at their ease and enabled them thus, on their side, to keep it up. And they did keep it up—they always had—the infatuated sculptor and his wife, for whom nature had refined on the impossible by relieving them of the sense of the difficult. Morgan had, at all events, everything of the sculptor but the spirit of Phidias—the brown velvet, the becoming beretto, the ‘plastic’ presence, the fine fingers, the beautiful accent in Italian, and the old Italian factotum. He seemed to make up for every thing when he addressed Egidio with the ‘tu’ and waved him to turn one of the rotary pedestals of which the place was full. They were tremendous Italians at Carrara Lodge, and the secret of the part played by this fact in Peter’s life was, in a large degree, that it gave him, sturdy Briton that he was, just the amount of going abroad he could bear. The Mallows were all his Italy, but it was in a measure for Italy he liked them. His one worry was that Lance—to which they had shortened his godson—was, in spite of a public school, perhaps a shade too Italian. Morgan, meanwhile, looked like somebody’s flattering idea of somebody’s own person as expressed in the great room provided at the Uffizzi museum for Portraits of Artists by Themselves. The Master’s sole regret that he had not been born rather to the brush than to the chisel sprang from his wish that he might have contributed to that collection.
It appeared, with time, at any rate, to be to the brush that Lance had been born; for Mrs. Mallow, one day when the boy was turning twenty, broke it to their friend, who shared, to the last delicate morsel, their problems and pains, that it seemed as if nothing would really do but that he should embrace the career. It had been impossible longer to remain blind to the fact that he gained no glory at Cambridge, where Brench’s own college had, for a year, tempered its tone to him as for Brench’s own sake. Therefore why renew the vain form of preparing him for the impossible? The impossible—it had become clear—was that he should be anything but an artist.
‘Oh dear, dear!’ said poor Peter.
‘Don’t you believe in it?’ asked Mrs. Mallow, who still, at more than forty, had her violet velvet eyes, her creamy satin skin, and her silken chestnut hair.
‘Believe in what?’
‘Why, in Lance’s passion.’
‘I don’t know what you mean by “believing in it.” I’ve never been unaware, certainly, of his disposition, from his earliest time, to daub and draw; but I confess I’ve hoped it would burn out.’
‘But why should it,’ she sweetly smiled, ‘with his wonderful heredity? Passion is passion—though of course, indeed, you, dear Peter, know nothing of that. Has the Master’s ever burned out?’
Peter looked off a little and, in his familiar, formless way, kept up for a moment a sound between a smothered whistle and a subdued hum. ‘Do you think he’s going to be another Master?’
She seemed scarce prepared to go that length, yet she had, on the whole, a most marvellous trust. ‘I know what you mean by that. Will it be a career to incur the jealousies and provoke the machinations that have been at times almost too much for his father? Well—say it may be, since nothing but clap-trap, in these dreadful days, can, it would seem, make its way, and since, with the curse of refinement and distinction, one may easily find one’s self begging one’s bread. Put it at the worst—say he has the misfortune to wing his flight further than the vulgar taste of his stupid countrymen can follow. Think, all the same, of the happiness—the same that the Master has had. He’ll know.’
Peter looked rueful. ‘Ah, but what will he know?’
‘Quiet joy!’ cried Mrs. Mallow, quite impatient and turning away.
He had of course, before long, to meet the boy himself on it and to hear that, practically, everything was settled. Lance was not to go up again, but to go instead to Paris, where, since the die was cast, he would find the best advantages. Peter had always felt that he must be taken as he was, but had never perhaps found him so much as he was as on this occasion. ‘You chuck Cambridge then altogether? Doesn’t that seem rather a pity?’
Lance would have been like his father, to his friend’s sense, had he had less humour, and like his mother had he had more beauty. Yet it was a good middle way, for Peter, that, in the modern manner, he was, to the eye, rather the young stockbroker than the young artist. The youth reasoned that it was a question of time—there was such a mill to go through, such an awful lot to learn. He had talked with fellows and had judged. ‘One has got, to-day,’ he said, ‘don’t you see? to know.’
His interlocutor, at this, gave a groan. ‘Oh, hang it, don’t know!’
Lance wondered. ‘”Don’t”? Then what’s the use———?’
‘The use of what?’
‘Why, of anything. Don’t you think I’ve talent?’
Peter smoked away, for a little, in silence;. then went on: ‘It isn’t knowledge, it’s ignorance that—as we’ve been beautifully told—is bliss.’
‘Don’t you think I’ve talent?’ Lance repeated.
Peter, with his trick of queer, kind demonstrations, passed his arm round his godson and held him a moment. ‘How do I know?’
‘Oh,’ said the boy, ‘if it’s your own ignorance you’re defending———!’
Again, for a pause, on the sofa, his godfather smoked. ‘It isn’t. I’ve the misfortune to be omniscient.’
‘Oh, well,’ Lance laughed again, ‘if you know too much———!’
‘That’s what I do, and why I’m so wretched.’
Lance’s gaiety grew. ‘Wretched? Come, I say!’
‘But I forgot,’ his companion went on—’you’re not to know about that. It would indeed, for you too, make the too much. Only I’ll tell you what I’ll do.’ And Peter got up from the sofa. ‘If you’ll go up again, I’ll pay your way at Cambridge.’
Lance stared, a little rueful in spite of being still more amused. ‘Oh, Peter! You disapprove so of Paris?’
‘Well, I’m afraid of it.’
‘Ah, I see.’
‘No, you don’t see—yet. But you will—that is you would. And you mustn’t.’
The young man thought more gravely. ‘But one’s innocence, already———’
‘Is considerably damaged? Ah, that won’t matter,’ Peter persisted—’we’ll patch it up here.’
‘Here? Then you want me to stay at home?’
Peter almost confessed to it. ‘Well, we’re so right—we four together—just as we are. We’re so safe. Come, don’t spoil it.’
The boy, who had turned to gravity, turned from this, on the real pressure in his friend’s tone, to consternation. ‘Then what’s a fellow to be?’
‘My particular care. Come, old man’—and Peter now fairly pleaded—I’ll look out for you.’
Lance, who had remained on the sofa with his legs out and his hands in his pockets, watched him with eyes that showed suspicion. Then he got up. ‘You think there’s something the matter with me—that I can’t make a success.’
‘Well, what do you call a success?’
Lance thought again. ‘Why, the best sort, I suppose, is to please one’s self. Isn’t that the sort that, in spite of cabals and things, is—in his own peculiar line—the Master’s?’
There were so much too many things in this question to be answered at once that they practically checked the discussion, which became particularly difficult in the light of such renewed proof that, though the young man’s innocence might, in the course of his studies, as he contended, somewhat have shrunken, the finer essence of it still remained. That was indeed exactly what Peter had assumed and what, above all, he desired; yet, perversely enough, it gave him a chill. The boy believed in the cabals and things, believed in the peculiar line, believed, in short, in the Master. What happened a month or two later was not that he went up again at the expense of his godfather, but that a fortnight after he had got settled in Paris this personage sent him fifty pounds.
He had meanwhile, at home, this personage, made up his mind to the worst; and what it might be had never yet grown quite so vivid to him as when, on his presenting himself one Sunday night, as he never failed to do, for supper, the mistress of Carrara Lodge met him with an appeal as to—of all things in the world—the wealth of the Canadians. She was earnest, she was even excited. ‘Are many of them really rich?’
He had to confess that he knew nothing about them, but he often thought afterwards of that evening. The room in which they sat was adorned with sundry specimens of the Master’s genius, which had the merit of being, as Mrs. Mallow herself frequently suggested, of an unusually convenient size. They were indeed of dimensions not customary in the products of the chisel and had the singularity that, if the objects and features intended to be small looked too large, the objects and features intended to be large looked too small. The Master’s intention, whether in respect to this matter or to any other, had, in almost any case, even after years, remained undiscoverable to Peter Brench. The creations that so failed to reveal it stood about on pedestals and brackets, on tables and shelves, a little staring white population, heroic, idyllic, allegoric, mythic, symbolic, in which ‘scale’ had so strayed and lost itself that the public square and the chimney-piece seemed to have changed places, the monumental being all diminutive and the diminutive all monumental; branches, at any rate, markedly, of a family in which stature was rather oddly irrespective of function, age, and sex. They formed, like the Mallows themselves, poor Brench’s own family—having at least, to such a degree, a note of familiarity. The occasion was one of those he had long ago learnt to know and to name—short flickers of the faint flame, soft gusts of a kinder air. Twice a year, regularly, the Master believed in his fortune, in addition to believing all the year round in his genius. This time it was to be made by a bereaved couple from Toronto, who had given him the handsomest order for a tomb to three lost children, each of whom they desired to be, in the composition, emblematically and characteristically represented.
Such was naturally the moral of Mrs. Mallow’s question: if their wealth was to be assumed, it was clear, from the nature of their admiration, as well as from mysterious hints thrown out (they were a little odd!) as to other possibilities of the same mortuary sort, that their further patronage might be; and not less evident that, should the Master become at all known in those climes, nothing would be more inevitable than a run of Canadian custom. Peter had been present before at runs of custom, colonial and domestic—present at each of those of which the aggregation had left so few gaps in the marble company round him; but it was his habit never, at these junctures, to prick the bubble in advance. The fond illusion, while it lasted, eased the wound of elections never won, the long ache of medals and diplomas carried off, on every chance, by every one but the Master; it lighted the lamp, moreover, that would glimmer through the next eclipse. They lived, however, after all—as it was always beautiful to see—at a height scarce susceptible of ups and downs. They strained a point, at times, charmingly, to admit that the public was, here and there, not too bad to buy; but they would have been nowhere without their attitude that the Master was always too good to sell. They were, at all events, deliciously formed, Peter often said to himself, for their fate; the Master had a vanity, his wife had a loyalty, of which success, depriving these things of innocence, would have diminished the merit and the grace. Any one could be charming under a charm, and, as he looked about him at a world of prosperity more void of proportion even than the Master’s museum, he wondered if he knew another pair that so completely escaped vulgarity.
‘What a pity Lance isn’t with us to rejoice!’ Mrs. Mallow on this occasion sighed at supper.
‘We’ll drink to the health of the absent,’ her husband replied, filling his friend’s glass and his own and giving a drop to their companion; ‘but we must hope that he’s preparing himself for a happiness much less like this of ours this evening—excusable as I grant it to be!—than like the comfort we have always—whatever has happened or has not happened—been able to trust ourselves to enjoy. The comfort,’ the Master explained, leaning back in the pleasant lamplight and firelight, holding up his glass alooking round at his marble family, quartered more or less, a monstrous brood, in every room—’the comfort of art in itself!’
Peter looked a little shily at his wine. ‘Well—I don’t care what you may call it when a fellow doesn’t—but Lance must learn to sell, you know. I drink to his acquisition of the secret of a base popularity!’
‘Oh yes, he must sell,’ the boy’s mother, who was still more, however, this seemed to give out, the Master’s wife, rather artlessly conceded.
‘Oh,’ the sculptor, after a moment, confidently pronounced, ‘Lance will. Don’t be afraid. He will have learnt.’
‘Which is exactly what Peter,’ Mrs. Mallow gaily returned—’why in the world were you so perverse, Peter?—wouldn’t, when he told him, hear of.’
Peter, when this lady looked at him with accusatory affection—a grace, on her part, not infrequent—could never find a word; but the Master, who was always all amenity and tact, helped him out now as he had often helped him before. ‘That’s his old idea, you know—on which we’ve so often differed: his theory that the artist should be all impulse and instinct. I go in, of course, for a certain amount of school. Not too much—but a due proportion. There’s where his protest came in,’ he continued to explain to his wife, ‘as against what might, don’t you see? be in question for Lance.’
‘Ah, well,’—and Mrs. Mallow turned the violet eyes across the table at the subject of this discourse,—’he’s sure to have meant, of course, nothing but good; but that wouldn’t have prevented him, if Lance had taken his advice, from being, in effect, horribly cruel.’
They had a sociable way of talking of him to his face as if he had been in the clay or—at most—in the plaster, and the Master was unfailingly generous. He might have been waving Egidio to make him revolve. ‘Ah, but poor Peter was not so wrong as to what it may, after all, come to that he will learn.’
‘Oh, but nothing artistically bad,’ she urged—still, for poor Peter, arch and dewy.
‘Why, just the little French tricks,’ said the Master: on which their friend had to pretend to admit, when pressed by Mrs. Mallow, that these æsthetic vices had been the objects of his dread.
‘I know now,’ Lance said to him the next year, ‘why you were so much against it.’ He had come back, supposedly for a mere interval, and was looking about him at Carrara Lodge, where indeed he had already, on two or three occasions, since his expatriation, briefly appeared. This had the air of a longer holiday. ‘Something rather awful has happened to me. It isn’t so very good to know.’
‘I’m bound to say high spirits don’t show in your face,’ Peter was rather ruefully forced to confess. ‘Still, are you very sure you do know?’
‘Well, I at least know about as much as I can bear.’ These remarks were exchanged in Peter’s den, and the young man, smoking cigarettes, stood before the fire with his back against the mantel. Something of his bloom seemed really to have left him.
Poor Peter wondered. ‘You’re clear then as to what in particular I wanted you not to go for?’
‘In particular?’ Lance thought. ‘It seems to me that, in particular, there can have been but one thing.’
They stood for a little sounding each other. ‘Are you quite sure?’
‘Quite sure I’m a beastly duffer? Quite—by this time.’
‘Oh!’ and Peter turned away as if almost with relief.
‘It’s that that isn’t pleasant to find out.’
‘Oh, I don’t care for “that,” said Peter, presently coming round again. ‘I mean I personally don’t.’
‘Yet I hope you can understand a little that I myself should!’
‘Well, what do you mean by it?’ Peter sceptically asked.
And on this Lance had to explain—how the upshot of his studies in Paris had inexorably proved a mere deep doubt of his means. These studies had waked him up, and a new light was in his eyes; but what the new light did was really to show him too much. ‘Do you know what’s the matter with me? I’m too horribly intelligent. Paris was really the last place for me. I’ve learnt what I can’t do.’
Poor Peter stared—it was a staggerer; but even after they had had, on the subject, a longish talk in which the boy brought out to the full the hard truth of his lesson, his friend betrayed less pleasure than usually breaks into a face to the happy tune of ‘I told you so!’ Poor Peter himself made now indeed so little a point of having told him so that Lance broke ground in a different place a day or two after. ‘What was it then that—before I went—you were afraid I should find out?’ This, however, Peter refused to tell him—on the ground that if he hadn’t yet guessed perhaps he never would, and that nothing at all, for either of them, in any case, was to be gained by giving the thing a name. Lance eyed him, on this, an instant, with the bold curiosity of youth—with the air indeed of having in his mind two or three names, of which one or other would be right. Peter, nevertheless, turning his back again, offered no encouragement, and when they parted afresh it was with some show of impatience on the side of the boy. Accordingly, at their next encounter, Peter saw at a glance that he had now, in the interval, divined and that, to sound his note, he was only waiting till they should find themselves alone. This he had soon arranged, and he then broke straight out. ‘Do you know your conundrum has been keeping me awake? But in the watches of the night the answer came over me—so that, upon my honour, I quite laughed out. Had you been supposing I had to go to Paris to learn that?‘ Even now, to see him still so sublimely on his guard, Peter’s young friend had to laugh afresh. ‘You won’t give a sign till you’re sure? Beautiful old Peter!’ But Lance at last produced it. ‘Why, hang it, the truth about the Master.’
It made between them, for some minutes, a lively passage, full of wonder, for each, at the wonder of the other. ‘Then how long have you understood———’
‘The true value of his work? I understood it,’ Lance recalled, ‘as soon as I began to understand anything. But I didn’t begin fully to do that, I admit, till I got là-bas.’
‘Dear, dear!’—Peter gasped with retrospective dread.
‘But for what have you taken me? I’m a hopeless muff—that I had to have rubbed in. But I’m not such a muff as the Master!’ Lance declared.
‘Then why did you never tell me———?’
‘That I hadn’t, after all’—the boy took him up—’remained such an idiot? Just because I never dreamed you knew. But I beg your pardon. I only wanted to spare you. And what I don’t now understand is how the deuce then, for so long, you’ve managed to keep bottled.’
Peter produced his explanation, but only after some delay and with a gravity not void of embarrassment. ‘It was for your mother.’
‘Oh!’ said Lance.
‘And that’s the great thing now—since the murder is out. I want a promise from you. I mean’—and Peter almost feverishly followed it up—’a vow from you, solemn and such as you owe me, here on the spot, that you’ll sacrifice anything rather than let her ever guess———’
‘That I’ve guessed?’—Lance took it in. ‘I see.’ He evidently, after a moment, had taken in much. ‘But what is it you have in mind that I may have a chance to sacrifice?’
‘Oh, one has always something.’
Lance looked at him hard. ‘Do you mean that you’ve had———?’ The look he received back, however, so put the question by that he found soon enough another. ‘Are you really sure my mother doesn’t know?’
Peter, after renewed reflection, was really sure. ‘If she does, she’s too wonderful.’
