‘I’m sorry,’ says the girl. ‘You’re mistaken.’
I listen to her without batting an eyelid, nodding my head as if being mistaken were the most natural thing in the world. Because there’s no other explanation. I’ve made a mistake. And I do a quick mental run through all the other times I might have made a little mistake and I can’t think of anything that comes close. But I shouldn’t blame myself. I’m tired, bogged down with work and, to cap it all, I’m not sleeping properly. This morning, in fact, I almost called my landlord. Why on earth did he rent out the apartment upstairs to such a noisy family? But what’s uppermost in my mind now has nothing to do with the neighbours or the landlord or my tiredness, it’s all to do with the weird experience I seem to have had just half an hour ago. A mixture of unease and conviction that made me rush out of a shoe shop and run down the street after a woman who I insisted on calling Dina. And the woman ignored me and walked on without paying any attention to me. Because it wasn’t Dina. Or at least, that’s what the real Dina Dachs says, sitting opposite me at her tidy desk, wearing the same innocent smile as she had when she received the offer of a permanent position with the firm just a week ago. ‘No,’ she says, ‘I’ve haven’t left my desk since nine o’clock this morning.’ And then, shaking her head sympathetically, she adds, ‘I’m sorry. You’re mistaken.’
Yes. Now I understand that it must have been a mistake. Because, although I’m still astonished by the likeness, the girl in front of me is just an ordinary girl, well mannered, polite, an efficient secretary. And the woman, the unknown woman I’ve just run after down in the street, had a face that bore the scars of a lifetime of suffering, with a cold, enigmatic stare that never wavered, in spite of me shouting and the crowds shoving past me in a busy shopping street the day before a holiday. And that must have been what caught my attention, what made me think that the woman (who I thought was Dina) was having a turn, a momentary loss of identity and wasn’t quite all there. But now I know that I was only half-mistaken. Because the unknown woman, whoever she was, did need help. And I look at Dina once more, at her angora jumper and her winter coat that’s hanging up on the coat stand and I think of the woman again. She was wearing a green silk dress in the middle of December. A thin party dress with a plunging neckline and she had a violet necklace around her neck. Indifferent to the cold, the traffic, the crowds. I leave it at that. The fact that I’ve mistaken a mad woman for this girl makes me smile. And I shut myself away in my office, leave the shopping on a chair and start to go through my correspondence. It will be a busy month, but it’s only one month. And then I’ll be in Rome, with Eduardo. I’m happy. I have every reason in the world to be happy.
Neither of the two pairs of shoes fits me properly. One pair is too narrow, they pinch my feet and I have to scrunch my toes up. The problem with the others is the complete opposite. I have to scrunch up my toes as well but the end result is very different. The shoes are like barges refusing to be steered and won’t do as they’re told, my feet slipping and sliding inside them. It’s too late to go back home now so I decide that I’ll just have to choose between the two forms of torture. I opt for the second one, but I don’t do it lightly. Half an hour from now I have to go to a work dinner. That’s why I came to the office all dressed up and that’s also why I went to the shoe shop earlier. It was silly of me to buy them. I was in too much of a hurry. I’ll return the ones that are too narrow tomorrow. Because now I realise that I’m not in the least bit hungry and in a half hour’s time I’ll have to sit down and eat. I’ve had to suffer this form of torture ever since I became a successful executive, although it’s nothing like the mirror opposite (starving with hunger and having nothing to eat) and that often makes me feel ashamed. That’s why I choose the slidey gondola shoes (I can’t explain why but they seem better suited for what’s in store for me) and that’s how I turn up at the restaurant, right on the dot, dragging my feet and not in the least bit hungry. I feel sick when I look at the menu. It’s a ridiculous feeling. Boorish. Just as the ten dinner guests seem boorish too, talking about their secretaries in a conspiratorial tone and about their wives with a certain respectful admiration. Just as the shoes, which I slipped off a while ago and left on the carpet, seem ridiculous as well. All I can do is wait for the dinner to be over and done with and hope that at some point someone will mention Eduardo, the last time they saw Eduardo, how well everything’s turning out for Eduardo. Luckily it doesn’t take long for someone to oblige. They ask me about the branch we’ve just opened in Rome and (even though when I mention Eduardo I call him “the boss”) I feel a slight sense of relief at being able to think about him out loud, despite the fact that what I’m saying doesn’t actually have anything to do with what I’m really thinking. But they don’t know that. Nobody, not even our work colleagues, could have the faintest suspicion about my relationship with Eduardo. No one in the office and of course no one at home (I mean his home). And sometimes I like to think that even Eduardo himself isn’t too clear about our relationship. I don’t care what his wife would say if she knew about it, but I do care what Eduardo might think, and that’s my strongest weapon. Eduardo doesn’t think. He doesn’t think of me as his lover, even though that’s the word that would best describe our situation, and I’d rather he didn’t think of me as his lover. Eduardo is scared of words. Words and his wife. That’s why, for once in his life, he’s found the courage to cheat on her, without even managing to say to himself, ‘I’m cheating on her’. As far as the dinner guests are concerned I just went to the same college as my boss. I’m his right-hand woman. That’s what his wife thinks, too. And that’s what I want them to carry on thinking. What’s more, I can play the part to perfection. When anyone asks me who’ll be in charge of the office in Rome I shrug my shoulders. Eduardo’s over there, hiring a team. Eduardo will oversee the work for the first year, commuting between here and there. Then, when he finds the right person, he’ll leave it all in their hands. Most likely it will be an Italian. And I think about an apartment in Trastevere. A life of freedom with no schedules, no family, his wife thousands of kilometres away. Someone tells me that I seem to not be eating, I’ve hardly had a mouthful, and he trots out the line that “a woman who doesn’t enjoy her food…”, and I take the opportunity all of a sudden to remember an important call. A business call, naturally. My feet search out my abandoned shoes, I scrunch up my toes and leave the table. But instead of going to the telephone I go to the toilet. I splash some water on my face and dry myself off with a paper towel. Then, when I’m about to touch up my make-up, I see her again.
I’m sure I did. I’ve hardly eaten anything but then again I’ve had a lot to drink. But she was there for a moment, a few seconds. I saw her quite clearly. Her green dress, her violet necklace, her cold, enigmatic stare. I don’t know whether she opened the door and then left the minute she saw me. I don’t know if she was already there when I came in. It all happened so quickly. I was drying my face with the paper towel, trying out the three-way mirror, checking my hair, my face and she passed by the mirror in a green flash, like a cloud of breath evaporating in the cold air. I readjust the mirrors, opening and closing the wings and, still in a state of shock, I manage to capture her for a few seconds. The woman is there. Behind me, beside me, I’m not too sure. I turn around quickly but only to see the door closing. ‘She ran away when she saw me,’ I think. And I can’t help remembering those eyes. A cold stare – enigmatic – but also, I now realise, full of hatred.
Dina Dachs is just like any other girl. That’s what I tell myself in the morning and again in the afternoon. In the evening I take the file with all the details of the new employees home with me. There are five of them altogether. They all have similar CVs, they’re all the same age and they all have the same prospects for promotion in the firm. Dina has a slight advantage. She speaks three languages fluently, has excellent references and was remarkably adept at filling in our application form. That’s why she was the first candidate I chose. That’s why, I realise now, I remembered her name so clearly that day I ran down the street after the woman in green. But then Dina Dachs is a difficult name to forget, perhaps because it doesn’t seem like a real name. It makes me think of a pseudonym, a stage name, DINA DACHS emblazoned across the front of a variety theatre in gigantic letters, cabaret stars. I’m not sure what to think any more. With the constant din from the neighbours upstairs I can’t get my thoughts in order. I’ll complain about them tomorrow, I’ll have a word with the landlord or I’ll move. And tomorrow I’ll speak to Dina as well. Tactfully.
I’ve spent the whole day watching her, studying her, monitoring her phone calls. I haven’t come across anything out of the ordinary so far, nothing to make me suspect a double life, to explain her strange appearances, first in the street and then in the restaurant. Dina tells me she doesn’t go out in the evenings. She says so very calmly, not knowing that it’s a trap question. She doesn’t mind staying on at the office, doing overtime, getting everything up to date. She hardly knows anyone here in the city. She doesn’t have any brothers or sisters or even parents. No brothers or sisters? No, none. Then I ask her to make a reservation for this evening in a particular restaurant the name of which, for some strange reason, has slipped my mind. I tell her the street, the exact location, the revealing detail that it has carpeted walls and the toilets have three-way mirrors. Dina doesn’t usually eat out but it suddenly occurs to her that she could ask one of her work colleagues. I leave her to it and, discreetly, listen at the door. She doesn’t seem to be pretending. Then I dictate a letter to her, then a second one and a third. They’re made-up letters that won’t be going out to anyone. Their only purpose is to let me observe Dina, trap her in a corner, catch her out in some way. She knows that what I’m dictating to her is completely absurd. She also knows that I’m watching her all the time. At one point, flustered, she instinctively smoothes her skirt down and uncrosses her legs. I make an excuse that the room is full of smoke and open the window. It’s cold outside. It’s a biting cold, almost as icy as the silence that has just come down between the two of us. It’s all getting embarrassing. I’m going to turn around, tell her to go home, she’s done enough for today, she should go home. But I can’t find the words. For the first time in my life I get vertigo, looking down from the fifth floor. Because she’s there. I can’t believe my eyes, but the woman is standing there, on the street corner opposite. I can see her green dress, the violet necklace, her hesitant figure standing out amid the bustle of the street. She looks like a beggar. Her dress strap has slipped off one of her shoulders. Her hair’s in a mess, she’s all dishevelled, she looks like she’s going to freeze to death at any moment. And her arm’s raised, stock still. But from the way she’s standing she doesn’t look like she’s begging. Unless she’s mad. Or drunk. Or unless her arm is pointing at nobody else but me. Here, on the fifth floor, looking out of my office window.
‘Anything else?’ asks a tired voice behind me.
I ask Dina to come over to the window. I make room for her and point to the exact place where she should look. ‘The beggar woman,’ I say. ‘That beggar woman over there.’ A bus stops right in front of the woman in green. I wait for it to move off. The woman appears now and again behind the cars. ‘Have a good look. There she is. No, she’s gone now. Wait…’ Without realising it I’ve clutched her shoulder. She gets annoyed and moves away from the window.
‘I can’t see a thing,’ she says.
She’s angry, cross. As she leaves she does something that no other secretary would have dared to do. She snaps the door shut behind her, almost slams it.
