She had been married for five years – and still nothing. Her relatives felt pity and compassion for her; it was not usual for women to be barren in her large family, where children had always abounded. Every woman on her side and her husband’s side of the family had children. Lots of children! Big-eyed curly-haired boys and girls, in all sizes; they called her auntie, and it made her feel sick. She did not feel any hatred towards them; rather, it was the comments and reproaches of her husband and mother-in-law that had turned her into a taciturn and hardworking woman. She had no interest in chatting with the others on the doorstep. Rózka was big, strong, but nevertheless beautiful. Her hair was fairer than the rest of her kin, her skin was not as dark and her eyes sparkled with gold. This already set her apart from the others.
Rózka was healthy, so she devoted herself to her work, labouring in the fields and in the household until dark. Her husband had not yet come to terms with her not giving him a child, and drank all the more, until his tanned face stopped smiling. They lived in one room with his mother and father, and she would return there from the fields or from the cattle when dusk was falling.
Once when she came home, her mother-in-law and her husband weren’t in and her father-in-law lay drunk on the bed. She asked where the others were – he only muttered unintelligibly to the effect that her husband had taken his mother to town to his sister. Apparently she wasn’t well. Rózka ate her supper and went to lie down.
She was woken by his alcoholic breath and he was crushing her completely with the weight of his body. She couldn’t resist in any way, not even by screaming. He had covered her mouth with his huge hand and helplessly she looked into his crimson face … When he had finished he stood over her and told her she mustn’t tell anyone – anyway, they wouldn’t believe her. He slammed the door shut and she could only hear the clock clanging in time with the beating of her frightened heart.
Her husband came home about an hour later, didn’t even turn the light on, lay down next to her, turned over and soon fell asleep. He did not embrace her or even touch her, as if she were not there at all. She wanted to tell him everything, but had no strength left in her, and she spent the rest of the night staring into the dark; her thoughts, fear and humiliation mingled with the tears that streamed down her cheeks.
The old man continued to ignore her just as he had before, but her mother-in-law looked on with a smile as she threw up in the mornings and as her curves grew nicely. The smile returned to her husband’s dark face and he was kinder and more generous to her. The neighbours finally had something to talk about, while Rózka and her mother-in-law prepared the baby’s outfits and discussed what name to give it.
One month before the birth was due she had a dream. In it she saw her father-in-law and a child that resembled him. In the dream they were very evil and hurting her. When she woke up in terror, she could still hear their fearful laughter. She broke out in a cold sweat; she already knew that she didn’t want the child, that it would bring her damnation all her living days.
She gave birth to a son; they named him Karči, after the father-in-law. Rózka suppressed the strange repulsion she felt towards the baby and took it into her arms. Her son looked at her just like an adult and smirked malignantly as he narrowed his eyes. She quickly laid him back in his crib and shied away. Nobody noticed and everybody milled around and smiled at him; it was only she who saw that he was different from the other newborn babies, and that he was watching her with his coal-black, squinting eyes.
In the night, when everybody was asleep, a noise woke her. She sat up in bed and looked around: she discovered with shock that the boy was standing next to her bed with an eerie sneer on his face. She was surprised to find that he had teeth. He gave a sinister snigger and scampered back to his crib. She screamed until everybody woke up in alarm; they sleepily lit a lamp and asked her what had happened. She told them tearfully what she had seen. Her husband suspected that she had dreamed it, and her mother-in-law rushed to have a look at the baby, who was sleeping innocently. As it started to whimper and then cry, the old woman took it into her arms and comforted it. Then she came over to Rózka and scolded her for not loving her own child and ordered her to breastfeed him – the boy was surely hungry. Rózka was completely confused but took the child and offered her breast. The boy started sucking immediately. Suddenly she felt a sharp pain: the little one had bit her nipple to the flesh, and blood gushed out. She pushed him away onto the blanket at the foot of the bed and complained in tears that the child had bitten her. The mother-in-law picked up the baby and passed her finger over its toothless gums. Her daughter-in-law must be wrong. She chided her and everybody came to the conclusion that Rózka had cut herself on purpose so as not to have to breastfeed. The old woman decided that she would feed the baby cows’ milk and told the young mother that she would look after her grandson herself since his mother had rejected him. The grandmother took the child to bed with her and her husband; and so that night came to a close.
Nobody spoke to Rózka in the morning. The young woman felt miserable. She didn’t know what to do, how to tell them everything that had happened and that the baby was actually a sin about which she had kept silent; that he was actually the devil’s little helper in a child’s disguise.
Barely a week later they found the old woman dead. She lay in bed with her eyes open wide, and the child giggled next to her waving its arms and legs in the air. Rózka knew that it had killed her mother-in-law, and that it would continue to kill. Nobody listened to her; they thought she had gone crazy and was talking nonsense. They assumed the death of the old woman had been caused by a heart attack.
During the following night Rózka decided to stay awake and keep an eye on the child. When it thought everybody was asleep it slowly climbed out of the crib and scuttled over to her husband’s bedside. She pretended she was sleeping but watched the creature through her eyelashes to see what would happen. The child pulled the pillow from under the man’s head and pushed it down on his face. It had such strength that even when the man was kicking and trying to pull the pillow off, it still held him down and the man gradually became weaker. Rózka jumped up and tried to tear the pillow out of the baby’s hands. Its strength was tremendous: it pushed her over and continued to smother her husband. She picked up a chair and hit the baby on the head. It started to squeak and made noises like a goblin.
Suddenly a light came on and the old man and his half-dead son beheld an awful sight. Rózka was on the ground covered in blood: the small child, with bulging eyes and twisted face, was tossing her around and punching her face with its puny fists. Both men rushed to the young woman’s assistance. The goblin attacked them too. The younger man caught it by the legs and smashed it against the wall. It fell to the ground, quickly picked itself up and darted to the door, squealing. It turned around one last time before escaping into the darkness with a blood-chilling screech.
The young man took Rózka into his arms and wiped her face with a cloth. His hands were shaking and he was crying. The woman was barely breathing. The door creaked open and closed and she looked through it apprehensively into the dark night as though she expected the devilish child to return.
*This story was published in: Povídky: Short Stories by Czech Women, Ed. Nancy Hawker, copyright © Nancy Hawker, 2006.
The autumn felt more like summer than the summer had. I was wearing my blue silk dress, and I had the little Pekinese they’d given me for my birthday when I arrived at my boyfriend’s house. I remember that day clearly.
“Jealousy rules the world,” said Mrs. Yapura, thinking I didn’t want to marry Romirio out of jealousy. “My son sleeps only with the cat.”
I didn’t want to marry Romirio, or hadn’t decided whether I wanted to marry him, for other reasons. Sometimes the words people say are changed by the intonation of the voice with which they say them. It seems like I’m getting off topic, but there’s an explanation. The voice of Romirio, my boyfriend, was repulsive to me. word he uttered, even if said with the utmost respect for me, although he hadn’t touched so much as a toe of my foot, sounded obscene. I couldn’t love him. I felt bad about this, not so much for him as for his mother, who was generous and kind. The only negative trait she was known for was jealousy, but she was old now and had even lost that. And should we believe the rumors? People said that she had got married very young to a man who soon betrayed her with another woman. Once she began to suspect, she spent a month without sleep trying to uncover the adultery. When she did, it was like a knife wound to the heart. She didn’t say anything, but that very night, as her husband slept beside her, she threw herself at his throat and tried to strangle him. The mother of the victim came to save him; if it hadn’t been for her he would have died.
My courtship with Romirio had gone on too long. “What’s a voice,” I thought. “It’s not an insolent, groping hand, it’s not a repulsive mouth trying to kiss me, it’s not that obscene and protuberant sex I so fear, it’s nothing physical like buttocks or hot like a belly.” Nevertheless, Romirio’s voice was much more disagreeable to me than any of those things. How could I bear living alongside a man who broadcasted that voice to whoever would listen? That visceral, lewd, scatological voice. But who would dare say to their boyfriend, “Your voice displeases me, it repulses me, it scandalizes me. It’s like the word lust in the catechism of my childhood”?
Our wedding was put off indefinitely without any obvious reason.
Romirio visited me every afternoon. Rarely did I go to his dark house, because his mother, who was sick, went to bed early. But I very much liked their little garden, full of shadows, and Lamberti, Romirio’s reddish-gray cat. There was not a more timid couple in the neighborhood. We might have kissed at most once during the summer of that year. Did we hold hands? Not a chance. Embrace? Slow dancing was out of fashion. This unusual behavior sparked a suspicion that we’d never marry.
That day I took the Pekinese they’d given me to Romirio’s house. Romirio picked him up to pet him. Poor Romirio, he loved animals so much. We were sitting in the living-room as usual, when Lamberti’s fur stood on end, and with a spitting sound he ran away knocking over a flowerpot. Mrs. Yapura called me the next day crying. That night, as always, Romirio had slept with Lamberti in his bed, but in the middle of the night the cat went into a frenzy and clawed Romirio’s throat. The mother went running in when she heard his screams. She managed to pull the cat from her son’s throat and she strangled it with a belt. They say nothing is more terrible than a frenzied cat. It isn’t hard to believe. I hate them. The incident left Romirio without a voice, and the doctors that looked after him said he wouldn’t ever recover it.
“You won’t marry Romirio,” his mother said crying. “I had good reason for telling my son not to sleep with that cat!”
“I will marry him,” I responded.
From that day forward I loved Romirio.
When I was a little girl my mother had a fungus on one of her toenails. On her left pinkie toe to be exact. From the moment she discovered it she tried everything to get rid of it. Every morning she’d step out of the shower and with the help of a tiny brush pour over her toe a capful of iodine whose smell and sepia, almost reddish tone I remember well. She saw to no avail several dermatologists, including the most prestigious and expensive in the city, who repeated the same diagnoses and suggested the same futile treatments, from traditional clotrimazole ointments to apple cider vinegar. The most radical among them even prescribed her a moderate dose of cortisone, which only inflamed my mother’s yellowed toe. Despite her efforts to banish it, the fungus remained there for years until a Chinese doctor to whom nobody—not even my mother— gives credit, was able to drive it away in a few days. It happened so unexpectedly that I could not help wondering if the parasite itself hadn’t decided to move on to another place.
Until that moment fungi had always been—at least for me—curious mushrooms that appeared in children’s book illustrations and that I associated with the forest and elves. In any case, nothing to do with that rugosity that gave my mother’s toenail the texture of an oyster shell. However, more than the dubious and shifting appearance, more than its tenacity and attachment to the invaded toe, what I remember best about the whole affair was the disgust and repulsion the parasite inspired in my mother. I have seen other people over the years with mycosis on different parts of their body. All kinds of mycoses, from those that cause the bottom of the foot to dry out and peel to the circular red fungi you often see on chefs’ hands. Most people bear them with resignation, some with stoicism, others with genuine disregard. My mother on the other hand suffered the presence of her fungus as if it were a mortifying affliction. Terrified by the thought that it might spread to the rest of her foot, or worse, her entire body, she separated the affected toenail with a thick piece of cotton to keep it from rubbing against the adjacent toe. She never wore sandals and avoided taking off her socks in front of anyone she wasn’t very close to. If for some reason she had to use a public shower she always wore plastic slippers, and to swim in a pool she’d take off her shoes right at the edge just before diving in, so that nobody would see her feet. And so much the better; if anyone had found out about that toe and all the treatments it had been through, they would have thought that instead of a simple fungus, what my mother had was the beginning of leprosy.