‘But aren’t we all too wonderful?’
‘Yes,’ Peter granted—’but in different ways. The thing’s so desperately important because your father’s little public consists only, as you know then,’ Peter developed—’well, of how many?’
‘First of all,’ the Master’s son risked, ‘of himself. And last of all too. I don’t quite see of whom else.’
Peter had an approach to impatience. ‘Of your mother, I say—always.’
Lance cast it all up. ‘You absolutely feel that?’
‘Well then, with yourself, that makes three.’
‘Oh, me!‘—and Peter, with a wag of his kind old head, modestly excused himself. ‘The number is, at any rate, small enough for any individual dropping out to be too dreadfully missed. Therefore, to put it in a nutshell, take care, my boy—that’s all—that you’re not!’
‘I’ve got to keep on humbugging?’ Lance sighed.
‘It’s just to warn you of the danger of your failing of that that I’ve seized this opportunity.’
‘And what do you regard in particular,’ the young man asked, ‘as the danger?’
‘Why, this certainty: that the moment your mother, who feels so strongly, should suspect your secret—well,’ said Peter desperately, ‘the fat would be on the fire.’
Lance, for a moment, seemed to stare at the blaze. ‘She’d throw me over?’
‘She’d throw him over.’
‘And come round to us?’
Peter, before he answered, turned away. ‘Come round to you.’ But he had said enough to indicate—and, as he evidently trusted, to avert—the horrid contingency.
Within six months again, however, his fear was, on more occasions than one, all before him. Lance had returned to Paris, to another trial; then had reappeared at home and had had, with his father, for the first time in his life, one of the scenes that strike sparks. He described it with much expression to Peter, as to whom—since they had never done so before—it was a sign of a new reserve on the part of the pair at Carrara Lodge that they at present failed, on a matter of intimate interest, to open themselves—if not in joy, then in sorrow—to their good friend. This produced perhaps, practically, between the parties, a shade of alienation and a slight intermission of commerce marked mainly indeed by the fact that, to talk at his ease with his old playmate, Lance had, in general, to come to see him. The closest, if not quite the gayest, relation they had yet known together was thus ushered in. The difficulty for poor Lance was a tension at home, begotten by the fact that his father wished him to be, at least, the sort of success he himself had been. He hadn’t ‘chucked’ Paris—though nothing appeared more vivid to him than that Paris had chucked him; he would go back again because of the fascination in trying, in seeing, in sounding the depths—in learning one’s lesson, in fine, even if the lesson were simply that of one’s impotence in the presence of one’s larger vision. But what did the Master, all aloft in his senseless fluency, know of impotence, and what vision—to be called such—had he, in all his blind life, ever had? Lance, heated and indignant, frankly appealed to his godparent on this score.
His father, it appeared, had come down on him for having, after so long, nothing to show, and hoped that, on his next return, this deficiency would be repaired. The thing, the Master complacently set forth, was—for any artist, however inferior to himself—at least to ‘do’ something. ‘What can you do? That’s all I ask!’ He had certainly done enough, and there was no mistake about what he had to show. Lance had tears in his eyes when it came thus to letting his old friend know how great the strain might be on the ‘sacrifice’ asked of him. It wasn’t so easy to continue humbugging—as from son to parent—after feeling one’s self despised for not grovelling in mediocrity. Yet a noble duplicity was what, as they intimately faced the situation, Peter went on requiring; and it was still, for a time, what his young friend, bitter and sore, managed loyally to comfort him with. Fifty pounds, more than once again, it was true, rewarded, both in London and in Paris, the young friend’s loyalty; none the less sensibly, doubtless, at the moment, that the money was a direct advance on a decent sum for which Peter had long since privately prearranged an ultimate function. Whether by these arts or others, at all events, Lance’s just resentment was kept for a season—but only for a season—at bay. The day arrived when he warned his companion that he could hold out—or hold in—no longer. Carrara Lodge had had to listen to another lecture delivered from a great height—an infliction really heavier, at last, than, without striking back or in some way letting the Master have the truth, flesh and blood could bear.
‘And what I don’t see is,’ Lance observed with a certain irritated eye for what was, after all, if it came to that, due to himself too—’What I don’t see is, upon my honour, how you, as things are going, can keep the game up.’
‘Oh, the game for me is only to hold my tongue,’ said placid Peter. ‘And I have my reason.’
‘Still my mother?’
Peter showed, as he had often shown it before—that is by turning it straight away—a queer face. ‘What will you have? I haven’t ceased to like her.’
‘She’s beautiful—she’s a dear, of course,’ Lance granted; ‘but what is she to you, after all, and what is it to you that, as to anything whatever, she should or she shouldn’t?’
Peter, who had turned red, hung fire a little. ‘Well—it’s all, simply, what I make of it.’
There was now, however, in his young friend, a strange, an adopted, insistence. ‘What are you, after all, to her?‘
‘Oh, nothing. But that’s another matter.’
‘She cares only for my father,’ said Lance the Parisian.
‘Naturally—and that’s just why.’
‘Why you’ve wished to spare her?’
‘Because she cares so tremendously much.’
Lance took a turn about the room, but with his eyes still on his host. ‘How awfully—always—you must have liked her!’
‘Awfully. Always,’ said Peter Brench.
The young man continued for a moment to muse—then stopped again in front of him. ‘Do you know how much she cares?’ Their eyes met on it, but Peter, as if his own found something new in Lance’s, appeared to hesitate, for the first time for so long, to say he did know. ‘I’ve only just found out,’ said Lance. ‘She came to my room last night, after being present, in silence and only with her eyes on me, at what I had had to take from him; she came—and she was with me an extraordinary hour.’
He had paused again, and they had again for a while sounded each other. Then something—and it made him suddenly turn pale—came to Peter. ‘She does know?’
‘She does know. She let it all out to me—so as to demand of me no more than that, as she said, of which she herself had been capable. She has always, always known,’ said Lance without pity.
Peter was silent a long time; during which his companion might have heard him gently breathe and, on touching him, might have felt within him the vibration of a long, low sound suppressed. By the time he spoke, at last, he had taken everything in. ‘Then I do see how tremendously much.’
‘Isn’t it wonderful?’ Lance asked.
‘Wonderful,’ Peter mused.
‘So that if your original effort to keep me from Paris was to keep me from knowledge———!’ Lance exclaimed as if with a sufficient indication of this futility.
It might have been at the futility that Peter appeared for a little to gaze. ‘I think it must have been—without my quite at the time knowing it—to keep me!‘he replied at last as he turned away.
Although I was only ten years old, I could understand that something important had happened. Every time our bedroom door opened, my mother shut it again so we wouldn’t hear the frantic whispering in the living room. “Meetings” like this only happened in our house when something serious was going on. The door to the children’s room was never normally shut when people came over to chat over a cup of coffee or chamomile tea – the opposite in fact. It was always open to the living room; and every time we came in or went out, the women from the neighbourhood and our family would take turns giving us kisses. “May God protect them”, they all repeated amongst themselves.
My sister, being twelve years old, seemed to understand more than me. Maybe it was her feminine intuition, which had begun to get a feeling for the reality of life around us. She was listening carefully through a crack in the door; and every time the conversation got louder, a look of terror came over her face. Then she would hurry into the room, sit down at a small desk, and ask me angrily, “Have your done your homework?”
Occasionally, we could make out some words among the whispers like “scandal” and “insult”; but the racket always increased whenever the question itself was asked—from time to time, with a worrying anger that really frightened me, anxious child that I was: “Did she have to tell people? May God expose her shamelessness.”
The “scandal” was everywhere in the neighbourhood. Even when I failed to stop the ball from going into the goal at our neighborhood football field, none of the bigger children told me off or told me to get out of the way like they usually did. All their attention was focused on the “scandal”, and gossip was more important than the game. Even the so-called “leader of the gang” gave up this daily game in the end, so that he could sit with the grown-ups and talk about what had happened. But not before he had lit a cigarette and sucked in its smoke, trying to look all of his sixteen years. As kids do, we made a circle round them, trying to sneakily overhear as much information and as many details about this “scandal” as we could: how did it start and what did it mean?
Most of the children around me were baffled by the story that the older boy was discreetly telling … “Then he put his hand…” I was not confused like them, even if I did not know exactly what his words meant. Everyone suddenly shouted at once “Really??”, when the leader of the gang said as he took a puff on his cigarette, “under the panties.”
My father was late coming home that night. My mother waited on the balcony looking over the village, anxiously smoking. My sister was whispering away with my cousin, who had decided to stay at our house that night. For me, this was just another indication of the calamity that had befallen us. The only times I had stayed at their house or they had stayed at our house was when someone in the family had died.
Had someone died now? If so, where were my other cousins? Why were they whispering under the covers? And where was my dad?
When I heard the sound of his truck, I calmed down a little. In less than a minute, I heard my father’s familiar footsteps. As he got further up the stairs, they became clearer and clearer. Then I heard my mother when she came back from the kitchen, accompanied by the smell of hot Arabic coffee. My sister and cousin went silent. All three of us, totally independently, held our breaths and tried to make out any word coming from the balcony. We had no success worth mentioning.
I don’t know how everything changed, but the family shot into action the next day. I started to smell rice and chicken cooking along with kibbeh and Fuqaʿiyya. Suddenly, all the children were gathered in the house of the head of our family. There were men and women all around us too. At first, the food and the huge gathering and all the different kinds of cap guns, bullets, and rifles that were in our house made me forget everything I had thought about the “scandal”; and then all of a sudden, I was running with the runners, playing with the ones who played and got shot.
When the head of the family stood up, all of the women started to argue with us–with both an anger and a kind of fear I had never seen before. My nervous aunt even slapped one of my cousins across the face in order to shut him up. That made us aware of how serious the situation was, and so we were compelled to obey. The head of the family started talking about things that I didn’t understand. But I did manage to understand the words “one family” and “no problem”. All of the men nodded their heads in agreement.
When the head of the family had finished his speech, he went towards one of the men I used to call “uncle” (like I used to address all men) and hugged him and kissed him. All the other men proceeded to hug and kiss this man afterwards. Suddenly, the room was filled with loud ululations and then high pitched shrieks, in a slightly confused manner.
A weighty silence then came over the room as one of the women in the family stepped forward dragging a girl who I supposed was my age, or a little older. She stood in front of Uncle and told the girl firmly, as both of them cried with fear: “Kiss your uncle!”
That night, as my mother was tucking me into bed, my sister asked her, “Does this mean it’s over?”
My mother looked at her sternly and said, “She is a wretched girl. Is she the first one who had to do this? Did she want to destroy the family? Never bring up the story again or talk about what happened for as long as you live. Understand?”
My sister whispered a few words, which I guess meant that she had submitted entirely to my mother’s demands. My mother turned off the light in the room and looked at us lovingly. She said quietly with tears in her eyes: “May God protect you”.
John’s childhood ambition was to be a pilot. Let’s sit with that a while. A boy grew up, like so many other boys all over the world, watching the skies, imagining himself in the endless blue. What do all these boys dream of? Of watching the world from above, of air starts and power-off glides, of aerial somersaults, of moonlit sorties, of racing through the clouds in 15,000 tonnes of machinery, of the attractiveness of being a man in uniform? Universal dreams, and not only boys dream them, of course. As universal as love, as family loyalty, as friendship, as kindness, as fear. And like love, loyalty, friendship, kindness and fear, the dream of being a pilot – however universal in its outlines – must exist and play itself out in very particular circumstances. In John’s case, the circumstances start with place – the country of his birth and upbringing _______. And ______ is where he started the story, when we met in London in a room made smaller than it needed to be by the excessive furniture – round table, too many chairs — crammed into it.
‘I’m from _______,’ he said. ‘It’s a small country. The_______ government is a kind of a dictatorship. It used to be a military dictatorship before supposed democracy came back in but it isn’t really a democratic country. The President has been there for a very long time. So things are not as outsiders would see.’
When he started to speak in his ordered, concise sentences I knew immediately that he had told this tale before, and had learnt how to shape it. It came as no surprise, near the end of our time together, when he said that telling his story was part of his CBT therapy. As a writer, I know the usefulness of stories when confronting our lives. Stories allow us to structure our experiences into beginning, middle, end, and decide which parts to skim over, which to go into in detail; stories allow us to put forward our own points of view and interpretations; stories, in short, allow us a measure of control over our memories. In lives such as John’s, when control is so often in other people’s hands, the value of that must be enormous. It must also be difficult to achieve. As we sat together and his tale unfolded, the ordered re-telling began to fracture, gaps appeared, the story doubled back on itself. At various points, John cried. I didn’t ask him to fill in gaps or expand on details – the reasons should become clear, if they aren’t already.
I am delaying here. I want us to sit with John, the boy who looked at the sky and dreamed of flying through the constellations. But when we met, John did not stop on that any longer than it took to say, ‘When I was young, in primary school, my ambition was to become a pilot. So that was my childhood ambition — to be a pilot. But my Dad was involved in politics.’ And so we hurtled into the lover’s tale.
John’s father was not a politician himself, but he financed opposition politicians. This didn’t stop John from wanting to join the air force — just as it hadn’t stopped his step-brother from joining the army. The route to the skies went through a school that was difficult to get into for anyone who wasn’t rich or well connected, but John scored some of the highest marks in the country’s national exams and was admitted. The school was close to the army barracks, which meant John went to live with his step-brother, the soldier, who was stationed there.
Soon there was another exam, and John was among those ‘selected’ at the end of it. Like the others selected with him, he assumed he had scored well — ‘We thought, OK, because we’re brilliant,’ he said, and I briefly glimpsed the confident, bright, would-be pilot — but instead of entering classrooms for the gifted, he and the others were taken to the countryside and made to undergo rituals, such as drinking dogs’ blood. They were cadets now, they were told, and each one of them was assigned to an army officer who had them clean their shoes, their houses, and ‘do the dirty things that rich people will not do.’ They were being taught obedience, and its flip side: fear. At what point, I wonder, did all the brilliant young men who’d been specially selected realise they belonged to the same tribe — the largest tribe of______, which was not the President’s tribe, and from which significant opposition to his rule arose? At what point did they realise they had been selected to spy on, and betray, their own people? ‘Gradually we were getting the sense of what was happening,’ John told me — gradually, their ‘responsibilities’ increased from cleaning shoes and accompanying their officers on patrol to befriending people from their own tribe, discovering where their loyalties lay, and reporting them to the authorities if they didn’t support the government. Other times, the ‘responsibilities’ would include planting evidence – ‘a pistol, a gun’ – in the home of someone they had befriended, just before the police arrived with a warrant to search the house. ‘People are picked up and disappeared, they kill them, they do whatever they do to them. I wasn’t happy with it. A lot of us weren’t happy with it. That wasn’t why we were there.’
By now, John’s father was dead but his brother had taken up his political activities. It wasn’t John but his step-brother, the soldier, who was ordered to bring that brother in for questioning. The step-brother told a friend he wasn’t prepared to do it. For this act of familial loyalty he was imprisoned in a room called ‘a punishment room’. John, recounting this, gestured around the room we were in, made crowded by a table that could seat at most eight people around it — ‘If you divide this room into four, that’s the punishment room. You can be in there for weeks.’ Within this room, the step-brother fell ill. John was allowed in to see him, and given some medication for him. ‘I didn’t know it was poison so I gave it to him, and he died.’
This is only the beginning.
Words like leaves can fall so easily off our tongues, but John had ‘nowhere to go’, which may be another way of saying ‘no way of going.’ After he was turned into his brother’s killer, he was given several different assignments, moved around from one place to another. Eventually he ended up assigned to one of the sons of the President. He was there when there was a day of celebration in honour of the President. In the evening, after the official celebrations were over, the President’s son returned to his house ‘to have fun’, along with his men, including John.
A woman was brought into a room where the men were gathered. They were ordered to strip her naked. A certain unspeakable indignity was performed. ‘It was really, really bad. It was really bad,’ John said, his voice very low, and cried for the first time.
The girl was taken away, ‘put in a room to die – or whatever happened’ and then her brother was brought in. Another unspeakable indignity was performed. ‘There was blood everywhere. He was really… emotional.’ All this, it later turned out, because the girl hadn’t complied with a Presidential demand. So a message had to be sent – to all the girls who might think to refuse such a man, and to all their family members, too.
This was, said John, ‘the turning point.’ He asked to be re-assigned – if this involved a personal risk he didn’t say so; at no point in his story did he pass judgements of praise or criticism on his own actions. He merely recounted events.
He was assigned the job of guarding an elderly couple. He guarded them for ‘a very long time,’ and as he says, ‘the man became like a father to me. He tells me, “you’re like a son.” He talks to me like a son.’ One day when John was with the couple, soldiers came in and shot them dead. ‘I thought I’d lost my dad. I was going crazy,’ he said, crying again.
The couple had committed no crime. Their son, though, was wanted by the government — John never knew exactly why. The couple were being held to lure the son out of hiding. It didn’t work.
And finally — after all the spying, the murder of his brother, the torture of the girl and her brother, the death of his second father – John fled______ , for a life in a country nearby.