I can’t discuss what’s worrying me with anyone. Eduardo’s still in Rome, with his wife. I know it’s a consolation prize, a non-event, a clever tactic to enable him to engage in his forthcoming project without a guilty conscience. But I also know I mustn’t call him. His wife will be with him. She’ll be in the hotel, in the office, everywhere. I can’t confide in anyone else either because I’m not sure how to go about it. I briefly think about talking to Cesca, the firm’s longest-serving employee. Cesca likes and respects me. But Cesca likes to snoop around, poke her nose into other people’s business, pass around comments, spread gossip. Even so, if the woman in green appears again tomorrow, why would it seem strange if I asked Cesca to look out of the window? ‘Look at that woman. She’s been loitering around here for days now. It’s as if something strange is happening to her.’ And then Cesca, putting on her glasses, would tell me that she’s just a beggar woman, there’s so many tramps on the streets around this time of the year, maybe she’s mad, or a lush, or a prostitute. Maybe all three. And then, looking more closely, Cesca would realise that she reminds her of someone. She can’t quite put her finger on who, but she does remind her of someone. Or she’d call the concierge. And the concierge would go out to investigate. Or perhaps there’s no need. ‘She’s mentally disturbed,’ she might say. ‘Either that or she’s faking it. She always turns up around here at Christmas. People give her money because they’re scared of her.’ But I haven’t seen anyone stop to give her any money. In fact, from up here on the fifth floor, all I’ve seen is her down there in her green dress and her arm raised, pointing towards me, asking me for something, telling me something. And I’ve also seen Dina. Next to me, leaning on the window sill while I pointed towards the beggar woman. I say this to myself several times. The beggar woman down there, in the street. Dina next to me. This should be enough to reassure me and to put it all down to pure chance, a coincidence, a striking resemblance, to realise that it’s impossible for the same woman to be in two places at once. But then there’s that look in her eyes. Brushing my arm off her shoulder, flushing with anger, snapping the door shut. It’s all a question of degree, I reflect. Because Dina Dachs’ look of irritation could so easily become the woman in green’s angry stare. A cold, enigmatic stare. Full of hatred.
But I can’t blame her. For the past few days all I’ve done is shower her with work, telling her to do one thing and then the opposite, calling her into my office or bursting into hers and making sure she’s still there, buried under a mountain of paperwork, grappling with accounts, documents, reports. It reassures me to know she’s busy and that it will still take her ages to finish the day’s tasks, that she’ll probably be the last one to leave the office at night. And meanwhile I think about the woman in green. I wait at the window for the woman in green to appear, holding the telephone in my hand, ready to call Cesca or the concierge. But not Dina. Dina’s not like the other girls. I’ve realised that after spending so much time watching her. Dina’s proud and dignified, and God only knows how long she’s going to endure the pressure I’m putting her under without facing me out. I know that I’m beginning to seriously annoy her and I also now know that Dina’s much more charming than she comes off as at first. She’s one of those calm, reserved women who win you over with time. So I confine Dina to her office and wait. Staring out of the office window, I wait.
She doesn’t make the appearance I was expecting the next day nor the one after that. All the work that I can’t manage I delegate to Dina. From my place at the window I can hear her typing frenetically in her office next door, but I’m not thinking about her anymore and I don’t care what she thinks about my behaviour either. All my senses are attuned to the prospective appearance of the woman in green. Maybe, I think, the poor amnesiac has got her memory back. Or she’s frozen to death. Or the local police have taken her away. I sit in my armchair and decide to call Cesca. ‘I don’t feel well,’ I’m going to say. ‘You’re in charge until tomorrow.’ But I don’t even get to dial her number. Suddenly I feel cold. It’s a damp, biting coldness behind me and it makes me react, realise that I really do feel ill and that it’s sheer madness to keep the window open in the middle of December. A gust of wind makes the pile of papers flutter around the room. I haven’t given that pile of papers the slightest thought for days and I’m not going to be distracted from my mission now. I turn around suddenly, although I already suspect that the sudden rush of cold has little to do with the bad weather at this time of the year or with the state of my nerves. The woman is down there. Across the road, on the corner. She seems resolute, determined, about to cross the road towards me. She dodges between the cars as if by a miracle. With her arm raised, always pointing towards me. The way she’s gone downhill is pathetic. Her green dress is in tatters, leaving her breasts on show and, suddenly, she’s not so much walking as staggering, unsteady and grotesque. What could have made me think that this monstrosity looked like Dina? I try to get a better look and leaning even further over the windowsill I notice something green on one of her feet, only one of them, and then I understand why she’s started to hobble. She’s lost the other shoe by the side of the road. But nobody picks it up, nobody kicks it away, nobody trips over it. Nobody, in short, takes pity on this poor woman and takes her to a place of safety. City life is inhumane, cruel, pitiless. Frozen stiff, I close the window and dial Cesca’s number. ‘I’m exhausted. Could you take over until tomorrow, please?’ And I go home, take a sleeping pill and, for once, not even the neighbours upstairs can stop me falling asleep.
It’s the same story every year on 23rd December. ‘I’m feeling exhausted, Cesca. I shan’t come in tomorrow.’ And every Christmas Eve I do the same running around, the same searching, the same wandering around the shops and department stores clutching a list of all the employees’ names. It’s one of the firm’s traditions. A childish ritual that starts with Cesca pretending to be worried about me supposedly not feeling very well and the wink I can imagine at the other end of the telephone line, then the “what will I get this year?” that I detect from everyone I come across as I leave my office, put on my coat and let the concierge open the door for me. On 27th December they will all find a gift on their desk. Something personal, that hits the spot, an inspired choice that was all down to me, but everyone without exception will thank Eduardo for it, as if they knew that he’s the one who always takes the most delight in this childish game, even though, like now, he happens to be thousands of kilometres away and, as usual, doesn’t have a clue about what they like, what they might need or what they might be interested in. I remember Cesca’s spectacles. She’s always losing them and they turn up hidden in some corner or in the most unlikely places, and I buy her a silver chain. After her, there’s the caretaker, the concierge, the cleaning lady, the messenger boy, the personnel manager, the new secretaries. I suddenly realise that I scarcely know anything about the secretaries, having focussed on just one of them. And I think about Dina. I wonder if perhaps she deserves a bigger present. Something extra to apologise for unfairly taking advantage of her, bullying her, bossing her around.
But wouldn’t that make her even more confused? I decide that all five girls in the office have very similar jobs and all of them will receive a similar gift. I go into department stores, perfumeries, record shops. I’ve got all the cards in my bag, signed by Eduardo and with the employees’ names already written out. That way I can put them together with the presents as I go along, so there’s no risk of any mix ups and in two days’ time everyone can show their surprise and admiration and gratitude for Eduardo’s attention to detail, as if it were the first time ever. The same as every year.
It’s bitterly cold on this December afternoon but I’ve always liked cold December afternoons. Despite the time of year and in spite of the shops’ bright lights, the Christmas carols and the profusion of Christmas trees with all their decorations, there aren’t too many people on the streets. So I can amble along and peruse the shop windows quite calmly, in the same good mood as when I woke up this morning. Sleeping pills. That’s the solution. An artificial sleep has let me recover from all those hectic, tiring days. Now I can begin to see things in a different light. Eduardo was expecting too much, leaving me in charge of the office for three weeks. I’m not up to it. I don’t have the right temperament. My nerves were shot. Who knows what blunders I could have made? But I’m happy now. For the first time in days I feel happy and all of a sudden I realise I’m singing along to a Christmas carol that’s being spat out by some loudspeaker in a nearby shop. People must think I’m mad. I burst out laughing. And that’s when, like a recurring nightmare, I see her again.
I’m not scared anymore and I don’t feel tired. I’ve just had enough. I’ve had it up to here. I’m going to follow her, get a good look at her, reassure myself that she’s just a tramp, ask her if she needs any help. Now she’s leaving the well-lit avenue and turning down a dark passageway. I run and almost catch up with her, then I hold back, keeping a safe distance, watching her walk. She’s barefoot, gliding across the cobbles like a cat. Her hair is a tangled mess. Her dress is in tatters. I don’t call her by her name anymore because I don’t know her name. Suddenly she stops dead, as if she were waiting for me. In spite of the dark I realise that we aren’t in a passageway, as I’d thought, it’s a dead end. But it’s too late to turn back now. My inertia has made me bump into her. ‘Excuse me,’ I say. ‘Just a moment, please. Listen.’ And then I’m mystified to find a piece of green silk in my hand, a bit of moth-eaten material that disintegrates between my fingers, and she turns and smiles at me. But it’s not a smile, it’s a grimace. An awful rictus grin. And her breath! I’m enveloped in a fetid stench. I feel sick, my senses cloud over. When I come to I’m alone, leaning against a wall, with the shopping bags scattered across the ground. I’m not surprised to find them still there. I pick them up one by one. Carefully, almost fondly. Now I know who the woman is. And I think of Dina again. Poor Dina Dachs. Shut away in her office, going back to her apartment, walking along the street. Because Dina, wherever she happens to be at the moment, still doesn’t know that she’s been dead for a very long time.
Or maybe I can still stop it. I forget all about the dictates of reason, which have turned out to be useless, and for the first time in my life I listen to a voice that comes from somewhere deep inside myself. Dina, even though she may not have died yet, is dead. The woman in green is the dead Dina. I’ve seen her decomposing, her impossible appearances in busy streets, in three-way mirrors, in dead end streets. I think of mirages on a hot beach. Maybe it hasn’t happened yet but it’s going to happen. And it’s fallen to me, by some inexplicable chance of fate, to bear witness to these strange events. It doesn’t stretch the imagination to conclude that I’m the only one who can do something about it. And I don’t feel frightened. It’s strange, but I don’t feel frightened, just resolute. So I do what I always do on every Christmas Eve. I leave the employees’ presents in the caretaker’s office, I check that none of the cards have come unstuck, remind him of exactly what needs to be done in two days’ time. The caretaker, as ever, tells me not to worry and sends me off, pretending he doesn’t know that one of the parcels is for him, then he locks up his office and goes home. But I don’t go home. I go outside and I walk a short way down the street, but there’s a light on up on the fifth floor and I know who’s there, typing away, sorting out files, working overtime again as a result of my ignorance and confusion. I open the street door with my key and call the lift. When I get to the fifth floor landing I hesitate for a moment. But I don’t ring the bell. All the lights are out except in one office. I go in quietly, cautiously, because the last thing I want to do is give her a shock. So I knock on her office door and wait.
‘Oh, it’s you,’ says Dina. But she’s really thinking, ‘Not you, again.’
Dina has her coat on and there are piles of papers, letters and files on her desk. ‘I was just about to leave,’ she adds. She opens her handbag and puts in a couple of letters, snaps it shut and then, since I haven’t moved away from the doorway, she says, ‘I needn’t remind you it’s Christmas Eve.’
I draw on all my strength and ask her to stay on for a moment. To sit down. To allow me a few minutes to tell her something. Dina obeys me resentfully. With a sigh of annoyance, weariness, disgust. She drums her fingers on the desk top.
‘I’m meeting friends on the other side of town in fifteen minutes. Please be quick.’
