In the geography lesson the teacher, Mr. Levy, was talking about the Yarkon, and for this reason Hefzibah locked herself in the Girls’ Room during the morning recess.
At the beginning of the lesson, the teacher announced that the class was going to study the Yarkon and “when we’ve finished, we’ll make a field trip to the headwaters of the river to see for ourselves how things are running.” And while the class was still laughing, and the teacher was saying that they wouldn’t be able to visit the Fortress of Antipater because the area was still mined, images rose in her mind of a visit she had made with her mother and brother to the Yarkon Hospital in Tel Aviv four years earlier, images suffused with an element of remoteness and disjunction because of some turbidity which screened them from her. They were nevertheless vivid and sharp and burdened her with painful guilt feelings. A strong light spilled into the room through the windows facing south—it was early afternoon—and the whiteness of the walls dazzled her. Because of the glare, she chose to reexamine for a moment the darkness of the night before, when she was startled out of her sleep and didn’t understand what the commotion was all about and what her father’s bridge partners were doing in the house. Later she was able to discern the doctor passing by her bed in the anteroom leading to her parents’ bedroom, and in some vague way began to realize that something serious had happened. Hefzibah asked herself if she had gone back to sleep that night and remembered that the next day the British declared a curfew, scheduled to start at four in the afternoon and include the entire country, and that before her mother climbed into the ambulance she told her that she wasn’t sure she would be back by four and that she should take care of her small brother and give him lunch. Hefzibah recalled the terrible tension which had wracked her the whole day and so she switched her thoughts back to the white room. The light that had dazzled her focused her glance on the black spot on the pillow: thin straight hair parted on the left and combed over the right temple.
“The mills on the river, Hefzibah!” The voice of Mr. Levy, the teacher, suddenly burst upon her and she turned her head in his direction. Her eyes glazed, curtained by those distant images, and she said nothing.
“Again you’re not paying attention, Hefzibah,” he chided her. Hefzibah lowered her eyes and returned to the scenes in her mind. It was in the fifth grade, she remembered, and her home teacher, Dr. Eisner, who was their neighbor and her parents’ friend, left at the end of that year and moved with his family to the new Rasco housing project on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, right next to the Yarkon. During the summer vacation, when she went to visit him with her little brother, the bus took them past that same hospital and she remembered being struck by some kind of momentary fear which froze the flow of her exhilaration. The family was happy to see them and Dr. Eisner, her former teacher, took them and his own children rowing on the Yarkon. Her brother was very frightened and wouldn’t let go of her hand.
Esther Strauss, who was her best friend and sat next to her, nudged her suddenly and she heard the teacher ask: “Have any of you ever gone rowing on the Yarkon?” But Hefzibah didn’t raise her hand, and her eyes went back to the glaring light, to the dazzling whiteness, and she remembered how frightened she was of looking at him—he was so strange and unfamiliar, covered up to the neck with a stiff starched sheet, his head on the pillow: the black spot where his hair was and his white face with a bluish hue on his cheeks. Hefzibah clearly remembered that she had been more interested in the good-looking boy lying on the next bed than she had been in her father, and her pencil sketched the memory on the piece of paper on her desk: a room, a row of beds, a head on a pillow. Only the face escaped her and she couldn’t understand how she had forgotten it so quickly—after only two weeks—and she asked herself why the features were so blurred: the eyes, the nose, the lips, the wrinkles—everything had been sucked into an elliptical void resembling an ancient theatrical mask, perhaps a Greek one like the mask she had once seen in a book. The name of the book slipped her mind.
Mr. Levy, the teacher, said: “Hefzibah, instead of paying attention you have been doodling the whole time.” Hefzibah said: “I’m not doodling, Mr. Levy, I’m drawing.” The teacher lost his temper and said: “Talking back again, are you? For tomorrow you can copy Psalm 82 one hundred times.” Hefzibah shrugged her shoulders and remembered that Dr. Eisner, her teacher in the fifth grade, had been sympathetic, had never reprimanded her. On the contrary, he would jokingly tell the class that Hefzibah could do anything, even listen and draw at the same time. It really didn’t bother him that she drew during class. That’s why Hefzibah showed him the journal she kept where she had written about Impressionism and why Van Gogh cut off his ear, and where she had copied her own poems and even a little story about three old women in a secluded house. But she was sure Mr. Levy wouldn’t appreciate things like that and there was no point in explaining them to him.
During the recess, then, Hefzibah locked herself in one of the bathroom stalls. She pulled down the cover of the toilet seat and sat there, her face crushed in her hands. She went through her memories and tried to capture the features of the face on the white pillow in her parents’ bedroom when her mother had sent her in to look at him for the last time. But now, returning to the room, she couldn’t see anything. Her mind was unable to catch hold of any likeness and she was angry with herself and decided that as soon as she got home she would look at the photograph album and then close her eyes and summon up his picture over and over again until it was indelibly engraved in her mind and could never be lost again so thoughtlessly. The door to the Girls’ Room opened and Hefzibah heard someone come in, turn on the faucet and speak. She recognized the voice of Bracha Shvili and heard her say: “Did you notice that she was wearing the jumper at the funeral?”
“Yes,” said the voice of Shula Reisser. “So what?”
Bracha Shvili said: “She repaired the place where the rabbi tore it. It’s not done.”
“Is it forbidden?” asked Shula Reisser.
“I’ll have to check that ,” said Bracha. “I’ll ask the Talmud teacher.”
Meanwhile someone else came in and now Hefzibah heard Esther Strauss, her best friend, saying: “Did you hear how Hefzi laughed out loud. She should be ashamed of herself.”
The girls left the Girls’ Room and Hefzibah’s hand went up to her heart, fingering the place where the rabbi had rent her jumper.
She usually sat in class next to her best friend, Esther Strauss, but now she took the seat next to Eli Weiss. And during the lesson, when Mr. Levy, the teacher, was explaining the characteristics of the idyll, Eli Weiss wrote in her notebook:
“Your eyes exude a verdant light
Just like two sparkling emeralds.”
Hefzibah read the lines and smiled. Suddenly, Mr. Levy said: “Hefzibah! What are you doing over there? Take your things and come sit here”. He pointed to the empty seat in front of him.
Hefzibah took her time changing places and the teacher bellowed at her: “Hurry up! You’re wasting the whole lesson.” Hefzibah sullenly began to gather her things together. Eli Weiss whispered: “Why is he always picking on you?” She winked at him unobtrusively and he returned a shy smile. When she finally sat down in front of the teacher, she saw that Eli was flushed with anger and plea. Towards the end of the hour she tore a page out of her notebook, wrote a few words on it, folded it and tossed it to the back. Mr. Levy shouted: “This is too much! You are going to stay after school tomorrow for two hours. Tell your parents—I mean your mother—not to worry.”
Hefzibah thought: The whole class noticed his mistake. She was seething with anger and she said: “But, Mr. Levy, you already gave me a punishment…”
“No ‘buts’,” he broke in. “Psalm 82 a hundred times and two hours after school and if that won’t help you’ll have to bring your par.. your mother.”
Hefzibah thought about Dr. Eisner and about the fact that since he left, no other teacher had understood her. She remembered that on the way to visit them with her brother, the bus had passed between mounds of red earth carved out on either side of the road as if by a knife. She remembered that he had kept her journal for a few days and when he had come over to return it, he had said to her parents: “You have no idea what kind of girl you have.” And after that, her memories returned to the hospital and to the white room and the sharp light and the boy lying in the bed next to her father’s and she thought: I was more interested in the boy than I was in my father. Now I keep telling myself that I was afraid to look at him. But that’s not true. I was simply indifferent. I didn’t want to know.”
During the recess, Hefzibah stood on the terrace, leaning over the ledge, watching the boys and girls in the yard playing ball or jumping rope.
Dr. Moskowitz, the Talmud teacher, had taken out a chair and sat down in the sun. Hefzibah saw Bracha Shvili walk over to him, bend down and say something. Her hand moved up her jumper and she fingered the place where the rabbi had rent it. Only by actually touching it could you tell there was a defect in the weave.
Shula Reisser came over to her. “Look at that pair of turtledoves,” she said, motioning with her head towards a corner of the yard. Hefzibah saw Mr. Levy and Bracha Shvili standing and talking together. “Disgusting,” said Shula. “First she sucks up to Dr. Moskowitz and then to Mr. Levy.”
“I see that it’s been repaired,” said Shula Reisser, pointing to the top of the jumper.
“Yes. My mother gave it to invisible mending,” said Hefzibah.
“Is that allowed?” asked Shula.
“I never asked the rabbi,” said Hefzibah contemptuously. “I like this jumper. Maybe you think I should have walked around with it torn till doomsday?”
“You should find out if it’s allowed,” said Shula, annoyed.
“And if it’s not allowed, so what? What’s it your business? Maybe everybody’ll stop watching me like a hawk all the time?”
“You’d better watch out,” said Shula. “Everybody’s talking about you. They say you laugh too much.”
Hefzibah walked away and, standing by herself, again leaning on the ledge and watching the children play, she realized that there was no one in the world she could talk to: Esther Strauss, her best friend, was just a hairbrain and Eli Strauss was still a baby and didn’t understand a thing.
Now Bracha Shvili approached her. She fixed her eyes on the jumper and said: “They fixed it for you. You can’t see a thing.”
“Invisible mending,” said Hefzibah.
“Hefzi,” said Bracha Shvili softly, “they say it’s wrong. I asked Dr. Moskowitz. He teaches Jewish law. He should know. He says it’s forbidden.”
“And the fact that you’re so palsy-walsy with Mr. Levy, that’s not forbidden? He’s a married man with a wife and children in Jerusalem,” said Hefzibah, carpingly.
Bracha Shvili turned red and retorted: “Why are you always insulting people?”
“Look who’s talking about insults,” said Hefzibah.
The next day Hefzibah gave Mr. Levy the pages on which she had copied out Psalm 82 a hundred times.
“I hope that you now know the Psalm by heart,” he said.
Hefzibah didn’t answer and he said: “Don’t forget. You’re staying after school today for two hours. Did you tell your mother?”
“Yes,” lied Hefzibah and asked: “How can you be sure I won’t slip out in the middle?”
“I’m staying with you, that’s how. What did you suppose?”
“So then you’re also being punished,” she laughed.
“No,” he smiled, “I’ll be correcting homework.”
First she took out her sandwiches and ate them in silence. Then she took out a pad of drawing paper, a small glass and some tubes of gouache. “I’m just going to get some water,” she said to Mr. Levy. Then she painted for two hours without saying a word, inwardly abusing and vilifying the teacher the whole time, pouring out her wrath in strong colors, frenziedly covering the paper with paint, one coat on top of the other, page after page.
Suddenly the teacher said: “You can go. The two hours are over.”
Hefzibah screwed on the tops of the tubes, cleaned and dried her brush and put everything into her schoolbag. As she was leaving, Mr. Levy said: “I didn’t know you paint.”
“I only doodle,” she said.
Outside she saw Bracha Shvili. She’s waiting for him, she thought, and hid behind a wall to see what would happen. Mr. Levy came out of the school and Bracha Shvili went up to him. They exchanged a few words and then left together.
Crazy nut, thought Hefzibah. What can she possibly see in that revolting man? As for him, she thought, he punishes me on the slightest pretense while he himself goes for walks in the evening with Bracha Shvili, and him with a wife and children in Jerusalem.
Hefzibah sat in the kitchen picking over the rice. On one side she put the chaff and the tiny stones, and on the other the rice, until there was a small white mound. Her mother was standing near the kitchen counter changing the wick in the kerosene cooker. Hefzibah’s grandmother, who had just finished cleaning the house of their well-to-do neighbors (whom her mother had in mind when she said that in Palestine all the parvenus had made it big while people of culture and learning were starving), came in and asked if they needed any help. Hefzibah believed that if it weren’t for Hitler, her grandmother would have had servants of her own and wouldn’t have to clean house for other people and, maybe, her father would still be alive. She thought: It’s this country that killed him and maybe it’s true that mother shouldn’t have given my jumper to invisible mending.
Out loud she said: “You know, the girls say that it’s against Jewish law to mend the tear.”
“But you have nothing to wear,” her mother answered, “and winter clothes are awfully expensive.”
Hefzibah was late coming to meet her friends. “Where is everybody?” she asked the boy who was waiting for her.
“They left,” he said.
“Where to?” she asked irately.
“Nowhere in particular. Just strolling—in pairs.”
“Eli wasn’t here?” she asked.
He went off with Rickey,” the boy said.
Hefzibah’s heart sank and she thought: What a traitor. He didn’t even wait for me.
“Come on, let’s go over to the park,” said the boy, “maybe they’re there.”
They walked up the hill in silence. The silence weighed on Hefzibah and she said: “Are you from Jerusalem?”
“No,” he answered.
“Then where did you go to school before?”
“The Yeshivah,” he answered.
“Your people are that religious?” she asked, stunned. He didn’t look like that—like those ultra-orthodox from the Yeshivah.
“No,” he answered.
Hefzibah had no more questions and the boy was silent. They reached the top of the hill and Hefzibah said: “I don’t see them anywhere. I’m going home.”
The boy walked her home and quickly took his leave. In the front yard of the house a lantana bush grew wild around the fence, creating a small den. When she was small she would play there with her brother. Now she discerned a crouching figure, a large grey hulk, hiding in the foliage. She began to run in the direction of the house. The figure detached itself from the bush and ran after her, massive and floundering. “Mother! Mother!” Hefzibah screamed. Her mother appeared at the door. “Get out of here, do you hear me, or I’ll call the police!”
He would always lie in ambush for her there, fat crazy Shaul, trying to catch her and kiss her.
When he would pass her in the street he would shout after her:
“Pretty Hefzi is going to wed
Crazy Shalom with the hole in his head,” or
“Shalom is crazy, Hefzi is good,
The rabbi’s going to marthem because he should.”
Hefzibah found him repulsive and terrifying. Her mother always said: “one day I’ll lose all my patience with you and go to the police.” But she never did. She pitied him and his parents. “If I go to the police,” she said, “they’ll lock him up for good and finish him off with electric shocks.”
Saturday afternoon, Hefzibah went to the girls’ club. She didn’t pay attention to what the leader was saying. Later they were joined by the boys and began to play guessing games. Hefzibah sat on the side, not taking part. Eli was sitting next to Rickey and didn’t look at her even once. When evening fell and Sabbath was out, they went inside for folk dancing. Hefzibah stood around watching. She loved dancing. Bracha Shvili went over and stood next to her.
“Why aren’t you dancing?” Hefzibah asked her.
“I’m not in the mood,” answered Bracha Shvili.
Someone called for a krakowiak and Hancha pulled out his harmonica to play. Hefzibah noticed that Eli picked Rickey for the dance.
Bracha Shvili said: “Eli and Rickey are going together.”
Hefzibah didn’t say a word and Bracha Shvili said: “Somebody saw them kissing. On a bench on Rothschild Boulevard. That Rickey’ll give it to whoever asks.”
“He’s just a big baby,” said Hefzibah. She watched the dancing couples spinning around before her eyes. She thought she had better go home and learn the chapter in Jeremiah by heart. Otherwise Dr. Moskowitz would punish her. But she didn’t feel like going home alone. She was afraid that crazy Shalom would be waiting for her behind the lantana bush. She figured that if she waited until the dancing was over, she would find someone to walk her home.
There was a gallery running along the walls of the club about halfway to the ceiling and Hefzibah decided to go up and sit there alone, in the dark. When she entered the darkened gallery, she was surprised to see a figure sitting on one of the benches. She stopped, ready to turn back and retrace her steps, when the voice of Bracha Shvili, a little choked and hoarse, called to her: “Come over here, Hefzi.”
“Why are you sitting here alone in the dark?” Hefzibah asked, surprised.
“Come and sit down,” said Bracha Shvili and Hefzibah sat down next to her and asked: “What’s the matter? Why are you crying?”
But Bracha Shvili didn’t answer. Only choked sobs escaped.
“Stop it! That’s enough!” said Hefzibah, a little frightened, put off by this display of uncontrolled grief.
“I love him so much,” Bracha Shvili sobbed, “I really don’t know what to do. When he goes home to his wife and children I feel completely lost.”
“But how can you? He’s an old man. I can’t understand what you see in him,” said Hefzibah.
Bracha Shvili took Hefzibah’s hand and began caressing it.
“I can’t stand it anymore,” she moaned. “I can’t begin to tell you how crazy I am about him.”
And then, before Hefzibah’s darkening eyes, Bracha Shvili began to sway back and forth, her eyes closed, her voice whispering: “I love you, I love you so much. I can’t live without you.”
Hefzibah studied her in her anguish, trying to figure out what to do. Suddenly Bracha Shvili embraced her and whispered in her ear: “You’re mine, only mine.” Hefzibah was appalled and tried to break loose from the girl’s embrace but Bracha held on and whispered: “You won’t leave me. You’re mine alone.” And then she kissed her passionately on the mouth. Hefzibah pushed her away savagely, disgusted. “You’re out of your mind!” she whispered harshly, getting up and running down the stairs.
“Hefzi, Hefzi, wait for me!” the voice importuned her, but Hefzibah didn’t stop. When she reached the bottom she immediately joined the circle of dancers, now in the middle of a tempestuous hora. They stamped their feet and clapped their hands at a furious tempo, their voices emitting a frenzied gibberish: “Ho! Ya! Ho! Ya! Lefti, befti, belabelabefti, tchingileh, mingileh, loof, loof, loof!!!” The intense fervor drove the nausea out of her system and she gave herself up to the beat, oblivious to everything.
Only later, when the circle of dancers dissipated and the frenzied “Ho! Ya! Ho! Ya!” stopped throbbing against her temples did she realize what she had done. She didn’t stay a moment longer but left the club immediately.
Hefzibah walked rapidly, her knees shaking, as she tried to blot out everything. Still, her mind kept churning up the terrible question: “What will they say? What will they say?” Every so often she took a long deep breath in order to fortify her battery of counter-arguments, such as: “It’s my own business. It doesn’t concern anyone else.” But the question was overpowering, attacking her with renewed force.