Children, unlike adults, adapt to everything. So little by little, despite my mother’s disgust, I began to see that fungus as an everyday presence in my family life. It didn’t inspire the same aversion in me as it did my mother; just the opposite. I felt a protective sympathy for that iodine-painted toenail, which seemed vulnerable to me, similar to what I would have felt for a crippled pet that had trouble moving around. Time went on and my mother stopped making such a fuss over her affliction. For my part, I grew up and completely forgot about it and never again thought about fungi until I met Philippe Laval.
At that time I had just turned thirty-five. I was married to a patient and generous man who was ten years my senior and the director of the National School of Music, where I had completed the first part of my training as a violinist. We didn’t have children. We had tried for a while, but rather than agonizing over it, I felt fortunate to be able to focus on my career. I had completed my training at Juilliard and had garnered certain international prestige, enough to be invited to Europe and the United States to give concerts two or three times a year. I’d just recorded a CD in Denmark and was about to return to Copenhagen to teach a six-week course in a palace that every summer hosted the best students in the world.
I remember one Friday afternoon shortly before I was to leave I received a list with the biographical information of all the professors who would be at the residency that year. Laval’s was among them. It wasn’t the first time I read his name. He was a violinist and conductor of great renown, and on more than one occasion I’d heard from the mouths of friends words of praise about his live performances and how naturally he led the orchestra with his violin. From the list I learned that he was French and lived in Brussels, but often went to Vancouver where he taught at the School of Art. That weekend my husband, Mauricio, had gone out of town to attend a conference. I didn’t have plans that night so I searched the Internet to find which of his concerts was available to purchase online. After browsing for a while I ended up buying one of Beethoven, filmed live at Carnegie Hall years earlier. I remember the sense of wonderment I felt listening to it. The night was hot. I had the balcony doors open to let fresh air in and still, emotion restricted my breathing. Every violinist knows that arrangement—many by heart—but hearing his interpretation was an absolute revelation. As if I could at last understand it in all its depth. I felt a mix of reverence, envy, and gratitude. I listened to it three times at least and each time produced the same shiver. I then searched for pieces interpreted by other musicians invited to Copenhagen, and while the level was undoubtedly very high, not one of them surprised me as much as Laval did. Afterward I closed the file and though I thought of him more than once, I didn’t listen to the concert again in the following two weeks.
It wasn’t the first time I’d be separated from Mauricio for a few months, but being accustomed to it didn’t lessen the sadness of leaving him. As I did for every long trip, I asked him to come with me. The residency allowed it and despite his insisting otherwise I’m sure his work did as well. He could at least have spent two of the six weeks of the course there, or visited me once at the beginning and again at the end of my stay. Had he accepted, things between us would have gone down a different path. However, it didn’t make sense to him. He said that the time would go by quickly for us both and the best thing for me would be to concentrate on my work. It would be, according to him, an incredible opportunity, one I couldn’t miss or cut short, to plumb my depths and collaborate with other musicians. And it was that, just not in the way we’d imagined.
The castle where the summer school was held was located in Christiania, a neighborhood just outside the city. It was late July and at night the temperature was very pleasant. I wasted almost no time in making friends with Laval. At the beginning his schedule was more or less the same as mine: he was unquestionably nocturnal; I was still on North American time. After classes we’d work the same hours in soundproof rooms so as not to wake the others, and now and again we’d run into each other in the kitchen or at the tea stand. We were the first—and only—ones to make it to the early breakfast, when the cafeteria began serving. From friendly and excessively polite our conversations became increasingly personal. An intimacy quickly grew between us, and a sense of closeness different from what I felt toward the other teachers.
A summer school is a place beyond reality that allows us to surrender to that which we usually deny ourselves. You can take all kinds of liberties; to visit the heart of the host city, attend dinners and events, socialize with the locals or other residents, give in to laziness, to bulimia, to some addicting habit. Laval and I fell into the temptation of falling in love. A classic, it would seem, in such a place. During the six weeks of the program we passed through Copenhagen’s parks on buses and bikes, went to bars and museums, attended operas and several concerts. But mostly we were intent on getting to know each other as much as possible in that limited amount of time. When you know a relationship is fated to end on a given day it is easy to let fall the walls you put up to protect yourself. We are more benign, more indulgent with someone who will soon cease to be there than with those who take shape as long-term partners. No fault, no defect deters us, as we won’t have to stand it in the future. When a relationship has an expiration date as clear as ours had, there’s no wasting time on judging the other person. The only thing you focus on is enjoying their best qualities, fully, urgently, voraciously, as time is not on your side. At least that is what happened to Philippe and me during that residency. His infinite quirks when it came to work, to sleep, and to organizing his room amused me. His phobia of sickness and every type of contagion, his chronic insomnia, melted me and made me want to protect him. The same happened to him with my obsessions, my fears, my own insomnia, and my constant frustration with my music. Still, I should say that it was also a time of great creativity. If I had noticed in my CD recorded months earlier in Copenhagen a certain stiffness, a certain horological precision, then now my music had more flow and greater presence. Not the strict vigilance of someone who fears making a mistake, but rather the abandon and spontaneity of someone who thoroughly enjoys what she is doing. There is, luckily, some evidence of that favored moment in my career. In addition to the recordings required by our host institution, I did three radio programs that I hold as proof of my greatest personal achievements. Laval conducted two concerts at the Royal Danish Theatre, both awe-inspiring. The audience gave him a standing ovation that lasted several minutes and, after the event, the musicians professed it had been an honor to share the stage with him. Having followed closely his development since then, I can attest that the month and a half he spent in that city marked one of the best—if not the very best— moments in his entire career. Yes, he established himself later on, but it is enough to listen to the recordings from those weeks to realize that within them there is an extraordinary emotional transparency.
Like me, Laval was married. Waiting for him in a chalet outside of Brussels were his wife and daughters, three blond, round-faced girls whose treasured photographs he kept in his phone. We preferred not to speak too much about our respective relationships. Despite what one might think, in that state of exceptional bliss there was no space for guilt or fear of what would happen later, when we returned to our worlds. There was no time but the present. It was like living in a parallel dimension. Whoever has not been through something similar will think I am coming up with these failed metaphors to justify myself. Those who have will know exactly what I’m talking about.
The residency ended in late September and we returned to our respective countries. At first it felt good to be home and to get back to our daily lives. But, speaking for myself, I did not return to the same place I had left. To begin with, Mauricio was out of town. A work trip had taken him to Laredo. His absence couldn’t have been better for me; it gave me enough time to refamiliarize myself with the apartment and my normal life. It’s true that, for example, in my study things were intact; the books and CDs in their places, my music stand and sheet music covered by a layer of dust barely thicker than when I’d left. But the way I was in my home, in every space and even in my own body, had changed, and even though I wasn’t aware of it then there was no going back. During the first days I still carried on me the scent and taste of Philippe. More often than I would have liked they rushed over me like crushing waves. Despite my efforts to maintain composure, none of it left me unaffected. Once I’d given in to those feelings described, they were followed by those of being lost, of longing, and then by guilt for reacting that way. I wanted my life to go on as it always had, not because it was my only option, but because I liked it. I chose it every morning when I woke up in my bedroom, in the bed I had shared with my husband for over ten years. That is what I chose, not the sensorial tsunamis and not the memories that, had I been able to, I would have eradicated forever. But my will was an inadequate antidote to the pull of Philippe.
Mauricio came home on a Saturday at noon, before I’d been able to sort my feelings out. He brought me relief, like the boat you find in the middle of a storm that will save you from the shipwreck. We spent the weekend together. We went to the movies and the supermarket. On Sunday we had breakfast at one of our favorite restaurants. We told each other the details of our trips and the annoyances of our respective flights. In these days of reacquainting I wondered more than once if I should explain to him what had happened with Laval. It troubled me to hide things from him, especially things so serious. I had never done it before. I realized that I needed his absolution and, if it were possible, his advice. But I preferred not to say anything for the time being. Greater than my need to be honest was my fear of hurting him, of something between us rupturing. On Monday we both returned to work. The memories continued their attack on me but I managed, rather adeptly, to keep them at bay until Laval reappeared two weeks later.
One afternoon I got a long-distance phone call from a blocked number. My heart started beating faster before I picked up. I lifted the receiver and, after a brief silence, I recognized Laval’s Amati on the other end of the line. Hearing him play from thousands of miles away, being in my own home, it tore open what I had tried so hard to heal. That call, seemingly harmless, brought Philippe into a place where he didn’t belong. What did he want, calling like that? Probably to reestablish contact, to show me that he still thought of me, that his feelings for me still burned. Nothing explicit, and yet, so much more than my emotional stability could take. There was a second call, this time with his own voice, made, he said, from a phone booth two blocks from his house. He told me what his music already had: he still thought about us and was having trouble breaking free. He talked and talked for several minutes, until he’d used up all the credit he’d put in the phone. I barely had enough time to make two important things clear to him: first, everything he was feeling was mutual; and second, I didn’t want him calling my house again. Laval exchanged phone calls for e-mails and text messages. He wrote in the morning and at night, telling me all kinds of things, from how he was feeling to what he’d had for lunch and dinner. He gave me reports on his outings and work events, on what his daughters were doing and when they got sick, but most of all—and this was the hardest part—he gave me in-depth descriptions of his desire. So it was as if the parallel dimension, which I believed to be suspended indefinitely, not only opened up again, but began to become everyday, stealing space from the tangible reality of my life, from which I became increasingly absent. Bit by bit I learned his routines, when he took his daughters to school, the days he stayed home and those when he went into town. The exchange of messages gave me access to his world and, by asking questions, Laval was able to open up a similar space in my own existence. I’d always been a person who often daydreamed but because of him this tendency increased dramatically. If before I had lived 70 percent of the time in reality and 30 in my imagination, that ratio did a complete reversal. It got to the point that everyone who came into contact with me began to worry, including Mauricio, who I suspect already harbored some notion of what was going on.