I’m not put out by her arrogance. Nothing that poor Dina does or says could upset me now. But I can’t find the words. How can I explain that it’s not worth rushing? How can I make her understand that, sometimes, time doesn’t follow the usual rules? Maybe it’s all an illusion. We see things as we’ve been taught to see them. Her desk, for example. Can we be sure that it’s a desk with four legs and a desk top? Who can be sure that in fifteen minutes’ time she’ll be on the other side of town? A quarter of an hour. It’s just a convention, isn’t it? A way of measuring, pigeon-holing, tying down or controlling things that are beyond us, things we don’t understand. An artifice to reassure us, so we don’t ask too many questions.
‘I’d appreciate it,’ she says, noticeably irritated, ‘if you would try to be more specific.’
But I can’t. I tell her that I’ve just seen her in the street. ‘Again?’ she says, with a sarcastic sneer. ‘Don’t you think you’re becoming totally obsessed?’ Any moment now she’s going to explode, force me to leave the office, threaten to call the police. That’s why I need to be quick. Yes, I saw her. Today and yesterday too, and the other day in the restaurant, and that first time in the busy street. At first I thought that she had something against me, was following me, searching me out. Later, I thought that it wasn’t her, but someone who looked strikingly like her.
Dina looks at me. She’s running out of patience. I insist that she stays a little while longer. I take off a glove and put it back on. I’m lost for words again. I don’t know how to tell her. I don’t how to let her know that the process is irreversible. That less than an hour ago, in the dead end alleyway, I saw the grimace of death on her mouth with no lips, her fetid stench, her decomposing flesh. All I can manage is to stutter out, ‘Be very careful, please. Maybe we can still stop it. Or delay it, delay it for as long as possible.’
Dina has got to her feet.
‘I’m sorry. Everything you’ve just told me is very interesting. But I have to go. Maybe you don’t have any plans for tonight, but I do.’
Dina hates me. She loathes me or thinks I’m mad. All I can do is let things run their course. I get up too, convinced that any explanation, any warning, is pointless. I feel small, insignificant but at the same time presumptuous and arrogant. I wanted to change the pages of destiny, but this poor girl’s destiny has already been written.
‘Why are you looking at me like that, if you don’t mind me asking?’
Dina’s indignant, standing in front of me, with her handbag over her shoulder and the office keys jangling in her hand. Maybe I’ve made a mistake. But when she slung her handbag over her shoulder so brusquely, her coat gaped open for a second or two and I caught sight of something that for all the world I would rather not have seen.
‘You’re wearing a green dress. A green silk dress.’ Dina Dachs’ eyes are spitting fire. ‘For the record, your position in the firm doesn’t give you the right to…’
I’ve no idea what she’s saying anymore. There’s something in her voice, in her tone, that defies any response.
‘And you can stop spying on me, following me around all the time. You give me the creeps. Don’t think I haven’t noticed.’
Now her words are coming out in a torrent, compulsively.
‘Whatever it is you want from me you’re not going to get it. And if you’re interested in my clothes, well here you are. A green silk dress. Brand new. I hope you like it.’
Dina has taken off her coat, brusquely. Now she looks like the same woman I’ve been seeing again and again over the past few days. There’s only one detail missing: a small accessory that she must have hidden away somewhere. I can picture her in the lift, putting on the necklace in front of the mirror. Or in the taxi. Or the bathroom in the office.
‘Your handbag,’ I say, ‘let me look in your handbag.’
Now, for the first time, she seems frightened. I try to do the impossible: persuade her that she shouldn’t go out into the street dressed like that. That everything I’m doing is for her own good. But words are not enough. Now, more than ever, I know they’re not enough. I don’t know whether I’m going mad or obeying the voice of destiny. Because I grab her and shake her. And she fights back. She clings to her handbag and fights back and tries to open a penknife. She’s frightened and won’t listen to reason. So now, resolute, I have no choice but to stop her, to reveal the awful truth, to shout at her, ‘You’re dead. Do you still not get it? You’re dead!’ But Dina’s not fighting back anymore. Her eyes are staring at me wide with shock and her body slips from my grasp down to the floor, powerless, terrified. There’s no time to waste and I snatch her handbag. I search desperately for a case or a box containing the necklace; maybe without the necklace none of what’s been predicted will come to pass. All I find are sheets of paper. Sheets of paper that are of no interest to me, that I ignore, throw away. Sheets of paper the exact contents of which I’ll discover in two days’ time, together with everyone else in the office.
And then Cesca will shake her head sadly. And I’ll hear rumours, footsteps, I’ll feel cold. The electricity bill, a note pad, a letter… Dear Eduardo… words that I remember well because they’re Dina’s. She’s always spying on me, following me around all the time. She gives me the creeps… And others I recognise even more clearly because they’re mine, even though the letter is signed Dina Dachs and I myself have not yet dared to write them down on paper. I think about Trastevere. Our apartment in Trastevere, counting the days until we meet in Rome… Memories that I don’t remember. I shall never forget our first night, in the hotel on the seafront… Absurd, ridiculous, obscene sentences. Promises of love intermingled with the sound of footsteps, keys, doors opening and closing, the neighbours in the apartment upstairs moving furniture, a man in a white coat telling me, ‘You’re exhausted. Relax.’ And, above all, Cesca. Cesca looking at me, full of compassion.
But that won’t happen for another two days. Right now I’m kneeling down, determined to prevent the inevitable, holding the empty handbag, surrounded by sheets of paper that I’ve not the slightest interest in reading, that I sweep aside angrily with my hand. I remember, ‘In fifteen minutes’ time, on the other side of town.’ And then a light comes on. It’s as if she were there, at a party, a gathering, at midnight and people are exchanging presents. But Dina will never receive the fateful gift. I’ve managed to frighten her, warn her. ‘I’ve stopped it happening,’ I say. I look at my hands. Still in their gloves. Still shaky, still possessed by a strength that I never knew I had. And then I look at Dina, on the floor, with her eyes still bulging in terror, in shock, at what she must have thought was the vision of a madwoman. But Dina doesn’t move. She’s wearing a green dress. Green dress, green shoes . . . And only now, as I get up slowly, do I notice the bruising around her throat and I understand the cold truth that nothing is missing. ‘It’s too soon yet,’ I say out loud, even though no one can hear me. ‘But by tomorrow, or the day after, it will have become a violet necklace.’
I was in the process of completing some research on the progress of democratization in Tunisia under the threat of terrorism when a message notification popped up. The message read: “I would like to connect with you in a civilized way, yes civilized, like drinking coffee together, if you know what I mean. A cup of coffee with you would mean the world to me. Sugar cubes touched by you would turn my cup into the Sea of Marmara, which shimmers more brightly since you inscribed your name in its sands. If only you knew that you have the enchantment of the orient in you. O women of the sea of Carthage, the font has run dry and the company of friends has parted.”
I pulled my earpieces out and reread the message, which was dripping with desire. Calling upon what skills I had in Arabic, I returned to Shahrazad’s tales of oriental men, and also recalled my grandmother’s advice and all the ploys and schemes of women, to make my response commensurate with his words.
I tapped away at the keyboard and started composing my reply. But I held off. I had no great longing to drink a cup of coffee with him. Stories about Marmara seas did not tempt me, and I cared little for such romantic notions on the lines of Nizar Qabbani. My sights were set on the vineyard of his bronzed chest, which I would make a cozy bed for the approaching autumn nights that would coincide with his return from Turkey. I wanted a great deal from the lips topped with a light moustache. Yes, I wanted to exhale sighs of love over him. Using the mouse, I moved the cursor over his image to outline in my imagination the taste of his kisses.
I got up from my desk, made a mug of coffee, and with a sigh of relief lit a cigarette to take a break and to show that handsome man sitting at the other end of the Mediterranean some indifference. I knew that was a classic strategy for dealing with men, but I found it useful in cases like this one.
I finished the democracy and terrorism report and left the office for my small apartment. I opened the door, kicked out the neighbour’s stupid cat that, to my annoyance, came in whenever I was out and sat down to make a routine call to my mother, who had been living for a while in Gulf with my big sister. I gave her my daily newscast, full of lies, and which I began by telling her that I had cooked food at home and ended by telling her that I had become a serious woman of thirty-one no longer interested in one-night stands. That always reassured her, plus I said amen to her invocations for me. Then I turned on my computer and took a bite of the sandwich I had bought from the shop at the end of the street.
Messenger pinged. Another message from him: “I hope my words did not offend you. I’m dreaming of that cup of coffee with you.”
I cried out aloud, “Allah, Allah, a gift from God!” I reeled off my reply: “Not at all. I’m honoured to be of interest to a writer of your standing. I’m grateful for your good taste.”
He replied: “No my dear, you deserve better than that. The honour is all mine to engage in dialogue with a woman of your standing.”
I kept the dialogue going, a chorus line of nymphs urging me on. I was amazed by his refinement and his words that went no further than that cup of coffee, the articles he published in the cultural press, and his admiration for my research on democratization in Tunisia. His discourse slipped between the personal and the public, and I went along with everything he said and refrained from comment. I considered inviting him to turn on video so he could see me in my sheer white one-piece and I could pretend to be all coy with him. But he didn’t fall into that trap. He lived and breathed in the medium of language.
Despite his handsome looks, albeit tainted by a rampant look in his eyes, he did not seem very interested in women. I remembered that I had deliberately sat in the Mondial Café with a copy of a magazine that he had an article in, so that I could go and discuss what he had written on literature and revolution. I intended to make it seem that at the Democracy Institute, where I worked, we were aiming to support writers interested in literature and publish free thinking.
My trick worked on him, and he started explaining his creative project. He mentioned the reasons why he had published his recent books, but I don’t remember anything he said because at the time I was in a trance from the scent of his sensuous Parisian perfume. I barely managed to stop my left hand from playing with his soft white hair. I ended the encounter after taking down all his details, even his marital status, parentage, and hobbies. If time had not been so short – he had to leave for a meeting with the director of a publishers – I would have learned what his favourite food was and the size of his underwear.
Since that encounter, I began planning to make him fall for me. That was no easy matter, especially with a respectable man like him who loved reading books and listening to music, and didn’t like drinking alcohol. He didn’t go out to the capital’s bars with his writer and journalist colleagues, a fact that tired me out when I wanted to find out his news.
Nobody knew much about his personal life, but it was stressed that he was a respectable man. That usage of respectable did not make me too happy, because I know the standards of respectability for my society. It’s said with reference to a guy who’s no good at kissing girls and a man who’s never tasted the wine of this country.
He was the writer Mohammed Aziz, a man with an aristocratic heritage, refined, and elegant, and well known in cultural circles for his calm temperament and politeness, his love of reading books and refusal to join in drinking sessions, and his signing himself: A man exhausted by his Arabism. Although he was in his forties, Aziz had no little respect for those younger than him. He had been involved with a Palestinian poet. Then, after the last Gaza Intifada, they broke up. Since her, his heart had not skipped a beat for any woman.
