This slender narrative has no pretensions to the regularity of a story, or the development of situations and feelings; it is but a slight sketch, delivered nearly as it was narrated to me by one of the humblest of the actors concerned: nor will I spin out a circumstance interesting principally from its singularity and truth, but narrate, as concisely as I can, how I was surprised on visiting what seemed a ruined tower, crowning a bleak promontory overhanging the sea, that flows between Wales and Ireland, to find that though the exterior preserved all the savage rudeness that betokened many a war with the elements, the interior was fitted up somewhat in the guise of a summer-house, for it was too small to deserve any other name. It consisted but of the ground-floor, which served as an entrance, and one room above, which was reached by a staircase made out of the thickness of the wall. This chamber was floored and carpeted, decorated with elegant furniture; and, above all, to attract the attention and excite curiosity, there hung over the chimney-piece – for to preserve the apartment from damp a fire-place had been built evidently since it had assumed a guise so dissimilar to the object of its construction – a picture simply painted in water-colours, which seemed more than any part of the adornments of the room to be at war with the rudeness of the building, the solitude in which it was placed, and the desolation of the surrounding scenery. This drawing represented a lovely girl in the very pride and bloom of youth; her dress was simple, in the fashion of the day – (remember, reader, I write at the beginning of the eighteenth century), her countenance was embellished by a look of mingled innocence and intelligence, to which was added the imprint of serenity of soul and natural cheerfulness. She was reading one of those folio romances which have so long been the delight of the enthusiastic and young; her mandoline was at her feet – her parroquet perched on a huge mirror near her; the arrangement of furniture and hangings gave token of a luxurious dwelling, and her attire also evidently that of home and privacy, yet bore with it an appearance of ease and girlish ornament, as if she wished to please. Beneath this picture was inscribed in golden letters, “The Invisible Girl.”
Rambling about a country nearly uninhabited, having lost my way, and being overtaken by a shower, I had lighted on this dreary looking tenement, which seemed to rock in the blast, and to be hung up there as the very symbol of desolation. I was gazing wistfully and cursing inwardly my stars which led me to a ruin that could afford no shelter, though the storm began to pelt more seriously than before, when I saw an old woman’s head popped out from a kind of loophole, and as suddenly withdrawn:–a minute after a feminine voice called to me from within, and penetrating a little brambly maze that skreened a door, which I had not before observed, so skilfully had the planter succeeded in concealing art with nature I found the good dame standing on the threshold and inviting me to take refuge within. “I had just come up from our cot hard by,” she said, “to look after the things, as I do every day, when the rain came on–will ye walk up till it is over?” I was about to observe that the cot hard by, at the venture of a few rain drops, was better than a ruined tower, and to ask my kind hostess whether “the things” were pigeons or crows that she was come to look after, when the matting of the floor and the carpeting of the staircase struck my eye. I was still more surprised when I saw the room above; and beyond all, the picture and its singular inscription, naming her invisible, whom the painter had coloured forth into very agreeable visibility, awakened my most lively curiosity: the result of this, of my exceeding politeness towards the old woman, and her own natural garrulity, was a kind of garbled narrative which my imagination eked out, and future inquiries rectified, till it assumed the following form.
Some years before in the afternoon of a September day, which, though tolerably fair, gave many tokens of a tempestuous evening, a gentleman arrived at a little coast town about ten miles from this place; he expressed his desire to hire a boat to carry him to the town of about fifteen miles further on the coast. The menaces which the sky held forth made the fishermen loathe to venture, till at length two, one the father of a numerous family, bribed by the bountiful reward the stranger promised–the other, the son of my hostess, induced by youthful daring, agreed to undertake the voyage. The wind was fair, and they hoped to make good way before nightfall, and to get into port ere the rising of the storm. They pushed off with good cheer, at least the fishermen did; as for the stranger, the deep mourning which he wore was not half so black as the melancholy that wrapt his mind. He looked as if he had never smiled–as if some unutterable thought, dark as night and bitter as death, had built its nest within his bosom, and brooded therein eternally; he did not mention his name; but one of the villagers recognised him as Henry Vernon, the son of a baronet who possessed a mansion about three miles distant from the town for which he was bound. This mansion was almost abandoned by the family; but Henry had, in a romantic fit, visited it about three years before, and Sir Peter had been down there during the previous spring for about a couple of months.
The boat did not make so much way as was expected; the breeze failed them as they got out to sea, and they were fain with oar as well as sail, to try to weather the promontory that jutted out between them and the spot they desired to reach. They were yet far distant when the shifting wind began to exert its strength, and to blow with violent though unequal puffs. Night came on pitchy dark, and the howling waves rose and broke with frightful violence, menacing to overwhelm the tiny bark that dared resist their fury. They were forced to lower every sail, and take to their oars; one man was obliged to bale out the water, and Vernon himself took an oar, and rowing with desperate energy, equalled the force of the more practised boatmen. There had been much talk between the sailors before the tempest came on; now, except a brief command, all were silent. One thought of his wife and children, and silently cursed the caprice of the stranger that endangered in its effects, not only his life, but their welfare; the other feared less, for he was a daring lad, but he worked hard, and had no time for speech; while Vernon bitterly regretting the thoughtlessness which had made him cause others to share a peril, unimportant as far as he himself was concerned, now tried to cheer them with a voice full of animation and courage, and now pulled yet more strongly at the oar he held. The only person who did not seem wholly intent on the work he was about, was the man who baled; every now and then he gazed intently round, as if the sea held afar off, on its tumultuous waste, some object that he strained his eyes to discern. But all was blank, except as the crests of the high waves showed themselves, or far out on the verge of the horizon, a kind of lifting of the clouds betokened greater violence for the blast. At length he exclaimed–”Yes, I see it!–the larboard oar!–now! if we can make yonder light, we are saved!” Both the rowers instinctively turned their heads,–but cheerless darkness answered their gaze.
“You cannot see it,” cried their companion, “but we are nearing it; and, please God, we shall outlive this night.” Soon he took the oar from Vernon’s hand, who, quite exhausted, was failing in his strokes. He rose and looked for the beacon which promised them safety;–it glimmered with so faint a ray, that now he said, “I see it;” and again, “it is nothing:” still, as they made way, it dawned upon his sight, growing more steady and distinct as it beamed across the lurid waters, which themselves be came smoother, so that safety seemed to arise from the bosom of the ocean under the influence of that flickering gleam.
“What beacon is it that helps us at our need?” asked Vernon, as the men, now able to manage their oars with greater ease, found breath to answer his question.
“A fairy one, I believe,” replied the elder sailor, “yet no less a true: it burns in an old tumble-down tower, built on the top of a rock which looks over the sea. We never saw it before this summer; and now each night it is to be seen, at least when it is looked for, for we cannot see it from our village; and it is such an out of the way place that no one has need to go near it, except through a chance like this. Some say it is burnt by witches, some say by smugglers; but this I know, two parties have been to search, and found nothing but the bare walls of the tower.
All is deserted by day, and dark by night; for no light was to be seen while we were there, though it burned sprightly enough when we were out at sea.
“I have heard say,” observed the younger sailor, “it is burnt by the ghost of a maiden who lost her sweetheart in these parts; he being wrecked, and his body found at the foot of the tower: she goes by the name among us of the ‘Invisible Girl.'”
The voyagers had now reached the landing-place at the foot of the tower. Vernon cast a glance upward, the light was still burning. With some difficulty, struggling with the breakers, and blinded by night, they contrived to get their little bark to shore, and to draw her up on the beach: they then scrambled up the precipitous pathway, overgrown by weeds and underwood, and, guided by the more experienced fishermen, they found the entrance to the tower, door or gate there was none, and all was dark as the tomb, and silent and almost as cold as death.
“This will never do,” said Vernon; “surely our hostess will show her light, if not herself, and guide our darkling steps by some sign of life and comfort.”
“We will get to the upper chamber,” said the sailor, “if I can but hit upon the broken down steps: but you will find no trace of the Invisible Girl nor her light either, I warrant.”
“Truly a romantic adventure of the most disagreeable kind,” muttered Vernon, as he stumbled over the unequal ground: “she of the beacon-light must be both ugly and old, or she would not be so peevish and inhospitable.”
With considerable difficulty, and, after divers knocks and bruises, the adventurers at length succeeded in reaching the upper story; but all was blank and bare, and they were fain to stretch themselves on the hard floor, when weariness, both of mind and body, conduced to steep their senses in sleep.
Long and sound were the slumbers of the mariners. Vernon but forgot himself for an hour; then, throwing off drowsiness, and finding his roughcouch uncongenial to repose, he got up and placed himself at the hole that served for a window, for glass there was none, and there being not even a rough bench, he leant his back against the embrasure, as the only rest he could find. He had forgotten his danger, the mysterious beacon, and its invisible guardian: his thoughts were occupied on the horrors of his own fate, and the unspeakable wretchedness that sat like a night-mare on his heart.
It would require a good-sized volume to relate the causes which had changed the once happy Vernon into the most woeful mourner that ever clung to the outer trappings of grief, as slight though cherished symbols of the wretchedness within. Henry was the only child of Sir Peter Vernon, and as much spoiled by his father’s idolatry as the old baronet’s violent and tyrannical temper would permit. A young orphan was educated in his father’s house, who in the same way was treated with generosity and kindness, and yet who lived in deep awe of Sir Peter’s authority, who was a widower; and these two children were all he had to exert his power over, or to whom to extend his affection. Rosina was a cheerful-tempered girl, a little timid, and careful to avoid displeasing her protector; but so docile, so kind-hearted, and so affectionate, that she felt even less than Henry the discordant spirit of his parent. It is a tale often told; they were playmates and companions in childhood, and lovers in after days. Rosina was frightened to imagine that this secret affection, and the vows they pledged, might be disapproved of by Sir Peter. But sometimes she consoled herself by thinking that perhaps she was in reality her Henry’s destined bride, brought up with him under the design of their future union; and Henry, while he felt that this was not the case, resolved to wait only until he was of age to declare and accomplish his wishes in making the sweet Rosina his wife. Meanwhile he was careful to avoid premature discovery of his intentions, so to secure his beloved girl from persecution and insult. The old gentleman was very conveniently blind; he lived always in the country, and the lovers spent their lives together, unrebuked and uncontrolled. It was enough that Rosina played on her mandoline, and sang Sir Peter to sleep every day after dinner; she was the sole female in the house above the rank of a servant, and had her own way in the disposal of her time. Even when Sir Peter frowned, her innocent caresses and sweet voice were powerful to smooth the rough current of his temper. If ever human spirit lived in an earthly paradise, Rosina did at this time: her pure love was made happy by Henry’s constant presence; and the confidence they felt in each other, and the security with which they looked forward to the future, rendered their path one of roses under a cloudless sky. Sir Peter was the slight drawback that only rendered their tete-a-tete more delightful, and gave value to the sympathy they each bestowed on the other. All at once an ominous personage made its appearance in Vernon-Place, in the shape of a widow sister of Sir Peter, who, having succeeded in killing her husband and children with the effects of her vile temper, came, like a harpy, greedy for new prey, under her brother’s roof. She too soon detected the attachment of the unsuspicious pair. She made all speed to impart her discovery to her brother, and at once to restrain and inflame his rage. Through her contrivance Henry was suddenly despatched on his travels abroad, that the coast might be clear for the persecution of Rosina; and then the richest of the lovely girl’s many admirers, whom, under Sir Peter’s single reign, she was allowed, nay, almost commanded, to dismiss, so desirous was he of keeping her for his own comfort, was selected, and she was ordered to marry him. The scenes of violence to which she was now exposed, the bitter taunts of the odious Mrs. Bainbridge, and the reckless fury of Sir Peter, were the more frightful and overwhelming from their novelty. To all she could only oppose a silent, tearful, but immutable steadiness of purpose: no threats, no rage could extort from her more than a touching prayer that they would not hate her, because she could not obey.
“There must he something we don’t see under all this,” said Mrs. Bainbridge, “take my word for it, brother,” she corresponds secretly with Henry. “Let us take her down to your seat in Wales, where she will have no pensioned beggars to assist her; and we shall see if her spirit be not bent to our purpose.”
Sir Peter consented, and they all three posted down, to shire, and took up their abode in the solitary and dreary looking house before alluded to as belonging to the family. Here poor Rosina’s sufferings grew intolerable: before, surrounded by well-known scenes, and in perpetual intercourse with kind and familiar faces, she had not despaired in the end of conquering by her patience the cruelty of her persecutors; nor had she written to Henry, for his name had not been mentioned by his relatives, nor their attachment alluded to, and she felt an instinctive wish to escape the dangers about her without his being annoyed, or the sacred secret of her love being laid bare, and wronged by the vulgar abuse of his aunt or the bitter curses of his father. But when she was taken to Wales, and made a prisoner in her apartment, when the flinty mountains about her seemed feebly to imitate the stony hearts she had to deal with, her courage began to fail. The only attendant permitted to approach her was Mrs. Bainbridge’s maid; and under the tutelage of her fiend-like mistress, this woman was used as a decoy to entice the poor prisoner into confidence, and then to be betrayed. The simple, kind-hearted Rosina was a facile dupe, and at last, in the excess of her despair, wrote to Henry, and gave the letter to this woman to be forwarded. The letter in itself would have softened marble; it did not speak of their mutual vows, it but asked him to intercede with his father, that he would restore her to the kind place she had formerly held in his affections, and cease from a cruelty that would destroy her. “For I may die,” wrote the hapless girl, “but marry another – never!” That single word, indeed, had sufficed to betray her secret, had it not been already discovered; as it was, it gave increased fury to Sir Peter, as his sister triumphantly pointed it out to him, for it need hardly be said that while the ink of the address was yet wet, and the seal still warm, Rosina’s letter was carried to this lady. The culprit was summoned before them; what ensued none could tell; for their own sakes the cruel pair tried to palliate their part. Voices were high, and the soft murmur of Rosina’s tone was lost in the howling of Sir Peter and the snarling of his sister. “Out of doors you shall go,” roared the old man; “under my roof you shall not spend another night.” And the words “infamous seductress,” and worse, such as had never met the poor girl’s ear before, were caught by listening servants; and to each angry speech of the baronet, Mrs. Bainbridge added an envenomed point worse than all.
More dead than alive, Rosina was at last dismissed. Whether guided by despair, whether she took Sir Peter’s threats literally, or whether his sister’s orders were more decisive, none knew, but Rosina left the house; a servant saw her cross the park, weeping, and wringing her hands as she went. What became of her none could tell; her disappearance was not disclosed to Sir Peter till the following day, and then he showed by his anxiety to trace her steps and to find her, that his words had been but idle threats. The truth was, that though Sir Peter went to frightful lengths to prevent the marriage of the heir of his house with the portionless orphan, the object of his charity, yet in his heart he loved Rosina, and half his violence to her rose from anger at himself for treating her so ill. Now remorse began to sting him, as messenger after messenger came back without tidings of his victim; he dared not confess his worst fears to himself; and when his inhuman sister, trying to harden her conscience by angry words, cried, “The vile hussy has too surely made away with herself out of revenge to us;” an oath, the most tremendous, and a look sufficient to make even her tremble, commanded her silence. Her conjecture, however, appeared too true: a dark and rushing stream that flowed at the extremity of the park had doubtless received the lovely form, and quenched the life of this unfortunate girl. Sir Peter, when his endeavours to find her proved fruitless, returned to town, haunted by the image of his victim, and forced to acknowledge in his own heart that he would willingly lay down his life, could he see her again, even though it were as the bride of his son – his son, before whose questioning he quailed like the veriest coward; for when Henry was told of the death of Rosina, he suddenly returned from abroad to ask the cause – to visit her grave, and mourn her loss in the groves and valleys which had been the scenes of their mutual happiness. He made a thousand inquiries, and an ominous silence alone replied. Growing more earnest and more anxious, at length he drew from servants and dependants, and his odious aunt herself, the whole dreadful truth. From that moment despair struck his heart, and misery named him her own. He fled from his father’s presence; and the recollection that one whom he ought to revere was guilty of so dark a crime, haunted him, as of old the Eumenides tormented the souls of men given up to their torturings.
His first, his only wish, was to visit Wales, and to learn if any new discovery had been made, and whether it were possible to recover the mortal remains of the lost Rosina, so to satisfy the unquiet longings of his miserable heart. On this expedition was he bound, when he made his appearance at the village before named; and now in the deserted tower, his thoughts were busy with images of despair and death, and what his beloved one had suffered before her gentle nature had been goaded to such a deed of woe.
While immersed in gloomy reverie, to which the monotonous roaring of the sea made fit accompaniment, hours flew on, and Vernon was at last aware that the light of morning was creeping from out its eastern retreat, and dawning over the wild ocean, which still broke in furious tumult on the rocky beach. His companions now roused themselves, and prepared to depart. The food they had brought with them was damaged by sea water, and their hunger, after hard labour and many hours fasting, had become ravenous. It was impossible to put to sea in their shattered boat; but there stood a fisher’s cot about two miles off, in a recess in the bay, of which the promontory on which the tower stood formed one side, and to this they hastened to repair; they did not spend a second thought on the light which had saved them, nor its cause, but left the ruin in search of a more hospitable asylum. Vernon cast his eves round as he quitted it, but no vestige of an inhabitant met his eye, and he began to persuade himself that the beacon had been a creation of fancy merely. Arriving at the cottage in question, which was inhabited by a fisherman and his family, they made a homely breakfast, and then prepared to return to the tower, to refit their boat, and if possible bring her round. Vernon accompanied them, together with their host and his son. Several questions were asked concerning the Invisible Girl and her light, each agreeing that the apparition was novel, and not one being able to give even an explanation of how the name had become affixed to the unknown cause of this singular appearance; though both of the men of the cottage affirmed that once or twice they had seen a female figure in the adjacent wood, and that now and then a stranger girl made her appearance at another cot a mile off, on the other side of the promontory, and bought bread; they suspected both these to be the same, but could not tell. The inhabitants of the cot, indeed, appeared too stupid even to feel curiosity, and had never made any attempt at discovery. The whole day was spent by the sailors in repairing the boat; and the sound of hammers, and the voices of the men at work, resounded along the coast, mingled with the dashing of the waves. This was no time to explore the ruin for one who whether human or supernatural so evidently withdrew herself from intercourse with every living being. Vernon, however, went over the tower, and searched every nook in vain; the dingy bare walls bore no token of serving as a shelter; and even a little recess in the wall of the staircase, which he had not before observed, was equally empty and desolate.
Quitting the tower, he wandered in the pine wood that surrounded it, and giving up all thought of solving the mystery, was soon engrossed by thoughts that touched his heart more nearly, when suddenly there appeared on the ground at his feet the vision of a slipper. Since Cinderella so tiny a slipper had never been seen; as plain as shoe could speak, it told a tale of elegance, loveliness, and youth. Vernon picked it up; he had often admired Rosina’s singularly small foot, and his first thought was a question whether this little slipper would have fitted it. It was very strange! – it must belong to the Invisible Girl. Then there was a fairy form that kindled that light, a form of such material substance, that its foot needed to be shod; and yet how shod? – with kid so fine, and of shape so exquisite, that it exactly resembled such as Rosina wore! Again the recurrence of the image of the beloved dead came forcibly across him; and a thousand home-felt associations, childish yet sweet, and lover-like though trifling, so filled Vernon’s heart, that he threw himself his length on the ground, and wept more bitterly than ever the miserable fate of the sweet orphan.
In the evening the men quitted their work, and Vernon returned with them to the cot where they were to sleep, intending to pursue their voyage, weather permitting, the following morning.
Vernon said nothing of his slipper, but returned with his rough associates. Often he looked back; but the tower rose darkly over the dim waves, and no light appeared. Preparations had been made in the cot for their accommodation, and the only bed in it was offered Vernon; but he refused to deprive his hostess, and spreading his cloak on a heap of dry leaves, endeavoured to give himself up to repose. He slept for some hours; and when he awoke, all was still, save that the hard breathing of the sleepers in the same room with him interrupted the silence. He rose, and going to the window, looked out over the now placid sea towards the mystic tower; the light burning there, sending its slender rays across the waves. Congratulating himself on a circumstance he had not anticipated, Vernon softly left the cottage, and, wrapping his cloak round him, walked with a swift pace round the bay towards the tower. He reached it; still the light was burning. To enter and restore the maiden her shoe, would be but an act of courtesy; and Vernon intended to do this with such caution, as to come unaware, before its wearer could, with her accustomed arts, withdraw herself from his eyes; but, unluckily, while yet making his way up the narrow pathway, his foot dislodged a loose fragment, that fell with crash and sound down the precipice. He sprung forward, on this, to retrieve by speed the advantage he had lost by this unlucky accident. He reached the door; he entered: all was silent, but also all was dark. He paused in the room below; he felt sure that a slight sound met his ear. He ascended the steps, and entered the upper chamber; but blank obscurity met his penetrating gaze, the starless night admitted not even a twilight glimmer through the only aperture. He closed his eyes, to try, on opening them again, to be able to catch some faint, wandering ray on the visual nerve; but it was in vain. He groped round the room: he stood still, and held his breath; and then, listening intently, he felt sure that another occupied the chamber with him, and that its atmosphere was slightly agitated by an-other’s respiration. He remembered the recess in the staircase; but, before he approached it, he spoke: he hesitated a moment what to say. “I must believe,” he said, “that misfortune alone can cause your seclusion; and if the assistance of a man – of a gentleman…”
An exclamation interrupted him; a voice from the grave spoke his name – the accents of Rosina syllabled, “Henry! – is it indeed Henry whom I hear?”
He rushed forward, directed by the sound, and clasped in his arms the living form of his own lamented girl – his own Invisible Girl he called her; for even yet, as he felt her heart beat near his, and as he entwined her waist with his arm, supporting her as she almost sank to the ground with agitation, he could not see her; and, as her sobs prevented her speech, no sense, but the instinctive one that filled his heart with tumultuous gladness, told him that the slender, wasted form he pressed so fondly was the living shadow of the Hebe beauty he had adored.
The morning saw this pair thus strangely restored to each other on the tranquil sea, sailing with a fair wind for L–, whence they were to proceed to Sir Peter’s seat, which, three months before, Rosina had quitted in such agony and terror. The morning light dispelled the shadows that had veiled her, and disclosed the fair person of the Invisible Girl. Altered indeed she was by suffering and woe, but still the same sweet smile played on her lips, and the tender light of her soft blue eyes were all her own. Vernon drew out the slipper, and shoved the cause that had occasioned him to resolve to discover the guardian of the mystic beacon; even now he dared not inquire how she had existed in that desolate spot, or wherefore she had so sedulously avoided observation, when the right thing to have been done was, to have sought him immediately, under whose care, protected by whose love, no danger need be feared. But Rosina shrunk from him as he spoke, and a death-like pallor came over her cheek, as she faintly whispered, “Your father’s curse – your father’s dreadful threats!” It appeared, indeed, that Sir Peter’s violence, and the cruelty of Mrs. Bainbridge, had succeeded in impressing Rosina with wild and unvanquishable terror. She had fled from their house without plan or forethought, driven by frantic horror and overwhelming fear, she had left it with scarcely any money, and there seemed to her no possibility of either returning or proceeding onward. She had no friend except Henry in the wide world; whither could she go? – to have sought Henry would have sealed their fates to misery; for, with an oath, Sir Peter had declared he would rather see them both in their coffins than married. After wandering about, hiding by day, and only venturing forth at night, she had come to this deserted tower, which seemed a place of refuge. I low she had lived since then she could hardly tell; she had lingered in the woods by day, or slept in the vault of the tower, an asylum none were acquainted with or had discovered: by night she burned the pine-cones of the wood, and night was her dearest time; for it seemed to her as if security came with darkness. She was unaware that Sir Peter had left that part of the country, and was terrified lest her hiding-place should be revealed to him. Her only hope was that Henry would return – that Henry would never rest till he had found her. She confessed that the long interval and the approach of winter had visited her with dismay; she feared that, as her strength was failing, and her form wasting to a skeleton, that she might die, and never see her own Henry more.
An illness, indeed, in spite of all his care, followed her restoration to security and the comforts of civilized life; many months went by before the bloom revisiting her cheeks, and her limbs regaining their roundness, she resembled once more the picture drawn of her in her days of bliss, before any visitation of sorrow. It was a copy of this portrait that decorated the tower, the scene of her suffering, in which I had found shelter. Sir Peter, overjoyed to be relieved from the pangs of remorse, and delighted again to see his orphan-ward, whom he really loved, was now as eager as before he had been averse to bless her union with his son: Mrs. Bainbridge they never saw again. But each year they spent a few months in their Welch mansion, the scene of their early wedded happiness, and the spot where again poor Rosina had awoke to life and joy after her cruel persecutions. Henry’s fond care had fitted up the tower, and decorated it as I saw; and often did he come over, with his “Invisible Girl,” to renew, in the very scene of its occurrence, the remembrance of all the incidents which had led to their meeting again, during the shades of night, in that sequestered ruin.
ALL over the pavement of the church spread the exaggerated cross-hatching of the old pews’ oak, a Smithfield market of intersecting lines such as children made with cards in the old days when kings and knaves had fat legs bulging above their serviceable feet, and queens had skirts to their gowns and were not cut across their royal middles by mirrors reflecting only the bedizened torso of them and the charge—heart, trefoil, or the like—in the right-hand top corner of the oblong that framed them.
The pew had qualities: tall fat hassocks, red cushions, a comparative seclusion, and, in the case of the affluent, red curtains drawn at sermon-time.