I was becoming addicted to my correspondence with Laval, to this interminable conversation, and to thinking of it as the most intense and essential part of my daily life. When for some reason it took longer than usual for him to write or it wasn’t possible for him to immediately respond to my messages, my body exhibited obvious signs of anxiety: clenched jaw, sweaty palms, leg twitches. If before, especially in Copenhagen, we almost never spoke about our respective spouses, that restriction ceased to be enforced in a long-distance dialogue. Our marriages became objects of daily voyeurism. At first we only told each other about our partners’ suspicions and worries; then about our arguments with and judgments of them; but so too about the gestures of affection they showed us to justify, to the other and to us, their determination to remain married. Unlike me, who lived in a calm and taciturn marriage, Laval was not happy with his wife. At least that’s what he told me. Their relationship, which had already gone on for over eighteen years, had been for the vast majority of that time a living hell. Catherine, his wife, did nothing but demand his attention and intensive care and would unleash upon him her uncontrollable violence. It was unbearably sad to think of Laval living in such a situation. It was unbearably sad to imagine him, for example, stuck in the house on a Sunday, enduring the screaming and the accusations as the interminable Brussels rain fell outside. But Laval wouldn’t think of leaving his family. He had resigned himself to living that way to the end of his days and I should say that that resignation, though incomprehensible, suited me. I didn’t want to leave Mauricio either.
After three months of messages and occasional phone calls, we finally settled into a routine I felt more or less comfortable with. Even though my attention, or what remained of it, was on Laval’s virtual presence, my daily life began to be tolerable, even enjoyable, until the possibility of seeing each other again arose. As I mentioned, every three months Laval traveled to Vancouver and on his next trip, post-Copenhagen, it occurred to him we could meet there. It would be easy enough for him to secure an official invitation from the school for me to lead a very well-paid workshop during the same days he’d have to be there that winter.
The idea, if extremely dangerous, could not have been more tempting and it was impossible to say no, even knowing that it threatened the precarious balance we had found.
So we saw each other in Canada. It was an incredible three-day trip surrounded once again by lakes and forests. The same thing we had felt during the residency again took root between us, only this time it was more urgent, more concentrated. We declined social obligations as far as it was possible. Whenever we were not working we were alone in his room, rediscovering in every way imaginable the other’s body, the other’s reactions and moods, as if returning to a familiar land you never want to leave again. We also spoke a lot about what was happening between us, about the joy and novelty this encounter had added to our lives. We came to the conclusion that happiness can be found beyond conventionality, in the narrow space that our familial situations as much as geographical distance had condemned us to.
After Vancouver we saw each other in the Hamptons; months later at the Berlin Festival of Chamber Music; then at the festival held in Ambronay for ancient music. Philippe had orchestrated every one of these encounters. And still, all the time we spent together was never enough for us. Each return was, at least for me, more difficult than the last. My distractedness was worse and much more obvious than when I came home from Denmark; I it became impossible for me to live with my husband. Reality, which I was no longer interested in holding up, began to crumble like an abandoned building. I might never have noticed were it not for a call from my mother-in-law that drew me out of my lethargy. She had spoken to Mauricio and was very worried.
“If you’re in love with another man, it’s slipping through your fingers,” she said to me with the bluntness she was known for. “You do whatever you have to to get it under control.”
Her comment fell on absent but not deaf ears.
One afternoon Mauricio came home from work early to the sound of a Chopin piece for piano and violin that Laval had performed ten years before. A CD I’d never played in his presence. I don’t know if it was the look of surprise on my face to see him home or if he had decided beforehand, but that day he interrogated me about my feelings. I wanted to give his questions honest answers. I wanted to tell him of my conflicts and my fears. I wanted most of all to tell him what I had been suffering. However, all I could do was lie. Why? Maybe because it pained me to betray someone whom I continued to love deeply, but in a different way; maybe I was scared of how he would react, or because I clung to the hope that, sooner or later, things would go back to the way they were. Mauricio’s mother was right: I was losing my grip on the affair.
After turning it over in my mind, I decided to call off the next trip and put all my energy into distancing myself from Laval. I wrote to him explaining the state of things and I asked his help in recovering the life that was dissolving before my eyes. My decision upset him but he understood.
Two weeks went by without any kind of contact between Laval and me. However, when two people think constantly of each other there grows between them a bond that transcends orthodox means of communication. Even though I was determined to forget him, or at least to not think of him with the same intensity, my body rebelled against that plan and started manifesting its own volition through feelings, physical and, of course, uncontrollable.
I first felt a soft itch in my crotch. But when I inspected the area several times I didn’t see anything and gave up. After a few weeks the itch, faint at first, barely noticeable, became intolerable. No matter the time of day, no matter where I was, I felt my sex, and feeling it inevitably meant also thinking of Philippe. I received his first message about it around that time. An e-mail, concise and alarmed, in which he swore that he’d contracted something serious, probably herpes, syphilis, or some other venereal disease, and he wanted to warn me so that I could take the necessary precautions. That was Philippe, tout craché, as they say in his language, and that was the classic reaction of someone given to hypochondria. The message changed my perspective: if we both had the symptoms, then most likely the same thing afflicted us both. Not a serious illness as he thought but maybe a fungus. Fungi itch; if they are deeply rooted, they can even hurt. They make us always aware of the body part where they have grown and that was exactly what was happening to us. I tried to assure him with affectionate messages. Before resuming our silence, we agreed to see doctors in our respective cities.
The diagnosis I got was just what I’d suspected. According to my gynecologist, a change in my mucus acidity had fostered the appearance of the microorganisms and simply applying a cream for five days would eradicate them. Knowing this did not calm me. Far from it. To think that some living thing had grown on our bodies precisely where the absence of the other was most evident astonished and rattled me. The fungus bound me to Philippe even more. Though at first I applied the prescribed medicine punctually and diligently, I soon stopped the treatment; I’d developed a fondness for the shared fungus and a sense of ownership. To go on poisoning it was to mutilate an important part of myself. The itch became, if not pleasurable, at least as soothing as the next best thing. It allowed me to feel Philippe on my own body and imagine with such accuracy what was happening to his. That’s why I decided not only to preserve the fungus, but also to take care of it, the way that some people cultivate a small garden. After some time, as it grew stronger, the fungus started to become visible. The first thing I noticed was white dots that, upon maturing, turned into small bumps, smooth in texture and perfectly round. I came to have dozens of those little heads on my body. I spent hours naked, pleased to see that they had grown over the surface of my labia in their path toward my groin. All the while I imagined Philippe doing all he could, to no end, to get rid of his own strand. I discovered I was wrong when one day I received an e-mail in my inbox: “My fungus wants one thing only: to see you again.”
The time I had before dedicated to communicating with Laval I now devoted to thinking about the fungus. I remembered my mother’s, which I’d all but erased from my memory, and I began to read about those strange beings, akin in appearance to the vegetable kingdom but clinging to life and to a host, and cannot but be near us. I found out for example that organisms with very diverse life dynamics can be classified as fungi. There exist around a million and a half species, of which a hundred thousand have been studied. I realized that something similar happens with emotions: very different kinds of feelings—often symbiotic—are identified by the word love. Loves are often born unforeseen, of spontaneous conception. One evening we suspect their existence because of some barely noticeable itch, and by the next day we realize they have already settled into us in such a way that if it is not permanent, it at least seems to be. Eradicating a fungus can be as complicated as ending an unwanted relationship. My mother knew all about it. Her fungus loved her body and needed it in the same way that the organism that had sprouted between Laval and me was reclaiming the missing territory.
I was wrong to think that when I stopped writing to him, I would detach myself from Laval. I was also wrong to believe that that sacrifice would be enough to get my husband back. Our relationship never came back to life. Mauricio left discreetly, no fuss of any kind. He started by not coming home one night out of three and then extended his periods of desertion. Such was my absence from our common space that, although I could not help noticing it, neither could I do anything to stop him. I still wonder today if, had I tried harder, it would have been possible to reestablish the ties that had dissolved between us. I am certain that Mauricio discussed the circumstances of our divorce with very few of our friends. However, those people spoke to others and the information reached our relatives and closest friends. There were even people who felt authorized to express to me their support or disapproval, which angered me to no end. Some told me, as consolation, that “things happen for a reason”; that they had seen it coming and that the separation was necessary, as much for my own growth as for Mauricio’s. Others claimed that for several years my husband had maintained a relationship with a young musician and that I should not feel guilty. This latter part had never been proven. Far from calming me, the comments did nothing but increase my feeling of abandonment and isolation. My life had not only ceased to be mine, it had become fodder for others’ discussions. For that reason I couldn’t stand to see anybody. But neither did I like being alone. If I’d had children it probably would have been different. A child would have been a very strong anchor in the tangible and quotidian world. I would have been attentive to the child and its needs. A child would have brought joy to my life with that unconditional affection I was so badly in need of. But besides my mother, who was always so busy with her work, in my life there was only the violin and the violin was Laval. When I finally decided to seek him out, Philippe not only resumed contact as enthusiastic as ever, he was even more supportive than before. He called and wrote several times a day, listened to my doubts, gave me encouragement and advice. Nobody was as involved in my psychological recovery as he was in those first months. His calls and our virtual conversations became my only enjoyable contact with another human being.
Unlike my mother during my childhood, I decided to remain with the fungus forever. To live with a parasite is to accept the occupation. Any parasite, as harmless as it may be, has the uncontainable need to spread. It is important to limit it, or else it will invade us entirely. I, for example, have not allowed mine to reach my groin, nor any other part beyond my crotch. Philippe has adopted an attitude toward me similar to mine toward the fungus. He never allows me beyond my territory. He calls my home whenever he needs to but I cannot, under any circumstance, call his. It is he who decides when and where we meet and who always cancels our trips if his wife or daughters mess up our plans. In his life, I am an infallible ghost he can summon. In mine, he is a free spirit that sometimes appears. Parasites—I understand this now—we are unsatisfied beings by nature. Neither the nourishment nor the attention we receive will ever be enough. The secrecy that ensures our survival often frustrates us. We live in a state of constant sadness. They say that to the brain, the smell of dampness and the smell of depression are very similar. I do not doubt it’s true. Whenever the anguish builds in my chest, I take refuge in Laval, like turning to a psychologist or a sedative. And though not always immediately, he almost never refuses me. Nevertheless, as to be expected, Philippe cannot stand my neediness. Nobody likes to be invaded. He already has too much pressure at home to tolerate this scared and pained woman he has turned me into, so different from the one he met in Copenhagen. We have seen each other again a few times, but the trysts are not like before. He’s scared too. His responsibility in my new life is weighing him down and he reads, even in my most innocent remarks, the plea for him to leave his wife. I realize this. That is why I have lessened, at the cost of my health, my imploring. But my need remains bottomless.