My heart, on the other hand, was like a public housing project, expansive enough for all the men around, provided they were handsome and butch, irrespective of their nationality and affiliations. I was an internationalist when it came to passion. A defender of pluralism when it came to love as much as I defended it when it came to the Tunisian political scene.
The absence of his Palestinian girlfriend made him very sad and very supportive of her cause. We’ve forgotten about Palestine since the outbreak of the Arab Spring revolutions, possibly because we saw victory in our own sons: in Bouazizi we saw Muhammad Durra, Samir Kuntar, and all those heroes from the Arab east whom we loved. Despite that, Mohammed Aziz carried on wearing his kufiyah, ever faithful to Hanzala.
I wrote to him: “ ‘Because I love violently and expect to be loved violently back, today I am going to kill you with love.’ I dedicate Jaafar Majed’s poem The Enchantress to you.”
He replied with the speed of someone in wait for a woman’s yearning: “I fear the enchantment of Carthaginian sirens. Go easy on my heart, you naughty girl.”
I laughed, but wrote, with real yearning: “May God strengthen the heart present before me like the rhythm of prayers being chanted. Yours truly.”
I finished my literary phrases, inspired by someone’s blog post, shut down my computer, and slept. Yes, I slept and dreamed of a shameless prince charming, cynical even about my swooning and getting lost in his eyes.
I woke up a little worn out from my late night of chat and verbal hide-and-seek with Mohammed Aziz. I sat in the L’Univers Café to drink coffee and smoke a cigarette. I invited one of my nation’s miserable poets over to drink coffee and smoke a few cigarettes with me to elicit whatever information I could about Mohammed Aziz, who seemed to have got inside my head. I tried to speak about him and his excessive commitment to Arab causes, in spite of the terrible things happening in our own country. The poet gave a shrug and said, “You don’t know that Mohammed Aziz studied in Damascus and was a militant with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. It’s rumoured that he was in the armed wing and had a relationship with a PFLP poet.”
I exhaled the cigarette smoke. Talk about resistance and militant female comrades was well known to me. All left-wing Tunisians who studied in Damascus or Beirut or Iraq would come back to us as heroes and authorities on leftist, Islamic, pan-Arab, nationalist, and even separatist thought. A few words in an eastern dialect and praise for the taste of arrack, made someone the centre of attention. Mohammed Aziz was one of that sort: Tunisians who had lived under eastern skies, those who claimed a lineage from the tribes of Adnan and Taghlib, and whose grandfathers were of Ottoman descent and whose mothers were from Saguia el-Hamra.
Having his eastern leanings confirmed inspired a certain patriotic feeling in me, along with a tinge of possessiveness towards the men of this country, whom on my blog I normally described in the vilest terms and mostly accused of being effete and lacking real manhood. But now I felt a burning sense of injustice when I saw Mohammed Aziz publishing love poems to the women of Syria and the women of Iraq, while overlooking the women of Carthage, Numidia, and the alleyways of the old city like me.
I spent the whole day thinking of strategies and techniques to make him fall for me. It had become an issue of national pride for me, almost chauvinist. I made a bet with myself: either I made him fall for me or I wasn’t the high priestess of the Majiri tribe.
I thought about waiting for his return the following week and tricking him by inviting him to a kofta place for some renowned Tunisian food with the taste of the alleyways of the old city. But the fire burning inside me since the day at the café did not allow me to make the arrangements for dinner. I had to rush to his Facebook page to find he had written what mattered to me: “I’m thinking how will I deal with the treasures of my beloved?”
I pressed the chat button and wrote without any Arabic allusions: “Kiss them and mourn in her arms. The heavens will be grateful for your effort.”
He answered in a flash: “I had no idea you had such a dangerous poetic sensibility.”
“Your presence is more dangerous, Mr Mohammed Aziz,” I replied.
“More dangerous for whom?”
“More dangerous for the women of this country. More dangerous for the women of Tunisia who weep when their prince charmings leave for the east. Don’t you know that the women of Tunisia bear the wombs and clay of this land?”
He stopped chatting. Perhaps my last sentence was like a random bombardment of his soul. I had gone way too far to start brushing the dust off the memories of that Palestinian woman who still lingered in his almond-shaped eyes and attractive chest. God, please let me sleep in his arms in the cold winter of Tunisia. I slept with my computer on, so that I might wake to a love letter from him. But to my disappointment, he said nothing, but posted on Facebook things that crushed me: “When one of my female friends wrote to me, ‘Don’t you know that the women of Tunisia bear the wombs and clay of this land?’ I understood why the poet Kamel Bouajila said ‘Tunisian women are beautiful in word and deed. They are Tunisia’s refuge when she yearns. God bless the daughters of the priestess.’”
Comments from his friends about his praise for the women of Tunisia multiplied in the dialects of Syria, Lebanon, Morocco, Algeria, and Egypt. I devoured what was written and smiled. I put on the song, Barsha, Barsha, ya mudallal, 1 and danced until my body ran with sweat. I went into the bathroom to put a stop to the dancing with warm water. It was an invigorating day. I started it by giving an amorous smile to the director of the centre, whose name I can’t endure saying and whose hateful screwed-up face I can’t endure seeing when he asks me to produce a report or set up a workshop on the constitution and human rights. Workshops, seminars, and reports that I write to satisfy our followers and in line with the inclinations of funders. I write like waiters at a café: presenting what’s ordered.
The skills in flattery I had acquired through my work with civil society organizations made me a dab hand when it came to dealing with men, particularly those special cases like Mohammed Aziz. It was enough to lend an attentive ear and show plenty of interest for you to win his affection and trust. I suspect that the world is well aware that in our countries, we don’t want to listen but desire only to talk.
A week went by, during which Mohammed Aziz told me the date and time of his return to Tunisia and asked me to meet him at the Carthage Airport café, shortly after his arrival. I said yes. The generosity of my spirit correlates with the good looks of the man arriving, and our writer dripped machismo from the palms of his hands to the soles of his feet, which were dressed in a classic black shoe of Italian crafting.
I sat in the airport café and ordered a black coffee without sugar. I lit my second cigarette and suddenly felt a tap on my shoulder as a sign to turn round. Another hand, drenched in perfume, embraced me. He kissed my cheek and I pretended to be taken by surprise, leaping from my seat to hide how I had melted at his embrace. I started chatting and asking questions about his trip as a means to distract my bold tongue from inviting him back to my place.
He talked about his trip, the books he had bought in Turkey, and his Syrian comrade whom he had met in secret, away from Erdogan’s spies. He also mentioned Syrian women’s resistance to Daesh, and I thought, “God granted us a respite from Palestinian women, so he sets his sights on Syrians. Will I have to wait for a war to break out in Tunisia to make him satisfied? My God, what’s it about?”
We finished our coffees and he invited me for dinner at a Damascene restaurant that had recently opened in El Manar. I made my acceptance conditional on changing the restaurant for one in the old Medina of Tunis. I got what I wanted.
We met at the walls of the Medina to make our way to the restaurant which was lost in alleyways lit by dim streetlights. I took his left arm and started singing Tunisian melodies full of suggestion and flirtation. He commented on my voice, which he liked, and I continued singing while giving explanations of the lyrics, none of which he understood.
We arrived at the restaurant and he expressed his approval of the place. Then he expatiated in praise of my extensive knowledge of Tunisian women’s songs, as if he were discovering them like a tourist exploring a foreign country. I steered the conversation towards the history of resistance on the part of Tunisian women, the stories of el-falaqa 2, Mount Bargou 3, Kheil Salim 4, and the sabayhia 5, and accounts of women who took up arms. He commented by referring to the Free Officers revolution and Ahmed Orabi. He certainly knew the history of Gamal Abdel Nasser in detail, while quite lacking knowledge of el-Daghbaji 6. He couldn’t even understand a rural Tunisian accent, and I had to explain to him the meaning of poems and names, even the name of my tribe with its ancient Amazigh roots, as old as the oleanders and the flow of the Medjerda River.
“You’re drowning in being Tunisian.”
“No, you’re the orientalist who lost his bearings and became so enmeshed in the east that you don’t even understand our Tunisian dialect, let alone my mountain tongue.”
My answer didn’t go down well and the tenor of his conversation changed. I, however, redirected the conversation when I spotted Hamouda el-Naknouk 7, the Tunisian guitarist, sitting behind Mohammed Aziz. Even though I hated him because he acted like a prostitute, I was obliged to mention his name to stop the atmosphere from becoming any more fraught. “Aziz, have you seen who’s sitting behind you? It’s Hamouda. He’s just re-recorded My Heart is Set on an Arab Little Girl.
A spectrum of happiness danced in his eyes and he got up to say hello to the effete Hamouda, leaving me alone at the table. Hamouda leaped from his seat straight into Mohammed Aziz’s arms and showered him with kisses. He rested his head on my prince charming’s shoulder to inhale his perfume. Then I saw him invite him to join him and his friends. At that point, Mohammed Aziz gave me a sign to join them. I grabbed my bag and headed over before the anger rose in me.
“I’m sorry, I’m feeling tired and would like to go home.”
Mohammed Aziz replied, “No worries. I’ll take you back home with Hamouda.”
“Are you intending to continue your evening with him?” I retorted.
No one answered me, and I don’t think my oriental prince charming heard the question in the first place. I left the restaurant and walked defeated behind Hamouda el-Naknouk, who had tucked Mohammed Aziz’s arm under his.
She’s getting naked. Something either very bad or very good is happening. Happening to me. Whatever it is, my parents can’t find out. I’m at a friend’s house. Nothing strange there. But my new friend, half gringa, half local, is taking off her uniform, her sports bra, her thong, her shoes. She leaves on her socks, short ones, with a little pink ball at the heel. She’s naked, her back to me, staring at her closet.
It’s awkward and dazzling. Painful. My head down like an ashamed dog, an ugly, short-legged dog, I try to look the same as I did a moment before, when we were both dressed, when that image, the one of her body, hadn’t exploded like a thousand fireworks in my brain. Diana Ward-Espinoza. Sixteen years old. A meter eighty tall. Star player on the volleyball team at her school in the United States. Radioactive green cat eyes. The bright white smile of the people from up there.
Diana, pronounced Dayana in gringo, talks and talks, always, nonstop, mixing English and Spanish or making up a third language, very funny, making me squeal with laughter. With her, I laugh as if there were nothing wrong at my house, as if my dad loved me like a dad. I laugh as if I weren’t me, but a girl who sleeps peacefully. I laugh as if brutality didn’t exist.