This is nowhere near the end of the story.
Homesickness and hope can be a dangerous combination. John had some kind of life in this other country – he taught at a school to students who taught him English in exchange – but he was lonely, and when there were demonstrations in______and the President promised reform, change started to seem possible. John returned to______ , but he kept himself hidden, staying with a friend. On Sundays, though, he went to church. It was here that he met Sarah.
‘Met’ is the wrong word. They knew each other already. Sarah’s father was an important government financier who lived within the protection of the barracks where John had once been posted. John’s life was separate from that of Sarah and her family – ‘I couldn’t talk to them; they were the rich people’ — but there was obviously some contact, some connection, because when Sarah saw him she called him by the name he’d had when he was in the barracks. This name was not his traditional name, and it was not the name ‘John’ which he later took on. It was a name given to him by the army during his initiation, and inscribed on a bangle that he had to wear on his wrist at all times. He was terrified to be recognised, and it couldn’t have helped to hear her say that everyone had been looking for him.
He could have run, at this point, though he never said so to me – perhaps it never suggested itself to him as a possibility. Instead, he told her everything. He told her why he had left, and of the loneliness that had brought him home. She was sympathetic. She gave him money. He told her, ‘My name is John now.’ Every Sunday he would wait for her to come to church. She brought him food and money, and eventually they became, in his words, ‘very intimate’.
One day he was standing by the church with two other men when a jeep pulled up, followed by a car. Someone in the car asked, ‘Who is John?’ He knew, even before this, that something was wrong. Knew it as soon as the car pulled up. Sarah was in the car. She gestured to him to run. But the men caught hold of him and took him back to the barracks. Here he found out that Sarah was pregnant and her father knew.
Her father — the government financier — was angry for reasons beyond the usual reasons that make certain kinds of men angry when they discover their daughters have a life beyond their control. He was a leading member of a tribe that practiced female genital mutilation. But his daughter had not been ‘cut’, and now he believed her pregnancy would alert people to this fact, and he would be shamed. He wanted the foetus aborted. First though, he came into the cell where John was held, and slapped him. Then he went away but John remained in the cell where he was ‘very maltreated.’
While he was being held, Sarah went to a man she knew – a soldier, who was a friend of her father – and told him what was happening. The man said he couldn’t stand by while his friend forced an abortion on his daughter, but there was a limit to how much he could — or would — do. He smuggled John out of the barracks in his car, gave him the equivalent of £25, and said, ‘Whatever happens to you after is not my problem.’ Still, what he did was enough. John met Sarah at a pre-arranged location — a drinking hole — and together they returned to the country to which John had fled.
This still isn’t near the end of the story.
While in exile, John met an American soldier he knew – a logistics expert called Frank who had been assigned to assist the army in______ when John was serving. He said John should be leading a different life – he suggested emigrating, and offered to help with the costs of getting a visa. Frank’s first suggestion was that John go to a particular country in mainland Europe, but John was adamantly opposed to the idea. ‘I didn’t trust them because I know that whatever happens in______ , they know it; from A to Z they know everything, but they wouldn’t stop it. I didn’t trust them, I didn’t want to go there. I don’t want to.’ Instead, John went to the British Embassy.
In order to get a visa from the British Embassy, John had to prove he was from the country to which he had fled. The passport that Frank was able to procure for him didn’t get past the British visa official who handed him over to the immigration authorities. Once again, he was imprisoned and told he had to stay in a cell while the authorities sorted his case out.
Then, without explanation, he was released. ‘Why?’ he asked, and they only said, ‘You are free to go.’
He walked out of the prison, and a car was waiting for him. He was kidnapped, and driven back to_______.
‘That was really horrible. I thought that was it. I really thought that was it. It was difficult for me. They nearly killed me.’ At every other point when John cried he carried on speaking through the tears but this time he stopped, apologised, took some time before he was able to continue. It wasn’t Sarah’s father who had him picked up this time, but someone far worse – the President’s son, to whom he had once been assigned. ‘He has a house like a stadium, and it has prisons and all the torture things you can think of.’ That’s all he said the first time, before moving on to the next part of his story. Later, when he had finished his tale, but it was clear there were things still to say, things that he hadn’t worked into a narrative over which he had some control, he went back in his mind to that place, to the house like a stadium, with ‘all the torture things you can think of’ and said some of the things that were done to him. I will not write them here. I’ll only say there were many different ways of inflicting pain, and he couldn’t have known if it would continue on for weeks or months or years.
After they were done – at what point do torturers decide they are ‘done’? – they sent him to an army camp to become a Commando. Perhaps they thought they’d tortured enough fear and obedience into him. The Commandos were men without families, expected to kill or die without a second thought because ‘there’s no one for you.’ He was taken to the Captain of the Commando camp – and the man turned out to be an old friend of his, who had been recruited to the army at the same time as John. John told him he wasn’t a man without a family, a man ready to die, but that, instead, he had a wife and a child he needed to get back to. And this friend – ‘He just wanted to help me,’ John said. ‘And so he said, “OK”. Well, he put his life at risk for me. He let me go.’
For the third time, John returned to his country of exile.
How could this possibly be the end of the story?
Because he allowed John to escape, the Captain’s hands were placed in wet cement, which was left to dry, and he was dropped into the sea. His dead body washed up on a beach. John received news of this when he was in exile.
Frank, the American, must have known that his earlier attempts to get John out of the country had gone disastrously wrong. When John was returned Frank came to him again. This time he had a signed document from a friend who worked in the high court to verify that John had renounced his original nationality and was from his country of exile. With this document, John was able to apply for — and receive — a six month UK visa.
This is the beginning of the end of the story, but only the beginning.
John’s brother – the one who his step-brother was supposed to bring in to the barracks for his role in opposition politics – had long since escaped to mainland Europe and, from there, had come to England. John met up with him, in London, and told him of his intention to apply for asylum. But his brother talked him out of it – he’d applied himself, and been rejected, and was adamant that John couldn’t trust the system, never mind how many supporting documents he had. So John moved in with his brother, and didn’t seek asylum. His greatest concern was sending money back to Sarah, who by now had had another child. His brother kept saying he would help out, but he didn’t, and finally John started to work illegally as a kitchen porter. One day while he was working, the police arrived and arrested him. ‘I told the police officer, what’s happening to me? And all the police officers just said to me, “Well, you are one of them.” I was put in a car, and they took me to the police station, and I applied for asylum there. By that time, too, I had incontinence through the torture I had back home. They [the men who tortured him] tied my penis and then I had to drink something that makes you want to urinate, but you can’t urinate. When that happened I passed out.’ John was in prison for six months. From there he was sent to a detention centre and placed on his own in a disabled cell. ‘I was on my own,’ he said, twice, remembering that time. But he also recalled ‘some good people’ from his period of detention. In particular, he mentioned a priest who supported him when he thought of killing himself, and who also found people to help him with his incontinence.
His asylum application was rejected. He appealed. An Australian professor, based in America, who had done a lot of work on______, came to know of his case. This man first spoke to him on the phone and then wrote to the Home Office detailing the situation in_______ and said that if John was sent back there he would be killed. ‘He really saved me,’ John said. He was granted asylum.
But in all this, John had lost track of Sarah. Their lives in exile had always felt fearful — they moved every month, never let anyone get close enough to ask questions about their lives – and while John was in the UK someone came around to where Sarah was living, asking questions. It was enough to make her flee with her three children — John hadn’t known when he left for the UK that Sarah was pregnant again.
In John’s tale, there is great brutality but there are also stories of kindness, sometimes from friends and family, sometimes from acquaintances and strangers. A charity in the north of England started to work with Frank who was now back in America, to try and trace Sarah. When they found her where she was exiled she was ‘in a hospital, dying.’
Of all the parts in the story that he didn’t want to tell this is the one he most completely skimmed over. ‘They are here now, they are here,’ he said in response to whatever look I gave him when he uttered the word ‘dying’. I was left to surmise that someone who is ‘dying’ in one hospital can turn to ‘recovering’ in a place with better facilities.
Sarah is well now. She is in England, with John and their three children aged 7, 8 and 11. After all their years of being together, and apart, and together while apart, they married in London. The Church has become their family, and the Bishop who married them is someone they count as a friend. There’s even been some kind of rapprochement with Sarah’s father. A cousin of Sarah’s, who she found via Facebook, was the intermediary in this — when he heard about the wedding he said Sarah should get in touch with her father. She did; she wrote to him about her wedding, and her three children, and he gave her his blessing. They haven’t seen each other, but they speak on the phone. And John is a full-time undergraduate maths student in a London university and hopes to be a teacher one day — ‘That’s all I love doing,’ he said. He gestured around the room we were in, which was located on the King’s College campus. ‘I’ve applied to a teacher training programme,’ he said. ‘I’m waiting for the results.’
It isn’t easy, though. Torture and imprisonment don’t let go of a man that easily — ‘I’ve come a long way,’ he said, but the trauma is still there. ‘So many things happened to me. I don’t like looking at it anymore, I just don’t like looking at it anymore.’ But the counselling makes him look at it. ‘It helps,’ he said, ‘but it’s hard, it’s tiring, it’s tiring.’ Then he started to talk about the torture. Telling me this story brought things up again. But he said again, yes, there are things he has to sort out, but the CBT is helping and he’s fortunate in his wife and his family and his church who are supportive of him.
I turned off the recorder, at this point. The story was over, I thought. The life will carry on with its struggles and its hardships, but the worst of it is done, a certain kind of narrative of his experiences has come to an end, and his mind can work towards recovery now. I shook his hand, and thanked him, and then he said — I don’t remember how exactly it came up — that earlier in the year he had applied for Indefinite Leave to Remain in the UK, and been denied.
I switched the recorder back on. The whole family applied, he said. His wife and children received Indefinite Leave to Remain but his application was rejected on the grounds he’d been in prison. For working illegally, all those years ago. He would have to wait another 15 years before he could apply again. Surely not another 15 years? He must mean 15 years in total from the time his asylum application was accepted. ‘No,’ he said, ‘it starts this year, so another 15 years.’ From his wallet he pulled out the Residence Permits for himself and his children. ‘We keep things around,’ he said, and I understood he meant that he always had the cards on his person to prove he and his family were legal. The permits for his children all had ‘Indefinite Leave to Remain’ written on them. Soon they’d be able to apply for citizenship. John’s card said ‘Refugee Leave to Remain’ — he will have to keep re-applying for an extension every 3 years, for the next 15 years. Every re-application bringing with it the threat of a rejection.
‘The system is bit…’ He doesn’t have the words, and neither do I. ‘I don’t understand it.’
(A true story)
Since she was beautiful and foolish —and she became more foolish when she was beautiful and more beautiful when she was foolish — and since he loved her, and since he had nothing to give her but the position of commissar, he made her Commissar of the Circus.
And so the beautiful Nina began to chair regular and special meetings while holding her beautiful infant. When she had to give a small speech, she handed the baby to her neighbor on the right – the “he” of our prologue — or to her neighbor on the left (on the side of her heart) — a Hungarian horse rider who might have been half as powerful as the one on the right but was, it must be said in his favor, half his age. The baby preferred this one, since the rider didn’t have a beard. But the child also loved the all-powerful man, since a certain object glittered and danced between that one’s myopic, trusting eyes, the object called a “pince-nez” in my country. The infant pinched the nose of the Commissar and tugged at the pretty curl of the Hungarian. So the clever little baby had two favorite past-times with both nannies of the male gender.
But while this was going on, what was her husband doing? Yes, there is also a husband in our story. The husband was elsewhere, at the other end of the city on the lawn in front of the former mansion of the former Counts Sollogubov, now a “Palace of Arts,” where he was writing poetry, or to be more precise — ruminating on writing poetry — at some point, when he had time, inspiration and so on, in short: on one fine day when “all this comes to an end.” But there was no end to “all this,” and he did well to be elsewhere, at the other end of the city, since the baby, occupied with the pince-nez and the curl, didn’t have an extra hand for or interest in the red beard of Nina’s husband. He, Nina’s husband, had a red beard that was endless and pointless (as all beards are pointless), a beard that he let grow as God lets the grass grow, but which — the beard — grew faster and longer than grass. And so, redder against green, flame on emerald, beard on grass: Nina’s husband dreamed. He dreamed and drank straight from the bottle.
The Revolution had broken all the glasses and the Restoration, that great Atoner and Mender, had not arrived yet, so he really did drink “straight from,” just like a baby drinks milk and just as greedily — in fact, even more greedily. Certainly the beard made him thirsty. When he noticed the bottle becoming empty, Barbarossa 1, the true son of a Russian merchant, was troubled by the sight of its emptiness and felt remorse over the emptying he had done, and he began to whisper prayers. Which prayers? All of them. Even for the repose of the soul. If the sun was too hot, he’d go through a little door into the former family chapel of the former Counts Sollogubov, which had been turned into a Museum of Cults, whose director and sole visitor he was, and busied himself there for hours with icons and crosses of all sizes.
Toward evening Barbarossa exchanged the green carpet and baking sun for an ordinary chair and the only candle, and, sitting at the table in front of a bottle that would fill up as soon as it was empty and empty as soon as it was full, he would tell anyone who would listen to him the same story, the only story in his life: how he abducted the beautiful Nina.
“In Crimea, you know, my friend, how black the nights are. So not a drop could be seen (“glug-glug” and swallow). And the roads, you know, all lead down (the level of liquid in the bottle also went down)… of course, there are roads up, but then you find yourself on the top of the mountain, and there’s nothing there — nothing except a dreadful peak, absolutely bald, with an eagle that pecks your eyes out. So it looked like we had to choose the roads that led down, since we decided to go to… Well, now I don’t remember where. In any case, we decided to go to the place you could leave from, seeing as I abducted her. Aha! I figured that the ones that led down — see where I’m going with this? — led to the sea and the ones that went up — got it? —led into the mountains. And since we soon decided to take the ferry — you see? —we naturally needed water… but the driver was really drunk… really very drunk. The car tore off… with Nina inside… and Nina tore off since she’d abandoned her father and mother because of me (tender emotions; a long “glug-glug”). So the car sped off with Nina, who sped off inside… You wouldn’t believe how fast it went, that car! The night was black, the roads ran off in all directions, the wheels slipped, the driver was drunk, drunk as the black night!”
The faster the car sped along in the story, the slower the storyteller spoke; the faster the story went, the more the storyteller abbreviated it.
“You see, Nina inside… the driver – drunk. The night – black… Potholes. Gouged… the car sped… it sped…the car at top sp—(“—eed.” His mouth open on the last syllable, the storyteller fell asleep.)
Meanwhile, Nina, dressed in all her finery, like a jinn, put one hand, wide with rings, on the hands of the all-powerful one and used her other hand to throw a red flower across the red railing of her theater loge to the Hungarian rider, who once again basked in glory, flowers, smiles, and sweat.
The clever little baby lay deep inside the loge and slept.
* * *
Every morning we humble people, who had fetched up here in this former neighborhood of the nobility, watched raptly as Nina, like the rising sun, glided between two rows of ancient linden trees in a yellow cabriolet on two enormous wheels that turned like two suns, pulled by two horses that were also yellow.
A poet would say: Aurora in her chariot.
We all said, “Look the Commissar of the Circus.” Or “Look — the wife of Barbarossa.” Everyone, poet or not, expressed one profound thought: “Such good fortune! In these times, for one woman to have ten legs…”
We were not envious since we were Scythians — or Sarmatians — or Slavs (captives, Tatars, Barbarians) — in short, since we were Russians, we weren’t envious and were able to take pleasure from the beauty gliding past us.
(What would I, who called up this vision, do in my actual poet’s garret with two yellow horses, two wheels — also yellow — a husband with a red beard, a commissar in a pince-nez, a red-headed Hungarian rider, and who knows whose baby? No thanks. I’d change nothing. To each their own!)
And so, every morning Povarskaya Ulitsa turned into the pagan firmament and Nina became Aurora.
But also every morning, on the same street, in a lovely, large, round and very old white church dedicated to the brothers and martyr princes Boris and Gleb, an old and stubborn priest held Matins.
And also every morning the Red Army replied to the church service right there in front of the white church with a marching band.
It is a Sunday morning in sunny May. All hungry Moscow is out on the street to taste the scent of the lindens, drink in the blueness and especially – to imbibe the music, that regimental music that is always so soothing, exactly like the sight of a beautiful horse or two beautiful horses, especially yellow ones, especially driven if not by the masterful hand of the man who kept them, at least by the hand of his kept woman.
But what is happening with our two yellow horses today? Have they been lit on fire from the beard of Barbarossa? Or did the sprite of the linden trees addle their minds? Instead of stopping by the Palace of Arts next to the automobile that was already waiting for the all-powerful one to make his morning visit, they galloped to Kudrino Square, where, even more skittish, they ran around in circles, in circles around the square, not heeding Nina’s heart-rending shouts or obeying the reins in her hands, which were growing weak.