When she reached the fence, she examined the yard carefully and, seeing no one, entered quietly, making her way stealthily past the thicket of the lantana bush. She kept as close as possible to the opposite hedge, her head bent a little, fighting the urge to look back at the dark shadow of overgrown foliage. But halfway to the door, a heavy, obese body sprang out and, stamping like a clumsy, tottering bear, fell upon her. He grabbed hold of her with his coarse, heavy hands, murmuring; “Hefzi, my beauty, the joy of my life. I’ve caught you!”
“Mother! Mother!” Hefzibah screamed, but his moist lips were already on her face, his hands red-hot tongs piercing the flesh of her arms.
In the square of light of the opened door, she saw her mother for half a second, standing and looking and suddenly running down the steps, waving a broom and shouting: “Get out of here! Now! Or I’ll call the police!” The demented man let Hefzibah go and disappeared into the overgrown bushes, an obscure mass sinking into the mouth of darkness.
Hefzibah broke into a loud wail and her mother took her in her arms and helped her into the house. In the foyer she held onto her a little longer, caressing her head and saying: “Daddy would have broken all his bones, only we have no daddy. Tomorrow I’ll tell the landlord he has to uproot that whole bush and I’ll go over and talk to that maniac’s parents.”
On Sunday the seat next to Eli Weiss was empty again and Hefzibah decided to sit there. Eli Weiss wrote her a letter of apology during class. He explained that he loved her, only her, that Rickey had provoked him and that his biological urge had gotten the better of him.
On the note she returned she wrote only: “Hope you had a good time.” That’s all.
While passing the note to Eli she felt the teacher’s menacing glance on her and she understood that if she wasn’t careful she might be punished again. When the bell rang, Eli Weiss got up but Hefzibah remained seated. She took the Book of Jeremiah out of her schoolbag and began to learn the assigned chapter by heart. The classroom emptied out slowly and in the end only a few girls remained, among them Esther Strauss, her best friend, Bracha Shvili, Shula Reisser and Leah Katz. Hefzibah was reading under her breath and her lips were moving:
“O Lord, I will dispute with thee, for thou art just;
yes, I will plead my case before thee.
Why do the wicked prosper
and traitors live at ease?
Thou hast planted them and their roots strike deep…”
And while she was still absorbed in the Bible, committing the passage to memory, she was suffused by the fear that some menacing presence was approaching, throbbing in the air, spinning towards her and crying: “Ho! Ya! Ho! Ya!” She tried to ward off the oppressive feeling, returning to the text:
“Thou art ever on their lips,
yet far from their hearts.
But thou knowest me, O Lord, thou seest me;
thou dost test my devotion to thyself…”
But some commotion deflected her from the passage and she noticed that her friends had gathered around her, randomly, in a horseshoe. Then all of a sudden, as if in a phantasmagoria, she saw Bracha Shvili spinning towards her, her arms outstretched. And before she realized exactly what was happening, she felt the full force of an open hand strike her on the cheek. Hefzibah lifted her hand to her face, utterly nonplused, and heard Bracha Shvili saying: “It’s forbidden to repair the tear. Dr. Moskowitz says it’s a terrible sin.”
Esther Strauss, her best friend, came up close and, pointing at her with her finger, shouted: “You were dancing the hora last night at the club!” Bracha Shvili took her cue from that: “You should be ashamed of yourself! You slut!”
“Are you out of your minds?” said Leah Katz. “Leave her alone! What do you want from her?”
“You shut up, you scaredy-cat,” said Shula Reisser.
Hefzibah bent her head over the Bible on her desk and the tiny black letters grew before her eyes, crying out:
“Thou hast planted them and their roots strike deep,
they grow up and bear fruit…”
But Bracha Shvili swung again, striking her on the other cheek.
“Stop! I’m going to call the teacher!” cried Leah Katz, but Shula Reisser caught hold of her and said: “Shut up! You’re not going anywhere right now! We have to show her a thing or two. What does she think she’s doing? Laughing all the time. Dancing a hora. Sending her jumper to invisible mending.”
“She must be punished!” cried Bracha Shvili, but Esther Strauss said to her: “That’s enough.”
“She must be punished!” shouted Bracha Shvili, grabbing hold of Hefzibah’s hair and pulling. Esther Strauss pushed her away and said: “That’s enough. Stop it!” But Shula Reisser had meanwhile edged closer, holding a scissors.
“Gimme the scissors!” shouted Bracha Shvili and to Hefzibah she said: “Invisible mending, huh? We’ll show you how it’s done, Hefzi’leh.”
She caught hold of Hefzibah’s jumper from the front. Hefzibah resisted and from the back Esther Strauss caught hold of Bracha Shvili and pulled her away. The moment she was free, Hefzibah ran to the door. But Bracha Shvili, still holding the scissors, ran after her and caught her from behind.
Leah Katz screamed: “She’s liable to kill her!”
At that moment Hefzibah turned around and with all the force she could muster punched Bracha Shvili in the face.
“She broke my nose,” howled Bracha Shvili.
“Serves you right!” said Hefzibah, and Esther Strauss, her best friend, took the scissors out of Bracha’s hand. The sound of the bell, metallic and heavy, jolted them and they looked at one another, their faces flushed and angry, and Hefzibah was conscious of the fact that the prolonged ringing sound was cutting through her like the knife that had cut the top of her jumper not so many days past in that strange, remote place, just before she bent down to pick up a handful of moist red earth.
A sudden light suffused the room. Boys and girls burst through the door and on the threshold stood Dr. Moskowitz. He waited until everyone was standing in place, after which he walked up to his desk and said: “Be seated.”
He read out the names from the roll book and when he finished he said: “I hope that you’ve all learned the chapter by heart. Hefzibah, please begin.”
Hefzibah was sitting with her trembling hands folded under her chest. The seat underneath her was hot and sticky. For a moment she didn’t understand what he wanted but Eli Weiss, sitting next to her, nudged her, and she began:
“O Lord, I will dispute with thee, for thou art just;
yes, I will plead my case before thee.
Why do the wicked prosper
and traitors live at ease?”
And Eli Weiss continued:
Thou has planted them and their roots strike deep,
they grow up and bear fruit…”
Hefzibah raised her hand and asked permission to leave the room. The teacher gave her permission. Walking, she felt the blood sticky between her thighs. Thank God the jumper is thick and dark,” she reflected.
Outside, she unlocked her bike with trembling hands, gave it a push, mounted and rode home. The house was empty and silent. Hefzibah washed herself, changed her clothes and placed a thick wad of cotton in her underpants. “Why did it come early?” she asked herself, and she answered out loud without knowing quite why:
“If you have raced with men and the runners have worn you down,
how then can you hope to vie with horses…”
She folded her bloodstained jumper, wrapped it in a newspaper, went out into the yard and stuck it into the garbage can.
As she went up the street, riding her bicycle back to school to pick up her schoolbag, crazy Shalom came towards her from the opposite direction. He called out:
“Pretty Hefzi is going to wed
Crazy Shalom with the hole in his head.”
Hefzibah got back to school during the recess and, ignoring all the eyes digging into her, went straight into the classroom. Her schoolbag was where she had left it, under the desk, and she took out her English notebook to study the new vocabulary. Esther Strauss, her best friend, went up to her and said in a muted voice: “Good that you changed your clothes. That wasn’t right, that invisible mending. It’s forbidden.”
Hefzibah fixed her eyes on the notebook in front of her and said:
“My own people have turned on me like a lion from the scrub, roaring against me; therefore I hate them.”
*The story is published in cooperation with The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature.
He’s confused. Too shy. His sister died of leukemia when he was thirteen. He’s not over his wife yet. He’s intimidated by your sarcastic sense of humor. You’re smarter than he is and he can’t handle it. He’s lost. He doesn’t know what he wants. He’s never had a long-term relationship. He’s young. He works too hard. He’s brilliant, contemplative, needs to learn that it’s okay to be vulnerable. Immature. Terrified. He needs to grow out of his Peter Pan syndrome. But you know what? She really hurt him.
Remember when he pushed your hair out of your face and tucked it behind your ear just like in the movies? And worked hard to make the perfect tuna casserole, sweat gleaming from his forehead under your kitchen light. He admired the dew on the spider webs and knew his fauna well. That one time, he said something so funny you almost peed your pants. Remember when you studied together at the Café Gourmet and you pretended to read The Color Purple and he was so beautiful, looking down at his book, his hand resting on his cheek, writing in the crooked left-handed way of his. He admired your Bettie Page poster.
He says your name before he comes. He’s affectionate after. You both love Woody Allen films, making fun of stupid movies, sushi, Indian food. You agree you’re not sure what happens when you die, but the two of you verge on hopeful atheism. He said you are the sexiest woman he’d ever met. He did the dishes without you asking. He’s not bad in bed. If only he would read something besides Nietzsche or Jack Kerouac.
He’s in medical, dental, law, graduate school, trying to finish his dissertation on Chaucer. He can’t leave Maggie, his golden retriever, overnight. He once had major surgery. He doesn’t realize he’s homosexual. They moved around a lot when he was a kid. His mother was a bitch, cold, too protective, insane, unsteady, emotionally abusive, demanding, a martyr. His father made him play football when he didn’t want to. He’s an only child.
He taught you how to identify a deciduous tree, appreciate the artist Lempicka, comprehend Aristotelian philosophy, admire alternative country music, pick a good avocado, appreciate vintage Spiderman comic books.
His parents divorced and he still blames himself. His parents have been married for thirty-five years and he’s afraid he’ll settle for a love less bright or some shit. He’s an Orthodox Jew. He’s moving to New York in three months. He has a yet-to-be diagnosed personality disorder.
He would never hit you. He’s a feminist, a vegetarian, a fallen Catholic, a poet, a canoe-maker, a yogi. He said, You’re the smartest person I’ve ever met. He bought you a beautiful red dress and took you out to dinner and then fucked you over a chair. He knows how to talk to babies. You look prettier without make-up, he said. His life—it’s too complicated right now.
You shouldn’t have slept with him the first night. You shouldn’t have waited. You confessed too much. You didn’t tell him how you really feel. You shouldn’t have said that thing.
It’s not him; it’s you.
*Licensed from The University of North Texas Press. Copyright 2018 by Aimee LaBrie from Wonderful Girl
Yasha Hein woke up while it was still dark – long before the alarm clock rang – because of a strange quietness that was filling him up from within.
During the evening of the previous day he had already felt a little unwell: a sort of pre-flu state. All of his joints and muscles had ached, he had had a headache, he had kept coming over dreadfully weak. The thermometer had showed 37.2 – not exactly a high temperature, of course, but subfebrile, which is even worse. At bedtime Yasha had taken two effervescent soluble aspirins, put some nasal drops in his nose to be on the safe side, even though it wasn’t blocked for the time being, and asked his wife to draw iodine grids on his chest and back – so that he didn’t develop a cough, because there was no way he could rest up in bed the next day, he had to get to work without fail, no matter what.
And so now Yasha was sitting in bed, wrapped up in a blanket, feeling appalling. It was as if his chest and stomach – but not just his chest and stomach, his whole body – were filled with congealed, sticky cotton wool. Or cold apple jelly. But the main thing was – this quietness… This strange quietness. Something inside him was clearly out of order, and out of order in a serious way. Now Yasha had to find the broken cogwheel that was preventing the whole complicated mechanism of his thirty-five-year-old body, faulty at times, but nonetheless relatively orderly, from working normally – find and eliminate the fault. By medicinal means. Perhaps even with antibiotics – he had to get to work at all costs.
Yasha stretched out on the bed and lay motionless for five minutes or so, listening closely to himself, feeling himself over, as it were, from within, carefully studying every organ to see if it was healthy.
His throat wasn’t sore. There was no cough or blocked nose, and his eyes weren’t hurting at all. Even the headache of the previous day had completely gone – in short, it wasn’t like a cold at all, not like flu really either. More likely there was something wrong with his blood pressure – ups or downs of some kind… Yasha’s health was dependent on the weather. Or his heart – he had had tachycardia since he was a child, after all.
Yasha reached out for his watch. He waited until the second hand was on the twelve, and took his left wrist in his right hand to check his pulse. Then he put his hand to the artery on his neck. Then to his chest.
Then he touched the bony shoulder of his wife, who was breathing heavily beside him, and said quietly:
‘Ira, I think I’m ill.’
‘A-hm,’ came a mumble of suffering in reply, and she rolled over onto her other side.
‘I’m ill,’ he said more loudly.
‘You’re always ill. If it’s not one thing, it’s another. Let me sleep,’ but she did open her eyes. ‘What is it this time?’
‘There’s something wrong with my…’ Yasha said haltingly, and licked his cold lips with the tip of his tongue. ‘My heart doesn’t seem to be beating.’
‘Good Lord, what sort of nonsense is that?’ with an effort Ira forced the words out through a heavy yawn, and closed her eyes once more.
* * *
Yasha got up and went into the kitchen. He pressed his hand to his chest once again. Quietness, absolute quietness from within. He switched on the electric kettle – it began hissing malevolently, demanding water. Yasha filled it and switched it on again. And it was then that he was seized by genuine panic. ‘If my heart really has stopped,’ thought Yasha, ‘that means I’m about to die. In a second. Well, in two seconds. I won’t have time to drink my tea. I probably won’t even have time to take the cup off the shelf.’
Yasha pattered across to the kitchen cupboard and grabbed a cup. Well then, I did have time. But what does that tell you? Absolutely nothing. It could happen any time all the same, at any moment. If the heart isn’t beating, that means the blood isn’t moving through the veins, and that means… what? Some problem with oxygen. A shortage of oxygen must develop, and so a man can no longer breathe and soon dies. Yes, a man stops breathing… Yasha held his breath. And suddenly realised that he didn’t actually have to breathe at all. That is, he was capable of breathing, but solely out of habit, and if he wanted, he could even manage quite happily without doing so – as long as he liked.
‘An ambulance! Call an ambulance!’ He ran back into the bedroom where his wife was asleep.
‘What are you yelling for?’ She finally woke up fully and looked weary and bad-tempered.
‘I need an ambulance! I’m not breathing!’
‘You need to go to the madhouse, Yasha. What’s all this nonsense you’re talking? Don’t addle my brains.’
Yasha leant against the chest of drawers and covered his face with his hands. She climbed out from under the blanket, stuck her bony feet into slippers with plush pompons and gave him a look that was almost sympathetic.
‘If you really need one, call it yourself. Ring them and say exactly that: “Hello, I want to call an ambulance, because I’ve stopped breathing, and my heart’s not beating either.” Maybe someone will come, too. They may even give you sick leave, on account of your disability. When you’re sick in the head, that’s serious too, after all. How can a man like that work? A man like that…’
At this point Yasha switched off as usual, stopped listening. The loud, steady drone, moving around with his wife (back and forth across the bedroom, then into the bathroom, the kitchen, and back again into the bedroom), sounded almost reassuring – meaningless words like husks, devoid of any sense, devoid of any core.
Coming up for fifteen years before, Yasha had married this woman, not really for love exactly, but for something of the sort. Or maybe not for love, but simply because of being young. Or being stupid. Or because that was the way everything was heading, and she was ten years older than him, and her mother was thirty years older than him, and both of them knew very well how to deal with a twenty-year-old, long-nosed boy. In short, the motives by which Yasha had then been guided weren’t very clear to him now. However, if he had wanted to clear the question up, he would, of course, have done so with no difficulty – and if he still hadn’t done so, it was solely because he didn’t feel any such need. And whatever there had been there, at the beginning, there was now a lot that bound them – the years they had lived together, the things they had bought together, the rows during which they had sucked one another dry – day and night, like demented vampires – their shared tiresomeness, shared irritation, and very much more besides.
Just a year after the wedding, swiftly and inexorably – the way Cinderella loses her expensive accessories at midnight, the way a werewolf grows a coat of hair at full moon – she had turned into her mother. And her mother was a highly strung and touchy individual, and unbelievably garrulous.
Take flight? Yes, in his time Yasha had cherished a dream of liberation. Yet not one real attempt at escape had he actually undertaken. Instead, he had developed a simple means of psychological defence, a sort of know-how; whenever she spoke for longer than a few seconds, he would press an invisible little button in his head that was responsible for the perception of human speech. The sound of her voice remained – but in such a form that it meant no more than, say, the noise of surf or the squeal of car tyres when someone put the brakes on sharply.
Upon mature consideration, Yasha decided not to call an ambulance after all: by the time they’d arrived, by the time this and that had been done… he could be late for work. Apart from that, who said competent doctors worked in ambulances? Those gloomy fellows, tired and short of sleep after the night shift? The best thing now, thought Yasha, is to calm down a bit, have some tea and go to work. And then in the evening go to a private health centre and see a good specialist.
The indignant buzzing that filled the entire room and was insistently trying to filter through to him, finally swept away all the obstacles in its path and at last invaded the zone of Yasha’s perception: ‘… what, can’t you hear… as if… cook some eggs… can’t you hear… like a statue… some eggs… as I’ve got up anyway… get cold… as I’ve had to anyway… go…’
* * *
The magazine called Fun Magazine would first open, then close, then open, then close, like a faulty lift stuck between floors. And this had been going on for about three years.
Nonetheless, people continued to work on FM. The instability of the situation got on the staff’s nerves only to begin with – they gradually got used to it and settled down. ‘Do you know, has he already found it?’ colleagues would ask one another quietly. ‘Apparently, yes.’
Their financial director was something of a magician. At least, he certainly possessed one magical quality: he always found finance.
Yasha arrived in good time for the emergency meeting. To do so, he ran all the way from the Metro, and then ran down the long, boring corridor of the editorial offices too. In actual fact, it wasn’t so much punctuality that made him resolve upon this heroic race, as the secret hope that such a warm-up might have a stimulating effect on his heart, but… In his chest there was still that same cotton-wool quietness.