It’s been more than two years since I assumed the nature of an invisible being, which barely has a life of its own, that feeds on memories, on fleeting encounters in whatever part of the world, or on what I am able to steal from another organism that I yearn for to be mine and in no way is. I still play music but everything I play seems like Laval, sounds like him, like a distorted copy nobody cares about. I don’t know how long it’s possible to live like this. But I do know that some people do for years and that in this dimension they are able to build families, entire colonies of fungi spread far and wide that live in secrecy and then one day, just when the infested being dies, raise their head during the funeral and make themselves known. That will not be me. My body is infertile. Laval will have no descendants with me. Sometimes I think I catch, in his face or the tone of his voice, a certain annoyance similar to the repulsion my mother felt for her yellowed toe. So despite my enormous need for attention I do everything I can to come off inconspicuous, so that he thinks of my presence only when he desires or needs it. I can’t complain. My life is tenuous but I do not want for nourishment, even though it comes one drop at a time. The rest of the time I live locked up and motionless in my apartment where I have barely raised the blinds in the past few months. I like the dimness and the dampness of the walls. I spend a lot of time touching the cavity of my genitalia—that crippled pet I glimpsed as a child— where my fingers awaken the notes Laval has left there. I’ll stay like this as long as he lets me, forever confined to one piece of his life or until I find the medicine that, at last, once and for all, frees us both.
*Copyright © 2013 by Guadalupe Nettel, c/o Guillermo Schavelzon & Asoc., Agencia Literaria, www.schavelzon.com.
*English translation copyright © 2014 by J. T. Lichtenstein.
How could Edgardo have hunted an animal if he didn’t even know how to love, much less kill. He’d become a useless idler, sitting all day in front of the television set or on the computer raising cattle, setting up cities, conquering nations, stealing gold, feeding entire zoos while the yard was overrun by weeds. How could he have killed an animal if he only killed monsters and mutants by way of cables and a keyboard. But all of a sudden in real life, killing a creature as tough as that one? It was incredible.
He entered the kitchen drenched in sweat that morning very early and threw it on the table. The shell slid across the old Formica top, and he, changing his voice, imitating I’m not really sure who, said to me, “Here, woman, cook it up.” The animal had its eyes closed. I thought it was alive, and I screamed as soon as I saw it there on the kitchen table, loose dirt on its paws.
“Get that creature out of here,” I said angrily, but Edgardo, triumphant, playing the role of hunter, just laughed with his hands on his hips as if he were wearing two silver pistols, a cowboy like the ones he’d admired so much in his childhood. Or one of his electronic avatars that he dressed up to go out shooting in the alleyways of virtual cities. He was playing his part. Ha, ha, ha, he laughed falsely. I’d stopped screaming when he turned around, a cowboy who’d just won a duel, and returned to the yard to continue his battle with the weeds. He’d finally decided to clear the ground, to abandon his games momentarily.
In this game I was his opponent, and I’d lost. My punishment was the animal, hard as a battle tank, resting on the table. It was as if he’d said to me, Oh, didn’t you want to live in the country? As if he’d shouted at me, Didn’t you want to return to your hometown? Then I told myself that the duel wasn’t over, and I remembered Antonia’s stories as she’d prepared the animals that my dad brought in from the woods, so many years ago in this same house. Antonia’s large hands cutting their throats, removing their skin, ripping out their long intestines like an infinite piece of bubble gum. I played with that bubble gum and with the little hearts until one day it all started to disgust me. At a certain age we became aware that they were the bowels of the animals, the ones Dad used to kill by shooting, stabbing, or bludgeoning them. From then on I told myself that I’d only eat chicken breasts, meat butchered by other people, placed in white trays and covered in sheets of transparent plastic. Pink breasts, thin, soft, with all vestiges of blood and guts cleaned and boiled away. Any traces of savageness erased by bleach and hormones. My life in the city was a life of chicken breasts until they stopped selling them, or until we couldn’t buy them anymore, it’s the same thing. Edgardo lost his job, and I was too fat for the catwalk or photo shoots, no one remembered that I had almost won Miss Venezuela. Then began our decline. The punishment for having insisted on returning to this town was having to give up the fillets butchered by others or an imposed macrobiotic diet. Having to face this armored animal.
The duel was not over, I told myself, and I took the horrible animal over to the sink. Determined to defeat him, I stabbed at it with the biggest knife in the kitchen, making it impossible to tell whether the poor creature showed signs of previous violence. How had Edgardo killed it if he didn’t have guns, or knives, or clubs, just a rusty rake and a machete that he barely knew how to use to cut back the brush?
I saw him go back to the end of the yard, near the ravine. I saw through the window that he’d abandoned his role of macho hunter and reassumed the role of farmer, rake and machete in hand. He disappeared from my view around the spot where we were supposed to build the shacks for the mushrooms or anything else we could sell. The idea had been to grow some crop and sell it, but with my drowsiness from the pills and his non-stop games the days passed quickly. Pills for sleeping, pills to wake up, to keep from eating, laxatives, birth control. Games of building, destroying, devastating, and killing. The blood spurted out, thick like oil, I remember. Black. The shell cracked much more easily than I thought it would. The little eyes remained closed as if nothing had happened. My hands were guided by my memory, by my images of Antonia cutting the throats of animals. The rest, I don’t remember. The guts and all that . . . Just the pleasure, the wet sensation of the meat inside. A warmth that took me straight back to my childhood. It wasn’t blood, no, it was the little hearts beating in the palms of my little hands.
I looked at the sink splattered with blackish red, and I wondered how, dear God, Edgardo could’ve killed an animal like this if he couldn’t even pull the weeds that threatened to strangle us all, his son who’d come for the weekend included. Toño had come under obligation. After a two-hour trip, his mother dropped him off with his little backpack. He got out of the car wearing headphones and that eternal look of disdain. Edgardo asked him to at least take off the headphones to say hello. He was thirteen, and he wasn’t at all pleased to be trapped in the country with us. He was bored.
“Let him help you in the yard,” I said.
“What are you thinking?” he said as if the suggestion was monstrous, as if the most natural thing would be for Toño to shut himself away with his games and messages. “I’ll find someone local,” he continued before going to the end of the lot where the abyss of the valley began. Why had that kid even come? He continued his routine of games and messages as if he weren’t even here, while his father broke his back clearing the ground.
The duel was not over, I told myself as I cleaned the purple meat. Yes, I’d wanted to come, to leave behind the mediocrity of Maturín, that rainy city that didn’t have anything to offer us, I told myself as I placed the meat in a white nest of salt and tried to remember the recipe. Edgardo had accepted without any objection: he thought growing mushrooms was the business opportunity of the century: all you needed was manure and some cold damp shacks. The weather would take care of the rest, the cold air that blew between the mountain and the valley. He didn’t think twice when I suggested we move here, and he immediately had the idea to grow mushrooms.
He’d never liked the town, it was true. In the pharmacy where I bought my pills they always had Pink Floyd playing as background music, and Edgardo thought that was a bad sign. In the movie that he directed in his head we were a couple of city folks who’d come to a godforsaken town. Soon blood would spurt from the faucets or things of that nature. It’s not normal, he’d said, that music and all the bottles of aspirin. Just because of Pink Floyd in the pharmacy and the pharmacist ready to sell us any kind of pills without a prescription, Edgardo began to presage our ruin. He put off the mushrooms. However, he hadn’t looked closely at that animal he’d found as he cleaned the leaves and brush. He hadn’t noticed that its little eyes were already closed. I’m certain that it was not killed by Edgardo’s hands, delicate hands accustomed only to the keyboard and the remote control.
I baked the animal in the oven and not like Dad would’ve done it, out there, on the grill that was now knitted with vines.
In the movie I’d begun directing in my head, the vines would knit itself around our arms and legs until we were no longer able to leave the house, also knitted over with green. We wouldn’t die of starvation but of withdrawal. Withdrawal from Lexotanil or some other tranquilizer; from Age of Empires or some other computer game. Knitted in. Toño wouldn’t even realize it thanks to his headphones, the messages he constantly sent and received, because he was capable of entering such a state of absorption that hunger or any other need could be ignored or even made to disappear. However, as soon as I called him to eat that day at lunchtime, he came running.
“The power’s out,” he said, and that explained everything.
The spot where the shacks for the mushrooms would be built had been halfheartedly raked, but Edgardo looked like someone who’d cleared an entire hectare with his bare hands. He was sitting on a rock continuously wiping away sweat with the sleeve of his shirt, his back curved and a vacant look in his eyes. The solitary cowboy had been stripped down, and he was now just solitary. I didn’t say anything to him, and he didn’t talk to me either, his exhaustion making him unable to speak. I handed him a bottle of water and laid the foundation for my victory: a tablecloth spread across the ground, the silverware, a bottle of juice, and in the center the trophy. The meat gleaming on the plate, along with rice and plantain. With my hands on my waist, as if in place of these wide hips I had a pair of silver pistols, triumphant, I said, “Come on, man, eat.”
I’d wanted land, yes. I’d wanted to return to the town where I’d been born.
The farmer, Edgardo that is, wiped the sweat off his forehead, stamped a grudging smile on his face and sat down. We looked like the happy couple inside the farm game. He began to eat with a hunger earned through physical labor. He’d never eaten like that, not even in his days as an accountant, not even in his nights as a strategic builder of civilizations. I’d never cooked with more zest, not even in my days as a bulimic or my nights as an anorexic.
I sat on his rock as he tasted the first bites. I looked at him without looking at him because, in reality, my eyes were seeing Antonia’s hands, her large frame walking this same lot, hanging clothes, butchering Dad’s animals, telling us stories all the while. Her stories weren’t about ghosts but about death, poisonings, abortions. Mom forbade us to listen to her, but it was impossible to pull ourselves away from her skirts. Antonia, her hands, her stories, and her recipes. When he was finally able to speak, Edgardo asked me if I was going to eat.
“I’m on a diet,” I said.
“You and your endless diets,” he said and continued eating.
I decided to leave before the illusion of the happy couple came crashing down again with one of my outbursts. I wanted to say, And you, you’re OK with your belly hanging out? but instead I said, “I’m going in. I have to give Toño his lunch.”
He wanted to say, What good do your diets do? but instead he said, “A boy I hired is coming to help me finish clearing.” Maybe he wanted to say what he said. Maybe it was true that I was always putting words in his mouth, sentences that he hadn’t even thought of. What was certain was that without the cowboy gestures Edgardo looked like a third-rate actor and anything he said would’ve sounded insincere.
Back inside, I served Toño a full plate. The power’s out, he said before sitting and eating his lunch in silence. The only thing on the table was his plate. Edgardo ate at the end of the yard; he’d probably already finished, and I wasn’t planning to try a single mouthful of that animal. Toño ate without asking what it was he was eating. So distracted that he probably thought it was pork as he took hasty bites so that he could return again to his world. He’d brought a load of batteries just in case, he said.
The sink still had blood in it, little droplets that had splattered here and there, that hadn’t been washed away by my initial cleaning. Blood wasn’t gushing from the faucets but from the animals found by chance. With a rag dipped in bleach I scrubbed away the hard, black blood. Time was a drop of coagulated blood, everything was still that day with the feel of something lying in wait, but nothing seemed out of the ordinary to me because that’s the way time was in the country. I’d always known that.