Spin ‘round, spin ‘round, wooden horses! But these horses are not made of wood, and they should run straight. But these… have they finally gone mad? They spin around like whirling dervishes, turning their necks, swinging their chestnut manes over the old cobblestones of the old square, with no mercy for the cabriolet or rider, who was standing on legs turning to wood with arms shaking spasmodically and a mane wilder than those of the horses.
This will not end well! Being the Commissar of the Circus, throwing flowers to the Hungarian rider, suckling a baby who also might be from the Hungarian — that does not make her Hungarian or a rider.
A poet from the Palace of Arts shouts: “It’s a race from hell!” An artist from the same palace pronounces: “Phaeton.” Everyone else, like people always do everywhere, watched and did nothing but comment: “It’s the end of Nina. The all-powerful one is witness to his own powerlessness… The Hungarian rider is witness to his absence…” Suddenly a shout goes up: “Barbarossa!”
Yes, Barbarossa, Red Beard, verily risen from his crypt of grass, Barbarossa in flesh and beard, running out and jumping like a kangaroo, holding an enormous silver cross. He holds it right in front of the horses’ noses, shaking it at them. They suddenly come to a halt, since they are horses and they can halt suddenly. But that is not all. They kneel down. Yes, both of them — and they do it gracefully, like people. And that is not all. They bow. They bow with dignity, like people, as the Commissar and Barbarossa take Aurora, weeping copious tears but already breaking into a smile, into their united, or rather, separate hands.
And from the people, from us — people who don’t know envy, people who don’t know irony — from the people come only exclamations: “It’s a miracle! How can you say that there is no God, if even horses believe in Him?”
Caught up in the heat of events, or rather, by the events of the heat, I forgot to say that the end of the horses’ race coincided with the end of the music — the ceremonial and daily march from former times in the recent past when they were still just simple circus horses who did not have to pull a cabriolet with a Commissar astride.
But if in past times their bows were intended for the public, couldn’t their current bows — considering the extraordinary circumstances — be intended for God?
And since the horses kept on bowing, we applauded.
It was her panting that drew me over. I was exhausted, as the new work regime had been sucking every last drop of life out of us. But my misreading of the situation (what with the cries, groans, and stifled moans) put some life back into me, and I shot over to her like an arrow.
She was alone under a palm tree in front of an abandoned shop and surrounded by her filth. Even though it was pitch dark in the alleyway, a shaft of light coming from a lamp on the main street illuminated her sufficiently for me to see her dust-covered face, its petite muscles drawn taut, and the redness of her eyes as they alternately narrowed and widened in a painful, mechanical sort of way as though, in her loneliness and gloom, she was crying out for pity to the demons of darkness. My gaze slid down to her hands, which she was pressing against a swollen belly beneath threadbare garments. When she saw me, she went quiet all of a sudden, gazing at me with steady eyes, and with a face as cold and expressionless as a mummy from the age of the Pharaohs.
Then, in utter innocence, she said, “Can you deliver the baby…? It’s going to split me in half. I’ll die if you don’t!”
Without thinking I asked, “Why don’t you go to hospital?”
She gave a dark, heavy smile. “I can’t walk, and I don’t have the taxi fare. Besides, I wouldn’t be able to pay the hospital. Everything costs money.”
She let out a faint meow and then passed out, babbling like a drunkard. I didn’t know what to do. All I had with me was five pounds for the bus ride home, and it was ten-thirty—just half an hour before curfew. I was so worn out from sweeping and mopping the cinema, I wouldn’t be able to pick her up and carry her on my back. And even if I did, the hospital wouldn’t admit her. After all, there isn’t a hospital in this country that would treat somebody out of the goodness of its heart.
A voice whispered inside me. I couldn’t tell if it was the voice of an angel or a demon.
“What’s with you?” it said. “Her Lord and Maker can find her a way out. Just take care of yourself now. Curfew’s in half an hour. So, hurry up and catch the last bus. Then come back tomorrow morning, and you’ll find that she gave birth to a big cockroach. It’ll be sitting next to her checking out the world with its antennae and its beady eyes.”
Then I had an idea: to try carrying her to the sidewalk along the main street. A patrol might find her and take her to the cells, then bring her a midwife or a doctor who’s paid by the government.
But before I could do it, the curfew patrol took us both away.
The doctor might have been right in part. She was dirty, filthy even. She reeked of the discharge caused by a sexually transmitted disease, and the stench was piercing, unbearable. So the doctor instructed the cleaning lady to remove her pubic hair with its crabs, foul odor, and rank secretions, wash the area thoroughly with warm water and carbolic soap, and apply Dettol.
Then he went to the sink and vomited up everything in his gut, cursing the day he’d decided to study medicine, gynecology, and obstetrics.
“Help me, please,” the cleaning lady said to me.
“I’m dying,” said the girl.
“Die, then! Die!” the cleaning lady lit into her furiously. “Make it easy on us and on yourself!”
Parting her brown legs, soiled and spotted with sores, the girl fell into a semi-coma, surrendered to the labor pains and the pleasure of travail.
When its front claws appeared—small, white, soft and smooth—the cleaning lady and I were startled, immersed in a dense, phantasmagoric trance that was being imprinted on our consciousness by the reggae music wafting in toward us from the health office next door: The squeaking of rats, the roaring of the sea, the cawing of black crows, the gentle rustling of the towering palm tree outside the window, a sudden clap of thunder, vague chatter filtering through the pores in the walls and the spaces between the beds, pieces of heavy white fabric, bloody cotton pads scattered here and there.
We felt cold all of a sudden as we saw its rectangular head emerge into the room, its tiny black whiskers drenched in sticky, translucent, jelly-like mucus.
The cleaning lady said to me later, “I felt things glowing, as if bright little moons had landed on them.”
I said, “When that happened, I was filled with eerie-sounding, weighty talk that I couldn’t understand. It was choking me up.”
With a final contraction, it popped out, nimble and energetic, as though the strains of the reggae music were giving a rhythm to the flow of blood in its newborn arteries.
In my statements to the Department of Criminal Investigations, I told them that the Qur’anic chants, the cooing of the doves, and the hymns of adoration hadn’t been coming from a specific source, and that we couldn’t possibly claim that any of us would be able to put Time’s standstill to music.
At that moment, the palm tree’s ripened fruit fell, a nightingale sang, and a star that had illuminated the world’s Eastern reaches tumbled to Earth. Opening a pair of bright black eyes, it shook the mucous off itself in a series of violent jerks. Then, as others can attest, it barked and leapt through the window onto the sidewalk outside.
Years ago, Aunt Renata squeezed a picture into my hand when my mother wasn’t looking. Aunt Renata wasn’t really my aunt, but rather someone to whom my mother had clung like a sister, like blood.
In the picture, my mother is thin but she is wearing a pale belted dress with a flared skirt and she is smiling. That is, her mouth is smiling. Her eyes are unreadable, her cheeks taut. There is a tree just behind her and the smallest hint of a fence. I have studied the picture a thousand times trying to figure out whether this was in one of the camps. The dress belies that possibility but still the fence looks menacing, cage-like and my mother’s expression is strained and odd. On the back of the picture, in German, and in a masculine script, it says only “Spring.” Aunt Renata said she had found the picture when they were liberated from the camp. She won’t tell me anything else.
My mother was a beautiful woman. Even now it’s obvious—her bearing still regal, her cheekbones high and proud. She never talks about her experiences and her silence walks the house like the ghosts that accompany her. She was 17 and had snuck out in search of food when the Gestapo came to collect her family. She was caught a few days later and shipped from Prague to the first of several camps. That’s all I know, and I don’t even think she was the one to tell me.
There is so much I have wanted to ask her but she’s never offered up anything but silence. The next part of her story is a void, a portal between dimensions that I dare not enter. Her words, when she speaks, are carefully chosen. I watch her move around the house like a spy in her own life, surprised to have found herself capable of holding a baby, of pulling weeds, her skin glowing, alive.
Throughout my childhood I waited for death to claim her. As if I didn’t dare believe her stay of execution, surprised again and again to find her moving about the kitchen in the morning, preparing her strong coffee then settling into her favorite chair by the window, not a figment of my imagination, not a dream I had dreamt.
In school, when I would perform in the annual play, I would peer out from between the curtains to make sure she was really there. But there she would be, sitting quietly in one of the front rows amid the chatty American-born mothers with whom she had nothing in common, the long sleeves of her simple but elegant dress hiding the number on her arm. I would see her looking around, as if she were once again wondering whether she had done the right thing by putting me in this Jewish school with its fortress-like walls, its windowless brick.
Alongside her would be a sprinkling of fathers who had rushed home early from work or rearranged their schedules to join their wives at the plays. I knew little about my own father except that my mother had met him in one of the DP camps, then lost track of him. A decade later they remet and were briefly married but he’d died when I was just a baby, ultimately succumbing to the ravage that had been done to his organs in Birkenau. Growing up, I couldn’t imagine what it might be like to have a father. My mother and I were plant and soil. We were a greenhouse, hermetically sealed. But lately, she seems to me paler, thinner. As if the reserve she had all those years, the strength with which she raised me and urged me far from the dark banks of her memories—as if that were finally dwindling.
Last week, when I entered her apartment unannounced, I caught her staring, unblinking, out the front window as if it held a view other than of a New York City street, as if her memories, rather than receding, were coming finally to greet her. It took all I had at that moment to hold back from asking her, When will you tell me?
It was a few days after that visit that some of my own memories came flooding in to haunt me. On my way home from work, I had slipped into my favorite bookstore with the idea of treating myself to a new novel. But once in the store, I found myself stopping instead in front of a dark wooden bookcase entitled World War II where a book I’d avoided about the children of survivors stared out at me. I pulled the thin book off the shelf, took a deep breath, and opened it in the middle.
I don’t know how long I stood there reading. I just remember at various junctures wanting to stop, but not being able to. It was as if someone had found all of the secrets of my childhood. All the quirks and odd behaviors, the ghosts and the inhabited silence. I was reading a section describing the different paths that survivors had taken with regard to their religious beliefs, either complete renunciation or complete acceptance, with a few sustaining a complicated and ambivalent relationship with both. I thought about the Jewish school my mother had put me in, but then otherwise seemed to want to avoid, and then about her relief when I asked to leave it and disappeared, indistinguishable from the others, into a vast public school. She never censored me or criticized as I transferred from school to school, from persona to persona. As if she thought—of course—how could it be otherwise?
What she did for me was hold the course. Grab onto her life and steady it as much as she could, let me know that at any moment, I had a place to land, and if necessary, to hide.
I looked up for a moment to check the time on the old brass clock that hung high above the bookshelves. And that’s when I saw him. Older, his face thinner and lightly lined but lit by the same shock of wavy blond hair. There was no question that it was he. His name was Jurgen and on that strange
and disturbing night on which we had met twenty years earlier,
he had just arrived to New York from Berlin. That night, I had learned little else about him. I was about to stop him and say hello when he continued past me down the non-fiction aisle, then turned out of sight.
He doesn’t know me, I thought. He doesn’t remember. And it all came back to me, as if all those years hadn’t passed, as if just the night before I’d rested my head on his shoulder, felt his arm around my waist, his cheek a breath from mine.
He didn’t know into what he had wandered that Saturday night, in the East Village, any more than my friends and I knew yet who we really were, what we were hiding. He had just flown in to begin his graduate degree in philosophy at Yale and someone had brought him, oblivious to what would take place. A party was a party. We were young, and we thought, very chic. Globe hoppers. Citizens of the world. We flirted with the edge. Offered ourselves to whatever abyss we could conjure. None of us had figured out yet that all of our parents had survived the camps. We’d simply met our last year at NYU and congealed like a tribe of abandoned children. We didn’t know and didn’t yet wonder what we were looking for in all the clubs and parties we sought at that time, in the excesses of alcohol and whatever fashionable drug lined the bathroom sink like a ritual offering.
This particular party was hosted by Zuna something, I can’t remember her last name, only that her parents were presumably diplomats living in London, and that she had piled her hair high on her head and secured it there with little cocktail forks. Someone in our group had met her at an art opening and had brought us along like extended family.
The party was in Zuna’s East Village apartment in which walls had been broken down to create a loft. Here and there a private space was carved out by a piece of dark cloth, or by curtains made of long strips of eight-millimeter film.
We arrived like the refugees we were into this dark room. Like speakers of an underground language, we had learned to find our way to the drugs that inevitably were served up at these evenings. One by one we went into the bathroom where a friend of Zuna’s was offering opium from tiny bits of foil.
When I came out, someone had turned off the raucous punk music and put on a waltz. As a joke I’m sure, but suddenly the large and shadowed loft, with its brooding ceiling murals, seemed like a large chandeliered hall. Some couples stood up laughing and struck poses of affected elegance. It was quite a sight—at least 80 people, most in different shades of black, some ears sporting skeletons, crossbones, some heads shaved, all dancing as if at a grand ball in Vienna.
I was watching Varda—the only other woman in our group—dance with Isaac, her glittering scarf, her long black dress, her dark hair flying like a gypsy’s after her. It was then
that I felt Jurgen’s hand on my arm. Tall and blond, with a
sweet smile, he didn’t say anything, just led me to the floor,
wrapped his arm around my waist and began initiating me into the trance of the waltz. He was a superb dancer and if I didn’t think about what my legs were doing, it felt effortless.
The room began to spin. One two three. One two three. He pulled me closer until we were flying as one body. It took a while before I looked up from that whirling, hypnotic dance and realized that my friends had all stopped dancing. From different corners of the room, they stood watching us, voyeurs to their own deepest horror and desire. And I understood from their expressions that the sight of us was somehow both thrilling and disturbing. The Ubermensch extending his arm to the Jewess. I knew then that I held all of their expectations, unarticulated, unimagined, all of their hopes that I would continue to rise to the occasion, that I would dance at least as gracefully as he, that somehow I might even introduce some new element, redeeming, transcendent. And I was thinking this when all of a sudden Jurgen somehow missed a beat and, still following the rhythm, I tripped over his foot and fell on my side.
“I’m so sorry. Are you okay?” Jurgen crouched down beside me. But as he did, I could suddenly feel the rage in the room and had I been able to, I would have pushed Jurgen away as Isaac rushed toward us, pulled him to his feet and away from me, then punched him in the face. Then, within seconds, as if some signal had been sent out, the rest of our group moved in on him. Before Jurgen could recover, his stunned hand just beginning to move to his cheek, they surrounded him and lifted him into the air, Rafa and Nano grabbing his legs, Isaac and Uri supporting the weight of his shoulders and back.
“Bastard,” they hissed as they carried him toward one of the loft’s large windows. “Son of a bitch.”
“What are you doing?” he yelled, as they held down his struggling arms, grabbed someone’s scarf off the coat hook and tied it around his kicking feet. They hoisted him head first out the window, holding him by his bound feet and dangling him over the pavement six floors below.
And Jurgen hung over East 6th Street like a sacrifice. Like everything that had never been said. Like the demons unmentioned, alongside which we had all been raised. In the closets that were sealed and stuck, the long dim hallways of the apartment buildings that collected every nation’s misery, the hallways in which we’d grown up. Even when we had moved to the suburbs, our cars full, our windows down, shadows followed us. Trap doors. Hatches. There were more lamps in my house than in any house I have ever known. Lights were left burning. Flowers planted in every inch of soil.
Some people on the edge of the crowd saw what was happening and stopped dancing. Zuna and I started yelling at Isaac and at the others. We rushed to the window, leaned out on either side of Jurgen, offering him our arms. He grabbed my arm with one hand then Zuna’s and we pulled him as hard as we could toward us.
“Untie his legs,” I yelled at Nano as we pulled him fully inside. Jurgen brushed himself off and left quickly, slamming the door. The moment was over. If there was shame, no one rose to claim it. Someone quickly changed the music. Isaac, Uri, Rafa and Nano retreated to a corner. When the crowd had thinned out, the rest of us collapsed exhausted in various corners of the large room. Zuna threw blankets over us and I remember wondering, before I fell asleep, why we had never realized it, why we had never talked about what it was that joined us. I remembered the thick darkness of Isaac’s mother’s house when we’d all visited once, Nano’s father who worked three jobs and who never met our eyes, about whom I was later to hear the whispered accusation, “Kapo.”
The next morning, I went to see my mother. There were no words to describe what had happened, not the events themselves, but rather that I had known then, in a new way, what was at the core of my being, what I needed to grapple with.
My mother didn’t hear me come in. She was cutting vegetables on the large marble counter in her kitchen, listening to her favorite classical music station. Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27 concluded and then the radio show host introduced the famous Strauss waltz—Voices of Spring. As the music began to play, my mother froze where she stood and the color drained from her face. She stared blankly at a corner of the room until I coughed and she looked up. Slowly her eyes began to register the present moment and her arms, trembling slightly, opened wide to greet me. She held me tightly to her, then released me.
“Coffee?” she asked.
She reached for two of her best ceramic mugs. Ground some beans. This was how it had always been. The small rituals that held us. But I could no longer keep my part of the bargain.
Her back was to me as she poured boiling water into the French press. The knotted bun that held her hair was almost all white now. A brilliant white pierced by a red lacquered hair stick.
“Mom, what happened?”
She turned to look at me, holding the carafe. “What do you mean?”