The editor-in-chief, Vladimir Vladimirovich Stayomov, conducted the meeting very briskly, finishing in five minutes. It was only a couple of weeks before that FM had enjoyed its latest resurrection, for which reason Stayomov (or, to friends, simply Stay-home) was clearly in a good mood: his shiny button-eyes looked at his subordinates in a friendly way, and with what a dashing movement did he toss back onto the crown of his head the unruly forelocks which dangled down to the left in long, black strands, reluctant to cover the moist editorial bald patch.
After the meeting, a lot of people headed for the canteen, as usual, for a bite to eat. Yasha dragged along after them at first, but changed his mind halfway there. The memory of his recent breakfast was still too fresh… the tea pours into his throat in a warm, unbroken stream, washing down the last slippery bits of fried egg… it doesn’t have to be swallowed at all… the liquid flows freely down the oesophagus… with a slight gurgling sound – like a spring stream through the bars of a drain-hole…
Yasha stood there for a while, then moved off slowly down the empty, yellow-walled corridor. Clambered clumsily into the little plywood box of his workspace. Turned on the computer. Something inside the case gave a painful bleep, and then a disenchanted squeak, and the room was filled with a loud, oppressive buzzing. Yasha opened Word. Stared miserably at the flickering screen, lay his hands on the grey, beslobbered keyboard with repugnance. Felt with his index fingers in the customary way for the little ridges on the ‘f’ and ‘j’ keys – the celebrated ‘touch’ method. Today he had to write a big to-order exposé (commissioned, actually, by FM’s new investor). It would run under the rubric ‘Topic of the Week’. And then he would be given a bonus.
‘The main thing is not to think about your breathing,’ Yasha said to himself, ‘not to think about your heart. Think about taxes. And about corruption. I’m writing about taxes, using the ten-finger method, writing ever so quickly, writing – and not breathing… but it’s all right, I’m simply over-excited. I’m writing very quickly – and not… writing quickly, and going to see a doctor straight away.’
The white screen chirped irritably and was plunged into darkness. Jolly green seaweed appeared against a black background. Little yellow fish swam up from out of a distant, otherworldly ocean and stared at Yasha senselessly from the monitor.
* * *
The working day was already almost over, but Dr Zuckerbaum was in a bad mood. His impending liberation from the cramped white office where he had been conducting his surgery promised nothing pleasant: frozen vegetables or ravioli for dinner, an empty evening, an empty home, an empty bed. Dr Zuckerbaum had recently lost his wife.
Dr Zuckerbaum may not have been the best cardiologist. But on the other hand he did have a big heart. By virtue of this latter fact, he often married his patients, weary Balzacian ladies with heart defects. And by virtue of the former, he often lost them, and was greatly upset every time. However, it is worth noting that the unfortunate former fact was a hindrance to the doctor only in his personal life, and told on his work not one bit. His attitude to his work was a serious one. Zuckerbaum sympathised sincerely with all his patients, and the utterly human warmth of his manner compensated in full for his professional incompetence in some matters. The patients liked him, and in the commercial medical centre ‘Heartmed’ he was considered the top specialist.
Yasha Hein liked and respected Dr Zuckerbaum too, and, although Zuckerbaum’s consultations weren’t cheap, he went to see him from time to time about his tachycardia.
Tachycardia would have seemed a pleasure to him now – better a hundred and fifty beats a minute than none.
In the registry, Yasha was informed that Zuckerbaum had already finished his surgery.
‘Mine is a very very serious case Miss a question of life and death,’ Yasha began jabbering in alarm, ‘Miss you don’t understand Miss I really do very much need…’
The withered, fifty-year-old Miss raised her wise eyes to Yasha, examined his distrustfully and said:
‘Wait, I’ll just give it a try – if he’s still in the office… Hello! Lev Samuilovich? It’s the registry here… There’s a patient here bursting to see you… And I’ve already told him it’s finished… He says it’s very urgent – although, to be honest, it seems to me… Just a minute… What’s the name? His name’s Hein. What? Very well, he’ll be up right away…’
Yasha grabbed the ticket from her hands and rushed to the office.
Dr Zuckerbaum was a responsive man, and that day he had no desire whatsoever to go home either, so he had decided to stay a little late. Particularly as Yasha’s was such a simple case – banal sinusoidal tachycardia. Listening to the complaints, taking the pulse, prescribing Isoptin and walks in the fresh air – it would all take about ten minutes, no more.
But Dr Zuckerbaum was mistaken.
An hour later he tried for the last time to take Yasha’s cardio-gram – on a different, newer machine; without any particular hope of success he fingered Yasha’s wrist, then decisively detached the sticky suckers from his legs and chest. He stared sadly at Yasha and said:
‘I’m very sorry, young man…’
‘What’s the matter with me?’
‘Yakov Markovich! You and I are grown-ups, are we not?’
‘What’s the matter with me?’
‘Unfortunately, it comes to all of us sooner or later…’
‘But what’s the matter with me, Doctor?’ Yasha asked again, and for some reason giggled.
‘I’m very sorry. I’ve done all that I could.’
* * *
‘What is there to think about? First of all, you need to go to the Registry Office,’ Klavdia Mikhailovna declared, plunging Yasha into a state of agonising déjà vu.
The last time his mother-in-law had pronounced those same words was fifteen years before. She hadn’t very much liked the youthful, useless Yasha with the traces of recent adolescent zits on his forehead. More than that, she hadn’t liked him at all, and had even found him repellent – like all the rest of Irina’s admirers who had ever had the misfortune to drop in for half an hour to have some tea, and to squeeze into the narrow space between the table, the fridge, the windowsill and the wall.
However, it was the very time when Yasha had been invited to tea that maternal instinct and common sense had unexpectedly united in Klavdia Mikhailovna in the most unhappy way for Yasha, and won certain victory over her personal sympathies and antipathies. In other words, Klavdia Mikhailovna had finally come to the conclusion that it was high time her daughter set herself up with, firstly, a family, and secondly, an apartment.
Yasha had an apartment.
Squashed into the stuffy corner of the five and a bit square metres of his beloved’s kitchen, Yasha had felt like a luckless little insect, stuck fast in the middle of a small, but sound and very professionally spun spider’s web. The wall of the kitchen beside which the guest had been made to sit was furnished with a gigantic radiator (a peculiar bonus for the residents of five-storey apartment blocks of the Khrushchev era), and the heat rising from his back to his head had deadened his consciousness and plunged Yasha into a state close to fainting. The spider-mother had looked into his eyes with a fixed and angry stare. Under the table, through a hole in his slipper, the spider-daughter had been stroking the big toe of his right foot with her elegant, hairy little one. He hadn’t had the strength to resist.
‘…First of all, you need to go to the Registry Office,’ Klavdia Mikhailovna had said then.
‘Very well,’ Yasha had submitted.
Over the following fifteen years, her attitude to her son-in-law hadn’t undergone any particular changes – as before, she didn’t like him. Maternal concern and common sense had remained with her too, and so at the family conference, urgently convened by Ira in connection with ‘the unpleasantness Yasha was having’, Klavdia Mikhailovna declared:
‘…First of all, you need to go to the Registry Office. And draw up a death certificate – so that you can register your entitlement to inherit the apartment.’
‘What, go with him?’ wondered Ira.
‘You can do…’ Klavdia Mikhailovna began, with doubt in her voice. Yet after some reflection she added, ‘But actually you’d do better to go by yourself. After all, the case isn’t very… sort of… typical. And all they ever want to do is find fault. And in general, what use is he? He’s an intellectual, isn’t he, can’t even stake a place in a queue: he’s too shy to ask whose turn it is before him,’ his mother-in-law glanced quickly at Yasha, who was sitting in an armchair and pretending to watch the game show The Weakest Link, ‘that is, he used to be too shy, I meant…’
Yasha coughed nervously.
‘Well, all right, you mustn’t speak ill of the dead,’ again she gave her son-in-law a sidelong glance, ‘may he rest in peace… although… that’s not clear either…’ Klavdia Mikhailovna fell into an embarrassed silence. But, as ever, not for long. ‘Incidentally, about rest. Do forgive me, Yasha, for indelicacy, but we ought to give some thought to the funeral too. Because this isn’t the way these things are normally done somehow.’
‘But how can you give him a funeral?’ exclaimed Ira in annoyance. ‘I mean, he’s sort of… it’s not as if he’s actually deceased.’
‘What, want to bury me alive, do you?’ Yasha interjected. Klavdia Mikhailovna ignored her son-in-law’s comment. She gave her plump mouth a scornful twist. Then she started jabbering in a falsetto, mimicking her daughter:
‘Oh dear, really, how can we, it’s not as if he’s, I mean, he’s sort of… What is he then, in your opinion?’ she asked, in a normal voice now.
‘I don’t know.’
‘“I don’t know” what?’ Klavdia Mikhailovna grew angry.
‘It’s a moot point.’
‘Aha, a moot point…’
‘Why do you keep on repeating things after me, Mama?’ Ira grew angry in her turn.
‘Who’s dragging the whole team down?’ the television presenter enquired.
‘Because I’m lost for words, that’s why I’m repeating them,’ the mother-in-law snapped. ‘And so what are you going to do with him?’
‘Well… let him live here for the time being. And later on maybe everything will sort itself out… well, later on, that is, we’ll see.’
‘Well, thank you,’ Yasha butted in once more, ‘I’ll never forget it.’
‘Who gets frightened by elementary questions? Who’ll have to leave with nothing?’
‘Why are you acting the goat?’ his wife pulled him up. ‘Now why are you acting the goat? This is no joke, you know! It really is a serious problem! It really isn’t clear what’s to be done with you! What do you yourself suggest?’
The telephone rang in the kitchen.
‘Well, what are you standing there like a statue for? Go and pick it up,’ his wife commanded.
Yasha left the room.
‘Statistically, the weakest link in that round was Mikhail,’ a pleasant male voice filled the silence that had arisen, ‘he answered only one question. The strongest link was Arkady. He gave the greatest number of correct answers and banked money. However, we shall see…’
‘He has no business being here,’ whispered Klavdia Mikhailovna, nodding in the direction of the kitchen, ‘this isn’t the way these things are done at all – letting the deceased stay at home.’
‘Olga, why do you think it’s Mikhail that ought to go?’
‘Well, I don’t know, Mama…’
‘Well, Mikhail seems kind of overtired to me. I don’t kind of sense any potential in him somehow. With some of his answers to some of the questions he’s kind of bringing the good name of the team into disrepute, and he’s got no sense of its spirit…’
Yasha returned to the room, his face grey with worry.
‘Who was it?’ inquired his wife.
‘You are the weakest link. Goodbye!’
‘Turn that bitch off!’ said his mother-in-law in exasperation.
‘From work,’ Yasha replied quietly.
‘… but all the same, Olga really upset me, because I don’t know why she had to get personal and be so rude about me bringing the team’s name into disrepute and…’
Ira turned the volume down.
‘In any event, it’s no use our thinking about a funeral for at least a month now,’ said Yasha, not without malicious glee.
‘And why’s that?’ his mother-in-law narrowed her eyes.
‘Because I’ve been…
* * *
That ill-starred day when Yasha was hurrying to the doctor’s, he had submitted his article without reading it through. And so he had failed to notice a dreadful blunder he had committed in his haste. The section editor had failed to notice it as well; perhaps he had been late getting away somewhere too, or had been thinking of some matter of his own, or, most likely, had simply trusted Yasha and read his text inattentively. The publishing editor had failed to notice it too, because he trusted the section editor implicitly. To be fair, it should be added that Yasha’s blunder was noticed by the proofreader, yet he considered quite reasonably that it was nothing to do with him, because his business was spelling and punctuation marks. And Yasha had put all the punctuation marks in correctly. In short, the article went out quite happily in its original form. And the name of the investor (Spichkin was his name – but does that really matter very much?) who had recently undertaken to fund the magazine, and who had actually commissioned this very article, accidentally migrated from a list of oligarchs who meticulously paid their taxes into a list of inveterate tax-dodgers.
The denial that was published a day later looked pathetic and unconvincing.
Spichkin was upset. He called the financial director an idiot, the editor-in-chief a two-faced bastard, and Yasha a bloody Yid, and he left for Tibet to take his mind off it. But for some reason he became even more upset in Tibet, got depressed, came back a day later and stopped his funding. Fun Magazine closed down.
Not entirely, however. Once again the financial director briskly set about searching. At an emergency meeting of the editorial board it was decided to continue publishing FM for the time being in a heavily cut-down electronic version.
And after the meeting, Stay-home rang Yasha Hein at home and inquired irritably why he wasn’t at work. Yasha briefly explained the situation, apologised, and promised to bring his death certificate in to the personnel department in the very near future. Stay-home’s bewilderment was palpable. He paused for a while, breathing hard into the receiver, and was already on the point of saying goodbye, but then changed his mind and decided to say what he had phoned for after all. Clearing his throat well, he informed Yasha that, because of ‘the business with Spichkin’, he, Yasha, was, firstly, dismissed at his own request, and secondly, before leaving, had to work out a month’s notice in the office in accordance with his contractual obligations.
Yasha was silent. Stay-home waited, breathing hard, for a little longer, then sighed heavily and finally forced out of himself, half-questioningly:
‘But… in the light of your circumstances… your sad circumstances… you probably won’t be able…’
‘No, no, everything’s in order. I’ll work out my notice. Of course.’
Yasha was a responsible person and considered the fulfilment of contractual obligations to be his sacred duty.
‘Well then,’ Stay-home became perceptibly more animated, ‘if you really can?…’
‘Yes, I really can…’
‘All right. See you soon, then… er, er, er… and… please accept my condolences.’
* * *
The gaze is intelligent and stern. And a little tired as well – because of the dark rings under the eyes. The long, uncut, wavy hair is in some disorder, but the hairstyle doesn’t spoil the face at all, on the contrary, it lends it a certain charm, a sort of mysterious quality, perhaps. Or maybe it’s just that black-and-white photographs are always a little mysterious. It’s a good photograph. Big, glossy. But the wreath, on the other hand, is a cheap little one. Some revolting plastic daisies and bluebells…
Yasha was standing in the vestibule of the editorial offices and examining his own photograph, framed in black, with sorrow and pride. This must be the way an elderly father feasts his eyes on the photo of a son who has recently left for the front.
Since the previous day, an astonishing calm had set in in Yasha’s soul. Yes, in the evening, after his mother-in-law had gone home, after that awful discussion of the impending funeral, he had had another panic attack: and what if this isn’t a dream after all? But the attack was shorter than the previous ones, and this time Yasha didn’t even think of pinching his nose, biting his fingers, and banging his head against the wall in order to wake up. Instead he took some valerian drops, walked to and fro around the apartment, sat in front of the television and fell asleep.
Yasha was received well at work and he was very touched. Firstly, a fine obituary was put on the Fun Magazine website. Secondly, his colleagues greeted him cordially, despite the fact that, thanks to him, they found themselves once more ‘in a state of suspension’. They all expressed their sympathy – regarding both his dismissal and his sudden demise. The men shook Yasha’s cold hand warily, and with particular solicitude somehow, while the women offered him some handmade chocolates. Then everybody went off to the canteen (for some reason he wasn’t invited), and Yasha remained alone in the room. He turned the air-conditioning off. He used his mouse to prod at a small black rectangle with the inscription: ‘A special correspondent of the magazine dies [read more].’ He read it through once again.
Then he opened the news feed: it had been decided not to give him any more responsible tasks, and his duties in the coming month included the regular posting of fresh news on the FM website.
* * *
‘In Kamchatka the All-Russian Alpine Skiing competition “The Volcanoes of Kamchatka” is starting…’
‘In the Koryak Autonomous Area fifteen reindeer-herders are missing. The search for them goes on for a sixth day…’
‘In the capital of Indonesia an international forum on questions of infrastructure opens…’
‘In France a coach carrying Belgians has crashed…’
‘Federal benefit receivers want to receive benefits…’
‘In Novgorod the Great a memorial athletics meeting has taken place in memory of Marshal Meretskov…’
‘In Saransk the Russian Greco-Roman wrestling championships have come to an end…’
‘Madonna and Roger Waters have sung for victims of the tsunami…’
‘In Hong Kong there have been races for solar-powered cars…’
‘The corpses of the fighters in the ruined building may have been destroyed by fire…’
It had been for two weeks now that Yasha had been obediently appearing day after day in the offices of the closed Fun Magazine, delving into the news feeds, posting things on the website – but utterly mechanically, without any pleasure, ‘without zest’, as the editor-in-chief would sometimes say.
The news of this transient world no longer engaged him.
Over the past two weeks, an invisible slender crack between him and all other people had grown menacingly, it had turned into an insurmountable obstacle. Yasha had become absent-minded, and, coming in to work, he had forgotten to ask colleagues how things were, then had stopped offering his hand, and then completely stopped greeting people at all. His colleagues, in their turn, had been looking at him strangely somehow. Yasha remembered how, a year before, everyone had looked in exactly the same way at the secretary Olya, whose time had come to take maternity leave, but who had just kept on coming in with her huge belly, and it had already looked even indecent somehow… And every day, when meeting her, the staff had been more and more surprised, and had enquired ever more persistently after her health, and had looked almost censorious. She had been an irritation. You couldn’t smoke when she was there, she mustn’t be upset, but the main thing was, her time had come.
People stopped smoking in Yasha’s presence too, although he didn’t ask them to at all. And they spoke in muffled voices. And looked at him as if… as if his time had come too. His time had come.
Everything had changed at home as well. Without waiting for the conclusion of the red tape over the inheritance, his wife had organised refurbishment of the apartment so as, in her expression, ‘to freshen everything up’. There were newspapers spread out on the floor now, soiled with lime, glue, and God knows what else, there was the stench of dust and paint, and standing proudly in the middle of the living room was a battered stepladder. There too, next to the stepladder, stood the folding bed on which Yasha, banished from the conjugal bedroom, now slept. (‘You can go to prison in Russia for necrophilia, you know,’ Ira explained calmly, putting an old, striped mattress that bulged in places on the folding bed, ‘and apart from that, you’ve been snoring too loudly of late. At least I’ll get a good night’s sleep this way.’)