I’d defeated Edgardo and his animal. I’d gutted and cooked it, I’d erased the stains from the sink, I’d put the creature’s armor out to dry in the sun like Antonia would have. Toño finished eating and went back to his games or messages, his headphones, or his books. And I was debating whether to serve myself some of that meat or finish off a pack of chocolate chip cookies I had hidden at the back of the pantry, when a stranger came into the kitchen through the back door, which was always open. Covered in sweat, smelling like burnt wood, he shouted that Edgardo was dying, that we had to take him to the medic, fast. He barely paused between words, he could hardly breathe, his chest rose and fell violently. For a minute I couldn’t make sense of what I was hearing, I just asked myself who this man was, whether this might be a robbery, thinking that Toño with his headphones surely wouldn’t hear anything and they could kill me right here in the kitchen, take everything we have, and Toño and Edgardo wouldn’t hear a thing. The slamming door maybe.
The stranger tugged on my arm and repeated his rushed refrain. Suddenly the midday stillness was broken, my stomach closed up like a fist: no meat, no chocolate chip cookies. Run.
We ran to the cleared section of land. It was close to the house but it seemed so far away. Rocks, branches, and Antonia’s hands slowed me down. Words, warnings, the vine that quickly knitted itself around my legs. The stranger was much faster, agile, and he leaped over the uneven ground, the branches, the brush. Once near the rock beside which Edgardo’s body had fallen, he started to shout. He’s dead, I said to myself, and I stopped running. I looked down into the valley. The green bluffs, the disorderly orange trees, the mass of dry limbs.
The boy gestured for me to help him lift the body, shouted that we had to take him quickly, that it seemed like he’d been poisoned, to hurry.
“Come on, run,” he shouted waving his arms.
I couldn’t approach the fallen soldier, the cowboy slain by the poisoned arrow, the farmer attacked by wild animals. His body lying on the ground cleared for the mushrooms and the voice of Antonia warning my father: Only eat what you kill yourself. Don’t try to take advantage of death or of other people’s hunting.
How could Edgardo have hunted an animal if he didn’t even know how to love, much less kill. I should never have asked him to abandon his digital world and enter this land of dirt, shit, snakes, and weeds. I turned around instead of running to him. I thought of Toño, who no one would miss or look for in the house. He surely hadn’t heard the shouting, lost in his world. I wanted to find him, pull him from his room so he could help me with Edgardo, to save him, too. But my foot got caught, and I fell over the edge into the ravine, dragged down by the weight of the silver pistols.
We Weren’t actually at starvation’s door, although even that depends on how you look at it – the house was in ruins, windows missing, the living-room armchair shot to pieces, a crack in the wall, the kitchen a shambles, cupboards falling apart, furniture which had given up the ghost a long time ago – but I could smell it coming.
Apart from which my husband told me: “You’re a wreck.” This being the case, first thing in the morning I phoned and asked to speak to the editor-in-chief in charge of all the editors and chiefs and mentioned my full name – which is so long that it’s ridiculous.
I told him about myself and said that I had an unprecedented offer for which I wanted a four-figure sum, monthly.
I made an appointment with him in an air-conditioned cafe and pushed my way though crowds of people I didn’t know and who for some reason embarrassed me greatly. When the coffee arrived I explained my proposal to him.
“Listen to me,” I said to him, “and then say whatever you’ve got to say, I’m not listening anyway. I’ll just take in your tone, my feelers will grope for the gist of your reply – yes or no, and afterwards, sir, we’ll say goodbye, either forever or not.”
“I’m all ears,” he said.
“Let me have a car, let me have money, neither a little nor a lot – budget me – let me travel round and about the country. Yes, we’ll begin with round and about the country. Let me see what’s going on. Believe me, I haven’t left the house in years, I’m in urgent need of contact with the outside world. And I’ll pay it back, the outside world, by describing it with amazing accuracy, with flashes of brilliance. Let me travel, let me wander, and I’ll bring you a story a week, a thousand shekels a story.”
“Yes?” his eyebrows rose like two hills.
“Could you concentrate, please?”
“That’s my side of the bargain, and what do I get in return?”
“A story a week, weren’t you listening to me?”
“Certainly I was listening, that’s why I’m asking you what you’re giving me in return.”
“I don’t understand you.”
“That story’s for you – release, therapy, autotherapy, what do you want of me?”
“What kind of talk is that?”
“Sorry,” he said. “We don’t need a weekly story. Every day there are hundreds of stories and parts of stories in the newspapers. I’ve got reporters poking into the pockets of every Minister in the government, I don’t need a literary angle on plain reality.”
I called another newspaper and repeated my offer over the phone. I expanded it. After all, it wasn’t asking much and the rejection stung me. I said: “Let me travel round the world, with my daughter and my husband. I’m Orly, I’m a wreck. But I’ve got eyes, sir. A thousand shekels a story. And not a penny less. That’s my last word.”
He said: “Let’s see an example. Go to the refineries on your own account and bring me an example. Or not. Go wherever you like. Go to the Jordan valley, to Masada, to Arad, to the Dead Sea. Wherever you like.”
“Tell me, what is this? I’m not prepared for you to give me tests. Either you take me now as I am, or I’ll go to Avigdor from the rival paper, or somewhere else. Either sign me up on a blank contract with no strings attached or else,” and I took out a hammer and a rolling pin and banged on the table.
“Okay, okay,” he sighed,” let’s meet.”
We arranged to meet at a cafe on the promenade, next to the sea. I repeated my offer and the waiter came and removed the melon rinds and the remains of the salad.
The man sitting opposite me lit a cigarette and thought. In the meantime a few thoughts crossed my mind which I thought were quick-off-the-mark, but today I know they did me no good.
“Listen,” I said, “all I want is a page in your newspaper and a thousand shekels a story. Come on, give.”
He went on looking at the sea in silence. My wrinkles deepened. Five o’clock in the afternoon, the sun was directly opposite my face. I dried my sweat with a paper napkin.
“Well,” I said.
He shrugged his shoulders.
“What do I know.”
My worst fears were realized. I had made the man miserable. I had depressed him. The whole idea from beginning to end suddenly seemed futile to me, I asked him to forget the conversation had ever taken place. But he said that actually he liked my offer, and we should talk about it again in a couple of days time.
I walked up the steps to Hayarkon Street, and began going down all the streets perpendicular to the sea in the direction of Ibn Gvirol, the desolate street where the bus s.t.o.p. is situated. I stood at the bus stop and waited for a bus. When I got home I saw my husband watching a five by five video movie.
“Where is our daughter?” I asked.
“Sleeping,” he replied, and demanded a full account of the conversation.
I falsified everything on purpose, because I’d already forgotten what had happened, and immersed myself in the television set. My husband filled me in with regard to the plot and I asked questions and he answered them.
A few days passed and the man didn’t call. I personally wasn’t waiting for a call, but the economic situation was.
The bank clerk came for coffee at six o’clock on Wednesday evening and asked when we intended covering the overdraft.
“Never,” said my husband and stroked his cheek.
“Why don’t you shave?” she asked.
“I don’t like it.”
“You know,” she said to him, “you make awfully good coffee.”
He looked at me, because actually it was me who had made the coffee.
“She made it,” he said.
“So what?” she said.
“What?” I said.
“If there’s anything you want here,” said my husband with a smile, “take it – don’t be shy.”
“Really?” said the bank clerk.
“Take whatever you want.”
“Have you got a few crates?” she asked.
“Maybe the neighbours have,” I said.
“Why don’t you put your salary in the bank every month like everybody else?” she asked.
“I’ll tell you,” my husband began telling her, and hinted to me that I should make myself scarce. I took my daughter and went down to the woods. From there I went on with her to a cafe, and from there to the pub. The drink warmed my heart and I stopped wishing I was dead. My distress faded, I calmed down and hugged and kissed her and explained a few things to her from an objective point of view. She looked at me and I kept saying to myself that there was no other way, what other way could there be? My heart was like the skin of a camel, flat as a rug.
When we went home I saw the bank clerk’s ‘86 Fiat Uno driving off in the direction of the main road.
“Salamaat,” I said to her.
“Salaamtek,” I said to her again.
“Tislam, peace be with you, lady.”
I went inside, and I saw my husband standing there with his three brothers, all playing snooker.
“I got an extension of eight years,” said my husband. “In the meantime the interest will rocket, but who cares. In eight years time we’ll leave the country.”
His brothers looked daggers at me. They accused me of hypocrisy, of self-righteousness, of bad literature, of perversity.
I told them I agreed with every word they said, and I made tehina with lots of parsley. They all ate well, they finished the lot, they polished their plates clean, I didn’t even have to wash the dishes, I put them straight into the cupboard, and to hell with them.
It was a long night. I looked at the stars scattered over the sky like salt on my wounds. I prayed for redemption, for the Messiah to come. What’s going on here – I wondered. I’m not a woman, my husband’s not a man. Soon I’ll die, I’ll turn into a picture. Everyone will forget me and I’ll forget them.
I’ll go away, I’ll disappear, I’ll vamoose, I’ll evaporate. I’ll die. That’s it. Au revoir and goodbye. No more. When. Finito la comedia. Twenty years from now. I’ll die. I won’t exist. I love moments of fellowship between people, they move me to tears. But open moments, like my sitting here on the balcony, send me way off. I love these open moments, when the dome of the heavens really functions like a dome, they’re terrific.
*The story is published in cooperation with The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature
*Translation © The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature.
In my other life I lived in a suburb of Ohio or Michigan with Paul-Marc, my husband, and the child. The houses were planted on manicured lawns that stretched as far as the eye could see, circling an artificial lake, all of them were similar, nearly identical, manufactured on the same assembly line, with the same faux brick siding and grey gables, two front steps and a large wooden front door or was it faux-wood I couldn’t tell and in any case no one ever used the front door except when delivering groceries or take-out, everyone always used the garage door entry, which was also identical in every house, and every garage was equipped with a second refrigerator and had a side-door leading to the kitchen and various items stuck in that uncertain realm between utility and garbage, crammed in between the two cars.
The houses looked so much alike that when I took the child out in his stroller for a walk the first week we moved in, I couldn’t find my way back; I finally managed to recognize the house thanks to two old ladies who were still standing there with their dogs, chatting, when I returned. There were no fences and therefore the endless green grass was also everyone’s own private backyard and no one added much to it, as if all those miles of grass had suppressed their impulse to garden, at most there was a single tree, a shrub or two, or a few tulips in spring that needed to be sprayed with a smelly solution in order to keep the deer from eating them up. The deer were a real nuisance and once Paul-Marc almost ran one over, but the child was enthusiastic about them and about the squirrels and he would tirelessly point and call out: “Squiwel!”, “Mamby!”.
Sometimes at night, lying beside Paul-Marc who slept as if knocked unconscious after a long day at work and the commute, I would listen to the rain, fighting the urge to jump out of bed and go to the window to see whether it was real. The sound of the wind in the trees was wonderful until I realized it sounded precisely every 2:15 minutes and I also remembered that there weren’t enough trees outside to generate that sound, but I was afraid to get up because if I stepped on the laminated wood floor it would unavoidably creak twice on my way to the window, and wake the child, who could wake Paul-Marc, who needed to be up at five thirty a.m. for work. The monthly payments on our mortgage kept rising and were more than we had planned for, and I hadn’t returned to work after the child was born, in any case the cost of childcare would’ve swallowed up my paycheck and the child was better off with me than with a stranger during those early years.