She repeats the words the teachers say like tongue twisters and never gets them right. Maybe it’s because of this, because they think she’s dumb, or because she lives in a little apartment and not in a majestic house, or because her mom is the English teacher at the school and so she doesn’t pay tuition or because she jogs through the neighborhood in tiny shorts, blue with a white line that makes a V on her thighs. Because of all that, or for some other obscure hierarchical logic of the popular girls, no groups have accepted her. She’s blonde, white, she has green eyes, her tiny nose is dotted with golden freckles, but no group has accepted her.
They haven’t accepted me either, but with me, it’s the same as always: fat, dark, glasses, hairy, ugly, strange.
One day our last names are paired up in computer class. One right next to the other. That’s everything. I learn that BFF means Best Friends Forever.
Then we’re best friends forever. Then she invites me to her house to study. Then I tell my mom I’m going to spend the night at Diana’s. Then we’re in her tiny room and she’s naked. She turns around to cover her cream-colored body with a denim dress. She turns on music. She dances. Behind her, the gigantic American flag on her wall.
Covered in a fine white fuzz, her skin has the appearance, the delicacy, of a peach. She talks about boys, she likes my brother, about the exam we have the next day, philosophy, about the teacher, he’s funny, but what the fuck is being? About how she’s never going to understand things like I do, about how I’m the smartest person she’s ever met and about how she, okay, let’s be honest, she’s good at sports.
She stops in front of the mirror, less than a meter away from me, on her bed, pretending to be absorbed in the philosophy textbook. If I wanted to, and I do, I could reach out my index finger and touch her hipbones, sliding down to where her pubic hair starts, I’ve never seen golden pubes, and find out if what glimmers there is wetness.
She ties up her ringlets, like Mary had a little lamb, she paints her lips with a gloss that smells like bubble gum and she criticizes her hair, her ears, a pimple I say I can’t see. But I can’t look at her and she notices and she complains: you’re not even looking at me, stop studying, you already understand what being is.
She grabs my chin and raises my head to make me look at her. I smell the bubble gum on her lips. I hear my heart beating. I stop breathing.
“See this pimple? Here? Do you see it?”
My tongue is stuck to the roof of my mouth. I swallow sand. I nod.
We have lunch with her brother Mitch, her twin, who is so handsome that my jaw falls open when I have to talk to him. He’s had football practice. He takes off his sweaty shirt and doesn’t put on a new one. We eat alone, like a family of three. Diana sets the table, I pour the Coca-Cola, and Mitch mixes the pasta with sauce and heats it in a pot.
I suppose that their parents, both of them, are working. I know that Miss Diana, her mom, my English teacher, has another job in the afternoon at a language school. I don’t know anything about the dad. I don’t ask. I never ask about dads. They tell me that Miss Diana leaves food for them in the morning, that she isn’t a good cook. It’s horrible. We cover our plates in Kraft parmesan cheese and we laugh hysterically.
Mitch has an exam too, but he doesn’t want to study. In the dining room, which is also the living room, there are photos on the walls. Mitch and Diana, little, dressed as sunflowers. Miss Diana, thin and young, in front of a house with a mailbox. A black dog, Kiddo, next to a baby, Mitch. The kids at Christmas, surrounded by presents. Miss Diana pregnant. Diana, in white, at her First Communion.
There’s something sad in these photos, it’s in the lighting, typical of gringo photos from the seventies: maybe too many pastel colors, maybe the distance, maybe everything that isn’t pictured. I feel a sadness that doesn’t belong to me. Mine is there, but this is a different one. This life—the sunflower children, the beautiful baby beside the black dog, everything that looks so perfect—isn’t going to turn out so well. No. Despite their blond heads, their athletic bodies, their pink cheeks and their bright eyes, it’s not going to turn out so well.
There’s something desperate, somber, about Diana, about Mitch, about me, about this little apartment where three teenagers are sitting on the floor listening to music.
We play records: The Mamas & The Papas, The Doors, Fleetwood Mac, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, The Moody Blues, Van Morrison, Joan Baez.
Diana tells me how her parents went to Woodstock and she pulls out a photo album where, finally, there’s a picture of her father. Mr. Mitchell Ward: red mustache, long hair tied with a headband. Ultra gringo, as big and beautiful as his kids, looking at a girl, Miss Diana, almost unrecognizable so smiling, so natural.
Then, behind that page, there’s another photo that makes us all go silent: the dad, dressed as a soldier: Lieutenant Mitchell Ward.
He went to Vietnam.
The two of them, Diana and Mitch, say the words at the same time, like a single person with a voice that is both masculine and feminine.
He went to Vietnam.
He went to Nam.
The shadow reemerges, that suffocating lack of light, a silence like an angry sea. The three of us hug our knees and look at the record player. The Doors play, we like them. We sing a little and Diana translates: People are strange when you’re a stranger / faces are ugly when you’re alone. Mitch puts on Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks and during the song “Madame George” I lie down across Diana’s legs. Mitch rests his head on my stomach. We play with each other’s hair.
No one studies that afternoon. We listen to Mr. Mitchell Ward’s music, we take turns changing the records and putting them carefully back into their plastic sleeves, into their album covers and into their spots on the shelf. The movement is slow and sacramental. I imagine that the kids hadn’t been able to say goodbye to their father and that this, lying on the floor and listening to his beloved records, is the prettiest goodbye in the world. And I’m part of it and my heart bursts.
When “Mr. Tambourine Man” comes on Diana cries. I feel for her hand and I kiss it with a love so intense that I feel like it’s going to kill me. She bends down, she rocks me, she finds my mouth and just like that, listening to Bob Dylan, and through tears, I give, I am given, my first kiss.
Mitch watches us. He sits up, he leans over, he kisses me and he kisses his sister. The three of us kiss desperately, like orphans, like castaways. Hungry puppies licking up the last drops of milk in the universe. The harmonica plays Hey Mr. Tambourine Man play a song for me. We sit in the twilight. This is happening. There’s nothing more important in the world.
We are the world.
We’re almost naked when, from the other side of the door, Miss Diana rummages in her purse, looks for her key, rings the bell, calls to her kids in English.
Diana and I run to her room. Mitch goes into the bathroom. We’ve grabbed all our clothes, but the record is still playing. Miss Diana, brutally, removes the needle and the apartment goes silent. When she opens the bedroom door, Diana and I are pretending to study. Mitch comes out of the bathroom, wrapped in a towel, with his hair wet. No one admits to having put the record on. Their father’s record. The records of Lieutenant Ward, who was in Nam.
Shouting in English. Miss Diana is very red and looks like she’s about to cry or to burst into a thousand pieces. I hear words I don’t understand and others that I do know the meaning of, words like fucking and fuck and records and father. The kids deny everything and she walks over to Diana. Her hand is open, she’s about to hit her, and I, desperate with love, shout for Miss to stop, that it was me, I put the record on. She doesn’t know what to do or say. Her hand is frozen in the air like the Statue of Liberty without a torch and she remembers that she’s my teacher and that I’ve seen her do something she shouldn’t have done, something that stays within the walls of houses, something parents do to their kids when no one is looking.
She leaves without a word.
Diana looks at me. I look at her. I want to hug her, to kiss her, to take her away from there.
She pulls back her hair and says:
“We’d better start studying for philosophy.”
We stay up all night studying or pretending to study. She, who doesn’t understand any of it, falls asleep in the early morning and I, in the dim light, study her. She looks like Ophelia, from the painting, and also like She-Ra, He-Man’s sister. I pull off the covers to look at her whole body: I wish I were so tiny I could crawl through her half-open lips and live inside her forever. Even the chipped nail polish on her toenails moves me, it excites me, it captivates me. I’d kiss her every pore.
I’m no longer me.
I fall asleep. I dream that Diana is being chased by some black dogs, that she asks me for help and I can’t do anything. I hear screams, a man’s screams. Even with my eyes open I still hear them. I want to get up, but Diana hugs me tightly and whispers: It’s okay. It’s okay.
Daylight arrives with its sounds. Clinking dishes, cleaning up, and, finally, the door slamming behind the mother. Diana gets dressed without showing me her body, but as I’m putting on my uniform she turns around, lowers the zipper a little, and writes on my back with the tip of her finger then zips me back up. She smiles. I wear an I love you on my back.
I tell Diana that I have to go to the bathroom. She tells me that I’ll have to wait to go at school. That’s impossible. I got my period in the night, I need to pee, my stomach is upset. I can’t wait.
I have to go.
The apartment has two bathrooms. One, for guests, is in the living room, and the other is through the master bedroom, behind the door that’s always closed. Mitch is in the front bathroom and Diana says that her brother takes a long time and I’m too embarrassed to ask him to hurry up. I can’t do it, much less after yesterday, I can still feel Mitch Ward’s lips on my loser neck and my loser belly. I’d rip off my hand before I knocked on that door.
But I can’t wait any longer, I’m cold, I break out in a cold sweat, I have goosebumps. My legs feel weak.
I have to go.
Diana insists: I should go at school, that I can’t use her parents’ bathroom, that even she isn’t allowed in there, but I know I won’t make it, that I’ll shit my pants on the way to school and the uniform is white and I’ll die.
It’s urgent. I can’t wait any more. I’m not well.
I have to go.
She pulls me out of the house. Let’s go, there are bathrooms at school, we’ll be there in just a minute. My forehead is drenched in sweat. It’s about to happen, I’m going to shit myself. I tell her that I forgot my book and I go back into the house. I press my legs together, god, help me. The only thing I can think about is getting to a bathroom to keep from shitting myself, so that Diana and Mitch won’t see me stained with my own excrement. I have to get to a bathroom or I’ll die. If I shit myself I’ll never love or be loved again.
I open the door to the master bedroom. Inside it looks like an aquarium filled with thick water, embalming fluid. Threads of dust float in the air and there’s a smell that’s stifling, itchy. Sour and sweet and rotten, tear gas, a thousand cigarettes, urine, lemons, bleach, raw meat, milk, hydrogen peroxide, blood. A smell that does not come from an empty room, from a master bedroom.
I’m about to soil my underwear, this is the only thing that gives me courage, the only reason I take another step into that smell that’s now like a living creature violently slapping me. Another step. Another. Now I’m feeling nauseated, now it smells like when there’s a dead animal on the side of the road, but I’m already tangled in the guts of that animal, inside it.
I’m dizzy. I grab onto something and that something is a table and that table has a lamp on it which falls and breaks to pieces on the floor. Then, springing up from the bed, with the speed and force of a wave, a lump knocks me to the ground. I can’t see. The light is weak, sickly. I don’t know what’s on top of me. Some shapeless, terrifying thing has fallen on top of me. It’s on my chest and I can’t move. I try to scream but no sound comes out.
It has a head, it’s a monster. Its face, with angry yellow teeth, is stuck to mine. It smells like carrion. It mutters things I don’t understand, makes animal noises, grunts, snorts, it drools on me. It paws at my neck and squeezes and I see in those red eyes that it’s going to kill me, that it hates me and I’m going to die. I’m going to die.