Running into one another in the kitchen in the mornings, Yasha and his widow experienced a certain awkwardness – and every time it seemed to Yasha that he was something along the lines of a house-sprite.
Then the gloomy, hung-over hulks of the decorating team would arrive. They felt no awkwardness, and simply paid Yasha no attention. They unceremoniously caught him with their elbows in passing. They drank vodka in front of him without embarrassment (when his wife was out, of course), and gloomily stole salami from the fridge. And didn’t speak to him as a matter of principle. With the exception of the one instance when the red-faced foreman Lyokha, breaking into a disarmingly genial smile – from which, in the course of the previous night, the two front teeth had disappeared – asked Yasha for ‘a loan’ of twenty roubles. But Lyokha the foreman had been in such a drunken state at that moment that he could quite easily have addressed the same request to a cupboard or, say, a light fitting.
‘They probably reckon my time’s come as well,’ Yasha thought in anguish, and didn’t give him the twenty roubles.
* * *
There was an interesting programme made by the BBC on the ‘Culture’ channel – American astronauts were talking about how they felt in a vacuum – and Yasha settled down to watch, although really it was time to go to work.
‘For the first two days you feel awful nauseous,’ a round, ruddy physiognomy, seemingly specially destined to be put into a spacesuit, reported joyfully, ‘because all the fluid in your organism is freed from the effects of the law of gravity and comes up; so we always have bags with us… But sometimes they don’t help,’ the physiognomy gave a vile smirk, ‘and then everything flies all over the place. And then it floats around the ship until the end of the flight, and you get to feel real awkward, well, you understand…’
‘An exercise room’s essential on the ship,’ declared a shaven-headed beanpole with unnaturally thin lips, ‘it’s real important in space to maintain your physical shape. Doing sport in conditions of weightlessness is much easier than on earth. There’s only one problem – sweat. Water behaves completely differently in space. It doesn’t flow down, but turns into these little balls, you know? And you’re sitting there, pedalling away on the exercise bike, and these little balls are crawling over your back, and at every abrupt movement they fly off in different directions…’
‘The closet.’ The first physiognomy occupied the entire screen once again. ‘I’d say the main problem for any astronaut is specifically the closet. In conditions of weightlessness it’s real hard…’
Yasha switched off the television, went into the corridor, put on his boots and started to cry.
Something had suddenly torn inside him. The continual hassle, the stress, the humiliation, the craziness of recent weeks, this awful inescapable dream (or was it a dream? – yes, of course it was), this refurbishment – up until now he had somehow endured it, with difficulty, and yet he had, but space… Beautiful, radiant space, without beginning or end, which had attracted him since childhood and was his most beautiful dream… Now he had been deprived of it. It’s nice rocking about in weightlessness with a book in your hand, floating here and there in the ship’s cabin and, finally, clinging to a porthole and spending a long time gazing at the distant Earth, at the fiery tails of comets rushing by… But no, of course not! Gripping a smelly paper bag in a trembling hand, dodging the little balls of sweat flying past, nausea, headache, a toilet with straps and a ventilator – that’s what there was there, in infinity!
It wasn’t that Yasha was intending to go into space – it’s obvious that he wasn’t intending to go there at all. Nevertheless, until now space had seemed to him something like a final opportunity, like an emergency exit in the very last resort. When there was nowhere else to go.
‘What a life,’ Yasha thought out loud, and went into the living room with his boots still on. He leant his head against the steamed-up window. ‘It’s time to go to work… What a life… What a stupid dream… But I suppose I can probably do the same as the one in that film, Groundhog Day, now,’ Yasha opened the window and clambered up onto the ledge, ‘what’s his name… it starts with an M…’
Yasha closed his eyes and jumped from the eleventh floor.
The morning street greeted him with its customary, deafening, grating sound. How many days was it now that there had been some mysterious work going on around the apartment block, either building work or repairs, and the whole building proved to be surrounded by a deep, man-made ditch, across which, here and there, rotten little wooden bridges had been thrown. A short distance away, the lightly frozen autumnal earth was bulging with formless brown heaps.
Yasha got to his feet and brushed off the yellow leaves that had stuck to his trousers. Balancing with his arms and looking straight ahead, he carefully crossed over a bridge. And only when he found himself on the other side did he look down squeamishly. In the bottom of the pit, some little Tadzhiks in orange uniforms were swarming about. In a cloud of steam and dazzling sparks, one was drilling into some rusty pipes that poked out of the ground like a fragment of the charred skeleton of some gigantic prehistoric animal. The others were unhurriedly digging.
Digging, digging the earth.
When he was already at the entrance to the Metro, Yasha suddenly decided that he wouldn’t go to work. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever.
He stood for a while.
Two frozen girls were frenziedly thrusting some bits of yellow paper into the hands of passers-by. A fat woman in a green beret was cheerfully selling sausage rolls. But for some reason there was the smell of rotten fish and seaweed, like after a storm at sea – even though there was no sea anywhere near the Metro. Perhaps it was from the upturned autumnal earth, from the holey sewage pipes that this distant smell came…
‘It’s time I went,’ Yasha thought, and drew the air in through his nose, ‘to the sea somewhere… travelling.’
* * *
And for long years he wandered over the earth. He lived in various countries and various cities, and hundreds of women shared their beds with him. With some he remained for a long time, and they aged and died beside him; while from others he parted, leaving it to them to age and die in solitude.
And different peoples gave him different names. Many, very many names did he change. And for so long did he wander that he could remember no more who he had been first, and who he had been afterwards, or whether he was alive or dead, or what held him so firmly on this tedious earth.
And so long did he wander that all the peoples aged and vanished from the face of the earth, and the cities turned into sand and stones. He saw the earth settled by astonishing new animals. And he himself remained the only human amongst them.
*This story is taken from: An Awkward Age by Anna Starobinets, Hesperus Press Limited, 2010. First published in Russian as Perekhodnyj vozrast © Limbus Press, St. Petersburg (Russia), 2005.
The autumn felt more like summer than the summer had. I was wearing my blue silk dress, and I had the little Pekinese they’d given me for my birthday when I arrived at my boyfriend’s house. I remember that day clearly.
“Jealousy rules the world,” said Mrs. Yapura, thinking I didn’t want to marry Romirio out of jealousy. “My son sleeps only with the cat.”
I didn’t want to marry Romirio, or hadn’t decided whether I wanted to marry him, for other reasons. Sometimes the words people say are changed by the intonation of the voice with which they say them. It seems like I’m getting off topic, but there’s an explanation. The voice of Romirio, my boyfriend, was repulsive to me. Every word he uttered, even if said with the utmost respect for me, although he hadn’t touched so much as a toe of my foot, sounded obscene. I couldn’t love him. I felt bad about this, not so much for him as for his mother, who was generous and kind. The only negative trait she was known for was jealousy, but she was old now and had even lost that. And should we believe the rumors? People said that she had got married very young to a man who soon betrayed her with another woman. Once she began to suspect, she spent a month without sleep trying to uncover the adultery. When she did, it was like a knife wound to the heart. She didn’t say anything, but that very night, as her husband slept beside her, she threw herself at his throat and tried to strangle him. The mother of the victim came to save him; if it hadn’t been for her he would have died.
My courtship with Romirio had gone on too long. “What’s a voice,” I thought. “It’s not an insolent, groping hand, it’s not a repulsive mouth trying to kiss me, it’s not that obscene and protuberant sex I so fear, it’s nothing physical like buttocks or hot like a belly.” Nevertheless, Romirio’s voice was much more disagreeable to me than any of those things. How could I bear living alongside a man who broadcasted that voice to whoever would listen? That visceral, lewd, scatological voice. But who would dare say to their boyfriend, “Your voice displeases me, it repulses me, it scandalizes me. It’s like the word lust in the catechism of my childhood”?
Our wedding was put off indefinitely without any obvious reason.
Romirio visited me every afternoon. Rarely did I go to his dark house, because his mother, who was sick, went to bed early. But I very much liked their little garden, full of shadows, and Lamberti, Romirio’s reddish-gray cat. There was not a more timid couple in the neighborhood. We might have kissed at most once during the summer of that year. Did we hold hands? Not a chance. Embrace? Slow dancing was out of fashion. This unusual behavior sparked a suspicion that we’d never marry.
That day I took the Pekinese they’d given me to Romirio’s house. Romirio picked him up to pet him. Poor Romirio, he loved animals so much. We were sitting in the living-room as usual, when Lamberti’s fur stood on end, and with a spitting sound he ran away knocking over a flowerpot. Mrs. Yapura called me the next day crying. That night, as always, Romirio had slept with Lamberti in his bed, but in the middle of the night the cat went into a frenzy and clawed Romirio’s throat. The mother went running in when she heard his screams. She managed to pull the cat from her son’s throat and she strangled it with a belt. They say nothing is more terrible than a frenzied cat. It isn’t hard to believe. I hate them. The incident left Romirio without a voice, and the doctors that looked after him said he wouldn’t ever recover it.
“You won’t marry Romirio,” his mother said crying. “I had good reason for telling my son not to sleep with that cat!”
“I will marry him,” I responded.
From that day forward I loved Romirio.
And, Madame Blanchard, believe that I am happy to be here with you and your family because it is so serene, everything, and before this I worked for a long time in a fancy house—maybe you don’t know what is a fancy house? Naturally … everyone must have heard sometime or other. Well, Madame, I work always where there is work to be had, and so in this place I worked very hard all hours, and saw too many things, things you wouldn’t believe, and I wouldn’t think of telling you, only maybe it will rest you while I brush your hair. You’ll excuse me too but I could not help hearing you say to the laundress maybe someone had bewitched your linens, they fall away so fast in the wash. Well, there was a girl there in that house, a poor thing, thin, but well-liked by all the men who called, and you understand she could not get along with the woman who ran the house. They quarreled, the madam cheated her on her checks: you know, the girl got a check, a brass one, every time, and at the week’s end she gave those back to the madam, yes, that was the way, and got her percentage, a very small little of her earnings: it is a business, you see, like any other
—and the madam used to pretend the girl had given back only so many checks, you see, and really she had given many more, but after they were out of her hands, what could she do? So she would say, I will get out of this place, and curse and cry. Then the madam would hit her over the head. She always hit people over the head with bottles, it was the way she fought. My good heavens, Madame Blanchard, what confusion there would be sometimes with a girl running raving downstairs, and the madam pulling her back by the hair and smashing a bottle on her forehead.
It was nearly always about the money, the girls got in debt so, and if they wished to go they could not without paying every sou marque. The madam had full understanding with the police; the girls must come back with them or go to the jails. Well, they always came back with the policemen or with another kind of man friend of the madam: she could make men work for her too, but she paid them very well for all, let me tell you: and so the girls stayed on unless they were sick; if so, if they got too sick, she sent them away again.
Madame Blanchard said, “You are pulling a little here,” and eased a strand of hair: “and then what?”
Pardon—but this girl, there was a true hatred between her and the madam. She would say many times, I make more money than anybody else in the house, and every week were scenes. So at last she said one morning, Now I will leave this place, and she took out forty dollars from under her pillow and said, Here’s your money!
The madam began to shout, Where did you get all that, you? and accused her of robbing the men who came to visit her. The girl said, Keep your hands off or I’ll brain you: and at that the madam took hold of her shoulders, and began to lift her knee and kick this girl most terribly in the stomach, and even in her most secret place, Madame Blanchard, and then she beat her in the face with bottle, and the girl fell back again into her room where I was making clean. I helped her to the bed, and she sat there holding her sides with her hanging down, and when she got up again there was blood everywhere she had sat. So then the madam came in once more and screamed, Now you can get out, you are no good for me any more: I don’t repeat all, you understand it is too much.
But she took all the money she could find, and at the door she gave the girl a great push in the back with her knee, so that she fell again in the street, and then got up and went away with the dress barely on her.
After this the men who knew this girl kept saying, Where is Ninette? And they kept asking this in the next days, so that the madam could not say any longer, I put her out because she is a thief. No, she began to see she was wrong to send this Ninette away, and then she said, She will be back in a few days, don’t trouble yourself.
And now, Madame Blanchard, if you wish to hear, I come to the strange part, the thing recalled to me when you said your linens were bewitched. For the cook in that place was a woman, colored like myself, like myself with much French blood just the same, like myself living always among people who worked spells.
But she had a very hard heart, she helped the madam in everything, she liked to watch all that happened, and she gave away tales on the girls. The madam trusted her above everything, and she said, Well, where can I find that slut? because she had gone altogether out of Basin Street before the madam began to ask the police to bring her again. Well, the cook said, I know a charm that works here in New Orleans, colored women do it to bring back their men: in seven days they come again very happy to stay and they cannot say why: even your enemy will come back to you believing you are his friend. It is a New Orleans charm for sure, for certain, they say it does not work even across the river… .
And then they did it just as the cook said. They took the chamber pot of this girl from under her bed, and in it they mixed with water and milk all the relics of her they found there: the hair from her brush, and the face powder from the puff, and even little bits of her nails they found about the edges of the carpet where she sat by habit to cut her finger and toe-nails; and they dipped the sheets with her blood into the water, and all the time the cook said something over it in a low voice; I could not hear all, but at last she said to the madam, Now spit in it: and the madam spat, and the cook said, When she comes back she will be dirt under your feet. Madame Blanchard closed her perfume bottle with a thin click:
“Yes, and then?”
Then in seven nights the girl came back and she looked very sick, the same clothes and all, but happy to be there. One of the men said, Welcome home, Ninette! and when she started to speak to the madam, the madam said, Shut up and get upstairs and dress yourself. So Ninette, this girl, she said, I’ll be down in just a minute. And after that she lived there quietly.
*Katherine Anne Porter, “Magic” from The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter. Copyright 1928 by Katherine Anne Porter. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of The Katherine Anne Porter Literary Trust.
I remember it was almost summer, and I called from my office, between patients, to make the appointment. Paz had recommended a beauty salon that happened to be near my parents’ house. I made an appointment for that very afternoon. I hung up and stared out the window at a cloud that was approaching very slowly. But the white mass was taking too long, so I told the nurse to send in the next one on the list. A tiny Chinese woman came in, pregnant up to her ears. Her body was all swollen belly and the fetus inside. I asked her a few questions, but she barely spoke the language. I’m not sure she understood me. There was no one with her. All I could do was lie her down on the examination table and, in lieu of the pertinent information I always give new mothers, I silently wrote in her chart as I listened to the background music.
That afternoon, when I entered the salon, I was greeted by a very old woman, heavily made up. She crossed my name off in a book as soon as I had given it to her and then hung my jacket on a hanger.
“Would you like coffee?”
The place was not very elegant; there were bottles of polish jumbled on the shelves, and the woman’s mannerisms suddenly seemed old-fashioned. I looked at her hips, so narrow, as I followed her down a hallway to the waxing room. I wondered if she’d had kids, and, if so, how the babies had been able to escape out of that narrow space.
I got undressed in a kind of changing room lit up by a blinking fluorescent light. I left my purse on the bench and hung my clothes from a rack nailed to the wall. The woman with the narrow hips had handed me a robe to put on. I had the same feeling I get when I’m about to enter the operating theater, but this time I wasn’t the one in control. I went into the room. I sat on the white table. It was covered in paper that crunched under my weight. I waited.
Then she appeared. We recognized each other immediately, and we both stared for a long second, recovering from all those sudden memories: her waiting with her friends to beat me up, me trying unsuccessfully to flee between the columns of the schoolyard. I would’ve liked to pretend I was someone else, fake a French accent, like when I met Diego, or run out of there with the excuse that the place didn’t meet my hygiene standards.
But then she called me by my name and said without any trace of aggression, “How have you been?”
After my parents finally decided to move me to another school, I never saw Sonia or her gang again. I finished lower school at a place where I didn’t even have time to make friends. High school was a different story. Later on, I studied medicine five hundred kilometers from home and did my residency another five hundred kilometers away. I got used to not going home very often. My life was elsewhere.
Sonia tied on her smock.
“What are you having done?”
When I remained silent, she said, “It’s your first time here, isn’t it?”
But I was unable to respond. I lay back on the table and stared at her as she began to melt the wax in a bowl. I thought about her past arrogance. I thought about what we’ve become. She left the room and after a minute came back in. I just lay there; I hadn’t moved a millimeter.
“Mari Carmen tells me you asked for underarms and bikini.”
Then she picked up the bowl of melted wax and stirred the thick substance with a wooden stick.
I felt a sudden urge to curse her and throw the wax in her eyes. I didn’t do anything. Finally, I opened my mouth. I answered yes, that those were the parts I wanted to be waxed. I was about to add that I had sensitive skin so she should be careful not to hurt me. I immediately realized that it was too late; the damage had been done all those years ago.
She started working on my right underarm. I could tell that she was pretty embarrassed and didn’t dare look at me. I imagined her with other clients, chatting comfortably about the benefits of massage for weight loss or how to get rid of ingrown hairs, but with me, she didn’t say a word. Maybe she was just concentrating. As she spread the wax, I knew she couldn’t see me, and I took the opportunity to scrutinize her face up close. Those eyes that I remembered full of flames now lacked even a spark. She had a piercing in her bottom lip and another in her eyebrow, and her hair was short with blonde highlights. The more I looked at her, the less I saw of the Sonia who used to punch and kick me every chance she got.
She finished with my underarms more quickly than I’d expected. Her movements were concise. It burned for a second, but then she spread a green gel on my skin that smelled very refreshing and instantly numbed the entire area. Then she moved to my bikini line.
When the time came she asked, “Want me to do more?”
I told her that it wasn’t necessary, that it was enough. She’d made my life miserable in school, but the girl who used to bully me was still in our hometown doing bikini waxes. I smiled slightly as Sonia did her work down below. When it was over, I paid and left without thanking her or the lady with the narrow hips.