I tried saving up by using coupons, buying things on sale, and special offers for Christmas and Thanksgiving, and once in a while I shopped online, without Paul-Marc’s knowledge, either ordering an item of clothing that was too tight – it’s hard to get the sizing right on the internet – or something too pretty that was left hanging in the closet, some fancy bath toy for the child, which admittedly, required removing other toys, but still, most definitely stirred up some excitement at least twice or three times, or kitchenware (only some of which ended up adding to the pile in the garage) and of course, plenty of beauty products which are so much cheaper online, especially if you buy one and get the second one half price, or buy two and get one free, shipping included.
I tried walking on the treadmill that I got from Wal-Mart – which was fairly expensive, but I explained to Paul-Marc (I couldn’t hide the treadmill) that eventually the investment would pay off, help me get back in shape, back to myself, back to work – but most of the time I sat in front of the tv, the couch too soft to get up from, and rocked the child’s stroller vigorously, to be honest, even when he wasn’t supposed to be sleeping, and watched fitness and healthy living programs with tips for well-being that I tried to commit to memory, most if not all of the commercials were for diet products and cosmetics that presented body and face as a battle there is no chance at winning, the most you can do is minimize the damage with the help of buy-one-get-the-second-half-off or buy- two-get one-free.
Apart from that I didn’t do much during the day, sometimes by the end of it I couldn’t recall a single real thing except for the sharp motion when rising from the couch and hitting “off” on the remote control while attempting to quickly quiet down the child as soon as I heard the garage door opening for Paul-Marc’s car, but the days slid through my fingers somehow and when the weather was decent I would go out with the child. Once I had settled in the neighborhood and took every possible route from the house to the artificial lake, I began to discern subtle differences between the houses, ones that indicated their financial states, for example, the families that were more well-off had built-in swimming pools, while the others had round plastic ones that were far cheaper but had other advantages, for example, you could take them with you when you moved. I got ours on sale at Amazon for only 299.99$ and it took Paul-Marc two weekends to install. For an extra 59.99$ you could add a safety fence for the pool but that made the whole deal a lot more expensive and as long as the child was small we didn’t find it necessary.
Alright. You don’t need to have read The Iliad or Crime and Punishment (in any case I hadn’t read them in my other life) in order to guess the end, to picture me staring at the tv then suddenly becoming aware of the strange silence or the strange lightness of the stroller that I’m still rocking, getting up from the couch and seeing the child gone, running up the stairs and not finding him in our bedroom or in his room or in the bathrooms, going downstairs again to the living room and suddenly spotting the open front door, I didn’t shut it after the grocery delivery, freezing in terror for a moment and then racing outside to the pool, seeing from afar, face-down, floating in the water, the worst sight I would ever witness in my entire life but still running – and sometimes I cannot bear such a cruel fate for my other life and I reach the pool, the scream still stuck in my throat, and I see a large stupid squirrel that fell in and drowned, his eyes open and his paws still outstretched, and Paul-Marc Jr. sitting on the grass and staring at me puzzled.
I was away from my children for a while. They’d gone to the seaside with my sister and my mother, I stayed in the city, my mother was angry at me because I wrote and showed myself nowhere often enough. I’d talk about work appointments, none of which existed. I lived in a small hotel whose caretaker reeked, the smell of her body and her dress had risen violently with the heat. I’d head to the office every day, but I worked very little, I mostly went to the office to pretend I was a man, I was tired of being a woman. Everyone seems to enjoy entertaining for a while a role that isn’t theirs, the role I played was that of a man, I’d sit at the filthy office table and eat at an osteria, lazily hang out on the streets and in cafés with friends, come home late at night. I’d surprise myself thinking how different my life had once been, when I cradled my children and I cooked and I washed, how there’s always so many ways to live, and each of us can make a new being of ourselves, at times even enemies of each other. Then I got bored of that new role I was playing too, I’d be living the same life without any of the pleasure in it. But I wouldn’t go to my mother’s, at the seaside, I wanted to be away from the kids, be alone: I thought I couldn’t show myself to them as I was at that moment, with that loathing in my heart, I felt like I’d loathe them too if I ended up seeing them. I often thought it was like elephants and how they hide away to die. They hide to die, they spend a long time in the jungle looking for a secluded spot, full of trees, to hide the shame of their big, tired body dying. It was summer, summer was hot, blazing in the big city, and whenever I cycled on the tarmac under the trees, my heart was choked by a feeling of loathing and love towards every road, every house of that city, and several memories were born of different natures, burning like the sun, as I fled, ringing my bell. Giovanna was waiting for me in a café: when I left the office, in the evening, and I’d sit next to her at the table, I’d show her my mother’s letters. She knew I wanted to die, that’s why we no longer had that much more to say to each other, but we still sat one opposite the other, smoking, blowing away the smoke through closed lips. I wanted to die because of a man, but also because of so many other things, because I owed my mother money, and because the caretaker stank, and because summer was hot, blazing, in the city full of memories and roads, and because I thought that I could be of no use to anyone, in that state.
So my children – just as they had lost their father one day – would also lose their mother but it didn’t matter, because the loathing and shame assault us at a certain moment in life, and no one has the power to help us when they do. It was a Sunday afternoon, I’d bought some sleeping pills from a pharmacy. I walked all day in the empty city, thinking about me and my children. Bit by bit I was losing awareness of their young age, the timbre of their young voices had died in me; I told them everything, about the pills and the elephants, of the caretaker and what they should do when they grew up, how to defend themselves from what would happen. But then I suddenly saw them as I had last seen them, on the floor, playing with bowling pins. And the echo of those thoughts and words resounded in the silence, I was stunned by seeing how alone I was, alone and free in the empty city, with the power to harm myself as much as I desired. I went home and took the pills, I dissolved all of their contents in a glass of water, I couldn’t figure out if I wanted to sleep for a very long time or die. The caretaker came the following morning, she found me asleep and after a while went to call for a doctor. I stayed in bed for a week, and Giovanna would come every day and she’d bring me oranges and ice. I’d tell her that those who have a loathing growing in their heart should not be alive, and she’d smoke in silence and watch me, blowing away the smoke through closed lips. Other friends would come too, and everyone gave me a piece of their mind, everyone wanted to teach me what I had to do now. But I’d reply that those who have a loathing growing in their heart should not be alive. Giovanna told me to leave the small hotel and move in with her for a while. She lived alone with a Danish girl who walked around the place barefoot. I didn’t feel like dying now, but I didn’t feel like living either, and I lazily hung out at the office or in the streets, with friends, people who wanted to teach me how to save myself. In the mornings, Giovanna would slip on a prune-coloured towelling robe, brush the hair away from her forehead and wave at me with disdain. In the mornings, the Danish girl would walk barefoot into the bedroom, and start writing all the dreams she’d had the previous night on a typewriter. One night she’d dreamt that she picked up an axe and killed her mother and father. But she really loved her mother and father. They were waiting for her in Copenhagen but she didn’t want to move back, because she said we all need to live away from our roots. She’d read out loud to us her mother’s letters. Giovanna’s mother had died and she had arrived too late to see her die, when she was still alive they had tried to no avail to talk to each other. I’d say that a mother is only needed by children when they’re small, to feed them and cradle them, but then she’s pointless and it’s pointless to talk to her. You can’t even tell her the simplest of things and so what can she do to help? She becomes a burden with that silence that is born out of trying to talk to each other. I’d say that my children no longer needed me, because they no longer needed to be fed and cradled, kids with dirty knees and patches on their shorts, and they weren’t old enough to be able to talk to each other either. But Giovanna would say that there’s only one good way to live, and it’s to get on a train headed to some foreign country, possibly at night. She had everything she needed for a trip at home, she had several thermos holders and many suitcases of all sorts, and even a sick bag for the plane. The Danish girl would tell me to write down my dreams, because our dreams tell us what we’re meant to do, and she’d tell me I should think back to my childhood and talk about it, because the secret of who we are is hidden in our childhood. But my childhood felt so remote and distant, and so remote was the face of my mother, and I was tired of all this thinking about myself, I wanted to look at others and understand what I was like. So I started watching people as I lazily hung out in cafés and on the streets, men and women with their children, maybe some of them had once had that loathing in their heart, then time had passed and they’d forgotten. Maybe someone had waited pointlessly on the corner of a street once, or someone had walked for a whole day in the silence of the dusty city, or someone looked at a dead person’s face and asked them for forgiveness. One day I got a letter from my mother, telling me that the kids had scarlet fever. And so the ancient motherly anxiety paralysed my heart. I took the train and left. Giovanna came with me to the station, and she smelled the smell of trains with desire, brushing the hair away from her forehead with her disdainful smile.
With my forehead stuck to the glass, I watched the city move further away, empty of any evil power by now, cold and harmless as spent embers. The ancient, known motherly anxiety was turmoiling inside me along with the thundering of the train, crushing like a storm the Danish girl, Giovanna, the small hotel’s caretaker, the sleeping pills and the elephants, as I wondered bemusedly to myself how I could’ve been so interested in such trivial things for a whole summer.
At the beginning of winter my father fell ill and took to his bed. He lay in bed for a long time with his bedroom door closed, and we would walk around the house on tiptoe so as not to disturb his rest.
A lot of people came to the house to inquire after my father’s health, but my mother refused to let them into his room, explaining that his sick heart needed rest and quiet. Once a woman we did not know came to the house. She handed my mother a woolen scarf and said:
“You don’t know me. Once I came to see the doctor with a high fever and a sore throat. He gave me medicine and also this scarf to wrap around my neck. He said that when you’re sick in winter you have to keep your throat warm. Now I’m well again and I want to return it to him. I owe him money too, but I haven’t got it now, and the doctor said I should pay when I can.”
That was typical of my father. Sometimes my mother would lose her temper and haul him over the coals for not only treating poor patients for nothing, but even giving away medicines for which he himself had paid the full price. “How do you think we’ll ever make a living”—she would say—“when the only patients we get are all poor people? In any case, people only know how to appreciate what they have to pay for.”
“God will help us,” my father would say serenely, “God helps those who place their trust in him.”
Mother told me that in the old country too father had been a poor man’s doctor, and there too he had never taken money from patients who could not afford to pay. “I remember,” she said, “how a fisherman once brought him three fish instead of money. It was on our betrothal day. His parents came to call on my family, and I cooked the fish for them. They said they had never tasted such delicious fish in their lives.”