“During the war, what happened?”
For a second her eyes held mine, then she turned from me.
The carafe shook in her hands, the coffee sloshing up the sides. She set it down. When she turned back to look at me, she was livid.
“Why are you doing this?”
“I’m not—I just—are you ever going to tell me?”
She turned, giving me her back and just stood there. “There’s nothing to tell,” she said, and left the room.
How much time is left?
Is it fair of me to want to know what she lived through?
I am beginning to lose faith that she will be able to tell me. Still I wait. I tiptoe around the fortress of her silence, waiting to glimpse even the slightest easing. She obviously knows now what I need. But ultimately, the choice is hers. Only she can be the gatekeeper of her memory.
Meanwhile, I have begun to construct tales. I hang them next to one another like the panels of a triptych, try them in this, then that array. I move them, shift them, look at them in the light of different days. When I’ve come close, I tell myself, when I’ve captured some of the true essence of her story, I will know.
In one of these stories, which hangs alone, without a frame, without beginning or end, my mother is being waltzed around a small room. The man she is dancing with has removed his jacket and draped it over a chair, its insignias and swastika for the moment unseen. He clutches the waist of the pale dress he has her put on for these occasions.
One two three. One two three. She follows the man’s step carefully, trying not to think beyond this dance. Instead, she tries to imagine that beneath her hand is not a stiff brown fabric, but instead a jacket of linen and silk. That Strauss’s Voices of Spring is not locked inside this small room, but is reaching up into the cathedral ceiling of a vast and brilliantly lit hall. That beyond this room is not barbed wire but the glistening streets of a city. One two three, one two three. Her body continues to obey the rhythm but she suddenly knows what it is that will redeem her. For a moment her cheek goes soft, her eyes blaze with light as she reaches several decades forward to touch me, as she dreams me into being.
*Licensed from The University of North Texas Press. Copyright 2018 by Tehila Lieberman from Venus in the Afternoon
His name is Charles Jenkins, but everyone calls him Zeke. No one in Little Bend, Zeke included, knows why.
This is what people know about Zeke: when Zeke was fourteen, back when he was Charlie, he shot his brother Mark in a hunting accident. Everyone agreed they were too young to be out hunting alone, that Mark should have been wearing orange gear, that it never should have happened, but this is how it was: Zeke saw something, aimed his rifle and shot. He’s been offering to die ever since, but death won’t have him. He’s a hundred thirty-five-pound Lazarus, wandering the streets of Little Bend day and night, in every kind of weather. Some people buy him beers or try to set him up with cable, fix his Schwinn when he wrecks it; others rob him when he’s staggering home to his apartment from Smitty’s or the Get Lucky. He can be surprisingly strong, and it is well known among the local police that he can inflict a nasty bite.
Little Bend is a river town, an old ferry station on the Susquehanna where people tend to stay, generation after generation. River rats, the people over in Tremont call them, but people who live along a river take things in stride. They are accustomed to emptying their basements when the waters start to rise. They keep their things in plastic tubs, run sumps. They tolerate the river’s caprice, its seeming determination to be useless—rocky and shallow, unnavigable by boats of any consequence, treacherous to the hapless jet skiers and fishermen that come in their stead, with hidden ridges to run aground on and deep channels with sucking currents that swallow the wreckage. A good river to drown in, to build bridges over.
The day Zeke meets Lanie she looks like she’s gardening, just the angle he can see of her, mostly behind, her arms reaching out to yank grass, a pile of pumpkins next to her. But she can’t be growing pumpkins there, off the shoulder of Route 419. He gets closer and when she sits back, still on her knees, he can see she’s clearing weeds from crosses, four white crosses in a row before her. She reaches into a paper sack next to her and pulls out a bunch of bright orange bows, lays them on the grass.
Zeke stands on the shoulder, not wanting to disturb her, takes a couple of sips from his paper cup of coffee. But he wonders about the crosses, so he steps through the weeds, into the grass. She glances back but keeps on with her work.
“Accident?” he finally says.
She nods, twisting wire around one of the crosses, straightening the bow. The last cross is smaller than the others.
“Who’d you lose?”
When she turns to look at him he can’t tell if he’s made her angry—you never know how people will take anything—but then she takes up the last bow, which has extra flowers and stuff on it, and what looks like a little note on yellow paper, and says, “My granddaughter. Amber. And my son.”
“Sorry,” Zeke says, a polite reflex.
She nods, starts moving pumpkins, settles one at the base of each cross. The last, smallest cross gets the smallest pumpkin. She wipes her upper lip, starts gathering her things.
“Hot, ain’t,” he says. It’s late September and for two weeks it’s been over eighty, humid but no rain. Like the weather got stuck. Even though the rest of the summer has been the opposite, wet and cool, windy. Killer hurricanes and floods, that tsunami. His friend Wilson says it’s a sign of the end times, the weather gone crazy.
He wonders about the other crosses, but it seems like a bad question at the moment. In fact, he thinks he’s probably used up his welcome. So he watches in silence as she finishes, puts her things in her paper sack, very tidy, and picks it up. He would offer to help but it’s all air, he can tell, not heavy, and she’s a sturdy sort. Not fat, not fat at all, just sturdy. A pretty grandma, he thinks. Lots of curly red-brown hair. He might have seen her around town.
“I think I know you,” Zeke says, following her along the shoulder. “You drive a pink car?”
“Mary Kay,” the woman says.
“Zeke,” he says.
“No, I’m Lanie,” she says. “It’s a Mary Kay car.”
“Oh, right,” he says, having no idea what she’s talking about. “I’m Zeke,” he says again.
“I know who you are,” Lanie says, but not mean—she gives him a friendly enough smile—smile down below, actually, but a frown around the eyes, like someone smiling into the sun, worried-looking.
“That any good?” she asks as he sips from his coffee.
“But when it’s hot, is it good? I’ve been meaning to try it.”
“Well,” Zeke says, looking up sideways. “Their regular coffee sort of tastes like tar, but the lattes are great.”
“You drink lattes?” she says, and this time she smiles for real, almost laughs. It’s a pretty sight. She stops, lifts her chin over the bag in her arms to check traffic. She’s headed for the parking lot for Chiques Park. There he sees her pink car, poking out from behind a van.
“You never had a latte?” he says, and something about that makes her laugh again.
She walks to her car and he walks straight out of town, like he often does, though there’s nothing on 419 out of town. Walks by the big church where Wilson goes. Down past the John Deere dealer. Steps over smashed rabbits and flattened cups and broken glass, all the stuff people fling out of their windows or run down. He walks a good mile out of town, mostly uphill, winding slowly up and north before crossing the road, looking left, right like Lanie did, and returning on the opposite shoulder, back down to Chiques Park. He sits at an overlook, a big square deck hanging on the edge of a cliff where you can sit at a picnic table or a bench and see Three Mile Island off to the north, the sparkle of the Susquehanna. Between, the woods.
Sometimes big hawks, hovering.
Coming back down the hill Zeke looks at Lanie’s cross garden. You have to look hard; it’s back almost in the trees, blocked by the guardrail. It looks good, he thinks. Real pretty like her car. Too bad there’s no one out here to see.
Zeke sees her in line that week at Human Beans. She buys him a latte. After that, whenever he sees her around town, he says hello, waves at least.
The coffee shop is just down the block on the other side of the street from his apartment. For years Zeke lived in an old barn by the cemetery, wrapping himself in newspaper and baling plastic in cold weather, but three years ago some of the guys in town helped him fill out the forms and get set up with this place, right on the square. He doesn’t like it because of the steps out front. Twice since he moved in he’s fallen down them. The last time, he slipped on the ice, shattered a cheekbone and collapsed a lung, broke half his ribs on one side and was in intensive care for three days. The bill he received, which nobody will pay, exceeded the lifetime earnings figure, $38,000, on the little notices Social Security sends every year.
He’s had two jobs in his life, mowing two different cemeteries.
One night in November, Zeke wakes at three a.m., the worst hour to wake, when everything’s closed and no amount of beer or bourbon will put him out. He’s tried sleeping pills but they only make matters worse—take one one night, it takes two the next, and if you try to cut back you’re up for days—he wound up in the hospital once over that. Till he finally falls back to sleep he thinks it must be morning, and when he wakes again there’s a gray light in his room that could mean any time, could mean night, even. His clock says seven and he’s not sure which seven. He goes to the kitchen window and realizes it’s morning; the sky’s just dark and drizzling. He makes his way down to the coffee shop, shaky and confused, orders a double caramel latte “for here” and takes the giant mug they hand him over to a window seat. Some of the guys down at Smitty’s give him a hard time about coming here, paying all that money to drink fancy coffees in this snooty place, but they never had a caramel latte. It’s almost a meal. It’s like food and dessert and coffee all in one drink. He can go half the day on one.
He’s watching traffic, the rain clinging to the window when he’s startled by Lanie sliding a plate in front of him. It has a biscuit on it almost as big as the plate, with eggs and ham and cheese in it, and big hunks of fruit around it.
“Eat,” she says, and maybe it’s her voice, or the hard look she’s giving him, or maybe the smell of eggs and cantaloupe, which is making his stomach clench up, but Zeke just manages to murmur, “Thanks,” before she’s heading off toward the door, a paper cup of coffee in her hand, all morning fresh and bright in her yellow slicker, her hair up in a fancy tie.
Zeke watches her step into the rain, pull up the hood of her slicker, waits until she’s out of sight before pushing the plate back. He regrets coming out, leaving the house without washing up and shaving. He is usually particular about such things, tries to keep up a neat appearance. He tests his latte and it’s ready to drink and he takes a big swallow, eyeing the sandwich. After the smell of the food has faded and he’s gotten down enough of the latte, he breaks off some of the biscuit, and out of sheer determination not to waste Lanie’s present he manages to eat half.
That weekend she passes him on the hill up 419. When he reaches the top he sees her over by the guardrail, tending her crosses. She’s taking off little bunches of Indian corn she must have fixed to them for Thanksgiving, piling up colorful gourds in the grass next to her. It’s almost December and still unseasonably warm, not even coat weather yet, all but seventy degrees.
He gives her a chance to see him, stands close enough so she can’t miss him. Finally she glances back, looks him over, says, “You’re looking better,” like she’s sort of glad about it.
He walks closer, stands next to her while she takes a bunch of fancy wreaths out of a paper sack, wreaths with a good piney smell, with big red bows. Lanie loops them over the crosses, adjusts the branches. Pulls from the bag a small but heavy looking box with shiny gold wrapping and a red bow.
“Who’re the other two for?” Zeke asks.
She puts the present at the base of the littlest cross, only twelve or so inches high, fluffs up the ribbon.
“A young couple, a nurse and her husband. He was bringing her home from work, out at the VA hospital.”
She packs up the gourds and Zeke takes the bag—no reason he shouldn’t help—and Lanie doesn’t object, lets him walk with her back to the road.
They check traffic, cross.
“Justin. He was high on meth, drunk, too. He crossed into their lane. The police said he was going about ninety-five.”
Zeke drops back, just a half step, gives her the lead. He stands by while she deposits her things in the trunk, takes out her purse. He props the bag of gourds against the side of the trunk so it won’t fall over, folds the top over several times and scrunches it tight, like he’s trying to contain a live animal instead of a bunch of gourds. She mumbles thanks and closes the trunk and stands there, hand on the lid, keys splayed out against the metal, looking at some people flying kites at the overlook. She looks tired, Zeke thinks, not like the other morning, and she’s not making any move toward the car door, so he says, “You ever look at the view from up here?” and she says it’s been a long time.
He leads her across the field, past a boy who is running, head down, a kite jumping in the grass behind him, somebody directing him, slow down, put your arm up, hold it up high. They sit on a bench built into the side of the deck, to the left of a large sign showing all the birds you can see up here. From their seat they can see the view and the kite flyers. The little kid is still running back and forth, dragging his kite behind him. Lanie smiles, just with her mouth.
She tells him about the accident, what her son did. Ran four lights in town before coming up here and wrecking into that couple. Had the cops after him at the end. “What I don’t understand,” she says, not looking at him, never taking her eyes off the kites, or maybe the people, “is why Amber stayed in the car. He stopped at his girlfriend’s house on the way out, and he was there at least fifteen, twenty minutes. So she was in the car that whole time, long enough for him—well, anyway. She had time to get out of the car. And she must have known he was not okay to drive with by then—she knew what to do; her mother and I both talked to her about it. If her Dad got like that she was supposed to leave him, no matter what, no matter where they were, she was supposed to leave him and have somebody call her mom or call me. So why would she stay in the car?”
Zeke says nothing. He heard something about that wreck. Cars on fire, all the fire trucks came out, all the cops, everybody. One of those nights where every siren in town was going.
“Unless she was asleep. It was eleven. She could have been asleep.”
A man is running behind the boy now, holding the kite high, calling out instructions. He launches it; the kite floats for a moment, rises as the boy yanks the string as he’s told, then takes a quick turn and falls straight down. Lanie is looking through them.
“But she couldn’t have slept through the sirens. She couldn’t have slept through the whole thing.”
She tells him about her daughter-in-law, who moved back to Texas afterward, taking Lanie’s only other grandchild, Devon, with her. Not that she could blame her, she says. About her older son who lives in Chicago and has no children yet, and who gave up on Justin and River Bend and maybe Lanie and her husband, too, about ten years ago.
“It’s true what they say,” Lanie tells him. “A son is your son till he says ‘I do,’ but a daughter’s your daughter her whole life through.”
Zeke, who knows very little about mothers and sons and daughters and mothers, nods.
“What are the white trees?” he asks her. They come out at Halloween when the leaves die, their white branches just like antlers or bone.
“Sycamores, I think,” Lanie says, finally turning her head, looking down at them.
When the cold comes, it comes in a day, and like something out of Siberia. No snow, no real weather, no ice, just everything like iron and so cold it makes your eyes ache. Zeke spends a lot of time indoors, logs a lot of careless hours at Smitty’s. He’s come almost to prefer Lanie time. He gets lattes “for here” and sometimes adds a muffin. He waits by the window, and a couple of times when she comes in she sits there with him, looking at the paper, the magazines. Lanie says she’s retired. She doesn’t do shows, she says, doesn’t sell makeup anymore except to a handful of ladies who still call for it. Her husband is retired, too, in more ways than one, Zeke thinks, since he doesn’t seem to talk to Lanie much, otherwise why would she be telling this stuff to him? But he would never say that to Lanie. He suspects it’s different for her when he listens, just like talking to Lanie is nothing like talking to the guys down at Smitty’s.
At Christmas she buys him a little tree with built-in lights. She says he should put it in his window, and he does, setting it on top of an end table next to his television set. Lanie thinks everyone should have a Christmas tree. After New Year’s Lanie tells him take it down, it’s time, and he packs it away as neatly as it came, the balls in their special slots, the tree folding down just like an umbrella and breaking in two, nesting into a surprisingly small box. He puts the boxes in his hall closet, all together in the corner for next year.
She takes him here and there in her pink car, over to the K-Mart in Tremont when he needs things. One night in February, after a week of sunshine and sixty degrees, they get caught in a freak thunderstorm of snow. They’re in the K-Mart buying toilet paper and shampoo and toothpaste, valentines for her grandson in Texas, a pair of shoes for Zeke, and they come out of the store to find two inches of snow fell while they were shopping. They have a hard time pushing the cart to her car, the snow is falling so thick and fast, and Lanie starts down the road toward Little Bend but has to pull over. When the lightning strikes it’s like a camera flash right in their eyes, and then after, for whole seconds, they can’t see, and they sit there turning their heads side to side and blinking, and the sky is unreal, lit upside down or something, and Zeke begins to think maybe Wilson is right, this could be it, time to throw himself flat on the ground and start confessing, and God will come stand over him and say take your time, Zeke, I got all the time in the world.
“Were they calling for this?” Lanie asks. Zeke doesn’t think so.
When spring comes—and it comes in fits and spurts, a hot spell followed by an ice storm, hail once, sudden downpours—he sometimes walks to her house, a nice brick place on the old main street of town, near the watch factory. She has bunchy lace curtains and those little lights in the windows, a porch with twinkly white lights and wooden chairs and a swing. It’s a perfect house, Zeke thinks, what a house should be, like a house in a book or a picture. Sometimes if he’s in the neighborhood late he comes and sits on her swing. It squeaks, so he doesn’t swing hard. Once, he wakes up there just before dawn and doesn’t remember coming at all. He finds his bike by the steps and rides home, accompanied for a short while by an old gray cat he calls Howler.
Zeke used to ride his bike everywhere. He was headed for a job interview over in Tremont thirty years ago, but he stopped in at Smitty’s beforehand. So the joke goes, “How long’s it take to get to Tremont, Zeke?” and Zeke says, “I’m gettin’ there, babe, I’m gettin’ there.”
But how Zeke loves to be sober. He tries to stretch it out later and later that spring as the days grow long again, when he’s feeling up to it. When he’s feeling really good he holds out half the day, will start off early with a caramel latte to go, carry it with him up and down the streets and alleys of Little Bend, feel the last traces of alcohol sweating out through his pores. If he can make it till four, five in the afternoon, that first beer tastes like The First, like the only beer you’ve ever had. It tastes like the one you keep trying to drink long after the first one, when your mouth turns to tin and people become assholes and it’s not really fun anymore.