The child wearied by the spectacle of a plump divine, in black gown and Geneva bands, thumping the pulpit-cushions in the madness of incomprehensible oratory, surrendered his ears to the noise of intonations which, in his own treble, would have earned the reprimand, ‘Naughty temper.’ His eyes, however, were, through some oversight of the gods of his universe, still his own. They found their own pasture: not, to be sure, the argent and sable of gown and bands, still less the gules of flushed denunciatory gills.
There is fair pasture in an old church which, when Norman work was broken down, men loved and built again as from the heart, with pillars and arches, which, to their rude time, symbolized all that the heart desires to materialize, in symbolic stone. The fretted tombs where the effigies of warrior and priest lay life-like in dead marble, the fretted canopies that brooded above their rest. Tall pillars like the trunks of the pine woods that smelt so sweet, the marvel of the timbered roof—turned upside down it would be like a ship. And what could be easier than to turn it upside down? Imagination shrank bashfully from the pulpit already tightly tenanted, but the triforium was plainly and beautifully empty; there one could walk, squeezing happily through the deep thin arches and treading carefully by the unguarded narrow ledge. Only if one played too long in the roof aunts nudged, and urgent whispers insisted that one must not look about like that in church. When this moment came it came always as a crisis foreseen, half dreaded, half longed-for. After that the child kept his eyes lowered, and looked only at the faded red hassocks from which the straw bulged, and in brief, guarded, intimate moments, at the other child.
The other child was kneeling, always, whether the congregation knelt or stood or sat. Its hands were clasped. Its face was raised, but its back bowed under a weight—the weight of the font, for the other child was of marble and knelt always in the church, Sundays and week-days. There had been once three marble figures holding up the shallow basin, but two had crumbled or been broken away, and now it seemed that the whole weight of the superimposed marble rested on those slender shoulders.
The child who was not marble was sorry for the other. He must be very tired.
The child who was not marble,—his name was Ernest,—that child of weary eyes and bored brain, pitied the marble boy while he envied him.
‘I suppose he doesn’t really feel, if he’s stone,’ he said. ‘That’s what they mean by the stony-hearted tyrant. But if he does feel— How jolly it would be if he could come out and sit in my pew, or if I could creep under the font beside him. If he would move a little there would be just room for me.’
The first time that Ernest ever saw the marble child move was on the hottest Sunday in the year. The walk across the fields had been a breathless penance, the ground burned the soles of Ernest’s feet as red-hot ploughshares the feet of the saints. The corn was cut, and stood in stiff yellow stooks, and the shadows were very black. The sky was light, except in the west beyond the pine trees, where blue-black clouds were piled.
‘Like witches’ feather-beds,’ said Aunt Harriet, shaking out the folds of her lace shawl.
‘Not before the child, dear,’ whispered Aunt Emmeline.
Ernest heard her, of course. It was always like that: as soon as any one spoke about anything interesting, Aunt Emmeline intervened. Ernest walked along very melancholy in his starched frill. The dust had whitened his strapped shoes, and there was a wrinkle in one of his white socks.
‘Pull it up, child, pull it up,’ said Aunt Jessie; and shielded from the world by the vast silk-veiled crinolines of three full-sized aunts, he pulled it up.
On the way to church, and indeed, in all walks abroad, you held the hand of an aunt; the circumferent crinolines made the holding an arm’s-length business, very tiring. Ernest was always glad when, in the porch, the hand was dropped. It was just as the porch was reached that the first lonely roll of thunder broke over the hills.
‘I knew it,’ said Aunt Jessie, in triumph; ‘but you would wear your blue silk.’
There was no more thunder till after the second lesson, which was hardly ever as interesting as the first, Ernest thought. The marble child looked more tired than usual, and Ernest lost himself in a dream-game where both of them got out from prison and played hide-and-seek among the tombstones. Then the thunder cracked deafeningly right over the church. Ernest forgot to stand up, and even the clergyman waited till it died away.
It was a most exciting service, well worth coming to church for, and afterwards people crowded in the wide porch and wondered whether it would clear, and wished they had brought their umbrellas. Some went back and sat in their pews till the servants should have had time to go home and return with umbrellas and cloaks. The more impetuous made clumsy rushes between the showers, bonnets bent, skirts held well up. Many a Sunday dress was ruined that day, many a bonnet fell from best to second-best.
And it was when Aunt Jessie whispered to him to sit still and be a good boy and learn a hymn, that he looked to the marble child with, ‘Isn’t it a shame?’ in his heart and his eyes, and the marble child looked back, ‘Never mind, it will soon be over,’ and held out its marble hands. Ernest saw them come toward him, reaching well beyond the rim of the basin under which they had always, till now, stayed.
‘Oh!’ said Ernest, quite out loud; and, dropping the hymn-book, held out his hands, or began to hold them out. For before he had done more than sketch the gesture, he remembered that marble does not move and that one must not be silly. All the same, marble had moved. Also Ernest had ‘spoken out loud’ in church. Unspeakable disgrace!
He was taken home in conscious ignominy, treading in all the puddles to distract his mind from his condition.
He was put to bed early, as a punishment, instead of sitting up and learning his catechism under the charge of one of the maids while the aunts went to evening church. This, while it was terrible to Ernest, was in the nature of a reprieve to the housemaid, who found means to modify her own consequent loneliness. Far-away whispers and laughs from the back or kitchen windows assured Ernest that the front or polite side of the house was unguarded. He got up, simulated the appearance of the completely dressed, and went down the carpeted stairs, through the rosewood-furnished drawing-room, rose-scented and still as a deathbed, and so out through the French windows to the lawn, where already the beginnings of dew lay softly.
His going out had no definite aim. It was simply an act of rebellion such as, secure from observation, the timid may achieve; a demonstration akin to putting the tongue out behind people’s backs.
Having got himself out on the lawn, he made haste to hide in the shrubbery, disheartened by a baffling consciousness of the futility of safe revenges. What is the tongue put out behind the back of the enemy without the applause of some admirer?
The red rays of the setting sun made splendor in the dripping shrubbery.
‘I wish I hadn’t,’ said Ernest.
But it seemed silly to go back now, just to go out and to go back. So he went farther into the shrubbery and got out at the other side where the shrubbery slopes down into the wood, and it was nearly dark there—so nearly that the child felt more alone than ever.
And then quite suddenly he was not alone. Hands parted the hazels and a face he knew looked out from between them.
He knew the face, and yet the child he saw was not any of the children he knew.
‘Well,’ said the child with the face he knew; ‘I’ve been watching you. What did you come out for?’
‘I was put to bed.’
‘Do you not like it?’
‘Not when it’s for punishment.’
‘If you’ll go back now,’ said the strange child, ‘I’ll come and play with you after you’re asleep.’
‘You daren’t. Suppose the aunts catch you?’
‘They won’t,’ said the child, shaking its head and laughing. ‘I’ll race you to the house!’
Ernest ran. He won the race. For the other child was not there at all when he reached the house.
‘How odd!’ he said. But he was tired and there was thunder again and it was beginning to rain, large spots as big as pennies on the step of the French window. So he went back to bed, too sleepy to worry about the question of where he had seen the child before, and only a little disappointed because his revenge had been so brief and inadequate.
Then he fell asleep and dreamed that the marble child had crept out from under the font, and that he and it were playing hide-and-seek among the pews in the gallery at church. It was a delightful dream and lasted all night, and when he woke he knew that the child he had seen in the wood in yesterday’s last light was the marble child from the church.
This did not surprise him as much as it would surprise you: the world where children live is so full of amazing and incredible-looking things that turn out to be quite real. And if Lot’s wife could be turned into a pillar of salt, why should not a marble child turn into a real one? It was all quite plain to Ernest, but he did not tell any one: because he had a feeling that it might not be easy to make it plain to them.
‘That child doesn’t look quite the thing,’ said Aunt Emmeline at breakfast. ‘A dose of Gregory’s, I think, at eleven.’
Ernest’s morning was blighted. Did you ever take Gregory’s powder? It is worse than quinine, worse than senna, worse than anything except castor oil.
But Ernest had to take it—in raspberry jam.
‘And don’t make such faces,’ said Aunt Emmeline, rinsing the spoon at the pantry sink. ‘You know it’s all for your own good.’
As if the thought that it is for one’s own good ever kept any one from making faces!
The aunts were kind in their grown-up crinolined way. But Ernest wanted some one to play with. Every night in his dreams he played with the marble child. And at church on Sunday the marble child still held out its hands, farther than before.
‘Come along then,’ Ernest said to it, in that voice with which heart speaks to heart; ‘come and sit with me behind the red curtains. Come!’
The marble child did not look at him. Its head seemed to be bent farther forward than ever before.
When it came to the second hymn Ernest had an inspiration. All the rest of the churchful, sleepy and suitable, were singing,—
‘The roseate hues of early dawn,
The brightness of the day,
The crimson of the sunset sky,
How fast they fade away.’
Ernest turned his head towards the marble child and softly mouthed,—you could hardly call it singing,—
‘The rosy tews of early dawn,
The brightness of the day;
Come out, come out, come out, come out,
Come out with me and play.’
And he pictured the rapture of that moment when the marble child should respond to this appeal, creep out from under the font, and come and sit beside him on the red cushions beyond the red curtains. The aunts would not see, of course. They never saw the things that mattered. No one would see except Ernest. He looked hard at the marble child.
‘You must come out,’ he said; and again, ‘You must come, you must.’
And the marble child did come. It crept out and came to sit by him, holding his hand. It was a cold hand certainly, but it did not feel like marble.
And the next thing he knew, an aunt was shaking him and whispering with fierceness tempered by reverence for the sacred edifice,—
‘Wake up, Ernest. How can you be so naughty?’
And the marble child was back in its place under the font.
When Ernest looks back on that summer it seems to have thundered every time he went to church. But of course this cannot really have been the case.
But it was certainly a very lowering purple-skied day which saw him stealthily start on the adventure of his little life. He was weary of aunts—they were kind yet just; they told him so and he believed them. But their justice was exactly like other people’s nagging, and their kindness he did not want at all. He wanted some one to play with.
‘May we walk up to the churchyard?’ was a request at first received graciously as showing a serious spirit. But its reiteration was considered morbid, and his walks took the more dusty direction of the County Asylum.
His longing for the only child he knew, the marble child, exacerbated by denial, drove him to rebellion. He would run away. He would live with the marble child in the big church porch; they would eat berries from the wood near by, just as children did in books, and hide there when people came to church.
So he watched his opportunity and went quietly out through the French window, skirted the side of the house where all the windows were blank because of the old window-tax, took the narrow strip of lawn at a breathless run, and found safe cover among the rhododendrons.
The church-door was locked, of course, but he knew where there was a broken pane in the vestry window, and his eye had marked the lop-sided tombstone underneath it. By climbing upon that and getting a knee in the carved water-spout— He did it, got his hand through, turned the catch of the window, and fell through upon the dusty table of the vestry.
The door was ajar and he passed into the empty church. It seemed very large and gray now that he had it to himself. His feet made a loud echoing noise that was disconcerting. He had meant to call out, ‘Here I am!’ But in the face of these echoes he could not.
He found the marble child, its head bent more than ever, its hands reaching out quite beyond the edge of the font; and when he was quite close he whispered,—
‘Here I am.—Come and play!’
But his voice trembled a little. The marble child was so plainly marble. And yet it had not always been marble. He was not sure. Yet—
‘I am sure,’ he said. ‘You did talk to me in the shrubbery, didn’t you?’
But the marble child did not move or speak.
‘You did come and hold my hand last Sunday,’ he said, a little louder.
And only the empty echoes answered him.
‘Come out,’ he said then, almost afraid now of the church’s insistent silence. ‘I’ve come to live with you altogether. Come out of your marble, do come out!’
He reached up to stroke the marble cheek. A sound thrilled him, a loud everyday sound. The big key turning in the lock of the south door. The aunts!
‘Now they’ll take me back,’ said Ernest; ‘you might have come.’
But it was not the aunts. It was the old pew-opener, come to scrub the chancel. She came slowly in with pail and brush; the pail slopped a little water on to the floor close to Ernest as she passed him, not seeing.
Then the marble child moved, turned toward Ernest with speaking lips and eyes that saw.
‘You can stay with me forever if you like,’ it said, ‘but you’ll have to see things happen. I have seen things happen.’
‘What sort of things?’ Ernest asked.
‘What things shall I have to see?’
‘Her,’—the marble child moved a free arm to point to the old woman on the chancel steps,—’and your aunt who will be here presently, looking for you. Do you hear the thunder? Presently the lightning will strike the church. It won’t hurt us, but it will fall on them.’
Ernest remembered in a flash how kind Aunt Emmeline had been when he was ill, how Aunt Jessie had given him his chessmen, and Aunt Harriet had taught him how to make paper rosettes for picture-frames.
‘I must go and tell them,’ he said.
‘If you go, you’ll never see me again,’ said the marble child, and put its arms round his neck.
‘Can’t I come back to you when I’ve told them?’ Ernest asked, returning the embrace.
‘There will be no coming back,’ said the marble child.
‘But I want you. I love you best of everybody in the world,’ Ernest said.
‘I’ll stay with you,’ said Ernest.
The marble child said nothing.
‘But if I don’t tell them I shall be the same as a murderer,’ Ernest whispered. ‘Oh! let me go, and come back to you.’
‘I shall not be here.’
‘But I must go. I must,’ said Ernest, torn between love and duty.
‘And I shan’t have you any more?’ the living child urged.
‘You’ll have me in your heart,’ said the marble child—’that’s where I want to be. That’s my real home.’
They kissed each other again.
‘It was certainly a direct Providence,’ Aunt Emmeline used to say in later years to really sympathetic friends, ‘that I thought of going up to the church when I did. Otherwise nothing could have saved dear Ernest. He was terrified, quite crazy with fright, poor child, and he rushed out at me from behind our pew shouting, “Come away, come away, auntie, come away!” and dragged me out. Mrs. Meadows providentially followed, to see what it was all about, and the next thing was the catastrophe.’
‘The church was struck by a thunder-bolt was it not?’ the sympathetic friend asks.
‘It was indeed—a deafening crash, my dear—and then the church slowly crumbled before our eyes. The south wall broke like a slice of cake when you break it across—and the noise and the dust! Mrs. Meadows never had her hearing again, poor thing, and her mind was a little affected too. I became unconscious, and Ernest—well, it was altogether too much for the child. He lay between life and death for weeks. Shock to the system, the physician said. He had been rather run down before. We had to get a little cousin to come and live with us afterwards. The physicians said that he required young society.’
‘It must indeed have been a shock,’ says the sympathetic friend, who knows there is more to come.
‘His intellect was quite changed, my dear,’ Aunt Emmeline resumes; ‘on regaining consciousness he demanded the marble child! Cried and raved, my dear, always about the marble child. It appeared he had had fancies about one of the little angels that supported the old font, not the present font, my dear. We presented that as a token of gratitude to Providence for our escape. Of course we checked his fancifulness as well as we could, but it lasted quite a long time.’
‘What became of the little marble angel?’ the friend inquires as in friendship bound.
‘Crushed to powder, dear, in the awful wreck of the church. Not a trace of it could be found. And poor Mrs. Meadows! So dreadful those delusions.’
‘What form did her delusions take?’ the friend, anxious to be done with the old story, hastily asks.
‘Well, she always declared that two children ran out to warn me and that one of them was very unusual looking. “It wasn’t no flesh and blood, ma’am,” she used to say in her ungrammatical way; “it was a little angel a-taking care of Master Ernest. It ‘ad ‘old of ‘is ‘and. And I say it was ‘is garden angel, and its face was as bright as a lily in the sun.”‘
The friend glances at the India cabinet, and Aunt Emmeline rises and unlocks it.
‘Ernest must have been behaving in a very naughty and destructive way in the church—but the physician said he was not quite himself probably, for when they got him home and undressed him they found this in his hand.’
Then the sympathizing friend polishes her glasses and looks, not for the first time, at the relic from the drawer of the India cabinet. It is a white marble finger.
Thus flow the reminiscences of Aunt Emmeline. The memories of Ernest run as this tale runs.
THIS story happened a long time ago in the country where anything may happen. The people who belong to that country stay there, and nothing can induce them to journey beyond its borders.
Also, very few travelers find their way in, because the road that runs that way is hidden in a rosy mist.
This mist-road winds around and around a ring of mountains that are dreadfully hard to find on the map–and sometimes are not on the map at all.
You need not read this first part unless you like. It is only a preface, and usually people skip them. The story begins here.
The King’s Highway that ran east and west through the City of Midas was a wonderful highway. The buildings fronting upon it, the houses, shops, palaces and churches, had all been colored a brilliant golden hue, and the cupolas, spires, turrets and domes topping the buildings were tipped and touched with gold-leaf.
The road was flagged with stones of deepest yellow, and the whole street was so radiant and resplendent that the citizens often wore smoked glasses when they walked abroad at noon-day.
Upon a great topaz fastened against the door of the City Hall and Court House, was engraved the legend of King Midas of the golden touch, he who had founded the city and made it his home. To the legend was added a brief note telling that the city fathers had thought it wise to color the buildings yellow, in memory of the bewitchment that had years ago come upon the avaricious King, and the miracle of his deliverance from it.
This was a warning to all and sundry to beware of covetousness and greed and the evils in their wake.
Small heed did the good people pay to the words graven on the topaz, and long and loudly they grumbled at the taxes put upon them, for it cost much money to paint and polish and gold-leaf the buildings on the wonderful road.
In their heart of hearts, probably, they took pride in the highway, for no matter how much they grumbled they paid the taxes promptly.
Now the most beautiful thing on all the beautiful highway and the most marvelous, was an apple tree.
It stood in the middle of a little square before the City Hall, and it was by far the most prized possession of the dwellers in the City of Midas–from the oldest inhabitant, tottering on his shrunken legs to rest in its shadow, to the youngest child, tottering also, but on dimpled feet to where he could stand and wonder at its shining burden of apples.
For this apple tree was of gold, root and branch and leaf and fruit. It was the one golden fact in a place of golden frauds.
As long as anyone could remember, the tree had been there, and as long as anyone they had ever seen could remember. Musty documents filed away in musty drawers, and old, old letters and deeds-of-law with crumbling edges, referred to it casually.
Ancient wills and testaments bore ancient seals stamped with a picture of this very tree.
Generations came and went, fashions came in and went out, but the old, yet ever-young apple tree lifted its golden branches to the sky, serene and unchanged.
It was taken for granted that on that far-off day when King Midas was bewitched of the golden touch, and laid hands so energetically on every object around him, including the very trees and flowers of his garden, he had touched this apple tree also, and by strange alchemy turned it to the precious metal.
Further, it was supposed that in the King’s hour of repentance, when he sprinkled the magic water on all the golden garden to transform it again into a place of green growing things, this tree had been forgotten or overlooked, until the water was all gone.
An occasional stranger gazed with awe at the tree of mystery and asked questions about it, but the citizens, who, for the most part were simple and unlettered, and given to seeing the pixies and warlocks and fairies that came and went in their own mountains, regarded the tree with pride but little curiosity, and as people do regard things they have always known.
A sentinel marched in front of it night and day, while to the very left of it was the Town Pillory, and to the right the Town Gallows. There was no chance visitor who had found his way along the rose-misty road and followed it into the golden city, who did not quickly learn just why the pillory and the gallows were on the right and left of the wonderful tree. He was straightway informed that any person who as much as touched a leaf with even the tip of a finger, was, without ceremony, made fast in the pillory to languish there, whatever the weather, for one full day; while that delinquent who, for wanton mischief, folly, or thievishness, broke a golden apple from its branch, was without much ado quickly hung upon the gallows.
Whether by reason of this law or because of sentiment, the tree was seldom molested, and the sentinel had but a dull existence. Apart from these simple restrictions the town-folk were free to come and go beneath the golden thing, and there was no more favored meeting-place than the grassy circle shadowed by the out-flung glittering branches. It may be temptation was lessened, as the apples and leaves hung high above the reach of any but the very longest arm.
Now, it was upon a certain July afternoon that various things happened in the City of Midas that afterwards were written down in the town chronicles, and so seem worth telling about.
The afternoon was so hot that the dazzling street was deserted. A white-haired priest crossing in front of the City Hall suddenly stopped, and then as though exhausted, sat down on a bench beneath the tree.
The sentinel on duty before it tramped slowly up and down and found time heavy on his hands. His uniform was tight and hot and of a flaming scarlet. His boots shone as though made of polished metal, while his helmet and musket felt heavy as lead.
Little waves of heat quivered up from the ground, and at intervals a locust sang its sudden song of the sun. The light glanced down through the golden tree until each individual leaf and apple seemed to shoot hot rays at him.
It was the sort of day when dogs go mad, and people are apt to do things unaccountable and foreign to their natures; when strong men in the fields dread a stroke from heaven, and little babies wilt like flowers left without rain.
The old priest nodded in the hot shade, and the sentinel went back and forth monotonously, all misery within, all grandeur without. He was sick of his task, sick of the heat and silence, and aimlessly wished for something to happen–for anything, indeed, to happen that might serve to distract his mind until the hour of release.
And something did happen.
Far down the golden highroad he saw a man coming towards him, swinging along at a swift dog-trot.
The sentinel stood stock-still, because there was so much that was unusual about the running figure. Also, it was strange that anyone should travel so fast in the great heat. The sentinel gazed, and wondered what method there was–if any–in this seeming midsummer madness.
On came the swinging figure down the deserted, dazzling street, and now the sentinel suddenly recognized him.
“The King’s lion-tamer!” he exclaimed to the air. “Well! By my musket, he has less sense than I thought or else is mightily pressed for time, Whatever can he want in such a hurry on such a day? In truth these strong fellows, all brawn and muscle, have small brains; but I will find out his business when he comes nearer.”
On came the King’s lion-tamer along the highway, as though he were the winged Mercury.
His wavy hair, thick and sun bleached until it was tawny as a lion’s mane, flew out around his head. He wore a leopard skin about his body, and his great shoulders and limbs gleamed like bronze against the yellow fur. Only did it show white on his forehead where the hair blew back.
There were sandals of tanned leather on his bare feet, and above one knee was a golden garter set with topaz.
On and on he came, and his pace quickened as he reached the little grassy square before the City Hall, where stood the golden apple tree.
“Halt!” cried the sentinel as he came up, more to indicate that he was in command, than for any particular reason. But the lion-tamer gave not the slightest heed. He stopped only when he was fairly underneath the tree. Then he threw back his head, and looked up into the glittering branches, and his breath came in heavy gasps.
The sentinel watched him curiously, mouth ajar. The old white-haired priest woke up and leaned forward on his cane, watching also.
The lion-tamer glanced from one to the other and a little smile flashed across his face. Then he stretched an arm towards the branch above his head.
“Watch hard, my friends!” he said. “As there are no others about, I depend on you for witnesses. Behold me pluck the forbidden fruit.”
The old priest rose with a sharp cry; the sentinel sprang forward with musket leveled.
“Take down your arm!” he commanded. “What would you do? He who even touches the tree is punished grievously, but he who plucks the fruit is a dead man! Take down your arm! Take it down!”
His words trailed off into a cry of horror, for the lion-tamer had sprung upon his strong young feet, caught an apple and twisted and broken it from the bough!
Then he stepped out into the sunlight and tossed the golden thing high into the air, catching it as it fell.
The sentinel’s knees shook beneath him and he turned cold in his hot uniform. His whole body wilted limply for a moment, then stiffened.
“The penalty! The penalty!” he exclaimed. “Do you not know it, O rash fellow? I take you prisoner in the King’s name! By my faith, it is a thing I hate to do, for ’twill be hard to see so fine a man food for carrion crows.”
The old priest had risen tremblingly to his feet, and now stood as one stricken with horror. “Why have you done this thing?” he asked, his face white and stern. “Have you any reason for this unpardonable act?”
“In sooth, good father, I have a reason,” the lion-tamer answered, with still the same smile. “I desire death. This is a straight road to it, so they tell me. I have not lived long in your country, but this much the veriest stranger soon learns.”
“But why would you die?” he asked. “Have you committed some sin, a sin too great to live and atone for? Nay, I cannot think that possible when I look at thy face.”
The man shrugged his shoulders. “It is not for my sins I wish to die, good father,” he said–”though I have sins in plenty–but by reason of a heart-ache that is too great to be borne.”
“A heart-ache!” exclaimed the old priest. “Thou wouldst throw away life with all it means–thy beautiful life, now at high-tide–because of a heart-ache! Thou must be mad or very, very young. I would know what has caused thee so hard an ache as that. Come–sit down by me on the bench. The sentinel will give us grace of a scant half-hour ere he takes thee in charge.
“Make me thy confessor. Thy time may be short when the people hear of this deed.”
They took their places on the little bench and the sentinel, somewhat addle-pated from the sun and the sudden responsibility and horror of the moment, made no protest, but stood dumbly on guard.
The priest turned his face, still white and stern, to the man beside him. “If you have aught to tell me, my son,” he began, “I am over-ready to listen, and to give help and consolation. Nay, more. I find it in my soul to make excuse for thy rash deed, if you give me reason. Still remember in this I speak for myself alone, not for the people.”
The lion-tamer turned the golden apple around in his hand, looking at it absently.
“Wouldst really know why I desire to die? Art that much concerned regarding me, good father?”
“Of a truth–yes, my son!” answered the old man quickly.
The lion-tamer glanced up through the golden branches to the blue beyond, and then down at the priest with a sudden boyish smile, half-diffident, but wholly confiding.
“Well, then,” he said slowly, “well, then, it was just by reason of bitter loneliness–and of love.”