Years later, when I grew up, I went to pay a visit to the old country, and in one of the small villages, in the district where my father had worked as a doctor, I met an old woman who said to me: “So you are his daughter. Of course I remember him. Yes, of course, it’s more than forty years ago, you’re right, how the time flies… but we still remember him, we still remember. How could we ever forget a doctor like him who never took money from the poor…”
At the beginning of that winter, when my father took ill, the rains stopped and in the afternoon, when I was doing my homework in the kitchen, my little brother went out to play in the yard.When darkness fell he would come in and play with his cars on the floor in the passage. At this hour the hall of our house would be empty of my father’s patients, who were now being treated by my mother, who was also a doctor. I would go and sit there, in mother’s big armchair, and read. Sometimes, after supper, my father would read aloud to us. We would go into his room for a few moments and he would ask us about our school work and look at my brother’s note-books, which were full of all the words he already knew how to write. When I said goodnight to him he would kiss me and stroke my hair.
At the end of the month of Tevet my father had begun to recover from his illness, and it was precisely then that the weather changed and heavy rains began to fall. It rained without stopping, day and night, and father said jokingly: “I get better, and the deluge comes.”
On the fourteenth of Shevat1 it was still raining, and my father, who was always worried about my health, said that he would not allow me to take part in the tree planting ceremony the next day. I was dying to take part in the ceremony because I had fallen in love with our new youth leader, Raffi. All day long I begged and pleaded with father, until in the end he gave in.
On the morning of Arbor Day it was still raining, and as I was about to leave the house my father said to me:
“Take another sweater and try not to get wet.”
A fine drizzle was falling on the mountainside, and as we walked to the spot where the ceremony was to take place my shoes got full of mud. Raffi was walking next to me and once my hand unintentionally touched his. A sweet feeling filled me for a moment.
When we reached the spot we were met by a man from the Jewish National Fund who told us that we were going to take part in the planting of a forest in honor of the Jewish martyrs. I saw boys and girls all over the mountainside with spades in their hands, planting saplings in basins of loose soil. When I planted my own little sapling and tightened the soil around it black earth stuck to my fingers. “Will my sapling live?” I Asked myself. An inexplicable dread suddenly took hold of me. My heart went out to Raffi, who was standing next to me planting a tree. Perhaps he would say something to comfort me. I straightened my back and looked in his direction. When my eyes met his he did not smile, and I knew that he would not be able to save me.
In the evening, when I came home, I saw my father sitting in his armchair in the hall. He smiled at me. I wanted to run up to him and kiss him, but something stopped me. It was a long time since he had sat in the armchair, and now I saw he was looking better.
On the days that followed the rain went on falling steadily. My father wandered around the house wrapped in his brown woolen dressing gown. He would often come into the kitchen, lean over my shoulder and peep into my exercise books.
Six rainy days went by, and on the seventh day after Arbor Day the sun came out. My father sat with us at the lunch table. He sang the blessing. When we had finished eating he went out to sit on the porch. The sun shone and a light breeze brought sweet scents from the orange groves. My mother sat next to my father and they spoke to each other.
I knew that soon my parents would be relieved of their worries about money. Soon, when my father was well again, he was going to get a job in the hospital.
I sat in the kitchen and did my homework. I soon tired and stood up. The sun had made my father’s cheeks pink and his eyes were shining, and when he smiled at me I forgot all my troubles.
“Have you finished?” he asked.
“I still have to write a composition in English,” I said.
“Go and do it then,” he said.
I moved my place from the kitchen to the hall. The window onto the porch was open and I could see my father and mother and hear them talking. Father said little and mother too fell silent. After a while, when I was absorbed in my composition, I suddenly heard my father say in a queer sounding voice: “I don’t feel well.”
As I was about to rise to my feet, overcome by panic, the door opened and I saw my father coming in, his hands clenched on his month, his back bent and his face very white. I saw my mother supporting him, leading him down the long passage to their room, and I went on standing rooted to the spot. Then I heard my mother’s voice from the other end of the house:
“Quick, run for the doctor!”
For a moment longer I went on standing there, seeing my father’s pale face before me, his eyes blank. Then I rushed into the yard, jumped onto my bicycle, and went to fetch the doctor. When he opened the door I couldn’t speak.
“Hurry, “ I stammered, “hurry…father…” and I raced away.
Instead of going straight home I rode to the wood at the top of the hill not far from our house. I sat down on a bench and my heart was empty. Afterwards I mounted my bike again, and as I rode past our house I saw the doctor crossing the yard on his way in and I knew that only a short time had passed. I was afraid to go home and I rode aimlessly up and down the village streets. In the end I landed up at the wood again and sat down on the bench. How long I sat there I don’t know, but by the time I came home the door of my parents’ room was closed. There was not a sound to be heard. I went into the kitchen and sat down by the table.
There were a few slices of bread lying on a plate. I took a slice and started eating it. After a while the door opened and the doctor came out. I heard the front door slam behind him. A little while later I heard the front door open and a woman neighbor came in, a friend of my mother’s.
“What’s happened?” she asked.
I said nothing.
Then the door of my parents’ room opened and my mother stood in the kitchen door. She looked at me and said:
“Your father is dead,” and then she turned to the neighbor woman and said in their language: “His beautiful daughter is fatherless now.” Then she turned back to me: “Come and see your father for the last time.”
My father’s eyes were closed. His face was blue and there was a faint smile on his lips. His face had never looked so beautiful and so kind as it did then.
When I left the room I went into the bathroom. My father’s brown dressing gown was hanging on a hook on the wall. I buried my head in the gown and kissed it. Afterwards I held the empty sleeves and stroked my face with the rough, warm wool. “I won’t cry, “I promised myself.
The next day a lot of people gathered in the yard of our house. Friends and relations, and my teachers and friends from school. And when the rabbi came they brought my little brother too. He walked with us after the coffin as far as the first synagogue on the way. There he said mourner’s kaddish and afterwards a friend of the family took him away.
My mother did not cry, and my eyes too were dry. Once my glance encountered Raffi, my youth leader, who was walking not far from me, and for a moment the sobs welled up in my throat. I remembered the sudden dread which had seized me when we were in the hills planting the trees, and again I said to myself that he would not be able to save me.
At the cemetery they tore my mother’s dress and mine too. Several people eulogized my father. The coffin was lowered into the hole and the people standing around took spades in their hands and earth fell onto the coffin and began covering it up. I copied my mother and bent down to the ground. My fist fastened round a little clod of earth, wet and black and sticky to the touch of my palm. A clod of earth from a hard land. Perhaps there was a seed in it and in the spring a flower would bloom on my father’s grave. And perhaps then too the little sapling I had planted on the hillside in memory of the martyrs would put out its leaves too. And I—would the ice in my heart ever thaw?
Yesterday the sun shone. A mild spring breeze brought sweet scents from the orange grove. My father sat on the porch of our house and said that soon it would be spring and that in the summer he would start work at the hospital. But now the earth was still muddy, for it had rained the whole month long: water flooded the land and the farmers rejoiced.
*The story is published in cooperation with The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature
*Translation © The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature.
When I think back on it, I feel like digging a hole in the ground and crawling right in. I want to crawl right in this minute, so I’m thinking back on it.
Someone once gave me this blue pill; God, what a feeling that was. He said, Down the gullet, so I downed the gullet, whatever that means. I downed that pill, and while I was doing this bummer trip, I followed a guy who told me to get lost on Melchet Street. It was getting late, and I was under the influence of that pill. I didn’t know exactly what belonged where, or whether all the knots I was seeing were causes that had become entangled in effects, or buses going uptown.
I downed that pill and waited downstairs for the guy. What a fuckup that turned out to be. He went and phoned his real girlfriend, who, as you can figure out, wasn’t me. He went and phoned her to tell her something. I waited downstairs – how embarrassing, how I’d let myself go. He came down and said: Listen, my real girlfriend doesn’t buy my story, so I’m off, bye. That was long ago; I was twenty-two and a half.
You leaving? I asked him, and he said he had to. You can just imagine what I felt like on Melchet Street back then. There wasn’t a drop of moisture left in my cheeks, just that slap in the face. How did I get home? Down the main road, I guess. I got my legs over to the main road and they took it from there.
I was consistently disoriented and lost in those days, so I figured I might as well be told to get lost and then drift on; I’d wind up somewhere eventually.
I let myself go, all the way home. Boy, what a downhill trip that was. Nobody saw me, I hope.
It’s been light years since then. Sometimes I still look around for the guy who told me to get lost. I want to tell him I was under the influence of that pill, and if there’s one thing I regret it’s that I wasn’t sober enough to tell him: “Mikey, you got a dime for my bus fare?”
Life is a snowball of lost meaning. I let myself go day by day, trying not to lose my innocence all at once, in a matter of days, but gradually, in a matter of years. My hourglass is running low, and I get it going again with sublime feelings of freedom and complacency. My sanity scores are playing tricks on me, and I don’t understand the rules of the game. One day I’m cool, and five minutes later I’m hypnosis or a talking extrasensory system – I’m not me any more; they call me all kinds of names, and I answer to all of them and none of them, or else I turn around just as suddenly when they call someone else.
*The story is published in cooperation with The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature
*Translation © The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature.
A Turkish philosopher from Istanbul once visited me in Berlin. He was only there for a few days. He looked at the street and said quietly, ‘I don’t think I could live here.’
Not the summer planes but the winter planes brought many people who were crying from Europe to Istanbul, crying because their fathers or mothers had died in Turkey. Three years ago, I was on a winter plane. Suddenly, a woman got up from her seat, threw herself on the floor of the plane and started wailing. All the people stood up.
‘What’s the matter?’
Two of the woman’s children had died in a car accident in Istanbul, and she had to go to the funeral. The stewardesses put her back in her seat, held her hand. The woman wailed, ‘Open the door. Throw me out. I want to look for them in heaven.’ She kept looking out of the window, as though she could see the dead in the sky.
‘Open the door.’
Then she looked at the other passengers behind her, as though she wanted them all to walk into the sky with her to look for her dead. She wanted the plane to move around like a car, left, right, back, forward, and look for the dead. But the plane flew straight ahead, as though pulled across the sky along a rail…
Back when I still lived in Istanbul, twenty-five years ago, I got on a ship one summer night, and it took me from the European side to the Asian side. The tea-sellers brought people tea, small change jingling in their pockets. The moon was huge, as though it lived only in the Istanbul sky, loved only Istanbul, and polished itself every day only for this city. Wherever it looked, all doors would instantly open to let the moon wax in. Wherever you touched, you touched the moon too. Everyone held a piece of moon in their hands. Now the moon lit up two faces next to me on the ship. A boy, a girl. He said, ‘So, you gave Mustafa your key too. I’m leaving. Goodbye.’ He leapt from the ship’s deck into the sea and dived into the moonlight. The ship was exactly mid-way between Asia and Europe. Not saying anything, the girl stayed in her seat in the moonshine. All the other people dashed to the ship’s rail, the boat leaned with the crowd, and the tea glasses also slid towards the rail on their saucers. The tea-seller shouted, ‘Tea money. Tea money.’ I asked the girl, ‘Is he a good swimmer?’ She nodded. The crew threw two lifebelts after the boy but he didn’t want a lifebelt. The ship turned and sailed after the boy, a rescue boat pulled him out of the sea. The moon watched everything that happened, and when the boy had to go to the captain with wet clothes and wet hair, the moon lit him up with a circle of light like a clown in the circus. The ship turned back towards the Asian side, the tea-sellers found their customers and collected up the change. The moon shone on the empty tea glasses, but suddenly the ship turned back for the European side, because it had left the lifebelts behind in the sea. And the moon was always there above Europe and Asia.