One day he comes to find Lanie out in her front yard, standing on a stepladder, working a sledgehammer, driving a big wooden cross into the ground. She can’t exactly swing the hammer, but she’s not just dropping it, either. She’s giving it her all, and the look on her face as she pounds makes Zeke hang back. She takes out some purple fabric, finally sees him there by the neighbor’s fence.
“Is it going to rain or not?” she asks him, almost accusingly. She drapes the fabric around the cross like a scarf, then gets a bouquet out of a see-through tub and ties it around the middle.
She brings beautiful flowers for her roadside crosses, mint-colored puffy bows, a basket full of brightly colored plastic eggs to put by the smallest one. Her gold present was gone when they got there, and Zeke asks her what was in it, and she says just a note, and a rock to keep it from blowing away, so whoever took it is in for a letdown.
“My mom always said, you love your kids, Lanie, that’s all you can do, that’s all they need,” she tells him. “You’ll worry yourself to death over all these little things and someday you’ll realize you loved them, that’s all you had to do.”
Zeke takes a sip of his latte, still burning hot, winces.
“But all her kids turned out fine. So of course she could afford to think that.”
He nods, blows through the little hole in the lid, riffling the foam.
“But I treated them both the same; that’s what I don’t understand. They were both so different, but I loved them both exactly the same. I might have spoiled Justin a little— he was younger, and never as good at school, or sports. So, yeah, I might have babied him. Maybe I babied him too much,” she says, and her voice grows tight, tough Lanie starting to blink.
“It’s just like anything else, Lanie. It ain’t no magic power.”
“Love,” Zeke says. “It’s just another thing that ain’t enough.”
One snowfall on the crocuses, one hard freeze to the daffodils. The magnolias bud, as always, too soon, and litter the ground with soggy petals. The river that could never carry much goes on with its make-work, wearing away at the rock that forms its bed.
“Is spring ever coming?” Lanie asks.
This is what Zeke hates: when he doesn’t drink enough and he wakes up in the middle of the night and he can’t shake his dream.
It’s always the same. He goes into Smitty’s and he’s been there drinking and he looks up and there’s Mark, sitting next to him at the bar. And Zeke says, “Mark?” And Mark says, “I’m fine, Charlie, I’m fine.” And Zeke feels his arm, and it’s real, and he’s so happy he orders Coors seven-ouncers and tells the bartender to keep them coming, and they sit there and drink and talk old times. Then Mark turns to him, and Zeke can see that his right eye is a hole, a tiny hole like a cigarette burn in a shirt, and Zeke starts to cry, but Mark says, “No, Charlie, I’m fine. Look, it doesn’t even hurt. Here, feel.” And he takes Zeke’s finger and puts it in the little hole and it goes right through, because the back of his head is missing, but he’s saying, “See, Charlie? You missed. You didn’t even come close.”
*Licensed from Press53, LLC. Copyright 2018 by The Universal Physics of Escape by Elizabeth Gonzalez
Old Nannie sat hunched upon herself expecting her own death momentarily. The Grandmother had said to her at parting, with the easy prophecy of the aged, that this might be their last farewell on earth; they embraced and kissed each other on the cheeks, and once more promised to meet each other in heaven. Nannie was prepared to start her journey at once. The children gathered around her: “Aunt Nannie, never you mind! We love you!” She paid no attention; she did not care whether they loved her or not. Years afterward, Maria, the elder girl, thought with a pang, they had not really been so very nice to Aunt Nannie. They went on depending upon her as they always had, letting her assume more burdens and more, allowing her to work harder than she should have. The old woman grew silent, hunched over more deeply – she was thin and tall also, with a nobly modeled Negro face, worn to the bone and a thick fine sooty black, no mixed blood in Nannie-and her spine seemed suddenly to have given way. They could hear her groaning at night on her knees beside her bed, asking God to let her rest.
When a black family moved out of a little cabin across the narrow creek, the first cabin empty for years, Nannie went down to look at it. She came back and asked Mister Harry, “Whut you aim to do wid dat cabin?” Mister Harry said, “Nothing,” he supposed; and Nannie asked for it. She wanted a house of her own, she said; in her whole life she never had a place of her very own. Mister Harry said, of course she could have it. But the whole family was surprised, a little wounded. “Lemme go there and pass my last days in peace, chil’ren,” she said. They had the place scrubbed and whitewashed, shelves put in the chimney cleaned, they fixed Nannie up with a good bed and a fairly good carpet and allowed her to take all sort of odds and ends from the house. It was astonishing to discover that Nannie had always liked and hoped to own certain things, she had seemed so contented and wantless. She moved away, and as the children said afterwards to each other, it was almost funny and certainly very sweet to see how she tried not to be too happy the day she left, but they felt rather put upon, just the same.
Thereafter she sat in the serene idleness of making patch-work and braiding woolen rugs. Her grandchildren and her white family visited her, and all kinds of white persons who had never owned a soul related to Nannie, went to see her, to buy her rugs or leave little presents with her.
She had always worn black wool dresses, or black and white figured calico with starchy white aprons and white ruffled mobcap, or a black taffety cap for Sundays. She had been fincking precise and neat in her ways, and she still was. But she was no more the faithful old servant Nannie, a freed slave: she was an aged Bantu woman of independent means, sitting on the steps, breathing the free air. She began wearing a blue bandanna wrapped around her head, and at the age of eight-five she took to smoking a corncob pipe. The black iris of the deep, withdrawn old eyes turned a chocolate brown and seemed to spread over the whole surface of the eyeball. As her sight failed, the eyelids crinkled and drew in, so that her face was like an eyeless mask.
The children, brought up in an out-of-date sentimental way of thinking, had always complacently believed that Nannie was a real member of the family, perfectly happy with them, and this rebuke, so quietly and firmly administered, chastened them somewhat. The lesson sank in as the years went on and Nannie continued to sit on the doorstep of her cabin. They were growing up, times were changing, the old world was sliding from under their feet, they had not yet laid hold of the new one. They missed Nannie every day. As their fortunes went down, and they had very few servants, they needed her terribly. They realized how much the old woman had done for them, simply by seeing how, almost immediately after she went, everything slackened, lost tone, went off edge. Work did not i accomplish itself as it once had. They had not learned how to work for themselves, they were all lazy and incapable of sustained effort or planning. They had not been taught and they had not yet educated themselves. Now and then Nannie would come back up the hill for a visit. She worked then almost as she had before, with a kind of satisfaction in proving to them that she had been almost indispensable. They would miss her more than ever when she went away. To show their gratitude, anti their hope that she would come again, they would heap upon her baskets and bales of the precious rubbish she loved, and one of her great grandsons Skid or Hasty would push them j away beside her on a wheelbarrow. She would again for a moment be the amiable, dependent, like-one-of-the-family old servant: “I know my chil’ren won’t let me go away empty handed.”
Uncle Jimbilly still pottered around, mending harness, currying horses, patching fences, now and then setting out a few plants or loosening the earth around shrubs in the spring. He muttered perpetually to himself, his blue mouth always moving in an endless disjointed comment on things past and present, and even to come, no doubt, though there was nothing about him that suggested any connection with even the nearest future . . . Maria had not realized until after her grandmother’s death that Uncle Jimbilly and Aunt Nannie were husband and wife . . . That marriage of convenience, in which they had been mated with truly royal policy, with an eye to the blood and family stability, had dissolved of itself between them when the reasons for its being had likewise dissolved . . . They took no notice whatever of each other’s existence, they seemed to forget they had children together (each spoke of “my children”), they had stored up no common memories that either wished to keep. Aunt Nannie moved away into her own house without even a glance or thought for Uncle Jimbilly, and he did not seem to notice that she was gone . . . He slept in a little attic over the smoke-house, and ate in the kitchen at odd hours, and did as he pleased, lonely as a wandering spirit and almost as invisible . . . But one day he passed by the little house and saw Aunt Nannie sitting on her steps with her pipe. He sat down awhile, groaning a little as he bent himself into angels, and sunned himself like a weary old dog. He would have stayed on from that minute, but Nannie would not have him. “Whut you doin with all this big house to yoself?” he wanted to know. “’Tain’t no more than just enough fo’ me,” she told him pointedly; “I don’ aim to pass my las’ days waitin on no man,” she added, “I’ve served my time, I’ve done my do, and dat’s all.” So Uncle Jimbilly crept back up the hill and into his smoke-house attic, and never went near her again . . .
On summer evenings she sat by herself long after dark, smoking to keep away the mosquitoes, until she was ready to sleep. She said she wasn’t afraid of anything: never had been, never expected to be. She had long ago got in the way of thinking that night was a blessing, it brought the time when she didn’t have to work any more until tomorrow. Even after she stopped working for good and all, she still looked forward with longing to the night, as if all the accumulated fatigues of her life, lying now embedded in her bones, still begged for easement. But when night came, she remembered that she didn’t have to get up in the morning until she was ready. So she would sit in the luxury of having at her disposal all of God’s good time there was in this world.
When Mister Harry, in the old days, had stood out against her word in some petty dispute, she could always get the better of him by slapping her slatty old chest with the flat of her long hand and crying out: “Why, Mister Harry, you, ain’t you shamed to talk lak dat to me? I nuhsed you at dis bosom!”
Harry knew this was not literally true. She had nursed three of his elder brothers; but he always said at once, “All right, Mammy, all right, for God’s sake!”—precisely as he said it to his own mother, exploding in his natural irascibility as if he hoped to clear the air somewhat of the smothering matriarchal tyranny to which he had been delivered by the death of his father. Still he submitted, being of that latest generation of sons who acknowledged, however reluctantly, however bitterly, their mystical never to be forgiven debt to the womb that bore them, and the breast that suckled them.
*Katherine Anne Porter, “The Last Leaf” from The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter. Copyright 1928 by Katherine Anne Porter. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of The Katherine Anne Porter Literary Trust.
In the still of the night, you are surrounded by darkness in the room of your childhood. Sticky and smelling of semen, you hear the familiar footfalls that you recognize as your mother’s. Next to your bedroom, the door to the toilet creaks open wearily and you anticipate the sound of a thin, intermittent stream of urine, a sound you know so well.
You sense unease in the pit of your stomach; you pick up the magazine and tuck it away beneath your mattress. You listen for the distancing steps of the old woman who gave birth to you, and wait a few moments more, until she falls back to sleep.
You get up to wipe yourself off and rinse your face.
“Menachem, is that you?”
Hearing her shaky, familiar voice, you are overwhelmed with dejection.
“Yes, Mom, it’s me.”
You are forty-one years old, and for forty-one years you have been sharing the same roof – a large apartment, laden with furniture, overlooking the old cemetery on Trumpeldor Street.
You never married. It’s always been just the two of you. Once there was your father who left when you were a boy. What remains of him is a last name and a distant memory, a hazy image of the two of you at Frishman Beach. You heard he was a mechanical engineer, and when you grew up you thought of following him but your mother objected.
“An engineer without fingers is not natural,” she said. “With your brain, you should be a lawyer.”
You are a tort lawyer, an employee in a respectable firm. You make a decent living and you heard that Kornhauser, the managing director of the firm, is planning to offer you a partnership. You’re thinking about it, but for a number of years you’ve also been thinking about the next phase. With your mother’s encouragement, you have applied for a judgeship and have made it to the final committee. You received an offer as a judge in the Magistrate’s Court in the south district.
“What are they sending you there for? You should be in Tel-Aviv. Tell them,” your mother declared with a horrified look when you finally told her.
You deferred the offer and decided to wait until the next round. In another three months, after the holidays, the committee will reconvene. You are sure you have a good chance of getting something in Tel-Aviv or at least in the Central District.
Your mother wakes you up every morning. She knocks on your door and you get up to brush your teeth, and sometimes have a shower. After you put on the toupee that she bought you when you began to bald, you go into the kitchen.
The curtains have already been drawn and the cemetery comes into view from behind the decaying bars that have always been there. Breakfast awaits you on the table. An omelet with cheese, and olives, and tomatoes, and rye bread that your mother has already gone out to buy at the neighborhood grocer’s. Your ironed button-down shirt (either white or checkered) is on the ironing board in the living room. You put it on only after you have eaten heartily – the bread and eggs, and the cheese that softens in your mouth – and take a quick look at the newspaper that arrives every morning. You sip your coffee with milk – prepared exactly the way you like it – focusing on the legal and economics sections.
Most days she cooks you something to take to the office (lunch at 1pm sharp). Usually chicken and rice, or liver with mashed potatoes, and always a salad on the side. She’s not a half-bad cook. On Friday evenings, after you’ve read all of your newspapers and before your evening walk, you sit together at the table covered with a white cloth. She serves the baked fish and potatoes, or some foreign-looking Middle-Eastern dish that she learned to cook from the TV.
In the evenings, you take walks. You wear gloves. You don’t like to attract attention, so they’re off-white, like the color of your skin. They conceal the stump you’ve had since childhood.
You meander through the back roads of the city, but sometimes you walk down Ben-Yehuda and Gordon, where there are plenty of basement apartments, and a dense undergrowth of wild, flowering bushes. Your favorite time is between nine and eleven. This is the time when people are at home and still wide-awake, and it is dark enough so that no one can see you.
Your mother is used to your routine. You get home at seven-thirty and your supper is waiting. She tells you about her day. Sometimes you listen and even ask questions. You have a cup of coffee, watch the news and go out for your walk.
“Yes, a walk is good after you have strained your brain all day,” she agrees, as she kisses you.
You take your bag and go out into the Tel-Aviv summer air, mixed with the smell of stale body odor and dog pee. Your gloved hands perspiring, you make sure that your toupee is in place. When you near Dizengoff Square, your pace quickens and becomes rhythmic. You become excited as you envision your first destination.
You discovered the garden apartment on the quiet Hershenberg Street just a few weeks before while looking for a new place: a side window covered by hibiscus or wild bougainvillea. The ideal yard should be abandoned, and not serve as a passageway of any kind. If the main pipes run across it, that’s even better. You always carry a wrench, just in case anyone asks.
In the beginning, you wandered around Spinoza and King Solomon Streets, checked the yards and entrances, but nothing turned up. You continued up Gordon and sat on a bench on the corner of Hershenberg near a grocery store that seemed abandoned, even though a dim light burned and a family-pack of mineral water stood outside. You looked up at an aging building; behind it was an unattended yard, and you noticed a light go on in the ground-floor apartment.
You decided to check it out.
You walked confidently towards the building and decisively turned to the right. It was dark. With reservation, you peeked into the apartment, and you saw a woman in her late-thirties. You saw her curly hair, and how she sat, dispirited. You discerned that she was quite full-figured, but not necessarily fat. You took a good look at her, her small nose, thin lips, and roundish face. Not especially pretty, you thought, but interesting.
Now, on the corner of Dizengoff and Gordon, you become increasingly excited and you practically run towards the apartment. A car almost runs you over, and the driver yells, “Asshole!” A feeling of shame overcomes you as you realize that people are staring. You continue towards Hershenberg Street and quickly disappear around the corner. You always were light on your feet.
You look at your watch; you notice it is nine-fifteen. You enter determinedly into the yard behind the building. You find the place where you usually position yourself. The woman is sitting in a chair, her pale hands wrapped around a coffee cup. Like every evening, she is watching cable TV – an American series – the name of which you’ll never know. She seems mesmerized by the program. Her mouth is agape and her eyes wide as she is taken in by one of the scenes.
At nine-thirty, the closing-theme melody is heard and she sits back. As usual, when the program ends, her mother comes into the living room (they live together).
The bent-over, emaciated woman has thick glasses and a wrinkled, sallow face. You can’t tell from where you are standing, but you definitely wouldn’t be surprised if this withered, shriveled old woman had long, gray hairs protruding from her chin, just like your mother.
The old woman sits down and asks how the episode was, and the daughter answers, “Mediocre.” You hear that they are talking about the daughter’s work. You figure she is a librarian or a secretary at the university, because sometimes she mentions students. She doesn’t seem smart enough to be a professor (your mother taught you that professors were smart). You expect to hear something about what you saw two days ago, as almost every discussion between them is about men who disappear from the daughter’s life; she, like you, has been living with her mother since the day she was born. Sometimes they talk of a specific man – someone she’s met on the internet or on the bus. You usually detect anticipation in the daughter’s voice when speaking of a new man, and disappointment after the meeting, from which, most often, nothing pans out.
But you hear nothing of what happened the day before yesterday, when the mother was away for the weekend in Haifa, visiting the other daughter.
At nine-thirty of that day, after the Friday evening meal, couscous with vegetables à la recipe from the TV, you arrived at the apartment. It was empty, so you continued on your walk, and on the way back, around eleven o’clock, walking down the street with your hands (gloves) stuffed into your pockets, you saw them approaching the building. He was her height, but his gait had an air of ownership. When they passed under a street lamp you saw that he was rather muscular (from the gym, not the pool), and held a cigarette between his sausage-like fingers.