“Of love?” exclaimed the old priest. “Of love, dost thou say? Of loneliness it may be a man would die, but not of love, methinks.”
The man nodded his tawny head in contradiction.
“Listen, good father,” he said. “I come from a country far from here–a very far country. In that country my father was a noble and I his eldest son. We had much land of forest and stream and lake and meadow.” His eyes grew absent and misty again, and he paused.
“Yes?” questioned the priest.
“War came into my country,” he went on. “My father fought and was killed. I fought also and was taken captive. They bore me, bound, many leagues on into an unknown land, and left me in a prison whose whereabouts I do not know. I only know that as I counted time, five years went by in unspeakable solitude and silence.” He paused again, and the guard stepped a little nearer to listen.
“And then?” said the old priest.
“And then I escaped. I escaped by night; and when the morning broke found myself on a road that wound around a mountain; a lovely road overhung with a rosy mist.
“This I followed, good father, and it brought me to the City of Midas.”
“Oh!” nodded the holy father. “To our good city, my son?”
“Yes,” he answered. “I was so glad at being free that weariness and sorrow slipped from me. I felt the joy of youth and strength again, after a few weeks’ rest at an inn on the edge of the city, just within the great walls. I paid the inn-keeper and his wife for their kindness by pruning their orchard. While there I chanced to hear that the King’s lion-tamer was dead and he looked for another. Now, good father, I possess a strange gift. At home they said one of the fairies had given it to me in my cradle. However that may be, I have the gift to this day. It is no less than an influence potent and strong over beasts and birds, both wild and tame. By my eyes I can hold them, by my voice I can charm them, by my touch I can lure them, and my beckoning they will follow unless they be sick or under some spell of madness. This gift I discovered when I was a little child. The animals of the forest and field were my comrades; I knew no fear of them and they no fear of me. We understood each other.
“So now I said to myself: I will go to the king and offer to take the place of the dead lion-tamer! This I did, and was accepted and made keeper and trainer of the royal beasts.”
“I heard,” said the priest, “there was another younger keeper. Reports said the king’s former lion-tamer had been killed by a lioness.”
The guard nodded in affirmation and stepped nearer, listening.
The lion-tamer turned the golden apple in his hand. “By Jessica,” he said casually. “She is still half-wild and uncertain in her moods. But to my story, good father. I have been keeper of the beasts since the winter months and have been content after a fashion until lately. Early in spring the little Princess and her ladies came to watch me train the young lions, and–and I saw the Lady Belledowin.”
The priest gave a start. “The Lady Belledowin!” he exclaimed. “The court beauty! Is she again at the castle? Her mourning for the old duke, her father, has been short.”
“She is at court,” the man answered. “She is the first lady-in-waiting to the Princess. I saw her–and loved her, good father,” he ended.
“But there is more to be told, my son?” urged the priest.
“A little more, truly,” he returned. “Often after that first visit to the lions’ quarters the Princess and her ladies came again to look on while I put the beasts through their play. It was for those short moments I lived. To-day in the great heat, they came again, the little Princess and the others; the Lady Belledowin also. I saw them coming through the trees and flowers of the garden, like a flock of bright butterflies.
“You know, perhaps, the lions’ quarters? It is on the far side of the great Imperial gardens, and though artificial is like a bit of the desert. Quite wonderfully like it. There are silver-gray rocks rising out of the pink and yellow sand. The cages are almost invisible by reason of being painted like to the desert colors.
“The wall is stone, topped with open iron work, and there is a mighty gate barred on the outside, so when the beasts are safely caged the courtiers may enter the quarters. The timid are often content to look through the iron fence.
“The Lady Belledowin reached the great gate first, and I went to meet her from within the enclosure–for to-day it was not safe to enter. She already had drawn the bronze bolts when I came up, and we met in the open gateway. I trembled at sight of her beauty. In the afternoon light it was like a radiance that blinded one.
“‘It is not safe to enter the lions’ quarters to-day, Lady Belledowin,’ I said. ‘Even my small gate at the far side is double locked and forbidden to all but the water and food-carriers. Jessica has almost wrecked her cage. The door fastenings are loose, and I have not yet decided where to move her.’
“She laughed and threw a backward glance at the Princess and the court ladies who were coming near.
“‘Pasanello’–that is the name I bear here, good father–’Pasanello says it is dangerous to go into the enclosure,’ she said. ‘The locks are sprung on one of the cages, so he tells me; but I choose to think he wishes to frighten us, and belittle our courage. I am certainly going in. I desire to select, to-day, the lion-cub the king promised should be mine.’
“The little Princess ran to Lady Belledowin and caught her hand. You, perhaps, know the little Princess and her ways, good father?”
“I have seen and heard of her,” answered the old man.
“She possesses the sweetest heart and kindest in all the court, ’tis said,” went on the lion-tamer. “Now in most earnest fashion she coaxed Lady Belledowin to give up the thought of going near the cages. But it was useless. Had the Princess commanded she needs must have obeyed, but she would not respond to a request. With a little light and daring laugh she entered and swung the gate behind her.
“Then she ran down the stone steps into the enclosure. It is a hundred yards to the cages, but Jessica had seen the new figure and was pacing her cage furiously.
“Lady Belledowin took no heed of the warnings. She went on toward the cage where the lion cubs were sleeping, her rose-colored gown of some light silk, fluttering about her. The cubs, good father, belong to Jessica, and were removed from her because she injured one.
“Now as the lioness saw Lady Belledowin approach them, she quivered with fresh rage; then gave a terrific roar, burst the door of her cage, and with one bound came halfway to my lady across the sand. There the great beast crouched flat, gathering force for the fatal spring. Lady Belledowin stood as though turned to snow. She neither spoke nor cried out. While one’s heart has time to beat once I stood also. Then I leaped to her side.
“The lioness crouched still, and I faced her, fixing my eyes on her two blazing eyes. I could see her begin to tremble through her tense muscles. I gazed steadfastly at her, holding my Lady Belledowin back with one arm. To move would have been fatal.
“There we stood. I turned cold and my face grew wet as with rain.
“Still we stood and I suddenly felt my force over the lioness weakening. At that instant she sprang–but dropped a scant yard short of my lady.
“‘Run! Run!’ I cried to her. ‘This is the one chance. Before she springs again! Run–and make fast the gate!’
“I heard the silken flutter of her gown as she ran, but I did not withdraw my eyes from the eyes of the lioness. She crouched again where she had alighted, baffled and maddened.
“An inch nearer I moved to her, the sweat still cold on my face.
“Backward she crept an inch. So we went, she and I gazing steadfastly. Back and back she crept, and I forward. Ever she lashed her tail softly and in her throat was a sound not good to hear,–yet she crept back.
“When her cage was reached I stood quite still and straight and spoke.
“‘Enter!’ I called in the voice she knew and was used to obey.
“With drooping head she swung as on a pivot, and shrank into the cage. The muttering in her throat ended in a sort of sob, and I had conquered.
“I closed the broken door, and called to one of the cage men who now came running; with soldering iron, he made the door fast, and to-morrow the lioness will be transferred to a newer cage.”
There was a pause–then “To-morrow!” he said again and gave a short laugh.
“But that is not all, my son?” questioned the priest again.
“No,” Pasanello returned, “though I would it were. This follows, good father. When the lioness was made safe I went up into the garden where the little Princess and her ladies still stood in frightened silence, the Lady Belledowin in their midst. She was yet white as driven snow, and her eyes were dark and wide as with lingering horror. There seemed to me also to be anger in them–anger of a kind at herself, and at the whole incident. But she stood straight and beautiful as one whose pride still dominated. Never had she looked so beautiful.
“‘Ah, Pasanello,’ she said, with cool sweetness. ‘After all, you were right, and I wrong. It seems I owe you my life. What can I give you in token of eternal gratitude?’
“Good father, I looked at her and was dazzled as by the sun. For the moment I forgot I was not in my own country, forgot I was the King’s lion-tamer, and but a mountebank of the court. Forgot the little group of court ladies. I lifted her hand to my lips. ‘I love you!’ I said. ‘I love you! I ask no gift of life but your love.’
“My words stopped and there was a strange silence, as though the Lady Belledowin and the little Princess and the others stood quite breathless for that half moment.
“Then Lady Belledowin drew her hand from mine and struck me lightly on the cheek. Catching a bracelet from her arm, she threw it down at my feet.
“‘You are insolent!’ she said in a voice low but sharp as steel.
“‘Insolent past belief. Such as you are paid in gold. They render no service that cannot be so paid. Pick up the bracelet that pays thee!’
“I stood stock still and saw it glittering on the grass. The court ladies turned and drifted away through the trees like shadows, Lady Belledowin with them.
“Still I stood, my heart pounding against my side with rage and with agony. I was as one consumed with rage and agony; one deaf and blind to everything else. There came a soft touch on my arm. I looked down and saw the Princess.
“‘Pasanello,’ she said, ‘you are very brave; very wonderful. The Lady Belledowin was cruel–more cruel than the lioness would have been. We will not forgive the Lady Belledowin for her manner of speaking to you. But you, Pasanello, you need not greatly care. It is only ourselves can hurt ourselves.‘
“‘Good-by, Pasanello,’ she said, leaving me. ‘Be brave still, Pasanello.’
“The words came to me only as in a dream. Suddenly I bethought me of the golden apple tree. A weariness of life shook me. I would be done with loneliness and humiliation–yes–and love.
“I left the King’s garden and took the highway. Perhaps I ran; I do not remember. But, good father, that is all. The rest you know.”
The sentinel laid his hand on the lion-tamer’s shoulder. He stiffened to his task. “By my musket, you have been long winded!” he said. “If yon holy father had not detained you, you would have, this last half-hour, been safe in the Court House.” His eyes belied the gruff words, but leveling his rifle he signaled Pasanello to walk before him.
The old priest paced with them until they reached the cell and the sentinel gave his prisoner to the officers.
“The mayor will be informed of your deed and will act quickly,” he assured him in parting. “To your prayers, Signor Pasanello!”
The lion-tamer reached his hand through the cell bars, and touched the priest who still waited with bowed head.
“You have been very kind, good father,” he said. “Before you go, tell me you believe my story, and give me your blessing.”
The priest lifted his head. “I believe thy words,” he returned. “Yet the plucking of the apple means death. But one thing can prevent it and that thou canst not count on.
“I would ask thee–dost thou repent?”
“Of my sins–yes, father. Of plucking the apple–no. I have had enough of life as I have found it. Yet, of thy kindness, tell me what is that one thing that might overthrow my fate?”
Holding the priest’s hand, he flashed a quick smile at him. “From what I have heard of these people and their golden tree it must be an extraordinary happening that would appease their wrath at one who robbed its branches.”
The old man shook his head. “You will learn of it on the morrow, when the multitude are assembled; my son–on that hour–that hour–” His voice trembled and broke.
“Think not of it, good father–but give me thy blessing.”
The priest raised his hand and murmured the benediction, then with uncertain steps took his way out into the sunshine.
The morrow came, and from far and wide the people assembled to see the law of their country carried out. A vast indignation swayed them, and small pity was expressed for the prisoner, a comparative stranger who had returned their hospitality by crime against their beloved tree.
The King’s heralds, in their red and blue and gold tunics, had cried the news of the lion-tamer’s deed from the city walls on the North, the South, the East and the West. The papers had flamed it out in the reddest of type. The children called it to each other excitedly, and the old stood and gossiped over it. The mothers with babies in their arms held them close, thinking of the dread things that can overtake men who were once as dear and little as those they held.
The King himself was far away on a hunting trip, or something might have been heard from him, as his moods were many, and the new lion-tamer in favor with him. But in the matter of the tree of gold the people of Midas took no advice of Kings.
The mayor, aldermen, lawyers and judges had spent the night discussing the theft. They had interviewed the lion-tamer, taken the evidence of the priest and sentinel, gazed solemnly upon the golden apple with its short, twisted stem, and looked upon the branch from which it had been broken.
The crime was fixed upon the lion-tamer, to everybody’s satisfaction, and there was no appeal. Therefore the hour for his execution had been set. His death was to take place at the ringing of the next noontide bells.
The hour came on apace. Now throngs pressed and swayed around the grassy square of the golden apple tree. All knew the King’s lion-tamer, as the royal lions were often shown in public, and a sensation of awe and horror swept over the multitude, for they were a happy people with a dread of tragedy. Yet the law was the law, the golden tree a thing mystical and almost sacred. The deed against it must, they agreed, be avenged.
The bells rang out a quarter to twelve, and the mayor and aldermen, lawyers and judges, all in their robes of office, came out on a platform before the City Hall.
The crowd made way for a group of people from the court. They were all mounted and later would go hunting, but they delayed their sport a little to see this greater thing.
Among them were old and young; friends of the King, and ladies and gentlemen in waiting to the Princess. They wore hunter’s green, braided with gold that flashed as they rode. The little Princess was not among them, but the Lady Belledowin was of those who led the way.
When the bells had done striking the quarter to twelve, two soldiers came out from the City Hall, and the lion-tamer walked between them. He wore, as he had the day before, only the leopard skin about his body, the leather sandals on his feet, and above his knee the golden garter set with topaz, whereon was cut the King’s seal.
He took his stand, towering among that richly clad company as a figure strangely out of place, and his spirit seemed quiet and unruffled. A herald blew a loud bugle-blast, and the people swayed nearer. The group of courtiers drew rein tighter on their restless horses.
When the herald’s notes died away, the mayor spoke. His crimson robes marked him from the others, and his voice carried far.
“Citizens of the City of Midas!” he said. “We have come to see the law of our city maintained. The King’s lion-tamer, who comes from a far and unknown country, has violated our most sacred code. He has plucked the imperishable fruit of our golden tree, the tree of Midas. There is the apple!” He held the golden globe up high for all to see. “The witnesses to the deed,” he continued, “are the sentinel and the good priest who stands below our platform here!”
A low, angry murmuring ran through the crowd and grew in volume and force.
The mayor lifted his hand for silence, and spoke again.
“This crime was wanton and without excuse, and witnessed. Therefore the highest judge of our land has pronounced sentence of death upon Pasanello, the King’s lion-tamer!”
The people broke into a hoarse clamoring, but the mayor again commanded silence.
“Wait, good citizens!” he said. “For we have ever been of a fair and open mind. Old as is this law of ours, that the one who plucks the golden fruit shall die, you surely remember–though it is two score years since the tree was last robbed–that there is another law just as old.” He paused and a deep silence followed his words. Then–”Tell us the other law!” they cried impatiently, “and be quick in telling.” And many called: “We know of no other law! We know of none!”
The mayor looked over the upturned faces surging toward him.
“Ay!” he returned. “You have all heard of this other law but have chosen to forget. I will remind you.”
He unrolled an old parchment. “Hereon is written,” he continued, “the only laws regarding the golden tree.
“In this place,” pointing to it with his finger, “I read: ‘The penalty of death is to be inflicted on any mortal who has come of age and thereafter breaks even one golden apple from the golden tree–unless’ (Now mark you all!) ‘unless when the criminal is brought out for execution, and haply he or she be unwedded, there should arise one among you who will willingly offer to marry that one who is under death sentence, and lead him or her away down the rose-mist path that runs around our mountains–and so out of our land forever!”
The lion-tamer stood as one little concerned with what was going on. As much as one so strong could, he looked tired, and his face was not anxious, but sad.
The court people petted their nervous horses, and beside the gallows a black-robed man looked about in sullen restlessness.
Again the mayor raised his hand.
“If there be any woman among you, whether old or young, who will wed this man, Pasanello, and go with him into the unknown lands–let her come forward!”
His clear voice rang out to the uttermost edge of the people.
A stillness answered. All eyes were lifted to the lion-tamer. His face was raised now a little disdainfully, and he seemed to smile.
Then through the crowd there ran a sudden stirring, and a word was called out here and there that soon melted into a muffled roar like the sea.
The crowd parted, and up through the midst of it came a strange little half-wild figure; a girl, young,–oh, very young–with bare brown feet, and tattered blue gown and tanned gypsy face and hands. A cloud of long, tangled, yellow hair blew about her head, and her eyes were sea-blue, with the blackest lashes that were ever seen.
In one hand she carried a rough crook, and behind her trailed a flock of gray geese, kept together by the unceasing attention of a small, shaggy dog, who saw to it that they followed the little goose-girl, and not their own will.
On she came, lightly as a brown leaf blows over the ground, until she reached the platform where stood the mayor and the city fathers and the soldiers with their prisoner.
At the foot of the platform she stopped, looked up, and then around. Then she dipped a courtesy and smiled at them all.
“An it pleases everybody,” she said sweetly, “I will wed the King’s lion-tamer and lead him away down the rose-mist road–for I know it well. So, he be willing, we will go away, and never come again, forever! an’ ever! an’ ever!”
The lion-tamer had leaned forward as she began to speak, and now looked down into her blue eyes that were raised to his. Down and down he looked into the very depths of their sea blue, and they answered his gaze steadily.
“You have heard!” the mayor said to the people with a wide gesture of his arms. “This little maid from the hills is willing to wed the prisoner.” He turned to the lion-tamer, smiling. “Prisoner,” he commanded, “what say you?”
As one in a dream he leaned toward her. “Ay!” he said softly. “By my faith, I will gladly wed thee, sweetheart! I will take thee at thy word and follow any rose-mist path where thou dost lead the way. There is that in thine eyes that calls me to thee across the very path of Death.”
Then the mayor stepped down and led the little goose-girl up to the platform.
“Come you also, good father,” he said to the old priest.
With light step the little goose-girl crossed the platform to Pasanello. He took her hand, and so they stood while the priest spoke the words that wedded them.
Then the lion-tamer, caring nothing for the presence of the staring people or the mayor and judges, took the tattered maid in his arms and bent his lips to hers.
A sudden cheering broke from the throats of all the crowd below, for all the world loves a lover.
Then in gossipy groups all scattered and went their way. The ladies and gentlemen of the court last, for it had proved so rare an entertainment.
When the green square was almost clear, the little goose-girl took the lion-tamer’s hand. “Come!” she said softly. “Come, Pasanello; we must go as we promised.”
“Truly–yes, sweetheart, as we promised. We will not linger.” He turned to the old priest.
“Good father, we give you thanks, and farewell, and eternal remembrance.”
After that they went, while the priest watched them, across the square of the golden tree and down the golden highway. There his old eyes lost them, but on they went out of the city gates and on to the road of the rose-mist, the geese following behind them, and the small shaggy dog.
Hand in hand they went, and joyously and lightly as the leaves blow over the ground, and they laughed and talked and looked into each other’s eyes.
When the city was almost lost behind them, the little goose-girl caught her two hands around the lion-tamer’s arm and turned her face up to him.
“Look at me, Pasanello!” she cried softly.
“Have I done aught but gaze at thee since the moment you came?” he questioned, smiling.
“Oh, I know!” she admitted. “But look again. Tell me what–whom thou dost see!”
Pasanello looked, and suddenly caught her to him.
“Who art thou?” he questioned. “Oh, who art thou–thou most strange little maid? Methinks I know thy face–yet doubt. Who art thou?”
“The Princess,” she nodded against his shoulder. “Only the little Princess, Pasanello, stained brown with the juice of berries. You see I loved you–even–even yesterday.“
“Oh, little Princess!” he cried, touching her yellow hair. “Forget yesterday. To-day and forever it is only you I love!”
I do not know where they went to live. I have heard that the King of the City of Midas and the country thereabout rode after them, and found them, and gave them castles and gold and lands and all the lovely things that people really do not need. But I am not sure about this. Pasanello may be only a shepherd somewhere in their hills, and the Princess may yet tend a flock of gray geese. No, I do not know for certain where they went or how they lived. The only thing I am really sure of is that they were happy wherever it was, and if we ever run across them, we will find they are happy still.
Our school was named after Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya, the first woman awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union. Therefore, we had endless lectures about her life: how Zoya did in school, what she read, what essays she wrote. This was supposed to inspire us, as we were told, though they didn’t explain inspire to do what exactly. But even without that explanation it was obvious — to do great deeds, what else? We Soviet children were always supposed to be ready for Heroic Deeds. Moreover, they told us all about Zoya’s heroic death, especially focusing on the torture that she was subjected to by the fascists — in great detail. They described how the Nazis pulled out her fingernails and burned her lips with a kerosene lamp, how they stripped her naked and barefoot and led her along the streets while soldiers spit at her and poured latrine slop on her, and then hanged her and desecrated her body — her left breast was cut off. For some strange reason, her feat — what exactly this young heroine did — was barely mentioned at all. She burned something down or blew something up — she was a partisan after all, and that’s what partisans did.
Once a year they took us to the museum in the village of Petrishchevo outside Moscow where she was killed. Not every school had the honor of being named after a hero — most schools didn’t have names at all — but nevertheless there were dozens of sister schools and Pioneer groups bearing the name of Kosmodemyanskaya all over the country. Delegations from provincial Russian cities and even from other Soviet republics paid regular visits to our school, and at the end of every visit we held ceremonial processions, parades, and concerts in the school auditorium. Since the number of poems, verses, speeches, songs, films and plays dedicated to Zoya by Soviet authors was endless, the program was rather packed, even though it didn’t change much from year to year.
At home my family didn’t like Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya. My father insisted that there weren’t and could not have been any partisans outside Moscow in 1941, that she didn’t exist, that she was a character made up by some correspondent in a front-line newspaper, Red Star probably, most likely a Jew, and publicized by the Stalinist propaganda machine for the completely obvious reasons.
“Not ‘most likely,’ but a Jew for sure, and not for the Red Star but for Pravda,” my mother would interject. “His name was Lidov and he wrote the first article with that famous photograph of the cut-off breast and the rope around her neck. But it’s not a photograph — it’s a fake, because how could they have photographed her if by the time the Red Army got there she’d already been dead and buried?”
“Don’t you see? They couldn’t have buried her because she never existed!” my father would shout back. “Instead of telling the truth about real life everyday heroism of millions of people who bore the burdens of the war with their sweat and blood and won, they make up fairy tales mixed up with the perverted fantasies of some pathetic sexual impotent! It’s pure pornography!” My mom would open her eyes wide and put her finger to her lips.
The older we got, the stranger the effect of those “memorial evenings” on us. The huge photograph of Zoya, excruciatingly beautiful, with her head thrown back, torn clothing and one breast — the remaining breast — with its pointed nipple catching your eye while the second — the one cut off — is terrifying and repulsive. Her hair splayed on the snow, her eyes closed — the image upset us 12-year-olds in some gripping, mysterious way. Something dark and hot rose from the depths of our bellies and our heads spun…
Meanwhile, on stage an older student read an excerpt from an article by Alexander Dovzhenko, her voice cracking: “Zoya is cold. Her hands, swollen from the cold and beatings, are clenched into fists. Her bare feet have turned black from the horrible night in the freezing cold. Her lips, swollen and bitten and bloody: two hundred blows by German belts throughout the night tried to beat a confession from those tender lips, but to no avail. She didn’t cry out, she didn’t weep, she didn’t moan.”
During one of those evenings I couldn’t stand the stuffy room, the pathos and those mysterious things happening to my body, and escaped the auditorium. I don’t know how, but I found myself next to the empty gym locker room. There I ran into Sasha Zorin and Sergei Fadeyev from our class, who also ran away from the concert and were aimlessly wandering about the school. The small locker room was blocked off by a clothes rack and a tall cupboard for shoes. Without saying a word, we moved quickly to the corner by the far wall and began to feverishly examine each other’s bodies. Their hands fumbled, unhooked, lifted up, pulled down. Mine struggled with idiotic buckles and school belts until the boys helped me with them. We touched, stroked, groped, and squeezed, all without a word, trying not to look each other in the eye. I was ashamed to look them in the face, they also tried to look away, but our hands and bodies so closely pressed together knew no shame or embarrassment. We were so caught up in what we were doing that we didn’t notice the janitress standing before us: a tiny, hunchbacked old woman, with constantly rheumy, pale blue eyes.
Finally she regained her ability to speak. “What are you up to, you little wretches? Just you wait!”
She shook her wet floor cloth and drenched us in a stream of spray. The cold, filthy water instantly brought us to our senses. We jumped up and ran off in different directions.
The barrel of a German Tiger pointed straight at me. It was a terrifying machine — a huge, clumsy, disgusting tank. The personification of evil .I shuddered. “Death to the Fascist Invaders!” I shouted as loud as I could and kicked the tank’s caterpillar track. That gave me some relief. The spring that had been tightly wound in my stomach over the last few days relaxed a bit. There was no one around, and I could have even climbed up on the tank if I wanted to. That I didn’t want, instead I had a whim to look down the barrel which I wasn’t tall enough to do. There were some boulders scattered around, so I rolled one closer and climbed it up. One of Dostoevsky’s characters, Svidrigailov, was afraid that eternity was a sooty jar filled with spiders. The jar wasn’t too bad, compared to that terrifying, frigid, all-encompassing darkness.
It was drizzling even though the radio had promised dry and warm weather. An interesting choice to spend holidays — wandering alone in the rain, examining old tanks and thinking about eternity.
“Stop that smoking right away! Girl, I’m talking to you!” A fat elderly woman was trotting up to me at full speed, one hand supporting her chest while the other one extended out to me, as if she was going to yank the cigarette out of my mouth.
I retreated the way I came, climbed over the fence and hid in the woods, figuring she was unlikely to chase after me. I probably took a wrong turn, and instead of coming out in the dacha settlement, I just went deeper into the woods. After wandering around for about 20 minutes I realized that I had no idea where I was. I wasn’t afraid of getting lost — all around there were dacha villages and I’d get to people at some point, but the whole situation pissed me off. Why should I be alone again, and what was I doing in these woods?! It was all Alyona’s fault. She showed up right before the holidays. As if nothing had happened. And she asked me out to the dacha. Since she had gone to live with her father and his new family, we hadn’t seen each other for several months and didn’t even talk on the phone. She wouldn’t call me, and I didn’t know her new number.