At the Istanbul airport, the people waited, a long corridor of people, some of them crying.
How many doors were there now in Istanbul? Twelve million people, how many doors did they open? And can the moonshine wax in under all the doors? Can the moon manage that?
When I was a child, four hundred thousand people lived in Istanbul.
Our neighbour Madame Atina (‘Athena’), one of Istanbul’s Greeks, used to pull back her aged cheeks and tape them in place behind her ears. I was supposed to help her with it. She told me, ‘I’m a Byzantine like the Hagia Sophia church, which was built in the time of the Byzantine emperor Constantine the Great, 326 A.D., a basilica with stone walls and a wooden roof. In the Hagia Sophia, the Byzantines believed they were closer to God than anywhere else, and I too believe I’m closer to the moon in Constantinople than anywhere else in the world.’ With the tape behind her ears, Madame Atina would go to the greengrocer’s. I’d go with her. She looked young with her cheeks pulled back so I walked quickly. She wanted to walk as quickly as me and sometimes she fell down on the street. The greengrocer was a Muslim, and he’d joke with Madame Atina, ‘Madame, a Muslim angel came, he put his finger in a hole in a pillar and turned the Hagia Sophia to face Mecca.’ I loved the Hagia Sophia; its floor was uneven and the walls sported frescoes of Christ without a cross, a muezzin sang the ezan from the minaret, and in the night the moon shone on Christ’s face and on the face of the muezzin.
One day, Madame Atina took the ship with me to the Asian part. I was seven years old. My mother said, ‘Look, the Greeks of Istanbul are the city’s salt and sugar.’ And Madame Atina showed me her own Istanbul. ‘Look at that little tower by the sea. The Byzantine emperor, who had received a prophecy that his daughter would be bitten by a snake and killed, had this Tower of Leandros (Maiden’s Tower) built and hid his daughter inside it. One day, the maiden longed for figs, so a basket of figs was brought to her from the city. She was bitten by a snake that had hidden in the basket, and she died.’ Madame Atina cupped my face in her hands and said, ‘My girl, with those beautiful eyes you’ll burn many men’s hearts.’ The sun lit up her red-painted fingernails, behind which I saw the Maiden’s Tower by the sea.
Then Madame Atina walked with me across the Bridge of the Golden Horn. As I walked across the low bridge that moved with the waves, I didn’t yet know that Leonardo da Vinci – the Ottomans called him Lecardo – had once written a letter to the sultan, on the 3rd of July 1503. The sultan wanted him to build a bridge across the Golden Horn, and Leonardo sent the sultan his suggestions in that letter. Another suggestion came from Michelangelo in 1504. But Michelangelo had a question: ‘If I were to build this bridge, would the sultan demand that I adopt the Muslim faith?’ The Franciscan abbot who discussed the sultan’s suggestion with Michelangelo said, ‘No, my son, I know Istanbul as well as Rome. I don’t know which city holds more sinners. The Ottoman sultan will never demand such a thing of you.’ Michelangelo couldn’t build the bridge in the end, though, because the pope threatened to excommunicate him. For centuries, the Ottomans didn’t build a bridge between the two European parts of Istanbul because Muslims lived in one and Jews, Greeks, and Armenians in the other. Only fishing boats ferried the people to and fro. It was Sultan Mahmut II (1808–1836) who wanted to bring Muslims and non-Muslims together at last in Istanbul and had the famous bridge built. Once it was finished, the fishermen beat at the bridge with sticks because it had taken away their work. The bridge became a stage: Jews, Turks, Greeks, Arabs, Albanians, Armenians, Europeans, Persians, Circassians, women, men, horses, donkeys, cows, hens, camels, they all walked across the bridge. One day there were two crazies, a woman and a man, both of them naked. The man stood at one end of the bridge, the woman at the other. She shouted, ‘From here on, Istanbul is mine.’ He shouted, ‘From here on, Constantinople is mine.’
At the airport, I took a taxi. Since Istanbul had become a city of twelve million, the taxi drivers would no longer find the addresses and they’d lose their tempers. ‘Madame, if you don’t know where you want to be driven, why did you get in my car?’ I wanted to go to a friend’s house, I no longer had a father and a mother to go to first.
Years ago, I had come to Istanbul once before on a winter plane to bury my parents, who had died three days apart. My mother was the first to go. My father had sat in his chair, the opposite chair empty. He took out a pair of false teeth with sheep’s cheese still stuck to them, and said, ‘Here, your mother’s false teeth.’ Two days later he died too, and his coffin stood on a raised stone slab for the dead in the mosque’s courtyard. There were two other coffins on the other slabs, and the mosque got the coffins mixed up. They didn’t know which dead man belonged to which family. At the cemetery, the gravediggers took the corpses, wrapped in shrouds, out of the coffins, and a man from each family – the women weren’t allowed to stand near the graves – had to see which of the dead belonged to them. My brother looked at the three dead men’s faces and said, ‘That’s our father.’
In the taxi, I now drove past the cemetery where my parents were buried. I couldn’t remember which grave was my father’s. All I knew was that you could see the sea from his grave. Since Istanbul has become a city of twelve million, the cemetery management has demanded that relatives buy up the graves, otherwise new dead are laid on top of the dead. At the time, my brother called me in Germany: ‘What shall we do? Buy the grave or let him get lost between the other dead?’
‘What do you think?’
‘We can let him lie with the other dead, that suits him better.’
As no one visits cemeteries in Istanbul, we didn’t mind where the dead would lie. The cemeteries are empty, the only quiet places in the city. As a young girl, I sometimes used to go to the cemeteries with a poet. He had written down what it said on the gravestones. He said, ‘These are people’s last words. There are no lies.’ He wanted to use those words in his poems.
Although no one visits cemeteries in Istanbul, every cemetery has its own crazy. They wander between the gravestones, and cats wander after them because they give the cats cheese and bread. At my parents’ cemetery, there were two crazies who lived there for years. One of them would always give the other a lira. One day, he gave him three lira instead of one. The other man got angry and said, ‘Why are you giving me three lira, I only want one lira.’
‘My son, have you not heard of inflation? Three lira is one lira now.’
The other man started to cry; his friend gave him a handkerchief.
The taxi driver couldn’t find my friend’s address and he broke out in a sweat. I gave him a paper tissue and said, ‘Drive me to the city centre.’ Thirty years ago, there was a film producer in Istanbul who only filmed sad stories. He knew all the viewers would cry, so he had handkerchiefs made out of the finest cotton. He stood outside the cinema himself and handed the handkerchiefs to the moviegoers. He laughed all the while. In those days, there was a famous cinema crazy in Istanbul, who especially admired a particular Turkish actor. Because that actor was killed in a film role, the crazy came to the cinema with a gun one evening and tried to kill the murderer before he could shoot – and fired six shots at the screen. Istanbul loves its crazies. The city gives them its breast and suckles them. It has been ruled by several crazy sultans. When a crazy comes along, Istanbul gives him a place.
I got out of the taxi right outside the cinema where the crazy once shot at the screen. Before I left for Berlin twenty-two years ago, I would often stand outside that cinema waiting for my friends.
Now I’m standing here again, looking at the faces of the people walking past. It looks like films from all different countries are being screened one over another. Humphrey Bogart is speaking to an Arabic woman, asking her the time. A Russian whore is speaking to a man who moves like Woody Allen.
I look for my friends from back then in these people’s faces, but I’m looking for them in the young faces of today, as though my friends hadn’t got older over these twenty-two years, as though they’d waited for me with their faces from back then. As though Istanbul had frozen to a photo at the moment I left for Europe, to wait for me – with all its baths, churches, mosques, sultans’ palaces, fountains, towers, Byzantine walls, bazaars, wooden houses, steel lanes, bridges, fig trees, slum houses, street cats, street dogs, lice, donkeys, wind, sea, seven hills, ships, crazies, dead, living, whores, poets, porters. As though Istanbul had waited for me with its millions of shoes, all waiting for morning in the houses, with its millions of combs left below mirrors spotted with shaving soap.
I’m here, so now all the windows will open. The women will call out to their friends from window to window. The basil plants in the flowerpots will give off their scent. The children of the poor will throw themselves into the Marmara Sea in their long cotton underpants to wash. All the ships between Asia and Europe will sound their horns. The cats will yowl for love on the roofs. The seven hills of Istanbul will awaken. The gypsy women will pick flowers there to sell in the city centre later on. The children will climb the fig trees. The birds will peck at the figs.
‘Mother, do you make fig jam from the male or the female fig trees?’
‘The male ones. Look, their figs are small and hard.’
In the tulip gardens at the sultan’s palace, the tortoises will walk around with lit candles on their shells, the tulips will bend their heads towards the sea in the wind, the tortoises’ candle lights will flicker in the same direction. The wind will push the ships along today and make them sail faster, the passengers will arrive home sooner. When the men are at home, the lights will go on across the seven hills. The fathers will wash their hands. Sounds of water. ‘My daughter, will you pass me a towel?’
Opposite the cinema were a few shops. Some of the shopkeepers recognized me and said hello; they all had white hair and white eyebrows.
Next to the cinema stood a poor man, perhaps a farmer, trying to photograph the people passing by with a Polaroid camera.
‘Photo souvenir of Istanbul, photo souvenir of Istanbul!’
I let him take my photo; the picture was blurred. ‘Take another picture.’
‘I haven’t any more film.’
A beggar woman took the photo out of my hand and said to the photographer, ‘You’re the artist, aren’t you, why didn’t you photograph this lady in front of McDonald’s?’
She looked closely at the photo and exclaimed, ‘Oh, how beautiful my treasure is, how beautiful.’
I thought she meant me, but there was a cat on the wall behind me in the photo. I was blurred but the cat was in focus.
Then I called the Turkish philosopher who didn’t want to live in Berlin.
‘Where are you?’
I took the ship over to him, to the Asian part of Istanbul. Sailing alongside the ship sailed a fishing boat transporting two horses. The moon shone on the faces of the horses, which were perfectly calm. I dipped my hands in the sea to touch a little moonshine; the moon looked suddenly like it had in my childhood – as though it lived only ever here in the Istanbul sky, as though it loved only Istanbul, and polished itself every day only for this city.
*This story is taken from: Der Hof im Spiegel by Emine Sevgi Özdamar. © Kiepenheuer & Witsch GmbH & Co. KG, Cologne/Germany.
The Short Story Project C | The Short Story Project INC 2018
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