You slowed down when you noticed them, and continued to walk, as usual, on the opposite side of the street. They didn’t notice you and entered the building. The man snuffed out the cigarette and was about to throw it on the ground, but then paused for a moment and threw the butt into a nearby trashcan (very civilized).
You stood outside and saw the lights go on. You entered the yard deftly and positioned yourself on your footprints that had been made long ago. She offered him coffee or wine, and he asked if there was any whiskey. She replied that there wasn’t any, but she had liqueur, which she pronounced as the French do. He drank the liqueur and boomed, “Not bad,” nodding his head like someone listening to a well-conducted orchestra. His expression was coarse, and his face, pockmarked. She sat in the chair that was ordinarily occupied by her mother.
“So – what – you’re big on the internet scene?” he asked.
She replied with something you weren’t able to discern.
“You don’t say,” he said.
They sat there in silence for a few moments and then he turned to her and said gruffly, “Why are you sitting so far away? What, you afraid I’m gonna bite you?”
She rose and went over to sit next to him and he said, “There. That’s more like it.”
He set down his glass of liqueur and in one short swoop, placed his hands on her breasts, and began kneading them like dough.
“That’s right, this is much better, isn’t it?” he said. She stared into space and said, “Uh-huh”.
For a second you thought she had spotted you, but then you realized that she had been staring at a picture just above you, because the man looked in your direction and said, “You like art, Renaissance, Van Gogh, huh?” She moved her gaze upwards and let out a weak sigh as he kissed her neck.
“Man – I’ve had the hots for you ever since I saw those pictures you sent. Holy-moly… those nipples. Big as tennis balls,” he groaned through his drool-filled mouth.
Unexpectedly, she nudged him back slightly.
“No, Gabi, not here. In the bedroom,” she appealed.
You saw both of them rise. Gabi slid a hand over his erection and said as if to himself, “She wants the bedroom, so it’s the bedroom.”
They disappeared behind one of the doors.
You walked to another window, but it was closed. You went back to the main window and waited.
Fifteen minutes later, you spotted him coming out of the room, bare-chested, wearing American-style briefs. His chest was hairy. His face displaying satisfaction, he lit a cigarette; you saw him coming in your direction. Frightened, you sat down on the ground and saw the smoke exiting his lungs just above you. Now and again, you heard him breathing heavily, the breathing of an animal. He flicked what remained of the cigarette at you and retreated into the apartment. You decided not to risk it and crawled your way out of the yard. It is already after midnight and your mother will undoubtedly worry.
So you went back the next day as well, but the house was empty; you decided to come back again today. You realize that the daughter, who you thought told her mother everything during their nightly conversations, doesn’t intend to mention Gabi. You wonder how mistaken you’ve been in thinking that you knew her. A feeling of gloom overtakes you, witnessing their banal conversation, and you leave.
You return to the dark house on Pinsker Street. You sense the smell of death from the adjacent cemetery. The apartments in the building are uninhabited. Someone has bought them all – except for yours – and rents them out to tourists on a weekly basis (yesterday the last couple left – they were Dutch).
You turn the key in the lock.
“Menachem, is that you?” You hear her sleep-induced voice. You say that it is, even though you know she is just like a dog: in tune with your steps, the sound of the key in the lock and your smell.
“I was beginning to worry,” says the voice from under the heavy quilts with which she shrouds herself, even in the summer.
You go into the bathroom and peer at yourself in the mirror: prominent forehead, shaving sores on your throat, bushy eyebrows, pallor, wrinkles that have begun to appear under your brown eyes.
Lately you have begun to resemble your father, but there is no one to tell you that, not even your mother, who is unwilling to talk about him.
When you were younger, you unsuccessfully tried to crack the barrier that she had built around the mysterious image of the man who bequeathed you his last name. You saw her face shut down when you began to ask her questions that involved more than just technical details, and how it contorted in excruciating pain when you went a step further, and asked about your sister. Deep inside you knew that there was a connection between the disappearances of these two figures, but you decided to respect her wish and let go.
You remove the gloves and toupee, and are left with a shining, absolute baldness staring at you from the mirror. You place the toupee on the small table and wash your face. You pee and look at your mother’s robe hanging in front of you. It is large and pink and smells of mildew and peroxide.
You go back into your room. The barred bedroom window lends a partial view of the cemetery, and in the distance, you notice a man sitting on his porch smoking a cigarette. It seems like he is looking at you.
You close the shutters and pick up the biography of Justice Haim Cohen from the shelf.
You already know that your dream of being a supreme justice is out of the question, but still believe that you could be appointed as a judge in a magistrate court, and maybe even, with your mother’s prodding, a district judge.
You set down the book and move your hand under the covers. You think about masturbating but decide against it. You look at the hand with the three missing fingers and think about Gabi and the woman, whose name, oddly enough you still don’t know. You are curious as to whether they’ll stick it out.
You go back there the next day, and the days that follow, but the daughter isn’t there. Only the old woman is sitting and watching television through her lenses, thick as the bottom of a beer glass. You continue your walks.
On Schatz Street, you listen to the conversation between two young women. One of them is pretty, wearing hotpants. You are aroused. They are talking about the fact that there is a serious shortage of “green”. Even now, almost twenty years since you’ve begun to be familiar with the residents of the ground-floor apartments, you don’t know what this “green” is (after all, you’re an attorney – an officer of the court). Eventually, you understand that it means marijuana. One of them, the less pretty of the two, leaves for a second and comes back with a little box. They sit in the living room and one of them is fiddling with something. You hear someone opening the blinds in the apartment above. You’ve learned to recognize the sounds. You brace yourself against the wall like a lizard and look up carefully through the filigree of the ficus tree branches. You know that no one can see you, unless they shine a spotlight on you. You’ve been at this for years – with the stealth of a skulking cat – and you’ve never been caught.
You look upwards in slow motion, and see light coming from the windows above, while you are still ensconced in utter darkness. The girls begin to smoke, and the smell of marijuana finds its way into your nostrils. You sneeze with the restraint you have learned over the years. Silence. You linger on and gaze at the pretty one. She says she is going to take a shower. You don’t resist temptation, and move quickly, like a squirrel, towards the small, frosted window. The window is locked, and your view is obstructed. You give up and return to the big, wide window. You step on something that makes a noise, and the less-pretty girl is startled. “Who’s there?” she yells out in alarm. But you are already on your way, your gait insistent, towards the street corner.
You’ve been addicted to your other, mysterious, nocturnal life ever since you were in university (you were on the Dean’s list – seventh in your class). Back then, you were in love with Ruthie Witkon. You tried to draw her attention in the cafeteria and in the library, but all she returned was a dismissive glare. One day you sat down not too far away from her while she was talking to another guy. She didn’t notice you, or maybe didn’t even know who you were. You listened attentively while they spoke of where they lived.
In the days that followed, you walked up and down her street, hoping to bump into her. You planned on saying, “Pardon me – don’t we share a class in law school? And if I’m not mistaken, your last name is Witkon, as in Justice Alfred Witkon?” You were sure that that would impress her. When she sees what an interesting person you are, she’ll want to talk to you. Yes – that’s what you thought.
One evening you spotted her from afar, and you wanted to walk over to her, but you didn’t have the nerve. You noticed her enter the building and then the light flick on in the ground-floor apartment.
During the long weeks ahead, you became invisible as you stood like a fixture, dumbstruck by this woman walking around in her underwear, picking her nose, smelling her armpits. You saw her enter the bathroom with a newspaper and cigarettes, and much later, exit, sweaty and spent. You saw her dance to ridiculous music and jump for joy after a phone call from a man, who probably had asked her out (“Yes, we can meet there,” she said with rehearsed indifference). You saw her cry when she came home, dragging her feet, and seething, “Bastard”. You saw her the way people appear when they are alone.
You also saw her packing after a year and a half, to go and live with her boyfriend (not with the bastard – someone else); you saw the old man who took her place. You watched his round glasses and his clumsy gait, ready to keel over. You were privy to his horrendous farts, and impending death that you foresaw.
And then, after weeks during which you found it difficult to part with the apartment that constituted the last memory of the woman you loved, you decided to fill your life with something palpable through the lives of others who lived in other ground-floor apartments.
You mostly saw men: flexing their muscles in front of grimy mirrors, burning omelets, smoking, or jacking off in front of porno flicks. A couple of times you saw these men undressing young women, licking their sweat-coated bodies, mounting them and a few moments later lunging backwards, as though from the mouth of a cannon. There were a few times when men undressed other men, sodomized them consensually in both of the ways defined by the criminal court act (I mean, you are a lawyer).
But this kind of intimacy ceased to interest you after two or three years. You began to take interest in conversations, movements, facial expressions, subtle gestures. From time to time, you stood outside real-estate agencies or accounting firms, watching people clad in worn-out shirts, late in the evening. You listened to their phone conversations with clients or with their wives. You heard them complaining about work, about the boss who left them at the office; you saw the forlorn expression on their face staring at the computer screen, and that of despair, between cupped hands and elbows glued to the desk. You saw them ordering take-away, and then running to their desk to tear off the wrapping, then stuffing the pizza or schnitzel into their mouth.
You searched for people you would like to know, craving their friendship. But for some reason, those people didn’t live in the ground-floor apartments of the city, where wild bougainvillea and hibiscus grew. Eventually, you made do with those you would just know a little more about, just like that thirty-something-year-old woman with the curly hair, who sat every evening watching American television.
It was over a month since you’d seen her. And then, one Friday evening after a supper that lasted longer than you had anticipated (your mother wanted to know what your chances were of passing the last stage of the judicial committee and said that being a judge would grant you a completely different status (“Yes, a completely different status,” you echoed)). You arrived at the apartment. You peered through the window and you saw Gabi. He was amused by what he was watching on TV and blurted out, “Tikva, you gotta see this” (only then did I learn what her name was). Tikva appeared from one of the rooms and looked haggard. She sat down next to him. She was also wearing an athletic shirt and you could make out the curves of her breasts. She held a frozen expression, and sometimes she forced a laugh. The program ended, and Gabi lit a cigarette.
“Believe me, if it was only us two here, we could party like this every night,” he bellowed, even though she was sitting right next to him. Tikva didn’t respond, and he continued, “And she, she’ll have it good there. People her age. And you will, too. People should be with other people their own age.”
“She’ll never go along with it,” Tikva said. Gabi finished dragging on the cigarette and stubbed it out agitatedly.
“She won’t go along with it? We’ll make her go along with it,” he said to Tikva, and began mashing her breasts. She extended her hand automatically, and without interest or desire, began to rub his dick through his tight jeans.
“I feel like doing it here. On the table. Where your mother eats,” he said.
Tikva whispered something, but he ignored it and began undressing her.
“No, Gabi, not here. In the bedroom,” you heard her say to the man who lifted her and dragged her to the table, stood behind her, and peeled off her underwear. You stood there, agape, appalled, as you saw her face contort in pain. It seemed that she was looking right at you, that she saw you, or maybe she thought she saw some sort of angel. Gabi moved inside her, his fired-up expression stretched out towards the ceiling. He looked like some kind of prehistoric beast.
“So that’s what she said to you? That a professor and a taxi driver don’t make a good match?” he yelled, accelerating his thrusts. “So there, Madam Lily. This taxi driver is fucking your fancy PhD daughter,” he exploded.
The pained expression had already left Tikva’s face (so she is a professor and not a librarian or a secretary) and she seemed at peace. At that same moment, you couldn’t help but notice the similarity between her and her mother.
Your mouth opened involuntarily. You thought you were about to vomit, but you were mortified by the scream you heard.
“Leave her alone!”
It was a high-pitched voice, effeminate, hysterical, that erupted from within in times of anguish (you’ll never know that it was actually the same voice that came from the abysmal depths of your father as he witnessed his daughter crawl to her death, almost fifty years before).
The man lunged backward; Tikva jumped up and covered herself. You managed to hear him roar, and maybe even the door open, but you were already running across Gordon Street, blending in with others who were out and about. You decided that it was the last time you would go there.
You leave the room after the committee members congratulate you. From now on, you are “Your Honor Menachem Neiman”. You go home and your mother cries in happiness. She calls to make a reservation at a fancy restaurant. “A table for two, at eight o’clock. The name is Judge Neiman,” she says to the woman on the other end of the line. “Neiman,” the woman repeats. “Yes, His Honor, Judge Neiman,” your mother stresses.
The two of you get there at eight and are the sole diners.
You talk of your improved financial situation, and of the responsibilities of your new position. You decide that you should buy a few more dress shirts, and perhaps turn the closed-off room into a study. You are now a judge and you will have to read a lot of legal material as well as reference books in order to expand your knowledge in the field. You’ll also start reading more novels.
“Russian literature,” your mother tells you, as she inadvertently spits some focaccia in your direction.
“Absolutely,” you reply.
You eat tortellini with tomato sauce, sprinkled with parmesan cheese. You also dip your focaccia in the sauce and drink a bottle of wine.
Your head is spinning. You are not accustomed to drinking.
At ten o’clock, you ask for the bill, and start walking towards the apartment. The autumn wind is already blowing in from the sea, and your mother says, “Winter’s coming.”
“Yes,” you reply. “It is.”
You like the cool air and your long raincoat that allows you to walk freely with your gloved hands in its pockets. You like that during the winter, people are home, and those who most often sit by themselves, with a cup of tea or a cigarette, seem to be more exposed. You like that the yards are dark and empty, and that most people are less apt to leave their windows open, but not completely closed either – slightly ajar – letting in the fresh air and offering you optimum camouflage. The rain, on the other hand, you don’t like, because when it is raining, people tend to gaze outside.
You both return to the apartment, slightly inebriated, and you tell her that you are going out for a short stroll. She convulses in terror, and tries to dissuade you, saying it’s late and you had a day full of excitement and you need your rest. She offers to make you a cup of tea. But you insist, and leave the house with ease.
Your feet carry you involuntarily, towards Dizengoff Square and then towards Gordon Street. You are filled with excitement from the day’s events, and tomorrow, you plan on entering the office with overstated dignity. You imagine your colleagues green with envy.
“Perhaps we didn’t give him enough credit,” they’ll say.
Unwittingly, you wend your way towards Hershenberg Street, but only to take a quick peek into the window. It’s been three months since you’ve seen Tikva, and almost every night you masturbate thinking of her, of her transposed stare as Gabi, excited, is violently inside her.
Now, due to your new status, you decide to contact her. Although you don’t know her full name – you found nothing on the mailbox, and nothing came up on the university website – you could possibly wait outside the building one day and try to strike up an incidental conversation. You won’t arouse suspicion, because you will do it after you are an appointed judge, and people tend to believe, even admire, judges. You will ask her if she doesn’t happen to work in the courthouse, because you thought you had seen her there. She will ask if you are a lawyer, and you will say, understatedly, that you are a judge. That will immediately impress her.
You stand in front of the building and hear a commotion coming from the apartment. Even though you have already decided not to look inside, you are curious, and decide to check things out anyway. You approach the window (you are a little bit drunk), and you stand next to it, unheedingly. You see five men, and a woman stripping to some pop music you do not know.
The men have gathered around, all geared up and clapping their hands. Gabi is wearing some sort of hat that says something on it. You look for Tikva, but don’t see her. “On him… on him, that’s the guy who’s tying the knot!” whoops a muscular man bearing a vulgar expression, pointing towards Gabi.
Chills go up your spine; you feel as if your blood is trickling out of your body. Your head is light, and you jolt with a sudden carelessness.
“What is that? There’s someone at the window,” shouts one of the men.
Gabi looks at the guy who shouted, then at you, and leaps off the couch: “Holy fuck! That’s the peeping Tom!” he belts out in disbelief.
You try to escape on your nimble feet and jump the fence. Your toupee gets caught in a branch, and you go back to retrieve it. You run across the street, holding the toupee in your hand and replace it quickly. You feel your legs dragging you down; you are losing your balance.
You hear the swift, forceful footfalls of boots. They are Gabi’s violent, leather strides, followed by his small group of muscle (from the gym, not the pool). Not far from the abandoned grocery store, on the sidewalk reeking of fermented ficus fruit and dog pee, you trip and fall. They are upon you.
You begin to feel that your face is searing and wet and you try to protect yourself with only your good hand and your stump.
Gabi, who is kicking you in the ribs, back, and face, doesn’t stop, even when your toupee falls off. “How about some of this, you cock-sucker. And this,” he thunders.
One of his friends pours beer all over you and kicks you straight in the nuts and roars, “Peeping Tom, eh?” as if his outburst reminds him of why he is beating you.
You can hardly manage to get the glove off your right hand, hoping that this might help you. You barely raise your hand, just a moment before someone cracks your head against the sidewalk.
“What the fuck?!” Martin yells in horror, when he sees you have no fingers.
Gabi spits to the side, as though taking five.
“Holy crap – there’s no goddamn fingers!”
The men stop abruptly, not knowing what to do with this, as though your being impaired minimizes the severity of what you’ve done. As though they should let you off easy.