The last we saw each other was on her birthday. Sixteen years old — that’s a big deal. She invited just about everyone: our entire old class — by then we’d both left, me to a medical vocational school, her to a fancy charter school. She invited rich kids from her new class; street toughs that made the juvie home weep; friends of friends who crashed the party. The door to the apartment was left wide open and new people streamed in, mostly in big crowds. I had hoped that Alyona and I would spend the evening by ourselves, having a heart-to-heart chat the way we used to, but she yakked non-stop with her new girlfriends, laughed at stupid jokes and then disappeared from the apartment altogether — she ran out with the juvies to ride on a motorcycle.
Since the start of the school year I hadn’t seen any of my old classmates — let alone I barely saw Alyona — and I didn’t miss them much. Out of boredom, I decided to show off a bit – in fact, it was not my intention, it just happened. They all stared at me as if I were an alien from the outer space, like they had expected me to put on a show. “You want songs? I’ve got‘em for you!” I spun out medical tales and they listened with their mouths open. Everything fell into place at that moment: they were silly little schoolchildren who’d never seen real life, and I was the experienced she-wolf who’d been there and done that. I got carried away. I talked and talked, washing down each new story with a glass of Kavkaz port wine. I talked about the morgue, hospital geriatric wards where old ladies lived for months until they died of dementia or bedsores; about the smells that stick to you constantly no matter how you try to kill them with cigarettes and alcohol; about the emergency ward of hospitals where the ambulances bring patients off the street at night — mostly drunk men who collapse in the snow and fall asleep. Oh my God, how they cry when they wake up and realize that their extremities have frozen during the night and now several fingers have to be amputated. How could they work and support their families?
Once — that night the orderlies gathered up all the bits of soap and melt it all down in a huge vat and the fumes and stench made you want to kill yourself — a couple was brought in. Both of them were drunk. She had a knife wound and his hands were burned so badly that the skin was coming off in sheets and he had burn spots on his face. Typical case — they had a fight over booze. He stabbed her with the knife and she responded by splashing him with boiling water, but he had time to cover his face with his hands. That was, of course, just an educated guess since they refused to give each other up. The guy stood by his story and wouldn’t budge: she fell and stabbed herself with the knife. He rushed to help her and knocked over a pot of boiling soup on himself. No one took care of them. They were assigned to different rooms, the nurses argued, the doctors yelled at the ambulance medics for bringing such lowlifes into the hospital, and the orderlies went off to boil more soap. That’s when we heard moans and cries. We ran up and saw a bloody trail going down the hall. We followed it to the room where we’d left the burnt boyfriend. It turned out she had crawled to him on her stomach — our Juliet couldn’t stand on her feet — and now they loved each other. They shouted in passion, moaned from their wounds, or, well, maybe it was the other way around. The orderlies dragged them away from one another, of course. We called the police.
I woke up the next morning in a closet. What happened and how I ended up spending the night in the closet I couldn’t remember. Alyona cleared the situation for me.
The night before I had become offended — no one could understand who I was mad at and what for — but I suddenly started to yell all kinds of curses at them and threatened to beat them up. I chased them all into the kitchen and threw boots from the hallway at them. I picked up a rolling pin and ran after my childhood friend, the one who had once been Tyl when we played “The Legend of the Glorious Adventures of Tyl Ulenspiegel,” but now was a scraggly freak with a shaved head who had blurted out something about Jews. Outside I’d had it out with the juvies and their protectors and then lay in the snow for a while to chill out — not on my own initiative, of course. Wet and miserable I came back to the apartment, said that I was leaving, walked inside the closet and closed the door behind me. Alyona decided to leave me alone, and later when she looked through a crack she saw that I was asleep.
We sat for a while and drank. Then I helped her clean up the mess in the apartment and went home. A few days later she moved in with her father.
Five of us had gone out to the dacha: me, Alyona, a friend from our old class, Nadya Velichko, the owner of the dacha, Vera and Yegor. We met on the train platform. Alyona had talked my ear off about Vera and especially Yegor, the kids of her father’s wife, but I’d never met them before. Vera — a tall, big-boned girl with a face as flat as a rag doll — never even glanced in my direction. Or maybe she did, but no one could see her eyes behind those dark sunglasses she wouldn’t take off. Yegor smoked, spit on the platform and then rubbed the spit with the toe of his shoe. Contrary to Alyona’s description, he looked nothing like Ivan Karamazov. There he was, a morose, gloomy guy with a strong jawline, a bull neck and shoulders so wide that they made him look shorter than he was. He didn’t say hello, just looked me over from head to toe and turned away. Delicate restless soul; a maverick, an intellectual and a philosopher —where was all that? I knew, of course, that Alyona was madly in love with him as long as she could remember, but really — how can you deceive yourself that much?!
In the commuter train Yegor hit on Velichko and ignored Alyona completely. Velichko giggled and peeped at Alyona. Vera didn’t say a word the whole trip, she just looked out the window. Every ten minutes Alyona dragged me out to the tambour to smoke, complained about Yegor and asked me to be careful with Vera. “She’s going through a really bad patch. You see, she went with her father on a field trip and started up an affair with one of his grad students. She got knocked up, and back in Moscow he dumped her. So she had to have an abortion. Her father didn’t want to get involved and was really mad at Vera. And then at the exact same time, I moved in and Yegor dropped out of school. Their mother thought that I was the bad influence and turned my father against me, and they ended up kicking me out back to my mother’s.”
Velichko’s dacha turned out to be a tiny wooden cabin that five people could fit into only lying on their sides in sleeping bags. The plan was to go for a walk in the woods, maybe rent a boat and paddle around the lake, and then in the evening make a fire on the lakeshore and roast potatoes. We brought booze, but for food we had only dry crackers and canned fish. We had a drink. Yegor blushed, Vera paled, Velichko got happy and Alyona got really sad. No one wanted to go for a walk any more. Yegor and Velichko disappeared. After them, Alyona vanished. I walked around but I didn’t find them anywhere. I returned to the cabin but there was absolutely nothing to do. Vera had her nose buried in the book and wasn’t interested in conversation. I think she hadn’t said a single word since morning. I was dying of boredom and annoyance.
“I guess I’ll go for a walk or something…” I got up. She didn’t even lift her head. I went out. The dacha village had a single street, and along it I walked. On the either side of the street were wooden houses, hawthorn shrubs, and birches — a typical village outside Moscow. Our family didn’t have a dacha.
I grew up as a city kid and never went outside the city for a picnic or to pick mushrooms. I spent the entire school year in Moscow, and in the summer we went to Lithuania or the Black Sea. The houses were no more in sight and I went through the woods. The path led me to a large meadow surrounded by a low wicker fence. Right there in front of me there were several tanks and mortars from the war.
“Hi. What are you doing sitting here all alone and sad in the rain? Are you lost?”
Two guys in their early twenties stood before me, most likely students. They looked like perfect three-A guys: A-students-athletes-activists. One was medium height, the other was taller, both with open faces, rosy cheeks, light brown hair, and smiling eyes. Normal guys — no hint of threat coming from them. It turned out that they’d been observing me since I was on the tank site, and then lost sight of me. The students volunteered to walk me back to the village. Along the way they told me that they were living at the campsite, going kayaking in the reservoir and rivers feeding into it, sometimes setting up tents and sleeping under the open sky, going fishing. Okay, so I was in the woods outside Moscow for the first time in five years and had never even been to a camp ground. The romance of hiking, freshly made fish soup, songs sung to a guitar around the campfire, on the water in rafts and kayaks, climbing mountains, chasing the mists into the taiga, and all the while being just a delightful bit anti-establishment — all this was a parallel reality to my life, something I read about in newspapers or heard about from people I didn’t know well. My parents thought this way of leisure to be utterly Soviet, therefore they didn’t approve of it, like they never approved of all things Soviet. The people who went on hikes were Soviet techie intellectuals, a social group my father couldn’t stand. He called them and their culture “educatedness.” They were, in his view, strong supporters of the regime, and that’s why he loathed them. “A simple working class guy lives a hard life. He doesn’t see anything beyond and can’t do a thing. That’s the way his parents lived, and their parents before them. I don’t have anything against them. But engineers and technical workers know better, are endowed with some grey matter — in any case they’re smart enough to get an engineering degree. But they don’t want to use their brains to think and they’re afraid of having their own opinions. Vulgar, law-abiding, conservative masses that will never give birth to anything alive… They go on hikes and then, sitting around the camp fire drinking vodka and strumming guitars, they rip into members of the Politburo, discuss how great Tarkovsky is because they’ve never seen anything else, and think that they’re heroes and intellectuals. And then they go back to work and attend Party meetings, vote “yes” and sign letters denouncing Israeli Zionism and American imperialism. Their only thought: obey the authorities always in everything and respect their bosses.” I didn’t see anything wrong with camping. I mean, if a Soviet citizen doesn’t have any chance to see the Grand Canyon or coral reefs, what’s he supposed to do? Not get off the sofa like my father as a sign of protest? And Tarkovsky I loved. Alyona and I stood in line for hours to buy tickets for a half-underground screening of one of his films at the “Vstryecha” movie house. We got there at 6 a.m. thinking that we’d be first in line, when suddenly a guy emerged from the icy fog and wrote a number on the palm of our hands with an indelible ink pen: It was like 300-something. In the end we got in to see the film, but Alyona was so frozen by the point she entered the hall, that she thawed out, and fell asleep.
On the way to the dacha one of the students fell back, and the taller one, Oleg, walked me home. I liked him. He was outgoing, good-natured, and athletic but all in good measure. Not like Yegor, being shorter he made an impression of enormous physical strength.
“Want to take a boat ride around the lake tonight?”
I froze. That summer I was turning 16. He was 23. Tall, good looking — you wouldn’t be embarrassed to introduce him to your girlfriends. I hadn’t been spoiled with male attention. I mean, I had many male friends, but no one had asked me out on a date. And it would count a date if the two of you took a boat ride in the moonlight, wouldn’t it? Of course I hadn’t told him how old I was. I lied that I was in the first year of med school. He believed me — why wouldn’t he? I always looked older than I was, I had an adult face, was pretty tall, and I had big breasts. There was a long silence that Oleg took for a sign of doubt.
“If you want, we can go out to an island. The locals say that sometimes at night there’s a strange glow and weird noises there. It’s a paranormal zone.”
“Yeah, right, ‘paranormal’… The villagers just see things when they’re drunk. All of them make moonshine. My friend who has a house here told me all about it. She says that a lot of them have seen a Yeti in the woods. Can you believe it – a Yeti? We even wanted to go look for him. As a joke, I mean. I didn’t see any Yetis when I walked around.”
“A Yeti —that’s an old wife’s tale I’d guess. But at our camp site they even organized a search team that went out in the woods. They didn’t find a thing but they all came back scared. There’s something weird around here. As far as the island goes — I talked about it with some perfectly sane people and they all described pretty much the same thing. And they don’t know each other, so they couldn’t have come up with a story together. It would be interesting to take a look. But if you’re scared, we won’t go out on the island. We’ll just take a boat ride.” We agreed that he’d come for me at eight.
There was still no one home except Vera. She was stuck to her book and gave no signs of life. I decided it was best to think of her as a piece of furniture and I hadn’t started to talk to the furniture yet. Maybe when I got old, out of loneliness and senile dementia I’d start talking with a chest of drawers or a bookcase, but for now I didn’t feel the urge. Velichko’s rubber boots came in handy, and just in case I put on Yegor’s warm jacket — he had gone out lightly dressed in just a sweater. I put a bottle of wine in my bag along with some crackers and two wedges of soft cheese.
“Where is it you are going?” Vera asked, like it was alright. I was so shocked I almost choked myself with Yegor’s scarf that I also decided to borrow and was wrapping around my neck.
“Oh wow. I’ve never seen a talking stool before!”
“What?” she said, squinting at me.
“Adieu, ma jolie,” I said. I don’t know why I suddenly switched to French but if I’d just cursed her to hell and back it wouldn’t have made a bigger impression on Vera. But despite that she went out after me into the yard. Oleg was waiting for me by the gate.
“And who’s that?”
I decided that she wasn’t the one to report to so I said nothing.
“Hey, where are you taking her? Listen, dude, I’m talking to you!”
“My name is Oleg. I’m a grad student at the Moscow Energy Institute, living at the campgrounds, and we’re going for a ride on the lake.”
“On the lake in this cold? Don’t even think about it! Grad students ought to sit and study and not try to charm the pants off of a minor.” She walked right up to the fence, and now they were less than a meter apart.
I grabbed him by the sleeve and started to drag him away from the fence. “Why are you even talking to her? Let’s go already!” Thank God she didn’t run after us, but she had such an expression on her face that she just might have.
“What a tough girl! For a second I thought she’d hit me. Is she your older sister?”
“Oh, don’t pay any attention to her. She’s going through a rough patch.” I decided not to set him straight. Let him think that I wasn’t here alone.
“Why would she call you a minor? How old are you anyway?”
“Come on, have you never met an older sister before? She’s six years older than me and she thinks that I’m a little girl. My mother’s sister is also six years older than her and she still treats her like a baby.”
“She’s 24? Who’d think, she’s my age. I wouldn’t say she’s older than 20.”
“I missed the bit when we decided to talk about her. Maybe she is the one you want to invite to take a spin on the lake instead of me?”
Oleg laughed and pulled me to him. I pressed my nose into the rough rubberized material of his jacket.
The village seemed to have died. We didn’t meet a single person on the way. We went through the birch grove, turned into the woods and silently walked along the path until we got to wooden planks that took us right to the water. We walked a bit along the shore until we got to a sandy beach. Oleg threw down his heavy backpack, pulled out a folded up rubber boat and started to pump it up.
When it was ready, this rubber thing looked to me like a blow-up mattress with high sides. It sure didn’t look like a boat. It was oval without a stern or bow.
“Are you sure it will hold us both?”
“It’s for a man-and-a-half, like for an adult and a child. I’m average weight – 70 kilograms. You probably weigh around 45, I’d guess.
“We round up and get 120 kilograms. The boat can hold up to 150 kilograms, so we’ve even got a margin for error. Hop in. Sit at the bottom. I get the seat. Don’t think that I’m not a gentleman. It’s just that that’s where the oarlocks are. Unless you want to row?”
I shook my head. I didn’t want to row. Nor did I want to climb into the boat. Mist hung over the lake and damp cold rose from the water. The moon hid behind the clouds as the gloomy wall of woods on the shores blended with the black surface of the water, which reflected, upside down, the black, starless sky.
“Are there waves? We’ll capsize.”
“There won’t be any waves, don’t worry.”
I couldn’t bring up any other excuse, so, with a heavy sigh, I climbed into the boat and sat down on the bottom as instructed. Oleg pushed the boat into the water, moved it a bit deeper, and then jumped in himself. He quickly set up the oars, rowed powerfully a couple of times, and we sailed into the middle of the lake. The boat sunk down a bit under our weight. Water didn’t seep in — the sides were pretty high — but it still seemed to me that half my body was under water.
“Why are you squirming around? Are you uncomfortable?”
“Not uncomfortable exactly, but you know — it’s really cold. It feels like I’m sitting bare-assed on a block of ice.”
“Yeah, the water is still very cold. The last ice has just melted. I didn’t think of that. Here, sit on the backpack.”
After manipulations with the backpack — I was afraid that we’d capsize for sure — I got more or less settled and looked around. A breeze sprang up and blew away the mist. The smooth watery surface spread out ahead as far as the eye could see. The moon, as if on command, came out from behind the clouds and shone a silver path on the water. And then everything was fine. This was exactly how I had imagined night on the lake.
The silence was broken by female voices screaming my name at the top of their lungs. First they sounded distant, and then seemed to come closer and closer. Four figures stood on the shore. And they didn’t resemble mermaids.
“Hey, you there! Come back right now!” Yegor shouted with his frightful deep voice.
“Is that you?” Alyona screamed with such emotion that I had to reply.
I held up my hands to my mouth to make a megaphone. “I’m here! We’re going to the island, to the paranormal zone!” An echo ricocheted over the water.
“Oleg wants to show me the paranormal zone. Go home!”
“You idiot! I know exactly what he wants to show you! Row to the shore, you moron!” Yegor cut in.
“Alyona, take them away! I’m on a date, what’s wrong with you? Are you crazy?”
Oleg had frozen with the oars suspended over the water and spun his head to look at me and then the group on the shore.
“Why aren’t you moving, Oleg? Come on, let’s go. Don’t pay attention to them.” I had to even nudge him a bit to shake him out of his stupor. But he didn’t move.
“Listen, you piece of crap, either you come back to shore right away and then I’ll let you walk away…”
“And if we don’t? If we sail on? What then?” Oleg suddenly blurted out in a higher pitch voice than he’d used before.
“Why are you even talking to them? What are you asking? Keep rowing!”
“Who is he — your boyfriend? Your brother? Is your father going to come down here, too?” Now Oleg didn’t seem so attractive any more. His features got sharp and he reminded me of a big squirrel. His glance was squirrelly, too — prickly.
“He’s no one to me! I met him today for the first time in my life. Give me the oars and I’ll row.” I tried to take the oars from Oleg but then I plopped back down on the backpack.
“If you don’t come back here right now, right this instant, I’ll find you at the campsite and you’ll be sorry you were ever born!” Yegor had walked up to the very edge of the water. For a second I had the crazy thought that he’d fling himself in the water and swim after us. It looked like Oleg had the same thought, because to be on the safe side he rowed us further away.
“You are so dead! Row back here right now!” Vera screamed hysterically and ran flat-out into the lake, spraying everyone else with a fountain of water. Alyona and Velichko grabbed her to keep her from going further.
I watched in horror as they fought with each other, up to their knees in the icy water, illuminated by the cold moonlight. Had they all lost their minds, all four of them at once?
Oleg stood up in the boat. “Get out of the water and walk back three meters from the shore! Until you get out I won’t move!”
I didn’t say anything. It was clear he’d made a decision and it was useless to argue with him. One more nutcase, up to five. Was the moon affecting them all like this? Then why was I still normal?
They got out of the water. Yegor sat on the sand, took off his wet socks, and put his sneakers on bare feet. Vera shook out the water from her boots.
“Walk back and stand,” Oleg shouted again.
When they moved back, we rowed up. A few meters from the shore Oleg stopped.
“What? Are you kidding? Row in closer.”
“I row in and they will jump at me.”
“No one’s going to touch you. They’re standing far back.”
He reluctantly drew closer to the shore, just about pushed me out of the boat and started rowing so hard that with a few strong strokes he was in the center of the lake again. He didn’t stop there. He went even farther, to where the moon was going down over the woods. I turned around and dragged myself toward shore. No one said a word to me. I didn’t speak either. Yegor and Vera went ahead, Velichko followed ten steps behind them, and Alyona and I took up the rear of the procession.
“This place is creepy and the woods are so… it feels like someone’s watching you, but when you look around, no one’s there,” Alyona said, finally.
“They’re just woods,” I said, glad to break the oppressive silence. “Where the devil were you all day? What were you doing the whole time?”
“Listen, it was strange. There are these old, overgrown tracks running through the woods, and no one remembers anymore where they went, and now they just break off. Velichko says that all kinds of mysterious stuff happens out there. She took Yegor to take a look, and I went after them.”
“That Oleg said something about that, too. What stuff happens here, exactly?”
“Oh, like watches suddenly stop and then start going backwards or there are loud voices, noises, like there’s a big crowd right next to you but there’s actually nothing around.”
“Did you hear anything or see it with your own eyes?”
She shook her head.
“None of us was wearing a watch…”
“So there was nothing there and nothing could be. The most that could happen is that someone could be raped.”
“Funny that you should say that.”
“Because it was you who went off with a complete stranger to God knows where. You don’t think that’s weird? You weren’t afraid that you’d be raped?”
“Oleg is a normal guy. No, I mean he’s a jerk, of course, as it turned out in the end, but he doesn’t look like a rapist at all.”
“But in any case, do you really think it’s okay to go off alone with a stranger?”
“While running up and threatening to drown a guy for asking me out on a date is okay? Forget it, moving right along… But why did you invite me anyway, if I’m here like the fifth wheel? I didn’t have anything to do all day.”
“No one planned on going off for long! We drank a little bit and then…” Alyona stammered and then fell silent. I waited for the story to continue, but the pause dragged on. In the end, she shook her head, like she was shaking off a thought that bothered her. “You’d laugh anyway. The thing is, it turned out stupid.”
We stood on the porch. Everyone else had already gone inside. Alyona looked at me questioningly.
“Inside, don’t pick a fight, who knows what might happen. Vera is really, really mad at you.”
“She’s mad at me, is she? Is she sick in the head? What did I do to her? For the whole day she made a show of not talking to me and then wrecked my date. I should be mad at her!”
“Don’t provoke her, okay? Promise?” She took my hand in her hand, chapped and red from the cold, and held it to her chest.
“I solemnly swear as I stand before my comrades!” I said like a good little Communist Pioneer. “Let’s go inside and warm up. I’m freaking frozen.”
Yegor and Velichko were fiddling with the stove, a terrifying looking ancient wrought-iron stove on legs. I’d only seen one in the movies, those about the war.
“They won’t be able to light it,” Alyona whispered in my ear.
It was like she was clairvoyant. Despite all their efforts, the flame didn’t want to catch and the smoke was bothering my throat. A couple of pairs of socks and pants were found in Velichko’s stuff to change out of wet clothing, and boots had been stuffed with crinkled up newspaper and placed close to the stove, just in case. Yegor didn’t give up. He continued to tinker with the stove. Now the flame didn’t die out immediately but held on for a few minutes. It was a bit warmer and almost stopped smoking. Alyona wrapped herself in a throw and fell asleep. Vera dozed next to her. Velichko left Yegor to figure out the stove by himself, dragged me into a far cubbyhole and started whispering furiously, practically smashing her moist lips into my ear.
“What a day! If I had known it would be like this, I’d never have come. I went for a walk and Yegor came after me, with Alyona right behind him. You can’t believe what happened. She made an incredible mess of that train car!”
“What train car?” I asked loudly.
“Quiet!” Velichko grabbed me by the arm. “What are you shouting for? She’ll wake up,” — nodding at the dozing Vera. “It was a regular train car, for cargo, standing in the woods on an old railroad line. When the rain started we climbed in. I had never gone in there before and was afraid. You know, I thought it would be all crapped up inside, but it wasn’t so bad — just dusty. Then suddenly Alyona barfs. I’ve never seen anything like it. She puked all over the car — the walls, the ceiling— everything! Every time it seemed like she had stopped, she’d start up again. She even fainted. I was holding her head while Yegor hovered around outside because he couldn’t stand the smell of vomit. While this was going on he drank a bottle of vodka all by himself, and he was okay, just real gloomy. It was awful.”
“Yeah, like in his regular life he is Mr. Sunshine.”
Yegor squatted in front of the stove. Red shadows fell across his face. As soon as he heard our last words, he stood up and walked over to us.
“Looks like it’s drawing. I fiddled with the damper to the chimney… but the wood is really damp. Do you have any gas oil around?”
“There’s probably a fuel can in the shed. What do you need it for?”
“We got to soak bricks in the gas oil and then use them for heat. Two bricks will last for a long time — all night. That’s what they do up north. So…” He turned to me. “Take off my jacket and I’ll go look for bricks.” I’d forgotten that I was still wearing his jacket and scarf.
He put on his jacket, slipped into Velichko’s father’s boots, and went outside.
“You hear that — heat the house with bricks?” Velichko made circles with her finger by her temple. “The whole family is like that! We barely dragged Alyona home and that nutcase goes on a tear! She says that you were taken away by a maniac. Actually, they say people here do weird stuff. Yegor didn’t want to go but she made him. Who’s going to argue with her? I tell you — I’m scared of her!
We giggled but quickly fell silent. Vera sat on the daybed with her legs tucked under her. She stared at me, her chin jutted out. For the first time I noticed how much she and Yegor looked alike.
“What a rude bitch — you think it’s funny? Like everything is just fine? You slut — you ruined the whole weekend. You followed your pussy and we had to run and save you.”
“My, what a language, and coming from a literature student! Who asked you to save me? You should have minded your own business and not stuck you nose where it didn’t belong.”
“Aren’t you brave! A regular Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya!”
Oh, she should not have dragged Kosmodemyanskaya into it. Zoya and I did not get along. Especially since that memorable evening in the sixth grade.
“That’s right: Zoya is a hero and you’re a whore.”
Vera stared at me with hatred.
“You’re the whore! And your Zoya is a hero the kind of Pavlik Morozov or the Young Guard,” – I fired back.
“In what sense?”
“In this sense: No one knows what really happened there. But all that stuff they shove down our throats in school is a load of crap. It is all fake, propaganda. Not a word of it is true!”
“Oh, how fascinating! Tell us all about it. What is true, in your opinion?
“That Zoya, if she had even existed at all, didn’t fight the Germans. She burned down villages, the houses of Russian peasants, forcing them out on the street in the freezing cold in the middle of winter. Because Stalin gave a secret order to burn down all the villages and all the houses so that the Germans would freeze outside. It didn’t bother him in the least how our people would survive: old people, women and children. In Petrishchevo there weren’t even any Germans…”
“Shut up, you snake! I hate your race, you disgusting brat! You, stinking Jews, walk on our soil and poison the air with your stinking breath. We were fighting, we shed our blood on this land while you were feeding your bellies in Tashkent. And now, you worm, instead of saying ‘thank you,’ you drag our heroes through the mud.”