The next day, as I was doing a mammogram on a woman with only one breast, my cell phone rang. I’d forgotten to turn the sound off. The woman didn’t say anything, but she seemed annoyed throughout the entire examination. Her skin was soft and brown, and her wrinkles reminded me of my mother when she wears a bathing suit. Before leaving she told me angrily that she knew the cancer was eating her up and that all of us doctors were useless. She said this in front of the nurse. Then she left. I was sure that as soon as she closed the door the nurse would rush to recount the entire scene to the girls in reception.
I looked at my phone as the next patient got undressed.
“Remove everything from the waist down and lie on the table when you’re ready.”
I made her wait a while. The previous patient had shaken me up.
For a second I thought that the call might’ve been from Sonia. I’d given them my cell when I made the appointment. She had access to my number. In the end, it was nothing so dramatic. I looked at the screen. Diego had left me a voicemail. I noticed the patient squirming on the table, and I searched for the cloud from the day before, but the sky was totally clear. The woman faked a cough, but what she really wanted was to get my attention so I’d examine her right away. I could spot her type a mile off. I got up, gave her a cursory examination, and wrote out a prescription for birth control, which was the only reason she’d come.
The following Saturday I met with Paz. We had dinner at a Thai restaurant that had recently opened. The waiter was very cute and smiled non-stop. Paz was mesmerized; she couldn’t stop repeating how great the restaurant was, but to me, it seemed like any other greasy Chinese place, only with a bit of a facelift. I asked Paz how sales were going at the real-estate agency, and she made a face that expressed tragedy. I feigned interest in problems that I wouldn’t lose a moment of sleep over, such as the price of bricks and the fluctuations in the residential market. I didn’t understand a word she said, but I knew it made her feel better to vent. I guess she didn’t have anyone else to talk to about it except her co-workers, who never discussed anything else. Paz, however, never asked me about my practice, for which I was almost thankful.
Throughout the entire dinner, I was tempted to tell her who I’d run into at the beauty salon she’d recommended, but I didn’t. Paz and I had only been friends for three years, and I don’t think she would have understood my shock at seeing Sonia or how brutally the girl she’d been had treated the girl I’d been.
When it came time for dessert, we were full. Paz leaned back in her chair, her long legs stretched out, and stared off into space. She swore she was about to burst and couldn’t eat another bite, but then we shared a green-tea ice cream and accepted the shots the waiter offered us on the house. I was now convinced it was just a Chinese restaurant with green tablecloths. We toasted to summer, our upcoming vacations, my escape from the pregnant women, and Paz’s escape from the Euribor, and, when we clinked our ice cream bowls, Paz asked, “How was your waxing?”
I looked at her, made a gesture that said, Give me a minute, I’m swallowing, and then I told her that it hadn’t been so bad. Paz agreed that Sonia was very professional and was also a super sweet girl, only she didn’t say Sonia, she said the girl with the piercings, and I smiled, changed the subject, and asked for the check.
When I got home, I felt like talking to someone, and I called Diego. He didn’t pick up. I took off my make-up in the bathroom. A little while later my phone rang. It was him.
“What’s going on?” I asked him. “Were you undressing some cardiologist, so you couldn’t answer when I called?”
“I’ve got five of them waiting for me in bed,” he answered.
After joking around for a while, we stopped playing at being adults, and I asked him about the conference. He told me that it was afternoon there and that Boston was full of huge trees. I didn’t know if he meant the university campus where the conference was being held or the rest of the city. He found the talks interesting, and he’d been going out with the American doctors to gorge on gigantic hamburgers and Southern-style fried chicken while they talked about cholesterol and cardiac catheterization. The group from his hospital had presented that morning.
“At first I was nervous, but then I got over it.” He paused. “Because of my English, you know, but then I got over it,” he repeated.
Then he described the places they’d visited with some doctors from Massachusetts General Hospital.
“They offered to show us around,” he said. “We hit it off, and they offered to show us around.”
I didn’t understand why he had to repeat everything. Maybe he was tired. I imagined myself thousands of miles from my apartment, from Paz’s neuroses, from Sonia, now haggard but who in other times had pulled my ponytail until I cried. Suddenly Diego didn’t want to talk any more. He explained that the call was being paid for by the hospital, and he didn’t want to abuse the privilege. Anyway, I could tell I was boring him or he’d rather be watching a basketball game and just didn’t want to be rude.
When I hung up, I got on the internet. I read about Boston on Wikipedia. The city’s economy is based on higher education, research, health, banking, and technology, especially biotech. It has the second-most-important fine-arts museum in the country, a huge estuary, and their basketball team is called the Celtics. I looked at some photos of skyscrapers crowned in white clouds. Then I entered a forum about school bullying, where the victims, parents, and teachers talked about their experiences. They blamed each other or gave terrifying testimonies, but I couldn’t tell which ones were real and which ones had been made up to shock people or as a creative outlet for pent-up cruelty. I got sleepy, turned off the computer, and went to bed.
The next day was Sunday. I’d wasted the morning and was feeling lonely, so I went to lunch at my parents’ house. As I helped my mom with the dishes, I told her that I’d bumped into Sonia nearby. My mother immediately knew who I was talking about.
“She works in a beauty salon,” she said, “the one next to the butcher’s shop.”
I didn’t need details, and I didn’t want her to ask me for any, so I didn’t tell her that I’d been Sonia’s unwitting client. For a second I wanted to ask if she’d seen her on the street or if someone had told her or if she’d gone in for a manicure and come face to face with those piercings. My mother dried the dishes and set them on the kitchen table for me to put into the cupboards.
It started to rain. The drops splashed the window at regular intervals. My mother rushed to close the shutters so that the glass wouldn’t get dirty. I didn’t feel like walking home in the rain, so I decided to stay, at least until the storm let up. I looked out the window. There was no movement, just the dense and silent rain. My parents were in the living room. A movie was about to start, but they changed the channel. I got bored. I didn’t have much to do.
I went into my old room. I opened drawers, most of them empty. My mother had hung her winter clothes in one of the wardrobes, which smelled strongly of mothballs. In the other, among various useless objects, were my old hair straighteners, a badminton racket, a scroll saw wrapped in brown paper. I don’t know why they hadn’t gotten rid of all that junk. Maybe they were hoping I’d take it to my apartment. There was a red folder lying on top of the loose racket strings. It was filled with the articles I’d written for the school paper and some snapshots of parties. I couldn’t bear to think that it was really me under that ridiculous party dress and huge bangs. I suddenly knew I would come across a certain clipping and quickly found it. It was a photo of the fifth-grade class. We’d gone on a field trip to the local newspaper. Sonia looked just like I remembered her, with her hair curled around her ears, smiling defiantly into the camera and putting bunny ears on the girl in front of her. I was in the opposite corner, to the right of the teacher, who had a plump, protective arm around my shoulders. I don’t remember the field trip or who took the picture, just that it was impossible to keep us still and that my parents bought the paper the next day for the sole purpose of cutting out the photo.
I put the yellowed piece of newspaper in my bag and closed the folder. I went to say goodbye to my parents. They were watching two seals diving for food in a frozen ocean. My father was half asleep with his feet resting on the coffee table and one shoe hanging off. My mother got up and walked me out. She asked me how Diego was doing.
“Fine,” I said.
I didn’t mention that he was in Boston. Then I started down the stairs with my eyes fixed on the floor. My mother kept shouting to me over the railing until I was two floors down. I wanted to say Mama, get inside, will you, but I didn’t want the neighbors to know my mother still came out on the landing to say goodbye, like when I was a little girl on my way to school.
Before going back to my apartment, I went into the convenience store that was always open, and the Pakistani owners sold me a bag of ham-flavored potato chips, a pack of gum, and a beer. That was my Sunday dinner. I looked at a few patients’ charts. I was part of a research team at the hospital. We had our patients sign consent forms, we dug around in their medical records, and then we prepared presentations and got invited to conferences and dinners. That’s what’s expected of you when you’re a doctor and your practice bores you.
Two months went by. Diego and I went to Istanbul for a week on vacation. I brought my mother back a thimble with a picture of the Blue Mosque on it. She collected them. Then we went back to our jobs. My research team met frequently. We needed to get a hundred subjects, but we only had around ninety, and the deadline was fast approaching. We were running out of time. There were fewer births than in the spring and the number of patients had decreased too. People tended to neglect their health in summer, just like they did the gym and language classes. Occasionally I remembered Sonia and the wax job because my skin had never been smoother. I went out for drinks with Paz in the evenings. Diego and I started making plans to move in together without a hint of romance, as if it were something that was bound to happen sooner or later, and so, at some point in August, we agreed that I’d rent my apartment and move into his, which had an extra bedroom. Every once in a while we’d go shopping to pick out throw pillows or a toaster.
One day in early September, Sonia walked into my office accompanied by the nurse, and once again I felt like I’d seen a ghost. Her hair was longer, and her highlights were auburn instead of blonde. I gestured to the chair. She sat down. She was calm and didn’t seem surprised. I didn’t look at her right away, instead I searched for a fake chart on my computer and pretended to take notes on a piece of paper. I needed to buy some time to decide how I was going to handle the situation, but then she spoke.
“I said I was your friend and got an appointment with you because I didn’t want to see a stranger.”
I asked the nurse to leave, saying I could handle it on my own. She left, annoyed, muttering something and closing the door loudly behind her.
Sonia got undressed as I looked out the window for some dense cloud that might offer some advice, but all I saw were wispy cirrus clouds, long thin filaments that didn’t mean anything. Sonia lay down on the table. She stared up at the fluorescent light. I’d done this hundreds of times, but I didn’t know where to start the examination. When I asked her what had brought her in, she said her periods were long and painful. I wanted to know how she’d found me, but in this tiny city, there were endless possibilities. I asked her to move to the end of the bed, and I examined her.
“I turn thirty-two today,” she said.
I didn’t say happy birthday. I continued doing what I was doing. I inserted a long device into her and started to look at the images that appeared on the screen.
“Dani and I want to have kids, but as much as we try I can’t get pregnant.”
Then there was a silence.
“I’m all dried up.”
I kept looking with fascination at the curved shapes inside her, black and white, like summer storm clouds about to burst, then I told her I was done, that she could get dressed.
When she reappeared from behind the screen, I asked her a few questions that confirmed my diagnosis. I ordered some blood tests. I didn’t expect them to tell me anything I didn’t already know. Sonia didn’t seem worried, she was just a little sad, and she listened carefully as I explained the possible causes of her infertility. She looked at me and slowly twirled a tarnished ring around her finger. I noticed her nails: ugly, bitten-down, yellowed. Suddenly she seemed like a defenseless specimen, a rare flower, sick from a tumor that deformed her from the inside. I talked to her about surgery, which I could do myself, but my explanation was cold, and the memories of the past began to dissolve little by little.
Before closing her chart, I remembered that we needed subjects for our study, and I asked her if she wanted to participate. I assured her that she wouldn’t have to answer any uncomfortable questions; all that would happen was that a group of gynecologists from the hospital, including me, would look at her medical records. She twirled her ring again. For a second I was afraid she’d refuse. I tried to make her see that it was positive, so many experts following her progress, but all I cared about was getting her to sign. I think that even if I hadn’t explained it she wouldn’t have cared. I handed her the consent form and a pen.
“Where?” she asked.
“Here,” I answered, and I pointed to a blank space where she proceeded to stamp her childlike signature.
When she raised her face from the page her eyes were red, and I quickly dismissed her from the office before she could start to cry, doing the math and determining that Sonia and I were finally even.
Tara was fat. Her husband made it clear that it didn’t do his image any good to have her waddling around, jiggling rolls of flesh.
“I don’t waddle,” she said, hurt.
“You do,” said Abhay and that was the end of the matter. So far as words were concerned it was an established pattern that he had the last one.
Later she cried. She wiped away the tears that rolled down her soft, slightly flabby cheeks with a handkerchief clutched in a smooth, plump hand. She would like to be slim and svelte, a credit to her husband, but it was no use. Life without food, especially chocolate, was not worth living.
Her husband couldn’t be too serious about her losing weight, after all, he was her main supplier. She thought of his latest offering from Europe. Twenty bars of Swiss chocolate, seductively wrapped in green, orange, blue, and red, gleaming with pictures of fruit, nuts, and glasses of wine, rolls of marzipan, with the grainy paste of almonds covered with chocolate so smooth, it dissolved on the tip of her tongue, and the piece de resistance, two big boxes of cherries in liqueur set in cups of dark chocolate. Even when she wasn’t eating them, she could feel in her mouth the sharpness of the liqueur, the bitter sweetness of the liquefying chocolate, the tanginess and gentle crunch of the cherry.
He was always assiduous in catering to her tastes. As he handed the chocolate to her he would tell her how busy he had been and how much he wished it were possible for her to accompany him. Then he would lightly rub the roll of fat around her belly to prove his love. At times the rub would get a little hard, but marks of physical affection between them were rare, and she took what she got.
When did it happen that Tara first got to know about her husband’s affair? Something that the readers of this text will find obvious to the point of banality? A man who is stuffing his wife with chocolate in such quantities has to have an ulterior motive.
A short history of her life will place her stupidity in perspective.
School: Ages 3-17. Convent, all girls. Strict emphasis on studies and nothing else. Tara’s free time is taken with going to dance and music classes. Her mother says these things are important. Give grace to a girl.
College: Ages 17- 20. An all-girls college. Her parents don’t think it wise to send Tara anywhere else. She chooses English Honours, considered a soft option. She isn’t very clear what to do with her life, and English seems a good, no-purpose subject. Besides she has always been fond of reading.
English Honours turns out to be not such a soft option after all. She had never thought reading could be so strenuous. Literature didn’t seem to be about stories. All the emphasis was on ideas, history, context, Marxist-feminist interpretations, and a pursuit of meaning that went beyond the obvious into the totally obscure.
Tara spends her time in college going to films with her friends, bunking classes. She complains to her mother about how hard her teachers expect her to work. Her mother consoles her. She has to somehow graduate, then she will get married.
The wedding preparations coincide with the prep leave for the exams.
What to do, beti?” her mother says when Tara protests. “I know it is a bad time for you but then these are the auspicious dates.
“But Amma, how will I study?” complains Tara.
“Well, the boy is good. And the family is very keen. Some things cannot be put off.“
By the time Tara’s results are out, she has come back from her honeymoon. She has got a third division, and is mildly surprised that she has passed at all.
Her husband thinks she is upset.
“Never mind, darling,” he says clutching her in his strong, manly arms, “You have me.”
Tara’s heart beats fast, as she feels herself squeezed in that marital embrace.
“Yes, it’s true,” she whispers. “I have you.”
The family then waits for the children to come. In time it becomes evident that if they came at all it would have to be through divine or medical intervention.
Tara started with the medical intervention front first.
“Maybe we should go and see a doctor?” she suggested to her husband.
“You go if you want to,” replied Abhay. “There is nothing wrong with me”.
After the doctor had examined Tara she said there was nothing wrong with her and maybe a look at the husband was in order.
“But he doesn’t think so,” said Tara mournfully.
“What rubbish!” exclaimed the doctor, who was sick and tired of encountering such attitudes in her practice. “You tell him it is not only the woman who is responsible for bearing a child. The sperm has to be healthy. It may be that he is infertile, it may be that his sperm count is low, it may be that he has been drinking too much, or that he has some kind of latent infection. It may be any number of things.”
Tara blushed. How was she supposed to convey all this to her husband?
Abhay agreed to see the doctor after a somewhat acrimonious discussion, in which he pointed out to Tara how completely wrong she was.
“Shouldn’t I come too?” asked Tara, as Abhay was going.
“No,” he said briefly. “I’ll deal with it on my own.”
So Tara never knew what happened at the doctor’s. Abhay came home tight-lipped and cross, and refused to comment.
“But what happened? What did she say?” she asked several times.
“She’s a fool. Huh! No point in your going to her either.”
Medical consultations were not possible after this.
On the divine intervention front, Tara was told she should take a trip to Vaishno Devi, crawling on her hands and knees.
After she had crawled up Vaishno Devi on her hands and knees, she decided to do the hands and knees stuff at other shrines. She had thought she would feel embarrassed, but she didn’t. This was routine at these places.
Her husband thought all this was a great idea. So did her mother-in-law.
“Poor Tara!” she heard her say once. “She is trying so hard,” and then in a lowered voice, “but she is unhealthy from the inside.”
When there were no signs of conception after all this, Tara took to wearing certain stones around her neck and fingers, and her husband took to feeding her chocolates.
It was chocolate that drew her attention to a certain lack of something on the part of Abhay. He became casual in getting her what she wanted.
After an excess of peppermint she hinted that she would look forward to more variety. He had complained.
“I don’t get the time,” he said. “All I can do is pick up these things from the airport, and peppermint is what airports happen to have.”
“But so much?“
She turned the green and white boxes over in her hands. Edwardian Mints, Crème de Menthe Mints, Bitter Chocolate Mints, Wafer Mints, After Eight Mints, After Dinner Mints, Mints in White Chocolate.
She felt sick at the idea of this much mint. But her craving for chocolate was so strong that she ate them all anyway.
And then he did it again.
“Didn’t you remember?” she asked.
“What?” He looked preoccupied.
“What I said last time. About the mints.”
“Last time? Oh, oh, yes, of course. But you see the airports…”
She looked at all that revolting peppermint.
“But before you managed…”
“Well you know these airports. Not very imaginative.
That’s not what Tara would have thought as she remembered the brochures that Abhay frequently got, advertising this airline, that airport. They seemed to contain virtually everything under the sun.
After Abhay left, Tara remained lost in thought. It was odd that he had forgotten her request – her reasonable request – about the mint chocolate. Abhay had a good memory. But then he was always so preoccupied. And hardly ever at home.
And in between these two thoughts, sequences in a chain, suspicion pounced and bent the links in another direction.
Within a matter of seconds, Tara was convinced she had found the clue to much of Abhay’s behavior. Could it be, could it be that what she had read about in her college days, could it be that the Other Woman had appeared in her life as well. She made up her mind to spy on him. The results were predictable.