Suddenly, as though from a distant place or time, you hear an uproarious cry, effeminate and tormented – that of a woman being dismembered. And then, when it stops, you hear the shuffling and scraping of the men who have killed you, fading away.
At the same time, your hands by your side and your left cheek to the ground, your head bleeding and your bones crushed, you begin to take stock of your life. Not only of what would have happened if you hadn’t, on the spur of the moment, decided to return to that building, but of how your life might have unfolded if you hadn’t received the judicial appointment that day. You probably wouldn’t have gone out to celebrate and you probably wouldn’t have found your way to the apartment just when Gabi’s bachelor party was underway. Or what would have happened if you hadn’t discovered the apartment on Hershenberg, or listened to Ruthie Witkon’s incidental conversation. What would have happened if your fingers hadn’t been severed (in the winter, when you went with your father to visit one of his buddies, you went into the bathroom; the wind slammed the door shut. You only started screaming after a few moments), or if your sister had still been alive. How different would your life have been, that is, if you had had a life at all, in light of the fact that you were born to fill a death-induced void.
As you hear the ambulance that someone called for nearing, you revert to the unrealized possibilities of your life, to missed opportunities and loss, to the only two women with whom you had slept with all of these years, especially the more serious one you thought of marrying six years before (“European lawyer, bachelor, 34/175, interested in literature and philosophy, seeking same. Feminine features desirable,” you wrote in the classifieds). You revisit your mother’s contorted face when she appraised your choice, and what she had said that evening, in a cold, metallic tone: “My son can do better.”
You know that if you had followed your heart, and hadn’t broken it off with that woman, you wouldn’t be lying here today, being placed on a stretcher by two religious paramedics, one of them saying in a rusty voice as though through a large pipe or metal helmet, “God have mercy. What a mess!”
In your heart of hearts, that is about to stop beating, you hope they don’t find Gabi and his friends, to prevent your mother’s shame. “Israeli Judge – Peeping Tom”, the headlines would claim. What a disgraceful death. A ludicrous death. Worse than dying from a heart attack while taking a crap.
The ambulance begins to drive away, while the sound of the siren is fading. During those moments you feel like you are floating, and you suddenly think of your father. Images of both you and your father on the beach rise and hover before your eyes.
Your funeral procession held in the cemetery under your childhood room – inching towards the plot she bought for you, between her plot and that of another, smaller one, that bears the name of your baby sister, the two years of her life chiseled in the stone.
Your mother was dressed in a black gown and was mumbling some sort of mantra: “He so wanted to be a judge… a judge.” And then, on the edge of the grave – after four men you never knew have briskly carried you on the stretcher – her knees buckle on the threshold of the open pit. Someone pours water on her, and she groans in agony like a wounded animal.
Someone else in a white shirt, sullied with earth, restrains her as she tries to follow you into the gaping pit. She shrieks, as you have never heard her before, “That’s my baby in there. I have nothing else to live for.”
Hundreds of people came to the funeral, after the newspapers’ headlines in the morning papers read: “Another Judge Murdered”—though you never judged; not even one single day in your life.
The President of the Supreme Court was there, as well as the Minister of Justice who gave a speech (“We will catch the guilty parties and justice will be served. In Israel, a judge’s life is not to be forsaken”).
Your colleagues were also there, bobbing their heads from side to side in disbelief, while Kornhauser, who had always thought you were a bit odd, placed a huge bouquet on the mound.
Among the crowd, at a safe distance from the grave, stood an old man weeping silently. He is the man who a few years before you were born had been in charge of his baby daughter as she climbed on the windowsill, and then, a moment before it was all over, still managed to emit the terrifying cry that followed her to her death.
This is the man who could hardly cope with the memory of his dead daughter – that echoed through the bars that were installed after the tragedy and sealed up the house like a dog kennel – and who completely broke down after his second count of negligence, responsible for the crippling of the baby who had been born as a consolation.
This man, a few years after you were born, left the apartment inherited from his wife’s parents, and never came back, not even to sign the divorce papers.
But this man could not sever his old life from the new one, and continued over the years to wonder what had become of you and your mother, his wife, and how your life had changed as a result of his abandonment.
Around the time you were a law student, when she had begun to leave the house less and less, he stopped watching her, and began living his life through yours. Through dark glasses and under a gray cap, without you knowing who he was, he watched you almost every day and every night, while you were watching others. You often looked at his face without realizing that you were becoming just like him: your gaze, your nimble gait, your posture.
This man, your invisible shadow, was also there on the night of your death. He stood stupefied near the empty grocery store on Gordon Street and watched, frozen and powerless, while you were being beaten to death, and only after several terrifying minutes did he let out that same horrific scream from the depths of within.
My Husband is a bus driver. He has been for thirty years or more. I met him when he was 24 and he had just finished driving school in the city. On his ID card they had written next to “Occupation”, “Bus Driver”. These words, along with the picture of his handsome face, were enough to trap me in the marital cage that he had built in our lovely, remote village.
Throughout all of our engagement I dreamed – day and night – about the long, wonderful trips we would take together. I still don’t know what my older sister was talking about one summer night on the roof of our house, when she told me in a low voice with a twinkle in her eye: “The back seat of the bus is wide and soon you’ll learn every inch of it, every smell.”
Two days before the wedding, all of my friends came to the village for my henna party. They all sat there, picturing me sitting in the front seat behind my husband as he accompanied me on trips and excursions, wishing that they were me. One of them fantasised about going to Jerusalem, another to Jaffa. A third said with strange certainty, “Baniyas is the most beautiful place in the world. Tell him to take you to Baniyas.”
We couldn’t understand how she was so sure of that town’s qualities, so we asked her if she had ever been to Baniyas. She told us that her brother had gone there a year ago and he had said that it was the most beautiful place in the world. We laughed until we cried. Then my little sister said, with clear envy shared by all in attendance, “We all hear about these places, but my sister is the only one who is really going to see these places.”
I sighed a deep sigh of joy, mixed with fear.
Now, I wake up at five every morning and make myself a small pot of sweet, black coffee and wait for the sun to begin its journey across the sky. It arrives with a deep red colour that reminds me of the figs ripening in my late father’s garden. I drink my coffee; I don’t want to distract the sun from her daily expedition. She must be very tired by now; she doesn’t need some chatterbox like me telling her all about my life with my husband the bus driver. So, I drink my coffee and dream about the sun’s endless journeys. I wish that I could go on just one.
In those early morning hours that I have spent alone, I found out for myself that the sun visits practically the whole world in 24 hours! How strong she is and what a wonderful life she must live, this sun. She travels the whole world alone and doesn’t get tired or bored. She is never worn out. My mother had promised me a life like this an hour before my husband’s family came to take me from my childhood home. She leaned in towards me a little and made a request I didn’t think I would ever be able to fulfil: “Make sure you tell me about all your wonderful travels.”
As soon as my husband wakes up he receives a new pot of coffee straight off the burner. He never brushes his teeth but they are still as white and strong as a horse’s. My mother always told me that the men in my husband’s family were like horses: strong and healthy, with huge white teeth. Even my late father couldn’t hide his excitement for the grandsons I would give him: “They will be born like horses and will hold their heads up high,” he told me.
Still, I wished he would brush his teeth, especially in the morning. That is the time that he takes an interest in me, if you know what I mean. I wake him up and he drags me by the hand. Then he lies on top of me on the bed and goes at it. He never waits for me to wake up properly or to wash my face. Then, by the time I have woken up properly he has finished his foul-smelling panting and has rolled over to the other side of the bed. He just asks, “When are you getting up?”
But I have brought my sons up to brush their teeth. I won’t have them annoying their wives in the morning or before bed. My sons will be healthy, handsome and considerate to their wives. If I’d had a daughter – as I always hoped I would – I would have made her the best woman in the world. I would have sent her to university and she would have come back to me a doctor, who could heal my broken bones and soothe my painful arthritis. The village doctor told me to give my body some rest and not to do any strenuous work. He’s a fool. It takes more than a university education to make a man a doctor. He also needs some common sense. Who does he think is going to do all the work for the family or around the house? Is he going to do it for me? If I’d had a daughter she would have been a thousand times better than him as a doctor. And she could have taught him some life lessons, worth much more than all that cold equipment he puts on my body when I visit him. He put something on me and then extends it; for some reason, I put up with it.
I’ve had five children and they are all educated men. They are my bright red roses, with a rare purity. When I look at them, I feel no pain – except for the kisses I could have given them but never did and for the times when I was asleep, even though I knew they were awake and studying.
The first is an engineer, the second is a teacher, the third a nurse, the fourth works in the market trading something they call “stocks” and the fifth works in the village bank. There is still one unmarried “nestling”, who hasn’t settles down his own house yet. I am secretly hoping that he waits a little longer, to ease my loneliness in the long days when my husband is away, driving his bus and taking 40 or 50 people on some amazing trip.
The first time I rode the bus was two days after our wedding. I was still hurting down there from the wedding night. Throughout the trip, whenever I thought about my “first time,” I had to run to the toilet to be sick. I claimed that I had eaten something bad at the wedding. In spite of this, I was still excited to be riding the company bus that my husband drove and excited about all the journeys we would go on together, following the trail of the setting sun, which never really sets. On our first trip we went to a nearby town and had grilled fish for dinner. It was so delicious. It took me a whole week to realise that this “trip” was the honeymoon that people always talk about.
I didn’t really care about having a short honeymoon because I was sure that the coming months would be just as sweet. I had no doubt about that. After four days, my husband went back to work. He said that I should clean his bus after those wretched schoolchildren had filled it with their sweets, nuts and vomit. I did. I cleaned it better than I cleaned my bedroom. It sparkled like a crystal. That night I felt that pain between my legs again, just like I had on my wedding night. But I did not say a word; tomorrow he would take me on another trip.
Every morning he went off to work – on one of his trips – and he did not come back again until the evening. After he had eaten dinner, I would take the products and the brushes, climb into the big bus and start cleaning until it was back to looking like it did when it arrived from the company. After a while, I got to know everything about the rubbish that I picked up on the bus. I began to use it to figure things out about the passengers: their ages, what they were like and why they were travelling. Sometimes the bus came back clean, except for a few pieces of white paper with writing in a language I did not know. Other times it came back covered with sweets wrappers, old snacks, empty soda cans and scattered flecks of vomit.
As time went on, I didn’t feel any pain when he took an interest in me. That particular source of pain had been somehow disappeared. I was very glad to see it gone and still am.
When I gave birth to the first child, my husband the bus driver promised me a wonderful trip to help me recover my strength and to make up for my difficult first birth. But his mother died three days after the birth of the child and he forgot. I was embarrassed to ask him about the trip that he had promised me, especially since, most days, he came back from work angry and raving. He insulted and cursed the company’s owner, his colleagues and the degrading conditions of his work. When the second child was born he did not suggest any trip at all and I did not bring it up. The second birth was easier than the first and I told myself that I didn’t deserve a trip in the bus after such an easy birth.
After the birth of our third child, I finally realised that the trip I had been waiting for was never coming. How were we ever going to take a nice trip when we had one small baby still breastfeeding and two other children who always cried for one silly reason or another?
I met my excited friends who had just returned from the amazing trips they had taken with their husbands to Jerusalem, Jaffa or Baniyas and I smiled politely. I listened to their amazing stories and I listened to stories so boring they should not have bothered to tell them. When someone asked me, without prompting, “Why don’t you tell us about the trips you’ve been taking in that beautiful bus?”, I ignored her.
Before I knew it, the only relationship I had with the bus was when I came with buckets of water, soap, brushes and dirty old rags. Every two or three days I got into the bus to clean up bits of vomit and the litter that the small children left behind. I knew all the bits of packaging, their colours and the snacks that came in them. I started to buy them for my children when they were getting excited about a school trip. I would fill their bags with all the best snacks and bid them a tearful farewell as they got onto the bus for some school trip, which had kept them awake all of the night before. I could hear them whispering, swapping stories about the place they were going, about the things their classmates bought and how I always bought them the best things. They were always unanimous on one thing, that my husband was the best man in the world because he took them on their trips and always saved them the long back seat.
I tossed and turned in my bed, staring at the ceiling, and remembered that their aunt had loved that long back seat too, even though she herself had never gotten to try it.
Every morning they all went to school in the big bus, which was very run down by that point. They left me waving at them from the entrance of the house, smelling the disgusting black diesel smoke.
After the fourth child was born the company gave my husband a new bus. It was shiny, clean and new. The chairs were wrapped in new plastic covers. I almost fainted from shock when my husband proudly told me that it had a television and video player! In the end I could not stop myself from collapsing backwards in excitement. The bucket of soap and water that I had brought with me to give the floor a good clean fell over too. The floor of the bus was covered in water. Some dirty water splashed up my children’s legs, who were standing behind me. They were rather alarmed by this unexpected spillage. My husband slapped me across the face, as he often did when he was angry, and shouted “You cow! You’ve even ruined the new bus too.”
The boys did nothing. They hung their heads and got off the bus in silence, leaving me to wipe away my tears and then wipe the water off the floor quickly and vigorously so that he would leave me alone. Children see everything.
From that day on, I came to hate that bus. I was forced to clean it but I did so with undisguised laziness. I “missed” lots of little wrappers or spots of vomit that I knew he would smell the next day. If he had bothered to clean his teeth, perhaps I would have cared a little more.
The children soon began to leave home for their studies. By then, I had a lot of experience in sitting outside the house, waiting for the phantom of the new bus. My first-born son did a great job – it could be called an act of charity – when he attached a large, round dish to the roof of the house. He said that it would add more than 100 channels to our television. I didn’t believe him until he started to flick through them. My husband and sons all stood around. They wanted to see a channel with their own eyes. They just stood there looking until my husband complained. Then my son began to skip through the channels again until he reached a show with two men shouting at each other. After a little while, our youngest son said, “This is Al-Jazeera, a news channel.”
I never liked al-Jazeera. All they ever did was shout at each other. I liked watching music channels, shows about herbal medicines and Arabic soap-operas. I still don’t know how I survived so long without the soap operas. I swear that I can remember whole episodes of “Mufid al-Wahsh” and “al-Jawarih” by heart. As soon as one channel had stopped showing a series, another channel would replay it. Then it went back to the first channel, which would show it late at night, and then to another and so on and so forth. I lost any connection with the world around me. The big round dish and I became the best of friends. I kept him company in the living room and he took me on trips that not even a bus driver could dream of.
Every time I saw my husband, I was reminded of that horrible pain I felt on our wedding night and I had to go and throw up behind the house. After this, the doctor told me that I had a stomach problem caused by the cleaning products I used which was making me vomit all the time. He advised me to change them, so I did. When I did not stop throwing up, he told me with a pained expression, “You shouldn’t eat so much, then you would throw up less.” So, I started to eat less. I threw up less and weighed less too. I began to let the doctor put his instruments on me however he pleased. Sometimes he would give up with his instruments all together and just use his hands, but it would take him a while to stop trembling.
Once I saw a long bit of rubber in the bus and I had no idea what it was. Nor was I sure what the thick, gloopy liquid trapped inside it was. The bit of rubber had been tossed to the end of the bus, on the long back seat, the same seat whose scent my sister had told me many years ago I would not forget. When I recognised the smell of the sticky mess inside the rubber, I couldn’t contain myself; I threw up on the chair and made a horrible mess. After that horrible experience, I started pretending to be asleep every time my husband came up to me from behind in the mornings. His desire only increased when I was “sleeping.” I just stayed there, calm.
Now, at five o’clock every morning I sit by myself in silence and ask the sun about her long journey. I look at the bus that my husband drives on all his trips and wish I could ask it about the places it has visited and the people who dance and sing on its seats all day long. Even my darling sons have stopped visiting as much. They have given me up for their wives and my grandchildren, whom I long to see.
Since my grandchildren were born, my sons and their wives are always away on long trips. They can’t get enough of travelling. I am just here, hoping they come back to see me with a nice veil for winter or with a piece of fabric that I can sew however I like. My sons are travellers, they love travel more than anything in the world. I taught them when they were small: “Never miss a trip in your lives and never pass up the chance to travel, whatever you do. Take it from me. I’m your mother and I know more about travelling than you do.”
I too began to travel wherever and however I wanted, sitting in front of all those channels. I came to hate actual travel, that bus and my husband. In fact, I hardly ever went out onto the balcony any more or even left my place in the living room. I was weak with arthritis and illness. The government gave me a woman who came to give me a hand with chores and to help around the empty house. Our youngest son had decided to go live in the city with his big brother because “the job opportunities are better there.”
For hours and hours I just sat in front of the TV. I could go on any trip I wanted, on any bus I choose or in any soap opera I decided. Even when my sight began to fade, and my hearing even more so, I could still make out what was going on and all the images and places on screen.
Sitting in front of the TV like this, I heard a voice calling from inside, “Come here quickly, I think I’m dying.” But I didn’t come. I didn’t do anything. What did he want me to do? His voice has started to fade now. In fact, it has totally stopped. I guess he is sleeping. Let him sleep. What does he want me to do? Let him wait. I’m off on a trip right now and he needs to wait for me to come back.