I couldn’t catch my breath. I hadn’t seen that coming. I could tell her that both my grandfathers had fought in the war from start to finish and that my grandmother had been evacuated to a defense factory in Siberia, but my tongue was caught in my throat. I was so furious that I couldn’t utter a word to prove something to her, to justify myself. I stared at the floor just so I didn’t have to look at her contorted face. A shadow went by and I was hit with a wave of cold and the smell of tobacco.
“Because of you, because of your kind —“
She suddenly began to choke on her words and there was a crash of something heavy falling on the floor. I raised my head. Yegor had knocked Vera off her feet, he was leaning over her body lying spread-eagle on the floor with his hands around her throat.
“Shut up, shut the fuck up! I don’t want to hear another word out of you. Got it? Keep your mouth shut. One more sound and I’ll choke you like a rat.”
Alyona woke up, sat up on the couch and watched them with indifference that was incomprehensible to me, as if there was nothing the least bit out of the ordinary in the scene unfolding before her. A couple of meters from her Vera writhed and kicked her feet on the floor, but she couldn’t get out of Yegor’s grip.
“Calm down and stop squirming, it’s only making it worse. Just lie there. If you get it, pound on the floor.
Vera squirmed for a moment longer and then did what he said. Yegor unclenched his fist, stood up, and yanked his sister up from the floor. They stared at each other without saying a word. Then she went and sat down again on the couch. Yegor turned to me. His gaze sent me right out of the house. To me he wouldn’t give a chance to surrender. He’ll choke me to death for sure. Velichko ran out after me.
“The last train to Moscow leaves in 15 minutes. If we run, we can make it.”
We went to bed in total silence. Alyona stayed where she was on the daybed, wrapped up in a throw. Velichko opened up the couch for her and Vera. Next to the door was a rickety child’s bed that you could lie on if you pulled your legs up and tucked yourself into a ball. A draft came in through a crack under the door and I couldn’t get warm no matter how I tried to wrap myself in the old sheepskin coat reeking of mothballs that Velichko had given me for a blanket. Yegor lay down on the floor in the bedroom.
I woke up from someone tugging at my shoulder. I struggled to open my gluey eyes. In front of me there was a white shape but I couldn’t see who it was in the darkness. “Get up, wake up,” said a female voice. It must be Alyona, or maybe Vera. Could she really have woken up in the middle of the night and wanted to go outside to have it out with me while everyone was asleep? I sat up in the bed. I had a terrible headache and my throat was dry. I stood up and wanted to go to the kitchen to drink some water, but the darkness swirled around me, my rubbery legs collapsed and I fell down on the floor. I didn’t feel any pain from the fall and just blacked out. The same voice brought me back to consciousness: “Wake up! Scream! Wake them all up!” I tried to scream but my tongue wouldn’t obey me. Her face appeared before me, but it was like my eyes were filled with sand and I couldn’t make her out. I wasn’t able to understand what was going on, and there was a foggy emptiness in my head. I started to crawl and crashed into Yegor. He sat up, moaned and grabbed his head. “Alyona!” I dragged myself along the floor to the couch, got up on my knees, and saw Vera lying with her eyes closed. Velichko on the other side of her, turned to the wall.
“Vera!” I called out. She abruptly opened her eyes and suddenly let out a single-note scream. Her body went into convulsions, and then the shaking stopped just as suddenly as it had begun. She opened her mouth soundlessly like a fish. But, thank God, her scream woke up Velichko, who jerked upright on the couch, her eyes wide open, and looked not at me but off to the side somewhere.
“Open the door and air out the house!” the voice said. I didn’t understand why we had to do it, but I used my last strength to crawl to the door. My power began to fade away and my movements became more and more sluggish. When I got to the door I reached up to the handle and turned it. Leaning on the door with all my weight, I fell out, slid down the steps and fell on the frost-covered ground.
The cold woke me up. I was shivering so much that my teeth chattered. There was still noise in my ears, like voices drifting in through cotton. I tried to get up. The voices stopped, and someone carefully and tenderly helped me to sit up. I looked around.
The five of us sat together by the fence, not far from the house: pale, unkempt, shaking from the cold but yet alive. They looked at me lovingly, even Vera.
“You were great! If you hadn’t woken up and then gotten everyone else up, we would have all died of carbon monoxide poisoning for sure,” Yegor said as he lit a cigarette and handed it to me. “We ought to throw that stove into the river. Nadya, you’ll thank me for it later.”
“Don’t even think of it. My father will kill me. It’s a good stove, it’s been here working for a hundred years and everything was fine, until you started tinkering around with that damper.”
“It wasn’t me.” It was hard to speak, like I’d chewed sandpaper.
“I wasn’t me who woke you up. It was Zoya.”
“What Zoya?” they asked, bewildered.
“Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya. She came in, poked me and told me to wake everyone else up. I didn’t understand why. There was no smoke, no smell. But she told me to and so I did.”
They stared at me without saying a word.
“Why do you think it was Zoya?”Alyona asked me carefully.
“Who else? She was wearing one of those side caps, you know, with a red star.”
“Uh-huh,” Vera chortled. “And they say I am the crazy one.”
“Sonya, how could you? How can you wear those short dresses covered with pea-green dots?”
“Sonya, have you said your prayers?”
“Sonya, how can you listen to those fascists?”
“Sonya, have you read Sholem Aleichem?”
“Sonya, what are you eating? That’s not kosher!”
“Bubbe, I like peas on me, not in me.”
“How long can this go on? I can’t stand it!”
“It’s Wagner, Bach! They weren’t fascists. It’s not their fault they were born Germans and not Jews.”
“He’s writing about love and I don’t know what that is yet. I don’t understand what he’s saying.”
“But Bubbe, it tastes so good!”
I — Sonya — and my grandmother— Gittel Yakovlevna— live in a communal apartment in Odessa. I’m 15 years old, taking drum lessons but Bubbe thinks they’re piano lessons. I have unusual blonde hair and blue eyes. In my passport it says “Jewish,” but in Odessa they think I’m the illegitimate daughter of a German who lived here more than a quarter century ago.
If it weren’t for the line in my passport, the Torah my grandmother gave me on my third birthday, the endless Sholem Aleichem on the bookshelves, attendance at the synagogue and the lighting of Sabbath candles, I’d think I was German, but the way things are — I don’t think I’m German.
There’s a boy in my class who is also Jewish. I can’t stand him. He’s constantly pouring sand in my backpack, lifting up my dress and eating my fruit jellies in the cafeteria. But when they call Senya Hebe — that’s his real last name — when they call him “Heebie Hebe,” I go fight for him. I can’t fight at all, but I go anyway since Bubbe says that the war against the fascists started just like that — some blockhead called a Jew a “Hebe,” but no one noticed or everyone pretended like they didn’t notice. I don’t want a war. I want to live. I want to go to dances. And wear perfume. I want to learn to walk in high heels. And to kiss, to kiss — I really want to learn how to kiss.
A week ago Masha Koloradova brought a quiz to class. You know the kind — a notebook with questions like: “Who is your favorite actor?” “What’s your favorite color?” “Who do you love?” She gave it to me to fill out, and one question was, “When did you have your first kiss?” I looked at the answers of the other girls, and they all wrote things like, “A long time ago!” “A year ago,” or “When I was 12.” But I hadn’t kissed anyone. Can you imagine? I hadn’t kissed anyone, and I was so ashamed! You can’t even imagine how ashamed I was. You know what’s strange about it? I don’t know how to make borscht or use the washing machine or speak English. I’m not ashamed about that. But I’ve never kissed anyone and I’m ashamed. Really ashamed.
So that I wouldn’t embarrass myself, I wrote “When I was 11.” So? Let them envy me. No one will ever know the truth anyway.
Bubbe says that you should only kiss the one you think you’ll spend your whole life with. “So if you think you’ll spend your whole life with Fedya, kiss him,” Bubbe said. Which Fedya she had in mind, I don’t know. In fact I don’t know anyone named Fedya, but I really want to kiss. What’s it like — kissing?
When I pray before I go to bed, I don’t recite those boring old prayers that Bubbe taught me. I just talk with God. I ask to meet the one I’ll spend my life really soon with so that I can kiss him. Even if Bubbe sees. It’s good that there’s God. Even if He doesn’t exist. But the thing is, no one knows for sure. Whoever has God will never be alone. If you have God, that means you have someone to talk to. You can even imagine that He answers you.
I don’t have friends. There are kids I hang out with. We go to the movies or to the beach in the summer. I’ve got friends that I talk about acne cream with, but I don’t have a true friend — a person I can tell everything to. I keep it all inside me. Bubbe says that I’m very anti-social. I am anti-social with some people to keep from hurting them. And with others to keep from being hurt. For now, I’ve got God, and that’s the way it’s going to be. I share my secrets with Him and only Him.
Our communal apartment has five rooms, one kitchen, three stoves, one toilet and an old shower that breaks all the time. The line for the toilet can only be compared to the line outside the shop around the corner in the morning when they deliver fresh bread. All of world literature can be found in our toilet, beginning with Hugo and ending with Dostoevsky. But our neighbors love Chekhov’s short stories most of all.
“The man didn’t write bricks like comrade Tolstoy. He wrote normal-sized little stones — you have your morning movement and are five pages better read,” Isaak Fishilevich said. He lives in the room across the hall from us. He is, by the way, a decorated veterinarian and humanist.
I have the worst luck — someone always wants to use the toilet when I do. If I go first, after five minutes someone starts knocking on the door. If I go after someone else, after someone else you could die of asphyxiation. Only Uncle Isaak, the humanist, is tactful. He holds it. He holds it in and waits. So you can imagine my surprise when I saw Uncle Isaak carrying “Mein Kampf” in his string bag a while back. He bought it at the flea market. But when I went into our crapper I saw little cut-up pieces of paper in place of toilet paper. That was “Mein Kampf.” The paper was rough, but I left with a sense of duty well done and the image of dozens of little scraps floating down the sewer. In the symbolic battle, fascism lay dead on the dung pile.
Bubbe is 78 years old. She still puts on lipstick, puts combs in her hair, and buys lacy bras. Not for men! For herself. Bubbe says that she still feels like a woman thanks to her foundation garments. Men adore her. Bubbe still smokes, even today — she uses a cigarette holder. In the evenings she goes to the park to play card games and dominos with the men. She has beautiful large eyes, gray hair and a bedroom voice. People who don’t know her think that when she was young she sang arias, had affairs, and walked around in furs and jewels. I don’t know if that’s true or not. Bubbe doesn’t tell me. She doesn’t tell anyone anything. Probably her best friend is God, too.
Bubbe always tells me, “Smile even when you feel bad! Better people should envy you than feel sorry for you.” I never talked about sex with Bubbe. I always thought that she didn’t even know the word. But yesterday she told me, “I won’t tell you anything about sex. When you have a husband, let him tell you and show you. And even if you know everything about sex before you meet your husband, don’t say a thing. Keep your mouth shut and listen to your husband! If you want a smart husband, you have to be a little fool.”
Bubbe is considered wise. But you ought to see her in the morning — when she’s looking for yesterday. That’s what she calls it. She flips through all her books and turns her clothes inside out searching for her pension money and glasses. Bubbe is losing her memory. One old lady from Odessa, when she saw grandmother go by, she whispered in that way that is always really loud, “Old prostitute!” and she hissed like a snake, you know? I always want to walk up to her and punch her big nose, but Bubbe stops me, turns to face her and says, “Musichka, darling, it’s not my fault that in fifty-six Lenya Utesov fell in love with my tush and not your bones.” The old snake hisses even more as we walk away with our heads proudly held high and our tushes swaying.
Men still look adoringly at my grandmother, but I’m not pretty. When she hears me say I’m not pretty, she tells me I’m stupid. “Not only am I not pretty, I’m stupid, too. I’ve got the whole package!” I tell her. Then Bubbe takes me by the hand over to the mirror. “Look at my big nose,” she says. I look and see that her nose is big. “Look at my eyes,” she tells me. I look and see that the left is bigger than the right one, or the right is smaller than the left. “Look at my lips.” I look and see that they are thin and wrinkled. Grandmother seats me in a chair and smiles, and then she begins to walk around the room. You should see her walk! She’s a goddess! She sits on the edge of a chair and lights a cigarette. Her fingers, her neck, an untidy hair across her face… Oh, gods! I don’t see her big nose, or notice that her eyes are different, or see her thin lips. Sometimes I think she isn’t getting old, she’s just maturing. She’s maturing beautifully. “A person is beautiful on the outside when they aren’t rotting on the inside,” Bubbe says. “You’re like wine — you get better with age. But I’m like meat — I spoil the older I get,” I tell her.
It was autumn. It was raining. Yellow leaves stuck to my boots and didn’t want to let them go. I was sad, really sad for the first time. Like when it’s empty inside and you want to howl. I both wanted to hide and for someone to hug me without asking any questions. I wanted to be silent and scream at the same time. I headed for the sea. I got to the shore. I took off my boots and began to walk along the sand. I got a razor out of my pocket (I took it from home, special), took off my coat, and rolled up the sleeves of my chiffon blouse. Veins. My green veins. You could see them so easily. In a movie once I saw a razor gliding beautifully through veins. Like a knife through soft butter. I lowered the razor. One more centimeter and it would slide through butter.
The neighbor’s boy ran into our courtyard and rang the doorbell to our apartment. Our bright room, Bubbe putting on lipstick. “Do you know what happened? Did you see what your Sonya did,” Dima asked. “Gittel! Gittel! Did you see? Did you see Sonya? We warned you, didn’t we? We told you she could get up to anything,” our neighbor said. All our neighbors ran into our room and asked Bubbe the same questions, but no one dared to say what happened. They were afraid. Bubbe got up, walked up to the window and saw me. Sonya! Her Sonya! Holding a bouquet of yellow flowers with a shaved head. She started to laugh so hard that she could only say, “Well, maybe now my Sonya will start to wear a hat.”
That was the first debilitating depression. The first time I left home. With a razor. The first time I brought Bubbe flowers for no reason. The first time a razor came so close to my veins. Like in a movie.
But I’m afraid of pain.
I want to live. I want to go to dances. I want to wear perfume. I want to learn how to walk in heels. And to kiss — I really want to learn how to kiss.
I didn’t tell anyone what I wanted to do to myself. Only He and I knew about it. Later I was so ashamed before Him and Bubbe. And the stray dog Velvet, who I feed. If I didn’t feed her she might die. When winter came, I felt fine.
I love winter. In winter everything’s more straight-forward. Women don’t bare their legs and shoulders. Men don’t have to look at naked women’s bodies or shout vulgar things after high heels. All that’s left are eyes — sad, playful, varied — and desires, all cloaked by garments and God, who lives inside everyone. I love a lot of clothing on me and chicken is more expensive in the winter, so we don’t buy it often. And that’s good! In the summer chicken is cheaper, and Bubbe can’t cook anything but chicken and chicken cutlets. It’s chicken morning, noon and night. That poor, poor bird. And poor, poor Sonya. The bird and I are unhappy for the same reason: because I eat it.
Yesterday my favorite ballet troupe came to Odessa. Bubbe doesn’t like them. She says that before they go on stage they take or sniff something. But I sat in the upper balcony and wept, and then laughed, and then wept again. I want to live my life on stage to that music, with those people, in that dance. But I have to go to synagogue. Today is Friday and almost the Sabbath.
Bubbe sat like usual with her cigarette holder and barely smiled. My hair had grown out to a buzz-cut, and for some reason everyone thought that I’d had lice and had my head shaved. That’s why parents didn’t let their children get close to me. Bubbe thought this was hysterical. Lately only two things made her laugh: Mikhail Katsman’s courtship and my buzz-cut.
I love to go to synagogue. And I love to go to church, too. And to mosques.
But those people who call themselves the servants of God…
They act as if God Himself personally offered His friendship them, and even His protection to some people. Their crossword puzzles in cassocks. Their faces on the television. Their bank accounts. Their memorized, empty words that they try to fill other people’s ears and souls with. In vain. Sometimes I turn into a fly and buzz into their rooms when they’re alone. With my little paws I close their ears so that they don’t hear; I close their eyes so that they do not see. Shameful. I’m ashamed of them. And I go back to sinners. I feel better with them. I think it’s because God doesn’t live on their tongues. He is hidden deep down, so that they can cherish Him.
Yesterday Senya Hebe didn’t come to school. The teacher said he was sick. I sent him a bouquet of flowers. I always send flowers to people when they’re sick. No one has ever sent me flowers. But that’s just because I’m never sick.
A week ago Bubbe’s admirer came over — Uncle Misha, or rather Mikhail Katsman. He called me over quietly, so that Bubbe wouldn’t hear. “Sonya, what does your grandmother dream of?” Uncle Misha asked. I thought about it. She doesn’t really care much for Uncle Misha — she’s still head-over-heels in love with Utesov — so I said: “She’s dreams of a black typewriter.”
That very day the doorbell rang. It was a box — not for us but for Bubbe. A gift from Mikhail Katsman. She was puzzled and so I had to tell her everything.
Bubbe? What is it, Bubbe?
She shouted. There was a row. For the nth time she reminded me that I was cheeky, snotty and would go far. And when I left the room and she thought I couldn’t hear her, she burst out laughing.
Bubbe wants me to be a doctor, but I’m going to be a writer. The problem is, Bubbe says, that with the way I look now, only the circus school would take me. And even then we’d have to bribe my way in. Not long ago Uncle Misha sent Bubbe tulips. Where did he get them in the winter? Mikhail Katsman has a job in the government, and he’s 80 years old. He has always dreamed of being repatriated to Israel and living on the shores of the Red Sea with my grandmother.
I think Bubbe is falling in love. Yesterday she bought herself a new bra with roses on it and Guerlain perfume. She even went on a diet. And that old hag Musichka painted under our windows: “Gittel is a tramp.” Uncle Misha spent half a day scrubbing off the inscription. Bubbe sat by the window and watched him as he sent air kisses into our window. To her.
Humph. Either spring is in the air or I’ll have to go to synagogue and arrange with the Rabbi for a wedding soon.
Now Bubbe is Katsman. Gittel Yakovlevna Katsman. Tomorrow the newlyweds are going on their honeymoon to Israel. And Uncle Misha is prepared to put up with chicken morning, noon, and night.
And then for some reason flowers have been delivered to our room lately. Well, not to us, but to me. And on little cards there is something about love. I don’t know what love is yet. I don’t understand what he’s writing. It’s Senya Hebe who’s writing. I wrote about it in a letter to Bubbe in Israel. “What can I say, Sonya? If you take that last name on top of your personality, you’re sure to go far. And when you become a writer, you won’t have to worry about thinking up a pen name,” Bubbe replied.
Bubbe and Uncle Misha kiss all day long — so that means what they have is for eternity. Meanwhile, Senya and I like to sit on the shore of the Black Sea and get close to eternity. Yesterday I wrote my first short story about my favorite old lady, and Senya really liked it. Basically Senya likes everything about me. The only thing is that I can’t cook. Or rather, I can, but like Bubbe: it’s chicken morning, noon, and night.
My mother said to me: ‘You must go to school, or they will lock up your father.’ There were five of us children at home, four girls and one boy. The eldest was my sister, then me, one year behind her. But I was stronger than her. And naughtier. So my mother said: ‘You will be the one who goes to school, because at home you only make trouble.’ My sister was to stay at home with the little children. She carried them around on her back, washed their nappies, wiped their noses and their little bottoms, and swept and cleaned the house. Everything had to be done by the daughter who was at home, because mothers went into the village to work for the gadjos, and only came back home at night. That was what our mother did, too. Our father went to make bricks. If there was no work, he would work for the gadjos for some food.
In the morning, my mother woke me up: ‘Get up, Little Bighead, go down to the stream and have a wash.’ A little stream passed by about thirty metres from our house. That was where we went to wash, every morning and every night. At night, I would run down to the stream on both feet, but when I came back I hopped on one foot. I never had shoes, and so I wanted at least one of my feet to stay clean. In winter and summer we went barefoot. I only had one set of clothes, which my mother had begged from the gadjos. As for knickers and petticoats, we did not even know what they were.
I went to the stream and washed my feet and my face. My hair was full of feathers, because Romani beds were nothing but feathers and straw, which came out of the mattress and the dirty old quilt. I went to school. I had no bag, I had no readers, no pencil, no exercise book – nothing! I had never had anything of that kind.
I went through the village, and the village was still sleeping. There was no one outside, only two or three gadjos going to the fields with their horses. No one even looked at me, it was as though I were not there at all. I knew where the school was, because when I used to go into the village with my mother, she said to me: ‘This is where you will go to school, so I will have some peace and quiet, Little Bighead!’
I pushed hard to open the heavy school gates. It was dark and cold, and I was half-naked and barefoot. No one was there at all. Only one old gadjo, who looked at me and said: ‘What do you want here?’
‘Well, I’ve come to school. I want to learn things.’
‘You?’ He started to laugh. ‘Look at that skirt on her! Why haven’t you washed? Why haven’t you combed your hair? Where’s your bag? You have nothing, you don’t even have a bag! How will you study?’
‘I will study! I will come to school, I will!’
The old man laughed, and he shoved me into a classroom. I sat in the front desk. I looked all around me. I was alone, all by my little self. The old gadjo started to sweep the floor. I just sat there, thinking to myself how I was going to be somebody! I would know everything. All knowledge would come into my head if I just sat in school – that was what I believed. But then I looked at my bare feet, and my heart sank within me. How could a poor Romani girl become somebody? I closed my eyes, and saw myself in a pink satin dress, embroidered with gold roses. Then I believed again that I would be that clever woman who would pave the way for other Roma. Already as a little girl, I knew that we Roma were the last of the last. No one said a kind word to us. If I wanted to go out from the settlement, my mother said to me: ‘Don’t you dare go into the village! The other children will beat you up.’ And so I only dared to go into the village when there were several of us, or when the older boys came with us, to stand up for us.
It was half past seven, and the bells rang in the church. One after another, the boys and girls filed into the class. Their mothers brought them. Two or three mothers came into the classroom, and seated their little girls in the front desk. They looked askance at me. But I stayed where I was, because I wanted to become clever. I was just waiting to become clever. More and more gadjo boys and girls kept coming in. They were finely dressed, everyone had a bag, and the little girls had ribbons in their hair.
At long last the teacher arrived. She saw me in the front desk. ‘Who put you there?’ She dragged me up, and sent me to sit at the back. ‘That’ll be your place.’ In the first desk she sat the rich little gadjo girls. Then came the poorer ones, and the very back desk was for the Romani kids. ‘The gypsy desk.’ Next to the cracked window, separated from everyone else. I felt like an orphan. Why did I have to sit there all alone? It was hard for me, when there was not a single Romani child with me, and I was afraid. I would have felt stronger, if only someone had sat next to me. But I was alone, all by myself.
The first day in school went by. I learnt nothing. None of that knowledge went into my head, the only thing that forced its way into my mind was how poor I was. When I arrived home, no one asked me: ‘so how was school?’
‘Mummy, the teacher said that I needed a reader, an exercise book and a pencil.’ My mother slapped me. ‘Run away! There isn’t enough to buy bread, and you want a book from me! Just keep on going, so they don’t take your father and lock him up.’
The next day, I washed my feet again and I combed my hair and put on my old clothes and went to school. And that’s how I went to school every day. A month went by, and the teacher did not ask me anything, but just looked to see that I was there. She did not know that I was listening to all that she said. When she asked one of the other girls or boys, in my mind I said along with them what they were supposed to say. I liked doing maths. The seven-times table was my favourite. At night, I was unable to fall asleep because the seven-times table kept dancing in my head. I raised my hand, and the teacher called on me: ‘Go on, count!’ And I counted very well. Again, the teacher asked: ‘What do they cultivate in Hungary?’ I knew. Peppers, melons.
‘You are not stupid,’ said the teacher. ‘If you had a reader and an exercise book and a pencil, you could learn something. Why doesn’t your mother buy you a reader?’
‘My mother has no money.’
‘Why do you go around so dirty? You don’t even have proper clothes!’
‘There are many of us at home, and there is no work.’
Then, one day, I did not go to school. ‘Where were you?’ asked the teacher when I returned.
‘You told me that my clothes were dirty, so my mother washed them for me.’ The teacher’s eyes popped out. ‘I couldn’t go out of the house until my clothes were dry.’
Then the teacher bought me an exercise book and started to give me little pencils, which the other children had thrown away. My fingers hurt from holding them, but I was glad to have them.
One day an order was given that all ‘gypsy’ children must go to school. That’s what the village mayor said. Among the Roma there was great horror, great panic. They ran up and down, the women tore their hair, what will they do with us? What will they do with us? The village guard came to the Romani settlement and began to drum, and the men ran out of their huts, half-naked, their hair full of feathers, and the women were screaming at the children: ‘Go to school! They’ll lock up your father if you don’t go! Who’ll support us?’
The children went. They all put on their ‘very best’ clothes – their mother’s skirt, their father’s trousers – and off they went to school. The village official went on his bicycle, and we chased after him. ‘Go on, run, you gypsy rabble!’
He took us in to the headmaster. I had never seen the headmaster before. He was short, fat-bellied and bald. He had onion eyes and a big moustache, which jigged up and down above his lips when he spoke. He only had two teeth, and God knows where the other teeth had gone. When he looked at us, his big eyes bulged out. He started to tell us off for being lazy Roma, who did not want to learn anything, who did not want to become real people! He cursed us, but you could see that he was a good man. ‘How will I divide you up? Filthy rabble! All the teachers are scared of you,’ he said, kindly. So he started to count: one, two, three, four, five. There were fifteen of us. He said: ‘You go there, you there, you there ’ So he divided us up among the classes. My sister Beži, who was a year older than me, also had to go to school. My mother cursed and cried that there was no one to be with the children when she went out to work.