After she had gone through the gamut of emotions ranging from shock, confusion, despair, anger and resentment, she toyed with the idea of knocking her brains out. To help reach a conclusion she automatically went to the fridge to take out her chocolates. She needed consolation. Absent-mindedly she bit into one. It tasted like sawdust. She bit into it again and gagged. This was the only pleasure she had in her life. What was happening to it?
She felt a burning sensation at the back of her throat, and the sour ugly taste of bile. She quickly put the chocolate back into the fridge and closed the door. Nausea overcame her, and she barely made it to the bathroom.
She never ate another piece of chocolate again. Every time she looked at the dark shining pieces glistening invitingly at her, she saw Abhay’s eyes sunk in them, tempting her to bite into a piece and get fat.
She lost weight. The feeling of nausea she had about chocolate helped put her off eating. She grew thinner, thinner than she had been in years. She took the rings off her fingers. There seemed little point in wearing them now. From saris she moved to salwar-kameez. She looked younger. She felt more alert and alive than she had for a long time. She began to think about strategies.
She must win him back, she thought. She decided to join cooking classes. The way to a man’s heart was through his stomach. Abhay hardly ate at home. But now… She must cook. She would be the source of all things delectable.
Tara joined Mrs. Singhal’s Cooking Classes, which guaranteed mastery of Cordon Bleu, Continental, Chinese and Indian cuisines in just a year. Tara discovered in herself a light hand, and a flair for improvisation. Her teacher praised her too, and that helped. No one had ever praised her learning anything in her life — academics was out of the question, and even her dancing and singing teachers had felt that she needed to apply herself more.
For Mrs. Singhal a meal was not just eating. It was an Aesthetic Experience. The table, the colours, the setting, the flowers, everything had to be perfect.
Tara dived into Experience like a duck into water. Cooking was endlessly creative, she discovered. The taste which she had exhibited in doing up her home, had scope that was infinitely various on the site of the dining table. She experienced the joys of putting before a husband – however errant – things he could not resist. He became quite greedy and demanding, entertaining small numbers of friends more often at home.
Imperceptibly Abhay began to put on weight. Tara could see for herself the fruit of her labours, and her sense of power grew. New thoughts began to enter her head. She increased the cream in her desserts and began putting more cheese in the Italian dishes. Abhay’s clothes did not fit him anymore. He began to talk seriously of dieting.
At this point Tara looked him over speculatively. In her mind’s eye she saw him as she herself had once been. “You waddle,” he had said at the beginning of the story, and she predictably female, had replied in pain, “I do not.” Now she wanted him to waddle, though her position might not allow her to rub his nose in the fact as he had done hers.
When Abhay’s affair broke up, a certain moroseness tinged and deepened the yellow of his already saturnine complexion. For consolation he turned to serious eating. He listened to music, he drank, and he demanded hot and spicy tit-bits from Tara’s ever fertile kitchen.
When he began to waddle, she, trained to find her husband beautiful in all his manifold aspects, started to find him ugly.
Given the circumstances of her revenge, she needed an affair to give it a finished ending. She chose a friend of his, the most convenient male to hand. The friend had dropped certain hints, Tara decided to pick them up. She indulged herself with him without taking precautions. She had long given up the possibility of conceiving, and when she found herself pregnant, she was exhilarated. The first thing to do was to get rid of the friend.
“Abhay suspects,” she told him.
Then she told her husband. “I think perhaps it has been your improved health,” she said. “You look so much better now. Before you were too thin. That is why I have been blessed with this baby.”
A puzzled look crossed Abhay’s face as he took in the air of quiet triumph in his wife’s manner. He started spying on her, but her affair had been so brief and circumspect that he found no traces of it.
When Tara’s daughter was born, she crooned her lullabies of brave women warriors, and made sure that all her education was oriented towards a career that would make her independent.
I remember a tree. Its crown awning the path. I remember a large trunk, thicker than any I had seen before. I remember roots cleaving the black earth, bursting it asunder, like snakes fighting free and then, twisted by the chill of the air, plunging their heads back underground. There was a large crevice in the trunk. I peeked inside and ran.
A storm is coming. A black spot gradually growing, widening and expanding, stirring the skies until it is transformed into a whirlpool, crimson over the Jerusalem mountains. Red and terrible, the wind glides down the arched mountains, winding down over the pathways. It collects under the porch, then climbs the walls built with Jerusalem stone, blows through the neighbor’s house with the little garden that is punctuated by dwarfish citrus trees and a gray plastic doghouse for the miniature canine, Zoe, that has been barking for hours, tail stretched and ears erect.
“Shut up already! The neighbor screams, blind to the crimson wind, slithering its way to me like a poisonous snake, wishing to paint the soles of my feet with drops of blood.
I press my legs together, shrinking into myself, holding the white rail that encloses the porch, following the movements of the wind, waiting to hear the sound of jackals urging each other to howl at dusk, their wailing breaking against the mountains only to be carried up into the sky. I have only moments to stand like this before my husband notices my actions and commences scolding me to get back into bed and not to leave it again. Not even if I need to pee? Not even. This is why they have brought me a bedpan, and Vivie from 10:00 am to 12:00 pm. Then Vivie leaves my house to do some overtime with Pops, her invalid patient in the next building. She sits him in a wheelchair, his lips flapping around his gaping, toothless mouth. She places a blanket over his knees, tightens a sock hat on his head, and rolls him to the rendezvous point in the garden to meet her friends, each with their own elderly invalid. They line them up in a circle of silent, stuffed people, all facing one another, urine bags hanging beside their wheelchairs, while Vivie and her friends sit on the benches, chattering in their foreign language. At six thirty she comes back to give me a bath.
From the porch, I see how she stretches her small, slender body and waves her raven-black straight hair, marching expeditiously. She doesn’t look back because she has a work permit she keeps in a waist pouch under her clothes. Close to the body.
“What do you need to get up for?” My husband asks. He is wearing his uniform, attaching the police pager to his belt, along with his cellphone and handcuffs. He shoves the gun into his pants.
I remember. I found shelter from the rain under the crown of the tree. I stood under the weeping leaves for long moments, shrouded by a veil of drops. I listened to the swaying movements of the branches whispering above.
I stretch my body, just a tiny, teeny bit, pressing my fingers, swollen like risen bread dough, into the mattress imprinted with my shape and sunken at the point at which I bleed. I raise myself up and kneel in bed, on all fours, like a heavy, obese bitch, then I reach out a hand to the window and open the shutter.
A cold wind blows in. I return to lie on my back inside the body-shaped depression in my bed. Alert. I send a hand between my legs to check if the blood is trickling and cringe when I discover it isn’t.
The house-call doctor comes to scold me. I promise not to move, not to move. “You mustn’t get up,” he says. “Except for ten minutes at noon.”
A walk around the living room. Vivie holds my hand tight. She is adept in holding those that can barely walk, knows she must lead them along the shortest possible infinite route, in circles, on wheelchairs down the path, from bench to bench, from bedroom to living room, slowly, slowly.
I remember a truck with mud-splattered wheels, driving slowly past me. I clung to the trunk and watched. A woman in a green dress, her hair black and long. It covered her back. She knelt over a wooden casket. I remember a procession of black-clad men and women following the truck, the men leading the way in silence, the women following closely, weeping, screaming, beating their chests with their fists. I remember the wailing and screaming drifting away.
We pay him, so he comes. My husband, panting, puts the bed up on its side. Then he turns and rotates it, trying to find an angle that will allow him to move it from the bedroom to the living room. Goddamn it, let him just come and do his work without any big ideas about how to furnish the house. He wipes his sweaty forehead with his hand. No use, the bed won’t come out this way. He needs to dismantle it, screw-by-screw, then put it together in the living room.
Until he finds the time to dismantle the bed, he drags the mattress alone from the bedroom, pushing it with his large, bear-like hands. “But if now the mattress is in the living room, you’ll stop getting up, then it will be worth my while to sleep on the folding bed as if I was in boot camp. No, don’t get up, that’s the last thing I need, you get up now.”
My husband wrestles with the double mattress, stained with the marks of a relationship. He barely manages to squeeze it through the corridor and drops it on the floor with a muffled thud.
“That’s it,” he says. “Now you have nothing to get up for at all.”
“The house-call doctor charges three-hundred and fifty per visit. In this country, only private healthcare offers you proper treatment,” my husband tells me, although they could have charged less for placing a monitor on my belly. It pays off for him to place the mattress in the middle of the living room, in front of the porch’s large sliding door, to the right of the television. And I won’t need to move my hands, or head, or belly, until Vivie returns from Pops.
“There,” he says. “Now you can lie down without moving. Not even a muscle, you hear? Tomorrow I’ll put the bed together and we’re done.”
Then he goes, leaving me sprawled on the mattress, wallowing in his concern, observing how, in the corner of the living room, where the wall meets the ceiling, an old spider is spinning her webs on the spindle of her body. She has been here for long days, un-banished by a swing of the duster brush. Circle by circle she spins a fine net, like thin patches placed over my watching eye.
A distant shifting of clouds ruffles the air. The Earth yields to the movement of the sky and convulses, rattling the foundations of the building, the cars, the sidewalk, the rubber flooring in the kindergartens that whiffs of tar in the summers. At seven in the evening, after my walk around the house, Vivie bundles my hair into a knot and takes me to the shower.
“All right – all right,” she tells me.
“All right,” I answer.
“Okeydokey,” she says.
She soaps my back, scrubbing all the places I can’t reach. Silently, I look at my large white breasts resting on my belly, like two Beluga whales stranded on a beach. Lower down, I see two swollen legs now covered with white scented foam. How ugly I have become.
I remember. I was walking barefoot along the bed of a shallow stream that led all the way to the forest. The stream gave onto a small natural pool. I placed my feet in it, then removed my dress and, with a quick movement, hurled it to the bank beside the pool. I sat in the water.
“Air, I have no air,” I tell my husband. “Open the porch.”
“It’s winter in Jerusalem, do you want to catch pneumonia?”
I wait until he leaves for his night shift, then open it myself. The rustle of the coming storm blows into my face. A single jackal howls as hard as it possibly can. The wind carries the miserable howling to my ears, the scent of its moist fur and its warm breath to my nostrils. The neighbor’s dog barks at the top of her lungs. The neighbor has gone to work and locked her up in the house because of the cold weather, but she has sensed the wind and, in her agitation, has knocked over an alarm clock that rings loudly until its battery runs out. The neighbor will beat her with his belt when he finds out she has scratched the door with her paws.
I sit and the mattress sways under me like muddy soil. The closets in the house are creaking; someone is dragging a chair across the floor; a woman’s high heels sound like muted gunfire as she walks. The lights in the neighbors’ houses go off one by one. A crying baby. I get up. One step, two steps, three. I make it to the armchair and sit down, filling the chair with my body. I pull the lever, popping up the leg rest.
My pulse knocks against my temples. My breath quickens, my hand extends towards the phone, but I draw it back. There’s no one. The drape hovers like a ghost. There’s no one… I begin to cough. I take a deep breath. The house-call doctor has taught me to count to ten. My breasts sway from side to side, rubbing against my arms in a waltz of vibrating flesh.
I remember. Clear and quiet water surrounded me, there were little pebbles, smooth, round. I slid them down my cheek. Naked, I emerged from the stream and sat by the pool, dipping my feet in the water, patches of light shortened and elongated and sparkled, the skin on the soles of my feet wrinkled.
“I think,” I said to Doron, “that there are wolves in the mountains. And no, it isn’t Zoe.”
“No, there aren’t any wolves here,” says Doron. “What are you blubbering about?”
He sits in his uniform. A cup of black coffee is placed on the little table in front of him. His smoking-trained hand sketches empty gestures in the air. Desperate, he picks a cigarette from a packet, strokes it from tip to filter with a yearning finger, narrows his mouth, sucks in the void.
“What a night I’ve had,” he says, then inspects the sheet, seeking blotches.
I remember. I had risen from the water and piled the stones into a little mound. I remember. A white blotch flickered among the trees. The tip of a tail appeared and vanished. I held my breath. I heard soft footsteps. I looked into the forest.
Black ants climb from the garden up to the pipes and into the house. From the mattress, close to the floor, I see them, a little convoy, parading out of the crevice between the wall and the panels, marching to the kitchen, invading my house. I rise and drag myself to the kitchen. I take a deadly spray from under the sink. Seven steps from the kitchen. I tower over the ants in the spread-legged posture of a landlady. I raise the can and spray. I close the windows so the insecticide will thoroughly soak in, so they won’t come back. From the pains of her body, the spider is still spinning her webs. And through the threads, she watches me closing my eyes. She continues to circle over me in her own orbit.
“Are you insane?” My husband screams. “Do you want to kill the child?” He forces Vivie to wash the insecticide off my body and calls the house-call doctor.
“Everything is fine,” he says. “But do me a favor, baby, lay off the chemicals. Really, I don’t understand what is going through your head. Are you all right?”
I remember. From inside the rim of the forest, a beautiful white wolf returned my gaze, his eyes two clear crystals, his tail erect. “Don’t run away,” I whispered. I remember how, completely naked, wet and dripping with water, I approached. “Don’t run away.” He was almost the same height as me. His nose quivered. I stretched out a hand, almost feeling the soft touch of his fur. Suddenly he trembled, turned and disappeared into the thicket.
“Vivie,” I tell her, “you can leave early today. It’s okay. A storm is coming.” Vivie looks at me in silence, and I return the exact same gaze. “Go, go to Pops. It’ll start raining soon. You don’t want to be caught in the storm.”
The wind howls, the building quivers. I guess they haven’t properly secured all the fixtures and connectors, nor did they anchor the foundations to the ground when it was being built.
I get up and open the window wide. I reach out with a heavy foot to pin it to the floor. The wind whistles, entering the living room through the porch. It ruffles the bedding on the mattress. Zoe barks at the top of her lungs.
From the darkness of noon, howls rise from the bottom of the earth. There, inside the asphalt plated earth, in a place where no roots can reach, and only the void exists, is the wolf. Here, he rises from his crouch, shaking the dirt from his fur and howling as loudly as he can. And the howl rattles the foundations of the building and shakes the city above him. The city that swallows his howls and forces him back inside it time and again, so he won’t be seen, or heard, so he won’t frighten anyone. But he calls to the wind and waits for the storm. He stretches his body and digs with his paws, as hard as he can, the way out. And on his way, he spreads open the building above, gaping chasms into the roads.
“A wolf!” I cry. Yet no one can hear my voice. Zoe’s barks dance about me like wild witches. I open the porch door wide, the wind ruffles my hair, the rain wets my face. I sense drops of blood trickling between my legs, mingling with the rainwater wetting my clothes.
“A wolf!” I cry to the wind, looking down into the pits dug by the wolf as he emerged from the earth. Then I place a hand on my belly. The baby moves. The spider quivers on her webs in the cold wind.
“Come,” she says. “Come, hold on to the webs.”
The restaurant is crazy busy and my entire head is engulfed in the heat and steam and smell of all the dishes being cooked and readied on the line. I am tired. I am always tired but this is where I like to be. Where I belong. Everything seems to be as it always is but when I look up from the trout I am just about done sautéing and see someone I don’t recognize standing where the servers stand while waiting to pick up their orders, I think I am hallucinating.
He is young, maybe thirty, slight, not smiling. But his lips are parted and his teeth—very white—are clenched down in a hard bite. He is too handsome. There is menace in the way he is looking at me.
“You need some help,” he says.
I am thinking the same thing. I need some help, I should call out for some help, because despite the kitchen heat my skin is cold and I know the hairs standing up on the back of my neck have nothing to do with the kind of fear I normally have when I am feeling threatened. This is something else.
But maybe I am dreaming. God knows I am exhausted and no one notices anything is amiss. Waiters use their hips to back him out of the way as they reach for plates and he disappears but then like a wave, he rolls back up after they’ve gone. I close my eyes, open them fast and there he is. I want to swallow but my breath is in the way.
“You need help,” he repeats, morphing through the steam this time into a lost boy, his forehead the kind you want to brush hair off of.
I hear myself say, “I don’t know, do I need help?” and when it comes out it sounds like flirting. Someone is flirting with this stranger-boy on my line in the middle of my dinner rush. The trout is overcooked, beyond saving.
His face relaxes then. “You look like you do,” he says.
There have been some things I wish I’d had the prescience to understand before acting on and when I remember them, I want to set myself on fire. But right now time is moving too fast for memory to intrude. When I don’t answer, he says, “I put in an application for a cook. Your ad said you needed some help.” That is true. Then he looks around the madhouse that is my kitchen and says, again, “You look like you need help.”
What do I look like? It has been so long since I have thought about it, since I was pretty. I have been sweating behind the line for two hours, for too many years, and sweat makes my small face wet and a bright red. At the end of every dinner shift, when I go into the employee bathroom at midnight to splash cold water on my face, I find my morning mascara, that small homage to vanity, has left my lashes and settled into the deep cups of skin beneath my eyes. I am forty-five years old, always bone-tired yet plagued with nervousness all the time, even when I sleep. I am married to my South Beach restaurant, entering it in the dark mornings and leaving it in the darker nights so I never see what I am supposed to look like, the public I might be compared to were I ever to put myself among them. I hardly see the daylight. I wear chef whites every day, stained with grease and sauce. I know exactly what I look like and feel surprised, and then ashamed, that I am so sorry about it right now.
“Why did you do that?” I ask him. It is the next morning and he is here to fill out the paperwork.
“Do what?” he asks. He is wearing the same jeans and black t-shirt he’d had on last night but now, somehow, they are miraculously clean.
“Just show up,” I say. “Come into the kitchen like that, at the height of the dinner rush.” I sound like a punishing mother, someone trying to teach someone a lesson.
“Because I knew you’d be here then.”
I have to admit that makes some sense. I look at his application. He has left the space for his address blank.
“Where do you live?” I ask.
“And it’s true,” he says. “You need me.”
I am not afraid anymore. Last night, when I finally got a hold of myself and told him “Fine, go back to the prep kitchen and help,” it felt like I was doing something that absolutely needed to be done. It felt like we both needed help. Now he tells me that when the restaurant closed, he had gone to an all-night Laundromat and convinced two drunk girls to let him throw his clothes in with theirs. While his jeans and shirt washed and dried, he sat in his boxers reading the newspaper. They had given him two beers. I can imagine the whole scene, him charming them with his good looks and serious stare, their wanting to help him.