Please, I say inside my head, please.
Then Diana comes to the door, Diana She-Ra, He-Man’s sister, my savior, comes to the door and shouts something I can’t understand and the beast that’s strangling me raises its head toward her and lets go of me.
I start to scream, I vomit, I piss myself and empty my bowels, there, on the carpet.
The light that comes in through the open door lets me see what was on top of me, killing me. Lying on the floor, it looks like a panting pillow.
She approaches it. She doesn’t even look at me. She picks him up and I see stumps waving just below his thighs and under his left elbow. Diana tucks him in bed like some atrocious child, who in reality is an emaciated, bald man, with bulging eyes and waxy skin. His right arm, the veins of his right arm, are covered in scabs and red wounds. She rocks him and comforts him and kisses his forehead, as he cries and they both repeat over and over I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.
I stand up as best I can. Mitch is in the door, looking at me hatefully. I go out into the living room, I dial the number to my house. My dad answers. I hang up the phone.
I walk to my grandma’s house. There, I lie, I tell her I’m sick, that I couldn’t hold it, that I shit my pants at school. Yes, that’s what happened. As I shower, I cry so hard my chest hurts.
Philosophy is the last exam of our last year of high school. My mom writes an excuse for my absence so I can retake the test another day. I get the highest score. I find out that Diana won’t be graduating with us, she didn’t show up for the exam. They say she’s going back to the United States.
I call her. She doesn’t answer my calls.
I wait by the telephone. She doesn’t call.
I never hear anything else about her. Until recently. I open my Facebook page and find a message from a former high school classmate:
“Hello, I’m sorry to give you this news, but, did you know that Diana Ward was killed in an attack in Afghanistan? She and her wife were in the U.S. Army. I wanted to let you know because I remember that you were good friends. How sad, isn’t it?”
I was away from my children for a while. They’d gone to the seaside with my sister and my mother, I stayed in the city, my mother was angry at me because I wrote and showed myself nowhere often enough. I’d talk about work appointments, none of which existed. I lived in a small hotel whose caretaker reeked, the smell of her body and her dress had risen violently with the heat. I’d head to the office every day, but I worked very little, I mostly went to the office to pretend I was a man, I was tired of being a woman. Everyone seems to enjoy entertaining for a while a role that isn’t theirs, the role I played was that of a man, I’d sit at the filthy office table and eat at an osteria, lazily hang out on the streets and in cafés with friends, come home late at night. I’d surprise myself thinking how different my life had once been, when I cradled my children and I cooked and I washed, how there’s always so many ways to live, and each of us can make a new being of ourselves, at times even enemies of each other. Then I got bored of that new role I was playing too, I’d be living the same life without any of the pleasure in it. But I wouldn’t go to my mother’s, at the seaside, I wanted to be away from the kids, be alone: I thought I couldn’t show myself to them as I was at that moment, with that loathing in my heart, I felt like I’d loathe them too if I ended up seeing them. I often thought it was like elephants and how they hide away to die. They hide to die, they spend a long time in the jungle looking for a secluded spot, full of trees, to hide the shame of their big, tired body dying. It was summer, summer was hot, blazing in the big city, and whenever I cycled on the tarmac under the trees, my heart was choked by a feeling of loathing and love towards every road, every house of that city, and several memories were born of different natures, burning like the sun, as I fled, ringing my bell. Giovanna was waiting for me in a café: when I left the office, in the evening, and I’d sit next to her at the table, I’d show her my mother’s letters. She knew I wanted to die, that’s why we no longer had that much more to say to each other, but we still sat one opposite the other, smoking, blowing away the smoke through closed lips. I wanted to die because of a man, but also because of so many other things, because I owed my mother money, and because the caretaker stank, and because summer was hot, blazing, in the city full of memories and roads, and because I thought that I could be of no use to anyone, in that state.
So my children – just as they had lost their father one day – would also lose their mother but it didn’t matter, because the loathing and shame assault us at a certain moment in life, and no one has the power to help us when they do. It was a Sunday afternoon, I’d bought some sleeping pills from a pharmacy. I walked all day in the empty city, thinking about me and my children. Bit by bit I was losing awareness of their young age, the timbre of their young voices had died in me; I told them everything, about the pills and the elephants, of the caretaker and what they should do when they grew up, how to defend themselves from what would happen. But then I suddenly saw them as I had last seen them, on the floor, playing with bowling pins. And the echo of those thoughts and words resounded in the silence, I was stunned by seeing how alone I was, alone and free in the empty city, with the power to harm myself as much as I desired. I went home and took the pills, I dissolved all of their contents in a glass of water, I couldn’t figure out if I wanted to sleep for a very long time or die. The caretaker came the following morning, she found me asleep and after a while went to call for a doctor. I stayed in bed for a week, and Giovanna would come every day and she’d bring me oranges and ice. I’d tell her that those who have a loathing growing in their heart should not be alive, and she’d smoke in silence and watch me, blowing away the smoke through closed lips. Other friends would come too, and everyone gave me a piece of their mind, everyone wanted to teach me what I had to do now. But I’d reply that those who have a loathing growing in their heart should not be alive. Giovanna told me to leave the small hotel and move in with her for a while. She lived alone with a Danish girl who walked around the place barefoot. I didn’t feel like dying now, but I didn’t feel like living either, and I lazily hung out at the office or in the streets, with friends, people who wanted to teach me how to save myself. In the mornings, Giovanna would slip on a prune-coloured towelling robe, brush the hair away from her forehead and wave at me with disdain. In the mornings, the Danish girl would walk barefoot into the bedroom, and start writing all the dreams she’d had the previous night on a typewriter. One night she’d dreamt that she picked up an axe and killed her mother and father. But she really loved her mother and father. They were waiting for her in Copenhagen but she didn’t want to move back, because she said we all need to live away from our roots. She’d read out loud to us her mother’s letters. Giovanna’s mother had died and she had arrived too late to see her die, when she was still alive they had tried to no avail to talk to each other. I’d say that a mother is only needed by children when they’re small, to feed them and cradle them, but then she’s pointless and it’s pointless to talk to her. You can’t even tell her the simplest of things and so what can she do to help? She becomes a burden with that silence that is born out of trying to talk to each other. I’d say that my children no longer needed me, because they no longer needed to be fed and cradled, kids with dirty knees and patches on their shorts, and they weren’t old enough to be able to talk to each other either. But Giovanna would say that there’s only one good way to live, and it’s to get on a train headed to some foreign country, possibly at night. She had everything she needed for a trip at home, she had several thermos holders and many suitcases of all sorts, and even a sick bag for the plane. The Danish girl would tell me to write down my dreams, because our dreams tell us what we’re meant to do, and she’d tell me I should think back to my childhood and talk about it, because the secret of who we are is hidden in our childhood. But my childhood felt so remote and distant, and so remote was the face of my mother, and I was tired of all this thinking about myself, I wanted to look at others and understand what I was like. So I started watching people as I lazily hung out in cafés and on the streets, men and women with their children, maybe some of them had once had that loathing in their heart, then time had passed and they’d forgotten. Maybe someone had waited pointlessly on the corner of a street once, or someone had walked for a whole day in the silence of the dusty city, or someone looked at a dead person’s face and asked them for forgiveness. One day I got a letter from my mother, telling me that the kids had scarlet fever. And so the ancient motherly anxiety paralysed my heart. I took the train and left. Giovanna came with me to the station, and she smelled the smell of trains with desire, brushing the hair away from her forehead with her disdainful smile.
With my forehead stuck to the glass, I watched the city move further away, empty of any evil power by now, cold and harmless as spent embers. The ancient, known motherly anxiety was turmoiling inside me along with the thundering of the train, crushing like a storm the Danish girl, Giovanna, the small hotel’s caretaker, the sleeping pills and the elephants, as I wondered bemusedly to myself how I could’ve been so interested in such trivial things for a whole summer.
There was always, in the square, a curious and ancient rentable stagecoach that no one ever rented. The dozing coachman would shake himself awake at the striking of the hours from the bell tower, then his chin would fall back onto his chest. In the corner, by the faded yellow City Hall building, there was a fountain spurting a trickle of water from a bizarre marble face. Thick, cylindrical hair coiled liked snakes around it, and the bulging eyes, devoid of pupils, returned a dead, blank stare.
For at least the past three centuries, another building stood facing City Hall. It was an old aristocracy mansion once grandiose, now in ruins, undone and run-down. The façade saturated with decorations, turned grey with time, showed the merciless signs of passing time. The flying putti guarding the threshold were corroded and filthy, the marble festoons were losing their flowers and leaves, and the closed portal displayed a selection of mould stains. Yet, the house was lived in; the owners, however, heirs to an illustrious and fallen name, rarely showed themselves. On few occasions, they received the priest or doctor, and once in a few years, family from faraway cities, who always left swiftly.
The inside of the mansion offered a succession of empty rooms into which, during storm-ridden days, rain and dust whirled through the broken windows. There were strips of wallpaper, worn remnants of tapestries peeling off the walls, and on the ceilings sailed, among shining, plump clouds, swans and naked angels, and beautiful women leaning out of flower and fruit garlands. Some of the rooms were frescoed with adventures and tales, inhabited by regal characters riding camels or playing in luxurious gardens among monkeys and falcons.
The house’s two sides overlooked narrow and bare streets, while the third spilled onto a closed garden, a prison with high walls in which laurel and orange trees withered. With no gardener to look after it, nettles had invaded that tight space, and sad, blueish flowered weeds grew out of the walls.
The Marquis’ family, the owners of the building, left most of the rooms uninhabited, and had retreated into a small flat on the second floor, complete with outdated furniture that resounded, in the quiet darkness, with the feeble lament of woodworms. The marquess and marquis, both small and wretched people, showed in their features that sad resemblance that sometimes mimetically takes over after endless years of coexistence. Thin and withered, with pale lips and drooping cheeks, their movements were not too dissimilar from those of puppets. Maybe instead of blood, their veins ran with a lazy, yellowish fluid, and only one thing held up their strings: for her, it was authority, for him, fear. For, you see, the marquis had once been a small-town aristocrat, cheerful and without too many thoughts, his only concern being to find ways to finish up the rest of the family wealth. But the marquess had educated him. Ideal humanity, in her mind, should refrain from laughing and speaking out loud, and above all should hide secret weaknesses from the rest of the world. According to her teachings, it was a crime for one to smirk, fret, forcefully blow one’s nose; so the marquis, afraid to err in his gestures and forbidden noises, had avoided all noises and gestures entirely for some time now, lowering his head and reducing himself to a mummified human with docile eyes. It still did not shield him from scoldings and reproaches. Extremely high-mannered and sharp, she would often strike him with direct reprimands, or allude to certain unspeakable figures, only worthy of their contempt. They, she’d say, ignorant of their own will and unable to educate their own children, would drag the house into ruin, if the Holy Grace had not found them a Wife. So the man meekly endured her tortures, until the times when he left, with the little change the austere Administrator allowed him in his pockets, for his walks. Maybe, in the solitude of the tiny countryside roads, he let himself go to excesses, to singing cavatinas, and thunderous nose blowings; sure, when he’d return home, he had a strange light in his eyes and this involuntary reveal of his possible fun and impolite interior dimension would always raise the marquess’ suspicions. She’d press him with questions all evening, which would get more and more humiliating and sharp in order to extort compromising admissions. And the poor man, through coughing fits, stuttering, and blushing, would keep putting himself in a corner, to the point that the marquess started a scrupulous and austere control over her husband, and decided to often escort him on his walks. He resigned to the facts; the flame in his eyes, however, became obsessive, and fixed, and no longer sparked by joy.