We went into the classroom, and the teacher was scared of us. ‘Where will I put you!’ At the back were three desks, and she sat us there. We were separated from the gadjo children so that we wouldn’t fight with them. We couldn’t study.
Once, I was very hungry. It was just when there was a fair in the village. The gadjos were baking and boiling – the Roma were hungry. The teacher asked each of us what we had eaten, including the Romani children. Black Pot said: ‘I haven’t eaten anything since yesterday. We only eat when my mother gets home from the village.’
Bango said: ‘We don’t eat in the morning, either,’ which was true. Our first meal used to be in the afternoon, when our mothers came back from the village and brought potatoes, cottage cheese and milk, which the gadjo women gave them if they chopped firewood, cleaned the manure out of the stables, or wiped down the stove.
The teacher said to me: ‘What have you eaten?’
‘Wow!’ my eyes opened as wide as stars. ‘If you could see what I ate! Biscuits with cottage cheese, soup, buns and cake …!’
‘How is it that you have eaten, while there was nothing for your sister to put in her mouth?’ the teacher interrupted. ‘Why are you lying? Stick your tongue out! You’ll get something to make sure you don’t lie next time!’
I stuck my tongue out, and she hit me across it with a ruler. It hurt so much, I could not even speak. But when I came to myself again, I said to her: ‘I was not lying! I was eating all night long! I dreamed of eating, I ate in my dream.’
The teacher went red, said nothing and walked away.
A year went by. Everyone said I was not stupid. I did not fail. They let me move into the second year. I received my school report. There wasn’t a single C grade on it. And I was very proud!
I ran home, jumping up and down for joy, and shouting from far away: ‘Mummy, I only have As and Bs.’
‘I’ll give you ‘A’s! Do you think we can live off your A grades? A grades, A grades – at home you do everything to avoid working! At home you couldn’t care less about work!’ That’s how she cut me short. It was hard for me. The little gadjos got books, watches or money for good school reports – but what was there for me? Cursing. There was no one I could pour my heart out to.
Three Romani boys went up with me into the second year. I became friends with those little boys, and the Roma said of me that I was stronger than a boy! Whatever the boys said, I said it too, and what they did, I did too. When they were beaten, I was beaten too.
One time the circus came to the village. I was mad about dancing. I knew how to put my leg around my neck. And so Šulo and Bango and Tarzan – those were the names of the three who went with me into the second year – said: ‘Listen, you go to the circus – and whatever you see there, you can tell us about it afterwards!’
I said: ‘How can I go, if we don’t have any money?’
And they said: ‘Don’t worry, we’ll get some money somehow. Come with us.’
We went over to the church. In front of the church was a statue of Saint John. In the morning, when the gadjos walked by the church, they threw money at it. And Šulo said: ‘What does a statue need money for? You can keep guard, to make sure the priest or the verger doesn’t come, and we’ll collect the money.’ They made some clay with slime and spit, and made a kind of sticky paste, which they put on the end of a stick, then they poked the stick through the grating towards Saint John. They wanted to raise the money from the dead. ‘Bango, do a wee in the clay, wee in it, it will be better,’ said Šulo. And sure enough, he caught a sixpence on the stick. But the priest was coming!
‘The priest is coming!’ I shouted. The boys stuck the sixpence in my mouth. ‘Swallow it! Get it down!’ I swallowed, and started to choke. I choked, retched, spat, turned red, and the boys were thumping me on the back.
‘What are you doing here, you devils?’ said the priest.
‘We came to pray to Saint John – look, she almost choked,’ lied Bango.
Of course, the priest did not know that I was choking on stolen money, and he said: ‘Come here, let me give you a bit of holy water.’ He poured some into my palm, and so I washed down the stolen money with holy water.
Bango said: ‘We need to think of a way of getting the money.’ But how? What? Where? I used to go to work for one gadjo who had chickens. ‘Do you know what?’ the boys said, ‘You go into the hen-house, take the eggs from under the chickens’ bottoms, and we can sell them to the Jew.’
I did not know what to do. ‘Bango, you go!’ I said.
‘Alright,’ the boys said. ‘You go up the tree, up the pear-tree, and you can pick pears. Bango can go for the eggs.’
I climbed the pear tree – the dog didn’t bark, because it knew me. The boys were in the hen-house, and the hens made no noise, because Šulo and Bango knew what to do. But who should be coming? The gadjo! And I was up the tree! He came straight for me. ‘Is that how you thank me for giving you work?’ He picked up a big stick, the kind you use to knock down nuts, and he went for me! I looked to see whether Bango and Šulo would run out of the hen-house. I saw them jump over the gate, and then they were gone. The gadjo saw nothing. Good, now I could come down from the tree. So I jumped, straight onto a nail. Luckily, it didn’t go into my leg, but it tore my skirt at the back. I ran for it, and the torn skirt flew in the wind, while my naked bottom shone out like the moon.
The boys were waiting for me. They turned me round and round. ‘We need a patch to sew it up!’ said Bango. But where could we get a patch from?
‘Do you know what,’ said Bango, ‘you walk in front of me, and I’ll walk right behind you, and then no one will see your bottom.’ So that is how we walked. My mother was watching from a distance. ‘What on earth is that? Look! She’s with a boy! Stuck right up against him! Does an honest girl walk like that?’ (I was about seven or eight years old.) As I came nearer, my mother said: ‘Is that how you go about, my girl?!’ She beat me until I could not get up from the ground. My mother was wailing: ‘You have one set of clothes! And you’ve torn them up! How can you go to school?’ We never had cloth for a patch at home. My mother said to me, ‘Wait, we’ll do it somehow.’ She took a kind of apron, which was supposed to be tied to my front, and she tied it behind me. My naked bottom could not be seen.
As soon as my mother had tied the apron to me, we went to sell the eggs. The Jew said: ‘What kind of chickens do you have?’ Their shells were very thin. ‘You can see straight away that it’s a Romani chicken.’ The Jew would not buy the eggs from us.
Now what? How could we make money to go to the circus? I said: ‘Oh! I am so disappointed! I’ll never go anywhere. I’m going home.’
‘Aha!’ said the boys. ‘So you swallowed the money and now you want to go home!’ Šulo caught me by the ear. ‘Have no fear. Wherever you try to go, we’ll follow you, because that Saint-John sixpence is not just yours! It’s ours, too.’ But what use was the sixpence to us anyway, when the circus cost one crown twenty!
‘Let’s go and see what we can do,’ said Tarzan. We went to the place where the circus was, and it was already full of circus wagons. Bango went to ask whether he could go and carry wood, or help in any way. What the circus manager said was: ‘Yeah, I need nappies washing, and you can wash them if you want.’ Bango ran for water, Šulo washed, and I just stood there as if I was their princess. Bango said to the circus manager: ‘Let her go in! She can go and see the circus!’
The circus manager pushed me forward: ‘Hop in! Run off, then!’ I went inside, and the boys went on and on washing the nappies.
I was inside the circus! The acrobats swung on the bars, walked on the rope, and the clowns fell off bicycles – most of all, I liked the snake woman in the golden skirt, who did somersaults in the air and walked on her hands. In my mind, I did everything alongside her. I’d show the boys a thing or two!
I went home, glowing like a star. I was beaten by my mother for gadding about! I went to sleep in tears and hungry. As soon as I closed my eyes, I imagined myself as that circus lady, jumping through the air, walking on my hands, with the golden skirt shining on me like the sun.
It was not yet light when I got up secretly and disappeared off to the cemetery. There was a large lawn there, beautiful and soft, so that I would not break any bones. I did a crab. I could do that. I put my foot around my neck. I attempted a handspring. I fell crashing down on my back. No sooner had I recovered a little than I tried to do it again. I spun through the air. Good, now I could do a flip, as well. There was one thing I couldn’t do – I could not walk on my hands. I fell and fell again. I was broken and bruised. Everything hurt.
The bells were ringing in the church, and I fled to school. My first lesson was catechism. The priest came into the classroom, saying: ‘You were at the circus, weren’t you?’
‘Yes, I was.’
‘You go to the circus, but you don’t go to church!’
I said: ‘The floor is cold in the church, and I don’t have shoes.’
‘Tell me how our great God was born.’
‘I can’t tell you how God was born, but if you want I can tell you how my little sister Ili was born.’
‘Come out from behind your desk! You’ll get your bottom smacked for having no manners!’
‘Oh no! I can’t have my bottom smacked!’ I cried. The priest pulled me out of my desk, the apron flew open, and my naked bottom glowed like a full moon. The boys started to laugh. The priest sent me home. And finally my mother brought me some worn-out clothes from the village.
A week later, when I was not so bruised, I said to the boys, during a maths lesson: ‘Come with me.’ I put my hand up and said I needed to go to the toilet. The boys did the same thing, one after another. We had a modern school, with three flushing toilets and a corridor in front of them. In the corridor, I began to show them what the circus was like. The teacher started to wonder where the Romani boys were. Where had they gone? No one had come back from the toilet. The teacher came after us. And when she saw us, I was walking on my hands, spinning through the air and twisting my face like a clown.
‘So that’s what you’re doing! You’re teaching them circus acts. Wait here!’ I was beaten again. How many times had I been beaten for one circus! And what had I gained from it? One swallowed sixpence. When it came out of me again, I hid it in the cemetery. It’s buried there to this day.
A new teacher came. He was tall and young. He looked at us. ‘Are those all the Romani children? Are there no more of you?’
‘There are more of us, but the others don’t come to school. If there were more of us, the teachers would be scared!’
‘So I will take all the Romani children!’ said the new teacher. ‘But none of you will interrupt me or disturb me!’
The next day, what should we see but the new teacher, riding his bicycle into the middle of our settlement. He had come among the ‘gypsies’. Not a single gadjo had ever visited us, apart from the village guard. The teacher called out: ‘Every child who is supposed to be going to school, come outside!’ He even said ‘aven avri’, ‘come outside’, in our own language!
We ran out of the shacks – the teacher had a stick in his hand. ‘Get going, get going, run along to school!’ When we got to the classroom, he asked: ‘Hands up if you haven’t combed your hair.’ He didn’t need to ask, he could see that none of us had combed our hair.
‘Why haven’t you combed your hair?’
‘We don’t have any combs.’
‘Have you washed?’
‘We don’t have any towels.’ One after another, we started to tell him everything that we did not have.
‘Good. Tomorrow you can come to school one hour earlier! If not, I’ll give you what-for!’
The next day, we really did come an hour early. The teacher was already waiting for us. He had brought towels, soap, a washbowl and combs.
‘Who hasn’t eaten anything?’
We all put our hands up. The teacher sent Bango for bread rolls. He bought a roll for each one of us. Then he said: ‘Well, now we can start learning something! Today you can all stay in school for the afternoon, too.’ At midday, he bought food for us again, bread and margarine. He asked us: ‘What do you want to be when you are older?’
‘I want to dance and sing!’ I said.
He slapped me. ‘You won’t earn a living that way. You need to study, then you can dance and sing.’ Then he grabbed the boys by the hair. ‘What do you want to do?’
‘Me – a blacksmith.’
‘Good, you will be a blacksmith.’
‘I want to be a musician like my dad.’
‘That’s all fine, but you must still know how to read and write.’
Then he gave us pencils and exercise books and we really did start to learn something.
There was a fair in the village. The teachers chose good pupils to recite poems. So our teacher said:
‘Just wait and we’ll show them what you can do!’ He asked me: ‘Do you know how to sing?’
I sang a very amorous love song from a film. I must have been about eight years old.
‘Who taught you that?’ the teacher asked.
‘My father sings that to my mother at night,’ I said.
‘Which of you can recite a poem?’
‘Meeeeee!’ I shouted. I recited a patriotic poem which I had heard from the gadjo children. My face was red and my eyes shone – he stared at me.
‘Good,’ he said, ‘you can recite a poem, and then you can all sing and play music.’
The boys brought violins and basses and whatever they could from home. But we had nothing to wear, we had no smart clothes. The teacher said: ‘Oh my God, if I was not so poor! How I could help you all! Look what beautiful hair you have! Would you like ribbons in your hair?’
‘Wow! I’d love that.’
‘Look, boys and girls, you have to study so that you won’t be stupid! So that the gadjos can’t do whatever they want with you. If you study, you will be cleverer than your parents. You will hold your heads up high, you will know how to find your own place among the other people. Study, and pay no attention if I shout at you, or if I box your ears. I cannot get angry with those who treat you in such a way, so I have to vent my anger on you. Oh God! When I see how the gadjo children eat so well and bring bread with dripping, and you eat your hunger, how the anger rises in me! How am I supposed to help you? Grow up good and honourable, so that the gentlemen see that your poverty is not your fault but theirs.’
And we took an oath that we would never again be naughty or bad, that we would not steal money from Saint John, and that we would study.
We went to the celebrations. No one expected the Romani children there. The gadjo children were there with their mothers and fathers. They put on a play about a princess and a cobbler.
Then our teacher stood up. He said: ‘Now let me introduce my pupils to you.’ The boys began to play. The old men started pulling at their moustaches big and small and started tapping their feet, it made them so keen to dance! Then I recited the poem. The gadjos were astonished. Then I took a plate, as my teacher had told me to, and went to collect money. ‘We want to study, too, but we don’t have readers or exercise books.’ Everyone gave some money.
I did not go to school for long. The war began, and Roma were not allowed to go into the village. They did not allow us to go to school. I did three years of school.
*This Story is taken from: Povídky: Short Stories by Czech Women, ed. Nancy Hawker, copyright © Nancy Hawker, 2006.
Dr. Spencer looked up from his misery to the long, winding lines— dark eyes, brown clothes, the occasional red and yellow native costume—and each day before this and after seemed a wretched sameness to him, as if Ellis Island were a prison rather than a reception point, and he was the one locked inside. It made him wonder for the first time if these people were worth all the trouble.
Dr. Hauss, down the line, was new, so his inspection—just clubfeet and goiters—still took twice as long as it should. Waiting for him to finish, Spencer slumped against the metal railing and pressed his palms over his ears, gently rubbing his temples with his extended pinkie fingers, aware that he looked haggard, but not caring. These people’s murmurings—a dozen disparate languages ricocheting like a symphony of ignorance off the tile walls—made his head throb more than last night’s bottle of brandy. Who were they to judge him? Human flotsam. Desperate castoffs. They had no right. They did not know him.
The next person was a woman in her forties, then a man in his twenties, followed by a family of four who all had conjunctivitis. He passed them on, then stopped and glanced at their backs. Really? Had he run his finger under every eyelid? Of course. It was so automatic he did it without thinking.
Spencer reached for his face, then jerked his hand back. Damn her!
He’d almost touched his eye without disinfecting. Spencer dunked his hands up to the wrists, splashing solution onto his instrument stand. It took only a moment to risk his sight, his whole life.
Just like it took Laura only a moment to excise him from hers. Six words—I don’t want to marry you—had reduced thirty years of confidence, work, friends, and good looks to the simple, ridiculous fear of not being good enough to love. It felt as though she’d stamped his forehead “undesirable” and he would walk around trying to hide under his hat the rest of his life, tripping over obstacles with his brim pulled down too far. Spencer wasn’t sure whether or not to believe what she had said—that there was no one else—but what did it matter? Was it better or worse than what his sister had said—that Laura came from a different class of people. “I’m surprised she ever went out with you.”
While Hauss muddled through the next large family, Spencer absently arranged the things on his stand—a row of blue chalk, a flat piece of metal like a buttonhook for inverting eyelids, a notebook for interesting observations and a gold-plated, new ballpoint-style pen Laura had given him. Spencer opened his notebook and looked at his name, written with the pen in the top left-hand corner of the inside cover. The crisp lines of his signature, the perfectly round dots between his M and his D, suddenly seemed a mockery. He decided to throw the pen out as soon as he could get a different one.
Spencer had gotten a job on Ellis Island right after he finished his training and last year he’d been promoted to the eye and brain man, responsible for diagnosing trachoma, a highly contagious infection that caused blindness, and mental deficiencies. Like all the physicians, he used blue chalk to mark his diagnosis on the person’s shoulder, in his case CT for trachoma and a circled X for the deranged and retarded. Inspectors further down the line separated people based on their marks. People marked with CT were sent to the infirmary for a second check. If confirmed for trachoma, they joined those with a circled X back on the boat, bound for wherever they started. Which is why Spencer’s position was left to the most experienced.
Finally Hauss sent up a group of eight and Spencer worked through, starting youngest to oldest—the best way since younger kids got scared off if they saw him use the buttonhook.
Done, he leaned on his podium, head in his hands. God, Hauss was so damn slow! Perhaps he could go to the administrator’s office and tell them he was ill. Who would question a doctor’s diagnosis of himself? But with Hauss’s speed, if he went home sick, they might have to shut the whole line down for the day. People whose relatives were waiting for them to disembark would get stuck on the boats. Maybe he could at least get a damn chair to sit on. Wasn’t he entitled to that much? A chair? He was a doctor after all.
Spencer pushed his glasses up on his tall nose and rubbed his eyes, then glanced quickly at his hands. What the hell was wrong with him? He never touched his eyes at work. Had he remembered to disinfect? Of course, he hadn’t seen a case of trachoma all day. Still.
He dipped his hands in the bowl of disinfectant on the stand’s lower shelf. Some of the doctors on the Island didn’t bother with this precaution—as if they had no common sense at all. Sometimes, seeing this, Spencer wondered if he should feel proud of his job. Was it true what Laura had implied, that only the desperate take a job on the Island? Spencer’s father owned a grocery. He had no medical connections. So what of it?
A man approached with red, watery eyes. Spencer swirled his instrument in the disinfectant, flipped up the man’s eyelid and ran his finger along the underside. It took only a second to feel the white granules. The man forced his eye shut, face wrinkled in outrage, and muttered something in Yiddish. Trachoma and the Jews. They had it the worst, especially of late.
Spencer marked him on the shoulder with a CT, then smiled kindly, eager not to alarm him—he looked as though he could be trouble—and motioned for him to go on ahead.
Waiting for the next group, he scanned the lines, focusing on the women, wondering what they thought of him. Were they ashamed to have a strange man touch them? Or did they admire him, a doctor, an American? Did they resent him for judging them or seek his approval gladly, like a child seeks a parent’s?
Spencer washed his hands again, straightened his tie, then glanced up. Laura stood in front of Hauss. Laura? The same crackly red hair, like fall leaves. The same white neck. The mole? Was it there? Hauss had his hand on the woman’s neck, checking for goiters. She looked afraid and angry. Spencer’s stomach felt bound like a tourniquet on a wound. He knew now: that’s what Laura went to last night. Someone else’s touch.
He passed the next two people without the mental exam—they seemed good enough, just go—and picked up a fresh piece of chalk, rolling it slowly between his hands, the dust leaving blue trails in his fingerprints.
Fredek held his book high so that he could appear to be reading while actually watching the pretty girl from their ship. Her name was Macia, but he thought of her as Goldene because she’d told him that’s what the Jews called America, Goldene Medene.
She approached the first man along the pipe and he took her throat in his hands. He seemed to be massaging it, which Fredek thought a strange way to greet someone.
Fredek began to scratch his head, but the Old Loaf slapped his hand away before he could get any satisfaction. “How many times do I have to tell you? You want them to think you have lice? Hm?”
Fredek smiled and stuck his hand in his pocket. At least she was moving again. For weeks his grandmother had sat on her bunk aboard ship as if she were a baker’s sample, long gone stale in the window. Fredek couldn’t even remember seeing her get up to use the toilet. Now that they were on land, her body had begun to expand to its normal shape, which he thought of as a paczki, sweet and thick and soft.
If he had asked her, Wicktoria would have said she was more like a dinner roll—hard crust, good slash across the top for bursting. She’d have explained to him there was nothing to worry about, though. It was only natural after weeks of sitting in rail offices, waiting in ticket lines, riding on strange buggies, walking on unfamiliar roads and sleeping in common beds that she’d become flattened, like unleavened bread. Which was fine. Such bread lasted longer.
And last she would have to. The journey had taken an extra week due to rough waters, and then they’d been forced to sit on board, just off the coast, for three days waiting for the Island to clear. On day two the rumor started that they were not going to be let off at all, that the whole ship would be turned around and sent back. In the wavering darkness of steerage Wicktoria had listened to the mumblings in Magyar and Russian, Yiddish and German, and tried to remain flat. No hope. No fear. These were the opposite ends of useless.
She knew her grandson was only pretending to read. She followed his eyes to the redheaded Jewess in front of them in line. On the ship the girl had a berth just across from them and Wicktoria had warned Fredek to stay away from her. Everyone knew the Jews were infected with a disease of the eye which kept you from getting into America.
“She looks fine to me,” Fredek had said a hundred times over the past few weeks, but Wicktoria wasn’t taking any chances.
While the man examining the girl made notes, she dabbed at her eyes and Wicktoria nudged Fredek. “See, I told you.”
“She’s crying, Babcia, because of the bags.” When they’d come in on the first floor the men in blue made them leave their suitcases in a pile before they were allowed in line. It kept the lines moving more smoothly, with less congestion. The Old Loaf had heard rumors of this policy on the boat and had taken the precaution of concealing their valuables—cash money, her late-husband’s pocket watch, some dried biscuits, her Bible and her mother’s rosary—under her knitting in a small bag she could easily carry. While they waited in line, the knitting would also keep her occupied.
Goldene had argued with one of the men in blue and Fredek had tried to help, translating for her, until the Old Loaf had pulled him away. “You want us to go back on the ship? You want to go to prison for talking like your father?” It was the first time since they’d left home he had heard real fear in her voice.
Goldene dropped her handkerchief. Fredek grabbed it and handed it to her before the Old Loaf had time to interfere. “Cheer up,” he told her. “It’s just stuff.”
She grinned and reached to pat his cheek. Wicktoria slapped away her hand. “No touching!” She’d already told the girl why they preferred not to associate.
“It’s nice,” Goldene whispered in Polish, “to have a young man think of me.” She turned back to the man at the pipe, who pantomimed removing his shoes. She leaned down to unlace her own boots and Fredek enjoyed the view of her wide hips and her hair, like fired clay, falling across her face.
The Old Loaf whispered, “Mind your manners.”
Embarrassed—did she miss nothing?—Fredek turned his attention to his book, a small volume covered in blue, wrinkled leather. Gilded letters rubbed brown read, “An Emigrant’s Guide to the United States of America.” He read the book slowly, puzzling out each word from context and the English his father had taught him. He marked the passages that seemed most important with a light pencil dot.
Here he can do everything which is right, and no man can with impunity do anything to him that is wrong. If he is not in debt, an event necessary only from sickness or decrepitude, he is absolutely his own master, and the master of all his possessions.
Fredek didn’t know what “impunity” or “decrepitude” meant, but he knew what “his own master” meant—he would be free, just as his father had promised.
It is only the sober, the honest, and the industrious who succeed. Fredek marked the word “industrious” to look up when he bought an English/ Polish dictionary.
Despite her admonishment, Wicktoria did not judge the boy harshly for enjoying the pretty girl’s backside. She was proud of him, in fact, that amid all the loss he’d suffered—both parents gone, his home, his friends, everything left behind—he could still find joy in what God had made. Nonetheless, there were matters of respect to consider.
The last night on the ship, Fredek asleep and the lights all extinguished, Wicktoria had decided to put on her good dress. She knew she’d get better treatment on the Island if she looked more presentable. It still plagued her, whether she’d made the right decision to save the money on second class and take steerage. After she’d bought the tickets she’d heard second-class passengers were given a more cursory inspection.
When Wicktoria slipped her dress over her head and turned her head to free her long hair, she saw him—the man across and one bunk down from her. She’d thought he was asleep, but no—that was clearly a glint off his wet eyeball, open, staring at her. She paused, holding her dress in front of her. What interest could he have in an old woman like her?
She looked at him questioningly, then slipped her top off, letting her pendulous breasts sway out nearly bare, covered only in the thin fabric of her undergarment. He smiled and nodded in appreciation. She’d proceeded to pull off her old stockings—thick, black wool with tiny, random moth holes—then slid her fresh stockings—white with red poppies embroidered along the outer calf—up her dimpled, fine-veined thighs, and fastened them to her garter.
The man smiled at her, then closed his eye, the glint gone.
Finally, on the third morning, the doors opened and the darkness began to move, the long, wide skirts, leather bags tied shut with rope, pillowcases full of nothing worth having, only worth not losing.
On the ferry Wicktoria sat at the window, cheek against the cold glass, eyes closed while Fredek strained over her, looking out. She tried to imagine a moment of complete rest, complete aloneness, a moment when she could let go all her bags, take off her coat and dress, shed the papers with her fake name and pretend husband, crumple the damn tag they’d pinned to her collar, and return to a world in which she could lay down without another pair of eyes to see her drift away.
Now Wicktoria watched the second man further down the line at the elbow in the pipe. He handled each person like a mother who’d had enough—grabbing their faces and peering in their eyes as if they were peepholes, asking questions, writing directly on their clothes. Would this be the end of it? She doubted that. At least it was warm in here.
Wicktoria breathed in a great quantity of air. Her whole chest rose, the papers with her false name, her pretend husband waiting in America, pressing against her breasts. She turned her face toward the high windows above and felt an intense desire to fly, to be able to rise up far away, just her, not even Fredek, into the enormous open space above her, the towering arch of the ceiling, where she could touch the cool tiles on the upper wall, curl up in the immense chandeliers under the gentle warmth of their electric light.