I hire him for a two week probationary period. I don’t know him, don’t know who he is or who he’s been so I try to watch him when I can. I can tell he has worked in a restaurant like mine before, can tell by the way he handles the equipment in the prep kitchen, by his movements and his focus, by the fact that he never asks anyone any questions. But there is so much to do when you own a restaurant and today I am all over the place—in my office planning menus, then working on the books, in the stock room taking inventory, then the walk-in cooler doing the orders and much of the time I don’t know what he’s doing. I don’t forget about him but I’m not always sure where he is.
In the late afternoon, I find him on the line. He has made a shimmering pea mousse to serve under my house salmon. I am surprised but then I am angry. I ask him who he thinks he is. I ask him how he made the mousse and he won’t tell me and that is how I discover he is a trained chef. I am a trained chef and never share the recipes I’ve invented with anyone. I know all about the relationship between privacy, thievery and pride. Still, I find the secrecy insulting until he gives me a bite and I am whisked away on the pleasure of peas.
After the two weeks, I let him keep the job because there were mashed potato cups filled with foie gras, the pineapple-jalapeno salsa and Serrano Ham panini, the roasted marrow toasts, a peach bombe, old customer raves, new customers—younger and so hip—forming a line outside at night, willing to wait however long it took to be seated. In my restaurant.
He is quiet, never late. I don’t know where he lives. Or what he does when he is not at work and sometimes I forget about him but then when I realize that he is at the restaurant during every shift, even the ones I don’t pay him for, I start thinking about him all the time. This is my restaurant, I am the boss, so I ask him questions, try to figure him out.
He answers everything too vaguely. I think he thinks his life is none of my business. Maybe he is right. He is a good worker, that’s all I need to know. Or maybe he is shy. I am shy, I get that. Then one day, out of the blue, he says he thinks we should close between 4 and 6, that that would give the kitchen time to regroup, the staff a chance to have a meal together. He’s already prepared it—lentil soup, spinach salad, grilled ham and manchego cheese with roasted tomatoes and pesto. The food is so good, comfort food but with an indefinable touch. He tells me to sit down, next to him at the table with the staff, and I do. We eat.
I start to like him, and then I discover I like having him there. Everyone else likes him, too. He does his job in the back kitchen but then when I’m not looking, he helps everyone else with their jobs. He shows the waiters a new, more sophisticated way of laying the napkins on the tables. He teaches the bartenders to make a drink with vodka, shaved ice and shards of fresh ginger; they start to offer it as a house specialty and we can’t keep up with the demand. He asks me if we can serve our scallop appetizer on the ceramic spoons I only use for private tastings. He cooks the staff meal, the family meal, every night.
One night he sees me struggling over the books in the office and he tells me he can help. He was right from the start, I need help. I let him install a program in my aging computer that transforms my bookkeeping into some-thing I actually like to do. He smiles. He works the day shift but is still here for the whole night shift and the hostesses tell me the customers love him. At night he greets them, sometimes walks them to their tables. I can’t explain why I didn’t know he was doing this, how he managed to do so many things without my knowing even though I knew he was there. I am not sure why I am letting it happen except that I am so much less tired than I ever was before he came. And business is booming.
Last night I found a stack of our linen napkins layered and folded into the shape of a pillow in the basement storage room. It was on top of an oversized garbage bag he was obviously using for a blanket. When I confronted him, he said I saved his life.
And when I wake up one morning some weeks after to the sound of the water running in my shower, I wonder what has happened to my own life. For the first time in ten years, I am sleeping in my bed. We drink our coffee there. He shampoos my hair, reads comic books out loud, makes love to me as if I am something precious, rare and fragile, something he must take care not to break, as if he knows me. After, he rubs his white teeth barely over my skin and I am afraid that he will bite me but he never does and because he never does, I relax. I know I should be at least a little frightened but I’m not.
When we are not at my apartment, we are both at my restaurant working. All I know for sure about his past is that something he won’t talk about happened and when he came to me, he was jobless. Homeless. But instead of wondering how on earth I’d let a stranger, practically a boy, infiltrate my small life, I fall headfirst into the supreme relief of not having to do everything myself in order to keep everything going. I fall into having someone to sleep with at night. Now I never look for him, wonder where he is. Like magic, he appears without warning beside me wherever I am—the line, the prep kitchen, the salad station—puts his arm around my waist and presses into me. Kisses me on the mouth. I do not know who I am. I think I am falling in love.
I discover he is a wizard with numbers so I let him oversee the purchasing. He is a whirlwind of energy and sometimes everywhere at once—the bar, the walk-in, the prep kitchen, the front of the house. I start to forget that he has not always been here, that we did not build this restaurant together. That I used to be alone.
Before he came, once in a while a guest would request to see the chef, and I’d tuck the wet sweaty hairs back into my headband, wipe my hands on my apron, and go out into the dining room to accept the compliments. But I had forgotten how to be social, comfortable only with people who worked for me and slipping in and out among the strangers in places I needed to go—the pharmacy, the grocery store, the dry cleaners. But he is so different, as easy and happy in his chef whites in the prep kitchen as he is in a suit in the dining room. Every restaurant needs someone like that.
He has even made some friends. A group of guys who eat dinner in the restaurant every Saturday night. He joins them. They are all unemployed chefs. I ask him if he thinks we should hire any of them but he says they are looking to start their own restaurant. At first, I like the stories he tells me about them. They are easy to listen to and I remember what it’s like to have pals and I am happy for him. I never expected to be enough for him. But then one morning, over coffee before work, it hits me.
“Are these people you are going into business with?” I ask.
“Honey,” he says, “I’m with you, aren’t I?” He frowns, as if I am hurting him. “You’re acting crazy.”
Because I am crazy. I am living with someone fifteen years younger than I am, someone who appeared in my restaurant and knew exactly what was going to happen, assumed things I didn’t know myself and was right. I went from working 15 hours a day without a break to spending an hour in the ocean every day at 3:00. I went from sleeping alone on my couch to spending nearly every waking and sleeping minute with a stranger who I thought was an illusion. I feel like he has always been here, that he is solid and I am safe. I didn’t know I needed that kind of safety until it was there everyday.
I have a right to be crazy. I am middle-aged, bony. My face is thin, drawn. There are a lot of wrinkles. But this man touches it. He wipes it when it sweats, he moves the stray hairs from it, he looks right into it. He kisses it all the time.
“Maybe you are crazy,” I say because when I think about this life, I know I don’t understand. And then I don’t want to think anymore so I say, “Maybe they are crazy. You don’t really know these guys. They could be thieves.”
I know an assortment of psychotics and thieves. They go anywhere they want with the extraordinary self confidence of the desperate who have nothing to lose or the stupidity to believe they will lose nothing. If they want money or liquor or sex, if they want to scare someone for real or just for kicks, if they merely want something to eat for free, they walk into places they don’t belong and demand to be seen and to be served. In South Beach, where bums and drunks share the streets and beaches with celebrities and wealthy tourists, it is often hard to distinguish between the real threats and the mere expressions and that’s what makes it so dangerous. Once I barred a mogul from entering my restaurant because he looked like a thug. Once I let a pair of thugs stay late in the bar because they looked like moguls; after we closed, they robbed two of my waitresses on the street. Some killers look only like thieves. Some thieves are a special kind of killer. I know these people, and I watch out for them.
So it makes me nervous to hear about these guys he eats dinner with every Saturday night, makes me wonder who they really are. I become afraid for him, start to think that he is being conned. I know he picks up the tab for their dinners. I don’t care about the money. I tell him to be careful because I want to protect him. He says, “don’t worry. I think people are basically good. You gave me a chance, didn’t you? And I know them better than you knew me.”
This is true. He’d come from a mystery I still know nothing about to the places—my restaurant and my home—that I know best. And he knew I would take him, and then trust him. His instincts are good.
I don’t have any friends. I tell myself it is by choice though, truly, I have morphed into this solitary person without realizing it. After my husband left, I didn’t know how to turn myself back into someone who could trust anyone again. I threw myself into culinary school and then into work. I like the people who work for me and I am glad to have them near me but before he came, I thought I only needed myself. I thought I knew myself, which is why I didn’t sense my own loneliness creeping up on me. I never saw it coming and then, abracadabra, it disappeared.
Just like a thief, while I wasn’t looking, he took away all of the things I had been afraid of. And he replaced them with the things I had forgotten ever wanting, like coming home and having a brandy and listening to music with my aching feet in someone’s lap instead of falling asleep on the couch in my chef clothes, having sworn off my bed years ago. Like having someone to walk home with after work, to scramble late night eggs for, someone to touch, who wanted to touch me. Slowly, subtly, bit by bit, he took me and left me fearless.
I think I am lucky, blessed. That somehow someone or something divine decided that I deserve this life I am living, really living, now. But then the spell is broken because the one morning, I wake up alone. I want it to be a dream. It isn’t the first time I close my eyes to conjure back what I think I can’t live without but before him, I had sworn it would be the last time. Back then, before the restaurant, before the work, when I learned that I was the kind of woman it was easy to leave, I had crumbled. Then I had begged and pleaded and promised to do anything to fix myself, to make myself right. Even though I did not know what was wrong.
This time, I am ready for a fight. By the time I get to the restaurant, my teeth are rattling. It is a steamy summer morning but I am shivering. I go back into the kitchen and he comes out from behind the line; it is clear he has been there for hours. He’s reorganized the walk-in cooler and now everything we need is in clear view. He’s dusted all the bottles in the bar. He’s taken the crate of lemons that had begun to spoil and made forty individually-sized citrus cakes for the dinner service. It is seven in the morning and the rest of the staff won’t be in until ten. In the dining room, he’s set a table for two with a bottle of champagne chilling. He pulls lobster burritos from the oven and feeds me mine while he explains that sometimes when he can’t sleep, he just needs to work. I understand this because it is true for me too but it doesn’t take away the ache and panic. I am so angry. After the first bite, I say, “Feeding me is hokey,” because I am so unsettled by the way I love it. But he is undaunted. He says, “You think this is hokey?” and leads me downstairs to the office where he has blown up an air mattress and lit candles.
The last time I had felt this way was the first time and I knew nothing. I was so young, thought it would last forever, didn’t understand how love can be consumed by fear and instead of stomping it out like a fire, I stoked it, tended it, fed its restlessness bite by bite so that it could never be satisfied and never be finished. I was so frantic trying to keep the fire alive that I didn’t see it growing out of control.
He says, “Look, I know I scared you. I’m sorry. But everyone comes to everyone with a history. We’re learning how we are together, but we’re still who we were before.”
I don’t know who he was before. And I had left who I was before a long time ago. I replaced her with someone who saved her heart for taste and texture and smell. Who used her head for everything else. Who made things make sense. Making sense is what saved me, sustained me. It’s what pulled me out of the ashes and wed me to a career that relies on all the properties of fire. It’s what recreated me into a person surrounded by people, by cooks and waiters and bartenders and dishwashers and vendors and customers, so I didn’t know I was alone. What I learned, in addition to how to cook, was that every time something went wrong, if I could make sense of it I could make it right. I didn’t take chances until I let a stranger into my kitchen, into my bed.
I made sense of him. He was young but already too tired. He wanted stability. He wanted to make a life with someone in an industry he loved and understood. He knew how to operate every piece of equipment, how to increase profits, how to train cooks and servers. He was a fabulous, inspiring, inventive cook. He could butcher meat, he could skin a Dover sole in one move, he could suspend caviar in sabayon as easily as he could make grilled cheese. These things made him happy and they made sense to me. He knew that by just giving me a bite of something I hadn’t had before, I would cave. That my heart would take over. He knew how to get there.
So when I get to the restaurant this morning, after having been with him for over a year and a half, and my key won’t turn in the lock, I know I am dreaming. About banana pancakes. I was not surprised that he left me in the middle of the night because since the first time, it has become a ritual and one I celebrate like a teenager. This morning I showered and shaved, put on lotion, per-fume. I hope he is making banana pancakes because that’s what I have a taste for. Banana pancakes with pecans and caramel syrup. I will let him feed them to me, bite by sweet bite, because I always do. Because I am certifiably hokey in love.
I try the key again and again and then so hard it actually snaps off in the lock. I look like a thief, trying to break into my own restaurant. It is only seven in the morning and no one is out on the street yet. I cup my hands to either side of my face like blinders and peer inside. The lights are all out and so it gives the illusion that nothing is there, that my restaurant is an empty room. Like when I first started, when I had been emptied out and bought a space I could fill. The tables and chairs seem to have vanished. Maybe he moved them. Maybe he is redecorating the dining room or washing the carpet. I knock. And wait. I knock again, and call out his name. No one comes. So I knock again and again and again, each time harder and then harder than that so that he will hear me, emerge from wherever he is and make the fear starting to smoke and smolder inside me curl back into ash.
A police car cruises by and the officer gets out and asks to see some ID but I have nothing that says this space belongs to me. My key is broken in a lock where it didn’t fit. My face is wet so I know I am crying and my teeth are clenched and they hurt—everything hurts—and then without seeing it coming, I start screaming, appear crazy, delusional, all the kinds of crazy I know, like someone to fear. Me. Someone to fear.
The cop pats my shoulder and asks me to calm down. When I do, he looks through the window and then asks me to tell him what is inside my restaurant. My description does not match what he sees. “There’s no stained glass hanging there, maam.”
“What about the coffee station?” I say. “In the back corner? The espresso machine, regular coffee maker, two pots, one for decaf…” I rattle off my inventory like an auctioneer.
“Nothing back there, maam. Nothing at all. Is there someone we can call?” Of course, there is! I think. Call him. We’ve been robbed! He is probably tied up somewhere in the restaurant, waiting to be saved. Why didn’t I think of this before? How much time have I wasted? He trusts everyone. He would have let anyone in. He could be dead in there!
I recite his cell phone number and while the officer dials, I wipe my eyes and gather my strength and stand up straight. I’m coming, don’t worry. I’m here. I’m coming, but a message on his cell phone says it’s been disconnected. I paid the bill last week.
“Is there anyone else?” he asks me.
Anyone else? No, no one. There is no one else.
“Uh, ma’am?” he says, because I have not answered him and am staring into the black window, my place. “An employee maybe? A manager?”
Yes, there are employees. Waiters and dishwashers. There are hostesses, line cooks, two sous chefs, busboys, a sommelier on the weekends. There are day managers and night managers. Sometimes there is a harpist in the dining room, a quartet in the bar lounge. There are lots of people, really nice people, who come here every day and night to eat. An entire world of wonderful people.
I want to tell him this but don’t know how when I look up and see Adele, the night manager, standing there. I hear her identifying herself, asking what’s wrong. I hear her identifying me. I hear her saying she is here early because she left her cell phone in the hostess stand last night and needs it now to call her mother. I wonder why she didn’t just call her mother from her home. I wonder what would have happened if we had been naked on the air mattress in my office, eating banana pancakes with our fingers, hearing someone upstairs rummaging around the hostess stand. We would have thought we were being robbed. We have been robbed.
Another policeman comes and together the two men bust open the door and Adele and I walk in. Adele says “oh my God oh my God” over and over again. I do not speak. Adele starts walking around the dining room, touching the walls, moving one hand over the other as if the missing tables, chairs, linens, vases, flatware will miraculously reappear from behind the dusky pink wallpaper I put up myself. In my lonely days. When I thought I was safe. Poof. Everything has disappeared. There is nothing in the dining room, the bar, the lounge. All the plates and glassware, the water pitchers, the creamers and sugar bowls, the cream and sugar. Gone. The kitchen is an empty stainless steel vault. The huge Hobart to the tiny paring knives, the pots and pans, the tongs and spatulas and slotted spoons, and strainers, everything has vanished. The food is gone, the steaks and chops and fish and ribs, potatoes and onions and garlic, all the oils and vinegars, the spices and herbs, the truffles, pates, flour, butter, yeast, milks, the extracts. The walk-in cooler is cleaned out, except for a crate of rotting lemons.
I pull one out and my fingers fall through the soft blue and white mold to the decomposing flesh with its rancid sorry smell. How did he ever use these to make cakes? He was a magician. I sit down on the cooler floor, the terrible lemon in my palm, and try to turn magic into sense. Sleight of hand.
The police are asking me questions, but their words are jumbled and meaningless so I can’t answer. They turn to Adele, who is crying. I hear her say his name, describe him, but the description doesn’t sound like anyone I know.
The bigger of the two policemen very gently slides his hands under my arms and lifts me up. He walks me into the dining room, forgetting there is nowhere to sit, and just as gently settles me onto the carpet that apparently could not be pried up in time.
“Is there anything I can get you?”
But what can you pull out of thin air?
“Can we call someone else?” the officer asks. I try to conjure up the image of his Saturday night friends, men I never met. He could not have done this alone. I hear Adele rattling off names and numbers.
“Ok. Good,” I hear the officer say. “We’ll call them. In the meantime, do you want to go get your boss something? A cup of coffee? She needs something.”
What do you need when everything is gone?
Something small. Just one small thing, something that I could make disappear, something irreplaceable that would be gone for good. The tip of a finger. The bottom pearl of an ear. A toe, something I could run my teeth across and then bite off, clean and fast. a real thing, a real loss, that by being gone would say over and over again, forever, that I had been there.
*This story is taken from: Party Girls by Diane Goodman, Autumn House Press, 2011.
*Copyright © 2011 by Diane Goodman.
The woods were already filled with shadows one June evening, just before eight o’clock, though a bright sunset still glimmered faintly among the trunks of the trees. A little girl was driving home her cow, a plodding, dilatory, provoking creature in her behavior, but a valued companion for all that. They were going away from whatever light there was, and striking deep into the woods, but their feet were familiar with the path, and it was no matter whether their eyes could see it or not.