From such parents, three children had come to the world; for them, in their first years, the world was made in their image and likeness. The town’s other characters were but vague presences, nasty, unlikeable brats, women in thick, black tights with long, oily hair, sad old religious men. All of these badly-dressed presences wandered along the short bridges, small streets, and the square. The three children hated the town; whenever they walked outside, in a row with the single servant, following the walls, their gazes were dark and disdainful. The local kids took their revenge by mocking and terrorizing them.
The servant was a tall, vulgar man, with hairy wrists, flaring red nostrils, and small mercurial eyes. He took out the subjection to the marquess on the children, treating them as a master would; when he accompanied them, swaying his hips slightly and looking down on them, or bluntly reprimanded them, they trembled with hatred. But outside as well as inside, their mother’s curt admonishments followed them; they walked in an orderly fashion, in grim silence.
The walk almost always ended at the church’s entrance, the two columns held up by a pair of sizeable lions with a tame expression. Higher up, a wide rose window let into the nave a cleansed, fresh light, in which the light of the candles fluttered. The apse housed a tall body of Christ, with purple blood flowing from his wounds, and figures around him gesturing and despairing with heavy movements.
The three children would kneel contritely and bring their hands together.
Antonietta, the eldest, despite her seventeen years of age, still had the body and the clothing of a child. She was thin and uncoordinated, and her straight hair, as it wasn’t customary to wash frequently in the mansion, always smelled faintly of mouse droppings. They were parted at the middle, and the parting was more clearly obvious on the back of her head, as the hair grew shorter and thinner, inspiring feelings of pity and protection. The girl’s nose was long, curved and sensitive, and her thin lips pulsated when she spoke. In the frame of her pale, emaciated face, her eyes moved with nervous passion, except when in the presence of the marquess, when she kept them low and dull.
She wore tresses onto her shoulders, and a black smock so short as to reveal – if she moved too much too quickly – her underwear, tight and almost reaching her knees, with its red ribbon; the smock opened at the back, onto her laced petticoat. Her black tights were held up with simple elastic, twisted and consumed.
Pietro, the middle child of sixteen, was docile. He moved both his small, stocky body and his eyes, discretely lit under the thick eyebrows, very slowly. He had a sweet, tame smile and his dependence from the other two was obvious by just looking at them.
Giovanni, the youngest, was the ugliest in the family. His meager body, almost as if he were born old, was too withered to grow any further; but his quick and burning eyes resembled those of his sister. After short bursts of frantic activity, he’d immediately fall into prostration, followed by fevers. The doctor would say of him: I do not believe he will survive puberty.
Whenever his fevers would strike, sudden and for no apparent reason, his body was shook as if by electric shocks. He knew this to be the sign, and he’d wait for the incumbent illness, his lips stretched and eyes wide. Nightmares would dance and buzz around his bed for long stretches of days, and a shapeless tedium would weigh down on him, inside of a dense, gloomy mood. Then his recovery would come, and too weak to move, he’d curl up on an armchair and drum his fingers rhythmically on the armrests. And he’d think. Or read.
The marquess, busy as she was in her administrative duties, didn’t really supervise the children’s education and learning. She was content with them not speaking or moving. And so, Giovanni was able to read strange and wonderful books, in which characters wore clothes never seen before: wide-brimmed hats, velvet waistcoats, swords and wigs, and dames in fantastic dresses, rich with gems and nets woven out of gold.
These beings spoke a winged language, which knew how to reach peaks and chasms, sweet in love, fierce in anger, and they lived dreams and adventures of which the young boy daydreamed for hours on end. He shared his discovery with his siblings and the three of them all believed they could identify the characters in those books with the painted figures on the walls and ceilings of the mansion and that, long alive in them but hidden in the cellars of their childhood, were now resurfacing once more. Soon there was an unspoken understanding between the siblings. When no one could hear them, they spoke of their creatures, unmaking and remaking them, talking about them until they were alive and breathing among them. Deep hatred and love tied them to this and that character, and it often happened that they’d spend their nights awake talking to each other with those words. Antonietta slept alone is a small room connected to that of her brothers’; their parents’ room was separated from their by a large room, parlour or dinette. So no one could hear them if, each from their own bed, they talked as if they were the beloved characters.
They were new, wonderful conversations.
‘Leblanc, sir Leblanc,’ whispered Giovanni’s raspy voice from the bed on the right, ‘have you sharpened the shining blades for the duel? The blood dawn will rise soon, and you know, dear sir, that proud lord Arturo knows no human mercy nor fear before death’.
‘Alas, my brother,’ whimpered Antonietta’s voice, ‘the white dressings and perfumed balms have already been prepared. May the Heavens grant you their use on your enemy’s corpse.’
‘The blood dawn, the blood dawn,’ mumbled Pietro, not as imaginative and always a little asleep. But Giovanni always intervened, suggesting his lines:
‘You,’ he’d say, ‘have to reply that you will face the danger devoid of fear, and that no Count Arturo will be the one to stop you, no man has been born who can.’
That was how the three children discovered theatre.
Their characters appeared fully-formed from the mists of invention, arms clamouring and clothes swishing. They acquired flesh and voice, and the children started living a second life. As soon as the marquess retired to her rooms, the servant to the kitchen, the marquis out on his walk, each of them turned into their counterpart. Her heart beating, Antonietta closed the front shutters, and became princesמs Isabella; Roberto, in love with Isabella, was played by Giovanni. Pietro never had a definite part, but played a rotation of the rival, the servant, the captain of a ship. The force of the fiction was so strong that they each forgot about their own real person; often, during the long, boring sessions supervised by the marquess, that marvellous, compressed secret almost bounced off them in secretive and sparkling glances: ‘later – they meant – we’ll play the game’. At night, in the dark, the game’s creatures populated their loneliness under the sheets, and the events of tomorrow would start taking shape; they smiled among themselves, or in the case of violence or tragedy, clench their fists.
In spring, the prison-garden also gained a fictional life. In the sun-bathed corner, the orange striped cat would quiver as it closed its green eyes. Strange, sudden smells would seem to burst from this or that corner, that pile of soil or this hedge. Flowers sickened by shadows would bloom and fall in silence, their petals reduced to pulp between the stones; the smells would draw lazy butterflies who’d let their pollen slip.
In the evening, dull, warm rain would often fall, barely making the ground damp. It’d be followed by a low wind, also carrying smells wandering across the night. The marquis and marquess, after breakfast, would fall asleep in their chairs; the townsfolk’s conversations, at sunset, sounded like conspiracies.
The secret game had become a kind of plot, taking place on a wonderful and distant planet, known only to the three siblings. Taken by the enchantment, they’d be unable to sleep at night for their thinking about it. One night, the wake was even longer; Isabella and Roberto, the hindered lovers, were to plan an escape, and the children were fretting in their beds to come up with a solution for that dire situation. Eventually, the two boys fell asleep, and the faces of their invented companions danced a little before their eyes, between light and dark, until they vanished.
Antonietta couldn’t sleep. Sometimes she thought she could hear a dark, long cry in the night, and she stayed awake to hear better. Sometimes it was strange noises in the attic breaking the comedy she still inhabited, as she made it up under the sheet. Eventually, she stepped out of bed; she quietly walked into her brothers’ room and whispered their names.
Giovanni, a light sleeper, sat upright. His sister had worn on her nightgown, which barely reached her knees, a worn-down black wool coat. Her straight hair, neither thick nor long, was undone, her eyes shone in the slanted shadows of the candlelight she held between her hands.
‘Wake up, Pietro,’ she said, leaning over his bed with feverish impatience. At that moment, Pietro stirred and slowly opened his tired eyes. ‘It’s about the game,’ she explained.
Lazily, fairly unwilling, Pietro lifted himself onto his elbow: both boys were looking at their sister, the eldest, distractedly and with glazed eyes, the other, already curious, leaning his young-but-old face towards the candle.
‘It came to pass,’ started Antonietta in a rush, as if talking about some sudden, dramatic event, ‘that during the hunt, Roberto wrote a note and hid it in a tree trunk. Isabella’s greyhound by chance runs towards that same tree and returns with the note in his mouth. ‘Pretend you’re lost,’ it says, ‘and meet me as darkness falls in the woods that surrounds Challant castle. We’ll escape from there.’ And so, as they all chase the fox, I run away and meet Roberto. And the wind blows, and he makes me get on his horse, and we flee in the night. But the knights notice our absence and they follow us blowing the horns.’
‘Shall we make it that they’re found?’ Giovanni asked, his eyes flitting and curious in the reddish light.
His sister was unable to stay still, she kept making gestures with both hands, so the flame swung between feeble flashes and giant shadows.
‘We don’t know yet,’ she replied. ‘Because,’ she added, with a mysteriously triumphant laugh, ‘we’re going to go to the hunting room to play the game.’
‘The hunting room! That’s impossible!’ Pietro said, shaking his head. ‘You’re joking! At night! They’ll hear us and find out. And everything will be over.’ But the others attacked him, insulted.
‘How dare you!’ they said. ‘You’re afraid!’
In a defiant attempt to rebel, Pietro lay down on his bed again.
‘No, I’m not coming,’ he said. Antonietta changed her tone.
‘Don’t ruin everything,’ she begged him, ‘you’re the hunters and the horns.’ And so she won the last of Pietro’s reticence, and he got up. He was wearing, like his brother, a worn-down flannel shirt, over which he slipped a pair of shorts. Antonietta cautiously opened the door leading to the stairs. ‘Bring your candle too,’ she told them, ‘there are no lamps up there’.