The man waved Goldene down to the next station at the elbow in the pipe and consulted his clipboard again. Fredek glanced at the Old Loaf to ask if he should go on up, but she was staring at the ceiling, her gray head twisting in circles. Fredek followed her eyes to the arched windows, where a faint snow fell against the gray light. He, too, thought of flying— out the windows, out into the new world of rules, laws, languages, and the only thing he feared was leaving behind the Old Loaf. His parents were dead, but she had saved him. He looked at her wrinkled, spotted hand. The knuckles were especially wide and flat, like a man’s. She wore a gold band that had grown too tight some time ago and now sat in a permanent depression which made it seem that removing it would require amputation. Fredek took the hand in his and squeezed it.
Hauss, so miserably slow, seemed to have been manhandling the poor girl for hours. Finally he’d waved her down to Spencer.
“Your name?” Spencer asked, his voice almost a whisper. Her high-necked blouse made it impossible for him to see if she had a mole like Laura’s, a soft-brown spot, perfectly round, just above the clavicle.
She didn’t reply, so he asked loudly if she knew English. “No,” she shouted in Yiddish.
Another Jew. Spencer wondered if she was trying to escape the Pale of Settlement the Russians had set up.
He asked in his limited Yiddish where she was from. The girl looked at him with that expression, the way they all stared, defiant and vacant, resentful, assuming you had something against them, which you didn’t.
“Oh, for God’s sake, I don’t have time for this.” He snapped some papers out of her hands. Macia. He was fairly sure that was Miriam in English. “Miriam, where’s your husband?” It wasn’t his job to ask these questions, but really, what was a woman her age doing coming to America alone?
She said something he didn’t understand, this time in Polish. Why was she switching to that awful language? Did she think he was a bohunk? That he might understand it any better than Yiddish?
The old woman behind Miriam took several steps forward, then stopped under his glare and spoke in Polish to the girl.
“I’m not ready for you yet,” Spencer said sternly, hoping his tone, if not his words, would convey the message.
A boy took the old woman’s hand and pulled her away, mumbling “sorry” in English. Spencer frowned a warning, and went back to Miriam. He was going to just wave the girl through—she was clearly not insane—when he noticed her eyes. Red, puffy. He wiped his hands slowly, rubbing his chalk-laden fingers white again. Then he cupped her jaw. She looked frightened. “It’s all right,” he whispered. “I just have to check your eyes.” Instead of using the buttonhook, he took her fragile, blue-veined lid between his thumb and forefinger. The girl muttered something in Yiddish. He caught the word “don’t.”
“It’s okay,” he muttered, but she pulled away from him, shaking her head and blinking.
“Healthy!” she said in English.
And so she was. No granules, no weeping. At most, she had viral conjunctivitis. More likely, she’d just been crying. “I thought you didn’t speak English,” Spencer said flatly.
“A little,” the girl replied.
If he marked her with a CT and they held her over for examination, Spencer would have a chance to speak to her. He glanced behind him out the window—the gray swirling day, the Statue of Liberty in the distance. If it were sunny they could sit in the wooden folding chairs on the dock and watch ships come in. He would teach her English, then explain America, where to live, how to get a job, warn her against the charlatans on the trains and in the bus stations. She would grow to depend on him. At the board of inquiry he would defend her, explain that his diagnosis had been overly cautious. She’d be indebted.
Spencer waved the boy behind Miriam in line up to him. The old woman followed.
“Do you speak English?” “Some words,” the boy said. “Your name?”
Spencer nodded. “Frederick,” he immediately amended the name by adding a syllable, “you tell her what I say, all right? You can do that?”
“Ask her how old she is.”
“Twenty-three,” Frederick translated.
A year younger than Laura. Dr. Spencer smiled. “Ask her if she is alone.”
“Yes,” Frederick said. “So she’s not married?” “No, sir.”
“How is she going to make a living?” Frederick shook his head.
“Money,” Spencer said, “how will she make money, live, pay rent, buy food.”
Frederick nodded and asked Miriam. She said she was a seamstress and she was meeting her brother, who’d come over last year.
Spencer reached out slowly and touched her hair, winding a lock around his finger. It was just like Laura’s. Even dirty, it felt like hers, crackly autumn leaves in huge piles. Miriam pulled away, looking to Frederick for an explanation. Frederick shrugged. The old woman addressed the boy. He answered her in a word.
Spencer spoke sharply, “You are not up yet. Tell your mother to be quiet.” Hauss had gone through two more people. They waited respectfully several feet away.
The boy said something to the old woman. She replied and Frederick began to translate, but Spencer waved him off, nodding toward Miriam. “Tell her to unbutton her blouse.” He felt sure she had the mole, and he wanted to see it.
Frederick translated, but Miriam pulled her gray shawl more tightly around her shoulders and glanced at the old woman, who stepped forward and spoke. Frederick translated. “Sir, it is a problem, uh, young woman,” he nodded at Miriam, “she is…” He stumbled. “Not want to open blouse, not with men.”
“It’s a medical exam. You have to submit,” Spencer said. Frederick didn’t translate. Spencer slapped him on the arm. “Boy, tell her what I said. People are waiting!”
Frederick told the two women something. Spencer was beginning to doubt he could speak English all that well.
“I need to check her out,” he said. “I’ll take her down to the nurses.
Tell her to come with me.”
Frederick explained this to Miriam, who took a step back, next to the old woman. The woman put her arm around the girl and told the boy something. Frederick hesitated, whispering to the old woman.
Spencer reached out for Miriam’s arm. “Come with me.” She pulled away from him. “No,” she said in English.
The boy said, “She is my sister. Where are you taking her? She is with us.”
“You said she was alone. What do you mean she’s your sister?”
“I…” Frederick stumbled again, then listened for a moment to the old woman. It was clear to Spencer there was something fishy going on.
“She is my sister,” the boy repeated.
Spencer demanded their identification papers. “You don’t have the same last name. Now leave us be, step aside.” He shoved Frederick, who stumbled into the old woman. She spoke sharply to Spencer, clearly reprimanding him for pushing the boy.
Spencer tried to talk above her. “I need to get this girl to the infirmary. She needs to be examined.” He grabbed Miriam’s arm. She yanked it away. He grabbed again and tried to pull her down the line.
The girl’s face had gone blotchy. The old woman and the boy rushed forward. Spencer tried to dodge, but she hit him with her canvas bag while the boy grabbed the girl’s free arm and knitting needles clicked out onto the tile floor. The old woman was shouting. He thought it sounded like the universal language of profanities. Miriam’s shawl fell on the floor. People were staring. The boy hollered, “You hurt her!”
Spencer realized he could feel Miriam’s humerus. He let go. Hauss was staring. The bedraggled faces of those in line were staring. The damn old woman and her boy refused to look away.
Spencer walked back to his station and snatched a piece of chalk. He wrote CT on Miriam’s pleated blouse, then motioned for the old woman to step forward. On her right shoulder he drew a large blue X with a circle around it.
An inspector had come up to see what the ruckus was. “Mental defective?” he asked, watching the old woman move down the line with Miriam and the boy.
“Yes,” Spencer said. “I could see it in her eyes. She’s not all there.” He hadn’t bothered with the boy. He would go back with her automatically, and later, Spencer would find Miriam in the infirmary and comfort her.
The inspector walked off. Spencer rearranged his chalk into neat, clean lines. Hauss had returned to work, but seemed distracted, checking and rechecking his damn clipboard. God, they’d be here all night! Spencer smoothed his shirt and tie. Everything was fine. The old woman and her boy would be gone soon. He motioned with his finger for the next person. A man stepped forward, Spencer looked him over quick—catch up now or never, he figured—and waved him through. Then a woman and her daughter, a young couple.
Spencer waved them through quickly, then scanned the line for Miriam. She, the boy, and the old woman were still several people short of the next station, where inspectors checked for chalk marks and put the ones for return in one wired area, the ones for treatment in another. The three of them were deep in conversation. Then Miriam smiled and turned away, stepping forward in line as he knew she would. She had nothing to do with that annoying kid and his mother. Spencer was about to look away when he saw Frederick motion to the old woman’s shoulder. She slipped off her coat and looked at the mark, then said something to the boy.
“Put the damn coat on and get going,” Spencer muttered. He glanced down the line. Hauss was still flustered. He could see it in his hands, the way they fluttered the pages on the clipboard.
He looked back. The old woman and the boy were hunched together, talking. Then she began to roll up her coat. She removed a pile of yarn from her little bag, stuffed the coat in the bottom, then replaced the yarn on top.
Spencer began to step out from the iron pipes, the words almost in the air—“What do you think you’re doing?”—then stopped. The boy was tapping Miriam on the shoulder, saying something. After a moment, she rubbed at the mark on her blouse vigorously, then covered the smudged blue with her shawl.
In three years not one person had thought to do anything about the marks he chalked on them. Of all those he had diagnosed—which must add up to thousands—the old woman and her boy were the first to understand: it is not good when they mark you apart.
Spencer watched the three of them proceed past the wire compartments, down into the main inspection lines, where they would be asked for their papers, which he’d already seen were in good order. Afterward they’d retrieve whatever remained of their luggage, then step out into the cold and the strangeness of a land they had never seen, didn’t know, couldn’t speak to. For those who left here there was no language, only sound. There was no knowledge, only hope. Once you stepped off the Island the marks you carried could not be stuffed in a bag or washed off a garment. Spencer wanted to call after them, to tell them he was sorry. To holler out “Good luck!” but someone had walked up, another old woman, this one with two boys and an old man. Spencer laid down his chalk and slowly reached for their eyes.
*This story was taken from: You Should Pity Us Instead © 2016 by Amy Gustine, Sarabande Books.
And after all the weather was ideal. They could not have had a more perfect day for a garden-party if they had ordered it. Windless, warm, the sky without a cloud. Only the blue was veiled with a haze of light gold, as it is sometimes in early summer. The gardener had been up since dawn, mowing the lawns and sweeping them, until the grass and the dark flat rosettes where the daisy plants had been seemed to shine. As for the roses, you could not help feeling they understood that roses are the only flowers that impress people at garden-parties; the only flowers that everybody is certain of knowing. Hundreds, yes, literally hundreds, had come out in a single night; the green bushes bowed down as though they had been visited by archangels.
Breakfast was not yet over before the men came to put up the marquee.
“Where do you want the marquee put, mother?”
“My dear child, it’s no use asking me. I’m determined to leave everything to you children this year. Forget I am your mother. Treat me as an honoured guest.”
But Meg could not possibly go and supervise the men. She had washed her hair before breakfast, and she sat drinking her coffee in a green turban, with a dark wet curl stamped on each cheek. Jose, the butterfly, always came down in a silk petticoat and a kimono jacket.
“You’ll have to go, Laura; you’re the artistic one.”
Away Laura flew, still holding her piece of bread-and-butter. It’s so delicious to have an excuse for eating out of doors, and besides, she loved having to arrange things; she always felt she could do it so much better than anybody else.
Four men in their shirt-sleeves stood grouped together on the garden path. They carried staves covered with rolls of canvas, and they had big tool-bags slung on their backs. They looked impressive. Laura wished now that she had not got the bread-and-butter, but there was nowhere to put it, and she couldn’t possibly throw it away. She blushed and tried to look severe and even a little bit short-sighted as she came up to them.
“Good morning,” she said, copying her mother’s voice. But that sounded so fearfully affected that she was ashamed, and stammered like a little girl, “Oh—er—have you come—is it about the marquee?”
“That’s right, miss,” said the tallest of the men, a lanky, freckled fellow, and he shifted his tool-bag, knocked back his straw hat and smiled down at her. “That’s about it.”
His smile was so easy, so friendly that Laura recovered. What nice eyes he had, small, but such a dark blue! And now she looked at the others, they were smiling too. “Cheer up, we won’t bite,” their smile seemed to say. How very nice workmen were! And what a beautiful morning! She mustn’t mention the morning; she must be business-like. The marquee.
“Well, what about the lily-lawn? Would that do?”
And she pointed to the lily-lawn with the hand that didn’t hold the bread-and-butter. They turned, they stared in the direction. A little fat chap thrust out his under-lip, and the tall fellow frowned.
“I don’t fancy it,” said he. “Not conspicuous enough. You see, with a thing like a marquee,” and he turned to Laura in his easy way, “you want to put it somewhere where it’ll give you a bang slap in the eye, if you follow me.”
Laura’s upbringing made her wonder for a moment whether it was quite respectful of a workman to talk to her of bangs slap in the eye. But she did quite follow him.
“A corner of the tennis-court,” she suggested. “But the band’s going to be in one corner.”
“H’m, going to have a band, are you?” said another of the workmen. He was pale. He had a haggard look as his dark eyes scanned the tennis-court. What was he thinking?
“Only a very small band,” said Laura gently. Perhaps he wouldn’t mind so much if the band was quite small. But the tall fellow interrupted.
“Look here, miss, that’s the place. Against those trees. Over there. That’ll do fine.”
Against the karakas. Then the karaka-trees would be hidden. And they were so lovely, with their broad, gleaming leaves, and their clusters of yellow fruit. They were like trees you imagined growing on a desert island, proud, solitary, lifting their leaves and fruits to the sun in a kind of silent splendour. Must they be hidden by a marquee?
They must. Already the men had shouldered their staves and were making for the place. Only the tall fellow was left. He bent down, pinched a sprig of lavender, put his thumb and forefinger to his nose and snuffed up the smell. When Laura saw that gesture she forgot all about the karakas in her wonder at him caring for things like that—caring for the smell of lavender. How many men that she knew would have done such a thing? Oh, how extraordinarily nice workmen were, she thought. Why couldn’t she have workmen for her friends rather than the silly boys she danced with and who came to Sunday night supper? She would get on much better with men like these.
It’s all the fault, she decided, as the tall fellow drew something on the back of an envelope, something that was to be looped up or left to hang, of these absurd class distinctions. Well, for her part, she didn’t feel them. Not a bit, not an atom… And now there came the chock-chock of wooden hammers. Some one whistled, some one sang out, “Are you right there, matey?” “Matey!” The friendliness of it, the—the—Just to prove how happy she was, just to show the tall fellow how at home she felt, and how she despised stupid conventions, Laura took a big bite of her bread-and-butter as she stared at the little drawing. She felt just like a work-girl.
“Laura, Laura, where are you? Telephone, Laura!” a voice cried from the house.
“Coming!” Away she skimmed, over the lawn, up the path, up the steps, across the veranda, and into the porch. In the hall her father and Laurie were brushing their hats ready to go to the office.
“I say, Laura,” said Laurie very fast, “you might just give a squiz at my coat before this afternoon. See if it wants pressing.”
“I will,” said she. Suddenly she couldn’t stop herself. She ran at Laurie and gave him a small, quick squeeze. “Oh, I do love parties, don’t you?” gasped Laura.
“Ra-ther,” said Laurie’s warm, boyish voice, and he squeezed his sister too, and gave her a gentle push. “Dash off to the telephone, old girl.”
The telephone. “Yes, yes; oh yes. Kitty? Good morning, dear. Come to lunch? Do, dear. Delighted of course. It will only be a very scratch meal—just the sandwich crusts and broken meringue-shells and what’s left over. Yes, isn’t it a perfect morning? Your white? Oh, I certainly should. One moment—hold the line. Mother’s calling.” And Laura sat back. “What, mother? Can’t hear.”
Mrs. Sheridan’s voice floated down the stairs. “Tell her to wear that sweet hat she had on last Sunday.”
“Mother says you’re to wear that sweet hat you had on last Sunday. Good. One o’clock. Bye-bye.”
Laura put back the receiver, flung her arms over her head, took a deep breath, stretched and let them fall. “Huh,” she sighed, and the moment after the sigh she sat up quickly. She was still, listening. All the doors in the house seemed to be open. The house was alive with soft, quick steps and running voices. The green baize door that led to the kitchen regions swung open and shut with a muffled thud. And now there came a long, chuckling absurd sound. It was the heavy piano being moved on its stiff castors. But the air! If you stopped to notice, was the air always like this? Little faint winds were playing chase, in at the tops of the windows, out at the doors. And there were two tiny spots of sun, one on the inkpot, one on a silver photograph frame, playing too. Darling little spots. Especially the one on the inkpot lid. It was quite warm. A warm little silver star. She could have kissed it.
The front door bell pealed, and there sounded the rustle of Sadie’s print skirt on the stairs. A man’s voice murmured; Sadie answered, careless, “I’m sure I don’t know. Wait. I’ll ask Mrs Sheridan.”
“What is it, Sadie?” Laura came into the hall.
“It’s the florist, Miss Laura.”
It was, indeed. There, just inside the door, stood a wide, shallow tray full of pots of pink lilies. No other kind. Nothing but lilies—canna lilies, big pink flowers, wide open, radiant, almost frighteningly alive on bright crimson stems.
“O-oh, Sadie!” said Laura, and the sound was like a little moan. She crouched down as if to warm herself at that blaze of lilies; she felt they were in her fingers, on her lips, growing in her breast.
“It’s some mistake,” she said faintly. “Nobody ever ordered so many. Sadie, go and find mother.”
But at that moment Mrs. Sheridan joined them.
“It’s quite right,” she said calmly. “Yes, I ordered them. Aren’t they lovely?” She pressed Laura’s arm. “I was passing the shop yesterday, and I saw them in the window. And I suddenly thought for once in my life I shall have enough canna lilies. The garden-party will be a good excuse.”
“But I thought you said you didn’t mean to interfere,” said Laura. Sadie had gone. The florist’s man was still outside at his van. She put her arm round her mother’s neck and gently, very gently, she bit her mother’s ear.
“My darling child, you wouldn’t like a logical mother, would you? Don’t do that. Here’s the man.”
He carried more lilies still, another whole tray.
“Bank them up, just inside the door, on both sides of the porch, please,” said Mrs. Sheridan. “Don’t you agree, Laura?”
“Oh, I do, mother.”
In the drawing-room Meg, Jose and good little Hans had at last succeeded in moving the piano.
“Now, if we put this chesterfield against the wall and move everything out of the room except the chairs, don’t you think?”
“Hans, move these tables into the smoking-room, and bring a sweeper to take these marks off the carpet and—one moment, Hans—” Jose loved giving orders to the servants, and they loved obeying her. She always made them feel they were taking part in some drama. “Tell mother and Miss Laura to come here at once.
“Very good, Miss Jose.”
She turned to Meg. “I want to hear what the piano sounds like, just in case I’m asked to sing this afternoon. Let’s try over ‘This life is Weary.’”
Pom! Ta-ta-ta Tee-ta! The piano burst out so passionately that Jose’s face changed. She clasped her hands. She looked mournfully and enigmatically at her mother and Laura as they came in.
“This Life is Wee-ary,
A Tear—a Sigh.
A Love that Chan-ges,
This Life is Wee-ary,
A Tear—a Sigh.
A Love that Chan-ges,
And then… Good-bye!”
But at the word “Good-bye,” and although the piano sounded more desperate than ever, her face broke into a brilliant, dreadfully unsympathetic smile.
“Aren’t I in good voice, mummy?” she beamed.
“This Life is Wee-ary,
Hope comes to Die.
A Dream—a Wa-kening.”
But now Sadie interrupted them. “What is it, Sadie?”
“If you please, m’m, cook says have you got the flags for the sandwiches?”
“The flags for the sandwiches, Sadie?” echoed Mrs. Sheridan dreamily. And the children knew by her face that she hadn’t got them. “Let me see.” And she said to Sadie firmly, “Tell cook I’ll let her have them in ten minutes.”
“Now, Laura,” said her mother quickly, “come with me into the smoking-room. I’ve got the names somewhere on the back of an envelope. You’ll have to write them out for me. Meg, go upstairs this minute and take that wet thing off your head. Jose, run and finish dressing this instant. Do you hear me, children, or shall I have to tell your father when he comes home to-night? And—and, Jose, pacify cook if you do go into the kitchen, will you? I’m terrified of her this morning.”
The envelope was found at last behind the dining-room clock, though how it had got there Mrs. Sheridan could not imagine.
“One of you children must have stolen it out of my bag, because I remember vividly—cream cheese and lemon-curd. Have you done that?”
“Egg and—” Mrs. Sheridan held the envelope away from her. “It looks like mice. It can’t be mice, can it?”
“Olive, pet,” said Laura, looking over her shoulder.
“Yes, of course, olive. What a horrible combination it sounds. Egg and olive.”
They were finished at last, and Laura took them off to the kitchen. She found Jose there pacifying the cook, who did not look at all terrifying.
“I have never seen such exquisite sandwiches,” said Jose’s rapturous voice. “How many kinds did you say there were, cook? Fifteen?”
“Fifteen, Miss Jose.”
“Well, cook, I congratulate you.”
Cook swept up crusts with the long sandwich knife, and smiled broadly.
“Godber’s has come,” announced Sadie, issuing out of the pantry. She had seen the man pass the window.
That meant the cream puffs had come. Godber’s were famous for their cream puffs. Nobody ever thought of making them at home.
“Bring them in and put them on the table, my girl,” ordered cook.
Sadie brought them in and went back to the door. Of course Laura and Jose were far too grown-up to really care about such things. All the same, they couldn’t help agreeing that the puffs looked very attractive. Very. Cook began arranging them, shaking off the extra icing sugar.
“Don’t they carry one back to all one’s parties?” said Laura.
“I suppose they do,” said practical Jose, who never liked to be carried back. “They look beautifully light and feathery, I must say.”
“Have one each, my dears,” said cook in her comfortable voice. “Yer ma won’t know.”
Oh, impossible. Fancy cream puffs so soon after breakfast. The very idea made one shudder. All the same, two minutes later Jose and Laura were licking their fingers with that absorbed inward look that only comes from whipped cream.
“Let’s go into the garden, out by the back way,” suggested Laura. “I want to see how the men are getting on with the marquee. They’re such awfully nice men.”
But the back door was blocked by cook, Sadie, Godber’s man and Hans.
Something had happened.
“Tuk-tuk-tuk,” clucked cook like an agitated hen. Sadie had her hand clapped to her cheek as though she had toothache. Hans’s face was screwed up in the effort to understand. Only Godber’s man seemed to be enjoying himself; it was his story.
“What’s the matter? What’s happened?”
“There’s been a horrible accident,” said Cook. “A man killed.”
“A man killed! Where? How? When?”
But Godber’s man wasn’t going to have his story snatched from under his very nose.
“Know those little cottages just below here, miss?” Know them? Of course, she knew them. “Well, there’s a young chap living there, name of Scott, a carter. His horse shied at a traction-engine, corner of Hawke Street this morning, and he was thrown out on the back of his head. Killed.”
“Dead!” Laura stared at Godber’s man.
“Dead when they picked him up,” said Godber’s man with relish. “They were taking the body home as I come up here.” And he said to the cook, “He’s left a wife and five little ones.”
“Jose, come here.” Laura caught hold of her sister’s sleeve and dragged her through the kitchen to the other side of the green baize door. There she paused and leaned against it. “Jose!” she said, horrified, “however are we going to stop everything?”
“Stop everything, Laura!” cried Jose in astonishment. “What do you mean?”
“Stop the garden-party, of course.” Why did Jose pretend?
But Jose was still more amazed. “Stop the garden-party? My dear Laura, don’t be so absurd. Of course we can’t do anything of the kind. Nobody expects us to. Don’t be so extravagant.”
“But we can’t possibly have a garden-party with a man dead just outside the front gate.”
That really was extravagant, for the little cottages were in a lane to themselves at the very bottom of a steep rise that led up to the house. A broad road ran between. True, they were far too near. They were the greatest possible eyesore, and they had no right to be in that neighbourhood at all. They were little mean dwellings painted a chocolate brown. In the garden patches there was nothing but cabbage stalks, sick hens and tomato cans. The very smoke coming out of their chimneys was poverty-stricken. Little rags and shreds of smoke, so unlike the great silvery plumes that uncurled from the Sheridans’ chimneys. Washerwomen lived in the lane and sweeps and a cobbler, and a man whose house-front was studded all over with minute bird-cages. Children swarmed. When the Sheridans were little they were forbidden to set foot there because of the revolting language and of what they might catch. But since they were grown up, Laura and Laurie on their prowls sometimes walked through. It was disgusting and sordid. They came out with a shudder. But still one must go everywhere; one must see everything. So through they went.
“And just think of what the band would sound like to that poor woman,” said Laura.
“Oh, Laura!” Jose began to be seriously annoyed. “If you’re going to stop a band playing every time some one has an accident, you’ll lead a very strenuous life. I’m every bit as sorry about it as you. I feel just as sympathetic.” Her eyes hardened. She looked at her sister just as she used to when they were little and fighting together. “You won’t bring a drunken workman back to life by being sentimental,” she said softly.
“Drunk! Who said he was drunk?” Laura turned furiously on Jose. She said, just as they had used to say on those occasions, “I’m going straight up to tell mother.”
“Do, dear,” cooed Jose.
“Mother, can I come into your room?” Laura turned the big glass door-knob.
“Of course, child. Why, what’s the matter? What’s given you such a colour?” And Mrs. Sheridan turned round from her dressing-table. She was trying on a new hat.
“Mother, a man’s been killed,” began Laura.
“Not in the garden?” interrupted her mother.
“Oh, what a fright you gave me!” Mrs. Sheridan sighed with relief, and took off the big hat and held it on her knees.
“But listen, mother,” said Laura. Breathless, half-choking, she told the dreadful story. “Of course, we can’t have our party, can we?” she pleaded. “The band and everybody arriving. They’d hear us, mother; they’re nearly neighbours!”