There was hardly a night the summer through when the old cow could be found waiting at the pasture bars; on the contrary, it was her greatest pleasure to hide herself away among the huckleberry bushes, and though she wore a loud bell she had made the discovery that if one stood perfectly still it would not ring. So Sylvia had to hunt for her until she found her, and call Co’ ! Co’ ! with never an answering Moo, until her childish patience was quite spent. If the creature had not given good milk and plenty of it, the case would have seemed very different to her owners. Besides, Sylvia had all the time there was, and very little use to make of it. Sometimes in pleasant weather it was a consolation to look upon the cow’s pranks as an intelligent attempt to play hide and seek, and as the child had no playmates she lent herself to this amusement with a good deal of zest. Though this chase had been so long that the wary animal herself had given an unusual signal of her whereabouts, Sylvia had only laughed when she came upon Mistress Moolly at the swamp-side, and urged her affectionately homeward with a twig of birch leaves. The old cow was not inclined to wander farther, she even turned in the right direction for once as they left the pasture, and stepped along the road at a good pace. She was quite ready to be milked now, and seldom stopped to browse. Sylvia wondered what her grandmother would say because they were so late. It was a great while since she had left home at half-past five o’clock, but everybody knew the difficulty of making this errand a short one. Mrs. Tilley had chased the hornéd torment too many summer evenings herself to blame any one else for lingering, and was only thankful as she waited that she had Sylvia, nowadays, to give such valuable assistance. The good woman suspected that Sylvia loitered occasionally on her own account; there never was such a child for straying about out-of-doors since the world was made! Everybody said that it was a good change for a little maid who had tried to grow for eight years in a crowded manufacturing town, but, as for Sylvia herself, it seemed as if she never had been alive at all before she came to live at the farm. She thought often with wistful compassion of a wretched geranium that belonged to a town neighbor. “‘Afraid of folks,'” old Mrs. Tilley said to herself, with a smile, after she had made the unlikely choice of Sylvia from her daughter’s houseful of children, and was returning to the farm. “‘Afraid of folks,’ they said! I guess she won’t be troubled no great with ’em up to the old place!” When they reached the door of the lonely house and stopped to unlock it, and the cat came to purr loudly, and rub against them, a deserted pussy, indeed, but fat with young robins, Sylvia whispered that this was a beautiful place to live in, and she never should wish to go home.
The companions followed the shady wood-road, the cow taking slow steps and the child very fast ones. The cow stopped long at the brook to drink, as if the pasture were not half a swamp, and Sylvia stood still and waited, letting her bare feet cool themselves in the shoal water, while the great twilight moths struck softly against her. She waded on through the brook as the cow moved away, and listened to the thrushes with a heart that beat fast with pleasure. There was a stirring in the great boughs overhead. They were full of little birds and beasts that seemed to be wide awake, and going about their world, or else saying good-night to each other in sleepy twitters. Sylvia herself felt sleepy as she walked along. However, it was not much farther to the house, and the air was soft and sweet. She was not often in the woods so late as this, and it made her feel as if she were a part of the gray shadows and the moving leaves. She was just thinking how long it seemed since she first came to the farm a year ago, and wondering if everything went on in the noisy town just the same as when she was there, the thought of the great red-faced boy who used to chase and frighten her made her hurry along the path to escape from the shadow of the trees.
Suddenly this little woods-girl is horror-stricken to hear a clear whistle not very far away. Not a bird’s-whistle, which would have a sort of friendliness, but a boy’s whistle, determined, and somewhat aggressive. Sylvia left the cow to whatever sad fate might await her, and stepped discreetly aside into the bushes, but she was just too late. The enemy had discovered her, and called out in a very cheerful and persuasive tone, “Halloa, little girl, how far is it to the road?” and trembling Sylvia answered almost inaudibly, “A good ways.”
She did not dare to look boldly at the tall young man, who carried a gun over his shoulder, but she came out of her bush and again followed the cow, while he walked alongside.
“I have been hunting for some birds,” the stranger said kindly, “and I have lost my way, and need a friend very much. Don’t be afraid,” he added gallantly. “Speak up and tell me what your name is, and whether you think I can spend the night at your house, and go out gunning early in the morning.”
Sylvia was more alarmed than before. Would not her grandmother consider her much to blame? But who could have foreseen such an accident as this? It did not seem to be her fault, and she hung her head as if the stem of it were broken, but managed to answer “Sylvy,” with much effort when her companion again asked her name.
Mrs. Tilley was standing in the doorway when the trio came into view. The cow gave a loud moo by way of explanation.
“Yes, you’d better speak up for yourself, you old trial! Where’d she tucked herself away this time, Sylvy?” But Sylvia kept an awed silence; she knew by instinct that her grandmother did not comprehend the gravity of the situation. She must be mistaking the stranger for one of the farmer-lads of the region.
The young man stood his gun beside the door, and dropped a lumpy game-bag beside it; then he bade Mrs. Tilley good-evening, and repeated his wayfarer’s story, and asked if he could have a night’s lodging.
“Put me anywhere you like,” he said. “I must be off early in the morning, before day; but I am very hungry, indeed. You can give me some milk at any rate, that’s plain.”
“Dear sakes, yes,” responded the hostess, whose long slumbering hospitality seemed to be easily awakened. “You might fare better if you went out to the main road a mile or so, but you’re welcome to what we’ve got. I’ll milk right off, and you make yourself at home. You can sleep on husks or feathers,” she proffered graciously. “I raised them all myself. There’s good pasturing for geese just below here towards the ma’sh. Now step round and set a plate for the gentleman, Sylvy!” And Sylvia promptly stepped. She was glad to have something to do, and she was hungry herself.
It was a surprise to find so clean and comfortable a little dwelling in this New England wilderness. The young man had known the horrors of its most primitive housekeeping, and the dreary squalor of that level of society which does not rebel at the companionship of hens. This was the best thrift of an old-fashioned farmstead, though on such a small scale that it seemed like a hermitage. He listened eagerly to the old woman’s quaint talk, he watched Sylvia’s pale face and shining gray eyes with ever growing enthusiasm, and insisted that this was the best supper he had eaten for a month, and afterward the new-made friends sat down in the door-way together while the moon came up.
Soon it would be berry-time, and Sylvia was a great help at picking. The cow was a good milker, though a plaguy thing to keep track of, the hostess gossiped frankly, adding presently that she had buried four children, so Sylvia’s mother, and a son (who might be dead) in California were all the children she had left. “Dan, my boy, was a great hand to go gunning,” she explained sadly. “I never wanted for pa’tridges or gray squer’ls while he was to home. He’s been a great wand’rer, I expect, and he’s no hand to write letters. There, I don’t blame him, I’d ha’ seen the world myself if it had been so I could.
“Sylvy takes after him,” the grandmother continued affectionately, after a minute’s pause. “There ain’t a foot o’ ground she don’t know her way over, and the wild creaturs counts her one o’ themselves. Squer’ls she’ll tame to come an’ feed right out o’ her hands, and all sorts o’ birds. Last winter she got the jay-birds to bangeing here, and I believe she’d ‘a’ scanted herself of her own meals to have plenty to throw out amongst ’em, if I hadn’t kep’ watch. Anything but crows, I tell her, I’m willin’ to help support — though Dan he had a tamed one o’ them that did seem to have reason same as folks. It was round here a good spell after he went away. Dan an’ his father they didn’t hitch, — but he never held up his head ag’in after Dan had dared him an’ gone off.”
The guest did not notice this hint of family sorrows in his eager interest in something else.
“So Sylvy knows all about birds, does she?” he exclaimed, as he looked round at the little girl who sat, very demure but increasingly sleepy, in the moonlight. “I am making a collection of birds myself. I have been at it ever since I was a boy.” (Mrs. Tilley smiled.) “There are two or three very rare ones I have been hunting for these five years. I mean to get them on my own ground if they can be found.”
“Do you cage ’em up?” asked Mrs. Tilley doubtfully, in response to this enthusiastic announcement.
“Oh no, they’re stuffed and preserved, dozens and dozens of them,” said the ornithologist, “and I have shot or snared every one myself. I caught a glimpse of a white heron a few miles from here on Saturday, and I have followed it in this direction. They have never been found in this district at all. The little white heron, it is,” and he turned again to look at Sylvia with the hope of discovering that the rare bird was one of her acquaintances.
But Sylvia was watching a hop-toad in the narrow footpath.
“You would know the heron if you saw it,” the stranger continued eagerly. “A queer tall white bird with soft feathers and long thin legs. And it would have a nest perhaps in the top of a high tree, made of sticks, something like a hawk’s nest.”
Sylvia’s heart gave a wild beat; she knew that strange white bird, and had once stolen softly near where it stood in some bright green swamp grass, away over at the other side of the woods. There was an open place where the sunshine always seemed strangely yellow and hot, where tall, nodding rushes grew, and her grandmother had warned her that she might sink in the soft black mud underneath and never be heard of more. Not far beyond were the salt marshes just this side the sea itself, which Sylvia wondered and dreamed much about, but never had seen, whose great voice could sometimes be heard above the noise of the woods on stormy nights.
“I can’t think of anything I should like so much as to find that heron’s nest,” the handsome stranger was saying. “I would give ten dollars to anybody who could show it to me,” he added desperately, “and I mean to spend my whole vacation hunting for it if need be. Perhaps it was only migrating, or had been chased out of its own region by some bird of prey.”
Mrs. Tilley gave amazed attention to all this, but Sylvia still watched the toad, not divining, as she might have done at some calmer time, that the creature wished to get to its hole under the door-step, and was much hindered by the unusual spectators at that hour of the evening. No amount of thought, that night, could decide how many wished-for treasures the ten dollars, so lightly spoken of, would buy.
The next day the young sportsman hovered about the woods, and Sylvia kept him company, having lost her first fear of the friendly lad, who proved to be most kind and sympathetic. He told her many things about the birds and what they knew and where they lived and what they did with themselves. And he gave her a jack-knife, which she thought as great a treasure as if she were a desert-islander. All day long he did not once make her troubled or afraid except when he brought down some unsuspecting singing creature from its bough. Sylvia would have liked him vastly better without his gun; she could not understand why he killed the very birds he seemed to like so much. But as the day waned, Sylvia still watched the young man with loving admiration. She had never seen anybody so charming and delightful; the woman’s heart, asleep in the child, was vaguely thrilled by a dream of love. Some premonition of that great power stirred and swayed these young creatures who traversed the solemn woodlands with soft-footed silent care. They stopped to listen to a bird’s song; they pressed forward again eagerly, parting the branches — speaking to each other rarely and in whispers; the young man going first and Sylvia following, fascinated, a few steps behind, with her gray eyes dark with excitement.
She grieved because the longed-for white heron was elusive, but she did not lead the guest, she only followed, and there was no such thing as speaking first. The sound of her own unquestioned voice would have terrified her — it was hard enough to answer yes or no when there was need of that. At last evening began to fall, and they drove the cow home together, and Sylvia smiled with pleasure when they came to the place where she heard the whistle and was afraid only the night before.
Half a mile from home, at the farther edge of the woods, where the land was highest, a great pine-tree stood, the last of its generation. Whether it was left for a boundary mark, or for what reason, no one could say; the woodchoppers who had felled its mates were dead and gone long ago, and a whole forest of sturdy trees, pines and oaks and maples, had grown again. But the stately head of this old pine towered above them all and made a landmark for sea and shore miles and miles away. Sylvia knew it well. She had always believed that whoever climbed to the top of it could see the ocean; and the little girl had often laid her hand on the great rough trunk and looked up wistfully at those dark boughs that the wind always stirred, no matter how hot and still the air might be below. Now she thought of the tree with a new excitement, for why, if one climbed it at break of day, could not one see all the world, and easily discover from whence the white heron flew, and mark the place, and find the hidden nest?
What a spirit of adventure, what wild ambition! What fancied triumph and delight and glory for the later morning when she could make known the secret! It was almost too real and too great for the childish heart to bear.
All night the door of the little house stood open and the whippoorwills came and sang upon the very step. The young sportsman and his old hostess were sound asleep, but Sylvia’s great design kept her broad awake and watching. She forgot to think of sleep. The short summer night seemed as long as the winter darkness, and at last when the whippoorwills ceased, and she was afraid the morning would after all come too soon, she stole out of the house and followed the pasture path through the woods, hastening toward the open ground beyond, listening with a sense of comfort and companionship to the drowsy twitter of a half-awakened bird, whose perch she had jarred in passing. Alas, if the great wave of human interest which flooded for the first time this dull little life should sweep away the satisfactions of an existence heart to heart with nature and the dumb life of the forest!
There was the huge tree asleep yet in the paling moonlight, and small and silly Sylvia began with utmost bravery to mount to the top of it, with tingling, eager blood coursing the channels of her whole frame, with her bare feet and fingers, that pinched and held like bird’s claws to the monstrous ladder reaching up, up, almost to the sky itself. First she must mount the white oak tree that grew alongside, where she was almost lost among the dark branches and the green leaves heavy and wet with dew; a bird fluttered off its nest, and a red squirrel ran to and fro and scolded pettishly at the harmless housebreaker. Sylvia felt her way easily. She had often climbed there, and knew that higher still one of the oak’s upper branches chafed against the pine trunk, just where its lower boughs were set close together. There, when she made the dangerous pass from one tree to the other, the great enterprise would really begin.
She crept out along the swaying oak limb at last, and took the daring step across into the old pine-tree. The way was harder than she thought; she must reach far and hold fast, the sharp dry twigs caught and held her and scratched her like angry talons, the pitch made her thin little fingers clumsy and stiff as she went round and round the tree’s great stem, higher and higher upward. The sparrows and robins in the woods below were beginning to wake and twitter to the dawn, yet it seemed much lighter there aloft in the pine-tree, and the child knew she must hurry if her project were to be of any use.
The tree seemed to lengthen itself out as she went up, and to reach farther and farther upward. It was like a great main-mast to the voyaging earth; it must truly have been amazed that morning through all its ponderous frame as it felt this determined spark of human spirit wending its way from higher branch to branch. Who knows how steadily the least twigs held themselves to advantage this light, weak creature on her way! The old pine must have loved his new dependent. More than all the hawks, and bats, and moths, and even the sweet-voiced thrushes, was the brave, beating heart of the solitary gray-eyed child. And the tree stood still and frowned away the winds that June morning while the dawn grew bright in the east.
Sylvia’s face was like a pale star, if one had seen it from the ground, when the last thorny bough was past, and she stood trembling and tired but wholly triumphant, high in the tree-top. Yes, there was the sea with the dawning sun making a golden dazzle over it, and toward that glorious east flew two hawks with slow-moving pinions. How low they looked in the air from that height when one had only seen them before far up, and dark against the blue sky. Their gray feathers were as soft as moths; they seemed only a little way from the tree, and Sylvia felt as if she too could go flying away among the clouds. Westward, the woodlands and farms reached miles and miles into the distance; here and there were church steeples, and white villages, truly it was a vast and awesome world
The birds sang louder and louder. At last the sun came up bewilderingly bright. Sylvia could see the white sails of ships out at sea, and the clouds that were purple and rose-colored and yellow at first began to fade away. Where was the white heron’s nest in the sea of green branches, and was this wonderful sight and pageant of the world the only reward for having climbed to such a giddy height? Now look down again, Sylvia, where the green marsh is set among the shining birches and dark hemlocks; there where you saw the white heron once you will see him again; look, look! a white spot of him like a single floating feather comes up from the dead hemlock and grows larger, and rises, and comes close at last, and goes by the landmark pine with steady sweep of wing and outstretched slender neck and crested head. And wait! wait! do not move a foot or a finger, little girl, do not send an arrow of light and consciousness from your two eager eyes, for the heron has perched on a pine bough not far beyond yours, and cries back to his mate on the nest and plumes his feathers for the new day!
The child gives a long sigh a minute later when a company of shouting cat-birds comes also to the tree, and vexed by their fluttering and lawlessness the solemn heron goes away. She knows his secret now, the wild, light, slender bird that floats and wavers, and goes back like an arrow presently to his home in the green world beneath. Then Sylvia, well satisfied, makes her perilous way down again, not daring to look far below the branch she stands on, ready to cry sometimes because her fingers ache and her lamed feet slip. Wondering over and over again what the stranger would say to her, and what he would think when she told him how to find his way straight to the heron’s nest.
“Sylvy, Sylvy!” called the busy old grandmother again and again, but nobody answered, and the small husk bed was empty and Sylvia had disappeared.
The guest waked from a dream, and remembering his day’s pleasure hurried to dress himself that it might sooner begin. He was sure from the way the shy little girl looked once or twice yesterday that she had at least seen the white heron, and now she must really be made to tell. Here she comes now, paler than ever, and her worn old frock is torn and tattered, and smeared with pine pitch. The grandmother and the sportsman stand in the door together and question her, and the splendid moment has come to speak of the dead hemlock-tree by the green marsh.
But Sylvia does not speak after all, though the old grandmother fretfully rebukes her, and the young man’s kind, appealing eyes are looking straight in her own. He can make them rich with money; he has promised it, and they are poor now. He is so well worth making happy, and he waits to hear the story she can tell.
No, she must keep silence! What is it that suddenly forbids her and makes her dumb? Has she been nine years growing and now, when the great world for the first time puts out a hand to her, must she thrust it aside for a bird’s sake? The murmur of the pine’s green branches is in her ears, she remembers how the white heron came flying through the golden air and how they watched the sea and the morning together, and Sylvia cannot speak; she cannot tell the heron’s secret and give its life away.
Dear loyalty, that suffered a sharp pang as the guest went away disappointed later in the day, that could have served and followed him and loved him as a dog loves! Many a night Sylvia heard the echo of his whistle haunting the pasture path as she came home with the loitering cow. She forgot even her sorrow at the sharp report of his gun and the sight of thrushes and sparrows dropping silent to the ground, their songs hushed and their pretty feathers stained and wet with blood. Were the birds better friends than their hunter might have been, — who can tell? Whatever treasures were lost to her, woodlands and summer-time, remember! Bring your gifts and graces and tell your secrets to this lonely country child!