So the three set off, single file, up the narrow marble staircase, filthy and dull from use. The ‘hunting room’ was on the first floor, right after the stairs. It was one of the biggest rooms in the mansion, and the squalor of the other abandoned rooms was here animated instead by the vast frescoes on the walls and ceiling. They showed hunting scenes against a rocky landscape, with dark, straight trees. Several greyhounds, their muzzles pointed and their hind legs taut, ran everywhere in a frenzy, as the horses jumped or proceeded with dignity, in their red and gold caparisons. The hunters, in their bizarre, fish-skinned silks, tall hats with long feathers and green tricorns, walked or marched blowing their horns. Long ribbons hung from the latter, yellow and red standards flapped against the terse skies, and out of the cliff grew sharp-leaved bushes, and open, rigid flowers, almost like rocks. All of this was now buried in darkness. The candles, with their light too feeble for the sheer size of the room, revealed here and there the vivid colours of the saddles or the white backs of the horses. The children’s shadows swayed on the walls in magnified movements and ghostly footsteps.
They closed the doors. The piece began.
The silence of the night was vast; the wind had ceased for the trees to not rustle. Antonietta was stood by a painted tree which suddenly started flowing with sap. Birds came to life and slept in the foliage. And on her appeared, like a miracle, a long gown of floral and regal make, and a golden satchel. Her hair parted into two blonde tresses, and her pupils enlarged from fear and rapture.
‘Courage, my love, I am here, here, by you,’ murmured the other, turning into brave knight. His sweet and faunish face peered out of the darkness. ‘Roberto!’ she exclaimed quietly. ‘Roberto! Hold me, my love!’
A sudden grace bloomed in her. Her teeth and eyes shone with grace, her curved neck and her lips housed grace. She kneeled, her bare knees touching the ground. ‘What are you doing, my beloved?’ he asked. ‘Stand.’
She shuddered. ‘You came,’ she murmured almost in pain, ‘and it is night no longer, I have no more fear. I am finally close to you! I am like within the walls of a fortress, within a nest. If only you knew the sadness, how I cried these lonely nights! And you, my heart, what have you done these nights?’
‘I wandered,’ he said, ‘on my horse, thinking of ways to liberate you. But do not dwell, my darling, on the times of solitude. That has passed. No force can separate us now. We are together for eternity.’
‘For eternity!’ she repeated, bewildered. She smiled with her eyes closed, and sighed and trembled. Shuddering, she moved closer to him. ‘Do you not hear,’ she said, ‘a sound of horns in the distance?’
Roberto listened. ‘Do I have to blow the horns now?’ asked Pietro, coming closer. It was his specialty. He could mimic the sound of wind instruments and animal noises, and in doing so his cheeks engorged in grotesque ways.
‘Yes,’ the other two whispered.
The sound of a horn, low and growling, slowly moving closer and shriller, could be heard in the background. The wind picked up in the forest; a gust shook the leaves on the trees like banners. The horses leapt, the knights shook on their backs, falcons circled in the whistling air. The greyhounds leapt into the darkness, and the knights blew their horns.
‘Hark! Hark!’ they shouted, running through the torches that marked the air with lines and circles of smoke.
Isabella let out a cry, and threw her head back, clinging to Roberto.
‘My Queen!’ he shouted. ‘No one will take you from these arms! I swear. And with this kiss I seal my oath. Now, come forth! Come forth, if you dare!’
The two children kissed on the lips, Giovanni grew in size. His cheekbones reddened and temples beating, he came closer to his sister. And she, hair in disarray, mouth burning, danced in a frenzy. ‘Come, knights and steeds!’ they shouted. And Pietro bounced from here to there, swaying on his stocky body and blowing out his cheeks, like a large zuffolo.
At that moment, tragedy and triumph ceased. Trees and knights stopped, losing their dimensions, and a dusty silence entered the room. The light of the candles only showed three ugly children.
The door was opening. The marquess, inspired, had suddenly decided to check upon the children in their rooms, and her search had eventually brought her to the hunting room. ‘What is this farce?’ she shrieked with her silly voice. And stepped inside, holding a tall chandelier, followed by the marquis.
Their grotesque shadows crept along the opposite wall. The marquess’ sharp nose and chin, her bony fingers, her swaying tresses pinned to the top of her head, slightly fluttered in that now marginally more lit room, and the small, demure figure of the marquis stayed behind, still. He was wearing a worn bedrobe, with red and yellow stripes that made him look like a beetle, and the few grey hairs left on his head, usually smoothed down with an ointment of his making, were standing straight up, making him look terrified. He stood there cautiously, as if afraid of tripping up, and sheltered the flame of the candle with his open palm.
The marquess turned a sharp gaze onto her children, who froze; then she turned to her daughter, with raised eyebrows and a wry, scornful smile.
‘Look at her!’ she cried. ‘Pretty! Oh dear, dear!’ and suddenly becoming irate and combative, raised her voice. ‘You should be ashamed, Antonia! Explain…’
The children were quiet. But while the two boys were stunned, their eyes to the ground, Antonietta, curled up by her tree, now dead, stared at her mother with open, lost eyes, similar to a young quail surprised by a sparrow hawk. Then her incredibly pale face, her drained lips, was covered by a disordered and violent redness, covering her skin in dark stains. Her lips trembled, and she shuddered, lost, overwhelmed by painful and uncontrollable shame. She kept curling further into her nook, as if afraid that someone might touch and search her.
The two brothers were shocked by the scene that followed. Their sister suddenly fell to her knees, and they thought she might beg for forgiveness: instead, she covered her blazing face with her hands, and started shaking in a bizarre, raspy, and feverish laughter, which soon turned into angry crying. She uncovered her strained face and, lying on the ground with her legs stiff, she started ripping out, in a childish and continuous gesture, her untied hair.
‘Antonietta! What happens?’ exclaimed the marquis, aghast. ‘Silence, you!’ ordered the marquess, and because her daughter had uncovered her frail, white legs in her thrashing, she twisted her face in disgust.
‘On your feet, Antonietta,’ she barked. But her voice exasperated her daughter, who seemed possessed by the Furies; the jealousy of her secret had shattered her. In silence, her brothers shifted away, and she was left alone in the middle, shaking her head as if trying to remove it off her neck, moaning with agitated and improper gestures. ‘Help me to lift her up,’ the marquess finally said, and as soon as her parents touched her, Antonietta ceased all movement, exhausted. Holding her under her arms, she moved without realising up the dimly lit staircase; her eyes were dry and fixed, her lips showed the spittle of ire, and her cries had been replaced by a muffled and inconstant moan, but still filled with anger. She kept moaning in the same manner even once they reached her bed, where she was made to lie, and left alone.
From the nearby room, the brothers couldn’t help but listen to that lament that distracted them even from the thought of the violated secret. Then Pietro was taken over by a dreamless sleep, and Giovanni was left alone in the darkness. He kept tossing and turning without peace, until he decided to leave his bed, and headed barefoot to his sister’s bedroom. It was small, misshapen, in which the smell of childhood lingered, but one oppressed by boarding school. The ceiling sported a faded image: a slender woman, draped in orange veils, dancing with her arms reaching for a painted vase. The walls were stained and miserable, a pair of old red slippers were placed to one side of the wooden bed, and on the wall opposite an angel spread its wings and held a stoup. The night lamp was lit and let onto the bed a feeble bluish aura.
‘Antonietta!’ called Giovanni. ‘It’s me…’
His sister seemed to not notice him, despite her eyes being open and filled with tears; she lay immersed in her childish crying, her lips taut and trembling, and unmoving; slowly, her eyes started to close, and her wet lashes seemed long and displayed. Suddenly, she jolted awake again.
‘Roberto!’ she called, and the name and the sharp sweetness in the voice filled with regret shocked her brother.
‘Antonietta!’ he called again. ‘It’s me, Giovanni, your brother!’
‘Roberto,’ she said, her voice lower. Calming down now, she seemed more absorbed and attentive, as someone carefully following the tracks of a dream. In silence, her brother also felt Roberto’s presence in the room; tall, a little arrogant, with his black velvet waistcoat, the arabesque weapon and silver buckles, Roberto was standing between them.
Antonietta seemed calm and asleep by now; Giovanni stepped out into the corridor. Here the house’s silence enveloped him, contained yet infinite, like the one found in burials. He felt suffocated and nauseated, so he moved to the wide window on the stairs and opened it. He could hear, in the darkness outside, light thuds, as of soft bodies falling onto the sand in the garden; the space beyond the garden seemed alive and sensible to him, and the urge to escape, an old urge despite its vague, chimeric nature, took hold of him now, sudden and irresistible.
Without thinking, almost out inertia, he went back to his room and put on his clothes in the dark. Shoes in hand, he walked down the stairs, and the creaking of the front door behind him both horrified him and, in its song, filled him with delight.
‘Goodbye, Antonietta,’ he murmured. He thought he would never see Antonietta again, never again the house and the square; all he had to do was walk straight ahead for none of it to exist any longer.
Only the gurgling of the fountain could be heard in the empty square, and he turned, facing away from that cold and sad marble visage. He walked along known streets, until he reached the countryside paths and finally the open fields. The already tall and green wheat grew to both his left and right, the mountains in the background were more of a cloudy mass, and the night dragged on, exhausted, breathing damp and still beneath the sharp light of the stars. ‘I’ll reach that mountain range,’ he thought, ‘then the sea.’ He had never seen the sea, and the illusion of thunderous rumbling of a shell came back to him, from when he used to bring it up to his ear to play. But the sound was now alive and resounding, so that instead of the fields around him, he felt as though he was surrounded by two calm bodies of water on either side. After some time, he was sure of having walked far, though really he had only left the town. Exhausted, he decided to rest by a smooth tree, with wide foliage, split in two long branches similar to the arms of a cross.
He had only just rested his head on the bark when he felt a shiver: ‘The illness,’ he thought, both calm and horrified. The fever was indeed taking him, burrowing with burning, restless roots through his already drained body, too tired to stand up. His eyesight suddenly sharpened, so that he could now see the crawling of the night’s creatures surrounding him, and he could see the beating and flickering of their eyes, like hazy fires.
They were winking, he recognised them all, and he might have been able to call them one by one and ask them the infinite series of questions he had been harbouring since his early childhood.
But out of a strange urgency, the night turned towards dawn. The sunrise that came was bright, turning the landscape into a vast city of clay, dusty and empty, scattered with huts that looked more like mounds of soil, and short pillars. In this city, on the side of the rising sun, Isabella appeared, as big as a cloud against the sky, her dress like the chalice of a red flower. She approached him, despite her feet not moving. Her bare shoulders dropped from exhaustion, and her closed lips seemed to be smiling, her shining, still eyes stared at him to help him sleep.
He did, meekly. With daybreak, it was the hated servant who found him and took him home in his rough arms. As many times before, Giovanni stayed in his bed for days he never knew had passed, and his sister Antonietta looked over him. She sat there, calm and lazy, sometimes knitting, often just idling. She watched her brother deliriously imagining his red, burning worlds, offering him water every now and then. She sat there, in her apron and smooth hair, like a servant in a monastery.
Her lips looked burned.
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.