To Laura’s astonishment her mother behaved just like Jose; it was harder to bear because she seemed amused. She refused to take Laura seriously.
“But, my dear child, use your common sense. It’s only by accident we’ve heard of it. If some one had died there normally—and I can’t understand how they keep alive in those poky little holes—we should still be having our party, shouldn’t we?”
Laura had to say “yes” to that, but she felt it was all wrong. She sat down on her mother’s sofa and pinched the cushion frill.
“Mother, isn’t it terribly heartless of us?” she asked.
“Darling!” Mrs. Sheridan got up and came over to her, carrying the hat. Before Laura could stop her she had popped it on. “My child!” said her mother, “the hat is yours. It’s made for you. It’s much too young for me. I have never seen you look such a picture. Look at yourself!” And she held up her hand-mirror.
“But, mother,” Laura began again. She couldn’t look at herself; she turned aside.
This time Mrs. Sheridan lost patience just as Jose had done.
“You are being very absurd, Laura,” she said coldly. “People like that don’t expect sacrifices from us. And it’s not very sympathetic to spoil everybody’s enjoyment as you’re doing now.”
“I don’t understand,” said Laura, and she walked quickly out of the room into her own bedroom. There, quite by chance, the first thing she saw was this charming girl in the mirror, in her black hat trimmed with gold daisies, and a long black velvet ribbon. Never had she imagined she could look like that. Is mother right? she thought. And now she hoped her mother was right. Am I being extravagant? Perhaps it was extravagant. Just for a moment she had another glimpse of that poor woman and those little children, and the body being carried into the house. But it all seemed blurred, unreal, like a picture in the newspaper. I’ll remember it again after the party’s over, she decided. And somehow that seemed quite the best plan…
Lunch was over by half-past one. By half-past two they were all ready for the fray. The green-coated band had arrived and was established in a corner of the tennis-court.
“My dear!” trilled Kitty Maitland, “aren’t they too like frogs for words? You ought to have arranged them round the pond with the conductor in the middle on a leaf.”
Laurie arrived and hailed them on his way to dress. At the sight of him Laura remembered the accident again. She wanted to tell him. If Laurie agreed with the others, then it was bound to be all right. And she followed him into the hall.
“Hallo!” He was half-way upstairs, but when he turned round and saw Laura he suddenly puffed out his cheeks and goggled his eyes at her. “My word, Laura! You do look stunning,” said Laurie. “What an absolutely topping hat!”
Laura said faintly “Is it?” and smiled up at Laurie, and didn’t tell him after all.
Soon after that people began coming in streams. The band struck up; the hired waiters ran from the house to the marquee. Wherever you looked there were couples strolling, bending to the flowers, greeting, moving on over the lawn. They were like bright birds that had alighted in the Sheridans’ garden for this one afternoon, on their way to—where? Ah, what happiness it is to be with people who all are happy, to press hands, press cheeks, smile into eyes.
“Darling Laura, how well you look!”
“What a becoming hat, child!”
“Laura, you look quite Spanish. I’ve never seen you look so striking.”
And Laura, glowing, answered softly, “Have you had tea? Won’t you have an ice? The passion-fruit ices really are rather special.” She ran to her father and begged him. “Daddy darling, can’t the band have something to drink?”
And the perfect afternoon slowly ripened, slowly faded, slowly its petals closed.
“Never a more delightful garden-party… “ “The greatest success… ” “Quite the most… ”
Laura helped her mother with the good-byes. They stood side by side in the porch till it was all over.
“All over, all over, thank heaven,” said Mrs. Sheridan. “Round up the others, Laura. Let’s go and have some fresh coffee. I’m exhausted. Yes, it’s been very successful. But oh, these parties, these parties! Why will you children insist on giving parties!” And they all of them sat down in the deserted marquee.
“Have a sandwich, daddy dear. I wrote the flag.”
“Thanks.” Mr. Sheridan took a bite and the sandwich was gone. He took another. “I suppose you didn’t hear of a beastly accident that happened to-day?” he said.
“My dear,” said Mrs. Sheridan, holding up her hand, “we did. It nearly ruined the party. Laura insisted we should put it off.”
“Oh, mother!” Laura didn’t want to be teased about it.
“It was a horrible affair all the same,” said Mr. Sheridan. “The chap was married too. Lived just below in the lane, and leaves a wife and half a dozen kiddies, so they say.”
An awkward little silence fell. Mrs. Sheridan fidgeted with her cup. Really, it was very tactless of father…
Suddenly she looked up. There on the table were all those sandwiches, cakes, puffs, all uneaten, all going to be wasted. She had one of her brilliant ideas.
“I know,” she said. “Let’s make up a basket. Let’s send that poor creature some of this perfectly good food. At any rate, it will be the greatest treat for the children. Don’t you agree? And she’s sure to have neighbours calling in and so on. What a point to have it all ready prepared. Laura!” She jumped up. “Get me the big basket out of the stairs cupboard.”
“But, mother, do you really think it’s a good idea?” said Laura.
Again, how curious, she seemed to be different from them all. To take scraps from their party. Would the poor woman really like that?
“Of course! What’s the matter with you to-day? An hour or two ago you were insisting on us being sympathetic, and now—”
Oh well! Laura ran for the basket. It was filled, it was heaped by her mother.
“Take it yourself, darling,” said she. “Run down just as you are. No, wait, take the arum lilies too. People of that class are so impressed by arum lilies.”
“The stems will ruin her lace frock,” said practical Jose.
So they would. Just in time. “Only the basket, then. And, Laura!”—her mother followed her out of the marquee—“don’t on any account—”
No, better not put such ideas into the child’s head! “Nothing! Run along.”
It was just growing dusky as Laura shut their garden gates. A big dog ran by like a shadow. The road gleamed white, and down below in the hollow the little cottages were in deep shade. How quiet it seemed after the afternoon. Here she was going down the hill to somewhere where a man lay dead, and she couldn’t realize it. Why couldn’t she? She stopped a minute. And it seemed to her that kisses, voices, tinkling spoons, laughter, the smell of crushed grass were somehow inside her. She had no room for anything else. How strange! She looked up at the pale sky, and all she thought was, “Yes, it was the most successful party.”
Now the broad road was crossed. The lane began, smoky and dark. Women in shawls and men’s tweed caps hurried by. Men hung over the palings; the children played in the doorways. A low hum came from the mean little cottages. In some of them there was a flicker of light, and a shadow, crab-like, moved across the window. Laura bent her head and hurried on. She wished now she had put on a coat. How her frock shone! And the big hat with the velvet streamer—if only it was another hat! Were the people looking at her? They must be. It was a mistake to have come; she knew all along it was a mistake. Should she go back even now?
No, too late. This was the house. It must be. A dark knot of people stood outside. Beside the gate an old, old woman with a crutch sat in a chair, watching. She had her feet on a newspaper. The voices stopped as Laura drew near. The group parted. It was as though she was expected, as though they had known she was coming here.
Laura was terribly nervous. Tossing the velvet ribbon over her shoulder, she said to a woman standing by, “Is this Mrs. Scott’s house?” and the woman, smiling queerly, said, “It is, my lass.”
Oh, to be away from this! She actually said, “Help me, God,” as she walked up the tiny path and knocked. To be away from those staring eyes, or to be covered up in anything, one of those women’s shawls even. I’ll just leave the basket and go, she decided. I shan’t even wait for it to be emptied.
Then the door opened. A little woman in black showed in the gloom.
Laura said, “Are you Mrs. Scott?” But to her horror the woman answered, “Walk in please, miss,” and she was shut in the passage.
“No,” said Laura, “I don’t want to come in. I only want to leave this basket. Mother sent—”
The little woman in the gloomy passage seemed not to have heard her. “Step this way, please, miss,” she said in an oily voice, and Laura followed her.
She found herself in a wretched little low kitchen, lighted by a smoky lamp. There was a woman sitting before the fire.
“Em,” said the little creature who had let her in. “Em! It’s a young lady.” She turned to Laura. She said meaningly, “I’m ‘er sister, miss. You’ll excuse ‘er, won’t you?”
“Oh, but of course!” said Laura. “Please, please don’t disturb her. I—I only want to leave—”
But at that moment the woman at the fire turned round. Her face, puffed up, red, with swollen eyes and swollen lips, looked terrible. She seemed as though she couldn’t understand why Laura was there. What did it mean? Why was this stranger standing in the kitchen with a basket? What was it all about? And the poor face puckered up again.
“All right, my dear,” said the other. “I’ll thenk the young lady.”
And again she began, “You’ll excuse her, miss, I’m sure,” and her face, swollen too, tried an oily smile.
Laura only wanted to get out, to get away. She was back in the passage. The door opened. She walked straight through into the bedroom, where the dead man was lying.
“You’d like a look at ‘im, wouldn’t you?” said Em’s sister, and she brushed past Laura over to the bed. “Don’t be afraid, my lass,”—and now her voice sounded fond and sly, and fondly she drew down the sheet—“‘e looks a picture. There’s nothing to show. Come along, my dear.”
There lay a young man, fast asleep—sleeping so soundly, so deeply, that he was far, far away from them both. Oh, so remote, so peaceful. He was dreaming. Never wake him up again. His head was sunk in the pillow, his eyes were closed; they were blind under the closed eyelids. He was given up to his dream. What did garden-parties and baskets and lace frocks matter to him? He was far from all those things. He was wonderful, beautiful. While they were laughing and while the band was playing, this marvel had come to the lane. Happy… happy… All is well, said that sleeping face. This is just as it should be. I am content.
But all the same you had to cry, and she couldn’t go out of the room without saying something to him. Laura gave a loud childish sob.
“Forgive my hat,” she said.
And this time she didn’t wait for Em’s sister. She found her way out of the door, down the path, past all those dark people. At the corner of the lane she met Laurie.
He stepped out of the shadow. “Is that you, Laura?”
“Mother was getting anxious. Was it all right?”
“Yes, quite. Oh, Laurie!” She took his arm, she pressed up against him.
“I say, you’re not crying, are you?” asked her brother.
Laura shook her head. She was.
Laurie put his arm round her shoulder. “Don’t cry,” he said in his warm, loving voice. “Was it awful?”
“No,” sobbed Laura. “It was simply marvellous. But Laurie—” She stopped, she looked at her brother. “Isn’t life,” she stammered, “isn’t life—” But what life was she couldn’t explain. No matter. He quite understood.
“Isn’t it, darling?” said Laurie.
That night we were having guests for dinner, and Ines had been in a frenzy all week. She hunted down innovative recipes on the internet and buried my desk in sheets of paper as she printed them out. I’m a psychiatrist, so I like order, and I can’t stand it if my space is invaded for no good reason. However, I was reasonable and tried to get Ines to see things from my patients’ perspective. How would you feel if you arrived at a session and found piles of paper all over the office? I knew my persuasive tactics lost their effectiveness the day she stopped being my patient and became my wife, but in the end I managed to get her to pick it all up before the session with my Friday patient, a workaholic beyond repair.
In recent years we’d stopped inviting our friends over as much, so our friends, in turn, had stopped extending invitations or accepting our evermore sporadic ones. Since the twins were born there had been so little time for social interaction. But recently, after the girls turned seven magical years old, we decided it was time to get back in touch with the friends we’d neglected as we focused on the little ones. We started going out more regularly. But we were responsible parents, you could say.
That night we’d invited a couple over; they were a little older than us, but the age difference was hardly noticeable. They didn’t have kids. We’d known them forever. In fact, Ines was some sort of cousin to Eduardo, who’d met his wife Adela at our wedding. Adela had been a classmate of mine at university, and there’d been one episode after a night of partying that we never spoke of again.
Two weeks prior, Adela had called me from the hospital to invite me to dinner with them at their new town house. When I told her, Ines went crazy and thought of nothing other than returning the invitation. I remember that night at Adela and Eduardo’s house, she wouldn’t stop praising the food and the décor. She did it in an exaggerated and awkward way, insisting repeatedly that the colonial-style furniture our friends had picked out looked exactly like the authentic pieces she and I had seen on our honeymoon in Thailand.
During dinner at their house we jumped from topic to topic. At some points Eduardo and I conversed on our own; at another I asked Adela about her cases, and she wanted to know about mine. We liked to exchange funny stories in which our patients came out looking terrible. Then we ended up arguing over what Adela called the feudal privileges of private psychiatry over public. Adela had a sharp and sparkling way of speaking that still strongly attracted me despite all the time that had passed. At points, Eduardo was clearly bored. He looked at the clock on the wall, and you could tell that deep down he wanted us to finish our wine. Ines took the opportunity to get up and go into the kitchen alone, carrying away the dirty plates as if it were her own home. Adela let her do it; she wasn’t even paying attention. Ines seemed more like the maid than my wife.
We didn’t leave until late. Eduardo had perked up, he was excited about showing me his collection of fountain pens. He explained that the new house finally gave him enough space to display them in their custom-built case. His collections didn’t interest me in the slightest. Collecting is something I’d classify as obsessive behavior. I looked at the floor as he showed off a mother-of-pearl inlay, and I noticed one of his shoelaces had come untied, but I didn’t tell him.
At the door, the women kissed goodbye loudly and Eduardo and I exchanged a firm handshake that turned into a half-hearted hug. I thought it had been the final goodbye; however, at the last minute Ines noticed some geraniums, the color of which could barely be made out in the darkness, and I had to turn around and walk back. Adela insisted that Ines should take a cutting, and Ines insisted even more fervently that she shouldn’t trouble herself, but she ended up accepting a branch after making something of a song and dance out of the whole matter. As this was going on I feared that Eduardo would start back up with the pens, but his gaze held only a desire to put his pajamas on and get into his big colonial-style bed.
Ever since that night, Ines has thought of nothing other than Adela and Eduardo’s visit to our house. When we got into the car and started the engine, thinking about the best route home, I saw her sitting there beside me, how she smiled with her eyes wide open but without seeing anything. She looked like a martyr facing the firing squad. With her right hand tightly gripping the geranium. I noticed she’d caught her skirt in the car door without realizing it. We didn’t say a word the whole way home. Ines was in a daze, even though she hadn’t drunk much wine, and I was just driving, trying to think about my patients, whom I’d been increasingly neglecting.
When I parked in front of our house, Ines rested her face on my shoulder, burst into tears, and thanked me several times. At first I was frightened, mentally running through the kinds of psychiatric disorders that could cause such behavior. Then she calmed down, stopped crying, and asked me for permission to invite Eduardo and Adela over for dinner. I agreed, more because I wanted to end the scene than because I liked the idea. She looked at me with her red and excited eyes for a minute then fixed her gaze on the night sky, as before. I sat looking at her profile. I’d forgotten how her curls fell over her forehead. I didn’t want to get out of the car or go anywhere.
The days that followed were smooth as silk. My patients seemed willing to give sanity another try and stopped moaning about their tragedies. Maybe it was because the nights were shorter and they had less time to contemplate suicide. I thought about what would happen if they all got well. I wouldn’t make any money, and I’d be forced to look for new, even more degenerate patients. Or maybe my fame would grow to an international level, and I’d have to start studying English to treat Hollywood celebrities with their delusions of grandeur and depression. As I imagined these things, my appointments flew by.
At the same time, the twins were less annoying because summer was coming and they were playing outside more. Ines assured me that she’d take care of all the dinner preparations, that I wouldn’t have to lift a finger. For my part, I hadn’t asked any questions or offered to do anything, but she wouldn’t stop insisting all the same. When the office was empty, Ines spent hours with her elbows on the desk, studying websites about serving protocol or how to fold napkins to look like birds. Later she tried to put this into practice with the table linen we kept in the living-room cabinets, but the napkins wouldn’t stand up. Some nights I’d turn off my bedside light, and she’d still be sitting on the other side of the bed typing terms into Google, ten tabs open at the same time. I started to worry she might be going into chat rooms and talking to strangers who were anxious to give her their phone numbers and ask what color panties she had on. She reminded me of a patient who, two years after she thought she’d gotten over her addiction to chat rooms, still believed that the man of her dreams was in there, waiting for her inside her laptop.
The day of the dinner party started off badly. The geranium cutting that Adela had given Ines fell twisted and dead from the vase. When she saw it, Ines had an attack of hysterics, and I had to make her lie down for a few minutes on the couch my patients used. The armrests were worn out. It seemed sad and undignified for a practice of my standing. Ines was convinced that the flower’s death was a bad omen, and I repeated that it wasn’t, but I still couldn’t get her out of there. She insisted on getting a geranium to give to Adela at all costs. I found geraniums absolutely repulsive. Somehow I ended up offering to help, to lend a hand with the cooking as if it were a joint effort, and she started to calm down. I would have preferred to just give her a tranquilizer, but I took the risk and opened Pandora’s box.
My idea of helping was to go downtown, leave the car double parked with the hazards on, and buy something in a deli, but Ines had knives, cutting boards, and gadgets in the kitchen that I knew nothing about, let alone how to use, and she slipped an apron over my head like someone putting a collar on a dog. My suggestion of ready-made food was a disgusting abomination and an insult to our friends. It all embarrassed me a little, the apron and my dirty hands. It reminded me of one of those cooking shows where a housewife with misplaced maternal instincts tries unsuccessfully to teach a bachelor how to peel a potato. Luckily, with all those stupendous gadgets, I didn’t have to do much, and Ines took care of the more difficult or sticky tasks.
In the middle of the ordeal the twins came into the kitchen and asked for a snack. They looked at me and laughed. Their laughter was loud. It sounded like dry leaves that crackle when you step on them. I don’t know if they were laughing at me in the apron or if they were just happy because they were going to spend the night at their aunt’s house.
Ines made some sandwiches, and the girls ate as I lectured them about the importance of getting along. It’s crucial that the girls begin to become aware of their moods and emotions, and I talk to them a lot about it in the hope that it will help them later on. Also, I was tired of making melon balls. The twins listened politely then bit into their sandwiches, looked at each other and laughed, and it sounded like crackling. Ines wasn’t paying any attention to me. She was too busy. She was scrubbing things that immediately got dirty again.
Even though they hadn’t finished their snack, Ines was in a hurry to drop them off at my sister’s house. I took off the apron and went to get dressed. I had to do their hair myself. One of their ponytails leaned to the left, the other one’s ponytail leaned to the right, and since they looked so much alike, my lack of skill was all the more evident. I looked at them in the mirror and patted their ponytails. They ran off. I looked at myself in the mirror and then closed my eyes. I imagined myself somewhere else, somewhere far away, but when I opened my eyes again I was still there. I pulled down the medicine chest and counted to check there wasn’t too much of anything missing. Then I left the house.
I wrangled the twins into the car. At the last minute they’d decided they weren’t going to go, that they wanted to stay with Mom and Dad and that they didn’t want the old people (Eduardo and Adela, they meant) to come over. I thought it was funny, and I felt proud to have shaped such strong personalities with such an ability to assert themselves. I thought of going back in and telling Ines, with a straight face, that, given how the girls were behaving, the best thing to do would be to cancel the dinner. Then I worried she might react too violently and murder her own children. I smiled mischievously.
I drove fast down the highway. The girls didn’t talk. They stared symmetrically at the cars that we passed or that passed us. When we got there, my sister was surprised; she was expecting us an hour later based on what Ines had told her on the phone. She seemed annoyed.
“It’s fine,” she said finally.
She invited me to come in.
“It’s been a long time since we talked,” said my sister. “And I have a fresh pot of coffee in the kitchen.”
I wondered if she wanted to talk to her brother or to a psychiatrist. I could recommend a few good ones.
“I have to go,” I said. “Ines is waiting for me, and there’s a lot left to do.”
I didn’t apologize. We didn’t agree on a time to pick the twins up the next day either. I wanted to say goodbye to the girls, but before I knew it they’d disappeared, and I supposed they were in some other room antagonizing the cat.
On my way home I took some streets I didn’t know. In fact, I didn’t remember my sister’s neighborhood very well at all, and it was starting to get dark. I thought I was going to get lost and that if I got lost I’d be late for dinner and that if I was late for dinner Ines might cry in front of the guests. Still in motion, I grabbed the steering wheel with my left hand and opened the glove box with my right. The GPS wasn’t there. Just packs of Kleenex that no one ever used and several CDs of kids’ music. As I closed the glove box I lost balance and gave the wheel a sharp jerk. It was a miracle I didn’t go up onto the central reservation.
There was no one on the street I could ask for directions. I turned the corner and saw a bar, so I parked and got out of the car. I went in with every intention of asking someone how to get out of the neighborhood, but instead I ordered a glass of wine and sat on a stool at the bar. I looked at my watch and confirmed that I had plenty of time for another glass.
The waiter served me the first of the two glasses I planned on having. His face looked familiar. As I drank, I realized he reminded me of the top student in my class at school, a boy named Ignacio Alcalde, very intelligent and hardworking but marred by an unfortunate tic. With that uncontrollable movement of his mouth, no one could see a future for him in this profession where patients never take their eyes off you and you’re obliged to worry about your appearance. I hadn’t thought about Ignacio for many years, until I arrived, not really knowing how, at that bar and came across that waiter. It could easily be him, the best doctor in the class of ’78, lost and forgotten.
I left my wine half drunk and asked for directions. It scared me to think that Ignacio had ended up there, and I wanted to leave immediately. I asked for the check like I was in a restaurant, and the waiter gave me a strange look, unsure whether I wanted to know how much or if I also wanted a receipt. I paid, and the waiter—or Ignacio—gave me the directions I needed. His voice was deep and gravelly, completely different from the voice I remembered, and I felt relieved. Then I thought about how cigarettes, among other factors, could change the tone of a person’s voice.
I started the car and quickly found my way. I tried to picture the name of the bar in case I ever drove by again in the light of day. I’d sat for a few seconds looking at the lit sign before I went in, but now I was unable to remember it. A gust of wind blew a spiky leaf onto the windshield, and it gleamed with a bluish reflection. My cell phone rang. I moved into fifth and then felt around for my phone in the pocket of my blazer. The spiky leaf disappeared like a butterfly scared off by a puppy. It was a message from Ines. It said where are you, hurry up or we’re going to start without you.
As if unconsciously, I lifted my foot off the accelerator and stopped trying to pass the car in front of me.
Whatever hour you woke there was a door shutting. From room to room they went, hand in hand, lifting here, opening there, making sure—a ghostly couple.
“Here we left it,” she said. And he added, “Oh, but here too!” “It’s upstairs,” she murmured. “And in the garden,” he whispered. “Quietly,” they said, “or we shall wake them.”
But it wasn’t that you woke us. Oh, no. “They’re looking for it; they’re drawing the curtain,” one might say, and so read on a page or two. “Now they’ve found it,” one would be certain, stopping the pencil on the margin. And then, tired of reading, one might rise and see for oneself, the house all empty, the doors standing open, only the wood pigeons bubbling with content and the hum of the threshing machine sounding from the farm. “What did I come in here for? What did I want to find?” My hands were empty. “Perhaps it’s upstairs then?” The apples were in the loft. And so down again, the garden still as ever, only the book had slipped into the grass.
But they had found it in the drawing room. Not that one could ever see them. The window panes reflected apples, reflected roses; all the leaves were green in the glass. If they moved in the drawing room, the apple only turned its yellow side. Yet, the moment after, if the door was opened, spread about the floor, hung upon the walls, pendant from the ceiling—what? My hands were empty. The shadow of a thrush crossed the carpet; from the deepest wells of silence the wood pigeon drew its bubble of sound. “Safe, safe, safe,” the pulse of the house beat softly. “The treasure buried; the room…” the pulse stopped short. Oh, was that the buried treasure?
A moment later the light had faded. Out in the garden then? But the trees spun darkness for a wandering beam of sun. So fine, so rare, coolly sunk beneath the surface the beam I sought always burnt behind the glass. Death was the glass; death was between us; coming to the woman first, hundreds of years ago, leaving the house, sealing all the windows; the rooms were darkened. He left it, left her, went North, went East, saw the stars turned in the Southern sky; sought the house, found it dropped beneath the Downs. “Safe, safe, safe,” the pulse of the house beat gladly. “The Treasure yours.”
The wind roars up the avenue. Trees stoop and bend this way and that. Moonbeams splash and spill wildly in the rain. But the beam of the lamp falls straight from the window. The candle burns stiff and still. Wandering through the house, opening the windows, whispering not to wake us, the ghostly couple seek their joy.
“Here we slept,” she says. And he adds, “Kisses without number.” “Waking in the morning—” “Silver between the trees—” “Upstairs—” “In the garden—” “When summer came—” “In winter snowtime—” The doors go shutting far in the distance, gently knocking like the pulse of a heart.
Nearer they come; cease at the doorway. The wind falls, the rain slides silver down the glass. Our eyes darken; we hear no steps beside us; we see no lady spread her ghostly cloak. His hands shield the lantern. “Look,” he breathes. “Sound asleep. Love upon their lips.”
Stooping, holding their silver lamp above us, long they look and deeply. Long they pause. The wind drives straightly; the flame stoops slightly. Wild beams of moonlight cross both floor and wall, and, meeting, stain the faces bent; the faces pondering; the faces that search the sleepers and seek their hidden joy.
“Safe, safe, safe,” the heart of the house beats proudly. “Long years—” he sighs. “Again you found me.” “Here,” she murmurs, “sleeping; in the garden reading; laughing, rolling apples in the loft. Here we left our treasure—” Stooping, their light lifts the lids upon my eyes. “Safe! safe! safe!” the pulse of the house beats wildly. Waking, I cry “Oh, is this your buried treasure? The light in the heart.”